Friday, September 28, 2018

BREAKTHROUGH (1950)

We are with American troops in England in 1944, training for the upcoming D-Day landing at Normandy. Top dog of the company is the seasoned Captain Hale (David Brian); the newbie is former teacher Lt. Mallory (John Agar), fresh out of officer's training at Fort Benning and resented a bit by Hale. Sgt. Pete Bell (Frank Lovejoy) likes Mallory and tries to run interference between the two. Some of the other men in Agar's platoon include Dominick, a brash young man who is fixated on a career in politics; Hanson, the platoon clown who likes to do impressions of Bogart and Edward G. Robinson; Muscles, the strong, slow kid; gawky nerd Nelson whose nickname is "4F"; Uncle Roy, the oldest guy in the group; Jimbo, a country boy with a soft spot for dogs; and Rojek, a working-class guy from the Bronx. We follow the group from England across the Channel to Omaha Beach, through the French hedgerows to their designated mission of taking the town of St. Lo as the men bond and squabble and fight and die, all in predictable Hollywood war-movie ways.

Made almost 50 years before Stephen Spielberg's D-Day movie SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, this will disappoint anyone wanting a graphic and realistic recreation of the Normandy invasion, but it will surely satisfy any fans of classic-era war pictures. As I've noted, it's nothing if not predictable—as soon as one of the soldiers pulled out pictures of his wife and kids and said how lucky he was, I knew the poor bastard wasn't long for this world—but much of the pleasure of watching these movies, or any genre movies, is to see watch the formulaic pieces fall into place, and to see when things go against the grain. Other predictable moments include some brief flirting with a sexy French woman, a tank attack, a troublesome sniper (in a scene which would be echoed in PRIVATE RYAN), and the eventual mutual respect built between Agar and Brian. Some surprising elements [mild spoiler]: none of the three main stars dies—I was sure that the middle-ground Lovejoy was being set up as a sacrifice, but they all survive; the acting is nicely low-key—no one exhibits the intensity of a John Garfield or the laconic star power of a John Wayne, which is all to the good here, letting the focus stay on the ensemble and keeping the stereotypes in check a bit. There is a fair amount of newsreel footage from the actual operation used which is both a plus (it adds realism and helps cover up the B-budget) and a minus (its use is obvious so they're not fooling anyone). The only troublesome plothole I saw was that the outcome of Brian's story (mild spoiler: his command is taken away from him because his superiors worry he's on the verge of going a little nuts) comes out of nowhere. The supporting cast is fine, with the best performances coming from Dick Wesson as Hanson (his impressions really are good) and Edward Norris as Uncle Roy. Some may fault this for a lack of intensity but I enjoyed its somewhat more laconic charms. Pictured are Lovejoy and Agar. [TCM]

Monday, September 24, 2018

MEET THE BOY FRIEND (1937)

Cleancut radio crooner Tony Page, known as "America’s Boyfriend," is dating Vilma Vlare, a Swedish actress (or "Scandhoovian" as one character says) hoping to make it big in the States. Potts, his manager, wants to keep Tony footloose and fancy free so he won't lose his rabid female fan base, so he arranges to get Vilma out of the picture with an acting job in California. In a scene which may have inspired a similar meet-cute moment in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, Tony, running from fans, winds up on a bus next to June Delaney, who is not a fan but who does help him avoid a mobbing. June works for an insurance company, and Potts decides to take out "love insurance" on Tony, paying out if Tony would get married. June, posing as a struggling singer, flirts with Tony to take his mind off of Vilma. At a radio contest, June wins first prize, but Tony gives the prize money to competitors Otis Clapsaddle and the Ozark Beau Brummels, who clearly need the money—and the encouragement—more than she does, and Tony replaces her money from his pocket. She begins to soften toward Tony, but when Vilma returns—she wants to marry Tony to get a green card but is dating someone else—complications ensue, including a fake kidnapping and a radio gimmick involving marrying couples on the air.

