Tuesday, November 28, 2023


In a small border town in the 1920s, town drunk Bryan Talbot (Earl Holliman) is accused of killing his adulterous wife. At the crime scene, their bedroom, she was found dead with Talbot collapsed, drunk and incoherent. Talbot insists he's not guilty, though the narrative being passed around town is that Talbot's wife had syphilis (which she'd gotten from him) rendering her unable to have children, which made her become promiscuous. The whole town knew about her behavior (though if they all thought she had syphilis, why would they procure her services?) and Talbot's guilt seems like a logical conclusion. Indeed, Talbot is found guilty and Judge Hockstatder sentences him to hang. In the meantime, we have gotten to know the recently appointed judge Ben Lewis (George Maharis, pictured), a young man of Mexican/Welsh descent who has a teasing but loving relationship with his Mexican mother and who, because he can pass for Anglo, has to put up with any number of snide comments about Mexican villagers. Just after the verdict, the older judge takes off for a vacation and Lewis has to preside over Talbot's hanging. As the hangman slips the noose around Talbot's neck, Talbot becomes hysterical and shoves the hangman off the scaffold to his death. While another hangman is sent for, a neighbor of Talbot's, driven crazy with guilt, writes a confession to the murder and then kills himself. A quandary falls into young judge Lewis's lap: though Talbot is now no longer guilty of the murder of his wife, should Talbot be put to death for the accidental murder of the hangman?

This is an odd film to judge. As a feature film, it's bland and toothless with mostly lackluster performances, but in look and feel, it comes off more like a TV movie or pilot, and judged that way, it's fairly interesting. Time is spent fleshing out the characters of Ben Lewis and his mother (Katy Jurado), and their place in the village. Ben is torn between dating two women, one Swedish and one Mexican, but little is done with that except as fodder for the mother-son conflicts, most of which are portrayed as not terribly serious. The villagers themselves seem to feel vaguely uneasy about Ben's presence, but again nothing is done with this—I think it's presented as a conflict that can be fixed when Ben eventually makes a pronouncement about the ultimate fate of Talbot. That ending, as reviewer Michael E. Grost has pointed out, comes off more as a gimmick than a thoughtful engagement with the moral issue, though maybe that' would be asking too much of a 60s studio movie. For all those reasons, this comes off more as a pilot for a TV show that would center on the young judge's circumstances and relationships. Viewers don't seem to think too much of George Maharis, but I think he's fine here. True, he's a bit reserved, but that seems to be reflecting the character, who is just coming into his own in the small town. (Also, I cut him a lot of slack because he's nice eye candy.) Holliman is a bit one-note as the accused killer, Gene Hackman and Whit Bissell have small and thankless roles. Katy Jurado gives the movie's best performance as Ben's mother. Part of me really wishes this had been a pilot, because I'd have watched a show with George Maharis as a small-town judge. [TCM]

Friday, November 24, 2023


The grandchildren of D.L. Mulrooney (Walter Brennan), millionaire CEO of a lumber company, are spending part of their summer vacation with him in California. In his antique Rolls-Royce, they head out for a picnic in a redwood forest and discover two gnomes: the young and handsome Jasper (Tom Lowell) and the cranky 900-year-old Knobby (also Walter Brennan). Partly due to deforestation by companies like Mulrooney’s, Knobby fears that they are the last of their kind, and he's desperate to find other gnomes—especially female ones—to insure the future of gnomekind. They all take off in the Rolls-Royce, redubbed the Gnome-Mobile, to find other gnomes in other forests. Along the way, the gnomes are kidnapped by freak-show owner Horatio Quaxton, and D.L. is put into an asylum by Yarby, D.L.'s assistant who fears that the old man has gone nuts. But all is put right by the end, including, in a nod to Al Capp's invention of Sadie Hawkins Day for the L'il Abner comic strip, a contest among a number of young female gnomes for the right to marry Jasper.

