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

Thursday, March 24, 2011


THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK (1969). Director: Robert Altman.

Frances Austin (Sandy Dennis), a well-off spinster, spots an attractive, much younger man (Michael Burns) sitting across from her home on a bench in the pouring rain, feels sorry for him, and asks him inside to get dry and warm -- and not only provides food for him but new clothing and his own bedroom as well. The young man says not a single word, but he's keeping secrets from Frances. As the film proceeds you wonder just how far Frances -- and the young man -- will go in their games with each other. I confess I've never been a great admirer of Altman's, but this is one of his films that I enjoy; while it's certainly not for every taste it's suspenseful and absorbing -- if imperfect. Both Dennis and Burns are excellent, never giving away what their characters might ultimately be up to. [Burns, who was 22 at the time of filming, was baby-faced enough to be convincing as an older teenager. He also appeared in The Mad Room, but most of his credits were on television. Now 64, Burns retired from acting in 1977 to become a college professor.] Also in the cast is Luana Anders from Dementia 13 and The Pit and the Pendulum, who plays a saucy prostitute with her customary vigor. Susanne Benton plays the young man's sister; John Garfield, Jr. plays her boyfriend; and Linda Sorensen is another prostitute -- all are on target. The film is interesting enough as it is that it doesn't really need to head in the lurid, violent direction that it does, but before it sort of loses its grip it's quite entertaining.

Verdict: Flawed but unusual with interesting story and performances. ***.


THE HELEN MORGAN STORY (1957). Director: Michael Curtiz.

"I always get involved with men who are wrong for me."

Set against a back drop of the 1920's, prohibition, and the depression, this tells the "true" story of torch singer Helen Morgan (Ann Blyth), her rise to fame, her appearance in Show Boat, and her romantic entanglements with two men, bootlegger Larry Maddux (Paul Newman) and wealthy married lawyer Russell Wade (Richard Carlson), as well as her battles with alcoholism and her despiar over her faded career. This entertaining, well-acted picture, well-directed by Michael Curtiz and beautifully photographed by Ted D. McCord, boasts lots of atmosphere as well, but it lacks three-dimensional characters. Filmed in CinemaScope [and black and white], the film has only one major close up of Blyth [and one of Newman]. Curtiz guided Blyth to a fine performance as the venal Veda in Mildred Pierce, and she gives a superlative interpretation of Morgan in this picture. [After Mildred Pierce, Blyth appeared in a number of films, often musicals, none of which made a lasting impression. Despite her fine performance and obvious ability to carry a picture -- Newman really has only a supporting role -- The Helen Morgan Story was her last theatrical film; she did only TV work thereafter.] Newman is fine as Larry, and there are good supporting performances from Cara Williams and Alan King. Gene Evans of The Giant Behemoth and Park Row plays another bootlegger, and Ed Platt of Get Smart is a government man. I believe Blyth's singing was dubbed by an uncredited Gogi Grant, who does a superb job with "The Man I Love" and other great standards. Other movies about alcoholic singers include Smash Up and I'll Cry Tomorrow, both starring Susan Hayward. In real life Morgan was married three times (and gave up a baby for adoption) but in this film she just pines for Larry and never gets married.

Verdict: Classy biopic but take with a grain of salt, especially the ending. ***.


POSSESSED: THE LIFE OF JOAN CRAWFORD by Donald Spoto. William Morrow; 2010.

I co-authored a book with Lawrence J. Quirk on Crawford called The Essential Biography in 2002. The purpose of that book was to re-evaluate Crawford's career and talent and to refute most of the assertions made by Christina Crawford in her tome Mommie Dearest. Now Donald Spoto has come out with a similar book, begging the question: Is there anything left to say about Crawford? Based on Possessed -- which is by no means a bad book -- I would have to say that, no, there isn't a lot left to say about Crawford. However, Spoto does a more than adequate job of covering the usual bases -- Crawford's early life, her rise to stardom, her major movie roles etc. The raison d'etre for this book seems to be for Spoto to offer his own, generally intelligent opinions of Crawford's movies, although I can't quite agree with his assessments of the ludicrous Strange Cargo and can't understand how, Spoto, a Hitchcock admirer, can have anything good to say about the awful Hitch imitation Above Suspicion. Spoto does offer more evidence of the fictitiousness of Mommie Dearest, and he should be given credit for writing a book that doesn't tap into all the negative things written and said about Crawford since that book's publication.

