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Friday, December 31, 2010

THE CROWDED SKY (1960)


Deliciously ripe. Gratifyingly awful. Deliriously inane. It’s one of the great bad films. An airplane disaster pic that draws no distinction between AIRPORT/’‘70 and AIRPLANE/’80, because it may have spawned them both.* Fourteen years before Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. & Dana Andrews busted up the sky in another unintentionally hilarious film (AIRPORT 1975/’74), they had a similar smash-up here. (Note the swapped roles.) But before this pulse-pounding climax comes a treasure-chest of God-awful acting from a ‘B’-list/all-star cast that includes Rhonda Fleming, Keenan Wynn, Patsy Kelly, Troy Donahue and other luminaries. And they only become more ham-fisted hilarious after the catastrophe. As the young lovebirds, John Kerr & Anne Francis threaten to hold on to a few shreds of thespian dignity, but then megger Joseph Pevney zooms in for a flashback of slutty Rhonda Fleming saying "I just love banana splits. Is it all the mixed up flavors . . . or is it something Freudian?’ Even this is topped by low-down comedian Patsy Kelly playing an agent with a dimwit Method actor client who's thrilled to have a near-death experience he can use in his next role.

*A previous Dana Andrews film, ZERO HOUR/’57, is usually credited as the source for AIRPLANE! But is it bad enough?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

SMALL TOWN GIRL (1953)

Heard this one before? Reckless big city sophisticate gets stuck in a backwater town, but soon finds love and a new appreciation for those honest Yankee (or Dixie) values that made America great! Recent iterations come in female & male varieties (i.e. NEW IN TOWN/’09; DOC HOLLYWOOD/’91), but it was old even when this wan little musical appeared. Jane Powell (looking very pretty) is the titular girl & Farley Granger (also looking very pretty) is the rich city snob caught speeding on the night of town’s ‘box social.’ The gimmick has Granger bidding for Powell’s box right from his jail call. And there’s no double-entendre, it’s all too cute for words. That was the specialty of producer Joe Pasternak whose culturally out-of-touch, relentlessly wholesome musicals gave the whole genre a bad name. Yet, the film retains a bit of status for a couple of nutjob Busby Berkeley numbers. One finds Ann Miller tapping around an orchestra of arms & instruments looming out of the floor. (‘Watch that clarinet, bub!’) And the other features bouncy Bobby Van hopping all around town after Powell dumps him. (People remember this as a one-shot, but it actually takes five.) Even odder is the third act which goes completely missing! A shame since tiny Powell & tall Granger make a sweet pair once they decide to get along. Odder still, Granger’s next project would be Luchino Visconti’s SENSO/’54!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

TOY STORY 2 (2000)


DISNEY put a lot of pressure on the sequel-phobic folks at PIXAR Animation for a follow-up to the hugely successful TOY STORY/’95. And, to their credit, once Pixar came on board, they went at it a hundred percent. All the creative types back, all the vocal talent re-upped. The only thing missing was the magic. No small thing. In #2, the special relationship between a boy & his toys (which returns to great effect as the emotional core of TOY STORY 3) is largely jettisoned for a workable, but workaday kidnapping caper involving a slimy toy dealer who covets Cowboy Woody to complete a rare set of t.v. characters. The kid (Andy) is off at camp for most of the film. It’s a throwaway story idea fit for a Nickelodeon series (‘Help! Sponge Bob’s been grabbed by a mad toy collector!’), but it’s short on emotional resonance. Worse, the toys don’t stay close to the house and the loss of enclosure, the ability to do too much, too easily, hurts the sense of accomplishment and even the little kid in us that wants to believe in the fantasy. #2 is fun, technically accomplished, beautifully paced and cleverly detailed. But PIXAR set the bar pretty high, and they’ve got to live with it. Watch it anyway so you don’t miss a trick (or a reference) in #3.

Monday, December 27, 2010

EDGE OF DARKNESS (1943)


With the news from overseas beginning to improve, it became possible to make a grittier sort of war movie in Hollywood. So, Errol Flynn could move away from solo heroic mode, and into an ensemble cast for this dark story about a Norwegian fishing village on the verge of imploding after two years of Nazi occupation. Without weapons, the locals can only plot, and hope for the Brits to sneak in weapons & ammo. Even then, they’ll still have to hold off until the resistence issues a Call-to-Arms . . . if only they can wait. Some of the miniatures & effects may show their age, but the film still packs an emotional wallop. Flynn is exceptional: grave and beautifully matched with Ann Sheridan, he's a believable leader who’s also a team player. And what a team to play on. In addition to Sheridan, there's Walter Huston, Ruth Gordon, Judith Anderson, Morris Carnovsky, plus Art Smith, fresh from the Group Theater as the pessimistic Osterholm, and recent emigré Helmut Dantine, astonishing as the resentful, sadistic Nazi commandant.* Robert Rosson’s script tends to hit everything right on the head (his usual fault), but composer Franz Waxman (playing theme & variations on ‘A Mighty Fortress’) and lenser Sid Hickox (with startling telephoto/zoom shots rarely seen then) do things up right. Helmer Lewis Milestone always retained the static composition style he learned in the silents (his films come with edit ‘bumps’), but he’s near his best here. With his signature battle scenes that were not only kinetically exciting, but clearly staged & spatially believable. Flawed, propagandistic, but also very much more than the sum of its parts. (And don’t forget to watch the double dose of cartoons on the DVD, including a Chuck Jones/DAFFY DUCK classic.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Was Stephen Spielberg thinking of this performance when he cast Ralph Fiennes in SCHINDLER’S LIST/’93?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

THE BOYS (2009)


File under: Who Knew? It turns out that the Sherman Brothers, Robert & Richard, our eponymous ‘boys,’ best known for MARY POPPINS/’64 and many other family-friendly scores & stand-alone songs from the ‘60s & ‘70s, barely spoke to each other or even met away from the office. This loving, understanding and slightly weird documentary was jointly made by two sons, one from each Sherman; first-cousins who lived blocks apart, yet never met. It’s a great set-up for all kinds of personal & cultural history, especially as the Shermans were unusually close to Uncle Walt, himself. Alas, the film is put together in such a conventional fashion that even when it broaches dark topics, it still reeks of corporate Disney-think with commentators who speak in blathering sound-bites, encomiums & overkill. (At one point, composer John Williams puts their Dad, pop songsmith Al Sherman, right alongside Aaron Copland & George Gershwin. Oy!) It’s a step up from one of those DVD-Extras where a hot actor or director with a current movie to plug, and little connection to the subject, says something inane about ‘Fill-In-The-Blank,’ but only a step up. And with the Boys alive to query, why not ask if Walt knew about their estrangement or what the brothers thought when a great assignment like POPPINS was followed by an utter dog like THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE/’67? (That poster alone is enough to give you the heebie-jeebies.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For a look at two incompatible writing partners, try the marvelous Gilbert & Sullivan bio-pic TOPSY-TURVY/'99.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS (1932)



Two years after they were lovingly sent up on stage & screen in THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY, the real Barrymore clan, Lionel, Ethel & John, made their only joint appearance in this prestige number from M-G-M. The film has few champions (including Ethel who, uncomfortable in her first sound film, had the initial director fired and then stayed off the screen for a full decade), yet it’s compelling stuff on many levels. Richard Boleslavsky, who took over as helmer, is as unsung as the film, but his C.V. is loaded with good films in many genres. (Check out his THREE GODFATHERS/’36 which compares favorably with versions by William Wyler & John Ford.) An alum of the Moscow Art Players, he gives the film a real jolt of Russian flavor as he navigates the tricky dramatic waters of Tsar, Religion & Revolution. He’s helped by William Daniels’ lensing which dares to concentrate on details within the massive sets & ostentatious spending, more like a Paramount pic than M-G-M. Lionel gets most of the fun as a salacious, Machiavellian, rip-roarin’ Rasputin, which leaves John in the miserable position of playing the noble Noble. (At one point, he takes out his acting frustrations on a poor, defenseless épée.) Ethel, as Tsarina, enunciates beautifully, straight to the back of the house. But she gets a feel for the medium about halfway in and suddenly, she’s riveting: that clotted voice, those huge eyes, the acknowledgment of doom. Uneven as it is, there’s a lot that’s pretty damned impressive . . . when the film isn’t tripping over itself. And the double climax, with two politically motivated murder scenes, has an abrupt manner that achieves surprising power.