This Disney film was one of the last that originated under Uncle Walt himself. The studio was cranking out live-action movies like crazy in the 60s; a few of them (Mary Poppins, The Absent-Minded Professor, The Parent Trap, The Love Bug) were big hits and are still remembered, but as many if not more (Monkeys Go Home, Those Calloways, The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin) were received mildly at best and have largely been forgotten today. This one is somewhere in the middle—it's not available on Disney+ but though it’s not quite a cult film, it does seem to have a devoted coterie of fans. I enjoyed it when I saw it in 1967 during its initial release when Disney must have been hoping for a cross between the 1959 film Darby O’Gill and the Little People (with gnomes instead of leprechauns) and Mary Poppins (the two kids, Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber played the Banks children). But it falls quite short of both films. It's watchable with some OK special effects, but the Disney magic is in short supply. Brennan, in his 70s, is game and still quite energetic, but Mulrooney never came across to me as an interesting character and his Knobby is all cranky bluster and not especially likable. The kids are fine and Richard Deacon (Mel Cooley on the Dick Van Dyke Show) is good as Yarby. Sean McClory overdoes it a bit as the villainous Quaxton, Ed Wynn plays another gnome, and it's fun to see supporting stalwarts Jerome Cowan and Charles Lane in small parts. There is a title song by the Sherman brothers (Mary Poppins) that is catchy but sung once too often. Pictured are Karen Dotrice and Tom Lowell. [Amazon Prime]

Thursday, November 23, 2023


During Thanksgiving week, I try to review some movies that remind me of the movies I grew up watching on TV on Thanksgiving, when local stations and networks would preempt soap operas and show cartoons and fantasy movies. Though I don't remember seeing this one, it did apparently get regular airings during the holiday season in the 1960s. This is interesting for a couple of reasons: 1) it's not just a version of a classic fairy tale, it’s an adaptation of a 19th century opera by Engelbert Humperdinck, and 2) it's the first feature-length stop motion animation movie. The familiar story is given some twists here and there. Hansel and Gretel are the children of a broom maker and his wife who live in a forest. While the father is trying to sell his wares in a nearby village, the mother has left the children alone to attend to their chores. But when she comes home, she finds them dancing and singing, and she scolds them, sending them into the woods to pick wild strawberries. When Father comes home, having sold all his brooms, he is worried about the children getting lost in the same woods where a "child-gobbling" witch lives, and he and Mother set out to find them. But night falls and Hansel and Gretel sleep in the woods, visited (at least in their dreams) by the Sandman and some protecting angels. In the morning, they find the witch's home, transformed by magic into a gingerbread house, and when they try to snack on it, the witch appears and ties up Hansel, intending to fatten him up and cook him up in the stove. ("I love little boys full of almonds and raisins—succulent!" says the witch.) where he will come out as a gingerbread boy. Of course, the children turn the tables on the witch and are happily reunited with their parents.

This was advertised on release as being enacted by "electronic" puppets, but the only "electro-" thing about them is that the figures were electromagnetically attached to the bottom of the set, and the animators came up from trap doors to move them. PR for the movie at the time claimed that the puppets were capable of hundreds of facial expressions, though the faces of the children are pretty much stuck into smiles, no matter what awful things are happening. The film seems to have done well at the box office. The 3-D sets are more impressive than the puppets, though one has to remember that this was a pioneering film in the genre, and the opera aspects feel more dated now than the look of the film does. Much-loved opera comedian Anna Russell is in fine form as the witch (here named Rosina Rubylips); actress Mildred Dunnock does the non-singing role of the mother, and singer Constance Brigham does the voices of both Hansel (too gruff) and Gretel (a bit too childish).  The children are accompanied by a goose and a very small bear, though they don't add much to the story. Even the angels don't seem relevant to the story. There is a fun moment when the children are dancing at home and two large wooden benches also dance, looking like prototypes of the Gumby character who would become a TV star just a year later. Enjoyable as a throwback to simpler times when kids' movies didn’t have to bear the brunt of being tentpole attractions. [YouTube; the print is good but the colors are washed out.]

