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

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Note that "Judgment" is misspelled!
JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961). Producer/director: Stanley Kramer.

"There can never be any justification for these [acts] -- not in generations, not in centuries."

"It's not the killing that's the problem -- it's the disposal of the bodies."

"We beat the greatest war machine since Alexander the Great -- and now the boy scouts take over."

In 1948, after the "big guns" in the National Socialist Party have already been put on trail, some "smaller fry" -- judges who helped enact the illegal and immoral laws of Nazi Germany -- are also put on trial in Nuremberg. The presiding judge is Dan Heywood (Spencer Tracy), with Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) as prosecutor and Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) as the defense attorney. The most famous defendant is a well-respected jurist named Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster). Rolfe claims that the U.S. can hardly act morally superior when they dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while Heywood discovers that virtually no one in Nuremberg will admit they knew what was going on in the concentration camps. Meanwhile Lawson is told that the U.S. will need Germany as an ally in the cold war and convicting some of its leading citizens may not be such a good idea. But Lawson was one of the men who liberated the camps, he has horrifying memories, and shows films (actual documentary footage) of Nazi atrocities -- the ovens, children sentenced to death, piles of rotting corpses, starved and frightened human beings, drawings made on human skin, severed heads (all of which is quite hard to watch but highly necessary for the movie's ultimate impact) -- and isn't about to let these guys walk if he can help it. Only two years after the end of the war, he fears that the world is already losing interest. Schell won an Oscar, and deserved it. Widmark gives one of his best performances, and Tracy is superb. Marlene Dietrich also turns in an excellent performance as the widow of a Nazi who has already been executed, and Judy Garland has a fine turn as a woman who was put in jail at sixteen for alleged perjury when a Jewish father figure was accused of intimate relations with her, an Aryan. Montgomery Clift is also superb as a Jewish witness who was forcibly sterilized years before and argues that one could not expect him to be entirely rational after such an experience. Lancaster is a comparative lightweight in this cast, and isn't well-cast as a German, but he does his best and has a few good moments. Some of the best scenes are between Tracy and Dietrich as they try to understand each other's viewpoints, particularly a scene in a lively beer hall after Heywood has seen the disturbing movies taken in the camps and Dietrich protests that few Germans really knew what was going on -- but he just can't quite buy it. There are many other good supporting performances in the film, especially Virginia Christine as a German housekeeper who argues that Hitler did some good things along with the bad. Judgment at Nuremberg covers all viewpoints and all the bases in highly dramatic fashion, and while over three hours long, is never boring. It ends in a most satisfying fashion, and Tracy's final lines -- written by screenwriter Abby Mann -- pretty much sum it up.

Verdict: A masterpiece about a shameful event in history that must never be forgotten. ****.

LI'L ABNER (1940)

Pansy washes Pappy and Salome the pig together
LI'L ABNER (1940). Director: Albert S. Rogell.

"Pappy, you are the most ignoramus creature I ever did see!"

"That's the code of the hills!"

In the hillbilly mountain village of Dogpatch, Li'l Abner Yokum (Jeff York aka Granville Owen) tries to avoid the clutches of the gal who loves him, Daisy Mae (Martha O'Driscoll of Henry Aldrich for President). But when Abner mistakenly thinks he's got one day to live, he decides to get engaged, but there are complications. Wendy Wilecat (Kay Sutton) also has her eyes on him, and he wants no part of weddin' anybody once he realizes he isn't really doomed. So his fate will be decided on Sadie Hawkins day, when the two gals will race to see who can land him first. Both his Mammy, Pansy Yokum (Mona Ray), and Pappy, Lucifer Yokum (Johnnie Morris), do their best to help their boy behind the scenes. Jeff York certainly resembles the beautiful-but-dumb Abner, and he isn't bad in the part, although it could be argued that he's not exactly a skilled comic actor. [That same year he played Pat Ryan in the serial Terry and the Pirates, and did a lot of TV work thereafter.] Billie Seward is fine as Daisy's cousin, the sexy "Delightful," and Maude Ebern is as fun as ever as Daisy's Granny Scraggs. Buster Keaton has a small role as the Indian Lonesome Polecat. The movie has some amusing scenes, such as a bath Pansy gives to Pappy and their pig Salome at the same time, and there's a tiny little bit of suspense during the Sadie Hawkins Day race, but all in all this isn't a very memorable movie. Al Capp's Li'l Abner was again made into a film 19 years later and if memory serves me well it wasn't all that much better. 

Verdict: Love that pig! **.


MICRO. Michael Crichton and Richard Preston. Harper; 2011.

NOTE: On occasion Great Old Movies will review books and novels that are in some way related to film, or have the potential to be turned into an interesting motion picture.

