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Sunday, March 31, 2013


This debut pic from Larisa Shepitko (a rare female director @ MosFilm, who died young after her fourth & final film, THE ASCENT/’77, ) sports a worthy theme, but wayward execution. Maya Bulgakova gives a fussy perf as a former fighter pilot who can’t (or doesn’t want to) let go of past glories. With an adopted daughter who can’t be bothered to have her meet a new husband; a cultivated suitor who can’t compete with the glamorous pilot she lost in the war; a new generation of fly-boys she envies; and pain-in-the-neck disrespectful teens at the provincial high school she runs, she’ll either breakthrough or breakdown. Bulgakova, perhaps because she’s a decade too young, overplays with tiny hesitations & awkward attempts to connect, nibbling inconclusively at the role. Everyone else brings the usual Russian enthusiasm, they’re less actors than tour guides to character tics. (Though her school assistant has a spot on horrible sports jacket you can believe in.) In back of the camera, Shepitko shows little of the technical command she gained (to judge by the first half of THE ASCENT), with a frame that’s too tight and angles that miss bringing out the film’s dense cross-current relationships. A disappointment.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: William Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES/’46 deals with similar issues, with those impatient Americans taking 6 months, rather than 20 years, to reach the boiling point. But Shepitko switches gears with an ending right out of Albert Lamorisse’s classic short THE WHITE MANE/’53.

Saturday, March 30, 2013


Don’t let the dreary first half of this Kay Francis MotherLove meller put you off. Once Francis steps out of jail (after 20 years for Manslaughter), the film morphs into a Pre-Code sacrificial tale of considerable perversity. Director Robert Florey doesn’t exactly pour on the style, but he sure crams a lot of story into 68 minutes. Kay’s a dazzling chorus girl in 1905 with two beaux: rich old John Halliday (very creepy), and rich young Gene Raymond (very bland). Decisions, decisions. Francis opts for young Raymond. But after a few years, and a baby girl, she calls on Halliday who’s in poor health, despondent & suicidal. She tries to stop him as the gun goes off; and winds up playing solitaire in a jail cell for a couple of decades while her little girl grows up believing her to be dead. Meantime, Raymond dies in WWI as newspaper headlines tick off the passing scene. Okay, so much for our dreary first half, which is only made worse by gowns & make-up that are unbecoming on Francis . But once she steps out to greet the dashing NYC of the ‘20s, gets a youthifying salon treatment, and joins forces with Ricardo Cortez’s glib card sharp, the film turns into a naughty treat. There’s that long-lost daughter to save (Margaret Lindsay); a second murder to deal with; even a return to her old house on 56th St., now a Den of Iniquity/Speakeasy where the erstwhile newlywed is now Gotham’s top lady Blackjack dealer. The script, showing a remarkable disinclination to match crime to consequences, lets people get away with an awesome array of moral & criminal lapses in the second half. And, with no way to cut around so much ‘objectionable story material,’ once the Production Code started being strictly enforced the following year, this little eye-popper got lost. No classic, not even very good, but a real find.

DOUBLE-BILL: To see Francis at her best, go back a year for ONE-WAY PASSAGE and TROUBLE IN PARADISE/’32. And there’s a late return to form playing against Carole Lombard as Cary Grant’s unyielding spouse in IN NAME ONLY/’39.

Friday, March 29, 2013


‘When Thea met Fritz . . .’ This early Fritz Lang effort was his first with the future Mrs. Lang, writer Thea von Harbou. And while it only shows glimmers of the inventive mastery to come in DESTINY/’21 or the jaw-dropping advances of DR. MABUSE: THE GAMBLER/’22, it already displays the thudding melodramatics and flights of deep think symbolism Harbou favored. Our plot: A noted Free Love lecturer lives with his mistress, but lets the relatives think they are married. Even a pregnancy can’t get him to make things legit. She secretly marries the man’s brother, but has him sign the church registry with the real father’s name. Finding out all about the proxy hypocrisy, ‘Dad’ disappears, presumed drowned. The wife, now a ‘widow,’ but with a sham husband, is denounced by that brother as insane to silence her. Now, she also runs off, leaving her little girl with G’mom and heading for the hills. (BTW, there’s also a cousin who’d like to marry her even though he’s next in line for the inheritance if her scam comes to light.) Lost in the mountains, the wife takes shelter with a local ‘monk, only to be buried alive by a rock avalanche! But the monk is really . . . her own common-law husband! And the avalanche was started by the jealous brother! And, we’re only halfway thru this thing! Crazed as it is, and missing a third of its footage, it actually seems quite sensible as you watch, and Lang, working with lenser Guido Seeber, gives it a handsome outdoorsy look. (See frame enlargement.) But filmically, things would improve rapidly. Including the level of acting. Here, the inadequate female lead is Mia May, wife of producer Joe May whose career once rivaled Lang’s, but who never quite reestablished himself once he emigrated to Hollywood.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Start at the top with Lang’s astonishing DR. MABUSE: THE GAMBLER/’22.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

99 AND 44/100% DEAD (1974)

Richard Harris makes an unlikely ultra-efficient hitman in this half-baked Mob vs. Mob story. John Frankenheimer tries to bind up Post-Watergate cynicism, Looney Tunes absurdity and slick violence in this lethal tale of gang-war attrition between two big city Mob Kings, Edmund O’Brien & Bradford Dillman. For a hefty fee, Harris joins O’Brien’s outfit, reconnecting with dishy newcomer Ann Turkel when he’s not dashing thru one of Frankenheimer’s handsome action set pieces. But in spite of all the sound & fury, the plot gets no deeper than a Road Runner cartoon, and Frankenheimer stays disconnected from everything except the film mechanics. As professional self-protection? On the other hand, Harris, if anything, tries too hard . . . at being Michael Caine. If only he had Caine’s trick of coasting thru programmers as well as Caine’s signature thick-framed eye-glasses. And the poor man is all but crucified by his hair, a ‘combo-pate’ pairing his receding top with a pageboy on the sides. As his gal pal, Turkel, a fashion model in her first major role, is a stunningly bad actress (Harris soon married her) while O"Brien, in his last film role, is game, but looks a very old 60. Only Brad Dillman really gets something going, playing his arch-nemesis with an Elmer Fudd ‘R’-challenged speech impediment. Frankenheimer took note and gave him a big, showy finish.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Henry Mancini also got in the swing of things, holding fast to his jaunty theme music even as the violence & grue accumulate.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


