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

Thursday, September 29, 2016

STRIKE UP THE BAND

Mickey!
STRIKE UP THE BAND (1940). Director: Busby Berkeley.

High school student Jimmy Connors (Mickey Rooney) has one passion: playing the drums in a band. Mary Holden (Judy Garland) has just one passion: Jimmy Connors. Mary can also sing quite well. Jimmy wants to take his band to Chicago to play on Paul Whiteman's radio show in a band competition, but where oh where can  he get the money for traveling expenses. Just when the money is raised, a dear friend, Willie (Larry Nunn), becomes seriously ill and needs an operation ... The sentiment is thick  but somehow never overbearing in this charming musical which boasts the talents of Rooney and Garland, both of whom are typically superb. Larry Nunn offers a highly appealing and sympathetic portrait of Willie, who has a hopeless crush on Mary and proposes -- at thirteen! William Tracy [Terry and the Pirates] and June Preisser [Judge Hardy and Son] play two more of the kids, most of whom look like they've been out of high school for quite a few years. The title tune was composed by Gershwin, but the other songs are by Freed and Edens, including the memorable "Our Love Affair," expertly warbled by Garland, and "I Ain't Got Nobody." (Garland's torch song, "The Curse of an Aching Heart," was cut.) Ann Shoemaker [Seventeen] plays Jimmy's mother, who has always wanted him to be a doctor. While Shoemaker is always good, in this she just seems to come on too strong and smothering.  Nunn was a very talented child actor but his film career only lasted eight years.

Verdict: Rooney and Garland in top form! ***.

TARZAN'S NEW YORK ADVENTURE

The amazing Cheetah
TARZAN'S NEW YORK ADVENTURE (1942). Director: Richard Thorpe.

Hunter Buck Rand (Charles Bickford of Anna Christie) and his associates Jimmie (Paul Kelly of Zeigfeld Girl) and Manchester (Chill Wills) are in the Congo trying to capture lions for a circus. Naturally Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) objects to this, but Boy (Johnny Sheffield) is fascinated by their plane. Buck is fascinated himself when he observes how Boy can make a pack of elephants do whatever he wishes. After it appears that Tarzan and Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) have been killed in a fire, Buck takes Boy back to New York with him. But when Tarzan finds out his son is gone ... Tarzan's New York Adventure is a very entertaining Tarzan film even though it goes far, far afield from Edgar Rice Burroughs' original conception. In this film Tarzan is so stupid that he takes a shower before taking off his one good suit (which dries off in miraculous time). In the novels, Tarzan had his savage side when it was called for, but he wasn't a monosyllabic and unsophisticated dummy. The stupidest moment in this movie occurs when Tarzan gives out with his famous yell and Jane says" Good heavens -- what's that?" even though she's heard it hundreds of times. Burroughs gave Tarzan and Jane a biological son who was named Jack, and later became known as "Korak" -- the boy in this movie is an orphan. Despite all this, the movie is a lot of fun. Cheetah has so much to do in the movie that it could almost be re-titled Cheetah's New York Adventure; you certainly hear her cackle that fabricated hyena laugh often enough. The chimp's special moments include her encounter with a water cooler, and her putting a trio of elephants through their paces as if she were an orchestra leader. The pachyderms are also amazing as Boy has them put on a show for the trio from New York. The actors in this are all good, with an uncredited Mantan Moreland having a couple of good moments reacting to Cheetah on the other end of the telephone. Virginia Grey is also fine as a nightclub singer who helps Tarzan and his mate find Boy. Cy Kendall, fatter than ever, plays the head of the circus. Sidney Wagner's photography, especially those striking shots of New York, is outstanding. This was O'Sullivan's last appearance as Jane, but Weissmuller and Sheffield had a few more pictures to go. Followed by Tarzan Triumphs.

Verdict: Highly improbable but also highly enjoyable Tarzan movie. ***.

BLOOD BEACH

BLOOD BEACH (1980). Written and directed by Jeffrey Bloom. 

"Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water you can't get to it."

Harry Caulder (David Huffman), who works for the beach patrol, re-encounters his ex-girlfriend Catherine (Marianna Hill) when her mother, Ruth (Harriet Medin of The Ghost) goes missing. Seems Ruth was just out walking her dog on the beach when she disappeared. Then there are more disappearances, and a young woman covered in sand gets bitten all over her body and goes into shock. There is something under the sand that is pulling people down and devouring them. (One victim is a would-be rapist who gets his penis bitten off!) Captain Pearson (John Saxon) and Sergeant Royko (Burt Young)  lead the investigation, but it is Caulder and Catherine who search for the monster in caverns under the sand. Blood Beach, which may have been influenced by the classic "Invisible Enemy" episode of The Outer Limits, is creepy and suspenseful even if the monster itself is a bit disappointing. The performers are more than adequate, with a dynamic Saxon leading the cast. Four years after this film was released, Huffman, only 39 and with a wife and two children, was murdered by a thief he pursued. Hill [The Baby] has had numerous credits, was off the screen for twenty to thirty years, but has resurfaced in a new movie, Chief Zabu.

Verdict: And you thought sunburn was bad! **1/2.

LORD OF THE JUNGLE

Bomba (Johnny Sheffield) relaxes in his tree
LORD OF THE JUNGLE (1955). Written, produced and directed by Ford Beebe.

