Friday, February 27, 2015


One of the summer guests staying at Flavia's California ranch is Jessica, Flavia's young niece, who is a bit on the ethereal side; she insists that she can find water in the ground, as well as buried lost items, with her dowsing rod. Not all the other guests (who include Gordon, a handsome archeologist who remembers Jessica as a child, his artist buddy Hank, and Hank's girlfriend/model Linda) believe her, but when she finds Linda's lost watch buried in a squirrel hutch at the base of a tree, they wonder. Gordon gives her an elaborate crucifix he found nearby while digging and she promises to wear it always. Handyman Boyd and his doltish assistant Mike find a brass box that was buried in 1579 near the tree. Gordon plans to open it the next morning, but Boyd and Mike, assuming it contains treasure, break it open that night and find the head of devil worshipper Gideon Drew, buried 400 years ago but still alive. He was put to death, beheaded, and put under a curse that his head would remain living until it was reunited with its body. Though the head can't speak, it puts Mike under its hypnotic command and has him kill Boyd, then keeps putting others under its power and uses them to search for his body, which is buried nearby.

Interesting idea but executed blandly, shot like a particularly drab TV show. The characters are fleshed out slightly better than in most B-horror films; when Linda is taken over by Gideon's head, she turns cold toward Hank, leading him destroy her portrait and to turn to Jessica as his next model, and we actually care a bit about that situation. The shots of the head, either in a box, on rocks, or being held, are effectively creepy. The acting is adequate: William Reynolds makes a solid, handsome hero as Gordon; Carolyn Kearney is OK as the mildly strange Jessica, though when she falls under the head's influence, her personality shift is especially good; Andra Martin is fine as Linda; Robin Hughes (the writer O'Bannion in AUNTIE MAME) doesn’t have much to do as the head except for one nice moment in a flashback scene at Gideon's execution.  Mystery Science Theater 3000 roasted this movie—I haven't seen their version though I'm sure it’s funny—but generally it's not as bad a film as they usually take on. [TCM]

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


On the Russian front during World War I, Captain Orloff (Ivan Lebedeff) is ordered to retreat but he doesn't; he ends up injured but months later, his bravery gets him picked for a spy mission to Rumania. Ostensibly, he is to deliver a verbal message to a French agent, but his super-secret mission is to find the sexy female spy who keeps leaking their codes. He meets all kinds of suspects: the flirty blond Countess Diana (Genevieve Tobin), the Baroness Alma (Betty Compson), and the chatterbox Madame Blinis (Ilka Chase), and at a party thrown in his honor, all the women fuss and coo over him. A man is shot dead in the garden, someone breaks into Orloff's room, and Orloff finds himself falling for Diana. But could she be the spy? This early talkie has some nice visual touches but is otherwise a disappointment; it has a light tone but isn't quite a comedy, there is little tension and no real action, and the acting is only average all around, with the exception of Tobin (pictured with Lebedeff). Lebedeff is particularly weak as the romantic hero, seeming neither very romantic nor very heroic. [TCM]

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Buster Crabbe and Paul Bryar are American engineers working with the Free French during World War II on a mission is to do some land surveying near the African village of Carraby in anticipation of the Allies putting in a landing strip there. Their secondary mission is to try and subvert the influence of a native chief who is working with a German couple (Arno Frey and Evelyn Wahl) who are Nazi spies, bribing the natives with worthless trinkets to get them on their side when the armed conflict reaches Carraby. Living with the tribe as a native is an Anglo woman (Ann Corio), raised as an orphan by a doctor. She is initially suspicious of all the outsiders, but soon she and Crabbe are canoodling, even as the female Nazi also begins cozying up to him as well. The chief goes to extremes to get the natives on the Nazi side, poisoning several villagers so that they appear to be dead, blaming it on Crabbe and the doctor, and then bringing the "dead" back with apparently supernatural powers. Can Crabbe and Corio get the natives to see the truth about their leader before the Nazis arrive?

