Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

MEMORIAL DAY

HAPPY MEMORIAL DAY. 

Great Old Movies is taking a week off.

While you're on holiday, spare a thought for all the soldiers who have died in lonely battlegrounds overseas.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

DANGEROUS WHEN WET

Fernando Lamas and Esther Williams
DANGEROUS WHEN WET (1953). Director: Charles Walters.

Katie Higgins (Esther Williams) belongs to a very healthy Arkansas family whose farm needs a lot of improvement. Along comes Windy Weebe (Jack Carson), who hawks a dubious product known as Liquipep. Katie is able to resist Windy's all-too-obvious advances, but she decides to let Liquipep sponsor her whole family in a race to swim the English Channel. While getting in training both in England and France, Katie meets a wealthy French playboy named Andre (Fernando Lamas of The Lost World), but his pursuit of her may endanger her chances of winning the race. Dangerous When Wet is a very entertaining and amiable pic with a funny script by Dorothy Kingsley and very good performances from Williams and the rest of the cast, which includes William Demarest and Charlotte Greenwood [Up in Mabel's Room] as Katie's parents; Denise Darcel as the very buxom French entry Gigi; and Barbara Whiting [Fresh from Paris] as Katie's younger sister, Suzie, who warbles "I Like Men." The bouncy, pleasant score is by Arthur Schwartz and Johnny Mercer, and also includes "I Got Outa Bed," "My Wildest Dreams;" and "Ain't Nature Great." Williams doesn't have a bad voice, and while Lamas can carry a tune, his tones are not exactly dulcet. The film has two major highlights: Charlotte Greenwood going into her dance with such obvious joy and kicking up her heels like she's double-jointed; and the suspenseful climax when Katie desperately tries to make it across the twenty miles of the channel, which is filmed in harrowing detail. Another bright moment is a sequence when Williams has a dream of being underwater with the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry, as well as a grabby octopus that is meant to represent Lamas. When the Higgins family first gets to England, the business with all of the fog is funny but causes eye strain after awhile.Williams married Lamas sixteen years after this film was made and they remained together until his death.

Verdict: Possibly Williams' best picture, and an unqualified delight. ***.

THE CONFORMIST

The priest hears Clerici's confession 
THE CONFORMIST (aka Il conformista/1970). Director: Bernardo Bertolucci. From the novel by Alberto Moravia.

In Fascist Italy Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant of Les biches) is engaged to a pretty but vapid woman, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli of Black Belly of the Tarantula), but making love to her is one of the last things on his mind during his honeymoon in Paris. Marcello has been chosen to do a mission with a colleague named Manganiello (Gastone Moschin)  -- to make contact with an old professor, an anti-fascist named Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), and "eliminate" him as a lesson. Marcello believes that he murdered a man, Lino (Pierre Clementi), who nearly molested him when he was a child, and has done his best to quash any "abnormal" sexual impulses or other unconventional thoughts or actions beneath a veil of alleged normalcy. On his honeymoon Marcello develops a seeming passion for Quadri's wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda), even as Anna reveals a certain hankering for Giulia. Although Marcello tries to keep Anna from taking a trip with her husband, tragedy strikes in the woods ... This film brought Bertolucci to international attention, and it is easy to see why, for it has a crisp and arresting style and despite some silly moments and confusing aspects, is suspenseful and very compelling. Bertolucci fiddles a bit with Alberto Moravia's source novel, adding ingredients that are more up his alley, while staying true to the book's themes (although I confess I haven't read the book in decades). If there is a problem with the picture it's that it isn't quite long enough -- things seem to have been left out in the editing room and the final sequence when our anti-hero begins to unravel is much too abrupt, with no real build-up to events that seem more convenient than dramatic. However, the picture not only boasts assured direction, but excellent performances from the entire cast. There are several stand-out sequences, such as the sensual dance between Anna and Giulia, and the tense and disturbing sequence in the woods. Vittorio Storaro's cinematography is outstanding, and there's a fine, evocative score by Georges Delerue. As much as I admired the film -- when I first saw it years ago it really knocked me out -- I have the nagging feeling that someone like, say, William Wyler could have told the same story and made it more moving and powerful and perhaps even more erotic. Then there is the fact that it could be argued that the psychology of the film is obvious and of the dime-store variety. Still Bertolucci and his co-workers fill the movie with interesting and often stunning and unusual images. Dig that photo of Laurel and Hardy on the window of the dance club!

NOTE: For those in the Los Angeles area, the Art Directors Guild [ADG] will have a special showing of The Conformist at the Egyptian theater, Sunday May 20th, at 5:30 PM. The work of Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who was the production designer for the film, will be discussed as well.

Verdict: Comes this close to being a masterpiece but doesn't quite get there. ***.

THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT

Doris Day
THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT (1966). Director: Frank Tashlin.

