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

Thursday, March 30, 2017

VOICE IN THE MIRROR

Bar mates: Richard Egan and Arthur O'Connell
VOICE IN THE MIRROR (1958). Director: Harry Keller.

"We're all in the same boat, none of us more than one drink away from the gutter for the rest of our lives."

"I spilled more whiskey than you ever drank."

Commercial artist Jim Burton (Richard Egan) claims to have started drinking since the death of his little girl, but his doctor, Leon (Walter Matthau), reminds him that he was drinking before that and would probably have used any excuse. Jim's patient wife, Ellen (Julie London of The Helicopter Spies), is forced to put up with broken promises and wondering if and when he'll come home and what condition he'll be in. Now Leon tells him that his alcoholism may have created serious nerve damage. A fellow drunk named Harry (Harry Bartell) tells him that he thinks the solution to their problem may be through spiritualism, but Jim discovers that the secret may be to help other drunks --  alcoholics can help other alcoholics stay sober. Although set twenty years later, Voice in the Mirror basically appears to be the story of the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous (although the term is never used and there's not as much emphasis on religiosity; AA's famous slogan is used at the end, however.) In any case, the picture is absorbing and generally well-acted, with a moving conclusion. Egan and London are not exactly perfect casting for this film (stolid Egan never quite seems desperate enough for one thing), but both of them have their moments; oddly, London is better in her more emotional and difficult scenes than in her quieter ones. Harry Bartell and Doris Singleton, who plays Jim's sympathetic co-worker, have nice bits; both of them appeared several times on I Love Lucy. Arthur O'Connell nearly steals the picture as one of Jim's sad friends, and Matthau, in an unexpected role as the no-nonsense doctor, is also excellent. Ann Doran and Peggy Converse make their marks, respectively, as a landlady and the mother of a suicidal young drunk played by Troy Donahue. Eleanor Audley [Sleeping Beauty] is fine as a woman at a soup kitchen, and I believe that's Mae Clarke [Frankenstein] playing the first woman member of Jim's group. One of the best scenes depicts Jim's frightening nightmare in which he is caught in a train tunnel as a rushing train threatens to run him down.

Verdict: Imperfect but interesting and affecting drama. ***.

THE WEST POINT STORY

James Cagney
THE WEST POINT STORY (1950). Director: Roy Del Ruth.

Nearly washed-up Broadway director "Bix" Bixby (James Cagney) is importuned to help West Point put on its annual show -- which only uses male cadets. Producer Harry Eberhart (Roland Winters of The Sky Dragon) wants his old rival to talk Harry's nephew, Tom (Gordon MacRae), who is a wonderful singer, out of a career in the army, and he enlists the help of old friend and movie star Jan Wilson (Doris Day). Along for the ride is Bix's sort of girlfriend, Eve Dillon (Virginia Mayo), who keeps her old man on his toes. Cadets Hal (Gene Nelson) and Bull (Alan Hale Jr. of Home Town Story) make a contribution as well -- Hall with his fancy footwork, and Bull in drag as the show's "princess." There are all sorts of complications until the show comes off. The West Point Story starts out well, and for about half an hour it's fun and looks like it will stay that way, until they drag in an idiotic plot point wherein Bix has to become a cadet himself (and obey all of the academy's various rules and regulations) or be removed from directing the show. This might be fine for a Jerry Lewis movie but for this picture, it's disastrous. In general, however, the script is pretty bad and gets worse as it goes along. To Cagney's credit, he retains his dignity throughout, and actually gives a marvelous and amusing performance. Mayo, Nelson and MacRae are fine, as is Doris Day, although she seems to have a zillion too-big teeth in her mouth and, as usual, is virtually devoid of sex appeal. Roland Winters is a lot of fun as Bix' not-so-friendly enemy. Aside from "Military Polka" the Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn songs are pretty awful. Oddly MacRae seems to be aping Bing Crosby in a couple of numbers, even though he has a very different voice from Der Bingle's. The dance that Mayo and Cagney do together to "B'klyn" (another lousy tune) is one of the film's few highlights. We can only imagine what West Point officials thought of this movie! Cagney and Day made a better team in the superior Love Me or Leave Me.

Verdict: It's basically all Cagney's show, and while he's excellent he can't do enough to save it. **1/2.

AS TIME GOES BY : THE LIFE OF INGRID BERGMAN

AS TIME GOES BY: THE LIFE OF INGRID BERGMAN. Laurence Leamer. Harper and Row; 1986.

"Ingrid had learned to use people without appearing to use them."

"In my whole life I never had a woman so much in love with me as Ingrid was. The day after the picture ended, I couldn't get her on the phone." -- Gary Cooper

Ingrid Bergman was a mother (to four children) and a wife (with three different husbands) but her chief role was as movie star. She lived primarily if not exclusively for her work, and everything was subordinate to it. Her talent was indisputable, however, which perhaps made her feelings more acceptable. With a passionate and somewhat neurotic temperament, she often made bad choices. Her decisions in later years to make changes to some of the scripts she signed up for were not always wise. Bolstered with many interviews, this bio examines Bergman's early years in Sweden and in Hollywood, her romantic involvements (many of which she did not mention in her memoirs), and her difficult relationships with her children and husbands over the decades. As Time Goes By is a balanced portrait of the great movie star  -- the book is neither nasty nor full of sycophantic fawning -- analyzing her many film roles and detailing both her strengths and weaknesses as an actress, especially when she attempted parts she was not really suited for; Leamer gives the actress her due, but he does not love every movie nor does he think Bergman can do no wrong as an artist. This is an absorbing, well-written bio.

Verdict: Highly readable and interesting look at the life and career of Ingrid Bergman. ***1/2.

THE DEADLY GAME (1954)

Maureen Swanson and Lloyd Bridges
THE DEADLY GAME (aka The Big Deady Game/1954). Director: Daniel Birt.

Composer Philip Graham (Lloyd Bridges of Deadly Dream) is in Spain where he encounters an old Air Force buddy Tony Roscoe (Peter Dyneley of The Manster), who wants him to deliver a certain envelope to someone in London. Philip also meets Marina (Maureen Swanson), the pretty niece of the corpulent Mr. Darius (Finlay Currie). When Philip discovers that Tony has been murdered, he first suspects the very married Mitzi (Simone Silva), who claims that Tony was blackmailing her. Before too long Philip finds himself embroiled in a plot involving smuggled microfilm. The Deadly Game is almost a complete waste of an hour and is like a forgettable episode of a forgettable TV series. Bridges saunters through displaying seedy charm, Swanson is pretty and appealing, Silva adds some limited spice, Currie is fat, the movie is dull, dull, dull. Hard to imagine why anyone thought it would be a good idea to film this lousy script. This is a Hammer noir "thriller" that has absolutely no thrills. Maureen Swanson has a vague Vivien Leigh quality but did not have the same type of career. Lots of stock footage of a fiesta in Spain.

Verdict: The pace is reasonably swift but that's about it. *.


CRAB MONSTERS, TEENAGE CAVEMEN, AND CANDY STRIPE NURSES -- ROGER CORMAN: KING OF THE B MOVIE

CRAB MONSTERS, TEENAGE CAVEMEN, AND CANDY STRIPE NURSES -- ROGER CORMAN: KING OF THE B MOVIE Chris Nashawaty. Abrams; 2013.

