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

Thursday, April 30, 2015


YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE (1964). Writer/director: Delmer Daves. Based on the novel by Herman Wouk.

Arthur "Youngblood" Hawke (James Franciscus) is living with his mother (Mildred Dunnock) in a cabin in Kentucky when he learns that Jason Prince (Lee Bowman) wants to publish his novel. Arthur goes to New York where he becomes the toast of the town and promptly begins an affair with actors' agent Freida Winter (Genevieve Page), who is married with children. Meanwhile Arthur's editor, Jeanne (Suzanne Pleshette), is falling in love with him as well. Youngblood Hawke is entertaining and not quite a soap opera, but something about it just doesn't jell. First, while Franciscus isn't bad, he never comes off like a reader, let alone a writer who wins a Pulitzer Prize, and there's nothing remotely poor-Southern-Kentuckian about him (despite Franciscus' coming from Missouri). Then there's the screenplay, which doesn't even seem to make much of an effort to seriously delineate a writer's life or career -- everything is subordinate to his love troubles. It comes across that Youngblood's chief appeal is his sex appeal and not the literary quality of his novels, but the movie misses most opportunities to explore this with depth. Pleshette is okay if unspectacular, but hers is a small secondary role compared to Genevieve Page, who gives a sensitive and outstanding performance as Freida. Eva Gabor [It Started with a Kiss] is a party hostess; John Emery an aging actor; Don Porter [The Norliss Tapes] Arthur's agent; Mary Astor an actress who importunes Arthur to write the play version of his first novel for her; and Kent Smith, Freida's husband. All of these are quite good, but perhaps the best impression is made by Edward Andrews as the acerbic critic Quentin Judd, who rips apart Hawke's latest novel in front of a large gathering. Young Pat Cardi [Let's Kill Uncle] is also effective in the role of Freida's tragic son.

Verdict: Entertaining and fast-moving, but only Hollywood's idea of a writer's life. ***.


JOURNEY TO THE LOST CITY (1960). Director: Fritz Lang.

Architect Harald Berger (Paul Christian) travels to Ishnapoor in India where he saves Princess Seetha (Debra Paget of The River's Edge) from a tiger. Naturally the two fall in love, a situation which does not sit well with the jealous Prince Chandra (Walter Reyer). Harald and Seetha go on the run, but Chandra sends his men after them into the desert. And Chandra himself is subject of a palace coup ... Journey to the Lost City was originally two German films that American- International stripped down to one movie, dubbed, and released in the U.S. Most people have seen only washed-out prints of the movie, which has some striking art direction. The most interesting scenes have to do with the underground tunnels and giant statues below the palace, where lepers are kept in horrible conditions in one chamber. There are whippings, people placed in a pit of tigers, and the like, but somehow this never gets very interesting. It's a shame that the voice of Paul Christian [The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms] has been dubbed, as it's much more flavorful than that of the anonymous actor who says his lines. Filmed in the province of Rajasdan, India. Lang's Clash By Night is vastly superior to this.

Verdict: Not really a journey nor a lost city, but it has some attractive settings. **.


Tom Reese and Duvall with Karen Black in the background
THE OUTFIT (1973). Director: John Flynn.

Earl Macklin (Robert Duvall) gets out of prison to discover that his brother was murdered. It seems the two of them knocked off a bank that was owned by the crime cartel, the "Outfit." Macklin decides to pay back and wage war on the Outfit by carrying out heists -- with his pal, Jack (Joe Don Baker) -- that will hit the Outfit where they live. His main antagonist is Outfit bigwig Mailer (Robert Ryan), who lives in a big mansion with bodyguards and has a fairly disinterested wife (Joanna Cassidy). The Outfit is loosely based on the third "Parker" novel by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake), a series of books in which a career criminal is the protagonist. [Another Parker adaptation was The Split.] Frankly, the book is much more entertaining than this indifferently directed "thriller" in which only Robert Ryan gives an especially memorable performance. Baker isn't bad, Karen Black [Trilogy of Terror] has her moments as Macklin's girl, and Duvall is Duvall. Sheree North [Mardi Gras] also has some flavorful moments as the wife of an associate, but Jane Greer isn't very good as Macklin's sister-in-law. Richard Jaeckal, Marie Windsor, and Henry Jones aren't on screen long enough to register much but are all effective. John Flynn also directed The Sergeant.

Verdict: Indifferent adaptation of a gritty Parker novel. **.


TWENTY PLUS TWO (1961). Joseph M. Newman.

When Richard Diamond, Private Detective wound up its four season run, star David Janssen played a man who looks for missing people in Twenty Plus Two. Tom Alder (Janssen) has always been interested in the case of a girl who completely vanished 12 years ago when she was 16. At the same time, movie star Leroy Dane (Brad Dexter) discovers that the woman who answered his fan mail has been murdered. Jacques Pleshette (Jacques Aubuchon) then hires Alder to look into the disappearance of his brother, Auguste. Are these cases all connected in some way? Meandering through the story are three women: former love Linda (Jeanne Crain), who sent him a "Dear John" letter; hostess turned socialite, Nicki (Dina Merrill), whom Tom met in a post-war Tokyo; and Eleanor Delaney (Agnes Moorehead), the mother of the missing girl. Twenty Plus Two is fairly unpredictable and reasonably absorbing, but it ultimately adds up to nothing. It's one of those movies in which characters spend years covering up a "murder" that was clearly self-defense and yet never bother getting a good lawyer. Janssen is fine and the other actors are okay, but the picture is stolen by Moorehead, especially in a scene with Janssen when the two look at photos of the missing 16-year-old and realize that she's already turned into a woman. An unintentionally funny scene has teenage girls screaming over Brad Dexter [99 River Street] as if he were Troy Donahue! William Demarest [The Perils of Pauline] gives a superb performance as a bitter and drunken ex-reporter, walking off with the movie in one brief sequence.

Verdict: Like an extended Richard Diamond episode in CinemaScope. **1/2.


Andy meets the fowl Mrs. Fowler (Marjorie Gateson)
ANDY HARDY MEETS DEBUTANTE (1940). Director: George B. Seitz.

"Who was it who said only last Sunday that the epistles were the wives of the apostles?" -- Polly Benedict to Andy.

Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney), who works on the high school paper, has a massive crush on a New York debutante named Daphne (Diana Lewis). Andy has implied to everyone that he actually knows the young lady, so when it develops that he's going to visit New York for some of his father's (Lewis Stone) legal business, he is importuned to have his picture taken with her. Andy tries his best to get to know Daphne, but in an infuriating scene he is ever-so-gently shown the door by her terribly condescending mother (Marjorie Gateson of Lily Turner), who thinks he's just not their kind. Still contriving to meet Daphne, Andy goes to the veddy fashionable Club Sirocco with only eight dollars in his pocket, then orders the "special" -- starting off with caviar! In the meantime Betsy Booth (Judy Garland), who's had a crush on Andy ever since Love Finds Andy Hardy, gets some help in that department from -- who else? -- her old friend Daphne Fowler. [Talk about fantasies!] Humiliated by his experience in the Sirocco, Andy becomes deeply depressed that he's not good enough for society, and tells his father -- who tries to wake him up -- that "he's just a small-town judge that nobody's ever heard of." His father has his own troubles when he takes on New York lawyers in a case involving an estate versus an orphanage and is (temporarily) blown off. Naturally everything works out in the end. Andy Hardy Meets Debutante -- the "a" is missing from the title because it's meant to sound like a newspaper headline -- is another irresistible Hardy picture, with Mickey Rooney and Garland in top form, and a swell supporting cast. Garland does a semi-comical version of "Alone" [from A Night at the Opera]; Beezy (George Breakston) is still dating Cynthia (although Lana Turner is not seen]; and the little orphan boy, Francis (Clyde Willson) is adorable. Cy Kendall [Borrowing Trouble] plays the owner of the Sirocco and is adequate.

