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Welcome to William Schoell's GREAT OLD MOVIES blog. Feel free to leave a comment regardless of the date the review was posted -- I read 'em all. Or if you prefer -- and especially if you have any questions directly for me -- email me at tawses67424@mypacks.net and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Click on a label link (labels can be found at the bottom of each post) to find other movies from that year, the star, that director or genre and so on. Or enter a title, director, genre, star or supporting player in the small Blogger "search blog" box at the far left up above and click search blog. [NOTE: While this blog mostly reviews films -- and TV shows -- that are at least twenty-five years old, we do cover films up until the present day.] HAVE FUN AND THANKS FOR DROPPING BY. William.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

EASY LIVING (1937)


EASY LIVING (1937). Director: Mitchell Leisen.


Shop girl Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) is on her way to work and minding her own business when a sable coat drops out of the sky and lands on her head. Before long everyone is convinced that she is the mistress of J. B. Ball (Edward Arnold), the married millionaire who threw the coat off the roof because his wife's spending was out of control. Hotelier Louis Louis (Luis Alberni) invites her to stay in his magnificent Imperial Suite (with five reception rooms and an incredible shower-bath) for $7 a week (all she can afford) but when she finds nothing in the refrigerator she heads for the automat. There she meets Ball's son John (Ray Milland), who's trying to earn his own way in the world, but instead causes a riot when he tries to get Mary a free meat pie. While this isn't necessarily a laugh-a-minute comedy, it has some very amusing sequences (such as the automat riot), interesting characters, and a cute situation. Good performances, especially from Alberni and the incomparable Franklin Pangborn as a shop owner. Esther Dale is also great as Arnold's no-nonsense secretary, who doesn't take any guff from him.

Verdict: Minor-league but fun. **1/2.

SUPERMAN III


SUPERMAN 3. (1983). Director: Richard Lester.

In this entertaining if very silly movie the Superman series has basically been refashioned into a comedy showcase for the undeniable talents of comedian Richard Pryor. In this he plays August Gorman, who after a term of unemployment finds his niche working with computers for a company owned by Webster (Robert Vaughn) and his sister Vera (Annie Ross). (Webster also has a "psychic nutritionist" named Lorelei who acts like a bimbo but turns out to be more intelligent – relatively – than anyone supposes.) After Gorman manages to cleverly steal a large amount of money from Webster’s company, Webster has him use his "talents" to control the weather and then to try and destroy Superman himself. ("I ask you to kill Superman and you can’t do that One Simple Thing!" rants Webster.) Lois Lane has little to do in the film – appearing only at the beginning and end – with Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole) taking center stage in scenes taking place in Smallville. An imperfect recreation of Kryptonite turns Superman "evil" and sexier (he even sleeps with Lorelei, it is suggested) until he has a big battle with himself in an auto junk yard. At one point Superman uses his breath to freeze an entire lake and melt it on top of a nuclear plant that’s on fire. (It’s a question why he doesn’t use his freeze breath to lower the temperature in the reactor room.) The climax has Superman tackling a huge super-computer built to Pryor’s specifications. Christopher Reeve and O’Toole are fine in the film with Pryor getting most of the running time and running with it in fine fashion.. Vaughn is quite hilarious as Webster, and Ross nearly steals the picture as Vera. The effects are first-rate and while there are dumb moments, this is basically good-natured, likable nonsense, if little for the intellect.
Verdict: Fun if you're game. ***.

FORTY GUNS


FORTY GUNS (1957). Director/writer/producer: Samuel Fuller.

Joseph F. Biroc's sweeping, beautiful, CinemaScope photography is one of the major assets of this highly unusual and generally unpredictable western starring Barry Sullivan as a U.S. Marshal named Griff Bonnell. Griff comes to town with his two brothers Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix), and comes into contact -- and conflict -- with powerful rancher Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck). John Ericson is Jessica's swaggering, nasty, out of control brother Brockie, who takes a terrible vengeance on the Bonnell boys. There are very good performances in this from all the named principals, but Dean Jagger is especially noteworthy as the sheriff who has an unrequited yen for Jessica. Eve Brent has a nice turn as the gal-- handy with a gun herself -- that Wes falls in love with. There's a terrific scene with a tornado that nearly sweeps Griff and Jessica into the next world, as well as some suspenseful gun battles. Forty Guns just misses being a really great picture; one senses some important scenes were shortened or left on the cutting room floor. Still, it's a pleasant surprise. Barney's (Jidge Carroll) song numbers are okay but a little disconcerting; this was his only film.

Verdict: Flavorful tale of the old west. ***.

DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL


DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL (1957). Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

On her 21st birthday Janet Smith (Gloria Talbott) brings her fiance George (John Agar) to meet her guardian Dr. Lomas (Arthur Shields) on the latter's spooky estate. There Lomas tells the woman that she is not only a wealthy heiress, but that her father was the notorious Dr. Jekyll (the film takes place in the early part of the 20th century). The film, via Dr. Lomas, posits the theory that Mr. Hyde was actually a werewolf. Does the tendency for lycanthropy exist in Jekyll's daughter? Soon she's having dreams of attacking young women in the woods, waking up bloodied and dirty only to discover that the maid or somebody else got slaughtered. Daughter of Dr. Jekyll seems to have borrowed its basic premise from She-Wolf of London, but on its own terms it's creepy and atmospheric, bolstered by very good performances from Talbott and Shields, who strikes just the right note as the doctor. Even stalwart John Agar isn't bad and Martha Wentworth is memorable as the housekeeper, Mrs. Merchant. One of the murder scenes, of a sexy blond in her home, is inventively staged.

Verdict: Good, absorbing fun. ***.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

TERROR BY NIGHT


TERROR BY NIGHT (1946). Director: Roy William Neill.

Sherlock Holmes is hired to prevent the theft of the incredible Star of Rhodesia jewel owned by the haughty Lady Carstairs (Mary Forbes). This film isn't even an hour long, so it would be criminal to give away any of the surprises, but it involves skullduggery on board a train going from London to Edinburgh. On board are Lady Carstairs, her son Roland (Geoffrey Steele), Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey), the femme fatale Vivan Vedder (Renee Godfrey), and of course Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and Watson (Nigel Bruce). Other passengers include Watson's friend Major Duncan-Bleek (Alan Mowbray). Holmes wonders if his antagonist could be none other than Sebastian Moran, an associate of the late Professor Moriarty. Very fast-paced and engaging with generally good performances from all.

Verdict: Entertaining mystery-thriller is clever if on the slight side. **1/2.

BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE


BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE (1938). Director: Ernst Lubitsch.


