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

Thursday, January 23, 2020

COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA

Oscar-winning Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster
COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA (1952). Director: Daniel Mann. Based on the play by William Inge.

"You didn't know I'd get old and fat and sloppy, but I didn't know it, either." -- Lola to Doc.

Lola Delaney (Shirley Booth) is a housewife who is always afraid that her husband, a chiropractor named Doc (Burt Lancaster), will fall off the wagon again. The couple got married years ago when Lola got pregnant, but she lost the baby, and fears that her husband feels trapped and disappointed with life and marriage. Doc does, of course, but he has a bond with Lola, although trouble appears when they take in a pretty young boarder named Marie (Terry Moore of Peyton Place). Marie becomes a symbol to Doc of lost youth and opportunity, just as Lola's old dog, Sheba (who probably ran away to die), is a symbol of her own faded dreams. When Doc comes to believe that Marie is not the sweet innocent he thought she was, he can't resist going to the bottle ...

Richard Jaeckel and Terry Moore
Shirley Booth played the role on the stage, and it would have been criminal for her not to repeat her part on the screen (she won a well-deserved Oscar for it). As she was not seen as being sufficiently box office, Lancaster was secured for the leading male role. Although Doc was always meant to be an older man, Lancaster is not as miscast as you might imagine. He's quite good, in fact, if not up to Booth. (One has to remember that Lola has become chubby and slovenly over the years, and there have been many cases of couples in which the husband is better-looking, or at least in better shape, then the wife.) Terry Moore also does some nice work, as do Richard Jaeckel [The Dark] as a football hero she dallies with and Richard Kelley as her fiance, Bruce. There are other good character performances in the film as well, including Lisa Golm's [Anna Lucasta] as a sympathetic German neighbor.

Terry Moore and Burt Lancaster
Come Back, Little Sheba is full of lovely and sad touches, such as Lola's phone conversation with her mother, when she desperately wants to come home for awhile, but her father, who has never forgiven her for past indiscretions, won't allow it. An amusing moment occurs when Lola tells Doc that she'll prepare him a hot meal if he comes home for lunch, but the "hot meal" turns out to be cottage cheese and buttermilk! The film is well-directed by Daniel Mann, and there's a nice score by Franz Waxman.

NOTE: I could only get a few minutes into a 1977 TV version of the play in which, incredibly, Laurence Olivier is even more miscast (and less effective) than Lancaster, and Joanne Woodward, also miscast, doesn't come even close to approximating Booth's genius. Booth had a pixilated, almost pathetic quality that made her just perfect for Lola.

Verdict: "Some things should never get old" -- A strong and touching drama. ***1/2. 

SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS

Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty
SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961). Director: Elia Kazan. Original screenplay by William Inge.

In 1928 Kansas high school students Wilma Loomis (Natalie Wood) and Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) are a couple, although they come from opposite sides of the tracks. Bud's father is a wealthy brewer while Wilma's family is of more modest means. Bud's hormones are really kicking in, but he knows Wilma is not the kind of girl who would want to go "all the way." Wilma's mother (Audrey Christie) assures her daughter that sex is just something that women "have to put up with." Bud's father (Pat Hingle) suggests that he get , in essence, a "bad girl" to satisfy him while continuing his relationship with Wilma, but instead Bud thinks it's best to break things off with Wilma -- this decision has unfortunate consequences.

Pat Hingle and Warren Beatty
I have to confess that when I was finished watching Splendor I had to wonder why it is so acclaimed. I think the main reason is that the film has a great, well-played and moving ending that sent moviegoers home happy. It's just that the rest of the film is well ... odd. I must say Natalie Wood gives a very good performance, although I'm not certain she quite gets across the emotional fragility of the character which might explain some of the things that happen to her. In his first film role, Beatty is acceptable, but he's too old for the part -- he was 24 at the time of filming -- and while good-looking enough, in some shots he just looks weird. I found Audrey Christie merely annoying as Wood's mother, although Hingle was better as Beatty's dad. One of the worst-played scenes in the movie is a scene in an alley when Beatty is shown his father's corpse.