This is a pretty shoddy sub-B film; its main attraction was probably the presence of Buster Crabbe, best known in the 30s first as an Olympic swimming champ and later for playing heroes like Tarzan, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. By this time, he was working for Poverty Row studio PRC, mostly doing cheapie westerns and adventure movies. He must have been considered a success because between 1940 and 1945 alone, he made nearly 40 such films. He's one of the few bright spots here; he treats his role seriously and his beefcake appeal is still obvious. The comic sidekick in movies like this is sometimes dreadful, but Bryar does a decent job; one of the better jokes is a special effects shot of Bryar asleep in bed having nightmares as footage of dangerous animals appears above his head. Corio (pictured with Crabbe) was best known as a stripper; unfortunately, she's a drab, flat actress, and even her buxom charms are, oddly enough, downplayed here. There is very little action until the end. I did enjoy some of the dialogue: the Nazi, aware that his wife is falling for Crabbe and maybe becoming sympathetic to him, says, "The Third Reich is more important that your swinish love affair!" And while Crabbe's sidekick does his morning exercises, he says, "Another ten days of this and I’ll have a physique like Buster Crabbe!" [Amazon Instant]

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Screwball comedies of any kind are difficult to pull off; the writing, acting and direction have to be top-notch or else it just becomes a shrill, irritating mess. B-level screwball comedies, usually with lesser talent behind and on the screen, rarely work for me. This one has promise but goes off the rails by the halfway point. It starts out as a re-working of the nutty-family classic YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU. The eccentric Pemberton family from South Carolina owns property in New York that a country club wants. One lawyer who tried to get signatures from all the family members quit in frustration so Henry MacMarrow (Jack Haley), a junior partner at the law firm, is sent to complete the job. The patriarch is an elderly scientist who has a life-sized teddy bear robot (pictured), son Herbert (John Carradine) fancies himself an abstract artist, Uncle Alan (Walter Catlett) is a stamp collector, genius ten-year-old Junior is already a college graduate, pixilated maiden aunts Pitty and Patty keep a rigged-up loaded shotgun aimed at their door in case of burglary, and Uncle Goliath owns a mansion but lives outside on its grounds dressed like a caveman. The only "normal" person is the young vivacious Toni (Ann Sothern), who falls for Henry—though it takes a while for him to reciprocate.

This has an interesting cast, but no matter how hard they try, by halfway through the almost 90 minute running time, they've all worn out their welcome. The two leads are OK: Jack Haley (OZ's Tin Man) actually does a good job managing to remain relatively unflustered by all the zaniness around him. He's also a kind of anti-romantic leading man, not acting terribly interested in Sothern, which is a nice change of pace for this kind of film. For her part, Sothern mostly remains charming in the middle of the whirlwind of crazy relatives. The two have an awkward musical number out of nowhere. Mary Boland is Sothern's mom, and child actor Benny Bartlett is fun as the obnoxious Junior. Edward Everett Horton plays against type a bit as the villain, Sothern's fiancé and the author of a self-help book on how to be masterful, who is trying to get his hands on the property, and Elisha Cook Jr., looking like a juvenile, has a small role as a chemist. The first half is fun, but the shenanigans get more and more ludicrous and I was chomping at the bit for the end. This may have influenced the makers of the later MURDER HE SAYS. [TCM]

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Aliens plummet to earth from the moon and force the people of Samar to sacrifice groups of young men and women every three months at the Mountain of Death. Gladius, advisor to Samar's Queen Samara, begs her to find a way to stop the sacrifices, but it turns out she's in cahoots with the moon men (or man, as I think we only ever see one of them, usually in the form of a transparent hologram); they have promised her that when they take over the world, she can rule with them. Gladius asks Hercules to help stop the slaughter. Complicating matters is Princess Billis, she of the fabulous 60s hairdo, who is about to be sacrificed—her blood will revive her look-alike, the dead moon queen Selene. Billis's boyfriend Darax fights for her, even taking an arrow in the chest and surviving, as do a band of rebels. Hercules joins in, escaping drowning in a pit, killing a monster, facing a small army of huge stone creatures, and surviving torture in which he is slowly pressed between two large spiked slabs. Then, of course, there's the alien's prediction that a cosmic cataclysm is about to strike the earth.

