Wednesday, February 27, 2013


In the summer of 1940, Violette Szabo (Virginia McKenna), a young woman living in London, is sent out by her French mother on Bastille Day to find some lonely French soldier on leave and keep him company. She and a friend head to the park and after a few misses hit upon the handsome Etienne (Alain Saury). He comes home with Violette for a meal and they spend a few idyllic days together. By the end of the week, they're married. He returns to duty and she has a child, and on their daughter’s second birthday, Violette gets the news that Etienne has been killed in action. When she goes to take care of some pension paperwork, she is recruited to be a secret agent; her cover story, which she has to tell her parents, is that she'll be driving ambulances and running canteens, but she actually goes through a period of tough training—parachute jumping, handling weapons—and is sent on missions in France with the Resistance. She and another agent with whom she's become friendly (Paul Scofield) are assigned to blow up a viaduct and she refuses to take a suicide pill with her; they accomplish the mission but when she's sent on another task, she's captured—though she takes out a number of German soldiers—and tortured for information on the code she uses to pass information. She never breaks and is eventually shot by a firing squad; after the war, she is honored by the British government.

This is based on a true story and the first and last thirds are compelling, with a strong anchoring performance from McKenna (probably best known as Joy Adamson in BORN FREE). The courtship sequence in the beginning is lightly handled and the action near the end, climaxing in an Allied attack on a train which is transporting McKenna and other prisoners, feels real without becoming melodramatic. Billie Whitelaw (wonderful as the Satanic nanny in THE OMEN) plays Violette's friend who basically is stuck with chaperoning for her dates with Etienne. A romance between McKenna and Scofield is toyed with, but it's Maurice Ronet who makes the bigger impression as a handsome French Resistance fighter. The middle sags a bit even thought the training scenes are well done. A tragic but inspiring story told with a minimum of heartstring-tugging. [TCM]

Monday, February 25, 2013


At Winfield College, preparations are under way for the annual show, but if this year's production is as uninspired and unpopular as the last few have been, the college's theatrical group, the Quadrangle Club, will have to shut down. The problem is the ancient and stuffy Prof. Biddle (Walter Catlett) who won't let the kids do anything modern. Mason (Fred Waring), a younger music teacher, is behind the kids but can't openly go against Biddle, so they get the idea to go to New York to see Broadway producer and Winfield alumnus Chuck Daly (Dick Powell); they offer him all the Club's money to put their show on for them. Because his latest production, one in a series of flops, has just closed, he agrees. At Winfield, Daly and his manager Willy Williams (Ted Healy) get involved in a string of shenanigans that get them in trouble with Biddle and the college, so in the end, they wind up heading back to Broadway, where they occupy an empty theater (and the police are so charmed by their rehearsals that they let them stay), and put on their show, saving the Quadrangle Club and Chuck's career. This college musical stays light on its feet and fairly charming throughout, though by the midpoint when it's clear it’s turning into a version of BABES ON BROADWAY (though this film predates that one by a few years), it slows down a bit. Powell has no chemistry with his romantic partner, Rosemary Lane (her sister Priscilla is also in the movie and makes a better impression), but luckily he works well with Ted Healy, his sidekick. Waring, a famous bandleader—his Pennsylvanians are in the movie with him—is no actor, but he seems eager to do his part. Supporting players Johnny Davis and Sterling Holloway are good, as is the African-American comedy/dancing team of Buck and Bubbles (Ford Washington Lee and John William Sublett, pictured—Sublett went on to create the role of Sportin' Life in the premiere production of Progy and Bess). The gaggle of students, including Scotty Bates, Mabel Todd, and Lee Dixon, help make the movie fun to watch. Busby Berkeley is credited as the creator of the spectacular football-themed finale, and it's fun, but the long opening sequence, as singing students, excited about the upcoming show, congregate in the gym is even better. [DVD]

Thursday, February 21, 2013


A Czech air force officer comes to his commander Anton (Albert Lieven) for advice; he has taken pity on a wounded girl but is afraid his attentions will be misunderstood. Anton tells him the story of a similar incident in his own past. Back in WWI while stationed at a garrison town, Anton is invited to a dinner at the Baron's castle and (in an overly melodramatic moment) asks the Baron's daughter, the Baroness Edith (Lilli Palmer), to dance, not realizing she is crippled and cannot walk at all because of a horse-riding accident. After this embarrassing incident, Anton calls on the Baroness and he becomes involved with the family. A doctor (Cedric Hardwicke) tells Anton that some Swiss cure may offer hope, and when Anton conveys this news to the Baron (Ernest Thesiger), he becomes convinced that his daughter will walk again soon. The doctor is angry that Anton has given the family false hope, and mostly out of guilt and pity, Anton begins courting Edith. The Baron offers Anton money to marry Edith, but this leads to more problems and entanglements, and a tragic ending is in store.

