Friday, April 26, 2019


U.S. Treasury engraver Frank Adams is on his way to Reno to visit his daughter when he's shanghaied at the train station by Gordon West and his henchmen who drag him off to a cave and force him to make counterfeit paper money plates for their forgery operation. Soon, however, the Feds are on alert, as they find that Adams has deliberately slipped errors and his initials onto the bills he's being forced to produce, and which are cropping up around Silver City, Nevada. Agent Terry McVey is sent there to investigate (with, unknown to him, Adams' daughter Barbara on his trail, using an alias). Terry enlists his medicine show buddies Smokey and Whopper to help him. The three get hired as entertainers at the local dude ranch and, with help from some supporting characters, eventually track down the bad guys and rescue Adams. This is not quite an hour long, and though it's not strictly speaking a musical, there are four songs performed, which leaves probably 45 minutes or so for the story to play out, which is plenty of time. Tim Holt makes a fairly charming lead, and one of his medicine show buddies is singer Ray Whitley (pictured), best known as the composer of Gene Autry's signature song, "Back in the Saddle Again." I'm not necessarily a fan of the singing cowboy movies, but I enjoyed Whitley's songs. The wooden Marjorie Reynolds leaves something to be desired as Barbara, but Louise Currie is a standout as the supporting gal Gail who sets her cap for Holt. Glenn Strange, who later played the Frankenstein monster in a couple of Universal monster movies, is a henchman. There is perhaps a bit more comic relief here than you might find in the typical B-western of the era, but it all goes by painlessly enough. [TCM]

Tuesday, April 23, 2019


Killer John Channing escapes from a mental asylum (by sneaking into the sheriff's car) and goes back to the Channing estate where his sister Lorinda rules the roost. She helped him escape so he could help her with a plan to test her family members who are waiting to hear how she plans to disperse her money and property. Two nephews and their wives are invited for the weekend; also present are Lorinda's doctor (another nephew), Lorinda's lawyer Peter, and her faithful secretary Mary (who is romantically involved with Peter), with John posing as a butler to keep an eye on the proceedings.  Lorinda then fakes her death with the cooperation of the doctor who gives her a serum that induces suspended animation, and the will is read: most of the estate goes to Mary, but a quarter of her money is hidden somewhere in the house and whoever finds it, gets it. The doc, who is supposed to give her an antidote, decides not to, and joins the others in their greedy hunt. Death practically stalks the house; first, Lorinda's pet raven is poisoned, someone is drugged, then a nurse is killed, then one of the nephews. Can Peter and Mary get to the bottom of this, retaining both their lives and Mary's share of the estate?

This is an old-dark-house movie with a light touch. Murder, bad behavior, and secret passages are present but a rather fizzy atmosphere is retained, including the presence of African-American comic relief actor Willie Best as the always frightened chauffeur. Though top billing is given to Craig Stevens as Peter and Elisabeth Fraser as Mary, the movie belongs to Milton Parsons (pictured) and Cecil Cunningham as the two most interesting characters, John and Lorinda. There are several twists along the way, mostly predictable but still fun, and the atmosphere brought to mind the eccentric mystery SH! THE OCTOPUS though this one is more straightforward and less daffy. A decent entry in the consistently entertaining Warner Bros. B-movies of the 40s. [DVD]

Sunday, April 21, 2019


Usually, my Easter viewing consists of a film I've seen many times, such as Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar. But this year I ran across a rarity I'd never heard of, which was released the same year as the above two films, and like them could be considered a musical. It was co-written and produced by Johnny Cash not long after he and his wife June Carter became born-again Christians, and feels like a "labor of love" vanity production. The life of Jesus is presented with very little spoken dialogue; instead, Cash provides on-screen narration, much of it sung. The feel is something like a live church production except instead of being performed on a stage, it was shot on location in Israel. We get all the highlights that a church Easter show would cover. The Nativity is not shown, but we begin with shots of a young Jesus roaming in rocky hills, then jump to the time of John the Baptist announcing the arrival of the Messiah. Jesus is baptized, begins collecting followers, changes water to wine at the wedding at Cana, chooses his apostles, performs miracles (the resurrection of Lazarus is mentioned in passing but not shown) to the preordained conclusion of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

