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

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

THE CONSTANT NYMPH


THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943). Director: Edmund Goulding.

This is considered a "lost" film because the rights to the novel, play and subsequent film have all been dispersed and lost over the years. While not the masterpiece I was hoping for, The Constant Nymph is still a good picture with much to recommend it. Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer) is a modern composer whose work is not very appreciated by the critical establishment. His old friend, the composer Albert Sanger (Montagu Love), thinks that Dodd's music lacks heart and soul and won't become really great until Dodd cries (the old business of the artist must suffer). Sanger has three daughters, one of whom, Tessa (Joan Fontaine) is unrequitedly in love with Lewis. Eventually, after old Sanger's death, Lewis marries Tessa's cousin Florence (Alexis Smith) while Tessa and her sisters are sent to boarding school. But Tessa and her soul mate Lewis won't stay apart for long, leading to painful and romantic complications. The movie is handsomely produced (it uses one of the sets from The Old Maid), well-directed and very well acted, but it's perhaps too talky and soapy for its own good. Some will find it more sappy than moving. Whatever the case, Fontaine gives an exemplary performance; Boyer is fine if a notch below Fontaine. Charles Coburn is his usual excellent self as the sisters' Uncle Charles, and Peter Lorre offers his usual distinctive persona as a man who courts and marries Tessa's sister, Toni, well-played by Brenda Marshall. But the big surprise is that utterly gorgeous Alexis Smith gives perhaps the finest performance of her career as Florence, who's desperately afraid of losing the only man she's ever seriously been in love with. She manages to summon up as much emotional fireworks as Davis and Crawford at their best without quite going over the top.

The movie has an interesting subtext of the war between romantic (melodious and emotional) and modern (dissonant and mathematical) music, and it's even more interesting that the film's excellent score was composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who composed operas in Vienna before fleeing the nazis and coming to America to "slum" for Hollywood. Korngold's music could be full of noisy, dissonant chords, but he decidedly composed in the romantic idiom. However, it wasn't realistic that Dodd's modern music would have been decried during the time the film takes place, as that's just when that type of music was becoming popular.

Verdict: A highly interesting curiosity. ***.

THE CRIME DOCTOR'S COURAGE


THE CRIME DOCTOR'S COURAGE (1945). Director: George Sherman.

Gordon Carson (Stephen Crane) has had two wives die of accidents during the honeymoon. His third wife (Hillary Brooke) calls in the "crime doctor," Robert Ordway (Warner Baxter), to find out if her hubby is mad or a murderer. But Ordway instead finds himself investigating Carson's own murder in a locked room. There's also a famous writer (Jerome Cowan), and a brother and sister team of Spanish dancers who are rumored to be vampires. The Crime Doctor's Courage tries to drag in all sorts of stuff to make it interesting, but while it holds the attention it never quite develops into anything that great. Baxter has a lot of charm as Ordway, however.

Verdict: Okay B mystery. **.

THREE BRAVE MEN


THREE BRAVE MEN (1956). Director: Philip Dunne.

Bernie Goldsmith (Ernest Borgnine) is horrified to discover that he's been summarily fired from his government job because he's been deemed a security risk due to an alleged "radical" (i.e. communist) past. He hires lawyer Joe DiMarco (Ray Milland) to defend him. Apparently Goldsmith angered some people because of his activism in minority housing (oddly, the subject of anti-Semitism is never broached). Even after a board presided over by Captain Wingfield (Frank Lovejoy) and Lt. McCoy (Nina Foch) clears Goldsmith, he still can't get his job back or get hired by anyone else. DiMarco takes the case to the Army man, Rogers (Dean Jagger), who had the board's decision reversed. Three Brave Men intelligently examines how gossip and innuendo, jumping to conclusions, and sheer sloppy investigating can ruin someone's life as it did many during the McCarthy anti-communist era. The film also has a nice subtext examining how the whole ordeal has revealed how strong Bernie's marriage to his wife (Virginia Christine) is. Still, it's all a bit matter of fact, with few nuances and shades of gray. Yet the fact that it was even made in 1956 speaks volumes. Dr. No's Joseph Wiseman has a notable cameo as a bigot.

