Thursday, January 28, 2021


We see actor Philip Trent (Edmund Lowe) filming the climax of his latest movie in which he plays the sleuth Shelby James. Afterwards, he announces that he is tired of playing the part, which is based on a series of books by Peter Dean, and takes off on a cruise. He is immediately spotted as a celebrity and is hounded by Mrs. Kinney (Zasu Pitts), a mild-mannered but often drunk fan. His plans for settling down for the night are spoiled when he gets involved with a mysterious blonde who is being followed by a sinister figure, the outcome of which is a dead body in Trent's cabin. But by the time the ship's detective arrives, the body's gone. Lo and behold, the whole thing is a publicity stunt carried out by Trent's agent, Morgan (Ted Healy), and by the author Peter Dean (Elissa Landi), who is actually a woman and who was the mysterious blonde. Morgan and Dean are quite amused, the detective and the ship's captain less so, but soon a real dead body shows up, that of Van Mier, a wealthy man in possession of a famous diamond called the Dragon. Dean wants to use her expertise to crack the case with Trent's help, and eventually the help of the dead man's valet (Edmund Gwenn). Possible suspects include 'Cocky' Joe, a sometime jewel thief who had been hired to pose as the dead man in the original prank, and Li Tai, an Asian woman whose family once possessed the diamond and who had been negotiating to regain it. The diamond is found, but it turns out it's a fake, and suspicion falls on the ship's detective who is suddenly missing. As Trent reluctantly joins Dean is some sleuthing, the climax occurs on land in a Chinese theater where Li Tai's husband Li Yat is performing. 

After the success of the Thin Man movies in the mid-1930s, screwball comedy-mysteries were briefly the rage. Most of them are fun B-movies but no masterpieces and this is no exception. I'm not normally a big fan of Lowe's whom I normally find rather stuffy and stolid, but he's fine here, and he has good chemistry with Landi (who actually appeared in a Thin Man movie in 1936; pictured with Lowe) who makes her obnoxious character quite appealing. The whole cast is good, including the dependable Gwenn, the hardy Healy, and the blustery Edgar Kennedy as the detective. Best of all is Pitts who does a drunkard act to a tee and steals all her scenes, even when she's sober. There is a fair amount of slapstickish action, primarily when, through an outlandish chain of events, Trent and Dean wind up handcuffed in a cabin with Morgan locked in the bathroom. Though not a timeless gem, it's fun while it lasts and at 70 minutes, it doesn't wear out its welcome. [TCM]

Thursday, January 21, 2021

IT'S TRAD, DAD (1962)

Released in the States as Ring-A-Ding Rhythm, this British film would seem to have the trappings of a traditional rock & roll movie, especially when you see that the list of performers includes Chubby Checker and Del Shannon. But you would (mostly) be wrong. The sliver of a plot has a small town mayor trying to ban the public playing of loud pop music in town. A young man (Craig Douglas) and woman (Helen Shapiro) decide to head to London to track down a DJ who will host a music festival in defiance of the mayor. They ultimately get three professional DJs and several acts to perform and, though the mayor tries to block the festival, he winds up accepting it when the show is a hit and the town gets good publicity from it. To get the musical concerns out of the way first, the music in here--and the bulk of the movie's running time consists of variety show-type performances--is mostly a kind of modified Dixieland jazz; the title of the film refers to "trad jazz," a 60s revival of Dixieland-style music. The Dukes of Dixieland themselves perform, as does Acker Bilk, a clarinet player who had a #1 hit in the UK and the States with the instrumental "Stranger on the Shore." He gets the most exposure with three songs (though not his big hit), and an odd vaudeville-like group called the Temperance Seven get two songs. A couple of nondescript jazz bands get a few numbers, and the rest, including Checker, Shannon, Gene Vincent, and the Brook Brothers, get one song each, and none of them perform hits, though most of the songs are pleasant enough--I especially liked Gene Vincent's "Space Ship to Mars." The climatic number is "When the Saints Go Marching In," which should give you an idea of just how cutting-edge this was.

As a time capsule of a forgotten period in British pop music (just before the Beatles would wipe most all this stuff away), this is fun. But it's also worth watching for the odd humorous style from director Richard Lester who would go on to helm A Hard Day's Night a couple years later. Lester speeds up the film here and there, and pulls off a few surreal moments. When Craig and Helen (pictured; both actual charting pop stars who had several top 10 hits) need to get to the big city, they ask the narrator for help. He stops the film, pulls away their background and replaces it with a TV studio hallway so they can find their first DJ. Later, the unseen narrator smacks an irritating fellow with a pie, again at the request of Craig and Helen. At the fancy Clique Club, a waiter (Derek Nimmo) pulls off some slapstickish pranks. In a bit that seems to anticipate Monty Python, a TV panel discussion degenerates into fisticuffs. The Temperance Seven (though I think I counted nine people in the band) wins for strangest performance, though their second song feels like overkill. I did enjoy this but I'm glad it wasn't any longer than its 78 minutes [TCM]

