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

Thursday, January 9, 2020

THE CHAMPAGNE MURDERS

Yvonne Furrneaux and Anthony Perkins
THE CHAMPAGNE MURDERS (aka Le scandale/1967). Director: Claude Chabrol.

Christine Belling (Yvonne Furneaux of The Death Ray Mirror of Dr. Mabuse) has not only acquired the majority of shares in the Wagner champagne business -- probably due to her late father's business tactics -- but a gigolo husband named Christopher (Anthony Perkins). Christopher's buddy, Paul Wagner (Maurice Ronet), who introduced him to his wife, still controls the name of the champagne company, a name that Christine desperately wants to own. Things take a strange turn when a drunk Paul wakes up more than once to find a woman's corpse nearby. Has he gone mad or is somebody framing him?

Maurice Ronet
The Champagne Murders is an arresting enough but very odd movie that holds the attention despite the leisurely pacing and almost episodic nature of the first three quarters of the film. Although this is a post-Psycho movie and Chabrol was a great Hitchcock admirer, the murders in this all happen off-screen -- there are no grisly details or cinematic pyrotechnics. Then the whole thing is topped off with a twist that some viewers may have seen coming while others may be merely confused. The final sequence of the film is lifted a bit from The Big Knife but is undeniably effective.

Christine and her maid
As to the performers -- which include Furneaux and Ronet as well as Stephane Audran, Henry Jones [Deathtrap], and Suzanne Lloyd -- everyone is on target with the exception of Perkins, who is badly miscast as the gigolo and doesn't seem to have any real idea how to play the part. Chabrol probably figured that having a well-known American actor in the role would increase box office in the U.S., but it also compromised his movie. Still, there's something about the picture that keeps you hooked, and while there are things about it that may not seem to make sense, if you think about it a bit it works -- well, except for at least one sequence that makes absolutely no sense once you know the big reveal at the end --  although one could easily argue that (considering the thin characterizations) the movie would have worked even better as a gorier and more violent type of French-style giallo movie.

Verdict: You may be scratching your head at the conclusion, but it's still entertaining and Ronet is compelling. ***. 

MA AND PA KETTLE BACK ON THE FARM

Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride
MA AND PA KETTLE BACK ON THE FARM (1951). Director: Edward Sedgwick.

Ma: "You're lazier than that hound dog we used to have."
Pa: "Which one?"
Ma: "The one who used to lean against the wall when she barked."

Ma and Pa Kettle (Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride) are back on the farm with their brood when Pa finds out "Mrs. Kettle" is pregnant. This of course, is his daughter-in-law Kim (Meg Randall), but Pa thinks his wife is going to deliver her sixteenth child! Once that is straightened out, the Kettles have to deal with Kim's parents. Her father, Jonathan (Ray Collins of Perry Mason) is a good sport but his wife, Elizabeth (Barbara Brown), is a termagant who wants her own way or else as far as her grandchild is concerned. Ma almost comes to blows with the woman, and does give a shove to the prune-faced nurse that is hired to look after the new arrival. Then there's the possibility that the Kettles' old property may be layered with uranium,

Bedroom hijinks with the Kettles
This third film featuring Main and Kilbride, who are absolutely wonderful, is as funny as the last one, with amusing dialogue and situations. One could argue that the flick is full of time-worn comedy devices, such as a frantic race in a car to catch a train and so on, but these things are still amusing, especially with Main and Kilbride on hand to liven things up. There's a great bit where Ma and Pa show pal Billy Reed (Emory Parnell) their own brand of arithmetic, which, incredibly, makes perfect sense as far as the Kettles are concerned. Richard Long is back as Tom Kettle, and Teddy Hart and Oliver Blake make a couple of politically incorrect but comical Indians.

Verdict: Lots of fun! ***.

LET 'EM HAVE IT

Richard Arlen with Bruce Cabot in the background
LET 'EM HAVE IT (1935). Director: Sam Wood.

Federal agents Mal Stevens (Richard Arlen), Van Rensseler (Harvey Stephens), and Tex Logan (Gordon Jones of The Green Hornet) are up against a formidable foe in Joe Keefer (Bruce Cabot), who has organized a gang of ex-cons, many of which he sprung from a prison farm, to engineer a series of bank robberies. Joe was originally a chauffeur for Eleanor Spencer (Virginia Bruce), who was once very close to Van but now has feelings for Mal. Unfortunately, Eleanor gets angry with Mal when he is unable to prevent her kid brother, Buddy (Eric Linden), from becoming a G-Man, with tragic results.

Eric Linden and Richard Arlen
Under the direction of Sam Wood, Let 'Em Have It is a fast-paced, well-acted, and entertaining cops vs robbers movie. Although mostly forgotten today, even by film buffs, Richard Arlen (Island of Lost Souls) was a handsome and charismatic leading man for most of his career, which comprised nearly 200 credits. Other players in this flick include Alice Brady [When Ladies Meet], as Eleanor's man-hungry Aunt Ethel, and Barbara Pepper as one of Cabot's blond molls, Milly. Pepper later gained a lot of weight and appeared more than once on I Love Lucy. Sam Wood also directed Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1939 and a great many others.

Verdict: Snappy picture hasn't a dull moment. ***. 

