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

Thursday, July 26, 2018


"Cuddles" Sakall, Edward Everett Horton, and Bette Davis
THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (1943). Director: David Butler.

Joe Simpson (Eddie Cantor in a dual role) is an aspiring actor and tour guide who can't get a job because of his resemblance to ... Eddie Cantor. Joe befriends two show business hopefuls: singer Tommy Randolph (Dennis Morgan) and songwriter Pat Nixon (Joan Leslie). A shady "agent" named Barney Johnson (Richard Lane) fools Tommy into thinking he's got a job on the real Eddie Cantor's radio show, but he gets thrown out of Cantor's house moments after arriving with "contract" in hand. Meanwhile conductor Dr. Schlenna (S. Z. Sakall) and entrepreneur Farnsworth (Edward Everett Horton) are mounting a charity concert, Cavalcade of Stars, and want to use Dinah Shore, who works for Cantor. The catch is that they don't want Cantor because he tends to take over and "stink" everything up. (Cantor wants to dress the dancers like boiled potatoes and have them dive into a tub of sour cream.) However, they have to use him just to get Dinah. Joe hits upon the idea of impersonating Cantor, hiring Tommy, and taking over the production himself, while Cantor is temporarily kidnapped. But when the real Cantor breaks out of confinement ... ? Thank Your Lucky Stars is another of those all-star WW2 revues with a thin plot, this one from Warner Brothers, and it's one of the better ones. Cantor is very funny dealing with some over-anxious dogs and especially as he winds up in an institution where everyone thinks he's crazy and wants to operate on him; Ruth Donnelly is especially good as a nurse. The movie's highlights include: Errol Flynn doing a very creditable song and dance routine in a tavern;  Ann Sheridan warbling "Love Isn't Born, It's Made;" Alan Hale and Jack Carson in the comical duet, "I'm Going North;" John Garfield doing a comic interpretation of "Blues in the Night;" Cantor enthusiastically performing "We're Staying Home Tonight" while his household staff is forced to listen; Morgan and Leslie doing the duet, "No You, No Me;" Alexis Smith doing a very sexy Latin dance; and Dinah Shore demonstrating her singing chops with "How Sweet You Are." The two very best production numbers are "Ice Cold Katie," featuring Hattie McDaniel and Willie Best; and Bette Davis beautifully emoting and sort of singing to "They're Either Too Young or Too Old." The lowlight of the film is George Tobias, Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland doing a rather dreadful bebop number, and I'm not sure what to make of the odd-looking Spike Jones and his City Slickers as they do a strange jazz rendition of the "Volga Boatmen." As for the non-musical scenes, Sakall and Horton make a great and funny team, and it's a riot watching "Cuddles" Sakall telling off a tough but chastened Humphrey Bogart ("I hope my fans don't see this"). Joan Leslie does a pretty good impression of Ida Lupino at one point. The bouncy songs are by Arthur Schwartz and Frank Loesser. Director David Butler and producer Mark Hellinger make cameo appearances as themselves, and Mary Treen, James Burke, Mike Mazurki, Billy Benedict, and Benny Bartlett, among others, show up briefly as well.

Verdict: A real pleasure practically from start to finish. ***1/4. 


Scene stealer: Baby Quintanilla; Odd duo: Cantor and Anderson
FORTY LITTLE MOTHERS (1940). Director: Busby Berkeley.

"Maybe he has a charm we know nothing about?" Mme. Cliche

I doubt it." -- Mme. Granville

Out of work professor Gilbert Thompson (Eddie Cantor) runs into and saves a suicidal woman, Marian (Rita Johnson), unaware that she has left her little baby boy (Baby Quintanilla) in a depot. When he discovers the child later on, he doesn't know who the mother is, and takes him home to his boarding house. He finally gets a job at Mme. Granville's School for Girls, but learns that babies aren't allowed there. Another complication is that the girls, who are pining for a handsome professor who was fired, are dismayed by his replacement. "I've seen better heads on an umbrella!" says one disgruntled co-ed. They cook up a scheme to get him thrown out of the school by pretending all of them are in love with him, but when Gilbert is forced to take in the baby from the friend who was watching him, he discovers the girls may not be quite as awful as they seem. Forty Little Mothers is an unusual and charming  comedy-drama with lots of sentiment and a warm and winning performance from Cantor. It is a little astonishing that he is teamed with -- of all people -- Judith Anderson [Rebecca] as the headmistress, but these two pros (from very different disciplines) work very well together. Bonita Granville [Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble] is cast as the main "mean girl" and she is effective, although it is unlikely that she and the other cruel young monsters would suddenly develop a pleasant nature just because Gilbert shames them. Nydia Westman is very amusing as Anderson's assistant, Mademoiselle Cynthia Cliche, and Baby Quintanilla -- who was actually twin girls and not a baby boy -- is the most adorable scene-stealer since Baby Leroy. Cantor even gets to warble "Little Curly Hair in a High Chair." With her highly expressive face, Rita Johnson [Honolulu] makes a decided impression as the woman who hopes, eventually, to be reunited with her baby.

Verdict: How much cuteness can you stand? ***. 


