Wednesday, December 31, 2014

THE CAT AND THE FIDDLE (1934)

In between making frothy musicals for Ernst Lubitsch and becoming a cinema legend in a series of operettas with Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald made this romantic musical, not quite an operetta (though it's about the writing and production of one) and definitely not quite on the level of a Lubitsch picture in terms of wit or visuals. Still, this may be of interest to some as one of the last of the pre-Code musicals. Ramon Novarro is a poor composer living in Brussels, barely scraping together a living playing piano at sidewalk cafés while he works on an operetta. He meets MacDonald when he jumps into her cab; they argue and tussle but he is clearly smitten (nowdays, he'd be considered on the verge of being a stalker), and is pleased to discover that she is staying at a pension next to his, the same place where a group of his musician buddies live. His mentor (Jean Hersholt) gets him a meeting with a famous impresario (Frank Morgan), but he loses his music to the cab driver to whom he owes money. It turns out that the stand-offish MacDonald is also a composer, and soon the two are writing together—and co-habiting as well. A song she writes becomes popular and they move to Paris, but as they say, more money, more problems; soon Novarro goes back to Brussels to get his operetta produced with a famous singer (Vivienne Segal) with her husband providing backing, and when MacDonald stays behind, Morgan moves in on her. The operetta production falls apart when the singer and her husband leave, so at the last minute, only McDonald can step in and save the day—will she?

This is mild fun, though long stretches of it are surprisingly melodramatic (just like an operetta!), and as much as I generally like Novarro, I didn't like his character here—his awkward badgering of MacDonald goes on far too long, and when she finally gives in, it feels unmotivated; it's like a poorly done Astaire/Rogers set-up. MacDonald is less imperious than she was later with Eddy, and Charles Butterworth provides some worthy comic relief. It's strange to see Morgan playing a bit against type as a conniving bad guy—he's not really a villain but he's the only person in the story whom we're rooting against. The song that Novarro and MacDonald collaborate on, "The Night Was Made for Love," is repeated in various versions throughout the first half of the movie until you are sick of it. There’s a cute scene of MacDonald singing "Try to Forget" in a freight elevator. The finale, with MacDonald and Navarro singing together on stage, is in color. The primary pre-Code aspect of the film is that the two are shown living together out of wedlock. [Warner Archive Instant]

Monday, December 29, 2014

BROADWAY BABIES (1929)

This is a very early talkie and, in plot and structure, a forerunner of the Warner Bros. Gold Digger movies of the 30s. Mrs. Maguire, a former showgirl, runs a boarding house for theatrical types. Three chorus girls who room together call themselves the Three Musketeers, standing alone because unlike the other gals in the house, they're not actively looking for "sugar daddies" or "johns" as they’re known in the trade—I don't think this has quite the connotation it does for prostitutes, but it's in the same ball park. One of the girls (Alice White) is engaged to Charles Delaney, a stage manager who has ambitions to become a producer, but complications ensue. A rich gambler from Detroit (Fred Kohler) crosses paths with the gals and he gets them after-hours jobs at a nightclub. Meanwhile, White sees Delaney flirt with a starlet whom he hopes will headline his show, so she breaks it off with him and transfers her affections to Kohler. But Kohler is getting set up for a big fleecing at the gambling table by some New York gangsters, and these gjys carry guns. The movie starts off slow and stagy, but by the halfway point, it gets some energy and the climax is pulled off well. The musical numbers are pre-Busby Berkeley, meaning they are staged like they would be on a real Broadway stage and not extended into a fantasy Musical-Land. The dancing is a little clunky as well, but the numbers are generally fun. The acting is not much to speak of—White is OK but has no style, and Delaney would be a better fit for a bad guy role (he's definitely not a spritely juvenile type) but Fred Kohler is good as the gambler. Of some interest for fans of early musicals. [Warner Archive streaming]

Monday, December 22, 2014

THE CHRISTMAS ORNAMENT (2013)

Kathy (Kellie Martin) is a widow in a small Pacific Northwest town; her husband died earlier in the year and she has been trying valiantly to keep his small bicycle shop going, but even with only one employee, it's been tough, especially when the owner of a neighboring shop wants to buy her out of her lease. She'd really like to start a cookie baking business but her loyalty to her husband has kept her in the bike shop. Tim (Cameron Mathison), who is nursing a broken heart—his long-time girlfriend left him recently—sells Christmas trees and runs a Christmas gift shop on the side, and is about to achieve his dream of owning a Christmas tree farm around which he will build a mini-theme park. Jenna (Jewel Staite), Kathy's best friend, is trying to get Kathy to celebrate the holidays but Christmas was a big deal for Kathy and her husband—he would even order special ornaments months in advance for her—and she doesn't feel ready to decorate a tree. However, when Jenna takes Kathy to Tim's tree lot, she and Tim hit it off right away. Slowly, Kathy begins to thaw, and the charming, understanding Tim doesn't try to pressure her. She puts up a tree and decorates it, and even accepts a new butterfly-angel ornament from Tim for the top of the tree. But when Tim's ex comes back to town, everything falls apart. Will Tim be able to convince Kathy that he only has eyes for her? And what will happen to the bike shop?

This is, on the surface, not much different from the run-of-the-mill made-for-TV Christmas movie. But it has several small pleasures that set it apart: the light tone is perfect—it's not a serious melodrama and there is a blessed lack of forced comedy—the two leads have a nice chemistry, and the Christmassy feel of the town is just right, not ridiculously over the top. There are no kids to clutter up the adult story (well, there is one kid who helps out at the Christmas tree lot but he's unobtrusive and even amusing); I have nothing against kids in Christmas movies, but when they're shoehorned in, it usually shows. Martin has the right feel of someone who is stressed but not depressed, and Mathison is charming, handsome and rugged-lite—he also frequently has an intense look in his eyes that, in the beginning, made me think the movie was going to take a strange turn and reveal his character as a serial killer. For a relatively realistic story, the plot takes a slightly magical turn near the end, but I think all good Christmas movies need a touch of magic. Recommended. [DVD]

Friday, December 19, 2014

ZONTAR, THE THING FROM VENUS (1966)

Scientist Anthony Huston warns John Agar away from launching a laser satellite, saying that a previous attempt was destroyed by unknown forces, but the launch goes off without a hitch. Months later, over dinner at Huston's (very cheap Ed-Woodish) house, Huston tells Agar that he's been getting strange transmissions through his stereo unit that he insists are from an intelligent being from Venus, though he can't quite understand what they say. That evening, the satellite leaves its orbit and apparently crashes to earth, though no one knows where. The next day, all power (cars, lawn mowers, etc.) in the area dies, except at Huston's house. Huston tells Agar that Zontar, the Venusian life form he was listening to, rode the satellite down, is hiding in a nearby cave, and is responsible for the power outage. Huston is convinced that Zontar will bring a utopian age to Earth, but Agar thinks otherwise, and sure enough, soon Zontar has sent injectapods, bat-like, lobster-shaped flying creatures, out to attack people in the neck and control them.  Can Agar talk Huston into stopping Zontar before he goes too far?

This micro-budgeted film was produced to pad out a package of films that American International sold to television in the mid-60s. Based on—actually a scene-by-scene remake of—Roger Corman's IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, with Peter Graves in the hero role, this adds nothing to the original, except perhaps a slightly better looking title monster: a big, gooey, three-eyed standing-up bat creature (pictured). The injectapods are laughable (on wires as plain as the daylight that they fly in), as are most of the performances. There's a cheap attempt at humor when we see two military policemen getting their jollies looking at View Master slides of scantily-clothed women. Despite the promise of the campy-fun title, this is not fun at all. [DVD]

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

MY BLOOD RUNS COLD (1965)

This thriller has a plot right out of Dark Shadows, and the short pre-credit sequence of a woman in colonial-era garb running away from a house while thunderclouds collect just heightens that comparison—though the movie was made a year before Dark Shadows, so it's probably just intended to conjure up a Gothic tone. The movie proper begins with young sexy Julie Merriday (Joey Heatherton) recklessly speeding along in her fancy sports car with her boyfriend Harry (Nicolas Coster) warning her to be more careful. As she passes a truck, she accidentally runs motorcyclist Ben Gunther (Troy Donahue) off the road. They stop to attend to him and take him back to her fathe'’s mansion. Ben seems OK, but he calls Julie "Barbara" and insists he knows her, believing that she is the reincarnation of her great-grandmother and he, in a past life, was her lover. Julie's Aunt Sarah (Jeanette Nolan) confirms that Barbara did have an affair with a Ben Gunther, resulting in an illegitimate child. Julie starts to believe Ben's story and the two begin a dalliance, leaving Harry out in the cold. But there is more to Ben than meets the eye…

William Conrad, of TV's Cannon and Jake and the Fatman, directed three thrillers for Warner Bros. in 1965: BRAINSTORM, TWO ON A GUILLOTINE and this one. All are workmanlike and watchable, but they are also predictable and very much of their era, generally feature stars and supporting players from television, and though they generally look glossy enough, they were probably made on a relatively low budget. The surprise here for me was how good Heatherton was; granted, I kept thinking she was Connie Stevens—who is the star of GUILLOTINE—but still, she did a fine job as the sexy damsel who may or may not be in distress. Donahue is, as usual, attractive but wooden, though that element serves him well playing a character who may or may not be evil and/or insane. Coster, mostly known as a soap opera actor, is good and his quirky smile/sneer serves him well. Barry Sullivan barely registers as the rich father, and Howard McNear (Floyd the barber on Andy Griffith) has a cameo. Bland but watchable. I've got TWO ON A GUILLOTINE on the shelf for a future viewing. [Warner Archive Instant]

