Friday, March 26, 2021


The wealthy Birling family has gathered for dinner. Around the table are the father Arthur, a factory owner; the mother Sibyl, a older socialite who busies herself with charity work; the daughter Sheila, present with her fiancé Gerald, wears a sense of entitlement in addition to her beauty and nice wardrobe; the brother Eric is a dissolute drinker who is always a little "squiffy," though both Sheila and his mother work hard to avoid any scenes that he might cause. In the middle of dinner, Inspector Poole (Alastair Sim, pictured) shows up somewhat mysteriously with the news that a young woman named Eva Smith has died, apparently a suicide. The family members don't seem to know her and don't know why Poole has called, but slowly the inspector jogs their memories with a photograph he presents to each, one at a time, and it turns out all of them had dealings with her that may have led her down the tragic road to death, which we see in a series of flashbacks prompted by Poole who seems to know more than he should about everyone. She once worked for the father, but he casually fired her for verbally defending a possible factory strike. Her next job was at a department store, but Sheila has her fired for an imagined slight. Going by the name Daisy, she winds up homeless and is taken in by Gerald who lets her stay at his small apartment in the city. His intentions are honorable at first, but soon she becomes his mistress until she realizes that their class differences are making him lose interest. Other sad and tawdry revelations involve Sibyl and Eric, and they all seem to have had a hand in Eva's sad end. When the family is confronted by their unfeeling ways, they feel guilty and want to atone (some more genuinely than others) until they discover that no woman named Eva Smith has been reported dead, and that no one named Poole works for the local police. So who is Poole and what does he want?

Based on a play by J.B. Priestley, this film uses its flashbacks to overcome its stage origins, though even the scenes set in the drawing room are shot with style and never feel overly stagy. In terms of genre, this isn't easily classifiable. No overt crime is committed and it's not really a mystery, despite how mysterious the inspector is. The lifestyle of the Birlings is attacked, but not satirically. I guess it's a morality play in the form of a melodrama which has a distinct Twilight Zone feel to it as it goes along. As interesting as the narrative is, it's the acting here that carries the film. Sim is always fine, and the only problem with his sleepy-eyed but sharp inspector character is that I wish there was more of him. Olga Lindo, as the mother, is a wonderful bitch whose pious bubble you can't wait to see burst. Eileen Moore as Sheila and Bryan Forbes (better known as the director of Seance on a Wet Afternoon and The Stepford Wives) flesh out their relatively sympathetic characters well. Arthur Young as the father and Brian Worth as Gerald are fine, as is Jane Wenham as Eva who actually comes off as a little too strong of a character to succumb to suicide. The moral lessons of the movie may seem a little simplistic nowadays but the social commentary is still relevant is this era when many people who loudly proclaim their Christianity seem to be completely in the dark as to what truly Christian behavior as outlined by Christ should be like. [DVD]

Monday, March 22, 2021


Reporter Terry Brewer is hanging out at a Los Angeles airport, flirting with Rita, a stewardess, when he recognizes Roger Johnson, a departing passenger on a Transamerica Airlines flight to New York, as a Federal agent named Mike Phelan. Smelling a story, maybe involving the capture of the notorious 'Killer' Madsen, Terry gets a ticket and joins eleven other passengers, including Katie, a woman obsessed with horoscopes; an beauty queen from Apple Creek, Ohio; a quiet elderly lady; a boxer and his manager; a drunkard; and a pilot (Bob) who is also sweet on Rita. At one point when everyone is asleep, we see a passenger stabbed to death in silhouette. When Rita discovers him, Phelan steps forward to take charge, but so does the elderly lady who is actually 'Killer' Madsen. He pulls a gun and, though apparently innocent of the murder, hijacks the plane to Evansville, Illinois, despite the fact that the pilots warn him about a dangerous dust storm that's brewing near there. From here on out, it's one thing after another--Madsen smashes the plane's radio, the pilot and co-pilot both wind up out of commission, Rita has to pilot the plane briefly, the horoscope lady makes a nuisance of herself, and a rocky landing is made in the middle of nowhere during the dust storm. Madsen leaves and is forced to stop at an isolated farmhouse, and soon all the other passengers wind up there as well. Can Terry and the Fed manage to bring Madsen to justice? And if Madsen really didn't kill the passenger, who did?