Keefe Brasselle (Cantor) and Jackie Barnett (Durante)
THE EDDIE CANTOR STORY (1953). Director: Alfred E. Green.

Even as a boy Eddie Cantor (Richard Monda) knew he wanted to be an entertainer. When a foolish do-gooder named Berk (David Alpert) wants to pack the kid off to an orphanage, claiming that his sturdy grandmother Esther (Aline MacMahon) can't take care of him, Eddie is fortunate to wind up with a theatrical couple who sponsor a children's revue instead. As Eddie (now played by Keefe Brasselle) falls in love with his childhood sweetheart, Ida (Susan Odin, and then Marilyn Erskine), he struggles to make a name for himself as an adult singing and dancing comedian. But the more famous Eddie gets, the more he neglects his wife, whose loneliness is palpable despite her having (eventually) five daughters to raise. Then serious health issues crop up and it looks like Cantor's career is over ... Eddie Cantor was still alive when this film came out, so the worst thing the movie says about the comic is that he was overly ambitious and addicted to applause and stardom, a fact that had a negative impact on his family life. The Eddie Cantor Story sticks to the basic facts about the man, even it it remains somewhat on a superficial level. However, Brasselle [Bannerline], outfitted with pop eyes and bigger teeth that generally disguise the actor's handsomeness. gives an excellent, well-studied impression of the famous performer. (One could argue that Brasselle, as is often the case in biopics, impersonates the man as he acts while performing as opposed to how he acts off-stage, but somehow this approach works.) Using the real Cantor's voice, Brasselle expertly recreates his routines from the Ziegfeld Follies as well as from such Broadway shows as Whoopee. The film boasts another excellent performance from Marilyn Erskine, who generally worked in television but should be much better known, as the grown-up Ida. Erskine explores every nuance of the character with her sensitive and splendid emoting. Aline MacMahon [The Young Doctors] is sterling as the loving, supportive grandmother, and there is very nice work from Arthur Franz [The Atomic Submarine] as a doctor who remains a loyal friend of the couple through thick and thin. Jackie Barnett does an amusing imitation of Jimmy Durante, and Will Rogers Jr. is cast as his father. Richard Monda is very winning and effective as Cantor as a child. Smaller roles are enacted by the likes of Chick Chandler (as a talent show host); Marie Windsor (as a jealous star); Gerald Mohr (as an old friend and bootlegger); Alix Talton (as a reporter;) as well as Ann Doran and Arthur Space. One is struck by the similarity between Cantor and friendly rival Al Jolson, who also performed in blackface. In his later years, Cantor did film and television work, and also became a spokesman for the March of Dimes. Cantor and his wife appear in the film's framing sequence, and he is given a classic closing line: "I've never looked  better in my life." Although two actors are credited with playing Cantor's parents (who died when he was an infant), they are either seen only in photographs, or their scenes were cut.

Verdict: Delightful biopic with top performances and snappy musical numbers. ***.  


Davis with Baxter, Monroe and Sanders in All About Eve

This documentary on the great film star is part of a British TV series entitled Discovering Film. This is a fair to moderate look at Davis, briefly recounting her origins, and discussing her roles in such films as Of Human Bondage, Dangerous, Now, Voyager, The Letter, All About Eve and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Author Sarah Gristwood offers some interesting comments on Davis, whereas photographer Curtice (sic) Taylor offers an unlikely anecdote and the mere observations of a typical fan boy. Other interviewees include Ian Nathan, editor of Empire -- who incorrectly pronounces Davis' first name as if she were Bette Midler -- and a London film critic, who is generally credible but also offers up some inaccuracies: Davis did not make "several" films with Joan Crawford (aside from Baby Jane there were just the few aborted scenes in Hush ... Hush Sweet Charlotte) and when the critic suggests that Margo Channing wasn't one of the "central" characters in the film you wonder if he's even seen All About Eve. Lots of clips, but this is hardly essential viewing for Davis fans or even anyone who wants to learn more about her.

Verdict: Bette deserves better. **. 


The Gremlin and the Rabbit
FALLING HARE (1943). Merrie Melodies starring Bugs Bunny. Director: Robert Clampett.

In this WW2 cartoon classic, Bugs Bunny laughs at the notion of "gremlins" committing sabotage only to encounter such a gremlin, who -- to Bugs' annoyance, consternation, and then terror -- manages to not only outwit the rabbit but employ the kind of tactics that Bugs generally employs on his nemesis, Elmer Fudd. The gremlin is a cute little fellow, albeit dangerous, culminating in a scary and hilarious scene when he tries to throw Bugs out of an airplane, which then runs amok and unpiloted over the skyscrapers of Manhattan. Will poor Bugs survive this encounter, let alone the gremlin? Writer Warren Foster supplies the clever and amusing answer.  The terrific voice characterizations are by Mel Blanc and the director, Robert Clampett. Believe it or not, some fans object to this cartoon because Bugs doesn't have the upper hand, and according to one critic, acts "like a coward and a weakling" -- how is he supposed to act being thrown out of an airplane? Get a life!

Verdict: Very funny Bugs-spectacular. ***. 


