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

Thursday, July 25, 2013

REAR WINDOW

Hitch does his cameo in Rear Window.
REAR WINDOW (1954). Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

Photojournalist "Jeff" Jefferies (James Stewart) is stuck in an apartment with a broken leg and a cast when he'd rather be out covering action in far-flung places with exotic names. Jeff has a beautiful girlfriend named Lisa (Grace Kelly), but he fears proposing to her because he doesn't think her patrician, elegant manner will go well with the places he has to travel to [although nowhere is it written that the wife must accompany her husband on such assignments]. Bored and needing distraction, Jeff begins observing his neighbors (on a marvelous, detailed set that shows many different kinds of apartments and tenants), such as the voluptuous dancer across the way, a pair of newlyweds who disappear behind the shade after moving in, a frustrated composer of romantic music, and a woman he calls "Miss Lonelyhearts" (Judith Evelyn) who talks to imaginary dates while she's having supper and gets drunk in bars. Eventually Jeff focuses on a man named Thorwald (Raymond Burr), whose nagging wife disappears one afternoon and never comes back. Jeff has reasons to believe Thorwald murdered the woman -- and eventually gets both Lisa and his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) on his side -- but his smug detective friend Doyle (Wendell Corey) assures him that he checked and the woman really is out of town. But is she? Jeff and the ladies begin an investigation of their own that leads them into some serious danger. Some viewers of this wonderful film don't like being put in Jeff's position all the time, peering through windows, and find the film claustrophobic, but I can't agree. The movie, while imperfect, is very cinematic and well-made. It does take a while for the basic mystery plot to begin unfolding, but the two main characters and their dilemma -- two very different people in love but uncertain of how it will work out -- are interesting enough to hold the attention, and Stewart and Kelly give fine performances, along with Ritter, Evelyn and others. [This is another film like The Tingler in which the talented Evelyn gets across a character without really saying a word.] The movie builds in suspense and has a creepy and exciting finale. One thing Rear Window is missing is a great score by, say, Bernard Herrmann, but you can't have everything. John Michael Hayes' screenplay is full of black humor, even relating to the dismemberment of the woman's corpse, which is a plus or a minus depending on how you look at it. Based on  a story by Cornell Woolrich.

Verdict: Smooth, unusual suspenser from the master. ***1/2.

RAW WIND IN EDEN

RAW WIND IN EDEN (1958). Director: Richard Wilson.

"This is just a question -- not the bell for the next round." -- Laura

"What are you doing here? You belong on an island with nobody on it." -- ditto

Laura with no last name, the oldest fashion model in the world (Esther Williams was nearing forty when she made this film) is in Rome when she gets a visit from her married lover's lawyer, Wally Drucker (Carlos Thompson). She decides to return home with him in his plane, but they make a crash landing on a small island located near Sardinia. The only inhabitants of the island are Urbano (Eduardo De Filippo) and his daughter, Costanza (Rossana Podesta), who is betrothed to a strange man named Moore (Jeff Chandler), who came to the island seeking peace and isolation and never left. As Laura and Wally try to fix up a yacht to take them off the island, Laura and Moore find themselves attracted, even as strange acts of sabotage occur on the boat, and Costanza's handsome ex-lover, Gavino (Rik Battaglia), shows up now and then in his rowboat gunning for Moore. Laura makes up her mind to find out exactly who "Moore" is and where he came from. If you think this movie might be interesting, be forewarned that it's not a fraction as entertaining as it sounds. There's a lot of empty posturing with no substance underneath, hollow, under-written characters, and lead actors who are competent but completely miscast. While there's what passes for smouldering passion between Laura and Moore, and Wally seems hot for everyone, the movie has an erotic charge that registers zero. With more than one climax, it seems to take forever to finally end. Thompson seems to have been dubbed by Paul Frees, and the pseudo-romantic music, some of which is nice, is by Hans Salter. Wilson also directed The Big Boodle with Errol Flynn.

Verdict: The only memorable thing about this tedious mess is the title. *1/2.

GALAXY OF TERROR aka MINDWARP

A touchy-feely alien gets another victim

















GALAXY OF TERROR (aka Mindwarp/1981). Director: Bruce D. Clark. Produced by Roger Corman.

"There's no horror here we don't create ourselves."

A spaceship is sent to a distant planet to see if they can find the survivors of the last expedition. What they find are the remains of the spaceship, some weird creepy-crawly aliens that attach themselves to their body parts, and a giant pyramid-like structure in which they are stalked by half-seen creatures and must confront their own fears. This is an old idea -- astronauts bedeviled by materializations of their own terrors -- but it's also an obvious copy of Alien. The movie has surprisingly good production design, courtesy of James Cameron [later famous as the director of Titanic] and Robert Skotak, and an interesting cast, including Edward Albert, Erin Moran, the ever-brooding Zalman King, Ray Walston as a cook with secrets, Robert Englund [Nightmare on Elm Street], Sid Haig as an astronaut who's murdered by his own severed arm, and Grace Zabriskie as a kind of butch captain, sole survivor of something called the Hesperus disaster [as if any vessel would be named after a famous shipwreck!].  Taffee O'Connell is pursued by a maggot grown to giant size that seems more interested in tearing off her clothing and licking her naked body than it is in eating her. Despite some fairly impressive sequences and decent acting, Galaxy of Terror has a cheapjack look and feel to it, and while not awful, it's not that memorable, either.

Verdict: One of the better Alien imitations, so you can imagine how awful some of the others were. **1/2.


THE FLY (1986)

Geena Davis trapped in the teleport pod















THE FLY (1986). Director: David Cronenberg.

Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldbum) is a scientist who piques the curiosity of journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), who hopes there's a story in his research, as does her editor and former lover, Stathis Borans (John Getz). As Seth and Ronnie are drawn into a relationship, Seth reveals that he has invented a device that can transmit matter from one pod to another. Unfortunately, when he tries to transmit living matter, the animals wind up turned inside out. Licking that problem, he decides to transmit himself, but is unaware that a house fly has gotten into his pod with him. Unlike the original Fly, where the hero winds up as two separate, freakish beings, Brundle's fly becomes part of him on a genetic and molecular level, slowly transforming him into a monster. Not faithful to its source material, The Fly is an alternate take on the story with a more gruesome approach. Ronnie seems to take forever to react to the weird changes in Seth's face, and the second half of the film is rather slow until the decidedly suspenseful final sequence. Just like the original film, The Fly turns into a burlesque -- especially when the "Brundle-fly" runs off with Ronnie in its arms -- with Goldblum (otherwise effective in his quirky way) uncertain of how to play his mutating character and apparently opting for black comedy which doesn't really work. Davis, however, gives an outstanding performance, reacting realistically and emotionally to every insane thing that the script -- and Brundle -- can throw at her. Cronenberg's [The Brood] direction is generally good, and the special effects and make-up work is excellent. In his screenplay most of Charles Edward Pogue's originality appears to have gone into the character names!

Verdict: Some good moments, but the original still has this beat. **1/2.

PIRATES OF THE HIGH SEAS

PIRATES OF THE HIGH SEAS (15 chapter Columbia serial/1950). Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet; Thomas Carr. 

On the paradise island of Talua in the south pacific post-WW 2, Kelly Walsh (Tommy Farrell) is bedeviled by the crew of a "phantom cruiser" that shoots at his boat and then disappears into thin air. Said cruiser has the ability to dive underwater while retaining the outward appearance of a boat instead of a submarine [this ability is so under-utilized that it's a wonder the serial even bothers with it.]. Kelly sends for his old Army buddy Jeff (Buster Crabbe), who has no interest in returning to the south pacific but suddenly finds himself besieged by passengers who must get to Talua, including Kelly's pretty blond sister, Carol (Lois Hall); Whitlock (Gene Roth), who turns out to be the governor of the island; and Castell (Tristram Coffin of King of the Rocket Men), an agent who is after a Nazi war criminal named Van Horsdorff who has hidden away millions of dollars worth of diamonds somewhere in the vicinity of Talua. The clue to the location of the diamonds may be inside a music box that plays "Three Blind Mice." It is revealed early on that Whitlock is corrupt, to put it mildly, and has some nasty confederates, especially Shark, captain of the phantom cruiser, who as portrayed by Marshall Reed with two day's growth of beard is one of the sexiest sociopaths to ever appear in a serial. Handsome Shark thinks nothing of gunning down associates with impunity before they can impart important information to the good guys. There are a couple of memorable cliffhangers, such as when a heavy stone block comes crashing down on a coffin inside which Jeff is hiding; and a great bit when Jeff battles a hood on a flat piece of wall that has just been torn off the side of the jail and is being dragged behind a speeding truck as it careens toward a cliff. Most of the characters in this, even some of the good guys, are rather shady and duplicitous, including Lamar (Stanley Price), Whitlock's secretary, and the Lotus Lady (Symona Boniface), who runs the general store and whose loyalties are ambiguous. Pirates of the High Seas may not be one of the classic serials, but it is entertaining if overlong at nearly four and a half hours. Crabbe may be a bit paunchy and middle-aged in this but he still delivers the goods, and the other cast members are generally equally adept.

Verdict: Worth a trip on the Phantom Cruiser. ***.

THE SHANGHAI COBRA

Toler, Moreland, Fong and Cardwell
















THE SHANGHAI COBRA (1945). Director: Phil Karlson.

"People don't fall in love that fast -- except on the stage."

Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler)) is called in when it develops that he may be the only person who can identity an accused thief and murderer named Van Horn. Van Horn is also suspected of a number of cobra venom murders, of which there have been five victims, the latest killed right outside of a coffee shop. The victims all have something to do with a bank, under which are sewers and secret passages Among the suspects are secretary Paula Webb (Joan Barclay); her wannabe boyfriend Ned Stewart (James Cardwell); bank president Fletcher (Roy Gordon, the doctor in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman); Harris, the bank VP (Arthur Loft); and H. R. Jarvis (James Flavin); not to mention an unnamed lady (Janet Warren), who operates the strangest juke box you've ever seen in or out of pictures. This is a typically clever Monogram picture, with Toler in top form, Mantan Moreland even more amusing than usual, and Benson Fong quite adept as Tommy Chan. Gene Roth and Cyril Delevanti have smaller roles.

Verdict: Another entertaining Charlie Chan picture. ***.


MISSION IMPOSSIBLE Season Four

Casting coup: Leonard Nimoy as Paris
















MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Season Four. 1969.

Martin Landau and Barbara Bain went off in a huff and a puff and were replaced by -- in a casting coup -- Leonard Nimoy and a host of rotating females. Nimoy played master of disguise Paris, and the leading ladies included Lee Meriwether (the most frequent), Anne Francis, Sally Ann Howes, Jessica Walter, Antoinette Bower, and others. This was a solid season with many memorable episodes; among the best were: "Double Circle," in which a fake room is employed in order to get at a secret formula; "The Falcon," in which a royal family is in danger from a would-be usurper, and everything that could possible go wrong does; and "Chico" in which a dog helps steal a stamp which conceals an important microdot. As for notable guest-stars, Luther Adler is outstanding in "Phantoms," about a purge of young artists; John Willians scores in "Lover's Knot," which features a Mata Hari-type lady spy; Pernell Roberts and Cicely Tyson are great in "Death Squad," in which a vacationing Barney (Greg Morris) is accused of murder; and a mustache-less Torin Thatcher almost steals the show in "Numbers Game," about attempts to get at a Swiss bank account. Nimoy probably does his best work in "Commandante" and "The Choice." Jason Evers and John Vernon make an impression in, respectively, the aforementioned "Double Circle" and "Falcon."

Verdict: No Cinnamon, but still lots of spice. ***.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE

A striking shot from "Happiest Millionaire"
















 THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE (1967). Director: Norman Tokar.

