Sunday, October 10, 2021

My Name is Julia Ross

My Name is Julia Ross

(1945)
Directed by
Joseph H. Lewis
Screenplay by Muriel Roy Bolton, from a novel by Anthony Gilbert
Starrring Nina Foch, Dame May Whitty, George Macready, Roland Varno, Anita Sharp-Bolster, Queenie Leonard
IMDB Entry

These days, the term “to gaslight” is commonly known – an attempt by a manipulative man to make a woman doubt her sanity. It stems from a successful British play Gaslight, which was made into a movie in 1940*  renamed in the US as Angel Street. Four years later came to best-known version, with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Its success led to other stories with a variation same theme, and one of the first was My Name is Julia Ross.

Julia Ross (Nina Foch) is desperately looking for a job and goes to a new employment agency, who immediately hires her to be secretary to Mrs. Hughes (Dame May Whitty). Julia wakes up two days latter in a house in Cornwall, not London, without any idea how she got there.  Ralph Hughes (George Macready) insists her name is Marion and that she is his wife, who had undergone a nervous breakdown and who is trying to recover. Julia can’t convince anyone of the truth; he only hope is to contact her boyfriend Dennis Bruce (Roland Varno) for help. But Mrs. Hughes stays one step ahead of her.

The movie is tightly written with some strong suspense at the end as you wonder what might happen. It’s a slight variation on gaslighting in that they don’t try to drive Julia insane, but merely try to convince others of her insanity, which makes them discount her sincere cries for help as paranoid delusions.

The most striking performance is Dame May Whitty** as Mrs. Hughes. She is sweet and caring and thoughtful on the surface, even while she is planning Julia’s death. Nina Foch is also quite good and Julia is shown to be resourceful and clever – just  not as clever as Mrs. Hughes.

The movie was unjustly obscure and deserves to be seen.

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*Released as Angel Street, and available online.

**Miss Froy from The Lady Vanishes.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Adventures of Spin and Marty (TV)

Spin and Marty

(1955-57)
Directed by
William Beaudine (et al.)
Written by Jackson Gillis based on a book by Lawrence Edward Watking
Starring David Stollery, Tim Considine, Harry Carey, Jr., J. Pat O’Malley
IMDB Entry

Middle class boys and girls in the 50s had one experience in common:  summer camp.* They would go off for a couple of months, a way to keep them busy without their mother organizing activities.The version in the western part of the US was a ranch, where the kids got to play cowboy for a summer. So when Disney looked around for something to fill the time in The Mickey Mouse Club,” they chose the dude ranch concept and came up with The Adventures of Spin  and Marty.”

Marty Markham (David Stollery) was a spoiled rich boy, raised by his grandparents, who decided a dude ranch would be just the thing. Marty didn’t agree, and had nothing but contempt for the camp and was even afraid of horses. The most popular boy in camp, Spin Evans (Tim Considine) goes to take Marty down a peg or two. Over the course of the season, Marty began to drop his airs and became close friends with Spin. Bill Burnett (Harry Carey, Jr.) looks over Marty’s progress, as does Marty’s butler, Perkins (J. Pat O’Malley).

The stories were all rather basic. Since it was aimed at kids, there were few serious complications, but it was one of the few of the era that actually showed character growth, and Marty lost his contempt and became a part of the ranch.

I'm also amused to see the name of William Beaudine listed as one of the directors. Beaudine gained notoriety due to his direction of low-budget horror films where he would shoot every scene once, no matter how badly it was done, though it seems that reputation was exaggerated. But he was known for shooting movies in a minimal amount of time, a practice that certainly was useful when doing a TV series.

It was a success and two more serials were commissioned. There was also a comic book series.

Tim Considine went on to be Mike of My Three Sons. Stollery had been successful as a child actor before the show, but could not make the jump to grownup star.  Harry Carey, Jr. had made many films before and after this, while J. Pat O’Malley was a very successful character actor, appearing in well over 200 films and TV shows.**

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*I went to three:  Pinecrest Dunes (called Camp Kiwanis for a special one-week session sponsored by the Kiwanis Clubs (a service organization like Lions or Rotary)), Camp Momaweta (as a commuter), and Camp Wawokiye (a full year). All were within 20 minutes of my house, so it wasn’t a question of being sent away to new places.

**His most influential role was in Mary Poppins. Though just an uncredited voice actor, Dick van Dyke used him as a voice coach for his cockney accent. The reason it is so ridiculous is that O’Malley – from the Manchester area and used to playing stage Irishmen – really had little idea about what a cockney accent sounded like.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds
(1972)
Directed by
Paul Newman
Written by Alvin Sargent, from a play by Paul Zindel
Starring Joanne Woodward, Nell Potts, Roberta Wallach, Judith Lowry
IMDB Entry

It’s a cliché that what actors really want is to direct. Paul Newman managed to get the chance,and made the most of it with films like Rachel, Rachel and the wonderfully titled The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.

It’s ostensibly the story of Matilda “Tillie” Hunsdorfer (Nell Potts), a shy middle school student with an interest in science, which gives her a refuge from her mercurial mother Beatrice (Joanne Woodward). Beatrice is filled with ideas, some sensible, some wildly fantastic,  but never can follow through with them, and often uses Tillie as the subject of her rage. Her other daughter Ruth (Roberta Wallach) is older and trying to form her own identity. The title of the movie* is the description of the experiment Tillie is preparing for the science fair: she exposes marigold seeds to gamma rays to see how they are affected.

The movie is a character study about how toxic Beatrice is her children, without her being aware of it throughout the movie. The title indirectly references this:  how her influence affect her kids.

The Hunsdorfers

Woodward is excellent in the role, managing to develop sympathy for a character that is hardly sympathetic.

Of note is Judith Lowry as Nanny, an old woman in a wheelchair that Beatrice takes in as way to make some money. Lowry was a stage actress who retired to raise her kids, but then returned to play old women. She is important to the plot but manages to give Nanny some personality.

The movie was a family affair. Woodward was married to Newman and had already won an Oscar.  Potts was their daughter, and Wallach was the daughter of Eli Wallach.

The movie was a success, with Woodward gaining a lot of notice. Wallach went on to a minor career in TV and movies and is still working today. But it looks like Potts decided not to pursue a movie career:  This was her last film.

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*From the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Paul Zindel.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Antz

Antz

(1998)
Directed by
Eric Darnell, Tim Johnson
Written by Todd Alcott, Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz
Starring Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman Sylvester Stallone, Dan Aykroyd, Anne Bancroft, Jane Curtin, Danny Glover, Christopher Walken
IMDB Entry

From time to time, two movies come out at the same time with the same general theme. In the early 60s, for instance, there were two biographies of Jean Harlow that came out within a month of each other. Sometimes this is coincidence, but when it is not, and things can get ugly. A prime example of this was Antz.

Z (voice of Woody Allen) is a worker ant who is dissatisfied with his insignificant life. He gets sent out to war by the scheming General Mandible (Gene Hackman), and returns as an inadvertent hero who goes to meet the queen (Anne Bancroft). He also falls for Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) and he has to run from the colony, taking her along as a hostage. Z is looking for Insectopia, a heaven for insects, but General Mandible, seeing Z’s independent thought a threat to his scheme to take over the colony, goes hunting.