Monday, December 15, 2014

NIGHT SPOT (1938)

This seemingly routine B-movie, a comic crime story, has a big plus in the chemistry of its leading men. Marge (Joan Woodbury) works at an insurance company but has come to the Royale nightclub to audition for a singing job. She's mistaken for a shady dame who had an appointment with the boss, Marty Davis, and is shown into his office. Seated and hidden from view, she witnesses a crook named Buzz break in and shoot Davis. Davis survives but Buzz is found dead shortly after. Thinking that Marge is not as innocent as she claims, and suspecting that Davis is running a jewel theft ring, the police chief assigns two members of the police department band, Cooper (Allan Lane) and Riley (Gordon Jones), to infiltrate the Royale's house band. The situation: many of the elites who come to the club have wound up getting their valuables stolen. It turns out that the tables in the club are bugged, and Davis listens in on conversations to learn when the jewels will be unguarded. In the meantime, Davis, afraid that his enemies will get to Marge, his alibi in the murder of Buzz, has his bumbling Greek henchman Gashouse (Harry Parke aka Parkyakarkus) guard her. Further, both Cooper and Riley start to fall for Marge.

For a one-hour movie, a lot of things happen here, so the pace is relatively frantic, which is fine as the tone is light. Parkyakarkus, father of Albert Brooks, is first billed and he's basically a dialect comic who keeps messing up the language, as in, "I resemble that remark." In the beginning, his comic relief is a pain in the ass since I found the plot and other actors fairly interesting, but in the last half, his role diminishes greatly. Lee Patrick plays Marge's roommate, and Jack Carson and Cecil Kellaway have small roles. B-starlet Woodbury is serviceable, but Jones and Lane (pictured above) work very well together, and make the film worth seeing. They have an easy camaraderie and never fall into straight man/funny man roles—they can both be both. A breezy little gem; it's a shame that Lane (who had a long career as Ricky Lane in B-westerns) and Jones (who went on to play the Green Hornet in a 1940 serial) weren't paired up for more of these. [TCM]

Friday, December 12, 2014

GOLD FOR THE CAESARS (1964)

Part of the charm of the sword-and-sandal epics of the 60s is the low budget of most of them; granted, they did often look cheap and didn't have the best actors, but they often made up for that with a scrappy energy and an anything-goes tone. This one was partially backed by MGM; it has a bigger budget, a stronger screenplay, a name star, and glossy sets & costumes, but it's rather lackluster and not all that fun. In Spain at the end of the first century, the occupying Romans, under Maximus, are building a bridge and holding off the barbarian Celts of the north. Centurion Rufus (Ron Randell) is the overseer, and Lacer (Jeffrey Hunter), a former slave, is the architect. Word reaches Maximus (Massimo Girotti) that the emperor is dying, and if Maximus can head north and mine gold from Celt territory to send to fill up Rome's empty coffers, he would be named Emperor. An uneasy truce is reached with the Celts and Lacer is sent with some slaves to get the gold, but Maximus gets restless, breaks the truce, and enters Celt territory with his army, leading to an all-out battle. This isn't a complete slog: the young and beautiful Jeffrey Hunter (pictured) is effective as the slave hero—and even when he's just standing around, there enough close-ups of that face to make a fan swoon; Randell is suitable as Hunter's chief antagonist; the final battle—which involves the destruction of a dam—and an earlier earthquake sequence are pulled off fairly well; I also liked Giulio Bosetti as Scipio. But Hunter's love interest, Mylene Demongeot, is bland, and Girotti as Maximus seems to be holding back a bit. Much of the film was shot on natural locations, but parts of the final battle were shot on sets with very obvious painted backdrops—maybe they were running out of money by the end. [DVD]

Thursday, December 11, 2014

REDEMPTION (1930)

On the road to Moscow, Lisa (Eleanor Boardman) stops and has her fortune read by gypsies; she is told she will marry a dark man, but oddly, her fiancé Victor (Conrad Nagel) is light. When handsome Fedya (John Gilbert), a casual acquaintance of Victor's, arrives on the scene, he is struck by Boardman's beauty. She calls him a barbarian, and he replies that trying to change people is foolish, but if anyone could change him, it would be her. The two begin meeting on the sly and eventually get married, but it turns out that Lisa can't change his ways after all; even though they have a son, Fedya gets bored and loses all his money gambling. He goes bankrupt, Victor buys his estate at auction, and Fedya leaves Lisa. In Samarkand, Fedya lives with gypsies and falls in love with the sexy singing girl Masha (Renée Adoré). In order to free Lisa to marry her old flame Victor, Fedya sends a suicide note to her, so he can be declared legally dead, then runs off with Masha. After Lisa marries Victor, Fedya's plot is threatened with exposure by a blackmailer, leaving Fedya thinking: do I let my existence come to light and ruin Lisa and Victor's lives, or do I actually kill myself?

This is one of silent star John Gilbert's first talkies and it was a notorious bomb. It's often claimed that Gilbert's voice was his downfall, being too high and squeaky for his dark, masculine looks, but in this case, the problem is his silly, overly melodramatic dialogue and the schizophrenic style of the movie; the direction and acting are both stuck in a limbo between silent (florid visual style, exaggerated gestures) and early sound (static camerawork, subtle acting). Sadly, for much of the movie, Gilbert is on the verge of being laughable, though by the end, when Fedya is constantly drunk and sick, Gilbert's performance becomes more naturalistic and achieves some power. To be fair, no one else is particularly good in this, either, except perhaps Adoré. It’s not exactly a terrible movie—it's certainly worth seeing for fans of the actors or the era—but it won’t win Gilbert any converts. [TCM]

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

MALTA STORY (1953)

In 1942, the Mediterranean island of Malta, of great strategic importance to the British, is under constant attack by the Germans. Peter (Alec Guinness), an aerial photographer pilot for the RAF on his way to Cairo, is waylaid on Malta and is asked to stay on under Commander Frank (Jack Hawkins). On his first photo mission, he ends up going 90 miles off course because he thinks he can get some important pictures, but he gets in trouble for using up fuel which is in short supply because the Germans have been attacking Allied ships, causing problems not only for the military but also food shortages for the locals. Soon Peter hits it off with a local woman named Maria (Muriel Pavlow). Her mother (Flora Robson) is upset because her son (Nigel Stock) is suspected of espionage for the Axis. There's another boy/girl plot involving a British officer (Anthony Steel, pictured at left with Guinness) and his fiancée (Renee Asherson), but the focus generally remains on the attempts to keep the Germans away and on the sacrifices that the local populace has to make.

This is the kind of WWII flag-waving propaganda film that was popular during wartime—except it was made eight years after the war. My untested theory is that most WWII movies made in the 50s were either star vehicles (John Wayne), big-budget affairs (BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI), or scrappy little action B-films (THE TANKS ARE COMING). This British film doesn't fit any of those categories, instead feeling like the kind of movie made during the war specifically to keep up the homefront spirit (THE IMMORTAL BATTALION, THE LION HAS WINGS). The characters are not particularly well-developed and the budget is low, with little compelling action presented, so I'm not sure why this was made except to bring to light a part of the war that the British perhaps hadn't heard much about. Guinness is very low-key which may have been an acting or directing choice, but I wound up not caring much about his character, and the fact that he vanishes from the narrative for a good chunk of time in the middle doesn't help. Hawkins and Steel are much better, as is Robson in just a couple of short scenes. Nigel Stock (pictured at right) is quietly effective as Robson's traitorous son. It was interesting to learn (in that fictionalized movie way) about the siege of Malta, but somewhere a better movie is waiting to be made about it. [Netflix streaming]

Friday, December 05, 2014

THE FLIGHT THAT DISAPPEARED (1961)

A plane takes off on a direct flight from Los Angeles to Washington DC. One of the stewardesses is engaged to the co-pilot; the pilot is upset that he's still flying a prop plane, but he's been promised that his next plane will be a jet. On board is Dr. Morris (Dayton Lummis), a nuclear scientist and inventor of a bomb that will be able to destroy an entire country at once. With him is his assistant Marcia Paxton (Paula Raymond), a math genius, and Tom Endicott (Craig Hill), a rocket expert. All three have been summoned to Washington for a secret meeting about the new bomb. At one point, a nervous man named Walter approaches Morris and encourages him to use his bomb to wipe out our enemies (by which he presumably means Russia). Halfway through the flight, the plane suddenly begins ascending as though caught in an updraft, and the pilots can't stop it. They lose radio contact and vanish from ground radar, and soon the oxygen is so thin, everyone passes out—except for Walter who leaps from the plane in panic. Eventually, Morris, Tom and Paula (pictured at right) awaken, realize the plane has stopped, and discover they are in a foggy realm beyond their reality. A figure called the Examiner tells them they are on trial, being judged by future generations whose existence is threatened by this new bomb.

