Thursday, March 29, 2018


One night, we see Paula (Ann Harding), secretary to Stanley Whittaker, leaving his office and trying to avoid being seen by the elevator operator. Later, Connie Trent shows up at Paula's with packed suitcases—she and Stanley were supposed to be running away together but he never showed up at the pier. The cops soon find Stanley's body in his office, with a suicide note saying he embezzled $75,000, exonerating Connie's father Jim (Walter Abel) who was under suspicion, but given some odd circumstances and the fact that gun found was Jim's, Jim is arrested. In court, there are conflicting reports of the embezzlement facts, and a case is built that Jim killed Stanley not only to get clear of financial wrongdoing, but to get Stanley away from his daughter. However, we soon find out that the company accountant was in on the theft of the money, and we also begin to wonder what role Paula played in all of this. Eventually, the truth comes out during the dramatic trial. As a B-level courtroom drama, this is acceptable though hardly distinguished in any way. It's nice to see Walter Abel (Danny the agent in HOLIDAY INN) in something of a lead role, and Ann Harding is fine in a fairly thankless part. Recognizable supporting players include Margaret Hamilton as a fainting bookkeeper, Moroni Olsen as a cop, Billy Benedict (Whitey in some of the Bowery Boys movies) as an office boy, and Frank Jenks. It's talky and somewhat static, but a pleasant if unexciting way to pass an hour for classic movie fans. Pictured are Abel and Harding. [TCM]

Tuesday, March 27, 2018


In 1947, the narrator tell us, man broke the sound barrier; in 1958, the space barrier; now, someone on an isolated island in Florida is trying to break the time barrier, but in doing so, will unleash a Terror! From the Year! 5000! In this Florida laboratory, Prof. Earling (Frederic Downs) and his assistant Victor (John Stratton) put an item in a large chamber with a glass window, fire up the electrical power—so much that they had to move to this island to avoid messing with the community's power grid—and when all the bells and whistles have stopped, they find a different object in the chamber. They believe they have just made an exchange with someone from the future—and Victor has even seen the hazy face of a woman appear briefly. Earling's daughter Claire (Joyce Holden), unknown to her father and Victor, sends one of these objects, a statuette, to Earling's former student Robert Hedges (Ward Costello) for carbon dating. Robert can scarcely believe the result: it's from the year 5200 A.D. It's also dangerously radioactive. Robert heads for Florida to consult with Earling and hits it off with Claire, which makes Victor jealous since he is supposedly her fiancĂ©. The experiments continue for a time, and when Robert sends his Phi Beta Kappa key, the object returned is a bracelet with the phrase "Save us" etched on it in Greek, so Robert is convinced that Earling is on to something.

One night, Victor sneaks a couple of suitcases out of the house and throws them in a pond. Robert sees this, and the next day, he dives in and opens one of them to find a dead, mutant, three-eyed cat. It would appear that Victor has been running his own experiments without Earling's knowledge, and when radiation burns are found on Victor's skin, they take him to a mainland hospital for testing. But that night, Victor leaves the hospital, gets drunk, and heads back to the island where he pulls off one last experiment: bringing back the mysterious woman he saw earlier. It turns out that the people of the future have become mutated, radioactive freaks and she wants to mate with someone in order to save the human blood line. But who will want to mate with a scarred up woman dressed in dark leotards dotted with big sparkly doodads? Well, lucky for her, she can hypnotize folks with her sparkly fingernails. And Victor is her first victim.

This low-budget sci-fi film was mocked on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, but it's actually a little better than that accomplishment would indicate. If nothing else, the plot points were original in its day. Certainly the idea of exchanging items through time was new, and some critics say that this was the first American movie to show an operating time machine—MGM's adaptation of THE TIME MACHINE was made two years later. In most ways, it looks and feels like your average late 50s B-film, and one might wish that the effect of the woman from the future (Salome Jens) was better—she truly does look laughable in her sequined tights, though the scene in which she takes the face off of a visiting nurse to disguise herself is effective. The acting is passable, with John Stratton (pictured as the Terror's sparkly fingers cast reflections behind him) the standout as the mentally disintegrating Victor (though IMDb says that Stratton never made another movie). Of course, there are some bad movie moments just made for MST3K: the actress in the small role of Miss Blake, Robert's assistant, is awful—or maybe the person dubbing her is awful, or maybe both; there's a silly looking slapdown battle in the water between Robert and Victor; icky comic relief and creepiness are combined in the completely disposable character of Angelo. Interesting and watchable, though perhaps only for sci-fi fans. [YouTube]