Verdict: Can't beat Rooney and Garland. ***.


Al Pacino as Grandpa
TWO BITS (1995). Director: James Foley.

In 1933 Philadelphia young Genarro (Jerry Barone) hopes to get a quarter so he can go to the opening of the new movie house. While he plots and pleads for the two bits, Grandpa (Al Pacino) and his widowed daughter Luisa (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) deal with his health issues. Then there's the strange doctor Bruna (Andy Romano) and his even stranger wife (Donna Mitchell), with whom Genarro has unpleasant encounters. Grandpa asks his grandson to do him a slight favor, and promises him the quarter if he does it, but will the poor kid ever make it to the movies? Screenwriter Joseph Psycho Stefano based the story on childhood reminiscences, but it's all rather slight, with too many sequences that don't ring true. A much too young and vital Pacino [The Humbling] is miscast as Grandpa. Barone is excellent as young Genarro.

Verdict: A nice attempt at something different, but ultimately a failure. **.


The Crypt-Keeper reads a comic

This gruesome TV show lasted for seven seasons and all of the 93 episodes were based on stories published in E.C.'s horror comics, such as Tales from the Crypt. As many of these stories were only a few pages long and were chiefly interested (in many cases) with just the final twist or shock-gore ending, the telewriters often had to "flesh out" the scripts and plot lines, sometimes felicitously, sometimes not.

Among the most memorable episodes: "And All Through the House," involving a murderess and a Santa Clause on a deadly rampage. "Til Death," with a love potion affecting a wealthy woman who never dies to her lover's extreme consternation. "My Brother's Keeper," in which a Siamese twin's falling in love causes extreme complications. In "The New Arrival," a radio shrink deals with a very weird child in a creepy old house. "Spoiled" features a neglected wife, her lover, and the husband who enacts a diabolical revenge involving a truly grotesque switch in parts. An old magician (a splendid Martin Sheen) gets even with a younger rival  in "Well-Cooked Hams." Arguably the best episode is the extremely gruesome "Split Second," in which a handsome lumberjack dallies with the boss's wife and the highly bloody developments this leads to involving a chainsaw.

Other notable episodes: "House of Horror;" "Let the Punishment Fit the Crime;" "Started in Horror;" "Only Skin Deep;" "Till Death Do We Part;" "Oil's Well that Ends Well;" "Came the Dawn;" "Escape;" "Smoke Wrings;" "Mournin' Mess;" "What's Cookin'"; "Death of Some Salesman;" "The Switch;" "Collection Completed;" "The Ventriloquist's Dummy;" "Television Terror;" "Dig that Cat -- He's Real Gone;" and "The Man Who Was Death."

Tales from the Crypt could be overly campy at times (to say the least) and can be best described as very black comedy. The writers added lots of blatant sexuality to the original stories.The hideous puppet "Crypt-Keeper" was expertly voiced by John Cassir, who somehow managed to make him somewhat lovable [?] despite the atrocious puns. NOTE: See The Horror Comics for more information on these and other horror stories.

Verdict: Only about half of these or less are really worth watching, but the good ones are quite entertaining. **1/2.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


Sidney Toler
SIDNEY TOLER (1874 - 1947).

After the death of Warner Oland, Twentieth Century Fox tapped Sidney Toler, of Scottish ancestry,  to play the plum role of Charlie Chan. Toler had been a Broadway star before he entered films, wrote successful plays, and even sang opera as a baritone. Toler appeared in a great many movies besides the Chan films, playing Daniel Webster in The Gorgeous Hussy with Joan Crawford. He was a ship's captain in Our Relations with Laurel and Hardy, and played [Caucasian] detectives in Blonde Venus with Marlene Dietrich and A Night to Remember with Brian Aherne and Loretta Young; there were many others but he was most famous as Chan. Monogram studios took up the Chan films after Fox decided to end the series; Toler would occasionally play other Oriental roles. It has been written that Toler's ill health necessitated the comedy relief of Mantan Moreland and Benson Fong etc., during the later films because of the actor's flagging energy, but even the earlier Chan vehicles had lots of scenes with Chan's detective-happy sons. Toler's last Chan film was The Trap. Below is a round-up of seven more Charlie Chan-Sidney Toler movies. [For other Toler-Chans reviewed on this site type in his name or "Charlie Chan" in the search bar above.]


Victor Sen Yung, Harold Huber, and Sidney Toler
CHARLIE CHAN IN RIO (1941). Director: Harry Lachman.

Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) and his irrepressible son, Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung), have come to Rio where Charlie plans to arrest a woman from Honolulu who is wanted for murder; meanwhile Jimmy hopes to learn the mambo either from singer Lola Dean (Jacqueline Dalya) or her cute maid, Lili (Iris Wong). Alas, Lola is the woman wanted for murder, but she herself is killed before Charlie can put the cuffs on her. Suspects include Lola's baffled fiance, Clark (uncredited); Morana, the Indian mystic (Victor Jory of Cat-Women of the Moon); Ken Reynolds (a strangely unrecognizable Richard Derr of The Invisible Avenger); his wife, Joan (Mary Beth Hughes of Rockin' in the Rockies); friend Bill Kellogg (Hamilton MacFadden); the bitter Grace (Cobina Wright Jr.); Lola's efficient secretary, Helen (Kay Linaker); and even the butler, Rice (Leslie Denison). This is an entertaining mystery, but it lacks the tension and suspense of superior entries in the series. The acting is generally good, however, with Toler and Sen Yung in fine form. Harold Huber once again plays a police inspector, but is more relaxed and appealing than usual. Kay Linaker and Iris Wong were also in previous Chan pictures. Truman Bradley, who was in the last entry Dead Men Tell, is listed in the cast but I couldn't spot him in this and can't even remember the character!

Verdict: Acceptable Chan vehicle. **1/2.


CASTLE IN THE DESERT (1942). Director: Harry Lachman.

Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) receives a note from a woman named Lucy Manderley (Lenita Lane of The Bat) that asks him to come immediately to her castle located in the Mojave Desert in California. Once he arrives, Charlie learns that Lucy never sent the note, but there has apparently already been one murder. Lucy is a descendant of the notorious Lucrezia Borgia, and when a victim or two winds up poisoned, naturally suspicion falls upon her. But there are other suspects: Carl Detheridge (Richard Derr of When Worlds Collide), who worked with Charlie on a previous case; Lucy's husband (Douglass Dumbrille of Alimony), half of whose face is hidden due to a scar; sculptor Watson King (Henry Daniell), who wants to do a bust of Lucy; cadaverous Arthur Fletcher (Milton Parsons), who has a few secrets; the weird fortune teller Madame Saturnia (Ethel Griffies); and others. As the deaths occur, Charlie and the others, including son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung), are trapped in the castle without a car or a telephone. There's an apothecary in the basement that contains numerous poisons as well as a torture chamber. Castle in the Desert gets a little silly at times, but it has a good story and is well acted by the principals. Derr and Griffies appeared in previous Chan films but played different characters. This was the last Charlie Chan film produced by Twentieth Century-Fox.

