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

Thursday, September 19, 2019

I MARRIED A WITCH

Veronica Lake and Fredric March
I MARRIED A WITCH (1942). Director: Rene Clair.

In the 17th century, the witch Jennifer and her father Daniel are burned at the stake (off-screen), but not before Jennifer places a curse on the family of her chief accuser, Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March): "Each Wooley must marry the wrong woman." A series of funny vignettes illustrates how the curse is working until we are 270 years into the future, and Wallace Wooley (also March), who is running for governor, is about to marry his attractive if harpy-like fiancee, Estelle (Susan Hayward), on election day. A bolt of lightning hits the tree under which the remains of Jennifer and Daniel are buried, and their spirits are immediately freed.

Cecil Kellaway
Eventually father and daughter get bodies (the logistics of this are glossed over), with Jennifer emerging as Veronica Lake and Daniel materializing in the form of Cecil Kellaway [The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms]. Daniel believes that Jennifer had the right idea with her curse, but that it would be better if she made Wallace fall in love with her and then reject him, causing a lifetime of pain. But when she prepares a love potion, she accidentally drinks it herself. Soon father and daughter are pitted against one another as Jennifer fights even harder to get Wally away from Estelle and Daniel has trouble causing mischief because he can't remember the words to his spells. All havoc breaks out during a wedding ceremony, and there are even more complications after that.

Robert Benchley and Fredrick March
I Married a Witch boasts a very funny script and excellent performances, with March (who not only plays Wallace but all of his ancestors) proving a very adept comedian. But Lake is no slouch -- she not only gets across the kittenish sexiness of her character, but successfully plumbs the vulnerabilities and insecurities of Jennifer. Susan Hayward is cast in the thankless role of foil and straight woman, but she delivers, and there are fine turns by Elizabeth Patterson as Wally's scandalized housekeeper; Robert Benchley [Nice Girl?] as Wally's pal; Robert Warwick as Estelle's apoplectic father; and -- right up there with March and Lake -- Kellaway in his impish yet malevolent portrait of the quirkily sinister warlock, Daniel. Rene Clair also directed And Then There Were None.

Verdict: Black comedies like this either work beautifully or they don't work at all. This one works every step of the way. The hilarious wedding sequence is alone worth the price of admission. ***1/2. 

BELL BOOK AND CANDLE

Kim Novak with Pyewacket
BELL BOOK AND CANDLE (1958). Director: Richard Quine.

Shepherd Henderson (James Stewart) lives in Manhattan above an esoteric shop run by the beautiful Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak). Gillian is a witch, and she decides to use a potion to draw Shep away from his fiancee, Merle (Janice Rule), whom she knew in college and didn't like. Before you know it, Shep is breaking it off with Merle on the day of their marriage and declaring his love for Gillian, even though she believes witches can't feel true love. When Gillian's brother, Nicky (Jack Lemmon), learns the truth, he and author Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacs) -- who is working on a book about witches with Nicky -- ask head witch Mrs de Passe (Hermione Gingold of Gigi) to intercede. Once the spell is removed, will Shep and Gillian discover that their feelings for one another are actually real?

Battling siblings: Novak and Lemmon
Based on a play by James Van Druten, Bell Book and Candle should be an exercise in charming whimsy, but instead it's a leaden bit of foolishness. There are intriguing elements to the picture -- including the notion that, like gay people (not to compare the two!), witches can hide in plain sight -- but the film never recovers from the fact that Gillian at times comes off like a psycho -- her revenge upon Merle while in college is definite overkill. The whole business with witches and warlocks being some kind of secret society isn't handled very well in any case. One would think the performances of the cast would help put this over, but no one -- not even Stewart -- distinguishes himself; Elsa Lanchester [Murder By Death] as Novak's aunt offers her usual dithery portrayal and nothing more. Kim Novak affects a curious speech pattern that sort of fits her role. I must say I was impressed with Gillian's cat, Pyewacket, who slinks through the picture with aplomb.

Bewitched and befuddled: Stewart
Even considering that he's under a spell, Shep discards his fiance in an abrupt and cruel fashion (admittedly he should never have gotten engaged to her in the first place). With its premise of a witch with powers falling in love with an "outsider" or ordinary human, Bell Book and Candle is the obvious progenitor of the TV show Bewitched, which debuted six years later. The contributions of George Duning and James Wong Howe are wasted on this comparative piffle. I think the biggest problem is that this was made the same year as Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo, and considering it has the same two stars, Bell very, very much suffers in comparison.

Verdict: I Married a Witch this isn't! **1/4. 

THIS IS THE ARMY

Irving Berlin
THIS IS THE ARMY (aka Irving Berlin's This Is the Army/1943.) Director: Michael Curtiz.

There were several all-star revue super-patriotic movies put together during WW2, and most of them had thin plots, but this one has perhaps the thinnest. In WW1 soldier and entertainer Jerry Jones (George Murphy of No Questions Asked) puts together a show featuring Army boys for purposes of morale and patriotism. When WW2 comes around, his son Johnny Jones (Lt. Ronald Reagan of Million Dollar Baby) puts together his own show and takes it on a tour. A minor sub-plot has to do with Johnny resisting marriage to his fiancee Eileen (Joan Leslie of Hollywood Canteen) because he's afraid to leave her a war widow.


Robert Shanley
It would be easy to dismiss This is the Army as outdated propaganda were it not for the fact that there's a lot of talent on display, as well as some memorable songs by Irving Berlin and others. (For instance, I believe "Mandy" was composed by Victor Herbert.) The film was made to raise money for Army Emergency Relief, and it accomplished its task and became a hit at the box office. The highlights include Kate Smith singing "God Bless America," Irving Berlin and chorus doing "This Time is the Last Time:" singer Robert Shanley performing "American Eagles" and others; the sailors getting their due in "Cheers for the Navy;" Earl Oxford singing "I Left my Heart;" and at least one other dark-haired male vocalist who does a couple of numbers as well. There is also a group of black tap dancers who do a splendid Harlem-based number. Apparently everyone in the cast was in the armed forces at the time.

