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

Friday, October 13, 2017

HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN

Davis, Leslie, Garfield and Hutton
HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN (1944). Director: Delmer Daves.

Corporal Slim Green (Robert Hutton) and his buddy Sergeant Nowland (Dane Clark) are on leave in LA when they drop by the Hollywood Canteen. The canteen was started by Bette Davis and John Garfield, and both stars play a prominent role in the film, which is basically built around Slim wanting to meet actress Joan Leslie, playing herself, and the romance that ensues. During this, a number of stars either appear or do numbers. Among the highlights: Dennis Morgan and Joe E. Brown sing "You Can Always Tell a Yank;" The Andrews Sisters perform "We're Getting Corns for Our Country;" Jack Benny and Joseph Szigeti have a comical duel of violins; Joan McCracken does a jazz ballet production number; a Spanish dance number from Rosario and Antonio; and Kitty Carlisle singing "Sweet Dreams, Sweetheart." Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet have an amusing cameo, and there are lots of guest appearances by a host of stars, some of whom you may miss if you blink (Eleanor Parker, for instance). Davis and Garfield are wonderful playing themselves; Dane Clark has an affecting moment when his character realizes that he no longer needs to use his cane; and Robert Hutton is excellent as the shy, sensitive small-town fellow who develops quite a crush on Leslie, who gives a winning performance as well. Zachary Scott and Barbara Stanwyck have notable cameos, and Janis Paige makes a decided impression as a studio messenger who pretends to be an actress. Corporal Green addresses his fellow fighting men and allies at one point, and mentions "our own colored boys" as it flashes to a shot of several black soldiers. Good. Although Hutton never became a major star (this was his fourth picture) he did amass 90 credits in his long career. However, the one single actor who has the most sheer presence in the two hour film is the formidable Joan Crawford.

Verdict: Entertaining, and ultimately quite moving. ***.

DUET FOR BUGS

Bugs Bunny and the Fabulous Elmer Fudd
STAGE DOOR CARTOON (1944). Director: Friz Freleng.
HERR MEETS HARE (1945). Director: Friz Freleng.

The DVD for Hollywood Canteen features two vintage wartime Bugs Bunny cartoons. In the first, Stage Door Cartoon, the "wascally wabbitt" is chased by Elmer Fudd into a theater, where the luckless hunter is forced to perform on stage for an audience, including a bit where he does a frightfully high dive into a very, very small glass of water. In Herr Meets Hare, Bugs takes a wrong turn at Albuquerque and winds up in Germany, where he encounters a Nazi hunter and even Adolf Hitler. At one point Bugs pretends to be a diva in a Wagnerian opera (recalling the classic What's Opera, Doc?). As usual, Mel Blanc does his brilliant voice characterizations.

The strange thing is that the latter cartoon features a disclaimer from TCM (which released the DVD) about ethnic and racial stereotyping, but the only stereotypes in the cartoon are of Nazis. Have we become so ridiculously politically correct that we have to worry about offending Nazis? Oy vey!

Verdict: Amusing, fluid, and well-done cartoons. ***.

MILLION DOLLAR LEGS

Jack Oakie and W. C. Fields
MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (1932). Director: Edward F. Cline.

Traveling salesman Migg Tweeney (Jack Oakie of Thieves Highway) comes to the small, impoverished nation of Klopstokia -- where the men are all named George and the women are all named Angela -- and promptly falls in love with the President's (W. C. Fields) daughter, Angela (Susan Fleming) and vice versa. But the President will not allow Angela to marry Migg unless he can come up with a way of raising needed capital to keep the man in office as his advisers plot to oust him any way they can. Noticing how athletic the people are, Migg comes up with the idea of Klopstokia entering the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. But will Angela's countrymen be able to keep up their morale once Mata Machree (Lyda Roberti) pulls a vamp on all of them and sets one against another? Million Dollar Legs is a very silly movie, and some of the gags in the script co-written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz are creaky groaners (although still funny) but the movie is amiable and amusing enough to work, with many clever sight gags. The wonderful Fields [The Bank Dick] is simply not given enough to do, and one can only imagine how much better the movie would have been if Bob Hope had been cast in the Oakie part. (Oakie gets equal billing with Fields, a situation that would not last much longer.) Susan Fleming is an appealing heroine, but the real scene-stealer in this is Lyda Roberti. Although Mata Machree is billed as "the woman no man can resist" there's a comic absurdity in the fact that Roberti, while cute, is not exactly a raving beauty, but she certainly can dance in a mighty sexy manner, slithering sensually in a way that borders on camp. Ben Turpin and little Dickie Moore [Blonde Venus] are also in the cast and add their own brand of humor.

