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Vanity Street (1932)
There's Something About Mayo...
This zippy little pre-code from Columbia is stark and primitive in many ways, but offers many pre-code pleasures; gruff cop Charles Bickford lives a lonely, spartan life and when he comes across a starving young woman in trouble offers her a chocolate milkshake (with two eggs!) and a place to sleep--the young woman, played sympathetically by winsome Helen Chandler, ultimately manages to find her way into a current Follies show, and has the opportunity to move up the dating ladder--but still yearns for the good natured police Daddy who fails to see what she has to offer. Meanwhile, various salacious relationships are hinted at, one a gigolo blackmail of an older woman, and another involving blonde sexpot Mayo Methot (later half of the "battling Bogarts"), who plays a hard-boiled fallen star form the Follies ( who dominates every scene she' s in by sheer force of will--this dame spells trouble with a capital "T"! ) Not really too much mystery here, but a fast-paced pre-code available in crisp new transfer and an entertaining way to spend a nostalgic afternoon at the movies
They Had to See Paris (1929)
There's No Place Like Home
There were many popular films during the period when this film was made that stressed the warmth and honesty of the average American, that in spite of European culture being championed for its rich social and artistic culture, the ordinary, plain-speaking American was, if not superior, just as good, and small town life, grounded in the traditions of family and decency was just as admirable as anything one might find in the ancient cultures of Europe, of Paris in particular, the city of high life and fine culture.
And what plain-speaking American could better represent the best of the small town ethos would be better than man-of-the-people and celebrating philosophical comic, Will Rogers, appearing here in his first American talkie, and in contrast to all his family co-stars, so down-home and folksy, he exemplifies the wise, loveable man of the street worthy of everyone's emulation.
There are some incredibly rich early renderings of small-town Oklahoma life outside and inside Will's Garage business, capturing the essence of the high regard given him by his friends and family and local children, and there is a remarkable series of scenes as a parade of cars drive out to see a gusher erupt, as as folks line up at the bottom of the hill, hundreds of gallons rush down to the watchers and engulf their shows in black oil.
This film can be slow by today's fast-paced sense of sit-com humor, but there is much to enjoy as the transplanted family attempts to ingratiate themselves with the aristocratic French--except for Will, who always holds out for commonsense and cannot understand why his wife rents him a manservant to help him put on his trousers. The sound quality in the film gets a bit muddled now and then due to age, but there are subtitles, and even without them, the plot moves nicely along. It's lesser Borzage and lesser Rogers, but still fascinating to fans of early sound films.
The Longhorn (1951)
Low Budget Verisimilitude WIthout Comic Sidekick
This zesty little programmer fom Monogram starring the stolid, value-driven "Wild Bill" Elliott has a feeling of real detail, likely because of a low budget, and so incidents of setting up and taking down a Cattle Drive campsite have a feeling of actuality, the cook's utensils assembled quickly, the men wrapping themselves in horse blankets every night, all led by the indomitable, tight-lipped "Wild Bill." willing to give those less fortunate a leg up if they honestly try (he hires a batch of local outlaws, ignored by the rest of the community) but ruthless when it comes to willful disorder on the trail, i.e. drinking.
One of the strengths of this short, action-packed cattle drive from Oregon to Wyoming, is the lack of a stupid sidekick for the hero--the sort one has to endure with many B" Westerns--in Tim Holt adventures, for example, there is Ray Whiteley, a fixture who might have been funny at the time, but today seems a little silly and interminable. Instead of the comic, this trim little adventure features an Indian attack, a stampede, a little romance, and some skullduggery by one of the hired hands. A plus is a little lesson about the viability of the Longhorn as a value herd, a dilemma solved by breeding them with Hereford.
Sure as shootin', the huge herd is never seen with one of the filmed cowhands anywhere near, all the footage stolen from some larger epic, but who cares? For 70 minutes we get acquainted with stolid "Wild Bill," perhaps a wee bit old at 47 to be a romancing cowpoke as well as a man fast with his fists, but in the tradition of William S. Hart, he carries on a great tradition.
Come On, Leathernecks! (1938)
Don't Tell It To The Marines!
