Now With More Than 3000 Reviews! Go Nuts - Read 'Em All!!

WELCOME! Use the search engines on this site (or your own off-site engine of choice) to gain easy access to the complete MAKSQUIBS Archive; over 2500 posts and counting. (New posts added every day or so.)

You can check on all our titles by typing the Title, Director, Actor or 'Keyword' of your choice in the Search Engine of your choice (include the phrase MAKSQUIBS) or just use the BLOGGER Search Box at the top left corner of the page.

Feel free to place comments directly on any of the film posts and to test your film knowledge with the CONTESTS scattered here & there. (Hey! No Googling allowed. They're pretty easy.)

Send E-mails to MAKSQUIBS@yahoo.com . (Let us know if the TRANSLATE WIDGET works!) Or use the Profile Page or Comments link for contact.

Thanks for stopping by.

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.