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

Thursday, August 16, 2018

BRIGHT LEAF

BRIGHT LEAF (1950). Director: Michael Curtiz.

Thrown out of the town of Kingsmouth, NC many years before by the wealthy tobacco man Major Singleton (Donald Crisp), Brant Royle (Gary Cooper) returns to make a fortune and stir up trouble. With the aid of John Barton (Jeff Corey), who has invented a machine for making and packaging cigarettes, and the financial help of gal pal Sonia Kovac (Lauren Bacall), he builds the Royle cigarette company into a giant that puts many of his tobacco competitors out of business. Sonia is in love with Brant, but he only has eyes for Singleton's lovely daughter, Margaret (Patricia Neal), and as the years go by he becomes more and more like her father, gaining power and prestige but treating people shabbily. Brant finds out that he may not have a friend left in the world ... Bright Leaf is a pot-boiler that slowly builds in dramatic intensity and features some effective performances. Cooper is better than usual in his portrayal of Royle; Neal is good but not great; and Bacall [Shock Treatment] has one of her best roles in this. Jack Carson and Jeff Corey are fine as Brant's business partners, Elizabeth Patterson [Out of the Blue] is terrific as the major's elderly sister; and Donald Crisp [The Old Maid] nearly steals the show as the implacable major -- one of the movie's best scenes has the major challenging Brant to a duel. As the love rivals, Neal and Cooper haven't any scenes together, unfortunately. A comical aspect of the movie is when Bacall tells Cooper that she's opened a "rooming house" when it is all too obviously a brothel! Smoothly directed by Michael Curtiz.

Verdict: This could be dismissed as a nearly two hour advertisement for cigarettes were it not for its sheer entertainment value. ***. 

THE KID FROM BROOKLYN

Walter Abel, Steve Cochran, Danny Kaye and Eve Arden
THE KID FROM BROOKLYN (1946). Director: Norman Z. McLeod.

Burleigh Sullivan (Danny Kaye) is a skinny milkman who comes to the rescue when his sister, Susie (Vera-Ellen), is bothered by a masher, the boxer Speed McFarlane (Steve Cochran of The Chase). When Speed, the heavyweight champion, is knocked out with one punch, the press wrongly believe that Burleigh delivered the blow. Speed's manager, Gabby (Walter Abel), decides to capitalize on the situation by hiring Burleigh as a fighter, and paying his opponents to take a dive so he can ultimately cash in when Burleigh has a real match with Speed. Complications occur when Burleigh's success goes to his head, and Speed and Susie fall for each other. Kaye is wonderful in this light-hearted, silly, modestly entertaining musical, and the pic is bolstered with fine supporting performances, not only from those already mentioned but from an absolutely gorgeous Virginia Mayo as Burleigh's recent girlfriend, Polly Pringle, and the inimitable Eve Arden as Gabby's acerbic gal pal, Ann. Clarence Kolb of My Little Margie is the head of the milk company, Lionel Stander is as repulsive as ever as Speed's associate (and the one who actually knocked him out), and Fay Bainter [The Children's Hour] has an amusing scene with Kaye when he teaches her how to box and duck. Some of the characters, such as Polly and Susie, seem to over-react when Kaye's behavior changes after his "success" in the ring, but he's never as bad as they make him out to be, making it seem more like they've got sour grapes. Kaye and Mayo would make more movies together.

Verdict: The players help put across this. **1/2.   

DUCHESS OF IDAHO

Esther Williams and Van Johnson
DUCHESS OF IDAHO (1950). Director: Robert Z. Leonard.

Ellen Hallet (Paula Raymond) is madly in love with her playboy boss, Doug Morrison (John Lund of The Perils of Pauline), but he doesn't know she's alive. He consistently has Ellen pretend to be his fiancee so he can dump other women in a very cruel fashion. While any woman with sense or self-respect would tell Doug to go screw himself, Ellen has to have him, and her sister, Christine (Esther Williams) -- a theatrical swimming star, of course -- comes up with an idea. This idea, which doesn't make much sense, is for her to go to Sun Valley where Doug is staying and romance him, apparently with the hopes of opening his eyes to Ellen's charms. Say what? As only can happen in the movies, this ploy apparently works until Doug finds out about it, and we mustn't forget the complication of band leader and singer Dick Layn (Van Williams), who falls for Christine but is put off by her attentions to Doug. Oy vey. The plot for this flick is pretty stupid, but it has its charms, mostly due to a winning cast. Paula Raymond [The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms] has one of her most memorable roles, and is on screen almost as long as Williams. (In fact, there are times when our gal almost seems crowded out of her own movie.) Johnson makes a handsome and adept leading man for Williams, Lund is also good, and Williams swims with distinction and plays with her usual saucy and sexy attitude. Eleanor Powell dances in a guest bit, Red Skelton cameos for a minute or two, and Connie Haines, as singer Peggy Elliott, is merely mediocre. Mel Torme plays a bellboy named Cyril and looks 14, Lena Horne warbles a number, and Amanda Blake [Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard] is effective as the slinky Linda, who tries to drag Doug to the altar. Clinton Sundberg makes his mark, as usual, as Doug's slightly acerbic butler. The song numbers, mostly be-bop or a lesser variation on swing music, are not memorable.

Verdict: The script is nothing to crow about, but the cast puts it over with aplomb. **1/2. 

FAST AND FURIOUS

Ann Sothern and Franchot Tone
FAST AND FURIOUS (1939). Director: Busby Berkeley.