"You're stubborn and spoiled but I like you anyway." -- Bomba to Mona

"For heaven's sake, Bomba, kiss the girl good-night so the rest of us can get some sleep." -- Andy to Bomba

Commissioner Andy Barnes (Leonard Mudie) receives a visit from his spoiled niece, Mona (Nancy Hale), just as a group of  elephants are going on the rampage and tearing through one village after another. Hunter Jeff Wood (Wayne Morris) wants to kill off all of the elephants, while Bomba (Johnny Sheffield) argues that all they need do is destroy the rogue elephant who is influencing the rest of the pack. This difference in opinion not only brings Bomba into conflict with Wood and other hunters, Paul (Paul Picerni of Mara Maru) and Kenny (William Phipps of The Boss), but also with Barnes. Lord of the Jungle is the final Bomba film, and it's one of the best of the series, with 24-year-old Sheffield continuing to charm as the jungle "boy." It is revealed that Bomba, whose last name is actually Hastings, inherited much of the land "from the Mogli river down to the Mangu" from his father. Bomba gets to kiss a woman in this film, but the gal is betrothed to another. Nancy Hale later joined the cast of Whirlybirds on TV. Others in the cast include Joel Fluellen as Molu and Juanita Moore as his wife, and Harry Lauter as the pilot who flies Mona into the African interior.  There's a nice score by Marlin Skiles. This was the last film Sheffield [Tarzan Finds a Son!] was to appear in.

Verdict: Farewell Bomba! **1/2.

MANHATTAN MERRY-GO-ROUND

MANHATTAN MERRY-GO-ROUND (1937). Director: Charles Reisner.

Jerry Hart (Phil Regan) sings in a Manhattan nightclub on a revolving platform or "merry-go-round." His fiancee is Ann Rogers (Ann Dvorak), who is a secretary for a music business. Said business is taken over by hood Tony Gordoni (Leo Carrillo), who wants to sign the temperamental opera diva "Charlizzini" (Tamara Geva) to a recording contract. Gordoni forces Jerry to charm and romance "Charlie" and stay attendant on her even as Ann waits at the altar and is jilted. Will Ann ever forgive Jerry? Phil Regan [We're in the Money] was a handsome and popular crooner of the period who never quite made it in pictures, probably because his contract was with Monogram and Republic and not MGM. But he was "dreamy" looking, had a very nice voice, and was a competent enough actor, being adept and pleasing in Manhattan Merry-Go-Round. Ann Dvorak [Out of the Blue] is completely wasted in this, but Geva manages to be somewhat amusing as the diva, even if you begin to wish someone would shoot her. Ryan manages to sing an aria from "Martha" not too shabbily, but the film's musical highlight may be Cab Calloway's rendition of "I Want to Make Rhythm." Other "artists" in the film are singing cowboy Gene Autry [Phantom Empire] and Kay Thompson and Her Girls, who are utterly lacking in distinction. The real Joe DiMaggio has a cameo as himself, but is mistaken for a radio singer and tries to warble a tune. A male supporting character practices hand-kissing with Phil Ryan, which prompts some raised eyebrows from lady passersby.

Verdict: Another mediocre Republic musical with some interesting players. **.

MR. UNIVERSE

Vince Edwards struts his stuff as "Mr. Universe"
MR. UNIVERSE (aka Mister Universe/1951). Produced and directed by Joseph Lerner.

"He's young, healthy, clean -- doesn't it give you ideas?'

An honest, naive, and simple-minded man named Tommy Tomkins (Vince Edwards) easily wins a "Mr. Universe" contest for well-proportioned males just after he meets up with an old army buddy whose life he saved. Jeff Clayton (Jack Carson) is a huckster and phony who convinces Tommy he should become a wrestler, and importunes promoter Joe Pulaski (Bert Lahr) to take him on. There's also the slimy "Fingers" Maroni (Robert Alda), who wants a big piece of "Universe" for himself. When Tommy wraps up his matches in so short a time that the audiences want their money back, Jeff and Joe try to wear him out before a bout, with expected complications. What puts this cute if minor flick over is the excellent cast who are all in top form, including Janis Paige as Jeff's girlfriend, and "Slapsy" Maxie Rosenbloom [The Yanks are Coming] as the trainer, "Big Ears." Vince Edwards [Hammerhead], introduced in this film as a blond, is fine as the likable if dumb Tommy and certainly illustrates his versatility in a role entirely unlike his "Ben Casey" a few years later. The wrestlers, such as Gorilla Hogan and Delightful Dave, are played by themselves, as is announcer Dennis James. Joan Rivers is supposedly one of the teenage girls screaming for the handsome Universe. Harry Landers [Phantom from Space; Rear Window] and Joyce Matthews have little to say but still manage to make an impression as Fingers' gunsel and moll, respectively. Lahr and Carson make a great team. This picture spoofed the utter phoniness of wrestling as a "sport" but things sure aren't any different today.

Verdict: Enthusiastic cast makes this more than watchable. **1/2.

TROY

Eric Bana as Prince Hector of Troy
TROY (2004). Director: Wolfgang Petersen.

On a mission to establish good relations between Greece and Troy, the Spartan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom) foolishly spirits away King Menelaus' wife, the beautiful Helen (Diane Kruger). Paris' brother, Prince Hector (Eric Bana) is appalled at Paris' actions and fears the worst when they return to Troy. Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) wants revenge on Helen and Paris while his brother, King Agamemnon (Brian Cox), is more interested in sacking Troy and adding to his power. Although the rather egomaniacal Achilles (Brad Pitt) has little respect or admiration for Agamemnon, he is importuned to join the Spartan forces and eventually engages in one on one combat with Hector. The main difference between the two is that Achilles fights for sheer glory, while Hector fights for king and country. After much bloodshed on both sides, the Greeks come up with an idea for a certain horse ... Inspired by Homer's Iliad, Troy is an exciting war movie that eschews all the fantastic elements of the story (such as the Gods influencing many of the characters behind the scenes) and tries to present it as something historical. [Although 19th century scientists did find evidence of the city of Troy in modern-day Turkey, and it may be true that the Greeks mounted an expedition to, or some kind of assault on, Troy, the story of the Trojan War is mostly mythological.] If you haven't read Homer's Iliad or Edith Hamilton's Mythology since college it may surprise you which elements of David Benioff's screenplay are taken from those sources and which aren't. Whatever the case, Achilles' dull and unconvincing romance with Hector's cousin Briseis (Rose Byrne) serves no useful purpose except to give Brad Pitt a chance to show off his butt. On the other hand, one of the best scenes in the movie is when King Priam (Peter O'Toole) of Troy begs Achilles to give him his son's corpse for proper burial.