Verdict: Good fun in a creepy castle. ***.


Benson Fong, Mantan Moreland and Marianne Quon
CHARLIE CHAN IN THE SECRET SERVICE (1944). Director: Phil Rosen.

In Washington D.C. the inventor of a new weapon holds a cocktail party but stupidly refuses body guards. Naturally, said scientist winds up dead, the torpedo plans stolen. Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) arrives to find those plans and arrest the guilty party. But is it gruff Luis Vega (Gene Roth of Earth vs. the Spider); wheelchair-bound Paul Arranto (George J. Lewis of Ghost of Zorro); David Blake (Barry Bernard), of the Department of Political Economy; the housekeeper Mrs. Hargue (Sarah Edwards); or the dithery Mrs. Winters (Lelah Tyler); among others. Surely it can't be Inspector Jones (Arthur Loft) or Sergeant Billings (Davison Clark)? This is the first Charlie Chan picture for Monogram studios, and it's a typically cheap production, but it has its moments. Nobody ever seems to give a damn about the dead man, even though he was an important scientist and everyone's host! Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung) is gone, replaced by his less interesting brother, Tommy (Benson Fong), as well as his sister, number two daughter, Iris (Marianne Quon), who is cute if little else. This movie introduces the popular character of Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland, whose name leads the list of supporting players in bigger letters), who appeared in the later Chan films. Phil Rosen directed many Charlie Chan pictures as well as such stuff as Spooks Run Wild.

Verdict: Serviceable Chan film with some clever moments. **1/2.


Sidney Toler and Benson Fong
CHARLIE CHAN IN THE CHINESE CAT (aka The Chinese Cat/1944). Director: Phil Rosen.

"One Chan at a time is enough! No more murders for me!' -- Birmingham Brown.

Six months after the police are stumped by a "locked room" murder in which Thomas Manning is found shot, a work of fiction, "Murder by Madame," comes out which puts the blame on the widow, Mrs. Manning (Betty Blythe of A Fig Leaf for Eve). It appears that the woman's first husband died mysteriously as well, but this sub-plot is dropped early on. Mrs. Manning's daughter, Leah Manning (Joan Woodbury), who apparently took her stepfather's name, importunes Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) to finally solve the case and remove the cloud of suspicion over her mother. Charlie also makes a bet with the novelist, Recknik (Ian Keith of Cleopatra) as to whether or not the detective will come up with a new solution. There's a hidden staircase (which makes you wonder why anyone considered it a "locked room" puzzle); gems secreted inside cat statues with hidden compartments; and a climax inside a fun house on a pier. Alas, the one thing this movie doesn't have is any real suspense. While different and not as lovable as Victor Sen Yung, Benson Fong is quite good as Tommy Chan. Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland), now a Yellow cab man in New York, gets in on the action whether he wants to or not. Detective Harvey Dennis (Walden Heyburn) happens to be Leah Manning's boyfriend, and the ever-mediocre Cy Kendall is the late Manning's business partner, Webster Deacon. John Davidson [The Perils of Pauline] plays creepy-looking twins.

Verdict: Fairly standard Chan picture is not one of the better ones. **.


Sidney Toler and Helen Beverly
MEETING AT MIDNIGHT (aka Black Magic/1944). Director: Phil Rosen.

"Mr. Chan, I've been leavin' ever since I got here." -- Birmingham Brown.

During a seance, the lights go out and the medium is found shot to death. The strange thing is that an autopsy reveals there's a gunshot wound in the body but no bullet! [The explanation for this is clever even if today's forensics people might scoff.] The suspects include the widow, Mrs. Bonner (Jacqueline deWit of The Damned Don't Cry); Norma Duncan (Helen Beverly), who bore the man a grudge; assistants Tom and Vera Starky (Charles Jordan and Claudia Dell); mousy fan manufacturer, Edwards (Harry Depp); and two victims of blackmail, Hamlin (Frank Jaquet) and Harriet Green (Geraldine Wall), who had a brief fling with the murdered man. The cops are Rafferty (Ralph Peters) and Matthews (Joseph Crehan of The Case of the Black Parrot). A suspenseful scene has another victim hypnotized into throwing herself off of a roof, something which nearly happens to Charlie in the film's best sequence and climax. Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland of On the Spot) is along for the ride but Tommy Chan has been replaced by his sister Frances (coincidentally played by a not-very-talented actress named, believe it or not, Francis Chan. A decade earlier she also played a Chan daughter in the lost film Charlie Chan's Greatest Case with Warner Oland.). This is another rather mediocre Monogram cheapie but it does pick up a bit towards the end. NOTE: Actress Jacquline deWit spelled it "DeWit," "de Wit" and probably others.

Verdict: Neither Charlie's best nor worst. **1/2.


Sidney Toler,  Fortunio Bonanova, Benson Fong, Willie Best 
THE RED DRAGON (1945). Director: Phil Rosen.

Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) and son Tommy (Benson Fong) are in Mexico City when Charlie is called in to investigate what turns out to be a series of strange murders. People are being shot to death in front of witnesses but nobody (but Chan, of course) can figure out how come there is no assailant in the room or even exactly what kind of weapon has been used. The first victim is a man who discovered a 95th element whose destructive powers in an atomic bomb could wipe out the entire country! The suspects include Marguerite Fontan (Carol Hughes of Meet the Boyfriend), whom Inspector Carvero (Fortunio Bonanova) has special feelings for; Countess Irena (Marjorie Hoshelle), an entertainer with a shady background; Alfred Wyans (Robert Emmett Keane), who is all excited over the loss of a certain typewriter; Joseph Bradish (Barton Yarborough), an oil salesman or possible smuggler; and others. With Mantan Moreland working elsewhere at the time, Birmingham Brown is replaced by his cousin Chattanooga (Willie Best of Dangerous Money). The title refers to a type of Chinese ink. The members of the supporting cast in this are mostly colorless, but the story has clever elements and the leads are, as ever, swell. And we mustn't forget the scene when Charlie does the rumba to the shock of son Tommy!

Verdict: Chan capably treading water. **1/2.


Mantan Moreland and Sidney Toler
SHADOWS OVER CHINATOWN (1946). Director: Terry O. Morse.

There's thirteen people on a bus driving through a rain storm to San Francisco, where passenger Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) hopes to find the identity of a torso murderer. At a way station, someone takes a shot at Charlie. Does the body of a dismembered woman belong to a missing heiress, or the grand-daughter (Tanis Chandler) of Mrs. Conover (Mary Gordon of Bonnie Scotland)? While Charlie investigates -- with the help of Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung back as Number Two Son); chauffeur Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland), and Chief Lannigan (George Eldredge) -- there are more murders and a lot of confusion. Suspects include pickpocket Cosgrove (Jack Norton); private eye Hay (John Gallaudet); crook Mike Rogan (Paul Bryar); Marine colonel Tilford (Bruce Kellogg); and others. Shadows Over Chinatown has a basically good story and is quite entertaining, but there are some gaping holes in the plot. Who exactly took that shot at Charlie? How did Mrs. Conover's friend Miss Johnson (Myra McKinney) manage to locate her grand-daughter's apartment when only a short while before Charlie discovered the young woman working as a waitress? Who knows? The identity of the killer in this is no great surprise, but the film is still fun. Terry Morse also directed Unknown World with Bruce Kellogg, who was equally mediocre in both movies. 71-year-old Toler made two more appearances as Charlie Chan that year before his death in 1947. An interesting prologue deals with the Department of Missing Persons.