This light romantic-comedy, with ‘Screwball’ trimmings, isn’t half bad. The script obviously has NOTHING SACRED/’37 on its mind: Small-town gal makes a splash in Gotham under the impression she’s ill (amnesia in for fatal blood condition), only to find tru-love when she’s revealed as a fraud. Heck, they even toss in the famous bit where the kid bites the leading man; only here, Robert Young gets whacked on the toe by a kid with a hammer. But if the basic situation has been tamed and any satirical edge removed, Wesley Ruggles helms this M-G-M programmer with some of the relaxed comic style he picked up @ Paramount in the ‘30s. Instead of pointing at every joke, M-G-M style, or the karate chop delivery system favored by William Wellman for SACRED, Ruggles lets the dumb jokes drift off while the better stuff lands effectively. Nice. A young Lana Turner gives the va-va-voom stuff a welcome break as the social climbing fake, while Robert Young almost manages to hold to a reasonable manner. In support, Walter Brennan (in a tux!) and Dame May Whitty can’t do much with their roles as rich surrogate father & sweet/wise old nanny, but Eugene Palette brings some real Preston Sturges’ grit to his store owner terrified of lawsuits when Lana gets clobbered by one of his paint buckets. Keep your expectations down and enjoy. (BTW, the title is meaningless, but the Return-of-a-Lost-Child plot had real resonance in '43.)

DOUBLE-BILL: As you might expect, NOTHING SACRED. Decide which film has the weaker wrap-up.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


John Gilbert followed up on the scandalous (and scandalously successful) Greta Garbo classic, A WOMAN OF AFFAIRS/’28*, with this programmer. It’s a perfectly decent late silent with Gilbert playing the manager of a remote North African Diamond mine who breaks from the daily grind to show the heavily guarded facility to a group of titled Brits. But he’s blindsided when they pull out guns, grab a tray of priceless gems and take him hostage. Now, if they can just make it across the Kalahari Desert, they’ll be rich! Too bad the only desert expert around is . . . Gilbert. And where the devil is he leading them? The film, cleanly helmed by William Nigh and often splendidly shot by James Wong Howe (lots of real desert locations), survives in reasonably good shape with just a bit of missing footage, plus its original 1929 music track, but it’s awfully small beer. (Rushed into production to squeeze out one last (safe) silent from Gilbert before he plunged into his first (utterly disastrous) Talkie, HIS GLORIOUS NIGHT/’29?) The main interest lies in seeing how far they go in deglamorizing Gilbert as sun, sand & dehydration rough him up. Quite the switch from his typical posh persona. Had some studio exec taken note of a sea change in public perception on Gilbert before his famous Talkie tumble?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Clarence Brown’s exceptional WoA is based on Michael Arlen’s sensational novel & play THE GREEN HAT. In fact, it was so sensational the studio wasn’t allowed to use the title of that infamous property. A gossip’s delight, alluding to the lives, loves & sexually transmitted diseases of Jack Pickford & wives Olive Thomas & Marilyn Miller, it’s not out on DVD. Even so, its story can’t match the real-life fiasco of Gilbert’s lovely co-star here, the tragic Mary Nolan whose past forced her to change her name to get into movies and whose future had her dead at 43. (See more here:

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The classic death-in-the-desert film sequence (now and forever) comes at the climax of Erich von Stroheim’s GREED/’24. (Stick with the original 140 min. release. Yes, it’s butchered, but the so-called Reconstruction, at nearly 6 hours, is less movie than exhortation . . . with slides.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


In Pre-Revolutionary Russia, even the political terrorists come straight out of Chekhov. In this fact-inspired story, a small unit of like-minded extremists get their orders from some unseen Central Socialist Committee, taking on the assassination of high-ranking Tsarist military figures. Next on the list is the Grand Duke, Uncle to the Tsar, if only this handful of fanatics can get thru a clandestine meeting without some personal crisis erupting. It starts with the cold-hearted head of operations who may sleep with the group’s bomb-maker, but won’t say ‘I love you.’ He only warms to his violent task . . . and the glamorous amoral wife of an unknowing Military officer. Meantime, the group’s resident anarchist pins his hopes to the unhappy bomb expert, not that she cares. She can barely turn out a working explosive device! And don’t forget the idealistic university lad who’s too intellectual to get himself past revolutionary theory and onto revolutionary practice. Pulling up the rear of the conspirators is a baby-faced true-believer. Alas, it’s Jesus, not Marx he believes in. And he worries about collateral damage instead of injustice. It’s hard to think of a Chekhov play you couldn’t cast with this crew. Yet, it’s also deadly serious business, these are the forebears of the revolution a decade down the road. If only director Karen Shakhnazarov had the daring, or the technique, to get under his cast of characters & their varied motives to show how noble deeds were done for so many wrong reasons and ignoble deeds for right ones; and the tragicomedy that took everyone there. (It’s a job for Tom Stoppard. In fact, a job he more-or-less took on in his play trilogy THE COAST OF UTOPIA/’02.) Shakhnazarov gives his film an intriguing look, though it’s impossible to know if its intentional. But the bright, ultra-clear color processing & palette, along with the old-fashioned, nearly-square Academy Ratio picture give the film the look of a Soviet-Era brochure, as if Colonial Williamsburg had added a franchise: Land of late-Tsarist Moscow.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Can it be an accident that this unmerry band is lead by an actor (Andrey Panin) who looks like a cross between Jon Voight and Vladimir Putin?

