Friday, December 29, 2017

THE CHEATERS (1945)

The week before Christmas, wealthy businessman James Pidgeon finds out he is no longer wealthy; due in part to his family's spendthrift ways, he is headed toward bankruptcy though he has told no one yet. He is pinning his hopes on his rich dying uncle, but James' obnoxious son Reggie returns from the uncle's deathwatch with bad news: the uncle has died but left all his money (five million dollars) to a child actress named Florrie Watson whom he knew in his youth. The catch: no one knows where this woman is, or even if she's still alive. According to the will, if she is not found in "a reasonable time," the money will go to James. In exchange for a sizeable kickback, the attorney agrees to define "reasonable time" as one week. Meanwhile, at home, James' wife Clara has taken in a charity case for Christmas week in order to impress the visiting fiancé of her daughter Therese. The man is Anthony Marchand, a once-famous actor fallen on hard times—he has a limp and a drinking problem. He has few possessions but clings to his actorly dignity, and soon he has ingratiated himself with the Pidgeon family. When he finds out about Florrie, he even agrees to lend a hand to James' plan: find Florrie, pose as long-lost relatives, and take her in for Christmas so she won’t be found during the week and the uncle's money will revert to James. Florrie, herself experiencing hard times, is found and is grateful for the family's attentions, but when a newspaper story breaks about the search, the family decamps to an old country house for the duration. Unfortunately, a pair of detectives is on their trail. Can a happy ending be in store for all three factions—Florrie, Marchand, and the family?

TCM showed this on Christmas Eve, too late for me to watch and write up on this blog by the 25th. This unsung Christmas movie from Republic Pictures, known mostly for westerns and action B-films, is unusual and worth seeing, even though it will never replace holiday favorites like It's a Wonderful Life or The Bishop's Wife. The main roles are well taken care of. Eugene Pallette and Billie Burke as the Pidgeons are fine, and Joseph Schildkruat (the villainous adulterer in THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER) is excellent as Marchand. Ona Munson (Belle Watling in GONE WITH THE WIND) is good as Florrie, as is Raymond Walburn as Willie, Burke's freeloading brother. But the younger people are a mixed bag. Ruth Terry is fine as Therese, but David Holt (Reggie) is uncharismatic, as is Ann Gillis as Angela, the snarky younger daughter. (Gillis later played Gary Lockwood’s mother in a brief scene in 2001.) Worst of all is Robert Livingston, a player in many Republic B-westerns, as Therese's soldier boyfriend—between his lazy acting and his underwritten character, he practically fades into oblivion before our eyes in every scene he's in.

One reason why this film has not remained a Christmas staple, even though the holiday remains front and center in the narrative, is that there is nothing magical about it—no angels, no ghosts, no Santa Clauses, no Scrooges. Marchand promises to be a mysterious character, but though he is slightly eccentric, he winds up being altogether earthbound and the focus slips away from him in the last half, though Schlidkraut (pictured above right) has a nice moment near the end when he lectures the family on their duty to Florrie by briefly enacting the story of Marley's ghost from A Christmas Carol. (There is also a lovely, snowy caroling sequence late in the film.) In fact, the movie feels more like a retread of a screwball comedy like MY MAN GODFREY—which featured Pallette in the patriarch role—than like a cozy holiday story. Though definitely not taken at a screwball pace, the movie remains light, and a couple of amusing lines stood out to me. Therese describes Marchand as wearing "poverty with all the charm of an Inverness cape." And Florrie, happy for a comfortable place to sleep, says "On a bed like that, not even a guilty conscience could keep me awake," to which Clara replies (in Billie Burke's tweeting voice), "What an amusing way of phrasing it!" The sets, of the family mansion and of the country house, add a lot of atmosphere. Memorable in a pleasant way; mostly recommended for those looking for something a little different for the holidays. (Pictured at left are Walburn, Burke, and Pallette.) [TCM]

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

CODE OF THE SECRET SERVICE (1939)

Brass Bancroft of the Secret Service (Ronald Reagan) is sent on the trail of some "queer stuff": counterfeit American money coming over the border from Mexico, made with stolen engraving plates. Brass and his comic relief buddy Gabby (Eddie Foy Jr.) meet up with Crockett, another agent who fears he is being followed by the bad guys. To allay suspicions about Bancroft, he and Crockett stage a fistfight at the Silver Slipper, a saloon which is a front for the counterfeiters. Unfortunately during the fight, the lights go out and Crockett is shot to death. Bancroft, realizing he's a suspect, takes off on a train for Santa Margarita, but two members of the crime ring are also on the train and they tip off the cops about Bancroft's presence. He jumps off the train and is picked up on the road by a kindly mission priest—who is actually Parker, the head of the ring. Bancroft escapes again but is shot; the bad guys think he's dead, but the bullet hits his Spanish/English dictionary (!) and he just plays dead. Eventually Gabby shows up, and, in a move out of THE 39 STEPS, Brass forces Elaine, an innocent bystander, to help him wrap the case up. The second of four Bancroft B-movies that Reagan made (all released between March 1939 and June 1940), this has a bad reputation largely because Reagan himself is on record has calling it the worst film he made. But in my eyes, Warners' B-movie unit rarely made a truly bad film, and while this one may not rank with the very best, it's good enough not to be a waste of time. Like the first in the series, it's short and fast paced, like a serial with all the tedious stuff cut out. Also as in the first film, the romance element here is minimal—the heroine (Rosella Towne) doesn't even enter the picture until about 45 minutes into the 58 minute movie. Released as part of a Warner Archive DVD set of all four Brass Bancroft films, and well worth purchasing for B-movie fans. [DVD]

Saturday, December 23, 2017

WINDOW WONDERLAND (2013)

Miss Jeffers, head of window dressing at McGuire's, a large Manhattan department store, is retiring, and the natty but tightly-wound Mr. Finch will choose between two employees to take over her position. One is Sloan Van Doren, a young ambitious woman seemingly from an upper-crust background who is dating a rich jerk; the other is Jake Dooley, a handsome, single, laid-back guy who seems to take nothing seriously. The two meet on occasion in the mornings when they both have friendly interactions with Mac, the lowly but upbeat window-washer. They also both chat regularly with Rita, the women's restroom attendant who treats both to them almost like her own children. As December begins, Finch pits the two against each other: each week until Christmas Eve, both will come up with holiday window displays, and whoever's work generates the most sales will get the job. For the first display, Sloan stays up all night creating an elaborate design, while Jake waits until morning and dashes an idea off on a napkin. To Sloan's dismay, Finch likes Jake's idea better, and the rivalry ramps up a bit. (And if you don’t want [SPOILERS], stop reading here and just know that, as in all Hallmark movies, love and Christmas conquer all.)

But soon we learn more about these two. Sloan actually comes from a working-class family (she made up her last name to sound tonier) and Rita the washroom lady is her mother—though Sloan has told no one, not even her boyfriend. Jake is temporarily homeless and sleeps in a bedroom display at McGuire's and only Mac knows. Of course, romantic sparks begin to fly between the two, tempered by the fact that they are both pursuing the same job. It's a Hallmark Christmas movie so we know they'll wind up together, and the job thing will work itself out. But this feels a little smarter than the average TV rom-com. The dialogue is a little sharper and snarkier than usual; my favorite line is Finch to Sloan: "Is there no end to your gratuitous pleasantries?" The characters are nicely developed; most of their secrets are revealed by the halfway point, but the reveals themselves are fun. In the opening shot, we see Jake enjoying a wake-up moment on what we assume is his midtown balcony, but we discover later that he was actually standing on a department store balcony near where he sleeps. We see Rita interact with Sloan a couple of times before we realize they are mother and daughter.

But what really sets this above the norm is the acting. Chyler Leigh (a regular on Supergirl) comes off as a little more vulnerable and sensitive than most Hallmark heroines—she's always likeable even when she's being snarky. Paul Campbell (from the Knight Rider reboot) is cute, and as whimsical as Hallmark heroes are allowed to get, lest they come off a little too fey. Naomi Judd is fine as Mama Rita, and Matty Finochio—whom I've never seen before—is particularly fun as the fussy, pompous Finch. There’s a running gag involving "terdunkin," or turkey deep fried in Dunkin' Donuts batter. I admit to a soft spot when it comes to movies set in department stores (the Marx Brothers' THE BIG STORE, the 80s Christmas movie EBBIE), and as a kid, I fantasized about being trapped in a department store overnight and having to sleep in one of the furniture display rooms, so the movie may have charmed me more than it will the average viewer, but it’s definitely worth a shot for Hallmark fans. (Pictured at top left are Campbell, Finochio and Leigh) [Hallmark]

Friday, December 22, 2017

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972)

Walter Brennan is the ailing patriarch of his family, essentially on his deathbed, and he has called home his four daughters for Christmas: sweet young college student Sally Field, promiscuous playgirl Jill Haworth, alcoholic mess Jessica Walter, and oldest sister (and seemingly the most together of the four) Eleanor Parker. None of the women have remained close to their father because they blame him for the suicide of their mother years ago. But now Brennan has remarried (to Julie Harris, whose first husband died under suspicious circumstances), and he tells his daughters that she's slowly poisoning him—he wants them to kill her before she succeeds. Even though there's a (young and handsome) local doctor (John Fink) in town that the sisters are friendly with, Brennan won't allow him in. The daughters aren't sure whether or not to believe Brennan, though Harris does come off as a bit aloof and perhaps sinister. However, she breaks her composure when Haworth openly accuses Harris offing her husband; her reply: "The next time I'm accused of murder, I won't be the one to wake up screaming!" Old family tensions add to the oppressive atmosphere: one sister attempts suicide, and another decides to leave during a storm. But before anyone can get away, a figure wearing a yellow rain slicker starts murdering people with a pitchfork.

