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

Thursday, April 23, 2015

SIDNEY TOLER [1874 - 1947] AS CHARLIE CHAN

Sidney Toler
SIDNEY TOLER (1874 - 1947).

After the death of Warner Oland, Twentieth Century Fox tapped Sidney Toler, of Scottish ancestry,  to play the plum role of Charlie Chan. Toler had been a Broadway star before he entered films, wrote successful plays, and even sang opera as a baritone. Toler appeared in a great many movies besides the Chan films, playing Daniel Webster in The Gorgeous Hussy with Joan Crawford. He was a ship's captain in Our Relations with Laurel and Hardy, and played [Caucasian] detectives in Blonde Venus with Marlene Dietrich and A Night to Remember with Brian Aherne and Loretta Young; there were many others but he was most famous as Chan. Monogram studios took up the Chan films after Fox decided to end the series; Toler would occasionally play other Oriental roles. It has been written that Toler's ill health necessitated the comedy relief of Mantan Moreland and Benson Fong etc., during the later films because of the actor's flagging energy, but even the earlier Chan vehicles had lots of scenes with Chan's detective-happy sons. Toler's last Chan film was The Trap. Below is a round-up of seven more Charlie Chan-Sidney Toler movies. [For other Toler-Chans reviewed on this site type in his name or "Charlie Chan" in the search bar above.]

CHARLIE CHAN IN RIO

Victor Sen Yung, Harold Huber, and Sidney Toler
CHARLIE CHAN IN RIO (1941). Director: Harry Lachman.

Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) and his irrepressible son, Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung), have come to Rio where Charlie plans to arrest a woman from Honolulu who is wanted for murder; meanwhile Jimmy hopes to learn the mambo either from singer Lola Dean (Jacqueline Dalya) or her cute maid, Lili (Iris Wong). Alas, Lola is the woman wanted for murder, but she herself is killed before Charlie can put the cuffs on her. Suspects include Lola's baffled fiance, Clark (uncredited); Morana, the Indian mystic (Victor Jory of Cat-Women of the Moon); Ken Reynolds (a strangely unrecognizable Richard Derr of The Invisible Avenger); his wife, Joan (Mary Beth Hughes of Rockin' in the Rockies); friend Bill Kellogg (Hamilton MacFadden); the bitter Grace (Cobina Wright Jr.); Lola's efficient secretary, Helen (Kay Linaker); and even the butler, Rice (Leslie Denison). This is an entertaining mystery, but it lacks the tension and suspense of superior entries in the series. The acting is generally good, however, with Toler and Sen Yung in fine form. Harold Huber once again plays a police inspector, but is more relaxed and appealing than usual. Kay Linaker and Iris Wong were also in previous Chan pictures. Truman Bradley, who was in the last entry Dead Men Tell, is listed in the cast but I couldn't spot him in this and can't even remember the character!

Verdict: Acceptable Chan vehicle. **1/2.

CASTLE IN THE DESERT

CASTLE IN THE DESERT (1942). Director: Harry Lachman.

Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) receives a note from a woman named Lucy Manderley (Lenita Lane of The Bat) that asks him to come immediately to her castle located in the Mojave Desert in California. Once he arrives, Charlie learns that Lucy never sent the note, but there has apparently already been one murder. Lucy is a descendant of the notorious Lucrezia Borgia, and when a victim or two winds up poisoned, naturally suspicion falls upon her. But there are other suspects: Carl Detheridge (Richard Derr of When Worlds Collide), who worked with Charlie on a previous case; Lucy's husband (Douglass Dumbrille of Alimony), half of whose face is hidden due to a scar; sculptor Watson King (Henry Daniell), who wants to do a bust of Lucy; cadaverous Arthur Fletcher (Milton Parsons), who has a few secrets; the weird fortune teller Madame Saturnia (Ethel Griffies); and others. As the deaths occur, Charlie and the others, including son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung), are trapped in the castle without a car or a telephone. There's an apothecary in the basement that contains numerous poisons as well as a torture chamber. Castle in the Desert gets a little silly at times, but it has a good story and is well acted by the principals. Derr and Griffies appeared in previous Chan films but played different characters. This was the last Charlie Chan film produced by Twentieth Century-Fox.

Verdict: Good fun in a creepy castle. ***.

CHARLIE CHAN IN THE SECRET SERVICE

Benson Fong, Mantan Moreland and Marianne Quon
CHARLIE CHAN IN THE SECRET SERVICE (1944). Director: Phil Rosen.

In Washington D.C. the inventor of a new weapon holds a cocktail party but stupidly refuses body guards. Naturally, said scientist winds up dead, the torpedo plans stolen. Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) arrives to find those plans and arrest the guilty party. But is it gruff Luis Vega (Gene Roth of Earth vs. the Spider); wheelchair-bound Paul Arranto (George J. Lewis of Ghost of Zorro); David Blake (Barry Bernard), of the Department of Political Economy; the housekeeper Mrs. Hargue (Sarah Edwards); or the dithery Mrs. Winters (Lelah Tyler); among others. Surely it can't be Inspector Jones (Arthur Loft) or Sergeant Billings (Davison Clark)? This is the first Charlie Chan picture for Monogram studios, and it's a typically cheap production, but it has its moments. Nobody ever seems to give a damn about the dead man, even though he was an important scientist and everyone's host! Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung) is gone, replaced by his less interesting brother, Tommy (Benson Fong), as well as his sister, number two daughter, Iris (Marianne Quon), who is cute if little else. This movie introduces the popular character of Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland, whose name leads the list of supporting players in bigger letters), who appeared in the later Chan films. Phil Rosen directed many Charlie Chan pictures as well as such stuff as Spooks Run Wild.