Friday, March 23, 2018


Famed French police detective Henri (Steven Geray), known for his relentless work in solving crimes, is a little burned out, not having had a vacation in years (and seemingly having no personal or social life), so his boss forces him to take some time out and visit the charming village of St. Margo. He stays at an inn occupied by the Michauds (the owners), their lovely young daughter Nanette, and a widow taken in as a housekeeper by the Michauds. Nanette has a touch of hero worship for Henri, and she's also a bit dazzled by his big city aura, so she spends a lot of time with him, much to the consternation of her longtime hotheaded boyfriend Leon. Seeing that Henri is enjoying her company, Mme. Michaud encourages a romance even though Leon says that he'd kill her if he lost her. But Henri and Nanette do grow close, and one night at a party held to celebrate their engagement, Leon makes a scene and storms out, and Nanette follows him. She doesn’t return and Henri falls into a depression thinking that she has eloped—until she is found dead by the river. It's assumed at first to be an accidental drowning until Henri discovers that she was strangled elsewhere and left at the river. Leon is the natural suspect and in fact, he is found dead at his farm, an apparent suicide, but Henri discovers footprints in the mud near the body and suddenly he's on the hunt for a murderer. The widow finds a note threatening more deaths, and soon Henri is tracking down a serial killer.

This is a great little film noir (a rural noir rather than urban) not nearly as well known as it should be. The director, Joseph H. Lewis, has a reputation for turning out some stylish looking B-films and this is one—evocative shots, nice use of shadows and darkness, offbeat camera angles, shots that frame people as trapped, either physically or psychologically. Best of all is a creepy lighting shift at the climax as the killer is revealed. Some critics disparage the acting of Steven Geary (pictured), a supporting stalwart who gets a rare lead role here, but I think his low-key performance is a plus for the film. The rest of the cast was mostly unknown to me but all are fine. The chemistry between Geray and Micheline Cheirel (as Nanette) is non-existent, but that actually helps to reinforce the discomfort some of the townsfolk (and the viewers) feel about the age and status difference between the two. Definitely one to seek out, available on DVD as part of the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Set IV. [DVD]

Wednesday, March 21, 2018


The first five minutes of this film is fun: a man walks into a room where a cluster of people are examining the body of someone who has been stabbed to death. When the visitor, Jerry, wonders out loud why no one has called the police, they begin chuckling as the dead man gets up off the floor—it's all been a harmless parlor game. Sadly, the movie goes downhill quickly from here. This early sound film from Poverty Row studio Chesterfield is deadly dull. It's only an hour but it took all the patience I could dredge up to stick with it to the end. As you might predict, these folks who are apparently spending a weekend together at a mansion in the country eventually do have to deal with a real murder. Involved, along with Jerry Murdock, are two married couples, the Stileses and the Quincys; Harry Forrest, a mystery author; and Diana, Mrs. Stiles' sister. Some intrigue is revealed: Harry has a rendezvous on a balcony with Diana; Jerry has loaned Mrs. Stiles money to open a tea shop; someone has doped up the Quincys so they'll sleep soundly. A chauffeur sees someone sneaking around after midnight, and the next morning, Jerry is discovered dead (for real). Inspector Brown and his comic relief sergeant arrive to interrogate everyone, including Rita, a possible golddigger, who shows up claiming to be Jerry's widow. Soon, Mrs. Quincy is stabbed to death behind the counter at her tea shop. The cops ask the novelist for help in sorting things out.

There’s nothing really wrong with the plot or even the writing—it plays out like an average B-mystery, slightly less convoluted than most. But in every other aspect, this is a tedious affair. The director, Richard Thorpe, went on to a long if undistinguished career, but shows very little flair here, though in addition to the atmospheric opening, there's a nicely shot overhead scene of pandemonium breaking out in the tea shop when Mrs. Quincy is found dead. The actors are a rather sorry lot. I’d never heard of any of them, though most had decent careers in supporting roles or B-movies. They are generally competent, though no one stands out as interesting. Jameson Thomas, who plays the novelist, is one of the most colorless B-leads I've ever seen.  The movie isn’t exactly actively bad, but it’s just so damned boring. Pictured is Edmund Burns who plays Quincy. [Amazon Prime]

Monday, March 19, 2018


Danny is a popular songwriter whose publisher Bernie is pushing his latest hoped-for hit "A Couple of Birds"; Emma, Bernie's secretary, harbors a secret crush on Danny; Fanny is the vaudeville vocalist who sings Danny's songs and who flirts comically with Andy, her piano player. Into this cozy little group comes Pat, a blonde socialite who flirts heavily with Danny on a dance floor, even though she is escorted by Rod, an older man with whom she seems to have an intimate relationship. Danny falls for her and soon they get engaged, but before the wedding, Danny overhears her tell Rod that she's just "experimenting" with Danny, and she refers to Rod as "Danny's understudy." At the wedding rehearsal, Danny makes a scene and leaves on a drinking binge. The next morning, Emma explains to Danny that the two of them got married while he was drunk; his reaction is ambiguous. Did they really, or is Emma just trying to save Danny from the clutches of Pat? Does he really want to be saved?

