Friday, May 31, 2019


In 1889, the U.S. government opened up vast amounts of Native American lands (in what would become Oklahoma) for white settlement, leading to a land rush; literally, hundreds of people on horses and in covered wagons racing through the land to claim property. With the land rush as a starting point, this film tells the story of newspaper editor Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) and his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) over the next forty years. Yancey is tricked out of his first land plot choice by the saucy prostitute Dixie Lee, but he and Sabra settle in the barely-built boom town of Osage. Characters we meet include an outlaw known as The Kid, who tries to hold up Yancey until they recognize each other as old buddies; a thuggish roughneck named Lon who is not above shooting someone in the back; Mr. Hefner, the town's furniture dealer and undertaker; newspaper printer (and constant stutterer) Jesse; and Sol Levy, the sole Jewish man in town, whom Yancey takes under his protective wing. As the years go by, the town gets more built up and more civilized—though not before Yancey's young black servant Isaiah is killed in a bandit raid. While his wife is raising children, Yancey gets the fever to participate in another land rush on the Cherokee Strip, and Sabra is left alone to run the paper by herself, with help from Jesse and Sol. By 1907, Oklahoma has become a state, Yancey decides to run for governor, and their oldest son Cimarron falls in love with an Indian girl, a development that bothers Sabra but not her more tolerant husband. When oil is found on Indian land, Yancey refuses to take part in schemes to cheat them out of their land and publishes an editorial to that effect, straining his relationship with his wife. More years pass, Yancey once again lights out for further far-flung territory, and Sabra thrives, accepting Cimarron's marriage and even winning an election to Congress.

This is often cited as the worst and/or most boring Best Picture winner of all time (for me, that title is shared by BIRDMAN and OLIVER!, and possibly THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA though I've never made it all the way through that one). It's true that, for all the action—the land rush scene that starts the film still comes off as rousing—and all the many plot threads, it does seem to move at a slow pace, though its ending feels artificially rushed. Part of the problem is that what held audiences' attention 90 years ago (the New York Times called it "engrossing" and "a stupendous undertaking") often does not today. Still, the narrative is filled with incident and I was never bored. The acting is generally fine, particularly in the supporting parts. Dix is a rather stolid and uninspiring lead, and Dunne doesn't get to shine until late in the film. George E. Stone as Sol, Roscoe Ates as Jesse, and Edna May Oliver as a high-toned older lady are all quite fine and each gets at least one good scene to themselves. William Collier Jr. as the Kid shows promise in his first scene, but doesn't get to stretch much beyond that. The message of tolerance is admirable and seems a little ahead of its time. The print that is in circulation is not in great shape, especially the sound elements. I couldn't recommend this to just anyone, but if you have any affinity for the early sound era, you should catch this. Pictured at top right is a newspaper ad for the film's initial run in New York City; above left are Dunne and Oliver. [TCM]

Wednesday, May 29, 2019


Jim Fletcher (Bill Williams) comes out of a coma in a naval hospital to find a blind veteran trying to strangle him. His nurse saves him but treats him with contempt, calling him a traitor. It turns out that Fletcher is facing a court-martial over treason charges that, while in a Japanese POW camp, his actions led to the death of another prisoner, though Fletcher can remember almost nothing from his experience. He escapes from the hospital and heads to San Diego to find his pal Mark Gregory; at Mark's apartment, his wife Martha (Barbara Hale) answers, seems very sociable, and lets him in, but Jim sees a newspaper headline about his escape and discovers that it’s Mark's death for which he is being held accountable—he supposedly ratted out Mark for smuggling food in the camp. Jim takes Martha against her will on the road to LA see his Ted, a fellow former POW, to try and clear things up. Along the way, Martha sees torture marks on Jim's chest and begins to believe that he is innocent. At a Chinese restaurant, Jim sees Tokoyama (Richard Loo), the man who tortured him in the camp, and soon realizes that he is being hunted not just by the authorities but also by someone who wants him dead.