Tuesday, November 21, 2023


Both of these films are based on the hit play Outward Bound, and while the basic plots are the same, the details, the acting, and the directorial styles are quite different. The 1930 version begins at night as a young couple, Henry and Ann, facing overwhelming problems, decide to commit suicide by filling their apartment with gas, though they worry about what will happen to his dog, whom they leave outside on the fire escape. Next thing we know, the two are on an ocean liner with no idea where they are bound. They soon discover that the huge liner has only a handful of other passengers, including Tom, a drunkard; Lingley, his former boss; Mrs. Midget, a sweet old lady who takes a particular interest in Tom; Mrs. Cliveden-Banks, an obnoxious rich widow who was unkind to her husband; and a clergyman. None of them have any idea how they got on the ship or where they're going. The only visible staff member is Scrubby, the steward, who eventually tells the group that they have all died and are in passage to the afterlife. A man known as the Examiner appears and talks to each person, drawing out their life stories and passing judgment as to their final destination, heaven or hell. We follow each person as they are examined and dispatched, but Henry and Ann are unusual cases of "halfways" because of their suicide. Is there any way they can be redeemed? (Hint: the dog survives.) I first saw this fantasy when I was very young and it made a strong impression on me. Though I don’t really believe in an afterlife, I still occasionally imagine winding up on a liner like this, in foggy waters with a big glowing city in the distance, waiting to be judged. The narrative and somewhat creepy setting are reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode, and the acting is first rate, including Douglas Fairbanks and Helen Chandler as the suicides, Leslie Howard as Tom (giving a much more passionate performance then he is typically known for), Beryl Mercer as Mrs. Midget, Alec B. Francis as Scrubby, Dudley Digges as the Examiner, and Alison Skipworth doing her best snooty lady imitation as Mrs. Cliveden-Banks. At just under 90 minutes, it doesn’t wear out its welcome, and the ending is a bit contrived but satisfying.

The film was remade in 1944 with a wartime background and a slightly higher budget with mostly the same characters, though the rich lady's husband is added to the group, as is a failed actress (Faye Emerson). It's a slightly glossier affair but at nearly two hours, it also feels a bit bloated. John Garfield, whom I usually like, chews the scenery as Tom; Paul Henreid as Henry is blander than Fairbanks; Eleanor Parker is fine as Ann. Sara Allgood (Mrs. Midget) and Isobel Elsom (Cliveden-Banks) are pretty much exact replicas of Mercer and Skipworth. Edmund Gwenn (Scrubby) and Sydney Greenstreet (the Examiner) are improvements on the originals. Also present are George Tobias and George Coulouris. In this version, a car delivering a group of people to a liner is bombed in an air raid, they all wind up on the ship, and we learn much earlier that they are all dead (it takes about a third of the earlier film to get to that reveal), so some of the initial tension is dissipated. Henreid's reason for killing himself is tied to his lack of an exit visa (shades of Casablanca). In general, the melodramatics are amped up quite a bit here. I prefer the 1930 film but it's harder to find, though it pops up on TCM occasionally; the 1944 version is available on DVD, and both are worth watching. Pictured are Lionel Watts, Fairbanks and Howard from the 1930 film.

Friday, November 17, 2023


After a brief text crawl about the lonely life of lighthouse keepers, we meet one such keeper, Hank (John Litel), who has just given his younger assistant Sam (Don Castle, at right) the day off to go to the mainland to take care of a toothache. But Sam is actually trying to cure a different ache—he's having an affair with Connie (June Lang), who has been led to believe that Sam is the boss at the lighthouse. When Hank visits, Connie tells him that she was just fired for slapping her boss when he tried to come on to her, and she wants to get married. Sam wants to wait until he gets a better job, but what he really needs to do, unbeknownst to Connie, is get untangled from his current wife. When Connie visits the lighthouse island, she discovers that Hank is the boss and finds that Sam is off visiting his wife. For revenge, she sets out to woo Hank. They quickly marry, but when Sam returns, she finds out that Sam was actually trying to divorce his wife. Hank is unaware of the festering passion and jealousy that is being enacted behind his back, and soon Connie's friend JoJo tells her that Sam is back to catting around when he makes it to the mainland. Meanwhile, Hank has proven to be a good man so Connie commits to him, angering Sam who sets a trap in hopes that Hank will fall to his death on the rocks of the shore. Things don't go quite as planned. This B-film has a noir atmosphere, and its plot resembles movies like DOUBLE INDEMNITY or THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, but this is ultimately more interested in character than in violence (though tension and the threat of violence are always present). The low-budget sets are acceptable, given that most of the movie takes place in a couple of rooms in the lighthouse, with an occasional foray outside. The acting is on the lightweight side. June Lang is fine as the femme fatale, but John Litel is too old and stodgy for his part, and Don Castle, who was clearly being groomed as a kind of second-string Clark Gable, is OK but doesn’t have the heat or menace needed for his role. Still, the ending was a little unexpected and generally I enjoyed the film as a nice discovery during TCM’s B-movie festival from earlier this year. [TCM]