Heather Sears and John Turner
THE BLACK TORMENT (1964). Director: Robert Hartford-Davis.

Sir Richard Fordyke (John Turner) returns to his ancestral manor in Olde England and brings with him his new bride, Elizabeth (Heather Sears of The Phantom of the Opera). Right away things seem odd, with his tenants, other villagers, and even his staff behaving peculiarly towards him. His major domo, Seymour (Peter Arne of Tarzan and the Lost Safari), tells him that a woman was raped and murdered and cried out his name before she expired, and he has been -- impossibly -- sighted in the village on other occasions, supposedly pursued by the ghost of his first wife, who plunged from a window. Before long Richard begins doubting his own sanity or wonders if some demonic doppelganger is at work ... Although the denouement is fairly predictable, The Black Torment still manages to work up considerable suspense over this situation, and the pic is greatly bolstered by some excellent performances. I first noticed John Turner when he had a small role as a fisherman in one of my favorite monster movies, The Giant Behemoth, but he clearly shows in this that he was meant for greater things, and judging by his talent, should be much better known today. He is outstanding and completely convincing as Sir Richard no matter what the script throws at him during the films' twists and turns. Under Robert Hartford-Davis' adroit direction, Black Torment has some creepy and startling sequences, and is handsomely produced in the full-out Gothic manner. When it's over and all revelations revealed, you may scratch your head when you realize the sheer impossibility of some of the aspects of the story, but Black Torment is still an entertaining horror flick, one which, -- incredibly -- I had never heard of and discovered on Kanopy.  Interesting score by Robert Richards. Hartford-Davis also directed the zesty Corruption.

Verdict: Compelling lead performance and attractive settings lift this above the average. ***. 


Debra Paget and Jeffrey Hunter
PRINCESS OF THE NILE (1954). Director: Harmon Jones.

Egypt 1249 A.D. Princess Shalimar (Debra Paget of The River's Edge) is supposedly confined to the palace, but she sneaks out at night via an underwater passageway and becomes the super-sensual dancer, Taura. It is in the tavern where she dances that Shalimar first encounters equally gorgeous Prince Haidi (Jeffrey Hunter of Man-Trap) of Bagdad, as well as the nasty Bedouin, Rana Khan (Michael Rennie). Shalimar's weak father is under the thumb of his shaman (Edgar Barrier), who is in league with Rama Khan and would also like Haidi out of the picture. After all sorts of palace intrigue, Khan tells Shalimar he will spare her loved ones if she will marry him, a fate truly worse than death ... Princess of the Nile offers a starring role for Paget, who gives an authoritative and sexy performance; a hot love couple in Paget and Hunter (who is equally good and quite romantic); two "bodies beautiful" for the price of one; and also boasts solid work from Rennie, Barrier, and Wally Cassell as the good-humored slave, Goghi. Dona Drake [Beyond the Forest] is also on hand as a helpful handmaiden and good friend to Shalimar. (Other handmaidens include Merry Anders and Honey Bruce Friedman of Dance Hall Racket). Billy Curtis plays the lovable little guy, Tut. Princess of the Nile is a minor film, but it is fast-paced and entertaining (and quite short at 70 minutes) and both the locales and attractive leads are very nice to look at in Technicolor. Six years later Paget was cast as Cleopatra's Daughter. Harmon Jones also directed Gorilla at Large

Verdict: Two sexy lead actors never hurt. **1/2. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018


Orson Welles and Robert Arden 
MR. ARKADIN (aka Confidential Report/1955). Written and directed by Orson Welles.

"You imagine it's pleasant to be ashamed of something you can't remember?" -- Arkadin.

A dying murdered man named Bracco (Gregoire Aslan) tells Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) and his girlfriend, Mily (Patricia Medina), that he can make a lot of money by looking into a mysterious millionaire named Gregory Arkadin (Orson Welles). As Mily tries to ingratiate herself into Arkadin's social set so that she can get to know him, Guy makes the acquaintance of -- and falls for -- Arkadin's daughter, Raina (Paola Mori). Just when he's expecting Arkadin -- " a cipher of an age of dissolution and crises," as one man puts it -- to buy him off to keep him away from his daughter, Guy is surprised to discover that Arkadin wants to pay him to investigate his past origins, which he says have been lost due to amnesia. But as Guy runs around Europe interviewing people who once knew or were somehow involved with Arkadin, these same individuals start dying ... Mr Arkadin was never properly finished by Welles, so it's impossible to tell what might have emerged had he not been locked out of the editing room. What finally came out is not a great movie, but it is an interesting one featuring some excellent performances. As the Machiavellian Arkadin, Welles is effective and sinister, although he doesn't quite exude a strong sense of menace, this despite the fact that the photography (Jean Bourgoin) often makes him appear to be a giant. Robert Arden's work in the film was criticized at the time of the film's release, but I think he gives a very good and convincing performance as an essentially decent man who is horrified by what is happening around him and fears for his own life as well. Paola Mori, who married Welles the same year the film came out, is fine, although her voice was entirely dubbed by British actress Billie Whitelaw. Small roles are essayed by everyone from Peter van Eyck to Mischa Auer (who runs a flea circus and is dubbed by Welles), but the stand-out character roles are played by Katina Paxinou [Uncle Silas] as Arkadin's shady ex-lover, Sophie; Suzanne Flon as the equally shady Baroness Nagel; Michael Redgrave [The Browning Version] in a bizarre, nearly unrecognizable turn as shop owner Burgomil Trebitsch; and especially Akim Tamiroff [After the Fox] as Jakob Zouk, who has been marked for death but only wants Guy to bring him a goose liver dinner as if it were his last meal. The film has more than its share of humor, both in the character of Zouk, and an odd scene between Arkadin and Mily on the former's boat as the latter gets increasingly drunk, the see-sawing photography mirroring both the motion of the water as well as the unsteadiness of her inebriation. The under-rated Patricia Medina also scores (in an under-written role) as the ill-fated Mily. There is a lot of obvious over-dubbing in the film because Welles rewrote the script even after some scenes had been shot, and one scene when Guy and Raina are talking about her father is abruptly cut off in mid-sentence.