This is a short, well-paced B-film with good performances, a few nice noir touches, and a fine climax on a train. Leads Williams and Hale were married in real life (and actor William Katt is their son) and their chemistry here is another plus. Williams (pictured above) is handsome but has just enough roughness in his face that he's perfectly suited for playing the noir role of a confused man trying to solve a mystery with himself at the center. Richard Quine, best known as a director (MY SISTER EILEEN, BELL BOOK AND CANDLE), is fine the small but crucial role of Ted. There is an interesting scene in which Jim takes refuge briefly in the apartment of a Japanese widow whose husband was a decorated soldier in the American armed services. The movie takes its time getting its ducks in a row, then at the 50 minute mark, rushes a bit too quickly to the end, a common B-movie problem. But I recommend this one wholeheartedly for fans of noir, crime, or post-war films. [TCM]

Friday, May 24, 2019


It's Chicago in the Roaring Twenties, and everyone was trying to get rich quick. Helen Morgan (Ann Blyth) is a dancer at a sideshow exhibit run by Larry Maddux (Paul Newman) who is using dancing girls to get folks to hear his pitch to buy real estate at Sunny Acres in Florida. When a sudden storm stops the show, Larry decides to pack it in and he pays the girls off. Helen dawdles a bit, Larry sweet-talks her into making out, and a one-night stand ensues. The next morning he's gone and she's alone and jobless. She struggles to find a place in the world of show business, and one day when she's auditioning at a speakeasy she runs into Larry who is now a bootlegger working for a big-time gangster. Back in her life and wanting to help and protect her, Larry gets her hired at the club (but then gets her fired when he beats up a customer who was getting handsy with her), then talks her into posing as a Canadian to win a fixed Canadian beauty pageant (she wins but a reporter finds out she's not from Canada). One of the judges, a married lawyer named Russell Wade (Richard Carlson) takes a shine to Helen, though it's hard to tell at first if he wants her to be a friend or a mistress. Things finally look up when Larry sets her up with her own nightclub—with Russell as a silent partner whom even Helen doesn’t know about—and soon Helen is discovered by Florenz Ziegfeld and becomes the toast of Broadway starring in Show Boat. Sadly, it's all downhill from there as Helen winds up unhappy in love and begins drinking which ends her career and leads to a stay in an asylum, though a final reunion with Larry holds the promise of redemption.

This follows the usual path of the Hollywood biopic—ambition, romance, fame, the downturn into the miseries of alcohol. In real life, it seems her fall was slower—she starred in the film version of Show Boat several years after the stage show and kept performing in movies and in theater until she collapsed on stage in 1941 and died shortly thereafter of cirrhosis of the liver. The problem here isn't that her life has been heavily fictionalized, but that for much of the movie's running time, she feels like a secondary character in her own story. Blyth is outshone not just by the charismatic Newman but also by supporting players like Alan King, Gene Evans and Cara Williams. In the last half of the movie, Blyth is able to cut loose a bit in scenes depicting her downfall, but the unrealistic conclusion (best described as "sadly upbeat") ends things on an unsatisfying note. Gogi Grant does a nice job providing Helen's singing voice on songs like "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street," and it's fun to see Rudy Vallee and Walter Winchell in cameos playing themselves. Pictured are Newman and Blyth.[TCM]

Thursday, May 23, 2019


A young, naïve aspiring actress (Katherine Hepburn) arrives in Manhattan from a small town in Vermont, ready to take Broadway by storm. While in a crowded waiting room, hoping to talk with Broadway hotshot Adolphe Menjou, she chats up older actor C. Aubrey Smith who takes a fatherly liking to her, and he agrees to be her mentor, giving her acting lessons that she'll pay him for when she can. Playwright Douglas Fairbanks Jr. also takes note of Hepburn, but her bubbly chattiness and her high opinion of herself are a bit off-putting; she's reluctant to take small roles, so her career essentially stalls out. Weeks later, Menjou, Smith and Fairbanks (and obnoxious alcoholic leading lady Mary Duncan) have a hit show and Smith brings a starving, struggling Hepburn to the opening night party where she proceeds to get smashed on champagne but also delivers a couple of Shakespeare pieces that are truly impressive. That night, Menjou beds her, but the next morning he regrets it and tells Fairbanks, who is a bit in love with Hepburn himself. Eventually, she realizes that Menjou has just been toying with her, and she goes off to do stock and vaudeville. But months later, as another Fairbanks play is about to open, Duncan throws a tantrum on opening night, so Menjou has Hepburn, who has been hired as her understudy, take her role. She's a success and, as she soaks in the praise (and a declaration of love from Fairbanks which she turns aside), she is warned by her dresser, a former Broadway star, not to become a "morning glory," one who blooms beautifully but who then fades quickly. Confident in herself, she claims that even if that does happen to her, she's not afraid of the future.

