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

Monday, June 30, 2008

A CHUMP AT OXFORD


A CHUMP AT OXFORD (1940). Director: Alfred J. Goulding.

Like Bonnie Scotland, A Chump at Oxford covers a lot of ground both in terms of story and geography. Apparently the earliest section of the film was added to increase the very short running time of the original film, bringing it to just over an hour from 3/4s of an hour. The first section, which is quite amusing, has Laurel and Hardy working as butler and maid (Stan in drag is the maid) and really putting the kibosh on a supposedly elegant dinner party hosted by who else but frequent foil James Finlayson. After this the scene switches to Oxford where a grateful bank president (they foiled some robbers) has decided to give them an education. It turns out that Stan is actually the amnesiac Lord Paddington, a stuffy, nose-in-the-air, stiff-upper-lip type who treats Oliver like a servant. A Chump at Oxford gives Laurel a great chance to show off his versatility and while it may not be on the level of Our Relations, it's often very funny. Peter Cushing has a small role as one of the students at Oxford.

Verdict: You're not a chump it you watch it. ***.

PHANTOM OF CHINATOWN


PHANTOM OF CHINATOWN (1940). Director: Phil Rosen.

While giving a lecture accompanying slides of a recent trip he'd undertaken with colleagues, Dr. Benton (Charles Miller) collapses and dies. Jimmy Wong (Keye Luke) investigates and along the way discovers the existence of a scroll that leads to a shrine of eternal flame that is over a valuable oil deposit. Captain Street (Grant Withers) pokes his nose in the plot, and so does Benton's secretary, Win Lee (Lotus Long), who may or may not be on the side of the angels. Keye Luke isn't bad as Wong, and he's authentically Chinese-American, but he's a bit colorless compared to Karloff, who originated the role. Of course, he plays a sort of alternate Wong. Lee Tung Foo makes an impression as Jimmy's excitable cook, Foo. Mason is played by John Holland, probably most famous for his role as Alice's handsome employer, who thinks Ralph is her brother, in a classic episode of The Honeymooners. (He also played Henry Higgins' butler years later in My Fair Lady.)

Verdict: Acceptable if very minor mystery. **.

THE DEVIL'S RAIN


THE DEVIL'S RAIN (1975). Director: Robert Fuest.

A small town is beset by a satanic cult run by Jonathan Corbis (Ernest Borgnine), who has indoctrinated several members of the Preston family into the cult against their will. Mark and Tom Preston ( William Shatner and Tom Skerritt) do their best to fight Corbis after their mother (Ida Lupino) and others have succumbed. It all leads to a seemingly interminable climax where the title downpour melts all the satanists into blobs of flesh and putty. Keenan Wynn and Eddie Albert are also on board. The performances are certainly good, but the movie has no horrific or taut atmosphere and director Fuest never really works up enough suspense. The satanists all sport pasty faces with empty eye sockets and look like -- pun intended -- Hell. But isn't the whole point of devil worship to improve your life and, presumably, your appearance? It's enough to make one wonder why anyone would have willingly joined the group.

Verdict: We won't tell the Devil if you don't watch it. **.

Friday, June 27, 2008

DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS


DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS (1958). Director: Delbert Mann.

An interesting and absorbing, if imperfect, screen adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's licentious play. Ephriam Cabot (Burl Ives) is a miserable old man who brings home a pretty Italian wife, Anna (Sophia Loren), who married him so she'd finally have a home of her own. At first Anna and Ephriam's son Eben (Anthony Perkins), who despises his father, fight their attraction to one another, but eventually they fall in love -- with extremely dire consequences. Ives doesn't quite dig beneath his character's surface bluster, and Loren, while good, feisty and credible in her early scenes, isn't quite up to the much more difficult moments later on. Perkins gives the best performance in the film as the troubled, determined and tormented Eben. Pernell Roberts and Frank Overton are fine as Eben's half-brothers, and and Rebecca Welles -- and especially Jean Willes -- offer spirited performances as their wives. Anne Seymour has some good moments at the opening as Eben's mother, who's determined that the land -- which originally was hers -- will someday belong to her son. Well photographed by Daniel L. Fapp and with a fine score by Elmer Bernstein.

Verdict: Passionate if flawed. ***.

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN


FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943). Director: Roy William Neill.

Although we never learn why, two grave robbers try to remove Larry Talbot's body from its resting place in the Talbot family crypt, bringing The Wolf Man back to life. Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) gets it into his head that Dr. Frankenstein might be able to help him, and he seems to be referring to Henry, but most of the story takes place in Vasaria and the dead Frankenstein's daughter Elsa (now played by Ilona Massey) makes a reference to her "father and grandfather" -- presumably she's the grand-daughter of Henry -- and there is also a reference to the sanitarium that burned down at the end of The Ghost of Frankenstein. However, Vasaria now has a Frankenstein castle as well. (Presumably the producers figured nobody would clearly remember everything, this being long before the days of VCRs, DVDs, and instant replay). As Ygor's brain was transferred into the monster's body at the end of Ghost, it's only fitting that Bela Lugosi, who played Ygor, would now play the monster. His approach is to make the creature sneering, and even a bit haughty (supposedly his dialogue was cut, even though he spoke through the monster's mouth in Ghost). Maria Ouspenkaya reprises her role as Maleva from The Wolf Man. Patric Knowles is stalwart as the doctor who wants to help Talbot but seems more intrigued by the monster. Ilona Massey looks as if she wandered into the wrong movie. Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man is highly contrived and illogical, although it moves fast and is pretty entertaining. Still it's a cut below the previous entries in the series. The climax features a not-so-epic battle between the title monsters. Lionel Atwill is the Mayor and Dwight Frye again plays a distinctive villager. Followed by House of Frankenstein.

Verdict: Still fun. **1/2.

JAMES DEAN: THE BIOGRAPHY


JAMES DEAN: The Biography by Val Holley. St. Martin's Press; 1995.

