Tuesday, February 28, 2023


Harry Morgan (John Garfield) runs a charter boat business along the California coast with his associate Wesley (Juano Hernandez). They've been a bit down on their luck lately. Both men have families, and Harry's wife (Phyllis Thaxter) has been trying to talk him into selling the boat and getting a job on her father's lettuce ranch, but Harry wants his freedom. His latest client is an obnoxious businessman named Hannigan who charters the boat for a fishing trip in the waters of Mexico. Hannigan brings along a companion, a sexy blond named Leona (Patricia Neal) who flirts a bit with Harry. In Mexico, Harry's lawyer (Wallace Ford) talks him into taking Mr. Sing (Victor Sen Yung) and a group of several Chinese refugees back to California. It's illegal, but when Hannigan abandons Harry (and Leona) without paying, he decides to take on the job. It all goes to hell and Harry winds up in trouble with the border patrol. Harry's troubles pile up: his boat is impounded, his wife suspects he's sweet on Leona (and she dyes her hair brassy blond like Leona in an attempt to keep her husband's interest); when he gets his boat back, he is threatened with foreclosure on it. Finally, the lawyer offers him one last big job, but it means getting involved in a racetrack heist and with armed men who won't hesitate to use their guns if they suspect betrayal.

It's tempting to make that summary longer by spilling all the beans, but in this case, I think spoilers might really make the movie less interesting. Suffice to say that there's a nice shoot-out finale on the boat, and that, though Garfield survives, the final shot is one of the most heart-wrenching ones of classic-era films. Sadly, this is one of Garfield's last movies before a heart attack cut his life short at the age of 39. It's the second Hollywood movie based on Hemingway's novel To Have and Have Not, and this one is apparently more faithful than the first version, famous for its pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It's a solid seafaring melodrama with good acting all the way around. Wallace Ford, as the shyster lawyer, seems to be filling in for Sydney Greenstreet, both in his looks and his attitude, but he's fine. Hernandez (pictured with Garfield at left) is excellent in a role that allows a Black man to be something other than servile or scared or comic relief. Neal is good as the hotsy totsy bad news. Garfield's character is not totally sympathetic but we root for him nevertheless. [TCM]

Friday, February 24, 2023


When we first see John Phillip Law, he's doing a human interest news story on the New York affiliate for TV network IBC. Dyan Cannon, the young wife of the head of the network (Robert Ryan), is impressed by him—more so his looks than his talent, it seems—and she talks her husband into making him the national news anchor, over the objections of Jackie Cooper, the network president. (I was constantly confused by people's titles and therefore the power relationships that are in play.) In six months, Law, who lives alone with a caged sparrow he rescued, is the head of the news department and is juggling relationships with several women. Jodi Wexler, an up-and-coming model, falls in love with him and gives him an ankh ring, which means nothing to him as he sleeps with whomever he fancies and isn't about to be tied down. This even applies to Dyan Cannon, who, while cheating on her husband with Law, becomes unreasonably jealous when she catches Law in a threesome. Law's closest, perhaps only, friend is gay fashion photographer David Hemmings. Law tells Hemmings, "The thing I like about you is you never make a pass"; Hemmings' reply is "I'm biding my time." Cooper sells a variety show to IBC with second-rate comic Shecky Greene, partly to stick it to Law, who hates the idea. The show's a hit, leading to tense relations between Cooper and Law, with Ryan trying to keep the peace but also realizing that Law is more important to the network than Cooper. Eventually, Jodi commits suicide, and a kinky joke on the part of Hemmings involving a slave bracelet threatens to bring Law down on a morals clause charge.

