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

Friday, August 29, 2008


CRIME OF PASSION (1957). Director: Gerd Oswald.

Kathy (Barbara Stanwyck), a lonelyhearts columnist turned reporter, meets and marries cop Bill (Sterling Hayden). Stifled by dull married life, she transfers all of her ambition to Bill, who is perfectly happy plodding along the way he is. First Kathy schemes to become friends with Bill's boss Tony (Raymond Burr) and his wife Alice (Fay Wray). Then she tries to Talk Tony into giving Bill his job upon retirement and then ... Let's just say that Stanwyck gives it the old college try, yelling all over the place, but her vivid performance is the only thing that will keep most viewers watching. This lacks the intensity and steaminess of true film noir; it's just a rather silly melodrama with a heroine who seems too smart to do the stupid things she does. Hayden and Burr are adequate; a middle-aged Wray is fine, and the second zestiest performance comes from Virginia Grey as a woman who's jealous of Kathy and Bill's friendship with the boss.

Verdict: Not exactly Madame Bovary. In fact it's not even Beyond the Forest.**.


RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON (1952). Director: Fred C. Brannon.

Although this is generally considered the sequel to King of the Rocket Men (and the second of three Rocket Man serials), it actually introduces a new character who wears the same helmet, uniform, and rocket pack: Commando Cody, played by George Wallace. Krog (Peter Brocco), an emissary from a Moon colony that needs to relocate to Earth due to atmospheric changes that threaten their survival, leads explosive attacks on US buildings, aided by some human thugs (one of whom is Clayton Moore, the Lone Ranger himself, quite good as a nasty bad guy). Earth decides to take the fight to the Moon, and Cody, pilot Hank (Wilson Wood), and Joan (Aline Towne) take off into Outer Space in a rocket built by Commando Cody. There they encounter Moon ruler Retik (Roy Barcroft), as well as more moon nasties inside tanks. (The tanks and the rocket ship are pretty neat, actually.) William Bakewell is cast as Cody's assistant Ted. Memorable cliffhangers include a flood of molten rock and a genuinely thrilling plane crash, among others. The FX are more than adequate. George Wallace may not be flamboyant or super-macho enough for some, but he imbues his character with a certain amount of quiet, manly dignity.

Verdict: More fun than a barrel of moon-men! ***. 


PARDON US (1931). Director: James Parrott.

Laurel and Hardy are caught selling beer during prohibition and are sent to prison. An added complication is that Stan's loose tooth makes it sound as if he's giving everybody – from a roughneck cellmate to the prison warden – a Bronx cheer or “raspberry,” with the expected results. Eventually the boys are forced to join an escape and wind up on a nearby plantation in black face. James Finlayson plays the prison teacher and there are a lot of effective character foils in small parts. Oliver Hardy does a fine rendition of “Lazy Moon” during the plantation sequence. This is minor Laurel and Hardy but the boys are as good as ever, and there are some genuinely amusing moments.
Verdict: No pardon required. **1/2.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


FLYING DISC MAN FROM MARS (1950). 12 chapter Republic serial. Director: Fred C. Brannon.

Just as in the earlier Purple Monster Strikes, James Craven plays a scientist -- this time a Dr. Bryant -- who encounters a man from Mars who wants to take over the Earth. In Purple Monster Craven's mind and body were taken over by the title martian, but in this one Bryant is just a skunk who's willing to betray the Earth for, presumably, some power. The Martian, Mota (Gregory Gaye), flies about in a "semi-disc" and has some human thugs in his employ. The hero is Kent Fowler (Walter Reed) and the nominal heroine is pretty Lois Collier, who appears to be able to act (and shoot a gun) but isn't given much to do. Tom Steele and Ken Terrell have smaller roles. There are some good cliffhanger situations, such as one involving a fight and an explosion on a railroad trestle, and another concerning some rocket fuel that catches fire.

Okay, but Purple Monster was better. **1/2.


NIGHTMARE (1956). Director: Maxwell Shane.

Stan (Kevin McCarthy) is a jazz musician who has a vivid nightmare in which he murders a man in a room full of mirrors. When he wakes up he's convinced that the event actually happened and there's blood on his hands. He takes his story to his brother-in-law Rene (Edward G. Robinson), a homicide detective, but the cop thinks he's making too much of a particularly disturbing dream. Or is he? Although based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, Nightmare meanders along without much suspense, and becomes increasingly ridiculous. McCarthy's okay performance occasionally lacks the proper intensity, considering the situation he finds himself in. Virginia Christine of “Mrs. Olsen” coffee fame and The Mummy's Curse plays McCarthy's sister. She also appeared with McCarthy in the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers as Wilma. Oddly, the picture is at its most boring when it's supposed to be at its most exciting. You're always three steps ahead of the characters. Connie Russell gets to deliver an interesting number as Stan's singer girlfriend, Gina.

Verdict: This one may not put you to sleep, but almost. *1/2.

Monday, August 25, 2008


SECOND CHANCE (1953). Director: Rudolph Mate.