William Inge
There are some good supporting performances in the film: Barbara Loden as Bud's free-wheelin' sister, Virginia; the ever-strange Zohra Lampert as a waitress Bud meets in college (going from Wood to Lampert is sort of like going from the sublime to the ridiculous!); the even-stranger Sandy Dennis as a classmate of Wilma's; Gary Lockwood [The Magic Sword] as a handsome boy who goes out on a date with Wilma with unfortunate results; Jan Norris as "bad girl" Juanita; Joanna Roos as Bud's somewhat overwhelmed and neglected mother; Charles Robinson [Brotherhood of Satan] as Wilma's more-than-friend, Johnny; and others. William Inge, whose screenplay was not based on one of his stage works, even appears briefly as a minister -- a former actor, he's fine. Of all people, Phyllis Diller [The Fat Spy] shows up in a New Year's Eve scene as Texas Guinan, making tasteless jokes about the stock market crash suicides.

From the sublime to the ridiculous? Zohra Lampert
Splendor is mostly about S-E-X, but it's also about romantic longing and the hatred that children often feel for their own parents. I'm not certain that, when all is said and done, Inge was able to lift the movie that much above the soap opera level, as some of the characters are stereotypes and not as well-developed as they could have been. A self-hating homosexual in real life -- one can't call him gay as he was not self-accepting -- Inge nevertheless understood the universality of romantic and sexual feelings just as his contemporary Tennessee Williams did. NOTE: The title comes from a Wordsworth poem.

Verdict: Some lovely things in this movie, yet ... **1/2. 

THE STRIPPER

Richard Beymer and Joanne Woodward
THE STRIPPER (1963). Director: Franklin J. Schaffner. Based on the stage play "A Loss of Roses" by William Inge.

Along with her associates in a traveling magic act, Lila Green (Joanne Woodward) comes to the town where she lived as a child, but then is stranded when her boyfriend, Ricky (Robert Webber), runs off to greener pastures with all of their cash. Lila gets a room with a widow, Helen (Claire Trevor), who was her neighbor years ago, and who has a grown son named Kenny (Richard Beymer). Kenny and Lila develop an undeniable attraction to one another, but considering the age difference -- Woodward was eight years older than Beymer -- and everything else, Lila is afraid of being hurt and lonely once again. Then Ricky comes back into her life with a proposition ...

Claire Trevor and Richard Beymer
The Stripper is a lovely and absorbing film with three excellent lead performances. Although never considered a great beauty as such, Woodward [From the Terrace] has never looked better and she is excellent as Lila. (Marilyn Monroe, who was superb in the film adaptation of Inge's Bus Stop and was four years older than Woodward, might have been considered for this role had she not died tragically the previous year.) Beymer [Five Finger Exercise] gives a sensitive and intelligent performance as well, and Trevor [The Velvet Touch] is as adept as ever. Webber makes a very effective slime ball, and others in the cast include Gypsy Rose Lee and the odd Louis Nye as his associates (neither of them are especially memorable) and Carol Lynley, who makes a nice impression as a neighbor who has a crush on Beymer. Michael J. Pollard brings his own brand of quirkiness as a strange buddy of Kenny's who seems to have a thing for Lila but gets nowhere with her. The film could have used more scenes depicting the growing relationship between Kenny and Lila, but otherwise this is a very good movie.

Verdict: Strong cast and interesting situations add up to a memorable picture. ***1/2. 

BUS RILEY'S BACK IN TOWN

BUS RILEY'S BACK IN TOWN (1965). Director: Harvey Hart. Screenplay by William Inge, writing as "Walter Gage."

Bus Riley (Michael Parks of Kill Bill) has spent three years as a sailor and now has come back to his small town and his family, which consists of his mother (Jocelyn Brando) and two sisters, worshipful Gussie (Kim Darby) and disdainful Paula (Mimsy Farmer of Four Flies on Grey Velvet). Also in the household is a boarder named Carlotta (Brett Somers), who objects to Bus' noisy presence. Bus discovers that his old sweetheart Laurel (Ann-Margret) is married to a wealthy older man, but bored and childish, she won't leave him alone. Bus had planned for a career as an assistant mortician, but that doesn't work out when lonely and middle-aged Spencer (Crahan Denton) -- who runs the funeral parlor with his no-nonsense mother (Ethel Griffies) -- wants Bus to move in with him and all that implies. Bus gets a job selling a house disinfectant device to lonely housewives while dallying with Laurel, but a neighbor girl named Judy (Janet Margolin) also catches his attention, especially after a tragedy in her family. But will Bus have the strength to cut all ties with selfish Laurel?