The movie does cover some grown-up themes as to the dangers of blindly following a leader, and the importance of individualism. Allen is fine as Z (written for his usual screen persona).*  Hackman makes a great melomaniac and Stone does a good job voicing Bala.

The main controversy at the time was that Antz was produced by Dreamworks. Jeffrey Katzenbach had been with Disney, and knew that Pixar was also planning an animated film with insects that eventually became A Bug’s Life. John Lasseter of Pixar was appalled that Dreamworks was doing the film, and insisted Katzenbach had stolen the idea, something Katzenbach furiously denied.  The bad blood lasted for years.

I tend to think Antz is the superior film. It was more adult in conception and more edgy**.  A Bug’s Life was more kid-friendly and soft. It’s  not a bad movie (but not one of Pixar’s best), but is less ambitious. Antz*** also uses ant biology in its conception – its ants have six legs.

Ultimately, A Bug’s Life, with the Disney marketing machine and the Pixar name, did far better in the box office. It also helped that it was something kids could enjoy.  Plus Disney can market the DVDs far better.

But Antz is still a fine piece of animation.
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*According to the producers, he came in, knew his lines cold, and recorded it all in five days.

**I note that the images on the DVD soften the characters and make it seem more like  a kids’ movie.

***Like all the best ant movies – Them!, Phase IV.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

She Devil

She Devil

(1957)
Directed by
Kurt Neumann
Written by Carroll Young and Kurt Newman (screenplay) based on “The Adaptive Ultimate” by John Jessel (Stanley G. Weinbaum)
Starring Mari Blanchard, Jack Kelly, Albert Dekker, John Archer, Fay Baker, Blossom Rock.
IMDB Entry

50s science fiction has the reputation of being monsters attacking. That’s generally true, but from time to time a movie was made with a different focus.  She-Devil doesn’t fit that model as all.

Dr. Dan Scott (Jack Kelly) is working to develop a project that could curse any disease. The only thing he needs is a human subject, but his mentor, Dr. Richard Bach (Albert Dekker) blocks the idea as too dangerous. But Kyra Zelas (Mari Blanchard), a young woman dying of tuberculosis, seems a perfect subject and Scott manages to browbeat Bach into trying.

The cure is miraculous. Within a day or so, the TB is gone, and Kyra is able to get out of bed.  Scott and Bach have her stay at their house so they can observe.And they discover that Kyra can do anything in order to adapt:  change her hair color, manipulate people, and seduce them* as necessary.  Dr. Bach wants to put an end to this, but Dan has already been seduced by her and is very reluctant to act. It becomes a moot point as Kyra quickly adapts to thwart their plans. Soon she is nearly invulnerable, so she leaves the house to find more wealthy prey.

The movie is adapted from the story “The Adaptive Ultimate” by Stanley G. Weinbaum.** I’ve talked about Weinbaum before, but, in brief, he wrote one of the most influential  stories in the entire science fiction genre, “A Martian Odyssey.” The movie stays pretty close to the book. It’s also different from most 50s SF in that there is no actual monster. Kyra is manipulative and cruel, but still human in appearance. The grand climax has next to no action, but the point of the movie is the concept and the puzzle of how to stop her.

Jack Kelly became a TV star a few years later as he portrayed Bart Maverick when James Garner had a contract dispute. Here he is a typical 50s leading man – smart and resolute. Albert Dekker was a minor SF icon as the title character of Dr. Cyclops, though you’d be hard pressed to recognize him, since he hasn’t shaved his head and doesn’t wear Coke bottle glasses. He is the scientist who keeps urging Dan to do the right thing. Dekker had a long career in both movies and TV.

Mari Blanchard was busy as an actress, almost always in small roles. He work here shows a lot of range, moving from a woman scared of dying to being a heartless manipulator. She had made quite a few B movies in the 50s, but retired in 1963*** after being diagnosed with cancer. She died in 1970 at age 47.

Of course, those reading the cast list should immediately recognize Blossom Rock. She looks quite different than Grandmama in The Addams Family, but once she speaks, she’s instantly recognizable.

The movie was overlooked. It was rare to see it in discussions of 50s SF.**** I suppose it was because it didn’t fit in the mold for the genre – no action scenes, no giant monsters. It certainly wasn’t successful enough to cause a buzz for a sequel. I found it quite good, if talky.

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*Chastely, of course.  These are the 50s.

**The story was published under his Jessel pseudonym.

***Except for a few small guest starring roles.

****I remember one reviewer (possibly Baird Searles of F&SF) who had no idea it had anything to do with Weinbaum until he saw it and recognized the plot (probably because he didn’t know who Jessel really was).

Sunday, August 22, 2021

King Leonardo and His Short Subjects

1960-63
Starring
Jackson Beck, Allen Swift, Sandy Becker, Kenny Delmar, Ben Stone
IMDB Entry

Saturday morning TV in the 60s was for kids, keeping them busy as their parents slept in. There was a big market for kids cartoons of the era,  and one producer was Total Television, whose biggest success was King Leonardo and His Short Subjects.

King Leonardo (Jackson Beck*) ruled over the kingdom of Bongo Congo, aided by his loyal assistant Odie Cologne,** a skunk (Alan Swift). Leonardo was slightly dimwitted and Odie often had to bail him out from plots by Biggie Rat (Beck), who plotted to get Leonardo’s even more dimwitted twin, Itchy Brother (Swift).

The stories, like the classic Rocky and Bullwinkle, were in serial form, with Odie always saving the day for the king. Nothing was particularly subtle, but it certainly entertained.

There were two other cartoons making up the show.*

  • Tooter Turtle. Tooter (Swift) was friends with Mr. Wizard**** the Lizard (Sandy Becker). Tooter would get enthused about something and ask Mr. Wizard to send him to do it, despite Mr. Wizard trying to warn him against it. Tooter would soon learn that the job or location wasn’t exactly what he thought it would be, and would cry out his catchphrase “Help me, Mr. Wizard.” Mr. Wizard would say the incantation, “Drizzle Drazzle, Druzzle, Drone, time for this one to come home” and Tooter would learn his lesion.
  • The Hunter. This one was my favorite. The Fox (Ben Stone) was a wily crook who committed bizarre and improbable crimes. Once he was done, the local police would say, “This is the work of the Fox. And the one man to catch the Fox is the Hunter (Kenny Delmar).”*****  The Hunter was completely clueless, but his blundering always ended up with the Fox going to jail.

The show ran for several years, the name changing to The King and Odie, and, when it was cancelled, Total Television (now dubbed Leonardo Productions) used the characters (and the episodes) in some of their other shows like Tennessee Tuxedo and Underdog).

The show was ignored for decades, along with several other of Total Television. It took awhile to get any DVDs out and they were often published with Rocky and Bullwinkle, which had a similar look, but a much different sensibility.

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*One of the great voice actors, most notable as the announcer of the Superman Radio show (including the iconic opening lines) and as Bluto in many Popeye cartoons.

**I got the pun when I first saw the show.

***Typical of the era, where there were three main cartoons (plus bumpers) to fill a half hour.

****No connection to Don Herbert.

*****The voice Mel Blanc imitates when he voices Foghorn Leghorn.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Star Hunters (comic book)

Star Hunters

1977-78
Written by
David Michelinie
Art by Don Newton, Don Newton, Bob Layton

Comic books are an iffy medium and there were many times where a comic died early due to lack of interest. One interesting failure was DC’s Star Hunters.

