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

Thursday, January 22, 2015

HAIRSPRAY (1988)

Mother and Daughter: Divine and Ricki Lake
HAIRSPRAY (1988). Writer/director: John Waters.

"She's more beautiful than Elizabeth Taylor!"

In the sixties chubby teen and "hair hopper" Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) wants to go on the Corny Collins (Shawn Thompson) dance show in Baltimore and strut her stuff, and she winds up not only a favorite of the show but a member of the council. Her mother, Edna (Divine), is thrilled for her daughter, but Tracy earns the enmity of former favorite Amber (Colleen Fitzpatrick/Vitamin C) and her mother, Velma (Deborah Harry of Wiseguy). Tracy is appalled at the show's refusal to admit black teens accept on "Negro Day" and fights for integration even as her friend, Penny (Leslie Ann Powers), falls in love with Seaweed (Clayton Prince), a black youth, infuriating her neurotic mother Prudence (Joann Havrilla). Will Tracy and her friends succeed in bringing integration to the Corny Collins Show and will it be Tracy or Amber who will be crowned Miss Auto Show of 1963? I have to say that I think most of the over-rated John Waters' oeuvre is fairly worthless, but Hairspray is the one film of his that I like (and maybe Polyester). Although the comedy is broad, it gets across the message without beating you on the head with it, and there are times when this is very, very funny. Ricki Lake is outstanding and gets fine support from the one-of-a-kind Divine, who also plays (out of drag) the mean, racist station manager, Arvin Hodgepile. Outfitted with a wild hairdo, Harry is also fun as Velma, although poor Sonny Bono is much less effective. Powers is okay as the forever lollipop-sucking Penny, but Havilla overacts terribly as her mother (which is saying a lot in this movie). Ruth Ford as Seaweed's mother [a black activist in a straight blond wig?] and Mink Stole as Corny's assistant similarly do not impress, but there are nice performances from many of the teens, such as Michael St. Gerard, as Tracy's unexpected love interest, and both Thompson and Fitzpatrick are very good. Oddly Jerry Stiller as Tracy's father also makes little impression. Pia Zadora, of all people, is good in a cameo as a drug-using beatnik. There are some wonderful classic tunes on the soundtrack, as well as the nifty new number "Do the Roach!" as well as some excellent dancing that is well-choreographed and well-edited. One could argue that the scene with the black people dancing in a much, much sexier way than the whites borders on stereotyping, but it's effective in its way. The film has many interesting touches, such as when someone sings a song on the show which is taken up by a poor drunk black on the street outside who's voice is just as good but who presumably never got the breaks. One of my favorite moments is when Edna says her daughter is "all ratted up like a teenage Jezebel" but pronounces it jazzabel. This is far superior to the John Travolta remake.

Verdict: Charming, loopy, played and done with just the right touch. ***.

ROSES ARE RED

New D.A. faces criminal lookalike; Don Castle plays both
ROSES ARE RED (1947). Director: James Tinling.

"I can't place the face but the feet are familiar."

Robert Thorne (Don Castle) has just become the new D.A. of an unspecified city. His photograph, along with some roses, is found near the body of a young woman who has been murdered. [No one ever expresses the slightest sympathy for this woman.] Thorne doesn't know the victim, and doesn't realize the photo is actually of his double, the crooked Don Carney. Thorne is kidnapped by Carney's confederates so the latter can study his movements and impersonate him with the help of corrupt police lieutenant, Wall (Joe Sawyer). Meanwhile Thorne's girlfriend, Martha (Peggy Knudsen of Hilda Crane), comes into contact with Carney's wife, Jill (Patricia Knight of Shockproof), when she tries to trace the photo. When the D.A. finally shows up again, is it Thorne or Carney, and how will Martha know the difference? Roses are Red is a modestly entertaining little low-budget flick with more than adequate performances and an intriguing premise that not enough is done with. Although Thorne is as brave as anyone, Castle makes him look realistically dismayed by and frightened of the situation he finds himself in. But the picture is stolen by Jeff Chandler [Raw Wind in Eden] in a very early role as thug John Jones, alias the Knuckle, displaying the sexy insolence that would eventually turn him into a star. Other familiar faces include Charles McGraw, James Arness, Douglas Fowley, and Charles Lane.

Verdict: Adequate in all departments, but that's about it. **.

MEET BOSTON BLACKIE

MEET BOSTON BLACKIE (1941). Director: Robert Florey.

