Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962)

Heather Sears and Herbert Lom
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962). Director: Terence Fisher.

The second color remake of the silent classic stars Herbert Lom [Mark of the Devil] as a presumed dead music professor and composer whose work was stolen by a loathsome publisher named d'Arcy (Michael Gough of Black Zoo), and who haunts the Paris opera, kidnapping new singer Christine (Heather Sears of Room at the Top) so he can coach her in her role. The appropriated opera is based on the life of Joan of Arc, but it sounds more like a 20th century work than something from a previous century. An early scene when a corpse suddenly flies across the stage from a rope during a performance makes you think this might be the old story reworked as a nifty Hammer horror film, but aside from some rats and stabs to the eyeball, this version is not much more horrific than the 1943 Phantom of the Opera, and has a less effective chandelier sequence as well. Lom is not as interesting as the disfigured composer as you might expect, Sears is competent but forgettable, and Gough steals the picture with his utterly vicious and slimy portrayal of d'Arcy. Some of the developments of the script give one pause: a producer (Edward de Souza) learns the truth about who actually composed the opera, but does nothing about it, despite d'Arcy's wretched character and his need for comeuppance. In another scene a landlady somehow knows that Lom is still alive even when the police don't. The movie is entertaining, but somehow disjointed.

Verdict: Disappointing thriller with some good moments. **1/2.

THE GREAT ZIEGFELD

Fanny Brice almost steals the picture
THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936). Director: Robert Z. Leonard.

Florenz Ziegfield (William Powell) has a lot of great ideas and enthusiasm for the theater but is generally low on money. He finally hits it big with his Follies, with its beautiful show girls and elaborate production numbers, which had a new edition for 24 years. Powell married the French singer Anna Held (Luise Rainer) -- today it's still not clear if they actually tied the knot or were common-law -- but fell in love with actress Billie Burke (Myrna Loy; Burke herself was 52 at the time of filming). Just when everyone thinks Ziegfeld is washed up, he rebounds with such hits as Show Boat, but then there's the stock market crash to deal with and his own fading health... This biopic of the famous showman is almost as long as Ben-Hur, with an intermission and an entr'acte, and is composed of facts, myths and invention in equal measure. Despite Powell's good performance, Ziegfeld never seems entirely dimensional because he's defined by his shows and libido more than anything else. Luise Rainer won an Oscar, which has generally been attributed to her scene on the telephone when she congratulates Flo on his marriage to Burke even though her heart is clearly breaking; in general Rainer is quite good. Loy doesn't make the mistake of imitating the flighty, downright weird Burke, and also gives a very good performance. Wisely the producers chose to cast the real Fanny Brice as herself, and she almost walks away with the movie. The production numbers, like the movie itself, go on too long, but there are some highlights, such as one number that combines all kinds of different musical styles from jazz to opera in a surprisingly tuneful blend; and a bit with some cute dogs who nearly manage to stay stock still as dancers cavort among them on the stage. Frank Morgan [The Good Fairy] plays a friendly business rival of Ziegfeld's and Virginia Bruce [Pardon My Sarong] is a calculating dancer-turned-star.  Will Rogers is played by A. A. Trimble, while an unimpressive Ray Bolger plays himself. Dennis Morgan [River's End] sings one number but appears to have been dubbed by Allan Jones.

Verdict: Goes on and on and on and on but is often entertaining ... **1/2.

MARIE DRESSLER Matthew Kennedy

MARIE DRESSLER: A Biography; with a Listing of Major Stage Performances, a Filmography and a Discography. Matthew Kennedy. McFarland; 1999.