This is a sort of Boy's Own Adventure concerning a stubborn lad who has an opportunity after his years at Annapolis to choose between becoming a wealthy and cherished gridiron giant or following in his father's footsteps and becoming an officer in the marines. Richard Cromwell, still struggling with possibilities of stardom, having made a strong impression in 1930's Tol'able David, was handed secondary roles in Lives of A Bengal Lancer, This Day and Age, and Poppy, but never quite made a strong showing as a star, regardless of his handsome and graceful mien, and this foray into golly-gee heroics is strictly Saturday matinee stuff; although he has the lead role, the plot is completely predicatible, and although Cromwell is seconded by some significant character actors, including Leon Ames, Marsha Hunt and Edward "Timothy Mouse" Brophy, this is not the sort of film to burnish a resume.
Kansas Raiders (1950)
A friend of mine claims to love movies, but once, when watching a King Kong remake, as the giant gorilla crushed a ship with a giant, hairy paw, he exclaimed "A gorilla can't do that!" It seems to me that most of us do not go to films for an actual history lesson, much less for accuracy, but for a well-make story enacted with enthusiasm by a well-chosen cast, for a good soundtrack and often, brilliant color and startling scenery.
I was highly entertained by Kansas Raiders, accepting it was a Hollywood western, full of well-made action sequences, nicely drawn characters and some semblance of conflict. There are so many interpretations of Jesse and Frank James in films, and so many theories about what kind of men they really were that I have stopped worrying about which one interpretation might be correct; I'll go to scholarly works of history for that, should it be necessary.
This said, Kansas Raiders is an action-packed film with Audie Murphy, certainly watching in this early effort, and a magnetic performance by Brian Donlevy as Quantrill, dictator of a brutal army (I must admit I felt sorry for Donlevy the actor, as all through the film, indoors and out, riding a horse in the blazing sun on dusty trails, he wears what appears to be a heavy wool confederate uniform with gold braid and a high collar). It's fun to see Tony Curtis in his sixth Hollywood film, in a good part of his scenes, playing plaintive folk songs on a harmonica). And there's Richard Arlen, a star in his own right twenty years earlier. as a Union officer.
So there's all kinds of reasons to enjoy this Western, should you wish to. If your looking for real-life in a Western movie, you can likely skip about 70 percent of the Hollywood product from the 40's and 50's. Otherwise, there's a gold mine to be discovered!
The Law West of Tombstone (1938)
Not Your Usual "B" Western, For Sure...
In the usual world of the "B" Western, character and plot are usually fairly straightforward, and one knows after the first ten minutes not only how it will end, but who is going to end up with the girl--if anyone does. In this endearing oddity, your appreciation may depend on your tolerance for eccentricity, whethere it is enjoying that brilliant veteran of so many silent western Harry Carey appearing as the town's benevolent liar, a jolly man who can also lead a crowd, but who is a master of social manipulation. Tim Holt, ostensibly the star and hero, is a sort of moody but well-scrubbed hero, capable of two expressions--one petulant and pouty, and the other agreeable and smiley...there seems to be no room for any kind of thoughtful expression. He and the judge share a love-hate relationship, and into it are thrown all sorts of beloved character actors, whether Ward Bond, bare-chested and speaking with a Mexican-Italian accent, or Charles "Ming" Middleton, lurking at a poker table, sulking. The treatment of the native American tribe is totally insensitive and ludicrous, especially when Carey convinces them to leave the land next to a river for the seashore of sunny California. In short, if you want some reliable old-fashioned Cowboy Action, a la Roy Rogers or Hoppy, this ain't it. But if you want a fast-paced curiosity from the "B" movie that can be a lot of fun in so many ways, this can be a delight!
The Lost City (2005)
Could Have Been A Contender...
Politics aside, this long tale of the wealthy dealing with a revolution might have succeeded except for two things: one was the too-frequent appearance of Bill Murray in shorts, perhaps adding side commentary to the plotline, but whose dime-store Nihilism wears thing after about one minute, and who was probably added to the film to bring in any audience not necessarily interested in Cuba, and the second mistake was allowing Andy Garcia to direct the film, as the film frequently lost focus, wasn't sure of a strong narrative footing, and Garcia himself, usually a persuasive actor, seemed at sea with both romance and politics. On the positive side, the visuals are often dazzling, whether in a brassy night club awash in zesty feathered dancers, or a wide-ranging tobacco farm in the bight tropical sunshine. There's a plot about revolution, too, although we never hear much about why it might be necessary, and there's romance, though the film lapses into hypnotized prettiness whenever Garcia and his adored lock eyes. The attempt is o obvious, but objectivity flew out the door with all the choices to be made, and the film is about 25 minutes too long.