Verdict: Unconventionally handsome Arden makes a compelling lead and there are some other excellent performances in this unusual if imperfect film of intrigue. ***. 


Doris Day
LULLABY OF BROADWAY (1951). Director: David Butler.

Melinda Howard (Doris Day) is a struggling show girl waiting for a big break who has just come back from Europe to see her mother, a big Broadway star named Jessica Howard (Gladys George) who lives in a mansion. Apparently Melinda has been away for quite some time, because she is completely unaware that her mother, far from being a Broadway star, has descended into alcoholism and near-oblivion and is now croaking out songs in a not-so-posh supper club. The mansion is now owned by theatrical producer Adolph Hubbell (S. Z. Sakall), who lives there with his formidable wife, Anna (Florence Bates). Taking pity on Melinda, dance man turned butler Lefty (Billy De Wolfe of Dear Wife), importunes Hubbell to let her stay in her "mother's" mansion, and to try to get her a job in a new Broadway show. However, Hubbell's relationship to the much younger woman is misinterpreted, especially by Mrs. Hubbell ... Lullaby of Broadway is one of Day's best vehicles, an amusing and charming trifle with some classic old tunes and excellent performances all around. Sakall, who can be cloying in some movies, is well-cast and wonderful as Hubbell, and Bates is his equal as his jealous and over-sized wife. De Wolfe also gives a winning performance, although I thought much less of Anne Triola as his girlfriend and the maid; she had very few credits. As the male lead, Gene Nelson [So This is Paris] is perfect, dances quite well, and does an astounding jump from the floor onto the top of a piano! Gladys George [Flamingo Road] is also memorable as the dissipated if plucky Jessica.

Verdict: Day struts her stuff in an entertaining musical. Watch for the sequence with Day's floating head! ***. 


The Watch List on Kanopy

There's a new free streaming video service available, and all you need is a library card (U.S.) and to belong to a library that is linked to the Kanopy service. Kanopy has literally thousands of films available for watching on line, and it includes everything from gory grind house zombie movies to classy and well-known foreign films by famous international directors and everything in between. Movies I've recently watched on Kanopy include Mario Bava's Five Dolls for an August Moonthe Israeli LGBT short Summer Vacation, a documentary on Debra Paget and Sudden Fear with Joan Crawford, among others. The service is free, but you are only allowed to look at ten movies per month

The next time you go to your library's web site, or go there in person, you can either look for or ask about the link to Kanopy. When you search for a movie, you may also see "e-video" and an arrow, which generally indicates that you can watch the movie online.

So check and see if your library offers Kanopy. If it does, all you need do is enter your card number and start an account with your email and password. And then you can watch Purple Noon, The 400 Blows, Ashes and Diamonds and The Bicycle Thieves, not to mention Italian giallo films, weird exploitation movies, Hollywood star documentaries, and much, more more. 


Linda Stirling and George J. Lewis
ZORRO'S BLACK WHIP (12 chapter Republic serial/1944). Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet; Wallace Grissell.

