Friday, January 29, 2016


This film opens on what looks like a Parisan wharf with a lady of the evening and her pals dancing with various men until a voice yells, "Cut!" and we discover we're on a movie set. Tyrannical director John Gayle (Don Ameche) winds up working his French leading lady right into a nervous collapse, and when she announces that she's taking a six-month rest cure, JB, the studio boss, fires John and halts production, which bothers producer Doug Hyde (Willard Parker) who is also John's close friend. While at a carnival with his assistant Louisa (Janis Carter)—who is also his sister—John is impressed by a young performer he sees taking on the roles of Brazilian, Chinese and French dancers; when he visits her in her dressing area, he finds out that she's actually a rough-edged Brooklyn girl named Mary O'Leary (Dorothy Lamour). Soon, a plan develops: John will train Mary to take over the movie role, and he and Doug will pass her off as Rochelle, a legitimately French entertainer, to try and get JB to rehire John and finish the picture with "Rochelle" in the lead. But, of course, complications ensue: John falls in love with Mary, who finds him obnoxious, and she seems to be falling for Doug. Meanwhile John is still a hardass on the set and JB might still fire him. Louisa is the only one who really knows what’s going on.

This is an example of a rare breed: a classic-era musical from Columbia Pictures. And that's its main problem: there's no one thing that's really wrong with it, but it wasn't made by MGM, Warner Brothers or Fox, and is missing that extra intangible something that those studios' musicals had. The opening, the Paris street number, is fun and feels like a parody of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, except that movie wasn't made until two years later. The songs are a notch above the off-brand musicals of the time, particularly the 30s standard "Let’s Fall in Love" by Harold Arlen. Until the plot stalls at about the one-hour mark, things move along nicely, and there are some cute lines: "He'll take it as hard as a Wisconsin winter"; "Sure, I'm as gay as May" (a reference, of course, to being happy); Louisa invents a new word, "Insinuenndo."

The bland acting doesn't help. In an MGM musical, the acting might not be much better, but you’d be distracted by the color and the general gloss of the production. This is in black & white and the general look is, well, not glossy, though it doesn't look cheap, either. I'm not a big fan of Lamour—she's serviceable here and does do a good job with all the accents she has to do. Ameche is awfully one-note as the jackass director. The supporting players are better: Willard Parker makes Doug such a nice guy, I was rooting for him to win the girl; I love Janis Carter and once again, I wish she was onscreen more often. Overall, it’s fun if not quite bubbly; I kept wanting Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in the leads. [TCM]

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


This Poverty Row thriller begins quite nicely: on a stormy night, in a room lit only by candles, a man and woman stand at the deathbed of Dr. Philip Earlton. The woman, Emma, pulls the sheet up over his face and suddenly a sharp shriek rings out from outside the room. The movie pretty much goes downhill from there, becoming a tepid old dark house thriller with the added attraction of an ape in the basement. It turns out that the shriek came from Yogi the ape, the devoted pet of the dead man, who, according to Emma, has sensed that his master has died. Others in the house include the dead man's wheelchair-bound brother Robert; Emma and her son Hanns, both servants in the house; Philip's daughter Ruth who is the heir—though the estate goes to Robert in the event of her death; and Ted Clayton, Ruth's handsome (B-movie handsome, that is) boyfriend. Ruth feels unsettled in the house, and with good reason: someone seems to be out to kill her, and it might be Yogi, who apparently never liked her. At one point, she wakes up to an ape hand reaching out from behind her bed trying to strangle her. Others try to tell her that she was probably just having a nightmare, but faithful housekeeper Emma agrees to switch rooms with her, and the next morning, Emma is found dead. Who exactly is this monster who walks?

