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

Thursday, June 30, 2011


THE SHRIKE (1955). Director: Jose Ferrer.

Joseph Kramm's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Shrike debuted on Broadway in 1952, where Jose Ferrer not only directed but played the lead part of Jim Downs. Three years later Ferrer did double duty again on the film version. Jim Downs is placed in the mental wing of a hospital after trying to commit suicide. He is estranged from his wife Ann (June Allyson), and in love with a woman named Charlotte (Joy Page). After initial success as a theater director, Downs fell on hard times and was down to his last few dollars. While he had very good reasons for feeling despair,  the doctors have to see him as someone who may be dangerous to himself and others. Not only is this sensitive, intelligent man virtually held captive by the mediocrities on the staff, but it becomes clear that his wife -- who wants him back under any circumstances -- holds all the cards. If he wants to go free, he has to renounce the woman he really loves.

In the play Charlotte did not appear at all, but the film was opened up to include flashbacks both of Jim and Charlotte and of his courtship of, and marriage to, Ann. Ann isn't given much chance to express her point of view in either the play or picture, but it's really Jim's story. The movie tacks on a somewhat hopeful ending that is entirely unrealistic. It also has a dumb scene -- not in the play -- in which a psychiatrist, sensing the vindictive nature of Ann under her surface concern and sweetness, essentially compares her to a bird called a shrike, which is not only awkward but even more unrealistic than the phony ending. [And for several reasons goes against the grain of the play as well. The playwright felt no need to elaborate for the theater audience.]

All three leads -- Ferrer, Allyson and Page -- give fine performances, although it's hard to imagine that Allyson was as good as Judith Evelyn in the play. Still, Allyson is not at all a bad choice for the role, as she manages to fool almost everyone into thinking she's as sweet and uncomplicated as she seems. There are good supporting performances from Will Kuluva, Mary Hayley Bell, Martin Newman and others as hospital staff and patients. Ed Platt plays Downs' brother, worried about what having a mental patient in the family will do to his career.

Yet for all the good stuff, there's something unsatisfying about both the play and the film. One suspects the play was forgotten because its characters were [as compared to, say. O'Neill and Williams] rather ordinary and under-developed, and because of its depressing wind-up. And by making compromises, the film doesn't deliver the wallop it should, and wound up being forgotten as well. Too bad, because both projects are certainly worthwhile if flawed, and the film is certainly worth seeing. The Shrike is chilling in its depiction of how a person has to prove his sanity in a mental ward even as he's nearly being driven crazy by the very situation he's in. Jim discovers that he's been offered a life-saving job which might end his career and financial woes, but the good doctors won't let him keep the appointment! 

Isobel Bonner, who played Dr. Barrow both on Broadway and in the film, was married to the playwright, Joseph Kramm. [In the movie, Ann is an actress who gave up her career when she got married.] She was performing the same part in Los Angeles the same year the film was released, when she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died right in a middle of a scene on the stage.

Verdict: I always thought Allyson was a shrike at heart! ***.

THE OMEN (1976)

THE OMEN (1976). Director: Richard Donner.

"She is an apostate of Hell -- she will die before permitting this."

Undoubtedly influenced by The Exorcist, which came out three years earlier, this movie was almost as influential in its own way, and also engendered several sequels and even a remake -- and is just as sub-literate [but somewhat better than The Exorcist]. An even bigger influence on the film must have been Rosemary's Baby (1968). Ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck)  is told that his baby son has died, and is importuned into accepting another child [who supposedly lost his mother in childbirth] without telling his wife, Katherine (Lee Remick), who fails to bond with the boy, Damian (Harvey Stephens). It turns out that Damian is actually the anti-Christ [Rosemary's Baby as a child?]: Satanists, in the form of nanny Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), want to protect and nurture him, while certain Catholic priests want to murder him -- a mere child! [DIGRESSION: It never occurs to anyone that there is a possibility that being raised by normal, decent people the boy might grow up to be something other than a devil. But the real problem with the movie is that it doesn't give the audience any breathing room. Damian is the devil's son -- and that's that. How much more interesting the film might have been if the Satanists and priests were all a little nuts. In fact, the priests in this movie seem quite demented.] All that being said, it must also be said that The Omen -- on its own anti-intellectual terms -- is a rather accomplished little horror film, with some interesting sequences and set-pieces -- an eerie scene in a graveyard; some flamboyant, well-handled and gruesome death scenes --  and assured direction from Donner. The acting is also generally excellent, with an intense and authoritative Peck possibly giving the best performance of his life, his sheer solidity helping the audience go along with the absurdity of the proceedings. Lee Remick, David Warner [as a doomed photographer], and little Harvey Stephens are also excellent, and Billie Whitelaw is just superb as the nanny quite literally from Hell. Jerry Goldsmith's memorably creepy score holds all of it together splendidly.

