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

Monday, September 29, 2008


DR. MONICA (1934). Director: William Keighley.
Now here's a sick situation. Dr. Monica Braden (Kay Francis, pictured) is a baby doctor who's unable to have a baby of her own. She officiates over the pregnancy of her friend Mary (Jean Muir), unaware that the baby's father is none other than her, Monica's, husband John (Warren William), with whom Mary had an affair! You have to take a few things -- especially the ending -- with a grain of salt, but Dr. Monica is a well turned out soaper with superlative performances and an intriguing situation. Francis is on top of things as the doctor who finds herself in a rather grotesque spot, Muir gives a sensitively drawn performance, and Verree Teasdale is sharp and snappy as their mutual friend and confidante, Anna. Warren William isn't given much of a characterization in this, but he plays as well as ever.
Verdict: Surprisingly effective if you're game. ***.


ALLOTMENT WIVES (1945). Director: William Nigh.
In another unsympathetic role in a Monogram picture, Kay Francis plays Sheila Seymour, who runs a racket in which women marry several G.I.s a piece in order to get their money. Paul Kelly is Major Peter Martin, who is investigating the racket, and Otto Kruger is Francis' partner and lover, Whitey. Sheila has an adversary in Gladys Smith (Gertrude Michael), who knew her years ago before she became a society dame and blackmails her, even going so far as to inveigle Sheila's daughter Connie (Teala Loring) into joining her own allotment racket. Francis and the others give okay performances, but a movie that should have been fun is kind of dull and disappointing. Joan Crawford could have made a lot more of the Sheila Seymour role.
Verdict: Kay at poverty row. *1/2.


MANDALAY (1934). Director: Michael Curtiz.
Tanya (Kay Francis) is in love with Tony (Ricardo Cortez) but he runs off and sticks her with Nick (Warner Oland), who installs her in his nightclub, where she sings and becomes known as "Spot White." Setting off for Mandalay and a new life, she runs into disgraced doctor Gregory Burton (Lyle Talbot) on shipboard and the two become a team. But then Tony shows up again ... The cast helps put over this mediocre pot-boiler which has a somewhat surprising -- and darkly amusing -- conclusion. Cortez and Francis again make a good team as they did in Transgression and The House on 56th Street.
Verdict: See Glamorous Kay suffer! **1/2.


MONSTER-IN-LAW (2005). Director: Robert Luketic.

Jennifer Lopez thinks she's met the man of her dreams in handsome and successful Michael Vartan, but she didn't count on his having a mother (Jane Fonda) who wants to run almost every aspect of his life, particularly in regards to whom he marries. Fonda steals the picture and is excellent as the middle-aged newswoman who's just been replaced by a young bimbo at the network, and has plenty of free time to make life miserable for Lopez – who finally realizes what's up and fights back. Lopez is fine in the movie, as is Vartan [from TV's Alias], but you have to wonder why Vartan's character isn't able to see through his mother and realize what problems she might cause for Lopez later on. Wanda Sykes may be a limited performer but she's also excellent as Fonda's friend, assistant, and conscience. Late in the picture Elaine Stritch puts in a memorable apperance as Fonda's mother-in-law. A cute, consistently entertaining comedy if not quite a classic. But Fonda looks great and is wonderful.
Verdict: Lots of fun. ***.

Friday, September 26, 2008


THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK (1941). Director: Robert Florey.

Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre) arrives in America full of hope and awe and fully expecting to have his sweetheart join him as soon as he is established. Instead he winds up horribly burned and disfigured in a boarding house fire and looks so terrible that no one will give him a job. He meets up with a kindly small time crook named Dinky (George E. Stone), and is slowly drawn into a life of crime, becoming ringleader of a gang of ambitious thieves. And then he meets a pretty, sensitive blind girl named Helen (Evelyn Keyes) and wants out ..... This is an absorbing and well-acted melodrama with touches of pathos throughout. Lorre is, in a word, superb. Keyes gives a lovely performance and Stone makes Dinky a memorable character in his own right. Don Beddoe is also noteworthy as the cop who befriends Janos when he first gets off the boat. Although different in its way (and not as good) this has some similarities to A Woman's Face which came out the same year. The make up is excellent, particularly when Janos is supposed to be wearing a lookalike mask of his face.

Verdict: Another great Lorre performance. ***.


THE 49TH MAN (1953). Director: Fred F. Sears.

Government agents (played by Richard Denning and John Ireland) discover that parts of atom bombs are being smuggled into the country by using racing teenagers and others as out-of-the-loop couriers. Ireland travels to Marseilles, where he thinks the enemy spy ring has originated, and discovers that it has links all the way back to Washington, D.C. Suzanne Delbert plays a sexy member of the Marseilles group, and Peter Marshall (who later hosted Hollywood Squares) plays enemy agent Leo Wayne. There's a reasonably taut finish as the men race to stop a bomb from wiping out a major city. No, this isn't exactly 24 (although it does have a cheap TV feel to it) but it does hold the attention and is briskly directed by Fred F. Sears.

Verdict: Okay timepasser. **1/2.


UNKNOWN WORLD (1951). Director: Terry O. Morse.