While we're on the subject it seems incredible to me that anyone still gives credence to Christina's claims. Spoto shows that she herself refutes much of what she said with her own words. Her two younger sisters, who were in the same house, always claimed everything in Mommie Dearest was "fake and fictional." And why anyone should take Christina seriously after she claimed on the Larry King show without any solid evidence that her mother murdered 4th husband Alfred Steele for his money (it's well-known he left her nothing but debts) is beyond me. How far does the woman have to go before any halfway intelligent person completely questions her motives and credibility?

Verdict: Perfectly okay if you've never read anything about Crawford before. **1/2.


CHICK CARTER, DETECTIVE 15 chapter Universal serial (1946). Directed by Derwin Abrahams.

Lt. Chick Carter ( Lyle Talbot) gets involved when a famous blue diamond disappears from a nightclub. Singer Sherry (Julie Gibson) hid the diamond in a fake snowball she used in a [rather sadistic] song number and which she marked with her lipstick, but she lobbed it at the wrong person. Others involved in the story include reporter Rusty Farrell (Douglas Fowler), photographer "Spud" (Eddie Acuff), mysterious cigarette girl Ellen (Pamela Blake), villains Mack (Jack Ingram) and Vasky (Leonard Penn), a nasty little guy known as the Creeper (Frankie Darro), and shady nightclub characters Joe (Charles King) and Nick (George Meeker). Private eye Dan Rankin (Robert Elliott) is killed off in chapter three's cliffhanger, and the serial is as much about finding out whoever was responsible for his death as it is in finding where the blue diamond is. This serial might have made an acceptable feature film, but stretched out over 15 episodes and with completely prosaic cliffhangers and neither a dynamic hero nor master villain -- and direction devoid of panache -- it emerges as rather dull stuff. Talbot was usually cast as a villain in these things -- portly, potato-faced and double-chinned, he makes an unlikely action hero. Maybe that's why Chick Carter [a character in pulp magazines] comes off like a supporting player in his own serial, with much of the running time given to Rusty and Spud. Spud is the one who's usually in danger in the cliffhangers, and indeed Eddie Acuff comes off much more like the star of the movie than Talbot does. Acuff is an acquired taste but he's not bad at the comedy relief stuff. Nice theme music.

Verdict: Not a very memorable serial. *1/2.


THE DAMNED DON'T CRY (1950). Director: Vincent Sherman.

Ethel Whitehead (Joan Crawford) leaves her husband (Richard Egan), parents, and small-town home after the tragic death of her little boy, and decides she'll do whatever it takes to keep from returning to a life of abnegation and sterility. Meeting the wrong kind of people via a modeling job, she convinces placid boyfriend Marty Blackford (Kent Smith) to go to work as bookkeeper for reinvented racketeer George Castleman (David Brian), and then gets the latter to help her reinvent herself as wealthy society widow Lorna Hansen Forbes. But Castleman is worried about the inroads made by colleague Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran) on the west coast, and sends "Lorna" out to ingratiate herself with the hood and find out what's up, probably not the best of ideas ... Say what you will about this movie and its depiction of mobsters, it happens to be a very snappy, well-acted movie that is very entertaining and occasionally crackles with tension thanks to Sherman's adroit direction. Crawford gives a striking star performance, Brian is almost equally charismatic and commanding, and Steve Cochran manages to be both scary and appealing as the quick-tempered Nick. Smith does his usual solid job, and Edith Evanson and Morris Ankrum are excellent as Ethel's confused and disappointed parents. Jacqueline deWit scores as Ethel's brassy model acquaintance, Sandra, and as society lady Patricia Longworth, who helps Ethel convert to Lorna, Selena Royle makes you wonder just what's under the surface of this undeveloped supporting character. Kathryn Card, who played Lucy's mother on I Love Lucy, is cast as a employment agency counselor, and when Ethel complains about her offerings gets to say the line "well, there's the Republican presidential nomination -- would that suit you?'

Verdict: Snappy, well-made stuff indeed. ***1/2.


WOMEN OF THE PREHISTORIC PLANET (1966 ) Writer/director: Arthur Pierce.

"My superior officer asked for volunteers for an important expedition -- I thought he said exhibition."

