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

Thursday, June 13, 2019

THE TOY WIFE

Luise Rainer
THE TOY WIFE (1938). Director: Richard Thorpe. Screenplay by Zoe Akins.

"A woman is like a postage stamp. Once there's a black mark on her, she's no good to nobody." -- Pick.

In pre-Civil war Louisiana, two sisters live on a plantation with their slaves and their father. Gilberte, or "Frou Frou" (Luise Rainer) is the pretty and somewhat muddle-headed younger daughter, and Louise (Barbara O'Neil) is the more practical and less attractive older daughter. The young mountebank, Andre Vallaire (Robert Young), wants to propose to Frou Frou, but he is too late, as she has already decided to accept a proposal from the lawyer, George Sartoris (Melvyn Douglas). The trouble is that Frou Frou doesn't love George, but Louise does ... and Andre will not forget Frou Frou. Things come to a boil when George asks Louise to come and run the household, as Frou Frou --  a "toy wife," in his estimation -- seems incapable of doing so.

Luise Rainer and Alan Perl 
Had The Toy Wife starred, say, Bette Davis, it would probably not be a nearly forgotten film today. Luise Rainer, who is outstanding in the film, had already won back to back Best Actress Oscars (for The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth) before appearing in this film, but for various reasons her career faded out soon after and long-lasting major stardom never materialized. Douglas, Young and especially O'Neil are also very good in the film, along with Theresa Harris [The Flame of New Orleans] as Frou Frou's maid and companion, "Pick," Libby Taylor as the housekeeper Suzanne, and Alma Kruger [Saboteur] as Andre's disapproving mother. Little Alan Perl is a charmer as George and Frou Frou's son, Georgie.

The Toy Wife's patronizing treatment of black characters is typical of the period, unfortunately, but the film is still absorbing and has a very touching conclusion. There is first-rate cinematography from Oliver T. Marsh and a nice score by Edward Ward.

Verdict: Memorable, well-acted, and unpredictable drama. ***.


SUSAN SLEPT HERE

Dick Powell
SUSAN SLEPT HERE (1954). Director: Frank Tashlin.

Screenwriter and bachelor Mark Christopher (Dick Powell of Pitfall) finds himself with an unusual Christmas "present." Two cops of his acquaintance want him to babysit a 17-year-old girl, Susan (Debbie Reynolds), over the holiday so they won't have to actually book her for some minor offense on Christmas Day. Mark reluctantly agrees but this causes problems for his sort of fiancee Isabella (Anne Francis), and upsets his household, which consists of secretary Maude (Glenda Farrell) and his old Navy buddy, Virgil (Alvy Moore). But is the middle-aged author more drawn to lovely, very young Susan than he would care to admit?

Farrell, Moore and Reynolds
One thing this comedy has going for it is some excellent performances. Debbie Reynolds, who was actually twenty-two at the time, is simply outstanding. Powell --fifty playing thirty-five but not getting away with it -- is no slouch, either. Farrell uses all she learned about acting since the thirties to make a distinct impression, and Moore manages to emerge an almost poignant figure, although his chief function is to get more laughs. Anne Francis also scores in the thankless role of the fiancee who is treated rather badly but whom Mark apparently never took seriously to begin with. Maidie Norman [What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?] and Les Tremayne [The Monolith Monsters] are also good as, respectively, Mark's maid and lawyer.

The characters at least seem a little more dimensional than in most comedies of this type, but that may be due to the performances. The picture goes on about twenty minutes too long, and there is a very tedious dream sequence in which Susan imagines Annabella literally snaring Mark in her web. (You would think that Powell and Reynolds would actually dance together, but they never really do.) Red Skelton has a funny cameo. This was Dick Powell's last theatrical film; he appeared strictly on television thereafter.

Verdict: Strangely appealing May-December romantic comedy that shouldn't work but does. ***. 

ANYTHING GOES (1956)

Bing Crosby and Donald O'Connor clown around
ANYTHING GOES (1956). Director: Robert Lewis.

Broadway veteran Bill Benson (Bing Crosby) and hot shot TV star Ted Adams (Donald O'Connor) are teaming up to do a Broadway show. They each decide on a leading lady, unaware of what the other has done. So on a boat back to New York from Europe, they have to contend with the fact that they promised the plum role to two different women: Patsy (Mitzi Gaynor) and Gaby (Zizi Jeanmaire). Complicating matters is the realization that each man has started to fall in love, not with the woman they chose to star with but with her rival!

Mitzi Gaynor and Donald O\Connor
Twenty years earlier Crosby did a previous version of Anything Goes that co-starred Ethel Merman. This new version throws out the plot of the Broadway musical it was based on but uses some of Cole Porter's songs, along with a few new ones by Cahn and Van Heusen. (You can tell which are whose fairly easily). This is a one-gimmick plot but it does add some suspense to the proceedings, and Paramount studios manages to give the flick some of the gloss you associate with MGM, thanks to Technicolor, VistaVision, some excellent art direction, and cinematographer John F. Warren. More importantly, the performances by all are adept and enthusiastic.

