Friday, August 31, 2018


I imagine that any culturally literate American has some idea of who Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead are. Though they started out on the comics page in 1930 as examples of the era’s "flaming youth" stereotypes—she was a flapper, he was a playboy from a rich family—they eventually got married and became the archetypal middle-class suburban family with two kids and a dog. Blondie was a stay-at-home mom and Dagwood worked for the grumpy Mr. Dithers. In the strips, Dagwood is a bumbling but sweet guy and Blondie the voice of reason who has to set things right. The B-movie series (28 films between 1938 and 1950) keeps some of comic strip trappings—Dagwood's beloved sandwiches, his constant morning collisions with the mailman—but the personality of Blondie is a little different. In the movies, or at least the two I sampled recently when TCM showed an evening of them, she's presented as jealous and scheming and a bit of a nag.

BLONDIE begins with an impressive stunt scene showing how the dog Daisy responds to the early morning whistle of the paperboy: Daisy tears out of the house through the doggie door, takes the paper in his mouth, runs back in the house, races up the stairs, and gives it to 4-year-old Baby Dumpling who passes it on to Dagwood, shaving in the bathroom. We eventually meet Blondie, the hapless mailman, the little neighbor boy Alvin, and Dagwood's boss. The situation is slowly set up: First, Blonde, behind Dagwood's back, buys some new furniture to be delivered the next day. Then we find out that Dagwood signed a loan note (using his furniture as collateral) for a former employee named Elsie who reneged on it and now Dagwood owes $500 or his furniture. Next, Dithers sends Dagwood to make a sale to visiting businessman Mr. Hazlip, who is notorious for not seeing salesmen, but at Hazlip's hotel, Dagwood and Hazlip bond over tinkering with a broken vacuum cleaner. Hazlip has a daughter, also named Elsie. You can probably predict that these plot threads are leading to misunderstandings and chaos. BLONDIE ON A BUDGET begins with Blondie wanting a new fur coat and Dagwood wanting to spend $200 to join a fancy fishing club. But budget concerns are left behind in a plot which features Dagwood's former girl friend (guest star Rita Hayworth before becoming a star, pictured at left with an unidentified actor and Lake), Daisy getting drunk, and Blondie eventually heading to Reno for a divorce (before a kindly divorce lawyer counsels her to make one last try at the marriage).

For this viewer, this series hasn't aged well, not so much because the plot points aren't still relevant (money problems, jealousy, and job security will always be with us) but because these feel like modern-day situation comedy plots stretched out to over an hour. I'm used to seeing these kinds of stories wrapped up in 30 minutes on shows ranging over the years from Leave It to Beaver to Modern Family, so these films feel padded out. But their watchability is helped by the actors. Penny Singleton is a good Blondie, though a little more manic than the one I know from the comic strip; Arthur Lake is goofy-cute and charming as the hapless Dagwood. But the real treasures are the kids: Larry Simms, only four years old when he filmed the first movie, has Baby Dumpling down pat, and Danny Mummert as Alvin is just as good—in 1946, Mummert played George Bailey's younger brother as a kid (the one George saves from drowning in the ice) in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. They both seem like natural actors (though I do wonder how many takes were required to get their on-the-nose performances) and both stayed with the series for the next twelve years, right to the end. As a novelty, I enjoyed these, though I don't know that I could sit through a marathon of Blondie movies; I might like to see a later one where the kids are more grown up. [TCM]