Michael Parks
Bus Riley's Back in Town started out as a short play by William Inge, who turned it into a screenplay, then was dismayed when changes to the script were made to accommodate Ann-Margret (who later claimed that she didn't care for the changes either). So dissatisfied was Inge that he used the name "Walter Gage" instead of his own. I don't know what the screenplay was like before it was changed, but Bus Riley comes off mostly like warmed-over Inge, with snatches of Picnic and other plays,  For instance, in both movies we've got a widow with two daughters who takes in boarders, one of whom is a neurotic spinster, not to mention a handsome hero who ignites sexual interest in many.

Ann-Margret
As for the actors, most of them are so good that you wish they had been given better material. This includes Brett Somers, whose part seems to have been cut to the bone; Kim Darby, whose feelings for her brother seem to border on the incestuous; Griffies and Denton as mother and son; Alice Pearce as a potential customer; and Janet Margolin in a sensitive turn as Judy, among others. As for Ann-Margaret, her appearance does not really unbalance the movie as some have suggested, and I happen to think that she's excellent in the film. Her sex-kitten mode is completely appropriate for her part, and she runs with it, out-acting Parks, whose James Dean impressions do little to suggest that the chief reason for casting him wasn't his considerable sex appeal. Both he and Ann-Margret are, in a word, voluptuous.

Margolin, Parks and Denton
An interesting aspect to the film is its pre-Stonewall treatment of homosexuality. One could argue that mortician Spencer is almost guilty of a form of harassment when he makes his suggestion to Bus (although he places his hands nowhere besides Bus' knee), but the man comes off as more desperate and pathetic than anything else. Bus doesn't get angry, but he is clearly disillusioned and simply walks out of the room. Later, at a minor character's funeral, he is friendly to Spencer and vice versa but it is, of course, awkward, and he excuses himself quickly. Inge himself was a deeply closeted homosexual man.

Michael Parks
For a time the star build-up certainly worked for Ann-Margret, but Parks' period of movie stardom was very brief, with him returning to television where he started with Then Came Bronson. He managed to amass 145 credits, however, and had a successful career by any standard, although mega-stardom eluded him. As for Bus Riley it got a surprisingly good review from the New York Times at the time of the film's release, but other reviews were mixed. It is probably the weakest of the films inspired by Inge's work. Harvey Hart also directed Dark Intruder.

Verdict: Inge Lite. **1/2. 

A LIFE OF WILLIAM INGE: THE STRAINS OF TRIUMPH

A LIFE OF WILLIAM INGE: The Strains of Triumph. Ralph F. Voss. 1989; University Press of Kansas.

William Inge wrote several noteworthy plays -- Come Back, Little Sheba; Picnic; Bus Stop -- which were also made into excellent motion pictures. He also did an original screenplay for Splendor in the Grass, for which he won an Oscar, as well as the screenplay for All Fall Down. The Stripper was based on his unsuccessful play A Loss of Roses, and one of his one-acts was turned into Bus Riley's Back in Town, a film he later discredited. This in-depth biography looks at Inges' early years growing up in Kansas, his relationships with other family members, his struggles to find success as first an actor and then a playwright, his early Broadway successes, his friendship and rivalry with Tennessee Williams. his negative feelings about his homosexuality, and the post-success periods of the sixties and seventies in which nothing he wrote seemed to work and he tried much too hard to be hip and trendy. Inge's problem wasn't that he was gay, but that he couldn't accept it. He attended AA meanings with the writer Charles Jackson, a fellow self-hater and alcoholic, which was like the blind leading the blind. Inge's internalized homophobia probably reached its nadir in his 1965 play Where's Daddy? which was put out of its misery after only 21 performances. In this the main character, "Pinky Pinkerton," is a gay man who seduces teenage boys and tries to convince one of them to, in essence, go straight with a wife and kid! Inge lived to see Stonewall, but author Voss does not record Inge's reaction to it, if indeed he had one. Despite Inge's negative feelings about himself, he was a gifted playwright who managed to craft works that still resonate and that are still being produced today. This biography, while not without flaws and perhaps with too much (and conversely too little) preoccupation with his sexuality, gives Inge his due as both a man and an artist.

