Friday, January 31, 2020

IS MY FACE RED? (1932)

Bill Poster (Ricardo Cortez) writes a popular Manhattan gossip column, Keyhole to the City, and he's made a lot of enemies by reporting private scandals (think Walter Winchell, who is mentioned in the movie as one of Poster's rivals). He's got Bee, his trusty secretary; Peggy, his long-suffering girlfriend; Horatio, his in-office valet; and a water cooler full of gin. He's also in a relatively friendly rivalry with reporter Ed Maloney. When Peggy gives him a tip that notorious socialite (and pickle heiress) Mildred Huntington has broken her engagement and is boarding an ocean liner at midnight for Europe, Bill gets on the ship and, hoping for an exclusive story, talks her into leaving the ship with him for a madcap tour of the seedier side of the city. She does, they do, and they do some more as well, and soon they're lovers which doesn't sit well with Peggy. Nor, eventually, does Bill's plan to spill the beans about Mildred's high-class friends sit well with Mildred. Meanwhile, while Bill is in a dive bar one night, he witnesses the bartender Tony accidentally kill a mobster. Bill publishes the story before the police find out about the killing, leaving out Tony's name but making it clear who was responsible. So eventually, everyone (Peggy, Mildred, Tony and the police) is angry with Bill. Even his secretary is a little irritated. Will there be anyone to stand by him when it all falls apart and he comes face to face with the business end of a pistol?

This a sprightly-paced pre-Code film with a light tone and some witty writing. Backstage at the Follies, we see a sign that says, "Through these doors pass the most beautiful girls in the world"; then we see two slovenly washerwomen enter. A man uses a "Positively No Smoking" sign to strike a match to light his cigarette. When Mildred decides she's had enough of Bill, she tells him, "You amused me—like going to the flea circus" (and he totally deserves that). Cortez does a nice job making an essentially unlikable character at least somewhat sympathetic. Helen Twelvetrees makes little impression as Peggy; she is outshone by Jill Esmond, who was married to Laurence Olivier at the time, as Mildred. Arline Judge is her usual low-key, passive presence as the secretary and ZaSu Pitts is amusing as a telephone operator at the newspaper. Robert Armstrong is Ed, Clarence Muse is Horatio, and Sidney Toler is quite good as the killer Tony. It's all fairly predictable, but at just a smidge over an hour, it doesn't outlast its welcome and it's enjoyable for pre-Code buffs. And I loved the gin water cooler. Pictured are Cortez and Esmond. [TCM]

Thursday, January 30, 2020


At a high-class gentlemen's club, a man is found dead in his room, tied to a bedpost with a piece of paper pinned to him that says "Rx 5." He is the fifth victim of the mysterious killer known in the press as Dr. Rx. All the victims are men who have been defendants in high-profile court cases and all were found not guilty, despite much evidence that they were guilty. A lawyer named Crispin (Samuel S. Hinds), who defended all these men, is naturally upset, so he hires playboy detective Jerry Church (Patric Knowles) to track down the killer. Church is planning on moving to Boston and becoming a bond salesman, but he is present when Crispin's next freed defendant is killed right in the courtroom, possibly by poison or strangulation, or both. So Church, with some unwanted help from his brand new wife and mystery writer Kit (Anne Gwynne), his valet Fitz (Mantan Moreland), and a couple of relatively inept cops, takes the case. There aren't many obvious suspects, though something odd seems to be going on between Crispin's wife (Mona Barrie) and his brother (Paul Cavanagh). And what’s with the sinister looking Dr. Fish (Lionel Atwill in Coke-bottle glasses) who keeps popping up on Church's trail?

