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Rumpole at sunrise
The Rumpole of the Bailey series is largely a comedy, primarily because of the antics of Horace Rumpole's colleagues at 3 Equity Court and Rumpole's usually successful efforts to frustrate their schemes. But this introduction to Rumpole is a sadder, more melancholy, short play that doesn't show his life in chambers, but that takes Rumpole's dysfunctional family life a bit more seriously. Rumpole's legal philosophy is already fully formed even before the beginning of the series -- the true crime isn't being a criminal, but imprisoning criminals. However, his wife Hilda ("She Who Must Be Obeyed") hasn't found that awkward balance she has in the series between loving and loathing Rumpole, between being frustrated by him and fearing that every woman he meets is attracted to him. She's really unhappy in her marriage. Rumpole's son, who in the series loves and appreciates his father, has a much more difficult relationship with him here.
It's well worth seeing for those who love the Rumpole series and stories. It's unfortunately not included in the complete series collection, but it is available as a stand-alone DVD.
Plantation romance, not history
The belief that Thomas Jefferson had a long-standing sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings rests on four grounds: 1) the contemporaneous charges of journalist James Callendar, who smeared members of both political parties, sometimes truthfully and sometimes not, as his allegiances shifted. Callendar's charges were made in viciously racist terms, and they were never directly addressed by Jefferson. Callendar is strikingly portrayed as a snake by Rene Auberjonois in this film. 2) The claim of Madison Hemings, one of Hemings' sons, who first wrote that he and Hemings' other children were fathered by Jefferson in a newspaper interview and then in a short memoir, both written in the 1870's, when he himself was in his seventies, and nearly fifty years after Jefferson's death. 3) DNA testing of the lineal descendants of Eston Hemings, Sally Hemings' youngest child, that showed a familial link to a male Jefferson, but not specifically to Thomas Jefferson. 4) Timetables that show that Thomas Jefferson is the only male Jefferson who can be proved to have been at Monticello around nine months before the births of all of Sally's children. If we make the assumption that all of Sally Hemings' children had the same father, that would tend to show that Jefferson was the father of all of them. Each of these, by itself, proves nothing; even taken together they aren't conclusive proof. But they certainly are suggestive.
What is more important in judging stories about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson is that we know practically nothing about the nature of the relationship between them. Hemings left no papers; Jefferson wrote nothing about her. Madison wrote that Sally went to France as a companion to Jefferson's daughter Maria when he was the US ambassador; that she and Maria stayed eighteen months, during which Sally became pregnant with Jefferson's child. "She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. So she refused to return with him. To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promise, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia." He wrote that these promises were kept: "He (Jefferson) was not in the habit of showing partiality or fatherly affection to us children. We were the only children of his by a slave woman. He was affectionate toward his white grandchildren, of whom he had fourteen, twelve of whom lived to manhood and womanhood." He also wrote that, "We were permitted to stay about the 'great house,' and only required to do such light work as going on errands. Harriet learned to spin and to weave in a little factory on the home plantation. We were free from the dread of having to be slaves all our lives long, and were measurably happy. We were always permitted to be with our mother, who was well used. It was her duty, all her life which I can remember, up to the time of father's death, to take care of his chamber and wardrobe, look after us children and do such light work as sewing, and Provision was made in the will of our father that we should be free when we arrived at the age of 21 years."
Assuming this is all true (and the movie doesn't stick to even this much) everything else about their relationship is invented. Were Sally and Thomas tender and loving partners over several decades, was Thomas a mean and ruthless exploiter of a vulnerable slave, or did they both have what was just a practical arrangement? Nobody knows, so we all bring to their relationship our own prejudices, wishes, and hopes. It's a mirror, and what we see in it is ourselves, not any historic fact. What is written and filmed about them is a "plantation romance," whether it is of the whips and chains variety like Mandingo and parts of this movie, or whether it is more hopeful that love could overcome the institution of slavery, as are other parts of this movie.