Verdict: If you don't take it seriously this is really quite entertaining. ***.


IN SOCIETY (aka Abbott and Costello in Society/1944). Director: Jean Yarbrough.

"Oh, you men are all alike. I clean and slave all day and you bring in all the dust. Oh, you men!"  -- Lou referring to Bud.

Bud and Lou are plumbers who are called in to plug a leak in a grumpy millionaire's bathroom while a masquerade party goes on downstairs. In the film's funniest sequence, the boys wind up flooding the whole bedroom! This is a cute minor comedy wherein the fellows accidentally get invited to yet another society bash hosted by Mrs. Winthrop (Irene Dunne lookalike Margaret Irving). Her snooty daughter, Gloria (Ann Gillis), has set her cap for handsome rich dude Peter Evans (Kirby Grant), but he only has eyes for Lou's crush, Elsie (Marion Hutton), a cab driver who takes the fellows to fix the leak and is mistaken for a guest at the first party. Then there's a gangster who wants the fellows to help him rob the mansions they service, and some nonsense about an expensive painting that is stolen from the gathering. Marion Hutton was the older sister of Betty Hutton and only made a few films. Her acting is unimpressive but her singing is another story. Ann Gillis also nicely warbles a tune, accompanied by The Three Sisters, an undistinguished lookalike imitation of the Andrews Sisters; they only appeared in this one movie. The songs in In Society are especially pleasant: "No bout adout it ( I mean no doubt about it)"; "Rehearsing;" "My Dreams are Getting Better All the Time;" "What a Change in My Heart." An old vaudeville bit regarding the Susquehanna Hat Shop is amusing but goes on a little too long. Arthur Treacher plays a butler with his customary panache.

Verdict: Not top-notch A & C but it's fun. **1/2.


THE GIRL IN BLACK STOCKINGS (1957). Director: Howard W. Koch.

A young woman is found sliced and diced in an area near a hotel in Utah owned by Ed Parry, a bitter, woman-hating "cripple" (Ron Randell) and the sister, Julia, (Marie Windsor) who takes care of him. The young lady is only the first of a number of victims. The suspects are numerous and include lawyer David Hewson (Lex Barker); his girlfriend Beth (Anne Bancroft), who is Ed's physical therapist; washed-up actor Norman Grant (John Holland) and his girlfriend Harriet (Mamie Van Doren); good-lookin' Frankie Pierce (Gerald Frank); and crazy "Indian Joe" (Larry Chance), among others. John Dehner is the sheriff on the case, Richard Cutting is the doctor, and Stuart Whitman shows up briefly as a man looking for his wife. Dan Blocker, later to play "Hoss" on Bonanza, appears as an obnoxious bartender. Bancroft is, as expected, much better than the material, but Randell mostly seems to be making faces. The Girl in Black Stockings has an interesting plot and characters, but the murder scenes have no elan and the wind-up is psychologically dubious to say the least. Still, it has its moments. From those classy folk at Bel-Air studios who brought you Three Bad Sisters and Voodoo Island.

Verdict: Bancroft went on to better things. **1/2.



In this entertaining trade paperback, Pitts examines the output of Allied Artists, which focused primarily on genre items, exploitation films, and the occasional foreign import. Pitts provides lengthy synopses of each film [these may seem too long for films you're very familiar with, but are quite welcome for those movies you've never seen or even heard of], followed by representative reviews, production notes, and often his own reaction to these movies. You'll find everything here from Attack of the 50 Foot Woman to Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a few Roger Corman films along the way, such as my favorite, Attack of the Crab Monsters. Barbara Steele is represented with more than one movie, and you'll also encounter everyone from Mel Welles to Barboura [sic] Morris to Susan Cabot. You'll love the cover with the poster of The Giant Behemoth, and there are lots of great black and white photos on the inside.

Verdict: You'll want to catch up on many of these movies so start expanding your DVD budget! ***.


TENTACLES aka Tenticoli (1977). Director: Oliver Hellman [Ovidio G. Assonitis].

