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

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Nancy Davis [Reagan] and Barbara Stanwyck
EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE (1949). Director: Mervyn LeRoy.

"Just because a man has one perfect rose at home, doesn't mean he can't appreciate the flowers of the field."

"I waited so long for you to come back to me. I never dreamed that when you did, I wouldn't care."

Jesssie Bourne (Barbara Stanwyck) is convinced that her husband Brandon (James Mason) is over his infatuation with former lover Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner), now that she's out of town, but when Isabel comes back wanting more, Jessie worries that she might lose him. In the meantime Jessie finds herself drawn to a sympathetic admirer in former cop Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin) who is being courted by newspaper publishers. Lovely Cyd Charisse [The Unfinished Dance] is Rosa, who befriends the Bournes and had a childhood crush on Mark. Nancy Davis -- later the first lady when husband Ronald Reagan became president -- plays Jessie's friend Helen and isn't bad. Douglas Kennedy of Flaxy Martin is a wealthy suitor of Isabel's and Beverly Michaels of Wicked Woman and Blonde Bait is both saucy and sexy as the "big girl" [Michaels was five foot nine] who's carrying a torch for Kennedy. Presumably Gale Sondergaard [The Spider Woman Strikes Back] wasn't thrilled to be cast as Stanwyck's mother when she was only eight years older [and has to say she's fifty-five when she was actually only fifty] but she's as adept as usual. William Conrad of TV's Jake and the Fat Man and Cry Danger plays a cop. William Frawley has a bit part as a bartender, but in two years he would become as famous as the stars when he was cast as Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. East Side, West Side had real possibilities as a serious drama -- and the script is full of good dialogue -- but ultimately it's too superficial and frankly dull. Stanwyck, Mason, Heflin, and even Gardner are better than the material.

Verdict: There's certainly more to Manhattan than this. **1/2.


THE LEECH WOMAN (1960). Edward Dein.

"I know you advertised for old women, but the one in the waiting room looks like she's mummified!"

"There's only one trouble with running away -- you always meet yourself when you get there."

June Talbot (Coleen Gray) is a wealthy woman married to an uncaring endocrinologist, Paul (Phillip Terry of Junior G-Men and Hold That Kiss), who can't stand the sight of her now that she's grown older. Both of them have their differing hopes rekindled when they meet 142-year-old Mala (Estelle Hemsley), an ancient native woman who claims that her tribe back in Africa knows the secret of eternal youth. When she travels back home for a treatment, the Talbots accompany her and discover that hormones from the pineal gland are combined with the properties of a certain orchid to create a magical elixir. (Mala is given a very good speech about how men can be distinguished and revered in old age, but old women are treated with indifference and contempt -- yet in her tribe young men are sacrificed so that old women can have one last night of youth and beauty before death!) June manages to run off with the formula, but discovers she has to kill again and again to retain her good looks and freshness. This is basically an E.C. comics story stretched to feature length and quite amusing on that level. Gray is no Bette Davis, but she holds her own as the tormented anti-heroine. She was also in The Phantom Planet and did a lot of TV work. Phillip Terry was one of Joan Crawford's ex-husbands. Grant Williams of The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Monolith Monsters plays June's very handsome lawyer, who dumps his girlfriend (Gloria Talbott of The Cyclops) for June's "niece" when she comes back from Africa all young and sexy. (After the magical transformation, June is perfectly made up -- what a Max Factor miracle! Her "old age" make up is well done.) Estelle Hemsley had only a few credits; she was actually 73 when she made this picture. Kim Hamilton, who plays Mala as a young woman, has had a fairly busy career ever since. John Van Dreelen plays a guide and victim of June's and is very effective; he was a very busy television actor.

Verdict: Lurid and cheap but also entertaining. **1/2.


The trailer makes its ascent into the mountains!
THE LONG, LONG TRAILER (1953). Director: Vincente Minelli.

"Most new marriages break up within three years. Include a trailer, it's the speed-up plan." 