Zizi Jeanmaire with chorus boys
Zizi Jeanmaire (billed in this only as "Jeanmaire") was a French dancer and actress who did most of her work in Europe. She is quite good in Anything Goes and is given one zesty number as well as a featured ballet with little boys, sailors and several lookalikes. The production numbers include the title tune choreographed by Ernest Flatt, "I Get a Kick", and the finale, "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," which features the four stars in a striking tableau.

"Blow, Gabriel, Blow." Jeanmaire, Crosby, Gaynor, O'Connor
Anything Goes, however, goes on for a little too long, and there are some dull stretches, including a nightclub bit wherein Crosby plays a mind-reading Rajah that becomes tiresome rather quickly. In spite of that, the movie is fun and colorful for the most part. Phil Harris [The Patsy] is cast as Gaynor's father, Steve, and Kurt Kasznar [Land of the Giants] as Crosby's agent, Victor Lawrence.

Verdict: Talented cast helps put this over. ***. 

AMERICAN PRINCE: A MEMOIR -- TONY CURTIS

AMERICAN PRINCE: A MEMOIR. Tony Curtis and Peter Golenbock. Harmony; 2008.

Apparently not being satisfied with the first book, this is the late Curtis' second autobiography. Never forgetting a slight, real or imagined, in this volume he settles scores. Since his first wife, Janet Leigh, had passed away by then, he feels free to dissect their marriage and highlight her alleged faults as a wife. (One can't imagine that this endeared him to his daughters by Leigh, including Jamie Lee Curtis.) One gets the impression that Curtis had no real interest in honest reflection nor in seeing things from other people's pov\s. He is the very personification of the self-absorbed movie star.

Curtis traces his early years and his bad relationship with his parents; the tragic deaths of his two brothers -- he never balances his basically successful life with the brother who was placed in a mental institution and eventually wound up homeless and beaten to death --  his determination to make it in Hollywood, and his cinematic triumphs in such as Sweet Smell of Success (arguably his greatest performance) and Some Like It Hot, among others.  Curtis doesn't shy away from detailing the years afterward, when he was forced to take virtually any role in any piece of crap just to pay the bills, including alimony and child support. He also writes about his cocaine addiction and his many marriages (at least one wife never gets mentioned at all).

Curtis never lost the chip on his shoulder. Part of this is due to the fact that he never felt he was really taken seriously. Part was also due to the fact that no matter what the role he generally came off as dead-common. This book didn't help him shake off that image.

Verdict: Not a bad read, but it leaves a sour taste. **1/2. 

EVERYBODY SING

Judy Garland
EVERYBODY SING (1938). Director: Edwin L. Marin.

Judy Bellaire (Judy Garland of Presenting Lily Mars) belongs to a theatrical family, but she keeps getting thrown out of one school after another because she prefers swing music to classical and is therefore considered a "corrupting" influence. The rest of the household consists of her playwright father Hilary (Reginald Owen); her actress mother Diana (Billie Burke); the housekeeper Olga (Fanny Brice), who used to work in vaudeville; and the handsome cook, Ricky (Allan Jones of Reckless), who is moonlighting as a singer at a posh cafe. Judy also has a sister named Sylvia (Lynne  Carver), who is struck on Ricky and vice versa. Judy wants to help get needed money for the cash-poor family by singing at the same cafe, but has to resort to subterfuge when her parents deny her permission to do so. Meanwhile Hilary tries to mount his own show but objects to his wife's acting partner, Jerrold Hope (Reginald Gardiner).

Bus song: Garland, Carver, Jones and Gardiner
This aptly-titled MGM movie is a real charmer, thanks to the cast, some good song numbers, and an amiable disposition throughout, although Judy's attitude (as expressed in one of the song numbers) that classical music is passe is obnoxious. She gets to sing the snappy "Melody Fair," Jones warbles "The One I Love," much of the cast does an operatic pastiche -- based on Verdian melodies -- on a bus; and Fanny Brice [The Great Ziegfeld], who is wonderful, does "Dainty Me," as well as a Baby Schnooks number with Garland. Jones also reprises "Comsi Comsa" from A Night at the Opera. Monty Woolley shows up briefly as a producer and he adds to the fun as well. When they made dithery Bille Burke, they certainly broke the mold.

Verdict: Not just for Garland fans, but they will especially enjoy this. ***.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

B MOVIE NIGHTMARE

Remember, my brother blog B Movie Nightmare publishes every other week, alternating with Great Old Movies. This week it's time for B Movie Nightmare -- two weeks' worth, in fact. You can also sign up there for email notifications, which is the best way to catch all that B Movie Excitement over at my other blog, LOL!

Thanks for reading! 

Thursday, May 30, 2019

THE KILLING

Marie Windsor and Vince Edwards
THE KILLING (1956). Director, co-screenplay: Stanley Kubrick.

Ex-con Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) has gathered together a motley group to rob a race track: bartender Mike (Joe Sawyer); cop Randy (Ted de Corsia of The Big Combo); sniper Nicky (Timothy Carey); front man Marvin (Jay C. Flippen), muscular Maurice (professional wrestler Kola Kwariani); and track employee George (Elisha Cook, Jr.). But George, who wants to participate so he can buy things for his unfaithful wife, Sherry (Marie Windsor), is unaware that she has taken a lover, Val (Vince Edwards), and when these two learn about the robbery they cook up their own plans ...