Saturday, March 23, 2013


Audiences during the transition from Silents to Talkies were naturally eager to hear the speaking voices of their longtime faves. This meant big grosses for the first two or three releases (misread by studio execs as votes of confidence), followed by calamitous box-office plunges thereafter. Poor John Gilbert is poster-boy for fast-fading silent stars, but other than Ronald Colman, Wallace Berry & Greta Garbo, virtually every major silent star was in serious decline by the early ‘30s . . . or gone. William Haines, one of the top juvenile stars at the cusp of the sound era, made his move on NAVY BLUES, a first Talkie for Haines, most of the cast and director Clarence Brown. Haines sticks with his signature character, the careless jerk with the snappy comeback line for all occasions, a guy who disregards possible consequences until he crosses the line, hurts someone, or finds his actions blowing up in his face. At last, he sees things plain, redeems himself in the last reel, then shows he’s still the prankster for the fade-out. It was a remarkably unpleasant sort of characterization to catch on, but it must have resonated with a generation’s youthful rejection of old-fashioned virtue & authority in the ‘Roaring ‘Twenties.’ And Haines’ fey quality gave everything a weightless tone that seemed to say, ‘just kidding.’ In NAVY BLUES, he’s a sailor boy who picks up a cute girl when he’s out on a 2-day pass. But his ship unexpected sails out, and it’s 6 months before he can get back and save her from the grind of dancehalls. Released just after The Crash, but before the Depression kicked in, Haines’ fans apparently didn’t mind his awkward line readings or a barely-there storyline. Plus, it reteamed Haines with regular co-stars Anita Page & Karl Dane. Two years later, ARE YOU LISTENING shows much smoother moviemaking, with megger Harry Beaumont using diagonal ‘wipes’ to zip us thru three or four interconnected storylines. But Haines is no longer kidding around all the time. After slamming his way thru some satirical scenes as a radio station exec, he finds himself out of a job, stuck in a loveless marriage, responsible for an accidental death, and on the lam with the girl he really loves. And the happy ending is a jail term! It’s sort of fascinating, but also sort of desperate. M-G-M gave the fast-fading Haines one more shot with another wisecracking service comedy before he got the heave-ho. Haines, a more-or-less openly gay man, is usually credited with giving up his acting career rather than playing along with sham dates and such, mandated by his studio, hastening his ouster. And while he did eventually move on to a hugely successful second-career as interior decorator (see book cover), this PC explanation doesn’t quite ring rue. Never much of an actor, here Neil Hamilton & Wallace Ford run him off the screen, he tried a couple of Poverty Row pics which failed to restart anything. Sexual orientation, lack of ambition, aging out of his character? Maybe. Or maybe audiences just wanted new actors to go with their New Deal.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: To see Haines’ caddish fellow functioning at top form, try George W. Hill’s TELL IT TO THE MARINES/’26. Setting Haines’ swinish behavior up against Lon Chaney’s pug-ugly masochism does wonders for both of them. Hill’s direction of the action set pieces is impeccable and lovely Eleanor Boardman is someone worth competing for. Alas, it’s all but impossible to see MEMORY LANE/’26, John Stahl’s heartbreaking small-town/can’t-go-home-again tale with Haines, Boardman & Conrad Nagel, all wonderful. Haines is a particular revelation as a boy who left town and made good. Now, he returns to find his old girl, Boardman, about to marry Nagel. The film materials are in excellent condition, but the only available print is all out of order, with scenes sorted reel-by-reel for color-tinting. (Or has some kind entity fixed it up for hungry movie mavens?)

Thursday, March 21, 2013


Joe Pasternak’s specialty @ M-G-M was producing family friendly musicals about friendly musical families; and they could be wearisomely wholesome. But this period piece (early 1900s) isn’t half bad. Kathryn Grayson, of the heart-shaped face and wiry coloratura, lets her Boston relatives believe she doing Grand Opera when she secretly sings for her supper at a Bowery joint. June Allyson is the demure kid sister who’s shocked, at first, but then helps keep the charade going after she meets (and falls for) handsome Peter Lawford, son of the Opera Chairman. Cue tiresome complications. Grayson gets to sing ‘Low’ with club proprietor Jimmy Durante (less overbearing then usual) and ‘High’ with legendary Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior in a couple of fake opera bits.* (Melchior is pretty funny in a lightly burlesqued acoustic recording session, singing The Prize Song from Meistersinger, and getting a clever response from his dog.) The production looks quite lux under Robert Surtees b&w lensing, and if all the running gags don’t work, helmer Henry Koster manages some neat slapstick for a drunk Ben Blue and stages Allyson’s comic fainting spells, especially her last one, to maximum effect.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Typically, they avoid using a real opera excerpt, but work up an adaptation of a symphonic chestnut. Here, the one whipped up from Liszt’s LES PRELUDES, has legit possibilities. On the other hand, what must Melchior, used to the plush tones of Kirsten Flagstad & Helen Traubel, have thought of Grayson’s shrill top and wandering intonation?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Richard Attenborough moved on from the Brechtian musical-comedy horrors of his directing debut, OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR/’69, to the bio-pics he became best known for with his second film, an unexpectedly jolly look at Winston Churchill’s sentimental education in war & politics. And while Attenborough already shows signs of the stiff pacing, misframed shots* & paint-by-numbers characterizations that made some his later acclaimed films feel like historical textbooks, the script from producer Carl Foreman has a ‘Pop’ orientation that doesn't oversell itself. The film is fun. One set piece with a train under attack even shows Attenborough aping, quite nicely, a Western sensibility, with the Boers as ‘In’juns’ attacking the (British) infantry. Too bad the interior domestic scenes, back in England, have traces of Dickie's default waxwork manner; and he will insist on squeezing in cameo appearances from half his acting pals. But there are uncommonly good perfs from Robert Shaw as Lord Randolph Churchill and a tremendous quasi-channeling of the young lion himself from Simon Ward. Talk about a face that ‘takes’ to the camera! Ward, who died last year, worked steadily, but his career never took off the way you’d have thought after this. Anne Bancroft is less well matched as Jennie, Winston’s famous American mum, but she does get to wear some gorgeous hats! (Look for the one in fuchsia.) NOTE: If the film seems to be missing a final ‘beat,’ it’s because . . . the film is missing its final beat. That is, while the available DVD restores most of the cuts (including some awkward one-sided interviews for the principals), a final ghostly chat between Winston & his late-father which once ended the film remains missing.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *There's a perfect example of this early in the pic as Winston charges on foot against some savage enemy.  We hear gunshots and see his attackers falling, but Attenborough frames his shot so we can't see that it's Winston who's holding the gun and blasting away.  We assume some seasoned officer has come to the rescue of this new pup.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


