Saturday, March 28, 2020

THE SINS OF THE CHILDREN (1930)

Small-town immigrant barber Adolf Wagenkamp is excited about investing some money he's saved in a local savings and loan business with his friend Joe Higginson. He wants to make his wife vice-president and knows he'll be able to comfortably support their five children. But when he discovers that his son Ludwig has serious health problems, he instead uses the money to send him to a sanitarium out west to recover. As the years pass, Adolf continues sacrificing for his children who never seem as grateful as they should be. Ludwig is now a doctor but to his family's dismay, he has Americanized his name to Lawrence Warren, and when he comes home from years away at school, he chooses to spend more time with his girlfriend's family than his own. When Ludwig is struggling to set up his office, Adolf secretly mortgages his barber shop to loan his son some money; when Ludwig becomes successful, Adolf can't get him to pay back the loan. Johnnie fancies himself an inventor and shows off his shaving cream gun which is a little too enthusiastic in its application of cream to a face, and when he pilfers some money from his workplace, Adolf digs into his pockets to pay it back. Meanwhile, daughter Alma has been sneaking around with Joe Higginson's obnoxious and snooty son Nick who is no good for her. Other problems rain down on poor Adolf, but all he wants on Christmas Eve, even as he stands to lose his barber shop, is for his children to come home for Christmas dinner. Will his ungrateful spawn show up?

This feels a little bit like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE without the angelic interlude, with Nick's dad, Mr. Higginson, serving as a sort of Mr. Potter character—it's because of him that the barber shop is in danger. The plot leans toward melodrama but to its credit keeps a fairly light tone so that even when things are at their bleakest for Adolf, it doesn't seem grim. I suppose it's technically a [SPOILER] to note that, in fact, the kids do show up and rally around the old man, but that seems like a foregone conclusion. None of the children are truly bad, just thoughtless, so you know a happy ending is in store. Louis Mann, an actor I'm not familiar with, is fine as the put-upon patriarch whom you wish would show more backbone throughout. His wife is Clara Blandick (Auntie Em in OZ) but her character is barely sketched in. Robert Montgomery gets second billing even though his role as Nick is fairly small (and he's rather bland). Standouts among the adult kids are Elliott Nugent as the inventor and Francis X. Bushman Jr. as the doctor. Despite the characters' weaknesses, you never really dislike them and you keep hoping they will come through. Some viewers find the ending to be far-fetched, but c'mon, it’s Christmas—how else could it end? Pictured are Mann and Nugent. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

THE VISIT (1964)

The small town of Gullen has fallen on hard times: the mines have mostly closed, the young people are leaving, and the town government is on the edge of bankruptcy. Yet the townsfolk are going all out to prepare for a "great event": the fabulously wealthy widow Karla Zachanassian (Ingrid Bergman) is returning to her hometown for a visit after twenty years away. No one knows why, but they assume that she is prepared to donate money to the town to keep it solvent. She arrives with a splash, accompanied by a small entourage and a pet leopard, and she's met by the city council and by her former boyfriend Serge (Anthony Quinn) who takes her off to the hills to see the hut where they used to make out. That evening, the town throws her a huge dinner party. The atmosphere seems to be one of sweet nostalgia, but we can sense some tension in the air, and we soon find out why: when she was 17, she became pregnant by Serge, but he denied being the father and produced evidence to show that she was promiscuous, so the town basically drove her away. At the banquet, she rises to tell the truth about what happened (Serge paid two guys to say that they'd slept with Karla even though Serge knew he had to be the father). She left town, bore the child—who died soon after—and became a prostitute. Still bitter, despite her current social and financial standing, she makes the townspeople an offer: she'll give the town two million dollars, one million for the city and one million to be split among the people, if they will give her justice by executing Serge. The next day, the council votes 4-3 not to accept her offer, and Serge breathes a sigh of relief, but he soon realizes that most of his neighbors may be willing to take Karla up on her offer. Soon, Serge sees townspeople splurging on luxury items—Karla is extending credit to all—and knows that his days may be numbered.