When Cosmos 3, the sister ship of Cosmos 1, crash lands on the planet Solarius, Admiral King (Wendell Corey) disobeys orders and lands on Solarius to search for survivors. Not to be confused with Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet or Queen of Outer Space (not to mention Prehistoric Women and Untamed Women, for that matter, and other space movies with sexy long-legged aliens), there are no savage groups of space babes or cave gals in the movie. Instead some characters search the planet while encountering assorted dangers -- including a pitiful gecko that is supposed to be a monster [but is at least referred to as a "giant lizard" instead of a dinosaur], and a toy tarantula about the size of a dinner plate -- while in the meantime pretty Linda (Irene Tsu) encounters Tang (Robert Ito) and begins a romance that has a mild touch of charming lyricism to it (as well as a cute chimpanzee). You feel sorry for the actors because the entire cast gives the film a lot more than it deserves. Wendell Corey of Desert Fury certainly deserves a better fate, as does Paul Gilbert, who basically plays the same girl-crazy comedy relief that he did in So This is Paris. "I've been on a diet for seven days and so far all I've lost is a week," he says. John Agar is cast as Dr. Farrell and Glenn Langan of The Amazing Colossal Man appears briefly as the captain of the crashing ship. Keith Larsen is Commander Scott, who doesn't trust Centaurians such as Linda. The music is lifted from a variety of Universal's science fiction films and others. The ending employs the absolutely hoariest of science fiction cliches.

Verdict: Like a bad episode of sixties Star Trek. *1/2.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


MILDRED PIERCE (1945). Director: Michael Curtiz.

"I wish I could get that enthused about working." -- Monte

"You were probably frightened by a callus at an early age." -- Ida

Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) has to make it on her own after she throws her husband out, so she winds up as a waitress and eventually works her way up to owning a chain of restaurants. Her chief motivation is her older daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), to whom she is devoted and whose love she desires more than anything. Unfortunately, Veda is "spoiled rotten" -- to put it mildly, and Mildred's second husband, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) is certainly no bargain, either. Barbara Stanwyck, who'd not only appeared in an earlier epic of mother love, Stella Dallas, but who'd also starred in Double Indemnity, another adaptation of a James M. Cain novel, wanted to star in this film and she probably would have been more appropriate. However, Crawford, who won an Oscar, is no slouch in the part, with her effective "Hollywoodish" acting reflecting the fact that the film is essentially a very well turned out melodrama [the murder that opens the film is not part of the novel]. Ann Blyth is so good as the venal Veda [was she ever again as notable?] that she practically steals the film from Crawford. Zachary Scott and Jack Carson are terrific as, respectively, Monte and Mildred's business partner; in fact Carson was probably never seen to better advantage. Eve Arden is her usual adept sarcastic self as Ida, who works for Mildred, and Butterfly McQueen is a sheer delight as Mildred's maid, Lottie, who's always saying "Beg pardon?". [There seems to be something going on with this character that was left on the cutting room floor.] Bruce Bennett is also notable as Mildred's first husband and Veda's father, and the always notable Lee Patrick appears briefly as a woman with whom he becomes involved. Moroni Olsen scores as the police inspector, as does little Jo Ann Marlowe as Mildred's tragic younger daughter, Kay. John Compton, who was uncredited as Veda's handsome temporary husband, Ted, appeared mostly on TV shows until the early sixties. Max Steiner's theme music is memorable, although one wonders why he recycled some of his famous Now, Voyager music elsewhere in the picture. Ernest Haller's photography is, as usual, first-rate. Frankly, there's quite a bit you could quibble with about this movie, but it's undeniably smooth, well-paced, well-directed by Curtiz, and boasts some great dialogue, an interesting plot and characters, and some very excellent performances. It's interesting that Crawford's real-life daughter, Christina, turned out to be much, much worse than Veda, with her pre-fabricated book attacking her mother that by now has been discredited by virtually every thinking person. NOTE: Mildred Pierce has been remade as a cable mini-series, written and directed by Todd Haynes, and starring Kate Winslet as Mildred, Guy Pearce as Monte, and Evan [sic] Rachel Wood as Veda.

Verdict: Not quite a masterpiece but definitely a classic. ***1/2.


THE GHOST GOES WILD (1947). Director: George Blair.

Monty Crandell (James Ellison) is a magazine illustrator who lives in a house that is supposedly haunted by the ghost of Benedict Arnold. When he uses a caricature of his fiancee's Aunt Susan (Ruth Donnelly) for the latest cover of the periodical he works for, she's so outraged that she decides to sue him. Adding to his troubles are the amorous but very married former client Irene (Stephanie Bachelor) and her gun-toting husband (Grant Withers). Rumors of Crandell's death lead everyone to think he's become a ghost ... Frankly, with its amusing storyline and superior cast (Edward Everett Horton plays Crandell's butler, Charles Halton of Dr. Cyclops is Susan's lawyer, and Lloyd Corrigan is a genuine ghost as well as Susan's late husband), you would think The Ghost Goes Wild would emerge a laugh-riot, but while it does have its funny moments, after all is said and done it's really no more hilarious than one of those Bowery Boys in the Haunted House kind of movies. One suspects that with some different lead players (although Ellison and Anne Gwynne as his fiancee are not bad), a more gag-laden script, and punchier direction this might have emerged a contender. As it is, it's not without some entertainment value. Stephanie Bachelor is sexy and adept as the Crandell-hungry Irene, but she only made a few movies, retiring in 1948 (she lived until 1996). During a very busy career, director Blair helmed at least one episode of Mr. and Mrs. North as well as the grotesque horror item The Hypnotic Eye.