D-Day was only six years back when this B-list dramatization came out. Yet, the story already feels secondhand, an infantry tale told by rote and held together with stock war footage, a familiar cast of character types, voice-over narration for all the missing bits and one-size-fits-all story construction. (That ‘one-size-fits-all’ idea does have a military ring to it.) Still, except for some lame comic relief, it’s decent formula stuff, and proficiently helmed by Lewis Seiler with some neatly handled action sequences that stand up nicely. David Brian gets the one fresh character note as the C.O. who’s starting to wear out, and John Agar, fresh off SANDS OF IWO JIMA/’49, certainly looks the part of a ‘90 day wonder’ officer who’s too green to trust. But the main interest comes in seeing how little has changed over the years in these things. Here, a newly trained unit ships off to Normandy; battles on the beach; shit their pants; make a slow, dangerous crawl East (thanks to the shit in their pants); run into a few tanks along the way; liberate a small village, but miss that deadly sniper in the tower; earn a slice of R&R, and some feminine attention; then head back to battle after an unexpected change in command. Heck, it might be SAVING PRIVATE RYAN/’98.   . . . and that’s why mere plot synopses aren't much help.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The not so original script was a debut credit for Joseph Breen, Jr., son of Motion Picture Production Code chief, Joseph Breen, Hollywood’s top censor. Could Warner Bros have been currying favor (or was it leverage?) for their upcoming fight to get A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE/’51 approved for release?

Monday, March 18, 2013


Knockout entertainment. Rex Ingram brought back the three principles from THE PRISONER OF ZENDA/’22 (Ramon Novarro, Alice Terry, Lewis Stone) for this adaptation of Rafael Sabatini’s French Revolution swashbuckler. Novarro is superbly manly & glamorous as the young lawyer who spits at the aristocracy and winds up hiding with a band of traveling players as Scaramouche. But when his old flame (Terry) shows up at his Paris theatre, with evil aristo Stone as escort, he misreads the situation, causing one thrilling complication after another. Tru-love takes a beating while the revolution boils over. Ingram, with his ace cinematographer John Seitz, lays out a sumptuous production, allowing just enough gravitas to keep the story from tipping over into silliness. (George Sidney’s much-liked 1952 remake with Stewart Granger overdoes things, pouring on a faux-rollicking spirit and trimming too much eccentricity out of Sabatini’s storyline. Sidney also hides a subplot about long-lost parents that winks in the direction of real-life Revolutionary dramatist Beaumarchais.) Alice Terry (Mrs. Ingram, off-screen) is a bit matronly for her role, but Novarro & Stone, swapping places from their ZENDA roles, are just about perfectly cast. And look fast to catch a surprise cameo from a young & hungry Napoleon, a rare acting appearance from Slavko Vorkapitch, Hollywood’s master of narrative montage transitions. The Warners VOD-DVD features a fine original orchestral score from Jeffrey Mark Silverman, and a print that does real justice to Seitz’s spectacular visuals. Check out that depth of focus on the profile-portrait of Novarro at the Paris Commune as crowds of spectators mass in the background. It's the kind of glamor shot that can make a career.

DOUBLE-BILL: The obvious choice (assuming the remake mentioned above doesn’t appeal) would be D. W. Griffith’s French Revolution drama, ORPHANS OF THE STORM/’21. (Compare the Dantons of Monte Blue, George Siegman with . . . Gérard Depardieu in DANTON/’83.) But a better idea is the next Rafael Sabatini adaptation, THE SEA HAWK/’24 with a striking perf from a buff Milton Sills, unexpectedly vigorous helming from Frank Lloyd and a plot that has nothing at all to do with the famous Michael Curtiz/Errol Flynn version of 1940.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


French Poetic Realism, as developed by Marcel Carné & Jacques Prévert in DAYBREAK/’39 and PORT OF SHADOWS/’38, snuck up on mainstream Hollywood in this stylized stage-to-film pic from Anatole Litvak. It doesn’t quite come off, a lack of unity in the playing and the source material (Irwin Shaw’s THE GENTLE PEOPLE) is sentimental punk populism, but it’s never less than fun to look at. Lenser James Wong Howe dapples mist & shifting light on the waterfront sets and character actors like Thomas Mitchell & John Qualen shine in front-and-center roles. The story has Ida Lupino, as Mitchell’s daughter, hoping to bust out of her drab little life by ditching her butter-and-egg boyfriend (Eddie Albert, very good in a lousy role) for the snappy patter of two-bit mobster John Garfield, even as his protection racket strikes her dad. Garfield & Lupino, just great last time out in THE SEA WOLF/’41, are all thumbs here. Yelling lines and indicating every emotion before playing it. Did Litvak encourage them or was it the prestige-factor of filming a recent play from the famous Group Theatre?* Still, worth a look for its unusual cast, plus a nifty ending that manages to let everyone have their cake and eat it, too.

DOUBLE-BILL: Ida Lupino got another dose of French Poetic Realism co-starring with the movement’s leading man, Jean Gabin, in his misbegotten Hollywood debut MOONRISE/’42 with flat-footed Archie Mayo taking the reins after Fritz Lang bailed.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-I: *It doesn’t happen often, but the B’way cast was starrier than the film what with Sylvia Sidney, Franchot Tone, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and future directors Elia Kazan and Martin Ritt in Harold Clurman’s original line-up.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-II: A drowning a la AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY/’31 (also A PLACE IN THE SUN/’51) leads not to the murder rap envisioned by Theodore Dreiser, but to a happy ending. Go figure.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

MR. WU (1927)