When Boston Blackie (Chester Morris of The She-Creature) comes to the rescue of a lady, Marilyn Howard (Constance Worth), being bothered by a man on a cruise ship, the man is later found dead in Blackie's cabin. A worse fate befalls the lady herself in the Tunnel of Love, where spies and low lives are operating on the midway and especially around the freak show where a "mechanical" man (James Seay) provides a clue. Fleeing from Inspector Faraday (Richard Lane), Blackie commandeers the car of Cecelia Bradley (Rochelle Hudson of Strait-Jacket), and the two -- along with Blackie's associate, Runt (Charles Wagenheim) -- attempt to get to the bottom of things. Morris makes a swell Blackie, Hudson is perky if undistinguished, and the movie is an inauspicious debut to what would turn out to be a long-running series. Florey directed much better pictures, such as The Beast with Five Fingers.

Verdict: A lot of mostly uninteresting running around. *1/2.

THESE ARE THE DAMNED

THESE ARE THE DAMNED (aka The Damned/1963). Director: Joseph Losey.

"Nothing that's warm can live with you."

It's amusing to contemplate how people who went to see this film because of the poster to the left -- which makes it seem like another Village of the Damned -- must have felt when they had to sit through this tedious non-horror film which was nothing like the advertisement suggested -- too bad! Losey combines a story of children held at a military base because they were born radioactive -- due to their mothers' accidental irradiation -- with a romantic triangle consisting of vacationing American Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey), a much, much younger gal named Joan (Shirley Anne Field), and her gang-member brother, King (Oliver Reed), who seems to have incestuous feelings for her among other problems. Other characters include sculptress Freya Neilson (Viveca Lindfords), who lives near the military base and is friends with Bernard (Alexander Knox), who is in charge of the children. Had Losey stuck to scenes in the base, focusing on the plight of the children, this might have amounted to an interesting picture, but the poor kids show up late in the game, after the audience has had to endure tedious scenes of Carey's unconvincing romance with Field, and Reed's smoldering and childish antics. The movie presents a completely contrived scenario in which the triangle characters and the ice cold children wind up together in a natural cave below the base. What can you say about a movie that begins with British teddy boys marching down the street whistling their own theme song [West Side Story anyone?] and gets progressively worse? The final scenes with the children are somewhat moving, but it's far too late to save the movie. Oliver Reed [The Triple Echo] gives another one of his patented intense "I'm Mean and I'm Weird" performances, and is as tiresome as the movie itself, whereas Lindfors [The Exorcist III] acquits herself nicely in an underwritten role. Some of the children are talented as well and Knox is fine as the unpleasant Bernard. This was obviously meant to be seen as something profound and deeply affecting, but it just doesn't work. Arthur Grant's cinematography is superb, however. The film was severely cut (which couldn't have hurt it that much) upon release, but the DVD I saw has the complete version. Losey also directed Knox in The Sleeping Tiger.

Verdict: Interesting premise -- too bad it's a movie you'll probably want to sleep through. **.

WISEGUY Seasons 2, 3, and 4

Jerry Lewis
WISEGUY Season 2, 3 4. 1988 - 1990.

Wiseguy continued to be a good and watchable series throughout its second season. As already noted, the "Dead Dog Records" arc was not included on the official DVD but was the highlight of the second season if not of the show itself. There were other fine story arcs in season 2, however, such as one in which Jerry Lewis and Ron Silver played father and son in the garment industry who were in conflict with a riveting Stanley Tucci as a gangster. For several of these episodes Anthony Dennison filled in for an injured Ken Wahl, and was fine. There was also a shorter arc with an excellent Fred Dalton Thompson as a politician involved with a white supremacy group. Vinnie's priest brother is murdered, and in a truly unlikely development his mother marries an old retired mafioso well-played by George Petrie (who frequently appeared on The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason). One of the best second season episodes was a stand-alone story in which Frank's wife is dying and he and Vinnie try to figure out how to get the money for an operation for her.Wahl continued to exhibit his star charisma and Jonathan Banks was superb as Frank McPike.

Wiseguy  took a real nose dive in its third season, however. It started off well enough with story arcs in which Vinnie takes his stepfather's place at the table of assorted mafioso -- surely a very strange situation -- and has to contend with assorted rivalries and resentments all the while maintaining his cover. Another story arc in which Vinnie goes to Washington D.C., uncovers all sorts of skulduggery, including a plot to ruin the Japanese economy, and winds up arrested, featured fine performances from Ray Stricklyn and especially Norman Lloyd. Wahl exhibited his versatility by playing Vinnie's father in a stand-alone flashback episode, but another single episode in which an old girlfriend turns out to be a cop and thinks Vinnie is a hood, was left dangling. Instead we got the worst story arc in the series' history, in which Vinnie goes to a small town to investigate a man who seems to hold sway over the citizens like an old time European lord. This man, Volcheck, badly played by Steve Ryan, is obsessed with the film Mr. Sardonicus, which is a hell of a lot more watchable than these truly awful episodes of Wiseguy. The unbelievable story also brought back Roger LoCocco (William Russ) in a completely contrived manner, and had Vinnie freaking out and running off in the middle of an assignment, a development which was even more implausible than the rest of the story arc. The season ended up with Eddie Bracken playing a priest and giving a poor performance that matched the general third-rateness of these episodes. We saw more of Jim Byrnes as Lifeguard, who got a girlfriend.