Nicolle (Claudette Colbert) falls in love with the extremely wealthy Michael Brandon (Gary Cooper) but right before the wedding she discovers that he's already been married to -- and divorced -- seven other women! Distraught not only by the fact of his previous marriages, but his cavalier -- and financial --attitude toward matrimony in general, Nicolle marries Michael but becomes the Wife from Hell, hoping he'll divorce her and she'll get a lifetime annuity. This meant-to-be-frothy comedy, although written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, is comparatively dull and mostly unfunny and illogical, and is no "screwball" classic. Cooper tries hard and has his moments, but he's no Cary Grant, and Colbert is at her most artificial and "actressy." Scenes between the two have absolutely no spontaneity but seem carved in cement. The supporting players, including Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, Elizabeth Patterson, and David Niven, are more on the mark.

Verdict: One or two laughs, maybe, and you can miss them. *1/2

NOTHING BUT TROUBLE (1944)


NOTHING BUT TROUBLE (1944). Director: Sam Taylor.

As the film starts in 1932, Laurel and Hardy have so much trouble finding work as chef and butler (they come from a long line of same) that they go to Europe. Returning in 1944, the find that their skills are now much in demand. An anxious Mary Boland hires them for her household and to prepare a special dinner party for visiting royalty. (Frankly, much more could have been made of their escaping with Boland from the other anxious wannabee employers at the employment office.) Going shopping, the boys encounter the young King Chris (David Leland), who would rather play football than rule his country. This leads to a protracted football sequence that is completely devoid of laughs. However things pick up with the disastrous dinner party itself -- featuring a rubber steak that resists all efforts to cut it -- as well as a genuinely suspenseful and hilarious ending with the boys and the king forced out on a ledge by a usurper. Stan and Ollie are great, young Leland gives an appealing performance, and Mary Boland is delightful as Mrs. Elvira Hawkley. Good supporting performances as well. Although Leland looks around 14 years of age, he was actually 23 at the time!

Verdict: Despite flaws, a charming and entertaining movie. ***.

MEXICAN HAYRIDE


MEXICAN HAYRIDE (1948). Director: Charles Barton.


Bud and Lou are up to mischief down in Mexico, where Joe (Costello) has followed Harry (Abbott), who bilked him out of money and is now hoping to sell shares to a mine. At the arena, Bud realizes that the lady bullfighter Montana (Virginia Grey), is actually an old gal pal, Mary. Harry's sexy associate Dagmar (Luba Malina) tries to find out where Joe has hidden his money. And the law, as well as sinister old associates, are closing in. Fritz Feld is a scream as an elocution master who tries to help Costello with his speech, and a lot of humor is generated by the fact that Lou can't resist dancing every time he hears the Samba -- including in the bullring, where a very dramatic bull is after his hide. Costello also has a funny routine with the fast-talking Sidney Fields, and an amusing song and dance number with the zesty Malina. Lou's brother Pat Costello probably has a larger, speaking role in this than in any other A&C feature as a tough guy who's looking for Joe.

Verdict: Good-natured fun. ***

SHE-WOLF OF LONDON


SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (1946). Director: Jean Yarbrough.

In turn of the century London, Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart), is excitedly planning her wedding with fiance Barry Lanfield (Don Porter). But her hopeful plans for the future take a backseat to fear and terror when she believes she's become a victim of the Allenby lycanthropic curse, as she wakes up covered in dirt and blood only to learn that there's been another terrible murder in the park outside the estate. Her Aunt Martha (Sara Haden) tries to calm her fears to no avail, and Phyllis tries to break off her engagement with Lanfield. Meanwhile Scotland Yard goes on the hunt for the wild animal or psychotic human who's been savaging children and adults in the park. Taking place some time earlier, this appears to have no connection to Werewolf of London. While the picture is well-acted and well-produced, and keeps you guessing as to who exactly the "she-wolf" might be -- Phyllis, her cousin Carol (Jan Wiley), Aunt Martha, housekeeper Hannah (Eily Malyon)? -- the ending is a notorious cheat. Still, this is fast-moving and entertaining. Martin Kosleck has a small role -- a romantic part for a change -- as Carol's mystery lover, Dwight Severn. June Lockhart makes a very appealing heroine, and Sara Haden is quite effective (if a little obvious) in a role very different from Mickey Rooney's Aunt Milly in the Andy Hardy films.

Verdict: Fun, if you get past the disappointing ending.**1/2.

Friday, April 25, 2008

LILY TURNER


LILY TURNER (1933). Director: William A. Wellman.

Lily (Ruth Chatterton) has lousy luck with men. Her first husband, Rex (Gordon Westcott) deserts her after she gets pregnant and turns out to be a bigamist. Her second husband, Dave (Frank McHugh), marries her to make her respectable again, but prefers drinking to anything else and the marriage is never consummated. Finally Lily meets handsome, virile Bob (George Brent), while both are working for a shifty shiller of magical elixirs and the like, Doc McGill (Guy Kibbee). Frustrated horniness seems to be the sub-theme of this movie, with everyone -- including the demented strongman Fritz (Robert Barrat) -- either lusting for Lily or for Bob, who "sends" Mrs. McGill (Marjorie Gateson). This is an odd -- and oddly likable picture -- with good performances from the cast, and a somewhat poignant, if inconclusive, conclusion. This could have used an extra fifteen minutes or so to strengthen the story and characters, but it isn't half bad.

Verdict: Holds the attention. ***.

DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD


DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD (1954). Director: Richard Quine.

Mickey Rooney plays an auto mechanic with racing ambitions who falls under the spell of a woman (Dianne Foster) whose hood boyfriend (Kevin McCarthy) ordered her to get the guy to help them in a bank robbery. Unfortunately, Rooney thinks the gal is really in love with him. Although this holds the attention and is generally well-acted, it just doesn't amount to much. The robbery itself is none too thrilling, and the getaway just features some fast driving down winding roads (with absolutely no one in pursuit -- what's the hurry?) Jack Kelly is totally miscast as a supposedly nasty member of McCarthy's gang. Rooney gives a pretty good performance, however.

Verdict: Not much to this caper. **.

RIO RITA


RIO RITA (1942). Director: S. Sylvan Simon.

Bud and Lou think they're traveling by automobile trunk to New York but wind up in the Southwest, where they dally with a famous crooner, Ricardo Montera (John Carroll), his old girlfriend (Kathryn Grayson), an undercover agent, Lucette Brunswick(Patricia Dane), and a nest of Nazi spies headed by Tom Conway. Barry Nelson also has a small part. There are a few nice song numbers, a couple of laughs, and amiable performances by all. Some of the humor is a bit risque, especially when Costello -- under the tablecloth -- traverses a table full of old biddies and makes them all go "whooee," as well as a line Lou delivers to Bud about a cow girl: "She didn't get her calves together."

Verdict: Fun of a minor kind, with appealing players. ***.

AIR RAID WARDENS


AIR RAID WARDENS (1943). Director: Edward Segdwick.

