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

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Lord Olivier and La Monroe
THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL (1957). Director: Laurence Olivier.

"We are not dealing with an adult but an unruly child."

On the eve of the coronation of the new British King in 1911 London, the Grand Ducal Highness of the Balkan nation of Carpatha, AKA Charles (Laurence Olivier), invites a pretty American showgirl named Elsie (Marilyn Monroe) to supper at the Carpathian embassy. Alas, the Grand Duke doesn't realize that Elsie is a lot smarter than she looks -- and not quite as "easy" as he hopes. During the night and the following day, the two argue and banter, and Elsie manages to wend her way into Carpathian politics and  more via the Duke's son Nicky (Jeremy Spenser), soon to be king, and the prickly if lovable Queen Dowager (Sybil Thorndike). The cast in this entertaining if overlong comedy, including Jean Kent as an actress friend of Charles and Richard Wattis as Northbrook, a liaison, is uniformly excellent. Olivier is fine as the rather stuffy if amorous duke, and Monroe is natural, unaffected and marvelous -- luminescent, in fact -- as Elsie. I'm not the first to think that she sort of out-acts Olivier at times, but both are splendid. The ending is a bit strange, but this is a colorful, unusual picture.

Verdict: The High and the Horny. ***.


Stuart Whitman vs. a ticked off baboon

SANDS OF THE KALAHARI (1965). Director: Cy Endfield.

This was one of two heavily promoted desert/plane crash movies released in 1965, the other being The Flight of the Phoenix. In this a group of travelers, told their regular flight has been delayed, decide to continue on in a small charter plane. Unfortunately said plane runs into a swarm of locusts which clog the engines and cause the craft to crash in the middle of the Kalahari desert. Unlike Phoenix, this picture includes a pretty blond (Susannah York) for some of the men to fight over. Stuart Whitman plays a nasty character who forces one older man (Theodore Bikel) to march through the desert at gun point to try to get help after the pilot, who set off on a similar journey, doesn't come back. [What happens to the pilot is quite ironic.] Eventually a battle of wills develops between Whitman and the remaining passengers, especially Mike Bain (Stanley Baker), who rightly sees the man as the dangerous nut that he is. A miscast Whitman is only adequate in the role of the basically sociopathic O'Brien, and at times York doesn't seem to know what to make of her helpless and unsympathetic character. Baker, Bikel, and Harry Andrews as a German passenger are all excellent. Although the advertisements for the film played up the presence of dangerous baboons in the area, these animals really haven't much to do until the very end of the picture. [Killer baboons later showed up in In the Shadow of Kilimanjaro.]

Verdict: Man vs. man with nature waiting in the wings. ***.


GORILLA AT LARGE (1954) Director: Harmon Jones.

When people start getting murdered at a carnival, the police wonder if the culprit is the star attraction, Goliath the gorilla, or someone in an ape suit. Suspects for the latter include the owner Cy Miller (Raymond Burr); his wife, Laverne (Anne Bancroft), who is a trapeze artist who works with Goliath; Joey Matthews (Cameron Mitchell), who has a crush on Laverne; Kovaks (Peter Whitney), Laverne's ex-husband; and a few others. The cops on the case include Lee J. Cobb (The Exorcist), Lee Marvin (Raintree County), and Warren Stevens (Phone Call from a Stranger). [Clearly this is one low-budget movie that has a very interesting cast.] This is a modestly entertaining, generally well-acted thriller that holds the attention if nothing else. Director Hrmon Jones did mostly television work, including a few episodes of Perry Mason. NOTE: Midnite [sic] Movies' remastered DVD looks great in high definition.

Verdict: Fun, even if most of the cast went on to much better things. **1/2.


HOUSEWIFE (1934). Director: Alfred E. Green.

