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precode film about very post-code radio...., 16 May 2015

... and by that I mean that from its beginnings, radio was very strict about the public persona of its radio stars, regardless of what they did in private. The year this film was made - 1933 - was the last full year in Hollywood where anything goes, although these films look like family fare by today's standards.

In this environment, Ginger Rogers is given a dynamite role that really shows her flair for comedy. She plays Glory Eden, "The Purity Girl", the face - and voice - of the Ipsy-Wipsy Wash Cloth radio show. However, in private, the purity girl is the last thing she wants to be. Glory wants to go to Harlem night clubs, smoke, drink, eat rich food, and most of all have some male companionship. So the sponsors decide to appease her and meet her half way. They start a contest looking for the "ideal Anglo Saxon" - the film's words, not mine. They come up with a real naïve hayseed (Norman Foster as Jim Davey). He's a farmer from Kentucky who actually believes Glory's public image is real. He returns to New York with the show's sponsor and now Glory can go out to more public places since she has an "official" male escort.

The one drawback to the film is you never see any real relationship form between the two. It's just suddenly there. Jim just asks Glory to marry him, she agrees - obviously from the heart, because she gives him a passionate kiss. Ipsy Wipsy head Samuel 'Sam' Ipswich claims he'll wait until after the wedding and as a PR stunt have Glory sign her new contract.

But things run amok. After the wedding Jim sees Glory's true colors and they are scarlet not pure white. He decides to kidnap her and take her back to Kentucky to make a "good woman" out of her. There is an absolutely hilarious wedding night scene once Jim has her back in Kentucky that I will just let you watch. Let's just say that these two are absolutely perfect together in this scene that could have not been possible after the production code a year later.

So now two competitors are looking for Glory - they think she's been kidnapped - and both want her to sign with them. At first they don't know where she's gone. How does this work out? I'll let you watch and find out.

This film would have been good with just Norman Foster and Ginger Rogers. It is made great by all of the character actors running around busily in the background. Zasu Pitts is a dizzy reporter, Gregory Ratoff as Samuel Ipswich was born to play the over excited boss who is destined to die of a heart attack and loves firing people, Allen Jenkins and Frank McHugh are the assistants to their frantic bosses, and Edgar Kennedy is Ipswich's competition, trying to track down Glory so he can sign her to his own radio program.

Best line of the film goes to Jim - "Please God, don't let her die! She's wicked, but I love her." Questions never resolved - Will Glory's maid get her own radio career? And what DID happen between Franklin Pangborn's character and Zasu Pitts when she found him in the closet without his pants? Enjoy this little piece of RKO zaniness. I know I did.

One of the crime doctor's most complex cases..., 16 May 2015

... and by complex I mean that everybody is a possible suspect EXCEPT Dr. Ordway, his nurse, and the police. And up to the end I'm not that sure about Ordway's nurse! The film opens on a young couple seeking Ordway's (Warner Baxter's) advice on whether or not to marry. Jimmy Trotter (Lloyd Bridges) is a young man who was convicted of murdering his employer with poison. Ordway helped him get a new trial, and he was acquitted. Ordway's advice is to wait until Jimmy can get a job with a large company. Ordway does not like the fact that Jimmy is currently working for a wealthy individual as a personal secretary, which is exactly the same job he had when he was accused of murdering his employer before.

Soon thereafter Ordway decides to visit Jimmy at his place of employment. However, the maid thinks Ordway is either the coroner or with the police. You see, Jimmy's employer has just suddenly died and it looks like poison again. Ordway goes along with the ruse to get access to the crime scene and yes, it appears that Walter Burns drank poisoned coffee.

Next, the real police arrive, and this is where things get strange. The police go all "Boston Blackie" on Dr. Ordway. In spite of the fact that he has been a welcome help in other cases, they get tough with him, like he is in the way and completely unwelcome. They even imply he is helping Jimmy - who they try to arrest but escapes - evade arrest.

