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

Thursday, April 1, 2021

SMASH UP: THE STORY OF A WOMAN

Susan Hayward
SMASH UP: THE STORY OF A WOMAN
(1947). Director: Stuart Heisler. 

Angie Evans (Susan Hayward) is an aspiring singer who suffers from stage fright (having a drink or two before going on seems to help) and who gives up her career to marry Ken Conway (Lee Bowman), who later makes a tremendous splash as a crooner. Now Angie has no career, her husband is out on the road most of the time, having a child isn't enough to fill her life, and she's afraid Ken is having an affair with his aggressive assistant, Martha (Marsha Hunt). What's a girl to do? She takes a drink and then another, and then has a few more. This not-too-serious study of a dipsomaniac is well-acted -- Hayward is outstanding -- and quite entertaining. There's a particularly amusing scene when Angie has it out with Martha in the ladies room during a party, smacking her around and pulling her hair. (The movie has some interesting vignettes, such as when the old nurse who works for Angie is shown a baby by its mother in the park. "Cute, isn't he?" says the mother. To which the nurse, frowning, says, "hmm. well ...") The movie has a very unrealistic ending, with one character being overly forgiving after a near-tragedy. Eight years later Hayward played another alcoholic -- this time a real-life singer, Lillian Roth -- in I'll Cry Tomorrow

Verdict: Watch Hayward put on a show! ***.

DESTINATION MOON

John Archer and Warner Anderson
DESTINATION MOON (1950). Director: Irving Pichel. Produced by George Pal.  In Technicolor.

General Thayer (Tom Powers), recognizing that the government is reluctant to spend on space travel during peacetime and after one of their rockets exploded, appeals to the private sector in the form of industrialist Jim Barnes (John Archer) for help. Barnes and a select committee of businessmen employ Dr. Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson of The Star) to build a new rocket that will fly them to the moon. Thayer is afraid that a foreign power will beat them into space and be able to fire missiles from the moon. Learning that the authorities will block them from performing certain tests, causing delays, Thayer, Cargraves and Barnes -- plus technician Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson of Starlift) -- take off in their rocket, "Spaceship Luna," in a hurry. They encounter some complications in space, and on the moon come to realize that one of them may have to be left behind ... 

pulling away from earth's gravity
Destination Moon
, based on a novel by Robert Heinlein (who co-scripted), was one of the very first big-screen sci fi movies of the fifties. Unlike Rocketship X-M , which debuted the same year, it is generally serious and intelligently told. A scene when one of the men, making repairs, floats away from the ship, is suspenseful, as is the ending, when a fateful decision must be made, and the actors are all satisfactory and credible. The FX, including the fairly elaborate moon set, are quite good for the period, and pretty much hold up well today. The movie is low-key but effective, greatly bolstered by Leith Steven's [Julie] excellent and majestic scoring. A very odd moment occurs when the men argue about who should be left behind and Cargraves never even mentions his wife! Director Irving Pichel also appeared as an actor in many movies. 

Verdict: Absorbing George Pal production that generally avoids melodrama -- and giant spiders. ***.  

THE DEFENDERS (1961): Season One

Robert Reed and E. G. Marshall
THE DEFENDERS (1961 TV series). Season One. 

Lawrence Preston (E. G. Marshall) and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) are partners in a law firm that represents criminal defendants. The show lasted for four seasons and won numerous awards and accolades. Only the first season has been transferred to DVD and it gives a good taste of the series' good and bad points. Marshall and Reed are both excellent as the highly dignified if personable Lawrence and his comparatively hot-headed son. The interplay between the two, which is often quite argumentative, is one of the best things about the show. 

Marshall with Jack Klugman
The Defenders
 was created by Reginald Rose, who also scripted several of the episodes. The series is unlike Perry Mason because it often deals in social issues and eagerly embraces controversy. One might say it has "depth," although there are times that the show is more pretentious and irritating than anything else and worse, becomes quite preachy and even muddled. The series takes place in Manhattan and was shot at the Filmways Studio in New York, giving it an added veracity and lots of local color with its location filming. The directors who worked on the series include Daniel Petrie, Franklin Schaffner, Buzz Kulik, Paul Bogart, and others. Jack Klugman appeared sporadically as one of the ADAs in the district attorneys office and is quite good in the role. Guest stars on the show included Elizabeth Ashley, Ben Piazza, Frank Gorshin, Pat Hingle, Robert Duvall, Robert Loggia, Sylvia Miles, Ken Kercherval, Gloria De Haven. and Zachary Scott. 

Reed with Salome Jens
Most of the episodes were solid "Bs" with a few that were even better. "The Point Shaver" deals with a college athlete who is accused of taking bribes. "Death Across the Counter" has a vet (Clu Culager) accused of shooting a man during a robbery but Ken is convinced, against all odds, that he is innocent. "The Treadmill" has the Prestons doing their damnedest to save a man from the death penalty for a crime he committed 25 years in the past. "The Search" has a man confessing to a murder that another man was executed for and Larry tries to find out the truth while he and the prosecutor (Jack Klugman) try to figure out what went wrong with the system.  "The Best Defense" is a terrific story in which a mobster is arrested for murder but swears he is innocent -- this has a highly ironic finale. In "The Naked Heiress" a man leaves his money to a stripper (Salome Jens), then falls in front of a train (Glenda Farrell is outstanding as the stripper's mother). "Reunion with Death" has Larry presiding over a mock trial when Korean vets accuse one of their number of selling them out under torture. The very best season one episode is arguably "The Bedside Murder," in which an elderly doctor (Sam Jaffe) is accused of murdering a wealthy old woman because she left him money in her will. 