Clare (Linda Darnell) used to be the girlfriend of a mobster, and has been on the run since the cops asked her to testify against him. A hit man (Jack Palance), who is infatuated with her, has been sent to kill her or bring her back. In the meantime, Clare has fallen for Russ (Robert Mitchum), a boxer trying to make his way back to the big time. The actors aren't able to do much to bring these one-dimensional characters to life, and most of the film is pretty dull and routine until the final quarter -- which is almost a knock out. The three principals and several others get trapped in a cable car dangling high over Mexico. Will Mitchum be able to swing to the nearby mountain and bring help before the cable completely snaps and they crash to the ground? Will Palance manage to knock off Clare in front of a police officer? Will there be a mile-high confrontation between Mitchum and Palance (anyone who can't answer that has never been to the movies). The climax is harrowing, to say the least; it's like you're watching a completely different movie. This was released in 3D, but the camera doesn't seem to take the slightest advantage of the process.

Verdict: Entertaining in spite of the many dumb moments. ***.


THE PURPLE MONSTER STRIKES (1945). Directed by Spencer Bennet and Fred Brannon. 

A man from Mars who is inexplicably known as the Purple Monster (Roy Barcroft) lands on Earth and literally takes over the body of Dr. Cyrus Layton (James Craven). He does this by dematerializing into a phantom form and simply sitting down in Leyton's body. He hopes to steal Layton's scientific devices -- especially a jet ship launching rocket -- for use in a planned Martian conquest of Earth, and by becoming Layton leads good guy Craig Foster (Dennis Moore) and Layton's niece Sheila (Linda Stirling), on a merry chase. The Purple Monster Strikes is snappy and fast-paced. There are some exciting cliffhangers involving a ladder dangling high over the ground, a pit that fills with water, a car in an auto shop that smashes rapidly downwards towards Moore, and spiked cell bars that threaten to impale Moore as he goes to use the phone (he uses his ingenuity to escape this trap). There's a zesty "cat-fight" between Sheila and Martian Bitch Marcia (Mary Moore) in chapter 12, and the fisticuffs are even more furious than before in chapter thirteen. Tom Steele is one of the thugs, and even Ken Terrell, butler Jess from Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, has a small role, as he usually did in these things. 

Verdict: The cast serves up this zany stuff with relish. ***.


WITNESS TO MURDER (1954). Director: Roy Rowland.

Cheryl Draper (Barbara Stanwyck) sees Albert Richter (George Sanders) murder an unknown woman from a window in her apartment. Unfortunately Lt. Mathews (Gary Merrill) -- one of the dumbest police officers in Los Angeles -- is unable to find any evidence of a crime. He thinks Cheryl sent threatening notes to Richter simply because they were typed on her typewriter -- duh! Eventually Cheryl winds up in the psychiatric ward while it takes forever for Mathews to find out if Richter was in any way associated with a young woman whose dead body turned up in Griffin Park. Although this movie becomes increasingly silly and unconvincing as it proceeds, it does hold the attention and both Stanwyck and especially Sanders give top-notch performances. Although the finale on a high-rise construction site stretches credulity -- couldn't Cheryl have gone somewhere else to elude Richter? -- it does make for an effective and exciting climax.

Verdict: Leave it to Babs and George. **1/2.

Friday, August 22, 2008


HONEYMOON DEFERRED (1940). Director: Lew Landers.
Private eye Adam Farradene (Edmund Lowe) has just gotten married to Janet (Margaret Lindsay) when an old girlfriend, Eve (Julie Stevens), calls him away because her boyfriend has been murdered and she needs his help. Janet isn't thrilled when Adam's secretary Kitty (Joyce Compton) covers him with kisses at the reception (photo), but his running off at the start of their honeymoon is really too much! Lowe handles this light-weight material with his usual verve and charm, but the killer is revealed halfway through the picture, stripping the film of most of its suspense. Chick Chandler is Adam's buddy, "Hap," and Anne Gwynne certainly makes an impression as the strange Cecile. But the picture is almost completely stolen by the wonderful Elisabeth Risdon as Sarah, a long-time friend of Farradene's. Risdon was also Lupe Velez' disapproving mother-in-law in all those Mexican Spitfire movies.
Verdict: Has its moments -- but you can see why this was forgotten. **.


WITCHCRAFT (1964). Director: Don Sharp.

When a cemetery is bulldozed the grave of a woman buried alive after being branded a witch is unearthed, unleashing a modern wave of witchcraft in a small British community. There's also a feud going on between two families, one of whom is related to the witch. Lon Chaney Jr. shows up now and then as an angry descendant of the witch to enliven the mostly dull proceedings. The music by Carlo Martelli seems to do all the work. The murder scenes aren't done with any flair. The production is professional but bland. Unimaginative treatment of over-familiar material. No-name cast does its best but this is a loser practically all the way.

Verdict: Skip it. *1/2.


THE LOCKED DOOR (1929). Director: George Fitzmaurice.
This was Barbara Stanwyck's second film and first sound picture. It's easy to see why she became a big star, because even in this somewhat creaky movie she manages to give a strong and effective performance, and contrary to some reports, does not play it in a "hammy" silent style at all. Ann Carter's (Stanwyck) young sister-in-law, Helen (Betty Bronson, who is rather hammy), has become involved with a slimy character, Frank Devereaux (Rod La Rocque), who once tried to slap the make on Ann (who seems to think that knowledge of this would make her seem like a fallen woman or something!). Lawrence (William "Stage" Boyd, whose last screen credit was the serial The Lost City) -- Ann's husband and Helen's brother -- confronts Devereaux with melodramatic but more or less happy results. Boyd and La Rocque aren't bad at all.
Verdict: This mostly tiresome timewaster is of interest primarily because of Stanwyck's appearance.