Well Jimmy did at least one thing he probably should not have done, he went ahead and married his fiancée Ellen against Dr. Ordway's advice. It doesn't help Ordway that the Burns mansion is filled with suspects - the young widow, the victim's brother and nephew who both circle like sharks, a maid who has been carrying a torch for the dead Mr. Burns for 30 years to the point that her mind has become effected, and a cook who turns out to be an imposter and flees the Burns household when Ordway calls her on her impersonation. The point is, by the end of the film you are suspecting all of these people including Jimmy and his wife.

The one odd thing in this film - Jimmy and Ellen have just gotten married a day or two earlier, yet their house looks like the set of "I Love Lucy" - it is completely decorated with frilly curtains, comfy couch, and well stocked kitchen as Ellen parades around in stylish house-dress and frilly apron like she has been a housewife for five years, not five days! Highly recommended as a good entry in the Crime Doctor series.

Well acted, directed, and well crafted overall BUT..., 3 May 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

... so completely depressing I would rather jab my eyeballs out with forks rather than ever watch this again. I watched it once all the way through just so I could write the review. That's it. Same for Old Yeller, and that had Likable adult characters! I get that Jane Wyman is playing the part of the mother as cold and hard because all of her other children have died and she doesn't want to get too attached to this one. But she goes too far in my opinion. Any kid raised this way will have no attachment to mom whatsoever when he reaches adulthood. It is said that Gregory Peck is supposed to be making up for mom's coldness by being close to son Jody. But why doesn't he call him by name? Why does he weirdly keep calling him "Boy". Have I accidentally wandered into a Tarzan film? And then into this sweet boy Jody's dismal life comes a pet - a fawn. But all does not stay well. The yearling becomes destructive to the crops and must be killed, and what's worse is that Jody is made to finish the job! His best friend Fodderwing, a cripple, dies as a child. So everyone Jody is really attached to is dead. He is gone three days after the fawn's killing, and then dad acts puzzled and even somewhat indifferent when he returns? As for mom, she hardly looks away from her housework to notice Jody's return. At least if mom dies ,embalming will not be an issue - if they had that at the time - because ice water does not coagulate.

For those of you who say this is a classic, I agree only from a standpoint of it being finely crafted and timeless. For those of you who said it warms your heart, see your doctor immediately. The only explanation can be a coronary.

If you want to see a tale of how hard life can be that did warm my heart try to track down a copy of "Mrs. Mike" with Dick Powell as a Mountie trying to get his wife, who comes from a civilized place, accustomed to the death, disease, and starvation that accompanies life in the great white north. That one DID warm my heart.

I know this review will not be popular, but it is how I see it. I give it a seven for fine craftsmanship only, and I would never let a child under ten watch it unless I was prepared to stay up all night with said child while he or she has nightmares.

Rent (2005)
This film really touched me, 24 April 2015

I am very surprised at some of the negative reviews for this film. I never saw the Broadway musical on which the movie was based, so I don't have the advantage of having the live performance to compare to the movie. I have to say that the film really touched me, and I generally haven't liked most of the recent musical films that I've seen. All of the songs in Rent have heavy and deep meanings behind them since there's hardly any spoken dialogue. This means that Rent moves forward on the strength of its songs. Each number furthers the plot and reveals another aspect of a character.

Playwright Jonathan Larson was an amazing human being with such a talent for - at the time he wrote it back in the early 90's - being so "out there" and taking the risk of writing about AIDS and homosexuality, and ultimately having his work find its way into the hearts of so many people. If you wrote an actual script in which the young author of such a wildly successful Pulitzer winning musical dies the night after its dress rehearsal after being misdiagnosed by two different hospitals, nobody would believe you, but that is exactly what happened. It is also a shame that the actual reality of life in Alphabet City (now very much gentrified) and the nature of the AIDS crisis and treatments have changed so much that many people might not consider this film's greatness because they will regard it as out of date. I guess I just found the movie to be brilliant because it wasn't supposed to be absolutely realistic, it was supposed to evoke emotion, and that it did, at least for me. None of the individual relationships get that much screen time, yet I really cared deeply about all of these characters, both as a group and individually.