Verdict: Chan is not missing in this even if some of the script is. ***.

Thursday, April 16, 2015


Julie Harris, Ron Randell, and Laurence Harvey
I AM A CAMERA (1955). Director: Henry Cornelius.

In 1930's Berlin, writer Christopher Isherwood (Laurence Harvey) tries to make a name for himself while befriending a would-be actress and singer named Sally Bowles (Julie Harris) who has temporarily run out of luck. The two form a fast, platonic friendship and also get to know Natalia (Shelley Winters) and her secretly Jewish boyfriend, Fritz (Anton Diffring). Chris and Sally also become friends with a wealthy man named Clive (Ron Randell) who spends money like it's going out of style and plans on taking both of them on a trip to Hawaii. This is based on a book by the real-life Christopher Isherwood, and also on the play by John Van Druten. Isherwood's homosexuality isn't underscored but despite one scene when he comes on to Sally (who's wise to him and won't have any of it), it's pretty clear what's going on to the viewer (Clive's possible bisexuality is similarly suppressed but hinted at). Harvey's performance is quite good, as is Harris'; the only problem is that her character is so breathless and affected -- some might call her an overbearing "fag hag" -- that after awhile she becomes extremely annoying. Randell [Most Dangerous Man Alive], who certainly had an interesting career even if he never quite achieved stardom, is fine as Clive, and Winters [The Big Knife] and Diffring [The Man Who Could Cheat Death ] are also notable. The title refers to Isherwood's ability to record what he sees and hears like a camera and put it on paper, and the film has a modern-day framework with Isherwood discovering that Sally, whom he has not seen in years, has written a book about her life. The movie, unfortunately, isn't very entertaining and hasn't as much real substance as one might have hoped for. The business with the encroaching Nazis is kept to a minimum and there's only one dramatic scene that deals with it. A ridiculous party scene is meant to be funny but is only a bore. In truth, the musical version, Cabaret, isn't that much better.

Verdict: A little of Sally Bowles goes a long way. I don't think I could have spent five minutes with her. **.


Threesome: Minelli, Griem,York
CABARET (1972). Director: Bob Fosse.

"I feel just like Kay Francis!" --Sally.

Brian: "Screw Maximilian!" Sally: "I do!" Brian: "So do I!"

In 1931 Berlin a language teacher named Brian (Michael York) becomes best chums with the free-spirited entertainer Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli) as Germany begins taking a Nazi turn for the worse. As two pupils -- Fritz (Fritz Wepper) and Natalia (Marisa Berenson) -- fall in love, Brian begins a romance with Sally that is complicated by the addition of handsome millionaire Maximilian Van Heune (Helmut Griem). Odd that this musical version of I Am a Camera is franker than the original in some respects, and tiresomely regressive in others. Michael York is appealing as the conflicted Brian, as is Marisa Berenson as the wealthy Jewish Natalia. Liza Minelli is less irritating in some ways than Julie Harris was playing the same part, although Harris is the better actress; that said, Minelli is not bad at all, although hardly deserving of the Best Actress Oscar she was awarded. Helmut Griem has little to do but look kind of sexy, but that he does perfectly well. I have to confess I found two things in this movie rather repellent: a made-up, simpering Joel Grey, although he's effective enough as the emcee; and Liza Minelli when she tries to act all sexy. The most unconvincing thing in the movie is the "romance" between Brian and Sally.

In I am a Camera, the "Brian" character was actually Camera writer Christopher Isherwood (Laurence Harvey), and he was so named. Herein Isherwood has been turned into an alternate Chris Isherwood but it never quite works -- his gayness is going to burst out no matter what. [Of course, one is tempted to say this isn't the first time Liza Minelli had a gay boyfriend!] Early in the film Brian explains that he tried sex with women three times and it was always a disaster. When he successfully has sex with Sally, she remarks they must have been the wrong three girls, that godawful creaky business about how you're only gay until you meet the right woman! This is somewhat redeemed by the revelation that Brian has been intimate with Max, but any sequences, erotic or otherwise, relating to this, are completely unexplored. All we know is that Brian and Max have had an argument, there's tension in the air, and Max seems very angry. But whether it's because Brian won't remain his "fuck buddy" [out of concern for Sally or the fact that Max is married] or because he prefers to stay with Sally (highly unlikely) is never revealed. The scene quoted above, in which Sally learns the two men are screwing behind her back, was considered quite controversial in its day and York's second line was always cut on network television. Michael York also played a character who slept with both men and women in Something for Everyone.

When Cabaret came out I liked the movie very much, but it's gone downhill in my estimation. Most of the characters are not well-developed, the film is coy and dated about sexuality, and aside from the snappy title number and "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," I didn't much care for the Kander and Ebb song numbers [they wrote the German youth's song in that style]. It also doesn't have enough period atmosphere despite the location filming. While Cabaret  deals more with the encroaching Nazis than I Am a Camera did, it doesn't really get across that sense of doom until the final chilling image. And at least I Am a Camera didn't invent a phony romance. NOTE: I have only seen the film versions of John Van Druten's "I am a Camera" and of the Broadway musical "Cabaret," so I can't comment on the stage originals.

Verdict: Some nice things in this, but overall I'd rather watch Something for Everyone. **1/2.


NUTCRACKER: MONEY, MURDER AND MADNESS. 1987 mini-series. Various directors.

The true story of Frances Shreuder (Lee Remick), a women who decided that she needed her father's money to fund her elaborate lifestyle, and would do anything to get it, including outright thievery and embezzlement. But when she fears that Daddy (G. D. Spradlin) might cut Frances out of his will entirely, she cooks up a plot to have her sons kill him off. [The title refers to the fact that Shreuder managed to get a seat on the board of directors of the ballet, and her daughter was an aspiring dancer as well.] While Lee Remick is not perhaps the perfect choice for such a demanding role, she does give a credible and effective performance as the most monster mother of them all. Tate Donovan [Nancy Drew] and Frank Military are both excellent as Frances' deeply troubled sons, one of whom winds up in a mental institution. Inga Swenson [Advise and Consent] is excellent as Frances' outraged sister Marilyn, who has to watch as her mother, who always favored Frances, cuddles up to the woman responsible for her husband's death. As the mother, a superb Elizabeth Wilson [The Tunnel of Love] almost walks off with the movie. There is also very nice work from John Glover as Frances' friend, Dick; G. D. Spradlin as her father; and Tony Musante as her first ex-husband and the father of her boys. Four and a half hours long, in three installments, this has not a boring moment in it. Based on a book by Shana Alexander. Another book about the case, At Mother's Request, was also made into a telefilm.

Verdict: Fascinating look at truly twisted people. ***.


Stefanie Powers
AT MOTHER'S REQUEST (1987 two-part telefilm). Director: Michael Tuchner.