Nan Reynolds (Ann Dvorak) helps to push her husband Bill (George Brent) to success, then has to deal with it when he falls in love with a man-hungry co-worker, Patricia Berkeley (Bette Davis) and says he wants to marry her. You can argue that the film is fairly predictable and formulaic, but it's also well-acted by the principals and surprisingly entertaining. Dvorak is very lovely and capable, Brent proves again that he could give many a winning performance, and Davis is saucy and likable despite her "bad girl" role. John Halliday and Ruth Donnelly also score as, respectively, one of Bill's clients (in his advertising business), who falls for Nan, and Nan's amused and amusing sister-in-law, Dora. NOTE: Now available in a remastered edition from Warner Archives.

Verdict: Easy to take and quite enjoyable, with a winning cast. ***


DANGERS OF THE CANADIAN MOUNTED  (12 chapter Republic serial/1948), Directors: Fred C. Brannon; Yakima Canutt.

Crooks headed by a mysterious figure known as "The Chief" are after the 700-year-old treasure of Genghis Khan, hidden in Alcana. Homesteaders want to build a road in the area, which the bad guys try to stop as it will interfere with their searching. Deciphering the markings on certain coins may help find the treasure.There are several well-staged and inventive fight scenes, and a climax in "the Cave of 1000 Tunnels." Jim Bannon stars as Sgt. Royal, and stuntman Tom Steele plays several roles. Dorothy Granger and Virginia Belmont are the gals involved in the action. Highlights include the forest fire in chapter two, a fight on a plane and subsequent crash in chapter four, and a derailed train in chapter nine. Bannon was also in The Missing Juror and Unknown World.

Verdict: Snappy fun. ***


MYSTERY ON MONSTER ISLAND (1981). Director: Juan Piquer Simon.

Jeff Morgan (Ian Sera) wants to see the world before settling down, and goes on a voyage arranged by his Uncle William (Peter Cushing). But the young man winds up shipwrecked on Spencer Island with all manner of beasties, the nervous-nellie instructor Prof. Artelect (David Hatton), and a fellow named Taskinar (Terence Stamp). They encounter everything from giant steam-snorting caterpillars to crazed kelp creatures, as well as phony rubber fish men. Most of the monsters are barely mobile, but for once there's an explanation for this, which I won't give away here. Very loosely based on the novel "L'École des Robinsons" by Jules Verne. There's some charming stuff in this, including a chimp who wears men's shoes, and a good sequence when the group uses primitive weapons to fight off some invaders.

Verdict: Not quite as awful as it could have been. **1/2.


CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011). Director: Joe Johnston.

The super-hero Captain America first appeared in comics during the golden age of the 1940's. He was brought back in the sixties with the explanation that he had been in suspended animation for decades. Captain America, The First Avenger takes the same tack, but decides to make the movie a long flashback to the forties, presumably hoping sequels and the upcoming Avengers movie will show Cap in action in the modern age. Steve Rogers is a short, skinny but brave and plucky young man who wants to serve his country but is judged 4-F. The character is so likable that you root for him to make it just as he is [the comics never delved too much into Roger's pre-Captain America life], although to be fair it is not his new physique [after he volunteers for an experiment] that wins him admiration, but his actions. For inexplicable reasons the script [by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and others]  includes a dumb middle section in which the new Cap is not sent into action but only used as a poster boy in war bonds advertisements, allowing other characters to call him "Tinkerbell" and "chorus girl." This has absolutely nothing to do with the comics. One intelligent change is that his boy partner, Bucky, has been turned into an adult, another soldier and good friend of Steve's [he never actually becomes a costumed partner, however].

Chris Evans is quite good as Steve Rogers/Captain America. Hayley Atwell is acceptable as Peggy Carter, who was a spy in the comics but here is a drill sergeant [not likely in the forties!]. Tommy Lee Jones, looking like the wreck of the Hesperus, plays an old warhorse colonel. Hugo Weaving is effective enough as Johann Schmidt, better known as the evil Red Skull, Cap's nemesis. [In this the Skull belongs to the evil organization Hydra.] The trouble with Captain America is that it doesn't have much of a story, the action scenes are all kind of blah and are poorly directed and edited for the most part, and it never catches the sheer colorful excitement of the comic book hero. Believe it or not, despite all the money spent on this production, it really isn't much better than that the low-budget Captain America with Matt Salinger. And it's never as thrilling or entertaining as the old cliffhanger serial, Captain America. It also at times has an old-fashioned sensibility that is not really explained away by the time period. NOTE: To read more of the sixties comic book adventures of Captain America, see The Silver Age of Comics.