When fear of atomic warfare reaches an hysterical level, a group of scientists led by Dr. Morley (an uncredited, blacklisted Victor Kilian) decide to search for a place underground where nuclear survivors can rebuild civilization. Newspaper man and spoiled heir Wright Thompson (Bruce Kellogg) finances the expedition but insists on coming along. Using a boring machine known as a "cyclotram," the group descend down to the Earth's core, ultimately discovering a huge cavern with its own sea and artificial light source. Obviously inspired by Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth (which was filmed nine years later), Unknown World is cheap but absorbing, with more than serviceable effects. Filmed in Bronson and Carlsbad Caverns (as was Journey), the movie is atmospheric and never over-lit. Ernest Gold's moody music is a definite asset. Some of the actors, such as Jim Bannon as navigator Andy and Marilyn Nash as the only woman in the party, give decent enough performances, but Kellogg is pretty terrible as Wright. Otto Waldis was also in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

Verdict: Not bad trip out of the daylight. ***.


BURKE'S LAW (1963 - 1966). Produced by Aaron Spelling.

This show had a really terrific premise. Amos Burke (Gene Barry) was a very wealthy, sophisticated and cultured man who happened to be a police captain in Los Angeles. He drove to crime scenes in a Rolls Royce chauffeured by Henry (Leon Lontoc). His partners were young, likable turk Tim Tilson (Gary Conway) and older veteran Les Hart (Regis Toomey). Naturally the show had a lighter approach than other cop shows, and sometimes was an out and out (and rather silly) comedy. Still, many episodes were intriguing, well-acted, and suspenseful. The show's other gimmick was to cast well-known former movie stars (or hasbeens), as well as familiar character actors, in supporting roles. Carolyn Jones scored as triplets in one episode, and Lizabeth Scott had a couple of notable guest shots as well. One episode cast Basil Rathbone as a flamboyant director and Edward Everett Horton as a Shakespearean actor. Gene Barry played the playboy detective with just the right note of insouciance and sardonicism, and the other regulars were top-notch as well. For the third season the supporting cast was let go and the show's title was changed to Amos Burke, Secret Agent due to the then-popular spy craze on TV (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; I Spy etc.). This, too, was an entertaining program but it only lasted one season. About thirty years after the show premiered, it was revived, again with Barry in the lead, but there were only 27 episodes.

Verdict: Fun whodunit. ***.

Monday, September 22, 2008


PLAY GIRL (1940). Director: Frank Woodruff.
"She's said good-bye to more men than most women have said hello to."
Grace Herbert (Kay Francis, pictured) has unapologetically made a living by romancing wealthy men and suing them for breach of promise. Unfortunately, the game is getting tougher as she gets older. Along comes orphaned, hungry Ellen Daley (Mildred Coles), whom Grace decides to make her protege. Their first target is Grace's old pal Bill Vincent (Nigel Bruce), but Ellen also has her eye on a handsome rancher named Thomas (James Ellison). It's hard to believe that Ellen would be so upset that Thomas is worth millions, but she's afraid Grace will get her hooks in him -- and maybe she will. Despite the unconvincing attitudes and actions of the protege, Play Girl is an amusing and appealing trifle with a nicely sentimental wind-up. Francis gives a top-notch performance as the world-weary Grace, and Coles and Ellison do a fine job as the young lovers. Margaret Hamilton has a few funny moments as Grace's friend and housekeeper, although you kind of wish Eve Arden was along for the ride. Bruce is a lot of fun as the lovable if slightly buffoonish Bill.
Verdict: A winner for Kay! ***


OCEAN'S TWELVE (2004). Director: Steven Soderbergh.

As the remake of Sinatra's Ocean's 11 was better, cleverer, and more entertaining than the original (if not exactly a world-beater), there were some high hopes that Ocean's Twelve would surpass it. What we have instead is a sporadically entertaining film that goes on too long, is over-complicated, and gets too clever for its own good. The casino boss (Andy Garcia) that the gang robbed in the last picture threatens each member with death if they don't repay him the money they stole – with interest. They now have two weeks to raise or steal 197 million dollars! This brings them into competition with a French master thief in an attempt to steal a priceless Faberge egg. Catherine Zeta-Jones appears as an old girlfriend of Brad Pitt's who also happens to be a detective, and Julia Roberts is back as George Clooney's wife. To help steal the egg she has to pretend to be -- “Julia Roberts.” [This whole business, in which the real Bruce Willis – who knows the real Julia -- shows up to complicate matters is amusing but threatens to take over the whole picture.] The performances are okay, if minor, and Elliot Gould and Carl Reiner effortlessly steal the show in their few brief scenes. This is not without entertainment value, but it runs out of juice long before the conclusion.

Verdict: A bit too self-congratulatory. **.


THE FACTS OF LIFE (1960). Director: Melvin Frank.
Pasadena housewife Kitty Weaver (Lucille Ball) and neighbor Larry Gilbert (Bob Hope) drift into a (unconsummated) affair while vacationing in Acapulco, and are comically stymied in their attempts to finally be intimate. While there's some attempt to look at middle-class malaise and suburban boredom, this is basically a lighter and more superficial examination of adultery. Recognizing the light approach -- and that her co-star was Bob Hope -- Lucy plays it all in just the right note, and she even manages to create a character who isn't just Lucy Ricardo. On the other hand, Hope gives an over (or under) rehearsed, stilted performance that he practically just phones in for much of the film's running time; Fred MacMurray would probably have been much better in the part. But despite these quibbles, the movie eventually becomes absorbing, thanks to Lucy and the audience's wondering if these two will ever get together in the sack. There are plenty of amusing moments, and even if Hope's performance is less than stellar, he and Lucy still make an interesting team. A very pleasant and entertaining movie despite its obvious flaws. Hope's wife is the attractive Ruth Hussey; Lucy's hubby is the dull Don DeFore.
Verdict: You can hardly go wrong with Lucy. ***.


TRANSGRESSION (1931). Director: Herbert Brenon.

