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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.

Friday, October 22, 2010

THE LAST GANGSTER (1937)

Only the chance for solo-billing above the title @ glamorous M-G-M accounts for Edward G. Robinson making this sentimental mob story. He’s called Joe Krozac here, but you’ll recognize Little Caesar in this slushy tale of Father-love. Out of jail after a ten year stint, Eddie only wants to find the son he’s never known, but the kid’s been raised to think that newsman James Stewart (unbelievably skinny) is his dad. Meantime, his old gang grabs him and puts the screws on to find out where he hid all the loot. When he won’t give it up they kidnap sonny boy and give him the works, see. Yeah, yeah, de woiks. (No joke, that’s the level of dialogue all thru the film.) In a series of truly weird scenes, Eddie & the boy (who speaks with a slight British accent for some reason) bond as they travel home. Naturally, Eddie does right by the kid while the wheels of justice grind on for a finish the Production Code can get behind. The whole package is odd enough to hold your attention, but Eddie must have been crestfallen to find himself in a glorified ‘B’ pic. Followers of Hollywood dynasties will note that the debuting mom is the mysterious Austrian actress Rosa Stradner who only made a couple more pics before settling down (most unhappily) as Mrs. Joe Mankiewicz.

CONTEST: Warner Archive DVDs generally come sans Extras, but this one has a clever little trailer that’s a lot better than the movie. Eddie G. hosts as if he were Jack Benny doing a monologue and tells a joke that violates the Production Code. How’d he get away with it? Find the joke and name the violation to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: To see Eddie off the Warners lot, and joyfully sending himself up as both mobster & Milquetoast, try THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING/’35, an outstanding comedy he made @ Columbia with the great Jean Arthur that’s superbly helmed by (wait for it) John Ford. Tremendous fun.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

THIS WOMAN IS DANGEROUS (1952)

Even the title sounds generic on this one. That may have been the idea since Warner Bros. was winding up contracts for co-stars Joan Crawford & Dennis Morgan, as well the producer & director, with this low-key entry that’s similar to Crawford’s M-G-M hit, A WOMAN’S FACE/’41. (Itself a remake of a 1938 Ingrid Bergman pic.) Joan repeats as the toughened leader of a criminal gang who finds love & redemption with a doctor whose operation changes her life. The gimmick this time has Joan going blind, and the time spent taking care of her failing eye-sight makes her partner-in-crime psychotically jealous of the good Doctor. Of course, even psychos can sometimes be right! It’s not a bad little film, and it’s gorgeously shot by Ted McCord, but it keeps Joan emotionally reined in which is a mixed blessing. It stops her from the volcanic emoting (those dark shades really cut down on eyeball rolling), but it also points up how empty she was as an actress when she couldn’t play the extremes. As the heavy, David Brian is remarkably nasty for the period while poor Dennis Morgan looks all used up as the upstanding doctor. Sad, he’s an underrated performer.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Joan Crawford had the last laugh when she left the lot and made a smash indie thriller, SUDDEN FEAR, that same year. It even got her a well-deserved Oscar nom. and is ripe for a remake.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

GIVE A GIRL A BREAK (1953)

When the temperamental star of a new B’way Revue quits, the show’s director/star has to find a replacement in record time. The search gets narrowed down to three talented girls, but who will get the big break? Not the freshest of storylines for this modest-to-a-fault chamber musical, but it should be enough to hang a backstager on. There’s talent a’plenty: Stanley Donen to helm; Gower Champion & Bob Fosse as co-stars & choreographers; Debbie Reynolds, Marge Champion & Helen Wood as the wannabees; and songs from Burton Lane & Ira Gershwin . . . yet there's hardly a memorable thing in here. The Gods were smiling just around the corner. on a different M-G-M soundstage where Vincente Minnelli was shooting THE BAND WAGON. (Don’t feel too bad, the next year Donen had all the mojo w/ 7 BRIDES FOR 7 BROTHERS while Minnelli tanked on BRIGADOON.) This one’s still worth a look for the young & endearingly sunny Mr. Fosse; for the speed & shiny perfection of Marge & Gower in peak form; and for some tasty staging tricks from Donen and his beloved camera crane. But the whole package comes off like one of those instantly forgettable 1950s tv spectaculars.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Portly Kurt Kasznar gets stuffed into ballet tights to partner Ms. Wood (a bit player whose career ended when she got this break), but he’s mainly on board to play a wisecracking Oscar Levant role. In THE BAND WAGON, Levant makes like B’way lyricist Adolph Green; here, Kasznar is ‘doing’ Julie Styne, the great Hollywood & B’way composer who was famous for always agreeing with whatever was said last.