There's not a lot to recommend this film except to die-hard fans of early horror/mystery films. The best thing, aside from the atmosphere of the first 10 minutes, is the performance of Mischa Auer as Hanns, a character who remains mysterious until the climax—his violin-playing, usually of Brahms' Lullaby, is a plotpoint. He's also the only actor who gets to express anything resembling real emotion, and Auer (pictured with Martha Mattox as Emma) does a fine job. Sheldon Lewis as Robert is clearly channeling Lionel Barrymore, which does him no favors, and Rex Lease (who appeared in dozens—maybe hundreds—of B-westerns, rarely in a starring role) as the mildly heroic Ted is a big zero. For a change, the ape is real, not a guy in a suit, though he's also not very scary, basically confined to jumping and dancing in a small cage. Willie Best plays the stereotyped scared-witless black servant; the less said, the better. Much of the dialogue is presented in a ponderous fashion, as though that delivery alone will create tension—it doesn't. There is a little fun to be had with the secret passages and such, but mostly this is a bland movie that might be good only as a curtain-raiser for a better thriller, like THE CAT AND THE CANARY. [YouTube]

Monday, January 25, 2016


I would guess this is one of the earliest sound films to use the device of a dream to trigger a bizarre plot. In the small town of New Rome, Eddie Cantor is expelled from town for taking the side of some impoverished shanty-town folks against crooked politicians. While trekking off into exile, he falls asleep and dreams he's in ancient Rome. A slave, he is sold to David Manners, a good-natured sort who is in love with Gloria Stuart. The three wind up fighting corruption in Rome, personified by Edward Arnold (always a reliable figure of corruption) and Verree Teasdale as the Emperor and Empress. There are several pleasures in this pre-Code musical; some are the one-liners sprkinled throughout. When Cantor tells Arnold about Mickey and Minnie Mouse, he replies with incredulity, "A mouse has a sweetheart?" When Cantor is surrounded by hungry lions, he says he'd like to feed them and a young woman replies, "You will!" Some strange Busby Berkeley production numbers enliven the proceedings: Cantor, in blackface, sings "Keep Young and Beautiful" (the same song Annie Lennox resurrected on her first solo album Diva) in a sprawling beauty spa; Ruth Etting (the singer Doris Day portrayed in LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME) sings "No More Love" surrounded by busty Goldywn Girls, in chains and naked except for their long, long Barbie doll hair strategically swirled around their torsos. Another song is called "Put a Tax on Love." When Cantor (pictured at right between two guards) wakes up from his dream, he manages to foil the real-world villains of New Rome, and the final number is a utopian song that finds all the poor people living communally in the streets of the town. Billy Barty has a bit part as a shrunken Eddie Cantor, and Lucille Ball and Paulette Goddard are among the Goldwyn Girls—though I didn’t catch them. [DVD]

Thursday, January 21, 2016


This film, a post-war propaganda piece about the outrages committed by the Japanese in the Philippines, was apparently released under this title in 1959 as an "adult" exploitation movie, pieced together from two 1948 films, BEAST OF THE EAST and OUTRAGES OF THE ORIENT. I could not find authoritative proof about the mixing of the two movies, but that would help explain why this film's plot is hard to follow (in addition to the poor shape of the print). We begin on Luzon as peaceful Filipinos go about their lives, singing and engaging in community rituals. But the Japanese invade, launching brutal attacks on the ground and in the air against the native Filipino population. The movie follows two brothers, Carlos and Antonio, both soldiers in the resistance effort being carried out in the summer of 1944. Carlos hates his brother for marrying the woman he loved, but we have seen Antonio shoot her dead just as the Japanese break into her house so she won't have to undergo the rape and torture in which the Japanese soldiers indulge. Carlos's men are ordered by their superiors to surrender but they refuse, and Carlos sends three volunteers to clean out a Japanese sniper nest. They do, but they also die in the effort. Eventually, the Japanese force Carlos and his men to surrender. Meanwhile, Antonio's men meet up with another division, led by a woman, Colonel Eve. He has his doubts about Eve's leadership, but when he sees her kill a soldier whose careless behavior led to the deaths of other men, he not only respects her but falls in love with her. Eventually, Allied troops arrive and liberate the island.

