Thursday, June 27, 2013


In Baghdad, Ali, the young son of the Caliph, and Amara, the young daughter of the Caliph's advisor Cassim, make a blood oath to solidify their pledge of love, but not long after, Cassim, working with the Mongols, betrays the Caliph who is killed. Ali escapes into the desert where he discovers the secret hiding place of a band of thieves, in a deep mountain cave which opens up only to the phrase, "Open, O sesame." The thieves adopt him, naming him Ali Baba, and soon they become a small resistance band against the Mongols. Years later, Amara is to be married to the pretender Caliph, Kahn. When Ali, the new leader of the thieves, recognizes Amara as his childhood sweetheart, he leads a raid to rescue Amara from marriage to the evil Kahn.

Like the earlier ARABIAN NIGHTS, this pairing of Jon Hall (Ali) and Maria Montez (Amara), both pictured at right, is a colorful and fun adventure film with good sets and costumes, an appropriate amount of comic relief, and lots of rousing action scenes. Hall is never quite up to the standards of a grade-A screen hero (like Tyrone Power or Errol Flynn) but he suffices. Montez pretty much gives one-note performances, but her exotic looks make up for her acting weaknesses. Andy Devine, as Abdullah, Ali's protector, is amusing but never obnoxiously so. Standouts in the supporting cast include Scotty Beckett as the young Ali, Turhan Bey as a slave to Amana who winds up helping the thieves, Frank Puglia as Cassim, and Fortunio Bononova as the head of the thieves. [DVD]

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


An old bearded man reads a story about half-brothers from the Arabian Nights to a gaggle of buxom harem girls. Haroun (Jon Hall) is the rightful Caliph of Baghdad, but his half-brother Kamar (Leif Erickson) has tried to overthrow him and failed, so now Kamar has been hanging by his arms for seven days in what is called the Slow Death. On the seventh night, with Kamar seemingly on the edge of death, his band of rebels attacks, freeing him. In fierce hand-to-hand fighting, Haroun receives a life-threatening wound and passes out. An impish circus acrobat named Ali (Sabu) sees the attack while he's balanced upside-down on a tower of strong men and rushes to Haroun's aid. Knowing the danger Haroun is in, Ali takes the Caliph's Ring off his hand and puts it on the dead body of a rebel whose face has been smashed by a rock beyond recognition, so Kamar will assume that Haroun is dead. Ali takes Haroun in, shaves his beard so he won't be recognized, and helps his recover with some help from renowned dancing girl Scheherazade (Maria Montez). But Scheherazade is being sought by Kamar—she promised to marry him if he ever gained the title of Caliph—so the circus winds up on the run, not just from Kamar's men but also from slave traders and from a rogue member of Kamar's group who would be happy to see both brothers dead.

This is the colorful adventure film which introduced the popular pairing of Hall and Montez, who went on to do five more films together. Made during the first year of WWII, there were wartime restrictions placed on film budgets, but the studio, Universal, the producer, Walter Wanger, and the director, John Rawlins, managed to create a movie that looked spectacular, not just with bright Technicolor hues but with effective sets and lovely backgrounds. The beefy Hall and exotic Montez are not the greatest actors, but there is some chemistry there, and the supporting cast is fun. Billy Gilbert does a variation on his usual sputtering doofus as the head of the circus—in action scenes when he belly-butts someone, a distinct "boinnng" is heard on the soundtrack; John Qualen and Shemp Howard have some fun playing older versions of Aladdin (still on the search for another magic lamp) and Sinbad (always trying to tell tales of his glory days). The chief pleasure I got out of this was the look of the movie: gorgeous colors, remarkable backdrops, and even some real sand dunes—shot on location in Utah, not Iraq. [DVD]

Thursday, June 20, 2013


George Bird, a tractor salesman, learns he has Lampington’s disease; his doctor tells him he has only weeks to live. As he has no wife, children, family or close friends to commiserate with, he decides to withdraw his savings and take a last holiday at a posh resort hotel. While there, he tells no one about his fate, and the workers and guests, mostly of a class higher that Bird's, begin to think of him as a man of mystery. Not only does he make friends and get respect, he wins money while gambling and discovers the potential for romance with the housekeeper Mrs. Poole. He gets a job offer, gives money to the Rockinghams who are in dire financial straits, and when the hotel staff goes on a 24-hour "sympathetic" strike, he takes the lead and gets all the guests to pitch in and keep things running. Then Dr. Lampington himself shows up at the hotel and when he finds out Bird's secret, tells him he has no signs of the disease and must have mis-diagnosed. Is this the beginning of a new chapter in Bird's life?

