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

Thursday, January 31, 2019

B MOVIE NIGHTMARE IS HERE!








This week GREAT OLD MOVIES is taking a break to present the first installment of my new monthly movie blog, "B" MOVIE NIGHTMARE. Click on the link to take a looksee.

GREAT OLD MOVIES will return next week. 

Thursday, January 24, 2019

GYPSY

Ann Jillian, Rosalind Russell, Karl Malden
GYPSY (1962). Director: Mervyn LeRoy.

Rose Hovick (Rosalind Russell of Auntie Mame) is the stage mother to end all stage mothers, and she pushes her daughters Louise and June into the theater whether they want to go or not. Baby June* (Morgan Brittany and Ann Jillian) fears that her mother will never let her grow up, and Louise (Diane Pace and Natalie Wood), forced to dress like a boy, fears that she has no talent and will never please her mother. Acting as their manager is Herbie Sommers (Karl Malden of Time Limit), who wants to marry Rose and tries to keep her wilder aspects in check. When circumstances remove June from the act, Rose sets her sights on Louise, who will wind up attaining stardom in a way no one would ever have anticipated.

Paul Wallace as "Tulsa" with Natalie Wood
Gypsy is one of the most successful adaptations of a hit Broadway musical. The basic material, based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, was already there, along with a fine score by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, but the movie is bolstered by several excellent performances, especially from Russell, Malden and Wood. True, the characters are all etched in very, very broad strokes, but it doesn't detract from the enjoyability of the piece.

"You Gotta Get a Gimmick." Bruce, Dane and Arlen
Along with songs that have become standards, such as "Small World," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Some People," and "Let Me Entertain You," there are gems like "You'll Never Get Away From Me," and "If Mama Was Married," among others ("Together" was filmed but cut from the final release). Although he doesn't have a great voice as such, Paul Wallace makes a positive impression as Tulsa, who dances in June's act and who inspires romantic feelings in Louise. "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" is one of the zestiest numbers in the movie, sung by a spirited trio of strippers (Betty Bruce, Roxanne Arlen, and particularly Faith Dane who "bumps it with a trumpet.")

Gypsy Rose Lee struts her stuff
Although Rosalind Russell does do a little singing in this (such as the opening of "Rose's Turn"), most of her vocals were performed by Lisa Kirk (Broadway's Allegro), whose husky voice was probably chosen because it was more of a match to Russell's gravelly speaking voice. Unfortunately Kirk's singing is not especially euphonious in this, so they might just as well have let Russell handle all of it. Wood seems to do her own singing, but her off-key warbling perfectly fits her character. (The real Gypsy Rose Lee did not have much of a voice, and she was never as attractive as Natalie Wood!) Harry Stradling Sr.'s [Parrish] widescreen cinematography is a plus. Watch out for an amusing cameo by Jack Benny!

* "Baby June" grew up to become the successful actress June Havoc (not to be confused with June Haver, who married Fred Mac|Murray). She and her sister were estranged for many years, mostly over Gypsy, even though her depiction was not that negative. Her latter-day achievements after the events of Gypsy were completely eliminated of course. Her last theatrical film appearance was in Can't Stop the Music.

Verdict: Delightful! ***1/2. 

SYBIL (1976)

Nutty as a fruitcake: Sally Field
SYBIL (1976 four hour two-part mini-series. Director: Daniel Petrie.

Sybil (Sally Field) is a young substitute teacher in New York City who tries to hide the fact that she has blank spots in her memory and often wakes up days or even months later with no idea of what she's been doing. After an accident, she meets a sympathetic psychiatrist named Dr. Wilbur (Joanne Woodward), who discovers that Sybil has several different personalities. Using hypnosis and interviewing people from her patient's past, Wilbur determines to discover what happened in Sybil's childhood that made her this way, but Sybil may not like the answers.

Gullible as a guppie: Joanne Woodward
Sybil has much in common with an earlier theatrical film (this one about reincarnation) entitled The Search for Bridey Murphy. Both films were based on best-selling "non-fiction" works that caused a sensation, influenced millions of people, and, incidentally, made much money for their authors. Both books have also turned out to be, mostly, crap. Dissociative Identity Disorder, as its now called, was popularized by the book Sybil, but a new 2011 book entitled Sybil Exposed reveals that, while there may be a few genuine cases of DID, the real woman who was called Sybil was actually faking. "Sybil" confessed this to gullible Wilbur, but Wilbur chose not to believe her. Both women had very good reasons not to own up: Wilbur had her reputation to think of, as well as the money from the book (she worked with a professional writer); and Sybil, who became like a daughter to Wilbur, was virtually supported by her. 

Be a clown: Brad Davis and Sally Field
So while this strips the telefilm of much of its power, we have to look at what remains, and the answer is: not much. Three hours long without commercial breaks, Sybil eventually becomes tedious, with too many repetitious flashbacks, a slow pace, and padding. Emmy-winning Field is quite good, and she gets wonderful support from Woodward and Brad Davis as a free-spirited young neighbor that she dates, as well as others, but after awhile all of those "personalities," male and female, become rather irritating, and the whole thing nearly collapses into farce when "Sybil" turns into her own grandmother on the street. Woodward, of course, appeared in her own multiple personality picture, The Three Faces of Eve (which was also based on a non-fiction book), which engendered the similar Lizzie with Eleanor Parker. Sybil was remade as a TV movie in 2007.