Verdict: Serviceable Chan film with some clever moments. **1/2.


CHARLIE CHAN IN THE CHINESE CAT

Sidney Toler and Benson Fong
CHARLIE CHAN IN THE CHINESE CAT (aka The Chinese Cat/1944). Director: Phil Rosen.

"One Chan at a time is enough! No more murders for me!' -- Birmingham Brown.

Six months after the police are stumped by a "locked room" murder in which Thomas Manning is found shot, a work of fiction, "Murder by Madame," comes out which puts the blame on the widow, Mrs. Manning (Betty Blythe of A Fig Leaf for Eve). It appears that the woman's first husband died mysteriously as well, but this sub-plot is dropped early on. Mrs. Manning's daughter, Leah Manning (Joan Woodbury), who apparently took her stepfather's name, importunes Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) to finally solve the case and remove the cloud of suspicion over her mother. Charlie also makes a bet with the novelist, Recknik (Ian Keith of Cleopatra) as to whether or not the detective will come up with a new solution. There's a hidden staircase (which makes you wonder why anyone considered it a "locked room" puzzle); gems secreted inside cat statues with hidden compartments; and a climax inside a fun house on a pier. Alas, the one thing this movie doesn't have is any real suspense. While different and not as lovable as Victor Sen Yung, Benson Fong is quite good as Tommy Chan. Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland), now a Yellow cab man in New York, gets in on the action whether he wants to or not. Detective Harvey Dennis (Walden Heyburn) happens to be Leah Manning's boyfriend, and the ever-mediocre Cy Kendall is the late Manning's business partner, Webster Deacon. John Davidson [The Perils of Pauline] plays creepy-looking twins.

Verdict: Fairly standard Chan picture is not one of the better ones. **.

MEETING AT MIDNIGHT/BLACK MAGIC

Sidney Toler and Helen Beverly
MEETING AT MIDNIGHT (aka Black Magic/1944). Director: Phil Rosen.

"Mr. Chan, I've been leavin' ever since I got here." -- Birmingham Brown.

During a seance, the lights go out and the medium is found shot to death. The strange thing is that an autopsy reveals there's a gunshot wound in the body but no bullet! [The explanation for this is clever even if today's forensics people might scoff.] The suspects include the widow, Mrs. Bonner (Jacqueline deWit of The Damned Don't Cry); Norma Duncan (Helen Beverly), who bore the man a grudge; assistants Tom and Vera Starky (Charles Jordan and Claudia Dell); mousy fan manufacturer, Edwards (Harry Depp); and two victims of blackmail, Hamlin (Frank Jaquet) and Harriet Green (Geraldine Wall), who had a brief fling with the murdered man. The cops are Rafferty (Ralph Peters) and Matthews (Joseph Crehan of The Case of the Black Parrot). A suspenseful scene has another victim hypnotized into throwing herself off of a roof, something which nearly happens to Charlie in the film's best sequence and climax. Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland of On the Spot) is along for the ride but Tommy Chan has been replaced by his sister Frances (coincidentally played by a not-very-talented actress named, believe it or not, Francis Chan. A decade earlier she also played a Chan daughter in the lost film Charlie Chan's Greatest Case with Warner Oland.). This is another rather mediocre Monogram cheapie but it does pick up a bit towards the end. NOTE: Actress Jacquline deWit spelled it "DeWit," "de Wit" and probably others.

Verdict: Neither Charlie's best nor worst. **1/2.

THE RED DRAGON (1945)

Sidney Toler,  Fortunio Bonanova, Benson Fong, Willie Best 
THE RED DRAGON (1945). Director: Phil Rosen.

Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) and son Tommy (Benson Fong) are in Mexico City when Charlie is called in to investigate what turns out to be a series of strange murders. People are being shot to death in front of witnesses but nobody (but Chan, of course) can figure out how come there is no assailant in the room or even exactly what kind of weapon has been used. The first victim is a man who discovered a 95th element whose destructive powers in an atomic bomb could wipe out the entire country! The suspects include Marguerite Fontan (Carol Hughes of Meet the Boyfriend), whom Inspector Carvero (Fortunio Bonanova) has special feelings for; Countess Irena (Marjorie Hoshelle), an entertainer with a shady background; Alfred Wyans (Robert Emmett Keane), who is all excited over the loss of a certain typewriter; Joseph Bradish (Barton Yarborough), an oil salesman or possible smuggler; and others. With Mantan Moreland working elsewhere at the time, Birmingham Brown is replaced by his cousin Chattanooga (Willie Best of Dangerous Money). The title refers to a type of Chinese ink. The members of the supporting cast in this are mostly colorless, but the story has clever elements and the leads are, as ever, swell. And we mustn't forget the scene when Charlie does the rumba to the shock of son Tommy!

