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

Thursday, October 8, 2015


NEVER LOVE A STRANGER (1958). Director: Robert Stevens.

Now where have you heard this before? In the 1920's two friends grow up on the wrong side of the tracks, with one becoming a criminal and the other a prosecutor, until their paths cross violently once again. This story was old when co-producer Harold Robbins wrote his bestseller, "Never Love a Stranger" in the fifties, and there's nothing new or original in the film version. Frankie Kane (John Drew Barrymore) is an orphan raised by Catholics who doesn't realize he's actually Jewish, like his buddy Martin (Steve McQueen). Frank becomes "gray and bitter before his time," as the tiresome narrator tells us, but we're not shown what makes him so. In any case, he becomes a career criminal and Martin an assistant D.A. Whatever its flaws, Never Love a Stranger is watchable for no other reason than the cast. Barrymore [High School Confidential] proves that talent runs in his famous family with an excellent performance as the protagonist, and Steve McQueen [The Towering Inferno] is also admirable as his old buddy turned nemesis. Lita Milan and Robert Bray are also notable as Frankie's girlfriend and a mob boss whom he eventually supplants. John Drew Barrymore [aka John Barrymore, Jr.] was the son of John Barrymore, and the father of Drew Barrymore and John Blyth Barrymore, both actors. John Drew Barrymore's erratic behavior prevented him from building on his early promise, as he had the looks and talent to have a more than satisfactory career. Another adaptation of a Harold Robbins potboiler was The Carpetbaggers.

Verdict: Passable melodrama with some very good performances. **1/2.


MONSTER WORLD. William Schoell.

Another shameless plug: After several years I have published another horror novel entitled MONSTER WORLD. Yes, it is about dinosaurs. Yes, it has been done before -- but not by me. In this the lovable beasties are brought from the prehistoric era to the present day via time machine. Unfortunately, there are problems, and the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs winds up in our era as well and is rapidly heading toward Earth. The scientists in their complex in the Yucatan desperately try to avert world-wide disaster even as they're dodging attacks from carnivorous animals with eggheads on the menu. Adding to their woes is the fact that some poor people wind up taking a one-way trip into the prehistoric past via miniature wormholes that appear suddenly and out of nowhere. Meanwhile, the hungry dinosaurs keep coming -- flying, swimming, tramping, and slithering their way across the Yucatan peninsula. [Maybe you should take your vacation there next year?] Not hard science fiction, this, but a fun horror/monster book. Available exclusively as an ebook for the ridiculously low price of $4.99. You can find it on Amazon.

Obviously I've always been fascinated by dinosaurs. These animals populated the earth for literally hundreds of millions of years, whereas the human race and their humanoid ancestors have been around for a mere blink of an eye in comparison. In a couple of weeks I'll be posting a round-up of interesting dinosaur flicks. There were many, many movies -- and books -- about prehistoric monsters on the loose long before "Jurassic Park."


DOMINIQUE (1979). Director: Michael Anderson.

Dominique Ballard (Jean Simmons) is convinced that her husband, David (Cliff Robertson), is trying to drive her out of her mind. She importunes the chauffeur, Tony (Simon Ward), to help her, but he knows upon which side his bread is buttered. Dominique then apparently commits suicide -- but who is that that David sees walking around both outside his office and inside their estate? There are no big surprises in this ersatz ghost story which doesn't have a bad plot, although it's not very original. Simmons and Ward come off best, with good performances from Jenny Agutter as David's half-sister, Flora Robson as the housekeeper, Ron Moody as the family doctor, and David Tomlinson as the family lawyer. Robertson [Obsession] tries to act "British" but he's not exactly Herbert Marshall. Dominique is professional enough on all levels, but it still comes off like a forgettable made-for-TV movie. Anderson also directed The Wreck of the Mary Deare and many others. A much, much better thriller starring Jean Simmons is Angel Face.

Verdict: Simpering ersatz horror. **1/2.


HEAR ME GOOD (1957). Writer/producer/director: Don McGuire.

"I've always wanted to be a Very Important Freak, Mr. Holland."