Despite getting frequent airings on Chiller Theater throughout the 60s, and despite its presence in a DVD boxed set of Universal Cult Horror films, this is not a horror movie, and will inevitably disappoint anyone hoping for a creepy little B-movie chiller. But if you'd like a fun, well-paced mystery in the vein of the Thin Man movies, this will be more than satisfying. I'm always up for seeing the handsome, personable Patric Knowles (pictured) and he is in almost every scene of this movie looking alternately smooth and befuddled—and even sweaty and scared in the odd climax involving the threat of him having his brain transplanted into a gorilla (the only scene that comes close to a horror movie feel). Mantan Moreland, stuck in the stereotypical black servant role, is actually pretty funny, especially in an early scene in which he banters with a telegram boy. I was left cold by the unfunny antics of Shemp Howard (yes, that Shemp from the Three Stooges) as a cop, though I liked Edmund MacDonald as his boss. Supposedly much of the movie was written (or improvised) as they filmed which would explain the number of plotholes and loose ends—the storyline with Crispin's brother never takes off, and the explanation for the menacing gorilla is particularly goofy. Favorite line: Church to Lily, a woman he's never met: "I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage." Lily, smiling sexily: "That's the way to have any man!" It’s not a chiller, but it is amusing and kinda gonzo in a 40s B-movie way. [DVD]

Monday, January 27, 2020


After an off-screen narrator tells us about the important and sometimes deadly work of the FBI, we see an old Chinese man watching some crates being unloaded. He also watches an FBI agent getting nosy and discovering that the crates contain Chinese people being smuggled in to the United States. In an awkwardly staged scene, the agent is shot and killed, and when word gets back to Washington, FBI agent Dickson (Grant Withers) is asked to impersonate a captured thug named Gallagher and infiltrate the gang; Dickson happens to be a dead ringer for Gallagher and all that's needed is a fake scar on his face. His main job is to find Carney, the ringleader of the gang, though no one knows what he looks like. But Dickson takes on a secondary job when he meets perky young Marion (Dorothy Short) who asks him to help her brother Jerry (Dave O'Brien) get out of the Carney gang. We rather anti-climactically discover that Carney is actually a lovely but sinister-looking Chinese woman known as The Illustrious One (Evelyn Brent). After some captures and escapes and poorly-staged fisticuffs, the FBI wins the day.

This B-thriller has very few thrills and little else to recommend it. I generally like Grant Withers as a B-movie tough guy but he's hemmed in by a rote script and lazy direction. Evelyn Brent (pictured) is sexy but doesn't appear to have a drop of Chinese blood in her—I suppose one might argue that it's a positive thing that she's not made up in yellowface like so many actors were in the classic era to play Asian characters, but it's a little distracting to see her looking so very Anglo—she is much more effective with a similar sinister look in Val Lewton's THE SEVENTH VICTIM. The use of the Tong in the title is misleading; virtually no one else in the gang is Chinese except for a hotel clerk, played by Chinese actor Richard Loo, who spends most of his time standing at the front desk and warning Carney when someone suspicious crops up. I always enjoy seeing Dave O'Brien (best known now as the cackling pot smoker in REEFER MADNESS) and he's fine here in a thankless role. His real-life wife, Dorothy Short, is OK but unmemorable as Withers' love interest. The fight scenes really are awful—in a fight near the end, they don't even bother to dub in the sounds of a fist hitting a chin, so what you get is men throwing these wild punches that are clearly not connecting with flesh. It's fairly laughable. A climactic car chase with Withers and O'Brien being chased along twisty roads shows promise put peters out. This one can be skipped unless you're a fan of Withers or O'Brien. [YouTube]

