Sunday, May 30, 2021


As the scene is set during the Civil War in September of 1862, opening narration explains that this film is based on Stephen Crane's novel, and that somehow writing the book made Crane a man--though he had never even seen battle when he wrote it. The story is told through the eyes of Henry (Audie Murphy), a young Union soldier. His regiment is tired of waiting and practicing rather than fighting, but Henry is plagued by doubt, worried that he'll turn coward and run rather than face death in battle. His buddy Tom (Bill Mauldin) hears a rumor that they are about to be sent to the front, and very soon they are. Settled in that night near some woods, Henry is on patrol when he is warned by a Confederate soldier across the river that he can be seen clearly in the moonlight and would make an easy target for a "red badge," that is, a bloody and possibly fatal wound. Tom, certain he'll die, gives Henry a keepsake watch to send back to his folks when he does die. The regiment, in a defensive position, succeeds in holding back the rebels, but when a second wave of soldiers attacks and the battlefield becomes chaotic, Henry indeed runs away to hide in the woods. Later, he joins up with a line of wounded men and learns that the regiment actually held their position. On his way back to his group, he has an encounter with another soldier and gets cracked on the head with a rifle. He now has his "red badge," and when he meets up with Tom he realizes that no one saw him retreat, so he tells Tom he got his wound from a bullet. When the men are sent on an offensive attack, Henry becomes almost foolheartedly courageous and winds up grabbing the flag out of a dead soldier's hands and leads the regiment to victory. He almost confesses to Tom that he deserted, but can't quite bring himself to do so. The film ends with the men leaving, hoping to be back home in Ohio for spring planting and, as the narrator tells us, with scenes of peace and tranquility in their heads.

This John Huston film has a reputation, like Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, of being a masterpiece that was mangled by the studio in post-production. Originally over two hours, the film had poor responses at previews and when Huston left to start production on The African Queen, MGM ruthlessly cut the film to just 70 minutes and released it as a second feature with an Esther Williams musical. In the early days of home video, MGM tried to do a restoration but could find none of the cut footage. Frankly, I think the movie's short length is a plus; the novel, at around 150 pages, is really a novella, and this cut of the movie is lean without a wasted shot or line of dialogue. Real-life war hero Audie Murphy is excellent as Henry, very believable both as the scared kid at the beginning and the hailed hero at the end. The rest of the acting takes a little getting used to. At first, it seems like everyone is reading their lines off of cue cards with little to on inflection, but soon the style begins to feel more like naturalism. Mauldin, a famous (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) WWII Army cartoonist, is very appealing as the likable Tom; it's a shame he didn't continue acting. John Dierkes has a standout scene in the middle of the movie as a dying soldier who refuses to stop walking. The film has an authentic tone thanks largely to lots of close-ups of ragged and tired faces of soldiers going through various emotional states. This is part of TCM's Memorial Day line-up this year, and I highly recommend it. Pictured are Murphy and Mauldin. [TCM]

Tuesday, May 25, 2021


Pianist Christine (Bette Davis, at right) goes racing through the rain to a small university concert hall to see cellist Karel (Paul Henreid) play. She is moved to tears and goes backstage to see him--we find out that the two had been lovers, but that Karel got stuck in Europe in 1940 for the duration of the war. She assumed he was dead, but he has just returned to the States, and now they hope to resume their relationship. But even though her concert engagements have dried up, he is shocked to find that she has a large and lavishly appointed apartment in the Village. She says she gives piano lessons to rich college students, but he remains suspicious, especially when he finds a signed photograph of the great composer Hollenius (Claude Rains). Nevertheless, they get married the next morning, and soon after Hollenius arrives. It's clear to us that Christine has been kept by Hollenius, her current, or perhaps former, lover, but Christine manages to keep the truth from the jealous Karel. Of course, both men are jealous, and soon Hollenius begins playing a cat and mouse game of trying to unnerve Karel concerning his talent. When Hollenius offers to let Karel play solo cello in the premiere performance of his new concerto, Christine sees that, during rehearsal, the composer is trying his best to make Karel question his own talent, and when she learns that Hollenius has hired an "understudy" for Karel, Christine decides to take drastic actions to make certain that her husband is a success.