A hustler named Marty Holland (Hal March) is down on his luck and hopes to make money off of a beauty contest. Unfortunately, his chosen contestant, Rita (Jean Willes), is on the outs with Marty, as is her boyfriend, an unseen gangster. Marty then hits on the idea of entering would-be stewardess Ruth (Merry Anders) in the contest, and surprises her with an outfit that literally falls apart in front of the cameras. Can Marty and Ruth find true love even though he's a heel?  Don McGuire was an actor who appeared in such films as The Fuller Brush Man before he turned to writing and directing; he was a pal of Frank Sinatra's, but it's unfortunate The Voice couldn't importune Dean Martin to star in the film instead of Hal March, whom I have to assume was also a friend of McGuire's. March was the host of The $64,000 Question quiz show, but is probably best known as the dress-selling cad who tries to make a date with Lucy on an episode of I Love Lucy, but in this movie at least he lacks real comedic flair and is distinctly mediocre. Joe E. Ross of Car 54, Where Are You? does his usual shtick, but Jean Willes [Desire Under the Elms] makes an impression as sexy Rita. The production is almost completely stage-bound, as if it were a filmed play, and is neither well-directed nor well-edited. There are a couple of chuckles but the script is poor; McGuire did better work elsewhere. Don McGuire also starred in the title role in the serial Congo Bill.

Verdict: Fuggetaboutit. *1/2.


Patty Duke pulls ahead of the boys
BILLIE (1965). Director: Don Weis.

15-year-old Billie (a 19-year-old Patty Duke) is a real tomboy who excels in sports, especially track. Before long the coach (Charles Lane) is making her his star player, but she's afraid this won't make her seem feminine enough. Will her new boyfriend, Mike (Warren Berlinger), accept her as an equal, or will she have to change herself to keep him? Billie, which was based on the play "Time Out for Ginger," has a surprisingly feminist perspective, until it completely cops out at the very end. [An entire book, which I have not read, has been written about this movie and its implications.] The elephant in the room, which is never mentioned outright, is that her family deep down probably fears that the boyish, athletic Billie may be a lesbian [or transgender]. She's given a whole song in which she rhapsodizes about discovering she's attracted to boys. The dated aspect of the movie is that even in the sixties there were female athletes, and they weren't all gay. [Not to mention the innumerable movies about tomboys who discover they're "women."] Duke [Curse of the Black Widow] is okay, although there are too many close-ups of her running, her scrunched-up face being positively thrust out at the viewer. A production number of chorus boy/athletes has them acting as if Duke were the sexiest teenager in the world, when actually Jane Greer [Run for the Sun], playing Duke's mother, is a lot more attractive (although Duke looks okay at the end when she's dolled up). Greer is excellent, Jim Backus is quite good as Billie's father, and there's nice work from Susan Seaforth as Billie's sister who, unbeknowst to her family, is married and pregnant. Others in the cast include Billy De Wolfe as Backus' political opponent -- who is not given enough to do -- and Ted Bessell as Seaforth's husband. Don Weis also directed Looking for Love with Connie Francis.

Verdict: Doesn't seem to understand that a woman can be an athlete and a "girl" at the same time. **1/2.

REDHEAD (1941)

REDHEAD (1941). Director: Edward L. Cahn.

"Somebody must have been fond of children to let you grow up."

T. H. Brown (Frank Jaquet of Meeting at Midnight) wants his son Ted (Johnny Downs) to make his own way in the world, which not only doesn't agree with him but angers a woman he only married in hopes they could get daddy's loot. Instead of getting paid off by her stepfather, however, bride Dale (June Lang) finds herself living with Ted in a hovel, and struggling to make a living as a short order cook while he heads off to a factory. Servant Digby (Eric Blore) went off with the two on their alleged honeymoon and sticks around. Downs [So Red the Rose] is a likable lead, Lang has a lovely moment when she tells Ted she loves him, and Blore and an adorable St. Bernard almost steal the picture. Overall Redhead just doesn't amount to much, though. The very prolific Cahn is probably best known for It, the Terror from Beyond Space. June Lang played oldest daughter Bonnie in what is considered the first Jones Family film, Every Saturday Night. NOTE: This is a remake of a 1934 film of the same title that is believed to be lost.

Verdict: If you like big dogs ... **.


STAGE FRIGHT (2014). Writer/director/composer: Jerome Sable.

