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The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Murder in a Bungalow
THE BLUE DAHLIA (Paramount, 1946), directed by George Marshall, reunites the popular trio of Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and William Bendix from a Dashell Hammett mystery tale of THE GLASS KEY (Paramount, 1942), in another mystery tale, this one by author, Raymond Chandler. With the opening titles superimposed over the glittering dahlia over a nightclub, a viewer's first impression was to be seeing a nightclub melodrama casting Ladd as its proprietor, Lake the sultry blonde singer and mistress, and Bendix a rough and tough bouncer/ bodyguard. With that in mind, it's always fun after the completion of the opening credits to expect the unexpected, one of many reasons why THE BLUE DAHLIA has turned out so well upon its initial release. In later years, it's become one of Ladd's most televised movies in the sixties, seventies and part of the 1980s, and it's easy to see why.
The story starts off with an introduction of three war buddies from World War II coming out of a Hollywood bus in the city of Los Angeles, California, to face a new world of civilian life: Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd), a Navy lieutenant commander; "Buzz" Wenchek (William Bendix), a shell-shock victim with great sensitivity towards loud juke box "monkey" music; and George Copeland (Hugh Beaumont), an attorney by profession. As Buzz and George return to the apartment building they once lived before the war, Johnny comes to Cavendish Court, Bungalow 93, to surprise his wife, Helen (Doris Dowling). Upon his arrival, Johnny is shocked to find his wife drunk, hosting an all-night party for her drunken friends, and finding Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva), proprietor of The Blue Dahlia night club, kissing his wife. After the guests leave, Johnny comes to more bitter shock learning how his son, Dickie, actually died. During a quarrel, Johnny takes out his gun with the intent of killing Helen, but comes to the conclusion she's not worth it. Dropping the gun on the couch, he takes his belongings, leaving the hotel bungalow in disgust. While walking in the rain down the dark streets, a young blonde (Veronica Lake), driving to Malibu, offers him a ride. Before the night is over, Johnny and the blonde part company while Helen, having already entertained three separate visitors in the course of a few hours, is found dead the next morning by Jenny, the housemaid (Mae Busch) with a gun nearby. With Johnny the prime suspect, and Captain Hendrickson (Tom Powers) of the Los Angeles police questioning his friends, Johnny and the blonde continue to meet on different paths after several goodbyes. This time the blonde, believing Johnny innocent, helps him in his search for the real killer. Before coming upon evidence leading him to The Blue Dahlia, Johnny is surprised to find the blonde married to the man with possible motives for his wife's murder.
Although the seems to be full of clichés and coincidences throughout, THE BLUE DAHLIA is still first-rate forties-style entertainment. With the Ladd-Lake combination working so well here as it did in their two previous screen efforts, it's a wonder how THE BLUE DAHLIA might have turned out had it starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (Warner Brothers); Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell (20th Century-Fox); Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer (RKO Radio); or John Hodiak and Gloria Grahame (MGM) in their place. With fate on their side, it's hard to imagine anyone other than Ladd-Lake in the leads. With THE BLUE DAHLIA being Ladd's film throughout (94 minutes), there's a brief time out for nightclub singer vocalizing to an old tune, "Easy to Remember" (by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart). Of the supporting players, William Bendix stands out where he realistically goes through spells of mental blackouts, and gets some laughs where he gives a "copper" a hard time in the police department. Fans of the "Leave It to Beaver" TV series (1957-1963) should enjoy seeing Hugh Beaumont years before his legendary TV Dad role of Ward Cleaver. Let's not overlook Howard Da Silva's performance, along with other shady characters as Will Wright (The House Detective) and Don Costello (Leo).
Distributed to home video (1998) and DVD (2014), notable cable TV broadcasts consist of American Movie Classics (1995-1999) and Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: December 15, 2001). With SHANE (Paramount, 1953) labeled as Ladd's best screen performance, THE BLUE DAHLIA comes a close second, thanks to his confident tough guy image. Though not as well-known as some of the other notable film noir contemporaries from that era, THE BLUE DAHLIA is recommended without hesitation, even for not being a full-fledged nightclub melodrama as the opening credits promised. (***1/2)
The Toast of New York (1937)
The Wolf of Wall Street
THE TOAST OF NEW YORK (RKO Radio, 1937), an Edward Small Production, directed by Rowland V. Lee, stars Edward Arnold in a fictional account of the rise and fall of Wall Street financier, James "Jim" Fisk Jr. (1934-1872). Having already starred as multi-millionaire, "Diamond Jim" Brady in DIAMOND JIM (Universal, 1935), it seemed natural for Arnold to pursue another biographical story centering upon the life of another famous man called "Jim." While Jim Fisk isn't as better known as Diamond Jim Brady, it does leave one to ask, "Who is Jim Fisk?" Based on "The Book of Daniel Drew" by Bouck White, and the story "Robber Barons" by Matthew Josephson, the opening passage offers an brief explanation to whom Jim Fisk is: "Jim Fisk - half genius, half clown - began life with empty pockets, a pack on his back, and a Yankee gift of gab. Loving a uniform - always in front of every parade - he became the Barnum of peddlers and then skyrocketed into high finance in Wall Street where in a few brief years he started a Nation with his colorful career, but in 1861 - before the first guns of the Civil War were fired - he was still an obscure peddler - somewhere South of the Mason & Dixon line." Set during a span of ten years, the plot opens in 1861 where Jim Fisk (Edward Arnold), a medicine show impresario assisted by Nick Boyd (Cary Grant) and Luke (Jack Oakie), get chased out of town by an angry mob after being exposed as fakes. Once passing the boarder onto the next state, Jim next get-rich-quick scheme has him sending Luke to Boston where he's to open an office while he and Nick remain behind to smuggle Southern cotton to the Northern states. At the close of the Civil War where the trio reunite, Fisk discovers Luke converted their profits into worthless Confederate bonds. Coming up with another plan to make millions, Fisk sells his business to Daniel Drew (Donald Meek), and contrives a controlling interest in the Erie Railroad. Before becoming a wealthy financial wizard of New York's stock market, he encounters Josie Mansfield (Frances Farmer), a maid working for temperamental French actress Mademoiselle Fleurigue (Thelma Leeds), and through his philosophy to "think big, talk big and be big," he arranges for the ambitious actress who becomes Jim's mistress to succeed on stage, much to the displeasure of Nick, who believes in himself Josie could become the cause of his financial ruin.