"This isn't candy -- it's passion." -- Tillie, referring to her weight.

This Italian film inspired by the success of Jaws takes place in an American coastal town where there have been a series of strange disappearances. Eventually bodies turn up that have been stripped not only of flesh but of marrow. Sheriff Robards (Claude Akins) is perplexed as to what could be responsible but reporter Ned Turner (John Huston) wonders if it has something to do with an underwater tunnel being built by a firm owned by Mr. Whitehead (Henry Fonda) of Trojan construction. He also pays a call on an oceanologist named Will Gleason (Bo Hopkins) for answers. Nearly forty minutes into the movie we finally see the octopus -- surprise! -- that's responsible for the carnage, and although it's referred to as a "giant" it never seems that big. The shame about Tentacles is that it has eerie opening scenes [a tragic, well-presented vignette involving a baby snatched off shore in the space of a few seconds stays in the memory] and a certain degree of suspense, but the movie lacks the real panache and knock-out scenes that would give the audience a big pay off. The acting is fine, with top honors going to a still kind of sexy Shelley Winters as Turner's sister, Tillie; whether she's affectionately nagging her brother or worrying what happened to her little boy who is in a sailing regatta [this leads to another sad sequence] she's excellent throughout the movie.

Verdict: Paging It Came from Beneath the Sea. **.


BRUCE GENTRY 15 chapter Columbia serial (1949). Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Thomas Carr.

"As a last resort, use your brains."

Tom Neal, most famous for the film Detour, plays the comic strip "daredevil of the skies" in this Columbia serial. Several agents investigating the story of a "flying disc" either crash to earth or disappear. The unseen leader of the sinister group that controls the [cartoon] flying discs is called "The Recorder" because he uses recordings to send messages to his underlings, chief among which is Krendon (Tristram Coffin, the King of the Rocket Men). The Recorder has kidnapped Dr. Benson (Forrest Taylor) and is holding him captive until he tells him all of his scientific secrets. Bruce is hired by Radcliffe (Hugh Prosser), who runs an engineering firm, to investigate the flying discs and find out what happened to Benson. Along the way he is helped by a spunky brother and sister team of young ranchers, Frank (Ralph Hodges) and Nita (Judy Clark, who isn't much of an actress). Highlights of the serial include a plane with jammed controls roaring toward a car with an unconscious Gentry inside in chapter 9; a bit with propellers that nearly slash into Nita in chapter 11; and a sequence in which Gentry's parachute, caught on rocks, begins to unravel strand by strand in chapter 12. Perhaps the most thrilling sequence occurs in chapter 5 as Bruce desperately tries to get Frank out of a car that stalled on train tracks at the end of the previous chapter. While the unmasking of the Recorder may at first seem to make absolute nonsense of everything that went before, it's actually all explained quite credibly in the serial's final minutes. Neal is fine as Gentry and the other performers are generally more than competent. Radcliffe's flirtatious secretary, Louise, is uncredited. Hodges also appeared in the serial version of Mysterious Island in 1951.

Verdict: Practically by the numbers at times, but it has some good moments. **1/2.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE (1970). Director: Harold Prince.

"Let's not talk about the Nazis. It was bad enough when they were all over the place, strutting around, inviting themselves to dinner." -- the countess.

"You can sleep with anyone, can't you?" -- Helmuth.

"If I have to -- but I have my preferences." -- Konrad.

A sociopathic charmer named Konrad Ludwig (Michael York) arrives in the picturesque town of Ornstein and uses his body, wits, and homicidal tendencies to take over the household of Countess Von Ornstein (Angela Lansbury), who lives in a big castle with her children -- but also lives mostly on bluff [by her standards at least]. Eliminating anyone who might get in the way of his plans, Konrad beds and romances both the daughter, Anneliese (Heidelinde Weis), of a wealthy couple and the countess' attractive son, Helmuth (Anthony Corlan AKA Anthony Higgins). His plans to marry them both off to one another go awry but the clever fellow may have yet another idea up his sleeve ... The performances and story are compelling in this very darkly amusing comedy-suspense film, although some might feel the ending -- if outrageous and comical -- isn't entirely satisfying. Jane Carr is good if a little weird as the countess' strange and homely daughter, Lotte, who's wiser than she lets on --at first. Wolfreid Lier makes an impression as the stern  major domo, Klaus. Despite the free-wheeling sensuality, the movie seems to have a kind of old-fashioned sensibility to it. This was loosely based on a novel by Harry Kressing entitled "The Cook;" the screenplay is by Hugh Wheeler, who wrote many musical librettos, and who was also well-known as mystery novelist Patrick Quentin. Stage specialist Harold Prince only directed one other theatrical film and one television movie. Score by John Kander and some nice scenery as well.

