Thursday, May 30, 2013

AIR HAWKS (1935)

Ralph Bellamy is the head of Independent Transcontinental Lines (ITL), a small and scrappy cargo and mail airlines. He's trying to get a lucrative government contract so he can get a bank loan to expand the company, but banker Wyrley Birch considers him a risk and wants him to sell out to the larger Continental Lines, something neither Bellamy nor his pilots want to do. But a group of men, including the head of Continental (Robert Middlemass), a casino owner (Douglas Dumbrille), and a mysterious "Chief," have hired a German scientist (Edward Van Sloan, pictured) to use his experimental laser-type ray to cause fires on ITL planes, making it look like the planes went down due to faulty equipment and care, which would pressure ITL to sell. A snoopy journalist (Victor Killian) gets on the case and discovers that Van Sloan is headquartered at an abandoned inn, but can he get this news out in time to save lives, and save ITL?

As with many B-films of the era, this is plot-heavy—the above doesn’t even touch on the romantic interest/femme fatale (Tala Birell) angle, or the sad story of the pilot who dies in one of the ray attacks and the wife and daughter he leaves behind. There's even a subplot involving real-life aviator Wiley Post who agrees to fly an ITL plane across the country to revive faith in the company. But considering the movie is under 70 minutes, the busy narrative keeps interest from flagging, and this winds up being a fun, fast-paced thriller. Bellamy is fine as the hero, Dumbrille good as the most visible villain, and Van Sloan (Van Helsing in the original DRACULA) makes a fine, almost archetypal mad doctor, though he doesn't get as much screen time as he deserves. The early scene in which Dumbrille and Middlemass meet the mad doctor at the inn is nicely creepy, right out of an "old dark house" movie, and the ending, with Bellamy attacking the death-ray machine, is exciting. The only thing that would really improve this movie is a better title, like DEATH-RAY IN THE SKY. [TCM]

Monday, May 27, 2013


War buffs find this movie problematic because of how fictionalized the account of the battle, a turning point in WWII, is. I won't quibble with that; their concerns are real, and given that the movie was made only 20 years after the war, it's odd that the filmmakers weren't more careful with easily-checked details. But as entertainment, this works better than other war epics of the era (THE LONGEST DAY, A BRIDGE TOO FAR)—there is more attention to character, the battlefield tactics are clear, and even though it's nearly three hours, it doesn't feel as bloated as the others, being well paced, dragging a bit only right after intermission. In December 1944, the Allies seem to have the Germans on the run and many American soldiers are lulled into thinking that the war is nearly over. But during a reconnaissance flight, Kiley (Henry Fonda), a former cop turned intelligence officer, snaps a picture of a highly esteemed German officer, Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw, pictured at left); to Kiley, his presence means that the Germans are planning a major offensive in Belgium, but his superiors don’t believe him. In fact, Hessler is planning a major push near the Ardennes Forest. In the meantime, the Germans parachute a small troop of English-speaking soldiers, led by Schumacher (Ty Hardin) who spent time in Texas and knows enough American pop culture to pass, in order to disrupt communication; they switch road signs and pretend to be Allied soldiers about to explode the Ruhr bridge, delaying the real Allies from destroying it until the Germans can cross. Eventually, Kiley is proven correct and his bosses (represented by Robert Ryan and Dana Andrews) change their strategy and drive the Germans back.

Though the facts are not always correct and clichés abound, one of the strong pluses of this film is character development. We get to know a handful of men who become our guides to the twists and turns in the narrative. Fonda is good as the man in whom his superiors can't quite put their faith, until it's almost too late. As those superiors, Ryan and Andrews aren't given much to do except to voice the official Army line. George Montgomery is an experienced sergeant who is the driver for a newbie lieutenant (James MacArthur); Montgomery resents the callow youth, but when the two are captured and witness the German slaughter of American prisoners as Malmedy, MacArthur has his own personal turning point and plays an important part in the climax, in which the Germans make a last stab at taking over an American oil depot to get desperately-needed fuel. Hardin (seen at right) is good, even a bit fun, as the fake Texan. Telly Savalas is mostly comic relief as a sergeant who runs a lucrative business in "merchandise" (mostly cigarettes and booze) with the help of a French girl who has fallen in love with him. But the best performance is by Robert Shaw who does a great job of bringing Hessler, the admittedly stereotyped ultra-Nazi, to life—we don't exactly get to know him, but we do find him the most compelling figure in the movie. Hans Christian Blech plays his assistant who eventually finds Hessler's fervor too much in the face of certain defeat. The battles play out well, and it is to the credit of director Ken Annakin that we are never confused about what is happening where—a problem I have with many of the later bloated war films. Some critics complain about obvious use of rear projection and miniatures, but I didn't really notice such problems. In my eyes, this is one of the better war films of the 60s. [TCM]