As for the acting, this is not Brad Pitt's movie but Eric Bana's. Bana [Deadfall] not only plays the most sympathetic character in the movie, but plays it extremely well, with quiet strength and nobility along with a sex appeal that puts his lover boy brother, Paris (as essayed by the average-looking Bloom) in the shade. Pitt [World War Z] seems wildly miscast at first -- and he's never completely convincing as some great warrior -- but you get used to him and he isn't awful. O'Toole has some excellent moments, as do Cox and Gleeson, while Sean Bean is less effective as Odysseus. Bloom is okay as the unsympathetic jerk-off whose selfish actions both precipitate and, due to his cowardice, prolong the war, but Diane Kruger, although quite pretty, displays little acting ability as Helen. An unintentionally hilarious shot shows Bloom and Kruger watching the burning of Troy and the murdering of its citizens and displaying about as much emotion as a couple watching a commercial for Shake 'n' Bake (one hopes for their sakes that this was a rehearsal shot that accidentally made it into the final cut).  Garrett Hedlund makes an impression as Achilles' young cousin, Patroclus -- many people feel he was not Achilles' cousin, but his lover, and he is not a cousin in The Iliad --  and there are also small roles for Saffron Burrows and Julie Christie as Achilles' mother. James Horner's musical score is surprisingly generic, but he's done so many of these things he can probably compose them in his sleep by now. Wolfgang Petersen also directed Shattered.

This review is based on the Director's Cut of the film, which adds thirty minutes to the running time and probably should't have.

Verdict: Well-produced if imperfect movie is the obvious product of a lot of hard work and good intentions. ***.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

THE SEA CHASE

THE SEA CHASE (1955). Producer/director: John Farrow.

How's this for perfect casting? In The Sea Chase John Wayne plays Karl Erlich, the Captain of a German freighter (the Ergenstrasse), who supports his country but is no fan of Hitler. Lana Turner is cast as Elsa Keller, a kind of Mata Hari German spy who winds up as the only female passenger among a bunch of horny sailors. While it can't be said that Wayne and Turner have great chemistry, the odd thing is that the movie actually works and both stars are more than adequate in their roles. Erlich sets sail from Sidney just as war is declared, and an old friend, the British officer, Jeff Napier (David Farrar of The Echo Murders) -- he was one of Elsa's many conquests -- doggedly pursues him. Complications ensue when Chief Officer Kirchner (Lyle Bettger) takes it upon himself to murder some innocent fishermen who are shipwrecked on a supply island, making Erlich and his crew not only murderers but wanted war criminals. Erlich also has a conflict with Schlieter (James Arness) who has a chip on his shoulder and hates taking orders from his captain. Not only is The Sea Chase suspenseful, but you get caught up in the unusual storyline and begin to care about what happens to the characters and their ultimate fate. Bettger [No Man of Her Own] is especially good as Kirchner, and there's also excellent work from Farrar and from John Qualen [Dark Waters] as Chief Engineer Schmidt. Richard Davalos, Tab Hunter, Paul Fix, Arness, and Claude Akins (whose name is misspelled as "Akin" in the credits) also have some fine moments. Clearly this picture would not have been made just a few years earlier. In WarnerColor.

Verdict: Memorable "forgotten" Wayne film with an intriguing and different plot. ***.

THOROUGHBREDS DON'T CRY

Ronald Sinclair, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland
THOROUGHBREDS DON'T CRY (1937). Director: Alfred E. Green.

Young Roger Calverton (Ronald Sinclair) travels to America in the company of his beloved grandfather (C. Aubrey Smith); the old man's employee, Wilkins (Forrester Harvey); and their horse, which they hope to enter in a race. They induce a  brash jockey, Timmie Donovan (Mickey Rooney) to ride the horse, but fate intervenes in the form of Timmie's miserable father (Charles D. Brown), who claims he desperately needs an iron lung or else he'll die. Timmie is importuned to throw the race, leading to tragedy ... Thoroughbreds Don't Cry was an early hit for Rooney, but he's also got Judy Garland (their very first teaming) -- who for once isn't in love with Rooney's character -- and the inestimable Ronald Sinclair, who proves more than a match for Rooney's thespian skill. Sophie Tucker makes her mark as the woman who runs the boarding house where many jockeys, and Garland, live. Garland does a great rendition of "Goin' to Town." Frankie Darro appears briefly as another nasty jockey. Darro and especially Sinclair were extremely talented child actors, but the former was often relegated to bit parts as he got older, and Sinclair retired from acting only five years later, becoming an editor and producer of several Roger Corman flicks and working on everything from The Amazing Colossal Man to Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikimi Machine to Island Claws. Despite some charming moments and the uniformly excellent acting from the cast, Thoroughbreds can't quite seem to overcome its dated quality, and the whole movie at times seems a little unreal.

