Thursday, February 25, 2021


Broadway director Danny Miller (Larry Parks) is in the middle of rehearsals for his new show "Swinging the Muses," based on Greek mythology. He needs it to be a hit because when he racked up a big gambling debt to the gangster Joe Manion, he made a deal with Joe: back the show. If it's a hit, Joe will make a lot of dough; if it’s a flop, Danny will pay with his life. Meanwhile up in the clouds on Mount Parnassus, the muse Terpsichore (Rita Hayworth), goddess of song and dance, is angry over the show and its vulgar portrayal of herself and her sisters--in one song, the muse sings, "I put the ants in the pants of the dancers." She flits over to heaven and talks the angel Mr. Jordan into letting her visit Earth, with the plan to get the lead in the musical and exert pressure on Danny to make the show high art. Using the name Kitty, she barges into a rehearsal, dances so well that she steals the part from the lead, and does get Danny to make the show more serious. But those changes are a flop with critics and preview audiences, and it looks like Joe will come calling for Danny to pay his debt. But Mr. Jordan manages to manipulate things so Terpsichore understands what's at stake, and she allows Danny to stage the show the way he wanted, "for people who like jive, baseball and hot dogs." It's a hit and Danny is safe, but romantic complications between the goddess and Danny make her want to stay on Earth, with Mr. Jordan will not allow.

The heart of the narrative conflict here is high art vs. popular art, not an unusual theme in musicals of the classic era which often pitted opera against pop music or ballet against popular dance, with pop always winning out. Much of the middle of this movie anticipates 1953's THE BAND WAGON which uses a very similar plot device--a musical meant to be mindless fun is turned into a literal adaptation of Faust by a snobbish director and it's a flop until the show is rewritten for the masses. However, THE BAND WAGON had many legendary talents behind it, including MGM, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, director Vincente Minnelli, and the songwriting team of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. This Columbia movie misses that mark by quite a bit; the only legend here is Rita Hayworth and for the most part she manages to carry the movie on her shoulders, but she is let down by pedestrian songwriting and direction, and a bland leading man. The frame for the story is borrowed directly from Columbia's 1941 fantasy HERE COMES MR. JORDAN which involves the angel Jordan allowing a dead person to visit Earth briefly to right a wrong. Claude Rains, Jordan in the original, is replaced here by the lesser Roland Culver, though Edward Everett Horton is fun repeating his earlier role as Heavenly Messenger 7013. Larry Parks isn't bad, but he and Hayworth don't strike many sparks, and she outdoes him wildly in looks and talent. But to touch on some positive notes: the movie is very colorful and the production numbers are fun (even if the songs are forgettable), and Rita Hayworth looks as gorgeous and dances as heavenly as she ever did. She is reason enough to sit through the movie, even if the ending falls flat--the romance plot can't be satisfactorily wrapped up. A couple of lines made me laugh: a pop song is mentioned called "Who Hit Nelly in the Belly with a Flounder?"; a stuffy society lady sniffs, "I adore musicals--I'm so tired of thinking." [TCM]

Monday, February 22, 2021


Jimmy Tallant, the young and brash son of Senator Tallant, speeds to get a lovely hitchhiker to the airport to catch a flight in what she claims is a life or death situation. He gets her there but gets a ticket from the cops, and also learns that the young woman is just in a hurry to get to a dance. Newspaper owner Atwood, running against Tallant in the upcoming election, orders his reporters to keep following Jimmy and make him look bad in the papers as a way to tarnish the senator's reputation. Though Jimmy claims he only gets into trouble because he always wants to help, the negative headlines work and Jimmy decides to make himself scarce for the duration by going away to stay at the family vacation lodge. He tells his dad's secretary, Edith, where he's going; when she finds out that the young woman Jimmy helped to get the airport may have actually been in a robbery involving gangster Tony Scarlotti, she heads to the lodge to warn him. Reporter Larry Deering follows. As it happens, Tony and his men are hiding out at a cabin in the same woods, and poor Jimmy gets into more trouble when he helps a wounded gang member get to the hideout. As the gang tries to use Jimmy as bait to bring the senator, can Larry and Edith overcome a certain amount of animosity and work together against the mob?