Corporal Tilestone Perry as Lynn Fontanne
A strange thing about the movie is the sheer amount of drag in the film, so much so in fact that you keep expecting RuPaul to strut out on stage any second. Yes, these are all Army boys in the show, but surely they could have enlisted some Waves or Wacs or Army nurses to play the female parts, as the men forced to do drag, although they seem like good sports, also look debased and rather gross; it's rather insulting, in fact, and the drag routines aren't especially funny in any case. Guest stars in the film include everyone from Frances Langford to Sgt. Joe Louis to Ross Elliott to Delores Costello (whom I didn't even catch!) and many others. If this film taught me nothing else, it's that the word "nerdy" dates back to at least 1943. The best non-musical sequence, inspired by a similar moment in the classic silent film, The Big Parade, has a mother thinking of her boy, overseas, when he's at various ages.

Verdict: More drag than anyone should have to sit through but some fun moments and notable musical numbers. ***. 

THE TERMINATOR

Arnold Schwarzenegger
THE TERMINATOR (1984). Director: James Cameron.

In the year 2029 Los Angeles and the world are in the midst of war started by rogue robots who want to destroy mankind. When a cyborg killing machine known as a "terminator" (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent back in time to murder the mother of the leader of the resistance -- John Connor --  he is followed by Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn of Deadly Intentions), whose mission is to save her life at any cost. At first Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is resistant to Reese's approaches, but after the Terminator wipes out a police station she realizes that his fantastic story is utterly true ...

Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton
I confess I was never all that carried away with this picture at the time of its release, and my opinion hasn't changed all these years later. The Terminator uses a number of sci fi and comic book tropes to tell its story, which is mildly interesting, and the characters are hardly that dimensional. (Harlan Ellison felt the opening moments of the film were too close to one of his stories and received a settlement and a credit on the DVD.) Although the movie moves at a very fast pace, it seems better edited than directed. The performances are good -- Schwarzenegger only needs to look determined and grim and he does that okay -- and the film has an undeniably exciting climax in a factory when the robotic infrastructure of the Terminator is revealed. The obligatory sex scene is tiresome, but necessary in some ways for the plot.

The Terminator sheds its Schwarzenegger skin
Although these questions may have been answered in the sequels -- to date there have been five -- one has to wonder why the unmarried Sarah doesn't ask Reese why her son in the future has the same last name that she does. And why does the cyborg have an Austrian accent? Bill Paxton has a very small role as a thug but in a few years he would be co-starring with both Schwarzenegger and Biehn [Aliens] in different productions (both directed by James Cameron). Dick Miller [A Bucket of Blood] has a cameo as a gun shop owner who gets on the wrong end of Schwarzenegger's shotgun. Brad Fidel's score is generally pretty cheesy, but the FX work by Stan Winston and others is fine.

Verdict: Odd that this mediocre and highly over-rated little film started such a successful franchise. **1/2. 

THE PURPLE DIARIES: MARY ASTOR AND THE MOST SENSATIONAL HOLLYWOOD SCANDAL OF THE 1930S

THE PURPLE DIARIES: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930s. Joseph Egan. Diversion; 2016.

In the 1930s actress Mary Astor decided to divorce her husband, Franklyn Thorpe, apparently even before she embarked on an affair with the married playwright George S. Kaufman (whose wife was either very understanding or a complete chump). Although Kaufman was hardly anyone's idea of an especially attractive man, he apparently made Astor thrill and throb at his ministrations. Thorpe had had numerous affairs of his own, so his attitude toward the l'amours of his wife was a tad hypocritical.  There was a highly publicized custody battle over Astor and Thorpe's young daughter, Marylyn (sic), in which Astor's diaries -- which included intimate details of her numerous affairs as well as those of others -- took center stage, especially in the press. (The tomes were called the "purple diaries" because the ink Astor used at least seemed purple in color.) This made the powers-that-be in Hollywood nervous at exactly which star might be mentioned in the diaries, so a special group was assembled to convince Astor to reach a quick settlement. A fabricated diary was passed around and the lawyers each did their best to either suppress the real books or introduce passages from them in court as evidence.

This is one of two books that look at the Mary Astor custody case. I haven't read the other book, but this one is well-put-together and interesting, although after awhile a reader may grow tired of this long-ago trial, the stuff of which is so commonplace today. Astor was working on the film Dodsworth while the trial proceeded, and her co-star Ruth Chatterton, who played her love rival in the film, was one of her biggest supporters and attended the trial with her nearly every day. This is not a biography or career study, so Astor's films are only mentioned in passing. The most interesting section of the book has to do with the grown-up little girl's relationship -- or lack of same -- with her parents. Apparently Astor turned into a kind of termagant who had no interest in hearing her daughter's opinion and whose attitude seemed to be "my way or the highway." Too bad.

Verdict: Interesting look at a now-forgotten chapter in Hollywood scandal history. ***. 

Thursday, September 5, 2019

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE

Sam Jaffe and Sterling Hayden
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950). Director: John Huston.

"Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor."

Fresh out of jail, Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe) immediately tries to get a team together for a big-time jewelry heist. Cobby, the bookie (Marc Lawrence), suggests that the wealthy lawyer Emmerich (Louis Calhern) can put up the front money so the operation can be carried out. He also enlists the aid of Dix (Sterling Hayden), a gunsel who only wants to go home to the country, safe cracker Louis (Anthony Caruso of Where Love Has Gone), and bartender Gus (James Whitmore). What none of the men know is that Emmerich is flat broke and planning on running off with the loot -- all of it.

The Adorable One with Louis Calhern
The Asphalt Jungle is a justifiably famous caper movie, although it isn't quite as good as The Killing, which also starred Sterling Hayden and came out five years later. Huston isn't a Hitchcock, and he doesn't play for maximum suspense, but the film is nevertheless absorbing and unpredictable. The robbery itself is, perhaps, less important than the aftermath. Sam Jaffe and Louis Calhern pretty much divide the movie up between them, as both of them are simply superb. But Caruso, Whitmore, and especially Marc Lawrence are also notable, as are Jean Hagen [Singin' in the Rain] as a woman who loves Dix, and the adorable one, Marilyn Monroe, as Calhern's sexy mistress, Angela, who is particularly good in her scenes with the police. John McIntire is also fine as Police Commissioner Hardy. Hayden, who was importuned by Huston to appear in the film, is not on the level of the others, and some times just seems to be merely reciting lines. He has given better performances elsewhere.