Le rossignol (2005)
Surreal Immersion In Dreamlike Imagery
I think this needs more than a single viewing; it helps to have some inkling of the plot, but most of what occurs can be enjoyed simply on the simplest plot level as a young sleepy lad dreams himself into the magic of a vase, and follows his imagination into a folkland of lyrical dreams, nightingales, emperors, and oddly, flying universal price stickers... One can go onto Wikipedia and follow the beginnings and development of the work in composer Stravinsky's mind, and there is also a curious "making of" document that accompanies the DVD, but for about an hour of colorful and imaginative, dreamlike and striking filmmaking, this is more than worth your time--but then--watch it again! The soprano Natalie Dessay is marvelously skilled, absorbing with her command of her considerable a abilities, and mesmerizing with a care to the work itself, and filmmaker Christian Chaudet is in command of a often funny, curious and genuinely imaginative world.
Now I'll Tell (1934)
Method Acting Before Brando: Tracy Has It!
Regardless of the antecedents of plot to actual persons living or dead, this film exudes power from the performances, especially those of Spencer Tracy and his wife in film, Helen Twelvetrees, the latter rather a forgotten star for a brief period in the early 1930's; the famous Tracy intensity glows off his performance as a incorrigible gambler, whose charge comes from the challenge, not the win, and who neglects his wife in so many ways--among them an almost public fling with Alice Faye; the latter home-town blonde of the late 1930's here as a blowsy, blonde-out-of-a-bottle good time girl who creates a permanent rift in Tracy's marriage.
For film fans, there is a delightful cast of vintage character actors, Hobart Cavanaugh being a particular standout, and little Miss Shirley Temple making a brief appearance kissing her Daddy The Honest Judge goodnight.
Twelvetrees is handed the heavy melodrama, but handles most of it well, particularly as the plot develops, exuding a sort of Lillian Gish quality of loving forgiveness.
Yes, it's pre-code melodrama, and most of the plot can be predicted, but I found the honesty of the performances and the interaction of the characters, mixed with a good deal of local color (street performers, brassy night club singers, boxers on the take) made the film fascinating, if not a classic. One hopes that the Fox archives will get ahold of it and make a decent print--and release it in a box of early Spencer Tracy at Fox films.
The San Francisco Story (1952)
Too Briefly, Florence Bates Gives It Oxygen
This is sort of a desultory effort on the part of the star, Joel McCrea, a man who usually takes command of a scene merely by his presence, but here looks tired and like he would rather be on his own ranch instead of this talky, studio-bound production. The thing probably looked good on paper--and if you've got the knowing sultriness of Yvonne DeCarlo, things are set up for some hot romance, at the very least. But the script is a little unfocused, and there's a lot of chatter about the legal Vigilante group, and Sidney Blackmer attempts to show some menace by mouthing menacing lines--but for an action-packed Western or a thoughtful revisionist history lesson, this effort falls flat, and would be a loss leader except for two brilliant, lively scenes with character actor Florence Bates, sporting an eye patch and plenty of life as her own Shanghai Lil (helped along by a massive, silent Tor Johnson) and this viewer perked up and wondered how the rest never recovered; even the final confrontation lacks either suspense or tension, and just allows almost everybody to go home quietly.
The Bottom of the Bottle (1956)
Van Johnson's Finest Moment In Film
Usually Van Johnson is cast as a nice guy next door, the kid from just around the block who just happens to be around when everybody wants to dance--and in many ways, he was the happy simpleton to June Allyson's perky plans, or played off Esther Williams by just being nice and attractive in a chubby way.
Here, Johnson earns his chops as an escaped convict with a severe drinking problem who runs to his brother for help only to meet the same brick wall the two of them built growing up.
The brother, played coldly by stolid Joseph Cotten, is a wealthy rancher, but has problems of his own, having married for reasons never quite made clear, but mired in a long-time childless relationship with svelte, intelligent Ruth Roman, here, as in so many films, holding an anchor on some out of control emotions.