"It is not wise to leave a beautiful young woman alone in Paris too long."
 You can say that again. Robert Maury, (Paul Cavanagh) sends his wife Elsie (Kay Francis) to Paris for a year while he's seeing to some tedious stuff in a rough environment abroad. Before long Elsie is being wined and dined by the handsome Spaniard Arturo (Ricardo Cortez, pictured), who maneuvers her into visiting him in Spain without an escort. Elsie decides to send her husband a letter asking for a divorce -- and well, things don't quite work out the way anyone hoped they would. Good performances by the three leads -- Cortez is especially memorable -- bolster this otherwise pedestrian romance/soap opera, which is nevertheless reasonably absorbing. The ending is just a touch pat. Nance O'Neil, who was rumored to be Lizzie Borden's lover, is vivid as a witchy relative of Robert's who hates his wife.
Verdict: Ricky and Kay make an interesting couple. **1/2.


HOSTILE WITNESS (1968). Director: Ray Milland.

Simon Crawford suffers a nervous breakdown when his daughter is killed by a hit and run driver. When an old friend and neighbor of his is murdered, the police feel that the dead man was the driver and that Crawford murdered him for revenge. Crawford is put on trial and has one of his associates, Sheila (Sylvia Syms) defend him. Although this is no Witness for the Prosecution, there are some interesting twists and a fair amount of suspense. Milland gives a vigorous performance, but he seems more interested in putting on a show than in establishing a strong and convincing characterization. Good supporting cast helps enormously. Milland directed at least three other films (including Panic in the year Zero) and quite a few television programs.

Verdict: Holds the attention. **1/2.

Friday, September 19, 2008


FROM BROADWAY TO CHEYENNE (aka Broadway to Cheyenne/1932). Director: Larry L. Fraser.

Jimmy Kildare (Rex Bell) is a New York City detective who goes out west for a vacation and discovers some familiar crooks are operating a protection racket in town. Oddball mix of western and crime drama is fairly forgettable but it does have some good fisticuffs and a fast enough pace. Bell is a likable, cheery hero -- his nickname is "Breezy" -- and Gwen Lee and George (Gabby) Hayes are also in the cast. From Monogram pictures and it looks it.

Verdict: You can miss it. **.


SINNERS IN PARADISE (1938). Director: James Whale.

A motley group of individuals take off for China in a sea plane and wind up crash landing near an island deserted but for Dr. Jim Taylor (John Boles) and his manservant (Willie Fung). The passengers include a nurse, Anne (Madge Evans); an heiress, Iris (Marion Martin); a mobster, Robert (Bruce Cabot), who's running from hit men; a blithering senator (Gene Lockhart); and others. The doctor has a secret and refuses to let the stranded passengers use his boat to get to the mainland; he eventually relents but there's only room on the boat for six people and the bickering turns into fighting and murder. Alas, the movie is not as good as it sounds; with all that's going on it's still a colossal bore. Some of the performances aren't bad, however. Other cast members include Milburn Stone, Morgan Conway, and Don "Red" Barry.

Verdict: One of James Whale's least interesting pictures. **.


EVEREST (1998). Directors: David Breashears, Greg MacGillivray, Stephen Judson.
Short documentary shown in IMAX theaters was filmed in 1996 at the same time that a fierce storm claimed the lives of five climbers. It shows several climbers attempting to reach the summit. One of whom, Ed Viesturs, actually leaves his wife to worry about him back in base camp as he makes the nine-week ascent during their honeymoon. His wife is a great sport, perhaps, but he's a self-centered jackass -- couldn't he wait a few months to go after his dream and spend his honeymoon with her? There are some great scenic shots in the movie -- narrated by Liam Neeson and a couple of the climbers -- but it has no real point of view or sense of irony. While one can admire people for wanting to pursue a dream against all odds, and reaching the summit is certainly an achievement of sorts, it's not as if anyone has found the cure for cancer on top of Mount Everest. As Michael Kodas' excellent book High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in An Age of Greed reveals, many people climb Everest not in a spirit of humanity and adventure but for personal glory at any cost, wanting something noteworthy to add to their resume when they go on to become motivational speakers and the like. Kodas writes that often climbers on Everest will callously pass by people who are dying and desperately need help because they're so anxious to realize their "dream" of attaining the summit after spending so much time, energy and money to get there; stopping to help someone might keep them from their goal. (Sir Edmund Hillary once opined that reaching the summit was hardly more important than saving someone's life!) While there may well have been genuine heroes on Everest who risked their lives to save someone else's, it's wrong to claim that every climber on Everest is a hero, whether he or she "summits" or not. Often these "heroes" are self-centered amateurs who risk toes, fingers, and a horrible death via falls, avalanche, freezing, or brain embolism, enduring weeks and weeks of torture, for five minutes on top of a summit whose view, while spectacular, may not be worth the human cost. Instead of a spirit of all-for-one-and-one-for-all, an attitude of every man or woman for him or herself is sometimes the rule. Life-saving equipment is often pilfered from climbers, endangering their lives, and unscrupulous "guides" take advantage of people who have no business being on Mount Everest. The lives of the Himalayan Sherpas who assist the climbers seem held in less regard than the lives of those they assist. Let's face it -- No one climbs Everest to make the world a better place. This documentary has some great photography, but it's totally superficial.
Verdict: Pretty and pretty mindless. Read Kodas' High Crimes instead. **1/2.


