Tuesday, January 30, 2024


Tarzan (Jock Mahoney) parachutes out of a plane over a field in an Asian country. He's there in response to a call for help from Tarim, the leader of his people who is on his deathbed and is preparing the way for his successor, the pre-teen Prince Kashi—the country is not named, and although the film was shot in Thailand, the rules of succession seem more Tibetan. Tarim fears that his ruthless brother Khan (Woody Strode) will harm Kashi and install his own son as the heir. On his way to the leader's monastery, Tarzan's entourage is attacked on the river with loss of life, though Tarzan escapes. Accompanied by his guide Hani (who, unbeknownst to Tarzan is actually a spy for Khan), Tarzan arrives at the monastery where he must undergo three challenges testing skill, strength and wisdom to prove himself worthy of the mission. One is an archery test, one is a Zen word problem to solve. The most grueling challenge is when Tarzan is tied between two posts and the ropes are attached to two buffalos who pull in opposite directions (pictued at right). He endures and is accepted by Tarim. Accompanied by Hani, a monk, and a nursemaid, Tarzan sets out to bring Kashi to the monastery, a trip that Kahn's men are trying to sabotage. But Tarzan is up to the task, and when he brings Kashi back, after the death of Tarim, there are more challenges to face, including a climactic one-on-one fight with Khan on netting stretched over barrels of boiling oil that will have to be a fight to the death.

Mahoney only played Tarzan twice (the first time being in TARZAN GOES TO INDIA) but he looms fairly large in Tarzan trivia. He played a villain in the earlier TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT, he was the oldest actor to be cast as a new Tarzan (he was 44 in INDIA), and he became deathly ill during the making of this movie, getting dysentery from swimming in a polluted river, even after his co-star Woody Strode warned him not to. Many viewers report how ill and weak he looks in the latter scenes of this film which was mostly shot in chronological order—it supposedly took him over a year to fully recuperate—but he was always more lithe than muscular, and I didn't think he looked much different by the end than he did at the beginning, though maybe I couldn't see beyond the oil and sweat that he's frequently covered in. I think it's a little ironic that the one of the best Tarzan torture scenes in the whole canon is here where he's not being worked over by bad guys, but by good guys. The stretching scene, the oil barrel fight, and an earlier scene of a major jungle fire are three of the best action sequences in any Tarzan movie, so for those alone, I'd rate this fairly high in Tarzan movie rankings. As I noted in my review of INDIA, Mahoney is a literate and laid-back Tarzan and part of me is sorry Mahoney didn't continue in the role (though if you squint, I think you can see a bit of Mahoney in Ron Ely's TV Tarzan), but then again, because he didn't return, we got the hottest Tarzan of all, Mike Henry. But that's another review. Woody Strode deserves mention for embodying one of the most threatening bad guys in the Tarzan films, and he also plays, briefly, a second role as the dying brother. Ricky Der (Kashi), who couldn't have been more than 9 or 10, is notable for his ability to look profoundly serious all the time. More pluses: almost no comic relief, almost no cute animal antics (though Kashi does bond with a baby elephant that they call Hungry). Definitely among the 4-star Tarzan movies. Best line: "Pride is the evil shadow of greatness." [DVD]

Friday, January 26, 2024


Businessman Jason Robards lives in New Jersey and works in Manhattan, but every Wednesday, he stays overnight to enjoy some extramarital pleasures, and fakes a long-distance phone call to his wife who thinks he's out of town on a business trip. One Wednesday night, at a cocktail party, he ropes lovely young Jane Fonda into helping him by calling his wife and posing as a long-distance operator, so his check-in call will seem as if it's coming from Chicago. They flirt but she resists becoming his mistress, and when he offers to send her flowers, she says she hates watching flowers die and wishes someone would send her balloons instead. When Fonda winds up in the hospital with hepatitis, Robards sends her balloons, and she finally relents. Two years later, the two are still meeting every Wednesday at her apartment, which Robards has had his company buy as an overnight executive suite, which only Robards uses. But this Wednesday, Dean Jones, the owner of a company that Robards has bought, has been sent by Robards' secretary to use the suite. Arriving that afternoon, Jones is surprised to find Fonda there and assumes that she is a prostitute present for his use. As the two argue, Robards' wife (Rosemary Murphy) arrives, also sent by the unwitting secretary. Assuming Jones and Fonda to be a couple, Murphy insists they join her and Robards for dinner. Complications ensue.

