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The Inner Sanctum: Blind Alibi, 6 February 2016

DEAD MAN'S EYES (Universal, 1944), directed by Reginald LeBorg, the third in the "Inner Sanctum" mysteries based on the radio series owned and operated by Simon and Schuster Publishers, stars Lon Chaney, Universal's resident horror star, taking time away from both Wolf Man and Mummy characterizations. Opening in tradition with a man's head inside the crystal ball, addressing the audience by saying, "This is the Inner Sanctum, the fantastic world controlled by mass of living, cult seeking flesh. The mind, it destroys, distracts, creates monsters. Yes, even you, without knowing, can commit murder." Here's to another segment: The original screenplay by Dwight V. Babcock revolves around Dave Stuart (Lon Chaney), a struggling young artist nearly completing what might become his greatest painted masterpiece, with Tanya Czoraki (Acquanetta) posing as his model. It so happens that Tanya is secretly in love with Dave, and jealous of his engagement to marry Heather Hayden (Jean Parker), whose father, Stanley Hayden (Edward Fielding), likes Dave enough as if were his own son. This doesn't go well with Nick Phillips (George Meeker), Heather's jealous and former suitor. Alan Bittaker (Paul Kelly), a psychiatrist and Dave's closest friend, has a secret passion for Tanya. After a day's work painting on the canvas, Dave's ends his daily routine by cleansing his tired eyes with eyewash. While conversing with Alan, Tanya unwittingly moves the bottles in his cabinet, which causes Dave to accidentally place acid on his eyes, damaging his cornea and going blind. Because of his handicap and unable to finish his painting, he orders the canvas covered, breaks his engagement to Heather, and turns to self pity by boozing alcohol. The guilt ridden Tanya offers to help and keep Dave company by day, hoping in time he's transfer his affections towards her. However, Dave is given some hope by Doctor Samuel Welles (Jonathan Hale) that he might be able to perform a difficult operation of a cornea transplant that might have him see again. "Dad" Hayden agrees to donate the cornea of his own eyes to Dave, leaving that statement in his will at the time of his death. Because of Hayden's suspicions towards Tanya, he and Dave argue and part company. Wanting to apologize for his actions, Dave visits Hayden at his residence, only to be have Heather walk in and finding him standing over her father's dead body. Accused of his mysterious murder, Doctor Welles does follow through with the operation using dead man's eyes. With the operation unsuccessful, and hounded by Detective Druey (Thomas Gomez), Dave, in total darkness, takes it upon himself to clear his name and solve Hayden's murder and other subsequent murders connected to his supposed crime.

Whether intentional or not, scenes involving artist later blinded, and jealous model, appear to parallel that with Rudyard Kipling's film based story, THE LIGHT THAT FAILED, recently produced by Paramount in 1939, starring Ronald Colman and Ida Lupino. Though not a murder mystery as DEAD MAN'S EYES, THE LIGHT THAT FAILED does involve Lupino's bravura performance as a model who eventually goes mad through endless hours of modeling by destroying the painted canvas. For Acaquanetta, fresh from her recent screen introduction title role as the CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (Universal, 1943), is not a very good actress, and can't compare to Lupino. There are moments where Acaquanetta gives the impression she's reciting her worded lines one by one from cue cards with little or no emotion of expression whatsoever. Jean Parker, looking very much like Jean Arthur in both profile and hair style, comes off better, even through a couple of sudden shrieks. Thomas Gomez, doing a J. Carrol Naish police inspector reprise from CALLING DOCTOR DEATH (1943), adds a little flavor of his own as the hounding police inspector. Lon Chaney does exceptionally well as a tormented blind man, sporting sunglasses, feeling his way around the room with either hands of walking cane, and moments of how to handle himself with the outside world. These moments are briefly motivated in favor of murder mystery, which doesn't hurt the story in the least. Director LeBorg keeps the pace moving for 64 minutes, though abrupt blackouts and middle scene fade-ins are evident.

As with other five features in the "Inner Sanctum" series, DEAD MAN'S EYES slowly faded away from television broadcasts starting by the late 1970s where, due to the Chaney horror film reputation, played part of "Fright Night" or any other Saturday evening horror film nights. Unlike the other five, DEAD MAN'S EYES became the only one to be presented on cable television's American Movie Classics during the 1989-90 season. One would wonder why the other five didn't take part in this presentation. Regardless, availability onto home video in 1997 on double bill with PILLOW OF DEATH (1945), and later onto DVD, has assured DEAD MAN'S EYES not completely blind to those curious about this nearly forgotten series of murder mysteries that entertained movie audiences back in the day when films of this nature were quite popular and commonly played. Next "Inner Santrum" episode: THE FROZEN GHOST (1945) Brrr. (**1/2)

The Inner Sanctum: The Lost Weekend, 6 February 2016

CALLING DOCTOR DEATH (Universal, 1943), directed by Reginald LeBorg, marks the first of the "Inner Sanctum" mysteries, all starring Lon Chaney Jr. (billed solely as Lon Chaney in the credits). These second feature productions offered the mustached Chaney the opportunity to carry on a story without portraying an assortment of Universal monsters since his breakthrough performance as The Wolf Man (1941), followed by the Frankenstein monster ("The Ghost of Frankenstein, 1942); Klaris, the Mummy (starting with "The Mummy's Tomb," 1942) and Count Dracula ("Son of Dracula, 1943). This, and some subsequent films in a total of six, mostly come with an introduction before the title credits with an image of a man's head (David Hoffman) floating inside a crystal ball looking directly into the camera, and saying, "This is the Inner Sanctum, the fantastic world controlled by mass of living, cult seeking flesh. The mind .. it destroys, distracts, creates monsters. Yes, even you, without knowing, can commit murder."