This is based on a novel by Stefan Zweig and seems related thematically to the Stephen Sondheim musical Passion, itself based on a 19th century Italian novel. It seems crystal clear from the moment that we find out that Edith is crippled that this will lead to tragedy, but despite predictable plot turns, there is enough here to keep a viewer interested. The acting all around is quite good, especially Lieven and Palmer, though as is often the case, the wonderful Gladys Cooper (pictured with Palmer) steals every scene she's in as Hardwicke's blind wife who is the moral center of the film and also plays a crucial role in the climax. The Austrian mountain sets are artificial looking but effective. My only criticism is that it drags in the middle, feeling like short story material that's been stretched out too long. [TCM]

Monday, February 18, 2013


British blonde bombshell Diana Dors, an unmarried mother of one, haunts bars looking for Mr. Right, or at least Mr. Tonight. One night, she meets friendly Napa Valley vintner Rod Steiger, not rich but certainly well off. She marries him and, though he turns out to be a good father to her son, he's not a very exciting guy. Another minus: they live with his nervous mother (Beulah Bondi) who always thinks she hears intruders—and since it's a Steiger family tradition to keep their doors unlocked (a show of hospitality), her fears may well be logical. During the local summer fair, Dors meets up with sexy rodeo rider Tom Tryon and they have a fling. Hoping to escape her husband and mother-in-law, she makes plans to shoot Steiger when he comes home from the fair one night, claiming that she thought he was a prowler, but she accidentally shoots Steiger's buddy Gino, with whom Steiger had been feuding. Thinking she truly did it by accident, Steiger offers to confess to the killing, but as lies grow and plans get more complicated (and another person dies under strange circumstances), a web of circumstance tightens around Dors. This fairly glossy film noir is worth seeing for Dors, who does a nice job as a latter-day Lana Turner (think POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE). Steiger, giving a highly mannered performance in the Brando manner, is miscast here and has little chemistry with Dors. Tryon (pictured above with Dors) is fine in the part of the sexy outsider, but he winds up having little relevance to the outcome of the plot. Marie Windsor has a small role as a gold-digging friend of Dors'; Arthur Franz has the thankless role of Steiger's brother, a priest, who, like Tryon, has little to do but stand around and get in the way. [TCM]

Friday, February 15, 2013


This film is the kind of discovery that us B-movie fans live for, a short, low-budget movie with no big-name stars that is as enjoyable (given the constraints of the genre) as any good A-film. It opens with what seems to be a bedroom seduction scene: we see a rumpled bed and hear a girl deciding she doesn't want to go through with something after all, though the man keeps trying to talk her into it. As the camera pans back, we see photographer William Gargan (at right) trying to get a beauty queen contestant, Miss Grand Rapids, to pose for a cheesecake shot, eating Crocker's Crackers in bed. Soon, Gargan, a newsreel cameraman for Phototone, is on the streets taking footage of the aftermath of an earthquake. Reporter Frances Dee catches him cheating by re-creating the rescue of a child from a building, but soon the three are busy dodging aftershocks and looking for more human-interest stories—she’s a "sob sister" who writes tear-jerking features. Gargan flirts with Dee, but admits that when it comes to romance, he's a "hit and run driver." He treats his buddy Wallace Ford better: Ford works for a rival company, but he's also married and an alcoholic, and once in a while, Gargan has to save his ass when he screws up a shot. 

During a major fire, Ford is killed when a wall falls on him. Dee then announces she's leaving the biz and going back home to Riverport to marry her fiancé (Ralph Bellamy). When floods threaten Riverport, Gargan heads out for to get a story (and the girl, he hopes). Bellamy gives Gargan the tip that the floods were due to bad concrete used deliberately by corrupt officials in the building of the levee, and the three of them face intimidation to get the story. Dee tries one more time to quit, but she gets wrapped up in one more story involving a gangster moll's deathbed confession and winds up kidnapped. Will Gargan be able to save her? And will Bellamy lose the girl?

