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

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Thursday, August 10, 2017

THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937)

Ronald Colman meets Ronald Colman
THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937). Director: John Cromwell.

Major Rudolph Rassendyll (Ronald Colman) is vacationing when people keep remarking upon his strong resemblance to Prince Rudolph (also played by Colman). The two men meet and turn out to be cousins. When the prince is given a knock-out potion on the night before his coronation, his aides importune the major to impersonate him or all will be lost. But there are two complications. Will Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll), the prince's beloved, be able to see past the deception? And what happens when the real king gets kidnapped? Colman is terrific in both roles, and there is also expert work from the lovely Carroll [My Son, My Son] ; Raymond Massey [Possessed] as his evil brother, who wants the crown for himself; C. Aubrey Smith and David Niven as the king's friends and comrades; Mary Astor as the woman who loves Massey not wisely but too well; and especially Douglas Fairbanks Jr. [Little Caesar] as the haughty, deceptively sinister Rupert. The film is capped by an exciting sword fight between Colman and Fairbanks, but it never quite becomes a classic. Remade at least once.

Verdict: Colman  and Massey are always interesting to watch. **1/2.


FAIL-SAFE

Frank Overton
FAIL-SAFE (1964). Director: Sidney Lumet.

The American president (Henry Fonda) discovers that the U.S. air force accidentally launched a bomber squadron against Moscow. Now his job is two-fold: to convince his Russian counterpart that this strike was indeed accidental and prevent retaliation; and to stop or even shoot down the U.S. planes before they can drop the bombs and start WW3. The tension is thick as various characters react to what is an untenable and horrifying situation. The acting from the entire cast is first-class: Dan O Herlihy  [King of the Roaring 20's] as General Black, who must discharge the most distasteful duty of his career, to put it mildly; Fritz Weaver (who was introduced in this film) as Colonel Cascio, who is nearly driven mad by the situation and has a violent breakdown; Walter Matthau (in one of his early dramatic roles) as Groeteschele, who is coldly pragmatic when it comes to the numbers of projected casualties and the like; and especially Frank Overton [Desire Under the Elms], in the performance of his career, as the conflicted but duty-bound General Bogan. Janet Ward certainly scores in a small but pivotal role as Mrs. Grady, who desperately tries to tell her husband, the lead pilot, to turn back before it's too late. Nancy Berg, Dom DeLuise [Diary of a Bachelor]  and Larry Hagman (as a translator), among others, also do well in some flavorful supporting roles. One of the best scenes has Bogan reacting after the men in the war room cheer the downing of one of the planes -- "this isn't a football game!" I don't know if I find the controversial ending to this to be especially believable, but it certainly packs a wallop. I have no doubt that when this was released people left the theater shivering in shocked silence. This was released the same year as the satirical Dr. Strangelove, which has more or less the same plot, but the more somber Fail-Safe has the edge on it. The movie could have been cut by ten or so minutes and tightened a bit, however.

Verdict: Disturbing, high-impact, and infinitely depressing. ***1/2.

WHAT'S NEW, PUSSYCAT?

Woody Allen is analyzed by Peter Sellers
WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT? (1965). Director: Clive Donner. Screenplay by Woody Allen.

Dr. Frtiz Fassbender (Peter Sellers) is a very weird psychoanalyst with a jealous, Wagnerian wife (Eddra Gale). Most of Fassbender's clients are in serious need of help, including Michael James (Peter O'Toole), who has a fiancee, Carol (Romy Schneider of Sissi), but who just can't keep away from admiring women. Fassbender has the hots for another client, Renee (Capucine of The Pink Panther), but she, too, prefers Michael. Then there's Victor (Woody Allen in his film debut), who supposedly has a girlfriend but who winds up in a dalliance with Carol. And we mustn't forget Liz (Paula Prentiss of Follow the Boys), who decides she wants to marry Michael after a one-night-stand and keeps trying to commit suicide. All of these characters and more wind up at a trysting place where there are rooms named after great lovers ("We've put two cheating men in the Don Juan room." says the proprietor.) If What's New, Pussycat? sounds riotous be warned that it's often more frenetic than funny and that the treatment is a bit smarmy and silly instead of sophisticated. Sellers is wonderful and most of the cast are at least enthusiastic. The opening with Fassbender and his wife is rather hilarious, however, and there are amusing moments throughout. The film's frankness was probably refreshing in this period. At one point Sellers/Fassbender analyzes Victor/Allen. Ultimately, Sellers is the more versatile and brilliant comedian; Woody developed his nebbish persona (from his stand-up act) in this movie and has never veered from it one iota.The title tune is warbled by the then-very popular Tom Jones, who used to get panties thrown at him by the ladies in the audience during his live shows.

Verdict: Silly stuff, but very popular in its day -- Allen's first movie and first hit. **1/2.

THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN

Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr
THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN  (1969). Director: Joseph McGrath.

Wealthy Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) has no son and heir, so he picks up a tramp he calls Youngman (Ringo Starr) and adopts him. Grand and son enjoy seeing how much people will do for money, and it turns out to be quite a lot. The last third of the film takes place on the title ocean liner, where there are riotous -- but, unfortunately, not very funny -- proceedings on board. The climax has Guy putting cash in a pool of literal crap and watching men dive for the loot while Thunderclap Newman's "Something in the Air" plays over the action. Meant to tackle sacred cows of the period, The Magic Christian is merely awful and tedious, although there are times when you just can't turn your eyes away. The picture has the distinction of being the one Peter Sellers movie in which he clowns around but just isn't funny, and Starr, while adequate, is just along for the ride. There's a lot of homo-eroticism in the picture -- such as two dancing gay bodybuilders, and two boxers who begin making out instead of punching one another (for such a "daring" movie it's strange the way the camera cuts away before they actually kiss) -- and, alas, Leonard Frey of The Boys in the Band is forced to play a character named Laurence Faggot (pronounced Fag- go). What's meant to be shocking and sarcastic is just silly and asinine. Wilfrid Hyde-White [The Browning Version] is fine as the captain of the Magic Christian; Laurence Harvey [Life at the Top] seems to be having fun doing what might be called a Shakespearean striptease; Raquel Welch wields a mean whip in a galley scene; and Patrick Cargill and John Cleese are somewhat amusing as discombobulated employees of Sotheby's. Christopher Lee even shows up wearing his Dracula teeth and threatening to put the bite on a lady passenger. But the best cameo hands-down goes to Yul Brynner [Westworld], who is frankly astonishing as a somewhat odd-looking songstress warbling Noel Coward's "Mad About the Boy" in a cocktail lounge. Otherwise, this is a criminal waste of time! The whole film looks as if everyone involved was completely stoned all during filming.

Verdict: One of the worst movies ever made -- aside from a "fabulous" Brynner. *.

ANYTHING FOR A THRILL

Brothers: Kane Richmond and Frankie Darro
ANYTHING FOR A THRILL (1937). Director: Leslie Goodwins.

"Sometimes I think you're next to an idiot."

