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

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Subscribers to Great Old Movies have been getting extra emails without any content or with old posts. I don't know if this is a glitch in google blogger or in feedburner or what-have-you. I hope it gets ironed out and that this post -- the regularly scheduled weekly post -- gets out okay and is complete. We'll see. Anyway, thanks for reading!

P.S. I generally reply to emails and to comments [unless they're obvious ads] so if you don't hear from me, try emailing me from your email center, typing in the address, instead of clicking on the email link on the blog.Thanks.


Dean Jagger and Glenn Ford
THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE BELL (1970 telefilm). Director: Paul Wendkos.Screenplay by David Karp.

In one of the first and best of the made-for-television movies, Andrew Patterson (Glenn Ford) is the long-time member of the "Brothers of the Bell," a secret society associated with a fraternity at the College of St. George. The society helps its members get a leg up in the world, and in return they are on occasion asked to do a favor for "the Bell." But now Patterson has been asked to blackmail a dear friend of his (Eduard Franz) from accepting a certain post and has been given the names of people who helped this man defect -- of course revealing those names will mean their torture and deaths. Although Patterson tries his best to dissuade his friend from taking the post before revealing that he has the list of names, his actions nevertheless lead to tragedy. A guilt-wracked Patterson decides to take action by exposing the brotherhood, but finds his life turning into a nightmare as almost everyone thinks he's crazy. Although at times he could have been a bit more impassioned, Ford gives a notable performance in this; one of the best of his latter-day career, in fact. Eduard Franz as the blackmailed professor; Dean Jagger as a higher-up in the Bell; Rosemary Forsyth as Patterson's wife; Will Geer as his father; and Maurice Evans as his father-in-law, are all excellent, but the whole movie is nearly stolen by William Conrad as a Joe Pyne*-like talk show host who has Patterson on his show just to berate and humiliate him [this is also one of the best scenes in the movie.] Virginia Gilmore [in her last film role]  also scores as a nutty woman in the audience who calls herself "Patriot." Also notable is the uncredited black actor who says the Bell is simply the White Power Structure that has always oppressed black people. Jerry Goldsmith contributed an unusual baroque-like score.I didn't spot Robert Clarke of The Hideous Sun Demon and The Man from Planet X as a psychiatrist.

* Joe Pyne was a forerunner of Jerry Springer.

Verdict: Ultimate paranoia and a darn good movie. ***1/2.


Clifton Young tries to put one over on Bogie
DARK PASSAGE (1947). Director: Delmer Daves.

Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart), who was convicted of murdering his wife, somehow escapes from jail and winds up in San Francisco. Helping him hide out and in other ways is Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), whose father was [she believes] also wrongly convicted of murdering her stepmother. During the first half or so of the film we never see Bogart's face, as just about everything is depicted from his subjective point-of-view. It is not giving much away to relate that Parry has plastic surgery, and wears bandages for more of the running time, until he is unveiled as -- Bogart. [Oddly we see Parry's original face in newspaper photos and he is depicted by a much better-looking man than Bogart. But when Parry looks in the mirror he isn't dismayed by the fact that he looks much older and is, frankly, quite homely.] The best scenes in Dark Passage have less to do with Bogie and Bacall than they do with the very tense business involving Parry with would-be blackmailer Baker (Clifton Young.). While Bogart and Bacall are both good in the movie they are overshadowed in the acting department by some members of the supporting cast, especially the aforementioned Young [who died tragically four years later] and in particular Agnes Moorehead, who gives a ferociously mesmerizing performance as Madge, a friend [of sorts] of Irene's and a would-be paramour of Parry's. Tom D'Andrea is good as the cabbie, Sam, and Houseley Stevenson certainly makes an impression as the plastic surgeon that Sam [rather conveniently] happens to know. Bruce Bennett, Douglas Kennedy [as a cop named Kennedy!], and Rory Mallinson are also notable. Dark Passage is a very entertaining and suspenseful film, but the often far-fetched plot has to be taken with a grain of salt and the characterizations could have used more pepper. Daves' direction isn't bad, but he's not on the level of a Hitchcock. Crisp photography and a nice Franz Waxman score are added bonuses.