Taken from an original screenplay by Edward Dein, inspired by the "Inner Sanctum" stories owned and copyrighted by Simon and Schuster Publishers, this initial entry is not one about a doctor performing mercy killings, (though not a bad idea), but about a neurologist, Doctor Mark Steel (Lon Chaney), who, through the assistance of his confident, Stella Madden (Patricia Morison), enters the minds of patients through hypnotism, and solving whatever problem they may have. Though Mark is able to help those in need of his services, he's unable to do the same for himself, coping with his troubled two-year marriage to Maria (Ramsay Ames), an attractive, but faithless woman with outside affairs. Finding himself dining alone and awaiting to 3 a.m. for his wife's return, and suspecting another man involved, upon her return he asks for a divorce, but is refused. Maria intends remaining a doctor's wife and being part of the social circle. Later, after returning home late Saturday afternoon, Mark is told by Bryant (Holmes Herbert), his butler, that Mrs. Steel is gone for the weekend. In a delirious state, Mark drives to the country lodge to have a showdown. The next scene finds him being awakened by his nurse at his office Monday morning, unable to recall anything that occurred over the weekend. Then the arrival of detectives inform Mark of his wife's brutal murder with face burned with acid and head struck by a blunt instrument. In spite the fact that Robert Duval (David Bruce), Maria's lover and married man with an invalid wife (Fay Helm), being arrested, tried and sentenced to be executed for the crime, Mark still finds him innocent. With the help of Stella, hypnotizes himself to verbally record on Dictaphone to account for his missing alibi, but Inspector Gregg (J. Carrol Naish) of the police department has his doubts, continuing to hound and suspect Mark of foul play.

A well-scripted 64 minute mystery, with eerie background music, voice-over thoughts through the minds of central characters, and occasional slanted camera angles, CALLING DOCTOR DEATH is satisfactory screen entertainment. With Lon Chaney performing more of an actor than his usual tormented wolf man in a series of films, he's in fine support by Patricia Morison as his loyal assistant with few key scenes along her way, and J. Carrol Naish in a performance not much different from Peter Falk's style from his seventies TV mystery series as "Columbo."

Not broadcast regularly on television since the late 1970s, this and other "Inner Sanctum" mysteries starring Lon Chaney became available in a three set, double-feature packages on home video in the 1997, with CALLING DOCTOR DEATH double billed with the little seen STRANGE CONFESSION (1945), and later the DVD format with three films on two discs collection in chronological order. A treat for Chaney fans and or old-time movie mystery lovers. Next installment: WEIRD WOMAN (1944), which is somewhat better. (**1/2)

Little Old New York, 22 January 2016

UP IN CENTRAL PARK (Universal-International, 1948), directed by William A. Seiter, stars Deanna Durbin in her next to last movie of her career. For her first 1948 release, she stars in a light-hearted period piece based on a popular 1945 musical play of the same name by Dorothy and Herbert Fields. Aside from some changes from stage to screen regarding both story and selected song tunes, the film in general is livably typical Durbin material which allows her to change from teenage Irish girl in pig-tails to attractive young woman. What's most interesting here is casting Durbin opposite Vincent Price (then not quite the horror film actor he was to become years later) in his rare occasion cast in a musical story. Though Price would have done very well in the singing category, all major vocals go to the pleasing voices by Durbin and 20th Century-Fox alumni, Dick Haymes.

In spite of the title, the 88 minute story is not set entirely in Central Park. However, it takes place in 1870s New York City where the plot introduces William Marcy Treed (Vincent Price), a corrupt political boss of the Tammany Hall Society advocating the re-election of weak and drunken candidate, Mayor Oakley (Hobart Cavanaugh,) back in office so to resume his crooked deals. Going against Treed is New York Times reporter John Matthews (Dick Haymes) out to expose him, but because of his lack of evidence that would stand up on court, he's unable to do so. Later on a boat arriving from Europe to Ellis Island are immigrants, including that of Rosie (Deanna Durbin) and her widower father, Timothy Moore (Arthur Sharpe) coming to their land of opportunity where Rosie hopes to become a great opera singer. Soon after, Mr. Moore is met by Regan (Tom Powers), one of Tweed's associates offering naive immigrants extra money voting straight candidate tickets under names of those unable to cast a ballot, namely the sick and deceased, even without being American citizens. Offered $2 a vote, Mr. Moore earns $50 for voting 23 times for Oakley. Having fallen asleep in Tweed's office while awaiting to meet with him, Treed, believing Rosie has overheard him discussing with the board about embezzling funds through unnecessary renovation of Central Park, gets on her good graces by offering her father a $3,000 a year job as park superintendent plus living accommodations inside Central Park. As much as Rosie feels Tread to be a great man of honor, it's up to Matthews, who has taken an interest in the young lady, to convince her otherwise.

