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

Thursday, February 18, 2021


(1939). Director: Edmund Goulding.

"Don't you know what happens to you means more to me than anything?"

So says young Charlotte Lovell (Bette Davis) to the man she loves, Clem Spender (George Brent), who has come back to town to discover that the woman he loves, Charlotte's cousin Delia (Miriam Hopkins), is that very day marrying someone else. Charlotte consoles Clem, who goes off to war and never returns, leaving Charlotte with a child that she disguises as a civil war orphan. Then Delia, who has a "good" marriage with one of the wealthy Ralston brothers, learns about Charlotte and Clem and is enraged ... with expectedly dramatic results. She eventually takes both mother and illegitimate daughter into her home and usurps the mother position from Charlotte. 

Bette Davis
Yes, this film has some of the elements of soap opera, but it's on a much higher level, and the film is virtually perfect in all departments, from Goulding's direction to Max Steiner's evocative score (which incorporates some old songs but also has original music), to the accomplished acting from the entire cast. This is easily one of Davis' best portrayals, years before she became much too affected and artificial in certain projects. Mariam Hopkins is her match in the more flamboyant if less dramatic role of Delia. Jane Bryan as the daughter, Tina, Donald Crisp as the wise friend and doctor, Cecelia Loftus as the wily old grandmother, and Louise Fazenda as the maid Dora are all superlative, and while he's not entirely successful at showing us the hurt and trauma beneath his light-hearted, sardonic air, even George Brent is solid. Very moving and a genuinely touching finale. A real gem of a tearjerker. Based on a novella by Edith Wharton and a Pulitzer prize-winning play by Zoe Akins. NOTE; This was my late partner, Lawrence J. Quirk's, all-time favorite movie. I was forced to watch it half a dozen times until I grew to love it, too. 

Verdict: Another in the category of 'They don't make 'em like this anymore.' ****.


(1940). Director: Curtis Bernhardt. 

The "true" if fictionalized story of Caroline (Mrs. Leslie) Carter (Miriam Hopkins), who goes on the stage after she is divorced by her husband. The film suggests that Carter became an actress only to get money to fight for custody of her son, but in real life the boy actually stayed with his mother and was cut out of his father's will because of it. In the film Carter unrealistically tries to storm Broadway by coming in at the top instead of climbing from the bottom, but it is true that her association with David Belasco (a magnificent Claude Rains) gave an inestimable boost to her career. The film doesn't make clear that she was considered the American Sarah Bernhardt in her day. Richard Ainley plays her second husband, and as the film suggests, their marriage did signal the end of her association with Belasco (although in the film he comes in at the end to help guide her in one last production). Miriam Hopkins gives a solid performance, but up against Claude Rains there is little she can do to steal the picture. The supporting cast includes such sterling players as Laura Hope Crews, John Litel, Victor Jory, and Cecil Kellaway. A very young Cornel Wilde has a small role, and you probably won't notice Alexis Smith or Craig Stevens.

 Verdict: A lady you might like to make the acquaintance of -- on film, at least. ***.


Timothy Carey, Peter Graves and Lita Milan
POOR WHITE TRASH (aka Bayou/1957). Director: Harold Daniels. 

New York architect Martin Davis (Peter Graves of Stalag 17) comes down to the bayou hoping to get assigned to a building project, but he's told by the man who called for him (Douglas Fowley) that he has to fight for the job. Martin is an intelligent man who refuses to sink down to other people's levels whether it comes to scrabbling with competitors or in actual fist fights. Martin, however, learns that he may have to fight for Marie Hebert (Lita Milan of I Mobster), a pretty Cajun woman who has innocently ignited the lust of shop owner Ulysses (Timothy Carey of Paths of Glory) and with whom Martin falls in love.  