Verdict: Suspend disbelief and you'll enjoy this formidable piece of film noir with a frankly formidable Moorehead. ***.


Michael Landon as teen wolf


 I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957). Director: Gene Fowler, Jr.

"This is modern America -- not a hamlet in the Carpathian mountains!"

Tony Rivers (Michael Landon), who has serious anger management issues, is sent to a nutty psychiatrist named Dr. Brandon (Whit Bissell). Brandon has developed the insane theory that the only way to save mankind is to regress it back to its primitive state. To this end he experiments on poor Tony, using hypnotic regression to turn him more or less into a werewolf. Teenage Werewolf works on the level of an old horror comic book story, is nevertheless played more or less straight, and is not a bad picture. There is a genuinely well-done attack scene in a forest [greatly abetted by the performance of victim Michael Rougas] and the wolf make up is reasonably effective (even if the teeth could use a little work). Landon and Bissell give very good performances, and there's nice work from Louise Lewis as the concerned principle Ferguson, and Malcolm Atterbury as Tony's father. Guy Williams [Captain Sindbad] and Robert Griffin [Monster from Green Hell] are the cops on the case. The movie probably could have done without the "Eenie Meenie Minee Mo" number sung by the teens. Yvonne Lime makes virtually no impression as Tony's girlfriend. Released on a double-bill with I was a Teenage Frankenstein.

Verdict: Fun if downbeat horror flick. ***


Odd duo: Gary Conway and Whit Bissell

I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN  (1957). Director: Gene Fowler, Jr.

The descendant of Professor Frankenstein (Whit Bissell) wants to take up where his ancestor left off, but intends to make sure his creature looks normal and can make his way among men. Well... not quite, as he removes the body of a dead teen from an accident and brings him back to life [see photo] looking in such a way that he can hardly enter polite society. The poor thing [Gary Conway of Burke's Law and Land of the Giants] wants more of a social life, so the two drive to lover's lane and drag off another poor fellow [Gary Conway again] for a face transplant so the monster can have a handsome and normal countenance; in other words he becomes a sexy beast. Prof. Frankenstein is almost comically immoral in this. [Oddly, the British Curse of Frankenstein released the same year by Hammer studios also had a murderous and sociopathic Dr. Frankenstein.] Conway and Bissell give very good performances, as does Phyllis Coates as Frankenstein's clueless fiancee. This came out on a double-bill with I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Conway later appeared in How to Make a Monster in which he played an actor playing a teenage Frankenstein.

Verdict: Very entertaining hokum with an alligator pit to boot. ***.


Randolph Scott and Nancy Carroll

 HOT SATURDAY (1932). Director: William A. Seiter.

Ruth Brock (Nancy Carroll) works in a bank and has several suitors, but her troubles begin when she goes to a party at the estate of wealthy Romer Sheffield (Cary Grant) and rumors spread about her allegedly spending the night with him. But can she find true love with old family friend, Bill (Randolph Scott of Go West, Young Man), or will those pesky rumors get to him, too? The ending is a little unexpected but not entirely satisfying, as she chooses a man who has already proven to be a heel and doesn't give another guy much of a chance [and has pretty much used him in the first place]. With her flat, broad face and cartoon lips, Carroll is an unlikely sex symbol, but her performance is quite good. Cary Grant is excellent, and Scott is not bad. Grady Sutton [The Bank Dick] and Jane Darwell [The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe] are fine in supporting roles. The pre-code Hot Saturday tries hard to be risque and daring, but it comes off more as confused, and is too short to do justice to its story line and characters.

Verdict: A movie about the private lives of Grant and Scott would probably have been more entertaining. **1/2.