STotD2: These star-is-born scenarios sound corny, but they do happen. On Gower Champion’s last B’way hit (a stage version of 42nd Street), not only did he replace the show’s star at the last minute, he actually died on opening night! The cast played on, unaware of his death! And producer David Merrick announced it to one & all, right on stage during the curtain call. What a show that would make!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937)

Leo McCarey left his comic safety zone with this heartfelt family drama about an elderly married couple (Beulah Bondi & Victor Moore) who are forced to give up their home and move in with the kids. Problem is, no one can take them both, so they have to split up after 50 years together. The film is a beautifully observed character piece, and not without humor, but McCarey tends to overstate the little dramatic tics just as he might overstate small comic tics in his films with Laurel & Hardy, Mae West, Harold Lloyd & the Marx Bros. For comedians, this released comical invention; here, it borders on overkill. Even so, the rarely raised topic and uncompromising ending made the film’s rep in spite of (because of?) its quick commercial fizzle. And the film does have masterful things in it. Four or five set pieces are devastating, as is the entire last act. But McCarey is unable to carry his storyline without resorting to a few too many Hollywood plot contrivances. The strength of the film comes from McCarey seeing, as his friend Jean Renoir put it, that the tragedy of life is that everyone has their reasons. That’s why he can show us just how much of a pain in the neck, the parents can be to have around all the time. A final evening out and their farewell at Grand Central are generally hailed as the film’s best moments, but the true emotional climax comes in a late scene between Bondi and her favorite child, Thomas Mitchell, as they gently lie to each other about the future, hoping to shield themselves from the awful truth.

Monday, October 18, 2010

UN PEU DE SOLEIL DANS L’EAU FROIDE / A FEW HOURS OF SUNLIGHT (1971)

The inexplicable popularity of Claude Lelouche’s A MAN AND A WOMAN/’66 opened the floodgates for a species of photogenic French romantic drek like this dreary adaptation of a Francoise Sagan novel. Marc Porel is the handsome young fellow who's so depressed, it's making him impotent. (Or is it vice versa?) But he's cured by a declaration of unconditional love and tosses out Barbara Bach (and her purple sweatpants) for the invigorating passions of his new love, Claudine Auger. She leaves her husband, family & friends for this guy and he shows his renewed bliss by gamboling about with flocks of sheep. (He really did lose the impotence!) It’s all too hot not to cool down, but nothing can stop Michel Legrand’s dewy Love Theme from droning on & on until we beg for mercy. (Get the 45rpm single! Side A - Orchestral; Side B - Vocal Arrangement.) Hard to believe this was scripted by Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Look for a young & hungry Gérard Depardieu as Auger’s kid brother. Well, maybe not so hungry. He must have been ploughing through the catering truck as he’s popping out of his wardrobe.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For a great Francoise Sagan pic, try Otto Preminger's remarkable BONJOUR TRISTESSE/58 with great perfs & astonishing lensing from Georges Périnal.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A ROYAL SCANDAL (1996)

An unexpected treat. This BBC production comes hidden as an Extra behind their pointlessly snarky bio-pic about Princess Margaret, THE QUEEN’S SISTER/’05. (Toby Stephens makes a superb Lord Snowdon, but the rest of the film is junk.) SCANDAL, on the other hand, is a pithy delight. A wickedly funny one-hour period piece (late 18th Century) that tells you all you need to know about the marital train wreck that followed the arranged wedding of George, Prince of Wales and Caroline of Brunswick. Not only does this all play out like Masterpiece Theatre meets Black Adder, but it cleaves deliciously close to the ghastly truth. The entire cast are up for this one, allowing the comic horror to unfold without resorting to wink-wink, nudge-nudge or even trying to be funny at all. The more seriously everyone takes their parts, the more appallingly hilarious everything becomes. And what a cast! Susan Lynch, Michael Kitchen, Denis Lawson, Oliver Ford Davies, Ian Richardson as a plummy-voiced narrator; and that great ill-used comic actor, Richard E. Grant. Not since WITHNAIL AND I, all the way back in ‘87, has he been gifted with an opportunity that makes such generous use of his special gifts. (The poor man had Madonna as his director last year. Life just ain't fair.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

