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]

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

THE GIRL IN THE SHOW (1929)

A troupe of actors is traveling across the country, visiting small towns and giving performances of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Hattie (Bessie Love), who has the juicy melodramatic role of Little Eva, travels with her kid sister Oriole, and is sweet on Mal (Raymond Hackett), the handsome actor who plays the villainous Simon Legree. While in Kansas, a couple of do-gooder citizens, concerned that the child Oriole is not getting a proper education, investigate. One of the two, Mr. Wampler, gets interested in Hattie and becomes part of a scheme to smuggle Oriole out of town away from the other do-gooders. But in the next town, the troupe becomes stranded due to floods and the manager takes off with all their money. The actors encourage Hattie to encourage Wampler and, with the understanding that she will marry him, he agrees to get enough money for the troupe to live on until they can move on. Of course, this doesn't sit well with Mal, and no one is very happy when Wampler insists that Hattie give up her career. When they decide to put on a benefit performance for victims of the flood, they let little Oriole go on as Eva, which makes Hattie realize that she still wants to act, even as part of a third-rate company. Will a happy ending be in store for anyone?

This romantic comedy is an early sound film but that's not the problem with it; instead, it's the bland and predictable script and the generally unlikeable characters, including Hattie, who treats Mal badly, leads on Wampler, seems unreasonably disgusted when she finds out he's an undertaker, and deliberately gets Oriole stuffed with chocolates to ruin her performance as Eva. And yet we're supposed to like her! Bessie Love manages to make Hattie just sympathetic enough to hope that things will work out for her. Hackett (pictured with Love) is a handsome, upright fellow who was a child star in silents—he's quite personable here so it's a bit of a mystery why he quit acting just a couple years later. Eddie Nugent, another attractive young man, is fine as Mal's friend Dave. 10-year-old Nanci Price is quite good as Oriole, especially in her amusing climactic scene on stage as Eva. The film has dated quite a bit, though it does document a real phenomenon—that of traveling acting companies dedicated to just performing versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin. [TCM]

Friday, September 08, 2017

HOT ROD GANG (1958)

Cool, handsome Johnny—college student and aspiring rock singer—is having a playful drag race with nerdy Dave, an engineer testing out a new hot rod model, but thuggish Mark, a city kid who resents Johnny's college student airs, comes along and challenges Johnny to a real race, during which Johnny almost hits an older man. Johnny makes it back to his gang's hangout, where they dance and drink sodas and work on hot rods, but the police arrive with the old man and his passengers, one of whom is young Lois, new in town. Lois recognizes Johnny but thinking him cute and likeable, doesn't ID him to the cops. We soon discover that Johnny is actually John Abernathy III, heir to a fortune, being held to a strict code of behavior by his lawyer and his two eccentric aunts, Anastasia and Abigail (who switch names every so often to keep folks on their toes). The family doesn't know about Johnny's hot rod, rock & roll life, and that evening, at a staid family gathering, Johnny officially meets Lois; her father is a new employee of the Abernathy family lawyer. She agrees to keep his secret if he'll introduce her to his friends. They sneak out of the house and head for the hangout where Johnny finds out that the landlord of their space is about to foreclose because of taxes. To get a lump sum to pay the taxes, Lois introduces Johnny to rock singer Gene Vincent who agrees to produce a record for him. But because Johnny has to hide his identity, he wears a huge fake beard and calls himself Jackson Dalrymple. His song, "Hit and Run Lover" is a hit, but just when it looks like Johnny's gang will be able to hold on to their hangout, Mark and his buddy, who are responsible for a string of auto part robberies, plant stolen goods in Johnny's car. Will the cops, not to mention Johnny's guardians, foil his plans?

As you may be able to tell from the summary above, there isn't much about hot rods or gangs in this movie, which for me is fine; it works fairly well as a light teen drama. There is a surprising amount of comedy here, so much that it can't really be called comic relief—it's more like the drama works as a "relief" to the humor. In addition to the mild comic antics of the nerd Dave, there’s Johnny's super-square put-on in front of his family, Johnny's bearded alter-ego (his silly beard might be well-regarded by today's hipsters ), Lois's I’m-in-on-the-gag demeanor during the family scenes, the snarky family maid, and of course, the two spinster sisters who actually get involved in the big fisticuffs scene at the end. Though it's not intended to be funny, two performances by Gene Vincent come off as fairly humorous because of his two sidemen; dressed in preppy sweaters and what look like sailor hats, they stand right next to him on stage, clapping and dancing, and only occasionally singing background. (It helped me that one of them could pass for Ryan Reynolds' younger brother--see picture at right.) Among the talent: John Ashley (who actually can sing) as Johnny, Jody Fair as Lois, Dub Taylor (a familiar face in Westerns and 60s & 70s TV shows) as the landlord, Claire Dubray as the wry maid. Of interest to me was the presence of Maureen Arthur (pictured with Ashley at top left) as a buxom blonde hot rod girl—10 years later, she memorably played sex bomb Hedy LaRue in HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, one of my favorite movie musicals. Overall a good-natured B-film with no pretensions, though those hoping for lots of hot rod action may be disappointed. [TCM]

Thursday, September 07, 2017

THE HOUSE OF THE ARROW (1953)

In Dijon, France, the rich widow Madame Harlowe has died, and Boris, her brother-in-law, is expecting a nice settlement from her will. However, it turns out that she has left most of her estate to her adopted daughter Betty (Yvonne Furneaux). Boris goes to the police and claims that Mme. Harlowe was poisoned, naming Betty as the prime suspect—though a butler, a maid and a nurse also live in the house, as does Betty's mild-mannered English friend Ann (Josephine Griffin). Boris theorizes that Betty put poison in the old lady’s orange juice, based on the fact that he saw her make a suspicious visit to a shady neighborhood herbalist. The renowned inspector Hanaud (Oscar Homolka) works the case and, though he's not sure that Boris' theory is right, he does believe that Harlowe's death may have been the result of foul play. Ann, frightened for the vulnerable Betty, brings in Jim (Robert Urquhart), a lawyer from England, to be present during the investigation. Hanaud finds a book on African poison-laced arrows at the herbalist's shop, and the hunt for an arrow in the house is on. Ann suddenly remembers hearing strange whispering and seeing figures in the dark the night of the old lady's death. Betty seems sure that the killer is Boris, but what about the nurse, the person who would have had best access to Mme. Harlowe?