"The Attack:" Marchand, Barbara Barrie, Kiley
Although not quite as good as the aforementioned episodes, "The Attack" presents an interesting situation when a man (Richard Kiley) goes after the youth who assaulted his little girl, only to learn that he killed the wrong man; Nancy Marchand played the dead man's mother. Hands down, the absolute worst season one episode was "Gideon's Follies," in which a rich man is murdered and all of his many ex-wives are the suspects. Foolish and unfunny, it played like a witless spoof of Burke's Law, a series that did not debut for another two years. It was as if the producers, told that some people found The Defenders too grim, decided to lighten things up for one episode -- but it was a disaster. 

Verdict: Some very good scripts, but not nearly as much fun nor as classy as Perry Mason. **3/4. 

HERCULES (1958)

Steve Reeves
HERCULES (aka Le fatiche di Ercole/1958). Director: Pietro Francisci. 

Hercules (Steve Reeves of Athena) has been summoned by King Pelias (Ivo Garrani) to tutor his insufferable son, Iphitus (Mimmo Palmara), but instead Iphitus winds up being slaughtered by a lion when he rushes ahead of the hero to try to show him up. Pelias is furious at Hercules and orders him to kill the Cretan bull, after which the demi-god encounters his old tutor Chironi (Afro Poli). Chironi tells him that his ward, Jason (Fabrizio Mioni of Girl Happy), Pelias' long-lost nephew, is the true heir to the throne, and legend has it that Jason will destroy his uncle. To prove his identity Jason sets sail with Argo, Ulysses, and of course Hercules, to find the golden fleece, which had been spirited away years before. Meanwhile Hercules and Iole (Sylva Koscina of Deadlier Than the Male), Pelias' daughter, have a love-hate thing going on. 

Canale and Mioni
Hercules, which was a big hit in the U.S. thanks to an expensive ad campaign engineered by producer Joseph E. Levine, brought into being the whole Italian sword and sorcery/mythological epic genre that employed not only Hercules but also Samson and other characters as protagonists, giving work to a lot of handsome guys with great big muscles. Hercules, in widescreen and Cinecolor, is no better or worse than most of them, and is at least watchable, with a strikingly charismatic Reeves filling the bill quite nicely. Oddly, when the gang get to an island of Amazons, it is Jason who romances the queen, Antea (beautiful Gianna Maria Canale), while hunky Hercules sits it out. It is even Jason who tackles the rather pitiful dragon that is guarding the fleece and is quickly dispatched. (The story of the search for the fleece was told much better in the far superior Jason and the Argonauts.) There are also a pack of crazed beast-men to briefly bedevil the argonauts. 

Koscina and Reeves
The cinematography and special effects for the film were done by Mario Bava, later the director of gruesome horror films (and at least one Hercules movie), and his work is good -- aside from that terrible dragon -- if not quite outstanding. Enzo Massetti's score is about on the same level, although it briefly incorporates a bit of ersatz opera when the burly rowers on the ship break into a chorus and the galley master joins in -- more than once. Hercules is a hodge podge of mythology with bits taken from one legend or another and thrown into the mix. 

Verdict: A very attractive cast almost offsets one pretty ugly dragon. **1/2. 

MURDER AT THE VANITIES

MURDER AT THE VANITIES (1934). Director: Mitchell Leisen.

On opening night at Earl Carroll's Broadway revue, the Vanities, a dead body is found far up above the stage dripping blood on chorus girls. Lt. Murdock (Victor McLaglen) investigates while producer Jack Oakie throws a panic. Kitty Carlisle is the star of the show, Ann Ware, who's engaged to the European import -- and her co-star -- Eric Lander (Carl Brisson). Jessie Ralph is the wardrobe mistress-with-a-secret, and Gertrude Michael is the supremely bitchy performer, Rita Ross (she does a lively number on "Marijuana!") Even Charles Middleton -- Ming the Merciless of the Flash Gordon serials -- shows up as another member of the cast. At one point his orchestra playing Liszt is hijacked by a swing/jazz band and he gets even by firing a (prop) machine gun at everyone on stage. Dorothy Stickney, who years later would play the Queen in the Julie Andrews version of Cinderella, steals the show as Norma, Rita's long-suffering maid and punching bag. Danish Brisson was a former boxer who should have stayed with that profession -- his singing voice is grating on the ears (especially in duet with Carlisle's beautiful tones) and he only made a half dozen or so movies. He had a pleasant enough personality and some little acting ability, but major star material he was not.

Verdict: Not exactly murder to sit through but no world-beater, either. **.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

WOMAN OF THE YEAR

Hepburn and Tracy
WOMAN OF THE YEAR
(1942). Director: George Stevens. 

Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn) and Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy) are columnists for the same newspaper but don't know or care very much for each other. That changes when they actually meet and fall in love -- but can Sam deal with the fact that Tess, eventually named "Woman of the Year," is always on the go and is more celebrated than he is? Frankly, Woman of the Year, while a good and entertaining movie, sort of ducks the question of Sam's ego, making it more about Tess' lack of domesticity and maternal feelings, and despite some attempt at the end to arrive at a compromise, the movie comes off now as rather dated. For a moment it even turns into one of those "woman with amazing career will give it all up to become a devoted wifey" kind of movies. Still both of the stars, in their first pairing, are excellent, as are Fay Bainter as Tess' Aunt Ellen; Minor Watson as her father; and Edith Evanson as her maid, Alma. (Although she was frequently uncredited, Evanson had a long career, and appeared in such films as Journey to the Center of the Earth, Rope and Marnie.) Little George Kezas has a nice turn as Chris, the boy refugee, as does Sara Haden as the head of the home where he resides. Funniest scene has Kate trying to make coffee! 

Verdict: On its own 1940's terms, not bad at all, but boy what it could have been! ***.

MADELEINE

Did she or didn't she? Ann Todd as Madeleine
MADELEINE (1950). Director: David Lean. 