SUBWAY IN THE SKY

Hildegard Knef and Van Johnson
SUBWAY IN THE SKY (1959). Director: Muriel Box.

Baxter Grant (Van Johnson of The Bottom of the Bottle) is a military doctor stationed in Germany. He has been accused of stealing drugs and even murdering a colleague who might have testified against him. Stupidly going on the lam, he arrives at his estranged wife's apartment only to find that she has sub-let it to a singer named Lilli (Hildegard Knef of Diplomatic Courier and Fedora). There is an instant chemistry between these two, and Lilli decides to trust Baxter and help him while he tries to find his wife, Anna (Katherine Kath). At the same time a military policeman named Captain Carson (Cec Linder) tries to find Baxter, interrogating Lilli as to the fugitive's whereabouts every chance he gets.

Neff and Cec Linder
Subway in the Sky makes a mistake in starting the story in the middle, leaving out the scenes wherein Grant is accused and never introducing the viewer to the man he allegedly murders. Knef and Johnson give good performances, although there is a scene late in the picture -- after the horrible death of one character -- that he and Cec Linder as the cop are surprisingly unemotional considering what has just happened. Knef sings a song in the nightclub where she works, and her voice is pretty awful. Two other characters include Carl (Albert Lieven of Beware of Pity), a lawyer who is in love with Lilli and has a chance with her until she meets Baxter; and Stefan (Vivian Matalon), Baxter's stepson. One interesting sequence makes no bones about the fact that Lilli and Baxter have just had sex.

Verdict: Good story that needed more dramatic treatment and perhaps different actors. **3/4. 

INTO THIN AIR (1985)

Ellen Burstyn
INTO THIN AIR (1985 telefilm). Director: Roger Young.

Brian Walker (Tate Donovan of Nancy Drew) bids his family good-bye to go to a writer's retreat. When days go by without a word from Brian, his mother Joan (Ellen Burstyn of (Same Time, Next Year), brother Stephen (Sam Robards), and father Larry (Nicholas Pryor) -- who apparently lives apart from the others -- begin to worry and start to search for him. Joan is told by police that he can't be considered a missing person until thirty days go by, but even when the deadline passes they don't put his name in the system. Alarmed at police disinterest, Joan contacts a private eye named Jim Conway (Robert Prosky), whom she convinces to search for her son. Just when things get hopeless, Conway gets a lead, a lead that the FBI could have also uncovered if they had just been more concerned and diligent ...

Sam Robards and Nicholas Pryor
Into Thin Air is based on a true story and it is both suspenseful and very well-acted by all. This includes Patricia Smith, who in her few short scenes etches a memorable portrait of Conway's wife, Olga, and John Dennis Johnston as the sleazy, if sexy, Earl Pike. Unlike other fact-based true crime telefilms, Into Thin Air also works as well as it does because it is well-directed by Roger Young. It all builds to a satisfying but heartbreaking conclusion. Sam Robards is the son of Jason Robards Jr. and Lauren Bacall. Ron Howard was one of the executive producers. (As this film is told from the frustrated family's pov we don't really know if the authorities were really as disinterested or as inept as portrayed.)

Verdict: Absorbing, well-done made-for-TV crime drama. ***.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

THE FUZZY PINK NIGHTGOWN

Jane Russell and Ralph Meeker
THE FUZZY PINK NIGHTGOWN (1957). Director: Norman Taurog.

Movie star Laurel Stevens (Jane Russell of Foxfire) is planning to attend the premiere of her new film The Kidnapped Bride, when she's actually kidnapped by two, fortunately, nice guys named Mike (Ralph Meeker) and Dandy (Keenan Wynn). Mike spent four years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, which makes Laurel feel sympathetic towards him. It also doesn't hurt that he's a rather sexy man. While Laurel's assistant Bertha (Una Merkel) and agent (Robert H. Harris) try frantically to find her, studio head Arthur Martin (Adolphe  Menjou) wants to keep it out of the papers, afraid it is -- or at least everyone will think it is -- nothing more than a publicity stunt. If Laurel admits she was kidnapped Mike could go to jail, but if she doesn't, her public could turn on her.

Adolphe Menjou, Una Merkel, Robert H. Harris
The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown has an interesting premise and holds the attention, but the movie could only have worked if it was a riotous farce, which it isn't; the picture has only a few chuckles. Yet a scene wherein Laurel and Mike drive off in a police car is so ridiculous that even Ralph Meeker looks irritated. The performances are good enough on one level -- although Meeker would never make a deft comedian -- but the leads take a back seat to Robert Harris, who is quite funny as the agent. Although Russell did appear in a few more movies, this was her last starring role, and her age was beginning to show -- it didn't help that Fuzzy was a flop. Ralph Meeker [Jeopardy] was seen to good advantage in Paths of Glory that same year.

Verdict: Ironically, Jane Russell's swan song as a major movie star. **1/2. 

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1971)

Christine Kaufmann and Jason Robards
MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1971). Director: Gordon Hessler.

