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

Thursday, October 27, 2011

RHAPSODY

Ericson, Taylor and Gassman
RHAPSODY (1954). Director: Charles Vidor.

"You have an almost neurotic need to be needed. And that man needs no one."

Hollywood always liked to hedge its bets when it came to movies with a classical music milieu, so they made sure in such pictures to include beautiful women, handsome men, and a dollop of sex -- or at least lots of romance. In Rhapsody the beautiful woman is Elizabeth Taylor, who never looked more luscious except perhaps in Elephant Walk, and she has two handsome co-stars, Vittorio Gassman and John Ericson. If that weren't enough, the movie is drenched in the music of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and others. Louise Durant (Taylor) is in love with an up and coming violinist, Paul Bronte (Gassman) and she follows him to Zurich where he needs to finish his studies. Louise is sensitive but a bit too superficial to be able to develop an interest in classical music, so she has no real joy in her lover's eventual success. Meanwhile, James Guest (Ericson) an upstairs neighbor studying piano at the same conservatory, is falling for Louise and is there for her when things temporarily fall apart between her and Paul. A love triangle develops, with Louise torn between the man she thinks she loves and the other man who desperately needs her ... La Liz gives one of her best performances in Rhapsody, a spoiled but loving minx who needs the affection withheld by her father (an excellent Louis Calhern) and will do just about anything to get it from the man she loves. Gassman is wonderful as an artistic devil-may-care, for whom Louise will always take second place, and Ericson, who later appeared on TV's Honey West, has probably the best role of his career and runs with it. Other notable cast members include Michael Chekhov as Professor Cahill, Celia Lovsky as a landlady, and Stuart Whitman as another student, among others.

Verdict: Feed your inner romantic! ***.

THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY

THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954). Director: William A. Wellman.

"The youth of man will never die unless he murders it."

NOTE: Some plot details are revealed in this review.This was a [near] disaster film made before the era of disaster films, based on a novel by the once-popular Ernest K. Gann. On a flight from Honolulu to San Francisco, various passengers share their stories, as some unspecified troubles begin, culminating in the loss of an engine and the possibility that they might not have enough fuel to make it to land --  which means they might wind up in the drink. No one can say with any certainty if the plane will float until help arrives, or break up and sink. On board we have a honeymoon couple, middle-aged couples, a woman who's in love with her boss, an aging gal, Sally (Jan Sterling), meeting her future, younger husband for the first time, and so on. One thing the plane doesn't have is any chivalrous men. When Sally explains how nervous she is about meeting her guy considering she's a bit older than the only picture he has of her, neither the pilot Sullivan (Robert Stack) or another male passenger ever tell her that she's still considerably attractive -- gee, what nice guys! When another woman, May (Claire Trevor), betrays her terror of aging -- "no one's whistled at me in years" -- her male companion offers no compliments, either, despite her own good looks. The younger women, including the pretty and efficient stewardess (Julie Bishop) and the darling Miss Chen (Joy Kim) fare a bit better. Sidney Blackmer of Rosemary's Baby is aboard for a little melodrama involving his wife and her alleged lover, David Brian, and there's also Paul Kelly as a disaffected scientist. Loraine Day is a wealthy woman disgusted with her husband's financial decisions, Phil Harris and Ann Doran are disappointed middle-aged tourists; all are fine. William Campbell [Dementia 13] has one of his best roles as an obnoxious younger pilot. The performances and the characterizations are actually pretty good, but The High and the Mighty is only sporadically entertaining and suspenseful, and at nearly two and half hours in length is much too long and in fact fairly tedious for long stretches. But the main problem is that the movie has no pay-off and no real climax. John Wayne -- did I forget to mention him? -- saves the day and that's that. You're happy for the characters but disappointed that there's so little life or death action. Wayne plays an older pilot who is haunted by the death of his wife and boy in a crash that he survived. When he thinks back on this event in a flashback, he furrows his brow to show that he's allegedly "haunted." He's better in scenes when he has to firmly and kindly reassure the passengers; in fact, for the most part he's not bad at all . Dimitri Tiomkin's Oscar-winning music score does most of the work in this movie, however.

Verdict: This is by no means a classic. **1/2.

ANACONDAS: THE HUNT FOR THE BLOOD ORCHID

Johnny Messner
ANACONDAS: THE HUNT FOR THE BLOOD ORCHID (2004). Director: Dwight H. Little.

In this sequel to Anaconda, an expedition is sent to Borneo to get a supply of a flower known as the Blood Orchid, which is believed to contain ingredients that might make it a veritable fountain of youth. It certainly works on the anacondas in the area, not only keeping them alive forever but assuring that they grow to tremendous proportions. Bill Johnson (an intense Johnny Messner) is the leader of the little group, which includes Jack (Matthew Marsdon); "Sam" (KaDee Strickland), Jack's assistant; Cole (Eugene Byrd), who's nervous if likable; and Ben (Nicholas Gonzalez). The cast is pretty good, and the characters seem to care about each other and act bravely for the most part. There's a terrific climax in a giant snake pit. This is much more entertaining than expected, a good old-fashioned "B" movie for monster fanatics.

Verdict: Like an old-time creature feature. ***.  


THE GALE STORM SHOW / OH SUSANNA!

Roy Roberts and Gale Storm
THE GALE STORM SHOW [OH SUSANNA!] 1956 - 1960.