On December 7th, 1941, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy want to enlist in the Army but are turned down by every branch of the services. Therefore they decide to help out on the home front and become air raid wardens. A series of misadventures lead to them being thrown out of the corps, but they come across a nest of Nazi spies and somehow manage to save the day. This charming, amusing film, while not a masterpiece, features the boys at the top of their form, likable schnooks who are seen as hideous misfits by the less tolerant of the small town's citizens. There are some hilarious moments in the film, as well as a good supporting cast, including Donald Meek as Eustace Middling, who is a German spy. Horace (Stephen) McNally is the newspaper publisher and Howard Freeman, Nella Walker, and Edgar Kennedy are some of their foils.

Verdict: Lots of laughs. ***.

THE WOLF MAN


THE WOLF MAN (1941). Director: George Waggner.

After the accidental death of his brother, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) comes home to the ancestral manor in Europe and falls for Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), the pretty daughter of an antique dealer. Unfortunately, at a carnival with Gwen, Talbot is also bitten by a werewolf, Bela (Bela Lugosi), whom he kills. Bela's mother, the gypsy woman Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), knows that Talbot is now under the same curse as her late son and tries to help him. The Wolf Man is not a great picture -- Curt Siodmak's screenplay doesn't hold up to much scrutiny -- but it is fast-moving and entertaining and has an extremely interesting cast. Claude Rains really classes up the movie as Talbot's father, Sir John (who figures in the moving conclusion). Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, and Patric Knowles play, respectively, the family doctor, a policeman, and Gwen's fiance. The wolf man makeup by Jack Pierce is very good, but no explanation is given for why Bela turned into an actual wolf and Talbot into a wolf man. While the "August moon" figures in a poem on lycanthropy recited (seemingly within five minutes) by three different people -- which is unintentionally comical -- the full moon aspect of the legend really doesn't play a part in the story. Unfortunately Maleva also recites the same elegy -- "the way you walked was thorny" -- three times as well. Still, this is well-acted, atmospheric, and quite watchable. Lon Chaney (he had dropped the "jr." by this time) only gives an acceptable performance, however. NOTE: For a sneak peek at the new Wolf Man, click here.

Verdict: Not a bad classic horror flick; the cast certainly helps! ***.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS


A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966) Director: Fred Zinnemann.

King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) wants the Pope to allow him to divorce wife Catharine so that he can marry Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave). If you disagree with the King you're considered a traitor, but one man -- the Chancellor, Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) -- thinks that the Pope's, God's law, overrules the King's, and refuses to take an oath of loyalty on the matter. This study of a man of principle, who adheres to private conscience over public duty, is absorbing, well-acted, literately scripted (by Richard Bolt from his play), and expertly photographed by Ted Moore, with a nice musical background by Georges Delerue. Orson Welles offers one of the best performances as Cardinal Wolsey, but Leo McKern as Cromwell, Shaw as King Henry, Nigel Davenport as Norfolk, and John Hurt as Richard Rich are all quite excellent as well. Vanessa Redgrave's brother, Corin Redgrave, also makes an impression as More's son-in-law William Roper, as does Susannah York as his daughter. Wendy Hiller seems to play her role as More's wife, Lady Alice, in only one note throughout, and Scofield, although he won the Best Actor Oscar, is overly cool and theatrical, as if he had toned down his stage performance a bit too much. At times he seems perfunctory instead of impassioned, busy speaking lines instead of feeling the emotions. And the question remains: was More a principled man of courage or a self-destructive religious fool (or fanatic) who cared more for the Church than for his wife and family? The film also won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Costumes, and Best Screenplay.

Verdict: Even if you grow impatient with the the central character, the film is well-made and compelling.***.

THE CONSPIRATORS


THE CONSPIRATORS (1944). Jean Negulesco.

Paul Henreid stars as Vincent Van Der Lyn, aka "the Flying Dutchman," a spy who is up to his neck in intrigue in Lisbon. There he encounters a beautiful woman, Irene (Hedy Lamarr), with a much older husband, as well as a group of anti-German spies headed by Ricardo Quintanilla (the very un-Spanish Sydney Greenstreet, pictured). When Vincent is framed for the murder of an agent in his hotel room, he manages to escape from prison and sets out to find out who set him up. There is some suspense during the jail break, as well as during the climax in a casino, but The Conspirators is a distinctly third-rate, often illogical and ludicrous spy trifle that seems to take four hours to get nowhere. A host of fine character actors -- Kurt Katch, Victor Francen, among others -- add to the film's limited enjoyment level, but Greenstreet hasn't enough to do and Peter Lorre has even less.

Verdict: Skip it! *1/2.

THIN ICE


THIN ICE (1937). Director: Sidney Lanfield.

An entire Swiss village is excited to learn -- erroneously -- that Lili Heiser (Sonja Henie) is dating the handsome Prince Rudolph (Tyrone Power). Ironically, not much later Lili does meet the prince, who's incognito, but doesn't realize the man she eventually falls in love with (and vice versa) is the famous Prince. Therefore she's quite upset to learn that everyone thinks she's dallying with Prince Rudolph. That's the thin premise of this disappointing comedy that has few if any laughs, even with the presence of Joan Davis as an orchestra leader. Tyrone Power displays his usual charm and ability, but while Henie is cute and appealing in some ways, she's not much of an actress and certainly no gifted comedienne. Arthur Treacher plays Power's manservant. Pretty boring to be honest.

Verdict: Unless you're crazy for ice skating, you can miss it. *1/2.

CALLING DR. DEATH


CALLING DR DEATH (1943). Director: Reginald LeBorg.


Universal studios' first "Inner Sanctum" mystery should have put paid to the series. Although it runs a little over an hour, it seems to be three hours long. Lon Chaney (Jr.) is a doctor whose wife (Ramsay Ames) is murdered. Chaney thinks he must have done it, but there are other suspects, including one of the wife's boyfriends, as well as his disabled wife. The solution is almost obvious from the start. J. Carroll Naish is fine as a policeman, and Patricia Morison does a nice turn as Chaney's nurse. Chaney is only adequate, however, and his whispered thoughts heard on the soundtrack can bring on somnambulance. Ramsay Ames' terrible performance as Stella, Chaney's worse half, pretty much explains why little more was heard of her, although she was in such films as The Mummy's Ghost and others in later years.

Verdict: Could help if you're having trouble getting to sleep. *

THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1933)


THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1933). 12 chapter Mascot serial. Directed by Armand Schaefer and Colbert Clark.