By this time, I flashed on the notoriously bad movie THE STORY OF MANKIND, the entirety of which is such a trial involving mankind and a new bomb, with the whole history of humanity playing out over the course of the film. Here, the trial just takes a few minutes. I won't spoil the ending, which, if you've seen an episode of The Twilight Zone, you'll figure out anyway, but it manages to be both mishandled and satisfying. Actually, like many a B-movie from the 40s and 50s, this is best approached as a TV episode. The film is widescreen but has a bland TV aesthetic and very little in the way of thrills or special effects; still, at 70 minutes, it's watchable. The acting is 50s TV-style, though leading man Craig Hill comes through with a solid performance that is neither as bland as one might expect nor as intense as one might fear. The odd thing about the Examiner's argument is that the blame is placed here not so much on politicians or the military, but on the idea people, the scientists. More imagination could have helped the fantasy segment near the end, but the Examiner and the jury are informally dressed as average earthlings, and the set is just rocks and fog. The Examiner is played by Gregory Morton, whom I recognized as the Russian conductor in BYE BYE BIRDIE. Overall, a predictable novelty. [Netflix streaming]

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

AN IDEAL HUSBAND (1947)

Oscar Wilde's gift was his wit: his funny, sarcastic, ironic comments on life by which he practically invented the sensibility known as camp. However, I've always found his plays, with their somewhat tortured plots, difficult to sit through. Mainly they seem to be excuses for him to provide his humorous asides. I saw a production of Lady Windermere's Fan at the Shaw Festival a couple of summers ago and, though there was some fun to be had following the domestic melodrama plot machinations, mostly the audience seemed to be waiting for the biting bon mots, which were sprinkled liberally throughout. In this Wilde adaptation, politician Hugh Williams is about to go before Parliament and put a stop to an Argentinean canal project that he knows is a boondoggle. But the night before his appearance, a shady woman from his past (Paulette Goddard) shows up at a grand party to blackmail him: she has a financial interest in the scheme and she has evidence that, early in his career, he engaged in questionable practices to get ahead, so she threatens to go public with the information unless he agrees to back the canal. His wife (Diana Wynyard) is upset but wants him to do the right thing. Meanwhile, a young man-about-town (Michael Wilding) tries to intercede for Williams—he knows a nasty little secret about Goddard that he tries to use to stop her plans. But will Goddard wind up getting the best of both men?

The main reason to watch this is for its look—beautiful Technicolor explodes across the screen in every scene. The women wear gauzy rainbows of pastel colors and the backgrounds are full of beautiful appointments, paintings, and furniture. The plot is drudgery and the acting is weak, especially from Goddard who sticks out like a sore, overacting thumb against the dull underacting of Williams and Wynyard as his wife. The bright spots are Wilding, handsome and charming as the chief spouter of witty epigrams (along with Goddard), and a very young Glynis Johns (pictured) as the looker who is chasing after Wilding and who jokingly spars with Wilding's father, C. Aubrey Smith, over Wilding's playboy nature. Very nice to look at, less pleasant to pay attention to. [TCM]

Monday, December 01, 2014

THE PIED PIPER OF HAMELIN (1957)

This version of the old folktale is a musical done for 50s television, but don't let that scare you away. It has its faults, including a couple too many songs and a happy ending that takes some of the wind out of what has come before, but mostly it works surprisingly well, and is worth at least one viewing if only as a novelty. The town of Hamelin is run with an iron fist by the Mayor (Claude Rains) and his board of counselors. Their current project is the building of a large clocktower in order to win a competition for Royal Clockmaker to the King; the mayor is not only making everyone work long hours on the tower, he's even enlisting the children to help, telling them there is no time for schooling or fun. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of town, a little lame boy named Paul sees something very strange: a piper dressed in multicolored garb (Van Johnson, pictured) comes slithering down a tree like a snake, performs magic, like making flowers grow out of mud and conjuring a rainbow in the air, then spins like a dervish and vanishes.

The Mayor is happy to hear that their rival town in the clock competition, Hamelout, has been flooded. The people ask for help, especially for the care of their children, but the Mayor refuses. However, a side effect of the flooding is that Hamelin becomes infested with rats escaping Hamelout. The townsfolk demand the Mayor do something, and who should show up but the Pied Piper (whose merry music can be heard by the children but not the adults), offering his services to get rid of the rats and asking in return 50,000 guilders, which is the town's entire treasury. Since the Mayor wants to melt most of that down to make gold chimes for the clock, he promises the Piper the money but has no intention of paying him. That night, the Piper plays a sinister-sounding tune—which in this case can be heard by the adults but not the children—and the rats follow him to the river where they drown. When the Mayor refuses to pay (amusingly citing labyrinthe legal language from a long, long scroll of a contract), the Piper plays a tune that only the children can hear, and they follow him out of town into a mountain cliff which splits open to reveal a magical land. The townspeople try to get the kids back but cannot open the cliff. Most versions of the tale end here, but in this one, the Mayor is taught a valuable lesson about hospitality and the Piper brings the children back when the Mayor agrees to help the town of Hamelout.

There is more to the story, including a major plotline that features Van Johnson as the friendly schoolteacher Truson (who, because of his sympathy with the children, can hear the same music they hear) and Lori Nelson as Mara, the Mayor's daughter who loves Truson against her father's wishes. Jim Backus appears as the King's emissary, in town to judge the clock contest, and 50s singing star Kay Starr has a cameo as a sorrowful mother looking in vain for her son on the night of their disappearance. Johnson also plays the Piper, and does a fine job in both parts. Doodles Weaver and Stanley Adams (pictured with Rains) provide comic relief as two of the Mayor's counselors. I haven't yet mentioned that: 1) all the songs use music by Edward Grieg, mostly from Peer Gynt, with "In the Hall of the Mountain King" used effectively as the song that catches the rats, and 2) all the dialogue is in rhyme. I thought that would bother me, but I got used to it fairly quickly. I was particularly impressed with Rains, who could have easily done his role in his sleep, but who really gives his all, even when has to sing—and he and his counselors have one of the best numbers, "Prestige." At 90 minutes, it feels a little padded in places, especially the numbers concerned with the romance between Truson and Mara. But it's colorful and though a bit stagy, has a more theatrical than TV-movie feel. Good holiday viewing, though I don't know how today's kids would take to it. [YouTube/DVD]

Friday, November 28, 2014

VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS (1961)

In 19th century Algeria, two men (Cesare Danova and Sean McClory) are about to engage in a duel over a woman when what seems to be a huge storm comes rolling in with lots of thunder and wind and ground upheaval. When things calm down, they realize that a comet swept past the earth and somehow they wound up on the comet's surface. (Yeah, that's a big "What?" and if you can't get past that, quit reading now.) It is inhabited by menacing Neanderthals and dinosaurs and some scary folks who look like Morlocks from The Time Machine movie (pictured at left), and it's not long before the two men find they must make peace and work together to survive. Soon they find tribes of slightly more civilized cave people, and they theorize that the comet somehow snatched up humans, animals, and a bit of atmosphere from a previous close brush with Earth. Both men wind up with sweethearts (Joan Staley and Danielle De Metz), endure a volcano, escape from marauding dinosaurs and giant spiders, and get the two tribes to get along together. This film seems to be notorious for men of a certain age because during an underwater swimming scene, you see quite a bit of Joan Staley's breasts as they threaten to pop right out of her cavegirl bikini. The volcano effects are pretty good, but there's little else here to recommend. Danova tries hard, but McClory lets him down, and the two have no chemistry. Most of the dinosaur effects are film clips borrowed from ONE MILLION B.C.—the lizards with fins taped to their back. Based loosely on Jules Verne's novel Off on a Comet. [TCM]

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

THE MYSTERIOUS HOUSE OF DR. C (1966/1976)

In a fairy-tale European village, the kindly but strange Doctor Coppelius spends his days alone in his mansion, creating life-size mechanical dolls that look so real, they can pass as human beings. He keeps nosy villagers away by setting off explosions from time to time, but he also likes some attention, so one day he creates a doll of a young woman (which he names Coppelia) and puts her out on his balcony, passing her off as flesh and blood. Sure enough, the young Franz sees her and is swept off his feet, which makes his girlfriend Swanhilda jealous. Soon, Swanhilda and her friends have snuck into the house and discovered the dolls; Franz comes after her and is rendered unconscious by Dr. Coppelius so he can use the young man in an experiment to transfer a human soul into the doll of Coppelia. Swanhilda poses as Coppelia and tricks the doctor into thinking the experiment has worked. Despite all this trickery, the story comes to a good-natured ending, with Franz and Swanhilda married, and even a love interest for the doctor.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that this is all performed as a ballet, with no dialogue (though there is voice-over narration and some occasional voice-over thoughts from the characters). Based on two stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, the ballet, with music by Leo Delibes, was first performed in 1870 and has remained popular. As for this film, it was originally made in 1966 as a straight-forward ballet film with no voiceover and released as DOCTOR COPPELIUS. It got good reviews but was pulled from distribution when its releasing company got into financial trouble. In the mid-70s, the director, Ted Kneeland, re-edited the film with narration and two completely extraneous animated sequences involving the doctor's strange dreams, and released it under the current title, but it failed to get much attention and disappeared again, until now when Turner Classic Movies has resurrected it on cable. 

