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The Ship from Shanghai (1930)
Class war at sea.
Written by Hollywood Ten screenwriter John Howard Lawson, this crackles with class resentment. The blasé privileges of wealth: i.e. Going to the office at eleven and working furiously until noon, are thrown into a maelstrom of class war. It starts with the usual, per the period, bunch of night club swells dressed to the nines, blithely decide to take a yachting journey to San Francisco. While they talk about the crew in disparaging terms, the steward seethes at being ordered about, being blamed for their faults, etc. While the rich lounge on deck drinking highball, the crew is restricted to the heat of below decks. A storm, which the rich welcome for a bit of excitement, seriously damages the ship, giving the steward the opportunity to mutiny and take over the ship reversing the situation. Its clear that Lawson was writing a parable of Class War. Its always been my hypothesis that early talkies became unpopular not because of their crudeness because of the early recording equipment, but because the subject matter, mostly 1920s theater, was made instantly passé by the depression. Men in white tie at the country club dance, fluttering flappers trying to decide between one vapid stockbroker or another. These became chokingly irrelevant in the depression. Here this begins in the same way but gets down to the ugly truth quite quickly. That this wasn't popular at the time is obvious. The O'Neill type ending doesn't help. Lawson was to take a lesson from this and spread Communist propaganda in more subtle ways later in his career. He was, however, just as doctrinaire, becoming the head of the Communist Party cell in Hollywood.
Four Minute Fever (1956)
A 9 minute film about the breaking of the 4 minute mile gets it wrong, all wrong.
Some people will note under the "goofs" section that while this little short declares John Landy of Australia was the first man to break the four minute barrier, in fact it was Roger Bannister who ran the first four minute mile. A "goof"? The whole reason for this film was to tell the story of the four minute mile. And they got THAT wrong? Will they make a film about Willy Messerschmitt inventing the airplane? Russia landing a man on the moon. If you're making a film about the breaking of the four minute mile and you anoint the wrong man and not mention the real record breaker you aught to get out of the movie business. Which RKO did the year this was made.
Hollywood Cowboy (1937)
A cute little western that affectionados will love, others, maybe not.
This was a pleasant little surprise, a clever and entertaining programmer western. It's a modern day western, a mix of roadsters and horse riding, familiar as the so called Autry Fantasy. In this case it seems that some actual logic entered into the existence of these two dimensions to exist side by side. The cattle ranchers who have to round up their cattle are saddle bound. Visitors from the outside world drive cars. But that's just one little witticism.
The picture begins with a series of newspaper headlines to the effect that the city is cleaning up the gangsters who are running the protection racket. The head bad guy, played by Charles Middelton, none other than the immortal Ming the Merciless himself, decides to lay low for a while and take their racket to the countryside and inopportune the cattle ranchers. Their techniques are very up-to-date, using an airplane to buzz the herds and scatter them preventing their going to market. So there's that, somewhat typical western plot, somewhat updated.
There's Maude Eberne playing the crusty old dame role to the hilt, resisting the evil entreaties of Charles Middleton. She has, wait for it, a beautiful daughter. Now throw in a joker in the form of George O'Brien, star of an enormous string of 30s cowboy pictures playing Jeffrey Carson, star of western movies. They are filming in the area and have just completed the last shot. A writer chum from New York (G. Gatsby Holmes (!)) running away from a divorce subpoena wants O'Brien to go camping for a few weeks and is in the habit of quoting Shakespeare. Yeah, this is a western where the Bard is liberally quoted. The henchman of the villain rough up the beautiful daughter and O'Brien saves the day while still in character. Known as a "meet cute". She doesn't realize that he's a movie star and for the rest of the film he has a wry smile on his face as people think he's just some sort of saddle bum named Buck. Satirizing class differences lends a farcical aspect to the story.
O'Brien has a sidekick played by Dan Wolheim, for a programmer he was more than just good. He plays it as a rough precursor to Fred Mertz, grouchy. Buck and his two sidekicks have been taken on by Eburne as cowpunchers. Then we have the heat turned up on the farcical as the rancher's beautiful daughter is being courted by a New York scion to a Park Avenue fortune or whom she has no regard whatsoever. But he is total denial. Check out his name: Westbrook Courtney and he wears an ascot and drives the most beautiful Rolls Royce roadster. The comedy comes when he notices beautiful daughter and "Buck" getting together and he takes Buck aside to tell him, for his own good, to know his place because he's only going to be disappointed and hurt if he tries to romance a lady above his station. Of course George O'Brien finds the whole affaire amusing. As a movie star he outranks the Park Avenue scion.