Verdict: Watch Hold That Ghost instead. **


RED BARRY 13 chapter Universal [Filmcraft] serial (1938). Directors: Ford Beebe; Allen James.

"In the home of a friend it is too early for suspicion. In the home of an enemy, it is always too late."

This snappy serial is based on a King Features comic strip, and an interesting device has each chapter's recap told via comic panels. Red Barry (Larry "Buster" Crabbe) gets involved in a case regarding some valuable stolen bonds, against the wishes of the police commissioner (an excellent William Gould), who prefers his own man handle matters. Wing Fu (Cyril Delevanti) wants the bonds to buy needed planes for Chinese forces, while Russian dancer Natacha (Edna Sedgewick) insists that the bonds were wrongfully taken from her father. Others tied up in this case include intrepid reporter "Mississippi" (Frances Robinson); theater owner Mannix (William Ruhl); Wing Fu's son (Philip Ahn), an intelligent man who masquerades as the pidgin-English spouting "Hong Kong Charlie;" foppish if brave detective Valentine Vale (Hugh Huntley), the commissioner's favorite; and the sinister Qoung Lee (Frank Lackteen), who is also trying to get his hands on the bonds. The best cliffhanger has our hero tied to a bureau with a vial of explosive tottering on top as would-be rescuers, unaware of the danger, try to break through the wall behind him -- watch out! Crabbe is perfection in the title role, the other cast members are swell, the theme music is memorable, and the serial has a good plot full of interesting twists and characters. The very talented Philip Ahn gives another noteworthy performance.

Verdict: Buster is more than a "Flash." ***.



"It's incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial."

Perry Mason continued as a solid series for its second season [For season one click here]. One change in the opening was that Perry's secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale) and his P.I. Paul Drake (William Hopper) were not seated in court at the same table with D.A. Hamilton Burger (William Talman) and Lt. Arthur Tragg (Ray Collins), which was the case in the first season opener. Despite a few merely mediocre episodes, the quality of the writing -- and acting-- remained high. Raymond Burr gave a particularly good performance in "The Spanish Cross," which also featured a superb Arthur Space and Josephine Hutchinson and emerged as one of the very best Mason episodes ever. Other excellent episodes include: "The Purple Woman" with a fine turn by Robert H. Harris [this episode has one of the most loathsome murder victims ever]; "The Shattered Dream" with Osa Massen and a huge diamond; "The Borrowed Brunette" with a terrific Paula Raymond; "The Glittering Goldfish" with Cecil Kellaway, as usual, stealing the show; "The Foot-Loose Doll" with a very young James Kirkwoood [who later became a playwright and novelist] and Robert Bray; "The Lost Last Act" with a notable Jerome Cowan and David Lewis; and "The Howling Dog" with Ann Rutherford and Gregory Walcott. With the exception of maybe five episodes, the rest of the bunch are all at least B+. Perry faced other D.A.s in out of town courtrooms in a couple of episodes, and some stories had him roaming about a bit more than usual.

Verdict: Definitely not "incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial." ***1/2.


THE NIGHT THE WORLD EXPLODED (1957). Director Fred F. Sears.

"I wanted to pray but I didn't want to be by myself; I wanted to be with other people. There was rioting at the church -- people fighting to get in."

Dr. Conway (William Leslie) has invented an earthquake-predicting machine, but he and his colleagues also discover a new element that represents a deadly threat to the world. Element 112 is perfectly safe when wet, but when it's dry it becomes hot, expands, and ultimately explodes. Huge reserves of this element are pushing their way to the surface and causing devastating earthquakes. The axis of the earth has shifted three degrees. The world itself will explode in only 28 days and 4 hours! Conway and his assistant (Kathryn Grant, who is rather good) try to find a solution from a base deep in the Carlsbad Caverns. Sounds exciting, doesn't it? Unfortunately this has the budget of the average episode of Science Fiction Theater, and while only 63 minutes in length seems at least twice as long. It isn't terrible, just a bit dull, like a monster movie without a monster. Tristram Coffin (King of the Rocket Men) plays Conway's boss. Sears also directed Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Produced by Sam Katzman.

