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The power of a chain reaction coupled with the question - Does motivation count for anything?
What seems like another simple little precode is actually asking some complex questions here and I think it deserves to be more fondly remembered.
Alexander Stream (Warren William) is a wealthy railroad tycoon. He's got a wife (Mary Astor) and son that he adores, but his wife is just more interested in being a society matron with all of its trappings than paying Alex needed attention. She apparently just thinks he's on autopilot and will never stray. It's not that she's a cold person, she's just preoccupied.
Alex's life changes one day when, while yachting, he rescues a drowning girl (Ginger Rogers as chorus girl Lilly Linda). He drives her back to her flat, and he follows her inside for what is supposed to be just a minute. That turns into bunches of minutes as they hit it off. Alex's puzzled male secretary and chauffeur go up to see what happened and walk in on an innocent but strange scene. Lilly and Alex are playing piano and singing "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" with Alex dressed up in some strange kind of head gear! Alex should be afraid, but not of the Big Bad Wolf, because in this beautiful young woman he is finding the companionship and fun he would like to have with his wife if only his wife would notice his frantic yoo-hooing! The friendship between Lilly and Alex turns to an affair when Alex's wife first forgets their anniversary and goes to a society event instead, and then goes on a weeks long yacht trip with her society friends while her and Alex's son is off at military school. There are two flies in the ointment. First, in the only real malicious act Alex performs in this entire film, he gets a cop (Sidney Toler as officer Moran) demoted to walking a beat for giving him not only a traffic ticket but some attitude. The second fly in the ointment is Lilly's - I guess you could call him a boyfriend, but he sure acts like an abusive pimp (J. Carroll Naish as Lou Colima). The only reason I can figure Lilly doesn't give him the air is that he put her in the show she is working in, and she had said before she hadn't been able to find work for a long time. So she needs this creep to butter her bread, but he has bigger ideas. He wants to use letters Alex has written to Lilly to blackmail the tycoon. Lilly wants no part of this, because she actually loves Alex.
In a confrontation gone terribly wrong, Colima threatens Alex with exposure when he comes to see Lilly one night, a fight ensues, and Colima fires Lilly's gun at Alex, hitting and killing Lilly instead when she jumps between the two. Alex finds an oh so convenient second gun (Exactly how many guns did Lilly have lying around this apartment anyways?) and, in self defense, shoots Colima dead.
Now Alex has committed no crime, but even if the police believe his story he is embroiled in a scandal that will ruin not only him, but his wife and child. He switches the bullets in one gun with the bullets in the second gun to make it look like a murder/suicide, hides the second gun takes his letters from Colima's coat pocket, and discretely drives away. His trick actually fools the homicide detectives, but there is one problem. Remember that beat cop who got demoted because of Alex and knows it was Alex that got him demoted? He is at the scene, saw Alex's car earlier in the evening while walking his beat, and looks around and finds the second gun and discovers the trick. He convinces his sergeant to give him 48 hours to solve the crime. How does this all pan out?Watch and find out. And remember that this is still the precode era.
When I asked at the beginning of the review - does motivation count for anything? - I am really talking about Alex and the beat cop, Moran, whose career Alex damaged. The cop probably is more interested in destroying Alex, because he assumes he is a probable suspect, than he is in getting justice. If he succeeds in bring in Alex, he will be a hero by deed, but by motivation he is just doing all of this investigating for petty revenge. Alex never had any malicious intent in his affair with Lilly. He met Lilly completely by coincidence and did a good deed when he fished her out of the water. He would never have succumbed to her charms had his wife noticed he was alive, but here he is embroiled in at best a love nest scandal, and at worst a murder case if he is exposed.
Give this one a look if you have the chance. Ginger was never lovelier and this is one of Warren William's more complex roles. Highly recommended.
Grand Central Murder (1942)
This time the Thin Man has curly hair...
... and this being a B MGM picture, Van Heflin as Rocky Custer is the civilian sleuth helping the rather befuddled detectives solve a murder, not William Powell.
The picture starts out with a man convicted of murder escaping his police escorts and calling his accuser (Patricia Dane as Mida King), a headliner in a Broadway show. He tells her she doesn't have long to live, and terrified, she leaves in the middle of the show to lock herself in her private railway car. Later she is found dead and, at first, presumed raped.
Unlike the Thin Man movies though, this film rounds up all of the suspects first, and then through them telling their stories in flashback do we find out that Mida was really a pretty awful person and that each person there does have a reason to have killed her. She has been walking on people since the day she hit puberty, and was about to hit her big score in a man with seven million dollars, already planning her Reno divorce before she is even married. The murderer may be guilty of homicide and deserve to go to the chair, but he is probably also eligible for the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award for disposing of this completely amoral person. Also unlike the Thin Man films, Rocky Custer, our civilian sleuth, and his wife/assistant are also suspects and therefore herded with the others.
