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

Saturday, May 31, 2008

THE HOUSTON STORY

Barbara Hale and Gene Barry
THE HOUSTON STORY (1956). Director: William Castle.

Frank Duncan (Gene Barry), a wannabee player, interests the mob in his plan to steal oil and winds up bogged deeper and deeper in corruption. This is an entertaining, fairly fast-paced crime thriller with good performances from Barry and the rest of the cast. Edward Arnold scores as the mobster Paul Atlas, as does Frank Jenks as Barry's old buddy Louie. Jeanne Cooper is customarily saucy and fine as a waitress that Duncan dallies with but it's Barbara Hale who provides the biggest surprise. Usually cast as comparatively bland good girls (a la "Della Street" on TV's Perry Mason) in this she's a sexed-up blond singer and bad girl Zoe and she seems to be having a ball playing the part. Paul Richards is also vivid as Duncan's rival, Gordy. Some exciting chases and fight scenes.

Verdict: Barbara runs off with the picture! **1/2.

THE DANCING MASTERS



THE DANCING MASTERS (1943). Director: Malcolm St. Clair.

Laurel and Hardy run a dance studio but are way behind in their bills. They have one wealthy student, Trudy (Trudy Marshall) who's in love with Grant (Robert Bailey), whom her father detests. Hardy tries to make Laurel break his leg so they can collect on an insurance policy, then the two help Grant demonstrate his "invisible" ray gun. A protracted climactic sequence with a runaway bus that winds up on a roller coaster track is frenetic but not very funny, but there are some amusing bits in the film, including an auction for a grandfather clock that ends in disaster. Margaret Dumont is amusing as Trudy's mother, but she hasn't enough to do. Robert Mitchum has a small role as a small time hood selling "insurance" to the boys. Nestor Paiva plays another crook. The script for this picture never really jells, and despite some good moments, it can't be considered one of the better L&H features.

Verdict: Not the boys at their best. **.

THE SHE-CREATURE


THE SHE-CREATURE (1956). Director: Edward L. Cahn.


AIP certainly collected an unusual group of actors for this weird little movie. Chester Morris (who gives a very good performance) is the mentalist Carlo Lombardi, who claims that he can regress his beautiful assistant Andrea (Marla English of Three Bad Sisters) three hundred years into a past life. For reasons that are never made clear Lombardi also regresses her back even further in a -- as he puts it -- "transmigration of the soul of a living woman into her first life body." Apparently her soul first inhabited a female prehistoric sea creature of some kind (at least it keeps coming out of the sea) that is alternately invisible, transparent, and finally very much solid and homicidal, leaving many battered corpses in the movie's best scenes. Timothy Chappel (Tom Conway), whose wife (Frieda Inescort) is a fan of the occult, teams up with Lombardi to make him a household name and both of them rich even as the murders of the she-creature continue. Cathy Downs, the wife of The Amazing Colossal Man, plays Chappel's daughter Dorothy, who is dating Dr. Erickson (Lance Fuller, who was in This Island Earth), another doubting Thomas. Rounding out the cast, Ron Randell is a police lieutenant, Frank Jenks is a sergeant, Jack Mulhall is a lawyer, and William Hudson (from Colossal Man and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) is a snickering party guest. Paul Blaisdell both designed and plays the she-creature; her appearance is amusing and scary at the same time. This oddly likable movie has atmosphere and some creepy scenes, even if it doesn't make much sense.

Verdict: For monster/horror/B movie aficionados only. **1/2.

Friday, May 30, 2008

SERGEANTS 3


SERGEANTS 3 (1962). Director: John Sturges.
Along with Ocean's 11, Robin and the 7 Hoods, and 4 for Texas, this was one of the "Rat Pack" movies made during the sixties. It's a variation on the Gunga Din story set in the old west. Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Peter Lawford as the three sergeants, and Sammy Davis Jr. -- in the Gunga Din role -- plays bugler Jonah Williams (and probably gives the best performance; in any case he has more to do in Sergeants 3 than in the other RP movies he appeared in. Joey Bishop has a small role as well.) One critic called this "a 4 million dollar home movie for Sinatra's gnat pack," and while it isn't especially memorable, it does have its good points. Winton C. Hoch's sweeping wide screen cinematography is excellent, and the boys' performances are acceptable. The storyline has them up against a maverick band of white-hating Indians; a sub-plot has Martin and Sinatra trying to talk an engaged Lawford out of quitting the Army (Ruta Lee is very appealing as Lawford's fiancee.) Although essentially light-hearted, the movie does have its "serious" moments. Some of the action is well-staged, although the climactic battle scene is mediocre. There's a funny and tense moment involving a rope bridge wherein Martin nearly falls to his death and for added measure a horse tries to climb out on the already precarious construction. The obvious matte paintings in this and other scenes are a minus, however. Overlong, and a bit slow at times.
Verdict: Some amusing and exciting moments but basically for Rat Pack fanatics only. **.

INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN


INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN (1956). Director: Jack Pollexfen.

Charles "Butcher" Benton (Lon Chaney Jr.) isn't having a very good day. Arrested for a payroll robbery and murder, his two partners in the crime roll over on him and his own lawyer is the mastermind of the plot. However, things look up after he's executed, when his body is delivered to a scientist, Professor Bradshaw (Robert Shayne), who is trying to find a cure for cancer. For some reason Bradshaw treats Benton's corpse to an electrical process that inadvertently brings the dead man back to life -- mute. With super-strength and invulnerability to bullets and what-not, Benton proceeds to go after the ones who done him wrong. Max Showalter is the detective on the case, and Ross Elliott is the Lawyer, Paul Lowe. Ken Terrell, who played butler Jess in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, is one of Benton's victims. The cast is professional enough, and Chaney -- although he only speaks in the opening sequence -- gives one of his better, more intense performances. Marian Carr is very appealing as the dancer, Eva Martin, who once befriended Benton; she was also in Kiss Me Deadly. Marjorie Stapp makes an impression as a woman whose boyfriend is murdered by Benton right in front of her. (She was also in The Monster that Challeneged the World -- as was Showalter -- Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, and other genre films.) Joe Flynn of McHale's Navy has a small role as Shayne's assistant. Elliott was a busy actor of the period and appeared in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Albert Glasser's dramatic score is a definite asset to the picture. The narration is unnecessary but there is a good use of locations. Exciting climax in the sewers.

Verdict: Entertaining, taut little thriller. ***.

HIT THE ICE


HIT THE ICE (1943). Director: Charles Lamont.

