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

Thursday, March 29, 2012


Wilcoxon and Colbert
CLEOPATRA (1934). Director: Cecil B. DeMille.

"I am dying, Egypt, dying."

In 48 B.C. Egyptian princess Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) first falls in love with Julius Caesar (Warren William) and then feels even more passion for the magnetic Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon). In the meantime, there is a lot of  jockeying for power and all sorts of heinous betrayal from many quarters. This is an opulent, totally absorbing bit of "Hollywood" history that is remarkably entertaining from start to finish. Colbert gives one of her finest performances, matched by florid William and studly Wilcoxon as her paramours. Other stand-outs in a fine supporting cast include Ian Keith as Octavian and Joseph Schildkraut as King Herod. This film also has the bit with Cleo wrapped up in a rug that was featured in the inferior remake with Elizabeth Taylor. One of the film's highlights is the detailed, briskly-edited montage of the war between Rome and Egypt, with a smitten Antony desperately fighting against his own countrymen out of love for Cleo. Fascinating, handsomely produced, and well-directed -- and ultimately moving.

Verdict: DeMille and Colbert at the height of their power. ****.



Did you know that the Green Hornet was actually a descendant of the Lone Ranger [both characters were created for the radio by the same people]?  This is one of several interesting factoids that fill Gripping Chapters, a fond look back at the wonderful cliffhanger serials by an obvious admirer. There are looks at cliffhangers from various sources, comparing the serial with the original (comic, radio show, work of fiction, pulp story etc,), as well as chapters on types of cliffhangers and "cliffovers" [where somebody or something goes over a cliff], stock footage and bloopers, familiar faces in the serials, prominent directors, and so on. There are lots of illustrations as well. The best thing about the book is that I learned about quite a few movie serials that I was unfamiliar with [and I thought I had a list of every one ever made, poor fool I!] Although movie serials died out in the 1950's, it's wonderful that they are probably more widely seen than ever, thanks to DVDs. Thanks to this book, I can catch up with even more of them. 

Verdict: Anyone who loves cliffhanger serials ... ***


John Wayne and Elizabeth Allen
DONOVAN'S REEF (1963). Director: John Ford.

"What young girl of my age doesn't contemplate matrimony?" -- Miss Lafleur [Dorothy Lamour at 49]

On an island in French Polynesia lives bar owner Donovan (John Wayne) and his fighting buddy Gilhooey (Lee Marvin), who are always punching each other out over a long-ago offense neither can remember, and the local doctor Dedham (Jack Warden). While Dedham is off-island his daughter Amelia (Elizabeth Allen) from Boston society, who has never met her father, shows up on the island. [She has been told that Daddy's inheritance will go to her if she can prove moral lapses on his part, but this sub-plot is dropped pretty early, with no mention of it made again.] Donovan is afraid Amelia will have a bad reaction if she discovers that she has three "half-caste" siblings so he pretends the children are his own -- a bad idea. Meanwhile the island's governor (Cesar Romero) learns how much money Miss Dedham has and tries to interfere with her budding romance with Donovan. [When 56-year-old Wayne smooches with 34-year-old Allen, it's like she's kissing her father!] This is a perfectly amiable, minor-league film with more than adequate performances that holds the attention while never quite being side-splitting or terribly dramatic. But while it's sort of a slice-of-life movie in some ways, its presentation of Polynesian ways is rather cliched, and it's nowhere in the league of Ford's How Green Was My Valley. For some reason, Ford doesn't use nearly enough close ups, possibly to minimize the age difference between the romantic leads. Dorothy Lamour isn't given much to do as a saloon entertainer who hopes to marry Gilhooey. Some amusing scenes and beautiful scenery, and Dedham's children are adorable. Allen was basically a theater actress who starred on Broadway in the Richard Rodgers-Stephen Sondheim collaboration Do I Hear a Waltz?

Verdict: This shouldn't work at all but somehow it entertains in spite of itself. ***.



Van Dyke states right at the outset that if you're looking for "dirt," go elsewhere, but in spite of that this is a frank and very readable, highly entertaining tome. Dyke writes intelligently of his early night club career as one half of a duo, his initial forays into television before hitting it big with the successful Dick Van Dyke sitcom, and his interesting movie career, with such highlights as Mary Poppins and Bye Bye Birdie. He writes of how he and his wife [and mother of his children] drifted apart, then how he began a 35 year relationship with the late Michelle Triola, famous for her palimony case against ex-lover Lee Marvin. He admits he had a troubling battle against alcoholism, occasionally falling off the wagon even after going public. His program Diagnosis Murder, which ran even longer than his sitcom, proved that there was an audience for older performers on television. [Now Hollywood may finally be getting the message that they can also gear movies for older audiences.] Basically, Van Dyke comes off as a likable character grateful for his success and the opportunities he was given, and gives much credit to those who helped him along the way.

Verdict: A darn good read. ***1/2.


HORROR ISLAND (1941). Director: George Waggner.

When Bill (Dick Foran) and partner Stuff (Fuzzy Knight) discover that the former has inherited an island with a castle on it, they decide to bring tourists there for a treasure hunt. Tobias (Leo Carrillo) insists that the island hides pirate Henry Morgan's treasure, but half of his map showing where it is supposedly located has been stolen by a phantom with a mask and cloak. This same phantom shows up on the island, of course, where he sneaks among such guests as Wendy (Peggy Moran), George (John Eldredge) and Arleen (Iris Adrian). Although there are a couple of murders, if you're expecting anything really horrific on or in the badly named "Horror Island," try another movie. This is an okay time-passer with reasonably pleasant performances and a very slight dab of atmosphere.

Verdict: At least it's not very long. **1/2.


Ross Martin and Robert Conrad
THE WILD, WILD WEST Season two. 1966. CBS-television.

