Thursday, May 31, 2012

BITTER SWEET (1940)

This is a Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy operetta.  You may not need to read any further as you probably know right now if you'll love it or hate it. I'll admit going in that I am not an operetta fan, nor am I a fan of Eddy, who always seemed way too stiff and uncomfortable on screen to have been a big star. I have a bit more tolerance for MacDonald depending on the role.This film, based on an early musical by Noel Coward, begins in 1891 London as MacDonald, about to be married off to a stuffy diplomat—he thinks her singing is too boisterous—runs off with her piano teacher (Eddy). They head off to Vienna where they get married, hang out with Eddy's slightly disreputable but likeable friends (Felix Bressart and Curt Bois), and meet up with an military man (George Sanders) and his British buddy (Ian Hunter). Sanders gets her a job at a nightclub, but there's a catch: being the star of the show also means becoming Sanders' mistress. Once she figures out the score, she decides to quit, but when she learns that a famous impresario will be in the audience that night, she returns to sing some songs from an operetta that Eddy has written but is having a hard time getting produced. Sadly, the evening ends badly:  Sanders acts like an ass to MacDonald, Eddy acts like an ass to Sanders, a duel ensues, and Eddy is killed. MacDonald rises to the occasion, gets the operetta produced, and has her moment of triumph singing its lead role. 

Somehow I can't imagine that Coward's original was quite so serious; there is some fun to be had here and there, mostly thanks to Bressart and Bois, and to Diana Lewis who plays a young lady with a speech impediment who marries MacDonald's ex-fiancé, but the run-of-the-mill soap opera plot is predictable and plodding. Eddy tries but doesn’t really seem much more exciting than the stuffy diplomat.  Sanders, in a Prussian crew cut, is good as the villain, and the always welcome Sig Ruman adds some needed levity.  The film bursts at the seams with bright colors and fun costumes, and since someone is always asking MacDonald and Eddy to sing, there is constant music (and usually dancing as well).  MacDonald makes this worth seeing if you're already a fan or are on the fence about operettas, but otherwise it's probably not your cup of tea.  [TCM]

Monday, May 28, 2012

MERRILL'S MARAUDERS (1962)

I know the writer and director Samuel Fuller mostly through his scruffy B-movies (THE CRIMSON KIMONO, THE NAKED KISS) but this film shows what he could do with a bigger budget and full studio backing--although, unsurprisingly given Fuller's reputation, he fought with Warner Bros. over this film before it was released and that was pretty much the end of his A-movie days. Shown on TCM's Memorial Day weekend lineup, this WWII film is based on the true story of a volunteer special forces unit in Burma under the command of General Frank Merrill. According to this film, the specific mission of the 3,000 men was to sneak through jungle and mountains to attack an important Japanese supply base in Walawbum. After that success, however, General Stilwell, worried about the possibility that Japan will invade India and meet up with German forces, asks Merrill to take his men further. Each time the men, depleted not just by casualties but also by sickness, hunger and mental strain, believe they'll be on their way home, Merrill keeps pushing them on to one more objective.  The film consists of battle scenes (guns and hand-to-hand) interspersed with bits of the stories of the men as they trudge on.  

Fuller, who fought in WWII, made movies that both glorified the American soldier and showed clearly the insanity of war. This film's weight is on the glory side, though there are a couple of effective downbeat scenes, one of scattered bodies of the dead, another of dozens of wounded and exhausted men hoping desperately for relief but instead being rallied to go on, for balance. Jeff Chandler plays Merrill in his usual somewhat wooden fashion, but the movie really belongs to Ty Hardin (of the hit TV western Bronco) as Stockton, Merrill's second-in-command. Hardin (pictured above to the right of Chandler) does a fine job going from fully engaged assistant and "cheerleader" for the men to something of a dispirited nemesis to Merrill. Still, in the clutch near the end of the movie, when Merrill has a non-fatal heart attack while trying to muster the men to move on, Stockton knows what his duty is and performs it. A handful of other characters come alive: Peter Brown (above top with Hardin) as the feisty Bullseye, Will Hutchins (another TV cowboy) as the young Chowhound, and Charles Briggs as Muley, the keeper of Eleanor, a pack mule. Briggs provides both comic relief and tears. Perhaps the most powerful moment in a movie full of explosions on battlegrounds is when rough, tough Claude Akins begins crying uncontrollably when a native woman offers him her rice. The action is not nearly as graphic as the war films of today, but this is still very much worth seeing.  Years later, Fuller got to make the war movie he really wanted to make, THE BIG RED ONE. [TCM]