I've resisted watching this film, based on a well-regarded play by Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt (a musical version by Kander and Ebb hit Broadway in 2015), for one simple reason: Twentieth Century Fox has refused to make a widescreen print of this film available, on cable or on DVD; the credits are letterboxed but the rest of the movie is presented in pan-and-scan. For shame, Fox. But when I came across a free library discard copy, I broke down and watched it, and I must say it is worth seeing, even in its bastardized form. The main situation borders on theater of the absurd (it's not clear why Serge doesn't just leave town; at one point, he decides to catch a train out, but the townspeople mill about him, stopping him from leaving, and he just gives up), but Bergman and Quinn make the characters real, and even sympathetic, to a point. Tension is built well throughout as we slowly feel the noose tighten around Serge, with even his friends and loved ones getting used to the idea of his murder. [MAJOR SPOILER: in the play, the people do kill him; here, they are stopped at the last minute by Karla. This seems like a Hollywood softening of the ending, but in some ways, this movie's conclusion is just as good in terms of moral criticism.] I'd still like to see the movie in widescreen, but I'm glad I gave in and made the best of what's out there. [DVD]

Friday, March 20, 2020

THE FLEMISH FARM (1943)

In May of 1940, Belgium's air force is in tatters, their final holdouts operating from a farmhouse. With the Germans on their way to declare victory, the commanding officer (Clive Brook) is ordered to destroy as much equipment and burn as many records as he and his men can. They hold a midnight burial at sea for their regiment's flag, and the next morning as they prepare to fly their airworthy planes to England and join up with the RAF, pilot Philip Friend is taken to task by fellow officer Clifford Evans for not showing up at the ceremony, and instead canoodling with Jane Baxter, a local farm gal. But what Evans doesn't know is that Friend has secretly married Baxter, and that while the sea burial was going on with a decoy flag, Friend was burying the real flag somewhere on the farm in hopes that it could eventually be retrieved. Months later, Evans learns the truth about the flag from Friend, but Friend is killed in action the next day. Evans decides to take it upon himself to go back to Belgium and get the flag. Once in Ghent, he contacts Brook (now retired but secretly working with a resistance group), goes to the farm that was their headquarters, and finds the widowed Baxter and her child. She is reluctant to help, seeing the flag as not important enough for anyone to risk their life over, but as one character notes, "Strange the magic there is in symbols," and she soon helps him find it. But the return to England is dangerous; will the whole effort have been in vain?

This is an interesting and little-known propaganda film, a variation on the wartime spy film (there are no traditional combat scenes, though there is spy-style tension built up in the final third of the movie). Clive Brook is top-billed, but the real star of the film is Clifford Evans (pictured), and though he was mostly a B-movie lead, he acquits himself well here, as do Philip Friend (in his short time onscreen) and Jane Baxter. It's all very low-key which makes it feel a bit more realistic than the average wartime spy thriller. There’s a nice scene, also low-key, involving Evans having to meet secretly with his mother in a public park. I don't know how effective this would have been in its days as (literally) flag-waving propaganda; despite the stress on the importance of symbols, I'm not sure I felt that all the effort—involving the death of at least one person—was really worth it. But as a different take on the WWII film, it's worth seeing. [YouTube]

Friday, March 13, 2020

TO HELL AND BACK (1955)

Audie Murphy was the most decorated American soldier of World War II. After the war, he became an actor, mostly in westerns and adventure films, and wrote a war memoir, To Hell and Back. When that book was bought for the screen, he was talked into playing himself. The movie was a huge hit, becoming Universal's biggest moneymaker until JAWS in 1975. The kinds of movies in which Murphy starred aren't typically my cup of tea, but I was impressed with him in THE QUIET AMERICAN, and he's almost as impressive here. The film begins with a brief segment showing Murphy growing up poor in rural Texas, quitting school to work, and, after Pearl Harbor, joining the Army at the age of 16. Murphy is young, innocent and short but he fits in with his infantry division, proves to be brave, and is promoted quickly along the way, from North Africa to the invasion of Sicily, through Italy and France. Despite a number of courageous acts and smart decisions made during battle, he is not portrayed as a glory-chasing loner; rather, he is well-liked and respected, and bonds with his fellow soldiers, most notably Johnson (Marshall Thompson) and Brandon (Charles Drake), both fictionalized versions of real people. Many of his friends die in combat, hence his advice to some newcomers not to make new friends but to stick to the ones you already know, because it's hard to watch your friends die.