Described as an “updated” version of the story by Alexander Dumas, this is an entertaining cliffhanger with John Wayne taking center stage and the “musketeers” pushed into a subordinate position. In a battle between members of the Foreign Legion and gunrunners, all but three members of the legion forces are wiped out. The last three are saved by the timely intervention of Lt. Tom Wayne [John Wayne] in his plane. This first scene is a little weird, as the “heroes” have absolutely no reaction to the sudden deaths of their colleagues [one who "steals" a cigarette from a fallen comrade is shot and killed himself a moment later] and indeed remain jaunty and insouciant as they stand there afterward with the bodies of fellow legionnaires presumably lying all around them. Smiling in the face of death and remaining cool and philosophical about warfare is all well and good, but these musketeers come off as callous idiots. In contrast, John Wayne shows genuine emotion and concern when his buddy Stubbs (Noah Beery Jr.) is shot in front of him. Lon Chaney Jr., billed as Creighton Chaney, appears briefly as a friend of Wayne's who is murdered, with Wayne becoming the chief suspect. The real culprit is the villain El Shaitan [The Devil], who is plotting an Arab rebellion against the Legion. Wayne's girlfriend, Chaney's sister Elaine (Ruth Hall), has a letter which will clear Wayne of murder charges, and naturally there's a lot of running after this letter as well as many shots of men fairly leaping onto horses. The Musketeers are played by Francis X. Bushman, Raymond Hatton, and Jack [The Clutching Hand] Mulhall.
Verdict: Fairly entertaining, with a generally fast pace and some exciting moments. **1/2.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

DR. NO [revisited]


DR. NO (1962). Director: Terence Young.

Asked what he thought of the film adaptation of his novel "Dr. No," Ian Fleming replied thusly: “Those who've read the book are likely to be disappointed, but those who haven't will find it a wonderful movie. Audiences laugh in all the right places.” Well ... score one for Fleming, who was right on target: the book was better. Still, Dr No is an entertaining, essentially well-made thriller which introduced James Bond 007 to the world (notwithstanding the Casino Royale television production) and started the practice of him giving out with black comedy quips which were not in Fleming's novels. Dr. No also began the practice of featuring a cinematic Bond who was much less dimensional than he was in the books. Bond is assigned to investigate the disappearance of two agents in Jamaica, and comes afoul of the sinister Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), who is taking over the guidance systems of the super-powers' missiles. The best and most suspenseful sequences have to do with Bond trying to keep from being captured by the doctor's men on his island of Crab Key. [Although the fictional James Bond has a scar on his cheek, this detail has always been omitted from the films.]

Although the movie is relatively faithful to Ian Fleming's novel, there were quite a few changes made. Felix Leiter does not appear in the book, but he shows up briefly in the film in the form of Jack Lord. Bond winds up with a tarantula in his bed instead of the much more dangerous giant centipede that appears in the novel [the deadliness of the tarantula has always been greatly exaggerated]. There are no birds or bird dung on Crab Key, and we learn what the doctor is up to almost from the very start. Honey (Ursula Andress) does not have a broken nose, but she does relate the story, as in the novel, of dropping a black widow spider into the bed of a man who raped her. [Although no reference book states this outright, Andress appears to be dubbed; for one thing the Swiss actress has a British schoolgirl accent, and her voice sounds different from subsequent film appearances.] Dr. No is working for SPECTRE instead of for the Russians, and at the end Bond enters a tunnel simply as an escape attempt – it is not “doctored” with Dr. No's traps as a test of endurance as in the novel. Finally, there is no giant squid at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps the filmmakers felt the audience just wouldn't buy this [to date there is no live giant squid in captivity.]

Handsome and well-produced, Dr. No is not a great movie, but it is a good one, and a not-bad introduction to the World of 007. There is one rather dumb moment, when Bond kills Professor Dent, who is in the employ of Dr. No. While one can't blame Bond for wanting to snuff Dent, who has tried to kill him more than once, what about keeping him alive for questioning? The cast members give adequate to excellent performances with Wiseman the best as the sinister and strangely elegant Dr. No.

Verdict: Definitely has its moments. ***.

CASINO ROYALE (1967)


CASINO ROYALE (1967). Directors: John Huston; Ken Hughes; Robert Parrish; Joe McGrath; Val Guest.

Bizarre parody of James Bond movies features David Niven as the original 007 who's brought out of retirement after M and his corresponding officials in other countries are blown to bits (along with Niven's estate). He takes over M's position and is furious how “secret agent has become synonymous with sex maniac” since that new fellow took over. He enlists all the top agents to battle the threat of Dr. Noah, head of Smersh. These include: Agent Cooper (Terence Cooper), who is trained to resist the advances of gorgeous women; Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet), the daughter of Niven-Bond and Mata Hari; Evelyn Tremble (a subdued Peter Sellers), a baccarat master who must pose as Bond to outwit Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) in the only scene reminiscent of the novel; and Niven's nebbish nephew Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen). [Mata Bond is sexy and audacious in early scenes, but later on seems innocent and virginal, a victim of jangled continuity?] Gorgeous Ursula Andress -- at this time she was one of the most beautiful women in the movies [and is still pretty hot today] -- from Dr. No is cast as Miss Lynn Vesper, who helps train Sellers and has a body disposal unit in her bedroom. Dahlia Lavi is good as another saucy agent, and Jackie Bisset appears briefly as enemy spy Miss Goodthighs.

SPOILER ALERT: Woody Allen – who is very funny – turns out to be the nefarious Dr. Noah. He plans to replace all the world's rulers with doubles under his control, and has a bacillus that will make all women beautiful and kill all men over four foot six! He has also invented – and is tricked by Lavi into swallowing – capsules with “tiny time pills” that will turn a person into a walking bomb. After a wild fight at the casino where the cavalry literally appears (as well as Jean-Paul Belmondo and George Raft in cameos) Woody blows up himself and the rest of the cast. Everyone goes to Heaven – except Woody.

Although this picture is very silly and plays like a bad Batman episode at times, it does have great sets and scenic design, terrific music by Burt Bacharach [the rousing theme played by Herb Alpert; "The Look of Love"], and many inspired and amusing sequences. Five directors gives it an episodic feel as well as some muddled continuity. The Art Deco spy school with Frau Hoffner (well played by an amusing Anna Quale) is quite striking; there's some great, sweeping cinematography and good FX work; and the memorable guest stars include Deborah Kerr, who is quite good in a comedic turn as a spy posing as M's wife who tries to tempt Niven into immorality. Other guest-stars include co-director John Huston, William Holden and Charles Boyer. Barbara Bouchet makes a delectable Miss Moneypenny. There's an amusing (if highly stereotypical) gay tailor who outfits Sellers with new spy clothes and creates a few questionable gags. The funniest moment: Woody Allen climbs up a wall to escape a firing squad, only to drop down on the other side – where there's another firing squad! NOTE: To read a review of Ian Fleming's original novel, click here. To read a review of the remake click here.

Verdict: Although Casino Royale is certainly not on the level of the “serious” Bond films, it isn't that awful – but it's nothing spectacular either. **1/2.

ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE


ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969). Director: Peter Hunt.

After meeting a beautiful, troubled woman named Tracy (Diana Rigg) and her handsome criminal father Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), Bond uses info he acquires from Draco to track down Ernest Stavros Blofeld (Telly Savalas), who is using beautiful women with allergies in another massive extortion plot. Since Blofeld hopes the College of Arms will declare him a count, Bond goes in disguise as someone from the college to Blofeld’s Swiss HQ and tries to figure out what he’s up to. Richard Maibaum’s script is relatively faithful to Ian Fleming’s novel, although there are a few changes. It makes no sense that Draco’s men should seemingly try to kill either Tracy or Bond in the prologue and other sequences. In the novel, the men are simply trying to escort the two of them to Draco and Bond misunderstands.