This is a good example of a genre that doesn't really exist anymore: the network TV-horror movie. More to the point, it has morphed into the Lifetime "women’s thriller," which isn’t quite the same thing. This is not gory, nor is it particularly holiday-themed—there’s a Christmas tree in the house, and that’s about it; even the weather is rainy rather than snowy. But it is atmospheric, and the acting is excellent all around, even if the visual style tends toward the close-ups you find in soap operas. Harris is underused and Haworth is just OK, but Field, Parker and Walter go full-tilt, stopping just before they go over the top. This was one of Walter Brennan's last roles before his death two years later, and he's good—albeit in a relatively small role—playing against type (either a friendly grandpa or a hayseed Western sidekick). Sadly, this only seems to be available in a murky print on YouTube, but it’s still worth watching. Pictured from left: Field, Haworth, Parker, Walter. [YouTube]

Thursday, December 21, 2017

HOLIDAY AFFAIR (1949)

Janet Leigh is a secret comparison shopper for a department store. She's also a war widow and single mom who is dating Wendell Corey, a nice if unexciting lawyer who is angling to win Leigh as his wife. One day, as she's buying a toy train at a rival store—which she plans on returning the next day—the toy department clerk (Robert Mitchum) becomes suspicious but the two seem to have a spark and he sells it to her anyway. That night, Corey proposes to Leigh; she’s on the fence about him, but her son (Gordon Gebert) is against it. Leigh returns the train the next day, and when Mitchum gets fired for not acting on his instinct the day before, he joins her in her shopping. That night, he tracks her down at her apartment where Corey is present and the two men begin subtly jockeying for the affections of Leigh and her son. Corey is stable but boring; Mitchum is a drifting dreamer (he wants to be a boatbuilder) and a bit whimsical in a masculine way, but seems to bring a needed jolt to Leigh's staid life. Guess who ultimately wins her heart?

This feels like the template for some of today's Christmas TV-movies. It's a romantic comedy featuring a career woman (though not as high-powered as today's heroines) torn between two men—the holiday aspect is basically secondary here, as in some Hallmark films. One big difference: nowadays, the old boyfriend is usually a creep or an asshole, but here, Corey is just boring (like Bill Pullman was in Sleepless in Seattle). My personal reaction to Mitchum (pictured with Leigh) may have colored my reaction to the romantic triangle; Mitchum's gruff sexiness didn't overcome his somewhat unsavory aura, so I was basically rooting for Leigh to dump both men and hold out for a sexy but stable dreamer (like today's Hallmark heroes). There's a nice screwball feel to a sequence in which Mitchum winds up in police custody and Corey gets him out, but though light in tone throughout, the movie often looks drab and dark. Henry O'Neill and Harry Morgan have small roles. As a Christmas movie, this is a bit lacking in holiday magic; as a post-war romantic comedy, the personalities of Mitchum and Corey throw it off a bit, so enjoy it as a nice early showcase for Janet Leigh. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

ON THE TWELFTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS (2015)

Mitch (Robin Dunne) is a DJ at a college radio station in Harrison; Maggie (Brooke Nevin) is his assistant (or so it seems, since, like many plotpoints in this movie, their working relationship is never made clear). It's Christmas Eve and Maggie needs a ride home, so Mitch, who loves Christmas thanks to his Christmas-loving mom, offers to take her. When they wind up stuck on the highway, he takes a detour into a small town and promises to give her the best Christmas ever. They make a snowman and do snow angels and such, and he even manages to get her home in time for Christmas Eve festivities. They part a bit awkwardly, not quite acknowledging an attraction, and he heads home to Mom. But he never returns to school in January.

Flash forward ten years: Maggie is a reporter in Harrison and one day in December she flips on the radio and hears the new morning DJ, none other than Mitch. She runs into him at a coffee shop and discovers that he's become a Christmas Grinch, but she doesn't know why. To cheer him up, she starts sending him a homemade gift a day, each one reminiscent of something they did in the past, and signs them from "Your Secret Santa." Mitch is irritated by the gifts but his boss decides they'd make a great publicity gimmick and contacts the local paper. Guess who's assigned to write a series of human interest stories about Mitch and his Secret Santa? Maggie, of course, who can't turn the assignment down because her paper is about to be bought by a big syndicate, and she needs to prove her worth to keep her job. Slowly Mitch's cold-heartedness starts to melt, but when he finds out her secret, he thinks she's done it solely to get a story and that puts an end to their budding relationship and to Mitch's newly-kindled feelings for Christmas—or does it?

This Hallmark Christmas movie doesn't quite have all the Hallmark genre criteria of the big city holiday movie, but it's got its own conventions that you can tick off: romance between clean-cut, nice looking leads—but not distractingly beautiful or sexy; a small town location; jazzy covers of secular Christmas songs used in the background; snow; disrupted plans—sometimes due to the snow; a last-minute bump in the road to happiness; a happy ending. The writing is a little sloppy in terms of plot and character development. For example, Mitch can't figure out who is sending the gifts even though the only person he knows in town is Maggie—plotwise, this is probably to allow a rival for Mitch's affections (a publicity-hungry yoga instructor) to stake a claim, but it's still handled awkwardly. And how does it take the entire length of the movie for Maggie to figure out what made Mitch a Grinch? I figured it out (and you will too) about ten seconds after he makes his first anti-Christmas remarks on the radio. I was only rooting for the two to get together because the genre demands it—their relationship is never presented in a realistic or compelling fashion. Nevin and Dunne are adequate leads, though the supporting cast virtually disappears into the background except for Geri Hall as Mitch's manager who deserved a bigger role. Still, I can’t bring myself to say that I disliked this movie; how can you dislike a cute puppy because it's not playful enough? It’s still a cute puppy. [Hallmark]

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

ANGELS AND ORNAMENTS (2014)

Corrine is a musician who works in a musical instrument store; her boss Dave is an old friend of hers, and we catch on quickly that he's sweet on her but would never show it because she clearly has never seen him as boyfriend material. However, Christmas is coming up and she is fresh off a break-up with Tim, who keeps calling her hoping for a second chance. We also know a bit about Corrine's background: her grandfather Henry, overseas during WWII, sent her grandmother songs instead of traditional letters. The last one she got was on a Christmas Eve before he was reported killed, and when she died, she gave the song to Corrine as a keepsake, which she treasures. Her favorite tree ornament, also from her grandmother, is of a group of carolers, and one night, when a group of carolers comes to her door, she notices that the front-and-center singer, Harold, is wearing the same snowflake scarf that one of the ornament carolers is wearing. Wouldn't you know that, a couple days later, Harold winds up as a seasonal worker at the music store. This is when the movie takes a fantasy twist: Harold is actually an angel who has been assigned to get Corrine and Dave together. If he succeeds, he'll win his wings. We know there is some interesting backstory to Harold (we get some details when he converses with Jerry, an angel who has would up as a hot dog vendor on the streets of Manhattan), and you'll see the reveal near the end coming a mile away. At any rate, Harold has his hands full since Dave is a little gunshy because of his own failed romances, and just as it looks like Corrine is starting to see Dave in a romantic light, that rat bastard Tim comes back in the picture. Can Harold get everything set straight before midnight on Christmas Eve?

I give this Hallmark holiday movie a few extra points for its somewhat original plot. Yes, it's stolen from It's a Wonderful Life but it does have a couple of nice variations, and, in its plotpoint involving an old song written by a dead loved one, even borrows a bit from the climax of The Bishop's Wife. The mostly Canadian cast, none of whom I remember seeing before, is fine: Jessalyn Gilsig is a notch more believable and sincere than most Hallmark heroines; Graham Abbey grew on me as the blandly handsome nice guy with a hidden sensitive side—he loves literature and writes poetry (which becomes a plotpoint near the end); Sergio Di Zio (pictured at left, to the right of Abbey) is the angel; he gives what feels like a mildly eccentric performance in the beginning—he seems like a 1950s guy from Brooklyn who might be gay—but I got used to him fairly quickly. One weakness: it's set in New York City but it never feels real for a second, not even in the outdoor street scenes, shot in actual cold weather (actors' breaths can be seen), probably in Canada.

