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

Thursday, August 18, 2022


Jun Haver and John Payne
WAKE UP AND DREAM (1946). Director: Lloyd Bacon. 

Jeff Cairn (John Payne) lives with his little sister, Nella (Connie Marshall), on a farm during WW2. Although he could get a deferment, he enlists in the Navy and says good-bye to his sort of sweetheart, waitress Jenny (June Haver). Then a notice comes saying that Jeff is Missing in Action. Nella and Jenny, in convoluted fashion that never quite makes sense, wind up on a drydocked boat built by the old curmudgeon, Henry Pecket (Clem Bevans). With the aid of Howard Williams (John Ireland), Peckett is able to set sail (sans permit or any special plan) and Jenny, Nella and Howard go with him. Nella is hoping they will sail to some beautiful island where she will be reunited with her brother, but instead they wind up literally stuck in the mud. 

Haver with John Ireland 
Say one thing for Wake Up and Dream, one of the oddest musicals I've ever seen, it is unpredictable. Oh it's no great surprise that Jeff turns up alive after missing most of the movie (a pretty much wasted role for Payne),  but other events are not so certain. Payne introduces the song "Give Me the Simple Life" early in the picture, and Haver warbles the pretty "I Wish I Could Tell You" but then in a much later sequence a chorus starts singing "We're Off to See the Wizard" [!] as the group trek into the swamp after a hermit that Nella has discovered. One could argue that the movie offers a message of hope, but when you consider that most men listed as missing in action were actually dead, it's perhaps not in the best of taste. In any case, all of the performances are quite good, including Charlotte Greenwood as a widow who takes in boarders and Irving Bacon as a toll gate attendant. Lee Patrick is in the picture but I must have blinked and completely missed her. Based on a novel by Robert Nathan, this has all the earmarks of a screenplay that was cut and pasted together. Some good dialogue, however. 

Verdict: 20th Century-Fox was no MGM when it came to (semi) musicals. **1/2. 


Jon Hall as Ali
ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1944). Director: Arthur Lubin. 

Prince Ali (Scotty Becket) of Baghdad is the son of the king and has a little girlfriend in Amara (Yvette Duguay),  with whom he makes a blood pact. When the King is betrayed by Amara's father, Cassim (Frank Puglia of 20 Million Miles to Earth), Ali manages to escape. Cassim is working with Hulagu Kahn (Kurt Katch of The Mask of Dimitrios), leader of the Mongul hordes and the new king of Baghdad. Ali stumbles upon the cave where the forty thieves keep their booty, and is adopted by them, especially old Baba (Fortunio Bonanova) and the grumpy Abdullah (Andy Devine of Never Say Die), who resents being a "nurse maid" to the boy. The years go by and young Ali Baba, as he is now known, has managed to turn the thieves into freedom fighters (!) who strike swiftly at the Mongolians. Cassin's beautiful daughter, now grown (and played by Maria Montez), is betrothed to Kahn, but falls for the handsome thief, Ali Baba. Eventually they will realize who the other one really is, but in the meantime Kahn is determined to kill one and marry the other ... 

Maria Montez
Ali Baba takes the story from "The Thousand and One Nights" and does its best to turn it into a tale of WW2-style oppression and resistance although it never really loses its fantastic flavoring. Part of this is the casting of Montez -- the only actor with her name above the title despite the fact that even she complained that it was Hall's picture -- and again she proves more than adequate for the proceedings, although much of her part consists of merely reacting to what is going on around her. Hall gives a good performance, as adept at the derring do as he is at pitching the woo. Scotty Becket, as always, is just as good as Ali as a boy. Devine, Bonanova, Puglia, and especially Kurt Katch as the loathsome Kahn, head up the supporting cast, along with Turban Bey, who is fine as a slave boy who assists both Amara and Ali. Like the earlier Arabian Nights, Universal pulled out all the stops for this flick, which is bathed in rich technicolor and has an exciting score by Edward Ward. Arthur Lubin's direction is not quite on the same level but he does keep things moving. 

Verdict: Colorful fantasy flick -- open sesame! ***. 


THE QUEEN OF TECHNICOLOR: MARIA MONTEZ IN HOLLYWOOD. Tom Zimmerman. University Press of Kentucky; 2022. NOTE: This review based on uncorrected galleys. 

Born in the Dominican Republic to a well-heeled family, Maria Montez married a much-older man whom she up and left flat after seven years to pursue her dreams of a career as an actress -- this despite having no discernable talent. Montez lived off a wealthy man's yacht for months, then during her stay in Manhattan managed to secure Bob Hope's agent "Doc" Schnurr. based solely on her looks. She was attractive but had to be carefully photographed, as her features could come off as heavy and unflattering. In general she looks much better in her technicolor movies than she does in still photographs. 