Verdict: Field is impressive, but this is a turgid and unconvincing mini-series. **. 

FATAL CHARM: THE LIFE OF REX HARRISON

FATAL CHARM: THE LIFE OF REX HARRISON. Alexander Walker. St. Martin's; 1992.

This superb biography takes a thorough, exhaustive look at the life and career of Rex Harrison, highlighting his enormous talent and good points while unsparingly detailing his less admirable traits, which were many. Walker covers Harrison's early British films and stage work, his coming to America to appear in Anna and the King of Siam with Irene Dunne, his triumph in both the Broadway and movie versions of My Fair Lady, and his many marriages to the likes of Collette Thomas, Elizabeth Rees, Lilli Palmer, and Rachel Roberts, among others. Roberts was a particular handful, an alcoholic whose behavior in public was often disgusting, and who even after her divorce from Harrison and his subsequent remarriage never stopped trying to get him back. Then there are the numerous affairs, the most publicized of which were with Carole Landis (who committed suicide over him) and Kay Kendall [Les Girls] , whom Harrison married, divorcing Palmer, after learning Kendall had only a couple of years to live. Walker's biography maintains a balance between Harrison's career and personal life, analyzing his performances, and is bolstered by many interviews and comments from friends and co-workers.

Verdict: A damned good show! ****.


CHANGE LOBSTERS AND DANCE

CHANGE LOBSTERS AND DANCE: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY. Lilli Palmer. Macmillan; 1975.

Apparently without a ghostwriter, Lilli Palmer [Body and Soul] writes affectingly of her life and a bit of her career and writes so well that she proves as talented an author as she was an actress. Palmer tells of growing up a Jew in Berlin, leaving the country for France and then England when Hitler reared his ugly head, her early struggles to have a career as an actress and winding up as part of a singing act in sleazy nightclubs, her work in theater and films, and her marriage to Rex Harrison. From an insider's pov, Palmer tells of the effect Harrison's affair with Carole  Landis [Out of the Blue], a suicide, had on her and her husband's lives -- they essentially had to flee Hollywood for New York until My Fair Lady changed everything -- as well as the major impact of his affair with co-star Kay Kendall [Les Girls] , whom Harrison had to take care of as she was dying, a fact that was kept from her.  It was difficult for Palmer to continue co-starring with Rex Harrison in "Bell, Book and Candle" in London after he fell in love with Kendall, but the producer wouldn't let her out of her contract. She lied and told Harrison that she would return to him after Kendall's death, but told him the truth afterward. Palmer then had a happier marriage to Argentinian actor and author Carlos Thompson [Raw Wind in Eden]. Palmer provides interesting portraits of such folk as co-stars Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and close friend Laurence Olivier, as well as of Noel Coward, Greta Garbo, Helen Keller, and the malicious Hedda Hopper, but the best sections relate her impressions as anti-Semitic feelings grew in Germany, and her reactions when she returned to make films in her homeland many years later, wondering which of her co-workers were Nazis and which weren't.

Palmer goes behind the scenes of a couple of her movies, but most of her film work is only mentioned in passing. (She doesn't even mention stuff like The House That Screamed.) Interestingly, second husband Thompson did not want her appearing on the New York stage because, as she puts it, "I couldn't possibly ask him to sit around and twiddle his thumbs for a whole year ... " this coming not long after Thompson spent two years away from Palmer researching a book! Sadly, Palmer died of cancer about ten years after this book was finished, and Thompson committed suicide four years later.

Verdict: Absorbing and very well-written memoir. ***1/2. 

LADY IN THE LAKE

Audry Totter and Robert Montgomery's reflection
LADY IN THE LAKE (1946). Director: Robert Montgomery.

Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) submits a short mystery story based on truth to a pulp magazine and is invited in to meet the editor, a woman named Adrienne (Audrey Totter). She is more interested in hiring Marlowe to look for her boss, Derace Kingsby's (Leon Ames), wife, who has supposedly run off with a man named Chris (Dick Simmons of Man with the Steel Whip). This leads into a series of murders and a kind of strange affair between Marlowe and Adrienne, whom the private eye doesn't quite trust. Then he starts tripping over bodies ...

Man in the mirror: Marlowe gets first aid
Lady in the Lake is one of six films directed by star Montgomery, who decided to shoot this as an ill-advised stunt. Except for three brief sequences in which he addresses the camera to move the plot along, Marlowe/Montgomery is only seen in mirrors. While the plot and acting is interesting enough to keep the viewer entertained for most of the film's length, the gimmick gets a little tiresome and one longs for a more traditional approach. Another problem is that Montgomery is miscast as Marlowe (the detective's first name is misspelled as "Phillip"); he's as gruff and obnoxious as the script requires but he doesn't make a convincing Marlowe.