Terence Fisher
THE CHARM OF EVIL: The Life and Films of Terence Fisher. Wheeler Winston Dixon. Scarecrow Press; 1991. Introduction by John Carpenter.

This is an exhaustive, superbly-researched look into the life and work of British director Terence Fisher, who helmed a great variety of films but is today best remembered for his work for Hammer Studios, including Horror of Dracula, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, The Gorgon, and many others. More a career study than a biography proper, there is still much of his personal life, with recollections from his widow and those who worked with Fisher. Dixon looks into Fisher's pre-Hammer work, interesting films such as Stolen Face and Portrait from Life, as well as such curiosities as Four-Sided Triangle and Blackout. While an obvious admirer of his subject, Dixon doesn't slavishly love everything the director did, [although one might wonder about his defense of such comparative drek as The Earth Dies Screaming.] Some might feel Fisher isn't worthy of such intensive scrutiny as Hitchcock, but Fisher's best films show a firm directorial hand and are both vivid and dramatic. The book is written in an academic style that isn't too off-putting, although Dixon betrays a certain prissiness at times. Some might eschew the somewhat tedious shot by shot analysis that Dixon occasionally goes in for and just look at the movies themselves. Basically, this is a well-done, scholarly and admirable labor of love.

Verdict: For Fisher fans this is the "reel" deal. ***1/2.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


MERRILY WE GO TO HELL (1932). Director: Dorothy Arzner.

Heavy drinking reporter Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) falls for the lovely and unspoiled heiress Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney) and the two are married, despite her father's (George Irving) concerns. Jerry had been carrying a torch for an actress named Claire (Adrianne Allen) and when she gets the lead in a play he's written, Jerry becomes her lover and the two have drinking parties nearly every night. [Of course later on Jerry blames Claire for all of this.] Joan decides to be sophisticated and have an "open" marriage, but it just isn't in her. Can this marriage be saved? By the end of this creaky movie -- despite the endless parties and supposed free love philosophy -- you may not care. Most of the characters are unpleasant, and you wish Joan had a little more gumption. March, Irving and especially Sidney give fine performances, but this now-dated pre-code movie is not that memorable.

Verdict: Hell might be more interesting than this. **.



Don't be scared off by the sub-title: this is a very readable, entertaining look at horror films of all types [and many horror films have sexual sub-texts, which Hogan examines]; basically this is a book on horror movies, plain and simple. Hogan has chapters on vampires, werewolves, the Frankenstein monster [father vs. son conflicts], teen horror flicks of the fifties, Alfred Hitchcock, [going from the sublime to the ridiculous] Ed Wood ; Roger Corman, Barbara Steele [of Black Sunday and many others]; and Herschell Gordon Lewis and other goremeisters of his ilk. Okay, there are a few things that give one pause, such as: "I dare any woman to turn off the lights and try to resist the delicious sexual terror that must come when [Bela] Lugosi pauses on the stair and pronounces: "I am ... Dracula." Frankly, most [straight] women today wouldn't find Lugosi such a sex symbol anymore, but one can assume Hogan is having fun with the reader. On rare occasions you get the impression Hogan is writing from memory instead of a fresh viewing: he makes the harmless, not that gory [if admittedly gruesome] Attack of the Crab Monsters sound like a gore fest. Hogan expresses fear that the 70's and 80's gore films could desensitize an audience [on this he may well have been right, considering stuff like Piranha 3D], and objects to the "new wave sexual silliness" seen in a lot of movies. The book is admirably pro-female [the genre has often objectified women] and generally open-minded, although at times you sense a repressed reactionary lingering under the surface. Still, Dark Romance is an excellent, well-written book that aficionados will enjoy. NOTE: This review is of the original hardcover edition, not any revised reprints.

Verdict: Enthusiastic and informative survey of the horror genre with its own sexy slant. ***1/2.


THE TIME TRAVELERS (1964). Written and directed by Ib Melchior.