In the classic-era B-movie realm, some mysteries, noirs, and comedies occasionally wind up being as good as or better than some of their A-movie counterparts. But I have yet to see a B-musical that can come close to the standards of the big studios. Good musicals require big budgets for sets, costumes, stars, and songwriting. Low-budget movies like this one from Republic just can't compete, and when a musical doesn't work, it's a dreary affair. This one is thoroughly second-rate in every aspect, though movie buffs may find something worthwhile here and there. The leads, Robert Paige (billed as David Carlyle) and Carol Hughes, are bland, but Gwili Andre is a little better as Vilma. A comedy duo known as Oscar & Elmer supply some amusing moments as two yokels hired to kidnap June as a way to get Tony to leave Vilma. Best, however, is Pert Kelton (the Widow Paroo in THE MUSIC MAN) as Potts' wife; she has a Gracie Allen vibe going here and she steals every scene she's in, and even gives the best musical performance in a comical song called "You’re My Rosebud." The Ozark Beau Brummels are a spot of fun, especially when Otis refers to them as a "sympathy orchestra." At just over an hour, it's bearable but not much more. Pictured are Pert Kelton with Andrew Tombes as her husband on the left and Robert Paige on the right. [YouTube]

Thursday, September 20, 2018

LIGHTS OF NEW YORK (1928)

We are told that this is a tale of two milieus: small-town Main Street and big-city Broadway, a story that "might have been torn out of last night's newspaper" (just like TV's Law & Order!). Two bootleggers who have been hiding out in a small town hotel not far from New York City find out that legal charges against them have been dropped so they plan to head back to Broadway to run a speakeasy. They talk Eddie (Cullen Landis), the hotel barber, and his pal Gene (Eugene Pallette) into coming with them to run a barber shop in Manhattan—Eddie even gets his mother, owner of the hotel, to give him some money to invest in the shop. Sadly, once they get to the city, they discover that the shop is a front for a speakeasy. However, Eddie is happy to catch up with old gal pal Kitty (Helene Costello), a singer at the Night Hawk, a club run by slick gangster Hawk Miller (Wheeler Oakman). Eddie's in love with Kitty, but Hawk has the hots for her as well, much to the disgruntlement of Hawk's long-suffering mistress Molly (Gladys Brockwell). When a cop is shot dead by one of Hawk's bootleggers, the heat is turned on and Hawk sets Eddie up to take the fall for the illegal booze and the murder.

This much-maligned crime drama is historically important as the first all-talking movie—THE JAZZ SINGER was actually mostly silent, with only a few talkie sequences. But most critics make a point of noting that the film is not that good. However, I found it watchable and interesting, even it never quite becomes compelling. Plotwise, it's an oft-told tale of the innocent rube being taken advantage of by the urban crooks, and as such, it's predictable. The romance is bland, and there isn't much action, but the camera is not completely stationary, a problem which causes some early talkies to be difficult to enjoy for modern viewers. Performances are mostly good. Cullen Landis makes for a solid leading man; he had a lengthy career in silent movies but retired from the screen a couple years later. Wheeler Oakman's name was not familiar to me, but he has over 150 screen credits to his name, mostly as henchmen in B-movies; he is fine here. Of course, Pallette of the deep croaking voice (pictured with Landis), will be very familiar to fans of 30s movies (the wealthy patriarch in MY MAN GODFREY, Friar Tuck in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD).

There is some fun dialogue, and some lines, though probably new at the time, would quickly become clich├ęs. When Hawk wants someone killed, he says, very dramatically, "Take him for a ride"; Eddie expresses satisfaction with "Everything’s Jake!"; when Molly's life takes a bad turn, she moans, "I've lived and I've loved and I've lost!” Earlier, when Molly sees Hawk take in interest in the younger Kitty, she calls him "a hound for chickens." Best of all is a musical number in the night club sung by Harry Downing called "At Dawning"—yes, it's about early morning sex: "When I wake up in the early morning/That's when I love her the best." There's also an overwrought death scene that is hard to watch without a chuckle or two. This movie won't be everyone’s cup of tea, but at just under an hour, I found it fun. [DVD]

Monday, September 17, 2018

THE PIZZA TRIANGLE (1970)