HELLBOY (2004). Director: Guillermo del Toro.

Although based on a comic book of the same name, Hellboy seems comprised of elements from Marvel's X-Men and DC Comics' Doom Patrol, freakish outsiders fighting their inner demons and loneliness as well as the bad guys, or in this case, monsters. Hellboy is an actual demon who arrived on our Earth during World War Two during a demonic invocation by a Nazi. Said Nazi – an otherwise colorless arch-villain despite his bizarre appearance and abilities -- has managed to survive until the present day, and Hellboy ages so slowly that he is only in his “twenties.” The U.S. Government uses Hellboy to help them fight off attacks by awesome supernatural monsters. Ron Perlman's excellent performance as the tough-on-the-outside/sensitive-on-the-inside title character is the glue that holds the uneven film – cobbled together from over-familiar elements – together. Many of the basic concepts in the movie are derived from the work of H. P. Lovecraft. The monsters are fairly well brought to life by computer, which sometimes gives them the appearance of video game creations. The picture's gruesomeness is often at odds with its generally “light” tone. Despite some exciting and clever scenes – Hellboy resuscitating a talkative Russian corpse named Ivan in order to get some info is an “amusing” touch – Hellboy never quite cuts it as a major action film.
Verdict: It certainly has its moments, but a must-see it isn't. **1/2.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


THE INVISIBLE MONSTER (1950). 12 chapter Republic serial. Director: Fred C. Brannon.

A bad guy who calls himself The Phantom Ruler brings illegal aliens over to the United States, then forces them to do his bidding by threatening to report them. Richard Webb is the investigator called upon to battle the Ruler, along with a new female associate named Carol (Aline Towne). An interesting aspect of this serial is that Carol not only shoots with the best of them, but constantly proves that she is as brave and resourceful as the at-first patronizing Webb or anyone else. (While heroines were often brave and daring in serials, other females usually had decorative parts and had to be rescued.) The Ruler wears a black cloak and hood but his identity is revealed in the first chapter so it makes little difference; as played by Stanley Price he's especially colorless. He can turn himself and others invisible and wants to create a transparent Army to conquer the world. There are some good cliffhangers in this, including a fall out of a skyscraper, a car that crashes through the wall of a building's upper story, and a tense business with a handcar and a speeding train on the same track. Webb is fine as the stalwart hero and Towne is just great.

Verdict: Snappy, fast-paced, and a lot of dumb fun. ***.

Monday, August 18, 2008


STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940). Director: Boris Ingster.

Mike Ward, a reporter (John McGuire), is the chief witness against a man, Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.), who is on trial for the murder of a restaurant owner. His girlfriend, Jane (Margaret Tallichet), is haunted by her feeling that Briggs is innocent. In a striking dream sequence, Ward imagines how he, too, could be convicted of murder due to circumstance. When his neighbor is killed, he becomes convinced that the killer is an odd stranger (Peter Lorre) hanging around the building and that he probably killed the restaurateur as well. Jane sets out to find the mysterious stranger and bring him to the police. Lorre manages to make the odd and creepy stranger somewhat sympathetic, McGuire is an effective leading man, and Tallichet is lovely and capable as Jane. Although the film has clumsy moments and is a mite slow at times, and the script a bit ragged, Stranger holds the attention and is a credible enough, fairly stylish "B" movie. The ending is charming. Elisha Cook Jr. is a little overwrought even considering the situation he's in.

Margaret Tallichet had been married to William Wyler for two years -- the marriage lasted until his death in 1981 -- when she made this picture; she retired from the screen after the birth of their second of four children. Despite his good looks and obvious acting ability, John McGuire appeared chiefly as an uncredited extra in the many films he made after Stranger. Boris Ingster directed only two more films and later became a producer of such shows as The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Verdict: Another fine performance from Lorre. ***.


THE INVISIBLE AVENGER (1958). Directed by James Wong Howe and John Sledge.

Richard Derr plays the famous Shadow, aka Lamont Cranston, in this pretty much lost curiosity which was one of the few films (co-) directed by famous cinematographer James Wong Howe. The story line has The Shadow getting involved with South American revolutionaries, an exiled King, and his evil lookalike brother, as well as various hoodlums. Reportedly this was originally the pilot for a possible Shadow TV series which received a theatrical release instead, and on the production level it does resemble a TV show. Throughout much of the movie Cranston is accompanied by a man named Jogendra (Mark Daniels), who is his teacher (even though Daniels doesn't seem much older than Derr). The Shadow is able to hypnotize people into thinking he's disappeared, effectively making himself an "invisible" avenger. There's some eerie music and a fair amount of atmosphere, but this is largely forgettable. It's unlikely that the resultant TV series would have amounted to much.

Verdict: Make like a shadow and disappear. *1/2.


KILL BILL VOL. ONE (2004). Director: Quentin Tarantino.