So Courtney is out in the RR roadster and come across a wanted poster with George O'Brien's picture on it. Of course its a prop left over from the movie he was filming. Courtney can't wait to tell everybody they have been harboring a criminal. Everybody, including the Cattleman's Association, gets hot under the collar that they've caught a dangerous criminal, so beautiful daughter goes to warn "Buck". More farce as she lets on that she knows his secret, which means to him that she's found out that he's a movie star and to her that he's a wanted criminal with a price on his head. Courtney calls the sheriff who arrives expecting to arrest a criminal. Now if this had been most any other programmer western, O'Brien would have spent the last twenty minutes of the film under suspicion as the bad guy in disguise, put in jail and breaking jail to capture the real bad guy and prove himself innocent. Here the sheriff walks in on this proto lynch mob and has a good laugh because he knows that he's the actor from the recently departed film company and the wanted poster is just a prop. In these pictures the Sheriff is usually a boob willing to believe the first superficial story placed before him.
Of course it seems as though O'Brien doesn't take anything seriously because he's the only one aware that he's in a movie and can rise above it. He finally speaks up and asks if anyone's noticed that all of their cattle troubles began when Middleton, remember, he's the villain, arrived in town and began selling protection? How many westerns, how many movies in general, is it so obvious that all of their troubles are easily identified as being a villain's doing, yet they always focus on some innocent, usually the hero, because really without it there's maybe 20 minutes of story? And the crime is usually the murder of the heroine's father which she reacts to with mere petulance and anger. Hey, its just a programmer western! Significantly they were referred to as "juveniles in the day.
Then it really begins to get good. O'Brien has a plan. He calls a movie stunt friend to fly out and when they commence their cattle round up the bad guys bring out their beat up biplane only to be trumped by this beautiful all silver Ryan ST monoplane. They force the biplane down and he tells them where the bad guys hide out is. They bomb it sending them scurrying and they are rounded up by the cattlemen and O'Brien and the beautiful daughter kiss and all's right with the world.
Trade Winds (1938)
This review is all spoilers. Bewarned!
This is an amusing little trifle. No more or no less. A charming cast, a fast pace, snappy dialog, charming players, a very silly story and a naked and unexplained denouement. The film started with the footage Tay Garnett made during a round-the-world sail. Or at least as far as Bombay sail. What to do with this footage? Dorothy Parker and sometime husband Alan Campbell, and Frank Adams, an ex-reporter and music composer who co-wrote I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now concocted a story about a classy broad who thinks she shot and killed a man and escapes San Francisco by going west to Hawaii, Japan, China, etc. She is being chased by the World's Greatest Detective, the dumbest flatfoot on the force who never-the- less is high ranking, and said detectives secretary. So you see the background shots are used as the backgrounds of all the places they go. Miss Parker is responsible for some mighty clever lines, lines which gave Ann Southern a whole career.
This was produced by independent producer Walter Wanger who released through United Artists. Wanger could do what he wanted and obtained the services of Frederick March who had previously acted in a Parker script A Star Is Born for independent producer David Selznick. March's agent was David's brother Myron. Joan Bennett was married to Walter Wanger and perhaps the most famous or even important aspect of this film is that Joan went brunette in this film and never went back. As they say. Ralph Bellamy was stuck in the middle of a career where he would get scripts to read in which characters were described as "Ralph Bellamy type". His name in the film "Blodgett" was the same as the want to be star in A Star is Born. Getting failed "B" actress Ann Southern from nowhere was brilliant. No doubt the 4' 11" Parker used the 5' 1" Southern as an avatar for her whit, especially her smart-woman-in-a- man's-world be-bop. Blodgett is a direct rip off of Shakespeare's Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing (which might be a title suitable for this film). Sidney Blackmer is featured and appears in one scene and is out of there faster than you can say Janet Leigh. Tommy Mitchell is in two scenes, both shot on the same set, and is also featured. Wanger padding out the cast for the price of two days work.