Wednesday, November 15, 2023


This is technically a sequel to HAWAII in that it is based on material from the same James Michner novel that the first movie was, but it has little to do directly with that movie so it works as a stand-alone. Charlton Heston plays Whip Hoxworth (that would be a great soap opera name), grandson of Rafer, the merchant played by Richard Harris in the first film. Whip brings a boatload of Chinese slaves to Hawaii and learns that his cousin Micah has inherited the bulk of Rafer's estate, including a shipping business. Whip is left a small, barren plantation with little promise for the future, but his overseer talks him into drilling for water, and when they find it, the land is suddenly worth something. Over the years, with the help of Chinese laborers, including the indispensable Nyuk Tsin (Tina Chen), he builds a successful pineapple plantation. After the birth of their son, Whip's wife Purity loses interest in a sex life and leaves him in order to raise their child as a native. Meanwhile, Mun Ki (Mako), the man who claimed to be Nuyk Tsin's husband in order to save her from sexual assault on the slave ship, decides to go back to China to be with his legal wife, leaving Nyuk Tsin to be stripped of spousal status and given the title "Auntie." Years pass. Mun Ki gets leprosy and returns to Hawaii to live at the leper colony on Molokai, and Nyuk Tsin goes to care for him. Whip's grown son Noel (John Phillip Law) falls in love with Nyuk Tsin's daughter Mei Li, much to the dismay of both parents. The climax occurs when the plague sweeps through the Chinese section of the village, leading to the burning and destruction of all the property of the Chinese.

I saw HAWAII over two years ago and still retain some strong memories of scenes and characters. I saw this movie just a couple of months ago, yet it's already dim in my memory. Part of the reason may be Heston. Though he can be a commanding performer, here he more or less bulldozes through his part, unable to make his character come to nuanced life in the way that Max von Sydow did in HAWAII. Geraldine Chaplin's character, Purity, seems almost to be an afterthought of the screenwriter and she makes little impression. Tina Chen has a good amount of screen time and creates the fullest and most interesting character in the movie. Like its predecessor, the narrative is episodic and spreads out over decades, but whatever magic held the first film together, this one is mostly missing it. Still, this will appeal to fans of those big family sagas that Hollywood used to churn out with regularity. Pictured are Chaplin and Heston. [TCM]

Friday, November 10, 2023


In a fairly brutal opening scene, we see Mary (Diana Dors), a statuesque blonde, walk down a London street and shoot a woman to death as she gets out of her car. Mary shoots several times, then just stands there as a small crowd congregates. Through flashbacks, we catch up on her story. While working as a beauty shop cashier, she sold a bottle of Christmas Rose perfume to Jim (Michael Craig), who bought it for his girlfriend Lucy. They flirt, he calls her 'Christmas Rose,' and soon they're lovers. She leaves her husband, but is not happy when he seems disinclined to stop seeing Lucy. Eventually, he chooses Lucy, but she continues seeing other people, and a drunk and suicidal Jim visits Mary one night. He passes out, but on New Year's Eve, he gasses himself to death in his apartment. Mary, blaming Lucy, hunts her down and shoots her, as we've already seen. On trial, Mary is found guilty and sentenced to death. She bonds with one of her wardens, Pat (Yvonne Mitchell) who has been through her own trauma and develops feelings for Mary even as the date of Mary's execution draws near. Despite my summary, the bulk of this film takes place in Mary's prison cell where we are privy to the conversation of various wardens who attend to Mary. Mary and Pat do have a special relationship that comes off as quite intense on Pat's part, though she's never open about her feelings. The flashbacks are sprinkled through the account of the days before her execution date. Mary holds out some hope for a reprieve, but that doesn't feel realistic. The staggered chronology is probably used to alleviate some of the gloom and monotony of the prison cell, but it doesn't quite work—I still found the last half-hour to be a bit of a slog as Mary largely seems resigned to her fate and is much less interesting than in the flashbacks. Diana Dors, known mostly at the time as a sexpot starlet, gives a very good performance as Mary, and she's the main reason to see this. Yvonne Mitchell and Michael Craig are fine, though their characters remain fairly surface. This has a noir feel visually (lots of interesting camerawork and shots through doors and windows) but the gloomy tone of the prison scenes is mostly what you're left with by the end. Also released as Blonde Sinner. Pictured are Dors and Craig. [Criterion Channel]

