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Not as bad as you want it to be
And make no mistake, Joan's last feature is pretty bad, a horror cheapie that tried to pass itself off as sci-fi. But scattered about the random violence and hilariously wicked villains and Joan's stoicism are some actual issues. She plays an anthropologist who, with the help of some unappetizing young Brit scientists, discovers a troglodyte who evidently was cryogenically frozen and melted back to life millennia later. (Giggle-inducing goof: A line of dialogue theorizes Trog is several thousand years old, then, in an under-the-influence-of- sodium-pentathol scene, he "remembers" a series of Claymation dinosaur battles, which would have to have happened at least 60 million years ago.) The script's ludicrous, the direction by Hammer vet Freddie Francis undistinguished, the acting confined mostly to snarls and screams. But there is, buried somewhere within, a viable conflict: Should this gift from the past be allowed to live, or his existence too risky? The body count does pile pretty high, and valid arguments are made on both sides. But then the movie just ends, seemingly in mid-scene, with Joan trudging off into oblivion. You'd think the cameraman just ran out of film.
The Star (1952)
Sterling Hayden adores Bette Davis, and if you believe that...
Tawdry, B-ish melodrama independently made but released by 20th Century Fox, this 1952 potboiler presents itself as a searing look at a movie star in free-fall, and seems to relish the parallels between Margaret Elliott and star Bette Davis. Margaret's phenomenally self-centered, self-pitying, and self-deceiving, and she's headed for a breakdown, what with a darling daughter she can't care for (Natalie Wood), no money and no career prospects, and clawing relatives who can't understand where their meal ticket's gone. But, and here the credibility really snaps, she does have an ace in the hole: Sterling Hayden, who made one movie with her and gave up acting to run a shipyard, loves her. I kept wondering why this solid, handsome gentleman would keep picking up the pieces as this self-indulgent disaster of a woman keeps falling apart, and the movie never answered that. There are some enjoyable melodramatic moments and some odd real-Hollywood touches, such as Bette name-dropping her actual director of photography on many films, Ernest Laszlo, and Margaret professing a huge dislike for the rising starlet Barbara Lawrence, who actually was a rising (though not very far) starlet, and who is made out to be a shallow temporary celebrity. It's ultimately rabidly anti-feminist-'50s, with Margaret electing (after kidnapping her daughter, which the movie has no problem with) to run off with Sterling Hayden and be a darling little wifey, and while the implication is they all live happily ever after, I give it a week.
Mission to Moscow (1943)
Those nice Russians, and that darling Stalin
Valentine to the Soviet Union, made at the only possible moment it could have been made, at the behest of FDR and with the full resources of Warners. And it looks mighty strange today, seeking to convince wartime audiences that despite capitalism-vs.-communism arguments, the Soviets are an honorable and charming people, Stalin's a good guy with more in common with the U.S. than you'd expect, and the Russians saw what a threat Hitler was long before anybody else did. It's told through U.S. Ambassador Joseph Davies' eyes; Davies himself introduces the picture, then is replaced by an earnest Walter Huston, who manages to retain his dignity and even some gravitas, even through myriad scenes of him meeting politicos, shaking hands, and making pronouncements. But mostly it's about how the Soviets' military power is stronger than suspected, and there are lots of (well-faked) parades, parades, parades. It's sad to see the great Ann Harding in such an uninteresting, wifey role as Davies' Mrs., and Eleanor Parker has almost nothing to do as their daughter but admire the traditional Russian skating and dancing. The music is Max Steiner at his most obvious, and director Michael Curtiz is in no hurry to get to the end. Interesting now as what well-deployed propaganda looked like in 1943, and the New York Times, among others, quite liked it. But it's a slog, and it looks pretty naive now.