This is a huge, heavily illustrated coffee table book that tells all you could possibly want to know about Roger Corman, his production methods, his character, the people he worked with and who got his start from him, and so on. There isn't much film criticism in the book, however, and there is little astute judgment of the Corman product or what made him effective as a director. A number of snappy, well-directed Corman films aren't even covered. Instead of a straight text biography, Crab Monsters is comprised primarily of chapter introductions that provide an overview, and quotes from those who know and have worked with the famous producer/director. Corman was willing to exploit everyone and everything to make a buck and stay in business, and he reinvented himself more than once. Corman first made adroit little movies like Attack of the Crab Monsters and It Conquered the World, then graduated to the impressive color spectacles of the excellent Pit and the Pendulum and Masque of the Red Death, He made a film entitled The Intruder that was close to his heart but didn't make a dime, and didn't direct a picture for twenty years after his disappointment with Von Richthofen and Brown. His last directorial effort, Frankenstein Unbound, was a disappointment to everyone. Along the way he produced dozens of pictures, capitalized on the biker trend, the LSD trend, the women-in-prison trend, and the sexy nurse trend, among others. After starting more than one film production company, and making mostly direct-to-video features, Corman started working with the Syfy channel, churning out dozens of silly, repetitive monster movies. As a director/producer, Corman's legacy is limited to a comparatively small amount of pictures, with much of his output (especially as producer) consisting of -- let's face it -- pretty forgettable movies, but he did give a lot of people a start in the business. Corman has hired more women than anyone else, though it's uncertain if it's because he's a male feminist or because he can get the gals more cheaply, or just recognizes talent when he sees it. Lavishly illustrated, the book is great to look at, and there are a lot of interesting quotes from a variety of individuals. Unfortunately, some information is repeated a little too much, first in the overview, then in the captions, then in the interviews, but all in all this is a praiseworthy show. Corman received a special Oscar for his body of work and his contributions to the industry. He was a talented director and it's too bad that he didn't concentrate on that more in his later years.

Verdict: Corman devotees will love this! ***.

VALLEY OF HEADHUNTERS

VALLEY OF HEADHUNTERS (1953). Director: William Berke.

"The jungle has boiled over into one of the ugliest messes I've ever seen." -- Lt. Barry.

Jungle Jim (Johnny Weissmuller) attends the trial of nasty native M'Gono (Vince Townsend Jr.), but the latter gets off due to the skills of his lawyer, Arco (Robert Foulk). Arco has come up with a plan to turn the peaceful River Valley back into the "valley of the headhunters" by hiring men to raid villages and pretend to be headhunters. This way, Arco figures he will be free to get at the oil reserves in the valley. He also has women kidnapped to serve as slaves. Naturally, with the aid of Lt. Barry (Steven Ritch of The Werewolf) and Ellen Shaw (Christine Larsen), as well as some friendly natives, Jungle Jim will rout Arco and his evil henchmen. Lots of smooching goes on in this movie between the lieutenant and Ellen, but poor Jungle Jim gets no lovin' at all, except maybe from Tamba, who in one funny sequence gets drunk on ether. Fair to middling Jungle Jim.

Verdict: Well, there's always Tamba. **.

ARRIVAL

Shout out Louise: Amy Adams
ARRIVAL (2016). Director: Dennis Villeneuve.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, is called in when aliens arrive on earth in twelve different countries, in big black "spaceships" that resemble eggs cut in half. The aliens are "heptapods" with seven legs or tentacles who communicate with pictures they can create seemingly out of thin air. While the nations of the world worry about the extra-terrestrials' intentions. Louise and others (including the audience)  try to figure out what, if anything, they're saying. Part of the problem with Arrival  -- and there are many -- is that the aliens' concept of time is non-linear, and it turns out this is true of the movie itself, where things that you think are happening in the past will actually happen in the future. Or something like that. I appreciate the fact that Arrival is different from most other sci fi alien movies in that it is low-key (albeit creepy at times) and is at least making an attempt to be something a little more thoughtful, but it really isn't any more profound than, say, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Lots of things conspire to make some viewers think they're seeing a great movie: a back (or future) story about Louise's cute daughter (hence "arrival" also refers to the child's birth -- deep, huh?); excellent cinematography by Bradford Young; and those achingly plaintive violins contributed by composer Johann Johannsson, whose music actually does most of the work. Then there's the fact that some people will think the movie must be profound because they have absolutely no idea of what's actually going on. The irritating Amy Adams delivers all of her lines in a virtual whisper, and Jeremy Renner makes little impression as another scientist and someone who may or may not play a part in Louise's future -- or past. A business with a bomb on the alien ship and its non-existent aftermath is handled in so abrupt and perfunctory a manner that it's almost laughable.

Verdict: At first this is intriguing -- until you realize it's much ado about nothing. **.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

LILLIAN RUSSELL

Alice Faye as Lillian Russell
LILLIAN RUSSELL (1940). Director: Irving Cummings.

A young lady with singing talent reinvents herself as "Lillian Russell" to hide the fact that she's on the stage from her mother (Dorothy Peterson), but mama always knows. Like her mother, Lillian is an early feminist as well as a major theatrical performer with thousands of fans and a host of suitors, including Diamond Jim Brady (Edward Arnold) and "J. L." (Warren William of Dr. Monica), but she marries composer Edward Solomon (Don Ameche). Their marriage ends in tragedy, but waiting in the wings is reporter turned newspaper publisher Alexander Moore (Henry Fonda). Russell was actually married four times, and Solomon didn't die as in the movie, but turned out to be a (perhaps inadvertent) bigamist. As Faye herself noted, in this handsomely-produced (but oddly, black and white) movie, nobody ever ages no matter how many decades go by. Although Faye's singing voice could best be described as "pleasant" (and a little too deep at times), she gives a very good performance as Russell, wisely underplaying many of her more emotional scenes. Arnold is excellent in his portrait of the happy go lucky but broken-hearted Brady, and there are good turns from Ameche and William; Helen Westley [Million Dollar Baby] as Grandma Leonard; Joseph Cawthorn as vocal coach Leopold Damrosch; Ernest Truex as Lillian's father (who in real life was actually separated from his wife); and Nigel Bruce as William Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame). Aside from the many musical highlights, there is grandma's recounting of a romantic story involving a mystery gift she once received, and a well-played scene between Arnold and William talking about their feelings toward Lillian. Henry Fonda [The Long Night], who usually leaves me cold, is quite good in this, although this was not an assignment he coveted. Old-time vaudevillians Joe Weber and Lew Fields, playing themselves, almost stop the movie dead with their long comedy routine, but as they happen to be very funny it doesn't matter. Eddie Foy Jr. plays his dad in a brief bit.

Verdict: Despite some inaccuracies, this is a highly entertaining and well-acted biopic. ***1/2.

THREE SAILORS AND A GIRL

Gene Nelson, Jane Powell, Gordon MacRae
THREE SAILORS AND A GIRL (1953). Director: Roy Del Ruth.