Walt Disney decided to try and get another blockbuster musical like The Sound of Music or its own Mary Poppins by adapting a play about the real-life Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle, Sr. of Philadelphia. Frankly, Biddle seems an unlikely subject for a light-hearted musical, as he sounds like a rather grim, conservative soul -- despite his eccentricities, which sound more like childish curmudgeonliness -- who started an athletic-religious movement and probably never had to work a day in his life. As embodied by the ever-likable Fred MacMurray, Biddle is made more palatable in this screen treatment, which could have used a little more of a story. The chief plot has to do with the 1916 courtship and ensuing marriage of Biddle's daughter Cordy (Lesley Ann Warren) and Angier (John Davidson) of a prominent New York family. Biddle has two sons but they seem to disappear early in the picture, and even the maid, played very well by Hemione Baddeley, takes a hike after the intermission [the film is nearly three hours long!]. On the other hand, Tommy Steele's winning personality as the butler is on display throughout the film. Greer Garson is cast as Biddle's wife, and while she adds a bit of class to the film, she doesn't really seem to be in the same movie -- you just can't see her as thinking anything but that Biddle is utterly declasse. Garson doesn't make any attempt to be funny, which may have been wise of her. Speaking of class, Gladys Cooper as Aunt Mary and Geraldine Page as Angier's mother nearly steal the picture, especially in the parlor scene when they have a sophisticated verbal cat-fight. An unexpected cast member is Joan Marshall [who starred in Homicidal as Jean Arless] playing a maid who is terrified of Biddle's collection of pet alligators. [More than once we see Tommy Steele pulling one of the larger gators by the tail.] The songs by the Sherman Brothers are vaguely pleasant at times, but not very memorable.This was the first film for both Warren and Davidson, both of whom are excellent. The Disney studio later teamed them in The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band. MacMurray is fine.NOTE: The restored, expanded DVD of this movie actually has a kind of vague double-image on the picture and is certainly not as crisp and clear as it should be.

Verdict: The movie is not terrible, it's just too long and aimless and needs a stronger story. **1/2.

RAW DEAL

Dennis O'Keefe will have to deal with John Ireland
RAW DEAL (1948). Director: Anthony Mann.

Lawyer Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt of Smash Up) visits Joe Sullivan (Dennis O'Keefe of Hold That Kiss) in jail to talk about parole, but she's as attracted to him as he is to her. Joe took the rap for a big wheel named Rick (Raymond Burr) who promised him big money if he served his sentence. But Joe's faithful girlfriend, Pat (Claire Trevor of Crossroads), somehow breaks Joe out of jail in a million to one chance (the exact details are completely glossed over!), and the big lug brings her to -- Ann's apartment. In an interesting development, Joe forces Ann to go along with him and Pat as they drive past police blockades and try to get out of the city, which doesn't exactly sit well with the jealous Pat. Ann at first grows to hate the man she is attracted to, but then ... Yes, this is the type of movie in which the protagonist is a complete loser, but gets away with a lot because he's passably good-looking and has a slight -- very slight -- modicum of sensitivity. Raw Deal should have been more interesting than it is -- although it does pose a heart-rending moral question for Pat at the very end -- but the characters are unsympathetic (although one almost feels sorry for Pat) and the movie never quite rises above its second-rate film noir atmosphere. Hunt and Trevor are excellent, however, and O'Keefe got one of the best roles of his career and runs with it. Raymond Burr is also fine as Rick, who is so sadistic that he throws a flaming food dish in a woman's face because she accidentally spilled a drink on his jacket. John Ireland is a nasty henchman of Rick's who is sent to kill Joe, and Regis Toomey is the cop in pursuit of him. The versatile Whit Bissell has a memorable cameo as a murderer being chased by a posse who just happens to make his way to the same place that Joe and company are hiding out in. John Alton's moody cinematography doesn't hurt. Mann also directed the excellent Furies with Barbara Stanwyck.

Verdict: Very good showcase for O'Keefe with some interesting situations. **1/2.

CURSE OF THE FLY

CURSE OF THE FLY (1965). Director: Don Sharp.

In this sort-of sequel to The Fly  and Return of the Fly, a hitherto unknown second son of  Andre Delambre named Henri [in Return of the Fly Andre's son was named Philippe] and played by Brian Donlevy, has continued his father's research -- aided by his two sons, Martin (George Baker) and Albert (Michael Graham) -- with miserable results. Martin's wife and others went through the teleportation machine and came out twisted freaks which the "kindly" Delambre keeps isolated in the stables! Although he's already married, Martin comes across a woman (Carole Gray) who escapes from a mental institution, falls in love with and marries her, and brings her home, never telling her about the misshapen wife (Mary Manson) he's already got who isn't even allowed in the house! Yet these Delambres are presented as "nice" people. Inspector Charas, played by Herbert Marshall in the first film, appears briefly, this time played by Charles Carson. The film never answers the question of how Andre Delambre could have fathered another son after he was killed by his wife in The Fly. Curse of the Fly takes material from the first two films and doesn't do very much with it. Perhaps the most horrifying thing about the movie is that George Langelaan, who wrote the novella "The Fly," receives no onscreen credit [maybe he preferred it that way!]. Curse of the Fly holds the attention and isn't badly acted, but it pretty much wastes some terrific ideas. Sharp also directed Rasputin, the Mad Monk.

Verdict: Swat this fly! **. 

TOUGH TO HANDLE

"Do you come here often?" Kane Richmond; Johnston White
TOUGH TO HANDLE (1937). Director: S. Roy Luby.

Grandpa Sanford (Burr Caruth) is delighted to learn that he has a winning ticket in the Irish sweepstakes, but concerned to discover that his number is associated with another person's name. Grandpa has, unfortunately, been sold a phony ticket, and when the crooks try to get it back from him they give him a fatal heart attack. Reporter Joe MacIntire (Kane Richmond) suspects nightclub owner Tony Franco (Harry Worth) of being behind the phony ticket racket, but Sanford's grandson, Mike (Frankie Darro) and his sister Gloria (Phyllis Fraser), both of whom work for Franco, don't want to believe their benefactor could be such a skunk. Johnston White plays a drunk in the nightclub who gives Joe pause when he asks him if "he comes here often" and has quite a few tricks up his sleeve. Franco reports to a sinister unseen figure who gives him his orders, and has a jealous girlfriend, Myra (Betty Burgess), whom Joe happily romances for info, although Gloria is his girl. The actors give their all to this B material, with Darro his usual effervescent self, and Burgess especially snappy and attractive. Richmond is as handsome and stalwart as ever and White is terrific. Burgess had presence, looks, and talent but she only made five pictures.