The film has a good look to it thanks to the cinematography of Harold Rosson, and although Miklos Rozsa's music is used sparingly, it is always effective.

Verdict: Another sharp, well-paced caper movie with a very interesting cast and characters, and brilliant work by Jaffe and Calhern.***. 

THE UNGUARDED MOMENT

George Nader, Esther Williams, John Saxon 
THE UNGUARDED MOMENT (1956). Director: Harry Keller.

High school music teacher Lois Conway (Esther Williams) receives insolent mash notes from an unknown young admirer who later nearly assaults her and breaks into her house. When she learns his identity, the young man, Leonard (John Saxon of The Unforgiven), accuses Lois of coming on to him and the school board seems to agree. Lt. Harry Graham (George Nader of Carnival Story) thinks Leonard is a creep who needs to be arrested -- and may even be responsible for a series of rape-murders in town -- but the naive Lois still thinks of this 18-year-old man as an innocent "boy." It's a question if Lois will lose her job or maybe her life before everything is resolved.

John Saxon
In these "me too" days, The Unguarded Moment is still a relevant and timely picture, especially in the way it turns the perpetrator into a victim. (It's interesting that even today some people call this early study of sexual harassment "trashy." Why?) This was Williams' first dramatic role after appearing in many musical comedies with diminishing returns, and she's fine, and plays well with George Nader, whose character starts falling in love with her and vice versa. This was not John Saxon's first movie but he received a play-up in this, with him being singled out at the end as a "new personality." His performance is good, although he isn't quite up to the more emotional moments. Edward Andrews, an actor who somehow always exudes a negative aura no matter what part he's playing, is excellent as Saxon's woman-hating father, whose wife ran off years before. Les Tremayne, Eleanor Audley, Jack Albertson and Ed Platt are all credible in supporting roles. Not a great suspense film, but this holds the attention and isn't entirely predictable. It does sort of gloss over Leonard's inappropriate behavior a bit too much. Esther Williams followed this up with the lamentable Raw Wind in Eden. Although she did not do the finished screenplay, the story for this film was co-written by no less than Rosalind Russell.  

Verdict: Interesting cast and a still timely theme. ***. 

STERLING HAYDEN'S WARS

STERLING HAYDEN'S WARS. Lee Mandel. University Press of Mississippi; 2018.

Sterling Hayden drew Hollywood's attention when he made a name for himself as a young sailor, made a couple of films, promptly turned his back on Hollywood, worked with the Partisans in WW2 and became a war hero, briefly joined the Communist party and named names during the HUAC [House UnAmerican Activities Committee] hearings, continued working on movies while disdaining Hollywood and the whole field of acting, finished an autobiography, Wanderer, and a novel, Voyage, became a hopeless alcoholic as well as a pothead, and was basically at war with himself -- hence the title -- for most of his life. Despite his hatred of Hollywood and most of his movies, Hayden was a very stereotypical movie star in that he was completely self-absorbed, a so-called family man who really wanted to live life as a bachelor and stay at sea. He ignored a court order and took his children by his second wife (his first wife was actress Madeleine Carroll) to Tahiti on his own boat, and got only a slap on the wrist from the chauvinistic judge. Unlike other actors, such as Larry Parks, Hayden survived his brush with communism and continued to have a career, although he made movies only for the money. His performances ranged from the mediocre to the on-target but he could never be called an acting genius. Throughout his life he was completely irresponsible and self-centered, and although the book does go into the sufferings his three wives had to endure, there is little about the children, although one can imagine. If the author intended the reader to come to admire Hayden, the book creates a completely opposite effect. I could hardly wait to be done with Hayden as after awhile I became disgusted by his selfish antics.

Generally I have a policy in that I review a book for what it is and not what it isn't, but I find that I do have to make one important point about Sterling Hayden's Wars. I have noticed that books about movie stars written by people who are not film historians or even film buffs are problematic. For instance, one of the first movies Hayden made after testifying for HUAC was The Star with Bette Davis. And that's absolutely all that Mandel says about the movie, this despite the fact that Hayden plays a character much like himself, someone who has a love of sailing and had a brief movie career before walking away from Hollywood. Johnny Guitar is only mentioned in passing -- his hated co-star, Joan Crawford, isn't even in the index! -- when there was certainly plenty of things going on behind-the-scenes while that film was being made. (For more info, see Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography, co-authored by yours truly.) Hayden was a war hero, but he was not Audie Murphy; he testified for HUAC but he was not a major player; he's not the only actor to write books -- so what distinguishes him, if anything, is his movie career, which Mandel pretty much glosses over, although there is some detail about Dr. Strangelove and a couple of other movies. Most readers will look at this book because Hayden was, briefly, a movie star, so why not deal with it? Frankly, although the many chapters on the war and HUAC are well-researched, they seem to go on forever, often cover familiar territory, and almost unbalance the book.You would never know that Hayden actually amassed over seventy credits in film and on television, and you wonder how many of these Mandel actually watched.

That said, Sterling Hayden's Wars is by no means a bad book. If you don't mind that you won't actually find that much about his film career, you may find the tome rewarding. As for Hayden himself, I found myself disliking him the more I read. Frankly, some people might consider what Hayden and his third wife allowed their children to go through as being tantamount to child abuse.

Verdict: Not without some merit on its own terms, but hardly the last word on Hayden's film career. **1/2. 

IT HAPPENED TO JANE

Doris Day, Steve Forrest, Jack Lemmon
IT HAPPENED TO JANE (1959). Director: Richard Quine.

Jane Osgood (Doris Day of Julie) is a widow with two children in the town of Cape Anne, Maine. Jane has just started to run a lobster business and is horrified to learn that the railroad left the lobsters sitting in the station to die. With the help of a longtime friend, a lawyer named George (Jack Lemmon), she sues the railroad, which is run by an old grouch named Harry Foster Malone (Ernie Kovacs.) Jane eventually takes her story to the media as Malone tries various legal maneuverings to bring her to her knees. But Jane is determined to get those damn lobsters to market and put Malone in his place.

