Friday, September 27, 2019


Sicilian fishermen find a huge rocketship floating nose down in the sea and manage to save two men from the wreckage, and a young boy named Pepe finds a cylinder with a gelatinous slug-like thing in it and hides it on the beach. One of the men dies in pain from some kind of skin rash, but Calder (William Hopper) survives. It turns out that the men on the spacecraft had just returned from a secret flight to Venus, and the icky thing in the cylinder is the egg of a Venusian life form. In the meantime, the boy has sold the cylinder to a local zoologist, and in his lab, the creature is born, a muscled reptilian thing that looks like a miniature Godzilla. It quickly outgrows the cage it's kept in, escapes, and goes on a rampage looking for sulfur, which it feeds on, before it's captured using electrified netting and penned up in the Rome zoo. A steady electrical charge keeps it calm but when the equipment fries out, it escapes (again) and goes on a rampage (again), this time battling an elephant in the streets of Rome and winding up in the ruins of the Colosseum where it meets its fate. The last line, spoken in front of the dead monster: "Why is it always so costly for man to move from the present to the future?"—a line that doesn't seem earned as a moral for this particular tale.

This film featuring the meticulous stop-motion animation work of Ray Harryhausen was shot in black & white, so while it may not be as impressive looking overall as some of his later color movies (Jason and the Argonauts, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, etc.), this features one of his greatest creatures. Critics often refer to the monster as the Ymir because that's what it was called in early versions of the script, but that name is never used on screen. The creature manages to be both brutal and somewhat sympathetic—after all, it had no choice in being brought to earth, and its rampages seem to be mostly about getting food, not just trashing a town like Godzilla or being infatuated with a woman like King Kong. As usual with Harryhausen movies, the writing is on the weak side; the opening Sicilian scenes are promising but non-monster scenes get bogged down in an unsatisfying relationship between Hopper and the zoologist’s daughter (Joan Taylor). Still, this has enough action and good FX work to be a classic in the stop-motion monster genre. [DVD]

Monday, September 23, 2019

HI, GAUCHO! (1935)

In the Argentine, two wealthy families, the Bolarios and the Del Campos, are feuding over sales of horses to Americans. The Del Campo daughter Inez (Steffi Duna) is about to be given unwillingly, in a marriage arranged by her mother, to Don Salvador, an elderly man whom the Del Campos have never met. One afternoon, Inez is returning to her hometown and decides to have a siesta in her carriage, right in the middle of the road. The handsome Lucio (John Carroll) and his gang of gauchos come down the road to find it blocked by Inez's carriage. When the snooty Inez refuses to move, Lucio has his men pick the carriage up and move it to the side of the road, and parade on while singing their gaucho songs, which infuriates Inez. Of course, this is their "meet cute" moment, and soon they are in love, despite the fact that Lucio is the Bolario son—they even get a Romeo and Juliet moment when Lucio serenades Inez from below her balcony. Meanwhile, on the road into town, Don Salvador is kidnapped by the infamous outlaw Escurra; finding out about his engagement and discovering that the marriage will make Don Salvador the richest man in the land, Escurra takes Don Salvador's place and presents himself at the Del Campo estate. Lucio playfully snatches Inez away from her home, but to his horror, realizes it's actually her mother he has taken. She charges him with kidnapping and he goes on the run, but at a party celebrating Inez's coming marriage, this Romeo and Juliet story winds up with a happy ending, as Escurra is unmasked, Inez gets Lucio, and the two families reconcile.

Though I've written reviews for this blog for 18 years, it's only recently that I've realized a truth about some of these movies, such as this one. For lack of a better word, I’ll call them "multitask" movies. The movies themselves don't engage in multitasking (any more than any movie can be doing several things at once to or for a viewer), but I can multitask while watching them. These aren't necessarily bad movies, but they don't really need my full attention. I'm not the kind of person who puts on a movie, then goes out to the kitchen or does laundry—I stay on the couch, watch the movie and take notes, and if I have to leave the room, I pause the film. But during this one, I realized halfway through that I had the laptop open and was checking Facebook and looking at the weather forecast and searching for a pesto recipe online. I never got so involved with my other tasks that I lost the thread of the movie, but I also was obviously not fully engaged with the movie, despite the presence of John Carroll, one of my B-movie favorites. I put away the laptop, backed up the movie about ten minutes to make sure I hadn't missed anything (I hadn't), and gave all of my attention to Hi, Gaucho. Fifteen minutes later, the laptop was open and I was skimming information about the movie and the cast on IMDb.