With music and lyrics by Sigmund Romberg and Dorothy Fields, the motion picture soundtrack is as follows: "Vote for Treed" (sung by candidates); "Oh Say Do You See What I See" (sung by Deanna Durbinb); "Carousel in the Park" (sung by Dick Haymes and Deanna Durbin); "The Ice Skating Ballet" (photograph come to life sequence choreographed by Helen Tamiras); "When She Walks in the Room" (sung by Dick Haymes); "Pace, Pace Mio Mio" and Giuseppe Verdi's Opera LA FORZE DEL DESTINO (sung by Durbin); and "The Waiter/Can-Can Dance" (instrumental). Though the songs are proved satisfactory, including Durbin's "Oh Say Do You See" number and a couple of Dick Haymes song interludes, they are, in the most part, unmemorable.

While the legacy of Universal Studio rests mostly on its reputation for horror films and/or Abbott and Costello comedies, one of the biggest money makers for the studio since 1936 were those films starring Deanna Durbin. Making no attempt speaking with an Irish brogue, which is left to the Barry Fitzgerald sounding voice of co-star, Arthur Sharpe, Durbin's Rosie is less typical Irish stereotype than most, though her Irish temper does flare up on a couple of occasions with her giving face slaps to those who make her angry. When watching Durbin playing opposite Vincent Price, one would have to feel their missed opportunity for not being cast together in the sound remake of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943), in place of the casting of Susanna Foster and Claude Rains. Interestingly with this combination for UP IN CENTRAL PARK that Price presence gathers the most attention with his scene stealing performance, while Arthur Sharpe gets some moments to himself in a scene where he attempts to get his education by learning to read by attending school seated in a classroom surrounded by third grade students.

A satisfactory presentation with authentic recreated costumes and settings that blend in perfectly with its time frame, it's a wonder why it wasn't produced in Technicolor. Though UP IN CENTRAL PARK did have some limited TV revivals in the 1980s during its broadcasts on public broadcasting television, it did become available on video cassette in 1998 and years later on DVD as part of the Deanna Durbin collection, simply indicating the Durbin name isn't as unknown or forgotten as legend may have it believed to be. (***)

They Shall Have Music, 10 January 2016

POT O'GOLD (United Artists, 1941), directed by George Marshall, is not exactly a luck of the Irish fantasy about a leprechaun and his pot of gold, but a forgotten yet unsuccessful musical with title derived from a popular radio program. POT O'GOLD also has the distinction of being both presented and produced for the only time by James Roosevelt, older son of the then current United States president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Independently made, it also has the distinction of starring not two newcomers on the rise but two major actors on loan-out assignment from their home base studios, James Stewart (from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) and Paulette Goddard (from Paramount). Other than being the movie debut of band-leader, Horace Heidt, it has little to offer except for the presence of recent Academy Award winner, James Stewart, in what he claimed to be his worst movie. Maybe not his very worst, except only when watching bad reproductive copies on video or DVD, but one of his lesser contributions with fine actors performing to second rate script with second rate songs to boot.

The story revolves around James Hamilton Haskell (James Stewart), a harmonica player who has inherited his late father's music store. Because business is failing, his rich uncle, Charles J. Haskell (Charles Winninger), sponsor of the weekly radio program, "Haskell's Happiness Hour," offers Jimmy the opportunity of going into business with him. As much as Jimmy loves music, his uncle detests it, especially when his establishment happens to be across the alley of Mrs. McCorkle's (Mary Gordon) boardinghouse on 419 63rd Street where Horace Heidt and his band play their music on the rooftop. As Jimmy arrives to meet with his uncle, he encounters Mrs. McCorkle's daughter, Molly (Paulette Goddard), singer of the band, who, during a disruption between the McCorkles and the Haskills, unwittingly throws a tomato at his uncle's face, thus, becoming a hero to the McCorkles and tenants of the building. As Jimmy tries to hide his identity from Molly and her friends, he attempts on helping the music makers by having them appear on his uncle's radio program without his knowledge.

Other members of the cast include: Frank Melton (Jasper); Dick Hogan (Willie McCorkle); Jed Prouty (J.K. Louderman); James Burke (Officer Grady); and Charles Arnt (Parks, the Butler). Notable performance goes to Mary Gordon in another one of many stereotypical strong-willed Irish mother/landlady; Charles Winninger playing a sort of role he's done hundreds of times before, with the only exception of not being an entertainer who feels vaudeville will be making a comeback; and future TV personality, Art Carney Ed Norton of "The Honeymooners") briefly playing a radio announcer during the radio giveaway segment.

Though Stewart is not actually associated with musicals, interestingly POT O'GOLD happens to be his fourth, and second for which he sings a song or two. The motion picture soundtrack, with tunes by unfamiliar composers as Lou Forbesm Henry Sucher, Dave Franklin, Mark David and Vee Lawnhurst, is as follows "Hi Cy," "Pete, the Piper Man" (sung by Paulette Goddard); "By the Moonlight," "When Johnny Toots His Horn" (sung by James Stewart); "Hail, McCorkle," "A Knife, a Fork and a Spoon," "My Irish Stew," "Oh, Boarder House," "Do You Believe in Fairy Tales?" (sung by band members, later sung by James Stewart during dream sequence); and "The Caballero from Broadway." Of the songs, "The Cavallero from Broadway" gets the production number treatment, choreographed by Larry Ceballos. A lively tune and well staged, it's something best appreciated from the standpoint of the story for television as opposed to listening radio audience who couldn't very well see what they are hearing, otherwise the score is a far cry from being Irving Berlin, Cole Porter or a George Gershwin. I doubt is any one of these composers would ever consider such title songs as "A Knife, A Fork and a Spoon" and make a success of it.