I suspect it's not easy for an actor to play himself, but Murphy makes it look easy; he seems completely natural, commanding the screen in an almost self-effacing way. His heroics, particularly near the end when he fends off a group of German tanks almost single-handedly, don't feel exaggerated. The battle scenes are generally effective, though there are times when outdoor footage and studio-shot footage don't quite mesh as well as they should. There's a scene in Naples where Audie's buddies go off to find some female companionship; he winds up having dinner with a young woman named Maria (Susan Kohner, pictured at right with Murphy) and, though he goes to her room later, it's made clear he's just interested in talking. That sounds corny, but Murphy and Kohner pull it off. It may be strange to compliment a war movie for being low-key, but in this case, it works. This is the second time Murphy has impressed me in a movie—he's also a handsome fellow—so maybe it's time for me to search for some of his westerns. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

SMASHING TIME (1967)

Carnaby Street, with its hip fashion boutiques, bars, and discotheques, was the epicenter of the "Swinging 60s" in London. Lynn Redgrave and Rita Tushingham are two young women who have come to Carnaby from the North to make it to the big time, though their plans are rather vague. Lynn is the more outgoing of the two and tends to boss Rita around. When their money is stolen just after they arrive on the street, Lynn makes Rita do dishes to pay for a meal while Lynn goes prancing up and down Carnaby, showing off what she thinks of as her really gear fashion sense while actually hip photographer Michael York is snapping pictures of her to run in the paper to make fun of her. The rest of the movie is a mostly plotless collection of scenes showing their rise and fall in the world of 60s pop culture. They get jobs, lose jobs, cause trouble in a diner leading to a colorful food fight, cause trouble in a pie shop (named Sweenie Todd's) leading to a wild pie fight, go to parties, romance men, etc. Lynn winds up almost accidentally having a hit record with a song called "While I'm Still Young" ("I can’t sing but I'm young/Can't do a thing but I'm young/…I'm a fool but I'm cool"), but she becomes jealous when Rita becomes a model and her face is everywhere. The somewhat apocalyptic climax occurs at a huge party when the girls wind up trashing a fancy building and blacking out much of London.

I remember seeing ads for this movie when I was 11 and wanting to see it, but I never did, and I've only now tracked it down on DVD. I'm sure I wouldn't have known how to take it back then, but now it works best as a colorful historical snapshot of mid-60s London as viewed through a lens of outrageous satire and slapstick. The duo of Redgrave and Tushingham must have been at least partial inspiration years later for the characters of Edina and Patsy on Absolutely Fabulous. After the first few minutes, the movie leaves reality behind completely. The names of some of the characters (Wabe, Brillig, Tove) clue us in as a guide to viewing: the names are words from Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky from Alice in Wonderland, and this is a bit like Lynn and Rita in a fantasy London Wonderland. The comic bits are hit and miss, with the food fight and pie fight coming in tops for me, and the parody of a reality TV show less successful, although kudos to the scriptwriter George Melly for envisioning TV of the 21st century. Redgrave is fun, all bubbly and oblivious to everything around her. Tushingham is a little less enjoyable as the sad sack of the pair. A lot of supporting characters come and go, and Michael York, though third-billed, is just basically another one of those background people. The "Still Young" song is funny, and my favorite line echoes a small bit in A Hard Day’s Night: when throwing a huge party, Redgrave says, pretty much right to the camera, "Me coke bill alone is phenomenal," then after a beat, holds up a Coca-Cola bottle. Fun and fairly frothy, though by the end, it does wear out its welcome. Pictured are York and Redgrave. [DVD]

Monday, March 09, 2020

INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933)

Folks are converging on the International Hotel in the town of Wu Hu, China, to see and bid on the rights to a new invention by Dr. Wong: the Radioscope, an early version of television. And that, folks, is the entire plot of this movie which winds up being mostly a very hit-and-miss variety show with musicians performing and comedians doing their shtick in the service of what seems to be intended partly as a parody of the movie GRAND HOTEL. There are some characters with fairly stunted plotlines: Stuart Erwin is the mild-mannered hypochondriac representative of an American company hoping to buy the Radioscope, and when he complains of feeling ill, the hotel is put under quarantine; Peggy Hopkins Joyce plays herself, a stage actress famous for her riches and her divorces, in Wu Hu looking to hook up with a millionaire; Bela Lugosi is a Russian general and jealous former husband of Joyce's who is locked out of the hotel due to the quarantine; George Burns is the hotel doctor and Gracie Allen his nurse; Franklin Pangborn is the overwhelmed hotel manager; most importantly, W.C. Fields is a perpetually drunken eccentric who arrives in a autogyro (named the Spirit of South Brooklyn), having gotten lost on his way to Kansas City. 

