Tuesday, September 29, 2015


In the same way that GRAND HOTEL followed the intersecting storylines of a number of people staying in a Berlin hotel, this film follows the same formula with a number of people on a luxury liner sailing from Germany to New York City. In an opening vignette, we see the contrast between a young lad excited to get 20 marks for his voyage from his father, and a rich businessman casually tossing a 20 mark tip to a steward. This highlights one of the movie's thematic concerns, the class differences of the passengers, from lower class folks down in steerage to the wealthy up in first class. Among the characters we get to know: Zita Johann is a young nurse with a tragedy in her past that keeps her aloof and a bit mysterious; George Brent is a doctor who boards at the last minute in order to talk his estranged wife out of leaving him; Vivienne Osborne is Brent's wife who may be a bit tightly wound, and the man she's running off with is Frank Morgan, a wealthy shipping magnate; C. Aubrey Smith is a former clothing manufacturer who just got out of jail for embezzlement; Alice White is a flirty little gold-digger who wants to latch onto a man who can get her up to first class, though she’s not above a little flirtation with the cute elevator operator (Henry Wadsworth), both pictured at right.

As is GRAND HOTEL and DINNER AT EIGHT, the plots develop slowly as characters interact with each other. Brent, who arrives at the ship practically in hysterics wanting his wife back, talks the ship's doctor, an old friend of his, into letting let him take over for this trip. As Brent works with Johann and she sees his calm, inspiring bedside manner with a young mother and an elderly woman, she begins to thaw and romantic feelings spring up. Still, Brent confronts Osborne and she brandishes a gun to get him out of her cabin. Later, however, she finds out that her new lover is flirting with an opera singer and she pretty much snaps. Down in steerage, Smith becomes popular when he agrees to help the desperate lower-class travelers invest their money in stocks that White overheard Morgan talking up. By the end, there is a birth, a murder, a suicide, and some financial reversals. Some plotlines end predictably (Brent and Johann), some not (White and Smith). This was an enjoyable melodrama, though the tone remains relatively light throughout despite the murder and suicide. The acting is fine, with Johann, Osborne and White as standouts, and it’s fun to see C. Aubrey Smith out of his comfort zone—rich grandfathers—doing something a little different. This is the second time this summer I've seen Alice White and I think she's an underrated comic actress, with a little bit of a Harlow vibe, though sweeter and more pixieish. I ran across this rarity on YouTube and it's worth digging around to find. [YouTube]

Monday, September 28, 2015


An older gentleman (Fritz Leiber) is chatting with a young woman (Eve Miller) on a train, and she comes to believe he may have psychic powers. The rest of the movie is the story he tells her. A woman very much like her gets off a train to meet her lover (Charles Russell, pictured), but during an altercation he accidentally stabs her to death and, while dumping her wrapped-up body in a cargo car on the train, is glimpsed by a young boy (Dale Belding). Russell gets a ride with a friendly newspaper editor to a nearby small town where he finds lodging at a boarding house. The occupants include a harmless drunk, a flirtatious totsy (Mary Beth Hughes), a single mother (Lee Patrick), and, of course, the little boy who saw him at the train station. At first, the boy doesn't realize that Russell was involved in a murder, but soon news reaches the town about the corpse being discovered and Belding, who has to share his bedroom with Russell, starts getting suspicious. Can Russell escape town with Hughes before the boy becomes a threat? Or will the boy become his second victim?

The title, which has nothing to do with the plot, is from a series of mystery books and a radio show from the 40s. Universal produced a series of Inner Sanctum B-movies with Lon Chaney Jr. but this is not related to those, except that it's a mystery with overtones of film noir and the supernatural. As such, it's interesting though there is a tone problem with too much comic relief throughout. The editor and the drunk are both present mostly for comedy purposes, and even Lee Patrick gets her share of humorous lines. Charles Russell, however, is deadly serious and gives a good, tense performance, though at times it seems at odds with every other performance except that of the boy, who does a nice job being both scared and adventurous. If Russell's character was fleshed out more (as it is, we know virtually nothing about him), he'd be a solid noir lead. The supernatural element comes into play in the frame story with Leiber (the father of the fantasy author with the same name) and provides a nice sting at the end of the story. A memorably clichéd exchange: Hughes, to Russell, "You're even too bad for me"; Russell, in reply, "You're very pretty—when those lips aren't moving." [Streaming]