While POT O'GOLD reportedly began its broadcasting on television during its earliest years before disappearing by the mid 1950s, it wasn't until the advent of cable television and home video did POT O GOLD, having become a public domain movie title, began to find a new audience by the early 1980s, especially on public television. In later years, it's turned up on many cable channels, notably in recent years on Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: April 14, 2007).

POT O GOLD may not win any jackpot as a sort-after movie musical classic, but a curiosity for those interested in the careers of its major leading players, especially that of Jimmy Stewart. (***)

There's Something About Mary, 2 January 2016

SOMETHING IN THE WIND (Universal-International, 1947), directed by Irving Pichel, is not a disaster hurricane or tornado movie, but a light-hearted musical-comedy starring the once-popular Deanna Durbin in one of her final film roles before closing her chapter in movie making by 1948. Considering a handful of "Wind" movie titles, consisting of THE WIND (1928), WOMEN IN THE WIND (1939), REAP THE WILD WIND (1942), VOICE IN THE WIND (1944), and the most famous wind of all, GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), SOMETHING IN THE WIND is simply a song title tagged to an ordinary story quite common during the screwball genre of the 1930s. Following weak comedy attempts of BECAUSE OF HIM (1946) and I'LL BE YOURS (1947), Durbin's latest installment is actually one of her better efforts, especially with the assistance Donald O'Connor.

Abandoning her shoulder-length hairstyle for a more mature 1940s style appearance, Deanna Durbin plays Mary Collins, a singing disc-jockey for WFOB Radio Station. After finishing her daily program, Mary is approached by the angry and upset Donald Read (John Dall), a rich, stuck-up snob identifying himself as grandson to the late Henry Read. Unaware of his purpose, she finds he wants her to sign a cash settlement to cease any further financial means she's been receiving for many years. Accused of being this old man's mistress, Mary, not liking this young man's tactics, storms out of the station. Once home where she lives with her Aunt Mary (Jean Adair), Mary soon learns it's her aunt, who, many years ago, had worked as governess for the Reads where she met and fell in love with Henry. Because the Read family disapproved of their relationship due to social standings, the engagement was broken, with Henry marrying another. Because of his engagement to socialite, Clarissa Prentice (Helena Carter), and hoping to avoid any scandal connected with the family name, Donald gets Charlie (Donald O'Connor), his third cousin, to go to the radio station and abduct Mary. Once inside the Read estate, Mary, knowing the situation to be mistaken identity, is unable to convince other family members, consisting of Grandma Read (Margaret Wycherly) and Uncle Chester (Charles Winninger) she's not the Mary Collins in question, decides to go on with her masquerade and accept the payoff settlement of a million dollars to support her and Henry's "child." As Mary and Donald plot against each other, one of the family members discovers Mary's deception and plots against her.

With Music and Lyrics by Johnny Green and Leo Robin, the motion picture soundtrack is as follows: "The Turntable Song," "Happy-Go-Lucky and Free" (both sung by Deanna Durbin); "I Love a Mystery" (sung and performed by Donald O'Connor); "Don't You, Daddy?" (sung by Durbin during fashion show); "The Turntable Song" (sung by The Four Williams Brothers and Donald O'Connor); "Something in the Wind," "It's Only Love" (both sung by Durbin); "Miserere" from Guiseppe Verdi's IL TROVADORE (sung and performed by Durbin and Jan Peerce, Star of the Metropolitan Opera Company); "Happy-Go-Lucky and Free" and "Something in the Wind" (reprises). Though the songs are forgettable, they're agreeably pleasant. Aside from Durbin's singing, Donald O'Connor highlights with his "I Love a Mystery" number, a somewhat forerunner to his antics to "Make 'Em Laugh" from "Singin' in the Rain" (MGM, 1952), which displays his ability in bot showmanship and comedy. Opera singer Jan Peerce, in a rare screen appearance, cast as a policeman, provides some fine moments singing opposite Durbin in jail. Other cast members include: Jacqueline De Wit (The Saleslady); William Ching (Master of Ceremonies); Chester Clute, Hal K. Dawson, Frank Wilcox, among others.

A couple interesting aspects about SOMETHING IN THE WIND is a look back at early television production provided towards the film's end, and the casting of dramatic actor, John Dall. Dall, on loan from Warner Brothers, best known for his rare screen work of THE CORN IS GREEN (1945), ROPE (1948) and GUN CRAZY (United Artists, 1949), seems uncomfortable in his role, especially when comedy is concerned. A loan-out from MGM's Peter Lawford might have been sufficient, but Dall does his best to make his character believable.

Scarcely shown on television, especially public television where it was commonly shown in the 1980s, SOMETHING IN THE WIND is pleasant, breezy89 minute entertainment, even without the wind. Distributed to home video in 1998, it's currently available on DVD with Durbin's feature film debut, THREE SMART GIRLS (1936), also featuring Charles Winninger, on its flip side. (***)

A Matter of Record, 26 December 2015

PENNY SERENADE (Columbia, 1941), directed by George Stevens, is not a musical in the tradition of similar sounding titles of the period as "Broadway Serenade" (MGM, 1939), "Sun Valley Serenade" (20th-Fox, 1941), "Footlight Serenade" (20th-Fox, 1942), "Lake Placid Serenade" (Republic, 1944), among others, but a dramatic story involving two young people. Having made audiences laugh in THE AWFUL TRUTH (Columbia, 1937), and MY FAVORITE WIFE (RKO Radio, 1940), Irene Dunne and Cary Grant team together for the third and final encore that offers humor, sentiment and tearful moments that rank this their most popular of the three for which they appeared.