Verdict: A major disappointment. **.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1965). Producer/director: Robert Aldrich.

"The little men with the slide rules and computers are going to inherit the earth."

This movie gets right into the action, without taking time to even introduce its characters, as a plane develops problems and then crash lands in the desert with veteran pilot Frank Towns (James Stewart) at the helm. However, there's plenty of time to meet the survivors during the rather slow early sections of the film: Towns second-in-command, Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough); by-the-book but admirable Captain Harris (Peter Finch); crazy Cobb (Ernest Borgnine); haughty engineer Dorfmann (Hardy Kruger); and others. During the strangely uninvolving first half of the film you keep hoping that Ursula Andress or Raquel Welch will come parachuting into the scene and all of the men can fight over her, and at least something will happen, but it's not that kind of movie. Instead the film develops an interesting plot line wherein Dorfmann insists that by using the remaining parts of the plane he can build another craft that will take the men out of the Sahara before they die of thirst or starvation. Towns thinks that the plane he'll build won't ever get off the ground. Dorfmann has a rather startling and darkly amusing secret, however. There's a tense sequence involving some Arabs who may or may not be friendly, but the climax when the "phoenix" takes off is surprisingly brief. And there's a lot more that you could quibble about. Stewart seems a bit miscast and out of his element -- although certainly not bad -- as the somewhat defeatist Captain Towns, but Attenborough, Finch, and Kruger are superb, and Dan Duryea, George Kennedy, Ronald Fraser and the others aren't exactly slouches. Like Lifeboat, The White Tower and many other movies Phoenix deals with the cliche of ruthless German efficiency, an aspect that was kind of tiresome, being done to death, by the sixties.   

Verdict: Eventually builds in intensity and interest; some wonderful performances don't hurt. ***.


Mickey Hargitay
BLOODY PIT OF HORROR (1965). Director: Max Hunter [Massimo Pupillo].

A group of photographers and models think an old castle will be the perfect place to have a photo shoot for the covers of Italian horror novels. But they are unaware that Travis Anderson (Mickey Hargitay), the current resident and a former actor and muscleman, has gone insane and thinks he is the medieval Crimson Executioner, a former resident, who was executed and entombed in the castle. Edith (Luisa Barrato) was once engaged to Travis, so he lets the group stay -- and become his victims. Some of these wind up in his torture chamber, where there is a descending canopy outfitted with spikes, or in a death trap maze with a big robot spider with poisoned fangs and a web. This is hardly a great movie, but there are some zesty, colorful sequences. Hargitay was married to Jayne Mansfield and is the father of Mariska Hargitay of Law and Order: SVU.

Verdict: There have been worse. **1/2.


RECKLESS (1935). Director: Victor Fleming.

By the time agent Ned Riley (William Powell) realizes he's really in love with his client, singer-dancer Mona Leslie (Jean Harlow), Mona is being swept off her feet by the wealthy Bob Harrison Jr. (Franchot Tone). Harrison even goes so far as to buy out every seat for a performance of the show Mona is in. Mona's wise old grandmother (May Robson) scolds and gives sage advice in equal measure. Rosalind Russell turns up as Harrison's kind of forgotten fiancee, Henry Stephenson is his concerned father, and little Mickey Rooney is his usual charming self as an enterprising youngster befriended by Ned [perhaps the film's most touching sequence has Rooney trying to help out Ned when he thinks he's down and out]. If that cast weren't enough, we've also got Allan Jones singing a romantic ballad in his inimitable way, Leon Ames turning up both with and without his mustache, Charles "Ming the Merciless" Middleton playing a district attorney, and Margaret Dumont showing up for one line as a heckler in the theater! Powell, Harlow, and Tone are all just marvelous, and Robson almost manages to steal every scene she's in. The story veers in unfortunately melodramatic directions, but the film still manages to be quite entertaining. And that cast! A new remastered edition has been released by Warner Archives.