Because this movie was released in the relatively early days of transcontinental air travel, it begins with a foreword stressing that, despite what we're going to see, air travel is actually fast and safe. Well, it may be if you don't have a couple of murderers on board. This is a typical classic-era Warner Bros. B-picture; as such, it's well-paced, has a short running time, and features a fairly solid group of second-string actors, including Warren Hull as Terry (he doesn't cut the most heroic figure, but he's nicely flippant), Jean Muir as Rita, Gordon Oliver as the co-pilot (who I was rooting for the get the girl, but since he’s third-billed, I knew that wasn't going to happen), John Litel as the federal agent, Howard Phillips as the bad guy, and Nedda Harrigan and Mary Treen in smaller roles. Even if the outcome is predictable, the last 20 minutes are fairly exciting. My favorite line: when the reporter, frustrated when Madsen gets the upper hand in the plane, blurts out, "I'd like to give that guy some action!" the Fed replies, "Who wouldn't?" I wanted to quote Archer here: "Phrasing…" Pictured are Muir, Hull and Oliver. [TCM]

Saturday, March 20, 2021


It's November 11, 1918 and the Armistice that will end World War I is about to be signed, but the tattered remains of a group of German soldiers, which includes buddies Ernst (John King) and Ludwig (Richard Cromwell), don't know that and Captain Von Hagen somewhat reluctantly has his men take one last village. The frightened soldiers think they hear gas shells in the air, but it's really a flock of wild geese. Eventually the captain spreads the news of the truce, but it's too late for the badly wounded Wessling who is basically left to die in the village as the other men leave for home. When the Germans encounter a group of American soldiers, there is tension for a moment until the Americans offer them some chewing gum, an unknown treat which delights the Germans. But the "road back" to their old lives will not be so easy for most of the men. When the captain dismisses his handful of men for the last time, we see a ghostly image of the dozens of soldiers from the company who didn't make it back. There is revolution in the streets and old relationships aren't the same. Ernst, who suffers from what we would call PTSD, tells his girlfriend who wants to hear glory stories that he just wants to forget his war experiences, and that men who are taught to be "inhuman" for four years will have a hard time resuming normal life. Weil, one of the former soldiers, joins the street protesters and is shot dead in the streets by his former captain. Another goes somewhat awkwardly back to school. Albert (Maurice Murphy) discovers that his fianceé has gotten a reputation as a good-time girl, and is currently mistress to Bartscher, a war profiteer, which ultimately leads him to kill Bartscher. At the trial, Ernst gives an impassioned plea in his defense, blaming a society that taught Albert how to kill but not how to find a road back from war.

This is something of a sequel to the classic WWI film ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, based as it is on the follow-up novel by Erich Maria Remarque. James Whale crafted a strongly anti-war movie but ultimately to avoid offending Nazi Germany, the movie was taken out of his hands by Universal; several scenes that might offend the newly militaristic nation were cut and some reshoots involving scenes of comic relief were inserted. Whale disowned the film, but despite its reputation as a ruined classic, I still found it powerful, even if it does pull its punches a bit. My biggest problem is that none of the actors attempt to do German accents; that may have made things easy for the cast, but in the first 20 minutes or so, I kept forgetting these were German soldiers we were following, and the scene in which the Germans meet the Americans was especially confusing as they all sounded exactly alike. John King (later, as Dusty King, a star of B-westerns) is fine as Ernst, though when he delivers his big speech at the end of the movie, he rushes through it like he's afraid he'll forget his lines. Cromwell is rather bland as Ludwig. Slim Summerville and Andy Devine are the comic relief soldiers who eventually wear out their welcome. Maurice Murphy is effective as the tragic Albert, and you'll recognize Lionel Atwill, Clara Blandick, Noah Beery Jr. and Spring Byington in small roles. This may not have been as powerful as Whale wanted, but it does still pack some punches, and is well worth seeing. Pictured is Larry Blake as Weil. [YouTube]