After My Little Margie wrapped up its run, star Gale Storm wasn't especially interested in doing another series, but she was talked into this one, probably because of its simplicity and unlimited potential for story ideas. In this Storm plays Susanna Pomeroy, the social director on a cruise ship. Susanna was basically Margie grown up. Storm had just started a recording career around this time, so she sang at least one number in most of the episodes. Her roommate and best friend was Elvira "Nugie" Nugent (Zazu Pitts), who ran the beauty parlor on board, but the main "relationship" in the show was the love/hate one she had with her boss, Captain Huxley (Roy Roberts). Adversaries from the first, they eventually developed a grudging fondness for each other. British actor James Fairfax was another regular for about half the episodes as the stewart, Cedric. Storm could overact, trying too hard for a laugh -- she was certainly no Lucille Ball or Joan Davis -- but she was still a funny, gifted performer and she had a nice singing voice. In her memoirs, Storm admitted that more people remembered her in Margie than in this show, and maybe the former was "funnier," but The Gale Storm Show had its moments and was in general a very pleasant series. [Apparently the exact title was "The Gale Storm Show: Oh Susanna" and only "Oh Susanna" was used in syndication, but who knows?] Roberts made a perfect foil for Storm, and Pitts was her usual adept and dithery self.

Even when the show wasn't a laugh riot, the stories often held the attention in spite of it. Still, most of the episodes I've seen [about 80 out of 125] never rise above a B+ level. The very few "A" episodes include: "For Money or Love," in which Susanna gets a rich guy on the rebound; "It's Murder, My Dear," which guest-stars a wonderful Boris Karloff [during his tenure on The Veil anthology series] in a dual role; "The Parisian Touch," with some funny tomfoolery over an allegedly valuable painting [with Elvia Allman and Vincent Padula]; and "Singapore Fling," in which a talking mynah bird who says bad things about the captain nearly gets Susanna into hot water; Keye Luke guest-stars. Other memorable episodes include "The Chimpanzee," which features a talented and adorable chimp; "Model Apartment" [Susanna sub-lets, to her regret]; "Love and Kisses" [love between a passenger and a stoker]; "It's Only Money" [Nugie thinks she's inherited a fortune]; "Super Snoop" [Susanna mistakes Nugie for a snitch]; "Heaven Sent" [the gals try to market a supposedly new perfume, with Jacques Bergerac]; "The Magician" [who is also a kleptomaniac]; "Sweepstakes Ticket," in which Dick Miller swipes a winning ticket from a deckhand; and "Card Sharp," which guest-stars William Frawley and could have been sub-titled "Margie Meets Fred Mertz." Other guest-stars on the show included Gene Nelson, Percy Helton, William Bishop, Irving Bacon, Margaret Hamilton, Jay Novello, Ken Clark [a Texas millionaire], Anthony Dexter [gypsy king], Steve Dunne, King Donovan, Edd Byrnes, Jim Backus, Joi Lansing, Pat Boone, and Jerome Cowan.

Although Susanna, Cedric and other crew members often reacted to the captain as if he were an ogre, he never seemed so worthy of their contempt, and frankly, his ire at "Miss Pomeroy" often seemed warranted, as she was a screw-up. While Susanna's schemes were generally for positive reasons, in one episode she seems almost manically determined to expose a phony medium even though most sensible people will agree that anyone who sees a medium as anything other than entertainment deserves to be taken. In the show's final episode, "Show Biz,"  Jack Albertson plays a washed up vaudevillian. Unfortunately, nothing he does when he gets to perform displays the talent the character was supposed to possess [although Albertson himself is a fine actor].

The show lasted for four seasons.

Verdict: A good cast puts this over. ***.

V -- THE FINAL BATTLE (1984)


V: THE FINAL BATTLE (1984). Director: Richard T. Heffron.

In this sequel to the original 1983 mini-series, V,  the war continues between human rebels and the invading force of alien Visitors. In this somewhat more entertaining sequel, Willie (Robert Englund), the "nice" alien, is taken captive by the resistance, even as one of their number, annoying young Robin (Blair Tefkin), discovers that she is pregnant with a half-alien baby. There's a nasty young human traitor named Daniel (David Packer). Julie (Faye Grant) is the leader of the resistance, and the scenes when she is taken captive and tortured and brain-washed go beyond the point of tedium. Mike Donovan (Marc Singer), hero of the first installment, is in a private war with his nasty collaborationist step-mother (Neva Patterson). Andrew Prine, Dick Miller, and Michael Ironside all appear, but the most amusing guest-star is Sarah Douglas as an alien commander named -- get this -- Pamela. It's already remarkable that the aliens use their Earth names to refer to one another even in private, but Pamela shows up from deep space sporting a thoroughly English accent [she even says "lefttenant" instead of "Lieutenant"]! This undercuts any seriousness intended by the producers, and the religiosity of the piece is also a bit irritating. There are some good scenes in this but it was all much, much better done in last year's unfortunately canceled ABC series, V, which lasted for two seasons. Jane Badler, who played head alien Diana in the 80's version, guest-starred as a variation of that character in the more recent series.

Verdict: Looks like those visitors are gone for good. **1/2.

MOON OF THE WOLF

David Janssen
 MOON OF THE WOLF (1972 telefilm). Director: Daniel Petrie.

Louisiana sheriff Aaron Whitaker (David Janssen) investigates the murder of a young woman in his town, and there are several suspects. These include the woman's mad-at-the-world brother, Lawrence (Geoffrey Lewis), Dr. Drutan (John Beradino), who may have gotten her pregnant, the wealthy Andrew Rodanthe (Bradford Dillman), or his wife, Louise (Barbara Rush), old Tom (Royal Dano) or his son (John Chandler), among others. But the injuries make Whitaker wonder if she might have come afoul of a rabid dog -- or something worse, such as a loup garou. The performances aren't bad in this, with Rush, Lewis, Janssen, and Claudia McNeil as Sarah taking top honors, but as werewolf movies go it's fairly minor. The identity of the werewolf seems obvious almost from the first. Moon of the Wolf is very typical of the type of horror telefilms that were being churned out in the seventies; this is neither better nor worse than most.

Verdict: Not badly done for what it is but no surprises. **.

GREEN LANTERN (2011)

GREEN LANTERN (2011). Director: Martin Campbell.

"I've seen you naked. You think I wouldn't recognize you because your cheek bones are covered?" -- Carol Ferris. 