Widow Jennifer Nelson (Doris Day) works as a tour guide at a space research center, where she runs into scientist Bruce Templeton (Rod Taylor) only days after he hooks her mermaid suit with a fishing rod. Attracted to Jennifer, Bruce gives her an assignment to get close to her, and pretends he's working on something called Project: Venus. In truth, he has developed a device called Gizmo. Some of Bruce's associates, such as his partner, Zach (Dick Martin) and General Bleecker (Edward Andrews), are convinced Jennifer is a Russian spy who's after the secret plans for Gizmo. This leads into all sorts of complications, some of which are quite funny, and others not so much. Instead of doing The Graduate, which might have led into more mature and serious roles for Day, she did stuff like The Glass Bottom Boat, which made use of her talents as a comic actress (although not on a Lucille Ball level) but little else. Still, she's good in the picture, as is her co-star Rod Taylor, who handles the silliness with aplomb after already appearing with Day in Do Not Disturb. The movie tries to tie into the spy trends of the period with gadgets and the like, and Robert Vaughn of The Man from U.N.C.L.E even shows up for literally a second. Martin, Andrews, and Dom DeLuise [Fail-Safe] adeptly add some fun to the proceedings, although Paul Lynde [Bye Bye Birdie] is given the single funniest moment, which is the priceless expression on his face when he observes Martin and Andrews inadvertently in bed with one another. He also does a comical drag routine, especially when he's interacting with Day in a ladies room. Alice Pearce [The Belle of New York] and George Tobias play Day's neighbors, and essentially essay the same roles as the ones they play on TV's Bewitched, which debuted two years earlier. Arthur Godfrey is cast as Day's father, who owns the titular boat and has his daughter playing mermaid now and then to justify the title; he adds nothing to the picture. The movie is about half an hour too long, and hasn't enough of director Tashlin's trademark cartoon-like humor, although there are some amusing scenes such as a comical encounter between Day, DeLuise, a cake, and a trash can. It's amazing that nobody noticed that the song sung over the opening credits, "The Deep Blue Sea," is basically a knock-off of "Mockingbird." This was the last of Day's films to make money, after which she fled to television.

Verdict: Punctuated with enough laughs to keep you watching, but never a real riot. **1/2.

DANCING ON THE CEILING: STANLEY DONEN AND HIS MOVIES

DANCING ON THE CEILING: STANLEY DONEN AND HIS MOVIES. Stephen M. Silverman. Knopf; 1996.

From Broadway chorus boy to choreographer to director of several famous movies, Dancing on the Ceiling charts the course of Stanley Donen's Hollywood career with insight and admiration. Whether Silverman succeeds in making his case that Donen was one of the great directors, I'll leave to the individual viewer. Donen's romantic life follows an all-too-familiar course, with several failed marriages, including one to a woman nearly forty years his junior. Silverman briefly goes into these marriages but dispatches with them quickly, as he seems much more interested in Donen's career than his personal life, and as good as the book is, one might come away from the tome without ever really getting that much of a sense of Donen the person. However, the book certainly gives Donen his due as an important figure, detailing his triumphs and not skirting over his failures. Donen began co-directing with Gene Kelly on such films as On the Town, It's Always Fair Weather and Singin' in the Rainthen went strictly solo with such films as Royal Wedding, Funny Face and the excellent Damn Yankees. Later he became known as the "sophisticated" director of such films as Charade and Indiscreet. His misfires included the gay farce Staircase, Saturn 3, which he disavowed, and two movies with Yul Brynner, but he got some positive reaction to Two for the Road with Audrey Hepburn (with whom he worked several times) and Albert Finney. Written with Donen's cooperation, Dancing on the Ceiling is bolstered by many interviews with people who knew and worked with Donen, (although the device of quoting Betty Comden and Adolph Green as they affectionately discuss and disagree on several points eventually becomes tiresome).

Verdict: If this doesn't give you a new appreciation of Donen's work, nothing will. ***.


THE MAGIC SWORD

Sir George faces the dragon while the princess looks on 
THE MAGIC SWORD (1962). Director. Bert I. Gordon.

In medieval days, young George (Gary Lockwood) is smitten with a princess, Helene (Anne Helm) whom he has never actually met but only spied upon via the magic of his stepmother, the kindly witch Sybil (Estelle Winwood). When Helene is kidnapped bu the evil sorcerer Lodac (Basil Rathbone), he makes it clear that he intends to feed her to his dragon for revenge. Aided by six revivified knights of old -- and hampered by Sir Branton (Liam Sullivan) who wants the princess for himself and is secretly in league with Lodac -- George sets out to rescue Helene. But he and the others must contend with seven somewhat ill-defined "curses" before and after they reach Lodac's castle. There's a hairy giant ogre; a hideous witch (Maila Nurmi/Vampira) who at first resembles a beautiful woman; cavern ghosts; and the like. In Lodac's castle there are pin-headed ghouls and a host of friendly little people. Then there's the dragon, an impressive beast that has two heads and breathes fire. Armed with a somewhat bigger budget than usual, Gordon ("Mr. BIG" of The Amazing Colossal Man and The Cyclops) has fashioned an amusing and entertaining sword and sorcery flick that benefits from good performances (especially from Rathbone, Winwood and Lockwood), an effective score by Richard Markowitz (which has an especially good opening theme), and a screenplay that is delightfully ghoulish at times. As for the FX, let's say it's a pity Ray Harryhausen couldn't have animated the assorted creatures, but Gordon and his wife, Flora, don't do too badly given the circumstances. The dragon has limited movement but is certainly well-designed. Liam Sullivan was primarily a television actor who amassed over one hundred credits. 

Verdict: Good and gruesome. ***.

BODYGUARD (1948)

Priscilla Lane and |Lawrence Tierney
BODYGUARD (1948). Director: Richard Fleischer.