Although double entendres had been part of the Bond movies (if not the novels) for years, Maibaum’s script seems unnecessarily smarmy at times. A stupid aspect is the way Bond allegedly pretends to be gay when he impersonates Sir Hilary Bray (from the College of Arms), although this comes out more in some dialogue than in Lazenby’s performance – he seems foppish, stuffy, a bit of a "sissy," perhaps, but not stereotypically "gay." (The real Sir Hilary is a bit foppish but not epicene -- and not a gay character. And most gay men are not foppish or effeminate in any case.) In Fleming’s novel Bond simply observes that there’s no reason why a nobleman, whom he’s impersonating, can’t be down-to-earth, and decides to pretty much act like himself. When 007, disguised as Sir Hilary, interacts with the ladies he meets at Blofeld’s in the film he is perfectly charming with them and even flirts with one of them, Ruby. (Ruby writes her room number on his thigh in lipstick and he returns from her room after an assignation with a lipstick kiss on his cheek.) Yet one gal observes "I know what he’s allergic to," and even Ruby – pre-assignation – says "You’re funny – pretending you don’t like girls." Huh? This just doesn’t come off. Americans may think that men with upper class British accents sound effeminate, but why would British girls think the same? When he pretends to be Bray, 007 doesn't sound any more affected than Prince Charles! (Lazenby is dubbed by the actor portraying Bray during these scenes.)

Maibaum adds some good scenes as well as bad ones: Bond kisses Miss Moneypenny on the lips, (if not with great passion) and she’s seen crying at his wedding. When Bond goes to pay another call on Ruby, he finds the formidable Irma Bunt, Blofeld’s assistant, in her bed! In the novel, Bond and Blofeld had never come face to face before, but everyone connected with the film forgot that the two men met in the previous Bond movie You Only Live Twice -- yet Blofeld doesn’t recognize Bond (he figures it out because of a mistake Bond makes – as well as 007's sheer horniness.) While it may be "tame" by today’s standards, the scene when an agent pursuing Bond and Tracy gets chewed up by a snow blower (in the novel he ran into a train) turned a few stomachs in 1969 and (even if it was a bad guy) was considered in bad taste for an escapist film.

George Lazenby may not be a great actor, but he isn’t at all bad as Bond. He may in general lack the wry, raised-eyebrow insouciance of Sean Connery, but he can be gruff and athletic when he needs to be, as well as light and charming when required. Considering he practically had to carry the whole film on his shoulders with relatively little experience, he acquits himself quite nicely. Diana Rigg is as lovely and professional as ever as Tracy. Although her part was beefed up a bit from the novel, it is still very much a supporting role at best. Telly Savalas makes a wonderful, smooth, urbane and virile Blofeld, although he doesn’t exude too much personal menace – he won’t kill you with his bare hands but will certainly watch with glee as somebody else does it for him. Gabriele Ferzetti is perfect as Draco.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is ultimately a mediocre Bond outing, unfortunately. Michael Reed's cinematography is second-rate, and director Peter Hunt covers the action without much cinematic elan. The film is better edited (by John Glen, who would himself direct some Bond features and was second unit director for this picture) than directed, as witnessed by the film’s greatest sequence: the battle between Bond and Blofeld as they careen down the icy, slithering bobsled run. This superb, breathlessly paced, and brilliantly executed sequence remains one of the best action scenes in any Bond movie. If only the overlong picture had more scenes like it.
There is no opening theme song for the movie, although later in the film Louis Armstrong croaks out a rendition of the pleasant "All the Time in the World" by John Barry (who did the score, as usual) and Hal David. NOTE: To read a review of Ian Fleming's novel, click here.

Verdict: Great bobsled sequence! **1/2.

LIVE AND LET DIE


LIVE AND LET DIE (1973). Director: Guy Hamilton.

Always one of the lesser Bond flicks, this pic has improved with age, although it will never be top-drawer Bond. The first half is quite good, both suspenseful and intriguing, but then it briefly turns into a Smoky and the Bandit clone with way too much screen time given over to a fat, supposedly comical Southern sheriff trying to get a handle on a boat chase between Bond and his Black pursuers. The movie never quite recovers from this, winding up with a so-so climax in an underground grotto. Jane Seymour as Solitaire and Yaphet Kotto as Dr. Kananga (he merely masquerades as the novel's Mr. Big in this) are comparatively colorless and make little impression; Gloria Hendry does better as Big's double agent. Kananga is in the heroine trade instead of smuggling Bloody Morgan's treasure as in the novel. Never as thrilling as it could have been, but not awful; the only stand-out sequence, however, is when Bond is cornered by a bunch of hungry gators. Quarrel's son, Quarrel Jr., shows up to lend a hand (in the book it was Quarrel himself, but he was killed off in the first Bond movie, Dr. No). In his first outing as James Bond, Roger Moore is excellent. The photography is first-rate as well. The theme song by Paul McCartney is fairly wretched. The novel's best sequences wound up in later Bond movies. NOTE: To read a review of the novel by Ian Fleming, click here.
Verdict: Mediocre Bond. **.

LICENCE TO KILL


LICENCE TO KILL (1989) Director: John Glen. Written by Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum.

This is perhaps the grittiest and, for lack of a better word, most “realistic” of the Bond films. Bond (Timothy Dalton) is in Florida for the wedding of his old friend Felix Leiter (David Hedison), who nearly misses his wedding to go after his number one target, drug lord Sanchez (Robert Davi, pictured). Sanchez, unfortunately, escapes -- with the aid of a traitorous colleague of Leiter's -- and takes revenge on Leiter by murdering his bride and feeding Leiter to a Great White. [This scene is actually taken from Ian Fleming's novel Live and Let Die. As in the book, Leiter does not die but loses a couple of limbs, and is delivered back home with a note that reads He disagreed with something that ate him.] Bond makes up his mind to take down Sanchez, but both American drug agents and M himself order him to back off. Enraged, Bond resigns and goes AWOL, teaming up with drug agent Pam Bouvier (Cary Lowell), who also has an interest in Sanchez. In Isthmus City in Panama, Bond and Pam are up to their necks in Sanchez' associates, Japanese drug merchants, counter-agents who are out to get Sanchez, and even Q (Desmond Llewelyn), who comes to Isthmus City with gadgets for Bond and plays a larger role than he does in most Bond movies. Although Llewelyn plays Q, M and Miss Moneypenny are essayed by different actors than those in the earlier films.