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

SHADOWS OVER CHINATOWN

Mantan Moreland and Sidney Toler
SHADOWS OVER CHINATOWN (1946). Director: Terry O. Morse.

There's thirteen people on a bus driving through a rain storm to San Francisco, where passenger Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) hopes to find the identity of a torso murderer. At a way station, someone takes a shot at Charlie. Does the body of a dismembered woman belong to a missing heiress, or the grand-daughter (Tanis Chandler) of Mrs. Conover (Mary Gordon of Bonnie Scotland)? While Charlie investigates -- with the help of Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung back as Number Two Son); chauffeur Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland), and Chief Lannigan (George Eldredge) -- there are more murders and a lot of confusion. Suspects include pickpocket Cosgrove (Jack Norton); private eye Hay (John Gallaudet); crook Mike Rogan (Paul Bryar); Marine colonel Tilford (Bruce Kellogg); and others. Shadows Over Chinatown has a basically good story and is quite entertaining, but there are some gaping holes in the plot. Who exactly took that shot at Charlie? How did Mrs. Conover's friend Miss Johnson (Myra McKinney) manage to locate her grand-daughter's apartment when only a short while before Charlie discovered the young woman working as a waitress? Who knows? The identity of the killer in this is no great surprise, but the film is still fun. Terry Morse also directed Unknown World with Bruce Kellogg, who was equally mediocre in both movies. 71-year-old Toler made two more appearances as Charlie Chan that year before his death in 1947. An interesting prologue deals with the Department of Missing Persons.

Verdict: Chan is not missing in this even if some of the script is. ***.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

I AM A CAMERA

Julie Harris, Ron Randell, and Laurence Harvey
I AM A CAMERA (1955). Director: Henry Cornelius.

In 1930's Berlin, writer Christopher Isherwood (Laurence Harvey) tries to make a name for himself while befriending a would-be actress and singer named Sally Bowles (Julie Harris) who has temporarily run out of luck. The two form a fast, platonic friendship and also get to know Natalia (Shelley Winters) and her secretly Jewish boyfriend, Fritz (Anton Diffring). Chris and Sally also become friends with a wealthy man named Clive (Ron Randell) who spends money like it's going out of style and plans on taking both of them on a trip to Hawaii. This is based on a book by the real-life Christopher Isherwood, and also on the play by John Van Druten. Isherwood's homosexuality isn't underscored but despite one scene when he comes on to Sally (who's wise to him and won't have any of it), it's pretty clear what's going on to the viewer (Clive's possible bisexuality is similarly suppressed but hinted at). Harvey's performance is quite good, as is Harris'; the only problem is that her character is so breathless and affected -- some might call her an overbearing "fag hag" -- that after awhile she becomes extremely annoying. Randell [Most Dangerous Man Alive], who certainly had an interesting career even if he never quite achieved stardom, is fine as Clive, and Winters [The Big Knife] and Diffring [The Man Who Could Cheat Death ] are also notable. The title refers to Isherwood's ability to record what he sees and hears like a camera and put it on paper, and the film has a modern-day framework with Isherwood discovering that Sally, whom he has not seen in years, has written a book about her life. The movie, unfortunately, isn't very entertaining and hasn't as much real substance as one might have hoped for. The business with the encroaching Nazis is kept to a minimum and there's only one dramatic scene that deals with it. A ridiculous party scene is meant to be funny but is only a bore. In truth, the musical version, Cabaret, isn't that much better.

Verdict: A little of Sally Bowles goes a long way. I don't think I could have spent five minutes with her. **.

CABARET

Threesome: Minelli, Griem,York
CABARET (1972). Director: Bob Fosse.

"I feel just like Kay Francis!" --Sally.

Brian: "Screw Maximilian!" Sally: "I do!" Brian: "So do I!"

In 1931 Berlin a language teacher named Brian (Michael York) becomes best chums with the free-spirited entertainer Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli) as Germany begins taking a Nazi turn for the worse. As two pupils -- Fritz (Fritz Wepper) and Natalia (Marisa Berenson) -- fall in love, Brian begins a romance with Sally that is complicated by the addition of handsome millionaire Maximilian Van Heune (Helmut Griem). Odd that this musical version of I Am a Camera is franker than the original in some respects, and tiresomely regressive in others. Michael York is appealing as the conflicted Brian, as is Marisa Berenson as the wealthy Jewish Natalia. Liza Minelli is less irritating in some ways than Julie Harris was playing the same part, although Harris is the better actress; that said, Minelli is not bad at all, although hardly deserving of the Best Actress Oscar she was awarded. Helmut Griem has little to do but look kind of sexy, but that he does perfectly well. I have to confess I found two things in this movie rather repellent: a made-up, simpering Joel Gray, although he's effective enough as the emcee; and Liza Minelli when she tries to act all sexy. The most unconvincing thing in the movie is the "romance" between Brian and Sally.