Newsreel photographer Cliff Mallory (Kane Richmond) is told by his boss, Collins (Edward Hearn), to get some footage of pretty heiress Betty Kelley (Ann Evers) or else. Apparently Miss Kelley has an aversion to having her picture taken by anyone, including Cliff and his younger brother, Dan (Frankie Darro). Dan has a sort of girlfriend named Jean (June Johnson), and Betty is engaged to a suave lowlife named Albert (Johnstone White), who is only hoping to get money out of her. The crap hits the fan when the Mallory brothers do manage to  get Betty on film, and she retaliates ... Anything for a Thrill is one of a number of cheap movies [such as Tough To Handle] starring Richmond and Darro as brothers, or student and mentor, and this one is about average. The screenplay is not terrible, just minor-league, with characters that are not much developed beyond stereotypes. Darro is as good as usual, while Richmond, a handsome serial star [Haunted Harbor] with a pleasing presence, is more than competent but not exactly a gifted comedian. Ann Evers makes an impression as the heiress, but squeaky-voiced June Johnson is as grating as she is "cute;" neither actress had that many credits. Edward Hearn and Darro also appeared together in The Vanishing Legion serial.

Verdict: Darro is generally superior to his material. **.

ON SONDHEIM: AN OPINIONATED GUIDE

ON SONDHEIM: AN OPINIONATED GUIDE. Ethan Mordden. Oxford University Press; 2016.

Mordden, who has written several informative, engaging, and highly opinionated volumes on musical theater, herein devotes a full book to the work of Stephen Sondheim. In addition to his shows, Mordden also explores the lyricist-composer's film and television work, such as Evening Primrose, Dick Tracy, and Stavisky. Mordden is an unabashed Sondheim admirer, taking a stand against his critics, and explaining what he feels is Sondheim's unqualified genius. Mordden has chapters on Sweeney Todd, Company, Follies, Gypsy, Pacific Overtures, Passions, Anyone Can Whistle, and others, and even looks at the film versions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, and Into the Woods. Mordden, as usual, writes with authority and flair, with an obvious passion for his subject. Admittedly, Mordden won't necessarily convince readers who would much prefer to listen to, say, Richard Rodgers' Younger Than Springtime than Sondheim's The Little Things We Do Together and who love The King and I much, much more than Follies or that closet queen show (as I call it), Company. Broadway was being more and more influenced by pop music -- as opposed to European style operetta and opera a la Rodgers and Lowe -- as Sondheim ascended, and nowadays most Broadway scores are pure pop and even rock. Writing strictly in an admiring mode, Mordden never acknowledges that the undeniably gifted Sondheim (Send in the Clowns; Joanna; Agony; Grateful/Sorry; Too Many Mornings; Losing My Mind; many others) can also be quite trite and tiresome at times. Arguably, Sweeney Todd is Sondheim's masterpiece. Sondheim also co-wrote the screenplay for The Last of Sheila and was a script writer for the old Topper TV show with Leo G. Carroll as Cosmo Topper!

Verdict: Solid book on the work and career of Sondheim with a little bit on his personal life. ***.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

Kong expresses his opinion of this movie
KONG: SKULL ISLAND
(2017). Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

A prologue set in 1944 shows two soldiers -- one Japanese, one American -- fighting on Skull Island until King Kong (or at least his paws) interrupts. Thirty years later an expedition is going to Skull Island for resources, and it's quite awhile until the title character shows up in all of his glory. Sergeant Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) wants to blow Kong away for destroying many of his men, but others argue that Kong protects the natives on the island from much worse monsters. While the two opposing camps try to persuade the other, they must fight off all manner of hungry and horrible creatures. This reboot of Kong is more successful than the most recent Godzilla, but despite some outstanding special effects -- and an impressive leading man in Kong -- the movie just lacks that certain sense of wonder. Having the trip to Skull Island be a military operation sort of strips it of romance, and Kong: Skull Island is merely another loud, cold-blooded (if not necessarily more cold-blooded than the original King Kong), slick, forgettable, modern-day monster flick with a typically flip, often cutesy approach and a mediocre screenplay. The actors are competent enough, but they are pretty much lost in a sea of FX, and sympathetic characters get dismissed even as they're eaten. Kong is much, much bigger in this than he was in the 1933 film, and his climactic battle with a huge reptilian creature -- not to mention the post-credit epilogue that most people didn't wait around in the theater to see -- suggests there may be a remake of King Kong vs Godzilla in the offing. Despite all the action, the movie has slow stretches, and not just in the first quarter. The two best scenes in the movie have nothing to do with Kong at all: the soldiers are attacked by a humongous and deadly tree spider; and a touching coda involving the surviving WW2 sailor from the prologue as he returns home to his family. As the guide and nominal hero of the piece, Tom Hidddleston makes much less of an impression than he does as the villainous Loki in Thor.

Verdict: The original King Kong is still the best and likely to remain so. **1/2.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

ANNIE HALL

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen
ANNIE HALL (1977). Director: Woody Allen. Screenplay by Allen and Marshall Brickman.

:There's too much emphasis on orgasms to make up for the emptiness in life.: -- Alvy.

"Who said that?" -- Annie.

"Leopold and Loeb." -- Alvy.

Comedian Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) tells us of his relationship with, and ultimate bittersweet breakup from, girlfriend Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) in a tale that looks at how people can love one another but may not be right as lifelong partners. Annie Hall is one of Allen's most likable and entertaining movies, a frequently inventive comedy-drama (with emphasis on comedy) in which Allen/Singer talks directly to the audience, and he and other characters observe and comment as they look back at their younger selves with earlier lovers, and so on. Allen [Shadows and Fog] and Keaton [Shoot the Moon] both offer winning performances and there are small roles/cameos from Colleen Dewhurst [You Can't Take It With You], Christopher Walken, Carol Kane, Shelley Duvall, Janet Margolin, and larger roles for Tony Roberts (whose character of a sitcom actor never seems remotely real) and Paul Simon as a wealthy record producer (he's fine). An odd scene has Annie talking about a tragic, shell-shocked uncle without having any real understanding of what the poor man must have gone through and laughing at it until she realizes "I guess it's not funny." Duh! The film has a sub-text of the differences between a New York and Hollywood lifestyle, not to mention the differences between Manhattan and L.A. You can't say that either Alvy or Annie are people you might actually want to hang out with, but they make an engaging sort of couple for the movie if nothing else. Allen won Oscars for writing (along with Marshall Brickman) and directing and was nominated for his performance; Keaton won the Best Actress Oscar, and the movie won Best Picture.

Verdict: Not really a masterpiece as such, but lots of airy charm and creative fun in this. ***.

THE TALK OF THE TOWN

Ronald Colman and Jean Arthur
THE TALK OF THE TOWN (1942). Producer/director: George Stevens.

Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) has been falsely accused of setting fire to a warehouse and killing the watchman, so he breaks out of jail. He hides out in a house that has just been sold to law professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman), who shows up a day earlier than expected while Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur) is fixing things up. Wanting to be able to feed Dilg while he's hiding in the attic, Nora takes a job as Michael's cook and secretary, while Leopold comes downstairs and introduces himself as the gardener. This strange trio will have to contend with the authorities as they tear the town apart looking for Dilg, who is right under their noses. Meanwhile, which man will Nora ultimately wind up with? You may not find yourself caring all that much, because the script for Talk of the Town is, frankly, beneath the talents of its three wonderful leading players, all of whom are at the top of their game (although one could argue that Grant is a little too insouciant considering the desperate situation he's in).The movie begins with a very cinematic opening depicting Dilg's escape, but then there's an abrupt change in tone as what started out as a melodrama turns into a screwball and borderline slapstick comedy; then there's another shift into melodrama. This might have worked in some of Frank Capra's pictures, but this is an uneasy blend of some genuine laughs with a more serious underlying tone, and the two never quite jell. Glenda Farrell is less obnoxious than usual as the girlfriend of Clyde Bracken, played by Tom Tyler [The Phantom] of serial fame. Edgar Buchanan, Leonid Kinskey, Charles Dingle and Rex Ingram [The Thief if Bagdad] have smaller roles. George Stevens also directed Woman of the Year and many other, much better pictures.