Verdict: More of Fields would have helped, but this is a cute picture with lots of laughs. ***.


THE THREE STOOGES

THE THREE STOOGES: From Amalgamated Morons to American Icons. Michael Fleming. Foreword by Mel Gibson. Official and Authorized. Doubleday; 1999.

This illustrated coffee table book takes an exhaustive look at the careers and lives of the Three Stooges, which actually consisted of several men over the years. Originally they were three brothers, but Larry Fine was not related, and took over for Shemp Howard (who later came back into the fold). The trio started out as stooges for comic Ted Healy and there are chapters detailing Healy's career both before and after his association with the Stooges, who outgrew him. The Stooges originally made comedy shorts that played in theaters, many of which were quite funny (while others were stinkers). When these played on television, there was a literal and figurative Stooge revival -- the fellows wound up being put in big-screen movies such as Snow White and the Three Stooges and Have Rocket, Will Travel, with mixed results. In any case they had a whole new audience of kids of all ages. The author argues that the Stooges are almost exclusively a male phenomenon, that women just don't dig the Stooges, but I think that's a generalization that might not hold water (no matter what Mel Gibson, who wrote the introduction, may think). Fully half the book is devoted to synopses of all of the Stooges shorts -- and there were many -- but it's more fun to watch (some of) them than to read about them. Still, this is a must-have for serious Stooge fans.

Verdict: Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk -- For all things Stooge. ***.

ST. BENNY THE DIP

Nina Foch and Dick Haymes
ST. BENNY THE DIP (1951). Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

Benny (Dick Haymes), Monk (Lionel Stander), and Matthew (Roland Young) are three con artists trying to pull a rather mean score when the law intervenes and they take it on the lam. The trio hide out by disguising themselves as priests, and wind up running an abandoned mission for the indigent. Benny has trouble staying in character when he meets pretty illustrator Linda (Nina Foch), and the three men's fates just might turn out differently than expected. The premise might be a bit sappy, but it has possibilities that aren't overly plumbed in this quaint comedy that has some good performances. Haymes [Irish Eyes Are Smiling] is a cast standout, and is given one nice number, "I Believe," which is not to be confused with the more famous song of the same name; he's also in fine voice. Young and Stander are also good, with the latter less gross and tiresome than usual. He has a good scene reuniting with his long-suffering wife, Mary (a notable Jean Casto), late in the picture. Nina Foch [Illegal] is given an odd part, and at times she seems demented in her determination to marry a man she hardly knows. A shockingly bad performance is given by a grown-up Freddie Bartholomew, once a wonderful child actor, who plays a geeky young priest named Wilbur. Bartholomew could give good adult performances, as he did in The Town Went Wild, but in this he just tries too hard to be funny; it was his last picture. The odd thing about this movie is that it has a certain quality and appeal despite the fact that it's really not that good. Robert W. Stringer's interesting score, especially the excellent theme music, may have something to do with that.

Verdict: Oddly interesting comedy with some good performances. **1/2.

MOTOR PATROL

Jane Nigh and Don Castle
MOTOR PATROL (1950). Director: Sam Newfield.

"Hope to see you again real soon." -- Happy, the morgue attendant.

Larry Collins (William Henry) is an officer with the traffic division of the LAPD. His sister, Jean (Gwen O'Connor), is engaged to a friend and fellow cop, Ken Foster (Don Castle of Roses are Red), who also wants to be on "motor patrol." When Larry is murdered by people involved in a hot car racket, Ken steps in to do undercover work, but seems somewhat ill-prepared. Connie Taylor (Jane Nigh of State Fair) is in love with Russ Garver (Charles Victor), who is the head man in the gang. Connie is secretary to George Miller (Frank Jaquet), a formerly honest car dealer who reluctantly works with the crooks. Motor Patrol is a routine, plodding, if professional low-budget cops and robbers production with little to distinguish it. Richard Travis [Missile to the Moon] and Onslow Stevens play, respectively, a police detective and lieutenant. Sid Melton is less obnoxious than usual as the manager of a coffee shop where some of the "action" takes place.

Verdict: Few if any thrills in this. *1/2.

THE FIRST WIVES CLUB

THE FIRST WIVES CLUB (1995). Director: Hugh Wilson.

"Don't get mad -- get everything!" -- Ivana Trump.