Verdict: Fun and games with an ambisexual twist. ***. 


A PRIVATE'S AFFAIR (1959). Director: Raoul Walsh.

Luigi (Sal Mineo), Jerry (Barry Coe) and Mike (Gary Crosby) are all drafted, become buddies, and wind up being tapped to sing a silly song about the Army on a TV show hosted by Jim Gordon (Jim Backus), an Ed Sullivan type. The only really interesting development comes when Jerry, in the hospital for laryngitis, accidentally winds up getting married to the Assistant Secretary of the Army. This might have been even more interesting had the assistant secretary been a man, but the AS is actually named Elizabeth Chapman (Jessie Royce Landis). Jerry does his best to get this situation rectified despite the Army's red tape. The developments might have been amusing had Chapman been what today we would call a cougar, but she's just a nice, perfectly dull middle-aged lady. The performances are acceptable, but this is the kind of essentially foolish and unfunny semi-musical that does nothing for anyone's career, and even drags in (admittedly adorable) chimpanzees just for a couple of brief giggles. Barbara Eden, Terry Moore, and Christine Carere are the pretty ladies that the boys sort of get involved with. Mineo's character of Luigi and the voice inflection he uses for him are rather irritating. The big production number near the end features a few bosomy wenches.

Verdict: You wonder why anyone who actually read the script thought this would make a good movie. *.


MURDER AT MIDNIGHT (1931). Director: Frank R. Strayer.

Playing a rather elaborate game of charades, party host Kennedy (Kenneth Thomson) shoots his male secretary (Robert Ellis) and discovers to his horror that the blanks in the gun were replaced with real bullets. When Kennedy later turns up dead, people assume he killed himself out of guilt. But old Aunt Julia (a vivid Clara Blandick) suspects the truth, and importunes oafish Inspector Taylor (Robert Elliott) to get cracking, as Kennedy's widow Esme (Aileen Pringle) wrings her hands. This is one of those very creaky old mysteries that cries out for a musical score and which you'll probably forget the minute it's over, although it does have a suspenseful climax and a clever bit employing a phone as a murder weapon.

Verdict: You might want to play charades instead but this does have a moment or two. **1/2.


CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958). Director: Robert Day.

"Operations without pain are possible and I won't rest until I prove it to you."

In 1840 London Dr. Thomas Bolton (Boris Karloff) is determined to develop an anesthesia to use in operations. Unfortunately, the well-meaning doctor inhales too many fumes during experiments and becomes addicted, and in order to carry on his work allies himself with two Burke and Hare types (Francis De Wolff; Christopher Lee) who supply fresh corpses for him. While the film doesn't quite live up to its title -- this is one case where a more lurid approach would have been welcome -- it's entertaining and Karloff is fine. It's Karloff versus Christopher Lee at the climax! Effective score by Buxton Orr.

Verdict: Not bloody enough, perhaps, but not bad at all. **1/2. 


HENRY ALDRICH SWINGS IT  (1943). Director: Hugh Bennett. 

"Yes, all men are like children."

Henry Aldrich (Jimmy Lydon) doesn't think much of classical music until he gets a crush on the pretty new music teacher (Marian Hall), who isn't afraid of a little swing. As usual there are serious complications when Henry gets mixed up in the robbery of famous musician Joseph Altman's (Fritz Feld) highly expensive Stradivarius. Girlfriend Phyllis has been replaced by Mimi (Mimi Chandler) but Dizzy (Charles Smith) is still part of the scene, as is grumpy high school principal Bradley (Vaughan Glaser), who hates "boogie woogie." Broadway composer Jule Styne [Funny Girl] contributed the snappy number "Ding Dong Sing a Song" and little Beverly Hudson nearly steals the show as powerhouse singer Margie. Along with some classical numbers, there's a swing version of Chopin! Lydon and Smith are marvelous, and they get fine support from John Litel and Olive Blakeney as Mr. and Mrs. Aldrich.

Verdict: Pleasant and amusing. ***.

