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

Thursday, March 18, 2021


Hepburn and Tracy
(1942). Director: George Stevens. 

Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn) and Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy) are columnists for the same newspaper but don't know or care very much for each other. That changes when they actually meet and fall in love -- but can Sam deal with the fact that Tess, eventually named "Woman of the Year," is always on the go and is more celebrated than he is? Frankly, Woman of the Year, while a good and entertaining movie, sort of ducks the question of Sam's ego, making it more about Tess' lack of domesticity and maternal feelings, and despite some attempt at the end to arrive at a compromise, the movie comes off now as rather dated. For a moment it even turns into one of those "woman with amazing career will give it all up to become a devoted wifey" kind of movies. Still both of the stars, in their first pairing, are excellent, as are Fay Bainter as Tess' Aunt Ellen; Minor Watson as her father; and Edith Evanson as her maid, Alma. (Although she was frequently uncredited, Evanson had a long career, and appeared in such films as Journey to the Center of the Earth, Rope and Marnie.) Little George Kezas has a nice turn as Chris, the boy refugee, as does Sara Haden as the head of the home where he resides. Funniest scene has Kate trying to make coffee! 

Verdict: On its own 1940's terms, not bad at all, but boy what it could have been! ***.


Did she or didn't she? Ann Todd as Madeleine
MADELEINE (1950). Director: David Lean. 

Madeleine Smith (Ann Todd of So Evil My Love) of Glascow is being courted by one William Minnoch (Norman Wooland), a perfectly pleasant if unexciting man whom her father (Leslie Banks) heartily approves of. Mr. Smith can't understand why his oldest daughter keeps putting Minnoch off, but he doesn't know that she has been keeping secret rendezvous with a sexy French shipping clerk named Emile (Ivan Desny), something that would cause a scandal in the Victorian era. Madeleine can't bring herself to tell her father the truth, so she decides to run away with Emile, but he is dismayed at the thought that they would have to live on his comparatively meagre income. When Madeleine gets engaged to Minnoch, Emile threatens to tell her father, ruining her chances for a successful union with the other man. But has Madeleine cooked up a scheme to make absolutely certain that Emile cannot interfere?

Ivan Desny as Emile
Madeleine is based on the famous Madeleine Smith murder case. Todd, who was married to David Lean at the time, had played the role on the stage and importuned her husband to direct her in a film also based on the case (but not on the play). She is quite good in the film, matched by Ivan Desney of Lola Montes and Anastasia -- who never quite reveals if Emile is a complete mountebank or just a man who genuinely loves Madeleine but also simply wishes a better life. In fact, the one major problem with the film is that the characters are not as dimensional as one might like. Wooland and Banks [The Most Dangerous Game] prove good support for Todd, and Andre Morrell offers his customary sharp performance as her lawyer. The same case also inspired the Joan Crawford film Letty Lynton

Verdict: Absorbing true crime story with some fine performances. ***. 


Edward G. Robinson
(1931). Director: Mervyn Leroy. 

 "Mother of mercy -- is this the end of Rico?" 

 The great Edward G. Robinson became a star with this exciting and entertaining gangster flick. Rico (Robinson) wants to be somebody and have everything while his buddy Joey (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who comes off convincingly lower-class) just wants to be a dancer. The two should have just gone their separate ways, but Rico seems obsessed with his pal (any homoerotic aspects of this go unexplored). Rico rises in the rackets until he takes over an important gang, and forces his old pal Joey to help him rip off the establishment where he entertains with his girlfriend, Olga (Glenda Farrell). Rico gets bigger and bigger but there are forces conspiring against him ... Robinson is just terrific, and he has a solid supporting cast, including the aforementioned performers as well as Thomas Jackson as Sgt. Flaherty; William Collier Jr. as Tony; and Sidney Blackmer (who had an important role many years later in Rosemary's Baby) as "Big Boy." 

Verdict: Fun to watch Robinson rise and fall. ***1/2.


Olsen and Johnson
HELLZAPOPPIN' (1941). Director: H. C. Potter 

Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, playing themselves, are told that in the film version of their (real life) Broadway hit "Olsen and Johnson's Hellzapoppin'" they have to add a little romance to the mix. The screenwriter (Elisha Cook Jr.) concocts a triangle in which aspiring producer Jeff Hunter (Robert Paige) wants to star Kitty (Jane Frazee), the women he loves, in a musical -- only his best friend, Woody (Lewis Howard), is in love with her too. Then there are complications in the form of man-hungry but homely Betty (Martha Raye) and a possible prince named Pepi (Mischa Auer). For reasons not worth recounting Olsen and Johnson want the show to fail and try to sabotage it a la Night at the Opera (a much, much better movie) to somewhat comical results in the last twenty minutes of the film. Meanwhile Olsen and Johnson have a running dialogue with the film's projectionist (Shemp Howard) who keeps screwing things up. 

