Monday, February 29, 2016


At an audition for a nightclub singing spot, blond Dorothy (Marie Wilson) is terrible, but Tommy the pianist (Phil Regan) hears Winnie (Wini Shaw), fresh off the bus from Wapakoneta, Ohio, and talks the boss into listening to her. Not only does she get hired, she attracts the attention of gambling boss Lucky Lorimer (Lyle Talbot) who decides to go legit and become her manager. Soon Winnie is the toast of the town and has fallen in love with Lucky, though he only has eyes for snooty heiress Iris (Genevieve Tobin). Iris enjoys Lucky's company but when he proposes marriage, she laughs in his face. Meanwhile, Winnie can't see what a crush her pianist Tommy has on her. After Lucky's rejection, he vows to break into high society to get Iris' attention, and he does, as the owner of a sparkling new casino for the rich, but Iris's dissolute brother Ronnie causes lots of headaches when he gets drunk and belligerent, and as a topper, steals thousands of dollars of his father's jewels and gives them to Lucky as collateral for his sizable gambling debt. When they are reported as missing, Lucky gives them to the police, but they arrest him for the theft. Iris, whose career has been on a downswing, goes into debt paying his sizable bail (and not letting him know that she did it). Once he's free, Lucky marries Iris, then when he finds out that Winnie paid his bail (and an unscrupulous lawyer made off with the money), he secretly bankrolls a big Broadway show for her. But the dissolute brother is not done making trouble, and now he has a gun.

Enough plot for you? There's really too much here for a 75 minute movie—the last third feels very choppy and rushed—and I haven't even mentioned the supporting characters and the musical numbers. There are several songs and two big dance numbers choreographed by Bobby Connolly in a Busby Berkeley style, or as much of his style as a B-movie can afford, and they are pips indeed, though not necessarily in a good way. In one, a song that begins with Winnie and Tommy on a simple stage suddenly shifts to an elaborate suburban home set; the last one, "Playboy of Paree," steals directly from Berkeley, with dancers festooned in balloons superimposed to appear as if they are dancing inside a huge glass of champagne, and dancers' faces shooting out at the screen. For me, they both rank as nice tries, but they're missing that effortless glitter and flow that Berkeley could accomplish in his sleep. Shaw (pictured with Talbot) is a fine singer, but she's a big zero in the acting and charisma departments; Tobin is good, though her character seems a bit underwritten. Talbot, one of my favorite B-actors, is appropriately handsome and charming. The comic relief here is nicely done by two pros: Allen Jenkins as Lucky's sidekick who goes by the name Fishcake, and Spring Byington as a rich widow who Jenkins romances. Phil Regan is almost as charming as Talbot. An actor named Donald Ross is ineffectual as the drunken brother, and in fact, Ross never made another movie. Ward Bond and Dennis O'Keefe have bit parts. I enjoyed this movie but I'm not sure I’d want to sit though it again. [TCM]

Friday, February 26, 2016


Bette Davis is married to successful attorney Barry Sullivan; they have a nice house, a circle of sociable friends, and two daughters, one of whom (Betty Lynn) is seriously dating Brett King, a pleasant but lower-class Czech lad, which bothers Davis. One evening, seemingly out the blue, Sullivan asks Davis for a divorce. She, unable to understand why success and money don't satisfy him, is upset that he can't pinpoint his free-floating frustration with his life. In a series of flashbacks, we see their relationship grow. Early on, she directs a client toward her struggling husband instead of to his more knowledgeable friend (Kent Taylor), and years later, when this fact becomes known, it drives a wedge between Sullivan and Taylor, and is the start of the slow fracturing of Davis and Sullivan's marriage. Back in the present day, Davis has her attorney hire an investigator who snaps pictures of Sullivan in a compromising position with his young mistress (Frances Dee)—or perhaps would-be mistress, it's a little ambiguous. Thanks to the threat of making the pictures public and ruining Dee's life, Davis gets everything she wants in the divorce settlement. She goes on a cruise and does a little flirting with fellow passenger John Sutton, but when it turns out he's married and is just looking for a fling, she's disappointed. Back home, at Betty's wedding to Brett, she sees Sullivan and breaks down in a teary mess, regretting everything that's happened. Can there be a happy ending in store for these two "kids"?