Audrey Totter and Leon Ames
On the other hand, Audrey Totter steals the picture as Adrienne, giving a fascinating and multi-leveled performance, a snarling bitch one minute, a cloying child the next, belting out orders and disdain in equal measure with one hand, and purring kittenishly with the other. She lacks the raw sex appeal of, say, Veronica Lake, but she's extremely effective nevertheless. Leon Ames, Tom Tully [A Kiss for Corliss] as a police captain, and especially Lloyd Nolan [Sergeant Ryker] as a vicious cop are all terrific. Jayne Meadows also has some fine moments, although she isn't always completely convincing in her portrayal. Dick Simmons makes a positive impression as the oddly likable gigolo, Chris.

One has to pay careful attention while watching this picture, because at the end you still may not be certain who did what to whom and why. Raymond Chandler's source novel undoubtedly spelled it out in more detail. In any case, the movie is suspenseful, and there's at least one creepy scene when Marlowe searches inside a bathroom.

Verdict: Watch for Totter if nothing else. **3/4. 

I AM A THIEF

Ricardo Cortez and Mary Astor
I AM A THIEF (1934). Director: Robert Florey.

Jewel robberies have become such frequent occurrences in Paris that the board of the insurance firm Hayle's Ltd figures that post-war adventurers have banded together for the purposes of crime. At an auction for the famous Karenina Diamond necklace, the bidders include Odette (Mary Astor) and Pierre (Ricardo Cortez of The Big Shakedown) who wins the necklace and begins a romance with Odette. The action then switches to the Orient Express, where Odette has followed Pierre when he suddenly takes the train to Istanbul. There are other sinister characters, necklace switches and jewel robberies, and at least one murder on the Orient Express.

Irving Pichel and Astor
I Am a Thief is an entertaining picture that keeps you in suspense because you don't know for quite a while just who is the "thief" of the title, with one never being certain if either Astor or Cortez are "on the side of the angels." Astor, looking comparatively drab, is excellent, as usual, while an amiable Cortez gets by mostly on charm. There are good performances from Irving Pichel [Dick Tracy's G-Men] as Count Trentini; Dudley Digges as Colonel Jackson, who wants to buy the necklace from Pierre; Ferdinand Gottschalk as the little fellow, Cassiet; and Hobart Cavanaugh [Dangerous Blondes] as the insurance man Daudet. Although this has a very different plot, Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express was published the same year. Suspects are gathered in a coach at one point just as in the Christie novel.

Verdict: Smooth, fun picture with good performances. ***.  

SECOND HONEYMOON

Loretta Young and Tyrone Power
SECOND HONEYMOON (1937). Director: Walter Lang.

Vicky Benton (Loretta Young of The Accused) and her second husband Bob (Lyle Talbot of Jail Bait) are on vacation in Florida when they run into Vicky's first husband, Raoul (Tyrone Power), who is still in love with her. Vicky has nagging feelings of affection for Raoul as well, but tries to suppress them. Then Bob is called to New York on business and Vicky stays behind. From the very first frame you know whom Vicky will wind up with, I mean -- Tyrone Power vs Lyle Talbot? If only the audience had been spared sitting through the 80 minutes that it takes for the two leads to realize whom they really wanted to be with.

Ty Power
Second Honeymoon aspires to be a frenetic screwball comedy, but the script is pedestrian, unfunny, and hopeless. Casting very, very skilled comic actors might have helped a bit, but Young, Power and Talbot are not highly skilled comic actors, although they certainly do the best they can with the material, and Talbot isn't quite as dull as usual. Surely Vicky had very good reasons for divorcing Raoul in the first place, but the movie glosses over them -- sex appeal triumphs as usual! Aside from a possible tendency to chase other women, second husband Bob doesn't seem that bad, at least not bad enough to deserve all the derision that is heaped upon him at the end. But he's not as good-looking as Power, so of course the film must make him the scapegoat.

Violet the raccoon goes a callin'
The film has only one laugh, and that is when Violet, Raoul's pet raccoon (given him by Bob) gets loose on an airplane and crawls curiously all over an old lady. Other actors trapped in this cinematic loser include Stuart Erwin as Raoul's valet; Claire Trevor (!) as Vicky's married friend, Marcia; and Marjorie Weaver as Joy, a personality-plus type gal who inexplicably marries Erwin. With her too-big lips and rather out-sized teeth, Young is definitely not as pretty as Power, but at least the raccoon is cute. The DVD of this is beautiful to look out, sharply remastered, but the movie is just pitiful. Mary Treen has a bit role as Joy's friend and co-worker. Walter Lang directed a great many much better movies, including Desk Set.

Verdict: One honeymoon too many. *. 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

FROM VIENNA WITH LOVE: HEDY LAMARR

FROM VIENNA WITH LOVE: HEDY LAMARR.

This week Great Old Movies looks at the beautiful film star Hedy Lamarr (1914 - 2000), reviewing several of her movies as well as a biography written about her. We look at the film that first brought her to international attention, Ecstasy, and later films in which she did fine work, such as H. M. Pulham, Esq. and I Take This Woman. You can learn more of the biographical facts of the lady's life by reading the review of the book below.

