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 fiancĂ© 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]