At over 90 minutes, this remains mostly of interest to ballet fans.  Had it been trimmed down to an hour or so and had some of the non-plot motivated dancing scenes removed, it might have become a TV standard for family holiday viewing. The movie looks fantastic with a bright and varied palette of colors used throughout. The sets are stagy but quite elaborate, and the whole thing has the feel of a beautiful childhood dream. The choreography is fine and no one is really called upon to stretch their acting muscles much, though Claudia Corday is quite convincing as Swanhilda and non-dancer Walter Slezak is in fine comic form as Doctor C. The animated sequence, with a voice by Terry-Thomas, features an angelic singing doll, a talking bull, and some space aliens, and is dreadful, but I found the rest of the movie to be a delightful curiosity. The Turner Classic widescreen print is almost pristine. One amusing line: Swanhilda, pretending to be Coppelia, dances with the doctor and thinks to herself, "Nureyev, he's not!" [TCM]

Monday, November 24, 2014

THE MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES (1936)

Three cosmic beings are discussing humanity and one, the Power Giver, decides to give unlimited power to one human chosen at random. Down on Earth, mild-mannered Roland Young is involved in a pub discussion about miracles, which he says are acts of will whose outcomes are "contrary to nature." He tries to turn an oil lamp upside down with the power of his mind and is as surprised as anyone when he can (pictured at left). The next day, at the store where he works, he heals a co-worker's sprained arm and cleans up the place like Mary Poppins cleaned up Jane and Michael's bedroom. On the street, he tells a cop to "go to blazes" and the cop winds up in hell—though when Young realizes what's happened, he send him to San Francisco instead. But when he tries to get a woman to love him, he finds out that he his powers do not affect the human heart. Instead, he sets out to revamp the entire world into his idea of a peaceful utopia. He clashes with a colonel (Ralph Richardson) when he literally turns his weapons into ploughshares. When Richardson asks what will happen without war, Young replies, "We'd just go about loving one another," to which an astonished Richardson says, "Are you mad? Have you no sense of decency?" Of course, Young's utopia is a mess and he has to use his powers one last time to straighten things out.

This fantasy, with a screenplay by H. G. Wells based on one of his stories, is unusual in its feel and tone. It’s far from a big budget Hollywood film, being a middle-budget British film, yet it manages to do a decent job with special effects and sets and such. It begins on the intimate scale of one man and his small world of acquaintances, then expands to include the entire world, then shrinks back at the end. Young, an actor who is always fun to see, does a nice job in the lead, and in addition to Richardson (also always welcome) the cast includes Ernest Thesiger and Edward Chapman, and George Sanders has a small role as one of the cosmic beings. The film walks a fine line between sweet and cynical, but it keeps its balance most of the time. [TCM]

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Shadow series from Monogram (1946)

In pulp fiction stories and radio shows of the 1930s and 40s, The Shadow was a wealthy crimefighter who went by several names, one of which was Lamont Cranston. As the Shadow, he wore a mask and used hypnotism to "cloud men's minds" and usually was seen only as a shadow. Before WWII, he was featured in a handful of B-films and one serial, but under review here are three films made at Monogram in 1946, all starring Kane Richmond as the title character. In these movies, the focus is on Lamont Cranston, playboy nephew of the police commissioner; he rarely appears in his Shadow guise, and though he makes surprise appearances designed to scare his foes, he never even attempts to cloud any minds.  The character has been tamed to be just another variation on the "unofficial" detective, like Bulldog Drummond or Boston Blackie.

In the first film, THE SHADOW RETURNS—he was returning to the screen for the first time since the 1940 serial—Cranston has promised his longtime gal Margo (Barbara Read, credited as "Reed") that he'll marry her, settle down, and quit his crimefighting ways, but suddenly a case crops up: a man named Yomans digs up a grave, takes a bag of jewels out of it, and enters the Hasdon mansion, where a number of people have gathered to buy the gems. But after Yomans enters the house, he vanishes along with the gems, and Cranston helps the police figure out what happened. Every time someone is about to be nabbed, they fall from a balcony and die. Suicide? No, a trick with a whip, Cranston discovers as he collects the suspects in a room to announce the killer's identity. Cranston slips on his Shadow mask a couple of times, and the "old dark house" atmosphere is occasionally effective, but the film mostly tries to set up Lamont and Margo as Thin Man-type screwball romantic detectives, helped and/or hindered by dumb cops and by the Shadow's sidekick Shrewy (Tom Dugan) who spouts way too much tortured punning wordplay. [YouTube]

BEHIND THE MASK is by far the least of the three films, more a comedy than a mystery. Jeff, a newspaper reporter (James Cardwell, who comes off like a B-movie John Garfield), is murdered in his office, and since all the onlookers see a Shadow-like shadow against his glass wall, Cranston has to take on the case to clear his own name. It turns out that Jeff was involved in a bookie operation in which people place their bets by talking into a nightclub jukebox. The best moment occurs when three people dressed like the Shadow are in a room together. There is also a nicely done fisticuffs scene in a back room gymnasium. In this film, Shrewy is played by George Chandler (pictured above right with Richmond in his mask) who does a better job than Dugan, but he's also saddled with his own dumb blonde sidekick/girlfriend (Dorothea Kent). Richmond is called upon to act more goofy than mysterious.  There's not much to recommend in this one. [Netflix streaming]

But the third one is the charm: THE MISSING LADY is a nifty little thriller with a distinct film noir air. A crook known as the Ox bumps off a man named Douglas and steals a precious figurine called the Jade Lady, but the Ox in turn gets it taken from him. The cops hear Cranston talk about finding a missing Lady and think he means an actual person, but there are plenty of other people looking for that Lady, including a curio dealer named Kester, an artist named Field, and a mysterious figure named Blake (James Cardwell) who hires a brassy blonde named Rose to help him track it down. The presence of a couple of femmes fatales and lots of shadowy nighttime scenes give this a noir feel and a slightly more serious tone that puts it a notch above the other two films in the series. There is still too much comic folderol, and this time there are also two batty old ladies who operate the elevators in Cranston's apartment building (where much of the film takes place) and race each other up and down between floors. None of these movies really conjure up the atmosphere that one would expect from a Shadow story—and in MISSING LADY, Crantson only dons the Shadow gear for two very short scenes—but if you're in the mood for some harmless B-mysteries, they'll do.  [Netflix streaming]

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

THE HEROES OF TELEMARK (1965)

In Nazi-occupied Norway, Richard Harris is leading a group of fighters in resistance efforts, including the ambushing of Nazi vehicles—we see them use a huge boulder to knock a tank down a slope. When it is discovered that the Germans are using a local hydroelectric plant, isolated in a deep valley, to develop heavy water for use in atomic weapons, Harris heads off to Oslo to enlist physics professor Kirk Douglas to help Harris and his men stop the experiments. They manage to get in and blow up the machinery, but discover later that the Germans have more prefab parts coming, so they make the tough decision to bomb the factory and, more crucially, a ferryboat which is carrying both innocent travelers, including the widow of one of the resistance fighters and her children, and a shipment of the heavy water. This big budget mid-60s war adventure film isn't typically the kind of thing I search out, but the Norwegian resistance aspect intrigued me and I wound up enjoying it. The attempts at fleshing out the characters are about par for the course: Douglas has an ex-wife about whom he is still conflicted—but we don't really care that much—and Harris' character isn’t fleshed out at all. Still, the two actors are good (Harris, pictured at right, was quite a handsome young man) as is Michael Redgrave as the ex-wife's uncle. The action scenes are handled well by director Anthony Mann, and it helps that much of it was filmed on location. Good example of the Resistance action thriller. [TCM]

Thursday, November 13, 2014

THE SOLITAIRE MAN (1933)

Dowager May Robson and her niece (Elizabeth Allan) are staying in a hotel on the Riviera; Robson is newly widowed—and newly poor—and she needs money for her room, so she agrees to sell the famous Nell Gwyn necklace to an American named Peabody. At least, that's the story she tells Peabody; in reality, she and Allan and thieves, working with the gentlemanly jewel thief Herbert Marshall and his sidekick Ralph Forbes. Marshall, known in the press as the Solitaire Man, has bought a house in Devonshire and is ready to make this his last caper and settle down with Allan—he's even booked a flight back to England—but Forbes, who became a drug addict during the war, steals the Brewster jewels from the British embassy. Because they are too hot to sell, Marshall sneaks them back into the Embassy, but another thief, hidden in the dark, is there to try and take them, killing a policeman to boot. Marshall keeps the jewels and the gang gets away on the plane. The only other passengers are mouthy American Mary Boland and quiet but suspicious Lionel Atwill. The last half of the movie, set entirely on the plane, consists of what appear to be crosses and double-crosses and various shenanigans (including one lights-out moment and one passenger jumping from the plane) and since they're fun, I won’t spoil them. Suffice to say that because this is a pre-Code film, the ending may not quite go the way you expect.