With the champagne glasses and glittering lettering in the opening titles, THE TOAST OF NEW YORK appears to be an expensive lavish-scale production, and certainly is. With its large, impressive cast, THE TOAST OF NEW YORK is very much Edward Arnold's show from start to finish. Reuniting him for the second and final time with Frances Farmer (on loan from Paramount) from COME AND GET IT (Samuel Goldwyn, 1936), where her dual role characterization nearly overshadows Arnold's performance, this time it's Arnold who has the spotlight through his solid performance. Aside from appearing 22 minutes from the start of the story, Farmer's natural acting style which usually garners praise and attention spends much of her time in a Hollywood-ridden cliché pattern in a love/hate relationship with Cary Grant amounting to little challenge here. A fine performance on her part, Farmer's vocalization to the film's theme song is okay, but not as magical as her haunting rendition of "Aural Lee" from COME AND GET IT.
Other worthy offering involving Farmer is the montage in segments involving her stage performance of "Twelve Temptations." Jack Oakie, always good to have around for comic relief, resumes his duties here in a some notable scenes, especially one that has Luke drilling a regiment of soldiers where everything goes comically wrong, as observed in disbelief by the Top Sergeant (Stanley Fields). Thelma Leeds as the French actress gives a performance reminiscent to Luise Rainer's Anna Held from THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (MGM, 1936), but unlike Rainer, no Academy Award nomination.
During the course of 109 minutes, songs incorporated into the story include: "Opoh La La" (sung by Thelma Leeds); "The First Time I Saw You" (theme song sung by Frances Farmer); and "The Temptation Waltz." Others in the cast include Clarence Kolb (Cornelius Vanderbilt); Lionel Bellmore (President of the Board); and Mary Gordon (Mrs. Callahan). Look quickly for Hal Roach stock players of Laurel and Hardy comedies as James Finlayson and Billy Gilbert in smaller roles.
As a biography, THE TOAST OF NEW YORK disappoints in accuracy. As a motion picture overall, it's quite good even with expected results. Largely overlooked and forgotten until distributed to home video in the 1980s, DVD (Turner Entertainment) and broadcasts on cable television including USA (1986-87), American Movie Classics (prior to 2000), the story and the rise to power of Jim Fisk and his relationship with Josie Mansfield can be seen occasionally on Turner Classic Movies. (***1/2)
Angel on My Shoulder (1946)
To Hell and Back
ANGEL ON MY SHOULDER (United Artists, 1946), directed by Archie Mayo, stars Paul Muni in one of his finer film efforts in his latter movie career. An interesting yet unusual project for the Academy Award winning actor best known for solid dramatic roles and historic figures where his facial make-up in thirties screen performances of Louis Pasteur, Emile Zola and Benito Juarez at Warner Brothers allowed him to appear in almost unrecognizable manner, Muni, who wouldn't allow himself to fall victim in type-casting, assumes his first gangster role since SCARFACE (United Artists, 1932). Rather than playing an Italian accented gang leader who becomes the "shame of a nation," this time Muni does one better, that of a tough-talking American mug who never got passed the third grade who learns a moral lesson during his second chance in life.
Opening title: "This story is about Eddie Kagle, who based his way of living on what Omar Khayyam once said: 'Live fully while you may and reckon not the cost.'" After serving a four year prison term, Eddie Kagle (Paul Muni), gangster, walks out freely into the world where he's greeted by his boyhood pal and partner, "Smiley" Williams (Hardie Albright). As Eddie's being taken for a ride, he asks Smiley for his gun. Four shots are fired. The spirit of Eddie Kagle ends up in the pits of hell, surrounded by heat, lava, fire, darkness and the smell of "rotten eggs." Along the way he comes across other lost souls bound to eternal condemnation. Because Eddie happens to be the spitting image of a Judge Frederick Parker, an honest politician running for governor, Nick (Claude Rains), the devil, wanting to take more souls with him into hell, allows Kagle temporary freedom outside Hades to avenge his killer in exchange for he assuming the body of Judge Parker to dishonor his good name. Upon his return to Earth, Kagle, assuming Parker's identity after collapsing in the courtroom. While following Nick's plan, Eddie unwittingly fails in his assignment through unforeseen circumstances. Having found love with Barbara Foster (Anne Baxter), the judge's secretary and fiancée, the devil uses every possible motive to tempt Eddie into sin, even to a point of having him come face to face with Smiley. With an "angel on his shoulder," Eddie comes up with some plans of his own.