The title promises one of those grindhouse exploitation movies with lots of gore and a little nudity. This one does feature rape, beheading, bayoneting, and massacres, but not in graphic fashion. One brief scene of bare-breasted women covering themselves with their arms as they run away from Japanese soldiers seems like it was spliced in from another source. And speaking of splices, this print is crazy with odd cuts and jolting edits, so this is certainly not the film that moviegoers would have seen in theaters. The dialogue, in English and spoken by Filipino actors, is occasionally hard to decipher. There is also some weird comic relief, provided mostly by a couple of bumbling soldiers. A scene in which a Japanese solider is disciplined by his commanding officer for trying to molest a Filipino nurse is out-and-out slapstick, and completely wrong tonally. But then, there isn't much right about this movie. One can see the germ of an interesting storyline—and the feminist twist involving Colonel Eve was quite unexpected—but both the scripting and the direction seem amateurish, with the acting only a slight notch above. Frankly this would have been more interesting with a little less restraint. Why go for the grindhouse if you've got the equivalent of a PG movie? [Streaming]

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


Mr. Abbot files a missing persons report about his Aunt Martha (Henrietta Crosman) who disappeared just before she was supposed to finalize the sale of her house, which she was being forced into by her nephew. Meanwhile, we see Martha sitting on a park bench with her few belongings, wondering where to spend the night when she winds up befriending Tommy, a young man (Richard Cromwell) who is looking for a lost puppy. Actually, Tommy is the junior member of a trio of thieves led by Gordon (Arthur Hohl), owner of an antique shop. Tommy works at Gordon's store as a cover, and reluctantly takes Martha to the shop so she can spend the night in the room in the back. When the cops come nosing around, Gordon sees that the presence of a granny-figure defuses suspicion, so he hires her as a housekeeper. Soon, Martha realizes that Tommy is caught up in criminal behavior—she even supplies him with an alibi when the cops arrive in the middle of the night chasing the thieves—and she tries, with the help of Judy, a young woman who lives nearby and who is sweet on Tommy, to get him to quit the gang. He slowly softens toward Martha, but decides he needs to participate in one last job, and of course, things go wrong and Martha herself winds up taking the rap for the jewel robbery. Will Tommy step up and be a man?

This is an example of a genre I call the Grandma movie; seemingly quite popular in the 30s, the main character was, if not an actual grandmother, then a kindly older woman—aunt, maid, spinster—who was able to fix family problems or solve crimes or play matchmaker (which reminds me that sometimes it was a male character, as in a number of mid-30s movies with George Arliss). Actresses such as Louise Dressler, May Robson, Edna May Oliver and Helen Lowell starred in such films—one example is EMMA with Dressler and Richard Cromwell—and they are reminders of a time when older actresses could still have commercial mainstream movies built around them. This one is fairly run-of-the-mill. Crosman is OK as Aunt Martha, though her character is given virtually no backstory except that she's run away from her family, and that makes her less compelling as a lead character. Cromwell (pictured with Crosman) is also OK; he always looks rather petulant which makes it hard to care about him even as we sense that we're supposed to. Arthur Hohl, a character actor who usually hovered in the background, winds up being the most interesting character almost by default. The look of the movie, lots of shadows and some striking lighting, might attract noir fans. As a donut lover, I appreciated a running bit about Crosman making homemade donuts which Cromwell ignores at first until he begins to warm up to the old lady. [TCM]

Friday, January 15, 2016


A long-simmering feud between the Wong and Ling families erupts in violence in Chinatown, but when Tom Wong and Joy Ling declare their love for each (to quote a classic 50's song, just like Romeo and Juliet), the families decide to meet to make peace. It is agreed that Tom will give Joy a valuable family necklace to seal the deal, but two fences get small-time crook Zamboni to infiltrate the house where the peace ceremony is taking place. Dressed in a Chinese robe, he steals the necklace, stabbing Tom while he makes his getaway, and when it is assumed that a Ling family member was behind the theft, the feud is back on.

That is the interesting 20 minutes of this film, with nice B-movie atmosphere and characters we care about. The rest of the film focuses on reporter Bob Martin, his gal pal and fellow reporter Ann Martin, and his trusty sidekick Tarzan the Police Dog. This is one of three Poverty Row movies that starred Tarzan, a German shepherd. The dog is well trained, and definitely more appealing the two lead actors, Charles Delaney (who is flat out terrible) and Marion Shilling (who is just boring). There's a lot of clomping around by police, reporters, and members of the Wong and Ling families before the resolution which, of course, results in the restoration of the necklace and the uniting of the clans. Though the dog performs admirably (selling newspapers on the street, delivering messages and guns, fighting villains), most of the actors do not, nor did the writers. Someone named Robert Walker plays one of the bad guys, but he's no relation to the better known Robert Walker of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN fame. Interestingly enough for the era, most of the Chinese characters are actually played by Chinese actors. [Streaming]