Madeleine Smith (Ann Todd of So Evil My Love) of Glascow is being courted by one William Minnoch (Norman Wooland), a perfectly pleasant if unexciting man whom her father (Leslie Banks) heartily approves of. Mr. Smith can't understand why his oldest daughter keeps putting Minnoch off, but he doesn't know that she has been keeping secret rendezvous with a sexy French shipping clerk named Emile (Ivan Desny), something that would cause a scandal in the Victorian era. Madeleine can't bring herself to tell her father the truth, so she decides to run away with Emile, but he is dismayed at the thought that they would have to live on his comparatively meagre income. When Madeleine gets engaged to Minnoch, Emile threatens to tell her father, ruining her chances for a successful union with the other man. But has Madeleine cooked up a scheme to make absolutely certain that Emile cannot interfere?

Ivan Desny as Emile
Madeleine is based on the famous Madeleine Smith murder case. Todd, who was married to David Lean at the time, had played the role on the stage and importuned her husband to direct her in a film also based on the case (but not on the play). She is quite good in the film, matched by Ivan Desney of Lola Montes and Anastasia -- who never quite reveals if Emile is a complete mountebank or just a man who genuinely loves Madeleine but also simply wishes a better life. In fact, the one major problem with the film is that the characters are not as dimensional as one might like. Wooland and Banks [The Most Dangerous Game] prove good support for Todd, and Andre Morrell offers his customary sharp performance as her lawyer. The same case also inspired the Joan Crawford film Letty Lynton

Verdict: Absorbing true crime story with some fine performances. ***. 

LITTLE CAESAR

Edward G. Robinson
LITTLE CAESAR
(1931). Director: Mervyn Leroy. 

 "Mother of mercy -- is this the end of Rico?" 

 The great Edward G. Robinson became a star with this exciting and entertaining gangster flick. Rico (Robinson) wants to be somebody and have everything while his buddy Joey (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who comes off convincingly lower-class) just wants to be a dancer. The two should have just gone their separate ways, but Rico seems obsessed with his pal (any homoerotic aspects of this go unexplored). Rico rises in the rackets until he takes over an important gang, and forces his old pal Joey to help him rip off the establishment where he entertains with his girlfriend, Olga (Glenda Farrell). Rico gets bigger and bigger but there are forces conspiring against him ... Robinson is just terrific, and he has a solid supporting cast, including the aforementioned performers as well as Thomas Jackson as Sgt. Flaherty; William Collier Jr. as Tony; and Sidney Blackmer (who had an important role many years later in Rosemary's Baby) as "Big Boy." 

Verdict: Fun to watch Robinson rise and fall. ***1/2.

HELLZAPOPPIN

Olsen and Johnson
HELLZAPOPPIN' (1941). Director: H. C. Potter 

Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, playing themselves, are told that in the film version of their (real life) Broadway hit "Olsen and Johnson's Hellzapoppin'" they have to add a little romance to the mix. The screenwriter (Elisha Cook Jr.) concocts a triangle in which aspiring producer Jeff Hunter (Robert Paige) wants to star Kitty (Jane Frazee), the women he loves, in a musical -- only his best friend, Woody (Lewis Howard), is in love with her too. Then there are complications in the form of man-hungry but homely Betty (Martha Raye) and a possible prince named Pepi (Mischa Auer). For reasons not worth recounting Olsen and Johnson want the show to fail and try to sabotage it a la Night at the Opera (a much, much better movie) to somewhat comical results in the last twenty minutes of the film. Meanwhile Olsen and Johnson have a running dialogue with the film's projectionist (Shemp Howard) who keeps screwing things up. 

Mismatch: Martha Raye and Mischa Auer
Hellzapoppin' has its share of laughs (and quite a few groaners) but despite its amiable nature it never quite bursts into full-blown hilarity. Olsen and Johnson are such a comparatively dull comedy team that for much of the film's length I confused one of them with the much more distinctive Hugh Herbert, who plays the giggling Quimby. As the lovers, Paige and Frazee are appealing, and get to sing two lovely numbers entitled "Heaven for Two" and "And You Were There." Martha Raye is wonderful as Betty whether she's running after an aghast Pepi with lust in her heart or warbling the snappy "Watch the Birdie" in a production number. Auer is her match in every way.

Robert Paige and Jane Frazee
Hellzapoppin' breaks through the fourth wall numerous times throughout the movie (this was done in many films afterwards including Gremlins 2) and has a lot of sight gags, some of which succeed (the "coat of arms") and some of which land with a thud. A highlight of the film is a performance by the sensational Harlem Congeroo Dancers and an all-black band that is equally spectacular. Olsen and John had teamed for at least one movie before this one, All Over Town, then got together again for Crazy House and Ghost Catchers, pretty much doing the same shtick that they do in Hellzapoppin'. A little of them goes a long way! To compare them in any way to the Marx Brothers is utterly ludicrous.

Verdict: Silly, frequently stupid, but it earns some genuine chuckles as well. **3/4. 

DOUBLE WHOOPEE

Stan Laurel, Jean Harlow, Oliver Hardy
DOUBLE WHOOPEE (1929). Director: Lewis H. Foster. 

In this silent short, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who have come to the Frontenac Hotel to fill in as doorman and footman, are mistaken for a visiting King (Hans Joby) and his prime minister (Charley Rogers). If that weren't bad enough, the real king takes a header into an elevator shaft not once but thrice! Installed in their new jobs and uniforms, the boys incur the wrath of a taxi driver and a cop, and have an amusing if embarrassing incident with a pretty guest played by no less than Jean Harlow. Hardy's primping when he spots the lovely Harlow is hilarious. Double Whoopee is not a silent classic, but it does show that the fellows had their shtick down pat even in the silent era, and were extremely gifted comic actors. Harlow hasn't much to do but does it with aplomb. 

Verdict: A few good laughs in this silent shortie. **3/4. 
 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

THE SILENCE

THE SILENCE (aka Tystnaden/1963). Director: Ingmar Bergman.