Lita Milan and Peter Graves
Poor White Trash is actually the 1961 re-release title of a film originally called Bayou, which has some additional footage and a prologue where a man sings the catchy title tune. The most lurid -- and somewhat cinematic -- sequence has Ulysses chasing Marie through the mud of the swamp and finally cornering the exhausted woman. Marie is clearly raped (even if it isn't depicted graphically) but she has no reaction to this, offering Ulysses some money she owes him the next day as if nothing had happened instead of kicking him in the balls or telling her fellow Cajuns. This is clearly the fault of the script, although Milan herself registers nothing but a mild weariness after what would have had to have been a traumatic experience. 

"an orgiastic, self-flagellating dance"
Otherwise, Milan is attractive and appealing in the film. Graves was never a great actor, and this film offers more evidence of that, although he does register competence and likability. Douglas Fowley is fine as Martin's friend but he gets into a bit of trouble when he also essays Marie's dotty father, Emil. Timothy Carey, the Nicolas Cage of an earlier generation, displays his trademark intensity and is quite good as Ulysses, although one doesn't know quite what to make of the sequence when he does a kind of orgiastic, self-flagellating dance halfway through the movie. This uncomfortable sequence goes on for far too long, which is also the case in a love scene over which the storm outside is not-so-cleverly superimposed.  

Ed Nelson has a small role, but although Jonathan Haze of Little Shop of Horrors is also in the film I didn't spot him. There is some atmospheric photography and a vaguely evocative score by Gerald Fried. One of the film's most disturbing scenes is actually a party scene celebrating the marriage of an elderly man to a very young girl who looks like she'd like to run away from the oldster as fast as her feet could take her. 

Verdict: A trashy curiosity indeed. **. 


Robert Ryan and Mala Powers
CITY BENEATH THE SEA (1953). Director: Budd Boetticher. 

Brad Carlton (Robert Ryan) and Tony Barlett (Anthony Quinn) are salvage divers hired to look for a million dollars worth of gold on a ship that went down with all hands off the coast of Jamaica. Initially, they are told to call off the search as hopeless, but a variety of interested parties know the location of the ship -- right near the undersea ruins of Port Royal, destroyed by earthquake in 1692. When Tony throws in with some suspicious characters, Brad decides to mount his own above-board operation to keep his pal out of jail. But if the misunderstanding between them wasn't enough, they also have a new undersea quake to contend with ... 

Robert Ryan with Anthony Quinn
If City Beneath the Sea sounds exciting, be forewarned that it is nearly a complete stinker. It's hard to imagine that two major stars like Ryan and Quinn could have wound up in such a tacky, dull, below-routine affair that nearly talks itself to death and is even boring during the climax! The FX budget looks like it might have amounted to $1.99. Admittedly, Universal was no MGM, but the production values for this -- considering the players -- are shockingly poor. Ryan and Quinn give good performances, as do the ladies in their lives, Mala Powers [Unknown Terror] as the owner of a charter boat, and Suzan Ball as the sexy singer, Verita (who saucily delivers "Handle with Care") -- and there are some decent supporting players (including Woody Strode who gets very little to do) -- but the movie spends too much time on extraneous matters and not enough on the matter at hand. 

Can the excitement never end?
The surprising thing is that City Beneath the Sea isn't any better than a knock-off entitled Port Sinister that came out the same year. It's been years since I saw the latter -- and I remember that it was hardly a great movie -- but it had more atmosphere and more interesting elements than this dull picture does. In Port Sinister the city of Port Royal (actually a whole island) rises from the watery depths and there is not only a search for treasure and the usual complement of desperadoes, but even a couple of nasty dog-sized crabs that try to snack on people. In any case, it was more fun that this dog of a movie. Ryan and Quinn (admittedly his best work was ahead of him) must have read the script but perhaps they were hoping it could all be put together in the editing room. It wasn't.

Verdict: This could have used some giant crabs. **. 


(1939). Director: Lewis Milestone. 

"It's just havin' someone to talk with. It's just bein' with another guy."