MISS GRANT TAKES RICHMOND (1949). Director: Lloyd Bacon.
Ellen Grant (Lucille Ball) is the worst student in secretarial school but she's chosen for employment by Dick Richmond (William Holden) because he wants somebody dumb to work in his office. You see, Richmond's real estate business is just a front for his bookie operation. However, Ellen doesn't cotton to this and before long has embroiled Richmond and his pals in a low-cost housing enterprise and manages to stymie Richmond at every turn -- not as dopey as he thought. Lucy is great in this movie -- the scene with her taking a typing test is very funny -- but the movie is essentially a one-joke idea that has amusing lines and moments but never quite becomes the laugh-out-loud-fest you were hoping for. This would have worked better as a half hour or hour-long TV show. Ball exhibits some of the mannerisms she would later employ in her classic show I Love Lucy. She and Holden make a good team, but this is still a disappointment.
Verdict: Watch "Lucy Meets a Movie Star" (Holden) instead. **1/2.

Monday, September 15, 2008


THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET (1933). Director: Robert Florey.

"There was an old maid in Nantucket ... " limerick told by young lady at restaurant party.

Peggy Stone (Kay Francis), a chorus girl torn between two suitors in 1905, marries Monte Van Tyle (Gene Raymond) and moves into the house he built especially for them on 56th street in Manhattan. After a grotesque series of events that pretty much destroy Peggy's happy life, she winds up back in the house under unusual circumstances. Once you get past the film's undeniable contrivances, this is an interesting, somewhat poignant drama/soap opera.


The moral ambiguity of the film, which is quite irritating on first viewing, might be one of the film's most interesting elements. Peggy, who is completely innocent, is convicted of murdering an old flame who's shot in a suicide attempt as Peggy tries to wrestle the gun away from him (and she must have had the worst lawyer in New York, as the dead man's doctor knew he had only months to live). Later on there's a good scene when Peggy, now a croupier in the house on 56th street -- her honeymoon home turned into a speakeasy and gambling den -- plays cards with her own daughter Eleanor (Margaret Lindsay), who thinks her mother is dead. Incurring debts of $15,000, Eleanor begs Peggy's partner Bill (Ricardo Cortez) not to go to her husband for the money, and when he refuses, shoots him. At the end Peggy sends Eleanor off to sail to Europe with hubby, and tells her boss she killed Bill herself (in self-defense, more or less.) The boss agrees to cover up the crime.

The trouble with this, of course, is that Eleanor, who was not forced into gambling by anyone, committed a cold-blooded murder and her mother did not. Still, this can hardly be called a happy ending. One senses that Eleanor, who is not tightly wrapped (and well-played by Lindsay), will be haunted by her crime for the rest of her life (even if Peggy lied and told her Bill wasn't dead). And Peggy will spend the rest of her life as an employee in a house that was supposed to be a lifetime home for her and her family (husband Monte died overseas in WW1 when Peggy was in jail.)

Kay Francis' performance is not exactly Oscar-worthy, but she does a nice job essaying a woman in various, very different times of her life. Raymond and Cortez are professional, and, as noted, Lindsay is quite good as the daughter. Director Florey doesn't always make the most of the dramatic possibilities of some sequences, such as when Peggy gets the telegram regarding her husband's death while in jail.

Verdict: A house is not a home, all right. ***.


CYNARA (1932). Director: King Vidor.

"I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion."

Jim Warlock (Ronald Colman) is happily married to Clemency (Kay Francis, pictured), who is out of town traveling with her sister, when he meets a pretty young woman, Doris (Phyllis Barry), in a cafe. The two drift into an affair, which eventually results in scandal and tragedy. While this is a slight film, it boasts good performances, especially from Barry and Colman and the always-wonderful Henry Stephenson as Jim's friend, John. Normally the unfaithful spouse is not too sympathetic, but Colman actually manages to be quite moving, and the ending is effective. What the film needs is another half hour of running time and deeper characterizations.

According to Lawrence J. Quirk in The Films of Ronald Colman, Colman was nervous about playing an adulterer, and while the film got good reviews, Colman's fans did not care for him in such a part. Quirk also writes that "it was a novel idea in 1932 that occasional infidelity in a marriage could be countenanced and forgiven if all other aspects of the union were favorable."

Verdict: Minor but definitely has its moments. **1/2.


A NOTORIOUS AFFAIR (1930). Director: Lloyd Bacon.
Wealthy Patricia Hanley (Billie Dove) scandalizes her father and their friends by marrying a penniless violinist Paul Gherardi (Basil Rathbone). The only one of their crowd who is welcoming to Paul is the unfortunately predatory Countess Olga (Kay Francis, pictured), a sexually-free lady who leaves lipstick all over the stable boy. (This is the kind of movie that equates "loose" sexuality with evil.) As soon as Paul becomes a famous, flamboyant violinist, the countess gets her hooks in him and poor Pat is wringing her hands and consulting with daddy (Montagu Love). Talky and dull, A Notorious Affair could have benefited from a little more notoriety. Kay Francis steals the picture in her sexy, vibrant performance as the countess, but the others are also good. Even with an Italian accent, Rathbone scores as the touchy and temperamental Paul.
Verdict: Turn off the TV and find somebody to be notorious with. *1/2.


GIVE ME YOUR HEART (1936). Director: Archie Mayo.

Belinda Warren (Kay Francis) is in love with Bob Melford (Patric Knowles) who has a disabled wife, Rosamond (Freida Inescort). When Belinda becomes pregnant, Bob's father, Lord Farrington (Henry Stephenson) makes a deal for Belinda to give up the child to Bob and Rosamond, telling her that otherwise she has little to offer the child. (It never occurs to Belinda to make the point that the child will be his grandchild no matter who raises it, and you'd think he'd want to provide for it no matter what.) Traveling on a train, Belinda encounters Jim Baker (George Brent) and marries him, but her brooding over the past threatens their marriage until an old friend drastically takes matters into his hands.