What I liked about this: a fast pace, a fair amount of action, likeable characters, good but not overpowering use of humor (the opening scene, the look on Dee's face as she tries to resist that last story, a cameo by Robert Benchley as a radio reporter at the beauty contest), fine performances all around, from Gargan and Dee—who work together well—to Jack LaRue in the small role of a gangster pal of Gargan's.  Like many B-films, it’s a bit overplotted—Ford's story seems especially superfluous, though he's very good—but it never feels confusing or threatens to spin out of control. Real footage of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake and other disasters adds a note of realism. The last part plays out a bit like HIS GIRL FRIDAY. William Gargan is one of my favorite B-actors and this may be his best performance. A minor-key joy. [TCM]

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


The Banton gang (Pa Abel, his particularly ruthless older son Coy, middle sons Ethan and Martin, and young Johnny) rob a mining company office in an African village and while getting away, kill an innocent bystander and a couple of policemen. Coy is already wanted dead or alive, and inspector Wyntors tracks him down in the jungle and handcuffs him, but on the river, he is ambushed by the rest of the gang and Wyntors is killed. Tarzan, who knew Wyntors, re-captures Coy, killing Ethan in the process, and takes Coy back to the village to transport him to Kairobi on the next boat, intending to claim the reward and give it to Wyntor's family. But very few in the village are willing to risk keeping Coy even overnight, knowing the vengeance that Abel will seek. Meanwhile the Bantons, figuring out Tarzan's plan, blow up the boat, killing the pilot and sending four travelers and the first mate to find their way to the village. When Tarzan decides to take Coy to Kairobi over land, the five survivors of the boat attack ask to come along and Tarzan reluctantly lets them. There's Tate, the heroic African first mate, Ames, a strutting blowhard who is really a coward, his wife Fay who is increasingly unhappy in her marriage, the disgraced but dignified American doctor Conway, and his young wife. The rest of the film follows their journey as they are followed by the Bantons. We see Ames and his wife fall further apart until she begins a flirtation with the handcuffed but still dangerous Coy. At one point, a tribe wants Tarzan to leave Coy to their justice, but when Conway is able to help the chief's wife through a rough childbirth, the chief lets them go on. Eventually, the Bantons catch up with Tarzan's group and gunplay and fisticuffs winnow down the gang until Tarzan and Coy have it out mano a mano along the river.

This was Gordon Scott's last Tarzan film and it's very similar to the previous film in the series, TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE: no Jane and no romance for Tarzan, no Cheeta, and this time, not even the famous jungle yell. The tone is serious and the violence is blunt: one man is shot dead, falls in the river, and is dragged to the bottom by a crocodile; later, Johnny tries to rape Conway's wife and Tarzan ends up shooting him in the face. It's not graphic by today's standards, but might have been a bit shocking to kiddie matinee attendees of the early 60s. Scott is good, though perhaps because of the grimmer material he's not as much fun as in the previous film. Jock Mahoney (in the middle in the picture at left) is suitably nasty as Coy—he would go on to take over the Tarzan role from Scott for the next two movies. John Carradine is fine as the grimy father, Al Mulock gets a nice scene near the end when he finally tells his dad off for ruining his son's lives, and Gary Cockrell provides eye candy as the youngest son—he gets an "And introducing…" credit in the beginning of the movie, but except for his good looks, doesn't really stand out in the cast. An admirable attempt to make the Tarzan franchise more appealing to adults, though I don’t think the Jock Mahoney movies followed through I’ll find out soon because I've got one Mahoney's movies on deck. [DVD]

Monday, February 11, 2013


In an African village, four white men in disguise as natives steal supplies (including explosives) from a field hospital; a radio operator and a doctor are killed but not before one of them whispers the name "Slade." Tarzan (Gordon Scott, at right) has past experience with the diamond smuggler Slade (Anthony Quayle) and decides to go after him. Tagging along but not welcome is a cocky blonde pilot named Angie (Sara Shane); she follows in her plane but crashes into a river where Tarzan has to wrestle a crocodile to save her. The rest of the film shows the deterioration of the bad guys, partly due to jungle mortality (a cheetah kills the boat captain) and partly due to loss of trust and bonds a la TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE—with some distrust sparked by the presence of Slade's sexy girlfriend (Scilla Gabel)—as Tarzan catches up with them, leading to an exciting (if slightly overlong) confrontation between Tarzan and Slade on a high cliff.