Based on a novel by A.E.W. Mason, a well-known British author of the early 20th century (The Four Feathers), this has the look of a film noir (inky black shadows) but the feel of an almost whimsical cozy mystery, largely due to the playful performance of Homolka as Hanaud. Apparently Hanaud, who appeared in a handful of Mason's novels, was an inspiration for Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, and Homolka at times comes off a bit like Peter Ustinov did in his Poirot films—in my mind, that's a plus. There is a lack of tension for much of the running time, but the final confrontation scene plays out nicely. The rest of the actors are fine, if not particularly memorable; Urquhart has one of those supporting-actor faces that made him look familiar to me, though the only other movies of his I've seen is THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. There is an irritating accordion score but that's the only real negative I can come up with. Pictured are Furneaux, Urquhart and Griffin. [Amazon streaming]

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

THE ECHO MURDERS (1945)

This 70 minute film set during WWII is part mystery, part spy/action movie and is so crammed with incident that I'm not sure I got all the details right in my notes, but here's what I think happened:  Duncan is a wealthy man who owns a mine on the coast of Cornwall. Someone is setting off explosions at the mine in hopes of getting him to sell the land. He's also being blackmailed by his slimy secretary Rainsford who wants to marry Duncan's daughter Stella, who is interested in another worker, Warren. Duncan dismisses Warren, trying to blame the mine's problems on him, but Warren remains committed to Stella. Meanwhile, someone badly wants to get his hands on the mine plans which are kept in Duncan's safe. Feeling besieged, Duncan records a Dictaphone message asking detective Sexton Blake for help. He sends off the wax cylinder, but an intruder kills him that night. Did I mention the apparent suicide of a man named Fox who jumped or was pushed off a cliff? Or the two suspicious men who were confederates of Fox, one of whom, while casing the house to get to the safe, saw Duncan murdered? And when Blake arrives, one more puzzle piece is presented: an eccentric neighbor named Beales who heads up a local Health & Strength club, though he doesn't seem all that healthy himself. Beales' property is right above a big echoey cave on the beach where Fox's body was found, and where other odd things occur. Soon there will be another murder meant to look like a suicide, and even Blake himself will be tortured and reported dead before the culprits are caught in an explosion of guns and fisticuffs.

Sexton Blake is a pulp fiction detective and adventurer; his address on Baker Street might lead you to believe that he's a Sherlock Holmes knock-off, but based on the two Blake movies I've seen—the earlier one is reviewed here—Blake is far more of a man of action than Holmes. This film has action galore, of the B-movie variety, and even though the plot is convoluted, I could keep up with enough of it to stay interested. For most of the film's running time, you're not quite sure who's good and who's bad, or at least bad enough to commit murder and possibly be plotting with Nazis. There's even a few clever lines. Someone refers to the health society as "all orange juice and sandals," and a Cornwall cop tells Blake he's actually excited about all the fuss: "Murder is like a breath of fresh air." David Farrar, best known as the troublesome hunk in BLACK NARCISSUS, is quite good as Blake—he also played Blake in the earlier MEET SEXTON BLAKE which I hope to catch soon. The only other actor of note in the cast is Dennis Price (memorable in KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS) as Warren, but he spends a good chunk of the movie languishing in jail. Otherwise, the acting is typical for a B-film of the era. Enjoyable. [Amazon streaming]

Friday, September 01, 2017

PIRATES OF THE PRAIRIE (1942)

Deputy Marshal Larry Durant (Tim Holt) is instructed to go undercover to investigate a land grab. The frontier towns of Spencerville and East Spencerville are separated by "a dry gulch and a feud"; in the absence of elected officials, a vigilante group has been established in Spencerville to keep the peace, but they have turned a blind eye to the grabbing of property in anticipation of the arrival of the railroad. Some folks could become rich selling their ill-gotten land to the government and Durant wonders if some of the vigilantes are behind the shady doings. Durant arrives in town posing as a gunsmith and gets the attention of Lew Harmon (Roy Barcroft), second-in-command of the vigilantes—and the mastermind behind the land swindle. Harmon, suspicious of Durant, tells him a gunsmith isn't wanted in town, and his men trash Durant's storefront, but Durant stays put, with the help of the simple-minded Ike (Cliff Edwards) who lost his farm to Harmon. Durant also starts a tentative friendship with Helen Spencer, daughter of John Spencer, the head of the vigilantes (who is not aware of the machinations of Harmon and his cohorts). It turns out that there is no feud between the two towns—Harmon has used this fiction as a way to flex his power as an illegitimate lawman. When the federal surveyors come to the area, they decide to build the railroad and its depot in East Spencerville, which would ruin Harmon's big plans. The stage is thus set for shoot-outs, bar brawls, night raids, and a cold-blooded murder before the good guys prevail.

This strikes me an absolutely average B-Western of the era. It's competently done but a little slack here and there, with some shots looking like they should have been retaken, and some of the editing feeling a bit ragged. The plot is nothing out of the ordinary but serviceable enough. Same for the acting: Holt is blandly heroic but a little cold, Barcroft is stereotypically villainous, and Edwards provides fairly unobtrusive comic relief. Nell O’Day, as Helen, the love interest, hasn't much to do, and only Charles King, as a particularly nasty henchman of Harmon's, stands out of the supporting cast. Edwards (pictured above to the left of Holt), known for his ukulele playing, gets a couple of songs. And it's all over in just under an hour. [TCM]

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

TORMENTED (1960)