Verdict: Minor but has a few surprises. **1/2.

TRADER TOM OF THE CHINA SEAS

Khan (Jan Arvan) confers with Trader Tom ( Harry Lauter)
TRADER TOM OF THE CHINA SEAS (12 chapter Republic serial/1954). Director: Franklin Adreon.

In what is supposed to be the China seas but looks more like the coast of California, Trader Tom (Harry Lauter) is importuned to take over from a murdered special agent, James Dean (William Hudson), who was investigating smugglers who are trying to foment revolution in an Asian country by stirring up the natives; the leader of these bad guys is Tarent (Lyle Talbot, as professional and bland as ever). Captain's daughter Vivian (Aline Towne) joins with Tom to discover Tarent's hide-out and secret cache of munitions, which includes a deadly poison gas. The interesting thing about this serial is that Tom and Vivian are equal partners; she's just as brave as he is and just as likely to pull out a gun and start shooting at everyone, and Tom just seems to take it as a matter of course. When the action doesn't take place at sea or underwater -- in chapter three Tom must fight off a fat murderous fellow as his air supply is running out -- it's in the mythical country where Tom has a secret meeting with the leader Khan (Jan Arvan). This is one of the last of the Republic serials, and it's as smooth, fast-paced and entertaining as most of their product, if decidedly on the minor side. "Handsome" Harry Lauter is fine as the hero, Towne is game for anything, and Robert Shayne, Tom Steele, and Victor Sen Yung are also in the cast. Lauter had about a zillion credits and Towne was also busy, appearing in such serials as Don Daredevil Rides Again and Radar Men from the Moon.

Verdict: Standard Republic serial is nevertheless fun. **1/2.

THE MYSTERIOUS MR. WONG

Lugosi surveys the scene as Wong
















THE MYSTERIOUS MR. WONG (1934). Director: William Nigh.

"Wong has dared many things -- he will continue to dare!"

According to legend, when Confucius was on his deathbed he gave twelve special coins to his friends. Whichever man collects all twelve coins will gain great power. A series of murders of "Chinamen" in Chinatown have police convinced that they are victims of Tong wars, but reporter Jason Barton (Wallace Ford) isn't so sure. Wong (Bela Lugosi) is a mysterious figure who runs about in disguise, and is behind more than one kidnapping; he even has a torture chamber hidden in his house. This all sounds like it might be fun but that's far from the case. Boris Karloff was given the entertaining and memorable The Mask of Fu Manchu to star in, but poor Bela Lugosi was handed this piece of crap for his "yellow peril/Oriental fiend" undertaking. [This is not to be confused with Karloff's "Mr. Wong" series.] There is far too much of Barton and a gal pal, Peg (Arline Judge) bantering and cracking wise and far too little atmosphere and mystery. The film runs a little over an hour but seems interminable at times. Attitudes toward the Chinese are horribly condescending and racist -- the dead "Chinamen" aren't even looked upon as particularly human --  and we've even got the fat, dumb Irish cop stereotype (Robert Emmett O'Connor) to boot. You can overlook these politically incorrect elements in old movies when they're entertaining, but when they're like The Mysterious Mr. Wong they just seem more glaring. Lugosi is fine, and aside from a few Oriental extras, is the only worthwhile thing in the movie.

Verdict: Another crappy movie that wastes the considerable talents of Bela Lugosi. *.

CORONADO 9

Dan Adams (Rod Cameron ) questions a suspect
CORONADO 9 TV series. 1960.

Rod Cameron starred in this well-made and entertaining detective series that lasted one season. Cameron plays Dan Adams, a private dick who used to work for Naval Intelligence and works out of San Diego with a Coronado address. Many of the episodes were directed by movie serial master William Witney, who helmed G-Men vs the Black Dragon, in which Cameron played agent Rex Bennett [reprising the role in Secret Service in Darkest Africa]. Cameron may have been stone-faced as Bennett, but he's much, much better as the tough but human and compassionate Adams, who gets involved in some very intriguing cases, and has a solid core of law and order values. Some of the best episodes include: "Doomtown," in which the village geek is accused of a murder he didn't commit; "Remember the Alamo," in which it isn't certain if a man's (David White from Bewitched) younger wife has been kidnapped or not, but his secretary (Beverly Garland) may hold the answer; "Gone With Thy Loot," which has a lot of skulduggery over some stolen jewels; "Blonde Herring," a shipboard adventure with a sizzling Carol Ohmart, and an effective Sue Ann Langdon and Harry Lauter in supporting parts; and "They Met in Honolulu" in which Hayden Rourke's much younger bride simply disappears right after the ceremony. The best episodes are: "Run, Shep, Run" with Jay Novello giving another amazing character turn as a Southern doctor in a swampland chase and mystery; "Sincerely Yours, Napoleon," in which a married, middle-aged man tells his wife (Virginia Christine) that he spent their life savings on certain letters but there's a honey (Sue Ann Langdon, again) in the pot; and "Flight to La Paz," in which Adams is aboard a plane that crash lands in an isolated area and a suitcase of money ignites all kinds of passion in the passengers; Harry Bartell and Laurie Mitchell [Queen of Outer Space] are both excellent in this. [Bartell was the process server who pretended to be a big fan of Ricky's on the I Love Lucy courtoom episode.] Out of 39 episodes there isn't a real stinker in the bunch.Other notable guest-stars include Mary LaRoche, Patricia Medina, Norma Varden, and Coleen Gray [The Leech Woman], who is excellent as a conflicted woman who tries to help the sick mobster father that she's been estranged from for many years in "The Anxious Mariner."