Camilla Swanson (Allie MacDonald) and her brother, Buddy (Douglas Smith), are cooks at a musical theater summer camp. Ten years ago their mother, Kylie (Minnie Driver), was butchered in her dressing room after her triumph in the starring role of the Broadway show "The Haunting of the Opera." When Camilla learns that the camp is reviving the show, she decides to try out even though she's not a student at the camp. Producer Roger McCall (Meat Loaf), who's like a father to her and Buddy, lets her audition and she becomes one of the two actresses alternating in the lead. But a maniac who despises show tunes is stalking the camp, slaughtering anyone connected to the production. If Stage Fright was meant to be a movie with thrills and laughs a la Scream and its sequels, it doesn't come off, and doesn't quite cut it as a parody either -- instead, it's of all things, a kind of slasher musical that never delivers on the fun it promises, although it does have a couple of grisly moments. Everything in the picture is predictable, from the identity of the killer, to the simpering ersatz show music, to the creepy red herring handyman, to the "big queen" stage manager who embodies a gay stereotype, as well as the good-looking guy who insists he's not gay until, improbably, he realizes he's attracted to the "big queen." The biggest trouble with the movie is that it lacks energy and suspense. MacDonald makes an effective heroine, Smith is compelling as her brother, and Kent Nolan is appealing as Joel, who has an unrealized crush on Camilla. The other actors aren't bad at all, but this movie isn't memorable.

Verdict: More Can't Stop the Music than Scream 2. **.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


MY SON, MY SON (1940). Director: Charles Vidor.

"They say be good and you'll be happy, but I say be happy and you'll be good."

William Essex (Brian Aherne) was born poor but has become an established and successful author and playwright. His wife, Nellie (Josephine Hutchinson), is overly pious, while William is overly apologetic for the actions of his young son, Oliver (Scotty Beckett), who lies with abandon. One afternoon Essex is doing research for a play about miners, and is mistaken for one by an artist named Livia (Madeleine Carroll), who sketches him before realizing her mistake. The two are instantly attracted, but there's nothing to be done about it -- until later. Oliver grows up to become a spoiled, somewhat callous young man (Louis Hayward), whose actions greatly distress his father. But when Oliver is called to the trenches during WW 1, will the two men be able to reconcile their differences? My Son, My Son is a powerful, absorbing and very well-acted drama that culminates in a touching finale. Aherne is given a strong role and runs with it, on top of every scene. His love scene with Carroll [Don't Trust Your Husband] is beautifully played, and she gives a fine performance throughout. Hayward is excellent, and Beckett as the young Oliver is simply amazing. There are also very good performances from Henry Hull as William's old friend, Dermot; Laraine Day as Dermot's daughter, Maeve, who falls in love with William; and Hutchinson as William's first wife. A nice score by Edward Ward helps make this a compelling and classy picture. Hayward also played a bad boy in Vidor's Ladies in Retirement while Aherne and Day both appeared in The Locket.

Verdict: The kind of movie they truly don't make anymore. ****.


Robert Ryan, Barbara Bel Geddes, James Mason
CAUGHT (1949). Director: Max Ophuls. 

The wealthy industrialist Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan) meets and dates model Leonora (Barbara Bel Geddes) and is on the verge of dumping her, when instead he asks her to marry him simply because he's annoyed with his psychiatrist. Ohlrig has no love for Leonora, and treats her as just another possession. When she can't take his neglect and nasty attitude any longer, she tries to make her own way in the world by becoming a receptionist to Dr. Larry Quinada (James Mason), with whom she falls in love and vice versa. But dealing with her neurotic husband may not be easy. Caught sounds like an interesting story, but the movie borders on the dull, and despite a couple of well-handled scenes -- Mason's confrontation with Ryan, for instance -- this never really comes alive. Talented Bel Geddes [The Long Night] doesn't quite have the presence in this to handle the lead role, Mason is fine, and while Ryan could be accused of underplaying too much at times, he's good as well, but greatly under-utilized -- of the two men, Mason [East Side, West Side] gets the lion's share of the footage. Too many scenes are glossed over -- the courtship and wedding, for instance -- and the whole effect of the movie is just blah. Natalie Schafer all too briefly plays a teacher in a charm school which she would also do a few years later in a classic I Love Lucy episode. Ohlrig's assistant Franzi Kartos (Curt Bois) calls everybody "darling," even Ryan. Director Ophuls had little luck with dark melodramas -- The Reckless Moment, also with Mason, is even worse -- but his Letter from an Unknown Woman is a real gem. 

Verdict: Less here than meets the eye. **1/2. 


CAXAMBU! (1967). Director: W. Lee Wilder.

"Back, Peggy!"