You could really feel the urgency of time pressing on the characters that had AIDS - the urgency to create, the urgency to love, - since, in 1990, there were not a lot of therapies that effectively prevented HIV from turning into full blown AIDS as there are today. Also, if you are not moved by Collins' tribute to Angel in the reprise performance of "I'll Cover You", all I can say is that you have no soul. Jesse Martin does a splendid job of displaying a genuine sense of loss, grief, and love that is the best performance in the entire movie.

Rent is one of those few films that I like to watch over and over just to see if I have missed anything. It does seem like some of the movie's detractors are being a bit snobby about the fact that Chris Columbus, who is well known for directing family films, directed this movie. Unfortunately, Bob Fosse is no longer with us, because I have found myself wondering more than once what he would have done with this material.

Maybe Roger Ebert was wrong..., 18 April 2015

... when he said the movies are a great big empathy machine. At least in this case he probably was, because this film is a great big stereotype machine.

I'll cut it some slack on acting and direction because the whole thing was shot in 20 days with probably a low budget. The screenplay itself, mainly focusing on the conflict between Christian student Josh Wheaton and his atheist philosophy professor, really has a narrow point of view. The film really paints everything with a black and white brush and makes assumptions about atheists - AND people from other faiths and countries - that cause much of the criticism of the Christian community in the first place. I know several atheists, and they are not all narcissists that abandon sick friends or people that blame God for some tragedy in their past. Many of them have a behavior code that exceeds that of Christians because they do not have a "ticket to heaven in my pocket" mentality which many Christians do have and I have observed.

Meanwhile, we get a look at what is supposed to pass for a typical Arab-American Muslim household, as dad always makes sure that his daughter Ayisha has her face totally covered when he drops her off at school. He doesn't seem to mind that she has on short sleeves and clothes that are just as revealing as her peers. Note to dad - the face is not the only physical thing about a young lady that catches the eye of young men. No matter though, because as soon as dad is out of sight. Ayisha removes the face covering. It turns out that Ayisha is a closet Christian, and when dad finds out he reacts as we would expect any Muslim man to react who is three times his daughters size - he smacks her around fist to face and then physically throws her out into the street.

Getting back to the film's main protagonist,Josh, he is now having to debate the philosophy prof in class as to the existence of God using philosophical arguments or else he will fail. The in-class debate part of the film was interesting, but I believe professor Raddison when he said they did not have pre-law at the university, because just about every action he took was completely illegal, from threatening his students with failing grades or at least greatly enhanced workloads if they did not write down "God is dead" on a piece of paper and sign it, to confronting and taunting the student Josh when he began to get his goat.

Josh makes a big deal during his portion of the debate about God allowing free will to reign on earth and that being the reason for all of the evil, and then the plot goes on to disprove exactly that by implying divine destruction of the ignition capabilities of every car that two random missionaries on their way to Disneyland touch (in one of many sideplots) so that they can be at a particular place at a crucial time. As one missionary states to the other "God has you exactly where he wants you". What happened to free will if these two are just manipulated actors in God's grandiose play? Other interesting points - apparently all atheists turn to Christ when confronted with death (a point the late Christopher Hitchens disproves), and exactly what is this generic cancer that the atheist blogger has? Inquiring minds want to know. Plus - filmmakers - I know plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery, but many of us know an "I am Spartacus" moment when we see it (Josh's argument in favor of the existence of God causes everybody in the class to stand and say "God is not dead"). The great irony here - the screenwriter for Spartacus was James Dalton Trumbo, who just happened to be an atheist. I would say this film is worth watching as a curiosity if nothing else.