Sunday, May 27, 2012

JOURNEY'S END (1930)

Based on a popular play of the time (which was successfully revived on Broadway a couple of years ago), this is a character study of a group of men in the trenches in WWI. The respected commander Stanhope (Colin Clive) has been on the lines for three years; his nerves have reached the breaking point but he remains stoic on the outside, largely because he's become an alcoholic. His second-in-command, an older man known as "Uncle" (Ian MacLaren), is quiet, likeable, and helps Stanhope keep an even keel. There's an easy-going lieutenant (Billy Bevan) who's always ready with a laugh, and a cook who complains about his constraints—his tea tastes like onions and he grouses like hell when he gets canned apricots instead of pineapple. The men go about their days and nights at the front, only a hundred yards away from the Germans, with a grudging sense of fatalism, the only exception being Hibbert, a nervous youth who wants to get medical leave because of his headaches. Stanhope tries to talk him out of it, then shame him out of it, and eventually has to use the threat of shooting him as a deserter. But Stanhope is thrown for a loop when Raleigh (David Manners), a younger school friend of his, arrives for his first stint in the trenches. Stanhope is in love with Raleigh's sister and he's afraid that Raleigh will catch on to Stanhope's deteriorating mental state and write back home about it.

There’s not a strong narrative here—mostly we watch the soldiers talk and laugh and bicker, and get through the endless hours of boredom with the distant sound of guns and bombs in the background until something happens, and nothing much happens until the end; the men carry out a quick sabotage mission, cutting through wire in the German lines so they can carry out a information-gathering raid the next day, and of course not everyone survives. Though stagy, with most of the action occurring on a single set, and a bit too long, this is still  a fairly compelling drama thanks to good dialogue and strong performances from all, especially Clive who manages to seem neurotic and stable at the same time. It's a pre-Code movie, but I was still surprised to hear so many "damns" and "hells," given the huge controversy over one little "damn" nine years later in GONE WITH THE WIND. James Whale, who directed this on stage in England, came to America to make the movie and apparently never looked back. Clive (pictured above tending to a wounded man) worked with Whale again, most notably as the meddling scientist in FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. [YouTube]

Friday, May 25, 2012

SWEET AND LOW-DOWN (1944)

If you've seen one classic-era film about jazz bands, or indeed about any kind of musicians, then nothing about this movie will surprise you in the least.  A young man with talent is discovered in unlikely circumstances, gets his big break, falls in love, gets cocky and falls in with the wrong element, loses his choice job and his girl only to regain his humility and be redeemed at the end when he gets his job and girl back.  Here, James Cardwell is the young man, a working-class Chicago guy who supports his widowed mom and family, and plays killer trombone in his spare time.  His younger brother tricks Benny Goodman (playing himself) into listening to Cardwell play, and he is immediately offered a job with the band.  Lynn Bari is the girl singer who has apparently gone through most of the men in the band, but she's still a good sort, though her manager (Allen Joslyn) eggs her on to want more money and better billing.  Cardwell plays well, and at his first gig, falls for the young Linda Darnell, who becomes something of a groupie, but Cardwell quickly gets too big for his britches and, pushed by Joslyn, leaves Goodman, taking Bari and the entire band with him to front his own band.  When that enterprise fails, everyone goes back to Goodman except Cardwell, who has too much pride.  Months later, when Goodman comes through Chicago again, will Cardwell be humble enough to take his old job back? 