Cynthia (Stockard Channing), who was dumped by her husband for a young bimbo, throws herself off of a roof. At her funeral, three old college friends reunite: housewife Brenda (Bette Midler); another housewife, Annie (Diane Keaton of Annie Hall); and actress Elise (Goldie Hawn, outfitted with huge fake collagen lips). The three women each discover that they have been left by their husbands for other women, and are in much worse circumstances than they were before. They decide to team up to get justice and essentially blackmail their ex-spouses, whose activities have not exactly been on the up and up, into giving them more money and so on. But they also have a broader, more feminist goal in mind. You can certainly find dozens of things to quibble about when it comes to First Wives Club so it's best to just take it as an amusing and farcical look at the ugliness of divorce. It's pointless to accuse the film of being one-sided, as its premise looks at wives who have been discarded for younger replacements after many years of marriage and find themselves all at sea -- it is not the husbands' story. However, the soundtrack may have ladies warbling "sistahs are doin' it for thermselves" but in this picture Brenda and her pals get help from her Uncle and his mafia cronies! I question the wisdom of any of these three gals wanting to get back with their errant ex-spouses, and while a big bitch-fight sequence when the three friends go off on each other has funny dialogue, it comes off as contrived and silly. However, the main point of the film is its three sharp and funny lead performances. The spouses are played by Victor Garber [Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows], Stephen Collins, and Dan Hedaya, who seems capable of playing one and only one characterization no matter what movie he's in. Eileen Heckart as Annie's mother offers one of her rare mediocre performances. There's an interesting, if awkward, sequence in a lesbian bar -- Annie's daughter (Jennifer Dundas) is openly gay -- and Ivana Trump has an amusing cameo.

Verdict: Fun, essentially amiable movie despite some really stupid aspects. ***.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

ABROAD WITH TWO YANKS

Battling Beauties? William Bendix and Dennis O'Keefe
ABROAD WITH TWO YANKS (1944). Director: Allan Dwan.

"I came over here to wear a uniform, not a girdle!" -- Biff

Biff (William Bendix) and Jeff (Dennis O'Keefe), two marines on leave in Australia,  are more or less friendly rivals (although the casting of the handsome O'Keefe doesn't exactly level the playing field!), especially when it comes to women. Jeff pretends to be Biff so he can get in good with Joyce (Helen Walker), who is anxious to meet Biff because he saved the life of family friend, Cyril (John Loder). The first half of the film, in which Jeff tries to maintain the impersonation while Biff suggests to Joyce that his "pal" has mental troubles, is pretty average and even silly, but the picture certainly picks up in the second half. For unaccountable reasons the Marine sergeant wants some of the guys to dress up as gals during a show, but both Biff and Jeff take off in drag with the latter intent on proposing to Joyce while the former wants Cyril to have a shot at it. There are hilarious developments as these two gals romp around a social event trying to get the better of the other one. William Bendix [The Big Steal], always a fine actor in either comedy or drama, has a ball playing the sensitive, likable but feisty Biff, while O'Keefe also offers a fine comic performance as his hated buddy. A highlight is watching Bendix warbling "All I Need is a Man!" Helen Walker [Nightmare Alley] might seem an odd choice for this kind of material but she's winning throughout. John Loder is blandly professional, as usual. Walker and O'Keefe also appeared in Brewster's Millions, in  which they were not nearly as effective.

Verdict: After a slow start, this is a very funny service comedy. ***.

MURDER BY CONTRACT

Pine, Bernardi and Edwards
MURDER BY CONTRACT (1958). Director: Irving Lerner.

"Us two, we don't claim to be Superman. Me, I don't even claim to be Mighty Mouse." -- Marc.

Claude (Vince Edwards) isn't making enough money on his job, so he decides to pile up the cash quickly by becoming a hit man. After several successful assignments, he is offered far above his usual rate to travel to California where his latest victim is waiting. Claude takes his time mulling over his game plan, which worries his boss' associates, Marc (Phillip Pine) and George (Hershel Bernardi). Then the whole plan hits a snag when Claude discovers who -- or rather what -- his latest victim is to be. Will Claude go ahead with this hit that is very important to his unseen boss, and even if he does will he be able to get past dozens of cops to pull it off? Murder By Contract is a simplistic film with modestly developed characters, but it works because it's completely absorbing as well as unpredictable. The performances help a lot, with Edwards solid (if hardly perfect) as Claude, and Pine and Bernardi giving expert support. There is also fine work from Kathie Browne [Happy Mother's Day, Love George] as a hooker; Frances Osborn as a drunken former maid; Michael Granger [Pier 5 Havana] as Moon, who gives Claude his earliest assignments; and Joseph Mell in a nice bit as a room service waiter who temporarily excites Claude's ire. Caprice Toriel plays a nightclub singer who was once involved with Claude's boss and she is competent; she only appeared in this one movie. Lucien Ballard's cinematography is top notch, although I don't think Perry Botkin's guitar score works all that well. Oddly, Lerner also directed Edwards (and Browne) in City of Fear the following year, yet that was a terrible picture.