In general, this oddity is too mild to be harshly criticized, or to be particularly inspirational. Cash's narration takes some getting used to; his off-screen voice is fine, but when he's on screen, dressed in black and carrying a bible as he strolls the Israeli hills, it feels like a TV special and you half-expect him to introduce his special guests (and there are a few: Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge and the Statler Brothers take over offscreen for a couple of songs and Cash's wife June Carter sings and plays Mary Magdalene). Jesus is played by the film's director, Robert Elfstrom, a blond Nordic-looking fellow in 70s hippie hair and beard. Many viewers on IMDb criticize the film because  Jesus isn't more Semitic looking (like most of the apostles), but the figure of a blond Jesus was a long tradition in religious painting and even into the "Jesus freak" era. My problem with Elfstrom is that his face isn't very expressive—he sometimes looks like he might be just a little bit high—and since he has no lines to speak, he has no other way to get across mood or character other than his bland facial expressions. To counter that, however, we have June Carter overemoting like mad as an constantly overwrought Mary Magdalene, to the point where she frequently seems like she's about to have a nervous breakdown. However, her singing of John Denver's "Follow Me" is a musical high point. Because they didn't have a budget for extras, some scenes of Jesus in crowds play out with Jesus alone on screen with crowd noises, and this is actually fairly effective, especially when he's carrying his cross to Calvary. I was worried by an early scene of a dove landing on Jesus' head while John baptizes him; it's rather comical and close to being campy. But for the most part, the film recovers from this, staying in a vanilla Sunday school mode until the Crucifixion when we see Jesus on the cross, shot against a background of a handful of modern cities. An unusual film in style if not content, with some beautiful location shots, but too bland to be effective as a cathartic or celebratory Easter movie. [DVD]

Monday, April 15, 2019


At a meeting of the Old Ghosts Society (a banquet hall filled with ghosts having a fancy dinner which is being covered by BBC radio), two army officers (Robert Morley and Felix Aylmer) relate the story of how they became ghosts. In 1708, the two men—who live together in a rather nice home—are awaiting a visit from the Queen at the same time that they are hatching a plan to prevent a new war. They decide to invite a warmongering duke over, then, via a trap door, hold him prisoner in their basement until the threat of war ends. But in testing the trap door, the two go plunging down themselves and wind up dead. The Queen is annoyed at not being able to have her tea, and in the afterlife, they are sentenced to be stuck haunting that house until another royal ruler visits. What follows is a string of episodes set over the next 250 years as the two rather sad-sack ghosts comically haunt the various inhabitants of the house (the ladies of a French brothel, members of a traveling circus, an Indian rajah) while trying to attract royalty—apparently the rajah doesn't count. This very British comic fantasy is fun in fits and starts, but it feels like a series of variety show sketches that go on too long. Any appeal it has after its first half-hour is due to Morley and Aylmer who are game to try anything here—there's even a little slapstick here and there. No attempt is made to explain why these two grown men live together—are they lovers or just an "odd couple" pair? It's based on a novel, but the narrative frame is the weakest element of the movie—their ghostly imprisonment due to the Queen made no sense to me. Many things made little sense, and the movie, to its credit I guess, doesn't dwell on trying to make sense. But without narrative logic and with its repetitive comic episodes, it all grows wearying by the halfway point (45 minutes in). Ernest Thesiger has a small role as a psychic investigator. As a novelty, this is interesting, but it did try my patience. Memorable nonsensical line from the circus owner: "It’s not enough to be Hungarian, you’ve got to be clever!" [YouTube]