This a typical big studio B-film with the unusual selling point of Goodman and his band, who perform several numbers which are the highlights of the movie.  No big hits are played, though the vocal novelty "Hey Bub, Let’s Have a Ball" is fun.  Goodman isn’t much of an actor, and neither is Cardwell.  Both female leads are fine (though they look an awful lot alike), as is Jack Oakie as the band manager, who has a dream of someday playing trombone in the band; a running gag involves Oakie putting bespectacled first trombonist John Campbell on a carrot diet so his eyesight will improve and he’ll be drafted, giving Oakie a chance in the band.  Child star Dickie Moore, who was almost 20 by now, has a small role as a military cadet.  Every cliché in the book is present here, but it's all handled fairly well.  [TCM]

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


THE STUDIO MURDER MYSTERY (1929)

Richard (Fredric March) won a talent contest and his prize is a starring role in a new movie directed by Rupert Borka (Warner Oland).  Borka, however, thinks Richard is a terrible actor and is ready to take the role away from him—he's also bothered because he believes that Richard has been having an affair with his wife.  Richard's not a popular guy: his mistress Helen is waiting for him to get a divorce from his wife Blanche (Florence Eldridge), but the wife confronts Helen and tells her that Richard is a scoundrel who will never marry her; Helen's brother Ted harbors a hatred of Richard for leading his sister on; Helen's father, a night watchman at the studio, has been unaware of the dalliance until now.  One night, Richard is last seen leaving the studio with Borka, but the next day, his dead body is found on one of the sets at the studio, and all of the above folks seem to have motives.  As the cops investigate, so does screenwriter Tony (Neil Hamilton), who, having a bit of a crush on Helen himself, is invested in clearing her name.

This film has many of the weaknesses of the early talkies, such as limited camera movements and scene set-ups, and the mystery itself barely qualifies as a mystery, as it's quite clear, even before the dead body is found, who did it.  But the film is fun for its behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Paramount studio.  Fans of Fredric March, a rising star at the time, will enjoy this because he acts with his real-life wife Florence Eldridge.  There is an amusing chase scene on a staircase set at the studio, and a nice sped-up fisticuffs scene near the end.  Doris Hill, as Helen, is deadly dull, but the rest of actors are fine, including Eugene Pallette as a cop (who has a running-gag feud going on with Hamilton, both pictured above), Chester Conklin as another watchman, and Lane Chandler as a writer working on Borka's movie.  Beware: this is not on DVD, and the print I saw on YouTube has a seriously flawed soundtrack—it's listenable but barely.  Worth it only for fans of early Hollywood. [YouTube]

Sunday, May 20, 2012

GRAND OLD GIRL (1935)

May Robson is a tough high-school principal, but she’s good-hearted enough to make an arrangement with coach Ward Bond to make sure the star football player will pass geometry.  However, she is hell on wheels against Alan Hale, a former student who now runs an ice cream fountain which fronts a hidden gambling backroom.  After a student shows Robson how to play craps, she busts in on a game and wins just enough money from Hale to rent an empty storefront across the street in order to open a more wholesome malt-shop hangout for the local teens, but when a fight breaks out at Robson’s place, the school board not only closes her down, but forces her out 2 years before her pension would kick in.  Baddie Hale has a change of heart and somehow manages to get the President of the United States, a former student of Robson’s, to stop by to sing Robson’s praises to the assembled townsfolk.  This mild comedy/drama takes place in a small town where Andy Hardy or Betty & Veronica might live, and the atmosphere is nicely set up.  Robson is her usual lively self, Fred MacMurry (in his first credited role) and Mary Carlisle are a cute couple who get caught up in Robson’s drama,  and Edward Van Sloan is a nasty school board member who plots against Robson.  If there’s not much to this, there’s also not much to say against it except the last 15 minutes is a little too sappy.  A tolerable if predictable character study which makes an interesting period piece now.  [TCM]

Friday, May 18, 2012

THE PAINTED VEIL (1934)

Katrin, daughter of a medical research doctor, feels at odds when her younger sister gets married, but soon Walter, one of her father's students, shows an interest in her, and rather suddenly asks her to marry him.  Mostly to escape her humdrum life, she accepts.  They go off to Hong Kong where Walter works on a cure for cholera.  Katrin tries to fit in by playing bridge with the local British wives and going to the horse races, but Walter soon becomes obsessed with his work and Jack, a handsome, married embassy attaché, begins paying attention to her.  She fights his flirtatious advances, but one night, during a Chinese festival celebrating the marriage of the sun and the moon, she gets tired of just watching the people in the streets, and dresses up and ventures out.  Right away she meets Jack and together they walk through the crowds, enjoying the festivities, finally giving way to their lustful attraction.   Soon Walter puts two and two together; he tells Katrin he'll divorce her only if Jack agrees to divorce his wife and marry her.  Concerned about the repercussions for his career, Jack says he can't leave his wife.  When Walter is called away to a remote province to fight a raging cholera epidemic, Katrin goes with him and begins to have a change of heart, throwing herself into nursing duties and finding a new respect for her husband, though, it takes a near-tragedy for the two to fully reconcile.