In I am a Camera, the "Brian" character was actually Camera writer Christopher Isherwood (Laurence Harvey), and he was so named. Herein Isherwood has been turned into an alternate Chris Isherwood but it never quite works -- his gayness is going to burst out no matter what. [Of course, one is tempted to say this isn't the first time Liza Minelli had a gay boyfriend!] Early in the film Brian explains that he tried sex with women three times and it was always a disaster. When he successfully has sex with Sally, she remarks they must have been the wrong three girls, that godawful creaky business about how you're only gay until you meet the right woman! This is somewhat redeemed by the revelation that Brian has been intimate with Max, but any sequences, erotic or otherwise, relating to this, are completely unexplored. All we know is that Brian and Max have had an argument, there's tension in the air, and Max seems very angry. But whether it's because Brian won't remain his "fuck buddy" [out of concern for Sally or the fact that Max is married] or because he prefers to stay with Sally (highly unlikely) is never revealed. The scene quoted above, in which Sally learns the two men are screwing behind her back, was considered quite controversial in its day and York's second line was always cut on network television. Michael York also played a character who slept with both men and women in Something for Everyone.

When Cabaret came out I liked the movie very much, but it's gone downhill in my estimation. Most of the characters are not well-developed, the film is coy and dated about sexuality, and aside from the snappy title number and "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," I didn't much care for the Kander and Ebb song numbers [they wrote the German youth's song in that style]. It also doesn't have enough period atmosphere despite the location filming. While Cabaret  deals more with the encroaching Nazis than I Am a Camera did, it doesn't really get across that sense of doom until the final chilling image. And at least I Am a Camera didn't invent a phony romance. NOTE: I have only seen the film versions of John Van Druten's "I am a Camera" and of the Broadway musical "Cabaret," so I can't comment on the stage originals.

Verdict: Some nice things in this, but overall I'd rather watch Something for Everyone. **1/2.

NUTCRACKER: MONEY, MURDER AND MADNESS

NUTCRACKER: MONEY, MURDER AND MADNESS. 1987 mini-series. Various directors.

The true story of Frances Shreuder (Lee Remick), a women who decided that she needed her father's money to fund her elaborate lifestyle, and would do anything to get it, including outright thievery and embezzlement. But when she fears that Daddy (G. D. Spradlin) might cut Frances out of his will entirely, she cooks up a plot to have her sons kill him off. [The title refers to the fact that Shreuder managed to get a seat on the board of directors of the ballet, and her daughter was an aspiring dancer as well.] While Lee Remick is not perhaps the perfect choice for such a demanding role, she does give a credible and effective performance as the most monster mother of them all. Tate Donovan [Nancy Drew] and Frank Military are both excellent as Frances' deeply troubled sons, one of whom winds up in a mental institution. Inga Swenson [Advise and Consent] is excellent as Frances' outraged sister Marilyn, who has to watch as her mother, who always favored Frances, cuddles up to the woman responsible for her husband's death. As the mother, a superb Elizabeth Wilson [The Tunnel of Love] almost walks off with the movie. There is also very nice work from John Glover as Frances' friend, Dick; G. D. Spradlin as her father; and Tony Musante as her first ex-husband and the father of her boys. Four and a half hours long, in three installments, this has not a boring moment in it. Based on a book by Shana Alexander. Another book about the case, At Mother's Request, was also made into a telefilm.

Verdict: Fascinating look at truly twisted people. ***.

AT MOTHER'S REQUEST

Stefanie Powers
AT MOTHER'S REQUEST (1987 two-part telefilm). Director: Michael Tuchner.

Frances Shreuder (Stefanie Powers) basically tells her son Marc (Doug McKeon) not to bother coming home unless he goes ahead and murders his grandfather (E. G. Marshall). According to Marc's story, he didn't really want to do it, but it's debatable if that's true or not. Frances' mother Berenice (Frances Sternhagen) is appalled at how Marc accuses his mother during her trial, making one wonder if she really doesn't know her daughter was involved or just doesn't care. This is the second telefilm to deal with the real-life murder case that takes place in Utah and New York, and it is inferior to Nutcracker: Money, Murder and Madness. Powers [McLintock!] isn't bad in the role, but for the most part she fails to deliver the showier, dramatic and much more visceral portrayal of Lee Remick. McKeon is also not bad, but somehow a cut below Tate Donovan in the competing film, and Sternhagen [The Mist], while generally a fine actress, is no match for Elizabeth Wilson in the same role. Corey Parker is pretty good as Marc's brother, Larry, who goes off the deep end. With only three hours to work with instead of four and a half, At Mother's Request isn't quite as detailed as Nutcracker, with us not learning much about some characters, such as Frances' father and her two sisters, but the script is still mediocre. This version is not as slick and compelling. The people in this version seem even worse, if that's possible, than the ones in Nutcracker.

Verdict: Major Family Dysfunction -- but stick with Nutcracker and Remick. **1/2.

ANDY HARDY GETS SPRING FEVER

Mickey Rooney and Helen Gilbert
ANDY HARDY GETS SPRING FEVER (1939). Director: W. S. Van Dyke.