Elisha Cook Jr. and Marie Windsor
The Killing is Kubrick's third theatrical film (aside from some documentaries), and it is one of his best. He managed to get excellent performances from the cast, with Windsor being a stand-out along with Elisha Cook, Jr., [House on Haunted Hill] who here is given one of the best roles of his career and runs with it. The other cast members are all on the mark, including Dorothy Adams as Mike's bedridden wife, Ruthie. Colleen Gray gets only a few moments as Johnny's girlfriend, but she's fine, and Carey makes a weird and effective Nicky, who literally shoots horses. Lucien Ballard's cinematography is first-class, and Gerald Fried's musical score adds to the film's taut and suspenseful atmosphere.

Sterling Hayden with Jay C. Flippen 
Jim Thompson's dialogue is occasionally forgettable ("she has a dollar sign where her heart should be"), but there's also an interesting interchange between Marvin and Johnny in which the former tells the latter that he practically thinks of him as a son, but then virtually suggests that they run away together, although the implications of this go unexplored. The film has an ironic, knock-out ending that really delivers a wallop. The movie is generally filmed in long cuts and the tension would have been increased with sharper editing. As good as this is, I would have loved to see what this would have been like had Hitchcock directed it. Another interesting Kubrick film is Eyes Wide Shut.

Verdict: One of the best caper movies ever made. ***1/2. 

PINKY

Jeanne Crain, William Lundigan
PINKY (1949). Director: Elia Kazan,

"Of course I'm in pain! Do you think I'll die in ease and ecstasy? -- Miss Em

You can't live without pride." -- Pinky

Patricia (Jeanne Crain of In the Meantime, Darling), who has been affectionately known as "Pinky" all of her life, looks like a white woman but is actually a "Negro." After being educated, getting a nursing degree, and becoming engaged to the white Dr. Adams (William Lundigan), she has returned home to see her grandmother, Dicey (Ethel Waters).

Ethel Barrymore as ailing Miss Em
Dicey is good friends with Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore), a once-wealthy woman who lives in a mansion not far from Dicey's much more humble dwelling. Pinky is resentful of Miss Em, and at first resists her grandmother's insistence that she temporarily become a nurse for the ailing old lady. But as the two women take measure of each other, they each earn the other one's respect. Pinky's fiancee shows up and learns the truth, and it all leads to a court battle over an estate that Pinky feels is rightfully hers. But will a "Negro" ever have the same rights accorded to a white person, and can Pinky and Dr. Adams have a real future together?

Ethel Waters, Frederick O'Neal, Crain
For 1949, Pinky was certainly ahead of its time. Although any other type of ending may well have been impossible given attitudes at the time toward interracial relationships, the movie takes a woman who tries to live as white and ultimately gives her true strength, pride and dignity. One could quibble about some aspects of the story and some of the negative if human black characters, but the fact that Pinky still manages to say what it does in the late forties is remarkable. There is also first-class cinematography from Joe MacDonald, and a nice score from Alfred Newman. And then there are the performances.


Ethel Waters and Ethel Barrymore were both nominated for a supporting actress Oscar and they deserved to be; they are both superb. Jeanne Crain was also nominated for Best Actress, but I found her performance to be uneven. She has some terrific moments, true, but in other sequences she just seems to be speaking lines with little true feeling behind them. Frederick O'Neal makes his mark as Jake, as does Nina Mae McKinney [Dark Waters] as his girlfriend, Rozelia. Evelyn Varden [Hilda Crane] is a stand-out as Melba, the nasty and racist cousin of Miss Em's, and there is notable work from Griff Barnett, Basil Ruysdael., and Kenny Washington in smaller but important roles. William Lundigan is fine in a thankless part that doesn't give him enough to do.

Pinky is a contrast to Band of Angels, which came out eight years later and also has a black heroine passing for white. Angels has an entirely different ending that is more "romantic" but also takes a giant step backwards when it comes to black pride.

Verdict: Superior drama with something to say. ***1/2. 

I PASSED FOR WHITE

James Franciscus and Sonya Wilde
I PASSED FOR WHITE (1960). Director: Fred M. Wilcox.

Bernice Lee (Sonya Wilde), who is biracial, finds herself discriminated against by both whites and blacks. She travels to New York, where she discovers that one firm won't hire her -- despite her qualifications -- simply because she's a "Negro." Lying about her race, she gets a good job and begins a romance with a handsome man, Rick (James Franciscus of The Valley of Gwangi), whom she meets on the plane. But when they fall in love, how far is Bernice -- now known as Lila Brownell -- willing to go with her deception, and can she get away with it?

