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]

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN (1958)

On that August day back in 79 A.D. when Mount Vesuvius exploded and destroyed the town of Pompeii, other strange things happened as well, so we are told by the narrator of this film. In the present day, a team of archeologists at Pompeii discover the petrified body of a man who died during the explosion, along with a jewel box containing a bronze medallion. The body, which seems to have turned to stone, has no facial features and is frozen in what looks like a death agony. But as it's being transported to a museum for study, the thing comes alive and kills the truck driver. The driver's body is found by the side of the road and it's assumed that he simply had an accident until an autopsy finds choking marks around his neck. Our main characters are archeologist Paul (Richard Anderson) and his artist girlfriend Tina (Elaine Edwards). While Paul works on figuring out what this stone man is, Tina is inspired by weird dreams to paint the Faceless Man even before she's seen him. Writing on the medallion is translated to mean the man's name was Quintillus Aurelius, a slave who got in trouble for loving a woman above his station. There is also a warning that whatever stands between he and what belongs to him shall perish.  If you've seen a Mummy movie, you know what's coming:  people seeing the creature move, people being killed by the slow-moving man, Tina being put under hypnotic regression where it is discovered that she is indeed the reincarnation of Quintillus' former lover. This low-budget horror film is oft-maligned, with some critics making it seem like an Ed Wood movie, but it's far more competent than that. At barely an hour, it goes by quickly, and though it lacks in atmosphere and characterization, the creature itself is impressive, and the mummy movie clichés are fun to tick through. There's a bit too much exposition delivered by a nameless narrator, but I like the name of the location where the climax takes place: the Cove of the Blind Fishermen. No classic, but good enough for October Chiller Theater viewing. [Amazon streaming]

Monday, October 16, 2017

THE MAN IN BLACK (1949)

Henry Clavering is a great exponent of yoga and, knowing he is sickly and perhaps not long for this world, he arranges for a display of his yogic arts at his house, putting himself in a deep trance state. He warns his audience that the slightest disturbance or distraction could be deadly to him, but we already have a good idea that his wife Bertha and stepdaughter Janice might be wishing for his early demise, eager for his money and property. As Henry falls into his trance, a painting on a wall goes crashing to the ground (an occurrence set up by Bertha) and Henry dies. But much to Bertha and Janice's dismay, his will leaves his estate to his young daughter Joan, to be taken care of by Bertha until she reaches 21, unless Joan becomes incompetent in which case Bertha gets it all. Joan shows up to live in the house, and Bertha and Janice begin a gaslighting plot, making Joan think that she's losing her mind so she can soon be declared incompetent. Also in the house: Janice's fiancé Victor who may or may not be in league with Janice, and the crusty old handyman Hodson who may know more about everything than he lets on. Soon there are weird noises in the night, menacing shadows, and another death. Joan seems to be nervously unraveling, especially when she starts insisting that she's had conversations with a character whom we've seen die, and Bertha and Janice's plot is coming to fruition. A final séance will tip the balance one way or the other.

Just who is the man in black, you might ask? Well, he's not really part of the story; he's the spooky narrator who we see briefly at the beginning and end, and he's based on a character who told tales on BBC radio in the 40s, rather like the Whistler in America. So, though the title is misleading, this is definitely a worthy little B-thriller with good acting and clever plotting. The twists near the end may not come as total surprises but nevertheless things wrap up satisfyingly.  There are few big names in the cast; Sid James, who went on to fame as a comic actor in the "Carry On" series, is Henry, and the Man in Black, Valentine Dyall, had a long B-movie career. But the rest of the cast is fine: Hazel Penwarden as Joan, Anthony Forwood as Victor, and especially the two villains—Betty Ann Davies as Bertha and Sheila Burrell as Janice. An early Hammer film which is well worth checking out. Pictured are Forwood and Davies. [YouTube]