For the fourth and final season, Vinnie -- or rather Ken Wahl -- ran off for good and left the series. Vinnie Terranova was killed off off-screen, but as his body was not found it may have left the door open for a return which never happened. Instead the new hero of the show was Michael Santana (Steven Bauer) a former prosecutor who winds up working with Frank McPike to take down a powerful man (an excellent Maximilian Shell) who thinks of Michael as a son. These episodes weren't terrible, but it just wasn't the same show. In further changes, both Michael and McPike joined the U.S. Attorney's office when the OCB [Organized Crime Bureau] was dissolved. Yet another change occurred in the final episode which featured a dynamic Billy Dee Williams as a tough high school principal who is asked to run for mayor and wants Santana to help in his campaign. How McPike would have fit in with this, no one knows; the series was canceled and the last three episodes, including the one with Williams, were never telecast. The best fourth season episode, in which Michael's friend Hillary (Cecil Hoffman) tries to bring a company that sells defective plane parts to justice, was also never aired. Bauer, Banks and Hoffman gave very good performances, however, and there was also nice work from Michael Learned as Hillary's mother and Fredric Lehne as lawyer Winston Chambers.

Verdict: Season 2: ***1/2. Season 3: **1/2. Season 4: **1/2.

ERAN TRECE/CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON

Ana Maria Custodio and Manuel Arbo
ERAN TRECE/CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON (1931). Director: David Howard.

The American film Charlie Chan Carries On has been lost, unfortunately, but apparently the same plot was used for the Spanish-language version with Manuel Arbo playing Charlie Chan. [A very similar plot was later used for Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise.] When a man on a tour is found murdered in his hotel room, Inspector Duff (Rafael Calvo) of Scotland Yard takes charge. Naturally the other members of the tour come under suspicion, and there are more murders from a rather audacious killer. Things really get serious when someone even takes a shot at Duff in the police station! The movie is half over before Charlie Chan shows up and eventually solves the case. Manuel Arbo makes Chan seem a bit like a nitwit and overdoes the smiling routine. The other Spanish actors are all effective, however -- Calvo and Ana Maria Custodio make the best impression as the cop and the first victim's daughter -- and the story line is a good one.

Verdict: Charlie Chan from an alternate dimension. **1/2.

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (2014). Director: Shawn Levy.

Judd Altman (Jason Bateman of Identity Thief) comes home to discover his wife in bed with his boss, then learns that his father has died. He goes home for the funeral and discovers that none of his siblings are very happy, either. Wendy (Tina Fey) is married but still has feelings for the man next door (Timothy Olyphant) whom she nearly married but who became brain-damaged in an accident. Paul (Corey Stoll of House of Cards) can't give his wife, Annie (Kathryn Hahn), a baby, and it's driving her so crazy she comes on to Judd. Family screw-up Phillip (Adam Driver) has a sophisticated older girlfriend, Tracy (Connie Britton of American Horror Story), who loves him but despairs of him ever becoming a true adult. And so on. Then Mom (Jane Fonda) has a big surprise of her own. One character comes out of the closet after decades and no one asks a single question. This Is Where I Leave You is amiable enough, and generally well-acted, with some amusing moments, but it's sitcom stuff. Typical of many modern comedy-dramas it's cutesy and contrived in equal measure. They did movies like this much better in the golden age. None of the actors are really impressive the way they used to be. This is yet another movie in which the family lover boy is the least attractive of the brothers.

Verdict: Okay if you're not too demanding. **1/2.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

WARNER OLAND AS CHARLIE CHAN

Warner Oland in youth
WARNER OLAND AS CHARLIE CHAN.

When 20th Century Fox decided to bring Charlie Chan to the big screen, their choice to play the role was middle-aged Swedish actor Warner Oland [1879 - 1938]. Despite his being Caucasian, Oland was quite effective in the role and appeared in many Chan pictures, some of the earlier ones of which are lost. Below are reviews of several of the films that are still among us: Charlie Chan in Paris; Charlie Chan in Egypt; Charlie Chan in Shanghai; Charlie Chan at the Circus; Charlie Chan at the Race Track; Charlie Chan at the Opera; Charlie Chan on Broadway; Charlie Chan at the Olympics; and Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo. Other Oland-Chan movies that have already been reviewed on this site include: The Black Camel; Charlie Chan in London; and Charlie Chan's Secret. Oland also gave excellent portrayals of the fiendish Fu Manchu in such films as Daughter of the Dragon.  Oland also appeared in The Jazz Singer and a great many other silent movies.