Well, yes, in the last moments of the film, there is a strong hint at a rather improbable happy ending which makes hash of much of what has gone before. Fans of romantic melodrama (what they called "women’s pictures" back then) will enjoy this, though fans of Bette Davis may not. Released just one year after her career-crowning performance in ALL ABOUT EVE (though actually filmed just before EVE), Davis merely idles at half-speed until her crying jag scene at the end, which is so realistic it's almost painful to watch—you really feel for her character and her regret over the many ways in which she has subverted her own attempts at happiness. Her scenes with Sullivan are fine, though she never quite strikes the sparks she did with her other leading men of the 1940s. Stage actress Jane Cowl plays an older woman who has lived her life very much like Davis and who becomes a kind of warning to her; in Cowl's last scene, she's set up in a nice house in the Caribbean living with a "protégé" who writes poetry—and is most likely gay. Cowl's warning: "When a woman starts getting old, time can be an avalanche, and loneliness a disaster." Stylistically, the most interesting thing about the film is the flashback technique. Each flashback plays out in a very stagebound fashion; for example, in a scene in which Davis and Sullivan get in a car and go for a drive, the car roof is a scrim which, when lighted from above, becomes almost transparent and we can see the night sky through it. The same for a scene set in a house where the walls are briefly invisible as the lighting changes.  For this kind of film, it's well done but a bit bloodless. [DVD]

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


Two men, the older Pierre and the younger Jean, about whom we know and learn little, go on a pilgrimage to a town in Spain where the remains of St. James are kept. Along the way, they run into a number of people of various religious stripes, but mostly heretics who differ with the Church on some of the basic mysteries—the Holy Trinity, the human/divine nature of Christ, the transformation of the host into Christ's body at Communion, free will vs. predestination, etc. Oh, yeah, and Pierre and Jean travel through time and space—well, time at least, as all their encounters seem to be taking place in France and Spain. They run into the pope, the Marquis de Sade, a 4th century heretic named Priscillian, and even Jesus and the Virgin Mary. We see a lengthy argument between a priest and a policeman about whether the host becomes Jesus, or whether Jesus is folded up in the host like meat in a pastry. We see a "holy orgy" in a forest; half-naked women appearing out of nowhere in the bedrooms of two young men in an inn being harassed by a priest; a man in a sinister-looking black and red cape who foretells that Pierre and Jean will have sex with a prostitute who will bear them children; a headwaiter at a fancy hotel lectures his waiters on dogma; and finally, Jesus commits a miracle by curing two blind men—or does he?

When this film, directed by the noted surrealist Luis Bunuel, came out, there was apparently quite a bit of controversy and confusion over it, with some critics angry that it made no sense. This seems like an odd reaction given: 1) the definition of surrealism, and 2) what Antonioni (L'AVVENTURA), Resnais (LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD), and Fellini (JULIET OF THE SPIRITS) were doing earlier in the 60s. From today's vantage point, it seems much less strange, and to this raised-Catholic viewer, it seems obvious that it's not the narrative that's important, but the spirited debates over Catholic dogma and heresy. Bunuel was raised Catholic, proclaimed himself an atheist, and remained interested in—and apparently conflicted about—religion all his life. I assumed he was mocking, fairly gently, both the faith that comes up with these inexplicable mysteries and the heretics who insist on different (but similarly inexplicable) interpretations of these articles of faith. Paul Frankeur (as Pierre) and Laurent Terzieff (as Jean) are fine in the lead roles, but they ultimately don't have much to do but witness and react—and note well that their names can be anglicized as Peter and John. Bernard Verley (pictured above) makes for a nice, somewhat testy Jesus, and Denis Manuel and Daniel Pilon sort of take over as our guides in the last half as two provocateurs who are definitely not of the modern age. Interesting, entertaining, and nicely ambiguous. [DVD]