This well-worn making-of-a-star story was, I imagine, rather old hat even in 1933. But a few things make this stand out. One, of course, is Hepburn, who pulls off the role quite well. Too much of either starry-eyed innocence or blind confidence could have made us not like the character, but Hepburn strikes a good balance, and the ending, in which she is left in limbo, is unusual—the norm would have been to either have her future star status be assured, or to have her decide that love trumps her career, but neither thing happens. The three men in her life, though stereotypes, have characters that are developed about as well as they could be in a short (75 minutes) movie. Fairbanks is sweetly charming, Smith is likeable, and Menjou even makes his cold-hearted producer come off in a way that isn't totally alienating. Hepburn won her first of four Oscars for this role, soon proving that she certainly was no morning glory. [TCM]

Monday, May 20, 2019


Georges Ryman (James Olson, pictured) is on a blustery beach, making out with a woman whose face we cannot see. A figure approaches holding a shotgun. Georges turns and sees that the threatening man is himself. The doppelganger shoots at the woman, and we see she has turned into a rotting corpse. But this is all a dream, and Georges wakes up in a sweat. We soon learn that Georges is the only living son of the late composer Henry Ryman; his brother, perhaps more talented than Georges, died some time ago. Georges is wheelchair-bound, addicted to heroin and lives with his mother Danielle (Margaretta Scott) in a lovely villa in France. She gives him a daily injection of heroin, but when he starts jonsesing for a fix later in the day, the pouty maid Lillianne shoots him up (unbeknownst to Mom), and teases him sexually, knowing that his paralysis means he's impotent. We don’t know why he's in a wheelchair, but we suspect some past trauma is responsible for that and the drug problem. Into this uncomfortable family situation (a beefy manservant named Carter also lives there), comes American grad student Susan Roberts (Stefanie Powers), doing research on a thesis about Henry Ryman. Danielle seems quite pleased to welcome her, and even the gloomy Georges brightens up a bit around her. In fact, an attraction builds between them, but he keeps shattering their romantic moods by falling into bouts of self-pity or getting the screaming fits for his heroin. It seems like Mom is planning for Susan to marry Georges, but Lillianne has some plans of her own in that direction. Carter doesn't like Lilliane, but it's difficult to tell where his sympathies lie, if for anyone. As tensions grow in the villa, Susan hears someone playing piano at night, trying to finish Henry's unfinished concerto but winding up playing chaotically. Georges keeps having sweaty dreams about his doppelganger, and when we find out that Susan resembles Georges' dead girlfriend Katherine, we know no good can come of these relationships.

Many Hollywood psychological thrillers of the late 60s and early 70s have elements in common: damsel in distress, hidden secrets, a glossy look and pretty locations, and a smidge of decadent behavior. In other words, they are old-fashioned Gothic tales done up in mod style. This one, from Hammer Studios, feels directly influenced by an earlier Hammer modern Gothic, SCREAM OF FEAR, even featuring the similar physical setting of a villa with a big pool in its middle and a character confined to a wheelchair. The surprise gimmick here, however, is not quite the same as in earlier movie, but you'll probably guess it not long before its full reveal. Still, this is an enjoyable thriller with a decent, if rather second-string, cast. I like James Olson (Andromeda Strain, Ragtime) quite a bit, and he's good in the central role of the neurotic (or is it psychotic?) hero (or is it anti-hero?). His swings from pleasant and friendly to rude and unhealthy are pulled off well. Powers, whom I think I've only ever seen in TV productions, is fine as the damsel who also walks a line between determined and helpless. Joss Ackland, a very busy British character actor, is good but mostly wasted as the creepy (or is he?) manservant. Jane Lapotaire is fine as Lilliane, making the most of her big scene in which she starts rubbing and groping the helpless Georges before she gives him his fix. At first, I didn’t like Margaretta Scott as the overbearing mom, mostly because she looked so much like Joan Bennett in her Dark Shadows days that I was wishing that Bennett had played this role. But by the end, I appreciated her fairly low-key approach to the Gothic mother part. Not a well-known flick, but good for a rainy Saturday night. [DVD]

