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

Thursday, November 24, 2022

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

 

HAPPY THANKSGIVING 2022

Jump for joy as you eat some turkey, pie, stuffing, potatoes -- stay off the bathroom scale for at least three days -- and watch some damn good GREAT OLD MOVIES. 

Thursday, November 10, 2022

THE BIG CIRCUS

THE BIG CIRCUS (1959). Produced by Irwin Allen. Directed by Joseph M. Newman. 

Circus owner Hank Whirling (Victor Mature) has just split off from his former partner and is determined to make a go of it on his own. Randy Sherman (Red Buttons) is assigned by the bank that loaned him money to keep him on the financial straight and narrow and also hired a public relations woman named Helen (Rhonda Fleming). For reasons that are never quite explained, Hank objects to having a woman doing publicity for him, and the two come to figurative blows almost immediately. A bigger problem is that an unknown person working with Hank's former partner is committing dangerous acts of sabotage. A variety of problems seem to be working against the circus' success as the bank keeps threatening to foreclose ... 

Red Buttons and Victor Mature
Producer Irwin Allen later became famous for his disaster flicks but The Big Circus is no disaster. The film is well-paced and quite entertaining, with some very satisfying performances. Red Buttons and Gilbert Roland as a first-class high-wire aerialist, come off best, along with Kathryn Grant, saucy and sexy, as Hank's sister. Mature saunters through the movie with his usual aplomb and Fleming is also appealing as his very feminine combatant. Vincent Price is adept if under-utilized as the ringmaster, and David Nelson [The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker], although he has little to do until the climax, plays a role very different from his part on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Peter Lorre is as lovable as ever as a clown in greasepaint. Although the process work isn't always great, the best and most suspenseful scene has to do with Roland's thrilling walk on a cable across the entire length of Niagara Falls! 

Verdict: This is superior to Jumbo and The Greatest Show on Earth. ***. 

GOOD NEW MOVIE: THE BATMAN (2022)

The Batman in a contemplative mood
THE BATMAN (2022). Director: Matt Reeves. 

In a Gotham City wracked by corruption and vice, the determined Batman tracks down a serial killer whose victims include the mayor. That's the essentials of the plot of this movie, which turns out to be far better and more entertaining than I would have imagined. Effectively directed by Matt Reeves, The Batman boasts a terrific look -- thanks to cinematographer Greig Fraser and some excellent art direction -- and despite a few variations manages to get into the spirt of the comic books. Michael Giacchino has also contributed a creepy score that adds immeasurably to the picture.

Pattinson as Bruce Wayne
And then there's Robert Pattinson, who plays the Batman and Bruce Wayne and is incredibly intense in the part. One could argue that Pattinson makes absolutely no distinction between Bats and Bruce -- in the comics Wayne did his best to act like a frivolous playboy to keep people from suspecting the truth -- but The Batman makes it clear that Batman is the real person and Bruce is the phony identity. In any case, Pattinson's performance works beautifully. In this movie Batman is so grim that he often scares the very people that he's just saved (as often happened in the comics). 

Pattinson with Zoe Kravitz
There are other good performances as well. Zoe Kravitz as Selina Kyle (Catwoman); Andy Serkis as Alfred the butler; Paul Dano (of Prisoners) as the Riddler; Jeffrey Wright (of Casino Royale) as Lt. James Gordon; and John Turturro as Carmine Falcone. Colin Farrell makes a weird, unrecognizable Penguin. The film has a deliberate pace -- and one too many anti-climaxes -- but it held my attention, and I have to say I was delighted to see not a trace of camp. Matt Reeves also directed Cloverfield

Verdict: The Dark Knight done right. *** 1/4. 

TRAPEZE

TRAPEZE (1956). Director: Carol Reed.

Bitter former acrobat Mike Ribble (Burt Lancaster) is working as a rigger for a Paris circus after falling and injuring himself while attempting a "triple" flip while performing high in the air. Tino Orsini (Tony Curtis) is an aspiring performer who talks Mike into teaming up with him for an act, hoping he can teach him to do the triple. Then there's the highly ambitious and beautiful Lola (Gina Lollobrigida of Woman of Straw) who manages to secure a position in their act while bouncing back and forth between both men. 

Lancaster, Lollobrigida and Curtis
While it's certainly understandable that both men would get the hots for Lola -- in my opinion Lollobrigida was always the sexiest and most beautiful of the Italian sex bombs -- falling in love with such a fickle and manipulative person is something else again. And one can't really see Lola falling for anyone but herself. But Trapeze is essentially a melodrama, and as such feelings are created in and discarded by the characters simply to serve the needs of the plot -- that's all there is to it. As a circus picture, Trapeze is only fair to middling. However, it comes alive during the aerial sequences, which are thrilling, skillfully intercutting the three main actors into the actions of real circus performers. Clearly they were each willing to be photographed doing some aerial work, although not high above the ground one supposes.

The performances are good. Curtis and Lancaster would reteam for Sweet Smell of Success the following year when Curtis would really come into his own. This is not Lollobrigida's first American film, but probably the biggest English role she'd had to that date. Her character is kind of impossible, and her transformation from opportunist to someone sincerely in love with one of the men isn't believable, but for that I'd blame the script. Others in the cast include Minor Watson (of Beyond the Forest) as a man from Ringling Brothers; Thomas Gomez as the fat and rather obnoxious boss of the Paris circus; Katy Jurado as Rosa, who is carrying a torch for Mike; and Gerard Landry as her husband. There are interesting and flavorful moments in the movie, but it's nothing very deep, although one senses everyone working on the film thought it would be. Malcolm Arnold's score is so overwrought at times that it approaches the comical.

