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The Informer (1935)
A Masterpiece On a Shoestring Budget!
In "The Informer", John Ford works his magic by giving us a dark and moody masterpiece limited by the low budget for the film. The low production values are "masked" by creative lighting and strategically placed fog to cover the shortcomings of the set pieces.
Victor McLaglen in an Oscar winning performance, plays Gypo Nolan a dim witted big oaf of a man in 1922 Ireland who is wandering the streets of Dublin broke and disillusioned. He laments that the British think that he is with the Irish and the Irish think he is with the British.
Gypo sees a poster for his friend Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford) offering a 20 pound reward (considerable for the time) for murder. He decides to inform on him and collect the reward. McPhillip is killed by the police and Gypo starts to have guilt feelings. He tries to console McPhillip's family, (Una O'Connor, Heather Angel) but arouses suspicion with Irish Republican Army (IRA) members Joe Sawyer and Steve Pendleton.
Gypo then heads for the local pub and gets drunk buying drinks for the house. There, a hanger on named Terry (J.M. Kerrigan) attach's himself to Gypo and dubs him "King Gypo". The IRA men seeing this, report him to their leader Dan Gallagher (Preston Foster). Meanwhile we learn that Gypo is sweet on local prostitute Katie Madden (Margot Grahame). He tells her that he informed in order to obtain the money to look after her.
The IRA convene a "court" to judge the innocence or guilt of Gypo and the man he has accused, Mulligan (Donald Meek) and then...............
John Ford as always got maximum performances from his actors. McLaglen in the role of a lifetime, is outstanding. I thought J.M. Kerrigan as Gypo's "friend" stood out as well. The lovely Heather Angel is given little to do except plead for an end to "all this killing". The female acting honors go to Grahame as Gypo's tragic girlfriend. Una O'Connor gives one of her patented cries when informed of her son's death. Watch for a bearded Francis Ford (brother of John) as one of the "judges" in the trial sequence.
A great film that has lost none of its impact after 80 years.
The Lost Patrol (1934)
Grim Lost in the Desert Drama!
The title of this film gives you the gist of the story. A British patrol is crossing a desert in 1917 WW1 in what is now Iran. The commanding officer is killed by a sniper's bullet taking with him the orders under which the patrol is to proceed.
The sergeant (Victor McLaglen) is left in charge with no idea of what their mission was supposed to be. He decides to head north towards what he believes to be Brigade headquarters. The group stumbles upon an oasis complete with water and shelter. After refreshing themselves they discover that their horses have been stolen by the enemy. They are now marooned in the middle of nowhere with no hope of escape.
Snipers begin picking off members of the patrol one by one until.........
Victor McLaglen long a John Ford regular, stands out as the sergeant who tries to keep his men under control and hopeful of an eventual rescue. Boris Karloff plays Sanders a doomsday religious fanatic. He showed that he was a better actor than many believed at the time due to his many horror roles. Reginald Denny perhaps best remembered for his silly ass light comedy roles, is effective as Brown a man with a mysterious past. Wallace Ford plays Morelli a man who slowly becomes unglued as the tension mounts. Others in the cast are J.M. Kerrigan as Quincannon (there always seemed to be a "Quincannon" in Ford pictures), former silent comedy star Billy Bevan as Hale and Alan Hale in a blink or you'll miss him part, as Cook one of the soldiers.
John Ford as always gets great performances from his actors. He had a reputation for browbeating them to the point that they would hate him but give exceptional performances as a result. "The Lost Patrol" is a low budget masterpiece.
In Old Sacramento (1946)
Wild Bill's First "A" feature.
"In Old Sacramento" is noteworthy, if for nothing else, as Bill Elliott's first "A" list film following his stint in Republic's Red Ryder "B" series. Unfortunately Republic chose a "B" level story for him to star in.