Thursday, April 11, 2019


The rich, older industrialist Enrico has been married to his considerably younger wife Paola for seven years, but has just discovered a cache of photos of her from before he knew her, and he hires a private investigator to find out if there's anything in her past she might be hiding. In her hometown of Ferrara, the detective hears an odd story: years ago, Paola's friend Giovanna was set to marry Guido, but Paola also had a crush on Guido, and just before the wedding, Giovanna fell into an elevator shaft, in the presence of Paola and Guido, and died. The death was deemed a tragic accident, though some had their doubts (as do we), and Paola and Guido parted. In the present day, Guido finds out that the detective has been sniffing around and he gets in touch with Paola. So in a roundabout way, the husband's own actions wind up setting the stage for a rekindled affair between his wife and Guido, to the point where, like any good film noir femme fatale, she suggests that they murder Enrico. And, just like in the typical film noir, nothing good comes of this.

Despite the plot which pulls in elements of classic noir (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice), this early film from Antonioni (his first feature-length fiction film) doesn't quite look or feel like a film noir, but rather a traditional European romantic melodrama. It's not grimy and the characters don't feel so much obsessed as they do bored with their situations. But that observation is not meant to be a criticism, just a description—on its own terms, it's an effective melodrama of alienation and fate with good performances from Lucia Bosé as Paolo and Massimo Girotti as Guido. There is some very nice use of urban locations, and some off-kilter backgrounds, such as a scene in a park with a whistling guitarist wandering about, and a conversation shot while the characters are walking up a long flight of spiral stairs. If you're not a fan of Antonioni's later more abstract films (Blow-Up, L’Avventura), you might still enjoy this. [Streaming]

Tuesday, April 09, 2019



A series of deaths, labeled "pyjama suicides" by the press, has London on edge. In the middle of the night, well-to-do men are throwing themselves out of their bedroom windows to their seemingly self-inflicted deaths, though none leave suicide notes. Meanwhile, the public wonders why super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes isn't working on this case. Actually, Holmes, in ill health and thinking he's had enough of the detective business, is on a fishing trip with Dr. Watson. As the two discuss the suicides, Holmes suddenly feels faint and falls into the river rapids, apparently to his death. But, of course, as this is Sherlock Holmes, we know he won’t be down for long, and he's not. A few days later, as a mourning Watson is making arrangements for the British Museum to take Holmes' archives, an eccentric postman pops in who eventually reveals himself to Watson and Inspector Lestrade as Holmes. To my recollection, it’s not made clear why Holmes pulled off such an elaborate charade, but he has decided that the suicides are indeed murders, pulled off in a way so subtle that a woman must be behind them. And one is—Adrea Spedding is pulling a deadly scam in which she visits gambling houses and loans desperate men money in exchange for their life insurance policies. Soon, these men all wind up dead on the street while she collects on their policies, and Holmes dons another disguise in an attempt to figure out how the men wind up driven to their deaths.

Though I was initially disappointed that this didn’t have a creepier horror atmosphere (given the title), I ended up liking this; rather than creepy, it's rather baroque, what with Holmes's disguises and the cat-and-mouse games that Holmes and Spedding play. There are (eventually) spiders and a mute child who hops on one foot every so often, and a sideshow pygmy. The climax involves Holmes being gagged and tied up behind a Hitler figure in a shooting gallery, with Watson himself taking aim at Hitler. Basil Rathbone is his usual fine Holmes, and Nigel Bruce is his usual befuddled Watson. Gale Sondergaard, who was a victim of the 50s blacklist, makes a memorable Spider Woman, her civilized and mannered exterior hiding a sinister and manipulative villain. She went on to play a (theoretically) similar character in THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK, which, despite its title has no connection with this film. Dennis Hoey is fine as Lestrade, and Angelo Rossito, one of Hollywood's busier dwarf actors, is done up in blackface as the pygmy in a small (no pun intended) role. A solid entry in the 1940s Sherlock series. Pictured are Rathbone (in brownface disguise) and Sondergaard. [DVD]