Except for what I felt was an unnecessarily saccharin final five minutes, the plot zips with some intensity along the Mexican-American border, and the assured direction of veteran Henry Hathaway assures the viewer of a Cain-Abel story with modern ranch trimmings.
Johnson, who passed away in 2008, could always be relied upon to be an easy leading man in musicals, from Two Girls and A Sailor, In The Good Old Summertime (with Judy Garland), but also served well in wartime dramas Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Caine Mutiny; in this film, however, Johnson stretched his talents beyond the usual and turned in his most distinctive role.
Let's Go Native (1930)
"I Didn't Recognize You WIth Your Clothes On!"
It's an old line, for sure, but not the usual approach Kay Francis usually used in her romantic relationships. But this is not the usual Kay Francis film, as her role is secondary to Jeannette MacDonald and Jack Oakie in this delightfully silly romp from Paramount. It's a pre-code kind of film, with all kinds of humor in dubious taste, and thus quite appealing to viewers who enjoy a trip into an unrestrained Hollywood product.
There must have been something in the Paramount water in the early 30's, as once in a while they released something completely off-the-wall, full of very broad humor, eccentric stunts, wild dance moves, and plot absurdities--two prime examples were directed by Leo McCarey--this one, and three years later, the comic jewel Duck Soup, with all four Marx Brothers. In between, W.C. Fields starred in Million Dollar Legs, another screwy film taking place in Klopstockia, the nation where all the men are named George and the women are named Angela, and where the office of President is decided by arm wrestling.
In this film, absurdities abound, and if you like your humor more linear or sophisticated, the nonsense may not be appealing...native girls in hula skirts on a remote island speak with a "poifect Brooklyn accent," gravel-voiced Eugene Palette, a house mover, cautions his workers to handle with care, and then, naturally and continually inadvertently smashes vases to smithereens. Oakie breaks out in several tap routines with great charm and elan, and Jeanette seems to be having fun just along for the ride. It makes almost no sense at all, unlike say, Abbott and Costello or The Three Stooges, who at least follow a logical plot line, bordering if not crossing into the territory of surreal.
Unfortunately, sources where this film is available in a decent quality print do not exist, and the DVDs currently available are terribly washed out with fuzzy sound; one seems to be only to see it at Museum and College Retrospectives. It's time for whoever currently controls the early Paramount product to dig these things out--especially the early Kay Francis films not available.
I Married an Angel (1942)
Jeanette Does The Hula
For MacDonald/Eddy fans who expected a traditional operetta with the usual give and take romance that typifies the genre, this nutty weirdness from MGM has got to give them the heebie-jeebies. For others open to something different, filled with studio style, glorious costumes, nonsense worthy of a Marx brothers film, this film can be good fun. There are some scenes not far removed from a classy burlesque show, with Binnie Barnes engaging Jeannette in some sort of jitterbug--and who is the sweetie who jumps into the crowd scene and starts leading nobody in particular?
First and foremost, Jeanette's singing remains glorious, and unlike most of her films, she doesn't need to maintain soprano dignity at all times, but is given the opportunity to say a good many things she doubtless wanted to say in some of the other films--this was 1942, after all, and there was a good deal of censorship. But this was also based on a late Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical, and spicy situations were inherent in the script, though tamped down.
This is lavish in a way only MGM could manage, but has a whiff of Paramount in it's sophisticated treatment of romance and setting. And also because it is from MGM who advertised "more stars than there are in Heaven," it's provides an opportunity to see dozens of character actors, however briefly, especially in a banquet scene that turns into a very weird version of musical chairs.
It's too bad that some of the end scenes with MacDonald appearing in Carmen and in Faust (what's she doing with that moth-eaten terrier?) weren't of ample length, so her voice could be showcased even more than it was in the glorious over-blown scene where "Angel" Jeanette is surrounded with harps.
If a viewer wants straight operetta romance with the usual formula--New Moon, Naughty Marietta, or Maytime (one of their very best!) this off-the- wall effort is not it. But if a viewer seeks something that director Major W.S. Van Dyke let fly for fun, you may find this as amusing as I did.