Adelaide (Monica Vitti) has just been stabbed to death in the street, and as two men, Oreste and Nello, act out how it happened for the police, we get the full backstory. Adelaide, a florist, sees Oreste (Marcello Mastroianni) one night at a street carnival. Though she's young and middle-class and he's a married, over-40 construction worker who has passed out from too much drink, sparks fly and soon they're sleeping together. He even leaves his wife (who, in a comical scene, Adelaide mistakes for his mother) and they settle into a relationship until young young and handsome Nello (Giancarlo Giannini), a pizza chef and friend of Oreste's, starts flirting with her. She tries sleeping with Nello on the sly, but Oreste finds out and the result is fisticuffs. She proposes they try a three-way, but that doesn't work either. Things deteriorate to the point of a street fight, in which she is accidentally killed by Oreste. Despite the tragic tone of the above plot summary, most of this plays out like a comedy, intended, I assume, as a satire on European romantic melodramas. Many characters, the principals as well as supporting players (and the occasional random bystander), speak directly to the camera, as in Woody Allen's later ANNIE HALL. During a break-up scene, Adelaide shouts out melodramatically as her lover leaves, but she's actually just sneezing.  Adelaide's visit to a psychiatrist plays out like a parody of an analysis scene, ending with her saying in frustration, "Am I psychotic or evil?" In an overblown proclamation, the narrator, referring to Adelaide, says that "the pen of a Zola or a Nabokov would not be sufficient to describe her perfidiousness!" If there's a villainous force here, though, it's not a woman but what we would call toxic masculinity. There is a political background involving protest marches by Communists, and the ending actually is rather sad, but this is best enjoyed as an energetic and sly comedy. All three leads are excellent—Vitti is always compelling, and it's fun to see a young Giannini, best known as the roughneck lead in SWEPT AWAY. Also known as A DRAMA OF JEALOUSY AND OTHER THINGS and JEALOUSY ITALIAN STYLE. Pictured, from left, are Mastroianni, Vitti and Giannini. [TCM]

Thursday, September 13, 2018

THE LAST TRAIN FROM MADRID (1937)

The Spanish Civil War is heating up and one last train is leaving Madrid with many refugees trying to leave. (The details of the war are, thanks to Hollywood neutrality, completely erased; we are told in an opening crawl that the film is taking no side because "this is a story of people, not ideas." Still, it's not difficult to deduce the good guys from the bad guys.) The film, set in the hours before the train leaves, focuses on several people who have or are trying to get passes for the train. Storyline #1: Gilbert Roland (pictured) is a former Army officer, part of a "Brotherhood" of five soldiers who have crosses carved into their arms. Now a political prisoner, he is being conscripted by the Army into fighting on the Army's side, but an officer who is another Brotherhood member (Anthony Quinn) frees him on the sly. Roland, hoping to be on the last train, goes to visit Dorothy Lamour, his former gal, not aware that she is involved with Quinn. Storyline #2: American reporter Lew Ayres meets Olympe Bradna, a young woman who is desperate to visit her jailed father before he is executed. He gets her there and makes up a story that his sentence has been commuted, even though it has not. After her visit, the father is killed by a firing squad, but (Storyline #3) one solider (Robert Cummings) couldn’t bring himself to shoot and is ordered to the front. In the streets, he meets Helen Mack and tries to help her save a dying old man. When they fail, he asks her if he can have the man's train pass. They discover they grew up in the same town and warm to each other. Storyline #4, or perhaps 1.5: Roland sees Karen Morley, a baroness he used to know, and asks her to get him a pass so he can leave with her. However, her current lover (Lee Bowman) may have something to say about that. All the storylines meet as the train gets underway.

Given the title, I assumed this would be a spy thriller set on a train, but only the last 20 minutes or so are set on the train. This is more like a "Grand Hotel" ensemble movie with individual characters crossing paths with each other on the way to the train getaway. It's a fairly bland affair, so how well you like this movie may depend on how you feel about the actors. I'm a big Gilbert Roland fan so it was worth my time for him alone, but I was surprised by how much I liked Anthony Quinn, looking very young and rather fetching, as a character stuck in a moral gray area. Dorothy Lamour is first billed but she is much less important to the narrative than most of the others. I also liked Morley and Bowman, though they have fairly small roles. Lionel Atwill is the chief Army guy, which should tell you all you need to know about how which political side this movie would be on if it could deal in "ideas" in addition to people. It may be damning it with faint praise to say that this is not as bad as some critics let on—Dennis Schwartz calls it one of the worst movies of the decade, which it surely is not, though I agree with him that it is slow and talky. The performances make it worth seeing. [TCM]

