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

Thursday, November 26, 2009


REPUBLIC STUDIOS: BETWEEN POVERTY ROW AND THE MAJORS. Richard M. Hurst. Scarecrow Press. Updated 2007.

This book looks at Republic studios, which was most famous for cliffhanger serials and westerns, but also turned out the occasional "A" feature. It has chapters providing an overview of the studio and its work and influence; a look at sound serials of Republic's golden age; Republic's cowboy movies; their series films such as The Higgins Family and films starring hillbilly comedienne Judy Canova; etc. Although some chapters have been added, including an in-depth look at the Captain America serial, it is obvious that this was basically a dissertation, and indeed its academic tone is occasionally quite dry and pretentious, with the same themes stated over and over again. [The book does not appear to have been edited.] On the plus side, despite his prose style [or lack of same -- Hurst was a museum administrator for many years and not a professional writer] Hurst's enthusiasm for these films comes through, and the book is full of a lot of solid information although it certainly does not go into detail on all Republic films or even the famous ones. Still it has value as a reference book for those interested in the history and output of a famous "second-tier" Hollywood studio which issued some of the finest cliffhanger serials ever made. Other books that deal with Republic serials include The Great Movie Serials and In the Nick of Time.

Verdict: Some good stuff about the old serials. **1/2.



Last year with little fanfare this new court-TV show slipped into the line-up with allegedly tough New York prosecutor Jeanine Pirro in the role of judge, a role that, frankly, doesn't suit her very well. There are two kinds of reality court TV programs. The first kind -- Judge Judy and The People's Court with Judge Milian are good examples -- features an actual experienced judge who absolutely controls his or her courtroom and won't brook any nonsense. The second kind -- Judge Mathis, Judge Joe Brown, and now Judge Pirro are good examples -- are cut from the "Jerry Springer" cloth and have a judge -- real or imagined -- who allows the litigants to run off at the mouth, take over the court, and publicly disgrace their fool selves for the sake of the audience. Their selling point is sleaze and humiliation. [The fact that Judge Judy, who does not allow this nonsense, leads the pack in the ratings doesn't seem to have impressed itself upon the producers of these other shows. Judge Pirro comes from the same camp as Judge Mathis. ] "Judge" Pirro not only doesn't display much courtroom savy -- she sllows people to talk over her all the time [imagine Judy doing that!] -- but doesn't seem to have the intellectual depth to really see what's going on in certain cases. One case of harrassment between two women clearly had intimations of homophobia and self-hatred, but it was all above the head of Pirro. On one episode she had two drug dealers in front of her, and while she expressed amazement at the situation, she never made any mention of "unclean hands." She actually awarded one of these scuzzbags $1500 for mental distress because the other one claimed he stole both money and drugs from him at gunpoint when he didn't. Who cares? Not only does this call into question Pirro's competency as a "judge," it calls into question her competency as a prosecutor or anything else. Hopefully this will come back to bite her in the ass should she ever decide to run for public office when her five minutes of fame are over. One senses that as long as the occasional male litigant tells Pirro that she's "hot" and the checks roll in, Pirro doesn't give a damn.

Verdict: Disgraceful and scuzzy! Watch Judge Judy instead. *.


THE WALKING DEAD (1936). Director: Michael Curtiz. 

After John Ellman (Boris Karloff) is framed for murder by criminals and executed, he's brought back to life by Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn) via the use of assorted electrical devices. This Frankenstein-inspired horror film has Ellman going after the gangsters who framed him one by one and bringing about their deaths. Ricardo Cortez plays Karloff's crooked lawyer. The movie isn't bad -- neither is Karloff nor Marguerite Churchill as his daughter -- but the mix of horror with gangland doesn't quite work and the story is certainly predictable. Warren Hull, who starred in several cliffhanger serials, is also in the cast, as are Barton MacLane and Joe Sawyer. Churchill was also in Dracula's Daughter. Warner Brothers. 

Verdict: Karloff always gets his man! **1/2.


THE STAIRCASE MURDERS (2007 telefilm). Director: Tom McLoughlin.

Real-life novelist Michael Peterson (supposedly successful and supposedly bisexual) was put on trial for the murder of his wife, who was found bloodied and dead at the bottom of a staircase in their home in Durham, North Carolina. During the trial it turned out that another woman in Peterson's past also died in the exact same manner. This case was covered by Dateline, on a two hour ABC special and other programs, and was also the subject of a foreign documentary called The Staircase. In this fictionalized version of the story -- which includes the documentary filmmakers -- Peterson is played by Treat Williams. Although he gives a good performance, the more down-to-Earth Williams is an odd choice to play the glib, superior, vaguely epicene sociopath, Peterson. Based on the book "A Perfect Husband" by Aphrodite Jones, this is an absorbing and fairly fascinating study of a murder case that apparently a great many people found riveting. Whether it increased the sales of Peterson's books is another matter.