I've never quite understood or been caught up in the fascination or indeed deification of James Dean. My chief feeling about him is that it's always a tragedy when somebody dies at only 24; other than that he was never of great interest to me. In his short years, Dean piled in a lot of success and interesting experiences, however, many of them detailed by Holley, whose book held my attention despite my general lack of interest in the subject -- which is saying something. How it compares to other Dean books I can't say, although there are some interesting interviews (not all of which sound entirely credible) and much good research. Holley states right off the bat that "no effort has been made to reconcile the conflicting views of Deans' masculinity or sexuality expressed by different sources," which, unfortunately makes the book seem a little schizoid. [Holley seems to feel that Dean was essentially androgynous (?).] If Dean was essentially a homosexual who cast off his early gay friends and helpers as he headed toward stardom, as many people feel, then it makes little sense for Holley to make a big romance out of his fling with actress Pier Angeli; frankly the relationship between the two comes off by any account as little more than a publicity-driven faux romance. The result of Holley's approach is to make Dean still a little mysterious (which may have been his intention) but it also serves to keep the reader at a distance. The Dean that emerges is a rough-hewn talent who was unimpressive in real life but had something special that was captured by the camera. He had many facets, but could be a real a-hole and was rather immature and often pretentious. You get the impression that this poor young dead man wasn't necessarily worthy of all the adoration that has been heaped upon him.

Verdict: If you want some basic info on the actor, this basically well-done if imperfect book will probably do as well as any other. ***.

THE CRIMSON KIMONO


THE CRIMSON KIMONO (1959). Written and directed by Samuel Fuller.


When a stripper is shot to death in her dressing room, two police detectives -- one Caucasian, one Japanese-American -- who are partners, friends and war buddies are assigned to the case. The real trouble begins when both of the men fall in love with the same woman, an artist named Christine (Victoria Shaw). The film doesn't shy away from the subject of racism, but once it brings it up it dismisses it without examining its reality. Glenn Corbett isn't bad as Detective Charlie Bancroft but James Shigeta makes more of a dramatic impression as his partner, Joe. Samuel Fuller's script has some interesting elements, but is decidedly half-baked. Shaw gives a nice performance and she and Shigeta have a lovely romantic scene together. Anna Lee adds some spice as an tibbling artist-friend of Charlie's.

Verdict: Good idea, so-so execution. **.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

THE MUMMY'S HAND


THE MUMMY'S HAND (1940). Director: Christy Cabanne.

Archaeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and his foolish pal Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford), along with magician The Great Solvani (Cecil Kellaway) and his spirited daughter, Marta (Peggy Moran), travel from Cairo to try to find a tomb and the treasure that goes with it. They come afoul of High Priest Andoheb (George Zucco), who has awakened Kharis, the mummy, by the use of a fluid made from tanna leaves. This film began the tradition of the mummy, still in its bandages, slowly stalking people in the night. There's perhaps a little too much comedy relief, but the performances are good -- especially Zucco and Eduardo Ciannelli as his father -- and there's plenty of atmosphere. Kharis has a similar origin to Im-ho-tep of The Mummy with some differences -- Kharis tried to revive his dead beloved and was buried alive, but his tongue was cut out as well. Frankly, this is much more entertaining and creepier than The Mummy. Marta is not the reincarnation of a princess, thank goodness. Tom Tyler, who was the title hero in The Adventures of Captain Marvel, plays the mummy and plays him well. Followed by The Mummy's Tomb.

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

THE MUMMY'S TOMB


THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1942). Director: Harold Young.

A generation after the events of The Mummy's Hand, Steve Banning (Dick Foran) is a widower and senior citizen telling his sister (Mary Gordon), son John (John Hubbard), and John's girl, Isobel (Elyse Knox) about his adventures in Egypt as recounted in the previous film. Little does he know that both the mummy, Kharis and his High Priest Andohep (George Zucco) are somehow still alive and up to mischief. Andohep sends Mehmet (Turhan Bey) and Kharis to the small town of Mapleton, Massachusetts where Banning lives in order to wipe out all members of the family of the man who dared to desecrate Kharis' tomb. Shuffling, creepy Kharis manages to cause a lot of mischief in this one. An older and more serious "Babe" (Wallace Ford) also shows up (with a new last name). Lon Chaney Jr. plays the mummy and is completely unrecognizable. He shuffles around as well as anyone. Followed by The Mummy's Ghost.

Verdict: Somewhat creepy and lots of fun. ***.

THE MUMMY'S GHOST


THE MUMMY'S GHOST (1944). Director: Reginald LeBorg.

In this sequel to The Mummy's Tomb, the town of Mapleton is having more problems with Kharis, the Living Mummy, who is still alive and up to trouble. Even High Priest Andoheb (George Zucco) is somehow still alive, and this time sends Yousef Bey (John Carradine) to take up where his last emissary left off. Inexplicably, the town's museum is displaying the mummy of Kharis' beloved, Ananka (although Steve Denning never actually found her in The Mummy's Hand) and Bey and Kharis are out for vengeance on those who committed this desecration -- or something like that. What really matters are the still creepy scenes of Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) shuffling around and strangling infidels. Barton MacLane is Inspector Walgreen, who does his best to stop Kharis, and Robert Lowery is the boyfriend of Amina (Ramsay Ames), the woman who -- very conveniently -- turns out to be the reincarnation of Ananka. Lowery later played the Caped Crusader in the Batman and Robin serial. The decorative Ames doesn't have to do too much acting, but even the little she's required to do is somewhat beyond her. The music (by Frank Skinner, with some themes probably by Hans Salter) does a lot of the work. This has a surprisingly downbeat ending. Followed by The Mummy's Curse.

Verdict: There's life in the old mummy yet! **1/2.

THE MUMMY'S CURSE


THE MUMMY'S CURSE (1944). Director: Leslie Goodwins.

Back in the days long before DVDs and VCRs producers figured they could fudge a bit in the details of their sequels because nobody would remember the details anyway. Thus the fact that Kharis walks into a swamp in Massachusetts with his beloved Ananka at the end of The Mummy's Ghost doesn't prevent the two of them emerging from a swamp in Louisiana halfway across the country in The Mummy's Curse. The fact that the reincarnation of Ananka was actually a lovely young woman named Amina has also been forgotten or simply dispensed with as irrelevant. [While it might have been interesting if Amina's parents were still alive and saw her with her youth preserved, the movie doesn't explore this situation.] Twenty-five years have gone by since Kharis and Ananka entered the swamp and the Scripps museum wants to interfere with an engineering project in the hopes of getting both mummies back. Lon Chaney Jr. gets to emote much more as the slow but unstoppable mummy in this venture, the last of the series, and the movie is especially rich in atmosphere. Dr. Zandab (Peter Coe) and Ragheb (Martin Kosleck) are the bad guys, and Virginia Christine (best known years later as the matronly Mrs. Olson of the Folger coffee commercials) gives a particularly effective performance as Ananka, who screams like the Bride of Frankenstein seeing old Franky when she spots her ancient lover sheathed in bandages. The scene where Ananka claws her way out of the mud is memorable, and there are great shots of a ghostly abandoned monastery where the bad guys wait and plot. "Most Egyptians doubt the legend of Kharis," we're told. Addison Richards is the head engineer, Walsh; Kay Harding is his daughter Betty; Kurt Katch is Cajun Joe; and Dennis Moore is Betty's love interest, Dr. Halsey. [Moore starred in the 1946 serial The Mysterious Mr. M.] Next came Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy.