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


This heavily fictionalized biopic of Italian violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini begins in Genoa when the young struggling musician is paid to play violin in front of a prisoner's cell. The prisoner's lovely and wealthy daughter, Jeanne de Vermond (Phyllis Calvert), tells Nicolo (Stewart Granger) that her father loves violin music, but actually he uses the sound of the music to cover up the sound of him filing away the bars in his window so he can escape. Nicolo goes to Parma, wins a Stradivarius in a contest by playing a difficult piece of music, and meets up with Jeanne who invites him to play at a party, but he is mostly ignored by the partygoers and he leaves in a huff, but not before the sexy singer Bianchi (Jean Kent), an old flame of Nicolo's, renews their relationship. The rest of the film charts the ups and downs of Nicolo's career and love life. He wants to marry Jeanne, but she is commanded by Napoleon to marry an army officer (Dennis Price). The two men duel over her and the wounded Nicolo loses her, but winds up taking up with Bianchi for a time until fate conspires to have Jeanne enter his life once more.

This is not terribly exciting, but as a piece of typical Hollywood biofluff (even though it's a British film), it's not bad. Granger is OK as Paganini, and does a very good job of faking playing the violin in several scenes—actually played by Yehudi Menuhin with some close-up shots of violin-playing hands supplied by David McCallum’s father who played violin for The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The movie has the feel of a B-plus budget, but generally the sets are fine and the number of extras in any given scene adequate; most impressive is the scene in which Napoleon's soldiers march into town during a concert by Paganini. What truly kept me entertained throughout was the performance of Cecil Parker as Germi, Paganini's manager—he's designed as a comic relief character, but Parker fleshes him out as much as he can to the point where I really cared more about him than either of the two women in Paganini's life. Favorite line, spoken to Jeanne by her mother, who disapproves of Paganini: "We de Vermond women never kiss anyone of lower station." [Netflix streaming]

Tuesday, January 12, 2016


Bill is an ex-GI who is having a rough time adjusting to life back home, and the latest kick in the head is getting cheated out of money in a real estate scam. He complains to Veterans Affairs but doesn’t get satisfaction. Earl, a member of the local chapter of the Communist party, gives Bill a sympathetic ear and takes him to a bar where hot Commie totsies provide a little more than an ear; Mollie winds up taking him home that night and, between seductive moves, starts to propagandize about trying to end the exploitation of mankind. The next morning, Bill has left but her apartment shows signs of a late night, and who should show up but Mollie's good Catholic mother who is trying to talk her out of her fallen ways. But Mollie believes that her father died young due to the ravages of worker exploitation and sticks with the party. Nina, a genuine Russian, takes up the case of Bill—they become close and he joins the party, even going to "Worker’s School," where classes in Marxism are taught by Nina.

Meanwhile, not everything is Red Heaven in the party. Henry, a poet who writes well-received agitprop poems for the paper The Toilers, is criticized for implying that not all of Karl Marx's ideas were original, and is soon persona non grata around the offices; an Italian worker named Reachi raises serious objections to the party line at a meeting and winds up dead, though the newspaper blames his death on anti-Communist agitators; Mollie is ostracized for continuing to see Henry, for whom she seems to have a thing; Sam, a young African-American reporter for the Toiler, becomes disillusioned. Yvonne, the most dyed-in-the-wool of all the party members, is practically driven mad by all the turmoil, and she cracks when Immigration agents question her passport. Finally, Bill and Nina try to leave the party by getting out of town, but become paranoid thinking that the Party is chasing them.

