Friday, December 30, 2016


Broadway director Ted Sturgis' new revue "Give a Girl a Break" is in rehearsals until the star throws a tantrum about feeling ignored by Ted (Gower Champion). He apologizes but she quits anyway. To save the show, Ted, his assistant Bob (Bob Fosse), and his producer Leo (Kurt Kaszner) decide to go for a PR stunt; instead of hiring another big name, they'll do a well-publicized talent search for a star, literally giving an unknown girl a big break. The choice is quickly narrowed down to three, each one championed by one of the men: Suzy (Debbie Reynolds) is a young dancer with little experience but a cute face and a bubbly personality whom Bob has fallen head over heels for, despite her overbearing stage mother; Joanna, an older and more experienced dancer (Helen Wood) is the favorite of Leo, but he doesn't realize that she's married, and that her husband may expect her to give up her career to follow him to Minnesota for a teaching job; Ted's choice is his former dance partner—and, we assume, ex-lover—Madelyn (Marge Champion), who has a comeback on her mind, despite the lukewarm reception that her idea receives from her current boyfriend. We see three fun fantasy dance numbers, each dreamt up by one of the men, and ultimately the choice is not so much up to the men as to the life decisions made by each woman.

By cosmic coincidence, I saw this movie just days before Debbie Reynolds passed away, and I'd like to see it again. It's basically a B-movie musical; it looks colorful and it has a few very good numbers, but the script is thin, the songs are fairly blah, and the performances feel second-string. I can't help but think how much better Gene Kelly would have been as the director (apparently the movie was first intended as a vehicle for Kelly, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, but when they were unavailable, the budget got cut). Kaszner seems to be trying to channel Gregory Ratoff's producer performance in ALL ABOUT EVE but fails. Helen Wood and Marge Champion are unmemorable, which leaves the whole thing riding on the shoulders (or, more to the point, the dancing feet) of Reynolds and Fosse, and the two do manage to carry a good chunk of the movie. It feels like they have as much screen time, if not more, as the Champions, who are supposed to be the stars: they have great chemistry, they're both cute as hell, and they look like they're having a ball. The highlights of the movie are their two dance numbers, one in a Manhattan park and one, the dream number, which features hundreds of colorful balloons and Reynolds and Fosse dancing backwards—thanks to well-handled trick photography. There's an amusing running joke about Ted using the word "palaver" all the time. For me, Reynolds' peak was her first big movie (SINGIN' IN THE RAIN) but in these lower-budget musicals she did for MGM, she's delightful, and is usually a good enough reason to watch. This may not be a top-rank MGM film but it's fun, and it's a chance to enjoy Reynolds and Fosse (pictured above) in their youth. We'll miss you, Debbie. [TCM]

Monday, December 26, 2016


Broadway star Ginger Rogers has gotten good notices for her latest play—in which at age 40, she's playing 29—but the play itself is lambasted, so she and her producer (Paul Douglas), who is also her ex-husband, are on the lookout for a better play. Young playwright William Holden has such a play; its main characters are a 19-year old girl and her mother, and Rogers would seem suited for the role of the mother, especially with novice actress Pat Crowley hot after the role of the teenager, but Rogers wants to play the daughter, even if that means advancing the character's age to 29, like in her last play. Crowley falls for Holden even as he starts re-writing the play for Rogers. A dalliance develops between Rogers and Holden, despite Crowley's feelings—and despite the still-simmering feelings that Douglas has for Rogers. Eventually, the play in previews is a flop, but Crowley has engineered it so that she appears in the role of the daughter in a summer stock production of the play in Maine, and when Holden sees it, he realizes the error of his ways, both in terms of the play and his choice of love object.

