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

Thursday, April 24, 2014

NEW LOOK

Well, as you can see, GREAT OLD MOVIES has a new look -- finally. Believe me I know there's still room for improvement, but I think overall this looks better than the old format. However, if you disagree, let me know. I am happy to read any and all suggestions and advice. Part of the problem is that I am somewhat limited as to what I can do because some templates would do away with the slide show of my books, and while that isn't the main reason I do this blog, a little publicity never hurt anyone, eh? None of the colors I used for the description seemed to work satisfactorily -- there's no way to even center the main title -- so I put it below the photo, and I went through dozens of stills before I found one that was the right size and resolution and seemed to work with the title words. That's Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, of course. 

Anyway, I welcome constructive criticism.

Oh, for the two or three of you out there who are interested in reading my opinions of the rest of Twentieth Century-Fox's Jones Family series, more reviews are on the way -- bet you can't wait, LOL!

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN

"It's growing!" Kate Reid and Arthur Hill











THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971). Director: Robert Wise.

Project Scoop, which collects organisms in space, crashes to earth  in a small town in New Mexico. Everyone is killed by a plague from an organism inside the scoop aside from an old man and a baby, both of whom are taken to a secret Nevada base known as "Wildfire," which was created to contain deadly biological alien entities. Inside the base several scientists try to figure out why these two particular humans survived, and to determine the exact nature of the organism that killed everyone else, and how it was transmitted. It is decided to wipe out the town with a bomb, but will that be such a good idea ...? The Andromeda Strain, based on a novel by Michael Crichton ["Micro"], was one of the first of the technological sci fi/medical thrillers, and it's a pip, well-directed by Wise and very suspenseful. [The movie Alien owes a lot to Andromeda's climax with its destruct mechanism that only allows a short time to cancel it]. Arthur Hill as the head of the team offers his usual competent if bland performance; James Olsen, David Wayne and Paula Kelly are a bit more flavorful; and Kate Reid [A Delicate Balance] is simply outstanding as the grouchy, dyspeptic Dr. Ruth Leavitt -- she's a a real asset to the movie. Glenn Langan [The Amazing Colossal Man] has a small role as a politician and is fine. Remade as an A&E mini-series in 2008.

Verdict: Taut, creepy, and fascinating. ***1/2.

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (2008)

Andromeda: Like Benjamin Bratt, everything's too casual
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN 2008 mini-series. Director: Mikael Salomon.

When an entire town is suddenly wiped out by a plague, scientists are called in to identify the organism, possibly extra-terrestrial in origin, that killed everyone, and find out why two people -- an old man and a baby -- survived. They take them to a hidden base to try and find the answers. One scene in particular illustrates the problem with this three hour remake of 1971's far superior The Andromeda Strain. Project leader Jeremy Stone (Benjamin Bratt of Catwoman) confers with a colleague while sitting in a very casual position that belies the urgency of what's going on, a problem with the telefilm in general. [I'm not saying people might not relax even during a crisis, but this is supposed to be a thriller, right?] The movie is padded with unnecessary scenes, such as entire tiresome sequences built around a reporter played bv Eric McCormack, who is good but at times seems to be reverting to Will of Will and Grace,and much more is made of the political/paranoia angle than before. The performances are okay but Kate Reid of the original film is sorely missed, although Daniel Dae Kim, Viola Davis, and Andre Braugher make more of an impression than the others. In this the old man survivor, Tobler (Tom McBeath, who is good), is more dimensional, and one character, Major Keane (Ricky Schroder), is openly gay [yet conservative], but the script doesn't allow him to be a hero. It's interesting that one of the producers of this ultimately tedious TV production is Ridley Scott, whose Alien sort of borrowed the climax of the original (a character desperately racing to countermand an order to self-destruct), a scene repeated in this with some variations but which still manages to lack tension and excitement. To be fair there are a couple of creepy moments, and the early sections may be compelling to people who are unfamiliar with the story.

Verdict: Stick with the original. **. 

A LADY TO LOVE

Robert Ames and Vilma Banky
A LADY TO LOVE (1930). Director: Victor Seastrom.

"Of all the lowdown, dirty tricks that was ever played on a girl!"

A vintner named Tony (Edward G. Robinson) is smitten with a pretty foreign-born waitress, Lena (Vilma Banky), and sends her a proposal of marriage through the mail. Unfortunately he also encloses the photograph and of his younger and better-looking hand, Buck (Robert Ames), leading to sensual complications when Lena finally arrives in the Napa Valley.  This is the second film version (and first sound picture) of Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted and it has a slight edge over the 1940 film of that title, even though Robinson is not as good as Tony as Charles Laughton was. Robinson seems to play the character as if the film were a comedy, although he has some strong moments of poignant desperation at the end. Banky and Ames are fine, although Buck, who seems a decent enough sort, has a bit of a character reversal to bastard towards the end. The best version of this story might be Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella.