Verdict: Unusual crime suspense film. ***.


CULT SCIENCE FICTION FILMS

CULT SCIENCE FICTION FILMS: From The Amazing Colossal Man to Yog -- Monster from Space. Welch Everman. Citadel Press; 1995.

This entertaining and well-illustrated hardcover looks at cult sci fi movies with synopses and analyses of each picture. Everman covers everything from The Atomic Submarine to Westworld with stops at Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter, The Medusa Touch, Mysterious Island, Scanners, War of the Colossal Beast, and many, many others. The author does not deal with big-budget science fiction films that have already received much intensive scrutiny, nor with classic sci fi (ditto), but movies that in his opinion have not received much critical analysis. Like other books of this nature, Cult Science Fiction Films not only provides some informative nostalgia for those who love these movies, but will also have the reader digging out titles from their DVD collection for another look and/or looking for additional items to put on their watch-list.

Verdict: Fun and attractive vintage Citadel Press tome. ***.

NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH

Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard
NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH (1941). Director: Elliott Nugent.

Steve Bennett (Bob Hope) works for stockbroker T. T. Ralston (Edward Arnold) in Miami Beach. Ralston's niece, Gwen (Paulette Goddard), gives Steve $10,000 and asks him to invest it for her. Steve tries to double the money by accepting a crazy bet that he will do nothing but tell the truth for 24 hours, leading to hurt feelings and various misunderstandings. Nothing But the Truth is based on a play that had already been filmed in 1929, and critics in 1941 found the enterprise rather creaky but still entertaining. Hope is in top form, as is Goddard, and there is fine support from Arnold; Leif Ericson [Three Secrets] as Gwen's boyfriend; Helen Vinson [In Name Only] as a predatory actress; Glenn Anders [The Lady from Shanghai] as Steve's co-worker; and Willie Best as his valet; among others. The movie has some real laughs and is consistently cute, but after awhile there seems to be more witless running about than anything else. This premise still worked for an amusing I Love Lucy episode wherein Lucy also had to tell the truth for 24 hours to win a bet from Ricky, Fred and Ethel. The same premise was also used for Jim Carrey's Liar, Liar 56 years after the Hope version!

Verdict: Enthusiastic players put this over. **1/2.

LATE AT NIGHT

Cover by Elderlemon Deisgn
LATE AT NIGHT. William Schoell. Cemetery Dance; 2017.

My vintage horror novel Late at Night has been reissued in epub format by Cemetery Dance, and can be read on Kindle, Nook, or on your computer or other device.

In this book a group of psychic investigators and others come to the infamous Lammerty Island, which has a history of murder and mayhem. One night our hero, Ernest, wants something to read until he feels sleepy and discovers a paperback in the old house's library. As he reads, he discovers that he is the main character, and the supporting players are the other people in the group. What's going on here? And then the murders start ...

Readers have found this book both scary and suspenseful and I'm happy that Cemetery Dance has given it a new life. I was also pleased with the reviews on Amazon. This one was a lot of fun to write!


P.S. I LOVE YOU: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT OF PETER SELLERS

P. S. I LOVE YOU: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT OF PETER SELLERS. Michael Sellers. E. P. Dutton; 1981.

In this revealing, entertaining, and well-written book, the son of Peter Sellers talks about his life with his famous father, his siblings, his mother, and his father's assorted other wives, including actresses Britt Ekland [Asylum] and Lynne Frederick [Schizo]. The portrait that emerges is of a man who never seemed quite satisfied no matter what he got out of life, which in terms of success, wealth and prestige was considerable. Paranoid, mercurial, and often inexplicably temperamental, Peter Sellers would routinely disown assorted children on what some might deem a whim, although he was often mortally offended, such as when her daughter Victoria tactlessly referred to him as looking like a "little old man" in Being There. (Victoria was the daughter of the hated second wife, Britt Ekland). Michael Sellers and his siblings had a life of privilege for the most part, although his father was, like most movie stars, probably more concerned with his status in the industry than with anything else, although he undoubtedly loved his children as much as he was capable of. The final chapters of the book deal with how fourth wife Frederick somehow managed to get virtually all of her estranged husband's fortune away from his own children. This is an intimate and frank portrait of its subject, although I'm not certain if we needed to know about Seller's late-in-life bouts with impotency.