Friday, December 24, 2010

ROSALIE (1937)

Stupefyingly stupid. M-G-M hoped to repeat the big commercial & critical success of last year’s bio-pic THE GREAT ZIEGFELD by filming (sort of) an old Ziegfeld success. But Nelson Eddy. Eleanor Powell, Frank Morgan, Edna May Oliver and thousands of other unfortunates sink like stones in this large piece of cheese about a West Point cadet who falls for a Ruritanian Princess. Wm. Anthony McGuire, an old Ziegfeld hand, produced & wrote the thing, but everyone earns their fair share of infamy. Two exceptions were Cole Porter, who wrote the new score and managed to land a classic (‘In The Still of the Night’) and the very young Ray Bolger, two years before THE WIZARD OF OZ, who’s charming when they allow it. He’s just off a year on B’way for Richard Rodgers & George Balanchine, dancing ‘Slaughter On Tenth Avenue" as the lead in ON YOUR TOES. Naturally, he’s given almost nothing to do. Stick around if you want to see Powell come thru with a swell military drill ‘numbo,’ but try to navigate your way around ‘Nappy,’ the ventriloquist dummy from Hell.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

WALT & EL GRUPO (2008)


With his company reeling from disappointing returns on PINOCCHIO & FANTASIA, and his studio poisoned by a bitter labor strike, Walt Disney must have been glad to accept a Fed-sponsored South American trip. It was part Good Neighbor Policy & part field research for Walt & a group of his top creative people to tour, party & brainstorm for what became SALUDOS AMIGOS!/’43 and THE THREE CABALLEROS/’45. If only the trip or, for that matter, the films held more intrinsic interest. The smooth progress of the traveling party and the bland films that came out leave Theodore Thomas with something of a dramatic hole at the core of this snazzy documentary. Fortunately, most of the ‘talking heads’ are unexpectedly frank, especially John Canemaker who comes down pretty hard on SALUDOS AMIGOS. That short feature (44 minutes) is included in a superb restoration and its generic approach makes you wonder what Disney & Co. brought back after 3 months. Canemaker only spots dabs of real South American flavor in the final section on Brazil, but ‘Gaucho Goofy’ is also a treat, largely for its clever visual transitions.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Make this a Good Neighbor Policy double bill with IT’S ALL TRUE/’94, a far more dramatic trip with Orson Welles in the saddle. Or discover Disney’s rarely seen WWII propaganda films in WALT DISNEY ON THE FRONT LINES: THE WAR YEARS.

NOTE: Rather than a poster, here’s an original/unpublished drawing from animator & historian John Canemaker. One of the reasons he’s such a fine animation historian is because he’s also such a fine animator, though rarely in the Disneyesque style of this quick sketch.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956)


It plays out like a modern Jekyll & Hyde story, told as a cautionary tale; a suburban nightmare with the ring of truth to it. James Mason, who also produced, is superb as a financially strapped high school teacher who needs to take a life-saving experimental drug for his incurable condition. But the self-administered cortisone gives him such a physical & mental lift that he starts over-dosing. Within days his mood swings are out of control and he’s hopelessly addicted, a freak at work and a scary menace to his wife & son. Helmer Nicholas Ray was a troubled soul, personally & professionally, but his manic-depressive nature chimed perfectly within this narrative frame. The stylistic over-reaches of color in JOHNNY GUITAR/’54 and his growing comfort with the CinemaScope format he first used on REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE/’55 achieve a maturity & balance on this perfectly scaled project that he never quite repeated. (Those rows of yellow taxis, the shadowy doppelgängers on the wall, the Posters-of-the-World decor; to say nothing of the great supporting perfs, including Barbara Rush’s wife & Walter Matthau’s best friend.) And if the story’s ‘push-me/pull-you’ manipulation doesn’t deliver the level of satisfaction found in the circular plotting & sophisticated character studies of THE LUSTY MEN/’52 (Ray’s shamefully undervalued masterpiece), this remains remarkable moviemaking. And don’t miss author Jonathan Lethem's enthusiatic observations, one of the Extras on this gorgeously remastered Criterion DVD.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Does composer David Raksin run a few cues in reverse for an eerie effect? Sounds that way.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY2: There’s an OTT nature to many of the great ‘50s melodramas by Minnelli, Sirk, Ray et al. that skirt the very edge of audience comfort zones. Seen in a theater, there’s always a risk for a ‘bad laugh.’ (Quentin Tarantino refuses to try a Sirk style film because of it.) So, home-viewing may actually be the best way to watch these great works. Alone on a couch, no one can hear you giggle inappropriately.

CONTEST: Three actors in this film have prominent roles in key Alfred Hitchcock pics. Name the actors, and the Hitchcock features, to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS WriteUp of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Monday, December 20, 2010

TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON (1956)

Most of cast & crew seem miscast in this adaptation of John Patrick’s once acclaimed, now painfully obvious play. It’s the one about a small town in post-WWII Okinawa where a fumbling U.S. military officer fails to instill the proscribed democratic principles, but backs into success by ‘going native’ and generally disregarding all official orders It’s a sit-com for people whose favorite book is The Family of Man. Poor Glenn Ford huffs & puffs as the well-intentioned Yankee (he's like Robert Walker’s Private Hargrove, but too beefy for it to work), and he hits a career low when Machiko Kyo’s Geisha tries to pull his clothes off. Oy-san! Even wonderful Paul Ford as the commanding officer and solid Harry Morgan as his aide shout all their lines under helmer Daniel Mann’s lumbering touch. But the film will always hold a morbid fascination because the role of Sakini, our guide & the story’s interpreter, is played by Marlon Brando, slight of build & slightly Asian. (Actually, he looks more Asiatic in ON THE WATERFRONT/’54, go figure.) The role is one part Charlie Chan aphorisms and two parts Sgt Bilco, but you can’t take your eyes off the guy. Right at the end, there’s a bit of theatrical slight-of-hand where you can see how this might have worked on stage, but there’s a mountain of dross to navigate before you get there.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

STORM WARNING (1951)

Ginger Rogers stops off to visit her sister (Doris Day) and stumbles right into a Ku Klux Klan murder. Will she help D. A. Ronnie Reagan break the town’s Code-of-Silence or will she protect the triggerman, Doris’s new husband Steve Cochran? This modestly-scaled, hot-topic film was something of a throwback to the muckraking exposé pics Warners made in the ‘30. But the post-war move toward greater realism & shooting on location played havoc with dramatic formulas that worked best within the stylistic unity of a studio-bound æsthetic. So, taking on the KKK without hearing a trace of a Southern accent* kills verisimilitude. And having a white victim as stand-in for Blacks, Catholics or Jews feels like a dramatic avoidance, while the domestic drama plays like an interruption. (It also wouldn’t hurt if Ginger could settle on a single makeup & hairstyle.) Still, the film’s not a whitewash or a washout, helmer Stuart Heisler makes a professional job of it (even grabbing a hunk of local color in a bowling alley), journeyman lenser Carl Guthrie outperforms himself with some scarifying nighttime shooting and Reagan really comes thru in a good part. Watch him give Ginger a shove in the courthouse basement. Yikes!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Keep your eyes tight on Hugh Sanders’ KKK leader. He’s entirely dubbed. But with his own voice! Had he used a southern accent before studio execs got cold feet? Just a thought.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The fine Humphrey Bogart meller BLACK LEGION/’36 handles similar issues in classic Hollywood studio-lot style while THE PHENIX CITY STORY/’55 also takes up the cause without being stylistically divided against itself thanks to Phil Karlson’s typically smart, economical helming using many of the story's real locations.

Friday, December 17, 2010

NORTHERN PURSUIT (1943)

This was the most fanciful of the four WWII-themed pics Errol Flynn made with Raoul Walsh between 1942-45. It’s very entertaining on its own terms, but it gets overlooked, possibly because its last act plays like some proto-James Bond tale, and possibly because its leading lady, Julie Bishop, never quite made the grade. But don’t let that stop you; it’s a lot of fun and features some damn fine snowbound fakery from the Warners art department. Flynn plays a Canadian Mountie who gets himself kicked out of the force and winds up running around with a gang of Nazi invaders & sympathizers. Just don’t be too surprised when he’s revealed as working undercover to expose the whole dastardly plot. Oddly, there’s more than a few points of intersection with Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST in here; at one point they even decode a note that lays out the conspirators’ direction: North-North-West! The supporting players are the typically fine lot you expect from Warners, but Gene Lockhart is a real standout as a fifth columnist while the visually arresting Helmut Dantine is phenomenally effective as the head Nazi. Tasty, tasty stuff. Be sure to check out the Extras which include shorts from legit helmers like Jean Negulesco & Ray Enright with the likes of Burgess Meredith, Dane Clark & Ronnie Reagan. (And don't forget Powell & Pressburger's WWII cross-Canada adventure 49th PARALLEL/'41. Make it a DOUBLE-BILL.)