CHARLIE CHAN IN PARIS

CHARLIE CHAN IN PARIS (1935). Director: Lewis Seller.

Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) comes to Paris to investigate some counterfeit bank bonds when his associate, the Apache dancer Nardi (Dorothy Appleby), is murdered at the end of her act. Then Yvette (Mary Brian of Manhattan Tower), the fiancee of Chan's handsome young friend Victor (Thomas Beck of Every Saturday Night) gets in trouble when she goes to get some compromising letters from a former boyfriend, Henri Latouche (Murray Kinnell), who is also murdered. Chan now has at least two murders to solve, with the help of Inspector Renard (Minor Watson) and his irrepressible son Lee (Keye Luke). A weird old beggar goes around causing mayhem, and there's a scene in the Paris sewers. The cast is good, and Erik Rhodes is especially memorable as the ever-amusing artist Max Corday. The best scene has Corday assuming Chan can't speak English well and asking him if he wants a "little dlinky," after which Chan makes clear that he speaks English quite well, thank you. Kinnell often appeared in Charlie Chan movies in a variety of roles. This was the first appearance of Keye Luke as Lee Chan.

Verdict: Acceptable if minor Charlie Chan mystery. **1/2.

CHARLIE CHAN IN EGYPT

Warner Oland and Rita Cansino (Hayworth)
CHARLIE CHAN IN EGYPT (1935). Director: Louis/Luis King.

Charlie Chan is investigating the theft and forgery of certain antiquities when he discovers that archaeologist Professor Arnold (George Irving) has been missing for weeks. Then the professor turns up in an unexpected place, setting in motion a series of often clever murders. There's the tomb that has hidden secrets and time-lost chambers that hold their own promise of death. Characters include Arnold's daughter, Carol (Pat Paterson), her sensitive violin-playing brother, Barry (James Eagles of The Story of Temple Drake), the family physician Dr. Anton Racine (Jameson Thomas of The Curtain Falls), Carol's fella Tom Evans (Thomas Beck), and Snowshoes, the whiny if lovable servant (Stepin Fetchit of Show Boat). A young Rita Hayworth, billed here as Rita Cansino, plays a servant girl, and is fine. There are perhaps not enough suspects, and some of the cast members over-act badly, but Charlie Chan in Egypt is fun.

Verdict: Not even dank tombs can stop Charlie. ***.


CHARLIE CHAN IN SHANGHAI

Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) sings! 
CHARLIE CHAN IN SHANGHAI (1935). Director: James Tinling.

Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) is attending a banquet in his honor when his host, honorable Sir Stanley Woodland (David Torrence) opens a small case and is promptly shot (by some mechanism inside) right in front of his guest of honor. Seems Sir Stanley got on the bad side of an opium smuggling ring, the leader of which is unknown. Suspects and other interested parties include daughter Diane Woodland (Irene Hervey of Play Misty for Me); secretary Philip Nash (Jon Hall of San Diego I Love You appearing as Charles Locher); James Andrews (Russell Hicks), a G-Man from Washington; police commissioner Watkins (Halliwell Hobbes); and of course Lee Chan (Keye Luke), Number One Son. There's invisible writing that hides clues as well as more intrigue at Cafe Versailles. At one point Charlie sings a cute song to an equally cute little girl, but proves not exactly ready for an American Idol audition. James Tinling also directed some of the early Jones Family films such as Back to Nature.

Verdict: Okay Chan entry but not one of the best. **1/2.

CHARLIE CHAN AT THE CIRCUS

George Brasno and Keye Luke
CHARLIE CHAN AT THE CIRCUS (1936). Director: Harry Lachman.

Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) takes his wife and twelve children to the circus and becomes embroiled in another mystery when one of the co-owners, the unpleasant Joe Kinney (Paul Stanton), is murdered. Suspects include Kinney's partner, Gaines (Francis Ford); the gorilla trainer, Blake (John McGuire of Sea Raiders); aerial artist Marie (Maxine Reiner), who was Kinney's fiancee; Marie's sister, Louise (Shirley Deane); circus worker Tom Holt (J. Carrol Naish) and Nellie Farrell (Drue Leyton), who claims to be the dead man's widow. Surely the killer couldn't be one of the adorable dancing midgets, Tim (George Brasno) and Tiny (Olive Brasno), nor Caesar the gorilla (Charles Gemora), and certainly not Lee Chan's pretty crush Su Toy (Shia Jung)? Keye Luke has a lot to do in this installment and emerges as comic relief, especially in a very funny scene when he and little Tim pretend to be a mother and her baby so they can follow one of the suspects! Shirley Deane appeared in several Jones Family films such as Educating Father as daughter Bonnie. Drue Leyton comes off very different in this than she was in Charlie Chan in London.

Verdict: Highly engaging Charlie Chan adventure. ***.