Verdict: Tries to be Capraesque, but fails -- although the leads are all great! **.

PEPE LE MOKO

Jean Gabin as Pepe
PEPE LE MOKO (1937). Director: Julien Duvivier.

Master thief Pele le Moko (Jean Gabin) has taken up residence in the twisted, dangerous byways of the Casbah in Algiers, where he hides out from the authorities even as he feels like he's a prisoner. His girlfriend is Ines (Line Noro), but he develops a romantic yearning for Gaby (Mireille Balin), the kept woman of a rich, corpulent tourist. But will Ines' jealousy interfere with his plans to flee to his beloved Paris with the woman of his dreams? The characters of Pepe le Moko are not that dimensional or bright, but the film's intensity, especially at the climax, partially compensates, and one can certainly feel pity for Ines. There is something quasi-tragic about a man meeting fate because of his feelings for a woman who is, by any standard, a tramp, but this has always been a popular theme in movies from any country. The best scene in the movie has the old and fat Tania (Frehel) beautifully singing a sad song of lost youth and regret as Pepe listens. Fernand Chapin is the informer and turncoat, Regis; Gilbert Gil is young Pierrot, who comes to a bad end; and Lucas Gridoux is Slimane, the friendly police inspector who intends to arrest Pepe as soon as he leaves the protected territory of the Casbah. Pepe le Moko is no different from a Hollywood movie in that it never seems remotely real. Devoid of much sex appeal, Gabin makes an unlikely lover boy, but his performance is fine,and Noro is especially affecting as Ines. Based on a French crime novel, there were at least two American remakes, Aligers with Charles Boyer and Casbah with Tony Martin! Duvivier also directed such interesting American films as Flesh and Fantasy and Lydia. His last film was the unfortunate Diabolically Yours in 1967.

Verdict: Despite its flaws, this has a certain power, especially in the well-played finale. ***.


ALGIERS

Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr
ALGIERS (1938). Director: John Cromwell.

Hiding out in the Casbah, jewel thief Pepe le Moko (Charles Boyer) falls for Gaby (Hedy Lamarr), the fiancee of a wealthy tourist. But will the woman who adores him, Ines (Sigrid Gurie), be indirectly responsible for his destruction? Algiers is the first American remake of the French film Pepe le Moko, which had only come out one year earlier. Algiers is virtually a scene for scene remake of Pepe -- sometimes even a shot for shot remake -- but it still has the edge on the French original. For one thing, we have Charles Boyer [Gaslight] in the title role, and he is not only much more "romantic"-looking than the rather potato-faced Jean Gabin, but offers a much more nuanced and emotional performance. Although most of her dialogue is virtually the same as in Pepe, Hedy Lamarr  [Crossroads] gives a much warmer and more human delivery, making her character much more likable. Gurie is fine as Ines, although this version is less compassionate toward her than the original, which cuts her out of the ending and has Slimane, the inspector, telling her off for betraying Pepe. Slimane is portrayed by Joseph Calleia [Five Came Back], and it is one of the actor's most memorable performances. Others in the cast include Johnny Downs as Pierrot, Joan Woodbury as his girlfriend, and Leonid Kinskey as L'Arbi. Boyer sings a song (C'est la vie) as Gabin did in the original, but the sequence where Tania sings has been omitted. Another plus for this version is an effective musical score by Mohamed Ygerbuchen and Vincent Scotto. James Wong Howe was cinematographer. Of course in neither version of the story does the romanticized criminal Moko seem that much like a real person. Incidentally, Boyer never says the line "Come with me to the Casbah; we will make beautiful music together"--  more's the pity! Samuel Goldwyn discovery Sigrid Guris, a "Norwegian" actress born in Flatbush, only made a few movies. Remade as Casbah with Tony Martin.

Verdict: More fun in the Casbah! ***.

CASBAH

Yvonne De Carlo and Tony Martin 
CASBAH (1948). Director: John Berry.

Thief Pepe le Moko (Tony Martin) hides out in the Casbah while the friendly cop Slimane (Peter Lorre) hopes he'll step out of his safe harbor so he can arrest him. Pepe falls for Gaby (Marta Toren), who is the fiancee of the wealthy Claude (Herbert Rudley of Decoy), inspiring jealousy both in Claude and in Inez (Yvonne De Carlo), who thinks of herself as Pepe's one true love. Naturally, nobody's plans work out as they intended. It was only a matter of time before someone got the idea of making a musical out of the Pepe le Moko story -- filmed at least twice before as Pepe le Moko and Algiers -- and this is the closest you'll ever get, as this is what you might call a semi-musical remake with crooner Martin singing a couple of vaguely pleasant tunes by Harold Arlen and Leo Robin (Martin is in splendid voice). Casbah is not nearly as bad as you might expect, with Martin making a sexier and gruffer Pepe, and Peter Lorre spicing up the proceedings with his typically interesting portrayal of Slimane. In this version the Casbah seems less a filthy ghetto and more a mere tourist attraction, but it has at least as much artificial atmosphere as the first two versions. Unlike AlgiersCasbah is not a copy of Pepe le Moko, but eliminates some characters, has different sequences, and makes Gaby even more independent than in the other versions but also less likable. Swedish actress Toren had a few uncredited parts before being "introduced" in this film as the "next Ingrid Bergman." She's adequate and managed to amass a number of credits but she died tragically young at thirty. Yvonne De Carlo is her saucy self as Inez, although she's not always photographed very flatteringly. Other cast members include Douglas Dick [The Accused] in an unsympathetic character part; Hugo Haas as a friend of Pepe's; and the always-interesting Virginia Gregg as a friend of Gaby's. If there's any problem with Casbah, it's that this version tries too hard to make this some kind of tragic love story when the lovers barely know one another, are completely one-dimensional, and Martin and Toren don't even have that much chemistry together. The shot of Martin on the runway while the plane bearing Toren soars overhead is a dramatic composition but it also comes off as a little hokey considering. Interestingly, while the earlier versions only talk about how difficult it would be for the police to get a captured Pepe out of the Casbah, this version actually shows us how difficult it would be, as all of Pepe's cronies come to his rescue after he's been handcuffed, attack the cops, and free him. John Berry also directed Tension.

Verdict: The odd but arresting duo of Martin and Lorre almost make this work. **1/2.


THE STEPMOTHER

John Garfield Jr., and John Anderson
THE STEPMOTHER (1972). Director: Howard Avedis.