This romantic melodrama, based on a Somerset Maugham novel, is notable as a film which, released after the censorious Production Code went into effect, more or less lets its characters get away with immoral behavior and not get punished.  No one is presented as "bad"; we understand why Katrin strays, why Walter grows distant, and why Jack wants to keep things as they are.  Greta Garbo, as Katrin, is her usual sultry but stiff self; she does strike some sparks with George Brent (as Jack), and she's good in her early scenes with Herbert Marshall (as Walter, pictured to the left of Garbo and Brent), but I remain mostly immune to the Garbo mystique.  Marshall, who sometimes strikes me as passive and artificial, and Brent are both fine here.  In supporting parts, Jean Hersholt (as Katrin's father) and Warner Oland (as a Chinese general opposed to Walter's plans to burn down much of his village to end the epidemic) are good enough that you wish their roles were larger.  Keye Luke, who would later play with Oland in the Charlie Chan films, has a small role.  The film is beautifully photographed by William Daniels, who shot all of Garbo's MGM films, with the Chinese festival scene a standout. [TCM]

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

MEET MR. CALLAGHAN (1954)

In the opening shot, the only exciting scene in this whole movie, a man at a desk looks at the camera, says, "No, don't!" and is shot dead.  The man, Meraulton, has four nephews and a step-daughter, Cynthis, who is about to marry William, one of the nephews.  She knows that the old man had just written a new will naming her as his heir, and she comes to private investigator Callaghan (Derrick De Morney), knowing that she herself is a prime suspect in the murder; Callaghan, on the verge of getting thrown out of his office for not paying rent, agrees to take her case.  While visiting the nephews, he soon discovers they were all in on a scam involving draining the old man’s money through the setting up of fake companies.  Callaghan has to juggle Cynthis, the police, and the nephews as he figures out where the will is and who the murderer is.  This British B-film has several strikes against it in my book.  First, De Morney is bland, uncharismatic, and unattractive.  Second, so is most of the rest of the cast.  Third, most of the movie consists of dialogue scenes in which two actors lay out the necessary exposition with little or no action or visual flair, though the physical look of the movie (sets, photography) are adequate.  A scene in a mortuary is rather fun, and an encounter in a nightclub with Adrienne Corri works up some pizzazz, but otherwise, this is a dull affair.  The jaunty theme music, though catchy, is a little out of place.  The character of Slim Callaghan was the hero of a series of mystery novels by Peter Cheyney.  [DVD]

Sunday, May 13, 2012

THE FURIES (1950)

Walter Huston returns to the family ranch in New Mexico, called the Furies, on the occasion of his son's marriage, and also to shore up the ranch's economic problems.  The son is weak and colorless, but Huston's daughter (Barbara Stanwyck) is a strong, take-control type who runs the ranch in her father's absence.  In order to get a bank loan, Huston must evict a group of Mexican-American squatters who have lived on his land for years.  Unfortunately, one of those squatters is the hunky Gilbert Roland, whom Stanwyck has been "friends" with for years, so she insists that Roland's family be allowed to stay.  Stanwyck's official love interest is Wendell Corey, a banker whose father was killed by Huston, but in addition to the flirtation between Stanwyck and Roland, there is obviously a strange passion between father and daughter which borders uncomfortably on the physical.  Soon, Huston brings his mistress (Judith Anderson) to the ranch, intending to marry her and make her head of the family, which sends Stanwyck into a rage; when the gloating Anderson patronizingly tells Stanwyck that she'll always be welcome at the ranch, Stanwyck throws a pair of scissors at her face, disfiguring her for life.  Stanwyck then puts into motion a plan to get hold of the ranch behind her father's back.