"I think my ending is better than Shakespeare's -- it's more spiritual." -- Andy Hardy

"You mean when the native girl throws herself into a volcano?" -- Miss Meredith

Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney) is annoyed by Polly Benedict's attentions to a young Naval officer, but his spirits are revived when he meets the new dramatics teacher, Rose Meredith (Helen Gilbert). Andy writes a play, "Adrift in Tahiti," that is inspired by "Romeo and Juliet," with Andy and Polly (Ann Rutherford) cast as the star-crossed lovers. But will all go well on the play's opening night, and will "Tahula" -- Polly's heroine -- warm up her frigid attitude toward Andy? More importantly, will he get pretty teacher Miss Meredith to actually marry him? In a sub-plot Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone) discovers that he may have been swindled out of his life savings along with some of his friends, a development already used in the previous year's Jones Family film, Safety in Numbers. This is another charming and amusing Andy Hardy film [these were still called "Hardy Family" movies, but we all knew who the star was] with Andy discovering the pangs of unrequited infatuation. George Breakston ("Beezy") from Love Finds Andy Hardy makes another appearance. Sister Marion Hardy seems less flighty in this outing, Aunt Millie hardly appears, and Fay Holden has a little more to do as Mrs. Hardy and does it as well as ever. Helen Gilbert comes close to giving a very lovely performance but somehow there's something lacking in her.

Verdict: Randy Andy gets romantic. ***.

MARK OF THE GORILLA

Johnny Weissmuller and Suzanne Dalbert
MARK OF THE GORILLA (1950). Director: William Berke.

Skulduggery is afoot in a government game preserve in the Nagandi district of Africa. For one thing murderous gorillas are stalking about, even if this isn't their natural territory. Do these big apes perhaps have a secret? One thing that isn't a secret is that there's a horde of Nazi gold hidden on the preserve, and several people are trying to find it. These include the suspicious Professor Brandt (Onslow Stevens of The Couch) and the pretty Nyobi (Suzanne Dalbert, who has a distracting resemblance to Ingrid Bergman)! Then there's Warden Bentley (Selmer Jackson) and his niece, Barbara (Trudy Marshall of The Dancing Masters), who may be on the side of the angels. Jungle Jim (Johnny Weissmuller) takes care of the gorillas as well as the treasure hunters, though he has a tough time of it in spots. Mark of the Gorilla is fast-paced and well-directed, and surprisingly entertaining. There's a great scene when a chimp keeps stealing Jungle Jim's fish behind his back; a bit with a panther having a set-to with a crocodile; and exciting sequences featuring an attack by a hawk on a mountain and a prop moray eel under the water. As usual in these JJ pictures, the uncredited (and probably stock) score is a big help.

Verdict: This darn thing is fun! ***.

SURFSIDE 6

Troy Donahue, Lee Patterson, Van Williams
SURFSIDE 6 (1961).

This hour-long action-mystery series lasted for two seasons. Dave Thorne (Lee Patterson of The Flying Scot) and Kenny Madison (Van Williams of The Green Hornet) lived on a houseboat in Miami Beach and formed the Thorne-Madison private detective agency. Their rich buddy, Sandy Winfield III (Troy Donahue of Parrish) lived at the yacht club and kibitzed with the other two until he seemed to be working for, or with, them full-time. Each episode would star one of these three actors, although there were times when the others would appear; sometimes all three guys would get involved in a particularly difficult case. Beside the assorted women who would appear in each episode, there were two female regulars: Diane McBain as Daphne Dutton, a pretty heiress who hangs around the boys and occasionally gets mired in one of their cases; and Margarita Sierra as "Cha Cha" O'Brien, a poor man's Carmen Miranda and night club entertainer. Sierra was never a good fit for the program, as sometimes the story would have to stop dead to include one of her numbers while the other actors wore frozen smiles in reaction shots. On rare occasions "Cha Cha" would have something to do with the main storyline. Sierra over-sang everything terribly. In the first season the boys' police liaison was the gruff, nearly barking Lt. Snedigar (Don "Red" Barry), while in the second season he was replaced by Lt. Plehn (Richard Crane), who was a bit more pleasant but just as professional. Both actors offered interesting and adept portrayals, and Crane was especially good.

The most memorable episodes of the series include: "The Old School Tie," with Gloria Talbott involved with murder at a reunion; "Midnight for Prince Charming," with a lonely man conned by a criminal couple; "Race Against Time," with Lee's associates desperately trying to save his life after he's been poisoned on an airliner; "Vengeance is Bitter," concerning a roman a clef about a murder case and the attempts to uncover the author; "Anniversary Special," a twisted domestic drama about a TV host and his unhappy wife, with both roles played superbly by William Windom and Jeanne Cooper; and "Overdose of Justice," in which a ferociously good Mara Corday [Tarantula] plays a vicious beauty involved with a love-sick insurance man played by Ed Platt [Get Smart]. The vast majority of episodes in the series were solid "B"s if not better with a few clunkers along the way. Although Donahue tended to be a bit stiff, he was okay in most episodes, with Williams and Patterson exhibiting a bit more flair and charm. Diane McBain was lovely and talented. I can't make up my mind if the theme music is catchy or really annoying.

Verdict: Entertaining mystery series with handsome studs and pretty gals awash in intrigue. ***.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

THE HARDYS RIDE HIGH

Mickey Rooney, Ann Rutherford and William Orr
THE HARDYS RIDE HIGH (1939). Director: George B. Seitz.