Saturday, May 25, 2013


This is the first talkie version of the story of the killer barber, a character first brought to life in a Victorian pulp novel called A String of Pearls. Thanks to the Stephen Sondheim musical and the recent Tim Burton film adaptation, his story is familiar, but this telling has a few differing details. The narrative is set up as the intertwining of three plotlines: 1) Sweeney Todd (Tod Slaughter) is a barber who specializes in shaving sailors and murdering the ones who have money or jewels on them. He puts them in a special barber chair, pulls a lever, and they are dumped down into his basement; the fall generally kills them, but if not, Todd goes downstairs with his razor and, in his words, polishes them off. Mrs. Lovatt (Stella Rho, pictured at left with Slaughter), who owns a bakery next door, chops the bodies up and makes meat pies of them, and also splits the ill-gotten booty with Todd; 2) The handsome Mark (Bruce Seton, pictured below) is in love with the lovely Joanna (Eve Lister), but her father, a shipowner, doesn’t approve because Mark is just a poor sailor. Todd sets his leering eyes for Joanna, and attempts to blackmail the father into essentially selling Joanna to him; 3) Mark's comic relief sidekick Stanley flirts with Joanna's sidekick Nan. 

It is made clear in the beginning, as the film cuts back and forth between the three stories, that money is the root of all the problems here. Mark doesn't have enough money to marry Joanna, Todd wants more and more money, Joanna's father is about to go bankrupt, Mrs. Lovatt is worried that Todd is holding out on her, and even Stanley complains that Nan is asking for too much when she wants him to bring back a long list of specialty items from his next trip abroad. Fans of the Sondheim work will be surprised to find a subplot involving an African native uprising, the upshot of which is that Mark soon returns to England with plenty of money, only to wind in Sweeney Todd's basement. Mrs. Lovatt, both jealous of Todd's attentions to Joanna and upset that he might be keeping some of the victim's valuables from her, helps Mark escape, leading to a moderately thrilling climax with all the characters gathered at the barber shop. 

This is a low-budget affair, but Tod Slaughter, famous British blood-and-thunder actor, does a nice job as Todd, putting some real relish into his "polish them off" threats, and the rest of the cast is solid, with Seton and Lister especially good. 13-year-old John Singer is fine as Tobias, the abused apprentice who plays an important role in the climax. The ending is more predictable and traditional than that of the musical, which has a more downbeat conclusion. The man-into-meat-pies plotline is never explicitly stated. Since the print on the Alpha DVD (which is in terrible shape) is roughly five minutes shorter than the length of record, and there is a rather jagged edit during a scene in which Lovatt is preparing to dispose of a body, I assume that such an explanatory scene has simply been cut out somewhere along the line, so you have to have knowledge of the play to get the black-humored scene near the end when a man is speculating about the disappearance of so many sailors from the neighborhood, while eating one of Mrs. Lovatt's pies. [DVD]

Friday, May 24, 2013

R.P.M (1970)

Two radical student groups occupy the administration building at a large university; Gary Lockwood is the socialist/student rights leader and Paul Winfield is the head of the black student group. They demand that the current president resign and be replaced by hip, much-published sociology professor Anthony Quinn, who is so very 60s with-it that he sleeps with his students (currently with sexy grad student Ann-Margret). The board of trustees asks Quinn to accept, and though he figures he'll get caught in the middle, he accepts. The radicals let him into the building and give him a list of twelve demands to take back to the board. After some negotiating, the board gives in to some of them (a black trustee, a review of college investments) but the final three, including having a student voice in hiring and firing, become sticking points. Quinn advises the students to compromise, having gotten most of what they wanted, but instead Lockwood and Winfield threaten to destroy the administration computers. Meanwhile, Ann-Margret attacks Quinn sexually, saying he's never been in love and just sleeps with a string of groupies; the best line in the movie has Ann-Margret tell him that his sexual activity increases in proportion to the length of his bibliography. Eventually, Quinn calls in the cops who use tear gas to get rid of the students. Although the resolution is relatively peaceful, the student body turns against Quinn whom we assume in the last scene of the film, as he walks slowly through a crowd of hecklers, has become a broken man.