Newspaper editor and publisher Randy Meredith (Jay Kirby of Rockin' in the Rockies) not only rails against the lawlessness of 1889 Idaho in his paper, but dresses up as the Black Whip to fight the bad guys. When he is murdered, his sister Barbara (Linda Stirling) takes over the role, and she proves to be mighty handy with a whip. The evil banker Hammond (Francis McDonald) is secretly leading a group of criminals who desperately want to prevent Idaho from becoming a state, which would interfere with their plans to enrich their own coffers. Barbara is helped by a secret government agent, Vic Gordon (George J. Lewis), who disguises himself as the Black Whip at one point to fool the crumb bums when they have almost figured out Barbara's secret identity. The one thing that's missing in this exciting serial is the character of Zorro, whose name is used for marquee value but who does not appear, although one could argue that the Black Whip is a variation on that character (along with many others, of course). Cliffhanger highlights include a wagon rolling over the edge of a cliff; Barbara being locked in a bank vault with a bomb that's about to go off; the bad guys ordering Barbara to "take off that mask!" or else they'll shoot Gordon; and especially the sequence when a whole mountain seems to come down on the cabin they're in, as well as a terrific bit when Barbara and Gordon are trapped in a mine with burning oil flooding towards them. Stirling was never a great actress, but she's more than competent for this type of material; Lewis has a certain degree of charm and ability; McDonald [Burn 'Em Up Barnes] makes an effective and oily two-faced villain, and Hal Taliaferro (who looks a bit and sounds a lot like Ben Johnson) is also good as his bad right hand, Baxter. Lucien Littlefield [Reducing] makes his mark as "Ten Point," the nervous little guy who works in the newspaper office. John Hamilton is one of the townspeople dedicated to ridding the town of the criminal element; Marshall Reed and Ken Terrell also have smaller roles. Zorro's Black Whip has a great climax with the gang attacking the town in an attempt to alter the election results, and loathsome Hammond is given a satisfying death scene. Zorro's Black Whip may not be a top-notch Republic serial -- and is quite short as serials go -- but it is exciting and entertaining. George J. Lewis played a villain in Federal Operator 99, and Taliaferro was his henchman. Stirling appeared in The Purple Monster Strikes and many other serials.

Verdict: This gal wields a mean whip! ***. 


Original Honeymooners: Jackie Gleason and Pert Kelton
CAVALCADE OF STARS (1949 - 1952). Featuring "The Honeymooners."

The great Jackie Gleason was the primary star of the classic variety series, Cavalcade of Stars, which ran for four years. He replaced Jerry Lester as the host of the show in 1950. The greatest contribution of this classic series was "The Honeymooners," which began as an approximately six minute sketch with Gleason as dyspeptic bus driver Ralph Kramden and Pert Kelton [Meet the Boyfriend] as his long-suffering wife, Alice. Art Carney showed up in the first sketch as a cop, but he appeared as Ed Norton for the first time in the sketch entitled "The New TV Set." Trixie was played for the first time by none other than Elaine Stritch, but she was never to repeat the role, being replaced by Joyce Randolph in "The Ring" sketch (meaning Randolph actually appeared in The Honeymooners before Audrey Meadows did). Meadows first appeared in "The New Bowling Ball," which may be the first time Ralph says "Pow. Zoom. Right on the kisser!" (Ralph's earliest catch-phrase was "Don't steam me, Alice, I'm steamed!") Apparently the blacklist, which primarily affected Pert Kelton's husband, Ralph Bell (who later appeared in Zelig) forced her out of the series when it metamorphosed into The Jackie Gleason Show, and she was replaced by Meadows, who was a more than creditable Alice but who was a less realistic partner for Ralph/Gleason. These early Gleason/Kelton sketches were certainly well-acted and funny, but they also had an undertone of pathos to them  that were arguably missing from later episodes. Ralph's mantra "baby, you're the greatest!" replaced scenes of genuine love and affection between him and Alice. As good as Meadows and Sheila MacRae were playing Alice Kramden, for my money Kelton made the best Alice, and her performances have all been preserved on DVDs of the "Lost Honeymooners" episodes.

Verdict: Pert Kelton as Alice is simply terrific. ***. 


Ralph Byrd and Harry Langdon
MISBEHAVING HUSBANDS (1940). Director: William Beaudine.

Department store owner Henry Butler (Harry Langdon) has forgotten that it is the 20th anniversary of his marriage to Effie (Betty Blythe). Nevertheless she invites guests to celebrate and waits for him to get home, but a misadventure with a mannequin -- which is mistaken for a real woman by police -- means he gets home very late with a woman's shoe in his pocket. Encouraged by recent divorcee Grace (Esther Muir), Effie hires a sleazy lawyer, Gilbert Wayne (Gayne Whitman), who goes so far as to have his gal pal, Nan (Florence Wright), pretend to be Henry's inamorata so he can get a hefty percentage of the divorce settlement. Meanwhile Henry's niece, Jane (Luana Walters of Drums of Fu Manchu), and Bob Grant (Ralph Byrd of S.O.S. Coast Guard) are instructed to act as chaperons as the divorce proceeds since neither Henry nor Effie will move out of their home; the younger couple try to bring the older pair together even as they fall in love themselves. Misbehaving Husbands is not as provocative nor as funny as the title might suggest, but this cheap PRC production has some spirited players, even if Langdon was far past the days of his successful silent pictures; Betty Blythe [Freckles Comes Home] is terrific as Effie. Some amusing moments but very minor indeed. Billy Mitchell nearly steals the picture as the butler, Memphis.

Verdict: Anything with Byrd in it is always worth a look. **. 


WALLY'S WORLD: The Brilliant Life and Tragic Death of Wally Wood, the World's Second-Best Comic Book Artist. Steve Starger and J. David Spurlock. Vanguard; 2006.