All of the homoeroticism of the novel, The Killing Frost, upon which the film is based, was eliminated, although if you watch it carefully ... In the novel Tino is executed for murdering Lola, although she was actually killed by Mike, who was in love with -- you guessed it -- Tino! 

NOTE: It has been said that Lancaster, because of his background, did all of the trapeze stunts in the film except for the Triple. I think this has been very exaggerated. For one thing, Lancaster is clearly in front of a blue screen in some shots and if one freezes the film the aerialist playing Lancaster is clearly a different person in the long shots. 

Verdict: Stick with The Big Circus. **1/2. 

STRAIGHT SHOOTING Robert Stack

STRAIGHT SHOOTING Robert Stack with Mark Evans. Macmillan; 1980. 

Robert Stack was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Written on the Wind, appeared in many other film and TV vehicles, but will always be best-remembered as Eliot Ness on The Untouchables. Stack seems to come from the old school of macho-type actors who feel they must do something braver than emote for the camera, so he writes about going on safari and similar  experiences. A champion skeet shooter, Stack spends a chapter writing on the sport, although this is not as interesting as his musings on show biz. Although born in the U.S., Stack was raised in Europe and didn't speak English for quite a few years. A more cultured man than you might imagine, Stack was introduced to opera at an early age. Stack writes of his relationships with women and his happy marriage, as well as his friendships with the likes of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable. Stack goes behind the scenes of such films as The Bullfighter and the Lady but doesn't even mention co-starring with Joan Crawford in The Caretakers, for shame -- that might have been interesting! Stack has a tendency to cover old Hollywood folklore, which most readers will already be familiar with, too much, as he had a long career and doesn't need to pad the book, but his biggest gaffe is thinking that the film Detective Story (with Joseph Wiseman) was an episode of The Untouchables! (Wise appeared twice on the show but not in the role he played in Detective Story.) One suspects that it was Stack's co-author who keeps him up to date on such matters as Gay Lib; the actor was not thrilled when a comedian thought he was a "faggot" early in his career. Stack, who died in 2003, actually reprised the role of Eliot Ness in a telefilm that aired eleven years after this book was published. 

Verdict: Interesting if imperfect look at the career of the man who gave Deanna Durbin her first screen kiss! ***. 

THE CRASH

THE CRASH
(1932). Director: William Dieterle. 

Linda Gault (Ruth Chatterton) grew up very poor and is determined that she'll never be poverty-stricken again. Her husband Geoffrey (George Brent) drinks and importunes her to get stock tips from a man (Henry Kolker) who's smitten with her. When Geoffrey goes broke after the Wall Street crash of 1929, Linda takes what money she can gather and goes off to a sun and fun retreat where she meets millionaire Ronald Sanderson (Paul Cavanagh). Should she go for the loot or settle for love? Who cares? This is a minor film with Chatterton giving a surprisingly stiff and obvious performance. A secondary love story concerns Linda's French maid Celeste (Barbara Leonard) and her lover Arthur (Hardie Albright). 

Verdict: Watch Dodsworth [with Chatterton in fine form] instead. **.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Enjoy some pumpkin pie while perusing these reviews of horror flicks, and then put on one of your favorite fright films!

ENJOY!

And if you're looking for a creepy read, don't forget the SCHOELLECTION: four volumes of paperback books with two vintage Schoell horror novels each. Also available as e-books from Cemetery Dance publishers. 

Not to mention my non-fiction books on THE HORROR COMICS and CREATURE FEATURES. Kindle and book editions available on Amazon!

THE STEPFATHER

Unraveling: Terry O'Quinn
THE STEPFATHER (1987). Director: Joseph Ruben. 

A man who calls himself Jerry Blake (Terry O'Quinn) is married to a lovely woman named Susan (Shelley Hack) and is stepfather to a teenage girl named Stephanie (Jill Schoelen of Billionaire Boys Club). Widowed Susan is starry-eyed in love, while Stephanie is much more wary of her new "dad." Neither of them know -- as we do -- that "Jerry" slaughtered his previous family and changed his appearance and identity. When Stephanie finds out about the horrible murders in another town, and that the perpetrator is still on the loose, she determines to discover exactly who "Jerry Blake" really is -- if she lives that long. 

Jill Schoelen and Terry O'Quinn
The Stepfather
-- scripted by Donald E. Westlake -- is an absorbing suspense film that is greatly bolstered by the performances, especially that of O'Quinn. who makes a highly compelling sociopath. Jerry also has to deal with Steph's psychiatrist, Dr. Bondurant (Charles Lanyer) -- and deal with him he does! -- and Jim Ogilvie (Stephen Shellen), the brother of Jerry's last, dear departed wife. The film builds to a very dramatic and explosive climax. If there is one problem with the movie, it's that there are an awful lot of loose ends and the police seem incredibly inept. This was followed by two sequels and was remade in 2009. 

Verdict: A cut above a slasher flick. ***.       

TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER

TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER (1976). Director: Peter Sykes.

Author John Verney (Richard Widmark), who frequently writes on the occult, is importuned by a frightened man named Beddows (Denholm Elliott) to look after his daughter, Catherine (Nastassja Kinski), after she arrives in London. Catherine is a nun who belongs to the Church of the Children of the Lord, a sect that worships Astaroth. The leader of the church, Father Michael (Christopher Lee), is anxious to get his hands on Catherine because of certain bloody rites that must be performed. Initially sweet and compliant, Sister Catherine eventually becomes a danger to Verney's friends, including his literary agent Anna (Honor Blackman) and her boyfriend David (Anthony Valentine). Catherine makes her way to Father Michael as her own father writhes in terror and Verney learns what he can do to fight against the god -- or devil -- Astaroth's entry into earth via Catherine (or something like that). 