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

IMPACT (1949)

Walter Wiliams (Brian Donlevy) is a successful, happily married businessman; he has just won an argument with his board over the purchase of some factories and wants his wife Irene (Helen Walker) to join him on a short business trip with a layover vacation in Lake Tahoe. She stays behind with a toothache, and we soon discover that she's stayed behind to plot with her lover Jim to murder Walter on the road, then meet Jim at a nearby motel. Irene phones Walter and asks him to pick up Jim (claiming he's her cousin), who is stranded with car trouble. Walter does, and Jim manages to knock him out with a wrench and toss his body down a hill. Unluckily, Jim takes off on the mountain road and collides head-on into a truck, dying in a fiery explosion. Meanwhile, Walter comes to, in a rather woozy state, and hitches a ride on a moving van. When the wreck is discovered, the police assume that the charred remains in the car are Walter's. Walter, eventually realizing what the plan was, wanders about and winds up in Larkspur, Idaho where he meets Marsha (Ella Raines), an attractive female car mechanic, gets hired as an assistant, and even moves into her family's home as a boarder. He tells no one about his past but collects newspaper stories about his supposed death, and eventually about the arrest of Irene for his murder. When he tells Marsha the truth, she encourages him to resurface to save his wife, but when he does, his wife finds a way to put the blame on him for Jim's death, and for plotting to kill her as well. Only one person can clear him: Irene's maid Sui Lin (Anna May Wong), who has seemingly vanished. 

This film noir plays out like a variation on the mistaken identity trope, with a couple of plotholes. It's unclear how long, if at all, the traumatized Walter might have actually had amnesia right after the accident, a claim he makes to the cop but which might just be a story to buy him more time. It's also never explained what Irene thinks when Jim doesn't show up for their rendezvous after the attempt on Walter's life. Otherwise, this is a moderately engrossing noir, though Donlevy is a bit on the stodgy, boring side which rather dissipates some of the tension. Raines and Walker are both fine, and Charles Coburn (pictured with Walker) effectively plays against type as the chief cop trying to figure out if Walter is guilty or not. Wong is her usual stiff, artificial self but that kind of works with her character. There is some nice, if limited, location shooting on the streets of San Francisco. I suspect in six months, little about this movie will remain vivid in my memory, but I don't feel bad for having seen it. [TCM]

Friday, November 03, 2023


It is generally acknowledged that the first UFO sighting of the postwar era was on June 24, 1947 when pilot Kenneth Arnold saw several shiny discs shooting through the skies above Mount Rainier. The press called them "flying saucers," though the less sensational term UFO (unidentified flying object) was used by the Air Force when they began investigating these sightings, which continued well into the mid 1950s (and still happen today). This movie prefigures the History Channel quasi-documentary programs of recent years in which interviews and actual documentary footage are mixed with dramatic recreations of events featuring actors. Narrator Marvin Miller lets us know at the beginning that this film is "not fiction," and the throughline narrative follows a real man named Albert Chop (played by Tom Towers, not an actor but a Los Angeles reporter), a former reporter who got a job as a PR man for the Air Force's Air Materiel Command in Dayton, Ohio during the initial UFO fuss and later did PR for the Pentagon. The film begins at a Pentagon press conference in July of 1952 as Maj. Gen. John Samford (a real person) addresses the issue of UFOs. We then backtrack to the initial sighting in 1947 and move ahead to a sighting by Kentucky police in 1948, a Life Magazine cover story on UFOs in 1952, and the sighting of multiple UFOs over Washington DC in July of  '52. Along the way, the Air Force sets up the secret Project Sign to investigate. They shut it down when the press finds out about it but then reactivate it as Project Grudge. Chop is often stuck between reporters seeking information and government contacts who seem reluctant to share any findings. Along the way, we see genuine footage of two UFO sightings, repeated at the end of the film, before we return to Gen. Samford whose money quote is that there are "credible observers of relatively incredible things."

