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

Thursday, March 19, 2020


Ralph Meeker in Code Two
RALPH MEEKER (1920 - 1988).

Meeker came to the public's and critics' attention when he replaced Marlon Brando in the stage version of A Streetcar Named Desire and won very good reviews. Then he got the lead role in William Inge's Picnic. The story goes that he turned down the lead in the film version because he didn't want to be tied down to a studio contract, and this negatively affected his career thereafter. He never attained the super-stardom of, say, a William Holden (who took Meeker's part in the film version of Picnic) but he did have a solid career and won many raves for his work in the years to come, amassing 110 credits in movies and on television. His pictures include The Naked Spur, Ada, The Food of the Gods, JeopardyThe Fuzzy Pink Nightgown, and others that Great Old Movies is looking into this week (see below) -- including the famous Kiss Me Deadly, Meeker had three wives, the best-known of which was the actress Salome Jens of Seconds. He was only 67 when he died. 


Ralph Meeker and Betty Hutton
SOMEBODY LOVES ME (1952). Director: Irving Brecher.

Blossom Seeley (Betty Hutton of Spring Reunion) becomes a top vaudeville entertainer and sees a trio performing in a club one night. Spying the handsome crooner Benny Fields (Ralph Meeker of Jeopardy) -- one of the trio --  she decides "that's for me!" and hires all of them for her act. This arrangement doesn't work for long, until Benny proposes and becomes her accompanist. But soon he's "Mr. Seeley" and feels like a kept man. But did he marry Blossom for love or other motives?

Billie Bird and Cheetah? 
Although pretty much forgotten today, the real-life Seeley and Fields were once as famous as Jack Benny and Burns and Allen. This biopic revived their careers in the fifties. Betty Hutton gives one of her best performances in this, bold and brassy when she needs to be, and more subdued and lovely at other moments. Although generally one would hardly think of Ralph Meeker for the leading role in a musical, he's fine in this flick, and while he's really not a dancer, he sexily shakes his booty in one number. Robert Keith and Billie Bird [The Cat Burglar] are both first-rate as Blossom's manager and her best friend, who was once an entertainer herself. Adele Jergens also scores in an early sequence when she's a condescending headliner who gets undone by Bird and an adorable chimpanzee (who reads Variety no less). Jack Benny has a famous cameo as himself as a master of ceremonies.

Ralph Meeker
The film has some lively dance numbers and a good score comprised of classic tunes (like Gershwin's title song) and a few new numbers by Livingstone and Evans. The highlights are "I Cried Over You;" "Jealous;" "When I Was a Kid in Dixie;" and "Dixie Dreams." Meeker's voice was probably dubbed by Fields himself, as it sounds like him. An interesting scene has Benny admitting to Blossom that their marriage was essentially a career move, although according to this film he did fall in love with her later on. Hutton did only one more film after this one and then had a few TV appearances.

Verdict: Nice music, excellent performances, put over this lively musical biopic. ***. 


Ralph Meeker, Jeff Richards, Robert Horton
CODE TWO (1953). Director: Fred M. Wilcox.

Three young men -- Chuck (Ralph Meeker), Russ (Robert Horton) and Harry (Jeff Richards of Born Reckless) -- join the police academy in Los Angeles and eventually ask to be assigned to the motor(cycle) squad. Chuck is a cocky if likable lug who goes after Russ' sister-in-law, Jane (Elaine Stewart of The Tattered Dress) but her focus is more on the shy-but-sexy Harry. Russ at first keeps the news about his assignment from his wife (Sally Forrest) because she fears for his safety, but tragedy is in store for one of the other men, with his two friends doing their best to avenge him. It all leads to an exciting climax in a warehouse with a boiling lime pit and a host of bad guys trying to make mincemeat of our heroes.

The three leads all give solid performances with fine support from the ladies and from Keenan Wynn as Police Sergeant "Jumbo" Culdane. William Campbell [The Young Racers] is also notable as a nasty, murderous trucker. Also on hand in smaller roles are Chuck Connors as a cop and James Craig as a police lieutenant. As for Meeker, he struts through the film with great charisma and authority.

Verdict: Well-done if minor cop melodrama. **1/2. 