Wednesday, August 29, 2018


In a custody hearing being touted in the press as "Railroad Tycoon vs. Showgirl," a rich man is seeking custody of his daughter-in-law's baby, as the father died in the war and the mother is struggling to make a living. Boston judge Thomas Bailey (Alexander Knox) awards the child to the tycoon because he can provide a better upbringing, ignoring the tearful pleas of the mother. Back at home, Tom is dealing with his neglectful wife Evelyn (she's forgotten it’s his birthday) who is spending too much money on their daughter's upcoming wedding into the wealthy Struthers family; he's tired of having to keep up with others, but she accuses him of being a financial failure, particularly when Tom is inclined to turn down a good job offer from Mr. Struthers. On a train trip to Washington to look into the job offer, Tom gets off the train at night in a small town because of unexplained pains. The small-town doctor he sees tells him he is suffering from "inflammation of the family," diagnosing the judge as needing a change from the demands of his current lifestyle. Tom stays in town for a couple of days, goes fishing with the doctor, and composes a telegram home to say he's been delayed. But Tom forgets to send it, and soon he discovers via a newspaper's front page that he's been reported missing. Back in Boston, Tom enters his house, but, unseen by his family, he sees that Evelyn seems to be unconcerned with his absence, so he steps back out, takes a train to California, and starts a new life as a door-to-door book salesman. At a small town diner, he meets cute with Peggy (Ann Sothern), the diner owner and guardian to Nan, a young orphan. Not knowing his background, she hires him as a short-order cook and soon the two have settled into something that looks like domestic happiness. But months later, when Peggy's application to adopt Nan is turned down—for reasons very much like Tom's reasons for turning down the showgirl in court—the judge-in-hiding decides to head back to Boston to try and get legal help for Peggy, and also to revisit his judgment in the showgirl's case.

This is a hard one to pin down. It's light in tone but not quite a comedy. Though it might read as a May-December romance, the two leads, Knox and Sothern (pictured), are almost the same age, with Knox looking just a bit older. Though Knox gives a restrained performance (reminiscent of Ronald Colman) and Sothern is closer to her usual carefree persona, they have great chemistry together. For a Production Code-era movie, it's made surprisingly clear that Knox and Sothern are in fact living together as extramarital partners, which is rather refreshing. I spent most of my summary talking about the narrative's set-up but the bulk of the action actually covers Knox and Sothern's relationship. Given this, and without spoiling things too much, the ending is not satisfying, or wasn't for me. There are some good supporting players, including Florence Bates, George Tobias, H.B. Warner, and especially Ian Wolfe as the judge's loyal assistant. [TCM]

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

ZERO HOUR! (1957)

I've been wanting to see this movie for years: it's the film that the classic 1980 comedy AIRPLANE! is based on. I love AIRPLANE (and I will assume that my readers have seen it as well) and watch it at least once a year, so there was not a chance that I could have watched this film with an objective eye. And the fact that AIRPLANE is, essentially, a scene-for-scene remake of this movie, albeit with a satiric and often scatological tone, makes it difficult to take this original film seriously. We begin in World War II when pilot Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews) takes his men on a bombing mission through thick fog. Several of the men die and the badly injured Stryker blames himself. His guilt incapacitates him and wrecks havoc with his career (he is afraid of flying) and his personal life. Years later, Stryker is offered a job by an old pal, but when he comes home to celebrate the news, he finds that his wife Ellen (Linda Darnell) has taken their young son Joey and left him. Stryker goes after his wife and manages to get on the same plane she's on, heading to Vancouver, trying to talk her into having faith in him this time. After the in-flight meal is served, everyone who ate the fish gets virulent food poisoning, including the pilot and co-pilot. The plane is put on autopilot and there is a frantic search for someone on board who can finish the flight and land the plane. Reluctantly, Stryker agrees to try, helped out by his wife as co-pilot and a captain (Sterling Hayden) radioing in from the ground at Vancouver, who happens to have known Stryker during the war.

Yes, most of that summary also works as a summary of AIRPLANE. Many viewers probably thought that AIRPLANE was parodying the Airport series of disaster movies from the 70s, which to some degree it was, but the fact is that AIRPLANE's makers bought the remake rights to ZERO HOUR and they followed the original quite closely. So as early as the World War II scene, when Stryker's name is intoned seriously by a narrator, I started giggling. Other things that happen in this film which are now hard to take seriously: the pilot asks the young boy, "Ever been in a cockpit before?" (see photo above); Stryker sweats; the Vancouver captain says he "picked the wrong time to quit smoking"; a hysterical woman gets slapped; a doctor's announcement that they need to find someone who can fly the plan AND didn't eat fish. Even the movie's sets look alike. I can say that Dana Andrews gives a strong performance as Stryker, and the landing scene works up tension quite effectively. Fun to watch but impossible to evaluate fairly. [TCM]