Verdict: Universal's final Kharis epic is still good fun. ***.

Monday, June 23, 2008

BRIDGE TO THE SUN


BRIDGE TO THE SUN (1961). Director: Etienne Perier.

A pretty young woman named Gwen (Carroll Baker) falls in love with a handsome Japanese diplomat named Hidenari Terasaki (James Shigeta), marries him, and moves to Japan, where she's expected to conform to the docile, subservient role of a typical Japanese housewife, causing friction, to say the least. The couple and their young daughter are back in the U.S. when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor; when Hidenari is deported, Gwen -- to her mother's horror -- decides to go with him. Hidenari is distrusted by his colleagues not only because of his American wife but because he is secretly working for peace (exactly what he's doing is never really specified). Based on a true story, Bridge to the Sun is interesting and well-acted, but despite some good scenes, its examination of some serious and provocative situations is on the superficial side. (The whole business of atomic bombs being dropped on Japan is completely glossed over so we never learn the reactions of either Gwen or Hidenari.) However, the ending is very moving.

Verdict: An A for effort. **1/2.

BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB


BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1971). Director: Seth Holt.

An maltreated Egyptian Princess named Tera (Valerie Leon) takes over the mind of a young woman, Margaret Fuchs (also Leon), who was born at the exact moment her tomb was discovered twenty or so years before. Her corpse is remarkably well preserved, and drips blood from the wound where her hand was cut off centuries before. Various people who were on the expedition to her tomb are killed, their throats torn out. The bloodletting doesn't help a bit in making this slow, dull and somewhat inept film more entertaining. The tomb doesn't look as if it's older than the few days it took to put up the set, and the story is confusing. Holt's uninspired direction is absolutely no help at all. Andrew Kier plays Margaret's father, but his part is under-written. Mark Edwards is Margaret's boyfriend, named "Tod Browning." There's a lot of rushing around to little effect. Many people consider this one of the better Hammer horror films, but it's really quite forgettable. Based on Bram Stoker's novel The Jewel of the 7 Stars. Rosalie Crutchley, who plays another victim of the curse, was memorable as creepy old Mrs. Dudley, the caretaker's wife, in The Haunting. George Coulouris from Citizen Kane plays an aged professor, and James Villiers adds some zest as Corbeck. This film was remade as The Awakening in 1980.

Verdict: Nothing to shout about. *1/2.

NUMBER SEVENTEEN


NUMBER SEVENTEEN (1932). Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

An assortment of people (played by a no-name cast), including jewel thieves, a mute woman, a police inspector and so on, wind up violently commingling at the title address, in this rather oddball Hitchcock feature which is busy but initially somewhat boring, despite some interesting Hitchcock touches. The trouble is that the story is weak and confusing. However, the second half picks up as one man commandeers a crowded bus and races in pursuit of a train even as several characters chase each other all over the train. The models are unconvincing, but by this time the picture moves at a breakneck pace. The trouble is, you don't really care about the characters or what's going on. Still, anything directed by Hitchcock is not without some interest. Leon M. Lion is good as a tramp who wanders into the house and gets involved in all the action, and the rest of the cast is professional as well. Anne Grey is the nominal heroine.

Verdict: No classic but fun at times. **1/2.

Friday, June 20, 2008

MY FAIR LADY


MY FAIR LADY (1964). Director: George Cukor.

George Cukor, primarily concerned with actors and not with being "cinematic," may not have been the best choice to helm the film adaptation of the smash Lerner and Loewe musical, but the film is still so entertaining and well-acted that there seems little point in complaining about its static, theatrical aspects. Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, and Stanley Holloway are all superb, and they are bolstered by an outstanding supporting cast made up of the likes of Gladys Cooper as Henry Higgins' mother (wish we saw more of her) -- Cooper, of course, was the dragon-mother of Now, Voyager -- Wilfrid Hyde-White as Pickering; Mona Washbourne as the housekeeper Mrs. Pearce; and Theodore Bikel as that "ruder pest" from Budapest, Zoltan Karpathy etc. This is probably one of the few (only?) film adaptations of a Broadway musical that includes all of the songs (the adaptation of Fanny dropped the songs entirely, although you at least heard the music in the background). Great story, great score, great entertainment. Eliza's haunting refrain of "what's to become of me?' echoes -- along with a great sense of loneliness -- as she returns to the place where she once sold flowers and none of her old companions fully recognize her. You really can't go home again.

Verdict: Loverly. ***1/2.

MR. WONG IN CHINATOWN


MR. WONG IN CHINATOWN (1939). Director: William Nigh.

A woman (Lotus Long) comes to see investigator James Lee Wong in his house in San Francisco, and is promptly murdered with a blow gun. it turns out that she is a princess who recently came into the country on a tramp steamer. Could some of the other passengers be involved? What does the dwarf on the ship know about the murder? Boris Karloff gives a flavorful performance as Mr. Wong, and Grant Withers is Police Captain Street. Marjorie Reynolds is a reporter who saves Wong and others from a violent murder attempt. Bessie Loo is the princess' maid, Lilly May. Lotus Long had a larger part in the Mr. Wong film Phantom of Chinatown wherein Keye Luke essayed the role of James Lee Wong. The picture holds the attention -- barely -- but doesn't really amount to much.

Verdict: Where's Charlie Chan when you need him? **.