REAP THE WILD WIND (1942)

Paulette Goddard was David O Selznick’s second choice for Scarlet O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND/’39, but she was Cecil B. De Mille’s first choice for this rip-off. Ostensibly, this is a typical C.B. historical set in the bustling, semi-legal ship-scavenging trade off the Florida coast in the 1840s. He-man John Wayne (who’s hemmed in by De Mille’s framing) & foppish Ray Milland (who’s very good) fight over assignments and the feisty Paulette; Robert Preston & Susan Hayward pitch woo over the objections of villainous Raymond Massey who’s masterminding the shipwrecks; and the Paramount effects department struggle to tame the pudding-rich TechniColor, the cute ocean-going miniature vessels and a righteous giant squid. De Mille was at his most ridiculous in the 1940s, so you expect the phony camera tricks (they match up with his phony characters & dialogue), but the accumulation of swipes from GWTW, especially in the first half, is a bit much. And if you think Goddard would have made a rotten Scarlet, just imagine a C.B. De Mille GWTW! ‘Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Picture!’

Thursday, October 14, 2010

THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (aka THE HOUNDS OF ZAROFF) (1932)

The restored Criterion edition of this classic chase pic looks great. It’s the one about the insane (and insanely rich) hunter who wants to track human prey. He rules a small, isolated island and wrecks ships just to get a survivor or two. There have been many remakes (official and un), but this zippy wonder is the most memorable. Great fun, right from the first reel which features a startlingly blunt & lethal ship catastrophe with just one survivor. The team of Ernest Schoedsack and Merian Cooper made this in tandem with KING KONG/’33 (note the similar cast and shared sets), but this was largely Schoedsack’s show and he proves the more fluid craftsman even if nothing could ever quite match this film's big brother. Still, Leslie Banks’s OTT villain even gives Kong a run for the money. He should be as well known as Karloff or Lugosi, using the facial paralysis he got in WWI to fabulous effect, staring madly at his victims, Joel McCrea and Fay Wray, who do lovely battle against him. Special note should be paid to Max Steiner’s groundbreaking background score, something new in ‘32, and to the amazingly sophisticated use of subjective POVs in the big climactic chase that Schoedsack extends over a full reel. He learned how to pull this off on his great 'fictional real-life' jungle thriller CHANG/'27. Don't miss that one, either!

THE GHOST WRITER (2010)

Roman Polanski’s literate suspenser (about a Pop novelist who’s hired to punch up the staid memoirs of a politically controversial ex-Prime Minister) got a lot of critical buzz, but hardly made a peep commercially. Both responses make sense. Polanski, with author Robert Harris, tries to squeeze a paranoid ‘70s-style political-thriller into a classic Hitchcock mold, but in spite of the elegant craftsmanship and lux casting, too much effort shows. There are some beautifully managed set pieces - the second act gets remarkably scary dividends from a recalcitrant GPS; the quiet threat of a two-faced country host right out of Hitch’s 39 STEPS/’35; and a game of cat & mouse with a car ferry on a strict schedule - all played in a thrilling yet believable manner rarely seen in these Bourne-again days. The acting is all superb, special kudos to Pierce Brosnan for investing his PM with a mix of wit, arrogance & detachment, and to Eli Wallach for just being there. (94 and counting!) Still, it’s hard to buy into the set up. Ewan McGregor’s writer wouldn’t have taken (or even been offered) this rush job, especially after that sudden attack on the street.* Anyway, if you want to pull off a Hitchcockian dose of guilt & dread, you can’t make your McGuffin a serious political football. As Hitch might have said, 'That’s no McGuffin!’ And using the CIA as your omniscient villain? The way terror is controlling today’s events, we’d all feel safer if the old CIA just knew what the heck was going on. It makes Polanski’s world view look dated. And that goes for the CHINATOWN/’74 twist ending, too.