Two men break into a scientific lab and are attacked by some things that are small and invisible. A man finds a very, very tiny plane with a cockpit. Peter Jansen goes to Oahu with several others to talk with Vin Drake, head of Nanigen MicroTechnologies, about the possibility of working there. Before he leaves he gets a warning to "Stay Away!" from his brother, Eric, who also works for the firm; arriving in Hawaii he discovers his brother has been murdered. Confronting Vin Drake and his brother's girlfriend about what happened, the others all learn that they were involved with Eric's death. Before you know it Peter and his friends are locked in a chamber and undergo bombardment from a magnetic force that -- you guessed it -- shrinks them to half inch size. (Shades of Dr. Cyclops!) They are dumped in the jungle and have a harrowing time just trying to survive amidst the local insect life yet alone make their way back to Nanigen and normal size; if they don't manage to do it in about two days they'll die of the equivalent of the bends. The late Michael Crichton (the book was finished by Richard Preston) was not the first to write of shrunken humans. Henry Kuttner wrote the story "Dr. Cyclops" for Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1940 (it was filmed that same year); and of course there was Richard Matheson's "The Shrinking Man" (The Incredible Shrinking Man), Attack of the Puppet People, Fantastic Voyage, and the novel "Cold War in as Country Garden." H. G. Wells was the first writer to fool around with people's size, but he made them bigger, not smaller, in "The Food of the Gods" -- probably the first popular treatment of gigantism. Crichton and Preston are not on the level of the wonderful Wells, but Micro is a fast-paced, entertaining, often scary and exciting novel that would certainly be a good bet for filming.

Verdict: A microscopic journey you may wish to undertake, but only in your nightmares. ***.


DARIO ARGENTO'S TRAUMA/aka Trauma (1993). Director: Dario Argento. Screenplay by Argento and T.E.D. Klein.

In one of Argento's most ghoulish and intriguing horror films, a maniac called the Headhunter is decapitating people when it rains [the killer uses a kind of electric garrote.] There is a method to the murderer's madness, explained in a climactic flashback that can truly be called grotesque. David Parsons (Christopher Rydell) tries to help a traumatized young woman named Aura (Asia Argento) who saw her parents gruesomely murdered in the woods, then the two try to track down the killer and figure out his or her motives. Brad Dourif figures in one of the film's more bravura and macabre gore sequences. Others in the cast include Frederic Forrest as a doctor, and Piper Laurie in one of her more interesting roles since playing Carrie's mother. The film retreads a "gag" from Deep Red, but can be forgiven that as it is highly suspenseful and completely absorbing from start to finish. There's a creepy and exciting finale as well.

Verdict: Gruesome and fascinating; a modern horror classic. ***1/2.


Vincent Price and Frank Latimore
SHOCK (1946). Director: Alfred Werker.

Waiting at a hotel for the husband she thought had died in the war, Janet Stewart (Anabel Shaw) sees a man (Vincent Price) across the way bop his wife on the head with a candlestick, and goes into shock. Later the Doctor Cross who treats her is this very same man -- and murderer. Egged on by his callous lover and nurse Elaine, (Lynn Bari), Cross decides to do away with Anabel before she can talk, but he at least has a conscience. Will he do it or won't he? This is an okay suspense film with decent if unspectacular performances; Price is fairly artificial but as smooth and entertaining as usual. Shaw and Frank Latimore as her husband are both effective, as is Bari (Trauma; Sunny Side of the Street). The appealing Latimore was introduced in Otto Preminger's In the Meantime, Darling in 1944 and subsequently appeared in Purple Noon and many other films both in the U.S. and abroad. Werker directed much better films than this, including The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Kidnapped.

Verdict: Minor but more than passable suspense film. **1/2.


THE PINK PANTHER 2 (2009). Director: Harald Swort.

"Here is the Pope's ring! His wife will be happy."

Steve Martin returns as Inspector Clouseau in this sequel to The Pink Panther (2006). A thief known as the Tornado is stealing national treasures, including the famous Pink Panther diamond [ignoring the first film, the diamond is now the national symbol of France and has no owner]. A crack team of international detectives, including Clouseau, are assembled to uncover the identity of the Tornado and stop the thefts. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan [!] is fun and sexy as the one woman in the group, Sonia, and Emily Mortimer is back as Nicole, who is carrying a torch for Clouseau. Others in the cast include the always-wonderful Alfred Molina, John Cleese [somewhat disappointing as Dreyfus], Jeremy Irons as a suspect, and even Lily Tomlin as a woman who tries to teach Clouseau political correctness but finds it a losing battle. Jean Reno underplays nicely as Clouseau's partner, Ponton, carried over from the first film along with Nicole. There are some funny scenes in this -- Clouseau interviewing the Pope at the Vatican is especially memorable -- and the film is essentially amiable with a fine Martin seemingly enjoying himself. You probably will, too, even if there have been better "Pink Panther" movies.

Verdict: Not a terrible time-passer. **1/2.


Colin Farrell and Anton Yelchin
FRIGHT NIGHT (2011). Director: Craig Gillespie.

Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) discovers that his new next-door neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), is a vampire who is preying upon everyone in their suburban Vegas neighborhood. At first his mother (Toni Collette) and girlfriend, Amy (the unfortunately named Imogene Poots) don't believe him, until Jerry -- who hasn't been invited into their home as vampires must be -- tries to blow up the place to get them out and get rid of them. Charley's nerdy friend, Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, another easy-to-forget moniker), who tried to warn him about Jerry, becomes an early victim/vampire, but Charley tries to enlist the aid of a horror host and performer named Peter Vincent (David Tennant). This remake of the original Fright Night is a souped-up, sexier, more elaborate version with more gore and special effects [but, if I recall correctly, not as much charm]. Chris Sarandon, who played the vampire in the original, has a cameo as a victim and still looks good enough [at 70!] to play the lead. The actors in this are all first-rate, with Farrell making a memorable villain. The movie does a good job of mixing humor with creepy and suspenseful scenes, such as a chase on the highway and an escape from Jerry's house. Not bad climax, either.