James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemis Gordon (Ross Martin) are back for a second [now in color] season of the post-Civil War spy series, The Wild, Wild West. Amidst a plethora of mediocre and plain silly episodes are some more notable stories, such as the exciting "Night of the Raven" with Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn) and Phyllis Newman [better than you might imagine] as an  Indian princess. "Big Blast" guest-stars Ida Lupino as Dr. Faustino, who uses human bomb duplicates of Artie and Jim to try to blow up Congress! "Ready-Made Corpse" features Carroll O'Connor as a man who provides new faces for wanted criminals. "Man-Eating House" is a weird -- too weird -- but entertaining episode guest-starring Hurd Hatfield as an escaped jailbird in a creepy old haunted house. Dr. Loveless reappears in "Bogus Bandits" -- also guest-starring the inimitable Patsy Kelley -- staging bank robberies yet throwing away the money! The two most memorable episodes feature female antagonists: Delphi Lawrence makes an excellent Lucrece Posey, trying to form a criminal group of hit men in "Poisonous Posey"; and no less than Agnes Moorehead plays a murderous marriage broker in "Vicious Valentine," which probably has the most suspenseful climax of any season two episode. Another notable episode is "Tottering Tontine," in which members of a survivor-takes-all financial concern are wiped out one by one in a sinister old mansion by the sea. The Wild, Wild West was an imperfect series, but almost always entertaining in spite of it. The boys report to a portly colonel in many of the episodes, and President Grant himself appears in at least one story. Artie and Jim are always impeccably dressed in beautiful old-style suits with matching vests, and Conrad continues to wear the tightest pants on television -- for a 19th century secret service man no less! Other interesting guest-stars include Boris Karloff, Sammy Davis, Jr., Leslie Parrish, William Talman, Tom Drake, and Victor Buono. Click here to read about season one of the show.

Verdict: Still fun. ***.


SANCTUM (2011). Director: Alister Grierson.

Very loosely inspired by a true incident which fortunately had no fatalities, Sanctum deals with a group of cavern explorers who are trapped inside a huge, twisting network of often underwater caves in New Guinea after a storm cuts off their exit. If there's any problem with the move it's that the leader of the group, Frank (Richard Roxburgh) is a total cliche, the expedient, practical hard-as-nails S.O.B. who shows little emotion until the script demands that he do so. During the movie Frank slowly bonds with his disgusted son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield), who doesn't share his interest in exploring. Ioan Gruffudd from Fantastic Four is another explorer who in a suspect "dramatic" development goes nuts after his girlfriend dies a horrible death in the caves [the women in this are much less dimensional than the main male characters]. For the first half of the movie you can't tell who anybody is because of the face masks, and don't especially care. The picture gets better and more suspenseful as it goes along, and is ultimately reasonably entertaining. But a much better script that avoided stereotypes and developed its characters better would have been welcome.  This picture got a little more attention than it might have because it was produced by James Cameron (Titanic).

Verdict: Nice scenery, even if most of this was filmed on a sound stage. **1/2.

Friday, March 23, 2012


The real stars: Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood
HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941). Director: John Ford.

A look at the lives of several residents of a Welsh mining town, especially focusing on Mr. and Mrs. Morgan (Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood), and their youngest son Huw (Roddy McDowall)  and daughter Angharad (Maureen O'Hara). There are marriages, births and deaths, and a split between Morgan and his older sons, and indeed the other miners, when he doesn't support a strike. In the meantime Angharad marries the mine owner's son while pining for minister Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), causing some tongues to wag. Although Pidgeon and O'Hara are the top-billed "stars" [Pidgeon just sort of says lines while O'Hara is fine], the real stars of the movie are Crisp and Allgood, both of whom are superb; Allgood probably never had as good or large a part as this. Young McDowall is also excellent. The film is beautifully photographed by Arthur C. Miller, and has a fine score by Alfred Newman. There are some striking and touching tableaus throughout the movie. John Loder and Patric Knowles are two of the older sons. Barry Fitzgerald and his brother Arthur Shields [who overacts in this] have smaller roles.Ethel Griffies is a gossiping housekeeper. Some may prefer The Quiet Man, but this is a far superior film, and one of Ford's most memorable achievements.

Verdict: Just lovely. ***1/2.


Robby Benson, Julie Harris, Michael Cristofer
THE LAST OF MRS. LINCOLN (1976). Producer/director: George Schaefer. Based on the play by James Prideaux. Broadway Theater Archive DVD.

"We may have been the first family, but we were far from rich."

"After your father was taken from us, people said it would get easier. But it doesn't. It gets harder."

"It is not the years that age us, but loneliness."

Recreating the Broadway show, The Last of Mrs. Lincoln was presented as a telefilm on PBS in 1976. It is wonderful that there will always be a permanent record of Julie Harris' superb performance as Mary Todd Lincoln in the days after the assassination of her husband. Then she has to deal with the death [after already losing two other children and a husband] of her 18-year-old son, Tad (Robby Benson), and what she wrongly sees as the betrayal of her oldest son Robert (Michael Cristofer) when he is forced to have her institutionalized when she has a nervous breakdown. She comes to the home of her sister (Priscilla Morrill), who after all these years still doesn't think Abraham Lincoln was worthy of her. [A great scene in a play full of many has Mary telling off an old biddy (Kate Wilkinson) who has supposedly come calling out of friendship but really just wants to crow.] Mary bonds with a young nephew (Patrick Duffy) who has more respect for her and her memories than almost everyone else around her. Benson and Cristofer are excellent in a stellar cast without a bad performance. The play takes incidents in history and makes them come alive, fleshing out these people in a way no history book could. Although it's excellent at delineating a certain time and place [from 1865 Chicago to Springfield many years later], it also reveals some universal truths. Cristofer later wrote the play The Shadow Box (which was also made into a telefilm) and now appears on the TV show Smash.

Verdict: A masterpiece. ****.


CLAUDE RAINS: AN ACTORS VOICE. David J. Skal with Jessica Rains. University Press of Kentucky; 2008.

The consummate and busy actor Claude Rains appeared in everything from The Invisible Man and The Wolfman to Deception and Now, Voyager, [among others] with Bette Davis, to famous classics such as Casablanca and Hitchcock's Notorious to lesser items like The Unsuspected and The Lost World. In this excellent, long-overdue biography, Skal traces Rains' life from his early days in London and his work as a stage manager and actor, to his long and distinguished career in Hollywood, as well as dissecting his private life and disappointing marriages. The book is bolstered by interviews he gave for a planned biography that never materialized due to his death and the death of the biographer. Rains' daughter, Jessica, also contributed much information. Skal looks at virtually all of Rains' films and theater and television work with behind-the-scenes details and insights into Rains' working methods.