Scientists have built a window into the future, but it turns out that it is also a portal through which they can step through time. Stupidly they do so -- going 170 years or so into the future -- then discover that the portal has closed and they can't get back. In this post-nuclear civilization human survivors live underground while savage "mutates" roam about outside trying to get in and grab the humans' food supplies. The humans are building a spaceship to escape the dying earth. There are some interesting ideas in the movie, but Melchior's screenplay includes no three-dimensional characters or  human reactions -- none of the scientists express any sense of loss [surely they have some loved ones back in the 20th century] or regret -- giving it a below-comic book flavor. Preston Foster [Two Seconds], Phil Carey [Screaming Mimi; Wicked as They Come] and Merry Anders [The Hypnotic Eye; Michael Shayne] are the scientists while Steve Franken is Danny, a technician who first steps through the time portal like an ass. Joan Woodbury, who was Brenda Starr, Reporter in the serial, plays future woman Gadra; John Hoyt [When Worlds Collide] is Dr. Varno; and Dennis Patrick [Dear Dead Delilah] is the nasty councilman Willard. [Woodbury is more attractive in middle-age than she was in her younger days.] The movie makes some good use of interesting locations, but has its tedious stretches; Richard LaSalle's music is interesting but not always appropriate. Melchior wrote the screenplay for Reptilicus and also wrote and directed Angry Red Planet. Very similar to Journey to the Center of Time, which came out three years later. Both films were probably influenced by World Without End (1956), not to mention H. G. Wells' novel "The Time Machine." Berry Kroeger [Atlantis, the Lost Continent] is supposed to be in The Time Travelers but I didn't spot him and he's rather distinctive.

Verdict: Watch out for those mutates! **1/2.


THE AFFAIRS OF JIMMY VALENTINE (aka Unforgotten Crime /1942). Director: Bernard Vorhaus.

Radio host Mike Jason (Dennis O'Keefe of Hold That Kiss) turns a town upside down when he offers a reward for information about which of the populace may have formerly been known as safe cracker Jimmy Valentine. It seems Fernville is hiding a number of ex-cons who have paid their debt to society and are afraid this hunt will expose them and destroy their lives. Soon there are a couple of murders among the agitated citizenry before the truth comes out -- or not. Despite the interesting plot this is actually a lightweight comedy vehicle for the adept O'Keefe, and little else. With grade A treatment, the picture might have amounted to something. We even learn the identity of the killer almost from the start, despite the fact that his identity might have come as a surprise to most of the audience. Ruth Terry is bouncy as Bonnie, the daughter of the newspaper editor (Roman Bohnen), and Gloria Dickson plays O'Keefe's colleague and supposed girlfriend, Cleo; neither actress is distinctive in any way and both had minor careers. George E. Stone is "Mousey,"  Mike's buddy. Bohnen was memorable as poor old Candy in Of Mice and Men.

Verdict: Nice idea, but nothing special here at all. **.


End of the World?
CHICKEN HEART Lights Out radio episode. 

The days when families would gather around the radio to listen to shows like Lights Out! were quite a bit before my time, so I never had occasion to listen to some of these classic programs. However, many are now available on CD and at the Internet Archives. For 99 cents I was able to download and listen to this famous episode of the horror/suspense show Lights Out! produced by Arch Oboler. I mean, when I found out what the plot was I just had to listen.

"Chicken Heart," believe it or not, is about a chicken heart that is injected with a formula or some such thing and grows and grows and grows at an astonishing rate until it smashes cities, smothers humanity, and destroys the earth! No, this is not one of my infamous phony April's Fool movies [or in this case radio episode]; this actually aired and yes you can find it on amazon. The whole thing is only about seven minutes long. and I swear I could recognize the voice of Edgar Barrier of The Giant Claw [how fitting, as the monster in that is a big fowl] as one of the scientists. The show begins with the heart already breaking out of containment, so if I recall correctly you never really learn how or why the thing begins to grow except as part of some outre experiment. I mean, why exactly would anybody want a giant chicken heart in the first place? On the soundtrack behind the actors' voices you hear the beat beat beat of the giant heart as it gets bigger and bigger. Somehow I don't think the audience was expected to take this very seriously, but in spite of that it's kind of, well, creepy. I mean, what a way for the world to end. Or revenge of the Sunday chicken dinner! I feel like making up tee shirts: I Survived Chicken Heart. More on Lights Out! in the future.