CHARLIE CHAN AT THE RACE TRACK

Keye Luke and Warner Oland
CHARLIE CHAN AT THE RACE TRACK (1936). Director: H. Bruce Humberstone.

Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) uncovers skulduggery surrounding a race horse when its jockey (Frankie Darro of Burn 'Em Up Barnes) throws a race, and that's only the beginning. On shipboard, the horse's owner is found trampled to death but Chan quickly deduces that it was not an accident and the horse is not to blame. Suspects and other characters include Lee Chan (Keye Luke) who pretends to be a steward to help/hinder his father; Alice Fenton (Helen Wood), Bruce Rogers (Thomas Beck), jockey Eddie Brill (Junior Coghlan of The Adventures of Captain Marvel); horse owner George Chester (Alan Dinehart of Seven Days Ashore); and his daughter, Catherine (Gloria Roy). There's also a mischievous monkey called Lollipop; a groom named Streamline (John Henry Allen, who seems to be doing a Stepin Fetchit imitation); and when offered refreshment, Chan asks not for spirits but sarsaparilla. Charlie actually discusses blood spatter evidence at one point, proving such matters were invoked decades before CSI and Henry Lee.

Verdict: Fun, as usual, if not topnotch Chan. **1/2.

CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA

"Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff"
CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA (1936). Director: H. Bruce Humberstone.

"The opera is going on tonight even if Frankenstein walks in!"

The San Marco Opera company is beset with major problems when prima donna Lilli Rochelle (Margaret Irving) receives death threats from an unknown person. The chief suspect is baritone Gravelle (Boris Karloff), who has just escaped from an asylum, but it is also true that Lilli is carrying on with baritone Enrico Barelli (Gregory Gaye) and this hardly sits well with Lilli's husband, nor Barelli's wife, Anita (Nedda Harrigan). Then there's young Kitty (Charlotte Henry) and her boyfriend, Phil (Thomas Beck) who desperately need to see Lilli but won't say why. Then the murders occur and a fiend stalks the opera house ... The words above the title read "Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff" which is not quite what happens, but close, and both give excellent performances. Keye Luke is on hand and sharp as ever as Number One Son, and William Demarest plays the rather racist and insulting cop, Kelly. The opera "Carnival" was not a real opera but a pastiche put together by Oscar Levant [The Cobweb]; it resembles Italian verismo. There is a moving wind-up, and Karloff's [uncredited] singing voice is wonderful. One of the best and most entertaining Chan films, even if some things have to be taken with a grain of salt.

Verdict: Not surprising that that genius Chan is an opera fan. ***.

CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OLYMPICS

Warner Oland and C. Henry Gordon
CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OLYMPICS (1937). Director: H. Bruce Humberstone.

Edwards (David S. Horsley) is piloting a plane that can also fly with a new remote control device, when he takes off for parts unknown. He is later found murdered -- the question is: who killed him, where is the device, who stole it, and who do they intend to sell it to? Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) tries to find the answers to these questions while in Berlin for the Olympics, where Number One Son Lee (Keye Luke) is entered in the swimming competition. Characters embroiled in this mystery include fellow competitor Betty (Pauline Moore); her boyfriend Richard (Allan Lane of King of the Mounties); slinky Yvonne Roland (Katherine DeMille), who sports a much-remarked-upon white fox fur and seems to have a hankering for Richard; Inspector Strasser (Frederick Vogeding), who wishes to demonstrate German efficiency; Cartwright (John Eldredge), who invented the stolen device; filibuster Arthur Hughes (C. Henry Gordon of Thirteen Women), who wants to buy said device; and Hopkins (Jonathan Hale of Strangers on a Train), who also has a vested interest in the proceedings. While not necessarily one of the better Chan films this installment especially serves as a kind of time capsule as it takes place at the historic pre-war Olympics and at one point Chan even travels on the Hindenburg. The acting is good, with Gordon being especially vivid. DeMille -- a Linda Darnell sound-alike -- was the adopted daughter of Cecil DeMille and was married to Anthony Quinn. At one point Lee Chan gets kidnapped; his younger brother, Charlie Chan Jr. [Number Two Son] also appears and is very well played by charming child actor Layne Tom Jr. (He later played both Tommy and Willie Chan.) Charlie Chan at the Olympics is interesting in that it plays around with exactly who the bad guys and good guys are throughout the movie.

Verdict: Interesting Chan entry. **1/2.

CHARLIE CHAN ON BROADWAY

Warner Oland, J. Edward Bromberg and Harold Huber
CHARLIE CHAN ON BROADWAY (1937). Director: Eugene Forde.

Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) stops over in New York with Number One Son Lee (Keye Luke) and attends yet another banquet in his honor. While this occurs, Lee winds up rounded up as a suspect in the murder of a young lady of dubious reputation, Billie (Louise Henry), whom they met on the boat. Billie was involved with Burke (Douglas Fowley of Three on a Ticket), who owns the Hottentot Club, but he now seems more interested in dancer, Marie (Joan Woodbury of Brenda Starr, Reporter). The third lady in the case is reporter Joan Wendall (Joan Marsh) who has a romantic rivalry with fellow scribe "Speed" Patten (Donald Woods). Others involved include editor Murdock (J. Edward Bromberg); slick operator Buzz Moran (Leon Ames); Thomas Mitchell (Marc Lawrence of Jigsaw) who's been following Billie; and Inspector Nelson (Harold Huber) of the NYPD. From the title one would figure this is a backstage mystery, but it has nothing to do with the theater, more's the pity, although it is reasonably entertaining if not especially memorable. Oland and Luke are as good as ever; that big-faced gal Woodbury is excellent as Marie and does a lively dance number; and Henry and Marsh are also notable. Huber is perhaps a bit too exuberant -- but good -- and Leon Ames hits the right note as he generally does. An interesting aspect to the plot is that the Hottentot Club has a "Candid Camera" Night where patrons take pictures of the other customers with their own cameras and one of them wins a prize -- nothing much comes of this, however, as the photo that figures in the solution is taken by a reporter. An unexpected denouement caps the proceedings.

Verdict: Amiable Chan vehicle with some good acting. **1/2.

CHARLIE CHAN AT MONTE CARLO

"Tongue often hang men quicker than rope." 
CHARLIE CHAN AT MONTE CARLO (1937). Director: Eugene Forde.

Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) is in Monte Carlo with Number One Son Lee (Keye Luke) but takes a cab to Nice to catch a flight. Along the ride they come across a limo with a corpse in the back seat and a missing chauffeur. Victor Karnoff (Sidney Blackmer) explains to Chan and Inspector Joubert (Harold Huber) that the dead man is a bank messenger who was carrying a fortune in now-missing bonds. Others embroiled in the mystery include Karnoff's wife, Joan (Kay Linaker of The Night Before the Divorce); her brother, Gordon (Robert Kent of Who's Guilty?); the adventuress he's smitten with, Evelyn (Virginia Field); rival financier Savarin (Edward Raquello); and a hotel bartender named Rogers (George Lynn of The Werewolf). There are more murders and a neat conclusion. This was Oland's last performance as Chan and last picture before his death the following year. He and Luke are marvelous, as usual, and the personality of flamboyant cop Joubert fits Huber to a "t." Linaker and Kent are fine and Field [Repeat Performance] gives a typically vital performance.

Verdict: Not a bad way for Warner Oland to exit. ***.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE


THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (1933). Director: Stephen Roberts.

"If I was the old judge I'd marry her off quick!"

This first film version of William Faulkner's "Sanctuary" concerns the flighty young lady Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins), granddaughter of a judge, who goes out one night with drunken Toddy (William Collier Jr.) and winds up in a dilapidated house occupied by a gang of bootleggers. Although the young and somewhat "slow" Tommy (James Eagles) tries to protect her, she is raped by the brutish if slick "Trigger" (Jack La Rue) after he murders Tommy. A frightened and ashamed Temple goes off with Trigger, and her close friend Stephen (William Gargan) winds up defending Trigger's associate Lee (Irving Pichel) on the charge of murdering Tommy. Can he convince Temple to not think of herself and her reputation and testify as to Lee's innocence? The Story of Temple Drake has little to do with Faulkner's original story -- the ending is completely changed -- but it is well-directed for the most part and features competent (if never outstanding) performances. Hopkins has her moments but is uneven, possibly due to her role. Florence Eldridge plays Lee's wife, and there are appearances by Elizabeth Patterson and Grady Sutton. Photographed by Karl Struss, who has one scene in complete darkness except for the lighted tip of Trigger's cigarette. Remade in 1961 as Sanctuary.

Verdict: Rather unpleasant all told. **1/2.

SANCTUARY

SANCTUARY (1961). Director: Tony Richardson.