Tacy and Nicky Collini (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) buy a very big trailer and travel across the country in it having one amusing misadventure after another. Lucy and Desi may only be playing variations of Lucy and Ricky, but both are in top form. Keenan Wynn makes an impression as a traffic cop even if he only has one line of dialogue, and Marjorie Main and Madge Blake are swell as, respectively, a trailer park neighbor and Tacy's Aunt Anastasia. This is an amiable and very funny movie [although some might feel the bit with "poor Grace" (Connie Van), who is obviously "mental," is a bit tasteless] that also has some beautiful photography and scenery. The best scenes are the visit to Aunt Anastasia and the wonderful climax, wherein the Collinis try to negotiate their huge trailer over a steep and hazardous mountain road with Nicky unaware that the two-ton monster he's pulling is full of souvenir rocks -- this scene is both scary and hilarious!

Verdict:  Quite delightful. ***.


LEARNING TO LIVE OUT LOUD. Piper Laurie. Crown; 2011.

Autobiographies of second and third tier celebrities are often worthless because the author is too interested in settling scores or vomiting bitterness over being overlooked, ignored, or hidden behind a bushel, but luckily this is not the case with Laurie, who has several Oscar nominations to her credit and once again became a sought after actress after her initial Hollywood period [although she refers to herself as a "star," which may technically be correct, she never exactly had the career of say, a Joan Crawford]. Laurie had a difficult childhood, but became closer to her parents in later years. She writes of her sexual experiences with Ronald Reagan and Mel Gibson [one would think some women would now be embarrassed to admit they'd had sex with those two!], her affairs with director John Frankenheimer and others, and her marriage to a movie critic, Joe Morgenstern. She writes with admirable candor of her personal life, and doesn't neglect her film or television career, either. Laurie struggled against an indifferent studio system which apparently saw her as little other than superficial cheesecake and had to fight to gain respect as an actress. She had a comeback of sorts in Brian De Palma's film version of Carrie, which led not just to other macabre assignments but more "serious" work as well. Occasionally, Laurie seems to pull back from total truth; surely there was more behind the break up of her marriage to Morgenstern than what she writes. She appeared in The Thornbirds but either never met star Barbara Stanwyck or chooses not to write about her. Some fans may be disappointed that she makes absolutely no mention of working with Italian director Dario Argento on his grotesque but rather excellent Trauma [if anything, Laurie's character is even more horrible than the mother in Carrie.] Still this is a very well-written and surprisingly absorbing read from a Hollywood, theater, and TV insider who was around for the studio system and the Golden Age of Television and writes intelligently about all of it.

Verdict: A worthwhile read. ***1/2. 



When she was 53, Barbara Stanwyck did one season of a half hour anthology show in which she starred in most of the compelling mini-dramas. The show was a class production, with a nice dramatic theme and a moderately expensive look. While there were a few mediocre episodes, in general the stories were good and some could have been expanded into feature-length. Among the more memorable were: "The Miraculous Journey of Tadpole Chan," in which Babs is a woman in Hong Kong who helps a little boy get to the United States;"The Secret of Mrs. Randall," in which Stanwyck is a widow in a war with her mother-in-law [a superb Doris Packer] over an ex-con who may have stolen a payroll; "Size 10," in which she plays the head of a fashion house who has to question her loyalties when one of her top designs is stolen; "Big Career," in which she is a businesswoman with a philandering husband and a disapproving mother-in-law [Elizabeth Patterson, "Mrs. Trumble" of I Love Lucy, in an excellent turn]; and "Confession," in which she's teamed romantically with -- of all people -- Lee Marvin as a lawyer who helps her get even with her jealous husband. Guest-stars on the show included everyone from Yvette Vickers to Ralph Bellamy to Anna May Wong to Gene Raymond. An excellent actress, Stanwyck is outstanding in virtually every episode aside from "Shock," in which she plays a mother who is traumatized by the death of her little daughter. She doesn't quite get a grip on the more dramatic moments, a very rare occurrence for this gifted woman.

Verdict: Good classic television. ***.


SECRET SERVICE IN DARKEST AFRICA (aka Manhunt in the African Jungle/15 chapter Republic serial/1943). Director: Spencer Gordon Bennett.