Ernie Kovacs
It Happened to Jane was a box office failure for Day, probably because the critics and word of mouth made it clear that the picture never fulfills its promise. This is a shame, because Day herself gives a committed and outstanding performance, and Lemmon is no slouch as her foil. Steve  Forrest [Mommie Dearest] is miscast as a New York reporter who falls in love with and proposes to Jane after only four days -- one simply can't see this slick, sexy fellow succumbing to Jane's country charms so quickly and frenetically -- but the  biggest casting problem is Ernie Kovacs. True, Kovacs' dialogue isn't especially funny, but neither is his performance. He demolishes the whimsical tone of the film almost every time he appears.

Day, Lemmon, and Mary Wickes
This is too bad, since Jane has a good premise and begins very well, but it just doesn't sustain the fun. A scene when George tells off the town because they don't seem supportive of Jane is off-base because it ignores the townspeople's very real concerns and they hardly have time to react in any case. Jane's kids are cute; Mary Wickes, as usual, hasn't enough to do; and "A Real Good Scout" is a charming number Day sings to the boy scouts. Attempts to create levity with a pet lobster named Sam fall flat because crustaceans, alas, have little personality (but they go great with butter!). Jack Lemmon did several films, including My Sister Eileen, with director Richard Quine.

Verdict: Day's fans will enjoy this -- everyone else beware! **1/2. 

FILMS I JUST COULDN'T FINISH ROUND 3

FILMS I JUST COULDN'T FINISH ROUND 3.

These are not reviews, per se, but notes on films that I watched or suffered through until I just gave up on them for one reason or another. Sometimes I skipped to different sections just to get a sense of what was going on or to see if the film became more entertaining. Not all of these pictures are necessarily bad, they just didn't hold my attention. If you see one on the list that you think deserves another look, let me know.

Forbidden Jungle (1950) has a hunter coming to Africa to search for a boy who was lost in a plane crash and is now living, Tarzan-like, in a village with a kindly older man and a native girlfriend. Half of this dull flick was more than enough.

Seeing that it starred Dennis Morgan, Richard Denning and Paula Raymond -- in a western directed by William Castle, no less -- I figured that The Gun That Won the West (1955) would certainly be of some interest. Alas, this tale of the Army and a few civilians versus the Indians never amounts to much. It's all professionally done, just mediocre and dull.

Secret of the Red Orchid (1962) is a dubbed version of a West German Edgar Wallace adaptation about gangsters ordering wealthy people to pay up or die. I started watching this because Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski were in the cast, both of whom are dubbed. Lee plays, of all things, an American FBI agent! The movie was simply too dull to watch for more than half an hour.

Cave of the Living Dead aka Night of the Vampires (1964) is actually a dubbed West German-Yugoslavian import (Der Fluch der grunen Augen) about an Inspector investigating the murders of young women in a small village. There is some atmosphere, but not much suspense because you find out what's happening pretty early on. Not terrible, but not good enough to waste time on the second half.

Succubus (1968) is another horrible film directed by Jess Franco. His fans consider this one of his best, which -- judging from this claptrap -- certainly isn't saying much. The plot, such as it is, has to do with an actress who has violent and sexual fantasies. Due to its advertising campaign, it made a lot of money in the U.S., but I pity anyone who actually had to pay for a ticket. I gave up on this dull, slow, pseudo-artsy and pretentious mess after about twenty minutes.

The Wildcats of St. Trinian's (1980) is, I believe, the third sequel to The Belles of St. Trinian's -- after Blue Murder at St. Trinian's and Pure Hell of St. Trinian's -- but I could hardly get through a quarter of it despite the fact that it had the same director as the original. There is no Alistair Sim in this, and a much, much less interesting cast.

Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out/1980) features a demented man who works in a toy factory and goes on a rampage. The whole look and pacing of the film got me to stop watching after about half an hour.

The Curse (1987\) is a version of H. P. Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space with a meteorite in a small town causing mutations. It was directed by actor David Keith. The movie didn't seem entirely worthless but the poor production values and pacing put me off of it pretty quickly. The first adaptation of this story starred Boris Karloff and was entitled Die Monster, Die. It was also poor.

Call Me (1988) stars Patricia Charbonneau as a woman who goes to a bar for a rendezvous with a man she thinks is her boyfriend, and winds up witnessing the murder of a drag queen in a bathroom. Unfortunately, this got less interesting the farther into it I got, which I admit wasn't very far.

The Oxford Murders (2008) is a mystery film about murders involving a professor and author (John Hurt) and a young man (Elijah Wood) who wants to study with him. But then the professor's elderly friend (Anna Massey), with whom Wood is boarding, is found murdered and the professor thinks there will be more killings by an unknown assailant. Sounds good, but who cares? The characters are uninteresting, the story uninvolving, and I couldn't even care who the murderer might turn out to be so I only made it about halfway through this. Hurt and Massey are wasted.

The Colour Out of Space aka Die Farbe (2010) is a German film version of H. P. Lovecraft's excellent novella of the same title, previously filmed as the aforementioned Curse and Die, Monster, Die. The story has been transplanted from New England to Germany, which doesn't work at all, but even worse is the slow pacing and the sparse style which is the complete opposite of the great Lovecraft's florid, Victorian, emotional, atmospheric, and terrifying approach to the material. There is some impressive black and white photography, but I found this so tedious I watched it in spurts. It just wasn't compelling enough to hold the attention.

The Privileged (2013) has a young man and his wife visiting his supervisor and his wife at their home where the former begs to keep his job. An intruder breaks in and gets shot, and the violence escalates as a cover-up begins. This is by no means a terrible movie -- it is well-acted and well-shot -- but it's predictable and minor, and I confess I skipped ahead to the very depressing conclusion.

The Monkey's Paw (2013) is a variation of the famous story that doesn't do nearly enough with the idea and was a bit too slow to hold my attention, despite such talented cast members as Stephen Lang.

There were two spy spoofs that I just couldn't make it through, a 1965 Japanese production entitled Ironfinger and the 1964 American film Spies a Go Go (aka The Nasty Rabbit). I could only make it a quarter of the way through the first one, which seemed as stupid as any American spy spoof, and only a few minutes of the second one, which simply seemed too cheap and moronic to bother with; I skimmed through some of it to my regret.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

THAT TOUCH OF MINK

Doris Day and Cary Grant
THAT TOUCH OF MINK (1962). Director: Delbert Mann.

