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Holmes and Watson: The Crime Club Mystery, 26 July 2014

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 solves 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. (***)

Solomon and Sheba, 13 July 2014

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)

Holmes and Watson: The Finger Murder Mystery, 6 July 2014

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)

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Small Town Girls, 28 June 2014

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, 7 June 2014

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. (***)

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Holmes and Watson: The Theft of the Borgia Pearl, 31 May 2014

THE PEARL OF DEATH (Universal, 1944), produced and directed by Roy William Neil, the seventh installment to the studio's own "Sherlock Holmes" mystery series, minus "Sherlock Holmes" in the title, resumes its winning combination of Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) and Nigel Bruce (Doctor Watson) in another exciting entry. Based on the story, "The Adventures of Six Napoleons" by its creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it resumes the frequent use of series regulars of Miles Mander and Ian Wolfe assuming different character roles. While Universal's own Evelyn Ankers, last seen in and killed off in SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR (1942), offers some fine assistance assuming different characters in numerous disguises, it's Rondo Hatton, billed as "The Creeper," who, minus disguises or hideous make-up, who's the one getting most of the attention even with his very limited on-screen appearance to leave some lasting impression.

The story opens on a ship bound for Dover where one of its passengers, Naomi Drake (Evelyn Ankers) arranges for a steward to have James Goodram (Holmes Herbert), secretly carrying an Borgia pearl, leave his stateroom long enough for her to enter and steal the priceless gem worth $50,000 to be displayed at the Royal Regent Museum. The scheme works as Goodram goes to the wireless room and Naomi finding the hidden pearl to conceal it inside her camera. With the boat to dock in Dover within 15 minutes, Naomi, having already befriended an elderly clergyman, entrusts him with the camera so not to have her film exposed by the customs inspector. As Goodram discovers his pearl gone, Naomi, having retrieved her camera, leaves the boat, enters the car of her leader, the master criminal Giles Conover (Miles Mander), only to find the pearl gone and note enclosed signed by S.H. To Conover, this means they've been duped by the one and only Sherlock Holmes. With Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and assistant, Doctor Watson (Nigel Bruce) returning the pearl to the museum, it is stolen soon after Holmes disconnects wires to the security system proving its flaw when electricity is turned off. Blamed for his blunder, Holmes, along with Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey), in an attempt to locate the pearl's whereabouts, are soon baffled by a series of violent killings from buyers of plaster busts of Napoleons that are taking place. With victims found with broken backs surrounded by smashed dishes of china, Holmes, believing the pearl concealed in one of the six sold Napoleon busts, does his best to be one step ahead of the ringleader and his murderous accomplice, The Creeper (Rondo Hatton), before any more murders involving the cursed pearl is to take place.

As with the previous installment of THE SCARLET CLAW (1944), THE PEARL OF DEATH wonderfully blends mystery with horror. Thanks to a tightly-knitted script credited to Bertram Millhauser, this is no doubt a top-notch 70 minute programmer. Aside from Rathbone's master of disguise or two, he's finds stiff competition with Conover (Mander) and Naomi (Ankers) as they attempt to conceal themselves through masterful disguises of their own. Ankers comes off best in several occasions, one talking Cockney, demonstrating her fine talent as an actress while assuming different characters for her one role. Miles Mander comes a close second in a Professor Moriarty-type villain best described by Holmes as one capable of: "Crime without motive, robber without a clue, murder without a trace." And last but not least, Rondo Hatton, whose character is well concealed through much of the story until that very moment, the creepy creeper, described as one with the strength and arms of a gorilla. Others featured in the cast are Charles Francis (Francis Digby); Ian Wolfe (Amos Hodder); Richard Nugent (Bates); Harry Cording (George Gelder); Billy Bevan (The Constable); and, of course, Mary Gordon in her recurring role of Mrs. Hudson for two very brief scenes.