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Bill (George Brent) was once a high school football hero, but now he's an office manager at an advertising firm. He wants to work on ad campaigns, but his boss belittles his every attempt to step outside the boundaries of his job. His wife Nan (Ann Dvorak) encourages him to stand up for himself, but things remain status quo until two things happen: his brother-in-law gets a better job, and his boss hires Pat (Bette Davis), an old school chum of Bill's, as an ad writer, and then humiliates Bill in front of Pat. Nan has saved a little money which she gives to Bill so he can quit and start his own ad agency. He struggles for a while but finally breaks into the big time when he snags Paul (John Halliday), a cosmetics magnate, as a client, even giving him advice about how to boost sales—by slapping a "double strength" label on his skin cream and doubling the price. Soon Bill has a very successful business, and has even hired Pat as a copy writer, which is, of course, the beginning of his downfall when he and Pat start an affair. To muddy the waters even more, Paul, sensing the situation, comes on to Nan. Soon, Bill and Nan head to divorce court until a near-tragedy in the family makes the two reconsider.

Technically, this movie was released a couple of months after the Production Code went into effect, but it gets away with presenting fairly explicitly an extramarital affair without really having to "punish" either of the participants. Davis was near a crossroads in her career—this was the first movie that came out after OF HUMAN BONDAGE made her a sensation—and though Ann Dvorak has the title role, and arguably the more important role, Davis is billed ahead of her and with good reason. Even at half-speed in a supporting part, Davis throws sparks and is the main reason to watch this, though Brent makes for a very appealing lead. Unfortunately, Dvorak comes off rather blandly, though our sympathy still remains with her character. Ruth Donnelly is fun as Dvorak's sister-in-law, and Hobart Cavanaugh and Robert Barrat are fine in supporting roles. This is mild, light-toned if not exactly comic, melodrama and is generally entertaining, but not a major Bette Davis film. [DVD]

Monday, September 21, 2015


Everard Hope is an cranky old man who lives in a large house in which the rule is, no electric lights after 9:00, only candles—we're never told why; there are references to the wartime blackouts, but this seems to be a family rule from way back. Even his pet parrot constantly squawks out, "Lights, you damned fool, lights!" Everard has collected his relatives in order to have a reading of his will, but the night before, he runs out of his bedroom yelling, "Fire!" and falls down the stairs to his death. It turns out that he's left his money to Dorothea, a chorus girl whom none of the other relatives know. The catch is that she must spend a month living in the house before she can claim the estate. Dorothea is advised by the rather sinister-looking housekeeper Julia that she might be in danger if she accepts the challenge—there is some mystery concerning the death of Everard's brother years ago in a fall from a window in the house, and Julia implies that she might not survive her tenancy. Nevertheless, Dorothea starts spending money she doesn't quite have yet, goes out for drinks with some flirtatious cousins, and moves in. William Gordon, a former detective, has his suspicions about some of the relatives and starts hanging around, trying to keep her safe.

This movie tries to span several genres: old dark house thriller, comedy, musical—we see Dorothea sing and dance at a club—and never really comes together. Horror movie fans in particular are likely to be disappointed at the lack of any real scares. Still, it's kind of fun, with good atmosphere and a scene-stealing performance from Beatrix Lehmann as the housekeeper (pictured), who functions as a kind of Mrs. Danvers character. She and Eliot Makeham (as the cranky old man) are the only ones who really take their roles seriously. The star of the film is Jessie Matthews, a stage and screen star in England, though this wound up being her last major movie before she had a second career on British television. One character says to her, "Gosh! You’re plucky!" but for me, she called to mind a low-energy Ann Miller. There’s also two comic relief brothers (Reginald Purdell and Hugh Dempster) who vie ineptly for Dorothea's hand. A few amusing lines crop up. When we see Dorothea do her act, she is accompanied on stage by Maurice, introduced by the MC as "not her husband and not likely to be." Later the brothers come to visit Dorothea and are told by Julia that she "is in but not at home," to which one of them replies, "Bit of a contortionist, what?" [YouTube]