"Are you certain Judy Garland started like this/"

When some submarine sailors on leave, including Twitch (Gene Nelson of So This is Paris) and Porky (Jack E. Leonard of The Fat Spy), want to spend their back pay on girls and booze, the more sensible "Choirboy" (Gordon MacRae) importunes them to invest the money instead. His original intention is Wall Street, but due to the intervention of producer Joe Woods (Sam Levene) and Broadway hopeful Penny Weston (Jane Powell), they wind up putting $50,000 in a hopeless show. But will the combined talents of George Abbot, Moss Hart, and Ira Gershwin (none of whom play themselves), not to mention the U. S. Marines, turn this turkey into a hit? Three Sailors and a Girl suffers from the same problem as the show-within-a-show, U.S.S. Texas, in that it has serious book problems. Not only is the script a mass of cliches, but the characters are paper-thin stereotypes. Fortunately, there's some pleasure in the movie, including a few funny lines, the beautiful voices of both MacRae and Powell, and the snappy dancing of Gene Nelson (his fancy footwork in a garage is one of the film's highlights). The songs were contributed by two Sammy's: Cahn  and Fain, and the songs are at the very least pleasant and one or two are memorable: "The First Time That We Kissed;" "There Must Be a Reason." Jack E. Leonard, who was introduced in this picture, seems to be channeling Lou Costello at times, but has an amiable, portly presence. Small roles are enacted by Merv Griffin, Paul Burke, Jack Larson, and Burt Lancaster, who plays a show biz hopeful who is rejected because he looks too much like Burt Lancaster. Archer MacDonald is quirky as librettist Melvin Webster, and Veda Ann Borg [Jungle Raiders] is vivid as Woods' girlfriend. By now Sam Levene could have played this fast-talking role in his sleep but he's very good. George Givot is fun as the ham opera star Emilio Rossi, possibly an affectionate parody of Ezio Pinza.  Jack E. Leonard eventually developed a more brash personality and was more of a stand-up
comic than actor.

NOTE: This is not to be confused with Three Girls and a Sailor; Three Girls and a Gob; Three Gobs and a Girl; A Girl, A Guy, and a Gob; Three Sailors Go to Paris with a Gal; Three Sailors Go to Paris with a Guy; Three Gay Sailors, a Guy, and a Gob; or numerous others.

Verdict: More "technicolor twaddle," but some fun. **.

GASLIGHT (1940)

The worm turns: Diana Wynyard and Anton Walbrook
GASLIGHT (aka The Murder in Thornton Square and Angel Street/1940). Director: Thorold Dickinson.

Paul Mallon (Anton Walbrook) and his wife Bella (Diana Wynyard) move into a house in Thornton Square where a woman was murdered years before. The unpleasant Paul treats Bella with utter condescension, and consistently intimates that she is losing her memory and her mind. Meanwhile, a policeman thinks that Mallon looks familiar to him and starts to investigate, but will he be too late to do Mrs. Mellon any good? This first adaptation of Patrick Hamilton's stage play "Angel Street" is comparatively mediocre compared to the far superior Hollywood remake with Ingrid Bergman. In fact, I can't understand why some people think this version is better. Walbrook with his sudden guttural laugh is quite good, but Wynyard, who overplays too much, can't hold a candle to the Oscar-winning Bergman. In this version, the murdered woman is related to Paul, not his wife, The strangulation of the old woman is depicted at the opening, but not in the remake. George Cukor's version puts the focus squarely on the husband and wife (and adds a younger, more attractive detective), whereas this version has more scenes of Paul and the maid, Nancy (Cathleen Cordell), including an unnecessary music hall sequence. A scene at a piano concert is handled with much more aplomb in the Bergman version, but in general everything is done better in the much more suspenseful remake.

Verdict: Not without some merit, but pretty much eclipsed by the Hollywood remake. **1/2.




GASLIGHT (1944)

Boyer and Bergman
GASLIGHT (1944). Director: George Cukor.

Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) lived in a house in London with her aunt, a famous opera singer who was strangled to death. Years later she comes back to that house with her new husband, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). The autocratic Anton berates Paula for her bad memory and for losing things and inexplicably taking pictures from the wall and hiding them. Is Paula going crazy or is there something more sinister going on? Gaslight doesn't make any attempt to disguise the identity of the bad guy in this, but the film is suspenseful in spite of it. Bergman won her well-deserved first Oscar for her portrayal of the confused Paula, and Boyer is equally expert and fascinating. In her first film role, Angela Lansbury [A Life at Stake] scores as the saucy, borderline rude maid, Nancy, and Dame May Whitty is charming as the nosy old biddy, Miss Thwaites. Joseph Cotten offers another effective portrait as a policeman who once met Paula's aunt and is struck by the resemblance; against orders, he takes a new interest in the case. Barbara Everest is also notable as the cook, Elizabeth. The best scene in the film is when Paula nearly has a nervous breakdown at a piano concert. Although Cukor was not a suspense specialist along the lines of Hitchcock, he still manages to craft a nifty thriller, as he did with A Woman's Face. Bergman and Boyer re-teamed for much less felicitous results in Arch of Triumph, as the chemistry just wasn't right for those particular characterizations. At one point Paula shows her husband a glove worn by her aunt and signed by no less than Charles Gounod, in whose Romeo and Juliet she had performed -- what a memento! This is far superior to the 1940 British version of the story.

Verdict: A mesmerizing performance by a resplendent Bergman and fine support from Boyer, Cotten, and Lansbury.  ***1/2. 

FANTASTIC PLANETS, FORBIDDEN ZONES AND LOST CONTINENTS: The 100 Greatest Science Fiction Films

FANTASTIC PLANETS, FORBIDDEN ZONES, AND LOST CONTINENTS: The 100 Greatest Science Fiction Films. Douglas Brode. University of Texas Press; 2015.

Author Brode looks at 100 of the most influential, popular, and well-made science fiction films. There are chapters on such films as The Invisible Man, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The War of the Worlds, Village of the Damned, Seconds, Alien, Star Wars, Fantastic Voyage, Jurassic Park, and many others. This is more a book of reportage than of film criticism.as Brode's approach is to divide each essay, pop culture-style, into bold-faced sections: Background, Film, Plot, Theme, Trivia and Most Memorable Line. There is little analysis of the film's themselves. In addition to genuine classics, Brode seems to have a weakness for some of the more pretentious titles covered but he does come up with some interesting factoids on many movies. Heavily illustrated.

Verdict: Okay introduction to some memorable and not so memorable science fiction films.***.

THE BLACK GLOVE

Alex Nicol
THE BLACK GLOVE (aka Face the Music/1954). Director: Terence Fisher.

"Happy days! Everyone was poor and no one was evil."

James Bradley (Alex Nicol of Heatwave) is a famous American trumpeter appearing in London. One night he meets a charming young lady named Maxine (Ann Hanslip) who invites him to her apartment for dinner. The next day he learns that the woman has been murdered, and he determines to find out who killed this stranger who struck such a chord in him. The suspects are many: the victim's sister,. Barbara (Eleanor Summerfield), who lost her man to Maxine; Maxine's fiancee, Johnny Sutherland (Paul Carpenter of The Unholy Four); the famous pianist Jeff Colt (Arthur Lane); and his wife Gloria (Paula Byrne). Frankly, the whole business with "Brad" playing detective is ridiculous, even if the inspector on the case implies that he was letting him have a free hand for his own purposes. We even have the bit where this amateur sleuth gathers all the suspects together to make an accusation. The acting is uniformly good, although Nicol is given a rather impossible and somewhat unsympathetic character to play. This Hammer production is like a TV show.

Verdict: Good cast but unmemorable in all other respects. **.

PHOENIX

Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld
PHOENIX (2014). Director: Christian Petzold.

Nelly (Nina Hoss), a concentration camp survivor whose face has been reconstructed, returns to Germany and is helped by her dear friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf). Nelly wants to find her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), but Lene warns her that he betrayed her to the Nazis. Nelly can't believe this, but when she re-encounters Johnny, he doesn't recognize her and in fact wants her to pretend to be herself so he can lay claim to her money. Loving not wisely but well, Nelly goes along with the "deception," but she may not be able to deal with the bitter truth. Phoenix may seem to borrow a plot point from Anastasia or Return from the Ashes, which is not surprising in the latter case since Phoenix and Return were both based on the novel Le Retour des cendres. The story is treated quite differently in each film, however. Return from the Ashes is basically a suspense film, whereas Phoenix, although it has some suspense in its understated way, is more of a drama. Phoenix also examines the feelings of Jews and other Germans in the post WW2 period, and is quite moody and low-key. This approach may not work for everyone, but it is quietly powerful nevertheless. Another change is that there are hints that the character of Lene may be a lesbian who is in love with Nelly, making certain late developments in the picture even more tragic. The film is very well acted by the entire cast. One might wish, however, that despite the numbness felt by the main character, there was a little more emotion in the picture and perhaps a more dramatic windup..

