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

Thursday, July 21, 2022


Eliot Ness and his Untouchables
THE SCARFACE MOB (1959). Director: Phil Karlson. 

With bootlegging gangsters like Al Capone (Neville Brand of Eaten Alive) -- nicknamed Scarface -- taking over Chicago, it is decided that Federal agent Eliot Ness (Robert Stack) will put together a special squad of incorruptible operatives soon to be known as the "Untouchables" because they cannot be bribed. One of the squad members is Joe Fuselli (Kennan Wynn of The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown), who served time for armed robbery but is anxious to make amends. Frank Nitti (Bruce Gordon) runs operations while Capote is temporarily in jail. George Ritchie (Joe Mantell), wants to impress his flirtatious wife, stripper Brandy (Barbara Nichols) -- whose uncle is a bookkeeper for Capone -- by volunteering to get info for Ness. Meanwhile the Feds set out smashing breweries, and more than one "untouchable" may come to a bad end. Ness also finds that his fiancee, Betty (Pat Crowley of There's Always Tomorrow), is in danger from the mob. 

Ness vs. Nitti: Stack with Bruce Gordon
Released in theaters, The Scarface Mob was actually the pilot for the TV show The Untouchables, originally shown in two parts on Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse and introduced by both Desi Arnaz and Walter Winchell, who provided snappy narration for the series. As a stand-alone movie, The Scarface Mob is a good if minor crime drama. Stack makes the perfect Ness, and the normally stoic actor even sheds tears when one of his operatives is killed. Pat Crowley is excellent as his fiancee turned wife, who marries Ness as much for protection as out of love (I don't believe Ness' wife was ever seen again on the TV series, although he called her on the phone frequently.) Brand, Gordon, Mantell, Wynn, and Nichols are all on target as well. Bill Williams also plays one of the Untouchables and is fine. 

Prohibition was undoubtedly one of the worst ideas in American politics. It only led to gangsters taking over the now-illegal alcohol industry and badly increased all manner of crime in Chicago and elsewhere. It was finally repealed due to public demand. 

Verdict: Credible and entertaining mob movie with very good performances. ***. 


Mills, Mathers, McGuire, Hodges, Pollard

SUMMER MAGIC (1963). Director: James Neilson.

Widow Margaret Carey (Dorothy McGuire of Susan Slade) has to move her brood from Boston to a rented house in the country for financial reasons. The agent for the house, Osh Popham (Burl Ives of The Big Country), assures her that the owner is anxious for her to move in, but is he keeping secrets as his wife, Mariah (Una Merkel), suggests? Neither daughter Nancy (Hayley Mills) or older son Gilly (Eddie Hodges) are thrilled when they learn that stuck-up, pretentious cousin Julia (Deborah Walley), is moving in, but both young ladies are thrilled to meet the handsome young schoolmaster, Charles (James Stacy). Nancy is deflated when Charles seems to prefer Julia, but she may get the consolation prize when the house's real owner (Peter Brown of Violent Road) finally shows up. 

Eddie Hodges and Hayley Mills
Although there are a couple of moments when Summer Magic threatens to become dangerously sitcom-like and overly cutesy, I have to admit the darn thing has a lot of charm, not to mention several excellent performances. The gifted Hayley Mills always seems to be wonderful, and the same can be said of Dorothy McGuire. Ives and Merkel make an interesting couple, with the ever-quirky Michael J. Pollard (was there ever an actor anything like him?) playing their son with his customary shit-eatin' benevolence. Eddie Hodges is fine as Gilly, who would have preferred to stay in Boston, and little James Mathers (younger brother of Leave It to Beaver's Jerry Mathers) nearly steals the pic as the youngest member of the family. (It's somewhat annoying that when he's bullied because he has long hair and is wearing a Buster Brown outfit said bullies don't get any comeuppance.) 