Bud and Lou are photographers who inadvertently wind up consorting with bank robbers and being accused of their crime. They and the real crooks hot foot it to Sun Valley, where there are further complications. Oddly, the best thing about the movie are the snappy numbers performed by Ginny Simms -- who sings as good as she looks -- who plays Marcia, and Johnny Long and his Orchestra (including the bizarre "Slap Happy Polka.") Mantan Moreland has a brief funny bit with Lou at a train station. Sheldon Leonard plays the head crook and Joe Sawyer and Marc Lawrence are gang members. Patric Knowles is a doctor and Elyse Knox the nurse who's looking after a supposedly sick Leonard. An interesting bit has Lou winding up in a single bed in-between a husband and wife after he crashes through a wall. What's interesting about it is that even in the following decade Lucy and Ricky had separate beds in their bedroom, not one.

Verdict: Primarily for A & C addicts, but easy to take if nothing special. **1/2.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

DRACULA'S DAUGHTER


DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936). Director: Lambert Hillyer.

This first sequel to the Bela Lugosi Dracula has Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloane) trying to explain why he drove a stake through Count Dracula's heart and in danger of either being put on trial for murder or institutionalized as insane. [A similar situation occurred in Columbia's entry into the vampire sweepstakes, Return of the Vampire.] Otto Kruger plays Jeffrey Garth, a psychiatrist who tries to help his friend Van Helsing, and Marguerite Churchill is his busy-body secretary. But the main attraction is Countess Marya Zaleska, who claims to be Dracula's daughter, and is played by one of the most fascinating screen presences of the period, Gloria Holden. Holden is very effective as a tormented woman who hopes that Dracula's death means she is free from his curse of vampirism, which turns out (luckily for the audience) not to be the case. Irving Pichel, who also directed many films, plays Sandor, the countess' major domo. Nan Grey is effective as a pretty young would-be suicide, Lily, who becomes a victim of the she-vampire, and Hedda Hopper appears as a high society acquaintance of Garth's.

[Some have seen a supposedly "sapphic" tone to Dracula's Daughter because of the scene in which she hypnotizes Lily and then drinks her blood. But she also hunts and attacks a man earlier in the film, and wants to turn Otto Kruger into one of the undead so that he can spend eternity with her. Besides, in the Lugosi Dracula his victim Lucy, once undead, stalks children, which doesn't necessarily make her a pedophile.] The film doesn't quite make it clear if Holden is actually Dracula's daughter (can the undead impregnate?) or simply someone he turned into a vampire via his curse of blood. In any case, it seems clear that the countess wants to be cured so that she can enter the world of light and laughter, not because she cares about her victims, making her selfish and ultimately unsympathetic. Dracula's Daughter is an entertaining picture, but there's too much comedy and romance in the film, and not enough horror. Even so, it's better than the original. Although Holden appeared in quite a few films after Dracula's Daughter, and played the wife of Emile Zola, her promise was never fulfilled.

Verdict: Flawed but fascinating. ***.

THE GARMENT JUNGLE


THE GARMENT JUNGLE (1957). Director: Vincent Sherman.

Soon after the terrible death of his partner in a freight elevator "accident" -- a horrifying, well-handled sequence -- Walter Mitchell (Lee J. Cobb) welcomes his son Alan (Kerwin Mathews) into the garment business. Alan is disturbed to learn what a hold the mob has on the business with its protection racket, and how they've been terrorizing union organizers. This is basically a poor man's On the Waterfront, and not at all in the same league as that classic. However, there are several good scenes, and there's an interesting cast. Cobb is as good as ever, and Mathews gives it a good try, but his forte was swashbuckling costume heroes like in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, not realistic drama. Richard Boone is more on the mark as a mob boss, as is Robert Loggia as a union organizer and Joseph Wiseman (Dr. No) as one of the garment workers. Wesley Addy has an unusual role as a vicious associate of Boone's. Gia Scala and Valerie French are effective as the ladies involved with the garment workers.
Verdict: Overbaked melodrama. **.

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN


BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). Director: James Whale.
"To a new world -- of gods and monsters!" -- Dr. Pretorius.

Outrageous, campy, over-the-top and even bordering on the edges of schlock at times, Bride of Frankenstein is still a fascinating and highly entertaining picture, fast-paced (it just never stops), and beautifully photographed by John J. Mescall, with a fine score by Franz Waxman and rich art direction by Charles D. Hall. The monster survived the fire at the end of Frankenstein, and meets up with the nutty Dr. Pretorius (a gleeful Ernest Thesiger), who kidnaps Elizabeth (now played by Valerie Hobson) to force Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) to make his monster a mate. Dwight Frye is back as another sinister, grave-robbing assistant. The film is, oddly, very contemporary in its casual amorality and scenes of black comedy (interspersed with pathos, such as the long scene between the monster and the kindly blind violinist -- O.P. Heggie -- which also borders on black comedy). Una O'Connor as the hysterical maid Minnie is perhaps more irritating than amusing. The little people that Dr. Pretorius created and shows off to Henry have nothing to do with Shelley's novel and remind one of Attack of the Puppet People. Alternately child-like and frightening, Boris Karloff (billed as "Karloff" above the title) is magnificent. John Carradine has a small role as a hunter. Followed by Son of Frankenstein.

Verdict: Whatever it's flaws, this is a cinematic treat for those who are game. ***1/2.

A VIEW TO A KILL


A VIEW TO A KILL (1985) Director: John Glen.

Roger Moore's final Bond film plays better on TV than it did in the movies; on the small screen its low-key (as opposed to epic or grandiose) quality can be better appreciated. Christopher Walken is an Americanized ex-KGB agent who wants to dominate the computer market by manipulating [via flooding] the faults near Silicon Valley. Walken is fine as the psychotic villain, although the scene with him gleefully machine-gunning the mine workers is a bit over the top. While the movie is more serious than other Moore-Bond adventures, there is a cartoonish early scene on the Eiffel Tower, and late in the movie some San Francisco men in blue chase Bond in a long and inappropriate scene like something out of the Keystone Kops. A deadly steeplechase race isn't bad, however, nor is the flooding of the mine and the subsequent draining of the lake above. The finale involving a dirigible and the Golden Gate Bridge is a knock-out. Patrick Macnee is very appealing as Bond's associate, as is pretty Tanya Roberts as a normal girl caught up in the nasty business. Grace Jones is also fine as Walken's exotic bodyguard and hit woman.

Verdict: While the picture is entertaining and holds the attention, it just isn't special enough to be a classic. **1/2.

THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS


THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940). Director: Joe May.

When Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) is wrongly imprisoned for murdering his brother, his friend Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton) -- brother of John Griffin, the original Invisible Man -- visits him in prison and gives him a shot of the formula. Voila! Radcliffe is soon free, wandering the countryside, becoming more and more paranoiac and dangerous as he tries to find out who actually murdered his brother. Like Claude Rains before him, Price gives an impressive performance using only his voice -- following the tradition of The Invisible Man he isn't seen until the very end of the picture. John P. Fulton's effects are outstanding; particularly notable is the way Price is seen as a ghostly spectre in smoke and fog and rain, as well as the effect of his emerging capillaries at the end. Nan Grey is nice as the love interest, and Cecil Kellaway and Sir Cedric Hardwicke are excellent support as, respectively, a police inspector and Radcliffe's friend. John Sutton is also quite good and Alan Napier stands out as a nervous, sinister foreman who knows more than he's telling about the murder. Director Joe May covers the action adequately but the film lacks any real style. The Invisible Man Returns is a more serious film than its predecessor, but it, too, cries out for a more exciting musical score.