Verdict: Entertaining horror-comedy hokum. ***.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951). Director: Rudolph Mate. Produced by George Pal.

Earth has a real problem. A star called Bellus is entering our solar system and bringing with it a planet named Zyra. Unfortunately as these planetary bodies approach earth, they will tear the planet apart in only eight months. At first scientists are unable to convince skeptical, frightened authorities of the sad truth of the matter, but eventually they find a wealthy benefactor, Stanton (John Hoyt), to fund the building of a rocket that can take forty or so people to Zyra to start human life anew. Although as handsome as a peacock, Richard Derr makes a human and appealing hero as pilot David Randell, with scientist's daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush) as his love interest. [There is a triangle with Dr. Tony Drake (Peter Hansen) but this never overwhelms the story, although it adds another dimension to it at times.] The movie never makes it clear whether or not Earth will be completely destroyed or if there's any remote chance of some people surviving the cataclysm [why bother to evacuate 8 million people out of New York if they're all going to die anyway and where exactly do you put them?] and the final throes of the planet are never shown, except for the tidal wave that engulfs Manhattan [there's a great shot of the island under water with overturned ocean liners in the harbor]. A sequel might have dealt with the fact that Zyra appears to have "man-made" structures on it at the finale. There are some moments of pathos but at only 80 minutes the film concentrates primarily on action. Derr also appeared in Terror is a Man and The Invisible Avenger as the Shadow. Hansen has had a long, long list of credits. Rush also appeared in Bigger Than Life with James Mason and many other movies. A miscast Larry Keating plays Rush's father, and while he has his moments, sometimes his delivery carries all the urgency of a man ordering liverwurst in a deli. Mate also directed such fine pictures as D.O.A. and No Sad Songs for Me.

Verdict: Fast-paced and satisfying if imperfect. ***.


FRESH FROM PARIS (aka Paris Follies of 1956/1955). Director: Leslie Goodwins.

"If I thought there was any other woman, I'd leave you and the show as flat as yesterday's pancakes."

Dan Bradley (Forrest Tucker) has high hopes for his new supper club, Moulin Rouge in Hollywood, but he has two major problems: First, his lead singer, Margaret (Margaret Whiting) is threatening to walk out if she catches him with another woman and he's just proposed to his lady love, Ruth (Martha Hyer); Second, the fellow who is backing the club (Lloyd Corrigan) is not a wealthy entrepreneur but a loony with no money. Filmed at the actual Moulin Rouge nightclub this film hasn't much plot but it manages to be entertaining in spite of it and has some pleasant song numbers. Tucker, who you wouldn't think would be a good fit for this type of material, is at his most amiable; Hyer is pretty and competent; and Whiting -- although certainly devoid of Hollywood-style beauty -- is a very good singer. Other acts include the Sportsmen and a talented tenor named Frank Parker. Perky Barbara Whiting, Margaret Whiting's sister, also plays her sister in this movie. [The sisters later co-starred on the summer replacement sitcom Those Whiting Girls.] Goodwins directed everything from The Mummy"s Curse to Mexican Spitfire at Sea, one of the best of that series.

Verdict: Not as much fun as Tucker's The Cosmic Monsters, but not terrible. **1/2.


The big-faced gal is kidnapped
BRENDA STARR, REPORTER (13 chapter Columbia serial/1945). Director: Wallace Fox.

Based on the comic strip by Dale Messick, this has plucky reporter Brenda Starr (Joan Woodbury) involved with the assorted players in a quarter million payroll robbery. Lou Heller (Wheeler Oakman), just released from prison, refuses to tell anybody where the money is; after he's killed his twin brother turns up. Frank Smith (George Meeker) is the gang leader who reports to an unseen "Big Boss." Brenda alternately works with and gets in the way of Lt. Larry Farrell (Kane Richmond). Billy Benedict is the dizzy copy boy, Pesky; Lottie Harrison is Brenda's economy-sized roommate and cousin, Abretha, who is always either eating or preparing dinner; and Syd Saylor is the photographer, Chuck. An interesting aspect of the serial is that the cliffhangers aren't always resolved at the opening of the succeeding chapter but a few minutes into it. Richmond and Woodbury, a real big-faced gal, are fine, and most of the supporting players are competent, but Brenda Starr, Reporter is a very minor-league serial with standard cliffhangers, a pretty weak plot, and colorless antagonists. Not one of Columbia's gems.

Verdict: Quite a disappointment. **.


Barbara Parkins being prepared for chop chop routine
ASYLUM (1972). Director: Roy Ward Baker.

