Wednesday, March 27, 2019


One night a guy runs out of gas on a deserted stretch of highway and is attacked and killed by some kind of beast (we don't see it but we hear it, and see its claws rip through the convertible roof). After other similar attacks, the police assume the culprit is a wolf or some other wild animal, but the weird thing is that the tracks in the dirt at each attack are those of a four-legged wolf, but then become two-legged human, then vanish. The sheriff calls in Peter Graves, a writer and outdoorsy kind of guy, to help investigate. He, in turn, goes to his old friend Clint Walker, a retired big-game hunter, for added help. Their relationship is odd—they used to be good friends, but somewhere along the line, Walker became a kind of wild nature fanatic loner, thinking that society had softened up men too much. For him, hunting is like a religion, though he makes a rather creepy spokesperson for that argument with his unchanging unfriendly grimace and his absolutely humorless stance. Graves still thinks he'd be a helpful ally, but Walker turns him down, even though Graves continues to chat him up on the subject. Graves' girlfriend (Jo Ann Pflug, pictured with Graves) suspects Walker is the killer, and soon she nearly becomes the next victim. It's pretty clear early on that the werewolf aspect of the plot is a red herring, and given the paucity of characters, at least ones that don't get killed off right away, it's too easy to finger the killer. The only pleasure in this film from the classic TV-movie era is Walker's eccentric performance. His character is so weird, you can't imagine that he could really be the killer, but who else is there? I enjoyed seeing Pflug, a 70s B-actress best known as Lt. Dish in the MASH movie, who is surprisingly good here. Otherwise, this is a fairly drab production which builds to a decent if predictable ending. [Amazon Prime]

Monday, March 25, 2019


Anita Louise is the new girl at the Lady Middleton Escort Club—get your mind out of the gutter; this is a clean-cut place with clean-cut girls (looking like the cast of STAGE DOOR) who simply accompany men out for a night on the town and have to be back at the club, where they live, by 1 a.m. sharp. Roger Pryor is a vice squad cop investigating these clubs. He enlists a salesman friend (Arthur Loft) to help him. Roger calls Lady Middleton and gets wholesome Anita; Arthur calls the Companion Club and gets June MacCloy, less wholesome and, as it turns out, a blackmailer, something her club specializes in. His picture gets snapped in a compromising position with June, and her boss (Paul Fix) threatens to publish the photo—even showing Arthur a mock-up of what the front page will look like—unless Arthur pays up. Instead, Arthur kills himself, so Roger gets Anita involved in an elaborate plan to infiltrate the Companion Club to get the goods on these bad guys who are giving escort services a bad name. The production values on this B-movie aren't bad but the overall production feels a bit shoddy. Part of the problem is a patched-together plot (perhaps necessitated by censorship problems). Though one might assume that an escort club would be a cover for a prostitution service, the movie is at pains to convince us that this is not the case, at least for the Lady Middleton Club.  Also, there is suicide, always frowned upon by the censors, and Anita steals property from her club, though that is done in the service of helping Roger get the goods on the bad guys. The performances are only fair-to-middling all around. Louise is attractive but bland and low-key; Pryor isn't even attractive. Loft and MacCloy are at least energetic. The ubiquitous Veda Ann Borg, a minor cult personality just for the sheer number of movies she appeared in—nearly 100 in a 20-year period—may be a draw for some viewers. Others can skip this drab low-energy crime film. Pictured from left are Louise, Loft, MacCloy and Pryor. [TCM]

Thursday, March 21, 2019


Jean (Brenda Joyce) arrives in the small western town of Domingo to begin a new job as a companion to Zenobia Dollard (Gale Sondergaard), a blind, wealthy and seemingly mild-mannered woman who can't seem to keep good companions—her last one, Betty, left abruptly to go back east. Jean is surprised to find that her ex-boyfriend Hal (Kirby Grant) lives in town, and still has hopes that the two of them will get back together, even though he gets only surface friendliness and no encouragement out of her. Living at the Dollard mansion with only Zenobia and a hulking mute servant named Mario (Rondo Hatton) is a little unsettling to Jean, especially when Zenoiba keeps gently forcing her to drink her nightly milk. We soon discover that the milk has a sleeping drug in it, and in the middle of the night, Zenobia, who is not really blind, comes to Jean's room, draws some of her blood, and feeds it to some poisonous plants in her greenhouse. What's up with that? Could it have something to do with cattle in the area which are dying off mysteriously? When Jean tries to correspond with Betty but has her letters returned at undeliverable, she becomes suspicious. Sure enough, Zenobia's blood-drawing weakens her victims; she killed Betty and will certainly have to take care of Jean soon, unless poor, unloved Hal can save the day.