The wonderful Marie Dressler had a long stage career in everything from opera to vaudeville, and just when she felt she was unemployable and washed up, she embarked upon a Hollywood career that brought her even more fame and money, turning her in her sixties into a major box office attraction -- this despite her abject lack of youth and beauty. Along the way she had one marriage, one long relationship with a man she only thought she was married to, and a possibly romantic relationship with a younger actress with whom she broke up some years before her death. In Hollywood Dressler made a few comedy-dramas teaming her with Polly Moran, such as Reducing; won an Oscar for her work in Min and Bill; and appeared in the wonderful Dinner at Eight, wherein she has one especially classic sequence with Jean Harlow. Dressler kept working even when she was dying of cancer and other ailments [indeed she had an exhausting life]. Don't be fooled by the sub-title -- this is a major biography and not just a reference work -- although there is a ton of scrupulous research in the exhaustive tome. Not only has Kennedy managed to put together an excellent and rich biography of this very gifted and unusual lady -- despite the fact that most of her contemporaries are dead --  but his writing is never dry and academic but always lively and interesting. Highly recommended not just to Dressler fans but to anyone interested in the theater, films, moviemaking, and just good biographies. Kennedy also wrote a fine book on director Edmund Goulding.

Verdict: In a word, superb! ****.

RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA (1965)

Stuart Damon and Lesley Ann Warren
RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA (aka Cinderella/1965). Director: Charles S. Dubin.

This is an entertaining color version of the musical, written for television, which first appeared in 1957 with Julie Andrews in the lead. While Lesley Ann Warren [The Happiest Millionaire] may not be in Andrews' league as a singer, she is still quite effective and charming as our heroine, and Stuart Damon makes a convincing Prince Charming. Pat Carroll makes an impression as one of the wicked step-sisters, with Jo Van Fleet [Wild River] suitably nasty and ugly as her mother and Barbara Ruick just fine as her sister. Celeste Holm [Everybody Does It] makes an excellent fairy godmother, but Ginger Rogers is fairly ho hum as the queen and Walter Pidgeon looks like he's about to nod off any moment as the king; they can't compare to Dorothy Stickney and Howard Lindsay in the original. The memorable songs include "A Lovely Night;" "Ten Minutes Ago;" "Whats the Matter with the Man?"; "The Loneliness of Evening;" and "Do I Love You (Because You're Beautiful)."

Verdict: Not bad, but the original has the edge. ***.

THE GIRL IN LOVERS LANE

THE GIRL IN LOVERS LANE (1960). Director: Charles R. Rondeau.

Bix Dugan (Brett Halsey of Return of the Fly), riding the rails from town to town, encounters a young runaway named Danny (Lowell Brown) who has just been mugged by a gang. The two disembark in a small town where they run into waitress Carrie (Joyce Meadows of The Brain from Planet Arous), her friend Peggie (Selette Cole), and the truly creepy Jesse (Jack Elam), who has a crush on Carrie, a situation that develops into tragedy. There's an interesting scene in a whorehouse, and Bix and Carrie become quite attracted to one another. This has very underwritten characters and a mediocre script, and the acting is merely serviceable, although an uncredited actress makes a slight impression as the hooker, Sadie. Del Monroe, "Kowalski" on the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea TV show, plays one of the muggers.

Verdict: Skip this and go to Lover's Lane instead. *1/2.

PIRATE TREASURE

PIRATE TREASURE (12 chapter Universal serial/1934). Director: Ray Taylor.

Achieving the world's record for a solo flight, Dick Moreland (Richard Talmadge) decides to use the prize money to organize a voyage to search for his pirate ancestor's gold. Unfortunately, others get wind of his notion and try to snatch away the charts that he needs to reach the island in the south seas where the treasure is. Dick has a girlfriend, Dorothy (Lucille Lund), who takes the journey with him along with her father, and there is a nasty female who works with the bad guys named Marge (Beulah Hutton). Pirate Treasure is primitive but occasionally lively, such as a fight on top of a speeding train, a boat that smashes into a buoy, some gators in a lagoon, and an especially suspenseful sequence involving a falling crate in chapter seven. The fisticuffs are far below the Republic level -- everyone just flails their arms like children smacking each other and there is no nifty choreography. The island is full of angry natives. Talmadge's voice is kind of comical, like a German comedian, and hardly heroic-sounding.

Verdict: One of the serials you can probably miss. **.

DEADFALL

Hunnam, Wilde, Bana and Kristofferson
DEADFALL (2012). Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky.