Not to nitpick -- this is an excellent book -- but a few passages struck me as odd, especially the following. Writing on Notorious, Skal says: "Hitchcock's first choice for the role was Clifton Webb, whose arch screen persona would likely have underscored the subtextual implications of homosexuality in the mother-dominated [bold mine] character. But the story called for Sebastian to be genuinely, achingly in love with the Bergman character, and Webb would arguably have been not quite believable in the part." First, I'm glad Skal put "arguably" in that last sentence, because Clifton Webb was a superb actor, and regardless of his private life, could play -- and did play -- many roles of heterosexual men in love with women, and he played them well and completely believably. Second, the theory that gay men are gay because their mothers dominated them is a completely -- in fact, hilariously -- out-dated theory --- Is Skal still living in the 19th century?  Well, elsewhere he uses the more clinical "homosexual" instead of "gay" [which is sort of like saying Negro instead of Black] so I guess that answers that question. Of course, we won't even get into the fact that Rains could be seen as being every bit as effeminate as Webb, especially compared to burly American men of whatever sexual orientation. Or that there are lots of gay actors who are perfectly convincing in straight roles, and that most gay men aren't "big queens" anyway. But I digress. To be fair to Skal, the mother-dominated theory was popular at the time the film was made.

Overall, however, Claude Rains: An Actor's Voice is a memorable, well-researched, well-written biography that will interest most lovers of classic film and fine acting.

Verdict: Don't rain on this Rains. ***1/2.


Ada Ince with affectionate robot
THE VANISHING SHADOW (12 chapter Universal serial/1934). Director: Louis Friedlander [Lew Landers].

Stanley Stanfield (Onslow Stevens), the son of a man ruined by the wicked Ward Barnett (Walter Miller) finds himself an unexpected ally in the person of Barnett's daughter, Gloria (Ada Ince), who strongly disapproves of her father's activities and hopes to reform him. Fat chance. In the meantime Stanfield -- whom Barnett has framed for murder -- has another ally in weird Professor Van Dorn (James Durkin) who has invented a machine that can make a man vanish, leaving behind only his shadow [hence, the "vanishing shadow"]. Virtually the entire cast disappears using this device at one point or another. Van Dorn has also invented a death ray that can zap plants, buildings and people, and a big robot that runs wild and is almost as much of a threat as the bad guys. There are some lively fist fights in this, and exciting cliffhangers as well: a car is smashed by a train; the death ray runs amok; Gloria walks into an electro-field; and so on. The Vanishing Shadow is not badly acted [look for Lee J. Cobb in a small role] and is a fun if very silly serial.

Verdict: Enjoyable hokum. ***.


Olivia Hussey on the phone
BLACK CHRISTMAS (aka Silent Night, Evil Night; Stranger in the House/1974). Director: Bob Clark. Screenplay by Roy Moore.

A group of sorority girls getting ready for Christmas start disappearing and being murdered one by one. Olivia Hussey is the heroine, Jess, with her boyfriend played by Keir Dullea of 2001: A Space Odyssey. John Saxon is a cop, Art Hindle is another boyfriend, and Andrea Martin -- later a comedienne on Saturday Night Live -- plays another of the very likable students. Margot Kidder is an obnoxious drunk and Marian Waldman plays Mrs. Mac, the house mother who likes to tipple from a secret stash. Lynn Griffin is appealing as the first victim, Clare. Black Christmas isn't perfect, but it's suspenseful and creepy and well-acted by the entire cast, and unlike most future mad slasher films presents some dimensional characters as well -- you care about these young ladies when they get murdered. A bit with a caller on the phone and his location was later used in When a Stranger Calls. The film was remade in 2006 with Martin playing the den mother; the original is superior.

Verdict: Not a classic but not badly made and intelligent -- and ultimately depressing. ***.


From woodcut artist, Loren Kantor,:

"I'm a woodcut artist living in Los Angeles.
I've carved a number of original woodcut prints inspired by my favorite films.
I thought you might be interested.  Here are several links to my blog with classic films involved:"


THE PRESTIGE (2006). Director: Christopher Nolan.

"Just because you're sleeping with him doesn't mean he trusts you."

Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), aka the Great Danton, and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are rival magicians, both desperate to pull off the ultimate illusion and find out how the other does his tricks. While The Prestige has some fascinating and suspenseful elements, and is well-acted [especially by Michael Caine in a supporting part], Christopher Nolan tries a non-linear approach to the narrative that insures that that the viewer is almost continuously confused. Is this happening now, in the past, the day after tomorrow -- who knows? You may not like the picture enough to go for repeated viewings, but it's entertaining enough for a one-time looksee. David Bowie is a weird scientist type, and Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall are the ladies in the magicians' lives. The movie goes in odd, almost supernatural or sci fi directions, but the approach actually limits the effectiveness of these ideas instead of taking full advantage of them. It's almost as if Nolan was afraid of making a genre picture. Still, it's certainly something different.

Verdict: Perhaps too strange for its own good. **1/2.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


"Where's the rest of me?" Ann Sheridan &  Ronald Reagan
KINGS ROW (1942). Director: Sam Wood.

"He went to a place in my heart that was waiting for him."