Verdict: Not bad sequel if you're game. **1/2.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

MANFISH


MANFISH (1956). Director: W. Lee Wilder.

Brannigan (John Bromfield), the captain of the turtle boat Manfish, has a decidedly uneasy alliance with "the professor" (Victor Jory), who can lead him to a chest of treasure collected by the pirate Lafitte. Swede (Lon Chaney Jr. in what really amounts to a supporting role) is the mate who seems to love the Manfish even more than the Captain does. Tessa Prendagast is the sexy native girl Alita, and Barbara Nichols was "introduced" in the film as Mimi, the singing sometime girlfriend of the captain's. Manfish isn't terrible or terribly boring, it just throws together different elements -- treasure hunts, jealousy, babes and pirates -- that never really jell. Supposedly based on two Edgar Allan Poe stories, the movie has absolutely nothing to do with Poe. Jory gives probably his strangest ever performance. Bromfield and the gals are vital enough, and Chaney is typically mediocre. Bromfield was also in Revenge of the Creature, Three Bad Sisters, and The Furies.

Verdict: Only for the curious. **.

IT STARTED WITH A KISS


IT STARTED WITH A KISS (1959). Director: George Marshall.

"A girl who refuses to accept presents usually winds up with nothing."

Maggie Putnam (Debbie Reynolds) falls in love with and marries Sgt. Joe Fitzpatrick (Glenn Ford) practically overnight, but finds it hard adjusting to Army life -- and its restrictions, even on wives -- while he's stationed in Madrid. She decides that she and her husband must live together chastely until they really get to know each other. Yeah, right. This contrived and tedious film (of underlying vulgarity) -- scripted by Charles Lederer -- never gets off the ground. There's an attempt to add some spice by getting Reynolds involved with a handsome bullfighter (Gustavo Rojo), but all that really happens is he gets smeared with her lipstick in a wine cellar and the sergeant goes mildly berserk. Eva Gabor, Fred Clark and others are trapped in this essentially unfunny misfire. Rojo appeared mostly in Spanish productions but was also in Valley of Gwangi in 1969.

Verdict: Nothing you can't miss. *1/2.

CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN


CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN (1958). Director: Edward L. Cahn.

This was one half of a double bill of two films directed by Cahn and written by Jerome Bixby (most famous for the short story "It's a Good Life," adapted on The Twilight Zone in 1961.) The other, much more successful feature was It! The Terror from Beyond Space, but Faceless Man is not without interest. Taking his cue from old Mummy movies, Bixby fashioned a story wherein an encrusted slave, Quintillus Aurelius, buried during the eruption of Vesuvius in Pompeii is unearthed and brought to a museum in the city (he is not actually a mummy but rather is covered with crusted mud). Radiation from the earth and from an X-ray machine bring the slave back to life, and - wouldn't you know it? -- the reincarnation of the woman he once loved (Elaine Edwards) is conveniently nearby, the fiancee of Dr. Paul Mallon (Richard Anderson). Also involved in the action -- what there is of it -- are Mallon's old girlfriend Maria (Adele Mara), her new boyfriend Dr. Ricci (Gar Moore) and her father Dr. Fiorillo (Luis Van Rooten), among others. The picture isn't terrible, but a lot of it isn't that well-staged, and it never quite comes to a full boil. The storyline is interesting, however, the acting sufficient, and Gerald Fried's music adds some excitement now and then.

Verdict: Disappointing but not awful cheapie creepie. **1/2.

STOLEN MOMENTS


STOLEN MOMENTS (1920). Director: James Vincent.
Jose Dalmarez (Rudolph Valentino) is a famous novelist who makes women fall in love with him and then treats them like trash. His latest victim is Vera (Marguerite Namara), whom he steals away from the man who loves her with a promise of marriage that he has no intention of keeping. He is also a complete rake down in South America with Inez (Aileen Savage), whose brother tries but fails to give the mountebank a well-deserved thrashing. Encountering the now-married Vera some time later back in the States, he tries to blackmail her over some love letters. What a creep! This is the three reel (out of six) shortened version of the film, all that survives, and it's both amusing and mildly entertaining, with interesting settings and locales. Namara, an opera singer, emotes as if she still thinks she's on the opera stage -- broad and mostly hammy. Valentino is much more natural, as usual, but he's not photographed particularly well.
Verdict: Hardly a great example of silent film art but not a bad melodrama on its own terms. **1/2.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

THE NAUGHTY NINETIES


THE NAUGHTY NINETIES (1945). Director: Jean Yarbrough.

Lou Costello is Sebastian Dimwiddle, a stage worker on a theatrical river boat, and Bud Abbott is romantic ham actor Dexter Broadhurst (however the boys' friendly/unfriendly relationship is the same as ever). The owner of the river boat, Capt. Sam (Henry Travers) comes afoul of a group of corrupt gamblers led by the serpentine Bonita Farrow (Rita Johnson). After a crooked card game Sam discovers that Bonita and her slimy pals own 75 % of the riverboat, and once on board they open a casino that fleeces all the customers. Naturally A&C do their best to get their captain out of the jam. The fellows do their "Who's on First?" routine, and there are other very amusing sequences. A note of black comedy is introduced in a scene when Sebastian thinks the cook is making hamburgers out of chopped up cats when he's really preparing catfish. When he sticks his fork in his hamburger, a cat under the table lets out a screech. Johnson is quite good as the lady ringleader, and Joe Sawyer, playing one of her henchmen, has a funny sleep-walking scene. Alan Curtis and Lois Collier round out the cast portraying, respectively, an associate of Bonita's and the riverboat's pretty singer, Caroline.

Verdict: Good-natured romp with some funny stuff in it. ***.

COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE


COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970/aka The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire.) Director/writer: Bob Kelljan.

A handsome Bulgarian vampire (Robert Quarry) posing as a psychic insinuates himself into a young group of sunny Californians, turns the women into vampires, and kills the men. The picture isn't terrible, just a bit bland and completely devoid of atmosphere. It doesn't compare favorably to the old Universal classic horror films that, whatever their flaws, were much more entertaining and better made. Quarry isn't bad as the count, and there's one good scare scene at a van parked on his property. Besides Quarry, Michael Murphy is the only recognizable name in the cast. Roger Perry is the doctor who helps track down Count Yorga. NOTE: George Macready is briefly heard as a narrator on the soundtrack. His son, Michael Macready plays Mike in the film. Robert Quarry had an interesting role in the original A Kiss Before Dying.