This is a fairly entertaining sex farce, from an era filled with such films, and it's largely Jane Fonda's delightfully light performance that makes it work so well. She pulls off a kind of naughty innocence that is central in keeping the audience on her side. The underrated Dean Jones (who got stuck playing fairly flat characters in Disney movies) goes for a kind of sexy Jimmy Stewart thing and it mostly works. Robards is the weak link; he's a little too crusty to be effective, and he doesn't make the character very sympathetic. Rosemary Murphy is much better as the wife who rolls quite well with the punches. Based on a stage play, there's only one other character of note, the secretary, played by Ann Prentiss, the look-alike (and act-alike) sister of Paula Prentiss. Jack Fletcher has a brief scene (that some today might find offensive) as a shriekingly gay interior designer. Though the film is largely stagebound, the director (Robert Ellis Miller) occasionally uses split-screen to good effect, even comically splitting the split screens. Fun line, from Murphy about the possibility of an affair with her gardener: "No woman has had any luck with gardeners since Lady Chatterley." This is fun, but at 110 minutes, it feels about 20 minutes too long. Pictured are Fonda, Jones and Robards. [TCM]

Tuesday, January 23, 2024


After the bar Happy's Place closes for the night, two employees, Bill and Sally, are cleaning up and counting money. She seems sweet on him but he is reluctant to open up too much to her. A thief known as the Paper Bag Bandit sneaks in to steal the day's earnings and Bill manages to shoot him dead. He's declared a hero in the newspapers until his past comes to light: he's actually Richard Kincaid (James Anderson), a fugitive who vanished twelve years ago when he was found guilty of murder, a crime he swears he didn't commit. He is held and appointed a public defender, Paul Bennett (Gig Young), and we see his story in flashback: Richard meets a friendly group of folks out on the town who invite him back to a house for further merrymaking where they all have a few too many. Joan, one of the women, is alone and dances with Richard, but her jealous husband Dan arrives at the house and pulls a gun on Kincaid. Richard disarms him but says he'd kill him if he could. The next morning, Dan is dead and Richard is arrested. Largely on the somewhat uncertain testimony of the partyers, Richard is about to be found guilty when he takes off. Paul thinks he has a fighting chance of helping Richard and enlists the help of his father, a retired cop, to track down the other partygoers to get them to testify at a new trial. As Paul and his father dig further, secrets turn up and lives are threatened before a final courtroom climax.

This noir film is perhaps best enjoyed as a kind of character study. Most of the partyers are now, twelve years later, living shabbier lives than they might have expected and there is some genuine pathos in seeing these people in reduced circumstances: the football hero was blinded in the war and works as a bookbinder, one is an associate at a small marionette theater, one is a drunken bum, and one has had a nervous breakdown. Only one couple has moved up in the world, to a mansion with a pool, but they don't seem particularly happy. When Eddie Muller introduced this on TCM's Noir Alley, he noted that the sheer number of supporting characters and backstories would make this ideal for a current-day streaming miniseries. While I understand his point, I would not encourage such an idea, as these series are always at least 2 hours too long. Here, at just 70 minutes, the characters remain mostly surface sketches, but there's little wasted time or energy. Top billed Gig Young is a bit colorless as the lawyer, and among the actors playing the witnesses and suspects, only Cleo Moore stands out. But James Anderson (pictured) is quite good as the hapless Richard, who in giving a low-key performance, manages to outshine Gig Young. [TCM]