Verdict:  Insightful and absorbing biography of a great playwright. ***1/2. 

Thursday, January 9, 2020

THE CHAMPAGNE MURDERS

Yvonne Furrneaux and Anthony Perkins
THE CHAMPAGNE MURDERS (aka Le scandale/1967). Director: Claude Chabrol.

Christine Belling (Yvonne Furneaux of The Death Ray Mirror of Dr. Mabuse) has not only acquired the majority of shares in the Wagner champagne business -- probably due to her late father's business tactics -- but a gigolo husband named Christopher (Anthony Perkins). Christopher's buddy, Paul Wagner (Maurice Ronet), who introduced him to his wife, still controls the name of the champagne company, a name that Christine desperately wants to own. Things take a strange turn when a drunk Paul wakes up more than once to find a woman's corpse nearby. Has he gone mad or is somebody framing him?

Maurice Ronet
The Champagne Murders is an arresting enough but very odd movie that holds the attention despite the leisurely pacing and almost episodic nature of the first three quarters of the film. Although this is a post-Psycho movie and Chabrol was a great Hitchcock admirer, the murders in this all happen off-screen -- there are no grisly details or cinematic pyrotechnics. Then the whole thing is topped off with a twist that some viewers may have seen coming while others may be merely confused. The final sequence of the film is lifted a bit from The Big Knife but is undeniably effective.

Christine and her maid
As to the performers -- which include Furneaux and Ronet as well as Stephane Audran, Henry Jones [Deathtrap], and Suzanne Lloyd -- everyone is on target with the exception of Perkins, who is badly miscast as the gigolo and doesn't seem to have any real idea how to play the part. Chabrol probably figured that having a well-known American actor in the role would increase box office in the U.S., but it also compromised his movie. Still, there's something about the picture that keeps you hooked, and while there are things about it that may not seem to make sense, if you think about it a bit it works -- well, except for at least one sequence that makes absolutely no sense once you know the big reveal at the end --  although one could easily argue that (considering the thin characterizations) the movie would have worked even better as a gorier and more violent type of French-style giallo movie.

Verdict: You may be scratching your head at the conclusion, but it's still entertaining and Ronet is compelling. ***. 

MA AND PA KETTLE BACK ON THE FARM

Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride
MA AND PA KETTLE BACK ON THE FARM (1951). Director: Edward Sedgwick.

Ma: "You're lazier than that hound dog we used to have."
Pa: "Which one?"
Ma: "The one who used to lean against the wall when she barked."

Ma and Pa Kettle (Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride) are back on the farm with their brood when Pa finds out "Mrs. Kettle" is pregnant. This of course, is his daughter-in-law Kim (Meg Randall), but Pa thinks his wife is going to deliver her sixteenth child! Once that is straightened out, the Kettles have to deal with Kim's parents. Her father, Jonathan (Ray Collins of Perry Mason) is a good sport but his wife, Elizabeth (Barbara Brown), is a termagant who wants her own way or else as far as her grandchild is concerned. Ma almost comes to blows with the woman, and does give a shove to the prune-faced nurse that is hired to look after the new arrival. Then there's the possibility that the Kettles' old property may be layered with uranium,

Bedroom hijinks with the Kettles
This third film featuring Main and Kilbride, who are absolutely wonderful, is as funny as the last one, with amusing dialogue and situations. One could argue that the flick is full of time-worn comedy devices, such as a frantic race in a car to catch a train and so on, but these things are still amusing, especially with Main and Kilbride on hand to liven things up. There's a great bit where Ma and Pa show pal Billy Reed (Emory Parnell) their own brand of arithmetic, which, incredibly, makes perfect sense as far as the Kettles are concerned. Richard Long is back as Tom Kettle, and Teddy Hart and Oliver Blake make a couple of politically incorrect but comical Indians.

Verdict: Lots of fun! ***.

LET 'EM HAVE IT

Richard Arlen with Bruce Cabot in the background
LET 'EM HAVE IT (1935). Director: Sam Wood.

