Tuesday, July 16, 2024

HOW SWEET IT IS! (1968)

In the middle of the afternoon, it appears that Grif (James Garner) has snuck into the bedroom of Jenny (Debbie Reynolds) and the two are having a matinee while her husband's out. Suddenly they hear someone enter the house and head upstairs. Surprise! Grif and Jenny are a married couple getting frisky in broad daylight, and it's their teenage son Davey who has interrupted things. He has teenager problems: his girlfriend Bootsie is going to spend the summer in Europe with a student group, and Davey wants to tag along. Jenny manages to get Grif, a photographer by trade, assigned to accompany the group to document the trip, and she decides to go along, renting a villa in France to stay at and provide a home base for Grif and Davey, and perhaps to get some canoodling time in with her husband. Unfortunately, on the ship over, they wind up in separate cabins, and when they sneak out at night to do some necking on the dark dock, they find out that many of the teenagers had the same plan. Grif and Davey head out with the tour group while Jenny heads to the villa only to find that her real estate agent cheated her and the rental is actually a private house belonging to a rich playboy named Phillipe (Maurice Ronet). They have their own meet-cute moment when she mistakes him for a servant. He tries to clear things up by letting her have the home for a few weeks since he says he won't be there for long. She accepts, then finds that he is in no hurry to leave the house. Meanwhile, Grif seems to be flirting a bit with a travel guide named Nancy. Misunderstandings pile up and things come to a farcical head one night when most of the characters descend on a brothel (with Jenny and her son winding up in a room together!). A happy return to America is in store for Grif and Jenny.

This is an interesting stab at making a vanilla sex comedy, titillating but not immoral. Garner and Reynolds are game as the leads, though I must admit I kept forgetting that the wife was Reynolds and not Doris Day. Though the film leads you to believe that Davey, a teen hippie in the making (or Hollywood's idea of one), will be a main character, he (Donald Losby) and his girlfriend are largely pushed aside once we get to Europe. Most of the fun is provided by supporting players. The quirkily handsome Maurice Ronet approaches the playboy role with a light touch. Marcel Dalio makes the most of his limited screen time as Ronet's Communist butler. Terry-Thomas has a cameo as the shady real estate agent. I quite enjoyed Paul Lynde popping up throughout as an officer on the ship who expresses shock at the sexy goings-on but is then caught in his own shenanigans at the brothel. Jerry Paris, who played Rob Petrie's neighbor on the Dick Van Dyke Show, directed and has a cameo, and the woman who played his wife Millie on the show, Ann Morgan Guilbert, has a small role as an ocean liner passenger. Ultimately, there are too many balls in the air here to make this totally successful, but it's good naughty Saturday afternoon fun. Pictured are Lynde and Guilbert.[TCM] 

Thursday, July 11, 2024

THE PARENT TRAP (1961)

Two teenage girls, Sharon and Susan (both played by Hayley Mills), who look exactly alike, meet at a summer camp. Sharon is a bit snobby and Susan a bit of a tomboy. Their clashes lead them to be punished by eating and rooming together, and as they break the ice, they discover that they are twins separated by divorce. Sharon lives with her mother (Maureen O'Hara) in Boston and Susan with her father (Brian Keith) in California, Once they figure out their relationship (their parents never told them about each other), they decide to switch places to get a taste of how they each live, and to get their parents back together. It's fun and games for a while until Sharon discovers that Brian Keith is in a serious relationship with gold digger Joanna Barnes that may lead to marriage and they have to kick their plan into high gear. When I think of classic-era live-action Walt Disney movies, MARY POPPINS is always the first that comes to mind. But POPPINS is something of an outlier. It’s a fantasy/musical with a good-sized budget, a great score, a couple of wonderful production numbers, and a newly-minted star in Julie Andrews. When you compare it to other Disney films of its time, it barely feels like a Disney movie. This film from three years before is more typical of the live-action (non-musical) template that ruled for the next several years: brightly lit stagy-looking sets, lots of TV actors, OK special effects, and a major bog-down in the middle which makes it feel about 15 minutes too long. At two hours, this is definitely too long, but not in that deadly way that today's superhero movies and streaming TV shows are. The story is cute, and the adult actors are all fine, including Una Mekel, Charlie Ruggles, Leo G. Carroll and Nancy Kulp, and I always love seeing Joanna Barnes of Auntie Mame fame who could play mean like nobody's business, but let's face it, it all rests on Mills' shoulders and she carries the film quite nicely (helped by the occasional split-screen effect). Directed in a fairly pedestrian manner by David Swift (How to Succeed in Business). There have been sequels but I don't know that I need to see them. (The accompanying picture, with the girls being punished at camp, has a Covid lockdown feel to it.) [Disney+]

Monday, July 08, 2024

ESCAPE FROM THE IRON CURTAIN (1956)