Friday, January 24, 2020


In 1923, young Jim Hetherton is target shooting when he accidentally shoots his dog. The event is so traumatic that even as an adult, Jim (Franchot Tone) remains adamantly against killing, so in 1938, when war comes to England, Jim registers as a conscientious objector to avoid being forced to take a life. His grandfather respects his decision, though he warns Jim that he may have a tough time of it, and indeed, he is forced to stop teaching and must find work helping out on local farms, replacing the young men who are off at war. Jim's brother Roger and his wife May have brought a young Austrian refugee named Dora (Veronica Lake) to live at the Hetherton country estate, and Jim has fallen in love with her. What none of them know is that she is actually a Nazi spy who travels to town periodically to pass information on to her handlers. When, as a German, she is threatened with detention in an internment camp for the duration of the war, Jim marries her. Eventually, Dora discovers that there is a small hidden airfield near the Hethertons and she attempts to light a fire one night in order to draw German planes to the area, but her plans are foiled. Before long, she gets another chance; this time, she plans on setting a fire in the house, but when May's young son discovers her, will she resort to murder to accomplish her mission? The other question: if Jim discovers her sabotage, will he give up his pacifism and become an executioner?

For some reason, this Paramount film (not quite glossy enough—or long enough—to be an A-film, but a little too classy to be a B-film) never seems to have gotten a home video release so I watched a less-than-ideal YouTube print. When I first realized that sultry Veronica Lake was playing the villain, I thought she'd give a laughable performance, but she's really quite good, as good as anyone else in the cast. Her hair is up and braided so she no longer has the peek-a-boo style that made her famous, and it took me a few minutes to recognize her. I've always found Tone to be a fairly bland actor, and he remains so here, but I suppose that fits the stereotype of the wartime pacifist. Binnie Barnes has a couple of good moments as the big city sister-in-law. She gets my favorite line: "Give me a whisky—and don’t drown in it in soda or I’ll murder you!" John Sutton is fine as Roger (I sort of wish he and Tone had switched roles), as is Henry Stephenson as the grandfather. Nils Asther has a small role as one of Dora's handlers. Coming out in 1944, it was a bit late in the game to be an effective propaganda piece, but it works well enough as a spy thriller, with a satisfying, if predictable, ending. Pictured is Lake in a studio publicity shot. [YouTube]

Monday, January 20, 2020


The Silver Haven estate is the home of a health and spirituality cult led by Joseph Jones (Conrad Veidt), a con man who bilks rich folks out of their money. A follower who has recently died left a chunk of money to the cult but the interest on the money goes to her nephew Harvey until his death, so Jones and his cohorts decide they need to get rid of the nephew. But how to do it? Jones is inspired by listening to a radio detective show featuring The Fox, aka Wally Benton (Red Skelton), who solves seemingly perfect crimes every show. Wally is about to leave on vacation to marry his long-time girlfriend Carol (Anne Rutherford), but to keep his radio sponsor satisfied, he agrees to one last night on the town to entertain the sponsor's wild daughter Fran (Virginia Grey). But Jones's men kidnap Wally, take him to Silver Haven, and demand that he work out the perfect way to get rid of Harvey. When he refuses to cooperate, they kidnap both Carol and Fran. Wally comes up with a plan involving putting a poison in Harvey's toothpaste that will be untraceable after he gargles. Jones and his men set out on the murder mission—Harvey is traveling on a plane—and Wally and his gals try to figure out a way to rig up a radio so that they can use an impromptu broadcast to warn Harvey about the danger of brushing his teeth.

I’m not a fan of Red Skelton—he is second only to Phil Silvers as my least favorite comic actor. But in this film, his first starring role, he's quite tolerable. Perhaps because of the plotline, involving some secret passages and a little bit of spookiness, he reminded me of Bob Hope in something like The Cat and the Canary or The Ghost Breakers. His outsized clowning and facial contortions are nowhere to be seen here. I enjoyed both leading ladies, and Eve Arden and Rags Ragland in supporting roles. But what I most enjoyed about the movie was Conrad Veidt, normally a villain (best known as the Nazi Major Strasser in Casablanca); he's still a villain here but he does a nice job keeping things fairly light and almost stealing scenes from his comic co-stars. There were two more "Whistling" movies with Skelton and Rutherford; though I'm not sure I need to see those, this was a surprisingly breezy and pleasant comedy. Pictured are Veidt and Skelton. {TCM]