Vince Neff (John Ireland) and his cronies have stolen a bunch of diamonds but need Emil Garrett (Keith Larsen), a diamond cutter from Antwerp, to make them salable. The honest Garrett is appalled by their criminal intentions and tries to take over the plane they're on with the help of his wife, a trained nurse named Peggy (Carol Ohmart). Unfortunately, the result is that they all crash-land in the jungle in an area near Caxambu where headhunters prowl, and where it soon becomes obvious that there is little honor among thieves. The first thing you notice about Caxambu! is that it has a very low budget even for a W. Lee Wilder film. The "sky" in which the plane flies is just a back drop, and when the aircraft crashes it is not a miniature but a literal toy. There are several other unintentionally comical scenes, such as when Peggy gets hysterical when she sees a crocodile that is just minding its own business and Emil needs to club it to death as if it were just about to clamp its jaws on his wife, who is many feet away. But the shame of Caxambu! is that it has a good script, interesting situations, and with a little more effort and directorial finesse this might have really amounted to something. Ireland [Queen Bee] and Larsen are okay, Ohmart [House on Haunted Hill] is excellent (in a role much less sensual than what she usually plays), and Gordon Blackman is rather effective as nasty Simon, who is willing to sacrifice virtually anyone for the diamonds -- the actor never appeared in another film, however. Wilder directed movies of variable entertainment value, but he really socked one out of the ballpark with his excellent Bluebeard's Ten Honeymoons.

Verdict: After a bad start this develops into a fairly entertaining movie with a good story. **1/2.


Vincent Price
THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971). Director: Robert Fuest.

Many years ago the wife of Dr. Anton Phibes died on the operating table,and he himself was incinerated in an auto crash. Or was he? Now the members of the medical staff who attended Mrs. Phibes are being murdered one by one, in manners that relate to the ten biblical curses of the Pharaohs. One poor man is attacked by blood-thirsty bats, while another is given a toad mask to wear that eventually crushes his head. Terry-Thomas has all of the blood removed from his body, quart by quart. The head surgeon, Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten) is warned by Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) that his first-born son (Sean Bury) may be in deadly danger... The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a zesty, well-acted black comedy that is as gruesome as it as comical. Price [Tower of London], Cotten [Half Angel] and Trout are all excellent. Philes' lovely assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North) has no dialogue, and neither does Caroline Munro, who stands in for the late Victoria Phibes. Followed by Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Fuest also directed the terrible Devil's Rain.

Verdict: As delightful as it is appalling, and definitely not abominable. ***.


FLIGHT TO TANGIER (1953). Director: Charles Marquis Warren.

Susan Lane (Joan Fontaine), a reporter, arrives at the airport in Tangier only to see a small plane crash in flames. The pilot was supposed to be her boyfriend, Hank (John Picard), but there are no bodies on board the aircraft. Adventurer and war hero Gil Walker (Jack Palance) helps Susan find Hank and stay out of the clutches of sinister Danzer (Robert Douglas), whose girlfriend Nicki (Corinne Calvet) has a hankering for Gil and a few secrets of her own. Accused of murdering a policeman, Gil goes on the run with the two ladies as they all try to find Hank and whatever booty it is that Danzer is after. The first thing you have to wonder about Flight to Tangier is how on earth a classy actress like Fontaine wound up in this Grade C movie that pretty much utterly wastes her talents. Palance [Torture Garden] is fine, as weird as ever, Calvet [So This is Paris] is beautiful and not bad, although she's not quite up to her tougher scenes, and clean-shaven Douglas makes a fairly bland villain unlike his mustachioed bad guy of This Side of the Law. At least half the movie seems to consist of Fontaine and Palance -- an unlikely pairing -- running and running around occasionally scenic views of "Tangier." Murray Matheson has a small but pivotal role as a passenger on the plane who has something important to deliver. Warren also directed Unknown Terror, which is a lot more fun. If this was actually released in 3-D as the poster suggests, the movie apparently does little with the process.

Verdict: A couple of good scenes but this never amounts to much. **.


ISLAND OF THE LOST (1967). Director: John Florea.

Anthropologist Josh MacRae (Richard Greene of The Hound of the Baskervilles) sets sail with his daughters, Sharon (Sheila Welles) and Lizzie (Robin Mattson), son Stu (Luke Halpin), the Polynesian Judy (Irene Tsu), and a young adventurer named Gabe (Mart Hulswit) -- not to mention a cute, friendly seal named Drip. Unfortunately MacRae gets all of them lost on a strange island in the south seas. There's a tribe of unfriendly natives who are out to get them (all except a friendly native named Tupuna [Jose De Vega]), and worse, a whole horde of carnivorous ostrich-lizards -- yes, ostrich-lizards -- with sharp teeth. However, this is not a horror film but a family-friendly adventure story from Ivan Tors, who had a cottage industry going with Flipper and other watery adventures. The best scenes in the movie have to do with sharks who prove excellent performers as they swim around and dangerously near to some of the actors/stunt men in some amazing footage. The acting is professional, especially Greene, and some of the scenery is lovely. Florea also directed The Astral Factor.