Comet Over Broadway (1938)
Quintessential Matinée Melodrama For Our Kay
Many reviewers treat this film as a major studio production, an All About Eve of its time, and scathingly criticize it's inadequacies, of which there are admittedly many. But there are multiple pleasures to be had in a very short running time, though many of them are guilty ones.
This soapy yarn centers around a hometown newsstand girl who becomes an international actress almost overnight in order to make sure her dull hubby John Litel doesn't stay into the clink where he was tossed when he offed a bad actor by decking him for insulting Our Kay. The film was made during a later period of Kay's career, when Warners was attempting to convince their fading star to break her contract so they wouldn't need to pay her exorbitant contract fee; Gutsy Kay didn't care much at this point, but gamely let herself be cast in B movies like this one, second string films, weepers made specifically for women's matinees—a time long before television. She still made the money.
The Orry-Kelly costumes that Kay styles are ravishing; as she rises from burlesque sweetie to continental darling, the dresses rise to the occasion, often deliciously outrageous. And there are some worthwhile performances from familiar Hollywood character actors, the best likely from Minna Gombel as a "wise old broad" who knows her way around and babysits Kay's souvenir from her small town marriage—and you may want to strangle Sybil Jason, a child star who mugs and grimaces until you want to scream for her to get off the screen! (During an early backstage visit as Kay meets the famous out-of-town thespian, one also gets a glimpse of Susan Hayward, who has a single line in an itty-bitty part).
And since we never, ever, get to see what talents catapulted Kay to world fame on stage-she's always ready to go on or meeting with someone after the show; we don't get to see The Comet In Action! But this is melodrama at its most extreme, and by the end of the film you may never forgive yourself for sticking with it—unless you find the absurd conclusion as much fun as I did. Comet Over Broadway is not a great film, and maybe not even a very good one—but it's never dull and is cunningly crafted so that you can hardly wait to see not only what Kay will wear next, but if her heart will take her where it should.
A Colorful Farce With Grable Having Some Nutty Fun
I came onto this film as one of a large purchased collection, and after reading a batch of reviews on various film sites didn't expect much from it; there were numerous citings that it was perhaps Grable's worst film, that it wasn't vintage Sturges, that it was loud farce devoid of virtues except for an expert use of full Technicolor.
And color it has, And it is a loud farce. But although it completely lacks the soft focus turn of the century costumer that Grable so often appeared it, and barely gives the viewer time to absorb the nutty humor, Beautiful Blonde, from it's initial scenes with Grandpa Russell Simpson teaching his little curly-haired granddaughter to reduce bottles to smithereens with a careful aim to the last mad gunfight, a loud and vulgar and often screamingly funny parody of dozens of final shoot-outs in hundreds of western hero epics, this film exudes a sense of madness, of a cast nearly out of control in the spirit of farce.
One critic mentions how often Olga San Juan as "Conchita" the dark- skinned servant, is insulted—but failed to remark on her hilarious comebacks, a few surely cut off mid-sentence by censorship concerns. If a careful viewer listens carefully (often hard to do in this raucous unendingly noisy film), there are ample double-entendres as well as the beginnings of a limerick that rhymes with "Nantucket." Surely most alert viewers will fill in the blank. This film demands your attention, and if you do not have the patience for noise and chaos as part of your experience, you may actively dislike it.
Grable seems to be having a great time, especially as the substitute teacher with a golden gun, confronted by a pair of demented youths out of some clueless Beavis-world, one an off-the-wall Sterling Holloway. And the film is certainly worth watching just to see so many familiar character actors taking full advantage of their few lines—whether it's Margaret Hamilton, Hugh Herbert or for a brief moment, Marie Windsor in full-on scarlet feather drag—the film is so short, so fast-paced, that co-star Cesar Romero almost seems insignificant, and seems to be plot window-dressing. Which he is!
Of course this is no Palm Beach Story, that brilliant farce about romance and love and money: nor has it the zany coherence of The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. But it reflects the scattershot, nutty world that Sturges created so often, and seems like his final party before the silence descended--and you are invited.