Verdict: Creditable adaptation with interesting cast. ***.

THE NEW PERRY MASON

Monte Markham as Perry Mason
THE NEW PERRY MASON. 1973 TV series.

Monte Markham had the unenviable task of stepping into the inestimable shoes of Raymond Burr when he took on the role of Erle Stanley Gardner's famous criminal lawyer in The New Perry Mason. Markham didn't try to do the role exactly as Burr did, which is wise, and he isn't bad, but he lacks authority, something you could never say about Burr. The other casting choices are interesting, with Dane Clark [Whiplash] as Lt. Tragg, Albert Stratton as Paul Drake, and Harry Guardino [Jigsaw] as Hamilton Berger, although Sharon Acker [Happy Birthday to Me] makes virtually no impression as Della Street. Most of the episodes are fairly mediocre, but some of the better ones include: "Jailed Justice," in which a judge is accused of poisoning his hated son-in-law; "Tortured Titan," in which a woman allegedly murders the man who put her wealthy brother in an institution; "Murdered Murderer," in which the inventor of a new type of camera is accused of murder even as the contract killer who did the deed is himself murdered [with good performances from Paul Burke and Sharon Farrell]; and the best episode, "Telltale Trunk," in which a greedy, back-stabbing businessman winds up dead in a trunk after his victims plan a playful revenge [with a notable Richard Anderson and Keenan Wynn].

Verdict: Has its moments, some good guest performances, but stick with Burr.

THE CASE OF THE BLACK PARROT

Eddie Foy Jr., William Lundigan and Maris Wrixon
THE CASE OF THE BLACK PARROT (1941). Director: Noel M. Smith.

Jim Moore (William Lundigan of Riders to the Stars) is a reporter who works with a photographer named "Tripod" (Eddie Foy Jr.) and has a girlfriend named Sandy (Maris Wrixon). Sandy's Uncle Paul (Charles Waldron) has returned from Europe with an antique cabinet that seems to have a lot of secrets surrounding it. For one thing, it has hidden drawers containing all sorts of surprises, and for another, anyone who touches the thing drops dead right afterward, with what appears to be a strange bite mark on their hands. Then there's the master criminal, the Black Parrot, suspected of stealing the Mona Lisa and substituting a fake -- like a parrot, he imitates, get it? Now he seems to be after this cabinet, which itself may be only a copy. Others involved in this intrigue include Max Armand (Paul Cavanagh of Son of Dr. Jekyll); Madame de Charrier (Luli Deste); an anxious lady named Julia (Phyllis Barry); and of course Rogers the butler (Cyril Thornton). Inspector Grady (Joseph Crehan) tries to solve the case, but he's not quick enough for Moore. This is a pleasant enough but unremarkable programmer with little to recommend it, although the cast has some appeal, and there are a couple of mildly clever touches. Barry, who gave a fine performance nine years earlier in Cynara with Ronald Colman, is utterly wasted in this, and the oddly-named Wrixon makes a somewhat odd leading lady by Hollywood standards.

Verdict: At least it's only about an hour long. **.


JACK AND JILL

Al Pacino and Adam Sandler
JACK AND JILL (2011). Director: Dennis Dugan.

Jack Sadelstein (Adam Sandler), an advertising man in LA, has one month to sign Al Pacino [Glengarry Glen Ross] to a contract for a new coffee product. Things seem hopeless until Pacino (played by himself) meets Jack's twin sister, Jill (played by Sandler in drag) and finds her, um, appetizing. Can Jack get Jill to go home with Al, or he will have to dress up in her clothes and go on the date himself? Guess... Although this was skewered by most critics, it's one of the more palatable Adam Sandler comedies, with some genuinely funny moments to go with the low-class flatulence jokes, of which there are too many. Sandler isn't bad in both roles, especially as the good-hearted but gauche and declasse, fairly obnoxious Jill, who drives her brother crazy, but the movie is stolen by Pacino, who gives a fine comedic performance spoofing his image and seems to be having a ball.

Verdict: An Adam Sandler movie you may actually sit all the way through thanks to Al, but beware. ***.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

Best performance: Brock Peters as Tom Robinson












 TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962). Director: Robert Mulligan.