When her entire wedding party is slaughtered for unknown reasons by members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, the bride (Uma Thurman) vows revenge and starts to take the killers out one by one. At first this film is fun, but eventually it becomes rather boring – despite all the mayhem on-screen – because there are no real plot or characters. Even fans of the over-rated Tarantino's equally over-rated Pulp Fiction may be disappointed in this, although gore-geeks and frat boys of all ages will probably have fun with all the dismemberments and bloodletting during the sword fights. The movie opens with a zesty, well-executed cat fight between Thurman and Viveca A. Fox, and there are other lively sequences and some decent acting, but it all becomes pointless, junky, and – worst of all – a bit dull. The animation sequence depicting the early years of Japanese crime boss Lucy Lui is boring despite all the over-the-top gore, as is the climactic scene when Thurman takes on and defeats dozens of swordsmen trying to protect the boss. Although this is based on the character of “The Bride,” it seems just as influenced in a way by episodes of Alias (which Tarantino guest-starred on) and certain comic books such as Daredevil (which introduced Elektra, who is mighty handy with a sword) and The X-Men, which features a lot of “strong” and neurotic female characters. Michael Parks of The Idol turns up as a small-town sheriff. Thurman should ask for a foot double in her next contract – when she tries to wiggle her feet after coming out of a coma she reveals perhaps the ugliest pair of feet in all of Hollywood! All the “Hollywood” references and occasional cleverness can't disguise an utterly mediocre movie. The film got surprisingly decent reviews, but nobody really raved about it and you can see why. Will not whet your appetite for "volume" two.

Verdict: Not exactly Citizen Kane -- but what is? *1/2.

Friday, August 15, 2008


5 AGAINST THE HOUSE (1955). Director: Phil Karlson.
Ex-G.I.s in college get the idea to rob a casino in Reno but actually plan on returning the money. Wealthy Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews) wants to accomplish something big -- he plans the whole caper -- and thinks this is it. But as the big day approaches Al (Guy Madison, pictured) who's planning to start married life with girlfriend Kay (Kim Novak), urges them to call off the robbery, but Brick (Brian Keith), who's a bit disturbed, pulls out a gun and insists they go through with it -- or else. And he intends to keep the money. Keith is excellent, the rest of the cast is good, but the movie takes a long time to get going and never really gets anywhere. Even the climactic robbery is slack. Alvy Moore is one of the "gang" and William Conrad is the casino employee they hold up.
Verdict: There are better capers than this. **.


RUN FOR THE SUN (1956). Director: Roy Boulting

Although this will probably hold your attention if you're unfamiliar with earlier versions, this is a fairly lamentable remake of the far superior Most Dangerous Game. Whereas the first film got us right into the action, this variation takes forever to get to the main event, with a protracted sequence wherein Jane Greer plays a magazine reporter trying to find out why famous writer Michael Latimer (Richard Widmark) vanished to Mexico when he was at the top of his game. After an hour or so of this, Widmark offers to fly Greer out of the village he's buried himself in but they crash land in an even more remote area where Trevor Howard and Peter van Eyck have taken up residence. The bad guys in this picture don't actually hunt humans as the villain did in The Most Dangerous Game -- stripping this version of the story's most interesting aspect -- they just don't want Widmark and Greer to get away knowing their secret (which isn't much anyway, although one can understand why they don't want their uninvited guests going off and telling anyone). The scene when the plane nearly crashes is well done, but the climactic chase is slack and unexciting. Roy Boulting was never a good choice to direct thrillers; years later he made a botch of Twisted Nerve. Jane Greer radiates her usual refined sexiness and Widmark, while never a great actor, is full of his usual insolent authority. Trevor Howard is merely wasted in a throwaway part. The music is okay but the widescreen cinematography is unimpressive. It all looks like it was shot on a back lot anyway. 

Verdict: Watch The Most Dangerous Game instead. **.

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DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (1994). Director: Roman Polanski.

In a country that is probably meant to be Chile, a chance encounter leads a doctor (Ben Kingsley) who possibly tormented and raped a political prisoner (Sigourney Weaver) years ago to her door on the very eve of her husband (Stuart Wilson) being appointed to a commission to track down those guilty of such abuses. Unfortunately, the commission only plans to target people who actually killed their victims, so Weaver is afraid her own tormentor will never be brought to justice. To her husband's consternation, she captures Kingsley and puts him on “trial.” But could Kingsley possibly be innocent as he says? Although this is clearly based on a three-character stage play, Polanski “opens” it up as much as possible, and there are moments of suspense and tension. Unfortunately, much of the picture rests on the shoulders of heroine Weaver, who is simply not up to the challenge. Weaver can be quite effective when she's all “butch” and no-nonsense in those Alien horror films [she was probably cast in this because of the scenes wherein she has to play all tough and menacing] but in more serious movies her limitations are all too obvious. While she does have her moments, to be fair, she is nowhere on the level of the masterful Kingsley, and neither is Wilson. Still, the story is powerful and the ending – in its own quiet way – horrific. This is another illustration of the “banality of evil” and the loathsomeness that can hide behind the surface of the so-called kind and loving family man.
Verdict: Paging a more powerful actress! **1/2.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