Based on a two-person play, this remains a fairly stagy melodrama, despite its large and atmospheric sets--Christine's apartment, Hollenius' apartment, a fancy restaurant. Almost every scene is a heated discussion between various combinations of the three leads and it makes the film seem long and draggy. But the film noir look and the acting of the leads kept me interested. Davis can do no wrong, Rains chews some scenery in a generally pleasing fashion as he expresses his obsession with Davis, and Henreid is better than usual (I usually find him to be a boring actor, but he has his moments here). John Abbott makes a brief impression as the cello understudy. The plot could have been handled better. It's one of those movies that led me to say to myself, if Davis had just been honest with Henreid when they first walked into her apartment, a lot of misery would have been avoided. Of course, there'd be no movie, either, but I wish the writers could have conjured up better reasons for Davis to lie--the reason she keeps her affair from Henreid is because he is still a little fragile from his war experience, but honestly, he doesn]'t seem any more high-strung that your average classical musician in the movies. Some critics have read repressed homosexuality into the Rains character, and indeed, he reminds me at times of George Sanders in ALL ABOUT EVE, a possibly gay character whose attraction to a woman seems to be more about power and control than about sex. Is it really noir? I don't think so, but it definitely has that look, and I do love Davis' apartment. Is it worth two hours of your time for that? If you are a fan of any of the three leads, probably. [DVD]

Friday, May 21, 2021


Cocky newsreel reporter Ted (Wallace Ford) returns from Spain to face fellow reporter Charlie (Dean Jagger), angry because Ted cheated Charlie out of the assignment. Charlie has since been made an editor, and, out of spite, he assigns Ted the demeaning assignment of  interviewing a sweepstakes winner, though both men are warned by their boss that newsreels are being made obsolete by newspaper and radio wire services. Meanwhile, young Nancy (June Travis), who dreams of leaving her boring small-town life, wins a television slogan contest ("Television--the eyes and ears of the future") and gets a one-week trip to New York City. Her Aunt Jane and Nancy's fiancĂ© Andrew disapprove but she goes anyway. At the train station, Ted mistakenly interviews Nancy instead of the sweepstakes winner and when the newsreel is shown, Ted gets in trouble. He quits seconds before he's fired and decides to work on his idea for "television newsreels" (basically what we know as TV news). Assuming television ownership will soon go through the roof, Powell, the owner of Supreme Television, likes his idea. A demonstration is set up for investors, using real-time coverage of the landing of an airship, but Ted finds out that the airship actually crashed on landing and they didn't get the story because Powell, worried that the broadcast wouldn’t work, substituted stock footage of a past airship landing. Nancy is in hot water herself, as everyone assumes she deliberately fooled the public about her identity. Aunt Jane and Andrew show up in New York, but Nancy has grown sweet on Ted, and vice versa. Ted confronts Powell which leads to a room-demolishing fistfight but Ted is still blamed for shadiness, and even Nancy starts to believe that he's just a conniver. In a rapid-fire climax, Charlie gets assigned to cover the war in China, Ted steals his plane ticket, Charlie sends him a telegram supposedly from Nancy that all is forgiven, and Ted parachutes out of the plane to land near the train that homebound Nancy is on. Somehow, all is forgiven and Ted marries Nancy, leaving Charlie to cover the war.

You will notice that I didn’t mention Shanghai once in my summary. Nor did I mention any exile. The title of this B-movie has nothing whatsoever to do with the content, except that we see Charlie in China in the last seconds of the film. But he hasn't been exiled; he's gotten what he wanted all along. I could forgive the misleading title, but the slapdash script practically falls to pieces at various times--to be fair, the print I saw was about five minutes short of the running time listed on IMDb so maybe some crucial scenes were missing. Wallace Ford is fine in supporting roles, but in B-lead roles like this one, he's lacking in charisma and romantic appeal. June Travis made 30 movies between 1935 and 1938, almost all B-films, and never caught on with the public. She's absolutely average here. The reason to watch this film is the young Dean Jagger who has a personality and an acting range that Ford and Travis do not. William Bakewell is effective as Andrew, the fiancĂ© you love to hate, and Arthur Lake, later Dagwood Bumstead in the Blondie movie series, has a couple of fun moments as Ford's assistant. Newsreels were a big deal back then, with some theaters in big cities showing only newsreels all day long, and the TV news aspect of the story is nicely prescient. Still this is only worth seeing for Dean Jagger (pictured above to the left of Ford). [YouTube]

Monday, May 17, 2021

HAWAII (1968)