PENNY SERENADE begins with Julie Adams (Irene Dunne)returning home with her decision of leaving her husband, Roger (Cary Grant). Before packing, her collection of records in a scrapbook titled "The Story of a Happy Marriage" sets Julie through her "Penny Serenade" as she reminisces while listening to old tunes connected to various chapters of her life. The first song, "You Were Meant For Me," introduced in the late twenties, is the recording played in a music shop where Roger passes by, taking an interest in one of its workers, Julie Gardiner. After buying 27 records without even owning a phonograph, Julie realizes his intention, followed by a six month courtship and finally marriage. Roger, a newspaperman by profession, is assigned to a new job as correspondent in Japan, where he takes his new bride. "Poor Butterfly" becomes the tune associated with their stay in Japan where an earthquake causes the miscarriage of Julie's unborn child. Unable to birth any more children, the couple settle in San Francisco where Roger establishes his own newspaper business, The Rosalia Weekly Courier, becoming his own boss and publisher. Applejack Carney (Edgar Buchanan), a close friend of the couple, arrives from Brooklyn to assist Roger as press agent, better known as printer. Through Applejack's suggestion, the couple consider adopting a child of their own, and through the kindness of Miss Oliver (Beulah Bondi), head of the adoption agency, the couple do adopt a child. All goes well for the next few years until an unforeseen circumstance takes place that puts a burden on their marriage.

With flashback episodes tied together with musical chronology through much of its 118 minutes, the only debit to PENNY SERENADE is having Irene Dunne appearing in 1941 head-dress and costumes in segments not accurate to the actual time-frame of the 1920s and 30s. While Dunne deserved an Academy Award for her sensitive performance, it was Cary Grant who was singled out for that honor as Best Actor. Grant's nomination, no doubt, comes from his moving appeal to the stern judge (Wallis Clark) not to have his child taken away due to his lack of financial support. Who wouldn't be moved by this and Beulah Bondi's excellent support. Another standout is Edgar Buchanan, who should have been nominated in the supporting actor category, especially for one delightful scene where he demonstrates to the adoptive parents how to bathe an infant. Not to disappoint fans of either Dunne or Grant, they do share some moments of comedy, such as their initial meeting, courtship, and their first night after bringing home their adopted baby and what not to do to disturb her sleep.

Others in the cast worth noting are: Ann Doran (Dotty); Leonard Wiley (Doctor Hartley) and Eve Tee Kuneye as Little Trina, whose upside down smile and echo rendition to "Silent Night" in a Christmas play certainly makes this worth viewing. It's also the reason why PENNY SERENADE often plays on television during the Christmas season.

A public domain title, PENNY SERENADE was certainly one movie easily accessible in the early 1980s during the advent of video cassette rentals and cable television broadcasts. Since then, it's been presented on many cable networks as American Movie Classics, Turner Classic Movies (with restored Columbia Pictures logo inserted prior to closing credits which have been missing for many years), and, in some cases, public television. It's also available on DVD in both black and white and colorized formats.

While PENNY SERENADE has an original premise not commonly found in movies up to this time, it's certainly a sentimental journey back to the days when movies captured your heart through the involvement of a young couple going through trials and tribulations in their daily lives, and getting to wonder whether or not they are really meant for each other. (****)

Everybody Comes to Nick's, 19 December 2015

THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE (United Artists, 1948), directed by H.C. Potter, not to be confused with Abbott and Costello's ghost comedy, THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES (Universal, 1946), is a William Cagney production based on the 1939 Pulitzer Prize winning play by William Saroyan. Starring James Cagney, this screen adaptation is best described by its opening statement as: "This is a motion picture of many stories and plots – a living part of life itself." Of all the Cagney movies throughout his thirty-one year career (1930-1961), this, along with CEILING ZERO (Warner Brothers, 1935) have become his most rarity among television revivals. Considering the plays success, this has become a rare instance for which a Cagney movie to reportedly ever lose money at the box-office. The screen adaptation, however, does retain its status as n interesting failure that seems to have never catch on for Cagney fans.

The story is about people, people of all walks of life coming to Nick's Pacific Street Saloon Restaurant and Entertainment Palace at 7 Pacific Street, San Francisco, with Nick's sign posted on the window, "Come in and be yourself." Being themselves is what they do. Very much a filmed stage play, the opening credits offers some account to the list of characters through the passage of flipping pages: James Cagney as Joe, whose hobby is people; William Bendix as Nick, his hobby is horses; Wayne Morris as Tom, Joe's disciple errand boy, stooge and friend; Jeanne Cagney as Kitty Duvan, a young woman with memories; Broderick Crawford, the bewildered cop; Ward Bond as a "Blatherskite"; James Barton as Kit Carson, a cigar store Indian fighter; Paul Draper as Harry, a natural born dancer; Gale Page as Mary L, a woman of quality; James Lydon as Dudley, a frantic young man in love; Richard Erdman as Willie, marble game maniac; Pedro DeCordoba, the Arab philosopher; Reginald Beane as Wesley, who plays a mean piano; John "Skins" Miller, a tippler; Tom Powers as Blick, a stool pigeon and frame-up artist; Howard Freeman and Natalie Schafer, the society couple; Marlene Aames as Maria, Nick's daughter, among others.