Verdict: Good read about a comic genius with assorted issues. ***.

GAS HOUSE KIDS GO WEST

Those Wild and Crazy Gas House Kids!
GAS HOUSE KIDS GO WEST (1947). Director: William Beaudine.

The Gas House kids are invited to spend some time at a California ranch by its owner, Mrs. Crowley (Lela Bliss). The boys arrange to drive a used car cross country with friendly police sergeant Casey (Emory Parnell of Safari Drums) in tow, but they are all unaware that the auto is hot. In a coincidence that can only happen in the movies, or in old Hardy Boys books, the stolen car gang is operating in the very town where Mrs. Crowley's ranch is located. The head of the gang is Jim Kinsgley (William Wright), who is engaged to Mrs. Crowley's daughter, Nan (Chili Williams), who has strange taste in men, With the help of Casey, who is in love with Mrs. Crowley, the boys cook up a scheme to trap the gang. Gas House Kids Go West is another entry in this short-lived imitation of the Eastside Kids/Bowery Boys, and it is amiable but dull. The boys are Alfie (Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer); Chimp (Tommy Bond); Orvie (Benny Bartlett); Scat (Rudy Wissler); and Roy Dolciame as Corky. Switzer gets to sing an off-key version of "West of the Pacos" and accidentally kisses Tommy Bond instead of Nan at the climax. Wissler, who actually had a fine voice, is not given a number. Vince Barnett [Drums of Africa] is notable and amusing as Steve, the man out west who receives the stolen car and hides it in the Crowley barn. Followed by The Gas House Kids in Hollywood, the third and final film in the series. Chili Williams was a pin-up queen and competent actress who managed to amass twenty credits,

Verdict: Take some pepto bismol and don't call me in the morning. **.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

THE STRANGE WOMAN

Lovely by candlelight: Hedy Lamarr
THE STRANGE WOMAN (1946). Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

Jenny Hagar (Hedy Lamarr), hoping to get away from her drunken father (Dennis Hoey), marries the wealthy and much older Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart of Something to Sing About), although her heart belongs to his son, Ephraim (Louis Hayward). Naturally there are complications in this household, including the addition of Ephraim's fiancee, Meg (Hillary Brooke of Big Town After Dark). Will Jenny lead both father and son to their doom? And what affect will her husband's associate John Evered (George Sanders) have on Jenny when he finally makes an appearance? This well-titled movie presents a lead character who is indeed "strange," a mass of contradictions, and whose actions you can never quite predict, which keeps The Strange Woman, an odd romantic melodrama, entertaining. The acting in this is quite good all around, with a gorgeous Lamarr generally on top of things but for a few more difficult moments. Among the supporting cast Olive Blakeney [Henry Aldrich, Boy Scout] makes an impression as the housekeeper, Mrs. Hollis. The movie never seems entirely credible, but it is entertaining as you watch and wonder what Jenny might be up to next. Ulmer's direction is a little uneven at times.

Verdict: Strange movie. ***.

MISS D AND ME: LIFE WITH THE INVINCIBLE BETTE DAVIS

MISS D AND ME: LIFE WITH THE INVINCIBLE BETTE DAVIS. Kathryn Sermak with Danielle Morton. Hachette Books; 2017.

Kathryn Sermak was a personal assistant to Bette Davis in the actress' later years and became a close friend as well, going on trips with the star even after she was no longer in her employ. Sermak writes about how Davis, who at first wanted to fire Sermak, took the young lady under her wing (whether she wanted to be there or not), taught her manners and added some polish, and encouraged her in both her private life and love life. Like most movie stars, Davis could on occasion be difficult and unpleasant, but she was more often kind-hearted and always fascinating. Sermak writes about how difficult it was for Davis to survive breast cancer and a stroke, and then have to deal with her daughter, B. D. Hyman's, betrayal by writing My Mother's Keeper. Hyman, apparently under the thumb of her husband, whom she married at sixteen, had turned into a sanctimonious religious zealot and wanted her mother to mend her ways or she would never see her grandchildren. (One need not even comment on that!) There is some satisfaction in that Davis' fortune was divided between her son Michael and Sermak and Hyman was cut out without a dime (after receiving much financial support from her mother over the years). The book is very well-written by Sermak and Morton, and pulls the reader along, even creating suspense in whether or not Davis' exhaustively-planned weekend with her children and grandchildren will go well or not, and in whether or not Sermak herself will find a lasting relationship with her French boyfriend, Pierre. Books like Miss D and Me have to be taken with a grain of salt, of course -- not to be cynical but Sermak may have done all she did for Davis to get in her will for all we know --  but much of it rings true and is rather moving to boot.