Stalwart Secret Service agent Rex Bennett (Rod Cameron) goes to the Dark Continent to deal with a Nazi spy ring who have replaced a sultan with an imposter. He is aided by the spunky gal reporter Janet Blake (Joan Marsh). Their main adversary is Baron von Rommler (Lionel Royce), and Duncan Renaldo plays an ally, Captain LaSalle. There's a great bit in chapter four with some graves exploding one by one due to underground mines, and some effective cliffhangers: Janet in a crate with an incendiary device as Rex fights Nazis [chapter five]; Janet under a giant slab that crashes downward [chapter seven]; and --best of all -- an "execution wheel" with a saw-pendulum swinging above [chapter twelve]. The trouble with Secret Service is that it doesn't have a strong, suspenseful  plotline, an exciting villain -- or even an exciting hero. Cameron is unemotional and stone-faced throughout. Joan Marsh appeared in quite a few movies before making this but apparently retired two years later. Cameron also appeared in The Jungle, Life with Henry and Henry Aldrich for President and also played Rex Bennett in G-Men vs the Black Dragon, which was better than this.Lionel Royce was also in So Ends Our Night.

Verdict: A few thrills but overall somewhat disappointing. **1/2.


The train carrying a dangerous passenger

 SUPER 8 (2011). Writer/director: J. J. Abrahms.

In 1979 a bunch of kids are making a movie with a super 8 camera when they witness a train crash, which precipitates some very mysterious events: a monster is on the loose in town and there's a governmental cover-up. Frankly, there's too much of the youngsters and not enough of the monster in this Cloverfield derivative, which borders on a parody at times. Not only is this often too intense for children, but the humorous tone is completely at odds with the grim proceedings -- the "sensitive" scenes are undercut by the ugliness. This is another of those movies where we're asked to have sympathy for a man-eating alien while the deaths of innocent people go ignored. The ending involving a locket is sentimentalism at its worst. Stupid and not that entertaining. Elle Fanning makes an impression as Alice.

Verdict: Childish in the worst sense of the word. **.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


James Murray, Ruth Chatterton, and Harold Huber
FRISCO JENNY (1932). Director: William A. Wellman.

Jenny (Ruth Chatterton) works with her father (Robert Emmett O'Connor)  in his San Francisco saloon and is in love with the piano player Dan (James Murray of The Crowd), although her father objects to their union. The two men are both killed in the great 1906 earthquake and Jenny is left alone with child. This all happens in the first few minutes. Most of the film deals with Jenny's life of crime, with her stable of party girls [prostitutes] and bootlegging activities, as she keeps a scrapbook of her son (Donald Cook)  growing up after she gave him up for adoption. When she is arrested for murdering a colleague, Steve (Louis Calhern), guess who winds up prosecuting her? This is basically a variation of Madame X, which Chatterton starred in only three years before. One is tempted to say that the marvelous earthquake sequence with its still impressive FX work [and very little stock footage of buildings collapsing] is the only reason to watch the movie, but Frisco Jenny does build in power towards the end. As for Chatterton, her character is unsympathetic and her acting is pretty mediocre until the final sequences. This is the artificial Chatterton of The Crash and Journal of a Crime instead of the fine actress of Lily Turner and Dodsworth.


FATE IS THE HUNTER (1964). Director: Ralph Nelson.

When a plane crashes killing all aboard except a stewardess (Suzanne Pleshette), an investigator for the airline, Sam McBane (Glenn Ford), tries to determine what went wrong. You'd think this would make for a compelling film, but most of the running time has McBane delving into the character of the pilot [and old friend] Jack Savage (Rod Taylor), whose irresponsibility is being blamed for the tragedy, with lots of flashbacks. McBane discovers that there was much more to Savage than met the eye. Nancy Kwan and Dorothy Malone are two of the many ladies in Savage's life, and Wally Cox and Mark Stevens [in a fine turn] are pals of his whom he's helped over the years. Mary Wickes has an interesting cameo as a landlady. Constance Towers is McBane's secretary, Nehemiah Persoff is his rival, and Jane Russell appears as herself in a flashback scene entertaining the troops. This culminates in a fairly ridiculous courtroom sequence, and then in a climax in which McBane and others try to recreate the circumstances of the crash up in the air. The picture is contrived and illogical, has little tension or suspense, and is more talky and dull than anything else. Ernest K. Gann, who wrote the novel upon which the film is based, reportedly disavowed the whole production. Ford gives a fine performance but is saddled with the screwiness of his character; the rest of the cast is very good, and Pleshette is excellent although she has only a few lines.