For a successful play that might have developed into a successful motion picture, timing probably had something to do with its failure. Had THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE been produced a year or so after its theatrical run, under the direction by Frank Capra, whose hobby is directing movies about people, casting the possible likes of good guys as James Stewart or Gary Cooper in the leads, or using the cast from the original play, including William Bendix, chances are the screen adaptation might have succeeded. Coming into release nearly a decade following the hard-hitting cycle of World War II, people's tastes for entertainment have changed to a different level, from splashy Technicolor musicals to hard-hitting "film noir" melodramas. Considering its over-abundance of characters coming in and out of Nick's place, there's really little interest about them to support it. For fans of movie veteran tough guy James Cagney, it's virtually more talk than action on both his and movie's part, particularly since Cagney's Joe, a good-natured loafer, spends much of his time studying people while seated behind the table constantly listening to old song ditties like "Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie" on the phonograph machine.

Sometimes classified as a comedy, the result is actually comedy-drama, with humor more of a chuckle than side-splitting slapstick hilarity. More humor is focused on Jimmy Lydon, still in his "Henry Aldrich" persona from his movie series (1941-44) for Paramount, where he tries to avoid a homely spinster (Renie Riano) for his blind date, while trying to make up with Susie (Nanette Parks), the girl he loves. Paul Draper tries his best playing a poor comedian whose style of comedy fails to provoke laughter, finding he has a better talent, dancing. On the plus side, it's interesting watching brother and sister siblings of James and Jeanne Cagney working together at great length on screen together. Jeanne's scenes playing a homeless burlesque dancer are poignant and well-played. Lanny Rees is a Greek-American gum chewing newspaper boy who gets center stage singing "Irish Eyes are Smiling." For a story that basically consists of good people, some with troubled pasts, there's also a villain. The villain is played by Tom Powers in his Joseph Sawyer-like image, adding some life to the story, especially when having a fighting scene with Cagney's Joe.

When I first viewed THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE as a video rental in the late 1980s, I found it dull and dreary, the same reaction that might have met the expectations of 1948 theater audiences not having the time of their lives as well. After some repeated viewing and further understanding, it's easy to emphasize what its author, William Sayoran, was trying to establish, a simple story about simple people at Nick's place. In fact, Sayoran character of Joe might have been based on himself.

Available on DVD and revised in the 1980s-90s on both public and cable television, including Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: January 4, 2001), most available prints are shorter 99 minute versions to its original 109 minute release, eliminating much of the introduction of Broderick Crawford and Ward Bond at the 42 minute mark, and cutting down there scenes. If the movie needed some tightening, the editing should have gone to some extensive and somewhat dull Paul Draper tap-dancing instead. (***)

Blues Guys: The Dixieland Band, 7 December 2015

BIRTH OF THE BLUES (Paramount, 1941), directed by Victor Schertzinger, stars Bing Crosby in an interesting production that's "Dedicated to the musical pioneers of Memphis and New Orleans who favored the "hot" over the "sweet" - those early jazz men who took American music out of the rut and put it "in the grove." In musical terms, "blues" is not a form of depression but a music style of ragtime/jazz that originated by Southern blacks dating back to the 1890s. W.C. Handy (1873-1958), "Father of the Blues," the most recognizable of blues composers of his time, was only an honorable mention along with such notables of both black and white legends as Ted Lewis, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman before the film's conclusion. While BIRTH OF THE BLUES could very well have been a biography to any one of these greats, playing more like a biography in general, but in present form, is basically a fictional account the birth of the first Dixieland Jazz Band.

Opening in the 1890s, the plot begins with prologue in "Jazz Singer" plot-style where a Louisiana boy named Jeff Lambert (Ronnie Cosbey) is seen clarinet playing to "darkie music" among black musicians on the dock side of Basin Street by Louey (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson), the family servant, thus, reporting the news to the boy's stern musician father (Minor Watson). Knowing full well that Lambert would rather have his son resuming with his classical clarinet lessons, Jeff goes against his father's wishes and accepts his punishment rather than making a promise he'll never keep. Flash forward. The now adult Jeff Lambert (Bing Crosby), better known as "Sunshine," has formed a band, but is unable to gain prominence playing in New Orleans cabarets with his all white musicians playing to Dixieland music. Jeff's luck changes with new additions to his company: Memphis (Brian Donlevy), a white trumpet player serving twenty days in a local jail, and Betty Lou Cobb (Mary Martin), a young woman from Alexandria who supplies Jeff $20 to have Memphis bailed from jail. With no money for her trip back home, Jeff finds himself having both Betty and her Aunt Phoebe (Carolyn Lee), a child no more than age six, as his house-guests. With Louey still looking after Jeff, situations occur following a successful engagement at the Black Tie Café where its owner, Blackie (J. Carrol Naish) and his thugs (Warren Hymer and Horace MacMahon) make certain that their newfound "Basin Street Hot Shots" doesn't get to leave for Chicago where a great opportunity awaits them.