"Why do I want to get married and make one woman miserable when I can stay single and make lots of women happy!' -- Andy Hardy.

Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone) gets the astonishing news that he may have inherited two million dollars so he packs up the family to a Detroit mansion to check out the claim's validity. In the meantime son Andy (Mickey Rooney) goes "high-hattin'" to nightclubs where he refuses liquor and has trouble taking a smoke, but he is, after all, only sixteen years old [Rooney was actually three years older]. Daughter Marian (Cecelia Parker) proves to be as big an ass as usual. Aunt Milly (Sara Haden), who is the judge's sister-in-law [but always seems more like his sister] glamorizes herself but alas is still pretty homely, although gauche Andy thinks she's "all done up like a plush horse!" And Mrs. Hardy (Fay Holden) is just happy that she found a good frying pan in Detroit. A very young and unrecognizable Virginia Grey [Jeanne Eagels] plays a chorus girl who tries to vamp Andy -- the young stud is positively terrified by such a sophisticated city woman -- at the direction of her boyfriend, and rival heir, Phil Westcott (John King). Andy complains to girlfriend Polly (Ann Rutherford) that he's "all right until some la-di-da lizzie comes along," referring to the snooty Dick Bannersly (William Orr). The Hardys Ride High is a delightful entry in the series, with the usual top performances, especially the great Rooney, lots of humor, and the usual dose of honest sentiment. Judge Hardy comes mighty close to committing a crime in this, and frankly the whole business about the inheritance is never satisfactorily resolved, as if something were left on the cutting room floor. Marsha Hunt has a small role as a wife who appears before the court. William Orr later became the head of Warner Brothers television and was executive producer of many hit shows, including 77 Sunset Strip and Hawaiian Eye.

Verdict: Riding high indeed. ***.

LET'S FACE IT

Zazu Pitts, Eve Arden, and Phyllis Povah
LET'S FACE IT (1943). Director: Sidney Lanfield.

"When we were first married he could lull me to sleep with his tuba." -- Zazu Pitts

"Now he can't even lift it." -- Eve Arden

Private Jerry Walker (Bob Hope) secretly sells food to some of the larger, starving ladies at the fat farm run by his fiancee, Winnie (Betty Hutton). Along come three middle-aged ladies -- played by Eve Arden [Three Husbands], Zazu Pitts and Phyllis Povah -- whose husbands have bundled them off to the fat farm while they go fishing. These women are convinced their husbands are secretly meeting honeys at a summer lodge, so they inveigle three soldiers into coming to the lodge to make their men jealous. Jerry desperately needs money so he agrees to go but he drags along two buddies -- neither actor makes much of an impression -- because he insists that the ladies "look like Veronica Lake, with two eyes!" Let's Face It has some cute moments, good lines and performances, but it runs out of plot around halfway through. The songs are forgettable, even if they are by Cole Porter, though there are two excellent dance numbers: Bob and his pals do a very cute shuffle; and a bizarre, violent dance act in which the couple seem to be illustrating the battle of the sexes. The script is kind of rough on women who have the misfortune not to be young and beautiful, and it's full of what you might call "fat abuse." What's ironic is that Hope and his buddies act as if the three ladies are so hideous, even Arden, when they are not exactly prizes themselves. Hutton gets one especially horrible song number and sings it horribly. Joe Sawyer [Roses are Red] is swell as Jerry's gruff sergeant and Hope's gal pal Dona Drake [Valentino] has a small role.

Verdicts: Some funny moments to be sure but not the hilarity you're hoping for. **.

CROWNED HEADS

CROWNED HEADS. Thomas Tryon. 1976.

Crowned Heads is a collection of four novellas that all deal in one twisted way or another with Old Hollywood and its strange, often grotesque, secrets. "Fedora" deals with a writer who once met the famous movie star of the same name, who is now a recluse, and uncovers the startling truth about her true identity. In "Lorna," the fifty-something actress Lorna Doone, who never quite made it in "A" pictures and who is a pyromaniac, shop-lifter and nympho, tries to escape reality in a Mexican resort, but winds up awash in a sea of sex and booze that causes her more anguish than anything else. [One funny-sad scene has Lorna "paying a call" on a handsome flamenco dancer half her age despite the fact he's expressed no interest in her whatsoever.] "Bobbitt" is an interesting story about the fate of a child star who once owned the world and is now forgotten, but while it's suspenseful and well done it's also a trifle cloying at times, especially at the finale. "Willie" deals with the final hours of a former star who makes the mistake of allowing certain "fans" into his home. This story seems to be inspired by the life of Clifton Webb and the death of Ramon Novarro, which is hardly in the best of taste. "Fedora" was made into a movie, but I've always thought that "Lorna" would have made a fascinating picture as well; it is easily the best novella of the quartet. In the first story it seems to take forever for Tryon to get to the revelation, and similarly Willie's segment is stretched out to inordinate length. For my money, "Lorna" is decidedly the best read in the book. As an actor, Tryon appeared in such films as The Unholy Wife, The Cardinal, and I Married a Monster from Outer Space.

Verdict: Well-written plumbing of Hollywood scandal. ***.