This tale of Family Honor Avenged was a change of pace for Lon Chaney who does a double act, first playing the ancient Chinese Grandfather, then taking on the grandson, Mr. Wu, as a grown man with a daughter old enough for marriage. The story is East Meets West balderdash, hardly PC by today’s standards, but it’s also embarrassingly watchable. Renée Adorée plays Chaney’s daughter, a delicate flower who falls for the handsome young son of a Caucasian businessman, breaking the family honor. (As her companion, Anna May Wong quite upstages Adorée. Was she ever up for the role?) When Chaney discovers the love affair, the thin facade of Western civility he’s long cultivated cracks, and his cruel Asian core reasserts itself with deadly consequences. It was Cecil B. De Mille who codified this Asian character arc for the movies back with THE CHEAT in 1915, and it’s really never gone much out of fashion. Handsomely designed, in a pleasingly artificial manner that suggests Chinese landscape painting, it’s directed with real visual flair and subtle trick shots by the little-remembered William Nigh. (With 100+ titles from the ‘teens thru the ‘40s, Nigh’s later films are B-list fodder, but his silent credits look more interesting, at least on paper. And his remarkable cinematographer, John Arnold, had even better credits before moving into an executive position when Talkies came in.) The first two acts are all painterly scene-setting and a bit languid, especially sans the original tinting that undoubtedly gave the film the atmospherics of an exclusive L.A. Chop Suey joint. But the payoff once Chaney starts dishing out unspeakable cruelties in the last act are considerable. The final showdown between Chaney’s Barbaric Oriental Ways and Louise Dresser’s Caucasian MotherLove is awesome to behold. And more than slightly absurd.

CONTEST: The plot filches a few major plot hooks from two famous operas by Puccini. Names the operas and the story grabs to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

Friday, March 15, 2013


This fact-inspired prison-uprising story doesn’t miss a trope: evil overlord; sexually perverted ‘keeper’ preying on weak prisoners; brutal inmates; bad food; smelly latrines for secret meetings; official beatings; fraudulent inspections; and a tough, charismatic newbie, in on a murder rap, who holds to a dream of freedom even as he takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. Damned if it doesn’t work all over again. The ‘prison,’ a real-life Norwegian Reform Facility for wayward teens, was built on an isolated island, and the ‘Juveys’ of 1915 look more like choirboys than bad seeds, which helps to freshen the material. Marius Holst keeps a cool hand on the helm, neither over-dramatizing each atrocity nor swamping everything with ominous music cues & sinister angles. Even that tinge of blue in the lighting scheme feels endemic to long, cold Norwegian nights, not just applied for effect. Stellan Skargård makes the Governor a conflicted man with a tragically malleable definition of decency. His very ‘reasonableness’ makes him scarier than the film’s outright villain. As the incorrigible rebel & natural leader, Benjamin Helstad, playing what you might call the Steve McQueen role, hasn’t the insolence or authority you expect. On the other hand, placing the leader more in the crowd brings out the ensemble nature of the story. And it does nothing to take away from the emotionally devastating ending which moves seamlessly into a beautifully designed, deeply moving coda.

DOUBLE-BILL: Jules Dassin’s BRUTE FORCE/’47, is like a grown up Classic Hollywood version of this.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Director John Sturges moved to the A-list with this rather somber Spencer Tracy vehicle about an attorney who can’t quite wean himself off homicide cases or the bottle. It’s half courtroom drama, ginned up by Tracy’s alcoholic past, and half police procedural, with mob connections poisoning the investigation. Yep, it’s one of the 8 million stories in The Naked City that currently finds itself in competition with about 8 hundred cop & legal shows available 24/7. But if it’s now awfully familiar, it’s still neatly laid out, and with impressive noir flavorings from lenser John Alton, the Prince of Darkness, that merge nicely with the sprinkling of real NYC location shooting. (Though a big plot hiccup involving a bribable witness isn’t properly fleshed out.) Mainly, what holds your interest are the details Tracy gets across: a quietly devastating moment in court when he gets lost in the middle of questioning; a can’t-win argument with his daughter that ends with a slap and collateral damage to a bottle of whiskey; a quick show of temper to motivate his daughter’s fiancé. Sturges gets some innings in as well with a cleverly designed climax that’s played ‘blind,’ as Tracy, who’s wearing a wire, tries to get a confession that will redeem his client and himself. (The scene is a near template for the ending of Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL/’58 .) Pat O’Brien has little to do as a detective Tracy’s known for decades, but John Hodiak gives good weight as an ambitious D.A. And, with his hair flat on his head, looks just like the young Martin Landau.

DOUBLE-BILL: Sidney Lumet’s THE VERDICT/’82, with a Civil rather than Criminal case, puts Paul Newman’s lawyer in a somewhat similar bind. And what a lot of work they make out of it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


This early feature for a pre-WIZARD OF OZ Judy Garland isn’t much seen these days, and for reasons that become all too apparent about halfway in when Judy goes incognito in BlackFace. (With a ‘Topsy’ fright-wig out of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN to top it off.) Worse, you can’t really snip it out since she goes right in to her big dramatic moment still ‘blacked up.’ Fortunately, the film represents a minor loss, a half-baked Upstairs/Downstairs Screwball Comedy about a theatrical family whose new play is going into crisis just as the cook, maid & runaway daughter are working up a musical revue. After much sound & fury, and little to show for it, the play shutters just as the song & dance show opens in triumph. Tiresome stuff. At least there’s a rich, glossy look from lenser Joseph Ruttenberg for the cast and all those production values. Plus, bonus points for helping us sort out Reginalds Owen & Gardiner who make a rare joint appearance. (If Reginald Denny had also been on screen, it would have made a trifecta!) The main reason to watch is to see Fanny Brice, the original Funny Girl, in a rare leading role as the housekeeper. She doesn’t quite work on film, certainly not under a mechanical director like Edwin Marin, but her technique & pacing are so fascinating, it hardly matters.

CONTEST: Tenor Allan Jones, who gets first-billing here, was fresh off his biggest hit (THE FIREFLY), but opens his act with an encore from an earlier pic. Name the catchy tune & the film it’s from to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of a NetFlix DVD of your choice.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: As a teen, though no glamorpuss, Garland was cute as a button. Yet, the script goes out of its way to have Billie Burke, playing her actress-mom, call her ‘an ugly duckling,’ and to note that ‘even Judy looks pretty today.’ Later, dressed as Little Lord Fauntleroy for a scene with Brice’s Baby Snooks, Judy gets to yell that ‘I'm a boy, a Boy, a BOY!!’ No wonder that girl got so screwed up.