"When a man donates $200,000, he's entitled to use the facilities."

Wealthy entrepreneur Philip Shayne (Cary Grant) is in his limousine when it splashes mud on out-of-work Cathy Timberlake (Doris Day.) Philip sends his associate, Roger (Gig Young of Hunt the Man Down) to apologize for him, but Cathy insists Philip do it himself. When she meets him, however, she is so instantly smitten that she apologizes to him. Thus begins a difficult romance in which Cathy does her best to maintain her virtue even as Philip flies her off to exotic places and wines and dines her par excellance. A series of comical misunderstandings may or may not lead to the altar ...

A date from Hell: Doris Day and John Astin
That Touch of Mink is a funny movie, greatly abetted by the performances of the two leads. One could quibble that both of them, especially Grant, are a bit too old to be dancing around this whole sex-or-no-sex business, but they make the skirmishes amusing in spite of it. John Astin is also notable as a sleazy man in the unemployment office who has a hankering for Cathy and winds up wishing that he didn't.

Although there's nothing necessarily wrong with Audrey Meadows' performance, I was somehow disappointed by it. Meadows certainly knew how to slap down a line on The Honeymooners, but maybe this part should have been essayed by Eve Arden. Laurie Mitchell, the Queen of Outer Space herself, has a bit part as a showgirl, and John Fiedler is amusing as a confused bridegroom who gets the wrong idea about his wife. That Touch of Mink is typical of many sixties comedies in that it milks some humor out of a misunderstanding over a character's sexual orientation -- in this case Roger's shrink (Alan Hewitt, who is also very good) thinks he is gay. It does lead up to a silly but nevertheless hilarious final sequence.

Verdict: Despite its dated qualities (on so many levels), this is a consistently amusing picture with extremely adept leads. ***. 

THOSE REDHEADS FROM SEATTLE

Gene Barry and Rhonda Fleming
THOSE REDHEADS FROM SEATTLE (1953). Director: Lewis R. Foster.

Mrs. Edmonds (Agnes Moorehead) brings her four daughters from Seattle to the Klondike to meet up with her husband, a reformer who is trying to clean up the town during the gold rush. Unfortunately, when they arrive they discover that the man has been murdered. The chief suspect is saloon owner Johnny Kisco (Gene Barry of Burke's Law), who does what he can for the ladies, including giving one daughter, Patricia (Teresa Brewer) a job as an entertainer in his club. Her sister Katherine (Rhonda Fleming of The Killer is Loose) falls for Johnny and vice versa, but she can't deal with the rumors about his part in her father's death. Patricia winds up on the outs with the rest of her family as Katherine, taking over her late father's newspaper, does her best to run Johnny out of town.

Teresa Brewer
With a storyline like that you wouldn't think that Those Redheads from Seattle would be a musical, but it is; unfortunately it was produced by Paramount and not MGM. The songs are by a variety of composers and lyricists, some of whom went on to better things. But the big problem is that you would think the movie would have employed some famous musical stars, but neither of the two leads really do any singing (Barry later wound up starring on Broadway in La cage aux folles, but he was no great shakes as a singer). Teresa Brewer can sing, more or less, but the less said about her overbearing style the better -- as actress she is more palatable, but this was her only movie. There's only one halfway memorable song anyway, "I Guess It Was You All the Time," very well sung by Guy Mitchell, who plays Johnny's buddy, Joe. This was Mitchell's first movie. Essentially a vocalist, he had only a few credits on TV and in pictures.

Moorehead with Fleming, Brewer and one Bell Sister
Barry and Fleming make a pretty good team, even if they barely talk to one another throughout most of the movie. Moorehead is as terrific as ever as the somewhat feisty widow. The other two daughters in the film are played by "The Bell Sisters," about which little is known -- this was their only movie. The last few minutes of the film are taken up with a shoot out between Johnny and the real murderer as he tries to bring him in to clear his name, an abrupt shift in tone that doesn't bring nearly enough excitement to the proceedings. On a whole, the movie is pleasant enough, but aside from some of the performances there's little to distinguish it from numerous mediocre musicals. NOTE: This was originally released in 3D, probably the first musical to do so. Not that it helped that much.

Verdict: If we must have western-melodrama-musicals, this one will do until something better comes along. **1/2. 

KIM NOVAK, RELUCTANT GODDESS

KIM NOVAK, RELUCTANT GODDESS. Peter Harry Brown. St. Martin's; 1986.

This is the story of Kim Novak, a "manufactured" star who was signed to a contract because of her looks and then had to learn how to act on the run, so to speak. However, with the right roles and sympathetic directors, Novak was able to give good and sometimes very good performances in such films as VertigoPicnic, Middle of the Night, and others. On some occasions, such as in the wretched biopic Jeanne Eagels, she sunk to the level of the material. Novak had several boyfriends -- including the very married Ramfis "Ram" Trujillo, son of the Dominican president -- and got engaged more than once, but seemed to have commitment-phobia until she married British actor Richard Johnson [Deadlier Than the Male] for a union that lasted less than a year; the two remained friends. However, her later marriage to Dr. Robert Malloy has lasted over forty years. Novak apparently never wanted an acting career or movie stardom -- at least she didn't thirst for it as others did -- and when her glory days were over she didn't spend much energy on trying to make it back to the top, preferring wedded bliss and comparative anonymity over "Hollywood." The book has some behind-the-scenes stuff such as a report on William Holden's embarrassment over doing a sexy dance with Kim and her bad relationship with Laurence Harvey while doing the remake of Of Human Bondage, and some selections of her poetry indicate that she was a better actress than poet. This is a readable, entertaining, if comparatively superficial, bio of the star. Did she or did she not have a real affair with Sammy Davis Jr.? -- the book won't give you a conclusive answer, although Novak has always maintained the two were just warm friends who admired one another.

Verdict: Not a great, exhaustive book on Novak, but interesting and absorbing. ***. 

PRIVATE PROPERTY

Corey Allen
PRIVATE PROPERTY (1960). Written and directed by Leslie Stevens.