THE OSCAR


THE OSCAR (1966). Director: Russell Rouse.
Frankie Fane (Stephen Boyd, pictured) is a low-level garment worker who sort of falls into acting because he "impresses" a lady talent scout named Sophie (Eleanor Parker). Sophie gets him a top agent in "Kappy" Kapstetter (Milton Berle), who manages to convince studio head Kenneth Regan (Joseph Cotten) to sign him to a contract even though Regan senses something off about the guy. Fane becomes a star, but keeps biting the hand that feeds him -- even though some of his remarks to those who helped him have a point. When his career starts slipping badly, he has nightmares of going back to being nobody, and hitches upon a desperate plan to nab an Oscar and put himself back on top. The Oscar does show how undeserving louts can become movie stars simply because somebody has the hots for them -- which has happened more often than anyone imagines. The movie might have had more bite had Fane been someone desperately committed to the art of acting, but this can't be confused with the far superior Career -- it's basically entertaining trash with mostly one-dimensional characters and often hokey dialogue -- and not a few tedious moments. Once Fane begins to slide, however, the pic picks up. The fact is that the narcissistic, ambitious, self-absorbed Fane is all too typical of most Hollywood actors.
Although miscast as some low-bred tough guy, Boyd is not at all bad as Fane, and has his best moment at the very end of the movie (you almost feel sorry for him). As his pal and procurer, Hymie, Tony Bennett seems amateurish until he has some powerful moments at the climax. Jill St. John gives it a good try, but she hasn't the real acting chops to make the most of her scenes as the girlfriend Fane stole from Hymie. Elke Sommer is okay as Kay Bergdahl, a designer Fane makes a play for and eventually marries, and Berle is at least flavorful as Kappy. Eleanor Parker gives the sauciest performance as Sophie, and makes St. John and Sommer look like a couple of kittens in comparison. But Edie Adams and Ernest Borgnine almost walk off with the movie as a husband and wife who are celebrating their divorce in Mexico when they encounter Fane and Kay and re-enter their lives in an unexpected fashion. Peter Lawford has a small but significant scene where he plays a once-famous actor who is now a headwaiter at a Hollywood restaurant; Lawford is excellent and this is probably the best scene in the movie. There are some celebrity cameos and Hedda Hopper as well. One of the screenwriters was Harlan Elison, who became better known as a science fiction writer.
Verdict: Not exactly Eugene O'Neill but fun. ***.

THE FIRST EMPEROR


THE FIRST EMPEROR. Composed by Tan Dun. Shown on Great Performances at the Met. TV Director: Brian Large.


The three main characters in this epic story are Qin, the first Emperor of China, his crippled daughter Yueyang, and his old friend, the composer Gao Jianli. Qin wants Jianli to compose an anthem for his empire, and takes extreme measures to try to bring this about. Jianli's village is enslaved, and while Qin greets him as a brother, Jianli is enraged by his actions. Jianli's mother was killed in Qin's attempt to "unify the land." Although Yueyang has been promised to the General who took Jianli's village, she falls instead for Jianli -- and vice versa. This leads to some arresting and dramatic developments.


Composer Tan Dun responds to this very interesting libretto by Dun and Ha Yin with music that is lyrical but never that melodious in the true sense, although at times it has a mild Puccini-esque quality. There is an occasional arioso such as "Like a stream rushing to the sea" (the opera is sung in English). Startlingly, members of the orchestra serve as the chorus. In this handsome production, Placido Domingo was Qin, Paul Groves was Jianli, and Elizabeth Futral was Yueyang; all did fine work. Dun conducted his own score, which has many interesting moments.

Verdict: Not for all tastes but not without merit. **1/2.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI


DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (1937). Director: Robert Florey.

When her father is murdered and she herself is nearly killed by members of a gang who smuggle in illegal aliens (and sometimes just dump them out of a plane's cargo bay when the law gets too close), Lan Ying Lin (Anna May Wong) decides to go undercover as a dancer to track down the leader. Also on the villains' trail is agent Kim Lee (Philip Ahn); the two eventually team up due to the desperate circumstances they find themselves in. This interesting, if minor, suspense film is bolstered by fine acting, not only by the leads but by a very talented supporting cast: Anthony Quinn has a small role as a nasty pilot; Charles Bickford is a member of the smugglers who runs a seedy nightclub. Larry "Buster" Crabbe is perhaps more interesting than usual as a mustachioed, sneering brunet and J. Carrol Naish is as excellent as ever as his superior, Barden. Evelyn Brent makes an impression as a neurotic gal who's jealous of Bickford's attentions to Wong, and (Ms.) Cecil Cunningham all but steals the picture as Mary Hunt, who befriends Anna and her father but has some secrets of her own. Wong and Ahn make a good team, but further pictures detailing their adventures never materialized; too bad.

Verdict: Engaging thriller with some very good sequences. **1/2.

LIONS FOR LAMBS


LIONS FOR LAMBS (2007). Director: Robert Redford. NOTE: On occasion Great Old Movies will review more recent films of interest.

Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) talks to an underachieving, disaffected but intelligent student Todd (Andrew Garfield) whom he thinks might muff an opportunity to amount to something. During their conversation Malley brings up two minority, less privileged former classmates of Todd's -- Ernest (Michael Pena) and Arian (Derek Luke) -- who volunteered to serve in the Armed Forces in Afghanistan because they wanted to take a stand and be part of something. Malley doesn't know that these two young men are part of a new military initiative that has begun in Afghanistan, something that is the brainchild of Republican Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise). As the professor and the student converse, so, too, do Irving and veteran TV journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), who hopes to burrow through Irving's smugness and get some real meat out of him for her interview. She knows, however, that the network will just swallow and report whatever Irving tells them. These discussions are interspersed with scenes from Afghanistan, where Ernest and Arian are trapped by members of the Taliban.

Redford (filming a script by Matthew Michael Carnahan) takes on the media, the Republicans, the war on terrorism, social inequality, societal and personal indifference, the obsession with celebrities, ambitious-driven politicians, and so on in a 90 minutes that moves fairly quickly. It would be easy to dismiss Lions for Lambs as somewhat devoid of plot and action, as well as rather preachy and obvious -- all of which it is -- but it's also well-meaning, makes some good points, and is at least about something, unlike most of the films that are being made today. The scenes with the soldiers in Afghanistan are very moving, as well. Cruise is always at his best playing shallow media-savvy characters, so he's okay in this picture. Redford is effective enough as the professor, and Streep is simply excellent as Roth. Garfield, Pena and Luke are solid as the young men.

Verdict: Not for all tastes, but surprisingly effective. ***.

THE JADE MASK


THE JADE MASK (1945). Director: Phil Rosen.