Licence to Kill is romantic, darkly amusing, and quite exciting for the most part. Dalton plays Bond like a heroic human being and not a Superman. Lowell's character is feisty, independent and liberated; only her jealousy of Bond's “relationship” with Sanchez' girlfriend. Lupe, is stereotypical and silly. Lowell is perfect as Pam, but Talisa Soto betrays very little acting skill as Lupe. Robert Davi is a major Bond villain with equal parts charm and menace, and Benicio Del Toro is slithering, sociopathic, almost sexy prime evil as Sanchez' lead assassin. Anthony Starke scores as Sanchez' fresh-scrubbed Wall Street-type associate, Truman-Lodge, and Wayne Newton is amusing and inspired casting as an evangelist who helps Sanchez distribute his drugs. Don Stroud, Anthony Zerbe, David Hedison, Priscilla Barnes and others also turn in solid performances. The film has superior production design and good photography from Alec Mills. The title song is a snappy one, although not particularly well sung by Gladys Knight. Michael Kamen's score is functional, but doesn't compare with John Barry's romantic music, which may have been considered unsuitable for this grittier approach to 007. Licence to Kill was filmed on location in Mexico and Florida.

Although this is a very good Bond adventure, there are – surprisingly – no particular scenes that one can point to and pronounce a “knock-out.” The film works on a cumulative level. This is not to say that there aren't memorable sequences, such as when Bond takes over the small plane being piloted by drug runners or the ironic death of the traitor at the teeth of the Great White. But some of the scenes are not edited as tightly as they should have been. The climax is marred because they keep cutting away from the main action too often, and the fight to the death between Bond and Sanchez, while clever, is much too brief. Dalton really had a handle on the character – too bad he wasn't allowed to play Bond for a few more films.

Verdict: While flawed, this is a highly satisfying and entertaining 007 outing. ***.

GOLDENEYE


GOLDENEYE (1995). Director: Martin Campbell. [NOTE: On occasion Great Old Movies will review films less than 25 years old if they would be of interest to our readers.]

Pierce Brosnan took over the role of James Bond with this movie. There's a new “M”, a woman (Judi Dench), who tells off Bond in one sequence, as well as a new Miss Moneypenny, who does the same, but Q remains Desmond Llewelyn in a sequence that borders on something out of Get Smart. There's an exciting prologue involving skydiving sans parachute; the rest of the story deals with a double-agent (Sean Bean) who steals a powerful weapon called GoldenEye from the Russians, and plans to use it to devastating effect if he isn't stopped. The Bond girls include ex-Soviet fighter pilot and hit woman Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen, pictured), and the much nicer Natalya (Izabella Scorupco), the only survivor of the attack on the facility that housed GoldenEye.

This is a good-looking movie photographically, and has some exciting moments, but no really outstanding sequences [certainly not as compared to what has come before in the 007 canon]. The scene with Bond chasing after a Russian ally of Bean's in a tank is rather long and comparatively dull, and in the scene after the prologue Bond acts like an overgrown adolescent. The climax on the giant satellite dish isn't bad, however. Sean Bean nearly steals the picture with Janssen close behind him. Tina Turner “sings” a forgettable title song, and the rest of the score by Eric Sarra is mediocre to say the least. John Barry is sorely missed.

NOTE: “Goldeneye” was the name of Ian Fleming's estate.

Verdict: Pierce Brosnan makes a not-bad Bond, and this is a not-bad Bond adventure, although certainly not top-rank. **1/2.

CASINO ROYALE (2006)


CASINO ROYALE (2006). Directed by Martin Campbell. NOTE: On occasion Great Old Movies will review a more recent film of interest to our readers.

This excellent OO7 adventure takes Ian Fleming’s original story and updates it to contemporary times, although it is still presented as Bond’s first major case (as it was in the books; it was the first Bond novel) and as such can be considered a "prequel." Bond is already considered a maverick by M (played, incongruously, by the wonderful Judi Dench, as if the male "M" never existed), when he’s assigned to beat a man known as Le Chiffre at cards at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. Le Chiffre has already lost a lot of money owed to terrorist employers and desperately needs to win it back. Vesper Lynd, who is not a field agent, accompanies Bond to Montenegro to keep track of how he spends his funds allocated for gambling. There’s a splendid action scene at an airport when Bond tries to prevent a terrorist from blowing up a new-fangled kind of plane, a suspenseful torture scene between Bond and Le Chiffre involving a chair with the bottom cut out as well as Bond’s bare bottom, and an exciting climax that takes place in Venice inside a collapsing Palazzo and features the moving, dramatic death of a major character.

As for Daniel Craig, he’s terrific. He takes some getting used to, admittedly. At first he seems a bit too thug-like, devoid of the elegance and class that has always been part of the 007 mystique. He’s not really an especially handsome bloke, his face a bit blunt and battered (as if he’s been on a lot more than one mission, frankly), but one can see how he could appeal to certain ladies. He looks more like Fleming’s original concept for Bond than Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnan, Timothy Dalton, and especially, Roger Moore. And more like 007 even than George Lazenby. Craig is probably a better actor than most of those guys to boot, handling the more sensitive scenes as well as the obligatory fisticuffs and gunplay. Eva Green is also excellent as Vesper Lynd, unconventionally beautiful, glamorous yet real, undeniably tragic. Mads Mikkelsen scores as Le Chiffre and there are other fine supporting performances as well. Felix Leiter, not for the first time, is portrayed by an African-American actor (Jeffrey Wright) although in the novels his character was Caucasian. As Leiter, regrettably, has never been that dimensional a character in this or any other Bond movie, it scarcely makes a difference.

This is possibly the only Bond film that approaches the more literate level of Fleming’s novels and -- even more than the Timothy Dalton features -- dares to present Bond a bit more as a realistic human being instead of a cartoon super-hero (not that we don’t have the usual improbable but enjoyable feats of derring do). One of the best scenes is a quiet moment when Bond comforts Vesper in the shower (both are dressed) after her first exposure to extreme violence leaves her depressed and rattled., The beautiful settings and exquisite cinematography by Phil Meheux give the picture a glossy, romantic sheen and the stunt work is as gutsy as ever. Not to quibble, but the film ends a little too abruptly for my taste. Still, Casino Royale is the best James Bond movie in years. One debit: The opening theme music is pretty awful., but you can't have everything. Screenplay by Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis. NOTE: To read a review of the first film version of Casino Royale, click here.

Verdict: Excellent Bond adventure. ***1/2.

Monday, April 21, 2008

EXPERIMENT PERILOUS


EXPERIMENT PERILOUS (1944). Director: Jacques Tourneur.

In 1903 Hunt Bailey (George Brent), a psychiatrist, gets involved with the Bederaux family, who are keeping secrets. Nick Bederaux (Paul Lukas) wants Bailey to examine his wife, Allida (Hedy Lamarr), whose behavior, he believes, is having a negative effect on their cute little boy (a charming, uncredited child actor). Bailey suspects that it's Nick who's having a negative effect on his beautiful wife, but then Bailey is falling in love with her. Surprisingly, Tourneur does very little with this material, but the script might have even taxed Hitchcock. Slow, unconvincing and dull, there's no suspense and no peril in the movie until the very last few minutes. Albert Dekker is a friend of Bailey's and Margaret Wycherly is his maid, Maggie. The material gives the actors little to work with, but Lukas comes off best.