The group of suspects is herded from an interview room, to the theatre where Mida worked, and finally to the private car and murder scene itself, usually by Rocky artfully goading and manipulating head detective Gunther (Sam Levene). What is taking so much time here besides the fact that everybody had reason to be glad Mida is dead? The medical examiner is having a terrible time figuring out what exactly killed her.
Having the entire group together the whole time makes the film a bit claustrophobic, but the flashbacks help with that some. Van Heflin is just great here, and stands head and shoulders above the cast with his performance, not that the others are bad. He just takes what could have been a somewhat dull B picture and brings out the best in the other characters, making it almost an A production. Do pay attention to the dialogue - it is fast, furious, and most of it is consequential to the plot. It is easy to miss something.
Just one more comment - somebody in the comment section said that this was a remake of Murder in the Private Car. They share absolutely no similarity in plot other than the fact that railroads are involved. Recommended.
How can you show any humanity if nobody has ever shown you any?
This film starts just as homeless prostitute Aileen Wuornos is going to kill herself with a gun she ironically keeps for protection, but first she wants to buy a drink with the few dollars she has left in her pockets because she doesn't want anybody to get for free what she worked so hard to get. So she goes down the hill to a gay bar to get her last drink where she meets Selby. Selby is sexually attracted to Aileen, who at first gives her a fierce rebuff. But then Selby tells her a little about her story - how her family is trying to "reform her" from being gay - and Aileen accepts at least some friendship from her, and changes her mind about suicide.
The friendship grows to mutual sexual attraction, and Aileen and Selby run off and move into a motel. Aileen intends to go straight, dresses up for interviews, and gets turned down by everyone. Selby's affection turns to impatience and ultimately angry manipulation as she uses Aileen's attachment to her to get her to go back into prostitution so that they can go out and have a good time. Aileen ultimately gives in, and that's when she meets up with convicted rapist Richard Mallory, whom she claimed to kill in self defense. That is the scenario the movie shows. From that point forward something in Aileen just snaps and she sees every john as a rapist worthy of death, even the ones she had to cajole into accepting her services using sob stories of fictitious hungry children.
The movie is grim and if you read the headlines at all during the late 80s and early 90s you know the story, but just let me say that for once the Academy got it right by giving Charlize Theron Best Actress Oscar. If you've ever seen the actual Aileen Wuornos captured on film, somehow the beautiful Theron got her down even to the wild look she'd get in her eyes - the look of an animal caged.
The movie didn't go too much into the real Aileen Wuornos' past, but all I can say is that she never had a chance given what I read. Born to a teenage girl and a schizophrenic criminal father, abandoned to be raised by grandparents who didn't want to be burdened with her or her brother, and then thrown out of the house by her grandfather after her grandmother's death when she was 15, nobody ever treated her like a human being. I'd like to think the title of this film - Monster - is the ultimate in sarcasm, because what else could Aileeen Wuornos ever have become but a monster given that all she had ever known from other human beings was monstrous treatment.
Highly recommended but very depressing.
Coffee, Tea or Me? (1973)
I'd give almost anything to see this again
My vote of 8/10 is that of a 15 year old girl - which was how old I was the last time I saw it, on its original air date in September 1973. There were no VHS recorders back then, so only if somebody picked it up on a repeat showing is there likely to be a copy floating around out there.
Karen Valentine of Room 222 fame - she played a high school teacher so young she was often mistaken as one of the students - stars as a woman who has two husbands. Probably nobody even remembers her today, but in 1973 she was like an American Sweetheart. The first husband is in the United States - I think Los Angeles. The second husband is in London. I remember husband number one as being a bit uptight (Craig Davidson) and an M.D.. I remember husband number two as being a bit more Bohemian. I think he was an artist. How does she manage it? She is a stewardess (that's what they called flight attendants in the 1970's) with a regular run between Los Angeles and London. She finally confesses to fellow stewardess Louise Lasser, years before she was Mary Hartmann. She is really planning to let husband number two down easy, she's just waiting for him to get on his feet with his career. Then something unexpected comes up - she's pregnant. In those days all they could do is check the baby's blood type and rule someone out as a father, so there is a chance that she might never be able to rule out either of the men as dad.