This is a fairly mild late entry in the Universal horror cycle of the 1940s. The title is a total fake-out; though there are spiders involved somehow in the poisoning, they aren't crucial to the plot, or I never figured out how. Rather, the title refers to the fact that, a few years before, Sondergaard played the title villain in a Sherlock Holmes movie called THE SPIDER WOMAN. But this has nothing to do with that movie, and darned little to do with spiders. I'm not even sure that it should be called a horror movie; it's more a variation on the mystery genre with a damsel in distress in a spooky house. Sondergaard does her best to bring some sense of mystery and menace to the movie, but the low budget and the other actors defeat her. Brenda Joyce (Jane in some of the late 1940s Tarzan movie) and Kirby Grant (better known to me as TV's Sky King) are fairly bland, and are kept apart for the most of the film by their uncomfortable relationship. Actually, more examination of the two of them might have added some interest. A so-so film at best, recommended mostly for fans of Sondergaard. [YouTube]

Tuesday, March 19, 2019


The U.S. State Department is having trouble at a consulate in Mingu in Northern China, referred to as a "listening post" since its main function is to collect news and information about any goings-on that might be of interest to our government. Marshal Yun Usu, an exiled Mongolian warlord who, yes, eventually gets compared to Genghis Khan, is stirring up trouble, and when a fur trader who had been a good source of info is found dead with his tongue cut out, the State Department decides to send former Marine Ken Seely (William Lundigan, pictured) in as a deputy for the beleaguered chief counsel. During training, he meets up with old friend Marge Walden (Virginia Bruce), also in the foreign service. We find out that Ken was born in Mongolia of missionaries who were murdered by bandits and he welcomes the chance to go back there and help fight the current bandits. The two go on a date, parking at the Washington Monument, but their love chat consists mostly of patriotic propaganda pronouncements—perhaps due to the intimidating symbolism of that big monolith. Ken runs into some trouble on his way to Mingu, barely escaping a midnight knife attack, but when he arrives, he is pleased to find that Marge has also been assigned to Mingu. Eventually, Yun Usu and his men also arrive (in a large and fancy trailer). When local radio operator Johnny Han tries to sneak a message out to Peking, Yun Usu's men kill him, cutting off his arm first. A battle of wits begins between Ken and the warlord, who is essentially holding the foreign service folks hostage. Ken is able to plant a bomb in the trailer, but plans may backfire when Yun Usu decides to escape and take Ken with him.

The genre we think of today as "docudrama," a fiction film based on real events and filmed at least partially in a documentary or newsreel style, started (as far as I can tell) with Henry Hathaway's THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945), which purports to be based on an actual FBI case involving the infiltration of a Nazi spy ring. It was shot largely on location, incorporated a short snippet of real FBI surveillance footage, and apparently used some real FBI employees. It was also something of a propaganda film, both anti-Nazi (though it actually opened after the war had ended) and pro-FBI. This B-film goes for a similar vibe. It's based on a Reader’s Digest article written by J. Edgar Hoover, and the first part of the movie has a mild documentary feel, but that is jettisoned by the time of the Washington Monument date (pictured at right) and it becomes a traditional B-thriller. Its main problems are a drab feel, poor direction (lots of awkward fadeouts), a rushed-through narrative and a lack of tension. Lundigan and Bruce are favorites of mine, but Lundigan is not at his best as an action hero and Bruce feels tamped down by the more-or-less realistic tone of the proceedings. Victor Sen Yung, Jimmy Chan in several Charlie Chan films, is good as the sacrificial lamb Johnny. Richard Loo is adequate as the villainous warlord. Other familiar faces include Philip Ahn (Carol Channing's trusted servant in Thoroughly Modern Millie) and Jonathan Hale. There are two propaganda elements here: hurrah for the unsung Foreign Service—also referred to as the "silent service"—and, though the historical context is no longer obvious to viewers, boo, hiss for the bandits who are stand-ins for the Communists. The finale does finally work up some excitement, but it’s really too little, too late. [YouTube]

Friday, March 15, 2019


In the 1880s, a Muslim who calls himself the Mahdi (the Expected One) has risen out of the sands and is engaged in a Holy War against any, Muslims or Christians, who stand in the way of his attempt to conquer the Middle East. The British try to stop the the Mahdi and his forces in Sudan before they can get to Cairo, but their first attempt leads to total failure. Prime Minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) doesn't want to lose face again, but he is forced into sending General Gordon (Charlton Heston, pictured), a well-liked former Sudan governor, to Khartoum to, if nothing else, get the British out before the Mahdi conducts his promised massacres. He's to be given no official help so that if he fails, he'll be blamed, not the government. Gordon is arrogant and a bit of a mystic (so we're told) and strong in his religious beliefs, so he is some ways a Christian mirror image of the Mahdi (Laurence Olivier). Colonel Stewart (Richard Johnson) is sent as his assistant (and to keep an eye on Gordon for Gladstone); the two are wary of each other for a while but soon develop a mutual respect. Gordon arranges a meeting with the Mahdi, but to no avail, and with England not fully prepared to bail Gordon out with military help, Gordon must make a decision about leaving while there is still time or remaining with the other Sudanese and facing death.