Federal agents Mal Stevens (Richard Arlen), Van Rensseler (Harvey Stephens), and Tex Logan (Gordon Jones of The Green Hornet) are up against a formidable foe in Joe Keefer (Bruce Cabot), who has organized a gang of ex-cons, many of which he sprung from a prison farm, to engineer a series of bank robberies. Joe was originally a chauffeur for Eleanor Spencer (Virginia Bruce), who was once very close to Van but now has feelings for Mal. Unfortunately, Eleanor gets angry with Mal when he is unable to prevent her kid brother, Buddy (Eric Linden), from becoming a G-Man, with tragic results.

Eric Linden and Richard Arlen
Under the direction of Sam Wood, Let 'Em Have It is a fast-paced, well-acted, and entertaining cops vs robbers movie. Although mostly forgotten today, even by film buffs, Richard Arlen (Island of Lost Souls) was a handsome and charismatic leading man for most of his career, which comprised nearly 200 credits. Other players in this flick include Alice Brady [When Ladies Meet], as Eleanor's man-hungry Aunt Ethel, and Barbara Pepper as one of Cabot's blond molls, Milly. Pepper later gained a lot of weight and appeared more than once on I Love Lucy. Sam Wood also directed Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1939 and a great many others.

Verdict: Snappy picture hasn't a dull moment. ***. 

SUBWAY IN THE SKY

Hildegard Knef and Van Johnson
SUBWAY IN THE SKY (1959). Director: Muriel Box.

Baxter Grant (Van Johnson of The Bottom of the Bottle) is a military doctor stationed in Germany. He has been accused of stealing drugs and even murdering a colleague who might have testified against him. Stupidly going on the lam, he arrives at his estranged wife's apartment only to find that she has sub-let it to a singer named Lilli (Hildegard Knef of Diplomatic Courier and Fedora). There is an instant chemistry between these two, and Lilli decides to trust Baxter and help him while he tries to find his wife, Anna (Katherine Kath). At the same time a military policeman named Captain Carson (Cec Linder) tries to find Baxter, interrogating Lilli as to the fugitive's whereabouts every chance he gets.

Neff and Cec Linder
Subway in the Sky makes a mistake in starting the story in the middle, leaving out the scenes wherein Grant is accused and never introducing the viewer to the man he allegedly murders. Knef and Johnson give good performances, although there is a scene late in the picture -- after the horrible death of one character -- that he and Cec Linder as the cop are surprisingly unemotional considering what has just happened. Knef sings a song in the nightclub where she works, and her voice is pretty awful. Two other characters include Carl (Albert Lieven of Beware of Pity), a lawyer who is in love with Lilli and has a chance with her until she meets Baxter; and Stefan (Vivian Matalon), Baxter's stepson. One interesting sequence makes no bones about the fact that Lilli and Baxter have just had sex.

Verdict: Good story that needed more dramatic treatment and perhaps different actors. **3/4. 

INTO THIN AIR (1985)

Ellen Burstyn
INTO THIN AIR (1985 telefilm). Director: Roger Young.

Brian Walker (Tate Donovan of Nancy Drew) bids his family good-bye to go to a writer's retreat. When days go by without a word from Brian, his mother Joan (Ellen Burstyn of (Same Time, Next Year), brother Stephen (Sam Robards), and father Larry (Nicholas Pryor) -- who apparently lives apart from the others -- begin to worry and start to search for him. Joan is told by police that he can't be considered a missing person until thirty days go by, but even when the deadline passes they don't put his name in the system. Alarmed at police disinterest, Joan contacts a private eye named Jim Conway (Robert Prosky), whom she convinces to search for her son. Just when things get hopeless, Conway gets a lead, a lead that the FBI could have also uncovered if they had just been more concerned and diligent ...

Sam Robards and Nicholas Pryor
Into Thin Air is based on a true story and it is both suspenseful and very well-acted by all. This includes Patricia Smith, who in her few short scenes etches a memorable portrait of Conway's wife, Olga, and John Dennis Johnston as the sleazy, if sexy, Earl Pike. Unlike other fact-based true crime telefilms, Into Thin Air also works as well as it does because it is well-directed by Roger Young. It all builds to a satisfying but heartbreaking conclusion. Sam Robards is the son of Jason Robards Jr. and Lauren Bacall. Ron Howard was one of the executive producers. (As this film is told from the frustrated family's pov we don't really know if the authorities were really as disinterested or as inept as portrayed.)

Verdict: Absorbing, well-done made-for-TV crime drama. ***.