I'd like to see it again for what I didn't appreciate the first time - a look at Chelsea London the way Austin Powers would have recognized it, the stereotypes about "stewardesses", the different attitudes towards sex pre-HIV, and just the less hung-up less judgmental attitudes in general that were the norms 42 years ago. I'd also like a chance to notice what I didn't notice in 1973 just because I would have considered it normal back then.
The Secret Six (1931)
The atmosphere and acting are great, but that screenplay- Yikes!
I have a hard time believing that Frances Marion - one of my favorite screenwriters of the silent and early talkie era - wrote this, it has so many holes. It's almost like someone locked Frances Marion in a closet, wrote this script, and forged her signature to it. Let me just say only one paragraph at the end of the review somewhat spoils the film. I try to leave out details in the rest of it.
First off, the film is like two different movies. At the beginning you see "Slaughterhouse" Scorpio, so-named because he is working in a slaughterhouse, take up with the gang of his pal Johnny Franks (Ralph Bellamy). Scorpio has an extra "rod", actually has it on him, and likes the idea of extra money for what seems like the relatively easy work of bootlegging and whatever violence comes with it. Upstairs to gang headquarters trudges the gang.Then all of the questions start to appear.
There is an older man, Robert Newton (Lewis Stone), in a somewhat drunken stupor, who seems to be in charge and is suspicious of the new gang member. Newton insults the gang freely for "thinking", but for some reason he is not afraid of them just shooting him and they just take these insults. Why?
Is Robert Newton head of the gang? Is Johnny Franks? Why are Johnny and Scorpio fighting over a run-down used-up looking woman who is obviously trading on rapidly diminishing if not completely depleted assets (Marjorie Rambeau as Peaches) when the beautiful Anne (Jean Harlow) is working downstairs? Why would Newton or any of the gang think that trespassing on a bigger gang's territory, headed by John Miljan as the tux-wearing piano-playing Colimo, lead to anything but violence and little or no profit - which it does? And that's just the first half of the film.
The second half of the movie, in almost one frame exactly, introduces for the first time three of MGM's biggest stars - Jean Harlow is Anne, who is a cashier at the restaurant that serves as a front for the gang, and Clark Gable and Johnny Mack Brown are two newspaper reporters, Hank and Carl, friends but trying to best each other for the biggest scoop. Anne is enlisted by Scorpio to sweet-talk Hank into not writing so much scathing material about him, and Carl seems to be on the take - but is he? Now more questions, raised not by a good plot, but by plot holes. If Newton has so little respect for Scorpio, why does he just accept him as the new gang leader? Why bother to use the courts to try Scorpio for murder and then, when that fails, that very night just use the Secret Six - who have been introduced some time before as some quasi-legal branch of law enforcement - to flood the gang with legal papers that deport practically the entire gang, disbar Newton, and indict Scorpio for tax fraud? Why the orderly arrest of Scorpio for murder but this no holds barred tommy-gun blasting surrounding and invasion of Scorpio's headquarters over all of these non-violent offenses?
Let me just say I can't even see the reason for putting the secret six in the same room. They never say anything to each other, and those skimpy masks they wear are not going to fool anybody who might know them as to who they are anymore than The Lone Ranger's mask would have fooled anybody who knew him.
And the second from the last scene is just goofy, and the only reason I have a spoiler warning on this review. There is Scorpio and his gang on death row, practically queued up, with ten minutes between the executions of all of them. Scorpio was arrested the second time around for tax fraud not murder...how did he wind up with the death penalty? Perhaps we can lay all of this nonsense at the feet of William Randolph Hearst, whose Cosmopolitan Production company backed the film and a film with a similar tone "Gabriel Over the White House". It seemed that when dealing with thugs Hearst didn't mind throwing the law books out the window and just lining everyone up and shooting them. Plus Hearst had so much money and power nobody was going to tell him - your film is goofy.
What's the last scene? Gable as reporter Carl, telling his editor he's going to sleep for a month, he's worked so hard...but, no, there's a big story brewing and he's out to cover it like the energetic trooper of a reporter he is. Huh??? How did this film start out being about gang warfare and end up being about a reporter not introduced until the film's midpoint? Inquiring minds want to know.
I'd watch this for some great acting and the great gangster film atmosphere. Then there is the irony. Plotwise there is the irony concerning how Scorpio is apprehended -I'll let you watch and find out what I'm talking about. Film history wise, there is the irony of seeing Gable and Brown as rivals on film, when in fact Gable's appearance at MGM was curtains for Johnny Mack Brown, because Gable's growly voice is what people expected Johnny Mack Brown to sound like, plus Gable just had such screen presence. I'd recommend it, but prepare to be confused.