When Gerda Sloane (Ann Sothern), the wife of bookseller and amateur sleuth Joel Sloane (Franchot Tone), is told by him that the two are taking a vacation, she doesn't know that he's put money in a bathing beauty contest occurring in the resort town of Seaside City (read: Atlantic City). As Gerda runs interference for the occasionally amorous beauties, Joel investigates the murder of the contest's promoter, Eric Bartell (John Miljan). The suspects include his girlfriend, Lily (Ruth Hussey of The Uninvited); his other girlfriend, Jerry (Mary Beth Hughes of Men On Her Mind); Sloane's old friend, Mike Stevens (Lee Bowman of Up in Mabel's Room); and others. Fast and Furious was the debut and apparently the one and only entry in this bid for an aborted mystery series a la The Thin Man, but it's mediocre enough that there were never any sequels. Sothern and Tone make good leads -- Tone is somewhat better and has more aplomb at this than his co-star does -- but even Tone, good as he is, can't compete with William Powell. The business about a wife getting all hot and bothered because her husband is judging a beauty contest was to be repeated ad nauseum in various movies and TV shows, and had probably been done even before 1939. Harry Kurnitz' script has few laughs aside from a very funny bit involving some lions, and there is at least one very suspenseful scene when our couple are caught underneath a descending stage elevator, nearly crushing them. Otherwise, this is forgettable.

Verdict: Not one of the classics of 1939. **.

GOVERNMENT AGENTS VS PHANTOM LEGION

Walter Reed
GOVERNMENT AGENTS VS PHANTOM LEGION (12 chapter Republic serial/1951). Director: Fred C. Brannon.

"I'm a dead duck anyway, so I might as well take you along. " -- Duncan to opponent with murder on his mind.

The members of a trucking association, who have government contracts to deliver important supplies, are alarmed when their trucks are attacked and hijacked, the equipment stolen. Agent Hal Duncan (Walter Reed of Flying Disc Man from Mars) is assigned to track down the perpetrators with the help of assistant Sam Bradley (John Pickard). A complication is that one of the members of the association is secretly behind the robberies, and his two main henchmen, Regan (Dick Curtis of Terry and the Pirates) and Cady (Fred Coby of The Brute Man) report to him through a two-way mirror as he sits safe and unidentified in another office. The cliffhangers in this are of the standard "missing information" variety, but they are still effective: fire engulfs a mine car full of hand grenades and nearly blows Duncan to bits; an ore dump drops its contents on top of him; his parachute lands right on the tracks in front of an onrushing train; he gets trapped in a remote-controlled runaway truck; and -- best of all -- is nearly incinerated when a stream of gasoline is ignited and rushes down the highway towards his automobile! Walter Reed is not afraid to show panic and dismay on his face during these frightening moments. The other cast members are good, although Mary Ellen Kay as the nominal heroine displays little acting skill. Stanley Wilson's exciting score is a plus. Tom Steele and Arthur Space are also in the cast.

Verdict: Fun serial ***.


SCANDAL

Toshiro Mifune
 SCANDAL (1950). Director: Akira Kurosawa.

A well-known artist named Ichiro (Toshiro Mifune) is painting on a mountainside when he encounters a famous singer, whom he at first doesn't recognize, named Miyako (Shirley Yamaguchi). Offering her a lift, they check into separate rooms at a hotel, but talk to one another on a balcony later on. Some tabloid journalists see the two, assume they are having an affair, snap their picture, and bring it to Hori (Eitaro Ozawa of The H-Man), the publisher of Amour.  Although neither Ichiro or Miyako are married (which in itself may be a problem), the photo causes a scandal and embarrasses the both of them. Ichiro hires a lawyer named Hiruta (Takashi Shimura), whose young daughter, Masako (Yoko Katsuragi), is ill and has been confined to her bed for years. Miyako decides to join Ichiro in the lawsuit, but when Hirata goes to see Hiro, the former may succumb to his basest urges ... Scandal is a relatively minor film from the famous Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, but it is not without merit and its poignant moments. Scandal reminds one of a Japanese Frank Capra film (admittedly not one of the really great Capra films), with its mix of pathos, humor and sentiment. In later years star Mifune was known for his gruff and acclaimed portrayals of outlaws, Samurai, and the like, but this is his matinee idol stage, and he is quite good-looking and sexy. His part, as well as Yamaguchi's, is underwritten, however, and the viewer never gets to know these two faux lovers very well. This is perhaps all right, as the film truly belongs to Hiruta (beautifully portrayed by another Kurosawa regular, Shimura), the lawyer who has a crisis of conscience in the face of a crushing tragedy, and the film ends on a sombre note. Tanie Kitabayashi also scores as Hiruta's wife, and the other performances are all well-played. It's a little strange to watch a crowd scene in which dozens of extras are singing "Auld Lang Syne" in Japanese!    

Verdict: Takes a while to get going, but this is not without interest. ***. 

BULLDOG DRUMMOND ESCAPES

Guy Standing, Reginald Denny, and Ray Milland
BULLDOG DRUMMOND ESCAPES (1937). Director: James P. Hogan.

Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond (Ray Milland) nearly runs over an anxious woman, Phyllis Clavering (Heather Angel of The Undying Monster), on the road, and discovers that she is apparently being held captive in a manor nearby. The owner, Norman Merridew (Porter Hall) pish-poshes this accusation, and it doesn't help that Merridew is friends with Drummond's old adversary, Commissioner Nielson (Guy Standing). With the help of his buddy, Algy (Reginald Denny of Rebecca), and his butler Tenny (E. E. Clive), Drummond invades the mansion to affect a rescue. Paramount apparently began a series of Bulldog Drummond films with this picture, but star Ray Milland wisely only stuck around for the first entry. Milland is smooth and handsome but overly boyish and wide-eyed to the point where it's hard to see him as any kind of heroic figure. Heather Angel, who's not especially impressive in this, played the same role in several future Bulldog Drummond films, becoming that character's fiancee, and after many movies, his wife. (She was much more impressive in Hitchcock's Lifeboat,  under the master's tutelage.) The most interesting cast member is actually Fay Holden, playing a sleek if middle-aged villainess the same year she debuted as the mother of Andy Hardy in You're Only Young Once. Drummond is such a "friend" to his close buddy Algy that he uses subterfuge to get his help when the latter is at the hospital with his wife waiting for his child to be born! Bulldog Drummond Escapes is such a dull movie that it's a wonder Paramount ever made a follow-up, but apparently it was pleasing enough as a bottom of the bill flick to engender many sequels.