Montez made up so many stories about herself that no one believed her when she claimed to be engaged to a fighter pilot in the British air force -- people assumed he was a fictional entity -- but the man actually existed and did have a relationship with Montez, although they may or may not have been engaged. 

One critic wrote that Montez had "the regality of an
usherette." Once she began actually starring in movies (for a big but still second-string studio, Universal) Montez wanted to be "taken seriously." Her chief attribute when it came to thesping was radiating a haughty superiority, but she was no Hepburn. Refusing to appear in a western that she thought was too similar to her other films, Montez went on suspension even as Yvonne De Carlo replaced her and was groomed, in fact, to be her replacement at the studio. Universal eventually offered her a bone, the lead role in Tangier, but the picture was considered a stinker and those certain qualities that Montez exhibited in her earlier films were missing -- as Zimmerman puts it, she was merely "ordinary." She parted company with Universal and moved to France with her new husband Jean-Pierre Aumont and the two appeared in the terrible Siren of Atlantis. Zimmerman suggests that Montez showed some genuine acting ability in her later independent films, but she was still trading in on her trademark haughtiness. Montez  died in her bathtub at age 39.

The Queen of Technicolor is not always well-organized, with the earlier chapters jumping back and forth in time and covering the same material more than once as if the book needed to be padded. A chapter on Montez' home front activities during WW2 seems to go on forever. The book improves with the later chapters, but occasionally reads like a fan boy's career study instead of a serious bio, although  Zimmerman has, admirably, done a lot of research. Was Montez a heartless opportunist who got breaks in Hollywood that should have gone to much more talented people, or should she be admired as someone who tenaciously went after her goal and succeeded for a time, although now she is basically a half-forgotten Hollywood footnote? You can decide. In any case, her Arabian Nights is a genuinely good movie. 

Verdict:  For obsessive Maria Montez fans primarily, but also an interesting slice of Hollywood life. ***. 



Hipsters (Stilyagi/2008) is a Russian musical set in Moscow in 1955. Mels (Anton Shagin) belongs to the Communist Youth League, which tracks down young people -- or "hipsters" -- who love the traitorous Western ideology, including American fashion and music. Mels falls for a hipster named Polina or Polly (Oksana Akinshina) and becomes a hipster himself (although his hairstyle looks more modern-day rockabilly -- almost like Eraserhead -- than 1950's greaser). The colorful settings and cinematography, enthusiastic cast. snappy songs (most original, although we also hear "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess), and lively dancing don't quite disguise the fact that this love story is cliched and superficial. However, the picture is good to look at and at times quite entertaining, if definitely overlong. **1/2.  

Big Eyes (2014) is Tim Burton's true story about the painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) whose husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) took credit for her work, culminating in a court trial. Whatever you may think of Keane's paintings of her big-eyed subjects, Big Eyes is absorbing and well-acted, one of Burton's better movies in recent years (if not exactly spectacular). Terence Stamp is also in the cast. Waltz is a good actor who almost always adds a layer of slime to his portrayals. ***. 

Dark Crimes (2016) stars Jim Carrey (pictured) as a Polish police officer (!) trying to get out of desk detail before retiring. Carrey gives a good dramatic performance and has some very strong moments, and the supporting cast is generally on target as well, but even if you accept that Carrey's character is a fuck-up, some of his actions are inexplicable. Moody photography helps a lot but this script has a whole lot of problems. Marton Csokas certainly scores as the sinister author that Carrey is certain is responsible for a brutal murder, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is fine as his girlfriend. Some of the action centers on a shuttered, sleazy sex club called the Cage. Supposedly based on a true story, this is initially compelling but ultimately a misfire. **3/4. 

Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz
My Cousin Rachel (2017) is a creditable remake of the earlier version of Daphne Du Maurier's novel starring Olivia De Havilland and Richard Burton. This version stars Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin and is written and directed by Roger Michell. The film is very well photographed by Mike Eley. The story retains its ambiguity.  ***. 

Who's Killing the Cheerleaders?
 (aka Who is Killing the Cheerleaders?) is a 2020 telefilm in which a young lady who was a high school student when some of her friends were murdered comes back to town as a teacher -- and now more cheerleaders are being killed. This is a bloodless, non-slasher slasher film that may hold the attention for a time but which flies from your memory practically before it's even over. Ella Cannon is acceptable as the heroine, as is Austin Freeman as her old wannabee boyfriend. It all seems to take place in some alternate universe, the cable land of crappy movies. From Lifetime, naturally. **.  