Two women who appear to be sisters are traveling in Europe with the ten-year-old son of one of them when they stop in a rather dismal little town, Timoka, where one, Ester (Ingrid Thulin), becomes ill. As Ester becomes increasingly overwrought and fears dying alone, Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) goes out of the hotel and finds a man to have sex with, and little Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom) makes his own merriment with a friendly old man and some dwarfs. This is probably fraught with symbolism and deep meaning -- maybe -- but it comes off more as an almost comically underwritten mood piece and little else. Ester has been described as a "repressed lesbian" in several reviews, probably because of the scene where she seems to come on to her sister (similar to scenes in the later Cries and Whispers) but it comes off less as lesbianism or incest than just a kind of mock eroticism-without-a-point, thrown in because it turns Bergman on. Thanks to Sven Nykvist's photography, the film is full of a grim atmosphere, as well as arresting images and faces, as well as the usual fine acting -- if only Bergman had given the players a screenplay that was worthy of their mettle.

Verdict: Half-baked in Timoka. **.

SPIN A DARK WEB

Sister and brother: Domergue and Benson 
SPIN A DARK WEB (1956). Director: Vernon Sewell. 

Jim Bankley (Lee Patterson) hopes to get a start in the fight game, but is willing to take anything. His friend, Buddy (Robert Arden), arranges for Jim to meet his boss, Rico Francesi (Martin Benson), but he particularly ignites the interest of Rico's sexy sister, Bella (Faith Domergue of Where Danger Lives). One of Rico's flunkies, McLeod (Bernard Fox), is told to pay a relatively benign call on a boxer, Bill (Peter Hammond), who refused to take a dive, but violence ensues, and Bill is killed. Jim is also involved with Bill's sister, Betty (Rona Anderson), who is appalled that he is now working for Rico. Things begin spiraling downward from there, with Jim regretting that he ever got involved with this mob, and Bella determined to hold on to him -- at any cost. 

Lee Patterson and Rona Anderson 
Spin a Dark Web is the kind of British thriller I would normally review on my brother blog B Movie Nightmarebut this picture is a little bit different. The main difference is a highly interesting cast. Lee Patterson was a Canadian actor who had quite a list of credits in British "B"s before landing a gig in the American private eye show Surfside Six and doing US TV work and soap operas thereafter. He gives a solid performance in this as a man a bit on the shady side who still has some principles. Faith Domergue [Dah-mure], a Howard Hughes discovery (and more) in her teens, became a cult figure due to appearances in such films as It Came from Beneath the Sea and This Island Earth. She gives a good performance in this although one might have wished she came on a lot stronger in certain sequences, but Joan Crawford she wasn't. Martin Benson was in everything from The Cosmic Monsters to Gorgo to Goldfinger and always fit the bill. Robert Arden was the leading man in Orson Welle's Mr Arkadin/Confidential Agent, and he scores in this supporting part as well. Pleasant and pretty, Rona Anderson appeared in numerous UK movies. 

Spin a Dark Web has a good (if familiar) story and is generally well-paced, although with better and tighter editing and more use of close-ups the climax could have been a real nail-biter. Domergue and Patterson play well together.

Verdict: Domergue is not so "dah mure" in this! ***.

LUCY AT THE MOVIES

LUCY AT THE MOVIES. Cindy de la Hoz

Before she became a super-star with I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball was an honest-to-goodness movie star who appeared in dozens of films, beginning as a chorus girl and extra, moving on to supporting player, and finally emerging as a star in her own right of such films as The Big Street, in which she was teamed above the title with Henry Fonda. Ball displayed her comic gifts – although she was more than "just" a fine comedienne – in film after film, bolstering mediocre efforts and complimenting good ones such as Street, in which she gives an affecting, memorable portrait of a spoiled, frightened singer who is scared she'll never walk again and takes it out on everyone around her, especially the man who is devoted to her. This book looks at every film that Ball appeared in before, during, and after Lucy, everything from The Affairs of Annabelle to Mame. You'll even read about the film she once made with Boris Karloff! Ms. de la Hoz supplies synopses, sample reviews, her own background notes and critique, and loads and loads of photos. This is a huge, heavy, coffee table book on thick paperstock

Verdict: Lucy fans should pounce! ***1/2.

GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH

an evil gremlin on the loose!
GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH (1990). Director: Joe Dante. 

Billy (Zach Galligan) and Kate (Phoebe Cates) from Gremlins are engaged and living in New York City. Both of them work in real estate developer Daniel Clamp's (John Glover) Trade Centre, which is a fully-automated "smart building." Billy discovers that little Gizmo from the first film has been put in a genetics lab in the building after the death of his Chinese owner, Wing (Keye Luke). Billy frees Gizmo from the lab, but the cute little fellow gets wet and before you know it the Trade Centre is over-run with ferocious if fun-loving evil gremlins! Billy comes up with a brilliant if risky plan to get rid of them. 

Galligan, Cates and Glover with Gizmo in a box
Like its predecessor, Gremlins 2:The New Batch is a pretty silly movie, but it's hard to dislike because of its constant, generally amusing, references to films and popular culture. Galligan, Cates and Glover are perfectly amiable and adept performers, but they are lost in a virtual sea of weird-looking puppets and aging, lovable character actors. One gremlin drinks a special "brain formula" and turns into an erudite pseudo-British type voiced in great style by Tony Randall. We have a hilarious turn or two by the wonderful Kathleen Freeman, who plays a cooking hostess who loves her cooking sherry and finds a slimy-looking gremlin in her stew. I have no idea why Al Lewis didn't play the horror movie host because the character in this is obviously modeled on "Ole Grandpa" from The Munsters, but Robert Prosky does a good enough job impersonating him. There are also some fun supporting turns from Dick Miller and Jackie Joseph, and a funny bit from Kenneth Tobey. 