Though I noted above this movie’s similarities to current day recreated documentaries, this one is not a slickly made product with CGI and dramatic scenes. It very much follows the traditional non-sensationalistic documentary format with constant narration, interviews and proclamations interspersed with recreated scenes involving Albert Chop; these are resolutely presented in a realistic fashion to the point where, except for one scene set in Chop's home, the viewer tends to forget that these are fictional scenes. The closest the film comes to anything dramatic is when Chop is called away at night during the DC sightings: he says blandly to his wife, "Radar is picking up unknowns over the Capitol—don't wait up!" For all of its set-up as being real, the filmmakers don't tell us that we’re seeing actors in the scenes involving Chop, and there are no credits at the end identifying the actors. IMDb has a cast list of about 20 people, with less than half noted as playing themselves (or appearing in documentary footage). I guess I appreciate the low-key tone of the film, but more transparency about recreated scenes would have been welcome. Still, the key draw here was and remains the few minutes of actual UFO footage. The longer film was taken in Utah and unfortunately looks to me like reflections of lights superimposed over footage of the sky. Probably best appreciated as a historical novelty. The film’s subtitle on screen is, "The True Story of Flying Saucers." Pictured is Tom Towers to the right of a shadowy government guy. [YouTube]

Thursday, November 02, 2023


The Marquesas Islands, we are told in intertitles, are an "earthly" paradise reminiscent of the "morning of Creation, fresh from the touch of God," until white men cast their "withering shadows" as they began bringing civilization there. On an island where "civilization" has meant the natives working for white Europeans as pearl divers, the work is hard and often dangerous. We see a young diver get his foot caught in a giant clam. He gets to the surface but comes up too quickly and his lungs collapse. Matthew, the friendly but occasionally drunken doctor, tries to save him but is too late. As the boy dies, the white workers dance and drink nearby. After Matthew complains about the overseer's behavior, Sebastian, one of the chief traders, decides to get rid of Matthew. When a ship filled with bubonic plague victims comes into view, Matthew is sent to help, but instead he finds a ship of dead people. Sebastian has him tied to the wheel and the ship is sent out into a typhoon. Somehow, Matthew survives and is washed up on the shore of a small island that white men haven't discovered. He is attended to by the natives who remain a bit distant, especially when he starts paying attention to Fayaway, daughter of the tribe chief and "virgin bride" of the temple. But when Matthew uses his medical skills to save Fayaway's brother from drowning, the chief allows him to "look with love" upon her. Matthew's new existence is soon threatened when Sebastian and his men show up, looking to despoil yet another paradise with, as Matthew puts it, the "instincts of a ruthless race."

This was advertised as MGM's first sound picture; note that the word used is "sound," not "talking." The dialogue scenes are silent with intertitles, but music, sound effects, and background noises are dubbed in, along with one moment when a man calls out, "Hello," and we hear it. There's a lot of backstory to the production but it boils down to a clash between two directors, Robert Flaherty (mostly known for documentaries) and 'Woody' Van Dyke (known as One-Take Woody for his fast and cheap style). Flaherty was the director of record as filming started in Fiji, but he became frustrated with the attitude of the crew and quit, leaving Van Dyke to finish up. The movie doesn’t suffer for the conflicts, though the theme of wicked civilization versus untouched Eden is a bit heavy-handed. Monte Blue (pictured) is not terribly appealing in the lead role; he's fine when he's a dissolute drinker, but he's not quite up to the attempted heroics of the last half. Raquel Torres, maybe best known as the exotic femme fatale opposite Groucho Marx in Duck Soup, is fine as Fayaway. Fiji natives make up much of the supporting cast. Interesting viewing for silent movie fans. [TCM]