Thursday, May 18, 2017

AS THE EARTH TURNS (1934)

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

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

Monday, May 15, 2017

PHONE CALL FROM A STRANGER (1952)

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

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

Thursday, May 11, 2017

SPACEFLIGHT IC-1 (1965)

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

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

Monday, May 08, 2017

ROME EXPRESS (1932)

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

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

Thursday, May 04, 2017

THUNDER IN THE EAST (1953)

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

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

Monday, May 01, 2017

PRINCE OF PLAYERS (1955)

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