Noted jazz pianist Tom Stewart (Richard Carlson) is renting a beach bungalow on a resort island. He spends a lot of his free time in a deserted lighthouse while he prepares for a big concert performance, and for his marriage to his wholesome sweetheart Meg. Unfortunately, one night his old flame, sexy nightclub singer Vi Mason (Juli Redding), sneaks onto the island and threatens to expose their sordid past if he doesn't call the wedding off. They discuss the issue up in the lighthouse, and when the railing gives way, Vi falls. Grasping on with one hand, she begs Tom to save her; he reaches out but pulls back and she falls to her death. Soon, Tom feels haunted by Vi's ghost: seeing her body in the water, he carries it to be the beach but it turns to seaweed; his wedding ring goes missing; Vi's watch appears in his house; phantom footprints walk next to him on the beach; a record of Vi singing a song called "Tormented" plays even after Tom takes it off the phonograph; creepiest of all, her disembodied hand and head pop up from time to time. Soon everyone notices Tom's a little off; not just Meg but Meg's kid sister Sandy (Susan Gordon) and the good-natured—but nosy—blind landlady (Lillian Adams). Despite Tom's odd behavior, and despite her father's dislike for Tom, Meg insists on going through with the wedding, but the arrival on the island of an unsavory character (Joe Turkel) who brought Vi over from the mainland and wonders what's happened to her changes Tom's plans.

I discovered this low-budget thriller from Bert I. Gordon when it was mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000; their version is lots of fun, but I have come to appreciate the movie on its own merits. Part of the fun is figuring out if there really is a ghost or if a guilty Tom is just losing his mind—though he definitely wants Vi out of the way, he doesn't plan on killing her, and when she does die, he doesn’t directly cause it, he just pauses long enough in helping her that she loses her grip. His guilt here isn't strictly speaking based on him breaking a legal code but a moral code. Some critics say Carlson's performance is on the wooden side, but I think he does a nice job sliding back and forth between acting distracted because of guilt and feeling that his relationship with Meg and her sister will somehow redeem him. Is there a ghost? By the wedding scene near the end, you'll probably have decided, but until then, it's a toss-up. The other actors don't give Carlson much support: young Susan Gordon, only 11 at the time, is OK but tries a little too hard in her more melodramatic moments—possibly the fault of her dad, the director. Lugene Sanders is pretty bad as Meg, so much so that I wondered why Tom didn’t run off with Vi (the answer: Meg's family has money). Juli Redding is fine in her limited screen time as Vi, and Lillian Adams as the blind lady who is the first to figure out what might be going on, is serviceable. Joe Turkel, fine as the young tough who tries to blackmail Tom, went on to cult fame as the ghostly bartender in THE SHINING and as Dr. Tyrell in BLADE RUNNER. The wedding scene plays out nicely but feels truncated (did what we see really happen or was it all in Tom's mind?) so we can rush to the climax, back in the lighthouse. If you're in the mood for a Chiller Theater B-movie, this will do nicely. But also go ahead and catch the MST3K version as well. Pictured are Carlson and Redding in the flesh (at top right) and with Redding in ghostly form. [DVD]

Friday, August 25, 2017

AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (1931)

Young Clyde Griffiths (Phillips Holmes) comes from a humble background—he grows up living in the Skid Row mission his parents run—but wants better things. We see him working as a bellhop in a Kansas City hotel, flirting with a rich girl but dating a lowly hotel maid. While out with his drunken friends, he is involved in a car crash that kills a pedestrian; he manages to run away fast enough to avoid any connection and leaves town. He eventually winds up in New York and gets a job at his uncle's shirt factory. He’s making money, but finds the work boring and beneath him. Invited to his uncle's house, he fails to make a good impression due to his sullen personlity. But at the factory, he becomes smitten with new worker Roberta Alden (Sylvia Sidney, pictured with Holmes) and though it's against the rules, the two see each other on the sly. He pressures her to have sex, and soon she is pregnant and pressing him for marriage. But he has since met the rich and lovely Sondra Finchley (Frances Dee) and, seeing a much better future with her, begins to fantasize about killing Roberta by faking a canoeing accident. One summer day, the two go out to a deserted part of a lake and he starts to act on his impulse. At the last minute, he stops himself, but the canoe tips anyway and she drowns. He rather heartlessly leaves the scene to go partying with Sondra and her moneyed crowd, but soon the police are able to draw a web of circumstantial evidence around him.

It's difficult to know how to approach this film critically. Based on a classic novel by Theodore Dreiser, directed by the stylish Josef von Sternberg, and filmed in the pre-Code era when filmmakers could deal with most of the movie’s "unsavory" themes (premarital sex, abortion, a crime of passion), there was definitely potential here for a classic movie. However, this just scratches the surface of the novel, coming off like a bland Reader's Digest condensation, and with very few of the visual flourishes one might expect from Sternberg. In the novel, Clyde's upbringing is crucial to an understanding of how his personality develops, but the movie skips over almost all of that. Holmes does manage to make the character passive, callow and unfeeling (his masculinity is questioned often enough that it made me wonder if Sternberg was suggesting some sexual orientation conflict) but we wind up with very little sympathy for him; Roberta is only lightly sketched as a character, and Sondra is barely present, so there is really no one in the story for us to identify with. Perhaps if I hadn't read the novel, my reaction would be different. The 50s film version, A PLACE IN THE SUN, is glossier with rounder characters, though still no match for the book, which admittedly gets hard to plow through in the last third. Interesting mainly as a pre-Code relic. [DVD]

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

AMERICAN GUERRILLA IN THE PHILIPPINES (1950)

In 1942, two American Navy men, Ensign Chuck Palmer (Tyrone Power) and sailor Jim Mitchell (Tom Ewell), are stranded on the island of Leyte in the Philippines after the fall of Bataan—when General MacArthur made the famous claim, "I shall return." The two attempt to get to the island of Mindanao to rejoin their troops but in the city of Tacloban, they find chaos as the Americans are preparing to surrender and the natives are desperate for help. The colonel there gives them some money so they can buy a boat and try to make it across the gulf, and Palmer uses his influence to help Jeanne, a French woman married to a Filipino, get medical assistance for a relative. She thanks him, but also warns him that the monsoons will make it difficult on the water, and suggests he stay on the island and become part of the resistance. They leave with a small crew, and their boat does indeed get destroyed. Stuck eight miles from shore, they are eventually rescued by a group of villagers who hide the men from the Japanese. Resistance fighter Miguel (Tommy Cook) joins the Americans and after a few months in hiding, they finally get assistance from businessman Juan Martinez, a supporter of the guerrillas and also the husband of Jeanne, for whom Palmer is carrying a bit of a torch. Palmer winds up on a spy mission to Mindanao, and then is sent back to Leyte in charge of radio communications, important in setting up MacArthur's return. As the months pass, Palmer becomes fully invested in the resistance. In the climax, a fierce Japanese attack is interrupted by American air forces—MacArthur has indeed returned.