Of all the 60s peplum musclemen, I think Alan Steel is the most appealing—he's seems happy and excited doing what he's doing (not bored like Reg Park in HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN), has an open and friendly face, is quite well built without being grotesquely bulbous, and does a great job sweating and straining under torture. This film has the added attraction of a science-fiction element spicing up the usual storyline. The special effects are not great, consisting mostly of a sickly green tinting of any scenes on and in the Mountain of Death; the alien is a tall robed figure wearing an owl-face mask, and the final disaster is very disappointing. But the stone men are kinda cool, and the typical sword-and-sandal action scenes are carried off well, especially the spiked torture of Hercules. Many critics (and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 gang) make fun of the lengthy sandstorm scene near the end, but though it definitely does go on too long—"Deep hurting!!" to quote the MST3K robots—I enjoyed the shifting color washes and the swirling sands. Had I seen this movie when I was fourteen, the long torture scene, with lingering close-ups of Hercules's sweaty arms and chest, would have been like gay porn for me. Not the best of peplums, but not quite as bad as its reputation, though it must be seen in widescreen. [DVD]

Friday, February 13, 2015


This adaptation of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe changes the sex of the main character (and of his companion Friday) and adds a romantic interest, but retains several details of the original story—which I admit here that I've never read. In 1659, a hurricane hits a ship traveling to Brazil and two survivors are washed up on an isolated island: Robin, the cabin boy who is actually a girl in disguise (Amanda Blake, Miss Kitty from the TV classic Gunsmoke), and an old salt named Sykes. When Sykes assaults Robin, she fights back and he winds up falling off a cliff. In a few months time, after she has built herself a treehouse for shelter, she discovers a cannibal tribe on the island and interrupts a ritual which involves splitting two women in half as sacrifices. Robin manages to save one of them and takes her back to the treehouse, naming her Friday; together, they manage to thrive until, after a huge storm hits, another sailor is washed up on shore. At first, Robin is wary of Jonathan (George Nader) and refuses his help, but soon realizes that the three of them working together is not such a bad thing. She even starts to fall for him, but a major bone of contention remains: he wants to patch up a small 2-person canoe and go out to find help nearer to the shipping lanes, but Robin won't leave Friday behind. When Jonathan sneaks away in the canoe by himself, Robin feels betrayed. Soon, Jonathan returns but so does the cannibal tribe.

This definitely counts as a novelty. In addition to the gender switch, there's the somewhat schizophrenic style: some of it looks like Gilligan's Island, having been filmed on soundstages, but some of it was shot, if not on location in the South Pacific, at least outside on an actual beach. Most sequences end with an very abrupt blackout; I thought at first it was a film splice problem but it happened throughout the movie. The color palate is quite bright which makes it fairly pleasing to the eye. Given the small number of characters, we don't get to know Robin very much at all, and Blake's performance is rather two-note: either suspicious/fearful or arrogant/aloof. Nader is OK but again his character is completely flat. The fact that these two get involved is much more about lust than love; I imagine that after they're rescued, they'll realize they are both boring people with nothing in common. There's a strange scene of Friday (Rosalind Hayes) stroking Robin's arm and hair while she sleeps, but nothing comes of it. An odd little film. [Warner Archive Instant]

Thursday, February 12, 2015


An almost completely fictional biopic about George Gershwin, one of the great composers of the 20th century. Once you've accepted that little in this film is based on fact (despite the presence in the film of several real-life friends of Gershwin), you can settle back and more or less enjoy this as a fictional film with some great music—though considering they had the Gershwin catalog to choose from, the renditions of most of the songs leave much to be desired. We begin with the working-class Gershwin family, and young brothers George and Ira excited to see that a piano is being delivered to their humble Bronx apartment. George (played as an adult by Robert Alda) takes to it immediately and soon works his way up to become a song plugger on Tin Pan Alley. On the side, he begins writing his own songs and taking lessons from Prof. Franck (Albert Bassermann) who feels Gershwin is wasting his talent on creating disposable pop music. Next thing you know, he's writing for singer Julie Adams (a fictitious character played by Joan Leslie) and he becomes the toast of Broadway, turning out songs like "Swanee" and "I Got Rhythm." Still pursuing serious music, his jazz-inflected "Rhapsody in Blue" is a smash success played in a concert hall by Paul Whiteman's orchestra. George and Julie get friendly though remaining chaste, but when George goes to Paris for musical inspiration (and eventually writes another serious piece, "An American in Paris"), he meets Christine (Alexis Smith), a well-connected woman-about-town, and a love triangle is set that ultimately goes nowhere. When he starts fretting about not having enough time to do everything he wants, and then begins getting debilitating headaches, we know the end (a brain tumor) is near.