Thursday, October 12, 2017

STAR PILOT (1966/1977)

aka 2+5: MISSIONE HYDRA

This is one crazy-ass movie. I'm still not sure if I liked it or hated it, and I may never know, but here goes. One night on the island of Sardinia, a peasant exclaims, "Holy cow!" as he witnesses a spaceship land and burrow into the ground, though he doesn't seem to tell anyone else about it. Later, the department of Advanced Geological Studies brings in Prof. Solmi to investigate a strange radioactive area of hollowness in the island's crust.  Solmi, his free-spirited daughter Louisa—who's trying to break into the movies—and his handsome assistant Paolo head off to the island, with Louisa and Paolo flirting obnoxiously. On their first night there, aftre a mild earthquake in the middle of the night, all three, along with two fairly hunky engineers and a Geiger counter, go down in the earth to the hollowness in which they find a spaceship buried in rock which has been stuck there for two years. In the ship are a female alien named Kaena and two muscular guys named Belsey and Artie, all clad rather sexily (as is the daughter Louisa who I was really hoping would meet an early death, but no such luck). Arriving soon after are two Asian spies (who make a point of identifying themselves as "Oriental, not Chinese") who think the buried artifact is a weapon.

The aliens force the professor to help them leave Earth, and the whole lot of them take off for Kaena's planet Hydra. Louisa gets some kind of kicky mod makeover, wearing a fishnet body stocking with a feather boa strategically wrapped around her. Kaena tells them she will return them to Earth after she gets home, but one of the "Oriental" spies overhears Kaena reporting to on overlord that she has no intention of letting them return. Suddenly, a couple minutes of footage from a movie called DOOMSDAY MACHINE with Casey Kasem communicating with a space station is inserted. And then things get really weird and hard to follow. Suffice to say that there are ape monsters, a spacewalk (without the need for a spacesuit), a crash landing, and two nuclear wars—if I followed it all, and I am by no means sure that I did.

This Italian film (badly dubbed, which is par for the course) was made in 1966 under the MISSIONE HYDRA name, but didn't get an American release until 1977 when it was called STAR PILOT (someone hoping to cash in on the Star Wars boom) and, I assume, the extra footage added, though it helps not a whit in understanding the proceedings. The first half hour plays like an amusing spy spoof until we meet the aliens when it becomes a less amusing space opera, and in its final moments it becomes a rather nihilistic message movie. If you must keep track of the plotlines, you are doomed to frustration, so just relax and chill to the sexy 60s vibes. Both women (Leonoro Ruffo as Kaena, Leontine May as Louisa) wear hotsy-totsy costumes; Belsey and Artie are decked out in form-fitting black outfits—and Belsey is played by Kirk Morris (pictured with May), one of the more handsome Italian musclemen from the sword-and-sandal era; and Paolo (Anthony Freeman), though fully dressed throughout, is quite attractive. The dialogue is atrocious; here's a sample of a dad-daughter heart-to-heart: "Hey, Pop, want some coffee?"; "Yes, dear"; "But it’s getting a bit late, isn’t it?"; "I guess so—never mind." As bad as it all is, I can't deny I had fun watching it, and I admit I'd love to see a clean widescreen version of it someday—the version I saw was full screen and in terrible shape.[YouTube]

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET (1942)

In 1889 Paris, musical star Marie Roget (Maria Montez) has been missing for ten days and pressure is building on the police to crack the case, especially from naval official Beauvais (John Litel), a friend of the family. Gobelin (Lloyd Corrigan), the police chief, calls on Dr. Dupin (Patric Knowles) to help, but when the body of a woman is found, her face mutilated by what look like animal claw marks, they assume they have found Marie. To everyone's surprise, however, Marie comes strolling into her grandmother's house as though nothing was out of the ordinary, and she refuses to tell anyone where she's been. Granny Cecile (Maria Ouspenskaya), who owns a pet leopard that she insists is harmless, hires Dupin to protect Marie's sister Camille, who is set to inherit a fortune the next day. Camille is engaged to navy man Marcel, but we soon discover that Marcel and Marie are in the middle of some seemingly nefarious planning. At a party that night, Marie again vanishes; another mutilated body is found in the river and this time, it is Marie.