Yes, this is overwrought anti-Communist propaganda, probably one of the first such films of the Cold War era, but it's actually a well-made movie: good acting, some nice directorial touches (from R.G. Springsteen), and characters that are more interesting than the B-film norm. Bill (Robert Rockwell) isn't blindly bamboozled into the party—yes, the sex may have clouded his thinking a bit, but he knows what he's getting into. Nina (Hanne Axman, pictured at right with Rockwell) and Henry (Shepard Menken) seem a bit rounder than the average duped-commie characters. The hard-core party members are all cartoonish, but Betty Lou Gerson as Yvonne has a couple of good moments including an incredibly fun scenery-chewing mad scene near the end (pictured above left). The movie is quite quotable: the narrator refers to the Communists as casting "a spell of Marxian hatred and revenge" and calls the basis of Marxist thinking "sugarcoated atheism." When Bill tries to, um, press his advantage with Nina, she slaps him and he replies, "The party's getting rough." Sam (Duke Williams) is asked to brand Henry a "decadent psycho-poet" in the newspaper. By the time that Mollie's mom’s priest gets in the act, telling her that the way to defeat Communism is to "live Christianity and American democracy every day of our lives," the lecturing from parental figures has gotten a little out of hand—priests, moms, dads, federal agents and sheriffs all pop up to give advice. Still, this is watchable both as a fairly compelling melodrama and as slightly campy outdated propaganda; that it can be both is a compliment. [DVD]

Friday, January 08, 2016


Karl Brussard is a rich older man dying of a brain tumor who doesn't want to leave this mortal coil yet, and so is sent to Europe to see Dr. Merritt, who has been experimenting with brain transplantation—this is mentioned as casually as if he'd been experimenting in, oh, trying out different parking spots at work. The doc has transplanted the brain of a monkey that had been dead for six years into the head of another monkey and kept it alive and breathing by artificial means. Through silly oddball circumstances, Karl decides to go to France, steal the head of the prophet Nostradamus (dead for almost 400 years), and have Merritt and his assistant Lew bring it back to life so Karl can then (get this) talk the brain into thinking that it's not Nostradamus but is actually Karl Brussard. That way, when Nostradamus's brain gets into Karl's head, he'll still be Karl.  But of course when you're mucking about in God's domain, things rarely work out so well. 

As a B-horror film, this looks and feels like what you would expect, but the laughably bizarre script drops it down a notch (or amps it up a bit, depending on your view). Old pro George Coulouris tries his best as Karl, but the character is not presented consistently; in the beginning, he has several spells of physical and mental weakness, but later in the film, these seem to vanish altogether for the sake of the plot. Robert Hutton is undistinguished as the doctor. There is an equally poorly-written subplot involving a young woman named Odette who, in the beginning, seems like Karl's gold-digging wife, but is actually a ward or a patient or something. She hits it off with Lew (Sheldon Lawrence), causing jealousy to rear its ugly head.  The climax has Nostradamus's head (pictured) grafted onto the body of Lew, and a dying Karl chasing it/him through the streets of London. The head effect is at times unintentionally comical, which does not do wonders for the attempted atmosphere of doom and gloom. And don't get me started about the ridiculous set that is supposed to be Madam Tussaud’s wax museum. [Netflix]

Wednesday, January 06, 2016


In the Irish village of Rathbarney (where, we are told, the main interest is drinking), the beloved 84-year-old squire is injured in a horse jump; on his deathbed, he forgives all debts, gives money to several friends, and leaves his estate to a distant relative (David Niven) who lives in London. When Niven arrives to take on the job of squire, he seems friendly but quickly proves to be a pain in the ass to the villagers by withdrawing the squire's bequests, cancelling the cancelling of the debts, and going after the poachers—who the former squire tolerated by assigning them specific properties on which to poach. The villagers decide to kill the squire and hold a lottery to pick the killer—who turns out to be the village doofus (George Cole). Not having a lot of confidence in him, others group together and, when they discover Niven has a heart condition, decide to try and scare him (literally) to death by dressing up as the castle ghost who, legend has it, appears on O'Leary Night, which is coming up. Still others, unbeknownst to the rest, make their own plans, all of which leads to pandemonium that night.