THE PERILS OF PAULINE (1934) -- Revisited

THE PERILS OF PAULINE (1934). 12 chapter Universal serial. Director: Ray Taylor

Professor Hargrave (James Durkin) and Dr. Bashan (John Davidson) are after the same prize: a secret formula to a gas created by "Confu" that once destroyed ancient civilizations. The formula is written on a disk or medallion that is in two separate pieces. Bashan wants the formula so he can control the world, while Hargrave's motives are a bit fuzzier. Pauline (Evalyn Knapp) is Hargrave's plucky daughter, who is falling for Robert Warde (Robert Allen aka Craig Reynolds aka Hugh Enfield), an engineer who is helping the professor. This globe-trotting adventure begins with a revolution in China and moves to underground treasure chambers in Borneo, a hotel in Singapore, a temple in India, and the Egyptian wing of a museum in New York City. Highlights include the trapdoor that plunges Pauline and Bob into a pit filled with water, and when the two are caught in a fiery, collapsing building. Perhaps the best sequence takes place in Singapore when Pauline has a cat fight with Bashan's vicious female ally and she and Bob wind up falling off a balcony into the hotel's special attraction, a pool full of sharks! The actors are all professional, but Davidson, with his great, commanding voice, is a cast stand-out, as is Sonny Raye, who is often hilarious as the professor's nervous nelly and very excitable secretary. Busy serial actor Frank Lankteen is cast as Bashan's associate, Fang. Allen/Reynolds had a long career; he was also in The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry. Davidson had an even longer career, beginning with silents, and appeared in several serials. Kanpp appeared in films from 1929 - 1943.

Verdict: Action-packed serial fun. ***.


TEEN TITANS (2003 - 2006). Cartoon Network.

The Teen Titans comic book featured the junior partners of the members of the Justice League of America and debuted in the sixties. In the eighties the group was reinvented as the New Teen Titans, and really took off in popularity. This cartoon series, aimed at younger viewers, took the members of the New Teen Titans -- including newcomers Starfire, Raven and Cyborg -- and made them "cuter," especially shape-shifting Changeling, who was once again called Beast Boy as he had been originally and became the most popular character on the cartoon, beating out team leader Robin [of Batman and fame]. Oddly, the show utilized some of the villains and story arcs of the twenty-year-old -NTT comic book series, including Deathstroke, the Terminator and his pawn Tara, and --- most interestingly -- the well-voiced, disembodied Brain [pictured] and his Brotherhood of Evil, who first appeared in the classic Doom Patrol comic of the silver age [wherein Beast Boy was also introduced]. These episodes, which even brought back the members of the Doom Patrol, had a more serious tone than that of the rest of the series. Many of the scenes on the show were taken directly from the comic book. In general, however, the series had a veneer of silliness, anime-type faces. a hideous theme song, and relatively mediocre animation.NOTE: To learn more about the original Teen Titans and the Doom Patrol, see The Silver Age of Comics.

Verdict: In general: **. Doom Patrol episodes: ***.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


THE TATTERED DRESS (1957). Director: Jack Arnold.

Famous criminal lawyer James Gordon Blane (Jeff Chandler) comes to a small town in Nevada to defend a couple who have been accused of murdering a bartender who supposedly raped the wife but more likely was one of her lovers. This alone might have made for an interesting movie, but this trial is over so quickly that many viewers may not even be aware of it. The main trial in The Tattered Dress comes about when Blane is accused of trying to bribe a witness, and he winds up defending himself in court (and doing such a lousy job of it that the outcome is highly improbable). This is an odd movie, with mostly unsympathetic characters, but some good performances to help put it over. Chandler adds no nuances to his character but he plays with intensity and authority. As the sheriff and his main adversary -- and a clever, dangerous one at that -- Jack Carson scores in one of his best roles since Mildred Pierce. Gail Russell certainly makes an impression as the almost hysterical woman who claims that Blane gave her five thousand dollars, and Elaine Stewart and Phillip Reed are fine as the sleazy couple who brought Blane to Nevada in the first place. Ed Platt, Edward Anderson, Jeanne Crain, and Paul Birch are fine in smaller but important roles. The film is interesting but not terribly convincing.

Verdict: Less here than meets the eye but it holds the attention and Carson is excellent. **1/2.


KISS THE GIRLS AND MAKE THEM DIE (1966). Director: Henry Levin.