When critics talk about the "Freudian western," they're usually referring to JOHNNY GUITAR with Joan Crawford, but this one is actually a better example: the plot, settings, and characters are more consistent and coherent, and the tone less campy, though still with over-the-top elements that emphasize the Greek-tragedy aspect of the story (sadly, the redemptive ending chickens out from what should be a bloodbath).  Huston (in his last film) and Stanwyck (both pictured)  are absolutely pitch-perfect and their scenes together are superb.  Anderson and Roland are fine in their limited roles; the drippy Corey is the inevitable weak link--someone stronger and more charismatic would have amped up the sexual tension considerably.  Still, this overlooked gem is a must-see for film buffs, especially the great print available on DVD from Criterion.  [DVD]

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I WAS AN AMERICAN SPY (1951)



On the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Claire, an American nightclub singer, is living in Manila with a maid and an adopted daughter; John, her soldier boyfriend, is called up to go to Bataan and tells her to leave the country, but she wants to stay near him.  He arranges a quick wedding ceremony out in the woods, and without even a wedding night, he's off.  Later, when she hears about the fall of Bataan, Claire rather improbably treks off into the jungle to look for John.  She finds him as a prisoner of war but sees him shot dead by a Japanese soldier when he tries to drink from a poisoned water trough.  Luckily, Claire is helped out by Corporal Boone, whom she then helps out by agreeing to go back to Manila to become a spy for the underground.  In the city, she reunites with her former boss and runs a nightclub which caters to the Japanese troops.  Under the code name "High Pockets" (for her habit of slipping notes in her bra), she turns the Club Tsubaki into a clearinghouse for intelligence which is passed along to Boone; she also cozies up to Col. Masamoto to find out more information helpful to the Allies.  She is a successful spy for two years until her cover is blown and she is arrested, tortured, and sentenced to death by Masamoto, who is none too happy to have been tricked by a woman.  Eventually, with the Americans closing in, Boone and a squadron of men raid the prison and free Claire, whom we last see being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

This film is based on the true story of Claire Phillips, who really was a spy in Manila, was tortured, and won the Medal of Freedom.  Still, much of this telling of her life is convoluted:  in real life, she had a daughter, not through adoption but by a previous marriage, and after the first 20 minutes, we barely see the girl.  The incident in the jungle in which she sees her husband killed and meets Boone is far-fetched and in fact completely fictitious—in real life, she didn't know her husband was dead until much later.  The final raid is a little confusing—it seems as though only a handful of men are involved, but suddenly, there are dozens of men storming the prison.  Still, for a low-budget war film, this is watchable enough.  Ann Dvorak (pictured) is fine as Claire, though her personality is a bit unstable:  at the beginning, she's mousy and passive, and not at all like an entertainer; later, at the Club Tsubaki , she is suddenly confident and outgoing.  She even gets to sing a song, "Because of You," and we see her start performing a fan dance in an attempt to keep a Japanese officer in the club past midnight.  The rest of the B-level cast is OK: a bearded Gene Evans, looking quite contemporarily bearish, as Boone; Douglas Kennedy as her husband; Philippine actor Leon Lontoc as a native guerrilla fighter and protector of Claire; and best of all, Richard Loo as Masamoto, a worthy adversary for Claire, and surprisingly a somewhat fleshed-out character rather than just a stock villain.  The best scene is a mutual slapping argument in the club between Clair and a pudgy Japanese businessman (who turns out to be a munitions dealer). [TCM]

Monday, May 07, 2012

DANGEROUS CROSSING (1953)

Heiress Jeanne Crain has had a whirlwind one-month courtship with Carl Betz, a handsome man aboutwhom she knows almost nothing.  They get married by a justice of the peace and take off for their honeymoon on a cruise ship headed for Europe.  He romantically carries her over the threshold of their cabin, heads off on some errand, and says he'll meet her at the bar, but he never shows up.  When Crain goes looking for him, no one believes he exists:  the room she claimed they were in is unoccupied and her luggage is in a different room, into which she's registered under her maiden name.  Worst of all, the one person who she knows saw them together, a maid who was in the room when he carried her in, claims that she's never seen her before.  Michael Rennie, the sympathetic ship's doctor, tries to calm her down and figure out what's what.  That night, Betz calls her from a phone on board, says they're in danger and to trust no one, then hangs up.  Naturally, Crain becomes even more unsettled.  Rennie discovers that she is prone to depression since her father died a few months ago, but slowly he begins to believe her story.  Also involved are a kindly (or is she?) single gal who befriends Crain, a old, sinister (or is he?) German man with a cane who always seems to be in the way, a friendly ship's officer who remembers seeing Crain get on board but not her husband, and a mysteriously ill officer who may or may not have appendicitis.