There's no use pointing out the inaccuracies here because there are so many. Even when they get something right, like the success of "Rhapsody in Blue," not enough attention is given to it; it's just one more step on the ladder to the top. This is largely a missed opportunity for a colorful Gershwin revue; had this been done by Arthur Freed's unit at MGM, it would have been filled with stars performing the songs as splashy production numbers, but here at Warner Bros. we're stuck with lukewarm renditions, mostly by the bland Joan Leslie (voice dubbed by Sally Sweetland). Anne Brown, who actually played Bess in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, sings a bit of "Summertime," and Hazel Scott and Al Jolson sing some songs as themselves.  And very few of the 20+ songs are done in their entirety. Alda is unremarkable in the central role, but a handful of other actors do nice work, including Morris Carnovsky as George's father, Herbert Rudley as Ira (pictured at right with Alda), Albert Bassermann as the music professor, and Alexis Smith as one of the two (totally fictitious) love interests—in real life, Gershwin apparently played the field. Best of all is Oscar Levant playing himself; the hangdog, snarky Levant (pictured top left with Alda) is always welcome in a sidekick role, and he actually knew and worked with Gershwin. In fact, it's Levant’s playing that we hear whenever we see Alda at the piano. The highlight of the film is the playing of the Rhapsody; it's well-played and well-shot, and as it comes about an hour into the movie, you can shut it off when it's over and miss the last draggy 75 minutes. [Warner Archive Instant]

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


In a nicely atmospheric opening sequence which would not be out of place in a Universal horror film of the era, three men who don't know each other get off a train at the small, largely unvisited Italian town of Rossanu, which is dominated the deserted castle of the Borgias nearby. Two of men seem to vacationing: Victor Ballau (Henry O'Neill), a play producer, and Gerard Lytton (C. Aubrey Smith), a doctor. The third, Juan Cesare (Donald Woods), keeps to himself and seems a bit haunted. It turns out that he is a descendent of the Borgias and is convinced that bad Borgia blood will eventually lead him to murder so he's decided to kill himself. Lytton manages to stop him, and suggests creating art as a way of achieving catharsis. So Juan does just that: he writes a play about Lucretia Borgia and, back in Vienna, Ballau agrees to stage it with his daughter Florence (Margaret Lindsay) starring as Lucretia. Juan falls intensely for Florence and even though she seems a bit reticent, he asks her father for her hand. Ballau won't allow them to marry, afraid that Juan's potential homicidal drive may not quite be cured. One night, Florence leaves the theater in the middle of a performance without explanation, and later her father is found dead, stabbed with a Borgia dagger. Was it Florence? Juan? Dr. Lytton? Ballau's strange housekeeper? The police captain (Robert Barrat) is determined to find out, and he uncovers several unsavory secrets before the killer is revealed.