Give Me Your Heart is a likable, at times touching, movie that is greatly bolstered by some fine dialogue and an excellent cast at their best. Kay Francis gives one of her best performances as Belinda, and Roland Young is terrific as her buddy "Tubbs." Francis and Brent always made a good team, and in this Young and Helen Flint (as Belinda's doctor Florence Cudahy) also make a grand screen couple. (The protracted scene when the two "meet cute," nearly grabbing the same cab, then keep bumping into each other until they realize they're going to the exact same place, is one of the best scenes in the movie.) Zeffie Tilbury scores as Belinda's grumpy Aunt Esther. Francis has a sublime moment when she looks at a picture of her little boy at a very awkward gathering, and she and Freida Inescort have a very good scene as the two women manage to bond with each other despite the events of the past. Warm, humorous and sentimental in the right way, Give Me Your Heart is one of Francis's best features. Nice score, too.

Verdict: Kay fans should pounce. ***.


PASSION FLOWER (1930). Director: Uncredited.

"Men are kind of handy in the day time and sort of entertaining in the evening. But as far as I'm concerned, I'd just as soon have a good radio." -- Zazu Pitts.

Katherine (Kay Johnson) infuriates her father by marrying the family chauffeur Dan (Charles Bickford). Her cousin Dulce (Kay Francis) is married to a wealthy, much older man, Tony (Lewis Stone). Proud and stubborn, Dan refuses Dulce's help until circumstances force him to give in. Unfortunately the two proceed to fall in love, causing the expected painful complications. As the selfish Dulce, Francis isn't bad, but her part is too one-dimensional for us to feel much sympathy for her and at times her acting is artificial and stilted. Johnson is quite lovely and affecting as the heart-broken Katherine. The gruff Bickford is an unlikely lover boy but a good actor nevertheless; his scenes with his two little boys are touching (Dickie Moore is adorable as Tommy) but his character is also a bit of a stinker. Zazu Pitts plays Katharine and Dan's pessimistic landlady who somehow winds up moving to a farm with them as housekeeper.

Verdict: Entertaining, but maybe not enough passion. **1/2.

Friday, September 12, 2008


BEAUTY FOR THE ASKING (1939). Director: Glenn Tryon.
Beautician Jean Russell (Lucille Ball) is excitedly hoping to market her new astringent face cream and make oodles of money when her fiance Denny (Patric Knowles) comes to tell her that he's going to marry another woman, Flora (Freida Inescort) -- who happens to be worth ten million. Trying to get over her heartbreak, Jean gets an entrepreneur named Jeff (Donald Woods) to help her find backing for her product and she winds up going into business with -- Flora! Naturally there are complications when Denny is installed in the executive wing of her business. Lucy gives a lovely performance in one of her nicest and most sympathetic roles, and she's ably backed up by the rest of the cast, including Inez Courtney as Jean's friend Gwen, and Leona Maricle as a predatory friend of Flora's named Eve Harrington -- years before All About Eve. Good dialogue and a light touch help enormously.
Verdict: Very pleasant indeed. ***.


LIVING ON VELVET (1935). Director: Frank Borzage.
Terry Parker (George Brent) has never been the same since his parents and young sister were killed when a plane he was piloting ran out of gas and crashed, leaving him with barely a scratch and a lot of guilt. His friend Walter (Warren William) introduces him to Amy (Kay Francis), the woman he's in love with, and of course the two of them fall in love while Walter keeps a stiff upper lip and continues to befriend them. But Amy finds that Terry is still sort of living life alone and can't get through to him, endangering their marriage. Living on Velvet deals with some provocative and extremely painful situations but never with any depth or especial realism. Francis is excellent, William gives his usual professional performance, and Brent isn't bad, even though he's incapable of getting across his character's haunted nature. The script remains on a superficial soap opera level throughout.
Verdict: Not quite a waste of 90 minutes but almost. **.

JANE EYRE (1934)

JANE EYRE (1934). Director: Christy Cabanne.

This 1934 version of the famous story, while certainly not awful, can't compare to the later version with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. In this version Virginia Bruce is Jane and Colin Clive of Frankenstein fame is Rochester -- both of them are more than adequate although Clive doesn't summon up the haunted quality of Orson Welles in the remake. Beryl Mercer is fine as Mrs. Fairfax, but while young Edith Fellows is cute as little Adele, she's not an especially talented child performer (she was acting up until 1995, however!) and Adele comes off a bit as a cloying klutz. Aileen Pringle isn't given much to do as Blanche Ingram, who nearly marries Rochester. Claire Du Brey appears briefly as the mad Mrs. Rochester, and an unrecognizable Ethel Griffies has the small role of Grace Poole. Some lovely music plays over the opening credits, but otherwise this film has no score and needs one. Bernard Herrmann's score for the remake is another reason why it is vastly superior.

Verdict: A little on the dull side. **.


SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004). Director: Sam Raimi.