Verdict: It's certainly different, but one hopes it was not a typical Lights Out! offering. **1/2.


THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (1964). Director: Terence Fisher.

In a small village in England, people suddenly drop dead in the middle of everyday tasks, or even when driving cars or railroad trains. Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker), an American pilot who was in the air when the disaster occurred, meets up with a group of people who were similarly spared and they gather inside the village inn. Then slow-moving robots with a death touch appear from out of nowhere, and the people they kill reanimate as pop-eyed living corpses.There's enough material here for an interesting horror/sci fi flick, but Terence Fisher, director of such fine movies as The Gorgon, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, and Horror of Dracula, must have tossed this stinker off in a couple of days without insisting on rewrites. You never quite get a sense from the script or the actors that this might well be the end of the world, there's hardly any atmosphere, and some of the proceedings are quite illogical. Willard Parker was in What a Woman! with Rosalind Russell. Virginia Field, who plays Peggy, was married to Parker at the time and gave vivid performances in such films as Dial 1119 and on such shows as Perry Mason. The Earth Dies Screaming is professional enough, but it's just blah, devoid of inspiration or commitment from anyone, although some of the actors do what they can with inferior material.

Verdict: Like one of the more forgettable episodes of the sixties TV show The Outer Limits. *1/2.


Taylor Kitsch [sic] as John Carter.
JOHN CARTER (aka John Carter of Mars/2012). Director: Andrew Stanton. Disney Studio.

Civil War vet John Carter (the unfortunately named Taylor Kitsch), looking for gold in a cave, touches a medallion that transports his essence millions of miles through space to Barsoom, the planet that we call Mars. Due to his ability to jump vast distances because of the difference in gravity, Carter is sort of adopted by the six-limbed warrior race, the Tharks, especially Tars Tarkas (voice of Willem Dafoe) and the kind-hearted Sola (voice of Samantha Morton), who turns out to be Tarkas' daughter. There is also a red-skinned human race which lives in the city of Helium, including Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who wants to turn the Tharks into allies. However, the princess has been betrothed to a man she doesn't love by her father for political reasons, not knowing that she and Helium are only to be betrayed. To the rescue comes John Carter and the Tharks on flying machines.

John Carter is based on Edgar Rice Burrough's novel, the first in the Mars series, "A Princess of Mars." On the plus side John Carter has impressive special effects, scenic design and beautiful settings. Even people who have read the books may find the story confusing at times [audience members unfamiliar with the books and John Carter may wonder what the hell they've wandered into], and the action scenes are a bit too cluttered and busy to be fully thrilling and satisfying. Somehow the whole picture, despite it's eye-popping aspects, just lacks that certain punch. [Director Andrew Stanton previously directed only animated films, and while there is a lot of computer animation in this film, there are also live-action scenes that are not nearly as well done.] Kitsch is an okay actor and makes a fairly sexy Carter, but his approach to the 19th century character is much too 21st century. Lynn Collins, while not beautiful in the conventional sense, is attractive and more on the mark as Dejah Thoris; Dafoe and Morton are also excellent. There is an unnecessary framing device with Edgar Rice Burroughs as Carter's nephew on Earth, and tedious opening sections involving Apaches and the Army. Carter does a little too much jumping around, as if he were a super-hero, and the Heliumites are nearly disfigured by ugly facial tattoos. An added plus is lovable Woola, the great big Martian dog and companion who is assigned to Carter and is always faithfully by his side. A problem with the film is that it tries too hard to be a big epic when Burroughs' entertaining novels were basically pulp fiction and nothing more. The pure storytelling in the books is superior to what Disney's 250 million dollars put on the screen. Both Kitsch and Collins were in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Verdict: Not a mega-bomb by any means, but not all it could have been. **1/2.