Verdict: If you want to see a vampire gal munching on her kitty ... **.

THE SECRET LIFE OF TYRONE POWER


THE SECRET LIFE OF TYRONE POWER. Hector Arce. William Morrow. 1979.

Almost thirty years old, this is still a fairly interesting bio of the movie star, and is a good read, despite some questionable passages. Arce provides details about the life and career of Power's actor-father, Tyrone Power, Sr., and goes behind the scenes of some of his movies (there isn't much picture analysis, although Arce does explain why the films worked or not, and why they were or were not good choices for Power). There is a great deal about Power's private life as well, including his three marriages, and affairs with both men and women. There are some dated aspects to the discussion of Power's bisexual, and possibly homosexual, nature (some of his male lovers, who are quoted, felt that Power was an essentially homosexual man whose marriages and relationships were a cover-up and to keep his career from imploding). Some of the people Arce interviewed, however, such as a bisexual male prostitute still plying his trade in his fifties (!), are rather suspect. Whatever the facts, Power was a big star, and appeared in several memorable movies. This book can be recommended for a basic rundown of his life and career, but take it with a grain of salt. Whatever the truth of Power's sexuality, it shouldn't make a difference to his fans.

Verdict: Not bad if not the final word. ***.

JITTERBUGS


JITTERBUGS (1943). Director: Malcolm St. Clair.

Laurel and Hardy are on the road with their two-man Original Zoot Suit Band when they encounter Chester (Robert Bailey), a fellow who says his gas pill can turn water into gasoline. The three of them run into Susan (Vivian Blaine), whose mother was cheated out of ten thousand dollars by swindlers. Chester decides to use all of his con man experience to get the money back from the swindlers with the "help" of Laurel and Hardy. This amusing movie has Ollie pretending to be a Colonel of the Old South while Laurel is in disguise as Susan's wealthy aunt -- he's a scream as a dowager. Lee Patrick plays a con woman who makes a play for both boys. Blaine sings the snappy number "I gotta see for myself," but her other songs are forgettable.

Verdict: Lots of fun for L&H enthusiasts. ***.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)


THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933). Director: James Whale.

The small British town of Iping is visited by one John Griffin (Claude Rains), whose scientific experiments have caused him to become invisible. Even as he desperately tries to find a way back to normalcy, one of the ingredients he used is slowly turning him into an insane megalomaniac. Soon he's not only frightening and terrorizing people, he's committing murders and derailing trains. The Invisible Man is well-made, fast-paced, and has excellent effects by John P. Fulton, but one senses that director James Whale didn't take the material all that seriously. While it's not quite an almost-parody like Bride of Frankenstein, which Whale did two years later, it does have a surplus of comedy (the novel had its humorous passages, of course) and not as much dark atmosphere as it needs. If we're meant to be chilled by Griffin's actions or the very notion of invisibility, Whale fails to work up any sense of dread or horror. Still, the picture is entertaining. Una O'Connor is as loud and hysterical as she was in the later Bride, but Gloria Stuart makes little impression as Griffin's nominal love interest. Claude Rains is excellent, definitely making an impression with his voice, as we never actually see him until the movie's closing scene! Followed by The Invisible Man Returns.

Verdict: Not all that it could have been, but not bad. **1/2.

GREAT OLD NOVEL: THE INVISIBLE MAN H. G. Wells


THE INVISIBLE MAN. H. G. Wells. First published in 1897. NOTE: From time to time Great Old Movies will offer critiques of novels, plays, etc., that were turned into famous movies, comparing the film versions with the originals.

Although written over a hundred years ago, The Invisible Man is written in a very accessible style and fast pace. The inn he stumbles into at the opening is not the Lion's Head as in the film, but the Coach and Horses. There is some humor in the book, but certainly not as much as in Whale's film version. There is no love interest to speak of, and the protagonist, Frank Griffin, winds up in the home of Professor Kemp, whom he knows, by accident. In the film Griffin is driven crazy by an ingredient in the invisibility formula, but in the novel he's pretty much a self-absorbed sociopath from the beginning. He doesn't derail any trains -- although he does plan to embark upon a "reign of terror" -- but he does murder one man and attack many others. This is certainly not Wells's best novel, but it is fascinating, highly influential, and a good read to boot.

Verdict: A classic. ***.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

CITIZEN KANE


CITIZEN KANE (1941). Director: Orson Welles.

Wrested away from his parents at a young age against his will, Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) spends the rest of his life trying to retain complete control of every aspect of, and every person in, his life. Employing flashbacks, first person narratives, and inventive camera work, Citizen Kane examines the life of the great Kane upon the event of his death at his castle Xanadu, where he mutters the word "Rosebud" (a reminder of the time when he felt fully loved and content). Sixty-seven years after its original release Welles' fascinating masterpiece seems, if possible, even greater. Welles offers a terrific performance as he goes from young newspaper magnate to aged tycoon, but he is matched by a fine cast that includes Joseph Cotten as his friend and associate Jed Leland, Dorothy Comingore as his second wife and hopeless opera singer Susan, Everett Sloane as the assistant he always calls Mr. Bernstein, Ray Collins as Kane's political opponent Jim Gettys, and others.

The film has a rich visual look due to the art direction by Van Nest Polglase and the cinematography of Gregg Toland. William Alland, who plays the reporter asking questions about Kane (and who later became a producer) is always seen in shadow. The marriage-by-breakfast sequences that show Kane's first marriage disintegrating at the breakfast table is just one of many memorably creative aspects of the picture. Bernard Herrmann's score is, as usual, excellent. [It should be noted that -- while Modest Musorgsky wrote an opera entitled Salammbo -- the Salammbo (or at least the aria from it) heard in Citizen Kane was actually composed by Herrmann. Too bad he didn't to the whole opera (Hermann did compose a fine operatic version of Wuthering Heights, however.)]

There are some imperfect aspects to Citizen Kane. The whole business with the boy being sent away by his mother (Agnes Moorehead) to become the ward of the prickly old lawyer, Thatcher (George Coulouris), supposedly to get him away from his drunk, physically abusive father (Harry Shannon), seems contrived. The newly-rich Mrs. Kane could have paid off the father and taken the boy with her to live somewhere else. Yet later Leland tells us that Kane remained close to the mother who sent him away -- but why would he (we never again see the two together)? It's also interesting that while we hear in passing how Kane's first wife (Ruth Warren) and child are killed in an automobile accident, we are never shown Kane's reaction to the death of his son, certainly a pivotal moment in any man's life. Yet perhaps that's the point: that the self-absorbed Kane would not have been all that affected by the tragedy, as we see earlier that he doesn't take into account the effect that a disclosure of his affair with Susan might have on the child. Still, when you consider how great this film is, these are mere quibbles. Written by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz and edited by Robert Wise.

Verdict: A certified masterpiece on virtually every level. ****.