Verdict: Crazy script but a feast of fine actors! ***.


FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1958). Director: Arthur Crabtree.

In and around a U.S. Air Force base in Manitoba, mysterious things are happening. Strange sloshing sounds are heard and people are suddenly killed by a weird invisible presence. Corpses are found missing their brains and spinal cords. Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson) investigates and comes across an old professor (Kynaston Reeves), and his pretty secretary Barbara (Kim Parker), the former of whom may know more than he realizes about the deaths. This movie may seem to borrow certain concepts from Forbidden Planet, but it was based on a story that pre-dates that great sci fi film. The stop-motion effects to bring the unusual monsters to life at the climax aren't bad at all, although some of the process work is clumsy; the sound effects are great. Kim Parker, who also appeared in Fire Maidens of Outer Space and a few other films, played another secretary in one more film and then was gone from the screen; she is not bad in Fiend. Crabtree also directed the nifty Horrors of the Black Museum. Thompson was "introduced" in Blonde Fever, although it was not his first movie. He did a number of genre items such as First Man into Space. Fiend without a Face takes its place beside The Brain from Planet Arous as a great brain movie. NOTE: You can read more about this movie and others like it in Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies.

Verdict: You can't beat those brains! ***.


I AIN'T DOWN YET: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY LITTLE MARGIE. Gale Storm with Bill Libby. Bobbs-Merrill; 1981.

Gale Storm appeared in some musicals and other movies for Monogram and other studios before finding lasting fame on two hit TV series, My Little Margie and Oh Susanna!. A big problem with this book is that it's less of a performing arts autobiography than it is an inspirational tome about alcoholism. Storm can't figure out why she began drinking [the fact that it got serious when she switched from hit TV shows to dinner theater may have had something to do with it] but she was in serious denial over her problem even when her liver expanded to "three to four times its regular size." The book has a few pages on show business and the people Storm worked with, and many, many more pages that read as a testimonial for an alcoholism clinic that Storm credits with saving her life and for which she eventually became a paid consultant. This book may have some value for people with drinking problems, but if you're expecting something that tears the lid off TV and tinsel town, look elsewhere. Storm doesn't even have that much to say about her co-stars. Sections are written by her husband, four children, and even the head of the aforementioned clinic. Storm's religiosity occasionally becomes borderline cloying. Readable, fast-paced, and not badly done for what it is, it still should have been so much more.

Verdict: Watch an episode of My Little Margie instead. **1/2.


FRONT: Noell Neill, Kane Richmond and Rick Vallin
BRICK BRADFORD (15 chapter Columbia serial/1947). Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr.

Kane Richmond stars as the comic strip sci fi hero in this disappointing serial from Columbia. In an early use of the teleportation that later become a major component of Star Trek, a scientist creates a dimensional doorway that manages to transmit people to the moon, where there appears to be a war between two sects. Brick is accompanied by his pal, Sandy (Rick Vallin). In a weird alliance, Earth gangsters join up with some of the moon aliens to try to get their hands on a weapon that can intercept and destroy missiles. In a couple of chapters, the boys wind up traveling through time and encounter pirates seeking treasure. In other words, this serial is all over the lot and never quite gets a handle on anything. Pierre Watkin is a professor and Linda Leighton [aka Linda Johnson] is the daughter who doesn't get much to do. Noel Neill shows up later in the serial as a gal involved with the aforementioned pirates. Serial Queen Carol Forman also doesn't get to do much in her few appearances as Queen Khana of the moon. There are a couple of decent cliffhangers: a fall off a cliff into lava in chapter four; and a batch of acid that spills and flows towards an unconscious Brick.

Verdict: Not one of the more memorable serials. **.


THE BOX (2009). Writer/director: Richard Kelly.