A CIA operative known only as Kelly (Mike Connors) is in Rio tracking down the activities of a man named Ardonian (Raf Vallone), who has many girlfriends -- and kills any of them who dare to take on other lovers. But this ultimate Male Chauvinist Pig has another nefarious plan in mind. Working with the Red Chinese, Ardonian has developed a formula which will remove the sex drive from all human beings, eventually wiping out the U.S. population in a generation or so without bloodshed. [Ardonian doesn't seem to reckon with the ingenuity of human beings.] With the help of Susan, a British spy (Dorothy Provine), and her gifted chauffeur (Terry-Thomas), Kelly sets out to stop Ardonian and his allies. With attractive Brazil locations and some exciting scenes, and good performances from the leads (especially Vallone, who strikes just the right note), Kiss the Girls is basically good-natured but a little bit too silly for its own good. Poor Provine is clothed in one hideous fashion "creation" after another. But the movie is fun for the most part.

Verdict: One of the better James Bond imitations if not without its flaws. **1/2.



Temporarily fired due to some allegedly scandalous behavior at a private party [and reinstated largely due to the efforts of Raymond Burr], William Talman is missing from the first half of this season [after the initial episode]. The opening was changed to show photos of the actors, with the exception of Talman. Subsequently, Perry faced a variety of substitute prosecutors, including Kenneth Tobey [who is quite good]. Highlights of this season include: "Credulous Quarry" about an alleged hit and run, with Katherine Squire; "The Clumsy Clown," with Robert Clarke and Ken Curtis both turning in fine performances; "Nine Dolls" with Jeannette Nolan; "Fickle Fortune," in which Talman/Hamilton Burger finally returns and Helen Brown gives an especially impressive performance; and "Grumbling Grandfather," with Otto Kruger. [The defendant in this episode was played by Karl Held, who would return as the same character on a recurring basis during the following season.] And there were quite a few other memorable episodes. Guest stars during this season include everyone from Robert Redford ["Treacherous Toupee"] to Louise Fletcher ["Larcenous Lady"] to James Coburn ["Envious Editor"] -- on one end of the Hollywood spectrum -- to Carol Ohmart ["Angry Dead Man"], Laurie Mitchell ["Waylaid Wolf"] and Paula Raymond ["Torrid Tapestry"] on the other.

Verdict: Still one of the best TV shows ever. ***.


HENRY ALDRICH, EDITOR (1942). Director: Hugh Bennett.

"Do you really think that any boy in his right mind can get into the trouble that you do?" -- Mr. Aldrich

"I have the utmost confidence in myself." --Henry

Henry Aldrich (Jimmy Lydon) becomes editor of the high school newspaper and that's when the trouble begins. He covers a fire, and writes about it so, eh, colorfully, that it's picked up by the regular paper and blown way out of proportion. Worse, the regular paper reports that Mr. Aldrich (John Litel, who is given more comedy to do than usual), is dying. Before long Henry is accused of being the firebug who's on the loose, and attends his own trial dressed in drag! Henry Aldrich, Editor has its cute moments, but it goes awry before the end. I mean, there's nothing particularly funny about Henry being trapped in a deadly warehouse fire. Lydon, Charles Smith as pal Dizzy, Rita Quigley as gal pal Martha and Vaughn Glaser as principal Bradley are all in good form.

Verdict: More hijinks with Henry. **1/2.


Mantan Moreland and Robert Lowery

THE MYSTERY OF THE RIVERBOAT (1944). 13 chapter Universal serial. Directors: Lewis D. Collins and Ray Taylor.

After Dr. Hartman (the ubiquitous Byron Foulger), who has discovered a new fuel, is murdered, Steve Langtry (Robert Lowery) discovers that a group of men --headed by Clayton (Arthur Hohl) -- are out to cheat his father out of some land he owns, although he doesn't know why. For 13 chapters these men and Langtry and his pals try to outwit each other. Most of the action centers of the riverboat Morning Glory, which is operated by Captain Perrin (Oscar O'Shea) and his daughter Jenny (Marjory Clements). Entertainers on the riverboat, who get mixed up in the action, include Celeste Elstree (Marion Martin), who sings several numbers, and dancer Jug Jenks (Eddie Quillan), who is a character. The boat's porter is the delightful Napoleon (Mantan Moreland) and Lyle Talbot is cast as one of Clayton's henchmen. The best scenes have to do with the cracking of the levee and the subsequent flood, and a bit with a runaway bus with several people aboard. The Mystery of the Riverboat has a number of interesting elements, none of which quite jell with the others. 5 years after this, Lowery played Batman in the serial Batman and Robin.

Verdict: Entertaining if minor-league mish mash. **1/2.