Perhaps because it was based on an Edgar Allan Poe story, this movie was included in Universal's Shock Theater package of films sold to local TV stations in the 1950s and 60s, which is why is has a reputation as a horror film. It's really a fairly traditional mystery with some mild horror elements (the mutilated bodies, much nighttime action), so be forewarned. As B-mysteries go, it's enjoyable. There is a nice Holmes/Watson vibe between Dupin and Gobelin that carried me through the movie. I haven't read the original story so I can't comment on the film's faithfulness to Poe—though a reference is made to Dupin having solved the Rue Morgue murders—but the plot gets fairly convoluted and I didn't much care about any of the characters except the detectives, so it didn't feel like much was at stake in the outcome. The rich black and white cinematography is a plus, but not much is done to keep the atmosphere suitably spooky or dangerous. It was retitled PHANTOM OF PARIS for a 50s re-release. A little lightweight but not a waste of an hour. Pictured are Corrigan and Knowles. [DVD] 

Friday, October 06, 2017

BLOOD OF DRACULA’S CASTLE (1969)

While a rather catchy song plays on the car radio ("Next Train Out" by Gil Bernal), Ann drives and drives and drives until her car breaks down. When she goes walking through a small wooded area looking for help, she runs into Mango, a big, stumbling, mute Lurch-like figure who snatches her up and takes her to Falcon Rock Castle, out in the middle of the California desert, the residence of the Count and Countess Townshend, who, though they look on the young side of middle-aged, are actually 200-year-old vampires. Ann is taken to the basement and chained to the wall, joining the other scantily-clad women in chains from whom blood is taken daily to satisfy the Townshends' thirst. But their long routine may be coming to an end: it turns out that the vampires have been renting the castle but the owner has died, leaving the estate to his nephew Glen, a photographer. He and his girlfriend Liz head out to claim the property and break it to the residents that they'll have to move. As Glen and Liz arrive, so does Johnny, a handsome young man of the Townshend's acquaintance who has broken out of jail. He might be a werewolf—he says he goes a little crazy during the full moon—and he's returned to use his charms to bring more young women to the dungeon. There's also a moon-worshiping butler named George, and a full moon sacrifice, but ultimately very little blood.

Z-movie director Al Adamson directed this mess that is nonetheless a fairly painless viewing experience if you know what you're getting into. It is different from the run-of-the-mill vampire movie in ways both good and bad: the vampires are cultured, pleasant people—on the other hand, they're not very spooky or threatening; Johnny has the potential to be an interesting character—but he's not fleshed out very well, as the fact that we never know if he actually has a moon curse on him attests; a castle in the desert sounds kinda cool—but little is made of the setting, apparently a real California ranch. Most of the problems with the film are in the writing and filming; the acting isn’t bad. Despite not being scary, Alex D'Arcy and Paula Raymond are fine as the Townshend-Draculas—she comes off as though she's acting on a soap opera, which in these surroundings is not a bad thing. Robert Dix, son of 30s leading man Richard Dix, is quite good as the ambiguous Johnny, and Gene O'Shane and Barbara Bishop don't embarrass themselves as the romantic couple (pictured above). John Carradine does what he can with the marginal role of the butler. Despite the critical commentary on IMDb, this movie is much more professional than anything that Ed Wood ever did—though the full moon sacrifice is laughable as it's shot in a terrible attempt as day-for-night which looks like 4 in the afternoon. But I really did like the opening song. [Streaming]

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

THE PHANTOM PLANET (1961)