OPERATION PACIFIC (1951)

One of the striking elements in Otto Preminger’s big WWII naval drama, IN HARM’S WAY/’65, was the unlikely sexual chemistry generated between burly John Wayne & sultry Patricia Neal. (And it’s all done, a la Lubitsch, with shots of their shoes.) Here, more than a decade earlier, they had something of a test run. And while there’s barely half the wattage, they’re just about the only striking element in this formulaic WWII submarine pic. You know what to expect as soon as Wayne makes his heroic entrance hauling a gaggle of kids & a pair of nuns thru a ‘Jap’ infested jungle, cradling a newborn & a rifle in his big paws. Did someone forget to bring the puppies? Happily, we soon offload the noncombatants so that ‘Duke’ (he’s actually called Duke in this one) & Captain Ward Bond can try to work out what the heck is going on with those dud torpedoes. George Waggner megs unevenly, though the inconsistent trick effects are offset by some stunning shots from vet lenser Bert Glennon. But what really gets your attention is a bizarrely unsympathetic perf from Philip Carey who plays Wayne’s romantic rival. More creepy possessive than jealous, he raises issues no one wants to follow up on.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Take the suggestion above and try IN HARM'S WAY. Big, bloated, uneven, but wildly watchable in the usual Preminger manner.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

WITHIN THE LAW (1923)


The top female star of the mid-‘20s wasn’t Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish, but the now forgotten Norma Talmadge. And you can see why she was popular and why she’s forgotten in this well-made meller about an innocent store clerk just out of prison and looking for payback. With the help of a sporty con-man (Lew Cody in the film’s best perf) and a bubble-headed gal-pal from jail, she aims to marry the curly-haired son of the department store mogul who put her behind bars. It’s sweet revenge, and all ‘within the law.’ Joe Schenck, the ultimate inside Hollywood man, was Norma’s husband & producer and he surrounded her with serious talent: Frank Lloyd to helm, Tony Gaudio lensing, a script from Frances Marion, art design by Stephen Goosson & Hal Kern editing; future Oscar winners all. If only Norma could act! But her appeal is now hard to fathom. She doesn’t really ‘take’ to the camera or even carry off the heavy fashions of the day. Yet, somehow she caught the fancy of shopgirls everywhere. (No doubt, you can come up with a modern equivalent.) Well, we can still enjoy some of the marvelous location shots of NYC circa 1923 and hope that a DVD release of her two biggest hits, SMILIN’ THROUGH/’22 and SECRETS/’24, show her in a better light. (NOTE: Instead of a poster, here's the cover of the Music Prompt Book from the 1917 film adaptation.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The best version of Bayard Veiller’s wildly popular play (there are five official film versions and scores of knock-offs) is probably PAID/’30, an early Talkie starring the young Joan Crawford.

Monday, December 13, 2010

FIFTH AVENUE GIRL (1939)

Gregory La Cava seemed to run out of creative steam after the one-two punch of MY MAN GODFREY/’36 and STAGE DOOR/’‘37. This was his next, a minor-key variation on GODFREY, about another rich, and richly eccentric, screwball family. Again, an unemployed, but commonsensical outsider saves them from themselves, but instead of William Powell’s butler-on-the-bum, we get Ginger Rogers. So far, so good. But whereas Powell’s Godfrey had a past (and a present) that made dramatic & comic sense, Ginger’s role is pure contrivance. Likewise the script’s feints at social conscience & political debate (labor troubles at work, communist rhetoric from the chauffeur, a polo playing son), applied rather than organic. Fortunately, La Cava doesn’t push things at us (he was famous for casually rewriting his scripts), and he lets his actors really spark off each other in marvelous two-shots. As the father, Walter Connolly gets to go a round or two with just about the whole cast, and he nails every opportunity, giving the sort of fully rounded portrayal he rarely got a shot at. While a scene on a park bench between Rogers and Tim Holt*, playing the family scion, is a small masterpiece of laisser-faire directing technique. And with the bonus of a sweet turn from young Jack Carson (with ukulele) and a couple of lovebirds who just happen to be Asian (a rare sighting in films at the time), it’s one of those flawed, unfocused films you find yourself rooting for.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Is there another actor with as low a profile as Tim Holt who appeared in so many classic pics? STELLA DALLAS/’37; STAGECOACH/’39; THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS/42; HITLER’S CHILDREN/’43; MY DARLING CLEMENTINE/’46 and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE/’48. It’s quite a list.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

FLIRTATION WALK (1934)


Dick Powell, still in overgrown choirboy mode, plays an army grunt in Hawaii who can’t quite make the grade with visiting army brat Ruby Keeler. Maybe West Point can make an officer & a gentleman out of him? Then he’ll win her heart. This wan hybrid from Warners (an Oscar nom for Best Pic!) mixes service comedy with schooldays hazing, romantic misunderstandings and let’s-put-on-a-show dramatics, then wraps things up with marching soldier boys & heaps of flag-waving. Did Frank Borzage, that master of lyrical romance, really helm this? And who came up with the opening: a military exercise that features a mock aerial attack on . . . Pearl Harbor?!! Maybe the same guy who decided to spray Pat O’Brien’s mug with tears of pride at Powell’s graduation and to keep Keeler from dancing a single step. Well, we do get to hear Powell sing at a luau . . . in Hawaiian! But the best reason to watch this is the chance to see Ross Alexander, a famous Hollywood casualty, who’s immensely likable as Powell’s roommate. This would set him up for great supporting roles in next year’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (as Demetrius) and as Errol Flynn’s best-pal in CAPTAIN BLOOD. What a sad, sad waste.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Keeler & Alexander made their Warner Bros. swansong as co-stars in READY, WILLING AND ABLE, shot in '36, released in '37. By the time the film came out, Alexander was dead and got demoted to fifth billing.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

MIN AND BILL (1930)

Thanks to its more memorable title, TUGBOAT ANNIE/’33, the follow up to MIN & BILL, is a better remembered film. But this wildly popular waterfront dramedy is the best of the two films that matched Wallace Beery with that unclassifiable near-genius of sentiment, slapstick & girth, Marie Dressler. It’s a tough weepy (with plenty of knockabout laughs) about a surrogate mother who sacrifices all to make sure her ‘daughter’ gets a chance in life. Superbly helmed by the forgotten George Hill, it shows a fluidity in its camera work and a gritty, down-at-the-heels unscrubbed atmosphere that belie both its studio (M-G-M) and its early Talkie date. Maternal martyrdom is no longer portrayed with quite the same reverence, but of its type, only the silent version of STELLA DALLAS/’25 hits the same notes. No surprise that they were both scripted by Frances Marion, married at the time to director Hill, and about to pull off a gender-switch on the formula in THE CHAMP, which won Beery his Oscar the following year as surely as this one nailed it for Dressler. But while Beery was a popular slob actor who could be very effective in the right role, Dressler was on an entirely different acting planet. There’s nothing small or tidy about her technique & responses, and she could be deeply embarrassing when her material didn't give her much to chew on (just see LET US BE GAY/’30). But as Orson Welles once said about movie acting and James Cagney, it’s not how big a performance is but how true. There was something terribly true, and terribly tragic about Dressler. And from this film until her death four years later, the old trouper rode high as America’s most popular Hollywood star.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

KING OF THE ROARING ‘20s (1961)


Unaccountably drab telling of the rise & fall of Arnie Rothstein, the Prohibition Era Jewish mobster who made his mark as a financier, rubbing out figures . . . on account ledgers. There’s not an ounce of period flavor or noir atmosphere under Joseph Newman’s paceless direction, and Carl Guthrie’s lensing is over-lit & under characterized. The terrain is juicy & there’s plenty of acting talent on hand (Mickey Rooney, Joseph Schildkraut, Jack Carson, William Demerest), even a music score from Franz Waxman, but the script is a boring mess (is it really by Jo Swerling?) and the leads (David Janssen, glumly mumbling, and Dianne Foster, grimly overacting) are just plain miserable. Think what a tough, budget-conscious director like Don Siegel & Phil Karlson could have done with this. A real waste.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Why not pick up on this film’s title and catch THE ROARING TWENTIES/’39, Raoul Walsh’s ultra-professional gloss on the era with Cagney in classic form & Bogie when he was still playing villains.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

CALL IT A DAY (1937)