The title of this pre-Code film is misleading: I assumed it would be a melodrama about illegitimate children, or perhaps about hedonistic flappers and the men who ruin them. But, no, it's a show-biz musical comedy centering on a traditional love triangle. The pre-Code aspects are thin, mostly present in the casually promiscuous behavior of Pat. At 70 minutes, it would seem like it might be a briskly-paced affair, but almost half the running time is taken up with musical numbers performed in a theater or club (no Astaire and Rogers bursting out in song here). Because the songs are not memorable, the movie feels longer than it should. A couple of the production numbers are interesting: one song called "Dust" features a large bunch of dancing girls decked out in devil outfits (pictured above left), and "A Couple of Birds" has dancing boys in tuxes and blackface. The acting rarely rises above serviceable: Lawrence Gray (bland) is Danny, Wynne Gibson (sweet) is Emma, Helen Johnson (cool) is Pat. May Boley takes a stab at a bigger-than-life turn, playing Fanny like Fanny Brice—she doesn't quite succeed, coming off more like a second-string performer than the big star she's supposed to be, but she's OK. Two actors are saddled with Jewish stereotypes: Lee Kohlmer as Bernie is a bit more subtle than comic actor Benny Rubin as Andy. Jack Benny and Cliff Edwards have cameos as themselves. Amusing line, delivered by Fanny as someone who has had four husbands and is working on a fifth: "A woman is like a car—she never gets to be good until after the first 5000 miles." For fans of early musicals. Pictured above from left are Kohlmer, Gray and Gibson. [TCM]

Friday, March 16, 2018


Vince Grayson tells his brother-in-law, police detective Cliff Herlihy, about a nightmare he had that seemed very real: he was in an octagonal mirrored room with a man and a woman who were breaking into a safe. He and the man got into a fistfight and he stabbed the man to death. The woman ran off and Vince placed the man's body behind a mirrored door, locked it with a key, and left. What makes the dream particularly disturbing is when Vince wakes up, he has choke marks on his neck and he finds a key in his jacket. Cliff thinks he's just had a very bad dream and, to get his mind off of it, Cliff and his wife take Vince and his girlfriend out for a picnic. When a thunderstorm hits, they take refuge in an abandoned house and Cliff is horrified when he finds a room in the house that looks just like the room in his dream. A local policeman tells them the story of a murder in the house and Vince, certain that he's a killer, attempts suicide. Cliff saves him and slowly spins out a theory of his own involving hypnosis. Can Cliff lay a trap for the real killer before Vince goes off the deep end?

This is a solid film noir based on a story by Cornell Woolrich (best-known for writing the story on which REAR WINDOW was based, though most of his works are worth reading). The noir device of the average guy suddenly thrown into a maelstrom of darkness and guilt is the foundation for the whole plot, and DeForest Kelley (pictured), whom you undoubtedly know as Bones on Star Trek, does a nice job as the nervous young man. Paul Kelly is equally good as the cop, and in a bit of a departure for noir, there really is no femme fatale or even a romantic relationship—the ladies stay in the background except for a strange scene which establishes that Clif'’s wife has an over-the-top neurotic reaction to thunderstorms, giving them a reason to look for refuge and to find the murder house. Robert Emmett Keane, a familiar face from nearly 200 character roles, many uncredited, is the villain. The dark visual style is typical noir. If you can get past a few far-fetched plot points, you’ll enjoy this one. [Streaming]

Thursday, March 15, 2018

WILSON (1944)