Friday, January 17, 2020


A vacuum cleaner salesman (Alec Guinness) who lives a placid life in Havana with his teenage daughter is recruited by a British secret agent (Noel Coward). Guinness is tasked with recruiting his own network of agents to pass on intelligence, but, egged on by a suggestion from his friend (Burl Ives), Guinness instead makes up a list of agents using names he has heard in conversation. He even goes so far as to make up a sketch of a secret Cuban military invention which he bases on his most recent vacuum cleaner model. His bosses, believing him to be useful and important, send him a secretary (Maureen O'Hara) for whom Guinness must keep making up more and bigger lies until the situation threatens to spiral out of control. This spy satire, based on a Graham Greene novel, is difficult to get a handle on—it ambles along like a shaggy dog story for about 20 minutes until the gears start meshing, loses its way again but has a satisfying conclusion. But it's worth watching mostly for the performances of Guinness, Coward and Ralph Richardson. O'Hara is fine but overshadowed, and Ernie Kovacs is wasted as a Cuban military officer who is romancing Guinness daughter (Jo Morrow, possibly best known for William Castle's 13 GHOSTS). The first contact between Coward and Guinness plays out like a gay men's room pickup and is quite amusing. Pictured are Richardson and Guinness) [Criterion sreaming]

Tuesday, January 14, 2020


In Vienna, young intern Peter Blood (Kieron Moore, at left) is furtively carrying out an experiment on a corpse when he is discovered by a furious older doctor and is booted out of the prestigious clinic where he has been studying biochemistry. He heads home to a small village in Cornwall to stay with his father Robert (Ian Hunter), the town doctor, under the guise of taking a well-deserved break from his studies. However, what he's really doing there is continuing his experiments which involve taking people he deems to be worthless, injecting them with a poison that simulates death, spiriting them away to the abandoned tin mines in the hills, and attempting to take out their living hearts which would eventually be transplanted into more worthy people who are ill or near death. Villagers are disappearing and some of Robert's medical supplies go missing, but Peter, who is squiring his dad's lovely widowed nurse Linda (Hazel Court), keeps up a good façade and no one suspects him—until the local undertaker catches him doing a post-mortem on a body that is still alive. Soon, Linda figures out what's going on and Peter decides the best way to win her over is to dig up her dead and decaying husband to give him a living heart.

This low budget horror film was shot in 10 days, and shows, though the location shooting in Cornwall helps. It follows the Frankenstein template predictably: a young hothead is tampering in God's domain, is shot down by traditional scientists and continues his work in secret only to face a tragic ending. What's a little different here is that the scientist is young and attractive and, for a time, escapes suspicion from the villagers. The "God’s domain" cliché is emphasized here when, after Linda finds out what he's doing, she invokes God several times, as in, only God can create life, so only God should be allowed to end life. She also says that Peter is exhibiting "the pride of Lucifer" in his unholy dabbling. None of this matters to him, of course, so the film ends the way many of these tales do, with the scientist destroyed by one of his own creations. Moore (one of the heroes of DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS), Court (a horror movie scream queen in the 60s), and Hunter (a busy and respected character actor from the mid-30s on) are all fine, but the script and the budget let them down. This was considered quite gory in its day for a couple of scenes involving the handling of human hearts, and some critics have tried to claim this as an early entry in the zombie genre, though locomotion of the undead is limited to the climax.  It is a bit slow and repetitious (there's a gruelingly slow chase involving Peter and one of his almost-dead victims) but the ending isn't bad. [DVD]