A common complaint about this movie, based on the real-life experiences of Iliff David Richardson, is that it's not exciting, and I have to agree; until the ending, there are few battle scenes. But there is often well-built tension, and the characters are a bit more fleshed out than is the norm for a WWII movie. Power is very good in the lead, and Tommy Cook makes for a sympathetic sidekick. Tom Ewell is in what might normally be a comic relief part, but to his credit, he plays the comedy down in favor of characterization. Fritz Lang directed, and though there are few interesting stylistic flourishes, the film is well shot and the narrative remains clear throughout. The romantic angle, a slow-burning attraction between Palmer and Jeanne, feels forced, but it pays off nicely in a sweet Christmas Eve scene. Despite the word "guerrilla" in the title, the action here is more along the lines of spying and resisting than death and destruction. Recommended. Pictured are Power (wounded) and Cook. [Amazon streaming]

Monday, August 21, 2017

BABES IN ARMS (1939)

Back in the 20s, Joe and Florrie Moran were a hot ticket on the vaudeville circuit, but now their bookings are few and far between, and they live in Seaport along with a big community of "has-been" performers. Joe leads the adults in floating the idea of a comeback tour, but soon many of them are in danger of losing their homes, so his son Mickey (Mickey Rooney) and his pal Patsy (Judy Garland) have another idea: they get a bunch of the kids in town to contribute their talents to a newcomers show put on in a barn—yes, this is the granddaddy of the "Hey, kids, let’s put on a show" musical genre. Problems rear their ugly heads: the head of the social welfare board (Margaret Hamilton) complains that the kids aren't getting their education; a former child star known as Baby Rosalie joins the gang but she starts throwing her weight around, which then threatens the chaste romance developing between Mickey and Patsy; eventually, they even have to face an oncoming hurricane! But of course, in the best MGM fashion, things work out for the kids in the end, and a Broadway debut is assured.

With Busby Berkeley as director, one might assume some spectacular dance numbers are in store, but sadly he keeps his excesses in check. That’s not to say that there isn't some good musical fun here. There are two songs better known for their appearances in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN: Mickey and Judy do a nice simple duet on "Good Morning" and Judy sings a rousing "Broadway Rhythm"; Garland does a sad reading of "I Cried for You"; the title song, sung by the kids as they wield torches in the streets, feels like pro-military propaganda, which given the world situation at the time, it may well have been. Unfortunately there's also a cringe-worthy minstrel show bit with blackface that no longer plays well. Despite it being a musical comedy, it's got some surprisingly serious moments, mostly involving the parents' financial situation. One of the production numbers, which climaxes with Mickey and Judy as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, has the line, "We don't have Il Duce, we don't have Der Fuehrer, but we have Garbo and Norma Shearer." Also with Charles Winninger, Guy Kibbee and Johnny (Bomba the Jungle Boy) Sheffield. [DVD]

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

GOLD (1934)

German scientist Achenbach, with his assistants Holk and Becker, is preparing for the trial run of his room-sized alchemy machine that will turn lead into gold. It's not clear that the economic ramifications of this, if successful, have really been thought through, though the machine sure looks cool. But Becker is secretly a saboteur, and just as the experiment begins, he substitutes an explosive for the lead; the machine blows up, killing Achenbach but leaving Holk (Hans Albers) determined to get revenge. The Scottish industrialist Wills, who has built a similar (and bigger) machine in a lab in his underground coal mine, asks Holk to come and work with him; Wills needs Holk's expertise to finish up. As it happens, the sabotage was the work of Wills (Michael Bohnen), who felt there was only enough room in the world for one alchemy machine. When Holk figures out what's up, he is torn between helping to finish the machine for Achenbach's posthumous glory, and destroying the machine once and for all. He goes to work, becoming friendly with Wills daughter Florence (Brigitte Helm) who doesn't especially like her father. On the night of a huge party at Wills' castle, Holk dramatically locks himself in the machine room and does indeed make gold from lead. When the world gets wind of this, newspaper headlines are torn between forecasting universal prosperity and predicting huge inflation and the collapse of world economic systems. One of the coal miners asks, if Wills can make gold, why people can't just print money. As the social upheaval becomes greater, Holk decides this alchemy is misguided and tries to destroy the machine, very much against Wills' wishes.

I'm sure, given that this was made in Germany at the dawn of the Third Reich, that there are allegories and symbols galore here which refer to German fascism and the economy and other social issues, but I leave the sorting-out of that to those with more historical knowledge. What I liked about it is its look, much of which seems borrowed from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Although this director, Karl Hartl, had a lengthy career, having made films through the 1950s, the only other movie of his I've heard of is F.P. 1 DOESN’T ANSWER which appears to be another sci-fi-ish thriller. Though it doesn’t reach METROPOLIS's wild stylistic heights, it has a more solidly built narrative with fleshed-out characters and a more satisfying ending. The acting is fine all around, though Helm (the iconic Maria in METROPOLIS) has a fairly thankless role. The finale is genuinely suspenseful and exciting. Some of the machine footage made its way into the 50s B-film THE MAGNETIC MONSTER. An enjoyable early SF film. [DVD]

Monday, August 14, 2017

THE 13TH MAN (1937)

District Attorney Sutherland, who is facing competition in an upcoming election, has put twelve high-profile crooks behind bars recently and now he announces he is about to do the same for a thirteenth. Among the men who worry that they might be the 13th man: Martin, Sutherland’s chief rival; Crandall, who runs race track gambling; Cristy, a nightclub owner; Dr. Gorman, whose career stumbled when Sutherland exposed his crooked dealings; and even Baldwin, publisher of the local paper, who has published some negative stories about Sutherland. One night at a boxing match, all the above men are present, and just as one of the boxers is knocked out, Sutherland drops dead in his seat, apparently of a heart attack. But radio commentator Swifty Taylor and his reporter buddy Jimmy Moran soon figure out that Sutherland was killed by a poison dart to the neck. The two work to crack the case, and when Jimmy is killed while following a lead about a dart gun, Swifty (and his girlfriend/secretary Julie) work even harder to expose the killer, an event which happens when Swifty gathers all the suspects in his studio during a live broadcast.