Small-town boys and buddies Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings) and Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan) have misadventures and romantic entanglements; a climactic crisis develops when the latter loses his legs in the movie's most famous sequence. When Warner Brothers decided to do an adaptation of Henry Bellamann's controversial novel -- the Peyton Place of its day -- they first had to bowdlerize it to please the production code, then made grievous mistakes in casting and choosing the director. Although Sam Wood had directed a few "serious" films before, his best movies were comedies like the magnificent "A Night at the Opera," and he wasn't a wise choice for this particular production. While actors such as Bob Cummings, Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan could be perfectly swell in lighter parts, and are competent enough in Kings Row, they are hardly the best choices for the leads, giving the film a hollow center. But worse, the movie is talky and ponderous and its "big" moments don't really work at all. Charles Coburn is given one of his most loathsome characterizations after In This Our Life and Claude Rains doesn't even have a real character to play as the movie removed the incestuous relationship between him and his daughter (Betty Field); he now kills her and then himself because she wanted to leave home and was "mental" -- what a guy! The most powerful and haunting sequence in the movie has nothing to do with the main storyline but shows a miserable little boy, Willie, weeping hysterically on a stoop as his father, being operated on without anesthetic, screams out from the house behind him. Willie was played by the talented child actor, Henry Blair [in fact it might be said that the other child actors, Scotty Beckett and Douglas Croft, who play Parris and Drake as boys, out-act their adult counterparts. The following year Croft was the first actor to play Robin in the Batman serial.] The best thing about the movie is Erich Wolfgang Korngold's  theme music: it's a good thing it's so beautiful because it's repeated and repeated and repeated throughout the movie. Scripter Casey Robinson contributed some decent dialogue but it's generally mouthed by the wrong actors. The improbable ending suffers from its being rushed as well as from Reagan's insufficient acting.

Verdict: Listen to the opening credits, wait for Willie's scene, and then turn it off. **.


THE LAND UNKNOWN (1957). Director: Virgil Vogel.

A helicopter carrying passengers lands in a lost world full of prehistoric animals and dangerous plant life. No, it's not The Lost World, it's The Land Unknown, which came out from Universal three years earlier and was similarly in CinemaScope [if black and white]. The Technicolor 20th Century-Fox production of Lost World, with bigger names in the cast and a ton of publicity, sort of eclipsed this earlier film, which is not bad at all. Commander Roberts (Jock Mahoney), reporter Maggie Hathaway (Shawn Smith), Lt. Carmen (William Reynolds) and machinist's mate Steve Miller (Phil Harvey) set out in their copter to explore the South Pole and wind up descending through mist into a lost world of monsters, discovering the sole human inhabitant is a crashed scientist, Dr. Hunter (Henry Brandon). There are lots of gigantic slithering lizards (which Hunter can control with a horn), some mechanical T-Rex's with slobbering jaws, and a creditable lake monster with big flippers and a long memory, not to mention a big rubbery plant that badly wants to wrap its tentacles around Maggie Hathaway. The optical work can be uneven, but there are many effective shots, as well as an exciting bit with Comdr. Roberts running from a voracious T-Rex. There are some impressive and elaborate sets and excellent art direction, and the film manages to work up some suspense [if the group doesn't get out of this valley in a certain number of days, their ship will leave without them]. Despite their phony appearance, the T-Rex's are better than the ones in Unknown Island and actually work well enough in context. Despite the absence of stop-motion effects, which would have greatly improved the picture, The Land Unknown is still quite entertaining, with the cast more than adequate for the proceedings. Vogel also directed The Mole People. Henry Brandon had a very long list of credits, probably his most famous role being nasty old Barnaby in the 1934 Laurel and Hardy masterpiece Babes in Toyland, in which he was made up to look older than he does in Land Unknown 23 years later! He also had the title role in the 1940 cliffhanger serial Drums of Fu Manchu. Phil Harvey appeared in a number of Universal horror/sci fi films of the period, including The Monolith Monsters. NOTE: This movie is now available in a remastered DVD which keeps the widescreen ratio intact and is complete, a far better way to see it than on TV with commercials, missing sequences, and no Cinemascope, which is how most people have seen it, unfortunately.

Verdict: For big lizard and lost world lovers. ***.


Colbert gives a come hither look in "Four"
FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE (1934). Director: Cecil B. DeMille.

"This is practically virgin territory."

"Perhaps that's why Corder doesn't like it."

When bubonic plague breaks out on a ship, four passengers escape in a small boat and wind up in Malaya, where they have to go through a jungle with various pitfalls to, hopefully, make it to civilization. The four are geography teacher Judy Jones (Claudette Colbert), reporter Stewart Corder (William Gargan), society do-gooder Mrs. Mardick (Mary Boland), and unhappily married Arnold Ainger (Herbert Marshall). Leo Carillo plays Montague, who guides the four through the jungle. The prim, unsophisticated Judy blossoms into a woman during the trek, and soon Corder and Ainger are competing for her, even as some natives want to keep portly Mrs. Mardick prisoner until the others can return with her weight in rice. The rather dull narrative [despite all the goings-on] is briefly enlivened by the appearance of a carnivorous plant that eats a cute animal, and a playful chimp [probably played by the famous, talented Cheetah] who steals Judy's shoes. Colbert is initially quite good in the film, completely de-glamorized, but later on becomes shrill and irritating, overplaying every scene; the other actors are fine. Colbert gave some fine performances, but this is not one of them. DeMille made some great movies, but this is a tiresome throwaway, pretentious and often predictable.NOTE: This is the shorter 78 minute version, which is quite long enough.

Verdict: One trip through the jungle you can avoid. **.

'TIS HERSELF Maureen O'Hara

'TIS HERSELF A Memoir. Maureen O'Hara with John Nicoletti. Simon and Schuster; 2004.

Extremely well-written by Nicoletti, this memoir of the red-headed Irish actress describes her journey from Good Catholic Girl in Dublin from a well-heeled, cultured family, to life in Hollywood as a movie star, most famously associated with Johns Ford and Wayne. As O'Hara describes the making of such films as How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man, as well as the turmoil of her private life and disastrous early marriages, the book almost reads more like a page-turning novel than non-fiction. While the last sections of the book are not quite as absorbing, there is still some interesting stuff surrounding the mysterious death of her last husband, and some readers may enjoy her inside tales of her long friendship with "Duke" Wayne. The most fascinating material has to do with the contrary character of director John Ford, who used her more than any other actress, but snapped that she couldn't act when asked about her by a student. Ford's love/hate for O'Hara went on for decades, and she observes that he was probably conflicted about his sexuality -- she saw him smooching with a guy -- and imagined he was in love with her [or the character she played in The Quiet Man]. Her religiosity isn't too oppressive, and thankfully she doesn't go much into her presumably conservative politics [although Roddy McDowell tried to explain to her why she would probably never be honored in liberal Hollywood]. Although O'Hara styles herself as feisty and independent, one can't imagine Davis, Crawford or Stanwyck putting up with Ford's nasty, almost insane behavior for as long as she did [I mean, the man tried to have her arrested, had her thrown out of a film she wanted to do for another director behind her back, destroyed her brother's career, prevented her from getting an Oscar nomination and on and on]. She also stayed married to her alcoholic, unloving, abusive, parasitical second husband for way too long. [Marrying "for better or worse," she married for worse!] One wonders how she would have behaved had she wound up in today's Hollywood or wasn't such a Good Catholic Girl? Anyway, this is a frank and interesting memoir.