When Dr. Martin (Robert Powell) applies for a job at an institution for the mentally disturbed, he is told by Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee of Dementia 13) that the head of the institution, Dr. Star, has recently become a patient. He challenges Martin to figure out which of the people upstairs could be the good doctor, and each in turn relates his tale of horror. In "Frozen Fear" a man (Richard Todd of Stage Fright) chops up his wife, but the wrapped pieces come to life and attack both him and his mistress (Barbara Parkins of The Mephisto Waltz). In "The Weird Tailor" a poor tradesman (Barry Morse) is offered money to make a suit from strange material for a man (Peter Cushing) mourning his son. "Lucy Comes to Stay" is a rather obvious split personality story with Charlotte Rampling [The Verdict] and Britt Ekland as two sides of the same woman. In "Mannikins of Fear" Dr. Byron (Herbert Lom) creates little mechanical men that he can control with his mind and that have brains and internal organs inside them. Scripted by Robert Bloch, Asylum is an entertaining picture, although Baker directs without any style or panache. Most of the acting is fine, with a superb Morse and Cushing taking top honors in the second story. Rampling, who is usually the Ice Princess Supreme, is actually warm and winning playing a psychopath  -- go figure! From Amicus films, not Hammer.

Verdict: Fun horror flick. ***.


THREE PHASES OF EVE: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY. Eve Arden. 1985; St. Martin's Press.

One could argue that there are two kinds of actors: those who live primarily for their careers, and those who find more joy and fulfillment in family. Arden is definitely of the latter type. The trouble is that those hoping for an insider's look at radio, TV, movies and theater -- Arden appeared in all of those mediums -- are going to be disappointed. Arden made dozens of movies but you won't find many on-set anecdotes or even a list of films, let alone her comments on most of them. Although her second sitcom, The Eve Arden Show, may have only lasted one season, it did have 26 episodes, but not only won't you find the names of any of the guest-stars, Arden doesn't even list the supporting cast -- the show rates only half a page. Her more successful sitcom, Our Miss Brooks, only gets a few pages -- not even a full chapter, although it was both on radio and television for several years -- and The Mothers-in-Law doesn't fare much better. Arden prints full-length rave reviews for her stint as Auntie Mame on stage, but most of the book is a travelogue detailing the many months she and her husband [actor Brooks West] and their children spent in Italy and other European locations. These chapters are not without interest, and Arden always writes very well, but who cares? You could have more fun looking at photos of your own European travels. The pages looking at a disastrous near-production of Applause in Australia are much more entertaining, as are the early sections where Brooks writes of working with such legends as Fanny Brice and the Marx Brothers, among others. Still, Arden's wit and warmth are on every page, and her obvious adoration for her family is admirable [even if one suspects there's no full disclosure on her marriage], especially when you consider some of the self-absorbed celebrities who barely mention their relatives on the dedication page let alone anywhere else in the manuscript. That being said, you can expect the usual kind of name-dropping in the book, but it never becomes obnoxious.

Verdict: Not what one would hope for, but very well-written. **1/2.


Steve Martin
THE PINK PANTHER (2006). Director: Shawn Levy.

Steve Martin is the third actor to essay the role of bumbling, lovable French Inspector Clouseau [after Peter Sellers and Alan Arkin), and he's more successful at it than you might imagine. Frankly, this version of The Pink Panther is more entertaining than the original made in the sixties which first introduced the character of Clouseau. Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline) wants to take credit for finding whoever killed an athlete and stole his Pink Panther diamond [the movie never explains why the diamond has that name as the original film does] in front of hundreds of witnesses. However, as he's unable to handle the matter personally for awhile, he decides to give the assignment to a nitwit, Clouseau, who will get nowhere until Dreyfus steps in and wraps things up to unanimous acclaim. Unfortunately for Dreyfus things don't quite work out that way. The film doesn't begin well, with elderly people being horribly injured for laughs, but it improves as it goes along. Jean Reno is fine as Clouseau's new partner, Ponton, who knows he is just a dupe, and Emily Mortimer has a nice turn as Nicole, who assists Clouseau and falls for him. As the ex of the murdered man, Beyonce Knowles is pretty, but she's not really an actress and adds nothing to the film. Roger Rees is splendid as a wealthy playboy that Clouseau interviews in one of the funnier scenes. To be brutally honest, Martin and Kline are not as memorable in their roles as Sellers and Herbert Lom, but they are still quite good in spite of that, and the picture is good, dumb fun.

Verdict: You'll miss Sellers but might still be amused. ***.


PHENOMENA (aka Creepers/1985). Director: Dario Argento.

At the Richard Wagner International School for Girls in Switzerland, Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly), a new student with a sleepwalking problem, develops a strange affinity for insects. This comes in handy in tracking down an unknown maniac who is murdering several of the students. Donald Pleasence plays the entomologist, McGregor, and Daria Nicolodi is Frau Bruckner, who is keeping a deadly secret. Heroine Connelly is too inexperienced to convincingly carry the film, but considering the things she's called upon to do one has to say that she earns her pay and then some. Pleasence, Nicolodi, and a lovable chimp are much better. This is a somewhat zany but likable picture with a few memorably gruesome sequences.

Verdict: A fascinating Gothic nightmare. ***.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939). Director: Frank Capra.

Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is tapped to fill a senatorial seat by politicos who think he'll be easy to manipulate; even his new secretary, Clarissa (Jean Arthur) thinks he's a dope -- at least at first. Smith is befriended by a man he admires, Senator Paine (Claude Rains), unaware that this otherwise decent person will painfully betray him for his own ends when Smith winds up on the wrong side of a shady land deal. Edward Arnold [The Houston Story], Guy Kibbee [Babbitt], and Eugene Pallette are a variety of political types maneuvering behind the scenes, and Thomas Mitchell is an intrepid reporter, Diz. This is a fast-paced, entertaining picture that in its dissection of political corruption, crap, and crumb bums is as timely today  as it was way back in '39, and it gives Stewart one of his best roles. Initially unsympathetic, Arthur also scores, and there's a great supporting cast, topped by a superb Claude Rains who nearly walks off with the movie [as was so often the case] -- his final scenes are mesmerizing. One could argue that when it comes to the famous filibuster climax, Smith was awfully lucky that the wise old president of the Senate (Harry Carey) was in his corner. Among the film's many memorable moments are a dinner table scene with the governor (Kibbee), a whole bunch of kids, and even Baby Dumpling (Larry Simms)! Other cast members include everyone from Grant Mitchell and Pierre Watkin to Ann Doran and William Frawley!

Verdict: A great picture from Frank Capra and his talented company. ***1/2. 


Lucille Ball and Mark Stevens
THE DARK CORNER (1946). Director: Henry Hathaway.

"Love is not just for the young, my dear; it's a heartache that affects all age groups."

Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens), who was sent up the river on a frame-up yet somehow has a private detective license, is convinced that the very man who framed him, Tony Jardine (Kurt Krueger) is now having him tailed and trying to kill him. Presumably Krueger's hired gun is a cowardly tough guy named Stauffer (William Bendix). Also thrown into this hard- boiled mix are Galt's secretary Kathleen (Lucille Ball), a wealthy art collector named Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb) and his much younger wife, Mari (Cathy Downs), who has a wandering eye. The main problem with this movie is that the audience, knowing everything that's going on, is always one step ahead of the hero Galt as he tries to figure out what's going on and who's really trying to get him, so there's virtually no suspense. Webb and Bendix are both swell, Ball is completely miscast and wasted -- as much as I love Lucy she's not a good fit with film noir [such as Lured] --  and Stevens does a pretty good approximation of a hardened if pretty-boy gumshoe. Webb is given the best dialogue and delivers it in his inimitable style: "That happens to be a coincidence I took great pains to arrange," he says, as well as  "the enjoyment of art is the only real ecstasy that is neither immoral nor illegal." Downs, who is fine as an adulterous wife, later appeared in The Amazing Colossal Man and Missile to the Moon; she was a talented actress who never quite got the breaks but amassed quite a few credits. 

Verdict: Entertaining if somehow third-rate but saved by Webb and Bendix. **.


Eve Arden

Beginning as a radio show, Our Miss Brooks was transferred to TV with most of the same cast for four seasons from 1952 - 1956 [a feature film was released immediately thereafter]. Eve Arden played teacher Connie Brooks, who dealt with an acerbic principal, Mr. Conklin (Gale Gordon, who later became the bane of "Lucy's" existence), had some interesting students such as Walter (Richard Crenna), as well as a big crush on fellow teacher Mr. Boynton (Robert Rockwell), who was also pursued from time to time by Miss Enright (Mary Jane Croft, who also appeared with Lucy). Her landlady was the lovable Mrs. Davis (Jane Morgan). Many episodes are on retail DVD, and a few can be viewed at the Internet Archives. The series, bolstered by Arden's great expressions and the droll delivery of Gale Gordon, was very popular in its day. For its 4th and final season the show got rid of most of its regulars, moved Miss Brooks to a new location, and then brought everyone else back when ratings began to dip. Too late to save the show.

Arden followed up Brooks with her second, less successful sitcom, The Eve Arden Show (1957- 58), which lasted just one season. 4 episodes are available on a retail DVD, but these can also be seen/downloaded for free on the Internet Archives. In this Arden played author and widowed mother of twin girls, Liza Hammond. Hammond's mother was Frances Bavier, previously on It's a Great Life and later Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show. Allyn Joslyn played George, who booked Liza on various lecture tours. In one episode, Liza deals with her stage fright while addressing a women's group. In another, her head winds up on a sexy body on the cover of her latest book. Her daughters hero-worship another mother during a PTA "white elephant" sale, and in the final episode one of the girls gets sick as Liza leaves for Washington D.C. Arden and the rest of the cast are all quite good, and the scripts are generally of the B or B+ quality, although the last episode is much less successful.

Years later Arden appeared on another successful sitcom, The Mothers-in-Law.

Verdict: Arden is always interesting in whatever she does. ***.


MEET THE MERTZES: The Life Stories of I Love Lucy's Other Couple. Rod Edelman and Audrey Kupferberg. Renaissance books; 1999.