Tuesday, January 19, 2021


Nikki (Deanna Durbin) is on a train to New York City to visit her aunt; as she reads "The Case of the Headless Bride" by her favorite mystery author Wayne Morgan, she looks out her window and sees, in a nearby building, a man killing another man with a crowbar across the head. She tries to get people, including the police, to take her seriously, but no one does. She even contacts Wayne Morgan, the mystery writer (David Bruce), for help, but to no avail. Setting out on her own as an amateur detective, she realizes from a news story that the dead man was the wealthy businessman Josiah Waring, reported to have died at his home from a fall suffered while he was decorating a Christmas tree. She heads out to the Waring mansion where she is mistaken for nightclub singer Margo Martin who is named in Josiah's will as the chief inheritor of the Waring money and property. Soon she is neck-deep in the family intrigues, involved with, among others, two nephews: the ne'er-do-well Arnold (Dan Duryea) and the easy-going Jonathan (Ralph Bellamy). A pair of bloody slippers, the only evidence that Nikki finds, come and go as various shady characters are out to further their own ends. After the real Margo is murdered, Nikki continues her sleuthing, eventually roping in the reluctant writer, who may be more of a hindrance than a help.

This is a light-toned mystery with lots of noirish visual style, including a dark, ominous house that occasionally reminded me of Kane's Xanadu in CITIZEN KANE. It's also a little screwballish, in that Durbin plays Nikki much like Katherine Hepburn played Susan in BRINGING UP BABY, as an obnoxious steamroller of a person whose eccentricities we're supposed to find charming. Much as I like Hepburn, Susan is my least favorite role of hers--I find her shrill and demanding and pretty thoroughly unlikable. Durbin isn't quite as bad here, but I never found myself on her side, especially in the forced scenes involving the writer and his fiancée. Durbin, known more for musicals, gets a couple of songs, one of which is gently singing "Silent Night" over the phone on Christmas Eve for her ailing father. Otherwise, she's nothing special here. The supporting cast, including Duryea, Bellamy, Edward Everett Horton as a lackey of Nikki's dad and George Coulouris as a bad guy, is pretty strong, and I like that the revelation of the chief villain is a surprise, and is pulled off in a nicely creepy way. Tolerable if not a classic. [TCM]

Wednesday, January 13, 2021


Tucson, 1868. Frontier scout James Craig is court-martialed for aiding in the escape of some Indians he feels were unjustly jailed. Craig, who is trusted by the local tribes, manages to escape with the help of some sympathetic soldiers. He hitches a ride in a coach with Indian agent Dean Jagger who we eventually learn has been cheating the Indians in his jurisdiction out of cattle. The unfriendly Jagger boots Craig out of the coach and proceeds to the small town of Desert Center where he is to marry Lucille Ball, proprietor of the Busy Bee Cafe--though her assistant (Peter Whitney) warns her that he knows she doesn't love Jagger. (Whitney is a simple, overgrown manchild so we know he's right.) In town, Craig eventually shows up and throws a wrench into the wedding plans, first by bathing naked in a barrel of water in front of Ball (whom he quickly falls for) and later by getting in a wild fistfight with Jagger who winds up bruised and battered. An Englishman (Cedric Hardwicke) who despises Jagger helps Craig recover from an ass-whooping carried out by Jagger's men and the two of them joined by Whitney ruin the wedding by dropping red ants onto the congregation from the second floor. Jagger and Ball go to Tucson to marry, but Craig follows, and they all wind up captured by Apaches who are aware of Jagger's cheating ways. Craig engages Geronimo in a battle of skills which Craig wins. But when they get back to Desert Center, Ball breaks her engagement to Jagger, who then gets revenge by carrying out various double-crosses and riling up the Indians to attack the town. Can Craig, with his small band of buddies, save the day and get the girl?

Though not really a classic, this does have an unusual feel. On the surface, it’s a B-western made by an A-studio (RKO). Underneath, it's a romantic comedy with very little romance and some nice action sequences. Craig (pictured), a B-lead who usually had a light touch, is quite appealing as the hero; the villainous Jagger also gets away with a light touch--he always seems a little too much of a doofus to be truly dangerous, and we even feel a bit sorry for him at times. Ball doesn't have much to do; as I noted above, there's very little romance in the movie, and we have to take the fact that she falls for Craig on faith. Whitney (in a kind of Andy Devine role) and Hardwicke are fine, and Billy Gilbert gets most of the outright laughs as a befuddled justice of the peace. The wedding day fight is well staged as is the Indian raid at the end. When Craig picks up a cricket bat belonging to Hardwicke, he is amazed: "You must have awfully big crickets around here." The best line, spoken by familiar character actor George Cleveland: "There's only two ways to handle a woman--and nobody knows what they are!" At over 80 minutes, the mix of comedy and western wears a bit thin, but I enjoyed this and would recommend it as something a little off the beaten Hollywood path. [TCM]

