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

Thursday, February 17, 2022


Marvel Marceau and Marcel Marceau
SHANKS (1974). Directed by William Castle. Subtitle: William Castle Presents a Grimm Fairy Tale.

Deafmute Malcolm Shanks (Marcel Marceau) makes puppets and lives with his shrewish stepsister (Tsilla Chelton) and her husband Mr. Barton (Philippe Clay) in their home, where they berate and abuse him on a regular basis. One day Malcolm goes to work for the elderly Professor Walker (also Marceau) who shows him how he uses special technology, like magic, to reanimate the corpses of frogs and roosters. When the professor dies, Malcolm decides to reanimate him, but there is just a walking physical shell, no mind. Later on Malcolm turns his deceased sister and brother-in-law into "living" corpses to do his bidding, a situation that both fascinates and repels the young Celia (Cindy Eilbacher). Into the professor's mansion, where Malcolm has taken up residence, come a group of hard core and thuggish bikers who try to take the "living dead" technology away from Malcolm.

Chelton, Marceau and Clay
 is William Castle's most original and possibly most interesting picture -- it was also the last film he directed (he also served as executive producer). Using occasional title cards like a silent film and a spirited, quirky score by Alex North [The 13th Letter], the movie proceeds, as it should, like a dream or nightmare. Because of this approach viewers might not look too closely at the rather ghoulish actions of the protagonist, well-acted by Marceau, who is sympathetic despite the fact that he turns corpses into large performing dolls. Marceau only speaks when he plays the professor. The other performances are excellent as well, although the casting of sixteen-year-old Eilbacher, who looks even younger, adds a bit of a creep factor as she sort of becomes the love interest for 51-year-old Marceau and comes to a highly unpleasant fate as well. This reminds me of the kind of films Tim Burton makes, with their weird subject matter and lapses in good taste, and I would not be surprised if that filmmaker was influenced by Castle's work in general and this film in particular. Photographed by Joseph F. Biroc [Forty Guns]. Castle appears as a grocer, and there is an interesting attack-by-rooster. 

Verdict: Although Castle's direction may not be not top-notch, and criticisms of the film are not without merit -- especially the deliberate pacing --  Shanks is still an unusual and worthwhile picture, a fitting end to his directorial career. ***. 


 (1978). Director: Ken Russell. 

Ken Russell takes the life of Rudolph Valentino (Rudolf Nureyev) and gives it the usual camp-grotesque treatment that he favors. Leslie Caron overacts (or was directed to overact) as Nazimova; Michelle Phillips (of The Mamas and the Papas) is barely adequate as Natasha Rambova. Other familiar faces in the cast are Anton Diffring as a cabaret owner; Linda Thorson ("Tara King" of TV's The Avengers) as a dance hall hostess; Huntz Hall of the Bowery Boys as Jesse Lasky; Carol Kane as an actress-friend of Fatty Arbuckle's; Seymour Cassel as an agent; John Ratzenberger of Cheers as a reporter. Russell himself plays Rex Ingram. Hall and Kane are simply mediocre. Some of the bad acting probably has to be attributed to Russell's lack of flair with actors. Nureyev, however, has charm and charisma and sometimes even hits the mark with his acting, but a different director might have brought out an even better performance. The picture really only comes alive when Rudy dances; especially good is Valentino's tango with Nijinski (Anthony Dowell) early in the picture. This is even worse than the 1951 Valentino; there is no attempt at characterization to speak of. Worse, the movie is actually quite boring. Russell wants so bad to be hip, but the dumb, homophobic humor works against it, as does just about everything else. By the way, the climactic boxing match never actually happened, which is true of most of the picture. 

Verdict: Turn it off after the tango. Another freak show from one of the worst film directors ever. *.


(1946). Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Screenplay by Howard Dimsdale and Mankiewicz. 

 "Time doesn't change. it goes on and on but it doesn't change. I know because I've watched it. Nights. Days. Nights. Always the same. Nights are always gray. Days can have different colors, but the nights are dark and empty. Only people change. They grow old and ugly -- and pitiful. I've made believe so much for so long. That I was alive. That I had friends. That I wasn't dead. I wanted so much to make believe that somebody loved me." 