THERE GOES KELLY


THERE GOES KELLY (1945). Director: Phil Karlson.

A Monogram cheapie musical comedy of sorts in which two page boys, Jimmy (Jackie Moran) and Sammy (Sidney Miller) get involved with the murder of radio singing star Rita Wilson (Jan Wiley). There's the usual gruff boss, inept exasperated cop, a terrible singing cowboy (John Gilbreath), and a pretty wannabee singer, Ann (Wanka McKay, pictured). A couple of the songs are pleasant but a bit when the two page boys put on black face and do an alleged comedy routine is really awful. Moran, Miller, and McKay are likable leads, however, but this is a bit of fluff with little or no staying power. Miller had an especially long career, which included television directing.

Verdict: Don't bother to tape. *1/2.

CLOVERFIELD


CLOVERFIELD (2008). Director: Matt Reeves. NOTE: Great Old Movies will occasionally review a new or recent film if it may be of interest to our readers and/or belongs to a venerable old genre, such as -- in this case -- the monster movie.

A bunch of young people are partying -- this opening sequence goes on for about twenty minutes and is a snooze, like watching bad home movies of somebody else's party -- when they hear a tremendous BOOM and rush outside to their Manhattan Street and see the head of the Statue of Liberty rolling by. They learn that a tremendous unknown animal of Godzillian proportions is tearing up Manhattan, and for the next 70 or so minutes several of them simply try to survive as building's crash, bridges collapse (with one swipe of the creature's tail) and skittering, man-sized parasites that drop off the monster invade the subways and attack them. Cloverfield is not a campy, often comical movie like the American-made Godzilla with Matthew Broderick (whose trailer promised the intense, frightening experience it failed to deliver but Cloverfield does) but a scary, harrowing, absorbing -- and ultimately depressing -- experience. No, it's not Citizen Kane, but for what it is it works.

The gimmick of the movie -- written by Drew Goddard -- is that virtually everything is seen through one of the character's video cameras, a device (borrowed from The Blair Witch) that is irritating at first but works fine once you get used to it, increasing the sense of terror and chaos. (Although it must be said that a more traditional approach might have worked just as well. And that the video approach only creates a tasteless parallel to 9/11.) The purpose of the movie is to show exactly how it might feel to be a tiny, helpless human being in a city that is actually being invaded and demolished by a gargantuan creature that the Army can't seem to stop, a creature so huge that it can swing about and be practically on top of you whereas only moments before it was blocks away. Cloverfield is very good at getting across the panic and unsettling paranoia this would cause.

The movie tells us little about the creature itself, which is glimpsed in sections and by stages until we get a better look at it -- a bug-eyed cross between preying mantis, shark, lizard,
and a kind of stretching Gumby -- near the end. On one of the "extra" featurettes on the DVD we're told that the 300 foot tall monster is actually a newly-hatched baby, but whether it's a biological terrorist weapon, escaped from a U.S. lab, or came from outer space is never revealed, although the fact that "Cloverfield" is the name of an operation of some sort should give you a clue.

The cast of young, mostly unknown actors is more than competent in getting across their confused and petrified feelings, and whether you have a fear of heights, enclosed spaces, bugs, or bug-eyed monsters, Cloverfield will probably push one of your buttons. If there's any problem with the movie it's that although Cloverfield is entertaining and well-made and features some excellent FX work, it's probably too disturbing to be much fun.

Verdict: Monster lovers should see it; others may be unimpressed. ***.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

SHE PLAYED WITH FIRE aka FORTUNE IS A WOMAN


SHE PLAYED WITH FIRE (1957). Aka Fortune is a Woman. Director: Sidney Gilliat.

Oliver Branwell (Jack Hawkins) is an insurance investigator called out to look into a fire at the estate of Tracey Moreton (Dennis Price). Moreton's wife, Sarah (Arlene Dahl) turns out to be a woman with whom Branwell once had a very close relationship. It wouldn't be fair to reveal the twists of this suspenseful crime thriller, but it's safe to say that Branwell is soon up to his neck in arson, suspicion, and murder. Is Sarah the innocent, loving woman that she seems, or is she something else? Bolstered by good performances from the leads and supporting cast, as well as good pacing and an evocative score by William Alwyn, She Played with Fire is a solid mystery that pulls you in right from the arresting opening. Christopher Lee has a small role in the film as an actor, and Ian Hunter has a larger role as one of Branwell's colleagues.

Verdict: Worth a look. ***.

SOUND OF HORROR


SOUND OF HORROR (El Sonido prehistorico/1964). Director: José Antonio Nieves Conde.

Professor Andre (Arturo Fernandez) heads a motley group of people who are looking for a treasure from the sacking of Athens that's hopefully buried in a remote cave in the countryside outside the Greek city. Unfortunately, they discover that the treasure is apparently guarded by a small but deadly dinosaur (probably a velociraptor, although never referred to as such, years before Jurassic Park) that has a chameleon-like ability to disappear into its surroundings, rendering it effectively invisible. Like a nifty fifties-style B picture, this little-known Spanish horror film is suspenseful, creepy, and fast-paced; a highly effective little sleeper. The jangling sound FX cooked up for the creature are unnerving, and Luis De Pablo's score adds to the atmosphere. Ingrid Pitt plays a very different role from her Countess Dracula and Carmilla in The Vampire Lovers; this was her first movie.

Verdict: Dig in and enjoy! ***.

HERE COMES THE BAND


HERE COMES THE BAND (1935). Director: Paul Sloane.

Oddball compendium musical film that throws together WW I veterans who drive cabs, an amateur hour radio program, and a singing writer, Ollie (Harry Stockwell), whose song -- taken from American themes -- is appropriated by a greedy music producer, all of it ending up in a long musical courtroom sequence. The stars are Virginia Bruce, charming as ever, who plays a rich young lady who wants a singing career (and meets Stockwell on the aforementioned amateur hour) and Big Camp Ted Lewis of "Is Everybody Happy?" fame. Lewis does his sort of racist "Me and My Shadow" number, but his father-son routine with an adorable Spanky McFarland (of the Little Rascals) is the film's highlight. There are some more-than-pleasant songs, such as "Roll Along, Prairie Moon," and Stockwell -- whose most famous role was as the voice of the prince in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs -- has a terrific singing voice like Alfred Drake. Any movie that has a gal singing like a chicken (buck, buck, buck) can't be all bad, but the disparate elements of the movie never quite jell.

Verdict: Sporadically interesting but generally forgettable. **.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE


YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967). Director: Lewis Gilbert.