In the late 30s, young Frankie Darro (Jimmy) and serials and action star Kane Richmond (Larry) were paired in a few movies by indie studio Conn Pictures. They did not play the same characters (sometimes but not always they were brothers), but the set-ups were the same--one has to help the other out of a jam. This cheap-looking but fast-paced and light-toned crime movie is fun, though because they don't share a lot of screen time, it's difficult to judge their effectiveness as a team. Both are B-movie favorites of mine so I'll probably try to hunt down a couple more of their films. There isn't much of a climax; the final showdown just sort of fizzles out. Otherwise, this is mostly indistinguishable from any other Poverty Row film of the era--an hour of painless entertainment which provides a couple of chuckles and a couple of passable action scenes. Pictured above are Darro and Richmond. [YouTube]

Thursday, February 18, 2021

NOT SO DUMB (1930)

Gordon is trying to get businessman Charles Forbes to invest in his costume jewelry business. His fiancée Dulcy knows the Forbeses and invites them (Forbes, his wife Eleanor, and their daughter Angela) to a weekend house party, intending to help Gordon finalize the deal. Also present: her brother Bill, a Hollywood screenwriter named Leach, and an eccentric golfing millionaire named Van Dyke. Leach has had a crush from afar on Angela and hopes to win her over, but Bill, who used to date her, has his own ideas about getting her back. The flighty Van Dyke flirts with Eleanor, grabbing her bottom whenever possible. There's also a new butler, Perkins, an ex-con with an accent, who may be tempted to steal a valuable necklace of Eleanor's. Dulcy tries hard to get Forbes to make Gordon a good business deal, but everything she does backfires. The next morning, all is a shambles: Forbes backs out the deal, Van Dyke makes a better offer that turns out to be an empty promise, the butler seems to have made off with the necklace, and Leach and Angela have eloped, leaving both Forbes and Bill angry. Is there any way Dulcy can save the weekend before breakfast?

This pre-Code early talkie, based on a George S. Kaufman play, is a screwball comedy before that term existed. For me, it was equal parts fun and torture. The plot is promising, overstuffed with odd characters and situations that collapse comically before our eyes. There are some very funny moments and lines. The heavily-accented butler is given instructions as to how to greet guests, and he repeats these out loud ("When they come in, I say…") when doing the greeting. Leach spends hours relating the plot of his new screenplay "Sin," a through-the-ages story that begins with Noah and ends with the line, "The weasel is dead!" At a card game, Dulcy prattles so much that Forbes is sure she talks in her sleep. But I found this 75-minute movie difficult to get through. One problem has to do with the technical aspects of early talkies. Though the camera does move about, the film is very stagy and unimaginatively shot. But the bigger problem is the acting. Marion Davies, quite popular in her day as a light comic actress, is someone I've never cared much for. She tries very hard here to be a loveable scatterbrain, but too often she put me in mind of Katherine Hepburn's character in Bringing Up Baby, a character I have always disliked. She delivers many malapropisms (for example, mixing up "exonerated" for "exiled") but they just don't sound natural coming from her. Elliot Nugent as Gordon is totally bland and I didn't care one bit if his business deal went through or not. Franklin Pangborn is amusing but ineffective as the screenwriter. His sissy stereotype was apparently in full effect this early in his career, and I did chuckle at his pronounced limp handshake with Bill. But I didn't believe for one moment that the young and vivacious Angela (Sally Starr, whom I quite liked) would go for him. The best performance is given by Raymond Hackett as Bill, the likeable layabout brother; sadly, he vanishes for large chunks of time. Ultimately, I liked the way everything came out in the end, but I'm not sure I would recommend this to anyone except fans of Davies or of pre-Code comedy. (Forbes surprisingly comes out with a vigorous and clear line reading of, "I don’t give a damn about pictures!") Pictured at top left are Hackett and Davies; at right, Hackett and Nugent. [TCM]