Verdict: If only he'd just come happily out of the closet and left these poor women alone! ***.


HUNT THE MAN DOWN (1950). Director: George Archainbaud.

A busboy named Kincaid (James Anderson) becomes a hero during an attempted robbery, but it turns out that he's an accused murderer on the lam. Supposedly he murdered a jealous man who accused him of having an affair with his wife. Paul Bennett (Gig Young, pictured) is the public defender who hunts down witnesses and tries to figure out who actually committed the killing. Hunt the Man Down is like a slightly longer episode of the Perry Mason TV show with just a little more action in it. Gerald Mohr and Cleo Moore are also in the cast.

Verdict: Worth missing. *1/2.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

THE PATSY (1929)

THE PATSY (1928). Director: King Vidor.

Pat Harrington (Marion Davies) lives with her loving father (Dell Henderson) and a mother (Marie Dressler), who clearly favors her snotty sister, Grace (Jane Winton) over her. To make matters worse, Pat has an unrequited longing for Tony (Orville Caldwell), her sister's boyfriend, although Grace apparently prefers the company of that sexy scalawag Billy (Lawrence Gray). This reasonably entertaining comedy-drama is in no way in the league of Vidor's classic silent The Crowd, but the actors are all appealing. One wishes the film had a little more depth, and there are tiresome detours (such as Pat coming out with allegedly witty sayings in an attempt to develop a "personality"). The new original score by Vivek Maddala adds a lot to the picture, however. Davies is quite good and it's always a pleasure to see Dressler, here in a mostly unsympathetic role.

Verdict: Interesting if unspectacular silent. **1/2.


BEHIND THE MASK (1932). Director: John Francis Dillon. 

Jack Quinn (Jack Holt) is a secret service agent who goes undercover as a crook, even taking part in a jail break, to expose the identity of a sinister figure, "Mr. X," who heads a criminal organization. If only this were half as much fun as it sounds. Quinn is one of the stupidest Fedeal agents ever put on film. Boris Karloff enlivens things just a bit as one of X's henchmen, and Edward Van Sloan is a cackling doctor also in the employ of X [whose identity comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone]. Constance Cummings isn't bad as the frightened daughter of a doctor (Claude King) who is victimized by the evil mastermind. Bertha Mann is the evil Nurse Edwards, who is always reporting to X. 

Verdict: Any X movie would be better than this! *.


CIRCLE OF FRIENDS (2006 telefilm). Director: Stefan Pleszczynski.

Maggie (Julie Benz, pictured) returns to the town where she grew up for a funeral, and discovers that several of her old high school class mates have recently died in accidents. Or were they accidents? One of the victims is her late husband. She renews a relationship with old boyfriend Harry (Chris Kramer) and tries to get a detective (Peter Dillion) to seriously investigate the situation. Does it all have something to do with a photograph of a picnic years before? This is a suspenseful mystery that doesn't telegraph its conclusion too obviously, and is well-acted by [almost] all; Nicolas Wright leaves no stereotype unturned in his dreadful portrayal of Rodney, an obviously gay fashion designer. The murderer-unmasking scene is a bit abrupt and unreal.

Verdict: A pleasant, somewhat intriguing time passer. **1/2.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953). Director: Byron Haskin. 

The first Hollywood version of H. G. Wells' wonderful novel of a Martian invasion is still great entertainment. Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is called in when strange meteors begin falling to Earth. At one site, he encounters Sylvia (Ann Robinson), her uncle, Pastor Collins (Lewis Martin), and General Mann (Les Tremayne). But neither prayers nor weaponry seem a match for the sleek alien vehicles with their devastating death rays that emerge from the meteors. Edgar Barrier of The Giant Claw is a professor; Gertrude Hoffman of My Little Margie is a news vendor; Paul Frees of Space Master X-7 is a radio announcer; and Paul Birch of Not of This Earth is an early victim. The early scenes are very suspenseful, and the sequence wherein Barry and Robinson are holed up in a farmhouse when the martians come a'callin' is harrowing. Very entertaining, with fine special effects. Produced by George Pal. This clearly inspired many movies, especially Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

Verdict; An absorbing and colorful science fiction classic. ***1/2.


HOLD THAT KISS (1938). Director: Edwin L. Marin.