Verdict: Bette Davis fans will want to devour this highly interesting study of the lady's last few years. ***1/2.

REVERSAL OF FORTUNE

Jeremy Irons and Christine Baranski
REVERSAL OF FORTUNE (1990). Director: Barbet Schroeder.

Claus von Bulow (Jeremy Irons) has already been convicted of twice attempting to murder his wife, Sunny (Glenn Close). Free and at large despite the convictions -- apparently money talks -- Claus hires attorney Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver) to mount an appeal and even prove that von Bulow did not try to murder his wife. As Alan and his team investigate, Claus keeps company with his mistress, Andrea Reynolds (Christine Baranski), who often allied herself to wealthy and powerful men. If there's any problem with Reversal of Fortune is that it's based on Dershowitz' book about the case, which has a limited and limiting perspective. Frankly, a much more dynamic and suspenseful film could have been made about the von Bulow story. That leaves us with the acting. Jeremy Irons [Swann in Love] is excellent as von Bulow, and won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance. Silver [Wiseguy] is okay, with Close and especially Baranski [Bowfinger] being more on the mark. The screenplay fails to explore many of the people and ramifications in depth, and the actors have to do their best with one-dimensional characterizations. Interestingly enough, von Bulow pretty much discarded Reynolds after he had no more use for her and she died a pitiful, lonely, poverty-stricken death many years later. Reversal of Fortune indeed! The real truth of the case may never be known.

Verdict: Certainly entertaining, but somehow you suspect you're only getting part of the real story. **1/2.

X THE UNKNOWN

A soldier (Anthony Newley) faces the terror of the Unknown
X THE UNKNOWN (1956). Director: Leslie Norman.

Out of a crevice in a barren area comes an oozing thing that absorbs and feeds on radioactivity. This creature pays a visit on a laboratory, a hospital -- leaving innocent victims in its wake --  and is heading for an atomic research station as it grows larger. Meanwhile visiting American Dr. Adam Royston (Dean Jagger) tries to come up with a way to kill this creature even though it isn't technically alive. X the Unknown was clearly inspired by the Quatermass films, especially The Quatermass Xperiment, and follows the tradition of casting an American actor in the lead role. However, Jimmy Sangster's screenplay is inventive in its own terms, and extremely gruesome to boot. One scene when a poor radiologist who only wants to smooch with a pretty nurse winds up with his flesh literally melting off of his face disgusted the critics and was decidedly a fifties creature feature shock scene. The effects throughout, which include corpses and the monster (possibly brought to life via stop-motion in some sequences) are well-done, and the film is tense, suspenseful, and well-acted by Jagger, Leo McKern as the police man McGill, William Lucas as Royston's associate, Peter, and others. A soldier who becomes a victim of the horrible mud is played by Anthony Newley, who later became a very well-known entertainer. The production is greatly bolstered by Gerald Gibbs' [Enemy from Space] crisp cinematography and a jangling, often scary score by James Bernard. Along with the Quatermass films, this was a big influence on such films as The Blob and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster.

Verdict: One of the best British horror-sci fi films ever. ***.

NAUGHTY ARLETTE

Mai Zeiterling and Hugh Williams 
NAUGHTY ARLETTE (aka The Romantic Age/1949). Director: Edmond T. Greville.

A girls school hires its first male instructor, a middle-aged English teacher named Arnold Dickson (Hugh Williams of The Fake). Dickson has a daughter, Julie (Petula Clark), who attends the school, and a wise, lovely wife named Helen (Margot Grahame of Orders Are Orders). But that doesn't stop Dickson from succumbing to the charms of one of his students, the sexy French girl Arlette (Swedish actress Mai Zetterling), who only makes a play for the sap to get even with him for his dismissive treatment of her. Naughty Arlette is not a particularly memorable movie, but it boasts excellent performances from the entire cast and some sensitive moments in its relatively superficial study of an aging, not very sexy man who somehow needs the attentions of a pretty young woman. (In movies like this, the wives are much too forgiving). Petula Clark [Goodbye, Mr. Chips] later became internationally famous with her rendition of "Downtown" in the sixties. The ending with Arlette's butler giving her her comeuppance is amusing if somewhat improbable.