Monday, March 11, 2013


In PRIVATE WORLDS/’35, Hollywood’s first full-bore psychiatric photoplay, writer/director Gregory La Cava’s gave his sanatorium patients diagnoses & suggested treatments that seem painfully naive to modern audiences. Yet, behind the office doors, the underlying relationships & situations between the rival doctors are strikingly subtle & sophisticated. And beautifully observed in the off-hand manner he developed, much as did Leo McCarey, from his early days working in the knockabout traditions of silent slapstick. They like to just sit back and let things happen. And something similar goes on in this astonishing mess of sympathy, condescension & melodrama among lower-class strivers in a little fishing town. The story, a sort of ANNA CHRISTIE, once-removed rip-off, has Joel McCrea as the good-natured chump who runs a seaside diner and falls for Ginger Rogers’ runaway kid, not knowing about her tart of a mother & drunken dad. The settings and relationships are undoubtedly heartfelt, but the whole cast overplays the flaws & lovable tics of all these regular Joes & Jills. None more so than Marjorie Rambeau as the Happy Hooker Mom, and she got an Oscar® nom for her troubles. Rogers gets off to a very broad start with her teen tomboy act (a characterization that worked much better for comedy in THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR/’42), but eventually settles down. If they wanted to dole out honors, they should have gone to Queenie Vassar who makes a notable film debut at 70 as the mean, two-faced, embittered Granny. A termagant-for-all-seasons, this shaft of pure malevolence is as unexpected as it is convincing. Where did La Cava pull it up from? (03/10/13)

Sunday, March 10, 2013


Rex Ingram’s reputation as one of the great visual stylists in silent film rests largely on the continuing popularity (or is it notoriety?) of THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE/’21, and the tango that made Rudolph Valentino a new sort of sexualized male pop star. But this limited view of the director is both dismissive and incomplete. Dismissive because almost all of Ingram’s surviving films are stunners; incomplete because the claim largely ignores the immense contribution of cinematographer John Seitz, who shot all of Ingram’s famous films.* That said, this early version (actually it’s about the third!) of Anthony Hope’s ripe Ruritanian chestnut of a novel (it’s the one about the English traveler who looks just like a kidnapped King and even falls in love with his Princess) shows Ingram on auto-pilot. Lewis Stone, the long time character actor @ M-G-M, is fine in the dual role of soused, unworthy King & the lookalike intrepid traveler, but even in his younger days, Stone hadn’t the dash or undertow of rue Ronald Colman brought to the best version of the story in ‘37. Alice Terry, Ingram’s wife & regular lead, is a better match as Princess Flavia, and Ingram has a bit of fun dressing up one of the henchman to look just like Erich von Stroheim. (Stroheim considered Ingram Hollywood’s finest director and even insisted that he make the initial, alas unaccepted, second cut of GREED/’24.) But the real standout role is that delightfully amoral fair-weather villain, Rupert of Hentzau, a juicy part later taken up by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. & James Mason. Obviously designed as a follow-up role for Valentino, it was eventually taken by a new Ingram discovery/sensation, Ramon Samaniegos who gives a broad & funny characterization. He’d shortly change his name to Ramon Novarro and go on to play Ben-Hur in ‘25, just as Ingram was leaving the studio, miffed at being passed over for that directing assignment. (Note: Bad Public Domain editions abound, but Warners VOD service offers a generally superb print with a good piano score accompaniment.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Seitz was a visually transforming figure for many directors, especially those two verbally oriented masters, Preston Sturges & Billy Wilder.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

KISMET (1944)

Edward Knoblock’s famous old play about Hajj, the beggar Prince who schemes his way thru life, has just about always worked on stage and just about never worked on screen. And this big M-G-M version is no exception to the rule, with a production that’s less THIEF OF BAGDAD than redux WIZARD OF OZ/’39. Note all the similar design elements & painted storybook backdrops, even some OZ sets show up (redressed, but easy to recognize). Same music masters, too, a score from OZ vets Herbert Stothart, with familiar motifs, and a few unmemorable tunes from Arlen/Harburg. KISMET’s grisly old plot has been refashioned into a two-way CINDERELLA romance, yet the simple story is remarkably hard to follow. Maybe if director William Dieterle had found some unifying element to pull things together we wouldn’t mind. (Dieterle had already filmed a German language version in 1931 that must have been made in conjunction with the WideScreen early Talkie flop Warners released in 1930, now considered a 'lost' film.*) This 1944 version is still worth checking out for its colorful opening reels (lensed by Charles Rosher) with Ronald Colman’s Hajj (here called Hafix) taking us on a tour of this storybook mock-up of old Baghdad. If only the rest of the cast & crew could get equally comfortable. Alas, he has few worthy partners. Marlene Dietrich, made up like a prize poodle, makes heavy weather of her sexy lady routine; Edward Arnold’s laughing villain quickly wears out his welcome; and a horribly miscast James Craig makes the glamorous, sensual Caliph into a hearty All-American lineback. Ugh. The one nice find is Joy Page as Colman’s loving daughter. (She was the sad-eyed bride in CASABLANCA/’42 who almost gave in to Claude Rains for a visa.) And she pretty much dropped out of the biz after this disappointment.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *That lost 1930 Talkie version, shot in 70-mm, with 2-strip TechniColor sequences, is probably better off imagined than seen, though its star, Otis Skinner, can be seen, if not heard, in a silent 1920 edition. Then, there’s the disappointing Vincente Minnelli/Arthur Freed musical of 1955, the one with the marvelous Borodin-based score. Skip ‘em all and go for a real Ronald Colman classic, IF I WERE KING/’38, with its clever Preston Sturges script and many similar plot elements, including a nearly identical ending. (Not out officially yet on DVD, but soon . . . ?)