Small-town Southern lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), lives with his small daughter, "Scout" (Mary Badham of Let's Kill Uncle) and her slightly older brother, Jem (Phillip Alford), and their black part-time housekeeper, Calpurnia (Estelle Evans). The children are obsessed with a never-seen neighbor "Boo" Radley (Robert Duvall), who leaves them little trinkets in the hole of a tree and is said to be crazy. Atticus begins getting threats from the townspeople when he decides to defend a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who has been accused of rape by the neurotic Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox) -- in court it becomes very clear that Robinson is innocent but racism must have its day. At the end of the film the two storylines -- Boo and Robinson -- come together when the childrens' lives are threatened and they have an unexpected savior. While it's easy to see why many people love this picture, it does have more than its share of problems and has not worn well with time. For one thing the movie, while admirably against racism, is awfully self-conscious and self-congratulatory, almost as if it were putting out a sign saying "Important, Socially-Aware Film Here. Don't You Dare Criticize!" [For the record, To Kill a Mockingbird is hardly the first film to deal with racism. In This Our Life, which was also based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and was made twenty years earlier, also had a black man -- the first non-domestic positive black character in a Hollywood film -- wrongly accused of a crime.] Elmer Bernstein's musical score does a lot of the work for this movie, and is quite good, although at times it is also positively cloying. Badham, Alford and John Megna as their friend, Dill (said to be based on novelist Harper Lee's friend, Truman Capote) are all marvelous child actors, and there are other good performances in the film. Peck won an Oscar (as did Badham) and while the role of Addicus is in his range (unlike the sexy bad boy in Duel in the Sun), he perhaps underplays too much, hardly giving the kind of impassioned speech that might have gotten through to the jurors. Admittedly Addicus (at least in the film) may be mild-mannered, but Peck almost makes him wimpy. While we're on the subject of racism, the very talented Brock Peters is superior to Peck in his brief scenes, but he never got an Oscar nod as supporting player, making the whole project seem hypocritical to say the least. [Although it could be argued that it is not the fault of the filmmakers if the Academy was behind the times.] On the plus side, Robert Mulligan's direction is generally assured, and Russell Harlan's cinematography is superb. The kids calling their father "Addicus" instead of "Dad" is never explained and becomes irritating very quickly. Since its publication in 1960 people have been debating whether Harper Lee's source novel is great literature or just a young adult novel with socially significant themes. Mulligan also directed Fear Strikes Out and many others.

Verdict: A painfully obvious message movie that was notable in its day. **1/2.

LET'S DO IT AGAIN

LET'S DO IT AGAIN! (1953). Director: Alexander Hall.

Composer Gary Stuart (Ray Milland), who has been neglecting his wife, Connie (Jane Wyman), to go off and play drums in clubs, walks out on her when he thinks she's had an affair with a rival composer, Courtney Craig (Tom Helmore). Connie is then courted by a handsome theatrical backer named Frank (Aldo Ray), while Gary dallies with an uppercrust lady named Deborah (Karin Booth of The Unfinished Dance). It may be hard to recognize this as a musical remake of The Awful Truth, but the awful truth is that this isn't that bad a movie. What makes it most watchable is the excellent performance by Jane Wyman. The usually demure Wyman is turned into the "go girl" in this movie: she sparkles, she sasses, she sings, she dances with verve, she sintillates. She brilliantly interprets her song numbers even though she isn't really singing (Milland is also dubbed), and she does a Latin number near the end that scandalizes a whole roomful of snobbish party guests. What would Angela Channing say? Her sexy, dead-on delivery of "Slow Burn Over a Fast Man" in an earlier party scene is the movie's highlight. Milland is also quite good, as are Leon Ames as his brother and Mary Treen as Connie's housekeeper. Aldo Ray is charming and has a killer smile. Wyman is outfitted with one spectacular gown after another, and she and Gary have rather beautiful apartments. Valerie Bettis plays Gary's friend, Lilly, who has a provocative dance number of her own. Bettis was apparently a dancer who did only a couple of movies and some television work. Hall also directed the bizarre Once Upon a Time.

Verdict: Watch the "go girl" go! ***.

THOSE WE LOVE

Mary Astor and Kenneth MacKenna
THOSE WE LOVE (1932). Director: Robert Florey.

"It isn't wise to love anything so much that to lose it almost kills you."

Struggling novelist Freddie Williston (Kenneth MacKenna) meets May (Mary Astor) in the crowd during the Armistice Day celebration, and discovers that she's just bought a copy of his book. Before long they are married and a child is on the way, along with a string of bestsellers. Had Those We Love looked at the life of an unsuccessful or fair-to-middling author it might have had more dramatic heft, but once Freddie becomes a rich and famous author, the only complication that can be thrown into the couple's lives comes in the form of Valerie (Lilyan Tashman), a married vamp who has set her cap for Freddie. May jumps to conclusions about Val's relationship with her husband, and inadvertently makes matters worse. Will this family survive this crisis, and will Valerie go on her merry way? Those We Love manages to be entertaining because of the cast. Mary Astor is as wonderful as ever, while MacKenna has charm to spare. Tommy Conlon [The Sign of the Cross] is swell as their son, Ricky, who might be as wise as both of his parents. Virginia Sale [Lovin' the Ladies] scores as the maid Bertha, as does Tashman [One Heavenly Night] as the lynx-like (if not terribly beautiful) man-stealer, Valerie. From the first Freddie seems more interested in making money than in crafting lasting literature, so one can imagine his books are as superficial as he is. Those We Love misses virtually every opportunity to say anything about the writing life, the publishing business, or the creative process, and was adapted from a Broadway play. Florey directed The Beast with Five Fingers and many, many others.