Fox issued this as part of their Film Noir DVD line, but I fail to see anything about it that is in the least bit noir-ish.  It's an enjoyable B-thriller with several pleasures:  it was shot on the standing set of Fox's earlier big-budget film TITANIC so the backgrounds look good; the fogbound nighttime scenes on the deck are incredibly atmospheric;  the plot is easy to follow but twisty enough to keep you on your toes--you'll figure out who's good and who's bad with no trouble, but the explanation for how things get pulled off makes for a nice twist.  Crain overdoes the hysterics a bit, but she always looks good; Rennie is low-key but effective.  Betz (pictured) doesn't get much screen time, but he's memorable.  [DVD]  

Saturday, May 05, 2012

BEACH BALL (1965)

In the second TCM Spring Break movie I watched last week, four college dropouts have formed a band, the Wigglers; they're the house band at a beach bar, hoping to get their big break playing at a one-day music festival.  Unfortunately, the boys owe $1,000 on their instruments and Mr. Wolf is threatening to repossess them.  Dick, the songwriter (and the most responsible one of the group) goes to the student credit union to get a loan, saying he needs it so he can re-enroll and finish his degree.  Susan, an officer at the credit union, agrees to give him a check for the money, but when she and three other co-eds arrive at the boys' pad, they find a raucous party in full swing and take back the check.  Feeling remorseful, the four girls—all of whom wear glasses and their hair in tight buns—go undercover (by taking off their glasses and shaking their hair out) to try and steer the boys back to college.  Naturally, each boy falls for one of the girls, and vice versa, and by the end, they play the festival, but in drag, to escape Mr. Wolf's attentions.

This is about par for the course for 60s beach movies: a cheap look (primitive looking sets, drab art direction, so-so cinematography), bland acting, shirtless boys and bikinied girls being flirtatious but never really naughty, and a couple of surfing scenes.  This film stands out mostly for the musical talent, including the Righteous Brothers, the Walker Brothers, and the Four Seasons.  Most notably, Diana Ross (at right) & the Supremes close out the movie as the festival headliners—though they don't do any of their hits, just a couple of surfing tunes.  Still, they do a nice job on the silly title song.  Edd Byrnes (Kookie on 77 Sunset Strip) was over 30 and, if he doesn't quite look his age, he does seem too old to play a college student.  He also doesn't seem be having any fun with his role.  The girl he's paired off with, Chris Noel, is similarly bland, and the other three credit union girls seem interchangable.  Luckily some of the supporting cast members are a little more interesting.  Aron Kincaid (as the lead singer), Robert Logan (as the drummer, who shakes his shaggy head and is named Bango—like Ringo, get it?), and Don Edmonds (as the sax player) do have some fun with their roles, and Anna Lavelle (pictured above with the guys) makes an impression as a beach girl whose skimpy bikini bottom is always be on the verge of sliding off.  Roger Corman regular Dick Miller shows up as a cop who pesters both the kids and Mr. Wolf (James Wellman), on whom the boys keep pulling pranks.  The opening features some impressive surfing footage, but that's about it for any real beach antics.  [TCM] 

Friday, May 04, 2012

THE GIRLS ON THE BEACH (1965)

A couple of weeks ago, TCM ran a week of beach movies under a "Spring Break" theme.  I'd seen most of them, but I did catch a couple of rarities.  In the set-up for this one, three college boys are flirting with three officers of the Alpha Beta sorority house, who are in the midst of planning an Easter Week bash.  The Alpha Beta house mother tells the girls that, due to her giving house money away to charity cases, they may lose the house mortgage, so the girls decide to make the bash a fund-raising event.  Duke, one of the flirting boys, comes up with a bright idea to get close to the girls: he pretends he knows Ringo Starr and claims he can get the Beatles to show up for their show.  What could possibly go wrong?  As 60s beach movies go, this is near the bottom of the barrel: it's cheap looking, doesn't have many scenes actually set on the beach (most of it plays out in a beach bar or at the sorority house), and there's not as much skimpy beachwear as there should be.  The boys and girls are bland—few of the actors went on to bigger and better things—making one long for the talents of Annette and Frankie, and to top it off, the solution to the Beatles situation is ridiculous. 