Verdict: Absorbing story of family's ruination and their struggle back. ***.

TOWER OF EVIL


TOWER OF EVIL (aka Horror on Snape Island aka Beyond the Fog /1972). Writer/director: Jim O'Connolly.

In a creepy, gruesome, and effective prologue, Hamp Gurney (Jack Watson) and his father (George Coulouris) discover several mutilated corpses in and around the lighthouse on the fog-enshrouded Snape Island. When the father is inadvertently killed by a panicking survivor, Hamp takes a party of archaeologists -- and a man investigating the murders -- back to the island. The archaeologists believe that a Phoenician trading ship landed on the island and left behind a treasure. It isn't long before more corpses start turning up, as someone unseen lashes out at members of the party. Tower of Evil has some suspense and a few tense moments, but all the marital infighting and infidelity between the couples on the expedition adds little to the picture, and despite some good moments the ultimate effect is rather unsatisfying. Has certain elements of the stalk-and-slash films that would come in a few short years, although it has a more involved plot and somewhat more dimensional characters. A mostly unimpressive cast.

NOTE: This was based on a novel by Brooklyn-born George Baxt, who created the first gay detective way back in 1966 and years later wrote a series of celebrity-oriented mysteries such as The Bette Davis Murder Case. He also wrote scripts for other British horror films.

Verdict: Severed heads tumbling down the stairs and all that can only do so much. **1/2.

FLIGHT PLAN


FLIGHT PLAN (2005). Director: Robert Schwentke.

Jodie Foster is splendid, as usual, as a woman who boards a plane with her young daughter and then spends the rest of the movie trying to convince virtually everyone on board that her daughter actually exists -- this after the girl disappears and a flight attendant says there's no record of her ever having been on the flight. Foster just lost her husband; could she be hallucinating from grief? Is she mentally unstable? Or is there a predator on board who's taken and hidden her daughter somewhere on the plane? This is a good and very suspenseful movie with some very evil antagonists, but despite Foster's fine performance, it's just an entertaining time passer. To think what Hitchcock could have done with this material! The climax is over too quickly and is a little flat as well, and an opportunity for a rousing cat fight is muffed. But this will hold your attention for certain. Peter Sarsgaard also scores as the deputy on the flight.

Verdict: Not too shabby. ***.

THE CRIME DOCTOR'S WARNING


THE CRIME DOCTOR'S WARNING (1945). Director: William Castle.

Clive Lake, an artist (Coulter Irwin), seeks Dr. Robert Ordway's (Warner Baxter, pictured) help for black outs that he's been having since youth. He has a dragon mother named Mrs. Wellington Lake (Alma Kruger), and naturally becomes a suspect when two of his models are murdered. Everything seems centered on a painting by a more famous artist in which the two women -- and a third -- were featured. Mindless yet intriguing -- and somewhat far-fetched -- The Crime Doctor's Warning holds the attention and is a perfectly flavorful "B"movie. John Litel plays the police inspector, but it's an uncredited Eduardo Ciannelli who perks up the film as Nick Petroni, an old sailor model who's angered that all anybody wants to paint is cheesecake. Director Castle keeps things moving swiftly.

Verdict: Minor but reasonably engaging. **1/2.

THE PERILS OF NYOKA


THE PERILS OF NYOKA (1942). 15 chapter Republic serial. Director: William Witney.