George (Burgess Meredith) and his brain-damaged cousin Lennie (Lon Chaney Jr.) arrive at a ranch and hope to save up enough money to buy their own farm and be their own boss. The elderly Candy (Roman Bohnen), afraid of almost literally being put out to pasture, wants to go in with them, as does Crooks (Leigh Whipper), the black man who is isolated in his own shack away from the bunk house with the other men. But then there's the nasty little Curley (Bob Steele), the boss's son, and his bored, lonely wife, Mae (Betty Field), and the trouble they represent. John Steinbeck's heartbreaking tragedy is brought to the screen with great intensity and power and has many memorable moments: the death of Candy's dog; Curly gets his hand crushed; the climactic accidental death. Bohnen gives perhaps the best performance, but Meredith and Field are also great, and Charles Bickford, Lon Chaney Jr. and Bob Steele are no slouches. Okay, maybe the acting is a little over-emphatic at times, and Copland's score is nice but not that special. Still, this is a very strong and memorable picture. The streak of misogyny -- if that's what it is -- and the moral ambiguity of the ending, only make it more fascinating. Remade several times, including a version in 1992, starring and directed by Gary Sinise of CSI New York

Verdict: Another masterpiece from 1939 and a great study of loneliness. ****.

Thursday, February 4, 2021


A LIFE OF HER OWN (1950). Director: George Cukor. 

Lily James (Lana Turner) leaves her dead-end small town for a life of glamor, modeling, and excitement in New York and gets a little more than she bargained for. After a variety of adventures and mis-adventures, she becomes involved with a married man (Ray Milland) who has a crippled wife (Margaret Phillips). Dismissed as soap opera and "fluff" by the critics at the time of its release and after, this is actually a hard-hitting drama with an excellent script and dialogue by Isobel Lennart. Cukor, well-known as an actors' director, certainly worked his magic on the cast. Lana Turner is first-class throughout, giving what may have been her best performance in films, and Ray Milland, often a Great Stone Face, is much more impressive than usual. Ann Dvorak almost walks off with the movie as the aging model, Mary Ashlon, who is hoping for a comeback that even she realizes is unlikely. Tom Ewell, Louis Calhern, Margaret Phillips and Sara Haden (as a nurse) are also notable. Barry Sullivan superbly delivers a great super-cynical speech near the end of the film. Although one could argue that the movie sticks to a dated sin-and-suffer formula, it actually is true to its essentially dark tone (even though the original ending was softened quite a bit). 

Verdict: Fascinating stuff in its own way and very well-performed. ***1/2.


(1942). Director: Irving Rapper.

The Gaylord Sisters have been waiting 27 years for their father's will to be probated, but a stubborn businessman named Charles Barclay (George Brent) refuses to accept their settlement offer. Seems the man has a personal grudge against one of the sisters, Fiona (Barbara Stanwyck), the reason for which comes out as this highly entertaining movie progresses. The other sisters, Evelyn (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and Susie (Nancy Coleman), don't like each other very much, with a true-to-form Evelyn doing her best to steal Susie's beau, "Gig Young" (played by Gig Young, who took his screen name from this picture). Then there's that little charmer Austin, who's sort of been adopted by Fiona. But whose little boy is he really? There are very interesting twists to this very well-acted and directed drama that transcends soap opera due to Lenore Coffee's excellent script and its sheer quality. Stanwyck is excellent, as are Fitzgerald and Coleman, and a large supporting cast including Donald Woods, Donald Crisp, Anne Revere, and Grant Mitchell. Young and Brent aren't slouches, either. Certain to stimulate debate is a scene between Stanwyck and Brent that could be taken as consensual (if cynical) sex or as rape! Irving Rapper, who is in full command of the picture, also directed Deception, The Corn is Green, Now, Voyager, and many others.

Verdict: Really the kind of movie they don't make anymore. ***1/2.


MUSIC BY MAX STEINER: The Epic Life of Hollywood's Most Influential Composer. Steven C. Smith. Oxford University Press; 2020. 