Now I need to discuss the SPOILER that you'll see way ahead of time: Harold the angel is actually Henry the grandfather, assigned to help the granddaughter he never knew. It's a cute twist, but one that has loopholes that are bothersome. One of the cosmic angelic rules, we hear from Jerry, is that Harold cannot tell Corrine who he really is, but he gives her an awful lot of clues, and of course she figures it out eventually. But far worse is this wrinkle which is never explained: Harold/Henry is a somewhat bitter angel who has never gotten over the loss of his own true love. But if Henry died in the 1940s and his wife died some years later (we don’t know when but it was when Corrine was a young girl), why weren't they reunited in the afterlife? Nothing is made of this until the final moments of the movie when, as Henry wins his wings, he also finally gets to see his wife, looking like she did as a young woman. So does God make you jump through some angelic hoops before he lets you see your loved ones in Heaven? That must be a theological tenet I've never heard of before. Still, this movie mostly worked—I even got a smidge teary at the end. And as Hallmark's Christmas movies have gotten more and more bland and predictable in the last couple of years, this stands out head and shoulders among the more recent films. [Hallmark]

Monday, December 18, 2017

A SNOW GLOBE CHRISTMAS (2013)

Meg (Alicia Witt) is a writer and director of Christmas TV movies who is in the middle of a meltdown while filming a scene with Santa and some kids. Her assistant Penny and her handsome blond—but somewhat distant—boyfriend Eric try to placate her, but nothing helps. One of the elf extras (Christina Milian) starts chatting with her, but Meg has had it with Christmas. She picks up a snow globe, one with a perfect winter town scene in it, and tries to smash it on the floor. Instead, it bounces up and hits her in the head, knocking her out. When she wakes up, she is in that snow globe town, and she has a husband named Ted (Donald Faison), two kids, and a gorgeous home nestled at the edge of a beautiful forest. She remembers Ted as an old college boyfriend, but otherwise knows nothing about her life in this town. People from her previous life crop up—her secretary, her TV-movie Santa, and even Eric who is the mayor (married, with no interest in Meg). So does the elf, who seems to be the catalyst behind her surreal experience. Ted and the townsfolk think Meg has temporary amnesia and treat her with kid gloves for a while, but when she inadvertently gives the cold-hearted mayor an idea to develop the woodlands, leading to eviction notices for everyone on Christmas Eve, she seems to have used up any goodwill the townsfolk had for her. Can she save the town? And, more importantly, can she get her old life back—and does she even want to?

There’s not a lot of love for this movie out on the Internet, and while it certainly has its faults—the biggest ones being weak writing and big plot loopholes, problems endemic to the Christmas TV-movie—I found it to be rather refreshing. One reason is the twist to the "Wonderful Life" plotline; here, the protagonist is shown a different life course that, rather than being dark and depressing and making her want to go back to real life, is cozy and cheerful and eventually makes her long to stay in her dream world. This film originally aired on Lifetime, not Hallmark, and I think I know why: there are a lot of people of color in this movie, and the central romantic relationship is interracial. I'm not saying Hallmark is racist, but a hallmark, if you will, of their holiday films is the predictably vanilla cast, usually with one minority woman (African-American or Asian typically) playing the white heroine's best friend and/or assistant. So the very casting of Witt and Faison here is a point of interest. Those Internet critics don’t think Faison works up much heat with Witt, but again, this is an element of holiday TV-movies; usually, the main couple doesn't even get to kiss until the fade-out, let alone spend the night together. Here, in the snow globe world, Witt and Faison already have two kids. Their chemistry, as in most of these movies, is more a cozy, comfortable one rather than one full of exciting sparks, and the two actors are fine as two confused people, with Faison not knowing why his wife has changed so dramatically, and Witt not sure if Faison really is the one for her, with their relationship slowly growing over time. The conclusion, if far-fetched, is sweet and satisfying. Trevor Donovan, the blond boyfriend, made a strong impression in the TV series Sun Records playing country singer Eddy Arnold. The snow globe town setting is nicely detailed, though the whole thing felt more wintry than Christmassy. Despite its flaws, an enjoyable example of the genre that I would watch again. [Streaming]

Friday, December 15, 2017

THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS (2015)

In 1921, Daniel Forsythe comes out of the dark and snowy woods, heading for his family's mansion on Christmas Eve. He witnesses an altercation between and a man and woman on the front porch, and just as he prepares to get involved, he is hit over the head with a blunt object and dies, blood spattering the snow. In 2016, the mansion, which now operates as Hollygrove Inn, is being sold and Kate, an attorney on the verge of getting a promotion, is sent there to wrap up the loose ends. But we first meet her at dinner as Laird, her current boyfriend, breaks up with her. She's actually alright with that, but she's not happy to hear, again, that she can't seem to make room in her life for love. At Hollygrove, she's surprised to hear from the current manager, Mr. Murray, that the inn closes for two weeks in the middle of December. It turns out that everyone believes that Daniel's restless ghost haunts the house for the twelve days before Christmas. Against Murray's advice, Kate spends the night at the inn and, yes, meets the ghost. He's handsome but brusque, picking her up and tossing her out of the house the next morning, but soon she and Daniel and Mr. Murray form a loose alliance as Kate vows to help him figure out who killed him, perhaps bringing an end to his unrest. Of course, as will happen, the human and the ghost fall in love. Eventually, other spectral beings intrude, including the woman Daniel was in love with all those years ago. Can Kate solve the mystery before midnight on Christmas Eve? And can she figure out how to have a relationship with a ghost who is only present for twelve days a year?

For a while, this movie seemed to have the potential to be a little something different from the run-of-the-mill Christmas TV movie. It feels more like an indie film that a Lifetime TV-movie and winds up with a split personality, bouncing back and forth between the interesting Gothic-flavored ghost story/murder mystery and the fluffier Christmas romance story so familiar from cable. The mystery is resolved (as is the romance) but the tonal problems remain throughout; another problem are some unorthodox "rules" of the spirit world. Frankly, the Gothic side of the story is far more interesting, and though the potential for a Brigadoon-like relationship between Kate and Daniel is teased for a while, even that gets sacrificed for the demands of the romance movie genre. Thomas Beaudoin, though appealing, seems too modern for a 95-year-old ghost, and Jen Lilley is about average for a TV-movie lead. In small roles, I enjoyed Alexander Gauthier as Laird and Brett Leigh as Daniel’s cousin in the past. [Amazon streaming]

Thursday, December 14, 2017

MISS CHRISTMAS (2017)

As I seem to have mostly exhausted classic era holiday movies for review, I'm going to focus on some made-for-TV films this year, mostly from the Hallmark Channel which has become a Christmas movie machine, pumping out 20 new TV-movies this year alone, to add to their preexisting library of some 20 years worth of such films. In this one, Holly (Brooke D'Orsay) works in Chicago for the Radcliffe Center, finding and overseeing the decoration of a gigantic Christmas tree for the annual lighting of the Radcliffe Tree. (Radcliffe, we're told, was once a small community near Chicago, but the tree appears to be set up downtown on Lake Shore Drive. This is the kind of plot detail that Hallmark viewers learn not to notice.) She loves her job because she loves Christmas—and because the lighting ceremony is telecast nationally, and since she solicits suggestions for the next year's tree, she's somewhat famous as Miss Christmas. This year, just before the tree is due to be delivered, it's discovered that it's been irreparably damaged, so Holly has a week to find a new tree. As she desperately looks through viewer suggestions, she finds a letter and photo from a young boy who lives in Klaus, Wisconsin. The tree is huge and beautiful so Holly sets out to claim it. Most of the McNary family is willing to give the tree up, but Sam (Marc Blucas), a hunky, salt-of-the-earth single dad, is dead set against it—his mother died recently and the tree is full of family memories for him. Holly stays in town for a few days, hoping she can change his mind; he's willing to listen but he remains recalcitrant—even as the romantic sparks develop between the two.

This fits so straight-up snugly into the Hallmark Christmas mold, it could serve as the platonic template for the made-for-TV holiday romance: successful woman in the big-city business world, too busy for a relationship (or recovering from a break-up), meets a handsome down-to-earth guy who works with his hands (or has his own small business) and lives in, or has a connection to, a rural area or small town. They meet cute, and the closer they get to Christmas, the more the romantic interest builds. Then, just as one of them is about to give in to their wholesome attraction, an obstacle appears—an ex-partner, a cranky child, a misunderstood situation, or some act of God. But it all gets cleared up in the end, usually accompanied by lit-up Christmas decorations or gently falling snow. Hallmark doesn't let their filmmakers stray very far from these guidelines. The couple is always white and shiny—she's usually blond, he never is—and the businesswoman always has a friendly assistant, usually the only person of color in the film. The amount of humor varies, but rarely is it ever snarky or biting. I may sound critical, but I know that one of the chief pleasures of any genre (mystery, fantasy, heavy metal) is its predictability. Of course, another pleasure is seeing how far the work differs from the norm, and that's a pleasure that is rare with Hallmark movies.