I took almost three pages of plot summary notes on this movie, so I've left a lot out. But the bloated narrative serves the soap opera tone of the movie perfectly. Based on a Jacqueline Susann novel, audiences expected trashy, sexy melodrama, and they got it, though the movie did not do nearly as well financially as the earlier VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. In some ways, this is a slightly better movie than DOLLS; it's a little glossier and in general better acted. But it's not as fun as DOLLS. There is no Patty Duke yelling, "Sparkle, Neely, sparkle!" and no one's wig gets flushed down a toilet. There's also a big hole in the center of the film in the form of the title character (actually, Law calls television "the love machine," but we all know it's really him). Law was never a very demonstrative actor, and his plastic performances as the hunky angel in BARBARELLA and anti-hero of DANGER: DIABOLIK may well be his career peaks. His glossy looks serve him well here as a face onto which his various admirers can read whatever they want, but his plastic performance gives us not one iota of insight into the character's inner life or motivations—granted that's partly due to the script, and may well be intentional, but it makes it difficult to care about him, even during his final downfall, which is more or less played for laughs (in fact, the ambiguous ending suggests that he escapes a downfall altogether). 

Old pros Ryan and Cooper are fine, though Cooper has to suffer the indignity of a weirdly stand-alone camp-comic scene of the Hallelujah Chorus playing as he comes out of a meeting. Cannon acquits herself well, though Shecky Greene seems miscast and uncomfortable in a role that could have been based on him. In smaller roles, I liked Maureen Arthur as a PR worker known as the "Celebrity Banger," and William Roerick as a network assistant who is present for most of the big blowups. Greg Mullavey (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) pops up in a couple of scenes, and Jodi Wexler, a model who never made another movie, is fine as the model and tragic figure all melodramas need. David Hemmings is saddled with the part of the stereotyped gay man, but he seems to be trying to make it a little subtler than the norm in those days, and he largely succeeds. He's the only character I thought might actually be fun to spend time with. We know that Law's character, Robin Stone, has deep-seeded problems, and for a time it's suggested he might hiding gay tendencies. In one scene when he declines to sleep with a hooker, she calls him a fag and he smacks the shit out of her; in another scene, when an executive wonders out loud if Stone is AC/DC, Cannon replies, "Balls." A gay smear is behind the final scene, but Stone remains steely straight all the way through. It might have been fun if a little real ambiguity crept in about his sexual proclivities. This is far from a great film, but as a chic 70s melodrama, it's fairly watchable. Pictured are Cannon and Law. [DVD]

Tuesday, February 21, 2023


Arthur Vance, a security guard at a chemical laboratory, makes his midnight rounds and finds a dead woman, Myrtle Stanfield, on the floor of a small storeroom. When the police arrive, they find two oddly worded crumpled-up notes near her body that seem to implicate the watchman (one says, "The tall Negro did it"). Suddenly, we cut to a flashback from three years earlier which involves none of these characters. Henry Glory is trying to raise money for law school by selling his self-published romance novel door to door. One of his customers sends him to The Catbird, a good-time girl who lives in an apartment building across the street, but he rings the wrong doorbell and winds up selling his book to the sweet and innocent Claudia. Over time, sparks fly until The Catbird's thugs mistake him for someone else and knock him out and drag him into the Catbird's rooms. He assumes Claudia was in cahoots with the Catbird, and he ends his relationship with Claudia. Back in the present time, Glory is now a lawyer (and still writing novels), Arthur the watchman is Claudia's brother, and Claudia visits Glory at his office and asks him to take Arthur's case, which he does. Eventually, it comes out that Brisbane, Arthur's boss, claims he saw Arthur and Myrtle sneak off to the storeroom together that afternoon and his story is corroborated by his assistant Lem Hawkins, but when Claudia meets up with Hawkins at a party, she gets him drunk and another story emerges, one that could clear Arthur.