Lamarr was often unfairly considered just a gorgeous manikin, but she could act, even if you might not have considered her for a role in, say, O'Neill or Williams. With the right part and director and sympathetic co-stars, she could often be quite adept and effective, and she could play romantic scenes with the best of them. A documentary of her life is entitled Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story and goes into her considerable scientific achievements (she was no dummy). Several of her films have already been reviewed on this blog -- just type in her name in the search bar on the above left and they will come up.



ECSTASY

Hedy Lamarr in her famous nude scene
ECSTASY (aka Ekstase/1933). Director: Gustav Machaty.

Eva (Hedy Kiesler, soon to be known as Hedy Lamarr) marries an older man named Emile (Zvonimir Rogoz) but he proves to be a cold fish. Eva returns to her father (Leopold Kramer) and sues her husband for divorce; Emile is heartbroken. One afternoon Eve takes a nude swim and runs after her horse -- still naked -- where she encounters a handsome engineer named Adam (Aribert Mog). The two fall in love, and an encounter between Adam and Emile leads to tragedy on more than one level.

German hunk Aribert Mog
Ecstasy is best-known as the film that attracted American movie producers to Hedy Lamarr, who caused a bit of a scandal with her nude scenes. First she is seen from the back as she goes into a lake, then there is a shot of full frontal nudity, then the chase after her horse. She is hidden by bushes in subsequent shots, and covers her breasts when she is discovered by an amused Adam. But forget about the nudity, there is so much more to this lovely tone-poem of a movie, which is by no means a sordid melodrama. There is so little dialogue that this is nearly a silent picture, were it not for the beautiful score by Giuseppe Becce, which despite his being Italian-born, is Viennese "schmaltz" at its finest -- intense, romantic, and full of melody, and yes, the Italian influence is also there. The cinematography (by a trio of photographers) is also quite good.

Lamarr and Mog 
Some people can't get into the movie because it's a bit "minimalist," with, as noted, little dialogue and only the broadest of characterizations. But as you are pulled along by the symphonic score, the photography, and the expressive performances of the cast members, it somehow doesn't matter. There is a very touching sequence at a train station, and the wind-up is also moving. There is a sex scene that is powerful and obvious without being graphic. The direction is very good, although Machaty perhaps overdoes the symbolism with the frequent shots of horses and flies. Whatever its flaws, Ecstasy is a worthwhile and very arresting picture. Mog was a popular leading man in Germany who died at 37 fighting the Russians. Gustav Machaty also directed American films such as Jealousy.

Verdict: This Austrio-Czechoslovakian co-production was  Hedy's fifth film and decidedly one of her most interesting and unusual. ***. 

I TAKE THIS WOMAN

Hedy Lamarr
I TAKE THIS WOMAN (1940). Director: W. S. Van Dyke.

"Time wounds all heels." -- Marcesca.

Georgi Gregore (Hedy Lamarr) tries to throw herself off of an ocean liner due to an unhappy love affair, but she is saved by the compassionate Dr. Karl Decker (Spencer Tracy). Georgi is still dealing with her feelings for the married Phil Mayberry (Kent Taylor), when she gets involved with Karl -- who works at a clinic for low-income patients -- and marries him. But trouble begins when Karl joins a practice that caters to the wealthy, and Georgi runs into her ex-lover, Phil, once more. Can this marriage be saved?

Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr
When I Take This Woman was first released, it came in for a mostly critical drubbing, and over the years has been considered a very bad picture starring a completely mis-matched Tracy and Lamarr. In actual truth, while the film is certainly not excellent, and at one point begins to rip off The Citadel, it is entertaining and very well-acted, with Tracy and Lamarr  playing very well together and making a very convincing romantic couple. In addition we've got some good work from Verree Teasdale as Georgi's effervescent friend, Marcesca, Kent Taylor as Phil, and Mona Barrie [Something to Sing About] as his bitter, heart-broken wife. Laraine Day, Louis Calhern, Frances Drake, and Paul Cavanagh also have notable supporting parts, along with Marjorie Main, Willie Best, Reed Hadley [Racket Squad], Don Castle [Roses are Red], and others.

I Take This Woman, alas, makes the mistake of trying to ape Frank Capra, throwing in a final scene that is sentimental in the wrong way and unconvincing. But the picture is still easy to take, Lamarr looks stunning, and the performances by both stars are quite memorable.

Verdict: Tracy and Lamarr make a better team than you might imagine. **3/4. 

H. M. PULHAM, ESQ.

Hedy Lamarr and Robert Young
H. M. PULHAM, ESQ. (1941). Director: King Vidor. Based on a novel by John P. Marquand.

Harry Pulham (Robert Young), a successful businessman with a mansion, wife and children, thinks back on his life and remembers the woman he fell in love with but didn't marry twenty years earlier. The oddly named Marvin Myles (Hedy Lamarr) is another copy writer in a firm where the young Harry is employed, and the two gradually fall in love. But Marvin is too independent to want to be a proper Bostonian wife, and Harry eventually marries someone else. Thinking that his marriage to wife Kay (Ruth Hussey) has been a failure, he goes to see Marvin again ...