Gizmo does a dance for the twins and Lee
Three other performers deserve a special mention: Christopher Lee gets right into the manic spirit of the piece in his portrayal of the head of the genetics lab; Robert Picardo offers a snappy portrait of the no-nonsense heartless corporate assistant type who ignites the passion of the one female (?) gremlin in the bunch; and Haviland Morris is utter perfection as Billy's also-lustful boss who has her eyes on him as well as on the prize. Walking into a web spun by a giant spider-gremlin she says "This is new." Gremlins 2 also features a charming scene when Gizmo comes out of his cage to boogie to some rock music and twin assistants dance along with him as Lee looks on with disapproval. Then there's the very clever bit when the Gremlins invade a projection room and set fire to a print of -- you guessed it -- Gremlins 2!

Two other items I must mention. I enjoyed the stop-motion work in the film, which includes a flying bat-gremlin that attacks Dick Miller and turns into a gargoyle -- this was done by the Doug Beswick studios. And then there are the guest appearances by Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, especially the latter. Watch the closing credits to watch lovable Daffy's reaction to how damn long the credits to movies are these days!

Verdict: One could easily denounce this as stupid and note that the pacing is often off, but the darn thing can be inventive and amusing in equal measure. ***.

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
(1957). Director: Alexander Mackendrick. 

"You're dead, son. Get yourself buried." 

Powerful newspaper columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), who seems to have an incestuous yen for his sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), is determined to keep her from marrying a musician (Martin Milner), and importunes press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to help him break the couple up. This study of loathsome and immoral characters isn't really about show biz or newspapers or even columnists but it seems almost as hollow at its center as its protagonist. Part of the problem is that you never really believe Lancaster as Hunsecker, although by no means does he give a bad performance. Then the secondary love story isn't that convincing or moving. Susan Harrison and Barbara Nichols have some nice moments -- Milner is okay if a bit stiff -- but the picture is positively stolen by a ferocious, charismatic and altogether splendid performance by Tony Curtis. That's the main reason to watch the film. 

Verdict: Curtis' finest hour. **1/2.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

THE OLD MAID

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

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

So says young Charlotte Lovell (Bette Davis) to the man she loves, Clem Spender (George Brent), who has come back to town to discover that the woman he loves, Charlotte's cousin Delia (Miriam Hopkins), is that very day marrying someone else. Charlotte consoles Clem, who goes off to war and never returns, leaving Charlotte with a child that she disguises as a civil war orphan. Then Delia, who has a "good" marriage with one of the wealthy Ralston brothers, learns about Charlotte and Clem and is enraged ... with expectedly dramatic results. She eventually takes both mother and illegitimate daughter into her home and usurps the mother position from Charlotte. 

Bette Davis
Yes, this film has some of the elements of soap opera, but it's on a much higher level, and the film is virtually perfect in all departments, from Goulding's direction to Max Steiner's evocative score (which incorporates some old songs but also has original music), to the accomplished acting from the entire cast. This is easily one of Davis' best portrayals, years before she became much too affected and artificial in certain projects. Mariam Hopkins is her match in the more flamboyant if less dramatic role of Delia. Jane Bryan as the daughter, Tina, Donald Crisp as the wise friend and doctor, Cecelia Loftus as the wily old grandmother, and Louise Fazenda as the maid Dora are all superlative, and while he's not entirely successful at showing us the hurt and trauma beneath his light-hearted, sardonic air, even George Brent is solid. Very moving and a genuinely touching finale. A real gem of a tearjerker. Based on a novella by Edith Wharton and a Pulitzer prize-winning play by Zoe Akins. NOTE; This was my late partner, Lawrence J. Quirk's, all-time favorite movie. I was forced to watch it half a dozen times until I grew to love it, too. 

Verdict: Another in the category of 'They don't make 'em like this anymore.' ****.

LADY WITH RED HAIR

LADY WITH RED HAIR
(1940). Director: Curtis Bernhardt. 

The "true" if fictionalized story of Caroline (Mrs. Leslie) Carter (Miriam Hopkins), who goes on the stage after she is divorced by her husband. The film suggests that Carter became an actress only to get money to fight for custody of her son, but in real life the boy actually stayed with his mother and was cut out of his father's will because of it. In the film Carter unrealistically tries to storm Broadway by coming in at the top instead of climbing from the bottom, but it is true that her association with David Belasco (a magnificent Claude Rains) gave an inestimable boost to her career. The film doesn't make clear that she was considered the American Sarah Bernhardt in her day. Richard Ainley plays her second husband, and as the film suggests, their marriage did signal the end of her association with Belasco (although in the film he comes in at the end to help guide her in one last production). Miriam Hopkins gives a solid performance, but up against Claude Rains there is little she can do to steal the picture. The supporting cast includes such sterling players as Laura Hope Crews, John Litel, Victor Jory, and Cecil Kellaway. A very young Cornel Wilde has a small role, and you probably won't notice Alexis Smith or Craig Stevens.

 Verdict: A lady you might like to make the acquaintance of -- on film, at least. ***.

POOR WHITE TRASH (1957)

Timothy Carey, Peter Graves and Lita Milan
POOR WHITE TRASH (aka Bayou/1957). Director: Harold Daniels. 

New York architect Martin Davis (Peter Graves of Stalag 17) comes down to the bayou hoping to get assigned to a building project, but he's told by the man who called for him (Douglas Fowley) that he has to fight for the job. Martin is an intelligent man who refuses to sink down to other people's levels whether it comes to scrabbling with competitors or in actual fist fights. Martin, however, learns that he may have to fight for Marie Hebert (Lita Milan of I Mobster), a pretty Cajun woman who has innocently ignited the lust of shop owner Ulysses (Timothy Carey of Paths of Glory) and with whom Martin falls in love.  

Lita Milan and Peter Graves
Poor White Trash is actually the 1961 re-release title of a film originally called Bayou, which has some additional footage and a prologue where a man sings the catchy title tune. The most lurid -- and somewhat cinematic -- sequence has Ulysses chasing Marie through the mud of the swamp and finally cornering the exhausted woman. Marie is clearly raped (even if it isn't depicted graphically) but she has no reaction to this, offering Ulysses some money she owes him the next day as if nothing had happened instead of kicking him in the balls or telling her fellow Cajuns. This is clearly the fault of the script, although Milan herself registers nothing but a mild weariness after what would have had to have been a traumatic experience. 