Dodie Smith, best known for ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS/'61, wrote this Spring Fever comedy about One Crazy Day* in the life of the Hiltons, an unexpectedly randy upperclass British family. Not that anyone acts on their urges. Heavens! Dad’s secretary has a crush on him, but he’s too busy getting vamped by a glamorous actress/client to notice. Mom is also the target of a persistent suitor, and she’s flattered by the attention. Their eldest boy all but falls out the window to meet the blond next door and his two sisters extravagantly pine for a happily married portrait painter and the Rossetti sketch he owns. Only the servants (three for a family of five!) seem immune to the change in the weather. (Ain’t that a switch!) The director, Archie Mayo, normally a bit of a duffer for Warners, encourages a manic atmosphere that drives the play’s modest charms far too hard. Olivia De Havilland all but bounces off the wall as a lovesick teen, and the nice enough cast (Ian Hunter, Anita Louise, Bonita Granville, Walter Woolf King, Roland Young) all speak in the insufferably cultivated manner of British drawing room theatre. (You can still hear it weekday nights when Diane Sawyer delivers the news on ABC.) Only Una O’Connor, as a misanthropic housekeeper, cuts thru the tony murk with a voice like a serrated knife. Less than three decades later, Joe Orton would grab that knife and show how to use it on this sort of thing.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Mozart's THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO is actually subtitled 'One Crazy Day,' and it too is about a big horny household. Even the servants . . . especially the servants! Opera on DVD isn't for everyone, but try to find the wonderful old Decca recording under Josef Krips on CD or get the new, zippy René Jacobs led perf on Harmonia Mundi. Instead of a WATCH THIS alternative of great cinema, have a LISTEN TO THIS alternative of great art. WARNING: Dodie Smith & Archie Mayo are hardly a fair fight against Mozart & De Ponte! This could keep you off DVDs for weeks.

Friday, December 3, 2010

CHICHI ARIKI / THERE WAS A FATHER (1942)


Yasujiro Ozu’s quietly observed, emotionally resonant film about a widowed father and his only son was made in Japan during WWII, but any elements of propaganda are worn lightly. (At least in the surviving prints which were all vetted by U.S. military authorities post-war.) Ozu regular Chishu Ryu stars as the father who gives up his teaching post after the accidental death of a student, and finds work in far-off Tokyo so he can keep his son in the best schools. Though the son does well and continues to love & respect his father, the lack of physical contact over the years becomes the fulcrum of their relationship. In typical Ozu style, one perfectly formed scene follows another with grace notes of revelation that emerge seamlessly within his calm yet powerful style. Such a deceptively simple technique. Though the film is smaller in scope than his better known work after the war, it’s filled with indelible moments: a mountain walk & discussion between father & son, a hallway lined with umbrellas, the synchronized swish of fishing rods, a sudden realization of role reversal between parent & child . . . Ozu seems unable to put a foot wrong. It fits snugly between the tough sentimentality of a British classic like SORRELL & SON and the free form cinematic abstraction of paternal bonds in Sokurov’s FATHER & SON/’03. Essential stuff. Bring your handkerchief.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

LOOK FOR THE SILVER LINING (1949)


Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Vincent Youmans & Irving Berlin wrote standards for her to perform. Flo Ziegfeld produced her shows. She starred in early 2-strip TechniColor Talkies of her hit shows SALLY/29 and SUNNY/’30. Her scandal-ridden marriage to Mary Pickford’s drug-addicted brother was novelized in THE GREEN HAT, a sensational bestseller that became A WOMAN OF AFFAIRS/’28 with Greta Garbo, John Gilbert & Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.* After her early death, Judy Garland & June Haver played her on screen. And what a galumphing cliché-ridden waste of a bio-pic Warner Bros. made of her life & career! Haver dances well, but when she tries to be temperamental, she’s a pain, and certainly no spellbinder on stage. As her first husband, the very young Gordon MacRae is a natural in his first big role, but his big dramatic moment has him spanking his misbehaving spouse. Yet the film is a must-see for the great Ray Bolger who plays Miller’s mentor & eventual dancing partner Jack Donohue. When he wasn’t wearing scarecrow makeup, Bolger's personality could be a bit off-putting. But his musicality & ‘eccentric’ dancing are the stuff of legend, and he got too few chances to let ‘er rip. And rip he does. Especially in Jerome Kern’s ‘Who’ which has been tricked up into a comedy dance ‘numbo’ that should be as celebrated as Donald O’Connor’s "Make ‘Em Laugh’ in SINGING IN THE RAIN/’52.

CONTEST: *Figure out the tru-life relationship between Fairbanks & Miller to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: At odd, but persistent moments here, Bolger looks like a musical caricature of Jeff Goldblum. And how neatly his oddly-cadenced footwork matches up with Goldblum’s oddly-cadenced line readings. (BTW: The real Jack Donohue wasn’t 20 years older than the real Marilyn Miller, but ten years younger. He was also her third husband and went on to a career helming the likes of Sinatra & Red Skelton in Hollywood! Yep, a much odder story than you’d guess after seeing this film.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS (1954)

In this quickie sequel to THE ROBE/’53 (the stiff, dollar-churning debut of CinemaScope), we’re still following those early Christians in Rome, but the focus has shifted from martyrs & religion to swords & sandals. (There may have been more of the former at one time. A fade-to-black pause at the one-hour mark signals Intermission, but there’s no actual break. Best guess is that the developing character arc between good-girl Debra Paget & bad-girl Anne Bancroft got left on the cutting-room floor.) Jay Robinson’s Caligula is still chewing up the scenery and the Christians; Victor Mature’s Demetrius is still questioning what it all means and still oiling up his hair & limbs; Michael Rennie’s Peter is still wise & saintly, but he’s been demoted and the script sends him off on a road trip. The big addition is Susan Hayward as Messalina, the new vixen in Rome. She’s married to Claudius, plotting against Caligula and vamping Victor in brightly colored Roman outfits that could easily work on the L.A. cocktail party circuit. One red number has a bodice that’s pure ‘50s Bel Air chic. All in all, the whole shebang is a lot less ponderous than the original . . . but even more forgettable.

Monday, November 29, 2010

DAMA S SOBACHKOJ / THE LADY WITH THE DOG (1960)


Anton Chekhov’s short story is given a faithful, meticulously detailed & carefully observed spin in this prestigious Soviet production. But it’s dead to the touch. We open in Yalta by the sea where vacationing men flirt with the young, pretty & unaccompanied married thing who walks her dog every day by the shore. Finally, one aristo, a typically bored member of the species, breaks thru her reserve. But what starts as a superficial resort town affair becomes an obsession when they part for homes hundreds of miles apart. Brief, infrequent rendezvous are ghastly; and all they live for. It’s no life; it’s their only life. Director Iosih Kheifits nails everything down ‘just so,’ sets, costumes, emotions, but the leads remain cold & humorless (intentionally?) and there’s no ‘swing’ to the thing.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Max Ophuls was the master of this sort of romantic fatalism, as in THE EARRINGS OF MADAME D . . ./’53. Though you’d hardly call it Chekhovian! The closest film has gotten to the great Russian may well be THE MUSIC ROOM/’58 by India’s Satyajit Ray from a T. S. Bannerjee story. Go figure.

VIRIDIANA (1961)

Luis Buñuel made many great films in Mexico, but he only rejoined the international crowd when this pic, made under Franco’s nose in Spain, won @ Cannes, showing his undiminished power to disrupt. ‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’ Silvia Pinal stars as Viridiana, a troubled novice nun who leaves the convent to visit the sick uncle she barely knows. He’s drawn to the classic Hitchcockian blond under the wimple, but her close resemblance to his late wife leads to tragedy. Viridiana abandons convent life and now shares the estate with her uncle’s handsome bastard son. He works to bring the estate back to life while she plays Mother Teresa, giving care to the needy, beggars, gimps & dwarfs. Buñuel’s sharp eye is pitiless; he’s an equal opportunity iconoclast, but don’t confuse his conflicted attitudes with his direct gaze. Famously so when the undeserving poor pose at a purloined feast a la Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Just one in a grand series of audacious visual treats that keep pulling you up short all thru the film. Often, appallingly so. If Voltaire had been a 20th century filmmaker, he’d have been Buñuel.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

MAN HUNT (1941)

This Fritz Lang thriller is on the short roll-call of tough anti-Nazi films made in Hollywood before Pearl Harbor. It’s also rates as the first Stateside release from Lang that looks & feels like a real Fritz Lang film. FURY/’36 and YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE/’37 may well be better movies, but if you turn the sound off anywhere in MAN HUNT, you’ll find yourself in the visual world of his stupendous DR. MABUSE films. Walter Pidgeon plays a British sportsman who gets Hitler in his sights, but doesn’t shoot. He’s then chased all the way back to London where he gets help from his diplomat brother and from Joan Bennett in a breakthru perf as a good-natured tart. She’s ravishingly shot to look a bit like Vivien Leigh and her scenes with Pidgeon show a rare tenderness from Lang. They balance out the showdown between Pidgeon & George Sander’s Nazi which is unusually gruesome. You don’t see the ghastly end, but you’ll feel it! Dudley Nichols' script doesn’t quite carry you past the jumps in logic & plot (Hitchcock’s 39 STEPS is the obvious model), but Lang has such control on all the technical elements, and creates such a compelling noir look of geometric intrigue (great teamwork from lenser Arthur Miller & designer Richard Day) that you’ll enjoy the ride even when things don’t add up. Watch for a great scene-stealing turn by the young Roddy McDowall right before he (and half the cast & crew) started production on John Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY.