Paging Marcus Welby? Robert Young
H. M. Pulham, Esq. has several notable features: an excellent performance by Hedy Lamarr [Algiers], which is generally considered the best of her career; a very good performance from Young [Honolulu], who seems superficial and miscast at first but handles subsequent scenes beautifully; a memorable supporting cast which includes Charles Coburn and Fay Holden as Harry's parents, Van Heflin as his buddy, and Hussey as his wife; and a truly lovely ending which explains the whole point and purpose of an enduring marriage between two people. Bronislau Kaper's [Them] score is also of note, as is King Vidor\s direction. In a two-shot with Young and Lamarr she leans back and falls into shadow, forecasting her eventual disappearance from his life.

Verdict: Interesting study of one man's life and loves. ***.

LET'S LIVE A LITTLE

Hedy Lamarr
LET'S LIVE A LITTLE (1948). Director: Richard Wallace.

Advertising man Duke Crawford (Robert Cummings) is fed up with women after dealing with his ex-fiancee Michelle Bennett (Anna Sten), a cosmetics queen. Michelle insists upon acting as if the two were still engaged, and Duke desperately needs her to sign a contract. Hoping for a male client, Duke decides to do publicity for a shrink who's written a book, but Dr. J. O. Loring (Hedy Lamarr) turns out to be a woman -- and what a woman! Finding Duke nervous and excitable, Dr. Loring takes him on as a patient, which does not sit well with her boyfriend, Dr. Field (Robert Shayne). Which woman will Duke ultimately wind up with?

Anna Sten and Hedy Lamarr
If Let's Live a Little works at all it is strictly because of the actors, all of whom give very good performances, but they are certainly let down by a script that strains to be funny. The screenwriter even resorts to using a variation of an old Marx Brothers line, with Duke telling Michelle "If I held you any tighter I'd be in back of you." A scene when the two rivals for Duke's affections sit at the same nightclub table could have been witty and scintillating, but falls flat instead. Most of the very few amusing moments in the picture are provided by Cummings, who is at home in this kind of material, whereas he was always miscast in dramas and suspense films. Lamarr is adept, and along with Sten and Shayne there are nice turns by Mary Treen [Swing Parade of 1946] as Duke's secretary and Norma Varden [Witness for the Prosecution] as Loring's nurse. Ernest Laszlo insures that gorgeous Lamarr looks luminescent throughout. Richard Wallace also directed Kiss and Tell.

Verdict: The actors try mightily to put this over but the material just isn't there. *1/2. 

A LADY WITHOUT PASSPORT

Hedy Lamarr
A LADY WITHOUT PASSPORT (1950). Director: Joseph H. Lewis.

Peter Karczag (John Hodiak of Lifeboat) is an immigration officer assigned to Havana, where he pretends to be a man named Josef Gombush. Peter is hoping to get the goods on Palinov (George Macready), who illegally gets people out of Cuba. One of the hopefuls is Marianne Loress (Hedy Lamarr), who is desperate to get back to the United States. Things are complicated when Peter and Marianne meet and fall for one another. Palinov takes Marianne and others on a flight to Florida and Peter follows ...

John Hodiak and Hedy Lamarr
A Lady Without Passport cobbles together elements from other and better movies and comes up with ... nothing. The movie proceeds without ever engaging our sympathies or even much interest for the cardboard characters on display. Although the actors do the best they can, none of them -- not even the formidable George Macready of Gilda -- can bring them to life. There is little if any action until the final minute or so, and it isn't worth waiting for. The movie is short, but not short enough. James Craig is a colleague of Peter's and Steven Hill of Mission: Impossible fame plays another fed.

Verdict: You can hardly wait until it's over. *.

BEAUTIFUL: THE LIFE OF HEDY LAMARR

BEAUTIFUL: THE LIFE OF HEDY LAMARR. Stephen Michael Shearer. St, Martin's; 2010.

This excellent biography scrutinizes the life and career of one of the world's most beautiful women, Hedy Lamarr, who was an Austrian-born Jew and came to the U.S. before the outbreak of WW2. She caused a sensation with a nude scene in the German-language Ecstasy, then made her first movie in Hollywood with Charles Boyer as her leading man: Algiers. Lamarr may not have been an acting genius but she was talented, and gave some perfectly convincing performances in many of her movies, which included The Strange Woman, Samson and DelilahCrossroads, and White Cargo wherein she famously played the sexy Tondelayo. As for her private life, she had six unsuccessful marriages which had an emotional and financial cost on her and her husbands, numerous boyfriends, and in her later years was immersed in several lawsuits -- in addition to her repeatedly claiming that her expensive jewelry had been stolen -- and more than one arrest for shoplifting. Without the "protection" of the studio system, Lamarr got involved in often disastrous foreign productions, and playing Joan of Arc in Irwin Allen's Story of Mankind did her no good whatsoever. She also got a reputation for being "difficult" at times. Her last film was The Female Animal in 1958, in which John Gavin was replaced by George Nader, who was a better actor. Lamarr got back in the spotlight in her later years when it was revealed that she and composer Georges Antheil had developed technology that eventually led into the creation of cell phones and the like. (For more on this, see the documentary Bombshell.) Lamarr had two natural children, and adopted one boy that she didn't have much to do with in later years. Lamarr was furious about the publication of her ghost-written autobiography, "Ecstasy and Me," failing to vet the book and discovering it portrayed her as a nymphomaniac who had sex with both men and woman. (Shearer states that no evidence of lesbian affairs has ever been uncovered, not that any sophisticated person would care.) Beautiful is a well-researched, very well-written biography that is understanding of its subject without glossing over any of her flaws. Shearer is also the author of the similarly worthwhile "Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life." "Beautiful" would make a good mini-series, if only there was a modern-day actress would could play Lamarr!