Verdict: Watch The Monolith Monsters or Unknown World instead. **.


JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRISIS ON TWO EARTHS (Direct-to-Video/2010). Directors: Sam Liu; Lauren Montgomery.

This is an offshoot of the Justice League animated series, but its origins date back to the 1960's and the silver age of comics. The Justice League comic book introduced the concept of parallel worlds that basically resembled each other but had certain differences. In the 29th and 30th issues of their comic the Justice League discovered that on an "Earth-3" there lived an evil counterpart of their league called the Crime Syndicate. These nasty characters reappeared several times over the years, including stories of the modern age. In this feature-length cartoon, Earth-3's benevolent counterpart of the evil Lex Luther comes to the League's Earth to ask their help in defeating the Crime Syndicate, who have essentially taken over the entire world. Earth-2's American president is afraid to fight against them for fear that the Syndicate will retaliate against the populace, leading his daughter to speak out against the evil group herself. One of the syndicate's members, Owl Man, wants to wipe out all of reality with a special bomb he's made. The assorted super-heroes and super-villains are voiced by the likes of William Baldwin, Gina Torres, James Woods, Mark Harmon, Chris Noth and many others. This is colorful fun for super-hero fans of all ages. The movie was written by Dwayne McDuffie, a talented comic book professional who died much too young. NOTE; To read more about the silver age adventures of the Justice League, Earth-3, and the Crime Syndicate see The Silver Age of Comics.

Verdict: You can't keep good heroes -- and villains -- down. ***


UNTAMED WOMEN (1952). Director: W. Merle Connell.

Not to be confused with the even worse Prehistoric Women, this also deals with a primitive all-female society living on an island. The crew of a WW2 bomber plane fly off course, crash-land, take to the life boats, and eventually wind up on an isolated island seemingly inhabited only by a bevy of beauteous women. The leader of the women is named Sandra (Doris Merrick), while the head bomber pilot is named Steve (Mikel Conrad). Ed (Mark Lowell) hates his smothering mother; Andy (Morgan Jones) is the farm boy dreaming of hey rides and home; and Benny (Richard Monahan) is the comic relief and skirt chaser (true to form he's the least attractive of the bunch). Remembering the "hairy men" who once came to the island to kill their men and carry off the rest of the women, Sandra wants to slaughter the pilots, but the other women -- complete with Max Factor make up jobs and heavy lipstick -- want the men for mates. The fellows eventually encounter giant armadillos, big lizards, a rubbery flesh-eating plant, and lots of stock footage from One Million B.C. and other movies. [The composite shots are generally effective.] Lyle Talbot shows up briefly as a medical officer tending to Steve, whose memories form the core of the story. Star Conrad had one more credit after this, the American version of the 1956 Godzilla.

Verdict: Don't say you weren't warned. **.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Great Old Movies is taking a week off -- or less -- so I can take care of some stuff out there in the real world. We'll be back next week or even sooner! Thanks for reading!

Thursday, March 3, 2011


SO THIS IS PARIS (1955). Director: Richard Quine.

In this "French" version of On the Town three American sailors wind up in Paree and have various, generally romantic, mis-adventures. Joe Maxwell (Tony Curtis) is the love 'em and leave 'em type; Al Howard (Gene Nelson) is shyer and more sensitive; and Davy Jones (Paul Gilbert) is the amiable cook and clown. Joe thinks he's got it made with an intriguing chanteuse, but he gets home early while Al and Davy show up later all smeared with lipstick. The women they meet include Jane (Gloria DeHaven), who pretends to be a French girl named Collette for her nightclub act; Suzanne (Corinne Calvet), a beautiful heiress who runs through men the way Joe runs through women; and Yvonne (Mara Corday), a pretty cashier in the nightclub who has a big family to support. It's interesting to see Corday, who starred in The Giant Claw, Tarantula, and The Black Scorpion, appear in a film where she isn't nearly eaten, but she isn't given nearly enough to do. She fares better than Allison [Attack of the 50 Foot Woman] Hayes, however, who seems to be in the background of a pool scene but whose dialogue scenes were apparently cut. On the Town [at least the original Broadway version] had songs composed by Leonard Bernstein; So This is Paris has the team of Moody and Sherrill, whose songs are hit or miss, mostly miss, although one number briefly crooned by DeHaven isn't bad. The performances are fine, with Paul Gilbert being especially noteworthy, and Gene Nelson's athletic dancing is a definite bonus. Curtis sings and dances and doesn't embarrass himself. The talented Gilbert didn't have too many TV or film credits but he may have been more at home in the theater; he later wound up in Women of the Prehistoric Planet.