An amnesiac WW 2 veteran named George Taylor (John Hodiak) learns that someone named "Larry Cravat" has put $5000 for him in a bank account but can't remember why or even who the man is. So he begins a search for the elusive Cravat, encountering a pretty singer named Christy (Nancy Guild) who takes a shine to him and vice versa. During his search Taylor encounters assorted thugs, a villain named Anzelmo (Fritz Kortner) and a hard-boiled dame named Phyllis (Margo Woode). After she kisses an unresponsive Taylor, Phyllis says "I've had more fun drinking a bromo seltzer." (Sheldon Leonard has a notable turn as Phyllis' husband.) Lloyd Nolan is a police officer who's also looking for Cravat -- and George Taylor. 

John Hodiak
This interesting mystery has an intriguing plot and good dialogue, and is well-acted by Hodiak and everyone else. Woode is snappy as Phyllis, and Guild very appealing as Christy. (Guild gets to lip sync to a very nice torch song entitled "I'm in the Middle of Nowhere.") The cast stand-out, however, is Josephine Hutchinson as desperately lonely Elizabeth, who is very affecting in her brief scene wherein she speaks the dialogue quoted above. Somewhere in the Night is a snappy, absorbing picture, even if its wind-up is a little predictable and disappointing, but it has well-realized characters and memorable performances. Mankiewicz's direction is only routine for this type of material, however. This was Guild's first film; she also appeared in Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man. She makes a much better impression in this film. 

Verdict: Suspenseful and different. ***.


Walter Abel and Ann Harding
THE    WITNESS CHAIR     (1936). Director: George Nichols Jr. 

Stanley Whit-taker (Dou-glass Dumbrille) is found dead of a gunshot in his office. Although he left a suicide note admitting to embezzlement, the police determine that his death was really a homicide. Whittaker's associate, Jim Trent (Walter Abel of Fired Wife) is put on trial for the murder, but other suspects and interested parties include secretary Paula Young (Ann Harding of When Ladies Meet), bookkeeper Grace Franklin (Margaret Hamilton), office boy Benny Ryan (Billy Benedict), and even Trent's daughter, Constance (Frances Sage), who inexplicably wanted to run off with the much older and not especially attractive Whittaker. During the trial, the truth behind the murder eventually comes out. 

William "Billy" Benedict
The Witness Chair is an entertaining if very minor crime/court-room drama with generally good performances and a tidy if unspectacular screenplay. Ann Harding is as efficient as ever, even if her performance is of the long-suffering, hand-wringing variety. Back in the day, Harding was a major star -- this is a lesser vehicle for her -- but today she is known only to film buffs. Like Kay Francis and others, her films didn't show up on the late show until the days of TCM. Walter Able, a fine actor, was a leading man who later became a supporting player. The prolific Billy Benedict almost steals the film with his comic turn as the office boy, who hopes for a singing career and is annoyed that he gets such a short time in the witness chair. Margaret Hamilton is snappy as the outraged bookkeeper who insists that her boss, Whittaker, was innocent of theft. 

Verdict: Smooth easy watching if nothing to get excited about. **1/2. 


THE SHAGGY DOG (1959). Director: Charles Barton. 

Fred MacMurray's career was given a new lease on life when he signed to do this silly comedy for Disney Studios and it became a tremendous hit. Wilson Daniels (MacMurray) is a mailman who hates dogs. A magic spell turns his older son Wilby (Tommy Kirk) into a sheepdog -- or rather he takes over the body of a neighbor's sheepdog -- and he turns back at awkward moments. This charming and amusing comedy for children is a bit dragged out by a heavy-handed spy plot that develops late in the picture -- it also has a rather slow pace -- but it has enough laughs to keep you interested if you're game and MacMurray is splendid. There are also good performances from Kirk; Kevin Corcoran as his brother, Moochie; Tim Considine as his girl-crazy pal, Buzz; Jean Hagen as his mother; Cecil Kellaway as a professor; and especially that amazing dog who plays Chiffon. (Watching the animal go through its paces, you sometimes have to remind yourself that it hasn't a human brain but is just a dog.) Annette Funicello and Roberta Shore are the young ladies; Alexander Scourby is head of the spies. NOTE: To read about a fine biography of Fred MacMurray, click here

Verdict: Watch Chiffon go for a drive! ***.

Thursday, February 3, 2022


Doomed lovers: Boyer and Darrieux

MAYERLING      (1936). Director: Anatole Litvak. French-language version with sub-titles.