This is one of the few Hollywood films of the era to attempt to deal seriously with the issue of campus unrest--the only other one that comes to mind is THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT, which was released a couple of months earlier. Though this film is not nearly as bad its critical reputation would have it, there are a couple of big problems. First, it had the misfortune to be made before but released after the Kent State shootings, which would largely call a halt to major campus unrest. Here, the issue doesn't appear to be so much a concern with police violence but more with the campus bureaucracy. The other problem is that the students aren't given a consistent attitude or philosophy. Their demands aren't discussed at any length and they wind up mostly seeming just stubborn. The relationship between Quinn and Ann-Margret is interesting but not explored in much depth. Lockwood (pictured at right, and above with Winfield, looking scruffily cute but rather blank) and Winfield aren't rounded characters at all. Quinn is OK but seems a bit uncomfortable. Best viewed as a period piece. [TCM]

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Navy officer Peter Duluth, on a 36-hour leave, meets his wife Iris in Los Angeles; they got married a year ago but there was no time for a honeymoon, so now on their first anniversary, they're looking for a hotel room where they can catch up on lost time, so to speak. All the hotels are booked solid, but a young woman named Miss Rose, who is leaving town to elope, takes pity on the couple and lets them use her room while she's gone. Unfortunately, a weekend of casual canoodling is not in the cards: first, people who see Iris keep thinking she looks like a puppeteer named Mona who, it turns out, is a cousin of Iris's; later, a drunk comes up to Iris and warns her that she's in danger because "the white rose and the red rose are out." Then when Peter goes to a steambath to ward off a cold, his uniform is stolen. He meets up with a detective named Hatch who agrees to help them figure out what's going on, but they soon discover that Mona is dead, and red and white roses are found in her apartment. By the time Peter and Iris get tangled up with a strange drunken man they nickname The Beard and two more women who seem targeted by the roses killer, they realize they're up to their necks in trouble. 

This pleasant B-mystery is based on a novel by Patrick Quentin (a pen name for two writers, one of whom, Hugh Wheeler, went on to co-write the musical Sweeney Todd) who wrote a series of Peter Duluth books. (A later book was turned into a movie with Ginger Rogers called BLACK WIDOW but the characters' last names were changed to Denver.) I'm sorry there were no more in this series because for a low-budget film, this is fast-moving and fun, like an episode of Remington Steele. Warren Douglas and Audrey Long work together well as Peter and Iris, with Douglas in particular doing a nice job of looking like he just wants to get Long alone in a hotel room and screw—at heart this is a comedy of delayed sexual consummation, like MY FAVORITE WIFE. The colorful supporting cast includes Lloyd Corrigan as The Beard—who turns out to be a criminologist—and Grant Withers as Hatch. There's also a helpful cab driver who calls himself an "amateur psychoanalyzer." The identity of the killer was a total surprise to me.  A short, sweet, light thriller.  [Netflix streaming]

