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Spiritual Communication, 15 October 2017

SUPERNATURAL (Paramount, 1933), a Victor and Edward Halperin Production, directed by Victor Halperin, marks one of the studios contribution to the horror genre. Not quite a frightening premise where monsters or mad scientists are concerned as with ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1933), but an interesting one revolving around phony spiritualists and souls taking control over one's body. It's even more interesting through the unlikely casting of Carole Lombard and Randolph Scott in their only movie together in a premise such as this.

As the opening credits roll with lightning volts shifting from listings of players to production crew through its haunting chants, the story sets its pattern through forward message readings from Confucius: "Treat all supernatural beings with respect, but keep aloof from them"; Mohammed: "We will bring forth the dead from their graves"; and Matthew "And he gave his twelve disciples power against the unclean spirits to cast them out." The photo-play opens with newspaper clippings revolving around the trial of Ruth Rogan (Vivienne Osborne), labeled one of the most dangerous women in world history, a love murderess responsible for the deaths of three men. Doctor Carl Houston (H.B. Warner), the world's greatest psychologist, confirms with the prison warden (Willard Robertson) how he believes the evil spirit of the deceased can go from one body to the next to continue its series of crimes. He wants to conduct an experiment to prevent similar crimes from ever happening again starting with Ruth Rogan. Before her execution, Houston goes to death row asking the condemned Ruth permission to obtain her body after execution. Ruth grants the request in hope she can return from the dead and avenge her execution on Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart), the man who betrayed her to the police. More newspaper clippings hit the screen about the death of millionaire playboy, John Courtney (Lyman Williams), and how his twin sister, Roma (Carole Lombard) is now in control of the Courtney fortune. In order to obtain that fortune for himself, Bavian, a spiritualist, sends Roma a telegram on how he can hold a seance and communicate with her dead brother, thus inviting her to attend at his Greenwich Village apartment. Before this is to take place, Mrs. Gourjan (Beryl Mercer), the nosy landlady, knows Bavian is a fake and blackmails him into having her as his partner. His answer to her is offering her his handshake with a poisonous ring that puts her out of commission. During the seance where Roma attends with her beau, Grant Wilson (Randolph Scott), who believes Bavian to be a phony medium, comes along for the ride hoping to expose him, but Roma believes otherwise. The second seance attempts to prove John was murdered by Roma's guardian, Nick Hammond (William Farnum), who is later put out of commission the same manner as his other victims when threatened to be exposed. About the same time, the soul of Ruth Rogan enters and takes control of Roma's body, and through her, carries on with her treat of vengeance on Bavian while the spirit of Roma's brother guides Grant to save Roma's soul before it's too late.

An unusual tale and worthy follow-up by Victor and Edward Halperin's recently released now classic thriller of WHITE ZOMBIE (United Artists, 1932) starring Bela Lugosi. It's notable standpoint, aside from the realistic seances, is how the camera catches in close range cat-eye effect of Lombard while under the new personality of the deceased Ruth Rogan. Alan (spelled Allan in the credits) Dinehart, gives another notable interpretation as a no-conscience villain, and how he falls prey to the soul of another woman. He even has a Great Dane around to inform him through growls and barks or any snoopers outside his door while conducting plans for his next seance. Beryl Mercer, best known as the mother in either ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (Universal, 1930) or THE PUBLIC ENEMY (Warner Brothers, 1931), does well as the hard drinking landlady who spies on questionable activities that go on around her watch. H.B. Warner as the psychologist conducting experiments with the soul of the dead (and personal friend of the Courtney family), could easily have been conducted by a mad doctor in the manner of Lionel Atwill or Boris Karloff, but here is as sane as the next man who truly believes in his theories, as odd as it sounds to any layman. For only the opening scene, many rank SUPERNATURAL to be one of Vivienne Osborne's better known films. Even after her character death, her presence is felt throughout the story. In spite of some supernatural themes, SUPERNATURAL interestingly was hardly ever presented on any Fright Night or Chiller Theater Saturday evenings in the 1960s or 1970s, although it did turn out on commercial television from time to time on the late show. For its brief 64 minutes, SUPERNATURAL may not be super but a natural in screen entertainment.

Not as well known as some movies of this period, SUPERNATURAL did turn up on video cassette as part of the Carole Lombard collection around 1995, and DVD a decade later as part of Paramount's Vault Collection, did have very rare cable television broadcasts over the years on both the Sci-Fi Channel (late 1980s) and briefly on American Movie Classics (2001-2003) before disappearing from view again. Worthwhile not so much for Carole Lombard but from the now obscure Halperin brothers who produced this one. (**)

Mark Twain's Beloved Huck, 30 September 2017

HUCKLEBERRY FINN (Paramount, 1931), directed by Norman Taurog, is an immediate sequel to Paramount's TOM SAWYER (1930), both screen adaptations by Mark Twain, starring Jackie Coogan (Tom) and Junior Durkin (Huck) reprising their original roles. As in most sequels where the original proved more favorable than the continuation saga, HUCKLEBERRY FINN could be said to be of equal status, with the secondary character becoming more of a central figure this time around.