June Evans (Maureen O'Sullivan) and Tom Bradford (Dennis O'Keefe) meet at a society function and both believe the other one is well-to-do. Tom actually works for a travel agency and June is a model for a couturier, but they do their best to keep up the deception, afraid the other would dump them if they knew they weren't wealthy. The leads are swell, and the picture is bolstered by a fine supporting cast: Mickey Rooney, Frank Albertson and Phillip Terry as June's brothers; Fay Holden as her mother; Jessie Ralph as her Aunt Lucy; Edward Brophy as Tom's roommate; and George Barbier as the father of a bride in the opening sequence. A definite scene stealer is the St. Bernard with soulful eyes who plays Blotto. No world-beater, perhaps, but a cute and amusing trifle.

Verdict: Fun picture with appealing cast. ***.

THE EX (1997)

THE EX (1997). Director: Mark L. Lester. Screenplay by Larry Cohen.

Nutty Deidre (Yancy Butler) has never gotten over her ex-husband David (Nick Mancuso) so she befriends his new wife Molly (Suzy Amis), and pretends to be her own psychiatrist, Lillian (Babs Chula), so she can bond with the couple's adorable youngster, Michael (Hamish Tildesley), who has anger issues. Talk about anger issues! Deidre convinces nearly everyone that she's having an affair with David and that he tried to kill her. Reasonably entertaining entry in the "psycho bitch" film sweepstakes isn't badly acted and has an exciting finale, even if it seems a little over-familiar. The bit with the possibly lesbian shrink Lillian is awkwardly, even offensively, handled.

Verdict: Another devious sociopath on the loose. **1/2.


WITHIN THE LAW (1939). Director: Gustav Machaty.

This is a remake of Paid, which really put Joan Crawford on the map. In this version Ruth Hussey acquits herself nicely in the same role, Mary Turner, who's wrongly convicted of stealing jewelry from her employer, Gilder (Samuel S. Hinds), and winds up the big house for three years. She vows to get even with Gilder when she gets out. Studying law books she realizes that there's a way to earn quick cash unethically while still staying "within the law." As part of her revenge scheme, she romances Gilder's son Richard (Tom Neal of Detour fame). This is a snappy, entertaining picture with a good cast: Paul Kelly, Paul Cavanagh, James Burke, and Rita Johnson are among the thieves Mary falls in with; William Gargan is the cop who's out to get them.

Verdict: Not a lost classic from 1939 but creditable enough. ***.


THE DUNWICH HORROR (2009). Written and directed by Leigh Scott.

This telefilm makes the 1970 version of The Dunwich Horror seem like a masterpiece in comparison. Based on the famous story by the great [and ill-served by Hollywood] H. P. Lovecraft, this concerns a woman from the Whateley family who consorts with a demon and gives birth to twins, one human, and one a monster. Dean Stockwell, who played Wilbur Whateley in the aforementioned theatrical version, plays a doctor in this film while Jeffrey Coombs (pictured) of The Reanimator fame plays Wilbur in this [if not very well]. Griff Furst plays Dr. Walter Rice, a teacher who has trouble believing that any of this stuff is real [and this film doesn't help]. The climactic rampage of the demonic twin is even more disappointing than in the 1970 version. The great film based on this fascinating and seminal novella has yet to be made. NOTE: For a book about Lovecraft's life click here.

Verdict: Poor Lovecraft deserves much better. *1/2.


THE BRUTAL TRUTH (aka The Giving Tree/2000). Director: Cameron Thor.

A group of high school friends now in their twenties have a reunion at a cabin and one of them, Emily (Christina Applegate, who has little to do), winds up committing suicide. Yes, this is another fucked-up-friends-from-high school-with-secrets stinker, a bit duller than others. It all seems like an excuse to hear wailing "sensitive" singers do mediocre songs on the soundtrack. The guys seem to be a-holes; there's a gal with a little girl voice named "Vanilla;" the token lesbian who's come out; and even a game of charades. This awkward blend of dumb comedy with "serious" drama throws in an ugly rape or two just to make it seem profound and meaningful, which it certainly isn't. Justin Lazard appeared on the TV show CPW [Central Park West] and in Species 2 and is given a truly thankless role in this. Molly Ringwald, who plays the wife of one of the pals, was a teen star who isn't likely to have much of an adult acting career as she's pretty bad here. Some of the other actors are okay, however.

Verdict: Pretty terrible. *.


HANK (2009 ABC TV show.) Director: James Burrows.