The pleasure in this one is the performances. Brooke D'Orsay and Marc Blucas may never win Oscars or Emmys, but they can deliver the rote dialogue and the canned emotions with seeming sincerity. Blucas in particular is very good: Sam is unthreateningly masculine but almost always has a smile on (or playing about) his face, even when he's frustrated with Holly's love of all things Christmas. Blucas (Riley Finn on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though I remember him in a small role in John Sayles' Sunshine State) is a real charmer who could become a Hallmark regular. It's a little strange to compliment this one on its Christmas atmosphere, since these ARE Christmas movies, but some of them use the holiday background as romance filler, not as an essential ingredient. This drips with Christmas atmosphere; the small town of Klaus is known as a Christmas tourist destination so every scene is packed with colored lights, trees, toys, and snow. One of the more enjoyable entries in the Christmas romance category. [Hallmark]

Friday, December 08, 2017

THE GREAT MAN (1957)

Beloved radio star Herb Fuller has just died in a car accident and Amalgamated Broadcasting System is planning a memorial broadcast. Joe Harris (Jose Ferrer), a drama critic for the network, is asked by Sid Moore, Fuller's former manager, to put together and host the tribute, implying that this might get the network to anoint Harris as their new star, though Carleton, the network boss, is making no promises. A theater that is about to be torn down is rented out for Fuller's memorial and Harris attends, tape recorder in hand, to get the varied reactions of mourners, from people who hung on his every broadcast word to people who barely knew who he was but knew he was a celebrity. But as Harris seeks out comments from people who actually knew him—including an ex-mistress, a press agent, and his first boss—he discovers that Fuller was not well liked. An even more disturbing story crops up when a drunken Moore reveals that Fuller faked some of his respected wartime broadcasts. Harris has to decide whether to present a whitewashed version of Fuller's life for the broadcast, or tell the unvarnished truth, a decision made more difficult when he discovers he's being used as a pawn in a power play between Moore and the network.

Many viewers notice this film's initial narrative and thematic resemblances to CITIZEN KANE (a posthumous investigation behind a great man to reveal a very flawed man) but this movie, though interesting, declines to use visual style in any compelling way and comes off more like a filmed TV play than a richly imagined movie. Ferrer, who also directed, remains a bland, mostly passive observer with little personality—though he does have a breakthrough moment at the end—but the main reason to watch this film is for a handful of non-showy but excellent performances. Julie London (pictured), as the former lover, a singer who was helped then thrown away by Fuller, is subtly heartbreaking; Ed Wynn, known best as a vaudeville comic—and known by me mostly as the floating Uncle Albert in MARY POPPINS—also has a surprisingly subtle turn as the small town radio station owner who was one of the first people that Fuller stepped on; Dean Jagger plays the network boss, whose motives in his game-playing are a bit murky—his scene near the end in which he explains the lay of the land to Ferrer is reminiscent of the darker speech that Ned Beatty gives to Peter Finch in NETWORK. Some critics also like Keenan Wynn (Ed's son) as Sid Moore, but I found him grating and obvious, especially as he is surrounded by quieter, more effective performers. An interesting movie than I wish was a little more powerful. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

WATUSI (1959)

H. Rider Haggard's character Allen Quatermain is an adventurer who appeared in several stories and novels beginning in the 1880s. He was surely an inspiration for Indiana Jones, and some may know him today as a character in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But his most famous exploit was probably as a hunter of hidden African treasure in King Solomon's Mines which has been adapted to the screen a few times, most notably in 1950. The main character in this film is Harry, Quatermain's son (George Montgomery), who comes back to Africa in 1919 to find the fabled gems of King Solomon's mines. He seeks out his father's guide Rick (David Farrar) to help him. Rick has sunk into a life of lazy monotony but quickly regains the taste for adventure. When Rick cautions Harry about the dangers ahead, Harry shows him a medallion with a green gem that was given to his father by a Watusi chief which he assumes will ease his way across the land of the Watusis. Along the way, they rescue Erica (Tania Elg), the daughter of a missionary, from a native attack and she joins their trek, though when it comes out that she is German, Harry gives her the cold shoulder; he hates Germans because his wife and child were killed in a U-boat attack during the war. The group endures mosquitoes and an animal stampede, but it isn't until Harry gets deathly sick with fever and Erica nurses him back to health that the two become chummy, though by that time Rick has also fallen for Erica. Eventually they reach the site of the legendary treasure, a mountain with a series of caves filled with molten lava. Will they find the gems, and if so, will they survive the mountain and the romantic triangle?

I've not yet seen a version of King Solomon's Mines, but apparently this MGM B-film (more a sequel than a remake) makes extensive use of footage from their 1950 version, and it's fairly obvious; whenever lots of animals appear or when the film gets a little dingy and damaged, that means 1950 footage. At times it's well integrated but also sometimes jarring. Otherwise, this is largely a Tarzan movie without a Tarzan. George Montgomery (pictured) fulfills his B-movie action hero requirements fairly well: he's handsome, he's occasionally shirtless, he shoots at bad guys, leaps across fiery chasms, and (eventually) romances the woman. Farrar and Elg are fine, and it's fun to see Dan Seymour, Rick's doorman in CASABLANCA, in a small role. If you like the 50s Tarzan films, this is for you. [TCM]

Friday, December 01, 2017

MUSIC IN THE AIR (1934)

In the Bavarian village of Abendorf, we see handsome schoolteacher Karl enjoying a vigorous climb in the mountains—represented by matte paintings, true, but still lovely to look at. Later in his classroom, Karl frees a chirping bird from a boy's desk and it flies to the window of music professor Walter who is inspired to write a melody based on the bird's singing; he then asks Karl—who is in love with Walter's daughter Sieglinde—to write lyrics, and when they perform the song at the local festival, it's a hit. The town council then gives Walter money to travel to Munich (along with Karl and Sieglinde) to try and sell his song to his old buddy Ernst who now runs a music publishing company. They are welcomed with open arms by Ernst who agrees to put the song into an operetta he's producing, but our small-town trio winds up smack in the middle of a tussle between Frieda, the prima donna starring in the show, and Bruno, the librettist. To make Bruno jealous, Frieda sets her cap for the innocent Karl, and then Bruno goes after Sieglinde. Things get so bad, the future of the show—and Walter's song—is in doubt. Can true love prevail AND the show go on?

This little-seen gem is great fun, as good as the more famous Ernst Lubitsch musicals of the era (ONE HOUR WITH YOU, THE SMILING LIEUTENANT). It was directed by German exile Joe May in a fizzy, stylish manner, though this would be his high point in America as he went on to do a string of unsuccessful B-films. The star is Gloria Swanson who has a field day as the prima donna; John Boles as her jealous lover isn't quite in Swanson's league, but he doesn't hurt the movie. The handsome Douglass Montgomery (pictured) and the lovely June Lang are just right as the young lovers, and there is strong support from Al Shean as the music professor, Reginald Owen as his old friend, and Joseph Cawthorn as his business associate. (Marjorie Main is in the cast list, but I didn't notice her.) The songs, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein are pleasant, though none went on to become standards as far as I know. Best scene: Swanson and Boles energetically acting out the first part of the unfinished operetta for the producers. My favorite moment: Montgomery helps a secretary reach a high shelf by literally grabbing her ass and hoisting her; when Swanson walks past and sees this, she says, admiringly, "Probably raised on goat's milk." [TCM]

Monday, November 27, 2017

DOUBLE DANGER (1938)

A jeweler (Donald Meek) has the valuable Conger diamonds in his possession and is worried about a notorious jewel thief known as The Gentleman getting away with them. The police commissioner (Samuel Hinds) has two suspects in mind: the author of a series of books based on the exploits of The Gentleman (Preston Foster) and an attractive blonde (Whitney Bourne), and Hinds invites both for a weekend house party, hoping to catch the Gentleman (or Lady) in the act. Hinds has produced an imitation set of diamonds—the real ones in a black box, the fakes in a white box. But before the party, the real diamonds are stolen through a clever ruse by Bourne and her associate (Paul Guilfoyle), then stolen from them by Foster and his valet sidekick (Cecil Kellaway). But at the house party, Hinds and Meek present the fakes as the real ones, starting another round of potential one-upmanship between Foster and Bourne. Of course, soon romantic sparks fly between the two, complicating things. The plotting is clever and the actors make the most of this second-feature caper flick, even if things begin to bog down a bit in the middle of this hour-long film. Foster is probably the weakest link, partly because sly old dog Kellaway steals many of his scenes. I enjoyed Bourne who was basically a socialite who dabbled in films, appearing in less than a dozen movies in the 30s before retiring. Arthur Lake, who would find a modicum of screen immortality as Dagwood in the Blondie movies of the 40s, is fun in role that is practically a tryout for his Dagwood mannerisms. Minor but fun. Pictured are Bourne and Foster. [TCM]

