Tuesday, January 29, 2019


aka Schneewittchen und die sieben Zwerge

I don't guess anyone needs a summary of the Snow White story. This German version plays out much like the famous Disney cartoon of 1937, except this is live action, with children wearing beards playing the dwarfs. Where the action differs from the Disney film, it does so in a way that makes it hew more closely to the original Grimm Brothers version. The Queen visits Snow White at the dwarfs' home three times. The first time, she appears as a peddler and when she talks Snow White into trying on a belt, the Queen tightens it so much that Snow White collapses. When the dwarfs return home, they cut the belt off and she recovers. The next day, the Queen returns selling decorative combs and when she plunges a poisoned one into Snow White's hair, Snow White collapses. Again, the dwarfs save her by simply removing the comb. Finally, the Queen disguises herself as an older peddler and manages to talk a reluctant Snow White into eating a poisoned apple which causes her (temporary) death and her placement in a glass coffin. The prince is a somewhat problematic character here. In the cartoon, he meets her early on and they fall for each other. Here, he comes to the castle, glimpses her from a tower window, becomes enraptured, and sends her a necklace and a promise to help her if she ever needs it. Later, he exclaims, "I love Snow White and I cannot live without her"—even though he's never even met her! The Hunter goes to him for help to save her, but they are rather ineffective—it takes them several months to find her, which we know because we see the seasons change with leaves and then snow falling on her coffin. And (spoiler) what saves her isn't the prince, but the dwarfs dropping the coffin which revives Snow White.

The 1960s was the golden age of the Kiddie Matinee, when suburban theaters would routinely show movies based on fairy tales on Saturday and Sunday mornings, sometimes accompanied by cartoons or a second film. But typically, these weren't big Hollywood movies or even old Hollywood movies, but B-budget films made in Mexico or Spain or Germany and dubbed (rather badly) into English. Sometimes the results were practically surreal, as with K. Gordon Murray's infamous Santa Claus, a Mexican import which features Santa teaming up with Merlin to battle the Devil. This dubbed German film was made in 1955 but didn't hit the American kiddie show trail until 1965. I'm not 100% sure I saw this in a theater, but I think I saw it on TV a couple of years later.

The sets are artificial and the costumes somewhat threadbare, but for me as a kid, that added to the appeal of the movie: it seemed like something my friends and I could have put together in someone's basement. Oddly, the occasional outdoor Bavarian location shot (including Neuschwanstein Castle) actually works against the movie, breaking the spell of the artificial fantasy. The actors are, well, present and accounted for, if not much else. Snow White is pretty but not beautiful; the Prince looks like a worn-out blond Nelson Eddy; the Queen (pictured above left) doesn't look as menacing (or as attractive) as she should. The child dwarfs are fine, and the Hunter is the best actor of all. I realize that some of my plot critiques above are probably more critiques of the original story, but still, those plotholes should have been at least papered over. There are a few songs, the most memorable being a "Whistle While You Work" sort of thing that goes, "Think la-la-la, sing la-la-la," and got stuck in my head for a couple of hours. For nostalgia lovers only. [YouTube]

Friday, January 25, 2019


In a Honolulu bar in 1943, Sgt. Croft (Aldo Ray), the leader of a U.S Army platoon, sits apart from his men as a strip show is about to start. Croft is talked about as a good soldier but not an easy man to know or like. As it happens, the stripper is the object of the lust of the manic (and probably horny) Lt. Wilson—they "knew" each other back in the States—but just as the show starts, it's raided and the military men all quickly leave. The platoon ships out as part of an effort headed by General Cummings (Raymond Massey) to reverse a deadly trend and start taking back some important Pacific islands from the Japanese. We see the apparently unfeeling Croft kill a Japanese prisoner after he's taken important papers from him; then he sets out to gun down a group of stripped-down Japanese prisoners until Cummings's assistant Lt. Hearn (Cliff Robertson) stops him. The stage is now set for the main personal conflicts: Cummings, who is proud of the fact that he can usually predict how many soldiers will be killed in any one mission, is a believer is instilling fear in his men as a way of using power; Hearn, younger and greener, thinks that gaining respect is more important than using fear; Croft is a near-psychopathic sadist whose men have a measure of respect for his battleground skills but don't respect him as a man.