THE PEARL OF DEATH should rank among the favorites of Holmes series devotees and certainly one worth recommending to anyone new to these films featuring those reliables of Rathbone and Bruce, who, by this time, have become so type-cast in their roles. Though each would get to appear in other movies during their "Sherlock Holmes" period (1942-1946), Rathbone and Bruce did get to work in the same motion picture, the Technicolor swashbuckler, FRENCHMAN'S CREEK (Paramount, 1944) starring Joan Fontaine and Arturo DeCordova. While FRENCHMAN'S CREEK is close to being forgotten today, the Universal "Sherlock Holmes" series remains better known, thanks to frequent television revivals dating back to the 1950s, availability on home video and DVD, and broadcasts on numerous cable channels, notably Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: December 26, 2009). Next installment: THE HOUSE OF FEAR (1945) (***)

The Magnificent Yankee, 24 May 2014

THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES (Samuel Goldwyn/RKO Radio, 1942), directed by Sam Wood, taken from the opening credits underscoring to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," could very well be a historical account about the New York Yankees. Instead, according to the opening tribute by journalist Damon Runyon, "its the story of Lou Gehrig." (Born Henry Louis Gehrig (1903-1941), one of the greatest baseball players of all time).

An original story by Paul Gallico details Lou Gehrig's life, first starting him as a boy (Douglas Croft) of twelve in New York City. He's introduced as a son of German immigrants whose father (Ludwig Stossel) is a janitor and mother (Elsa Janssen), a cook at Columbia University whose ambition is for her son to grow up like their Uncle Otto to become an engineer. Even at an early age, Lou's talent for baseball is proved effective as he bats with the neighborhood kids hitting the ball to a point of smashing a store window at a very far distance, costing his mother to come up with $18.50 to replace it. As a young man working his way through school as a waiter, studying to become an engineer, Lou (Gary Cooper), a baseball athlete for Columbia University, is discovered by sportswriter, Sam Blake (Walter Brennan), who eventually signs him as player for the New York Yankees. Though Mama Gehrig is very much against this, her son's newfound success turns her into a baseball fan. After slipping on a pile of baseball bats in his first game in Chicago, Lou is teasingly called "tanglefoot" by pretty spectator, Eleanor Twitchell (Teresa Wright) seated by her father (Pierre Watkin). Following a brief courtship, they would soon marry. As time progresses with Blake and Hank Hannerman (Dan Duryea) watching and reporting first baseman Gehrig making baseball history from the press box, "The Iron Man" as he would be called, would not only rank along with Babe Ruth (Babe Ruth) as one of the greatest sports figures, but become a true pride of the Yankees. All this would change after Lou faces something that would put an end to his powerful sixteen year career.

In one of the finest sports movies ever made, THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, became producer Samuel Goldwyn's only biographical film, and one of his most admired. Gary Cooper, having already won his Academy Award as Best Actor playing SERGEANT YORK (Warner Brothers, 1941), an American war hero, gets another home run here by the Academy once again for his portrayal of an American sports hero, Lou Gehrig. Being more of a personal and private life story of Lou Gehrig than on his development as a baseball player, it's all wonderfully told during its 128 minutes. Though historians may find several faults of mention, including a scene or two where Cooper writes or bats right handed rather than Gehrig's oft-mentioned left, or placing few factual characters in the wrong time frame, the acting, the story and direction make up for such errors. With time away from some Yankee game re-enactment, there's time out for humorous moments by Babe Ruth and his baseball buddies, musical entertainment featuring a tango dance from the Moon Terrace Cabaret performed by Veloz an Yolanda as conducted by Ray Noble and his Orchestra. There's also female vocalist on platform singing the classic Irving Berlin tune, "Always," that to become the Gehrig's personal love song

Aside from Teresa Wright's sensitive portrayal during its second half, and Walter Brennan, sporting glasses and mustache, as the sports writing friend, no scene comes close to Cooper's heartfelt closing speech on that historic Tuesday, July 4th, 1939, day at Yankee Stadium that would not only stay in memory long after the film is over, but prove his Lou Gehrig to be "the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