Mismatch: Martha Raye and Mischa Auer
Hellzapoppin' has its share of laughs (and quite a few groaners) but despite its amiable nature it never quite bursts into full-blown hilarity. Olsen and Johnson are such a comparatively dull comedy team that for much of the film's length I confused one of them with the much more distinctive Hugh Herbert, who plays the giggling Quimby. As the lovers, Paige and Frazee are appealing, and get to sing two lovely numbers entitled "Heaven for Two" and "And You Were There." Martha Raye is wonderful as Betty whether she's running after an aghast Pepi with lust in her heart or warbling the snappy "Watch the Birdie" in a production number. Auer is her match in every way.

Robert Paige and Jane Frazee
Hellzapoppin' breaks through the fourth wall numerous times throughout the movie (this was done in many films afterwards including Gremlins 2) and has a lot of sight gags, some of which succeed (the "coat of arms") and some of which land with a thud. A highlight of the film is a performance by the sensational Harlem Congeroo Dancers and an all-black band that is equally spectacular. Olsen and John had teamed for at least one movie before this one, All Over Town, then got together again for Crazy House and Ghost Catchers, pretty much doing the same shtick that they do in Hellzapoppin'. A little of them goes a long way! To compare them in any way to the Marx Brothers is utterly ludicrous.

Verdict: Silly, frequently stupid, but it earns some genuine chuckles as well. **3/4. 


Stan Laurel, Jean Harlow, Oliver Hardy
DOUBLE WHOOPEE (1929). Director: Lewis H. Foster. 

In this silent short, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who have come to the Frontenac Hotel to fill in as doorman and footman, are mistaken for a visiting King (Hans Joby) and his prime minister (Charley Rogers). If that weren't bad enough, the real king takes a header into an elevator shaft not once but thrice! Installed in their new jobs and uniforms, the boys incur the wrath of a taxi driver and a cop, and have an amusing if embarrassing incident with a pretty guest played by no less than Jean Harlow. Hardy's primping when he spots the lovely Harlow is hilarious. Double Whoopee is not a silent classic, but it does show that the fellows had their shtick down pat even in the silent era, and were extremely gifted comic actors. Harlow hasn't much to do but does it with aplomb. 

Verdict: A few good laughs in this silent shortie. **3/4. 

Thursday, March 4, 2021


THE SILENCE (aka Tystnaden/1963). Director: Ingmar Bergman.

Two women who appear to be sisters are traveling in Europe with the ten-year-old son of one of them when they stop in a rather dismal little town, Timoka, where one, Ester (Ingrid Thulin), becomes ill. As Ester becomes increasingly overwrought and fears dying alone, Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) goes out of the hotel and finds a man to have sex with, and little Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom) makes his own merriment with a friendly old man and some dwarfs. This is probably fraught with symbolism and deep meaning -- maybe -- but it comes off more as an almost comically underwritten mood piece and little else. Ester has been described as a "repressed lesbian" in several reviews, probably because of the scene where she seems to come on to her sister (similar to scenes in the later Cries and Whispers) but it comes off less as lesbianism or incest than just a kind of mock eroticism-without-a-point, thrown in because it turns Bergman on. Thanks to Sven Nykvist's photography, the film is full of a grim atmosphere, as well as arresting images and faces, as well as the usual fine acting -- if only Bergman had given the players a screenplay that was worthy of their mettle.

Verdict: Half-baked in Timoka. **.


Sister and brother: Domergue and Benson 
SPIN A DARK WEB (1956). Director: Vernon Sewell. 

Jim Bankley (Lee Patterson) hopes to get a start in the fight game, but is willing to take anything. His friend, Buddy (Robert Arden), arranges for Jim to meet his boss, Rico Francesi (Martin Benson), but he particularly ignites the interest of Rico's sexy sister, Bella (Faith Domergue of Where Danger Lives). One of Rico's flunkies, McLeod (Bernard Fox), is told to pay a relatively benign call on a boxer, Bill (Peter Hammond), who refused to take a dive, but violence ensues, and Bill is killed. Jim is also involved with Bill's sister, Betty (Rona Anderson), who is appalled that he is now working for Rico. Things begin spiraling downward from there, with Jim regretting that he ever got involved with this mob, and Bella determined to hold on to him -- at any cost. 

Lee Patterson and Rona Anderson 
Spin a Dark Web is the kind of British thriller I would normally review on my brother blog B Movie Nightmarebut this picture is a little bit different. The main difference is a highly interesting cast. Lee Patterson was a Canadian actor who had quite a list of credits in British "B"s before landing a gig in the American private eye show Surfside Six and doing US TV work and soap operas thereafter. He gives a solid performance in this as a man a bit on the shady side who still has some principles. Faith Domergue [Dah-mure], a Howard Hughes discovery (and more) in her teens, became a cult figure due to appearances in such films as It Came from Beneath the Sea and This Island Earth. She gives a good performance in this although one might have wished she came on a lot stronger in certain sequences, but Joan Crawford she wasn't. Martin Benson was in everything from The Cosmic Monsters to Gorgo to Goldfinger and always fit the bill. Robert Arden was the leading man in Orson Welle's Mr Arkadin/Confidential Agent, and he scores in this supporting part as well. Pleasant and pretty, Rona Anderson appeared in numerous UK movies. 