This book takes an interesting and pleasant look into the lives of Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz) and William Frawley (Fred Mertz) both before, during and after I Love Lucy, their appearances on which made them forever famous. There is a look at Frawley's long, long career in films, his important role on the post Lucy sitcom My Three Sons, and tales of his drinking and famous, if lovable, grumpiness. Vivian, who grew up in Albuquerque [but was not born there] -- "Ethel's" home town -- got her start in New Mexico theater then migrated to Manhattan where she had some important stage roles but never quite graduated to stardom [she made very few films]. She appeared with Lucille Ball on The Lucy Show, even  though she would rather have stayed in Connecticut with her gay husband, a publisher who was her late-in-life companion. There are also details on her earlier marriages, as well as the one time Frawley tied the knot. Illustrated.

Verdict: A good read for Lucy fans. ***.


REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER (1978). Director: Blake Edwards.

The fifth movie in which Peter Sellers plays Inspector Clouseau begins with a snappy new version of the classic Pink Panther theme. A crime boss named Douvier (Robert Webber) decides to prove that he still has cojones by ordering a hit on Clouseau and killing the "great" arch enemy of villains. The plot seems to succeed -- one of the film's highlights is a sane, reinstated Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) giving the eulogy! -- but Clouseau has merely gone undercover. His manservant Cato (Burt Kwouk) has opened a "Chinese nookie factory" in Clouseau's apartment, presided over by Madame Wong. Sellers and Lom are as wonderful and funny as ever, and Dyan Cannon makes the most of her part as Douvier's rejected lover. The trouble with this installment is that it eventually becomes very frenetic but not that funny.

Verdict: Not up to the rest of the series but not without its moments. **1/2.


Christopher Lee
COUNT DRACULA  (1970). Director: Jess Franco [Jesus Franco].

This is probably not the worst movie directed by prolific Spanish hack Jess Franco, but it's still not very good. It is purported to be a [fairly] faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" with Lee playing the Count [and having more dialogue than he did in his first appearance as the vampire in the superior Horror of Dracula] and Herbert Lom as Professor Van Helsing, now running a clinic in which Renfield (Klaus Kinski) is one of the patients. Lawyer Jonathan Harker (German actor Fred Williams) pays a call on the count, barely escapes from him; discovers that Lucy (Soledad Miranda), a friend of his fiancee Mina's Maria Rohm), is suffering from some sort of blood disease; and so on. Lee (although he seems a bit bored at times) and Lom are fine, but the movie, told in a straight-forward but tedious manner, has absolutely no style and doesn't hold the attention.

Verdict: Watch Horror of Dracula or the original Dracula with Lugosi instead. *1/2.


Henry Cavill vs. opponents
IMMORTALS (2011). Director: Tarsem Singh.

After his mother is murdered in front of his eyes by Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), Theseus (Henry Cavill) -- with the aid of pretty seeress Phaedra (Freida Pinto) and plucky Stavros (Stephen Dorff) -- takes on the evil ruler and his armies of masked, bloodthirsty warriors. Hyperion has a weapon called the Epirus Bow, and hopes to unleash the imprisoned Titans for even more havoc. If only this was half as interesting as it sounds! If you're expecting mythological fun a la Jason and the Argonauts, be forewarned that this is a fairly tedious mess that juggles around a lot of mythology without ever coming up with an intriguing storyline of its own. Previous films have cast imposing filmic legends [think Olivier, Maggie Smith etc. in the original Clash of the Titans] as the gods of Mount Olympus, but here we get a kind of bony Luke Evans as Zeus, proclaiming that "no god may interfere in the affairs of man!" Since when? The movie has one impressive sequence, when Theseus rallies the troops and they all bang their swords in unison and there's a temporary excitement, as well as skill in editing and direction. Then we're back to fight scenes that resemble gory video games. Cavil, Pinto and Dorff are okay, but Rourke underplays his role to the point of somnambulance; he's as bad in this as he was good in Iron Man 2 [there has to be more to a performance than intensity]! John Hurt and Stephen McHattie turn up in supporting roles. The film is generally good to look at, with some beautiful photography and striking scenic design, but that and some okay FX work can't save a pretty lousy and tedious picture. This is even worse than the remake of the aforementioned Clash of the Titans.

Verdict: Even if you think you like mythological movies, think again about this one. **.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Paul Massie in Edward Hyde mode
THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1960). Director: Terence Fisher.

"That's what your kind of woman wants from a man -- complete and utter freedom from shame!"

In this excellent variation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" Dr. Jekyll (Paul Massie) in 1874 London, seeking to isolate man's evil nature, takes a formula that transforms him into a man who is younger and handsomer [and sans beard] instead of the usual ugly Mr. Hyde. This, of course, only makes him more dangerous. Wolf Mankowitz' screenplay adds a love triangle consisting of Jekyll, his wife Kitty (Dawn Addams), and his friend and her lover Paul (Christopher Lee); this turns into a quadrangle when handsome Hyde enters the picture and tries to romance his own, unsuspecting wife. This very classy horror film is possibly the best film put out by Hammer studios and boasts one of Terence Fisher's very best directorial jobs. Massie is simply superb as the two sides of the hero, with excellent support from pretty Addams and the highly-striking Chris Lee. Fine romantic score by David Heneker and Monty Norman.One wishes the characterizations were a bit more finely-tuned but the actors make them come alive in spite of it. The under-rated Fisher also directed a very good version of The Hound of the Baskervilles and many other movies.