Even if THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES strays from the truth at times, it's every sports buff's dream to actually get to see such baseball legends of the past portraying themselves, Bill Dickey, Mark Koenig and Robert Meusel. There's no one more recognizable than Babe Ruth at bat on the field, taking part in the story as well. Aside from Ruth having appeared in several motion pictures dating back to the silent era, it's little known fact that Gehrig appeared in a feature length motion picture himself, interestingly a "B" western titled RAWHIDE (20th-Fox, 1938) starring Smith Ballew, (Who?), a bit of trivia not included in the film. Aside from the major actors, others participants worth noting are Virginia Gilmore (Myra Tinsley); Ernie Adams (Miller Huggins), Hardie Albright (Van Tuyl), and sports announcer Bill Stern appearing as himself.

THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, having been a long time movie favorite on New York City's Yankee station of WPIX TV, Channel 11 (1970-1995), has in later years been shown in the colorized format. Distributed to home video and later DVD, it's cable TV history consists of American Movie Classics (1992-1998) and Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: March 30, 2003), and few others. Nominated for Academy Awards: Best Actor (Cooper); Best Actress (Wright); and Best Picture, the legend of Lou Gehrig rests mostly on this motion picture retelling, not for just a while, not for just a day, not for just a year, but always. (****).

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Holmes and Watson: On the Right Track, 10 May 2014

TERROR BY NIGHT (Universal, 1946), produced and directed by Roy William Neil, is not another "wolf man" thriller starring Lon Chaney Jr., nor a horror film featuring any one of the Universal monsters for that matter. It's only the eleventh installment to the studio's own "Sherlock Holmes" popular series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. With the previous effort, PURSUIT TO ALGIERS (1945), set mostly on an ocean liner, this next in line entry places the suave London detective on board a train where he encounters more than just conductors, ticket takers or another train of thought for his effort in another baffling mystery.

Adapted from an untitled story by its creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the epilogue focuses on an open book on the "Star of Rhodesia" where an off-screen narrator talks about this priceless diamond: "Star of Rhodesia is one of the most famous of the earth's treasures. ... It would have been better had it not been found. To all those who possess it come to sudden and violent deaths." With all that said, the story gets underway as Vivian Wedder (Renee Godfrey - resembling that of forties actress Patricia Morison) in a carpenter shop, Mock (Harry Cording) and son (Bobby Wissler), where she arranges for the coffin of her late mother be sent to the undertakers and delivered onto the next train leaving London to Edinburgh. At the Euston Train Station, Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) awaits for his friend and associate, Doctor John H. Watson (Nigel Bruce) as he observes the passing crowd around him. He is then greeted by Ronald Carstairs (Geoffrey Steele), a young man who has engaged Holmes to watch over his mother, Lady Margaret Carstairs (Mary Forbes), who now possesses the Star of Rhodesia she's acquired by her late husband for their fifth wedding anniversary. Having already attended a reception at Buckingham Palace, and earlier met with near robbery experience, it is Holmes' job to safeguard her against possible thieves. Watson, accompanied by his scholarly friend, Major Bleek (Alan Mowbray, in excellent support), narrowly miss the train as it slowly departs the station. Also on board happens to be Holmes' friend, Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) of Scotland Yard, taking a fishing holiday for himself. During the trip, situations occur as young Carstairs is found dead inside his locked stateroom, Compartment E. With no murderous signs evident, and the priceless diamond missing, Lady Carstairs feels Holmes has failed in his duties. Regardless of a threatening note and life threatening experience, Holmes resumes with his theory, "Find the murderer, you'll find the diamond." Other members of the cast include Billy Bevan (The Train Attendant); Leyland Hodgson (The Train Conductor); and Boyd Davis (Inspector MacDonald).