Verdict: Not totally terrible, but not that memorable, either. **1/2.


CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC (1980). Director: Nancy Walker.

"We are going to make milk more glamorous than champagne."

Aspiring composer Jack Morrell (Steve Guttenberg) figures it would be great if there was a new group to perform his music, and enlists the aid of his pal and former model, Samantha (Valerie Perrine). "Sam" goes to ex-boyfriend and record producer Steve (Paul Sand), and importunes him to sign the group even as they audition singers and put it all together. One by one the right fellows show up and Voila! -- it's the Village People! Will the members blend into a new sound and will everybody be happy? Can't Stop the Music, which pretends to be a "bio" of the once-popular group, now considered a "camp classic" by some people, tried to be all things to all people and made the mistake of alienating many gay fans -- the group courted the gay community by utilizing gay arch-types (or stereotypes) -- by trying to "straighten" the gay out the group. Even the openly gay members (such as "cowboy" Randy Jones, but there were others) are put into semi-romantic situations with women, and the production numbers feature lots of leggy female models draping themselves on and around the fellows. Unless I missed something, the word "gay" is never uttered, even in the "Liberation" number, although there's a brief moment when it is questioned if the milk commercial the group appears in conforms to "America's family image." All that being said, what's left is a kind of boring musical with the occasional bright spot, such as the aforementioned production number for "Milkshake." Jacques Morali's songs -- YMCA, the title tune -- are catchy enough, and the members of the Village People, while uncertain actors, seem pleasant enough. "Leatherman" Glenn Hughes does a nice rendition of "Danny Boy" and lead vocalist Ray Simpson (the "policeman") has a very good voice. June Havoc plays Guttenberg's mother; Bruce [now Caitlyn] Jenner plays Perrine's romantic interest; Jenner's mother is played by Barbara Rush; and Tammy Grimes appears as an agent and gives the picture it's only fleeting laugh. Altovise Davis and Marilyn Sokol are also in the cast. In her brief turn Rush [Bigger Than Life] comes off the best, Grimes is fun, Guttenberg is his usual likable self, Perrine is okay, and Paul Sand is Paul Sand. Allan Carr was one of the producers.

Verdict: "Like Nothing You've Ever Seen Before" claimed Movieline. That's for sure. **1/2.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


NIAGARA (1953). Director: Henry Hathaway.

"For a dress like [Monroe's], you better start making plans at about 13." -- Polly.

A young couple on their honeymoon, Polly (Jean Peters) and Ray (Max Showalter aka Casey Adams), become entwined with another couple staying at the same cabins near the falls. George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) is unaware that his wife, Rose (Marilyn Monroe), has taken a darkly handsome lover, Ted (Richard Allen), and that Rose wants this younger man to murder George. However, the best laid plans ... The actions of some of the characters in this are pretty dumb, but the movie is not boring. Monroe [Love Happy] looks sensational, although she's given better performances elsewhere. Cotten [September Affair] and Peters are fine, but Showalter's golly-gee-whiz attitude quickly grows tiresome, and he's not very good. The picture has an exciting, if somewhat abrupt, climax on the falls. Don Wilson and Lurene Tuttle are fine as Ray's associate and his wife. Very good use of Niagara locations. Peters and Showalter were both in Vicki.

Verdict: Monroe sizzles sexily while those waters keep rushing! ***.


HELL'S ISLAND (1955). Director: Phil Karlson.