Verdict: An experiment in tedium. *1/2.

STAN AND OLLIE


STAN AND OLLIE: The Roots of Comedy -- The Double Life of Laurel and Hardy. Simon Louvish. Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press. 2002.

Excellent dual biography of the great comedy team of Laurel and Hardy explains their importance and influence in the world of comedy, analyses their working methods, acting approaches, and various films, and delves into their often tumultuous private lives as well, all in literate prose that keeps you happily turning the pages. Louvish investigates the boys' backgrounds and family histories and separates facts from rumors and legend. Both Stan and Ollie had more than one unhappy marriage, and their trials and tribulations with their assorted wives, divorces, infidelities, alimonies, lawyers, and jealous females often read like a script for one of their zanier movies, and indeed these real-life episodes often informed their comic on-screen antics. Along the way Louvish also educates the reader with facts and anecdotes about the early days of filmmaking, movie comedy, and the famous players who intersected Stan and Ollie's inexorable but not always smooth journey towards fame. Many wonderful black and white photographs are included in the thick, scrupulously-researched volume, which is informative, entertaining, and a great read. You'll want to get your hands on every L & H movie you can find, even the lesser ones!

Verdict: Excellent! ****.

THE PERILS OF PAULINE (1934)


THE PERILS OF PAULINE (1934). 12 chapter Universal serial. Director: Ray Taylor.

This is a sound remake of the silent serial starring Pearl White. In this version the plucky and charming Evalyn Knapp plays Pauline Hargraves, whose father, the Professor, is determined to find the missing half of a piece of a sacred disc found in a temple. The disc contains the formula for a gas that once destroyed some ancient civilizations, but can now perhaps be used for more positive results. Unfortunately, the evil Dr. Bashan (a highly striking and effective John Davidson) and his associate Mr. Fang, want the formula for their own evil ends, and will stop at nothing to get the second half of the disc before the professor, Pauline, and handsome adventurer Bob Ward (Robert Allen) can do so. Pauline and her group have to deal with explosions, storms at sea, a hurling leopard, and a knife-wielding human tigress in twelve episodes, but the liveliest cliffhanger of all comes at the end of chapter seven. In this a hotel our heroine stays at just happens to have a shark pool [!] fed by an underground passage below her balcony. [Even the characters remark upon the illogic of this even as they try to rationalize it.] Of course Pauline and Bob wind up falling into the pool and are nearly eaten by the fish. There's a tomb full of ghostly moans and a well-executed plunge through a trap door into the water far below in chapter eight. For comedy relief there's the professor's milquetoast secretary Willie Dodge (Sonny Ray). A running joke has Dodge always saying “I'm afraid I'll have to resign my position as your secretary” after some especially harrowing mishap. The action bounces around from Shanghai to India to New York and elsewhere.

Verdict: This is a good and very entertaining chapterplay that is full of good action and lively fisticuffs. ***.

WEREWOLF OF LONDON


WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935). Director: Stuart Walker.

In Tibet to find a rare flower, botanist Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is bitten by a werewolf, who also seeks the flower because it can be used as an antidote for lycanthropy when the moon is full. This werewolf, Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland) follows Glendon back to London, but fails to convince him that he, too, is now a werewolf and it is crucial that they get the mysterious flower to bloom. Soon, people are being attacked by a wild animal and Glendon is tortured by what he might be doing at night. This precursor to The Wolf Man -- in that Glendon doesn't transform fully into a wolf but into a half-man/half-wolf -- is at least as good as the later film, and has some interesting elements to it. (Much more is made of the significance of the full moon than in The Wolf Man.) The acting is good, especially from Hull and Oland, but there's too much comedy relief in the film, much of it centering on Glendon's wife's vivacious aunt (Spring Byington) and two bickering landladies, even if they are delightfully played by Ethel Griffies and Zeffie Tilbury. Still some of the flavorful characters are an asset, and the film is well-paced and entertaining. Valerie Hobson is fine as Hull's pretty spouse. Nice music by Karl Hajos.

Verdict: A howling success! ***.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

WHITE CARGO


WHITE CARGO (1942). Director: Richard Thorpe.

"I am -- Tondelayo."

1942 audiences must have gotten awfully impatient waiting for the lusty new Hedy Lamarr to show up as the sexy Tondelayo because she doesn't make her entrance for a full thirty minutes (over a third of the running time.) But after that she certainly causes a lot of mischief. Tondelayo is an Arabian-Egyptian beauty (she was Black in the original story) who does her best to ensorcel the men supervising the tending of rubber plants on a lonely outpost in Africa. Her latest target is Langford (Richard Carlson), who's continuously hoping to get "acclimatized" to the environment. Tondelayo also has a hankering for Larry Witzel (Walter Pidgeon), Carlson's belligerent co-worker. Frank Morgan is the tippling doctor who seems more interested in getting stewed than in fraternizing with Tondelayo. Lamarr isn't bad as the temptress, and the others offer vivid performances as well, with Morgan the cast stand-out. Amusing, entertaining picture takes a while to get started but once it does it's fun.

Verdict: Let Tondelayo make you "tiffin." **1/2.

SCANNERS


SCANNERS (1981). Director: David Cronenberg.

A drug given to pregnant woman has created a group of "scanners," people who have bizarre telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Some of these are good, some bad, and some have been nearly driven crazy by the voices in their heads. Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is one of the latter, and he's taken under the wing of Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), and teams up with lady scanner Kim Obrist (Jennifer O'Neill). Meanwhile, the bad scanners, led by Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), as well as others, are running around killing off the good guys. Revok hopes that he and his team of scanners can ultimately rule the planet. At the climax Vale and Revok have a dramatic -- and gruesome -- battle of wills and powers. Okay comic book movie has some decent effects and Dick Smith make up, but twenty-seven years after its release it's been overshadowed by superior movies and more dazzling FX work. But the main problem is that the characters are under-developed and the story doesn't sustain interest. The "big" scene in the movie has Revok blowing up the head of a man in a lecture hall. Lack isn't a very dynamic leading man, but Ironside certainly has a lot of pizazz and charisma.

Verdict: Nothing worth staying home for. **.

A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO


A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO (1942). Director: Albert L. Werker.

Stan and Ollie are hired to accompany a corpse on a train, but the coffin gets mixed up with another one employed by magician Dante in his act; the boys are soon dodging hoods who wanted to use the "body" in a scam even as they appear as assistants in Dante's stage act. The title was probably chosen because it would remind audiences of Abbott and Costello's Hold That Ghost, which was a big hit the previous year. While A-Haunting We Will Go is not a classic like the A&C film, it is still a fun, fast-moving romp with the boys doing some great bits and getting solid laughs. Elisha Cook, Jr. plays one of the hoods and even dresses up as an old granny at one point. Mantan Moreland has a brief funny bit as a waiter who serves the boys food in the dining car (the film's end-title cast-list credits Willie Best with this bit but it is clearly Moreland).