Verdict:  You'd be better off watching the sixties Drummond film Deadlier Than the Male. *1/2. 

Thursday, August 9, 2018

THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY

Ginger Rogers, Oscar Levant, Fred Astaire
THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY (1949). Director: Charles Walters.

Josh and Dinah Barkley (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) have been a top team on Broadway for several years, but all is not rosy in their lives backstage. Secretly Dinah is a bit tired of her husband's Svengali-like attitude and his criticisms, as well as the feeling he has that he "made" her. When a very handsome playwright named Jacques Barredout (Jacques Francois) insists that Dinah has great and untapped dramatic talent, she decides to try her hand at playing Sarah Bernhardt in his new play. Will she fall on her face, and how will Josh feel if she does? Barkleys presents Astaire and Rogers in absolute top form, and this is one of their most winning movies. As their friend and collaborator, Oscar Levant [The Cobweb] offers one of his better performances, although the device of pairing him off with one beautiful woman after another becomes tiresome. Levant was an oddity -- he couldn't sing or dance, and certainly wasn't good-looking -- but his sardonic delivery often works, and he is allowed to play the piano on excerpts from two pieces, Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Tchaikovsky's "Piano Concerto No. 1." If Barkleys falls down in one respect it's that the new songs by Harry Warren and Ira Gershwin aren't up to the standard set by Ira and George Gershwin -- the only melodic bright spot is Gershwin's old tune "They Can't Take That Away from Me." Astaire's smooth elegant dancing is much on display, especially in a number when he trips the light fantastic with dozens of pairs of animated dancing shoes. The supporting cast includes Billie Burke [Three Husbands], who is wasted as a talkative patroness of the arts; Hans Conreid [Juke Box Rhythm] as an avant garde artist who draws Dinah as if she were a pancake (!); and George Zucco, who appears on stage during the Sarah Bernhardt sequence. Clinton Sundberg and Gale Robbins also appear, with Robbins playing Dinah's excitable Southern understudy; she's swell. Jacques Francois is now little-known except for this picture, but he amassed 150 credits, mostly in French productions, and he makes a good impression in this.

I believe this was the last time Astaire and Rogers were teamed in a movie, There was actually a ten year gap between Barkleys and their previous film, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Lest one wonder if the real Rogers felt like Dinah does in this movie, we must remember that Rogers had already proven her dramatic acting chops in several previous films -- and she won the Best Actress Oscar for Kitty Foyle in 1941 -- so this was not a case of art imitating life.

Verdict: Delightful musical with the inimitable team of Rogers and Astaire. ***. 

MADONNA OF THE SEVEN MOONS

MADONNA OF THE SEVEN MOONS (1945). Director: Arthur Crabtree.

Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert) is a convent-raised girl who is raped and traumatized shortly before being married off to the kindly Giuseppe (John Stewart). Years go by and their daughter, Angela (Patricia Roc of The Wicked Lady), is now grown, but the announcement of her marriage to Evelyn (Alan Haines) precipitates another episode in which Maddalena runs off for months and vanishes. Maddalena has a whole other life as Rosanna, the lover of the criminal, Nino (Stewart Granger of Blanche Fury), in Florence. Neither Guiseppe nor Nino realize that Maddalena/Rosanna has a split personality due to her rape years before, and Nino thinks that she has taken a lover, Giuseppe, and decides to kill one or the other ... Madonna of the Seven Moons is hard to take seriously as it's much more of a pot-boiler than a drama, but it is arresting at times, and generally well-acted. Phylllis Calvert [The Man in Grey] is quite effective at getting across her different personalities and at different time periods, and the other cast members are all good. Especially notable are Peter Glenville as Sandro, Nino's slimy brother, and Nancy Price as their cackling old crone of  a mother. The film is entertaining, but one senses it would have worked better as an Italian verismo opera with a score by Pietro Mascagni.

Verdict: Watch out for those wild Florencian passions! ***. 

SWING FEVER

Kay Kyser and Marilyn Maxwell
 SWING FEVER (1943). Director: Tim Whelan.

Lowell Blackford (Kay Kyser of Carolina Blues) is a classical composer who hopes to interest someone in his music. He is befriended by band singer Ginger Gray (Marilyn Maxwell of Summer Holiday), but he misinterprets her interest in him. Ginger has a boyfriend named "Waltzy" Malone (William Gargan), who is interested in the boxing racket. When Malone learns that Lowell can fix people with an "evil eye" and literally knock them out, he wants him to use his power on his boxer's opponent. But then his opponent's crew kidnap him ... Kyser had already done several movies before this, but this was the first and only time he was playing a character and not himself. True, he doesn't come off much different than before, but his performance is more than competent and he is, as usual, appealing in his nerdy way. Musicians such as Harry James and Jimmy Dorsey, who have cameos in this film, may be better remembered today, but Kyser was the only popular band leader who became a nominal movie star. As for Swing Fever, you can tell that any movie with this plot is probably not going to be very good, and that is sadly the case with this picture, although the other performances are okay and there are some pleasant song numbers. Maxwell warbles "Undecided" but she's outshone by the three young people who shake and shimmy to the music afterward. Weird comic Ish Kabibble, who frequently appeared with Kyser, appears briefly and his routines are unfunny, to put it mildly. Others in the film include Lena Horne, Morris Ankrum, Pamela Blake, singer Harry Babbitt, and the amusing Curt Bois [That Night in Rio], who plays Malone's partner.

Verdict: Kyser is likable but the picture is no knock-out. **. 

BECOMING ANITA EKBERG

Mastroianni and Ekberg in La dolce vita and 27 years later, both still sexy
BECOMING ANITA EKBERG
 (2014  documentary). Director: Mark Rappaport.