Most movie viewers, whether they are aware of it or not, adjust their expectations for a film based on genre. People hold Marvel superhero movies to a different standard than they would a low budget horror movie on Shudder. Similarly, classic movie buffs don't judge a B-movie from the 40s by the same standards as an A-movie like Casablanca. This film is an example of a race movie, a film made by Black performers and filmmakers, usually with very low budgets and outside of the studio system, so anyone watching this film needs to adjust to the at-times amateurish feel of the onscreen proceedings. This one, from director and writer Oscar Micheaux, has narrative problems, including the odd positioning of the three-year flashback, and some wooden performances, but taking those limitations into account, this is a fairly entertaining example of the race movie genre. The lead actor, Clarence Books (as Henry) is not terribly charismatic; I was assuming he was delivering some extra afternoon delight to his female readers, as there is an odd fade-out and fade-in during his first sale, but that seems not to be the case. Dorothy Van Engle is a bit better as Claudia, as is Bee Freeman as The Catbird. Despite some plotholes, the story is easy to follow and has a satisfying ending. In the opening scene, Arthur acts very suspiciously as though he is expecting to find a body in the storeroom, but this seems to just be the result of awkward acting. Out of the blue, there are a couple of musical numbers that have nothing to do with anything, including a delightful soft-shoe tap number (pictured above). At 90 minutes, it feels a big dragged out at times, but it's watchable and interesting from a historical perspective. [Criterion Channel]

Friday, February 17, 2023

LYDIA (1941)

The elderly, wealthy Lydia MacMillan is being honored for her life's work with children, culminating in the opening of an orphanage for the blind and crippled. Her old friend Michael Fitzpatrick is honoring her in a more private way, hosting a small gathering of the four most important men in her life, though only three have shown up. As they chat, they all reminisce about their relationships via flashbacks. Michael, son of the family butler, was the doctor to Lydia's grandmother Sarah, and the only one of the four to be a constant presence in Lydia's life. As a young woman, Lydia was a bit rebellious--Sarah berates her for wearing a dress with bare shoulders to her first ball, complaining that she's going out "in the nude." When Lydia recalls that ball, she remembers hundreds of harpists, a huge orchestra, and dozens of chandeliers (and her flashback is presented in slow motion), but Michael corrects her, bringing her memory down to earth a bit, with a small band of musicians and a couple of chandeliers. There, she meets Bob, a beefy football player with a tendency toward drunkenness. The two try to elope but things don't work out. After an encounter with a blind child, she devotes her life to working with children, and at a school for the blind that she opens, she meets the third man, Frank, a blind pianist who teaches there, and who eventually writes her a concerto. Despite the love of Frank and Michael, Lydia proclaims that she will remain a spinster, that her work is her life. But soon, she meets the fourth man, Richard, a handsome and earthy sailor (and the only man not currently present), and the two take off to live together at MacMillan Point, an isolated family home on a windswept coast. Their days together end when Richard leaves to fulfill an obligation to another woman (we assume it involves a child) and despite a promise to return, he never does. Lydia claims that Richard was the love of her life, but when Richard finally arrives, he doesn't even remember her, an outcome that she accepts as punishment for her "sins."

This is French director Julien Duvivier's reworking of his 1937 Un Carnet de Bal (which I have not seen) and though it's an American film, produced by the British Alexander Korda, it has the feel of a French film, especially in its direct presentation of Lydia and Richard living "in sin," something that one would not likely see in the typical Hollywood movie of the time. It has great sets, a hazy nostalgic feel, and the old age makeup on all the actors in the present-time scenes is very good (see Oberon as an old woman above). Merle Oberon is Lydia, and this is her movie all the way. I'm not a big Oberon fan, but she is quite good in this, being believable as a headstrong young debutante, a social reformer, a passionate lover, and an old lady. Joseph Cotten is equally good as Michael, who pines away for her, though not in a self-pitying way. Alan Marshal makes a very likable character out of the carefree Richard. The other two men, George Reeves as Bob and Hans Jaray as Frank, don't have much time to make their impressions. But the film is frequently stolen by the fabulous Edna May Oliver as the grandmother—it's a grand Oliver performance through and through, as she plays an irascible but ultimately loving woman, and seems to be having fun doing so. Sadly, this was her last film as she died the next year. Critics aren't crazy about this movie, but I found it fun and compelling. [TCM]