Verdict: A damn good read for most of its length. ***1/2.


Barbara Stanwyck and Paul Douglas in a tense moment
CLASH BY NIGHT (1952). Director: Fritz Lang. Based on the play by Clifford Odets; screenplay by Alfred Hayes.

"Home is where you come when you run out of places."

"I'm tired of looking after men. I want to be looked after!"

"I guess it's terrible to get old and lonely. I guess that's what everyone's afraid of."

"You impress me as a man who needs a new suit of clothes or a new love affair, but he doesn't know which." 

Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to the fishing village where she was born to escape unhappy memories of her failure to find lasting love and success in New York. She begins dating fisherman Jerry D'Amato (Paul Douglas) but can't stand his insolent friend Earl (Robert Ryan) and at first fights her attraction to him. Mae eventually marries one of those men, and an unpleasant triangle situation develops. The basic plot may be nothing new, but this is based on a play by Clifford Odets and has a richness of character and detail that lifts it far above the usual marital infidelity drama. Stanwyck and Douglas are superb and Ryan gives one of his finest performances which calls on him to be both hard and pathetically vulnerable. J. Carroll Naish gives another of his exemplary performances as Jerry's uncle, and Silvio Minciotti also scores as his old papa. There's also very nice work from Keith Andes [introduced in the film] and Marilyn Monroe [in her pre-stardom days] as, respectively, Mae's somewhat disapproving brother and his rather independent girlfriend. The film is very well directed by Fritz Lang, and beautifully photographed by Nicholas Musuraca. The only negative thing about the movie is the phoney Hollywood happy ending forced on it by the production code.

Verdict: It's a shame this lovely, intense adult drama isn't better known. ***1/2.


Joan Bennett and Claude Rains
THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD (1934). Director: Edward Ludwig.

"She mustn't be shy. I don't want her to be. I was shy. It's been my curse."

Paul Verin (Claude Rains) is wary of going into partnership with publisher Henry Dumont (Lionel Atwill) because he was burned by him once before, but he has a wife (Joan Bennett) and daughter who will need a higher standard of living. So Verin agrees to ghost-write Dumont's editorials, making the latter beloved and famous. Unfortunately, while Verin is a war-hater, Dumont is secretly working with munition manufacturers [and trying to woo Verin's wife] and stirring up war fervor in order to make a profit. To this end he begins replacing Verin's words with his own ... Things ultimately all come to a "head." Despite the gruesome finale this is not a horror film but an interesting drama. Atwill and Bennett are wonderful and Rains is superb. We can tell Dumont is a miserable character because he has the appalling taste of coming on to Bennett during the beautiful Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde! Badly remade as Strange Confession with Lon Chaney Jr. in 1945.

Verdict:  Another great Rains performance. ***.


SHARK NIGHT (2011). Director: David R. Ellis.

"There's no such thing as sickness anymore. It's all moral relativism."

A group of college friends go to a cabin on a salt water lake for a fun weekend, only to discover that someone has stocked the lake with a variety of voracious sharks. This Jaws reinvented for the youtube generation [while nowhere near as memorable] has despicable villains who want to get footage of people being eaten so they can make money from sickos who want to view the carnage on the Internet. Some geeky gorehounds hated Shark Night because it wasn't as gross or graphic as Piranha 3D, but Shark Night is actually a better movie, with a more interesting plot and some suspense. The characters seem to actually care about each other. Nevertheless Shark Night could have used some punching up, not with more gore necessarily [although the heartless bad guys expire a bit too quickly] but with a faster pace and more adroit editing. The cast of young actors is attractive and more than capable of handling what is required of them. Chris Carmack makes an impression as a bad guy all whacked out because of a scar on his face that would hardly keep the ladies from bedding him, while Dustin Milligan scores as the more sensitive Nick. Sinqua Walls is suitably intense as a determined man who has lost his arm and his girlfriend to the sharks and wants to get even. Sara Paxton makes a credible heroine and the other ladies are fine. One stupid moment has Nick finding his friend's severed arm intact after he's bitten by a shark -- but why wouldn't the shark have eaten the arm? He didn't attack the guy just to be nasty.

Verdict: Entertaining thriller just misses being really memorable. **1/2.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


Lizabeth Scott and Charlton Heston
DARK CITY (1950). Director: William Dieterle.

"We're a great pair. I haven't got a voice and you have no ear."

Danny Haley (Charlton Heston), who has a shady past, participates in a poker game which he thinks is honest but ultimately fleeces a former soldier, Arthur Winant (Don DeFore) of a five thousand dollar check that doesn't belong to him, causing Winant to commit suicide. As Haley dodges questions from Captain Garvey (Dean Jagger) and words of love from smitten songstress Fran (Lizabeth Scott), a mysterious figure with a big ring is murdering all the men who were in the card game. Trying to track down the killer, Haley even becomes involved with Winant's widow, Victoria (Viveca Lindfors) and her little boy, Billy (Mark Keuning). Heston was introduced in this picture and has a certain intensity and ability, even if one couldn't say he was exactly a brilliant performer. Scott and Lindfors are both more than adequate if not incredibly impressive; both have been better. DeFore, Jagger, Ed Begley, Harry Morgan and especially Jack Webb [in a role very different from what he played on Dragnet] give the most notable performances. The characters could all have used a little more dimension, but at least this holds the attention and has a nice ending.

Verdict: Not prime film noir but not without interest. ***.


DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (1940). Director: Dorothy Arzner.

"Bubbles is like a kid who can't stand it if a kid has one marble even if she's got twenty."