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

BEYOND GLORY (1948)

Rocky Gilman (Alan Ladd), a senior cadet at West Point, is called before an investigative board looking into complaints of bullying and hazing lodged by former cadet Raymond Denmore and his wealthy father. Rocky, who had seen action as a draftee in World War II in Tunisia before enrolling in West Point, had accused Ray of lying which led to his expulsion, and, though the Denmores' complaint is against West Point as a whole, their lawyer is essentially holding Rocky responsible and putting him on trial, though he is reminded time and time again that the panel is not a court of law. The panel becomes the frame story through which we see a series of flashbacks, out of chronological order, about Rocky. Something happened in Tunisia which led to the death on the battlefield of Rocky's close friend, Henry (Tom Neal), and though Rocky got the Distinguished Service Cross, he insists that he was a coward and disobeyed an order, which led directly to Henry's death. He spends time in a hospital suffering mostly from what we would call post-traumatic stress syndrome, and when he gets out, he finds Henry's widow Ann (Donna Reed) on V-E Day and confesses his guilt to her, but they wind up bonding and he decides to enroll in West Point as a way of making up for whatever happened in Tunisia. Eventually, they even plan on marrying when Rocky graduates. But now, with Rocky confessing to cowardice, all bets are off. Rocky sees Ann the night after his first appearance at the panel and writes a resignation letter. But the next day, an eyewitness to the Tunisian incident arrives who might be able to clear everything up.

I hunted this down because the author of Reinventing Hollywood, David Bordwell, devotes a fair chunk of space to this movie in his discussion of the use of flashbacks in films. This movie does use flashbacks in a fairly extreme way, mostly to create suspense by dragging out the answer to the question of what actually happened in Tunisia, but the story is not hard to follow—though jumbled in chronology, the flashbacks are marked clearly as to when they take place, and the present-time investigation remains a touchstone throughout. The biggest disappointment is the rationale for leaving us, and Rocky, in the dark about Tunisia—Rocky's friend Eddie (Dick Hogan) has known the truth all along but never said anything because Rocky never wanted to talk about it. That aside, this is a solid melodrama with a mystery frame. Some may think Ladd, in his mid-30s, too old for the part but I think he easily passes for mid-20s. His somewhat wooden acting style fits here—it makes Rocky stoic, with intimations of deep, possibly dangerous waters in his psyche. Donna Reed isn't given much to do, but she does make Ann's acceptance of Rocky believable. Good support comes from Tom Neal and Dick Hogan who make the most of their limited screen time. George Coulouris is especially good as a snarky lawyer you love to hate. Audie Murphy plays one of the cadets, and the sweet, grandfatherly Henry Travers (pictured with Ladd) is Rocky's adoptive father. The wrap-up, which ends with an actual excerpt from a speech by future president Dwight Eisenhower is a little too speedy, not letting us feel warm and fuzzy for too long. [YouTube]

Thursday, September 06, 2018

SYLVIA (1965)

The wealthy Fredric Summers hires private eye Alan Macklin (George Maharis) to investigate his young and lovely bride-to-be, Sylvia West (Carroll Baker), a newly-published poet and flower enthusiast. She's close-mouthed about her background and what little she has owned up to doesn't check out. Summers wants Mack to dig up her past but without having any contact with her, so he begins by taking her poetry to an English professor of his acquaintance who provides a psychological reading and pinpoints her origins to Pittsburgh. Mack's travels lead him to piece together the facts of her life: she had a love of reading from early on, but was raised in rough circumstances, raped by her stepfather, and becomes a prostitute. She lives briefly with a middle-aged dress salesman (Edmund O’Brien), gets a job as an arcade worker, then winds up back in prostitution where she becomes good friends with a woman named Jane. When Jane is hit by a car and is hospitalized for a month, Sylvia works overtime to help her pay for a private room. Sylvia is assaulted and beat up by a well-heeled client who pays her $10,000 not to go to the cops. By that time, Jane is married to a banker and he invests her money well, eventually making her financially independent. Intrigued, and not certain that Summers really deserves Sylvia, Mack arranges to meet her, not revealing his occupation, and the two of them hit it off, but we all know the moment of truth will have to arrive—will Mack give the unsavory report to Summers, will he decide he's in love with her himself, or will Sylvia have a plan of her own?