The super-hero Green Lantern of the "silver age" first appeared in comic books in the late 1950's. In this big-screen adaptation, somewhat flighty [pun intended] test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) is chosen by a dying alien named Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) to be his replacement in an Intergalactic policing force known as the Green Lantern Corps. Jordan not only has to prove to some skeptical colleagues, including the obnoxious drill instructor Kilowog [voice of Michael Clarke Duncan] and the slightly bitchy Sinestro (Mark Strong), that he has the right stuff, but also himself -- as he doesn't exactly see himself as someone "without fear." In the meantime, the alien blue-skinned Guardians, who formed the Corps, learn that one of their number has been mutated into an evil and monstrous being known as Parallax -- and it's pissed off and coming to Earth. Other characters include Hal's sort of girlfriend, Carol Ferris (sexy Blake Lively), the parrot-like corpsman Tomar-Re (voice of Geoffrey Rush), smarmy Senator Hammond (Tim Robbins), and his weird son Hector (Peter Sarsgaard), who is becoming mutated and dangerous himself after examining the body of Abin Sur. Green Lantern takes a while to get going, looking too much like a video game in the beginning, but once Jordan puts on the uniform it kicks into high gear and becomes quite exciting and entertaining. The cast is quite good, with Reynolds sheer perfection as our hero, although he gets a lot of competition from Strong as an impeccable Sinestro. Great scenic design. 68-year-old Campbell also directed the 2006 Casino Royale, the earlier Bond film Goldeneye, and Criminal Law, among many others. [Moral: You don't have to be a comparative kid to handle a trendy big-screen action flick.] NOTE: You can read more about the early comic book adventures of Green Lantern, Sinestro [originally a bad guy], Tomar-Re and the rest in The Silver Age of Comics.

Verdict: It's great fun watching GL do his "ring thing." ***.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

IMPACT

IMPACT (1949). Director: Arthur Lubin.

Walter Williams (Brian Donlevy) has just had a triumph in the boardroom and hopes to take a trip with his wife, Irene (Helen Walker). Instead he winds up giving a lift to his wife's alleged cousin, Jim (Tony Barrett, a rather unlikely lover boy). The best scene in the picture vividly details the fateful things that happen on the mountain highway between the two men. The problem with Impact is that it starts out as a high-tension thriller, then  halfway through settles into an unconvincing small-town romance, and never quite recovers from this. It is also incredibly illogical, with one character being arrested for murder even though it's clear that the "victim" was killed in an accident -- with witnesses no less [who are never called to testify -- sure!] Donlevy isn't a bad actor, but he lacks the vulnerability to make the romantic scenes work, and Ella Raines, as the woman he falls for, is only adequate. Charles Coburn is miscast as an Irish cop on the case. He isn't terrible, but this is one of his rare unimpressive performances. Anna May Wong [Daughter of Shanghai] has a small but pivotal role as a maid, and Philip Ahn [Red Barry] turns up as her uncle. Clarence Kolb of My Little Margie appears in the opening boardroom scene. As expected, Helen Walker [Nightmare Alley] gives the most vital performance as Walter's wife.

Verdict: Lots of potential in this, but a weak script and some indifferent acting put paid to an interesting premise. **1/2.

THE STORY OF ADELE H.

THE STORY OF ADELE H. (1975). Director: Francois Truffaut.

Based on true events in the life of Adele Hugo, daughter of Victor Hugo, this absorbing movie shows how the young Adele (Isabelle Adjani) follows a man with whom she had a fling, Lt. Albert Pinson (Bruce Robinson), to Nova Scotia where he has been stationed. The trouble is that Pinson no longer has any feelings for Adele, which the emotionally disturbed woman at first refuses to acknowledge and then simply disregards altogether. Pinson's rejection only seems to exacerbate and hasten the mental instability that was already lurking inside Adele's sensitive mind, and she descends into a pathetic and desperate state. Adjani gives an adept, restrained performance that doesn't clue us in to her incipient dementia too quickly, and Robinson as the object of her obsession, Sylvia Marriott as a sympathetic landlady, Joseph Blatchley as a bookstore owner, and Ivry Gitlis as an alleged hypnotist are all excellent support. The film follows the basic facts pretty closely. Other films of romantic obsession and tragedy include Letter from an Unknown Woman and A Summer Story.

Verdict: One of the over-rated Truffaut's better movies. ***1/2.

TRAUMA (1962)

TRAUMA (1962). Writer/director: Robert Malcolm Young.

Young Emmaline (Lorrie Richards) loses her memory when she sees the murder of her aunt (Lynn Bari) at the family swimming pool. She already had the trauma that same evening of discovering that one of her friends was murdered, so this second death, personally witnessed, puts her over the edge. Some years later she returns to the house with her new husband, Warren (a snippy John Conte), and some memories begin to surface. There's an architect roaming the estate, some other shady characters, and Warren himself may be up to shady business. Will she remember the killer before he does away with her? Richards was "introduced" in this picture although she had previous credits, mostly television work as well as the film The Magic Sword. Her Emmaline is annoyingly hysterical throughout the movie. Conte did a lot of TV and voice-over work, and appeared several times on Perry Mason. Bari had appeared in films and on TV since the early thirties. Young had no subsequent directorial credits but did a lot of writing for television. Trauma holds the attention but it isn't very memorable. An unusual feature is that the credits for the film don't appear until fifteen minutes into the running time. The one-word dramatic title was probably meant to invoke comparisons with Psycho, but this movie is nowhere in the same league.

Verdict: Grade C minor "shocker" with some minor appeal. **1/2.






HENRY ALDRICH PLAYS CUPID

HENRY ALDRICH PLAYS CUPID (1944). Director:Hugh Bennett.