In an old mansion surrounded by the unloving members of his family and others, a scientist named Harper (Frank Reicher) is murdered. Since Harper was working on a government project, Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) is called in on the case. You would think the first question Chan would ask everyone is why everyone hated the dead man so much -- was he a control freak, perhaps? -- but this is never satisfactorily answered, giving everything a more unintentionally comical cast than usual. Before long there are more corpses found in the house, and Chan's helpmate (or whatever he is) Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland) is having conniption fits. The movie holds the attention, and while it's confusing at times, it's effective enough as a decidedly minor mystery. Toler is fine as Chan, and Moreland is as lovable as ever (figuring in the funny finale). Cyril Delevanti is the butler, Roth, and Harper's sister, Louise, is played by Edith Evanson, who was the innkeeper in Journey to the Center of the Earth. Edwin Luke is Chan's number four son, Eddie.

Verdict: A not bad Chan adventure from lowly Monogram. ***.

THE LIVING HEAD


THE LIVING HEAD (La Cabeza viviente/1963. Director: Chano Urueta.

A prologue shows us a bloody ceremony of the ancient Aztecs, then we're off to the future where archaeologists led by a professor (German Robles) discover a well-preserved Aztec warrior, as well as a severed head (in a kind of visor) that opens its eyes periodically and seems to be controlling things. Before long people are being murdered and the professor's daughter (Ana Luisa Peluffo), who may be the reincarnation of an Aztec princess, is in the thick of it all. At first it looks as if this silly movie might be some fun, but it isn't long before the tedium sets in and it's clear that this badly-dubbed mess is senseless and has almost zero entertainment value -- although the living head is somewhat humorous. As living head movies go, however -- and there actually have been a few -- this is by no means ahead of the others.

Verdict: Miss it if you can! *.

Monday, June 16, 2008

SWISS MISS


SWISS MISS (1938). Director: John G. Blystone.

Laurel and Hardy are trying to sell mouse traps in Switzerland when they're swindled by a potential customer. This forces them to work for a hotel where they are befriended by singer Anna Albert (Della Lind), whose husband Victor (Walter Woolf King), is trying to find peace and quiet as he works on a new operetta. The last thing he gets from the boys is peace and quiet as Hardy serenades the lovely Anna (not realizing she's married), Laurel creates a snowstorm out of chicken feathers so that a local Saint Bernard will "rescue" him with brandy, and both of them try to traverse a rope bridge over a high, high canyon as they carry a piano! The "plot" isn't much, but Laurel and Hardy are in good form and there are many very funny sequences. "The Cricket Song" that Victor composes is pretty bad, but some of the other music is better. Some fine character actors, including Eric Blore, add to the fun. King played singer Rodolfo Lassparri in A Night at the Opera. NOTE: Recently Turner Classic Movies -- my favorite cable network -- showed a 66 minute print of Swiss Miss instead of the 72 minute version. While some viewers may not care that the scene where King sings "I Can't Get Over the Alps" has been cut, I get a hoot out of that number. Too bad. Hopefully the scene will be reinstated when TCM shows the film again next month.

Verdict: Love that gorilla! ***.

KRONOS


KRONOS (1957). Director: Kurt Neumann.

An asteroid approaches the earth and lands in the ocean off the coast of Mexico. But wait a minute -- didn't it veer and turn direction at the last moment? Scientist Dr. Gaskell (Jeff Morrow) senses that there's more to this "asteroid" than meets the eye and wouldn't you know he's right. Before too long the ocean is boiling and up from the depths comes a 100 foot high, robotic "energy assimilator" which Gaskell christens Kronos after the monster of mythology. Sent by an alien race to steal energy supplies, Kronos tears across the land sucking up power from atomic plants and causing general mayhem. This is an entertaining science fiction "monster" flick with a fairly able cast. Morrow is as professional and enthusiastic as ever. John Emery is another scientist whose mind is taken over by an alien intelligence. Barbara Lawrence, who played herself in The Star as a young rival to Bette Davis' character, is cast as Vera Hunter, Gaskell's assistant and lover. Morris Ankrum is a doctor who discovers what's wrong with Emery, and George O'Hanlon is another nerdy scientist who has a computer nicknamed "Suzie." The score by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter is effective at increasing tension and the movie is well-photographed by Karl Struss (it's best to see it in wide screen format). Marjorie Stapp of The Indestructible Man has a small role as a nurse. The best scene has the scientists landing on top of Kronos in a copter as it makes unnerving noises and begins to open up ... Creepy.

Verdict: Maybe not a classic, but it has its moments. **1/2.

BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA aka THE BOYS FROM BROOKLYN


BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA (1952). Director: William Beaudine.

Two nightclub entertainers named Duke and Sammy (Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo) somehow wind up on the isolated island of Coca Cola and intrigue the natives, not to mention the sinister Dr. Zabor (Bela Lugosi). When Zabor realizes that lovely Nona (Charlita), whom he is smitten with, has fallen for Duke, he turns the latter into a gorilla. Meanwhile, Nona's sister, the hefty and sweet Saloma (Muriel Landers, pictured with Petrillo), whom Sammy calls "Salami," develops a big hankering for him. And Ramona the chimp walks off with the picture. (No wonder -- Ramona is played by the incredible Cheeta of the Tarzan films!) Al Kikume plays the chief.

The short-lived team of Mitchell and Petrillo were only created to feed off the popularity of Martin and Lewis, whom they resemble. A gifted mimic, Petrillo does a dead-on Jerry Lewis imitation. Duke Mitchell isn't a bad singer, but he's definitely a dead-common, lower case version of Martin. Dino was amused by the two fellas; Jerry wanted them wiped off the planet. Bela Lugosi, who deserved much, much better is still charming and professional as Zabor. The film isn't even "so bad it's good" -- it's just bad -- boring, unfunny, and a pathetic waste of everyone's talents, including Mitchell's and Petrillo's.

Verdict: Satisfy your curiosity if you must, but don't say I didn't warn you. *.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

THUNDERBALL


THUNDERBALL (1965). Director: Terence Young.