Following the opening credits where staff and players names written on a wooden fence, HUCKLEBERRY FINN re-introduces the characters from TOM SAWYER, showing what's developed since they were last seen a year ago. The setting remains pre-Civil War Missouri where Tom Sawyer (Jackie Coogan) still has a crush on Becky Thatcher (Mitzi Green), awaiting for Tom to walk her to school; Aunt Polly (Clara Blandick) preparing for Sidney (Jackie Searle), Tom's little cousin and rival, for school; and Huckleberry Finn (Junior Durkin, Tom's best friend, now living in the home of the sympathetic Widow Douglas (Jane Darwell), while her spinster sister, Minnie Watson (Lillian Harmer) feels Huck will never amount to anything in life. While the teen-age Huck is a student at school, he must cope with being the tallest boy in the third grade. Huck is slow in learning, day dreams much of the time, and finds it hard to spell "PENNSYLVANIA" which he does ten different ways. Tom is invited to Becky's birthday party, but Huck is both hurt for being the only one not invited to attend, and jealous over Tom's attention towards Becky. On the night of the party, Huck is abducted by his drunken father, "Pap" Finn (Warner Richmond), forcing the boy to write a letter granting permission for him to obtain his son's money, as to be presented to Judge Thatcher (Guy Oliver). Because Pap cannot read, Huck puts it in different wording. Left inside a locked shack, through Slave Jim's (Clarence Muse) hairball, traces Huck's location where he and Tom come to Jackson Island to save him. While there Tom schemes to make it appear Huck broke out and drowned. The plan works, where Pap Finn returns and runs away from the law. Refusing to return home, Tom, Huck and Jim journey down the Mississippi by raft. They later encounter a couple of ham actors (Eugene Palette and Oscar Apfel) thrown off the steamer for cheating at cards, and pass themselves off as men of royalty. While trying to get a meal for themselves and the con-men with Jim awaiting at the raft, Tom and Huck meet with and become house guests to orphans sisters, Mary Jane (Charlotte V. Henry) and Ella (Dora Short), and their housekeeper, Rachel (Libby Taylor) instead. Learning the girls are expecting a visit from their rich uncles John and Ed from England, relatives they have never met, to come split the inheritance of $14,000, Tom passes off this news to the actors, who intend on playing a new "game" by posing as the uncles so to quietly steal the girls' fortune without Tom and Huck's knowledge.

As much as Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn books have become permanent fixtures in classic literature, the characters are also well known through their screen adaptations dating back to the silent era to present day. Better known stories to these boy characters were improved before the decades end with the retelling of THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER (United Artists, 1938) with Tommy Kelly, and THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939) with Mickey Rooney (sans Tom Sawyer), to great satisfaction. Jackie Coogan, former child star of the 1920s, looks much older and taller from his previous film of 1930. Unlike Durkin, Coogan's voice hasn't grown deeper as of yet, so was able to retain his boyish charm of a 13-year-old. Mitzi Green and Jackie Searle, who had major roles in TOM SAWYER, would disappear from the story before reaching the midway point. Clarence Muse makes a memorable Slave Jim, as does Eugene Palette passing himself off as the Grand Duke Bridgewater.

Unseen on television since the late 1970s and never distributed to video cassette or cable television (thus far), HUCKLEBERRY FINN and TOM SAWYER would make great companion pieces if ever placed on DVD. Regardless of its age, this 80 minute adaptation to Mark Twain's friendship of two young boys remains timeless as well as entertaining. (***)

More Than a Governess, 24 September 2017

ADAM HAD FOUR SONS (Columbia, 1941), directed by Gregory Ratoff, could easily be mistaken for a Biblical story about Adam and Eve and their offsprings, starting with Cain and Abel, but it isn't. Taken from the novel "Legacy" by Charles Bonner, it's a turn of the century tale about a family man with a wife and four sons living in Connecticut, and how a French governess becomes part of their lives.

The story begins in 1905 with the Stoddard family, consisting of Adam (Warner Baxter), Molly (Fay Wray), and their four sons, Jack (Billy Day), David (Steven Muller), Charles (Wallace Chadwell) and Philip (Bobby Walberg) posing for their family portrait. Later the Stoddards head for the train station to greet their new French governess, Emilie Gallatin (Ingrid Bergman). Surprised to find her so young, she immediately makes a good impression with the family. During a family Thanksgiving, Molly becomes ill and later dies. Adam, finding it hard to go on without his wife, sells his house, sends his boys, except for the youngest, away to school, but most of all, his hardest decision in sending Emilie back to her homeland. Years pass. With the Stoddard company a success, Adam purchases his former home and remodels it, but most of all, sends for Emilie to return to her former household position. It is now 1918 and the boys, David (Johnny Downs), Jack (Richard Denning), Philip (Charles Lind) and Charles (Robert Shaw) have grown to fine young men. The surprise comes when David returns home with Hester (Susan Hayward), his bride. Hester remains in the Stoddard home while David goes off to war. While the men like Hester, both Emilie and the visiting Cousin Phillipa (Helen Westley) take an immediate dislike to her, for reasons of their own. Their hunches are proved correct when the family becomes more divided than together because of Hester, and it's now up to Emilie to do something about it before it is too late. June Lockhart (Vance), the girl next door who likes Philip; Pietro Sosso (Otto); Gilbert Emery (Doctor Lane); Renie Riano (Miss Bonson); Clarence Muse and William B. Davidson also complete the cast.