Verdict: Excellent bio! ****. 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

GOODFELLAS

Lorraine Bracco and Ray Liotta
GOODFELLAS (1990). Director: Martin Scorsese.

As a boy Henry Hill (Christopher Serrone) admires the mobsters in the neighborhood who play by their own rules (unlike the "suckers") and goes to work for them. As an adult, Henry (Ray Liotta of The Son of No One) realizes he can only go so far because he is part Irish and not full Italian. In spite of this, he makes lots of money and marries a dead-common but feisty gal named Karen (Lorraine Bracco). Henry reports to Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) but his main pals and associates are Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and the psychotic Tommy DeVito (Oscar-winning Joe Pesci). Henry risks Paulie's wrath when he goes against his orders and gets into the drug trafficking business ... 

Paul Sorvino
One thing you have to say about Goodfellas: it is not a dull movie and it is very well-acted by the entire cast. Although many mob films seem to glamorize the mafia, only an idiot can look at this movie and envy the gross lives of the characters who may for a time live in beautiful homes and have lots of moola but generally wind up dead or with long, long jail sentences. While I've no doubt much of the film, based on Nicholas Pileggi's Wiseguy (from Hill's recollections) is true, I also wouldn't doubt that Hill made himself out to be "nicer" than other mobsters and did his best to add to the alleged "glory" of his slimy legend. Entering the witness protection program (from which he was later thrown out), he became a minor celebrity for morons.

Robert De Niro
Goodfellas is undeniably entertaining and well-done, but one has to remember that its basic story -- the rise of a young man in the rackets -- is as old as the hills. The film offers an inside look into the stories of repellent low lives, but Goodfellas doesn't really have any more depth than, say, 1961's Portrait of a Mobster. Of course, when the lead character is a reptile like Hill you can hardly expect much humanism. Goodfellas is completely absorbing, but it's also depressing. Scorsese, De Niro, and Pesci all collaborated on Raging Bull ten years earlier.

Verdict: There really is no honor among thieves. ***. 

HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE

Jack Lemmon and Terry Thomas
HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE (1965). Director: Richard Quine.

Confirmed bachelor Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon), the very successful writer-artist of a popular newspaper strip, Brash Brannigan -- Secret Agent, lives in a fabulous Manhattan townhouse with his devoted butler/houseman Charles (Terry-Thomas of The Vault of Horror). One night at a bachelor party for a friend, Stanley gets drunk and wakes up in the morning married to a stranger (Virna Lisi) who speaks only Italian and turns out to be the gal who jumped out of the cake. With the help of his lawyer Harold (Eddie Mayehoff of Off-Limits) and his wife, Edna (Claire Trevor of The Velvet Touch), Mrs. Ford begins taking over the house, the kitchen, and threatens to fly her mother in from Italy. When Charles quits in disgust, Stanley decides it's time to take action. But when he kills off Brash's wife in the comic strip and the real Mrs. Ford disappears, he finds himself in very hot water ...

Jack Lemmon and Eddie Mayehoff
The first thing that must be said about How to Murder Your Wife is that in the style of many films of the sixties it is outrageously misogynistic. Sure there are men who resent their wives' interference in their lives and miss their bachelor days, but the thesis of George Axlerod's incredibly sexist screenplay is that all men hate married life, every wife is a battle axe (despite the fact that Mrs. Ford seems like an ideal spouse in many ways) and if men could only push a button to get rid of them they would all do so with glee. The film not only ignores all the men who are perfectly happy with their spouses, but all the women who have had to put up with horrible husbands, not to mention the sexism many women have had to endure even before the days of #metoo.  True, How to Murder Your Wife is not supposed to be taken seriously, but even so! A courtroom scene is staggeringly -- even shockingly -- chauvinistic.

Mary Wickes, Lemmon, Claire Trevor
On the other hand, despite this major problem, the movie is often very funny, bolstered by fine performances from the entire cast. Mary Wickes even manages to practically steal a scene when she's playing Harold's secretary and gets drunk on champagne. Sidney Blackmer is also notable as the drunken Judge Blackstone, as is Jack Albertson as Stanley's doctor. One might wonder why Stanley almost seems to cringe whenever his sexy wife gets affectionate, even if the ending suggests that it is sex -- certainly not love -- that makes him decide that he may prefer to stay married. In other words, the only way to enjoy this movie -- and it is enjoyable -- is to recognize its dated qualities and take it on its own terms. The funny thing about misogynous males is that they want women for sex and nothing else, but develop the screaming mimis if anyone dares suggest they might prefer the more-than-company of other guys, but then there's always been a link between sexism and homophobia.