This little gem is one I'd never heard of but ended up enjoying quite a bit. One problem is the completely nondescript title; the original British title, Happy Ever After, is no better. Apparently it has also been known as Stranger in Town which is a little more specific. It's a fairly dark little comedy with no completely sympathetic character: Niven does a great job at being charming on the surface but a thorough bastard underneath; Barry Fitzgerald (pictured with Niven) does his usual heavily-accented, twinkly-eyed sweet scoundrel; Yvonne DeCarlo is the potential love interest; George Cole makes the village idiot almost charming. But lack of likable characters is not a negative here; it's a bit refreshing to see a comedy from this era that shows everyone to be motivated by their baser instincts, and in places it feels like an Ealing comedy with Alec Guinness, like THE LAVENDER HILL MOB. The movie bogs down a bit in the middle, but the O'Leary Night sequence is pulled off nicely. There's a tavern song, "My Heart Is Irish," which fulfills the demand that every movie about the Irish have some moment in which the characters celebrate their Irishness. A cute little film. [TCM]

Monday, January 04, 2016


In 490 B.C Greece, muscle-bound Athenian peasant Phillipides (Steve Reeves) becomes an Olympics champion and is made head of the Sacred Guard (who are referred to as custodians of Athens' liberty), but secretly Theocritus and Kreusos want to take over the Guard for their own ends. Theo sends the sexy Karis to seduce Phillipides, but he has fallen in love with Andromeda (Mylene Demongeot, pictured with Reeves), daughter of Kreusos who is already promised to Theo. Basically, Theo and his pals are plotting to give Athens up to King Darius when he leads the Persian Army in an invasion on the beaches of Marathon. But when news of the invasion reaches Phillipides, he heads off on a mission to get soldiers from their rival city of Sparta to help hold off the Persians.

Based on historical events, this plays out like an early version of the movie 300 (see also THE 300 SPARTANS, based like 300 on the Battle of Thermopylae, which occurred ten years after the Battle of Marathon). But as with those films, no one will see this for a history lesson: we just wanna see our muscleman Reeves flex and sweat and kick some bad-guy ass, and he certainly does. This is one of the bigger-budget sword-and-sandal films and it shows, with good set design and effects, and even a slightly better screenplay than normal. The plotline is clear and some of the characters feel a little more fleshed-out than you find in the average peplum film. Among the highlights: Karis getting the shit slapped out of her by Theo, and later, though mortally wounded, dragging herself off to warn Phillipides about Theo's betrayal; a well done rockslide; some surprisingly graphic underwater deaths when the Athenians plant spears in the sea floor to do damage to the Persian ships. Reeves is at his best here, even more so than in the original HERCULES. The director of record is Jacques Tourneur (CAT PEOPLE) but it was apparently finished by Mario Bava (BLACK SUNDAY, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD). Like all these Italian productions of the time, the English dubbing is a bit off-putting, but the widescreen print available on DVD distracts the viewer from that. [DVD]

Saturday, January 02, 2016


First, we see headlines about a crippling Navy spy ring being investigated. Then we see sailor Craig Reynolds and his fiancĂ©e Fay Wray in a cab as Reynolds is heading back to his ship after a short vacation with Wray. He leaves her with flowers and gifts, but as soon as he's out of sight, she dumps them in the trash. When Reynolds gets to the ship, he is taken to the brig, ostensibly for being late, but in reality, he is being investigated for possibly being part of a Navy spy ring that is leaking top secret info. Chief Petty Officer Grant Withers, a buddy of Reynolds, manages to get out with an envelope to pass along to interested parties, and he enlists Wray's help. It seems for a while that Reynolds may just a fervent stamp collector, or so claims everyone Withers comes into contact with. Meanwhile Withers and Wray begin a mild flirtation. Soon we're not sure who’s good and who's bad. Certainly given the WWII backdrop, the Germanic, Nazi-ish fellow (William von Brincken) who is interested in Reynolds' stamps must be bad, but what about Wray? Is Reynolds really guilty or just a patsy? And what is Withers' role in all this: just a buddy, or maybe a investigator, or maybe a spy himself?

Plotwise, this B-movie keeps a lot of balls in the air, and its main strength is that it maintains some ambiguity about people's motives throughout, though honestly in the end, it all plays out exactly as you suspect it will. This Monogram sub-B film looks cheap and lacks a background score, but the acting is OK. The action (such as it is) stops dead around the halfway point so Wray and Withers can flirt on a park bench and get comically interrupted by a kid riding a bike. It has potential to be a cute scene but it's awkwardly staged. I watched because Amazon Instant gave Craig Reynolds (pictured with Wray), a favorite of mine, second billing, but after the opening scene in the cab, he is not seen again. Withers and Wray are fine and have nice chemistry. Watchable but nothing special. [Streaming]