Madame Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya) has a rag tag group of girls with whom she hopes to re-enter the big time. The only one who gets any offers is the spirited "Bubbles" (Lucille Ball), who soon becomes known as "Tiger Lily White", burlesque queen. She gets the theater to hire the more sedate Judy (Maureen O'Hara) to do her ballet specialty, but on her first night Judy realizes she's only meant to be Bubbles' stooge as the men boo and hiss her and call for Tiger Lily. The women are also rivals for Jimmy Harris (Louis Hayward), who is carrying a torch for his ex-wife Elinor (Virginia Field). In the meantime, dance producer Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy) is, unbeknownst to Judy, highly interested in her and her career. O'Hara, Hayward and Field are all fine, but Lucille steals the show in a role which is nothing at all like her famous "Lucy" of TV fame. Hard-boiled but lovable, this tough dame also scintillates in her musical numbers. The famous cat fight between the two women is much too brief to make much of an impression. Ouspenskaya is killed off early on and Sydney Blackmer has a bit as Elinor's new husband. Sporadically entertaining, but pretty minor-league with an awkward script, this would probably be forgotten were it not for the exciting presence of Lucille Ball.

Verdict: Lucy fans will enjoy this most of all. **1/2.


THE BLACK SCORPION (1957). Director: Edward Ludwig.

"I'll not protect him from the devil just by lighting candles."

If the residents of Mexico didn't have enough problems with a massive earthquake and subsequent lava flow, things get even worse when a crack in the earth unleashes once-dormant prehistoric -- and man-eating -- scorpions of enormous size from a fissure.Willis O'Brien of King Kong fame supervised the special effects, and Pete Peterson did some splendid animation, creating scuttling, fast-moving, fluid horrors like something out of a nightmare. There's a harrowing sequence set in an underground cavern full of giant scorpions and other monsters, as well as an effectively grotesque scene when the scorpions attack a train. The biggest scorpion -- "the granddaddy of them all" -- then kills off all of the smaller ones and rampages through Mexico city for a climax in a bullring. In a movie like this the actors hardly matter, but Richard Denning [Michael Shayne] and Mara Corday [Girls on the Loose] are the nominal stars as, respectively, a geologist and a ranch owner. Carlos Rivas [Dr. Ramos], Pascal Garcia Pena [Dr. de la Cruz], and Mario Navarro [little Juanito] also appeared in The Beast of Hollow Mountain the previous year. NOTE: For more about this and similar films, see Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies.

Verdict: Crude at times but undeniably exciting. ***.


DESILU: THE STORY OF LUCILLE BALL AND DESI ARNAZ. Coyne Steven Sanders and Tom Gilbert. New and Expanded Edition. Itbooks; 2011.

This isn't just the story of I Love Lucy, but of the marriage [and eventual divorce] of Ball and Arnaz, their Desilu empire and its successes [Star Trek] and failures [Guestward Ho], Lucy's subsequent TV shows after Lucy went off the air, and the often unsavory private lives of both individuals. Desi's business sense was often compromised by his heavy drinking, and after awhile he was incapable of helming Desilu. Ball could be kind to friends and associates, but on other occasions she could be a real monster. [According to this she had guest star Joan Crawford in tears!] Bolstered by many interviews, including with daughter Lucie Arnaz, this goes behind the scenes of The Lucy Show, Here's Lucy, and Ball's last attempt at a TV show, Life with Lucy, with comments from the cast. The book also looks into her marriage with second husband Gary Morton. You'll find lots of info on William Frawley and Vivian Vance as well.

Verdict: An inside, page-turning look at television's most famous and influential couple. ***1/2. 


BLOOD MONEY: A History of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle. Richard Nowell. Continuum; 2011.

This book reads like a college thesis, which is probably how it originated. An editor would probably have been wise to cut out the passages where Nowell writes about what he's going to be saying in the rest of the chapter, which we can actually read for ourselves on the next pages. His constantly spelling out and summing up -- making the same points over and over -- gets annoying. That being said, it must also be said that this is not a critical study of the slasher genre, at least not of individual movies, although Nowell does make some interesting points about them as a by-product. Instead the book looks more at the business end of the teen slasher cycle, how it came about from a commercial stand-point, and which films actually influenced the cycle in both the financial and creative sense. Nowell argues that the first teen slasher pic was actually the Canadian Black Christmas (1974) and not the better-known and more successful Halloween. [Of course many consider Friday the 13th to actually be the first "mad slasher" film -- or at least the one that engendered so many others -- and the poster art for the film adorns the cover.] Nowell intelligently and successfully argues that far from being misogynous, many of these movies were actually geared toward a female sensibility. He also puts other myths to rest. Nowell's discussions of how and why certain films got made is also of note. While the academic style may initially be off-putting, Blood Money is nevertheless well-written and more interesting than you might expect it to be.

Verdict: A bit dry at times but not without interest. **1/2.


Ball and Vance with bird
THE LUCY SHOW Season 3. 1964. CBS.

"Her hair's dyed -- and her brain isn't too long for this world, either."

After I Love Lucy wrapped up and Lucy divorced Desi -- the two remained involved with Desilu Studios -- Ball importuned Vivian Vance, who only wanted to stay on the east coast with her husband, to co-star with her in a new vehicle. Supposedly based on a book called "Life Without George," The Lucy Show basically had Lucy (now the widowed Lucy Carmichael with two children) and Ethel (reborn as the divorced Vivian Bagley with one son) sharing a house and expenses and a lot of misadventures. The network kept wooing Lucy and Lucy kept wooing Vance, so she returned for a third season of silly episodes. Vance did not appear in every episode -- one condition for her doing the show -- so she was occasionally replaced by special guest-stars, including Ann Sothern, who isn't bad as a widowed countess who returns to the town where she was born. However, the episodes with Ball and Vance are generally the most memorable. Arguably the best third season episode has Lucy and Viv vying for Charles Drake as Lucy shows up at a dance on roller skates, ensuring pandemonium. Other reasonably good shows have Jack Benny playing a plumber, Lucy and Viv acting as camp cooks, and a wacky trip to Las Vegas. Lucy loses a contact lens in chocolate icing but doesn't know which cake, and she accidentally sucks a rare valuable stamp into a vacuum cleaner she's trying to sell. And so on.