But of course, the plot's not the thing here; the appeal is in the almost vaudeville-style comedy bits and songs. Fields is the star of the show and he's even funnier than usual, maybe because he doesn't have to worry about being a consistent character—he can just be mean and snarky all the time. I'd quote some of his lines, but that would take up the rest of this review. Lugosi is surprisingly good in a rare comic role. Viewers most likely to appreciate this film are those with at least a nodding acquaintance with 30s pop culture. Burns and Allen are Burns and Allen—if you like them (which I do), they don't disappoint. An odd radio comedy duo named Colonel Stoopnagle and Budd make a brief appearance; their slogan seems to have been, "Stoopnocracy is peachy." Rudy Vallee sings a love song to his megaphone and talks back to Fields through the TV set. Cab Calloway does a rather daring rendition of "Reefer Man," with lyrics like, "He smokes reefer, he gets high/And he flies to the sky." 10-year-old Baby Rose Marie (yes, the same Rose Marie who played Sally on The Dick Van Dyke Show) sings a song with a surprisingly adult snarl to her voice. Sterling Holloway dances in a surreal number (think Busby Berkeley) with the chorus, "She was a china tea cup and he was just a mug." The wild finale involves a car chase through the hotel. As I said earlier, it is a bit hit-and-miss, but the antic atmosphere will keep you going through the slower parts—usually those involving Stuart Erwin. Pictured are Joyce and Fields. [DVD]

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

DINOSAURUS! (1960)

On a Caribbean island, engineer Bart and his associate & best buddy Chuck are doing some blasting along a beach in preparation for building a new harbor that will being more tourists to the island. Mike Hacker, the island manager (whatever that means), is against the project and, as if that's not villainous enough, he mistreats Julio, his young ward, right out in public. Arriving in the middle of blasting is Betty, Bart's blond girlfriend. She and Bart frolic underwater until she passes out in fright when she seems a monstrous face in the water. Bart and Chuck harness their equipment (no double entendre intended) and drag out two gigantic perfectly preserved dinosaur bodies onto the beach: a T. Rex and a brontosaurus. At the same time, Mike discovers a third find ignored by the engineers—the mud-caked body of a caveman. He hides it under brush and plans to retrieve it that night and make a fortune selling it. 

Young Julio thinks the dinosaurs might be alive because the eyes of one of them are open, but no one pays attention to him—until that night during a storm when lighting hits them and they are both re-animated. Julio, in the woods having run away from Mike, befriends the "good" herbivore dinosaur, and when Mike returns to claim the caveman, he finds that he is gone, reanimated as well. There follows a comic sequence in which the caveman looks inside a house and locks eyes with a woman in curlers and cold cream—they both run screaming from each other, though the caveman eventually returns and has some slapstick run-ins with appliances, and even gets a Marx Brothers moment in reaction to a full-length mirror. With the T. Rex on the rampage—he crushes to death a trolley car full of people—the caveman helps both Julio and Betty escape death as Bart and Chuck rally the townspeople to take refuge at an old fortress surrounded by a dry moat which they set on fire, hoping to drive the T. Rex away. Sadly, the friendly brontosaurus succumbs to quicksand, but it takes Bart and a big construction truck to save the village.

This feels a bit schizophrenic—sometimes, when it's focused on the caveman and the herbivore dinosaur, it's a kiddie matinee (believe it or not, the bad guy even gets a pie in the face!), and sometimes, when the carnivore takes the spotlight, it's a horror thriller. It’s not as bad as its reputation would have it, as long as you're up for the differing moods and the inconsistent special effects. In the scenes using stop-motion clay figures, the dinosaurs are brought to life fairly well. In some close-ups, they substitute large puppets, or perhaps people in costumes, that are much less effective. The climax, involving what is clearly a toy truck on a miniature cliff, is a little disappointing. Some viewers may enjoy the B-movie beefcakiness of Ward Ramsey (Bart) and Paul Lukather (Chuck) who have a nice, casual rapport with each other (both pictured at right), and Gregg Martell as the caveman. Fred Engleberg is appropriately slimy as Mike, the under-motivated bad guy (he's mostly bad because there needs to be a bad guy in a movie like this). Kristina Hanson and Alan Roberts are fine as the heroine and the kid, both of whom are mostly around to be saved from danger by the beefcake men. There's a character affectionately named Dumpy, another less affectionately named Mousey, and an outrageously stereotyped Irish guy named O'Leary who becomes the dinosaur's first casualty, sparing us from hearing that terrible accent for long. The movie looks nice and colorful, though the day-for-night sequences are not good. Enjoyable for those with appropriate expectations. [YouTube]