Loosely based on Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button," this film at least has an intriguing premise: a man (Frank Langella) shows up at the home of a young couple (Cameron Diaz; James Marsden) and gives them a small box. If they push the button in the box, he tells them, they will receive one million dollars, but someone -- they don't know who -- will die. The moral dilemma, uncertainty and sheer strangeness of the situation carry the movie ... for a time. But despite some striking images and not bad acting, the picture is more like a bad dream than anything else -- it's impossible to tell if it's supposed to be taken seriously or not. Ultimately it's a waste of a great idea.

Verdict: Not much point in opening this box. **.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Jacob (Glenn Ford) stakes his claim
LUST FOR GOLD (1949). Director: S. Sylvan Simon.

Inspired by the true legends of the Lost Dutchman mine in the Superstitious Mountains of Arizona, the major portion of this film takes place in the last century with modern-day framing sequences that carry their own interest. Jacob "Dutch" Walz (Glenn Ford) commits murder to preserve the secret of the mine's location, then goes to town to stake his claim. There he encounters duplicitous Julia Thomas (Ida Lupino), who owns a bakery but dreams of a better life that she knows her husband (Gig Young) will never provide. So she begins a romance with an unsuspecting Walz. Lupino and Young are fine, and Ford is especially good as one of the more unpleasant characters he's played. If the main story's climactic gun battle near the mine weren't enough, the absorbing film also boasts a terrific cliff side fight as the modern-day story's thrilling finale.William Prince, Edgar Buchanan, Paul Ford and even Percy Helton [as a barber] are members of the supporting cast, and all are swell.

Verdict: Snappy and extremely entertaining. ***1/2.


Phyllis Isley [Jennifer Jones] and Ralph Byrd
DICK TRACY'S G-MEN (15 chapter Republic serial/1939). Directors: John English; William Witney.

Criminal genius Zarnoff (Irving Pichel) manages to escape execution, and for 15 chapters matches wits, guns and devious plots with his nemesis, Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd). Tracy gets out of many of his predicaments in a clever and realistic fashion. The more memorable of these predicaments include a death trap in chapter two; a crane dropping tons of lumber on Dick in chapter seven; a horrifying dirigible fire in chapter nine; and a room with a fiery dynamo in chapter ten. The climax with Tracy and Zarnoff squaring off in the desert is also memorable. Plenty of fisticuffs and a good use of pre-existing locations. Zarnoff tries to sell plans to a foreign power as well as steal a new explosive formula. If there is any problem with the serial it's that Pichel is rather colorless as the villain. Phyllis Isley plays Tracey's secretary and has little to do. There is absolutely nothing about her that would suggest she'd become a major star under the name Jennifer Jones. Not quite as good as Dick Tracy vs Crime Inc.

Verdict: More fun from Republic studios. ***.


COPACABANA  (1947). Director: Alfred E. Green.

Lionel Deveraux (Groucho Marx) is a manager with one client, Carmen Navarro (Carmen Miranda), to whom he's been engaged for ten years. When he tries to get her work at a nightclub owned by Steve Hunt (Steve Cochran), Hunt tells him that he prefers a French singer. Enter the always veiled Mlle. Fifi,  who is Carmen in disguise. Hunt hires the French doll, then decides he wants Miss Navarro as well. So Carmen does her best to keep up a hectic performance schedule without anybody knowing that both performers are actually the same woman. The interplay between Marx and Miranda, who make a great team, is priceless, and the other performers are game. Gloria Jean is charming as Hunt's secretary, Anne, who pines for him even as he pursues Fifi. Singer Andy Russell, who plays himself, has a very nice voice and is easy to take. Miranda may not be a brilliant performer, but it's hard not to like her, and Groucho is as wonderful as ever. Some nice songs include "Strange Things Have Happened." The film is full of chorus cuties who trade wisecracks with Marx, and there are guest appearances by columnists Abel Green, Louis Sobol, and Earl Wilson.