Overlong but generally very entertaining Bond film is a handsome production with excellent photography and some great set-pieces. SPECTRE, headed by an unseen Blofeld (voice of Dr. No's Joseph Wiseman), assigns Number 2, Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), to arrange the theft of two atom bombs with which to blackmail the world's governments into a huge pay-off. Bond, accompanied by Felix Leiter (Rick Van Nutter) and female agent Paula (Martine Beswick) travels to Nassau to investigate Largo, where he meets the man's beautiful mistress Domino (Claudine Auger), who winds up helping him. The theme song, sung with zest by Tom Jones, is memorable, as is the prologue sequence, wherein Bond exposes and kills an enemy agent who attends his own funeral in drag. The bit with the sharks in Largo's swimming pool that eat a couple of his henchmen and nearly munch on Bond, is interesting, and the finale on the speeding, runaway hydrofoil is thrilling [none of these sequences are in Fleming's novel; neither is Bond's souped-up car or the lady assassin, Fiona (Luciana Paluzzi)]. Another change from the novel is that Domino's late brother is a good guy. He doesn't steal the atom bombs and kill his colleagues, but is murdered by Fiona and replaced by a double.

Thunderball is a nearly excellent 007 adventure but it does have its detractors. Sometimes the music, while attractive, is much too languid for an action picture, making the pace seem slow. It doesn't help that some sequences could certainly have been trimmed. The sequence when Largo and his men recover and move the bombs from the downed plane goes on forever, for instance. Another problem is that Claudine Auger, while competent enough as Domino, exhibits little personality [Paluzzi is much better as the evil hit woman]. Adolfo Celi is somewhat striking and dynamic as Largo, but his performance isn't that great. Of the supporting cast, Martine Beswick makes the best impression, but she has little to do and is quickly killed off [she also appeared in From Russia with Love as one of the battling gypsy women]. There are a couple of dumb moments. In the novel the lovely gal at the Shrublands health spa uses a mink glove to soothe Bond's muscles after his “accident” on the rack (a well done sequence in the movie). In the film, Bond uses the mink glove on her and tells her how soothing it is as if it's his glove that he carries around in his luggage. When Bond tries to convince Domino how evil Largo is, he says “Largo had him [your brother] murdered – or it was on his orders.” Of course, that means the same thing. What Bond really meant was “Largo killed your brother – or it was on his orders.” Thunderball was remade as Never Say Never Again with the same star.

Verdict: Whatever its flaws, Thunderball is one of the best of the Sean Connery Bond adventures. ***.

NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN


NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983). Director: Irvin Kershner.

This remake of Thunderball is even longer than the original, but it has its pleasures. An "aged" Sean Connery is perfectly able to go through 007's paces with aplomb, even if he could probably act the role in his sleep by now. As Blofeld, Max von Sydow goes for a grandfatherly approach that radiates absolutely no menace whatsoever. Klaus Maria Brandauer is not a bad actor and adds a few nuances to his portrayal of the rather child-like Maximilian Largo, but he doesn't have enough dynamism and presence to make a major Bond villain. As his mistress Domino, Kim Basinger is attractive but hardly the simmering European sensualist of other Bond beauties. Barbara Carerra wipes her off the screen – and nearly steals the picture – as the sexy Fatima Blush, Largo's fiendish assassin. Bernie Casey makes a solid African-American Felix Leiter, although he has little to do. James Fox isn't bad as a comparatively buffoonish “M.”

Although somehow the movie isn't as good as the original, it does have some excellent sequences. There's a rousing, splendid fight between Bond and a hulking hired killer that takes the duo from one end of Shrublands to the other, nearly wrecking the health spa in the process. There are some amazing shots when a Great White pursues Bond into an underwater wreck, shoving its toothy snout into doorways in a startling manner and trying to get a big bite out of our hero. A tabletop “Domination” game with lethal jolts of electricity for the loser replaces the milder gambling sequence between Bond and Largo in the original. The underground grotto set where Largo keeps some of the bombs is strikingly designed. In Thunderball Largo's yacht was named Disco Valenti; here it is called “Flying Saucer,” which is the English translation. Largo's estate, Palmyra, has been moved from Nassau to North Africa [although most of the story still takes place in the Bahamas]. The underwater climax follows the novel more faithfully than the first film version: Domino spears Largo as he fights with Bond. There is no hydrofoil chase and the ending is much less thrilling and satisfying than the end of Thunderball; in fact, it's rather flat.
Director Kershner keeps things moving. The title tune is a lesser Bond theme, and in general the music is mediocre, although the cinematography is superior. Lorenzo Semple Jr.'s. screenplay is occasionally campy.

Verdict: Whatever its flaws, Never Say Never Again does have plenty of entertainment value. ***.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

MOHAWK


MOHAWK (1956). Director: Kurt Neumann.

Unless you have a mania for westerns, there's probably no good reason to see this unless it's to see how Allison Hayes (pictured with Scott Brady), star of the "classic" Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, comports herself in a more "serious" film. Hayes wasn't so hot in Zombies of Mora Tau, but she isn't half-bad in Mohawk (though no Kate Hepburn). Scott Brady plays John Adams, a painter who works out of an Army fort. Hayes is his zesty model, Greta, but he also has a fiancee named Cynthia (Lori Nelson) who shows up unannounced at the fort with her peppery Aunt Agatha (Vera Vague) in tow; Nelson once again proves what a mediocre actress she is. While juggling these two babes, Adams discovers that there's also an Indian wench, Onida (Rita Gam), who has a hankering for him, and vice versa. Meanwhile, some renegade Indians are planning an attack on the fort. Supposedly all the action footage comes from John Ford's Drums Along the Mohawk, but none of it is very convincing. John Hoyt is Butler, the white villain of the piece, and Tommy Cook does a nice turn as the doomed Indian lad Keoga. It's a pleasant surprise to see who Adams winds up with at the end. Handsome production is well photographed by Karl Struss and has an effective score by Edward L. Alperson, Jr.

Verdict: See it for saucy Hayes if you must. **.

THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN


THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942). Director: Erle C. Kenton.

Yes, it's no surprise that Ygor (Bela Lugosi) and the monster (Lon Chaney Jr.) survived the conflagration at the end of Son of Frankenstein. Together the two travel to Vasaria, where they hope to find another son of Frankenstein, Ludwig von Frankenstein (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), who runs a sanitarium. Realizing that only dissection will dispose of the monster, but not wanting to commit murder, Ludwig decides to replace the monster's criminal brain with one from a decent colleague slain by the creature. Doctor Bohmer (Lionel Atwill), a jealous assistant, decides instead to accede to Ygor's suggestion and place his brain in the monster. Lon Chaney's monster isn't especially memorable, but Hardwicke, Atwill and especially Lugosi, are marvelous. Ralph Bellamy is the boyfriend of Elsa Frankenstein (Evelyn Ankers), and Dwight Frye is on hand in the small role of a villager. If anything this is more illogical than Son of Frankenstein, but it's also fast and entertaining, with a fine musical score by Hans J. Salter. Followed by Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

Verdict: There's no stopping Franky boy! ***.