Friday, September 18, 2015


In this Cold War rehash of the Greta Garbo classic NINOTCHKA, Katharine Hepburn plays a Russian pilot who is forced out of the sky when she violates American air space in Germany. The Americans hope that she's a defector, but she claims she left Russia in a fit of pique because a man was promoted over her. She's not interested in being part of any anti-Communist propaganda (she despises the superficiality of American women who are only interested "only in nail polish and false bosoms"), but the Air Force would like to change her mind, so a major (Bob Hope) is put in charge of taking Hepburn to London and softening her up so she'll be a good little defector. Of course, as he tries to convert her, she tries to convert him to socialism, and slowly, despite the presence of Hope's fiancée, they start to fall in love.

Let me repeat that: Katherine Hepburn and Bob Hope fall in love. That is the main gimmick behind this movie, and it plays out as badly as you would expect. Though both actors are professionals and seem to be trying as hard as they can, they both seem very uncomfortable, with the picture above epitomizing their on-screen chemistry. Hepburn's accent is grating (and varies occasionally) and she looks dreadful; Hope mostly acts like he's in a Road movie with Bing Crosby—when someone insults him by calling him a "dog nose," Hope replies, "Oh, you got a little Crosby blood in ya!" Apparently, Hope brought in some of his own gag writers to "polish" the dialogue, and the screenwriter, the legendary Ben Hecht, had his name taken out of the official credits. Hepburn wasn't too happy, either, and the two had a frosty relationship. It's not quite a disaster; if nothing else, I like to tell friend that I've seen a romantic comedy with Hepburn and Hope, and watch their reactions. If you're expecting a Bob Hope comedy, you’ll probably like it, but if you want a Hepburn comedy like The Philadelphia Story or Bringing Up Baby, avoid it like the plague. [TCM]

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


John Cassavetes' first movie for a big studio—and one of his last, as he eventually went on to forge a career as the godfather of American independent cinema—charts the rise and fall of a jazz musician (Bobby Darin) following the typical trajectory of such showbiz tales: hardscrabble beginnings, clashes with fellow musicians over his art, temptation to hit it big by selling out, leaving his buddies in the lurch because he has to follow his own muse, hitting bottom, seeing the error of his ways and maybe making a comeback in the end. Some of Cassavetes' later style is on display here, especially in the interesting camera moves and use of close-ups, but the narrative is slow-moving and several individual scenes go on too long, especially the odd poolroom fight scene between Darin's combo and a punk (Vince Edwards). Darin is good, if a bit of a cold fish, as the pianist torn between art and commercialism; Stella Stevens is very good as a somewhat neurotic (but in mostly a low-key fashion) young singer who Darin discovers and adds to his band; the actors playing the band members, including a young and surprisingly boyish Seymour Cassel, give naturalistic performances, though the music was actually played by pros including Benny Carter, Jimmy Rowles and Tommy Tedesco. The standout performance is given by Everett Chambers as Darin's agent who actually comes across as the most complex character—he cares about Darin, but he also cares about the band and making money, and he occasionally sleeps with Stevens. He acts sometimes in reprehensible ways but he's not a one-note villain. Chambers (pictured above with Darin behind him) left acting for a career in TV producing (including Peyton Place, Columbo, and Cassavetes' short-lived jazz/detective show Johnny Staccato). Marilyn Clark has a small role as a middle-aged woman who "keeps" Darin for a time. The score by David Raksin is fine, especially the fun opening number played by the band for a group of children. [TCM]