Henry (Jimmy Lydon) is in dutch with Principal Bradley (Vaughan Glaser) and figures he might become an old softie if he only had a wife. [Apparently Henry and everyone else forgot that confirmed old bachelor Bradley actually had a wife who appeared in Henry and Dizzy and was played by Maude Ebern, who ironically has a small bit in this picture.] Suspecting that the principal's stern countenance might work against him, Henry encloses a photo of a man he thinks is his uncle when he [unknown to the principal] places a lonely hearts ad for Bradley. Alas, the photo is actually of Senator Caldicott (Paul Harvey), a hated rival of Henry's father (John Litel), and when strange women come rushing up to the married man thinking he's their dreamboat, he's convinced Mr. Aldrich put them up to it. Uh oh. It's Henry who's up to it -- and how! Pretty funny entry in this long-running series, which only had one more picture to go. Vera Vague is one of the women who answers the ad. Charles Smith and Diana Lynn are on hand as Dizzy and Phyllis.

Verdict: More Aldrich fun. ***.

THE ADVENTURES OF SIR GALAHAD

THE ADVENTURES OF SIR GALAHAD (15 chapter Columbia serial/1949). Director: Spencer Bennet.

A strange new knight named Sir Galahad (George Reeves) marches into Camelot, wins a jousting tournament, and is invited to join the Knights of the Round Table by King Arthur (Nelson Leigh) himself. Alas, pressed into guard duty over the mystical sword Excalibur, Galahad is knocked out and the sword stolen. Galahad comes under suspicion, and vows to recover Excalibur and return it to Arthur before its absence causes the destruction of Camelot. Other suspects include the Saxon king Ulric (John Merton), the Black Knight, whose identity is unknown, Morgan le Fay (Pat Barton). and even Merlin the Magician (William Fawcett). With lots of swordsplay, an enchanted forest whose branches grab at victims, and a mysterious Lady of the Lake, you'd think Sir Galahad would make a rousing serial, but for the most part it's routine and unexciting. There are a couple of decent cliffhangers, however, such as when Galahad falls before a stampede of horses, is trapped by a moving wall of spears, and is nearly crushed by a spiked iron ball. But these highlights are few and far between. Reeves, the subject of the film Hollywoodland, seems uncomfortable at times. Rick Vallin plays Sir Gawain.

Verdict: One suspects that if Republic had done this it would have been a lot better. **.

THE PHANTOM PLANET


THE PHANTOM PLANET (1961). Director: William Marshall.

Captain Frank Chapman (Dean Fredericks) winds up on a asteroid that can maneuver through space and upon which the inhabitants are only a few inches high. Chapman shrinks inside his space suit, encounters the space Lilliputians, and winds up embroiled in their conflicts and problems. The women on the asteroid include Colleen Gray as Liara and Delores Faith as Zetha, while the male aliens include Anthony Dexter (Fire Maidens of Outer Space; ValentinoThree Blondes in His Life), former silent star Francis X. Bushman (The Three Musketeers; 12 to the Moon, also with Dexter) and even Richard Kiel (Jaws of the Bond movies) as a silly-looking "Solarite" monster. One good scene shows a lieutenant floating off into space after an accident, and some of the other FX in the film aren't bad. Some interesting ideas in this if nothing else. Gray starred as The Leech Woman a year earlier.

Verdict: Save it for a lazy afternoon. **1/2.

ANAMORPH


ANAMORPH (2007). Director/co-writer: Henry Miller.

New York City detective Stan Aubray (Willem Dafoe) and his sexy new partner Carl (Scott Speedman) investigate when a serial killer starts using the corpses of his victims as art, painting and posing them in specific, generally grotesque tableaus and then cluing the cops in to where they should stand to get the best "appreciation" of his ghastly projects. This aspect of this fair-to-middling serial killer thriller [with few real thrills] is intriguing, although nowadays it's the sort of thing you see every week on CSI and Criminal Minds. The movie is not badly acted, but it's no great surprise that it was released direct-to-video. James Rebhorn is the police chief, and Deborah Harry, formerly of the rock group Blondie, shows up briefly as an unnamed ":neighbor."

Verdict: Good ideas don't always make great movies. **.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

SO ENDS OUR NIGHT

SO ENDS OUR NIGHT (1941). Director: John Cromwell.

"When she dies, I'm done for anyway."

Based on Erich Maria Remarque's novel Flotsam this deals with the plight of Jewish and other political refugees from Germany just before the Nazi occupation of Austria, and then France. Josef Steiner (Fredric March) is wanted by German authorities for political actions and is afraid that his wife (Frances Dee), whom he must leave behind when he flees, will suffer because of his actions. Their long-distance relationship takes a back seat to the burgeoning love affair between two of Steiner's friends, Ludwig (Glenn Ford) and Ruth (Margaret Sullavan), both of whom are Jewish. As we see the difficulties these and others have because they are official non-persons without passports, the film builds up to a situation in which both couples are in crisis, cruelly separated, with Steiner and Ruth each racing desperately to be with the one person in the world they love above all others. Ford and Sullavan make a more compelling team than you would imagine, and March, while he "acts" a bit too much, has some excellent moments as well; Sullavan is as splendid as ever. Dee hasn't as much to do as the others but makes full use of a very expressive face. There are a host of fine character actors as well, including Erich von Stoheim as a German police officer. This film is yet another that shows that Glenn Ford was not just a merely competent pretty-boy, but an accomplished and versatile performer. Louis Gruenberg's score is a little weird at times, but overall is very effective. Two scenes stand out: Ludwig trying to sell some meagre possessions to two extremely weird old sisters, and an unexpected and very dramatic murder-suicide that comes late in the picture.

Verdict: Imperfect, perhaps, but intelligent, adult fare with fine performances. ***1/2.  

THE WHITE TOWER

THE WHITE TOWER (1950). Director: Ted Tettzlaff.