*In a roundabout way, he does play out a favorite plot hook; the second-rater who doesn’t know that he only got the job because he sucks, and then comes thru with the goods.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT (1953)

The third go-‘round for this saga of sea-faring siblings has little but its memorable title going for it. The qualities that worked for Bessie Love & Lon Chaney in 1923 and for Ramon Novarro, Joan Crawford & Ernest Torrence in ‘28 (under the title ACROSS TO SINGAPORE) are nowhere to be found in this flat telling. Producer Pandro Berman & his regular megger Richard Thorpe seem completely uninvolved, running the show as a stopgap vehicle for some costly contract players. Ann Blyth gets the worst of it as a dewy bride to a tired-looking Robert Taylor, while Stewart Granger, at least, goes thru the motions of swash & buckle. The basic outline isn’t without promise -- missing scapegrace brother turns up alive in the tropics with a fortune in pearls -- but the story construction fumbles over multiple plotlines and the production values are shockingly poor. M-G-M management was going thru a shakeup which may explain, if not excuse, the economies, but the film remains a dud.

Monday, October 11, 2010

MY REPUTATION (1946)

Is it improper for a pretty young widow to fall in love again? How do you adjust to life alone? To sew or not to sew? Buy a tv? Adopt a cat? Is it lady-like to follow your bliss? Fans of Women’s Weepies will recognize the characters: the overbearing mother; the disapproving relatives & hypocritical friends; a wisecracking gal-pal and the loyal plain-talking domestic; a suitably dull suitor for a companiate match. It might be NOW, VOYAGER/’42, the Bette Davis classic, though the plot is more like Douglas Sirk’s ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS/’55, right down to the snow motif and the disapproving children.* But a smart script and Barbara Stanwyck’s brisk sentiment help this vehicle stand on its own merits. Helmer Curtis Bernhardt & lenser James Wong Howe keep things moving and give it just enough style, plus there’s fine support from a chummy Eve Arden (less brittle than usual); Jerome Cowan as a creep with strong hands & fast lips; and an exceptional turn from young Scotty Beckett as Stanwyck's thin-skinned older son. (He had a big year, also playing young Al Jolson in THE JOLSON STORY.) George Brent is typically underwhelming as Stanwyck’s unsuitable new fellow, it may be why the film isn’t as well known as it might be.** But there’s something touching in seeing Babs’ fall so hard for someone who’s not incandescent.

SCREWY THOUGHT(S) OF THE DAY: *Stanwyck’s character actually has a couple of teenaged kids in the film. A rarely seen creature in this genre.

**Brent was a Warners contract player, but he did his best work off his home turf: SPIRAL STAIRCASE/’46 @ Universal; PAINTED VEIL/’34 @ M-G-M; THE RAINS CAME/’39 @ 20th/Fox.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

VAMONOS CON PANCHO VILLA / LET’S GO WITH PANCHO VILLA (1936)

A couple of years after Hollywood made VIVA VILLA! with Wallace Beery soft-pedaling everyone’s favorite bandit revolutionary, Mexico answered with this near-classic from Fernando De Fuentes, a helmer little known up North, but a major figure during Mexico’s early sound period. The film follows the initial high spirits & eventual disillusion of six small town volunteers, affectionately dubbed ‘the lions of San Pablo.’ Pancho Villa welcomes them with dangerous assignments & quick promotions, but a revolution needs more than an oversized personality to succeed and Viila’s spontaneous military victories can’t bring a new deal for the long suffering peasants. Soon, the men are dreaming of home and wondering what they are dying for as sickness & anarchy break out. The original film elements are in pretty rough shape, but the Cinemateca/Facets DVD is good enough to show De Fuentes’ command of montage & composition, even when the character development settles for Earthy platitudes and musketeer-like comradery. Be sure to watch the horrifyingly blunt alternate ending which shows Villa in the starkest of lights. It was originally censored and you’ll know why.