Saturday, February 13, 2021


This anthology features three short films by three well-known European directors based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe. There is no obvious connection between the three--even the title Spirits of the Dead seems only to fit one of the three stories. In Roger Vadim's "Metzengerstein," Jane Fonda plays a rich and decadent countess (referred to as a "petty Caligula") who lives in a mansion by the sea, spending her days partying, holding orgies, and taking potshots at peasants, even occasionally hanging them from a tree just because she can (see photo at left). When Wilhelm, a handsome cousin of hers (Peter Fonda), moves in next door, she acts haughtily towards him but eventually flirts with him. When he rejects her, her pride is wounded so she has his barn burned down. Trying to save his horses, Wilhelm perishes in the fire, but soon a mysterious black horse shows up on the Countess' property. Could it be an incarnation of the dead Wilhelm?  The second story, directed by Louis Malle, is "William Wilson," famous as one the earliest doppelganger stories. As a youth, Wilson is a popular troublemaker at boarding school, but when a boy shows up bearing his name and looking like him, Wilson is upset. The apparent twin interrupts his cruel pranks, and later as adults (when he and his twin are both played by Alain Delon), the twin continues his unwelcome interruptions. Finally, when Wilson cheats at cards and wins the favors of an unwilling woman, the twin exposes his cheating ways. This is the tipping point for Wilson who sets out to kill his doppelganger, with disastrous results.

Federico Fellini very loosely adapts Poe's "Never Bet the Devil Your Head," presented here under the name "Toby Dammit." Toby (Terence Stamp) is a British actor who arrives in Rome with much press fanfare to take a role in what is called the first Catholic western ("Dreyer, Pasolini with a hint of John Ford"). Constantly drunk or high or just obnoxious, we see Toby journeying through a fairly hellish landscape, most notably a surreal awards show, full of grotesque people--and a few cardboard cut-outs and mannequins. He has visions of a young blond girl bouncing a ball whom he suspects is the devil, and when he takes off on a high-speed car ride through the streets of Rome one night, in the Ferrari which Toby has demanded as payment for his acting role, we know he will come to no good. These artsy, somewhat murky vignettes are the opposite of the glossy, fun, bloody movies that Roger Corman made from Poe stories. Though practically all critics find the Fellini film the best, I don't agree. Stamp is very good but the character seems so very doomed from the beginning that it all feels like a slow-motion train wreck culminating in (spoiler, I guess) Toby literally losing his head. The Malle film has the best story but it's told in a somewhat oblique fashion that blunts the impact of the finale--though Delon is always pleasant eye candy. I like the Vadim segment best--it's certainly the creepiest, both for the countryside Gothic look and the casting of real-life brother and sister Jane and Peter. The two characters never actually get close to sexual consummation, but the possibility definitely adds to the creep factor. I've seen this movie three times in my life and I keep hoping I will like it better, but I don't. I would recommend the first two segments, but don't feel like you have to hang around for the third, unless you are a die-hard Fellini fan. [TCM]