Spin a Dark Web has a good (if familiar) story and is generally well-paced, although with better and tighter editing and more use of close-ups the climax could have been a real nail-biter. Domergue and Patterson play well together.

Verdict: Domergue is not so "dah mure" in this! ***.


LUCY AT THE MOVIES. Cindy de la Hoz

Before she became a super-star with I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball was an honest-to-goodness movie star who appeared in dozens of films, beginning as a chorus girl and extra, moving on to supporting player, and finally emerging as a star in her own right of such films as The Big Street, in which she was teamed above the title with Henry Fonda. Ball displayed her comic gifts – although she was more than "just" a fine comedienne – in film after film, bolstering mediocre efforts and complimenting good ones such as Street, in which she gives an affecting, memorable portrait of a spoiled, frightened singer who is scared she'll never walk again and takes it out on everyone around her, especially the man who is devoted to her. This book looks at every film that Ball appeared in before, during, and after Lucy, everything from The Affairs of Annabelle to Mame. You'll even read about the film she once made with Boris Karloff! Ms. de la Hoz supplies synopses, sample reviews, her own background notes and critique, and loads and loads of photos. This is a huge, heavy, coffee table book on thick paperstock

Verdict: Lucy fans should pounce! ***1/2.


an evil gremlin on the loose!
GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH (1990). Director: Joe Dante. 

Billy (Zach Galligan) and Kate (Phoebe Cates) from Gremlins are engaged and living in New York City. Both of them work in real estate developer Daniel Clamp's (John Glover) Trade Centre, which is a fully-automated "smart building." Billy discovers that little Gizmo from the first film has been put in a genetics lab in the building after the death of his Chinese owner, Wing (Keye Luke). Billy frees Gizmo from the lab, but the cute little fellow gets wet and before you know it the Trade Centre is over-run with ferocious if fun-loving evil gremlins! Billy comes up with a brilliant if risky plan to get rid of them. 

Galligan, Cates and Glover with Gizmo in a box
Like its predecessor, Gremlins 2:The New Batch is a pretty silly movie, but it's hard to dislike because of its constant, generally amusing, references to films and popular culture. Galligan, Cates and Glover are perfectly amiable and adept performers, but they are lost in a virtual sea of weird-looking puppets and aging, lovable character actors. One gremlin drinks a special "brain formula" and turns into an erudite pseudo-British type voiced in great style by Tony Randall. We have a hilarious turn or two by the wonderful Kathleen Freeman, who plays a cooking hostess who loves her cooking sherry and finds a slimy-looking gremlin in her stew. I have no idea why Al Lewis didn't play the horror movie host because the character in this is obviously modeled on "Ole Grandpa" from The Munsters, but Robert Prosky does a good enough job impersonating him. There are also some fun supporting turns from Dick Miller and Jackie Joseph, and a funny bit from Kenneth Tobey. 

Gizmo does a dance for the twins and Lee
Three other performers deserve a special mention: Christopher Lee gets right into the manic spirit of the piece in his portrayal of the head of the genetics lab; Robert Picardo offers a snappy portrait of the no-nonsense heartless corporate assistant type who ignites the passion of the one female (?) gremlin in the bunch; and Haviland Morris is utter perfection as Billy's also-lustful boss who has her eyes on him as well as on the prize. Walking into a web spun by a giant spider-gremlin she says "This is new." Gremlins 2 also features a charming scene when Gizmo comes out of his cage to boogie to some rock music and twin assistants dance along with him as Lee looks on with disapproval. Then there's the very clever bit when the Gremlins invade a projection room and set fire to a print of -- you guessed it -- Gremlins 2!

Two other items I must mention. I enjoyed the stop-motion work in the film, which includes a flying bat-gremlin that attacks Dick Miller and turns into a gargoyle -- this was done by the Doug Beswick studios. And then there are the guest appearances by Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, especially the latter. Watch the closing credits to watch lovable Daffy's reaction to how damn long the credits to movies are these days!

Verdict: One could easily denounce this as stupid and note that the pacing is often off, but the darn thing can be inventive and amusing in equal measure. ***.


(1957). Director: Alexander Mackendrick. 

"You're dead, son. Get yourself buried." 

Powerful newspaper columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), who seems to have an incestuous yen for his sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), is determined to keep her from marrying a musician (Martin Milner), and importunes press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to help him break the couple up. This study of loathsome and immoral characters isn't really about show biz or newspapers or even columnists but it seems almost as hollow at its center as its protagonist. Part of the problem is that you never really believe Lancaster as Hunsecker, although by no means does he give a bad performance. Then the secondary love story isn't that convincing or moving. Susan Harrison and Barbara Nichols have some nice moments -- Milner is okay if a bit stiff -- but the picture is positively stolen by a ferocious, charismatic and altogether splendid performance by Tony Curtis. That's the main reason to watch the film. 

Verdict: Curtis' finest hour. **1/2.