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


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. 


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. 


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. ***. 


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. 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


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.***. 


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. 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. 


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. 



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.