Tuesday, February 23, 2016


A man is gunned down while running down a street, and dies on the operating table; the surgeon (Paul Lukather) notes that his hands were so strong, they had to be pried from a streetlight which he fell against. That same night, successful concert pianist James Stapleton is in a car accident and his hands are mangled beyond repair. Lukather removes the pianist's hands and replaces them with the hands of the dead thug. When Stapleton's overly protective sister (Joan Harvey) realizes what has happened, she becomes hysterical but she eventually comes around and she and the doctor don't tell Stapleton that his hands are not his. Unfortunately, he soon discovers on his own and can't bring himself to try and play again, which makes his gold digging girlfriend split. When he confronts her, he accidentally sets her place on fire, killing her. This is just his first act of revenge, and wait until he discovers that his sister is dating his surgeon!

This is a variation on the much-adapted French novel "The Hands of Orlac"; the 1935 MAD LOVE with Peter Lorre is the one to beat. This does not beat it, but B-movie fans may like it for its use of shadows and low angle shots. Horror fans will not be impressed by the lack of gore, though tension is generally kept high—except in the talky two-shots that make up much of the middle of the movie. It's disappointing that characters are not developed very well—it would seem to be a no-brainer to do something with the potential for incestuous feelings between the pianist and his sister, but it's left there for the audience to do the heavy lifting, if so inclined. Stapleton (known later in his career as James Noah; pictured above with Harvey and Lukather behind him) is good as the high-strung pianist, and the climax with the central triangle on stage at a concert plays out nicely. The other actors range from so-so to bad, but it's fun to see a young Sally Kellerman in a very small role. [DVD]

Thursday, February 18, 2016


In the Imperial Valley of Southern California, Mexican migrant workers (called braceros) are in demand during harvest season, but the process of getting legally cleared for work is lengthy and some workers pay to be smuggled over the border. Tragically, the smugglers sometimes unload groups of braceroes near a canyon, then rob and kill them. An American customs agent (George Murphy) and a Mexican investigator (Ricardo Montalban) join forces to flush out the smugglers. Montalban poses as a bracero and befriends James Mitchell, a real bracero, to find the smugglers and get across the border, while Murphy poses as a wanted American criminal who wants to join forces with the smuggler, Howard Da Silva. But the best laid plans often go astray as they do here, and when Murphy is exposed, both of their lives are in danger.

This is labeled film noir mostly because it was directed by Anthony Mann (T-MEN, RAW DEAL) and because the cinematography (by John Alton) is full of deep shadows, though most of it was shot not in the city but the desert and there is no real femme fatale—excepting one deceitful woman, a minor character though crucial to the plot. To me it feels more like a crime film, and a surprisingly brutal one for the time. There's a realistic scene of torture, and the death of one character in an open field, run over by a plow, is startling and may have influenced a similar scene in the Coen Brothers' BLOOD SIMPLE. The movie opens well, with a scene of unlucky braceros being attacked at night, then takes a turn toward the Dragnet-like documentary style police procedural and soon the film bogs down a bit as the plot machinations get set up. But the last half-hour sets things right again. Performances are solid, with the honors going to bad guy Da Silva and his sadistic right-hand man Charles McGraw. Also with familiar supporting actors Sig Ruman as a German barkeep who is involved with the smugglers and John Ridgely as a U.S. agent. If you can stick with it through the slow middle section, you'll be rewarded with a strong climax. (Pictured are Da Silva, McGraw and Montalban) [TCM]

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


In an awkward, overly mannered opening, we watch the break-up of the marriage of the Browers, James and Amy. She (Trish Van Devere) seems to think all she has to do to make things better is to apologize for throwing his copy of Milton out the window; he (Paul Jenkins), a college professor, vaguely alludes to having been unhappy for some time. He moves out of their San Francisco apartment and leaves Amy to fend for herself. She gets some guidance from her best friend Jane and from middle-aged Gert (Janet Leigh) who heads a divorcée support group. As an Art History major who's never held a job, Amy has a hard time finding employment—and has to deal with a major league asshole at an employment agency who keeps hitting on her to the point of assault—but does get a summer job as a lifeguard at a city pool. She strikes up a friendship with an older grocer on her block (Melvyn Douglas), coming to rely on him for company and advice, and eventually sticks her toe back in the dating pool with a slick, handsome businessman from out of town (Monte Markham, pictured at left with Van Devere). But she deludes herself into thinking that her husband will come back to her before the divorce is finalized, and when that proves to be far from certain (he's living with a student), her recovery from the separation trauma seems no longer a sure thing.