Addison (Eric Bana) and sister Liza (Olivia Wilde) have participated in the robbery of a casino and are on the run during a blizzard. When they decide to split up and meet later, Liza encounters an ex-boxer/jailbird named Jay (Charlie Hunnam), who is also on the run from police. Jay takes Liza home to his parents' place, where Addison shows up to reconnect with Liza -- and finds a whole family of hostages. But will the sheriff's daughter, Hannah (Kate Mara), manage to save the day?  Bana, Wilde, Hunnam and Mara [House of Cards] all give very good performances in this and there's an interesting supporting cast, with Treat Williams as the sheriff, and Kris Kristofferson [Blade] and Sissy Spacek [Carrie] as Jay's parents. The movie has a kind of old-fashioned script with abrupt character reversals but also a certain degree of suspense. Bana makes a dynamic lead.

Verdict: Passable crime drama. **1/2.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

MCLINTOCK!

Stefanie Powers, Patrick Wayne, and John Wayne
MCLINTOCK! (1963). Director: Andrew V. McLaglen.

G. W. McLintock (John Wayne) is a wealthy cattle baron in a homestead awaiting statehood. His snooty estranged wife, Katherine (Maureen O'Hara), comes back into his life when their daughter, Becky (Stefanie Powers), comes home from college and Katherine is horrified to think that she may live with her hard-drinking father and his cronies. Katherine also isn't too crazy about the fact that G.W. has hired a pretty new live-in cook, Louise (Yvonne De Carlo), the mother of handsome new employee Dev (Patrick Wayne), who likes Becky but finds her a little spoiled like her mother. Meanwhile Becky dallies with nerdy Matt (Jerry Van Dyke) while Dev simmers. Will the situation with the battling McLintocks finally boil over or will true love win out in the end? McLintock! is way too long, but it has some funny sequences -- a mud slide and a drunken bit with a staircase -- although the gags are repeated too much and nothing is exactly on the level of the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera. Still McLintock!  is basically amiable and entertaining, even if it has a very sixties sensibility and a subtext of sissies threatening to ruin the world [as opposed to big, tough John Wayne]. Wayne, already starting his trend toward ossification, is okay, Powers is quite good, O'Hara is very strong as the insufferable but uncompromising Katherine and gives one of her more memorable performances, De Carlo is fun, and Patrick Wayne proves no great actor but is acceptable. An interesting aspect of the picture -- when you consider that Wayne starred in several cliffhanger serials early in his career -- is that two of Wayne's enemies are played by other serial stars, Gordon Jones (The Green Hornet) and Robert Lowery (Batman and Robin). A sub-plot has to do with a contingent of Comanche Indians who are to be taken to a fort for what they see as charity when they only want the freedom to live and die as men. Although the movie seems to be pro-Indian, the social statements don't really fit comfortably into the piece as a whole. Mari Blanchard has a small role as a saloon  gal/hooker who comes afoul of Katherine.

Verdict: Not exactly a classic but one of Wayne's more palatable latter-day movies. **1/2.

PARANOIAC

Oliver Reed, Alexander Davion and Sheila Burrell
PARANOIAC (1963). Director: Freddie Francis.

"Money doesn't matter as long as we have each other." -- Francoise

"You're more stupid than I gave you credit for." -- Simon

A wealthy couple, the Ashbys, were killed in a plane crash eleven years ago. Three years later, one of their children, Tony, committed suicide at 15. Now eight years have gone by since then and the survivors include emotionally disturbed Eleanor (Janette Scott), who hears her dead brother singing in the night; her brother Simon (Oliver Reed), who drinks copiously and is primarily concerned with the inheritance that will come his way in a couple of weeks; and their strange and stern Aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell) whose face is an inscrutable mask. Another member of the household is Francoise (Liliane Brousse of Maniac), who is Eleanor's nurse.  Out of nowhere there's suddenly a new/old arrival, a handsome man (Alexander Davion) who claims that he's Tony and that he only faked his death by drowning years ago [the body was never recovered]. Is this man for real, or is he an impostor after the family fortune? And who is that masked figure who goes about attacking people with a meat hook? Paranoiac is another post-Psycho British thriller with an unusual plot and absorbing script by Jimmy Sangster that, unfortunately, offers up some rather absurd developments as things proceed. [One amusing aspect is how more than one person notes how the adult Tony refuses a drink and remembers that "yes, Tony never drank." At 15 one would hope so!] There is one excellent sequence in which Eleanor nearly goes over a cliff in her car when the brakes fail, and in general Francis' direction is quite good. Paranoiac boasts good performances from the entire cast, although Reed does go a little over the top in a couple of sequences. Alexander Davion makes an extremely appealing leading man. The film also has an effective score by Elisabeth Lutyens [The Psychopath] and attractive photography by Arthur Grant [The Terror of the Tongs].