Thursday, January 09, 2020


Entertainer George Jessel (playing himself) is producing a movie at Twentieth Century Fox about the early 20th century vaudeville performer Eva Tanguay. An elderly man keeps coming to Jessel's office to talk about Eva but Jessel, assuming he's just an old fan, keeps ignoring him away, instead sending his screenwriters off to find people who knew her to flesh out their story. First they find Eddie McCoy (David Wayne), the man who gave Eva her start. In his flashback, we see Eddie, at odds in his career, finding Eva (Mitzi Gaynor), an energetic waitress who loves to sing and dance while she works. On the night Eddie meets her, she accidently breaks some dishes while dancing and is fired, but Eddie goes after her and asks her to partner with him in his act. They are successful, but soon cocky songwriter Larry Woods (Bob Graham) puts the moves on her and an on-and-off relationship begins, hindered by the fact that he's married. Eddie says his weak heart caused him to leave the act, which allowed her to go solo, but the next person the writers talk to, Larry's former songwriting partner Charles Bennett (Oscar Levant) tells a different story: Eddie had a strong heart but a debilitating alcohol problem. Despite a few bumps, Eva's career goes upward and soon she is a star of the Ziegfeld Follies. Larry is in the midst of finally getting a divorce, but Eva becomes jealous when he makes plans to work with Stella, a rival singer who has hurt Eva's career in the past. When she finds out that Larry and Stella will be on stage together at a benefit show, she arranges to have a big, juicy tomato thrown at Larry, but when it happens, he's wearing an army uniform—the U.S. has joined World War I and he's about to ship out. She's mortified and makes a sudden decision to retire from show biz. The story is finished by the old man who's been visiting Jessel, who turns out to be Larry who gives Eva's story a happy, if nebulous, ending.

Based on a glance at a Wikipedia page, this musical biopic has little to do with the real Eva Tanguay, and generally it's not a particular standout in the genre. It's colorful, and Gaynor is fun and energetic, even if the character of Eva never really comes to life. Money was spent on the sets and costumes, though the supporting cast is mostly B-range talent: Wayne and Graham are fine, but neither is known for song-and-dance talents—in fact, Graham only made four movies before apparently leaving Hollywood—and Wayne is particularly underwhelming in his musical numbers. Craig Hill and Warren Stevens are appealing as the screenwriters. The one thing that makes this movie unique is the frame story with the real George Jessel, who was producing movies at Fox at the time, and who was the actual producer of this film. For a mind-spinning meta-topper at the conclusion, in the 1920s final scene, a production number with Eva, the 1953 Jessel shows up backstage saying he wanted to see how the movie turned out. Worth watching for the elaborate musical numbers. Gaynor is pictured above with background dancers. [TCM]

Monday, January 06, 2020


Ted has just graduated from night school; to celebrate, his hot-to-trot girlfriend Terry (who looks like a femme fatale in training) is waiting in her car for him. The two roar off, making out while driving, and get in a car crash. When Ted comes to, he sees the driver of the other car, apparently dead, hanging out of his window. Not able to deal with the situation, he has a mental break of some sort, wanders off in a daze, and develops amnesia. The first person he runs across is Noah, an itinerant preacher who takes him under his wing. Soon, Ted (calling himself Tad) has become a faith healer. Over time, he makes a name for himself and is on a crusade to raise money for a children's hospital, with Noah as his assistant. Meanwhile, Terry has become an alcoholic slattern; it turns out that the other driver in the accident didn't die, but Terry was charged with drunk driving and her life spiraled downward. Now she lives in squalor with an alcoholic sleazebag named Pete. After reading about Tad's crusade, she realizes that he is actually Ted, and vows to get revenge. When she confronts Tad/Ted, he eventually remembers his past; when he mentions being responsible the other driver's death, Terry immediately decides to blackmail him—even though she knows the driver didn't die. She gets some money from Tad, but when she and Pete blow it all on clothes and booze, she decides on a more permanent situation: she'll force Ted to marry her so she'll always have access to money.

