Wednesday, June 28, 2017

BEST FOOT FORWARD (1943)

The students as Winsocki Military Academy are getting ready for senior prom and graduation exercises, but cadet Bud Hooper (Tommy Dix) is in a pickle: he sent movie star Lucille Ball (playing herself) a fan letter and asked her to be his date at the prom, never dreaming that she might accept. But she has, egged on by her agent (William Gaxton) who is worried that her career has hit a slump and that this could be good publicity. The problem is that Hooper also asked his longtime girlfriend Helen (Virginia Weidler), and she accepted as well. Hooper tells Helen that he's sick and not to come, but he feels bad about the subterfuge. Ball arrives on a train, expecting a big fanfare welcome, but Hooper and his pals have decided that the best solution to his predicament is to pass Ball off as Helen. (Did it not occur to them that Winsocki might benefit from a movie star appearance, and keep everything above board? To me, this is a major narrative stumbling block, but I was not asked to contribute to the screenplay.) Good-naturedly, Ball agrees to the plan, but who should show up later that day but Helen, come to minister to her sick boyfriend. From here, the complications pile up, leading to a mob scene the night of the prom during which Ball's adoring fans rip her clothes to shreds trying to get some souvenirs.

If you can get past the irritating plot mechanics (the decision not to exploit Ball's presence at the academy, the constant fluctuations of Helen's and Bud's moods, the threat of expulsion for Hooper and his friends), this has a number of enjoyable elements. Ball is great fun, gamely playing herself as a star in decline when in reality, she was just the opposite. Nancy Walker provides several bright spots (singing, dancing and clowning) as a plain-Jane blind date. The production numbers are bright and colorful, especially "The Three B’s" (not Beethoven, Bach & Brahms but barrelhouse, boogie-woogie & blues), and Harry James and his band provide fun versions of "Two O'Clock Jump" and "Flight of the Bumblebee." However, the acting in general is B-movie level. Tommy Dix (pictured with Ball), who was brought in with a handful of others from the original Broadway stage show, is not lead material—he has pretty much one look, glum resignation. Weidler was 16 and at an awkward stage between child actor (THE PHILADELPHIA STORY) and grown-up starlet, and she doesn't quite know which direction to take here—this would, in fact, be her last film, though she managed to appear in over forty films beginning at the age of 4. Gaxton was a big stage star, but his charisma does not translate to film. Fine in smaller roles are June Allyson (in her first movie), Gloria DeHaven, Jack Jordan (another transfer from the stage who, despite pleasant looks and decent acting, never made another film), Chill Wills, Sara Haden and Henry O’Neill. Colorful and glossy and generally fun, but not in the top rank of Arthur Freed's MGM musicals. [TCM]

Monday, June 26, 2017

ROBIN HOOD AND THE PIRATES (1960)

This Italian adventure takes the mythical English outlaw hero and plunks him down in the middle of a Hercules movie, sort of. Though all the men are fully clothed, this has the feel of a peplum (sword and sandals) film. The story plays out as a sequel to the 1938 Errol Flynn classic, though it messes with the canonical lore a bit. The exposition that is delivered over the first half-hour tells us that when Robin took off to join the Crusades, his father became ruler of Sherwood, but Robin was kidnapped by a band of pirates and held for ransom. The news that gets back to Sherwood is that Robin is dead, and his father's wicked assistant Brooks imprisons the Merry Men, kills Dad, and takes over as lord of the land. When we join the story, the pirates run into a huge storm and they abandon ship, with the leader One-Eye (who wears an eye patch but who actually has two healthy eyes) giving Robin Hood his freedom. They all wash up on shore, very near Sherwood (as a road sign in Italian indicates), and Robin gets the pirates to help him in his mission to bring down Brooks in exchange for a share of Brooks' gold. Complications arise in the persons of Karen, a good girl whom Brooks intends to marry against her will but who actually falls for Robin, and Lizbeth, Brooks' daughter, a bad girl who hates Karen and wants Robin for herself.

Though I have to dock this movie for some ludicrously inept swordplay, there are a few points of interest. One major character, Sweet Pea, is a black woman, one of four Saracens held captive by the pirates; though she's just in the background for much of the film, she takes center stage at the end, triggering a revolt of the peasants just as Robin is about to be hanged. (I couldn't find the actress’s name but she bore a resemblance to Nell Carter of the 80s TV show Gimmie A Break.) She's fun—and her comic relief pursuit of One-Eye is successful in the end. The burly One-Eye makes for a decent sidekick, and his fighting entreaty, "Come at me!" feels quite modern, just needing a "Bro!" at the end. Lex Barker as Robin Hood is a disappointment, more or less sleepwalking his way through his role, and being surprisingly awkward in his swashbuckling. All the actors are dubbed, and whoever does the voice of Brooks seems to trying for Claude Rains. The final brouhaha, led by Sweet Pea is fun. While some of the earlier action scenes aren't very exciting, the rousing score tries to trick you into thinking they are. The film was shot widescreen (2.35:1), but the version I saw on Amazon Instant Video, while apparently widescreen, has been distorted to fit a 1.85:1 screen—I had to adjust my TV's viewing ratio to make the people look normal. [Streaming]

Friday, June 23, 2017

SUCCESS AT ANY PRICE (1934)

A gangster known as One-Eyed Mike is shot (through his good eye) and killed; his kid brother Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., pictured), ambitious but restless, tells his gal Sarah (Colleen Moore) that he's gonna hit the big time, but legally. Sarah, a secretary at an advertising agency, gets him an office-boy job with her boss Merritt but he clashes with some of the upper-class college grads working there who Joe sees as lazy and entitled. Joe also strikes up a flirtatious conversation with Merritt's mistress Agnes (Genevieve Tobin)—her perfume gets him all hot and bothered and their racy dialogue implies the beginning of a sadomasochistic relationship. Eventually Joe is allowed to write ad copy for a cosmetic product, is a hit, and gets a promotion. During the Depression, Joe's drive and conniving put him ahead of the game and he winds up screwing Merritt out his job and his mistress—Joe dumps Sarah and marries Agnes. Soon life near the top starts to spin out of control and Joe decides he wants to start all over. But suicide might be the more attractive choice. This is a fairly compelling melodrama with Fairbanks the highlight. He dares to make his character both appealingly energetic and quite unlikable. Tobin is very good, as is Frank Morgan as Merritt. Joe's sudden ethical change of heart near the end is unconvincing, but it doesn't ruin the film. [TCM]

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (1959)

A group of archeologists is investigating the ruins of the lost city of Tikal and trying to understand why the city was abruptly abandoned by the Mayans back in the first century. Two men go out to explore a cave in the ruins but only one, Neito, returns, collapsing after fleeing an erupting volcano. His camera contains pictures of the two men at an underground lake which is the only clue that Dr. John Fielding has to what happened. Within the circle of scientists, there is personal trouble brewing: John and his wife Ellen are having marital problems related to his work, and Max, John's assistant, has the hots for Ellen and now has hope that she might respond to his flirting, though in theory Max has his hands full with Linda, a native woman who is part of their group. When our merry band gets to the lake, they find skeletons and gold at the bottom, but they also find a huge blob-like monster that sucks Max's arm into itself, resulting in all the flesh on his arm being torn off. Max is tended to, but he begins acting crazy and becomes a threat to the scientists. They soon discover that radiation from a comet that returns every thousand years or so feeds the blob monster and makes it grow, and coincidentally, that very comet is now on its way toward Earth.

I remember this title from the Chiller Theater era of the 1960s; I think the one time it aired, it was a second feature and didn’t start until after 1 a.m, and I (being 10 or 11 years old) fell asleep through most of it so its always retained a sense of mystery to me. Now I know that it's a fairly run-of-the-mill dubbed monster movie—made by Italians though set in Mexico—with a handful of gory moments and a romantic triangle story that would have bored me back then. It's notable mainly for being an early work of director Mario Bava, who is credited only as cinematographer though he actually finished the film when the director of record, Riccardo Freda, left. There are a few stylistic touches that signal Bava's presence—particularly the well-shot opening scene—but overall the low budget works against effective visuals. The monster is very disappointing looking in the beginning, though its victims are nicely grisly, and in the last 20 minutes, as Caltiki grows and reproduces, it is presented more effectively, even if the use of miniatures is obvious. Gerard Haerter (pictured) takes acting honors, such as they are, as Max who deteriorates mentally throughout the film. Sadly, a good print of this is hard to find in the U.S.; though there is a region 2 DVD that is in fine shape, I had to watch it on YouTube in a murky, non-letterboxed form, which may made my viewing experience less than optimum. I'd be willing to watch it again if a good region 1 DVD is ever issued. [YouTube]

Friday, June 16, 2017

ROSIE THE RIVETER (1944)

During World War II, Rosie the Riveter was a pop culture propaganda figure created to encourage and empower the homefront women who were 1) taking over the manual labor jobs that were left empty when the male workforce emptied out, and 2) working at defense plants producing aircraft and weapons for the war. This B-movie, rather surprisingly, handles the wartime propaganda very lightly and focuses more on a romantic comedy angle. The story, clearly inspired by the 1943 classic THE MORE THE MERRIER, is set in a defense factory town where, due to the huge influx of workers, housing is scarce. Rosie (Jane Frazee) and Charlie (Frank Albertson) arrive simultaneously at a boarding house run by Grandma Quill, both wanting the last available room. While they argue, two more workers, Vera (Vera Vague) and Kelly (Frank Jenks), show up, having already been promised rooms by Grandma's rambunctious grandson Buzz (Carl Switzer). The solution: the two men, who work the midnight shift, will share the room during the day, and the women, on the day shift, will sleep there at night. Of course, complications ensue: Rosie already has a fiancĂ©, Wayne, a boring stick-in-the-mud who is the personnel manager at the factory where they all work, but after getting stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel with Charlie, sparks fly; Vera finds herself getting sweet on Kelly; Grandma's adult daughter Stella keeps moving in and out depending on how mad she is at her husband, and teenage granddaughter Stella is constantly using the roomies' phone to make and break dates—when asked what would be so bad about spending one evening dateless, she replies, "That shouldn't happen to a dog!"