In Paris around the turn of the century, Cesar Charron (Jason Robards of Philadelphia) runs a Grand Guignol theater that nightly presents an adaption of Poe's story "Murders in the Rue Morgue." First the actor playing the orangutan is murdered with acid, and then more people who used to work for Charron, including an actress turned prostitute and an escape artist, are killed the same way. Charron fears that the killer is a former associate, Rene Marot (Herbert Lom), whose faced was once disfigured with acid and who supposedly took out his anger by axing the woman he loved (Lilli Palmer). Marot committed suicide and Charron transferred his affections from the dead woman to her daughter, Madeleine (Christine Kaufmann of Constantine and the Cross), whom he later married. But if Marot is truly dead, how can he be the killer? This is also a question for Inspector Vidocq (Adolfo Celi).

Herbert Lom and Christine Kaufmann
Despite its intriguing plot, Murders in the Rue Morgue is not a very compelling nor entertaining picture. Robards doesn't seem to have any feel for this kind of material, and Lom is generally forced to run about in a mask and opera cape as if he were in out-takes from the 1962 version of Phantom of the Opera Lilli Palmer only appears in flashbacks and manages to retain her dignity. Michael Dunn adds a bit of flavor in his portrayal of Marot's friend, Pierre, but his role is never clearly defined. The story is good, the motive for the murders makes sense, but the picture is clumsy, disjointed, and at times almost laughable. After the main story is over and its revelations revealed, there is a long, slow and dull post-script with Madeleine being chased around in the theater that, if possible, sinks the picture even further.

Verdict: Highly disappointing horror film, which is no better than the 1932 Murders in the Rue Morgue with Bela Lugosi. *1/2.

NOT SINCE CARRIE: FORTY YEARS OF BROADWAY MUSICAL FLOPS

NOT SINCE CARRIE: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops. Ken Mandelbaum. St. Martin's Press; 1991.

This very entertaining survey of flop Broadway musicals is not just a list of mega-bombs that were hated by critics and public alike, but a serious look at what went wrong with certain projects that should have and could have been great. Mandelbaum makes it clear that if is often simply more fun to watch, dissect and laugh about major Broadway disasters than it is projects of genuine quality, and that there are people who are sorrier they never got to see "Carrie" on Broadway than the latest hot ticket offering. But Mandelbaum also discusses why some musicals seemed doomed to failure from the outset due to bad ideas or unlikely source material and why others had great ideas, librettos or scores but still made little dent at the box office. Along the way you're given information about shows you may never have heard of and closed early that were still worthwhile or had excellent scores, many of which were recorded. However, in the final chapter Mandelbaum discusses shows that didn't deserve the ignominy of failure, but for me he almost overturns the whole book with his singling out Jerome Moross' The Golden Apple, a through-sung borderline opera that updates the story of the Odyssey to a post-Civil War period. With a terrible book and only one really memorable song (and a couple of other decent ones) amidst a lot of dribble, it's hard to believe Mandelbaum actually thinks this is a masterwork. Candide, yes; Apple  no. Oh well, to each his own.

The book was published nearly thirty years ago -- how time flies! -- so the reader has to supply his  own postscripts. For instance, Peter Allen bombed on Broadway in Legs Diamond -- he not only starred but did the songs -- yet years later the show about Allen (The Boy from Oz) was a success. There have been numerous revivals of Carrie at various theater companies. The bomb At the Grand was retooled into the successful Grand Hotel, even using some of the same songs. And so on.

Verdict:  Engaging, informative, thoughtful look at what makes some shows succeed while others fail. ***. 

I MOBSTER

Steve Cochran
I MOBSTER (1959). Produced and directed by Roger Corman.

I Mobster traces the rise and fall of gangster Joe Sante (Steve Cochran of The Big Operator), whose father virtually disowns him and whose mother (Celia Lovsky) eventually follows suit. As a boy (played by an uncredited but talented youngster), Joey was taken under the wing of Black Frankie (Robert Strauss), and later also works for crime boss Paul Moran (Grant Withers of the Jungle Jim serial). Joe takes up with a nice neighborhood gal named Teresa (Lita Milan), who is at first highly disapproving of his activities but ultimately there's no arguing with love. But Joe's ambitions and high-risk lifestyle may become his undoing ...

Saucy Yvette Vickers 
I Mobster is an absorbing crime drama with a fine and charismatic lead performance by the always-under-rated Steve Cochran, who is perfect as Joe. Celia Lovsky does her usual hand-wringing turn as the heartbroken mother; Strauss is quite good as his mentor and associate; and Lita Milan [Never Love a Stranger] turns in a very nice performance as Teresa. Grant Withers also scores as the big boss, and there is a very nice bit by Yvette Vickers as a saucy blond who tries to pay off her gambling debt by coming on to Joe -- fat chance! Ed Nelson, Robert Shayne, Thomas Browne Henry and Bruno VeSota have smaller  parts, and stripper Lili St. Cyr (who is much more attractive than the rather horse-faced Gypsy Rose Lee) does her cameo on stage in a bath tub.

In the long run, however, I Mobster doesn't really rise above all of the hoodlum cliches -- sobbing mother, worried, conflicted girlfriend, rivals and hits -- but the darn thing is too entertaining and well-played for that to matter much. As for Cochran, a hell-raising lover boy off-screen, he died at only 48 under very mysterious circumstances.

Verdict: Fast-paced Corman melodrama with a well-chosen cast. ***. 

JUNIOR PROM

Freddie Stewart
JUNIOR PROM (1946). Director: Arthur Dreifuss.

"You're all acting like a bunch of drips!"