Hayley with Dorothy McGuire
Summer Magic is a musical, and while the songwriting team of the Sherman Brothers is not exactly Rodgers and Hammerstein, they have contributed some more-than-pleasant tunes, including "On the Front Porch with You," "The Ugly Bug Ball," "Beulah" and others. Hayley, Eddie and Burl do their own singing while I believe the others are dubbed. The rather abrupt character reversal of Julia is unconvincing, although Deborah Walley manages to handle it all with aplomb. A song in which the girls sing about "Femininity" and hiding your true self to snare a beau is the most dated thing about the picture, even if it takes place in the twenties. Although Dorothy McGuire was not that old and still attractive, the film doesn't give her a romantic partner, another dated aspect.

Verdict: Take it with a grain of salt and this is amusing and entertaining in equal measure. ***. 


BUZZ: THE LIFE AND ART OF BUSBY BERKELEY. Jeffrey Spivak. University Press of Kentucky; 2010. 

In this well-written and interesting account of Busby Berkeley, we learn that the man responsible for so many knock-out and eye-popping production numbers in vintage musicals was not a choreographer in the classic sense, but came up with often startling ideas to incorporate into -- or overpower -- the song and dance routines. Berkeley also directed numerous films, including Forty Little Mothers and Babes on Broadway

Whatever the man's sexual orientation, Berkeley avoided MPs in the red light district by dressing in drag; his first wife considered him a mama's boy and most of his marriages did not last long; and early in his career he eagerly took the role of a campy queen in a Broadway show. Who knows? 

His personal life had other problems, including a propensity for drink. After three trials Busby was acquitted of vehicular manslaughter in the deaths of three people. His defense team argued that regardless of his inebriation at the wheel, a tire blow-out caused the accident. (But a sober driver might have been able to handle the car after the blow out.) While some of the people who worked with Busby had positive things to say about him, others considered him a rather vile and unpleasant individual. 

Frankly Buzz will not have you admiring the man but it does help you to admire his artistry, which is well-documented in this informative and engaging tome. 

Verdict:  Solid bio of a influential and creative Hollywood figure. ***1/2. 


Deborah Kerr and Hayley Mills
THE CHALK GARDEN (1964). Director: Ronald Neame. 

Miss Madrigal (Deborah Kerr) is the latest in a long line of governesses for young and incorrigible Laurel (Hayley Mills), whose mother went off with her new husband and left her in the care of her own mother, Mrs. St. Maugham (Edith Evans). Laurel, who hates her mother, Olivia (Elizabeth Sellars), for abandoning her, is determined to find out what if any secrets Miss Madrigal may have, and one of them is a doozy. Meanwhile the governess and Mrs. St. M disagree on who should raise Laurel, her mother or her grandmother. Madrigal believes she belongs with Olivia, while her employer vehemently denies this. Then Mrs. St. M's old friend, "Puppy," the retired Judge McWhirrey (Felix Aylmer) shows up, and eventually remembers where he has seen Miss Madrigal before ... 

John Mills with Kerr
The Chalk Garden is based on a play by Enid Bagnold, and in truth it is very stagey and often unconvincing. There were a great many changes made from theater to film. Deborah Kerr never quite seems to get a handle on her character (although in this she may not necessarily be blamed); Hayley Mills is fine but for one or two occurrences of over-acting; Edith Evans is on the money; and Sellars and Aylmer are perfectly solid. So too is John Mills, who plays the sympathetic butler. There is perhaps too much left unsaid in this version, and characters come to conclusions that seem without foundation.

Verdict: This Ross Hunter production has some merit but ultimately doesn't quite cut it. **3/4.


(1972). Director: James Goldstone. 