The outcomes are predictable; not only does the stick-in-the-mud get dumped, but Charlie, who's been desperate to be a Marine, finally gets his wish. This plotpoint is really the only time that a propaganda message is highlighted, and it leads to the song "Rosie the Riveter" being turned into a big patriotic production number at the end. This Republic Pictures film has production values a cut above the norm, and if the script is occasionally weak, the acting is fine. The Vera Vague story is interesting: the actress' real name was Barbara Jo Allen, and Vera Vague was a character she did in comedy routines on the radio. It proved so popular that she adopted the name herself in some of her movies where the shrill character was appropriate to the role. In this film, her character is called Vera and she is billed as Vera Vague, a little trick that she did quite a bit in the 40s. Switzer (Alfalfa in the Our Gang movies) and Louise Erickson are good as the kids, as is Maude Eburne as the grandmother. [Streaming]

Monday, June 12, 2017

DICK BARTON AT BAY (1950)

After watching the first Dick Barton movie, I was unsure about continuing in the series, but here I am, the second of three under my belt. This begins with an agent named Phillips being chased through alleys until he arrives at a phone booth where he stops to call government agent Dick Barton (Don Stannard), but is shot and tossed in the river before he can finish his message. The men responsible for the agent's death, led by Russian agent Volkoff, want to get their hands on Professor Mitchell and his death ray—it can destroy airplanes in the sky by exploding all combustible materials in the plane. Just after Mitchell demonstrates his ray for the British, Volkoff and his men steal the machine and kidnap Mitchell and his daughter Mary. They have plans to use the ray to bring down a flock of planes carrying a bunch of military experts, but they need Mitchell to help them work the ray. Dick and his faithful sidekick Snowey (George Ford) are on the chase, with a three-fingered thug and a ruthless Chinese assassin among their irritants, not to mention the beautiful but dangerous Anna (Tamara Desni), Volkoff's chief associate.

This is a little less of a "Boy’s adventure" story than the first film, though an admiring teenager plays a small role in the finale. Mostly it's a fast moving, if occasionally far-fetched, spy thriller, and the committed performance of Stannard as Dick Barton helps immensely; he may just have been copying the performers who played Barton on the radio, but he has a nice touch that combines a no-nonsense tone (he barks, "Buck up, Snowey!" to give his sidekick a needed boost of courage) with a light touch (able to joke a bit here and there). To the movie's credit, the strained comic relief of the first film is turned down a notch or two here. The climax, at an isolated lighthouse, is appropriately rousing and filled with fisticuffs (if awkwardly staged at times). Patrick Macnee, John Steed in the 60s TV show The Avengers, plays the ill-fated Phillips in the opening moments. Watchable, certainly, and good enough to push me on to find the third film. Pictured above are Snowey, Mary and Dick. [YouTube]

Friday, June 09, 2017

PIERRE OF THE PLAINS (1942)

A handsome French-Canadian trapper named Pierre (John Carroll) is riding through the woods, singing a merry tune about Saskatchewan, when he runs into his Indian pal Crying Loon who is trying unsuccessfully to hide his drunken state. Pierre heads into town to give a thrashing to Clerou (Sheldon Leonard), the trader who gave the Indian booze in exchange for his horse—it's illegal to sell the natives alcohol. The destructive fistfight is the last straw for the sheriff who orders Pierre to leave the district, but Pierre promises to shape up, claiming that he's getting married to Daisy (Ruth Hussey), a barmaid with whom he's had a longtime dalliance. Daisy is getting married, but, as her kid brother Val explains, the groom is Durkin (Bruce Cabot), a guide for the Mounties—we know all we need to know about Durkin's standing when we find out that Clerou, the shifty trader, is his best man. As the wedding is about to begin, an Indian woman and her children appear at the door, and she is revealed as Durkin's wife. Though Durkin claims he's being framed (by Pierre, he assumes), Daisy calls off the wedding and clearly Durkin has it in for Pierre. Later, Val gets in an altercation with Clerou who pulls a gun. They scuffle, the gun goes off, Clerou drops dead, and Val is arrested. A lawyer (Reginald Owen) is called in to prove Val's claim of self-defense, but he's constantly drunk, so Pierre and Daisy pull off a scheme to sneak Val out of jail. More complications occur, leading to a confrontation by the river between an unarmed Pierre and an armed and angry Durkin. Someone hiding behind a tree shoots and kills Durkin, but Pierre is arrested for his murder. Can our carefree trapper wriggle out of yet another predicament?

This MGM B-film is the kind of thing I typically enjoy: short running time, good production values, and a cast of familiar character actors including a very handsome lead actor. I'm not sure what went wrong here, but the 57-minute running time drags, despite lots of action and incident. Maybe there's too much plot crammed in, with not much done concerning backstory, and some loose ends left hanging. We have to take it as a given that Pierre and Daisy had any kind of relationship; Durkin and Daisy have no chemistry whatsoever; the brother Val vanishes from the story as soon as he is sprung from jail; I never did quite understand why the visiting Celia (Evelyn Ankers) and her father (Henry Travers) were there except to provide a minor plot point late in the game. The drunken Indian character—as written and as acted—is a disgrace, though he is important to the climax. So what did I like about this? Well, I'll watch almost anything with B-leading man John Carroll (pictured with Sheldon Leonard), and despite the forced accents, he gives a solid, energetic performance. Phil Brown, who plays Val, found fame late in his career playing Uncle Owen in the first Star Wars film. Hussey and Leonard are enjoyable. And I like the fact that, under the strict morals of the Production Code, Durkin's killer gets away scot-free. [TCM]

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

ERIK THE CONQUEROR (1961)

In 786, the Scottish King Lotar sends Sir Rutford to negotiate peace with some newly arrived Viking settlers, but instead Rutford and his men kill the Viking king and massacre the settlers.  The king's young son Eron is spirited away by Vikings, but his other son Erik is discovered by Lotar's wife Alice; after her husband is killed (supposedly by a Viking but actually by Rutford), she takes Erik in and raises him as her own—you see where this is going, right? Twenty years later, Eron (Cameron Mitchell) is chosen by Olaf, the aging king of the Vikings, to lead an invasion of England—Olaf assumes that Eron will be driven by a desire for revenge. Meanwhile in England, Erik (George Ardisson, pictured) has been made a duke, a move spearheaded by Queen Alice, and is chosen to lead troops against the Vikings. When the two meet at sea, Eron is victorious and kidnaps the British queen; Erik escapes and is washed up on a Viking shore and is assumed to be a Viking by the villagers. Eventually, Eron and Erik face each other during a swordfight; when Eron sees a Viking tattoo on Erik, he realizes that they are brothers, but Eron winds up shot in the chest by an arrow (from the conniving evil Sir Rutford). Will Erik be able to avenge not only his Viking parents but also his brother? (And did I mention the love plot?: Eron and Erik are in love with two Viking sisters—played by real-life twin sisters—who play a role in the climactic action)

Italian director Mario Bava is mostly known for his horror films, giallo thrillers and peplum (HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD). This is none of the above—despite scenes of men showing off their physiques, this is not really a sword-and-sandal movie; it's what might be called a mock- or faux-historical adventure. Bava and his screenwriters make mincemeat of history and that's fine. It might as well take place in Middle Earth or Westeros for all that the background setting matters. There are villages and castles and statuesque women in robes and swordfights. As in most Bava films, there is also beautiful use of visual texture and color, particularly greens and purples. Mitchell and Ardisson are fine in the leads, but acting is never the most important thing in a Bava film, especially given the wall-to-wall dubbing. The action scenes are well-handled and the plot is surprisingly elaborate. Recommended for fans of 60s action movies. Bava's later KNIVES OF THE AVENGER functions as a thematic sequel, featuring Vikings, Cameron Mitchell, and family intrigue. [DVD]

Monday, June 05, 2017

SONG OF SCHEHERAZADE (1947)

In 1865, a Russian naval ship is stuck in 116 degree heat in the becalmed waters of the Mediterranean, so the captain (Brian Donlevy) gives his men shore leave in Morocco. One of the men is Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Jean-Pierre Aumont), an aspiring composer whose constant work on his opera irritates the captain. In town, Nicky and his buddy, the ship's doctor, see a piano in the villa of Madame de Talavera (Eve Arden) and Nicky can't resist entering the room and playing. That evening, after enduring teasing from the sailors, particularly the obnoxious upper-class Prince Mischetsky (Phillip Reed), he goes to a club to work on his music but begs the lovely dancing girl Cara (Yvonne De Carlo) to pretend that they are on a date. As they chat, she mentions that she seems to be always telling men stories from her life that she never finishes, which puts them in mind of the Arabian Nights story of Scheherazade. After Nicky leaves, we find out that Cara is the daughter of Madame de Talavera; the family has fallen on hard times and, unknown to her mother, Cara is dancing at night to make money. Cara's family winds up entwined with the sailors: as Nicky starts to fall for her, Mischetsky also gets interested; Madame finds herself the unwitting object of the affections of a very young sailor (Terry Kilburn) who wants desert the navy to elope with her; even the captain is not immune to the forceful personality of Madame. What will happen when the weather improves and the navy has to return to Russia?