Mike Cormack (John Payne) is a former D.A. now working as a security guard. He is hired by a man named Barzland (Francis L. Sullivan) to get back a ruby that he believes to be in the possession of Cormack's ex-wife, Janet (Mary Murphy). Janet divorced Mike so she could marry a wealthy man named Eduardo (Paul Picerni), who is now in jail for the murder of his partner. In Puerto Rosario Cormack tracks down the beautiful Janet and finds himself inveigled into helping her get her supposedly innocent husband out of a penal colony on an island. But there are other factions who still want that ruby ... Hell's Island is a brisk and absorbing crime thriller that features good performances from the cast as well as some interesting twists. Payne makes a good hero, Murphy [The Mad Magician] is delightfully duplicitous, Arnold Moss scores as her friend, Paul, who is also in love with her, and there are nice turns by Eduardo Noriega as Captain Pena and Picerni as the hapless husband. It's obvious that the hefty Sullivan [Plunder of the Sun] and skinny Walter Reed (as Lawrence) are supposed to be a variation on Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, a nice in-joke. Pepe Hern also makes an impression as the bellboy, Lalo, as does Robert Cabal as the ill-fated houseboy, Miguel. Walter Reed played Lupe Velez' husband in two "Mexican Spitfire" movies [replacing Donald Woods] and was also in Flying Disc Man from Mars.

Verdict: Zesty "B" movie with good performances -- and gators! *** out of 4.


DEAR WIFE (1949). Director: Richard Haydn.

In this sequel to Dear Ruth, Bill Seacroft (William Holden) is happily married to Ruth (Joan Caulfield) and living with his in-laws in their big house in New York. Bill's young, naive, but politically active sister-in-law, Miriam (Mona Freeman), doesn't like the current administration in her town and rallies against it before she discovers that her father, Judge Wilkins (Edward Arnold), is going to run for state Senate. Worse, Miriam has started a petition nominating Bill for the same seat! At first Bill, a bank clerk, has no interest in running, but when he learns that a new airport will leave many people homeless, he decides to challenge the judge, a situation which becomes increasingly awkward and threatens his marriage. Dear Wife is predicated on an amusing and interesting situation and builds upon it with its funny script and some fine acting. Holden [Executive Suite] makes the perfect leading man in this, Caulfield [The Unsuspected] is fine, and Arnold and Mary Philips as her parents are wonderful. Mona Freeman plays her part with perhaps too much self-conscious cuteness, but Billy De Wolfe positively walks off with the movie with his irresistible portrayal of Bill's boss and love rival, Albert. There are also memorable bits from Irving Bacon, Harry von Zell, amiable and adept William Murphy, Arleen Whelan, Raymond Roe, and Ida Moore [The Egg and I] as a drunken old lady in court. The best cameo is a sleepy neighbor played by Richard Haydn, who also directed the film.

Verdict: Cute and funny picture with some great performances. ***.


THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN. J. R. Jones. Wesleyan University Press; 2015.

Robert Ryan was never quite in the front rank of iconic movie stars such as Newman or Redford, but he was definitely a movie star and left a long body of work behind him. This excellent biography takes a discerning eye to the actor and his films, and uncovers some difficulties in his long-time, mostly happy marriage. Although some critics unfairly saw him as "wooden," he could be extremely effective in such films as Clash By NightBorn to Be Bad with Joan Fontaine, About Mrs. Leslie with Shirley Booth, and especially On Dangerous Ground with Ida Lupino, although he could be defeated by bad material such as Back from Eternity with Anita Ekberg. As he got older, Ryan offered fine character parts in such films as The Outfit and Executive Action, and was often the only good thing about the movie. Despite his gruff appearance and the conservative roles he often played, Ryan was a liberal, taking a stance against the blacklist when it wasn't quite safe to do so, and espousing liberal causes throughout his life. Always wanting to be seen as a serious actor and not just a movie star, Ryan even appeared in Shakespeare and many good theater pieces. Ryan had occasional affairs, most famously with Merle Oberon.

Verdict: Highly interesting and readable book on a very interesting actor. ***1/2.


WALL STREET COWBOY (1939). Director: Joseph Kane.

Roy Rogers, playing himself in this "modern" western, never actually gets to Wall Street, so banish those images of the cowboy walking into the boardroom and busting ass. Instead Roy learns that there's gold on his property, and there are nefarious forces who want to acquire the land and cheat him out of it. Gabby Hayes -- as "Gabby," naturally -- is along for the ride as Rogers' pal, and we've got the perennial Pierre Watkin as the no-nonsense, blustering John Hammond, who always seems ready to be furious with Roy and his pals until his daughter, Peggy (Ann Baldwin), intercedes. Craig Reynolds [The Perils of Pauline] plays a lawyer-type helping the bad guys who gets socked by Roy, Adrian Morris [Fighting Marines] is another creep, and Louisiana Lou, a singer in a bar, is played by, well, Louisiana Lou. Roy [Son of Paleface] substitutes for a downed jockey at one point and rides in a steeple race.

Verdict: About standard Roy Rogers movie. **.