It was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Star Wars.  Marvel had gotten the rights to the Star Wars characters, so they created their own. The Star Hunters were a group of space adventurers* who were sent off on a mission by the Corporation to find the origins of human life. Their leader was Donovan Flint,** who tried to complete the mission.  He has no choice:  they’ve all be infected with a virus that will kill them if they ever set foot on Earth again.

The seven issues saw the crew finding out new things about the universe, each other, and the Corporation.

I picked up the first issue because of my love of science fiction and the idea of a space opera series that presented something a bit different and I had liked Michelinie’s continuation of Swamp Thing, which managed to pick up the story and take it in new directions. But this story never actually caught fire.

What I do remember best from it was the cover of the fourth issue.  In issue 3, some danger overtook Fint. And the cover of issue 4 says, “What happens when a hero dies?”

Well, the first rule of advertising is to never lead with a question and my thought at once was “He comes back to life again.’

Still, I think the comic was an interesting attempt at comic book space opera, even though it was ultimately unsuccessful. The title folded after seven issues. The characters have made very sporadic appearances, but lay in the forgotten corner of comic book history. Maybe one day someone will try to bring them back.

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*Akin to the crew of the Liberator in Blake’s 7

*Clearly with a nod toward Errol Flynn

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Still Game (TV)


(2002-2019)
Created and Written by
Ford Kiernan, Greg Hemphill
Starring Ford Kiernan, Greg Hemphill, Paul Riley, Mark Cox, Jane McCarry, Sanjeev Kohli, Gavin Mitchell
IMDB Entry

TV (and especially US TV) is youth oriented, showing featuring characters under 40. But sometimes you come across a show that focuses on older characters, and Still Game is both charming and very funny.

Still Game

It follows the life of Jack Jarvis (Ford Kiernan) and Victor McDade (Greg Hemphill), two old-age pensioners in Scotland. The two have been friends since they were boys and retirement is not very fulfilling for them – spending days at the local pub, and having to fend off the lack of respect from the younger generation. Jack and Victor try to liven it up with schemes and plans, both on their own and with other friends, including Winston Ingram (Paul Riley) who is more of a schemer than the two of them (and more inept), the gossipy Isa Drennan (Jane McCarry), and a pack of recurring characters from the bar, all overseen by the put upon barman Boabby (Gavin Mitchell). Navid Harrid (Sanjeev Kohli), the owner of the local convenience story often comments on their attempts.

The show is filled with laugh-out-loud moments. Despite their liking for bending the rules for their advantage, Jack and Victor avoid cruelty unless the victim deserves it. All the character are more than just comic stereotypes, too. There is a genuine affection for everyone, and the show is not afraid to show a person’s vulnerable side. 

Still Game came out of a stage play Kiernan and Hemphill, which was quite successful in Scotland, with the characters reused as a series of skits in a couple of BBC Scotland sketch chows. It became a series on its own, starting in Scotland before moving to the main BBC. It continued sporadically over the years as new one-offs and seasons were produced.

The show doesn’t hide its Scottish roots. The accents are strong,*  but I think that adds a lot to the show. Another thing is the look of the characters. American TV tries to put attractive people in all roles, even ones where the character would not be that good looking in real life. UK shows have no problem casting characters with unusual, but lived-in looks.**  I also love the jaunty theme song.

It’s currently on Netflix. Check it out.***

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*I’m afraid I have to use subtitles to get it all.  Sigh. What a drag is is getting old.

**French shows take it even further, with memorable faces that are hardly movie-star looks.

***And don’t skip the credits.  The post credit sequences are hilarious.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Funny Company (TV)

(1963)
Created by
Kenneth C.T. Snyder
Voices by  Dick Beals,Robie Lster, Nancy Wible,Ken Snyder, Tom Thomas, Hal Smith
IMDB Entry

The Funny Company

When people talk about Saturday morning cartoons, they’re usually referring to the theatrical cartoons that were repurposed for TV (Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, Popeye) or half-hour made-for-TV shows (Rocky and Bullwinkle, Magilla Gorilla, Tennessee Tuxedo). But that was only a part of it. There were various short syndicated cartoons that were sold to local kid shows as filler. One example of this was The Funny Company.

The cartoon showed a group of kids as the Funny Company, which included Buzzy Bell, Jasper N Parks, Polly Plum, Terry Dactyl (a pterodactyl), Shrinking Violet* (who could shrink down to tiny size). and several others. Each episode had them doing some sort of task, where they crossed paths with Belly Laguna.** Laguna planned some sort of nefarious task, which failed due to the efforts of the Funny Company.

Most memorable was the show’s  theme song

The show came out at a time when television was being criticized for its lack of educational content, so,as a selling point, it stopped the story (what little there was) to show a two-minute educations film, usually with the help of their computer, the Wisenheimer machine.

Over 250 episodes were filmed, filling time not only on Saturday morning, but during the week.

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*No relation to the member of the Legion of Superheroes, who came first. It wasn’t likely a case of plagiarism; both got their names from the flower.

**A Bela Lugosi ripoff.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

The Goofers (music)

(1951-1963)
Members:
Frank Nichols (Trumpet), Jimmy Vincent (drums), Jimmy Dell (trombone, bass), \Tom Terry Fresh (bass), Jack Holliday (piano)
Tribute page

The Goofers

Lately I’ve been watching reruns of The Ed Sullivan Show. It’s fascinating to see the big-name acts that appeared on the show, plus the acts I remember but who are less well known today. And sometimes, they feature an act I’ve never heard of. Most of these are acrobats.  The Goofers were both.

The band split off from Louis Prima’s band, five musicians who wanted to follow their own path. They included dancing in their act – not too strange, of course, though the Goofers were more acrobatic than most dancers. But Jimmy Dell had something else to offer:  the ability to perform on a trapeze. While playing. Dell would do a few tricks then hung by his feet.  Someone else handed him a double bass, where which he proceeded to perform a solo on while hanging upside down.  After a break, he’d do another solo upside down on a trombone.

Here’s an example:

The group didn’t have any notable hits – not surprising, since they were such a visual act – but played in Vegas throughout the 50s. Their songs were pleasant and jaunty and they no doubt were a big crowd pleaser.

The broke up in the early 60s, I suspect mostly because it was hard to expand the act, but also because audiences were moving on from the jazz/big band sound.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

It

It

(1927)
Directed by
Clarence G. Badger
Written by Hope Loring, Louis D. Lighton (screenplay) Elinor Glyn (story and adaptation)
Starring Clara Bow, Antonio Moreno, William Austin, Priscilla Bonner, Elinor Glyn
IMDB Entry
Full Movie on Youtube

The title is familiar, but this isn’t the Stephen King novel (and spinoffs). Nor is it the classic story by Theodore Sturgeon. It was a silent movie far removed in theme, and one of the sensations of its era.

Betty Lou Spence (Clara Bow) is a shop girl in a big department store, who takes a shine to the store’s owner Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno). Cyrus’s silly-ass friend Monty spots Betty Lou and declares she has “It,” a combination of charm and sex appeal, a concept he found in a story by Elinor Glyn in Cosmopolitgan magazine. He asks her out, and she agrees, as a way to get closer to Cyrus. They meet and start seeing each other with a trip to Coney Island.