Verdict: Fairly creaky, but the acting puts it over. **1/2.

A NIGHT OF ADVENTURE

Tom Conway
















A NIGHT OF ADVENTURE (1944). Director: Gordon Douglas.

NOTE: This review reveals "important" plot points. Lawyer Mark Latham (Tom Conway) has such a busy career and is so diligent with his clients that his wife, Erica (Audrey Long of Desperate), feels neglected. She moves into her own pad and begins seeing a fellow painter named Tony (Louis Borel). Mark goes to Tony's studio, where he discovers a jilted, drunken girlfriend named Julie (Jean Brooks), waiting for Tony with a gun. Attempting to disarm her, Mark winds up accidentally shooting her to death instead. Okay... Does Mark call an ambulance, just in case Julie is still alive? No. He gets his hat and goes home, then winds up being importuned by his wife to defend Tony when he is accused of murdering Julie. Throughout the trial Mark lies to his client, his wife, the police, the D.A. and everyone else -- does the word "disbarment" not mean anything to the man? Through it all Tom Conway shows less emotion or upsetment than if he discovered he's all out of hair dye. A Night of Adventure, based on a play, is meant to be clever but only comes off as increasingly idiotic and illogical, with a "hero" who's supposed to be brilliant and seems only remarkably stupid. At the end Mark flippantly tells Erica how he'll deal with everything without the slightest acknowledgment of the consequences of his actions. Admittedly, you're not supposed to take this frippery seriously, but even so ...! There are no laughs, and the screenplay is too moronic to hold any suspense. And Conway --- although the nominal star of this film he simply heads the cast list under the title and the word "with." He's not even the star of his own movie! It's as if he's being punished for delivering a terrible performance. Conway was George Sanders' brother but was never in his league as an actor, although he did give creditable performances in such films as I Walked with a Zombie. Gordon Douglas' most famous movie is Them.

Verdict: It's because of crap like this that B Movies get a bad rap. *.

NAKED ALIBI

Gloria Grahame and Sterling Hayden
NAKED ALIBI (1954). Director: Jerry Hopper. Produced by Ross Hunter.

Police Chief Joe Conroy (Sterling Hayden of Crime of Passion) is convinced that baker and family man, Al Willis (Gene Barry of The Girls of Pleasure Island), is responsible for the deaths of several police officers. When he confronts him in his bakery, someone takes a photo of Conroy about to hit Willis and the chief loses his job. That doesn't stop Conroy from following Willis to Mexico on one of his "business trips," where he discovers he has a girlfriend, a singer named Marianna (Gloria Grahame of The Big Heat), who doesn't know that her lover boy is married. If the two of them team up, can they find proof that Willis is a killer? Hayden is just right for the role of the cop; he doesn't get across any character nuances, but the script doesn't do much to make him more dimensional anyway. Gene Barry offers one of his most memorable portrayals as Willis, who is smooth and lovable one minute, and raw and sociopathic the next -- in this Barry is quite different than he is as Amos Burke. Grahame offers another credible and sympathetic portrait of a good girl who's fallen for the wrong guy, yet again. Naked Alibi is a fairly standard crime thriller but it does have some suspenseful moments. One incredible sequence early in the picture has Hayden letting Willis simply walk out of the police station after he's assaulted one of his officers! Yeah -- that would really happen. Chuck Connors, Billy Chapin, and Michael Fox have small roles.

Verdict: Acceptable borderline film noir. **1/2.

DOWN ON THE FARM

Mayor Jones [right] samples some of Cy's corn liquor

















DOWN ON THE FARM (1938). Director: Malcolm St. Clair.

When the fire department accidentally makes a mess of their home, the Jones family head off to spend some time with Mayor Jones' sister, Ida (Louise Fazenda of The Old Maid) on the farm she co-owns with her brother. Mayor Jones (Jed Prouty) importunes hired hand and Ida's boyfriend Cy (Eddie Collins) to enter a corn husking contest -- Jones was once a corn-husking champ -- but learns that the town council thinks he's got a good shot at running for senator if he enters it himself. When a political boss (an uncredited Sidney Blackmer of Rosemary's Baby), who's backing someone else, offers Jones a post as state coroner, Grandma Jones (Florence Roberts) and Ida rightly see that it's only a bribe to get him out of the race -- no country bumpkins, they. Roger (George Ernest) has a girl named Emma (Roberta Smith) chasing after him, while Jack (Kenneth Howell) is immediately attracted to her older sister, Tessie (Dorris Bowden). Will John Jones win the corn husking contest and get to go to the senate? This is more amiable fun with a very creditable cast who by now were very much at home in their roles. Granny is a little more grumpy in this than usual, but still lovable.