As noted previously, these are not reviews, per se, but notes on films that I watched or suffered through until I just gave up on them for one reason or another. Sometimes I skipped to different sections just to get a sense of what was going on or to see if the film became more entertaining. Not all of these pictures are necessarily bad, they just didn't hold my attention. If you see one on the list that you think deserves another look, let me know.

We're Rich Again (1934) deals with a once-wealthy family who are nearly bankrupt because of an upcoming wedding, with a process server camping outside the front door. I had high hopes for this allegedly screwball comedy but even the presence of Edna May Oliver and Billie Burke couldn't wring out any real laughs from this. Buster Crabbe spends most of his time in the swimming pool

The Hardy Boys in the Mystery of Ghost Farm (1957) was actually a serial that appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club. When I saw this on youtube I thought it was a real find, but I wasn't into it very long when I realized that this had little to do with the books I had loved, that the Hardy Boys (Tim Considine and Tommy Kirk) in the serial were borderline obnoxious, and the story was pretty silly and tedious. Although Frank and Joe Hardy already had girlfriends in the classic books, in this Frank has just discovered girls to Joe's dismay -- he just wants to solve mysteries.  If only!  

Edge of Fury (1958) concerns a psychopathic young man who gets involved in the lives of a woman and her two daughters at their beach domicile. This movie had its points of interests but it's one of those low-budget independent pictures that either grabs you or just turns out to be a waste of time. I gave it about forty minutes and gave up. 

Fire Monsters Against the Son of Hercules (1962) was actually an Italian peplum flick originally titled Maciste sontrol i mostri. Several of these dubbed flicks were turned into "Son of Hercules" features with a terrible pop tune playing over the credits. Our hero battles a silly-looking sea monster that has rolling eyes. Even I couldn't stand that much of this! 

The Caretaker (1963), also known as The Guest, is adapted from Harold Pinter's play by Pinter himself. I was impressed by the fine acting of Donald Pleasance and Robert Shaw during the first half hour, but then Alan Bates walked in and started stinking everything up with his obnoxious performance of an odious character (as he did in Butley). Pinter and Bates? I could abide no more! 

Five Golden Dragons (1967), produced by Harry Alan Towers, concerns an American (Bob Cummings) in Hong Kong who gets involved with the titular criminal cult. In his last film, Cummings -- still playing the aging epicene bumbling playboy like he did in Love That Bob! -- is completely out of place in a kind of dull euro-thriller that fails to hold the attention. The "dragons" are played by Chris Lee, George Raft, Dan Duryea, and Brian Dunlevy in unnecessary cameos that at least netted  them a trip to Hong Kong. Terrible! 

Leaving Las Vegas (1995). I had wanted to see this for years, but after about half an hour I was already bored with the lives of these pathetic losers. I don't like spending time with people like this in real life, so why should I spend over two hours with them in a movie? Yes, I know the film is acclaimed and Nicolas Cage won an Oscar, and I'm certainly not saying that it's bad, but with so many other choices to watch this just didn't grip my attention.  

Perry Mason: The Case of the Jealous Jokester (1995 telefilm). After Raymond Burr's death, the producers of the TV movies decided to continue the franchise with Hal Holbrook playing not Perry Mason, but a lawyer known as Wild Bill McKenzie who was a friend of Mason's. This is the second and last of two films featuring Holbrook. Burr's absence makes the entire enterprise seem pointless but while I did try to get into this, I found it tedious. 

Antlers (2021) starts out promisingly and has a classy look, but this story of odd doings in a mine and a strange creature that haunts a young boy is so slow-paced and has such little energy that after awhile I skipped to the finale and found it to be just more of the same in monster flick terms. Very disappointing, although there is some decent acting and slick cinematography. 

Death on the Nile (2022). Although I enjoyed Kenneth Branagh's remake of Murder on the Orient Express, I was less impressed with this rather plodding remake of Death on the Nile. Part of the problem, for me at least, is my familiarity with the storyline and the various twists created by Agatha Christie. But while the cinematography is first-rate I found this production to be somewhat listless. Once the main murder occurred, I knew what was coming and I wasn't sufficiently energized to see how Branagh would handle the very same events. Maybe there were differences in this version, I don't know and I just didn't care. For some reason the whole thing reminded me of a 1930's musical. The prologue relating how and why Poirot grew his famous mustache is unnecessary, to say the least.  

Thursday, August 4, 2022


Jon Hall and Maria Montez
ARABIAN NIGHTS (1942). Director: John Rawlins. 