Elliott plays Johnny Barrett a gambler who is also a Zorro like figure known as "Spanish Jack" who has been robbing gold mine shipments in retaliation for the murder of his brother at the hands of some claim jumpers years earlier. Now that he was out of the "B"s, Elliott was allowed to have a love interest in the person of Belle Malone (Constance Moore) who gets to warble some forgettable songs over the course of the picture.
Sheriff Jim Wales (Eugene Palette in an off beat role), has vowed to bring Spanish Jack and his partner Laramie (Jack La Rue) to justice. During an escape attempt, Barrett and Laramie happen upon the camp of gold miner Sam Chase (Henry H. Daniels Jr.). Chase later turns up in town and takes an interest in Belle much to Barrett's chagrin. Chase loses his money to gambler Slayter (Grant Withers) and is forced to take drastic action to recoup his losses.
Republic normally was known for high production values in its' westerns. They missed the boat (no pun intended) on this one. Most of the story takes place on a muddy indoor street set mostly at night. The amateurish back projection shots of Elliott and La Rue's getaway on horseback are laughable.
But as always, Republic populated their "A" list westerns with a cast of faces familiar to western lovers. Also appearing are Ruth Donnolly as Zebby Booker for comedy relief, Lionel Stander as Dodge the head of the vigilantes, Dick Wessell as Oscar the bartender, Lucien Littelfield as the barber and Hal Taliaferro as the town doctor. Also in lesser roles and unbilled are Ellen Corby, Wade Crosby, William Haade, Kenne Duncan, Tom London Leroy Mason and Eddy Waller among others. And watch for Bobby Blake who had played Little Beaver to Elliott's Red Ryder as a newsboy.
Elliott's "A" films would get better over the years but this one will be remembered for I believe, his first on screen kiss and a less than happy ending.
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch (1976)
A "B" Western Lover's Dream!
"Meanwhile Back at the Ranch" is a compilation film of clips from old "B" westerns from the 30s through the 50s. Skillfully edited, it contains like scenes from various films molded into a cohesive (almost) story about the exploits of a bad guy named "The Rattler" and his gang. It's all tied together through a narration by "B" veteran side kick Pat Buttram who oddly enough doesn't appear in the movie.
Buttram's narrator claims to have sent for the 25 best frontier marshals to help rid the town of the villains. Riding into town is everyone from Roy, Gene and Hoppy to Bob Steele Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Tim Holt Charles Starrett, The Durango Kid, Lash Larue (in a bullwhip duel) et al. Roy, Gene, Fred Scott, The Sons of the Pioneers, Eddie Dean, Tex Ritter and John "Singin' Sandy" Wayne "croon" some long forgotten songs as well.
And yes the side kicks (Gabby Hayes, Smiley Burnette, Raymond Hatton among others) are there too. And don't forget the bad guys (Charlie King, Roy Barcroft, George Cheseboro, Edmund Cobb and others) provide the menace to our heroes. What! No Harry Woods?
The film is well done and very funny within it's context. It's a "B" western lover's (of which I am one) dream. Highly Recommended.
The Law and Jake Wade (1958)
Another John Sturges Classic Western!
"The Law and Jake Wade" doesn't rank up there with many of Director John Sturges' other classic westerns (The Magnificent Seven and Gunfight at the OK Coral for example) however it is very entertaining western nonetheless, due in large to its small cast of veteran performers and the crisp direction of Sturges.
The film opens with Jake Wade (Robert Taylor) breaking his former partner convicted killer Clint Hollister (Richard Widmark) out of jail. It seems that Hollister had done likewise for Wade in an earlier time. We learn that the two had rode together robbing banks and stagecoaches and that the two had split up when an attempted robbery had gone wrong.
Wade had escaped with $20,000 buried it and settled in a small town where he became town marshal and acquired a girl, Peggy (Patricia Owns) in the process. Hollister had maintained his criminal ways leading to his arrest.