Verdict: Surprisingly entertaining and not without its charms. ***.


DEATHTRAP (1982). Director: Sidney Lumet. Based on the Broadway play by Ira Levin.

"I'll tell you how good it is -- even a gifted director can't hurt it."

If only ... Playwright Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) is dismayed when his latest offering is trashed by the critics, even though his faithful and wealthy wife Myra (Dyan Cannon) remains his biggest booster. When he reads a play written by Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve), a student of his, Bruhl hatches a plot to steal away the script anyway he can. But things are a little more complicated than at first they seem. Caine and Cannon are superb, and Reeve offers one of his best performances, but while the film is entertaining and has a few twists, the characters remain one-dimensional and the film is, ultimately, just a psycho-sexual stunt. A better writer could have made something out of the generational difference between two of the protagonists and their perhaps divergent attitudes toward their sexuality -- all of which seems thrown in just for some added "shock" value and is never explored with any depth or intelligence. [Even in 1982 a film that basically traded off "nasty queers" was pretty dated; meaning the movie was hardly "hip" as its makers must have thought] Irene Worth is irritating as a psychic neighbor, but Henry Jones is, as usual, adept as Bruhl's lawyer. Lumet turns in one of his better directorial jobs although he's certainly no Hitchcock.

Verdict: Not as much fun as it sounds. **.


THE SECRET OF TREASURE ISLAND 15 chapter Universal serial (1938). Director: Elmer Clifton.

Reporter Larry Kent (Don Terry) is assigned to investigate what's happening out on Treasure Island, which is owned by a nasty man named Carter Collins, who calls himself the Shark (Walter Miller). Collins is searching for a lost treasure secreted years ago by pirates, and is ruthless with anyone who stands in his way. That not only includes Kent, but Toni Morrell (Gwen Gaze), who is unaware that her father, whom she's never met, is also on Treasure Island. Frankly, there are so many characters and so much going on that things get confusing at times, but all that really matters is that there are some excellent cliffhangers, lots of action, and such elements as a volcano, a giant skeletal ghost on the loose, a room with many, many doorways, a cute, trained crow or raven, and lots of secret passages and cobwebby underground tunnels -- oh boy!

Highlights of the fast-moving serial include: Larry nearly drowned when his prison cell is swamped with water; an amusing business with Toni swinging back and forth on a very tall ladder as Larry fights a villain who keeps kicking said ladder; Toni being forced to walk the plank by the vicious Shark; a lively battle between Larry and a thug in an ambulance; Larry falling into a boiling lava pool; and so on. A bit of business involving dynamite in a wagon and Larry continuing to stunt-ride after the explosion isn't even a cliffhanger but happens midway through the episode., as do many other thrilling sequences. The climax has our protagonists escaping through tunnels that go under the water but which are wracked with explosions as they hastily proceed. The very nasty villain gets a satisfying comeuppance. Miller and Gwen Gaze are excellent, Terry is fine and stalwart as the hero, and Treasure Island has enough action for five serials. It's a pity that there appears not to be a digitally remastered or at least very clear retail DVD of this serial.

Verdict: This is indeed a treasure! ***1/2.


STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP ( 1946 ) Writer/director: Frank Wisbar.

A small town in the swamp has a secret: a man who was executed years ago (Charles Middleton, most famous as Ming the Merciless from the Flash Gordon serials) may have been innocent. Now he haunts the swamp and strangles those with whom he comes into contact. Marie (Rosemary La Planche), the daughter of the latest victim who ran the ferry, moves back to town and takes over her late father's position as ferryman [woman]. She is befriended by the Sanders (Robert Barrat and Effie Laird aka Parnell) and falls in love with their son, Chris (Blake Edwards, who later became a writer and director and married Julie Andrews). Wisbar based this on a film he did earlier in Germany. While the story may not stand up to close inspection, Strangler of the Swamp should be taken as a dream-like allegory, and works well on that level. The film is well-acted, rich with atmosphere, and well-photographed and directed. Middletown has little dialogue but plenty of presence as the furious ghost. Nice score by Alexander Steinert. La Planche is very expressive and talented and should have had a much bigger career. Besides a string of bit parts she appeared in Wisbar's Devil Bat's Daughter and a couple of cliffhanger serials.

Verdict: Slight yet oddly substantial. ***.