Friday, September 11, 2015



Zoologist Paul Gordon (Donald Woods) is living with his wife Ruth and young son David in the middle of an African jungle, studying animals. David occasionally goes off to roam the wilds with his buddy Bomba the Jungle Boy, who has even provided him with a matching loincloth, but Paul and Ruth think he's imaginary. However, we have seen Bomba (Johnny Sheffield) secretly free some animals that Paul and his men captured one night. Meanwhile, Dr. Langley, an ethnologist from the Cairo Museum, shows up with his assistants Barton and Higgins, and wants to hire Paul to take them to find a dormant volcano which may point them toward a buried lost city. At first, Paul declines, saying he wants to take his family back to civilization, but soon, a jewel-studded knife that Bomba found near the volcano and gave to David as a gift ups the ante. Barton and Higgins volunteer to take David back to the city so Paul can lead their expedition, but actually the two kidnap David and try to force him to take them to the volcano so they can get their hands on whatever treasures there may be. Paul and Ruth and Langley go after the men. When Bomba gets in on the chase, there's all kind of excitement: Barton shoots Bomba's vine in two, a python attacks Higgins, Bomba wrestles a crocodile, there’s more gunplay, and of course, guess which volcano suddenly picks this time to get active?

By now in the series, Bomba is a Jungle Teenager—Sheffield was 19—but he can still pull off some stand-offish charm, or charming stand-offishness, though it's clear Bomba would rather horse around with kids than start dating. This is the first Bomba movie that doesn't provide a young woman who falls for Bomba, and that's OK. One critic notes disparagingly that Sheffield has a wrestler's build rather than a swimmer's build like Johnny Weissmuller had as Tarzan—Weissmuller may have been, early in the Tarzan series, sleeker and more aesthetically pleasing, but Sheffield is just a different kind of beefcake. Young Tommy Ivo is fine as David, his character clearly intended to help skew the audience toward children. Woods and Marjorie Lord are adequate in the adult leads, and John Ridgely, on a downhill slide from his heyday as a supporting actor at Warner Brothers, is good as one of the bad guys. The action picks up nicely in the last 15 minutes as the volcano begins to boil. The "lost city" trope, common in Tarzan stories and other jungle adventures, will undoubtedly return in later series entries. [DVD]

Thursday, September 10, 2015


Sleazy reporter Walter Bard is visited by socialite Janet Bradley (Carole Landis), daughter of a mayoral candidate. He's holding incriminating papers and wants money for them, but Janet could only raise half the money, so after negotiations fail, she pulls out a gun, takes the papers by force, and leaves. Meanwhile, it's just another night at the nearby police station where new reporter Johnny Williams (Richard Crane) is being shown around the press room and Lt. Sam Carson (William Gargan) is warning some rowdy young people to stay home, listen to the radio and eat donuts rather than go carousing at "questionable joints." Suddenly, a car runs up over the curb in front of the station and a dead body falls out, that of Walter Bard, apparently killed by gunshot. Janet's name is found on Bard's calendar and she is called in for questioning. Carson gets a little sweet on her and tries hard to clear her name, though she admits to having had a gun. Meanwhile, newspaper publisher Max Calvert is told that a more detailed examination of the body discovered that Bard was actually killed by poison, not a gunshot wound, but as Janet's father is Calvert's chief rival for mayor, Calvert gets Yager, the coroner, to swap Bard's body for a John Doe body, hoping to strengthen the case against Janet which will hurt her father's chances on election day. In a comedy of errors, Bard's body winds up stashed away in the press room closet. And two more suspects enter the scene: Bard's estranged wife Nora (Mary Anderson) and her lawyer/boyfriend. Can Carson clear Janet's name before Calvert's paper smears her father's name?

This generally fun B-cop movie has a bit too much plot for its budget. The storylines and characters are interesting, but the execution leaves something to be desired. There is a fair amount of action, but leading man Gargan, whom I usually like, is pretty much confined to office scenes of expository dialogue, leaving the supporting cast to keep things moving. Richard Crane (pictured standing, with Gargan in the car), who I know as 50s TV sci-fi hero Rocky Jones, is especially fun as the reporter who finds the dead body, though after being set up in the beginning as an important character, he basically vanishes from the last half. Fred Sherman has a small but crucial role as a boxer who escapes police custody in order to get one last fight in. You actually hear the cliché line, "Get me rewrite, sweetheart" during a frantic press room scene. The print of this shown on the streaming channel Café Noir was not good, and quite chopped up in the beginning, and to make matters worse, the channel took this full screen film and blew it up to make it look widescreen, thereby frequently cutting off the tops of people's heads and making it impossible to read the opening text scrawl. Shame on you, Café Noir! [Streaming]