Wednesday, February 15, 2023


This collection of short musical cartoons, introduced by a gigantic paint brush, feels very much like a reboot of FANTASIA, except with pop songs rather than classical pieces. Like FANTASIA, there is no real overarching connection between the segments, and some of the cartoons are fairly abstract, though the two longest films—both about 20 minutes—have strong narratives. "The Story of Johnny Appleseed," sung and voiced by Dennis Day, tells the folkloric story of John Chapman, who planted trees throughout early 1800s America. The short subtly stresses religious faith with the constant presence of a Bible in his (non-seed throwing) hand and the finale where Johnny falls asleep under an apple tree and an angel escorts him to heaven so he can keep planting trees. The other, "Pecos Bill," combines live action footage of Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers with the animated adventures of the fictional cowboy. Both of these were released as stand-alone short subjects. Another shorter segment, "Little Toot," sung by the Andrews Sisters, is a story about a brave little tugboat and was the inspiration for a character later featured in some Disney comic books. 

But for me, the more interesting segments are the abstract ones, presented at the beginning of the film. "Once Upon a Wintertime" looks and feels the most like a Fantasia short, with its focus on a season and its telling of a story that juxtaposes nature and humans, complete with a threatening storm like the Bacchus section of Fantasia. "Bumble Boogie" is a jazzy, surreal bit with a bee being chased by giant piano keys, scored to Rimsky-Korsakov’s "Flight of the Bumblebee." Joyce Kilmer's famous poem "Trees" is read out loud with more lovely pastel scenes of nature (and a storm)."Blame it on the Samba" is reminiscent of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" in that it features a popular Disney character, Donald Duck. He interacts with a live-action organist, Ethel Smith, and an animated South American parrot named José Carioca, to not much effect. Overall, I couldn’t help but see this as a dumbing-down of Fantasia. The animation is great, as one expects from Disney, and the print playing on Disney+ is beautiful. Apparently, in an earlier DVD rendition of this, the Pecos Bill segment was edited to remove multiple instances of the character smoking, but this version includes the cigarettes. There were other cartoon compilations between Fantasia and this (Make Mine Music, for instance) which I haven't seen, but if they are like this one, I'm not sure I need to. [Disney+]

Monday, February 13, 2023


A movie buff's guilty admission: I've never had much use for Jean-Luc Godard. I understand his importance in the advent of the New Wave cinema of the early 60s and I can see how he influenced other filmmakers in terms of cinematography, editing, and presentation of narrative, but aside from a couple of early films (BREATHLESS, CONTEMPT), I never cared much for anything else of his, and eventually I quit trying. But after his death last year at the age of 91, I decided to go back and revisit one of his early films that was a crushing disappointment to me when I first saw it. ALPHAVILLE was marketed, in part, as a science-fiction film, and I remember seeing stills from it in the SF-horror movie magazines I read as a kid. The plot description involved a detective in a dystopian future who travels through space to find a missing person and subvert the supercomputer that runs the city of Alphaville. When I finally saw it on cable in the early 80s, it was nothing like I had imagined it would be: grungy looking black & white, no space travel visuals, no special effects, and an old, worn-out looking hero instead of a handsome spaceman. I definitely appreciated the movie more in my second viewing. Eddie Constantine plays Lemmy Caution, a craggy-faced Bogart type of agent who gets back and forth to Alphaville not via spaceship but in a plain Ford Galaxie (get it, galaxy?) along a nighttime freeway. The city is run by a computer called Alpha 60 (which also sort of narrates in an irritatingly phlegmy voice). Examples of how people are programmed to think in Alphaville come from a number of expressions we hear or read: "Silence = logic, safety = prudence"; "No one has lived in the past and no one will live in the future"; "There is no 'why,' only 'because.'" The Institute of General Semantics is an important arm of the government, dictionaries are referred to as bibles, and words like "conscience" and "tenderness" keep dropping out of the dictionaries. Lemmy is tended to by a "level three seductress" (I’m not sure if that's a high or low rating). Lemmy is trying to see a man named Von Braun (original name, Leonard Nosferatu), inventor of Alpha 60, and his daughter Natacha (Anna Karina) ends up helping him. Lemmy kills Von Braun, essentially destroys the city, and takes Natacha back across space (the freeway) to the Outer Countries.