At Whitney High School there's an election for student body president, with the two nominees being Freddie Trimball (Freddie Stewart) and Jimmy Forrest (Jackie Moran of Barefoot Boy). Jimmy's father tells the principal, Professor Townley (Milton Kibbee), that if his son doesn't win the election the school won't get new uniforms or any donation from him. Initially Freddie drops out of the race for the good of the school, although Townley refuses to buckle under. But eventually Freddie and Jimmy run a heated campaign, with Jimmy's manager, Roy (Frankie Darro), going so far as to romance school reporter Betty Rogers (Noel Neill of Superman) to get his man favorable publicity, leading to an estrangement between Betty and her two sisters. Every once in awhile someone, mostly Freddie, breaks out in a song ...

June Preisser and Freddie Stewart
Junior Prom was the first starring role for the now-forgotten Freddie Stewart, an amiable and nice-looking crooner who sang for Tommy Dorsey. Unfortunately, his Hollywood offers only included one from cheapie Monogram studios, who cast him in a series of "Teen Agers" films, of which Junior Prom was the first. His love interest was generally June Preisser [Strike Up the Band], herein cast as Dodie Rogers. He made eight more "Teen Agers" movies even though he was already 21 at the time of filming this flick, and the other "teens" were a bit long-in-the-tooth as well. His various attempts at a comeback were not successful.

Harry the Hipster: This was once the epitome of "cool"
As for Junior Prom, it is also amiable, with some snappy dance numbers and an especially good routine from Preisser during a lively "Teen Canteen" production number, which also features bandleader Abe Lyman (black musician Eddie Heywood appears in an earlier sequence). Another cast member is Warren Mills, who plays the borderline camp and take-charge Lee Watson. "What if you didn't have a boy to take you to the prom?" Dodie asks Lee. "What if I did?" replies Lee, who doesn't seem adverse to the idea even if he's going with Dodie's other sister, Addie (Judy Clark). Murray Davis is cast as fat soda jerk Tiny, but his supposedly funny shtick can sometimes he painful. The picture has the usual tiresome swing vs classical music business. Harry "the Hipster" Gibson, playing himself, does one irritating number. This was his only film appearance.

Verdict: Enthusiastic and talented players, but for most of them this was not an auspicious debut. **3/4. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

KING AND COUNTRY

Tom Courtenay and Dirk Bogarde
KING AND COUNTRY (1964). Director: Joseph Losey.

During WW1, British private James Hemp (Tom Courtenay of 45 Years) has been accused of desertion despite the fact that he volunteered for service, and has been in the war for longer than some of his accusers. The somewhat stern Captain Hargreaves (Dick Bogarde) is assigned to defend Hemp in a makeshift court, and develops sympathy for the man in spite of himself. In his opinion, Hemp simply walked away to get away from the noise and have some privacy, but was not really attempting to desert. But will the court see it Hargreaves' way, or is the young man doomed?

Tom Courtenay
King and Country is an absorbing and affecting military drama that presents the story simply and clearly and doesn't beg the viewer for compassion that most will undoubtedly feel in any case. The film has more of the atmosphere of WW2 than WW1, although the acting can not be faulted. There is a little too much time spent on some of the soldiers' attempts to rout or kill some rats, and if this is meant to be symbolic, it doesn't work. While many feel this film takes a back seat to the similarly-themed Paths of Glory -- there are similarities to Billy Budd as well --  King and Country is still a good picture on its own terms. James Villiers, Leo McKern, Barry Justice, Vivian Matalon, and Barry Foster, among others, also give notable performances. Joseph Losey also directed Dirk Bogarde in The Sleeping Tiger.

Verdict: Sad and sobering, eventually infuriating, look at victims of war; the very definition of grim. ***. 

MYRNA LOY: THE ONLY GOOD GIRL IN HOLLYWOOD

MYRNA LOY: THE ONLY GOOD GIRL IN HOLLYWOOD. Emily W. Leider. 2011; University of California Press.

This absorbing, well-written and well-researched biography of Loy traces her roots in Montana, her early years doing movie after movie, often cast as "exotic" Orientals [The Mask of Fu Manchu], her indentured servitude working for studios that hardly ever gave her a day off, her eventual emergence as a major star with a wider range than expected who commanded some respect from fellow filmmakers, and her final days when she turned to the theater and became a character actress in a few late movies [Midnight Lace]. Along the way we meet Loy's four husbands, most of whom treated her badly (and most of whom were plug-ugly, although Leider refers to one potato-head as "catnip to women!"). Loy had liberal politics, seemed to care about people other than herself (which alone makes her different from most movie stars) and decided after her fourth divorce that it was not so terrible not to have a husband. The bio also delves into Loy's many friendships with people famous and not so famous, her relationships with various family members, and analyzes most of her films and her approach to her roles, which included co-starring in the Thin Man movies, The Best Years of Our Lives, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Animal Kingdom, and many, many others.

Leider resuscitates this business about Loy possibly having had some kind of relationship with Montgomery Clift while they were making Lonelyhearts and after (first brought up in Patti Bosworth's bio of Clift). Loy denied this vehemently in her own memoir, and also denied it (in my presence) to Lawrence Quirk, who wrote The Films of Myrna Loy. Considering that she was no longer married to her husband at that time years later, it makes little sense to deny it if it were true. Also, Clift was essentially gay, Loy was 15 years older, and as this book makes clear, she was not the type to sleep around indiscriminately or cheat on her husband. (I also knew Jim Kotsilibas-Davis, who worked on Loy's memoirs with her.)