Sentenced to a slow death for trying to usurp the throne from his brother, Kamar (Leif Erickson) escapes and holds court in the palace while the true king, Haroun (Jon Hall of The Invisible Man's Revenge), goes on the run until he can regain his rightful position. Kamar is in love with the dancer Sherazade (Maria Montez) -- a different version of the Sheherazade of legend -- but before he can find her she is sold into slavery. As Sherazade and Haroun fall in love, they escape from slave traders and other nefarious characters until Kamar at last reclaims his chosen bride. But will true love win out in the end or is Haroun doomed to die? Young Ali (Sabu) will certainly do all he can to unite the lovers. 

Hall gets some wise counsel from Sabu
Universal may not have been in the same league as MGM when it came to gloss and pageantry, but they certainly gave it the old college try with Arabian Nights. The film is often beautifully photographed (Milton R. Krasner) in positively gorgeous -- and very expensive -- technicolor with striking desert vistas and impressive matte paintings. Frank Skinner's exciting score is flavored with the occasional "Arabian" touch. Jon Hall and Leif Erickson make a fine pair of literally dueling brothers, Sabu is as appealing as ever as the young Ali, and Edgar Barrier [Phantom of the Opera] is properly loathsome as Kamar's plotting associate, Nadan. 

The Montez gives a smoldering look
As for Maria Montez? The movie is populated by starlets just as attractive if not more so than Montez, although she is certainly very decorative, as they say. One thing you must say about the woman is that she has a haughty, imperious authority -- possibly the way she was off-screen as well -- that works very well for her in parts like these. Her arrogance and self-confidence come through with her every line reading, which are generally on target. No, she's no Kate Hepburn, but one could hardly see Hepburn in this role (although she might have been better than one might imagine)! In other words, while no Oscar would have been in the offing for Ms. Montez, she is more than acceptable as Sherazade. 

A striking sequence from Arabian Nights
There are other characters, some from the Arabian Nights, sprinkled throughout the movie. Sinbad, presented as a lazy lout instead of as a hero, is played by Shemp Howard, one of the Three Stooges! Aladdin (John Qualen) spends the movie trying to find his famous lamp and failing. Turhan Bey is cast as a captain in the King's army who comes to a bitter fate. As Ahmed, who runs a shop, Billy Gilbert overacts atrociously. Gilbert's scenes sometimes resemble something out of Abbott and Costello. Sherazade does a very expressive and sensual dance late in the movie, but apparently that was not Montez, who could neither sing nor dance. 

Verdict: A Maria Montez movie that is actually good! ***. 


Is this really a star? Ruby Keeler
42ND STREET (1933). Director: Lloyd Bacon. 

Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), who has already had one nervous breakdown, is directing his new show, "Pretty Lady." His leading lady, Dorothy (Bebe Daniels), is carrying on with her former dance partner Pat (George Brent) behind the back of her supposed swain and chief angel, the ugly Abner, (Guy Kibbee). Peggy (Ruby Keeler), a show biz hopeful, is taken under the wing of both Pat, and hoofer Billy (Dick Powell). Tormented by her love for Pat, Dorothy drinks too much and has an accident -- but will Peggy be able to carry the whole show on her shoulders?

George Brent and Debe Daniels
The answer is no, judging from the final moments of 42nd Street. Although I got a favorable impression of Keeler in another film she did that year, Gold Diggers of 1933, and she is perfectly okay in the straight dramatic scenes, when she takes over from Dorothy in "Pretty Lady" she seems leaden-footed and the fact that she has a poor voice -- to put in mildly -- is even inserted into the script. Therefore these sequences are unintentionally comical, as it makes you wonder if, say, Al Capone made Baxter an offer he couldn't refuse. As for Baxter, he gives a fine, old-fashioned-type performance as a man who today we would deem bipolar. Brent is his usual charming self. Former silent movie star Bebe Daniels, who is effective as Dorothy, had only a few more credits after this film. Guy Kibbee is typically excellent, Powell is boyishly sweet, and Ed Nugent makes an impression as another handsome hoofer. 

The production numbers were put together by Busby Berkeley, and of these the most inventive is the title tune. Some of the songs have become standards: "You're Getting to Be a Habit" and "Shuffle Off to Buffalo;" in particular. "Young and Healthy" makes use of a Berkeley invention: creating a kaleidoscope effect of the dancers shot from high overhead. Ginger Rogers has a small role in this and is not photographed flatteringly. It's easy to see why Keeler never really became a major star. 

Verdict: Some great tunes, generally pleasant, but not really a classic. **1/2.


Wedded bliss? Fred Allen and Ginger Rogers
WE'RE NOT MARRIED (1952). Director: Edmund Goulding.