An improvement over PURSUIT TO ALGIERS, TERROR BY NIGHT shows at times how train mysteries are more exciting than shipboard ones. With screenplay by Frank Gruber, the film contains every ingredient necessary for a tightly-knitted 60 minute suspense thriller. Gerald Hamer, who seems to have appeared in practically all the "Sherlock Holmes" entries, is seen, once again, this time as one of the unusual assortment of passengers, Alfred Shallcross, a teapot collector, accompanied by his mother (Janet Murdoch). Skelton Knaggs, a creepy character notable for Universal's "House of Dracula" (1945), resumes his nightmarish creepiness in his Peter Lorre-type mannerism in the role of Sands. Frederick Worlock (Professor William Kilbane) has the film's brightest moment in a sort of Abbott and Costello twist and turn routine as fellow passenger who's supposed to be subject to questioning by Doctor Watson, only to have situations happening in reverse, and quite amusingly in fact. Another highlight comes as Holmes gets pushed out of the train with door slamming shut behind him, holding on to his very life as train goes in high speed, especially through the curves. Another great moment is its conclusion, almost reminiscent to how author Agatha Christie ("Murder on the Orient Express") or famed movie director Alfred Hitchcock ("The Lady Vanishes") might have handled a train mystery such as this.

Being another Holmes entry to have fallen into public domain, TERROR BY NIGHT, available on video cassette and DVD formats from various distributors, presented on numerous public broadcast or cable television stations over the years, should not disappoint any devotees of the series, especially when shown from time to time on Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: March 8, 2004) or anywhere else. Next installment: DRESSED TO KILL (1946). (***)

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Sherlock Holmes: Murder by Death, 6 May 2014

A STUDY IN SCARLET (World Wide, 1933), directed by Edwin L. Marin, suggested by the book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (credited as A. Conan Doyle), introduces Reginald Owen to the role as Sherlock Holmes for the first and only time. In fact, Owen's name isn't credited above the title, but actually the central figure being Sherlock Holmes in A STUDY IN SCARLET, almost as if Holmes is appearing as himself. Owen, seldom a leading man, best known as Ebenezer Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" (MGM, 1938), may be an interesting choice as Holmes, considering a handful of actors having enacted this legendary sleuth in the past, William Gillette on stage; and/or Arthur Wontner in several British-made movies. Yet there's none more famous than Basil Rathbone (Holmes) with Nigel Bruce (Doctor Watson) in what developed into a popular film series for Universal a decade later. It's a little known factor that Owen happens to be the first actor to play Watson in one movie, 1932s SHERLOCK HOLMES (Fox) featuring Clive Brook, and Holmes in another. As often stated for A STUDY IN SCARLET, the plot actually doesn't follow Conan Doyle's first Holmes novel, but instead contains an original idea scripted by Robert Florey with continuity and dialogue credited by Reginald Owen himself.

The story opens at Victoria Station, London (with a light post and car indicating a modern setting for one brief scene), where two cleaning ladies, having difficulty opening the door to a compartment, get Mr. Partrudge, a porter, to look into the matter. Observing from the outside window, he and another porter find its passenger, James Murphy, dead. After a coded newspaper clipping "6, 9, 3, 7, 13, 7, Scarlet 23, 4, 7, Limehouse M," is shown on screen from the Daily Telegraph, the following segment shows a secret meeting presided by Thaddeus Merrydew (Alan Dinehart), a crooked lawyer and legal representative of a mysterious organization called The Scarlet Ring. In attendance are Jabez Wilson (J.M. Kerrigan), William Baker (Cecil Reynolds), Malcolm Dearing (Halliwell Hobbs), Captain Pike (Wyndham Standing), Ah Yet (Tetsu Komai), and Eileen Forrester (June Clyde), engaged to John Stanford (John Warburton), and daughter of one of the recently deceased members, where Merrydew, explains in the event of a member's death, the estate is left to the survivors and divided evenly. Three days later, Sherlock Holmes (Reginald Owen) and his assistant, Doctor Watson (Warburton Gamble) of 221-A Baker Street, are visited by Murphy's widow, Annabella Mary (Doris Lloyd), a pub owner, explaining how she's been cheated of her late husband's fortune left to the organization. Holmes, suspecting foul play in Murphy's murder, takes the case that allows him the opportunity to further investigate Merrydew, whom Holmes describes as "king of blackmailers," "the most dangerous crook" and "a slimy, venomous snake." During the investigation of a study in scarlet, more murders occur, all with little rhyme notes found as possible clues. With further assistance of Inspector Lestrade (Alan Mowbray), Holmes encounters another suspect, Mrs. Pyke (Anna May Wong), a Chinese widow with a mysterious past.