The sequel to Spider-Man is superior to the first film, being made of equal parts action and sentiment, and with – believe it or not -- a subtext of personal responsibility vs. freedom of choice. When Peter Parker realizes that his dual role as Spider-Man is playing havoc with his life (especially his love life) he gets rid of the uniform and vows never to play hero again. [This happened more than once in the comic books, usually at a time of great angst and disappointment, if not worse, for our hero.] His powers, especially his ability to create webs to swing around on [in the comics he uses a device to create webs; it is not an organic power], cuts out on him at inopportune moments due to his mixed emotions over being Spider-Man. Spider-Man recognizes that sometimes “you have to give up your dream” to do the right thing and sets out to fully regain his spider-like abilities. The climax is a thrilling all-out battle between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus (an excellent Alfred Molina) that features an eye-popping, harrowing conflict on a runaway elevated subway train. The film even manages to be moving at times (the music doesn't hurt), although to many viewers it may only seem on a sappy, Hallmark greeting card level. The screenplay has its dopey and outrageously contrived moments. Determined not to be a hero, Peter walks by an alley where several toughs are beating up one man, and, while troubled, keeps on walking. Surely it's possible for him to come to someone's rescue without dressing up in an ostentatious outfit! Later, he confesses to his Aunt May that he didn't bother to stop the criminal who later murdered her husband. Surely his aunt, who is unaware of his Spider-Man powers, would have told him that if he'd tried to stop the man he would only have been shot just like his uncle was. Still, this is not quite as maddeningly juvenile or idiotic as many other super-hero films. In fact, it's quite entertaining, although certainly not for everyone. The FX are generally excellent and exciting, although there are times when Spider-Man just seems to be an unreal cartoon figure hurtling through the sky. Tobey Maguire (Peter/Spider-Man), Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson), and James Franco (Norm Osborne Jr.) are all quite good, as is the rest of the supporting cast.

Verdict: Web-swingin' fun. ***1/2.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


TIME LIMIT (1957). Director: Karl Malden.

Colonel Bill Edwards (Richard Widmark, pictured, who also co-produced) leads an investigation into the charges that Major Cargill (Richard Basehart) collaborated with the enemy while a POW during the Korean War. Edwards wants to give the man a fair hearing, but he isn't helped by the fact that Cargill not only won't defend himself but seems to be hiding something. This is an excellent adaptation of a very strong play that is both intelligent, uncompromising, and compassionate, and poses a poignant moral dilemma to boot. Widmark has never been better, Basehart is wonderful, and the entire cast is top-notch: Martin Balsam as Edwards' assistant, Sgt. Baker; Dolores Michaels as his secretary, Corporal Evans; Rip Torn as Lt. Miller, one of the men who served under Cargill; June Lockhart as Cargill's wife; and especially Carl Benton Reid as General Connors, whose son died in the same POW camp where Cargill was imprisoned. This was the only film Karl Malden, who does not appear in the film, ever directed, and he does a fine job. Powerful, moving material with a peerless cast.

Verdict: Strong stuff. ***1/2.


DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (1940). Director: Dorothy Arzner.
Judy O' Brien (Maureen O'Hara) and "Bubbles" White (Lucille Ball), both belong to the same dance troup headed by Madame Basivola (a wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya). Doing a sexy hula (a highlight of the film) for a prospective client, Bubbles gets a job in Hoboken which eventually leads to her becoming a big star in burlesque. She has Judy hired to do serious dancing in the middle of the act, but Judy's unaware that she's only to be a stooge. Woven into the main storyline are the romantic figures of Louis Hayward, who romances both girls but is carrying a torch for his ex-wife, and Ralph Bellamy as as head of a dance company. Frankly, the romantic storylines never really fit in smoothly with the rest of the film, which becomes a bit boring even with the famous "cat-fight" between Judy and Bubbles late in the picture. Judy tells off the men who laugh at her in the burlesque house, which some see as giving the film a kind of feminist slant. But this is basically a disappointing comedy-drama with some interesting moments but not enough of them.
Verdict: Watch Lucy hula and then go to sleep. **1/2.



This is a profile of the great director and his films; there isn't much about his personal life, which might have enriched an already fascinating program. However, this is still a solid look at the man behind the helm of such films as The Crowd, The Big Parade, The Champ (with its moving performance by Jackie Cooper); Our Daily Bread, which Vidor financed himself when MGM found the subject matter too unglamourous; Show People (with Marion Davies); The Citadel; all the sepia sequences in The Wizard of Oz; Solomon and Sheba with its great "mirror" battle scene; and The Fountainhead with Cooper and Neal. Vidor discusses the tragic life of James Murray who starred in The Crowd, and even talks a bit about the much-maligned Beyond the Forest, which doesn't deserve the scorn heaped upon it if for no other reason than Vidor directed it and his direction is as vivid as ever. He even talks about working with David Selznick on Duel in the Sun (Vidor was co-director) which started out as a small, unusual western and ballooned into an epic that Selznick hoped would rival Gone With the Wind.
Verdict: Quite entertaining and informative. ***.


DIVORCE (1945) Director: William Nigh.

Diane Carter (Kay Francis), an adventuress who has married and divorced four wealthy men, returns to her home town and discovers that her ex-beau Bob Phillips (Bruce Cabot) is happily married and has two adorable little boys. Diane and Bob go into business together, and it turns out that Diane is better at helping him realize his ambitions than his pretty wife Martha (Helen Mack) is. Martha soon realizes that she is right to be suspicious of their relationship.... This was one of three films Francis did for Monogram studios, the last of her career, and it's not very memorable. She gives a good performance but plays a character so unlikable that she practically sneers in Martha's face when Bob tells her he's in love with her, Diane. This is the kind of movie that wants us to believe it's a happy ending if the husband goes back to the wife, even though Bob not only shows bad taste in choosing Diane over Martha, but neglects his two little boys and proves all around a stinker. Cabot is fine as the heel of a husband, and Helen Mack is lovely as Martha. Despite some good dialogue, the script is superficial and the characters one-dimensional.