Verdict: This kind of movie should not be a snooze-fest. **.


MAN-MADE MONSTER (1941). Director: George Waggner.

"Those scoffers who babble of trivialities!"

Dr. Paul Rigas (the ever-delightful Lionel Atwill) wants to use electricity to turn mediocre individuals into useful members of society. Dan McCormick (Lon Chaney Jr.) seems like the perfect person to experiment on because only he survived when a bus crashed into some electric power lines, killing everyone else aboard. Reporter Mark Adams (Frank Albertson) wants to do a story on Rigas, but pretty much has to settle for romancing his associate's daughter, June (the always reliable Anne Nagel). Dan is also stuck on June, but he has more to worry about when Rigas' experiments turn him into a killing machine. The characters are one-dimensional but the actors help put this over, and there's a good score by Hans J. Salter.

Verdict: "Who can tell what tomorrow's murders may be?" **1/2.


FEDERAL OPERATOR 99 (12 chapter Republic serial/1945). Directors: Spencer Bennett; Yakima Canutt.

Jerry Blake (Marten Lamont) -- AKA Operator 99 -- and assistant Joyce Kingston (Helen Talbot) vs. crime lord Jim Belmont (George J. Lewis) and his moll Rita Parker (Lorna Gray). At least Belmont appreciates some of the finer things in life, such as classical music. He plays the Moonlight Sonata as a henchman begins to torture a countess (Elaine Lange) with fire. Hal Taliaferro is distinctive as the gunsel Matt. Among other plots, Belmont tries to get his hands on some jewels and a prized Stradivarius. Joyce is almost cremated in chapter three, and strung up to face a giant propeller in chapter four. [There are a couple of recycled cliffhangers as well.] Federal Operator 99 has an interesting cast and characters, including Jay Novello as a diamond cutter and Tom Steele as several thugs and others. Lorna Gray was in many other serials, including Daughter of Don Q and The Perils of Nyoka.

Verdict: Fast-paced and with great fight choreography. ***.

STANWYCK Jane Ellen Wayne

STANWYCK, Jane Ellen Wayne. Arbor House; 1985.

This biography takes a positive approach to Stanwyck's acting and a fairly negative approach to her private life and personality, beginning with a sequence that claims she went to ex-husband Robert Taylor's funeral and made it all about her. There is some behind the scenes info on her films; less analysis of her technique and the major films themselves, although Wayne doesn't ignore them. Wayne implies that Stanwyck sort of convinced Robert Taylor that he was gay, and that an [unnamed] psychologist talked Taylor out of it. These dated passages are laughable, as it is unlikely a man who didn't have some attraction to men would bother seeing a shrink about it in the first place. Wayne does not discuss Stanwyck's sexuality in depth. The book mentions how Stanwyck and first husband Frank Fay adopted a boy and then pretty much abandoned him. Basically this is a good read, however, despite its flaws, and it may give some readers some insight into aspects of the woman's career if not her personal life. NOTE: This was updated after Stanwyck's death and retitled The Life and Loves of Barbara Stanwyck. This author has not seen that book and this review is strictly of the original edition.

Verdict: Not bad, if you take some sections with a grain of salt. ***.


THE DISEMBODIED (1957). Director: Walter Grauman.

"You bad, bad woman!"

Photographer Tom Maxwell (Paul Burke) comes across Dr. Wetz (John Wengraf) and his evil wife Tonda (Allison Hayes) on a jungle back lot. Tonda is a voodoo queen who's learned the secrets of native witch doctors, and she wants her husband dead -- and just wants Maxwell. Norman (Joel Marston) and Joe (Robert Christopher) are Tom's associates, and Dean Fredericks of The Phantom Planet is the native Suba. Wengraf was also in 12 to the Moon and Christopher was in Creature of the Walking Dead. Allison Hayes probably didn't know that she'd shortly star in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Although The Disembodied has a perfectly workable if minor-league plot, it's much too slow and dull to amount to much. Paul Burke went on to better things on television.