Frances Shreuder (Stefanie Powers) basically tells her son Marc (Doug McKeon) not to bother coming home unless he goes ahead and murders his grandfather (E. G. Marshall). According to Marc's story, he didn't really want to do it, but it's debatable if that's true or not. Frances' mother Berenice (Frances Sternhagen) is appalled at how Marc accuses his mother during her trial, making one wonder if she really doesn't know her daughter was involved or just doesn't care. This is the second telefilm to deal with the real-life murder case that takes place in Utah and New York, and it is inferior to Nutcracker: Money, Murder and Madness. Powers [McLintock!] isn't bad in the role, but for the most part she fails to deliver the showier, dramatic and much more visceral portrayal of Lee Remick. McKeon is also not bad, but somehow a cut below Tate Donovan in the competing film, and Sternhagen [The Mist], while generally a fine actress, is no match for Elizabeth Wilson in the same role. Corey Parker is pretty good as Marc's brother, Larry, who goes off the deep end. With only three hours to work with instead of four and a half, At Mother's Request isn't quite as detailed as Nutcracker, with us not learning much about some characters, such as Frances' father and her two sisters, but the script is still mediocre. This version is not as slick and compelling. The people in this version seem even worse, if that's possible, than the ones in Nutcracker.

Verdict: Major Family Dysfunction -- but stick with Nutcracker and Remick. **1/2.


Mickey Rooney and Helen Gilbert
ANDY HARDY GETS SPRING FEVER (1939). Director: W. S. Van Dyke.

"I think my ending is better than Shakespeare's -- it's more spiritual." -- Andy Hardy

"You mean when the native girl throws herself into a volcano?" -- Miss Meredith

Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney) is annoyed by Polly Benedict's attentions to a young Naval officer, but his spirits are revived when he meets the new dramatics teacher, Rose Meredith (Helen Gilbert). Andy writes a play, "Adrift in Tahiti," that is inspired by "Romeo and Juliet," with Andy and Polly (Ann Rutherford) cast as the star-crossed lovers. But will all go well on the play's opening night, and will "Tahula" -- Polly's heroine -- warm up her frigid attitude toward Andy? More importantly, will he get pretty teacher Miss Meredith to actually marry him? In a sub-plot Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone) discovers that he may have been swindled out of his life savings along with some of his friends, a development already used in the previous year's Jones Family film, Safety in Numbers. This is another charming and amusing Andy Hardy film [these were still called "Hardy Family" movies, but we all knew who the star was] with Andy discovering the pangs of unrequited infatuation. George Breakston ("Beezy") from Love Finds Andy Hardy makes another appearance. Sister Marion Hardy seems less flighty in this outing, Aunt Millie hardly appears, and Fay Holden has a little more to do as Mrs. Hardy and does it as well as ever. Helen Gilbert comes close to giving a very lovely performance but somehow there's something lacking in her.

Verdict: Randy Andy gets romantic. ***.


Johnny Weissmuller and Suzanne Dalbert
MARK OF THE GORILLA (1950). Director: William Berke.

Skulduggery is afoot in a government game preserve in the Nagandi district of Africa. For one thing murderous gorillas are stalking about, even if this isn't their natural territory. Do these big apes perhaps have a secret? One thing that isn't a secret is that there's a horde of Nazi gold hidden on the preserve, and several people are trying to find it. These include the suspicious Professor Brandt (Onslow Stevens of The Couch) and the pretty Nyobi (Suzanne Dalbert, who has a distracting resemblance to Ingrid Bergman)! Then there's Warden Bentley (Selmer Jackson) and his niece, Barbara (Trudy Marshall of The Dancing Masters), who may be on the side of the angels. Jungle Jim (Johnny Weissmuller) takes care of the gorillas as well as the treasure hunters, though he has a tough time of it in spots. Mark of the Gorilla is fast-paced and well-directed, and surprisingly entertaining. There's a great scene when a chimp keeps stealing Jungle Jim's fish behind his back; a bit with a panther having a set-to with a crocodile; and exciting sequences featuring an attack by a hawk on a mountain and a prop moray eel under the water. As usual in these JJ pictures, the uncredited (and probably stock) score is a big help.

Verdict: This darn thing is fun! ***.


Troy Donahue, Lee Patterson, Van Williams
SURFSIDE 6 (1961).

This hour-long action-mystery series lasted for two seasons. Dave Thorne (Lee Patterson of The Flying Scot) and Kenny Madison (Van Williams of The Green Hornet) lived on a houseboat in Miami Beach and formed the Thorne-Madison private detective agency. Their rich buddy, Sandy Winfield III (Troy Donahue of Parrish) lived at the yacht club and kibitzed with the other two until he seemed to be working for, or with, them full-time. Each episode would star one of these three actors, although there were times when the others would appear; sometimes all three guys would get involved in a particularly difficult case. Beside the assorted women who would appear in each episode, there were two female regulars: Diane McBain as Daphne Dutton, a pretty heiress who hangs around the boys and occasionally gets mired in one of their cases; and Margarita Sierra as "Cha Cha" O'Brien, a poor man's Carmen Miranda and night club entertainer. Sierra was never a good fit for the program, as sometimes the story would have to stop dead to include one of her numbers while the other actors wore frozen smiles in reaction shots. On rare occasions "Cha Cha" would have something to do with the main storyline. Sierra over-sang everything terribly. In the first season the boys' police liaison was the gruff, nearly barking Lt. Snedigar (Don "Red" Barry), while in the second season he was replaced by Lt. Plehn (Richard Crane), who was a bit more pleasant but just as professional. Both actors offered interesting and adept portrayals, and Crane was especially good.

The most memorable episodes of the series include: "The Old School Tie," with Gloria Talbott involved with murder at a reunion; "Midnight for Prince Charming," with a lonely man conned by a criminal couple; "Race Against Time," with Lee's associates desperately trying to save his life after he's been poisoned on an airliner; "Vengeance is Bitter," concerning a roman a clef about a murder case and the attempts to uncover the author; "Anniversary Special," a twisted domestic drama about a TV host and his unhappy wife, with both roles played superbly by William Windom and Jeanne Cooper; and "Overdose of Justice," in which a ferociously good Mara Corday [Tarantula] plays a vicious beauty involved with a love-sick insurance man played by Ed Platt [Get Smart]. The vast majority of episodes in the series were solid "B"s if not better with a few clunkers along the way. Although Donahue tended to be a bit stiff, he was okay in most episodes, with Williams and Patterson exhibiting a bit more flair and charm. Diane McBain was lovely and talented. I can't make up my mind if the theme music is catchy or really annoying.

Verdict: Entertaining mystery series with handsome studs and pretty gals awash in intrigue. ***.

Thursday, April 9, 2015


Mickey Rooney, Ann Rutherford and William Orr
THE HARDYS RIDE HIGH (1939). Director: George B. Seitz.

"Why do I want to get married and make one woman miserable when I can stay single and make lots of women happy!' -- Andy Hardy.

Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone) gets the astonishing news that he may have inherited two million dollars so he packs up the family to a Detroit mansion to check out the claim's validity. In the meantime son Andy (Mickey Rooney) goes "high-hattin'" to nightclubs where he refuses liquor and has trouble taking a smoke, but he is, after all, only sixteen years old [Rooney was actually three years older]. Daughter Marian (Cecelia Parker) proves to be as big an ass as usual. Aunt Milly (Sara Haden), who is the judge's sister-in-law [but always seems more like his sister] glamorizes herself but alas is still pretty homely, although gauche Andy thinks she's "all done up like a plush horse!" And Mrs. Hardy (Fay Holden) is just happy that she found a good frying pan in Detroit. A very young and unrecognizable Virginia Grey [Jeanne Eagels] plays a chorus girl who tries to vamp Andy -- the young stud is positively terrified by such a sophisticated city woman -- at the direction of her boyfriend, and rival heir, Phil Westcott (John King). Andy complains to girlfriend Polly (Ann Rutherford) that he's "all right until some la-di-da lizzie comes along," referring to the snooty Dick Bannersly (William Orr). The Hardys Ride High is a delightful entry in the series, with the usual top performances, especially the great Rooney, lots of humor, and the usual dose of honest sentiment. Judge Hardy comes mighty close to committing a crime in this, and frankly the whole business about the inheritance is never satisfactorily resolved, as if something were left on the cutting room floor. Marsha Hunt has a small role as a wife who appears before the court. William Orr later became the head of Warner Brothers television and was executive producer of many hit shows, including 77 Sunset Strip and Hawaiian Eye.

Verdict: Riding high indeed. ***.


Zasu Pitts, Eve Arden, and Phyllis Povah
LET'S FACE IT (1943). Director: Sidney Lanfield.

"When we were first married he could lull me to sleep with his tuba." -- Zasu Pitts

"Now he can't even lift it." -- Eve Arden

Private Jerry Walker (Bob Hope) secretly sells food to some of the larger, starving ladies at the fat farm run by his fiancee, Winnie (Betty Hutton). Along come three middle-aged ladies -- played by Eve Arden [Three Husbands], Zasu Pitts and Phyllis Povah -- whose husbands have bundled them off to the fat farm while they go fishing. These women are convinced their husbands are secretly meeting honeys at a summer lodge, so they inveigle three soldiers into coming to the lodge to make their men jealous. Jerry desperately needs money so he agrees to go but he drags along two buddies -- neither actor makes much of an impression -- because he insists that the ladies "look like Veronica Lake, with two eyes!" Let's Face It has some cute moments, good lines and performances, but it runs out of plot around halfway through. The songs are forgettable, even if they are by Cole Porter, though there are two excellent dance numbers: Bob and his pals do a very cute shuffle; and a bizarre, violent dance act in which the couple seem to be illustrating the battle of the sexes. The script is kind of rough on women who have the misfortune not to be young and beautiful, and it's full of what you might call "fat abuse." What's ironic is that Hope and his buddies act as if the three ladies are so hideous, even Arden, when they are not exactly prizes themselves. Hutton gets one especially horrible song number and sings it horribly. Joe Sawyer [Roses are Red] is swell as Jerry's gruff sergeant and Hope's gal pal Dona Drake [Valentino] has a small role.

Verdicts: Some funny moments to be sure but not the hilarity you're hoping for. **.


CROWNED HEADS. Thomas Tryon. 1976.

Crowned Heads is a collection of four novellas that all deal in one twisted way or another with Old Hollywood and its strange, often grotesque, secrets. "Fedora" deals with a writer who once met the famous movie star of the same name, who is now a recluse, and uncovers the startling truth about her true identity. In "Lorna," the fifty-something actress Lorna Doone, who never quite made it in "A" pictures and who is a pyromaniac, shop-lifter and nympho, tries to escape reality in a Mexican resort, but winds up awash in a sea of sex and booze that causes her more anguish than anything else. [One funny-sad scene has Lorna "paying a call" on a handsome flamenco dancer half her age despite the fact he's expressed no interest in her whatsoever.] "Bobbitt" is an interesting story about the fate of a child star who once owned the world and is now forgotten, but while it's suspenseful and well done it's also a trifle cloying at times, especially at the finale. "Willie" deals with the final hours of a former star who makes the mistake of allowing certain "fans" into his home. This story seems to be inspired by the life of Clifton Webb and the death of Ramon Novarro, which is hardly in the best of taste. "Fedora" was made into a movie, but I've always thought that "Lorna" would have made a fascinating picture as well; it is easily the best novella of the quartet. In the first story it seems to take forever for Tryon to get to the revelation, and similarly Willie's segment is stretched out to inordinate length. For my money, "Lorna" is decidedly the best read in the book. As an actor, Tryon appeared in such films as The Unholy Wife, The Cardinal, and I Married a Monster from Outer Space.

Verdict: Well-written plumbing of Hollywood scandal. ***.


Kay Callard and Lee Patterson
THE FLYING SCOT (aka The Mailbag Robbery/1957). Director: Compton Bennett.

Ronnie (Lee Patterson), Jackie (Kay Callard of The Unholy Four), and Phil (Alan Gifford) plan to rob a train called the Flying Scotsman which runs from Glasgow to London. The booty is many bags of bank notes that are destined to be burned. In a prologue that reminds one of the later film Gambit, the robbery goes off silently and without a hitch, the trio celebrating in South America. But that's just the run through and the way Ronnie hopes the robbery will go -- the real robbery is somewhat more difficult. Ronnie and Jackie pretend to be a couple on their honeymoon. Things are complicated by the fact that Phil has a perforated ulcer, postponing a trip to hospital to participate in the caper, and is in terrible pain. The wall between the room on the train and the compartment with the money next door has a barrier they didn't anticipate. There's a drunk who keeps hoping to get some liquor, and a cute little boy who wanders around getting into mischief ... The Flying Scot is a fast-paced, suspenseful crime drama with good performances. Lee Patterson later played a private detective on Surfside 6. Compton Bennett also directed such fine films as Daybreak and The Seventh Veil.

Verdict: Nifty little British "B." ***.


Truman Bradley as the mysterious Captain Kane
DEAD MEN TELL (1941). Director: Harry Lachman.

Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) is invited to participate in a treasure hunt for sixty million dollars on Coco's Island, a hunt presided over by the elderly Patience Nodbury (Ethel Griffies). Poor Patience is found dead on the docked ship, the Suva Star, whose Captain Kane (Truman Bradley of The Night Before the Divorce) does his best to keep out of sight as the other passengers embark. Tales of a pirate's ghost give Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung) the willies when an unknown peg-legged man goes about causing mischief. Other suspects besides the captain include prison escapee Lydig (George Reeves); pretty typist Kate (Sheila Ryan of Great Guns); the weird Gene LaFarge (the ever-cadaverous Milton Parsons); perky Laura Thursday (Kay Aldridge); and Dr. Bonney (Lenita Lane of The Mad Magician); among others. If there's any problem with Dead Men Tell it's that the ship never leaves the dock and there's no action on the aforementioned island at all. Still, this has interesting aspects and is well-acted by everyone. Ethel Griffies [Vigil in the Night] is the cast stand-out even if she isn't around too long. As a running gag, Jimmy falls into the water perhaps once too often.

Verdict: More Jimmy hijinks with "Pop." **1/2.


Skipper the dog and Tamba the chimp
CAPTIVE GIRL (1950). Director: William Berke.