I don't think it had the effect on the audience that Capote wanted..., 22 March 2015

... at least for me, because by the end of the movie, I really, really wanted Dick and Perry to die. It wasn't a feeling of revenge. I didn't care if they suffered, in fact it is too bad lethal injection wasn't around before it was, because I'm sure a botched hanging could be an awful way to go. I just had a feeling that the earth was a safer place without these two guys in it. The movie did a great job of humanizing two cold blooded killers in a way that few films had done before. It showed their backgrounds, it showed that Dick was the leader and definitely the more dangerous of the two. He didn't really care that he killed four total strangers, and he was even somewhat apathetic about his own death. Perry probably would have had none of this killing business and just gone on to re-offend and be re-incarcerated for less violent offenses the rest of his life, AS LONG AS he didn't meet up with a stronger more forceful personality such as Dick Hickock, who called Perry on his fantastic tales of untrue crime.

Before DNA and the many advances in forensics since 1959, Alvin Dewey has a huge task on his hands. Who would kill four likable people like the Clutters with seemingly no motive? Today the answer is - almost anybody. In 1959 this killing made national news because of its random senseless nature and its rural locale where crime was very low. John Forsythe was mainly an actor on television his entire career, but he was outstanding as the lead investigator in this crime. He keeps the police procedural part of this film quite interesting with his methodical sensible approach.

The last part of the film shows Dick and Perry on death row for five years. If you didn't see the first part of this film you'd think these guys were artists, poets, philosophers. That's just because they are being told when to get up, when to go to bed, when to eat, etc. Even the most hardened of criminals will seem OK if you take all of their decisions away from them, and that's how parole boards get fooled, which is something society has learned the hard way over the last 50 years. Or have we? I watch this film and I can't help but think about the Carr brothers. Next to them Dick and Perry look like Rotarians. There are so many similarities. Both killed in Kansas, both picked houses occupied with complete strangers where they thought there was lots of cash, both killed the household dog - the Carrs as a parting shot after executing four people after hours of ritualistic sexual torture and robbery - Dick and Perry killed the Clutter's German Shepherd because they weren't going to be able to get near the Clutters without doing so. Yet the Carr brothers remain alive 15 years after the crime with their death sentence being overturned by the gutless Kansas Supreme Court. Google "Wichita Massacre" to see what I'm talking about.

Finally this film teaches how not to react to a home invasion, a term that would not exist for another 35 years after the Clutters were killed. If somebody breaks into your house BECAUSE you are there, you can assume they are after much more than your stuff. Your first duty is ESCAPE because then the criminals realize the clock is ticking, especially in the age of cell phones and 911. Resist with lethal force if you can, escape when you can. If the Clutters had all scattered in four different directions rather than allowing themselves to be tied up to protect the other family members it is likely that at least Perry would have panicked and that would have been the end of it.

Most chilling scene to me - Nancy Clutter winding her alarm clock before she goes to bed as a train whistles - the same whistle is heard by Dick and Perry as they slowly drive up to the Clutter home. Her killers and her own death were that close and she didn't have a clue. Highly recommended.

"Batman" (1966)
Great memories of a great campy show!, 14 March 2015

Being just eight when this show debuted, it was my first exposure to the character of Batman, and I was quite surprised, years later, when I found out Batman had been penned in the comics as "The Dark Knight". There is absolutely nothing dark about Adam West's rendition of the character.

In this age of infomercials and reality TV, reruns have become a thing of the past, but I've really been enjoying revisiting the show via the newly released DVDs of this short-lived sensation. Looking back on this show nearly 50 years later, I just don't know how the players kept a straight face with their intentionally cheesy lines. Neil Hamilton, a film actor of some prominence from the silent era through the 1930's, is just great as the stone-faced Commissioner Gordon. I didn't even know his place in film history until years later when I got into classic films.