You can see the seeds here of an attempt to make another LAWRENCE OF ARABIA—desert vistas, heroic diplomats, people of the Middle East, culture clash. But, though this is fairly engrossing, it falls short of LAWRENCE in at least two areas: 1) Basil Dearden, the director, is no David Lean; though he's certainly a competent filmmaker, there's little epic feel or stylistic visuals to capture the imagination or the eye; 2) the protagonist [Spoiler] ultimately fails in his quest, even failing to save his own associates from the fury of the uprising. In real life, Gordon was held up as a heroic figure, but the movie's end is pretty much just tragic and dispiriting. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that, but it does seem like a bad way to end a movie that wants to be a blockbuster. The acting is also not quite on a par with LAWRENCE. Heston is his usual stoic self, not boring but not especially compelling. Olivier, in distracting brownface (or as I like say, duskyface) is unrecognizable and a bit hammy. Much better are Richard Johnson as Stewart, who provides the emotional key to the movie, and old reliable Ralph Richardson as Gladstone. Standouts in smaller roles include Peter Arne and Alexander Knox. The battle scenes are well-staged, but the overuse of obvious wire-tripping of horses becomes unsettling. According to IMDb trivia, many horses had to be killed after suffering stunt injuries. If not a movie I'm eager to re-watch, it is certainly worth a viewing. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 13, 2019


After the love theme to She Gods of Shark Reef plays ("Nearer My Love to You"), we see a hunky young guy named Lee and his older companion Jim (with scraggly beard and turban, so I presume Indian) sneaking out of the water in the dark and climbing up on a dock, apparently intent on engaging in some criminal activity. They grab a guard and Jim uses a machete to kill him, though Jim winds up getting killed by another guard. Lee escapes into the sea and gets his brother Chris to help him get away. Their small boat winds up wrecked on the reefs of a South Seas island during a fierce storm, and they are saved by the all-female population of the island. Despite the title of the movie, they are not "she gods," but pearl gatherers working for The Company. An elder named Pua seems to be the boss of the women, and the group accepts the men at least until they can leave with a company ship in ten days. Just as Chris is making some flirtatious headway with young Mahia, he accidentally tears a lei given to him, and suddenly the women become very upset and label Chris "taboo." Pua's women worship Tangaroa, a shark god represented by an underwater tiki head, and between the recent storms, the arrival of the male intruders, and the growing danger of the sharks in the water, Pua decides that a human sacrifice is in order, and it might as well be Mahia who gets thrown to the sharks—but not if Chris has anything to say about it.

I'm hesitant to be too rough on this early Roger Corman B-movie because the print I saw on YouTube was in terrible shape, like a dupe of a dupe of a bootleg VHS tape. The images are colorful but full of blur and shimmer, and the incoherence of the narrative might have been due to a chopped-up print. Still, if you read online critical comments on the film, you’ll find disagreement over what is going on the opening scene, and even what the name of the criminal brother is, so I think it's safe to say that this is is one of Corman's more muddled efforts. For example, there are no she-gods, but there is a shark reef. Still, there is some fun to be had, especially for lovers of beefcake, as both well-built brothers are shirtless for the entire movie.  Bill Cord is handsome and heroic enough as the good brother and Don Durant suffices as the bad brother, but neither is particularly memorable. Lisa Montell is a big zero as Mahia, which leaves Jeanne Gerson the cast standout as Pua—she's amateurish but effective. The shark footage is poor but the island landscapes are nice to look at. As is Bill Cord (or did I say that already?). I’d be willing to re-watch this if a good print turned up. Pictured are Cord and Durant. [YouTube]