The studio, MGM, probably tried to sell this as another TROUBLE IN PARADISE, a sophisticated jewel-thief comedy from 1932 with Herbert Marshall. This is not nearly as witty or fun as that film, but it does have its own more minor-league charms. It's based on a play and is fairly stagy, especially in the long sequence in the plane, but it is fun to watch it all play out. Some of the twists are predictable, some less so. The plane scene is made fun by the trio of Marshall, Atwill, and especially Boland; her character was so irritating at first that I nearly stopped watching, but she quickly became great fun. (That's Boland between Marshall and Atwill pictured above.) Forbes is OK and Allan is unmemorable, but they don't spoil things. [TCM]

Monday, November 10, 2014

WINTER MEETING (1948)

Slick Novak (Jim Davis) is a soldier who has been acclaimed in the press as a war hero for saving the lives of several men at sea, but he wears his new-found fame uncomfortably. Poet Susan Grieve (Bette Davis) lives in Manhattan; unmarried, she is the very picture of the dignified artistic "spinster." Her unmarried friend Stacy Grant (John Hoyt—picture a somewhat less waspish Clifton Webb from LAURA) asks her to be his date as he sets Novak up with his sexy secretary (Janis Paige), but in the event, Slick winds up more interested in Susan, which catches her off guard. That night, Slick goes home with Susan and after some awkward banter, they kiss—and possibly more, but that remains off-screen. The next day, she takes him to her country house where eventually, the inner turmoil in both of them comes out. He's struggling with two problems: a long-held desire to be a priest and guilt over the fact that the men he saved ended up dying in another bombing days later; she still obsesses over the fact that her clergyman father went mad and killed himself, in a chair in the country house, over his wife leaving him. As they open up to each other, Susan notes, "It's dangerous to be a human being." Indeed, as once they have shared their souls, they wind up pulled apart by forces both human and mystical.

This is more an interesting movie than a truly compelling one. Some find the usually fiery Bette Davis to be miscast, but she's basically playing a variation on her more passive roles in NOW VOYAGER and OLD ACQUAINTANCE, and I think she's fine. More problematic is the male lead, Jim Davis, better known years later as Jock on TV's Dallas.  Again, "interesting" is the best word for him; he does a nice job conveying the idea that his character has deep and profound problems under the surface, but I ended up not really caring much about him, whether because of the acting or the writing, I'm not sure. Hoyt is surprisingly good in the prissy gay-best-friend role, and Janis Paige is fine in a thankless part. The conversations in this dialogue-heavy movie don't always ring true, and at 100 minutes, it's at least 20 minutes too long, but it's fun for Bette Davis fans, especially since it doesn't seem to crop up all that often. [Warner Archive streaming]

Thursday, November 06, 2014

LULLABY OF BROADWAY (1951)

Chorus girl Doris Day has spent many years in Europe and is ready to come back to the States to see her mother (Gladys George), a musical star in her own right. The problem is that George has lost her career due to drinking and has been reduced to singing in small clubs down in the Village, but she's kept that from her daughter. The mansion that Day thinks is her mom's actually belongs to beer tycoon S. Z. Sakall, but the butler (Billy De Wolfe) and maid (Anne Triola), who know George, conspire to keep Day in the dark about her mom's current state so they tell her that Mom is on the road and is renting the house out to Sakall. Complicating matters is professional dancer Gene Nelson who met Day on the ship and has a hankering to date her, or at least work with her, and Sakall might agree to back a show, but will the sodden George ruin everything? This was clearly inspired by Frank Capra's 1933 LADY FOR A DAY (itself based on a Damon Runyon story and remade by Capra years later as POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES), but Capra's film focuses on the mom, whereas here Day has the spotlight, with George vanishing completely from the middle of the movie; when she returns, it feels like an afterthought. I've always seen George as a weak and ineffective actor and this didn't make me change my mind. But there are other pleasures to be had: Day looks, sings and dances just fine; Nelson is a pleasant if slightly quirky leading man, looking like he's always about to let us in on some inside joke; Sakall does his befuddled grandpa thing to a tee; Florence Bates is fine as Sakall's wife who winds up thinking that he and Day are having an affair; best of all is De Wolfe who often was used in prissy, coded-as-gay roles but is very good here in a more-or-less"straight" role. The songs are the highlights: Nelson does an athletic Gene Kelly-type dance turn to "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart" and Day hits the mark in every number, especially the finale which looks like it came right out of a 30s Busby Berkeley musical. Musical fans will like this pleasant piece of Technicolor fluff. [TCM]

Monday, November 03, 2014

THE MAN FROM CAIRO (1951)

A French military intelligence man is found dead on a beach in Algiers. He was part of an operation trying to find 100 million dollars of gold which was stolen from the French government; during the war, they shipped their gold to several locations in North Africa for safe keeping, but one transport was hijacked and never found. A spy discovers that the French have hired an American to help out, and when Mike Canelli (George Raft) stops in Algiers on his back home from Cairo, he is mistaken by all parties for the real spy, Charles Stark. It turns out that Mike has a connection to the affair: he was stationed in North Africa during the war. Everyone is looking for Emil Duchard, a man with only four fingers on his right hand, the only survivor of the heist gang. Duchard, hunted by good guys and bad guys both, manages to make a sound recording in which he names the man who has the gold; he gets the record delivered to a woman named Yvonne, who is in Emil's hotel room, but is killed immediately after; later that night, Yvonne is murdered in her bathtub. Her friend Lorraine and her buddy, handsome nightclub owner Basil, get hold of the record, so everyone goes after them, including Mike, who falls for her big time.

That about as much of the plot as I could follow in this convoluted, slow-moving, low-budget crime thriller which, with its exotic nightclub setting, was trying desperately to grab a little bit of CASABLANCA cachet. I don't typically care for Raft and he's particularly tired and wooden here. Despite the fact that most of the characters are French, most of the actors are Italian and are all dubbed by English-speaking actors. Gianna Maria Canale is fine as Lorraine, though when she says she loves Mike, she is so unconvincing, I laughed out loud; Italian matinee idol Messimo Serato is memorable in his limited role as the club owner. The great stage actress Irene Papas has the small role of Yvonne. It's a little comical how hard the actor who plays the four-fingered gent keeps trying to hide his thumb. The sets look good, but the narrative lacks drive; people keep talking about everything that's going on, but little of it occurs on screen. I fell asleep during this one three times, and each time I dutifully backed the film up to catch what I missed, but I think my sleeping instincts were right. The print on the VCI DVD is very good, but no matter what the DVD cover says, this is not a film noir, and unless you're a Raft fan, I can't recommend it. [DVD]

Friday, October 31, 2014

SUGAR HILL (1974)

We witness a wild voodoo ritual that turns out to be a nightclub show at the Club Haiti in New Orleans. Langston, the owner of the club, is tangling with some gangsters, led by Morgan (Robert Quarry), who want to buy him out; when he refuses, Morgan's thugs beat him to death in the parking lot. Diana 'Sugar' Hill (Marki Bey), Langston's girlfriend, inherits the business and Morgan hopes to negotiate with her. She leads him on but, wanting revenge, she goes to Mama Maitresse, an actual voodoo priestess, who conjures up the undead Baron Samedi and his army of zombies, would-be slaves from the 1840s who died while being transported here and are still wearing their shackles. One by one, the thugs die horrible deaths—one guy is eaten by pigs while Sugar stands over him and says, "I hope they’re into white trash"—and soon a cop (Richard Lawson), who happens to be an ex-lover of Sugar's, is investigating.

Though this generally seems to be celebrated by critics as a piece of genre-crossing "blaxploitation," it's quite worthy of being appreciated as a straightforward horror film, and as an old-fashioned zombie story, before zombies became practically synonymous with apocalypses. It has the usual strengths and weaknesses of American International's horror flicks of the era—good atmosphere, so-so acting—but overall feels a notch above average. Leading lady Bey doesn’t full throw herself into the role, but others do, including Quarry as the slimy villain and Don Pedro Colley as Samedi, the formidable leader of the zombies (pictured). Charles Robinson, probably best known as the likeable Mac on Night Court, has a small role as a pimp named Fabulous. Zara Cully, who played George Jefferson's mother on TV, is fine as the voodoo priestess. The revival of the zombies is fairly well done, but it was shot outside in daylight and would have been more effective in darkness. Given its lukewarm reputation, this was surprisingly fun with a satisfying ending. A good Halloween choice. [Netflix streaming]

Thursday, October 30, 2014

HOUSE OF MYSTERY (1934)