In theory, this is another musician biopic in an era when that genre was popular, but it makes less of an effort than most to tell a convincing story. Other than the fact that Rimsky-Korsakov was, as a young man, in the Russian navy, little else about this has even the slightest feel of truth. The fluffy story that has been concocted must have sounded fun in outline, but it hasn't been especially well fleshed out. The pleasures here are in the bright Technicolor settings and some of the performances. Aumont is fine, if low-key, as the composer; Donlevly sleepwalks through a thankless role; but De Carlo is good and Arden brings the movie to life with her witty, snarky delivery. When her daughter pretends that she's been taking night classes, Arden replies, "In my day, girls made love at night." We hear "Flight of the Bumblebee" and "Song of India" and music from Scheherazade, and De Carlo gets to do a couple of nice (though not dazzling) dance numbers—the bland choreography is often focused on by the film's critics. Not quite an A-budget film, this is still entertaining for the undemanding viewer, and more rewarding for fans of Eve Arden (pictured above with Aumont). [DVD]

Friday, June 02, 2017

BRITISH INTELLIGENCE (1940)

In 1917 France, British troops walk right into a German trap and espionage is suspected, thought to be the work of legendary German spy Strendler. Pilot Frank Bennett (Bruce Lester) is sent on a mission over enemy lines, is shot down, and is nursed back to health in a French hospital by Helene von Lorbeer (Margaret Lindsay). He falls for her, but she leaves abruptly; we find out she's actually a German spy, and her next mission is to be planted in home of Bennett's father, a government official. She poses as a refugee and is given the job of maid in the house. Her password, "Always forward, never backward," is delivered by Valder, the Mitchell butler (Boris Karloff); she is to ferret out military secrets and he will be her liaison with Strendler. (At least one other spy has infiltrated Bennett’s circle—a secretary—which made me wonder why they needed Helene.) As things seem to running smoothly for the Germans, Frank returns home and recognizes Helene as his lost love; she tells him she's actually a British double agent. Guess who else seems to be a double agent? Valder! But then who or what is Strendler? The rest of the plot plays with these varying seemingly shifting loyalties until a fairly predictable ending.

This is a remake of THREE FACES EAST, itself a remake of a silent film and based on a play. Warner Bros. did this re-purposing fairly frequently in the 30s and 40s to provide material for their B-movie unit. This follows the 1930 version very closely, so if you know that film, there will be no plot surprises. Karloff proves a solid replacement for Erich von Stroheim, and Lindsay is better than Constance Bennett, and the whole thing is nicely done and briskly paced, as most products of the Warner B-unit were. The World War I setting was kept, though the ending features a rousing propaganda speech fitting for WWII. It is rather stagy, mostly being set in rooms in houses, though there is a German zeppelin raid over London at the climax. This is worth your time (71 minutes) if only to see Karloff (pictured) do a nice job in a non-horror role. [DVD]

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

SING YOUR WAY HOME (1945)

At the end of WWII, war correspondent Steve Kimball (Jack Haley) is anxious to leave his post in Paris by boat to get home to New York but the only route available is by chaperoning a group of teenage entertainers who were stranded in France at the outbreak of the war. A bit of an egotist (he likes to pawn off copies of his book on unsuspecting people), he's reluctant to lower himself to be a chaperone, but eventually he does, and even allows young Bridget (Marcy McGuire), daughter of a reporter, to stowaway with the kids. Singer Kay Lawrence (Anne Jeffreys) is also on the ship; she vows to kiss the first American she sees, and it happens to be Steve, who resents the attention. He claims to be an experienced womanizer but soon admits that his career has left him little time for intimate companionship, and a rocky romance develops with Kay, who also becomes a second chaperone for the kids. Meanwhile, young Jimmy (Glen Vernon) has a crush on Bridget, but she only has eyes for the older Steve. It all gets worked out, but not before messages that Steve is sending to his newspaper in New York, written in "love code," get misinterpreted, causing problems all around.

This is a cute, high-spirited B-comedy which is kept aloft by the energetic teenagers. Haley tries but he wasn't the best choice for the lead role—he’' a little too drab and slow; a comic actor with the kick of a Bob Hope, or even a Dennis O'Keefe, would have been more appealing. The 19-year-old McGuire is good, though she only made a handful of movies before marrying and retiring in the late 40s. The music is fine, particularly a song called "Heaven is a Place Called Home" which is performed a couple of times and was nominated for an Oscar. "Seven O'Clock in the Morning" is a cute dance number set in the ship's dorm where the kids are staying, and Jeffreys sings a nice "Lord’s Prayer" at a Sunday morning open-air gathering. Pictured are McGuire, Haley and Vernon. [TCM]

Thursday, May 25, 2017

THREE HUSBANDS (1951)

Playboy Maxwell Bard, who has had heart problems most of this life, dies and goes Heaven, but he asks one favor first: to look down upon a circle of friends on earth to see how they handle a situation he set in motion before dying. Along with a will, which is to be read the next day, Maxwell left letters for three husbands, telling each one that Maxwell had indulged in an affair with each of their wives. Advertising man Arthur knows his wife Jane made a habit of attending the symphony on Fridays with Maxwell but didn't suspect any further relationship, even though he was dilly-dallying with Matilda, an ad illustrator who was introduced to him by Max. Kenneth and Mary have had to put up with Ken's nosy mother who lives with them, and Kenneth was suspicious of the amount of time Mary put in nursing Max after his various heart attacks; he even snuck over to Max's house one night when he was sure that Mary was there—though she wasn't, Max put on quite a show for Ken's benefit. The third husband, Dan, laughs off the letter at first until he starts putting two and two together and realizes that his wife Lucille had been spending a lot of her free time with Max, supposedly as part of a committee they were on. Small cracks that were present in the marriages become too big to ignore and all three couple seem headed for divorce court, until the reading of the will clarifies everything.

This is a charming little comedy with a screenplay by Vera Caspary, based, it would seem, on the more melodramatic screenplay she wrote the year before for A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (see also PHONE CALL FROM A STRANGER). That film, as I recall, was more serious in intent and tone; this one stays light, even when divorces are in the offing. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that everything is righted at the end, though frankly I'm not sure I found all of the relationships worth saving. It's an independently made film and it shows in the fairly low budget and plain sets, but the acting is worthwhile all around, the standouts being Shepperd Strudwick and Ruth Warrick as the central couple (Arthur and Jane) and Howard Da Silva and Eve Arden as Dan and Lucille. The third couple is played by Robert Karnes and Vanessa Brown (pictured), neither of whom I was familiar with, but they're fine. Welsh actor Emlyn Williams is nicely low-key as Max, the catalyst for all the fuss, and Billie Burke (Glinda in OZ) is almost unrecognizable as Ken's mother. Light but enjoyable. [YouTube]

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

CLUB HAVANA (1945)

Ah, Club Havana—always the same; people come, people go, nothing ever happens. Oh, wait, that's the Grand Hotel. Still, a lot happens in one night at the Club Havana in Miami. Among the people gathered there: Isabelita (aka Lita Baron), the club singer who is in love with Eric Sinclair, her pianist; Paul Cavanagh, an entrepreneur who is out of money and desperate for a cash infusion; Renie Riano, the wealthy widow whom Cavanagh is meeting for dinner in order to talk her into investing in his latest  business scheme; young and handsome doctor Tom Neal who is on a date, taking a much-needed break from a busy schedule; newly divorced Margaret Lindsay who is finally rid of her husband and ready to marry Don Douglas; Ernest Truex, on his first date with his wife with whom he has just reconciled after a separation. Finally, Marc Lawrence arrives; he's an underworld figure who was arrested on suspicion of murder but who has just been freed for lack of evidence.  But Sinclair saw Lawrence leave the scene of the crime, so he calls the police to say he has testimony to give to them as soon as Lawrence is put back in custody. With the cops on their way, Lawrence discovers who the snitch is and puts in place a plan to have Sinclair killed when he leaves the club.