Wednesday, August 22, 2018


Virginia (Anita Ekberg), a buxom blonde exotic dancer, is staying in a beach cottage when, as she starts to take an outdoor shower, she is attacked by a knife-wielding escapee from a nearby asylum. Charlie, a sculptor and her older stepbrother, shoots him dead from the cottage door, but Virginia is in hysterics and is sent to a sanitarium (the same one the maniac escaped from) in "deep traumatic shock," thinking somehow that she was the one who attacked someone with a knife. She is assigned to Dr. Greenwood (Harry Townes) who becomes obsessed with her, to the point where, when she is released, he quits his job to be her full-time caretaker—and agent, getting her a dancing gig at El Madhouse, a sleazy club run by Gypsy Masters (Gypsy Rose Lee, essentially playing herself). He also becomes a Svengali-figure to her; she seems to both need him and resent him. Masters gets an entertainment reporter named Bill (Philip Carey) to give her new star some newspaper coverage, and Bill gets involved with her, first because of her looks, then later due to her obvious vulnerability. Later, Virginia is attacked on the streets by a figure with a knife; she survives and the police assume she was a victim of "The Ripper," who killed Lola, another buxom dancer, a few weeks earlier. As Bill digs into Virginia's background, he discovers something odd linking her and Lola: the presence at the scene of the attack of a small sculpted figure of a screaming woman—which we know to have been produced by Virginia's stepbrother.

That’s about where the narrative stopped making sense to me, though there’s still quite a bit of movie left. One problem is that there are a number of plot elements that are either sketchy or completely undeveloped: the character of the stepbrother who turns out to be a red herring, the amount of time that passes between chunks of narrative, the motivations of any number of characters. The doctor is the most ambiguous character of all, and I never did figure out if he was supposed to be "good" or "bad." In a better movie, this could all have been harnessed in the service of a compelling psychological thriller, but here the director, Gerd Oswald, seems more interested in highlighting kinky plotlines just for exploitation. For example, Ekberg looks great but she's not the best actress, so I couldn't tell if Virginia's various moods and actions were plot-driven or just the result of Ekberg giving a weak (or weakly directed) performance. Frankly, all the actors feel low-energy and at sea, even Gypsy Rose Lee who you can tell is trying but is getting nothing from the director. Her brief rendition of "Put the Blame on Mame" is surprisingly bland. We discover, out of the blue, that Gypsy is a lesbian—when Bill goes to Gypsy's apartment, he finds her young companion there and feeling distinctly out of place, says, "Sorry, I didn’t realize it was just tea for two"—but nothing is done with this detail. Even worse is the Screaming Mimi figure which seems to have been tossed into the mix just to give the movie a title. (To be fair, this film is based on a novel by Fredric Brown, so some of these problems might arise directly from the original source.) Parts of this are low-rent fun—for example, Ekberg's vaguely S&M dance with chains—but overall, a disappointment even for fans of drive-in B-movies. [DVD]

Tuesday, August 21, 2018


In an African city, Steve (Leif Erickson) comes barging into a lawyer's office across from a police station and says that a man named Harper and a woman named Meelah are currently being held for questioning, and if Harper is released, Steve plans on shooting him. We hear the rest of the story in flashback. Steve and his buddy Hoppy (Frank Jenks), who run a small air freight company, are offered a job by Harper, owner of a diamond mine, to find the jungle home of a tribe that is causing Harper trouble. Steve is surprised to find that Harper's wife Connie (Veda Ann Borg) is a former flame of his, and as soon as Harper is a safe distance away, she begins flirting with Steve and complaining about being stuck in Africa with her dull husband. Steve and Hoppy fly off to do some reconnaissance, lose control of the plane, and wind up forced to land in the jungle where they are captured by the troublesome tribe, led by Tonga and, surprisingly, a statuesque blond white woman named Meelah. She belts out a good old going-to-war song which seems to seal their fate as captured enemies, but when a warrior returns to the village, wounded in a battle with Harper's men, Steve uses the plane's first-aid kit to save his life. Tonga gives Steve a diary written in English which reveals that Meelah was the daughter of a man named Comstock, a co-founder with Harper of the diamond mine. Harper had Comstock and his wife killed, and the baby was saved by the tribe. Steve vows to go back to Harper's, find evidence, and have him brought to justice. Unfortunately, that's not so easy to do, and when an associate of Harper's is killed, both Harper and Meelah fall under suspicion, and we are brought back to the film's opening. Steve, who has fallen for Meelah, plans to kill Harper if the police keep Meelah and free Harper.