"an orgiastic, self-flagellating dance"
Otherwise, Milan is attractive and appealing in the film. Graves was never a great actor, and this film offers more evidence of that, although he does register competence and likability. Douglas Fowley is fine as Martin's friend but he gets into a bit of trouble when he also essays Marie's dotty father, Emil. Timothy Carey, the Nicolas Cage of an earlier generation, displays his trademark intensity and is quite good as Ulysses, although one doesn't know quite what to make of the sequence when he does a kind of orgiastic, self-flagellating dance halfway through the movie. This uncomfortable sequence goes on for far too long, which is also the case in a love scene over which the storm outside is not-so-cleverly superimposed.  

Ed Nelson has a small role, but although Jonathan Haze of Little Shop of Horrors is also in the film I didn't spot him. There is some atmospheric photography and a vaguely evocative score by Gerald Fried. One of the film's most disturbing scenes is actually a party scene celebrating the marriage of an elderly man to a very young girl who looks like she'd like to run away from the oldster as fast as her feet could take her. 

Verdict: A trashy curiosity indeed. **. 

CITY BENEATH THE SEA (1953)

Robert Ryan and Mala Powers
CITY BENEATH THE SEA (1953). Director: Budd Boetticher. 

Brad Carlton (Robert Ryan) and Tony Barlett (Anthony Quinn) are salvage divers hired to look for a million dollars worth of gold on a ship that went down with all hands off the coast of Jamaica. Initially, they are told to call off the search as hopeless, but a variety of interested parties know the location of the ship -- right near the undersea ruins of Port Royal, destroyed by earthquake in 1692. When Tony throws in with some suspicious characters, Brad decides to mount his own above-board operation to keep his pal out of jail. But if the misunderstanding between them wasn't enough, they also have a new undersea quake to contend with ... 

Robert Ryan with Anthony Quinn
If City Beneath the Sea sounds exciting, be forewarned that it is nearly a complete stinker. It's hard to imagine that two major stars like Ryan and Quinn could have wound up in such a tacky, dull, below-routine affair that nearly talks itself to death and is even boring during the climax! The FX budget looks like it might have amounted to $1.99. Admittedly, Universal was no MGM, but the production values for this -- considering the players -- are shockingly poor. Ryan and Quinn give good performances, as do the ladies in their lives, Mala Powers [Unknown Terror] as the owner of a charter boat, and Suzan Ball as the sexy singer, Verita (who saucily delivers "Handle with Care") -- and there are some decent supporting players (including Woody Strode who gets very little to do) -- but the movie spends too much time on extraneous matters and not enough on the matter at hand. 

Can the excitement never end?
The surprising thing is that City Beneath the Sea isn't any better than a knock-off entitled Port Sinister that came out the same year. It's been years since I saw the latter -- and I remember that it was hardly a great movie -- but it had more atmosphere and more interesting elements than this dull picture does. In Port Sinister the city of Port Royal (actually a whole island) rises from the watery depths and there is not only a search for treasure and the usual complement of desperadoes, but even a couple of nasty dog-sized crabs that try to snack on people. In any case, it was more fun that this dog of a movie. Ryan and Quinn (admittedly his best work was ahead of him) must have read the script but perhaps they were hoping it could all be put together in the editing room. It wasn't.

Verdict: This could have used some giant crabs. **. 

OF MICE AND MEN (1939)


OF MICE AND MEN
(1939). Director: Lewis Milestone. 

"It's just havin' someone to talk with. It's just bein' with another guy."

George (Burgess Meredith) and his brain-damaged cousin Lennie (Lon Chaney Jr.) arrive at a ranch and hope to save up enough money to buy their own farm and be their own boss. The elderly Candy (Roman Bohnen), afraid of almost literally being put out to pasture, wants to go in with them, as does Crooks (Leigh Whipper), the black man who is isolated in his own shack away from the bunk house with the other men. But then there's the nasty little Curley (Bob Steele), the boss's son, and his bored, lonely wife, Mae (Betty Field), and the trouble they represent. John Steinbeck's heartbreaking tragedy is brought to the screen with great intensity and power and has many memorable moments: the death of Candy's dog; Curly gets his hand crushed; the climactic accidental death. Bohnen gives perhaps the best performance, but Meredith and Field are also great, and Charles Bickford, Lon Chaney Jr. and Bob Steele are no slouches. Okay, maybe the acting is a little over-emphatic at times, and Copland's score is nice but not that special. Still, this is a very strong and memorable picture. The streak of misogyny -- if that's what it is -- and the moral ambiguity of the ending, only make it more fascinating. Remade several times, including a version in 1992, starring and directed by Gary Sinise of CSI New York

Verdict: Another masterpiece from 1939 and a great study of loneliness. ****.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

A LIFE OF HER OWN

A LIFE OF HER OWN (1950). Director: George Cukor. 

Lily James (Lana Turner) leaves her dead-end small town for a life of glamor, modeling, and excitement in New York and gets a little more than she bargained for. After a variety of adventures and mis-adventures, she becomes involved with a married man (Ray Milland) who has a crippled wife (Margaret Phillips). Dismissed as soap opera and "fluff" by the critics at the time of its release and after, this is actually a hard-hitting drama with an excellent script and dialogue by Isobel Lennart. Cukor, well-known as an actors' director, certainly worked his magic on the cast. Lana Turner is first-class throughout, giving what may have been her best performance in films, and Ray Milland, often a Great Stone Face, is much more impressive than usual. Ann Dvorak almost walks off with the movie as the aging model, Mary Ashlon, who is hoping for a comeback that even she realizes is unlikely. Tom Ewell, Louis Calhern, Margaret Phillips and Sara Haden (as a nurse) are also notable. Barry Sullivan superbly delivers a great super-cynical speech near the end of the film. Although one could argue that the movie sticks to a dated sin-and-suffer formula, it actually is true to its essentially dark tone (even though the original ending was softened quite a bit). 