BEHIND THE SCREEN


BEHIND THE SCREEN: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910 - 1969. William J. Mann. Viking; 2001.

A very interesting look at the gay influence on films -- especially the look of films -- during the first half of the 20th century. It's difficult even today to know who's gay or who isn't due to the closet, sham marriages, and the fact that most gays are non-stereotypical, so undoubtedly many influential individuals were left out of the book. Since open, more flamboyant gays tended to go in for costuming and interior design over say, camera work or directing (although there were certainly gays in those fields, as Mann notes and uncovers) the book has what seems like a disproportionate number of pages devoted to the more "feminine" fields and at times gets a little tiresome because of it. Mann also examines how fan magazines dealt with various actors' gay persuasion. Some of the names whose lives and work Mann examines include Mitchell Leisen, Charles Brackett, Charles Waters, Kay Francis, Dorothy Arzner, Cary Grant, J. Warren Kerrigan (one of the first big stars), Ross Hunter, Irving Rapper, etc. He also looks into marriages between gay men and lesbians (Edmund Lowe and Lilyan Tashman) who formed a kind of loving bond while getting their thrills outside the marital bed (although Mann takes these faux relationships perhaps more seriously than he should). There are odd omissions in the book, however. Still, some readers may find it an eye-opener. Well-researched.

Verdict: A worthwhile read, if hardly the last word on the subject. ***.

THE INVISIBLE AGENT


THE INVISIBLE AGENT (1942). Director: Edwin L. Marin.

The third in the Invisible Man series (The Invisible Woman was a comedy that did not follow the continuity of the first two films) has the grandson (Jon Hall) of Frank Griffin, the original Invisible Man, living under an assumed name and besieged by Nazi agents who want his grandfather's formula, as does the United States. After the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hall uses the formula himself to enter enemy territory and acquire vital information from the Nazi's. Ilona Massey plays a double-agent who helps Hall even though he doesn't quite trust her. Hall and Massey are fine, but the picture certainly benefits from the participation of J. Edward Bromberg and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Nazi agents, and Peter Lorre as a sinister Japanese baron -- all three gentlemen give outstanding performances despite the nature of the material (Lorre and Hardwicke each brilliantly underplays a final encounter).

Verdict: The Invisible Agent is a competent B thriller with some excellent effects work courtesy of, as usual, John P. Fulton. **1/2.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

DEADLINE AT DAWN


DEADLINE AT DAWN (1946). Director: Harold Clurman.

"Golly, the misery that walks around in this pretty, quiet night."

Alex (Bill Williams), a sailor who has to catch a bus at six am to report back to duty, is on leave in Manhattan when he discovers that a woman (Lola Lane) with whom he dallied earlier in the evening has been murdered. A hard-boiled, disillusioned taxi dancer named June (Susan Hayward) feels sorry for him and helps him find out who the real killer is before he has to catch his bus -- or is arrested. They are aided by Gus Hoffman (Paul Lukas), a sympathetic cab driver. Along they way they encounter cops, blackmail victims, shady ladies (one played by Osa Massen), the dead woman's nasty brother (Joseph Calleia), her blind ex-husband, and a sad man (Steven Geray) with white gloved hands who is smitten with Hayward. This isn't much of a mystery -- the identity of the killer is pretty obvious -- but it has an undercurrent of loneliness and lost souls that gives the film a poignant and disturbing edge. Considering that New York is essentially a major character in the film, it's criminal that the movie was clearly shot on Hollywood sound stages and not on location. Clifford Odet's screenplay, awash in great dialogue and interesting characters, was based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich (William Irish). Jerome Cowan demonstrates his versatility as a nervous if exuberant blackmail victim. Hayward offers an interesting portrait of a tough, unpleasant woman who slowly allows her humanity to shine through. Joe Sawyer, who's only seen in the distance, makes an impression as a drunk friend of the dead woman's. The entire cast is excellent.

Verdict: More here than meets the eye. ***.

STORY OF WOMEN


STORY OF WOMEN (Une affaire des femmes/1988). Director: Claude Chabrol.

Marie (Isabelle Huppert) is a young housewife with two beautiful children living in occupied France during WW2. She helps a neighbor whose husband doesn't want another child by giving her an abortion, then does the same thing for a number of women. She also rents out one of her rooms to an engaging prostitute who befriends her. She has an affair with a cocky young man, thereby enraging her husband. You know from the beginning that she comes to a bad end. This is based on the true story of the last woman to go to the guillotine in France. The film is absorbing and well-acted, but the nominal heroine, although mostly guilty of poor judgment more than anything else, is not that likable or sympathetic. Francois Cluzet, Nils Tavernier, and Marie Trintignant are the co-stars. The children are marvelous. While not badly done, Story of Women somehow misses the mark.

Verdict: Intriguing but unsatisfying. **1/2.

WHO DONE IT?


WHO DONE IT? (1942). Director: Erle C. Kenton.

Bud and Lou are soda jerks who seize an opportunity to get into the radio writing business and wind up pretending to be detectives when someone is murdered during a broadcast. While some of Costello's shtick gets a little tiresome, by and large he and Abbott give good, funny performances. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't have much of a plot to get involved in, so it's entirely dependent on its routines, some of which work and some of which don't. The film's highlight is the bit with Costello trying to get in touch with a radio show that has just awarded him $10,000 -- depending upon his getting back to them within five minutes. At a phone booth in a drug store he tries to get the ditzy operator on the other end to connect him to Alexander 2222 -- as all sorts of people interfere. (This may have been an old A&C vaudeville routine; in any case it's a classic.) Mary Wickes is fun as a secretary that Lou tries to romance but she doesn't have enough to do, and William Bendix scores as a brusque cop who's even stupider than Costello. Patric Knowles and Louise Allbritton are the obligatory romantic couple, Jerome Cowan is a writer, and William Gargan is the police lieutenant.

Verdict: Some very amusing moments. **1/2.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

THE MASK OF FU MANCHU

THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932). Director: Charles Brabin.