Monday, May 20, 2013


Back in 2004, I saw the first teaming of Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth, YOU’LL NEVER BE RICH; I thought it had some wonderful dancing but otherwise found it wanting in comparison to the Astaire/Rogers musicals of the 30s. This one has dancing that is just as fabulous and a romantic comedy storyline that breaks no new ground, essentially rehashing the Astaire/Rogers mixed-up, on-again, off-again romances. Here, Astaire is a dancer stranded in Buenos Aires due to too much gambling. Bandleader Xavier Cugat (playing himself) agrees to help him get a job at a hotel run by the cantankerous Adolphe Menjou. Meanwhile, Menjou's two youngest daughters are pissed because, even though they have boyfriends ready and willing to marry them, family tradition holds that the older child must marry first, and that means some complicated plotting by everyone to get beautiful but cold-as-ice Rita Hayworth thawed out and married off to someone. Menjou starts sending orchids and writing anonymous "secret admirer" letters to Hayworth, hoping to loosen her up—yes, both a creepy and nonsensical plot device—and Hayworth mistakenly thinks that Astaire is the admirer. Menjou asks Astaire to play along in exchange for a dancing gig at the hotel, but to be obnoxious so that Hayworth will dismiss him but perhaps be in the mood to find romance with one of several handsome and eligible men who will be present at a big party at Menjou's. What could possibly go wrong?

Yeah, Daddy writing the notes is creepy—and gets creepier right up to the climax—and Hayworth plays the cold fish almost too well, so that she and Astaire don't really mesh as personalities, but they sure dance together well; I'd say she’s second only to Rogers as a romantic dance partner to Astaire (Cyd Charisse was sexy though not necessarily romantic). Their best number is their first one, the lushly romantic "I'm Old Fashioned." The other highlight is the jivey little jazz song, "The Shorty George." I miss the grand supporting casts of the 30s films; here, only Gus Schilling as a (possibly gay) nephew and employee of Menjou's provides any real sideline fun. Favorite line: when Fred first meets Rita and tries flirting, to no avail, he is reduced to cooing, "The air is nice…”; when she fails to respond, he says, with exaggerated exasperation, "…and there seems to be an abundance of it!" Not a great film, but it does make me sorry that these two didn't make a few more together. [TCM]

Saturday, May 18, 2013


During World War II, on an island off the coast of Malaysia, the Japanese have established two prison camps, one for men and one for women. Commander Yamamitsu and his assistant Sakamura run the men's camp in a brutal fashion, torturing and killing men for trying to escape, and taking hostages whom they threaten to kill when they want information. If the Japanese win the war, Yamamitsu says he will let the prisoners establish new lives in Japan, but if they lose, he will burn down both camps and slaughter all the inmates. As it happens, the Japanese have already surrendered, but because the camp radio is out of commission, Yamamitsu doesn’t know this yet. However, the prisoners, led by Col. Lambert, do know, thanks to a secret radio in possession of a Dutch prisoner (nicknamed, of course, "Dutch"). They're trying to keep the Japanese from finding out, hoping they'll get liberated by the Allies first, but eventually a diplomat named Beattie, who rarely agrees with Lambert's leadership, cracks and tries to spill the beans.

This film has a reputation for a couple of reasons. When it came out, it was seen as a much-needed antidote to the general whitewashing of the behavior of the Japanese army during the war. It opens with a claim that it's based on a true story, but even with all the powers of the Internet, I could not verify that—though a novelization of the movie became a bestseller. The other big selling point of the movie was its graphic depictions of gore and torture. In terms of explicitness, from today's vantage point, it would barely garner a PG rating, but at least two scenes are fairly brutal in tone: the opening in which Peters, a captured escapee, is forced to dig his own grave before he is shot and falls dead into it; and a later scene involving a beheading. An effective non-graphic scene has Sakamura answer the doctor's plea for fresh bandages by throwing the bloody bandages that had been wrapped around Peters' torso on the ground and saying, "He doesn’t need these anymore." Andre Morell is a little too low-key as Lambert; theoretically, there's a plot-point reason for this—he is keeping news of the surrender from the men—but the performance could have used a bit more fire. Hammer horror icon Barbara Shelley plays a female prisoner who makes a daring escape near the end with an American (Phil Brown) who arrives on the island. All of the three major Japanese roles are played by Anglo actors; the best is Marne Maitland as the martinet Sakamura, the villain you love to hate. [TCM]

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


The Baron (Louis Jouvet) gets a dressing down from a government minister; he has borrowed some "secret funds" for gambling and has lost the money. Seeming unconcerned, he makes one more effort to win big, but loses. That night, a thief named Pépel (Jean Gabin) breaks into the Baron's house, but when the Baron tells him that everything of value has been repossessed, the two bond over their dire straits in life, and the Baron comes to stay at the squalid boarding house where Pépel stays. Pépel has his hands full staying out of the hands of the law and dallying with Vassilissa, the young wife of the elderly landlord Kostylev, and Natasha, Vassilissa's sister. Other characters we get to know include a down-on-his-luck actor (Robert Le Vigan) who keeps telling people that he is an "organism poisoned by alcohol," a young, whimsical and frequently drunken accordion player (Maurice Baquet), a cobbler and his dying wife, and a fat police inspector who has set his cap for Natasha. Pépel's love triangle takes center stage until the end when one character commits suicide and another is killed in a brawl—the police are told that it was his life in "the lower depths" that killed him.