This is a moderately compelling B-crime/newspaper film with an interesting leading man (Weldon Heyburn) who was saddled with a badly-written character. I found Swifty to be unlikable and irritating, though Heyburn tries his best to make him lively. Better is Milburn Stone as Jimmy, and I was very sorry to see him leave about two-thirds of the way through. Inez Courtney (pictured with Heyburn) is fine as the love interest, though few of the suspects are able to stand out in any way. Still, the plot was never confusing, and I only figured out the killer moments before Swifty exposed him. This was the first movie from the re-opened Monogram Pictures, which had been merged with another studio two years earlier. Good production values put this a notch above the average low-budget film of the time. There's even a decent song, "My Topic of Conversation" sung by B-movie chanteuse Eadie Adams—not to be confused with Edie Adams who was married to Ernie Kovacs and was best known for her sexy TV ads for Muriel cigars in the 60s. [YouTube]

Friday, August 11, 2017

LOVE FROM A STRANGER (1937)

aka A NIGHT OF TERROR

Working girl Carol Howard (Ann Harding) shares a flat in London with her good friend Kate and Carol's Aunt Lou, who is a general pain in the neck. One day, Carol wins a life-changing amount of money in a French lottery; she quits her job, sublets her apartment, and looks forward to traveling. Her fiancé Ronny, however, is not happy—he fears that he will resent her wealth, and he does not want to quit his job and live the high life. On the same day that she and Ronny have a spat over her winnings, a man named Gerald (Basil Rathbone) comes to look into subletting her apartment and the two hit it off. He takes her to dinner that night and when she and Ronny officially split, she and Gerald become an item. Gerald has a surface charm, but there is also something off-putting about him and both Kate and Ronny pick up on. Ronny discovers that Gerald's stories his past can't be verified, but eventually Carol marries Gerald and they move to an isolated country house. She makes him the sole legal heir to her fortune—and that's when even Carol notices that Gerald is a little strange: he has a cellar that he uses as a darkroom for his photography hobby, but he gets over-the-top angry if anyone tries to enter it; once in a while, he has a rather batty moment which he blames on shellshock from the war; he is also diagnosed with a heart problem. When he insists that Carol join him on a rather sudden and mysterious trip out of town, Ronny and Kate smell danger, but Carol still seems willing to give her husband the benefit of the doubt—until the local doctor shows up with a copy of a book about serial killers that makes Gerald uncomfortable.

To say more would spoil the last 15 minutes of the movie (based on an Agatha Christie story), and it's a humdinger of an ending. It's not really a spoiler to note that Gerald is indeed not altogether right—we get hints of this from the get-go—and Rathbone's performance, eccentrically creepy, is startlingly modern in its modulations until he goes totally off the beam at the end. Harding is about average in the first half, playing the vaguely menaced wife as a passive victim, but she too gets to shine in the final sequence, the "night of terror" to which the American title refers. Indeed, the last half of this film feels like a cross between GASLIGHT and NIGHT MUST FALL, and the tension builds nicely to the end. Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" plays spookily on the soundtrack whenever Rathbone has one of his spells. Production values are on the B-side, and the first third of the film is a little slow, but when the acting moves to front and center, the film's faults fade. Binnie Hale and Bruce Seton are good as Kate and Ronny, and Joan Hickson, who would play Christie's Miss Marple on TV in the 80s, has a small role as a maid. This public domain film is not in good shape, but thriller fans should seek it out anyway. [YouTube]

Monday, August 07, 2017

TARZAN’S HIDDEN JUNGLE (1955) & TARZAN’S FIGHT FOR LIFE (1958)

As HIDDEN JUNGLE opens, we see Tarzan (Gordon Scott) taking a leisurely morning swim with some hippos, and later, when he has rescued a baby elephant shot by two hunters, he philosophizes to his chimp pal, "Cheeta, why man always want to kill?" The two hunters work for Burger (Jack Elam) who has been hired by to collect animals for their hides and fat. But because Tarzan has been stymieing them when possible, they decide to head across the river to the territory of the Sukulus, who worship jungle animals, meaning there is an abundance of game for the men to hunt. However, Sukululand is dangerous for white men, so Burger and his associate DeGroot pass themselves off as wildlife photographers and get Dr. Celliers, the only outsider trusted by the Sukulu, to let them come with him as he delivers medicine. Their plan is to split off and kill as many animals as they can to take back to their camp. After they leave, Celliers' daughter (Vera Miles) finds out about the scam and recklessly heads off to find them, but her jeep gets stuck in mud. It's up to Tarzan to bail out the good guys and being justice to the bad guys.

FIGHT FOR LIFE uses a medical subplot of HIDDEN JUNGLE as its main story. Dr. Sturdy has been supplying medical care to a village of natives, but Futa, the local witch doctor, has slowly been convincing the natives to distrust the doctor, and has even gotten most of the doc's associates to leave his employ. Sturdy's daughter Ann is upset about the situation and wants to leave, but her fiancé Ken, just back from two years of study in England, understands why the doctor can't just give up. Tarzan, friend to the natives and their ruler, tries to intervene but can't fully counteract Futa's influence. Two medical emergencies arise: Tarzan's mate Jane get appendicitis, and the young boy destined to rule the native tribe falls ill. Futa has some medicine stolen from Dr. Sturdy to use as backup in case his magic fails to work on the boy, but Futa can't read the label on the stolen jar: Virulent Poison.