Verdict: Women-hatred at its worst, but with a few chuckles and adept performances. **3/4. 

HOLLYWOOD MADONNA: LORETTA YOUNG

HOLLYWOOD MADONNA: LORETTA YOUNG. Bernard F. Dick. University Press of Mississippi; 2011.

This career study posing as a biography briefly looks at Young's early days, then documents the movies she made on her way up [Platinum BlondeThe Hatchet Man; Wife, Husband and Friend], before emerging as the major star of such films as Orson Welles' The Stranger and Rachel and the Stranger with William Holden. In her last days of movie stardom, she began to appear in such "B" movies as The Accused and Paula, before she accepted it was time to throw in the towel and flee for television. There she had the successful Loretta Young Show for several seasons, an anthology in which she played various parts with well-known co-stars. When she got tired of that she tried to reinvent herself as a sitcom star, but The New Loretta Young Show, in which she played a widow with several children, only lasted one season. Young had no desire to go the fright flick route a la Davis and Crawford, which is one reason why she is not an icon today. She did sign to star in the prime time reboot of Dark Shadows, but backed out (as did Joan Fontaine after her), with the role eventually going to Jean Simmons. Two late-in-life telefilms years later capped her career, but she spent most of her time devoted to her Catholic faith and in humanitarian works. Her first husband was the actor Grant Withers [Jungle Jim serial], and both of her sisters were also actors, Polly Ann Young and Sally Blane [She Had to Choose].

Frankly, most fans find more fun and fascination in the "bad girls" such as Davis, with Young -- if she's thought of at all today -- as the somewhat sanctimonious hypocrite who had a child out of wedlock with the married Clark Gable, then didn't tell her daughter the truth of her birth for many decades. At times Young almost seems demented in her piousness. The shame of it is that whatever you think of Young's character or private life, she was a very good actress and gave strong performances in many movies. This book, however, doesn't delve into her true character that much; there are few if any back stage anecdotes or interviews, and it's hard for the reader to get a true sense of just what the woman was like. On the other hand, author Dick does examine her career with thoroughness, even devoting a chapter to her radio appearances wherein she reprised her performances in some of her movies and took on other actress's movie roles as well.

Verdict: Superficial as biography, but worthwhile as career study with some biographical details. ***. 

BUSTER AND BILLIE

Jan-Michael Vincent
BUSTER AND BILLIE (1974). Director: Daniel Petrie.

In 1948 Georgia, handsome and popular teen Buster Lane (Jan-Michael Vincent) is engaged to one of the high school's prettiest gals, Margie (Pamela Sue Martin). Margie, however, won't "put out," so Buster decides to try a date with the town tramp, a shy young lady named Billie Jo (Joan Goodfellow). Although Buster's primary interest in the girl is sex, he develops tender feelings for her, breaking off his engagement and defying the town's attitude towards this gal of easy virtue. Unfortunately, the two are headed down a tragic path ...

Joan Goodfellow
I really wanted to love this ill-fated romance, which I haven't seen since it was released in '74, but it just isn't as convincing as it needs to be. Vincent offers a very good performance, showing the sensitive man inside the brash youth, but Goodfellow is weak, and the script doesn't help to develop her character so that we can really care about what happens to her. Buster's switch from Margie to Billie Jo happens so abruptly that you might wonder how the man who cares for Billie Jo despite everyone's opinions of her can be the same man who so suddenly, almost cruelly, breaks things off with his fiancee. Most of the supporting characters in the film are fairly shadowy. One of the more interesting characters, Buster's friend "Whitey," is well-played by Robert Englund of Freddy Krueger fame. There's some nice music by Al De Lory.

Verdict: Lots of possibilities in this, but it never really catches fire. **1/2. 

DEADLY BLESSING

DEADLY BLESSING (1981). Director: Wes Craven.

Thrown out of his Hittite community for marrying a non-believer, Jim Schmidt (Douglas Barr) farms his land with his wife, Martha (Marin Jensen). After he is killed in a strange tractor accident, Martha is visited by two close friends, Lana (Sharon Stone) and Vicky (Susan Buckner), both of whom have unpleasant encounters with the pious Hittite leader (and Jim's father), Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine). But there are other forces leveled against the women that they may be unprepared to deal with ...

A tarantula wants to make nice with Sharon Stone, who's having none of it
Deadly Blessing has some interesting things in it, but its script is disjointed and illogical. Wes Craven's direction shows no great skill -- although the snake in the bath tub is memorable, and was later sort of re-used in Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street -- and much of the acting is insufficient. Sharon Stone [Total Recall] is so mediocre that you would have imagined she'd wind up in one or two slasher films and then settle in as a salesgirl at Mrs. Field's Cookies. Marin Jensen is not much better, and Borgnine's performance borders on caricature. Susan Buckner makes a more favorable impression, as do Doug Barr and Jeff East [Pumpkinhead] as his sympathetic younger brother. Lisa Hartman is given one of the most embarrassing debuts since Jean Arless in Homicidal, and Lois Nettleton [Butterfly] certainly deserves much better material.