Lon Ballantyne and Sonya Wilde
I Passed for White has a similar premise to the superior Pinky, which came out eleven years earlier. But while both feature interracial relationships, I Passed for White deals with its heroine in the white urban world and has her interacting with her fiance's upper crust family, who are a bit suspicious -- never dreaming she's part black but wondering why she keeps telling false stories about her family. One of the movie's best scenes has her in a nightclub with her husband and in-laws, and encountering her brother, Chuck (Lon Ballantyne), which leads to an ugly scene that clearly suggests that Rick is a racist.

James Franciscus
Sonya Wilde has her moments as Bernice, but at twenty-one she seems a bit inexperienced to completely pull off such a difficult role; she had only a few credits afterward. Many of the other actors offer somewhat obvious and stilted performances, as if they were appearing in a amateur stage play, although James Franciscus is surprisingly excellent as Rick -- it's no surprise the actor went places, however. Of the supporting cast, the most notable are the aforementioned Ballantyne, who is a nice actor, and Isabel Cooley as the sympathetic maid, Bertha. Two other cast members of note are Jimmy Lydon [Strange Illusion] as a friend of Rick's and Thomas Browne Henry [The Robe] as a doctor. Unfortunately, neither has much to do. Fred M. Wilcox had previously directed Forbidden Planet!

Verdict: No Pinky, but it does have several good sequences. **3/4. 

SMALL TOWN GIRL

Farley Granger and Jane Powell
SMALL TOWN GIRL (1953). Director: Leslie (Laszlo) Kardos.

Rich and patronizing playboy Richard Livingstone III (Farley Granger) speeds through the small town of Duck Creek, sasses Judge Kimbell (Robert Keith), and winds up thrown in jail for thirty days. Richard importunes the judge's daughter, Cindy (Jane Powell), to let him out one night for his "mother's" birthday. Richard has a jealous if unfaithful fiancee in Broadway star Lisa Bellmount (Ann Miller), but during a night in New York he and Cindy start to fall in love. How will the judge react when he is apprised of this situation?

Jane Powell
Small Town Girl is the perfect example of a well-turned out MGM musical. The players are fine and enthusiastic (Granger is much better than you might imagine); the TechniColor is vivid and beautiful; there are a couple of more than pleasant tunes ("Small Towns;" "The Fellow I Follow"); some excellent production numbers; and an essentially amiable if lightweight veneer that puts over the slight but entertaining storyline. Jane Powell [Seven Brides for Seven Brothers] again proves an adept leading lady with a lovely voice and good delivery. And besides Granger, Powell has a host of excellent supporting players and character actors to back her up.

Bobby Van 
First among these is Bobby Van [Lost Horizon], who plays Ludwig Schlemmer, the boy next door who has Broadway aspirations. Van is by no means handsome in Hollywood terms, but he is so irrepressible and talented that it doesn't matter; he has a kind of Al Jolson delight in performing. The most famous highlight of Small Town Girl is when Van literally hops his way across town in sheer spirited excitement, a well-choreographed (Busby Berkeley) sequence that was filmed with only a few cuts. When Ludwig meets Ann Miller and tells her his name, she says "Well, keep it quiet and no one will notice." Ludwig's father is played by "Cuddles" Sakall, whose character in this seems more grumpy and unpleasant than lovable.

Miller struts her stuff
Then there's Ann Miller [Carolina Blues]. There may well have been better female dancers in Hollywood musicals, but in this Miller stars in a zesty production number, "Feel That Beat," wherein the members of the band are hidden behind walls and under the floor, with only their arms and instruments protruding. As for the rest of the players, Robert Keith is fine as the judge, as is an uncredited Chill Wills as the friendly sheriff, Happy. Fay Wray is the judge's wife; Billie Burke is her dithery self as Richard's society mother; William Campbell is a reporter; Marie Blake is a shop customer; and Beverly Wills, the daughter of Joan Davis, plays Ludwig's sister, Deidre. Nat King Cole also sings a number, "Burn Low." Photographed by Joseph Ruttenberg.

Verdict: Delightful MGM musical. ***.   

UNSINKABLE

UNSINKABLE: A MEMOIR. Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannaway. William Morrow; 2013.

In Debbie Reynolds' first autobiography, she went into her divorce from Eddie Fisher -- who ran off with Liz Taylor -- and how her second husband completely drained her bank account and left her broke. In this sequel, Reynolds writes affectingly of two major incidents since that period. The first is her marriage and divorce to her third husband who, at least as portrayed in the book, was a monstrous hustler who took his wife for everything she was worth, all the while using her money to support his long- time mistress. During one confrontation, he kept asking Debbie to step out on the 12th story balcony, which might well have been her finish. Coinciding with this is her narrative of the Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino, which her husband apparently managed to run into the ground.

Once she was extricated from that mess, Reynolds now had to find a home for all the items of Hollywood memorabilia that she had amassed over the decades. This section of the book also has real suspense as the lady discovers that people in Hollywood don't especially care that much about its history. With one plan after another for the museum crumbling despite her and others' best efforts, all of the items (including the dress Marilyn Monroe wore in The Seven Year Itch) finally were sold in a huge auction that netted Reynolds millions.