KISS ME DEADLY (1955). Produced and directed by Robert Aldrich.

Private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picks up a desperate runaway, Christina (Cloris Leachman of Happy Mother's Day, Love George), on the highway, embroiling him in a convoluted and dangerous case after they are waylaid and she is tortured and murdered. Mike barely survives himself, but he is intrigued and angry enough to determine to find out what's actually going on. As Hammer proceeds in his investigation over the objections of Lt. Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy of The Garment Jungle) -- who takes his licence away -- the bodies begin to pile up. Meanwhile Mike decides to shelter Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers), the late Christina's terrified roommate. She and everyone but Velda (Maxine Cooper), Mike's secretary, seem concerned over a certain package that contains what Velda refers to as a "whatzis." After a number of people are beaten and killed, and Mike himself is subjected to truth serum by an unseen foe, he learns that Velda has been kidnapped. The climax occurs at a beach house occupied by a certain sinister doctor, all leading to a literally explosive finale.

Wesley Addy and Ralph Meeker
Kiss Me Deadly is one of Aldrich's best films. Although one could easily argue that it becomes hard to follow at times and under close inspection may not even make much sense, it is so brisk, well-acted, and absorbing that it is actually quite fascinating. Frank De Vol's score adds to the atmosphere,
as does Ernst Laszlo's superb cinematography, making the most of its LA locations. Then there's the acting. Meeker follows in the footsteps of Biff Elliott of I the Jury made two years earlier, and he is also near-perfect as a more thuggish variation of Mike Hammer. (Mickey Spillane did not care for the changes made to the character from novel to film.)

Percy Helton comes afoul of Ralph Meeker
Gaby Rodgers is so good as Lily that it's a surprise that she didn't become better known, but in addition to a few TV credits, she only did two pictures, this and an independent film that was barely released. Paul Stewart scores as a sinister mafia bigwig, Wesley Addy makes a convincing cop, and Marian Carr, Albert Dekker, and Maxine Cooper give flavorful performances as well. Percy Helton is up to his usual weaselly no-good-ness and figures in a sequence when Hammer uses an especially sadistic method to get a morgue attendant to talk. For a film made in the fifites, Kiss Me Deadly can be rather raw. Although Christina's torture is never actually shown, her dangling naked legs and the horrendous screams she omits tell the story in a way that might have sickened the stomachs of some viewers back in the day. (Alas, she keeps screaming as if the pliers were still being applied to her even though it's clear that no one is standing beside her any longer.)

Kiss Me Deadly deserves its reputation, although there are some critics who wax quite pretentiously about it -- profound it is not; cinematic it is. NOTE: Ahead of his time, Mike Hammer keeps an early version of an answering machine in his home office. Although much of the film's basic plot is derived from the novel, it deals strictly with mafia hoods and nothing radioactive.

Verdict: Despite the silly title, this is hard-hitting and very well done. ***1/2. 


Kirk Douglas and George Macready
PATHS OF GLORY (1957). Director: Stanley Kubrick.

"There is no such thing as shell shock." -- General Mireau

French WW 1 General Paul Mireau (George Macready) initially makes it clear to General Brouard (Adolphe Menjou) that there is no way his battalion can possibly take a strategic position known as the "anthill." But Mireau changes his tune when Brousard talks about a promotion, even though they expect at least 60% casualties among their men.

Wayne Morris and Ralph Meeker
Now Mireau's second-in-command Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is told in no uncertain terms that the men -- already exhausted and demoralized -- must take the hill the next day or else. Although the soldiers try their damnedest, it is an impossible and indeed suicidal task, and Mireau accuses them of cowardice. (Mireau even wants to fire on his own men because they aren't moving fast enough!) Mireau is talked out of shooting a hundred soldiers, but three are to be court-marshaled as an example. These three men are Private Arnaud (Joe Turkel of The Glass Wall); Private Ferol (Timothy Carey of The World's Greatest Sinner and Kubrick's The Killing); and Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker), who is picked because he knows that his superior officer, Lt. Roget (Wayne Morris), essentially murdered one of his soldiers. Dax represents the men in what is basically a kangaroo court with an outcome that is clearly pre-ordained.