Friday, November 26, 2010

THE HASTY HEART (1949)


This orgy of manly sentiment wheezes noticeably, and Vincent Sherman’s stagebound megging only makes things worse by letting his British supporting cast play to the rafters. Yet somehow, in the leading role of a doomed Scottish soldier, Richard Todd pulls a living, breathing character out of a collection of ethnic cliches. It’s 1945 and the war has just ended. But for a small group of recovering soldiers too ill to go home, life dribbles on at a nearly deserted hospital in Burma. Patricia Neal, very simpatico in an early role, is the nurse who gets everyone to play nice with the stricken Scots boy who has just moved in, unaware of his terminal condition. And though he’s too proud to bend at first, he soon warms up. That is, until he finds out that he’s dying. The whole treacly thing is more of a set up than a storyline or character study, and it’s a near thing whether our Scotsman or the childlike African soldier in his ward will wind up more condescended to. Either way, you might not make it thru a second act largely concerned with finding out what a Scotsman wears under his kilt. Oy, Laddie! But Todd plays fair, never winking at us when his character acts like a prick, and bringing a bit of stoic wonderment when his true condition is revealed to him. Too bad that ‘The Yank,’ top-billed Ronald Reagan, is so over-parted as Todd’s new best pal. The glistening shine of his youthful supporting days has turned sour, without his developing the acting chops to compensate. He's obviously on his way out @ Warners, and he looks like he knows it. BEDTIME FOR BONZO/’51 was just around the corner.

CONTEST: Check out the Joe Doakes comedy short "So You Want To Be In Pictures’ on the DVD Extras. Find what connects this to the Judy Garland/James Mason A STAR IS BORN/’54 (a gag & a performer) to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS WriteUp of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

KAIJU DAISENSO / INVASION OF THE ASTRO MONSTER (aka MONSTER ZERO) (1965)


The popular series of Godzilla pics from Japan’s Toho Studios, with their tinker-toy special effects & goofy puppet monsters, supplied regular paychecks for all the people who made them, but only modest use of their talents. Who were these films being made for? Model train mavens? Certainly anyone over the age of seven was past being frightened, and the acting & plotting had become witless. Here, a space voyage to Planet X finds humanoid aliens who need to borrow Godzilla & Rodan (an economy-sized pterodactyl) to fight the 3-headed Ghidrah terrorizing their planet. They offer a cure for cancer as payment for the loaned monsters, but then come down to Earth with all three and try to take over the joint. The anti-militaristic/anti-nuclear elements of the original GODZILLA (GOJIRA/’56) gave off an unsettling and occasionally powerful undertone (they were edited out of the reshot American release), but whatever reverberation they once held had worn off by now.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The original Japanese cut of Ishirô Honda’s GOJIRO/’56 has been restored on DVD and try another Honda nuclear thriller, THE H-MAN/’58, to see what he could do.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH (2007)

Banking on the inexplicable critical & commercial success of CRASH/’05, Paul Haggis had the clout to get this tough, dour Iraqi war/homefront drama made. But he had no more luck finding an audience than a dozen other high-profile Iraqi-themed projects, including THE HURT LOCKER/’09 with its gaggle of Oscars. Apparently, the conversation has moved on. Haggis makes a decent stab at parsing the social issues that came home with some of the physically & psychologically brutalized vets, but halfway thru you realize this is a pretty standard police procedural, tricked up with unearned war significance. It’s not so different from one of those cold & dank WALLANDERs on Masterpiece Theatre, or a sedately somber JESSE STONE with Tom Selleck. As the retired military investigator who insists on uncovering the grim facts that led to the death of his soldier son, Tommy Lee Jones is more animated than we’ve seen in a while (though his face has collapsed into an odd reflection of the elderly Elisha Cook. Jr) and Haggis called in a lot of favors to cast even the small roles from strength. James Brolin, Susan Saradon, James Franco, all worth the trouble. But why Jason Patric, that black hole of the screen? He sucks the energy out of anything he touches. And does Haggis really believe that out-of-control sadistic behavior and inside-the-ranks military atrocities only occur as a sick reflection of combat in ‘bad’ wars?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: It works too hard, right from the start, but THE HURT LOCKER gets closer to the grist of the matter.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The comment about Elisha Cook, Jr. qualifies . . . no? (see above)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

OPERATION PETTICOAT (1959)

This first-rate WWII service comedy about a hobbled sub limping its way to port with a cargo of female officers, refugee kids & a coat of barely dry pink paint still looks fresh & funny. It’s no more than a pleasant lark of a film, but it deftly avoids the witless gags and over-played shtick of others in its genre. In his first big-time directing assignment, Blake Edwards holds the reins lightly, almost impersonally, on the Stanley Shapiro/Maurice Richlin script. (He’s not even shooting in his customary CinemaScope format.) Just don’t come in expecting the comic savagery seen in Edward’s other WWII farce, WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY?/’‘66, also taken from a Richlin story, but far more personal. Playing in his late, refined comic mode, Cary Grant still lets out the occasional whoop & whinny, now trimmed down to their essence. And if you notice Tony Curtis grining like the cat who’s just swallowed the canary, well, he’s just off filming SOME LIKE IT HOT/'69 with his wickedly funny Cary Grant impersonation.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

SOLOMON AND SHEBA (1959)


This deluxe indie entry in the WideScreen craze for biblical epics is largely known for three things: it was the last film helmed by King Vidor; Tyrone Power died during production; and Yul Brynner took over the role with a snazzy rug on his famous shaved head. This has always made the film sound a bit cheesy, but viewed alongside similar titanic efforts in the form by Vidor’s peers (Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz, Henry King, Henry Koster, Robert Rossen, Howard Hawks, et al.), it’s tastier than expected. Oh, there are plenty of howlers in the script, Solomon almost cuts that famous baby in half, the interiors look like a Las Vegas synagogue, the costumes are Kodachrome colorful and there’s even an orgy to ogle. But Yul, George Sanders & Gina Lollabrigida and the rest of the cast are all better than you expect, and the story has a fast-moving swing to it. But what really makes this one stand out is Freddie Young’s spectacular location lensing, especially of the battle scenes. Shot in Super Technirama 70, the crystal clear sharpness of the warring hordes and the trick shot catastrophe for Pharaoh’s army are jawdroppers. Young’s legendary work on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA/’62 is prophesied right here. But the timing couldn’t have been worse for S&S since 1959 was also the year of William Wyler’s BEN-HUR which was a game-changer for the genre.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

UN PROPHETE / A PROPHET (2009)


Last year’s Grand Prix at Cannes was this pulsating prison pic from Jacques Audiard about an Arab newbie (Tahar Rahim) who’s forced to murder a fellow inmate to gain protection. And initially, this well-made film looks & sounds like a typical prison drama as the kid learns the ropes; starts to work for the Corsican drug lord (Niels Arestrup) who runs the joint from his cell; oversteps; and eventually rises to a height from which he must fall. Maybe, maybe not. We follow the template only so far as Audiard is far more audacious and moves past the prison walls to show how criminal communication makes the rounds in the real world, cross-contaminating everything they touch. It’s fascinating stuff and watching how Rahim plays his role as odd-man-out (or is he the ultimate insider?), crossing cultural lines as he works out where he stands in the line of command is stunningly handled. And it’s not all mind-games since Audiard delivers a steady stream of beautifully executed action sequences all thru the story. The film bears comparison with the Robert De Niro sections of GODFATHER II/’74 or Al Pacino’s SCARFACE/’83, though happily without the De Palma excesses or the self-aggrandizing perfs in either film. It's a major achievement.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

JOY OF LIVING (1938)