Verdict: Even Allison Hayes devotees may want to miss this. **.

JANE EYRE (2011)

Michael Fassbender as Rochester
JANE EYRE (2011). Director: Cary Fukunaga.

"Does that creeping creature want you?"

This new version of the venerable story, filmed so memorably with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles in the forties, begins with Jane (Mia Wasikowska) living with St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and family, and flashing back to her story with Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Scenes at the school/orphanage when she is a child are dispatched with quickly. Wasikowsky plays with quiet intensity. Fassbender is okay as Rochester, but he's not as impressive as he was in X-Men: First Class; in fact sometimes he just seems to be merely reading lines. [In any case, Orson Welles is an awfully hard act to follow.]  Judi Dench is as memorable as ever as Mrs. Fairfax. A handsome production with lousy music, but the story is still great. This was also filmed in 1934, in addition to the classic Welles version and numerous, mostly mediocre remakes and telefilm versions.

Verdict: A sexy Rochester never hurts. ***.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Martine Beswick & Ralph Bates
DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE (1971). Director: Roy Ward Baker.

"I take it all back about Dr. Jekyll being impervious to women -- and he is busy tonight!"

This interesting movie starts with Robert Louis Stevenson's story, adds a sex twist, and throws in murderers and grave robbers Burke and Hare, and even the Jack the Ripper killings -- and pretty much muffs it. Dr. Jekyll (Ralph Bates) hopes to discover the secret of immortality, and he thinks he's found it in the glands of females, but when he can't get enough of the ladies' corpses he improvises. In other words, the movie hardly examines the differences between good and evil when Henry Jekyll is pretty much a rotter even before he turns into "Sister" Hyde. Jekyll's formula has him growing breasts and turning into a woman (Martine Beswick) who masquerades as Jekyll's sister. "My brother isn't quite himself of late," she says. A brother and sister (Lewis Fiander; Susan Brodrick) who live downstairs are each intrigued by the siblings on the floor above. Bates and Beswick are fine -- the latter doesn't get nearly enough to do, however -- but while the movie is entertaining, it doesn't fulfill its potential at all. Beswick played a good gal in Thunderball while Bates made a splendid Victor Frankenstein in Horror of Frankenstein (1970). Baker directed everything from A Night to Remember about the Titanic to Bette Davis in The Anniversary.

Verdict: An intriguing disappointment with a great idea. **1/2.


WHAT A WOMAN (1943). Director: Irving Cummings.

"The merriest man-hunt in kisstory" -- advertising tag line.

Carol Ainsley (Rosalind Russell) is handling the film rights for a novel by one "Anthony Street" and for completely inexplicable reasons thinks that the author -- a college professor named Michael Cobb (Willard Parker) could play the lead in the movie -- without even setting eyes on him! Fortunately he turns out to be a good-looking guy who has no acting experience or ability whatsoever. In the meantime a magazine writer named Henry Pepper (Brian Aherne) keeps trying to do an interview with Carol, and there's the usual dated stuff about successful career women being "frigid" and so on [obviously that particular term is not used]. The leads are okay but this is a predictable and formulaic comedy that has hardly any laughs. Ann Savage, Grady Sutton and Ann Shoemaker all have small roles, and Gertrude Hoffmann plays the maid, Hattie.

Verdict: What a movie -- not! **.


MY REPUTATION (1946). Director: Curtis Bernhardt.

Released in 1946, My Reputation was made -- and takes place -- three years earlier. Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) has just lost her husband after a long illness, and doesn't quite know how to handle the emptiness she's left with. She has two young boys, a difficult if somewhat wise old mother (Lucile Watson) and some good friends, including Ginna Abbott (Eve Arden), but the loneliness she feels can be crushing. On a holiday with Ginna and her husband Cary (John Ridgely), she accidentally meets Major Scott Landis (George Brent) and the two begin a decidedly unconventional romance... and soon gossipy tongues are wagging. This has a superb, sophisticated, literate script by Catherine Turney, and features another of Stanwyck's sterling star performances. The supporting cast -- Arden, Watson, Esther Dale as the housekeeper, Jerome Cowan as a lecherous married friend, Scotty Beckett as one of her boys and others -- are swell, and George Brent, if not on Stanwyck's level, strikes the right note throughout. This is a lovely, beautifully-made movie with a moving ending. Max Steiner's score is one of his best, and cinematographer James Wong Howe ensured that Stanwyck looks luminescent.