"I'll say one thing about our marriage. If there's such a thing as an unjackpot, I've hit it!" -- Ramona

Five couples who were married by a dithering Justice of the Peace (Victor Moore) discover that the man's license only went into affect after the new year, so that their marriages are invalid. Those affected include radio show hosts Ramona and Steven Gladwyn (Ginger Rogers and Fred Allen), who hate each other and only speak during the show; Katie and Hector Woodruff (Eve Arden and Paul Douglas), who have gotten into a rut; Annabel and Jeff Norris (Marilyn Monroe and David Wayne), who have an adorable baby boy; Patsy and Wilson Fisher (Mitzi Gaynor and Eddie Bracken), who are expecting a child; and Eve and Fred Melrose (Zsa Zsa Gabor and Louis Calhern), who are facing an expensive divorce -- for Fred. 

Gabor, Louis Calhern, Paul Stewart
Although there are a few laugh-out-loud moments, We're Not Married has a very insufficient screenplay. Some of the stories have such flat endings that you wondered why anyone even bothered. It also makes no sense to team the adorable Marilyn Monroe -- whose appearances virtually amount to a cameo! -- with the bland and utterly sexless David Wayne; they hardly set the screen on fire. The best episode has lawyer Paul Stewart dictating divorce terms to Louis Calhern, then a certain letter arrives in the mail, but even this segment is completely predictable. For me it doesn't help that Eddie Bracken happens to be one of my least favorite actors ever, although his typically whiny performance is adequate. Calhern, Rogers and others are wasted in this piffle, which could have been a really strong picture with a much, much better screenplay. Fred Allen was once a very popular comedian, although he's virtually forgotten today. Movies like this didn't help.

Verdict: A lot of good actors with generally disappointing material. **1/2.


George Brent and Jane Powell
LUXURY LINER (1948). Director: Richard Whorf. 

Widower Jeremy Bradford (George Brent) is the captain of a luxury liner. His precocious daughter, Polly (Jane Powell), wants to go with him on a cruise to Rio, but he insists that she finish her studies first. The determined young lady decides to become a stowaway, first to spend time with her dad, and second to audition for famous tenor Olaf Eriksen (Lauritz Melchior), who is also voyaging to South America. Instead she winds up peeling potatoes and scrubbing the corridors! Others on the boat include the man-hungry soprano Zita Romanka (Marina Koshetz); Laura Dean (Frances Gifford), who is trying to get away from her ex-fiance; and said fiance Charles Worton (Richard Derr), who is determined to win her back. Although Polly tries to get the lovers back together, a complication is that her father is falling for Laura himself. 

Brent with Frances Gifford
Luxury Liner
 is a gorgeous MGM technicolor bauble with no pretentions to great art, but it is an entertaining trifle that is good to look at and listen to. There is no score as such, just some older tunes that work well with this material. Melchior gets to sing Wintersturm, there's a dandy production number with Polly leading the kitchen staff in Alouetta, Polly sings a bit of Massenet's Manon, and even Xavier Cugat and his band get into the act with a zesty Latin number. Powell, who has a beautiful voice, even looks attractive when she does a trouser role in her school play at the film's opening. The Pied Pipers singing group get a number and Met soprano Koshetz also gets a chance to shine. Amiable and amusing as a man-chaser, she appeared in several other films as well. Brent does well with this unchallenging material, as does Powell, and Gifford was in everything from the great serial Jungle Girl to Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour, acquitting herself nicely in all. Melchior not only has a fine voice but a winning personality; he also did other movie musicals. Thomas E. Breen makes an impression as the sailor, Mulvey, as does John Ridgely, 

Verdict: The captain has a grand piano in his cabin! ***. 


Edward G. Robinson and Mary Astor
(1934), Director: Archie Mayo. 

"The second act is still a fine piece of Limburger." 

Actor Damon Welles (Edward G. Robinson)is appalled to learn that his brother-in-law Stanley Vance (Louis Calhern), isn't dead after all, but has come back into his sister Jessica's (Mary Astor) life and is exerting a seriously unhealthy influence over her. So he cooks up a scheme to disguise himself and ... This dull and predictable movie, based on a minor stage play, wastes the talents of its excellent cast, who give it more than it deserves. Ricardo Cortez plays a theatrical producer and John Eldredge is a playwright. Robinson has such a distinctive face, figure and aura that, fine actor that he is, it's difficult for him to successfully disguise himself. Crisp, well-composed photography is another bonus but nothing can overcome that creaky plot. 

Verdict: Robinson is always worth watching. **.