Lt. Mike Carter (Lawrence Tierney) is a hot-headed cop who doesn't play by the book, which gets him fired by his supervisor Borden (Frank Fenton of Lady of Burlesque). Carter is contacted by Freddie Dysen (Phillip Reed), who tells him that his Aunt Jean's life has been threatened. Jean Dysen (Elisabeth Risdon) is a tough old bird who runs the Columbia Meatpacking company, and the last thing she wants is a bodyguard. But when somebody takes a shot at her in her parlor, Mike agrees to take on the job. It develops that he has much bigger problems when he wakes up in a car on a railroad track with a corpse sitting next to him ... Bodyguard is a terse, snappy crime thriller with enough plot for two movies, but its short running time means it stints a bit on characterization. Gruff Tierney and sweet Priscilla Lane [The Meanest Man in the World] -- Lane plays Tierney's brave and devoted girlfriend -- are both fine as the leads, providing contrast, but the movie is nearly stolen by Risdon, giving another one of her sharp and  biting performances. Steve Brodie and June Clayworth [Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome] are notable as a brother and sister who are both in Risdon's employ, and Reed is suitably oily as her nephew. Fleischer's direction keeps the picture moving at a brisk pace, and there's a very suspenseful climax. While there is a blond in the movie, there is no femme fatale, making this only nominal film noir. Paul Sawtell's score is a plus, as is the photography by Robert de Grasse. Richard Fleischer also directed Fantastic Voyage and many others.

Verdict: Snappy "B" picture is taut and suspenseful. ***.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1963)

Fenella Fielding and Tom Poston
THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1963). Produced and directed by William Castle. A Hammer Film.

Car salesman Tom Penderel (Tom Poston) is invited to his flat-mate Caspar Fenn's (Peter Bull) family mansion, but when he arrives finds his friend ensconced in a coffin in the parlor. Seems there was an accident ... Tom learns that members of the Fenn family are virtual prisoners in their decaying mansion due to the bizarre terms of a will, which states they must live on the estate and be back by midnight every night or forfeit their share of the interest. While Tom gets to know Caspar's cousins, Cecily (Janette Scott) and the man-hungry Morgana (Fenella Fielding), he discovers that one of the heirs won't stop at murder ... William Castle joined forces with Hammer films for this black comedy remake of the macabre thirties movie (which was in itself a black comedy, as I recall). The Old Dark House is less beloved than other William Castle films (such as House on Haunted Hill), but this time around I found it generally fast-paced and amusing, with a couple of genuinely hilarious murder sequences. Although not a zany comedian along the lines of Bob Hope or Jim Carrey, Poston's more sober portrayal works well as played against the weirdness of the mansion's other inhabitants. Peter Bull [Dr. Strangelove] is fun in a dual role, as are Robert Morley as an uncle, and Joyce Grenfell as an aunt, both of whom are rather peculiar. Mervyn Johns [Never Let Go] and Danny Green [The Ladykillers] also score as two other members of the strange family. As for the ladies, Scott is lovely and adept, and Fielding makes her mark as the predatory Morgana. The picture becomes a little too silly with all this business of one relative building an ark on the property, but The Old Dark House is still entertaining.  Benjamin Frankel's quirky score is a decided plus, and helps add needed suspense to the climax. Poston and Castle also teamed up for the dreadful Zotz the year before.

Verdict: Minor but fun Castle flick. **3/4.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

JAMES MASON

James Mason 
JAMES MASON. 1909 - 1984.

This week Great Old Movies looks at one of our favorite actors: James Mason. When I was a youth Mason starred in two of my favorite movies, Hitchcock's North By Northwest and Journey to the Center of the Earth. As the years went by I could appreciate Mason as much for his acting ability as for the films he appeared in, although even as a kid I could tell he was good.

As I have already seen and/or reviewed a great many of Mason's films, I decided this week to look at a few oldies that I had never watched before. Alas, I was to discover that poor James Mason made quite a few lousy movies, especially in the earlier days of his career. However, Mason himself was rarely less than stellar. Mason gave especially fine performances in such films as Child's Play; Lolita (in which he was, as was often the case, much better than the material); 5 Fingers; The Wicked Lady; and many, many others. You can read a review of a biography of him here.

As I said, Mason made more than his share of stinkers, a few of which are reviewed this week. But it's fun to read about stinkers, isn't it? (Better than watching them, I suppose.)

In any case, James Mason was no stinker.

He was one of The Greats!

LATE EXTRA

James Mason with photo of Virginia Cherrill
LATE EXTRA (1935). Director: Albert Parker.

In his first film, James Mason, who stars, plays ambitious reporter Jim Martin, who lobbies to get assigned to the story of a cop killing. Bank robber Rudolph Weinhart (Clifford McLaglen) shot a police officer while he was fleeing from the crime scene. As Jim pursues the story, he is both helped and hindered by his girlfriend, fellow reporter Janet Graham (Virginia Cherrill). Even as Jim looks over another crime scene, that of a murdered woman who had called him saying she had information, Janet encounters another woman, Sylvia (Antoinette Cellier), who begs Janet to leave her out of the story or her own life may be forfeit. Inspector Greville (Donald Wolfit of Life at the Top) suspects that someone in the newspaper office has more information than he may be telling the police. Late Extra is one of those big city crime reporter sagas that shows life as it purports to be in a bustling newspaper office where everyone's after the big story and murder is the biggest story of all. Although Mason and most of the other actors are fine, the script is mediocre and this can hardly be called an auspicious debut for James Mason. Alastair Sim [The Ruling Class] plays a kindly older reporter named MacPherson. The picture has humor, sentiment and even a little action, but all told it just isn't very good.

Verdict: Fortunately Mason went on to much better vehicles. *1/2.

I MET A MURDERER

James Mason
I MET A MURDERER (1939). Director: Roy Kellino.