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

THE SWORD IN THE STONE (1963)

In this Walt Disney fantasy film, an animated retelling of the King Arthur origin story, the king of England is dead and there is no successor yet; whoever is destined to be king will be able to pull a magic sword out of a stone, but none of the men—able-bodied or not—has been able to accomplish the task. A young orphan known as Wart (real name Arthur—hint, hint), who performs squire duties for Sir Ector and his thuggish son Kay, is taken in by the magician Merlin and taught a series of life lessons, mostly by being turning him into a series of animals and having to get out of scrapes with other animals. Of course, what Merlin knows that no one else does is that Wart is the one who can pull the sword from the stone. I saw this when it was first released (I was 7) and I loved it—its color scheme of blues, greens and purples is gorgeous; Wart's animal adventures seemed magical, and there's even a proper wizard duel between Merlin and the wicked Madam Mim. I also remember hearing the distinctive voice of TV actor Sebastian Cabot as Ector, probably the first time I recognized a celebrity voice in an animated movie. But this does not stand up to critical scrutiny 50+ years later. Usually the glow of nostalgia will prop these childhood favorites up for me, but I had to struggle to stick with this to the end. Undoubtedly, part of the problem is that animated films have changed so much over the years; not just the present-day glossy CGI but also the fast pace, the snarky humor, and the relentless action sequences. But there's also this: the movie is just plain boring. The bulk of the action concerns Wart's magical transformations, and after you've seen him learn a couple of lessons, you're ready for something else. The songs are by the Sherman brothers, who would, a year later, create such wonderful music for MARY POPPINS, but these songs are generally instantly forgettable. I did like the owl Archimedes, and the conclusion, though lacking in heft, is nice. I will always carry warm memories of this with me, but I doubt I’ll ever watch it again. It's possible that today's kids will enjoy it, but probably just the youngest. [DVD]

Monday, November 20, 2017

SALOMÉ (1922)

In this silent film version of the Oscar Wilde play, based on a story from the gospels, Herod has married Herodias, his brother's widow, but he lusts after his stepdaughter Salomé (Alla Nazivoma, at left), who is also lusted after by Narraboth, the Captain of the Guard. But Salomé only has eyes for the imprisoned John the Baptist, mostly out of stubbornness because he stoically resists all of her erotic entreaties. One night at a large feast, Salomé ignores her stepfather and flounces about outside as Narraboth pines away, in thrall to both her and the full moon. She connives to get John, shaggy and dressed only in a ratty loincloth, released from his underground cell and taunts him with demands for a kiss: "Suffer me to kiss thy mouth! I will kiss thy mouth!" He remains defiant, and when what looks a shadow of a fist passes over the moon, he proclaims that the Angel of Death is nigh. The petulant Herod demands Salomé's attention, offering her anything she wants if she'll dance for him. Her demand: the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter—she'll get her kiss one way or another.

The production of this silent film was overseen by the star, often known just by her last name of Nazivoma, directed by her husband Charles Bryant, and written and designed by Natacha Rambova (wife of Rudolph Valentino). The ravishing look of the film is by far the best reason to watch it. Rambova's large set encompassing both the feasting hall and an attached outdoor balcony is inspired by the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley who did the drawings for Wilde's published play, as are the costumes. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie has dated rather badly; your tolerance for exaggerated acting and a camp atmosphere will determine your ability to stay with this to the end.

On balance, I enjoyed this. I watched it as if it were a ballet or a highly ritualized drama, like something performed for acolytes of an ancient mystery religion, which, if we're to believe the rumors, may be close to the truth—supposedly, the entire cast and creative crew were gay or bisexual. I suspect that is not true, and even if it were, I don't know that the film "reads" gay. On the other hand, there is the strange performance of Earl Schenck as Narraboth, who despite his pining for Salomé, seems more interested in messing around with his buddy, Herodias' page, who holds Narraboth's hand and paws at him constantly (pictured at right). Nazivoma is far too old to be playing the teenaged Salomé—frequently seen in close-up, she looks every one of her 42 years—and her facial reactions are never subtle, a problem which is not her fault entirely, as that seems to have been the style in the early 20s. Nigel de Brulier gives an oddly mannered performance as John the Baptist (called Jokaanan here, as in the Wilde play), consisting entirely of looking up or off in another direction instead of at whoever's talking to him. The inevitable beheading and kiss are not shown, perhaps because of skittish censors, which is rather disappointing for a production that is at its best when it heads over the top. It's worth staying to the end, if only for the last shot of Salomé surrounded by men with spears, about to kill her on Herod's command, and the intertitle "The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death." I don’t think Salomé loved anyone here—her desire to kiss John seems to spring for a desire to humiliate him and to hurt Herod far more than any love—but it's an interesting note on which to close. [DVD]

Thursday, November 16, 2017

WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER (1922)

Mary Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII, is present at a tournament to see brave soldier Charles Brandon win at jousting against the powerful Duke of Buckingham. Sparks fly between the two, but Mary feels like she is "for sale" with the King is attempting to marry her off to diplomatic advantage. At court, an envoy of King Louis XII of France arrives asking for Mary's hand, a match that Henry feels would be to great advantage. Mary, however, seeing a portrait of the aging monarch, throws a fit, yelling, "Would you marry me to this withered wreck of a king?" That night, she sends for Brandon and the two head out for a romantic walk through town, followed by the suspicious Buckingham. They head to an infamous soothsayer who tells her, "You will be Queen of France until you are made happy by a death." On the street, in a brouhaha (planned, I think, by Buckingham) bandits set upon them; Brandon kills one of them and, even though he saved Mary, he is charged with murder. The King excuses him, but in order to get out of the marriage to Louis, Mary and Brandon sneak away from the castle. Eventually, they are tracked down in a tavern where Mary, dressed as a man, has acquitted herself nicely in a brawl. The two are separated and Mary finally agrees to marry Louis as long as Henry promises her that 1) Brandon will have his freedom, and 2) she can have her own pick for a second husband. He agrees, she marries, and sure enough, the soothsayer's prediction comes true.

This silent film was a big deal when it came out; it was the first movie to cost a million dollars to make, had elaborate sets and costumes, and was a big hit. You really have to put yourself in the mindset of a 1920s moviegoer to be impressed with this film, as these kinds of production values quickly became the Hollywood norm. This is not a movie I would pick to introduce a novice to the pleasures of the silent cinema—for one thing, at two hours, it's way too long and drags quite a bit in the last third—but it's enjoyable viewing for film buffs. Its main strength is Marion Davies as Mary; her acting here seems much more natural than that of other stars of the day like Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish. Her light performance carries the film through some rough patches. Lyn Harding is very good as Henry VIII in a sprightly performance that may have inspired Charles Laughton a few years later (THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII). The romantic lead, Forest Stanley as Brandon, is not particularly attractive or charismatic, so the instant sparks don't seem real, but he and Davies (pictured) do work up some chemistry. The title seems like a misnomer, as no one in the cast dresses as, or is referred to as, a knight. An interesting specimen from a bygone day. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

PLEASURE CRUISE (1933)

A fun, naughty shot sets the tone for this pre-Code comedy: we see a reclining nude figure from the back; a voice says, "Turn around!" and we discover we are seeing a painting being carried into an auction parlor. Playboy and failed novelist Roland Young, fallen on hard times, is forced to liquidate his estate. He plans to release his fiancée, working girl Genevieve Tobin, from her promise, but she insists that the two can make it in her small apartment on her salary. For a time, their marriage works, but a year later, he's becomes a bored househusband and is getting jealous of all the masculine attention he imagines his wife gets in the business world. Fed up with their sniping at each other, Tobin calls for a "marriage vacation," or at least separate vacations.  She books a pleasure cruise to get away, and Young sneaks his way onto the ship as a barber's assistant, hoping to keep an eye on her while keeping out of sight. Of course, complications ensue: flirty Una O'Connor keeps finding Young in her cabin (because it's next to Tobin’s cabin, he spies on her from there) and thinks he's hot for her; when Young sees men hit on Tobin, he starts spreading rumors about the presence of her brutish ex-husband to dissuade them. Eventually, handsome Ralph Forbes hooks up with Tobin and cannot be scared off. During a costume ball, Forbes shows up dressed as Romeo and makes plans some late-night activity with Tobin in her cabin; Young overhears them, so he goes to great lengths to block her cabin door so Forbes can't visit. But Young, splashing on some of Forbes' cologne, does visit his wife's darkened room and makes love to her, with her assuming he is Forbes. Who will get the last laugh here?