THE FLYING SCOT

Kay Callard and Lee Patterson
THE FLYING SCOT (aka The Mailbag Robbery/1957). Director: Compton Bennett.

Ronnie (Lee Patterson), Jackie (Kay Callard of The Unholy Four), and Phil (Alan Gifford) plan to rob a train called the Flying Scotsman which runs from Glasgow to London. The booty is many bags of bank notes that are destined to be burned. In a prologue that reminds one of the later film Gambit, the robbery goes off silently and without a hitch, the trio celebrating in South America. But that's just the run through and the way Ronnie hopes the robbery will go -- the real robbery is somewhat more difficult. Ronnie and Jackie pretend to be a couple on their honeymoon. Things are complicated by the fact that Phil has a perforated ulcer, postponing a trip to hospital to participate in the caper, and is in terrible pain. The wall between the room on the train and the compartment with the money next door has a barrier they didn't anticipate. There's a drunk who keeps hoping to get some liquor, and a cute little boy who wanders around getting into mischief ... The Flying Scot is a fast-paced, suspenseful crime drama with good performances. Lee Patterson later played a private detective on Surfside 6. Compton Bennett also directed such fine films as Daybreak and The Seventh Veil.

Verdict: Nifty little British "B." ***.

DEAD MEN TELL

Truman Bradley as the mysterious Captain Kane
DEAD MEN TELL (1941). Director: Harry Lachman.

Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) is invited to participate in a treasure hunt for sixty million dollars on Coco's Island, a hunt presided over by the elderly Patience Nodbury (Ethel Griffies). Poor Patience is found dead on the docked ship, the Suva Star, whose Captain Kane (Truman Bradley of The Night Before the Divorce) does his best to keep out of sight as the other passengers embark. Tales of a pirate's ghost give Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung) the willies when an unknown peg-legged man goes about causing mischief. Other suspects besides the captain include prison escapee Lydig (George Reeves); pretty typist Kate (Sheila Ryan of Great Guns); the weird Gene LaFarge (the ever-cadaverous Milton Parsons); perky Laura Thursday (Kay Aldridge); and Dr. Bonney (Lenita Lane of The Mad Magician); among others. If there's any problem with Dead Men Tell it's that the ship never leaves the dock and there's no action on the aforementioned island at all. Still, this has interesting aspects and is well-acted by everyone. Ethel Griffies [Vigil in the Night] is the cast stand-out even if she isn't around too long. As a running gag, Jimmy falls into the water perhaps once too often.

Verdict: More Jimmy hijinks with "Pop." **1/2.

CAPTIVE GIRL

Skipper the dog and Tamba the chimp
CAPTIVE GIRL (1950). Director: William Berke.

In this third Jungle Jim movie, our hero (Johnny Weissmuller) crosses figurative swords with another former Tarzan, Buster Crabbe [The Sea Hound], this time playing an evil treasure hunter, Barton. Jim also has to deal with a female Bomba, a young lady named Joan (Anita Lhoest), who has been living on her own in the jungle since the murder of her parents, becoming a blonde goddess known as "the wild girl of Lake Bekonchi." Jim not only has to track the gal down -- she has a tiger for a pet -- but save her and others from the evil medicine man, Hakim (John Dehner of Please Murder Me), who wants to kill Chief Mahala (Rick Vallin of Escort Girl) so he can take over the tribe. The climax takes place at the sinister Lagoon of the Dead, where maidens have been sacrificed and skeletons and gems lay about the lake's bottom. While this is not quite as good as it sounds, I must admit that Captive Girl is peculiarly entertaining, much of this having to do with the animal antics of Jim's dog Skipper, his chimp Tamba, and even the crow [or raven] called Koko. Tamba and Skipper are a real cute duo, always cuddling and playing with each other ( in fact, one could say that they are better actors than most of the humans). An extremely bizarre sequence late in the movie has a huge horde of angry monkeys attacking Hakim and his men, presumably called upon by Tamba to do so. Even stranger is the sight of wild tigers in Africa! Padded with entertaining stock footage that sometimes blends in smoothly with the new scenes and sometimes doesn't.

Verdict: Seriously weird at times but strangely compelling. **1/2.

SAFARI DRUMS

SAFARI DRUMS (1953). Writer/producer/director: Ford Beebe.

A movie company has invaded Bomba's (Johnny Sheffield) turf and hope to get him to help them get some real animal action for the cameras. The director, Larry Conrad (Emory Parnell), wants some real "dramatic footage" from his cameraman, Steve (Paul Marion of The Lost Tribe). Peg (Barbara Bestar) is the secretary for the company, and they've hired a guide named Brad (Douglas Kennedy of The Amazing Transparent Man). When a geologist in the area is robbed of a map that may lead to diamonds, and murdered, Bomba realizes that one of those three men must have been the killer -- but which one? At least this is one jungle movie that admits there are no wild tigers in Africa, so Conrad brings a tiger with him so he can film an exciting scene pitting tiger against lion. Leonard Mudie and Smoki Whitfield appear, respectively, as Andy and Eli.

Verdict: This is an acceptable Bomba adventure, mostly for fans. **1/2.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

PARRISH

Claudette Colbert looks at Troy Donahue with misgivings
PARRISH (1961). Writer/Producer/Director: Delmer Daves.