MIN AND BILL (1930). Director: George W. Hill.
Min (Marie Dressler) runs a dockside boarding house and Bill (Wallace Dressler) is one of her tenants, with whom she has an "understanding." However, misunderstandings crop up when an old friend from Min's past, Bella Pringle, shows up. Bella (Marjorie Rambeau) is the prostitute who left her daughter Nancy (Dorothy Jordan) in Min's care years ago. Min told her the girl died just to keep Nancy away from her mother's negative influence, and will do just about anything to keep the slatternly woman from ruining Nancy's life. Trying too hard to be "cruel to be kind," Dressler's character is rather unpleasant in this. She's so anxious for the girl to go off and be happy that she makes her feel she doesn't love her (a ploy that probably occurs only in Hollywood movies); in fact she treats her quite horribly. And she doesn't really give the real mother much of a chance. Whatever the faults of the story --and there are many -- this study of misguided maternal devotion works because of the acting. Rambeau, Beery, and Jordan are top of the line, and Dressler won the Best Actress Oscar.
Verdict: Worth watching for that cast. ***.


HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). Director: Terence Fisher.

Peter Cushing (the sole name above the title) is Van Helsing and Christopher Lee appears for the first time as Count Dracula in this creditable version of the venerable old story. Jimmy Sangster's screenplay is an intelligent reworking of the basic storyline with an occasional flash of black humor. A big difference between this Hammer version and the Universal version with Lugosi, is that Dracula has hardly any dialogue and is nearly a mute role (Lee only gets a few lines when he first appears to Jonathan Harker -- John Van Eyssen -- in his castle). There are no parlor scenes with Dracula interacting with or talking to any of the other characters -- he is only seen skulking about or preying on them. The movie is fast-paced and occasionally scary and some key scenes, such as the climax and the killing of undead Lucy (Carol Marsh) in the crypt, are well-staged. One minus: Harker arrives at Castle Dracula in bright sunlight, and some of the sets, especially crypts, are over-lit. The cast is uniformly good, however, and Lee makes a ghoulish and powerful -- if not very sinister -- Dracula. Michael Gough is as delightfully intense as ever as Lucy's brother, Arthur, and Melissa Stribling is fine as his wife, Mina. James Bernard's music is a big help as well.

Verdict: Quite good in fact. ***.


BELOW (2002). Director: David Twohy.

Mildly strange occurrences on a submarine during World War 2 lead some of the more suggestible members of the crew to believe that the sub is haunted. It turns out that they're right, but the audience may find it hard to believe as most of the film seems to be over before director Twohy adds some genuine spookiness to the atmosphere. [There is one – and only one -- great scene in the movie. A crew member looks into a mirror and turns this way and that, but his reflection is always half a second or so out of sync. Later on he turns around, turning his back on his reflection, but his reflection remains facing forward.] It turns out that a terrible mistake has been made by some of the officers, who have murdered their captain as part of a cover up. This picture could have been a masterpiece – the script, effects, and (most of the) acting are creditable – but Twohy's direction is so poor and indifferent that he virtually robs every important sequence of its potential dramatic power. Bruce Greenwood offers a fairly one-dimensional portrait of the murderous Brice, but Cary Elwes-lookalike Matt Davis is better as an ensign who slowly discovers the details of his heinous deeds. Olivia Williams makes little impression as a nurse off a Red Cross vessel that was mistakenly bombed.
Verdict: Insubstantial as a ghost. *1/2.

Monday, August 11, 2008


DINNER AT EIGHT (1933). Director: George Cukor.
"You couldn't get into the men's room at the Astor!"

The only thing on the mind of airy Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke) is the dinner party she's planning, so she doesn't realize that her husband Oliver (Lionel Barrymore) has serious business woes and even more serious health problems. But then most of the guests have their own preoccupations. Dr. Talbot (Edmund Lowe) is having an affair with an increasingly clingy Kitty Packard (Jean Harlow, pictured), whose grumpy, much older husband Dan (Wallace Beery) wants to take over Oliver's business. Faded actress Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) has money troubles, but not as bad as has-been Larry Renault (John Barrymore), who can't pay his hotel bill and whose agent (Lee Tracy) has to deliver some devastating news. The Jordan's daughter Paula (Madge Evans) has fallen in love with Larry, even though she already has a fiance.

Although the pace sometimes drags, this is a brilliant comedy-drama that has many highly amusing lines and situations but can also slide effortlessly into tragedy as we witness the grim fate of Larry Renault. John Barrymore handles the horrifying situation with his usual aplomb. Harlow and Beery have a great scene battling together and telling each other off, and Marie Dressler is perfection (she has a funny scene with fawning Elizabeth Patterson -- Mrs. Trumble on I Love Lucy -- in a bit.) All the performances are excellent.

Verdict: They really don't make 'em like this anymore. ****.


PARDON MY PAST (1945). Director: Leslie Fenton.