Verdict: More fun with the Joneses. ***.

THE WICKER MAN (2006)

Nicolas Cage in a --what else? --  tense moment















THE WICKER MAN (2006).Writer/ director: Neil LaBute. Based on a screenplay by Anthony Shaffer.

A cop named Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) gets a letter from an ex-fiancee, Willow (Kate Beahan) who tells him that her daughter, Rowan, is missing. He travels to an island in Washington where Willow lives and where she has joined an odd matriarchal and religious society that has an upcoming celebration. The islanders try to convince Malus that the missing child doesn't exist, and even Willow acts strangely, finally confessing that Rowan is also Malus' daughter. Malus fears that the girl is to be used in a horrifying ritual, but on that point he may be slightly mistaken ... This remake of the 1974 British cult film The Wicker Man transplants the action to the U.S. and for some reason does away with all the free-spirited sexuality of the islanders, even as there are some hints that this is essentially a Sapphic society, giving the film a [perhaps unwarranted] homophobic cast-- at one point Cage punches out a stereotypically butch female tavern owner. Instead of Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, we get Ellen Burstyn as Sister Summerisle, and instead of people breaking out into song we get a lot of bees buzzing about a hero who's allergic to them [but somehow survives]. This version of The Wicker Man may be intriguing (as well as confusing) to viewers who've never seen the original film, as the basic storyline is still absorbing. LaBute has cooked up a more modern-type post script for the film. Cage is not bad, but this is not a "great" performance a la Edward Woodward's in the original. Paul Sarossy's cinematography is a plus.

Verdict: The perfect film version of this story has yet to be made, but the original is better. **1/2.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

ISLAND OF DESIRE

The brat: Mike (Tab Hunter) peers at the object of his affection
ISLAND OF DESIRE (1952). Director: Stuart Heisler.

"Unpleasant -- brat!"

When a ship is bombed during WW2, the only survivors are a young marine named Mike (Tab Hunter of War-Gods of the Deep) and a middle-aged lady doctor named Elizabeth (Linda Darnell of Hangover Square). After they make their way to a deserted island that resembles paradise, their antagonistic relationship softens into a mutual attraction. Despite their situation, all seems quite blissful until an English pilot crash lands on the island and a triangle soon develops ... One problem with Island of Desire is that the two main characters never mention their lost comrades, nor wonder what's happening with the war; instead they engage in silly banter not long after everyone else is killed. However the fact that both of them don't quite seem to fit in and have no one else in their lives helps make their relationship more plausible. Darnell is quite good, and Hunter is also believable as the callow marine who bristles at being called a boy. This was Hunter's second film and he shows some acting ability to go with the considerable sex appeal. It would be easy to dismiss this as an "old maid's" fantasy film --virginal woman winds up on an island with handsome Royal Air Force pilot and Tab Hunter -- or sheer romantic folderol, but it holds the attention, is well-acted, well-photographed by Oswald Morris, and has a nice score by William Alwyn. John Laurie appears in flashbacks as another man who was shipwrecked on the island.

Verdict: For romantic souls and Tab Hunter/Linda Darnell fans. ***.

WHEN WILLIE COMES MARCHING HOME

Willie (Dan Dailey) is questioned by French resistance













WHEN WILLIE COMES MARCHING HOME (1950). Director: John Ford.

After Pearl Harbor, small-town boy and bandleader Bill Kluggs (Dan Dailey) is anxious to enlist. Although his early training doesn't go so well, he eventually develops "the highest rating of any instructor," which means the Army has more use for him in camp than overseas. Unfortunately, said camp is located right in Bill's home town, where he stays -- and stays -- while other men ship out and his neighbors get more and more resentful. Eventually he goes on a mission and winds up behind enemy lines and working with the French resistance, and is sent back to England with important information -- unfortunately he can't talk about the mission. One annoying thing about this otherwise good and funny movie is that no one -- not even Bill's parents -- acknowledge that he's performing an important service as an instructor (an assignment that is not without its dangers). Dailey is excellent, and he has fine support from William Demarest [Pardon My Past] and Evelyn Varden [The Bad Seed] as his parents; Colleen Townsend as his girl, Marge; Jimmy Lydon [Henry Aldrich Haunts a House] as her brother; and Corinne Calvet as a beautiful lady with the French resistance.

Verdict: Well-done and keeps you chuckling, with a fine lead performance. ***.

MICKEY ROONEY (1920 - 2014)

Mickey!
MICKEY ROONEY (1920 - 1914).