This pleasant comedy is almost a little too placid; believe me, I don’t need car chases or destructive slapstick to enjoy comedies, but this one could use some jolts of energy now and then. Still, it's fun (with dark edges), well written by J.B. Priestly, and the cast is superb, beginning with Alec Guinness as Bird in a subtle performance that I can imagine being bettered only by Peter Sellers. Other standouts: Kay Walsh (pictured with Guinness) as Mrs. Poole who is just right in the role of the self-possessed woman who almost falls for the sympathetic mystery man; Beatrice Campbell as Mrs. Rockingham who teeters on the verge of romancing Bird; Grégoire Aslan as Gambini the hotelkeeper; Brian Worth as Mr. Rockingham who, in a plotline that essentially goes nowhere, is involved in a currency smuggling scheme; Esma Cannon as Miss Fox, a shy downtrodden companion to a rich lady; and Ernest Thesiger as Lampington whose character has the potential to be quite eccentric (as most of Thesiger's roles are) but isn't fleshed out enough. Bernard Lee and Wilfrid Hyde-White also appear. It’s sweet and a little melancholy, and worth seeing. [DVD]

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Every year Mrs. Taggert insists that her three grown sons join her to celebrate her wedding anniversary to her late husband. And it seems that every year, she uses the event to reassert her dominance over her sons, insulting and humiliating them to keep them under her thumb—she owns the family construction business, and all three work for her, with varying degrees of competence. Henry, who is charge of the day-to-day business, is an unmarried milquetoast and transvestite who steals women's underwear from stores and clotheslines and seems happy with the status quo. The other two, however, have plans to escape: Terry, with a wife and kids, is planning to move to Canada; Tom, the youngest, has brought his pregnant fiancée to the celebration despite Mother's almost certain disapproval. And indeed, Mrs. Taggert spends the entire evening running everyone down, trying to get her way. Will this be the year when things backfire?

Bette Davis has a field day chewing the scenery as the horrid mother in this black comedy. She wears an eyepatch (due to a BB gun accident years ago, caused by one of her sons) and, though the film is set in England, Davis doesn't bother with an accent, and she doesn't need to—sounding like Bette Davis is scary enough. She cackles and spits out insults with relish. To Terry's wife, pregnant with her fourth child, she says, "Natural good manners told me when to put the plug in." Glaring at Tom's tarty girlfriend who plunked down next to her on the couch, she says, "Would you mind sitting somewhere else? Body odor offends me." Based on a play, most of the film takes place in Mom's house, though the camera set-ups are varied enough that it rarely feels stagy, and when it does venture out, to a dinner at a restaurant, it doesn't reel right. The rest of the cast is good, especially Jack Hedley as Terry, doing a nice job of not being as kowtowing as Henry (James Cossins) but not able to rebel as obviously as Tom (Christian Roberts), and Sheila Hancock as his wife. Not all the plot twists work—a cruel prank that Mrs. Taggert plays on Terry's wife comes off as half-baked and childish—but this is a strong example of the strain of black comedy that blossomed in the 1960s. And this is a better movie overall than Davis' more famous campy dark comedy WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE. [DVD]

Friday, June 14, 2013


In Gay Nineties New York, Vera-Ellen works for the Daughters of Right (as in, the Salvation Army); she attracts lots of men with her looks but few of them are really looking for salvation (as in, Jean Simmons in GUYS AND DOLLS). Meanwhile, playboy Fred Astaire, about to finally get married, holds a bachelor party with all of his ex-girlfriends. Afterwards, he realizes he doesn't really love his intended, and, out in the city for a carriage ride, he spots Vera singing with the Daughters and is immediately smitten. She brushes him aside, telling him that true love should leave you walking on air; right after she leaves, Fred does, in fact, dance on air, winding up on top of the Washington Square arch. He keeps after her, and she insists he must begin to work for a living. When he gets a job as a streetcar driver, they perform a dance to the cute song "Oops!" and Vera starts to levitate as well. Fred's rich aunt (Marjorie Main), who is also a patron for the Daughters of Right, is happy about their relationship and pays off Fred's former fiancée (for breach of promise) and also offers to pay for Fred and Vera's wedding, but the night before, Fred and his friends get plastered at a bachelor party and he misses the wedding. How will these kids ever get back together?