Just out of the Army, Eddie York (Fred MacMurray, pictured) just wants to open a mink farm with his pal Chuck (William Demarest), but he's mistaken for the wealthy Francis Pemberton, whom he resembles, by a bookie (Akim Tamiroff), whom the latter owes $12,000. This leads to Eddie winding up at Pemberton's estate, where he's mistaken for his lookalike and learns that the real man is pretty much a stinker. In the meantime, Joan (Marguerite Chapman), who looks after Pemberton's little girl, finds herself drawn to a man who seems strangely different -- and much improved -- from the way he was before (Eddie also falls for Joan). Rita Johnson shows up as Pemberton's ex-wife Mary, and Harry Davenport is fun as always as wily Grandpa Pemberton. MacMurray is as amiable and adept as ever in this picture but while there's some fun in wondering what will happen when Eddie and Francis finally meet, the sad truth is that Pardon My Past isn't especially funny, and the sentimental moments don't make up for it. NOTE: The film takes place in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, MacMurray's beloved hometown (although he was actually born in Illinois).

Verdict: Not bad, just blah. **.


STREAMERS (1983). Director: Robert Altman.
First a contemporary review of the play the film was based on:

"Streamers" is David Rabe's award-winning play set in an Army Barracks in Virginia in 1965, concerning young soldiers who are preparing to be sent to Viet Nam. If Rabe had stuck to that subject alone this might have amounted to something. Instead he decides to substitute sexual tension for by now cliched racial tension, and introduces a flip, half-out-of-the-closet gay character who is pining away for another hung-up soldier, while two blacks, one of whom is crazy and gay, look on. The problem with this is that even the homosexual situations are by now cliched, and Rabe has nothing new to say on the subject. Although one senses that neither Rabe nor his play are necessarily homophobic, in order to attain realism, most of the viewpoints expressed on the subject are negative. The gay characters are ultimately unpleasant. We keep waiting for Rabe to say something different, to approach a new area, but all he does is introduce us to two drunken older men who rhapsodize about "streamers"—men whose parachutes don't open. Even the violence that occurs at the climax does not really come out of the underlying tensions of the situation. Rabe simply opts for the bring-in-the psychopath ploy. The violence may have been set off by one man's reaction to the sex act about to be performed between the flip gay and the psycho-black, but it is clear that the black has a screw loose and probably would have been set off eventually by just about anything. The play is grim, sometimes moving, sometimes frightening, and effective as a melodrama, complete with assorted contrivances, but not the deep human drama its proponents would have us believe.
Robert Altman's film version is essentially the same as the play, not "opened up" all that much and only somewhat "cinematic." The performances, however are quite good, with Matthew Modine as the doomed Billy, Mitchell Lichtenstein as the flippant gay Richie, David Alien Grier as Roger, and Michael Wright quite vivid as crazy Carlyle. The chief thing that comes across is that -- like in a lot of modern dramas -- there is a lot of yelling to little effect, and that the film, like the play, never really confronts its various issues. It is pseudo-significant. George Dzundza gives the best performance as Sergeant Cokes. There are intimations that his feelings for the dead Rooney (Guy Boyd) are more than platonic, but this, like so much else, goes ultimately unexplored. The way that Billy, whatever his issues, is carted off like so much flotsam at the end, gives the film a certain chilling poignancy. Altman was probably not the best director for the project.
Verdict: Watch Brokeback Mountain instead. **.

Friday, August 8, 2008


REDUCING (1931). Director: Charles Reisner.
A very funny and engaging comedy starring the great Marie Dressler, teamed once again with the delightful Polly Moran. In this the two are sisters who haven't seen each other for many years. Divorced, Polly is now the wealthy proprietress of a health/reducing club for women, while Marie, married to unsuccessful Elmer (Lucien Littlefield) is down on her luck and has brought her whole family to Polly's townhouse at the latter's invitation. While basically good-hearted, Polly is also a bit of a snob (she pronounces her last name Ro-shay instead of roach, as Marie puts it) and tensions between the two women really come to a boil when Marie's daughter (a gorgeous Anita Page) begins dating the same man (William/Buster Collier Jr.) who's been going out with Polly's daughter (Sally Eilers). This brings out Polly's most condescending instincts and Marie's most terrible wrath. While the approach is humorous Reducing explores sibling rivalry and class distinctions in an intelligent manner. William Bakewell plays the nice boy from back home who has a yen for Anita Page.
Marie Dressler was a brilliant actress. In Reducing she doesn't seem to act -- she just is the character; she's not saying lines she's spontaneously saying whatever comes into her character's head. Her comic timing is faultless; there is never a self-conscious, awkward or untrue moment.
She's a genius.
Verdict: Wonderful! ***.


THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE (1967). Director: Freddie Francis.

Dr. Temple (Robert Hutton) is disturbed when colleagues of his, including his lady love, Lee (Jennifer Jayne), begin behaving strangely, violently warning him away from a mysterious project that they're working on. It's pretty clear from the first that their minds have been taken over by extra-terrestrial forces. Another problem is that people are dying of a "scarlet plague" that makes them break out in red blotches and keel over. There are some stylish sets in this, but the pace drags, the story is derivative and dull, and there's a lot of tedious running about to little purpose. If this was trying to come off like another Professor Quatermass adventure it failed miserably. Late in the movie the florid Michael Gough shows up as a character called "The Master of the Moon." This could be the worst movie directed by the prolific Freddie Francis. Jennifer Jayne of the big pursed lips also appeared in The Crawling Eye and Hysteria. Very little entertainment value in this.

Verdict: Definitely miss it if you can. *.