Verdict: Very entertaining and well-done mystery series. ***.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

THE GREAT LIE

Astor, Brent, Davis and who's baby?














THE GREAT LIE (1941). Director: Edmund Goulding. Screenplay by Lenore Coffey. Based on "The Far Horizon" by Polan Banks.

"It's so completely mad!" -- Sandra.

Wealthy Maggie Patterson (Bette Davis) loves rugged Pete Van Allen (George Brent), but she's turned down his marriage proposals once too often and he winds up wedded to, shall we say,  "vibrant" concert pianist Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor). But it turns out that Sandra wasn't quite divorced from her last husband, so Maggie has another chance to snare Pete. When tragedy strikes, Sandra and Maggie enter into a bizarre bargain having to do with Pete's baby, but then the circumstances change dramatically and ... The Great Lie is a very engaging soap opera featuring a vulnerable, lovely Davis and a wicked-sharp and excellent Astor in a battle for the same man, bolstered not only by their performances [*especially Astor's] but some literate dialogue, smooth direction from Goulding [who also put Davis and Brent through their paces in The Old Maid], fine photography from Tony Gaudio, and  an excellent supporting cast headed by a warm, snappy Hattie McDaniel and including Jerome Cowan, Grant Mitchell and Lucile Watson. Brent's character isn't the brightest in the universe, but the main problem is that Brent isn't a good enough actor to get across Van Allen's nuances. Some of the black characters are treated a bit patronizingly, typical of the period, but McDaniel maintains her dignity, and there's a wonderful bit with a young black man in a tree singing a ballad with a very sweet voice and simple sincerity. One of the best sequences in the movie has the two ladies sharing a cabin together in the desert while one awaits the birth of her baby and the other acts like an expectant father! Very amusing at times. Modern-day television soap operas have used variations of this basic plot over and over and over again! *NOTE: Astor won the best supporting Oscar for this.

Verdict: Very entertaining soaper done in high style. ***.

CHARLIE CHAN'S MURDER CRUISE

Charlie Chan (Toler) meets Ming the Merciless (Middleton)
CHARLIE CHAN'S MURDER CRUISE (1940). Director: Eugene Forde.

When Inspector Duff (Montague Shaw) comes to tell Chan  that he needs his help in finding a strangler who has already claimed several innocent lives, Chan (Sidney Toler) only seems to turn his back for a minute and Duff himself becomes the next victim! Since Duff had narrowed the identity of the mysterious strangler to one of several passengers on a cruise ship, Chan joins the cruise and tries to ferret out who the killer might be. The suspects include: Dr. Suderman (Lionel Atwill), who doesn't seem to hold Chan's abilities in high regard; Susie Watson (Cora Witherspoon of The Bank Dick), a spirited high-society dowager; her playful friend James Ross (Don Beddoe); Professor Gordon (Leo. G. Carroll); wealthy Gerald Pendleton (Leonard Mudie); dreamy Dick Kenyon (Robert Lowery) and his pretty gal, Paula (Marjorie Weaver); the gloomy religious fanatics Mrs. Walters (Claire Du Brey) and her husband (Charles Middleton); and others. Jimmy Chan (Victor Yen Sung) is along for the ride as well. The cast consists of old pros who know just how to play this amusing, suspenseful material. Toler is in top form, Sen Yung as charming as ever, and Atwill, Middleton, Mudie and Witherspoon are all in fine fettle. It's worth the price of admission just for the scene when Toler confronts Middleton and you realize that Chan is having a chat with Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon! This has a good mystery plot with a few surprises as well.

Verdict: Utterly delightful! ***.

ROMANCE ON THE RUN

Edward Brophy and Donald Woods
ROMANCE ON THE RUN (1938). Director: Gus Meins.

When the famous "Czarina's Tears" necklace is stolen, insurance man Ridgeway (Andrew Tombes) is horrified to discover that his secretary, Dale (Patricia Ellis), renewed the policy while he was in Boston. Ridgeway hastily calls in private eye Barry Drake (Donald Woods) to get back the necklace for $10,000. Drake gets the necklace and takes the money, but it turns out that the necklace is a phony. So Dale rushes after him and his valet Whitey (Edward Brophy) even as they rush after the thieves, Lily (Grace Bradley) and Charlie (Craig Reynolds). The "romance" of the title is that Barry and Dale are supposedly falling in love after initial mutual hostility, but we see precious little evidence of this. Woods can handle this kind of light material with aplomb, but this material isn't just light, it's paper-thin, and an interesting enough premise is completely wasted. William Demarest plays a cop who's also looking for the necklace. Director Gus Meins' best-known film is Laurel and Hardy's wonderful Babes in Toyland. Ellis isn't bad; she made only three more pictures after this, including Block-Heads, also with Laurel and Hardy. Woods did several "Mexican Spitfire" films with Lupe Velez, and starred on television as Craig Kennedy, Criminologist.

Verdict: A couple of minor titters and little more, but the cast is game enough. **.

RETURN OF THE FLY

Philippe Delambre has a bit of a problem
RETURN OF THE FLY (1959). Director: Edward Bernds.

"Help me, I'm Philippe. Help me, I'm Philippe."

The Fly was a huge hit so a quick-buck sequel was rushed out the following year. This was also in CinemaScope, but not technicolor, and Vincent Price reprised his role of Francois Delambre [and seems slightly more enthusiastic this time, probably because of his pay check]. Philippe (Brett Halsey), the son of the scientist in the first film, is now grown, his poor mother dead, and demands to know all about his father's research. Despite Francois' dire warnings -- with good reason! -- Philippe steals away one of his uncle's [although never referred to as such] employees and practically blackmails him into giving him money for his own matter transmitter project. What Philippe doesn't know is that the employee -- now his partner --  Ronald (David Frankham), is actually a murderer using an alias, and that he plans to use a corpulent crumbum named Max (Dan Seymour) to sell off the technology to the highest bidder. No, a fly doesn't accidentally wind up in the disintegrator with Philippe, it is put there by the sadistic David, who knows of Philippe's terror of flies. Phillipe winds up in the same dire situation as his father before him, with his consciousness seemingly divided between his hulking giant fly-head form, and within the tiny, human-headed fly that cries out for help in a tiny voice. [For this effect Brett Halsey's head is simply superimposed over a fly's body, and the results are not very credible.] Return of the Fly  is slow-paced and minor, and not in the league of its predecessor. There is a creepy sequence showing a man with the hands of a guinea pig and vice versa. Brett Halsey of The Atomic Submarine gives a decent performance in this. Bernds also directed Queen of Outer Space and quite a bit of junk.