Sunday, January 21, 2024


This is one of the first feature-length movies made in the United States, and probably the oldest complete movie I've ever seen. The film is shot like a series of tableaux with very little action and long intertitles to explain what's happening. It winds up being of more interest historically than for its narrative or style, and as always, I cannot vouch for its biographical accuracy. As the film opens, a slave fisherman named Pharon has been tossing flowers at Queen Cleopatra to win her love. But Iras, the queen's attendant, also loves him. Cleopatra eventually takes him as a lover, but for ten days only, after which time he must kill himself. He accepts, but when the time comes to take his poison, Iras gives him an antidote and says that Cleopatra has spared his life but he must leave Egypt. Meanwhile, the Roman general Marc Antony has requested that Cleopatra meet him at Tarsus to answer to conspiracy charges against Rome (the military matters here are not always well spelled out). When they meet, sparks fly—an aide to Antony says that Antony's army is not as powerful as Cleopatra's eyes. Antony stays with Cleopatra ignoring Rome's battles with Octavius—an intertitle says that Antony "lingers in the land of the lotus, forgetting every tie to the past"—but when Flavia, Antony's wife is reported dead, he goes back to Rome. As we all know, passions continue to be inflamed and by the end, Antony, who has gone back to Cleopatra, is killed, and Cleopatra uses a poisonous snake to kill herself. This will seem stagy and primitive to anyone who is not already a silent movie fan, but for me, its 90 minute running time went by quickly. Modern eyes will not find either Antony (Charles Sindelar) or Cleopatra (Helen Gardner) especially appealing, in looks or acting (lots of emotions are registered by the tossing of heads and the wringing of hands), but once you adjust to the era's standards, you do get wrapped up in the story. Gardner was a major silent film star and also the first woman to establish her own production company. This restoration, funded in part by TCM, has a problematic modern score. Some of it has the feel of hip-hop trance music by Phillip Glass, but when vocals are featured, having no apparent connection to the action, it becomes irritating. [TCM]

Wednesday, January 17, 2024


Rex Leland (William Lundigan), wastrel playboy stepson of the wealthy Nelson Rood (C. Henry Gordon), begs his stepfather to pay off yet another gambling debt. Nelson agrees, but warns Rex that he's now cut off. Rex's mom Laura is on his side, but Rex has already forged a check from his stepfather that Nelson will soon find out about. Meanwhile, Nelson's daughter Marion (Nan Grey) is seeing detective Nick Halstead (Donald Woods) on the sly—for some reason, he's camping on the Rood property—and when Nelson catches them smooching, he orders Nick to leave. Then a scary looking black doll with a small knife plunged into its chest shows up on Nelson's desk. He summons his old business partners Walling and Mallison; years ago, the three were involved in the death of another partner named Barrows just before they got rich off a Mexican mine. The black doll disappeared with Barrows and Nelson knows that its reappearance means trouble. That night, Nelson is stabbed to death with a knife and practically everyone in the house has a motive: Walling and Mallinson, Marion, and even the servants who have been badly treated by Nelson. Or, as some wonder, could Barrows still be alive and has he returned to get revenge? Nick is on the case, helping the bumbling local sheriff track down clues, and after a second death, Nick discovers a couple of family secrets that may point in a specific direction. 

This B-mystery is an entry in the short-lived Crime Club movie series from Universal in the 1930s. Like others I've seen, this is light and well-paced and decently acted, with one glaring exception, that being the grating comic relief of Edgar Kennedy as the sheriff. He's OK in small doses but he has way too much screen time here and his delivery never varies. But Kennedy doesn't appear until about halfway through, letting the other actors show off for a while. Donald Woods makes an appealing detective and he and Nan Grey (both pictured) have a nice chemistry. C. Henry Gordon, one of my favorite B-movie villains, is well cast as Nelson as is a young William Lundigan (in one of the eleven movies he made in 1938) as the dissolute Rex. This almost has the feel of an "old dark house"movie, though the visual atmosphere is never as creepy as it should be. [YouTube]