While I always strive to review a book or movie for what it is as opposed to what it isn't, sometimes you're not given much of a choice. If you tune in to a (very short) documentary entitled Becoming Anita Ekberg, you would think you'd have a right to expect some sort of biographical treatment, and that you might be told, say, what her early life was like; who, if anyone, she might have married; some of her personal thoughts on her films and co-workers; how she got her start in show business; and so on. Alas, Becoming Anita Ekberg is yet another of director Mark Rapport's insufficient "video essays," this time purportedly on Ekberg but more about the nature of stardom and the short shelf life of sex symbols. (Some of this is interesting while much of it is obvious and pretentious.) You won't learn much more than the basics about Ekberg herself: how she played "Anita Ekberg" in the Martin and Lewis comedy Hollywood or Bust (an all too obvious title); reached international stardom as the movie star in Fellini's famous La dolce vita; and wound up playing herself again in Boccaccio '70, this time as a giant-size poster of herself that comes to life. For the record Ekberg was married to actors Rik Van Nutter and Anthony Steel and had sixty-five credits in films, few of which are even mentioned. Her life and career were actually quite interesting, but you will learn much more at imdb.com than you will from this "documentary." Obviously, this is just a collection of clips tied together to illustrate Rappaport's ruminations, with the clips coming first and the ruminations second. There's also a bit of ageism in this as the film tries to make out that Ekberg has become hideous or something because she's older, but she and Mastroianni, although undeniably older, still look quite attractive. One of her later movies was Killer Nun. She was certainly prominent in the poster for Back from Eternity, which gurgled "Ooh That Ekberg!" Rappaport was also responsible for Debra Paget, For Example, which is somewhat better than this.

Verdict: Skip it and watch one of Ekberg's movies instead. *. 

MARTIN KANE, PRIVATE EYE

Mark Stevens
MARTIN KANE, PRIVATE EYE (aka Martin Kane/1949 - 1954.)

Martin Kane, Private Eye started out as a popular radio series, then spread out to television even as the radio show continued. The NBC half-hour telecast was sponsored by the U.S. Tobacco Company, and many of the ads were sort of incorporated into the story, with characters going into a tobacco shop to buy the sponsor's cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and the like. (This is "product placement" par excellance!) The show was originally introduced with loud organ music like a radio show, and the old style announcer practically shouts out the name of the series in figuratively italicized letters. Martin Kane was played by William Gargan, Lloyd Nolan (of Michael Shayne fame), Lee Tracy, and Mark Stevens. I believe the show was aired live, but despite its low budget it's well-produced, with more movement and action than you may associate with live TV.

Here are some episodes, listed by actor. I give the season and episode number when available.

William Gargan: Pleasant and amiable Gargan [Night Editor] made a very likable Martin Kane. He says good-night to the audience at the end of each episode.

  (S2, E 20) "The District Attorney Killer." A convicted killer (Frank DeKova) clears an innocent man from the witness stand, but then pulls out a gun and kills the district attorney who prosecuted him. Then he says the gun was given to him by his own attorney! Who's telling the truth? And is the "innocent" man guilty after all? Suspenseful story with some good twists and a comparatively complex plot. A.

"Hotel Con Game." A man named Smith comes to Kane to tell him that his entire life savings has been stolen, presumably by the land lady of the hotel where he lives, who is also a fortune teller who importuned him to change banks. Then a murder results. B+.

"Doctored Will." An elderly man is shot to death and his heirs all become suspects, but has someone fiddled with the will? C

"Murder on the Ice." An obnoxious if talented rookie hockey player takes a drink of brandy before a game and drops dead on the ice. Kane is convinced from a smell of almonds that the man was poisoned, but the chemical report on the bottle may contain some surprises. Roland Winters plays one of the suspects. C-.

"Reclusive Sisters" stars an excellent Una O'Connor and Nydia Westman in a darkly comic tale of three weird sisters who live alone in an old mansion and take steps when an elderly lawyer comes to tell them that they're losing the house and must move to a home. B+.
Lloyd Nolan

Lloyd Nolan could be tough when required but generally gives it the light touch after appearing in several Michael Shayne movies such as Dressed to Kill.

  (S3, E 27.) "Black Pearls." Kane is accused of murder when the grumpy man who hired him and who has a fabulous collection of black pearls, is murdered on his yacht and the pearls are found in the detective's pocket. B.

"A Jockey Is Murdered." There are a number of suspects when a jockey (Walter Burke) who throws a race is stabbed to death right in front of a betting window. B.

"Nightclub Murder." Nightclub singer Johnny Silver (Mark Dawson) is shot dead in front of an audience after just a few bars of his hit song, and Kane uncovers the fact that several people in his life had major motives for killing him. B+.

"Rest Home Murder." In one of the worst episodes of the series, Judith Evelyn plays the shady owner of a rest home who tries to find out the whereabouts of a $100,000 check from a "patient," a former client of Kane's who calls him for help. D+.

Lee Tracy [Dinner at Eight] offers one of the most interesting and flavorful interpretations of Martin Kane, adding great charm to his portrayal.

 (S4, E25.) "The Comic Strip Killer." The clever plot has a comic strip artist and writer foolishly telling everyone that he'll reveal the identity of the person who murdered a philandering woman's wealthy husband in the comic strip itself. B+.

Mark Stevens [Time Table] is more of a traditional hard-boiled private eye than the others, and the handsomest of the actors who played the role.

"The Milk Bottle Burglar." Trying to catch whoever is stealing his milk bottles, an elderly major comes afoul of a hit man who is after the thief for other reasons. Robert H. Harris is terrific as the mob boss who ordered the hit. C+

"The Shoeshine Murder." When a shoeshine boy witnesses a murder he goes on the run, then winds up out on a window ledge where Kane and others try to talk to him, and the murderer tries to get him to throw himself down to the street several stories below.  B-.

Verdict: Hard to judge this based on only a handful of episodes (some are on youtube; others on DVD) but it might be safe to say this is a real mixed bag with some hidden gems. **1/2. 

HOT SUMMER

Frank Schobel
HOT SUMMER (aka Heisser Sommer/1968). Director: Joachim Hasler.