Thursday, March 7, 2013


Stateside movie mavens know what to expect from an Ealing Comedy or a Hammer Horror pic; not so much with the Romantic Melodramas of Gainsborough Pictures. Best close your eyes and think of England . . . as imagined by Barbara Cartland. (723 ‘romance novels’ and not a one remembered.) This crazy number, from a Margary Lawrence novel, must be one of the oddest. (Even odder in the States where its running time originally got whittled down from 100 to 88 minutes.) Phyllis Calvert stars as the mentally unstable mom of the terminally perky Patricia Roc. The daughter, terribly up-to-date & independent, has just come home to the Italian manse from school in England and finds Mom distant & Dad worried. Sure enough, come the morn, Mom’s flown the coop! Run off with her own jewels and returned to her alternate identity as an Italian wench, in thrall to a slicked up Stewart Granger, with a curl in his dyed black hair and his manly chest exposed. It’s hard to know how seriously the film makers want us to take this. The plot is blatantly contrived and the all-British cast make for the least convincing extended Italian family ever. (For that matter, the willowy Brit youths are just as unprepossessing. Can a fella with a concave chest have your back?) Best of all are the goofy ‘Italian’ sets, especially the exteriors, which look ready for a Fred & Ginger routine. No doubt, the long war years and the punishing post-war restrictions on consumer goods made these dark fantasies extra enjoyable, but the films haven’t the necessary sense of style to turn dross into gold. It all looks like pasteboard applique. Only once, when Calvert breaks down as a religious procession crosses in front of her, do we see the sort of wild inventive passionate thing the film would like to be. There’s some fun in watching future prestige director Peter Glenville (BECKET’64; THE COMEDIANS/67) play a slick Italian society leech in one of his larger acting roles as the villainous Sandro, but otherwise . . . it’s an acquired taste.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: A qualified nod toward THE WICKED LADY with James Mason & Margaret Lockwood. Probably the best known of the Gainsborough romancers, but not seen here. Hopefully, another Mason pic from ‘45, the dark & brooding THE SEVENTH VEIL (not a Gainsborough pic) will soon show on a Stateside DVD.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


Between sturdy perfs for directors like Clarence Brown, George W. Hill & Victor Sjöström during his brief Hollywood sojourn, Swedish actor Lars Hanson made this big, mess of a melodrama for the lesser lights of journeyman helmer John S. Robertson. Having just played a troubled minister in THE SCARLET LETTER/’26, he now takes on a younger man-of-the-cloth, just home from seminary. He’s something of a free spirit for his staid New England community, but Marceline Day, his loyal fiancée, sticks to him. Or, she does until he begins tending to a Boston prostitute (Pauline Starke) who’s recently washed ashore. And, yep, she’s literally washed ashore! Disgusted by the small town’s lack of Christian charity, Hanson & Starke board a ship to Rio, but find out (in the middle of the Atlantic) that they’ve been conned onto a convict boat on its way to the salt mines. Yikes!! We’re darn close to silent movie-plot parody here, and not too far off in the acting department, either, though no one seems to be kidding. But the print is in lovely shape, and it’s all ravishingly shot by William Daniels. In fact, as the story spins out of control and the plot takes on a sadistic edge, you start wondering if Erich von Stroheim had been part of the original package. He’d only left M-G-M a couple of years back and Daniels had long been his regular lenser. Even as it stands, in the last couple of reels, something starts to click on screen. (Did Robertson leave the project?) The film suddenly comes to life with real menace on the ghastly ship, a thrilling fight to the finish in the ship’s rigging, and a redemption-thru-death ending that needs Wagner’s FLYING DUTCHMAN roaring away on the soundtrack instead of the fine, tasteful score we have from Philip Carli.

DOUBLE-BILL: To see Hanson (and the silent cinema) at his best, try THE WIND/’28, directed as if in a fever dream by Victor Sjöström. The film's true star, Lillian Gish, had originally brought the two Swedes over specifically for her film of THE SCARLET LETTER/’26.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


The two best things about MAGIC MIKE are Channing Tatum’s ass (phenomenal!), and how helmer Steven Soderbergh shows up the whole overfed studio system, wrapping things up for a measly 7 mill (equally phenomenal). Everything else . . . not so hot. The simple, shopworn tale is all about Mike, a wannabe custom furniture builder who’s pushing 30 and feels his days as a strip club personality are winding down. He’s also trying to figure out his relationships with aging mentor Matthew McConaughey (hammy as Easter dinner in Texas) and with the new kid he takes under his wing. (That'd be Alex Pettyfer, a veritable Black Hole on the screen, sucking energy out of everyone he comes in contact with in a manner not seen since the heyday of Jason Patric). There’s no shame in hauling out formula stuff, even having the kid’s wise, over-protective sister around for a romantic cop-out ending is cool. But with nothing but the strip club milieu serving as trope freshener, it’s not long before your fixating on how much Tatum’s ears stick out. (They do!) Soderbergh, also lensing under a pseudonym, puts up some lovely long takes and isn’t afraid to let a scene play out as a two-shot, but his penchant for color filters (lots of golden haze) grows wearisome. Heck, this is Tampa, where the ubiquitous sunshine turns everything into KodaChrome. Commercially, this film has a lot to teach the industry, but it holds a very minor place on the Soderbergh C.V.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: A low-budget winner from an earlier era, LIFEGUARD/’76, looks at similar issues, though thankfully without the yellow filters. And while it only has one-third the talent seen here, it gets a lot more out of the situation. Though nobody’s got a tuckus to match CT.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Why bring back the ‘70s Warner Bros logo (designed by Saul Bass) when you’re not doing a period pic? (Then again, the film might have worked better as a retro ‘70s thing.)

Monday, March 4, 2013


Howard Zieff’s neatly played comedy is as much ‘shaggy dog’ story as romance, happy to hang about as its talented company work thru a series of light gags without much in the way of goals or consequences. But living in the comic moment accounts for much of its unforced charm, along with the blissful, odd couple pairing of a prickly Glenda Jackson & a rumpled Walter Matthau. He’s a recent widower, playing the field in late middle-age for the first time in his life. She’s younger, but touchy from a messy divorce and unwilling to share the wealth. It's a latter-day Beatrice & Benedict . . . well, Tracy & Hepburn, and it gives Zieff cover for the sort of ensemble comedy he preferred. Here, at a private hospital where Matthau ‘meets-cute’ with Jackson who’s under the demented care of senile chief of staff Art Carney. Richard Benjamin is a stand out as Matthau’s cynical pal, but there are hidden land mines of comic scene-stealers all along the hospital halls. And if the film winds down rather than builds to an ending, good spirits & a blessed lack of hysterics & chases make up for Zieff’s wayward story sense & undeveloped visual style. Though why so many comedies from the ‘60s & ‘70s had to be as brightly lit as operating rooms remains a mystery.