To the Devil a Daughter is a co-release of Hammer Studios but don't expect a Hammer classic with this atrocious movie. Most of the actors give it their all (one suspects Widmark wishes he had stayed in America) but they're fighting a losing battle with a hopelessly erratic script and sequences that are so bad they have to be seen to be believed. The last quarter of the film is hilarious, especially a sequence when a character is embroiled in fire and reduced to ashes so quickly that it is more comical than frightening. A bit of business in which a woman commits suicide by draining all of her blood into those special plastic bags turns hysterical when Chris Lee intones with consummate understatement: "she gave her life's blood." An orgy sequence is equally laughable. It's hard to imagine how anything could have been made out of this awful movie, which even Chris Lee can't save. 

Verdict: One of the worst Hammer movies ever made. *1/2. 

THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM

THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM (aka Die Schlagengruber und das Pendel/1967). Director: Harald Reinl. 

35 years ago Count Regula (Christopher Lee) murdered 12 virgins in an attempt to gain immortality. For his trouble, he was drawn and quartered as his two chief accusers stood watching. Now the descendants of these people, Roger Mont Elise (Lex Barker) and Baroness Lillian (Karin Dor), have received an invitation to the crumbling old Castle Regula, both unaware of what transpired in the past. Accompanying them by coach are Lillian's maid Babette (Christiane Rucker) and the rather shady Father Fabian (Vladimir Medar). 

The first half of the film is a protracted journey through a creepy forest in which trees have limbs growing out of them and skeletons are hanging from nooses. At the castle the group run into the long-dead Anatol (Carl Lange), the count's major domo, who plans to bring the count back to life. Wanting his revenge, the revived count places Roger under a slowly descending pendulum even as Lillian is nearly thrown into a pit full of writhing snakes. Yes, this is a very loose adaptation of Poe's classic The Pit and the Pendulum

Pitiful victim of "Dr. Sadism"
Although one could certainly quibble with some aspects of the screenplay, Torture Chamber not only holds the attention but has some classy and macabre art direction and is colorful in every sense of the word. Lex Barker appeared in several West German films and eurospy movies after he wrapped up his run as Tarzan. Karin Dor was a German actress who appeared with Barker more than once and was also in You Only Live Twice. Christopher Lee only appears in the prologue and at the very end and probably did all of his scenes in a couple of days  -- he appears to be the only actor who isn't dubbed. Carl Lange certainly makes an impression as Anatol.

Verdict: Fun horror film from West Germany that has some of the qualities of Italian horror features. ***. 

NEW YEAR'S EVIL

 NEW YEAR'S EVIL (1980). Director: Emmett Alston. 

Diane Sullivan (Roz Kelley) is a famous Los-Angeles based DJ known as "Blaze." During a New Year's Eve celebration at a hotel, she gets a phone call from a man with a disguised voice who tells her that he will kill one person each time it strikes midnight in a different time zone (he himself stays in Los Angeles). Blaze isn't certain whether or not to take the call seriously but calls in the police, who tell her that a dead body was discovered just where the killer said it would be. As cops try to track down the maniac and guard Blaze, the killer proceeds to put on one disguise after another as he dispatches women and the occasional man who gets in his way. 

New Year's Evil is a fairly zesty slasher that relies on some suspense and interesting developments instead of extreme gore. There's a clever bit involving a dumpster, an amusing protracted sequence when the murderer has to run from a gang of motorcycling morons, and a good twist as to the identity of the mad slasher. A decided weakness is the lackluster performance of Roz Kelly, who isn't even convincing when she is supposedly dangling from the bottom of an ascending elevator car. She is best known as Fonzie's girlfriend Pinky Toscadero on Happy Days, although she only appeared in three episodes. After this film, she had only five more credits. Kip Niven and Grant Cramer [Killer Klowns from Outer Space] are better as Blaze's neglected husband and son. 

Verdict: Minor but entertaining psycho-thriller with some exciting sequences. **3/4. 

INVISIBLE GHOST

INVISIBLE GHOST (1941). Director: Joseph H. Lewis.

Charles Kessler (Bela Lugosi) lives in his creepy mansion with his daughter, Virginia (Polly Ann Young), and a household staff which includes the black butler Evans (Clarence Muse). Kessler's wife (Betty Compson of Escort Girl) ran off with a lover who was killed in an accident even as Mrs. K's body disappeared. She is presumed dead, but actually the gardener (!), Jules (Ernie Adams), has somehow managed to hide the woman in a chamber below the garage. Periodically she escapes confinement, and when her husband spots her poking in the window or prowling the grounds, he has a psychotic episode, throws his cloak over his victim, and suffocates or strangles them. (This is revealed very early on in the film.) As the movie  opens there have already been a number of murders and the latest is of the maid, Cecile (Alice Dahl). Virginia's very handsome fiance, Ralph (John McGuire, who also plays Ralph's twin brother), becomes a suspect when it is discovered that he argued with Cecile, a former girlfriend, shortly before her death. There are tragic consequences to this but the murders continue.

Lugosi in a contemplative mood
You don't expect all old movies of this nature to necessarily proceed upon a logical course or have any veracity when it comes to police investigations, forensic evidence and the like, but Invisible Ghost -- one of Lugosi's cheapie creepies for Monogram studios -- is especially ludicrous, with huge dangling loose ends that pretty much make the whole enterprise seem ridiculous. Lugosi manages to hold on to his dignity despite this, and the others are generally on target. I was impressed by Clarence Muse [In the Meantime, Darling], who also plays his role with dignity -- no jabbering or eye rolling for him, typical of this talented performer. (The artwork for the poster gives him a bug-eyed appearance that he never displays in the film itself.) While some may feel that McGuire's chief asset seems to be his good looks and wavy hair, he actually gave a very good performance in Stranger on the Third Floor the year before. The film is more than competently directed by John H. Lewis, but the screenplay is a true stinker. Lugosi and company deserved better.