Old pros: Macready and Menjou
Paths of Glory is a powerful and maddening film, examining the outrageous miscarriages of justice and heartlessness that can take place during war time even among men fighting on the same side. The performances are excellent: a borderline slimy Menjou; an upright and morally-repulsed Douglas; Meeker, whose trademark cockiness eventually vanishes when he faces his own mortality; and Wayne Morris giving an unexpectedly strong performance as the morally-bankrupt Roget. Turkel and Carey are also notable -- as is Richard Anderson as the prosecutor --  but the one actor who positively walks away with the film is George Macready, who gives an absolutely ferocious and mesmerizing portrayal of the utterly loathsome and infuriating Mireau -- forget Gilda (in which I didn't think Macready was even all that great), this is the performance he should be remembered for.

Kubrick beautifully -- or rather horrifically -- recreates the WW 1 battlefield, and scenes of the men in the trenches as bombs explode unnervingly all around them are compelling, The film almost goes a bit off-course in the second half when it has aspects that remind one of the later Dr. Strangelove, but for the most part this is one of Kubrick's most successful and effective movies. Several years later the film King and Country had a similar theme but was not as good.

Verdict: George Macready's finest hour and a half and a highly memorable if imperfect picture for Kubrick. ***1/2. 


Carroll Baker and Ralph Meeker
SOMETHING WILD (1961). Director/co-screenplay: Jack Garfein.

Mary Ann Robinson (Carroll Baker of Bridge to the Sun) walks home from work one evening, and is pulled into the bushes and raped. This traumatic experience leads into a series of strange actions, such as her leaving home without telling her mother (Mildred Dunnock) or stepfather (Charles Watts), taking a job in a five and dime store in another neighborhood, and moving into a cramped "apartment" about the size of a closet. One afternoon on the Brooklyn Bridge she tries to throw herself into the river, but she is stopped by the intervention of a worker named Mike (Ralph Meeker). But this apparently kind stranger may have even more problems than Mary Ann does and she finds herself locked in his apartment ...

Carroll Baker
Something Wild was based on a novel named Mary Ann and directed (and co-written) by theater man Jack Garfein, who was married to Carroll Baker at the time. Baker is deglamourized in this and generally gives a good performance, as does Meeker, although both are given rather impossible characters to play. I believe the film is trying to say that two damaged individuals can find love with each other, but there's a big difference in being a (rape) victim and being (in essence) someone who commits criminal actions like holding someone against their will, so turning this into a "love" story -- and yes the film does try to make us believe this has a happy and romantic ending -- would be almost as ludicrous as having Mary Ann fall in love with her rapist (who never shows up after the opening sequence). Apologists for the film -- and there are many -- try to suggest that Mike only locked Mary Ann in because he didn't want her killing herself, but she could just have easily killed herself in the apartment and his motives for keeping her a prisoner aren't nearly so noble.

Cinematography by Eugene Shufftan
The shame of it is that this hopelessly muddled, even offensive film has a lot going for it. In addition to the leads we have notable work by Mildred Dunnock as the concerned if ineffectual mother; Jean Stapleton as a slatternly neighbor of Mary Ann's; Doris Roberts as a co-worker at the five and dime who is put off by what she perceives as Mary Ann's stuck-up attitude; Martin Kosleck [The Flesh Eaters] as the somewhat sleazy landlord; and others. The film has a highly interesting score by no less than Aaron Copland [The Heiress], and is strikingly photographed in black and white by Eugen Shufftan, who makes the most of some very familiar New York City locations. Shufftan gives the film a very grim and intense atmosphere throughout. Garfield's direction is good if imperfect. He only directed one other movie, The Strange One. 

Despite all the notable aspects, Something Wild is done in by its contrivances. One suspects the plot was concocted before the characters were conceived, and -- in the film, at least -- they are never developed all that well.

Verdict: Should these two sick individuals get married? Where is Dr. Phil when you need him? **. 

Thursday, March 5, 2020


Ann Blyth and Joan Evans
OUR VERY OWN (1950). Director: David Miller.