In Switzerland a beautiful young woman named Carla (Alida Valli, billed just as Valli) wants to climb the mountain upon which her father died while struggling to reach the top. Others interested in accompanying her include old friend Nicholas (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), the guide Andreas (Oscar Homolka), a writer named Paul (Claude Rains), and a "superior" Nazi-type named Hein (Lloyd Bridges). All of these people are driven for one reason or another, but the main character is Martin Ordway (Glenn Ford), who only goes along because he's fallen for Carla [not an unrealistic motivation, of course, but weak as compared to the others]. Mountain climbing movies can certainly be suspenseful and exciting, and The White Tower does have a couple of white knuckle moments, but the picture seems more interested in "saying things" in a heavy-handed manner than in providing consistent dramatic tension. Also, the mountain is called "the most unclimbable in Europe" yet Ford -- with not one bit of experience -- decides to climb it anyway. Frankly, when the obnoxious but highly-fit Hein shows contempt for him it is hard not to agree. Ford and the others give good performances, however, and Rains is, as usual, excellent. Striking scenery and a good score from Roy Webb are added pluses.

Verdict: Only in Hollywood can you climb an icy mountain without even wearing gloves. **1/2.

DON DAREDEVIL RIDES AGAIN


          











DON DAREDEVIL RIDES AGAIN (12 chapter Republic serial/1951). Director: Fred C. Brannon.

In the old southwest, a man named Stratton (Roy Barcroft) is using phony documents to try to grab up all the land in the county. Opposing him is Patricia (Aline Towne) and her lawyer cousin, Lee (Ken Curtis), who is importuned to dress up as an ancestor who wore a mask and outfit and called himself Don Daredevil. So now Don Daredevil is back, riding out against the bad guys and keeping out of the hands of the sheriff thanks to his dual identity. DD's headquarters is in a cavern behind a waterfall. There are a few clever if unspectacular cliffhangers in this -- the hero finds himself nearly impaled on more than one occasion --  as well as a few that have been borrowed from the earlier Zorro's Black Whip. Old Buck is played by the familiar Hank Patterson while Tom Steele shows up as the usual bad guy. There's a terrific fistfight in a saloon in chapter nine. Curtis, probably most famous nowadays for Killer Shrews, makes an unusual but effective masked hero in this. Towne has very little to do. Barcroft is competent as the villain but just as colorless as ever.

Verdict: Minor serial with its share of fun moments. **1/2.


BYE BYE BIRDIE

Ann-Margret belts out title tune in Bye Bye Birdie
BYE BYE BIRDIE (1963). Director: George Sidney.

When Elvis-type rock singer Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) is drafted, a plan is developed whereupon he will kiss a lucky girl, Kim (Ann-Margret), goodbye on the Ed Sullivan show. Songwriter Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke), whose song Birdie will sing, hopes this will lead to lasting success as a composer, while his secretary, Rosie (Janet Leigh), hopes it will lead to their marriage. Kim's father (Paul Lynde) hopes that his daughter's Sullivan appearance will lead to more business, while her boyfriend, (Bobby Rydell), just wants to belt Conrad in the nose. Albert's mother (Maureen Stapleton) seems only to want to take pot shots at Rosie ... and so on. But will a substitute ballet selection mean that Birdie and Kim will have to be bounced from the show, dashing everyone's hopes? Based on the Broadway stage musical, this adaptation is good-natured and pleasant but overall not that memorable. Ann-Margret at 22 seems way too sophisticated for a small town high school girl, and is in fact borderline grotesque at times. Maureen Stapleton, who doesn't seem to know how to kvetch, gives one of her rare bad performances. Van Dyke, Leigh, Sullivan [playing himself] and Rydell come off the best, with Lynde not far behind. Pearson isn't bad as the ersatz Elvis, but he's generally a bit too much, overdoing everything -- less would have been a lot more. Some of the songs make an impression: "Ed Sullivan;" "Put on a Happy Face" (which has become a standard); "Kids:' and the whole splashy production number "Got a Lot of Livin' to Do." The finale has the principles sabotaging a sequence from a Tchaikovsky ballet just so Conrad can sing Albert's forgettable number "One Last Kiss." Oy vey!

Verdict: Pleasant but not much more. **1/2.

DEAR DEAD DELILAH

DEAR DEAD DELILAH (1972). Writer/director: John Farris.

"I have long since stopped worrying about anybody else's fate."

In Tennessee on the Southall estate, Aunt Delilah (Agnes Moorehead) is surrounded by greedy relatives and others including Morgan (Michael Ansara), his wife, Buffy (Ruth Baker), Dr. Charles (Dennis Patrick), Roy (Will Geer), Grace (Anne Meacham), her paramour Richard (Robert Gentry) and his wife Ellen (Elizabeth Eis).  Into this household comes Luddy (Patricia Carmichael), who'd been "away" for quite a few years for hacking up her abusive mother and is taken under Ellen's wing. Delilah mischievously tells her relatives that she thinks her father hid a small fortune on the estate, and who finds it, keeps it. It isn't long before -- you guessed it -- someone starts digging up the grounds and slashing up the inhabitants of the ancestral manor. Moorehead, Meacham and Carmichael have the best roles and make the most of them, while the others are perfectly swell. The problem is that the picture has no real style and Farris betrays no particular directorial finesse. The beheading by horseback has a certain panache, however, but it's hardly enough to make this more than a somewhat amusing time waster. Meacham appeared mostly on television and in the theater, appearing in some later works of Tennessee Williams, among others. Somewhat reminiscent of Strait-Jacket and Dementia 13, but not as good.

Verdict: Chop-happy borderline schlock with some good moments and performances. **1/2.

SATELLITE IN THE SKY

SATELLITE IN THE SKY (1956). Director: Paul Dickson.