The ending is maddening. The murder is revealed to prove Bennett's innocence in the first ten minutes but the film just goes on as if nobody heard. Of course in those days people didn't worry about such things as extradition or jurisdictions so our detectives go off in pursuit. The put-upon secretary goes on after them. March and Bennett fall in love and Bennett is betrayed and sent to trial. A trap is set for the real murderer based on the idea that they will be the people who don't show up at a party. Only they do show up at the party or else there wouldn't be a climax. The thing is the murderer, the backstory, the motive or even who these people are is never explained. I guess its not really important as the story skims along purely on the surface, sort of like the drama skims in front the back projections from Garnett's journey. Everybody, that is movie goers, knew the context of film conventions. They could connect the dots. At one point March buys a ticket from a cabin on a departing ship under the name Mr. & Mrs. Jones and Bellamy and Southern are tricked into taking it. So they decide to get married. A Dorothy Parker joke.
The sets are by Alexander Toluboff and a young Alexander Golitzen and the cinematography by the matchless Rudolph Maté. Garnett never made a stupid film or directed a bad scene so Wanger did his job correctly and hired the best people for his film.
I guess today the film from the journey is more valuable than the negative and rights to Trade Winds. It shows a world which no longer exists and that is priceless.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1987)
Awful example of how hacks reduce a film classic into a cheesy TV movie of the 80s variety.
Textbook example of how a classic film can be screwed up into a hack TV movie. The thing that is the most obvious is that everything is pitched to the materialist aspirations of a TV audience. The woman is a New York artist, a flaky non-stop talker single mother (just like them), with a delinquent son, who lives in a huge Soho loft on Broadway no less. The relationship between mom and the son is a big plot element. Everything seems reduced into a small domestic situation. When she finds out that the neighbor who shows interest in her and her son is the head of a big corporation she gets angry that he's so rich. Yeah, its that sort of a film. And for a "timeless" story its embarrassingly anchored in a moment in the 80's. It panders to a low bow middle American TV audience who want to be reassured that this is the way it is "there" among "those people". The kids with boom boxes on roof tops, people dressed as spacemen in discos, giant lofts with lackadaisical artists daubing here and there at a canvas. Its as phony as the dubbed in traffic sounds in outdoor street scenes. Its just another job to be walked through. No one, from the director or writer down to the smallest bit actor actually believes that there doing anything of worth. Before I found this surfing on a weird cable channel in the afternoon when I ill never knew it existed. I can recommend this for film students who want to line these two films side by side to see how the business works. And P.S., I just hate that low key, wall to wall, synthetic piano noodling in the background, SOP for TV movies. Its just a different audience for an 80s TV movie than an early 70s theatre film and the differences are definitive of how to pander to the former. Of course today, 25 years later, they know better how to pander to the more ADD affected audience with such concoctions as LOST. Look up Bobby Roth's filmography and there is a list of hip but soon abandoned semi sci-fi TV featuring shorter but more intense scenes. The same old same old endlessly reshaped and sold.
La conjura de El Escorial (2008)
Accurate history of Philip ll Spain in case anybody cares
Almost every historical movie is mostly movie and very little history. The fault of La conjura de El Escorial is that for once it might be too much history. The action takes place in the court of Spain's King Philip ll. The year is 1578 and the crisis is about the war against the rebels, Protestant supporters of William of Orange in the Netherlands. There are two views at the court. The aging Duke of Alba, a blunt military man, would go to all out war, and the young and progressive Prime Minister, Antonio Perez, (Jason Isaacs)objects to the expense of the war and argues for a negotiated settlement.
The Spanish regent in the Netherlands was Don Juan of Austria, the hero of Lepanto and bastard of Charles V and Philips' half brother. Philip is worried that Don Juan might be too ambitious so Perez sends Juan de Escobedo (Joaquim de Almeida) to be Don Juan's secretary. Sort of a plant but Escobedo turned and became Don Juan's man. This is all about Escobedo. He returns to Madrid and becomes aware that Perez has been treacherous, maybe even treasonous, manipulating the situation to his own advantage, sowing doubt in the king's mind against Don Juan. Perez's lover/coconspirator is the Princess of Eboli, (Julia Ormond) complete with eyepatch. Escobedo comes into possession of papers proving their disloyalty and they plot his murder. After poisoning fails they have him set upon in the streets and murdered on Easter Monday 1578. The rest of the film is rather like Costa-Gavris' Z, as the plot is uncovered as a 16th century police procedural.