This is about enough for two thirds of a book, so Reynolds has a final section in which she recounts some familiar stories about her coming to Hollywood, losing Eddie Fisher to La Liz, and so on, then has an annotated list of all of her movies, what she thought of them, and interesting behind-the-scenes details. Reynolds tells of the time she had to get a drunken Donald O'Connor off the stage when he tried to join in when Fred and Adele Astaire started dancing, and reveals that David Janssen [Man-Trap] was convinced he was the son of Clark Gable and drank himself to death over it! Who knows?

For much of its length, Unsinkable is a real page-turner, and for that we can thank Reynolds' co-auhor, (Ms.) Dorian Hannaway, who does a splendid job of telling the movie star's story.

Verdict: Very readable, well-done, and entertaining memoir. ***1/2. 

Thursday, May 16, 2019

BAND OF ANGELS

Clark Gable and Yvonne De Carlo
BAND OF ANGELS (1957). Director: Raoul Walsh.

In Kentucky in the 1880's, Amantha Starr (Yvonne De Carlo) discovers after her father's death that her mother was a slave, she is mulatto (although that term is never used), and she has lost everything, including her father's plantation, to his creditors. She is sold into slavery and acquired for $5000 by the wealthy Hamish Bond (Clark Gable), who treats his slaves with more kindness than others. But Rau-Ru (Sidney Poitier), whom Bond has raised like a son, feels that no amount of kindness can make up for his not being free. Rumblings from up North indicate that the so-called glory days of the South may just about be over.

Sidney Poitier and Carolle Drake
Band of Angels is based on a novel by Robert Penn Warren (All the King's Men), and it had to be much, much better than this film version, which is more along the lines of a Clark Gable Retread of Gone With the Wind than anything else. The shame of it is that there is plenty of provocative material in here, but the picture is a morally ambiguous mish mash that throws scenes at the viewer without any great coherency or momentum. One wishes that many of the characters, especially the black characters, had been better developed.

Amantha sets herself apart from her people
The treatment of racism is also comparatively trivialized and confused, to put it mildly. On the one hand, the film focuses on an interracial relationship (although both characters are played by white actors). On the other hand, Amantha spends most of the movie denying her heritage. Gable's character is also problematic, a slave trader who supposedly buys up slaves to keep them out of the hands of nastier owners out of guilt over his former actions. He mentions the real-life African King Gezo, who sold his own people, but this hardly excuses the actions of white slave traders. In Warren's book Bond comes to a much more satisfying end than he does in the movie.

Gable's performance is professional but comparatively passionless, while De Carlo is somewhat better. Notable in smaller roles are Andrea King as a supposed friend of Amamtha's, Rex Reason [This Island Earth] as a minister-turned-soldier who falls for Amantha, and Torin Thatcher [The 7th Voyage of Sinbad] as an old comrade of Bond's. Sidney Poitier gives the best performance in the film as the servant-son who becomes an understandably vengeful sergeant in the Union Army, and there is also good work from Carolle Drake as Michelle, another servant who seems to love Bond unconditionally. (Ms.) Tommie Moore plays another servant, Dolly, as if she thought she were appearing in an operetta! Robert Clarke and Ann Doran show up in bits and Patrick Knowles plays another plantation owner who nearly has a duel with Gable. Lucien Ballard's cinematography is first-rate, as usual, but Max Steiner's score can in no way be compared to his fine work on Gone With the Wind and other films.

Verdict: Patronizing and contrived, with an interesting plot pretty much muffed. **.

MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID

Esther Williams with Victor Mature
MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID (1952). Director: Mervyn LeRoy.

Despite having to wear braces on her legs as a child, Australian Annette Kellerman (Esther Williams) becomes a swimming champion, winning race after race, in her native land. After her father, Frederick (Walter Pidgeon of Forbidden Planet),  has to close up his music conservatory, the two of them head for London and better prospects, where a impresario named James Sullivan (Victor Mature of Samson and Delilah) hires Annette to swim the Thames to create publicity for his new acquisition, a boxing kangaroo. But Sullivan's grand plan to have Annette star in a water ballet at New York's famed Hippodrome, may hit a snag.

Walter Pidgeon, Williams, Victor Mature
Million Dollar Mermaid is the fictionalized story of the real Annette Kellermann (with two "n"s), who was actually arrested for indecent exposure at Boston's Revere beach and designed a more stylish one-piece bathing suit for women to wear. The movie invents some other stuff to create a little more drama, such as a love rival for Sullivan in the form of Hippodrome manager Alfred Harper (David Brian), arguments between Annette and James, and an accident on a film set -- Kellermann made several silent movies --  in which a tank in which she's swimming cracks apart and she's severely injured. The performances in this are all quite good from the leads down to the supporting cast. Even Jesse White is more likable than usual as Jame's friend and associate, Doc. Howard Freeman also scores as Mr. Aldrich, who wants to book Annette for a lecture circuit. George Wallace [Radar Men from the Moon] shows up briefly as a stunt pilot.