Pre-Code Drawing Room Comedy, The Last Gasp
Perhaps too many folks are getting their things in an uproar about this zippy, fast-paced little comedy about the battle of the sexes. Yes, there are slaps in the film, but Blondell's character seems intent on getting them-- which to modern eyes seems bizarre indeed, and offensive in too many ways. But there is no indication that wife-beating is really the focus of this film, but instead the games people play when they discover relationship kinks that are not mainstream.
In many ways, this is a deeply cynical film (witness the running commentary from the two constant house guests) about public and private lives, the last gasp of pre-code comedy before the censors came down hard on creative expression of and shuttered them into the kitchen with their aprons for the next thirty years or so, when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton exposed a more modern version of the S/M games that can develop when love is stunted by circumstance. This is not a great film by any measure, but viewed in an unusual context can be great fun.
Johnny Apollo (1940)
A Lush Cornucopia of Character Actors
While not a classic for the ages, this pre-noir gangster adventure is an excellent example of the studio product churned out in a short time to top a two-film bill at your local theatre in the 1940's, and one of the things that makes it great fun for committed film fans is the use of familiar faces to back up Tyrone Power, playing a rich kid turned bad boy, and Dorothy Lamour, who surprises us by offering a good deal more in the acting department than in the Crosby-Hope Road films, where she functioned primarily as tropical window dressing.
One fascinating performance is offered by the underused Charlie Grapewin, perhaps known to the average film goer as Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz, or as Grandpa in Grapes of Wrath (Grapewins's most sympathetic and memorable role is as burned-out Jeeter Lester in Jonh Ford's misunderstood Tobacco Road). In Johhny Apollo, Grapewin's take on the burned-out lawyer who takes milk with his Scotch and mumbles Shakespeare when to evade confrontation is both funny and endearing and he becomes a pivotal plot element as the plot thickens.
And thicken it does, with lusty Edward Arnold tossed into jail for embezzlement, and his disowned son, Power, taking up with gangster Lloyd Nolan (always reliable, but here essayed with a nasty undercurrent); much of what Nolan's brutal ganglord does adds a noir element to the film,and a brief scene in a steam bath is right out of Sam Fuller.
Add thug Marc Lawrence from Broadway, Jonathan Hale, reliably a doctor, Fuzzy Knight as a nervous prisoner, and from the Son of Frankenstein, Lionel Atwill, cold and calculating as the lawyer without ethics--until money is dangled his way. The pace never flags, and, except for a short and absurd tagged-on ending that Zanuck probably demanded on behalf of Power fans, the film builds to a dynamic shoot-out in a prison. Not a great classic, but a perfect example of 20th Century Fox machine making a film worth watching.
Hell's Highway (1932)
Vivid Protest Film with Documentary Qualities...and Merciless Ming!
I found this gem in the Warner Archive "Forbidden Hollywood" collection, a series of several dozen pre-code films; this one's from Volume 9, and it dazzled my eyes from start to 62-minute later finish, plunging at once into headlined stories concerning poor prison conditions, and then wasting no time depicting those conditions; as the film opens, a new prisoner whose hands are bleeding from using a pick axe and collapses from overwork, is put into "the sweatbox," a crenelated metal enclosure--to teach him a lesson.
The camera continues a barrage of brilliantly made images edited with speed and expertise, built around the main character, Richard Dix (a hugely popular star for a short period of time), in for bank robbery, and dismayed when his younger brother ends up in the same camp.
Unlike many RKO melodramas, this film has a strong documentary feeling, with some persuasive touches seldom seen in a fast-moving prison film-- during one mother's visit to the prison, the camera pauses in close-up just long enough to see a grown man feel the touch of his mother's palm. The prison supervisor is normally a unfeeling chilly individual--but in an intimate quiet scene is shown tuning up his violin and sitting down to play some music while the convicts are chained in a cage.
And for those of you who are Flash Gordon devotees, Charles "Ming The Merciless" Middleton essays the prison mystic, crucial to several plot developments, and often very funny in a space of his very own. There is much to notice in the film, such as the black prisoner's chorus with a refrain that encapsulates another plot development, and the effeminate cook treated as something other than another Hollywood stereotype. Hell's Highway is one of those gems that make digging around in the old stuff worthwhile.
Midnight Special (2016)
No Way A Gorilla Could Do That!