A good story that, by today's standards, is completely underrated and forgotten through the passage of time. Maybe the title or fact that having the audience accept the Swedish born Ingrid Bergman playing a French governess instead of a Swedish one might have something to do with it. For her second movie role in America, Bergman was popular enough to award feature billing over such veteran performers as Warner Baxter and Fay Wray. While Bergman doesn't really age through the passage of time, at least Baxter gets his limited share of gray hair around his temples. Of the members of the cast, the one who gathers the most attention is the young and youthful Susan Hayward. Having been in movies for a short time, her role as Hester allows her to improve her ability as an actress, and make the most of it around such a capable cast before becoming a major actress herself by the end of the decade to the next. Another added bonus to this production is having the characters dress according to time frame rather than wearing 1941 costumes and headdresses for an early 1900s setting. One surprise is to how small Fay Wray's (star of the legendary 1933 classic KING KONG) role was for this production.

A fine family film where the attention falling mostly Hayward's character, ADAM HAD FOUR SONS at least did get its share of revivals over the years through home video distributions as early as 1984, (much later on DVD), followed by rare cable broadcasts as Turner Network Television (TNT) in 1992, and Turner Classic Movies where the film has been showing occasionally since August 29, 2006. For anyone who's never seen nor heard of this movie, should give it a try. (***)

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Mama's Family, 18 September 2017

I REMEMBER MAMA (RKO Radio, 1948), a Dore Schary presentation, produced and directed by George Stevens, stars Irene Dunne in what many consider to be her most memorable motion picture performance. Based on the play by John Van Druten, and from the novel "Mama's Bank Account" by Kathryn Forbes, it's a heartwarming drama about a Norwegian family of 1910 San Francisco as narrated directly to the screen by Mama's adult daughter, Katrin, wonderfully played by Barbara Bel Geddes. As much as her character nostalgically relates to why she remembers Mama, her story, written in manuscript form from recollections taken from her daily diary, is not only about her mother, but on Mama's family as well.

Katrin Hansen (Barbara Bel Geddes) is an American-born daughter to Norwegian-born parents, Marta (Irene Dunne) and Lars (Philip Dorn). Her ambition is to become an accomplished writer. Among family members of their home on the Larkin Street hill are her elder brother (and only boy), Nels (Steve Brown), and her two younger sisters, Christine (Peggy McIntyre) and Dagmar (June Hedlin). The household also includes Dagmar's male cat she calls Elizabeth. Other family members coming to visit from time to time are Aunt Jenny (Hope Landin), Aunt Sierid (Edith Evanson) and Aunt Trina (Ellen Corby). Trina, a fragile-faced 42-year-old spinster who wants nothing more in life than to marry Peter Thorkelson (Edgar Bergen), a funeral parlor operator. There's also a little cousin named Arne (Tommy Ivo) as well as Uncle Chris Halvison (Oscar Homolka), the very one, except for Mama, everyone fears due to his constant yelling, unaware that's how he speaks to everybody. The Hansen's also have a boarder, Jonathan Hyde (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), a dignified English gentleman and unemployed actor earning his keep by reading aloud nightly literary classics as "A Tale of Two Cities" and "The Hound of the Baskervilles" to attentive family members way into the late night hours. Although Hyde never pays his rent, Mama feels he's offered more than she realizes. Following a series of standout scenes that play like individual novel chapters, Katrin resumes her story about her family life and why her mother was so special to her. Other members of the cast consist of Rudy Vallee (Doctor Johnson); Barbara O'Neal (Jessie Brown Halvison, Uncle Chris's wife); and former silent screen actress, Cleo Ridgely in a small role as a schoolteacher.

It's no doubt that the role of Mama rightfully belongs to Irene Dunne. Nobody else could have played her as effectively as she did. Very much as Dunne earned her well-deserved Academy Award nomination as Best Actress, the movie didn't fall entirely on her character from start to finish as did Scarlett O'Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). She very much shares her story with other family members, some who stand out more than some others. While there were three eccentric aunts, only Ellen Corby as Aunt Trina made enough impression to be singled out for an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. And then there's the talk-yelling Uncle Chris, wonderfully played by Oscar Homolka (Best Supporting Actor nominee), sporting huge mustache and bushy eyebrows. What a scene stealer he was. Surprise casting goes to Rudy Vallee, former crooner of musicals and later non-singing stuffy characters, here as the serious-minded physician; and Edgar Bergen, best known for his ventriloquist act with Charlie McCarthy, in a very rare dramatic performance. There were times Bergen nearly talks like his ventriloquist McCarthy dummy. Almost unrecognizable under his glasses, mustache and bald head in the manner of character actor, Victor Moore, it's a surprise that Bergen's role wasn't played by the Norwegian- type actor of John Qualen.