Mark Warrow (James Mason) works hard on his small farm where he lives with his wife, Martha (Sylvia Coleridge). Martha is old before her time, embittered, disappointed with her lot in life and with Mark for not giving her an easier kind of existence. Mark seems to understand his wife's disillusionment to a certain degree, but he loses it when she shoots the family dog. Mark goes on the run, where he encounters another woman, Jo (Pamela Kellino, later Mason) on the road. Mark keeps his dark secret, but is completely unaware that Jo has a surprising secret of her own ... Mason and Pamela were talented actors, and Kellino is not a bad director, but if only they had decided to leave the writing chores to others. I Met a Murderer rambles along as if it were scripted on the run, and none of the characters are developed enough to make you really care about anyone. Mason is not perfect casting for a farmer (!), but he's quite good, as usual, making the most of his brooding intensity. Coleridge and Kellino are both on the mark. William Devlin is effective in what really amounts to a silent role as Martha's brother, Jay. There are interesting things in the movie, but they never quite jell into a good picture, and although the film only lasts a little over an hour, it seems twice as long. Kellino also photographed Murderer, and makes good use of its bucolic settings. Composer Eric Ansell over-scores the picture as if it were a silent movie -- the music is often nice but there's just too much of it.

Verdict: Minor entry in the Mason canon. **.

HATTER'S CASTLE

James Mason
HATTER'S CASTLE (aka A, J. Cronin's Hatter's Castle/1942). Director: Lance Comfort.

James Brodie (Robert Newton of Obsession) owns a hat shop in a small British township and not only has pretensions but an alleged connection to the peerage. The huge house he has built and can hardly afford to keep is called "Hatter's Castle" by the townspeople. Brodie takes out his anger on his dying wife (Beatrice Varley) and pretty daughter, Mary (Deborah Kerr of The Night of the Iguana), but reserves his only affection for his young son, Angus (Tony Bateman), on whom he pins his hopes. The hypocritical Brodie turns his daughter out when she becomes pregnant by his slimy clerk, Dennis (Emlyn Williams), but keeps a mistress, Nancy (Enid Stamp-Taylor), in town, whom he later hires as his housekeeper! This is Newton's picture -- James Mason [Caught] has a relatively small role as a doctor who ministers to Mrs. Brodie and falls in love with Mary despite everything that happens. Mason is excellent, as is everyone else in the cast, with Newton giving an especially strong and flavorful performance (although one could argue that at times Newton threatens to turn into a caricature of a palm-rubbing silent movie villain  -- and the movie certainly has elements of silent melodrama). Based on a novel by A. J. Cronin, Hatter's Castle is an absorbing film full of dramatic and moving incident; it moves fast and plays very well.

Verdict: Superior British melodrama with a gripping Newton, lovely Kerr and stalwart Mason. ***.

THE MAN IN GREY

Margaret Lockwood and James Mason  
THE MAN IN GREY (1943). Director: Leslie Arliss.

At an auction house in modern times two strangers talk about the famous painting, "The Man in Grey," and wonder what became of the family whose heirlooms are being sold. The rest of the film is a flashback that introduces us to the subject of said portrait, Lord Rohan (James Mason), as well as two students in a girls school: sunny blond Clarissa (Phyllis Calvert of The Root of All Evil), and the bitter brunette, Heather (Margaret Lockwood of Hungry Hill), who wants all the finer things in life that have been denied her. Rohan eventually marries Clarrisa, although he has little to do with her, but he develops a hankering for Heather after she is hired to be his wife's companion. Heather schemes to have Clarissa run off with the sympathetic Peter Rokeby (Stewart Granger), but when these plans don't quite come off Heather must think of another way to get Clarissa out of the picture ... Mason and Lockwood would be re-teamed two years later in the far superior Wicked Lady, for which this seems like a fair-to-middling prelude. Mason has some good moments but his character isn't well-defined -- none of the others are that dimensional, either -- and the script seems rambling and cobbled together with not enough dramatic payoff. Calvert and Lockwood are more than competent if a little too stagy at times. Martita Hunt is the head of the girls school and Antony Scott makes an impression as the little boy, Toby, who is sort of adopted by Clarissa.

Verdict: Half-baked British costume melodrama. **3/4.

THEY MET IN THE DARK

James Mason and Joyce Howard
THEY MET IN THE DARK (1943). Director: Karel Lamac.

Richard Heritage (James Mason) receives a court-martial because fake orders were palmed off on him by an unknown person. He goes to see a young manicurist named Mary (Patricia Medina of The Killing of Sister George), who tells him she has something important to tell him and will speak to him later. She never makes the date but her dead body is found  by Laura Verity (Joyce Howard) in a house owned by Laura's uncles. When Mary's body disappears, the police want to put Laura in jai for supposedly lying and leading them on a chase, so she runs off with Richard in pursuit, neither quite trusting the other. Along the way they encounter a slimy mind reader named Riccardo (Karel Stepanek of The 2nd Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World); a radio singer named Lily (Phyllis Stanley); a theatrical impresario named Christopher Child (Tom Walls); a petty officer named Bill Grant (Robert Sansom of He Found a Star); and others, some of whom are part of a nest of spies. Meanwhile Commander Lippinscott (David Farrar of The Sea Chase) is surreptitiously trying to check out the story Richard told at his hearing. He and Richard discover that a certain song to be sung in a nightclub contains a secret code that could sink a ship ... They Met in the Dark is all too typical of WW2 spy movies that are cobbled together with elements lifted from Hitchcock films. These films are called "Hitchcockian" because of those elements but the simple truth is that it's Hitchcock's style of direction that sets his movies apart. Without that style -- and with a poor script and weak direction, as this has -- these movies have no reason to exist. As well, They Met in the Dark is almost stupefyingly dull. The actors, including Mason, can't be faulted, but this badly-constructed picture is an effort to sit through. Director Lamac seems to have no clue as to how to put a picture together in a compelling fashion, although even Hitch himself may have been defeated by the screenplay.