Verdict: Flawed but absorbing. ***


Thursday, March 16, 2017

PSYCHE 59

Dysfunctional marriage: Curt Jurgens and Patricia Neal
PSYCHE 59 (1964). Director: Alexander Singer.

"Someone has to stop loving somewhere along the line -- otherwise it's like committing suicide." -- Alison

"All the men I knew have either gotten married or gone queer -- what's going on in this country?" -- Robin

Alison Crawford (Patricia Neal) has been psychosomatically blind since a traumatic incident which she doesn't recall. Considering that the audience is clued in almost from the first that something went on between Alison's husband, Eric (Curt Jurgens) -- a real pig -- and her younger sister, Robin (Samantha Eggar), it doesn't take much to figure out what Alison saw. So much for suspense over the final revelation. Robin has recently broken up with her husband, so she comes to stay with Alison and Eric, something the latter isn't thrilled by -- or is he? Then there's Eric's friend, Paul (Ian Bannen of From Beyond the Grave), who is in love with Robin, and her strange mother-in-law, Mrs. Crawford (Beatrix Lehmann). If this all sounds interesting, be warned that it isn't. Despite the hysterical blindness, the infidelity and betrayal, and god knows what else, the film is actually quite boring until the last couple of minutes -- too little, too late. The acting is good but the characters are so one-dimensional that not even the performances can bring the people fully to life. Maybe Tennessee Williams could have done something with these dysfunctional individuals, or perhaps the producers should have turned it into a wild horror movie with someone -- Pat Neal, maybe? -- wielding an ax on hubby. But despite some interesting elements, this just never jells or amounts to anything but a waste of ninety minutes. It's a shame, because Neal [Diplomatic Courier] is especially fine in this, expertly delineating her character's blindness. While his character is not at all likable, Jurgens' portrayal of the husband, a virile but perhaps frightened man on the cusp of fifty, might have been made somewhat sympathetic, but the part is too under-written for that. Walter Lassally's cinematography is excellent, and there's some nice music by Kenneth V. Jones. Alexander Singer also directed A Cold Wind in August. He simply fails to imbue this film with enough dramatic tension.

Verdict: . **.

HOLLYWOOD CAVALCADE

Alice Faye and Alan Curtis
HOLLYWOOD CAVALCADE (1939). Director: Irving Cummings.

Michael Connors (Don Ameche) a brash wannabee director, talks new Broadway actress Molly Adair (Alice Faye) into going to Hollywood with him to have careers in silent pictures. They manage to become very successful with movie after movie. Michael thinks of himself and Molly as an unbreakable team, but the lack of romance in their lives causes Molly to do the quite sensible thing and marry her handsome co-star, Nicky Hayden (Alan Curtis of Good Girls Go to Paris). This starts Michael on a downward spiral, and eventually a tragedy results. Hollywood Cavalcade is a colorful look at the silent movie era with an attempt at a dramatic underpinning that doesn't quite come off. Alan Curtis' character is so under-developed (and comparatively unmourned) that he hardly exists, and Michael is too unlikable to be sympathetic, despite the obvious heartbreak he's undergoing. The performances are fine, with Faye [King of Burlesque] beautifully underplaying her very emotional sequences; Ameche [Guest Wife] is good if a bit less effective. Donald Meek is wonderful as a producer, and there are guest appearances by Buster Keaton. Rin Tin Tin Jr., and Al Jolson, who recreates a scene from The Jazz Singer. The other recreations of silent movies are all well done and mostly quite funny. Irving Bacon and Robert Lowery have small but well-played parts. The movie is said to be loosely inspired by the lives of Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett, who briefly appears as himself in the film.

Verdict: Glorious technicolor can't quite disguise the pic's deficits, but the film is entertaining. **1/2.

POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE

Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine
POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (1990). Director: Mike Nichols.

Sent into rehab after a nearly fatal overdose, actress Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) is told that the insurance company will only allow her to make her next picture if she moves in her with mother, star Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine), who is an alcoholic! Suzanne and her mother have a loving but difficult relationship with the latter wanting success for her daughter despite the occasional bout of jealousy, and the former bridling against her mother's perpetual, well-meaning "advice.".Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Carrie Fisher, the daughter of Debbie Reynolds, this is obviously about the two actresses, although it could just as easily be about the real Shirley MacLaine and her daughter, Sachi Parker (not to suggest that Parker was ever in rehab).The two leading ladies are both excellent, perhaps making their characters more sympathetic than they might have been in real life, Dennis Quaid is notable as a man who (seemingly) gets involved with Suzanne, and there's a nice bit from Annette Bening as another of his girlfriends. It's delightful to see Mary Wickes as the grandmother, whose relationship with Doris is as problematic as Doris' with Suzanne. Michael Ontkean [Making Love] is seen all too briefly as Suzanne's co-star in the cop thriller she's making. Rob Reiner, Gene Hackman [The Firm], and Richard Dreyfuss [Piranha] are all effective in important character parts. The musical highlights of this very entertaining movie include MacLaine nailing "I'm Still Here" from Follies, and Streep doing a snappy rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel" for the finale.

Verdict: Mothers and daughters, neurotic Hollywood-style. ***.

ALICE FAYE: A LIFE BEYOND THE SILVER SCREEN

ALICE FAYE: A LIFE BEYOND THE SILVER SCREEN. Jane Lenz Elder. University Press of Mississippi; 2002.

Alice Faye is one of the few movie stars who walked away from it all when she was still at the top of her game. Faye appeared in several musicals, became a queen of Hollywood, then longed for more of a private life and a successful marriage, and also itched for a chance to show off her acting chops in more serious pictures instead of the "technicolor twaddle" (as Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti" would put it) she was usually offered. Fay gave a very good performance in her last picture under the studio system, Fallen Angel, although author Elder writes that most of Faye's best scenes were left on the cutting room floor and Linda Darnell got most of the screen time. (I have a much higher opinion of Preminger's picture than others do.) Furious and disheartened, Faye left the studio and did a radio sitcom with comedian husband Phil Harris [The High and the Mighty] instead, making a brief "comeback" in the second musical version of State Fair (the conditions of the filming as described herein are reflected in Faye's face in the movie) and then a cameo in Won Ton Ton, as well as a stint on Broadway. Faye's first marriage was to handsome crooner Tony Martin [Music in My Heart], but the fact that they never had much time to spend together, the disparity in their success levels, and Martin's "causal romances" caused Faye to divorce him. Although Harris was also alleged to be a ladies man, he was rather homely compared to Martin; perhaps Faye felt he would be less likely to stray. In any case, their marriage lasted for decades. Still, Faye's career we not free from scandal, such as the early rumors of an affair with her mentor Rudy Vallee [The Palm Beach Story] that dogged her for quite some time. Faye appeared in such snappy musicals as King of Burlesque and On the AvenueAlice Faye: A Life Beyond the Silver Screen is an excellent biography that sets the scene for each period in just enough detail, describes the supporting players in Faye's life without going on too much about them, and is very well-written and researched.

Verdict: A fine job. ***1/2.

THE UPTURNED GLASS

James Mason
THE UPTURNED GLASS (1947). Director: Lawrence Huntington.