Tuesday, May 14, 2019


This film opens with a quoted bit of wisdom: "For generations men have done as they pleased—and women have done as men pleased." At a glittering house party, we see young attractive Arden Stuart (Greta Garbo) on a balcony, looking both bored and amused as she watches three married men returning from a quick road trip with three women who are not their wives. Her boyfriend Tommy (Johnny Mack Brown) tries to get her interested in some canoodling but she's restless and instead takes off for her own midnight ride with the handsome family chauffeur. He's a former war pilot and before the hanky-panky happens, the two talk about wanting to live freely and honestly. When they return, they are greeted by her angry brother Ding (?!) who immediately fires the chauffeur who then proceeds to kill himself by crashing the car. In an existential funk, Arden isolates herself until one rainy day, she enters an art gallery and is fascinated by Packy Cannon (Nils Asther), a former boxer turned artist. The two begin a flirtation—as Liszt's "Liebestraum" plays on the background score—and when Packy says that for him, love is "equality and perfect freedom," Arden is hooked. He's about to set sail for a solo around-the-world trip on his yacht but impulsively asks Arden to join him which she does. After several months of romantic (and/or erotic) isolation, Packy eventually takes Arden back home and returns to the sea by himself. She is heartbroken and her behavior has caused her to be a figure of scandal, but she is invited to the latest society shindig anyway where lovesick Tommy begs her for another chance. She agrees to marry him, but she warns him that she can't promise what will happen if Packy comes back for her—which, a few years later, he does. By then, she is settled with a child, but the allure of the free life with Packy is tempting. What will she decide to do?

This is one of Garbo's last silent films and it's no emotional fever dream like The Flesh and the Devil or Wild Orchids; the direction (by John Robertson), cinematography, scenery and narrative flow are all rather plain which leaves the acting to spice things up, and luckily the lead trio comes through. This was touted as Garbo’s first "100% American role" and she does indeed play down her exotic appeal; you can imagine Katherine Hepburn playing this part—indeed, Arden could be a slightly different take on Hepburn's Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, though Arden is more interested in sex than romance, unlike Tracy. Garbo is called on to be sad, frustrated, passionate, thoughtful and (eventually) a loving mother and she does a nice job on all counts. Asther (pictured with Garbo) is good as the male exotic and Brown is appealingly, stolidly masculine. They all come off as rather likable, unusual for a romantic triangle movie of the era. Zeffie Tilbury stands out in the supporting cast as a society matron. Definitely pre-Code material, if rather conventional in its ending. [TCM]

Monday, May 13, 2019


The Deyo sisters, Patsy (June Allyson) and Jean (Gloria DeHaven), grow up in vaudeville houses as part of a performing family. Little Jean carries around her "oogy" doll that looks just like comedian Billy Kipp (Jimmy Durante), who often is playing on the same bill with the family. By 1943, the two girls have their own act, and occasionally wonder whatever happened to Billy. But they keep busy not only performing at a nightclub but turning their (surprisingly spacious) apartment into a servicemen's canteen after hours, so lonely men on furlough have a place to go and be sociable. One night, the two girls attract the attention of a sailor (Van Johnson) and an Army soldier (Tom Drake) who wind up vying mostly for Jean's time. We find out that the sailor is actually rich heir John Dyckman Brown III, and when the sisters express a wish to lease an abandoned warehouse near them to use as a real servicemen's canteen, Brown secretly arranges for them to get the lease and the money and materials to fix it up. In the midst of renovation, the girls discover that the broken-down Billy Kipp has been living in the building, distraught over his wife and son leaving him years ago. They enlist his aid and soon the canteen is up and running, featuring entertainers like Lena Horne, Virginia O'Brien, Gracie Allen and Harry James and his band. We know it’s just a matter of time before Brown's identity is exposed, but when it is, who will he choose—pretty Jean or smart Patsy? If you've seen enough (or any) romantic comedy musicals of the classic era, you know the answer even before the question comes up.