But there’s a problem. Betty Lou’s roommate, Molly (Priscilla Bonner) is an unwed mother, out of a job. When social workers try to take the baby away, Betty Lou claims the baby is hers, and won’t name the father. This creates complications of class and social norms with Cyrus.

The movie made Clara Bow a sensation.  She had been acting and starring in films throughout the decade, but this was the one that put her on the map. She is charming and clearly personifies the concept of “It.”* She was known as the “It girl” from then on.

The movie was a massive success, as expected for something that creates a new term. Bow became a top box office draw. But her transition to talkies was difficult. Nothing was wrong with her voice, but she didn’t like the restrictions on movement it required and had some trouble to adjusting. Her only major talkie was the Oscar-winning Wings and she retired from acting in 1933.

Oddly for a film that was so successful, it was thought for many years to be lost, but a print showed up in the 1960s and it can be seen on Youtube.

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*Elinor Glyn, who appeared in the movie as herself, never conclusively defined what she meant by it, In the original story, it was a man who had “It,” but Hollywood decided it was better to cast a woman. Glyn was happy to adapt the storyy.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Wicked Woman


Wicked Woman

(1953)
Directed by
Russell Rouse
Written by Clarence Greene and Richard Rouse
Starring Beverly Michaels, Richard Egan, Percy Helton, Evelyn Scott
IMDB Entry

Film Noir is often difficult to define, but a common element involves a woman who entices a man into crime. Wicked Woman is clear in that milieu, as the title indicates.

Billie Nash (Beverly Michaels) shows up in a small town and gets a job as a waitress in a café run by Matt Bannister (Richard Egan) and his wife Dora (Evelyn Scott). Billie makes a play for Matt, who is frustrated at the way his marriage is going, especially since Dora has a drinking problem. She convinces him to sell the place and run off with her to Mexico, but there is a problem, of course:  Dora owns half the café and certainly would not agree to sell, especially under these circumstances. Meanwhile, Billie keeps stringing along her neighbor Charlie (Percy Helton), using him when useful and ignoring his obvious desire for her.

Beverly Michaels portrays Billie as a schemer who has no compunction about manipulating men.  She senses weakness in Matt and draws him into her influence. At the same time, she is willing to be charming to Charlie, a lonely and unattractive man, so he’ll help her out. Eventually, he learns he’s being used.

Michaels had a relatively short career in B movies and as a cheesecake model. She married this film’s director, but had few credits, despite the strength of the performance here.

Percy Helton is especially good. There is a pathos to him, as he doesn’t understand he’s being used.  The actor did a lot of TV in the 50s and 60s, as a short, dumpy man with a squeaky voice.  This was purportedly his favorite role.

Caught in her web

The odd thing is that the movie doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. Film noir usually ends up with the man and the woman he obsesses over destroyed. There may have been censorship problems – Matt is married and wants to leave his wife, something that the Hays Office would not countenance.  It probably was what they wanted to do, but rewrote it so that he and his marriage survive – barely.

Overall, though, it's an interesting foray into the genre.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Wrong Box

The Wrong Box


(1966)
Directed by
Bryan Forbes
Written by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, from a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne
Starring John Mills, Michael Caine, Ralph Richardson, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Nanette Newman, Peter Sellers
IMDB Entry

Robert Louis Stevenson is most widely known these days for dark stories like “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “The Monkee’s Paw,” but he did have a lighter side. In 1889, he co-wrote "The Wrong Box with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne and the farcical novel was turned into a black comedy film in 1966.

The movie is centered on a tontine.* There are only two  people left  from the original group, brothers Masternan (John Mills) and Joseph Finsbury (Ralph Richardson). Masterman’s grandson Michael (Michael Caine) takes care of him while studying to be a physician, while Joseph is attended by his conniving grandsons Morris (Peter Cook) and John Finsbury (Dudley Moore) and his granddaughter Julia (Nanette Newman).

There is a lot of money at stake, and that brings out the greed in several of the participants. Masterman tries to kill his brother, though Joseph is oblivious. At the same time Morris and John want to make sure that Joseph is the one who survives to get the money. The kindly and awkward Michael doesn’t care about the money, but is infatuated with Julia, who reciprocates his feelings.** When a letter comes to Joseph implying Masterman is on his deathbed, Morris pushes Joseph to go to his brother so they take  the train. Which crashes. Morris thinks that Joseph is dead and concocts a plan to ensure the news doesn’t get out until Masterman is dead. But Joseph has actually survived the crash.

Then it gets complicated.

Ralph Richardson is great at Joseph, the most boring man on the planet, who regales everyone nonstop with trivial facts and is oblivious to people’s reactions to him. Caine’s Michael is played as a pure innocent, slowly romancing Julia without and idea of how to approach it. Mills’s Masterman is the more desperate of the brothers.

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore are always delightful. Moore is a womanizer, while Cook is the schemer, whose schemes never work out well for him.  By now, they had experience working together and make the most of it.

Special kudos have to go to Peter Sellers as Dr. Pratt, a physician of dubious morals and forgetful manner. The scenes with him and Cook are a highlight,as two comic geniuses play off each other.

Peter Cook and Peter Sellers

The script was written by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, who had hit it big with the book of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on Broadway. Their adaptation of the novel quite faithful to the book, though they added the romance elements, but clearly made fun of the convention when it comes out that Julia and Michael aren’t really cousins, after all.

Director Bryan Forbes continued directing major films for a few more years and was also involved in writing screenplays and acting.

A very funny adaptation of a very funny novel.

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*A financial instrument where a group of people put money into a pot and get interest from it each year. As each of the member dies, the interest is divided up by one fewer person until the last person alive gets the entire pot.

**Turns out they were both adopted, so they aren’t actually cousins.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

tom thumb

tom thumb

(1958)
Directed by
George Pal
Written by Lasdislas Fodor, based on a story by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm*
Starring Russ Tamblyn, Alan Young, June Thorburn, Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers, Bernard Miles, Jesse Mathews
IMDB Entry

George Pal was one of the big names in science fiction in the 1950s. He produced and directed a series of big-budget films like The Great Rupert, Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, and The War of the Worlds. In 1958, he decided to start directing and chose the fairy tale, tom thumb.

The lumberjack Jonathan (Bernard Miles) lives in the forest with his wife, Anne (Jessie Matthews). One day, he meets up with the Forest Queen (June Thorburn) who grants him wishes. The final wish is by Anne – who is childless – asking for a child, “even if he’s no bigger than my thumb.” And the next morning tom (Russ Temblyn) appears.

tom has several adventures and gets mixed up with two crooks, Anthony (Peter Sellers) and Ivan (Terry-Thomas). Meanwhile, tom’s friend Woody (Alan Young) romances the Forest Queen.

The movie does utilize some good effects to emphasize tom’s size, winning an Oscar for Best Special Effects. The movie also has songs, but nothing that really became memorable.

Russ Tamblyn is great as tom. He was an excellent acrobat, which allows him to do some impressive physical stunts. He also is peppy and upbeat in just the right degree to make the movie fun.

Russ Tamblyn

Peter Sellers had done some TV and UK movies, but this was his first US film. Terry-Thomas became a fixture in films for  years, usually playing a sill-ass Englishman.Of course, Alan Young is familiar as Wilbur Post in Mr. Ed, though before that he was well regarded as an up-and-coming Canadian comic actor.