A housekeeper named Nancy (Odetta) is sentenced to hang because she murdered an infant, but strangely the baby's mother, Temple (Lee Remick), wants to save the murderess' life. To that end she tells her father, Governor Drake (Howard St. John) what transpired during some very dark days in her past. In this second film version of William Faulkner's "Sanctuary" after The Story of Temple Drake [with parts of Faulkner's sequel, "Requiem for a Nun" thrown into the mix], Temple again winds up at a bootlegger's hide-out, is raped by "Candy Man" (Yves Montand) and taken to a whorehouse, but eventually winds up married to straight arrow Gowan Stevens (Bradford Dillman), whereupon she hires old associate Nancy to look after her children. Sanctuary idiotically tries to convince the viewer that somehow her infant's murder is all her fault, which is so morally moronic it isn't funny. And that isn't the only problem with the movie. Montand is screamingly miscast as the rapist ["Wanna dwink?" he asks Dillman in one hilarious scene], and although Remick has given some nice performances elsewhere, she is defeated by the sheer stupidity of James Poe's screenplay. Ironically Sanctuary emerges as more dated than The Story of Temple Drake because in this version Temple falls in love with her rapist, an odious notion that even soap operas finally began to reject in recent years. [Yes, one could argue that it's really sexual obsession, and Temple is not normal, but it's still offensive.] Dillman gives one of his "I'm not really sure what I'm doing here" performances; Harry Townes is notable as Nancy's lawyer, Ira; and Reta Shaw is fun as the painted madame of a brothel. Folksinger Odetta isn't a seasoned enough actress to make much of an impression as Nancy, but her part is so unbelievable it would tax the talents of an experienced acting genius. This very stupid movie seems to forget that there is never any justification for taking the life of an innocent child. The phony quasi-religious ending may have you screaming at the TV. In black and white CinemaScope.

Verdict: Looks like "fun," but isn't. *1/2.

JUDGE HARDY'S CHILDREN

Andy (Mickey Rooney) tries to hit Dad (Lewis Stone) up for money
JUDGE HARDY'S CHILDREN (1938). Director: George B. Seitz.

Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford) wants Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney) to take her to a dance, but he's horrified to learn that he'll need to buy a tuxedo (it never occurs to the dope that he could rent one). Therefore it's just as well that he and the rest of the family accompany Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone) to Washington D.C. where the judge will serve on a committee exploring certain monopolies. Unfortunately, Andy becomes smitten with a pretty French gal, Suzanne (Jacqueline Laurent), who also invites him to a dance -- which is formal! Will Andy's dad give him the money to get a tuxedo? In the meantime Andy's sister Marian (Cecelia Parker) acts like a complete ass when it comes to her boyfriend and inadvertently gives away some of the committee's secrets to unscrupulous Washington types. Mickey Rooney gives another fine and funny performance as the irrepressible Andy, and has a great scene when he demonstrates the "Big Apple" dance to the French gal. Janet Beecher [So Red the Rose] makes an impression as Miss Budge, Suzanne's tutor, and the rest of the cast, especially Stone, is fine. In this entry, Aunt Millie is played by Betty Ross Clarke, who is much less of a "spinster" type. Dumb Mrs. Hardy (Fay Holden) doesn't know who Leonardo da Vinci is!

Verdict: Highly enjoyable Hardy picture. ***.

NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER

Patrick Allen, Budd Knapp, and Bill Nagy
NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER (aka Never Take Sweets from a Stranger/1960). Director: Cyril Frankel.

High school principal Peter Carter (Patrick Allen of Night Creatures) and his wife Sally (Gwen Watford) have moved to a new community with their young daughter, Jean (Janina Faye), and her grandmother, Martha (Alison Leggatt). One afternoon Jean tells her parents that she and her friend Lucille (Frances Green) were given candy by an elderly man in a house nearby who told them to take off their clothing. Peter wants to confront the old man, Sally wants to call the police, and the grandmother advises caution -- they aren't completely sure what if anything happened and the old man, Clarence Olderberry Sr. (Felix Aylmer) has a lot of clout in the town. Because of this the Carters find a lot of opposition when they have the man arrested and a trial ensues. Will the entire town turn against them and will Olderberry get away with his inappropriate behavior or get the help he clearly needs? Never Take Candy from a Stranger is a non-sensational look at a repellent subject, and is generally well-done and well-acted; Leggatt is especially good, as are Michael Gwynn [The Revenge of Frankenstein] as the prosecutor and Bill Nagy as Olderberry's son. This absorbing and distressing film leads up to a tragic and hard-hitting finale. One of the film's flaws, however, is that the "pervert" in question seems rather feeble and to be suffering from Alzheimer's, making some of his actions possibly unlikely, and his behavior perhaps more demented than criminal. A more menacing and younger antagonist, a more formidable and devious pedophile, might have given the film even more dramatic heft, although the ending is nevertheless uncompromising. Freddie Francis' cinematography gives the film a nice look, and there is a fine musical score by Elisabeth Lutyens [Paranoiac].

Verdict: Sobering look at a town's dirty secret. ***.

CHARLIE CHAN IN LONDON

Drue Leyton, Warner Oland and Ray Milland
CHARLIE CHAN IN LONDON (1934). Director: Eugene Ford.