Though there a few battle sequences, the bulk of this movie, based on Norman Mailer's well-regarded novel, is devoted to the clash of the American soldiers. In the way of 1950s movies, we are given some simplistic psychological backgrounds to help explain the men: Croft married the woman he was in love with, but caught her cheating on him, a trauma he has never gotten over; Cummings may have a sexual dysfunction involving impotence or possibly homosexuality; Hearn, the least damaged of the three, was a bit of a playboy but is otherwise a thoughtful and humane man who respectfully disagrees with Cummings' outlook on power. The other characters who get caught in the psychological crossfire are played by Richard Jaeckel, James Best, William Campbell, Robert Gist, L.Q. Jones (as the aforementioned Wilson) and the unlikely duo of Jerry Paris (next-door neighbor Jerry Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show) and comedian Joey Bishop as the new guys, both Jewish. Many critics were disappointed in this movie because it couldn't match up to the novel, infamous for its obscene language (and for Mailer's euphemistic use of "fug" for another obscenity starting with "F"), but I haven't read the book, and taken on its own terms, it's a fairly average war film. Ray (pictured with Robertson) gives the best performance, with Jones and Gist leading the support. Robertson is fine but colorless, and Massey is a bit over-the-top. It's way too long; the first 45 minutes, getting to know the men and their conflicts, are engrossing, but doldrums set in as the men go to battle, and the last half-hour, despite some good moments, drags. Still, it doesn't deserve to be forgotten just because it's not as powerful as its source material. [TCM]

Friday, January 18, 2019


In Honolulu, a man who has just attended a party is shot, and we see the killer remove some paper from his pocket. The man was an agent and that paper was a secret map of uranium deposits which foreign spies want badly, and which federal agent Bob Donovan is determined to get back. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, pilot Hobie Carrington (Alan Curtis) is hired by the Countess de Fresca to fly her and some friends to Death Valley for a weekend stay at a resort. Hobie is initially reluctant to do so, but after some half-hearted flirting and the promise of a free dinner, he accepts the charter. The motley crew includes the lovely Catherine Forrest (Evelyn Ankers); her brother Claude, a former POW; Jan Van Bush, who is sweet on Catherine; and the somewhat mysterious Gerald Porter (Jerome Cowan). Before the plane takes off, Donovan tells Hobie, a former wartime spy, that all his passengers were at the party in Hawaii where the agent was shot, and asks for Hobie's help to find out if any of them have the map. In Death Valley, the group meets up with a mining executive named Walker, and Hobie runs into his ex-wife Irene. Soon the question becomes who doesn’t have the map. Hobie sees an envelope with Japanese characters on it in the Countess' purse. He steals it, but the Countess retrieves it. Irene agrees to steal it back, and it turns out that Claude has been trying to sell it to Walker. Meanwhile Jan tries to force himself on Kathy and Hobie comes to her rescue. Porter is revealed to be a G-man, but is he really? Walker is murdered, and everyone—including agent Donovan—winds up in Las Vegas where a ring with an encoded secret about one of the group turns up. More deaths occur (someone is killed by a horse, another person blown up in a plane) before all is cleared up.

Typical for a B-action film, there is more narrative than the filmmakers can handle, leading to plot holes and unmotivated action. I was even confused about the moral status of Claude, the former POW turned traitor—he seems more weak and confused than evil, though he does get punished for his sins. There's a stray plotpoint involving the fact that the Countess is recognized by Irene as a fake—she's a former chorus girl—that comes to nothing. The fight scenes are awkward, and some dialogue glitches were left in (a fairly common B-movie happening). Still, at around 70 minutes, this is entertaining enough for B-movie fans. I wouldn't go quite so far as to say that leading man Alan Curtis is charmless, but he tends to fade into the background, especially with such a large cast of characters surrounding him. Ankers (pictured with Curtis) is fine, though Cowan, usually an asset, is not used well here until the climax. The rest of the supporting cast is OK. It appears that actual location shooting was done in Las Vegas (before it was a bustling town), so that's kind of fun to see. [YouTube]

Wednesday, January 16, 2019


In 400 B.C., the city-state of Syracuse is under control of the dictator Dionysius. Currently, he is hunting down members of the Pythagorean cult, who believe in pacifism and the unity of all men as brothers, a view Dionysius sees as dangerous to his rule. When one fawning informer tells the nobleman Cariso that he is a friend, Cariso has him killed, saying "When a slave can call a master a friend, this world has ended." The roguish Damon (Guy Williams) plays both sides, accepting money to inform on the whereabouts of Arcanos, a Pythagorean leader, then going to Arcanos and telling his group to flee. In Athens, the leader of the Pythagoreans has died and Pythias (Don Burnett) is sent to bring Arconos back to replace him, though his pregnant wife Nerissa is upset to the point of illness about him leaving. In Syracuse, Damon robs Pythias, but then Pythias hires him to track down Arcanos. Though the two become friendly, Damon betrays Pythias to Cariso, but when Pythias gets the best of him in a fight, he refuses to kill Damon because of his pacifist beliefs, and Damon ultimately offers himself as a potential sacrifice. When Damon asks to be released briefly to visit his wife, Damon offers to be kept prisoner in his place, to be killed if Pythias doesn't return. Has Damon become a Pythagorean? Will Pythias keep his word? And if he does, will Cariso be able to delay his return long enough to have Damon killed?