Through its extreme length of 134 minutes, I REMEMBER MAMA moves at a leisurely pace but is never dull. Memorable moments go to Irene Dunne's Mama keeping her promise to her daughter following an emergency operation by sneaking in the hospital and paying her a visit against doctor's orders, followed by her singing a tender lullaby; Mama forced to chloroform Dagmar's sick cat, to surprising results; Mama and Katrin's visit to Uncle Chris at his deathbed, thus learning what a wonderful person he really was; and Mama's clever means of getting to meet with famed celebrity novelist, Florence Dana Moorehead (Florence Bates) regarding her daughter's manuscripts, among others. Philip Dorn as the father, is basically background character here, but does get a tender moment all to himself giving fatherly advise to Katrin regarding her mother's broach and why she should go on with the school play. Let's not overlook Barbara Bel Geddes (Best Supporting Actress nominee) bringing gentleness and joy through her character, Katrin, from teenager to near adult woman author.

Very nostalgic down to the costumes and hilly streets of old San Francisco, I REMEMBER MAMA is more than that. It's a story about family togetherness, and never ending the day in anger with one another. Unforgettable to say the least, considering this to be Irene Dunne's first time at her former home studio since 1940, only to be her last great movie before her retirement by 1952. Based on a popular play that also featured Homolka, I REMEMBER MAMA later became the basis of a long-running but now forgotten television series (1949-1957) starring Peggy Wood.

For many years, I REMEMBER MAMA aired regularly on commercial television dating back to the 1960s, especially on Mother's Day, before availability in video cassette, DVD, and cable television broadcasts, notably on American Movie Classics (prior to 2001), and Turner Classic Movies. Enjoy this obe. (**** Mother's Day cards)

Footlights and Fools, 16 September 2017

SPEAK EASILY (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1932), directed by Edward Segwick, stars Buster Keaton in one of his better sound comedies for the studio. Still unable to recapture the creativity and wit from his silent movie days of the 1920s, SPEAK EASILY did manage to resort Buster back to character-type of old as a good-natured half- wit, this time with the comedy support of Jimmy Durante. For their second of three movies as a team, though here more basically as partners, it allows each to perform their individual styles before joining forces together for the climax.

Taken from the story by Clarence Budington Kelland, the plot introduces Timoleon Zanders-Post (Buster Keaton) as a professor at Potts College, whose life is a lonely one. Aside from his classroom teachings, he has no friends nor any outside interests. His servant, Jenkins (Sidney Bracey), advises him to go out into the world and find life. After getting a bogus telegram of he inheriting $750,000, the Professor quits his job, cleans out his bank account, and goes out to enjoy life, even if he has to buy it. While on board a train bound for Chicago, the professor encounters James Dodge (Jimmy Durante), a member of the a theatrical troupe called The Midnight Maids Company. Also in the troupe are a would-be actress and dancer named Pansy Peets (Ruth Selwyn) and her stage mother (Hedda Hopper), Reno (Edward Brophy); among others. Because the troupe is in financial straits, the Professor offers to pay off its back dues. By doing this, he is made manager of the company. Taking the show titled "Speak Easily" to New York City for a tryout, its stage director, (Sidney Toler), calls it the worst show he's ever seen in his 30 years on Broadway. During the course of the story, the professor falls victim to another member of the troupe, a vamp named Eleanor Espere (Thelma Todd), while comedian James tries to make his witless jokes funny. Problems arise on opening night when a summons man (Fred Kelsey) comes to the theater with an injunction to close the show because of the professor's mythical inheritance.

With the title being a parody of bars at the time called a "Speakeasy," SPEAK EASILY might have been a title used for a Three Stooges comedy short, but turns out to be one for MGM's 80 minute feature. The roles of both Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante are difficult since it calls for both to be acceptable and likable through their comedy performances. Before Clifton Webb made being serious funny in his movies of the 1950s, Buster Keaton does so here playing a no- nonsense yet shy professor, dignified with glasses, speaking in high vocabulary words and always carrying an umbrella for a rainy day. As in his previous MGM efforts, Buster often acts confused and resorts to occasional pratfalls. Co-star, Jimmy Durante, is completely opposite. He's outgoing, confident and obnoxiously talkative. He often tries getting laughs through his unfunny jokes but does get the love of his audience through his traditional piano playing songs communicating with the camera through his eyes. Durante does have a memorable scene that was later clipped in THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT (1974) as he plays the piano to stage director (wonderfully played by pre "Charlie Chan" actor Sidney Toler) introducing his latest composition of "Singing in the Rain," a song originally introduced in 1929, which for 1932, be far from original. Other moments of comedy include one at the train station mishap involving Buster's trunk and later the baby of a stereotypical Italian couple, Tony (Henry Armetta and Rosa (Inez Palage); Thelma Todd's vamping Buster and each getting drunk should have been funnier than played; and the climatic show where everything goes wrong. Also included are songs such as: "Good Times Are Here Now," "I Could Do Without Broadway" (sung by Jimmy Durante) and "Speak Easily."