Monday, January 15, 2024


John Marsden (Willian Powell), a wealthy bond broker, is secretly Natural Davis, a big-time gambler. We first see him betting with his friend Dorgan on whether the next cab they see will have an odd or even license plate number. He has a reputation of never cheating, and never tolerating those who do. At a high-stakes game, he exposes Al Mastick as a cheater, and though Mastick offers to pay everyone back, Marsden sets his men on Mastick, who is found dead the next day. Marsden's wife Alma (Kay Francis) is preparing to leave him because of his gambling, but he promises to quit. However, his kid brother Babe has just arrived in town with his new wife for a visit. Marsden had sent Babe a large cash wedding gift to be invested, but Babe, not knowing of Marsden's activities as Natural Davis, wants to bet it all and win a huge chunk of money. In an attempt to scare Babe away from the gambling life, Marsden winds up masterminding a night-long poker game engineered to make Babe lose. But when his cheating is discovered, Dorgan decides to treat him as a welcher, just as Marsden treated Mastick. There is not a happy ending. This is a chance to see Powell play more of  a scoundrel than in the movies he became known for later (THE THIN MAN, MY MAN GODFREY, LIFE WITH FATHER). In many of his pre-Code films, he played a charming and slick lead who was also often morally ambiguous, if not downright bad, but his looks and charm kept audiences feeling empathetic for him. I like the way the blogger at Frank's Movie Log refers to Powell’s "mix of urbane charm and streetwise edge," and that's exactly what he has here. Even though he orders a hit on a gambler, we still have positive feelings for Powell, both for his chemistry with Francis (though his best movie with Francis is probably JEWEL ROBBERY) and for the fact that the cheating that causes his downfall is in the service of good. Francis doesn't have a lot to do but looks good not doing it. Regis Toomey (Babe), normally a favorite supporting actor of mine, is a bit lightweight here. Jean Arthur, before her leading lady days, also has little to do as Toomey's wife. Definitely watchable but a bit of a trifle. Pictured are Francis and Powell. [Criterion Channel]

Tuesday, January 09, 2024


Paul (Dick Van Dyke) is a struggling American artist living in Paris with his friend Casey (James Garner), a struggling American writer. Zorgus, an art dealer, tells Paul somewhat facetiously that if Paul killed himself, his paintings would start selling. Paul wants to give up and go back to the States to his rich fiancĂ©e Laurie (Angie Dickinson) but Casey suggests that Paul fake a suicide, then sit back while the money rolls in. One night on a bridge over the Seine, Paul sees the lovely young Nikki (Elke Sommer) jump into the river and he plunges in to save her. Meanwhile, Casey, who saw Paul jump, thinks he actually committed suicide and when his 'death' hits the front pages, starts a brisk business with Zorgus selling Paul's work which indeed sells like wildfire. Complications ensue: Laurie arrives for a surprise visit with Paul, not knowing he is 'dead';  Paul and Nikki strike romantic sparks; Casey starts to fall for Laurie. When Paul surfaces, Casey talks him into staying in hiding and producing more paintings, which he does, but soon the police are considering the idea that Casey killed Paul (especially when someone sees Casey saw a mannequin in parts and throw it in a fire, and mistakes the dummy for a real person). Because this is a comedy, we assume things will turn out OK, but when Casey is found guilty and Paul decides not to come forward, it's a close call, with Casey winding up on the gallows (complete with a cackling, knitting hag out of Tale of Two Cities sitting in the front row) before Paul tries to save him.

Despite a promising cast and a script by Carl Reiner, this farcical comedy never really gels. One big problem is Dick Van Dyke who, as one IMDb reviewer put it, comes off like Rob Petrie in Paris. As funny and charming as Van Dyke could be (his 60s sit-com, Mary Poppins, Bye Bye Birdie), he was basically a one-note comic actor and he fails to stretch enough here. Garner tries and comes off a little better, but they are both at sea in the hands of director Norman Jewison who can't quite handle the mix of romantic comedy, slapstick, and seriousness (Garner's character comes uncomfortably close to getting hung). Dickinson, though lovely, is underused here which leaves Sommer as the actor who comes off the best. Ethel Merman has a little bit of fun as a Parisian madam who helps the boys with their schemes. Jewison has too heavy a hand to make this as fizzy as it needs to be (and that knitting hag bit is hammered at way too many times). Jewison has been quoted as saying that the plotpoints about art and suicide doomed to movie as a mass appeal product, but I disagree. That dark comic plot is the most interesting about the movie, but the acting and directing don't support it. Not unwatchable, but not nearly as much fun as it should have been. Pictured are Garner and Van Dyke. [TCM]