This is both amusing and a little edgy, and in its day must have seemed rather smutty, since the implication is that Tobin fully expects Forbes for a midnight visit and, though we don't see any activity, we must assume that she makes love to Young, thinking he is Forbes. But [SPOILER], in the coda of the film, perhaps as a sop to moralistic censor boards, Tobin claims she knew he was on the ship all along. I think the real story is that she didn't know, but figures it out the next morning and plays along to allay her husband's jealousy. At any rate, this was quite enjoyable, mostly due to Young's sly performance, though his character is not especially likeable. Actually, no one is, so it's difficult to root for anyone. But this does not turn into melodrama so it doesn't really matter. The costume ball has an odd scene: someone comes dressed as Ghandi, and I can't tell if the intent is to mock or admire. It's nice to see Una O'Connor (pictured with Young) play something besides a screaming harridan, and Herbert Mundin has some fun as Young's fellow barber. The plot seems to have been pinched from a play by Molnar which was made into a movie with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne as THE GUARDSMAN. [TCM]

Friday, November 10, 2017

SATELLITE IN THE SKY (1956)

The British are in the middle of Operation Stardust, the first manned trip past the upper stratosphere. After a series of failed experiments, they think they are finally ready for the real thing. The crew, all of whom have female troubles, consists of Commander Michael Haydon (Kieron Moore), who is being hassled by Kim, a female reporter (Lois Maxwell) who thinks it's more important to fix things on Earth before running off into space; Jimmy, the communications man whose girlfriend has to fill in at a modeling job the night before the shoot instead of spending the night with him; and Lefty, the co-pilot whose wife is tired of being neglected. The point of the mission seems to simply be to show that such a flight can be done, but what the crew doesn't know until the last minute is that they are to release and explode the experimental Tritonium bomb in space, to show the world that with the existence of such a powerful weapon, any future warfare is futile. The bomb’s inventor, Prof. Merrity (Donald Wolfit) accompanies the crew, posing as a meteorologist until the rocket takes off. Also after takeoff, the men discover that the reporter has stowed away on the ship. Eventually they jettison the rocket, but after the countdown to explosion begins, it winds up attaching itself to the ship and they know of no way to get it loose.

Some sci-fi films are criticized for not doing enough with characterization; this one does perhaps too much. For long stretches, it has more soap-operish melodrama than sci-fi adventure or speculation. Still, it musters up some innocent 50s B-movie charm; for example, the idea that a bomb explosion (set off where it will actually cause no material damage) would somehow make the world abhor war, when the actual horrors of Hiroshima couldn't accomplish that. The sets are fine, though some of the special effects are lacking. Kieron Moore (the lighthouse keeper in DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, a scientist in CRACK IN THE WORLD) makes for a generally likeable hero. Sadly, the women (especially Thea Gregory as the frustrated wife) mostly come off as annoying harpies. Maxwell went on to fame as Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond movies through 1985. A watchable if not essential film in the 50s SF canon. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

THE LIGHT THAT FAILED (1939)

A windswept coastline in England, 1865. Young Dick Heldar and his friend Maisie are playing with guns (!) when Maisie accidentally fires toward Dick, resulting in him getting a gunpowder burn near his eye—it's painful but not debilitating. This is to be their last summer together as she's sent off to school, but both vow to grow up and become great artists. Years later, Heldar (Ronald Colman) is a newspaper illustrator and he's in the Sudan with his war correspondent buddy Torpenhow (Walter Huston). While saving Torpenhow's life from a spear attack, he sustains a head wound near the same eye that was injured years ago. After recuperating in Port Said, he is called back to London with news that his war paintings are going over gung ho with the public. This acclaim goes to his head and he devotes himself to selling popular illustration work rather than the classier paintings he is capable of. At the zoo, he runs into Maisie who has become an artist, though a struggling one. Both Maisie and Torpenhow (who lives across the hall from Heldar) urge him to work toward finer things, but he can't give up the easy money he makes. Maisie leaves for Paris and soon Heldar has taken up with a cheap Cockney bargirl and probably part-time prostitute named Bessie (Ida Lupino); she's actually in love with Torpenhow but Heldar scotches that. As he works on what he assumes will be his masterpiece, a portrait of Bessie as the personification of melancholy, he begins a slow descent into blindness due to his war wound. But the worst is yet to come when Bessie, horrified at the portrait, defaces it; he, now completely blind, still thinks it could be his masterpiece, but his friends know it won't.

Based on a Rudyard Kipling novel—though it reminded me more of Somerset Maugham—this film, which was well thought of in its time, has become a dated period piece, the kind of stuffy, slow-moving movie that I imagine young people who don't watch black & white movies think all classic movies are like. I hold Colman (pictured with Lupino) at fault; I generally find him stiff and sluggish, and when his character is supposed to be stiff and sluggish (as in CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR or THE LATE GEORGE APLEY), he's good.  I think he gives his best performance in LOST HORIZON where his natural stiffness works well playing a man who becomes somewhat heroic despite himself. But here, Colman makes Heldar a drip, someone whom I don't want to watch a movie about. The supporting cast is better, especially Huston and Lupino. I was quite restless through the last half, but the beautifully shot final scene almost made it worth my time. This film doesn’t crop up a lot, but I don’t think that's a loss to film history. [TCM]

Sunday, November 05, 2017

ALL I DESIRE (1953)

In the early 1900s, Naomi (Barbara Stanwyck) deserts her husband and three children, leaving their small Midwestern town of Riverdale for the bright lights of Broadway. Ten years later, she's a middle-aged mid-level vaudeville performer who never made the big time, though the folks back home, particularly her teenage daughter Lily, think of her as a distinguished actress. As her current season winds down, Naomi gets a letter from Lily, now a high school senior who has decided to follow in Mom's footsteps. She has the lead role in the school play and she asks Naomi to return to Riverdale to see her and to attend her graduation. Naomi's not sure how she'll be received, but she decides to go. In Riverdale, her husband Henry (Richard Carlson), the school principal, seems to be in a semi-serious relationship with Sara, the drama teacher (Maureen O’Sullivan)—I was never sure if Henry and Naomi were officially divorced or not. Also still in town is Dutch (Lyle Bettger), the outdoorsman with whom Naomi had a much-gossiped-about fling years ago. Arriving without advance notice, Naomi is greeted enthusiastically by Lily but more warily by Henry and the other two children: Ted, who has no memories of her, and the oldest girl Joyce, who still holds quite a grudge against her for leaving. When word gets around that Naomi is in town, the audience for Lily's play is standing room only. Naomi decides to stay for graduation and eventually, Henry begins to thaw towards Naomi, but not Joyce, and when Dutch suddenly enters the picture, violence—emotional and physical—follows.

This is the first collaboration between director Douglas Sirk and producer Ross Hunter at Universal who together went on to make classic melodramas like MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION and ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS. There's not much in this one that makes it stand out from the crowd: it's shot in rather drab black & white, the action is predictable, and the acting is not much better than adequate—even Stanwyck seems to be going through the motions, and she and Carlson (picured above) have little chemistry. Still, it has its moments: its one surprising element is the violent climax between Stanwyck and Bettger, though even that is spoiled by an ending that wraps things up too neatly and too quickly. There are good performances from Lori Nelson as Lily, Billy Gray (Bud on Father Knows Best) as Ted, Richard Long as Lily's boyfriend, and Lotte Stein as the family maid who seems to the only person in town happy to see Naomi again. Interesting as an early example of the Sirk style—apparently he was forced by Ross Hunter to give the film a happy ending which the novel it was based on did not have. [TCM]

Thursday, November 02, 2017

MADAME BUTTERFLY (1932)

In 1930s Japan, Cho-Cho San (Sylvia Sidney), whose name means "butterfly," is forced to train as a geisha to help out her struggling family. Her first night on the job at Goro's Tea House, she is admired by the upper class Yamodori who plans to propose marriage, but visting American navy officer Pinkerton (Cary Grant) gets to her first. In Japan, such women are "married" by contract, and automatically divorced if the husband leaves, so Pinkerton basically decides to take her as his wife as long as he's stationed in Japan, despite having a serious girlfriend back home. They have an idyllic life together until Pinkerton is sent back to the States. On his last night, he breaks the news to her, but sings her a love song and promises to return in the spring. Three springs later, Cho-Cho San has a son and still hopes for Pinkerton's return; this spring, he does return, and stops by just long enough to introduce his American wife. She doesn't tell him about their son, but after he leaves, she arranges for her son to live with her family and commits suicide.