Rudolph (Charles Boyer), the Crown Prince of Austria, is trapped in a loveless arranged marriage, disagrees with his father's politics and edicts, and spends most of his time carousing and womanizing. Until he espies the pretty young Marie Vetsera (Danielle Darrieux) and the two fall in love. Rudolph tries to have his marriage to the archduchess Stephanie (Yolande Laffon) annulled, but neither the Pope nor his father will allow this. The Emperor finally tells his son that this affair must end within 24 hours. The lovers spend one last fateful night together.

the real Prince Rudolph in younger days
Mayerling was a French film that turned Boyer into an international star. (I believe a dubbed version was also released). At 37 Boyer was a few years too old to play Rudolph (who was around 30), but it doesn't really matter. Boyer and Darrieux both give excellent performances in the less naturalistic style of the 1930's. The supporting cast consists of unfamiliar but well-chosen and effective French actors; I especially enjoyed Andre Dubosc as the prince's elderly and loving valet. 

Based on a novel, Mayerling -- named for the prince's retreat where the final rendezvous takes place -- is a fictionalized version of the story. There were at least three subsequent versions: The Secret of Mayerling, a French film that delves into the now-discredited theory that the lovers were murdered; a 1957 version with Audrey Hepburn and husband Mel Ferrer; and the 1968 version with Omar Sharif, which includes another lover of the prince's, an actress/possible prostitute that he apparently also tried to impress into a death pact. I have a feeling the real facts about our prince are much more interesting, and perhaps even less savory, than what happens in this movie. 

In real life, Rudolph's marriage to Stephanie began happily enough, but frankly, Rudy was a bit of a dog; he even gave his wife a venereal disease! In the film Rudolph not only cheats on his wife but utterly humiliates her by asking Marie to dance with him instead of her at a royal ball. The couple's rather callous treatment of the wife is kind of glossed over, although the very young Marie does have the sensitivity to say of some gossiping old biddies, "It isn't easy getting old." Mayerling boasts a very arresting and interesting score by Arthur Honegger. Boyer and Darrieux reteamed 17 years later for The Earrings of Madame De.  

Verdict: If taken with a grain of salt, this is an impressive and well-made romantic picture. ***. 


Chris Noth and Kevin Spacey
Gifted, Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey is accused of almost molesting someone at a drunken bash many years ago and all of a sudden he is fired off his show, House of Cards, his performance in a movie is digitally over-written by another actor, and he is persona non grata in Hollywood.

Chris Noth, star of Law and Order, Sex and the City, and others is accused of drunken, inappropriate behavior decades ago and is also dropped from his latest TV series, dropped by his agency, turned on by his wife and former co-stars (who throw him under the bus) and becomes persona non grata in Hollywood.

All of this happened without either gentleman even being given a chance to defend themselves. (Spacey has since been acquitted in one trial and I don't believe there are any criminal charges against him any more.)

Yes, we know guys can act like pigs, especially under the influence of alcohol and drugs, But I've no doubt the "victims" were also under the influence and their memories, after many, many years, are undoubtedly hazy. But in the long run it doesn't matter who's right or who's wrong.

Whatever happened to Innocent Until Proven Guilty? 

Neither of these gentlemen have been accused of out and out rape, which would certainly make them unsympathetic, to say the least, if they were guilty. Spacey was excoriated less for what he may have done at a party (or for allegedly groping other "victims") than for coming out years too late just after the charges went public, meaning he was attacked by both gays and homophobes. (And make no mistake -- a large part of what happened to him has to do with homophobia.)

Chris Noth helped some gal get an acting gig on Law and Order: Criminal Intent, but apparently she didn't turn into the next Lady Gaga so somebody has to pay. Noth has become a victim of the originally well-intentioned me-too movement, which has blown up to include virtually any man who even looks at a woman the wrong way. (Former governor Andrew Cuomo was certainly a victim of this.)

Should people be held accountable for alleged sloppy drunken behavior decades later, have their lives and careers utterly destroyed, simply on somebody's say-so, someone who may have an ax to grind, rent to pay, grievances to air, someone who needs both attention and cash, some redress to the "wrongs" they've suffered because their careers didn't amount to cat shit? The alleged victims may claim in lawsuits -- the whole reason for the accusations in the first place -- that their lives were destroyed, but somehow I don't think so. That's just legalese for let's-jack-up-the-bounty.

