52 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
Winterset (1936)
Outstanding film adaptation retains theatrical virtues
10 March 2017
WINTERSET was a big hit on Broadway and RKO's decision to retain Burgess Meredith, Margo, and Eduardo Ciannelli to repeat their original stage roles is a major reason for the success of the film version. That they were able to adapt their performances to the intimacy of the camera is remarkable. Maxwell Anderson's dialogue is naturalized considerably from its poetic original but enough of the beautiful lyricism is retained in Anthony Veiler's screenplay to make it a very special script. While Ted Hecht must have been very good on Broadway as Garth, Paul Guilfoyle's performance in the film resulted in perhaps his best and most important screen work. Two other performances deserve special mention. Stanley Ridges as Shadow is menacing without being paranoid as is his boss, played by Ciannelli. Ridges' bloody appearance in the Esdras doorway is one of the most shocking screen moments in 30's cinema. And Willard Robertson, who made a career out of playing impatient meanies is beautifully obstinate as the boorish patrolman. Russian actor Maurice Moscovitch makes his screen debut as Garth and Miriamme's father. A veteran of the Yiddish Theater, Moscovitch later played Paulette Goddard's father in THE GREAT DICTATOR but died before that picture's release. Another Russian, Mischa Auer, makes one of his rare dramatic appearances as a social radical.

The physical set is beautiful, especially the stone-style recreation of the alley and stairwells beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Finally, the film boasts a rare original score by Nathaniel Shilkret. Shilkret was a longtime bandleader who made records for RCA. He was hired as part of the RKO music staff in 1936 to replace Max Steiner who was leaving to join fledgling org Selznick-International. Shilkret's bold compositions for WINTERSET enhance the theatricality of film, though most of the dupe prints extant on video reproduce the soundtrack with very limited fidelity.

For modern audiences with little patience for plays-made-into-films that represent their stage origins, WINTERSET will be a disappointment. But for those who can appreciate the care with which director Alfred Santell took to recreate much of the prosaic beauty of the Broadway original, WINTERSET will be a rewarding experience - if you can see it in a respectable copy.
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Trimmed prior to release?
15 April 2016
This picture should have been much better than it is. Universal would have done well to have made it an all-out screwball affair instead of making it a pseudo-serious mystery picture. The comedy sequences are fine and Edgar Kennedy makes a terrific foil for Charlie. Of course, the real mystery of the film is its running time. Many of the original trade sources indicate a 77 or 75 minute running time, though none with any actual footage count. My guess is that the film previewed at 75 and was hastily trimmed to 65 for release. The most obvious trim is at the very end where it is quite apparent a reprise of "I'm Charlie McCarthy Detective" was cut with a fade-out/fade-in inserted before the End Title. The film was released in 8 reels, which also suggests trimming just prior to distribution. This is by no means a bad film, just a bit of a disappointment.
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Typically Ambitious Roach Streamliner
22 February 2016
Hal Roach's musical streamliners were given plenty of production (FIESTA was even filmed in Technicolor) but were often sorely lacking in the scenario department. There's usually a comedy team of sorts - in this case it's big Ed Gargan and diminutive Jerry Bergen. Marjorie Woodworth is invariably the ingenue in these 5-reelers. I guess Roach must have seen SOMETHING in her. Oh well. The protagonist is George Givot, a longtime vaudevillian who specialized in Greek dialect. Here is plays it straight with the exception of a detour as a blackface mammy with composer Edward Ward matching his dialect on the soundtrack. Little Billy Roy apparently made a hit as a native boy in ALOMA OF THE SOUTH SEAS and he repeats the role singing the Oscar-nominated "Pennies For Peppino". This picture was directed by RKO's early turgedian George Archainbaud and all I can say is, where was Gordon Douglas when we needed him! Very few of the gags work and, in one of the strangest affronts to comedy, hilarious dialectician Benny Rubin - playing a French maitre d - had his voice looped! It's nice to see Norma Varden in an early role and there are plenty of familiar dress extras, including the ubiquitous Ellinor Vanderveer. I'm giving this a rating of 5 because it's only 5 reels. If it had been a longer picture I would have been much more severe in my critique. But it's 47 minutes of amiable entertainment. No harm done.
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Very good Columbia B with many familiar faces
8 February 2016
Warning: Spoilers
This is a very good six-reeler from Columbia, part of the rash of prison pictures that came out during 1939-40. Glenn Ford does a nice job as a young fellow who got himself thrown into prison to find out how his father, a convicted banker, died. John Litel plays a new chaplain with a nice right hook and Barton MacLane has a meatier role than usual as top dog in the big house. Rochelle Hudson has one obligatory scene as Ford's girl. Doing his usual ace job in support, this time with a full wig, is Don Beddoe as the warden. Beddoe must have been in every Columbia B feature during the 30's and 40's. Cy Kendall plays the sadistic sergeant of the guards, having been demoted from warden in 1938's CRIME SCHOOL. Fans of Columbia B's and shorts will recognize Dick Curtis, Eddie Laughton, Joe Palma, Cy Schnindell among the convicts. Roach heavy Walter Long stokes the furnace in the boiler room and Richard Fiske plays one of the guards. I was actually surprised NOT to see Bruce Bennett among the cast as he was doing small-time work at Columbia during this period. One of the other reviewers mentioned poor sound. He must have been referring to a video copy. The film itself has the usual superb Columbia recording and reproduction on the soundtrack. My only complaint is with Columbia's sound effects department. Those pop-gun bullet sounds are okay for the comedy two-reelers or Durango Kid horse operas, but they sound out of place in a dramatic prison picture. Overall, a nice way to spend an hour, especially the last five minutes where MacLane does a fine fadeaway.
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Fine film that is completely off the radar
28 August 2014
Okay, first let me say that all my observations are based on my personal 16mm print, which is a composite of a Film Classics release made up for military use and a television print with complete original titles. To begin, the reel "slate" says Captain From Kopenick Part 1. This means that, up until the film was completed it was planned and produced as The Captain From Kopenick. When it was finished it was given the more generic title PASSPORT TO HEAVEN. Still, the subject matter was not palatable for distributors and the film languished until Film Classics picked it up and gave it yet another generic title I WAS A CRIMINAL. I have footage of the CRIMINAL main titles as well as the complete PASSPORT main titles.