In a small London nightclub, we see Theodore Bikel (pictured at right) strumming a guitar and singing a Spanish folk tune. An onlooker declares him to be "the real thing," but another patron notes that he's actually Hungarian. The rest of the film is a flashback telling us how Bikel got to England. A security officer for the Communist government in Hungary, Bikel was a good party man but when his immediate boss was purged, the disillusioned Bikel feared that he might be next, so he managed to escape to Vienna, leaving his wife behind. He is approached on the street by possibly shady people offering to help him, but finally makes contact with John Bentley, a British officer who recognizes him from the war years (in a scene that plays out a bit like a gay pickup). Bikel is seeking political asylum; at first, Bentley waffles on giving it to him, then gives him an assignment to prove his worth: go back to Budapest and help a scientist named Okofsky escape. Bikel takes on the job, intending also to bring his wife back, despite being threatened by a blackmailer. Though I didn’t especially like this movie, I celebrate the fact that Turner Classic Movies still shows oddities like this that would otherwise be lost to time. Its length (just under an hour) and its production values mark it as a B-movie second feature, but the term B-movie is almost too good for this. Grade Z, however, would mark this as a super cheap exploitation film and it's not that. It needs a new label, something to indicate its seriousness in tone but also its almost amateurish production. See CARNIVAL OF SOULS or BLAST OF SILENCE for films similar in feel and look but more successful as finished productions. The two main actors, Bikel and Bentley, do their best with what little they have, and it's not their fault that seemingly the entire movie has been post-dubbed, so the dialogue has an unnaturally harsh tone to it, like it was recorded sloppily in a small studio. Ultimately, this movie feels more like a rough draft for a movie than a finished film with fleshed-out characters and a coherent narrative. At times it put me in mind, at least visually, of one of those Coronet educational films of the 50s and 60s that Rifftrax frequently mocks. It's difficult to recommend this except as a historical oddity, taking place just months before the 1956 attempt at a Hungarian revolution, though fans of the underrated Theodore Bikel will want to see it—he may not be at his best, but he's the best thing in it. And again, thank you TCM for your commitment to not just classics but to lesser-known films and to strange one-offs like this. First released in England as FLIGHT FROM VIENNA. [TCM]

Friday, July 05, 2024

SHORT TAKES (7/5/24)

FLY-AWAY BABY (1937)
The marriage of reporter Torchy Blane (Glenda Farrell) to policeman Steve McBride (Barton MacLane) is delayed when a jeweler named Deveraux is shot and killed at his place of business and $250,000 worth of gems are stolen. Torchy gets mad when competing reporter Lucien Croy (Gordon Oliver), son of her newspaper's editor, is allowed into the crime scene before she is. It turns out that Croy was one of the last people to see Deveraux alive. Croy, deep in debt, wanted to borrow money from Deveraux; the two argued and Deverauz not only wouldn't give him money but threatened to tell Croy's father about his situation. Croy has alibis for the time of the murder, but when he announces that he is leaving on a round-the-world air trip, racing another reporter, Torchy decides to get in on the race action, thinking that Croy might be considering selling the stolen gems overseas. This is the second in a series of B-movies featuring Torchy Blane. It moves quickly, privileging pace over plotting—my biggest problem was, if this was a race around the world, why were the three reporters on the same vehicle so often? The last part of the race is set on a zeppelin and works up some thrills. Farrell is fun, though I find MacLane too stodgy to be much fun as her romantic partner (to be fair, there isn't much romance in the movie). I always like Gordon Oliver, a solid B-movie secondary player, and here he plays against type a bit as an unlikable character. There's a silly subplot about McBride's somewhat dim comic-relief associate, played by Tom Kennedy, quitting his job but constantly showing up anyway. A-movie character actor Harry Davenport has a small role near the end. If you're already a fan of Torchy or of Farrell, you'll like this, but others should probably steer clear. [TCM]

WOMAN IN THE DARK (1934)
Ralph Bellamy has just been released from prison after accidentally killing a man in a bar fight while defending the honor of his girlfriend (Nell O'Day). He has returned to his hometown to live in a cabin in relative isolation, though the sheriff, O'Day’s father, is not happy he's back. O'Day, however, is, and she goes to visit him one night to rekindle old sparks. Unfortunately, fancily attired Fay Wray shows up a bit worse for the wear and on the run from playboy gangster Melvyn Douglas, who has been her "keeper." When Douglas arrives, all hell breaks loose: Douglas calls the sheriff to tell him where his daughter is, Douglas' associate Brown shoots Bellamy's dog, and Bellamy punches Brown who falls and winds up with a life-threatening skull fracture. Certain to be wanted by the police, Bellamy takes Wray and heads to the big city even as Douglas tells the police that Wray has stolen jewels from him. When it looks like Brown may recover, Douglas plots to kill him to hang another murder charge on Bellamy. At 68 minutes, there is an awful lot of plot here (based on a short story by Dashiell Hammett) presented at a pretty good clip, but things never get too confusing. Though it missed being a pre-Code movie by a few months, it remains clear that Wray is Douglas' mistress, and her character is not punished at the end. Bellamy is not the most dynamic lead, though Wray and Nell O'Day are fine. Roscoe Ates does his usual comic relief part as the ex-con in the city. The reason to watch this is to see Melvyn Douglas as a bad guy. He's charming on the surface but pretty rough underneath, and it's a very good performance. [DVD]