Slow moving and virtually score-less, A STUDY IN SCARLET offers several scenes worth noting. If the murdering notes ("Six little black boys playing with a dive. A bumble bee stung one, and there were five," "Five little black boys going in for law, one cut a chancery, and then there were four," "Four little black boys going out to tea, a red herring swallowed one, and then there were three," "Three little black boys walking in the zoo. The big bear hugged one, and then there were two," etc.) sound familiar, then look no further to what eventually became "And Then There Were None" (published 1939-40), a classic novel by Agatha Christie. Slight difference, Black Boys was changed to Little Indians. Could it be that Christie had seen this movie and lifted some material for her novel? Another interesting factor found in A STUDY IN SCARLET is how the camera becomes the subject matter with Merrydew looking directly and talking into it, without revealing the identity of that person. This visual style is most identified to 1940s film noir mysteries, notably LADY IN THE LAKE (MGM, 1946) and DARK PASSAGE (WB, 1947), though done earlier in A FAREWELL TO ARMS (Paramount, 1932), which makes one wonder which film and director originated that visual style.

With limited byplay between Holmes and Watson, this edition is very much Holmes indeed, crime solver. Though he does take time to disguise himself at one point, it's not much of a disguise. Other members in the cast include Leila Bennett (Daft Dolly, credited as Daffy Dolly); Hobart Cavanaugh (The Bartender); and Tempe Piggot (Mrs. Hudson, famously played by Mary Gordon in the Rathbone series).

Acceptable adaptation that's become a curio to film buffs. Frequently presented on television starting in the late 1970s, A STUDY IN SCARLET, available on video and DVD formats, often played on Arts and Entertainment Cable television before turning up on Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: June 5, 2008). For anyone interested in learning more about Doyle's actual "A Study in Scarlet" novel, read the book. (**)

Reckless Love, 28 April 2014

HOLD YOUR MAN (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1933), directed Sam Wood, places its two leading players from RED DUST (1932) fame from jungle plantation of Indo-China to Depression-era Brooklyn, New York. It also reverses their star billing over the title from Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in RED DUST to Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in HOLD YOUR MAN. Being more Harlow's movie than Gable's, considering a long stretch where he's off-screen in the midway point, the dual continues their likely screen partnership in an unlikely but not entirely uninteresting story written by Anita Loos.