Built upon the premise of an outsider taking part of show business, SPEAK EASILY is a kind of attraction to hold an audience attention, mainly due to total opposites as Keaton and Durante taking the limelight separately or together. Otherwise, just another MGM comedy that tries hard to become a comedy classic. Distributed on video cassette in the 1990s, and later DVD, availability on cable television is often found these days on Turner Classic Movies. (**1/2)

Movie Struck, 9 September 2017

TALENT SCOUT (Warner Brothers, 1937), directed by William Clemens, is a very minor "B" musical/comedy that could have been an exceptional programmer about Hollywood and the movies, but it isn't. Taken from an original story by George R. Bilson, the product is far from original since it contains some elements lifted from the George S. Hoffman and Most Hart 1928 play and later screen adaptation to ONCE IN A LIFETIME (Universal, 1932) along with TWENTY MILLION SWEETHEARTS (Warners, 1934) featuring Pat O'Brien. Donald Woods goes against type doing a Pat O'Brien in the title role through his fast talking, quick thinking fashion. While the studio's relatively newcomer, Jeanne Madden, following her promising movie debut opposite Dick Powell in STAGE STRUCK (1936), gathers the most attention, for her second screen performance,unfortunately turns out to be both unrewarding and unmemorable.

The story opens on a cross country tour bus with outdoor sign reading "Beauty on Wheels" with Steve Stewart (Donald Woods), publicity man and talent scout for Apex Pictures riding along with numerous Hollywood starlets. After the bus gets stuck on in the mud, Steve hitches a ride with Jed Hoskins (John Pearson), a country yokel, to the nearest service station ten miles away for help. Dropped off at Joe's Place, Steve makes a collect call to A.J. Lambert (Joseph Crehan), the studio head, informing him of the situation, but gets fired instead "as of last Saturday." Stranded, Steve hitch-hikes his way to a small town in Detroit where he stops in a burlesque theater where he sees Mary Brannigan (Jeanne Madden) performing. Amazed by her talent, he takes her back with him to Hollywood at a promise of grooming her to major movie stardom. Following a screen test, M.B. Carter (Charles Halton) and Smith (David Carlyle) become disappointed with her song delivery through suggestions by Steve. However, he discovers the error in his ways after listening to Mary later singing a ballad in her own manner. She gets a spot singing at a charity benefit at KFWB Radio where this time, she becomes a sensation. Having her name changed to Doris Pierce, she soon stars in a series of motion pictures starring Raymond Crane (Fred Lawrence), much to the chagrin of Bernice Fox (Rosalind Marquis), his frequent co-star who loves him. Through the course of a year, Pierce and Crane have become a popular screen item. Having fallen in love with her, Steve intends on proposing to Mary, but finds she has other plans for her future. Others appearing in the cast are Teddy Hart (Moe Jerome); Helen Valkis (Ruth); David Carlyle (Bert Smith); and Frank Orth (The Theater Manager). Although Warner Brothers contract players as Allen Jenkins, Joan Blondell and Patricia Ellis are said to have cameo appearance in TALENT SCOUT, their scenes are actually clipped from their earlier movies, notably Jenkins from TWENTY MILLION SWEETHEARTS (1934) and Blondell from Broadway GONDOLIER (1935).

With a forgettable story comes such forgettable songs by M.K. Jerome and Jack Scholl as: "Silent Picture Days," "Silent Picture Days" (reprise); "I Am a Singer, You Are the Song," "I Am the Singer, You Are the Song" (reprise, all sung by Jeanne Madden); "No, No Senor" (sung by Rosalind Marquis, dance by ensemble); "Born to Love," "I Was Wrong" and "Born to Love" (all sung by Fred Lawrence and Jeanne Madden). Only "No, No Senor" gets a slight production number status at a movie studio set.

The problem with TALENT SCOUT is that it tries to put so much in its tight 62 minutes, resulting to very brief bits here and there indicating heavy editing and deleted scenes before the movie was released in theaters. Madden is introduced singing a song about silent picture days, but is not sung throughout. She sings a few bars of the song, then followed immediately with a scene where she's approached by the talent scout, and suddenly she's on her way to Hollywood. On the comedic side comes a rustic named Jed Hodkins who, for offering the talent scout and discoverer of "Dick Powell, Kay Francis and Pat O'Brien" a ride, and having the scout patiently listen to his rendition to "Am I Blue?," takes the talent scout seriously by coming to Apex Pictures later on to look him up for a job, only to get the run- around. Then there's Mary Treen as the no- nonsense secretary, Janet Morris, who allows playwrights Muscleman and Twirp (Eddie Acuff and Donald Kerr) to await in the waiting room for four months to meet with the studio head. And what's become of the stranded bus full of starlets earlier in the story is never revealed.