This biopic of 28th president Woodrow Wilson begins in 1909 when we see Wilson (Alexander Knox), president of Princeton, at a football game which his team loses to Yale. That night, he is visited by Senator Jones who asks him to run for governor of New Jersey, as a progressive against "special interests." He is unsure, but his wife Ellen encourages him, so he runs. At the state convention, he is asked about the corrupt political machine that put him up to the run (notably, Senator Jones) and Wilson replies by insisting he will break up the old boys' network. Jones says publically he will not run for office again, and Wilson wins the election, but a year later, when Jones negates himself and says he'll run, Wilson threatens to make trouble so he winds up getting kicked upstairs, in a fashion, and is encouraged to run for President. A lengthy sequence covers the tumultuous 1912 Democratic convention at which Wilson finally wins the nomination on the 46th ballot, and later wins the national election. Not long after moving into the White House, his wife takes ill and dies. As WWI begins, Wilson is still in mourning but the sinking of Lusitania forces him back to reality; Republican congressman Henry Cabot Lodge (Cedric Hardwickwe), who wants to push the U.S. into the war, becomes Wilson's nemesis when Wilson announces he will not retaliate militarily. Wilson begins dating Edith Galt (Geraldine Fitzgerald) which causes much gossip until he marries her. He goes on to win a second term with anti-war promises, but eventually he is forced by events to declare war against Germany.  The eventual armistice leads to Wilson's attempt to establish a peacekeeping League of Nations, and he undertakes an arduous train tour across the country to whip up support, but along the way, he suffers a stroke and Edith secretly takes over whatever duties she can. Lodge leads a number of congressmen to fight against the League, and the next president, Republican Warren Harding, kills any chance of America's participation. But Wilson recovers enough to leave office proudly and on his own steam.

As with many Hollywood biographical films, this is episodic, the only way really to cover twelve years in anyone's life. And, as in many biopics, he is made out to be the next thing to a saint, with no mention made of his racist and segregationist beliefs. At 2 ½ hours, this has often derided as slow and boring, and the film lost a fair amount of money on its initial release. But viewed now, it comes off pretty well: the pace is fine and Knox's performance, given Wilson’s generally mild persona, is impressive—though things never get exciting, I never lost interest throughout the running time. It's also great fun to see so many familiar supporting players, including Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price (practically unrecognizable as fellow New Jersey politician William McAdoo), Sidney Blackmer, Charles Coburn, and Marcel Dalio. It's in color which also helps it play well today. This may not make classic movie fans out of young people today, but if you're already a biopic buff, this is a must-see. Pictured are Knox and Ruth Nelson as Wilson's first wife. [TCM]

Monday, March 12, 2018


On a hot summer day, Garda Sloane (Ann Sothren) turns up the heat in the office of her husband Joel (Franchot Tone), hoping he'll take the hint and split the city for a resort vacation. As it happens, his old college friend Mike (Lee Bowman) is running a beauty pageant at Seaside City; Joel loans Mike a few thousand dollars to invest in it and is promised a judging slot, so Garda gets her wish and the two take off for the shore. But there's trouble in store. First, Garda gets jealous when Joel takes his judging duties too seriously. Then Joel finds out that Bartell, the promoter, may be a swindler who is collecting money to pay off a gangster named Connors. Bartell winds up dead and the cops think Mike did it, so Joel and Garda, with some help from a flirtatious reporter named Bentley (Allyn Joslyn), try to clear his name. Suspects include Connors; Lily (Ruth Hussey), Bartell’s associate; and a pageant contestant named Jerry.

This is the third entry in a B-mystery series (seemingly modeled on the Thin Man movies) which featured the Sloanes, rare book dealers, though you'd be hard pressed to know that from this movie as the book element is pretty much absent here. In each film, a different pair of actors played the leads; Tone and Sothern (pictured) are no better or worse than Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell in the previous entry, FAST AND LOOSE (I have not yet seen the first one, FAST COMPANY with Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice). The mystery elements are weaker than the comic elements, and that's OK as the cast handles the humor well. There is a running gag involving lions that has a nice payoff at the end. The functional direction is by Busby Berkeley, a long way from his classic 1930s musicals. The 70 minutes go by quickly; generally, it's not terribly memorable but not hard to watch. [TCM]

Thursday, March 08, 2018


In this bland and predictable comedy, Clifton Webb plays a prominent industrial designer whose genius daughter (Anne Francis) has graduated from college. He hopes she will go to Sweden to work with his mentor, but that night at a party, Francis' psychology professor (William Lundigan) confesses his love for her and the two impulsively decide to elope. When Webb discovers Francis' bed empty in the morning, he is furious and he and his wife head to over to Lundigan's parents' house to find that Lundigan's father (Charles Bickford) is almost as mad as Webb. Both sets of parents wind up in one car chasing after the couple, but they end up liking each other and decide they approve of the marriage. However, at the same time, Francis and Lundigan begin questioning their relationship, and Webb and Bickford find themselves trying to get the two back together. Much as I love Webb in LAURA and THE RAZOR'S EDGE, I'm not a fan of his 20th Century Fox comedies of the 50s. His brittle, distant, ironic persona in his more serious movies does not travel well into the sit-com father role he took in his later films. Obviously he must have been popular as a beleaguered dad, but his performances haven't aged well. Add to that ill-suited fit a screenplay with virtually no surprises and you have a rather colorless film. Still, this is not unwatchable—Webb has his moments, and Francis and Lundigan have some chemistry. Bickford is unmemorable, as are the actresses playing the wives. Reginald Gardiner is welcome in his small role as an old friend of Webb's. Difficult to recommend wholeheartedly, but also easy to watch if you want a TV sit-com stretched out to almost 90 minutes. Pictured are Francis and Lundigan. [FMC]