Chief of Police Marsh (James Garner) investigates when a woman is found dead and it is at first assumed that she was the victim of a Doberman Pinscher. But it turns out that she was murdered by a much more human adversary. Her husband (Peter Lawford) says she told him she was going to leave him for another woman. Interestingly enough, she was also pregnant at the time of her death. Suspects include a vet (Hal Holbrook), his assistant (Katherine Ross), who becomes involved with Marsh, and the vet's wife (June Allyson, who is quite good in a brief sequence). Edmond O'Brien plays the owner of a liquor store, and Tom Ewell and Ann Rutherford have supporting roles as well; Harry Guardino is another cop. This is typical of slick TV-like movies released theatrically in the seventies that try to be "hip" by adding homoerotic elements, but Lane Slate's script is pretty dated when it comes to the subject of homo and bisexuality and swinging. Garner is Garner; Ross is pretty. The best scene has the Doberman going a little nutty when Garner and Ross are in bed. 

Verdict: If you're a swinger you gotta die. **.

Thursday, July 7, 2022


Hayley Mills
POLLYANNA  (1960). Director: David Swift. 

Now that she has become an orphan, young Pollyana (Hayley Mills) is shipped off to a small midwestern city where she is to live in a mansion with her stern and uncompromising Aunt Polly (Jane Wyman). So as not to disturb her sleep, Polly gives her niece the smallest room up in the attic. Despite her travails, Pollyana has the most upbeat nature in the world, and refuses to see defeat in anything or anybody. Mayor Warren (Donald Crisp) wants the town to build a new orphanage while Polly -- the wealthiest citizen, who happens to own the building -- thinks all it needs is new plumbing. When everyone decides to hold a fair to raise money for the new orphanage, Polly forbids her to go, but she sneaks out anyway, nearly leading to tragedy. 

Mills with Richard Egan
A very popular movie in its day -- and the first film Mills did for Walt Disney -- Pollyana is undeniably entertaining and generally well-acted, especially by young Ms. Mills. A sub-plot has to do with the romance between Polly's assistant Nancy (Nancy Olson) and George Dodds (James Drury), not to mention Polly's interactions with old flame Dr. Chilton (Richard Egan). Pollyana also interacts with the hypochondriacal Mrs. Snow (Agnes Moorehead, badly over-acting); the weird recluse Pendergast (Adolphe Menjou); orphan boy Jimmy (Kevin Corcoran); grumpy maid Angelica (Mary Grace Canfield); the termagant Mrs. Tarvell (Anne Seymour); peppery cook Tillie (Reta Shaw); and the amazingly wishy washy and weak Reverend Ford (Karl Malden). Pollyana offers a surprisingly negative portrait of the minister, although he does eventually grow a spine. 

Egan with Jane Wyman
Pollyana is a little too long - surely the little ones in the audience grew impatient, not to mention needed bathroom breaks? -- and the whole business with Pendergast and his prisms that create rainbows gets tiresome very quickly. How faithful the film is to its turn of the century period I can't tell. Despite the open-endedness of the finale, the movie is extremely pat in virtually solving all of the problems of the characters with what seems like the snap of a finger -- this is almost funnier than anything else in the movie. Still, if you can take all that with a grain of salt, the movie may work for you. It is fun. 

Verdict: Classic Disney film with a fine lead performance. ***. 


  • Jean Simmons and Burt Lancaster
(1960). Director: Richard Brooks. 

 "He rammed the fist of God into me so fast that I never heard my father's footsteps." -- Lulu. 

Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) is an operator who discovers there's money to be made and power achieved in the Evangelical movement, so he hooks up with one Sister Sharon (Jean Simmons) and her associate William Morgan (Dean Jagger), who doesn't quite trust Gantry. He and Sharon make a highly effective team but things are threatened when Lulu (Shirley Jones), an old girlfriend and preacher's daughter who's become a hooker, resurfaces in Gantry's life at an inopportune moment. The entire cast is fairly terrific, and that includes Hugh Marlowe [All About Eve; Earth vs. the Flying Saucers] in a supporting part as an anti-revivalism reverend; Arthur Kennedy as a reporter; and the always-flavorful Edward Anderson as Babbitt. Elmer Gantry is interesting and entertaining, but it doesn't always make its points very clearly, and one senses that its opportunities to say something have been blunted. The climactic fire is quite well-handled. The low point is Lancaster and Patti Page doing a duet, with Page in Full Female Vocalist mode. Nice score by Andre Previn. 