In the far-off year of 1980, two space pilots from the American moon base find their craft drawn to an unknown planetoid object that had been invisible just moments before. The ship crashes and the object vanishes again. This isn't the first time something like this has happened, so Captain Frank Chapman (Dean Fredericks) is taken off the Mars Project to investigate. On the way, Chapman has to do a spacewalk to fix a part but his air line breaks and when Chapman's co-pilot tries to save him, he winds up floating to his death in space (shades of 2001!). Chapman gets back in the ship only to see that same small planet suddenly appear. He is able to crash land and is thrown from the ship, unconscious. In a scene right out of Gulliver's Travels, a band of tiny inhabitants of the asteroid find him. As he begins to wake, his body inside the spacesuit shrinks to the size of the men (we later discover it's because he breathed in their air). Naked, he is taken to an underground lair, given clothes, and meet some residents of this phantom planet: the old wise sage leader (silent film star Francis X. Bushman), the lovely dark-haired mute girl Zetha, the full-figured blonde Liara, and the cocky native Herron who is immediately jealous of the impact the studly Chapman makes on Liara, his sweetie—the bleach blonde Chapman spends much of the movie strutting around in a half-opened shirt, showing off his moderately hirsute chest.

We get some backstory on their small planet, Raethon. Years ago, their race was technologically advanced but too much free time made them lazy so they have deliberately chosen a more primitive lifestyle (this also explains the low-budget cave surroundings with no need for bigger-budget flashy settings). They refuse to let Chapman go back home because they don't want their existence known. But they face a serious problem: an alien race called the Solarians. They have imprisoned a Solarite (Richard Kiel under too much make-up to recognize him, looking like a sad-eyed dog monster) but soon more of them come determined to free the prisoner and wreck havoc on the Raethonians. Eventually, after Chapman and Herron engage in a duel during which Chapman saves his rival's life, the two get chummy, and Chapman helps his hosts defeat the attacking aliens and they let him go back to Earth.

This is cheap-looking with plot loopholes galore, but it's fun in that 60s sci-fi way. Fredericks doesn't have a wide acting range but he certainly satisfies the demands of this role: to be handsome and manly and have a way with the ladies. Mostly ditto for Anthony Dexter as Herron (pictured top right with Fredericks). Richard Weber plays Chapman's co-pilot who leaves the movie early but makes an impression with an exaggeratedly earnest speech he makes about the beauty of life, delivered to Chapman while Weber (pictured at left) looks as though he's lost in hero-worship or love. It's a moment that is both sweet and laughable. Bushman, almost 80, is just too old and tired to be convincing as a leader of the alien race. The women are there as eye candy; just after a ferocious battle with Solarians, the absence of Zetha, in case we cared, is explained away because she went to bed early. But despite the many unintentionally funny bits (MST3K justifiably mocked this one), there is just enough of a kiddie matinee feel to this that isn't too hard to get through. [YouTube]

Monday, October 02, 2017

THE GREEN SLIME (1968)

First, there’s the raucous rockin' theme song: "You’ll believe it when you find/Something screaming across your mind/Green Slime!!" Once we've calmed down from that, we're told that scientists have discovered an asteroid called Flora which is on a collision course with Earth. Astronaut Robert Horton is chosen to fly up to the space station Gamma III and lead an attempt to land men on the asteroid to plant bombs that will blow the asteroid up before it reaches Earth, which will be in a matter of days. The problem is that Gamma III's commander is Richard Jaeckel, a former friend of Horton's; the two had a falling-out over some situation in which Horton felt Jaeckel was lacking in leadership skills. Oh, yeah, and Jaeckel is now engaged to Horton's former girlfriend Luciana Paluzzi, and she's the doctor on the space station. Things seem a little tense as Jaeckel obviously resents Horton being given command of this mission, but they comport themselves like gentlemen—for a while. While drilling on the asteroid to plant the bombs, the astronauts see pulsating green slime bubble up out of the ground and one guy gets some on his spacesuit. The mission is a success, but the green slime winds up on Gamma III and eventually mutates into a horde of Cyclops-eyed tentacled monsters that start killing off the crew. Will Horton and Jaeckel be able to put aside their festering dislike for each other to concentrate on saving the ship, and possibly the earth? And, since only one of them can wind up with Paluzzi, which one will do the noble self-sacrificing act at the climax of the film?