Thursday, February 11, 2021


An RAF base in Hong Kong is dealing with news of a missing aircraft over Japan when Michael Hordern arrives with advice about where to look for the plane. Even though the last message came from mid-Japan, he suggests scouring the northwest coast. We flashback to a couple nights earlier when, over cocktails, Hordern is regaling a group of people with a story of a dream he had in which he saw a small plane develop engine trouble and crash on a rocky coast in northern Japan. He remembers lots of details about the flight (a small Dakota airplane; 13 people on board including a woman and a brash, obnoxious man; a snowstorm) and one of the passengers was his friend Alexander Knox, who is listening to the story now. At first the story just seems odd and interesting but not relevant; Knox and RAF officer Michael Redgrave are going to take a small plane to Tokyo the next day to attend a conference, but the plane is a Liberator, no woman will be on board, and there will be fewer than 13 passengers. But when Redgrave informs Knox that their plane is unavailable and the substitute is a Dakota, Knox--a diplomat who has avoided flying all his life--gets a little nervous. By the next morning, things are looking even stranger: a woman has joined the group, and at the last minute, they take on two soldiers who need to get back to their base, making 13 on the plane. Redgrave and his assistant (Denholm Elliott) don't seem worried but Knox is tense, and eventually a storm causes trouble. They manage to land at Okinawa safe and sound to spend the night and the two extra soldiers leave. But when Knox finds out that Redgrave has okayed the booking of two more passengers (one of them a brash, obnoxious man), he freaks out and considers not going on. But he does, and an even worse storm hits, sending them over, yes, a rocky coast in northern Japan… 

This has a distinct Twilight Zone feel to it--I wonder what people used as a reference for this kind of plot before The Twilight Zone existed? And like some Zone episodes, it feels a bit long at times even though it's only 90 minutes. But it manages to be a nice character piece--we get to know several people, not just Redgrave and Knox but also Elliott, the woman (Sheila Sim), the pilot (Nigel Stock) and the brash fellow (George Rose). At times it has a disaster movie feel to it and both storm scenes are effective at sustaining tension. The acting is very good all around. Redgrave, who could be a showy actor, underplays nicely, and Knox is good at suggesting a man who is frequently approaching a meltdown and just barely keeping it together. There are suggestions of larger thematic issues but they don't really pan out. Set after WWII, war issues are nevertheless present: we discover that Elliott had a nervous breakdown after flying in the Battle of Britain, and some of the passengers mention wanting to fly over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which they do. A concern with free will and destiny is voiced briefly at the beginning but that goes nowhere. Still, this is a very effective B-budget thriller which manages to be tense and unsettling while mixing in humor and character drama. The DVD commentary track by Samm Deighan is disappointing. She starts off well with some discussion of a genre I was not familiar with called "film blanc" (basically uplifting stories of the supernatural) but her talk is full of "sort ofs" and "kind ofs" and "as I said earlier…" to the point of distraction. She is also rarely scene-specific about what we’re seeing. I think the commentary should get a do-over.  Pictured are Redgrave and Knox. [DVD]

Friday, February 05, 2021


David and Bill are two American pilots flying a supply route between Tibet and India in the last days of World War II. After making 74 flights, David is given orders to return to the States and he promises Bill to visit Elaine, Bill's wife. But just before David is to fly out, Bill discovers that David has stolen a Buddhist temple mask of the demon god Sindja who supposedly guards the treacherous peak of Amne Mandu. Bill tells him to leave the mask but David wants it as a souvenir. The two get into minor fisticuffs and David cuts his hand on glass. Because of his injury, David is left behind, even though most of his stuff, including the mask, is packed, and Bill takes his place on the flight. But the plane's compass malfunctions and it winds up going off course over Amne Mandu where the it goes missing, with the pilots presumed dead. David is guilt-stricken and when he tries to pay a Buddhist monk money for the stolen (and now missing) mask, he is told, "Atonement is not for sale." Back home, David visits Elaine and the two soon fall in love. She assures him that Bill's death wasn't his fault and they eventually get married. One day, a package arrives addressed to Elaine: the stolen Sindja mask. Deciding that Bill may have survived the plane crash, David and Elaine join a UNESCO scientific expedition to Tibet and plan to visit Amne Mandu. On the way up, they stop in a temperate hidden valley (a non-magical version of Lost Horizon's Shangri-La) and during a religious ceremony, David sees a Sindja mask and freaks out after having a disorienting premonition of a deadly avalanche. Despite this, the group goes on. A superstitious native tries to sabotage their climb, but they make it. David sees the crashed plane on the mountain, but their progress is halted when an avalanche (as predicted by David's vision) threatens their lives.