Verdict: Silly at times but entertaining. **1/2.

SEA RAIDERS

SEA RAIDERS (12 chapter Universal serial/1941). Directors: Ford Beebe; John Rawlins.

The Dead End Kids and the Little Tough Guys join forces in this serial to take on a group called the Sea Raiders, who destroy Allied ships. Billy Adams (Billy Halop) and his buddies, including Toby (Huntz Hall) and Bilge (Gabriel Dell), are shanghaied by crooks, encounter the Raiders, and are eventually taken to their island headquarters. Billy has an older brother, square-jawed Tom (John McGuire), who's invented a new kind of torpedo, the plans for which are coveted by Tonjes (Reed Hadley), the leader of the Raiders. There are two women running around, the pretty Leah (Marcia Ralston, who resembles Merle Oberon), and the homely Aggie (Mary Field). One decent cliffhanger has one of the boys caught on a rope that is attached to a whale that's about to dive deep into the ocean, although another sequence features an octopus that doesn't appear to be in the same movie. [The same stock footage of a fight between a shark and an octopus later turned up in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.] The serial is hampered by the unfunny and irritating antics of the "kids," and the classical music on the soundtrack, such as The Barber of Seville, is always inappropriate. John McGuire had the lead in Stranger on the Third Floor.

Verdict: One of your lesser cliffhanger serials. **.

GUILTY BYSTANDER

Zachary Scott
GUILTY BYSTANDER (1950). Director: Joseph Lerner.

Max Thursday (Zachary Scott) is a divorced ex-cop who spends his time drinking in a rundown boarding house. But he is galvanized to action - sort of -- when his ex-wife, Georgia (Faye Emerson), comes to tell him that their little boy has been kidnapped. Max goes to see Dr. Elder (Jed Prouty of the Jones Family movies), who may have some information, but the man winds up murdered. And there are other complications. Frankly, Guilty Bystander is a bit confusing as we follow Max's convoluted path from person to person, although there are some interesting characters and actors along the way: Mary Boland has a very different role to play than usual as the tough, tippling landlady, but she does it well. Sam Levene is Max's former boss on the force, Captain Tonetti, and perhaps the biggest surprise is a young Kay Medford as a sexy moll with whom Max dallies in his quest for answers. Scott [The Unfaithful] gives a very good performance, with Boland, Prouty and Medford [Two Tickets to Paris] not far behind him, but the movie is very minor film noir, although there are a couple of surprises before the conclusion.

Verdict: Perhaps too murky for its own good. **1/2.

THE WOMAN IN RED

Barbara Stanwyck and Gene Reynolds
THE WOMAN IN RED (1935). Director: Robert Florey.

Shelby Wyatt (Barbara Stanwyck) works for the wealthy "Nicko" Nicholas (Genevieve Tobin), riding her show horses, but her job comes to an end when she falls for Johnny (Gene Raymond of The Locket), who also works for Nicko, riding her polo ponies -- seems Nicko has a yen for Johnny herself. Soon the couple are out of work and struggling to survive as young marrieds. There are other complications, such as Shelby's snobbish in-laws and efforts by Nicko to get Johnny back. The cast helps keep the mediocre film reasonably entertaining, with Stanwyck as excellent as ever, and Tobin, Dorothy Tree [The Family Secret], Ann Shoemaker [House by the River], and especially John Eldredge (as another man in love with Shelby) offering up fine support. One big disappointment is that Shelby never gives Nicko the big whack she deserves.

Verdict: Another Stanwyck film in which she's much better than the material. **1/2.