We begin with a brief history of how a tribe from Bora Bora, feeling their gods were threatened, uprooted themselves to live on the Hawaiian island of Maui, in a village called Lahaina. In the early 1800's, young prince Keoki comes to the States, hoping that Christian missionaries will help his people fight the bad influences of white traders who are setting up businesses on the island. Divinity school student Abner Hale (Max von Sydow) feels a strong urge to go, but he must be married to be sent off (with marriage assumed to be a tool to fight intimate fraternization with the female villagers). The Reverend Thorn sets him up with his lovely young niece Jerusha (Julie Andrews), recovering from an apparent abandonment by her suitor, a sailor named Rafer who hasn't communicated with her in some time. Abner is shy and unworldly, and to push them together, Thorn takes a packet of letters from Rafer that had been lost in the mails and hides them from her. She enters willingly into the arranged marriage and they head off to Hawaii on a missionary ship. But once there, Abner has a tough time gaining converts, though he manages to get on the good side of Queen Malama, who insists that Jerusha become her personal teacher of English. Relations begin to fray more seriously when Abner discovers the incestuous ways of the island people; Malama is married to her brother Kelolo, and when Malama dies (and a predicted wind of destruction sweeps over the island), Keoki will have to marry his sister. 

Over the years, Abner builds a church and helps the villagers, though few of them actually become converts. He convinces Malama to stop the informal prostitution of young village girls with visiting sailors, gaining the wrath of one particular merchant who turns out to be Rafer, Jerusha's former suitor. Though still attracted to him, Jerusha turns down his offers to take her away from the hard island life. When Rafer finds out that it's Abner’s influence that has threatened his mens' recreation, he leads a band of sailors to burn down the church, but afterwards, the villagers band together and drive the sailors back to their ships. Abner's hardest time comes when he tells a dying Malama that she must renounce her love for Keolo or she will not be with Jesus when she dies. She does, but when she dies, the punishing wind does indeed arrive and blows down Abner's church. An angry Keoki defies Abner and reverts back to his native religion and marries his sister. There are more plot points: Jerusha has three children, Keoki's child is born deformed, and a measles epidemic, brought by a white sailor, kills off hundreds of villagers. By the end, Abner has shifted his concerns from conversions to trying to save the island from encroaching "civilization" by corrupt businessmen.

This movie, at nearly three hours, is based on only a small part of James Michener's huge novel of the same name. Shot largely on location, it's often lovely to look at, though it feels every bit of its running time, and the early arduous ocean crossing to Hawaii goes on far too long. Julie Andrews is top-billed, as this came out after her twin hits, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, but it's von Sydow's show and he's compelling as the imperfect and intolerant minister who is tragically slow to adapt to circumstances. Richard Harris is equally good as Rafer, and fine support is offered by Gene Hackman, John Cullum and Lou Antonio as fellow missionaries. Carroll O'Connor, a few years before his TV success as Archie Bunker, has a small role as Andrews' father. The Tahitian Jocelyne LaGarde, as Malama (pictured with Andrews at left), is quite good and snagged an Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for the only movie she ever made. After Malama dies, some of the narrative steam vanishes but the ending is satisfying. I wouldn't call the movie anti-Christian, though one of its major themes concerns the blinkered intolerance of Christian missionaries--most of the men who come with Abner loosen up or leave their vocation. In the beginning, it's impossible not to see Andrews as a variation on the young nun Maria in Sound of Music, and sadly she doesn't get to flesh out her character very much, though her makeup as she ages help transform her into the careworn old-before-her-time woman she becomes near the end. This film is sometimes viewed as a commercial bomb and the beginning of Andrews' career decline, but in fact, the movie was a hit, one of the top-grossing movies of the year, as was her next film, Thoroughly Modern Millie. But Andrews generally fades into the background. Its real problem is that its genre, the big-budget self-important saga, has not aged well. Recommended for a lazy Sunday afternoon or a snow day. [Blu-Ray]