Thursday, January 07, 2021

MANIAC (1963)

The Camargue region of Southern France is known, we are told, for bulls, wild horses, and violence. We see a scruffy looking guy abduct a schoolgirl named Annette and take her off to rape her. Afterward, Georges, her unhinged father, drags the guy back to his garage and kills him with a blowtorch, which leads to imprisonment in an asylum. Years later, Georges is still locked away, and 19-year-old Annette works at a country inn with her stepmother Eve. A handsome American artist named Jeff arrives at the inn, fleeing the clutches of a rich female sugar momma. Jeff and Annette hit it off, twisting the night away, but when he plans a romantic picnic with her the next day, it's the more age-appropriate Eve who shows up. The two are soon conducting an affair which takes a potential Double Indemnity turn when Eve enlists Jeff to help free her husband from the asylum, after which he has said he will grant her a divorce so she can marry Jeff. Jeff's role is easy: an asylum orderly is helping Georges escape, and all Jeff and Eve have to do is pick the two up outside the asylum. When he does, however, the orderly is already gone. After dropping Georges off at the docks to leave the country, Jeff finds a dead body in the trunk of the car, apparently the orderly. Is Georges still unbalanced? Does he really plan to leave or might he return to his garage, where his trusty blowtorch awaits, and get rid of Jeff, or Eve, or both? 

Despite the wild and wooly blowtorch killing at the beginning (not explicit but still brutally effective), this Hammer movie is not so much horror as suspense, with the requisite twisty plot points that will keep you guessing as to who's who and what's what. The plotting is effective, the low-key mood consistent, and the acting is maybe a notch above the typical Hammer thriller, with Kerwin Mathews and Nadia Gray [pictured] particularly good as Jeff and Eve. The movie begins with a jolt, then settles down a bit too much as the characters are all introduced and put through various paces until things kick into high gear in the last 20 minutes. Some critics don't think much of Mathews' performance, seemingly because the character is boorish and unlikable, but I found his hero to be somewhat refreshing for that very reason. One must also take into account that, for most of the movie, Jeff is being used by others for their own ends. The French countryside does not make for an especially attractive backdrop here, but even that adds to the somewhat gritty feel of the proceedings. [TCM]

Sunday, January 03, 2021


Navy sailors (and brothers) Jim and Walter are spending shore leave in San Francisco. Both are sweet on Nancy, though her sister Letty has a crush on Walter. A number of plotlines are set in motion early on: 1) We discover that Nancy is quite free with her affections, and isn't much of a housekeeper or cook, which is why Letty lives with her, to help her entertain; 2) we also discover that Jim and Letty write to each other in a secret code, and when Jim learns that Walter is going to propose to Nancy, he lets her know; 3) Letty has baked a batch of "yum-yum" cookies to enter in a national contest. When she asks her ne'er-do-well cousin to take a picture of her for the entry, he accidentally snaps her legs by mistake and that picture is sent off with the cookies; 4) Walter is arranging for his captain to use a hunting lodge at Paradise Valley; 5) Nancy is hosting a big picnic bash, for which Letty is doing most of the work. After all these things are set up, it's just a matter of dominoes falling as slapstick confusions and complications ensue.

This is Bob Hope's third movie (he plays Jim) and he is billed second to the more established Martha Raye (Letty)--her shtick was mostly being loud and homely, but though she can't compare to her co-star Betty Grable (Nancy) in looks, she's not as unattractive as her reputation would have it. Hope and Raye, pictured above, have good chemistry (they were paired in four movies between 1938 and 1939) and it doesn't take us long to realize that Jim and Letty belong together--though whether Nancy deserves Walter, or vice versa, is up for grabs. The funniest scene by far is when Letty puts on a mud face pack and can't get it off when company comes. The snafu of the leg picture pays off when Letty wins a beautiful legs contest and is suddenly rich, and therefore is suddenly desirable to both Jim and Walter. Jack Whiting (Walter) didn't have much of a movie career--this was the sixth and last film he made; he’s adequate though he fades into the background compared to other leads. This is an enjoyable bit of 30's romantic comedy; it doesn't quite fit the screwball genre conventions, but it's got lots of laugh lines goofy situations and physical comedy, and it's fun to see Hope and Raye and Grable in their early days. Funniest line: when the guy who develops the picture of Raye's legs is told it's a picture of her "yum-yums," he says, "I'll say it is!" [DVD]