This is a rousing, well-done cliffhanger serial that's supposed to take place in a desert land but looks more like sunny California. Who cares -- if you want logic, look elsewhere. Nyoka (Kay Aldridge) is on a search for her father, and for the Tablets of Hippocrates, which are supposed to impart the secrets of banishing all ills from mankind. Looking for the tablets for her own evil purposes is Vultura (Lorna Gray, pictured), whose henchmen include Charles "Ming the Merciless" Middleton and Tristram "Rocket Man" Coffin. However, Aldridge has hunky Clayton Moore of Lone Ranger on her side so she's not complaining. In the meantime, Gray shows off her shapely legs in her revealing costumes. Vultura has Satan, the dumb, hokey gorilla to aid her, while our heroine has Jitters , an adorable monkey, and Fang, a German shepherd, to help her out. Highlights include Satan literally bringing the house down by smashing at some pillars; Vultura putting Nyoka to the rack; a bit with some descending spikes; Nyoka suspended over a fire pit by her own father; a swinging pendulum that nearly cuts a bloody swathe through Nyoka; and -- best of all -- a thrilling bit with our lass being blown out of a tunnel and off of a cliff by a sudden wind storm! Vultura and Nyoka have some great cat-fights in every other episode. Ken Terrell of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman also has a small part, as he frequently did in these things. Ditto for William Benedict. Highly effective musical score and a great theme. NOTE: This was rereleased as Nyoka and the Tiger Men; it was not a sequel.

Verdict: Great fun! ***.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Happy Holidays!

Hi. If you subscribe to any blogs or get updates from websites, you know how easily you can get overloaded with too much to read if you get emails and updates too often. Lately GREAT OLD MOVIES has been posting new reviews (about seven) just once per week. This schedule may be interrupted for a while this month due to the Holidays, traveling, and the fact that I'm finishing up a new book project. But GREAT OLD MOVIES will resume a regular schedule in January 2009, if not before.

Thanks for reading! Bill


HAPPY HOLIDAYS EVERYONE!!!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

THE OLD MAID


THE OLD MAID (1939). Director: Edmund Goulding.

"Don't you know what happens to you means more to me than anything?"

So says young Charlotte Lovell (Bette Davis) to the man she loves, Clem Spender (George Brent), who has come back to town to discover that the woman he loves, Charlotte's cousin Delia (Miriam Hopkins), is that very day marrying someone else. Charlotte consoles Clem, who goes off to war and never returns, leaving Charlotte with a child that she disguises as a civil war orphan. Then Delia, who has a "good" marriage with one of the wealthy Ralston brothers, learns about Charlotte and Clem and is enraged ... with expectedly dramatic results. She eventually takes both mother and illegitimate daughter into her home and usurps the mother position from Charlotte. Yes, this film has some of the elements of soap opera, but it's on a much higher level, and the film is virtually perfect in all departments from Goulding's direction to Max Steiner's evocative score (which incorporates some old songs but also has original music), to the accomplished acting from the entire cast. This is easily one of Davis' best portrayals, years before she became much too affected and artificial in certain projects. Mariam Hopkins is her match in the more flamboyant if less dramatic role. Jane Bryan as the daughter, Tina, Donald Crisp as the wise friend and doctor, Cecelia Loftus as the wily old grandmother, and Louise Fazenda as the maid Dora are all superlative, and while he's not entirely successful at showing us the hurt and trauma beneath his light-hearted, sardonic air, even George Brent isn't bad. Very moving and a genuinely touching finale. A real gem of a tearjerker. Based on a novella by Edith Wharton and a Pulitzer prize-winning play by Zoe Akins.

Verdict: They don't make 'em like this anymore. ****.

TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS


TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973). Director: Freddie Francis.
An anthology of horror tales tied to a psychiatric clinic presided over by Donald Pleasance, who introduces his patients to visiting doctor Jack Hawkins. In the first a little boy with bickering parents [Donald Houston and Georgia Brown] insists that a tiger comes to visit him in his bedroom. The parents don't believe him -- until the tiger shows up. This story is a complete throwaway. In the second tale a young man travels back in time to the turn of the century, followed by a ghoulish figure who spies upon him and his lady love. This one has some interesting elements but isn't developed very well. Suzy Kendall and Peter McEnery are fine as the young couple, however. In the third story Joan Collins has her hands full with a devilish sculpted tree monster in her living room which her artist lover seems to prefer over her. This one really has a hilarious -- and stupid -- wind-up. Collins as as zesty as ever. In the last and best story Kim Novak -- still gorgeous at forty -- is cast as Auriol Pageant, who's throwing a luau. One of the guests is a client named Kimo (Michael Petrovitch) who has sinister designs on Novak's beautiful daughter Ginny (Mary Tamm). This has a ghoulish touch of cannibalism but seems to be over just as it's getting interesting. Tales that Witness Madness is certainly no world-beater, but it holds the attention and is amusing, including the wind-up at the clinic. Novak is fun.
Verdict: Definitely don't eat the mystery meat. **1/2.