Verdict: Somehow less than the sum of its parts, but never boring. ***.


FOREVER YOUNG: A MEMOIR. Hayley Mills. Grand Central; 2021.

In this very well-written and completely absorbing memoir, Hayley Mills begins by telling us that not only wasn't she at the ceremony, but she wasn't even aware of it when she was given a special Oscar for her first Disney film, Pollyanna.  She then writes of her early years, her family -- including father John Mills and sister Juliet Mills and her possibly alcoholic mother, who was also an actress -- and her first film, the British independent Tiger Bay, in which she co-starred with Horst Buchholz and developed a major crush on him. She signed a contract with Walt Disney, a man she greatly admired (she says nothing whatsoever negative about him) and appeared in such films as The Parent Trap, In Search of the Castaways, Summer Magic, That Darn Cat and others. Her first adult role was in The Family Way, which was directed by the much older Roy Boulting, whom she married. Boulting put her in unmemorable and inappropriate vehicles such as Twisted Nerve and their marriage was ultimately unsuccessful. Mills doesn't neglect her films or acting career, but the strength of the book is how well she delineates the feelings she was going through as she became famous at a very early age and other life-and-career-changing events that occurred afterward. 

Verdict: One of the best show biz memoirs ever written. ****. 


Burt Lancaster and Virginia Mayo
(1953). Director: Arthur Lubin. 

Through a series of misadventures Sergeant James O'Hearn (Burt Lancaster), his buddy and rival Davey (Chuck Connors), and the woman, Ginger (Virginia Mayo), that Davey is in love with wind up on an isolated island that seems untouched by the war except that any soldiers there wind up in jail. O'Hearn only pretends that he's gone AWOL, but Davey wants no part of the war, with the result that O'Hearn, of all people, winds up court-martialed. The movie is a long flashback detailing how he wound up in such a situation with the story veering from Shanghai to the French island of Namou. Too much talk in the courtroom sequences slows the movie down but there's some good action near the end when a commandeered yacht helmed by O'Hearn takes on the Japanese fleet! The three leads all give very good performances, as does Viola Vonn as the Frenchwoman Lillie Duval, and Arthur Shields [Daughter of Dr. Jekyll] as another resident of the island. Paul Burke plays an ensign at the court martial. 

Verdict: Entertaining if unremarkable. **1/2.


Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell
GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933). Director: Mervyn LeRoy. 

Carol (Joan Blondell), Trixie (Aline MacMahon) and Polly (Ruby Keeler) are roommates and struggling chorus girls. They are excited to learn that Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) is putting on another show, but disappointed when they discover he has no financial backer. But neighbor Brad (Dick Powell), an aspiring songwriter, says he has dough and wants to invest. Polly, who has a crush on Brad, is convinced that he is a infamous bank robber, but he's actually the wealthy scion of a stuffy Boston family. When Brad's brother Larry (Warren William) mistakes Carol for Polly and tries to buy her off, she decides to string him along while ruthless Trixie -- the oldest and least attractive of the trio -- sets her cap for Larry's lawyer Peabody (Guy Kibbee). Will true love conquer all? On yes, there are songs and dance numbers as well. 

Ginger Rogers and chorus cuties
The production numbers were put together by Busby Berkeley, and they are inventive and engaging (I especially loved the roller-skating baby!). The songs, by Warren and Dubin, include "We're In the Money" (warbled by Ginger Rogers, who plays a friend of the aforementioned trio); "Torch Song," well-sung by the very likable Powell; "Pettin' in the Park;" "In the Shadows;" and "The Forgotten Man." This last number, which is a poignant salute to forgotten and homeless WW1 veterans, adds some depth to an otherwise frothy, mindless movie and wisely ends the film without the usual clinch or upbeat finale. Trixie is a kind of sleazy character but the movie glosses over that. The cast is good and enthusiastic, putting over the material with aplomb. 

Verdict: All this and Powell, too! ***.