NO PLACE TO LAND

John Ireland and Mari Blanchard
NO PLACE TO LAND (1958). Director: Albert C. Gannaway.

"Come over and give daddy a big goodbye kiss." -- Buck

"I don't want to spoil my breakfast." -- Iris

Super-tramp Iris (Mari Blanchard) is married to the portly and dangerous Buck (Robert Middleton), but she has a thing for a crop-duster named Jonas (John Ireland) and won't give him up. In her schemes to get him she uses other men as her pawns, employing both her body and blackmail to get her ends. Meanwhile, Jonas and his pal Swede (Jackie Coogan) go to work for a drunk named Roy (Douglas Henderson) and Jonas and Roy's wife, Lynn (Gail Russell), who is not a tramp, wind up falling for one another. Then things get even more complicated ... No Place to Land has an interesting plot with lots of possibilities, but the execution is strictly mediocre, although Blanchard [The Crooked Web] offers a zesty performance and Middleton is excellent. Robert Griffin [Monster from Green Hell] is fine as a grocer who admires Iris a little too much, and both Bill Ward and Burt Topper make an impression as two lover boys that Iris beds for her own purposes. Ireland looks disinterested most of the time, but Coogan has his moments. William Peter Blatty, who later wrote "The Exorcist," plays a cop. Burt Topper later directed The Strangler.

Verdict: Simmers but never quite smolders. **.

SHARKNADO

Sharks fly through the air in Sharknado
SHARKNADO (2013 telefilm). Director: Anthony C. Ferrante.

A hurricane picks sharks right up out of the water and sends them flying inland where they cause havoc. Leading the charge against the sharks are Fin Shepard (Ian Ziering), feisty if annoying Nova (Cassie Scerbo), and grizzled "old" George (John Heard). This Syfy channel original may have a unique premise but it's sunk by a bad script and mostly mediocre acting, with fair-to-middling computer FX. A scene when Fin attacks a shark falling out of the air with a chainsaw makes little sense since it's unlikely the shark would even survive the drop. Even if you love monster movies there's absolutely no reason to go out of your way to see this one. Gore-geeks will be disappointed that there are no grisly beheadings or disembowelments.

Verdict: For the most part clumsy and stupid. **.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

HOLLYWOOD STORY

HOLLYWOOD STORY (1951). Director: William Castle.

Larry O'Brien (Richard Conte) is a producer who becomes fascinated by an old Hollywood mystery, the still-unsolved 1929 murder of silent film director Franklin Farrara. Larry decides to make a film about the murder, and hires an old screenwriter named Vincent St. Clair (Henry Hull of Werewolf of London), who once worked with the victim.  When someone takes a shot at Larry, he realizes the killer is still alive and doesn't want even a chance of the truth coming out. Richard Egan is cast as a police lieutenant, and Jim Backus is Larry's agent, Mitch. An uncredited Paul Cavanaugh [he's not even listed in the cast on imdb.com] plays aging actor Roland Paul, who was always one of the suspects, along with Sam Collyer (Fred Clark). William Farnum, Francis X. Bushman [The Phantom Planet], and Joel McCrea play themselves in cameos. The best performance is given by Julia/Julie Adams, who apparently knows more than she's saying and may have some unknown connection to the crime. This movie is of interest primarily because it was directed by William Castle [Strait-Jacket], but even with that distinction it has still been forgotten. The trouble is that it has very little suspense, a dull mystery, and plays like nothing so much as a TV pilot. However, the cast may hold your attention.

Verdict: One mystery that doesn't need solving. **.

EDWARD, MY SON

Marital discord: Deborah Kerr and Spencer Tracy
EDWARD, MY SON (1949). Director: George Cukor.

"The trouble with drink is it makes it just a little bit uncouth."