GREEN LANTERN: FIRST FLIGHT (2009). Director: Lauren Montgomery.

"You're nothing but a bunch of bickering old biddies!"

This full-length animated feature focuses on the popular DC Comics hero who is the subject off a new live-action movie opening later this summer. Hal Jordan (Christopher Meloni of Law and Order: SVU) gets a ring from a dying alien and becomes the latest member of an intergalactic corps of space heroes, the Green Lantern Corps, who answer to diminutive old men called the Guardians of the Universe. The villains of the piece include a redesigned old Justice League foe named Kanjar Ro and Green Lantern's arch-enemy, Sinestro (Victor Garber), who used to be a Green Lantern himself  before he turned rotten. Green Lantern: First Flight is well-directed by Montgomery, looks great (with fluid animation and beautiful artwork and coloring), but the story itself is just a bit on the blah side. The voice characterizations are good with Garber a stand-out as Sinestro.  To read about the origins and early adventures of Green Lantern, check out The Silver Age of Comics.  

Verdict: Disappointing, but whets the appetite for the live-action theatrical release this summer. **1/2.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


THE 13TH LETTER  (1951). Director: Otto Preminger

In a small town in French Quebec, an unknown person is sending anonymous letters to various parties, spreading lies and gossip, causing emotional upheaval, and in at least one case, causing a suicide. Much of the gossip seems centered on the new doctor in town, Pearson (Michael Rennie) and the wife, Cora (Constance Smith), of another doctor, Laurent (Charles Boyer). The suspects include Denise Turner (Linda Darnell) and nurse Marie (Judith Evelyn of The Tingler). Rennie isn't bad, Darnell gives one of her lesser performances, and Boyer and Evelyn walk off with the acting honors. Dark, intriguing, and suspenseful movie. Alex North's unusual musical score is exceptional, especially during a grim funeral sequence. This is a remake of the French film Le corbeau, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot.

Verdict: A lost Preminger film that is worth hunting down. ***.


THE SCREAMING SKULL (1958). Director: Alex Nicol.

"Free burial expenses for anyone who dies of fright." -- ad campaign for film.

Eric Whitlock (John Hudson, older brother of Bill Hudson), and his new bride Jenni (Peggy Webber), arrive home at the family mansion where Whitlock's first wife died. Bad idea -- apparently Whitlock has never seen any horror movies. Jennie meets her husband's friends, the Reverend and Mrs. Snow (Russ Conway and Mrs. Johnson), as well as the simple-minded handyman Mickey (played by director Alex Nicol). Jenni's parents drowned, and supposedly so did the first Mrs. Whitlock. Before long poor Jenni is having visions of tumbling skulls in the night. The movie holds the attention, but it isn't long before it becomes clear that the best thing about it is the title.

Verdict: The skull may scream but you won't. **. 

DIAL 1119

DIAL 1119 (1950). Director: Gerald Mayer.

"You'd better leave God out of it. God's got other fish to fry besides you."

Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson) escapes from a mental institution, murders some people, and winds up in a bar where he holds several customers and staff members hostage. These include the blonde barfly, "Freddie" (Virginia Field), the obnoxious bartender, Chuckles (William Conrad), handsome waiter Skip (Keefe Braselle), Helen (Andrea King), who wants to make changes in her life, and married Earl (Leon Ames), who hopes to be one of those changes. There's also a reporter, Harry (James Bell), who thinks he's finally on top -- literally -- of a great breaking story. Sam Levene plays Gunther's psychiatrist, Dr. Faron, who goes in to talk to the man against the advice of the police [although it's never explained why they at least don't give him a bullet-proof vest]. Thompson is okay, but Field and Conrad give the most memorable performances. Taut and absorbing for the most part, Dial 1119 is still strictly minor-league. This film is included in the Film Noir Classics Collection Volume 5.

Verdict: Not bad for what it is. **1/2.


HENRY AND DIZZY (1942). Director: Hugh Bennett.

"I guess I'm just a misfit."