And I guess that's OK. Most of these multitask movies aren't bad or boring, but they are predictably plotted and routinely acted, and straying a bit from the TV screen doesn't seem to hurt my experience of the movie. I followed the story, laughed at the humor, and the notes I'd taken seemed complete. Carroll, in his first starring role, is burdened by having to speak in an exaggerated Argentine accent, along with most of the rest of the cast, and I had a difficult time in the beginning understanding the dialogue. His leading lady, Steffi Duna, is Hungarian and was married to Carroll in real life—though not for long. She, like the other actors, is OK, not great but not terrible. Everything about this movie—story, acting, sets, music (the gauchos love to sing)—is completely average, which may be why I could multitask a bit while watching. If it was very good, I'd be riveted; if it was bad, I'd be writing notes about its badness and paying attention to see if it got better or worse; if it was awful, I'd have quit watching. I knew what I was getting into when I sat down to watch: an RKO B-film with an actor I like and a cast of people largely unknown to me. (Given the whimsical title, I was kind of expecting something funnier or campier, but no.) I expected a so-so film and I got one. If you're looking for a so-so film that will let you surf the web or think about your next meal on occasion, but that you won’t feel bad about watching, this is for you. [TCM]

Thursday, September 19, 2019



We see Lorna on a stage, sexually teasing a tied-up and skimpily dressed man and woman. She eventually starts running a knife along their bodies as an audience watches, and then plunges the knife into the man. Then, applause, and all three take their bows; it's just an act in a decadent nightclub. Two men seem to be related in some way to her, as lovers (?) or therapists (?) or pimps (?). Light-haired Bill may be her agent, and claims that he is making Lorna into a disciple of evil; the dark-haired guy just hangs around looking menacing, but the two do seem to be in cahoots over becoming Svengali-like influences on Lorna, who eventually loses herself in a strange dream world of half-alive mannequins, orgies with people crawling on the floor wearing animal masks, seducing women, and stabbing her lovers in the eye or neck. And that's about it for a coherent narrative. At the end, we see Lorna with the two performers from the beginning, only this time she actually does kill them...or does she?

I don't typically review artsy-porny movies like this on my blog, but I was fascinated to come across this because I remember this film from my past. Not the film itself, but an ad for it that ran in our daily paper when I was 13. The movie was rated X (it would be an "R" today) and there was a phone number to call to find out the "full meaning" of the title. Instead of calling, I asked my mom what the word meant. She looked it up and said, "Well, I guess it means a female demon, dear!" There was a little more to it than that, I would discover later, as in, a demon who had sex with men. That's not really what seems to be happening here, but then again, who knows. There are dozens of online reviews of this movie out there; most give up on presenting a logical summary but go on to praise the film for its obliqueness and ambiguity. I have less praise for it. The director, Jess Franco, went on to become a cult figure in horror and sex B-films. At times, a David Lynchian surrealism seems to take hold but nothing comes of it. As far as acting goes, Janine Reynaud, as Lorna, is attractive. I enjoyed seeing a poster for Doctor Zhivago (in German as Doktor Schiwago) in the background of a scene. There is also a fun shot of some Aurora movie-monster models, the kind I put together when I first saw the ad for this film. Sex movie fans will be disappointed in the small amount of sexual activity—the opening (pictured above) is actually as sexy as the movie gets—and horror movie fans will wish for a better narrative. [Amazon Prime]

Monday, September 16, 2019


Richard Widmark, a blustery little tough guy, runs Jefty's Road House, a bowling alley/nightclub in a relatively rural Midwestern town.  Handsome nice guy Cornel Wilde, an old buddy of Widmark's, is the manager, and Celeste Holm is the office girl who is sweet on Wilde. Into this happy little family comes a serpent, sultry Chicago singer Ida Lupino. Wilde thinks she's bad news and tries to ship her right back to the big city, but she does an effective version of "One for My Baby" in her worn, battered voice—Holm says her voice sounds like gravel—and the customers love her (not to mention that Widmark develops a thing for her as well).  Soon, Wilde and Lupino are hot for each other; Holm picks up on this but Widmark does not, and he returns from a vacation with a wedding license for he and Lupino. When Wilde and Lupino they tell him about their attraction, Widmark is not only unhappy, he gets a little psychotic, framing Wilde for the theft of some money and getting the judge to release him to Widmark's care. When all four go up to Widmark's hunting lodge near the Canadian border, the shit hits the fan.