Verdict: Excellent biography and quite possibly the last word on Loy. ***1/2. 

THE BURGLAR

Jayne Mansfield and Dan Duryea
THE BURGLAR (1957). Director: Paul Wendkos.

Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea) leads a small gang of criminals, including Gladden (Jayne Mansfield), the girl he was raised with. They steal a very valuable necklace from a old lady spiritualist, Sister Sarah (Phoebe MacKay), who lives in a sprawling mansion. Now the question is whether to sell the necklace at a great loss or wait until the heat is off, a suggestion that does not sit well with Baylock (Peter Capell of The Fury of the Cocoon), who is desperate to get out of the country. None of them are aware that another person is watching them and scheming ...

Martha Vickers and Dan Duryea
The Burglar is an interesting crime melodrama that just misses being special. Duryea gives a solid performance, although Mansfield comes off like an amateur, and one doesn't buy that she "hungers" for Duryea (the only actor billed above the title). Stewart Bradley, who was "introduced" in this picture (he had had previous TV credits but this was his first movie role) makes a definite impression as the cop, Charlie. Martha Vickers (one of Mickey Rooney's ex-wives and who also appeared in The Big Bluff) also makes an impression as Della, a woman who picks up Nat in a bar and has a few secrets of her own. Mickey Shaughnessy  plays Dohmer, another member of the gang who is a little too trigger-happy. The Burglar features interesting settings in Philly and Atlantic City, such as a shack on the lonely coast and a fun house where the climax takes place. Paul Wendkos also directed the excellent Brotherhood of the Bell.

Verdict: Not quite top-drawer but it does hold the attention. **3/4. 

MA AND PA KETTLE GO TO TOWN

Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride
MA AND PA KETTLE GO TO TOWN (1950). Director: Charles Lamont.

Pa Kettle (Percy Kilbride) wins another contest for a soda with the prize being an all-expenses paid trip to New York City! At first Pa and Ma Kettle (Marjorie Main) have trouble coming up with a babysitter for their fifteen rambunctious children, but along comes "Shotgun" Mike (Charles McGraw), a thief hiding out in town. Ma at least has some reservations about leaving the children with a complete stranger (although they prove to be more than he can handle), but she thinks he has a kind face, and off they go to Manhattan. There they encounter more problems with Mike's cronies, and discover some marital woes for son Tom (Richard Long) and daughter-in-law Kim (Meg Randall).

Richard Long and Meg Randall
Ma and Pa Kettle were introduced in The Egg and I and proved so popular that they got their own feature, Ma and Pa Kettle. This led into several sequels, of which this is the first. Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town is not only consistently cute and amusing, with great performances from Main and Kilbride and good work from the rest of the cast, but it avoids the cliche of New Yorkers being portrayed as horrible city slickers taking advantage of the Kettles; in fact, the pair actually like New York and the people who live there (although, of course, they're just as glad to get home). Ma and Pa exhibit sheer delight in seeing Manhattan from a cab as they stand up in a hole in the taxi's ceiling, and there's a great bit with Pa dropping a cup of water from the top of the RCA building and encountering that same water later on.

Verdict: Very cute picture. ***. 

BLACK SPURS

Rory Calhoun and Linda Darnell
BLACK SPURS (1965). Director: R. G. Springsteen.

In Texas in 1885 Santee (Rory Calhoun of Night of the Lepus) is engaged to pretty Anna (Terry Moore) but he wants to wait to marry until he's made his fortune. He bids adieu to Anna and sets off to capture or kill the notorious bandit, El Pescadore (Robert Carricart), something he succeeds at. After this Santee becomes a full-time bounty hunter with many kills to his credit. Many. many months later he returns to his lady love only to learn that she has understandably married another, Sheriff Ralph Elkins (James Best) of Lash, Kansas. An embittered Santee decides to help a certain entrepreneur named Gus Kile (Lon Chaney Jr.) bring gambling and loose ladies to Lash no matter who gets hurt, but does the man have a chance at redemption?

Lon Chaney Jr. and Rory Calhoun
Black Spurs certainly has an interesting cast. Although Calhoun mostly shows the emotion of a rock, his co-players tend to be better, and this includes Linda Darnell in a small role as a madame. Darnell is a bit zaftig but not unattractive. She died in a fire before the film was released. Scott Brady plays, of all things, a priest, Richard Arlen owns the local saloon, and Bruce Cabot is an enforcer who zestily throws people out of town with a sneer or a heave. Patricia Owens and Jerome Courtland [Kiss and Tell] play lovers who aren't really married, and there is a brief appearance by pre-Star Trek DeForest Kelley as another sheriff.  Handsome Joseph Hoover has a rare (if small) speaking role as another one of Arlen's associates. Manuel Padilla Jr. [Tarzan and the Valley of Gold[ is cute as the little boy, Manuel, who loves to sing and eventually becomes disenchanted with his hero, Santee.