If you've ever wondered -- and who hasn't? -- what an AIP Beach Party movie would look like if it was made in East Germany, look no further. In Hot Summer a group of gals and guys go off on separate vacations and are initially dismayed when they run into each other, but then those pesky hormones kick in. The gals are annoyed that the boys, who play various jokes on them, are so immature, so it takes awhile for romance to come into play. Then a triangle situation develops with Brit (Regine Albrecht) coming between hunky friends Kai (Frank Schobel) and Wolf (Hanns-Michael Schmidt). The way they carry on in such jealous fashion you would think they were in committed relationships or marriages instead of mere summer flings! The movie features many, many song numbers, most of which are awful, although Kai warbles one nice ballad, and his number "I Found the One" is also pleasant. The choreography is terrible. With his matinee idol looks Frank Schobel gets most of the male close ups while the majority of the female close ups go not to Albrecht so much as Chris Doerk as Stupsi, a loud young lady with a big face and mouth and very large teeth, cast in the Connie Francis role of the gal who doesn't land the guy. (Interestingly enough, pop star Doerk and Schobel were married when this picture was made, although they divorced in 1974). Any attempts at feminist enlightenment are sort of washed away by the scene when some white mice, let loose by the boys, have the girls jumping up on their beds and screaming! Despite this coming from a Communist country, its sensibilities aren't much different from American musicals of the sixties.

Verdict: If you've seen one East German teen movie you've probably seen them all. **. 

FAIR NEW MOVIE: LADY MACBETH

Florence Pugh and Cosmo Jarvis
LADY MACBETH (2016). Director: William Oldroyd.

Katherine (Florence Pugh) lives on a farm in 19th century England with her horrible father-in-law, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), her cold husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton), and assorted workmen and servants. Into her life comes a brash groom named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), and the two begin a passionate affair. They manage to remove all obstacles to their happiness in ruthless fashion, and then are confronted with a sweet little boy, Teddy (Anton Palmer), who is her late husband's ward and now his chief heir ... The story that inspired Lady Macbeth was filmed once before as Siberian Lady Macbeth, and that is by far the superior picture. This version shifts the action from Russia to England, and while it remains gloomy, it loses something in the "translation." The lead performances are good, although hardly expert, and there is some interesting work from Hilton and Fairbank, as well as Naomi Ackie as the maid, Anna, and Golda Rosheuve as little Teddy's caregiver, Agnes. The concessions to modern taste don't always work well and the new ending to the story, while very depressing, doesn't pack the satisfying wallop of the original. Siberian Lady Macbeth has much more raw dramatic power than this.  When will modern film directors realize that the low-key approach isn't always the best one?

Verdict: Stick with the more faithful Yugoslavian version. **1/2. 

Thursday, August 2, 2018

THE LAST TIME I SAW PARIS

Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor
THE LAST TIME I SAW PARIS (1954). Director: Richard Brooks. Very loosely based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In post-WW2 Paris, war correspondent Charles Wills (Van Johnson) meets beautiful Helen Ellswirth (Elizabeth Taylor). Initially attracted to Helen's sister, Marion (Donna Reed), he makes a date with her that is intercepted by Helen, leading to a major romance and marriage. Although the couple discover oil on property they own and have plenty of money, the marriage is threatened by Charles' inability to sell his novels to any publisher, the drinking and carousing that results from it, and Helen's reaction to this as well as his flirtatious relationship with the much-married divorcee, Lorraine (Eva Gabor). It all leads up to an unexpected tragedy ... The main strength of The Last Time I Saw Paris are the lead performances, which are better than the movie deserves. Taylor  plays the somewhat spoiled woman-child very well, but Johnson is especially outstanding, doing some of the very best work of his career. The trouble with the movie is not so much the basic plot but the screenplay by Julius and Philip Epstein, which indulges in one cliche after another and rarely delves into the situations with any depth. The final quarter of the film is the most memorable, as it finally deals with Charles' apparent rejection of Marion, as well as with his relationship with his young daughter,  Vicky (a charming Sandy Descher of Them!); these sequences are moving and very well-played. (Cast as Marion, Donna Reed truly has a thankless part.) Four years earlier Johnson and Taylor were teamed for a comedy entitled The Big Hangover, and there are times when the light soap opera tone of Paris threatens to just collapse into giggles; you get the sense the tragedy that occurs is meant to add some sobering substance to the proceedings, even if it doesn't quite work. Eva Gabor [The Mad Magician], who was always more talented than her sister Zsa Zsa (although hardly an acting genius) is fun as Lorraine; as Helen and Marion's rather irresponsible father, Walter Pidgeon is Walter Pidgeon. Roger Moore [A View to a Kill] shows up and is as smooth as ever as a playboy who dallies with Helen. Of all people, the corpulent Bruno VeSota [Attack of the Giant Leeches] shows up in a party scene clad in a tuxedo!

Verdict: Some tender and amusing moments, but Paris -- and Fitzgerald -- deserve better. **1/2. 

EXPERIMENT IN TERROR

Ross Martin
EXPERIMENT IN TERROR (1962). Produced and directed by Blake Edwards.

Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick) is a bank teller who lives with her teenage sister, Toby (Stefanie Powers of Die, Die, My Darling). One night a stranger named Red Lynch (Ross Martin) sneaks up behind her in her garage and tells her she has to steal $100,000 from her bank or there will be dire consequences for her and her sister. Kelly manages to contact the FBI, and Agent Ripley (Glenn Ford) is assigned to the case, trying both to find and identify Lynch and to protect Kelly and her sister from harm. Eventually it is decided to let Kelly go along with the plot in an effort to trap Lynch, with the climax occurring in a crowded stadium. Experiment in Terror begins well and has a couple of decent sequences, but Blake Edwards is no suspense specialist, and the film becomes meandering, uninvolving, and rather dull. Remick gives a controlled and competent performance but doesn't offer one iota more for her portrayal; Powers is much better as her sister. Ford plays the "G-Man" with a quiet authority that never quite makes him seem like the best man for the job. Anita Loo and Patricia Huston have flavorful supporting roles as two women who were also in Lynch's life, to the former's advantage and the latter's regret. Ross Martin gives the most notable performance as the criminal "mastermind" who seems to have some sympathy for the little son of a woman he knows and whose hospital bills he is paying, but his character is not very well developed; three years later he gained TV fame on The Wild, Wild West and he was also outstanding in the classic TZ episode Death Ship. Henry Mancini's score is at times quite effective, and Philip Lathrop's cinematography of San Francisco and environs is also good.