This Paramount production is the first Gordon Scott Tarzan film I've seen (another one is coming up soon) and it has much less of a kiddy-matinee feel than the previous MGM and RKO films. There is no Jane (and Angie is not a serious love interest), Cheeta the chimp is barely seen, and Tarzan calls no hordes of elephants to save the day (though he does use his famous yell once, at the climax, to great effect). There are several deaths, startling but not graphic, the best one being when a character falls into a pit full of pointed-upward spears meant for Tarzan. Tarzan himself kills one man point blank with a bow and arrow and is similarly wounded. Scott has a good physique and with his bedroom eyes is perhaps the most handsome Tarzan of all. He also speaks in complete sentences, though he generally remains a man of few words. Quayle, a highly regarded British character actor, makes a good villain, and Sean Connery (at left), a couple of years before he became James Bond, makes a strong impression as another of the baddies. Though not all critics agree with me, I found Shane's Angie irritating and unlikeable, and could have used less of her. It was filmed on location in Africa, though there are still obvious cutaways to stock footage now and then. A solid entry in the Tarzan series, and one which made me seek out more Scott. [DVD]

Thursday, February 07, 2013


Elizabeth Taylor plays a free-soul artist who lives in a beach house at Big Sur with her young illegitimate son; the boy's father offered marriage and her parents offered an abortion, but Taylor wants life on her own terms—she says she's always felt used by men and she made the choice to abandon the boy's father. When the boy gets in trouble one too many times, he is sentenced by a judge to an Episcopalian boarding school. Taylor is furious at first, but is placated a bit when she meets the priest in charge of the school (Richard Burton); he comes off as fairly non-judgmental even when she tries to shock him by calling herself a "naturalist," someone who believes that mankind is doomed by belief in religious myths. Burton, clearly fascinated with Taylor—even though he's married—begins to visit her on the beach frequently. He's present when she takes in a small bird, a sandpiper, with a broken wing and puts a splint on it, then declares that the only way to help wild things is by letting them be free. He also meets her beatnik friends, including a blustery sculptor (Charles Bronson) who's working on a nude of Taylor and doesn't like Burton one bit. Soon, after a night together at a beachside bar called Nepenthe, Taylor and Burton are having an affair which, of course, cannot end happily for anyone concerned.

This movie is not very well regarded, but if you want to wallow in a beautiful looking soap opera with Liz Taylor chewing the scenery, you’ll love it. The Big Sur locations are gorgeous, and the beach house—which was shot in a French studio—is truly fabulous, though you may wonder how our free spirit can afford to stay there. The first hour is actually pretty good, with Taylor doing a very nice job, almost underacting, but as melodrama takes over, things deteriorate a bit. In a scene where Robert Webber, a former lover, tries to take her by force, she shrieks at him, "You’re a creep! A creep! A terrible creep!" No one could have made that dialogue work, but Liz gives it all she has. Burton is good, and Torin Thatcher, James Edwards (the token African-American beatnik) and Tom Drake (Judy Garland's Boy Next Door in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS) are adequate in small roles, but poor Eva Marie Saint has the totally thankless and one-dimensional role of Burton's wife. I did not regret watching this, which I suppose is damning it with faint praise, but it is (in widescreen) lovely to look at. [TCM]

Tuesday, February 05, 2013


In 1900, Eleanor Parker has come to Cairo; her late father, an archeologist, had spent much of his professional life trying to find artifacts that would confirm Old Testament stories, especially those of Joseph in Egypt, and she's looking to finish his work. Robert Taylor, leading his own digs in the desert, agrees to help her. If they can find evidence in the tombs that the pharaoh Ra-Ho-Tep was monotheistic, it would bolster her father's reputation. Parker's new husband (Carlos Thompson) is along for the ride, though Taylor is suspicious of him—partly because he's falling for Parker himself. They discover clay tablets in the catacombs beneath a monastery in the Sinai which lead them to the Valley of the Kings and Ra-Ho-Tep's tomb. Along the way, Taylor and Parker have to deal with tomb-robbers, and it turns out that Thompson is in league with them—they get the artifacts and he smuggles them out of the country. The main appeal of this film is that it was shot it on location in Egypt, and the views are indeed quite nice. The plot is slow to develop and Taylor is not the most compelling lead, though it's fun to see Parker, whom I always think of as the mean Baroness in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, as a leading lady. I'd never heard of Thompson—he's actually more interesting than Taylor. Kurt Kasznar and Leon Askin make effective bad guys. Overall, it's a little on the boring side, but the landscapes might keep you awake. [TCM]