Friday, April 05, 2019


Judy Walker is a struggling songwriter who has submitted some songs to well-known composer Phil Hale. He sends her a nice rejection letter, but promises to look at her stuff again when he comes back to town. When her landlady gets ready to evict her, Judy alters his letter to make it read as though she is his niece and he is letting her stay at his fancy apartment while he's gone. She also slaps Phil's name on a song of hers and gets it accepted on a radio show sponsored by the Dutchess de Lovely's cosmetic company. Her noisy habits immediately irk her neighbor Bob McKay, also a songwriter, and they get into a wall-hammering argument without even seeing each other's faces. Of course, we all know that soon enough, they will meet cute, and that happens when he supplies lyrics to some her melodies for the radio show. They hit it off until they both head home to the same building and realize they hate each other. More complications arise: singer Dorothy Day is approached to sing the new songs but Bob is her ex, and she is not inclined to be of help to him. Then, inevitably, Phil returns to his apartment, unaware of Judy's presence and the shenanigans being pulled involving his name.

This B-musical isn't even really a musical—only a couple of songs are performed, though Judy's breakout song, "Don't Ever Change," is actually quite catchy. It's best enjoyed as a mild screwball forerunner. The B-level actors are tolerable (Patricia Ellis as Judy, Warren Hull as Bob, Robert Paige as Phil, Zeffie Tilbury as the Countess), though you can see who the models are for the performers: Ellis is a cut-rate Carole Lombard, Hull is a cut-rate James Craig, Tilbury a lesser Mary Boland, sidekick William Newell is aiming for Franklin Pangborn. The comic writing is weak and the comic timing is sometimes off by quite a bit. I kept pulling for this to get better; if it never quite takes, neither is it a clunky disaster. It didn't get bad enough for me to stop watching—I guess that's the definition of "damning with faint praise." [YouTube]

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

MANFISH (1956)

The Swede (Lon Chaney Jr.) is a beefy, slow-witted turtle hunter who works on a boat called The Manfish which operates out of Montego Bay. He likes his work but he loves the ship, and can't imagine life without it. Brannigan, his boss (John Bromfield), is a shady character who is always one step ahead of losing the boat because he owes people money (which he gets but then gambles away). One night, Brannigan flirts with an exotic woman named Alita, but her sugar daddy, an eccentric older man known as The Professor (Victor Jory, pictured to the right of Chaney and Bromfield), takes exception to this and the two men tussle, with the Professor threatening to kill Brannigan. The next day, the turtle hunters come across a human skeleton underwater holding a bottle (a nicely creepy image). Inside the bottle, Brannigan discovers half of a treasure map in French and a ring, and he remembers seeing a similar ring on the Professor's hand. The Professor fesses up that he knows about the lost treasure of the pirate Jean Lefitte, and soon all of them, along with Brannigan's girl Mimi, wind up on the Manfish in search of the treasure.

Though the title promises sci-fi horror a la Creature from the Black Lagoon, this is just a so-so B-adventure thriller. It's a fairly cheap production, but the location shooting in Jamaica helps. With the exception of the Swede (Chaney in Of Mice and Men mode) and the two native turtle hunters on the Manfish—and all those two do is complain that they haven't gotten paid—no character is likeable. At first, I saw this as a debit, since I didn’t really care if the asshole Brannigan or the dissolute Professor got the treasure. But midway through, when they decide to join forces, I realized the film was heading into ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ territory, and it got a little more interesting. To protect himself against the younger and stronger Brannigan, the Professor burns the map and memorizes it, so the two men really do need each other. But greed causes things to move inexorably toward a downbeat ending with a couple of interesting plot twists along the way. The credits claim that the screenplay is based on two Poe stories, The Gold Bug (following secret codes to find a treasure) and The Tell-Tale Heart (murder followed by guilt), but these are minor plot points. Sierra Madre is clearly the strongest influence on the story. Bromfield is hunky but can't quite throw himself into despicable bad-guy mode in a part that calls for an over-the-top performance. Jory comes closer, but I've never taken to him—maybe because I remember him mostly as Tara's slimy overseer in Gone With the Wind—so that leaves Chaney by default as the best actor here, though his (deliberately) halting delivery gets repetitious. Rough going for a while but worth sticking with if you have 90 minutes to fill. [Streaming]