Friday, October 8, 2010

MANNEQUIN (1937)

Joan Crawford’s last few vehicles hadn’t come off (the apologetic trailer calls this ‘her best role in the last 5 years’), so it was back to the working-class striver parts that had made her a star. Under the irony-free gaze of tenement romance specialist Frank Borzage, this opens nicely with Joan, the sole wage earner in her family, refusing to peel even one more boiled potato for Dad. By the next reel, she’s married a big-talking crumb-bum (Alan Curtis) just to get out; left her sweatshop job for the chorus line; and been unaccountably wooed (almost stalked) by a self-made millionaire, Spencer Tracy in their one pic together. You only have to go back to 1931's POSSESSED to see how much Crawford has slipped. She just can’t bear to drop the cultivated tones she struggled to acquire, and her fresh energy is all but smothered in makeup & clothes. One outfit with a big black hat looks like a Hallowe’en costume. Then, just when you think the story is going nowhere, the screenplay throws in an appalling bit of union bashing to facilitate the big romantic finish. What audience was this pic shooting for?

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned, Clarence's Brown's POSSESSED/'31 is a small gem, and a revelation if you only know Crawford from her later pics. Once out on VHS, it should make a DVD debut soon. Confusingly, Crawford made a second (unrelated) film with the same title in 1947 . You want the one from '31, accept no substitutions!

CONTEST: The brother of this film’s producer had a better understanding of management/labor relations, writing a few years later:

The workingman? He’s turning into something called organized labor. And you’re not going to like that one little bit when you find out it means your workingman expects something as his right and not your gift.

Name the brothers and the referenced film to win our usual MAKSQUIBS prize, a WriteUp of any NetFlix DVD.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

HAK SE WUI YI WO WAI KWAI / ELECTION 2 / aka TRIAD ELECTION (2006)

How time flies! A year after the first ELECTION movie, Hong Kong helmer Johnnie To jumps two years ahead for the follow up. Alas, everything else here is a couple of steps back. The Triad, a confederation of Hong Kong’s top mobsters, elects a new chief every two years, but the current chairman is trying to break tradition and win a second term. There’s little support for the idea, especially since his main rival is bringing in so much cash from his DVD porn distribution. Now, he wants the prestige of being the Triad’s top man so he can gain access to the lucrative Chinese market. Let the plots, murders & grisly mayhem begin. But this time around, To isn’t able to keep a tight rein on his multiple story lines. There are too many factions to tend to in 90 minutes, and we don’t get enough character development to build rooting interest. (You need a scorecard to know what ‘team’ some of these thugs are on.) Naturally, with To’s technical abilities, there are neatly handled action sequences (a set piece involving the chairman’s son & some school toughs is not only brilliantly executed, To uses it to blindside us from scoping out the film’s climax), plus there's a welcome lack of gangster sentimentality. But To loses narrative focus, and largely misses the deft manner he brought to the earlier pic.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN (1951)


Albert Lewin made two of the artier pics ever to make it out of M-G-M (THE MOON AND SIX-PENCE/’42 and THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY/’45), but he really went overboard (marvelously, embarrassingly & literally so) in this gorgeously TechniColored, recently restored fantabulous fable. Ava Gardner is the drop-dead beauty (again, literally) and James Mason is the traveling Dutchman who’s spent the past few centuries seeking absolution. She’s engaged to another when they meet at a coastal town, but neither racing car drivers, bullfighters nor antiquarians can keep these fatalistic romantic fools from their destiny. Lewin wasn’t much of a story constructionist and kept George Sander on hand as explicator/alter ego & narrator. But with Sanders making ALL ABOUT EVE/’50 in the States, he made do with sound-alike Harold Warrender. Shot by Jack Cardiff, in his best Powell/Pressburger style (the film draws heavily on their æsthetic), it’s all swanky as hell and pretty irresistible. (And probably best viewed at home without risking a burst from those mood destroying audience gigglers.) If only Richard Wagner had still been around to write the score instead of the over-parted Alan Rawsthorne. And though Lewin really didn’t have the chops to pull off his grand illusions, the film goes turgid now & then in all departments, you still can’t take your eyes off of it.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Turn off the sound and play random cuts from Wagner’s FLYING DUTCHMAN and TRISTAN. It makes a helluva silent movie pastiche.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

THE REAL GLORY (1939)