Don't lose your grip, honey! 
Hired to handle the water ballet production numbers for the film, Busby Berkeley, pulled out all the stops. There are men skiing down a slope while the ladies rush below them in a watery funnel; men and women diving off of swings high in the air and slicing smoothly into the huge pool beneath them; Esther rising up out of the water as she holds on to a ring and dancers do their kaleidoscopic thing far, far  down below her. George J. Folsey's cinematography is excellent throughout the film as well. At one point Annette, who'd planned on becoming a ballet dancer, gushes over Paylova (Maria Tallchief), but Williams' efforts to perform some kind of underwater ballet are relatively pitiful.

Verdict: Entertaining biopic with pleasing performers and that certain MGM gloss.***. 

ANATOMY OF A MURDER

James Stewart
ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959). Produced and directed by Otto Preminger.

"Get off the panties! You've done enough damage." -- Judge Weaver.

Folksy former D. A. Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is importuned by his soused buddy, Parnell (Arthur O'Connell), to defend an Army lieutenant, Manion (Ben Gazzara), after the man shoots and kills a bar owner who allegedly raped his wife, Laura (Lee Remick). The trouble is that Laura seems rather sluttish, Manion has a hair-trigger temper, and the defense that Biegler comes up with -- an irresistible impulse that Manion couldn't control -- may not fly with the jury. And a hot shot prosecutor from out of town, Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), may put the lie to Laura's story in any case.

Eve Arden and Arthur O'Connell
Anatomy of a Murder is a frustrating picture. On one hand, it is very entertaining, frank, suspenseful and fast-paced, its nearly three hour length flying by in short order. There are also some excellent performances from Stewart (who in one interview did not seem to see his character as any kind of hero, which he isn't); Remick (who offers one of her best performances, in fact); Gazzara; a splendid Scott, who makes the most of his comparatively brief scenes; and especially O'Connell, who is superb as Parnell -- Stewart, O'Connell and Scott all received Oscar nominations, the last two in support. Eve Arden is also on hand as Biegler's seriously underpaid secretary, and she also makes the most of her scenes with her customary aplomb. Murray Hamilton also scores as a bartender, along with Kathryn Grant as the daughter of the victim, and Don Ross [Walk the Dark Street] makes his mark as a jailbird who testifies against Manion. Sam Leavitt's [Advise and Consent] cinematography was also rightly nominated for an Oscar, although I didn't especially care for Duke Ellington's jazz scoring.

Ben Gazzara
On the other hand, if you're expecting a neat and tidy story where all of the loose ends are tied up as in a Perry Mason episode, be forewarned that Anatomy of a Murder is not only ambiguous in its plot line but morally ambiguous as well. This last is no surprise, as the film is based on a novel written by the defense attorney who actually represented someone similar to Lt. Manion and fictionalized the true case. The result in real life was the same as in the movie. Frankly, some people may want to throw something at the TV screen when the film is over, while others will ruefully note that the justice system is imperfect and some people never quite get the justice they deserve.

George C. Scott and Lee Remick 
Another problem with the picture is that at times it is off-puttingly light-hearted, almost playing like a parody of a courtroom drama. You're gratified when the judge finally tells people that this is a serious matter, although it seems to take him forever to do so. Stewart's "aw shucks" manner becomes a little grating at times. And what on earth is up with that flamboyant cigarette holder than Manion uses in the court room? Judge Weaver is played by an actual judge, Joseph N. Welch, who later became an actor and had three credits. Although his performance is okay, for better or worse he does add to the almost comical tone of some sequences in the picture. Otto Preminger also directed the terrific Angel Face.

Verdict: Your call. Quite absorbing and well-acted, one of Preminger's better directorial jobs, thought-provoking, but it may have you gritting your teeth. ***. 

BLOODHOUNDS OF BROADWAY (1952)

BLOODHOUNDS OF BROADWAY (1952). Director: Harmon Jones.

Hillbilly and Hood: Mitzi Gaynor; Scott Brady
Bookie "Numbers" Foster (Scott Brady) is temporarily on the lam with his buddy, Harry (Wally Vernon), when they break down on a back road in Georgia. Coming to their rescue is the cute hillbilly gal, Emily (Mitzi Gaynor), who has just presided over the funeral of her grandpappy.  Left alone in the world, and with Numbers thinking she's a mere child, she agrees to go with him back to New York, along with her two adorable bloodhounds, Nip and Tuck. But will Numbers' girlfriend, Yvonne (Marguerite Chapman), who perjured herself on the witness stand for his sake, take kindly to the fact that Emily  -- who is no child -- is now part of his life?

Nip and Tuck
Supposedly inspired by Damon Runyan-like situations, Bloodhounds of Broadway is an amiable musical with winning performances and a very creaky plot line even for the fifties. The digitally remastered DVD, which also includes a lengthy interview with Gaynor, features brilliant Technicolor and fine cinematography by Edward Cronjager [House By the River]. The score consists of some standards like "I Got a Feelin' You're Foolin'," which features some fancy footwork, and a few mediocre new tunes. "Get along home, Cindy" features some sharp dancing from Gaynor and little Sharon Baird, and "Jack of Diamonds" is an inventive and colorful production number.