Friday, January 05, 2024


On the run from the law after a bank robbery, Joe Maybe (Audie Murphy) sees lawman Jim Noonan fall to his death. Joe takes the man's horse and belongings, including his sheriff's badge (a star with a missing point). Moseying into the town of Webb City, he is challenged by crusty Judge Kyle (Walter Matthau) who is looking for Joe, but when he recognizes the badge, he assumes that Joe is Noonan, and talks him into staying around as the town's marshal. The next day, a saucy lass named Tessa (Gia Scala) arrives by riverboat and recognizes Maybe, whose last name she calls out. She recovers quickly by saying she called him "Baby," and the two pose as a married couple. Actually, she's in town to case the place for a bank robbery planned by her lover and old rival of Joe's, Sam Teeler (Henry Silva). During a celebration for the arrival of the railroad to Webb City, Teeler and his gang ride in, primed for robbery. Maybe is caught between two desires: getting in on the robbery or going straight and taking his lawman duties seriously. Tessa is also conflicted between the two men, especially because a young orphan boy has taken to Tessa and Joe and hopes to be adopted by them.

I like Audie Murphy quite a bit (RED BADGE OF COURAGE, THE QUIET AMERICAN), but this is the first western of his I've seen (and westerns were pretty much his specialty). It took a while to get used to him in Old West duds, and he lacks the gravitas that more traditional Western lead actors had—honestly, his persona here would have been a better fit in one of those B-westerns that were cranked out with assembly-line speed in the 30s and early 40s, maybe even as a singing cowboy. But I got used to him eventually, even though he was never really convincing as an outlaw, which dissipates the impact of his eventual redemption. Gia Scala is fine as his eventual romantic interest, though Silva makes for a somewhat weak bad guy. Eddie Little, as the orphan boy, gets a very nice moment near the end when he shows off his ability to wield a gun. This leaves Matthau (pictured above with Murphy) who is problematic here. Not quite 40 in real life, he is made to seem closer to 60 and he chews the scenery like mad, using an exaggerated drawl and often adopting a W.C. Fields accent, particularly noticeable when he actually says, "Never give the other guy an even break" (a rewording of the title of a Fields movie). It took me almost half the movie to get used to him, and I still think a subtler performance was called for here. But it seems likely that the filmmakers were going for a fairly light tone, as opposed to other westerns of the 50s which often emphasized darker psychological details, and Matthau does keep things light. At one point, we get a rather prosaic explanation of Joe's last name, devoid of the ambiguity that would have added depth to Joe's character. Not exactly a classic but enjoyable. [DVD]

Thursday, January 04, 2024


St. Petersburg in January, 1914, a few months before the outbreak of WWI. The lovely, wealthy Marya (Kay Francis) is back in town and attracting attention. She meets up with old friend Victor (Kenneth MacKenna), a scientist doing research on TB. Though obsessed with his work, he proposes to Marya, saying that even though he knows that she is not in love with him, their passionless relationship could work as a kind of experiment. She agrees, but a few months later, when war is declared, Victor is called up as a reserve soldier despite his insistence that he is worth more at home doing research. Marya goes to ask General Platoff (Walter Huston) to give him an exemption, but she is lost among the dozens of women asking for similar requests for husbands and sons. When Victor is insubordinate to Platoff, he is imprisoned and sentenced to die. Marya, desperate to free him, poses as a prostitute at a notorious club—she is told, "All the officers go there; the prima donnas can't sing, the chorus girls can't dance"—where she flirts with the general, gets into his good graces (and then some), and starts to soften him up to the point where he begins granting exemptions for the wives and mothers who approach him. But when Marya asks for mercy for Victor, things get melodramatic for all concerned: Platoff resents being manipulated and Victor berates her for unfaithfulness even though their relationship had been platonic. Is there a happy ending in store for anyone?