Verdict: Lugosi gives this a professional gloss but the script is hopeless. *1/2. 

Thursday, October 13, 2022

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939)

On the moors with Holmes and Watson
THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES
(1939). Director: Sidney Lanfield. 

"Oh, Watson, the needle." 

This is the first of two Sherlock Holmes films made by Twentieth Century-Fox and the first in which the wonderful Basil Rathbone created perhaps the definitive movie portrayal of the famous detective -- he is simply outstanding. The plot has to do with Holmes and Watson (Nigel Bruce) trying to save the life of an heir (Richard Greene) while dealing with rumors of the huge title beast roaming the foggy moors where the story takes place. John Carradine has a small role as a servant, and Wendy Barrie is the love interest. Lionel Atwill, who played Holmes' nemesis Professor Moriarty in a later film, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, is excellent in the more sympathetic role of Dr. Mortimer. Mary Gordon played Mrs. Hudson for the first time in this picture. Barlowe Borland scores as the cranky, litigious old Frankland. Morton Lowry is fine as John Stapleton. The 1959 color remake is also quite creditable, and some may feel it has the slight edge. Followed by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. 

Verdict: Fine introduction to the Rathbone portrayal. ***.

I'VE ALWAYS LOVED YOU

Bill Carter and Catherine |McLeod
I'VE ALWAYS LOVED YOU (1946).  Director/producer: Frank Borzage.

Famous pianist and conductor Leopold  Goronoff (Philip Dorn of Zeigfeld Girl) , who is quite a chauvinist, takes pretty Myra Hassmann (Catherine McLeod of So Young, So Bad) under his wing and teaches her everything he knows, although he seems to feel that no woman could ever be a true artist. At her first concert at Carnegie Hall, the audience seems to feel differently and Goronoff's jealousy causes him to make a foolish decision. Myra marries handsome farmer George (Bill Carter) and settles down, but years later her daughter Georgette (Vanessa Brown) starts on her own career. Will Myra's path cross with Goronoff's, and what will happen to all concerned when they do? 

Dorn and McLeod at Carnegie Hall
I've Always Loved You, like many romantic movies, throws logic to the wind and glosses over so much that it almost seems like a fantasy film. The ending, although satisfying in some ways, is especially ridiculous -- someone who played one concert 17 years ago gives another at Carnegie Hall without any rehearsal or prior announcement -- sure! Dorn gives a good performance in one of his largest roles, although James Mason might have done more with it. Catherine McLeod, who acquits herself quite nicely, did mostly television work. Bill Carter is appealing, but at times he's so nice that he's borderline cloying. One suspects he was trying to cover up his English accent as he is playing an American farmer. Apparently he didn't impress the right people because this was his last film role for over fifteen years.  

Bill Carter
There are also some excellent supporting performances in this, including Fritz Feld as Goronoff's long-suffering manager; Elizabeth Patterson as Myra's nanny and housekeeper; and especially Maria Ouspenskaya as Goronoff's very loving and wise "bubushka" or grandmother. The film moves at a good pace and is filmed in truly gorgeous Technicolor. But no matter how good the acting, the fact remains that most of the movie's power comes from Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, which of course was also used the year before in the far, far superior Brief Encounter. I've Always Loved You came from Republic Studios, once famous for its serials. In fact one of Catherine McLeod's earliest roles was as a dancer in The Tiger Woman

Verdict: Beautiful concert sequences tied to a rather contrived and foolish plot. **1/2. 

BEYOND TOMORROW

BEYOND TOMORROW (1940). Director: A. Edward Sutherland. 

Three elderly millionaires (Charles Winninger, Harry Carey, C. Aubrey Smith) get involved in the life of a handsome young singer, James (Richard Carlson), whom they meet on Christmas Eve, even after all three are killed in a plane crash. This rather silly, occasionally touching, movie presents the after-life as a misty limbo with voices calling you either up or down to you-know-where. There is a big difference between honest sentiment and sappiness, which this movie doesn't seem to realize. Jean Parker and Helen Vinson are the two women who get involved with Carlson. Frankly, it's irritating watching these ghosts trying to influence what a grown man should do, just as it's somewhat misogynous to suggest that the supposedly "bad" (or sexier) woman in the story is responsible for every terrible thing that happens. It's a pleasure to see Maria Ouspenskaya being warm, pleasant and grandmotherly instead of muttering gypsy curses. 

Verdict: This is no It's a Wonderful Life but it has its moments, however rare. **.

SEVEN DAYS ASHORE

SEVEN DAYS ASHORE
(1944). Director: John H. Auer. 

Daniel Arland (Alan Dinehart) goes to sea engaged to two different women -- Carol (Virginia Mayo) and Lucy (Amelita Ward) -- but his heart really belongs to Annabelle (Elaine Shepard). He has two buddies played by the strikingly mediocre team of dull Wally Brown and the thick-lipped, especially repellent Alan Carney. There's a midget-like girl singer named Dot Diamond (Marcy McGuire) who sings a snappy number now and then. But the most memorable scene in this mostly unmemorable movie is when Margaret Dumont, the Marx Brothers' favorite foil, warbles "Far Over the Waves" and is deliberately awful. 

Verdict: Seven days too many. **.

THE MONEY TRAP

Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford
THE MONEY TRAP
(1965). Director: Burt Kennedy. 

Cop Joe Baron (Glenn Ford) is married to Lisa (Elke Sommer), and they have serious money troubles. When Dr. Horace Van Tilden (Joseph Cotten) shoots a burglar in his house, it turns out that the burglar's wife is Baron's old girlfriend, Rosalie (Rita Hayworth). Then there's Baron's partner, Pete (Ricardo Montalban), who would also like to get his hands on some green. I won't give away any of the twists or plot developments because that's about all this picture has going for it. Despite the gun play, love scenes, and so on, this is remarkably dull. Elke Sommer is as inadequate as ever, but the rest of the cast, especially Hayworth, is fine. This just never really comes to life. 