THE MYSTERIOUS CASE OF NANCY DREW AND THE HARDY BOYS. Carole Kismaric & Marvin Heiferman. Simon and Schuster;

While other juvenile mystery series fell by the wayside, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys have been consistently published for around seventy years! This engaging volume, packed with cover facsimiles and other photos, looks at the creation of the three detectives, the Stratemeyer syndicate that packaged them, some of the ghost writers of the various books, how the books were revised over the years, and the various ways that Nancy and Frank and Joe Hardy have been reinvented and repackaged over the years to keep them interesting and relevant to teens of all ages. Along the way there are sidebars looking at how teenagers steadily grew into an identity and demographic (and sales force to reckon with) all their own -- until now everything seems geared to teenagers. There is also some discussion of the old Nancy Drew movies starring Bonita Granville as Nancy, and the various TV series devoted to the characters, beginning with the serialization of The Hardy Boys' first book The Tower Treasure (as The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure) on The Mickey Mouse Club in 1956.

If there's any problem with the book it's that one senses the authors' were not particular fans of the series they're writing about, which makes the book an interesting collection of info and anecdotes that is, unfortunately, devoid of a certain personal enthusiasm. (And a smart copy-editor certainly should have flagged a line wherein the authors lump homosexuality in with other "nightmares" of modern life such as "divorce and teen suicide.")

While there have been many, many new adventures of Nancy and the Hardys in various formats, the original (revised) books are still available in hardcover from Grosset and Dunlap (everything else is published by Simon and Schuster). The original stories (before the revisions) can be found in used bookstores and on ebay or The best of these include (for The Hardy Boys): Hunting for Hidden Gold, The Sinister Sign Post, A Figure in Hiding, The Twisted Claw, The Mystery of the Flying Express, The Wailing Siren Mystery, The Clue in the Embers, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock, The Clue of the Screeching Owl, and The Haunted Fort. [NOTE: Some of the earlier titles have been completely rewritten and have entirely different storylines.] Above-average Nancy Drew titles include The Clue in the Crumbling Wall, Mystery of the Tolling Bell, and Password to Larkspur Lane.

As the book relates, some fans were outraged at the streamlining and updating of the books in the 50's to 60's. While it's true that some books and characterizations lost a bit of flavor (the intrepid Nancy Drew, sort of an early feminist heroine, was toned down a bit, and the Hardy Boys' delightful Aunt Gertrude lost a bit of her pepper) and that some of the new storylines were pretty bad, it's also true that the streamlining cut out some dull, meandering passages and some of the revised stories were an improvement over dumb and dated originals rife with racist stereotypes. Deciding whether it's the original story or the revised/new version which is better has to be done on a book by book basis.

NOTE: Other juvenile/young adult mystery series of note include the Ken Holt series by Bruce Campbell (The Secret of Skeleton Island is the first and best) and the Rick Brant science-adventure (and mystery) series by John Blaine, including The Rocket's Shadow and The Lost City. These series did not survive past the late sixties/early seventies, more's the pity.

Verdict: For the inner child in you. ***.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008



This is the one and only musical written and composed by the great team of Rodgers and Hammerstein that had its premiere on television -- about 60 million people tuned in! Reportedly, the show was written specifically for Julie Andrews, who starred in this production. (There was another TV production eight years later starring Lesley Ann Warren, and a much later one with Brandy.) While Julie Andrews has never exactly been an actress who radiates much vulnerability, she's still quite good in this starring part and sings beautifully as well [21 at the time, she rehearsed this by day while appearing nightly on Broadway in My Fair Lady!] . Jon Cypher (pictured with Andrews) plays the prince and is fine; he's been a busy character actor ever since, appearing on numerous TV shows and even in Bert I. Gordon's production of The Food of the Gods (1976). Howard Lindsay and Dorothy Stickney are perfection as the King and Queen (especially when they sing and argue over what to serve 1700 guests at the prince's ball) and Ilka Chase, Kaye Ballard, and Alice Ghostley certainly score as the wicked stepmother and her two daughters. Edith (Edie) Adams makes a nice fairy godmother as well. The lilting songs include "Ten Minutes Ago," "A Lovely Night," and --prime Rodgers and Hammerstein -- "Do I Love You (Because You're Beautiful)?" A funny touch has Kaye Ballard not only flirting with one of the servants in line at the climactic wedding but even with the Prince (Hope springs eternal)!

Verdict: A real pleasure. ***1/2.


THE PSYCHOPATH (1966). Director: Freddie Francis.

Despite its title and the fact that it was written by Robert Bloch (who wrote the novel Hitchcock's Psycho was based upon), The Psychopath is not quite a psycho-shocker with an emphasis on gruesome deaths (although there are some of those, of course, but they're not too graphic). Rather it's a comparatively tasteful mystery about a series of murders of men who may have wrongly accused a German man of being a war criminal. The man's widow, Mrs. Von Sturm (Margaret Johnston) and son Mark (John Standing) are suspects, but there are other possibilities as well. The killer leaves dolls that resemble the victims at the scene of each murder. The mystery deepens when people who have no connection to the Von Sturm's start being targeted. Absorbing, well-acted thriller (Johnston is particularly good if slightly hammy at times) is no Psycho but it has its moments (including some awkward, stilted ones). There's a good climactic fight in a shipyard (with classical music in the background) and an effective credit sequence with evocative music by Elisabeth Lutyens. Patrick Wymark is the inspector on the case; he's bland but more than competent. The epilogue when the killer is finally revealed is nicely chilling and disturbing.