Verdict: Paging Alfred Hitchcock. **. 

SIBERIAN LADY MACBETH

Olivera Markovic and Ljuba Tadic
SIBERIAN LADY MACBETH (aka Sibirska Ledi Magbet1962). Director:  Andrzej Wajda

In the Russian district of Mtsensk, Katerina (Olivera Markovic) lives a comparatively bleak existence with her husband, Zinovij (Miodrag Lazarevic), who is usually absent, and her grumpy, awful father-in-law, Izmajlow (Bojan Stupica). One day comes an attractive laborer named Sergei (Ljuba Tadic), who makes a play for Katerina that she only momentarily rebuffs. Trying to hold on to a life together, the couple commit an increasingly terrible series of murders, then discover that the land they thinks belongs to them actually belongs to a child nephew. Just how far will these passionate lovers go to hold on to what they've acquired  ...? Siberian Lady Macbeth is based on a story by Sveta Lukic, which was also the basis for Dmitri Shostakovitch's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. If anything, this Yugoslavian film is even more hard-hitting than the opera, uncompromising, powerful and at times horrifying to the extreme. The performances are excellent, and the film is well-directed and photographed, with a highlight being the climactic prison march. The compelling film is one of those movies, told from the point of view of people devoid of conscience, that almost -- almost -- makes you feel sorry for them at times (the fact that most of the victims are somewhat odious helps in that regard), but you'll ultimately feel that they get their just desserts in a very grim and pitiless finale. Remade as Lady Macbeth in 2016 with the setting transferred to England

Verdict: Dark, sombre, fascinating -- a near-masterpiece. ***1/2.  

THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH

George Ardisson and Barbara Steele
THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (1964). Director: Anthony Dawson (Antonio Margheriti).

Near the end of the fifteenth century, Adele Karnstein is burned as a witch. She was accused of a murder actually committed by the Baron Kurt Humboldt (George Ardisson), who also murdered her older daughter when she confronted him. Some years later Kurt forces the "witch's" other daughter, Lisabeth (Halina Zalewska), to marry him, moving her into his castle. Then along comes a mysterious woman named Mary (Barbara Steele), who bears a striking resemblance to the dead sister, and with whom Kurt becomes obsessed. Becoming her lover, Kurt then importunes Mary to help him get rid of Lisabeth so they can be together forever. But Kurt may not be aware that there may be other deadly plots going on as well ... The Long Hair of Death is an interesting if imperfect film that comes off like a stretched-out episode of, say, Thriller, but it does make good use of medieval settings, tombs, secret passages, and the like, and there are certainly some effective sequences. Although this version has the actors speaking Italian (with sub-titles), most of the international cast are dubbed, meaning we don't get to hear Barbara Steele's great voice. The lead actors give more than adequate performances, and the rest of the cast includes such Italian horror staples as Laura Nucci [The Bloodstained Shadow] as the housekeeper Grumalda, Umberto Raho as Father Yon Klage, and Giuliano Raffaelli as Kurt's father, Count Humboldt. Steele and Raho were also in The Ghost.

Verdict: Low key but fairly absorbing Italian horror film. **1/2. 

THE VERY EDGE

Richard Todd and Anne Heywood
THE VERY EDGE (1963). Director: Cyril Frankel.

"You can't change what happens to you -- only how you feel about it."

Former model and happily married wife Tracey Lawrence (Anne Heywood) is assaulted and nearly raped in her home by a stalker,  Mullen (Jeremy Brett), who is obsessed with her; the incident results in her miscarrying. Her architect husband, Geoffrey (Richard Todd), is supportive, but eventually becomes impatient because Tracey's trauma prevents her from being intimate with him. Geoffrey's new secretary, Helen (Nicole Maurey), seems more than willing to take up the slack and an attraction between the two develops. Meanwhile, the stalker is still on the loose, and still focused on having his way with Tracey ... The Very Edge has all the elements of a good thriller, but it might have been more entertaining had it gone in more lurid directions. Anne Heywood gives an excellent performance as the likable Tracey, and Todd [The Hasty Heart] is also top notch, even if one questions his character and his actions late in the film. Brett is compelling in an unusual role for him, especially when you consider that just the following year he would be warbling "On the Street Where You Live" in My Fair Lady. Jack Hedley [The Anniversary] also scores as Inspector McInnes, adding nuances to his role, such as a possible attraction to Tracey himself. One might not expect the brilliance of , say, a Bernard Herrmann, but David Lee's musical score is rather poor. Cyril Frankel also directed the harder-hitting Never Take Candy from a Stranger.

Verdict: Reasonably absorbing if minor-league melodrama. **1/2, 

PLOT OF FEAR

Eli Wallach and Michele Placido
PLOT OF FEAR (aka E tanta paura/1976). Director: Paolo Cavara.

A series of murders are tied in to a sex club that was run by a man named Hoffmann (John Steiner of Shock) as well as a (true-life) dark children's book. Inspector Lomenzo (Michele Placido) questions a private detective named Struwwel (Eli Wallach) who is being hired for protection by some of the other members of the now-defunct club. A young prostitute who was hired for a party at the sex club and who supposedly died of fright may be part of the puzzle -- or not. As Lomenzo questions other people involved in the case, he encounters Jeanne (Corinne Clery), who was at the party where the prostitute died, and their relationship turns sexual. Now he has to wonder how far involved she was in what happened and in the current series of killings. Plot of Fear has a convoluted plot a la Dario Argento, but where that director's work at its best could be mesmerizing, neither this movie nor the direction of Paolo Cavara is in the same league. The storyline verges on the incomprehensible as well, and the denouement makes little sense. The movie has some suspense, however, and Michele Placido makes an attractive and likable leading man, with a pretty Clery more than competent as his lover and suspect. Eli Wallach gets several good scenes as the detective, but Tom Skerritt, as Placido's superior officer, is on camera for maybe a total of three minutes; he did Alien three years later. The picture has no real style and the non-gory murder scenes are not filmed with any elan. Paolo Cavara also directed the similarly mediocre and confusing Black Belly of the Tarantula. Michele Paolo was a busy Italian actor who later appeared in the homoerotic Ernesto.