I suspect this is one of the first movies to take divorce and its aftermath as its main plotline. It was also riding the feminist zeitgeist wave—albeit concerning white and middle-to-upper class feminism—and shows what I'm guessing were some realistic concerns of the time for divorced women: unprepared for the work world, facing a wide range of men in the dating world, not quite believing that their husbands would really leave for good. Van Devere (later married to George C. Scott) has a delicate, 60s flower child feel about her that fits the role, and for the most part, she's fine, though she's a bit artificial in scenes of strong emotion. Douglas downplays and Leigh overplays (being bawdy for comic relief), both to good effect. Some critics fault Markham as being weak in the somewhat problematic role of the playboy suitor, but I think he's right on the mark, and bests Van Devere in their scenes together. Plotlines get tied up in mostly satisfying ways, and even, in the case of her relationship with father-figure Douglas, somewhat unpredictable ways. Fun trivia note: the guy who plays the employment agency jackass (Jonathan Goldsmith, pictured at right) is now the Most Interesting Man in the World for Dos Equis Beer. [TCM]

Friday, February 12, 2016


Bill Cornish, a celebrated G-man, visits his old friend Steve, a doctor in town for a political convention being held across from his hotel. Steve shows Bill a strange discovery: he found a human ear bone in his room's fireplace. After sharing this puzzling find, Steve collapses in a dead faint. After Steve recovers, the hotel doctor says it must have been vertigo, but Bill quickly realizes that Steve was grazed by a bullet that came from an apartment across the street, and Bill soon suspects something's up because the doc didn't find the obvious bullet wound. Bill and Steve head off to search the apartment room and wind up following a woman from the room. She's Enid Van Buren, and she tells Bill and Steve that she and her brother, who had fallen ill, had come to town a couple of weeks before; she left him in the care of the hotel doc and left town for a few days. When she returned, not only was her brother missing, but the room they had (the room that Steve is staying in) was completely different, and the doctor and the manager both claim that her brother was never there. Who fired at Steve? Is Enid crazy? Is Enid dangerous? Or is it the hotel doc and manager who are not to be trusted?

The missing visitor is a plot which has been used in movies (SO LONG AT THE FAIR), TV (I remember an episode of The Big Valley which used it) and folklore (known at Snopes as "The Vanishing Hotel Room"). So if you've run across this storyline before, you’ll know where this is going, but you still could get some fun out of seeing how the plotline develops. Unfortunately, this Poverty Row production plods along with uninspired acting and direction, and the lack of a musical score makes it even harder to sit through. There are a couple of unusual plot twists—Bill can read lips, and he can do it even better with new high-powered binoculars which are treated like something of which James Bond might have been jealous. Once the mysterious doings are figured out, plotholes galore open up. For the record, the mostly unknown actors in the cast include William ‘Stage’ Boyd (not the same guy who starred as Hopalong Cassidy years later) as Bill, Hooper Atchley as Steve, and Claudia Dell as Enid. None of them stand out, nor do the villains. There is one creepy scene of the heroine in a dark mausoleum (pictured), and overall, it's not difficult to sit through, but you'll miss nothing if you don't. (It's on YouTube under its later reissue title, EYES OF MYSTERY)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


On a space station called the Wheel (because that's what it looks like), General Merritt (Walter Brooke) is the head of a group of men who are building—and will later ride on—a spaceship to the moon. They've been up there away from Earth and family for a year and some of them are getting antsy, especially the general's son Barney (Eric Fleming) who goes over his dad's head to get a transfer off the Wheel. But after the team gets orders to head to Mars instead, in order to find new resources for an Earth that is running out of steam, Barney changes his mind and stays on. The gruff Irish Mahoney is too old to get a slot on the ship, but he stows away. The others are a working-class lug from Brooklyn, a Japanese botanist, and a Slavic scientist. They get to Mars successfully, but suddenly the general gets an attack of religious fundamentalism, questions the appropriateness of the entire enterprise, and they wind up crash-landed and at odds with each other.