Michael Joyce (James Mason) lectures to his class on the case of a murderer who was, he claims, perfectly sane and rational despite his homicidal actions, but it's no surprise that he's talking about himself -- only the murder has yet to occur. Joyce is in a loveless marriage when he meets Emma Wright (Rosamund John), whose daughter, Ann (Ann Stephens), requires an operation. Emma is married as well, but the two are drawn to one another. When a death occurs, Michael blames Kate Howard (Pamela Mason), Emma's hateful sister-in-law. Will Michael enact his scheme to do away with her? Few people have heard of The Upturned Glass despite Mason's starring role, and the reason is because it isn't very good. What might have worked for a half hour episode of, say, Suspense, doesn't work stretched out to full length, and the picture is padded with the character of a loathsome Dr. Farrell (Brefni O'Rorke) who is the very antithesis of the Hippocratic oath. At least the acting is good, with Mason [Caught] as excellent as ever, and the ladies and O'Rorke giving quite good performances. Billed as "Pamela Kellino," Pamela Mason was married to James Mason at the time. She later wound up in The Navy vs. the Night Monsters. One critic suggested that the forgettable Upturned Glass must have influenced Hitchcock's Vertigo because a woman with a fear of heights falls out of a window -- it's unlikely Hitch ever saw the film! Mason also co-produced the picture. Huntington also directed The Vulture, his final feature.

Verdict: Minor British suspense film distinguished by Mason's fine lead performance. **.

BEHIND LOCKED DOORS

Portrait of evil: Douglas Fowley
BEHIND LOCKED DOORS (1948). Director: Budd Boetticher.

Reporter Kathy Lawrence (Lucille Bremer) importunes new private eye Ross Stewart (Richard Carlson) to work with her to find a missing corrupt judge whose capture will net them $5000 a piece. The only problem is that Ross will have to get himself committed to the La Siesta sanitarium where Kathy is sure the judge is hiding. Once inside the institution, Ross discovers there's more corruption and danger than  he ever anticipated. Carlson is fine as the flip, overly insouciant private eye who discovers some situations are more serious than others, and Bremer [Till the Clouds Roll By] is okay, but the most striking performance is from Douglas Fowley [He's a Cockeyed Wonder] as the sadistic and utterly evil attendant, Larson. Thomas Browne Henry is fine as the head of the institution and there's nice work from Ralf Harolde [Night Nurse] as Dobbs, another, nicer attendant. A fully grown Dicke Moore plays a young patient who is actually Dobbs' son. John Holland plays a state psychiatrist, Kathleen Freeman has a bit as a nurse, and Tor Johnson plays another inmate who tries to box Carlson to bits in the film's liveliest sequence. I don't know if Behind Locked Doors was the first film to use the premise of a sane man feigning mental illness to get inside an institution for some purpose, but in the early sixties two movies followed suit. In Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor a reporter hopes to win a Pulitzer and Shock Treatment presents a guy whose intention is to get information about some missing moolah. This movie is barely an hour long.

Verdict: Snappy B thriller with a highly sinister Fowley. ***.

KILLER APE

KILLER APE (1953). Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet.

"Fish that climb trees?"

Jungle Jim (Johnny Weissmuller) and the natives have noticed that the crocodiles in the region have become strangely lethargic. Could it have something to do with experiments in secret caverns to create a drug that will enslave mankind? Evil scientists and nice natives alike are menaced by a hulking man-ape (Max Palmer) who lives in the area and keeps trying to carry off the feisty native girl, Shari (Carol Thurston), who at first has an antagonistic relationship with Jungle Jim. This film is fairly lively, and director Bennet keeps things moving. Others in the cast include Michael Fox as a medical officer, Nestor Paiva [Mr. Reckless] as the head bad guy, and Ray Corrigan [Undersea Kingdom], who for once is not playing a gorilla (after his start as a serial lead). By this time the chimp Tamba had taken over the Jungle Jim series in much the same way that Cheetah took over Weissmuller's Tarzan series. Tamba's antics are very funny, and at one point she leads a charge of dozens of maddened monkeys! At the end the chimp drives off in a car! Carol Thurston gives a good performance as Shari; she played Weissmuller's girlfriend in Swamp Fire.

Verdict: You can't beat those Man-apes! **1/2.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

CRAWFORD!

Crawford, of course
The "Essential" Biography: Quirk; Schoell
JOAN! (and I don't mean Joan Collins)

This week on the FX network begins a new series on the supposed life-long "feud" between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, which has been greatly exaggerated, to say the least. The two women were not good friends, did not especially like each other, but a "feud" is over-stating things. Crawford was not crazy about the fact that Davis got nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? while she didn't; and Davis was not at all thrilled when she lost said Oscar to an absent Anne Bancroft, and as arranged,  Crawford accepted the statuette for her. So there was Crawford getting the (second-hand) applause from the crowd while Davis could only watch in disappointment. Joan was always annoyed that Davis considered herself the better, more serious actress while Davis, who fancied herself more down-to-earth than Joan, disliked what she saw as Joan's diva-like ways. In truth, both women were major movie stars who were more alike than they were different. The two women were to be re-teamed on Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, but Joan discovered she had no great desire to work with a grumpy, unpleasant Davis anymore (it was she who had come to Davis with the book "Baby Jane?") and she feigned sickness to get out of the assignment; Olivia De Havilland replaced her.

Cut out of her will because Joan felt she had supported her daughter long enough, and angry that Joan couldn't help the modestly talented young lady get anywhere in her career, Christina Crawford decided to get even and make money by writing "Mommie, Dearest," which even her siblings found "fake and fictional." Ever since that time Crawford has been turned into a joke, with every single thing she's said or done being re-interpreted as proof that she was some kind of monster. She has been subjected to perpetual sniggering by those who believed every single word of Christina's tome .Much has been made of Crawford's "phoniness," such as her being "sick" on Oscar night when she was nominated (and won) for Mildred Pierce, In one interview, co-star Ann Blyth intelligently explained Joan's reasons for this, but the persistent interviewer kept trying to make something more out of it, Sheesh -- is anyone really that surprised that old-time movie stars (or even current ones) can be "phonies" at times?!

All movie stars are difficult to deal with, and Crawford may have had imperfections as both mother and woman, but both the one-sided book and the film adaptation make her out to be utterly grotesque. It's almost become impossible to look at her life or career in an objective manner. I and my co-author Lawrence J. Quirk, who knew Joan well for years, attempted to redress that wrong in our book, Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography. The book doesn't necessarily whitewash Joan, but it does expose a lot of the crap that has been written and said about her, and provides a more objective look at her life and career. The book was published by the University Press of Kentucky in 2002 and is available in various editions, including kindle, on amazon and elsewhere.

Here's a review of the book from Library Journal.

"She wasn't the greatest actress of the silver screen, but was there ever a bigger star than Joan Crawford? Who else had made ten films with Gable, danced with Fred Astaire, won an Academy Award for best actress (in 1945, for Mildred Pierce), outlasted her contemporary Greta Garbo by nearly three decades ... ? And just as she was fading from memory, she got a new lease on notoriety with the publication of adopted daughter Christina's Mommie Dearest. In a dual preface, Quirk (The Films of Joan Crawford), a personal friend of the actress, rejects much of that highly unflattering account, while Schoell (Martini Man: The Life of Dean Martin) debunks it entirely. Their study is a thoroughgoing, evenhanded review of Crawford's life and work, which in tone is neither academic nor gossipy but rather confessional, as if they are eager to set the record straight. It should go a long way toward restoring Crawford's reputation as a hardworking professional who lived for her fans and managed to slap almost every leading man who ever played opposite her. In Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson's character famously observed, "I'm still big; it's the pictures that got small." Perhaps the same could be said of Crawford. Recommended for all film collections in public and academic libraries".Edward Cone, New York.