Verdict: Not Mickey's best. **1/2.

THE KISSING BANDIT

Kathryn Grayson and Frank Sinatra
THE KISSING BANDIT (1948). Director: Laslo Benedek.

"You kiss women you don't even know, whom you've never been introduced to?"

Ricardo (Frank Sinatra) comes down to California in a pre-statehood period to take over his late father's business. Unfortunately Ricardo thinks his father's business is an inn which is really just the front for the man's true activities as the notorious "kissing bandit," who terrorized the land but made all the ladies swoon. Ricardo's friend Chico (J. Carrol Naish) tries to groom the young man to take over as the bandit, but the problem is that shy Ricardo hasn't kissed a girl in his life! Further complications ensue when a tax man arrives from Spain, the snooty Count Belmont (Carleton G. Young), accompanied by  his security chief General Toro (Billy Gilbert); Ricardo and Chico wind up impersonating them at the home of Don Jose (Mikhail Rasumny of Her Husband's Affairs), whose beautiful daughter Teresa (Kathryn Grayson) has fallen for Ricardo and vice versa. Frank Sinatra gives one of his best performances -- playing a milquetoast with no experience with the ladies! -- in The Kissing Bandit, and is both charming and amusing, resisting any attempts to wink at the audience and suggest he's really a "stud." Naish is simply superb as Chico, losing himself, as this fine actor generally does, in his comical characterization. Grayson with her beautiful voice is lovely and adept. Mildred Natwick [Peyton Place] scores as Teresa's Aunt Isabella, who tells her niece at the approach of the Kissing Bandit on the highway that she "will make the sacrifice" and get kissed by the notorious bandit instead; Isabella also develops a hankering for Chico/General Toro. Clinton Sundberg [Living in a Big Way] is notable as the servile Gomez, as are Young and Gilbert. The score is quite nice, with such numbers as "Tomorrow Brings Romance;" "Siesta;" "Love is Where You Find It;" and, especially, "If I Steal Your Heart." [The composers are not credited but Andre Previn may have been one of them.] Another highlight is a lively dance number with Ricardo Montalban, Ann Miller, and Cyd Charisse.

Verdict: Cute and very entertaining MGM musical with wonderful performances from all. ***.

THE GHOST (1963)

Barbara Steele and Peter Baldwin
THE GHOST (aka Lo spettro/1963). Director: Robert Hampton (Riccardo Freda).

In 1910 Scotland Margaret Hichcock (Barbara Steele) is married to an ailing and wealthy older man, John (Elio Jotta), who has an interest in the occult. Margaret is also having an affair with his very handsome doctor, Charles Livingstone (Peter Baldwin). When John dies, the lovers see signs that the man may still be living, or that his specter is haunting the manor house. Worse, the couple are having problems finding out where John hid his valuable treasures. As suspicions against each other mount, and John seems to appear to them in horrible visions, the two's nerves are stretched to the breaking point. But there's worse to come ... The Ghost is one of the best of the Italian horror films of the period, albeit the plot and its twists aren't exactly original. While a dubbed Steele seems to be sleep-walking through early sections of the movie, she certainly delivers in her dramatic sequences in the latter half. Both Jotta and Baldwin are adept as husband and paramour respectively. Harriet Medin [The Whip and the Body] is also effective as the creepy maid, Catherine, as is Umberto Raho as Canon Owens. Franco Mannino's score helps give the film an almost operatic intensity at times, and Raffaele Masciocchi's cinematography is suitably atmospheric. There's a decent and bloody slashing scene as well. This is only a nominal sequel to The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, which also starred Steele and was directed by Freda. Freda also helmed Caltiki, the Immortal Monster.

Verdict: Lusty and enthusiastic Italian fright flick. ***.

WESTERN PACIFIC AGENT

Kent Taylor
WESTERN PACIFIC AGENT (1950). Director: Sam Newfield.

Bill Stuart (Robert Lowery), a payroll agent for the Western Pacific railroad, is murdered by a hood named Frank Wicken (Mickey Knox). Agent Rod Kendall (Kent Taylor) investigates this murder as well as the death of an elderly railroad worker, also attributed to Wicken. Frank's father, store owner Joe Wicken (Morris Carnovsky of Cornered), suspects what his son has done, but loves him too much to turn him in. Kendall organizes a manhunt for the desperate Frank among the "bindlestiffs," or migrant workers who ride the rails, that doesn't end well. Western Pacific Agent is a minor film from Lippert that boasts a stand-out performance from Mickey Knox and a nice score from Albert Glasser. Kent Taylor [Gangbusters] is fine, and there are also small roles for Sheila Ryan and, unfortunately, Sid Melton [Lost Continent], playing a comedy-relief character who wears out his welcome almost immediately.

Verdict: Acceptable minor B movie but little more. **1/2.

DRUMS OF AFRICA

Flash Gordon and Ming: Buster Crabbe and Charles Middleton
DRUMS OF AFRICA (aka Jungle Man/1941). Director: Harry Fraser.

William Graham (Paul Scott) comes to Africa with his daughter, Betty (Sheila Darcy of Irish Luck). William hopes to find the ruins of a lost city, while Betty is intrigued by Robert Hammond (Buster Crabbe), a doctor whom the natives call "Junga" (he does not, however, run around in a loincloth like Tarzan or Thun'da). Betty also has a fiance named Bruce (Weldon Hayburn), who is accompanying her father on his search for the "City of the Dead." Hammond is hoping to develop and mass produce a serum that can counteract a fever that threatens to break out and kill many people. Hammond is a friend of Betty's uncle, the "reverend" Jim Graham (Charles Middleton), who has a pet tiger he calls "Satan." The chief fun of Drums of Africa is in seeing "Flash Gordon" and his hated adversary "Ming the Merciless" cast as good friends [see photo]. The lost city is interesting-looking, and there's lots of shots of assorted wild life. The picture is basically a mish mosh, thrown together with lots of stock footage, but somehow it holds the attention and it's always great to see Middleton, even if his talents are greatly under-utilized in this. Vince Barnett makes an impression as the ill-fated guide, "Buckthorne." From Pictorial Films.