Verdict: Acceptable, but basically fritters away a lot of good ideas for a quick buck. **.

IRISH LUCK

Purcell, Darro, Flavin [background], Moore and Darcy
















IRISH LUCK (1939). Director: Howard Bretherton.

"Can't you see I'm just one step from finding out who the murderer is?" -- Buzzy

"And you got your other foot on a banana peel." -- Jefferson

Buzzy O'Brien (Frankie Darro) is a bellboy in a hotel but he has an interest in mysteries and crime-solving, much to the consternation of cop Steve Lanahan (Dick Purcell of Captain America and Mystery House). When a man is found dead in the hotel, Buzzy covers up for a pretty gal named Kitty Monahan (Sheila Darcy) who he spotted coming out of the dead man's room; his mother (Lillian Elliott) just likes her because she's Irish. Kitty is concerned about her brother, Jim (Dennis Moore), who found out about some shady stock manipulations or something along that order and is hiding out. When Buzzy gets in a jam confronting the killer, his buddy Jefferson (Mantan Moreland) saves the day. James Flavin is hotel detective Fluger, and Tristram Coffin shows up briefly as a desk clerk. This is another Monogram quickie teaming Darro with Moreland; they are both swell, as are Purcell, Moore and Elliott; the picture runs less than an hour. Bretherton directed The Monster and the Ape and other serials. Moore was in The Master Key and others.

Verdict: Amiable silliness with likable performers. **1/2.

THE VANISHING LEGION

"The Voice" confronts a cowering member of the Legion
















THE VANISHING LEGION (12 chapter Mascot serial/1931). Directors: Ford Beebe; B. Reeves Eason.

"The Voice ... has spoken." 

Oil man "Happy" Cardigan (Harry Carey) has a certain time period to bring in a gusher but he finds this is difficult to do when he has to deal with raids on the oil fields by a group of men on horseback calling themselves the "Vanishing Legion." Then there's a mysterious character called "The Voice," who issues commands using a special transmitter and never speaks above a whisper. It is suggested that the Voice is actually one of the four directors of the oil company. Adding to the intrigue is a company secretary named Miss Caroline Hall (Edwina Booth), who may be an agent of the Voice, and may even have something to do with the Vanishing Legion. If that wasn't enough mystery, we have young lad Jimmie Williams (Frankie Darro) who is the only one who can ride a wild horse named Rex, and his father, Jed (Edward Hearn), who is wanted for murder. As the serial progresses, things get a little confusing with all the inter-relationships, and people turning out to be something other than you thought they were. Darro probably has more to do in this serial than anyone except maybe Carey, but he's billed after Carey, Booth and even "Rex, King of the Wild Horses." He gives an excellent performance and out-acts most of the adults, although Carey, Hearn and others are at least competent. Booth comically over-acts at times, but she's continually called on to suggest an alternating good gal and bad girl to keep the audience guessing which she might actually be, and generally she's both attractive and vital. Other prominent characters include Ashton (Philo McCullough), who may have some relationship to the man allegedly murdered by Jimmie's fugitive dad; the Sheriff (William Desmond), who at one point is suspected of being the Voice; and Hornbeck (Lafe McKee), Jed Williams'  lawyer. Although he does not actually appear in the serial, the voice of the "Voice" is supplied by none other than Boris Karloff, which not only adds some spookiness to the proceedings but neatly hides the identity of the actual villain. Two memorable cliffhangers in the movie involve Carey nearly getting trampled by a pack of wild horses, and Booth opening a door in a hallway and discovering that there's no room inside, just a quick path to the sidewalk far below.  Booth had very few film appearances but Carey was also in Beyond Tomorrow and had a notable role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

In the entertaining book Classic Cliffhangers Vol. 1  by Hank Davis, the author suggests that there's something "unnatural" in the (off-screen!) relationship between Frankie Darro, and the actor who plays his father, Edward Hearn. Davis seems to think that Hearn fondles Darro too much [but I watched the uncut movie and saw absolutely nothing over the top in the realistic displays of affection a father would show for a motherless boy whose whole world revolves around his beloved dad] and he is particularly disturbed by a scene in which father and son kiss on the lips. The kiss may seem to be held longer than necessary [and looking at it with 21st century eyes one might find it discomforting] but Davis neglects to inform the reader that this scene occurs at a highly emotional moment when both father and son are afraid they may never see each other again. To suggest that Hearn was getting off on it and is therefore a pedophile is patently unfair. This was a more innocent time period, and parents and children did kiss on the lips without anyone thinking it was automatically unnatural. The boy actually initiates the kiss and this is not the only time he does so, and given the time period especially, it doesn't seem that weird.  Davis also doesn't mention that in other scenes, such as when Jimmie thinks his father has been killed, "Happy" hugs the boy to his breast, strokes his hair, but there's no suggestion [and shouldn't be] that this makes actor Harry Carey a pedophile. I'm as repelled and outraged by child molestation as anyone else, but I don't think it's fair to label someone a pedophile based on a scene in a movie! There is nothing on the Internet to indicate any unnatural interest in children on Hearn's part; only that he was married and had a child. Hopefully I'm wrong, but it's almost as if Davis for some reason decided Hearn was gay and that therefore he must be a child molester! This would be especially bizarre as Davis spends a lot of time decrying the racist aspects of many of these old serials.

Verdict: Creaky but somewhat entertaining old serial, but not one of Mascot's best. **1/2.