In this third Jungle Jim movie, our hero (Johnny Weissmuller) crosses figurative swords with another former Tarzan, Buster Crabbe [The Sea Hound], this time playing an evil treasure hunter, Barton. Jim also has to deal with a female Bomba, a young lady named Joan (Anita Lhoest), who has been living on her own in the jungle since the murder of her parents, becoming a blonde goddess known as "the wild girl of Lake Bekonchi." Jim not only has to track the gal down -- she has a tiger for a pet -- but save her and others from the evil medicine man, Hakim (John Dehner of Please Murder Me), who wants to kill Chief Mahala (Rick Vallin of Escort Girl) so he can take over the tribe. The climax takes place at the sinister Lagoon of the Dead, where maidens have been sacrificed and skeletons and gems lay about the lake's bottom. While this is not quite as good as it sounds, I must admit that Captive Girl is peculiarly entertaining, much of this having to do with the animal antics of Jim's dog Skipper, his chimp Tamba, and even the crow [or raven] called Koko. Tamba and Skipper are a real cute duo, always cuddling and playing with each other ( in fact, one could say that they are better actors than most of the humans). An extremely bizarre sequence late in the movie has a huge horde of angry monkeys attacking Hakim and his men, presumably called upon by Tamba to do so. Even stranger is the sight of wild tigers in Africa! Padded with entertaining stock footage that sometimes blends in smoothly with the new scenes and sometimes doesn't.

Verdict: Seriously weird at times but strangely compelling. **1/2.


SAFARI DRUMS (1953). Writer/producer/director: Ford Beebe.

A movie company has invaded Bomba's (Johnny Sheffield) turf and hope to get him to help them get some real animal action for the cameras. The director, Larry Conrad (Emory Parnell), wants some real "dramatic footage" from his cameraman, Steve (Paul Marion of The Lost Tribe). Peg (Barbara Bestar) is the secretary for the company, and they've hired a guide named Brad (Douglas Kennedy of The Amazing Transparent Man). When a geologist in the area is robbed of a map that may lead to diamonds, and murdered, Bomba realizes that one of those three men must have been the killer -- but which one? At least this is one jungle movie that admits there are no wild tigers in Africa, so Conrad brings a tiger with him so he can film an exciting scene pitting tiger against lion. Leonard Mudie and Smoki Whitfield appear, respectively, as Andy and Eli.

Verdict: This is an acceptable Bomba adventure, mostly for fans. **1/2.

Thursday, April 2, 2015


Claudette Colbert looks at Troy Donahue with misgivings
PARRISH (1961). Writer/Producer/Director: Delmer Daves.

"If there's a death warrant for happiness, you've described it."

Ellen McLean (Claudette Colbert) gets a job as a sort of companion to Alison Post (Diane McBain), whose father, Sala (Dean Jagger), refuses to let Ellen's son, Parrish (Troy Donahue), live with them. Parrish nevertheless gets a job working Post's tobacco fields, and becomes friends with the vivacious if unsophisticated Lucy (Connie Stevens). Meanwhile Ellen finds herself drawn to the charismatic tobacco magnate, Jud Raike (Karl Malden), and Parrish soon finds himself with opportunities he may not desire, besides being in the middle of a love triangle with Lucy and Alison -- not to mention Jud's daughter, Paige (Sharon Hugueny). Parrish is a highly enjoyable light drama with some excellent performances. Although Troy Donahue is hardly in the league of the other actors, his brooding, intense quality works for the part and he even manages to do some genuine acting in certain scenes; he certainly doesn't ruin the movie as he did My Blood Runs Cold and may well have upped his game due to the influence of director Daves as well as Colbert and Malden; he proves a good listener if nothing else. Colbert gives a wonderful performance as the free-spirited mother who still has her standards; Connie Stevens and Diane McBain, one earthy, the other patrician, play with conviction; and Karl Malden, in a ferociously powerful performance, positively walks off with the picture. There is also fine work from Jagger [My Son John]; Hampton Fancher [Rome Adventure] as the slimy Edgar Raike; and Huguney as his love-happy sister, Paige. Director of Photography Harry Stradling [Suspicion] gives the picture a fairly glamorous sheen, and all of the aforementioned ladies -- and Donahue -- look stunning throughout. While nowadays the tobacco industry would be more deserving of an expose than a romance, Parrish is still a very entertaining picture. Max Steiner's insinuating musical score adds to the picture's class.

Verdict: Fine acting, interesting script, class production put this over. ***.


Peter Lorre and Sig Ruman
THANK YOU, MR. MOTO (1937). Director: Norman Foster.

Charlie Chan had been appearing in motion pictures for some years when 20th Century-Fox and Monogram came out with competing series about Oriental sleuths. Boris Karloff's Mr. Wong appeared in films released by Monogram, while Mr. Moto had the more prestigious Fox at the wheel. Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre) is a "confidential investigator" but his real profession, he claims, is "importer." Another character describes Moto as "an adventurer, an explorer, a soldier of fortune." In any case, Moto never quite seems altogether on the up and up although in essence he's a good guy. In this second Mr. Moto film, he is in Peping when it develops that certain parties wish to obtain scrolls that will lead to the hidden tomb of Genghis Khan in the Gobi desert and all of its treasures. Prince Chung (Philip Ahn) and his mother Madame Chung (Pauline Frederick) own the scrolls and will not part with them at any price because they fear the Great Khan's (!) tomb will be desecrated. Assorted individuals are murdered for the scrolls by an unknown party, but Thank You, Mr. Moto is less a mystery than a film of action and intrigue. Characters include Colonel Chernov (Sig Ruman), who tries to purchase the scrolls from the prince; his wife, Madame Chernov (Nedda Harrigan of Charlie Chan at the Opera); Periera (John Carradine), an antique dealer who knows more than he's telling; and Eric Koerger (Sidney Blackmer of The House of Secrets). The romantic interest is supplied by Thomas Beck and Jayne Regan. Lorre is fine as Moto, and Blackmer, Ruman, Harrigan and Carradine are also notable. The best performances, however, come from Ahn as the prince and Frederick as his mother; there's an especially good scene when the prince tries to keep his mother from being tortured. Philip Ahn [Red Barry] was an extremely talented actor, one of those who graces every film he appears in. There is a moving conclusion as well.

Verdict: Creditable if imperfect Moto vehicle. **1/2.


Boris Karloff and Grant Withers
MR. WONG, DETECTIVE (1938). Director: Hugh Wiley.

Mr. Wong is the third Oriental sleuth introduced after Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto. James Lee Wong originally appeared in stories that appeared in Collier's and was the subject of several pictures for cheapie studio Monogram (where Charlie Chan eventually wound up). In this first Mr. Wong movie, Wong (a well-cast Boris Karloff) receives a plea for help from the frightened Dayton (John Hamilton), who runs a chemical company and who is convinced that someone is out to get him. As usual in these pictures, the client winds up dead, and there are more murders to follow. The murder method is poison gas but the killer is especially clever in figuring out how to get the gas to the victim. Suspects and other characters include Captain Street (Grant Withers of Radio Patrol) who's investigating the case; his gal, Myra (Maxine Jennings); the bitter inventor Roemer (John St. Polis); the mysterious Olga Petrov (Evelyn Brent of Daughter of Shanghai); and Dayton's partners, Meisle (William Gould) and Wilk (Hooper Atchley). The performances are fine and the picture moves fairly quickly, although a musical score certainly would have helped. Withers and Brent also appeared together in the serial Jungle Jim

Verdict: Not bad intro to the Mr. Wong series. ***.


TARZAN: THE CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION The Stories, The Movies, The Art. Scott Tracy Griffin. Titan; 2012. Introduction by Ron Ely.