As I've noted already, this clearly drew its inspiration from the 30's classic GRAND HOTEL, following  the woven plotlines of a fairly large cast of characters, but it also put me in mind of  CASABLANCA with its single nightclub setting. However, this is strictly a Poverty Row affair in terms of budget. It's directed by Edgar G. Ulmer so it has its moments of interest, but its ambition exceeds its grasp. The acting is generally of a high caliber: Tom Neal, whom I normally like, has a boring role, but Cavanagh, Lindsay and Lawrence are fine and Riano is great fun as the widow who knows exactly what she wants (the three bespectacled children she brings with her make for a pleasant running gag). There are a couple of so-so musical numbers, the best being "Tico-Tico," and the club setting is cheap and not nearly as atmospheric as it needs to be. It's only about an hour, but it lacks tension until the last ten minutes—Sonia Sorel, as the switchboard operator, has a nice scene at the climax, which also includes a somewhat startling death. A must for Ulmer fans and B-movie buffs. Pictured are Cavanagh and Riano. [YouTube]

Thursday, May 18, 2017

AS THE EARTH TURNS (1934)

This is the story of a year in the lives of three families in rural Maine. Mark Shaw (David Landau) is a mature, hard-working farmer with a grumbling wife (Cora, his second) and a sweet, unfailingly pleasant daughter named Jen (Jean Muir). Cora's daughter Doris is less sweet; she's a discontented flirt who wants to get the hell out of Dodge. The second family is headed by Mark's brother George (Arthur Hohl) who is seen as lazy and shiftless by some, including his unsympathetic wife Millie. On a snowy winter evening, we're introduced to the third family, the Janowskis, led by young, sturdy Stan (Donald Woods) who has brought his older mother & father and younger siblings to their new home, a farm that needs a lot of work. The year is filled with incident, beginning when George has to shoot a crippled cow and Mark gives him one of his cows; this will allow George's family to get by, but it also means that Doris won't get to go to secretarial school in the big city, which tees her off no end. Mark's son Ed marries George's daughter Margaret, the much-loved schoolteacher; Doris flirts with the handsome college boy Ollie (Jen's brother) but gets nowhere, so later she flirts (and more) with Stan; Stan falls for Jen, and she for him, but she is oddly reticent about returning his interest. But wait! There’s more! Stan's dad collapses in the field on a hot summer day; Millie talks about leaving George; and after the Halloween dance in the village, tragedy strikes when lightning sets fire to a barn, leaving one family with nothing.

This 70 minute movie crams in what seems like an entire season's worth of TV soap opera plotlines. It moves along at a good clip, but the melodramatic events just keep piling up until it's difficult to care about some of the characters, many of whom could stand to be fleshed out more. For example, we never understand why Jen is so reluctant to pair up with Stan, until suddenly at the end, she's OK with it. We never know what's behind George's demeanor—maybe he really is just lazy, but Hohl's fairly subtle acting makes him seem more befuddled by life than an uncaring slacker. The relations of the family members were occasionally confusing—for the first 15 minutes, I thought that George was Mark's son, and it took me a while to figure out that Doris wasn’t flirting with her own blood brother (Ollie). This is a pre-Code film so some pre-marital hanky-panky in which Doris and another character indulge isn't exactly punished. Donald Woods and Jean Muir are very good—in fact, all the actors are fine; it was strange to see Landau playing a nice guy for a change. Clara Blandick (Oz's Auntie Em) is Mark's wife and William Janney (pictured) is a very appealing Ollie, though he has little to do. I enjoyed this, but wish they had given the narrative another 15 minutes in which to stretch out. [TCM]

Monday, May 15, 2017

PHONE CALL FROM A STRANGER (1952)

Lawyer Gary Merrill leaves his wife, who has confessed to having had an affair, and boards a plane to Los Angeles just to get away. When departure is delayed due to weather, he winds up chatting with three other passengers: showgirl Shelly Winters, medical doctor Michael Rennie, and novelty joke salesman Keenan Wynn. During the flight, and during an unscheduled layover due to more bad weather, the four form a bond—the obnoxious Wynn calls them the Four Musketeers—telling each other stories about their lives. Winters, who has never flown before and is very nervous, talks about her domineering mother-in-law (Evelyn Varden) who was the reason she left her husband to try and find success on Broadway. Despite getting a small role in a hit show, she has decided to return home and try to work things out. Rennie is suffering from guilt over a car accident with fatalities in which he was driving drunk, but told the police that his friend, who died in the crash, was actually driving. Wynn, who is very talkative in general, doesn't say much about his personal life, but shows off a picture of his young and healthy wife. They all board the plane one more time, but this time it crashes and Merrill is the only survivor of the four. In Los Angeles, he decides to try and contact the surviving spouses to provide closure, and in the process hears another side to each story.

This is a bit of an odd duck. It’s sort of an anthology film which tells three separate stories, like ENCORE, but, inspired by the success a few years earlier of A LETTER TO THREE WIVES, the stories are more closely tied together.  Some of the stories are more complex than others: Winters' situation proves to the most interesting as we get to hear, Roshomon style, a completely different take on events provided by the mother-in-law; Rennie's is the most traditionally melodramatic tale; Wynn's is barely a story at all, mostly an excuse for Bette Davis, as his widow, to appear in a supporting star role. Other supporting roles are taken by Beatrice Straight as Rennie's widow, Ted Donaldson as his confused and disillusioned son, and Craig Stevens as Winters' handsome husband. What works against the movie is the feeling that it's two different, slightly unbalanced films: the first half as the characters bond, and the second half with Merrill's visits. I think the first half is more effective, but I can't say why except that the wrap-ups to each story mostly feel predictable and anti-climactic. Still, recommended overall. Pictured, left to right: Wynn, Winters, Merrill and Rennie. [DVD]

Thursday, May 11, 2017

SPACEFLIGHT IC-1 (1965)

In the year 2015, Interstellar Colony 1 is celebrating its first year in space on a mission to land on Earth 2, a planet with an atmosphere just like ours, with hopes that they can establish a settlement for escaping the overcrowding on Earth. The small crew is made up of 4 married couples, a few children—who are being trained in telepathy (!?)—and 4 people traveling in suspended animation. They're hoping that at least one of the couples will conceive a child during the trip, though what with some marital difficulties rearing their heads, that may not be so easy. A first-year party is being planned until Steve, a doctor, discovers that his wife Helen has a "pancreatic infection" and may only have a year to live. Steve think they should turn the ship around and take her back to Earth, but Captain Mead Ralston argues against it, noting that it was always the intention to let the seriously sick die in space. Helen desperately wants to have a child in the time she has, but Mead won't allow it, so she commits suicide. What with the crew feeling rather ambiguous about their leader, it isn't hard for Steve to lead a mutiny, but eventually Mead escapes and announces his plan to thaw out one of the four frozen passengers, another doctor, to replace Steve so he can be executed. Things don't quite go as planned.

Though this is a drab, low-budget affair with virtually no special effects, it is at least a little something different: a soap-opera space opera focusing on the interpersonal relationships of the astronauts. Unfortunately, the script is rather dull and the actors were not inspired by either the writing or the direction, and the whole thing just sort of sits there. At one point, we get some exposition concerning the organization Reformed United League Executive, or RULE, which is in charge of the flight, and which, according to one of the wives, has taken away all personal and collective freedoms. However, this plot thread is dropped, used only as a way to stigmatize the captain. Still, there are some interesting moments: a holographic clown entertains the children, there's the talking head of a cyborg in a glass case, and the un-thawing of the second doctor leads to exciting and deadly consequences. Bill Williams, father of William Katt, is lackluster as the captain, with only John Cairney standing out from the cast as Steve. No other online review mentions the telepathic games the children play, so maybe I dreamed that scene. At a little over an hour, this winds up feeling more like a TV pilot than a feature film. Pictured is John Cairney with the cyborg head. [FMC]

Monday, May 08, 2017

ROME EXPRESS (1932)

I guess I'd always assumed that the train movie, that delightful genre featuring a closed group of passengers, among whom are spies, adventurers, lovers and killers, more or less originated with Alfred Hitchcock's THE LADY VANISHES in 1938. But in 1932, at least three movies set primarily on trains were released: SHANGHAI EXPRESS with Marlene Dietrich, the B-movie BY WHOSE HAND?, and this one which may be, of the three, the closest to the genre template. Does it make sense to say the story is quite simple but the narrative is a bit too complex for its own good? The familiar set-up has a varied cast of characters sharing an express train from Paris to Rome. The passenger causing the most stir is movie star Asta Marvelle, traveling with her PR man Sam. She's tired of the publicity circuit and just wants to relax, but is startled to run into an old friend, Tony; it turns out that they were both involved in some shady doings years ago, and one of their criminal comrades, Poole, is on the train in possession of a stolen Van Gogh painting. Wealthy philanthropist Alastair McBane is on the train (with his toadying assistant Mills), and he'd love to get his hands on that painting. So would Zurta, an underworld buddy of Tony's. Others on board include Bishop, an obnoxious and oblivious man who keeps up a stream of inane chatter; a Mr. Grant and a Mrs. Maxted who are an adulterous couple on the run; and Monsieur Jolif, head of the French Police. Before the train reaches Rome, the painting will wind up in different hands, a murder will occur, and Jolif will sort it all out.

The basic storyline involving the painting is fairly clear, but the sheer number of characters, backgrounds, and motivations muddy the narrative waters a bit. But the film is still fun, primarily for the actors who bring some rather thinly-sketched characters to life. Most enjoyable are Cedric Hardwicke as the nasty rich man McBane, and Conrad Veidt as the potentially vicious Zurta. But almost as good are Esther Ralston as Asta, Hugh Williams as Tony, and Gordon Harker as Bishop, the man you love to be irritated by. The director, Walter Forde, uses some interesting stylistic touches, primarily lots of moving and tracking shots that one does not typically associate with early sound films, to sustain interest on the closed-in sets. He also juxtaposes shots to make thematic points; for example, a short montage goes back and forth between passengers eating food and the train workers shoveling coal to "feed" the train. There is also a fair amount of untranslated French dialogue. The lack of any substantial background music takes some getting used to. A must for train movie fans. (Pictured are Veidt and Williams.) [DVD]

Thursday, May 04, 2017

THUNDER IN THE EAST (1953)

This CASABLANCA-wannabe takes place in 1947, just after India gained its independence. The town of Ghandahar has become vulnerable to attack by the forces of the warlord Newah Kahn, and small-time arms dealer Steve Gibbs (Alan Ladd) has arrived with a planeload of arms that he hopes to sell to the Majahrajah of Ghandahar for use in defending his city. But Prime Minister Singh (Charles Boyer), a strict pacifist, refuses to even entertain the idea of arming even the palace guards. At the local hotel, Gibbs chats up a group of British guests who are used to being treated with deference and who are getting a little concerned about their security. He becomes particularly interested in Joan (Deborah Kerr), the blind but quite self-sufficient and strong-willed daughter of Rev. Willoughby (Cecil Kellaway). Gibbs also gets tangled up with Lizette, a young French totsy who wants to leave with Gibbs for Bombay whenever he's ready to go. A local boy named Moti befriends Gibbs and serves as a moral compass when, as Kahn's forces get closer to town, Gibbs agrees to let the British guests fly to safety with him—for a hefty fee. Both Moti and Joan turn away from Gibbs, even as he tries to talk Singh into using the machine guns to defend the palace where the British have congregated. Will anything cause Gibbs to stick his neck out for others without the promise of financial gain? Will the idealistic Singh relent on the use of weapons?