I've never seen the famous opera (nor read the original story) this film is based on, but I'm familiar with the plot, and this feels like a Reader's Digest abridgment. Though it's nearly 90 minutes long, and is paced well, nothing much seems to happen. Neither of the main characters is really fleshed out much, which is a particular problem with Pinkerton; he's played by the young Cary Grant and, though he acts in what most would consider a despicable manner toward his Japanese wife, he seems completely clueless about the pain he has caused her. He doesn't come off as mean or hateful, just like a man who has committed a social faux pas that is barely worth pondering. It all feels like a situation comedy but without the comedy—though there is some comic relief in the form of Charles Ruggles as Grant's buddy. Sidney has to struggle with a Hollywood stereotype of an accent—though I did like the throwaway line that she was taught a "high-class Brooklyn accent" by a scholar. Interesting but not essential. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940)

A huge storm has broken out over Manhattan, causing widespread power outages. Radio commentator Laurence Lawrence (Bob Hope) has just pissed off Frenchy, a local mobster, because of a smart remark he made on his show, so Larry heads over to Frenchy's hotel to apologize, taking a gun loaned to him by his valet Alex (Willie Best) for protection. Staying on the same floor is Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard) who is about to sail to Cuba to claim her estate, a supposedly haunted castle on Black Island. A seemingly benign man named Parada (Paul Lukas) tries to talk her out of going, offering to buy the land, but she is warned by a Cuban named Ramon (Anthony Quinn) not to sell. In the hallway, Larry's gun goes off accidentally and at the same moment, someone shoots and kills Ramon—Larry thinks it was his fault so he hides in Mary's streamer trunk to avoid the police. Of course, he hits it off with Mary and winds up accompanying her to Cuba even though he finds out from Alex that the gun he had was not responsible for Ramon's death. In Havana, they meet up with Geoff (Richard Carlson), an old friend of Mary's who counsels her to sell the castle, and the cast is now complete for a night of spooky hijinks on Black Island where they see a zombie, a ghost, huge cobwebs, strange sounds, the apparent resurrection of Ramon, and discover that there may be a treasure hidden somewhere on the estate.

As horror-comedies go, this is one of the best, though modern audiences may find it difficult to get past the demeaning stereotypes embodied in the African-American Willie Best—it must be said that, though his performance feels quite dated, he has very good comic chemistry with Hope. Hope was in his prime in the 40s, though if he's not your cup of tea, avoid this because he’s in practically every scene. The first 15 minutes, set in New York, are actually more fun than the haunted house proceedings in Cuba, partly because it's a very different sequence than you're likely to find in most ghost movies; my favorite line in the movie occurs early on, when, during the storm, Hope quips, "Basil Rathbone must be giving a party." I suspect this was intended by Paramount as an unofficial sequel to Hope & Goddard's earlier spooky film THE CAT AND THE CANARY. Both are fun, though this one has more energy. The movie feels like it just stops rather than ends logically—a few loose threads are left loose, like the island's resident zombie (Noble Johnson) and the apparently real ghost of an ancestor that Hope and Best see in the castle (the castle set, BTW, is very cool). Lukas and Carlson are mostly wasted in parts that feel like they were bigger in an earlier screenplay draft and got cut down. But overall, this is fun, and you could do worse than a double feature of this and CANARY for Halloween viewing. [DVD]

Monday, October 30, 2017

BEHEMOTH THE SEA MONSTER (1959)

aka THE GIANT BEHEMOTH

This film, like many 50s SF movies, begins with characters in a state of anxiety over the atomic bomb. In this case, a group of scientists in England (led by American Steve Karnes) have discovered that, in areas of the ocean where nuclear weapons testing has occurred, plankton have become radioactive, which, because of their place in the food chain, means that other marine animals are also taking on radioactivity. Meanwhile on the coast of Cornwall, a fisherman, ready to call it a day, sends his grown daughter Jean back to their home to start dinner while he cleans up. Just as she's out of hearing range, the fisherman looks up and, seeing something huge and awful in the sea, starts screaming. When Dad doesn't show up for dinner, and he's not even been lollygagging at the pub, Jean gets handsome fisherman John to help her look for him. They find him back on the beach, dying, his skin badly burned. With his last words, he says he saw a burning from the sea, then says, “…behemoth!” The next day, hundreds of dead fish wash up on the shore, and John unwisely touches a glowing blob of organic material that burns his hand. When dead fish are reported all along the Cornwall coast, Karnes and Prof. Bickford investigate and discover that at least one dead fish tests as being completely radioactive. At sea, Karnes spots what looks like a giant glowing creature but it disappears quickly. A missing steamship is found beached and torn up on the shore, with all passengers missing, and a small village is destroyed one night, with a huge footprint left in the ground. All the evidence leads Karnes and Bickford to assume the creature they're looking for is a dinosaur, somehow revived or reconstituted, and they get the help of an eccentric paleontologist named Sampson, who realizes that his life-long wish o see a living prehistoric animal may be about to come true. Unfortunately, his first sighting, from a helicopter, is also his last as the behemoth (as good a name as any) swats him out of the air to a watery death. The monster, which is not only huge and powerful but also emits strong waves of deadly radioactivity, lumbers toward London and the Thames. Bad news for ships, Londoners, and London Bridge, unless our heroes can figure out a way to kill the beast that won't also spread radioactivity throughout London.

This plays out a lot like a British version of 1953's THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, another atom bomb-related sea monster movie. They both have the same director (Eugene Lourie) and both have special effects supervised by legends—Ray Harryhausen for FATHOMS, Willis O'Brien, who worked on the granddaddy of giant monster movies, KING KONG, for BEHEMOTH. This movie, with a lower budget, suffers in comparison, but it's still worth a viewing. The early glimpses of the monster are disappointing, but once he gets his ass above the water, he's fairly impressive. The acting from the leads (the American Gene Evans and the British Andre Morrell) is serviceable, and I rather like the fact that the movie stymies at least one expectation: despite seeming to be setting up Jean and John as a central romantic couple (or Jean as an object of lust for Karnes), they both vanish from the film fairly early on. Jack MacGowran, known for his stage work in the plays of Samuel Beckett, gives a goofy spin to the paleontologist, though like the young couple, he's not around for long. The American title, The Giant Behemoth, is rather silly, like calling it The Huge Gigantic Giant. Fairly fun, on the higher end of atomic era monster movies. [Amazon Streaming]

Friday, October 27, 2017

DESTINATION MOON (1950)

Dr. Cargraves (Warner Anderson) and General Thayer (Tom Powers) watch the test launch of a rocket go awry—it crashes immediately—and they suspect sabotage from forces that don't want their space project to succeed. Two years later, with government funding slashed, Thayer, anticipating a "space race" with other countries, gets a private industrialist named Barnes (John Archer) to spearhead development of a manned, nuclear-powered rocket to the moon. Though anti-space research and anti-nuclear forces are still fighting them, they manage to get the rocket built. The government denies them clearance to test the rocket, so they decide to skip that stage (!) and just launch it, with Thayer, Barnes, Cargraves on board. At the last minute, a comic-relief schmoe from Brooklyn named Joe (Dick Wesson) joins them. The blast-off goes well, but in space, they have to leave the vehicle to fix a part and one of them almost floats away before he is saved by the others. The moon landing is a success, but then they are informed from Earth they will have to jettison thousands of pounds from the ship in order get home. The men dump a bunch of equipment but are still too heavy for takeoff—by about the weight of one man. Will someone have to be sacrificed so the others can get home?

This is usually referred to as the first realistic film about space travel—before this, there were pretty much just the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers fantasies. Most of it won’t seem particularly realistic to 21st century viewers, but it more or less feels right. The trip, the spacewalk, and the return aren't that far off from the reality we've seen reported. There are not bug-eyed monsters, but there's also very little dramatic tension except that derived from wondering if each step of the mission will be carried out safely. I admit I do miss the melodramatics of the earlier sci-fi serials, and some of the later more outlandish space operas, but the mostly calm, near-documentary feel of this one is appealing. The actors are fine, especially Anderson (though Powers is always tainted to me since he was Barbara Stanwyck's nasty husband in DOUBLE INDEMNITY), and the effects, though easy to mock now, work well if you get yourself in the context of the era. It seems strange to raise the possibility of sabotage then do nothing with that plot thread. And, as an added attraction, there’s a cameo by Woody Woodpecker! Pictured from left are Wesson, Archer, Powers and Anderson.[TCM]

Thursday, October 26, 2017

DESTINATION INNER SPACE (1966)

The researchers at the Aquasphere, the underwater base of the Institute of Marine Science, are studying marine animal communication, but have called in the Navy to help investigate a strange sighting on their sonar. It's big enough to be a sub or a whale, but doesn't seem to be either one. Commander Scott Brady rubs a few of the scientists the wrong way with his swaggering manner, especially former Navy man Mike Road who knew Brady and blames him making a bad decision that led to the death of a handful of sailors years ago. Also on the ship are doctors Sheree North (with whom Brady awkwardly flirts) and Gary Merrill, and researcher Wende Wagner (who has a thing for Road). The mysterious object turns out to be an alien craft that eventually lands on the ocean floor. Brady, Road and Wagner go into the craft which appears to be empty and bring back to the Aquasphere a large capsule-shaped artifact. It quickly doubles in size, starts sending out ultrasonic waves, and soon a large amphibian creature (bearing a resemblance to the Creature from the Black Lagoon) busts out, wrecking havoc in the lab.