Verdict: No masterpiece, but fun. **1/2.

LAUGHING WITH LUCY


LAUGHING WITH LUCY. Madelyn Pugh Davis with Bob Carroll Jr..
This is a very pleasant memoir written by one of the members of the writing team for the classic sitcom I Love Lucy. There are some interesting backstage stories but nothing of a scandalous nature, which is not at all what the author has in mind. Rather this celebrates a great TV show and the people who worked on it, and relates some of the behind-the-scenes details of writing for a hit show and the pressure it engendered; there is a bit about the author's personal life and family as well. The author ends the book with a comment that many people often come up to her and tell her that when they're blue an episode of I Love Lucy always snaps them out of their funk and cheers them up – the highest compliment you can give the funny series. NOTE: For more on classic episodes of I Love Lucy, click here.
Verdict: Highly recommended for Lucy fans. ***.

Friday, April 18, 2008

THE LOST CITY


THE LOST CITY (1935). 12 chapters. Super Serial Productions. Director: Harry Revier.

While this is hardly one of the better serials it does have its entertaining moments. Kane Richmond stars as Bruce Gordon, an electrical engineer who determines the source of energy that is causing havoc around the world. He traces the signals to Africa and takes off with a party to discover what and who is behind the problem. In a hidden city lost in the jungle, the madman Zolok (William Boyd) is determined to take over the world. He forces an elderly scientist, Manyou (Joseph Swickard) to turn native slaves into giants with his equipment. [These “giants” are simply very tall black men who wouldn't look out of place on a basketball court although everyone in the cast seems abnormally startled by their appearance. The fright wigs they wear make them seem as comical as they are moderately scary.] Sam Baker is the head giant, Hugo.

The wide cast of characters include Zolok's somewhat hulking servant Appolyn (Jerry Frank), Manyou's daughter Natcha (Claudia Dell) – despite the “native"- like name she is actually a blond – assorted bad guys (who cause more problems for our heroes whether or not they're allied with Zolok), an Arab ruler looking for giant slaves, and the campy and vampish Queen Rama (Margot Duse), who blinds Richmond when he refuses her advances and has Natcha hurled into a lion pit in one of the serial's more suspenseful scenes. [There is also a juicy bit involving some descending spikes.] There is also a dog-sized jiggling spider prop that drops a web onto our heroes, and assorted clips of wild animals on the loose.

Richmond is stoic and able, if a bit wooden, as the hero. William Boyd is pretty awful as Zolok, chewing the scenery and spitting out his lines with a fury that may have been meant to suggest madness but only comes off as dreadful overacting. [He makes one appreciate the comparatively understated Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless even more.] Older and more intelligent-looking than many serial actresses, Claudia Dell somewhat resembles Jeannette Mcdonald; you keep expecting Natcha to break into song at any moment. She is not a bad actress, and has a nice moment when she reaches out to tenderly stroke Richmond's hair as he's tending to her. Dell not only played Spanky's mother, she was Octavia in the 1939 Cleopatra and according to imdb.com was the original model for the Columbia logo.

There is quite a bit of bad acting in The Lost City, but a bigger problem is the absence of music. It also doesn't have the color, action or pace of the Flash Gordon serials, being similar only in its absurdities. Still, it's fun enough in its own minor way, and there have, unfortunately, been much worse chapter plays inflicted on the public.

Verdict: Watch at your own risk.**.

L'ECLISSE aka ECLIPSE


L'ECLISSE (1962/Eclipse). Director: Michelangelo Antonioni.

L'eclisse is a perfect example of a movie that's interesting and boring at one and the same time. Basically the film details a couple of days in the life of Vittoria (Monica Vitti), who breaks up with her fiance, Riccardo (Francisco Rabal), spends time with a racist girlfriend who spent time in Kenya, watches her mother (Lilla Brignone) lose at the stock market, and dallies with a handsome, callow young stockbroker named Piero (French actor Alain Delon, who appears to be dubbed). The film is cinematic, well-directed by Antonioni (who also co-scripted), and boasts crisp black and white cinematography by Gianni Di Venanzo, but despite the introduction of some ideas (which aren't well-developed) and several characters (also not especially well developed), it lacks a strong story and hasn't real depth. The best sequence has to do with a crowd gathering as Piero's stolen car is dredged up from the river -- along with the corpse of the drunk driver who took it. The crowd, including children, mill about as if it's a carnival, and Piero complains about the dents in the car. "Your thinking about the dents ... " says Vittoria. The film is full of striking images of the city, and there is an arresting ride in a small plane as well. Still, despite its good points, one wishes the film was more dramatic and entertaining.

Verdict: Strictly for Antonioni admirers. **.

MERTON OF THE MOVIES


MERTON OF THE MOVIES (1947). Director: Robert Alton.

Red Skelton stars as a movie usher, Merton Gill, with big dreams who winds up going to Hollywood and supposedly becoming protege of big star Lawrence Rupert (Leon Ames), who has no use for him. Befriended by a stunt woman, Phyllis (Virgina O'Brien), who also has ambitions, he winds up starring in parodies of Rupert's films -- only he thinks they're supposed to be serious. Not much of a "laugh out loud" movie but the picture is well-acted, good-natured and pleasant, with a happy wind-up for all. After Skelton, Gloria Grahame is the cast stand-out as sexy movie star Beulah Baxter, who at one point tries to "vamp" Merton. O'Brien is a perfectly pleasing leading lady with a certain elusive quality, yet ... somehow she lacks a certain oomph, although she's more than competent. She does show more emotion in this than she did as a singer (her funny shtick was to have an immobile face as she sang).

Verdict: pleasant time waster with nice performances and sentiment. **1/2.

THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS


THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS (1944). Director: Jean Negulesco.

A mystery writer named Leyden (Peter Lorre) is fascinated by the tales of a master criminal, Dimitrios Makropolous (Zachary Scott), who was found dead on a beach, and travels to interview people who knew -- and hated -- him. On his journeys he encounters Mr. Peters (Sydney Greenstreet), who wants to know what Leyden is up to without giving away any of his own secrets. Flashbacks illustrate the increasingly violent and cunning career of Dimitrios -- one of the best vignettes details how he helps maneuver a harmless little clerk (Steven Geray) into betraying his country via greed and gambling. But Dimitrios may even have one last trick up his sleeve. Although quite talky, the picture moves fast and features excellent performances from the entire cast; Lorre and especially Greenstreet are a marvel to watch as they emote with great skill and conviction. Kurt Katch as Colonel Haki, Victor Francen as Grudek, Marjorie Hoshelle as the clerk Bulic's wife, are all stand-outs, with Florence Bates and Edward (Eduardo) Ciannelli also offering noteworthy bits. Faye Emerson isn't bad as a discarded woman in Dimitrios' life. Negulesco may not be a Hitchcock (it would be interesting to ponder how the great Hitch would have handled this material) but his direction is quite good nonetheless. Based on A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler.

Verdict: Fascinating! ***1/2.