Verdict: Back lot jungle adventure is cheap but entertaining. **1/2.

BLACK SEA

Pensive captain: Jude Law
BLACK SEA (2014). Director: Kevin Macdonald. Screenplay by Dennis Kelly.

Robinson (Jude Law) is one of a number of disgruntled men who have been fired by the Agora Salvage corporation. He and his cronies join up with several Russian sailors and use a battered old submarine to sail to the Back Sea, where there is a sunken u-boat full of Nazi gold. Things start going wrong almost immediately with tension and disagreements among the rough crew, and major problems with the old sub's equipment, until it becomes a struggle just to stay alive let alone get their hands on the gold. And Agora isn't quite through with them, either. Black Sea is an extremely well-done thriller with an excellent screenplay and direction, interesting characters, a fine ensemble acting job, and a lot of tension and suspense throughout. The film makes you feel for the individuals on board, rooting for some to survive while disliking others. Law [Side Effects] gives a strong, commanding performance, and while the supporting cast is uniformly terrific, there's especially notable work from Bobby Schofield as the youngest crew member Tobin; Ben Mendelsohn as the semi-psychotic Fraser; David Threlfall as asthmatic Peters; and Scoot McNairy as the duplicitous Daniels. The picture is quite exciting and has a very moving conclusion. One might quibble about the unexpected actions of certain crew members, but it could also be chalked up to the unpredictability of human nature under pressure -- lots of pressure!

Verdict: Absorbing, highly intense and very literate thriller. ***1/2.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

QVO VADIS

The grandeur that was Rome courtesy of MGM
QVO VADIS (aka Quo Vadis/1951). Director: Mervyn LeRoy.

Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) fights for the glory of Rome and its emperor, Nero (Peter Ustinov). He meets a woman named Lygia (Deborah Kerr) and the attraction is instant. Unfortunately, Lygia is a Christian and can't forget Vinicius' cruel soldier ways. Marcus then decides to enact an old Roman law that has Lygia forcibly taken away from her adoptive parents and brought to Nero's harem, where Marcus knows Nero has agreed to make a gift of her for him. But when Nero decides to blame the Christians for the burning of Rome, Marcus must decide on whose side he is really on, and if love will out. You can certainly quibble about certain aspects of Qvo Vadis, but as simple good story-telling and adept movie making, the picture is really a wonder to behold. Robert Surtees' cinematography is excellent, as are the scenic design, costuming, and matte paintings that make Rome seem even larger than it is. Miklos Rozsa also contributed an evocative score. As for the acting, Peter Ustinov gets the highest honors for his fascinating portrait of the petulant and often child-like, highly neurotic Nero. Kerr comes next, with her usual sensitive thesping, and even Robert Taylor, although certainly not on the level of those two, gives a good performance as Marcus. Leo Genn is fine as Marcus' uncle, although he is too perfunctory during his suicide scene. There are other notable performances from Patricia Laffan [Devil Girl from Mars] as Nero's nasty wife, Poppaea; Abraham Sofaer [Captain Sindbad] as Paul; Rosalie Crutchley [Blood from the Mummy's Tomb] as Acte, who loves Nero and runs his harem for him; Marina Berti as Eunice, a slave who adores her master, Marcus' uncle (the two have a moving death scene together); little Peter Miles [Roseanna McCoy] as young Nazarius, whose mother is killed when Rome burns to the ground; among others. Highlights of the well-directed film are the aforementioned burning of Rome; and the horrifying scenes of Christians being fed to the lions. There is a pre-Ben-Hur chariot battle, as well. Historians are still arguing over how accurate the assessments of Nero have been, so this picture must be taken with a grain of salt on that score.

Verdict: Almost as magnificent as Rome itself, and with its flaws as well, but this is splendid movie-making. ****.

SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN

William Powell and Stella Adler
SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN (1941). Director: W. S. Van Dyke.

Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell; Myrna Loy) are enjoying a relatively quiet life with Asta and little Nicky (Richard Hall) when murder comes a'calling again. This time the victim is a virtually anonymous jockey who's dead practically before the film begins, but soon other bodies begin to pile up. Suspects and victims alike include reporter Paul Clarke (Barry Nelson); his girlfriend, Molly (Donna Reed); her boss, "Link" Stephens (Loring Smith); his mistress, Claire Porter (Stella Adler); and assorted underworld or otherwise shady characters such as Fred Macy (Joseph Anthony); "Rainbow" Benny (Lou Lubin); and "Whitey" Barrow (Alan Baxter). Then there's Major Sculley (Henry O'Neill of Scandal Sheet) and the excitable Lt. Abrahms (Sam Levene of Dial 1119). Gathering the suspects at the climax where everyone has a serious hate on, Nora is afraid that Nick is going to name her as the murderer. This is a typically convoluted, but amusing "Thin Man" movie with very good performances from all. Stella Adler, who is very saucy in this picture, did a lot of theater work, but her film and TV credits were limited to five; she later became best-known as an acting coach. Joseph Anthony later became a director for the stage and of such films as Career.

Verdict: Smooth and entertaining. ***.