Verdict: This may not be a Night at the Opera, but it's very amusing and charming. ***.


NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972). Director: William F. Claxton.

"Attention! Attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits heading this way!"

Roy (Stuart Whitman) and Gerry Bennett (Janet Leigh) are scientists who come to Arizona to deal with an explosion in the rabbit population and the dangers this represents to the ecosystem. Trying to curb the rabbits', ahem, appetites, their experiments only result in rabbits that are much larger and astonishingly ferocious. Supposedly remaining vegetarians, they nonetheless go around attacking people, leaving mutilated corpses in their wake. Now, it would have been one thing if the special effects department had come up with some fearsomely mutated rodents with large fangs and grotesque appearances, but all they did was use real cute bunny rabbits stuffed into miniature sets and interacting with people via process shots. Some of these sequences aren't badly done, but the sound effects are what make the cuddly bunnies seem so horrible. The best scene is the climax when Leigh tries to keep the surrounding rabbits away from her and her little daughter after their camper gets a flat tire at night. Rory Calhoun plays a rancher and DeForest Kelley, almost fresh from Star Trek, is a friend of the Bennetts. Played completely straight, the movie is completely absurd but somehow amusing and entertaining, if strictly for monster movie devotees.

Verdict: Stupid, but a lot of fun in spite of it. **1/2.


NIGHT WATCH (1973). Director: Brian G. Hutton.

Wealthy Ellen Wheeler  (Elizabeth Taylor) is strangely obsessed with thoughts of the death of her philandering first husband, causing concern in her second husband, John (Laurence Harvey) and her best friend, Sarah (Billie Whitelaw), who's there for a visit. Worse, Ellen is convinced that during a storm she saw a corpse in the window in the abandoned house across the way. But nobody seems to believe her, and the police think she's dotty. Night Watch is based on a novel by Lucille Fletcher, who also wrote the original play upon which Sorry, Wrong Number was based. While Night Watch may not be in  that league [and Liz Taylor is no Barbara Stanwyck] and the plot may or may not hold up under close scrutiny, it's still an entertaining picture with a darkly amusing final twist. Taylor (Rhapsody) is okay, but Harvey (Room at the Top) and especially Whitelaw (The Omen) are a lot better. NOTE: This is now available in a remastered edition from Warner Archives.

Verdict: Like an extended episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. ***


PHANTOM FROM SPACE (1953). Director: W. Lee Wilder.

A man in a helmet with no head attacks two men and kills them, but primarily because they saw him as a menace and alarmed him. The authorities then enter the picture and try to track down the creature. It seems this "phantom" is an invisible alien who is trying to communicate with earthlings and not having much luck -- or vice versa. A police lieutenant named Bowers (Harry Landers) is one of those trying to get to the bottom of the mystery represented by the phantom. The movie is well-intentioned but rather dull. Director Lee Wilder was the brother of the much better-known and more celebrated Billy Wilder. Most of Lee Wilder's directorial effects were cheapie creepies like this film and the more entertaining Killers from Space but he did nail one out of the ballpark with the excellent Bluebeard's Ten Honeymoons starring George Sanders.  Harry Landers, who looks a lot like Ed Kemmer, did mostly televisions work, and was uncredited as the man with Miss Lonelyhearts in Hitchcock's Rear Window. There are no other name or even near-name actors in Phantom. Nice closing music by William Lava.

Verdict: You can miss it and still have a full life. **.


ZODIAC (2007). Director: David Fincher.

The true story of the hunt for a serial killer who taunts the very people who are pursuing him, which include Inspector Toschi (Mark Ruffalo); Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who wrote the book this is based upon; Inspector Armstrong (Anthony Edwards); Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) of the San Francisco Chronicle; and others. The movie details how the case comes to take over the lives of everyone trying to shut the killer down permanently. Zodiac is completely absorbing and very well-acted --- John Carroll Lynch as a suspect is especially notable, among others -- but ultimately it's frustratingly open-ended. Still, there's never a boring moment.

Verdict: Recommended for fans of true crime. ***.