This may not have quite been an "A" movie but in looks it's certainly heads and shoulders above the average sci-fi film of the era; it avoids coming off like a kiddie matinee flick and tries to tackle adult ideas. Unfortunately, it fumbles the biggest idea: is off-Earth exploration incompatible with being a Christian? The philosophical quandary comes up with no warning halfway through the movie and is dispensed with fairly quickly—it feels like during filming, the director, Byron Haskin, decided he needed one more point of conflict (aside from the generation gap, family, and ageism) and threw in the religious angle, then almost as quickly decided to abandon it. Actually, it's not fully abandoned: in a strange scene near the end, when the astronauts desperately need water, it snows—on Christmas morning. I wonder if Stanley Kubrick saw this, as a handful of images—the movement of vehicles in space, a body floating toward the sun—seem to have influenced the look of 2001. The acting is about par for the course; Brooke, Fleming and Benson Fong as the botanist are fine, but the guy from Brooklyn (Phil Foster) really grates on the nerves. William Hopper plays a scientist on the Wheel, and we see Rosemary Clooney do a song-and-dance number which the astronauts watch on a big TV screen. Produced by George Pal (WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE TIME MACHINE). Worth seeing for its sets and effects, though you will have to put up with some weak dialogue. [Paramount Vault on YouTube]

Monday, February 08, 2016


During World War I, soldier Valdar (Erich von Stroheim) gets a medal from the Belgian king for services rendered; when he leaves the Army, he winds up as a trusted butler to the improbably named British Navy bigshot Sir Winston Chamberlain. At the same time, nurse Frances Hawtree (Constance Bennett), working for the British in France, is actually a German agent. Her new assignment: go to London, infiltrate the home of Sir Chamberlain, find important naval secrets, and pass them on to master spy Blecher. One of Chamberlain's sons recently died at the front and Frances poses as his grieving fiancée; she is accepted into the household with open arms by everyone except the dead man's brother Arthur (Anthony Bushell) who knows that his brother already had a fiancée that the rest of the family didn’t know about. It turns out that Valdar is a German spy and Frances' contact (a Muslim prayer with the phrase "three faces east" is the password they exchange). He flirts with her a bit—in a very Prussian Von-Stroheim way—but won't let her meet Blecher. Just as Frances begins pulling off her plan, Yates, another house guest, gets suspicious of her. Soon, we're not quite sure who is on what side: could either Frances or Valdar (or both) be double agents? Is Yates what he seems to be? And who is Blecher?

I've discovered that were lots of WWI spy movies made in the early 30s, perhaps out of an odd sense of nostalgia or an uneasy feeling about the future—most of these movies could have been made 10 years later as WWII spy stories without much change in plot or even dialogue.  This one tries to be a little trickier than the average, but if you know your movie stars of the era, you’ll know the outcome. Still, I appreciated the little twists and turns of the plot here, though I wish someone besides the somewhat one-note Constance Bennett had the lead role. Stroheim is fun; his character is a little warmer than usual—he flirts with Bennett and even gets to smile in a couple of scenes. I liked him enough that [Spoiler alert:] I wished he'd be able to get away scot-free, though he doesn't. Bushell is fine, and William Courtenay has a couple of good moments as Yates. One standout scene that achieves good tension involves Bennett sneaking around at night, breaking into a safe, then getting her high-heel shoe stuck in a floor grate. [TCM]