An aircraft that can fly higher than ever before, dubbed the "Stardust," is sent on a test flight, and along with it comes a bomb that is also to be tested -- that is, exploded in space. There is some disagreement as to the wisdom of doing this, but things really get out of hand when it is discovered that the bomb, which was supposed to be jettisoned from the ship, is clinging to it magnetically instead. The crew realizes that if they return to Earth without dislodging the bomb, it will explode on the surface and kill thousands of civilians. The players in this tense situation include Commander Mike Hayden (Kieron Moore), Professor Merrity (Donald Wolfit), and reporter Kim Hamilton (Lois Maxwell, Miss Moneypenny of the Bond films), who is a stowaway on the ship. Bryan Forbes plays one of the technicians. There is some attempt at drama in the earlier sections of the film -- Kim thinks space exploration is a waste of time, to Hayden's consternation, and one of the scientists has a neglected wife -- but the movie only really comes alive with the business with the bomb.

Verdict: Acceptable, minor science fiction sans monsters. **1/2.

BURLESQUE

BURLESQUE (2010). Writer/director: Steve Antin.

"How many times have I held your head over the toilet bowl while you threw up everything but your memories?"

Small town waitress Ali (Christina Aguilera), with the usual show biz dreams, makes her way to L.A. and discovers a club called Burlesque run by Tess (Cher), a world-weary long-time performer. Tess can't pay her bills, and her ex (Peter Gallagher) wants her to sell out to the smarmy developer, Marcus (Eric Dane). Meanwhile Ali is befriended by Jack (Cam Gigaridet), a bartender at the club who helps her get a job there, even as she earns the enmity of jealous Nikki (Kristen Bell), a top-billed performer on the skids. Ali stops waitressing at Burlesque once Tess hears how well she can sing, and she begins a affair with Jack who already has a fiancee -- and, frankly, who the hell cares? Initially colorful and entertaining, Burlesque is so utterly superficial, the characters so one-dimensional, that after awhile it just becomes boring -- a long rock video we've all seen before. Cher sings two dynamic numbers, the title tune and "The Last of Me," while Aguilera, a solid professional, also struts her considerable stuff in more than one number. The eternally un-aging 65-year-old Cher looks fine and acts well, but had she and the film acknowledged her senior citizen status [not that that means she can't look sexy] it might have made for a movie with a little more substance. The other actors, including reliable Stanley Tucci as the club's gay manager, are all fine. When all is said and done, this is really Aguilera's movie, with Cher in a supporting role.

Verdict: Burlesque leaves no show business cliche unturned. **.



Sunday, October 9, 2011

GREAT OLD MOVIES -- EXTRA

BACK TO "BACK STREET"

"Back Street" author Fannie Hurst
Every once in a while Great Old Movies will put out special "extra" editions where a few movies are lumped together according to theme. In this first extra edition we're looking at the classic 1930 novel of adultery, "Back Street," by Fannie Hurst, and the three film versions that were adapted from it:

BACK STREET (1932) with Irene Dunne and John Boles.

BACK STREET (1941) with Margaret Sullavan and Charles Boyer.

BACK STREET (1961) with Susan Hayward and John Gavin.

BACK STREET (1941)

BACK STREET (1941). Director: Robert Stevenson.

"There's one half of Walter Saxel's life -- and here comes the other half." 

In old Cincinnati Ray Smith (Margaret Sullavan) meets a visitor named Walter Saxel (Charles Boyer), and the two fall madly in love. Unfortunately it turns out Walter already has a fiancee. In spite of this he determines to marry Ray, only fate conspires to keep them apart at the fateful moment. Years later the two meet in New York, and begin a life-long affair. The best screen version of Fannie Hurst's famous novel transcends soap opera via its superior script, direction, and acting from the leads and indeed the entire cast. Ray Smith's tragedy is that she is clearly an independent-minded woman of strength and character who is undone by her love for a man who needs to keep up appearances and is somewhat selfish in his all-consuming need for her. Boyer doesn't always play up the vulnerability in his character -- Ray fell in love with more than a businessman, after all -- but he is still quite good, and Sullavan is, as ever, simply marvelous for the most part. Richard Carlson [White Cargo, Creature from the Black Lagoon], Frank McHugh, Esther Dale, and young Tim Holt all score in supporting roles. Excellent score by Frank Skinner. The book was filmed earlier in 1932, and much later in 1961. 

[Fannie Hurst's novel has a different, much grimmer ending than any of its film versions. In the 1932 and 1941 versions Ray simply expires a few days after the death of her lover. [The 1961 version has Susan Hayward bravely moving forward in relative splendor.] In both of these versions, as in the novel, Walter's oldest son Richard offers to take care of Ray with monthly stipends. In the novel, Richard is killed, and the stipends cut off. An aging Ray descends into poverty, and takes to gambling [and occasional prostitution] to survive. At the end of the novel she ironically and accidentally has a five hundred franc note thrown into her grasping hands by Walter's surviving younger son. She sees this, in a sense, as Walter still looking after her. When she's found dead of starvation in her room, she's still -- to the amazement of the landlord -- clutching the note ... ]

Verdict: A romantic gem if ever there were one. ****.

BACK STREET (1932)

Irene Dunne and John Boles
















BACK STREET (1932).Director: John M. Stahl.

The first film version of Fannie Hurst's famous novel of a "back street" affair is a bit more faithful to the book, but not quite as successful as the 1941 version with Margaret Sullavan and Charles Boyer, although the acting in this version is also top-notch. In Cincinnati, Ray Schmidt (Irene Dunne) meets Walter Saxel (John Boles), who turns out to have a fiancee. Walter and Ray fall in love, and the former wants the latter to meet his mother and see how the old lady reacts to her. On her way for the fateful rendezvous, Ray gets sidetracked when her stepsister Freda (June Clyde) importunes her to come with her to her boyfriend, who knocked her up, and demand that he do the right thing. By the time Ray arrives at the bandstand to meet Mrs. Saxel, it's too late. However, Walter and Ray meet up in New York years later and begin a life-long affair. The rest of the movie has virtually the same script as the 1942 version with the exception that Ray/Dunne has a neighbor who is also a lonely kept woman. [Another difference is that in this version Ray's father is still alive.] Irene Dunne is outstanding as Ray, and it could be argued has a stronger, more emotional reaction than Sullavan [who perhaps underplays a bit too much] as she learns of the ultimate fate of her beloved. Bole is perhaps more romantic and more tender than Boyer was in certain sequences. In any case, while this version is not as good as the Back Street of 1941, it is still a creditable and entertaining picture. Zazu Pitts has a small role as the usual dithery landlady.