In addition to being a pale CASABLANCA copy, this film also derives from the well-used plotline of people (usually white Americans or British in a foreign country) who are massed together in a small space facing attack from an outside force (usually non-white natives or Communists). As such, this works fairly well. The sets for the hotel and the palace are both evocative and effective, and though the sets are large, a sense of claustrophobia does sink in near the end. But Alan Ladd is no Humphrey Bogart, or, to be fair, Steve Gibbs is no Rick Blaine. Ladd is not as expert as Bogart at presenting subtle flashes of evolving character, and Gibbs is not especially well fleshed-out in the screenplay. Kerr is bland as his love interest—and their romance seems pushed along by genre dictates, not naturally out of character interaction. Boyer, however, is quite good as the somewhat ambiguous Singh—for a time, I couldn't tell if he was truly a man of principle or a scoundrel looking out for himself—and in fact, it is Singh who becomes the pivotal figure in the story. Kellaway is good doing his usual riff on the slightly whimsical but ultimately down-to-earth father figure. Fine work is also done by Corinne Calvert as the French woman of loose morals, John Williams as the chief spokesman for the British guests, and young Marc Cavell as Moti. The first half is a little slow to get going, but the thrilling climax helps make up for that, and for the shortcomings of Ladd and Kerr. [Streaming]

Monday, May 01, 2017

PRINCE OF PLAYERS (1955)

I've waited years to see this movie in its proper widescreen ratio. It's a 20th Century Fox film, so Fox Movie Channel shows it fairly frequently, but never in widescreen, only in the old TV pan-and-scan format. I began to think an original ratio print didn’t exist anymore, but eventually Turner Classic Movies aired it in widescreen (hurrah for TCM!). Was it worth the wait? No, but at least I didn't have to base my judgment on a distorted, shrunken version. In 1848, acclaimed actor Junius Booth (Raymond Massey) is traveling the country doing one-night stands of Shakespeare, but his drinking is getting the best of him. His son Edwin (Richard Burton) tries to get Dad out of the bars and onto the stage where, despite his inebriation, he always delivers. Edwin is content to simply be his father's helper, though his younger brother John (John Derek) has his own actorly aspirations. But ten years later, in San Francisco, Junius has deteriorated to the point where he cannot remember his lines and Edwin goes on in his place as Richard III in a mining camp performance. The miners are angry at first, but he promises to give them "the damnedest Richard they have ever seen," and he is a success. That night, Junius dies and Edwin vents, worrying that his father considered only John to be his true successor, and concerned that he has inherited Junius' "taint" of alcoholism. Of course, we know what happens to John, whose middle name is Wilkes: he turns from acting to political rabble-rousing and eventually assassinates President Lincoln. For his part, Edwin does take on the mantle of his father, but also battles a drinking problem, and, after the assassination, battles a suspicious public who wants to reject him because of his brother. Burton is very good, and Massey is even better, but the whole thing feels rather stagy and episodic, and even though we see scenes from Edwins's private life (relations with his sister and his wife), this never gets below the surface of the man. The many scenes of Shakespeare are pulled off nicely, with the added bonus of seeing the great stage actress Eva Le Gallienne playing Hamlet's mother. Burton fans will love this, both others may not be so enthralled. [TCM]

Thursday, April 27, 2017

THE WOMAN WHO WOULDN’T DIE (1965)

aka CATACOMBS

Ellen Garth (Georgina Cookson) is the wealthy owner of a textile company. She runs things with an iron fist, much to the consternation of her secretary Richard (Neil McCallum) who seems to be devoted to her but who is actually being blackmailed by her—he tried forging her name to some checks and when she discovered his duplicity, she kept the checks in a safe to ensure that he remains a compliant assistant. He gripes a lot to Raymond (Gary Merrill), her husband, who is generally content to live off her money but is not happy with the way she runs her home life; she's prone to lots of aches and pains, and, as a practitioner of the exotic religion Suplianism, she frequently puts herself into a coma-like trance to ease her pains. She's also a highly-sexed woman and places many demands on him in the bedroom. When her beautiful young niece Alice (Jane Merrow) arrives from art school in Paris, she starts what seems to be an innocent flirtation with Raymond, and he responds with increasing passion until soon the two are in the middle of an affair. Soon, Raymond and Richard are collaborating on a plan to get rid of Ellen—when she leaves for a scheduled trip to Rome with Richard, they plan on killing her off in what will look like a car accident (she has a well-known penchant for reckless driving) and they even hire a look-alike actress to help pull off the stunt. But you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men.

If you’ve seen the twisty French thriller DIABOLIQUE, you'll know more or less what's going on when it seems like the dead Ellen (or her ghost) keeps popping up to ruin everyone's plans. But even if this is a familiar plot device, you can still have some fun figuring out who's running the scam. This B-film second feature is bland looking and two of the leads are disappointing: Merrill looks a little too old and tired for the part, despite characters frequently telling us how attractive and strong he is (saying doesn't make it so). Merrow looks the part of the art school kitten, but her performance seems mostly phoned in. Luckily, Cookson makes a great brittle bitch, and McCallum does nicely as the vengeful assistant. The only other character of importance is Ellen's faithful housekeeper Christine (Rachel Thomas). The original British title, CATACOMBS, refers to a rather oblique clue to the mystery, a postcard of Roman catacombs that is sent from Rome—theoretically from Ellen though, as we know, actually from the actress. At times, the movie tries for a Hitchcock feel, but in its last 20 minutes, the pace, which should pick up, slows to a deadening creep which makes the climax, when it finally comes, a little anti-climactic. [TCM]

Monday, April 24, 2017

SPRING PARADE (1940)

Young farm girl Ilonka (Deanna Durbin) brings her goat to market and while there has her fortune told: she will find her true love in Vienna; he will be an artist; and love will "hit you with a stick." She doesn't really believe the prediction, but when she lies down for a nap in a hay wagon, the wagon driver takes off for Vienna, not realizing she's asleep in back. The driver Latislav (S.Z. Sakall) is a baker who dreams of becoming the royal baker—he already bakes salt bread rolls for the Emperor—and he lets Ilonka stay and work at the bakery with his two very young nephews and Jenny (Anne Gwynne), his assistant. When the Army band goes marching by in the mornings, Jenny flirts with a handsome drummer named Harry (Robert Cummings), even though she's practically engaged to Count Zorndof. Through a comedy of errors, Harry winds up on a date with Ilonka rather than Jenny. He's embarrassed by her "country hick" ways in the big city, so they don't exactly hit it off right away, though later, when Ilonka realizes that Harry is an aspiring composer, she begins to think that he might be the artist she is destined to be with. Thanks to Ilonka's meddling, comedies of errors continue until the Emperor himself has to straighten things out.

I'm not a big Durbin fan, though to be fair I've only seen a couple of her movies. She doesn't bring much to the table except pleasantness—she has pleasing looks, a pleasing voice, and, generally, a pleasant persona. She's not bad but she leaves a bit of a personality hole in the middle of this operetta-ish tale. Actually, her character is fairly obnoxious in her single-minded drive; she seems more in love with the idea of fulfilling her fortune than with Harry. I've always found Cummings to be rather bland as well, though he's more fun here than usual. Sakall (pictured with Durbin) is Sakall—if you like his cuddly Germanic grandpa shtick (and I generally do), you'll like him here. Gwynne is fine, and good support is offered by Henry Stephenson (as the Emperor), Franklin Pangborn, Reginald Denny and Allen Joslyn. There are a few songs, including a fun dance number in the opening with Durbin and Mischa Auer and a song based on the Blue Danube Waltz. The two nephews are played by child actors Billy Lenhart and Kenneth Brown, who were known professionally as Butch and Buddy, and they are fun—when Sakall introduces them to Durbin, one of them asks, "Did you win her at the fair?" Fluffy and light and painless. [TCM]

Thursday, April 20, 2017

GENTLEMAN’S FATE (1931)