Boots (Warren Oates) and Duke (Corey Allen) are drifters who spy a blonde in a corvette and decide to follow her with the temporary assistance of the frightened businessman Ed Hogate (Jerome Cowan). The handsome and more intelligent Duke decides it's time that the older and somewhat simple-minded Boots have a woman, and the blonde, Ann (Kate Manx) -- who lives in a beautiful home with her husband, Roger (Robert Wark) -- has been selected whether she likes it or not. Holing up in an empty house next door, the two watch Ann and plan their next move ...

Robert Wark and Kate Manx
Private Property has its admirers -- it has some atmosphere and moody photography -- but it is by no means a lost masterpiece. The picture takes forever to get going, the antics of the two men and the views of Ann and Roger at home become equally tiresome, there is virtually no suspense, and by the time anything of real interest happens it's far too late to save the picture. Yes, it is clear that Ann, despite her love for her husband, is attracted to Duke, and some sequences almost have a simmering quality, but the chief feeling you get from the film is that Corey Allen -- good-looking, charismatic and talented -- deserved a much bigger career and could have easily played romantic leads. Allen has a rare leading role in this film and is excellent (he later became a very successful director). He gave top-notch, quirky performances in such films as The Big Caper and The Chapman Report.

Allen, Oates, and Cowan
Warren Oates, of course, who is also good, went on to better things. Jerome Cowan appears briefly and is as adept as ever. Kate Manx, who gives an appealing performance, was married to the writer-director Leslie Stevens [Fanfare for a Death Scene] at the time, and did a second film with him, Hero's Island, in which she was James Mason's leading lady! A year after her divorce from Stevens she committed suicide at 35. As for Stevens, he wrote the stage play The Marriage-Go-Round (as well as the screenplay for the adaptation) and created The Outer Limits and It Takes a Thief, among others. Ann and Roger's house in this movie was actually the home of Stevens and Manx.

Verdict: Over-rated B movie features an arresting performance by Allen, who deserved a better vehicle. **1/4, 

BILLIONAIRE BOYS CLUB (1987)

Judd Nelson and Raphael Sbarge
BILLIONAIRE BOYS CLUB (1987 two part four hour mini-series). Director: Marvin J. Chomsky.

Charismatic Joe Hunt (Judd Nelson), his best friend Dean Karney (Brian McNamara), and several of their wealthier friends form a group to make big money in investments. Some of the young men may or may not be aware that the whole thing is really just a variation on an illegal ponzi scheme. A con artist named Ron Levin (Ron Silver of Reversal of Fortune) gets involved with the group, allegedly giving them 14 million to play around with, only it's merely a paper account. Then Ron Levin goes missing. The Iranian-born father of one of the boys is found dead. Interspersed with a murder trial are flashbacks that show what happened and reveal the guilty parties.

Ron Silver 
Billionaire Boys Club should have been a riveting, taut, suspenseful and fascinating TV classic, but it never really rises above a mediocre level. For this the actors can't be faulted, as a talented group, led by a terrific Nelson, has certainly been assembled. Rafael Sbarge [Deadly Web] is a stand-out as one of two brothers who hangs on Hunt's every word until he realizes what a bad influence he has become. Fredric Lehne [Wiseguy] as Sbarge's brother, Stan Shaw as a sinister helpmate, Jill Schoelen as Joe's girlfriend, Amy, Allan Miller as a defense attorney, James Sloyan as the D.A., and especially Ron Silver as the ill-fated Levin, among others, are all good as well. Because it's an interesting true story this holds the attention, but that's all. The theatrical remake in 2018 wasn't much better. The real Joe Hunt, serving a life sentence in prison, now claims that Levin went on the run to avoid prosecution and is still alive.

Verdict: Not one of the great mini-series, but well-acted. **1/4. 

Thursday, August 8, 2019

DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (PLAYHOUSE 90 LIVE TV/1958)

Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie
DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1958). Playhouse 90 season three, episode 2. Directed by John Frankenheimer. Written especially for Playhouse 90 by J. P. Miller. Introduced by Sterling Hayden.

Joe Clay (Cliff Robertson of Obsession) stands up at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and relates the story of his life, his marriage to fellow alcoholic Kirsten (Piper Laurie of Carrie), and his dark descent and struggle back to sobriety. When Joe meets Kirsten at a party, it is already clear that she likes her liquor. After Joe loses his job due to his drinking, he and Kirsten and their little girl move in with her father, Ellis (Charles Bickford of Anna Christie), who unfairly blames Joe for his daughter's problem. But can Joe convince his wife that she has to give up alcohol entirely or they simply can not have a life together, and she cannot be their child's mother?

Cliff Robertson 
Days of Wine and Roses, as presented on the anthology series Playhouse 90, is a true classic of live television. (Frankly it's inexplicable how certain scene changes were enacted without any cuts or commercial breaks.) Hollywood had already dealt with alcoholism in The Lost Weekend, but this teleplay examines the affects of the disease on marriage and on an innocent child (although the latter aspect is downplayed). The script is strong, the performances from all three leads are excellent, and the teleplay, well-directed by John Frankenheimer [Seconds] early in his career, retains bite and interest. This was remade as a theatrical film starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. One of Robertson's finest performances.

Verdict: A prime example of why everyone raves about the early days of live television. ***1/2.  

DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962)

Bottoms Up! Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick
DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962). Director: Blake Edwards.

"The world looks so dirty to me when I'm not drinking." -- Kirsten.

Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) is a public relations man who likes his liquor. When he first meets Kirsten (Lee Remick), the two don't exactly hit it off, but a persistent Joe finally gets a date with her. Although Kirsten doesn't drink, or even particularly like the taste of alcohol, Joe importunes her to try a Brandy Alexander, and she discovers she likes getting tight. When the two get married and have a daughter, both discover that alcohol is playing too large a role in their lives, only Kirsten won't admit she has a problem.

Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick
Days of Wine and Roses is based on a classic and excellent television play that was presented on Playhouse 90 in 1958. J. P. Miller wrote the script for both the show and the movie, although some questionable elements were added.to "open up" the story (one imagines director Blake Edwards also had a hand in that). The casting of Jack Lemmon [How to Murder Your Wife], who was mostly known as a comedian at the time, apparently necessitated sequences fabricated to let the audience slowly get into the eventually sombre mood by turning the first third of the film into a comedy as Lemmon pursues a disinterested Remick [Anatomy of a Murder]. The movie nearly sinks with an utterly ridiculous sequence in which Joe tries to get rid of the cockroaches in Kirsten's apartment, and her neighbors inexplicably complain about it.