While the original German talkie was sharper and far more indicting, the American film still carries enough wry satire to be thoroughly enjoyable. It also sports a very early score by Daniele Amfitheatrof. In fact, for an independent production the film has some excellent production credits including cinematographer John Alton and editor Dorothy Spencer. The cast is superb, in particular Luis Alberni, Wallis Clark and, of course, the wonderful Albert Bassermann.

The last owner of PASSPORT TO HEAVEN was National Telefilm Associates so, in theory, the picture should be in the Paramount library. Whether or not they actually have materials is another matter.

I ran the film at CineFest in Syracuse in 2013 and it was very well received. Here's hoping a wider audience gets to see the picture at some point in the future.
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Fine adaptation of long-running play
8 February 2014
I have one serious problem with this film, which I will address in a bit. To begin, FRIENDLY ENEMIES was a dramatic play that ran an incredible 440 performances on Broadway from July 1918 to August 1919. The cast was made up of popular New York actors of the period, most of whom are today forgotten. The play was first adapted to the screen in 1925 and starred the Dutch-act comedy team of Lew Webber and Joe Fields. And therein lies the problem of this faithful-to-the-period talkie remake. Cast as two German patriarchs now ensconced in America are Charles Winninger and Charles Ruggles. Both Charlies were very fine actors with great comic timing. But for some reason director Allan Dwan had them emulate Webber & Fields' vaudeville-style Dutch accents rather than use more realistic dialects. He would have been better off using authentic German-American actors. Felix Bressart and Jean Hersholt would have been perfect. Ilka Gruning, who plays Winninger's wife, was Austrian and her authentic dialect was perfect. Much of the power of the dialogue was lost to distraction in the leading players' exaggerated accents. As always, Otto Kruger is very fine as the villain in the piece, understated and chillingly threatening. As with all Edward Small pictures of this period, the production values are first-rate. And, as with most Edward Small pictures of this period, FRIENDLY ENEMIES is very difficult to see. Keep an eye out for it. It remains a timely and thoughtful story.
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Murieta (1965)
Very good spaghetti western with fine lead performers
20 April 2012
What a surprise treat this 1965 spaghetti western turned out to be. Based on real-life Mexican bandit, MURIETA is the story of a new immigrant to California who is driven to vengeance and eventually becomes the leader of a vicious band of raiders and murderers. This picture has three great things going for it: 1. Jeffrey Hunter as Murieta (actual spelling is Murietta); he gives a superbly understated performance. 2. Arthur Kennedy, back in the saddle as a straight-shooting lawman. Sage, empathetic, Kennedy matches Hunter's fine acting work, especially difficult since all of their dialogue was re-recorded in studio. 3. The direction by veteran ace of oaters George Sherman. He keeps the camera moving and keeps the characterizations sharp and clear. Also fine are Diana Lorys, Sara Lezana and Roberto Camardiel as Jack "Three Fingers" Garcia. There are many eloquent moments in this fact-based adventure. It is well worth screening if you can find a copy. My review is based on screening a 16mm print I picked up (dye transfer Technicolor) of the UK-titled version, VENDETTA.
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Hellzapoppin' (1941)
A Festival of Lowbrow HiJinks!
26 October 2011
Okay, first let's dispatch this old nag - HELLZAPOPPIN' is NOT the stage play transferred to film. The 1938 show was a revue. A series of sketches, blackouts and musical numbers. Richard Lane, as the director, was right - "This is Hollywood, we change everything!" And, in my humble opinion, I think they did a darn fine job. The "love story" was merely a vehicle for a couple of very nice songs (the entire score is first-rate) and a goofy performance by the long-forgotten Lewis Howard. Jane Frazee and Robert Paige were both top drawer light players at Universal with excellent singing voices. So believe me, in making the necessary "changes", Universal gave it their best shot. As for the fun stuff, it's