Hollister and his gang which includes Orleso (Robert Middleton), trigger happy gunman Rennie (Henry Silva), Wexler (DeForest Kelley) and Burke (Eddie Firestone) trail Wade to force him to bring them to the missing money. They take Peggy along in order to force Wade to comply. They bicker and fight among themselves along the way until they reach a ghost town where the money is hidden. A lively Commanche attack ensues and some of the party don't survive. Eventually the long awaited showdown between Wade and Hollister takes place and........................................
Robert Taylor and Richard Widmark play well off of each other. Taylor the grim faced anti-hero (we never learn if he really has reformed) and the sneering vengeful Widmark brings back memories of his early villain roles. Taylor had been a "pretty boy" leading man early in his career but had gravitated towards westerns later on as had many of his contemporaries.
The supporting cast is excellent. Robert Middleton who usually played a sadistic villain, has a more sympathetic role this time around. Henry Silva and DeForrest Kelley are quite good as no good bad hombres. Patricia Owens has little to do other than play the helpless heroine. As a sign of the times, it is interesting to note that not one of the bad guys lays a hand on the comely Owens despite being nasty sorts and out on the lonely trail together.
This is a good western.
Castle in the Desert (1942)
Hey Pop, Hey Pop!
"Castle in the Desert" is noteworthy because it was the last of the Charlie Chan movies produced and released by 20th Century Fox. This one has the look of a Universal "B" horror film in that it set within the walls of a remote castle in the middle of the Mojave desert complete with a dungeon, a mysterious owner, shadowy halls, things that go bump in the night et al.
Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) is summoned to the castle by a note apparently sent by Lucy Manderly (Lenita Lane) the wife the wife of the owner (Douglas Dumbrille) a mysterious partly masked eccentric. On his arrival Charlie and later No. 2 son (Victor Sen Yung) find that a guest has apparently been poisoned. Lucy Manderly it seems is a descendant of the notorious Borgia family so suspicion immediately falls onto her. Manderly we learn, is a student of Cesar Borgia and is living as a recluse in an isolated castle to replicate Borgia's life and to write a book about him.
Also at the castle are suspects Carl Dethridge (Richard Derr) who is there researching a project, sculptor Watson Key (Henry Daniell), Madame Saturnia (Ethel Griffies) a seer who predicts tragedy, Dr. Retling (Steven Geray) the Manderlay's personal physician and their lawyer Walter Hartford (Edmund MacDonals and his comely young wife Brenda (Arleen Whelan).
Attempts are made on the lives of some of the guests including Charlie. Charlie discovers a sinister plot to discredit Manderly and take over his $20 million dollar fortune. And then a key figure is murdered. As part of Charlie's investigation son Jimmy dons a suit of armor with hilarious results. Needless to say Charlie unravels the mystery, identifies the culprits and moves on.
Although this was the last of the Fox Chans that had begun in 1931, the series would be resurrected 1944 by poverty row studio Monogram where it would run first with Toler until his death in 1947 and later with Roland Winters until 1949.
Union Pacific (1939)
Cecil B. DeMille's Epic Western!
"Union Pacific" is an epic western released in 1939 the year many consider the movies greatest year. Consequently it never received the acclaim it deserved. It has all of the major elements one would expect to find in a major western: dashing clean-cut hero, feisty heroine, nasty villain, spectacular scenery, amazing special effects and of course those great old trains, miniature or not.
As one of his final acts, President Abraham Lincoln authorizes the building of the Union Pacific railroad westward to meet at the California border with the Central Pacific Railroad. With Lincoln's death, ambitious banker Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker) sees an opportunity to cash in by delaying the completion of the Union Pacific. Barrows enlists the aid of gambler Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy) and his partner Dick Allen (Robert Preston) to delay the construction.
Under the leadership of Generals Dodge (Francis McDonald) and Casement (Stanley Ridges), the project begins. They hire ex-soldier Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) as chief trouble shooter for the project. Two grizzled old trouble shooters, Fiesta (Akim Tamiroff) and Leach (Lynne Overman) are hired to assist him. When Jeff confronts Campeau, he discovers his old pal Dick Allen. Turns out Allen also knows the Irish Mollie Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck) with whom Jeff has also taken an interest.