Verdict: Dreadful -- the kind of pictures Mason had to put up with in the earlier days of his career. *.

CHARADE (1954)

Pamela Mason and James Mason 
CHARADE (1954). Director: Roy Kellino. Produced by James Mason.

Actor James Mason had founded a film company with the director Roy Kellino and his wife, Pamela, in the thirties, and did so again with the same principals in the fifties. In the interim Roy and Pamela got divorced and Pamela then married James Mason, with whom she'd had an affair, and Mason produced this trio of stories co-starring his wife -- with the cuckolded ex-husband doing the directorial duties. Okay. The first story concerns a lonely lady artist whose neighbor, another woman, is strangled one night. The artist does a sketch of the man she sees coming out of the murdered woman's apartment. She sees the man (Mason) again when he moves into the now empty apartment, and the artist and the stranger become friends. The artist becomes mesmerized by the stranger and is not at all horrified by the fact that he's also a strangler. This can't lead into anything good and of course it doesn't. The premise is interesting but the people are too unpleasant to fully engage us, and as a story of erotic obsession it's too tepid. The second story, "Duel at Dawn," (from Dumas) concerns a Major Linden (Mason) who is engaged to the Baroness Tanslan (Pamela Mason of The Navy vs the Night Monsters). Captain Stamm (Scott Forbes, who appeared on Zane Grey Theater with Joan Crawford), whose proposal of marriage to the baroness had been rejected, so insults the major that the latter challenges him to a duel -- although the terms set by the captain are outrageous. This is the best of the three stories and is suspenseful and intriguing in equal measure. The last story, apparently scripted by the starring couple, is a dull mess about a wealthy man in New York who quits it all to become a butler back in England, where he meets the maid Lily, marries her, and winds up back in his office in New York. Meant to be funny, this segment is merely tedious. The Masons would have been better off if they had done a full-length version of "Duel at Dawn," which is terrific. James and Pamela are both excellent actors, and Mason is especially good as the major. Forbes, Paul Canavagh as Colonel Heisler. Bruce Lester as Captain van Buren, Sean McClory [Valley of the Dragons] as Jack Stuydevant, the wealthy man's friend in episode three, all give excellent support, as does the uncredited actor who plays Mason's employer in the final story. Pamela and James appear as themselves at the opening and ending and in introductions to each segment. They divorced ten years later.

Verdict: This vanity production is one third all right. **3/4.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

THE BELLE OF NEW YORK

Marjorie Main and Fred Astaire
THE BELLE OF NEW YORK (1952). Director: Charles Walters.

In Olde New York footloose Charlie Hill (Fred Astaire of Royal Wedding) is about to walk out of yet another wedding that his wealthy aunt (Marjorie Main) will have to pay for -- or rather, pay the bride off for -- but he may have finally found the right gal in pretty Angela (Vera-Ellen of White Christmas). Angela works for the Daughters of Right, a Salvation Army-type charity and faith organization that was founded by the late Phineas Hill, Charlie's uncle. When Mrs. Hill learns that her nephew and Angela have fallen in love, she doesn't know whether to be delighted or appalled, but true love will not be denied -- or run smoothly. The Belle of New York got its start as a 19th century operetta and was tossed around as a possible production for years until former dancer and choreographer Charles Walters got the assignment to direct it and practically disavowed the picture in later years. The movie may be a trifle, but it's a charming and entertaining trifle decked out in gorgeous TechniColor and with excellent performances. The film posits the theory that falling in love is like dancing on air, which Astaire does in a nice sequence set in and above Washington Square. Astaire is especially given a chance to shine in his "Dancing Man" number where he combines his trademark elegance with his major terpsichorean skill. Leading lady Vera-Ellen, even considering that she's playing an upright, "moral" type (the film has some similarities to Guys and Dolls), often looks as if she's afraid her makeup is going to crack, but she's more than competent; her singing voice is dubbed. Marjorie Main is her usual delightful self as the grumpy but forgiving aunt, and Alice Pearce nearly steals the picture as Angela's friend, Elsie. (There's a touching moment when Elsie stands in for Angela at the wedding rehearsal and a sad, hopeful look slowly comes across her sweet homely face.) The reasonably pleasant songs by Warren and Mercer seem to be the type that might need to grow on you, although "Naughty But Nice" is well-performed by Vera-Ellen and then comically reprised by Pearce. Gale Robbins, Clinton Sundberg, and Keenan Wynn are very adept in supporting roles, and even Percy Helton has a bit as one of Angela's legion of admirers, giving her flowers at the opening. 

Verdict: Call it piffle if you will, but there's a lot of talent and charm on display. ***.

THE SLEEPING CAR MURDER

Yves Montand and Jean-Louis Trintignant
THE SLEEPING CAR MURDER (aka Compatiment tueurs.1965). Director: Costa-Gavras.