THE SAINT (1997). Director: Philip Royce.

Simon Templar AKA the Saint (Val Kilmer), a man with many identities and faces, becomes embroiled in intrigue concerning a lady scientist, Emma (Elisabeth Shue), who has invented some kind of cold fusion device, and a corrupt Russian named Tretiak (Valery Nikoleyev), who heads a new party and wants this device. Or something like that. While Kilmer is likable and effective as the Saint, the film has no real style or panache, and it's easy to see why there weren't any sequels. Nikoleyev has a certain charm and flair as the villain of the piece, and Shue is fine as the nominal heroine (but now that she's taking assignments like Piranha 3D it will be hard to take her seriously). An anti-climactic finale doesn't help matters.

Verdict: Watch the old TV show instead. **1/2.


SHANNON 1961 television series.

This interesting mystery program aired for one season and 36 episodes. George Nader plays the title character, an insurance investigator for Transport Bonding and Surety Company. His car has a phone, tape recorder, and camera, all of which pop up at the press of a button -- real high tech! Shannon's grouchy boss was Bill Cochran, winningly played by Regis Toomey, whom later on assisted Amos Burke on Burke's Law. Shannon was a pleasant, if unspectacular, show but it did have some memorable episodes: a middle-aged woman is used by a younger man and car thief in "Never Help a Lady;" "Professional Widower" is about a man who marries -- and murders -- for money; "Cold Trail" concerns a man jailed for embezzlement who may have been innocent; "Iron Clad Alibi" concerns a missing sack containing a quarter of a million dollars; suspicion surrounds everyone in a case of a missing husband in "Duke of the Valley;" and a woman insists that the man she loved was not the rotter everyone else portrays him as in "Saints and Sinners." Nader played Joe Shannon with just the right touch. Like Perry Mason's Raymond Burr, Nader also had a longtime male companion.

Verdict: Interesting old mystery show with a likable cast. **1/2.


For those of you who despair that Hollywood films generally seem geared towards a 12-year-old mentality -- or something worse -- there's good news. Apparently Hollywood is becoming aware [finally!] that older people like to go to the movies too but want films that are just a little more -- shall we say -- challenging. Here's the piece for your edification [Now if we can only do something about those text-messaging teenagers!]:

From The New York Times:

LOS ANGELES ­ "Hollywood and older Americans have never had much use for each other. The 50-plus crowd doesn’t go to opening weekends or buy popcorn; a youth-obsessed Hollywood has happily ignored them.

But in the last few months an older audience has made a startling reassertion of its multiplex power. “True Grit,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Fighter,” “Black Swan” ­ all movies in contention for a clutch of Oscars on Sunday ­ have all been surprise hits at the box office.

And they have all been powered by people for whom 3-D means wearing glasses over glasses, and “Twilight” sounds vaguely threatening.

Hollywood, slower than almost any other industry to market to baby boomers, may be getting a glimpse of its graying future. While the percentage of moviegoers in the older population remains relatively small, the actual number of older moviegoers is growing explosively ­ up 67 percent since 1995, according to GfK MRI, a media research firm.

And the first of the 78 million baby boomers are hitting retirement age with some leisure hours to fill and a long-dormant love affair with movies.

“There is an older audience that is growing, and it’s an underserved audience, which makes for an obvious and important opportunity,” said Nancy Utley, co-president of Fox Searchlight, whose “Black Swan” has sold over $100 million at the North American box office. If the core audience for a particular film is over 50, she noted, “that’s now a gigantic core.”

There are glimmers of a shift. Aging action stars; theaters with adult fare, like better food; reserved seating; and, most important, movies like “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech” that have become hits based on wit and storytelling, not special effects.

Theaters have long favored younger consumers in part because older moviegoers tend to skip the concession counter, where theaters make most of their money. The imbalance between young and old grew more pronounced over the last decade as theater chains, suffering the after-effects of overbuilding, cut back on maintenance.

Sticky floors and popcorn-strewn aisles have kept even more older people at home. That, and all those texting teenagers, “which is something that adult audiences really find irritating,” said Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theater Owners.

The very young still go to the movies more than anyone else ­ especially on those all-important opening weekends ­ but distribution executives say they are getting harder to lure in huge numbers. Social networking has sped up word of mouth, turning teenagers and young adults into more discerning moviegoers ­ a phenomenon pushed along by rising prices. People age 18 to 24 bought an average of seven tickets per person in 2010, down from eight in 2009.