After the aging Johnny Weissmuller was eased out of the Tarzan role, the younger Lex Barker took over for a run of five decent films. Gordon Scott came next, and these are the first and third of his five movies in the role. Scott is beefier than Barker but less effective as an actor, so on balance there seems little difference between the two. By the end of Scott’s run, he had become a fairly somber Lord of the Jungle, but these films both still have a kiddie matinee feel, especially FIGHT FOR LIFE in which Tarzan suddenly has a Jane and a Boy who were not present in Scott's first two movies. The special effects are rather sparse—in HIDDEN JUNGLE, when one character is tossed into a Sukulu lion pit, it's clearly a stuffed dummy than lands among the lions—and as is usually the case, the use of African stock footage is too obvious. Acting standouts, such as they are, include Vera Miles in the first film—though she looks more like a young Mariette Hartley than like herself a few years later in PSYCHO—and Woody Strode in the second film as Ramo, a native torn between loyalty to Sturdy and the ravings of the witch doctor. Neither is essential viewing, thought the FIGHT FOR LIFE plot is slightly more interesting. [DVD]

Thursday, August 03, 2017

SECOND CHORUS (1940)

At a New England university, Fred Astaire and Burgess Meredith are the oldest students enrolled—they keep deliberately flunking so they can stay on as rival trumpet players in the college band, the University Perennials. The lovely Paulette Goddard shows up at a performance and flirts a bit with Astaire, but it turns out she's serving him with a notice from a collection agency. The two guys get her fired, but then ask her to be their manager. She gets them gigs, and is so successful that famed bandleader Artie Shaw (playing himself) is a little worried; when he comes to a show, the guys think he's there to consider them for his band, but actually he's there to offer Goddard a job as manager, which she takes. As Astaire and Meredith continue competing for Goddard's favors, and for spots in Shaw's band, Goddard gets an eccentric rich man (Charles Butterworth) who shows up at all of Shaw's shows to sponsor a big Broadway concert, with the only question being, which of our two scamps will shine at the show and ultimately win Goddard's heart?

In his second starring role after he and Ginger Rogers called it a day, Astaire seems notably to be floundering. This independent film, distributed by Paramount, looks shabby compared to his RKO films. The plot and casting are strange: Astaire, 40 and pretty much looking it—though to be fair, he looked 40 when he was in his 30s—is not a good fit for his eternal college student role, and knockabout comedy isn't really Meredith’s forte. Goddard is fine, and dances well with Astaire, but oddly there are very few dance numbers compared to an average Astaire film. The two main ones, however, are worth seeing. Astaire and Goddard dance to a cute slangy song called "I Ain't Hep to That Step but I'll Dig It" and the film closes with "Dear Mr. Chisholm," in which Astaire serves as a dancing band conductor. Butterworth does his usual befuddled bit, and Artie Shaw shows he's not much of an actor, but he does provide a bit of a no-nonsense hard edge in his scenes. Because the film is in the public domain, there are lots of copies available, none in great shape. The one I saw on Turner Classic was OK but a bit murky at times. Pictured above are Astaire, Meredith and Shaw. [TCM]

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

CHASE A CROOKED SHADOW (1958)

Heiress Kimberly Prescott (Anne Baxter) has just returned to her family's Spanish villa after the death of her brother Ward in a car accident and the subsequent suicide of her father, owner of a South African diamond company. She gets a sympathetic visit from her uncle Chandler (Alexander Knox), but after he leaves that night, a man shows up claiming to be Ward (Richard Todd). Kim insists she's never seen him before, but he insists equally strongly that he survived the accident and had amnesia for a time. Kim calls the local police inspector Vargas (Herbert Lom) and when she goes to find pictures of the real Ward, all she can find are pictures of the man who claims to be him. The next morning, Kim finds that her loyal maid Maria is gone—supposedly visiting family—and has been temporarily replaced by the mysterious Mrs. Whitman. Kim is further puzzled when Uncle Chandler arrives and appears to recognize Ward. We soon discover that her father had sold the company before he died, but millions of dollars worth of diamonds are missing from a company vault, and it seems like Ward would like to get his hands on them, and perhaps thinks that Kim knows where they've gone. Is Ward an imposter trying to terrorize Kim? Or did Ward really survive the crash and Kim has gone nuts?

And that's about all I can spill of the plot of this nifty, twisty thriller. Just when you think you know what’s going on, another twist crops up, and then another. It's tricky but leads to a satisfying ending. The Spanish coast makes for a lovely backdrop and the noir-like night scenes are nicely inky black. The entire cast is good, especially Baxter and Todd (pictured) in their cat-and-mouse scenes with each other. The director is Michael Anderson who I know for LOGAN'S RUN and the TV mini-series of THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES. The producer is Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who appears at the very end to ask the audience not to spoil the ending for other viewers. I wouldn’t dream of offending that fine swashbuckling actor, so I won't. [TCM]

Thursday, July 27, 2017

A WOMAN OF EXPERIENCE (1931)

It's Vienna, 1914, just after the declaration of war. We follow the path of a paper flier, asking for women to do their part in the war effort, blowing down a busy street and landing at the feet of Elsa (Helen Twelvetrees), a lowly prostitute. Wanting to do her patriotic duty, she applies for hospital work, but is told a woman of her character—or lack thereof—isn't wanted. But Capt. Muller sees her and thinks she might do for some potentially dangerous spy work; after all, as he tells her, she is alone and doesn't believe in God, so what does she have to lose? Muller and Major Schmidt assign her to cozy up to (i.e., become the mistress of) Otto (Lew Cody), an Austrian captain who may be a traitor. But the night she starts flirting with Otto, she also runs into (literally, in the street into his carriage) the handsome naval officer Karl (William Bakewell). The next night, she stands Otto up to spend the night with Karl—and the next night, and the next night.  Soon, it gets back to Schmidt that Elsa is shirking her duty and she gets a gentle reminder about whom she's supposed to be sleeping with. Elsa talks Karl into volunteering for submarine duty, clearing the way to get herself back into the arms of Otto, which she does. Can she catch the spy in the act of spying? And if so, can she still win back the man she loves?