So, this week GREAT OLD MOVIES looks at the television work of Joan Crawford: telefilms, dramatic series, anthologies, and westerns. We also take another look at the film version of Mommie, Dearest. And to round it out, a critique of the television remake of Baby Jane with Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave!

*Ann Blyth was interviewed in 2006 at a San Francisco showing of Mildred Pierce and was asked questions by the happily gesticulating host, who kept referring to "this crowd" and indulged in some Joan-bashing (saying she was the last person he would want to have dinner with but that Ann and Eve Arden would top the list). Try as he might to get Blythe to say something bad about Joan, she wouldn't do it, probably because she had no nasty stories to tell.

JOAN ON GE THEATER

"Because I Love Him:" Crawford
JOAN CRAWFORD ON G.E. THEATER.

General Electric Theater was hosted by future president Ronald Reagan. Joan Crawford appeared in three episodes of the dramatic series, which ran for nine seasons:

Joan's first appearance on GET was in 1954 in a story entitled "The Road to Edinburgh." In this she plays Mary, a determined newspaper columnist driving from London to Edinburgh who meets a stranger named Wickers (John Sutton of The Invisible Man Returns) when he comes out of nowhere to fix her flat tire. She gives him a lift, but gets understandably freaked out when he tells her he just got out of prison after eighteen years after murdering his wife's elderly aunt. Fearing for her life, Mary does her best to get help from a hitch-hiking U.S. soldier (Chuck Connors) and the police. Although suspenseful, the wind-up in this episode is especially stupid, and considering the things that Wickers told her about himself, her self-contempt over her unfounded suspicions are ridiculous. **.

Strange Witness: Tom Tryon, Crawford
"Strange Witness" is listed on imdb.com as being an episode of GET as well as of The Joseph Cotton Show: On Trial; possibly a rerun. In the best of her GET appearances, Joan plays Ruth. who takes a lover, David (Tom Tryon), and is trapped in a loveless marriage with Chris (John McIntire.) Chris comes home earlier than expected and tells David, "You should have fixed your face when Ruth did," referring to the lipstick on David's cheek. With the affair out in the open, David cold-bloodedly shoots Chris. As they're deciding what to do with the body, Chris' blind friend, John (Sidney Blackmer) comes a' callin'. The couple think they have it made, but there's a shocking surprise waiting for them. Tryon [The Unholy Wife] is fine as the handsome sociopath; McIntire and Blackmer are excellent; and Joan, despite some "actressy" moment,s offers a very good performance. The script was by Gavin Lambert. ***.

Joan's final GET appearance was in 1959. "And One Was Loyal" takes place in the tropics where George Manson (Tom Helmore of Shadow on the Wall) asks if he can briefly enjoy the hospitality of Roger (Robert Douglas) and Ann (Crawford) Howard. Roger is a mean drunk whose tormenting actions resulted in Ann becoming mute. Her ability to speak comes back when Roger is murdered, and George begins to wonder about Ann's actions. Crawford looks radiantly beautiful and makes good use of her very expressive face in this story. **1/2.

In 1953 Joan also appeared in an episode of The Revlon Mirror Theater, in a story entitled "Because I Love Him." In this very weird and contrived bit of fiction, a doctor (William Ching) tells Margaret Hughs (Crawford) that her husband, David (I believe this was Philip Dorn), has only a year to live. She is importuned to keep it a secret, and do everything she can to help him achieve his potential in that year. Despite her devotion, however, David falls in love with a colleague, Ann (Virginia Gray). Now what? While the situation is intriguing, this has a final twist that makes virtually no sense at all. Crawford handles the dubious plot turns even better than expected, and is quite good. **1/2.

JOAN IN THE WILD WEST

Joan in "Rebel Ranger" on Zane Grey Theater
JOAN CRAWFORD IN THE WILD WEST.

Joan Crawford appeared in one famous movie western, Johnny Guitar, Some of the TV series Joan appeared in included such westerns as The Virginian and two episodes of Zane Grey Theater.

Joan appeared on Zane Grey Theater, which was hosted by Dick Powell, in 1959 and 1961. In the first story, "Rebel Ranger," she plays Stella Faring, who has lost her rebel husband in the Civil War, and only wants to return with her son, Rob (Don Grady), to the home they once shared. Unfortunately, the house was taken by the Yankees and sold to Case Taggart (Scott Forbes), who says that he is the legal owner and she and the boy cannot stay. Stella moves in anyway, and soon others are interfering in this mini-war until someone gets shot. This is a very interesting story with a fine performance from Crawford and from handsome Forbes [Adventures of Jim Bowie], who appeared mostly on television in the US and England where he was born. Young Grady and John Anderson as a friend of Stella's are also notable. ***.

Joan in "One Must Die" on  Zane Grey Theater
On the other end of the spectrum is "One Must Die," in which John Baylor (Philip Carey) comes to a house in Texas to arrange a will for a dying man, Hobbes (Carl Benton Reid). Hobbes has two daughters, Sarah and Melanie, both played by Crawford, but it is obvious from the first that this is a lame split personality story that was hackneyed long before 1961. Joan is good, if a bit too old, for the part, but at least she gets to spit out the line: "You call yourself a man -- wanting someone as drab and sexless as Sarah!" The woman's mental problems are resolved so quickly at the end that it's comical. *1/2.

Joan appeared on The Virginian in 1970 in an episode entitled "Nightmare." In this Stephanie White (Crawford) marries John White (Michael Conrad), but he is crippled in an accident and dies in a fire. After she inherits his business, to his brother's consternation, it is discovered that her first husband died under similar circumstances. When Stephanie is accused of murder, the Virginian (James Drury), is one of the few who believe in her innocence. Joan has some very good moments in this.**1/2.

JOAN DOES TV IN THE SIXTIES AND AFTER

Joan with Milner and Corbett on Route 66
JOAN DOES TV IN THE SIXTIES AND AFTER. 

Primarily a film star, Crawford, as mentioned, had numerous appearances on television in addition to GE Theater and Zane Grey Theater.

In 1963 Joan appeared in the episode "Same Picture, Different Frame" on Route 66. In this young Linc Case (Glenn Corbett, who had taken over from George Maharis) inexplicably gets involved with the "mid-forties"Morgan Harper (Joan was actually 57 at the time), whose husband, Eric (Patrick O'Neal), has escaped from an institution. Case comes to her rescue when Eric goes on a murder spree. Crawford gives a good performance, but the script, meant to be moving, is only mediocre, and Case's interest in Morgan is never explained. But then, I've always thought, perhaps wrongly, that Route 66 was a vastly over-rated TV series. In any case, this is not one of its better episodes. Martin Milner, the show's other star, doesn't interact much with Crawford. **.

Joan appeared on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in 1967 on "The Five Daughters Affair," one of the least memorable UNCLE episodes. Even though Crawford would have made an exciting THRUSH villainess, she is only cast in a minor role and.is killed off in the first few minutes of the show,  As the two part Uncle episodes were often turned into feature films in Europe, it was hoped that Joan's name would have marquee value. **.

Joan appeared in "Lucy and the Lost Star" on The Lucy Show in 1968. Lucy and Viv (Vivian Vance) have car trouble near Joan's house. She makes them lemonade, and the two wacky ladies come to the conclusion that Joan is broke. They all put on a show, and in a sketch Crawford comes to work in a speakeasy with Lucy and Viv as molls. Joan is fine, and the show is cute. Joan also appeared in what I believe may have been a pilot for a variety series starring comic actor Tim Conway. This was very silly and negligible but Joan is funny and maintains her dignity. **1/2.