Thursday, September 6, 2012


Richard Basehart
HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948). Director: Alfred L. Werker.

A cop is murdered in L.A. and the hunt is on. There's no mystery as to the identity of the killer; it's a man variously known as Roy Martin or Roy Morgan, played well by Richard Basehart [Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea]. This police procedural follows Sgt. Brennan (Scott Brady) and his stern captain Breen (Roy Roberts of The Gale Storm Show) as they follow the trail to an electronics dealer named Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell, who also gives an excellent performance as a man innocently caught up in this murderous drama). Jack Webb, later of Dragnet fame, has a small role as a police technician who gives the cops some clues. The climax tales place in the same storm drains that figure in the finale of the giant ant thriller, Them, made six years later. This is well done and generally well-acted, with crisp cinematography, but the cinema verite approach strips the film of needed drama and intensity, and the characters are all one-dimensional. It holds the attention, but reminds one of a TV episode. Still, the film has its admirers.

Verdict: This could have used some giant ants. **1/2.


BABY FACE (1933). Director: Alfred E. Green.

"Where would I go -- Paris? I got four bucks!"

"Are you really thinking or just pretending to?"

Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) works in her unpleasant father's speakeasy, but an old customer named Adolph (Alphonse Ethier), suggests she take a cue from Nietzsche, of all people, and use men the way they all want to use her. So Lily takes off with her maid Chico (Theresa Harris), goes to the big city, and makes her way onward and upward through a bank by basically sleeping with one man after another [ not exactly what feminists today would consider female empowerment]. After casting aside both Ned Stevens (Donald Cook), who is engaged to Ann (Margaret Lindsay), as well as Ann's father (Henry Kolker), the now-notorious Lily has to deal with new president Courtland Trenholm (George Brent) -- and deal with him she does. Stanwyck is fine in a role that seems more tailored for Joan Crawford, Brent is satisfactory, and even John Wayne has a small role as another of Lily's early conquests. The main problem with the movie is that the characters are one-dimensional, and despite this being a "pre-code" movie, it's all rather dated; the ending may be unconvincing for many viewers as well. Still, it holds the attention.

Verdict: Stanwyck in man-eating mode. **1/2.


I LOVE THE ILLUSION: The Life and Career of AGNES MOOREHEAD. Charles Tranberg. BearManor Media; 2007.

In this excellent biography by the author of Fred MacMurray: A Biography, the life and career of talented actress Agnes Moorehead is thoroughly examined and scrupulously researched. Moorehead had a successful radio career -- "Sorry, Wrong Number" on Suspense was one of her career highlights -- and also benefited [and vice versa] from her association with Orson Welles, with such films as Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Moorehead toured with Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell," appeared in many movies [including Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte] and eventually landed a gig as Endora on Bewitched that made her a household name for the boob tube generation. Tranberg looks at Moorehead's marriages, her conservative politics and religious attitudes, and her relationships with her famous co-players.

Tranberg is to be congratulated for handling a sensitive area with class.Some biographers, when faced with rumors that their subject might be gay, react in a homophobic fashion, denying with outrage as if being gay were in a class with being a terrorist or child molester. Tranberg investigated the rumors, doesn't seem to give a damn if Moorehead were a lesbian or not, but simply could not come up with enough solid evidence to definitely say she was gay or bisexual. Apparently the rumors only got started because of a silly remark made by comedian Paul Lynde. Sure, Moorehead could have been a repressed lesbian restricted by her religious and conservative attitudes, but without solid proof one can't say so and no one will  ever know for sure [about Moorehead and many others]. Besides, her sexuality isn't the question or the point, but rather her talent, which Tranberg illustrates adeptly on virtually every page. The book also includes a list of especially memorable Bewitched episodes and is generously illustrated as well.