Verdict: Watchable for Kay but no great shakes. **.

Monday, September 8, 2008



TCM recently held a Laurel and Hardy all-day festival in which they showed Pardon Us, Swiss Miss (still with several minutes cut) and quite a few classic shorts. Some of the more memorable ones include: Tit for Tat, in which the boys have a hilarious war with the owner of the grocery that's next to their electrical appliance store; Hog Wild, in which they try to put up a radio antennae and nearly wreck the house to Mrs. Hardy's furor; Our Wife, in which Ollie elopes with a large, economy-sized bride whose wealthy father disapproves of the union; and Be Big!, in which the boys try to sneak off to a party when their wives want them to accompany them to Atlantic City (one sequence has Stan hysterically trying to get Ollie's boot off of his fat foot). In Night Owls, a cop blackmails the boys into robbing his sergeant's house, so he can capture them and impress the boss, and in Their First Mistake they adopt a child to save Ollie's marriage, only to learn that his wife is not only suing him for divorce, but suing Laurel for alienation of affection! "Now that you've gone and gotten me into this trouble, you want to walk out and leave me flat!" Oliver whines to Stan.

Verdict: Some very, very funny stuff. ***.


WITHOUT LOVE (1945). Director: Harold S. Bucquet.
Spencer Tracy plays a wartime inventor who meets a widow played by Katharine Hepburn. Both have decided never to marry or fall in love again for different but related reasons. Tracy was jilted by a woman, and Hepburn's true love died at an early age; presumably they can do without the pain. They therefore decide to get married "without love," being there for each other as friends -- sort of like their relationship (which has been greatly exaggerated into one of the all-time great "romances") was like in real life; their "love" was of the platonic kind. Although Hepburn is given a nice scene in which she talks about the young man who died, this lacklustre and completely unconvincing comedy-drama only has some oomph whenever Lucille Ball appears as Hepburn's real estate lady, carrying a torch for Keenan Wynn. Despite the cast, this is pretty dull.
Verdict: Watch Desk Set or Adam's Rib instead. **.


FLASH GORDON. Fifties TV show. DVD.

In the year 3053, Flash Gordon (Steve Holland, pictured) romps about in his ship, Skyflash, along with Dale Arden (Irene Champlin) and Dr. Zarkov (Joe Nash). This DVD features three episodes of the forgotten fifties TV show. In "Deadline at Noon," the intrepid trio discover that the Earth is going to be blown up in a few hours. Although Dale says at one point that a bomb made of dirinium "would take 12 million years to explode" apparently she's off by quite a few years, as a terrorist planted the dirimium bomb in Berlin in the 1960's, only a few thousand years back in time. The idea of a bomb that takes thousand of years to explode being planted in the past is certainly an intriguing (if confusing) one. Flash and the others go back in time to the 1960's and disarm the bomb without a moment to spare. This is a suspenseful and exciting episode. "The Race Against Time" concerns a ray device that is being used to fix an election by a faction that doesn't want the Galaxy Council to retain control. In the third episode, "The Forbidden Experiment," a Lion Man created by experimentation captures Dr. Zarkov and takes him to a planetoid, where Flash and Dale come to rescue him. Although low-tech, the episodes have effective FX, and are well-directed to make the most of a low budget. Steve Holland makes an effectively beefy Flash, and Joe Nash is a surprisingly good-looking Dr. Zarkov. Irene Champlin not only makes an attractive Dale Arden, but she actually looks intelligent enough to understand atomic formula and the like. Not as campy as the serials, Flash Gordon – if one judges by these episodes – was a creditable television program.

Verdict: Hot half-bad if you don't expect too much. **1/2.

D.O.A. (1988)

D.O.A. (1988). Directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel.

English professor Dexter Cornell (Dennis Quaid) is in the middle of a divorce, as well as a severe career slump as a writer, when one of his students apparently commits suicide. Later on Cornell discovers that somehow he ingested poison and has only a couple of days to live. He and a student (Meg Ryan) set out to investigate, and uncover some sleazy goings-on involving the dead student, which may or may not relate to his desperate situation. This remake of D.O.A.(1950) starring Edmund O'Brien is not in the same league. It holds the attention, there are some acceptable action sequences, and the new storyline has its clever aspects, but the movie isn't as fast, moving, or memorable by half. Beginning with the scene when Quaid literally joins himself to a reluctant Ryan by gluing their hands together, the picture takes on a cutesy tone that is completely inappropriate for the situations. Ryan is too perky by far, Quaid gives a perfectly okay second-rate performance, and Daniel Stern walks off with the acting honors as his associate and buddy. Charlotte Rampling offers another one of her patented "cold fish" performances as the patron of the dead student – she wears one expression throughout this movie (and probably all the others she was in).

Verdict: Stick with the original. **1/2.

Friday, September 5, 2008


Freddie Bartholomew
KIDNAPPED (1938). Directed by Alfred L. Werker.

Loosely based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson Kidnapped juxtaposes the stories of young David Balfour (Freddie Bartholomew) and Scottish rebel Alan Breck (Warner Baxter), whom Balfour comes across on his way to his wealthy uncle's castle in 1747. Although David does not at first approve of the activities of the British-hating Breck, he comes to admire the man and even does his best to save his life. As David comes afoul of his evil uncle, he keeps encountering Breck and Jeannie (Arleen Whelan), a woman Breck was taking to a compatriot who has to flee Scotland; instead Breck falls in love with her and vice versa. Although a touch obvious at times, Freddie is excellent, Whelan is lovely and affecting, and there are also wonderful performances from the likes of C. Aubrey Smith, Miles Mander, and H. B. Warner. Warner Baxter is heroic enough, but his acting leaves something to be desired. There's a great scene with a crumbling staircase, and the whole business with David being shanghaied, encountering Breck and Jeannie on ship board, is very exciting Well photographed by Gregg Toland.