I'm back to focusing on horror and genre films for October, and since I've been discovering so many sci-fi films of the 50s and 60s on various streaming platforms recently, those films will predominate my blog this month. In 1968, this might have looked like cutting-edge sci-fi, but I doubt it (though check out that great poster art at left!). The interior sets and costumes are fine (not quite A-grade but a notch above B), but many of the exteriors have that cheap Thunderbirds miniature-model look. I can't decide if I find that charming or silly. I guess I find it goofily charming but not conducive to fostering an effective atmosphere for the movie's action. (Despite having an all-Caucasian cast, the movie was made in Japan by a mostly Japanese crew including the director, Kinji Fukasaku, who went on to direct the Japanese sequences in TORA! TORA! TORA!) The last half of the movie is a forerunner of ALIEN as crew members are killed off one by one, but though some of the death effects are good, the proceedings never feel as tense as they should. For me, the acting throws off the screenwriters' intentions: I think we're supposed to see Horton as the rational good guy and Jaeckel as, if not a bad guy, at least the damaged one, but frankly I never warmed up to the cocky but wooden Horton, so I usually found Jaeckel the more sympathetic character. Fans of slightly schlocky 60s SF will eat this up; others may tune out before the end. Pictured above right are Horton, Jaeckel and Paluzzi. [DVD]

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

CONQUEST (1937)

I've said this before on this blog: I know almost nothing about Napoleon except what I know from the movies. Someday I'll read a book about him, but until then, I have Greta Garbo and Charles Boyer to expand my knowledge. In 1807, rampaging Russians on horseback invade Poland and stop at the lavish home of the elderly Count Walewska and his lovely young wife the Countess Marie (Greta Garbo), and they and their horses trash the place. A brigade of Polish lancers scare the Russians away; among the Poles is Marie's brother Paul who tells Marie that Napoleon is in Poland. She has a strong case of hero worship for him, and she is sure that the Emperor will give her country independence. Marie first encounters him in passing on a snowy night, and later she and her father are formally presented to him at a ball in Warsaw where Napoleon immediately falls for her, despite both of them being married. She resists him until a handful of Polish leaders basically beg her to become his mistress, hoping she can then influence him to liberate Poland. She does, and he does. They have a loving (and lengthy) relationship, but eventually, Napoleon decides for the sake of diplomacy—and to have a legitimate heir—that he needs to officially divorce Josephine and marry into the royal Hapsburg family. Unfortunately, he tells Marie this just as she's about to tell him that she is pregnant.

I’m not a fan of Garbo talkies—I think she's more effective in her silent films like FLESH AND THE DEVIL and THE TEMPTRESS—and though I find her problematic here, I did enjoy the movie. Boyer is excellent at Napoleon, avoiding broad stereotypes and making him more human than mythic. There's a great supporting cast of MGM stalwarts including Henry Stephenson as Marie's husband, Reginald Owen (in a goofy wig) as Tallyrand, Maria Ouspenskaya as the Count's eccentric mother (her brief scene with Boyer is a standout), and Dame May Whitty as Napoleon's mother. The familiar faces of Leif Erickson, Alan Marshal, George Zucco, C. Henry Gordon and child star Scotty Beckett also pop up. Garbo tends to either underplay or overact, and she alternates back and forth for the first part of the film; the worst offense is in an overdone scene in which she's trying to talk Napoleon into freeing her people: "One word from you would set us free! Say it! Say it!!" To be fair, that purple dialogue would be difficult for any actor, but with Garbo's overwrought delivery, it's hard not to chuckle. However, once the character settles in as royal mistress, Garbo gets better. This movie was not a hit in its day, partly because it was so expensive to make, and anyone looking for epic war scenes will be very disappointed—though the rampaging horses moment early on is quite well done, and reminiscent of a similar scene in the earlier THE SCARLET EMPRESS. It's based on a play and it does come off as a little stagy at times, but in general, this has weathered the years well enough. [TCM]