Laurie Lapinski in a deserted dorm
THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (aka Pranks and Death Dorm/1982). Directors: Stephen Carpenter; Jeffrey Obrow.

While Joanne (Laurie Lipinski) and her friends Patti (Pamela Holland), Craig (Stephen Sachs), and Brian (David Snow) prepare to completely clean up the dorm at the start of Christmas vacation, some unknown person is stalking them. Early victims are Debbie (Daphne Zuniga) and her parents, whose bodies are hidden by the maniac. Could the killer be that crazy drifter John (Woody Roll), the handyman Bill (Jake Jones), the repairman Bobby (Dennis Ely), Officer Lewis (Jimmy Betz), or somebody else? Likable characters die especially horrible deaths in this, with one guy getting a drill through the head, and another being boiled in a kind of cooker! The acting isn't bad, with Lipinski and Sachs taking top honors. Zuniga [The Fly 2] later appeared on Melrose Place. The music by Christopher Young is ersatz Herrmann at times but overall rather effective. The main problem with the movie is that the ending is dragged out for far too long; some of it should have been left on the cutting room floor. Lapinski is quite good as the heroine but she never appeared in another movie.

Verdict: Reasonably creepy slasher film has its moments. ***.


Jonah Hill and James Franco
TRUE STORY (2015). Director: Rupert Goold.

Disgraced New York Times reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) is fired after making up details in a story, but he gets a second chance when he learns that accused family-killer Christian Longo (James Franco) has been assuming his identity. Could there be a book in this? Of course there is, so Finkel not only gets a $250,000 book contract, but sells the rights to Hollywood -- hence this film. Who says life isn't fair? Finkel meets repeatedly with Longo in prison before, during, and after his trial, where the film suggests his conscience may be bothering him by withholding evidence (letters written by Longo, for instance) -- although one doubts it. True Story is well-acted by Hill, although Franco oozes charm and little else. Felicity Jones has a great scene as Finkel's wife Jill, telling off the repellent Longo in no uncertain terms, and Gretchen Mol scores in her brief scene as Finkel's co-worker, Karen. Ultimately, however, this doesn't amount to much. The film tries too hard to justify Finkel's actions and never delves deep enough into much of anything. The victims, as usual, are given short shrift.

Verdict: Holds the attention, but rather pointless. **1/2.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967). Director: Mark Robson.

Three young women either in, or on the fringes of, show business endure heartbreak of varying kinds and turn to pills for comfort. Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins) has a complicated relationship with her boss, Lyon Burke (Paul Burke). Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke) gains success but turns into a drug-addicted monster. Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) falls in love with a singer, Tony (Tony Scotti), who must be institutionalized due to a rare illness; then she develops breast cancer. I remember that Jacqueline Susann's novel was a very entertaining potboiler, but the film version is not so successful. There is certainly enough drama and tragedy in the story to make an effective movie, but the direction and editing, and some of the third-rate acting, really sink the production. The sense of time passing is never clearly delineated, and it seems apparent that a lot has been left on the cutting room floor. Barbara Parkins' [Asylum] blandness seems to work for the role of the "good girl;" ill-fated Sharon Tate is not much of an actress; and as for Patty Duke ...? Let's say that the character Duke is playing is horrible, and that she is miscast to begin with, but even with that in mind Duke's performance is pretty much an embarrassment. Duke self-consciously "acts" all through the movie, and acts badly for the most part; she simply can't do a convincing drunk and when she sings with a dubbed voice she looks spastic. Paul Burke [The Disembodied] is not bad but Martin Milner sinks to Duke's level as O'Hara's husband. Charles Drake doesn't appear long enough to make much of an impression, but he's fine. The cast members who come off best are Susan Hayward as a Broadway star; Lee Grant as the afflicted Tony's sister; and Robert H. Harris as Burke's business partner. Tony Scotti is barely acceptable as Jennifer's husband -- this was his only film appearance -- and Richard Dreyfuss of Jaws appears briefly as a stagehand. A scene when Neely O'Hara, who is drying out in the same sanitarium where Tony must live, encounters him in the lounge and they sing together, comes off more treacly than moving. The scene most people remember is a bitchy encounter between Duke and Hayward in the ladies room. The screenplay betrays decidedly sixties attitudes towards homosexuality, and the whole business of referring to pills as "dolls" is ridiculous. The theme song by Andre and Dory Previn isn't memorable, and there are other really lousy numbers as well. This was remade as a mini-series in 1981 -- I recall it being better than this film -- and to my surprise it was also a TV series with 65 episodes in 1994. Robson also directed the film version of Peyton Place, which is superior to this.