Lucy and Viv can still be very funny,-- and occasionally overbearing, especially the former --  but the scripts weren't always up to their standards. Gale Gordon makes an excellent foil as irritable banker Mr. Mooney; he's especially good in a sequence wherein he tries to teach Lucy how to ski. The episode where Lucy tries to get tickets to a Danny Kaye performance is fairly wretched, as are the episodes where she becomes a traffic and undercover cop. Guest-stars and supporting players include a very funny Harvey Korman, Reta Shaw, Byron Foulger, Keith Andes, John Williams, Kathleen Freeman, Jim Davis, Carole Cook, Nestor Paiva, Mabel Albertson, Jack Kelly, Steven Geray and Norma Varden. The children haven't got much to do but they are appealing and do it well.

Verdict: No I Love Lucy, but a certain amount of laughs and clever comic antics. **1/2.


TROLL HUNTER (2010). Director: Andre Ovredal.

A group of students in Norway importune a nutty "troll hunter" to let them go along with him and film his activities for a documentary they want to make. [Yes, this is another movie influenced by The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield.] The troll hunter turns out to be not so nutty in his beliefs that some destruction and disappearances are caused not by bears -- who have also been killed -- but by giant carnivorous trolls which the government is secretly trying to keep under control and in one area.  The group encounters some of these creatures and are then pursued by a gigantic Granddaddy troll at the climax.The first appearance of a silly three-headed monster almost sinks the movie, but there are some good scenes, such as the group's entry into the cavern lair of the trolls, and the sequence with a troll heatedly chasing after their vehicle. The idea is good, but the movie never quite turns into a guilty pleasure, even if you love monster movies.

Verdict: A monstrous disappointment but not completely terrible. **1/2.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


John Wayne in Technicolor
THE QUIET MAN (1952). Director: John Ford.

Sean Thornton (John Wayne), an ex-boxer who killed a man in the ring, returns to Inisfree, Ireland where he was born, for a fresh start. He falls in love with Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O'Hara) and the two get married after outwitting her brother, Will (Victor McLaglen), who refuses to give his sister her dowry. Until her husband gets it for her, he has to spend each night by himself in a sleeping bag. It all leads up to a supposedly big, highly over-rated fight scene that isn't half as entertaining, long or well-done as the fisticuffs in the average Republic serial. (Someone mentions that Will has 20 lb on Sean, but no one seems to notice that he also has twenty years on the younger man; Wayne was 45 and McLaglen 66 at the time of filming.) Well, the photography is beautiful and there are some fine performances from the supporting cast, but while the film certainly has its admirers, for the rest of us it hasn't worn well with time. Wayne and O'Hara make acceptable leads, but neither is well-cast (despite O'Hara's fiery red hair) nor especially memorable. Wayne was already becoming the familiar bull-necked ossified performer of his later years. Barry Fitzgerald, Arthur Shields (Fitzgerald's younger brother) and Mildred Natwick are more on the mark. But the main problem with the movie is that the characters are just types; they never really emerge as fully-dimensional people. There are some amusing moments to be fair, and the picture begins well and has some well-directed scenes (Wayne first spotting O'Hara, for instance), but it's also too "cutesy" by far, and thick with Hollywood-Irish cliches. A scene that is hilarious for the wrong reasons has the capon priest (Ward Bond), of all people, becoming furious when he learns Kate makes her husband sleep in a sleeping bag. One of Republic Pictures' rare "A" movies.

Verdict: You want to like it but ... **1/2.


Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor
THE NIGHT WALKER (1964). Director: William Castle.

Irene Trent (Barbara Stanwyck) has an imaginary lover in her dreams, which doesn't sit well with her husband, Howard (Hayden Rourke), who thinks the lover is for real, and complains about it to his lawyer, Barry (Robert Taylor). But pretty soon Irene is having honest to goodness midnight rendezvous with a dark-haired stranger (LLoyd Bochner) but in the morning isn't certain whether or not she dreamed it all. Is there some plot perhaps afoot? Vic Mizzy's music seems to do most of the work, although sometimes it's so overdone it makes the picture seem worse instead of better. Stanwyck --- this is her entry in the "aging actress in a horror film" sweepstakes entered by Joan Crawford for Castle's superior Strait-Jacket the same year -- gets to scream a lot and look perplexed. Unfortunately Robert Bloch's obvious screenplay doesn't actually give her or anyone else a real character to play. Stanwyck and Taylor had once been married in real life, but had been divorced for many years when this picture was made. The acting is okay, but the movie is not even remotely scary.

Verdict: A distinctly minor suspense film that not even the stars can save. **.


THE GARNER FILES A Memoir. James Garner with Jon Winokur. Simon and Schuster; 2011.

I confess I was never a fan of Garner's,whose "Last Real Man" image seemed manufactured and was the kind of "star" who exudes [the same] personality instead of indulging in real acting. [Garner dismisses actors who see themselves as artists, although the genuinely talented ones are artists.] Most of Garner's fame is due to TV shows like Maverick and The Rockford Files, neither of which especially appealed to me [although he has appeared in a surprising number of movies, unfortunately many of the quality of They Only Kill Their Masters, among some more decent flicks]. Despite that, there's some value in this autobiography -- although it's primarily geared to his fans, most of whom Garner implies are a little nuts -- due to Garner's lack of fear in being frank. He won't make a lot of friends in Hollywood with this book, and undoubtedly couldn't care less. [Don't invite Garner to the same party with Barbra Streisand and many others -- he names names. For someone who's never exactly been considered an Olivier, his implying that some colleagues are bad actors is bizarre!] I admire him for admitting that to him people who jam their religion down your nostrils are a pain, as well as for marching on Washington for civil rights when it was a real danger to do so, but think less of him for punching out a drunken, obnoxious fan when he could just as easily have walked away. He always says what he thinks of his fellow players -- aside from Robert Preston, whose role he wanted to play in Victor/Victoria. [Garner claims that some idiot talked him out of it because no one would "accept him as gay" -- and his wife seems to find it amusing [!] that he used to imitate (presumably stereotypical) gay men when they first met -- but considering that both of them apparently buy into stereotypes and think all gay men are effeminate, it's just as well Garner didn't take Preston's role. If I recall, Preston may not have played it super-butch, but he did have a quiet dignity.] Unless you're a golf or racing fan you'll probably want to skip the chapters on those subjects as they're rather tedious. The sections on the shady business practices of the studios make for more interesting reading, although by now everyone knows of Hollywood's double-bookkeeping.