A fantasy-comedy with warmth and humor, the original story, credited to Harry Segall, very much borrows from his own premise of the motion picture classic, HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (Columbia, 1941), starring Robert Montgomery and Claude Rains, only in reverse. Changing the emphasis from Heaven to Hell and Claude Rains assuming similar duties from guardian angel to guardian demon, with parallel ideas in different directions, the film overall is quite entertaining. More talk than action, with Muni taking full control of his actions, showing two sides of his nature, it is Rains who holds his own in fine support as he did in HERE COMES MR. JORDAN. Although Anne Baxter seems too youthful to be playing Muni's love interest to his other character, her performance with uplift forties hairstyle and mature mannerisms overcomes such obstacles. Other members of the cast include: Onslow Stevens (Doctor Max Higgins, Parker's psychiatrist); George Cleveland (Albert, Parker's servant); James Flavin, Jonathan Hale, Ben Weldon and Addison Richards, among others.
By the time the made-for-television remake of ANGEL ON MY SHOULDER starring Peter Strauss, Richard Kiley and Barbara Hershey was released in 1980, the 1946 original, which had fallen into public domain, was soon revived on many public television and local TV stations after two decades away from the TV markets. Availability onto video cassette from numerous distributors and DVD followed, with latter cable television broadcasts on American Movie Classics (1991) and Turner Classic Movies (2003 onward).
While the nearly forgotten Paul Muni name rests on his powerful performance in I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (Warner Brothers, 1932), any movie that has Muni perform a tender love scene, acting drunk and teaming up with the devil, can't be all bad. (*** halos)
The Covered Wagon (1923)
The Long, Long Trail
THE COVERED WAGON (Paramount, 1923), directed by James Cruze, is a western, a large scale western, in fact, was reportedly one that became the inspiration of future western epics of similar theme and nature, consisting of hero, heroin, villain, two old scouts for comedy flavor, Indians, cattle, and a large assortment of movie extras for authentic feel to the pioneering days in American history.
From the novel by Emerson Hough and adapted by Jack Cunningham, the curtain rises presenting the traditional opening credits prior to the introducing inter-titles of what's to be shown: "The blood of America is the blood of pioneers - the blood of lion-hearted men and women who carved a splendid civilization out an uncharted wilderness. With dauntless courage facing unknown perils, the men and women of the "forties" flung the boundaries of the nation. Westward and still westward, beyond the Mississippi, beyond the prairies, beyond the Rockies - until they bounded the United States of America with two oceans." "Westport Landings, 1848, since called Kansas. In May of that year, a great covered wagon caravan gathers together from every section or the Ohio and Missouri valleys, eager to brave the two thousand miles of hardship that lay between Westport and Oregon." Taking part of the 2,000 miles of hardship between Westport and Oregon is Will Banion (J. Warren Kerrigan), veteran of the Mexican War and selected leader of the Liberty Boys. Though engaged to marry Sam Woodhull (Alan Hale), Molly Wingate (Lois Wilson) very much prefers to put off their wedding until after reaching their destination. Suspecting Molly to be in love with Banion, Woodhull does everything possible to discredit him, even to a point of spreading rumors of he being a cattle thief. A violent battle between the two rivals not only causes Molly to not ever wanting to see Banion again, but forcing the traveling caravans to go on their separate ways - Banion taking charge of one group while Molly's father, Jesse Wingate (Charles Ogle) leads the other, each facing their own unforeseen dangers and hardships ahead.
As westerns being part of American cinema practically from its humble beginnings, with Broncho Billy Anderson, Tom Mix and William S. Hart as legendary names associated in that genre, by today's standards, THE COVERED WAGON, lacks any top marquee names of interest. J. Warren Kerrigan, who slightly resembles the gentle profile of John Boles than a rugged leading he-man type of Kirk Douglas, is one actor who, with an assortment of film roles to his credit, suddenly disappeared from movie making by 1924. Lois Wilson, who never achieved super stardom, resumed further into the sound era, while Alan Hale, the most recognizable face here, would play a variety of character parts until his death in 1950. Overlooking the cliché story and troublesome romantic subplot and Johnny Fox's banjo "singing" of Stephen Foster's "Oh Susannah" on a couple of occasions, this 98 minute epic tale does offer notable highlights of interest, including caravans crossing the deep river, prairie fire, Indian attacks, among others.
With countless imitations over the years, John Ford's THE IRON HORSE (Fox, 1924), a prime example, Paramount's Zane Grey's based story, FIGHTING CARAVANS (1931) starring Gary Cooper (DVD title: "Blazing Arrows"), bears a strong resemblance to THE COVERED WAGON, especially with the support of COVERED WAGON co-stars Ernest Torrence (Bill Jackson) and Tully Marshall (Jim Bridger) reprising their original named roles.