As to the movie itself, it has a serviceable script and is well filmed by TV mini-series standards, and its four-hour length doesn't seem too long. Its main advantages are that Neill and Ejogo provide two good lead performances and that Ejogo is a world-class beauty. Its only distracting flaw is the excessive and quite noticeable make-up jobs on all the actors who are supposed to be elderly. In sum, it's worth watching if you're interested in the subject and don't think that movies tell the truth about historical characters.
Dirty Gertie drinks, flirts heavily, and takes expensive jewelry from men. She's the heroine of the movie, but she's tarnished, and her doom is foreshadowed many times. The movie has the structure of many black musical films, leading up to a big revue in a nightclub at the end, but those expectations are frustrated. The revue consists only of the dancing of the chorus line, credited as "6 Harlem beauties," and a short dance number by July Jones and Howard Galloway.
Even more frustrating is that Francine Everett, though she was known as a singer and dancer, doesn't sing at all in the movie. She dances only a few steps early in the plot, and in the nightclub revue she only sways a bit as she removes her over-the-elbow gloves at the start of a sadly interrupted striptease.
The oddest thing in the movie, however, is director's Spencer Williams' casting of himself in a cameo role as "Old Hagar," the crystal-globe-reading fortune teller. Williams plays the role in drag, dressed in a house dress and head wrap, but he wears his mustache and speaks in a deep, masculine voice. He doesn't play it for comedy, yet it's hard to say he's playing it straight. Did Williams just step in for an actress who didn't show up for filming that day (that's the sort of thing that happened in making very low budget black movies), or is the explanation something stranger?
Ask the Dust (2006)
A good film that fails by aiming too high
Most of the comments are right on point: the cinematography, set design, costuming, and recreation of California of the thirties are wonderful; Hayek is beautiful and Farrell good-looking. The problem with the movie is that not just the plot but also the script is true to its period. The dialogue and spoken narration are from the thirties -- the overwritten, wordy, Broadway-influenced, "literary" scripts of Clifford Odets, Robert Sherwood, Eugene O'Neill, and so on. Towne has an excuse for part of Ask the Dust's script, since he's writing about a writer who's obsessed with and intoxicated by his own words, but the style spills over into the rest of the script. A talky, "literary" movie can have its own charms for sympathetic viewers, but most of the audience will dismiss it as stagy and pretentious.
To the Last Man (1933)
This is a standout early-30's western because of the extraordinary talent that participated in it: director Henry Hathaway, writer Jack Cunningham (who collaborated with Hathaway on six pictures in 1933-34), original novelist Zane Gray, and a cast of stars and future stars who were in Hathaway's stock company at the time: Randolph Scott, Barton McLane, Buster Crabbe (who in two-shot close-ups looks as though he were born to play Scott's brother), Noah Berry, and Jack LaRue. Even in brief and minor roles, Hathaway gets memorable performances, such as a shaved Fuzzy Knight in a serious rather than comic-relief role and Eugenie Besserer as a fierce grandmother crying out for Biblical vengeance. Esther Ralston is a revelation in the lead female role, as an unpolished and touchy backwoods girl who yearns to be a lady but who is fully capable in the climatic scene of fighting desperately to save her man's life.
The plot mixes returning Civil War veterans, hill country family feuds, and Western rustling action, and ties these threads neatly together. The film is only a little over an hour long, but it packs a lot of action and plot into that short running time.
Lassie: Peace Patrol (1959)
Savings Stamps and the Peace Patrol
The Lone Ranger's Peace Patrol was a program designed to get children to buy Savings Stamps, low-cost stamps (25 cents to a dollar in value) that could be traded in for a $25 United States Savings Bond when they reached a total of $16.75. This episode centers on a national contest in which public schools compete to sell stamps, and Timmy is the captain of the school's team. Of course there are complications, including the theft of the money box, but in the end Timmy's school is one of the winners in the contest, the Lone Ranger and Silver visit the school in person, and Lassie is made the second animal member of the Peace Patrol, just after Silver. The episode is notable for the crossover meeting of two children's television icons.