Rich, handsome John Gilbert is about to propose to Lelia Hyams when he gets a call from his guardian that changes his life: Gilbert isn't really an orphan, but the son of an unsavory bootlegger who is dying and wants to see Gilbert before he dies. When he visits his father on his deathbed, Gilbert also discovers he has a brother (Louis Wolheim), a gruff underling of his father's who wants Gilbert to join the business. After Dad dies, Gilbert does slowly get involved in the business, trying to keep his activities secret from Hyams, but when he agrees to take a rap and go to jail, she leaves him. Soon, in a trajectory that will be familiar to anyone who has read or seen The Godfather, Gilbert has taken over the bootlegging racket with gusto, and even killed a man who worked for his rival (John Miljan). Miljan doesn't take kindly to this and send his ex-moll (Anita Page) to spy on Gilbert; instead she falls in love. But when Miljan plans a more exacting revenge, a romantic ending is not in the cards. Gilbert is fine here, as is the bulldog-faced tough guy Wolheim who died of cancer before this film was released. Marie Provost provides nice comic relief as a secretary. Favorite exchange: "Say, Mike, are you plastered?"; "Sister, I'm stuccoed!" [TCM]

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

THE MIND BENDERS (1963)

We first see Prof. Sharpey, a well-regarded research scientist at Oxford, looking dazed on a train station platform. In a train compartment, he still seems out of it, and eventually he throws himself off the train and is killed. It turns out that government agent Hall (John Clements) suspected him of being a spy, and Sharpey had a satchel full of money with him on the train, so Hall questions Sharpey's colleague Longman (Dirk Bogarde); the two had been working on sensory deprivation experiments where a subject is immersed in a tank of warm water and shut off from all sight, sound, and touch for hours at a time. Longman believes that rather than espionage, Sharpey was behaving strangely because of the "reduction of sensation" trials. One scientist, in filmed testimony, was heard in the tank babbling about seeing angels, and Longman himself says their experiments are concerned with "physics of the soul." Longman agrees to be put in the tank himself so Hall can observe, but Hall colludes with Longman's friend and assistant Tate (Michael Bryant) and the two attempt to brainwash Longman just to see if it can be done. When he comes out of the tank in a weakened mental state, they plant a hypnotic suggestion in his mind: that he finds his wife repulsive and has never really loved her. Six months later, unfortunately, the brainwashing has worked too well.

Don’t let the title or advertising fool you—this is not a movie about recreational drugs, and though technically it could be considered science fiction, its traditional sci-fi elements are minimal. It winds up being a cross between "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "The Manchurian Candidate"; an interesting if stagy marital melodrama, fueled by the brainwashing experiments. Though the set-up is plausible, what is not plausible, and comes close to ruining the movie for me, is that Longman's friend Tate would not have realized in six months time that the hypnotic suggestion had worked. The last third of the film, set at a drunken party at which all the principal figures, including Longman's pregnant wife (Mary Ure) and his current mistress, come together, is basically a long night's journey into day in which the damage that the experiment has done finally comes to light. This whole thing winds up feeling misguided—either more personal backstory or more science-fiction (at times it feels like an early version of ALTERED STATES) might have make things gel better. Bogarde is a bit too intense, though Bryant and Ure are fine. Not particularly believable or compelling; though not awful, this can be skipped. Pictured are Bogarde and Bryant. [TCM]

Friday, April 14, 2017

THE VANISHING SHADOW (1934)

We're back in Serials-land: more cliffhangers, more fisticuffs, more repetition of action, and more weak writing. If this is your thing, keep reading—it's perhaps the earliest adventure serial I've seen and though it's nothing special, it does have a couple moments of interest. Professor Van Dorn is a slightly loony scientist who has created several inventions including a Destroying Ray which, yes, destroys things—only living things, leaving inanimate objects unharmed—a ray that burns through metal, and a huge but clunky robot. Stanley Stanfield is an engineer working with Van Dorn who has invented a Vanishing Ray machine which, when strapped onto a person, causes them to vanish—but leaves their shadow visible (so the title is a complete lie: the shadow NEVER vanishes!). Stanley's father, a crusading newspaper editor, was driven to an early death by corrupt businessman Wade Barnett, and now Barnett wants Stanley's newspaper stocks so he can take over the paper and stop it from continuing to muddy his reputation. But Barnett's daughter Gloria, ashamed of her father, has taken a false name and, when Stanley comes to her rescue when she faints in middle of a busy street, the two become friendly and she agrees to help him deal with her father.

All of the above happens in the first 20 minutes. The rest of this 4-hour serial consists of repetitive episodes in which Barnett and his chief goon Dorgan try to get their hands on the stocks, Stanley uses the Vanishing Ray to spy on people, and Van Dorn wrecks havoc with his inventions. I must admit that the central conflict, over stocks and bonds, is different from the usual serials concern with taking over the world, but it's a rather low-key plot that moves incredibly slowly. The hero, played by Onslow Stevens, seems more perturbed than heroic, and in fact spends most of the last two climactic chapters tied to a chair as things happen around him. Richard Cramer enjoys himself as the thug Dorgan. Van Dorn (James Durkin, gleefully over-the-top at times, and pictured above with Stevens) is on the good guys' side, but is also a little insane and quite bloodthirsty. When he agrees to work with Stanley against Barnett, he says enthusiastically that he wants to be "judge, jury and executioner." Barnett (Walter Miller) keeps promising his daughter that he'll reform, but despite the fact that he keeps breaking that promise over and over again, she keeps giving him the benefit of the doubt. Barnett's affection for his daughter, and his attempt to make sure that his thugs don’t hurt her, provides an interesting plotpoint here and there. Ada Ince, as Gloria, has little to do and is not very good at doing what she does. The robot is seen early on, but doesn't get unleashed until near the end. It's goofy and not all that scary looking, even though all the characters are scared shitless of it. At seven or eight chapters, with a brisker pace, this might have been more fun. As it is, recommended for viewers who are already fans of the classic-era serial. [YouTube]

Thursday, April 13, 2017

CHEYENNE (1947)

aka THE WYOMING KID

We are told that Wyoming Territory in 1867 is a magnet for "lawless hordes" drifting west; however, there are no hordes in this movie, just a small gang of bandits and a mysterious outlaw named The Poet who steals money and gold from Wells Fargo wagons and leaves short poems instead. Jim Wylie (Dennis Morgan) is a gambler who gets into a spot of trouble in Laramie, but instead of getting arrested or run out of town, a Wells Fargo agent asks him to go to Cheyenne where the Poet is supposedly headed and work undercover on exposing him. Jim takes a coach to Cheyenne with the sexy chorus girl Emily (Janis Paige) and the attractive but standoffish Ann (Jane Wyman). Along the way, their coach is beset by small-time bandits, led by Sundance (Arthur Kennedy). Ann berates Jim for not using his gun to stop the robbery, but as it turns out, Sundance and his men wind up with no money, just another note from the Poet. That night, Jim spots two men he recognizes from the gang, follows them back to Sundance's hiding place, and claims that he is the Poet. But his plan is upset a bit when he is surprised to discover Ann negotiating with Sundance on behalf of the Poet—Ann says she's The Poet's wife! She goes along with his deception for her own reasons, but who really is the Poet? And what is it he wants?

That’s about as far as I should take the plot summary because the coming plot twists are what make this worth watching. Some are predictable, some are surprising—a fairly major character is killed off halfway through—so the elements of a crime thriller tend to override the Western genre conventions. The acting is solid; Morgan, Kennedy, Paige, and Bruce Bennett, who plays a Wells Fargo inspector, are all fine. Paige is the very personification of vivacious and when she's off screen, the movie's energy level suffers a bit. Wyman is rather flat, partly perhaps due to the secrets the character is keeping, but even when all that's out of the way, her performance still feels lacking—perhaps in comparison to Paige. Alan Hale has some fun as a sheriff, and you'll recognize Barton MacLane and John Ridgely. Paige (pictured above with Morgan) gets to sing a couple of songs, and Max Steiner wrote chipper but wildly overused theme music that plays whenever we see the stagecoach on the road, which is often. This could use some judicious editing, especially in the last half-hour, but it's certainly watchable. [TCM]

Monday, April 10, 2017

THE TENDER TRAP (1955)

Frank Sinatra is a wealthy playboy theatrical agent who lives in a fancy high-rise penthouse in Manhattan and is dating (let’s be more honest than they could be in 50s Hollywood and say, "sleeping with") as least four different women, and he's turned rotating through them into a fine art. He seems most serious about professional violinist Celeste Holm, but even she is often left dangling. However, his schedule is shaken a bit by the entrance of two people in his life. First, his childhood best friend (David Wayne) arrives to stay with him for a couple of weeks—his wife suggested that after eleven years of marriage, they take a short vacation from each other. Not sure whether this is a sign of long-term dissatisfaction, Wayne seems generally at odds, and may be at least a little jealous of Sinatra's swinging lifestyle. The second interloper in Sinatra’s life is struggling actress and singer Debbie Reynolds who lands a starring role in a new musical and becomes Sinatra's newest client. Reynolds is lovely and lively, and though she still lives with her parents, she knows what she wants: a husband, three kids, and a house in Scarsdale, and on a timetable to boot. As Sinatra starts ignoring Holm to spend time with Reynolds, Wayne finds himself smitten with Holm.