Asia, 1913. Drunken archeologist John Prendergast makes a bit of a scene in a bar—he's been keeping company with a temple girl named Chanda, something that is frowned upon by the natives—and later in a temple, he accidentally kills a sacred monkey; when the high priest admonishes him, Clement takes a bullwhip to him. The priest brings a stuffed gorilla to life and puts the curse of Kali (which he pronounces "Cay-lie") on Prendergast as he and Chanda flee with some stolen treasures. Twenty years later, Prof. Potter and his wife, who were financial backers on Prendergast's expedition, discover that the archeologist is living under an assumed name (Mr. Pren) with Chanda as his housekeeper; they hire a lawyer and gather the other living expedition backers in order to get their share of the loot. They include insurance salesman Jack Armstrong, pretty young nurse Ella Browning (with whom Jack flirts), the rich Mrs. Carfax and her psychic companion Stella. When they arrive at Pren's house—in which there is also a stuffed ape and a mute plumber—they discover that he is a helpless cripple and he blames it on the curse. He insists that the curse will follow anyone who tries to claim any of the money, and tells the group that they must stay at his house for a week to see for themselves how the curse will affect them before they claim their bounty. During a séance, Mrs. Carfax is found strangled ("Dead as Prohibition," says one of the characters). Eventually there is another murder and the appearance of a real ape before the mystery is solved. This Monogram "old dark house" film gets points just for being stuffed with fairly interesting plot points and for moving at a good pace. The atmosphere is creepy, the comic relief is relatively restrained, and the acting, though not distinguished, is serviceable. None of the principals, including romantic leads Ed Lowry as Jack and Verna Hillie as Ella, were known to me, though Western sidekick legend Gabby Hayes has a small role here. I'm not so crazy about the apes, but overall this was a fast and fun flick. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

INVISIBLE AGENT (1942)

A diverse bunch of obvious villains—including Cedric Hardwicke with a German lilt to his voice and Peter Lorre made up very much like Mr. Moto—comes into a small stationery story and threatens the owner (Jon Hall) with disfigurement unless he gives up the invisibility serum he inherited from his grandfather, the first Invisible Man. Hall manages to kick some ass and get away; he also says no to the American military folks who ask—much more nicely—for it, until Pearl Harbor, when he not only offers the serum to the Army but insists on being the guinea pig agent who is sent into enemy territory and injected with the serum in order to bring back Nazi military secrets. He parachutes behind lines (in a nice sequence in which he turns invisible as his parachute falls, takes off his clothes, and hides from German soldiers in a barn) and gets in touch with sexy Ilona Massey, Hardwicke's mistress, who is willing to help Hall with his mission. He almost gives the game away when, either drunk or tired or suffering side effects of the serum, he toys around in Massey's living room and is almost caught by J. Edward Bromberg, a Nazi underling who wants to have his own rendezvous with Massey. There are success and reversals, and at one point, Hall is sure that Massey is actually working with the Nazis, but in the end, he manages to stop a planned attack on the United States and, back in England, after the serum wears off, he finds out that Massey is actually a British spy—and she's quite taken with the visible Hall.

None of the Invisible Man sequels are up to the original, but that's par for the course. This one takes a sharp turn away from horror and functions as a spy thriller with a front-and center science-fiction element, and on that level, it works fairly well. Hall, known best for his exotic adventures with Maria Montez, is very good here—robust, humorous, fairly heroic—and I also liked Massey. In fact, the cast overall is fine, especially the reliable Lorre, Hardwicke and Bromberg. None of them feel particularly ethnic, but it's the Nazi uniforms that matter most. The FX are serviceable; occasionally you can see wires or outlines but the relative sexiness of the proceedings here are interesting; the fact that Hall is naked (though invisible) around Massey is highlighted and Massey herself is often changing in or out of nightwear. As wartime propaganda sci-fi B-thrillers go, this is fun. [DVD]

Monday, October 27, 2014

JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET (1962)

A crew of astronauts is heading to Uranus on the trail of a strange radioactive signal (years before 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY used a similar plotpoint to send Dave and Frank to Jupiter). As they approach, they are all frozen in place while a blob of light materializes and announces that their minds will be under its control. When the ship lands, the barren surface of the planet suddenly becomes lush and earthlike, though the men discover that behind the trees is an invisible barrier; when young impulsive Carl sticks his arm through it, his arm is flash-frozen—though he does recover eventually. That night, as the men sit around a campfire (!), Commander Eric dreamily relates a childhood memory about life on the family farm, and as he does, the farm landscape appears in the distance, as does a woman of his past acquaintance. By now, if you know your Ray Bradbury, this will seem familiar as it's a plot device right out of his short story "Mars is Heaven," so you'll know right where this is going: the Blob of Light is pulling memories out of the men's minds and reproducing them. Despite more sexy women appearing, the men soon decide to go through the barrier where they find the "real" Uranus: a desolate waste with ammonia quicksnow (like quicksand but white and sparkly--see picture below). Some huge monsters appear, giant versions of animals that the astronauts fear like mice and spiders (shades of the climax of 1984), and Ingrid, one of the sexy apparitions, informs them that a being "of space and time itself" (which later appears as a huge disembodied brain) has them trapped.

Unless I missed something, it's never made clear exactly why the monster is after them, aside from fear of colonization, and if the Blob/Being of Space and Time/Big Brain had just left Uranus like it really was—bleak and uninhabitable—instead of making it look and feel like Earth, the men would probably just done a little rock-gathering and left. This film has its moments—I particularly liked the effect of the barren gray planet turning green and the quicksnow scene—but it also feels a bit slapdash, especially in the writing, with little examination of character or of the consequences of space exploration. It was shot in Denmark with a Danish cast except for Hollywood B-leading man John Agar who plays the second in command. Peter Monch seemed promising as Carl, but this is his only film credit. The mysterious women all look like Nordic models—and they were, most notably Greta Thyssen who was Miss Denmark of 1951 and went on to rack up over 20 acting credits. Special effects are about average for the time. The closing theme is worth hanging around for—as the ship sails off into space, we hear a crooner sing, "Our love will take wing/And go on and on…" though the only love going on in the film was between earthmen and alien-created avatars of women (unless two of the astronauts had a thing on the down-low). [Netflix streaming]

Saturday, October 25, 2014

THE EYES OF CHARLES SAND (1972)

Hunky (for the 1970s) playboy Charles Sand (Peter Haskell, pictured) has a nightmare involving a roomful of lit candles and a coffin; when he opens the coffin, his uncle rises up with open full-white eyes and points menacingly at him. He is awakened by a phone call from his Aunt Alexandria (Joan Bennett) telling him that his uncle has died. Charles finds out the next day that he has inherited a family gift/curse: he has The Sight, meaning he'll see visions and premonitions, and should be prepared to use this power to help people. At his uncle's funeral, he has a vision of a mummified woman in front of the Parkhurst mausoleum, and soon he's involved in a Parkhurst family situation: young Emily Parkhurst has had visions of her brother's dead body and is practically hysterical about it, but her older sister Katherine insists she's wrong, that the brother is alive and out of town, and Katherine wants to institutionalize Emily. Charles has a couple of visions that make him think Emily might be right; do Katherine and her husband have something to hide?

This was a pilot for a show that didn't get picked up. The set-up here is interesting, but I can think of one big reason it didn't get past the pilot stage: after the first 20 minutes, the supernatural elements are downplayed to the point of vanishing, and this becomes a standard, fairly nondescript mystery. Haskell, a familiar TV face in the 70s, is fairly colorless here but adequate, and the actress playing Emily (Sharon Farrell) is terrible; Bennett is OK, as is Adam West as a family friend. Luckily, Barbara Rush is very good as Katherine—you'll figure out rather quickly that she's not what she seems, and when she lets loose in the last 15 minutes, she makes up for some of the blandness of the previous hour. Bradford Dillman doesn't have much to do as her husband. The 70s was a classic time for TV-movies, and I've been enjoying the access that Warner Archive Instant has given to many of these films, but of course, they're not all equal. This one has a nice opening section but ends up a bit of a disappointing mess. [Warner Archive streaming]

Friday, October 24, 2014

DR. CRIPPEN (1963)

This thrill-free thriller purports to tell the story behind the notorious 1910 court case in which a man was found guilty of killing his wife and disposing of her body in pieces. The film begins with Crippen (Donald Pleasence), an American doctor living in London, on trial and flashes back to fill in the story. Mild-mannered Crippen is married to a brassy live wire named Belle (Coral Browne). A former showgirl, Belle takes in boarders with whom she regularly has affairs; we first see her brazenly flirting with one handsome young boarder who plays piano while she sings. The problem seems to be that Crippen has a low libido and Belle has a high one—she claims she takes lovers only because Crippen isn't sleeping with her. But Crippen begins a romantic relationship with his secretary Ethel (Samantha Eggar) and when Belle finds out, she makes a scene, saying he's making a fool of her. (The psychosexual relationship between the two is potentially interesting, but partly due to the era, it's not gone into in much detail here.) She makes him promise to have sex with her; to get out of it, he slips her a tranquilizer in her tea but accidentally puts too much in and she dies. We don't see any of the grisly aftermath, but soon, when people start asking after Belle, Crippen says she's gone to America to visit a sick relative (shades of Raymond Burr's alibi in REAR WINDOW). Eventually her mutilated corpse is found, and Crippen takes off to America with Ethel in tow, dressed as a young man, but they are found out while on ship and both put on trial. This is a dry and stagy presentation of the story with little action and no gore (despite the promises of some of the movie's posters). Pleasence is OK as the quiet, enigmatic man with the "codfish eyes," as one character notes, but he seems to be largely on automatic here. Eggar is better as the sweet innocent girl who is implicated in his crimes, but best is Browne, who gives a lively performance as the wife. If you're a fan of Browne (pictured with Pleasence), this is worth seeing. [TCM]

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS (1949)