In the prologue to The Stepmother, jealous businessman Frank Delgado (Alejandro Rey of Blindfold) comes home early, realizes his friend, Alan (Mike Kulcsar), has slept with his wife, and strangles him. As he's burying the body, a fight breaks out between a couple nearby and the man starts strangling his girlfriend, and this man becomes a suspect in Alan's murder. If you're expecting a riveting, clever suspense film to follow, be forewarned that the script for this movie seems to have been written each day of filming, and there are lots of unanswered questions. The picture is half over before Frank's son, Steve (Rudy Herrera Jr.) shows up and the "stepmother" of the title -- Frank's younger wife, Margo (Katherine Justice) -- who has already caused enough problems, begins to make a play for Steve ... The Stepmother is a cheap exploitation item that has competent acting but needs a tighter script, to say the least. Rey has his moments, but he is put into situations that would test any actor's mettle -- and you can only understand about a third of what he's saying --  and perky Justice, while professional, is a bit insufficient as the resident femme fatale, if that's what you can call her. Larry Linville of Mash plays another friend of Frank's, and Marlene Schmidt is his wife, who develops a yen for Frank. John Anderson [Zane Grey Theater] is as professional as ever as the cop assigned to Alan's murder, and John D. Garfield (aka David Garfield or John David Garfield), son of the famous John Garfield, amiably plays a photographer nicknamed Goof. Young Garfield died at only 51, lasting 12 years longer than his father.

Verdict: From Crown International, so you get what you expect. **.

SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY AND HORROR FILM SEQUELS, SERIES AND REMAKES

SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY AND HORROR FILM SEQUELS, SERIES AND REMAKES: An Illustrated Filmography with Plot Synopses and Critical Commentary. Volume 1. Kim R. Holston and Tom Winchester. McFarland; 1997. Foreword by Ingrid Pitt.

You gotta love a book that has a foreword by the one and only Ingrid Pitt of Hammer horror fame. But there's lots more to enjoy afterward, including synopses of hundreds of movies, along with a brief analysis of each film and interesting quotes from reviews both good and bad. There are also lots of photographs in this very thick volume, which covers everything (in more or less alphabetical order) from The Abominable Dr. Phibes to Zapped Again, with stops along the way to look at multiple versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the Halloween and Friday the 13th films, Roger Corman's Poe series, the many, many Frankenstein and Dracula movies, and a whole lot more, covering the classics up to the splatter period and beyond. The book is fun to read whether you go from front to back or pick out movies after you watch them. This is a reference book you will also enjoy reading from cover to cover. Holston also wrote Susan Hayward: Her Life and Films.

Verdict: Worthwhile look at genre films with many illustrations and solid info. ***.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK

Warren William, Hayward, Joan Bennett, Hayward
THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1939). Director: James Whale. Based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas pere.

When it is discovered that the queen has given birth to two identical boys, it is decided one will have to be sent away to be raised by a foster father, D'Artagnan (Warren William), to avoid the in-fighting and sibling rivalry that would undoubtedly result. Alas, things don't work out as planned when the foppish and cruel Louis XIV (Louis Hayward) discovers that he has a twin in Philippe of Gascony (also Hayward), who. along with his "father," D'Artagnan, objects to the salt tax. D'Artagnan and his fellow musketeers are rounded up and put in prison, but it amuses Louis to seemingly allow Philippe the run of the palace (an unlikely development, considering). Philippe takes advantage of Louis' absence to free his father and musketeers and work other wiles. Eventually, however, Louis wises up and imprisons his brother, forcing him to wear an iron mask and hoping his growing beard will eventually suffocate him. But Louis is wrong in thinking that this is the end of his twin just as Philippe is wrong in underestimating his brother. The Man in the Iron Mask had been filmed both before and after this version -- Dumas' story has been filmed many times, in fact -- but this may be the best-known version. At times the verisimilitude of the film is about on the level of an Abbott and Costello feature, but whatever the picture's flaws, it boasts a remarkable lead performance from Louis Hayward [Midnight Intruder], who is superb as he successfully limns two distinct characterizations. There is also fine work from the ever-florid Warren William; from William Royle [Drums of Fu Manchu] as the Commandant of the Bastille; and especially from the marvelous Joseph Schildkraut [Cleopatra] as the utterly loathsome Fouquet, a former tutor who "advises" his majesty. Joan Bennett is a little out-classed in this (not to mention Marion Martin as Louis' French mistress!), as costume dramas were not her forte. There's a very good score by Lucien Moraweck. Albert Dekker, Dwight Frye, and Peter Cushing (in his film debut) are also in the picture, but don't blink or you might miss them!

Verdict: A superb lead performance -- or rather two of them -- is the chief distinction of the picture. **1/2.

DR. STRANGELOVE

Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove
DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964). Director: Stanley Kubrick.

"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the war room!" 

Going off his nut, General Jack D, Ripper (Sterling Hayden) sends planes bearing megaton bombs into Russia without orders from the President (Peter Sellers). While Ripper's special British assistant, Mandrake (also Sellers), desperately tries to get the code from him that will stop the planes, President Muffley confers in the war room with General Turgidson (George C. Scott), the Russian ambassador Sadesky (Peter Bull), and the ex (?) Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again). Meanwhile Major Kong (Slim Pickens) is determined to deliver his megaton payload come hell or highwater. Then the president learns from his opposite number, the unseen Dimitri, that if a bomb goes off on Russian soil it will automatically unleash a Doomsday weapon that will destroy all life on Earth! Dr. Strangelove has a plot that's strangely similar to Fail-Safe, released the same year, only Strangelove is not played straight but as a very, very dark black comedy (and is better known than the other picture), brutally -- if broadly -- satirizing the arms race, the cold war, and the paranoia and obsession people had at the time over atomic weapons and the possibility of WWIII. The deliberate pace of Strangelove may make the film seem longer than it actually is -- just a bit over 90 minutes -- but it is entertaining, grimly amusing, and very well-acted by all, with Sellers superb in a trio of very different roles. Hayden [Naked Alibi] , Scott, Bull (who can be seen trying hard to keep a straight face during Seller's antics as Dr. Strangelove in one scene), Keenan Wynn [Royal Wedding] as Colonel Guano, Tracy Reed as Turgidson's paramour, and Pickens in his most notable and iconic role are all on the money. Still, as well-made as it is, one can't quite say that this is a picture you will enjoySeven Days in May also came out in 1964 and dealt with the military-industrial complex, but there were no out of control missiles in it.

Verdict: Not for every taste, but certainly unique. ***.

KILL ME AGAIN

Michael Madsen points gun at Val Kilmer
KILL ME AGAIN (1989). Director: John Dahl.

Jack Andrews (Val Kilmer) is a down-on-his-luck private eye who owes $10,000 gambling money to hoodlums. Into his office comes Fay Forrester (Joanne Whalley), who has just stolen thousands from a boyfriend, Vince (Michael Madsen), who ripped off the mob. Fay importunes Jack into helping her fake her own death so she can go on with her life without fear of reprisal, although she doesn't let Jack in on everything. Before long Jack is suspected of murder, Vince and the mob are both gunning for him, and Jack finds an unlikely ally -- or does he? At one point Fay tells Jack that her original estimate of him was that he was a loser, and despite certain developments, her first impressions are accurate, as the man seems completely inept as a private eye. There are attempts to create pathos with brief flashbacks showing how he failed to save a woman, his wife most likely, from drowning, but this comes to nothing. Kill Me Again is entertaining and well-acted -- Michael Madsen especially scores as the vicious and threatening Vince -- but all the plot turns can't disguise the fact  that this is lower case film noir.. Jack's methods for faking someone's death may have played in the 1940's, but they seem ridiculous in a movie from the 80's. John Gries is effective as Jack's doomed buddy, Alan, and Bibi Besch shows up briefly as Jack's secretary. Kilmer [The Saint] and Whalley [Shattered] were married at the time; she was then known as Joanne Whalley-Kilmer. She's not bad as the femme fatale but a little insufficient as a major sexpot.