The critic at correctly points out the thematic similarities between this and ALL ABOUT EVE—an aging stage actress having both romantic and professional problems, a young actress ready for the spotlight—but there's no comparison in terms of quality or entertainment value. EVE is a movie for the ages; this one is a light throwaway romantic comedy that could use help in the writing and acting departments. Rogers (pictured with Holden) is adequate, but I've never thought much of her presence aside from in her films with Fred Astaire. Crowley, in her first role, is pretty bad, though part of the problem may be that her character is fairly unpleasant—she has a habit of drawing attention to herself in every situation, hoping she'll get noticed by someone who can help her career, and she changes her name at the drop of a hat for the same reason. An actress with a bit more substance and a bit more edge might have done well here, but Crowley feels at sea. Holden has little chemistry with either of his leading ladies and therefore wilts. Douglas is fine, as is James Gleason in the small role of an agent. This isn't a bad movie, but it feels like a waste of a good idea. [DVD]

Friday, December 23, 2016


Meredith Rossman (Julie Benz) is the daughter of the owners of Rossman’s, a successful department store in Portland, Oregon. In order to make sure her parents get the retirement they deserve, Meredith is in talks with a businessman named Daniel to start a nationwide franchise of stores, but Mom and Dad aren't yet on board 100%. When an old Mrs. Claus costume that Mom used to wear is found, the folks say they’ll consider the deal if Meredith will play Mrs. Claus in the store's Santa village—they hope doing this will help her relax a bit from the strains of running the store. Reluctantly, Meredith agrees, but she almost changes her mind when she discovers she has to work with Nick (David Sutcliffe), the new Santa. Young and handsome (and most assuredly not equipped with a Santa belly), the two start off on the wrong foot and continue that way for a while—she tries to remain all about business and he tries to get her to see the store employees as family, and perhaps to rethink the franchise opportunity. He also teases her with the possibility that he might actually be Santa Claus, which does not endear him to her. However, Meredith slowly thaws out and soon is helping some of her employees, including struggling single mom Jessie and administrative assistant Olivia who has career and romance troubles. But just as she and Nick seem to be striking sparks, Daniel raises the stakes by offering to buy Rossman's instead of just franchising. The catch: she’ll have to lay off a handful of workers.

This TV-movie is a nice variation on the Scrooge story, and to the movie's credit, Meredith is never presented as a truly mean person, just someone who needs a little help finding her way. The epiphany I had while watching this: these bland and formulaic Christmas movies are equally irritating and comforting: the rote ticking-off of all the plot points—introduction of the mildly troubled main character, introduction of the savior figure, slow growth of attraction between the two, the snag along the way, the inevitable redemptive happy ending—is irritating, especially when it's done in a fairly uninspiring way as it is here. But as in most genre pieces, it's comforting to watch the conventions fall into place. So on a scale of 1 to 5 for the Christmas TV-movie genre, this gets a 4, bumped up a bit because the blandly handsome leading man, David Sutcliffe, is particularly charming, and does a nice job keeping us off balance as to whether or not he's a magical guy or just the right man at the right time. Julie Benz is OK but sometimes seems like she thinks this is all beneath her, and to truly make these movies work, the actors have to be invested so that the viewer doesn't stop and think that the movie is beneath him or her. Paul Hopkins, who played Mouse in the Tales of the City sequels, is fine as Daniel, and in a bit of a break with tradition, he is not presented as a romantic foil. Pleasant, and despite the generally average production, one I'd consider re-watching. [Hallmark Channel]

Thursday, December 22, 2016


Vera (Melissa Gilbert) is a successful but temperamental Broadway director who has just been fired from her latest gig when her agent tells her that a small town nearby is willing to pay her big bucks to stage their annual Christmas pageant, hoping to put their town on the cultural map. Reluctantly, she agrees, and the usual culture clash of urban vs. rural, noisy vs. quiet, big vs. little, old vs. new plays out between Gilbert and the pageant participants. When Eddie the mail carrier proves incapable of carrying a tune, Vera's first reaction is to dump him, but instead she makes him her assistant. When cranky Beverly keeps complaining about every little change Vera wants to make to the traditional pageant, Vera ignores her, but then does some digging and discovers that Beverly is keeping a sad secret. See, Vera is becoming more human already. But she is genuinely startled to find Jack (Robert Mailhouse), an old flame, living and working in this small town, to which he retreated after the death of his wife (wait—a dead spouse in a Christmas movie??). Just when the locals start to like Vera, and when she starts warming up to Jack, she gets an offer to go back to the Big Apple to direct a big play. It would mean leaving before the pageant performance and, of course, she's torn. What will Vera do?