Wednesday, February 03, 2016


Roger de Courtney (Peter Blythe) is known for his cruelty—we see him shoot and kill a Norman man, right in front of his young son, for hunting royal deer. John, Roger's father, leaves his estate to be split between the wicked Roger and his somewhat less wicked brother Henry, but with his dying breath, John adds their goodhearted cousin Robin (Barrie Ingram) as an heir. This infuriates Roger who, in short order, murders Henry and frames Robin for the crime. Robin goes on the run, along with the sympathetic Friar Tuck, hiding in Sherwood Forest, and is accepted into a group of rebel Saxons who, get this, rob from the rich (the decadent landowners) and give to the (overtaxed) poor. Soon Robin is leading the band and eventually sets off on a mission to rescue Lady Marian, being held prisoner by Roger and the Sherriff of Nottingham.

I must admit I sometimes wonder why filmmakers keep doing Robin Hood stories when the 1939 Errol Flynn ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD is so darned good. Hammer Films, usually known for horror movies, made the occasional adventure film and this was not their first time around with Robin and his Merry Men; Hammer made two previous versions in 1954 and 1960, the latter (SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST) featuring Richard Greene who played Robin Hood on TV for several seasons. This version would seem custom made for kids, though it lacks, until the end, the rousing swashbuckling that younger viewers might like. Ingram is hopelessly miscast as Robin—he's not particularly handsome or charming or charismatic. In fact, two other actors in the cast—Leon Greene who plays the hulking Little John, and Eric Flynn who is Alan-a-Dale, might have been more effective in the lead role. Peter Blythe is good as the evil Roger who, as he seems to lose his grasp on reality, recalls Vincent Price as Prospero in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH. At one point, Alan starts strumming a lute and a production number almost breaks out, putting me in mind of the "Brave Sir Robin" song in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. Once this movie gets going, it's OK, but it never really overcomes the weakness of its leading man. Pictured above are Will Scarlet (Douglas Mitchell), Alan-a-Dale, Little John and Robin Hood. [TCM]

Monday, February 01, 2016


At the turn of the (20th) century, the Robinson family heads off for two weeks at a Catskills resort called Kissamee. There's Father (Louis Calhern), Mother (Ann Harding), two young boys, and two girls: the younger Melba (Debbie Reynolds) and her 17-year-old sister Patti (Jane Powell). Melba is excited about meeting up again with Billy (Carlton Carpenter), the son of the resort manager, but Billy only has eyes for Patti. Unfortunately, Patti only has eyes for Demi (Ricardo Montalban), a handsome Cuban visiting the resort for the first time. And, of course, Demi seems to be enthralled by a visiting starlet (Phyllis Kirk). This romantic roundelay is played out in tedious detail, with the climax occurring when Patti's dad finally buys her a corset so she can feel like a grown-up. Yes, this entire movie hinges on whether or not Patti will get to wear a corset.

This seems to have been an attempt by MGM at making another MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, and it just goes to show you how difficult it is to set out to make a masterpiece. This has a decent cast—though Jane Powell, fun as she is, is no Judy Garland—and colorful sets and costumes, but it just lies there on the screen with everyone trying way too hard to breathe life into the flaccid story. When you remember that ST. LOUIS hinged on whether or not the Smith family would move to New York, it might not seem such a far stretch to hope that an equally entertaining movie could spring from the story of whether or not Jane Powell will get a corset. But it's not to be. Powell is part of the problem, or more to the point, her character is. Patti is whiny, obnoxious, self-defeating,  and very hard to care about. By the halfway point, I was ready for her to drown in the lake and let the movie focus on the much more appealing Debbie Reynolds. In fact, the high point of the movie is the song "Aba Daba Honeymoon," performed by Reynolds and the lanky, quirkily cute Carlton Carpenter. Most of Powell's songs are operatic in style and uninteresting. There's a cute scene of all the camp kids singing together—which is directly reminiscent of scenes in ST. LOUIS—and a fun moment when a whole lot of fireworks hidden under a bed go off by accident. Otherwise, this is eminently skipable; you can see most of the "Aba Daba Honeymoon" number in the compilation movie THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT. [TCM]