Monday, March 15, 2021


In a backwoods Arkansas town in 1927, Bess (Ann Sheridan) is doing her best to raise her two kids (Annie, a mute, and the younger Abraham, a bedwetter) on her small farm, with some help from a sharecropper (Walter Brennan) and his adult son. Nine years ago, her husband Matt (Steve Cochran) left his family in disgrace after a drunk driving accident--he had a reputation as the town drunk--but one fine morning, he shows up strolling down the road. He's been sober for three years and has returned, though it's not clear why. Bess has a more or less friendly chat with him, but she is not inclined to welcome him back in her life. But her son, who was born after Matt left, takes a shine to him and when Matt offers to do some odd jobs around the place, she lets him stay, making it clear that they will not be living as man and wife. The townsfolk are not happy to see him, but slowly he starts winning people over, especially when a twister hits and Matt helps get people to safety. Bess and Matt kiss, but she worries that he will return to his old ways and refuses to get more involved. A roughneck named Leroy (Sonny Tufts) has been trying to court Bess, and he shows up at the town Halloween party. Matt breaks his pledge and has a drink, just to show the other men that he can have one and stop, but soon he and Matt tangle, leading to a lengthy brawl that starts outside the barn and winds up in a creek, and in the end, Matt has to save Leroy because he can't swim. Finally, Annie, whose muteness seems to have been caused by Matt's past drunken accident, goes missing in some dangerous mountains, and the town comes together to help Matt and Bess find her.

This was aired on Turner Classic Movies as one of Leonard Maltin's "neglected classics." I'm not sure I'd so far as calling it a classic, but it does deserve to be more widely seen. The predictability of the plot and the potential for some sticky sentiment are offset by Cochran and Sheridan who work well together. Sheridan in particular is fine playing convincingly against her 'Oomph girl' type as a plain, careworn mother, and Cochran (pictured with Sheridan) goes a bit against type in a somewhat gruff but sympathetic role. Walter Brennan hasn't much to do but he adds his relatively authentic mountain folk persona to the proceedings. In their advertising for the film Republic Pictures tried comparing it to their earlier hit The Quiet Man, but the only real point of comparison is the long nighttime brawl scene, accompanied by a rollicking score, which for my money plays out better here than in the John Wayne film. (It's heresy to say but I'm not really a fan of The Quiet Man.) Sherry Jackson, also the daughter on the 1950s Danny Thomas Show, is very good as Annie. The trajectory of the story will come as no surprise, but it's a generally pleasant viewing experience, and as a fan of Steve Cochran, it was nice to see him as a good guy for a change. [TCM]

Friday, March 12, 2021

LI'L ABNER (1940)

I lost the original version of my review of this movie (as well as a handful of others) in a jump drive incident a few months ago, so this is a slightly faded memory version of my reaction to this 1940 movie based on Al Capp's famous comic strip set in the small backwoods village of Dogpatch. Granville Owen makes for a nicely hunky and dumb Abner. (I know him from the serial TERRY AND THE PIRATES, but most would know him under the name Jeff York when he played Bud Searcy in OLD YELLER.) His Mammy is trying to marry him off to blond and busty Daisy Mae, though Abner just wants to live the carefree life of a backwoods bachelor. But when Abner becomes convinced that he has a fatal disease and only has 24 hours to live, he winds up promising to marry not only Daisy Mae but another sexpot named Wendy Wilecat. When he doesn't die, the only solution to his two-timing proposal is the annual Sadie Hawkins race, in which single women chase single men to catch and keep them. 