Verdict: Perhaps Arlette just isn't quite naughty enough. **.

THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR

Hugh Herbert and Eddie Quillan
THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR (1939). Director: Joseph Santley.  

George Pierce (Hugh Herbert of We're In the Money) runs a small-town household consisting of wife Rose (Ruth Donnelly), daughters Susan (Juanita Quigley) and Laura (Joy Hodges), and sons Sammy (Eddie Quillan) and Rufus (Benny Bartlett). While aspiring singer Laura has some romantic problems, son Sammy conspires with his mother to cash in some bonds in order to buy property that he is sure will become valuable once a railroad stop is erected. Alas ... In 1937 MGM started their long-running Hardy Family series with A Family Affair while 20th Century Fox beat them out with the first Jones Family entry, Every Saturday Night the year before. The Family Next Door was released by Universal, and perhaps there was some hope that it would be as successful as the other studios' entries, but this picture was not developed into a series. On its own terms, The Family Next Door is a very funny movie bolstered by fine comic performances. Ruth Donnelly especially stands out as the mother who goes to some extreme lengths for her pretty daughter, who has fallen for newcomer Bill Trevis (Thomas Beck), and there's an amusing party scene that reminds one a bit of Alice Adams (in other ways as well). Cecil Cunningham makes an impression as Bill's disapproving Aunt Cora. There is also an adorable family pet named Baby, who in one charming scene commiserates with the (temporarily) heartbroken Laura, and Lillian Yarbo, as usual, is very amusing as the maid Blossom. The dramatic developments are fairly predictable, but The Family Next Door is quite entertaining.

Verdict: Fun, old-fashioned family comedy with expert players. ***.

THE SAINT'S GIRL FRIDAY

THE SAINT'S GIRL FRIDAY (1953). Director: Seymour Friedman.

"I have a hobby of reforming burglars." 

Simon Templar, famously known as the Saint (Louis Hayward), returns to London from New York and learns that a woman he cared for, Julie (uncredited), has died in an accident, plunging her car off a bridge during a high-speed chase. Templar discovers that Julie had somehow gotten involved with a gang of gamblers who blackmailed people into working for them and conveniently resorted to murder for their ends. As Templar investigates -- to the chagrin of friendly adversary Chief Inspector Teal (Charles Victor) -- he encounters a woman named Carol (Naomi Chance of Wings of Danger) and a flirtatious hostess named Kate (Jane Carr), one or both of whom may be working for the mysterious boss of the gang. Templar also has a brief dalliance with a sluttish blonde acquaintance of the chief, an unnamed woman played by Diana Dors (who briefly livens up the picture but not enough to do it much good). William Russell, Fred Johnson and Sam Kydd also have supporting roles in this uninspired late Saint adventure that barely has any suspense or excitement. Hayward is fine as Templar and the other actors are all good.

Verdict: Distinctly minor fifties entry in the shady sleuth sub-genre. **.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

HOT SPELL

Shirley MacLaine and Shirley Booth
HOT SPELL (1958). Director: Daniel Mann.

Housewife Alma Duval (Shirley Booth) is hoping that the 45th birthday celebration for her beloved husband, John (Anthony Quinn), will be a memorable occasion, but things are brewing that may make that impossible. John is very unhappy with his life and has taken on a lover who is decades younger than he is. Oldest son Buddy (Earl Holliman) feels that his dad doesn't take him seriously and is always putting him down. Daughter Virginia (Shirley MacLaine) is in love with aspiring doctor, Wyatt (Warren Stevens), but is only headed for heartbreak. And youngest son Billy (Clint Kimbrough) is uncertain about himself and unable to understand his father's unhappiness. Based on a play, Hot Spell is a thoughtful and beautifully-acted drama that looks at the ins and outs of marriage and family life with compassion and perception. Heading a terrific cast is a splendid Booth [About Mrs. Leslie], who must contend with her children's problems even as her own marriage, and her dreams of a happier future (tied to a home they lived in many years before), begin to crumble. Quinn is also superb, adding dimension and sympathy to what could have been an odious character in some ways, with fine work from Holliman [The Big Combo] and MacLaine (especially the latter). Kimbrough was an attractive and sensitive young actor who should have had many more credits than the twenty he amassed. Eileen Heckart [The Bad Seed] also appears as Alma's friend, Fran, and is also very good, as expected. One could argue that the movie is resolved a little too neatly, but it is generally quite effective and at times very poignant.