This is a predictable wartime musical revue, with all the songs presented as on-stage numbers, and there are a lot of them, mostly OK but unmemorable, with the exception of June Allyson singing with Harry James on "Young Man with a Horn" and Virginia O'Brien doing her deadpan routine on "Take It Easy." Another bright spot: an uncredited actor named Arthur Walsh has a recurring role as a lonely and silent soldier who keeps trying unsuccessfully to get some feminine attention until he suddenly cuts loose on the dance floor late in the film. Van Johnson is unbelievably cute and dewy-eyed in his first full-fledged leading role, and Allyson and DeHaven are charming. A little Durante goes a long way for me, but he mostly remains on the sidelines. Henry Stephenson and Henry O'Neill have a nice scene as Johnson's grandfather and father. Also with Frank Jenks, Donald Meek, and Xavier Cugat and his band. Worth a viewing, if not exactly a keeper. Pictured are Allyson, Johnson and Durante. [TCM]

Thursday, May 09, 2019

THE WITCH (1966)


Sergio (Richard Johnson) is a playboy grad student in Rome who spends more time hanging out with his latest female conquests than studying, but currently he's disturbed that an older woman seems to be following him, even waiting out on the sidewalk one morning near his current mistress's apartment. When he finally confronts her, she claims she has put a want ad in the paper for an academic to work as a librarian to sort and catalog the writings of her late husband, and thinks he'd be perfect. Consuelo (Sarah Ferrati) takes him to her palazzo in the middle of the city where he discovers a few complicating factors: 1) the huge library is a mess and the papers are mostly the husband's erotic memoirs; 2) Conseulo may be a drug addict—she passes out in front of him after drinking a potion of some sort; 3) living with the older woman is her young and sexy daughter Aura (Rosanna Schiaffino) who practically throws herself at him; 4) he's expected to get rid of Fabrizio (Gian Maria Volonte), the current librarian, who follows Aura around like a wounded puppy. He takes the job and, though he enjoys the favors of Aura, he notices some more strange touches around the house, including the dead husband's embalmed body laid out upstairs and Consuelo going through some odd rituals, and later, Aura talking about the still-present Fabrizio while she's making out with Sergio. Eventually, given the title of the movie, we assume we'll run into a witch, but who, and what does she want with Sergio?

Though often classified as a horror movie, this is, for most of its running time, more a psychosexual thriller. Most online critics note how appealing Rosanna Schiaffino is, which is true, but I found Richard Johnson (THE HAUNTING, KHARTOUM) to be almost equally appealing—he's handsome and has a slow burn sensuality in his scenes with Schiaffino, particularly an early scene in which she insists they make love without using their hands. But this is not a porn movie, not even a soft-core one; no one gets naked on camera even if erotic content is front and center for much of the film. Is this a psychological or a supernatural thriller? It may be better appreciated as the former, as the witchy elements seem almost tacked on to a story that doesn't really need them. After about half an hour, it's easy to see where this is going: [Slight spoiler] Sergio is the latest in a string of men that the two women toy with, and even if he manages to get rid of Fabrizio, he will eventually be replaced, too. The sets and cinematography are good, though the music is a little weird—at times, it sounds like a Vince Guaraldi score for a Charlie Brown show. Generally interesting, with a pronounced 60s feel. Pictured are Schiaffino, Volonte and Johnson. [YouTube]

Monday, May 06, 2019


Kelly Olesen used to be part of a notorious gang of thugs, but he left town and reformed, making money through hard work; now he's back in town to attend the funeral of his kid brother Tommy. The inquest found that Tommy died from a drunken fall, but Kelly suspects foul play and hopes that his old cronies Tony (a friendly underachiever who spent some time at San Quentin, or "The Q" as he calls it) and Rico (a slicker fellow who now is a member of a larger syndicate) might help him find out the truth. But his visit gets off to a bad start: the cops are not happy to see him and tell him to get out of town as soon as the funeral is over. His mother is cold to him and his ex-girlfriend Jill is only slightly more friendly. Kelly has to deal with a feisty young thug named Rocky who distrusts Kelly and comes at him with a knife ("Somebody’s spiking your pablum, kid," says Kelly who kicks his ass), two bar employees who may not have told the whole truth at the inquest, and Claire, another former girlfriend who is married to Rico now. Will Kelly find out the truth before his inquisitiveness gets him in trouble?