Mickey Rooney lived 93 years and left a lasting legacy of talent and fine comedic, musical and dramatic performances. Although he received two honorary Oscars, he never received a Lincoln Center Film Society tribute or similar honors, and was certainly more deserving than some of the recipients; now it's too late. But he had a legion of fans who will always remember him as one of the most talented players in Hollywood and on the stage [the long-running Sugar Babies].

Some of Rooney's more memorable performances were in Judge Hardy and Son; Little Lord Fauntleroy; Reckless; and a memorable episode of Night Gallery, among many, many, many others. Rooney was one of those performers whose presence added to the quality of a good movie, and who was often the best or only noteworthy thing in a bad one.

Farewell to a real trouper!

THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED

Charles Laughton as Tony Patucci
THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED (1940). Director: Garson Kanin.

This is the third film version of Sidney Howard's 1924 Pulitzer prize-winning play, and the only one to use his title. The story line -- later used by Frank Loesser in his brilliant musical theater piece The Most Happy Fella -- concerns a middle-aged vintner named Tony (Charles Laughton) who becomes infatuated with a pretty waitress named Amy (Carol Lombard), and asks for her hand in marriage -- but sends a photo of his younger, better-looking hired hand, Joe (William Gargan), instead of his own. When Amy arrives she's horrified to discover that the man she's been dreaming about is years older, uneducated, and rather homely, but her attraction to Joe is still there -- and vice versa ... Although you wouldn't first think of Laughton for the role of the Italian-American Tony Patucci, he's as superb as ever. Similarly, Lombard might not be considered the best casting but she is also excellent, as is Gargan [Strange Impersonation.] The biggest problem with the movie is that the production code was in effect, and there's an awful lot of moralizing and hand-wringing, and the ending is changed from happy to bittersweet [which kind of works anyway]. There's also an annoying priest, Father McKee (played by Frank Fay, who was Barbara Stanwyck's first husband), hovering over the whole movie like the literal embodiment of a censor. Tony is also a bit of an idiot, drunkenly falling off of a roof as he shows off for Amy [in the original version he is in an accident instead]. Despite its many flaws They Knew What They Wanted works because of the superior performances, good direction from Kanin, and a fine score by Alfred Newman. Karl Malden has a small role as Red. Playwright Howard did the screenplay for Dodsworth. Kanin also directed Next Time I Marry with Lucille Ball.

Verdict: Not all it could have been, but noteworthy for the acting. ***.

THE MOST HAPPY FELLA

The cast of City Center Encores' The Most Happy Fella
THE MOST HAPPY FELLA. New York City Center Encores. April 2014.

Arguably lyricist-composer Frank Loesser created the finest version of Sidney Howard's Pulitzer prize-winning "They Knew What They Wanted" with his musical theater masterpiece The Most Happy Fella. City Center Encores presented a semi-staged production with lots of singing and dancing in April 2014, and it served to remind the very appreciative audience of just how memorable this musical/opera is. Awash in sensitive melody from start to first, it tells the story of vintner Tony Esposito (Shuler Hensley), an uneducated middle-aged man who falls for a young and pretty waitress he calls Rosabella (Laura Benanti). Foolishly he sends her the picture of his young friend and worker, Joe (Cheyenne Jackson), instead of his own, setting up a situation that can only culminate in, as his sister Marie (Jessica Molaskey) would put it, trouble. Rosabella agrees to marry Tony, but gets a bitter surprise when she shows up in Napa Valley ... Besides this triangle, there's a secondary, comical romance between Rosabella's friend Cleo (Heidi Blickenstaff) and another of Tony's workers (Jay Armstrong Johnson). Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, this production boasts a remarkably talented cast. Benanti has a wonderful voice that wraps itself around such numbers as "Warm All Over" and "Somebody Somewhere." While he may not be a Robert Weede vocally (Weede sang the role in the original production), Hensley still has a good voice and his acting is excellent. Jackson demonstrates his beautiful singing with Joe's big number "Joey, Joey, Joey," and Blickenstaff, Molaskey, and Johnson also give superior performances. I was also especially impressed with Zachary James and Kevin Vortmann, but I must say the entire company performed with verve and enthusiasm. But if The Most Happy Fella doesn't bring out the best in everyone, what will? One final note: We don't learn that "Rosabella's" real name is Amy until the very end of the show, but of course Tony had to know her real name because of their exchange of letters. This production makes a few cuts, and Marie's number (Eyes of a Stranger, but don't quote me) rarely is included these days.

Verdict: A masterpiece. ****.

KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS

KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS (1948). Director: Norman Foster.