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MICKEY ROONEY

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MICKEY ROONEY. Richard A. Lertzman and William J. Birnes. Gallery/Simon and Schuster; 2015.

Well ... this is an exhaustive, frank, detailed,  ugly, and often exasperating biography of the great Mickey Rooney, whom most people agree was one of the most talented people in movies or on the stage, and whose private life was an absolute mess. Lertzman and Birnes present a portrait of a man who really had no identity or personality aside from the always-on Mickey Rooney, and who had little empathy for others, including his many wives and sadly neglected children (Rooney didn't even attend his own son's funeral). But we're also treated to glimpses of Rooney stealing the show as a little boy in burlesque, becoming the "Mickey McGuire" of the silents, then turning into Andy Hardy. Then there's his descent into show biz has-been status, his insistence on remaining in the limelight and continuing his career despite the odds, his comeback with "Sugar Babies" on Broadway, The Black Stallion in films, and Bill on television; his messy divorces, gambling debts, and so on. The authors investigate how Rooney wound up a virtual pauper in old age after making millions (especially from the highly successful Sugar Babies) -- even after factoring in tax debts, gambling losses, and expensive spending habits (by this time Rooney no longer needed to pay alimony or child support), there should have been much more money. Although charges were leveled against Rooney's family members, the authors here seem to conclude that it was the legal fees that done him in, fees which the lawyers are still collecting from Rooney's estate. A month before his death, Rooney disinherited all of his biological children -- an eyebrow-raising situation that apparently didn't make the judge suspicious. Then there are the tempestuous marriages to the likes of Ava Gardner, Martha Vickers, and even one wife who was brutally murdered by her lover while Rooney was in the hospital. The worst claim made about Rooney in this book  is that he was a pedophile, even though the information is all hearsay. The source for a story in which a 14-year-old Liz Taylor went down on Rooney in a dressing room is not Rooney's ex-wife (who allegedly first told the story and is now deceased) but a friend of hers, making it double hearsay! This kind of thing cheapens the book and calls a lot of other things into question. [At least we're spared that nonsense about Norma Shearer having sex with Rooney in her dressing room.] Then there are strange omissions: there's a photo of Rooney making his directorial debut with star Helen Walker, but absolutely no mention of the film in the text. Some of his movie appearances and his performances in them, especially in the first half of the book, are given short shrift. A description of a celebration for Rooney's 90th birthday, written by the event's organizer, reads like a report from a press agent and has no real value, Along with fresh interviews, some of the material is recycled from Rooney's memoir and Arthur Marx's biography. While Rooney was once awarded a special Oscar and was nominated more than once, he never received an AFI or Kennedy Center honor, and should have. Rooney is typical of show biz types who are extremely talented but fall short -- no pun intended -- as human beings.

Verdict: Certainly absorbing, if at times suspect, look at a fascinating Hollywood figure. ***.

KING OF THE CONGO

Buster Crabbe
KING OF THE CONGO (15 chapter Columbia serial/1952). Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet and Wallace Grissell. 

Air Force captain Roger Drum (Buster Crabbe) is to complete a flight to South Africa under the identity of a spy who is to make contact with a subversive "mystery group." Drum crashes, and for a while has no idea who he is, but at first the "reds" see him as their comrade. Since Drum is able to peal a sacred gong he is heralded by the primitive, all-white "rock people" as the heroic "Thun'da," and runs around in a loincloth. Drum/Thun'da first appeared in a brief comic book series -- sub-titled "King of the Congo" -- before Columbia turned it into a minor serial with highly familiar elements. In addition to those nasty reds, who are after a radioactive mineral, there is a group of Cavemen ruled by the corpulent if powerful Kor (Rusty Wescoatt). There is a native princess named Pha (Gloria Dea) and a High Priest (William Fawcett) who wears a long, silly wig and can witness future events in his crystal ball! There's also a cute chimp who acts like Cheetah at times but is never given a name. There's a comical scene when henchman Andreov (Rick Vallin) is "tortured" by a lamp and headphones playing jazz! The best cliffhanger has Thun'da trapped in quicksand while nasty natives keep chucking spears at him and try to push a log away before he can grab hold of it and save himself. Crabbe has dark hair for this picture.

Verdict: Not one of the more memorable Columbia serials and Crabbe's last. **.

SWING PARADE OF 1946

Will Osborne and Mary Treen
SWING PARADE OF 1946 (1946). Director: Phil Karlson.

"... a tender word can mend a lot."

Aspiring singer Carol Lawrence (Gale Storm) is thrown out of her boarding house and can't get a job, so she becomes a process server for a grumpy, disapproving man, Mr. Warren (Russell Hicks of The Flying Saucer), who wants to close down his own son, Danny's, nightclub. Instead. Carol takes a job with Danny (Phil Regan), getting her in trouble with Warren and almost with Danny when he learns about the summons. Middle-aged Marie (Mary Treen), who seems to like Danny, develops a hankering for bandleader Will (Will Osborne) instead and tells off Old Man Warren. Then we have the Three Stooges as terrible waiters, and a couple of pleasant enough song numbers. Storm is perky and efficient, as ever, and once-popular Regan [We're in the Money] is handsome and has a smooth singing voice. Mary Treen [Blonde from Brooklyn] was a likable character actress with about a zillion credits, but although she had a way with a line and was frequently both adept and amusing, she never quite became well-known like, say, Eve Arden. There was something a little more distinctive about Arden, and while she wasn't a raving beauty, either, she was better-looking and more sensual than Treen. Treen has a bit more to do in this film but, alas, it's a Monogram picture. Will Osborne was a bandleader of the time who played himself in a couple of movies and was appealing. Singer Connee Boswell also plays herself; she had a few other credits as well.