Verdict: A lost gem. ***1/2.

THE FRONT

Zero Mostel with Woody Allen in background
THE FRONT (1976). Produced and directed by Martin Ritt. Written by Walter Bernstein.

Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy), a blacklisted writer, asks his friend Howard Prince (Woody Allen) if he will "front" for him, submitting teleplays under his own name and giving him the money minus a 10% commission. Howard decides to do this for other blacklisted writers as well and before long he has become one of the top names in the industry, with plenty of money, a beautiful apartment, and a girlfriend in Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci), who works for the live anthology show to which he sells most of his teleplays. But then the star of the show, comic Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel) is let go because of alleged communist ties, and told that he just might get his career back if he learns all he can about Howard Prince ... The Front is an absorbing picture with a deceptively light tone at first but it leads to a shocking suicide and a dramatic resolution. Mostel gives a knock-out performance as Hecky, bottling up rage and despair until it comes violently loose, and he pretty much wipes the top-billed Allen off of the screen. Allen's casting is problematic. After some early negative experiences when he was not in charge, he has mostly only appeared in his own films, and The Front is a very rare exception. Obviously he respected and trusted director Martin Ritt [Hud], but while his name might have brought more people into the theaters, it's obvious that he's still playing "Woody Allen" (if playing it well) and one can only wonder what another performer might have brought to the role. Still, he doesn't ruin the film and may have helped get its message across. Ritt, writer Bernstein, and several actors in the production were themselves blacklisted in the fifties, including Mostel, Hershel Bernardi [Peter Gunn], and Lloyd Gough [The Green Hornet].  The movie has humor and heart but never forgets the seriousness and tragedy of the fifties witch hunts.

Verdict: Mostel's finest hour and a half. ***.

EASY TO LOVE

EASY TO LOVE (1953). Director: Charles Walters.

In Cypress Gardens, Julie Hallerton (Esther Williams of Raw Wind in Eden) works for Ray Lloyd (Van Johnson) as a highly successful swimming spokes model for various products and he's not about to let her go. Julie keeps hoping that Ray, a slave driver who rarely lets her have any time off, will propose to her, but just in case she has a handsome boyfriend, also a model, named Hank (John Bromfield of Crime Against Joe). "I bet you've never even seen him with his clothes on," Ray tells Julie. If that weren't enough, Julie meets crooner Barry Gordon (Tony Martin of Casbah) while on assignment in New York and dares to stay up late the night before a gig to have a wonderful romantic date with him. Back in Florida, Julie finds herself pursued by Hank and Barry even as she keeps pursuing Ray in her own way. The question is why? Most sensible women would quickly throw off the unpleasant, recalcitrant Ray (whose unlikable character isn't even redeemed by his being played by the likable Johnson) and take up with one of the two hunks who are dying for her hand in marriage. But Johnson was the bigger star so he gets the girl. Easy to Love is easy to take and just as easy to forget, although the performances are fine (Bromfield in particular makes a nice impression) and there are some pleasant song numbers, a smashing ballet on water skis, a romantic swim between Williams and Bromfield, a charming number with Tony Martin and some elderly ladies, and for good measure a brief appearance by pre-stardom Carroll Baker as one of Ray's jealous girlfriends.

Verdict: Can't stop that Esther when she's wet! **1/2.

TIP OFF GIRLS

The cast of "Tip Off Girls"
TIP OFF GIRLS (1938). Director: Louis King. 

Joseph Valkus (J. Carrol Naish) is head of a criminal outfit that hijacks trucks. He uses a hard-boiled gal named Rena (Evelyn Brent of Holt of the Secret Service) to snare drivers on the road and in coffee shops, then -- boom! Valkus' secretary, Marjorie (Mary Carlisle), is at first unaware of what's going on, but later works with undercover agent Bob Anders (Lloyd Nolan) to trip up the gang. Working for Valkus are Red Deegan (Buster Crabbe of King of the Congo), Tom Benson (Roscoe Karns) and chief enforcer, Marty (Anthony Quinn). Tip Off Girls certainly has an interesting and adept cast and is fast-paced and reasonably snappy. The plot seems strictly poverty row, but this was actually released by Paramount. Or course Pierre Watkin is in the cast -- as he seems to be in every other movie ever made -- and is as utterly forgettable as ever. Anthony Quinn makes an effective tough guy but you wouldn't necessarily have suspected that much bigger things were in store for him in only a few years.

Verdict: Not bad little melodrama. **12/