Out of the television markets since its public television presentation of the weekly series "The Toy That Grew Up" (WNET, Channel 13, New York City, 1965-1972) where THE COVERED WAGON was severely edited in to fit into its sixty- minute time slot, the film was later restored to its original length, distributed to video cassette in the 1990s equipped with clear picture quality and excellent Gaylord Carter organ score for viewer's enjoyment. Westward Ho!(***)
Children of Pleasure (1930)
Composer settles score
CHILDREN OF PLEASURE (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1930), directed by Harry Beaumont, is only a title that has no bearing on the story. The film has no children yet the title makes one believe it to be one about a childless couple who take in foster kids to bring joy and happiness in their lives. Nothing like that here, not even a song bearing that title to end the story. The film overall, taken from a play "The Song Writer" by Crane Wilbur, (also credited for dialogue), as scripted by Richard Schayer, is a musical about a fictitional songwriter. Following the formula pattern of screen musicals that have become the rage during the motion picture transition from silent to talkies, Beaumont, the director responsible for MGM's first musical and Academy Award winner, "The Broadway Melody" (1929) gives it another try placing the dark-haired, smiley-faced Lawrence Gray, Helen Johnson and Wynne Gibson in the leads rather than reuniting its "Broadway Melody" trio of Charles King, Anita Page and Bessie Love. While "The Broadway Melody" proved beneficial for the studio, with countless imitations that followed during the 1929-30 season, CHILDREN OF PLEASURE is simply one of minor importance.
As with "Broadway Melody," the plot is set mostly in the Broadway district of Manhattan where Danny Regan (Lawrence Gray), a young composer from the Bronx, coming to see and hear the songs he's written for stage performances at a local theater starring his friends, Fanny Kaye (May Boley), the featured singer (with four ex-husbands), and her partner, Andy Little, nee Levine (Benny Rubin) at the piano. During the show, Danny, who's in a relationship with Emma Gray (Wynne Gibson), secretary to song publisher Bernie (Lee Kohlmar), becomes infatuated with a beautiful blonde patron (Helen Johnson) seated next to him. He continues to give her the eye after she leaves. Danny notices the same blonde once again while attending another show featuring his melodies, this time meeting and making the acquaintance with heiress Patricia Thayer. Even though Patricia has been engaged "a dozen times" to Robert Peck (Kenneth Thomson), and not really in Danny's social class, she agrees to marry him as an experiment rather than for love, with intentions of divorce once she becomes bored with him. After Danny overhears her intentions conversed with Peck the day of their wedding, he tells her off and leaves, to become a hopeless drunk. As Emma tries to help Danny through his troubles, and Patricia wanting to explain what he's overheard, it's Danny who really settles the score.
On the musical program, songs include: "A Couple of Birds With the Same Thing in Mind" by Howard Johnson, George Ward and Reggie Montgomery (sung by May Boley, tap dance by male ensemble in black-face); "Raisin' the Dust" (sung by Lawrence Gray); Raisin' the Dust" (reprise, production number performed by May Boley and ensemble in devil costumes, one being future film actress Ann Dvorak); "Girl Trouble" by Andy Rice and Fred Fisher (sung by Gray, comic act performance by Benny Rubin and Wynne Gibson); " As I See You" "Leave It That Way" and "A While Darn Thing For You" (all sung by Gray, the latter accompanied by The Rounders). Of the songs, the last two are easily the best, while the initial two are given okay production number treatment choreographed by Sammy Lee.
While the pattern of entertainer/composer forsaking good girl for the love of the wrong one can easily be traced to recent musicals, notable exceptions being THE SINGING FOOL (1928) with Al Jolson; THE DANCE OF LIFE (1929) with Hal Skelly; and PUTTIN' ON THE RITZ (1930) with Harry Richman, CHILDREN OF PLEASURE, which should have been titled "Girl Trouble," very much belongs to the now forgotten Lawrence Gray. Aside from being in films since the silent era, and quite an acceptable singer, his career would fade to obscurity by the mid 1930s, never making the grade in popular singer category as popular singer as Al Jolson, Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra. Wynne Gibson, shortly before developing her craft as a "tough fame" over at Paramount and RKO Radio, is agreeable in the good girl role, while Helen Johnson (who later changed her name to Judith Wood), could physically be the equivalent to Josephine Dunn's performance in Jolson's THE SINGING FOOL, though Lawrence Gray doesn't end up singing a sad song like "Sonny Boy" to drown out his sorrows.
As much as CHILDREN OF PLEASURE lacks top names of real interest, then and now, film buffs should take great interest in spotting Jack Benny, future radio and TV comedian, and Cliff Edwards, in separate cameo roles playing themselves. Benny Rubin and May Boley as the secondary couple, offer comedy support through verbal exchanges reflecting more like vaudeville routines than natural flare of speaking, while Lee Kohlmar's Jewish dialect with Woody Woodpecker sounding laugh for stereotypical humor is definitely a reflection of the times way back when.
Though far from being a classic in any sense, CHILDREN OF PLEASURE should score well for those interested in the history and development of early screen musicals such as this. Seldom revived, even on Turner Classic Movies cable channel, don't expect finding any children in this one, only Lawrence Gray the composer who writes the songs. (**)
The House of Fear (1945)
Holmes and Watson: The Crime Club Mystery
The "Sherlock Holmes" movie series resumes with its tenth installment of THE HOUSE OF FEAR (Universal, 1945), produced and directed by Roy William Neil. Being the only film in this franchise to lift a title from unrelated Holmes movie (Universal's own mystery, "The House of Fear," starring William Gargan), this entry, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventures of the Five Orange Pips," attempts on being different and most stylish from the previous entries, especially when formula tends to mix with that of both Doyle and famed mystery writer, Agatha Christie.