Exclude Preston Sturges and you barely need all your fingers & a set of toes to count the great Screwball Comedies. Irene Dunne had just starred in one (THE AWFUL TRUTH/’37) when she made this decidedly second-tier effort. She’s a B’way star with a new hit & a dysfunctional family to support when Boston scapegrace Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. sweeps her off her feet (literally) in spite of her protestations and asks her to join him on his island paradise. Is he for real? Is walking away from it all the path to happiness? There’s a lot that’s right about this one: Tay Garnett helms like the pro he was; a willing cast of eccentrics are on hand (Eric Blore, Franklin Pangborn, Billy Gilbert, a young Lucille Ball & a blissed out pair of twin girls); Doug & Irene for a dazzling toothsome twosome; we even get to visit a roller skating rink for ‘crack the whip.’ But the set ups & gags all seem pretty forced, especially after the smash opening reel. DISSOLVE TO OPENING: A B’way Marque; a phalanx of men in tuxedos; a Van Nest Polglase set worthy of Fred Astaire in TOP HAT; Irene Dunne up front, basking in Joseph Walker’s molten monochrome lensing; songs from Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields (including ‘You Couldn’t Be Sweeter’). But then the meet-cute comes on like a case of criminal stalking, the boozy jokes grow flat as last night’s beer, and the comic repetitions begin to feel like desperation. Oh well, enjoy the tasty bits.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

SHUBUN / SCANDAL (1950)


The influence of American Westerns on Akira Kurosawa’s films is often noted, especially on the Samurai pics, but who expects to find him channeling his inner Frank Capra? That’s what’s going on in this up-to-date dramedy about an idealistic landscape painter (Toshiro Mifune, in the Gary Cooper/James Stewart role) who falls for a lovely well-known singer, Shirley Yamaguchi singing snatches from MIGNON. They meet-cute in the mountains when she misses her bus and he politely offers her a lift on the back of his motorcycle. Spotted by some wiseguy reporters, an innocent, but seemingly incriminating photo makes their ‘affair’ the talk of the town. Mifune hires a has-been lawyer (Kurosawa stalwart Takashi Shimura in the Thomas Mitchell part) who’s not above taking bribes from the opposition even though his wise daughter, beatified by her tubercular suffering, can see right thru him. Add in a boozy, lost-souls sing-along of ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ a trio of pixilated surprise witnesses (like the old biddies in MR. DEEDS/’36), a midnight dash thru town yelling ‘Merry Christmas, Everyone’ in English and a final thought on witnessing the birth of a new star in heaven. What? No tinkling bell, Capra-san? Kurosawa doesn’t pace like Capra, overindulging his actors, especially Shimura, but there’s a great final shot that’s worth waiting for. Still, hard to imagine that he’d follow this up with RASHOMON.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Hey, this whole Write-Up is a STotD!

Monday, November 15, 2010

THE EDDIE CANTOR STORY (1953)

The producer & director of THE JOLSON STORY/’46 (an unexpected commercial smash) tried to recapture that success with a similar pic about Al Jolson’s great stage & screen rival, Eddie Cantor. The structure is repeated right from the opening where a kid discovers the power in his voice, to the finale where the warmly remembered entertainer is ‘reluctantly’ coaxed out of early retirement. There’s not much dramatic meat on these bones, the big contentious issue is that Eddie won’t slow down to take a family vacation. But it’s less the plot than the repellent cast & changing times that did this one in. Keefe Brasselle’s pop-eyed Cantor, with an angry scar in the middle of his forehead, may be a cringe-worthy ‘Banjo Eyes’ in or out of blackface, but nothing can prepare you for the Jimmy Durante impersonator. Yowsa! The JOLSON STORY really wasn’t all that much better, though it did have the real Jolson on the soundtrack, but it came out just as the country was taking a big breath after winning the war and giving Hollywood it’s biggest year ever . . . right before the deluge.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The only way to see Cantor before Sam Goldwyn neutered him for Hollywood consumption is by wading thru Florence Ziegfeld's GLORIFYING THE AMERICAN GIRL/'29 which has yet to show up on DVD. The film is a bust, but there are morsels of real Follies magic scattered in it. You-Tube has some clips.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

MARTIN LUTHER (1953)

The Lutheran Council made a clever choice when they hired Louis de Rochemont to produce this straight-forward bio-pic of the great religious reformer. De Rochemont had gone from producing ‘The March of Time’ newsreels to docu-dramas @ 20th/Fox, like THE HOUSE ON 92nd STREET/’45 and 13 RUE MADELEINE/’46. He, in turn, cleverly hired the blacklisted Irving Pichel (a remarkably competent jack-of-all-trades film man) to direct. Niall MacGinnis makes a forceful, if nuance-free Luther, and the cast & production are all the more effective for their workman-like lack of polish. In some respects, the film prefigures (and betters) the much-acclaimed, but frankly unwatchable, series of ‘teaching films’ that Roberto Rossellini started making in the mid- 60s. (To give Roberto his due, his 1950 film on Francis of Assisi may have influenced this production.) The film glosses over some of Luther’s less admirable qualities, but the basic tenets come across not just clearly, but with a real feel for the passion behind the ideas. Catholics may feel . . . otherwise. There are some dreadful Public Domain editions out there, but the 50th Anniversary DVD from Vision Video has a decent image that gives some indication of the Oscar nom’d cinematography.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Don’t forget to follow this up with a little do-it-yourself DAVY AND GOLIATH stop-motion animation festival!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

HEROES FOR SALE (1933)

This unusually well-realized William Wellman pic from the depths of the Depression remains powerful & bleak, even when its dramatic reversals feel a bit contrived. Richard Barthelmess, in good form, plays a severely injured WWI vet who comes home hooked on morphine, and with his war heroism swiped by a rich pal. He touches bottom before getting clean and making a fresh start with gal pal Aline MacMahon & gorgeous hall-mate Loretta Young whom he marries. Barthelmess also makes good at work, moving up from driving a route to ‘idea man.’ He modernizes the place only to watch helplessly as automation decimates his workforce. (The film is a Luddite horror story.) On the outs with labor & management, and in trouble with the law who think he could be a ‘red’ sympathizer, only the road ahead beckons. This modern Job story, a feature-length dramatization of ‘Remember My Forgotten Man,’ the musical finale to GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 just released by Warners, doesn’t have the fact-based grounding that ennobled I AM A FUGITIVE FROM THE CHAIN GANG/’32, but it sure touches on a smorgasbord of up-to-the-minute issues. Its 71 incident-filled minutes are somewhat over-stuffed & simplistic, but riveting.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A MAJORITY OF ONE (1962)

In this cross-cultural romantic/comedy, Alec Guinness’s Nipponese business tycoon stands out as possibly the least credible impersonation in his long & varied career. Yet he’s a monument of believability next to Rosalind Russell’s klezmer-inflected Yiddisher mama. This ersatz quality must have been contagious since the actors playing Russell’s daughter & son-in-law barely seem human. The Leonard Spigelgass play was a big critical & commercial success on B’way (with Gertrude Berg & Sir Cedric Hardwicke*) , but like other warm-hearted, sympathetic, wryly comic looks at Asian ways & American bigotry in the post-WWII environment (say, THE TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON/’56), it hasn’t exactly aged well. Longtime megger Mervyn Leroy had been tamed into well-upholstered civility by his years at M-G-M and was now winding up his long career at Warners, his old studio, as a soundstage embalmer of hit plays. In this one, our Bkln widow & a Japanese gent meet-cute & clash on a cruise to Tokyo before discovering how much they really have in common. Working out the complications of cultural misunderstandings & geriatric romance doesn’t provide enough sparkling moments to offset our discomfort with the dated stereotyping. (The very thing that the play tries to tackle.) Especially with La Russell dropping Judaic aperçu as if she were on a bombing run. But the two leads weren’t great stars for nothing, and given a leisurely two & a half hour running time (Leroy liked to shoot every damn line of dialogue he’d paid for), they just about win you over in spite of yourself. While you wait, spot a young George Takei in a bit.