This is a par-for-the-course entry in the B-movie jungle melodrama genre, with a story template right out of the classic Tarzan movies, a roster of so-so B-actors, and some stock footage blended with the stagy backlot African sets. Erickson is fine as the butch blond hero, though Gale Sherwood comes off as an amateur as Meelah (her real career was as a singer, and she only made a handful of movies before she spent the rest of her life as Nelson Eddy's singing partner in clubs and concerts). Douglass Dumbrille is bland as the evil Harper, Veda Ann Borg (pictured above with Erickson) is more interesting as Connie, and I always enjoy Frank Jenks as a comic relief sidekick. The best moment is probably early on when Steve is enjoying a kiss with a local totsy. When he asks her how she learned to kiss, she says, "I used to play trombone in the school band. I'm just giving you the first 32 bars of the William Tell overture." He replies, "Play the next 32, baby!" I don't remember Erickson getting any shirtless time, which is disappointing, though both females get to display their physical assets. A nice pick for an "Oh, what the heck" night at the movies, for fans of 40s B-films. [YouTube]

Friday, August 17, 2018


In France during World War II, Canadian pilot Laurence Gerard (Dick Powell, pictured) is married for twenty days to a young French girl. Back with the RCAF, he is captured, spends the rest of the war as a POW, and when he's released, he discovers his wife, a member of the resistance, is dead, betrayed (along with many others in her village) by a shadowy figure named Jarnac. Gerard is determined to get revenge against Jarnac, but finds him difficult to track down—no one even seems to know what he looks like. Eventually Gerard follow a nebulous trail to Buenos Aries where he finds Jarnac's wife who assumes her husband is dead but, oddly, doesn’t even know what he looked like—it was an arranged marriage of convenience for both her (the daughter of a collaborationist, she needed to get out of France) and him (he needed her to tell people that he was dead). Gerard gets involved with a group including Incza, a sleazy tourist guide who knows something about Jarnac; a lawyer named Santana who may be a fascist and warns him against getting to close to Mme. Jarnac; Deigo, a bartender at a party who seems to be tailing Gerard; and a handful of others whose sympathies are unclear. As it happens, some of these folks are members of an anti-fascist group who are hunting down fallen Nazis who have landed in Buenos Aries, and they are afraid that the hot-headed Gerard will spoil their plans.

This noir-style thriller is reasonably tense up until the 60 minute mark when the plot and character convolutions grow difficult to follow, though I do appreciate the attempt to keep the ambiguity about character motives going as long as possible. Still, it's worth watching mostly for Dick Powell's effective performance as a single-minded guy who seems to be barely keeping his stoic surface intact over his rage-filled desire for revenge. Powell switched from overgrown musical juvenile to noir tough guy in a highly acclaimed performance in MURDER MY SWEET the year before this, and he's as good if not better here. Good support comes from Morris Carnovsky, Steven Geray, Jack La Rue, and Micheline Cheirel. I'm not sure why we are kept from seeing Jarnac for so long—without giving a direct spoiler, I can say that the mystery over his identity is not justified, so don't expect a big gasp of surprise when he is finally revealed. As it is, the point of having the character show up at all seems to be to let him be a warning voice about how hard it is to eradicate fascism (see current U.S. politics for a more recent example). You can read this movie as anti-fascism propaganda but it's best enjoyed as a fairly tense noir-ish thriller. [TCM]

Thursday, August 16, 2018


In 1840s Louisiana, Falconhurst is a plantation owned by the Maxwell family. It's a faded, dilapidated place; the grounds aren't kept up and the house is in disrepair. Warren, the patriarch (James Mason), spends his days buying and selling slaves (splitting up families without a second thought) and trying to find a champion fighter for bouts which plantation owners gamble on. His particular pride is a new muscular acquisition named Mede (Ken Norton) who is generally on the soft-spoken side but can kill a man with his bare fists—as we witness. He's also been bought with an eye to breeding more slave children (referred to as "suckers") to sell. Warren's son Hammond (Perry King, pictured at left with Norton) fancies himself a Southern gentleman, but in his father's estimation, he spends too much time having sex with slave women and fathering children who are then sold off. Warren arranges a marriage for him with his cousin Blanche (Susan George) so there will be a legitimate—and white—heir for the estate, but on their wedding night, Hammond discovers that Blanche is not a virgin, a fact which enrages him and sets in motion a Greek tragedy of betrayal and death.