Verdict: Suspenseful stuff in a minor key. ***.


COMIN' ROUND THE MOUNTAIN (1951). Director: Charles Lamont.

"Anybody who'd kiss me would kiss anybody!" -- Lou Costello.

Wilbert (Lou Costello), a client of talent agent Al (Bud Abbott) learns from Dorothy (Dorothy Shay), another of his clients, that he may be a long lost member of the McCoy clan from the hills and there's a treasure a'waitin' for him back home. For years the McCoys have been feuding not with the Hatfields but the Winfields, one of whom, Clark (Kirby Grant) Dorothy falls for. Wilbert is crazy for Dorothy, however, so he goes to a witch (Margaret Hamilton) to get a love potion to make Dorothy fall for him. (The film's funniest sequence has Hamilton and Costello sticking pins in the posteriors of each other's dolls!) This was singer Shay's only film (she did TV work twenty years later); she's pleasant but unpolished and lacks that certain "X" factor. Kirby Grant is a bland love interest for Shay; the following year he was cast in the title role of TV's Sky King and played it for seven years. Joe Sawyer is as good as ever as one of the McCoys while Glenn Strange (who played Frankenstein's monster a couple of times) has one of his best roles as "Devil" Dan Winfield. But this is not one of the more memorable Abbott and Costello features.

Verdict: Not enough real laughs. *1/2.

Monday, August 4, 2008


BABES IN TOYLAND (1934). Directed by Gus Meins and Charley Rogers.

Stannie Dum (Stan Laurel) and Ollie Dee (Oliver Hardy) are tenants in the shoe of Mrs. Peep (Florence Roberts), mother of Little Bo-Peep (Charlotte Henry). Unfortunately the mortgage on the shoe is held by the sinister Silas Barnaby (Harry Kleinbach -- see more on him below), who will accept the hand of Bo-Peep in marriage in lieu of the latest payment. Trying to help Widow Peep secure the money, Stannie and Ollie only make things worse. After many very amusing complications, it all ends up with the boys saving the town from the boogie men in Boogeyland with the 100 wind-up soldiers that they accidentally made six feet tall instead of 12 inches.

Babes in Toyland (retitled March of the Wooden Soldiers for TV and to distinguish it from a later Walt Disney production) is irresistible and utterly charming. Laurel and Hardy are at the top of their game, and the supporting cast is very well chosen. As Bo-Peep's boyfriend Tom-Tom, Felix Knight exhibits a fine singing voice; he should have had a bigger career in movies. The score by Victor Herbert is romantic and melodious (albeit most of the lyrics are pretty silly). There are too many great scenes to mention but I always get a kick out of the mouse (a chimp in a mouse outfit? -- I've never figured it out) flying across Toyland in a miniature zeppelin and lobbing firecrackers at boogeymen! The boogeymen themselves are scary enough to frighten big children, and the whole production is wonderfully elaborate.

NOTE: Harry Kleinbach was also known as Henry Brandon (his usual billing in later years); a very busy and versatile actor with many, many credits, he had the title role in the serial Drums of Fu Manchu (1940) and was also in the cast of The Land Unknown (1957) and many others.

Verdict: A delight from start to finish! ****.


THE GORGON (1964). Director: Terence Fisher.

In 1910 a European village is beset by one of the mythological gorgons who has inexplicably taken up residence in the ruins of a local castle, possessed the body of a local woman, and emerges periodically to turn men and women into stone. This Hammer production has atmosphere to spare, as well as handsome art direction and adroit color schemes, all of which serve to enhance the ominous proceedings. Whatever its illogic, the film is also bolstered by good performances, and a cast that includes Peter Cushing as a village doctor, Christopher Lee as a visiting professor and friend to more than one of the literally petrified victims, and Barbara Shelley as Cushing's assistant Carla Hoffman, who falls for Paul Heitz (Richard Pasco) whose father (Michael Goodliffe) and brother were turned to stone by the gorgon. The Gorgon has the strange quality of a fantastic tragic operetta, with its doomed love story and an effective enough score by James Bernard. The monster may be a little disappointing, but the premise is certainly unique.

Verdict: Worthwhile horror fantasy. ***.



Recent graduates from detective school, Bud and Lou run into an escaped con, Tommy Nelson (Arthur Franz), who is wanted for murder but claims he was framed. A scientist acquaintance of his girlfriend Helen (Nancy Guild) has John Griffin's formula for invisibility, but warns Nelson that it's too dangerous to take. Naturally, Nelson ignores the warning as the cops close in. Eventually Lou winds up becoming a boxer (with Nelson's invisible fists helping him out) known as Louie the Looper. Adele Jergens adds some spice, as usual, as fight promoter Sheldon Leonard's moll, doing her best to seduce a little-boyish Costello. Leonard is the same as ever, but William Frawley is fun as the detective who's after Nelson. Nancy Guild makes little impression as the "good gal." The special effects by David S. Horsley are as good as John P. Fulton's in Universal's previous "invisible" pictures.

Verdict: Cute, if minor A & C comedy. **1/2.