And the industry is battling a generational quirk. When you can legally stream movies on laptops or order them from video-on-demand services soon after their release ­ or easily pirate them with high-speed Internet connections, often while they are still in theaters ­ it makes you less likely to buy a ticket.

Fewer teenagers, then, present an opening. Baby boomers are not their Depression-era parents, who grew up on radio and were very conscious of the price of a ticket. Baby boomers were weaned on movies.

“Our generation really had a love affair with the movies in a profound way,” said Nicholas Kazan, a screenwriter whose credits include “Reversal of Fortune,” which was nominated for an Oscar in 1991. “It was not a fling, not a casual relationship, but a real love affair.”

For many baby boomers, the relationship blossomed in 1969, as the movies belatedly caught up with the counterculture in a wave of films that included “Easy Rider,” “Medium Cool” and “Midnight Cowboy.” College film societies and an art-house circuit made generational heroes of foreign directors like Ingmar Bergman, whose “Cries and Whispers” had its New York debut in 1972. The “Godfather” series, from Francis Ford Coppola, forged the lexicon for a generation.

But then a younger, more fantasy-oriented generation asserted itself with “Star Wars” in 1977. Hollywood adjusted its output accordingly.

“For me, the ’80s is a dead zone,” said Peter Biskind, a film historian who sees the baby boomers as having been “betrayed and abandoned” by Hollywood in the era of “E.T.,” “Sixteen Candles” and “Top Gun.”

The baby boomers were taking their children to the movies, however, helping to make megahits of films like the “Home Alone” series. Mr. Biskind, himself a baby boomer, said he believed that as the generation’s love affair with movies ended, television stepped in.

“ ‘The Sopranos’ really nailed the boomer generation,” he said. It offered 50-ish viewers all the moody action of a Coppola film without the bother of a trip to the theater.

Slowly, the movie industry is trying to get baby boomers back in seats. You can see it in the bets studios are taking on scripts. Last year, there were two movies, “RED” and “The Expendables,” that featured older actors in action roles. Helen Mirren, who is 65, was a machine gun-toting assassin in “RED,” which stands for “retired and extremely dangerous.” Sylvester Stallone, who is 64, was a mercenary in “The Expendables.” Both movies were hits.

Just last weekend, “Unknown,” with a 58-year-old Liam Neeson as its action star, was No. 1 at the box office, beating a heavily promoted teenage science fiction movie. More than half of the audience was over 50.

Almost every studio has a movie aimed at an older audience on its current schedule or in development, whether it’s “Dirty Old Men” at Warner Brothers or “Larry Crowne” at Universal Pictures. Fox Searchlight has high hopes for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” about a group a British retirees who go to India. It stars Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, who are both 76.

Movie theaters have begun to do their part. At ArcLight Cinemas you can now have a grilled ahi tuna sandwich or red pepper Gorgonzola dip.

At AMC Entertainment, the second-largest theater chain in North America after Regal Cinemas, older moviegoers are becoming “an increasingly important part of our plan,” said Stephen A. Colanero, chief marketing officer. He points to efforts to improve adult offerings even if Hollywood doesn’t provide them ­ Metropolitan Opera simulcasts, for instance.

AMC is also experimenting with seat-side food and cocktail service. The company now operates seven AMC Dine-In Theaters, including three new ones in New Jersey. More are planned.

Studios will continue to tailor the bulk of their releases to younger audiences, and for good reason. In 2010, North Americans ages 12 to 24 made up only 18 percent of the population, but bought 32 percent of the 1.34 billion tickets sold, according to the annual industry snapshot by the Motion Picture Association of America, released on Wednesday.

By contrast, people over 50 made up 32 percent of the population, but bought only 21 percent of the tickets. That is a slight uptick from 2009, when the over-50 audience bought 19 percent of the total tickets sold.

But the actual number of older moviegoers has grown enormously since 1995, the year before boomers started hitting the midcentury mark. Then about 26.8 million people over the age of 50 went to the movies, according to GfK MRI. That number grew to 44.9 million in 2010.

Studios used to deride older viewers as “the once-a-year audience.” They came out once a year, on Christmas Day, to see a movie. Columbia Pictures gave them “Prince of Tides” on Christmas Day in 1991.

It is an attitude, and a reality, that is shifting. “One of the most urgent issues we face as an industry is to figure out how to lure the boomers back to the movie theaters,” said Bob Pisano, president and interim chief executive of the M.P.A.A.

Nancy Perry Graham, editor of AARP The Magazine, says it's about time. “There is a huge demand that needs to be satisfied, and we've been trying to make that point to Hollywood for years,” she said. “I truly believe that Hollywood is finally listening."