As hard as the cast tries to deliver a fine performance, it just doesn't work. Jeanne Madden would appear in one more motion picture, SEA RACKETEERS (Republic, 1937) before leaving the motion picture business forever. Donald Wood would resume his usual style of acting for many years to come (playing the father in THIRTEEN GHOSTS (1960), for example), but never developed himself to a top leading mustache actor as Clark Gable. Never distributed to home video, this rarely seen TALENT SCOUT has been presented every so often on Turner Classic Movies, especially on themes of Hollywood's Hollywood, but don't expect too much. (**)

Cellmates Forever, 3 September 2017

UP THE RIVER (Fox, 1930), directed by John Ford, has nothing to do with a show boat floating through place to place on the Mississippi River, but in convict's terms as someone who's "sent to prison." Basically a comedy-drama, the movie itself has very little significance except for it being the feature film introduction to future screen legends, Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart, in their only movie together. Being a buddy/buddy type of movie in the tradition of Fox's own Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe, UP THE RIVER uses the same premise of sorts between Tracy and fellow studio contract player, Warren Hymer, as both leading man's good friend and comic foil.

At a state's prison in the south, Saint Louis (Spencer Tracy) and Dannemora Dan (Warren Hymer) are making a prison break. As they enter an automobile, Louis takes off leaving Dan behind after tricking him into checking the back tire. Later in Kansas City, Dan is seen with a band of Salvation Army people preaching goodness and forgiveness for others, only to forget himself when he sees Louis in the crowd of spectators, followed by a fight. Back in prison, this time at Bensonatta in the Midwest, Louis and Dan share the same cell with a baseball coach called "Pop" (William Collier Sr.) and Steve Jordan (Humphrey Bogart), a rich young man serving time for murder, leaving his family back home to believe he's away in China. About to be paroled in a few months, Steve, who has an office job, meets and interviews a new inmate, Judy Fields (Claire Luce, in movie debut), sentenced to three years in the woman's section of the nearby prison. Steve falls in love with Judy and wants to marry her upon her release. After Steve's parole, he returns to his New England home, unaware he's being followed by Frosby (Morgan Wallace), the man who framed Judy, and is out to blackmail him or expose his whereabouts to his family. When Louis learns of Steve's situation through Judy's letter, he and Dan make another escape to help their former cellmate out of a jam. Other members of the cast consist of George MacFarlane (John Jessup); Louise MacIntosh (Mrs. Massey, the social worker); and Richard Keene (Dick). Look fast for familiar faces in smaller roles as Ward Bond as the prison bully, and Bob Burns as an inmate named Slim.

While the plot about prison inmates bonding and helping one another in their time of need is believable, the original story by Maurine Watkins, asks its viewers to accept this to be a prison which seems more like a college campus. Other than having a baseball team as a recreation, and a annual show consisting of minstrels named Black and Blue doing comedy routines, and Morris (Gaylord Pendleton) singing a sad "Mother" song, there's also a child named Jean (Jean Marie Lawes), the warden's (Robert Emmett O'Connor) little daughter, who both plays with the convicts and asks and replies to their riddles.

Being a sort of movie one would never believe would ever get to see again, UP THE RIVER has finally surfaced on cable television, including BRAVO (1987); The Disney Channel (1988); Fox Movie Channel and finally Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: December 10, 2007, and availability on DVD with John Ford's other feature, WHEN WILLIE COMES MARCHING HOME (1950) on its flip side. (On a personal level, the DVD edition should have had on the flip side, BORN RECKLESS (1930), also directed by John Ford with Warren Hymer in the cast instead). The major flaw and concern with circulating prints of UP THE RIVER is its constant jumping both in dialogue and story actions, indicating missing material in between scenes, shortening its original 92 minute length to its now available 84 minutes.

While Tracy and Hymer collaborated again in GOLDIE (Fox, 1931) opposite Jean Harlow, the idea of their future pairing ended there. No longer a team, Hymer appeared in other Tracy starring movies as 20,000 YEARS IN SING-SING (First National, 1933), DANTE'S INFERNO (Fox, 1935) and SAN FRANCISCO (MGM, 1936), either in smaller or uncredited bit parts. Revamped with same title by 20th Century-Fox (1938) starring Preston Foster, Phyllis Brooks and Tony Martin, the original UP THE RIVER remains a major curiosity due to the presence of both Tracy and Bogart under its direction by John Ford more than anything else. (***)

Condemned! (1929)
Prisoners of Love, 27 August 2017

CONDEMNED! (Samuel Goldwyn/United Artists, 1929), directed by Wesley Ruggles, is an early sound prison movie where "The action takes place at the French penal colony to South America's community known as Devil's Island." Starring Ronald Colman in his second full-length talkie, it seemed unlikely finding Colman, best known for romance stories of the silent screen, in such a premise. Founded upon the book, "Condemned to Devil's Island" by Blair Niles, with screenplay by Sidney Howard, CONDEMNED! turned out to be another winner for the popular actor, even to a point of earning him an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor (along with his talkie debut as BULLDOG DRUMMOND) to his resume.