Wednesday, May 12, 2021


In Cincinnati during, as we are told, the good old days before Prohibition, Irene Dunne is a footloose and fancy-free young woman who works at her family's store by day and hangs out at Over the Rhine, a fancy beer garden, in the evenings, engaging in innocent flirtations. George Meeker, who has a bicycle shop but loves tinkering with cars, is in love with her, and her father suggests that, even if she isn't in love with him, she could settle for him and not hold out for something better that may never come along. At a train station, Dunne meets John Boles, a handsome, well-to-do man visiting town because he is engaged to a local girl. Sparks fly between the two, and soon Boles is ready to give up his intended and make a life with Dunne. Boles arranges for her to meet his mother at a bandstand concert, but just as Dunne is leaving for the park, her sister confesses that she is "in trouble" and suicidal because her boyfriend is about to leave town. Though Dunne says her appointment at the bandstand may be the most important moment of her life, she gives in and agrees to talk sense into the boyfriend, and therefore misses meeting Boles and his mother by mere moments. Five years later, Dunne is a working girl in New York City and has a chance meeting on Wall Street with Boles. He's married with children, but sparks fly again and soon they are deep into a passionate affair. He sets her up in an apartment and they live for their stolen moments. She realizes she has become a "backstreet wife," always to live in the shadows of Boles' married life. At one point, Dunne hooks up with Meeker, now a success in the auto business, and even goes so far as to return to Cincinnati to marry him, but Boles follows her and she cannot deny her feelings for him still remain, so she breaks it off with Meeker and goes back to New York to resume her backstreet life.

This is a well-made, well-acted example of the suffering woman melodrama. I have tended to avoid these over the yearsI remember liking ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, not liking RANDOM HARVEST--but this one, as an early pre-Code example of this plotline, was worth seeing. (It's been remade twice but I'm not rushing to catch those.) In a way, despite the romantic masochism Dunne gives into, it's kind of a story of female empowerment; Dunne is (at least in the first half) an independent working woman, and the choices she makes along the way are made with her eyes open, and with Boles being honest about his situation. No spoiler here, but the ending is particularly interesting in the way that Boles' son sort of comes around to at least sympathizing with Dunne's situation. Dunne is very good, and Boles is OKI don't see what about him, either physically or personally, drives Dunne so strongly to sacrifice so much to remain by his side, romantically if not physically. William Bakewell, as Boles' son, is strong in the final scenes. ZaZu Pitts has what amounts to an amusing cameo, and Jane Darwell has the small role of Dunne's stepmother. I like that the bandstand moment remains a sad touchstone in Dunne's life; it’s a resonant moment that feels real. [TCM]

Saturday, May 08, 2021


Harold Pelham (Roger Moore, pictured) is driving like a bat out of hell, looking like a man possessed, careening recklessly in and out of traffic until he finally crashes. In the hospital, he flatlines briefly on the operating table but his vital signs return, though for a few seconds, two separate heartbeats register on the machine. He recovers and goes back to his wife and his workplace, but things begin to seem a bit strange. One night, a co-worker shows up for drinks at the Pelhams; they weren't expecting him, but he claims that Pelham invited him to stop by when they met at their club last week, though Pelham insists he wasn't at the club then. His wife sees an unusual silver sports car parked outside their house on occasion. Other co-workers begin claiming to have seen Pelham out and about though he swears he wasn't. Finally, while at a casino with his wife, a sexy woman walks up to him in an intimate fashion and says, "I didn’t know you were married." Understandably, his wife is upset at this intimation of an affair (especially since their sex life has been nonexistent lately) though Pelham claims he doesn't know the woman. He becomes convinced that a double of his is running around, trying to ruin his life (there's a subplot about industrial espionage at work in which he is implicated), though a therapist suggests that he may be experiencing a kind of split personality in which he is living out suppressed fantasies. 

On holidays, my husband and I usually spend the day in our pajamas watching a themed movie marathon. The most recent was “doubles and doppelgangers.” I had never even heard of this movie though it crops up on almost every Internet list of doubles films, and it turned out to be a good find. It is practically an archetype of a modern doppleganger story, the granddaddy of which is probably Poe's "William Wilson." (See SPIRITS OF THE DEAD for an adaptation of that story.) I won't spoil the ending, except to say that, though it is satisfying, it doesn't worry too much about explanations. Moore, in his last movie before he took on the role of James Bond, is very good as a man unmoored by his experiences. For much of the film's running time, we're not sure if this is a story of psychology or of the supernatural, and Moore does a nice job balancing those two possible outcomes. In fact, the ending suggests that both are at play, and the ambiguity that is left is rather tantalizing. Recommended wholeheartedly. [Streaming]

Thursday, May 06, 2021

GO, JOHNNY, GO! (1959)