Verdict:  Another amiable but third-rate Monogram musical. **.

ROCK ROCK ROCK!

Tuesday Weld and Teddy Randazzo
ROCK ROCK ROCK! (1956). Director: Will Price.

When high-schooler Dori (Tuesday Weld) discovers she has competition for the charms of handsome Tommy (Teddy Randazzo) in the form of sexpot Gloria (Jacqueline Kerr), she determines that she simply must have a strapless evening gown for the prom. But how to get the money? She opens her own "bank" and charges 1% interest but is so stupid she doesn't realize that 1% of $100 is one dollar and not a hundred! Her intellectual shortcomings are the least of her problems as every time she opens her mouth to sing, it is Connie Francis' voice that comes out. At least Randazzo, who has a pleasant voice, isn't dubbed and he does a nice job with "Give Me One More Chance" and "Thanks to You." Randazzo [Hey Let's Twist] is appealing but only did two pictures, focusing instead on a recording career. Although she was cast in Dobie Gillis, Weld [Pretty Poison] shows no particular promise as a comedienne. Alan Freed puts on his Rock 'n' Roll show with guest-stars Tommy, Chuck Berry, the Flamingos, 14-year-old Frankie Lyman, Elvis-like Johnny Brant, and a weird little girl named Baby whose singing is flat and terrible. Randazzo and Kerr give the best performances. This movie bridges the gap between swing music and rock, which was only just emerging as "rock 'n' roll."

Verdict: Life was much simpler then -- or was it? **.

ROUND-UP OF NEW AND RECENT FILMS

Here's a round up of some new and/or recent films that were of interest but didn't necessarily cry out for lengthier reviews. This way I can focus most of my attention on the older films that are my meat and potatoes, so to speak! I will be doing this round-up periodically.

Firewall  (2006). Director: Richard Loncraine. Harrison Ford stars as a man whose family is held hostage by a group of criminals who want him to help them rob the bank where he works. Things get pretty out of control in an exciting climax. Nothing that new here, but entertaining enough, and well-acted; Ford is quite good. **1/2.

The Hole (2009) Director: Joe Dante. Teenagers discover that there's something very strange under a trap door in the basement. Dead people and demons keep coming up and/or disappearing. Descending into the hole, the kids find themselves in a strange new world. **1/2.

Last Will (2011). Director: Brent Huff. Tatum O'Neal stars as a woman who marries a wealthy older man (Tom Berenger) but comes afoul of her two greedy and highly malevolent brothers-in-law. This is minor but entertaining, with a vivid performance from Patrick Muldoon and a nifty, effective wind-up. ***.

Killer Mermaid (aka Nymph/2014). Director: Milan Todorovic. A group of vacationers come afoul of a beautiful but deadly killer mermaid in the Greek isles. Franco Nero, light years from Camelot, is the only name member of the cast. Some good bits, but not memorable. **.

The Invitation (2014) Director: Karyn Kusama. A man brings his new girlfriend to a party hosted by his ex-wife and her new boyfriend, both of whom try to indoctrinate them and other guests into a cult. Failing that ... The film is well-acted enough to hold the attention, but it has little suspense or tension until the final moments, when the abrupt change in tone is almost comical. **1/2.

Indigenous (2014). Director: Alistair Orr. Young tourists are taken to visit a beautiful spot in the Peruvian jungle, but come afoul of silently creeping, definitely creepy, very fast-moving, and decidedly carnivorous humanoid creatures. Once this gets going, Indigenous is a well-made horror film with some disquieting and effective sequences. ***.

Krampus (2015) Director: Michael Dougherty. Krampus is about a family besieged by demons, including malevolent clowns and living ginger bread cookies, at an Xmas celebration because somebody doesn't have the proper Christmas spirit. Or something like that. It's hard to figure out if Krampus is a horror film or a comedy, but it doesn't work as either. Conchata Ferrell, doing her fat old chick with attitude shtick, headlines a cast of unknowns, some of whom are effective, but the film is not. **.

Kill Your Friends (2015). Director: Owen Harris. A darkly amusing, graphic dissection of the ludicrous late 90's British music business focuses on a handsome sociopath (Nicholas Hoult) who resorts to murder to get ahead. Kill Your Friends is entertaining and well-acted, but the basic premise isn't at all original. The script allows for sexist and homophobic "frat boy" humor because the protagonist who makes these remarks is a bad guy, but one senses the filmmakers want to have their cake and eat it too. **1/2.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016). Director: Dan Trachtenberg.  John Goodman stars in this interesting and suspenseful thriller about a man who takes a young woman to a bunker and tells her that everyone is dead and the world outside is contaminated. Is the man nuts, or does he know even more than he's telling? A sort of sequel to Cloverfield that takes its own direction to arrive at its point, which may confuse many viewers. But the film is well-acted and quite entertaining. ***.

The Hatching (2016). Writer/director: Michael Anderson. A small village in Somerset is beset by both killer crocodiles and serial killers. This black comedy starts well, is well-produced, photographed, and acted, but deteriorates, becoming a bit too stupid and tedious. I'm sure some will see it as having quirky charm, but it's all kind of familiar, and some of the annoying characters don't wear very well. There are several climaxes but not the one this picture needs. A more exciting musical score might have helped. **1/2.

Justice League vs Teen Titans (2016) is a disappointing animated feature which involves the Justice League and their teen counterparts in a battle with Trigon the Terrible. This is far below the level of the entertaining stories about Trigon, and the two super-groups who battled him and each other, that appeared in the New Teen Titans comic years ago. This movie, besides having a horrible kind of rock video sequence with dreadful music, incorporates the somehow trendy and rather annoying character of ten-year-old Damian Wayne. **.