Monday, September 25, 2017

GIRL CRAZY (1943)

This is one of the legendary "Hey, kids, let’s put on a show" movies that Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland had a lock on in the early 40s. The novelty here is the setting: an all-male mining college in the middle of the desert. In Manhattan, young Rooney's playboy antics are bringing scandal to the family name and his father decides to send him in exile to Codyville, Arizona at the aforementioned college, hoping that isolation will cure his lackadaisical ways. Rooney doesn't make many friends and is determined to leave until he meets Garland, the town's postmistress and granddaughter of the college's dean.  Rooney falls for her and when the dean discovers that the state legislature wants to close the college down, Rooney and Garland work together, staging a rodeo and beauty contest to publicize the college. There are, of course, romantic entanglements along the way to the happy ending, and the big musical finale.

The plot is not the reason why people watch these movies, it's the music and the stars, and on that level, this film works well. Rooney and Garland (pictured with Tommy Dorsey) have their chemistry down pat—this was their fifth movie together, not counting the Andy Hardy films in which Garland had a supporting role—and are delightful. I chuckled at Rooney's use of double talk slang: When he calls something "snerpy," he explains, "Well, a snerp is a looging with a belt in the back sometimes referred to as a diljo." The music is provided by the Gershwin brothers at their best: "Fascinating Rhythm" (with highlights from "Rhapsody in Blue"), "Embraceable You," "But Not for Me," "Bidin' My Time," and the big finish with "I Got Rhythm." I have to admit, however, that for me, these great songs are not really done justice here. Maybe these legendary songs will always be diminished on the screen.  Still, the film is generally fun. This is a very different take on the original material, a stage show in 1930 with Ethel Merman, then a 1932 film with comics Wheeler & Woolsey that cut out most of the Gershwin score. The earlier film is funnier but this one is more satisfying musically. [DVD]

Thursday, September 21, 2017

UP IN THE AIR (1940)

At the New York studios of the Amalgamated Broadcasting Corporation, buddies Frankie Darro and Mantan Moreland do menial physical work, but when Darro sees the lovely new receptionist (Marjorie Reynolds), he pretends to be a talent scout and sets up a fake audition for her—with Moreland playing piano. She's pissed when she finds out he's a phony but he keeps on flirting. Meanwhile, radio diva Lorna Gray seems a little spooked when she catches sight of singing cowboy Gordon Jones, who has arrived in town from Oklahoma hoping to make the big time. Gray is in the middle of tough negotiations with her bosses, and during a rehearsal session, someone turns out the lights and Gray winds up shot dead. Jones seems a little too eager to leave the studio, and we soon find out that he may have had an Oklahoma connection to Gray. As Darro and Moreland investigate, they discover that the innocent-seeming Reynolds also knew Jones, as did one of the network bosses. Later, Jones is cleared—because he's found dead in the network boss's office. Will there be more deaths before the killer is caught?

I'll give almost anything with Frankie Darro a try, and he and the African-American Moreland make a fun team; their personalities shine through a weak script. I dislike the artificial Reynolds except as Linda Mason in HOLIDAY INN but she's not really a liability here since Darro and Moreland are the chief draw. I like Gordon Jones (the original Green Hornet of the movies) but he doesn't have a lot to do. There's an uncomfortable bit with Darro in blackface auditioning a comedy routine with Moreland, but the punch line is cute: when the radio producer realizes it's Darro under the blackface, he starts to rub it off his face and Moreland says, "Don’' touch me—I don’t rub off!" There are a couple of so-so songs. Production-wise, this is par for the course for Monogram, but the two leading men (pictured) make this worth seeing. [Streaming]

Monday, September 18, 2017

ROMANOFF AND JULIET (1961)