Monday, March 11, 2019


During World War II, a big drive to get homefront women to help the war effort by enlisting in the WAVES (the Women's Naval Reserve) makes the Alison twins, Rosemary and Susie (both played by Betty Hutton, pictured at left), leave—temporarily—their nightclub singing gig to join up. Rosemary, a brunette and 12 minutes older than her sister, is the quieter, more sensible twin; Susie is blond and rambunctious and acts like a teenager. She also has a huge crush on Johnny Cabot (Bing Crosby), a Sinatra-like crooner who makes young girls scream when he sings. Meanwhile, Johnny, turned down for service due to being colorblind, and his buddy Windy (Sonny Tufts), a sailor on leave, meet up with the Alison sisters (Windy knows them already) and Susie becomes even more determined to become Johnny's one and only—though Johnny finds himself falling for the more demure Rosemary. Soon, the Navy loosens its restrictions and allows Johnny in, which is important to him as he comes from a Navy family. He's excited about getting ship duty, but when Susie sees a sign asking for ideas to help recruitment, she sends in an anonymous suggestion that Johnny put together a big show (in order to keep him in port and near her). The big shots like the idea and soon, Johnny is reluctantly facing life away from active service. Rosemary, who was getting sweet on him, thinks that Johnny made the suggestion himself to avoid ship duty. The four of them keep playing tricks on each other to either advance or impede romances until all is cleared up at the last minute, just before Johnny's ship is ready to sail.

Crosby was on a hot streak in the movies in the 40s: the Road movies with Bob Hope, Holiday Inn, Going My Way (for which he won an Oscar). But between classics, he made some films that have not stood the test of time so well, and this is one. The strong propaganda element is just one of the reasons this has dated. Another is Bing's relatively lazy performance—he seems to know that this is second-rate material and glides through it, waiting to get back to his radio show, or his next classic (which would be The Bells of St. Mary's). But there are some pleasures to be had. I was impressed with Betty Hutton, an actress I've never taken to. Here, she does a nice job of playing two completely different personalities. As Susie, she plays up her usual persona of a feisty, in-your-face attention getter, but she's even better as Rosemary, dialing down her energy and her quirks to create such a different kind of character, you almost wonder if that really is Betty Hutton. Crosby's scenes with Tufts, who comes off a little like a dopey second-string John Wayne, play well. The two of them(pictured at right) sing "Accentuate the Positive," which was nominated for an Oscar and went on to become a standard; unfortunately, they perform it in blackface, for no plot-driven reason, so it's uncomfortable to watch. I was sure that Tufts was lip-synching to someone else, but it turns that he started in show business as a singer. Crosby also has some fun portraying a Sinatra knock-off, even doing a little Sinatra parody when he sings "That Old Black Magic." I enjoyed seeing Noel Neill, TV's Lois Lane on the 1950s Superman series, get a slice of the spotlight during a musical comedy sequence, "If Waves Acted Like Soldiers"—during which Crosby gets to do some effeminate mincing as he did from time to time. Not one of Crosby's best, but interesting as period propaganda. [DVD]

Monday, March 04, 2019


Legendary tap dancer Bill Williamson (played by legendary tap dancer Bill Robinson) has retired but when he sees that he is the subject of a tribute in Theatre World magazine, he begins reminiscing about his early days. In WWI, he was a member of a military band, and one night at a servicemen's club, just after returning from overseas, he meets the lovely singer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne). They dance together and she suggests that he stay in New York to become a professional dancer, but he plans to head back to Memphis so they part ways. In Memphis, he winds up waiting tables and one night, Selina and her manager & boyfriend Chick come into the club looking to hire some new talent. Selina suggests Bill, but jealous Chick has noticed the sparks between Selina and Bill and only reluctantly hires him as essentially a chorus boy. Soon, however, Bill has taken the spotlight, left Chick, and with help from Selina and his old friend Gabe (Dooley Wilson), becomes a famous performer. But when Bill decides he wants to leave the business and settle down, Selina says she loves her career and refuses to join him. Years pass and, back in the present, at the start of WWII, they meet up again. Will they be able to patch things up and be together again?

Like many big studio musical revues of the era, this film's thin plot is just an excuse for a parade of production numbers, the only difference being that this has an all African-American cast. Thanks largely to Lena Horne, this is worth sitting through despite narrative problems, the biggest one being that Horne doesn't age a day between WWI and WWII, though Robinson does. But you can't argue about that when Horne is singing, especially "I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby" and her signature tune, "Stormy Weather," which here becomes a very elaborate production number. Happily, there's also Fats Waller doing his hit, "Ain’t Misbehavin'," a zoot-suited Cab Calloway having fun with "Geechy Joe," Mae Johnson singing “" Left My Sugar in Salt Lake City," Robinson highlighting a show-stopping African dance number, and the always amazing Nicholas Brothers doing one of their athletic dances to "Jumpin' Jive." I wish there was more of Dooley Wilson (Sam in Casablanca) who mostly provides comic relief. The Blu-ray disc from Twilight Time is sharp and sparkling. [Blu-Ray]