Richard Allan, Mitzi Gaynor, Mitzi Green
Gaynor and Brady [Mohawk] make a good team, and there's some notable support from Chapman (who has a brief skirmish with Gaynor in a dressing room sequence); Michael O'Shea as a cop; Mitzi Green (formerly the child star "Little Mitzi") as Harry's sister Tessie; and Richard Allan [Niagara] as Charlie -- Green and Allen are also featured dancers and are, as they say, swell. Mary Wickes has a cameo as a woman who can't grasp that a diaper (or "didy") service is only a front for a bookie joint, and Charles Bronson has a few lines as one of Numbers' gunsels. The two bloodhounds nearly steal the picture and are given a very cute final moment as one pooch steals a smooch from the other. Harmon Jones also directed Princess of the Nile.

Verdict: Not much of a script,. but this is easy to take for the most part and nice to look at. ***.

CONVERSATIONS WITH CLASSIC FILM STARS

CONVERSATIONS WITH CLASSIC FILM STARS: Interviews from Hollywood's Golden Era. James Bawden and Ron Miller.  University Press of Kentucky; 2016.

I have already posted on the sequel to this book, You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet, which came out the following year. This is Bawden and Miller's first collection of interviews with famous film folk, and frankly, this volume is superior, with some really solid and interesting interviews. There's a funny piece on the ever-eccentric Gloria Swanson in the section on silent film stars; Joseph Cotten and Melvyn Douglas being rather blunt in their pieces in the section on Leading Men; everyone from Anne Baxter to Dorothy Lamour to Anna Lee and Jane Wyman are covered in Leading Ladies; Audrey Totter and Marie Windsor have their say in Queens of the Bs; and we've got the Singing Cowboys, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers; plus a piece on Bob Hope, and a final section  on not-quite-stars like Keye Luke, Harold Russell, Margaret Hamilton, and Diane Varsi (who did Peyton Place and then pretty much disappeared because she rebelled against her studio). Other stars interviewed include Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas and more.

The stars are frequently scathing in their assessment of other actors, with Melyyn Douglas insisting that both Spencer Tracy and Fredric March were "one-dimensional" (!) in Inherit the Wind (Douglas did a TV version). Joan Fontaine comments on her sister Olivia De Havilland ("it takes two to feud"). You'll also learn that Jane Wyman got so sick of former movie goddesses being hired for her series Falcon Crest, that she laid down the law: "No more international harlots!" I didn't know that beautiful Jane Greer was once married to Rudy Vallee nor that Margaret Hamilton was nearly killed playing the witch in The Wizard of Oz and spent some time in the hospital. The book gets across that most self-absorbed movie stars are simply not normal people.

Verdict: Fun, informative book that is hard to put down. ***1/2.  

Thursday, May 9, 2019

B MOVIE NIGHTMARE AND GREAT OLD MOVIES

B Movie Nightmare and Great Old Movies will now be on a bimonthly schedule, each coming out every other week.

This week it's time for another installment of B Movie Nightmare. Note: You can subscribe there for emails to that blog as well.

Thanks for reading! 

Thursday, May 2, 2019

SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL

Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood
SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL (1964). Director: Richard Quine.

Bob Weston (Tony Curtis), who writes for a sleazy expose mag called Stop, has just come out with a story on psychologist Helen Brown (Natalie Wood). Dr. Brown wrote a bestseller entitled "Sex and the Single Girl," but the article claims she is a virgin with limited experience. Weston wants to dig up more dirt on Brown, so he poses as his next door neighbor, hosiery salesman Frank (Henry Fonda), whose wife, Sylvia (Lauren Bacall), is almost pathologically jealous, and pretends to be Helen's patient. When Bob and Helen start falling in love, it causes complications for everyone.

Lauren Bacall
When someone got the bright idea of turning Helen Gurley Brown's bestseller into a movie, they should have tried for something more sophisticated than this dumb "sex comedy" that has hardly any laughs. Even the basic premise of a man getting close to a woman who hates him by pretending to be someone else is nothing new. A sequence when not only Bacall but two other women show up at Brown's office claiming to be Sylvia should at least have been fun, but it's as clunky as everything else in the movie. The picture develops a slight degree of momentum toward the end, but it all winds up in a race to the airport with everyone chasing everybody else in their cars or taxis -- a bit with Bacall and a cab driver is kind of muffed -- and an attempt to emulate the kind of zaniness you used to find in Frank Tashlin movies never really comes off. The whole sequence goes on too long in any case.

Tony Curtis
Sex and the Single Girl might have worked if Carol Burnett had played Brown instead of Natalie Wood. She and Curtis give it the old college try, but they can do little to make any of the lines -- some of which are actually funny -- come alive. Henry Fonda is out of his element and even Bacall is mostly mediocre. Others in the cast include Mel Ferrer as a psychiatrist who is interested in Helen, Fran Jeffries as an amorous friend of Bob's, and Leslie Parrish as Bob's secretary. Two veterans who add a bit to the limited fun are Edward Everett Horton as Bob's boss and Otto Kruger as one of Helen's associates, and Larry Storch shows up as a motorcycle cop driven crazy by all the goings-on. There's an inside joke about Some Like It Hot but the references to Jack Lemmon are repeated once too often. The pic tries to come up with some interesting backdrops -- a dock where Bob threatens suicide, the ape cages in the zoo -- but ultimately the movie is just deadly. Fran Jeffries, who sings and dances in the movie, had previously been married to Dick Haymes, and then married Richard Quine, the film's director, the year after this was released. The marriage only lasted four years.