This noir-ish film plays out like a slightly less mannered GILDA, with the backstory setting Widmark in George Macready's role as the somewhat screwy benefactor to Wilde (Glenn Ford in GILDA). Being set in the woods and not quite having a femme fatale role, this may not exactly fit the noir template, but it sure looks and feels like one. (If GILDA is a film noir, so is this.) I'm not a fan of Wilde's but he’s OK here. Holm is also fine, but the real stars are Lupino and Widmark, doing the best at what they are known for—tough as nails gal for Lupino, slow-burning psycho for Widmark. I haven't reviewed many of his movies on my blog, but his presence is always a good sign. I need to revisit his breakthrough role in KISS OF DEATH one of these days. Pictured are Wilde, Widmark and Lupino. [DVD]

Wednesday, September 11, 2019


Haven Allridge (Walter Pidgeon) is the well-liked, well-respected editor of the St. Howard News-Intelligencer. Just outside of town, across the county line, lives his daughter Peggy and her husband Randy, the county prosecutor. Burke, the county sheriff, is known for his corrupt ways and his iron hand in dealing with lawbreakers. One night after visiting Randy and Peggy, Allridge gives Jackson, a casual acquaintance, a ride home and is stopped for speeding. Allridge doesn't have his license on him so he's hauled into jail, as is Jackson, on the trumped-up charge of soliciting a ride. They're not allowed to make phone calls and both are thrown into a cell full of men who constitute a "kangaroo court" who extort money. When Jackson says he doesn't have any cash, they beat him up. The next morning, when Burke finds out who Allridge is, he is released but Jackson is kept in jail. Allridge makes a crusade out of the situation, writing about his experience and putting the reports of others similarly abused on the front page. Chick Johnson (John Hodiak), a lawyer from the state attorney general, arrives to investigate. Suddenly, however, the stories stop and Allridge vanishes. When he returns a few days later, he claims to have been out of town making arrangements to take another job, and he refuses to help Johnson. Has Allridge been bullied into silence, or has he sold out to Burke?

This film has a rather convoluted set-up—more plot points are developed along the way—though it remains easy to follow. But it's slow going and frankly, the stakes don't seem all that big; the person we feel the worst for is poor Jackson (Whit Bissell) who languishes in jail until a re-appearance in the climactic courtroom scene. I run hot and cold on John Hodiak (usually cold) but he's fine here as the heroic lawyer who has to figure out how to get Allridge to come clean. Pidgeon is his usual stuffy self, and Karl Malden is good as a cop who assists Hodiak. Thomas Gomez is nicely slimy as Burke, Everett Sloane shines as Burke's crooked lawyer, and Cameron Mitchell has the small but crucial role of the son-in-law; mostly he just stands around looking anxious. I watched this movie because Audrey Totter (pictured with Hodiak) is third-billed; she's very good but her part is surprisingly small and not essential to the plot. Watchable, but not particularly memorable. [TCM]

Monday, September 09, 2019


Operation Experiment (five screenwriters, three of them uncredited, couldn't come up with a better name?) is a secret Arctic expedition engaging in nuclear testing. After one atomic explosion is set off, the men at the base see something unusual on the radar but it vanishes quickly. While making observations near the site just before a blizzard approaches, George sees a huge dinosaur-like creature which creates an avalanche that buries him in snow. Tom (Paul Christian) goes looking for him, sees the creature, and barely escapes death. When he tells his story at a hospital back in the States, he is assumed to have been hallucinating—until a "sea serpent" is sighted off the coast of Nova Scotia, destroying a fishing boat. More sightings follow until the creature comes on shore and destroys a lighthouse in Maine. Paleontologist Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway) determines that the monster is indeed a prehistoric dinosaur, a rhedosaurus. The theory is that the atom blasts have awakened the creature from hibernation and sent it on a rampage. Can a committed band of scientists and soldiers figure out how to stop the beast before it lays waste to New York City?

Though Godzilla is often thought of as the first atomic-age giant creature, this was released a year before the Japanese film and probably deserves to be called the grandfather of all such 'There’s a monster on the loose in the streets' movies. The plot is fairly threadbare—and would be copied slavishly for years—and the acting is just as good as it needs to be, but the special effects by Ray Harryhausen (his first credited work—as creator of technical effects—on a feature film) are spectacular, impressive even today. Indeed, having re-watched some of Harryhausen’s later movies recently, I'd say this stands with his very best. Paul Christian makes for a fairly boring hero; he left Hollywood soon after this and forged a lengthy career in Europe under his birth name, Paul Hubschmid. Paula Raymond is similarly wasted as the heroine, but supporting players such as Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey (who faced a different kind of Arctic monster in THE THING two years earlier), King Donovan and Donald Woods keep things bubbling. It was fun to see James Best (Sheriff Roscoe Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard) and Alvin Greenman (the young janitor at Macy's who is befriended by Kris Kingle in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET) in small roles in the beginning as the radar men. Ray Bradbury gets a credit for original story, but only one short sequence—at the lighthouse—comes from him. More expensive effects and more explicit destruction followed in later years, but this is still well worth a viewing. [DVD]

Thursday, September 05, 2019

THE TRAIL OF ’98 (1928)