This has long been derided as grindhouse exploitation, trash, and camp, but it deserves a better reputation than that. There is definitely a titillation factor here, what with a fair amount of bare flesh (including a full-frontal nude scene for Perry King), mixed-race grinding of loins, the whiff of incest, and some torture for good measure. The acting of Susan George (pictured with Norton) is of the soap-opera variety, and the fist fight scene is harshly violent. But overall, this is a dark and depressing affair, which I mean mostly in a good way. The Maxwells are portrayed as decadent and decaying, just like their estate. Slave life is not prettified, though with the focus on the owners, there are not fully fleshed out black characters. Mede, though technically the title character (a strong black man of Western African origin) is particularly passive, acted on rather than acting, until the very last scene. Ellen (Brenda Sykes) is Hammond's favorite slave mistress, and he becomes almost sympathetic in her presence, coming to the conclusion that maybe these slaves are actually as human as he is. But she is also more acted upon than acting; this certainly reflects a truth about slave life but it doesn't make for compelling characterizations.

In the beginning, I found Perry King off-putting as Hammond, but his performance is a complex one—he has to come off as weak but also strong at times; mostly despicable yet slowly discovering empathy; sexy yet disgusting. Supposedly, actors like Timothy Bottoms and Jan-Michael Vincent turned the role down; Vincent might have been interesting but I think he would have had a hard time with the weakness of the character. King does a fine job as the anti-hero of the movie, the only character that has the ability to change—though how much he has changed by the end is debatable, as the grim climax positions what we would label "toxic masculinity" as the one issue that Hammond cannot overcome. James Mason seems to sleepwalk through the film, but I think this was a deliberate choice to highlight the rot and corruption of the slave-owning class. A scene in which Mason sits with his feet on the stomach of a young black boy lying on the floor in order to transfer his rheumatism into the boy is low-key, ridiculous and horrific all at the same time. Ben Masters is fine in a small role as a decadent relative of Hammond; Paul Benedict (the white son-in-law on The Jefersons) is a slave merchant; Ji-Tu Cumbuka steals a scene as a troublesome slave. This movie is damned by being called the "dark underbelly" of GONE WITH THE WIND, but actually this film almost certainly gets closer to the truth of the slaveholder mindset than GWTW. It's also occasionally called campy but with the possible exception a few of Susan George's scene, it's not. If you have a strong stomach for multiple scenes of cruelty, I would recommend this, if for no other reason than for its uniqueness. [TCM]

Tuesday, August 14, 2018


Convoluted film noir mystery? You’re soaking in it! I'm not 100% sure I have all the details correct, but this is how the movie played out to me. Victor (Claude Rains) is a radio personality whose specialty is true crime stories. He has two nieces. Matilda (Joan Caulfield) is his legal ward and the inheritor of lots of money which Victor has been handling for her—and some of which he has possibly been misusing. Althea (Audrey Totter, at left), the other niece, stole Matilda's boyfriend Oliver out of spite but now is stuck in a bad marriage as Oliver has taken to drink. Matilda, out of the country, has been reported dead in a ship accident. This is the situation as the movie begins with a shadowy and creepy scene showing Victor's secretary Rosalyn murdered and hung up from a chandelier to make it look like suicide, all while Victor is on the air relating a murder story. Althea knows it was murder because she was on the phone with her when she was attacked, but Althea isn't telling anyone what she knows—yet. While everyone feels bad for Victor's losses, a young man named Steven shows up out of the blue, claiming to have been married to Matilda. The thinking is that Steven has come in search of a chunk of her money, but it turns out that Steven is from a rich family himself. Before the family can get used to this new development, Matilda turns up alive, having survived the accident and spent time recovering in Brazil. But she doesn’t recognize Steven, and insists that they are not married. Obviously, amnesia from her traumatic experience secretary explains this, so Victor and the rest assume. The stage is now set for plot twists, betrayals, and more murders.