Tuesday, September 08, 2015


This film has nothing to do with the pulp fiction hero The Shadow, aka Lamont Cranston. Instead, it's an early sound "old dark house" B-mystery from England, and more enjoyable than the Lamont Cranston movies I've seen. A sinister figure known only as The Shadow has been blackmailing famous people, leading to a string of suicides of people (a movie star, a financier, a politician) who can't pay his price. Elliot, a Scotland Yard man, tries to con the Shadow by posing as someone who wants to sell him some incriminating letters, but their meeting ends with Elliot shot dead. Found in Elliot's hand is a small charm of a closed fist, the only physical clue the police have. That weekend, Sir Richard, the head of Scotland Yard, has a small house party, and Inspector Fleming, who worked on tracing the charm, thinks the Shadow might be drawn to Sir Richard's to get the charm back. Staying at the house that foggy Friday night: Sir Richard's flighty aunt, his lovely daughter Sonia, her sturdy fiancée Beverley, and an eccentric mystery novelist named Reggie who is the absolute stereotype of an upper-class British twit. Stopping by later is a stranded motorist named Jim and his sister Moya, who we know are not what they claim to be—Jim has some kind score from the past to settle with Sir Richard. There's also the butler who is spotted letting a suspicious figure in through a window. When Inspector Fleming is shot just as he's about to say who he thinks the Shadow is, Inspector Carr arrives with his men, having to deal with 1) Reggie trying to be helpful; 2) the aunt being nervous; 3) finding out that Sonia thinks the mysterious charm looks familiar, and 4) discovering that the key to the safe where the charm is being kept has gone missing.

Undoubtedly a "quota quicke," made to satisfy a law requiring that a certain percentage of movies shown in Great Britain be British productions, this low-budget mystery is great fun. It's paced well, with few slow sections, and the actors all acquit themselves nicely. The only actors in the cast that I'm familiar with are Elizabeth Allan as Sonia and Feliz Aylmer as Sir Richard. The standout is Henry Kendall (pictured above) as the goofy Reggie, though as with much comic relief, some may get their fill of his twittering inanities earlier than others. He calls everyone "Old bean" or "Old thing," event when they ask him not to. There are some witty one-liners and though the film is rather stagy—the bulk of it happens on just a couple of sets—it generally doesn't feel static. There are a couple of plotholes, and given the identity of the Shadow, the film doesn't play fair in at least one scene, but all's well that ends well. Enjoyable. [YouTube]

Friday, September 04, 2015

VICE RAID (1960)

An off-screen narrator tells us that the Syndicate is like an octopus with its "dirty tentacles" in gambling, drugs and prostitution. We see cops Whitey (Richard Coogan) and Ben (Joseph Sullivan) stop small-time crook Muggsy for "transporting," i.e., bringing an unmarried female across state lines to work, one assumes, as a hooker. While Whitey is otherwise occupied, Ben tells Muggsy to beat it, then shoots him dead, letting us know that Ben is on the syndicate payroll and had to kill Muggsy to stop him from ratting on the big boys. Sure enough, big boss Vince (Brad Dexter), who runs several modeling agencies which are fronts for escort services, decides it's time to get Whitey out of his hair. He brings in buxom Carol Hudson (Mamie Van Doren) and lets Whitey snag her, then has her testify that Whitey entrapped her. Whitey gets booted off the force but talks his boss into giving him a chance to clear his name. He sets up a fake call-girl business and starts getting Vince's agencies closed down. Meanwhile Carol, who has been set up in a nice apartment as Vince's mistress, is shocked when her kid sister Louise shows up to visit her in the big city with hopes of becoming a model just like Carol. When Louise falls prey in a particularly awful way to the bad guys, Carol joins Whitey in his attempt to bring Vince to justice. This is a fairly well-paced B film, though Mamie Van Doren is pretty much the only reason to watch this to the end. The story is predictable, the lead actor (Coogan) is almost completely without charm, and the characters are one-dimensional. Brad Dexter brings some heat to his villain role, the stern narration lends the proceedings a pleasant campy aura, and the sexy sax music score is out of control. Favorite line: when Vince says to Carol, "You like money, don’t you?" she replies, "If I'd wanted glory, I'd have joined the WACS." Pictured above are Van Doren and Coogan. [Netflix streaming]