Though I love movie musicals, the late 40s/early 50s was not their prime era (the big exception being SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN). With the MGM musicals of that time—like this one—it often feels like they're trying too hard in some areas (overdone production design) and not hard enough in others (underbaked plotting). I always enjoy seeing Fred Astaire dance, and the plot device of dancing on air is fun, but the rest of this is a little flat. Astaire was in his 50s and beginning to look a little creepy/pervy paired up with younger women. The peak of that nonsense came a few years later in FUNNY FACE in which, at 58 but looking 65, he was paired up with Audrey Hepburn, not quite 30 but looking barely 21. There’s not much chemistry between Astaire and Vera-Ellen; she seems rather cold throughout, even when she's supposed to be thawing out. The dance numbers are generally fine, even if the songs themselves are not memorable. I always enjoy Marjorie Main’s presence, and the supporting cast includes Keenan Wynn, Clinton Sundberg, and Alice Pearce (the first Mrs. Kravitz on Bewitched). The last "dancing on air" number is a nice closer. [TCM]

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


When he was 13, Steve Cochran shot and killed his drunken, abusive father; tried as an adult, he served 18 years in prison and is now being released with a chunk of money he earned through work, a cheap suit, and bus fare. He's hardened over the years, but he's not broken, and he sets out to start a new life. In a diner, Cochran is befriended by John Kellogg who helps him get a job as a welder, but Cochran soon discovers that Kellogg is a reporter who writes a sensationalistic front page story about him, so he leaves for New York City, hoping for anonymity in the big city. At a dime-a-dance joint, he meets up with tough blonde Ruth Roman; she shows him around town and he falls hard for her. It turns out she's being "kept" by a cop (Hugh Sanders), and when the three have words, the violent Sanders knocks out Cochran, then Roman (more or less accidentally) shoots Sanders. When Cochran comes to, Roman lets him think that he shot Sanders, and when they find out the cop has died, the two go on the run, winding up in a California farming camp where they get married, bond with another couple, and seem to be on the way to living a normal life. But soon Cochran is recognized when his picture is run in a true crime magazine—will they run again and stay and make a stand? And will Roman come clean with Cochran?

I am now an official Steve Cochran fan. With his dark, handsome, brooding look, he had a decent career in B-films, often noir or crime films, often as a conflicted hero (as here) or anti-hero (as in PRIVATE HELL 36). He may not have been an Oscar-caliber actor, but he brought a certain presence to his roles that generated the required heat or coolness as called for—he could come off as a dumb lug, a smart average guy, a slick seducer, or a naïve sucker. Here, he exhibits bits of all those personas: he's not dumb, exactly, but having grown up behind bars, he is unschooled socially, and part of the appeal of the first half of the movie is watching him negotiate his return to society. Roman is good as a tough gal who slowly softens up (and goes from brassy blonde to natural dark hair)—we keep hoping she doesn't quite have it in her to truly be a femme fatale. In the supporting cast, Lurene Tuttle stands out as a co-worker at the farm, and Lee Patrick (Effie in THE MALTESE FALCON) has a small but effective bit as Roman's sister. The latter half, set at the farm camp, feels at times like a serious version of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. Despite an ending that is a little too sunny and ties up loose ends a little too neatly, this is a standout film noir. [TCM; also on DVD]

Monday, June 10, 2013


An anthology movie with three stories of Irish life directed by John Ford as a kind of labor of love, on a fairly low budget with no star power except for the presence of Tyrone Power as a host. In "The Majesty of the Law," a policeman travels from city to country to serve an arrest warrant on his old friend Dan who kicked a neighbor's ass and won’t pay the fine. In "A Minute's Wait," a train pulls into a station and the porter announces, "One minute’s wait only!"; the passengers pour off the train and entertain themselves at the bar or amongst themselves. At the end of the minute, they get back on the train only to have a delay that results another one-minute wait… and another, and another. The last, "1921," based on a famous short play, is about an Irish political prisoner who is about to be executed by the British, and how with help from some unlikely folks, he escapes his fate.