The Vagabond King (1956)
The operetta crawls off to die
The last operetta released by a major studio, and it's a pity, for this adaptation of the 1925 Rudolf Friml war horse is pretty nimble. It stars Oreste, a European tenor with the requisite high notes and a fair amount of dash, as the leader of the Paris rabble; he's quite at ease for such a major screen debut, though his accent, so apparent in song, mysteriously disappears in much of his dialogue, making one wonder if some of his lines were post-dubbed. Kathryn Grayson is her usual shrill and simpering self, albeit in a part Callas herself couldn't have made interesting, and Rita Moreno shows a lot of life and a lot of leg as Huguette. Walter Hampden, as the king, has better lines than most screen kings, and underplays them effectively. Friml, then in his mid-70s, appended his stage score with several new melodies set to adequate Johnny Burke lyrics, and one, "This Same Heart," is quite lovely. It's a studio-bound eyeful, with big sets and colorful costumes that have little to do with reality but everything to do with screen spectacle (did 15th century Parisians really don so much purple and yellow and green?), and the screenplay's pretty erudite for this genre, and Michael Curtiz ably keeps things moving (save a brief, silly Adam and Eve ballet that stops the action dead). Nobody went to it in 1956, audiences just weren't interested in operetta anymore, and they still preferred Mario Lanza to an unknown European quantity. But if you can catch this one--I did on Amazon Prime--you'll get a fine eyeful and earful of the lush melody, sweeping spectacle, and ringing romance that endeared audiences to operetta decades before.
The Girl Rush (1955)
Anyway, '50s Vegas
This long-out-of-circulation musical is finally viewable, via Amazon Prime, and it has a warmed-over feel. Rosalind Russell, fresh from her Broadway triumph in "Wonderful Town," plays an Eastern busybody who inherits a run-down Las Vegas casino and mistakenly thinks she has a piece of the Flamingo, owned here by a rather unhappy-looking Fernando Lamas. Paramount seems determined to prove that Roz is a MUSICAL star, and she does sound better than she did in "Wonderful Town" (or the "Gypsy" film, for that matter), and executes Robert Alton's unchallenging choreography neatly enough. But of all the women Fernando Lamas might be attracted to, she seems like she'd be the last. The love story has no conviction, and Robert Pirosh's screenplay keeps falling back on tired gags, like a befuddled Marion Lorne dithering about, or James Gleason, always welcome, as an inveterate gambler. The Martin-Blane score is quite nice, the mid-'50s Vegas location photography sumptuous, and the costumes amusingly over the top. Gloria De Haven's lovely and gets one of the best songs, "An Occasional Man," but it's discouraging to see her playing such a dummy, and Eddie Albert seems too old to play such a papa's boy. In short, there are plenty of incidental pleasures, but the darn thing doesn't add up.
God's Gift to Women (1931)
No, he isn't, but he ain't bad
Having read the 700-page biography of Barbara Stanwyck, which only goes up to 1941, I'm not inclined toward sympathy for her first husband Frank Fay, who stars in this Warners bedroom farce. He was arrogant and possibly abusive, and you can see his career in free- fall here. But he's not bad. As an irresistible Don Juan in Paris, which is itself a bit of a stretch, he has a good way with a comic line and is expert at physical comedy. You don't know why Laura La Plante, Joan Blondell, and Louise Brooks, among others, are all fighting over him, but director Michael Curtiz sustains the action nicely, and the Deco costumes and sets are a treat. There's also the nice additional pleasure of a "Show Boat" connection: Leading lady La Plante, who's charming, had recently been Magnolia in the first film version, and Charles Winninger, the stage Captain Andy who repeated his role in the 1936 version, is her dad. He's quite different here, and good.
Capra does Back Street
"Junk that I wrote myself," Capra opines in his autobiography; he actually just wrote the story, Jo Swerling turned it into a screenplay. He's right about the junk, though. It's very Fannie Hurst, with a plot similar to "Back Street": Librarian Stanwyck falls head over heels for politician Menjou on a Havana cruise, unaware that he's married, and bears his daughter and remains his mistress, on and off. Obviously it couldn't have been made post- Code, and the essential seaminess of the material is delectable. Menjou didn't get to play a lot of romantic leads, and based on this one, that's probably a good thing; he's just not very desirable or likable, and it needs a Gary Cooper or Clark Gable to make sense. What's good about it is, first of all, Babs, who invests her stock role with a lot of individuality, and the ambiguity of the three leads: he, she, and Ralph Bellamy, as the city editor who loves her, all have positive and negative character traits, and aren't whittled down to stereotypes. Capra's direction is way better than his writing, and the ending is suitably Stella Dallas- bittersweet. Also entertaining: some truly awful old-age makeup.