An important United Nations vote on which the U.S. and Russia are on opposing sides ends in a tie until someone realizes that the tiny country of Condordia has not yet voted—most of the other delegates have never even heard of the country. Fleeing such a heavy responsibility, the president of Concordia (Peter Ustinov) says, "We have to get out of here before the Americans have time to offer us aid." Back home, the daughter of the American ambassador (Sandra Dee), disillusioned with her drab boyfriend Brian, falls for the handsome son of the Russian ambassador (John Gavin) who is about to be forced into an arranged marriage with a female solider. Thinking this could be a way to get the two countries together, Ustinov helps the forbidden romance along. After some diplomatic parrying among the three countries, Ustinov presides over the wedding of Dee and Gavin, with the two in disguise as legendary national figures at what everyone assumes is a symbolic marriage ceremony.

This sits a little uneasily between Cold War satire and romantic comedy, and although there are many amusing one-liners here, the political aspect dates the film enough that it bogs down severely in the middle. Ustinov, who also wrote the movie, wrote the play on which it is based, and directs, gives a fun twinkle-in-the-eye performance that sustains us through the rough patches. Supposedly, he was less than happy that Universal made him use contract players Dee and Gavin (pictured), but they are both delightful in fairly traditional rom-com roles. Though the rest of the actors are fine, the number of supporting characters clutters up the storyline. Among the amusing points and lines: Concordia's income is derived mostly from deliberately misprinting postage stamps—although by now the collectors are getting suspicious; when Ustinov first sees the brooding Gavin, he quips, "Who's this, Hamlet?"; a phone call in code between diplomats consists of line like "One man's meat is another man’s poison" and "Water, water everywhere and a drop to drink," intoned portentously. Quite funny in places, and perhaps best appreciated as a period piece. [TCM]

Thursday, September 14, 2017

ANNA KARENINA (1948)

In 19th century Moscow, the Oblonskys (Stefan and Dolly) are having marital troubles, and Stefan's sister Anna is arriving from St. Petersburg to intervene on his behalf. On the train, Anna strikes up a conversation with Countess Vronsky and, at the station, meets her dashing son, the Count. He is smitten with her, and she responds to him tentatively, but young Kitty is in love with the Count and is angry when Anna monopolizes Vronsky's time at a high society ball. Though Anna is married—to a cold martinet—and has a young son, Vronsky boldly follows her back to St. Petersburg and becomes her, shall we say, companion, in public and private. The town is abuzz with the scandal and soon even her clueless husband Karenin cannot ignore the gossip, though his solution is to keep ignoring it. When Vronsky is hurt in a horse race, Anna cannot hide her concern and Karenin decides to start divorce proceedings, planning on keeping her away from their son. Eventually, Anna discovers she is pregnant with Vronksy's child, but the infant is stillborn and Anna herself almost dies. In short order, Anna stays with Karenin, Vronsky tries to kill himself, and Anna and Vronsky take off for Venice for an idyllic season together. But when her husband refuses to give her an official divorce, she worries that Vronsky will grow tired of her as a mistress and, well, as you must know if have any cultural literacy at all, she throws herself in front of a train.

Since I reviewed the 1935 Greta Garbo version of the Tolstoy novel, I have seen the 2012 version with Keira Knightley and Jude Law (interesting style but cold and uninvolving) and twice struggled with the novel, getting a hundred pages in or so before giving up. So with my viewing of this film, I may finally have Anna out of my system. The Garbo version had a superior supporting cast, but I found the main characters embodied better here: Vivien Leigh's emotional struggles are more clearly presented, Ralph Richardson is the very incarnation of the chilly though not inhuman Karenin, and the dashing Kieron Moore (better known to me as the lighthouse keeper in DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS) makes a far more interesting Vronsky than either Jude Law or Fredric March. Sally Ann Howes is fine as Kitty, with the rest of the supporting cast adequate if not memorable. This is the version I'd be most likely to return to some day if I find myself in need of a Tolstoy fix. [TCM]