This comes in on the low end of the Christmas TV-movie continuum. The plot is filled with timeworn devices—though to be fair, some of them still work well, as with Beverly's plotline—and moves in completely predictable directions with little payoff for the viewer who might like something a little fresh thrown into the mix. Gilbert fails completely at being a hot-shot director, though she seems more in her element as she makes friends in the small town. Mailhouse is sturdy but otherwise unmemorable. Edward Herrmann and Candice Azzara fare much better as the owner of the bed & breakfast where Vera stays, Kate Flannery (Meredith on The Office) is fine as Beverly, and it was nice to see Steve Lawrence still looking good as Vera's agent. I enjoyed seeing Gary Hershberger, whom I remember as a handsome high school jock on Twin Peaks, in a small pageant role. Despite my criticisms, this wasn't exactly painful to watch, and I did get a little teary at the end, just like I'm supposed to. Pictured from left to right: Flannery, Gilbert and Mailhouse. [Hallmark]

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


30-year-old Sam (Dustin Milligan) arrives in his hometown to spend Christmas for the first time in five years, and he's nervous about seeing his old friend Kat (Danica McKellar). As Sam walks into the Christmas festivities and exchanges greetings with everyone, we flashback to when Sam and Kat were kids, and then flash forward through several of the Christmases that they spent together over the years. What we see is that, even as they become best friends, an attraction grows between them than neither one acts on. They date and live with other people, break up, and move on—or fail to move on—the whole time fighting the romantic feelings they have for each other. After what seems to be a major rupture in their relationship, Sam stays away for years, and now he's back—with a proposal of marriage for Kat. But is she still game?

Though this aired on Lifetime, it was made by The Asylum, a company that typically produces low-budget, direct-to-video horror films, and it's a little edgier than the average cable TV-movie. Is this a good thing? I'm not sure. I give it points for trying to do something a little different for a Christmas movie, and the visuals are lovely, but the writing is on the weak side. I never really understood why these two didn't get together before they do (oops, sorry, spoiler). The concept of focusing only on Christmas gatherings at the house of a neighbor (well played by Lea Thompson) is novel, but because of this, we get limited fleshing-out of the characters. Milligan and McKellar work up some nice chemistry but they both feel a little lackluster in the acting department. Scott Patterson offers nice support as Kat's single dad, but aside from Thompson, that's about it for a supporting cast. It’s hard not to like this, but it winds up leaving you wanting a little more. [Amazon Prime]

Monday, December 19, 2016


Since I seem to have seen all the classic-era Christmas movies, I'm going whole-hog for the TV-movies this year, all week long. This first one is a bland but harmless Hallmark holiday confection. Isabella (Haylie Duff), who works for her father as an estate assessor (with a specialty in rare books), is sent to the large old house of handsome but aloof Hunter (Nicholas Gonzalez). He is planning to sell his large inherited estate in California wine country because of sad memories of his grandparents, and he's also not into celebrating Christmas because of sad memories of his late wife. And he's not very happy to see an attractive young woman arrive to work on cataloging the estate and he's rude to her. Naturally, despite the tension, sparks soon begin to fly between the two until slimy Gaston, err… I mean, Tony butts in. He has been carrying a half-hearted torch for Isabella for some time, which her dad (C. Thomas Howell) has encouraged, and now he decides to press his case, which causes misunderstandings between Isabelle and Hunter. Can things be patched up by Christmas?

There is quite of bit of Internet commentary on this TV-movie, most of it negative. Yes, it's a re-imagining of Beauty and the Beast—specifically the Disney version—but that in itself is not a negative. The Christmas atmosphere is half-hearted at best, but even that isn't necessarily a deal-breaker (even the 1954 classic WHITE CHRISTMAS is only really Christmassy at the beginning and end). Critics find Duff and Gonzalez a little on the plastic side, but that's cable TV movies for you. Some even complain that Gonzalez has a couple of shirtless scenes—hell, that a big plus in my book. For me, the worst I can say is that the movie was completely average in all departments: acting, plot, dialogue, setting, atmosphere. One negative is the lack of interesting supporting characters. Sheree J. Wilson has a nice turn as an employee of Hunter's who helps Isabelle figure him out; Mark Famiglietti is serviceable as the bad guy; best is former teen idol Howell as the dad—he has aged gracefully, and I agree with some of the Internet critics that the character comes off as gay, and I wish this had been done on purpose for some intriguing backstory. But if it was, nothing is done with the detail. More fleshing out of any or all of these three (in place of some of the endless anguish scenes between the leads) might have made the movie memorable. It isn't really, but it's also nowhere near as bad as many online viewers have made it out to be. If you're a fan of modern Christmas romances, you'll like it. [Hallmark]