Though it's a Spanish film, I saw the film dubbed into English with Spanish subtitles and the voices were so similar and the men period properly bearded that it took a couple of minutes to distinguish the protagonists. The film is just straight ahead history. There is sub plot of a doomed love between a constable (Jurgen Porchnow) and a poor morisco girl (Blanca Jara). Escobedo was poisoned three times but in the film there is only one attempt. Just necessary concision. There is a rather desultory sword fight, routine stuff. Other than that one could write a tolerable term paper from having seen the film.
It could be interesting if you're interested in history. However there are no good looking ex- models in their 20s with great cheekbones, David Bowie on the soundtrack, 'splosions , Perseus not marring Andromeda and other anachronisms, so it will not, as they say, find its audience. TORA TORA TORA the story of Pearl Harbor told from both points of view and tirelessly researched and recreated was, sorry, a bomb at the box office. The sequel MIDWAY, which made use of a lot of left over material and was full of soap opera conventions watered down and sentimentalized history, made money at the box office. Several years ago I saw a Czech film from the socialist period about the Munich crisis of 1938. It was an education but, again, not something the general public could be interested in. However I am now fully conversant with the minutia of the period. This role, the historical film, the accurate historical film, has been supplanted by the widespread contemporary technique in documentaries of recreation. Documentaries now have cast lists, props and costumes.
Once upon a time, in fact from the very beginning of the feature film, the historical costume picture was a staple of the film industry. These were basically fiction films like say The Three Musqueteers. It is a rarity today, the challenge being to contemporize everything for a young audience, but in truth, an historical film which was both excitingly cinematic and accurate is a promise which the cinema has left unachieved except in rare instances like THE PIANIST. British war movies of the 50s and 60s tended to be non sensational and accurate. But that's what they call the living past. The remote past is anybody's game. GLORIOUS BASTERDS played as fast and loose with recent history as a gladiator or crusades picture do without drawing attention to themselves. We know how WW2 turned out but how many know how the 3rd Crusade ended? The pity is that film is the perfect medium to recreate history and history is itself more exciting than the dull assemblies of clichés and standardized stories which attempt to pander to a narrow minded audience.
King Philip is the king because we are told he is. His behavior does not categorize him as cruel, generous, greedy, brave or any other comfortable stereotype. People tend to want to easily pigeonhole characters to facilitate involvement in the story. A rooting element its called, usually based on prejudice and preconceived ideas. A drama containing Richard The Lion Heart and Philip Augustus of France will play to the audiences notion of Richard as a hale fellow, honest, fair, magnanimous, open and brave while Philip is sly, untrustworthy, cowardly etc. Find a jolly, open faced actor for Richard and a mean, narrow faced one for Philip. Let the audience figure it out from there. In this picture Philip ll is merely a man, a clever and experienced one at that, but merely a man. He is capable of errors but he doesn't go around in a perpetual temper tantrum as movie kings so often do.
The version I saw was 128 min. but there is a 150 minute version too. I think they cut out some courtroom action as well a fuller explanation of Perez' and Eboli's motivation for their plot.
Unfortunately, while the story of La conjura de El Escorial is faultlessly presented, it is nothing that would interest a contemporary audience in the first place. Even tarted up it would be like colorizing an old movie no one is really interested in anyway. For the history student only lightly familiar with the period and events, its an education.
Nazty Nuisance (1943)
Awful picture you may be amused with enough to kill 45 min.