Jessie Mathews is not well known these days, but she was a major stage star in the 20s and 30s in the UK. Her producers refused to let her film in the US and her career hit the doldrums after World War II as her character – usually a wealthy woman – did not fit into the times.  The movie was an attempt at a comeback as more serious actress.

The movie was  a major success, so big that MGM allowed Pal to chose his next project, which turned out to be The Time Machine.

I thought about this film recently when there was an Internet meme about naming the first movie you saw in a theater. My imperfect memory came up with Sleeping Beauty, but when I was searching around, I discovered tom thumb came out a year earlier.

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*The Grimm brothers didn’t write any of the stories in their books (and never claimed to). They merely collected existing folklore. Jacob Grimm also developed Grimm’s law of phonological change, an important principle in etymology.

**Another film I remembered from about that time – though I only saw the ads for it – was Plan 9 From Outer Space, mostly because I knew who Bela Lagosi was – and that he was dead – and thought that this was his last film.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Amazing Mr. Williams

(1939)

The Amazing Mr. Williams

Directed by
Alexander Hill
Written by Dwight Taylor, Sy Bartlett, Richard Malbaum
Starring Melvyn Douglas, Joan Blondell, Clarence Kolb, Ruth Donnelly, Edward Brophy, Donald MacBride, Don Beddoe
IMDB Entry

Sometimes an actor sticks in your memory and you don’t see him again (or even know they name) for a long time. For me, one of them was Clarence Kolb, the gravel-voiced Mr. Honeywell of My Little Margie. His lanky figure and deep, rough voice stayed with me for years until I saw him again in His Girl Friday. And when I heard about The Amazing Mr. Williams, I wanted to check him out. What I discovered was a badly overlooked movie, a combination of romantic comedy and serious detective film.

Kenny Williams (Melvyn Douglas) is the city’s best detective, solving crimes no one else can figure out. He’s engaged to Maxine Carroll (Joan Blondell), who is frustrated that he constantly have to break dates with her  because his boss, Captain McGovern (Clarence Kolb) needs him to solve a murder.

Williams honestly tries to make time for Maxine, but something always comes up. At one point,McGovern asks him to take a criminal Buck Moseby (Edward Brophy) to the upstate prison. The trip would require him to break  another date, so he introduces Moseby as an old friend and they go out on a double date with Maxine’s roommate Effie (Ruth Donnelly). Of course,complications ensue.

The movie strikes a clever balance between the two elements, switching from romance to detective. Williams clearly shows his value as a detective, coming on the scene and finding things that the other cops have missed.

Melvyn Douglas is efficient in the role and shows a character who is married to his work, even though he loves his fiancée. Joan Blondell is excellent as Maxine, and effortless pulls off the twist at the end. Kolb is always fun to watch, as was Edward Brophy, a busy character actor who played slightly dumb criminals.

Alexander Hill was a busy director in the 30s, but few of his movies were all that memorable. The best known seems to be My Sister Eileen,” which formed the basis for Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town” but the movie was just an adaptation of a Broadway play.

Overall, The Amazing Mr. Williams is a light romantic comedy that holds up fairly well.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Six Hours to Live

Six hours to live

(1932)
Directed by
William Dieterle
Written by Morton Barteaux and Gorgon Morris(original story), Bradley King (screenplay)
Starring Warner Baxter, Miriam Jordan, John Boles, George F. Marion, Halliwell Hobbes, Irene Ware, Beryl Mercer
IMDB Entry
Full Movie on Youtube

Hollywood was slow to embrace science fiction. Outside of Frankenstein and SF horror, it didn’t really crop up until the 1950, and didn’t become respectable until 20 years later. I was delighted to find a pre-code example when I heard about Six Hours to Live.*

Captain Paul Onslow (Warner Baxter) is representing his county at a treaty conference, where he is the only opposition. His position leads to death threats and when he is returning back to the place he is staying with Baroness Valerie von Sturm (Miriam Jordon), someone takes a shot at him. It misses, but it leads Valerie to fall in love with him, much to the consternation of Karl Kranz (John Boles), her long time friend who loves her. Meanwhile Professor Otto Bauer (George F. Marion) visits the home of Valerie’s father, Baron von Sturm (Halliwell Hobbes) with an exciting new device that can bring the dead back to life – but only for six hours. And when Onslow is strangled, they want to bring him back to catch his murderer.

The idea is a great one, and could have been made into a taut thriller like D.O.A. Unfortunately, they went in a more philosophical direction. I suppose there isn’t much suspense possible with Onslow knowing his murderer from the start, but the story does drag a bit. Still there some good moments, most notably when Onslow gives his money to a prostitute (Irene Ware) in order to give her a new start.**

Warner Baxter was a big star at the time, having just won the first Oscar for Best Actor, and ended up with a long career, most notably as the lead in 42nd Street the same year. Most of the rest of the cast had far shorter careers.

Director William Dieterle was also quite successful, usually with biographies and period dramas. He also did the Max Reinhardt version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1935.

It’s hard to determine the success of the film. Despite the presence of Baxter and some good reviews (The New York Times spoke highly of it), it seemed to have just faded away.

It’s an interesting example of an early SF trope and certainly deserves rediscovery.

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*A terrific title.

**This being pre-Code, they are quite upfront about her occupation. In fact, Ware is billed as “The Prostitute” in the credits. the Times, however, listed the character as “The Woman” in their review.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

A Trip to Mars (Himmelskibet)

A Trip to Mars

(1918)
Directed by
Holger-Madsen
Written by Ole Olsen from a novel by Sophus Michaelis
Starring Gunnar Tolnæs, Zanny Petersen, Nichola Neiiendam, Alf Blutücher, Svend Kornbeck, Lily Jacobson, Philip Bech, Frederik Jacobsen
IMDB Entry
View entire film on Youtube

People tend to forget how international the silent film industry was. Hollywood was king, but many other countries had film industries and it was relatively easy to translate films so they could be seen in different languages. A Trip to Mars was an example from the Danish film industry, and is a landmark film in many respects.

Avanti Plantearos (Gunnar Tolnæs) decides to make his mission to travel to Mars. Aided by his father (Nicolai Neiiendam) and sister Corona (Zanny Petersen), he spends two years developing the space ship Excelsior, his work scoffed at by Professor Dubius,* who has tried and failed. Nevertheless, Avanti gathers a crew, including his friend Dr. Kraft (Alfe Blütecher) and the American David Dane (Svend Kornbeck). They journey takes months, and after surviving a mutiny, they land on Mars, an advanced civilization of vegetarians who have eliminated all conflict. Trouble ensues, and Avanti is aided by Marya (Lilly Jacobson), daugther of the Mars’s leader (Philip Bech).

The movie it notable in being the first feature science fiction film. Though there were short subjects earlier (e.g., Méliès, A Trip to the Moon), feature films were rare, and science fiction was not considered a good subject. Many of the elements soon became clichés, but weren’t tired in 1918.**

The movie consists of a a series of episodes.*** The mutiny story is quite good for the time, as is the lightning storm and Avanti’s trial.

The film is also a spirited plea for pacifism. Since it was shot while World War I was raging, that’s understandable (Denmark was neutral in the war). There was also a religious theme that seems a bit heavy-handed.