Arnold Boult (Spencer Tracy) is determined to make sure that his son, Edward [who is never seen] has the greatest life possible, and commits all manner of crimes to insure this, his ruthlessness even driving people to suicide. His wife Evelyn (Deborah Kerr) watches in horror, tries to interfere, and turns to drink, only inspiring more contempt from her husband. Boult has an affair with his secretary, Miss Perrin (Leueen MacGrath), but finds her as disposable as most of the people in his life, including his partner Harry (Mervyn Johns). This absorbing, adult portrait of a supreme narcissist and his spoiled son packs a wallop, due to an excellent script by Donald Ogden Stewart [Keeper of the Flame]  and superb playing by Tracy [State of the Union] and Kerr [The End of the Affair]. MacGrath, Johns, Ian Hunter [Tower of London] as a doctor who is sympathetic to Evelyn, and Tilsa Page as Miss Foxley, are also excellent. 

Verdict: Powerful marital drama. ***1/2.

THE HORROR COMICS:

THE HORROR COMICS: Fiends, Freaks and Fantastic Creatures, 1940s - 1980s. William Schoell. McFarland publishing; 2014.

Another shameless plug for my latest book, which covers about forty-five years of horror stories told in comic books. Many of these were influenced by films and radio, and sometimes the stories in horror comic books were turned into movies -- without crediting the comic book. Fans of the controversial and vivid EC horror comics will enjoy reading about the stories that were adapted for such series as Tales from the Crypt as well as for the theatrical films Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. Then there were long-running comics based on The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff's Thriller. Giant bugs, bloodsucking vampires, flesh-eating fiends, giant voracious man-eating crabs, psychotic wives with axes, deals with the devil, adulterous husbands with murder on their minds, flesh-tearing werewolves, giant spiders with human heads and fangs, dinosaurs out-of-time and on the rampage, Frankenstein and Dracula -- The Horror Comics has it all. You'll read about such stories as "Airboy vs the Rats;" gory classics like "Foul Play;" weird ones like Simon and Kirby's "Head of the Family;" chilling heart-breakers like "Mr. Reilly, the Derelict" and "The Kid's Night Out;" adaptations of Poe, Lovecraft, Stevenson and Ray Bradbury -- and much more, such as the classic terror tale from Dell's Ghost Stories: "The Horror of Dread End," which gave many a kid nightmares back in the day. You can order direct from the publisher's website or from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

THE BIG FOUR

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot
THE BIG FOUR (2014 telefilm/PBS: Masterpiece Mystery -- Poirot.) Director: Peter Lydon.

Agatha Christie's "The Big Four," published in 1927, was an unusual Hercule Poirot novel in that -- while there were elements of classic detective fiction in it -- it was seemingly inspired by pulp fiction. Poirot was up against four powerful and well-known individuals -- one of whom was a former actor and supreme master of disguise -- who had banded together to achieve world domination. While Christie's prose lacked the rich atmosphere and descriptive power of, say, Sax Rohmer (who wrote the Fu Manchu novels), the novel moved at breakneck speed, was suspenseful and exciting, and had Poirot solving intricate cases (which always had to do with the Big Four)  in his usual adept and clever manner. After many skirmishes with the enemy, Poirot triumphs in the literally explosive conclusion.

In this adaptation of the novel, script writer Mark Gatiss has taken the basic premise of the book and turned it on its end. [The teleplay takes place much closer to WW2 than the novel does.] Along the way it at times becomes just as absurd as one could accuse the book of being, although the producers of the series probably think they are being more reasonable. There is a reporter (Tom Brooke) who believes rumors of a Big Four; an American millionaire, Ryland (James Carroll Jordan); and a French lady scientist of distinction, Madame Olivier (Patricia Hodge). One man is murdered while playing chess, while another meets his end with his head in a fireplace. Two other individuals embroiled in the events are actress Flossie Munro (Sarah Parish) and Dr. Quentin (Simon Lowe); the latter in particular is a cast stand-out. Assistant Commissioner Japp (Philip Jackson), secretary Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran), and dear old friend Hastings (Hugh Fraser) are along for the ride, albeit briefly. David Suchet [Dracula] is, as ever, superb as Poirot. This is vastly inferior to the novel, but not bad for what it is.

Verdict: Entertaining and well-acted. **1/2.

THE ASTRAL FACTOR / INVISIBLE STRANGLER

THE ASTRAL FACTOR (aka Invisible Strangler/1978). Director: John Florea.