This is one of a short series of Clue Club films that Warner Bros. made in the mid-30s, and it begins very well, with the first few minutes conjuring up the opening the 1931 DRACULA (in fact, one character says that Juan is "something of a Dracula type"), but when the action moves to Vienna, it reverts to something more like an average B-mystery. Woods (pictured with O'Neill) is good, and Barrat is even better, being amusing without resorting to bumbling comic-relief shtick. Florence Fair is the housekeeper and Eily Malyon has a nice brief bit near the end as a mysterious wig and mask maker. The story, with its attempts at psychological depth, is interesting, but there is too much plot crammed into the 70-minute running time. The ending is unusual in that it seems to go against the Production Code, as the killer is basically let go. [TCM]

Saturday, February 07, 2015


The Cossacks consider themselves a tribe of "free men and warrior kings" and they are locked into traditional roles: the men go off to fight the Turks and the women stay home and work the land. But Lukashka (John Gilbert, pictured) is a lover, not a fighter, and though he has a very masculine manner, he prefers to stay home, lollygagging in the fields, and work at getting Maryana (Renée Adorée) into the sack. Despite her fond memories of him from childhood, she doesn't like what the villagers perceive as laziness or cowardice in him and rebuffs his advances. The worst aspect of Lukashka's attitude is that his father Ivan (Ernest Torrence) is the bloodthirsty leader of the Cossack men. After fellow Cossacks trap Lukashka one night and humiliate him by tying him up and making his stomp grapes (women's work), he retaliates and bests his father in a fight. When Turkish prisoners escape, Lukashka joins his fellow Cossacks and tracks them down, and once he draws blood—and suffers his first battle wound—there's no going back: he is now a warrior. But now Maryana finds that he has perhaps gone too far in the "fighter" direction, especially when he dallies with a gypsy whore. The arrival of Prince Olenin (Nils Asther), a messenger from the Tsar, complicates matters: the Tsar wants peace between the Cossacks and the Turks, and the prince has been ordered to marry Maryana as a way to mix the blood of the civilized and the savage.

This silent movie, based on a novel by Leo Tolstoy, is usually summarized as being about a young man who refuses to follow his fellow villagers to war, and his eventual turnaround. But that is actually less than half the story; Lukashka is "reformed" in the first half-hour of this 90 minute film, and the rest is taken up with the Lukashka/Maryana/Olenin triangle, and the attempts of the Cossacks to get back legitimately to their warrior ways. This is generally a dandy action film, with some surprisingly brutal scenes of battle and torture. Gilbert is very good, as usual; I particularly like the fact that the peace-loving Gilbert of the first part of the film doesn't behave in stereotypical "sissy" fashion—he just thinks there's more to life than war. His rather sudden change of heart doesn't seem realistic, but the fighter Gilbert is just as compelling as the lover Gilbert. Adorée is fine, and Asther, though not around for long, makes his character memorable. A grand physical production adds to the film's appeal. [TCM]

Friday, February 06, 2015


This musical has Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, and Virginia O'Brien, three people I usually like to see, and a very young and sexy Angela Lansbury (pictured), not to mention the epic musical number "On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe," so as a card-carrying lover of musicals, especially the ones that Arthur Freed's unit turned out at MGM, I should love this movie, but I don't.  However, on a second viewing recently, I discovered that I don't dislike it as much as I thought I did—faint and ambiguous praise, I know. The plot's background is based on the real life restaurant chain called Harvey's, from the late 19th century, which expanded by opening new locations in small frontier towns, helping to give those towns a veneer of respectability to attract travelers. Judy Garland is a city girl who has come out to a small Old West town to marry a man she's been corresponding with; arriving on the same train are a number of Harvey Girls, young women who will work as waitresses at the new Harvey House opening in town. Garland's sweetheart (Chill Wills) is a tad too old for her, and it turns out that the letters he sent were actually ghostwritten by another fella (John Hodiak). They call off the wedding but Garland decides to stay and join the Harvey Girls, and an attraction slowly builds between her and Hodiak. The conflict: Hodiak runs a popular saloon (and, it's implied, whorehouse) that may lose a great deal of business to the new restaurant, and though Hodiak tries to keep the battle clean, some of his men resort to underhanded methods to stop people from patronizing Harvey's, culminating in a fire being set by the bad guys.