Have you ever sat through a movie with someone determined to point out all the things in the film that couldn't possibly be real? Like sitting through the wacky, throbbing Korean mock-horror epic "The Host" and having someone complain that there is no way a monster that big could live in a sewer--or in Kong, another complaining that there's no way any Gorilla could climb the Empire State Building!
I bring this up because it seems to be that many reviewers of this film are looking for something besides a good thriller, a tight mystery with clues strewn here and there but little definite plot until, as the film continues, a willing viewer can easily get caught up in several kinds of espionage and cult subterfuge, one can get caught up in what I might call a Midnight Special,i.e. a film to watch for fun, to suspend one's disbelief so that the involvement is total.
The ingredients are here: the film has an independent streak, features five actors of compelling capability, several really frightening jump-out-of-your-seat moments, and enough likely intentional references to past films of a similar nature to echo past thrills as one runs away with the haunted, gifted child escaping and his parents. This isn't Manchester By The Sea, nor is it a cartoon--and doesn't intend to be. It's a roller coaster ride, a Midnight Special. For me it succeeds in spades.
Shadows on the Stairs (1941)
Warner Brothers Romp Shows Off "B" Expertise
This little mystery is great fun, and zips along familiar cinematic paths with professional skill, all the Warner technicians called into play to fashion a quickie "B" mystery with some of the best of the character actors around, and one new guy, Turhan Bey, who was still wet behind the ears, but managed to be "clever and cunning" and craftily mysterious.
From the opening shots on a foggy wharf, with a mysterious large box hoisted off as ship and into a truck, the extremely mobile camera transports us quickly to an English boarding house crammed with lamps and antimacassars and ferns and portraits and zooms from upstairs to downstairs and in and out of doors as suspects in a crime skulk about and share concerns and accusations with mild hysteria lurking just below their civilized surfaces.
But this is not a serious film; it is a fast-paced gem full of strange relationships, a murder or two, folks running about in disguises, and, at last, a clueless police force showing up as things get out of hand, a couple of bodies in locked upstairs rooms.
I was never bored, was often amused, had a devil of a time attempting to pin down who-done-it, and much enjoyed the offbeat characters written into the script. Would that much of today's major films had the virtues of succinctness!
Frisco Sal (1945)
Spirited Barbary Coast Antics with Cowboy Flair
Turhan Bey as "Dude"? Is this the same Turhan Bey that enriched all those exotic Technicolor adventures opposite Sabu and Maria Montez, the handsome Hungarian usually cast as Arabian? Indeed it's the same magnetic actor playing a peace-loving tavern owner who wants to bring harmony to the booze halls of the Barbary Coast, much to the annoyance of shifty Alan Curtis, who runs what is ostensibly a "mission" just down the street, a place rife with miscreants and ne'er-do-wells. Toss into the mix fresh-faced virginal vocalist Susanna Foster, fresh from the East and searching for her long-lost brother, and conflicts build, bolstered by roistering, ebullient turns by such Universal stalwarts as blustery Andy Devine and crafty Samuel S. Hinds.
Toss into the mix two extended bar-room brawls, plenty of unexpected sentiment and some classy singing, and what results is a Western in the spirits of Destry Rides Again--not quite in the same class, but nevertheless more entertaining than one might except and needing a really good DVD transfer. Go Turhan!
Lost In The Garden
Many a time I have dragged unwilling guests to various early Eddie Izzard shows, hopefully to help them discover the considerable delights of Izzards's scatter-shot humor, his ability to assume identities of all kinds, to put hilarious spins on mankind's foibles--in short, to be a very funny, highly individual comic whose cheeky and irreverent humor is both scathing and incisive.
It it with regret that I found the Madison Square Garden cold and obvious, overly calculated, as if Izzard was cowed by his first major appearance in New York, feared the chill that almost every comic feels in his bones when the joke falls flat. This hour and a half set lacked the charming, sometime childlike silliness that Eddie can conjure up, and in place of that inventive fun that one excepts, seems far too scripted, and his all-too frequent use of the "F" word in place of wit or commentary or impersonation, seems a desperate cover-up for failing to charm the audience.
One complaint that has nothing to do with Izzard himself but everything to do with the production designer is the much too frequent use of audience shots, the camera set on different couples, supposedly rolling in hilarity, as if to demonstrate to the viewer that indeed, this is a funny program (when in truth if often lacks genuine hilarity) implying that everybody else is in hysterics--and why aren't you? I didn't pay to watch the audience.