Verdict: Strictly for Garner's fans. **1/2.



There are three outstanding episodes in volume 2 of The Barbara Stanwyck Show, but the rest are catch as catch can. Kent Smith, Robert Emhardt and John McGiver guest-star in "The Golden Acres," about a manipulative woman who lost out on love and now just wants cash. "Adventure on Happiness Street" has Stanwyck again playing Josephine Little in Hong Kong, a downbeat story of a doctor (Lew Ayres) who needs drugs for his free clinic and makes the mistake of dealing with Robert Culp. "High Tension," very well-directed by Robert Florey, is an excellent suspenser in which Barbara plays a woman returning a deaf adopted child to the orphanage when the bus they are on hits high-tension wires trapping everyone but the child aboard. [This is an especially ironic episode considering Stanwyck herself adopted a son and it didn't work out too well.] As usual, Stanwyck gives excellent performances in these, although she's miscast and somewhat weak in a black comedy called "Assassin." She appears in every episode except "Big Jake," which stars Andy Devine. A couple of episodes are nearly unwatchable, but other episodes that are entertaining include "Frightened Doll," in which Babs runs off with mob money, and "The Hitch-Hiker," in which she plays a lady lawyer married to Joseph Cotten. Other guest stars include Dana Andrews, Peter Falk, Joan Blondell, and Robert Horton. Sometimes the show is introduced as The Barbara Stanwyck Theatre and Babs herself always calls it "your gas company playhouse." Jacques Tourneur directed most of the episodes.NOTE: Click here to read a review of Volume One.

Verdict: It's always fun to watch Stanwyck. ***.


The big spider advances on the town!
TARANTULA (1955). Director: Jack Arnold.

Professor Deemer (a disinterested Leo G. Carroll) is experimenting on food nutrients with animals and has inexplicably created some economy-sized creatures, including a dog-sized spider. During a battle with a crazed assistant who experimented on himself, a fire breaks out and the animals are destroyed -- or so Deemer thinks. The spider actually walked out into the desert and [although it's no longer receiving the nutrient] continues to grow and grow, finding another food supply in cattle, horses and humans. The local doctor, Matt Hastings (John Agar of Brain from Planet Arous), Deemer's new assistant Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday of The Giant Claw), the sheriff (Nestor Paiva) and newspaper man Joe Burch (Ross Elliott) all do their best to wipe out the big spider and stay out of its jaws. The special effects are variable but shots of the huge tarantula roaming the desert and sneaking up on victims are creepy, and there's a great scene when it peeks in at Corday at Deemer's mansion and then completely demolishes the house. Ross Elliott played the director on the classic "Lucy Does a Commercial" episode of I Love Lucy, and also played Ricky's publicity man when the series went to Hollywood under his own name. He was a busy actor, also appearing in a number of fantastic genre films. For more on this and similar films see Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies.

Verdict: Lots of fun and quite ghoulish at times. ***. 


Raymond Burr

This seemingly unstoppable show was back for a 7th season in 1963. It had more than its share of excellent episodes. "Nebulous Nephew," with Hugh Marlowe, Arthur Space and Beulah Bondi, answers the question of whether or not a man is really a missing relative. "Reluctant Model," in which Lt. Tragg appears, deals with a forged painting and a handsome bearded artist played by Robert Brown. A woman leaves one million dollars to her nurse in "Festive Felon" and an elevator murder is featured in "Wednesday Woman" with a noteworthy Marie Windsor. A boy discovers that a famous actress is his mother in "Simple Simon" with an excellent Virginia Field and Victor Buono. In "Careless Kidnapper" with Mimsy Farmer, in which a doctor treating an alcoholic patient is blackmailed, Perry takes Della dancing until dawn! "The Drifting Drop Out "has a young man accused of murdering his criminal uncle's business partner. "The Bouncing Boomerang" features a wonderful Diana Whelan as a duplicitous wife with a secret partner in a land and insurance fraud.

Other notable episodes include: "Decadent Dean" with an excellent Lloyd Corrigan; "Bigamous Spouse;" "Bountiful Beauty" with Ryan O'Neal; "Nervous Neighbors" with Katherine Squire and Jeanne Cooper;  "Fifty Million Frenchmen" with everyone from David McCallum and Jacques Bergerac to Arthur Franz and Jackie Cooper; "Frightened Fisherman;" "Arrogant Arsonist;" Garrulous Go-Between;" "Illicit Illusion" with Ron Randell and Keith Andes; and "Antic Angel."

These were the two most outstanding episodes: "Deadly Verdict" begins with Perry's client being found guilty and sentenced to death! The story has to do with an old woman who may have been murdered by one of several heirs, including Julie Adams. This episode is particularly well-directed [Jesse Hibbs], creepy, and suspenseful." The Devious Delinquent," with Otto Kruger and an especially notable Virginia Christine, deals with a troubled young man accused of killing a blackmailing punk "friend." Robb White wrote the script, which has a great surprise ending.

Verdict: Still one of the best TV shows ever. ***1/2.


Chimp Caesar with James Franco
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011). Director: Rupert Wyatt.

San Francisco is treated to an angry invasion of intelligent apes when an Alzheimer's experiment backfires, This is basically a prequel to Planet of the Apes [either version], although the novel that film was based on actually took place on another planet. Rise has excellent special effects and is quite visually striking at times. Caesar the chimp is well-acted by Andy Serkis [with help, presumably, from CGI), and John Lithgow, James Franco and the lovely Freida Pinto all give good performances. Good musical score by Patrick Doyle and a strangely moving conclusion.  Not a movie that will necessarily stick in your mind but entertaining enough.

Verdict: Apes run wild. ***.