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


Frank Rocci (Paul Kelly) runs a protection racket in New York City and has become a wealthy and powerful man. Crowley, a disgruntled underling, leaves his employ because of the small cut he's getting. Frank's buddies warn him to keep an eye out for Crowley, but Frank seems unconcerned. In fact, his biggest concern is the career of young singer Joan Whelan (Constance Cummings), an old family friend. Without telling Joan, Frank gets her a job at a nightclub run by ostentatious hostess Tex Kaley. Max, the musical director, is not happy with this development, but knows it's best for his health to go along with Frank's wishes—especially when Frank becomes owner of the club. Worldly Frank and innocent Joan start dating and, surprisingly, it seems to work—her influence softens Frank a bit. But when Crowley starts threatening Frank, he sends Joan to Florida for her safety where she falls in love with handsome crooner Clark Brian (Russ Columbo), whose only fault seems to be that he has a delicate constitution when it comes to blood and violence. Clark breaks his contract in Florida and goes back to New York with Joan. How will Frank react? And what happens when Crowley gets the bright idea to kidnap Joan?

This story, credited to Manhattan columnist Walter Winchell who narrates it, is based (apparently quite closely) on the lives of Ruby Keeler and Al Jolson, with Joan based on Ruby, Clark based on Al, and Frank based on gangster Larry Fay. But even if that knowledge means nothing to you, this is still a fun, energetic pre-Code romantic melodrama which sometimes goes off in unpredictable directions, particularly in the last fifteen minutes. Kelly is tough and charismatic, making a surprisingly likeable gangster. Cummings has never been particularly memorable to me but she's fine here, especially if you picture her as Ruby Keeler. Russ Columbo (pictured) was a popular singer who died in a shooting accident at the age of 26 the year after this film was released. As an actor, he makes a good looking singer, but he does, like Kelly, have charisma. Real-life nightclub owner Texas Guinan plays a version of herself as Tex Kaley, and singer Blossom Seeley is fun as Joan's companion. Reliable bad guy C. Henry Gordon plays Crowley. Some pre-Code touches: a gay interior designer who lispingly calls a room "simply stunning"; a reference to "Peter Pansy" male dancers in the dance line; an amusing opening sequence with Times Square signs (like "Most Beautiful Girls in the World Here") alternating with a neon "NUTS”"sign from a peanut shop. An interesting and somewhat overlooked pre-Code film. [TCM]

Friday, December 09, 2016



A man (Peter Arne) is found floating in the Thames, alive but unresponsive, with a bullet wound. He is operated on to remove the bullet, and he actually is clinically dead for seven seconds, but recovers. However, he doesn't seem to remember who he is—and his strange responses to questioning would indicate further mental confusion. Reporter Mike Delaney (Gene Nelson) uses his paper's photo files to discover that the man is atomic scientist Stephen Rayner, and Inspector Cleary is happy to know this—until they find out that Reyner is at work, albeit with a couple of bandages on his face. Who is the recovering patient, and why, when they take pictures of him, are the photos foggy? Answers come slowly. The reason for the strange answers the man gives: because he was dead for seven seconds, his brain is seven seconds ahead of the rest of the world, so they discover he is answering questions before they are asked. The problem with the photos indicates that the patient has radiation poisoning, which leads the police to believe that the patient is the real Dr. Reyner. If so, who is the man claiming to be Reyner, and what is he up to?

This is an odd duck of a movie. Both of its titles promise science-fiction, and certainly there is a bit of that here (though the seven second gimmick seems more fantastic than scientific), but it really belongs more to the journalist-playing-detective genre. At times, it seems related to film noir (I'm thinking of KISS ME DEADLY), but it's too light in tone for that. The sci-fi aspects of the film are brought up and discarded with little impact on the overall narrative. So let’' just say this is an atomic-age thriller. As such, it's rather fun, with Nelson making a likeable leading man—and doing a nice job with his comic relief scenes—Faith Domergue as his photo-journalist girlfriend, Arne doing a nice job in a dual role. Ultimately, it's an industrial sabotage story involving (wait for it…) tungsten. Still, it's worth seeing. Pictured are Nelson and Domergue. [Streaming]