I did find this difficult to follow, though ultimately, once everyone's motives are made clear, it settles down into a traditional murder mystery template. But the primary reason to watch this is the shadowy film noir style from director Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Woody Bredell. Nothing quite matches the opening sequence of the murder of the secretary, but the visuals remain interesting throughout. Several times we see the faces of people reflected diamond-sharp in glass or mirrors or, most effectively, in a recording disc—Victor keep records of most of his radio shows, and recordings of conversations are crucial to the climax. There’s a LAURA vibe here due to the resurrection of a character thought dead, though it's handled almost too matter-of-factly here. Many reviews and summaries mention the killer's identity, but, even though it is revealed relatively early (about halfway through), I still think it shouldn't be spoiled. The acting is all over the place. Rains, of course, is very good, but Audrey Totter practically steals all her scenes with her portrayal of a jealous schemer; you can never quite figure out whose side she's on. At times she sounds like Bette Davis at her most devious. Michael North (credited earlier in his career as Ted North) is striking looking and in his first few scenes, he's effective as someone whose motives, as with Totter, are not clear, but as the movie goes on, he recedes into the background with not quite enough charisma to be on the level of Rains and Totter. Joan Caulfield is far too bland to make her character interesting, which is a shame because with another actress in the role, this might have been a truly first-rate noir. Hurd Hatfield does his usual effete male role as the weak Oliver. Constance Bennett is lots of fun as an Eve Arden-type of sidekick. When Rains feels sorry for her because he assumes since she's single that she's never really "vibrated" with the joy of living, she replies, referring to her past, "For six months, I vibrated like a musical saw!" The complicated plot bothered me for a while, but I'm glad I stuck with this. Pictured at right are Totter, Caulfield and Rains. [TCM]

Friday, August 10, 2018


Dan Pritchard (Leslie Howard), the son in Pritchard and Pritchard, shipping magnates of San Francisco, has been engaged to Maisie Morrison (Karen Morley) for years but she shows no sign of setting a date, or even of becoming passionate—a friend comments that "her mother raised her in an ice box." An old sea captain arrives at the docks infected with leprosy and asks Dan to become guardian to his daughter Tamea (Conchita Montenegro), born of a Polynesian woman and raised on the islands. To the eyes of a city dweller, she's lovely but primitive, and the captain wants her educated and civilized.  As the captain leaves, Dan mutters to him, "I suppose you’ll be … going away," and, accompanied by the mournful singing of his crew, the captain jumps into the ocean, presumably to die. The childlike Tamea (referred to once as a "delightful little savage") is quite a handful for Dan. As he and Maisie attend to her socialization, Tamea is at first playful but quickly becomes knowingly flirtatious—she wants Dan to watch her as she tries on dresses, and then forces him to kiss her to do his bidding. He seems both amused and titillated by her behavior, and his friend Mark warns Maisie that she needs to step in to stop Dan from catching "tropical fever." But by then, it's too late: Dan's father sends Tamea back to the islands, but Dan follows and soon he and Tamea are living together. He is warned by Porter, a dissolute islander, that he'll come to no good, and indeed, their idyll is brief; Tamea begins keeping company with her former island boyfriend Tolongo, and Dan seems resigned to sharing her. Eventually, Maisie shows up, hoping to being Dan back home, but can she overcome his case of tropical fever?

This kind of exotic hothouse melodrama was common in the 1930s and this is among the better ones. Being pre-Code, it doesn't have to pussyfoot around the fact that Dan and Tamea have a sexual relationship (unlike later films like WHITE CARGO in which marriage has to happen first). The dispassionate Leslie Howard is a surprising choice for this role, but he does play lust-addled better than you might expect. His decline is charted partly by his wardrobe, which goes from crisp and clean in the States to grungy and sweaty on the island. Montenegro is fine, though she left Hollywood behind fairly quickly and made a career in Spanish-language movies. Morley does well in a hard role—she has to be unlikable (we understand Dan's frustration with her coldness) but sympathetic (we have to be on her side when she tries to save him). I must admit that, despite Dan's supposed ruin as he becomes the weak third point of a tropical triangle, I was sort of rooting for him to stay on the island. Also with Hale Hamilton who seems to be doing a Robert Benchley imitation as Mark, and C. Aubrey Smith as Dan's father. Bob Gilbert, in his only film role, makes a sexy Tolongo (pictured at right). The things that made this risque in 1931 (premarital sex, interracial romance, a menage-a-trois situation) no longer resonate so much, so fans of the era and the genre will like this, but others may have little patience. Pictured at top are Howard and Montenegro. [TCM]