Campeau and Allen do their best to thwart the construction including a daring hold up of the construction crew's payroll. In order to protect Jeff from Allen and his two cronies (Harry Woods, Fuzzy Knight), Mollie agrees to marry Allen much to the dismay of Jeff. Jeff has suspected Allen of the payroll robbery but cannot prove it. When Allen is charged with the robbery, Jeff allows him to escape for old time's sake. But when the Indians attack the train carrying the principals they......................................................
DeMille as usual employed a large cast of recognizable actors, many familiar to lovers of westerns. J.M. Kerrigan plays Mollie's father Monahan the engineer, Anthony Quinn a gambler, William Haade a foreman, Lane Chandler a conductor, Robert Barrat as Duke Ring a loud mouthed trouble maker, as well as, Regis Toomey, Lon Chaney Jr. (blink or you'll miss him), Richard Denning, Byron Foulger, Charlie Stevens, Chief Thunder Cloud and Iron Eyes Cody among others.
DeMille stages not one but two realistic and spectacular train wrecks. And there is a well staged Indian attack resulting in one of them. ANd don't forget the scene at the end where the golden spike is driven to mark the meeting of the two railroads.
An excellent western in every respect.
The Crusades (1935)
DeMille and Another Cast of Thousands!
"The Crusades" was Cecil B. DeMille's attempt to depict the crusades of the late 12th century. The first three quarters of the film kind of drag along before the battle scenes emerge in the final quarter.
The story opens with a Moses type Hermit (C. Aubrey Smith) vowing that he will raise an army of Christians to re-capture the holy city of Jerusalem from the Sarasins led by Saladin, Sultan of Islam (Ian Keith). King Philip of France (C. Henry Gordon) agrees to join the crusade. Since his daughter Alice (Katherine DeMille) was promised to the English King Richard the Lion Heart (Henry Wilcoxen) by Richard's father, Philip journeys to England to convince Richard to join the crusade and to marry his daughter. Richard relents but discovers an out when he learns that those joining the crusades cannot marry during that time.
Along the way with his men in need of food, he meets with King Sancho, King of Navarre (George Barbier) who offers his comely young daughter Berengaria (Loretta Young) in marriage in exchange for the much needed supplies. Richard doesn't take the marriage seriously and sends his minstrel Blondel (Alan Hale) as his proxy. Of course Richard ultimately discovers his new bride and falls in love with her.
Then the Christian armies attack the gates of Jerusalem with tragic results. DeMille, as only he could, stages realistic battle scenes for the siege utilizing authentic looking siege towers, catapults and other weaponry. It is the highlight of an otherwise over long film. The film apparently didn't do well at the box office and DeMille did not return to the biblical epics again until 1949 with "Samson and Delilah".
Others in Demille's "cast of thousands" are Joseph Schildkraut as Conrad, Marquis of Navarre and Ramsay Hill as Prince John who scheme to take power during their respective leaders absences, Montague Love as the Blacksmith (watch for his touching death scene), and William Farnum, Misha Auer, John Carradine, J. Carroll Naish and Ann Sheridan in smaller roles.
Richard needn't have worried about Prince John taking over his throne as Errol Flynn as Robin Hood had every thing under control back home.
Colbert's Signature Role!
Director Cecil B. DeMille pulled out all of the stops for this epic production of "Cleopatra". Following his success with "The Sign of the Cross" two years earlier, and the emergence of Claudette Colbert as a major star, and in spite of the poorly received "Four Frightened People", he went back to what he knew best: the Roman epic.
The story in brief, centers around the relationships between the seductive Cleopatra (Colbert), Julius Caesar (Warren William) and Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxen). First when Caesar moves to take over Egypt, she seduces him and convinces him to divorce his wife Calpurnia (Gertrude Michael) and to return triumphantly with her to Rome. Some members of the Roman Senate object to Caesar's plans and assassinate him on the fateful "ides of March".