DOUBLE-BILL: To understand how this might have worked on stage, check out the docu on actress/writer Gertrude Berg, YOO HOO, MRS GOLDBERG/'09. As to Sir Cedric in YellowFace . . . you're on your own.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

THE YANKEE CLIPPER (1927)


Cecil B. De Mille produced, but didn’t direct, this hearty slab of Americana. (C.B. was busy directing Jesus in KING OF KINGS/’27) It’s a genial bit of hooey about the 19th century shipping trade as England & the U.S. vie for the Chinese tea franchise by racing their cargo ships to Boston. The Yankee Captain is William Boyd, long before he was Hop-along Cassidy. He’s quick with the fists, quick with a smile, and in love with his rival’s beautiful daughter. Alas, the girl’s engaged to dastardly John Miljan, a blackguard who’s keeping a secret Chinese mistress! (Miljan's also the best thing in the pic.) Can Boyd stop the wedding? Will that tousled-haired stowaway brat affect the plot? Do the Yankees win the pennant? Well, it’s corny enough for De Mille! The handsome production, splendidly shot by John Mescall, uses real ships on a real sea, except for the typhoon scenes & such, but we don’t get much help from vet megger Rupert Julian whose technique hasn’t kept up with the times. His partial efforts on Lon Chaney’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA/’25 and his salvage job on von Stroheim’s MERRY-GO-ROUND give him a stature he hardly deserves. Still, the film is modest fun and the print looks swell on a DVD set called UNDER FULL SAIL.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: James Cruze’s OLD IRONSIDES/’26 hits a lot of the same buttons with a great cast and a lot more verve.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

DAS WEISSE BAND / THE WHITE RIBBON (2009)


Michael Haneke earned his Palme d’Or @ Cannes with this mesmerizing look into the haunted soul of a small German village. It’s a Grimm fairy tale without resolution or moral; a parable that ends not in a whimper, but with the bang of WWI. Haneke unpeels the usual layers of small town society: the parson & his family; the aristocratic landowners; the bachelor school teacher & the servant girl he gently courts; the peasants & skilled laborers who bring in the harvest and sharpen the tools. But this German OUR TOWN is seen THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY. Haneke does a brilliant job handling multiple storylines & characters, and he paces for the long view. (The film runs about two & a half hours, but he could have gone ten.) Initially, we’re drawn in by the spasms of unexplained violence: a doctor unhorsed by a trip wire; a barn set ablaze; a handicapped child senselessly attacked; abductions; a suicide; and dozens of small personal acts of cruelty. Even a cabbage patch can become victimized. Acts of tenderness & good will stand out from the rhythm of their lives, an echo to the pastoral beauty of the fields which open before us in stunning b&w WideScreen images. Is the interpersonal chill a defense against the horror . . . or the cause of it? Ultimately, the rapt tone Haneke holds on to is the human fascination with itself, even at its worst. And we sense that the German catastrophe of the last century, the path from Caligari to Hitler, wasn’t brought on by the leaders, but by the led.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (1933)

The current ‘Great Recession’ has made this famous Great Depression era pic newly relevant. The story centers on a couple of small-town high school pals who run off to find work in the city and to keep from being a burden back at home. All the scenes set on the freight trains and around the rail-yards, where massed teen hobos idle about, remain heartbreaking & eye-popping (in the typical Warners muckraking house style), even when the acting looks more OUR GANG than DEAD END. (The best perf comes from second lead Edwin Philips who left acting to be an asst. director.) But good as it is, the film doesn’t live up to its best instincts, compromising its material with stock gags & characters, typical faults from helmer William Wellman. But the film hits so many hot-button issues, and the set pieces are so strongly brought off, that the slips don’t matter so much. The Pre-Code toughness helps, too. Watch for an unbilled Ward Bond as a railway rapist, and listen to the plummy accent used by the judge who ties thing up for a hopeful ending. Pure FDR vowels.

CONTEST: When the cops chase Frankie Darro into a bijou, what film is being shown? Name it to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Monday, November 8, 2010

DAMN THE DEFIANT (aka H.M.S. DEFIANT) (1962)


Looking for a cinematic tour of French/English naval battles in the Napoleonic Wars?; with a bonus lecture on changing production methods and acting styles over six decades? Start with THAT HAMILTON WOMAN/’41 for classic b&w with WWII trimmings; then CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER/’51 for that TechniColored soundstage æsthetic; proceed to this British production, cast with real WWII naval officers, and F/X that combines studio artifice with real ships at sea; finish off with MASTER AND COMMANDER/’03 for convincing CGI & a shipshape (rather than ship-shaped) Russell Crowe. DEFIANT finds Alec Guinness & Anthony Qualye (on a brief hiatus from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA/’62) co-starring as a benevolent Captain & an agitating crewman; but it's Dirk Bogarde as a sadistic flog-happy officer who gets all the fun. The film wasn’t well received when released, the ending remains too tidy & convenient, and stuffed with sentiments straight out of Gilbert & Sullivan’s PIRATES OF PENZANCE. Yet, the acting is expectedly fine, and Lewis Gilbert keeps the pace up while helming the battle scenes with uncommon verve & clear lines of action. It all feels smart and looks good. (Even better if you tone down the blu-ish tint on the Columbia Classics DVD.) Guinness played the sadistic military bully on his last pic, TUNES OF GLORY/’60, and he hated playing this blandly competent man. But who else could have found BILLY BUDD’s Captain Vere in this ordinary material? (Look close at this poster and you'll see the U.S. title bleeding thru the British paste-over.)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

LES MISTONS (1957)


François Truffaut’s first release was this sly two-reeler about a group of ‘tween’ mischiefs who moon over the local beauty and doggedly follow her around their village. Alas, the girl spends most of her free time with her fiancé, a coach from a nearby town, so the boys’ collective passion turns to adolescent pranks against the couple. That is, when they aren’t horsing around by themselves. This beautifully observed and perfectly paced pic is like the student film of your dreams*, but without a whiff of ironic distancing. It’s sweetly nostalgic, funny, unexpectedly erotic, unsentimental and stuffed with a sense of play that both tweaks & celebrates film. (Truffaut runs a shot backwards to liven up a bit of roughhouse and he quotes from the famous early Lumiere, THE WATERER WATERED/’95. That’s 1895.) Right from the start, Truffaut was, paradoxically, a master of the art that conceals art and a director who flaunted the nuts & bolts of cinema as another visual element. His apprenticeship days as a critic were over. (Mysteriously, supplemental material on this Criterion DVD reveal clips from scenes not in the finished film. Is there a longer cut?)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Or a student film to crib from if you’re Rob Reiner whose STAND BY ME/’86 looks redundant next to this little wonder.

Friday, November 5, 2010

LIONHEART: THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE (1987)


The only film ever produced by Talia Shire (sis to exec-producer Francis Coppola, wife to Rocky Balboa) was this ramshackle affair about a young knight errant (wispy Eric Stoltz) who longs to crusade alongside Richard the Lionheart. But a series of picaresque adventures puts a pack of orphans in his care which attracts the attention of the dastardly Black Knight (a dreadfully hammy Gabriel Byrne), who has designs on the brood. There’s a pleasingly human scale to the film and the analogue effects don’t try to overwhelm us, but the story refuses to hang together. Franklin J. Schaffner was able to ground the fantastic elements of PLANET OF THE APES/’68 by squaring all the corners (exactly the qualities missing in Tim Burton’s remake), but his earth-bound craftsmanship misses whatever tone this film might have been aiming at. Even the action set pieces which should be his strong suit, don’t ‘read’ properly. (And borrowing a whole scene from Victor Hugo’s Court of Thieves in NOTRE DAME is a low blow.) You get the feeling that everyone gave up on this one before filming wrapped. A shame, since the basic story is not without promise. The poster tried to hook in the STAR WARS crowd. That failed, too.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

THE MAN I LOVE (1947)


There’s enough plot for three films in this handsomely turned meller from vet helmer Raoul Walsh. Ida Lupino is a torchy jazz singer who takes a break from her regular NYC gig to visit the family out West. And what a mess she finds! One sister’s hubby is a shell-shocked vet in a sanatorium; another sits home all day and pines for the married man across the hall. Her kid brother hangs with a bad crowd; and the peroxide blond across the hall two-times her easy-going-hubby with the thuggish club-owner who hires Lupino to sing at his swanky joint when he’s not trying to paw her. Whew! And then she meets the man of her dreams, Bruce Bennett, a gifted jazz pianist so depressed by a flop marriage that he’s run off to a life at sea. Now add in a murder or two for relief. Amazingly, Lupino solves all these issues without breaking a sweat, then heads back to NYC when the winds change, like some jazz-baby Mary Poppins. It should all be ridiculous. Yet the concise script, Walsh’s moviemaking moxie & the black pools in Sid Hickox’s lensing make this tasty & almost believable. As the club-owner, Robert Alda is really too goonish (you can see why he never quite clicked in Hollywood), but Bruce Bennett shows tremendous chemistry with Lupino. Add in a stack of swinging jazz standards and you’ve got a real find.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Watch close at the end as Walsh nips from NOW, VOYAGER, CASABLANCA and STELLA DALLAS.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

THE FALLEN SPARROW (1943)


John Garfield works hard as a shell-shocked Spanish Civil War volunteer who’s back on-the-town in NYC after a stint in rehab. He’s out to prove that his best pal didn’t commit suicide and winds up mixing it up with a gang of hiding-in-plain-sight Nazis. Maureen O’Hara, Patricia Morrison & Martha O’Driscoll make a tasty trio of lovely liars for John to pursue, but the bad guys, including Walter Slezak & Hugh Beaumont (Beaver Cleaver’s dad with a German accent?) don’t offer a lot of menace. There’s more fun in watching solid character actor John Miljan pull off a tricky part as an ambivalent police inspector. Helmer Richard Wallace & lenser Nicholas Musuraca also aren’t phoning it in, laying out a foreboding atmosphere while Robert Wise's editing adds a sharp, jangly edge. But the story never adds up or draws us in, and the main interest comes from watching Garfield play the sort of role Humphrey Bogart would have nabbed back @ Warners, home studio to both.