Though the last story is somewhat more serious in tone than the rest, these are all basically comedies of character and circumstance. The first is akin to a shaggy-dog story as the policeman (Cyril Cusack) and his buddy Dan (Noel Purcell) do a long dance around each other, both knowing that the upshot will be that Dan will go to jail. Cusack doesn’t relish his job, and Purcell is too proud not to eventually face up to his just desserts—he even spurns an offer from the offended party to pay the fine himself so Purcell won't have to leave. Both actors are fine, especially Purcell. "A Minute's Wait" is the most fun as we are briefly immersed in the comic stories of a handful of characters including a man about to enter an arranged marriage, a woman with a niece of marriageable age, an engineer who tells a ghost story at the bar which keeps being interrupted by calls to get back on the train, a rather dour couple who cling to their first-class car, and a team of champion hurlers. There's even a goat who winds up riding first-class (pictured). The whole bit is predictable but quite fun. Best line: the porter proposing to the shopgirl by saying, "How’d you like to be buried with my people?" The last story has more dramatic heft but is still kept light and has a nice surprise ending. Among the standout performers in the latter two stories (many of them members of Dublin's Abbey Theatre) are Jimmy O'Dea as the porter, Paul Farrell as the engineer, and well-known stage actor Donal Donnelly as the prisoner. This is not typical John Ford fare, and the Irish accents are occasionally a bit thick, but as an anthology film, this is one of the better ones. [TCM]

Friday, June 07, 2013


Nat Pendleton is a nice-guy bill collector and science buff; he's sent to collect money from independent inventor Lyle Talbot but winds up getting interested in Talbot's latest device: the "television machine," which can broadcast and receive television signals. Pendleton gets his boss to hire Talbot, but he's just as much of a nice guy as Pendleton, and doesn't make a very good bill collector. When he goes to collect from Mary Astor, she ends up agreeing to help him raise money for his invention. They try to make a presentation of their invention for Paragon Broadcasting Company, but bad guys Mark Lawrence and Robert Strange sabotage it. Can the nice guys (and girl) overcome? This B-movie is a little creaky, and anyone expecting a science-fiction thriller from the title will be disappointed, but it moves quickly. The first half feels a little like a Gold Diggers movie, except instead of trying to put on a show, our heroes are trying to transmit a television image. I always like Talbot, and Pendleton and Astor provide strong support. Keep your expectations low and you’ll have a nice time. [Netflix streaming]

Thursday, June 06, 2013


The El Dorado Mining Company has had gold shipments stolen off the Oro Grande bus line. Stony Brooke, Tucson Smith and Lullaby Joslin, buddies known as The Three Mesquiteers, talk the boss of the mine into using an airplane service to ship their gold. Stony approaches Ned Hoyt and his sister Beth, who run a small air service, about expanding, and talks the local cattlemen into selling their cattle and investing in the plane company. Ned has a mysterious past—we discover he served time for something, but got his pilot's license back—but he's a hard worker, and Stony is a little sweet on Beth, so when executives from the bus line plot to ruin the Hoyt's business, Stony and the Mesquiteers come to the rescue. This is an average B-western of the era which is of general interest for two reasons: 1) John Wayne is Stony, a role in played in a handful of Three Mesquiteers movies before the success of STAGECOACH sent his career upwards; 2) renowned silent film actress Louise Brooks (PANDORA’S BOX, pictured at right with Wayne) appears here as Beth, in her last screen credit. Fans of Brooks may feel like they need to see this, but she basically sleepwalks through the role with little energy and no enthusiasm, coming off as no better or worse than any nameless B-actress who might have played a similar role in any other B-western. Ray Corrigan (Tucson) and Max Terhune (Lullaby) are also fairly colorless, though Terhune has a couple of silly bits with a puppet named Elmer. Slightly better are Anthony Marsh as Ned and Gordon Hart as the evil bus company owner. An average B-western, though the DVD from Olive Films presents it in great shape, probably better than it looked on its initial release. I've previously reviewed a non-John Wayne Mesquiteers film, VALLEY OF HUNTED MEN. [DVD]