In 1897, the steamer ship Excelsior arrives in San Francisco with news of the discovery of gold in the Klondike, in Canada east of Alaska; also on the ship is entrepreneur Jack Locasto (Harry Carey) who has already made a great deal of money—enough that his reputation has preceded him and gold-digging women are fighting over him--and when the Excelsior returns to Alaska, he's going back for more. As the siren call of a gold rush goes out, we see our cast of characters gathering. In South Carolina, a train engineer lets a young boy get on the train to San Francisco, and even decides he'll abandon the train and go with the lad to the Klondike. In Michigan, Lars (Karl Dane), a big Swedish man, runs away from his nagging wife and considers hopping on the train as it passes by; the engineer encourages him, saying, "Ain't no wives in the Klondike!" and Lars jumps on. In the desert, an old religious guy who calls himself Salvation Jim joins the train, and he and Lars and a devious fellow called The Worm bond. The Bulkeys, a middle-aged couple, want to start a restaurant for the gold prospectors, and young Brena (Delores del Rio), who will work with the Bulkeys, takes her blind grandfather along. As the Excelsior is being loaded up, a stowaway named Larry (Ralph Forbes) jumps on a mule that is being pulled up by a crane onto the ship and manages to evade the crew, finding a friend—and eventually a romantic partner—in Brena. Once they get to Alaska, however, the real journey begins as hundreds of would-be prospectors make their way across snow, ice, mountains and raging rivers to get to the Klondike—as a title card notes, "Into the wilderness of ice, the gold-mad army was dumped."

This silent movie is notable for its recreations of the trials and tribulations of the prospectors, most of whom are not successful. There was some location shooting, though most of the snowy mountain scenes were shot in Colorado in below-freezing temperatures. The scene of the rapids was shot in Alaska and apparently a couple of stuntmen were carried off by the river and never found. An avalanche scene is particularly well done. Though not actually a disaster movie, it does follow some of the conventions of the genre: diverse people and plotlines thrown together, some romance, some melodrama, a little comic relief, and some death and devastation. The climax here does not involve any natural disaster, but an intense fistfight that leads to fiery destruction, and it's a real thriller of a climax. The acting is fine; this late in the silent era, acting had become more naturalistic with less of the exaggerated emotions you would find in earlier films. Forbes and Dane are especially good, as is young Johnny Downs in the limited role of the runaway boy (whose sad fate is presented in an admirably non-melodramatic fashion). Though technically not a talkie, there is, in addition to a musical score, a synchronized soundtrack full of crowd noises and special effects sounds, so it's almost never really "silent"; even folks who don’t think they would like a silent movie might take to this one. Pictured are Forbes and del Rio. [TCM]

Tuesday, September 03, 2019


Singer Ethel Andrews (Lena Horne) is the star of a low-rent traveling show called Sepia Scandals that is touring small towns in the dying days of vaudeville. Her boyfriend, Duke Davis (Ralph Cooper, pictured at left with Horne), the show's producer, gets a visit from talent scout George Marshall—he thinks that Ethel could hit the big time in New York City on her own. Duke hems and haws, but when he is convinced that Marshall's offer would be good for her, he agrees to let her go. She's reluctant to leave him but when he pretends that Marshall has bought her contract and that he's letting her go for the money, she leaves thinking that Duke feels nothing for her. Duke winds up getting a huckster job with Doc Dorando's medicine show, and he's good at selling the fake elixir. Meanwhile, Ethel has proven to be a flop as a solo at the fancy Century Club in Manhattan; someone says of her, "She’s a specialty, not a star!" When Duke finds out, we know he'll try to help her, but the question is, how?

The plot of the B-movie "race" film (i.e., with an all-black cast) is pretty standard showbiz-romance stuff. It was shot in 10 days and looks it. But it's important for one reason: it's Lena Horne’s first movie. But what's interesting is that Horne isn't herself yet, not the screen star she would become. She’s attractive but not beautiful, presentable but not glamorous, and a little awkward before the camera. Her voice is certainly fine but it's not the versatile instrument we came to know. What happened between this film in 1938 and her first starring role (in CABIN IN THE SKY) in 1943 was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which signed her up and undoubtedly put her through its "star school" like it did with Judy Garland, Debbie Reynolds and countless other starlets that MGM wanted to make into stars. On its own, this movie is best enjoyed for its specialty numbers: a vigorous dance workout from Rubberneck Holmes, a cute production number called "Blackberry Baby," and especially for a performance by a four-man band called Cats and the Fiddle, pictured right, of a song called "Killin' Jive"—not only does it sound a lot like a 30s Ink Spots song called "That Cat is High" (later performed by the early Manhattan Transfer), it's about the same subject matter. Sample lyrics: "When you're high, man/You're sailin', man/You'll be so mellow/Just like a jello…When you smoke that killin' jive." Ralph Cooper (known for a time as the "Dark Gable") gives the movie's best performance as Duke (despite what I assumed for years, this movie has nothing to do with Duke Ellington), and Laurence Criner is fun as the trickster Doc Dorando. It's worth seeing for fans of 30s B-films, but don't expect Horne to be the star she became a few years later. [TCM]