Verdict: Dunne and Boles make a nice duo. ***.

BACK STREET (1961)

BACK STREET (1961). Director: David Miller.

"There isn't a marriage in the world where one doesn't love more than the other."

NOTE: This review contains spoilers. The third film version of Fannie Hurst's novel [earlier versions appeared in 1932 and 1941] makes just about every mistake conceivable in adapting the material. Rae Smith (Susan Hayward) falls in love with soldier Paul Saxon (John Gavin) without realizing that he's already married. She is going to fly to New York with him to start a new life, but misses the plane. They meet up years later and resume their affair while Paul's conveniently drunken and nasty wife (Vera Miles) insists she'll never give him a divorce. The first problem with the picture is that mistresses, while still capable of raising eyebrows, were not quite as scandalous in the sixties as they were in the thirties, forties and earlier. Another problem is that the life-long affair of the novel and other two film versions only occupies a few years in this version. The wife, mostly unseen in earlier versions, was never supposed to be a shrew but a perfectly nice person, one of the reasons the married man never divorces her. The earlier film versions concentrated on the loneliness endured by women in back street affairs, but Hayward has a successful career and lots of friends. Worst of all, in this version the married man's son is just a child, incapable of eventually reaching an understanding as regards to his father and the other woman he loved, (making the ending all the more inexplicable). In the first two film versions, Walter/Paul was only engaged and decided to marry Ray/Rae, but in this version he wants her to run off to New York with him without first telling her he's got a wife! At the end, after his and his wife's death in an accident, his very young children suddenly show up at his mistress' door and want to be friends with her -- which makes absolutely no sense at all [their being orphans notwithstanding]! At the time of filming Hayward was 44 and Gavin was 30 and the difference in their ages quite apparent, but the script unwisely ignores it. Hayward, who seems justifiably bored with the material, just goes through the motions for the most part. Gavin makes an effort and is acceptable. Miles comes off the best, with good support from Virginia Grey, Charles Drake, Natalie Schafer, Reginald Gardiner, and Robert Eyer as the son.The liveliest scene has Miles invading a charity auction to make snide remarks about Hayward and carry on in supremely bitchy fashion.

Verdict: A completely unnecessary remake that shows some promise at first but gets more tedious with every passing minute. **.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

THE BIG HEAT

THE BIG HEAT (1953). Director: Fritz Lang.

"I could always go through life sideways."

A violent series of events are set in play with the suicide of a cop, Duncan, who was on the take and knew where the bodies were buried. Det. Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) wants to do a full investigation into the activities of criminal boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) but even his boss, Lt. Wilks (Willis Bouchey), wants to tread easy, and the people that Lagana has in his pocket go all the way to the top. But then Lagana pushes Bannion too far and a tragedy ensues... Look out! Others caught up in Bannion's fury include Lagana's chief gunsel, Vince (Lee Marvin); Vince's girl, Debbie (Gloria Grahame); the dead man's widow, Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan); another gunsel named Larry (Adam Williams); a pretty bar girl named Lucy (Dorothy Green); and another named Doris (Carolyn Jones); as well as Bannion's loving and lovely wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando). The cast is terrific in this outstanding example of hard-boiled film noir, with Ford giving one of his most memorable performances, Scourby offering sophisticated villainy, Marvin and Williams scoring as young sociopaths, and Grahame dishing out another superlative portrayal as a gal who has a date with a really hot cup of coffee. Nolan and the others named are also in top form, and Lang's direction keeps things percolating and boiling over. Sure, you could quibble about some things [the burns caused by scalding coffee for one thing], but this is top notch Hollywood melodrama for sure.

Verdict: Taut, exciting, and altogether terrific. ***1/2.

OUTLAND

Frances Sternhagen
OUTLAND (1981). Writer/Director: Peter Hyams.

In the future, a mining colony has been established on Io, the third moon of Jupiter. The new Marshall, William O'Neil (Sean Connery), investigates when there is an increase in grisly suicides, and discovers something rotten in the state of Io: illegal drugs are being offered to workers to increase their productivity but it eventually makes them psychotic. When Sheppard (Peter Boyle), the head of the operation, realizes that O'Neil is out to shut him down, he enlists the aid of two hit men to come to Io and finish off the Marshall, who can expect no help from anyone, including his men. The only exception is the feisty Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen). This is basically High Noon in outer space. Connery is okay although it might be said that he's just going through the motions, betraying no sense of moral outrage over what's happening to the miners. Sternhagen is simply terrific. The special effects are solid and still hold up thirty years later. Fine score by Jerry Goldsmith.

Verdict: Not exactly original but an interesting variation on a theme. ***.

THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD

video
THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958). Director: Nathan Juran.

In this marvelous fantasy film inspired by tales of the Arabian Knights, Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) must battle a whole host of monsters on the island of Colossa in order to save his beloved, Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant), who has been shrunken to doll size by the evil wizard, Sokurah (Torin Thatcher). There's a mean-tempered cyclops [who actually has a right to be mean as some of Sinbad's crew try to steal his treasure], a gigantic roc with huge flapping wings, and a fire-breathing dragon kept tethered in a cavern. In one of the best scenes, Sinbad has to battle a sword-wielding skeleton that has been animated by Sokurah [see video]. Actually the skeleton and everything else has been animated via stop-motion photography by the great FX wizard Ray Harryhausen, who offers superlative work in this picture. Mathews and Grant are acceptable in the leads, but the acting honors go to a really wonderful Thatcher, who seems to be having a ball enacting his villainy. {It's amusing that absolutely no one can figure out that it was Sokurah who shrunk the princess -- duh!] Nowadays fantasy films often feature computer effects of variable quality, but 7th Voyage with its stop-motion effects is the real deal. Mathews and Thatcher were reunited for Jack the Giant Killer, which featured stop-motion of inferior quality [not done by Harryhausen]. Thatcher had one of his best roles as the prosecutor in Witness for the Prosecution

Verdict: One of the all-time great fantasy films. ***1/2.


THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL

THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL (1968). Director: Gunnar Hellstrom.

"It looks like our little party is over."

A Hungarian named Symcha Lipa (Jack Lord) comes to a sleepy desert town and encounters a strange woman (T. C. Jones) and her three daughters, Nan (Tisha Sterling), Diz (Collin Wilcox Paxton) and Mickey (Susan Strasberg), all of whom seem to be keeping secrets. Symcha and Mickey seem to fall in love, but will they get the chance to get out of town and start a new life? The dialogue in Gary Crutcher's screenplay isn't bad, but this is one of those weird "psycho-thrillers" [another with an obvious nod to Psycho] that may have you scratching your head at the end trying to figure out the motivations of the demented characters. The acting is decent -- Lord and Paxton are fine, with Strasberg, and especially Sterling taking top honors. Mort Mills is as professional as ever as the sheriff, but Marc Desmond is poor as the doctor; he had few succeeding credits. This isn't terrible, just half-baked. T.C. Jones isn't bad either, although many will prefer his Alfred Hitchcock Hour vehicle "An Unlocked Window." Strasberg starred in the more memorable thriller Scream of Fear.

Verdict: Entertaining gobbledygook. **1/2,

ADVANCE TO THE REAR

ADVANCE TO THE REAR (1964). Director: George Marshall.

During the civil war, Union brass are so dismayed by a unit of screw-ups headed by Colonel Brackenbury (Melvyn Douglas), that they reassign them to a backwater outpost -- then realize that they made a dreadful error: a consignment of gold is coming and needs to be guarded by the screw-ups. In the meantime rebel spy, Martha Lou William (Stella Stevens), engages in a cat and mouse game with Brackenbury's second-in-command, Captain Jared Heath (Glenn Ford). Can Brackenbury's men manage to keep the gold out of rebel hands? This is a generally amiable if distinctly minor comedy with a few amusing sequences and characters. Douglas, of course, gives the best performance, but the others are good as well, including Jesse Pearson, who played Conrad in Bye, Bye Birdie, as a soldier with an odd attraction for horses. Jim Backus [I Married Joan], Whit Bissell [The Family Secret], Joan Blondell [Nightmare Alley], and Alan Hale Jr. [The Killer is Loose] are also in the cast.

Verdict: If you think the Civil War was funny ... **1/2.

DAUGHTER OF DON Q

DAUGHTER OF DON Q (12 chapter Republic serial/1946). Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet and Fred C. Brannon.

The pretty sports celebrity Delores Quantero (Lorna Gray playing as Adrian Booth), one of many descendants of Don Quantero, is unaware that an old Spanish land grant actually leaves millions of dollars of real estate to his heirs. One of them, Carlos Manning (LeRoy Mason), is aware of this, and with the aid of his main henchman Donovan (Roy Barcroft), sets out to murder the other heirs. Cliff Roberts (Kirk Alyn) is an intrepid  reporter who aids Delores and tries to find out why someone is killing off all of her relatives. This is a nifty idea for a serial, and Daughter of Don Q makes the most of it. Although comparatively colorless, the villains in this are especially evil  -- at one point they are going to make it look like a perfectly innocent man committed embezzlement and then suicide. The serial also has a sense of humor. When one nasty gunsel falls out of a window to his death, it turns out that he made a living by proposing to wealthy women and absconding with their fortunes before the wedding. "I wonder if any of the ladies he left at the church will attend his funeral," someone quips. There are many good cliffhangers; one of the best has Delores hanging onto a shower curtain after she's knocked out of a window as it begins to slip off the rod notch by notch ... The feisty Delores, who gives as good as she gets, gets hit on the head so often it's a wonder she even knows who she is by the end of the serial! Although there is nothing elaborate or especially unique about Daughter, it's still terrifically entertaining. Lorna Gray played the villainess in Perils of Nyoka and Barcroft was the bad guy in Manhunt of Mystery Island, another superlative Republic serial.

Verdict: Maybe not a classic but fast-paced and action-packed from start to finish. ***1/2.  

THOR

THOR (2011). Director: Kenneth Branagh.

When Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the God of Thunder, disobeys his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the latter strips him of his powers and hammer and banishes him to Earth, where in a self-sacrificing moment he eventually regains his power -- alas, too late to save this surprisingly dull movie. Inspired by an excellent comic book series created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby back in the sixties, the movie certainly has a wealth of history and great stories to draw upon, and it does make use of some of the mythos, such as the rivalry between Thor and his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and the menace of the robotic Destroyer. Unfortunately, Branagh is absolutely the wrong director for this film, betraying absolutely no flair for well-crafted action scenes, which tend to be just as tedious as the rest of the movie. The kingdom of Asgard is only mildly impressive, the producers eschewing the Kirby-esque grandeur of the comic book, although the rainbow bridge is an attractive sight, and the climax that takes place on it is comparatively exciting. Hemsworth is okay, but he takes a back seat to Hopkins and Hiddleston. Natalie Portman is so blah as Jane Foster that it's hard to realize that she's the same Oscar-winning actress from The Black Swan; she does nothing for Thor and the film does nothing for her. But at least she's not as bad as her silly associate with thick collagen lips who is presumably comedy relief but is only even more irritating than Jane. Patrick Doyle's music does most of the work in drumming up any suspense or excitement.

Verdict: Slow and unmemorable on virtually all levels. **.