Based on a Maxim Gorky play, Jean Renoir's film version retains most of the Russian names (and at least in the subtitles, the Russian currency of rubles) but is set in Paris. For a good chunk of its running time, this almost comes off as a French version of YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, though one in which Kostylev (the Lionel Barrymore equivalent) is a rotten bastard instead of a sweet fairy-godfather figure. The flophouse, through grungy, is large and open and filled with colorful people, and generally seems like a pleasant place to stay. Gabin and Jouvet (pictured above), who were two of France's most esteemed actors of the time, have a wonderful chemistry together—better than Gabin has with either of his lovers, though Suzy Prim as Vassilissa is fine as a woman you love to hate who is occasionally likeable. Renoir's style feels very modern, with a moving camera that occasionally passes behind objects which obscure the action briefly, as if we were spying unseen on the characters. Another dramatic piece this movie conjures up is Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, in which the down-and-out denizens of a bar are stripped of their illusions by a truth-teller. Here, Gabin is a kind of truth-teller, but he allows most of them to keep their illusions, and even gets a relatively happy ending himself—a weak but not fatal plot point. Some may find the light tone of the movie to clash too much with the underlying narrative—and Akira Kurasawa's version of the same material, made in 1957, is apparently darker and more faithful to Gorky, though I have not seen it—but this is still worth seeing, for Renoir's style and the two lead actors. [DVD]

Monday, May 13, 2013


The Prescott family, despite still living in the ancestral mansion, has fallen on hard times and is hoping that daughter Joyce's marriage into the millionaire Ebury family will allow them to continue living in the manner to which they are accustomed. The only problem is that the Prescott house seems to be haunted. Unexplained events over the past few weeks include pieces of coal scattered about the drawing room floor, a hat ripped down the middle, pictures on the wall tuned upside down, attic lights going on and off at strange hours, and rugs and curtains catching fire (and see the levitating apples pictured at left). The cook is constantly threatening to leave, and now news about the supernatural shenanigans is spreading in the village, possibly putting Joyce's marriage in jeopardy. One day, three people descend upon the house: Harris, an insurance man looking into possible claims involving a burned rug; Spencer, an investigator from the Institute of Psychical Research; and Ebury, hoping to snuff out the outrageous rumors about a ghost. Spencer decides that a poltergeist is to blame, and that the mischievous spirit has possessed Audrey, the younger sister. Everyone agrees to stay in the house that night while Spencer attempts an exorcism, but soon even stranger things are happening.

I pieced the above summary together, hoping to make sense of what was a cut and disjointed print of the movie; IMDb gives the film's length as 79 minutes, but the print I saw was just under an hour, so clearly there is stuff missing—one obvious omission is a song, "First of Forever" which is listed in the opening credits but didn’t appear in the film I saw. In the first half, the movie reminded me of THE UNINVITED, a serious ghost story told in a light tone, but eventually this becomes more like a slapstick comedy, even though the poltergeist and the possession are presented as real. No explanation is given for who the naughty spirit is or why it has descended on the house, and Joyce, the bride-to-be, is barely in the movie. The last 20 minutes, in which the poltergeist causes much humorous havoc, are fun though things never really get scary. Gordon Harker, who plays Harris, was a famous B-actor in British films in the 30s and 40s. The only other actor to stand out is Joan Young, who does a nice job as the cook.  [YouTube]