When a train traveling from Marseilles pulls into Paris, a young woman is found strangled to death in a sleeper compartment. Inspector Graziani (Yves Montand of The Wages of Fear) and his partner Jean-Lou Gabert (Claude Mann) investigate the murder and to their astonishment discover that someone else is reaching the witnesses, the other passengers in the murder car who disembarked in Paris, first, and shooting them! The witnesses include the actress Eliane Darres (Simone Signoret of Games), who has a younger lover,  Eric (Jean-Louis Trintignant); Rene Cabourg (Michel Piccoli of Danger: Diabolik), who is resentful that women generally snub him, as did the victim; Daniel (Jacques Perrin), a young runaway who rides the train without a ticket; Bambi (Catherine Allegret), a young lady who takes him to her apartment for sex and sustenance; and others. The Sleeping Car Murder is suspenseful and has some good actors in it, but despite some intriguing developments, it's a bit of a let-down once you realize that the basic premise is pretty much lifted from Agatha  Christie -- not Murder on the Orient Express, but "The Alphabet Murders," which was also filmed that same year. At least this has different plot developments and an unexpected final twist as well as some homoerotic elements (Eric pours through a muscle man magazine in front of an oblivious Eliane in an early scene; the identity of his male lover comes as quite a surprise.) The picture drags a bit after the final revelation and the film's score is lousy, but Sleeping Car is still an attention-holder. With a mysterious killer wandering around in a black raincoat killing people, the movie almost reminds one of an Italian giallo film, but the murders are neither gruesome nor graphic. Signoret, Trintignant, Piccoli, Mann and the others are all quite effective, but Montand looks pretty bored throughout. He was married to Signoret at the time, from 1951 until his death in 1984. Catherine Allegret is Signoret's daughter by her first husband.

Verdict: Interesting French thriller .. with reservations. **1/2.

DU BARRY WAS A LADY

Ball, Kelly, Skelton, O'Brien, Dorsey
DU BARRY WAS A LADY (1943). Director: Roy Del Ruth.

May Daly (Lucille Ball) is a nightclub singer who is courted by both Alec (Gene Kelly) and Louis (Red Skelton), neither of whom are rich enough to suit her. She is squired around town by a man who is wealthy, as well as much older, Wille (Douglass Dumbrille). When Louis wins the sweepstakes May wonders if she can have any kind of life with the newly rich fellow, but before any decision is made Louis collapses and dreams that they are all back in the days of King Louis and Madame Du Barry. Who will May ultimately wind up with, and will the IRS man (Donald Meek) leave any money for Louis? Du Barry is a strange picture, whose plot -- such as it is -- is put on hold for about half an hour (after the brief opening minutes) while we watch Tommy Dorsey and his band perform and the Oxford Boys do their impressions of famous band leaders. Others in the cast include the delightfully deadpan Virginia O'Brien; Zero Mostel (who does a pretty terrible impression of Charles Boyer); Louise Beavers as May's sassy maid, Niagara; Dick Haymes, who only appears as the lead vocalist in a group of singers; and drummer Buddy Rich. There's also Clara Blandick as a funny little old lady on a subway who gives advice to Ball and Skelton. This is very loosely based on a Cole Porter Broadway show, although most of the songs in the movie were written by others. Du Barry isn't a very good movie, but it goes out on a high note, with the cast spiritedly performing Porter's "Friendship." Another bright spot is Kelly's dancing to "Do I Love You.", although Kelly doesn't get to do nearly enough dancing in this.

Verdict: Silly, amiable, light-weight, but well-performed, and the final number is a pip. **.

THE MEMORY OF ALL THAT Betsy Blair

THE MEMORY OF ALL THAT: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood, and Paris. Betsy Blair. Knopf; 2003.

Betsy Blair [1923 - 2009], an actress and fourth-tier celebrity, had two claims to fame: her starring role with Ernest Borgnine in Marty, and her first marriage to Gene Kelly. Blair was a study in contrasts, someone who believed in communism while being married to (and essentially living off) a wealthy movie star. Blair met Kelly on Broadway when she was very young, and had no time to sow her wild oats, as it were. She made up for lost time with affairs while she was married to Kelly, then had a live-in relationship with a French actor (upon whom she also cheated), and wound up in a long second marriage with the director Karol Reisz until his death. Most of the book is taken up with the more eventful Kelly years. Blair's writing is good, the book is undeniably compelling (if full, as expected, of a little too much name-dropping), but one suspects the most interesting material is hidden between the lines. Completely devoid of Hollywood-type beauty -- Blair was not only plain but a bit homely -- some might nevertheless see her as one who could play the fame and success game as well as any Lana Turner. As in most show business memoirs, Blair does her best to establish herself as an important and notable figure, and the key to her personality seems to be found in an anecdote she tells of Kelly, who (understandably) rushed her out of a theater to avoid being mobbed by his fans but before she had a chance to take her own bow. A child bride, and still somewhat immature and a bit self-justifying as an adult, Blair claims no envy of Kelly's career but clearly wanted to come out from underneath his shadow. She was blacklisted in Hollywood, but managed to do some Hollywood films anyway because her husband was a big star at MGM. Along the way we're treated to mini-portraits of interesting political and cinema figures, as well as sad family stories, such as one about a perfectly happy gay uncle who was forcibly institutionalized due to his sexual orientation. Blair also appeared in such films as Another Part of the Forest and The Snake Pit, besides doing several films in Europe and taking a few television roles. Whatever her flaws as a human being, she was undeniably a talented actress. One distinct flaw in the book is that she offers few behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the films she made, and doesn't even mention such movies as A Delicate Balance with Katharine Hepburn!

Verdict: Absorbing read of the life of a Hollywood wife and what came later. ***.