This B-film, directed by Andrew Marton, has strong story potential that its low budget can't quite fulfill, but it's an interesting footnote in movie history. A good chunk of the 90 minute running time is taken up with location documentary footage of an actual Himalaya climb that was shot in 1934 and used by Marton for a German adventure film called Demon of the Himalayas, released in Europe in 1935 but never screened in the United States. The scenes of Buddhist rituals, mountain climbing, and an avalanche are genuine, and Marton did his best to match that footage with his studio-shot scenes, but the 1930s scenes are slightly sped up, almost like a silent film would be, so the connections are not seamless. However, if you throw in a good amount of suspension of disbelief, it all almost comes together. The handsome deep-voiced Rex Reason (pictured), better known for the sci-fi films This Island Earth and The Creature Walks Among Us, is just fine as the conflicted hero. Diana Douglas (Michael Douglas' mother) is so-so in the fairly thankless role of the worried wife. I also liked Jarmila Marton (the director’s wife) as a UNESCO doctor (who was also in the earlier Demon of the Himalayas and so is matched up quite well in the older footage). The snaggle-toothed villain, who was apparently also in the 1935 film, is given little motivation for acting the way he does. In fact, all of his screen time may well be from the older movie. I enjoyed this, though I wish the semi-mystical tone of the film (another Lost Horizon echo) had been pulled off better. [YouTube]

Wednesday, February 03, 2021


In a present-day storyline, we accompany Hollywood agent Bill Dunnigan (Fred MacMurray) to Coaltown, Pennsylvania where he is attending to the funeral of actress Olga Treskovna (Alida Valli) who came from a Polish immigrant family, grew up in poverty in this coal-mining town, and was on the verge of stardom after finishing her first starring movie role when she died of tuberculosis the day after shooting ended. Bill runs into a lot of ill will from townspeople who have nothing good to say about Olga's no-good father, but with the help of Father Paul (Frank Sinatra), the priest of a small, dying parish, Bill pulls off not only the funeral but also a PR coup by getting all the churches in town to ring their bells constantly for the three days before the funeral. The studio where Olga filmed her starring role as Joan of Arc has decided to shelve the picture, but Bill hopes the publicity will make the studio head changes his mind. In a series of flashbacks, Citizen Kane-style, we get Olga's story through Bill's eyes: he first sees her as a chorus girl flubbing an audition and he intervenes to get the director to keep her on. Years later, on a snowy Christmas Eve, he runs into her again in a traveling theatrical troupe performing in a small town and the two share a lovely dinner in a Chinese restaurant--where we are first made aware of her chronic cough. Later, Bill steps in to get her the starring role in a Joan of Arc movie when the temperamental star is fired. But before Bill can express a romantic interest in her, she dies (in the beautiful Hollywood style), and he feels compelled to make her last wishes come true: be laid to rest in her hometown and have her movie released. If the bells don't convince the studio, perhaps an actual miracle will.

This didn't get a lot of love from critics when it came out and gets even less now (partly due to the odd nature of the final "miracle"), but I found it inoffensively watchable if completely average in every way from story (based on a novel) to production values to acting. MacMurray is fine and quite sympathetic, perhaps more so than a movie agent character should be, but occasionally he reminds me too much of Walter Neff in DOUBLE INDEMNITY--he calls Olga "Baby" in the same way does to Barbara Stanwyck in the earlier film. Valli is also fine--she certainly looks the part even if she is less convincing as a great unsung actress. Sinatra is roundly criticized as a weak link, but I thought his underplayed performance was very good. Lee J. Cobb is the studio boss and Philip Ahn has a small part in the charming Christmas scene. This is often shown at Christmas because of that scene but it's not really a holiday film, and certainly not a feel-good film. Still, even though at two hours, it’s about 20 minutes too long, it held my attention. [TCM]