Saturday, May 11, 2013


In 1943, Dave and Jim, two British POWs, have escaped and are hiding out in a rather unsavory quarter of Marseilles. While waiting to be smuggled out in a fishing boat, they are given a room in a shabby apartment building next to a whorehouse which is frequented by German officers. The handsome, dashing Dave (Stephen Boyd) flirts with a blonde beauty named Lise (Anna Gaylor); the slightly less handsome Jim (Tony Wright) forms a bond with an older British woman (Kathleen Harrison) who lets him share her bed and pose as her husband when the Nazis come parading through the building. In a separate plotline, the Germans are trying to find out why almost a hundred people have vanished without a trace. They suspect a serial killer and they're right; the kindly Dr. Martout (James Robertson Justice) has a nice evil business going. He gets a man named Blanchard to send him desperate refugees trying to escape; Martout promises to help them, gets them to bring all their cash or gold, gives them a glass of poisoned cognac, and kills them, throwing their bodies in a lime pit in his cellar. When the Germans decide to evacuate the neighborhood and blow it up to get rid of two problems (the refugees and the killer), Dave and Jim's paths cross with Martout's.

For a while, this is a different and intriguing take on the traditional WWII resistance movie—with a dash of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. The narrative takes its time developing and we meet several interesting side characters: Blanchard (Eugene Deckers), the man who sends refugees to Martout, thinking he's being helpful, unaware of their fates; the colorful madam of the whorehouse (Katherine Kath) who has good survival instincts; Schlip (Martin Miller) and Bourdin (George Coulouris), two refugees who wind up drinking Martout's cognac; and a German soldier named Eric (James Kenney), a skittish 20-year-old virgin who is out of his comfort zone at the whorehouse and who later accidentally shoots and kills a child, an act which has more reverberations then you'd guess. All the actors do fine jobs. Boyd (pictured with Gaylor), though hunky, is a bit on the bland side, but Wright and Gaylor take up the slack nicely, and Harrison is fun as always. Justice is excellent as the seemingly civilized but cold-blooded doctor who tells Schlip that he's doing him a favor, poisoning him rather than sending him to Auschwitz. Kath stands out in her few scenes as the madam—most fun in a scene in which Harrison discovers that there's a secret passage between her spartan bedroom and Kath's ornately decorated bedroom next door. The movie feels a bit long getting to its climax, and the some of the destruction effects are lame—obvious rear projection or matting of exploding buildings. This doesn't crop up much, so it's worth catching it the next time it does.  The best explanation I've seen for the original British title is that it might be a reference to a verse in the Book of Revelation about seven thunders being heard at the time of the apocalypse. [TCM]

Tuesday, May 07, 2013


"Dreamy" Smith is a young, sweet-natured guy who works in a newspaper's classified ad department; his buddy "Skipper" Martin is an older guy who works on a salvage barge. Together, they're ready to leave their jobs, buy a boat, and sail the world, leaving behind their city woes and troublesome women. The problems are: 1) every time Dreamy gets enough money put aside, he loses it somehow, usually by giving it away to someone in need; 2) Dreamy isn't as ready as Skipper is to leave women behind—in fact, he's got a girlfriend named Mary at the newspaper who doesn't want to see him go. When the paper gets a new publisher who gives cash bonus prizes for good ideas to boost circulation, Dreamy's boss, Mr. Wade, starts stealing Dreamy's ideas and passes them off as his own. Skipper and Mary want him to stand up for himself, but for different reasons: Skipper hoping he'll earn the prize money to buy the boat, and Mary hoping he'll earn enough money so they can get married. Or is there a third option?

This is a very cute little comedy that works mostly due to a plot that's a little out of the ordinary, though there is a Capraesque tone to the proceedings, albeit more comic and with less pomp and sentiment. I must admit that, though I liked the characters, I got a little tired of Dreamy's constant self-sacrificing, especially when his charitable acts wound up screwing over his buddy and girlfriend. Eddie Albert (pictured) is perfect as Dreamy, with a sweet and "dreamy" but not dumb persona; Alan Hale is just as good as Skipper (a character name that his son, Alan Hale Jr. would inherit on Gilligan's Island), and Joan Leslie is fine as Mary. The strong supporting cast includes John Litel as mean Mr. Wade, William Lundigan as the handsome new publisher who has his eye on Mary, Dickie Moore as Limpy, a crippled newsboy, and John Ridgeley as a reporter. [TCM]