In the 1480s, the Italian sailor and trader Christopher Columbus (Fredric March) is trekking through Europe with his son trying to get backing for a trip to prove that you can go around the (round) world and get to India by heading west. He leaves his son at a monastery for safe keeping and one of the monks gives him a letter of introduction to the Spanish court. King Ferdinand isn't impressed, but Queen Isabella (Florence Eldridge, March's real-life wife) thinks there is some promise in the plan to claim new spice markets and lands for Spain. However court noble Francisco de Bobadilla, concerned for his own interests, tries his best to scotch Columbus's plans, so years pass with no progress. Bobadilla gets his lovely young cousin Beatriz to romance Columbus to get him to stay in Spain, but the Queen sees through the plan and has Beatriz banished. Eventually, the Queen uses her own jewels to bankroll Columbus's trip. There's a brief swashbuckling mutiny but soon land is sighted, natives are met, customs are exchanged, and the land is claimed for Spain. By the end of his life, he has become an obscure figure, embittered by court intrigues, though he predicts that he will eventually be remembered long after the King and Queen have been forgotten. This is a bland, by-the-numbers telling of Columbus' discovery of the New World. A bigger budget—with better costumes and sets—and a livelier lead actor might have made this more interesting. March is OK but uninspiring, never coming off as compelling or larger-than-life as his character really should, making the movie feel like the story of a low-level bureaucrat or a whining dreamer. Francis L. Sullivan as the scheming Bobadilla almost upstages March, and it feels like Eldridge is doing a grade-B imitation of Bette Davis in THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX. This is OK to skip. [Netflix streaming]

Monday, October 20, 2014

HAUNTED GOLD (1932)

This early John Wayne film is not only a fine example of the B-western but also of the mystery/horror western, a small but interesting subgenre. One night, a bunch of guys are sitting around in a ghost town saloon waiting for Ed to come back from an abandoned mine which is rumored to have a treasure in gold hidden somewhere. What comes back instead is his horse, riderless, with a note warning others to stay away, signed by The Phantom. One of the men, Joe Ryan, has a half-claim on the land, and arriving that night is the man with the other half-claim, John Mason (Wayne), with his African-American buddy Clarence (Blue Washington). Another person involved is Janet Carter, daughter of one of the co-owners; her father, a former owner of the mine, is in jail, supposedly framed by the Ryans, but she has been summoned mysteriously and is staying with Benedict, once the mine foreman. Also in the house is Benedict's deaf assistant, a creepy housekeeper, and some spooky figure whose eyes we frequently see peering into rooms from behind clocks and paintings. Ryan plots to get Mason's claim away from him, Mason plots to catch Ryan and his men in criminal activity, and someone seems to be trying to keep everyone away from the mine.

The word "horror" is misleading—this is more like an "old dark house" thriller in a western setting—but it does contain a handful of nicely atmospheric moments as it also gets in some hats-and-horses action. The young Wayne makes a nice light-on-his-feet hero, a little different from the slower and more stolid characters he became known for later. Much critical commentary has been made about Washington and his stereotyped comic relief role—at one point, a villain refers to his "watermelon accent"—but despite being eighth billed (far behind Wayne's famous horse Duke), Washington (pictured with Wayne) has almost as much screen time as Wayne, and most of his shenanigans are actually amusing rather than cringe-inducing. It helps that he has a deep, gruff voice, unlike the lazy, high-pitched voices that many black actors were forced to use in their subservient roles. He's also effective in getting Wayne out of some tight spots. Duke the horse gets to pull a couple of good stunts, kicking a man off a cliff and saving Wayne from a long drop into a canyon. Some of the lengthy final action scene is presented speeded-up and I'm not sure why. Interesting tidbit: the prop that became the Maltese Falcon in the 1941 movie can be seen on the heroine's organ. [TCM]

Thursday, October 16, 2014

THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH (1959)

One night in 1890s Paris, we see a man attacked on a foggy street, another victim of Anton Diffring, a sculptor (who creates busts of lovely young women) and a doctor; it turns out that he's over 100 years old, despite looking much younger, thanks to a gland transplant he gets every few years to stay young. Desperately in need of the operation now, he can get by for a while on a bubbling green fluid that he concocts, apparently made from bodily fluids obtained from people he kills, but he's at the point where he will start deteriorating for good unless he gets the procedure done. The older doctor who had always helped him is disabled and can no longer operate, so when Diffring crosses paths with ex-lady friend Hazel Court (pictured with Diffring), he tries to talk her friend, surgeon Christopher Lee, into doing the operation himself, eventually holding Court hostage to force him to help. This Hammer horror movie is based on a play, The Man in Half Moon Street, which was first made into a movie in 1945. The plot is predictable and the horror element here is at low boil as the film seems to retain the staginess of the play. Lee sleepwalks through his relatively unimportant part, but luckily Diffring is fine in the title role. The scenes involving the green youth-giving potion are effectively filmed, saturated in green; there are some moderately interesting philosophical discussions about eternal life; and a suitably horrific ending awaits, but it's a bit of a slog getting there. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THE MAD GHOUL (1943)

George Zucco is a chemistry professor teaching a class about his theory that the Mayans had developed a poisonous gas which caused a "life in death/death in life" state in the people who were used as human sacrifices. After class, he asks student David Bruce to help him with his experiments involving that gas. It turns out that he has used the gas to zombify a monkey, and now plans to use herbs and a heart transplant to bring the monkey back, hoping to use the procedure on humans. When Bruce questions the morality of his activities, Zucco replies, "I'm a scientist—there is no good or evil, only true or false." A complicating factor is concert singer Evelyn Ankers; Bruce is in love with her, and though she likes him, she feels she has outgrown his attentions and is setting her sights on her sophisticated, exotic pianist (Turhan Bey). The slightly unhinged Zucco thinks that Ankers is dumping Bruce for him, so to make sure Bruce is no competition, he tricks Bruce into breathing in the zombie gas, then gets him to start digging up graves to gather up fresh hearts for his sinister work. A reporter (Robert Armstrong) figures things out and poses as a corpse to catch the ghouls, but things backfire a bit.

As other critics have pointed out, this B-film, though produced by a major studio (Universal), has the feel of a high-end poverty-row flick from Monogram or PRC, and that's mostly a compliment. The production values are skimpy but not slipshod, and the acting and writing are at least a notch above average. Zucco (pictured above in his creepy protective mask, with Bruce), as he often was in his B-roles, is the best thing in the movie, taking the proceedings as seriously as they should be, not camping around or chewing scenery and not sleepwalking through his part as the mad doctor. The rest of the cast is fine, even Bruce who many critics don't care for. Milburn Stone (Doc on "Gunsmoke") plays a cop. What I liked best about the plot is that, against expectations, there really is no sturdy hero here to save the day; Bruce becomes a zombie, Bey doesn’t get to do much except play the piano, and Zucco is the instrument of his own demise. A little-known solid B-horror flick. [DVD]

Monday, October 13, 2014

DEAR MURDERER (1947)

Eric Portman returns to England from a lengthy business trip to America, looking forward to reuniting with his wife (Greta Gynt) who has not been as faithful a letter-writer as he hoped. When he gets home, it appears as if she may not have been faithful in other ways; she's not there, and he finds love letters addressed to her from another man, the same man (Dennis Price) that he has seen pictures of her with in tabloid papers, out painting the town red. Portman goes to Price's apartment and begins an elaborate plot which ends with Portman killing Price and making it look like suicide. Of course, as these things will, his plot goes off the rails when his wife and yet another lover show up at Price's apartment before Portman can get away. There are more twists and complications that shout not be spoiled here. I don't think this is really noir, as some claim: Portman is never really sympathetic enough for us to think he's a basically good guy caught in a bad circumstances. He's very good in the role, but he's a bad guy. At one point, when Price realizes that Portman plans to kill him, Price lets him know that Gynt has had other affairs and notes wryly, "You can’t kill all of them"; we see Portman think about that and realize that he might well try. So it's not film noir but it is a somewhat Hitchcockian thriller with a good cast, especially Portman and Gynt, and a plot that is easy to follow but not so easy to predict. Jack Warner is a Scotland Yard inspector, and Hazel Court, who would achieve a level of fame starring in some of Roger Corman's 60s horror films, has a small role. (Pictured is Portman seconds away from strangling Price.) [Netflix streaming]

Friday, October 10, 2014

LOVE AND LEARN (1947)

Jack Carson and Robert Hutton are struggling songwriters (I'd say, stop me if you've heard this before, but then this would be a very short review); Hutton is ready to call it quits and head back to his Midwest hometown, but based on a lead, they give it one last shot and go to the Danceland ballroom to try and get an "in" with a big band leader. Martha Vickers is a socialite frustrated with her high-society life in general and her fiancé in particular, and after she decides to leave him, she heads to Danceland to get away from everything. Vickers pretends to be a dance hostess to get in and she hits it off with Hutton; he decides to stay in town and, to keep up the charade, she rents a modest apartment. Vickers pays a music publisher to take one of their songs, but due to a misunderstanding, the boys think that she's a notorious thief. More misunderstandings lead to Hutton leaving for home and Vickers deciding to go back to her fiancé, but thanks to Carson and his girlfriend (Janis Paige), a happy ending is in store. Yes, this is a predictable second-feature comedy with a little bit of music, but there are some pleasures to be had, starting with the women. Vickers, best known as Lauren Bacall's nymphet sister in THE BIG SLEEP, does a nice against-type turn here as a good little rich girl; Paige as the spunky sidekick is even better. Carson is fine, though Hutton (pitured with Vickers) is rather weak, especially when you consider how much better Carson's frequent partner-in-comedy Dennis Morgan would have been. Otto Kruger is good as Vickers' father, and Florence Bates and Craig Stevens are present in small roles. [TCM]