Reet, Petite, and Gone (1947)
Musical with a wisp of a plot
Louis Jordan was a singer, saxophonist, and band leader who specialized in upbeat jazz -- comic, novelty, and good-times songs. The plot of this movie is just as unsubstantial as those of most of Jordan's movies, since the plot is only an excuse for Jordan and his Tympany Five to perform their recent hits. Jordan does eleven songs in this movie, and three of his female costars -- June Richmond, Bea Griffith, and Mabel Lee -- do one song each.
The plot, for those who care, is that Jordan's father had a brief romance with Bea Griffith's mother, and his dying wish is for Jordan to marry Griffith. The family's crooked lawyer tries to substitute an altered will to cheat Jordan out of his inheritance, and also tries to sabotage the new show that Jordan is opening.
What makes Reet, Petite, and Gone different from other Jordan movies is that in addition to music it has many uncredited showgirls, the predecessors of today's video vixens, in daring scenes. Four or five pretty girls in short skirts will stand behind Jordan swaying a bit and doing a little dancing. A line of showgirls in swimsuits will step up to have their measurements taken. There's even a scene in which Bea Griffin sits in a black bra and panties and puts on her stockings -- hot-cha-cha. The highlight of the movie, however, is the strikingly pretty uncredited girl who sits on Jordan's piano and pantomimes her amusing reactions to his accusations of infidelity in "I Know What You've Been Putting Down."
I Ain't Gonna Open That Door (1949)
Musical answer to "Open the Door Richard"
Comedian Dusty Fletcher was best known for his comedy sketch, "Open the Door Richard," in which he played a drunk trying to get into his apartment, futilely begging his roommate Richard to, "open the door, Richard." That routine was recorded in a 1945 short in which Fletcher performed it on a nightclub stage set. Richard is never seen in that short.
This musical short, really just one song, is the answer to that routine. Stepin Fetchit plays Richard, and Dusty Fletcher doesn't appear. Fetchit lies in bed, and he talk-sings his reply, "I Ain't Gonna Open That Door," to the accompaniment of Earl Bostic's band. The public domain version doesn't include all the opening credits, but there are also two attractive actresses who appear briefly.
The Last Mile (1932)
Sentimental about killers
Kindly, sympathetic, upstanding convicts who are on Death Row for no good reason that we ever learn (except that we know Dick Walters has been wrongfully convicted)are put to death by prison guards who vary from indifferent to mean, while the Warden agonizes over what good capital punishment does and the meaning of it all -- until an attempted prison break turns him into the most bloodthirsty of all.
The one-set stage play is opened up a little bit by scenes showing the crime for which Walters has been convicted and the discovery of the criminals who really committed the crime. Good performances are turned in by Preston Forster as Killer Mears, the one prisoner who shows a mean streak that may have landed him on Death Row; and by Daniel L. Haynes, who had starred in Hallelujah three years earlier, as the token black singing prisoner.
Anti-death penalties dramas haven't become more balanced or less simplistic; if anything, the thumb on the scale is even heavier in The Green Mile's recounting of the execution of angelic Michael Clarke Duncan. But today more realistic depictions of prison life and prisoners abound in cable television documentaries, and the misplaced sentimentality of The Last Mile toward its misunderstood convicts isn't easily swallowed. It does, however, have Killer Mears' bravado line at the end of the prison break: "I think I'll go get a little air."
Flying Devils (1933)
Early aviation thriller
This is a competent, tidy, short action film and romance from the time when pilots were daredevils. Law student Eric Linden, "Bud," wants to join his older brother Bruce Cabot, "Ace," as a barnstorming stunt pilot with Speed Hardy's Flying Circus. Cabot thinks it is too dangerous a job for his brother, especially with a second-rate group like Speed's. (The group's symbol, which they wear on their jackets, symbolizes their luck; it's a black cat.) The other two pilots with Cabot are Speed Hardy (Ralph Bellamy), the boss, and Cliff Edwards, "Screwy," who is perpetually drunk. But the most dangerous thing that Bud does is not his parachute jumps, or even his two-person parachute jumps; it is falling in love with Arline Judge, Speed's wife, because Speed is seriously jealous.
The plot, dialogue, and acting are just serviceable, but there are plenty of thrills from the ample footage of biplanes flying in formation, twirling and corkscrewing, crash landing, and just crashing.