Roger Sands (Frank Ashmore) is a psychotic who murdered his unloving, self-absorbed mother and while in prison has developed the ability to enter the astral plane, become invisible, and escape. Once out, he runs about strangling women who remind him of his mother and/or who testified against him. Lt. Charles Barrett (Robert Foxworth of Prophecy) is the chief detective on the case, assisted by Holt (Mark Slade); both do a fairly miserable job of protecting the victims, but the killer is highly unusual. The Astral Factor isn't a very good movie, its chief interest being its bizarre C-list cast: Stefanie Powers is Barrett's nutty girlfriend; Elke Sommer is one of the potential victims; Sue Lyon is Sands' mother; Leslie Parrish [Missile to the Moon] and Marianna Hill are two other victims; and Cesare Danova and  Percy Rodrigues also have small roles.  Elke Sommer [Deadlier Than the Male] actually gives a pretty good account of herself as a nervous lady all alone in a big mansion waiting for Roger to show while the cops stand by. The film meanders terribly but there is some suspense at the end. The scientific/paranormal aspects of the script are pretty much muddled.

Verdict: The poster is much better than the movie. **.

TOO BUSY TO WORK

Florence Roberts, Spring Byington, and Joan Davis
TOO BUSY TO WORK (1939). Director: Otto Brower.

"If you sent her to Ripley I bet he wouldn't believe it!" -- Granny Jones on Lolly.

Mayor Jones (Jed Prouty) is alarming his wife (Spring Byington) and mother (Florence Roberts) because he's volunteering for too many duties as mayor and neglecting his drug store business to the point where he may lose it. Mrs. Jones decides to wake him up by neglecting her own duties and starring in a little theater production supervised by her old friend, Marge (Marjorie Gateson of Lily Turner). Added complications are the arrival of a niece, Lolly (Joan Davis of Around the World), who becomes the maid in exchange for food and board. Lolly has an eye on policeman Gilligan (Irving Bacon, Ethel's father on I Love Lucy) who loves her cooking but is preoccupied with the capture of safe cracker "Cracker" McGurk (Chick Chandler of Spy Train). Then the mayor discovers that his fellow board members have been behaving unethically and some money turns up missing ... Too Busy to Work is probably the funniest of the Jones Family films, with a good script and many amusing lines and situations to keep it consistently entertaining. Granny is especially acerbic in this entry. The entire cast, including Ken Howell and George Ernest, is top-notch, and Spring Byington certainly gets her chance to shine.

Verdict: Delightful! ***.

ONE NIGHT AT MCCOOL'S

ONE NIGHT AT MCCOOL'S (2001). Director: Harald Zwart.

Bartender Randy (Matt Dillon) rescues a young lady, Jewel (Liv Tyler of The Incredible Hulk), from an abusive man outside the bar where he works, and soon finds himself entangled up in her life as she moves in with him. Jewel has an immediate mesmeric and sensual effect on most of the men she encounters, which includes Randy's married, S & M-loving cousin, Carl (Paul Reiser) and the portly, potato-faced Detective Dehling (John Goodman of Speed Racer), both of whom are instantly smitten. The three men tell their stories to people they know: Randy sounds off to Burmeister (Michael Douglas, who also produced) in a bingo hall; Carl tells his troubles to his shrink, Dr. Green (Reba McIntire); and Dehling confesses to an associate that Jewel reminds him of a lost love . The performances are okay, with Douglas [Behind the Candelabra]  -- with a puffed up mullet hairdo -- having the most fun. The trouble with this black comedy is that it's frenetic but not all that funny. The most interesting thing about it is some of the casting.

Verdict: Not so cool -- and not so hot, either. *1/2.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

THE NAKED PREY

A half-naked Cornel Wilde
THE NAKED PREY (1965). Director/producer: Cornel Wilde.