What makes this silly non-farcical romantic farce worth watching is the cast. I've never found Sinatra to be a particularly compelling actor, but he's perfect here, where he seems to be barely acting—the playboy life he leads fits exactly the persona Sinatra projected for most of his life. Reynolds is her usual bright and cheery self, though the platitudes about marriage that she has to mouth are disturbing, and Holm is fine as the one mentally mature person in the bunch. The revelation for me was David Wayne, whom I mostly know from his later role as Ellery Queen’s father on TV and from his earlier role as what I interpreted as the gay best friend who acts like he's in love with Katherine Hepburn in ADAM’S RIB. His role here is substantial—and sometimes, he's more interesting than the Sinatra character—and he's up to the challenge. The look of the movie is a little strange; based on a play, the film remains quite stagy, so many of the scenes are basically 3 or 4 people walking around the apartment talking. But the movie is shot in widescreen so we get a big empty expanse around the actors. Granted, the apartment is well-appointed and very modern, but visually the film is fairly inert. Carolyn Jones (Morticia Addams) has a small role as Sinatra's dogwalker. If you can get past the 50s attitudes about women and marriage, this is OK. [TCM]

Friday, April 07, 2017

OVER THE MOON (1939)

Jane (Merle Oberon) has been taking care of her ailing grandfather and living in his large but decrepit mansion in isolated rural Yorkshire. She's been feeling sorry for herself as she has also wound up as caretaker to his servants who are either also ailing or act like it, and she thinks that life is passing her by. Freddie, the young local doctor (Rex Harrison), has taken a shine to Jane and, when the old man dies, offers to sell his practice so they can get married and move to London. But when it turns out that the grandfather has left her 18 million pounds, things change. Jane makes headlines as a "Cinderella" girl, and attracts various hangers-on who want a piece of her fortune. Freddie is turned off by all the hubhub and the two go their separate ways. He winds up in an unfulfilling job attending to rich hypochondriacs in Switzerland, and she goes to Monte Carlo and deals with gold-digging men. Of course, true love will eventually win out. This early Technicolor romantic comedy produced by Alexander Korda (then Oberon's husband) is cute but undistinguished. The plot is similar to the template that would become screwball comedy, but this is played too slowly to be mistaken for that, and the direction lacks style or fizz. Still, the leading pair is fine, and the supporting players (Ursula Jeans, Robert Douglas, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Ethel Griffies) carry some of the dead spots. [Criterion streaming]

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

ATTACK FROM SPACE (1965)

First, a word about me and Japanese sci-fi movies: I tend not to watch them unless they are accompanied by the guys and gals and robots of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, in which case, try to keep me away. ("Gamera is really neat/Gamera is full of meat!") I have seen and appreciated the classics GODZILLA and MOTHRA, and a handful of others—I watched GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL because, you know, that title. But typically, the cheap effects, the laughably bad monsters, the presence of young children as major characters, and the terrible dubbing (these movies would be improved quite a bit if they were released in subtitled versions with the original Japanese audio), all make this genre more suited to an evening of campy commenting than serious entertainment, scares, or awe. This movie was recommended to me by YouTube based on the number of public domain B-movies I've seen, so I watched it unaware for a few minutes of what it was. By the time I realized what it was, I couldn't take my eyes from the screen.

In the opening sequence, a narrator tells us that the Sapphirians, an alien race bent on conquest of the universe, are heading to Earth to start a nuclear war that will destroy us. However, from the peaceful planet Emerald comes a humanoid hero called Starman to save us. Starman has a heavy-duty wristwatch which lets him pretty much do everything that Superman can, including fly through space in just tights and a cape. On Earth, a group of men are already at work clearing the way for the Sapphirians by kidnapping Dr. Yamanaka, creator of a super-powered spaceship, and two of his children, to force him to work on a super-duper ship for them. The Sapphirians are a militaristic Nazi-like group who warn the world what they're up to, then destroy a mountain in the Himalayas to show what they're capable of.  As this is a Japanese 60s movie, the kids get involved by plotting with one of Yamanaka's assistants to free their father, being held under hypnotic control. Eventually Starman finds the ship, boards it, and kicks off a 15 minute ass-whooping scene in which he uses fists, martial arts moves, and guns to decimate the Sapphirians. Yamanaka, his young son, and his assistant escape in a spaceship; after Starman has finally kicked hundreds of Sapphirian asses, he flies the daughter through space to join her dad and destroys the Sapphirian ship.

Before this movie turned into a typical Japanese SF kiddie-movie, it grabbed me with its opening sequence. It mostly consists of tediously delivered exposition, but the visuals—of the surface of the planets, ships drifting through space, the cheap but almost nightmarish look of the peace council on Emerald (pictured above right), and the shots of the glowering Starman flitting through the galaxy—are dreamy and almost surreal. I discovered later that the movie is actually two episodes of a TV show knit together, and that Starman had other small and big-screen adventures. This helps explain why the movie feels like an old-fashioned movie serial with occasional sequences that barely feel related to each other. In fact, in my notes, I scribbled down this observation: "Imagine if Ed Wood had been hired by Toho Studios to make a 12-chapter sci-fi serial, but then was told he had to cut it down to 75 minutes." Actually, this film’s technical aspects are several notches above those of an Ed Wood movie, and the production design, though distinctly low budget, shows some flair. But there is an overarching slap-dashedness to everything that makes you think any moment now, the set will fall over on an actor. Big chunks of plot are dispensed with in a few sentences of spoken exposition. One scene of the bad guys face-checking a crowd of a hundred or so troops to find a disguised intruder plays out at length, practically in real time, and then it turns out that the intruder isn't even there. I have read that Starman's crotch was stuffed to make him seem more masculine (see picture at left), but I will leave verification of that to others who might have known the actor. This movie deserves a drubbing from MST3K—and apparently it has been mocked by the Rifftrax gang—but I still found it to be a semi-delightful surprise. If for nothing else, it should be seen for its epic concluding fight scene, with lots of fists that don't come anywhere near connecting with a jaw, and for the obvious dummies that Starman tosses hither and yon. [YouTube]

Monday, April 03, 2017

THE SHOOTING (1966)

Will (Warren Oates, at right), a former bounty hunter, returns to his camp to find his simple-minded buddy Coley (Will Hutchins, pictured below) cowering in fear in his tent: someone shot their buddy Leland Drum to death at the campfire. Now Will's brother Coigne has vanished—he and Drum may have been involved in the accidental death of a child in town. Will realizes that he's been followed to the camp, and indeed a woman in a black hat (Millie Perkins) arrives soon after. She explains that she's following someone but has had to shoot her injured horse and now needs a horse and a guide to keep going. She rather arrogantly demands that Will and Coley accompany her, and even though Will realizes that the horse she shot wasn't actually injured, they agree to help her. Will also picks up on the fact that the woman is signaling their presence to someone, and soon that someone shows up, a hired gun named Billy (Jack Nicholson). Relations between the four are a bit frosty and even tense, with Billy constantly at odds with Coley, and Will trying to keep things smoothed out. Eventually when the woman's horse goes lame, she takes Coley's horse and makes him stay behind in the burning hot desert. Will seems to sense that this journey will not end well for any of them, and he's right.

This is often referred to as an "existential Western" and by golly if it ain't. The plot outline is recognizably drawn from Western movie motifs—revenge, gunfights, lone woman in the company of men, wandering cowboys—and the landscapes (shot in Arizona) are just as lovely and foreboding as in any John Ford film. But aside from the laying out of a skeletal plot, nothing much really happens, and certainly, with the exception of Will, the characters don't get developed to any degree. It is often remarked upon that the director, Monte Hellman, had directed a stage version of Waiting for Godot in a Western setting before he made this film, and while this isn't as vague as Godot, there are similarities in the sense that people are waiting for something to happen and it doesn't happen. Except here, the people don’t wait in one place, they keep moving, and ultimately something does happen in the last five minutes, so fans of plot-driven narratives (most of us) will not be totally stymied, even if we never get a full recitation of the backstory of the characters. Oates is the main reason to stick with the film—he gives a grounding performance that gives us something to hang on to in this desolate, meaningless universe, um, I mean, in the lonely desert. Hutchins, probably best known for the 60s TV Western Sugarfoot, is surprisingly good in the "juvenile" role. Perkins is a bit stiff and artificial; Nicholson is Nicholson.

Hellman shot another Western back to back with this one, RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND, with Nicholson and Perkins (Jack also wrote the screenplay). It shares a similar tone of uncertainty with THE SHOOTING but while it has a somewhat more traditional story, it's also less interesting. Cameron Mitchell and Nicholson are two cowboys on the run, mistakenly assumed to be part of a group of outlaws. They take refuge with an isolated family (Perkins is the daughter) and try to hold out there while the law passes by. There is more gunplay here than in  THE SHOOTING, but despite having a more coherent plot, it feels longer and harder to get through. The two films are available on a nice Criterion DVD set. [DVD]

Friday, March 31, 2017

THE DEATH KISS (1932)

A well-dressed woman strolls up to a duded-up stranger on the street, kisses him on the mouth and walks away, saying she just couldn't resist. But it turns out that the kiss was a signal to a thug in a car who shoots the man dead. Then the camera pulls back and we see that we've been watching a movie scene being shot. But when they go to restage it for another take, the corpse doesn't get up. In fact, the actor, Myles Brent, has actually been shot dead. All the guns on the set are examined and contain blanks, so it appears he was shot by someone in hiding. The cops are called but studio writer Franklyn Drew (David Manners), who really wants to write detective novels, shows up and decides to compete with the police, with some sidekick help from Gully, the security guard. Among the suspects: the actress Marcia Lane—the one who bestowed the 'death kiss' on Brent, who was Brent's ex-wife and who might be in line for a big insurance payoff; studio manager Steiner (Bela Lugosi) who, with his thick European accent and slicked-back hair just seems a little sinister in general; Grossmith, the head of the studio; the director (Edward Van Sloan); and Chalmers, a former gaffer who was fired for showing up to work drunk but who was given a job on set out of pity by Lane. Soon another studio worker is found dead at his home after drinking poison; the cops assume it's suicide (since there is a suicide note) but Drew and Gully notice clues that indicate it's murder. Will the killer strike again?