This is a really moronic film but as it went along within its own context I must admit I was amused. So my warning is to dump it in the first 5 minutes if you don't like it or you will kill another 40 minutes. As it is even low comedy has a floor and this is in the basement. The humor is that of the burlesque theater and it wouldn't surprise me if the writers came from that discipline. Its always interesting to see "B" movies "star" players usually consigned to feature rolls in "A" pictures like Guy Kibee. Of course this is no ordinary "B" but a cut below, one of Hal Roach's "streamliners" or 45 minute movies which didn't even qualify it as a feature. The lead here is Frank Faylen, who was more of a bit player in "A"s and a featured player in "B"s but here has the lead. He plays the typical American wise guy, a standard Commedia del Arte figure in films of the era. This film had its own niche at the far edge of propaganda. However well or poorly the war was going, whatever the newspaper headlines or radio reports, watching the axis as the victims of slapstick gags was a morale boost. Set up as burlesque skits we have a submarine with 5 crewmen, a tribe with 5 members, etc. just the number of people who can fit on a stage. There is no real narrative and the logic would even frustrate W. C. Fields. Hitler wants to make a treaty with some African country with is vital to the war but we never learn why. The leader of this country will only deal with the head man so Hitler is going to sneak off in a U- Boat but Mussolini and a Japanese general find out and are going along too. Meanwhile the crew (or at least 5 of them) in a lifeboat of a torpedoed merchantman arrive on the very shore of this African country. This African country is run by an absolute dictator (Ian Keith) who dresses like an Arabian Night movie Arab but speaks with a British RP accent and acts like he's out for a night of fun. He lives in a tent, there are a handful of people around and thats it for the African Country.
Faylen assumes the identity of a magician (!) and sets up a number of gags which result in maximum discomfort for the axis. The jokes and gags sometimes pour forth at speed and sometimes they come lumbering in slo-mo. Pure slapstick action with the occasional pun thrown in like "The New Oder". The gags can be sub Three Stooges in concept like the pillow fight. The pillow fight was interesting because apparently they had a machine dropping feathers or feather like objects from the flies which never stops! The seamen capture the U-Boat and they all escape with Hitler & co as prisoners.
It gave some psychological relief for audiences to laugh as Hitler was kicked in the pants by a regular American guy. BTW Hitler was played by Bobby Watson who made a nice show business dollar playing Hitler during WW2, playing Herr Schickelgrubber in no less than 9 films.
The Emergency Case (1930)
This is where we came in let's go.
There is a history of films which were so bad that they were sold on that basis. They were called "chasers" and were first used in Vaudeville. Shows were continuous and the only way to get people to get up and leave and free up a seat to be sold was to play something that no sane person would want to sit through more than once. Later when the double feature was introduced with continuous shows they were used. This is what The Emergency Case was.
It is based on the vaudeville sketch. Even more forgotten then vaudeville, was the use of sketches and dramatic scenes in the line up of singers, comics, dancers and acrobats and others. Sometimes they showcased celebrities and gave them a excuse to be exposed on stage to the public like a champion fighter or famous murderer. O.J. would have gone into vaudeville and traveled around America and a little scene would have been written for him.
So this is a vaudeville sketch or maybe even a sanitized burlesque sketch. This is what a burlesque sketch about a fake doctor and the cop's wife looks like after all of the rude and suggestive material has been taken out.
Its pretty terrible with a weak punch line not even delivered by the "comic"! The jazz at the beginning and end is pretty good and if typical of the period it was sort of a high point for pop music.
O velkou cenu (1922)
Plucky lass wins the big race and heart of the good guy.
Also known as Grand Prix and Race For Life
Typical Victorian melodrama, typical for the age, maybe even a little retrograde. Story is about widower Harry Vard, an ex-racing driver and currently chief engineer of the Sylvan car. He has three children, one older daughter, Nelly, and two younger ones. An old schoolmate comes to him for a job and he gives him one. Nelly has a boy friend, a self described student Karel who is really the son of the owner of a rival car firm, Meteor. The old school chum tells a sob story and gets Harry to sign a loan for him from Sylvan's owner and then absconds. Harry is depressed and Nelly breaks a date with Karel who is taken up by a vamp. To make up the money Harry agrees to drive the firm's car in a Grand Prix race even though he promised his late wife he wouldn't. He is killed in practice. Immediately the married owner of Sylvan makes the moves on Nelly, and, when she defends her honor, has her thrown out of her apartment. She moves in with her grandmother and deposits her sister and brother in an orphanage. Karel, the vamp having dumped him, tries to apologize but his letter is stolen by the Sylvan owner. Nelly finds a job but discovers that the driver for Meteor in the Grand Prix has been kidnapped and talks the Meteor owner into giving her the car to drive but just then an assistant arrives with news that he signed up a couple of the Mercedes drivers who were idle. The owner is touched by Nelly's disappointment and gives her last year's car and tell her if she can make it to third he'll pay her the winner's share out of his own pocket.