Verdict: And it's nearly two hours long as well! *1/2. 

THE BOTTOM OF THE BOTTLE

Van Johnson and Ruth Roman
THE BOTTOM OF THE BOTTLE  (1956). Director: Henry Hathaway.

Near the Mexican border, lawyer "P. M." Martin (Joseph Cotten) gets an unwelcome visitor, his brother Donald (Van Johnson), who has just escaped from prison with five years to serve on a sentence for manslaughter. Donald can't cross the border to Mexico, where he wants to be reunited with his wife and children, because of rushing flood waters, and hopes PM will somehow get money to his family who are about to be put out on the street. Meanwhile Donald, using a fake name, meets his ultimately sympathetic sister-in-law, Nora (Ruth Roman of Lightning Strikes Twice), and the partying neighbors, while PM hopes Donald can resist temptation and not take a drink, the very thing that got him into trouble in the first place ...

Joseph Cotten and Ruth Roman
The Bottom of the Bottle certainly sets up an interesting situation, but at times it comes close to sinking under its contrivances. While not perfect casting for the rough-hewn, stupid, and rather unlikable and self-justifying Donald, Van Johnson [The Big Hangover] gives an excellent performance, with Cotten and Roman just a cut below in their portrayals. Johnson has an especially good scene when he's talking to his wife and small children on the phone, his heart clearly breaking from his being separated from them as well as his desperate circumstances.

Jack Carson, Van Johnson and Margaret Hayes
Jack Carson and Margaret Hayes are cast as neighbors, the Breckinridges, who hold frequent parties, with the wife almost recoiling from her husband's touch, setting up the dime store psychological notion that he's out to get Donald,  (when the latter robs a store of guns and liquor) out of some kind of sexual frustration. (Carson briefly affects a limp wrist as he leads the posse, whatever the heck that means.) There is an unintentionally comical moment when Johnson has a positive, even scary screaming meltdown in front of the Breckinridges and their reaction to this, because the script has him being thrown out at a somewhat later point, is hardly what one would expect given his behavior. One gets the sense that most of the characters in this are acting the way they do because the script demands it of them, not because they are real people behaving in a realistic fashion. For instance, Nora's motivations for some of her lines and actions are not satisfactorily explained by her dissatisfaction with her marriage.

Despite its flaws, The Bottom of the Bottle isn't too easily dismissed, not just because of Johnson's performance, but because of the high-quality of Lee Garmes' widescreen cinematography and an effective score by Leigh Harline. There is some amazing stunt work when Donald is nearly run over by a train, and an exciting climatic battle between the two brothers on horseback in the raging river. The film also has a moving wind-up, although many things have not quite been resolved.

Verdict: Not exactly East of Eden, but not without its interesting aspects, and a fine dramatic performance from Van Johnson. **3/4. 

MOSS ROSE

Peggy Cummins
MOSS ROSE (1947). Director: Gregory Ratoff.

Belle (Peggy Cummins) is a dance hall girl in London who is good friends with a young woman, another entertainer, named Daisy (Margo Woode of Hell Bound). One day Belle discovers Daisy's dead body and sees a man, Michael Drego (Victor Mature), leaving Daisy's room in a hurry. Belle doesn't tell the police what she knows, and Michael assumes she is hoping to be paid blackmail money. But instead she shocks Micheal by asking him to bring her to his estate as a guest. It seems Belle has always wanted to be a "lady" ...

Victor Mature
You might imagine that nothing good can come of this situation -- one also has to keep in mind that heroine Belle becomes an unsympathetic figure in that she's covering up a murder -- but Moss Rose may not be quite as predictable as you might imagine. At the estate Belle interacts with Michael's strange if likable mother, Lady Margaret (Ethel Barrymore of None But the Lonely Heart), and his fiancee, Audrey (Patricia Medina), who is at first quite suspicious of Belle's motives in coming. George Zucco is wasted as the butler, who has but one brief exchange with Belle, and Vincent Price has a little more to do as Inspector Clinner, who is investigating Daisy's murder. Eventually the killer is revealed.

Ethel Barrymore
I believe Alfred Hitchcock had once expressed an interest in doing a film version of Moss Rose -- the title refers to a type of flower pressed in the victim's bible --  and undoubtedly it would have made a far better picture than what we've got here. Price's fans will be disappointed that he has a very subordinate role, although he does have scenes with all of the principals. Cummins makes a good heroine, Medina is fine, and Barrymore walks off with the movie. This is simply not the right kind of material for Mature, who mostly just seems to be reciting lines. The basic material is there for a superior suspense film, but while the picture is absorbing, it has no flair. David Buttolph's musical score helps a bit. Peggy Cummins later stared with Dana Andrews in the classic Night of the Demon.

Verdict: This forgotten movie has some points of interest. **1/2.