DOUBLE-BILL: After this surprise hit, Jackson & Matthau reteamed for HOPSCOTCH/’80, a farcical spy romp that gave Jackson little to do. Instead, try a much darker comedy on similar subjects, Paddy Chayefsky’s THE HOSPITAL/’71 which has a rumpled George C. Scott & a prickly Diana Rigg . . . and an equal lack of visual style from megger Arthur Hiller.

Sunday, March 3, 2013


Terence Rattigan’s audience-pleasing play about private lives in a modest residential hotel hasn’t real depth as a character study, but in its original form the two One-Acts were catnip for actors with the four leading roles designed as a tour-de-force double-act for a couple of star performers. This idea is jettisoned for the film version which has Rita Hayworth & Burt Lancaster as a couple with a past and Deborah Kerr & David Niven as a couple with psychological crutches, and intercuts the two storylines into one grand arc. Alas, ‘opening up’ the play & interweaving the action just makes this airless film stagier than the actual play.* Director Delbert Mann seems unaware of the dull visual look, perhaps he was too busy encouraging his cast to telegraph whatever meager sub-text Rattigan doles out like thin tea sandwiches. Then again, rather like a nice tea service, what it lacks in nutrition is made up in cosy comfort & tastiness. But note that as the hotel manager, Wendy Hiller is immune to these shortcomings, unable to put a foot wrong under any circumstances. A shame that she loses a fine little scene from the play that has her finding new lodgings for Niven’s character.

DOUBLE-BILL: *You can see for yourself in a superb BBC collection of Terence Rattigan plays that has Eric Portman (from the original production) & Geraldine McEwan in the leading roles of both One Acts. (Like the film, the two storylines get woven together, and most successfully.)  Even more enticing is an unavailable John Schlesinger tv film from ‘83 that has Alan Bates & Julie Christie doubling up, plus Claire Bloom & Irene Worth in support! Yum!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: We’re not exactly surprised when Niven is revealed as a fraud, Rattigan clues us from the start. But why choose to hide behind the facade of an insufferable bore?

Saturday, March 2, 2013


Ismaël Ferroukhi’s fact-inspired film about the Muslim community in WWII Nazi-occupied Paris (largely Algerian) starts out ‘just great’ and finishes up ‘just good.’ It’s a fascinating sidebar story that’s too little known, told here thru the eyes of Tahar Rahim (the kid from UN PROPHÈTE/’09), who plays a composite character who goes from black marketeer to police informer to resistance fighter. Ferroukhi does a neat job creating period settings with ‘found’ locations, and gets much out of a tight budget, but the narrow focus leaves too many lines of conflict unexplored. Not only within the Paris-based Muslim community (with Michael Lonsdale, a pleasing if unexpected choice as leading figure), but also the actions of local police more worried about Communists than Germans; contented Vichy government bureaucrats, and the Nazi officers threatening violence & deportation. Rahim’s character winds up touching all bases, but the script only hints at the moral contradictions swirling around, instead emphasizing a pair of deserted Jewish orphan kids and a double revelation about a famous singer Rahim befriends. Effective as narrative hooks, but more conventional (and dramatically convenient) than the glimmers of dramatic opportunity hinted elsewhere. Still, what is in here is well handled, and often moving, and the film has more specific flavor to it then Ferroukhi’s debut pic, LE GRAND VOYAGE/’04. His artistic trajectory is as promising as the moral trajectory of this pic's lead.

DOUBLE-BILL: Rachid Bouchareb’s INDIGENES/DAYS OF GLORY/’06, spotlights the underlying motivation of many Algerians in France at this time who fought for their adopted homeland with the hope of fighting to free their own homeland after the war.

Friday, March 1, 2013


The last time Frank Sinatra played scapegrace son to disappointed parents was in Frank Capra’s A HOLE IN THE HEAD/’59. That stage-to-screen transfer ‘converted’ its Jews into Italians, but this time everybody stays Jewish. It was the first feature for writing/directing team Bud Yorkin & Norman Lear, adapting Neil Simon's first B’way hit (677 perfs). And while they open the play a bit, and even toss in a brief tour of Manhattan for Frank’s interpolated song number, they never muster a filmic approach to Simon’s reflexive gag-oriented writing. Stagebound as it is, once Sinatra gets his swinging tune out of the way at the end of the first act, the pacing relaxes into a rhythm that lets things start to click. Especially, when the archetypal Jewish parental units, Molly Picon & Lee J. Cobb, set to work. Picon, a legendary star of the Yiddish theater, fits right in with the slightly artificial settings, pulling off an elaborate too-many-phones routine that’s like the weekly vaudeville routines Simon had been penning for Imogene Coca on YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS. Meantime, Cobb shows actual restraint, screaming only now & then, and coaxing out glimmers of Simon’s later mature style in a beautifully developed scene with ‘good’ son, Tony Bill. Bill, an acting novice swimming with pros, overemphasizes every sally, but it’s still fun watching him graft on Sinatra's mojo. (If only the ‘broads’ weren’t such a collection of ‘60s sexist horrors.) MAD MEN fanciers should take a look. Even when it ain’t pretty, Frankie's 'ring-a-ding' attitudes are the real thing.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: A top-ten success in its day, the film soon disappeared from view. Released in June of ‘63, it’s possible that a couple of JFK gags kept it off revival lists and soon forgotten. Yet, it holds up better than most of the Simon adaptations not directed by Herbert Ross.

DOUBLE-BILL: Sinatra’s big brother character is based on Neil Simon’s actual big brother, the same guy Walter Matthau played in THE ODD COUPLE/’68.