Slightly Married (1932)
Not that strange of a marriage for a precode but...
... it's a great showcase of Marie Prevost's talent in the talkie era, and she really got so few chances after talking films came in.
It was also a great role for Evalyn Knapp as Mary Smith, a poor out of work girl who finds herself in night court being falsely accused of prostitution after being entrapped by a police officer. She claims she was waiting on the street for a man she was planning to marry but he never showed up. The judge is not buying her story when a drunken guy in formal attire - very overdressed for night court - says he is the man. The judge calls the bluff by saying that in order to release Mary the guy (Walter Byron as Jimmy Martin) must marry her. They do get married and Jimmy sobers up on her couch and then leaves. Jimmy married her partly out of sympathy and partly out of rebellion as his mother plans on marrying him off to the member of another wealthy family that he does not even like much less love. How can she get away with this? Jimmy does not come into his own money for a couple of years and is totally dependent upon mom's income. He could get a job, but this is the Depression and there are many applicants for every job. Plus who would want to cross his wealthy mom by hiring him? There is basically every stereotype about the rich looking down on the poor in this film, and Jimmy's fiancée is a piece of work. Why does she want so badly to marry somebody who loathes her when she has her own money and is attractive enough to find somebody in "her class" to marry her for the right reasons?
Marie Prevost reappears about two thirds of the way into the film after being absent since the opening night court scene and saves Mary from some of her more unselfish instincts - the worst being not wanting to take a dime from Jimmy's family. There is a hilarious scene in which Prevost takes some of the Martin's settlement money and tries to open a bank account on Mary's behalf that really shows her flair for comedy.
This was probably supposed to be one of those "sham marriage" pictures where a couple marries for all the wrong reasons, separates, and then realizes they were in love later. I probably would have given this film an extra star if it were not for the casual way Jimmy's drunken rape of Mary is treated. It doesn't make her hate him - instead she doesn't declare her love for him until AFTER the rape! This is just a little too much for this modern viewer to swallow.
It is pretty well acted though, and I'd recommend it just for a chance to see what there is not too much of - Evalyn Knapp and Marie Prevost in bigger parts than they usually got.
Have Gun - Will Travel (1957)
A better title would be "Have Wise and Moral Perspective Will Travel"...
... but that wouldn't fit well on a business card, probably would not conjure up business, and most of all, would not have attracted viewers circa 1960 who were quite keen on Westerns at the time. Richard Boone seemed tailor made for the role of Paladin - a man seemingly with no first name, no family, and whose only anchor is the Hotel Carlton in San Francisco in which he lives when he is not out on a job. He is obviously well-educated, extremely good with a gun, and has a taste for the ladies but no lady in particular, even before Sean Connery as James Bond made that kind of thing acceptable. Paladin was such a good shot that he could have easily just been a mechanical assassin for hire had he so desired, but instead, you would be quite frustrated if you requested his services, told him to kill X, and then expected him to just go out and kill X in exchange for bags of money. Instead Paladin is a problem solver and a lover of justice, using his talent with a gun to defend himself and others only when necessary. As with some other Westerns of the late 50's and early 60's, the Western theme was used to tackle some of the thorny social issues of that turbulent time without coming out and saying so.
Give this show a chance if you have the time. I think it has aged very well. Highly recommended.
Behind the Green Lights (1935)
One of the better poverty row films from the 30's I've seen
That is probably true because they had better than poverty row talent working on the film both behind and in front of the camera. Norman Foster was a triple threat - writer, director, and actor - here he's an actor playing police detective David Britten who is up and coming in the police force. He's got a mentor and friend in Detective Lt. Jim Kennedy (Purnell Pratt). Kennedy's daughter and David's fiancée is Mary Kennedy (Judith Allen), who is a young attorney working in the prestigious law firm of criminal attorney Raymond Cortell (Sidney Blackmer).
This film has such an odd title that seems to have nothing to do with the subject matter because it is supposedly loosely based on the autobiography written in 1931 of a New York City cop who was on the force from 1900-1925. That would have to be very loose, because the film is really all about the conflict set up when Mary Kennedy begins to cleverly get acquittals for the criminals that her fiancé works so cleverly to arrest. It starts with the acquittal of minor offenders, but then works up to the point where Mary manages to get a murder suspect released. Mary believes her clients are innocent, and that with her and the court system it is just brain versus brain, trick versus trick. However, her boss Raymond Cortell does not care if the client is innocent or guilty, he is purely after the money. And - not so subtly - also seems to be after Mary too by trying to alienate her from fiancé David.