SOME STRANGELY NASTY MOVIE FANS

SOME STRANGELY NASTY MOVIE FANS

I know people can often have strong (often completely uneducated) opinions on things they like or dislike, but it seems that discussions on movies can get as heated as any political argument. I used to be appalled at the comments left on imdb.com (Internet Movie Date Base) on various movies before imdb wisely shut this section down. I mean, if someone disagreed with another's opinion of a movie, they would write the most hateful things, attacking them, their politics, their sexuality, even their mothers to a degree that made one wonder if these people were playing with a full deck. On Facebook, one guy left a comment on another guy's post, saying that he thought a movie that the first guy liked was over-rated, and the original poster replied "You're an idiot!" I mean, the guy who left the comment wasn't nasty, it was just his opinion, but the first guy was obviously on the maturity level of an eight-year-old. It's true -- we live in an Internet world where even the most childish, stupid, most uneducated person can have access to forums, and the result is unbridled nastiness. I believe people over-react in this way for several reasons. They are insecure, wondering if perhaps their opinion is not the "correct" one or unsure of how much they really know about movies (especially film history). They are, obviously, very immature, regardless of their actual age. And they have a weak sense of self. If you dare say that you don't like -- or conversely admire -- a film they love or don't care for, you are attacking them and they feel a need to strike back, like a child who feels insulted and has to immediately say something nasty or give another child a whack.

Sad, really. . 

PICKUP ALLEY

Anita Ekberg and Trevor Howard
PICKUP ALLEY (1957). Director: John Gilling.

Drug enforcement agent Charles Sturgis (Victor Mature of Kiss of Death) is still recovering from the death of his sister, Helen (Dorothy Alison) -- who was working undercover and wound up strangled by dope smuggler Frank McNally (Trevor Howard) -- when he learns that McNally is now in London. Sturgis discovers that McNally is using a beautiful woman named Gina (Anita Ekberg of The Killer Nun) to run certain errands for him, so Sturgis decides to follow her. The trail goes to Lisbon to Rome to Athens -- the film is an exciting scenic travelogue with location shooting -- until he catches up to her and tries to convince her to tell what she knows. The trouble is, she thinks she murdered an associate of McNally's who tried to rape her in London. Pickup Alley  -- a lousy title for a good movie -- is borderline film noir, proceeds at a fast pace, and is very well-acted, with Howard underplaying as the slimy drug dealer. Gorgeous Ekberg has little to do but look uncertain and frightened and sometimes a little defiant, and she pulls if off competently. Victor Mature is quite good as the battered, sad and obsessive drug agent. Pickup Alley is also distinguished by first-rate widescreen photography by Ted Moore, and there's a good score by Richard Bennett, although one might have wished it was a little more intense at times. A problem with the picture is that most of the characters are completely one-dimensional, with Ekberg in particular never developed beyond a shadowy femme fatale type. Bonar Colleano [Pool of London] scores as Amalio, a transplanted New Yorker trying to make a living selling souvenirs at the catacombs in Rome and who tries to pick up some extra money as a leg man for Strugis; Martin Benson and Andre Morell also have smaller roles and are typically adept. In an early scene in a nightclub the beautiful singer Yana does a very nice rendition of the snappy "Anyone For Love."

Verdict: Vivid crime thriller with very interesting settings. ***.

MATCH POINT

Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers
MATCH POINT (2005). Written and directed by Woody Allen.

"I don't care that he's good. I just hope he's lucky."

Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers of Stonewall) is a British tennis instructor who becomes friends with a client, Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), and is sort of adopted by his wealthy family. Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer of The Pink Panther), falls for Chris, but he really has his eye on Tom's fiancee, the aspiring American actress Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson). Before you can say Crimes and Misdemeanors, Chris finds himself with a wife, Chloe, a cushy new life and position in his father-in-law's firm, and a mistress -- Tom's ex-fiancee Nola -- who is pregnant and making noises. Now what is Chris to do? As this is a Woody Allen movie, what do you think? Although this was seen by many as a "return to form" for Allen, it's really just an inferior retread of Crimes, and comes off more like a rip-off of the far superior A Life in the Sun (from Dreiser's "An American Tragedy.")  The acting cannot be faulted, however, and it's a pleasure to see Penelope Wilton of Downton Abbey as Chris' mother-in-law. Since Allen has pretty much revealed himself as a self-involved man who doesn't respect boundaries, his sociopathic "hero" is the same, so you can expect the same depressing non-denouement as in Crimes and Misdemeanors. Fortunately, in real life sociopaths aren't always so lucky, as you can see on practically any true crime program.

Verdict: This over-rated reprise of Crimes and Misdemeanors is entertaining, smooth, and very well-acted, but we've seen it before -- and better. **1/2.


Thursday, April 26, 2018

SINGIN' IN THE RAIN

Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds
SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952). Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly.

Silent movie star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) has been teamed with Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen of Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn) in movie after movie. Don doesn't particularly like Lina, but she has not only convinced herself that they are in love but engaged. This comes to a head when Gene falls for Kathy (Debbie Reynolds of The Gazebo), who has "theatuh" aspirations but for now spends her time jumping out of cakes. When the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, becomes a tremendous hit, Don's studio insists his latest film with Lamont be turned into a sound picture. The only trouble is -- what to do about Lina's fish-wife screech, which is hardly suitable for sound? Paging Kathy ... but Lina isn't going to take the dubbing lying down, while Kathy is interested in her own career. Singin' in the Rain deservedly has a reputation as one of Hollywood's most memorable musicals with wonderful performances, nice tunes by Freed and Brown, a funny storyline, and a hilarious ending that gives the witchy Lina her full comeuppance. The highlights include Kelly and Donald O'Connor tap dancing to "Fit as a Fiddle;" Kelly, Reynolds and O'Connor performing "Good Mornin';".the "Broadway Melody" production number ("Gotta Dance") with Kelly and Cyd Charisse; and other numbers, such as "You Were Meant for Me," and "You Are My Lucky Star." Then there's Kelly's famous and iconic dance to the title tune. O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" is cute if less successful, and others have noted that the song is very much like "Be a Clown," but I'm not certain which came first. Kathleen Freeman has a brief funny bit as a vocal coach who tries to help Lina talk like a human being, and Millard Mitchell [Thieves Highway] is solid as the studio head, R. F. Simpson.