The movie actually has a number of pluses, beginning with the ten-minute "Atchison" number performed on and around the trains. Even Marjorie Main gets a verse which she brays out in that ragged voice of hers. Many of the supporting players are fine: on the male side, Wills, Bolger, and Preston Foster (the chief baddie); on the distaff side, the seductive Lansbury (tarted out in some fabulous colorful and shiny outfits), and O'Brien (who vanishes halfway through because her pregnancy began to show) and Cyd Charisse as Harvey girls. The sets and costumes are first-rate and the songs are fine. Disappointingly, it's the leads that let the movie down. Garland seems distracted or unwilling to commit her all, except in her songs, and Hodiak is unattractive and charmless.  Among the songs, only "Atchison" stands out. Worth a viewing, but I will never consider this one of MGM's musical gems. [Warner Archive Instant]

Tuesday, February 03, 2015


Good cop Bert (Robert Shayne) goes after bad cop Ray (Paul Langton) who has been holed up in a roadside motel after running off with convicted murderess Eden Lane (Barbara Payton). When Bert finds Ray, Eden's not there, but Ray begs Bert to give him 24 hours to try and clear up the mess his life has become. In an extended flashback, we see Ray investigating the murder of businessman Frank Dean, found in his home, his head and hands burned beyond recognition in his fireplace. Eden, his mistress, works at a cheap nightclub with her roomie Patsy, but Eden is already on the run, having hopped a bus to an isolated and snowbound mountain cabin. Ray catches up with her and takes her back to L.A. where she is found guilty of murder. When Ray escorts her on a train to prison, she looks out the window at a small-town stop and insists she sees the supposedly dead Frank Dean, alive and well. Ray believes her; the two of them jump off the train and go back to the small town to figure out what's up. Eventually Ray and Eden become romantically involved, but one day she vanishes. When Bert hears this story, he agrees to give Ray one day, and helps him to track down the truth.

This B-noir from director Edgar G. Ulmer is more accomplished in terms of script, production and acting than his classic no-budget film DETOUR but it doesn't pack the punch of that earlier movie. Still, this is worth seeing as a classic noir narrative. Langton (pictured with Payton) is just about perfect as the weary, dogged cop who may or may not be truly out for justice—or maybe he's just blinded by lust. Payton's real-life story—abuse, public fights, drugs, an arrest for shoplifting—could have come out of a noir movie, but she's very good here, basically at the end of her career. The low budget does have some liabilities—there are many scenes of people dialing phones, and dialogue-heavy scenes that convey information rather than action shots. But the sequence of Langton trudging through a snowstorm to get to Payton's cabin was clearly filmed during a real snowstorm, resulting in perhaps the most realistic snow scene ever outside of DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. Recommended for noir fans. [Warner Archive Instant]

Sunday, February 01, 2015


As World War I is breaking out, Eric (Ralph Forbes) and Jane (Betty Compson), two British citizens in Berlin, meet and fall in love in one week's time, but one morning she announces that she must leave immediately and is mysterious about the reason. We discover that she's actually a German spy and a coded message sends her on a mission to Gibraltar to obtain British war plans: she is set up to be a houseguest at the governor's house and is given the combination to an electrified safe which houses the plans, and also instructions on how to get around being electrocuted and how to pass off the plans to a contact. She is also given a new identity, that of young Ellen who hasn’t visited in fifteen years, and is coached in the details of the family that Ellen would be expected to know. Things go smoothly until Eric shows up; he's confused, of course, and she doesn’t offer a very convincing explanation. But when she goes the steal the plans, Eric appears, apparently her contact, so they're both German spies. Or are they?

An early talkie, things don’t start out promisingly as the opening farewell scene is played out in a static fashion with over-the-top melodramatic line readings—at one point, Eric even says that their situation sounds like something out of an old melodrama. But things improve a bit once the scene moves to Gibraltar, or maybe I just got used to the style. Compson (pictured above with Forbes) had a long career, mostly in silent films, and she's OK here, though her co-star Forbes is more at ease; Compson sometimes feels a little blank, as though she's not sure herself if she's a spy or a double agent, or something else altogether. Ivan Simpson is amusing as a British underling who is quite taken with Compson, though his acting style suggests a character who is a little light in his loafers. Mischa Auer is a Indian servant who plays an important role in the climax. I wasn't sure about this one at first, but I ended up enjoying it. [TCM]