During this well-scripted 84 minutes, song interludes and highlights include: "The Birth of the Blues" (sung by Bing Crosby during opening credits); "The Memphis Blues" (by W.C. Handy); "Gotta Go to the Jailhouse," "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," "Tiger Rag" (played by Dixieland Jazz Band); "Waiting at the Church," "Cuddle Up a Little Closer" (sung by Mary Martin); "Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie," "My Melancholy Baby" (sung by Crosby to Carolyn Lee); "The Waiter, the Porter and the Upstairs Maid" (new song by Johnny Mercer and Robert Emmett Dolan, performed by Crosby, Martin and Jack Teagarden); "The St. Louis Blues" (hauntingly sung by Ruby Elzy); and "The Birth of the Blues" (sung by Crosby during the montage featuring other blues performers).

Though disappointing through its historic accuracy, it succeeds in entertainment values. Bing Crosby and Mary Martin work just as well here as their did in their initial offering, RHYTHM ON THE RIVER (1940), while Paramount's resident tough guy, Brian Donlevy, has his moment fist-fighting with Bing for one scene. Aside from the aforementioned leads, the best moments go to Eddie Anderson (billed simply as his character "Rochester" from Jack Benny radio fame) where he gives singing advice to Betty (Martin)from a black man's point of view. Very much a black and white production, there's an interesting use of color slide shows on the motion picture screen during the movie house sequence. Others featured in the cast include Harry Barris (Suds); Cecil Kellaway (the French accented Mr. Granet) and Barbara Pepper (Maisie).

Out of circulation since public television broadcast days in some states (1980-1990s), BIRTH OF THE BLUES can be found on DVD along with Crosby's musical, BLUE SKIES (Paramount, 1946) on the flip side. Although the title BIRTH OF THE BLUES could easily be confused with another 1941 release of BLUES IN THE NIGHT (Warner Brothers), or even that of the television title to ST. LOUIS BLUES (Paramount, 1939), a/k/a BEST OF THE BLUES, the Crosby edition, nearly forgotten to today's generation, happens to be one of the more enjoyable birth of the blues presentations for its time. (***1/2)

The Edna Gladney Story, 29 November 2015

BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1941), directed by Mervyn Leroy, with screenplay by Anita Loos, stars Greer Garson in one of her finest acting performances still early in her career. Making an impressive movie debut in GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (MGM, 1939), leading to the literary screen adaptation of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (MGM, 1940), along with a couple of light comedies opposite Robert Taylor (REMEMBER (1939) and WHEN LADIES MEET (1941)); BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST is certainly one, along with her Academy Award win for MRS. MINIVER (1942) to be very much associated with the Garson name as well as her on-screen personality. Labeled a biography, which states, "This is the story of a great woman and of the great work she is doing for humanity: her name is Edna Gladney, and she lives in Fort Worth, Texas. We dedicate this picture to her," BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST follows the pattern of many current bio-pics mixing fact and fiction, but in true MGM essence, a Technicolor film with great style and appeal.

The Story of Edna Gladney starts at the turn of the century Wisconsin where Edna Kahly (Greer Garson) and her half-sister, Charlotte (Marsha Hunt), are both to celebrate their engagements: Edna to Damon McPherson (John Eldredge), Charlotte to Alan Keats (William Henry). At the engagement party comes Sam Gladney (Walter Pidgeon), a bank cashier employed by Edna's father (Samuel S. Hinds), who, earlier, at the bank, meets her for the first time and regardless of her exposed engagement ring, tells Edna she's going to marry him. Finding Sam arrogant, his appeal pleases her enough to become his wife and move with him to Texas. As for Charlotte, she learns from her future mother-in-law (Kathleen Howard) that she's nameless foundling with an unknown father, and because of this cannot marry her son. Charlotte's suicide, along with the loss of Edna's child (Richard Nichols) and husband become a series of unpleasant circumstances leading to Edna Gladney's greatest achievements in life: Taking in tagged orphans of all different backgrounds; and opening a Texas Children's Home and Aid Society where she cares for children of working mothers as well as finding proper homes for orphaned ones. Aside from saving a woman (Fay Helm) whose personal troubles echo that of Charlotte's, and realizing she hasn't died in vain, Edna moves forward by fighting for children's rights, speaking on their behalf, taking the word "illegitimate" off birth certificates, and changing the term, "orphans" to "our children." While successful in those issues, her biggest problem is making the supreme sacrifice by having a special orphan so dear to her released under her care and into a home of a troubled couple after losing a child of their own. Others members of the cast include: Fay Holden (Mrs. Kahly); Clinton Rosemond (Zeke); Pat Barker (Little Tony); George Lessey (Mr. Keats), Theresa Harris (Cleo), and Cecil Cunningham (Mrs. Marcus Gilworth).

Unlike the life stories of Thomas Edison or Madame Curie (a role Garson would eventually play in 1943), the name of Edna Gladney is forgotten and totally unfamiliar by anyone today. Based on its presentation, it's forgivable to mistake BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST as a fictional story with "soap opera" overtones. It's also easy compare this along with MGM's fact-based story of BOYS TOWN (1938) starring Spencer Tract as Father Flanagan, a priest with a goal of building a place for homeless boys. Regardless of similarities between BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST and BOYS TOWN, each have become splendid achievements in their own rights. There are certain moments in BLOSSOMS where it becomes corny now and then, but thanks to the sensitive portrayal by Garson, it appears better than it seems. Once seen, it's hard to forget her courtroom plea to those famous words, "There are no illegitimate children. Just illegitimate parents!" Or her telling the judge (Henry O'Neill) she's ready to go to jail for not revealing the name of the family who adopted a child belonging to the mobster-type father (Marc Lawrence) who gave him up years ago; or listening to "Home on the Range" theme song underscored during the Garson-Pidgeon love scenes.