Verdict: A waste of money. *1/2.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

GOM WILL BE BACK

I'm still not over my vacation -- which was wonderful -- but GREAT OLD MOVIES will be back later this month! 

Thursday, August 18, 2022

WAKE UP AND DREAM

Jun Haver and John Payne
WAKE UP AND DREAM (1946). Director: Lloyd Bacon. 

Jeff Cairn (John Payne) lives with his little sister, Nella (Connie Marshall), on a farm during WW2. Although he could get a deferment, he enlists in the Navy and says good-bye to his sort of sweetheart, waitress Jenny (June Haver). Then a notice comes saying that Jeff is Missing in Action. Nella and Jenny, in convoluted fashion that never quite makes sense, wind up on a drydocked boat built by the old curmudgeon, Henry Pecket (Clem Bevans). With the aid of Howard Williams (John Ireland), Peckett is able to set sail (sans permit or any special plan) and Jenny, Nella and Howard go with him. Nella is hoping they will sail to some beautiful island where she will be reunited with her brother, but instead they wind up literally stuck in the mud. 

Haver with John Ireland 
Say one thing for Wake Up and Dream, one of the oddest musicals I've ever seen, it is unpredictable. Oh it's no great surprise that Jeff turns up alive after missing most of the movie (a pretty much wasted role for Payne),  but other events are not so certain. Payne introduces the song "Give Me the Simple Life" early in the picture, and Haver warbles the pretty "I Wish I Could Tell You" but then in a much later sequence a chorus starts singing "We're Off to See the Wizard" [!] as the group trek into the swamp after a hermit that Nella has discovered. One could argue that the movie offers a message of hope, but when you consider that most men listed as missing in action were actually dead, it's perhaps not in the best of taste. In any case, all of the performances are quite good, including Charlotte Greenwood as a widow who takes in boarders and Irving Bacon as a toll gate attendant. Lee Patrick is in the picture but I must have blinked and completely missed her. Based on a novel by Robert Nathan, this has all the earmarks of a screenplay that was cut and pasted together. Some good dialogue, however. 

Verdict: 20th Century-Fox was no MGM when it came to (semi) musicals. **1/2. 

ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES

Jon Hall as Ali
ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1944). Director: Arthur Lubin. 

Prince Ali (Scotty Becket) of Baghdad is the son of the king and has a little girlfriend in Amara (Yvette Duguay),  with whom he makes a blood pact. When the King is betrayed by Amara's father, Cassim (Frank Puglia of 20 Million Miles to Earth), Ali manages to escape. Cassim is working with Hulagu Kahn (Kurt Katch of The Mask of Dimitrios), leader of the Mongul hordes and the new king of Baghdad. Ali stumbles upon the cave where the forty thieves keep their booty, and is adopted by them, especially old Baba (Fortunio Bonanova) and the grumpy Abdullah (Andy Devine of Never Say Die), who resents being a "nurse maid" to the boy. The years go by and young Ali Baba, as he is now known, has managed to turn the thieves into freedom fighters (!) who strike swiftly at the Mongolians. Cassin's beautiful daughter, now grown (and played by Maria Montez), is betrothed to Kahn, but falls for the handsome thief, Ali Baba. Eventually they will realize who the other one really is, but in the meantime Kahn is determined to kill one and marry the other ... 

Maria Montez
Ali Baba takes the story from "The Thousand and One Nights" and does its best to turn it into a tale of WW2-style oppression and resistance although it never really loses its fantastic flavoring. Part of this is the casting of Montez -- the only actor with her name above the title despite the fact that even she complained that it was Hall's picture -- and again she proves more than adequate for the proceedings, although much of her part consists of merely reacting to what is going on around her. Hall gives a good performance, as adept at the derring do as he is at pitching the woo. Scotty Becket, as always, is just as good as Ali as a boy. Devine, Bonanova, Puglia, and especially Kurt Katch as the loathsome Kahn, head up the supporting cast, along with Turban Bey, who is fine as a slave boy who assists both Amara and Ali. Like the earlier Arabian Nights, Universal pulled out all the stops for this flick, which is bathed in rich technicolor and has an exciting score by Edward Ward. Arthur Lubin's direction is not quite on the same level but he does keep things moving. 

Verdict: Colorful fantasy flick -- open sesame! ***. 

THE QUEEN OF TECHNICOLOR: MARIA MONTEZ IN HOLLYWOOD

THE QUEEN OF TECHNICOLOR: MARIA MONTEZ IN HOLLYWOOD. Tom Zimmerman. University Press of Kentucky; 2022. NOTE: This review based on uncorrected galleys. 

Born in the Dominican Republic to a well-heeled family, Maria Montez married a much-older man whom she up and left flat after seven years to pursue her dreams of a career as an actress -- this despite having no discernable talent. Montez lived off a wealthy man's yacht for months, then during her stay in Manhattan managed to secure Bob Hope's agent "Doc" Schnurr. based solely on her looks. She was attractive but had to be carefully photographed, as her features could come off as heavy and unflattering. In general she looks much better in her technicolor movies than she does in still photographs. 

Montez made up so many stories about herself that no one believed her when she claimed to be engaged to a fighter pilot in the British air force -- people assumed he was a fictional entity -- but the man actually existed and did have a relationship with Montez, although they may or may not have been engaged. 