HERCULES

Meg and Hercules
HERCULES (1997). Directors: Ron Clements; John Musker.

"A true hero isn't measured by the size of his strength but the strength of his heart."

While this Disney film makes a lot of changes to "accepted" mythology, it is a charming and entertaining tale of the demi-God, Hercules (Tate Donovan), son of Zeus, half-mortal but with prodigious muscles, and his epic struggle to win his place in Mount Olympus. Danny De Vito is the voice of Phil, the satyr who counsels and trains Hercules, and James Woods is Hades, Lord of the Underworld. There are titans, monsters, the hydra and other exciting sequences brought vividly to life by solid direction and very fluid animation. Hercules' gal pal Meg (Susan Egan) is sort of a bad girl with attitude, but she grows on you. The songs are pleasant if forgettable, although Hercules' ballad isn't bad. Good for children and most adults won't be too bored, either. For a very different take on Hercules, see Hercules, Samson and Ulysses.

Verdict: Actually kind of sweet. ***.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

WE'RE NOT DRESSING

Gracie Allen encounters a lion in the South Pacific!
















WE'RE NOT DRESSING (1934). Director: Norman Taurog.

"This is beginning to depress me." -- Uncle Hubert

Wealthy Doris Worthington (Carole Lombard) is taking a cruise on her yacht with a group of friends, two handsome princes (Ray Milland and Jay Henry) who are both courting her, her Uncle Hubert (Leon Errol) and her pal, Edith (Ethel Merman). Doris is attracted to a singing sailor named Stephen (Bing Crosby), but she finds him impertinent and he thinks she's a snob. When the yacht sinks, almost everyone winds up on a deserted island in the south pacific, where the husband and wife team of George and Gracie (George Burns and Gracie Allen) are doing research on the flora and fauna! Stephen declares that everyone has to pitch in and work for their supper, while he and Doris fight their increasing attraction to each other and he sings one catchy number after another ["Love Thy Neighbor;"  "Lovely Little Lady;" "May I"]. This doesn't have much of a plot, and the dialogue and lyrics aren't always winning, but the cast is game, although these will not go down as great performances for either Der Bingle or Lombard. Errol is his usual comical self, Merman is very amusing, and if you like Burns and Allen you'll enjoy their sequences in this movie. This is clearly a "Bing Crosby Picture" with the others sort of along for the ride, but on that level it's easy enough to take, if no world-beater, and it does have its charming and amusing moments.

Verdict: Amiable silliness with pleasant old tunes. **1/2.

GIRLS' DORMITORY

Simone Simon and Herbert Marshall
















GIRLS' DORMITORY (1936). Irving Cummings.

"A boy who is graduating is just a boy, but a girl who is graduating stands before you a full-fledged woman."

Professor Anna Mathe (Ruth Chatterton) has been helping Dr. Stephen Dominik (Herbert Marshall), director of a girl's school, with a book project, and is secretly carrying a torch for him. She gets unexpected competition from Marie Claudel (Simone Simon), a pretty 19-year-old student at the school, who is also in love with the middle-aged Professor Dominik. When Professor Augusta Wimmer (Constance Collier, in a most unsympathetic role) finds a love letter Marie wrote to an unknown man in a waste basket, she convenes a council to determine if Marie should graduate. Wimmer and another male professor think her behavior -- they believe she had a rendezvous with this man -- is scandalous and brings disfavor to the school, while two other professors think they are making too much of a school girl's infatuation. As one of them puts it, "my mother was married and had two children at Marie's age." Anna and Stephen are both sympathetic to the girl. The simple story is okay, but it's the acting from all concerned, especially Simon [in her first American film] and Marshall, that put this over. [Not to give away the ending, but if this movie has a moral it's that men like 'em young.] Chatterton (Dodsworth) is not photographed at all flatteringly in this, but her warm, self-sacrificing character is not meant to be glamorous. Tyrone Power shows up very late in the picture as Marie's handsome cousin. John Qualen is a likable if rather outspoken hand around the school, and others in the cast include J. Edward Bromberg and Dixie Dunbar.

Verdict: So-so romance with good performances. **1/2.  

THE SCARLET CLUE

Charlie confronts the suspects
THE SCARLET CLUE (1945). Director: Phil Rosen.

Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) is pursuing a  certain criminal with Captain Flynn (Robert Homans) when the man is found dead, the only clue being a shoe print found at the scene of the crime. Charlie's investigation takes him to a building where there is a radio station on one floor and a radar research facility on another. Among the many suspects in the first and subsequent murders are Brett (I. Stanford Jolley), the radio manager; actresses Gloria Bayne (Janet Shaw) and Diane Hall (Helen Deverell); old-time Shakespearean and horror actor Horace Karlos (Leonard Mudie); impersonator Willie Rand (Jack Norton); Mrs. Marsh (Virginia Brissac), a termagant whose products are advertised on the radio soap operas she's forever criticizing; and others. The movie comes off like a homage to cliffhanger serials in that the generally unseen saboteur behind the scenes communicates with underlings via teletype, wears gloves and a mask, and at one point sends a fellow hurtling to his death by opening a trapdoor in the floor of a very high elevator car! The Scarlet Clue has an excellent script by George Callahan, enough sinister suspects to keep you guessing, a fast pace, a generous amount of suspense and humor, and even Mantan Moreland as the lovable Birmingham Brown. [Benson Fong is also on hand as # 3 son, Tommy.] Toler is terrific as Chan, and Brissac is certainly vivid as the nasty hag Mrs. Marsh [she played the warden in Lady Gangster]. A thoroughly satisfying Chan adventure, even if it is from Monogram.

Verdict: Snappy and clever. ***.