Tuesday, March 06, 2018


In a village tavern during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, the innkeeper's wife has taken ill and the doctor has left saying he can do nothing more for her, but the drunken monk Rasputin (Christopher Lee) goes to her bed and makes a show of curing her with his mystical healing powers. During a celebratory party he downs three bottles of wine and makes out with the innkeeper's daughter in the barn, and when her jealous boyfriend attacks, Rasputin chops the boy's hand off. When the bishop hears of this behavior, the monk is called upon to defend himself; he says he sins big in order to have a lot to offer up to God. He is excommunicated and leaves town for St. Petersburg and while at a tavern meets Sonia (Barbara Shelley), a handmaid at the royal court. He degrades her, sleeps with her, and hypnotizes her into causing the young prince to have an accident so he can swoop in and heal him, thereby insinuating himself into the royal family. Rasputin's influence grows, but after Rasputin drives the Tsarina to kill herself, a group of men in the palace, including Sonia's brother Peter, plot to get rid of him. If you know nothing else about Rasputin, you know he was a hard man to kill, despite having consumed poisoned chocolates and wine, so the death scene climax goes on for a while.

It's a given that this Hammer movie will not be historically accurate, so there should be no griping about that. This is a case of historical context used for a horror film. The problem is this is not a successful genre mash-up. Christopher Lee tries hard, but he seems stymied in his attempt to give a full-blooded performance—he emphasizes the grungy, decadent side of Rasputin, but not his hypnotically charismatic side, so his rise among the royals seem artificial. The sets, costumes, and color schemes are right out of the traditional Hammer horror films, especially the Dracula series, so for me, this built up expectations of pulpy enjoyment that don't come to fruition—the mayhem near the end is nicely done, but getting there is a bit of a chore. I'd recommend this mostly to Hammer and/or Lee compleists. [TCM]

Friday, March 02, 2018


Nifty Sullivan (Ray Bolger) is a songwriter and leader of the swing band Four Jacks and a Queen, the latter being lead singer Opal (June Havoc). Nifty steals some of his tunes from the classical world; as one of the band members says, "You gotta hand it to a guy who can whip the Barber of Seville into 'Once Over Lightly with You, Baby!'" At a symphony concert, he winds up sitting with Nina (Anne Shirley), a poor homeless girl singer from the Balkan country Aregal, and when she gets him out of trouble with Noodle, a gangster who is dating Opal, he invites her to stay in the apartment he shares with the band. Noodle makes Opal quit singing to be his full-time moll, and Nina moves into high gear, getting the boys a gig at the Little Aregal CafĂ© and joining the group, claiming to be a personal favorite singer of King Stephan of Aregal. The king is rumored to be visiting New York City in secret, and taxi driver Steve Sarno (Desi Arnaz), who bears a resemblance to him, poses as the king. So, what develops is: Steve begins an affair with Opal even as Nifty gets jealous of Nina's attentions to Steve (as the king) and Noodle decides he wants to use the royal fuss to break Opal into high society—he calls her a "vulture for culture." With all these shenanigans in motion, who should show up but the real King Stephan.

As I watched this B-musical unfold, I had this nagging thought that I’d seen it before. It turns out it's an uncredited remake of the early sound musical STREET GIRL. The story is packed with incident but it's easy to follow. Though the 1929 film is primitive in style, I think that version has the edge; this one, though decently acted, is sloppily directed. I like Bolger but he's not the most charismatic lead man around; Shirley and Havoc are fine; the young Arnaz actually steals the show with his slightly shady character. One of Bolger's show-off, long-take dance numbers to a song called "I'm in Good Shape for the Shape I'm In" is hurt by some shaky camerawork. "Boogie Woogie Conga" is the only memorable tune. There is fine support from Eddie For Jr., Jack Briggs and William Blees as the other three Jacks. Pictured are Shirley, Arnaz and Bolger. [TCM]