THE HEIRESS


THE HEIRESS (1949). Director: William Wyler.

"Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters."

In Washington Square in turn of the century New York, Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) falls for a fortune hunter, Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) over the objections of her wealthy doctor father, Austin (Ralph Richardson). On that framework rests one of the finest films to come out of Hollywood, based loosely on Henry James' Washington Square. It's theme can be summed up in the words of the French song incorporated into the score by Aaron Copland, and which are sung at one point by Clift, to the effect that the joys of love are short but that love's pain lasts a lifetime. Along with pathos, the film has a degree of humor, evidenced by the character of Catherine's Aunt Lavinia (an outstanding Miriam Hopkins) who says "What I say isn't always of the greatest importance but that doesn't stop me from talking." [Much later an ill Austin says of his sister "I don't want [her] in my room at all -- unless I lapse into a coma."] Richardson's performance is simply superb. Clift is wise enough to play with an admirable sincerity that might make first-time viewers wonder if he really does have feelings for Catherine. A lesser actor would have figuratively winked at the audience, letting them in on the game. Although she won an Oscar and is, indeed, very good, de Havilland is, perhaps, a cut below the other three. Her performance is the one that seems most "manufactured" or calculated, a feat of acting -- and very good acting -- as opposed to living the part. In the scene when Catherine finally confronts her father, we can believe her anger and that she would say the things she does, but anger doesn't automatically instill poise in a person, and Catherine, as enacted by de Havilland, suddenly becomes much too confident and formidable. The words should rush out even as Catherine can't quite believe that she is actually saying them to her father. Still, de Havilland has lovely moments, such as when she sits at her tapestry as Morris and Lavinia talk at the door, a dozen different emotions about this man she both loves and hates playing across her face. Wyler's directorial hand is assured, and Copland's score, despite its dissonances and 1940's-style modernity, is simply drenched in a wonderful romanticism.

Verdict: A masterpiece with one of the all-time great endings. ****

THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE


THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE. Carolyn Keene. # 2 in the Nancy Drew Mystery Series. Published 1930. NOTE: Occasionally Great Old Movies will look at books, plays, operas and so on that were turned into feature films.

The Hidden Staircase, at least the first version published in 1930, is a pretty darn good juvenile book, and it's easy to see why the series became so incredibly popular. Nancy gets involved with the mysterious case of two sisters who live in a run-down mansion and are afraid that it's either haunted by a malevolent ghost or that some ruthless human agent is somehow gaining entry. Of course the very title alone pretty much gives the game away, but the thing is that the book still manages to be suspenseful and even harrowing at times, especially when our gal is nearly trapped in an underground tunnel with a fading flashlight. Meanwhile Carson Drew is held captive by a nefarious character who has a sinister, tough and rather stereotypical black housekeeper (this gal is a far cry from the typical Hattie McDaniel lovable nanny portrayals of the period). Ned Nickerson, and Nancy's pals Bess and George, do not appear in the book. Carson gives Nancy a gun for protection, and she carries it around with her at all times. Loosely adapted as Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, one of four Nancy Drew movies that starred Bonita Granville.

Verdict: The charms of this series are certainly not hidden. ***.

NANCY DREW AND THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE


NANCY DREW AND THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE (1939). Director: William Clemens.