This melodrama is notable mostly for an interesting visual style from director Harry Joe Brown, beginning with the unusual opening sequence of the piece of paper in the breeze. A scene at a party features the camera zooming up through a line very scantily-clad dancing women. The accident that brings Elsa and Karl together is poorly staged but most of the film looks good. I've never found Twelvetrees to be a particularly effective actress and she is similarly bland here. Her leading men, especially the very handsome Bakewell (pictured with Twelvetrees), are better, as are C. Henry Gordon and H.B. Warner as the spymasters, and Zasu Pitts lends her comedic talents to the supporting role of Elsa's maid. Though this was produced in the pre-Code era, and the title character's profession is made fairly clear, her path to redemption (love of a good man and/or death) is very much an element of Production Code films. [TCM]

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

TARZAN IN ISTANBUL (1952)

Here's an oddity: a Tarzan movie made in Turkey, and outside the constraints of copyright. Years ago, a man named Camil and his family were on safari in Africa and found a treasure chest full of diamonds which they hid on Death Mountain so they could come back and claim it. But a tribe of vicious natives slaughtered the mother and father, though the young son escaped into the jungle. Now, an adventurer named Tekin has found the skeleton of the man, with notes and a map showing the location of the treasure. He goes back to Istanbul, contacts Camil's brother, and rounds up a party to retrieve the diamonds.  Tekin and Camil are accompanied by the pilot Tevik, his female assistant Netzla, her goofy friend Aziz, and a guide named Kundo. Though they all seem friendly enough, some tensions are established: Tevik is interested in Netzla though she doesn't return his interest, and Kundo is scheming with his buddies (who are following the expedition in secret) to get hold of some of the treasure for themselves. When a lion menaces Netzla, Tarzan (the Camil son grown up) comes swinging in to save her. Camil figures out that Tarzan is his nephew, so he insists on giving the jungle man a share in the diamonds. This does not sit well with Kundo who, when they find the diamonds, tries to take them all. Tarzan, however, has a say in the expedition's outcome, as does that vicious native tribe that killed off Tarzan's parents.

This sticks close to the Hollywood template for a 40s-50s Tarzan movie and in fact actually improves on at least one thing: the stock jungle footage matches up much better with the studio-shot footage, partly because the action was filmed on location—in the Belgrad Forest in Turkey—rather than on a set. The acting is about on a par with Hollywood B-acting, and Tarzan (Tamer Balci) himself fits in nicely with the others who played the Lord of the Apes (Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, Gordon Scott, etc.). The usual antics are present—Tarzan fights a lion, wrestles a crocodile, horses around with a chimp, yells for his animal friends (using the original Johnny Weissmuller yell),and saves the white woman from danger. Aziz provides comic relief, and fewer of the jungle interlopers survive than usual. The title is misleading in that we never actually see Tarzan in Instanbul—in the last minutes of the film, Tarzan is seen accompanying the survivors on a ship approaching the city but we never see him land. The print I saw on Amazon streaming was in terrible shape, with lots of splices and much pixilation, but apparently it has been issued in a cleaned-up state on Blu-Ray. An interesting novelty. [Amazon]

Friday, July 21, 2017

PAINTING THE CLOUDS WITH SUNSHINE (1951)

In this variation on the Gold Diggers movies of the 30s (with a hint of Betty Grable's MOON OVER MIAMI), three showgirls (Virginia Mayo, Lucille Norman and Virginia Gibson) head for their next gig in Las Vegas and decide to get serious about landing rich husbands. Norman still holds a torch for Dennis Morgan whom she's left back in Hollywood because his gambling has become a problem. Handsome dancer Gene Nelson distracts Norman, but Gibson secretly pines for Nelson. But Nelson has a secret: he's from a rich banking family. When his uncle (Tom Conway) finds out that Nelson is cavorting with gold diggers, he heads to Vegas to break things up. Finding this out, the girls try to spruce themselves up to seem above reproach, but a case of mistaken identity has Mayo assume that Conway is actually an interior decorator come to help them look good, and Conway winds up falling for Mayo. Meanwhile, Morgan sneaks into Vegas hoping to patch things up with Norman. This colorful musical looks good, and there are some good dancing scenes, mostly involving Nelson, but the narrative has outworn its welcome over the years and not much has been done to shake it up. Norman and Gibson are serviceable, and poor Dennis Morgan, though top billed, really has a supporting role; it's Nelson and Mayo who star—and both shine. A subplot involving S.Z. Sakall as a hotel owner having financial troubles and Wallace Ford (unrecognizable under grizzled "old prospector" makeup) as a man who adds to those problems is silly and bogs down any energy the main plot builds up. A must for fans of Nelson and Mayo, a so-so way to pass the time for others. Pictured above are Conway, Nelson and Mayo. [TCM]

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

THE SKY'S THE LIMIT (1943)

In an opening sequence so perfunctory that I assumed it was a dream, we see Fred Astaire as a WWII fighter pilot with the Flying Tigers in China. On a 10-day promotional trip around the country before they head back to the front, Astaire, tired of not having any fun on his time off, slips off the train out West somewhere, buys some cowboy clothes, and heads off to Manhattan for some fun. Looking out of place at a high-class club, Astaire is attracted to Joan Leslie, a society page photographer (who sings in clubs on occasion) who is chomping at the bit to do something more important for the war effort. He gets her attention by doing what we would call "photobombing" her attempts to snap celebrities. When that doesn't work, he walks her home that night, takes a room in her apartment building, and sneaks into her kitchen to make her breakfast the next morning; in other words, he resorts to what we would stalking—though because he's charming and she's attractive, we (and she) are supposed to find the situation amusing. And eventually, she does. But because he keeps his war hero status secret, she thinks he's unemployed and starts trying to get him a job. And there's the little matter of her boss (Robert Benchley) who has flirted with her for years.