Pamela Gray (Drue Leyton) is convinced that her brother, Paul (uncredited), is innocent of the murder of an inventor named Hamilton, but his appeal has been denied and he is facing execution. Although Pamela's fiance, Neil (Ray Milland), Paul's lawyer, doesn't believe in his client's innocence, Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) isn't so sure. He has only a couple of days to prove the man's innocence and save his life. Then there's a "suicide" of one of the suspects, and an attempt is made on Chan's life ... Among the suspects are the horse groom Lake (John Rogers); grumpy, uncooperative Major Jardine (George Barraud); Phillips, the butler (Murray Kinnell); Geoffrey Richmond (Alan Mowbray); and his girlfriend, Lady Mary (Mona Barrie), among others. Detective Sergeant Thacker is played by E. E. Clive. Considering the circumstances, Charlie Chan in London should have been a lot more suspenseful than it is, but the actors, Oland included, are more than competent and the movie is watchable. The ending is charming.

Verdict: Chan capably treading water. **1/2.

IT'S ALIVE (2008) unrated

IT'S ALIVE (2008). Director: Josef Rusnak.

In this remake of the 1974 film, about a couple whose baby is a mutant maniac, the parents have been made twenty or so years younger -- characters in horror films these days must always be twenty-somethings -- and don't have a son but a nephew in a wheelchair. One improvement this has over the original film is that the deaths of the hospital staff are treated as a mystery and not immediately attributed to an infant, which makes a lot more sense. In spite of this, it doesn't make sense that the parents aren't a little more upset over what happened in the operating theater. One bit of confusion is how the parents and others can look at the child -- who doesn't run away but is taken home by its parents -- and think of it as "normal" [see photo] -- does the baby mutate just before it goes into attack mode and look okay all the rest of the time? -- this is never made clear. The mother, Lenore (Bijou Phillips), is a bit of an airhead, and covers up for the baby's attacks, which are much, much gorier than in the original movie. James Murray plays the father, Frank, and Owen Teale is Sergeant Perkins. There are some good scenes, and a fairly exciting climax.

Verdict: A remake that ultimately isn't better than the original despite some refinements. **1/2.

HERCULES

Dawyne Johnson, Rufus Sewell, and Ian McShane
HERCULES (2014). Director: Brett Ratner.

"I can deal with an ambitious man because he can be bought. But a man with no ambition wants nothing."

Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) has finished most of his twelve labors and is now a mercenary for hire, along with some comrades, when he is importuned by Lord Cotys (John Hurt of Alien) of Thrace and his daughter, Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal),  to help them fight the warlord, Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann), who has magic  and centaurs on his side. Don't expect to see much of that magic because this is yet another mythological film that downplays the fantastic aspects of the legends in favor of warfare. However, Hercules is exciting on that level, and well-staged battle scenes get across the violence without needing to depict extreme gore. Johnson is fine as Hercules, with good support from Rufus Sewell as his comrade Autolycus, Ian McShane [The Last of Sheila] as old seer Amphiaraus, Aksel Hennie as crazy Tydeus, and Reece Ritchie, as Hercules' nephew Iolaus. There's only one monstrous creature in the whole movie, and it looks like video game imagery, but the movie is nicely photographed. This is somewhat better than The Legend of Hercules, which was also released in 2014.

Verdict: Entertaining action flick with muscles. ***.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

THE BROTHERHOOD

Misleading poster for "Brotherhood"
THE BROTHERHOOD (1968). Director: Martin Ritt. Produced by Kirk Douglas.

Frank Ginetta (Kirk Douglas of Seven Days in May) is overjoyed that his younger brother Vincent (Alex Cord of The Dead Are Alive) wants to join him in the "family" business, but Vince's new wife, Emma (Susan Strasberg) isn't so sure. Her own father, Dominick Bertolo (Luthor Adler of House of Strangers) is in the business and warns Vinnie that Frank is too old-fashioned and objecting to one good deal after another -- this could have serious repercussions not only for Frank but for Vincent. Then Frank discovers that Bertolo was the man who betrayed his father and many other mafioso years ago, and sets out to get revenge, setting in motion events that will have violent consequences ... The Brotherhood pre-dates The Godfather by several years, and while it is not as good, it is not a bad picture, with some effective performances. It's hard to figure out if Frank is supposed to have an accent or not because it comes and goes, but Douglas is good in the role. Cord is not an especially dynamic performer, but he has several effective moments. The film was a box office loser, probably because the studio used a poster showing Douglas and Cord kissing on the mouth. [Not even The Boys in the Band used such an image.] In the movie the kiss, which is shown from a different angle, is one of several affectionate good-bye kisses Frank gives his brother, and is not indicative of homoerotic incest. At least France retitled the film "The Sicilian Brothers" to make it more clear what was going on. Murray Hamilton and Eduardo Ciannelli make a good impression as fellow members of the brotherhood; Strasberg is given little to do. One of the best, most chilling scenes in the movie has Frank relating to Bertolo how he befriended a man he intended to kill and having absolutely no clue as to the complete immorality of what he's describing.

Verdict: Creditable mafia drama. ***.