The film version of Fleming’s novel hasn’t got a whole lot to do with the book, although it does retain the Japanese setting and the master villain is still Blofeld. The character of "Tiger" Tanaka (head of the Japanese Secret Service) is also carried over from the book, as is the Ama diving girl called Kissy (the sexy Mie Hama). In this new storyline Blofeld is using his own spaceship to hijack manned rockets out of orbit, hoping to cause a war between the Russians and the Americans. Inexplicably Bond’s death is arranged and announced and he is even buried at sea amidst headlines, but this whole business seems contrived merely to fit in with the film’s title. You Only Live Twice is highly entertaining and has top-notch production values, including Freddie Young’s striking cinematography, Ken Adam’s stunning production design, and pretty sharp editing by second unit director Peter Hunt (who would helm a Bond feature himself in the future). This is a very well-made movie. Even the models and miniatures (copters, space ships, buildings, volcanoes) seem more like something out of the 80's than the 60's.

Highlights include the plane trap that horny Bond is suckered into by Helga Brandt (aka No. 11), played by lusciously sinister Karin Dor; the attack on the mini-copter "Little Nelly" by big copters that seem like malevolent dragonflies; and the poison-on-a-thread business that inadvertently kills Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) when Bond himself was the target. There’s a scene with piranha in the novel – in the film Blofeld sends No. 11 into a pool full of them because she failed to kill Bond. Blofeld was behind the scenes in two previous Bond movies (From Russia with Love and Thunderball) and Bond finally meets him face to face in this entry, with Donald Pleasance properly weird and sinister (perhaps a little too weird) as Blofeld. Charles Gray, who plays the murdered Dikki Henderson in this film, would play Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever. Although the word S.P.E.C.T.R.E. is never mentioned, one imagines that Blofeld would need the services of that group to pull off this caper, and he is still referred to as "Number One." (Spectre was also mentioned in the film version of Dr. No, although not in the novel, as the group did not exist before Fleming wrote Thunderball.)

Roald Dahl’s screenplay is lively, and there are plenty of memorable action scenes and fisticuffs. The sexism involving the geisha girls and the Japanese opinion of women is so outrageous that it’s almost comical. This reaches its nadir when Tanaka tells Bond that as cover he must marry a woman with "a face like a pig." As he waits by the altar, two supposedly "homely" women approach, but the third, who is beautiful, of course, turns out to be the bride. Tanaka tells Bond that the geisha girls are fascinated by his hairy chest. "Japanese men have beautiful bare skin," he tells Bond. Bond replies, "Bird never make nest in bare tree." Sean Connery, giving his usual slick one-dimensional performance, is unconvincing as a Japanese – at his height (6 ft. 2), it’s a wonder they even bothered with the deception (even in the novel this aspect seems foolish). John Barry’s music is, as usual, excellent, with a compelling theme song sung competently by Nancy Sinatra. Lewis Gilbert directs with aplomb. [Question: Are the American astronauts still on Blofeld’s ship when Bond blows it up? This seems unclear.] The next Bond movie is announced as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but Diamonds Are Forever came first. Majesty was actually published before You Only Live Twice, which served as a sequel to that book. The same cannot be said for the film versions, of course.
Verdict: Good show, 007! ***.

CLARK GABLE: TORMENTED STAR


CLARK GABLE Tormented Star. David Bret. Carroll and Graf; 2007.

It shouldn't be any secret today that many of Hollywood's most famous stars were privately homosexual, and while this may bother some people, a biographer has the right and obligation to be honest about his subject's sexuality. It's the 21st century, after all, and homophobic reactions are dated, to say the least. But there is a big difference between books like Andre Soare's bio of Ramon Navarro and James Robert Parish's tome on Katharine Hepburn and books like this one. Clark Gable may well have been bisexual (as Bret claims) or even a Don Juan homosexual with one sham marriage after another, but as this bio has no source notes or interviews with those in the know, it won't convince anybody of anything. According to Bret virtually everyone in Hollywood is bisexual. While this should be a juicy read, its rag tag collection of unsubstantiated gossip eventually becomes annoying and even tedious. A good book may yet be written about Gable and Hollywood hypocrisy over homosexuality, but this isn't it. There are some good passages, but the whole project has a sensational-at-any-cost feel and is a far cry from serious journalism. Too bad.

Verdict: Don't bother. *1/2.

WAY OUT WEST


WAY OUT WEST (1937). Director: James W. Horne.

Laurel and Hardy arrive in a small western town to deliver a deed to a gold mine to a young lady, Mary (Rosina Lawrence), whose father has died. Bar owner Mickey Finn (James Finlayson) has his wife Lola (Sharon Lynne/Lynn) pretend to be Mary so they can steal away the deed. Although initially fooled, the boys eventually get wise and do their best to get the deed back and do right by Mary. There's a lot of very funny stuff in Way Out West but many sequences go on much too long and the music is much too obtrusive. Doing a parody of It Happened One Night, Stan hitches a ride on a passing coach by lifting his pants leg! The best moments in the film are when the boys dance and sing (generally with The Avalon Boys) such numbers as "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine" and "Commence to Dancin'." Their charming rendition of "We're Going to Go (to Dixie)" is the film's highlight.

Verdict: A lot of fun if very imperfect. **1/2.

PARDON MY SARONG


PARDON MY SARONG (1942). Director: Erle C. Kenton.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are city bus drivers who wind up driving their bus out of town for a wealthy yachtsman (Robert Paige) in a hurry, then -- wanted by the police -- become his crew, only to become lost in a gale. Along for the ride is a pretty gal played by a snappy Virginia Bruce. On a small uncharted island the group runs into natives and comes afoul of Lionel Atwill, who is trying to get his hands on a sacred ruby and brooks no interference from anyone. Pardon My Sarong starts out promisingly, with some funny routines by the boys, but once they go to sea the story becomes uninvolving and the gags are silly even by A&C standards. Bruce tries to liven things up but hasn't enough to do, and Lionel Atwill is completely wasted in a nothing part. Leif Ericson does a fine job as a native who's in love with a gal who falls for Lou, and Irving Bacon (Ethel's father on the classic "Ethel's Hometown" episode of I Love Lucy) is great as an exasperated gas station attendant. William Demarest is also good as a detective who tries to nab Bud and Lou. A nightclub scene features some talented Black entertainers: The Four Inkspots and Tip, Tap and Toe. Nan Wynn is the native girl who inexplicably falls for Costello. The film ends with Costello acting heroically in a way that is somewhat out of character for him.

Verdict: Some amusing bits but painfully stupid at times. **.

Monday, May 19, 2008

DRACULA (1931)


DRACULA (1931). Director: Tod Browning. Adapted from the Hamilton Deane play taken from Bram Stoker's novel. Photographed by Karl Freund.

77 years after its release Dracula seems a bit stately and campy, but it does have its eerie moments courtesy of the basic premise, Karl Freund's atmospheric photography, and some great (if somewhat overdone) sets, such as the great castle with its cavernous, crumbling entrance hall (complete with armadillos, no less!) and the staircase with its huge, almost comical spider web. At first the great Bela Lugosi seems mannered and slow, but he remains a fascinating performer, and his interpretation of the vampire will probably remain definitive. The movie is rather slow-moving and cries out for music. Helen Chandler, David Manners, Edward Van Sloan (as Van Helsing) and the other actors are competent, but don't really make that much of an impression. Dwight Frye's maniacal performance as the likable lad, Renfield, whom Dracula turns into a blithering mad man is certainly inescapable, however -- and more or less effective. Followed by Dracula's Daughter.