This book examines the life, death, and career of Wally Wood, who was considered one of the best pencillers, and especially, inkers, in the comic book business, contributing to the classic E.C. horror line and doing exemplary work for Marvel's Daredevil (creating the sleek red costume in the sixties that was later worn by Ben Affleck in the film version) and other series; he also wrote, drew and edited T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents for Tower comics and did much other illustrative work. Wood had a problematic relationship with his father, as well as with his wives, with his alcoholism and other issues especially creating tension in the latter case. Wally's World is full of testimonials from people who greatly admired his work, as well as co-workers and other artists, looks at his influence on both comics and films, and offers illustrations of some of his most interesting and effective drawings in various genres. Beset by demons and serious health problems that affected his work, as well as bitter at certain aspects of the comic book industry, Wood took his own life at age 54.

Verdict: Interesting look at the life and work of a talented illustrator. ***. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018


Prince Valiant by Hal Foster

This week Great Old Movies looks at films and serials that were based on famous newspaper comic strips (as opposed to characters who first appeared in comic books, such as Superman). These characters -- Prince Valiant, The Phantom, Dick Tracy, Terry Lee (of Terry and the Pirates) and Smilin' Jack -- may all have wound up in comic books later on, but they first appeared in daily and/or Sunday newspaper comic strips. To my knowledge, Prince Valiant, the Phantom and perhaps Dick Tracy are still being published today in certain newspapers.

Anyway, this week we examine two Dick Tracy serials; the cliffhanger adventures of Terry and the Pirates and Smilin' Jack Martin; Robert Wagner in the stunningly-produced Prince Valiant with James Mason as the bad guy; and the equally well-produced The Phantom of 1996 with Billy Zane in the title role. 


Fred Hamilton, Ralph Byrd and Kay Hughes
DICK TRACY (15 chapter Republic serial/1937). Directors: Alan James; Ray Taylor.

The famous cartoon strip character first appeared on the big screen in this Republic serial starring Ralph Byrd, who would be forever after identified with the character (although at least two other actors also played the role). In this cliffhanger Tracy matches wits with an unknown club-footed figure known alternately as the Lame One or The Spider, since he heads a so-called "Spider Ring" of criminals. With the help of the Lame One's twisted scientist ally Moloch (John Picorri), the Lame One operates on Tracy's brother, Gordon (Richard Beach), and turns him evil, as well as changing his features (he is then played by Carleton Young of Double Deal) so that even his own brother doesn't recognize him. Gordon and his associates fly about in a wide, stylish aircraft known as the Wing, and each week come up with another sinister scheme that Tracy manages to smash after nearly being killed. Tracy is a Federal agent in this and his main assistants are handsome Steve Lockwood (Fred Hamilton) and secretary Gwen Andrews (Kay Hughes of Radio Patrol), who is much more than a secretary and is a scientist who provides her boss with important information. We also have Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette) and Junior (Lee Van Atta of Undersea Kingdom), who are meant to be comic relief but are more often merely tiresome. Byron Foulger makes an impression as a brave if terrified guy who goes up against the Spider to his regret. The Spider uses a ring to burn an insignia into the forehead of his victims, an idea also used by the famous pulp magazine character, also known as the Spider. Highlights of the serial include the Bay Bridge nearly being destroyed by sonic waves in chapter one; Dick's small boat nearly crushed between two huge ships in chapter three; Dick dropping from the bottom of one plane to land neatly into another far below in chapter four; and Dick being pulled underwater by a submarine because a rope has been tied around his ankle. By the time we learn the true identity of the Lame One, you'll probably have forgotten who the guy is! Dick Tracy is a long but entertaining serial, but the best was yet to come. It was followed by Dick Tracy Returns, Dick Tracy's G-Men, and the best of all, Dick Tracy vs Crime Inc.

Verdict: Nice intro to Dick Tracy on the big screen. **3/4.


Charles Middleton as Pa Stark 
DICK TRACY RETURNS (15 chapter Republic serial/1938). Directors: John English; William Witney.

This follow-up to Dick Tracy has our hero (Ralph Byrd), an FBI agent instead of a cop, battling the vile villainy of Pa Stark (Charles Middleton of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe) and his five evil sons, each of whom has a criminal specialty. Over the course of fifteen chapters, Stark and his gang pull off a bank job (in which new agent, Ron Merton -- played by David Sharpe -- is murdered on his first case); try to grab an important lens from an observatory; steal special government planes; get their hands on a dangerous torpedo boat; and work with a foreign agent named Boris Zarkov (Walter Mills). Tracy is joined by agent Steve Lockwood (Michael Kent), and gets help and sometimes interference from comedy relief Mike McGurk (Lee Ford) and young Junior (Jerry Tucker); Lynne Roberts is cast as Tracy's efficient secretary, Gwen. The highlights of this exciting serial include an unconscious Tracy being put in a car that's sent hurtling down the levels of a parking garage; Tracy being thrown out of a plane with a sabotaged parachute; a huge tower falling on a rooftop where Tracy and an enemy are in heated combat; and especially the thrilling sequence when two trains rush towards each other on the same track even as Lockwood is handcuffed to the top of one of the cars. Byrd is perfection as Tracy and Middleton is great as Stark. His "boys" don't get much of a chance to make an impression, with the exception of Ned Glass, who plays the trigger-happy "Kid Stark." Followed by Dick Tracy's G-Men and the superior Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.

Verdict: Byrd vs Middleton is a winning combination. ***. 