Though based on an Greek legend, this movie is clearly comparing the Pythagoreans to early Christians, presenting them as a persecuted group preaching peace and love, hiding in the shadows and using a symbol to identify themselves to each other (not the cross, but a five-pointed star in a circle). The film was marketed as a sword-and-sandal adventure movie but, though there are some chases and fights (and sandals), this works more as a movie about religious persecution, like SIGN OF THE CROSS without nudity or sadism. The fabled friendship of the title characters could use some beefing up. There's a scene early on in which it looks like Damon is going to invite his new friend to be part of a threesome with his girlfriend—but no, they just all go to sleep—but their friendship is portrayed as rather shallow, and it comes as something of a surprise when Damon makes his offer to be a potential sacrifice for Pythias. Guy Williams (TV's Zorro, though I know him best as the dad on Lost in Space) does a nice job as the rogue who converts to a believer in brotherhood; Don Burnett is less effective, a little wooden and passive. If you come to this looking for beefcake, you'll be disappointed; though tunics are worn, there are no bare chests and not much in the way of muscle—Williams would be better described as a little on the beefy side rather than muscular. Still, a nice change of pace for the genre. I was disappointed that TCM showed a pan-and-scanned print even though a widescreen version is available on DVD from Warner Archive. [TCM]

Thursday, January 10, 2019


In a series of shorts scenes set between 1941 and 1945, narrated by a concentration camp inmate named David, we see Adolf Eichmann (Werner Klemperer, at left) set the machinery in motion for a "final solution" to the Jewish problem. His plan is to destroy all six million Jews in the lands under the Reich's control in order to divert food to German soldiers. At Auschwitz, already a prison camp, workmen wonder why they are installing shower heads not connected to water, but we know that they will be connected to containers of Zyklon B, an industrial-strength pesticide that will be used to gas Jews to death. When the Nazis realize that disposal of bodies will be a problem, they install crematoria to turn the bodies to untraceable ash. In 1945, with the Reich collapsing, Eichmann, under an assumed identity, escapes with his mistress Anna (Ruta Lee) to Spain but soon realizes that he is being followed by Israeli agents—including a grown-up David (Donald Buka)—and makes his way to Kuwait and then Argentina. Some of the agents on his trail, notably David's friend Jacob, who managed to survive Auschwitz with David, want to assassinate Eichmann, but David spoils their plans because he argues for bringing him to justice. It's not really a spoiler to note that eventually, he is caught and tried in Jerusalem.

This B-film was rushed into production after Eichmann's arrival in Israel in May of 1960 and was released in March of 1961, a month before Eichmann's trial would begin, though the movie opens with an abstract shot of Eichmann in darkness except for a spotlight, making a belligerent statement in a courtroom. Unfortunately, the rush resulted in a rather static and undramatic picture. The acting is generally fine. There is the risk that baby boomer audiences will associate Werner Klemperer too closely to the comic Col. Klink on Hogan’s Heroes, but his solid performance carries no trace of Klink. John Banner, who was Klink's bumbling assistant Schultz, plays the relatively small role of Rudolf Hess, Commandant of Auschwitz. Donald Buka (ar right), as the grown-up Davis, is mostly just called upon to look stoic and solemn. Though I chuckled when I saw Ruta Lee's name in the opening credits, thinking she lacked the chops for role of the mistress, she gives maybe the best performance in the movie after Klemperer. Eric Braeden (of The Young & the Restless and The Rat Patrol) has a small but crucial role in the last half-hour.