Verdict: It plays, but you've seen this once too often. **1/2.

ON THE RIVIERA

Gene Tierney and Danny Kaye 
ON THE RIVIERA (1951). Director: Walter Lang.

Entertainer Jack Martin (Danny Kaye) works on the Riviera with his girlfriend, Colette (Corinne Calvet), but he is told by club manager Gapeaux (Sig Ruman) that he is through unless he comes up with a catchier act. Jack decides to do his impression of married playboy and famous pilot Henri Duran (also Kaye) who looks just like him. To keep a business deal from collapsing along with their careers, associates of Duran importune Jack to pretend to be Duran while he is out of town, causing complications involving Colette and Duran's wife, Lili (Gene Tierney). This is a remake of That Night in Rio (itself a remake of a French film), and it has one insurmountable problem. Why do a remake unless it is an improvement over, or distinctly different from, the original? This version adds Technicolor and a few weak songs by Sylvia Fine (Kaye's wife) that you forget even as you're listening to them. Another problem is that On the Riviera casts competent but essentially unknown French actors in smaller roles instead of the flavorful and more familiar character actors that usually pepper and add enjoyment to these films. Kaye is okay, but has been seen to better advantage in other vehicles. Corinne Calvet [So This is Paris] is gorgeous and capable, as is Gene Tierney [The Pleasure Seekers]. Clinton Sundberg [The Kissing Bandit] plays the taciturn butler, Antoine, in his usual effective style. Jean Murat is Felix Periton, with whom Duran wants desperately to do business. Kaye does so-so impressions of Maurice Chevalier and Carmen Miranda, both of whom starred in previous versions.

Verdict: One dip in the well too many. **.

IF YOU COULD ONLY COOK

Jean Arthur and Herbert Marshall
IF YOU COULD ONLY COOK (1935). Director: William A. Seiter.

Jim Buchanan (Herbert Marshall) is engaged to Evelyn Fletcher (Freida Inescort), whose chief interest in him seems to be his money. One afternoon in the park Jim encounters job-hungry Joan (Jean Arthur), who assumes he's out of work and importunes him to go with her to answer an ad for cook and butler in the mansion of gangster Mike Rossini (Leo Carrillo of Horror Island). Smitten with the refreshingly sweet and honest Joan, Jim goes along with the gag, although Rossini assumes the two are married. Understandably, all manner of complications occur. If You Could Only Cook is standard, silly, highly contrived screwball comedy stuff, only the laughs don't quite arrive with enough frequency. Arthur and Marshall are both wonderful, however, and their performances are the chief reason for watching the movie. Carrillo is fine, Inescort is given little to do but does it well, and Lionel Stander [Mr. Deeds Goes to Town] is simply gross and typically repulsive as Rossini's good right hand. Jean Arthur and Leo Carrillo also appeared together in History is Made at Night.

Verdict: Slight and over-familiar, but the stars are great. **.

THE OUTLAWS IS COMING

Adam West and the Stooges: DeRitas, Howard and Fine
THE OUTLAWS IS COMING (1965). Director: Norman Maurer.

In 1871 a group of outlaws want to slaughter the buffalo to send the Indians on the warpath for their own nefarious purposes. Kenneth Cabot (Adam West of Batman) is sent out to Wyoming with three associates (Larry Fine, Moe Howard, and Joe DeRita) to save the Buffalo from extinction. There they run into Annie Oakley (Nancy Kovack of Diary of a Madman), who actually does the shootin' attributed to Kenneth, as well as bad guys Rance Rodan (Don Lamond) and Trigger Mortis (Mort Mills of The Name of the Game is Kill), who make Kenneth the sheriff and the Stooges his deputies -- with the average life expectancy of about a day. The Outlaws is Coming is pretty silly stuff, geared primarily to children despite its violence and gun play, but it does have some inspired moments. There's the bit when the Stooges are forced to drink a Tarantula Fizz (Tiny Brauer is amusing as their bartender), and a clever business when the boys pour glue into the guns and holsters of all of the outlaws as they sleep, hoping to head off their own slaughter. DeRita and Fine make comical drag queens when they accidentally enter the room of some show gals instead of the outlaws. Annie Oakley has a cat fight with Calamity Jane, and Henry Gibson plays an Indian, but he isn't especially funny, no surprise there. Emil Sitka is also not funny as an Indian chief. At 88 minutes the picture is too long.

Verdict: Elvis the skunk is in this too! **.

DALLAS: THE FINAL SEASONS

Larry Hagman and Gayle Hunnicutt
DALLAS Season 12 - 14. 1988 - 1991.

I was never the biggest fan of Dallas, but like most people (including my late mother who never watched the show ever) I tuned in for "Who Shot J.R?" but the show never became a guilty pleasure until the last couple of seasons, which were fast-paced fun. J. R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) got involved in a near-shotgun wedding with Callie (Cathy Podewell), had himself committed to a mental institution to get some papers (from Alexis Smith!), got shot again by his ex-wife Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), who used her money to finance a biopic about him. While this roman a clef film took center stage in season 12, the sub-plot never really amounted to much. Sue Ellen simply told J. R. that she wouldn't release the film as long as he behaved himself. We never saw the reaction from the cast or even the director (whom she married off-screen) when they found out the public would never even see the movie. George Kennedy [Strait-Jacket] showed up as a business rival with his own inner demons, and Gayle Hunnicutt [The Legend of Hell House] appeared in more than one season as J. R.'s lost and long-time love (when she finally breaks off her engagement to him, J. R. doesn't try very hard to get her back). Meanwhile Bobby (Patrick Duffy of The Last of Mrs. Lincoln) lost his wife, Pam, who first ran off after being disfigured in a car crash and then got a terminal illness, but decided not to tell anyone; Bobby's next wife was shot and killed on their honeymoon. Hagman wasn't a great actor, but he made the most of J. R. and offered a very effective portrayal. The performers on Dallas sometimes phoned in their performances, but at other times they were really on target. For instance, George Kennedy had a great scene when he's talking to his son on the phone and expressing how overjoyed he is that he's being released from a Mexican prison. Season 13 introduced the charming Sasha Mitchell as J. R.'s son (by Hunnicutt, who was quite good), who crosses both wits and swords with his father. Mitchell was not a seasoned performer, but he had an appealing, inoffensive arrogance that complimented his good looks and made him an asset to the show. A mention should be made of the two very talented child performers, Omri Katz and Joshua Harris, as the sons, respectively, of J.R. and Bobby. It was fun to see Barbara Eden, Hagman's co-star from I Dream of Jeannie, as an oil woman who really puts J. R through the wringer in season 14. Ken Kercheval was fine as J. R.'s bitter rival, Cliff Barnes, but the character could be so irritating (and always looked like an unmade bed) that it's a wonder he lasted fourteen seasons when others were sent packing! The disappointing last episode of the show had J. R. contemplating suicide while a demon played by Joel Gray (!) showed him what life would have been like for the other members of his family if he had never been born. Ted Shackleford as Gary Ewing (of Knots Landing) probably had more footage in this episode than in all the other seasons combined. The final season was followed by three TV movies and the show was revived in 2014 with some of the original players.