Verdict: Outstanding biography of a noteworthy figure. ****.


Tallulah Bankhead
THE CHEAT (1931). Director: George Abbott.

"If you're trying to appeal to my better nature, it's hopeless, for I haven't any."

Elsa Carlyle (Tallulah Bankhead) and her husband Jeffrey (Harvey Stephens) are feeling a financial pinch when Elsa makes matters worse by losing a bundle at cards. She compounds this error by making a very unsound investment. The oily Hardy Livingstone (Irving Pichel), a wealthy man who collects women like literal trophies, offers Elsa his help -- but at a price she isn't willing to pay, leading to melodramatic complications and a climactic courtroom scene. Except for her overacting at the finale, Bankhead is quite good, and while hardly a raving beauty, one can imagine she never lacked for dates. Stephens is adequate and Pichel is fine, although the movie might have had more of an edge -- and given Elsa more of a moral dilemma -- had Hardy been played by a sexier actor one could believe she was attracted to. The picture is minor but holds the attention and Bankhead is basically swell and appealing. Pichel was later the villain in the serial Dick Tracy's G-Men and directed many films, including The Most Dangerous Game (co-director) and Quicksand. Bankhead later appeared in everything from Hitchcock's Lifeboat to Die, Die, My Darling to the TV series' Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour and Batman.

Verdict: Creaky old pre-code melodrama enlivened by Bankhead. **1/2.


Maurice Chevalier and Hayley Mills
THE CHILDREN OF CAPTAIN GRANT/aka Les Enfants du capitaine Grant, 1867. Jules Verne.

 IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS (1962). Director: Robert Stevenson.

"No matter where you are in the world, it is always different but it is always the same."

The Novel:

Jules Verne wrote Les Enfants du capitaine Grant [The Children of Captain Grant aka In Search of the Castaways], a three part novel, just before writing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Although it never became as well known as other works by the French author, it is a masterpiece, beautifully written, continuously suspenseful, and full of colorful adventures and thrills. The two young children of the missing Captain Grant are convinced that he is still alive due to a message in a bottle, and set off on the Duncan with Lord and Lady Glenarvan, who are touched by their story, to find Grant. The French geographer Paganel guides them, first to South America, and then to Australia and New Zealand. Despite all the changes in setting and solid research, the novel never becomes a dull travelogue and pulls one along from start to finish. Although two of the main characters are children, this is not juvenile fiction; in fact scenes when the group are captured by cannibalistic Maoris are not only gruesome but quite revolting. Verne not only throws multiple twists and turns at the reader, but sometimes piles danger upon danger -- the group take refuge in a tree during a flood, which catches fire, but when they try to escape into the water, a group of hungry gators come by etc. All in all, an excellent read.

The Film:

Having had a great success with an adaptation of Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the Walter Disney studios decided to try for another hit with Verne. 20th-Century Fox came out with Journey to the Center of the Earth and Columbia beat them to the punch with Mysterious Island [both a dreadful serial version in 1951 and an excellent feature film ten years later], so Disney turned to The Children of Captain Grant, probably attracted to its youthful protagonists and colorful storyline. Unfortunately, Disney also turned a rather brilliant adult novel [even if the emphasis is on harrowing action] into an unremarkable kiddie feature that hasn't stood the test of time at all well. The basic plot remains the same, but everything has sort of been dumbed down and anything remotely offensive to children or their parents excised, giving the whole thing a sanitized air. In the novel the characters often go through Hell but in the film it all seems like a jolly good time, even when they're careening down an icy mountain slope on a piece of cliff that has broken off during an earthquake [this scene is therefore deprived of true thrills]. There is one marvelous bit of business in the movie, and that is when the flood overtakes them and they must seek refuge in an enormous tree in the middle of a formerly dry stretch of land [this, too, is taken from Verne]. Although the FX in the film are variable and often out-dated, in this sequence they are quite impressive. Once the story moves from South America to New Zealand, the film loses its tension [the only reference to cannibalism is a quick remark about a ":stew pot"].