Gone with the Wind, Now Voyager, King Kong, Of Human Bondage, Charge of the Light Brigade, White Heat, The Fountainhead, Johnny Belinda, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Mildred Pierce, Since You Went Away, Casablanca, The Letter, Dark Victory, Jezebel, Angels with Dirty Faces, A Star is Born (1937) -- this barely scratches the list of the 241 scores composed by the great Austrian-born Max Steiner. This excellent, well-researched, and very thorough biography examines Steiner's family and early life in Vienna, his early years working on Broadway, the first pictures that he began scoring, up to his triumphs on such as Gone With the Wind (for which he did not win an Oscar and should have) and scores that did win Academy Awards, such as Since You Went Away, Now, Voyager and The Informer. Steiner clearly understood the importance of underscoring to bring out the emotional sub-text in motion pictures, a style that was later implemented by many other composers in Hollywood. At first, some people thought it was strange to hear, say, a symphonic orchestra in the middle of the desert, but eventually audiences came to appreciate the music blaring from the speakers while the actors did their thing onscreen. Music By Max Steiner looks at his various, often troubled, marriages, his problems with the studios and producers such as Selznick, his gambling and profligate spending which left him deeply in debt until, lo and behold, he actually composed a hit song with his theme from A Summer Place. The book also looks at the sad, tragic and all-too-brief life of his handsome only son, Ronald, who committed suicide at 21 (and was possibly gay). Steiner's music has complemented many great movies and enriched movies that even Steiner wished he hadn't had to work on, but although he occasionally wrote a less-than-compelling score, that didn't happen very often. My favorite Steiner theme: the sensitive and lovely waltz that signifies the relationship between Olivia de Havilland and George Brent in In This Our Life. (Author Smith doesn't comment on this, but with so very many movies to choose from it's inevitable that some of your favorites will be overlooked.) The book gets rather technical at times but that shouldn't blunt your enjoyment even if you're not a musicologist. 

Verdict: Excellent biography of a gifted composer whose life and work richly deserves to be re-examined. ****.                                                                                                                                                                                                         


(1940). Director: Rouben Mamoulian. 

Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) returns to Los Angeles from Madrid and discovers that in his absence his elderly father (Montagu Love) has been unseated and a petty tyrant, Don Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), is taxing the people to death and brutalizing the rebellious with the aid of nasty Captain Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). Diego's father is appalled by what his predecessor is doing but can't see himself fighting against the government, no matter how corrupt. Therefore Diego dons the mask of Zorro to fight his people's oppressor, and begins to act as a carefree, callous fop to avoid suspicion being focused upon him. This very good movie about one of the first masked "super-heroes" of sorts is fine entertainment, with smashing performances from all -- this is one of Power's best -- and an excellent sword fight between Power and Rathbone, who is also at his snarling best. Linda Darnell is lovely as the romantic interest and Gale Sondergaard splendid as Quintero's catty and unfaithful wife. Eugene Palette scores as the Padre, and there's a good scene when Power reveals his secret identity to the priest. Bromberg and Love are also in top form. Not as thrilling as the serial Zorro's Fighting Legion but much superior to Zorro Rides Again. 

 Verdict: Very entertaining classic. ***.



Chaney, Jackson, Cooper, DeBorba

SCHOOL'S OUT (1930 short). Director: Robert F.  McGowan. 

In this Little Rascals short produced by Hal Roach, the children are worried at the idea that their pretty teacher, Miss Crabtree (Dorothy DeBorba), might get married and leave the school. Therefore when a man that they assume is her beau shows up at the classroom, they tell him all sorts of awful things about Miss Crabtree, and then steal his clothing when he goes to take a swim in the watering hole nearby! This is a cute time capsule of a movie, rather unreal even when it was made, but the little actors are adorable and adept. Allen "Farina" Hoskins has as much to do as Jackie Cooper, and is very funny and likable. It would be all too easy to harp on the dated, stereotypical aspects of the film and others in the series, but it all seems good-natured for the time, and the young black actors in this are quite talented, especially Farina. 

Verdict: Amiable nonsense with a spirited cast of very young players. ***.