The pluses are the musicians who do appear:  Lesley Gore and the Beach Boys.  Both of them were top 10 hitmakers when this movie was made, so it's a little strange that the film wastes them plotwise.  Gore just stands around the sorority house phonograph and sings when the mood strikes her, and the Beach Boys (pictured above) play at the small beach club, alternating with the house band, the Crickets (best known as Buddy Holly's group—they get stuck performing an English-language version of "La Bamba" four times).  Normally, the solution to the Beatles problem would be to present a double bill of Gore and the Boys, but why would the kids pay to see them when they hang around and sing free of charge?  The musical highlights belong to the Beach Boys:  a club performance of "Little Honda" and Brian Wilson serenading the girls on the beach with the romantic ballad "The Lonely Sea."  Noreen Corcoran and Martin West (who later played a doc on General Hospital) are fine in the leads, and for eye candy, Lana Wood (Natalie's sister) does some nice gyrating in her bikini. As for the boys on the beach, Aron Kincaid, Steven Rogers (the cute dark-haired one of the three guys) and Arnold Lessing (the red-haired boyfriend of Wood, who gets smashed over the head with a guitar at the climax) sufficed for my tastes; pictured above right are Rogers, Kincaid and West.  The always-fun Dick Miller, a Roger Corman repertory player, has what amounts to a cameo as a waiter who disparages the Beatles.  Only a must-see for fans of the Beach Boys.  [TCM]

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

THE MANDARIN MYSTERY (1936)

Josephine Temple (Charlotte Henry) arrives in New York City to sell a rare and extremely valuable stamp, the Chinese Mandarin, to Dr. Kirk, though others are interested.  Because of publicity, she is briefly the toast of the town and soon young Ellery Queen (Eddie Quillan), son of the respected police inspector, is squiring her about—they meet cute when, because his girlfriend has stood him up, he tosses a bouquet into a crowd and accidentally hits Josephine in the face.  Kirk is using money which belongs to his nieces Martha and Irene, to whom he is legal guardian; he sees the purchase as a good investment but they're not happy about it, especially Irene who wants to marry young Donald, a gadabout who seems to be on the verge of hitting it big with a business deal.  While Josephine is on the phone with Ellery, someone sneaks into her hotel room and steals the stamp (which she was keeping, not in a safe or even a drawer, but in her purse!).  Later, at Kirk's place, a dead man is in found in the library, his jacket on backwards and buttoned up, speared against a door in a standing position.  Oddly, the rare stamp features a Chinese man in a backwards coat as well.  When it's discovered that Josephine was present in the room just before the body was discovered, she becomes a suspect, and Ellery and his father are soon on the case.

The Ellery Queen movies of the 30s and 40s are difficult to find.  Most of them, which featured either Ralph Bellamy or William Gargan, were B-films from Columbia and haven’t been released on DVD or licensed by Turner Classic Movies yet.  However, the first two in the series were made at the B-studio Republic and have been circulating as public domain prints on tape and DVD.  THE SPANISH CAPE MYSTERY with Donald Cook wasn't bad, but this one is suffers on at least three counts.  One is Eddie Quillan—he's perfectly acceptable in comic relief supporting parts (LONDON BY NIGHT) but he's too lightweight for leading man material, even in a B-movie, coming off more like a cute little juvenile in an MGM musical rather than a playboy detective.  He also has zero chemistry with Charlotte Henry (pictured above with Quillan), who herself is no great shakes as a leading lady.  Liability #2 is the music.  There are two major musical failings in B-movies: no background music at all, or too much.  Here the problem is too much of what is mostly inappropriate music seemingly chosen at random with no concern for fitting the mood of a scene.  Thirdly, the print is in terrible shape even though it's on a disc (called Great Detectives: Hollywood Classics) released under the auspices of American Movie Classics.  The amusingly dithery Franklin Pangborn makes the most of his two short scenes.  I liked Rita La Roy as Martha, who should have had more to do.  Not a total waste of time, but not one to go out of your way to see.  I hope the Columbia Ellery Queen movies become available soon.  [DVD]