Director Holger-Madsen was an actor and director and continued to direct in Denmark into the 1930s. Of course, once sound came in, markets constricted and Denmark was at an especial disadvantage because the Danish-speaking market was small. Subtitling a movie was far more expensive than reshooting the intertitles, and there was always the problem of not losing them against the background. Danish film suffered and they struggled. The next science fiction film out of Denmark was Reptilicus In 1961.

Overall, though the film is a fascinating look at early cinema, and the effects are pretty good for the time.

Note: The movie is one of many that are available from the Danish Silent Film Website. It’s worth a look if you are interested in silents, and the prints are beautiful

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*The pun might be unintentional (the Danish word for “dubious” is “tvivlsom”) but appropriate. Given the other punny names, though (“Avanti” is Italian for “Forward,” for example) they might have actually meant it, or possibly the name was added by a playful translator.

**I don’t know how popular the film was in the US, but it’s unlikely to have influenced Hollywood films. The Excelsior resembles the spaceships in the Flash Gordon serials, but I doubt it was an influence.

***It’s listed as being “in Six Parts,” but I don’t know if it was shown that way or as one film.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Horn Blows at Midnight (TV)


(1953)
Directed by
Ralph Levy
Written by Leo Davis, Leonard Gerhse, Howard Snyder, Hugh Wedlock, Jr
Starring Jack Benny, Dorothy Malone, Lester Matthews, Harry Shearer
IMDB Entry

As you remember from last time, Jack Benny got a lot of comic mileage from the flop of The Horn Blows at Midnight. But he didn’t seem to actually dislike the movie and In 1949, he starred in a radio version. Then, four years later, it appeared on TV on the show Omnibus.

Omnibus was the type of highbrow show that ran in the early years of television, hosted by Alistair Cook, featured programming about the arts, music, and original plays. The Horn Blows at Midnight was an attempt to produce something a little less highbrow and used Jack Benny’s name to get people to watch.

There is one big difference in the setup of the show. The story is not a dream, probably the biggest misstep in the movie. This time Anthaniel (Benny) is an angel to begin with, send down to Earth to blow the trumpet that will end the world.

Horn Blows at Midnight
Athaniel is given the horn
that will destroy the world

Benny was in his element on the small screen. It helped that a couple of the writers had worked with him on radio, with Howard Snyder making a career of it. The jokes were changed to play up Benny’s TV/radio mannerisms – his vanity and his cheapness. It’s far more gentle. It the original, Benny wakes up just as he’s about the destroy the world; in this, he starts to think that the world doesn’t have to be destroyed from the beginning.

Alexis Smith is replaced by Dorothy Malone, who was just becoming well known and ended up with an Oscar in 1957. The Chief was now Lester Matthews, who became a very busy TV actor.

Much like the original movie, a child actor became a mildly big name when he grew up. Harry Shearer (as Tom) appeared on the final season of the original SNL and was Derek Smalls in This is Spinal Tap. He also did a lot of voice work, including on The Simpsons.

The show probably was seen by a bigger audience than the original, but that isn’t had to manage. Omnibus was not about ratings. It was sponsored by the Ford Foundation as a way to raise the tone of TV programming and ran Sunday afternoons, a dead time before sports took over. At the time The Horn Blows at Midnight was run, CBS (which aired Omnibus) didn’t even have the rights to the NFL games. They kept in on the air despite weak ratings because of the prestige and the multiple Emmys it won.  It switched to NBC for its last few seasons, with episodes also airing for one year on ABC, making it one of the few shows on three networks.

The TV version is certainly not a classic, but there are plenty of good moments it in, and it was more of a success than the movie.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Horn Blows at Midnight

Horn Blows at Midnight

(1945)
Directed by
Raoul Walsh
Written by Sam Hellman & Jerome V. Kern (screenplay) based on an idea by Aubrey Wisberg
Starring Jack Benny, Alexis Smith, Allyn Joslyn, Guy Kibbee, Franklin Pangborn, Margeret Dumont, Robert Blake
IMDB Entry

Some movies get a bad reputation despite the fact they aren’t all that bad.* It’s even worse when their star turns it all into a joke. Jack Benny often got laughs by referring to his movie The Horn Blows at Midnight and most would think of it as a total misfire. But Benny often joked about things that just were not true** and he saw the references to the movie as a potential for laughs and kept at it. What was on the screen may have flopped, but there’s nothing wrong with it.

Athanael (Jack Benny) is third trumpet in a radio band, but never gets the opportunity to play the highbrow music he wants to play, despite the encouragement of his girlfriend Elizabeth (Alexis Smith). During a commercial, he falls asleep and dreams he’s been delegated by the Chief (Guy Kibbee) to play the trumpet at midnight to destroy the Earth, which has been a disappointment. So Athanael is sent to Earth to fulfill his mission.

The movie is gently humorous throughout. Benny basically just plays himself, though without the usual running jokes that he was famous for. Alexis Smith is good as his love interest.*** The film is pretty much par for the course for comedies of that day.  

The film is filled with the great character actors of the time and even has a small role for Robert Blake, who became a star many years later in Baretta.****

Director Raoul Walsh was a Hollywood veteran with many successes, but primarily with action movies like The Roaring Twenties and High Sierra, He also did comedies, but this was his first attempt at fantasy/comedy. He continued with great films like White Heat.

So why the bad reputation? Certainly Benny had everything to do with it. He often joked about how terrible it was and it certainly was a major flop. I can see several reasons for that. First of all, President Roosevelt died only a week before it premiered, so people were not in the mood for a comedy. In addition, people probably didn’t want to go to a movie about the end of the world while World War II was still raging. And it’s tricky to root for Athaneal trying to kill everyone on Earth. Finally, any story that shows it’s happening in a dream is going to end with the dreamer waking up, removing any stakes from the story.*****

The studio clearly saw the problems with the set up: their trailer makes no mention of any of the plot and plays up the idea of Jack Benny as a romantic lead (Jack Benny?). I understand why they didn’t talk about the story, but the quickest way to turn off an audience is by false advertising.

So the movie was a notorious flop, made more notorious by it becoming a punchline in Benny’s show. Still,it’s a decent 40s supernatural comedy.

But Benny didn’t hate it all that much: he did a radio version a few years later, and redid it for television for Omnibus in 1953. I’ll talk about that version next week.

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*Ishtar, for example.

**I can’t think of any comedian who was so self-effacing, always ready to make himself the butt of a joke. He made a career of playing up his miserliness, but in real life he was a generous man

***Benny resisted her casting, not because he had any objection to her acting or personality, but because he was old enough to be her father.

****Blake actually started out with Our Gang comedies, using the name Mickey Gubitosi. He had a small role in the classic The Treasure of Sierra Madre" as the boy who sells Bogart the lottery ticket.

*****This may have been a way to soften the concept for audiences, but it was a poor one.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Propaganda Game

The Propaganda Game

(1966 – )
Created by
Robert W. Allen and Lorne Greene
Website

Educational games are certainly heavy on the education, but often light on the the game. The Propaganda Game is an example of that, but in this case the education end is something people should pay attention to.