Verdict: Big hair, bad marriages, cat fights, bar fights, bed-hopping, philandering, plotting and co-plotting, and a little something about the oil industry, ***

Thursday, July 20, 2017

NOT AS A STRANGER

Olivia de Havilland
NOT AS A STRANGER (1955). Producer/director: Stanley Kramer.

"Chris, help me, for God's sake, help me." --Lucas Marsh.

Lucas Marsh (Robert Mitchum) is determined to be a doctor but hasn't got the financial backing he needs to continue his internship. To get the money he romances the adoring Swedish nurse, Kristina (Olivia de Havilland), who has saved up quite a bit of money. The two get married, Lucas is able to complete his studies, and the couple relocate to a small town where Lucas becomes assistant to the aging family doctor, Dave Runkleman (Charles Bickford). Then there's the complication of the seductive Widow Lang (Gloria Grahame). Will Lucas ever be able to feel an honest and profound love for his wife? Not as a Stranger is a nice picture with winning performances, with Mitchum [Angel Face] doing some of the best work of his career. De Havilland [The Dark Mirror] is on the mark as Kris, as is Grahame, but she is given so little to do that it's a wonder her character was even included. It's also a mystery why Frank Sinatra [The Kissing Bandit] took the role of Al, Lucas' intern-buddy, as it's really a relatively minor supporting part. When Sinatra and Mitchum are on screen together, Frank looks unbelievably scrawny in contrast, which the crooner must have hated, but his performance is fine. Lon Chaney Jr. is not memorable as Lucas' drunken father, playing it in too obvious and phony a fashion, but Gertrude Hoffman has a nice bit as an old woman who tells the doctor that she has nowhere to go. The film introduces some weighty matters -- is the doctor's job just to keep people alive no matter what even when they're ready to let go? -- but never quite gets a grip on them. People in the doctor's office  include everyone from Nancy Kulp to Alfalfa! Lee Marvin and Mae Clarke have smaller roles as nurse and intern. Broderick Crawford offers a gruff but interesting performance as Lucas' and Al's teacher in the early hospital scenes. Franz Planer's photography is excellent, and it could be said that George Antheil's score is more than partly responsible for the whole success of the movie.

Verdict: Some moving moments and an interesting story, with a very well-cast and effective Mitchum. ***.

ROUGHSHOD

Gloria Grahame and Robert Sterling
ROUGHSHOD (1949). Director: Mark Robson.

Four ladies of ill repute have been thrown out of Aspen when they encounter Clay Phillips (Robert Sterling) and his younger brother, Steve (Claude Jarman, Jr.) on the road after their wagon breaks down. Clay agrees to take the ladies part of the way, but has to concentrate on taking some horses to his ranch in Sonora. Adding to Clay's woes is the fact that an enemy named Lednov (John Ireland) has escaped from prison with two pals and is gunning for him. Clay also can't quite disguise his disapproval of Mary (Gloria Grahame) and the rest of her companions. Roughshod is an engaging and entertaining picture with some fine performances, especially from Grahame and young Jarman, Jr., both of whom share top billing with Sterling [Bunco Squad], most famous for the TV show Topper, who gives a better performance than expected. (Sterling was handsome and talented enough to have been developed into a major movie star, but his primary credits were on television; maybe he just lacked that certain oomph.) Grahame is as delightful and adept as ever, and Jarman [Intruder in the Dust] proves to be one of the most talented child actors in Hollywood. Ireland offers a chilling portrait of the determined killer, Lednov, and there's nice work from Myrna Dell, Jeff Donnell, and Martha Hyer as the three other "show girls" in the group. Sara Haden, James Bell [Back from the Dead], and Jeff Corey score in smaller roles. There are many affecting scenes in the movie, and a highly satisfying wind-up. Joseph Biroc's cinematography is typically outstanding, and there's a flavorful score by Roy Webb.

Verdict: An  unheralded gem with some fine performances. ***.


MANHATTAN

Allen, Keaton, Murphy, Hoffman
MANHATTAN  (1979 ). Director: Woody Allen.Written by Allen and Marshall Brickman.

"I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics."

"My first wife was a kindergarten teacher. She got into drugs, moved to L.A. became a moonie. Now she's a William Morris agent."

41-year-old Isaac (Woody Allen), whose wife, Jill (Meryl Streep), left him for another woman, Connie (Karen Ludwig), is now dating an adoring 17-year-old named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). Isaac's buddy, Yale (Michael Murphy), who is married to Emily (Anne Byrne Hoffman), is having an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton), but Isaac and Mary find themselves drawn to each other, especially as Yale shows no signs of leaving his wife, and Isaac is all too aware of the age difference between him and Tracy. As Manhattan begins, it seems to be a love valentine to New York City, but as the movie proceeds it becomes clear that it is just another Woody Allen Movie with the same fake, self-serving Woody Allen-type characters.you see in most of his movies. This "Manhattan" is strictly for and about rich white upper eastsiders -- you won't see a Black, Latino or Asian face throughout the movie (although there is a gay couple, as mentioned)! As expected, there's some good dialogue, and the acting is mostly on target, although Keaton tries to be amusing and generally fails. A built-in problem with Allen's movies is that, while the real Allen probably has no problem getting dates because he's rich and famous, having all these women throwing themselves at a less successful fellow who looks like Allen is highly improbable. Given what we now know of Allen's private life, it's easy to see why the plot goes in certain directions. Bella Abzug has a cameo and the repulsive Wallace Shawn, even less attractive than Allen, shows up very briefly as Keaton's ex-husband. Back in the seventies, Allen's films were seen as sharp and sophisticated and altogether wonderful, dealing frankly with adult subject matter, or what passes for same, but many of them don't really hold up and are due for reevaluation. Manhattan does its best to avoid the real dramatic scenes, especially in the depiction of Yale's discarded wife. The ending to the film makes Isaac seem even yuckier.

Verdict: Allen has made some good movies, but this isn't one of them. This should have been called A Nerd's Fantasy Life. **.




MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY

Woody Allen
MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY (1993). Director: Woody Allen. Screenplay by Allen and Marshall Brickman.

Carol Lipton (Diane Keaton) is convinced that an older neighbor, Paul House (Jerry Adler), murdered his wife, who supposedly died of a heart attack. Carol's husband, Larry (Woody Allen), thinks she's nuts, but their divorced friend, Ted (Alan Alda of Same Time, Next Year), thinks she may be on to something. When Carol and Ted team up to track down House's possible girlfriend, Larry is afraid something may be developing between the two. A book editor, Larry convinces one of his authors, Marcia Fox (Anjelica Huston), to go on a date with Ted, but then Carol gets jealous when Marcia gets involved in solving the mystery ... Manhattan Murder Mystery is obviously a homage to those comedy-mystery films of the forties with the plucky heroine determined to get to the bottom of a case, and it's an entertaining, well-acted picture, even if Allen and Keaton aren't exactly William Powell and Myrna Loy. Leisurely-paced, and longer than some of his dramas, the movie keeps introducing enough perplexing elements to keep the viewer in suspense. I do wish the picture didn't ape the final sequence of the far superior The Lady from Shanghai, which is playing in a theater where the climax takes place. Carol and Larry make a likable couple with a basically warm relationship. Melanie Norris, Lynn Cohen, Marge Redmond, Joy Behar, and Ron Rifkin have smaller roles and are fine. The credit music is Cole Porter's marvelous "I Happen to Like New York," sung by Bobby Short.