In post-WW2 England Bill Saunders -- who thinks with his fists -- lashes out at a middle-aged bar owner simply because he says it's closing time and inadvertently kills the man. He runs off -- and hides out in the apartment of lady doctor Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine). Jane tries to resist her attraction to Bill, but gets drawn deeper into his unsavory life, and winds up committing an act  of violence herself. Does this screwed-up couple have any hope? Frankly, it's hard to care about this romance of two unsympathetic people. Jane makes dumb excuses for Bill, and Bill never gives a thought to the man he killed or his family. Thrown into the mix is a creepy guy named Harry (Robert Newton of Obsession) who wants to get Bill involved in criminal activities, but whose chief purpose is to introduce someone Bill can feel morally superior to. It's as if the film is telling the audience: "See, Bill isn't so bad. Now this guy is a rotter." [But as far as we know Harry was never responsible for anyone's death.] Then there's the casting. Joan Fontaine can certainly play a woman who is obsessed with one man -- witness Letter from an Unknown Woman -- but she simply seems too intelligent to fall so hard for this loser, the vagaries of love notwithstanding. Lancaster also gives a good performance, by Hollywood standards at least, getting across the man's violence but not necessarily the aspects that make him a love object for Jane. Although only 80 minutes long the movie eventually becomes tedious, which is a shame because it has atmospheric photography by Russell Metty [The Omega Man], a nice score by Miklos Rozsa, adroit direction and editing -- but, sadly, a script that is lacking, to say the least. Norman Foster also directed the film noir Woman on the Run and many others.

Verdict: At least it has a good -- if kind of gross -- title. **. 

THOR: THE DARK WORLD

Thor (Chris Hemsworth)  and Loki (Tom Hiddleston)  join forces
THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013). Director: Alan Taylor.

"She no more belongs in Asgard than a goat does at a table" -- Odin, referring to Jane Foster

In this sequel to Thor, a malcontent named Malekith and his friends return to life and want to take over the universe -- or something like that. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) again disobeys his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and temporarily joins forces with his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to take on the bad guys, but Loki always has a trick up his sleeve. There's little point in discussing the [lack of] plot as the film boasts some impressive scenic design and special effects and little else. As with the first film, Hiddleston and Hopkins offer the best performances -- Hemsworth has his moments as well --  and some of the comparatively minor characters from Thor are also back. It's one thing to have girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman of Black Swan) on board, but why do we need Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard, who doesn't even seem to be acting) and especially the annoying, collagen-lipped Darcy (Kat Dennings) -- they add absolutely nothing to the movie except pad the running time. With all of the fascinating villains that have appeared in Thor comic books for the past several decades, Malekith -- who comes off like nothing so much as a Star Trek reject -- is the least interesting they could have come up with. Rene Russo makes a good impression as Thor's mother, Frigga, and again Hiddleston almost walks off with the movie as Loki. There are only a couple of effective action scenes, most of which are not handled with any real panache, and the photography is often cluttered and unattractive.

Verdict: Read a stack of old Thor comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby instead. **.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A DELICATE BALANCE

Katharine Hepburn and Paul Scofield













A DELICATE BALANCE (1973).  Director: Tony Richardson. Play by Edward Albee. AFT [American Film Theatre] production.

"I can't stand the selfishness. Those who want to die and take their whole lives to do it." 

"I was not and never had been an alcoholic. I had nothing in common with them. They were sick. And I was merely willful."

Agnes (Katharine Hepburn) and Tobias (Paul Scofield of A Man for All Seasons) are a married couple who live in an upscale Connecticut community.  Also living with them is Agnes' sister, Claire (Kate Reid of She Cried Murder). who has a "drinking problem" whether she wants to admit it or not, and is continuously berated by Agnes. The couple's daughter, Julie (Lee Remick of The Omen), is also coming home when it looks as if her fourth marriage is going to wind up on the rocks along with the first three. But the strangest house guests are Agnes and Toby's best friends, Harry (Joseph Cotten) and Edna (Betsy Blair), who come over to stay when they suffer a panic attack [over encroaching age, fear of death, fear of losing one another?] that absolutely terrifies them. They move into Julia's bedroom, but when she returns Julia is horrified to realize that her parents aren't going to ask them to leave. They are friends, yes, but she's their daughter. Yet Harry and Edna seem to think they have more right to the room than she has. This situation brings out all the tensions in the family (albeit most of them were out already) making the atmosphere even more poisonous... A Delicate Balance won Edward Albee a Pulitzer Prize --  although it was back in the days when most Pulitzers went to wealthy white guys like Albee. Albee isn't the first person to write about a dysfunctional family and others have done it better [for instance, this in no way compares to O'Neill's brilliant Long Day's Journey into Night]. If Delicate Balance  has anything going for it it's some excellent -- if occasionally dated --  dialogue, but the people are perhaps more dreary than interesting. As with Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe the playwright resorts to black comedy -- and much of this is quite funny -- when all else fails. The characters (archetypes that border on stereotypes) are more obscure than well-developed, as if they were all people Albee knew but he isn't able to make them really come alive for anyone who didn't personally experience them. This is left for the actors to do, and they do their best, even if the casting isn't perfect. Hepburn and Scofield are quite good, Remick is fine, Reid quite intense, Cotten actually gives one of the best performances of his career, and Blair, while a cut below the others, has some excellent moments. The acting and situations hold your attention, but ultimately this is unsatisfying, and hardly a really great drama.