A Spanish version with different actors was made on the same sets at the same time.

NOTE: A version of Lugosi's Dracula with a new score by Philip Glass is available on DVD. Glass' score is uneven, sometimes adding tension and other times inappropriate and distracting. It is performed by the Kronos Quartet and is not a symphonic score, which would have made more sense but also been much more expensive.
NOTE: Photographer Freund later directed The Mummy.

Verdict: Creaky but somewhat memorable. **1/2.

DRACULA (1931) Spanish Version


DRACULA (1931). Director: George Melford.

Shot concurrently on the same sets as the Bela Lugosi version, this Spanish version has a completely different cast. While certain long shots from the Lugosi version (shot by Karl Freund) are used, most of this Spanish version was shot by George Robinson. Carlos Villar (pictured) isn't bad in the title role but has unfortunately hammy facial expressions when he is supposed to be at his most frightening. Lupia Tovar is a bit more animated as "Eva" than Helen Chandler was as Mina. Barry Norton is about on the same level as David Manners, charming and competent if little else. As Renfield, Pablo Alvarez Rubio is very effective and not quite as overblown as Dwight Frye. Some of the scene stagings are different from the Lugosi version, but this version also cries out for music and is rather slow-moving (as well as almost half an hour longer!)

Other differences: Renfield accidentally cuts himself with a knife while slicing chicken instead of with a paper clip, which makes more sense (and delivers more blood). When this happens Dracula is not all the way across the room but is only a couple of feet from Renfield. The vampire women (different actresses from those seen in the earlier long shot, taken from the Lugosi film) get at Renfield instead of Dracula. In the Spanish version Dracula does not approach a beggar girl in the street and attack her. At the concert hall, the dialogue between Dracula, Mina and the others occurs while the concert is still going on, a stupid variation. The most important difference is in the staging of the final scene underground, including the murder of Renfield (which is a bit more exciting) and everything that happens afterward. Everything is better than in the Lugosi version, especially the last shot as the survivors ascend the stairs. It's a bit odd, however, that Dracula leaves his coffin open (it's closed in the other version), but then we have to wonder how in either version he could ever have imagined that Van Helsing wouldn't be able to come upon him in his coffin easily, and why he didn't therefore retreat into the darkest corners of the cellar and plan a counter-attack?

Verdict: Interesting variation on a Hollywood classic. **1/2.

THE MUMMY


THE MUMMY (1932). Director: Karl Freund.

Boris Karloff plays "Ardath Bey," actually a mummy (High Priest Im-ho-tep) who awakened after 3700 years and wants to be reunited with the reincarnation of his beloved, Princess Anck-es-en-Amon or Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann). Aside from the first scene, Karloff is never seen in mummy wrappings, and doesn't stalk around -- he uses psychic powers to draw people to him or give them heart attacks. None of the modern-day characters ever ask this ancient figure a single question about his fascinating life centuries before; they only think of him as "evil" even before he kills anyone. [Im-ho-tep had committed sacrilege by trying to bring his beloved back to life and was buried alive.] Karloff gives an intense performance, and Zita Johann, while rather unusual-looking, is quite good as well. Edward Van Sloan and David Manners are about the same as ever. Universal gets credit for an interesting idea and a new "monster," but The Mummy is slow and unexciting. Atmospheric photography and music by Charles Stumar and James Dietrich respectively. Karl Freund was a famous German cinematographer before emigrating to America -- this was his first directorial assignment (after photographing the Bela Lugosi Dracula) and he wasn't up to the challenge.

Verdict: Classic, perhaps, but not that great. **.

FRANKENSTEIN


FRANKENSTEIN (1931). Director: James Whale.

Made the same year as Dracula, this is a much more successful and entertaining film, although, like Dracula, it takes great liberties with its source material. The performances are all good, with Colin Clive properly manic and intense as the obsessed Henry Frankenstein, and Mae Clarke appealing as his troubled fiancee. Although his performance mostly consists of pantomime, Boris Karloff is superb as the monster. Dwight Frye is perhaps more effective as the helpful if psychotic hunchback Fritz than he was as Renfield in Dracula. John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, and Frederick Kerr are all good as, respectively, family friend Victor Moritz, Dr. Waldman, and Baron Frankenstein, who serves as a bit of comedy relief (mercifully there isn't too much of it in the film).The scenic design is excellent and atmospheric, and the movie is very fast-paced. Bernhard Kaun's music for the opening and closing credits is good; one wishes there had been music all through the film, which cries out for it. An interesting aspect of the picture is that Henry Frankenstein goes completely unpunished for his grave-robbing and assorted malfeasances as well as the deaths caused by his rampaging monster! Followed by Bride of Frankenstein.

Verdict: Classic Universal horror. ***.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN


ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN (1950). 15 Chapter Columbia serial. Director: Spencer Bennet.

Superman not only has to contend with the villainy of Lex Luthor, but Luthor's “ally” Atom Man who wears a silly concealing helmet. Even the kids had no trouble figuring out who Atom Man really was. Luthor has mastered a teleportation device that sends his henchmen back to his cave hide out before they can be captured, and can also speed any of his enemies, Superman included, into a vast space Luthor calls “the empty doom.” Luthor also uses an explosive ray gun and an earthquake device to try to bring down the Daily Planet building and Metropolis itself. Superman is shown to fly via cartoon animation [aside from in close ups] but this is more effective than expected. At one point the “real” Superman is shown riding a missile that is aimed for the Daily Planet building. Lex Luthor is played by a comparatively bland Lyle Talbot, but Kirk Alyn isn't bad at all as Clark Kent and Superman. Noel Neill is a perfect Lois Lane, both sweet and spunky and never a bitch. Pierre Watkin is fine as a very petulant Perry White.
Verdict: Moderately entertaining serial is not one of the best but there have certainly been worse. **1/2.

THE PHANTOM (1943)


THE PHANTOM (1943). 15 chapter Columbia serial. Director: B. Reeves Eason.

Tom Tyler (Adventures of Captain Marvel) stars as The Phantom, or more accurately, the son of the aged original Phantom who has him take over when he's downed by a poison blow dart. In addition to some scientists searching for a lost city containing a treasure – the map has been divided into seven sections – The Phantom has to contend with a bunch of murderous gunrunners, not to mention the usual native uprisings. The Phantom leaves a skull mark on the cheeks of those he defeats in battle and can create illusions in the minds of his foes. We are also introduced to the most unprepossessing jungle “goddess” --actually a fire princess – ever seen in the movies; it turns out that she's a phony and is actually a cheap dancer. There are some more than acceptable cliffhangers – an alligator approaches The Phantom as he struggles to escape quicksand, and there's a battle high on a rope bridge which snaps – and some intriguing cinematic interplay between a quick-killing gunsel and his very angry – and equally homicidal – employer. All in all, however, The Phantom is a bit disappointing and is only a fair-to-middling serial. Jeanne Bates is the heroine. Tyler is not bad at all as The Phantom. He also played the mummy in The Mummy's Hand.
Verdict: Has its moments. **1/2.