Still, the movie is at least well-acted by Hayley Mills; little Keith Hamshere as her brother; Michael Anderson Jr,. as Glenarvan's son [not in the novel, if I recall correctly] and Mills' love interest; the ever charming Maurice Chevalier as Paganel; George Sanders as the villain of the piece [who was much more complicated and interesting in the book]; Wilfrid Hyde-White as Glenarvan [his wife has been eliminated]; and Wilfrid Brambell as the rather loony Bill Gaye [don't remember if he is in the book or not]. Chevalier and Mills sing a couple of pleasant enough songs, including "Let's Climb." [At least the studio resisted bringing in, say, Fabian or Frankie Avalon to play a role and warble a ditty or two.]

A remake is in pre-production for 2014, so let's hope that this time they get it right. Verne and the novel deserve better. 

Verdict: The Children of Captain Grant. ****
             In Search of the Castaways **1/2.


GOING TO PIECES: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SLASHER FILM, 1978 - 1986. Adam Rockoff. McFarland; 2002.

When such films as Halloween  and Friday the 13th became big money makers, there was a rush to come out with cheap, gory films with psychos on the loose slashing and hacking at everyone in sight. Rockoff intelligently dissects the genre, which he loves, examining the styles of different directors, as well as going behind the scenes of many productions. The book is bolstered by comments from producers and others. A final chapter looks at the revival of the genre with the Scream movies. [It's too bad this came out too early to cover all the recent remakes of famed slasher films such as Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, and others.] Being human, Rockoff does at times tend to be kinder to films made by people who consented to be interviewed as opposed to others, but when he thinks a film is a stinker he isn't shy about saying so. The book is quite well-written as well.

I appreciate that Rockoff mentions my 1985 tome Stay Out of the Shower: 25 Years of Shocker Films Beginning with "Psycho," and acknowledges it as one of the very first books to discuss slasher films (along with other horror films.) However, I can't say that I "loathe" such movies as he claims [I've certainly seen plenty of them, then and now.] I've always enjoyed the original Friday the 13th, among others in the genre, but I confess I do prefer films -- slashers, among them -- that have decent production values, a firm directorial hand, some three-dimensional characters, generous suspense, and a plot with some kind of mystery to it, and most slasher films -- maybe most movies -- don't fit that criteria, more's the pity. So I would say I don't so much loathe slasher films but am disappointed by them.

Verdict: Slasher movie fans will love this. ***.


LOVE CRIME (aka Crime d'amour/2010). Director: Alain Corneau.

Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier) is assistant to Christine (Kirstin Scott Thomas), who gleefully takes credit for the former's work and justifies it by saying they're a "team." Ah, but when Isabelle goes behind her boss' back to get the credit she deserves on another project, Christine is livid and does her best to humiliate her. It doesn't help that both women are involved with the same man, Philippe (Patrick Mille). Now this is when the story should start to rivet the audience, but instead it turns into a slow, predictable non-thriller during which the viewer knows all the answers before the police do. Anyone expecting a study of diabolical revenge -- as Love Crime was promoted -- should look elsewhere. It's also hard to get into a battle of wits between two characters when one of them is dead throughout much of the movie. With its incredibly inept policemen -- among other reasons -- the movie is never believable. (A large part of one character's alibi is that she was at the movies, but the cops never suspect she might have walked out of the theater instead of watching the picture -- huh?) It's hard to understand why this picture got such rave reviews, especially from supposedly knowledgeable critics who should have known better. One reviewer even thought this was an excellent example of film noir -- what? Although the acting is good, the one-dimensional characters and lack of music don't help at all. It's also hard to understand why director Brian De Palma thought enough of the film to do an American remake, the upcoming Passion, which will hopefully be a lot better. There have been several telefilms about harried assistants getting even with miserable bosses that were a lot better and more visceral and energetic than this.

Verdict: More like one of your lesser Lifetime movies than Double Indemnity. **.