In 1969 Joan appeared in the Night Gallery telefilm, which later became an hour-long series hosted by Rod Serling. Joan was excellent as an imperious blind woman in her segment "Eyes," which was directed by a very young Steven Spielberg, ***.

Joan's last TV appearance -- her final credit, in fact -- was on The Sixth Sense, a spooky anthology series. Star Gary Collins played a psychic investigator. In the first episode, "Dear Joan, We're Going to Scare You to Death,"directed by John Newland, Crawford was the guest-star. In the version of this that I saw on youtube, Collins only provides narration. Joan Fairchild (Crawford) encounters a group of young people who are experimenting with their paranormal abilities, and some decide to see if they can literally frighten the woman to death. Crawford is good, but this seems padded, and has characters wandering around to little effect. Dull, slow-paced, and with a terrible musical score. .*1/2.

Joan substituted for her daughter, Christina, on a couple of episodes of the soap opera, The Secret Storm. Joan also did two TV movies, Woman on the Run (1959) and The Foxes (1961) but I haven't been able to find these.

JOAN ON THE BBC

JOAN CRAWFORD ON THE BBC.

Crawford did a late sixties interview for the BBC which covered her entire career and her thoughts on current movies and performers. At first Joan seemed a bit guarded and not relaxed, and complained how the British seemed obsessed with age (apparently some reporters came right out and bluntly asked her how old she was). "I know some people think there are very few things before my time," she said. She relaxed a bit more as the interview with the young admiring host continued, although when she answered a question she didn't always really answer the question, but said -- as stars are wont to do -- what she wanted to say. She talked admiringly of Bette Davis and said she enjoyed working with her on Baby Jane, calling Davis a "fascinating actress" but saying they really hadn't had time to become friends. She was, however, close friends with Barbara Stanwyck, whom the interviewer compared to her, pleasing Joan. Joan apologized in a way for making negative comments about Liz Taylor's personal life, but praised her acting skills, and said, next to Gable, John Garfield was her most dynamic co-star. Joan said that "I never had a sense of humor about myself until I worked with George Cukor." During the interview she is friendly, smiles, makes amusing comments and reacts to same, but it still comes off, understandably considering her years in front of the camera, as if it's another performance. and while it may not be fair to say she is humorless, she is,as mentioned, holding herself in warily. She expresses the wish that pictures had more romance and glamor, and suggests that Warren Beatty is ornery, while admiring Natalie Wood, whom she feels hasn't reached her potential, that there was no longer any help or guidance for actors as in the studio days. Joan talks affectionately of Lionel Barrymore, but while admiring his genius, admits that John Barrymore could be difficult while making Grand Hotel. Basically Joan is ever the professional, and the interview, while not that probing, is a good one. It probably didn't hurt that Joan seems to like the kind of cute interviewer.

Verdict: Joan talks! ***.

MOMMIE DEAREST

Joan and paramour: Faye Dunaway and Michael Edwards
MOMMIE DEAREST (1981). Director: Frank Perry.

"I don't want [Christina] growing up a spoiled Hollywood brat just because she's Joan Crawford's daughter."

"Bring me the ax!"

The first thing to remember about Mommie Dearest is that it is not about Joan Crawford. It is, in my opinion, about a fictional movie star whose life in some ways parallels the real Crawford. Based on her daughter Christina Crawford's venom-dipped memoir, the film can hardly be accused of objectivity. The second thing to remember about Mommie Dearest is that it might have amounted to a fairly good movie, a moving account of a troubled relationship between a mother and daughter who loved each other in spite of everything, had Frank Perry used made-up names for the characters, admitted it was mostly "fake and fictional" as two of Joan's other children charged, and reigned in the more abysmal moments of Faye Dunaway's performance.

The shame of it is that Mommie Dearest, and Dunaway herself, have their moments. Dunaway's best scenes are her quieter, more vulnerable ones, such as when L. B Mayer (Howard Da Silva) releases Joan from her contract, or when her lover Greg (Steve Forrest) walks out on her, or when she admits to her grown daughter that "I'm scared, Tina, I'm scared" after she's dropped by another studio. The trouble is that director Frank Perry either allowed Dunaway to gnash at the scenery in her worst moments, or was completely helpless to prevent her from going completely over the top. You keep expecting foam to come out of her mouth. It is these scenes that make some people feel that the movie is a camp or cult classic. The screenplay doesn't help, of course, but Dunaway should have realized that even when a person is angry and drunk they don't necessarily act utterly demented. This movie's negative portrayal of Joan does nothing to suggest whatever emotional devastation or disturbance might have caused the fictional Joan's abusive actions. This is not shameless over-acting; it's shameful over-acting. It turns the movie into a travesty.

Dunaway [Bonnie and Clyde] rarely plays a real person, but instead trades on Crawford's latter-day movie image. Hence we have her calling for Tina to bring her an ax (a la Strait-Jacket) in the garden at midnight and slapping Tina as if she were Veda in Mildred Pierce. This not only does a disservice to Crawford, it does a disservice to the movie and everyone connected to it. It dissipates the effect of genuinely well-handled and well-acted scenes, such as when Joan gives Tina a pearl necklace, the first gift that husband Alfred Steele had ever given her, after his death. And the film is illogical as well, with Crawford "acting out" not just when she's at the bottom but after she wins an Oscar! (This is not to say, however, that the film is dull; it isn't.)

The other actors fare better. Steve Forrest as Greg Savitt, a character based on lawyer Greg Bautzer, is occasionally more on target than Dunaway. Both Mara Hobel and Diana Scarwid are excellent as Christina as,a child and an adult. Howard Da Silva makes a cunning L. B. Mayer,  Rutyana Alda scores as Joan's devoted maid and companion, as does Priscilla Pointer as Mrs. Chadwick, who runs the girl's school in which Tina is enrolled. Harry Goz and Michael Edwards have smaller roles, as, respectively, Alfred Steele and Joan's gorgeous date, Ted Gelber, and are fine. Paul Lohmann's cinematography is first-rate. Joan had two other children besides Christina and Christopher (who makes sporadic appearances), but understandably they are not depicted in the film as they thought Christina's book was garbage; Crawford's three other husbands are also ignored. Mommie Dearest does make a few minor stabs at objectivity, at presenting some of Crawford's more positive qualities, but this is Christina's movie all the way -- it was even co-produced by her husband. Christina thought Dunaway's performance was "ludicrous." which is saying a lot, but what did she expect would come out of "Mommie Dearest?"Christina was also reacting to Dunaway's disinterest in talking to her and her possible disbelief in the validity of the memoir. Meanwhile, Frank Perry has directed much better movies, such as Diary of a Mad Housewife and The Swimmer.

Verdict: A textbook case in how an untrammeled star, an uneven script, and poor source material can sink what might have been a good movie. **1/2.

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1991)

Twisted Sisters: Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave
WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1990 telefilm). Director: David Greene.

"You always were a personality actress. Same performance, different outfit." -- Jane to Blanche.