I kept thinking that as Izzard moved though various civilizations and applied his shape-shifting tropes to the Egyptians or Aliens or Squirrels, that the inimitable stream of consciousness would rise to the top and sweep us along, but the act seemed to just get desperate, and wear the man out. It wore me out, and I was so in hopes to be swept away.
Scandal Sheet (1931)
Engrossing Surprise from An Early Talkie
What begins as a conventional Unfaithful Wife Story evolves into something more fascinating, as we see a ruthless editor of a major city newspaper tread on too many toes and get some comeuppance. There is some wonderful set work at play in this "B" film, with a fashionable ultra-mod apartment turned out as Kay's Love Nest with a naughty banker who offers whiskey in bottles the size of a glass brick, as well as some zippy tracking shots in a newspaper office setting a fast pace of hustle and rush.
From the beginning, the viewer eavesdrops on cynical reporters attempting to bribe the little brother of a recent suicide, simultaneously offering the Mother cold cash for the dead boy's verse; editor George Bancroft sets the tone here as a heartless man who claims that no matter who the story damages--if it sells papers, it's news. His wife, Kay Francis, sits at home, draping various parts of her body with eye-catching fashion, and in one scene, other action front and center, there is some pre-code semi-nudity with mirrors catching the sort of undressing censored just three years later.
But it is the plot that, despite the soapy melodrama, rises above its origins, and provides no little suspense--with an odd, seemingly tacked-on ending, probably to please the money men. An additional incentive to early film fans is the rich casting of secondary players--Irving Bacon, Sid Saylor, Vince Barnett, Robert Parish, and even the man that become The Weenie King in The Palm Beach Story--Robert Dudley.
I Loved a Woman (1933)
The Skies Are Not Cloudy All Day
What a peculiar (but often fascinating!) film! The title has a little to do with Robinson's character, but it really isn't a woman he loves, but the meat-packing business! Eddie G., who wants to make the world more artistic and to clean up the Chicago slums, inherits an unsavory but highly successful business from his father, and makes an attempt to break away from corporate alliances--enter Kay Francis, in one of her vamp roles, this time as an opera singer aiming for the top European houses, but needing a little cash infusion to get there--she seduces the good EGR by sitting down at the piano--and suddenly warbles a contralto version of "Home On The Range"! No Tosca, no Mimi, no Traviata--this overdressed little flower brims blooms with the Western tune a total of three times--and it becomes an ironic interlude throughout the film--Robinson also attempts to capture the world food market, even buys cattle instead of just canning it! (Some echoes of Upton Sinclair feeds plot complications).
For early fans of Mr. Robinson and Our Kay, this is compelling fun, and frequently details fascinating turns of historical event--Teddy Roosevelt makes a personal appearance and WWI turns the world upside down. For those expecting the powerful one-note (but perhaps less well-rounded) characterizations which Robinson was often gave, there may be surprises as he ages--and hides out in another country. For others, this is a historical curiosity peopled with familiar early First National Faces.
Mystery Man (1944)
It's a fascinating comment on "B" Westerns, and possibly on films in general, that one of the reviews on this site plugs this simple Western film as one the "better Hoppy films," while one of the other five cites it as "lesser Hoppy." Both reviewers are right, of course, and each took the time to comment from separate viewpoints. In a world as big as the Wild West, there should be plenty of room for both opinions. Too bad the world isn't so big any more!
Black-clad, cool-headed Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd) must track down lawbreakers and get the guys in the slammer--and wouldn't it be a surprise to all of us if he failed to do so? Most Hoppy films have a distinguishing hallmark, and perhaps this one's is a Movable Herd and the men who move it.
Mystery Man is a low-key, genial cowboy movie with only one song tossed in for good measure, and the sheriff's daughter picking on whatever attractions Hoppy's second- hand man has to offer. For action fans, there is a good deal of gun-play behind boulders and dust-raising in Lone Pine, and' as is often the case, the cinematography by Russell Harlan is a major bonus point, taking what could show as dull chases and enhancing California desert landscape with background mountain majesties and banks of clouds. Harlan turns the ordinary into memorable--lucky us!