Wednesday, July 03, 2024

NEW MOON (1931)

Sailing on the Caspian Sea, the ocean liner New Moon is headed for Krasnov. Cocky Russian soldier Michael Petrov (Lawrence Tibbett) flirts with Princess Tanya (Grace Moore) while she plays cards. When he feels dismissed by her, he goes out on deck and sings a vulgar song about a farmer's daughter to the delight of the peasants. Tanya follows him then asks him to translate the song for her. In doing so, he censors some of the rougher language, but then she reveals that she is well aware of the song's content by singing it in its original language. They do a bit of canoodling back in her stateroom—her father (Roland Young) spies through her keyhole and when his wife asks him if their daughter is in bed, he replies slyly, "Not yet." In Krasnov, Michael is upset to see Tanya heading off to the home of the governor, Boris Bursiloff (Adolpne Menjou), the stuffy but rich man she is to marry. She admits she's marrying for money, and tells him that he was just a shipboard fling. When he insults her, Boris assigns Michael to Fort Darvaz, a dangerous outpost where the ragtag soldiers are inclined to shoot any leader they don't like. However, Michael shoots first, showing the men he means business and gets them on his side. Tanya and her father visit, and the first thing she does is smack Michael several times in the face—Dad: "Is the customary horse-whipping over?" But when the fort comes under siege, the men are not so willing to fight until Michael rouses them with the song "Stouthearted Men" (have I mentioned this is based on an operetta?). Boris arrives, certain that Michael is marching to his death, but is he?

This is in theory based on a 1927 operetta by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II, but except for a handful of songs and the basic melodramatic romance plot, this is nothing like the original, which was set in New Orleans and more faithfully adapted in 1940 with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. But this is still pre-Code fun: it's silly and a bit campy and not at all to be taken seriously. The two leads are a little problematic. Tibbett and Moore (pictured) were both Metropolitan Opera stars and when they're singing, they're fine. But as screen actors, neither one had a long career. They're not awful but they don’t really inhabit their characters. Tibbett has a kind of goofy boyishness that eventually grew on me (he looks a little like Jack Black), but Moore is unappealing in almost every movie star way; she comes off more as the heroine's best friend rather than the romantic lead. The script doesn't help—we don't see their relationship develop into love, and we have to take it on faith that they're really attracted to each other. Menjou does a cold fish martinet type well, and the secret weapon of the movie is Roland Young, contributing welcome comic relief here and there. I liked it OK but couldn't help wishing that a different actress had played the princess. [TCM]

Monday, July 01, 2024

TRY AND GET ME! (1950)

Shots of a blind street preacher (which will get a callback at the end of the film) are followed by the credits rolling over a scene of Frank Lovejoy hitching a ride with a trucker. Lovejoy, with a pregnant and son at home, has been traveling around looking for a job and is headed back to the town of Santa Sierra, still jobless. At a bowling alley, Lovejoy chats with a brash young man (Lloyd Bridges) who offers him a job; unfortunately, that job is as a driver to help Bridges pull off small-scale robberies. Meanwhile, gung-ho reporter Richard Carlson, whom we also meet at that bowling alley, is writing exaggerated stories about a crime wave in the town, despite his socialist friend telling him that sensationalism in journalism is a social problem just like crime. Lovejoy and Bridges have a successful run of small robberies, and Lovejoy's wife thinks he's working at a legit job, but eventually Lovejoy decides to leave crime behind. Bridges talks him into one last job—kidnapping the son of a wealthy businessman—but it all goes rather brutally wrong. The son winds up dead and it's only a matter of time before Lovejoy and Bridges are arrested. With Carlson stoking the town's flames with his articles about their "crime wave," eventually a mob seeking their own brand of justice forms at the jailhouse with tragic results.

For most of its running time, this is a fairly average noir melodrama about a good guy whose moral compass quits working, leading him to get in over his head in a bad situation with a villainous psycho. In the last fifteen minutes, it takes a sharp violent turn that is fairly shocking for a 1950 movie. No spoiler here, but Bridges gives a balls-out performance that verges on over-the-top, like he's been waiting for the whole movie for this chance to show off. The furor of the townspeople is also presented well. Lovejoy, an underrated actor, is good, and his fairly placid exterior makes a good balance with Bridges' twitchy antics. He makes a solid, archetypal film noir lead, a good man led astray (though there is no femme fatale) through desperation. The attempt to target yellow journalism is not as strong as it could be, partly because they make the reporter (Richard Carlson) too nice, though perhaps it's appropriate for a film noir that, with a misguided anti-hero in the person of Lovejoy, there is a sort of misguided anti-villain in Carlson. Kathleen Ryan is low-key as the wife, and Katherine Locke is OK as a would-be femme fatale, though too vanilla to really be a bad girl, who sets her sights on Lovejoy. Renzo Cesana is the socialist friend who expresses the film's (somewhat grandiose) message: understanding, not hate, will lead us to the moral center of the universe. The story is based loosely on a real event. A rare film marketed as noir that actually is. Its original title, THE SOUND OF FURY is a better match than the current title. Pictured are Bridges and Lovejoy. [Criterion Channel]