For its opening shot, a wallet is dropped on the sidewalk. Eddie Huntington Hall (Clark Gable, minus mustache) and another passerby pick it up only find a ring and two dollars inside. After defrauding the other man of forty dollars, Eddie, a slick confidence man by profession, ends up being followed and chased after by both victim and a policeman. He runs into an apartment building, up the stairs and enters an unlocked apartment door of Ruby Adams (Jean Harlow), a sassy 19-year-old girl whose "been around and knows all the answers." Rather than turning him over to the police, and taking a liking to his crooked smile, Ruby helps him out. After the two get acquainted, a knock on the door has Eddie hiding in the next room where he suddenly disappears when Ruby comes looking for him. Tracing him to his favorite speakeasy, The Elite, Ruby has Al Simpson (Stuart Erwin), a "swell guy" who loves her unconditionally, escort her there. After a few occasional visits, Ruby finally locates Eddie, and the two get together once more. Later that evening, Ruby comes to Eddie's residence at the Norma Apartments where she unexpectedly meets up with his drunken girlfriend, Gypsy Angicon (Dorothy Burgess) leading to verbal insults with instant rivalry. After spending 90 days in jail on a crooked job with pals Slim (Garry Owen) and Phil (George Pat Collins), Eddie talks Ruby on assisting him in one of his latest blackmail schemes. Things go afoul when the police arrest Ruby and Eddie disappears, letting her take the rap. Sentenced to serve two years in a state reformatory under Mrs. Wagner (Blanche Frederici), along with Mrs. Tuttle (Elizabeth Patterson) and Miss Allen (Lillian Harmer) as the matrons, Ruby finds herself sharing the same quarters with Sadie Kline (Barbara Barondess), a socialist, Bertha Dillon (Muriel Kirkland) and much to her surprise, her arch rival, Gypsy. Even more to Ruby's surprise is to find she's pregnant (as she would be again while serving time in RIFFRAFF (MGM, 1935) with Spencer Tracy) and wondering if she will ever get to hold her man (Eddie) again.

HOLD YOUR MAN (no relation to the Universal 1929 drama starring Laura LaPlante) does live up to its title in plot. It's also a title used in theme song, with words and music by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed initially heard on a phonograph record, then reprized by Harlow herself in the reformatory segment while playing the piano to her fellow inmates. Aside from Harlow's singing, there's a segment during church service where the inmates of various ethnic backgrounds gather together singing "Onward Christian Soldiers." On a couple of on-screen occasions earlier in the story, both Eddie and Ruby rate "Hold Your Man" as their favorite song. The song would be used again for another Gable movie, DANCING LADY (1933), a backstage musical starring Joan Crawford, sung by the one and only Winnie Lightner. Others in the cast include: Theresa Harris (Lily Mae Crippen), the preacher's (George Reed) daughter also serving time in the reformatory; Paul Hurst (Aubrey Mitchell); Inez Courtney (Maizie); and in smaller roles, Louise Beavers (The Maid), Joseph Sawyer and Wade Boteler (The Policemen).

In some ways, HOLD YOUR MAN tends to be a reminder to many of those hard-luck dame/confidence man related themes most commonly found during the Depression era, at best from the Warner Brothers studio. Though HOLD YOUR MAN has some traces of James Cagney and Joan Blondell sassy style from BLONDE CRAZY (Warners, 1931), a bit here and there from Mae West's I'M NO ANGEL (Paramount, 1933) where duping a sucker (William B. Davidson) to blackmail, the film stands well on its own merits, even when the raunchy comedy shifts to serious melodrama with certain scenes that really don't ring true-to-life.

Classic moments include Gable's Eddie hiding from the law while taking a bubble bath in Ruby's bath-rub; Eddie's reaction when observing a handful of autographed photos from Ruby's male lovers posted all over her living-room; Harlow-Burgess facial slap/jaw socking return incidents (a scene that got the most laughs during its 1981 movie revival screening at New York City's Regency Theater); and the usual pre-code sassy verbal exchanges between Gable and Harlow being true highlights. Stuart Erwin, in a role of Mr. Nice Guy, is played to the limit, but quite satisfactory as nice guy's go, even in Cincinnati.

With the rare exception of a 1978 late show presentation on WKBS, Channel 48, in Philadelphia, HOLD YOUR MAN has become the least known of the six on-screen collaborations of Gable and Harlow. It wasn't until 1986 when HOLD YOUR MAN finally made it to New York City television on public broadcasting station, WNET, Channel 13, as part of its Cinema Thirteen Saturday night classic movies lineup.

Distributed to home video in the 1990s and later onto DVD, HOLD YOUR MAN can be seen to a film lovers delight whenever shown on Turner Classic Movies cable channel. (***)


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