This plays out a little bit like a low-budget underwater version of THE THING or ALIEN but the scary tension of those movies never really develops here. It's very bright and colorful—even the alien practically has a rainbow hide—which I generally like, though it doesn't help the building of a creepy atmosphere. More time goes into the psychodramas of the various relationships on board than into scenes of monster mayhem or suspense, which is par for the course, I guess, but these characters tend to be on the unpleasant side, especially our hero Scott Brady, who comes across as a blowhard and who, as other viewers have noticed, seems a bit uncomfortable when he has to wiggle himself into a tight wet suit. Mike Road, the voice of Race Bannon in the original Johnny Quest animated show, comes off a little better as Brady's antagonist who has to face up to his own past faults—you know early on that either Brady or Road is destined to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Everyone else is fairly bland, though I must say I enjoyed the white t-shirted young men strewn about in background scenes. The effects are B-level (the miniature sets are pathetically obvious and not even charming) though the monster is pretty effective. Generally, a big "meh." Pictured are Road and Brady. [Streaming]

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

DESTINATION SPACE (1959)

This hour-long oddity was apparently a TV pilot from CBS that didn't get picked up and was unseen until its recent release on DVD. Actually, because the narrative seems to split down the middle, it feels more like the first two episodes of a show that never was. We begin with a lot of narrated exposition about the existence of a space station 500 miles from earth. Jim Benedict, who has helped financed the station (hence its nickname BB for Benedict's Billions) is about to launch a rocket ship to orbit the moon, but during the countdown, a meteoroid hits the station and the launch is called off. The Senate, concerned about the amount of money being spent on the project, calls Benedict down to earth for some meetings. At dinner one night with Jane, his girlfriend, and Kim, the wife of Benedict's chief commander Dave Reynolds, Kim has a meltdown, berating him for treating her husband like a guinea pig. But later, she admits to Jim that she's in love with him (this feels like it was being set up for a future full series plotline). Jim is sent back to the station with Dr. Easton from the Senate oversight committee, and Easton is suitably impressed with what he sees. But then a second launch is imperiled when a crucial part of the ship ices up, leading to the threat of an atomic explosion. The movie (episode?) is talky with a few short bursts of mild action, but I can see that the situation might have made a good base for a continuing story. The two biggest names in the film, John Agar and Cecil Kellaway, are wasted in small roles. Harry Townes (Jim) is colorless, Charles Aidman (Dave) a little less so. (Pictured is John Clarke as a crew member). It was fun to see Edward C. Platt (the Chief in the 60s spy comedy Get Smart) in a small role. The issue of the usefulness and cost of space missions, brought up by the Senate committee, is fairly prescient. The best of the special effects (maybe the only effects) are borrowed from CONQUEST OF SPACE. Fun viewing as a novelty. [YouTube]

Monday, October 23, 2017

THE BRAIN EATERS (1958)

One night in the small town of Riverdale, Illinois, we see a creepy-looking man skulking down the street carrying a glowing glass orb in his hands. Another man bumps into him, the orb breaks sending a flow of viscous liquid into the street, and the creep throttles the bumper. The next day, Glenn, the mayor's son, and his girlfriend Elaine hear an explosion out in the woods and come upon a 50 foot tall metallic cylinder jutting up from the earth, with dead animals strewn about the area. A scientist named Kettering (Ed Nelson) and his assistant Alice are called in by the mayor to investigate, but when Washington hears about this possible UFO finding, they send the skeptical Senator Powers and his assistant Dan to oversee things. The cone has a cyclical interior and appears to be empty but is assumed to be of alien origin. Soon we hear reports that important men in town are being murdered and the mayor himself vanishes. When he returns, we see him at his desk try unsuccessfully to shoot himself. When Our Heroes (all of the above) find the mayor, he starts shooting at people before he is shot to death. Discovered on the back of his neck is a leech-like creature that had attached itself and taken over the mayor's nervous system. It turns out that the parasites are not of extraterrestrial origin, but the cone and its passengers have come from inside the earth, aided by two scientists reported missing years ago who have become hosts for the creatures, and who are looking to make Earth a better place with their groupthink approach to war and peace.

Though apparently based loosely and without attribution on Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, this plays out like a no-budget INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. The acting ranges from almost amateurish (Jack Hill as Senator Powers) to competent (Alan Frost as the mayor's son, Orville Sherman as the mayor) to pretty good (Ed Nelson, best known as Dr. Rossi on the TV show Peyton Place). Same goes for cinematography and direction; mostly, the film is shot unimaginatively, but once in a while, there’s an attention-getting moment, as when the mayor's meltdown is filmed at a crooked angle—like the Batman TV show of the 60s would do in the villain's lair, or the noirish shots of the men with the glass globes (which contain the parasites). Sometimes attention is paid due to something silly; during a scene in which someone is struggling against the influence of the parasite, lushly romantic music plays which makes the moment rather less tense than it should be. There is also a startling moment when a parasite is planted on a woman who then takes a midnight stroll in a diaphanous nightgown. The first 10 minutes or so are so bad, you're sure this will be another Plan 9 from Outer Space, but it does get more watchable, so if you’re a fan of 50s SF, stick with it. Pictured at top are Nelson and Frost. [YouTube]

Friday, October 20, 2017

DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (1934) / DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (1971)

Duke Lambert is having a weekend house party at his Italian villa. Among those present with Lambert and his wife: Corrado, their handsome son; Grazia, the lovely but somewhat intense young woman he is in love with who is spiritually unsatisfied—she won't marry Corrado until she finds that undefined something that is missing in her life; the elderly Baron Cesarea; and Alda and her American friend Rhoda. After spending the day at a village carnival, they go speeding home through some dangerous mountain passes where they all feel a chill and see a murky shadow fall from above. One of their cars hits a flower vendor but everyone miraculously escapes injury. At the villa, Grazia, alone in the garden, screams and faints, having felt that same cold shadow from the mountain. The Baron says it's just a case of "too much moonlight" and they all head to bed. But Lambert, sensing something strange, stays up, and soon this Shadow appears to him as a black-robed translucent figure. He is Death, who has decided to take mortal form for three days to find out why human beings are so scared of him. He masquerades as Prince Sirki (Fredric March) and intends to spend his time with the Duke and his friends (though the Duke is sworn to secrecy about Sirki's identity), and during this time, there will be no death on Earth.

Sure enough, the next morning, all sorts of vegetation is suddenly in bloom even though it's fall, and newspapers report odd news: a man who tried to kill himself by jumping off the Eiffel Tower survives; on a battlefield, guns are misfiring and there are no casualties reported; even race car accidents leave no one dead. Sirki drinks wine, gambles (never losing), and romances Alda who proves incapable of giving in to him. But Grazia finds herself entranced by Sirki; he tries not to press his advantage, but he begins to wonder if he has found a human who could love him, knowing what he is. And if so, would she be willing to join him when his holiday is up?

This misty fantasy with a philosophical bent is nicely shot (with good use of light and shadow) and the villa setting is beautifully appointed. By stressing the visuals, I don't mean to slight any other elements, although the movie can get a bit talky. It opens well and up through the first appearance of Prince Sirki remains compelling. But once he's taken his place in the household, nothing much really happens, outside of an amusing gambling scene. The characters aren't developed very well; even Sirki/Death, who spouts lots of lines of longing, isn't ultimately all that interesting. The whole idea of a young woman being in love with Death (or just "death") is intriguing, but not delved into very far; Grazia's yearning is, right up to the end, amorphous and ambiguous. Having said all that, I still enjoyed the movie for its unusual tone and look. The manifestation of Death before he takes human form is a nice effect: an almost transparent shadow that manages to look pretty scary—it reminded me of how the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is often presented in adaptations of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. And as I noted earlier, the sets are fabulous. Fredric March is good as Sirki, though he plays it with a lighter touch than I think the part deserves. Evelyn Venable does a nice job suggesting the psychological depths of Grazia that are never plumbed by the action or dialogue. A death-haunted fantasy that manages not to be depressing (or terribly enlightening, either). This a second-opinion review; my first opinion is here. [DVD]

In 1971, this material was adapted for a TV-movie with Monte Markham as Death and Yvette Mimieux as the young woman who falls for him. Some interesting things are done with the background. Instead of rich Europeans, Death appears to an American family of public figures (clearly modeled on the Kennedys) who have been through much tragedy. When the adventurous daughter (Mimieux) almost drowns off the shore of family's private island, she is rescued by Markham, a handsome if mysterious stranger. The family invites him to stay for the weekend, and as he grows close to Mimieux, the aging patriarch (Melvyn Douglas), who has survived a couple of strokes, begins to recognize Markham and soon realizes that he is the figure of Death that he has already escaped from twice. He begs Markham to take him instead of Mimieux, who would have drowned off the beach, but Markham, who is eager to know why humans cling to life so fervently, claims he cannot alter destiny. Unfortunately, this version dispenses with the visual style of the original and goes for lots of sunlight; also, the supporting characters are not as interesting here (among them are Myrna Loy as the matriarch and Kerwin Mathews as a Senator). But Markham plays Death not as the powerful and chilly Prince Sirki, but as an intense but likeable loner, and his chemistry with Mimieux makes the movie worth watching. (The black & white photo is of March and Venable; the color photo on the left is Markham and on the right are Markham and Mimieux.) [YouTube]