[Spoilers follow] The original New York Times review of this film calls it a comedy, and there are some light moments here and there, but it mostly plays out like a romantic melodrama. Granted, the ending is indeed more or less happy for all three: Marya falls in love with the general, he with her, and Victor allows himself to be saved, then steps aside to let Marya be with Platoff. So in the classical sense, this has the ending of a comedy, but there aren't a lot of laughs along the way, except involving the madam of the club/brothel (Jobyna Howland). George Cukor, the co-director, referred to this as one of his worst movies, and indeed its pace may feel a bit off to modern viewers—at 80 minutes, I was ready for it to be over at 65 or before. The movie is probably of most interest for pre-Code fans for its fairly blatant depiction of the brothel and for Marya's extramarital activities. The central trio are fine, especially Kay Francis. I was unfamiliar with MacKenna who does a fine job playing a somewhat irritating character—a year after this movie was made, he married Francis though they only stayed together for a couple of years. Pictured are Francis and MacKenna. [Criterion streaming]

Tuesday, January 02, 2024


War hero Stuart Whitman is now a popular TV commentator who answers phone calls on the air; his current crusade is exposing links between the Mafia and the police department. During his current show, he gets a taunting call from his drunken wife (Eleanor Parker, pictured) as she dallies with another man in her bed. They're separated and she's just back from Europe but won't give Whitman a divorce. On the phone, she babbles almost incoherently, calling him a "boy crusader" and wondering how he became a war hero when he's "such a whimpering baby, baby, baby." After the show, he heads to her place where they have an argument right out Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. On her balcony, they come to blows. He tries to strangle her, but she winds up falling off the balcony where she hits the street and is then hit by several cars, causing a pile-up. Whitman tells the police that her fall was an accident, then he says she was trying to kill herself because she had cancer. As it happens, one of the cars in the pile-up is occupied by one of the Mafia dons that Whitman has been attacking, and accompanying him is Whitmans' ex-mistress (Janet Leigh), whom Whitman knocked up and abandoned a few years ago. The two start to get close again which doesn't make the Mafia guy happy. The cops, also unhappy, are out to get Whitman because of his accusations of corruption. Meanwhile, Parker's rich father is willing to use his power to subvert the suicide verdict because otherwise, the monsignor can't give Parker a Catholic burial. In the midst of all this, it's getting difficult for Whitman's agent to get him top dollar with a new contract. It seems that Whitman's American dream might be turning into a nightmare.

This bizarre melodrama is best appreciated as camp. It's hard to pin down what's wrong with it, although Whitman's wooden performance is a good starting place—his character is charmless and uninteresting. The direction, by Robert Gist, is lackluster, and there is no coherent visual style to the movie, though Parker's apartment is pretty fabulous. This will sound like a contradiction, but Parker's performance is the best and worst thing in the movie. In her short fifteen minutes at the beginning, she starts at level 11 (out of 10) and goes up from there. At first, I found her grating and artificial, but her drunken hysteria set a kind of anti-Zen trance mood, during which I couldn't keep my eyes off of her. She is terrible and wonderful and riveting at the same time, and is ultimately the main reason to watch the movie. Much as I like Janet Leigh, she can't compete, especially given her under-written character. Barry Sullivan, as the main cop, is fine, as is Murray Hamilton as Whitman's agent, and Lloyd Nolan in what is basically a cameo as Parker's father. George Takei appears briefly as a cop. Without giving away the context, I'll quote the last line of the movie, which is  classic: "What did you expect from a whore?" Gist, the director, has a very small role in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET as the guy placing reindeer figures in the shop window when Kris Kringle stops to chat, and was the director's assistant in THE BAND WAGON. [TCM]