Following the traditional opening titles and theme score introducing "Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes" an "Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson" through the lifting fog as the camera captures their footed shadow images walking slowly down the streets of uncertainty, the voice-over narrative reveals what's about to occur: "The events I'm about to relate began a fortnight ago in a grim old house first high on a cliff on the west coast of Scotland. This singular structure is known as Drearcliff House. Gathered there for dinner were the seven members of the most extraordinary club called the Good Comrades ..." The story opens with the gathering of wealthy middle-aged members headed by its jolly old founder, Bruce Alastair (Aubrey Mather), Ralph King (Richard Alexander); Stanley Rayburn (Cyril Develati); Captain John Simpson (Harry Cording); Guy Davies (Wilson Benge); Doctor Simon Merrivale (Paul Cavanaugh); and Alan Cosgrove (Holmes Herbert). Mrs. Monteigh (Sally Shepherd), the melancholy housekeeper who never smiles, passes out an envelope containing orange pips to Ralph King, a retired barrister. The following night, King is killed as his car plunges over a cliff. As the men drink a toast to their dearly departed member, Mrs. Monteigh passes out another envelope, this time to Stanley Rayburn, a distinguished actor in his day. He, too, meets his doom. Because the club members have made each other beneficiaries to their substantial life insurance policies, Mr. Chalmers (Gavin Muir), an insurance underwriter, comes to famed London detective Sherlock Holmes for assistance. When Holmes learns Doctor Merrivale, a famous surgeon acquitted years ago for murder to be one of the members, he immediately takes the case. Assisted by his colleague, Doctor Watson, the two crime solvers come to Scotland via train, The Flying Scotsman. Upon their arrival, more ghastly murders take place, all preceded by a mysteriously slid under- the-door envelope containing orange pips, indicating a symbol of death. Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) and assistant Sergeant Bleeker (Leslie Dennison) of Scotland Yard soon enter the scene, not long after Doctor Watson's life is threatened and soon abducted when coming close to solving the mystery himself during his frightful stay in the house, or better yet, castle of fear.
With an abundance of movie mysteries produced at that time, whether individually or part of a continuing series, the best are the ones that succeed even with overly familiar plots. THE HOUSE OF FEAR happens to be one of them. Witnessing club members being killed off one by one as survivors come fear of their lives, suspecting one another, adding to the suspense. Another added treat is the imaginative mid-camera range of subject matters to appear taller than their actual size as well as capturing certain viewpoints through slant camera focus. Aside from well constructed mystery and fine use of witty exchanges between Watson and Lestrade, the plot formulates well-intentioned humor for one noted scene that would do the comedy team of Abbott and Costello proud set during the midnight hours in a cemetery where Watson is shown doing all the work digging up a grave while Holmes sits around to think. As Holmes temporarily steps out of the picture, Watson finds himself conversing and answering questions to the constant sound of "Who?" turning out to be from an observing owl resting on a tree branch above. Notable quote: "No man goes whole to his grave."
For some trivia: THE HOUSE OF FEAR turns out to be a rare instance in the series to not include Mary Gordon in her recurring role as Mrs. Hudson. It's also the second time the full name of Holmes' assistant is indicated, that of Doctor John H. Watson. Harry Cording, usually seen in villainous briefs in other Holmes segments, has a sizable role for a change, while Doris Lloyd (Bessie); David Clyde (MacGregor, the blacksmith); and Alec Craig (Angus) turn up in scene or two. Excluding one brief moment of a plunging car, THE HOUSE OF FEAR could easily pass for Doyle's original intent with story setting being the 1890s rather than the 1940s.
THE HOUSE OF FEAR, distributed to home video and later DVD format, having been broadcast on numerous public television and cable channels, including Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: December 26, 2009), may not show preference as the best in the entire series, but certainly as enjoyable from start to finish as Holmes mysteries go. Next installment: THE WOMAN IN GREEN (1945) which features Holmes' arch enemy, Professor Moriarty. (***)
Playing Around (1930)
Solomon and Sheba
The moral of the story is its theme song, "We Learn About Love Every Day." The title of the movie is PLAYING AROUND (First National Pictures, 1930), directed by Mervyn Leroy, and starring the young, blonde, pert and sassy Alice White in one of her several leading roles for the studio during the late silent/early talkie era (1927-1931). Being the studio's answer to Paramount's Clara Bow, White didn't have much of a cult following as the legendary "It" Girl, however, whatever films that have survived, PLAYING AROUND is a prime example of White's screen character, as adapted from the story, "Sheba" by Vina Delmar, and based on the play, "Playing Around" by Frances Nordstrom and Adele Commandini.