Wednesday, August 08, 2018


Tracy (Diana Ross) is a single working woman living in the slums of Chicago. She's a secretary at a department store but aspires to design her own line of clothes. Brian (Billy Dee Williams) is a political activist running for alderman and provoking trouble wherever he holds rallies. The two meet cute when she pranks him by pouring milk in his bullhorn, accidentally precipitating a brawl. She gets him out of jail and they start dating, though their differing ambitions cause friction. When renowned fashion photographer Sean McAvoy (Anthony Perkins) comes to Chicago for a shoot, he appropriates Tracy as a model and tells her he could make her a star. She leaves Brian and goes to Paris to work with Sean who does indeed make her famous, under the name Mahogany.  At first they're quite happy as a platonic couple, but after he is unable to sexually consummate their relationship, he becomes cold and bitter. Eventually he snaps and drives off with her in a car, taking pictures of her, in fear for her life, as he goes faster and faster until they crash. He dies and she, suffering several injuries, is taken care of by the wealthy Christian (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who agrees to finance her design house in exchange (eventually) for sex. But even though her line is a success, she can’t quite give herself to Christian. He's an understanding sort, and he sends her back to Chicago where she decides to go back to Brian, now running for Congress.

Let there be no doubt—this is a hot mess of a movie. Not a moment of it rings true. The Harlequin romance plotline is only one problem. Berry Gordy, head of Motown Records, directed this himself with no previous film experience. In the realm of music, he is an undisputed genius, but in movies, he's strictly an amateur. Diana Ross has presence to burn, but despite her earlier solid performance as Billie Holiday in LADY SINGS THE BLUES, she is unable to carry a single scene in which she is called upon to act—though her beauty and charisma get her through a fashion shoot montage which is a high point of the film, and tellingly, not supervised by Gordy but by Jack Cole. The more she tries to emote, the shriller her voice gets and the emptier her character becomes. Billy Dee Williams is a pro, but he is stifled here, especially in his outdoor scenes, shot in winter, where he seems to be too realistically cold, delivering his lines in a hurry so he get inside and warm up. Still, there is something to be said for good looks in a romance like this, and Ross and Williams both look darn good, even if their chemistry falters. Aumont is fine in a throwaway role. Perkins gives the best performance here, but sadly it's another in his long line of neurotic and/or psychotic gay characters which began with Norman Bates. The character is not presented as openly gay, but we're slapped in the face with subtext, especially in the bizarre scene in which Perkins and Williams wrestle on the floor with a gun, which ends up in Perkins' mouth. I'm serious.

But really, this film is a guilty pleasure for me because of the music. Specifically, the one song that is played over and over throughout, known on the pop charts as "Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To)." I liked the song well enough when it was on radio back in the 70s, and Ross' vocal version is played in the movie at least twice, but it's the constant repetition of the theme instrumentally that made me able to stick with this movie, and even watch it a second time. Just as a scene goes off the rails and you want to turn the movie off, the theme swells up and the melancholy yearning in the melody turns you (well, me) to jelly and you (I) have to stick with it to see what happens next to Tracy. It's difficult for me to recommend this to a general audience, but if you love bad campy movies or "Do You Know Where You're Going To," this is a must-see, even a must-own. [DVD]

Friday, August 03, 2018


I have never read Robert Louis Stevenson's novel, nor have I seen any movie version, but as a responsible pop culture consumer, I know about Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins, and hidden treasure on an island. But the opening of this movie confused me, as the narrator conflates truth and fiction right off the bat by talking about Stevenson's classic tale, but also implying that these characters and events were real. We see a brief sequence showing the wicked pirate Flint hiding a treasure chest in a cave on a small Caribbean island, then killing all those who helped him hide it. 200 years later, we are at the Admiral Benbow Inn, made famous by Treasure Island, where an original map of that island is on display. One night, a man breaks in and tries to steal the map; suddenly, another man breaks in wanting the map for himself. They fight and escape, but neither one gets the map. An academic named Clive Stone (Porter Hall) shows up doing research on Stevenson's story, and Jamie Hawkins (Dawn Addams), descendent of Treasure Island's hero Jim, tells him about a bible with some coded words in it which, together with the map, might lead to the treasure. When Willy, the old caretaker, is shot and killed in another break-in, Stone tells Jamie that he thinks a certain Felix Newman is behind it, and she agrees to accompany Stone to the island to find the treasure. But on the way, she discovers that Stone is actually Maxie Harris, a scoundrel who is competing with Newman to find the treasure. Once on the island, she manages to escape and finds the real Clive Stone (Tab Hunter), a young, bearded and shirtless archeology student who had gotten involved with both Newman and Harris and was left for dead on the island. The rest of the story has the three factions battling to survive each other and to get the treasure.