Former child star Baby Jane Hudson (Lynn Redgrave) lives in a Hollywood mansion where she takes care of her crippled sister, former movie star Blanche Hudson (Vanessa Redgrave). The two sisters -- played by two real-life sisters -- have always had a problematic relationship, but things get worse when Jane discovers that her sister plans to sell the mansion and put her in an institution. Jane begins a campaign of harassment against her sister even as she plans her comeback with video shop owner and part-time drag queen, Billy (John Glover). Meanwhile Blanche does her best to escape her tormentor before the worst can happen. This TV remake of the classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? teaming two famous real-life sisters, must have seemed an irresistible notion, but however formidable the talents of Lynn and Vanessa they are "pygmies" compared to the even more formidable Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. That being said, Lynn [Georgy Girl] and Vanessa, with very different acting styles from the two Hollywood movie stars, give good, perhaps more naturalistic, performances. The telefilm has other pleasures, including Bruce A. Young as Blanche's handsome physical therapist (also an aspiring actor) and John Glover's wonderful portrayal of Billy, who tries his damnedest to get Baby Jane back into show business -- which culminates in a "showcase" in a bar which is one of the most memorable scenes in the picture. An in-joke has Blanche/Vanessa watching one of her older movies on television and saying "So many things that Tony could have improved upon" -- Vanessa was married to film director Tony Richardson for five years; she later married her Camelot co-star Franco Nero and they are still married to this day. This version is not as much of a horror film as the original, despite two murder sequences. Peter Manning Robinson's music helps add some pathos to the conclusion, but it still doesn't make sense that Jane would say "you mean all this time we could have been friends" when she finds out Blanche was only crippled trying to kill her sister!

Verdict: Not as good as the original, but not without its peculiar "charms." ***.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)

"Gort" and Patricia Neal
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951). Director: Robert Wise.

Klaatu (Michael Rennie), an emissary from a group of united planets, arrives on earth in a large saucer, accompanied by a potentially destructive law enforcement robot named Gort. Klaatu has come to earth to warn the world that the other planets will not tolerate earthlings, who have recently discovered atomic power, bringing their violent aggressiveness into outer space. His solution if earth doesn't mend its ways: destroy the entire planet! [Talk about aggressiveness!]

Held prisoner by the military, Klaatu, who wants to learn earth ways, escapes and moves into a boarding house, where he meets the lovely widow, Helen (Patricia Neal) and her likable little boy, Bobby (Billy Gray). Once Helen discovers the truth about the mysterious visitor and his plan, you keep waiting for her to argue about all the good in the world, the notable doctors, scientists, artists, and to tell Klaatu that most of the world's wars are caused  by a mere handful of residents. You expect her to say "innocent children like my son will be killed along with the warmongers," but she never does. This is the major reason why I've never particularly cared for this "classic." While Helen and Bobby represent good earthlings, too much of this portrayal is distinctly negative and unfair.

One can imagine, of course, that none of the aliens really wish or intend to wipe out the billions of earth's inhabitants, but foolishly hope this warning might suffice. But surely these powerful aliens can simply deal with the spaceships of more aggressive nations instead of dooming every person on the earth? No one even suggests this much more sensible solution.

That being said, The Day the Earth Stood Still is modestly entertaining and thought-provoking, although probably not in the way the filmmakers intended. Michael Rennie offers perhaps his best performance as the enigmatic Klaatu, his face registering amusement or bafflement and suggesting a certain superiority without becoming obnoxious about it. Neal is warm and sympathetic, but probably wasted in this movie. Billy Gray [The Navy vs the Night Monsters], Hugh Marlowe (as Helen's fiance) and others all give good performances and Robert Wise's direction is fine. The film also boasts Leo Tover's [The Snake Pit] excellent cinematography, and a superb score by Bernard Herrmann, whose spooky, jangling music influenced dozens of later scores. [Tover and Herrmann also worked on Journey to the Center of the Earth] The film itself was also very influential, with Hugh Marlowe headlining Earth vs the Flying Saucers a few years later and many other aliens-visit-earth films to come.

One last troubling aspect to the movie: After an over-zealous soldier shoots Klaatu at the beginning of the film, Gort responds by disintegrating tanks and rifles, but doesn't injure any men. Later, however, he completely disintegrates two soldiers who weren't even firing at him! Klaatu explains at one point that Gort is like a policeman, apparently one who is as quick-to-shoot as that first soldier was. The two dead men, whose deaths were completely unnecessary, are never mentioned again. Most likely they were killed so that the audience could feel Helen was in danger when she goes to give Gort a command that will stop him from further action. Still ...

The Day the Earth Stood Still (the title refers to Klaatu suppressing all energy world wide as a demonstration of his power) was remade in 2008 with Keaua Reeves playing a variation of Klaatu. Kathy Bates played an aggressive secretary of defense. Despite some good performances and effects and a much higher body count, the movie was not really an improvement over the original, itself no masterpiece.

Verdict: A bit too simplistic and even childish at times, but Herrmann's score is great. **1/2.

THE GAMBLER AND THE LADY

Dane Clark
THE GAMBLER AND THE LADY (1952). Directors: Patrick Jenkins; Sam Newfield, Written by Sam Newfield,

After getting out of jail for manslaughter, Jim Forster (Dane Clark) sets up operations in London, where he owns a nightclub, a boxer, a racehorse, and several illegal gambling dens. Jim is on a self-improvement kick, and wants to be just like, and accepted by, the titled lords and ladies with whom he wishes to mingle. He falls for Susan Willens (Naomi Chance), the sister of Lord Peter Willens (Anthony Forwood), a patron of one of Forster's gambling dens. But two things stand in the way of Jim achieving all of his goals: his nasty ex-girlfriend, Pat (Kathleen Byron); and a business deal with the Willens family that may blow up in all of their faces. The Gambler and the Lady has a 1940's style script -- one could easily see Bogart or Gable in  the lead role -- but the picture is still quite entertaining and Clark [A Stolen Life] gives a very memorable performance. The above-mentioned ladies are also notable, as is Eric Pohlmann as Colonna, one of Jim's business "rivals."  Anthony Forwood, who has a pleasing screen presence, later became the life-partner of Dirk Bogarde. [Mr.] Meredith Edwards, George Pastell [The Stranglers of Bombay], and Martin Benson [Battle Beneath the Earth] also give flavorful performances as, respectively, Jim's good right-hand, Dave; a nasty character Jim fires named Jacko; and Tony, Pat's dancing partner.

Verdict: Snappy British crime picture. ***.

PRICK UP YOUR EARS

Alfred Molina and Gary Oldman
PRICK UP YOUR EARS (1987). Director: Stephen Frears.

Midway through Prick Up Your Ears, biographer John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) talks to some of the late Joe Orton's relatives, wiggles his hand, and says, "did you know he was 'that way.'" This sort of sets the tone for this condescending biopic of the playwright Orton (Gary Oldman of Criminal Law), who was murdered by his longtime companion, Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina of The Hoax), before the latter committed suicide. The whole tone of the movie is off-putting, starting with the decision to make John Lahr (upon whose biography this is based and who was co-producer of the film), and his wife, unnecessary characters in the film and even having them and an agent played by Vanessa Redgrave providing non-illuminating commentary throughout. Was Lahr's ego so big that he needed to put himself into the movie? Prick Up Your Ears bounces back and forth in time and never seems cohesive, nor does it make the characters come alive the way they should, focusing more on Orton's sexual escapades than his life and work. The performances are only okay. Oldman somewhat resembles Orton, but the real Halliwell was much better-looking than Molina. Orton's plays were erotic black comedies, and it may be that the filmmakers wanted this picture to reflect that -- Orton and Halliwell had many good times in spite of their horrible ending -- but making a nominal black comedy out of their ultimately tragic lives still seems in poor taste, as if it's "who cares what these funny fags did to each other?" Whatever these two men were really like -- and this film doesn't let us know -- they deserved better than this. Worse was to come: Orton, a campy musical comedy about the two men that played in London. Stephen Frears also directed the equally poor Florence Foster Jenkins.

Verdict: The movie may have seemed progressive thirty years ago, but it doesn't really work today. **.