Cleopatra with the help of her faithful Egyptian aide Apollodorus (Irving Pichel), escapes to Egypt. Caesar's friend and ally Marc Antony vows revenge and sets out for Egypt to bring Cleopatra back in chains. Antony's rival Octavian (Ian Keith in a part similar to the one he played in "The Sign of the Cross") waits for Antony to make a mistake. Antony arrives in Egypt and is immediately taken under Cleopatra's spell. Apollodorus sees his opportunity and leads a movement in Rome to have Antony declared a traitor and wage war against Antony and Cleopatra. Antony's generals led by the steadfast Enobarbus (C. Aubrey Smith) desert him and..............................
As the new Production Code was adopted in 1934, DeMille didn't have the leeway with nudity, sex and violence that he had two years earlier. Still and all he managed to sneak a few scenes past the censor. Colbert's costumes though less revealing still left the viewer with the impression that he had seen something. The scenes on Cleopatra's barge with the scantily clad dancers and the drawing of the drapes scene, left little to the imagination.
As was the custom with DeMille epics, he spared no expense when it came to the lavish costumes and stunning sets. The battle scenes are excellent and realistically staged.
Claudette Colbert was the perfect choice as Cleopatra. She was at the top of her game at this time and created what is widely believed to have been her greatest role although she never worked with DeMille again. Warren William makes an excellent Julius Caesar displaying poise and maturity as the Roman emperor and the weakness which ultimately proves to be his downfall. Henry Wilcoxen makes a viral and ambitious Antony who follows Caesar into Cleopatra's web of lust and deceit. Mention should also be made of Joseph Schildkraut as the deceitful King Herod who brings word from Rome. David Niven is listed on the cast list as a slave, but I couldn't spot him.
Demille was able to tell the same story in 100 minutes that took the 1963 re-make with Elizabeth Taylor over four hours to tell. No body could better Demille's skill with epic film.
Four Frightened People (1934)
Run Through the Jungle....
"Four Frightened People" was one of Director Cecil B. DeMille's lesser efforts of the 30s a decade that gave us the epic films "The Sign of the Cross" (1932), "Cleopatra" (1934), "The Crusades" (1935) and "Union Pacific" (1939). I didn't like it. It appears to have been an effort by DeMille to display the many talents of his favorite 30s star Claudette Colbert.
It starts out OK with four strangers escaping from a plague infested ship to safety aboard a hi-jacked fishing boat. The four, a prim be-speckled school teacher Judy Jones (Colbert) a Casper Milquetoast husband Arnold Ainger (Herbert Marshall) on his way home, a socialite Mrs. Mordick (Mary Boland) complete with dog in hand and brash braggart reporter Stewart Corder (William Gargan) are forced together in order to survive.
Arriving at an island, the four find that they will have to "run through the jungle" in order to reach safety. They secure the services of an "Englishman", Montague (Leo Carillo) to guide them. As they proceed, they encounter the usual assortment of bugs, snakes, natives et al in their quest. Through it all they manage to get lost and are forced through necessity to reveal their true personalities.
This is where DeMille gets to glamorize Ms. Colbert by having her wear a revealing leopard skin (they are in Malaysia by the way) and ridding her of the old maid glasses and hair-do. Since this was just before the introduction of the Production Code, DeMille was able to include a scene where Colbert (or a body double) is taking a shower sans clothes under a waterfall. DeMille was very good at this sort of thing. He lets the viewer think he is seeing something where in fact he sees nothing.
The character played by Boland is totally ludicrous. She carries her little dog through the trek and even gets to start up a women's lib movement among a tribe of natives. Marshall is just too stuffy to be a convincing lover for Colbert and Gargan's character is just too full of himself for my liking.
DeMille would make better use of Ms. Colbert's talents the same year in his epic "Cleopatra".