IT STARTED WITH EVE

Odd pair: Laughton with Durbin
IT STARTED WITH EVE (1941). Director: Henry Koster,

Deana Durbin and Charles Laughton in the same movie? But then, Laughton also did a film with Abbott and Costello, no snob he. In this engaging picture, Laughton is Jonathan Reynolds, a supposedly dying millionaire who wants to meet his son, Johnny's (Bob Cummings), fiancee, Gloria (Margaret Tallichet) before he kicks off. As Margaret isn't available and time is of the essence (or so it seems), Johnny importunes aspiring singer and hat check girl Anne Terry (Deanna Durbin) to pretend to be Gloria for a few hours. But Reynolds rallies and Anne finds she must keep up the deception a bit longer, especially if she wants a chance to meet the old man's show biz connections. And then the real Gloria shows up with her harridan of a mother (Catherine Doucet) ... Laughton and Durbin actually play well together, and this is one of the latter's better performances, possibly because of the company she's keeping. This kind of material was Bob Cummings' bread and butter and he's fine, and Laughton is excellent in an unusual role for him. Durbin did a lot of movies but It Started with Eve isn't just a "Deanna Durbin Movie," although she delivers the requisite song numbers [and does them well]. Mantan Moreland has a funny bit or two as a porter, and Guy Kibbee and Walter Catlett are terrific as the Bishop and Reynold's nervous [and we can assume inept] doctor. Anne comes off a bit self-centered at times, and it's interesting that the fiancee, usually a nasty person in these movies, actually seems kind of nice and sympathetic, even if her mother is a horror. Tallichet gave a fine performance in Stranger on the Third Floor; she was married to William Wyler.

Verdict: Amusing and pleasant romantic comedy with music. ***.

KING OF THE MOUNTIES

One good-lookin' mountie: Allan Lane as Sgt. King
















KING OF THE MOUNTIES (12 chapter Republic serial/1942). Director: William Witney.

In this sequel to King of the Royal Mounted, Sgt. Dave King (again Allan Lane) and his cohorts are up against a triumvirate of Axis baddies: Admiral Yamata (Abner Biberman) of Japan; Marshal von Horst (William Marshall) of Germany; and Count Baroni of Italy (Nestor Paiva of Tarantula). This gruesome threesome is behind numerous deadly acts of sabotage on Canadian soil, targeting such as oil fields, munition factories and the like, and employing such devices as a spiffy-looking flying Falcon ship. They use an active volcano [!] as their headquarters. Their plans for an Axis invasion of Canada are threatened by an invention called the Brent Airplane Detector; when the inventor is killed, his daughter Carol (Peggy Drake) carries on in his efforts to keep the device out of the determined enemies' hands. The three main bad guys are aided in their efforts by the traitor Harper (Douglass Dumbrille) and his associate Pierre (Duncan Renaldo). The wonderful Jay Novello shows up in a beard and engages in some of the lively fisticuffs that are sprinkled all through the serial. King makes some amazing death-defying leaps as well. Highlights include the remote control torpedo hidden beneath a phony haystack, and King's fight with a Japanese soldier in the cockpit of an out-of-control spitfire. Mort Glickman's music is also effective. This is a bit better than King of the Royal Mounted due to its somewhat more interesting storyline. Director Witney keeps things moving and at a high-excitement level throughout. NOTE: Much of the sound and some of the picture of this serial have been lost. You can find cheap copies of this with the missing parts, or buy a more expensive DVD from Serial Squadron which adds sub-titles to the parts without a soundtrack.

Verdict: Snappy stuff. ***.

WHITECHAPEL Series 3

Davis, Penry-Jones and Pemberton
WHITECHAPEL Series 3. 2012.

The third season of the British crime drama which has cops in Whitechapel solving unusual and gruesome cases consists of six episodes and three separate storylines.  Ripperologist Edward Buchan (Steve Pemberton) gets a job at the police station when Deputy Inspector Joe Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones) hires him as researcher over the objections of grizzled, pit bull-like Deputy Sergeant Ray Miles (Philip Davis). The first case has to do with multiple murders in homes and businesses where the sole survivor is always a self-absorbed female. The second story has to do with the murder and dismemberment of several women, which may be tied in to a very strange lady who lives in a cluttered, ramshackle house with her husband's preserved body in it. In the third story a "Bogey man" terrorizes the neighborhood and may be an escaped madman who has the only copy of the silent Lon Chaney film London After Midnight*. Miles keeps trying to match Chandler up with women, but it never works out. The performances are excellent, including Hannah Walters as DC Riley. The stories are quite interesting, but this business of a black cop being superstitious and so terrified of a suspect that he lets him out of jail smacks of Stepin Fetchit and is ridiculous. You can read about season one here, and season two here. *[I believe the script refers to this lost silent movie as London After Dark for some reason.]

Verdict: One hopes there will be future seasons of this show/mini-series -- perhaps with some positive black and gay characters. ***. 

CURSE OF THE BLACK WIDOW

CURSE OF THE BLACK WIDOW (1977 telefilm). Director: Dan Curtis. Originally presented as an ABC Friday Night Movie.

A woman comes into a bar and asks for help with her car. A guy named Frank obliges, and is later found dead and drained of blood. His fiancee, Leigh (Donna Mills), asks one of the men who was in the bar that night, private investigator Mark Higbie (Tony Franciosa of Wild is the Wind) to find out what happened, as she's under suspicion because her first husband died at sea under mysterious circumstances. Higbie learns that there were several previous victims found in the same condition and one witness saw what appeared to be a giant spider leaving the scene. Could Leigh's family be under some kind of mystical curse?  ... This is an utterly absurd but entertaining horror film with good performances from Franciosa, Mills, Patty Duke Astin as Leigh's fraternal twin sister, Max Gail as a cop, and even June Allyson [The Shrike] as Leigh's aunt [you have to see her caught in a spider web]! The cast even includes Sid Caesar as a landlord, Vic Morrow [Great White] as a detective, Jeff Corey [Seconds] as a caretaker, and June Lockhart as a mysterious old lady locked in an attic. Roz Kelly nearly steals the show as Mark's spirited and funny secretary. The effects are not exactly high-tech but serviceable.The best thing about the movie is the ad [see photo]. Dan Curtis directed many made-for-TV horror films such as The Night Strangler, as well as such theatrical films as Burnt Offerings.

Verdict: Tarantula is way better but this has its moments. **1/2.