Kelsey Grammer stars in this new sitcom in which he plays a New York City executive who got laid off due to the economy and has moved back to Virginia with his wife and two children. One can't expect Grammer to play Frasier for the rest of his life, but one can't help but compare every other sitcom the actor does to that jewel he did a few years ago. Grammer is at his best playing sophisticated characters, not middle-class family men, and some of those old Frasier vaguely epicene mannerisms keep creeping in. Grammer is fine in Hank -- in fact, with all due respect to the other actors, he's basically the whole show. One pleasant enough episode had him encouraging his teenage daughter to go to work, and he of the big mouth wound up beside her selling ice cream in a shop with an obnoxious manager. Still, this had none of the bite or wit of the best -- or even the least -- of the Frasier episodes. I like Grammer but I can't see Hank sticking around for long. Someone should put Grammer in a more intelligent and sophisticated program -- Hank isn't it.

Verdict: Hurry up or this will be gone. **/2.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


THE LAW AND THE LADY (1951). Director: Edwin H. Knopf.

"At my age a good cook is more important than a husband." --Marjorie Main

Another version of The Last of Mrs. Cheney -- Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford did the others -- with Greer Garson and Michael Wilding as a lovable team of jewel thieves and rogues at the turn of the century. Jane Hoskins (Garson), with the help of Wilding, the brother of her former employer, reinvents herself as "Lady Jane Loverly" and becomes welcomed in American society, especially the home of wealthy old Julia Wortin (Marjorie Main), who has a fabulously valuable necklace. Fernando Lamas, Margalo Gillmore, Hayden Rorke, and Natalie Schafer all add to the fun as various guests and suitors. The movie gets kind of silly and unreal toward the end, to say the least, but it never quite loses its sense of humor. Speaking of which, it's definitely fun to see Marjorie Main as a lady in society! Soledad Jimenez scores as Lamas' peppery grandmother. This is arguably the best screen version of Frederick Lonsdale's play.

Verdict: Light and snappy for the most part. ***.



The somewhat shaky premise of this show has a group of men and women, headed by an ex-cop whose own daughter disappeared, investigate John and Jane Does, trying to find out who they are, and -- with the help of a female detective -- figure out how they died and who, if anybody, killed them. This is in the same mold as Cold Case and Without a Trace, and is reasonably effective and entertaining. The members of the squad often go way out of bounds in their investigating, considering they aren't cops, and this has been dealt with on at least one episode. The trouble is, once the person has been identified, you would think their job is through, but they continue to interview suspects and the like as if they were cops [of course, what would the show be without a murder and its solution]. This is similar to the way the members of the CSI squad go far beyond their specialties on each episode. Christian Slater is the only recognizable face on The Forgotten, which is full of perfectly competent actors. So far the back stories of the regular characters haven't gotten in the way of the mysteries. Like the other shows mentioned, there's a certain amount of welcome pathos, such as in one episode about a shamefully forgotten football player. Time will tell if this will develop into a must-watch, but for now it's a creditable entry. Future episodes should probably not have the victims being identified too early in the show.

Verdict: Okay non-cop drama with distinct possibilities. **1/2.


THE KILLER IS LOOSE (1956). Director: Budd Boetticher. 

When Detective Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten) goes after Leon Poole (Wendell Corey), who held up a bank, he accidentally shoots the man's wife. When Poole breaks out of jail, he murders everyone in his way as he makes his way to Wagner-- so that he can kill Wagner's wife (Rhonda Fleming). This is a decidedly minor film for all concerned, but it does manage to work up a certain degree of suspense, in large part due to Lionel Newman's taut musical score. Filmed by Lucien Ballard. Alan Hale Jr. of Gilligan's Island is more subdued as another cop. Fleming is okay, but the female acting honors go to Virginia Christine as another cop's wife and friend, and Dee J. Thompson as the wife of Poole's old sergeant (John Larch). Some other familiar faces scattered throughout the movie in bit roles. Not always logical. Cotten is solid although this is not one of his more memorable credits. 

Verdict: a respectable if forgettable 73 minutes. **1/2.


IRRESISTIBLE (2006). Written and directed by Ann Turner.

Sophie (Susan Sarandon) is convinced that a married neighbor named Mara (Emily Blunt) is sneaking into her home, stealing things, masquerading as her, and so on. Sophie's husband, Craig (Sam Neill), thinks that his wife is having a breakdown due to his neglect. A vase full of wasps causes problems for Sophie and she breaks into Mara's home and is arrested. Is she crazy -- or is Mara the nutty one? This is the type of movie where a certain bit of information is suddenly introduced into the story which instantly clues the viewer into just what's going on -- but the clueless heroine just doesn't get it. Irresistible is reasonably entertaining and well-acted by all, but it's very forgettable, and the confusing twist at the end -- or is it? -- doesn't help at all.

Verdict: Watchable -- but that's about all. **1/2.