Loosely based on the 1932 novel by Sax Rohmer, the movie takes the basic idea of Fu Manchu taking over a re-emerging cult, turning the "prophet" of the book into Genghis Khan and moving the location to China. Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff) wants to get his hands on a mask and sword taken from Khan's tomb and will stop at nothing to do so in order to use their power for his own ends. Out to foil his plans are Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant), an archaeologist; Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) of Scotland Yard; Barton's daughter Sheila (Karen Morley); and Terrence Granville (Charles Starrett). Rounding out the cast are Jean Hersholt as Professor Von Berg and Myrna Loy as Fah Lo See, Fu's sinister daughter. Of course, the plot doesn't matter half as much as the atmosphere, the creepy sets, the scenes of whipping and torture, and Smith suspended above a pit of snapping crocodiles while Von Berg is trapped between closing walls with spikes. While the fiendish Oriental genius is much more dimensional in Rohmer's wonderful novels, The Mask of Fu Manchu does capture some of the strange, delightful flavor of the books with their weird creatures and uncanny scientific devices. Karloff is fine as an alternative Fu, and the other cast members are also swell, but Karen Morley gives the best and most sincere performance.


Verdict: Lots of Fu fun! ***.

THE TOLL OF THE SEA


THE TOLL OF THE SEA (1922). Director: Chester A. Franklin.

It would be easy to dismiss this picture were it not for the fact that it's the first two-strip Technicolor feature (although it runs less than an hour), it features the first major starring performance of Anna May Wong, and on its own terms is a creditable and effective silent tragedy. Lotus Flower (Wong, pictured), finds a man, Allan Carver (Kenneth Harlan), in a tidal pool off her garden, half-drowned, and rescues him. The two fall in love, and Lotus Flower hopes he'll take her back to "those United States" with him. He leaves and promises to return, while Lotus Flower gives birth to his son and waits ... and waits.... Yes, this is basically Madame Butterfly with the story transplanted to China instead of Japan, and, yes, it is just as heart-breaking as it is in any format -- film, play or opera. The acting in this is surprisingly natural and unaffected, and Wong gives a superlative performance. Harlan is also good, as is Beatrice Bentley as Carver's American wife. The adorable little boy is actually played by Priscilla "Baby" Moran. Photographed by J. A. Ball. An interesting aspect of the movie is that the two actors who form the interracial romantic couple were of two different races in real life, instead of one being in "black face" or "yellow face."

Verdict: Three- hankie weepie. ***.

DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON


DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (1931). Director: Lloyd Corrigan.

In the early 1930's Paramount Pictures released a trio of films very loosely based on the first three novels in Sax Rohmer's fascinating series of Fu Manchu books. The third and final film in the series, Daughter of the Dragon, is supposedly based on The Daughter of Fu Manchu, Rohmer's third Fu Manchu book, but it has an entirely different storyline. In this movie Princess Ling Moy (Anna May Wong) is a dancer who has no idea that she is the daughter of Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu (an excellent Warner Oland), whose origin is entirely different from Rohmer's, has spent the first two movies trying to wipe out the Petrie family, whom he holds in part responsible for the deaths of his wife and other children (Ling Moy was raised by another family). After killing John Petrie (Holmes Herbert), a dying Fu tells his daughter who she is and of the blood oath which she must fulfill: to kill the final member of the Petrie family, Ronald Petrie (Bramwell Fletcher). Ling Moy agrees to do this but winds up falling in love with Ronald instead. In a rather abrupt character reversal, she decides to go ahead and fulfill the oath and turns quite sadistic to boot. Balancing the evil Asians in the movie is Ah Kee, a policeman played by Sessue Hayakawa. Daughter of the Dragon is slowly-paced and has a rather boring middle section, although there's some excitement at the climax (which has a moving wind-up). The chief feeling you take away from the movie is that both Wong and Hayakawa are excellent actors who deserved much better material. Still, it has its moments. Good performances from the rest of the cast. As far as Fu Manchu goes, he has more fun in the unrelated The Mask of Fu Manchu the following year.

Verdict: Wong and Hayakawa make a great team. **1/2.

Monday, June 9, 2008

THE CORN IS GREEN

THE CORN IS GREEN (1945). Director: Irving Rapper.

Lilly Moffat (Bette Davis) comes to a small Welsh village and decides to help the miners -- many of whom are children -- by opening a small school and teaching them how to read and write. She especially focuses on a young man, Morgan Evans (John Dall), whom she thinks has real potential and can get a scholarship to a major university. But Bessie, (Joan Lorring) the impish, rather nasty daughter of Moffat's housekeeper Watty (Rosalind Ivan) has other plans for the young man. Mildred Dunnock and Rhys Williams are two villagers that Moffat enlists as teachers, and Nigel Bruce is the Squire with whom Miss Moffat must cross swords but whom she easily outwits. Bette Davis gives it a good try, and to be fair, her performance is lively and interesting, but she's much too young for the part and she plays Miss Moffat with an affectedness that goes completely against the down-to-Earth quality of the character. The rest of the cast is much better, however, especially Bruce and Dunnock. John Dall gives a superb performance, and young Joan Lorring, who was "introduced" in the film along with Dall, almost walks off with the movie. There are a lot of things one could quibble about in the film -- the miners always sound like a professional chorus as they march by singing, and the ending is a bit pat and has questionable aspects -- but The Corn of Green -- with its emphasis on knowledge and learning and bettering oneself and the plight of one's fellow man -- is still a solid, absorbing, well-crafted film that is undeniably stirring and poignant. Nice Max Steiner score as well.

Verdict: Good show! ***1/2.

ANNA MAY WONG: Frosted Yellow Willows


ANNA MAY WONG: Frosted Yellow Willows -- Her Life, Times and Legend (2008). TCM documentary. Director: Elaine Mae Moo.

Narrated by Nancy Kwan, this is an interesting if somewhat superficial look at the life and work of Anna May Wong (pictured), whose career spanned silent films to the early 1960's. The film does give biographical details, and shows clips from some of her more interesting movies. Anna May Wong is at its best showing how difficult it was for actors who were not Caucasian to achieve and maintain stardom in Hollywood, sometimes even being passed over for ethnic roles they would have been perfect for (Wong was herself passed over for two roles in the film adaptation of The Good Earth). Wong was a talented woman who had some of her greatest successes overseas, but we don't learn too much of her private life in this film, which mentions such things as her younger sister's suicide and Wong's possible alcoholism (she had cirrhosis of the liver at the time of her death) but provides few details. Still this is a worthwhile, entertaining introduction to the Chinese-American actress who helped open doors for those of her race who followed.

Verdict: Not great but not bad. **1/2.