Following a fade-in resembling a pirate movie leading to a production number, the story gets underway with the introduction to its basic characters and how they meet. Set in New York, the story opens in the exclusive Pirates Den restaurant where patron Nicky Soloman (Chester Morris) dines with his male friends. Moments later, Sheba Miller (Alice White), a free-spirited blonde, is escorted by Jack (William Bakewell), her steady boyfriend from her childhood days. After being seated, Jack, with only five dollars in his pocket, finds that after going over the menu, the only thing he can afford is butter milk for 40 cents. Before leaving for a movie, a contest, "Pagent of the Knees" is to take place with Nicky, acting as judge, is to pick out the girl walking cross the stage behind a half-way curtain, with the best looking legs. Of the parade of girls, Nicky chooses Sheba, who not only wins the prize cup, but a free dinner. Feeling awkward about being the center of attention, Jack talks Sheba into leaving. Before the night is over, Nicky, very much interested with the blonde, makes attempts by impressing her, especially by driving his expensive roadster in front of her residence where she lives with her middle-aged father (Richard Carlyle). It would be a matter of time before Sheba begins ignoring her soda-jerking boyfriend making $35 a week for the exciting Nicky, with whom she goes with during the late night hours of fun. Sheba, a working office girl by day, becomes the topic of gossip by a couple of nosy neighbors (Ann Brody and Nellie V. Nichols) while her father, manager of a cigar store across town, wants very much to meet the man she intends to marry. Before the meeting is to take place, Nicky learns the man he robbed and shot earlier that evening happens to be her father. As Sheba gets to learn more about love every day, she needs to get to learn more about the sort of guy she's been dating.
As with many early talkies, song interludes are incorporated into the story. With music and lyrics credited to Sammy Stept and Buddy Green, songs include: "You're My Captain Kid," "We Learn About Love Every Day" (sung by Alice White); "That's the Low-down on the Low-down" and "We Learn About Love Every Day Thou."
Though the story could hardly be considered fresh and original in 1930, PLAYING AROUND, under Leroy's capable direction, keeps the pace moving, especially when Alice White's character is playing around. Co-star Chester Morris, playing a questionable character, is smooth and quick thinking, a sure reason why any woman would choose him over some nerdy boyfriend (William Bakewell) on a tight budget. Bakewell's characterization becomes annoying at times, which makes one wish his role was awarded to someone in the class of Arthur Lake (Dagwood Bumstead in the "Blondie" film series a decade later), who would have played well as the rejected suitor that could meet with the approval from its movie audience for Lake's ability for intentional humor and conviction. One interesting distinction that gives PLAYING AROUND a sense of originality is the two minute recap of the 66 minute plot recaptured through scenes in song to "We Learn About Love Every Day" by off-screen male vocalist following the THE END title, with nice earful listening to old-style twenties orchestration. Marion Byron, who co-stars as loyal friend and co-worker, Maude, provides a touch of in-humor where she invites Sheba to the movies to see a film starring Al Jolson, "All talking, all singing, all weeping." Could she be making reference to his recent release of SAY IT WITH SONGS (1929)?
For all its worth, PLAYING AROUND may be a movie with the roaring twenties feel to it, and very vintage, but regardless of its age featuring flapper beauties, it's still interesting as well as entertaining. Though it doesn't play very often, it can still be found on the cable TV channel of rarely seen oldies on Turner Classic Movies, especially those starring Alice White where being a naughty flirt and playing around happens to be her livelihood as she learns more about love every day. (** roadsters)
The Woman in Green (1945)
Holmes and Watson: The Finger Murder Mystery
THE WOMAN IN GREEN (Universal, 1945), produced and directed by Roy William Neil, the ninth installment of the modernized "Sherlock Holmes" mysteries for Universal (1942-1946), and eleventh featuring Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) and Nigel Bruce (Doctor Watson) in their legendary roles, is, regardless of contradictions from previous theatrical episodes, another interesting entry in the series. Along with some repeat performers in support, Hillary Brooke and Henry Daniell, who've assumed other character parts from earlier products in the franchise, would become central figures this time around, matching wits with the famed detective in another baffling mystery.
The opening passage starts with an off-screen narrator, Inspector Gregson, filling in to what's to be presented as the police force come to the Scotland Yard building entrance: "I won't forget that morning, not if I ever live to be 100. I counted the men as they marched out of the yard. They hardly slept for weeks. We of the C.I.D. slept even less, but the nightmare that kept us awake was all the same nightmare. That's why we weren't surprised when the commissioner asked us up for the conference room for a bit of a talk. He talked to us plenty. We knew that! They didn't help any to know what was asked of them." The commissioner holds a staff meeting involving the most ghastly murders to take place on the streets of London since Jack the Ripper where the female victims are found with their forefingers amputated following their deaths. Having no clues nor motives has everyone stumped. A fourth murder soon takes place in Lambert Way, having Inspector Gregson (Matthew Boulton) notifying Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) for expert assistance. Observing the bodies in the mortuary, Holmes comes to the conclusion the murders are done by a skilled surgeon. However, Sir George Fenwick (Paul Cavanaugh), a lonely middle-aged widower who's been dining with "a handsome woman," Lydia Marlowe (Hillary Brooke), leaves the Penbroke House Club to her apartment for a nightcap where her maid, Crandon (Sally Shepherd) acts mysteriously during his visit. The next morning, Fenwick awakens in a boarding house on Edgeware Road, confused, unaware of how he got there, not accounting for the lost ten hours in amnesiac state. With another murder having taken place nearby, Fenwick believes he's responsible for the crimes when he finds an amputated forefinger in one of his pockets. Later, Fenwick is found murdered, much to the shock of his daughter, Maude (Eve Amber), who had witnessed her father the other night burying evidence of the forefinger in his garden. Discovering Fenwick was being blackmailed for crimes for which he is innocent, Holmes points his finger on Professor Moriarty (Henry Daniell) responsible for the crimes, which seems impossible since his nemesis is dead. Or is he?