Gail McCaulay (Ann Blyth) is just about to turn 18. Gail, who has two younger sisters, is practically engaged to her handsome beau, Chuck (Farley Granger). The elder of Gail's two siblings, Joan (Joan Evans of On the Loose), is attracted to Chuck and very jealous of their relationship, and during an argument she lets slip that Gail was adopted, something Joan only recently discovered by accident. Gail's world is upended by this revelation, and she decides to seek out her birth mother (Ann Dvorak), but will she be able to ultimately handle her feelings and accept that she is very much loved by her true and supportive family? And what will her "real" mother be like?

Ann Dvorak and Jane Wyatt
Our Very Own is an absorbing and pleasant movie with good performances from Blyth, Evans and Granger as well as from Jame Wyatt and Donald Cook as the girls' parents. Ann Dvorak also scores as the birth mother who is so afraid her husband will find out about her child, and you wish she was given  more screen time. Natalie Wood is adorable as the youngest of the three sisters, and she has a cute scene when she's driving a TV installer (Gus Schilling) to distraction with all of her questions. Phyllis Kirk also appears to advantage as Zaza, a very sympathetic friend of Gail's -- her wealthy father would rather go to a party than attend her graduation.  Martin Milner is Bert, who has a crush on Joan and is rather unkind to Gwen (Kipp Hamilton of The Unforgiven), a slightly chubby girl who has a crush on him. Those who hope the film might be a trash wallow along the lines of Three Bad Sisters will be disappointed, as there are no cat fights and no talk of genetic issues that may derail marriage plans and the like.

Verdict: Compelling romantic drama with a heartwarming conclusion. ***. 


Jack Hogan and Dorothy Provine
THE BONNIE PARKER STORY (1958). Director: William Witney.

In 1930's Oklahoma Bonnie Parker (Dorothy Provine of Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die) has a dead end job as a waitress after her husband, Duke (Richard Bakalyan), is sent up the river for 175 years. But then Bonnie meets the cocky "Guy Darrow" (Jack Hogan of The Cat Burglar), whose first passes are easily blocked by the feisty and easily-angered Bonnie. Eventually Guy convinces his new girlfriend that they could make a lot of money knocking off gas stations and the like, but Bonnie -- who proves much more strong-willed than Guy -- is sick of getting comparative chicken feed. Her new plan is to to break her husband out of jail and start robbing banks ...

Dorothy Provine as Bonnie Parker
Made almost ten years earlier than the more famous Bonnie and Clyde, this is arguably the better of the two pictures. Provine and Hogan give more convincing performances as these rather vicious individuals, and William Witney -- who helmed numerous cliffhanger serials -- knows how to keep things moving at a brisk pace and also creates lots of suspense in key moments. There are other good performances in the film as well: Joe Turkel [The Glass Wall] as Guy's brother; Patricia Huston as his girlfriend; William Stevens as a budding architect who sees a more romantic and tender side of Bonnie; Richard Bakalyan as Duke; Douglas Kennedy as a cop who is pursuing the couple; and others.

Jack Hogan as "Guy Darrow"
The picture has several good scenes, including the hold-up of a armored truck which is nearly interrupted by a boy scout troop and the terrified scoutmaster (Sydney Lassick), and a tense if amusing business when a cute little boy (Stanley Livingstone) seemingly identifies Bonnie and the others as "bank robbers." The climactic shoot-out is also extremely well-handled. One could argue that the film may not have a lot of period atmosphere and it's strange that Clyde Barrow's name was changed, albeit not very much.

Verdict: Very snappy AIP crime drama with vivid players. ***. 


Mary Peach and Michael Craig
A PAIR OF BRIEFS (1962). Director: Ralph Thomas.

Tony Stevens (Michael Craig) is a young lawyer hoping to get "briefs" -- cases -- that will pay more money than others. Tony is annoyed when newcomer Frances (Mary Peach) gets a high-paying case right off the bat due to connections, so he importunes a drunken friend of his in the prosecutor's office to let him stand up for the defendant in the same case (a highly unlikely scenario). Frances is representing Gladys Worthing (Brenda de Banzie), a shabby middle-aged woman who is suing her alleged husband, Sidney (Ron Moody of Murder Most Foul), for "restitution of conjugal rights." For his part, Sidney insists that he and Gladys were never married. As the case proceeds, Judge Haddon (James Robertson Justice) nearly has apoplexy dealing with the oddly reticent plaintiff as well as the conduct of the two opposing barristers.