"If there's a death warrant for happiness, you've described it."

Ellen McLean (Claudette Colbert) gets a job as a sort of companion to Alison Post (Diane McBain), whose father, Sala (Dean Jagger), refuses to let Ellen's son, Parrish (Troy Donahue), live with them. Parrish nevertheless gets a job working Post's tobacco fields, and becomes friends with the vivacious if unsophisticated Lucy (Connie Stevens). Meanwhile Ellen finds herself drawn to the charismatic tobacco magnate, Jud Raike (Karl Malden), and Parrish soon finds himself with opportunities he may not desire, besides being in the middle of a love triangle with Lucy and Alison -- not to mention Jud's daughter, Paige (Sharon Hugueny). Parrish is a highly enjoyable light drama with some excellent performances. Although Troy Donahue is hardly in the league of the other actors, his brooding, intense quality works for the part and he even manages to do some genuine acting in certain scenes; he certainly doesn't ruin the movie as he did My Blood Runs Cold and may well have upped his game due to the influence of director Daves as well as Colbert and Malden; he proves a good listener if nothing else. Colbert gives a wonderful performance as the free-spirited mother who still has her standards; Connie Stevens and Diane McBain, one earthy, the other patrician, play with conviction; and Karl Malden, in a ferociously powerful performance, positively walks off with the picture. There is also fine work from Jagger [My Son John]; Hampton Fancher [Rome Adventure] as the slimy Edgar Raike; and Huguney as his love-happy sister, Paige. Director of Photography Harry Stradling [Suspicion] gives the picture a fairly glamorous sheen, and all of the aforementioned ladies -- and Donahue -- look stunning throughout. While nowadays the tobacco industry would be more deserving of an expose than a romance, Parrish is still a very entertaining picture. Max Steiner's insinuating musical score adds to the picture's class.

Verdict: Fine acting, interesting script, class production put this over. ***.

THANK YOU MR. MOTO

Peter Lorre and Sig Ruman
THANK YOU, MR. MOTO (1937). Director: Norman Foster.

Charlie Chan had been appearing in motion pictures for some years when 20th Century-Fox and Monogram came out with competing series about Oriental sleuths. Boris Karloff's Mr. Wong appeared in films released by Monogram, while Mr. Moto had the more prestigious Fox at the wheel. Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre) is a "confidential investigator" but his real profession, he claims, is "importer." Another character describes Moto as "an adventurer, an explorer, a soldier of fortune." In any case, Moto never quite seems altogether on the up and up although in essence he's a good guy. In this second Mr. Moto film, he is in Peping when it develops that certain parties wish to obtain scrolls that will lead to the hidden tomb of Genghis Khan in the Gobi desert and all of its treasures. Prince Chung (Philip Ahn) and his mother Madame Chung (Pauline Frederick) own the scrolls and will not part with them at any price because they fear the Great Khan's (!) tomb will be desecrated. Assorted individuals are murdered for the scrolls by an unknown party, but Thank You, Mr. Moto is less a mystery than a film of action and intrigue. Characters include Colonel Chernov (Sig Ruman), who tries to purchase the scrolls from the prince; his wife, Madame Chernov (Nedda Harrigan of Charlie Chan at the Opera); Periera (John Carradine), an antique dealer who knows more than he's telling; and Eric Koerger (Sidney Blackmer of The House of Secrets). The romantic interest is supplied by Thomas Beck and Jayne Regan. Lorre is fine as Moto, and Blackmer, Ruman, Harrigan and Carradine are also notable. The best performances, however, come from Ahn as the prince and Frederick as his mother; there's an especially good scene when the prince tries to keep his mother from being tortured. Philip Ahn [Red Barry] was an extremely talented actor, one of those who graces every film he appears in. There is a moving conclusion as well.

Verdict: Creditable if imperfect Moto vehicle. **1/2.

MR. WONG, DETECTIVE

Boris Karloff and Grant Withers
MR. WONG, DETECTIVE (1938). Director: Hugh Wiley.

Mr. Wong is the third Oriental sleuth introduced after Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto. James Lee Wong originally appeared in stories that appeared in Collier's and was the subject of several pictures for cheapie studio Monogram (where Charlie Chan eventually wound up). In this first Mr. Wong movie, Wong (a well-cast Boris Karloff) receives a plea for help from the frightened Dayton (John Hamilton), who runs a chemical company and who is convinced that someone is out to get him. As usual in these pictures, the client winds up dead, and there are more murders to follow. The murder method is poison gas but the killer is especially clever in figuring out how to get the gas to the victim. Suspects and other characters include Captain Street (Grant Withers of Radio Patrol) who's investigating the case; his gal, Myra (Maxine Jennings); the bitter inventor Roemer (John St. Polis); the mysterious Olga Petrov (Evelyn Brent of Daughter of Shanghai); and Dayton's partners, Meisle (William Gould) and Wilk (Hooper Atchley). The performances are fine and the picture moves fairly quickly, although a musical score certainly would have helped. Withers and Brent also appeared together in the serial Jungle Jim

Verdict: Not bad intro to the Mr. Wong series. ***.