Verdict: Absorbing -- and done with fine acting and great flair. ***1/2.


Kay Kyser and Joan Davis
AROUND THE WORLD (1943). Director: Allan Dwan.

"He can't be real. He must be propaganda." --Marcy McGuire

"I wish he wouldn't be so proper and would take a gander at me." -- Joan Davis.

Bandleader Kay Kyser, playing himself, leads a troupe of musicians and entertainers on a world-wide tour to entertain the troops, going everywhere from Australia and India to China and Egypt. In Australia the group picks up a girl named Marcy McGuire (also playing herself in her second film after Seven Days Ashore), who wants to join them so badly that she stowaways on their plane. Also playing themselves are Mischa Auer, Joan Davis, and singer Harry Babbitt, who at one point sings for some reason in a little girl voice [weird]. But then Auer plays piano with two grapefruits at one point, which is equally weird. Robert Armstrong of King Kong shows up late in the film as a general who gives Marcy very bad news in the film's surprisingly downbeat conclusion. [It was as if these patriotic WW 2 movies such as this and Follow the Boys, being highly trivial, had to throw in some depressing business to let people know that the filmmakers were aware there was serious stuff, such as death, going on, but it sort of defeats the purpose of providing escapism from tragedy. What makes it more odd is that McGuire was a real person, but we can't assume she actually suffered a personal loss.] Also in the cast is the bizarre "Ish Kabibble" [AKA M. A. Bogue] who isn't very funny, while Joan Davis, as usual, is very funny indeed playing her usual frustrated man-chaser. Pleasant song numbers include "Candlelight and Wine" and "Great Things are in the Making." Barbara Hale of Perry Mason plays one of the chorus cuties. Amiable and easy to take. Kyser made a number of similar films in the forties.

Verdict: A swingin' time capsule with a highly amusing Joan Davis. ***


Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland
NOTE: From time to time Great Old Movies will offer theater reviews, especially as they pertain to films or film performers.

END OF THE RAINBOW. Peter Quilter. At the Belasco Theatre; Manhattan.

The new Broadway [transplanted from London] show End of the Rainbow looks at Judy Garland -- or a theatrical-ized, over-dramatized Judy Garland --  as she's giving -- or trying to give -- a series of performances in London and fighting off -- or rather not fighting off -- a whole series of addictions while fighting with her fiance, Mickey (Tom Pelphrey), and working with her loyal and loving accompanist, Anthony (Michael Cumpsty, who gives the most memorable performance in the piece). The first problem with the show is that it's really more of a revue that should probably be presented in a nightclub than a fully-realized play suitable for the Broadway stage. Oh, there is a "play" there -- aging, overbearing, difficult, alcoholic celebrity makes life miserable for herself and her loved ones -- but it's so superficial and generic it could be about virtually anyone. Playwright Quitler throws in names like (Sid) Luft and (Vincente) Minelli -- two of Garland's ex-husbands -- now and then to remind us who we're supposed to be watching, as well as tiresome references to Garland's alleged gay cult, but if you're expecting any depth, forget it. Like most modern-day playwrights, Quilter throws in sitcom gags -- he has Garland accidentally popping dog pills and then writhing around the floor like a poodle about to pee -- and then tries to work up some pathos, but you just can't have it both ways. As for star Bennett, she gives a fair-to middling impersonation of Garland [with her British accent always shining through and sort of shattering the illusion], and she's very energetic, but let's face it -- this is a stunt performance, the kind that garners praise and awards but is far below the level of really fine performances of insight and subtlety. When she sings, she sometimes sounds like Garland, and at other times more like the aged Katharine Hepburn. None of Garland's children are even mentioned -- it was as if she had none -- probably because they would find this hard to sit through, as did I, as it gets rather tedious; it's like spending two hours with a pathetic, boring drunk you just can't get away from. I may not be the biggest Garland fan in the world, but the lady deserves much, much better than this.

Verdict: If you really want a fine Garland performance and not a burlesque of her -- and a truly heart-breaking experience as well -- watch A Child is Waiting instead of this travesty. **.


Tallulah Bankhead faces down Batman

"You may be caped and you may be dynamic, but I find you a crashing bore!" -- Black Widow

When the campy Batman TV series hit the airwaves in the late sixties, a number of well-known actors were signed to play guest villains. Definitely the most memorable was talented stage [and screen] actress Tallulah Bankhead, with her trade mark gravelly voice and withering, highly amusing delivery. Bankhead had already shown how good she could be in TV comedy when she guest-starred on what was probably the best Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour episode. On this two-part second season episode of Batman, she plays the comically sinister Black Widow, who apparently rode roughshod over Gotham City in the past [but never appeared previously on the show] and now is robbing banks with the aid of several confederates and a machine that saps men's wills. Therefore she sort of hypnotizes the bank officers into simply handing her oodles of cash. The cliffhanger has Bankhead unleashing cat-sized black widow spiders on Batman and Robin ["Batman! They're getting closer!"/ "I know, Robin!"]. Arguably the funniest sequence has the Widow dressing up as Robin and growling at police officers, with her voice coming out of Burt Ward's body as the actor does a funny parody of Bankhead. Bolstering the proceedings -- along with Adam West as Batman and Ward as Robin, both excellent as usual [not to mention wonderful Neil Hamilton and Stafford Repp as the police and Alan Napier as Alfred]-- are the appearances of Grady Sutton [The Bank Dick] as a nervous bank teller and the unidentified actor who plays the bank president. The campy approach to Batman is now passe, but I must say this was a very, very funny and clever episode of the often dopey series. Bankhead's most famous movie is Hitchcock's Lifeboat; she starred in Die, Die My Darling two years before doing Batman.