Johnny Melody is the star of DJ Alan Freed's big rock & roll show, being watched from the wings by Freed and superstar Chuck Berry, who is impressed with Melody. Backstage, Freed relates the story of Johnny's rise to Berry. Johnny was an orphan choirboy who was booted from the choir for squeezing in some rock singing at rehearsals. He gets a gig as an usher at an Alan Freed show, but gets fired from that for dancing in the aisles. Before he leaves, he hears Freed announce a new talent hunt for a star he'll name Johnny Melody. We discover that this is just a publicity stunt, but Johnny takes it seriously and saves up some money to cut a demo. He runs into Julie, a former orphan who is trying to get her own start as a singer. She takes a liking to Johnny and helps him out, even though he's a bit slow on the uptake to realize that she's romantically interested in him. Johnny cuts a demo but signals get crossed and his record is ignored by Freed. Berry finally gets Freed to listen to the song; Freed likes it, but Johnny's name and number have gotten lost, so Freed plays the record on his show that night and asks the singer to get in touch with him. But in an unnecessarily melodramatic (and wildly implausible) plot twist, before Johnny hears this, he smashes a jeweler's store window to get a necklace that Julie has been pining after. Freed and Julie arrive just before the police and Freed takes responsibility, saying he was drunk and disorderly. And a star is born.

Despite a thin narrative and dirt-cheap production values, this film has some interest for fans of 50s pop music. Its biggest asset is Chuck Berry who performs a few songs, including "Johnny B. Goode," and, though an obvious amateur as an actor, is still fun to watch as he earnestly plays a sanitized version of himself. Freed does the same thing with more screen time if a little less effectively. Jimmy Clanton, who had a handful of top 40 hits, is fairly bland in the lead role, and Sandy Stewart, who went on to a career in jazz singing, can't make much of an impression. The bulk of the movie is made up of clips of other 50s performers including Jackie Wilson, Eddie Cochran, The Flamingos, The Cadillacs (the worst song in the movie, a comic relief bit called "Jay Walker"), and most interestingly, Ritchie Valens, best known for "La Bamba" and for dying young in the plane crash that also claimed Buddy Holly just a few months before this movie came out. His song is unmemorable but this is apparently the only footage that exists of Valens in performance. I kept hoping the movie would take off, but it never does, despite a structure that goes back and forth between the present and Johnny's rise. Pictured are Berry and Freed. [TCM]

Sunday, May 02, 2021


Windermere is a professional blackmailer. His latest victim is Mollie Ryder; though married, she has been conducting an affair with Windermere and he talked her into leaving England with him, but as they wait for their train, she has second thoughts. However, he has a batch of love letters she wrote to him which he's holding to keep her with him. In his hotel room as Windermere packs his bags for the train trip, another victim, Camberley, confronts him, bashing him over the head and killing him. He stuffs Windermere's body in one of his bags, but before he can leave, Mollie's husband John, who knows about the letters, arrives. He assumes that Camberley is Windermere; they fight and John gets the letters and takes Windermere's tickets so he can surprise Mollie on the train. So, the situation on the train is: John is traveling under Windermere's name and with his luggage, and has made up with Mollie, with neither one knowing that Windermere is dead and stuffed in a trunk that John is traveling with. In France, at customs, the trunk is opened, the body found, and John sent back to England. At Scotland Yard, John is freed while they investigate, but a detective is assigned to trail him--Camberley, the killer. Luckily, amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey is also on the case.

Wimsey is the famous detective featured in a series of novels by Dorothy Sayers. It's a little odd that here, Wimsey (played by Peter Haddon) is basically a supporting character--John Loder, who plays John Ryder, is top-billed, and Wimsey doesn't really enter the proceedings until about 20 minutes in. Haddon plays him in a slipshod way as a silly fop and never really brings the character to life. (I've read one Wimsey novel, Gaudy Night, and seen one other Wimsey movie, Busman's Honeymoon, aka Haunted Honeymoon, which featured Robert Montgomery playing Wimsey more like Nick Charles from the Thin Man movies.) Fans of Wimsey will be disappointed, but fans of B-mysteries or of train thrillers will be more satisfied. Loder (pictured) is fine as Ryder; Shakespearean actor Donald Wolfit is good as the killer; Aubrey Mather, as Wimsey's valet, is more fun than Wimsey. The film moves along fairly well, with a very good climactic chase around a trainyard at night. Diehard Sayers fans may want to skip this, but fans of classic-era British B-films will enjoy it. [YouTube]