Tuesday, December 06, 2016


Dr. Frank Brace is a big shot at the city hospital, and his two sons are interns following in his footsteps. However, unknown to dad, Jerry (Gordon Oliver) is an irresponsible lout with a drinking problem, and his foster brother Steven (Donald Woods) is always covering up for him. Dr. Nordland, inventor of the Nordland compressions used in heart surgery, plans to make Steven his assistant, but fate has other plans. One night Steven takes over for another intern, but Jerry, out for a drunken joy ride with his girlfriend Ruby, has an accident and takes Ruby home instead of to the hospital, and talks Steven into leaving the hospital to attend to her while he promises to take over Steven's duties. Steven tries to help Ruby but she dies, and at the hospital, the drunken Jerry passes out, failing to attend to a particular patient who also dies. Steven tries to get cowardly Jerry to fess up that everything was his fault, but Jerry double-crosses his brother in front of their father and Steven loses his medical license. Nordland, who still has faith in Steven, hires him to be a nurse at a clinic for the poor with the understanding that he cannot perform operations. But when an emergency arises and Nordland is out of town, Steven operates using the Nordland compressions. The child dies and Steven is sentenced to a year in jail for operating without a license.

In the meantime, Jerry has started dating Nordland's daughter Paula (Jean Muir) even though Steven was sweet on her before. Nordland gives Steven one more chance, running a clinic in Cuba where he will able to practice medicine legally. Also on their way to Cuba for a vacation are Jerry, his dad, and his girlfriend. During a storm at sea, drunken Jerry gets in trouble again and Steven, again, could help out. Will he? And if he does, will he gain redemption or just get trampled over by his brother? This is an hour-long melodrama from the Warner Brothers B-movie unit, the best in the business, so you know you’re in good hands from the start. Woods is always a solid B-lead, and Oliver is fine as the rat-fink brother. Muir is a little one-note, but she doesn’t get in the way of the two male leads. Character actor stalwarts Joseph King (as the father) and Henry Kolker (as the surgeon) are pros. There is a lot of plot in this short movie, but that helps keep it moving, even though some of the twists feel rather improbable. Pictured are Oliver and Woods. [TCM]

Friday, December 02, 2016


The residents of the small British town of Deanbridge include banker Dick Sanford, his daughter Sally, newspaper editor Joe, and Joe's son (and local golf champion) Bob. Sally has been dating Bob but has come to find him a little on the boring side when a new gentleman arrives in the village: the wealthy and slightly mysterious John Preston (Christopher Lee). He claims to have been buddies during the war with a soldier from Deanbridge who was killed. Now, John wants to live in peace and quiet, so he buys up property and rebuilds some moribund businesses, and soon he has become a well-respected community member. He also begins dating Sally, much to Bob's annoyance. But when the local hospital hires a psychiatrist, Dr. Walton (Alexander Knox), John expresses anger, dismissing analysis as no better than voodoo. Bob, spiraling downward after Sally announces her forthcoming marriage to John, plans to shoot John but can't bring himself to do so. Instead, he starts sessions with Walton, trying to work out his anger issues. Surprisingly, Walton soon has another patient: Preston, who has been having recurring nightmares in which he imagines that he is not really John Preston at all. Does Preston have a split personality? Is he dangerous to himself or others? Do his dreams that he has killed a blackmailer mean anything?

The fact that Christopher Lee stars is reason enough for most film fans to assume that this is a horror movie, but it's actually a rather bloodless psychological thriller. Lee gives a good performance as the conflicted hero (or is it anti-hero?), but the rest of the acting is only so-so, the pace is slow, and over forty minutes go by before we get to the meat of the plot, meaning that over half the movie is exposition—and largely beside-the-point information at that. I was never exactly bored, but I realized about 25 minutes in that I had no idea where the narrative was going—not because of any postmodern trickery but just due to lack of incident. There is quite a bit going on in the last section of the movie but it's too little, too late. Knox, whom I like, has the second largest role but is given little to do except listen to people talk. Betta St. John (Sally) co-stars with Lee in a much better movie, HORROR HOTEL. Not a bad movie, really, but not the thriller it seems to want to be. [TCM]