Black Spurs is by no means a great western but it features a basically sound storyline (albeit probably one that has been used in different variations many, many times over) and has some flavorful performances. Courtland and Owens each had one more theatrical film before doing some TV work; Courtland became a director. Calhoun and Moore had a great many more credits, and the latter is still acting today. Director R. G. Springsteen amassed nearly 100 film and TV credits, mostly working on westerns.

Verdict: Okay western for devotees. **1/2. 

Thursday, November 28, 2019

THUNDER ON THE HILL

Ann Blyth and Claudette Colbert
THUNDER ON THE HILL (1951). Director: Douglas Sirk.

In Norfolk county, England, Sister Mary (Claudette Colbert) works at a convent hospital under the firm but loving Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper). During a flood which forces the whole town to seek shelter in the convent on higher ground, along comes a strange group of people: Valerie Carns (Ann Blyth) has been convicted of murdering her invalid brother, and she is accompanied by Sgt, Melling (Gavin Muir) and a female assistant known only as Pierce (Norma Varden), who are taking her to be executed. However, Sister Mary becomes convinced that Valerie is innocent, and she risks the wrath of the Mother Superior by not only playing detective, but by bringing Valerie together with the man she loves, Sidney Kingham (Philip Friend), who may not be convinced of her innocence.

Claudette Colbert and Philip Friend
Thunder on the Hill is an absorbing and well-acted picture, with an interesting interplay between Colbert (playing possibly the most sophisticated nun in the history of cinema) and a sympathetic Blyth, proving that Veda in Mildred Pierce was not just a fluke. Gladys Cooper gives her usual authoritative and highly adept performance as the Mother Superior, and there is also nice work from Connie Gilchrist as another nun; Phyllis Stanley as a rather bitter nurse (almost on the verge of overplaying at times); Michael Pate [Hong Kong Confidential] as the slow-witted Willie; and Robert Douglas [This Side of the Law] and Anne Crawford as the convent doctor and his wife, among others.

Verdict: Unusual mystery with a very interesting cast. ***. 

DOLL FACE

Perry Como and Vivian Blaine
DOLL FACE (1945). Director: Lewis Seiler.

"Doll Face" Carroll (Vivian Blaine) is a top burlesque performer who tries to go legit, but when one producer, Flo Hartman (Reed Hadley), finds out who she really is he refuses to hire her. Doll Face's manager and boyfriend, Mike (Dennis O'Keefe), comes up with the dubious notion of showing that she has "class" by hiring a ghostwriter, Fred (Stephen Dunne), to pen her memoirs -- as a burlesque queen! As Fred falls for Doll Face, and singer Nicky Ricci (Perry Como) tries to get dancer "Frankie" (Martha Stewart) to warm up to him, Mike decides to turn Doll Face's memoir into a Broadway show. Can Doll Face finally go legit? And will she wind up with Mike or Frank?

Stephen Dunne and Carmen Miranda
This was adapted from a play by Gypsy Rose Lee but Doll Face should certainly not be confused with Gypsy! The script for this is no world-beater, although most of the performers are game. Vivian Blaine had her most famous role in Guys and Dolls, but in this I found her lacking in distinction. O'Keefe is as buoyant as ever, and poor Carmen Miranda is given no romance and only one catchy number, "Chico from Puerto Rico." The songs by McHugh and Adamson [Four Jills in a Jeep] are pleasant, however, with "Here Comes Heaven Again" arguably being the best. Reed Hadley is fine as the producer, who ultimately opts to work with Doll Face, and Perry Como is mildly appealing as Nicky. Handsome Stephen Dunne is billed in this as "Michael" Dunne, the name he used in his earliest appearances. He later starred as "Steve" Dunne on The Brothers Brannagan for TV.

Verdict: Acceptable but rather minor musical. **1/2. 

PRETTY BOY FLOYD

John Ericson
PRETTY BOY FLOYD (1960). Director: Herbert J. Leder.

Charles Arthur Floyd (John Ericson) gets some bad breaks due to the poverty of the period, and winds up in jail. Now an ex-con, he has difficulty finding a job. He decides he might as well rob banks, and is always sure of giving some of his booty to his fellow Okies in need. But when he shoots a cop in cold blood, and is also suspected of being one of the hit men in a massacre in Kansas City in which both agents and crooks are murdered, the G-Men make him Public Enemy Number One. You can be certain that it won't end well for "Pretty Boy" Floyd.

Joan Harvey and John Ericson
Pretty Boy Floyd should have been a star-making part for John Ericson, who had already been seen to great advantage in such films as Rhapsody, where he was Elizabeth Taylor's leading man. Although Ericson gives an excellent performance in this, the movie is shoddy and cheap jack, poorly directed by Leder. Leder at least manages to get good performances across the board, with an unrecognizably young Barry Newman [Fatal Vision] scoring as Floyd's associate-in-crime, the fictional Al Riccardo. Joan Harvey is also fine as Lily, a married woman who becomes Floyd's gal pal, and Carl York makes an impression as Floyd's old buddy, Curly. Jason Evers (billed as Herb) plays a sheriff, Peter Falk is another gangster, and Al Lewis, "Ol' Grandpa" from The Munsters himself, certainly make his mark as a hoodlum who winds up begging for his life in front of fellow mobsters when he really screws up. Fabian played Floyd ten years later in A Bullet for Pretty Boy, which wasn't any better than this.

Verdict: Good lead performance in a disappointing gangster flick. **. 