The concept seems to have been developed by Lorne Greene. While not shooting Bonanza,* he considered what went into making a person a clear thinker. He joined up with Robert W. Allen, who had had success with the logic game WFF ‘N Proof, and they created a game to teach the various logical and rhetorical tricks that tricked people in arguments. The final result consisted of six categories (Self-deception, Language, Irrelevance, Exploitation, Form, and Maneuvers) that consisted of 8-10 different types of propaganda techniques. Game play consisted of looking at cards and trying to see which of the techniques was being used.

The actual game was packaged in a small red plastic box**, Inside was the instruction book, some game cards, tokens, and other gear.

I had the game when it came out. It wasn’t much fun to play, but I reread the instruction book over and over to identify techniques. Even now, I use some of the titles instead of the more common ones.***

A list of the techniques can be found on the game’s website.

The game was not exactly a popular smash, but it sold enough, usually to schools. It looks like it’s still available today for teachers as an online teaching tool. I doubt anyone ever put it on their list of favorite games, but the ideas involved should be essential for everyone.

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*Battlestar Galactica came several years later.

**Which, for some reason, fascinated me as a child.

***”Victory by Definition” nowadays is usually called “One True Scotsman,: though there are subtle differences between the two.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Red White and Maddox (play)

Red White and Maddox

(1969)
Written and directed by
Don Tucker (book, music, lyrics) Don Tucker (book)
Starring Jay Garner,
IBDB Entry

George S. Kaufman once said, “Satire is what closes Saturday night”; in other words it didn’t last beyond the first weekend. And satire, even at its best, only has a short shelf life. It might be fine in the moment, but six months later it is forgotten.* Still, in the right moment, it can be powerful. An example of this was the Broadway show Red, White, and Maddox.

Let me explain about Lester Maddox. He was a pure segregationist who refused to let Blacks eat at his restaurant, even driving them off with axe handles. Once the Civil Rights Act was passed, he shut down his restaurant and ran for governor, winning the office in 1966. He was not quite as bad as his reputation – he integrated the Georgia State Patrol, hired more Blacks to government positions than any previous governor, and did more to foster integration in the state – but his rhetoric and his public comments did not reflect any of that, and he continued to talk segregation for his four-year term.

The play was written to reflect that. Maddox (Jay Garner) is a vicious attack on him for his segregationist and pro-Vietnam rhetoric. Maddox is eventually elected president in 1972, all  while being ridiculed viciously by the play, in dialog and in song. It was a success in Atlanta before moving to Broadway, probably after the success of Macbird!, a satire about Lyndon Johnson and mashup with Macbeth.

It’s Garner’s show. He’s on stage from start to finish, portraying Maddox as a dangerous buffoon who only cared for himself.

But Kaufman was right. The show only ran 41 performances. I happened be at one of them.** I thought at the time that it was nicely vicious.

Of course, it was never revived. No one knows about Maddox these days and the satire has been lost. Jay Garner*** stayed on Broadway, usually playing politicians and statesmen. His best-know TV role was Admiral Asimov in Buck Rogers.

One actor, however, did break out to become a household word. Christopher Lloyd made his Broadway debut in a small role. Another member of the cast was Fran Brill, who later became a puppeteer for the Muppets (Prairie Dawn and many others, including Vazh from The Land of Gorch.).

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*I remember an Art Buchwald column during the Watergate era called “What we know so far” that I thought was the funniest thing he ever did. I clipped a copy and six months later, I reread it.  I had forgotten the references so that it wasn’t funny at all.

**I loved satire from when I  was very small. Blame Rocky and Bullwinkle.

***Born James Garner, but that name was already taken in Actors Equity

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Two Seconds

Two Seconds

(1932)
Directed by
Mervyn LeRoy
Written by Elliot Lester (play) Harvey F. Flaw (adaptation)
Starring Edward G. Robinson, Vivienne Osborne, Preston Foster, J. Carrol Naish, Guy Kibbee.
IMDB Entry

Edward G. Robinson made his reputation playing a gangster and often was typecast in the role.* But he was a multifaceted actor** who could play more than just that. In Two Seconds, he’s a man who loses control of his life and suffers the consequences.

The movie starts with an intriguing premise: a man who is going to witness the electrocution of John Allen (Edward G. Robinson) asks how long it takes for a condemned man to die. “Two seconds,” someone replies, then someone adds, “That’ll be the longest two seconds of his life.”

We flash back to John working on a skyscraper with his friend Bud (Preston Foster). After work, Bud takes John on a blind date, but he bails as soon as he sees her and goes to a dance hall, where he meets – and become smitten by – Shirley Day (Vivienne Osborne). They agree to date, despite Bud’s warnings, and Shirley gets John drunk and marries him. A few weeks later, John and Bud get into an argument about her – John still thinks she’s bad news – and John loses his temper and attacks Bud, who  falls to his death

The death brings on a deep depression, so John is unable to work. Shirley goes back to her dime-a-dance life and John slides further into alcoholism and tries to make a big score gambling.

Given the opening scene,  it’s clear where it all ends up.

Robinson accurately portrays a descent into mental deterioration, while Osborne – who had been a success on Broadway – is excellent as Shirley, cold and hard as glass. She is in many ways the precursor to the film noir femme fatale of the 40s. Preston Foster is also good as Bud, as he played the role on Broadway.

Notable in the cast is Guy Kibbee as John’s bookie. Kibbee is best known as a befuddled comic character in Busby Berkeley movies. Oddly, his nice persona works well in this context: the bookie is charming and understanding to his customers.

The movie is a fascinating early version of a film noir – possibly the first -- and is unrelenting as we watch John’s life spin away from him.

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*When asked what the “G.” stood for, he would say “gangster.”

**For his time. Everyone under the studio system was typecast in one was or another.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Hail the Conquering Hero

Hail the Conquering Hero
(1944)
Written and Directed by
Preston Sturges
Starring Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines, Raymond Walberg, William Demarest (of course), Franklin Pangborn, Georgia Caine, Freddie Steele, Al Bridge, Jimmy Conlon, Bill Edwards
IMDB Entry

Sturges’s next film after The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was his last great one. Hail  the Conquering Hero satirized hero worship, politics, sentimentality.

Woodrow Wilson Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) is sadly drinking in a bar when a group of marines come in, led by Sergeant Heffelfinger (William Demarest).The marines are broke, but Woodrow stand them to drinks, and he sadly tells them his story. His father was a hero in World War I, but Woodrow wasn’t allowed into the marines due to his hay fever, so he spent the war in a shipbuilding plant. Unable to tell his mother about his failure, he had concocted a series of letters which told her he was overseas and fighting the Japanese.

One of the marines take it upon himself to call his mother and tell her Woodrow is coming home a hero and Sergeant Heffelfinger, who served with Woodrow’s father in the Great War, pushes him to go through with the charade.This creates tension with his old girlfriend Libby (Ella Raines), who he broke it off with and who is now engaged to Forrest Noble (Bill Edwards).The town takes to him so much that they push him into running against Mayor Noble (Raymond Walburn). Woodrow, who never really wanted to go along with this at all, is pushed deeper and deeper into the issues from his impersonation.

The movie has some great scenes, notably when Woodrow tries to tell the crowd that he shouldn’t be mayor, and they react by praising his modesty.

Woody is a change from Bracken ‘s performance as Norval in the previous film. He’s not a buffoon but rather a man who is depressed that he couldn’t live up to his image, an honest man caught in a web of lies and who can’t get out. Ella Raines makes a good love interest and Bill Edwards is different from the usual portrayal of the the Guy Who’s Going to Lose the Girl:  he’s a genuinely nice guy and probably would made a good husband to Libby if she didn’t love Woodrow.