Marty gets religion: Ernest Borgnine
One female character in the film has a secret, but whether it's that she's really male, transsexual, or a hermaphrodite isn't made clear. There's a fast-moving "cat fight" at the end of the film. James Horner's score liberally borrows from Bernard Herrmann and especially Jerry Goldsmith, to an almost comical degree. With a tighter script and better direction, Deadly Blessing might have been a contender, but no dice. Former model Maren Jensen had few credits; this was her last feature film; Buckner's as well.

Verdict: Silly and oddball in the wrong way. **. 

EX-LADY

Bette Davis and Gene Raymond
EX-LADY (1933). Director: Robert Florey.

Commercial artist Helen Bauer (Bette Davis of Deception) doesn't like the idea of marriage even if her boyfriend is Don Peterson (Gene Raymond of Hit the Deck), the handsome head of a small advertising agency. Nevertheless, after some hesitation the two decide to get hitched, only Helen is convinced that this has spoiled things, only creating jealousy and hurt feelings. They decide to live separately and make dates, even with other people. Don dallies with Peggy (Kay Strozzi), who is married to a man who makes boilers, while Helen goes out with the oily Nick  Malvyn (Monroe Owsley of The Keyhole). But will this arrangement really work in the long run?

Bette Davis and Monroe Owsley
Ex-Lady is an odd pre-code movie that tries to be daring but amounts to very little, daring or otherwise. The only really good points are the performances of Davis and Raymond, who are attractive and charming and play very well together. Helen seems like a confused woman who doesn't know what she wants, and she isn't much addicted to logic. She seems to believe that only a wife can be jealous, but there are many girlfriends and fiancees who would beg to differ. When she and Don choose to have (rather chaste) "affairs," their partners are not nearly as attractive as they are. Frank McHugh plays a poetic urbane type instead of his usual schnook, and although he doesn't quite pull it off, he does suggest that he could have had success with a wider variety of roles.

uncredited opera singer 
At least there are a couple of snappy musical numbers, one playing on the radio at Nick's apartment and the other performed by a group with a dancer in a Havana nightclub. This scene ends with Helen and Don, on their honeymoon, collapsing out of frame into a chair as the dancer sways seductively at the top of the frame. And we mustn't forget the uncredited woman who sings a bit of opera at a party. Although I believe the audience is supposed to think she's awful, she actually doesn't have a bad voice. All in all, despite the welcome touches of early feminist attitudes, this is just another unmemorable early Bette Davis movie, the kind that almost sank her career before it really got started.

Verdict: Bette is always interesting; the picture less so. **. 

GOOD NEW MOVIE: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -- FALLOUT

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -- FALLOUT (2018). Director: Christopher McQuarrie.

"We need people who care about the one life as much as they do about the millions."

This picture is sort of a sequel to the last MI film Rogue Nation, as villains and supporting characters from that film are re-introduced. Frankly, the first half of this movie just seems like one long, somewhat confusing chase scene with so many characters and factions that you need a scorecard, but none of that really matters, because in the second half the film really gets going. The set-up has Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his Impossible Missions team attempting to disarm two nuclear bombs in India, but they not only have to find the bombs -- which are linked together in a non-physical sense-- but get the detonator from the bad guy so everything that needs to be done can be done at the precise instant required. Naturally there are all sorts of complications, with one creep trying to keep the team away from the bombs even as Ethan flies off in a helicopter after the man with the detonator. This leads into a copter battle in mid-air and a tense, exciting climax with the two opponents clashing high on top of a mountain. True, there is nothing here that hasn't been seen before, but it is nevertheless very well done.

Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill
The best thing about MI -- Fallout is the stunt work, with Cruise doing his own amazing stunts (one cast member never knew if Cruise would even be alive the next day; he broke his ankle at one point). I can see risking your life if you'\re really going to prevent a nuclear bomb from going off, but for a movie it seems a little foolhardy. However, Cruise, who is showing his age and beginning to resemble Dustin Hoffman, clearly wants to give his fans a big thrill and prove he's still "got it." This is Cruise's picture all the way, but he gets some good support from Henry Cavill [Man of Steel] , underplaying as a suspect American agent. Alec Baldwin [Blue Jasmine] offers his customary effective performance as the Secretary of State while Angela Bassett as a CIA chief is in bust-ass mode throughout.

Alec Baldwin and Cruise
Hunt is an admirable character, but I had to laugh when someone who worked on the film suggested that he's not a super-hero, but an ordinary guy. Sure, like James Bond is an "ordinary" guy.  Dodging bullets, surviving car and copter crashes against "impossible" odds, Hunt is as much a super-hero as Batman. As entertaining as this movie is, however, it and the other films in the series never achieve that classy, action-elegant level of the best of the James Bond movies. Younger viewers are more impressed by movies like this because they haven't seen as much to compare it with.

Verdict: If you liked the other MI movies you'll probably enjoy this one but you'll also forget it before you've even left the theater. ***.