This is a low-budget affair, and the print I saw on YouTube was not in good shape, but still the comically anarchic nature of the proceedings comes through well enough. Owen embodies Abner, the muscular doofus, to a tee, and Martha O'Driscoll (pictured with Owen) is effective as Daisy Mae. Mona Ray, as Mammy Yokum, doesn't need to act much--her exaggerated nose and chin makeup do all her acting for her. Buster Keaton is completely wasted as an offensively stereotyped Indian--though every character here is some kind of stereotype, as they were in the original comic strip. The best scene is probably when Abner falls asleep in the woods, wakes up, and thinks he's died and gone to heaven. This will probably not hold the attention of someone who isn't already a classic movie-era fan, but I enjoyed it more than the glossy, big-budget 1959 musical film which, despite the songs and the sturdier sets and the widescreen, becomes elaborately far-fetched and ultimately failed to hold my interest. [YouTube]

Monday, March 08, 2021

MAGIC BOY (1961)

This was one of the first examples of Japanese animation (anime) released in the U.S. The title character is introduced to us through a bland but catchy theme song--"There was a boy named Sasuke in Japan / He loved the friendly creatures of the wood…” Sasuke (pronounced Saski in the English dub of this movie) lives with his older sister in a modest cabin in the woods, and he frolics frequently with a bunch of friendly animals including a bear, a squirrel, a deer and its fawn (named Tinkle for the bell it wears). One afternoon, a romp goes wrong when a hawk attacks Tinkle and carries it off, dropping it in a nearby lake. The fawn's mother leaps in the water to save the fawn, but she dies when attacked by a giant salamander, which is actually a shape-shifting evil witch named Yakusha. Sasuke takes it on himself to get schooled in magic by an amiable wizard for three years so he can get revenge aginst the witch. Meanwhile, his sister Oyu's home is burned down by bandits who are controlled by Yakusha, and Oyu is helped by a handsome prince who offers his help again if ever needed. When Sasuke goes after the witch, she decides to go after him, and Oyu for good measure. A little girl who is brave enough to go after two comic-relief bandits also gets involved, as does the prince, and eventually the witch is defeated.

I'm not an expert on anime so I won't try to comment on the film as an example of the genre, but I can say that there are plenty of Disney influences here. The animals seem right out of Bambi, and the sequence with the wizard is reminiscent of The Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence of Fantasia. The mix of fantasy, comedy, and black arts gives the movie a Snow White feel. Most amusingly, the robe that the witch wears has giant bats on it with heads that look exactly like Mickey Mouse silhouettes. (I even think the witch looks a little bit like 101 Dalmatians' Cruella de Vil--see photo--though that movie was made after Magic Boy.) The film was marketed for kids, and the New York Times ran an approving review of it when it opened in New York in December of 1963, calling it a perfect Christmas treat for the family. But it is darker and more violent than classic-era Disney fare, with some swordplay, a brutal whipping endured by Sasuke, and people being tossed off of cliffs. The body count is fairly high though there is no blood or gore, and except for the deer mom, all the good guys and gals and animals survive. The film's rhythms take some getting used to--the narrative doesn't really get started until about 15 minutes in, and there are long scenes with no dialogue. Speaking of dialogue, I scoured the Internet and couldn't find any credits for the English voice cast, though I'm sure I heard Paul Frees, one of the most famous movie & TV voices ever (Boris Badanov on Rocky & Bullwinkle among hundred of other voices and narrations). The lovely backgrounds are more impressionistic than most of Disney's. It feels ahead of its time, and kids today would certainly not be caught as off-guard as I was by its unusual qualities, especially kids who have seen the movies of Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle). Released in Japan in 1959 as Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke. [TCM]

Thursday, March 04, 2021


Ellen (Beverly Garland) is stuck in a dysfunctional relationship with her husband Gerald (Skip Homeier) and things are just getting worse. Though employed, Gerald seems to be on the way down the corporate ladder rather than up, and Ellen has gone to work as a secretary for Cliff (Kenneth Tobey), a nice guy who sympathizes with Ellen's problems. But Gerald wants Ellen to quit her job because he thinks Cliff hired her just to have an affair with her. On Gerald's birthday, Ellen tries to cheer him up (and also tries to get him interested in sex, something that's been lacking in their relationship), but instead he gets violent, calls her a tramp, and says he wants a divorce. She goes to stay with Ruth, a friend and social worker, and when she finds out that Gerald has taken an "unpaid holiday" to the anger of his boss, she goes looking for him and finds out that he has gone back to his hometown of Quehada, Oklahoma. She is surprised because he told her he came from Pennsylvania, and she soon discovers some unsavory facts about him (multiple affairs, a dead-mother fixation). Eventually, Ellen is raped, on top of the mother's grave, by an old friend of Gerald's--with Gerald watching from the shadows, though she doesn't find that out until later. Meanwhile, her friendly boss Cliff has developed feelings for Ellen, and she for him, but he's heading off to Mexico for two years and invites her to come. Ellen is torn between wanting to go and wanting some kind of closure with Gerald. More unsavoriness follows until we wonder how low Ellen will go before realizing she needs to get away from her husband.