Verdict: Bankhead and Batman are an unbeatable combination. ***.


Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers
THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN (1976). Director: Blake Edwards.

Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), driven mad by the incompetency of Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers), is about to be released as sane from an institution where he has resided for months when who should come calling but his nemesis, leading to a hilarious encounter on the grounds of the nuthouse. And this is just the prologue. In one of the wildest and funniest "Pink Panther" movies the now totally deranged Dreyfus attempts to wipe out the entire world with a device from his secret headquarters and only Inspector Clouseau can stop him. Lord save us all! There's an amusing scene in a gay bar [naturally Clouseau hasn't a clue], and a "dental" sequence with Lom and Sellers -- both are in top form in this -- that is one of the funniest things in the picture. Michael Robbins is memorable as the butler/drag queen Jarvis, and Omar Sharif has a cameo as an Egyptian assassin. Lesley-Anne Down is the spy, Olga, and Dudley Sutton of The Leather Boys is McClaren. Lom and Sellers make an absolutely splendid comic "team."

Verdict: A very funny movie. ***1/2.


Dennis Olivieri and Betty Hutton
THE BETTY HUTTON SHOW (1959 - 1960).

When I first came across this sitcom that I never heard of on the Internet Archives -- a site that lists thousands of public domain TV shows, films, radio broadcasts and more for free watching or downloading -- my attention was caught by the term "CRAPTASTIC" -- the term with which the person who uploaded the show onto the site labeled the series, meaning it was bad, bad, bad. How bad is The Betty Hutton Show? I just had to find out, wouldn't you know? Judging by the three episodes available for viewing, it was pretty bad. In other words: Craptastic! Hutton plays Goldie Appleby, a manicurist who becomes guardian of three park avenue children. Their lawyer is played by Tom Conway (George Sanders' less interesting brother), who had a long, long list of mostly B movie credits. The teenage girl is played by child star Gigi Perreau [Journey to the Center of Time], and the boys by Peter Miles and Dennis Olivieri, who is a very talented boy and easily out-acts almost everyone on the show, including Hutton, who is generally terrible. Norma Varden [Witness for the Prosecution] plays Goldie's aunt, and is also vastly superior to Hutton. (Peter Miles was the brother of Perreau and appeared with her in Roseanna McCoy, in which he was excellent.)

In one episode a bosomy client of Conway's sets her cap for the lawyer, so Goldie concocts a dumb story about his having a wife and children. In another Goldie encourages Perreau to take up painting, and a misunderstanding develops when she overhears the girl and a boy friend acting out parts in a play. The third, and most watchable episode, has Goldie dealing with two con artists who try to con her out of money allegedly for an orphanage (they are very well played by Robert Emhardt and Ellen Corby). This last episode at least has a couple of minor chuckles.

Unfortunately, the others are almost unwatchable. Hutton -- and I admit she was never one of my favorites -- is at her most over-bearing worst, shamelessly mugging, obvious and vulgar, and even seems drunk at times. Unlike Lucille Ball, Joan Davis and even Eve Arden, she has no real skill as a comedienne, but simply lumbers about trying desperately to get laughs.

Betty Hutton, producer, should have fired Betty Hutton, star. The show lasted only one season.

Verdict: Definitely "craptastic!" *. 


THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS (2004). Director: Stephen Hopkins. Based on the biography by Roger Lewis. An Australian film shown on HBO in the U.S.

This biopic skips over most of Sellers' early life and really begins with him winning the British Academy Award. But a bigger problem is that director Hopkins eschews a sensible narrative style and has Sellers [as played by Geoffrey Rush] speaking directly to the audience, or dressing up and playing his wife at one point and his mother at another. This approach doesn't help the movie and certainly doesn't help us understand Peter Sellers. Emily Watson and Charlize Theron play the wives, Ann and Britt [Ekland]; John  Lithgow is Blake Edwards and Stanley Tucci is Stanley Kubrick. Miriam Margoyles does a nice job as Sellers' loving mother, Peg, as does James Bentley as her grandson, Michael. In its attempt to celebrate a great artist yet condemn him as kind of a prick, the movie succeeds in doing neither. Rush is fine, but the movie quickly becomes tedious. Who needs reproductions of Sellers' movies when we can see the real things for ourselves? And Rush was seen to better advantage in The King's Speech, a far better picture than this. Heck, Green Lantern, in which Rush only contributed a voice, is better than this.

Verdict: All you need to know about Sellers is in his movies. **.