Following the opening credit titles super imposed over the ocean water waves with vocalization to "The Song of the Condemned," the story begins as a prison ship docking on Devil's Island with its handful of new prisoners behind bars, including Michel Oban (Ronald Colman), a gentleman thief of Paris, and his friend, Jacques Duval (Louis Wolheim), sentenced to life for murder. Jean Duval (Dudley Digges), a tough warden living on the penal colony with his young wife (Ann Harding), who's biggest fear is living amongst the surroundings of convicts, meets his new prisoners giving them warning that there is no escape on Devil's Island, which "lies between the jungle and the sea of sharks." Vidal, who finds Michel (Number 7232) to be an "unusual type of criminal thief," assigns him as servant houseboy to his wife's daily duties. While out on the market grounds, Michel brings a smile to Madame Duval's face with a good deed by buying her a pet monkey so she won't be so lonely at home. Losing her fear over this debonair prisoner, she soon becomes attracted him. Rumors by gossipers spread about these two, forcing the jealous warden to place Michel in solitary confinement for six months, and substituting Jacques as his wife's new household servant. After learning the warden is to send his wife back to Paris, Michel makes his daring escape to be with her, only to be surprised by the outcome. Also in the cast are William Elmer (Pierre); Frank Campeau (Gilbert); Ernie Adams, Lionel Bellmore and Constantine Romanoff.

While not as famous or stronger than some of the latter prison movies of the early 1930s, CONDEMNED! is sadly an overlooked item. A bit advanced in camera angles and movement as opposed to other 1929 sound releases, CONDEMNED! holds interest throughout its 87 minutes. Cast against type, Colman allows himself go be shown unshaven, and brave danger while being chased by prison guards through the marshes. Other than that, he continues his debonair style with his distinguished voice and mannerisms that has made him popular throughout his career. Dudley Digges as the sadistic warden whom his wife fears and hates, does a splendid job. He gives the sort of performance most worthy for a Charles Laughton had he been assigned the part. Ann Harding, a stage actress also appearing in her third talkie release, is believable, although looking way too sophisticated for playing a woman who loves a convict. Louis Wolheim is also unforgettable, right down to the giant eye tattoo posted on his chest.

Seldom shown on television since the mid 1970s, CONDEMNED! did show up on occasionally on cable TV over the years as Wometco Home Theater (1986); Nostalgia Television (late 1980s); Turner Network Television (1989-91; and many years later, Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: August 21, 2017) as part of an all-day Ann Harding movie tribute. Never distributed on video cassette or DVD, CONDEMNED! remains a curiosity as best for early Ronald Colman years before he became THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937). (***)

Bye, Bye, Byline, 20 August 2017

"His Girl Friday" (Columbia, 1940), produced and directed by Howard Hawks, has the distinction of being hailed next to LIBELED LADY (MGM, 1936) as one of the fastest and most funniest newspaper comedies ever made. Being an updated version to "The Front Page," originated as a successful 1928-29 stage play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (starring Osgood Perkins and Lee Tracy), it was followed soon after by a 1931 motion picture of the same name starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien. This latest edition starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell teams these two for the first and only time, and what a pair they made. The main distinction between this movie and the earlier editions is the fact that the central character of Hildy Johnson was changed from male to female, otherwise this remake is no doubt a much better movie, enough to inspire latter remakes that follow this pattern the most.

Opening title: "It all happened in the 'Dark Ages' of the newspaper game - when to a reporter 'getting that story' justified anything short of murder. Incidentally you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press room. Ready? Once upon a time --" As the camera tracks through the crowded newsroom of reporters and switchboard operators doing their daily routines at the Morning Post, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), former reporter, arrives with Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), a life insurance man she met while on vacation in Bermuda, now the man she intends to marry. She breaks her good news to Walter Burns (Cary Grant), both her former editor and ex-husband, with the intention of giving up the newspaper game and living a simple and normal life, but most of all, being as far away from her ex-husband as possible. After meeting and dining with both Hildy and her future husband-to-be, Walter plots to keep Hildy under his employ by assigning her to the Earl Williams case. Earl Williams (John Qualen), an unemployed bookkeeper, is accused of shooting a policeman, and has already been tried and found guilty of the crime and to soon face execution by hanging. Hildy is to grant the newspaper an interview with him before he dies, and make this her final story for the paper. Putting their train trip to Albany on hold for a few hours, Hildy does the interview while Walter works every unthinkable scheme to do away with both Bruce and his mother (Alma Kruger). In the meantime, Sheriff Peter Hartwell (Gene Lockhart) and the mayor (Clarence Kolb) do whatever possible keeping Joe Pettibone (Billy Gilbert) from delivering Earl's reprieve for their own political gain in the upcoming election. Also in the cast are: Porter Hall (Murphy); Cliff Edwards (Elliott); Regis Toomey (Sanders); Roscoe Karns (McCue); Frank Jenks (Tim Wilson); and Ernest Truex (Roy V. Bensinger, poet), as press room reporters at the Criminal Court Building; Abner Biberman ("Diamond Louie"); Frank Orth (Duffy); Marion Martin (Evangeline); and Helen Mack (Mollie Malloy), among others.

While "His Girl Friday" basically follows the plot elements closely to both play and original motion picture, it certainly holds its own from start to finish as something quite original. The first 15 minutes of the story is certainly priceless comedy, showing both Grant and Russell at their comic-timing best. Yes, there are some moments of serious emotions involved, including Mollie's (Helen Mack) tearful emotions towards the condemned man she feels to be innocent for his crime; or John Qualen holding Hildy hostage in the press room at the hold of a gun. Even with these dramatic scenes, the story moves at a fast pace before reaching its 92 minute climax. Ralph Bellamy, who's no stranger playing the naive mother's boy he initially enacted in THE AWFUL TRUTH (Columbia, 1937) which also featured Cary Grant, offers more of the same here for his record. Before Bing Crosby and Bob Hope's "Road to" comedy series over at Paramount, HIS GIRL Friday does have its share of in-joke humor incorporated into the story, the most famous being Walter's description of Bruce Baldwin looking like that movie actor named Ralph Bellamy. Be sure to hear what Cary Grant has to say about some guy named "Archie Leach!"