One critic wrote that Montez had "the regality of an
usherette." Once she began actually starring in movies (for a big but still second-string studio, Universal) Montez wanted to be "taken seriously." Her chief attribute when it came to thesping was radiating a haughty superiority, but she was no Hepburn. Refusing to appear in a western that she thought was too similar to her other films, Montez went on suspension even as Yvonne De Carlo replaced her and was groomed, in fact, to be her replacement at the studio. Universal eventually offered her a bone, the lead role in Tangier, but the picture was considered a stinker and those certain qualities that Montez exhibited in her earlier films were missing -- as Zimmerman puts it, she was merely "ordinary." She parted company with Universal and moved to France with her new husband Jean-Pierre Aumont and the two appeared in the terrible Siren of Atlantis. Zimmerman suggests that Montez showed some genuine acting ability in her later independent films, but she was still trading in on her trademark haughtiness. Montez  died in her bathtub at age 39.

Maria
The Queen of Technicolor is not always well-organized, with the earlier chapters jumping back and forth in time and covering the same material more than once as if the book needed to be padded. A chapter on Montez' home front activities during WW2 seems to go on forever. The book improves with the later chapters, but occasionally reads like a fan boy's career study instead of a serious bio, although  Zimmerman has, admirably, done a lot of research. Was Montez a heartless opportunist who got breaks in Hollywood that should have gone to much more talented people, or should she be admired as someone who tenaciously went after her goal and succeeded for a time, although now she is basically a half-forgotten Hollywood footnote? You can decide. In any case, her Arabian Nights is a genuinely good movie. 

Verdict:  For obsessive Maria Montez fans primarily, but also an interesting slice of Hollywood life. ***. 

ROUND UP OF NEW AND RECENT FILMS PART NINE

ROUND UP OF NEW AND RECENT FILMS PART NINE.

Hipsters (Stilyagi/2008) is a Russian musical set in Moscow in 1955. Mels (Anton Shagin) belongs to the Communist Youth League, which tracks down young people -- or "hipsters" -- who love the traitorous Western ideology, including American fashion and music. Mels falls for a hipster named Polina or Polly (Oksana Akinshina) and becomes a hipster himself (although his hairstyle looks more modern-day rockabilly -- almost like Eraserhead -- than 1950's greaser). The colorful settings and cinematography, enthusiastic cast. snappy songs (most original, although we also hear "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess), and lively dancing don't quite disguise the fact that this love story is cliched and superficial. However, the picture is good to look at and at times quite entertaining, if definitely overlong. **1/2.  

Big Eyes (2014) is Tim Burton's true story about the painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) whose husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) took credit for her work, culminating in a court trial. Whatever you may think of Keane's paintings of her big-eyed subjects, Big Eyes is absorbing and well-acted, one of Burton's better movies in recent years (if not exactly spectacular). Terence Stamp is also in the cast. Waltz is a good actor who almost always adds a layer of slime to his portrayals. ***. 

Dark Crimes (2016) stars Jim Carrey (pictured) as a Polish police officer (!) trying to get out of desk detail before retiring. Carrey gives a good dramatic performance and has some very strong moments, and the supporting cast is generally on target as well, but even if you accept that Carrey's character is a fuck-up, some of his actions are inexplicable. Moody photography helps a lot but this script has a whole lot of problems. Marton Csokas certainly scores as the sinister author that Carrey is certain is responsible for a brutal murder, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is fine as his girlfriend. Some of the action centers on a shuttered, sleazy sex club called the Cage. Supposedly based on a true story, this is initially compelling but ultimately a misfire. **3/4. 

Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz
My Cousin Rachel (2017) is a creditable remake of the earlier version of Daphne Du Maurier's novel starring Olivia De Havilland and Richard Burton. This version stars Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin and is written and directed by Roger Michell. The film is very well photographed by Mike Eley. The story retains its ambiguity.  ***. 


Who's Killing the Cheerleaders?
 (aka Who is Killing the Cheerleaders?) is a 2020 telefilm in which a young lady who was a high school student when some of her friends were murdered comes back to town as a teacher -- and now more cheerleaders are being killed. This is a bloodless, non-slasher slasher film that may hold the attention for a time but which flies from your memory practically before it's even over. Ella Cannon is acceptable as the heroine, as is Austin Freeman as her old wannabee boyfriend. It all seems to take place in some alternate universe, the cable land of crappy movies. From Lifetime, naturally. **.  

FILMS I JUST COULDN'T FINISH ROUND SIX

FILMS I JUST COULDN'T FINISH ROUND SIX

As noted previously, these are not reviews, per se, but notes on films that I watched or suffered through until I just gave up on them for one reason or another. Sometimes I skipped to different sections just to get a sense of what was going on or to see if the film became more entertaining. Not all of these pictures are necessarily bad, they just didn't hold my attention. If you see one on the list that you think deserves another look, let me know.

We're Rich Again (1934) deals with a once-wealthy family who are nearly bankrupt because of an upcoming wedding, with a process server camping outside the front door. I had high hopes for this allegedly screwball comedy but even the presence of Edna May Oliver and Billie Burke couldn't wring out any real laughs from this. Buster Crabbe spends most of his time in the swimming pool

The Hardy Boys in the Mystery of Ghost Farm (1957) was actually a serial that appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club. When I saw this on youtube I thought it was a real find, but I wasn't into it very long when I realized that this had little to do with the books I had loved, that the Hardy Boys (Tim Considine and Tommy Kirk) in the serial were borderline obnoxious, and the story was pretty silly and tedious. Although Frank and Joe Hardy already had girlfriends in the classic books, in this Frank has just discovered girls to Joe's dismay -- he just wants to solve mysteries.  If only!  

Edge of Fury (1958) concerns a psychopathic young man who gets involved in the lives of a woman and her two daughters at their beach domicile. This movie had its points of interests but it's one of those low-budget independent pictures that either grabs you or just turns out to be a waste of time. I gave it about forty minutes and gave up. 