In this incredible coffee table book you learn about the life of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his creation of the endurable hero, Tarzan. The chapters are divided into discussions of each novel (with publication history) and movie (from the silent period until television) with background on Tarzan actors from Johnny Weissmuller to Gordon Scott, Ron Ely, and beyond. The tome also looks at the Tarzan comic strips and books. It is a huge, heavy volume, lavishly illustrated (with stills, background photos, paintings and comic art), with added sections on various aspects of the Tarzan mythos (such as one called "Dinosaurs in Africa?"). If the book has any flaw it is that it completely avoids any real discussion of native Black Africans in relation to Tarzan, a peculiar omission in this day and age as Tarzan -- a white man more powerful and heroic than the black natives -- is often seen as an inherently racist concept.

Verdict: The book for Tarzan enthusiasts. ***1/2.


Judy Garland (Judy Davis) during difficult days
LIFE WITH JUDY GARLAND: ME AND MY SHADOWS (2001 telefilm). Director: Robert Allen Ackerman.

"They tell me I'm washed up, so if you're using me you're in worse trouble than I am." -- Judy Garland to Sid Luft

"He adores me and I need to be adored -- I do." Garland regarding Vincente Minelli.

Judy Garland, one of the singing Gumm sisters, becomes a movie star in her early teens, develops a big, expressive voice that knocks out her listeners, and develops health, emotional, and addiction issues due to her over-reliance on diet pills, energy pills, all manner of pills to keep her alert, working, and thin -- plus booze. With the aid of second husband Sid Luft (Victor Garber), Garland engineered a triumphant comeback in A Star is Born (this film unaccountably makes it seem that this was her last picture, when she actually went on to make A Child is Waiting, Judgment at Nuremberg, and I Could Go On Singing etc.) Her personality affected by pills, Garland nevertheless managed to go on successful singing tours, and did both the Palace and Carnegie Hall in concerts that were considered outstanding by her fans and the critics. This is an excellent telefilm that doesn't shy away from the negative aspects of her life and character, but also shows her considerable artistry. Wisely (except for a couple of minor instances), Garland's real voice is used whenever she opens her mouth to sing, while the actresses who play her at different ages -- Tammy Blanchard and Judy Davis (of My Brilliant Career) -- are particularly outstanding (Davis, who'd made a few movies by this time, got all the press, but arguably Blanchard might have had the slight edge on her -- she is that good). Australian actress Davis successfully subdues her accent, beautifully recreates Garland's Carnegie Hall concert (it's not just Garland's voice but Davis' acting), and has a great scene when Garland dresses down the condescending TV executives in the boardroom. (When Davis does "The Man That Got Away" for a sequence in A Star is Born, however, it borders on parody because Davis' movements are a little too large, even for Garland.) Busby Berkeley (Michael Rhoades) is depicted as a nasty bitch; there are catty comments about Grace Kelly after Garland loses the Oscar to her; and many of Garland's husbands/boyfriends turn out to be gay/bi, which the movie doesn't avoid. After the two Garland actresses, the most notable performances come from Alison Pill as young Lorna Luft; Victor Garber as her father; and Al Waxman as L. B. Mayer. There are several lookalike Liza Minelli's but they aren't given much to do (wonder why?). I'm not certain what to make of "Mickey Rooney" (Dwayne Adams) who is little like the real man.  Life with Judy Garland gets across Garland's essentially winning personality and her sense of humor, which she had to rely upon for most of her short life.

I confess I've never been a major fan of Garland's, although I think she's a great singer, because I've often found her to be a little overwrought and over-bearing (although the film makes clear why this is so). I would have hated being the "caretaker" for this demanding, difficult woman as her daughter, Lorna, was. On the other hand, when you hear Garland sing her slow, heart-breaking version of "Over the Rainbow" at the Palace in 1951 it can move you to tears. That's an artist. And basically that's all you have to say about Garland.

Verdict: Moving and absorbing study of a talented and tormented chantreuse. Much, much better than the Broadway show "End of the Rainbow." ***1/2.


Joan Woodbury and Chester Morris
CONFESSIONS OF BOSTON BLACKIE (1941). Director: Edward Dmytryk.

"You have a little Gestapo in you."

Ex-thief Boston Blackie (Chester Morris) is again accused of murder when a shot rings out at an art auction, a man falls dead, and a young lady, Diane (Harriet Hilliard of Gals Incorporated), winds up in the hospital. As Blackie does his best to elude Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane), he discovers another problem in the form of ferocious Mona (the big-faced Joan Woodbury of The Time Travelers), who insists she's married to Boston and wants a big pay-off. Then there's a missing corpse, and a tense finale when Boston and others are trapped in an underground vault. The Boston Blackie series took a major leap forward with this second entry, with is superior to the first [Meet Boston Blackie] on nearly every level, with an excellent cast giving their all, and quite a few funny lines. In a brief bit Ralph Dunn makes an impression as Police Officer McCarthy, and there's another bit by a feisty old nurse who is, alas, uncredited; Lloyd Corrigan is also notable as the art lover Manleder. Morris hits just the right note as Boston -- as does George E. Stone as "the runt" -- and Woodbury looks as tall and tough as an Amazon.

Verdict: This one is fun. ***.


Greta Gerwig and Al Pacino
THE HUMBLING (2014). Director: Barry Levinson.

Simon Axler (Al Pacino) is an actor who suffers a nervous breakdown, leaves the institution where he was ensconced, and returns home to find himself playing host to the daughter of some family friends. Pegeen (Greta Gerwig) has always had a crush on Simon, or so she says, and the two embark upon an affair, which is not only complicated by the age difference but by Pegeen's decided preference for females. Right off the bat let me say that Pacino gives a terrific performance, Oscar-worthy in fact, but The Humbling, although never tedious, is not a very good picture. Based on a novel by Philip Roth, its attitude towards LGBT characters, including Pegeen and others, is dated at the least and insensitive at the worst. [The notion that she dresses in a more feminine manner as she moves from women to a man is as offensive as it is ludicrous, and her sexuality is never really dealt with in any honest fashion, although it's clear she's upset that her female lover had a sex change.] Gerwig, Charles Grodin (Simon's agent), Dianne Wiest (Pegeen's mother), Dylan Baker (Simon's shrink), Billy Porter (a transgender man who was once Pegeen's female lover), and Kyra Sedgwick (another patient who wants Simon to kill her husband) are all excellent, and there are some good scenes and amusing moments, but this should have been so much more than a "hot lesbian" dirty joke; it never quite gets past that foolish notion [despite the fact it may only be meant to illustrate the insanity of Simon's life]. With a writer, director, and star all over seventy, one might not expect modern-day attitudes, but being old is no excuse for being old-fashioned. As with Scent of a Woman, Pacino sometimes does superlative work in movies that aren't worth his attention, although one can understand why he took this great part. This is another Pacino movie, after Gigli, where a woman who is basically a lesbian sleeps with a man for no good reason except perhaps to titillate some "Old Straight Guys" who love the notion of deflowering or "turning" a lesbian. Well, at least this isn't Cruising!

NOTE: The studio obviously had little faith in the film. It was on DVD within what seemed like two weeks and was streaming on Amazon the same weekend it opened in theaters!

Verdict: Some old men really are old poops -- but Pacino is outstanding. **1/2.