Nicholas Phipps
A Pair of Briefs tries hard to be a hilarious near-farce of a comedy, but it is never as funny as it might have looked on paper. The performances are fine, with handsome Craig managing to actually come off like a nerd through much of the movie. What makes the film worthwhile and memorable are the developments and twists that come in the final third of the film, which are amusing. Also in the cast is Nicholas Phipps, who wrote the screenplay, as he did for the Craig vehicle Doctor in Love, in which he also appeared. A small part is played by Judy Carne, who later went on to fame on Laugh-In and through her combative marriage to Burt Reynolds.

Verdict: Interesting developments and a good cast help put this over. ***. 


Parisian dining: Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride
MA AND PA KETTLE ON VACATION (1952). Director: Charles Lamont.

Ma (Marjorie Main) and Pa (Percy Kilbride) Kettle receive an invitation from Elizabeth and Jonathan Parker (a returning Barbara Brown and Ray Collins) -- their married daughter's in-laws -- to accompany them on a trip to Paris after their original traveling companions cancel. Once there, the foursome get embroiled in a silly story involving a nest of spies and secret Naval plans. Ma and Pa Kettle On Vacation is a step down from the previous movies in the series, although Ma and Pa remain utterly endearing creations and Main and Kilbride are superb in bringing them to life. There are still humorous lines and sequences in the film, such as when Ma belts an Apache dancer in a nightclub because she thinks he's actually hitting his lady partner, and Ma cluelessly refers to Parisians as "Parasites!"  The supporting cast includes Sig Ruman [Thank You Mr. Moto] as a spy, and the ever-versatile Jay Novello has a very small role -- as a Frenchman no less!

Verdict: The screenplay is weak but the players are spirited. **½.


Eva Gabor and Tom Conway 
PARIS MODEL (1953). Director: Alfred E.  Green.

Four women who pick out a fancy dress -- a "Paris model" or a cheaper copy of it -- want to wow their men but wind up getting their comeuppance, except in the last instance. Gogo (Eva Gabor) hopes to hook the wealthy Maharajah of Kim-Kepore (Tom Conway) but her billing the dress to another man may cause a problem -- not to mention the appearance of a gorgeous brunette (Laurette Luez). Betty Barnes (Paulette Goddard) is in love with her boss (Leif Erickson), but his wife, Cora (Gloria Christian), may out-do the grasping secretary in the fancy dress sweepstakes. Marion Parmalee (Marilyn Maxwell) pulls out all of the stops with her husband's flirty boss Sullivan (Cecil Kellaway) in the hopes of getting hubby (Robert Bice of Invasion U.S.A.) the new presidency when the boss retires, but she doesn't reckon with Sullivan's formidable wife (Florence Bates). Marta (Barbara Lawrence) hopes that boyfriend Charlie (Robert Hutton) will propose to her for her 21st birthday dinner at Romanoff's and she may get a little help from "prince" Michael Romanoff [Arch of Triumph] himself.

Secretary vs wife: Paulette Goddard and Gloria Christian
I confess I nearly dumped Paris Model in my latest collection of "Films I Just Couldn't Finish" because the first episode with Gabor and Conway is so lame -- aside from a modestly amusing wind-up -- that I couldn't see spending much more time on it. (One can't imagine either of the Gabor sisters being crazy about having their thunder stolen by another woman.) But once I understood the point of the film, that it dealt with the dress and the stymied manipulations of its wearers -- not to mention that the later segments were more entertaining -- I found this quite enjoyable. The performances are generally good (although Eva Gabor is just plain weird, like a dopey showgirl from another dimension), with Kellaway and Bates taking the acting honors. The film comes full circle with a very funny ending when Tom Conway shows up again as the horny Maharajah. Alfred E. Green directed everything from science fiction (the aforementioned Invasion U.S.A.) to old Bette Davis movies [Dangerous] to Copacabana and everything in-between. Tom Conway's brother, George Sanders, was married to both Zsa Zsa and Magda Gabor, but somehow he never got around to Eva.

Verdict: More fun than you first imagine it will be. ***.