Throughout it all, THE WOMAN IN GREEN has the distinction of having two different stories for the price of one. It starts off splendidly in typical murder mystery fashion, but once Moriarty (spelled Moriarity in the cast credits) makes his appearance, the story shifts to another direction involving hypnotism. George Zucco and Lionel Atwill, who appeared earlier as Moriarty under Rathbone, each coming to plunging to their deaths conclusion, is now resurrected in the physical being and slightly younger Henry Daniell. Contradiction sets in when Holmes' amiable assistant, Watson, mentions Moriarty was "hanged in Montevideo over a year ago." If so, how about the fatal ends of Zucco and Atwill's Moriarty? Now Morarity has somehow survived his execution in the gallows and is alive and well once more. The idea of Holmes and Moriarty coming face to face again benefits the story greatly. Bertram Millhauser, credited for original screenplay, obviously didn't bother about the earlier films to keep the stories intact. Maybe having Daniell as Moriarty's brother or nephew might have sufficed.
Overlooking these factual errors, THE WOMAN IN GREEN is well scripted as is. While there's an interesting segment where Watson gets hypnotized at the Mesmer Club by Doctor Onslow (Frederick Worlock), the true highlight belongs to Holmes when going into a trance by one of Moriarty's assistants, the titled character, who's never referred to in the story as "The Woman in Green." While Mary Gordon returns as Mrs. Hudson, series regular Dennis Hoey is absent this time around as Inspector Lestrade.
Distributed to home video in the 1980s, and eventually DVD, THE WOMAN IN GREEN, which has fallen into public domain, has appeared on numerous television and cable television channels over the years, one of them being Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: March 8, 2004). Next installment: THE HOUSE OF FEAR. (**1/2)
The Bad Sister (1931)
Small Town Girls
THE BAD SISTER (Universal, 1931), directed by Hobart Henley, is a simple story about simple people, a wholesome well-to-do family known as The Madisons. The center of attention is not so much on the parents, but on their two daughters, Marianne and Laura, as performed by two newcomers to the screen, the dark-haired Sidney Fox and ash-blonde Bette Davis. Adapted from Booth Tarkington's story, "The Flirt" which had been filmed twice before in the silent era (1916, directed by Lois Weber) and (1923, also directed by Henley), this third retelling, with sound, is notable mainly for the early screen appearances of two future screen legends for Warner Brothers, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. Though Conrad Nagel, a then popular leading man for MGM, shares star billing beneath the title opposite Sidney Fox, his role is basically a back-seat performance for Universal's testing ground for its two new stars.
Set in a small factory town of Council City, Ohio, where the early morning hours captures Freddie, the paper boy, delivering newspapers to individual residential homes down the block on bicycle and postman Mr, Riley, delivering the mail to the home of businessman John Madison (Charles Winninger), whose family consists of his wife (Emma Dunn), their children, Marianne (Sidney Fox), Laura (Bette Davis) and youngest son, Hedrick (David Durand). Also taking up residence is their flabbergasted housekeeper named Minnie (ZaSu Pitts). While Laura is quiet and refined, keeping her personal thoughts written inside her diary, Marianne is spoiled and bored with her daily routine and small town existence. Even more troublesome is Hedrick's mischievous ways of upsetting the household, as ordinary little boys do to acquire attention. Laura loves Doctor Dick Lindley (Conrad Nagel), but finds herself in competition with Marianne, even though she's been seeing Wade Trumball (Bert Roach, reprising his 1922 movie role), a local insurance agent. While outside a theater with Dick, Marianne soon encounters Valentine Corliss (Humphrey Bogart) in his expensive car. She soon leaves the kind doctor behind to quickly accept this stranger's ride home. The following evening, Corliss, in town on business, becomes Marianne's dinner guest sharing the table with her visiting older sister, Amy (Helene Chadwick) and her husband, Sam (Slim Summerville), an unemployed plumber. After getting acquainted with the entire family and coping with Hedrick, Corliss, vice president of the Electro Household Corporation, offers Mr. Madison a position in his firm as secretary of the treasury. With Marianne finding Corliss her opportunity to leaving home for the big city, with intentions of becoming his wife, she's to soon expect the unexpected, as does the rest of the Madison family.
When Bette Davis became the surprised guest of honor on television's color episodes of "This is Your Life" (1971), hosted by Ralph Edwards, she was asked about her debut film appearance. Her reply was THE BAD SISTER was horrible and didn't want to be in the film at all. Regardless of how she felt forty years later, THE BAD SISTER is actually not that bad. Basically of the "soap opera" school that didn't become Academy Award material, Davis (the first sister presented) did show potential, even in one crucial scene where she sadly burns her diary in the fireplace after finding the man she loves has unwittingly read the one page he wasn't to see. David Durand's performance as the troublesome kid brother may lack sympathy for his annoying pranks, but does eventually honor sympathy when he realizes the wrong he has done.
As much as studio executives at Universal must have seen some great promise and potential in Sidney Fox, retaining her services for the studio while dismissing Davis shortly after-wards, it's a wonder how the movie might have turned out had Fox and Davis switched parts. Fox's role isn't really as bad as the title implies. She's just simply bored and downright frustrated with her daily routine. Even though she physically doesn't look the type, her Marianne uses men for her own personal gain, especially her father when forging his signature on a letter of endorsement, and during an outburst, tells him she's "the daughter of a failure." Davis, who would specialize in playing bad sisters in later years ("Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" (1962) comes to mind), might have handled such scenes with better conviction. Instead, Davis is portrayed as a sad looking good sister, right down to acting as surrogate mother to her late sister Amy's baby. As for Fox, she and Bogart do carry their extremely parts well. They would re-team again in MIDNIGHT (1934), Fox's final film for Universal and one of her last theatrical releases of her short-lived career.