Verdict: Fascinating stuff in its own way and very well-performed. ***1/2.

THE GAY SISTERS



THE GAY SISTERS
(1942). Director: Irving Rapper.

The Gaylord Sisters have been waiting 27 years for their father's will to be probated, but a stubborn businessman named Charles Barclay (George Brent) refuses to accept their settlement offer. Seems the man has a personal grudge against one of the sisters, Fiona (Barbara Stanwyck), the reason for which comes out as this highly entertaining movie progresses. The other sisters, Evelyn (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and Susie (Nancy Coleman), don't like each other very much, with a true-to-form Evelyn doing her best to steal Susie's beau, "Gig Young" (played by Gig Young, who took his screen name from this picture). Then there's that little charmer Austin, who's sort of been adopted by Fiona. But whose little boy is he really? There are very interesting twists to this very well-acted and directed drama that transcends soap opera due to Lenore Coffee's excellent script and its sheer quality. Stanwyck is excellent, as are Fitzgerald and Coleman, and a large supporting cast including Donald Woods, Donald Crisp, Anne Revere, and Grant Mitchell. Young and Brent aren't slouches, either. Certain to stimulate debate is a scene between Stanwyck and Brent that could be taken as consensual (if cynical) sex or as rape! Irving Rapper, who is in full command of the picture, also directed Deception, The Corn is Green, Now, Voyager, and many others.

Verdict: Really the kind of movie they don't make anymore. ***1/2.

MUSIC BY MAX STEINER

MUSIC BY MAX STEINER: The Epic Life of Hollywood's Most Influential Composer. Steven C. Smith. Oxford University Press; 2020. 

Gone with the Wind, Now Voyager, King Kong, Of Human Bondage, Charge of the Light Brigade, White Heat, The Fountainhead, Johnny Belinda, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Mildred Pierce, Since You Went Away, Casablanca, The Letter, Dark Victory, Jezebel, Angels with Dirty Faces, A Star is Born (1937) -- this barely scratches the list of the 241 scores composed by the great Austrian-born Max Steiner. This excellent, well-researched, and very thorough biography examines Steiner's family and early life in Vienna, his early years working on Broadway, the first pictures that he began scoring, up to his triumphs on such as Gone With the Wind (for which he did not win an Oscar and should have) and scores that did win Academy Awards, such as Since You Went Away, Now, Voyager and The Informer. Steiner clearly understood the importance of underscoring to bring out the emotional sub-text in motion pictures, a style that was later implemented by many other composers in Hollywood. At first, some people thought it was strange to hear, say, a symphonic orchestra in the middle of the desert, but eventually audiences came to appreciate the music blaring from the speakers while the actors did their thing onscreen. Music By Max Steiner looks at his various, often troubled, marriages, his problems with the studios and producers such as Selznick, his gambling and profligate spending which left him deeply in debt until, lo and behold, he actually composed a hit song with his theme from A Summer Place. The book also looks at the sad, tragic and all-too-brief life of his handsome only son, Ronald, who committed suicide at 21 (and was possibly gay). Steiner's music has complemented many great movies and enriched movies that even Steiner wished he hadn't had to work on, but although he occasionally wrote a less-than-compelling score, that didn't happen very often. My favorite Steiner theme: the sensitive and lovely waltz that signifies the relationship between Olivia de Havilland and George Brent in In This Our Life. (Author Smith doesn't comment on this, but with so very many movies to choose from it's inevitable that some of your favorites will be overlooked.) The book gets rather technical at times but that shouldn't blunt your enjoyment even if you're not a musicologist. 

Verdict: Excellent biography of a gifted composer whose life and work richly deserves to be re-examined. ****.                                                                                                                                                                                                         

THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940)

THE MARK OF ZORRO
(1940). Director: Rouben Mamoulian. 

Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) returns to Los Angeles from Madrid and discovers that in his absence his elderly father (Montagu Love) has been unseated and a petty tyrant, Don Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), is taxing the people to death and brutalizing the rebellious with the aid of nasty Captain Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). Diego's father is appalled by what his predecessor is doing but can't see himself fighting against the government, no matter how corrupt. Therefore Diego dons the mask of Zorro to fight his people's oppressor, and begins to act as a carefree, callous fop to avoid suspicion being focused upon him. This very good movie about one of the first masked "super-heroes" of sorts is fine entertainment, with smashing performances from all -- this is one of Power's best -- and an excellent sword fight between Power and Rathbone, who is also at his snarling best. Linda Darnell is lovely as the romantic interest and Gale Sondergaard splendid as Quintero's catty and unfaithful wife. Eugene Palette scores as the Padre, and there's a good scene when Power reveals his secret identity to the priest. Bromberg and Love are also in top form. Not as thrilling as the serial Zorro's Fighting Legion but much superior to Zorro Rides Again. 

 Verdict: Very entertaining classic. ***.

SCHOOL'S OUT

 

Chaney, Jackson, Cooper, DeBorba

SCHOOL'S OUT (1930 short). Director: Robert F.  McGowan. 

In this Little Rascals short produced by Hal Roach, the children are worried at the idea that their pretty teacher, Miss Crabtree (Dorothy DeBorba), might get married and leave the school. Therefore when a man that they assume is her beau shows up at the classroom, they tell him all sorts of awful things about Miss Crabtree, and then steal his clothing when he goes to take a swim in the watering hole nearby! This is a cute time capsule of a movie, rather unreal even when it was made, but the little actors are adorable and adept. Allen "Farina" Hoskins has as much to do as Jackie Cooper, and is very funny and likable. It would be all too easy to harp on the dated, stereotypical aspects of the film and others in the series, but it all seems good-natured for the time, and the young black actors in this are quite talented, especially Farina. 