Loosely based on The Hidden Staircase, this uses many of the elements of the novel but is basically a new story. Two elderly sisters live in a mansion and have had to abide for twenty years with their late father's ridiculous will, which says they will inherit the place if they live in the house that entire time and if at least one of the sisters is present in the mansion every night. There's two weeks to go, after which the women intend to give the home to a charitable medical facility. When their chauffeur is murdered, the women panic and Nancy Drew (Bonita Granville) does her best to convince everyone that his death was actually a suicide. She investigates when the old ladies claim items have been stolen from their home even though all the doors and windows were locked. As usual she inveigles the hapless "Ted" Nickerson (Frankie Thomas) into helping her with her schemes. In the books Nancy was brave and occasionally foolhardy but in this she's irresponsible and stupid -- and even screams in fright at a frog! The idiot police chief lets Ted handle the murder weapon. The climax isn't bad, however, and there are some amusing sequences. John Litel is again cast as Carson Drew.

Verdict: The last of Nancy on the big screen [at that time] -- and not a moment too soon! **.

STORM CENTER


STORM CENTER (1956). Director: Daniel Taradash.

"The ball park isn't the only place someone can be a hero."

Middle-aged librarian Alicia Hull (Bette Davis) is importuned by the town council to remove a book on Communism from the library. While not in any way a communist, Hull is against censorship and also feels that the book only illustrates the foolishness and stupidity of the communist tract -- she refuses to remove it. Before long many in the town are denouncing her, and her relationship with a book-loving boy named Freddie (Kevin Coughlin) is demolished. There is an interesting sub-plot wherein Kevin's father can't relate to his son's interest in reading over sports, and his wife can't relate to her husband's distrust of, and complete disinterest in, culture of any kind. [Unfortunately, the especially melodramatic developments with Freddie seem almost dragged in to add some drama and poignancy.] While Storm Center is intelligent (and a bit heroic considering the year it was made, although it might have been even more daring had Hull actually been a communist) and has some good dialogue and scenes, it's as if a good picture somehow got lost along the way. The main problem with the film is Bette Davis' positively dreadful performance, which has not one ounce of veracity or normalcy to it. She had entered her "grand lady of films" period and struts through the film so affectedly and unnaturally that she virtually stinks up almost every scene she's in. Davis has always been criticized for her performance in King Vidor's under-rated Beyond the Forest, but her acting in that is miles ahead of her work in Storm Center. [Another truth is that, despite her battered appearance, Davis was simply too sexual -- think of her in All About Eve -- to be convincing as some dried up -- if admirable-- old library hag.] Young Kevin Coughlin is better as Freddie, although he over-acts at times. Paul Kelly is excellent as a loyal friend of Hull's and Kim Hunter and Brian Keith are solid as Hull's assistant and her boyfriend, one of Hull's foremost accusers.
Verdict: Admirable failure with a woeful lead performance. **1/2.

IT'S A GREAT LIFE


IT'S A GREAT LIFE. 1954 TV series. Shown on American Life TV.

Before she was Aunt Bee of Mayberry, Frances Bavier was the mainstay (although supposedly a supporting character) of this lively and often amusing -- and virtually forgotten -- sitcom that has been exhumed by American Life TV. Bavier plays Amy Morgan, a widow who lives with her no-account, generally unemployed brother, Earl (James Dunn). Amy takes in two boarders, girl-crazy ex-servicemen named Denny (Michael O'Shea) and Steve (William Bishop) -- who also seem to lose more jobs than they even get hired for. Barbara Bates, who played the young fan of Eve Harrington at the end of All About Eve, played Amy's daughter Cathy for about a third of the episodes. Good-natured and enthusiastically played, It's a Great Life could be silly but there were several funny episodes, particularly one in which the gang buys a tea house, unaware that it's been used as an illegal gambling den. Bavier has a lot of fun squaring off against the tough lady leader of the gang. In the naive fifties, Denny and Steve sleep together in one bed. Michael O'Shea was married to Virginia Mayo and there are occasional in-jokes relating to the sexy actress.

Verdict: Not a terrible time passer. **1/2.