The horrible thing is this can happen to anyone. Yes, anyone can be accused of supposedly doing something many, many years in the past and before they even have a chance to answer the charges, suddenly their careers are over! There is no fair hearing, no trial, no nothing. To say this is unfair is an understatement. I'm not saying that people shouldn't be held accountable for their actions, but let's not just throw someone into the garbage bin a literal second later!

I hope there are producers out there who will hire both Spacey and Noth for their projects, because it all has to do with talent and not with private lives and unsubstantiated accusations. I've never met either gentleman -- perhaps they are both arrogant and unlikable (another reason for the accusations) --but that doesn't mean they should be wiped out by possibly false and exaggerated allegations. 


Rutherford and real-life husband Stringer Davis
MURDER AHOY (1964). Director: George Pollock.

When one of the board members of a trust that helps to rehabilitate young offenders is blatantly poisoned, Miss Marple (Margaret Rutherford) decides to do her own investigation. With the help of her friend Mr. Stringer (Stringer Davis, married to Rutherford in real life), Miss Marple, wearing Naval uniform, goes into action, confining much of her investigation to the ship where these miscreants are trained. Captain Rhumstone (Lionel Jeffries of First Men in the Moon) isn't at all thrilled by this development, especially when he is forced to give his cabin to the snooping old lady. Other officers, staff -- and suspects -- include Dr. Crump (Nicholas Parsons); Bishop Faulkner (Miles Malleson of The Thief of Bagdad); Lt. Compton (Francis Matthews); matron Alice Fanbraid (Joan Benham); and others. When there are more deaths aboard ship, Marple knows her suspicions are correct, and she also uncovers the reasons behind the killings, but not before a fencing duel with the perpetrator. 

Charles Tingwell with Rutherford
Murder Ahoy was the last of the four Marple films which Rutherford did, and the only one that was not loosely based on a novel by Agatha Christie. Therefore this film is tailored for the attributes of Rutherford's version of the character, which wasn't that much like Christie's version. The film is suspenseful and amusing. As usual Charles Tingwell is on hand as Chief Inspector Craddock, who is exasperated not only to find that Miss Marple is on the job against his wishes, but is better at solving the crime than he is. 

Verdict: More fun with Miss Marple. ***.


HILDA CRANE (1956). Director: Philip Dunne. 

After two disastrous marriages and what she considers "failure" in New York City, Hilda Crane (Jean Simmons) returns to her home town and her mother and ponders her future. Her unaffectionate mother, Stella (Judith Evelyn), thinks she should forget all about romantic notions of "love" and settle for appearances, a marriage that is settled and stabled (and, perhaps, without passion). Should Hilda marry small-town guy Russell Burns? (The fact that Burns is not only rich and nice, but is played by handsome Guy Madison, must have made Hilda's indecision over the matter seem a little comical to some ladies in the audience.) Or should she settle for a more passionate relationship with her former teacher Jacques (Jean-Pierre Aumont) whom she apparently finds more exciting? Evelyn Varden almost steals the picture as Russell's termagant of a mother, who thinks Hilda is nothing but a tramp and isn't afraid to say so. Peggy Knudsen adds some bite as Hilda's blunt friend, Nell, and Jeannette MacDonald's sister Blossom Rock (AKA Marie Blake) is cast as Mrs. Crane's housekeeper. (Years later she played Grandmama on The Addams Family TV show.) The usually reliable Judith Evelyn doesn't quite seem to get a handle on how she should play her character. Hilda Crane is watchable and generally well-acted, but despite the occasional crisp or intelligent line, it's just comes off as a forgettable soap opera. 

Verdict: Peyton Place Lite. **.


TUGBOAT ANNIE (1933). Director: Mervyn LeRoy. 

Annie Brennan (Marie Dressler) lives and works on her tugboat, along with her often-drunk and lazy husband, Terry (Wallace Beery), whom she dearly loves. The only thing that comes between them is their son Alec (Robert Young), a successful captain of a luxury liner, who is disgraced by his father's behavior and wants his mother to leave him. This causes an estrangement between son and parents that is painful for all. Tugboat Annie features that swell team Dressler and Beery in top form. (Although Young is okay, he's rather one-note and out-classed in this company). Maureen O'Sullivan is excellent as Alec's girlfriend, and Frankie Darro is fine as Alec as a boy in the earlier scenes. Tugboat Annie and its leads never let you forget the pathos underneath the comedy. The only debit is that the climactic storm-at-sea sequence goes on a little too long, and is a bit confusing as well. 

Verdict: Dressler and Beery at their best. ***.