Verdict: Amiable nonsense with a spirited cast of very young players. ***. 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

CAPTAIN KIDD

Charles Laughton as Captain Kidd
CAPTAIN KIDD (1945). Director: Rowland V. Lee.

Captain William Kidd (Charles Laughton) presents himself to King William III (Henry Daniell) and is assigned to keep pirates from attacking a British ship filled with booty. Kidd, of course, has other ideas about what to do with that ship. Kidd gathers a crew of cutthroats under sentence and offers them a pardon if they serve on board his ship. One of these men, Adam Mercy (Randolph Scott), hides a secret: that Kidd murdered his father. When the British ship is destroyed and stripped of her bounty, the beautiful Lady Anne (Barbara Britton) is taken aboard -- she and Adam will form a romantic alliance, but getting away from Captain Kidd may not be so easy. 

Laughton with John Carradine
Captain Kidd
 is a good movie with a great lead performance. The movie has humor, and Laughton makes the most of it without ever descending into parody. Although he appears briefly, Daniell is wonderful as the king, and John Carradine is also notable as a not-so-friendly associate of Kidd's. Reginald Owen also has a nice turn as Shadwell, a gentleman's gentleman who has been hired to remove all the considerable rough edges from Kidd -- who desires a peerage -- and who winds up allying himself with Adam and Lady Anne. Although they have a lot to do, Scott and Britton are outclassed in this company. Barbara Britton became better-known for her television work on Mr. and Mrs. North with Richard Denning. Gilbert Roland is one of Kidd's crew, as is Sheldon Leonard, whom I didn't even recognize. 

Verdict: Heavily fictionalized but entertaining look at the infamous alleged pirate with an absolutely marvelous Laughton. ***.  

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET CAPTAIN KIDD

Charles Laughton as Captain Kidd
ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET CAPTAIN KIDD (1952). Director: Charles Lamont. 

Seven years after playing Captain Kidd in a serious film, Charles Laughton reprised the role in this parody with Bud Abbott (Rocky) and Lou Costello (Puddin' Head). The fellows are working at the Death's Head tavern when Kidd comes in for a meal with lady pirate Ann  Bonney (Hillary Brooke) -- who was a real-life Irish pirate. Bonney and Kidd argue over who gets what of the treasure that has been secreted on Skull island, and Lou winds up possessing a map that shows the location of said treasure. Unfortunately, the map keeps getting confused with a love letter sent by Lady Jane (Fran Warren) to the amorous singer, Bruce Martingale (Bill Shirley). Everyone winds up on a ship heading for the island while Lou and Kidd try to outwit each other and Bonney inexplicable finds Puddin Head's charms irresistible. 

Laughton and Lou Costello mug
Abbott and Costello
 Meet Captain Kidd starts out as a very funny comedy with everyone in good form, especially Laughton, who plays the role with perhaps just a touch more humor than before. Laughton and Lou Costello prove to be a good team in this, and poor Abbott is somewhat shunted to the side. Hillary Brooke could give decent performances in some films but there is an extra comical edge to the notion that she is actually doing scenes with the great Charles Laughton, as she is nowhere in his league as an actor. Costello sometimes overdoes his shtick,  which was typical for him. Bill Shirley has a nice voice and he and Fran Warren get to warble some rather pleasant songs by Russell and Lee: Captain Kidd, A Bachelor's Life, Tonight We Sail, Tall Pine, and North of Nowhere, the last two being romantic ballads. The movie is cute, Laughton is terrific, but eventually it just gets too silly and too many gags are repeated ad nauseam. 

Verdict: Just misses being an Abbott and Costello classic. **3/4. 

CAPTAIN KIDD AND THE SLAVE GIRL

Anthony Dexter and Eva Gabor
CAPTAIN KIDD AND THE SLAVE GIRL (1954). Director: Lew Landers. 

Captain William Kidd (Anthony Dexter) is convicted of piracy and sentenced to hang (as he was in real life). In this completely fictionalized story, Kidd's death is faked with the complicity of Lord Bellomont (James Seay), who hopes to eventually learn where Kidd's treasure is buried. To that end Kidd is given a new name and put on board a ship helmed by Captain Pace (the ever-uninteresting Lyle Talbot). Also on board is Judith Duvall (Eva Gabor) who was put there to report back to Bellomont. After an adversarial relationship, the two eventually become lovers, possibly because Kidd walks around with his shirt off through much of the movie. Eventually the two encounter Blackbeard (Michael Ross) and lady pirate Ann Bonney (Sonia Sorel). It's a question who will wind up with the treasure and if Kidd and Judith will ever make it back to England. 

Alan Hale Jr. with Dexter
Captain Kidd and the Slave Girl
 is fast-paced and amusing, with a dashing and adept performance by Dexter, who'd previously played Valentino and appeared in the trash-classic Fire Maidens of Outer Space. Gabor is better than expected, Ross [Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman] makes a blustering Blackbeard, and Sorel is quite effective as Bonney. It's fun watching Kidd turn Gabor into a galley slave early in their relationship, and even more fun watching Gabor and Sorel having a zesty "cat-fight." A hilarious scene has Kidd telling Judith to pretend to be his slave when she is wearing a fancy gown. Someone in the make up department had the lousy idea of painting a beard and mustache on Dexter's face instead of letting him grow one or using a fake beard with spirit gum -- in some shots it looks very strange. Alan Hale Jr. is excellent as Jay Simpson, a good friend of Kidd's who sticks with him to the bitter end. William Tannen also makes an impression as Steve Castle, a decided enemy of Kidd's, and smaller roles are played by William Schallert, Harry Lauter, Ken Terrell, and others who appeared in numerous B movies and serials. Although this movie was released in color, the only print I could find was black and white. 

Verdict: A sexy Kidd never hurts! ***.