Verdict: Mediocre, nominal giallo. **. 

NOT SO GREAT NEW MOVIE: ANNIHILATION

The scientists explore the Shimmer
ANNIHILATION (2018). Written and directed by Alex Garland.

Ex-soldier Lena (Natalie Portman) has not seen her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac of X-Men: Apocalypse) for a year, when he walks into their home in a daze. Lena discovers that Kane was the only person to ever make it out from an area called the Shimmer, a strange zone that is inexplicably spreading outward from a lighthouse and if unchecked may envelop the whole planet. With a group of female scientists, Lena decides to enter this twilight zone (pardon me) herself, if only to find out what happened to her husband inside and what may be still affecting him. With an interesting premise and a promise of some emotional pay-offs, Annihilation should have been a worthwhile picture, but despite some interesting concepts -- as well as ideas recycled from everything from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Alien -- the picture is pretty much sunk by a snail's pace, a weak script with both undeveloped characters and ideas, and direction that utterly strips the film of any dramatic punch it may have had potential for. There are mutated creatures, people's minds being screwed up, some quick gore cuts and the like, an occasional burst of minor excitement, but virtually no pay off, and the lethargic score doesn't help one bit. The actors do the best they can with material that may seem (pseudo) intellectual but is actually trite, and the average episode of Star Trek has more suspense. The frequent flashbacks and flash-forwards only pull the viewer out of the main storyline and do nothing to help sustain the creepy atmosphere. Annihilation does get points for being visually striking at times, but that's hardly enough to make this a winner. Admittedly, with some films you're willing to suspend disbelief, but with this picture we're asked to accept that these women, most of whom are scientists, would be sent into the Shimmer without military escorts and without contamination suits on (or even , heck, a rope and pulley with which they can be pulled back out of the zone in an emergency). There is no major military or government presence as you would expect in such a dire situation. It's as if Garland, afraid of making a "typical" sci fi thriller, stripped his movie of sheer common sense, not to mention thrills. Natalie Portman [Jackie] should choose her material with more care, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is positively weird -- too weird -- as Dr. Ventress; neither woman is seen to good advantage in this stinker. This reminds one a lot of Arrival, another recent mediocre science fiction film.

Verdict: Even something like The Atomic Submarine is a lot more fun. **. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS

"Cuddles" Sakall, Edward Everett Horton, and Bette Davis
THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (1943). Director: David Butler.

Joe Simpson (Eddie Cantor in a dual role) is an aspiring actor and tour guide who can't get a job because of his resemblance to ... Eddie Cantor. Joe befriends two show business hopefuls: singer Tommy Randolph (Dennis Morgan) and songwriter Pat Nixon (Joan Leslie). A shady "agent" named Barney Johnson (Richard Lane) fools Tommy into thinking he's got a job on the real Eddie Cantor's radio show, but he gets thrown out of Cantor's house moments after arriving with "contract" in hand. Meanwhile conductor Dr. Schlenna (S. Z. Sakall) and entrepreneur Farnsworth (Edward Everett Horton) are mounting a charity concert, Cavalcade of Stars, and want to use Dinah Shore, who works for Cantor. The catch is that they don't want Cantor because he tends to take over and "stink" everything up. (Cantor wants to dress the dancers like boiled potatoes and have them dive into a tub of sour cream.) However, they have to use him just to get Dinah. Joe hits upon the idea of impersonating Cantor, hiring Tommy, and taking over the production himself, while Cantor is temporarily kidnapped. But when the real Cantor breaks out of confinement ... ? Thank Your Lucky Stars is another of those all-star WW2 revues with a thin plot, this one from Warner Brothers, and it's one of the better ones. Cantor is very funny dealing with some over-anxious dogs and especially as he winds up in an institution where everyone thinks he's crazy and wants to operate on him; Ruth Donnelly is especially good as a nurse. The movie's highlights include: Errol Flynn doing a very creditable song and dance routine in a tavern;  Ann Sheridan warbling "Love Isn't Born, It's Made;" Alan Hale and Jack Carson in the comical duet, "I'm Going North;" John Garfield doing a comic interpretation of "Blues in the Night;" Cantor enthusiastically performing "We're Staying Home Tonight" while his household staff is forced to listen; Morgan and Leslie doing the duet, "No You, No Me;" Alexis Smith doing a very sexy Latin dance; and Dinah Shore demonstrating her singing chops with "How Sweet You Are." The two very best production numbers are "Ice Cold Katie," featuring Hattie McDaniel and Willie Best; and Bette Davis beautifully emoting and sort of singing to "They're Either Too Young or Too Old." The lowlight of the film is George Tobias, Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland doing a rather dreadful bebop number, and I'm not sure what to make of the odd-looking Spike Jones and his City Slickers as they do a strange jazz rendition of the "Volga Boatmen." As for the non-musical scenes, Sakall and Horton make a great and funny team, and it's a riot watching "Cuddles" Sakall telling off a tough but chastened Humphrey Bogart ("I hope my fans don't see this"). Joan Leslie does a pretty good impression of Ida Lupino at one point. The bouncy songs are by Arthur Schwartz and Frank Loesser. Director David Butler and producer Mark Hellinger make cameo appearances as themselves, and Mary Treen, James Burke, Mike Mazurki, Billy Benedict, and Benny Bartlett, among others, show up briefly as well.

Verdict: A real pleasure practically from start to finish. ***1/4. 