Jack Lemmon and Charles Bickford 
The film eventually settles down into the main story, detailing how Joe loses his job due to his drinking, his recognition that both he and his wife are bonafide alcoholics, their moving in with her father, Ellis (Charles Bickford reprising his role from the TV version), who owns a nursery that Joe nearly destroys during a binge. (In both the TV and theatrical version we're not shown Ellis' reaction when he discovers what his son-in-law has done, which might have made for one intensely dramatic sequence.)

Lee Remick
Days of Wine and Roses is a good picture that is bolstered by fine performances from Lemmon (helping to establish him as a dramatic player as well as a comic one), Remick (possibly her best performance), and Bickford. Jack Klugman [12 Angry Men] is much less impressive as a representative of AA who tries to help Joe. The TV version is generally superior to the movie. In the original teleplay Joe is not responsible for Kirsten starting drinking, which he is in the film, and in the movie he never seems to feel any guilt about it. In the film Lemmon almost immediately takes a drink when Remick, in her lonely motel room, begs him to join her, whereas Cliff Robertson sits contemplating the bottle for awhile before he gives in. All in all, the teleplay is better if for no other reason than that it doesn't waste time with the sitcom-like stuff that the movie does. Both versions sort of gloss over the financial angles of the characters' situation, and other things are a bit prettified as well.

Verdict: Worthwhile picture, although not as good as the original. ***. 

BUS STOP

Monroe and Don Murray
BUS STOP (1956). Director: Joshua Logan. Based on the play by William Inge.

"Ain't it wonderful when somebody so terrible turns out to be so nice." -- Cherie.

Bo Decker is a young rancher who has a lot of energy but little experience with life or women. With his foreman and best friend, Virgil (Arthur O'Connell), he travels to Phoenix, Arizona to compete in a rodeo. He is certain that he will meet the right gal for him, and is convinced that that is just what's happened when he runs into nightclub entertainer Cherie (Marilyn Monroe). The trouble is that while Cherie may think Bo is handsome, she has no intention of marrying a complete stranger that she has just met. Bo, unfortunately, simply won't take no for an answer ...

Don Murray as Bo
Bus Stop was based on a stage play by William Inge, and it was opened up by screenwriter George Axelrod. Joshua Logan also directed the film version of Inge's Picnic the same year, although he had not directed the stage version of Bus Stop as he did Picnic. The movie benefits from inspired casting. Marilyn Monroe is simply outstanding as Cherie -- possibly the best performance of her career -- and is able to bring out the pathos and confusion in her character as well as her more comical aspects. Her interpretation of "That Old Black Magic" which she deliberately sings off-key in the saloon is very funny. Don Murray [Advise and Consent], whose first theatrical film this was, is also excellent, just perfect in fact, as Bo, managing to make a man who seems nearly psychotic at times a bit vulnerable and greatly appealing in some instances.

Arthur O'Connell and Monroe
As for the rest of the cast, Arthur O'Connell offers another of his spot-on performances as father surrogate Virgil. Betty Field [Seventeen] makes an impression, and seems to be channeling Mae West a bit, as the coffee shop owner, Grace. Robert Bray [Never Love a Stranger] has possibly his best role as the bus driver, Carl, who has a yen for Grace, and who has a fateful encounter with Bo. Eileen Heckart and Hope Lange are also effective in smaller roles as, respectively, Cherie's friend and co-worker and a young woman on the bus who befriends Cherie. Like Picnic, this romance has a bittersweet conclusion. Murray was nominated for an Oscar (supporting); Monroe should have been. The TV series Bus Stop was very loosely based on this movie.

Verdict: Very entertaining and well-acted comedy drama. ***. 

THE AFFAIRS OF DOBIE GILLIS

Bobby Van and Debbie Reynolds
THE AFFAIRS OF DOBIE GILLIS (1953). Director: Don Weis.

Dobie Gillis (Bobby Van) has enrolled in college but he doesn't seem to have much on his mind academically. He is much more interested in girls, especially Pansy Hammer (Debbie Reynolds), who is initially resistant. Pansy's parents, especially her grumpy father (Hanley Stafford), rarely approve of her boyfriends and Dobie is no exception. Further complicating the matter is that Dobie's pal and roommate, Charlie (Bob Fosse), goes for Lorna (Barbara Ruick), who only has eyes for Dobie. Then Dobie manages to get into trouble over and over again, and it seems as if he and Pansy are to be separated forever.

Roomies: Bob Fosse and Bobby Van
The Affairs of Dobie Gillis is a trifle, but what a charming and entertaining trifle it is, with a great cast of talented performers giving their utmost. Bobby Van [The Navy vs the Night Monsters], while not traditionally handsome, proves an adept leading man with both singing and dancing skills, a pleasant, outgoing personality, and plenty of exuberance and charisma. The same could be said for Bob Fosse, who is both cute (if not on a Tab Hunter level) and appealing, but chose to work primarily behind the scenes as a top choreographer in later years. Debbie Reynolds [Singin' in the Rain] is also cute and perky and while this is mostly Van's show, gives him her best in support. Barbara Ruick, who was in the film version of Carousel as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, scores as the love-sick gal who adores her disinterested Dobie and is given at least one snappy number. 

Reynolds, Van, Freeman
As for the supporting cast, Hans Conreid, as a stuffy professor, reminds one of Mr. Livermore on I Love Lucy. Kathleen Freeman certainly adds to the fun as the comical leader of an all-girl band. Percy Helton shows up as a shop owner, Charles Lane is well-cast as a -- what else? -- grouchy chemistry professor, and there are bits by Alvy Moore,  Almira Sessions, and John Smith. Lurene Tuttle is Debbie's mother, and is fine, but Hanley Stafford as her father is all bluster and no laughs. The songs include "All I Do is Dream of You," "I'm Through with Love;" and "Can't Do Wrong If It's Right," which features some fancy footwork from Van and Fosse. The somewhat episodic film reminds one a bit of a sitcom at times, and indeed it wasn't long before The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was being telecast every week, although with a completely different cast.

Verdict: Lots of fun, good tunes, and fancy footwork. ***. 