Pretty standard stuff.
Then comes the race, the only reason to see this picture. Not that its anything authentic. The "racing cars" are enormous open touring cars complete with headlights and tool boxes on the running boards and a serpentine horn with a rubber bulb. There's a quick shot of the equally huge all white Mercedes team at the 1914 French Grand Prix which are at least stripped for racing. But the race begins with one car after the other starting at intervals under a fantastic Bohemian Art Nouveau start sign. The cars race over empty dirt roads. Undoubtedly under- cranked here and there, it still is fascinating to see these big cars at speed, clouds of dust rooster tailing behind them. Nelly's car isn't running so well and her mechanic repairs the car while at speed by going out on the running board and leaning on the fender. No CGI or process shot, it's a great stunt. Later the mechanic counter balances the car around turns like a racing sailboat. Of course Nelly wins the race. Then is taken to the hospital for exhaustion. Karel has returned in time to see the race and learns the truth and gives the Slyvan owner a good thrashing. Nelly recovers and marries Karel and everybody happy.
Not the most artistic film, it shows an almost automobile free Prague, country highways, both with numerous pile of horse flop. Then there are these cars racing on the dirt roads. This picture is principally interesting because of it glimpses into the reality of Bohemia circa 1922. BC. Before cars.
Hunt the Man Down (1950)
A little noir with some little unexpected pleasures for the enthusiast.
Hunt The Man Down is a routine little noir of slightly more than an hour in length but rich in its characterizations so not a total waste of time. It's a strange combination of Call Northside 777 and Chandler's Farewell My Lovely which was filmed as Murder My Sweet. A short order cook in a one arm joint thwarts an armed robber and his photo in the paper reveals him to be an escaped murderer who escaped his trial 12 years previously just before the verdict was to be read. Now if you ignore the plot hole that a man wanted and nearly convicted of murder and facing the gas chamber would stick around Los Angeles you can watch him as he passively is rearrested. He draws Gig Young as his public defender who, though initially skeptical of his client's innocence, goes about proving it.
The writer was a hack who slid into TV series easily as did the veteran hack director, George Archainbaud who had been making "B" pictures and western programmers as long ago as 1917. The cinematographer was a genius, Nick Musuraca, and the playing by a phalanx of character actors, most of whom I believe were radio regulars, including the estimable Iris Adrian, make this a very enjoyable little picture. Veteran oh-I-know-him villain Gerald Mohr, who had been in hundreds of radio plays and series and who was the stentorian voice over at the beginning of TV's The Lone Ranger, many of which were also directed by Archainbaud, makes a rare benign appearance.
It doesn't hurt that there is a lot of filming done on the 1950 streets of Los Angeles. And not just the usual recognizable landmarks but places with a breathtaking ordinariness that are somehow even more interesting than seeing an exterior of the Brown Derby. The film can't pretend that its anything other than a piece of work. By 1949 20 % of films were independently produced. By 1957 it was up to 57%. Pushed by the Paramount consent agreement and headed for TV, cut price films were being churned out. It's merely a coincidence that Hunt the Man Down was made in the middle of the noir era. A few years later and it would have been a cheap western or sci fi horror picture.
Hunt The Man Down shares many of the budgetary virtues of other noirs: concise storytelling, brisk pacing, location shooting, lack of distracting sub-plots and themes, no nonsense acting. The cinematography is wonderful which is consistent with classic noirs and the direction is uninspired but competent which is all that's needed for a decent noir. The writing is passable because, as they say, the writer stole from the best. There is one superb line, however. A witness is in a bar drinking and Gig Young's father is trying to get him away by promising him better liqueur and the man agrees, saying "You're right, I've drunk better alcohol out of compasses". A jewel in a dung heap. Hunt the Man Down was also made during the black list era and what better a match-up than an outlaw writer and a cheap producer. I don't know if the writer was a front or if the script was subjected to a polish job by a blacklisted writer. Only time will tell.
The courtroom denouement is more than just a little over the top but its all wrapped up so neatly and so quickly so where's the complaint? And Gig Young's father, a retired one armed police detective, is played by Harry Shannon who also played the father of Charles Foster Kane. If you love noirs you will enjoy this film but if you expect profound cinematic art you will be disappointed.