Fire Monsters Against the Son of Hercules (1962) was actually an Italian peplum flick originally titled Maciste sontrol i mostri. Several of these dubbed flicks were turned into "Son of Hercules" features with a terrible pop tune playing over the credits. Our hero battles a silly-looking sea monster that has rolling eyes. Even I couldn't stand that much of this! 

The Caretaker (1963), also known as The Guest, is adapted from Harold Pinter's play by Pinter himself. I was impressed by the fine acting of Donald Pleasance and Robert Shaw during the first half hour, but then Alan Bates walked in and started stinking everything up with his obnoxious performance of an odious character (as he did in Butley). Pinter and Bates? I could abide no more! 

Five Golden Dragons (1967), produced by Harry Alan Towers, concerns an American (Bob Cummings) in Hong Kong who gets involved with the titular criminal cult. In his last film, Cummings -- still playing the aging epicene bumbling playboy like he did in Love That Bob! -- is completely out of place in a kind of dull euro-thriller that fails to hold the attention. The "dragons" are played by Chris Lee, George Raft, Dan Duryea, and Brian Dunlevy in unnecessary cameos that at least netted  them a trip to Hong Kong. Terrible! 

Leaving Las Vegas (1995). I had wanted to see this for years, but after about half an hour I was already bored with the lives of these pathetic losers. I don't like spending time with people like this in real life, so why should I spend over two hours with them in a movie? Yes, I know the film is acclaimed and Nicolas Cage won an Oscar, and I'm certainly not saying that it's bad, but with so many other choices to watch this just didn't grip my attention.  

Perry Mason: The Case of the Jealous Jokester (1995 telefilm). After Raymond Burr's death, the producers of the TV movies decided to continue the franchise with Hal Holbrook playing not Perry Mason, but a lawyer known as Wild Bill McKenzie who was a friend of Mason's. This is the second and last of two films featuring Holbrook. Burr's absence makes the entire enterprise seem pointless but while I did try to get into this, I found it tedious. 

Antlers (2021) starts out promisingly and has a classy look, but this story of odd doings in a mine and a strange creature that haunts a young boy is so slow-paced and has such little energy that after awhile I skipped to the finale and found it to be just more of the same in monster flick terms. Very disappointing, although there is some decent acting and slick cinematography. 

Death on the Nile (2022). Although I enjoyed Kenneth Branagh's remake of Murder on the Orient Express, I was less impressed with this rather plodding remake of Death on the Nile. Part of the problem, for me at least, is my familiarity with the storyline and the various twists created by Agatha Christie. But while the cinematography is first-rate I found this production to be somewhat listless. Once the main murder occurred, I knew what was coming and I wasn't sufficiently energized to see how Branagh would handle the very same events. Maybe there were differences in this version, I don't know and I just didn't care. For some reason the whole thing reminded me of a 1930's musical. The prologue relating how and why Poirot grew his famous mustache is unnecessary, to say the least.  

Thursday, August 4, 2022

ARABIAN NIGHTS

Jon Hall and Maria Montez
ARABIAN NIGHTS (1942). Director: John Rawlins. 
 

Sentenced to a slow death for trying to usurp the throne from his brother, Kamar (Leif Erickson) escapes and holds court in the palace while the true king, Haroun (Jon Hall of The Invisible Man's Revenge), goes on the run until he can regain his rightful position. Kamar is in love with the dancer Sherazade (Maria Montez) -- a different version of the Sheherazade of legend -- but before he can find her she is sold into slavery. As Sherazade and Haroun fall in love, they escape from slave traders and other nefarious characters until Kamar at last reclaims his chosen bride. But will true love win out in the end or is Haroun doomed to die? Young Ali (Sabu) will certainly do all he can to unite the lovers. 

Hall gets some wise counsel from Sabu
Universal may not have been in the same league as MGM when it came to gloss and pageantry, but they certainly gave it the old college try with Arabian Nights. The film is often beautifully photographed (Milton R. Krasner) in positively gorgeous -- and very expensive -- technicolor with striking desert vistas and impressive matte paintings. Frank Skinner's exciting score is flavored with the occasional "Arabian" touch. Jon Hall and Leif Erickson make a fine pair of literally dueling brothers, Sabu is as appealing as ever as the young Ali, and Edgar Barrier [Phantom of the Opera] is properly loathsome as Kamar's plotting associate, Nadan. 

The Montez gives a smoldering look
As for Maria Montez? The movie is populated by starlets just as attractive if not more so than Montez, although she is certainly very decorative, as they say. One thing you must say about the woman is that she has a haughty, imperious authority -- possibly the way she was off-screen as well -- that works very well for her in parts like these. Her arrogance and self-confidence come through with her every line reading, which are generally on target. No, she's no Kate Hepburn, but one could hardly see Hepburn in this role (although she might have been better than one might imagine)! In other words, while no Oscar would have been in the offing for Ms. Montez, she is more than acceptable as Sherazade. 

A striking sequence from Arabian Nights
There are other characters, some from the Arabian Nights, sprinkled throughout the movie. Sinbad, presented as a lazy lout instead of as a hero, is played by Shemp Howard, one of the Three Stooges! Aladdin (John Qualen) spends the movie trying to find his famous lamp and failing. Turhan Bey is cast as a captain in the King's army who comes to a bitter fate. As Ahmed, who runs a shop, Billy Gilbert overacts atrociously. Gilbert's scenes sometimes resemble something out of Abbott and Costello. Sherazade does a very expressive and sensual dance late in the movie, but apparently that was not Montez, who could neither sing nor dance. 

Verdict: A Maria Montez movie that is actually good! ***. 

42ND STREET

Is this really a star? Ruby Keeler
42ND STREET (1933). Director: Lloyd Bacon. 

Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), who has already had one nervous breakdown, is directing his new show, "Pretty Lady." His leading lady, Dorothy (Bebe Daniels), is carrying on with her former dance partner Pat (George Brent) behind the back of her supposed swain and chief angel, the ugly Abner, (Guy Kibbee). Peggy (Ruby Keeler), a show biz hopeful, is taken under the wing of both Pat, and hoofer Billy (Dick Powell). Tormented by her love for Pat, Dorothy drinks too much and has an accident -- but will Peggy be able to carry the whole show on her shoulders?

George Brent and Debe Daniels
The answer is no, judging from the final moments of 42nd Street. Although I got a favorable impression of Keeler in another film she did that year, Gold Diggers of 1933, and she is perfectly okay in the straight dramatic scenes, when she takes over from Dorothy in "Pretty Lady" she seems leaden-footed and the fact that she has a poor voice -- to put in mildly -- is even inserted into the script. Therefore these sequences are unintentionally comical, as it makes you wonder if, say, Al Capone made Baxter an offer he couldn't refuse. As for Baxter, he gives a fine, old-fashioned-type performance as a man who today we would deem bipolar. Brent is his usual charming self. Former silent movie star Bebe Daniels, who is effective as Dorothy, had only a few more credits after this film. Guy Kibbee is typically excellent, Powell is boyishly sweet, and Ed Nugent makes an impression as another handsome hoofer. 

The production numbers were put together by Busby Berkeley, and of these the most inventive is the title tune. Some of the songs have become standards: "You're Getting to Be a Habit" and "Shuffle Off to Buffalo;" in particular. "Young and Healthy" makes use of a Berkeley invention: creating a kaleidoscope effect of the dancers shot from high overhead. Ginger Rogers has a small role in this and is not photographed flatteringly. It's easy to see why Keeler never really became a major star. 

Verdict: Some great tunes, generally pleasant, but not really a classic. **1/2.

WE'RE NOT MARRIED

Wedded bliss? Fred Allen and Ginger Rogers
WE'RE NOT MARRIED (1952). Director: Edmund Goulding.

"I'll say one thing about our marriage. If there's such a thing as an unjackpot, I've hit it!" -- Ramona

Five couples who were married by a dithering Justice of the Peace (Victor Moore) discover that the man's license only went into affect after the new year, so that their marriages are invalid. Those affected include radio show hosts Ramona and Steven Gladwyn (Ginger Rogers and Fred Allen), who hate each other and only speak during the show; Katie and Hector Woodruff (Eve Arden and Paul Douglas), who have gotten into a rut; Annabel and Jeff Norris (Marilyn Monroe and David Wayne), who have an adorable baby boy; Patsy and Wilson Fisher (Mitzi Gaynor and Eddie Bracken), who are expecting a child; and Eve and Fred Melrose (Zsa Zsa Gabor and Louis Calhern), who are facing an expensive divorce -- for Fred. 

Gabor, Louis Calhern, Paul Stewart
Although there are a few laugh-out-loud moments, We're Not Married has a very insufficient screenplay. Some of the stories have such flat endings that you wondered why anyone even bothered. It also makes no sense to team the adorable Marilyn Monroe -- whose appearances virtually amount to a cameo! -- with the bland and utterly sexless David Wayne; they hardly set the screen on fire. The best episode has lawyer Paul Stewart dictating divorce terms to Louis Calhern, then a certain letter arrives in the mail, but even this segment is completely predictable. For me it doesn't help that Eddie Bracken happens to be one of my least favorite actors ever, although his typically whiny performance is adequate. Calhern, Rogers and others are wasted in this piffle, which could have been a really strong picture with a much, much better screenplay. Fred Allen was once a very popular comedian, although he's virtually forgotten today. Movies like this didn't help.

Verdict: A lot of good actors with generally disappointing material. **1/2.

LUXURY LINER

George Brent and Jane Powell
LUXURY LINER (1948). Director: Richard Whorf. 

Widower Jeremy Bradford (George Brent) is the captain of a luxury liner. His precocious daughter, Polly (Jane Powell), wants to go with him on a cruise to Rio, but he insists that she finish her studies first. The determined young lady decides to become a stowaway, first to spend time with her dad, and second to audition for famous tenor Olaf Eriksen (Lauritz Melchior), who is also voyaging to South America. Instead she winds up peeling potatoes and scrubbing the corridors! Others on the boat include the man-hungry soprano Zita Romanka (Marina Koshetz); Laura Dean (Frances Gifford), who is trying to get away from her ex-fiance; and said fiance Charles Worton (Richard Derr), who is determined to win her back. Although Polly tries to get the lovers back together, a complication is that her father is falling for Laura himself. 

Brent with Frances Gifford
Luxury Liner
 is a gorgeous MGM technicolor bauble with no pretentions to great art, but it is an entertaining trifle that is good to look at and listen to. There is no score as such, just some older tunes that work well with this material. Melchior gets to sing Wintersturm, there's a dandy production number with Polly leading the kitchen staff in Alouetta, Polly sings a bit of Massenet's Manon, and even Xavier Cugat and his band get into the act with a zesty Latin number. Powell, who has a beautiful voice, even looks attractive when she does a trouser role in her school play at the film's opening. The Pied Pipers singing group get a number and Met soprano Koshetz also gets a chance to shine. Amiable and amusing as a man-chaser, she appeared in several other films as well. Brent does well with this unchallenging material, as does Powell, and Gifford was in everything from the great serial Jungle Girl to Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour, acquitting herself nicely in all. Melchior not only has a fine voice but a winning personality; he also did other movie musicals. Thomas E. Breen makes an impression as the sailor, Mulvey, as does John Ridgely, 

Verdict: The captain has a grand piano in his cabin! ***.