HAPPY TRAILS: OUR LIFE STORY -- ROY ROGERS AND DALE EVANS

HAPPY TRAILS: OUR LIFE STORY. ROY ROGERS AND DALE EVANS. With Jane and Michael Stern. Simon and Schuster; 1994.

In alternating chapters, and with overviews provided by the co-authors, Roy Rogers [Wall Street Cowboy] and Dale Evans tell their love story and their life as entertainers and parents of several children, some of whom were adopted. Rogers' first wife died in childbirth, and the heart-broken cowboy made several films with Evans before finally falling in love with her and vice versa. Evans, whose first marriage ended in divorce, admits that in her younger days she cared about little else but her career and at first did not especially want to be one half of the Rogers-Evans combo. Despite toiling for low-budget Republic studios, Rogers caught on with the public and became a bonafide movie star, then garnered even more fans with his rodeo appearances with his beloved horse, Trigger (whom he later had mounted after the horse's death). Rogers, who somehow got out of WW2 military service, took advantage of the fact that rival cowboy Gene Autry went into the military and Republic promoted Rogers as "King of the Cowboys" during his absence. (Rogers' undeniable squinty-eyed sex appeal certainly didn't hurt.) When the film career petered out, Roy and Dale had their own successful TV series. Dale eventually found religion, and Rogers followed suit, although they seem unable to grasp that one can have positive values in life without necessarily having a personal relationship with God. On the other hand, they have helped a great many children, and the most affecting sections of the book deal with the tragic deaths of some of their adopted and biological youngsters. Roy and Dale clearly believed in corporal punishment, and despite the fact that their boys could often be naughty and rambunctious, there are passages that may raise eyebrows, particularly one in which Dale confesses she secretly fed a field mice to one of the boys because she'd heard if was a folk remedy for curing bed-wetting! Factoids in the book include the interesting news that sidekick Gaby Hayes [From Broadway to Cheyenne] was actually a well-educated man who could perform Shakespeare (!), and that Roy's favorite TV show was the soap opera, The Guiding Light!

Verdict: If you can get past the tiresome religiosity, this is more interesting than you might imagine, although it is primarily recommended for Roy Rogers addicts. ***. 

Thursday, July 25, 2019

PICNIC

An iconic image from Picnic by James Wong Howe
PICNIC (1956). Director: Joshua Logan. NOTE: Logan also directed the stage play. This review gives away some important plot points.

Hal Carter (William Holden) is a drifter and failed, wannabee actor who winds up in Kansas where he looks up an old buddy named Alan (Cliff Robertson), hoping to find work. Alan's father gives Hal a job, but things are complicated at the Labor Day picnic when Hal and Alan's fiancee, Madge (Kim Novak), find themselves attracted to one another. Alan is furious, but Madge's mother (Betty Field) is horrified at the fate in store for her daughter if she runs off with Hal. Meanwhile Madge's younger sister, Millie (Susan Strasberg), is suffering growing pains, and their border, spinster schoolteacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell), is having a crisis of her own.

William Holden and Kim Novak
Picnic is based on the Pulitzer prize-winning stage play by William Inge, and screenwriter Daniel Taradash has intelligently opened up the drama without apparently losing much of the original's meat. Both of the two leads, Holden and Novak, are too old for their roles -- Novak was twenty-three and Holden thirty-eight looking older -- and Holden is really not the right type for Hal at all, but he still manages to give quite a good performance, as does Novak, whom I've always believed could be quite accomplished with the right role and director. Betty Field and Susan Strasberg score as mother and younger daughter, and Rosalind Russell, while she tends to overplay in some sequences, has a terrific moment when she's begging her steady beau, Howard (Arthur O'Connell, carried over from the stage version), to marry her. Cliff Robertson gives one of his best performances as Alan, a nice guy who is treated badly even as he treats Hal badly out of jealousy. There are also nice turns by Verna Felton (the tough maid on I Love Lucy) as a very sympathetic neighbor who takes to Hal right off the bat, and Reta Shaw and Phyllis Newman in smaller roles.

William Holden
Just as straight writers composed stories that revolved around female objects of desire, some gay writers did the same thing with male figures as the centerpiece. Tennessee Williams comes to mind with his "Orpheus Descending," which debuted on the stage four years after Picnic (although Williams' first version, "Band of Angels," dates back to 1940. Meanwhile "Orpheus" was filmed as The Fugitive Kind with Marlon Brando three years after Picnic hit screens.) Both Picnic and Fugitive Kind deal with sexy bad boys and drifters who burst into town and inflame passions among women; the plays and movies were too soon before Stonewall to deal upfront with any gay influences. This is not to say that the characters were all meant to be male.

Rosalind Russell and William Holden
However, both plays have more on their minds than just virile rough trade. Picnic is basically a study of small-town desperation and loneliness; the film has persistent undercurrents of both. It is made clear that Hal is just as lonely in his own way as Rosemary is, culminating in a painful sequence when Rosemary humiliates Hal after he, in her mind, rejects her advances. The film also looks at the pain of growing older and the anguished jealousy it can engender when a middle-aged person is confronted by someone with youth and promise and more overt attractiveness and sensuality.



Cliff Robertson and William Holden
Picnic has many memorable sequences. There is the amusing montage of scenes at the picnic, with crying babies, cute dogs, and silly games, and -- in contrast -- the sort of sexy slow dance that Hal and Madge do together on the bandstand. James Wong Howe's cinematography is outstanding, and George Duning has contributed a sensitive score. Picnic has to be considered an anti-romantic film. Playwright Inge probably meant the ending to indicate that Madge is giving full range to her feelings and taking a chance on life and love and perhaps getting away from a stifling small-town environment, but in the bittersweet conclusion she's also going off with a man she has known for only one day. (Paging Dr. Phil!) And does anyone really think the relationship between Rosemary and Howard will work?

The play starred Ralph Meeker as Hal, Paul Newman as Alan, Janice Rule as Madge, Eileen Heckart as Rosemary, and Arthur O'Connell as Howard. Aron Copeland's beautiful opera The Tender Land, which debuted around the same time as the stage version of Picnic, also dealt with a young woman who falls in love overnight with a drifter and wants to run away with him.

Verdict: Despite some problems, this is an excellent picture. ***1/2.