Verdict: Really a delightful movie. ***1/2.

PLEASE DON'T EAT THE DAISIES

David Niven and Doris Day
PLEASE DON'T EAT THE DAISIES (1960). Director: Charles Walters.

Kate MacKay (Doris Day) and her husband, Larry (David Niven of Enchantment) are raising four adorable if rambunctious boys and planning a move to the country. Larry, a professor of drama, is made a theater critic for a top newspaper. In a contrived event, he is assigned to review his best friend, Alfred's (Richard Hadyn), new musical, and not only slams it, but prints that the leading lady, Deborah Vaughn (Janis Paige of This Side of the Law), has no talent. This leads into amusing encounters between Larry and Deborah as well as an opportunity for Alfred to get a kind of revenge on Larry. Meanwhile Kate is worried that her husband is turning into the kind of justifiably-abhorred critic who is more interested in making clever jokes at a playwright's expense than in writing serious and fair-minded theater reviews. If you take some of the improbable developments (they move into a house that resembles a castle) with a grain of salt, Please Don't Eat the Daisies is a delightful comedy, with the two leads in top form. Day and Niven work very well together and seem to be having as much fun as the audience. Some of the critical words that come out of the mouth of Doris' mother make her seem like a monster, but the casting of sweet Spring Byington makes her character more palatable.  Patsy Kelly plays the housekeeper but isn't given much of a chance to shine, although Hadyn scores as the angry Alfred, and Paige is just wonderful and very sexy as Deborah. Jack Weston is also fine as a taxi-driving wannabee playwright, and Kathryn Card of I Love Lucy appears briefly as a principal. The business with the baby being kept in a locked cage would raise eyebrows today and frankly makes little sense. (The rationale is that he can pick locks, but wouldn't that include the locks on his cage?) Please Don't Eat the Daises -- the title comes from a reference to one of the boys eating flowers -- is based on a novel by Jean Kerr, a playwright who was married to Walter Kerr, best-known as a theater critic for the N.Y. Times; the couple had six children. Doris does a reprise of "Que sera, sera" from The Man Who Knew Too Much and also nicely warbles the title tune and "Anyway the Wind Blows."

Verdict: Very amusing and well-acted comedy with an especially winning Day. ***.

THE UNFORGIVEN (1960)

Audie Murphy, Lillian Gish, Doug McClure, Audrey Hepburn and Lancaster 
THE UNFORGIVEN (1960). Director: John Huston.

A mysterious man named Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman) wanders around the ranch of the Zachary family, and his presence causes consternation in old Mattilda Zachary (Lillian Gish). Apparently Abe is spreading stories that Mattilda's adopted daughter, Rachel (Audrey Hepburn), is not white but a "red injun." Members of the Kiowa tribe seem to think the stories are true, and want Rachel returned to them. Neighbor Zeb Rawlins (Charles Bickford) wants the truth, too, or there'll be no more business dealings with the Zacharys. Then one of Zeb's sons is murdered, Abe Kelsey is captured, and the whole thing comes to a boil ... The Unforgiven has a fascinating but ultimately contrived premise that doesn't make nearly enough of the situation and operates on an almost shamefully superficial level. There are some powerful scenes in the movie, but too many questions.remain unanswered. It all ends in a bloodbath wherein the one-dimensional Indians are pretty much picked off like flies.and a supposedly "happy" ending is tacked on. For a movie that some feel is about racial intolerance, it is staggeringly racist itself. The acting is generally good, although of the once-removed Hollywood variety. which is particularly evident in the climax. Wiseman is excellent as Abe, demented by loneliness and grief, and Gish [The Cobweb] has a tremendously good moment confronting him for what turns out to be the final time. Burt Lancaster plays Rachel's step-brother, who is secretly in love with her, this being one of the new breed of psycho-sexual westerns (while still being stubbornly old-fashioned as regards Native Americans). Doug McClure overdoes the boyish posturing a bit as Lancaster's youngest brother, but Audie Murphy is effective as his other brother, Cash. John Saxon also makes his mark as a cowboy who may be an Indian, as does Carlos Rivas [The Black Scorpion] in a nearly silent role as a tribe member who may be Rachel's true brother. Kipp Hamilton [War of the Gargantuas] is also good as Zeb's daughter, who is anxious to marry one of the Zacharys, and June Walker is excellent as her mother, Hagar. For obvious reasons, Audrey Hepburn was hardly the best casting choice for the role of Rachel. The attack on the ranch at the climax is admittedly exciting and well-staged, but in some ways unconvincing, while Franz Planer's widescreen cinematography doesn't make the most of the settings, and Dimitri Tiomkin's score, aiming for the unusual perhaps, is one of his worst, only serving to muff some sequences that could have been moving. Apparently director John Huston was hampered from really making the film he wanted to make, resulting in this rather hypocritical exercise.

Verdict|: Hollywood Cowboys and Indians -- when it could have been so much more. **.