HAYWIRE

HAYWIRE. Brooke Hayward. Originally published in 1977; updated 2011. Random House.

Brooke Hayward is the daughter of actress Margaret Sullavan and agent-turned-producer Leland Hayward. This memoir looks not so much at those two individuals, but at how their interactions affected Ms. Hayward and her brother and sister. Sullavan and the narcissistic Hayward divorced after the latter had an affair while she was out of town working oversea for months, and it left lasting scars, especially on Sullavan, who felt abandoned by her children when they went to live with their father. Both of the parents remarried.

Instead of a probing look at the parents, two interesting individuals, whatever their flaws, with seriously important careers, we mostly get the ruminations of their daughter, which at times become quite tedious in this lengthy if occasionally absorbing memoir, although, to be fair, she does a fair job of analyzing them at times. Although the author tries very hard to portray her family as some kind of dynasty, and their story as an epic tragedy, this doesn't quite work, and she seems oblivious to the fact that marital problems, suicides, mental health issues etc. also afflict people in tenements. In fact, entitlement screams at you from every page. Oddly, Ms. Hayward barely goes into her marriages to Dennis Hopper or Peter Duchin (son of Eddy Duchin), although that might have been of some interest to the reader. Despite the rave reviews (Ms. Hayward had connections, after all), I imagine many readers got tired of slogging through the book in search of juicy material. Another problem is that the book is poorly organized, jumping around in time when a linear narrative would have worked much better.

Ms. Hayward also ignores her career, although there wasn't much to it. Although she was rather amateurish appearing opposite Jerry Orbach in the film Mad Dog Coll, she displayed real ability in the Twilight Zone episode "The Masks." She only amassed 12 credits, however. She also had a brief modeling career although her looks were average.

If you actually want to read a biography of the great Margaret Sullavan, I recommend Margaret Sullavan, Child by Fate by Lawrence J. Quirk.

Verdict: Well-written but seriously flawed memoir. **1/2. 

STUPID RECENT MOVIE: THE FAVOURITE

Emma Stone as Abigail Hill
THE FAVOURITE (2018). Director: Yorgos Lanthimos.

Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) supposedly rules England but most of her decisions of state are made by her confidante and lover, Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Into this household comes Sarah's cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone of La La Land), who once was a lady herself, but thanks to her now-dead alcoholic father, has become a mere servant subject to Sarah's patronizing attitude. But Abigail has her own ambitions, and manages to draw the attention and favor of the queen, eventually replacing Rachel in Anne's bed. But Rachel is not about to take that, uh, lying down, and Abigail may have to take drastic steps to remain "The Favourite."

Olivia Coleman as the queen 
The Favourite takes actual historical characters, uses some of the bare facts of their inter-relationships, then pretty much invents everything else -- The Favourite is the very epitome of "dramatic license." Thrown out of the queen's favor, Sarah did intimate that there might have been a sexual relationship between Anne and Abigail, and presented a very negative portrait of  the queen in her memoirs. However, later biographers, who were much more objective, say that Anne was not the dunderhead she was portrayed as in both the memoirs and this movie. While there is no doubt that history has often been subjected to LGBT erasure, there is no real substantiation that a lesbian love triangle existed in the palace in the first place (Anne's husband, Prince George, is never even mentioned let alone depicted, not that would necessarily have meant that she was strictly heterosexual.) But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill
Not that The Favourite necessarily has a good story. Everything is presented in very contemporary terms, vulgarized and dumbed-down, as if the film were a campy black comedy. The acting is professional but not especially memorable (even if Colman managed to net a Best Actress Oscar). The movie seems directed at a young, immature audience who wants their slice of history with lots of sex and a liberal sprinkling of "f" and "c--t" words. Because of the lesbian interplay, I'm also afraid some viewers will see this as some sort of progressive LGBT movie when it is anything but. While I'm not saying the film is homophobic as such, it's hard not to notice that the gay or bisexual ladies in it are pretty much presented as grotesque and not at all sympathetic. The director did not want to really deal with the sexuality of the characters or their attitude towards same, but then the characters are fairly one-dimensional to begin with. (Let me make it clear that I completely disassociate myself from viewers who hated the film simply because it presented LGBT characters.)

Queen Anne's court
Incredibly, The Favourite garnered Oscars and nominations and dozens and dozens of awards (GLAAD even nominated it as "Best Picture," although it didn't win.) What on earth has happened to people's critical faculties these days? The only award the film really deserved was for the cinematography by Robbie Ryan. As with the equally over-rated Moonlight or Call Me By Your Name this is an example of the Academy and Hollywood in general being overly impressed with a film because it is seen as progressive when it really isn't. The historical inaccuracies alone are enough to make this a sham of a production, and I can only imagine that poor Queen Anne, gay or not, is spinning in her grave.

Verdict: This is hardly history -- or herstory. **. 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

CARNAL KNOWLEDGE

Art Garfunkel and Candice Bergen
CARNAL KNOWLEDGE  (1971). Director: Mike Nichols. Screenplay by Jules Feiffer.

In college post-WW2, two friends, Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel), contemplate getting laid and what type of woman they'd like to wind up with. Sandy begins dating Susan (Candice Bergen), but so does Jonathan, sleeping with Susan behind his friend's back.