Verdict: Not very many redeeming qualities. **.


The Scarab (Lionel Atwill) vs Captain America (Dick Purcell)
 CAPTAIN AMERICA (15 chapter Republic serial/1944). Directors: Elmer Clifton; John English.

"A shocking exhibition of barbarism!" -- Cyrus Maldor.

District Attorney Grant Gardner (Dick Purcell) is secretly -- actually, not so secretly -- the famous costumed hero Captain America. His adversary, as we know from the first, is the Scarab, who is -- very secretly, except to the audience -- Cyrus Maldor (Lionel Atwill). Maldor first kills off members of an expedition who know too much via a poison known as the Purple Death. He has his men steal a destructive device that brings down a building; uses a scientist's secret of perpetual life to bring one of his henchmen back from the dead; and employs a "Singari blow-gun" to kill off another of his enemies. Later he tries to get a portion of a map that will lead him to a secret city and its treasures. Highlights of this exciting serial include the aforementioned building collapse in chapter one; a bit with a guillotine in chapter five; and a sequence when our hero is nearly crushed by a mine car hurtling down a shaft in chapter six, Another interesting scene has the Scarab brutally whipping John Hamilton, the "chief" from Adventures of Superman. Purcell [Brides are Like That] is quite suitable as Captain America/Grant Gardner; pretty Lorna Gray makes less impression in this than she did in The Perils of Nyoka; and Atwill [The Devil is a Woman], in his classy, elegant and utterly evil performance as Maldor, positively walks off with the picture; his underplaying makes him that much more effective. Jay Novello also registers in his brief turn as a thug. The fight scenes in this are furious and frenetic and very well-done. In the comic books Captain America was a soldier named Steve Rogers, not a D.A. I find this serial a lot more entertaining than the recent movies about this character such as Captain America The First Avenger.

Verdict: Delightful Republic cliffhanger. ***1/2.


Sean Connery and Gina Lollobrigida
WOMAN OF STRAW (1964). Director: Basil Dearden.

"You can  be such a nice man, Mr. Richmond, why do you choose to act like a pig?"

Tony Richmond (Sean Connery) is the nephew of the fabulously wealthy Charles Richmond (Ralph Richardson), who adores Beethoven and has estates in Majorca and England. Tony brings in a nurse, Maria (Gina Lollobrigida), to care for Charles, but she finds him difficult, obnoxious, and cruel, especially to the two young black men he abuses and calls "boys." Nevertheless, Tony importunes Maria to stay on as nurse, hoping his uncle will become so smitten he'll marry her and she'll gain a fortune -- which, of course, she'll share with Tony. But will Tony's plan unfold as easily as he expects? Woman of Straw is a very entertaining suspense film with interesting twists and turns and a great ending. The characters, especially Maria and Charles, are more dimensional than in similar films, and the acting is fine, with an on-the-money Connery, and even better performances from Lollobrigida [Strange Bedfellows] and the outstanding Richardson [The Heiress]. Alexander Knox is also good as a police official, and Laurence Hardy and Johnny Sekka [Young and Willing] are effective as the black servants. Andre Morrell plays a judge as he did in The Great Train Robbery, also starring Connery.

Verdict: Smooth, intriguing, and well-played. ***.


INVASION U.S.A. (1952). Director: Alfred E. Green.

A group of people in a bar, including Vince Potter (Gerald Mohr of Redhead from Manhattan), Carla Sanford (Peggie Castle), and George Sylvester (Robert Bice of The Big Bluff), are horrified to learn on television that a foreign power has invaded the United States. There's talk of an A bomb hurtling towards Manhattan! Via hypnotism, a mysterious man named "Mr. Ohman" (Daniel O'Herlihy)-- get it? -- offers the patrons a cautionary tale of what might happen if the U.S. should succumb ... Red-Baiter Hedda Hopper loved this film (see poster) because it was anti-communist, but that's about all anybody could love about this very minor and routine picture. O'Herlihy offers the best performance, although Castle isn't bad, and Mohr is his usual lounge-lizard self. Interesting cast members in small roles include both "Lois Lanes" -- Phyllis Coates and Noel Neill -- and Edward G. Robinson, Jr. Green also directed Housewife with Bette Davis, among others.

Verdict: Worth sleeping through. *1/2.