simply non-stop, from Shemp Howard and Jody Gilbert in the projection booth, to former Stooge Fred Sanborn playing tic-tac-toe on a horse's backside, to the singing and dancing devils (with chicks on a spit!) to Mischa Auer doing his very best "schnorrer" routine, to the other-worldly Hugh Herbert ("hello ma, I'll be home for dinner - have meat!"), to the myriad gags that break the fourth wall, to the eye-popping and breathless turn by Martha Raye, to the greatest Lindy Hop number committed to film, and on and on. If you roll your eyeballs at corny gags, this picture ain't for you! But if you revel at the shear audacity of pulling off such corn with absolutely no shame whatsoever, then you want to experience HELLZAPOPPIN'. If at all possible, see it with an audience. No comedy can be fully appreciated by solo viewing. But as laughter is infectious, the kinetic energy generated by this picture really cries out for a communal experience. One aspect of this picture is seldom mentioned and that is the musical direction. Universal was really tops in the early 40's of putting pop sounds in their B musicals. Well, this is definitely an 'A' picture, and Charlie Previn's orchestra is in fine form, especially in the "Congaroo" number. By the way - it has long been my contention that HELLZAPOPPIN' was not, at least completely, directed by the credited H. C. Potter. The style of the film is unlike anything else Potter did and is completely akin to the work of Eddie Cline, who was Universal's ace comedy director at the time and who directed the next three Olsen & Johnson features. Just a theory of mine and one for which I have absolutely no documentation or other type of support. HELLZAPOPPIN' has been buried in the US since 1966 when the rights reverted to the Nederlander Organization. But fortunately a UK DVD from Universal's 35mmm fine grain has been released and is a superb video version of the film. It is also shown occasionally on TV in Canada. Now - will someone PLEASE stop that woman from yelling "Oscar"!!
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OWI Version later Released Theatrically by Warners
19 July 2011
Just a few notes about this picture. First, the narrator is John Lund, not Dana Andrews as mentioned in an earlier review. Second, this OWI short was slightly expanded, re-scored (by William Lava), the narration re-recorded by Knox Manning, was re-titled "HITLER LIVES?" and released theatrically by Warner Bros. While the images are striking and the script disturbing, John Lund's reading of the text is, for the most part, adult and instructive. Compare this with Knox Manning's over-the-top, almost rabid, alarmist narration. Musically, the Tiomkin-Newman et al scoring for the War Dept. version is sober while William Lava's treatment is typical Warner Bros. bravura. The same film intended for two entirely different audiences. Only slightly different in the footage (the Warner version includes some studio-shot material of race-baiters and rabblerowsers) yet the execution of the aural elements legions apart. And, as noted by another reviewer, it is striking how in both versions the word Jew is not uttered once, nor are the Jews identified as the primary target of the Nazi atrocities. When I first saw this film (I recently acquired a 16mm print of the Warner version), one thing struck me dead center. The plea for children to be children and not to be molded into tools for the state. Some might make the same plea today.
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Loving tribute to Minstrels with some Jasper antics
11 July 2011
This is a wonderful George Pal Puppetoon. Jasper is on his way to take the Deacon his coat for services. But the Scarecrow (voiced by Roy Glenn) thinks it would look better on him. He begins to tell Jasper that this was the kind of coat he wore when he was with the Minstrel troup. Dissolve to an all-scarecrow cast of minstrels in a lavish series of musical numbers. Chorals, quartets, olio numbers, etc. And, of course, Tambo and Mr. Bones as the end men. Yes, this short is wildly politically incorrect for today's audiences. But it is an authentic - with extremely tasteful musical arrangements - tribute to the days of the minstrel shows. Jasper only appears in the open and close (as does his Mammy), but he manages a couple of good gags with the Scarecrow and his shoulder pal, the Crow.
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