Monday, April 01, 2019


After returning from World War I, small-potatoes entertainer Harry Van (Clark Gable) tries to restart his career and eventually gets a gig as an assistant to mind reader Madame Zuleika. One night in Omaha, when Zukeika, a bit soused on gin, messes up the act, acrobat Irene (Norma Shearer) tries to help out by prompting her from offstage but ends up making things worse, and Harry and Zuleika are run from the stage. Later, Irene apologizes to Harry and we discover two things: she makes up most of the details of her life—among other things, she claims to have grown up in Russia despite having no trace of an accent—and she thinks she's destined for greatness. He calls her a "beautiful phony" and the two have a one-night stand before parting for other towns. Ten years later, in 1938 as wartime jitters have taken hold of Europe, Harry, now a traveling song-and-dance man, is stranded at a hotel in the Alps with his band of six young women called Les Blondes. The border into Switzerland has been closed, at least temporarily, and just below the hotel is an air base out of which threatening military maneuvers have been occurring.  Also stranded are a German doctor, an agitated pacifist, and a young and innocent newlywed couple. A little later, who should show up but Irene, now calling herself Irina and sporting platinum blonde hair, a thick Russian accent, and a important lover, the arms dealer Achille Weber (Edward Arnold) who stands to make a lot of money if war breaks out. In addition to the rapidly growing international tensions, the guests get on each other's nerves, and Harry is determined to make Irina admit to him that she is Irene from Omaha.

This is an odd duck of a movie. Despite the straightforward narrative summarized above, it's difficult to say what this movie is about. Its stars, Gable and Shearer, are in romantic comedy mode, and if this had been made a few years later, the pace might have been quickened, turning it into a screwball comedy. But the overwhelming tone is one of pessimism about the state of the world—this was released in January of 1938, before the start of World War II but after the first acts of German aggression—and most of the other characters function more as symbols than as people we come to care about. This is especially true of the pacifist (Burgess Meredith, struggling with his character's lack of, well, character) and the Army officer (Joseph Schildkraut, very good in what ends up being a muddled and unimportant role). It's based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play from 1936 which wound up predicting the European war situation, but the movie, for practical reasons concerning the possibility of getting banned in Europe, is less specific about the who and where—in the play the hotel is in Italy, which would make Italy the attacking country, but here, the hotel is just on a border in the mountains, and the only foreign language we hear is Esperanto.

Despite the general fogginess of the narrative and character motivations, this is quite watchable, due partly to fine acting all around. Norma Shearer seems to having a ball hamming it up in her countess persona, and Gable also has fun with his roguish character. He even gets to sing and dance with Les Blondes to "Puttin' on the Ritz." The first 20 minutes or so, with Gable and Shearer in Omaha, is not in the play, but it certainly helps flesh out the characters and does not feel like an artificial addition. Arnold (in the kind of pompous, posturing role he could do in his sleep,) Meredith and Schildkraut give good support, as do Skeets Gallagher and Charles Coburn. Honestly, however, what I like most about this movie is the fabulous set: the modern hotel lobby with huge windows giving a panoramic view of the mountains. The action is a little stagy in the lobby, but that didn't bother me. The apocalyptic ending of the play, with bombs falling all around the hotel, is tempered a bit too much here, leading to a happy ending (of sorts) that works for the chemistry that Shearer and Gable have concocted, but works against the philosophical themes of the film. "Muddled" is a good word to describe this movie, but it's still fun and interesting to watch. [TCM]