The mid-60's was when Hollywood’s restrictive Production Code began to collapse, and movies like this one were partly responsible. Ten years earlier, the filmmakers would never have been able to be so open about Sylvia's occupation, nor could they have included a line like this movie’s "Once a whore, always a whore." But the heroine still had to suffer, not just rape and humiliation, but constant unhappiness. There are also some incredibly vague hints made at same-sex attraction between Sylvia and some of her friends. Overall, this is a drab and unpleasant film, but it's saved by the acting of its leads and by a few of the supporting players. Carroll Baker was criticized at the time for giving a wooden performance, but to modern eyes, we see a woman still suffering from the effects of various traumas. The fact that she hasn't actually had a breakdown is somewhat amazing. Maharis, damned with faint praise in contemporary reviews as being bland but better than Baker, is very good as the familiar central figure of the passive detective who is more acted upon than acting (like Dana Andrews in LAURA). He is both charming and a little off-putting; we can see why his acquaintances like him, but also why he may not have had many successful intimate relationships. (And, he's damned good-looking.) Peter Lawford (as Summers) and Edmund O'Brien are unmemorable, and Aldo Ray and Lloyd Bochner are grimly effective as Sylvia's rapists; Ann Sothern, Joanne Dru and Viveca Lindfors are fine in supporting roles of varying importance. Paul Gilbert has a fun turn as a male madam who dresses in drag and goes by the name Lola Diamond. The ending is unrealistically upbeat—had this been made in the early 70s, it wouldn't have been. Overall, the movie is too sluggishly paced to be effective, but I was sad that the appealing George Maharis wasn't able to sustain a stronger career—he was just right as a detective, and I'd love to have seen him in some of the neo-noirs in the 70s, like The Long Goodbye or the remake of The Big Sleep. [TCM]

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

DARK MOUNTAIN (1944)

While fighting a forest fire, Ranger Don (Robert Lowery) wants to go back in and save Susie and Joe, who turn out to be two horses he's particularly fond of, but when his boss says no, Don punches him out and goes in anyway. The horses are saved, and so is his job—the chief actually gives him a promotion to head of the Dark Mountain area, and he gets his buddy Willie (Eddie Quillan) as his assistant. On a one-week furlough, he goes to visit his girlfriend Kay (Ellen Drew) to propose, but she drops the bomb that she's already married, to Steve (Regis Toomey), a well-off businessman. Steve seems like a nice guy, but we can sense something's wrong, especially when we hear him mention to an associate that he has to meet his wife’s "yokel relatives" at dinner that night. We soon discover that Steve is a war profiteer being investigated by the Feds, and when an agent comes to visit at the warehouse, Steve has his underlings push a huge crate down on him, killing him instantly. Eventually, the cops wind up on his trail and he goes on the lam, telling Kay, who the cops think is in on Steve's operations, that he'll be back. She goes to Don who lets her stay in an empty mountain cabin, but soon Steve has tracked her down, figures out that she's sweet on Don, and takes Kay hostage as Don, Willie, and most importantly, Don's faithful dog Luther, give chase.

This one-hour B-film is nothing special, I guess, but its plot is a little different, with an almost noirish tinge here and there. Lowery is one of my favorite B-movie leads (best known as one of the first actors to play Batman, in a late 40s serial) so I'd watch almost anything he's in. He manages to come off as stolid but not wooden, confident but not invulnerable. The dependable Toomey played a wide range of parts through the 30s and 40s, though I always remember him best as the kindly priest leading the boys choir in THE BISHOP’S WIFE; here he has a rare role as an villain and he does a nice job. Quillan, another personal favorite, is fine as the comic relief sidekick. Drew is the blandest of the bunch, but she's acceptable. Elisha Cook Jr. has a small role as the squirrely underling that Steve winds up killing to ensure he can't squeal to the cops. I like that Don and Willie are presented as having a quietly domestic routine at their office—Willie even knits (articles of clothing for his WAC gal overseas--see photo above). An unsung little B-film that’s quite enjoyable. [YouTube]