Obviously, a coherent plot was not foremost in Godard's mind. What enjoyment I got came strictly from interesting visuals, bits of politics and philosophy, and some fun dialogue. When Lemmy finds the agent he's been looking for (Hollywood character actor Akim Tamiroff, pictured above with Constantine), seemingly forlorn and defeated, he tries to pep him up by asking, "Is Dick Tracy dead? How about Flash Gordon?" My favorite scene is of Lemmy getting interrogated by Alpha 60 in a small dark room with a number of large microphones hanging from the ceiling, doing a kind of elaborate dance around his head as he responds. In a movie with little action, a car stunt on an icy street near the end is exciting. I liked Constantine, but to talk about acting in this movie is beside the point—the characters are really just symbols or placeholders for opinions. I'm glad to have given this a second chance with different expectations, but it didn't change my mind much about Godard. [Criterion Channel]

Thursday, February 09, 2023


Here I go, learning more history from Hollywood, or in this case, from London. It's 1815 and with Napoleon imprisoned at Elba, Europe is at peace, but with the drawing up of treaties, Prussia, Russia and Austria are plotting to keep France weak, partly by restoring Louis XVIII as King, so French unrest may stir. The Duke of Wellington (George Arliss) is sent from England to the Congress of Vienna to press the case for fair treatment for France, but soon Napoleon escapes. Wellington advises the King to leave, but the King's advisor Marie Thérèse (daughter of Marie Antoinette, known as Madame) doesn't trust Wellington, and indeed is still seeking revenge against, well, practically everyone. In the meantime, the Duchess of Richmond introduces Wellington to Lady Frances, a young woman who has a big case of hero worship for him, which frequently seems on the verge of becoming a romantic obsession even though she's married. At the battle of Waterloo, Wellington sees Napoleon ("Boney" as he calls him) from afar but won't let his men aim for him: "Not sporting—generals don't kill generals in cold blood." But even after Boney's final defeat, Wellington has problems in his relations with the French. Madame refuses to return art that Napoleon had stolen, and Wellington's friend Marshal Ney is threatened with execution for treason. A bigger worry, at least as far as public relations go, is that Madame spreads the rumor that the married Wellington is having an affair with the married Lady Frances. The latter part of the film centers on how Wellington rises above all this. Arliss can do no wrong in my eyes, though I don't necessarily like all his movies equally. But this is a strong entry in his series of biographical films, though like most of them, I wouldn't trust this to be terribly accurate. Arliss gives a fine performance, and he is matched well by the wonderful Gladys Cooper (pictured with Arliss) as Madame; her part is not large, but she makes every scene count.  Other cast standouts include Emlyn Wiliams as a reporter and Norma Varden as the Duchess of Richmond. A good one for Arliss fans. [DVD]