Monday, June 03, 2013


Lloyd Nolan is an old, cranky bedridden shipping magnate; the considerably younger Lana Turner (pictured) is his second wife, Sandra Dee is his daughter, Anthony Quinn is his doctor and Richard Basehart is his assistant. Basehart believes that Turner and Quinn are lovers—and they are. When Turner expresses a desire to learn to drive even though she has a chauffeur (Ray Walston), Nolan becomes suspicious. Meanwhile, Dee is dating John Saxon, whose family's business was ruined because of Nolan. Quinn gets an offer for a job in Zurich and tells Turner that he's going to take it since Nolan remains an impediment to their happiness; Turner becomes upset and talks him into helping her kill Nolan by injecting an air bubble into his hypodermic needle. At first, they think they've gotten away with it, but soon Turner gets a letter saying, "Congratulations on your successful murder." Who knows what they’ve done? They assume it’s Basehart, but could it be Dee? Or even Walston? Or someone else? Unfortunately, when they kill off one of the suspects, another letter arrives. This glossy thriller is quite fun, caught somewhere between soap opera and film noir—though the fact that it was shot in widescreen and bright color works against the noir atmosphere. It's set in San Francisco, so occasionally a scene feels like it came out of Hitchcock's VERTIGO. All the actors are good; though I’m not a fan of Quinn's, he does a nice job here playing against type as a relatively quiet and passive man. Anna May Wong has a small role as a housekeeper. Yes, the overall tone is to-the-hilt melodrama (though it's not over-the-top enough to be campy), but that’s half the fun. The other half is figuring who’s doing what to whom; there aren’t many likable characters which is a bit of a weakness since we're not really invested in anyone being proved innocent, but still, this is 60s era fluff-thriller fun done by pros. [DVD]

Saturday, June 01, 2013


Gary Lockwood is a mid-20s guy living near a beach in Los Angeles, a year out of grad school and looking for a job as an architect; not designing run-of-the-mill stuff like diners or grocery stores, mind you, but making something really cool like a new Eiffel Tower. He's spent the last year living off of his pretty blond girlfriend (Alexandra Hay), a model hoping for a shot as an actress, but she's getting tired of his layabout mooching. And as this is the late 60s, he also has the threat of the draft hanging over him since he no longer gets a college deferment. The film follows Lockwood through one 24-hour period, beginning as he wakes up to the sound of two guys at his front door ready to repossess his garish green MG unless he can come up with $100 in back payments. They agree to give him to the end of the business day to find the money. After Hay berates him (justifiably) for his general passivity and lack of commitment—to her or to a career—Lockwood visits some old college friends in order to borrow the hundred bucks. Along the way, he becomes obsessed with a beautiful French woman (Amouk Aimée) who is stranded in California after a messy divorce; she is working as a model in a sleazy studio where men can buy a model's time, not for sex but to take sexy photographs. After he finds out from his parents in San Francisco that he must report to the draft board on Monday morning, he goes home and gets high while looking at his pics of Aimée. When night falls, Lockwood goes to the studio and hooks up with her for a one-night stand. The next morning, he calls her only to find out from her roommate that she's gone, having gotten just enough money to go back to Paris. The film ends with Lockwood repeating the phrase, "Always try" into the phone.

The description probably makes this sound like a late European New-Wave entry examining rootlessness and alienation; the director, Jacques Demy, is French, though known best for the lush romantic musical THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBROUG, and certainly the film is not strong on narrative or acting (most of the cast except Lockwood and Aimée seem to be amateurs), but still it keeps you watching, and it's not alienation as much as middle-class apathy that seems to be the main theme. It helped, for me, that the camera is almost always focused on the handsome Lockwood, who, for good measure, wears a snug t-shirt and jeans throughout—except when he's shirtless in the first scene.  His character is fleshed out a bit more than you might expect, though because he seems so aimless, it is difficult to feel much empathy for him. Aimée's character is rather far-fetched; it seems unlikely given her looks and manner that she'd have to humble herself in a skid-row skin parlor to make ends meet. The rock group Spirit appear as themselves, an up-and-coming band with a debut album just out, but as actors, they're terrible—even a line like "Hey, man, how ya doing?" sounds stiff. I suppose the "Always try" mantra at the end is supposed to be positive, but Lockwood doesn't sound like he believes it, and the last moments reek of sweaty desperation. An interesting movie. And again, Gary Lockwood in tight clothes. [DVD]