William Demarest did his usual thing in a Sturges movie, but other members of the stock company also are memorable, with Franklin Pangborn as a harried organizer of the welcome and Raymond Walburn as the mayor. There’s also Freddy Steele* as Bugsy as one of the marines who had a mother fixation.The movie moves along to a strong – and quite reasonable – conclusion.

A fine film in all respects.

Alas, at this point, Sturges made a career mistake. Frustrated by Paramount’s interference and their tendency to hold back his films,** he joined up with Howard Hughes to form his own production company.***  It took three years before they produced anything. 

In the meantime, Paramount released The Great Moment, which had been completed before Conquering Hero. Sturges seems to have ignored the message of Sullivan’s Travels: the film was a serious look at the development on anesthesia. Paramount foolishly promoted it as another wacky Sturges comedy, and it flopped badly.

Three years later, the partnership with Hughes finally bore fruit with The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. The concept was clever: Harold Lloyd played the character from his film The Freshman twenty years later and stuck in a boring job until he finally broke loose. It’s funny in spots, but not up to the standards that people were used to from Sturges. It only ran a short time. Hughes later recut it and rereleased that version as Mad Wednesday.

Unable to work with Hughes, Sturges dissolved the partnership and joined Fox  for Unfaithfully Yours about a classical conductor who plotted revenge to the tune of various composers. The film was another flop and coupled with the disaster of Diddlebock put Sturges’s career in jeopardy. His final Hollywood effort, The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend and a total disaster and he went to work in France, directing only one movie after that, Les carnets de Major Thompson (The French They Are a Funny Race). It flopped, too.He died in 1959.

Sturges flops have been rediscovered and their critical consensus has improved over the years, and his successes are still well regarded – for good reason. They hold up surprisingly well. He is one of the top names of film comedy of his era and deserves recognition beyond film buffs.

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* A former middleweight boxing champion who turned to acting

**Miracle was held back for two years, and an early film, The Great Moment, was also slow to the theaters.

***Leading him to be one of the few to be credited as writer, director, and producer.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

Miracle of Morgan's Creek

(1943)
Written and Directed by
Preston Sturges
Starring Eddie Bracken, Betty Hutton, Diana Lynn, William Demarest, Brian Donlevy, Akim Tamaroff
IMDB Entry

Sturges’s next film is my favorite, a glorious combination of bawdiness and slapstick. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is one of the greatest of Hollywood comedies.

The film starts out with a scene in the Governor’s office, where McGinty (Brian Donlevy) and the Boss (Akim Tamaroff)* receive a phone call about a crisis in the town of Morgan’s Creek. Then we go back nine months, where Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) decides to go out partying with a group of soldiers who are shipping out. She wakes up the next day with a crazy story she tells to her sister, Emmy (Diana Lynn): that she met a soldier named “Ratzkywatzky or Zitzkywitzky” and, seriously drunk, they decided to get married -- under assumed names, of course. They even decided to use a cigar band for the ring!  Funny stuff until Trudy discovers a cigar band on the ring finger of her left hand.

Soon she discovers she’s pregnant.

Of course, there is no evidence of the marriage and a single mother in 1942 could only have disgrace in her future. Luckily, there is an option: Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), who has been in love with her for years at a distance, is the perfect fall guy. Norval is clumsy and awkward, and do anything for Trudy. It is complicated by Trudy’s father, Constable Kockenlocker (William Demarest), who complicates the matter when trying to help.

This was pretty bawdy stuff for the time. I note  that Trudy had to be married before getting pregnant, undoubtedly because the censors would wouldn’t allow anything else. There was also the name “Kockenlocker,” which is spoken an inordinate amount of times (in one scene with him, Norval ends every sentence with “Constable Kockenlocker”). It certainly hints at something fairly obscene. Sturges always tried to stretch the bounds of what the Hayes Office allowed, and this was a particularly edgy example.

Eddie Bracken was not a major star when cast in the role of Norval. He plays the stuttering and slightly stupid nice guy to perfection and makes the movie work. Betty Hutton was something of a sex symbol but shows herself an adept comedienne as the sweet but slightly dumb Trudy. And contrasting her is Diana Lynn’s more sardonic sister.

But the real delight is William Demarest. He was always a treat in Sturges, but this was his biggest role so far, and his bluster and crustiness (with a heart of gold beneath) is wonderful from start to finish.

A favorite scene of mine is where Constable Kockenlocker is trying to get Norval to break out of  his jail without being obvious about it. So you have him saying something like, "If you take the keys from my belt, you can unlock yourself when I'm looking," only to have Norval reply, "Oh, I'd never do that, Constable Kockenlocker." Demarest's frustration is worth the price of the movie.

The movie was a massive success, Paramount’s top-grossing film of the year.

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*Yes, from Sturges’s The Great McGinty. This is one of the few times where characters reprised their roles in a movie that wasn’t actually a sequel.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Palm Beach Story

The Palm Beach Story


(1942)
Written and Directed by
Preston Sturges
Starring Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor, Rudy Vallee, Sig Arno, William Demarest, Robert Dudley
IMDB Entry

After Sullivan’s Travels, Sturges dropped the obvious social commentary and went back to straight comedy. The Palm Beach Story is a return to pure screwball comedy, with some themes that snuck by the Hayes office.

Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) are a couple whose marriage is falling apart due to financial stress. Gerry decides that the way to relieve it is to get a divorced, so after getting some money from the Wienie King, she takes a train down to Palm Beach. But on the trip down, she meets millionaire John. D. Hackensacker (Rudy Vallee) and sets her sights of marrying him after she’s free. She then expects to use the money to help out Tom, who needs it to finance a new invention. Tom, learning about her plan to divorce, flies down to Palm Beach to stop her, and ends up involved with Hackensaker’s sister the Princess Centimilla, an oft-married femme fatale. Also involved in the trail trip is the Ale and Quail club, who are going down to Palm Beach to shoot (and to drink ale).

The plot is complicated, with confusion over who’s  pretending to be who, with a bizarre twist at the end that cuts through all the problems.

It’s mostly Colbert’s movie and she shows her usual comic gift.* McCrea is fine, but is overshadowed by the other character actors around him. Mary Astor has film immortality from The Maltese Falcon, and in this case that mercurial personality is perfect for the part. Rudy Vallee was considered a washed-up crooner; the part gave him a new  lease on his career. And, of course, the Sturges stock company was there, headed by his favorite, William Demarest as one member of the Ale and Quail Club.

The Ale and Quail Club
The censors found a lot to object to in the early drafts of the script, most notably the notion of divorce,** the many marriage of Centimilla (they cut down a few), and the idea of a married woman romancing Hackensacker. But Sturges made some cuts to get the movie films, and always had a way of getting past the censors when he wanted to.

The return to comedy was a success and The Palm Beach Story is a classic of screwball  comedy.

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*There are echoes of her role in It Happened One Night.

**It was rare for there to be any sign of divorce in movies, and in comedies the divorcing couple always ended up back together at the end. The first portrayal of a divorced woman who didn’t go back to her ex, and who managed to make a successful life afterward was probably in Miracle of 34th Street, where Doris Walker has successfully moved on.