This B-film has the cheap look and feel of a naughty grindhouse film (though there is no nudity or explicit sex), and the script drowns in simplistic psychological explanations for everyone's behavior--Gerald is a sadist, Ellen is a masochist, taking the blame for Gerald's behavior and belittling herself). Even good guy Cliff may be acting out his problems--we find out that Gerald had worked for Cliff years ago until a falling-out, so is Cliff deliberately pursuing Ellen to punish Gerald? The film remains involving despite the shoddy production values, mostly due to solid acting from the lead trio; the film was shot on location in Oklahoma and most of the rest of the cast is made up of locals. (Sidenote: the movie got a big ballyhooed world premiere in Norman, Oklahoma in January 1963, but played much of the rest of the country as a second feature to King Kong vs. Godzilla.) Garland (pictured with Homeier) does what she can with her overloaded, underwritten character, Tobey makes the most of could have been a thankless role, and Homeier, who I know as a 13-year-old Nazi in TOMORROW THE WORLD, is chilling as the totally unsympathetic husband. The last half of the movie is unrelenting torture for poor Ellen, but she gets a relatively happy ending--though it's a bit abrupt and feels like it might have been a last-minute script change. Marketed as noir, but really drive-in exploitation. If that's your thing, you'll like this. [DVD]

Monday, March 01, 2021


Johnny Blake is a roaming roughneck (oil well worker) at the front of a line of men looking for jobs at an oil rig. But when a man arrives to put up a wanted poster with his face on it, he takes off. Heading west, he winds up at another oil field and finds work on a roughneck gang headed by foreman Hap O'Connor. When Hap fires a drunken worker, the man tries to kill Hap and Johnny jumps in and saves Hap's life. Soon, cops start sniffing around looking for Johnny, and he confesses to Hap that he killed a man in self-defense but ran because he figured he couldn't get a fair trial. Because Hap owes Johnny his life (and because Johnny is a good worker and they've become friends), Hap agrees to hide Johnny from the law. Soon, Hap and his crew have joined up with the eccentric Wildcat Chalmers and his daughter Linda trying to stake a claim. They must strike oil by a certain date to hold onto the property, but they keep getting thwarted by Chalmers' old rival. Still, they make progress, and both Hap and Johnny fall for Linda. When Johnny is arrested in a bar fight and flees, and Hap sustains a serious leg injury, it looks like Chalmers is done for. But don’t count our heroes out for too long…

Both John Garfield (Johnny) and Frances Farmer (Linda) felt this assignment was beneath them (and, honestly, no one's acting abilities are challenged much), but for me, this is an enjoyable example of the grand Warner Bros. B-movie house style: relatively short, fast-paced, a good supporting cast, and strong production values, including here some well-staged fights and explosions. Garfield is fine in a variation on his tough guy loner persona, and Farmer provides a fresh new slant on the B-movie love interest, though her life would soon go off the rails (see the Jessica Lange movie Frances for details). Pat O'Brien, a Warners stalwart, is the eternal nice-guy loser in the love triangle, a role he could play in his sleep (not really a spoiler, since with Garfield around, O'Brien doesn’t stand a chance), but he still manages to give it some good energy. Raymond Walburn as Chalmers and Cliff Edwards as a ukulele-playing roughneck provide fine comic relief. It's an unpretentious B-movie adventure/romance: predictable but fun. [TCM]