London Has Fallen (2016). Director: Babak Najafi. In this sequel to Olympus Has Fallen terrorist attacks break out in London as the U.S. President and assorted dignitaries attend a funeral for the murdered prime minister. An agent played by Gerard Butler tries to keep the president alive amid chaos. This is fairly standard action stuff and nothing more. **.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

VACATION

Breakers Resort on the sound on Cape Cod
GREAT OLD MOVIES is on vacation this week.

See you next week with a fresh crop of reviews of movies great and not-so-great!


Thursday, September 1, 2016

THE PRODIGAL

Edmund Purdom and Lana Turner
THE PRODIGAL (1955). Director: Richard Thorpe.

Micah (Edmund Purdom) of Joppa is betrothed to Ruth (Audrey Dalton), but on a trip to Damascus he takes one look at High Priestess Samarra (Lana Turner) and is instantly smitten. He asks his father for his inheritance so he can go off and claim this woman, who worships pagan gods such as Astarte and Baal, and his father gives him the money but says he is now "dead to him". But getting to Samarra as a bearded "interloper" might be a bit of a problem. MGM has taken a simple Biblical parable and "fleshed" it out with a story that is pure Hollywood, but quite entertaining on that level. Purdom is fine as Micah, but Turner, besides being a bit too old, seems to have no clue as to the inner thoughts and feelings of the (admittedly underwritten) character she's playing -- she's just saying lines. There's a host of good character actors in the film, including Cecil Kellaway, seen briefly as the governor; Neville Brand [Eaten Alive] as an evil and sadistic soldier, Rhakim; Henry Daniell as the slave, Ramadi; Jay Novello as a merchant; John Dehner as Micah's brother; and Joseph Wiseman as another slave and instigator. Louis Calhern as the High Priest Nahreeb offers one of his rare indifferent performances, as costume dramas aren't his cup of java. "You hunger for [freed slave Asham] as a pig for husks," Micah tells Nahreeb, and even Samarra tells her High Priest that she doesn't like what he does to his slaves. Francis L. Sullivan [Hell's Island] is better as the portly Bosra. Although Paul Cavanagh is listed in the cast, I couldn't spot him. Although he hasn't a line of dialogue as the mute Asham, who comes to work for Micah, James Mitchell is effective; most of his credits were on TV and All My Children. Little Sandy Descher [Them] plays the strange little girl, Jasmin, but she's not very memorable. Highlights of the film include Micah's battle with a determined vulture in a pit of skeletons and a man who sacrifices himself for Baal by throwing himself into a pool of fire. The film's religiosity never becomes overbearing.

Vwerdict: Not exactly the bible, but worth a look. *** out of 4.

PHANTOM OF SOHO

Men of Scotland Yard: 
PHANTOM OF SOHO (aka Das Phantom von Soho/1964). Director: Franz Joseph Gottlieb. Based on a novel by Bryan Edgar Wallace (Wallace's son).

A series of slashings takes place in London, with the murders centering on the somewhat shady Zanzibar nightclub. Sir Phillip (Hans Sohnker) of Scotland Yard, who is friends with a lady mystery writer named Clarinda (Barbara Rutting), assigns the case to Chief Inspector Patton (Dieter Borsche). There are numerous suspects, including the club owner Joanna (Elisabeth Flickenshildt); her physician, Dr. Delmar (Werner Peters); Grover, a mysterious fellow with a birthmark (Otto Waldis); Gilyard, the club manager (Stanislav Ledinek); club photographer, Corinne (Helga Sommerfeld) and others. But as the investigation proceeds, many of the suspects themselves become victims. Phantom of Soho is a very suspenseful mystery, with an unexpected and excellent denouement, and a very plausible motive for the murders. Although this is a German film, it manages to get across the look and feel of Soho, thanks to Richard Angst's atmospheric photography. The dubbing on the film is so well done you'd almost swear the cast was actually speaking English. The cast member best known to American viewers is Otto Waldis, who was in everything from Call Northside 777 to Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

Verdict: Very worthwhile West German suspense film. ***.

OOPS!

Greg McClure
OOPS!

Years ago I thought it was kind of funny the way some obsessive film buffs would become irate if someone misidentified an obscure actor. "It was Gladys Humble, not Ginny Bumble, who played Maggie in Knock-Off Nellie," they would go. Get a life, I would think. But the fact is that even old character actors or long-dead second leads and so on should be identified properly.

In my review of Sky Liner, I mistook actor Greg McClure with Michael Whalen -- the two look nothing alike. In truth, I was not especially familiar with either of them, despite their both having numerous credits. I'm not certain how I made the mistake, but I assume I attributed one character's name to another character, then matched Whalen's name with the wrong character on the cast list. (Anyway, the mistake has been corrected.)

A handsome hunk, McClure had his biggest role playing John L. Sullivan in The Great John L with Linda Darnell. He was seriously considered as a replacement for Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, but the part was given to Lex Barker. After appearing in twenty movies, McClure was blacklisted and his career was over. Obviously still in great shape, McClure became a nudist  and why not?

I became aware of my error when "Michael Whalen" -- the actor I thought was McClure -- appeared in a couple of movies after Sky Liner but I just couldn't spot his distinctive rugged (and kind of mean) features. When I did a search for Michael Whalen his photos showed that he was not the actor I thought he was. It happens!

Anyway, feel free to let me know if I ever misidentify a player. Hopefully it won't happen too often.

Happy Viewing!