This pre-Code B-mystery was marketed as a horror film to take advantage of Bela Lugosi's presence, but he actually has a fairly small role—though it’s fun to see him in a straight role for a change. It's also fun to see Lugosi reunited with his DRACULA co-stars Manners and Van Sloan (both of whom are pictured at right). I'm a fan of Manners so I enjoyed seeing him get a lead role for a change—though he is technically the leading man in movies like DRACULA, THE MUMMY and THE BLACK CAT, he is overshadowed in those by the villains and/or, as in DRACULA, by the leading lady. He gives his character enough personality that I'm sorry there weren't more Franklyn Drew mysteries. Ames is a bit of a sleepwalker here, and Van Sloan, like Lugosi, vanishes for long stretches, but there a number of good supporting performances from Alexander Carr (Grossmith), Harold Minjir (his flamingly gay assistant), Vince Barnett (Gully) and Al Hill (an assistant director). I'm not sure why this was put on Blu-Ray; the audio commentary by Richard Harland Smith is very good but the film itself hasn't been given much of a restoration. It does, however, have a handful of scenes featuring hand-tinting, including a startling moment when a film being projected catches fire and a burst of yellow-orange suddenly appears. Flashlights and guns also glow yellow in a couple of scenes. [Blu-Ray]

Thursday, March 30, 2017

CYCLOTRODE X (1966/1946)

Professor Chambers has invented the Cyclotrode, a rather ill-defined McGuffin device that can wreck havoc with electrical power. Though he's developed it at his university for use by the government, a criminal mastermind known as the Crimson Ghost (who dresses in a huge grinning skull mask and—one can only assume since the film is in black & white—red robes) is after it for his own nefarious uses. When the machine and its inventor are taken, our hero Duncan Richards goes after them, knowing only that the Ghost is one of Chambers' university colleagues. This is a 100-minute condensed version of a 167-minute serial from 1946 called THE CRIMSON GHOST; it was released in the mid-60s during a period when old movie serials were considered campy fun, and it's a slam-bang affair, with all the fat trimmed. There isn't much more to the narrative than I've summarized above, but the movie is filled with incident, with cliffhangers arriving every ten minutes or so. At some point, a death ray is introduced, and at the climax, out of the blue, Duncan (Charles Quigley) and his chief assistant Diana (Linda Stirling) bring along a Doberman to help out. The skull face of the Crimson Ghost is indeed creepy, though the fact that we see him constantly, and that he basically just stalks about in his hideout and sends others to do his dirty deeds, makes him much less scary by the halfway point. Clayton Moore, later TV's Lone Ranger, is Ashe, the Ghost's main henchman, and he's actually more charismatic (and better looking) than the hero (he's on the left in the picture above, with Kenne Duncan as Chambers in the middle and the Crimson Ghost at right). The identity of the Ghost doesn't really matter since the characters of the suspects are all basically interchangeable. The best gimmick in the film is a necklace that the Ghost puts on those he has forced into doing his bidding; if anyone tries to remove it, he or she is instantly killed. As crowded as this film is with action, I doubt I'm missing much by not viewing the original serial—unlike the case of the more drastically edited SHADOW OF CHINATOWN. [Paramount Vault streaming]

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

SHOW GIRL IN HOLLYWOOD (1930)

Composer Jimmy Doyle (Jack Mulhall) is sweet on fledgling song-and-dance girl Dixie Dugan (Alice White); he wanted her for the lead in his new show Rainbow Girl, but his producers said no. Now, the show has closed and Frank, a Hollywood director (John Miljan), hears Dixie sing at a club and decides to use her in his next picture. She goes to Hollywood and becomes friends with Donny (Blanche Sweet), an actress from the silent days who is forgotten at 32, and former wife to Frank, though Dixie is unaware of that. Dixie is also unaware that Frank is the next thing to washed up, and sure enough, he's soon fired from the film. The producers decide to hang on to Dixie, they turn her film into an adaptation of Rainbow Girl, and Jimmy is brought out to the studio to work on the script. But soon Dixie, egged on by Frank who wants revenge against the studio, becomes a demanding diva and it seems like the picture might wind up getting shut down for good. Can Jimmy and Donny get Dixie away from the villainous Frank and salvage her movie career?

This early sound musical is almost done in by the weak lead performance from Alice White (pictured) who is way too cutesy early on, and later is too artificial to be effective as a bitch. But there are a few pleasures to be had. The best performance is by Blanche Sweet, who was in fact, like her character, a silent movie star whose career was about over—though in real life, she was 34. She sings a sad song about her chosen career: "There’s a tear for every smile in Hollywood/Every mile's a weary mile in Hollywood." Miljan is appropriately repugnant as the bad guy and Ford Sterling is fine as the movie producer. There's an interesting scene showing how a big production number is filmed, and a handful of stars (Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, a very young Walter Pidgeon) appear briefly as themselves. The last song, "Hang on to a Rainbow" was originally shown in color, though the current print has it in black & white. [TCM]

Monday, March 27, 2017

DICK BARTON, SPECIAL AGENT (1948)

Dick Barton, a kind of scruffy, rougher-edged Bulldog Drummond-type adventurer, was the lead character in a popular British radio show of the post-war years. Along with his sidekicks Jock and Snowy, Barton ran down crooks and spies in serial adventures for seven years. This is the first of three Barton films that Hammer would make with the character. Barton, with Jock and Snowy (and a bagpipe) in tow, heads to Echo Bay for a vacation at Rosemary Cottage with his girlfriend Jean and fluttering housekeeper Betsy sent ahead to tidy up. But really, Barton is on a mission to find some smugglers, and on the road, he is shot at by a nasty thug named Roscoe who keeps insisting he never misses. But he misses Barton, who nevertheless plays dead long enough for Roscoe to assume he finished his job. Roscoe and his buddy Regan run a fresh fish shop, but their leader in illegal activities is Dr. Casper, a German disguised as a Swedish biologist. When the folks at Rosemary Cottage have local fish for breakfast, they discover stolen property (gems, jewels, silk stockings) inside the fish, and Barton knows they have their men. But when Schuller, a Nazi war criminal, shows up, we know something more sinister is going on: the smuggling is mostly a front for a plan to poison England's entire water supply. Caught up more or less unwittingly in all this is young Adele, working as Casper's secretary, assuming he really is just a biologist, and her boyfriend Tony, an innocent lad with a secret in his past who is being blackmailed into helping out.

Though obviously a low-budget affair seemingly aimed at the young teen matinee crowd, this does have its charms. At 70 minutes, it's chock full of cliffhanger incidents making it feel like a longer serial that has been trimmed way down for easier consumption. Unfortunately, short as it is, some of the non-action scenes feel like padding, and the comic relief, which is plentiful, only works on occasion. In particular, the duo of Jock and Snowy get very old very quickly. The nervous Betsy (Beatrice Kane), always threatening to faint, is actually quite funny, and the young lad Snub (Ivor Danvers), who idolizes Barton via his magazine exploits, is a welcome presence; when asked, as he is frequently, what he's doing mixed up in these dangerous activities, he replies smartly, "I'm a Barton Boy!" The acting is nothing special, though I did enjoy Don Stannard (pictured with Danvers) as Barton—he's energetic, handsome, and throws himself into the character with abandon.  My favorite scenes: when Barton is captured and bound up in a knight's outfit, and when a warehouse full of bad guys pile on top of Barton to beat the hell out of him, only to wind up beating each other up when he wiggles out. I'm on the fence about whether I want to see more of these films, but this one was fun. [YouTube]

Friday, March 24, 2017

OPERATION CROSSBOW (1965)

In 1942, British Intelligence gets reports that Germany is working on long-range rocket bombs (what became the V-1 and V-2) which could be devastating to England, and, if rumors are true, even to the United States. Though some are skeptical, Richard Johnson is assigned to head up an investigation of intelligence material, and soon photographic evidence is found of rocket launching sites behind enemy lines. Unfortunately, even though the Allies can bomb them, they can be rebuilt quickly, so a small squad of three agents are parachuted in to pose as engineers from occupied countries—as they are crucial to the German effort—and help sabotage the rocket project. The men (George Peppard, Tom Courtenay and Jeremy Kemp) infiltrate the factory using IDs of dead engineers, but face constant danger of being unmasked, especially when the wife of the man Peppard is impersonating (Sophia Loren) shows up at his boarding house. This is an underrated spy thriller with a nice balance of talk and action, and even a little bit of historical accuracy; the Richard Johnson character, Duncan Sandys was real, as was Hannah Reitsch (Barbara Reuting), the German pilot who helped test the rockets, and of course, the rockets were real, and did real damage. Churchill is a character, and though the actual operation seems to be fictional, it is true that some of the rocket factories were destroyed by Allied bombers, as happens in the climax to the film. There's not exactly an all-star cast—Sophia Loren, the biggest name, has an important but small role—but Peppard (pictured) provides a handsome face and solid leading-man heroics. There is strong support from Johnson, Courtenay and Kemp, and from John Mills, Trevor Howard, Lilli Palmer, Paul Henried and Helmut Dantine. The action and suspense sequences are handled well by director Michael Anderson. Recommended. [TCM]