Verdict: A lot of talk, some of it interesting, that ultimately goes nowhere. **1/2.

THE BROTHERS RICO

James Darren, Kathryn Grant, Richard Conte













THE BROTHERS RICO (1957). Director: Phil Karlson.

Eddie Rico (Richard Conte) has been out of the "family business" -- run by his "uncle" Sid (Larry Gates) -- for some time, but that is not the case with his two brothers. Gino (Paul Picerni) performed a hit on Sid's orders and Johnny (James Darren) drove the getaway car. Now both are in hiding afraid that Sid thinks they're going to talk and wants to silence them. Eddie can't believe that of Sid, whose life was once saved by his mother, Mrs. Rico (Argentina Brunetti), so he agrees to go find his brothers. This couldn't happen at a worse time, as Eddie and his wife, Alice (Dianne Foster of Drive a Crooked Road), are hoping to adopt a baby and Eddie needs to be at an important meeting. He learns to his regret that you can't trust Uncle Sid ... Larry Gates plays Sid with admirable, understated menace, and James Darren is dead-on as the conflicted youngest brother. Although she's billed above the title and gives a terrific performance as Darren's wife, Kathryn Grant (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) is on screen for only about five minutes. Foster and William Phipps as Joe are also notable. The Brothers Rico has some effective scenes, and is well-photographed by Burnett Guffey, but it's somehow unconvincing, and considering what's happening Conte is much too controlled throughout. A funny scene has Grandma Rico delightedly watching Earth vs the Flying Saucers on television [unlikely, since the movie was released only the year before].

Verdict: Acceptable potboiler. **1/2.

DON'T TRUST YOUR HUSBAND aka AN INNOCENT AFFAIR

Madelaine Carroll and Fred MacMurray













DON'T TRUST YOUR HUSBAND (aka An Innocent Affair/1948). Director: Lloyd Bacon.

Advertising man Vincent Doane (Fred MacMurray) is trying to land an account which happens to be controlled by his still-amorous ex-fiancee, Margot Fraser (Louise Allbritton of Fired Wife). Vincent's wife, Paula (Madeleine Carroll), thinks he's spending all his evenings with a Mr. Fraser, but she suspects something's up. Vincent's sister, Eve (Rita Johnson of The Naughty Nineties), comes up with the dubious idea of testing her brother's love for her sister-in-law by seeing how jealous he gets if a paid actor pays too much attention to Paula on their anniversary. Clued in to the scheme, Vincent invites the man into his home and even asks him to take out his wife the next night! What nobody realizes is that the man in question is not the paid actor, but rather wealthy cigarette man Claude Kimball (Charles "Buddy" Rogers), who thinks the Doanes have a wonderfully carefree attitude. This all sounds rather cute, but it's almost by the numbers, with not enough real laughs -- although there are certainly amusing bits -- to make it stand out from the crowd. MacMurray is terrific, as you would expect, and the ladies are all good if not on his level. Alan Mowbray offers his customary fine performance as a man who pretends to be Margot's husband, and Anne Nagel has a small role as a receptionist. Rogers gets by on charm. Bacon also directed Crooner and many others.

Verdict: Cute, if formula, comedy. **1/2. 

SMASHING TIME

SMASHING TIME (1967). Director: Desmond Davis.

Two young ladies decide to go to London and take the town by storm, and they nearly do. Yvonne (Lynn Redgrave of Georgy Girl) is large, gaudy and gauche, and her pal Brenda (Rita Tushingham of The Leather Boys) is slight, homely, but sticks up for herself. They head straight toward Carnaby street where the excitement is. Their assorted misadventures include working in a club where a patron takes a tipsy Yvonne home to his apartment as Brenda follows; Brenda working for a woman who owns a fashion shop but who couldn't care less about business; Yvonne working in a restaurant, "Sweeney Todd," that only serves pies (leading to a major pie fight); and Yvonne becoming a screechy pop singer while Brenda is somehow turned into a model. Smashing Time is amiable and the ladies are fine (although Tushingham perhaps mugs a bit too much), but director Davis lets everything go on too long, including an early scene in a coffee shop and the aforementioned pie fight, until it just isn't funny anymore. Michael York [Something for Everyone] plays a photographer who takes a picture of a delighted Yvonne, but publishes it as a look to avoid, "the girl who got it wrong." There are some pleasant music hall-type tunes in the film as well, and a zany climax.

Verdict: Some fun and an awful lot of silliness. **1/2.