Jeff York (aka Granville Owen) and William Tracy

The art of Milton Caniff
TERRY AND THE PIRATES (15 chapter Columbia serial/1940). Director. James W. Horne.

In this cliffhanger version of the famous newspaper comic strip, young Terry Lee (William Tracy) goes off to find his father, Dr. Herbert Lee (John Paul Jones), with the aid of his buddy and his father's assistant, Pat Ryan (Jeff York, aka Granville Owen, of Li'l Abner). As they search for Dr. Lee, the two men find themselves embroiled in a conflict between an evil half-caste named Fang (Dick Curtis) and his followers, and the mysterious Dragon Lady (Sheila Darcy of Drums of Africa), who presides over her subjects in a cavern headquarters. Fang seeks to control all of the natives in the area, as well as the white settlers, and is after a treasure that he thinks Dr. Lee can lead him to. Lee is only interested in the scientific achievement of locating a lost race. Other characters include Forrest Taylor as Allen Drake, and Joyce Bryant as his daughter, Normandie -- both actors also appeared in The Iron Claw serial --  while Fang's despicable henchman, Stanton, is played by Jack Ingram. Connie, a diminutive Asian fellow, is charmingly played by Allen Jung -- and looks much less like a caricature than he did in the strip -- and the unfortunately-named Big Stoop is essayed by Victor DeCamp. During the fifteen chapters, Terry, Pat and the other good guys must contend with Fang's army of leopard men -- who wear hoods and striped robes -- as well as an agitated and nasty gorilla named Bobo (Jack Leonard). Pat is nearly beheaded by a High Priest (John Ince), Terry nearly eaten by gators, and both are endangered by walls that slowly move in to push them into a pit full of spikes. One of the best cliffhangers has the boys trapped in another pit that is rapidly filling with water.

Terry and the Pirates is a consistently lively, amusing, and exciting serial, but it is far below the level of the comic strip and much less serious. In the comic strip, the Dragon Lady is a beautiful Eurasian who heads a group of modern-day pirates, but in the serial she has been reduced to a fairly pretty white lady who rules a standard lost sect. At 23, William Tracy is far too old to play the boy Terry -- Jeff York was only five years older -- and has to compensate with some "gee willikers" expressions and a high-pitched screech when they are in trouble. Years later he played another recurring role in the Terry and the Pirates TV series. Dick Curtis is actually good as Fang, but unfortunately he is saddled with a voice characterization that makes him sound like an Oriental parody in a bad sitcom, Asian by way of the Borscht Belt. Jeff York is suitably handsome and heroic and more than competent as Pat. Lee Zahler has contributed a very effective score.

In the strip, writer-artist Milton Caniff -- who eventually left the comic to do Steve Canyon, for which he controlled the rights -- aged Terry until he became an adult and Pat Ryan's role was diminished and possibly eliminated. I don't know if Pat was actually Dr. Lee's assistant in the comic, and believe it is more likely that Terry was an orphan, with Ryan acting as his mentor.

Verdict: Frankly ridiculous at times, but also fun and fast-paced. ***. 


Jay Novello, Tom Brown, Marjorie Lord, Rose Hobart

 THE ADVENTURES OF SMILIN' JACK (13 chapter Columbia serial/ 1943). Directed by Lewis D. Collins and Ray Taylor. 

Columbia turned the popular aviation comic strip The Adventures of Smilin' Jack into a serial in 1943. In this exciting and action-packed cliffhanger,  Jack Martin (Tom Brown) is working in China just before the U.S. entry into WW2.  Mah Ling (Cyril Delevanti of The Night of the Iguana), the governor of Handan, a province of China in the Himalayas, knows the secret route of a passage into India which would be helpful to the allies. The Japanese group, the Black Samurais, a division of Axis Espionage, is anxious to get this secret as well. The Samurais are under the uneasy control of a German agent, Fraulein Von Teufel (Rose Hobart of Conflict), who is better-known to the allies as "Trudi Miller," a war correspondent. We learn early on in the serial that Trudi is a ruthless double agent, but neither Jack, his friend, Tommy (Edgar Barrier), nor his sister, Janet (Marjorie Lord), are aware of this. It seems that in every other episode the evil Fraulein is reminding Kageyama (Turhan Bey) that she is in charge of the Samurais despite the fact that she is German. Philip Ahn is Wu Tan, the loving aide to the elderly Mah Ling; Keye Luke is Captain Wing; and Sidney Toler is cast as the Chinese general, Kai Ling. The ever-versatile Jay Novello is a cast stand-out as the Japanese saboteur Kushimi, and David Hoffman [The Creeper] also scores as the weasel-like Blenker.  With his pudgy face and kind of geeky voice, Tom Brown is hardly perfect casting as the sleek, handsome Smilin' Jack, but his performance is okay, while Lord and Barrier are adept enough in somewhat pointless secondary roles. Rose Hobart, on the other hand, while lacking the viciousness and sensuality of Carol Forman of Black Widow, is quietly effective and quite venomous as the steel-hearted Fraulein, and pretty much walks off with the serial (even if she is saddled with a highly unflattering headpiece). At one point the Fraulein suspends Jack in a net in the water below a trap door, even as the tide comes in and sharp floating spikes rise up higher and higher toward his back. Tom also plunges out of a plane to find that his parachute won't open, and is locked into a leaky box that is thrown into the river. In two of the best cliffhangers, a clipper ship holding our hero and friends crashes into the ocean, letting in gallons of rushing water; and a Japanese sub with Jack and the others aboard is rammed by a huge ship that is also controlled by Jap agents. An amusing aspect of the serial is that Mah Ling seems to take forever to make up his mind to give up the secret of the Mandan route and comes up with one obstacle after another to prevent him from divulging it. With the participation of such actors as Hobart, Luke, Toler, Bey and others, Similin' Jack has a better and better-known cast for a serial than usual. 