FORTY LITTLE MOTHERS

Scene stealer: Baby Quintanilla; Odd duo: Cantor and Anderson
FORTY LITTLE MOTHERS (1940). Director: Busby Berkeley.

"Maybe he has a charm we know nothing about?" Mme. Cliche

I doubt it." -- Mme. Granville

Out of work professor Gilbert Thompson (Eddie Cantor) runs into and saves a suicidal woman, Marian (Rita Johnson), unaware that she has left her little baby boy (Baby Quintanilla) in a depot. When he discovers the child later on, he doesn't know who the mother is, and takes him home to his boarding house. He finally gets a job at Mme. Granville's School for Girls, but learns that babies aren't allowed there. Another complication is that the girls, who are pining for a handsome professor who was fired, are dismayed by his replacement. "I've seen better heads on an umbrella!" says one disgruntled co-ed. They cook up a scheme to get him thrown out of the school by pretending all of them are in love with him, but when Gilbert is forced to take in the baby from the friend who was watching him, he discovers the girls may not be quite as awful as they seem. Forty Little Mothers is an unusual and charming  comedy-drama with lots of sentiment and a warm and winning performance from Cantor. It is a little astonishing that he is teamed with -- of all people -- Judith Anderson [Rebecca] as the headmistress, but these two pros (from very different disciplines) work very well together. Bonita Granville [Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble] is cast as the main "mean girl" and she is effective, although it is unlikely that she and the other cruel young monsters would suddenly develop a pleasant nature just because Gilbert shames them. Nydia Westman is very amusing as Anderson's assistant, Mademoiselle Cynthia Cliche, and Baby Quintanilla -- who was actually twin girls and not a baby boy -- is the most adorable scene-stealer since Baby Leroy. Cantor even gets to warble "Little Curly Hair in a High Chair." With her highly expressive face, Rita Johnson [Honolulu] makes a decided impression as the woman who hopes, eventually, to be reunited with her baby.

Verdict: How much cuteness can you stand? ***. 

THE EDDIE CANTOR STORY

Keefe Brasselle (Cantor) and Jackie Barnett (Durante)
THE EDDIE CANTOR STORY (1953). Director: Alfred E. Green.

Even as a boy Eddie Cantor (Richard Monda) knew he wanted to be an entertainer. When a foolish do-gooder named Berk (David Alpert) wants to pack the kid off to an orphanage, claiming that his sturdy grandmother Esther (Aline MacMahon) can't take care of him, Eddie is fortunate to wind up with a theatrical couple who sponsor a children's revue instead. As Eddie (now played by Keefe Brasselle) falls in love with his childhood sweetheart, Ida (Susan Odin, and then Marilyn Erskine), he struggles to make a name for himself as an adult singing and dancing comedian. But the more famous Eddie gets, the more he neglects his wife, whose loneliness is palpable despite her having (eventually) five daughters to raise. Then serious health issues crop up and it looks like Cantor's career is over ... Eddie Cantor was still alive when this film came out, so the worst thing the movie says about the comic is that he was overly ambitious and addicted to applause and stardom, a fact that had a negative impact on his family life. The Eddie Cantor Story sticks to the basic facts about the man, even it it remains somewhat on a superficial level. However, Brasselle [Bannerline], outfitted with pop eyes and bigger teeth that generally disguise the actor's handsomeness. gives an excellent, well-studied impression of the famous performer. (One could argue that Brasselle, as is often the case in biopics, impersonates the man as he acts while performing as opposed to how he acts off-stage, but somehow this approach works.) Using the real Cantor's voice, Brasselle expertly recreates his routines from the Ziegfeld Follies as well as from such Broadway shows as Whoopee. The film boasts another excellent performance from Marilyn Erskine, who generally worked in television but should be much better known, as the grown-up Ida. Erskine explores every nuance of the character with her sensitive and splendid emoting. Aline MacMahon [The Young Doctors] is sterling as the loving, supportive grandmother, and there is very nice work from Arthur Franz [The Atomic Submarine] as a doctor who remains a loyal friend of the couple through thick and thin. Jackie Barnett does an amusing imitation of Jimmy Durante, and Will Rogers Jr. is cast as his father. Richard Monda is very winning and effective as Cantor as a child. Smaller roles are enacted by the likes of Chick Chandler (as a talent show host); Marie Windsor (as a jealous star); Gerald Mohr (as an old friend and bootlegger); Alix Talton (as a reporter;) as well as Ann Doran and Arthur Space. One is struck by the similarity between Cantor and friendly rival Al Jolson, who also performed in blackface. In his later years, Cantor did film and television work, and also became a spokesman for the March of Dimes. Cantor and his wife appear in the film's framing sequence, and he is given a classic closing line: "I've never looked  better in my life." Although two actors are credited with playing Cantor's parents (who died when he was an infant), they are either seen only in photographs, or their scenes were cut.

Verdict: Delightful biopic with top performances and snappy musical numbers. ***.  

DISCOVERING BETTE DAVIS

Davis with Baxter, Monroe and Sanders in All About Eve
DISCOVERING BETTE DAVIS. 

This documentary on the great film star is part of a British TV series entitled Discovering Film. This is a fair to moderate look at Davis, briefly recounting her origins, and discussing her roles in such films as Of Human Bondage, Dangerous, Now, Voyager, The Letter, All About Eve and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Author Sarah Gristwood offers some interesting comments on Davis, whereas photographer Curtice (sic) Taylor offers an unlikely anecdote and the mere observations of a typical fan boy. Other interviewees include Ian Nathan, editor of Empire -- who incorrectly pronounces Davis' first name as if she were Bette Midler -- and a London film critic, who is generally credible but also offers up some inaccuracies: Davis did not make "several" films with Joan Crawford (aside from Baby Jane there were just the few aborted scenes in Hush ... Hush Sweet Charlotte) and when the critic suggests that Margo Channing wasn't one of the "central" characters in the film you wonder if he's even seen All About Eve. Lots of clips, but this is hardly essential viewing for Davis fans or even anyone who wants to learn more about her.

Verdict: Bette deserves better. **.