To date, never distributed to television or home video, there were times back in the 1970s or 1980s when TV Guide listed BAD SISTER in its program section, only to disappoint Davis fans and film historians alike to have the 1947 British movie of that same title starring Margaret Lockwood instead. Regardless of its shortcomings, it good to know THE BAD SISTER still exists, even though availability over the years happens to be from a pirate copy downloaded to DVD. (**1/2)
So Big! (1932)
The Story of a Woman
SO BIG! (Warner Brothers, 1932), directed by William A. Wellman, based on the Pulitzer Prize novel by Edna Ferber, is a story of a woman, a woman named Selina Peake. First filmed as a silent for First National Pictures (1925) starring Colleen Moore and Ben Lyon, this latest edition, which could have been Warners' contribution to their own version to a two hour epic production to RKO Radio's Edna Ferber based novel of CIMARRON (1931), this "passage through time" story, falls short to becoming nothing more than an abridged screen treatment where much of its basic characters and chaptered selections are either discarded or presented for a few brief minutes. The only character of main importance is Selina Peake. Overlooking an off-beat title that has nothing to do with the Jolly Green Giant, this is her story, a story of a woman.
Opening title: "Chicago - in the 80's, booming, prosperous, surging with life - the gateway to the Great West." The five minute prologue introduces Selina Peake (Dawn O'Day, the future Anne Shirley), a motherless child whose father, Simeon (Robert Warwick), is a compulsive gambler but dedicated to his little girl. While dining at the Palmer House, he tells Selina something to remember, "This whole thing called life is just a grand adventure." Moving forward about ten years. Selina Peake (Barbara Stanwyck), having graduated from the Select School for Girls, is best friends with classmate Julie Hemple (Mae Madison). After Peake is shot dead at Mike MacDonald's Gambling House, Mrs. Hemple (Eulalie Jensen), refuses to have her daughter associated with Selina and her father's gambling reputation. Through the kindness Julie's father, August (a character initially played by Guy Kibbee whose scenes don't appear in the final print) secures Selina a school teaching position in a Dutch community for farmers at High Prairie outside Chicago. While boarding in the home of the Poole's, Klaus (Alan Hale), Maartjie (Dorothy Peterson), and three children, their eldest son, 12-year-old Roelfe (Dick Winslow), with a quest for knowledge and talent for drawing, spends most of his time helping his father on the farm rather than acquiring an education. Selina, who finds "cabbages are beautiful," gets an education of her own when learning that fertilizer is dried blood. Roelfe, who has grown fond of Selina, becomes jealous of her marriage to Pervus DeJong (Earle Foxe). Because of his mother's death and father marrying the Widow Parrenburg (Blanche Frederici), Roelfe, who has always hated his existence, leaves home to make something of himself. The recently widowed Selina would do the same thing, seeking a better life for both her and her young son, Dirk (Dickie Moore), whom she affectionately calls "So Big." Move forward twenty years. Dirk, a young man (Hardie Albright), is torn between pursuing his mother's dream of becoming an architect or assuming the advise of the married Paula Storm (Rita LaRoy) by becoming a Wall Street businessman. During the course of the story, Dallas O'Mara (Bette Davis), an ambitious artist, not only enters the scene, but Rolfe Poole (George Brent), a famous artist, returning home from Europe to reunite himself with someone who's been an inspiration in his life.
For Barbara Stanwyck, SO BIG shows how she can be more than just one of the LADIES OF LEISURE (1930), THE MIRACLE WOMAN (1931) or NIGHT NURSE (1931), but an actress going through the aging process from young woman in her twenties to mother in her fifties, who curtsies every time she meets new people. In its present 82 minute format, SO BIG, with so much material crammed into so short of time, is one of those ambitious projects that should have been expanded by more than a half hour to allow more time for viewers to become better acquainted with both characters and story. Yet, even through its tight editing, the pacing is slow and characters undeveloped. Although it's difficult to compare this with the now lost 1925 edition, its easy to compare this with the existing 1953 remake of SO BIG starring Jane Wyman, Sterling Hayden and Nancy Olson. On a personal level, the newest of the three improves over the 1932 effort on a plot developing level leading to a satisfactory conclusion. The similarity of both versions contains that of Selina Peake repeatedly asking her son, "How big is my baby? How big is my boy?" Son replies, "SO Big!" hence the title of the book.
Aside from being relatively known to film scholars as the one where future superstars Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis appear in the same movie, but barely the same scenes, the film itself had been unavailable for viewing for many years, with the possibility of never to be seen or heard from again. It took a cable station such as Turner Classic Movies to bring this long unseen edition back from the dead, making its long awaited television premiere of clear picture quantity on November 12, 1999. In spite of few highlights of interest, and having to wait eternity for the appearance of Bette Davis and George Brent, SO BIG, with Stanwyck's ability to hold audience's attention throughout, still ranks one as worthy of both rediscovery and recognition, even if this story of a woman is not so big. (***)