Verdict: Good show! ***1/2.


THE BIG STREET (1942). Director: Irving Reis.

"Love just gives you one room, two chins, and three kids!"

A simple-minded busboy named Little Pinks (Henry Fonda) develops an infatuation for a gold-digging singer named Gloria (Lucille Ball) and basically becomes her dog and slave after she loses the ability to walk. At one point he agrees to push her by wheelchair from Manhattan to Florida (although they manage to hitch a lot of rides in the back of trucks)! This absorbing (if at times draggy) comedy-drama is certainly not for all tastes, and some may find that the mix of Damon Runyan characters such as Nicely Nicely (who later turned up in Guys and Dolls) with a study of unrequited love doesn't always jell, and in truth the Runyanisms often come close to crowding out the main story. Still for those who are game The Big Street is often very funny and just as often quite touching. Although he's hardly perfect casting, Fonda manages to do a nice job as Pinks, and Lucy gives one of her best performances – a really lovely job – as Gloria, managing to be both bitchy and sympathetic at one and the same time. A lot of great character actors shore up the proceedings, especially Agnes Moorehead as a neighbor and friend of Little Pinks. Louise Beavers and Ray Collins are also especially memorable. For those who simply find the movie to be too far-fetched, think of it as a Damon Runyan fable, sort of his lighter take on Of Human Bondage. The movie is not just a study of pathetic devotion and love, but of friendship, as we see how all of Little Pink's pals – even if they think he's crazy and masochistic to do so much for the ungrateful Gloria – pull together for him because they love him and realize how much he loves Gloria. A very unusual movie, and a real tearjerker as well.

Verdict: Grab those hankies and love Lucy!***1/2.


BAD FOR EACH OTHER (1953). Director: Irving Rapper.

A young medical man is torn between helping the poor miners in his home town or joining a practice in which most of his patients would be bored, wealthy women. No, it's not The Citadel, it's a modern-day rip-off called Bad for Each Other. Charlton Heston is actually a military man with a medical degree who comes home to Pittsburgh after his brother's death. Lizabeth Scott is the rich gal he falls for, and Mildred Dunnock is his mother (both are very good). Arthur Franz is fine as an ex-serviceman who asks Heston for a job and Marjorie Rambeau scores as Scott's aunt. Heston saunters through the movie with his usual star charisma and gives a good performance, but this mediocre soaper with its one-dimensional characters and familiar plot is no substitute for the real thing.

Verdict: Watch The Citadel instead. **.


TV BABYLON. Jeff Rovin. Signet Books; 1984.
In readable to-the-point prose, Rovin compiles a series of scandals about and warts and all portraits of famous television personalities from Mary Tyler Moore to Cher to Johnny Carson to James Garner. You can read about the rift between Laverne and Shirley, why Suzanne Somers was cut out of Three's Company, the super-bitches of TV and when they deserve the appellation and when they're just fighting for quality, the stars who are deemed difficult due to ego troubles and those who just want control to make sure the quality is consistent and their livelihood isn't threatened. Rovin also looks at accidental deaths and brutal murders in the TV community. Although at times the author tries too hard to mimic Kenneth Anger's callous tone in his tacky Hollywood Babylon volumes, it's clear his sensibility is not the same. Throughout the tome, such as during his write up on actress Barbara Colby, shot to death just as her career was taking off, he makes a tacit but definite case for compassion and intelligence.
Verdict: Good read! ***.


ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE (1952). Director: Fred C. Brannon.

The third and last of the rocket man serials replaces Commando Cody of the second serial (Radar Men from the Moon) with Larry Martin (Judd Holdren). Those pesky martians are at it again and trying to take over the Earth. The “zombies” of the title are simply the drone martians who work under Marex (Lane Bradford), the bad guy from Mars. (One of the zombies, Naran, is played by Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame. Marex blackmails Dr. Harding (Stanley Waxman), a scientist who's been selling atomic secrets into helping him. Working against Harding and the men from Mars are Larry and his associate Bob (Wilson Wood). [Aline Towne as get-the-coffee Sue has virtually nothing to do.] The slick production features some good cliffhanger situations, such as a thrilling train wreck in chapter one and a boat going over a dam in chapter two. There's also a kind of tin can robot and a larger, more impressive model that actually seems dangerous. The martians hide out in a cavern that has a underwater section through which they gain access to the main cave deep within. The performances are good, and the movie is fun.

Verdict: The Rocket Man Rules. ***.

Monday, September 1, 2008

CREATURE FEATURES: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies

CREATURE FEATURES: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies. William Schoell. 2008; McFarland.

No, I'm not going to review my own book, but I would like to point out that this beautiful, hardcover, illustrated book is now available at the publisher's web site and at

Creature Features covers dinosaur, dragon and mythological monster movies, big bug features such as Tarantula, the films of Ray Harryhausen, nature-runs-amok movies featuring killer animals of normal size, a whole chapter on giant-sized beasties, and a section on blobs and other oddities. Fun, informative, and entertaining, if I say so myself! For adult readers, but young people will get a bang out of it as well!

Verdict: Hope you like it!