This rarely-shown film was aired on TCM as part of salute to Tab Hunter a few days after his death in July. Clive was an early role for Hunter and as he himself has said, neither the movie nor his performance is very good. Actually, he's not terrible, though he and the movie as a whole are hurt by weak direction from E.A. Dupont. Hunter brings some much needed energy to the movie (though his narration style is terrible) and his eye-candy presence made the film worth watching for me—he never wears a shirt, and his bedraggled and patently phony beard gets shaved off fairly quickly, the better to display his blond cleancut good looks. Dawn Addams is fine and they share a decent B-movie chemistry. Hall, a very familiar supporting face (the store psychologist in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET) makes an effective villain, and the action, such as it is, of the last half is reasonably entertaining. Still, there's not a lot to recommend this for today's young viewers. [TCM]

Thursday, August 02, 2018


Not far from a Louisiana swamp, ornery old Shugfoot has been living in his mansion for the past five years with the younger (but no spring chicken) Linda, but now he's gotten tired of her, and as she sits still while he throws darts at her, he tells her that he's kicking her out so he can start shacking up with his considerably younger niece, Jonelle (known by most as Baby Doll—yes, think Lolita), now a stripper, who is returning to town after being driven away a few years ago for her wanton behavior. But even though Shugfoot has promised to "take care" of Linda, he's changed his will so Jonelle is in line for his estate. Linda goes to a lawyer and finds that, even though she and Shugfoot never married, they are common-law spouses and he'll have to get a legal divorce, so when Jonelle shows up, Linda sends her away. Jonelle trots her smokin' body down Main Street where she attracts lots of attention and heads off to stay with her sister Brenda, whose husband Jody, the town sheriff, happens to be who Jonelle was caught with years ago when she got booted out of town. Of course, old feelings surface and soon Jonelle and Jody are spending an illicit day together, skinny-dipping and making out, ending up getting a little soused in the back room of the local tavern. When Jody declines to continue their frolic, Jonelle does a striptease in front of the raucous crowd and a fat horny moonshiner named Bull gets all excited, whoops Jody's ass, and carts Jonelle off to his shack in the swamp. When she finds out that Bull makes regular deliveries of moonshine whisky to Shugfoot, she gets Bull to lace one of the bottles with arsenic, the plan being to kill off the old bastard and get his house and money for herself. But Linda has her own plan.

I've been watching a fair number of low-rent flicks lately, but this is about as low as they go. It's actually a mash-up of two batches of footage. The credited director is Eric Sayers, but most of the footage that involves Bull was shot separately by cheapie cult director Larry Buchanan. This footage also has a noticeably different actress playing Jonelle and no one seems to know for sure who's who. Lacey Kelly gets screen and IMDb credit, so I assume she's the main Jonelle, and she, in the words of Bette Davis in ALL ABOUT EVE, looks like she might burn down a plantation, or a bayou mansion—though to be clear, nothing burns here except Jonelle, and she's the main reason to stick with the movie. The other is the ending, which is oddly downbeat for a 60s drive-in exploitation movie. Annabelle Winnick is fine as Linda, and George Edgley is, well, effective as the old slimeball Shugfoot. Max Anderson as Jody does a nice job of seeming constantly befuddled by being caught between two sisters. Bull is uncredited, but frankly all he has to do is look disgusting and that he achieves. The sets are practically cardboard, and the mansion interior is worthy of Ed Wood. Some dialogue, mostly Bull's is awkwardly post-dubbed. There is a grungy, unwholesome feel to this film that actually adds to the viewing experience, even if never builds to the heights that the phrase "backwater soap opera" might engender. Best line is Jonelle to Bull as he indulges in his caveman-like seduction in his poorly lit shack: "A girl can learn a lotta lessons in the dark." (That's Jonelle pictured up right and Jody pictured above) [YouTube]