Tuesday, February 07, 2023


This Yiddish-language film directed by notable B-moviemaker Edgar G. Ulmer begins by showing wealthy young garment factory boss Nat Silver (Leo Fuchs) throwing yet another bachelor party as his friends comment that he is forever celebrating other people's marriages but never getting married himself. He's come close several times but he always discovers that his fiancées only want him for his money. Nat proceeds to sing an anti-female song to the assembled "gluttons and hooch hounds"—so-called by his butler Morris—and Nat's misogyny only solidifies when one of his clerks bursts in and threatens him with a gun for trying to steal his girl Shirley, who, the clerk informs him, only wants his money. This makes Nat give up on the idea of marriage for good until he hears a family story about his late Uncle Shya who, back in the old country, felt he was under a marriage curse and so, somewhat counter-intuitively, became a successful matchmaker. Inspired by this, Nat tells his mother and sister that he's decided to head back to Europe to contemplate his life. Instead, using the name Nat Gold, he gets an office in the Bronx and opens a modern matchmaking business. It's so successful that other more traditional matchmakers protest, though Nat deals with that by hiring Simon, one of the leading protesters, as his assistant. But when Nat tries to find a match for Judith Aarons (Judith Abarbanel), he slowly comes to realize that her best match might actually be him. This is an amusing romantic comedy with a good central performances by Fuchs (pictured)—often referred to as the Yiddish Fred Astaire, he's given a couple of songs, though I wouldn't go so far as to call this a musical which some critics do. He also briefly has a second role as Uncle Shya in a dream flashback. Celia Brodkin is Nat's old-fashioned mother and Anna Guskin is Nat's more modern sister. There's a funny running gag in which Nat refers to himself as an "advisor in human relations" and his assistant thinks the phrase is "human relishes." Minor but fun enough. Available on the Jewish Soul boxed set from Kino Lorber. (Also released as Amerikaner Schadchen.) [Blu-ray]

Thursday, February 02, 2023

CYNARA (1932)

Jim Warlock (Ronald Colman) is meeting his wife Clemency (Kay Francis, at left) before he heads off alone to South Africa, his career and his marriage in shambles. We flashback to months earlier as Jim, a successful London barrister, is about to celebrate his seventh wedding anniversary. His old friend John eggs him on about having a colorless life, and in fact, Jim is a little put out that Clemency is taking off for a trip to Venice with her younger sister who is trying to avoid a boyfriend scandal. Jim and John go out to dinner that night where a young girl named Doris (Phyllis Barry), on a bet with her friend, flirts with Jim. He takes her to see a Charlie Chaplin movie and is obviously enchanted by her, but balks at anything more. However, John finagles an invitation for Jim to judge a swimsuit contest at a town gathering where he knows Doris will be a contestant. Jim picks her as the winner, and when she falls and hurts her ankle, he takes her back to her flat where one thing leads to another, but only after she assures him that he is not her first lover, and that she will not be a nuisance in his marriage. By now, we know where this is going: she does become a nuisance, going as far as, at the end of a countryside interlude, threatening suicide when he has to go back to meet his returning wife. He tries to keep his relationship with her going, but finally writes a "Dear Doris" letter breaking it off. [Spoilers follow:] Doris does kill herself and when Jim's letter is found, he is called to testify at the inquest. To protect her reputation, Jim lets the coroner believe that he was her first lover. He is not legally responsible for her death (the coroner says dramatically that she "ended her own life preferring the judgment of the infinite to the opinions of her fellow men") but his own reputation is now soiled and he decides to leave England alone. Back in the present timeline, is it possible that Clemency will live up to her name and forgive Jim?

Current day viewers may be surprised at the answer. In general it's only in the pre-Code days that a movie could end with reconciliation and forgiveness for an adulterer, especially where such sordid circumstances as the suicide of a mistress were involved. The ending feels a bit rushed, and the character of Clemency is not fleshed out as much as she should have been, but it's a bit refreshing to have the wronged wife forgive the cheating bastard. Given the melodramatic plot elements, the acting here is a little underplayed, which is also refreshing. Colman is a little less stoic than he would be later in his career, Francis a little less tortured than she sometimes came off. Barry, with whom I was not familiar, is good as the mistress who doesn't so much scheme as hope. The likable Henry Stephenson is fine as John. The title comes from an ode by Horace: "I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion." The Irving Berlin standard "Blue Skies" becomes theme music for the illicit lovers. [TCM]