Verdict: Decidedly one of the better Universal serials. ***. 


Robert Wagner
PRINCE VALIANT (1954). Director: Henry Hathaway.

Hal Foster's newspaper comic strip Prince Valiant  -- which debuted in the late 1930's and is still published today -- was given lavish treatment by 20th Century-Fox with Technicolor and CinemaScope. Valiant (Robert Wagner of Titanic) is the Viking son of the exiled King Aguar (Donald Crisp). Hoping to restore his father to his throne, Val travels to the court of King Arthur, where he hopes to become a knight. Arthur (Brian Aherne) tells him that he must be a squire first, and he is   assigned to Sir Gawain (Sterling Hayden of The Star). Valiant falls in love at first sight with the beautiful Princess Aleta (Janet Leigh of Psycho), but, alas, Gawain falls instantly in love with her himself even as her sister, Ilene  (Debra Paget) pines for him. An added complication is a sinister and mysterious Black Knight, who has men who are loyal to him and wishes Arthur's throne for himself. Prince Valiant is a beautifully-produced movie which boasts one of Franz Waxman's richest and most  elaborate scores, as well as exquisite cinematography from Lucien Ballard. The performances are fine, and James Mason -- although this is arguably not one of his more memorable roles -- adds a nice touch as Sir Brack, who may have a few secrets (none of which will be surprising to the audience). In its early years the Prince Valiant strip had fantastic elements such as sorcery and monstrous giant beasts, but by the fifties the strip was more realistic and the film adaptation follows suit. There is, however, a well-choreographed and fiery battle scene, and a splendid and protracted sword fight between Val and Sir Brack. Ultimately, how much you enjoy the movie depends on how much you like the time period and the comic strip. Prince Valiant was never my cup of java, but the movie is still impressive in many ways.

Verdict:  Beautiful production values and not a bad story. ***.


An exciting moment from The Phantom
Lee Falk's comic strip

THE PHANTOM (1996). Director: Simon Wincer.

The Phantom, whose real identity is Kit Walker (Billy Zane), is the 21st in a long line of masked and costumed white heroes in the African island nation of Bengalla. Now that his father (Patrick McGoohan) has been murdered, Walker has taken on the mantle, which means he must temporarily walk out of the life of his lady love, Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson) -- until she is kidnapped. The Phantom's main adversary is Xander Drax (Treat Williams), who employs a beautiful mercenary and pilot named Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who in turn leads a whole gang of lady pilots. In addition to Drax, and his nasty  henchman Quill (James Remar of Blink), the Phantom must also contend with Kabai Sengh (Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa), who runs an infamous and long-lived Brotherhood that operates out of an elaborate hideout in a cave on a mysterious island. Both Drax and Sengh are after three metallic skulls which will create a tremendous energy force when joined together, but both men need to be careful what they wish for ... The Phantom is based on Lee Falk's long-running comic strip (still published today), and is a highly entertaining and well-produced adventure film, although some of the plot points -- especially those concerning the skulls -- are over-familiar and never quite work. But there are some outstanding and thrilling action scenes in the movie, especially one in which The Phantom tries to save the life of plucky little Zak (Chatpong "Jim" Petchlor) as they dangle from a rope bridge that is falling to pieces after the heavy truck they are riding in crashes through it -- this is as good as anything in any classic cliffhanger. Billy Zane is fine as the Phantom, while Treat Williams [Deep Rising] tries to play in a jaunty style that doesn't really work that well, although Zeta-Jones scores as the sexy good girl/bad girl, Sala. Kristy Swanson [Deadly Friend] is pretty and competent but makes much less of an impression in this; she's primarily a television actress. Patrick McGoohan of The Prisoner only appears as a ghost.

I originally saw this movie in theaters and pretty much forgot about it, although it is certainly a worthwhile picture, with striking settings (from Africa to Manhattan to the Bermuda Triangle), a rich score by David Newman, and superb cinematography by David Burr. Perhaps my ho-hum reaction at the time was due to my comparative disinterest in the main character, and the fact that the plot could have used a little work. Still, this is a notable comic strip movie, well-directed by Simon Wincer.

Verdict: Believe it or not, this is better than the cliffhanger serial, The Phantom, ***. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2018



Great Old Movies is taking a week off to celebrate 4th of July, but we'll be back with a fresh crop of film and book reviews next week.

Have a great 4th of July weekend!

Don't eat too much!