Verdict: I liked this a lot more than the more "serious" Manhattan. ***.

MEET THE BARON

Edna May Oliver puts Ted Healy and his Stooges in line
MEET THE BARON (1933). Director: Walter Lang.

"I know I'm not good-looking, but what's my opinion against thousands of others." -- Jimmy Durante.

Two men (Jack Pearl, who is not given a name, and Jimmy Durante as "Joe McGoo") are lost in the jungles of Africa when they encounter Baron Munchausen (Henry Kolker of The Crash), who takes all of their water supply and abandons them. Jack and Joe are rescued, and the former is mistaken for the real Munchausen, and hailed as a hero. The two men are brought to Cuddle College where "Munchausen" is to lecture, and they meet the upstairs maid Zasu (Zasu Pitts of Let's Face It), janitor Ted Healy and his Stooges, and Dean Primrose (Edna May Oliver). All is well until the real Baron Munchausen shows up ... Jack Pearl had done his turn as the baron on the radio (and was still doing it on Jackie Gleason's show in the early sixties), but while he's a competent performer, he isn't that funny and his film career never amounted to much. It's easy to see why the Three Stooges (Moe Howard, Curly Howard, and Larry Fine) dumped the completely unimpressive Ted Healy, their nominal leader, and branched out on their own; nevertheless Healy did quite a few movies after Meet the Baron. Zasu Pitts is Zasu Pitts, but the film is stolen by an absolutely excellent comic performance by Edna May Oliver [Lydia], who can put those stooges in their places! A highlight is the MGM Girls doing the production number "Clean as a Whistle," not to mention the smashing final gag.

NOTE: It took me long enough to realize it, but I have been continuously misspelling Zasu Pitts name as Zazu with a "z" when it's Zasu with an "s," for shame! If only the damned lady hadn't appeared in so many movies reviewed on this blog! I have corrected some of the earlier reviews, but you'll probably still come across the misspelling now and then. Let's hope I get it right in the future, Zasu!

Verdict: Minor, but cute, comedy with enthusiastic players. **1/2.

WIVES UNDER SUSPICION

Warren William and Gail Patrick
WIVES UNDER SUSPICION (1938). Director: James Whale.

James Stowell (Warren William) is a tough district attorney who rarely sees any side but his own. Ambitious and dedicated, he generally neglects his lovely wife, Lucy (Gail Patrick), going so far as to cancel a vacation at the last minute so that he can prosecute Dr. MacAllen (Ralph Morgan), who has murdered his wife. Stowell is convinced that the murder was premeditated while MacAllen's attorney argues that it was a sudden crime of passion. Stowell is unconvinced, until he thinks that Lucy is carrying on with her handsome friend, Phil (William Lundigan) ... The performances are zesty enough to keep this rather creaky old melodrama entertaining, although the script is fairly obvious and generally superficial. Ralph Morgan [Sleep, My Love] has a great scene when he confesses to Stowell, and the pic benefits from two comic performances from Cecil Cunningham [Daughter of Shanghai] as Stowell's secretary, "Sharpy," and Lillian Yarbo [Presenting Lily Mars] as the maid Creola, although the character is handled in the usual racist fashion of the period. Constance Moore is Phil's girlfriend, Elizabeth, and Milburn Stone is Stowell's assistant. This is a remake of the 1933 A Kiss Before the Mirror, which was also directed by James Whale and is considered to be superior.

Verdict: William performs with his usual flair and the others are fine. **1/2.


A KISS FOR CORLISS

Tom Tully, Shirley Temple and Gloria Holden
A KISS FOR CORLISS (aka Almost a Bride/1949). Director: Richard Wallace.

In this sequel to Kiss and Tell, Corliss Archer (Shirley Temple) gets in more hot water when her father, Harry (Tom Tully), represents the wife of a much-married man in a divorce action. Kenneth Marquis (David Niven), the husband in the case, hates Harry Archer and begins playfully courting his daughter for spite. Meanwhile Corliss writes fake stories about her involvement with Kenneth in her diary in order to make boyfriend Dexter (Darryl Hickman) jealous, resulting in the engagement of Kenneth and Corliss hitting the papers and Harry having conniption fits!.A Kiss for Corliss has an amusing script, but the problem is in the casting. Temple is fine as Corliss, but I can think of a dozen actors who could do more with the part and be a lot funnier than Tully (who played the role of a neighbor in the earlier film). Gloria Holden as Corliss' mother is most famous for playing the lead in Dracula's Daughter, but again she's hardly a skilled comedienne. Niven's role is completely one-dimensional but he displays his customary charm. Hickman, also cast in another role in the earlier film, takes over from Jerome Courtland as Dexter, and Kathryn Card returns as the Archer housekeeper, as does Virginia Welles as Corliss' friend, Mildred Pringle -- all are fine. Oddly, Mildred got married to Corliss' brother in Kiss and Tell, but seems to be single -- with no husband or brother in sight -- in the sequel. Robert Ellis [Space Master X-7] is fun as the nasty little teen Raymond Pringle; later he played Dexter in the 1954 TV series Meet Corliss Archer. This was Shirley Temple's last film, retiring from movies at the ripe old age of 21.

Verdict: Goodbye Shirley! **1/2. .

Thursday, July 13, 2017

CAGNEY!

White Heat
CAGNEY! July 17th, 1899 - March 20th, 1986.

It would be all too easy to dismiss James Cagney as a mere personality who traded too much on his tough guy image and played the same role once too often. In truth, Cagney was a much more talented and versatile actor than he may have been given credit for. True, he was easy to impersonate, and was not exactly the kind of performer who could lose himself in a characterization that was too far from himself. But within his range he was often quite effective, and as adept at drama as he was at comedy. In his early years, he was always arguing with Warner Brothers for better and different scripts (although one senses he kind of liked the tough image, especially as he could probably have been knocked over with a feather by bigger guys, truth be told). On rare occasions he was totally miscast or gave a poor performance, overdoing the nasty shtick and masticating the scenery like a male Bette Davis, but more often he was simply outstanding [Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye; Man of a Thousand Faces]. The characters he played were often unpleasant, and that goes for the "good"guys as well as the bad, as he was a product of a time when manliness was summed up by the frequent use of  one's fists and insensitivity was the rule of the day. But he could also show his gentler side when it was warranted by the script, and he danced his way across many musicals [The West Point Story], which was appropriate, as in his later years he said he always considered himself a dancer first and actor second.

A few Cagney movies have already been reviewed on this blog, but we've got a fresh crop this week.:
Something to Sing About, Lady Killer, White Heat, Tribute to a Bad Man, These Wilder Years, The Strawberry Blonde, and A Lion Is In the Streets, plus a critique of a biography of the actor.