This B-film is a little rough in its production values, and most of the actors did not go on to long careers (virtually all of them were completely unknown to me), but if you’re looking for a short crime story that feels like it came right out of an old pulp fiction magazine, you’ll find some pleasures here. The narrative is a little fractured; the movie opens with Kelly getting beat up on the street and making his way to a woman's apartment to recover, then goes into a long flashback before catching up with the beginning. Doug Wilson (Kelly) doesn’t quite look or act like a hero or anti-hero—he’s a little too vanilla in his personality and a little too lumpy in his looks to be all that appealing—but I got used to him. Jeanne Baird (Jill) and Marilyn O’Connor (Claire) are not memorable, and the main cop (Frank Harding) doesn’t modulate his one-note performance—irritated bluster—at all. But as is often the case in B-films, a couple of supporting players stand out. Tommy Holden is fun as Squirrel, a gangster gofer who tries to ingratiate himself with Kelly even as he’s not so sure that he should; Tony Louis as Rico manages to be slimy in a clean way; best of all is Sam Chiodo as Rocky, the good-looking but dumb as rocks thug who doesn’t trust Kelly and keeps whining “I don’t know him!” before he gets knocked to the ground by Kelly. Some of the dialoge has a nice punch with my favorite line being delivered by Tony to Kelly, surprised to see him back in town: “I had you figured for a concrete kimono!” I’ve included the DVD cover above because it’s far cooler than any actual scene in the movie, but don’t believe the claim about it being a “brutal noir”—it’s really just a crime movie, fairly mild as far as violence goes except for Kelly's opening ass-kicking, and a pleasant hour of viewing on a Saturday afternoon. [DVD]

Wednesday, May 01, 2019


Unemployed working girl Julia Ross (Nina Foch) is on the verge of being evicted from her boarding house. To add to her woes, Dennis, the fellow boarder she had a crush on, has moved out to get married. And the landlady's maid, Bertha, is a nasty piece of work who isn’t above petty theft. But an interview at the Alison Employment Agency yields a job as a live-in companion for Mrs. Hughes (Dame May Whitty). Because Hughes has had several girls leave the position to get married or to go home to family, she is especially happy to hear that Julia has no living parents and no "young man" in her life (though just before Julia leaves the boarding house, Dennis returns, having called off his wedding, and Julia agrees to see him again soon). Also living with Mrs. Hughes is her adult son Ralph (George Macready) who seems fairly normal but is also a little highly strung, and has a thing for playing with pocket knives. On her first night at their house, a nefarious plot is sprung: Julia is drugged and taken to a house on a remote coast. When she awakens that morning, Dennis and his mother try to make her believe that she is Dennis' wife, Marion, who is recovering from some kind of breakdown. However, Julia is made of stronger stuff than mother and son assume. She never buys into their plan—though she (and we) aren't sure why they're pulling this charade. Julia tries to escape or get some villagers on her side, but her erratic behavior just strengthens the story about her illness. Her last chance may be Dennis, who is looking for her after she didn't show up for their date. But will he find her before the Hughes' plot comes to fruition—with the murder of Julia?

This hour-long B-movie has a bit of a cult reputation, probably due to the moody cinematography by Burnett Guffey (an Oscar winner years later for Bonnie and Clyde). This element is also what has led some to believe that it's a film noir. Actually, it's a fairly average Gothic thriller, with a predictable damsel-in-distress storyline. Though it moves along at a good clip, everything about it is strictly second-feature material except the cinematography and the performance of Dame May Whitty; she usually plays stodgy matriarch types (and at least once, in Night Must Fall, she was the damsel in distress in a similar Gothic story), but it's fun to see her as a villain for a change. Nina Foch is a blank sheet of paper as the title heroine—she has virtually no personality, though she does exhibit some backbone as things wind down to the ending you know is coming. Similarly, George Macready (pictured with Foch) is a little too bland to be playing a murderous psycho—it never quite feels like Julia is in life-threatening danger except in one nicely done scene near the end on a staircase. Mostly, I enjoyed Joy Harington as the sly Bertha but hers is a small role. [Criterion streaming]