Henry Aldrich (Jimmy Lydon) wrecks a boat that he borrowed when the store owner stepped away, and is told he either has to pay for a new boat or go to jail. In a hilarious sequence Henry and his pal Dizzy (Charles Smith) "clean" -- or rather destroy -- a house that belongs to principle Bradley (Vaughan Glaser; Maude Eburne is fun as his horrified wife). Trevor Bardette and Carl "Alfafa" Switzer play a father and son who compete in a contest with Henry and Mr. Aldrich (John Litel), and Dizzy and his dad (Olin Howlin). Noel Neill of Superman fame appears briefly as a girl that Henry tries to impress with his [lack of] boating skills. Mary Anderson seems a little too old and sex-sophisticated -- not to mention too tall -- to be teenager Henry's girlfriend, but Henry doesn't seem to mind. Litel and the other cast members are great, and Lydon is a very charming performer. This is his second appearance as Henry after Henry Aldrich for President.

Verdict: Another cute picture. ***


HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER (1958). Director: Herbert L. Strock.

"An artist must have no fear."

When make up artist Pete Dumond (Robert H. Harris) is let go by the studio because new executives claim horror films aren't making any money, he hypnotizes the actors playing a teenage Frankenstein (Gary Conway of Burke's Law) and werewolf (Gary Clarke of Missile to the Moon and Michael Shayne) into murdering his bosses. Dumond metamorphoses from a kindly professional into a nasty maniac who slaughters anyone who gets in his way. Robert Shayne plays an agent; Morris Ankrum is a cop; Malcolm Atterbury is a security guard; and Thomas Browne Henry plays a director. John Ashley plays himself in a brief musical guest appearance. The last ten minutes, which are in color, feature a lot of Paul Blaisdell creations hanging in Dumond's workshop as examples of his art. In his only starring role in movies, Harris -- a busy television actor of the period --  is excellent, and Paul Brinegar is fine as his cowering assistant Rivero. As you would expect, the make ups are great.

Verdict: Fun primarily because Harris delivers. ***.


William Bakewell as Hop Harrigan

HOP HARRIGAN 15 chapter Columbia serial. (1946). Director: Derwin Abrahams.

Hop Harrigan, "America's Ace of the Air Ways," was originally a comic book aviation hero in All-American Comics [where the more popular golden age Green Lantern also appeared] before becoming a radio series and then a serial. Hop (William Bakewell) and his buddy Tank Tinker (Sumner Getchell) are asked to do a job for a man named Arnold (Emmett Vogan), who heads a mysterious committee. This committee wants to prevent the inventions of a certain Dr. Tobor (John Merton) from falling into the wrong hands. In the meantime a shady character calling himself the Chief Pilot also has designs on Tobor's weapons. Unfortunately, Tobor is apparently a paranoid schizophrenic and winds up becoming a bigger menace than any of the bad guys. A bigger problem is that there is no attempt to work up any suspense over the identity of the Chief Pilot, who hardly ever appears and is utterly colorless. There are no memorable cliffhangers to speak of, a big problem in a cliffhanger serial, except maybe when little Jackie's (Robert "Buzz" Henry) parachute gets caught on the wing. The acting is efficient enough, with pretty Jennifer Holt good as Gail, who helps out the boys. Claire James is sexy as Arnold's ward Gwen, but she hasn't enough to do and her flirting with Hop goes nowhere. Bakewell started in silent pictures, appeared in everything from All Quiet on the Western Front to The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe to Radar Men from the Moon and had a very long career. At 38, he was quite a bit older than the character of the comic strips, but his was a recognizable name. Comments that he seemed tired in the serial [at only 38!] probably have to be chalked up to age discrimination, as he's perfectly lively throughout.

Verdict: Watchable, but not so hot. **.


X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006). Director: Brett Ratner.

"Oh my stars and garters!"

After it is announced that a supposed "cure" has been found for mutants, Magneto (Ian McKellan) and his "Brotherhood" declare war on humanity even as Jean Gray, who died in the previous installment, comes back to life, reborn as the "phoenix." X-Men: The Last Stand takes its cue from a very popular story arc in the X-men comic book in which Jean, supposedly killed, transforms into the all-powerful Phoenix and becomes more of a menace than Magneto. In addition to Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm (Halle Berry) and the usual suspects, we also have Arclight, Pyro, Juggernaut, the Angel, and Jaime Madrox, the Multiple Man (Eric Dane), with Kelsey Grammer, of all people, turning in an adept performance as the Beast. McKellan easily walks off with the picture as Magneto; a terrific scene has him using his power to move the Golden Gate bridge. Hugh Jackman and Famke Janssen as Jean are also cast stand-outs, but everyone is pretty excellent. This was followed by X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: First Class opens in theaters any day now if it hasn't already. The first picture in his series was simply called X-Men.

Verdict: Colorful comic book fun served up with flair. ***.