LADY KILLER

Cagney
LADY KILLER (1933). Director: Roy Del Ruth.

Fired from his job as usher, Dan Quigley (James Cagney) falls in with a gang of con artists who later take to robbing houses. Although Dan doesn't want anybody to get killed, the worst happens, and everyone takes it on the lam to California. There Dan becomes a movie extra, and then a star, until his old gang members show up to cause trouble. Lady Killer is another of those cheerfully amoral comedy-dramas with Cagney -- who is excellent -- playing another of his unpleasant if charismatic characters. The two ladies in his life are gang member Myra (Mae Clarke) and actress Lois (Margaret Lindsay of Dangerous); both women give very good performances, and Douglass.Dumbrille [A Life at Stake] is another cast stand-out as the leader of the gang. A repulsive scene has a bullying Cagney cornering a movie critic in a rest room and forcing him to literally eat his review. Cagney would probably have wanted it to be believed that Lady Killer is more or less his life story, but of course most of this is pure fiction, including the bit with the studio wanting to dump Quigley when news of his past leaks out (the studios tended to cover up for their assets). Dan doesn't turn on the gang because they're bad guys but because they threaten his livelihood, but the picture makes him out to be some kind of hero (not to mention he'd be in serious hot water even if he didn't kill anyone because he helped plan and execute the robberies). Still, this is fast, snappy and for the most part, fun, if morally questionable. One highlight is when the director insists Dan eat garlic before his love scene with poor Lois. Leslie Fenton is also in the cast. Clarke and Cagney were famously teamed in The Public Enemy two years earlier.

Verdict: Cagney is on top of his game even if the script is (literally) all over the lot. **1/2.


SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT

Cagney and Evelyn Daw
SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT (1937). Director: Victor Schertzinger.

"A Japanese who speaks better English than I do, with a weakness for wiener schnitzel. It's too much for me in my weakened condition." -- Terry. 

Terry Rooney (James Cagney) is a popular musical theater man who is tapped to go to Hollywood to make his first picture. Planning to send for his singing sweetheart, Rita (Evelyn Daw), he goes to the studio and meets publicity man Hank Meyers (William Frawley) and studio chief B. O. Regan (Gene Lockhart of A Scandal in Paris), as well as major star Stephanie Hajos (Mona Barrie of The Devil's Mask). After a blow out on the set, Terry walks out and marries Rita, only to discover his first film is a big hit and he's a big star himself. The only trouble is that his marriage must be kept secret ... Cagney is, as expected, swell in the picture, as are most of his supporting players, including Dwight Frye as a hairdresser and Philip Ahn, as his butler, Ito. There's an excellent scene when Ahn reveals that he speaks English perfectly (although in real life he was Korean-American and not Japanese). As for leading lady Daw, it's easy to see why she appeared in only one other movie. Despite a heavy chin, Daw was cute, and not unappealing in an amateurish way, but she has one of the the worst soprano voices I've ever heard -- shrill, nasal, and altogether awful (if not quite as bad as Florence Foster Jenkins). Director Schertzinger's discovery, she retired to get married not a moment too soon. Something to Sing About has some nice tunes, including the title number, Cagney does a lovely soft shoe routine with two professional dancers, and of course is given a chance to belt guys around to prove his "manhood." A shipboard sequence features an actual "cat fight" with two real cats boxing one another (!) and a sailor in drag is tossed over the railing!

Verdict: Frothy, mindless, and reasonably entertaining. **1/2.

THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE

James and Olivia
THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE (1941). Director: Raoul Walsh.

In old time New York, Biff Grimes (James Cagney) is a struggling dentist with a wife, Amy (Olivia de Havilland). He gets word that there's a man, Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson), who has such a severe toothache that he needs to come by on a Sunday and he can name his price. When Biff finds out who his patient is, his mind goes back to years ago. Most of the film consists of a a long flashback that explains why he has good reason to hate the man. Will Hugo get a lethal dose of laughing gas? The Strawberry Blonde is an odd comedy-drama with scenes of low comedy blended not so felicitously with more dramatic ones, and coming up short as a whole. The acting helps put it over: Cagney. playing yet another rather unsympathetic character, is full of his trademark bluster and charisma. De Havilland [Libel] is lovely and generally expert in her portrayal of the woman that Biff first despises. Scoring very big is Rita Hayworth [Salome] as Virginia, the woman Biff had originally wanted but who was stolen by Hugo; as a married couple who hate each other both Hayworth and Carson [The Groom Wore Spurs] are very effective, with the former giving a particularly adept performance (there's more to Hayworth than just sex appeal).Alan Hale, Una O'Connor, and George Reeves are also good as Biff's father, a neighbor lady, and a college boy that Biff has a quarrel with. A big problem with Blonde is that there are just too many really stupid moments, many of them consisting of scenes crafted to show off Cagney's aging tough guy image, including a ridiculous scene when he beats up several college boys at once -- sure! Since most of the film takes place some years in the past, Cagney at 42 is too old to be entirely convincing in the role as well. Still, the movie is fast-paced and unpredictable, and does have a few funny scenes, such as the Grimes and Barnsteads first encounter with spaghetti at the dinner table. The film's main strength is in how it gets across how relationships can turn out far differently than you expected, and in how one's heartbreak over another, initially devastating, often turns out to be the best thing that could have happened. This is a remake of One Sunday Afternoon, with Gary Cooper playing Biff. A musical version in 1948 cast Dennis Morgan as Biff! Raoul Walsh directed that version as well.

Verdict: A little too odd but certainly different. **1/2.

WHITE HEAT

Margaret Wycherly and James Cagney
WHITE HEAT (1949). Director: Raoul Walsh.

Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) is head of a gang that robs a train, a robbery in which four people are murdered. Hiding out with his cronies, as well as his devoted mother, Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) -- who is nearly as tough as he is --  and not-so-devoted wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo), Cody conceives of a plot to keep him from being sent to death row by copping to a comparatively minor robbery that he didn't commit. In stir for two years, Cody meets a fellow prisoner, Vic Pardo (Edmond O'Brien), who is actually undercover cop Hank Fallon, and learns from his beloved Ma that Verna has run off with Big Ed Somers (Steve Cochran), who wants to take over Cody's gang. Cody makes up his mind to get out and take care of Big Ed and everyone else ... White Heat is a slick, well-directed, and fast-paced crime thriller that features excellent performances across the board, with Cagney charismatically playing a mentally-deranged killer who suffers debilitating attacks from time to time (these sequences are handled very well by Cagney). Wycherly [Keeper of the Flame] manages to etch a highly effective portrait of Cody's mother without descending into caricature, and Mayo offers one of her best performances as the duplicitous if clever Verna; Cochran also makes an impression as her easily-discarded lover. There's also nice work from John Archer [No Man's Woman] as the head cop on the case, and Fred Clark [Back from Eternity] as one of Cody's confederates. Sid Hickox' cinematography is first-rate, and Max Steiner, whose genius wasn't limited to romantic pictures, offers a memorably tense and very exciting score for the picture. This has a classic ending with Cagney hollering "Top of the World, Ma!" at the top of a refinery.

Verdict: Brisk, tense, entertaining crime picture with a powerful Cagney performance. ***.