THE GREEN ARCHER


THE GREEN ARCHER (1940). 15 chapter Columbia serial. Director: James W. Horne.

Victor Jory adds a little class as the star of this cliffhanger, but The Green Archer can in no way be compared to the far superior Shadow, which also starred Jory. Jory doesn't play the title role this time, which is another problem. The story revolves around an old castle full of secret passages and trapdoors where a smooth villain named Abel Bellamy (James Craven) has framed his brother and taken over the place as headquarters for his nefarious activities. He even goes so far as to wreck the train taking his brother to prison in order to kill him. Bellamy imprisons his sister-in-law and spends the next fourteen chapters trying to outwit, confound or murder his brother's friend Spike Holland (Jory), an insurance investigator. In the meantime there are not one but two masked archers who are up to mischief. One, whose identity we know, is working for the bad guys. The other, whose identity is secret [although anyone over the age of five can figure out who it is] mysteriously shows up on the side of the angels now and then. There are some good scenes in The Green Archer, but it never quite recovers from the fact that the title character – unlike Batman, Superman, The Shadow etc. -- is a complete and rather colorless cypher. Highlights include a very well-done sequence featuring a most uncomfortable-looking Jory trying to stay well beneath some descending spikes; his fall out of a high window, which is broken by an awning; and an underground trap that rapidly fills with water. The exciting conclusion has most of the good guys trapped on a slowly crumbling shelf atop a fiery pit! There's a feisty lady gang member who doubles as a housekeeper, and a likable gunsel named Dinky. [In fact The Green Archer benefits from a large cast of talented character actors; Iris Meredith is the heroine.] Based on a novel by Edgar Wallace.
Verdict: Not one of the all-time great serials but not entirely without merit, either. **1/2.

SECRET AGENT X-9 (1945)


SECRET AGENT X-9 (1945). 13 chapter Universal serial. Directed by Ray Taylor and Lewis D. Collins.

This is the second serial adapted from the comic strip "Secret Agent X-9." The action takes place mostly on Shadow Island, “the only neutral territory in Asia,” during World War 2. The villainess is not some sexy Asian doll, but is made up to be a plain-faced, skulking, matronly type named Nabura [Victoria Horne, who is at least a good actress]; the heroine, Jan Wiley, is rather luscious, however. (Wiley was also in Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. and She-Wolf of London.) Lloyd Bridges was never much of an actor, and he makes one of the least memorable serial heroes of all time. Smirking his way through all thirteen chapters, he seems less dashing than disinterested, and is simply not cut from the heroic mold. Keye Luke, however, is notable as a suitably brave Chinese agent. A scene with a moving floor is more comical than thrilling; in fact, the serial on a whole is rather dull, slow and almost pitiful in spots, definitely not a high point in chapterplay history. Universal may have turned out some of the worst cliffhanger serials of all (although there were exceptions). This one just lacks punch, although the theme music is gripping and terrific.

Verdict: Too bad everything else is so blah. *1/2.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

THE DEVIL'S BROTHER


THE DEVIL'S BROTHER (1933). Director: Hal Roach.

Auber's 1830 opera has been turned into an amusing semi-musical romp with Laurel and Hardy stepping in for two bumpkins in the original work. After being robbed of their life savings, the boys decide to become thieves themselves, but make the mistake of trying to hold up Fra Diavolo (The Devil's Brother), the most infamous bandit in the land. Sparing their lives, Diavolo turns the two into his servants as -- in disguise as the somewhat fopposh Marquis de San Marco -- he attempts to discover where Lady Pamela (Thelma Todd) has hidden her husband's fortune. This leads to many complications at the Inn where all the principals are gathered. Laurel and Hardy are as wonderful as ever, Todd is amusing, and Dennis King outstanding as the sinister singing bandit. Very little of Auber's music is actually used.

Verdict: Very pleasant L&H feature. ***.

MORAN OF THE LADY LETTY


MORAN OF THE LADY LETTY (1922); Director: George Melford.

"Moran" ( Dorothy Dalton) is the tomboy daughter of a sea captain and Ramon Laredo (Rudolph Valentino) is a rich boy who's tiring of his aimless life of booze and cotillions. When Ramon is shanghaied by a group of pirates led by Kitchell (Walter Long), they come upon Moran's father's boat, where everyone has been killed by coal gas except for her. Naturally Moran and Ramon fall in love. The life of pirates is rather sanitized in this fairly stupid and somewhat boring silent movie. The performances by Dalton, Valentino and Long are excellent and natural, however.

Verdict: Not a particularly convincing nor compelling romance. *1/2.

BEYOND PARADISE The Life of RAMON NAVARRO



BEYOND PARADISE: The Life of RAMON NAVARRO. Andre Soares. St. Martin's Press; 2002.

A solid, well-researched, exhaustive look into the life of Ramon Navarro, who became a star during the silent era (Ben-Hur), made a few memorable and unmemorable movies throughout the sound era, then had career and alcohol problems for the rest of his life. Soares wants to make sure that the details of his murder (which were grossly sensationalized) don't overshadow the man's life and art. Although it is clear that in many ways Novarro was the typical egotistical, self-absorbed Movie Star, Soares also sympathetically explores the likable aspects of Novarro's character, as well as his romantic and sexual life, and his unlikely attempts to be taken seriously as a singer. Navarro, while homosexual, did not marry a woman as many other gay male stars did, but due to his Catholic upbringing was conflicted over his orientation. Soares also provides details about his death, including comments from his killers.

Verdict: Absorbing read. ***1/2.

THE LAW OF THE TROPICS


THE LAW OF THE TROPICS (1941). Director: Ray Enright.
Jim Conwoy (Jeffrey Lynn, pictured) works for a rubber company in the Amazon and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of the woman he's to marry. When she changes her mind and never arrives, he winds up married to woman-on-the-run Joan Madison (Constance Bennett), an entertainer in a nightclub, who accompanies him back to his stomping grounds and pretends to be the original fiancee. But a lawman is poking around asking questions... Lynn and Bennett make a good team and give good performances in a very entertaining light romance and drama which has some mild suspense to it as well. Regis Toomey is a married co-worker's of Lynn's, and Craig Stevens plays the boss' obnoxious son. Paul Harvey is the equally obnoxious father, who finds he's no match for Bennett.
Verdict: Minor but snappy. ***.