Vigil in the Night (1940)
A noble bore
A.J. Cronin's frustration and anger with the medical profession had translated to the screen so well with "The Citadel," and while some of those themes reverberate in this treatment of another novel of his, it's hardly its cinematic equal. George Stevens, better known at this point for comedies and musicals, heaps nobility upon nobility in this cloying tale of a devoted British nurse (Carole Lombard, sans British accent) and her far less devoted nurse sister (Anne Shirley) and their frustrations and challenges in several hospitals, including hypocritical rich patrons, lack of funds, unsympathetic bureaucracy, and smallpox. It opens with the death of an innocent child, no less, and Stevens thrusts the camera right up in the lad's face, the better to make us weep. It continues with similar emotional manipulation--adorable innocent kids suffering, dark hospital corridors, sneering colleagues. Carole's good--when wasn't she?--and Anne's pretty good, too, and Peter Cushing, as her unfortunate spouse, is quite good. A romance between Carole and impossibly noble doctor Brian Aherne is so stifled as to barely be there, and the slurpy music keeps telling us how to feel every damn minute. Some very nice cinematography, and I'll watch Carole in anything, but as an indictment of medical hypocrisies, it's slow and obvious.
Man Wanted (1932)
Provocative little Warners B that seems to enjoy playing with sexual mores, and presenting an unusually strong leading-lady character. That's Kay Francis, stalking around in high fashion and playing a driven magazine-editor lady, much like Liza Elliott in "Lady in the Dark." She hires a lowly but ambitious (and Harvard grad) David Manners as secretary, cueing the male-secretary jokes, and he's too much of a gentleman to admit to her or himself that he's falling in love with her. Which is a disaster, because, with plot knots that could never survive the Production Code, she's married to rich-but-worthless Kenneth Thomson, and he's engaged to demanding-and-annoying Una Merkel. The script merrily untangles the knots by making little to no judgment on Thomson's philandering, and suggesting that out-of-wedlock relations are just fine, as long as they result in divorce and marriage to the right partner. Manners is, as always, gentlemanly and photogenic (and Gregg Toland's photography makes the most of both the leading players), and the story has a nice feminist bent to it--it never castigates Francis for wandering far afield of expected feminine subservience, though it does eventually suggest that she and Manners will exist as equals, not dominating-woman-passive-man. It's pleasant, swift-moving pre-Code, capably directed by William Dieterle and very nice to look at.
Night Court (1932)
MGM goes Warners, not altogether successfully
Nicely pre-Code but rather hack-written MGM programmer, wherein nice blue-collar cabby Phillips Holmes and nice wifey Anita Page come under the heavy thumb of Judge Walter Huston, who's incredibly corrupt. Huston, with a dashing mustache, relishes his bad-guy histrionics, and it's fun to see Metro toiling in the lower-class provenance of Warners. But the social consciousness is awkward: Huston's so all-bad and enemy Lewis Stone so all-good that these good actors can't do much to make their roles interesting, while the always-too-pretty Holmes is given to some theatrical, unconvincing soliloquizing. We're also asked to sympathize with and root for him when he kidnaps Huston, gags him, ties him to a chair, and beats him up. Virtue does triumph; we know because there's a shot of a newspaper headline saying something like "Vice Banished Forever from City, D.A. Says." There's also an annoyingly cute baby. W.S. Van Dyke directs at about half the pace Mervyn LeRoy or Howard Hawks would have employed at Warners, and Page is given to scene after scene of screaming and wailing. It's fun as a time capsule, but other studios, notably Warners, were handling material like this with much more finesse.