Thursday, September 03, 2015

RIO RITA (1942)

This is an odd duck of a film. It's based very loosely on a 1920s stage musical which was filmed at the dawn of the sound era as a vehicle for the comedians Wheeler and Woolsey who also starred in the Broadway production. Here, some of the songs have been retained, but the original plot involving a search by the Texas Rangers for a notorious Mexican bandit has been completely revamped for the slapsticky talents of Abbott and Costello, and for the wartime setting. Bud and Lou are stranded in Texas and hop into the trunk of a car with New York license plates, hoping to make it back to the Big Apple, but instead wind up at a hotel in a small Texas town near the Mexican border. It turns out they've hopped a ride with John Carroll, a singing star who is returning to his hometown for the first time in years and who starts up a flirtation with the lovely Kathryn Grayson, owner of the local hotel, who had a big crush on him in the past. However, Grayson may have cause to be jealous when Patricia Dane, who works for the hotel manager (Tom Conway), starts making a play for Carroll. Unbeknownst to our heroes, the hotel and the local radio station are nests of Nazi spies—led by Conway—who hope to get a coded message out in Carroll's big national broadcast. The best bits along the way to the predictable ending involve boxes of artificial apples that are actually miniature radios, a gigantic industrial washing machine in which Lou gets stuck, and the climactic arrival of singing Texas Rangers.

I loved Abbott and Costello when I was a kid; I have fond memories of seeing them on the local afternoon movie show and at school when they would sometimes show Friday afternoon movies. But they eventually lost their appeal to me, especially when I discovered the Marx Brothers, and I have rarely revisited their films in my adulthood. This was an early one that they did on loan to MGM from Universal, and it has more of the feel of a glossy MGM musical than it does a mid-budget Abbott & Costello romp. In fact, it feels like three different movies: an A&C comedy of bungling, an MGM musical, and a straight-up romance. The fit is a bit awkward at times, but frankly I found it rather fun to be bounced around between genres, especially when the likable John Carroll and the talented Kathryn Grayson (both pictured above) are providing the musical and romantic relief from the comedy. Barry Nelson has a small role as a government agent and Peter Whitney is effective as a Nazi thug. Overall, the few musical interludes are not memorable except for the Rangers song. A likable movie, if not one for the ages. [TCM]

Tuesday, September 01, 2015


Lawyer Ted Parkson (George Murphy) is a nice guy but has become obsessed with his work to the point where his wife Anne (Frances Gifford) feels neglected. One night, when the couple is supposed to go out on the town with their friend Vivian (Eve Arden), Ted begs off because he has brought home a new client, nightclub owner Tony Arnelo (John Hodiak). This is the last straw for Anne, especially when Tony begins a subtle flirtation with her; when Tony finds out that she has been dabbling in interior design, he asks her to head up a redesign of his club. She resists his increasing pressure to become his mistress, especially when she meets Claire Lorrison and discovers that she is also his lover. The next day, Claire is found dead and clues point to Anne as the killer.

As noirs go, this is fairly tepid. The one unusual aspect is that a woman is the noir hero—well-intended and sympathetic but caught in a problem partly of her own making. Gifford is good, indeed, the best actor in the cast. Hodiak is slick enough, but plays most of his scenes like a deer caught in headlights. Murphy is a zero—which, to be fair, his character is supposed to be, and Arden, as is often the case, shines in her few spotlight moments but doesn’t get much to do. 11-year-old Dean Stockwell plays the Parkson's son, and Dorothy Dandridge's mother Ruby as a very small role as their maid. Directed by cult radio figure Arch Oboler. [TCM]