The plot was later reworked as a musical titled THE THRILL OF BRAZIL (Columbia, 1946) featuring Keenan Wynn in the Walter Burns-type characterization, with Evelyn Keyes and Ann Miller in support. Later reverted back to its original title of THE FRONT PAGE, the latest 1974 Universal edition retained its original play structure of the late twenties, featuring Walter Matthau (Walter Burns) and Jack Lemmon (Hildy Johnson) in the cast. "His Girl Friday" was revamped once more in plot and script structure as SWITCHING CHANNELS (Tri-Star, 1988) starring Kathleen Turner, Burt Reynolds and Christopher Reeve, switching the setting from news room to television station.

For "His Girl Friday," it became one of the many public domain movie titles displayed on video cassette by various distributors in the early 1980s, as well as being most televised on television either on commercial, public or cable channels (namely American Movie Classics or Turner Classic Movies). Once seen, "His Girl Friday" regardless of its age, remains an instant classic of screwball newspaper comedies of Hollywood's golden age. -30- (***1/2)

"Be a Clown, Be a Clown ... All the World Loves a Clown", 12 August 2017

LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1928), produced and directed by Herbert Brenon, returns Lon Chaney to playing the role of a tragic clown, a type of role he earlier portrayed in his earlier screen adaptation to HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (MGM, 1924). Though it's easier to confuse one film from the other, particularly where Lon Chaney and his clowning are concerned, yet for this silent melodrama, taken from the play elements by David Belasco, and story by Tom Cushing, it's somewhat predictable Chaney to say the least.

Opening title: "Spring comes early in the Italian hills. Peasants hearts are light – and the voice of the traveling circus is heard in the land." This strange tale opens with Tito (Lon Chaney) and Simon (Bernard Siegel), a couple of sideshow entertainers traveling through an Italian village where they entertain and invite the public to attend their upcoming circus show where they perform as clowns. Following their performance, Tito rests up by the lake where he washes his clothes. At a distance he hears some crying, only to find an abandoned infant girl whose feet are tied to a branch. Releasing her from her bondage, rather than taking her to an orphanage, Tito decides to adopt her, much to the chagrin of Simon until he names the baby Simonetta. Years pass. Simonetta (Loretta Young), now a young girl, is being trained by Tito to become a tight rope walker. Later, while accidentally getting her foot caught in barb wire, Simonetta is rescued by the passing Count Luigi Babelli (Nils Asther), who takes to her beauty. After inviting her to his home, Simonetta's presence causes friction between Luigi and his girlfriend, Lucretta (Gwen Lee). During their argument, Simonetta leaves. Later, Luigi finds himself suffering from uncontrollable laughter due to life of self-indulgence while at the same time, Tito suffers from depression involving Simonetta. As both men pay a visit to a neurologist (Emmett King) in Rome, he advises individually that they find a girl to truly love and marry. In order to break from his crying spells, Tito resumes life as Flick the clown, while Luigi attempts winning the love of a circus girl. Situations become complex as Simonetta learns the true love from both men, and whether or not they can ever overcome their inner troubled emotions. Others members of the cast include: Cissy Fitz-gerald (Giancinta); and Julie Devalora (The Nurse).

Aside from the know-how melodramatic elements given by the legendary Lon Chaney, LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH is also notable for being the first major movie role for the third-billed Loretta Young, then about age 15, yet looking very much like a grown mature woman here. Radiant, beautiful and still new to the movie business following numerous uncredited bit parts dating back to the early 1920s or beyond. Young, whose role could have been performed by other MGM contract performers as Anita Page, Dorothy Sebastian or HE WHO GETS SLAPPED co-star, Norma Shearer, shows how she can hold her own even at a very young age as a serious actress. Working opposite the ever popular Lon Chaney certainly proves to be a big advantage to her career. Nils Asther, better known to film scholars mostly for his co-starring roles in silent dramas opposite another popular MGM performer, Greta Garbo, performs his task well as the troubled young Count.

Out of circulation for decades, LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH, a sort-after Lon Chaney melodrama, premiered on Turner Classic Movies cable channel (TCM premiere: February 26, 2003(, accompanied by a new original score composed by J. Scott Salinas. Though one would wish for the original score that accompanied this 1928 production, the Salinas orchestration proves to be quite satisfactory during its current clock time of 74 minutes. For such an unusual story with no laughs, and very much a one man (Chaney) show, it's plausible though its fine performances made believable by Chaney and his co-stars. Available on DVD, LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH is a welcome edition to the other Chaney movies during his MGM years (1924-1930) and worthy viewing for the presence of a girl named Loretta when she was young. (***)


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