I had avoided this one for years because of its lukewarm reputation. I'm not sorry I saw it, but it is, in fact, one of the weaker Astaire movies. I can only really recommend it for one reason: a great Astaire solo number that I'd never even seen excerpted before. He does a drunken dance to "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" that ranks among his best. He takes the song at a surprisingly jaunty clip, and the climax, in which he jumps up on a bar and smashes glasses, bottles and mirrors, may have inspired Michael Jackson to take dancing destruction even further in the (suppressed) ending to his video for "Black and White." Otherwise, I found it difficult to find his stalking funny, and he and Leslie don’t have much chemistry. Joan Leslie has her fans, but I rarely find her more than adequate. The usually reliable Robert Benchley doesn't even get to provide much fun here. Robert Ryan plays a pilot buddy of Astaire's. There is one interesting element in added to the mix: name-dropping. Astaire rhymes "Shining hour" with "Mischa Auer," refers to a celeb photo caption as saying "Ginger Rogers and friend," and later mentions James Cagney and Rita Hayworth. [TCM]

Friday, July 14, 2017

SING, YOU SINNERS (1938)

The Beebe family is just your run-of-the-mill small town family with a mom and her three sons. But two of her boys are grown men—Dave (Fred MacMurray) has a steady job and a steady girlfriend whom he'd like to marry, but he wants to wait until brother Joe (Bing Crosby) makes something of himself before he moves out and leaves his mom and his 12-year-old brother Mike (Donald O’Connor) at the mercies of Joe's lackadaisical ways. The three boys work nights as a singing group at a restaurant, but Joe can't seem to hold down a reliable job. Dave makes Joe feel bad enough that he leaves home and heads out to California looking for a sure thing. Some money won at gambling gets him a swap shop. Thinking his business is a keeper, he sends for Ma and Mike to join him. When Dave and his girl (Ellen Drew) visit, they discover that his business is already a bust: he's sold it to buy a racehorse. So Dave pitches in to save Joe's butt one more time. Just when it looks like the horse, named Uncle Gus, might pay off, gamblers pay little Mike, who is serving as their jockey, to throw the race. Joe tells him not to, and in fact Uncle Gus wins. A scene of fisticuffs with the bad guys ensues, but since this is a comedy, there's a happy ending for the Beebe family.

A pleasant family movie, a little rowdier than your Andy Hardy type of film, this was interesting for me because of the brotherly chemistry between Crosby and MacMurray. In fact, Crosby feels a little off here, in sleepwalking mode on occasion, but also because his character is not particularly likeable, even at the end, and MacMurray and the young O'Connor carry much of the movie and provide most of the easy charm that would come from Bing. Elizabeth Patterson, a workhouse supporting actor who usually played spinsters or cranky aunts gets a bigger role here than usual as the mother and does a nice job. The brothers' musical numbers are fun, and one of Bing's big 30s hits, "I've Got a Pocketful of Dreams," is performed a couple of times. "Small Fry" is an odd one, with the three guys dressed as a poor Southern family. From my 21st century perch, it was amusing to hear Crosby refer to "junk in the truck," meaning literally, he put a bunch of (rummage sale) junk in the trunk of his car. The ending feels rushed, but otherwise, a nice easy escapist movie. [TCM]

Monday, July 10, 2017

ZETA ONE (1969)

aka THE LOVE FACTOR

I warn you that this summary will not make much sense. This film wants to be three things: a James Bond spoof, a sci-fi movie, and soft-core porn, but it doesn't really work on any of those levels. It's very bad, almost amateurish at times, but for that reason, it's sort of fun to watch if you're in an MST3K mood. Secret agent James Word (Robin Hawdon), in a very mod zippered black shirt and thin mustache, arrives home after a mission to find a sexy blonde woman named Ann (Yutte Stensgaard) waiting for him. She claims to have been sent by his bosses to debrief him, though he's not sure she's being upfront. They play an excruciatingly long game of strip poker, eventually climb into bed (where he is, I assume, literally debriefed) and he tells her about his last mission: tracking down a gang of often-naked, often-large breasted women from the planet Angvia (get it?) who need to kidnap Earth women to keep the population growing. Another man (James Robertson Justice, who seems quite embarrassed to be present) and his thugs (including the fey Charles Hawtrey, a famous British comedian known for his appearances in the "Carry On" film series) are also following these women, as is some handsome guy in glasses who vanishes from the film after his two short scenes. After this situation is set up, things stop making narrative sense. Justice and his men torture a nude woman, we watch a couple of strippers at work, and 50s starlet Dawn Addams plays Zeta, the head of the Angvians who gives orders from a vaguely defined, colorful room (which reminded me of the setting from ZARDOZ where Sean Connery is tortured, or whatever happens to him). In the exciting finale, a horde of women wearing only string bikini bottoms and dark purple pasties run around a park zapping men unconscious with bizarre arm movements.  The movie ends (I think, but I'm not sure) with Ann turning out to be an Angvian, and she enlists James to be a stud to all the Angvian women. Lying in Arabian Nights pleasure in a satin bathrobe, surrounded by buxom women, he looks happy but plumb tuckered out in the final fade.

This film is based on a Barbarella-like SF serial that ran in something called Zeta Magazine; it's difficult to find much information about this, though cover images from the magazine do come up in Google searches. My theory about what happened: Tigon, a short-lived British studio mostly known for low budget horror movies, put this into production as a spy spoof with a sci-fi angle. But the spy comedy, which was a popular niche genre in the mid-60s, was probably dying on the vine by 1969, so they turned it into a sex farce, or at least threw in a lot of tits. At least once, we see full frontal female nudity as well, though of course, the male never gets naked—though he is shirtless on occasion. I also believe that the ridiculously long—almost 20 minutes—opening, in which Hawdon and Stensgaard do work up a little physical chemistry, came about because the producers realized that their film, after editing, came out to barely an hour, so they padded it out with the poker game, pushing the balance of the movie toward sex rather than spy or SF. Still, there are some pleasures to be had here, even if the viewer is not an admirer of the female form:  it's pop-art colorful; there are a few chuckles, particularly in the scene with a mean-spirited talking elevator; it has a wild theme song; I loved the set for the "self-revelation room," even though it consists solely of aluminum foil with psychedelic colors projected on it. I must admit the reason I watched this was that I had just seen WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH and had enjoyed seeing the handsome Robin Hawdon prancing around in a loincloth. He's not quite as appealing here, and soon he left the business to write plays and novels. Can I recommend this? Not really, because today, teens, frat boys and dirty old men have lots of arousing options other than a low-budget titty movie from the 60s. But I'm not sorry I watched it. [Netflix streaming]