Verdict: Another great Stanwyck picture. ****.


Malachi Throne & Robert Wagner
MAGNIFICENT THIEF 1968 telefilm.

Alexander Mundy (Robert Wagner), one of the world's best thieves, is given a pardon if he agrees to work for government agency SIA under the supervision of one Noah Bain (Malachi Throne). As Bain puts it, "we're not asking you to spy; we're asking you to steal." Naturally Mundy is put up in a mansion with three beautiful women, including Senta Burger, as his assistants. After that he is sent out on a mission and seems to go rogue to complete it. In any case, the soundtrack is loud [although the theme music is nice] and there are very few thrills. Wagner saunters through the movie without raising a sweat. John Saxon and Michael Forest give the best performances as two of the bad guys. The telefilm is packed with special guest stars including Raymond Burr, Leslie Neilsen, Susan St. James, and Doug McClure and James Drury as airline ticket agents. This was the pilot for the series It Takes a Thief.

Verdict: Slick in all the wrong ways. *.


JUNGLE DRUMS OF AFRICA (12 chapter Republic serial/1953). Director: Fred C. Brannon.

Alan King (Clayton Moore) and Bert Hadley (Johnny Spencer) only want to build a road while Carol Bryant (a blond Phyllis Coates) wants to continue her father's medical work, but they have to contend with bad guy Kurgan (Henry Rowland), who owns a trading shop, and his gang, who are after uranium deposits. As Chief Douanga, Bill Walker is so pleasant that you want to invite him over for supper. Joel Fluellen of Monster from Green Hell and Tom Steele are also in the cast. Cliffhangers such as the lion pit and wind tunnel are borrowed from earlier serials. Uninteresting story, dull villains, and nothing of great consequence, although the chimp, who loves to get into shaving cream, is terrific. Nice score by Stanley Wilson.

Verdict: With Moore, Coates, and an adorable chimp doing their best to put over tired material. **.


MANEATER OF HYDRA (aka Island of the Doomed/1967). Director: Ernst Ritter von Theumer. Written by Mel Welles.

"Everyone has his own way of enjoying himself -- the baron and his plants that eat mice ..."

Baron von Weser (Cameron Mitchell) hosts a party of tourists that include Cora Robinson (Kai Fischer), a manhunter with an older husband (Ralph von Nackhoff); David Moss (George Martin), a handsome architect, and his girlfriend Beth (Elisa Montes); and Myrtle (Matilde Munoz Sampedro),, an annoying old woman who is always snapping pictures. As an actor Mel Welles was in the original Little Shop of Horrors -- as a writer, well let's just say he's not as good as he is as an actor. The "vampire tree" of the ads doesn't actually show up until the film's final moments, and by then most of the audience will have fallen asleep. Not as much fun if just as awful as From Hell It Came and Navy vs. the Night Monsters. Mitchell was also in Blood and Black Lace and many others.

Verdict: Quite tedious. **.


Jake Gyllenhaal
SOURCE CODE (2011). Director: Duncan Jones.

An agent named Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) discovers that he is in some kind of containment chamber, and that his mind is being sent back in time again and again to find out who planted a bomb on a Chicago train that exploded, an event that already occurred. Other events have been threatened and time is running out, so Stevens has been part of an experiment in "time reassignment" which sends him to a parallel time -- or something like that. Although Stevens has been told that everyone on the train is already dead, he's still determined to do his best to save them, especially a young woman who is the girlfriend of the man whose "body" Stevens is inhabiting each time he re-visits the train. Source Code has a lot of intriguing ideas, but it's a bit confusing, and perhaps because of this you don't really get caught up in it. You want to be moved and thrilled but you always feel at a distance. Gyllenhaal is fine, however.

Verdict: Half-baked sci fi with interesting elements and a solid lead performance. **1/2.