Now things get really sleazy: Ted starts burning with lust for Terry and they shack up together while he’s supposedly on "vacation." One night, she gets him so drunk that he passes out—she then calls a shady justice of the peace (at midnight, mind you) and has him perform a marriage ceremony while she holds the mostly unconscious groom up. (In the funniest moment in the movie, the oblivious justice asks if he can be the first to kiss the bride.) After leaving Ted on the couch, Terry has sex with Pete in the bedroom ("It’s your weddin’ night, ain’t it?" he growls). The further crimes and degradations shouldn't be spoiled, but suffice to say that the Lord seems to take a hand in the climax.

The title is odd; the seventh commandment is the one against adultery, but that would seem to be the least of the sins that go on here. But, no matter, this is a fun grade-Z crime movie posing as a religious story, or vice versa. Tad's healing powers are presented as real—or at least, we don't see the fakery if it exists—and he exhorts his congregation to give, not with the clinking of coins, but "the rustle of green leaves"; all his followers pull out their dollar bills and shake them in the air. The low-budget movie feels appropriately shabby and grimy and Terry and Pete come off as awful people. Pete is physically abusive, at one point saying to Terry, "I don’t like to beat you up, but sometimes I gotta!" Terry's way of consoling Ted when she leaves their room is to say, "If you get lonesome for me, you can pray to pass the time." The DVD is being marketed as film noir, and it does have some noir conventions, primarily the conflicted hero, but it's more an exploitation melodrama. I feel shallow saying this, but I wish at least one of the two male leads was attractive—both Ted and Pete are drab, unattractive men, even as Terry is quite a looker, albeit in a cheap noir way. Interesting flick, with a wild ending. Above left are pictured Lyn Stratten as Terry and Jonathan Kidd as Ted. [DVD]

Thursday, January 02, 2020


Like a true classic movie fan, I started the new year by watching something old, though in this case, not a traditional theatrical movie, but a recording of a live TV film of Wuthering Heights, first broadcast in 1958. I wouldn't normally review something like this but I found this version, despite its murky look and primitive production values, to be superior to the classic 1939 version with Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon. Both films tell the same story from the first half of the Emily Bronte novel. Young Catherine Earnshaw and her brother Hindley live at Wuthering Heights on the wild and windy moors. When their father returns from a trip to London with the young orphan boy Heathcliff, Hindley immediately takes a disliking to him, but Heathcliff and Cathy hit it off quite nicely. Years later, the two seem to be in a romantic but non-sexual relationship when Cathy is injured on the moors and stays with the Linton family until she recovers. She and Edgar Linton become involved, and when the jealous Heathcliff, who is constantly abused by Hindley, overhears Cathy talk about marrying Edgar, he leaves without hearing her say that it's Heathcliff she really loves ("I am Heathcliff!" she exclaims). Years later, Cathy is married to Edgar when Heathcliff returns, having made a small fortune, to exact revenge against both Hindley and Cathy.

The 1939 movie comes off as rather tame and bloodless, even though the novel concerns itself with tempestuous feelings of love and vengeance. Here, the young Richard Burton (in his early 30s) makes a perfect Heathcliff—even though he overacts a bit, as was par for the course for TV drama back then, he comes off as rough and passionate, more so than Olivier did in 1939. The same goes for Rosemary Harris who makes a far better Cathy than Oberon did. They are paired perfectly, even though Harris was a last-minute substitute for the original actress—Harris had only four days to learn her lines. Denholm Elliot is fine as Edgar, and the young actors are quite good—Cathy is Patty Duke, who a year later would achieve fame on Broadway and the movies as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker; young Heathcliff is Michel Ray who would leave acting in the mid-60s. John Colicos is the villainous Hindley and Cathleen Nesbit is the family maid Ellen. This was originally broadcast mostly live on May 9, 1958—there are times when costume changes between scenes happen far more quickly than could really have happened, and a voice at the end does note that "some portions" were prerecorded.  This episode of the DuPont Show of the Month program, like most live television of the era, was considered lost but a kinescope copy was found recently and was aired on Turner Classic Movies. I hope they air it again as it really does deserve to be seen. [TCM]