Directed by Christy Cabanne, and with a good quick pace to it and good acting by most of the players, I'd recommend this one. It doesn't lag in spots or seem to lose its direction like so many of the poverty row films do.
One of the strangest things about this film - a bit of a feminist twist appears. All through the movie I kept thinking that David wants Mary to quit because - as so many of the men in these 1930's films say - "no wife of mine is going to work". Instead, Dave just wants her working for "the right kind of law firm" - one that cares about ethics. I've given away nothing by telling you this, since this is just something I noticed, not the climax of the film.
The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
Some people just can't handle a bird in hand
I remember seeing this movie when it first came out, and it always stuck with me. I rewatched it last night for the first time in decades, and I think my first impression as a teen is still pretty much my impression now. Charles Grodin plays a totally selfish person, Lenny Cantrow, who - unlike most of us - acts on every selfish impulse. He tries to kid himself into thinking he is a good unselfish person by giving his cast-off first wife all of the wedding presents and his car when the gash he's given her self esteem - telling her he wants a divorce after less than one week into a marriage and honeymoon, most of which he has spent with a Minnesota beauty on vacation (Cybil Shepherd as Kelly Corcoran) - is something that will likely never heal. Being older and a stepparent myself now, I could really relate to Eddie Albert's character, Kelly's father. He can smell Lenny's loopiness from a mile away, but how do you protect an adult daughter from a terrible fate - getting hooked up with someone like Grodin's character - that only time and wisdom can teach you to avoid. She doesn't have that wisdom yet.
I always thought the second wedding scene sharing so many similarities with the first is basically saying that Lenny is going to go through life ruining other people's lives because he wants what he wants when he wants it, and worse, he will always convince himself he is not a bad guy when he walks all over people to get what he wants. Also you see just a smidgen of regret in his face after the ceremony as he talks in circles about his career plans to any wedding guest that will listen, suggesting that perhaps catching Kelly is not as satisfying as chasing her all of these months has been.
Finally, I just have to tip my hat to director Elaine May. Somehow, in both 1971's "A New Leaf" and this film, she really knows how to make a female character annoying right down to the tone of voice and physical movements. She did it with her own character in A New Leaf and then did it with her own daughter, Jeannie Berlin, in this film as Lenny's first wife, Lila. Highly recommended.
A Florida Enchantment (1914)
Maybe not the first gay film, but maybe the first film with gay stereotypes...
... and a bunch of racial stereotypes too. The wonder of this film is, besides the unusual plot, that it is an example of rather sophisticated comedy film making in 1914 when so much film comedy consisted of throwing pies and kicking people in the pants. There is a dearth of title cards, but the acting is good enough that you can pretty easily follow the plot.
Lillian Travers (Edith Storey) of New York writes her fiancé, Dr. Fred Cassadene (Sidney Drew) of Florida, that she has come into her inheritance and that they can now marry. She is on her way. When she arrives, she finds Fred in a compromising position with a wealthy young woman. It seems the woman has designs on Fred, and uses the fact that he is the doctor at the resort where she is staying to make excuses to get close to him by feigning illness. Still, Lillian is jealous. She finds some magical seeds that are supposed to turn men into women and women into men, yet the letter that accompanies the seeds is addressed "to all women who suffer". When Fred stands her up for a date - again occupied with the young woman from the resort - she takes one of the seeds, and her inner transformation is instantaneous. The outer transformation takes awhile.
Fred does not understand why his fiancée is flirting with all of the young women and has started treating him like a rather wimpy competitor for the ladies versus a fiancé. Lillian feeds her maid a seed, pretty much against her will, in order to turn her into a valet. Lillian breaks her engagement, returns to New York with her "valet", and both of them start dressing like men and cut their hair short. Thus Lillian and the valet do not seem to see themselves as gay, but as heterosexual men who still retain some feminine physical characteristics. With Lillian now going by the name "Lawrence Talbot", for some reason she decides to return to Florida. What follows are some comical cases of mistaken identity, Lawrence being accused of murdering Lillian, Fred taking one of the seeds and - very strangely - as one of the most unattractive women in the history of the world, being chased by an apparently sex-crazed group of men down a street in broad daylight and into the bay. Can Lillian/Lawrence rescue Fred? Does she/he even want to do so? Watch and find out.
One of the hardest things to get past is the obvious huge age gap between engaged couple Lillian and Fred. Lillian is being played by a 21 year old actress, and Fred, played by Sidney Drew of the famous Drew acting family, was 51 when this film was made.
I'd recommend this one as a big step forward in the sophistication of film comedy, made a full year before "Birth of a Nation", which did the same for film drama.