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

RETURN FROM THE ASHES (1965)

During the winter after Germany's defeat in WWII, a sad, emaciated woman (Ingrid Thulin) is traveling on a train to Paris. She seems completely oblivious to her surroundings; when a small child tinkers with the door and falls out to his death, she doesn't react at all. Her fellow passengers assume she's cold and unfeeling, but we see the concentration camp tattoo on her wrist. She's heading to Paris to see her husband (Maximilian Schell, pictured with Thulin), whom she hasn’t seen since she, as a Jew, was rounded up and sent to a camp five years earlier. Their relationship was not one of great passion: he was a penniless but handsome and charming chess player and she, a well-off doctor, was essentially his sugar mama. But now, she discovers that he assumes that she died. When they meet, he notices her resemblance to his wife and asks her to join him and Thulin's stepdaughter (Samantha Eggar) in a plan to claim her money, which neither one can get their hands on since Thulin's remains were never found. This might serve as the entire premise for a thriller, but here, Thulin "comes out" as herself to Schell fairly quickly. She gets back into her practice and claims her money and property; what she doesn't know is that Schell and Eggar are lovers, and might not be above murder to get what they want out of Thulin. This twisty thriller is very well acted by all three main cast members, and it's largely a three-person show, though Herbert Lom, as a friend and admirer of Thulin's, is also good, and his character is crucial to the climax. The concentration camp background is a bit of a cheat, as it ends up not really being important to the story. If you're a movie thriller fan, this will seem fairly predictable, but along the way, there are some interesting turns. At one point, a bathtub scene conjures up DIABOLIQUE, but the echo remains that just that. The glossy black & white cinematography gives the movie a noir feel—as does the fact that much of the action takes place at night. This underrated little mystery is well worth seeing. [TCM/DVD]

Monday, October 06, 2014

THEY CAME TO BLOW UP AMERICA (1943)

This WWII spy film is based on an actual incident, now known as Operation Pastorius, in which eight German spies snuck into the country to commit acts of sabotage but were arrested before they could pull any of them off. At the time the film was made, the details of the case were still considered secret so, as an opening disclaimer states, this is a total fictionalization. Carl Steelman (George Sanders) is a German-American who has disappointed his family by joining the Bund, on the surface a German social club but actually a pro-Nazi organization which seeks to implement Nazi ideology in the US. However, Steelman has actually infiltrated the group as a spy for the FBI. Reiter, one of the Bund leaders, is called back to Germany to attend classes on sabotage, but he is shot and killed in a government raid and Steelman takes his identity and goes to Berlin instead. He is so good at his espionage exercises, he is given command of an important mission: he and his men are taken by submarine to the New York coast to begin their sabotage. But Sanders runs into a few problems involving people trying to rat him out: Reiter's wife shows up in Berlin, and a friend of Steelman's family in the States inadvertently finds out about his status with the FBI. Though fictional, this is a good spy story and works well as wartime propaganda. Sanders is fine and pretty much has the show all to himself—the only other major characters are his FBI contact (Ward Bond, pictured to the left of Sanders), Reiter's wife (Anna Sten), and Dennis Hoey as a Nazi commander. The subplot involving Sten is compelling and it ends in a fairly unpredictable way. Also in the cast are Ludwig Stossel, Sig Ruman and Robert Barrat. [The Bund was a real organization; I just read a recent history of the Bund, Swastika Nation by Arnie Bernstein, and according to the author, Germany actually tried to distance itself from the Bundists, fearing they would do more harm than good to their cause.] [DVD]

Friday, October 03, 2014

MAN MADE MONSTER (1941)

In a very effective opening, a bus traveling at high speed careens off the road and hits a power line, electrocuting everyone inside—except for Dan McCormack (Lon Chaney Jr.), a sideshow performer who goes by the name Dynamo Dan the Electric Man, who is miraculously unharmed. Dr. Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds), an electrobiologist, theorizes that he may have a built-in immunity to electric shock from his many years performing tricks with electricity, tricks he calls "yokel shockers" that nonetheless involve him subjecting himself to short shocks on a regular basis. Lawrence's assistant Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwill) sees McCormack as a perfect guinea pig to test his theory that given a series of electrical treatments, a man could be "produced" who would essentially live off of electric power; he would become invulnerable to pain and his will could be controlled by the giver of the electricity.  Unbeknownst to the kindly Lawrence, the Naziish Rigas subjects McCormack to increasing levels of electricity. The family dog, once very friendly to McCormack, starts freaking out in his presence, and soon Rigas has McCormack, whose head glows like a light bulb, in a rubberized suit, shooting electricity from his hands, needing to get his "fixes" of power from Rigas. When Rigas goads McCormack into killing the meddling Lawrence, McCormack is found guilty of murder, but when they try to electrocute him, he becomes superhumanly strong, escapes, and goes on the requisite monster rampage.

For the past twelve years, I have reserved October for reviewing overlooked or rarely-seen horror and sci-fi movies only, but last year I felt like I was hitting the bottom of the barrel, so this year that tradition is over. But for old time's sake, I thought I'd throw a handful of horror flicks into the mix. This is one of the more obscure Universal films of the classic era and it's a pretty good one. At times early on, it seems like a dry run for Chaney before he played the lead in the genuine classic THE WOLF MAN a few months later; like that movie's Larry Talbot, Dynamo Dan is a genial lug of a guy trapped by circumstances he can't control or understand. Talbot's fate seems more tragic, partly because Dan is not especially well developed as a character—he really only has one scene of dialogue before he starts to lose his humanity. He remains sympathetic but at a distance. There's an extraneous romance in the film between a reporter (Frank Albertson) and Lawrence's daughter (Anne Nagel), but they could be lifted out of story with little damage—Albertson is stuck with a couple of comic relief scenes though they are relatively painless. Nagel's there largely as someone to feel sorry for Dan and to be a damsel in distress at the climax. Hinds is fine as the good doc, and Atwill is gloriously mad, especially when he's decked out in his little black goggles as he gives Chaney his jolts. Nowadays, Dan's need for electricity seems to be a perfect metaphor for an addict's need for drugs, and Rigas's hope for a race of supermen needs no annotation. The effect of Chaney's electric glow is pulled off quite well. Chaney played a variation on this character in 1956's INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN but this is by far the better movie. [DVD]

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN (1971)

As a maker of indie B-movies, Roger Corman has no peer. But when he made big studio, bigger-budget movies, he tended to stumble.  Like his earlier ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, this film had a million-dollar budget, almost double the budget of most of his American International horror films, but was not a hit at the box office. They're not bad movies by any means, but they lack something—maybe in the writing and acting, maybe the big studio gloss one expects with a bigger budget. This tells the story of Baron Manfred von Richthofen (John Phillip Law), the WWI German flying ace better known as the Red Baron. He begins as a raw recruit who does some hot dogging over a field chasing a horse, then barely pulls up in time to miss some trees; in fact, he lands with branches stuck in his wheels. Still, he catches on quickly and becomes top dog among the German fliers, feared and respected by the British. Meanwhile, Canadian pilot Roy Brown (Don Stroud, pictured) joins the British and gets a bad reputation when he refuses to drink a toast to Richthofen—the other fliers try to keep up the idea that, despite the carnage in the air, they are all gentlemen, not savages. When Richthofen's squadron is ordered to paint the planes to camouflage them, he has his men paint them bright colors so they'll stand out instead of being hidden, with his a bright red—hence, the Red Baron, and the name the men become known by, The Flying Circus. During one dogfight, Richthofen is seriously wounded and when he returns to combat he begins showing troubling signs of memory loss and confusion. After Brown leads the British on a surprise attack and manages to damage several German planes on the ground, German pilot Hermann Goering (yes, that one) retaliates, deliberately strafing British doctors and nurses, for which Richthofen calls him out. Eventually, Brown and Richthofen meet one-on-one in the air, and of course, there can only be one victor.

What this movie has going for it is its aerial battle footage; it is well-shot, exciting and believable (at least to this viewer who has never been in a dogfight). I can't pinpoint anything wrong with the lead actors; both Law and Stroud look their parts, though both also underplay just a bit—it might have been more fun with more energetic performances. Perhaps Corman was wary that the whole thing might slip over into camp, especially given the baby boomers' identification of the Red Baron with Snoopy. The supporting cast includes Barry Primus and Corin Redgrave, and I was surprised to see Robert La Tourneaux in a decent-sized role as a German pilot—he played the hot but dumb hustler in THE BOYS IN THE BAND and I guess I never thought of him as having any other screen credits (in fact, he only did one other film). Ultimately, this is worth seeing; it's the kind of movie that is good enough that one wishes it were better. [TCM]