U.S. troops are pulling out; rabid religious sects are terrorizing the populace; the local militia isn’t ready to fight on their own; and only a small contingent of American advisors remain to aid & train the national army. Familiar territory? Yet this prescient story unfolds in The Phillippines, circa 1904. We really do repeat history! If only the film were half as interesting as it sounds. Alas, this Sam Goldwyn production, helmed by reliable Henry Hathaway, can’t decide if it’s a serious war drama or GUNGA DIN/’39 style adventure. Alfred Newman’s score goes positively schizophrenic just trying to keep up. Gary Cooper, handsome & heroic in his low-keyed manner, is as convincing as anyone could be as the noncombatant doctor with a knack for psychological motivation & undercover warfare. But David Niven, Reginald Owen & Broderick Crawford can’t do much with the stock comic relief & sentimental business they’re given, especially when the gal they’re all falling over is drab Andrea Leeds. Yet another tame testament to Goldwyn’s famous lack of libido.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: John Ford's THEY WERE EXPENDABLE/'45 is a patriotic and sobering look at Americans in The Phillippines during WWII. One of Ford's greatest and least appreciated works.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937; 1952)

There are many versions of this romantic Ruritanian nonsense. (It’s the one about the British commoner who just happens to be a ringer for an indisposed/unworthy King. He stands in at the coronation, foils a diabolical coup and even falls in love with the Queen.) But the story only works its charm in David O. Selznick’s irresistible 1937 production. As he put it, ‘In tackling THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, the great criticism was that we were making a very dated piece of material, an old-fashioned fairy tale with no conceivable appeal to present-day audiences. I frankly would not have purchased the material if I hadn’t had Ronald Colman under contract, and if I hadn’t determined in advance that Colman would play the role.’* Of course, he surrounded Colman with Madeline Carroll, Raymond Massey, David Niven, C. Aubrey Smith, Mary Astor and a scene-stealing Douglas Fairbank, Jr. He also used three A-list directors, John Cromwell gets sole credit, but left the action stuff for ‘Woody’ Van Dyke, and the stunning renunciation scene was reshot by George Cukor. The 1952 version, almost a shot-by-shot TechniColor clone, is a pale copy. The cast looks fine on paper, but everybody seems to be playing the wrong role. (One nice touch gives Lewis Stone, who played the lead in 1922, a bit as the Cardinal.) Be sure to check out the fine Extras. A top-notch TOM & JERRY cartoon, and on the other side two eye-popping 1937 3-strip TechniColor shorts. Dig that state-of-the-art 1937 ‘modern’ kitchen! Alas, the archive radio version of ZENDA has been mastered at the wrong speed and Colman’s mellow baritone turns tenor!

*Edited from MEMO FROM DAVID O. SELZNICK, a classic movie book which easily earns a READ ALL ABOUT IT.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

STAJNIA NA SALWATORZE / STALL ON SALVADOR (1967)

This WWII Resistance story from Polish helmer Pawel Komorowski is small-scale, but solid; and might seem even more effective if its over-processed DVD image were sharper. The familiar story follows a group of toughened young resistance fighters who need to eliminate an informer in their midst. Killing off Nazis is one thing, but taking out someone you know, one of your own, is not so easy. Compared to Jean-Pierre Melville’s near-contemporaneous masterpiece on the French Resistance, ARMY OF SHADOWS/’69, this is modest stuff, but the moral complexity of wartime behavior under occupation is given its proper ambiguous due. And, as was often the case with films made behind the Iron Curtain, the struggle between Nazi authority and freedom-loving Polish nationals could safely serve as allegory for political realities of the day.

Friday, October 1, 2010

THE WOLFMAN (2010)

This posh, but pointless reboot of the old horror chestnut is only distinguished by negatives: the alarmingly awful hair style Benicio Del Toro sports even before he goes lycanthropic; Joe Johnston's megging which aims for a swooning manner but settles for sleepy; an entire cast that characterizes by whispering all the dialogue; rubbery CGI effects that make the werewolf’s fights & flights of fancy laughable; and a dash thru an oversized pane-glass window that looks lifted from THE WIZARD OF OZ/’39. Well, you can always think up silly limericks while the film unspools.

There once was a human lupine.

Who feared the full moon more than wine.

He maimed and he slayed,

And he almost got laid,

But he found his life less than divine.

Or, as the film so eloquently puts it, ‘Ooooooooooooooooooo."