Monday, November 1, 2010

EL SECRETO DE SUS OJOS / THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2009)

Right in the middle of this Argentine film about murder & delayed justice, there’s a wallapalooza of a shot that flies, with no visible edit, right into a soccer stadium, swoops down to the stands and then picks up two men who start chasing the main suspect. Thru the stands, down the aisles, around the ramps, over a ledge, even onto the playing field. It’s a five-minute cinematic tour de force. But then it’s back to the second-rate crime procedural we’ve been watching, the third-rate psychological thriller we’ve seen many times before, and the wispy late middle-aged romance that makes up the rest of this Oscar’d Best Foreign pic. The script adds a bit of political camouflage to add unearned resonance to this one; the murderer was sent to jail, but then freed by the corrupt government. Now, decades have passed and the freed man has disappeared. The big revelations are all too easy to bother guessing, the acting is larded with undigested romantic melancholy (you keep expecting the leads to start mooing at each other) and the ‘shocking’ twist that must remain buried holds all the charge of wool socks generating static electricity on a dry winter’s day. Oscar strikes again.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE (1949)

This glamorous sudser from M-G-M tries ever-so hard to be daring & adult in the smart post-war manner, but it’s dramatically inert. It’s certainly filled with yummy-looking people making misery for each other; just not enough. Barbara Stanwyck is warily married to darkling James Mason who can’t quit gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous Ava Gardner. (She’s bad bad bad. That’s what he likes likes likes.) On a lower end of the social scale, fashion-shop model Cyd Charisse has grown up with a big crush on government man Van Heflin, but he falls big-time for Babs. (Van’s also lower on the gorgeous scale so he gets heaps of charm & sympathy.) And look!, there’s Nancy Davis. In this early role, the future Mrs. Ronald Reagan throws a Texas-themed party in her NYC duplex and proffers wifely advise. (Confidentially, she stinks.) Marcia Davenport’s big bestseller must have been more fun than this, but Mervyn Leroy megs like he’s driving Dad’s expensive car. And they barely give Manhattan’s West Side three minutes of screen time. Each second excruciatingly condescending.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Another 1949 pic, LETTER TO THREE WIVES, did this sort of marital fandango with wit, style & a great gimmick.

THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (1975)

The schlock-meisters @ American-International hoped to grab some of the lucrative fantasy-adventure kiddie market long cultivated by Disney, Schneer/Harryhausen & Irwin Allen with this Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation. The result is plenty cheesy, but not as much fun as it should be. Doug McClure keeps a straight face as an American neutral who leads a motley group of WWI Brits & Boche thru the perils of an uncharted island where dinos still roam and cavemen still evolve. But the ridiculously uneven (and just plain ridiculous) F/X creatures & effects only make you miss the resourceful craftsmanship of the cleverly handled, if spare, sea battles between ships & U-boats that open the film. Two years later, THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT/’77 went back to the island to look for survivors and found goofier beasts and a plot lifted from H. Ridder Haggard’s SHE/’35;’65;’85!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

EL COMPADRE MENDOZA (1934)

The second film in Fernando de Fuentes’ ‘Revolution Trilogy’ (stand-alone films on Zapata’s war against the Mexican government in the ‘teens) centers on the convenient loyalties of a wealthy land-owner who opens his arms, and his comfortable hacienda, to whomever is currently in charge.. He forms a special bond with a gentlemanly Zapata general, and even makes him godfather to his son, never suspecting that a chaste love has developed between his much younger wife and the handsome young officer. But when the war turns decisively against the rebels, cheerleading neutrality will no longer suffice. The future may hang on which friends you have helped last. Compared to the last of the three films, VAMONOS CON PANCHO VILLA!, made only two years later, de Fuentes’s filmmaking skills seem rudimentary. The visual look is stagy & presentational, as is the acting, and the story doesn’t feel inevitable. It’s possible that working with a great cinematographer like Gabriel Figueroa made some of the difference on the later film, but that can’t be the whole explanation. Perhaps the first film in the trilogy (PRISONER 13/’33) makes a better case for itself.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

LAUGHING SINNERS (1931)

The loamy plot of this romantic-triangle from M-G-M is full of manure, and Harry Beaumont’s megging holds to the stiff rhythms of early Talkies, but the film’s worth a look just to see Joan Crawford and fast-rising Clark Gable in the process of fine-tuning their screen personas. Crawford’s a dinner club chantoosie who thinks she’s engaged to traveling salesman Neil Hamilton. But when he ditches her for the boss’s daughter, she’s ready to jump off a bridge. And that's when Salvation Army man Clark Gable steps in. (Nicely staged with the camera holding on their shoes as the drama plays out.) Joan reforms herself and sparks to Gable; then Hamilton reappears. Will Joan dump solid Clark for this smoothy? Will she regret her past . . . or her future? The young Crawford is a revelation for those who only know her later work. The lumbering technology of the day helped tame the unfocused energy of her flapper period, and she’s far less rigid & controlled than she became. (Charles Rosher’s fine-grained lensing doesn’t hurt, either.) You can’t do an easy comic impersonation of this Joan. But don’t blink, this early softness wouldn’t last long. Gable was also emerging, but as what? His previous pic (THE SECRET SIX) showed off a cool sexual confidence that moved past his initial tough guy roles. Even with sixth billing he stole the pic. (The studio saw it happening and gave him that film’s final shot.) Here, he’s charming in his Salvation Army outfit, even with those darn flapping ears, but the story removes the rough-and-ready edge. In his next pic, he’d give studio Queen Norma Shearer a slug in the puss . . . and then a big wet kiss. That put him over.

CONTEST: More than two decades later, Joan would return to M-G-M with a film that has two easy connections to this one. Name them to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS WriteUp of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

THE MAN WITH TWO FACES (1934)

Edward G. Robinson has a lot of fun with this fluffy backstage thriller taken from a flop play by George S. Kaufman & Alexander Woollcott. He’s an actor/director who’s helping his talented sister (Mary Astor) get back on B’way after a nervous breakdown. Out of the blue, the cause of her troubles, her ghastly, venal husband (Louis Calhern) reappears on the scene. Everyone involved in the production wants to get rid of the creep, but only Eddie G. has a plan. The big twist is so obvious that the filmmakers don't try to hide anything, which happily slashes the play’s more elaborate construction to a tidy 80 minutes. Hokey as it is, the cast is game (Mae Clarke & Ricardo Cortez are also on hand); the murder is unexpectedly chilling; and it’s fun to see how they meld Ferenc Molnar’s THE GUARDSMAN (just filmed by The Lunts, no less, in ‘31) with a Lon Chaney revenge meller. Plus, you get to see Robinson in a veritable trial run for Sheridan Whiteside, the great Falstaffian creation of Kaufman & Moss Hart in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER/’41. A classic character based on this play’s co-author, critic & Algonquin 'Round Table' wit Alex Woollcott.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

TOM BROWN’S SCHOOLDAYS (1951)

The same year that Brian Desmond Hurst made his near-definitive version of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL (aka SCROOGE - the one with the great Alistair Sim), he produced (with Gordon Parry helming) this lesser, but efficient adaptation of Thomas Hughes’ oft-filmed prep school classic. Lots of supporting players show up in both productions, but this film also claims the last of three prestigious juvenile leading roles in the brief, happy acting career of John Howard Davies. (After David Lean’s OLIVER TWIST/’48 and the superb if little known D. H. Lawrence adaptation THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER/’49.) Noel Langley’s script only touches on the book’s main focus, the school reform issues of Rugby’s progressive headmaster Dr. Arnold, but Robert Newton’s burning presence makes the most of his limited screen time. Instead, we concentrate almost exclusively on junior-class friendships & the sadistic bullying by upper-classmen. Much of it is still harrowing stuff, climaxing in a big flinchingly violent second-act fight between Brown (along with his pal, East) & their chief tormentor, Flashman. The blind eye habitually turned toward this sort of ‘boys-will-be-boys’ hazing is hardly a thing of the past but as current as FaceBook. (See also: TOM BROWN'S SCHOOL DAYS/'40)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: You could try this one out on a Harry Potter fiend. They might be a bit shocked to see so many of their beloved Hogwarts’ traditions sourced straight out of Hughes’ muckraking book.