An unnamed guide (Cornel Wilde) is leading a safari to hunt elephants for ivory, but an arrogant member of the group refuses to give trinkets to the natives. In what seems to be the midst of tribal wars, the members of the safari are captured and put to death in torturous and horrifying ways as men, women and children look on with glee and even participate. The guide is to be the subject of a hunt, and tries to survive attack after attack as he makes his way across Africa. The Naked Prey is absorbing, although at times Wilde seems like some kind of latter-day Tarzan the way he handily defeats each and every black warrior who comes after him. On the other hand, there's a charming scene when a little native boy saves his life in gratitude for Wilde's saving his and showing him compassion earlier. There are no translations for the natives, unfortunately. Wilde [Shockproof], in great shape at fifty-three, gives a very good, mostly silent performance -- he also does a very good job as director --  and the actors playing natives are also quite effective. The photography by H.A. R. Thomson is excellent, and the movie, in addition to being suspenseful, illustrates the diversity of the people, wild life and topography of Africa.

Verdict: Imperfect, but something different. ***.

THE SHOPWORN ANGEL

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart
THE SHOPWORN ANGEL (1938). Director: H. C. Potter.

At the start of WW 1 Daisy Heath (Margaret Sullavan) is a sophisticated, world-weary Broadway star who is engaged to Sam Bailey (Walter Pidgeon of Forbidden Planet). Both Daisy and Sam are rather cynical about the war and soldiers, until Daisy meets a young Army man named Bill (Jimmy Stewart). Having no girlfriend, Bill has told his pals that Daisy is his gal, and she goes along with it out of compassion. Daisy begins to see Bill on a regular basis, telling herself and Sam that she's just being kind, but real feelings between both begin to develop. And then Daisy learns that Bill's unit is going overseas ... The Shopworn Angel is a lovely movie that features a superb performance from Sullavan [Only Yesterday] and excellent work from her two leading men; Hattie McDonald [Everybody's Baby] also scores, as usual, as Martha. If the film has any flaw it's that some may consider the ending more ridiculous than moving.

Verdict: Another luminescent Sullavan performance. ***.

A LIFE AT STAKE

Keith Andes and Angela Lansbury
A LIFE AT STAKE (1954). Director: Paul Guilfoyle.

An out-of-work architect named Edward Shaw (Keith Andes) is given an attractive business proposal by wealthy Doris Hillman (Angela Lansbury) and her older husband, Gus (Douglass Dumbrille). The catch is that Shaw will have to be insured for a very large sum of money, with Gus being the beneficiary. Shaw's paranoia over this aspect of the alliance only increases when he is drawn into a romance with Doris, and can't tell if she really loves him or is just waiting for hubby to collect on the insurance. Then there are the suspicious "accidents" ...  Andes [Clash By Night] makes a compelling, if understandably grumpy, leading man, and Dumbrille [Mr. Deeds Goes to Town] is typically excellent. Lansbury [Please Murder Me] gives a good performance as well, but while attractive, she is not quite convincing as the sexy, femme fatale type. [Ironically, a less talented "B" actress probably could have filled the bill better.] Jane Darwell is fine if a bit wasted as a landlady. A Life at Stake holds the attention and is not entirely predictable.

Verdict: Watch out for spiked coffee! **1/2.

A FIG LEAF FOR EVE aka DESIRABLE LADY

Jan Wiley goes into her dance
A FIG LEAF FOR EVE (aka Desirable Lady/1944). Director: Donald Brodie.

 A dancer named Eve (Jan Wiley) is arrested for non-existent "lewdness" but it turns out to be her agent, Dan's (Phil Warren), publicity stunt. But she meets a shady bail bondsman named Hoffman (Eddie Dunn) who tells her she might just be the heir to a hair oil fortune; her life story corresponds to that of an "Eve Westland." Meeting her relatives, the members of the Sardum family, she discovers she has an ally in Uncle Horace (Edward Keane) and his sweet old sister Sarah (Janet Scott), but antagonists in the form of Horace's termagant wife, Lavinia (Betty Blythe), and her daughter, Millicent (Marilyn McConnell), who find her utterly declasse. Will our gal get her fair share of the estate and find true love with Dan? This could have made a cute and funny picture, but it opts for unconvincing melodrama instead. It doesn't even have a decisive wind-up. The acting is okay from a pretty unknown cast, but you can see why Wiley never became a big star; even her dancing isn't that great, and she looked a lot sexier in the serial Secret Agent X-9 made the following year.

Verdict: This is yet another stinky public domain movie retitled for the DVD market.  *1/2.