One problem is in the staginess of the movie, confined almost completely as it is to studio shots on sets that range from adequate to cheap, and the tone which comes close to exploitation. The film is well shot but lacks tension or gravitas. In a startling scene early on, we follow the first batch of Jews into the gas chamber and watch as they begin dying, a moment that even Spielberg couldn't quite bring himself to include in SCHINDLER'S LIST. The most effective scene in the movie is in the middle, when Eichmann is trying to get one last load of prisoners (including the young David and Jacob) transferred to Dachau before he flees Germany. His driver rebels, saying, "To call you insane is a generosity" and Eichmann orders a slaughter of the prisoners with soldiers shooting through the slats on the trucks. Afterward, a handful of survivors slowly exit the trucks, all of them children. The ending, as the agents chase Eichmann on the streets, is rushed and ineffective. But the movie itself is worth seeing as an interesting novelty. The same historical incidents are dramatized in the 2018 movie Operation Finale. [TCM]

Friday, January 04, 2019


Infamous gangster Broken Nose Dawson, a rather ugly chap, is wanted for murder but he arranges with a plastic surgeon to have his looks altered and comes out looking downright handsome. But once a gangster, always a gangster, and Dawson kills everyone who knows he had the surgery, even the doctor, except for Mary, the nurse, who, disgusted that she was forced to be a part of the whole thing, leaves town before the killing starts and heads out to California to be with cowboy star Tex Williams, who fell in love with her when she treated him after a fall from a horse during a show in New York. Coincidentally, Dawson also heads west, under the identity of playboy Spencer Dutro, with plans to become an actor. Arriving at Zenith Studios, he tries out for a gangster part only to be told he's not the gangster type. But PR man Joe Haynes thinks he can make a success of Dutro by marketing his playboy background. Soon, Dutro is treated as a rising star, but one day, Mary recognizes Dutro as Dawson and troubles ensue.

This is an uneasy blend of comedy and drama, unusual for its day, and it doesn't quite come together successfully, partly due to the character of Dawson, played by Brian Donlevy. Had we seen Dawson become more civilized and more sympathetic, the mix might have been more palatable. Or if someone like James Cagney had played Dawson, he probably could have had us rooting, to some degree, for the bad guy. But the characterization is flat, as is Donlevy's performance. The de facto good guy is Wallace Ford as PR man Joe and he's fine, but again his character is fuzzy and occasionally unpleasant, as in the long sequence in which Joe keeps Mary locked up in his office closet to protect her from Dawson while he tries to work a PR angle around the situation. He's wooing an actress, played by Phyllis Brooks, but she's another bland and unfocused character. This leaves Mary, the put-upon nurse (Molly Lamont) and her cowboy Tex (Jack Randall) as the two most sympathetic characters, but they really have all that much screen time, so the upshot is that we spend most of the movie with folks we don't really care about. What I enjoyed most about this movie was seeing Erik Rhodes; he's mostly known for playing comically exotic foreigners (THE GAY DIVORCEE, TOP HAT) but here, he's as American vanilla as they come, and it's fun to see him playing against type. Best line delivery: Hattie McDaniel, maid to Phyllis Brooks, hears Brooks tell someone on the phone about her upcoming marriage to a "publicity director," and she disgustedly mumbles, "Press agent." [TCM]

Wednesday, January 02, 2019


Bill (Robert Young), Tiny, Gabby, and Armand are prison buddies. Armand, a Cajun, implies that his family runs one of the biggest shrimp fishing businesses in New Orleans, and his mother knows nothing about his current circumstances. When a breakout goes bad, Armand is killed and the other three are given early release for not participating in the action. The three head down the Bayou, hoping to connect with Armand's family and make some easy money, but the reality is that Armand's mom, known as Miss Minnie, is widowed and is just days away from losing her choice dock property (and therefore her business) to a shady Chinese man named Sam Kee. Ambrose, an old moneyed friend of the family, arrives in the nick of time, the night before her dock is to be auctioned off, and promises to give her the money she needs to hang on to her land, but Kee and his men kill Ambrose that night and the auction goes on. Suspecting foul play, Tiny sneaks onto Sam's boat, breaks into his safe, and steals enough cash to allow Miss Minnie to keep her dock. Things seem to sort themselves out nicely: Bill is sweet on Armand's sister Sarah (Jean Parker), and he and his friends help get the family business back on its feet. But let's not forget slimy Sam Kee who needs the land for his illegal smuggling of immigrants and is plotting his revenge. And, oh yeah, it turns out that Bill has a wife…

Robert Young (way before Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby M.D.) was a comely youth and his fresh-faced appeal is the main reason for watching this predictable melodrama. But his buddies, played by the stalwart character actors Nat Pendleton (Tiny) and Ted Healy (Gabby), are fun, and I ended up feeling like I knew them as well as I knew Bill. Parker's character is not especially memorable, but I enjoyed the support of C. Henry Gordon (as the villainous Sam), Maude Eburne as Miss Minnie, and Irene Franklin as a fun-loving cook who flirts with Gabby. There is a very cute scene of Young and Parker floating up, yes, a lazy river, while she serenades him. Watchable for those in the mood for an old-fashioned romantic drama. [TCM]