Aside from Garson's well-deserved Academy Award nominated performance, BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST also marks her first of eight feature films opposite her most perfect screen partner, Walter Pidgeon. The Garson-Pidgeon combination certainly worked wonders here and subsequent movies to follow, including another Garson favorite, MADAME CURIE (1943). They were as right together as Garson was for "Auntie Edna" Gladney. After Pidgeon's character is gone early in the story, Felix Bressart takes over through much of the proceedings as the family doctor, Max Bresler, who offers both humor and straight-forwardness through the necessary sensitive moments.

Formerly available on video cassette, and later onto DVD from Turner Home Entertainment, BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST shows on Turner Classic Movies where the legend of Greer Garson (1904-1996) and name of Edna Gladney (1886-1961) and her early accomplishments for children's rights live on through the course of television revivals. (***1/2).

A Fight Against Crime, 22 November 2015

THE BEAST OF THE CITY (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1932), a Cosmopolitan Production directed by Charles Brabin, is not a story about some wild gorilla loose in New York. King Kong would take care of that in 1933. The movie, in general, is MGM being, or at most, outdoing Warner Brothers crime dramas with gangsters as leading attractions. For something completely different, an opening statement written by President Herbert C. Hoover is brought forth on screen: "Instead of the glorification of cowardly gangsters, we need the glorification of policemen who do their duty and give their lives in public protection. If the police had the vigilante, universal backing of public opinion in their communities, if they had the implacable support of the prosecuting attorneys and the courts, I am convinced that our police would stamp out the excessive crime - which has disgraced some of our great cities." In other words, THE BEAST OF THE CITY is more than a crime story. It's a tribute to the crime fighting men in blue.

Taken from a story by "Little Caesar" author, W.R. Burnett, the fade-in follows the daily routine of the New York City police department through its camera tracking starting with police operators(one being Edward Brophy) taking, receiving or gathering information from phone calls before "calling all cars" to policemen in their siren blazing patrol cars racing down the streets to their latest assignments. James J. Fitzpatrick (Walter Huston) is introduced as a police captain whose failing methods in putting gang leader, Sam Belmonte (Jean Hersholt) in prison due to lack of evidence, assisted by a corrupt lawyer (Tully Marshall) who gets him released on technicality, gets himself demoted to desk job at a quieter precinct at the other side of town by his chief commander (Emmett Corrigan). Fitzpatrick, a family man with wife, Mary (Dorothy Peterson), twin daughters (Betty Mae and Beverly Crane) and son, Mickey (Mickey Rooney), redeems himself by capturing a pair of robbers, that reinstates his position as police chief. As Fitzpatrick continues his attempt to put an end of Belmonte's racketeering activities, Ed (Wallace Ford), his younger brother and detective in the police force, who, while on assignment, falls victim to Daisy (Jean Harlow), Belmonte's "stenographer" and mistress, Unable to obtain a promotion, Ed foils his brother's chances with his fight against crime.

Other members of the cast include: John Miljan (District Attorney); Sandy Roth (Lieutenant John "Mac" McGrowski); J. Carroll Naish (Pierre Choco, one of Belmonte's mob); Murray Kinnell (The Judge). There's also those familiar faces of character actors as George Chandler, Clarence Wilson, Arthur Hoyt and Nat Pendleton appearing in smaller roles.

Virtually forgotten following its very limited television broadcasts since the 1960s, this pre-code crime melodrama, which surfaced decades later in the wake of cable television on Turner Network Television (TNT) in the late 1980s before becoming a prominent fixture on Turner Classic Movies (1994 onward), THE BEAST OF THE CITY, being Walter Huston's movie from start to finish, is recognizable mostly for its presence by the second-billed Jean Harlow, still early in her career. For her second MGM film, the studio where she would remain until her untimely death in June 1937, is basically secondary than a major presence. She does make the most of it doing her part of a tough talking blonde. Harlow's character is introduced briefly in Belmonte's office with no spoken dialogue before coming forth minutes later in the police line-up where she captures the attention of the weakling brother (Ford) to a crime fighter (Huston). Though the Danish-born Hersholt may seem miscast as the Italian ring-leader, possibly John Miljan, probably tiring of his bad guy image by this point (cast as a gray-haired attorney), might have been better suited. Or Tully Marshall switching with Hersholt. Of its assemble, much of the cast is well placed in their roles, especially Walter Huston who can play bad guys, good guys or anti-heroes with conviction without any chance of being type-cast.

Once seen, whether on DVD or TCM viewing, it's hard to forget some of the violence (by 1932 standards) attached to THE BEAST OF THE CITY, along with its offbeat and dark method to Fitzpatrick's fight against crime. This is his story. This is MGM's contribution to the American policemen. This is Hollywood's participation to crime wave on the city streets, quite different, quite atypical from anything else regards to cops and gangsters up to this level. (***)


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