Monday, May 06, 2013


This very cute romantic musical is set at the Braley estate on Long Island and begins on a fine June morning. On the patio, Mary Jane, the youngest Braley girl, is arguing with her on-and-off boyfriend Stacy; they sing "Spring Is Here," a "carpe diem" song in which he lets her know that, at 16 going on 17, she's in danger of getting "old and crusty." In the dining room, Betty gets yelled at by Mom and Dad about coming home too late ("Are you in training to be a night watchman?")  They're anxious to marry her off to her long-time boyfriend Terry, but at the party last night, she got bored with him and went off for a moonlight drive with dashing Steve. Terry tries to get her back by singing her a love letter ("Sincerely Yours") and she sings back that she'll use the song the next time she sees Steve. Mary Jane suggests that Terry act "bad" to get Betty's attention, so at a party that night, he flirts outrageously with several women, including Betty's mom, but his behavior winds up sending Betty back into Steve's arms. However, Mr. Braley throws Terry out of the house, and that gets Betty's juices flowing, and when Steve arrives to elope, she winds up back with Terry.

An early screen musical by Rodgers and Hart, this seems to be a little-seen rarity, and it's worth seeking out. As moviemaking, it's nothing special, with stagy, static camera takes, but there is some clever dialogue, the songs are appealing—"With a Song in My Heart" went on to become a standard—and the actors are all energetic and seem to be having fun, especially Frank Albertson as Stacy and Inez Courtney as Mary Jane (pictured above right). In most romance films, we know who's going to wind up with the girl, but here neither character seems coded as the obvious winner. Top billing goes to the handsome and hearty Lawrence Gray as Steve, which would normally make him the hero, but even though he doesn't really have any major flaws of character, he loses out in the end. Alexander Gray (no relation) is Terry and, as he's not as attractive or chipper as Steve and comes off as a bit stodgy, we would expect him to lose out, but he doesn't. Bernice Claire (pictured with Alexander Gray) is fine as Betty, and Louise Fazenda and Ford Sterling are excellent as the parents. Among the standout scenes: Mr. Braley dragging a marriage proposal for his daughter out of the oblivious Terry; the first song in which Stacy sings that "Spring is the time for love in Vitaphone plays"—a reference to the Vitaphone Company, the talkies division of Warner Bros. which made the movie; Terry kissing everyone at the party; and the next-to-last song, "What’s the Big Idea" in which Stacy expresses his randiness to Mary Jane, and she replies, "The way you use your hands/You're a traveling man." Overall, a delight for fans of early musicals. [TCM]

Thursday, May 02, 2013


Bebe Daniels is an aging movie star appearing in a new stage show. She's not a big draw anymore but seems completely oblivious to that fact—maybe because her young boyfriend (Thomas Beck) always sits in the front row and applauds wildly—and still makes big-star demands on everyone. Also in the show is a musical comedy trio (Alice Faye, Frank Mitchell, Joe Durant) looking to hit the big time. When the show's tour is canceled, the trio goes to Hollywood where Faye works at a laundry and the two guys work on a streetcar. Faye thinks their manager has arranged for an audition for her with a big producer, but he sneaks her into a Mexican restaurant to sing while the producer is eating dinner. Eventually, she gets a movie role—in a movie with Daniels, who has brought her kid sister to Hollywood. Daniels has big ideas for the movie; her vision for one production number calls for "Rabbits… symbolic… about 150." The sister gets the hots for Beck, Faye gets her big break, and Daniels is finally able to face up to reality, admits the girl she's passing off as her sister is really her daughter, and agrees to take a smaller role in the movie. This short musical isn't bad considering Alice Faye is the star—I've never really warmed up to Faye, and she's no better here, early in her career, than she was later, but there is the novelty that in this film she's done up as a dead ringer for Jean Harlow (as in the picture above). Mitchell and Durant, who were a real-life comedy team, do a lot of physical comedy; some of it works, some doesn't.  Daniels is quite good as an egotistical movie star, playing mostly for good-natured laughs instead of mean jabs. The title song got stuck in my head for a few days, but now I can't recall it at all. It's fun that Thomas Beck's character’s name is Tony Bennett.  [FMC]