Ann-Margret and Jack Nicholson
Years go by. Although married, Sandy wants more excitement in the bedroom and hooks up with the more aggressive Cindy (Cynthia O'Neal). while Jonathan shacks up with Bobbie (Ann-Margret of State Fair), who -- a la Rosalind Russell in Picnic -- is almost desperate to get married. Things don't go smoothly with either relationship, but then Jonathan is a complete chauvinistic pig -- his truly disgusting nature becomes even more apparent by the end -- and Sandy, although apparently more "sensitive," isn't much better.

Best friends? Garfunkle and Nicholson
Carnal Knowledge was a popular and admired film in its day, probably due to its frankness, but it doesn't hold up well. It is an absorbing picture nevertheless because of the acting and because there's some suspense over what will happen to the characters. Bergen, Ann-Margret, and Garfunkel (so good you wished he did much more acting) are all excellent, and while Nicholson was already falling into that certain stock "Jack Nicholson" mode, his performance is also good. O'Neal and Rita Moreno are quite effective in smaller roles.

Triangle: Bergen, Garfunkel, with Nicholson in background
But one is left with the sensation that this screenplay was an old and unsatisfactory stage play dusted off by Jules Feiffer and turned into a movie by a compliant Mike Nichols working in a Woody Allen mode. The movie, deliberately paced and with long takes, is expertly shot by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno [Haunted Summer]. Some scenes, such as when Jonathan shows Sandy and his new girlfriend slides of all of the women he's screwed (Susan gets in there by "mistake"), are quite contrived. Mike Nichols also directed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Verdict: Two pigs in a poke. **1/2.

BERNARDINE

Pat Boone and Dick Sargent
BERNARDINE (1957). Director: Henry Levin.

Some high school pals in a club imagine the perfect woman and for unaccountable reasons call her "Bernardine." One afternoon Sanford Wilson (Dick Sargent) meets a beautiful young lady named Jean (Terry Moore of Mighty Joe Young), and he is instantly smitten -- she is his Bernardine. The other guys in the club also think Jean is special, but her relationship with Sanford hits the rocks when she meets Langley (James Drury), the handsome older brother of Sanford's friend, Beau (Pat Boone). With a little help from his friends, Sanford tries to win the hand of fair lady.

Terry Moore and Dick Sargent
Although Pat Boone and Terry Moore are top-billed in Bernardine, the main character and the one who gets the most running time, is Dick Sargent's Sanford. Pat Boone, playing a very unlikable person (although most of the boys in the film are unlikable) does have some screen time and gets to warble three numbers, the okay title tune, the highly sexist "Technique," and the more memorable "Love Letters in the Sand," which I believe was a big hit for Boone, who kind of imitates Der Bingle a bit. Terry Moore actually has very little to do in the film considering she is the leading lady. Bernardine asks us to accept Sargent, Boone, Ronnie Burns, and others as high school students when they have clearly left their teenage years far behind them. This makes their behavior at times seem borderline grotesque. They are particularly obnoxious to a nerd named Kinswood (Hooper Dunbar), although eventually he's somewhat accepted by the others.

Janet Gaynor
Natalie Schafer plays Boone's mother in a couple of brief scenes, but the stand-out in this is Janet Gaynor [Sunrise], who plays Sargent's mom and is given a couple of strong moments. "It's crazy, it's wild, it's improbable -- but don't tell me you passed!" she says to Sanford, who is not a great student. Sargent has some good moments, too, but again he's too old, his character isn't very appealing, and the more serious moments when he's dealing with heartbreak are almost worse than the comedy sequences. Although Sargent subsequently appeared with Boone in Mardi Gras, his film career never really developed and he mostly did television. Walter Abel and Dean Jagger are also in the film. This was Pat Boone's first movie and Janet Gaynor's last; she had two television credits after that.

Verdict: In spite of "Love Letters in the Sand," this is so bad it's depressing. *1/2. 

INDECENT / VANITY FAIR

Myrna Loy as Becky Sharp
INDECENT (aka Vanity Fair/1932). Director: Chester M. Franklin.

"I do hope I'm going to give satisfaction." -- Becky.

Becky Sharp (Myrna Loy), who has beauty and brains but no money, gets a taste of the good life when she is taken in by her wealthy friend, Amelia (Barbara Kent). Amelia's brother Joseph (Billy Bevan) has a yen for Becky, but while she almost tricks him into marriage, he manages to get out of the trap. Becoming a governess for Sir Pitt Crawley (Lionel Belmore), Becky is caught between the lustful advances of Sir Pitt and the more refined passes of Crawley's son, Rawdon (Conway Tearle), whom she marries. But things don't go smoothly for the couple after Rawdon is disinherited by his jealous father. And things get worse after that ...

Billy Bevan and Myrna Loy
Indecent is a credible, updated version of Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" which revises things due to the change in locale and time period -- there are no references to Napoleon or Waterloo in this version -- but remains fairly faithful to the basic events and spirit of the story. Although not as bombastic as Miriam Hopkins in the later Becky Sharp, Loy gives a very good performance in this, and she has a host of talented if lesser-known co-stars. There is some inventive camera work in the film, which is not that slow-moving, and the finale, with Loy facing her older self in the mirror, is quite grim.

Verdict: Entertaining pre-code drama. ***.