And as for Adam West, I've always admired his great positive attitude about his short lived fame. Through the years he's often parodied his role in commercials and you could tell he was really enjoying himself and poking fun at the character he once played. The DVDs have a long interview with Adam West and he really is a great guy. Now in his 80's, West just said he felt very fortunate to have had work as an actor throughout his career, to have good friends and a great family, and to have been part of such a big part of 60's TV culture, even if for a short time - what a class act who did not let fame go to his head.

Now for the show itself. Everybody wanted to be a guest star villain, and many did. As well as the original villains from the Batman comics such as the Riddler, The Penguin, and The Joker, there were some added that were unique to the series such as Victor Buono as King Tut. The odd thing about Tut was that the show actually showed the origin of Tut as a criminal - a respected Egyptologist who was hit on the head and became an arch criminal when not in his right mind. He was also one of the rare villains for which Batman seemed to have compassion. Nobody ever wondered why The Joker wandered around in loud suits and makeup or why The Penguin never got tired of smoking cigarettes ala FDR and wearing a tux.

Then there is Robin, who is actually Batman's young ward Dick Grayson. Dick is actually in high school, and at Wayne mansion Bruce Wayne is always lecturing Dick about the importance of good diet, exercise, education and seat belts. Yet, that doesn't prevent Bruce Wayne as Batman from putting someone not of legal age repeatedly in harm's way. And harm never seemed to mean mere gun play. Instead it was the danger of being eaten by giant clams or being sawed in half by a buzz saw. You couldn't say Gotham's criminals lacked imagination.

Finally an observation about Batman in relation to "Wild Wild West", both of which aired at about the same time in the 1960's. Wild Wild West had good ratings, but the show's producers decided to cancel because CBS said the show was too violent, when the fight scenes were no worse than Batman's fight scenes. Maybe they should have added some cartoon KAPOW!, OUCH! and POW!. Seriously, add those captions into the Wild Wild West fight scenes and you would have had the same thing.

So if you have some time and spare cash, get the Batman DVDs and watch one of the great fads of television that people still remember fondly 50 years later. And see if you notice the little jokey touches like Ma Barker's buxom daughter's prison number being "35-23-34" and the fact that Robin's bat pole was smaller than Batman's pole. Phallic humor for the ages. Highly recommended.

Una Merkel steals a show that is short on details and motivation, 14 March 2015

Richard Dix as wealthy John Day is celebrating his birthday with his wife Dorothy (Madge Evans) and their friends. But there is trouble brewing. In the opening scene the milkman (Stuart Erwin as Jerry) has been instructed not to give the Days any more milk until the bill is paid up, which Dorothy makes excuses for, yet she still manages to keep a recently purchased expensive evening gown. The cops break up the celebration and arrest John for embezzlement, which he minimizes as just some kind of misunderstanding. It is - other people don't seem to understand that John has taken to "borrowing" money that is not his to satisfy his wife's expensive tastes.

The Days soon find out who their friends are as John doesn't even have the money to make bail. The only person who will help them is Hollins (Conway Tearle). However, his motivation is to keep John in jail so he can have his way with John's beautiful wife. He pays off a crooked lawyer to do just a bad enough job that John gets two years in the county jail when normally he would have gotten probation.

Dorothy talks the talk of the loyal wife, but she likes Hollins' gifts. Two years gives Hollins just enough time for Dorothy to forget John, have his way with her for awhile, and then discard her. However, Hollins' plot is not foolproof. You see, he has a recently discarded mistress, she does not like being replaced by Dorothy, plus she apparently has access to firearms. I'll let you watch and see how this all works out.

This love quadrangle - John, Dorothy, Hollins, the discarded mistress - and the story behind somebody in jail who is loyal to John beyond reason (Raymond Hatton as Hart) would take at least 90 minutes to flesh out halfway properly, but this was probably a second bill film so 68 minutes is all we are allowed. As a result, I felt like I had really been rushed through a story I didn't truly understand.

Now for the bright side - Una Merkel as Mamie, the Days' loyal servant, who somehow manages to keep everything going for the Days' two very small children, nursing them in sickness, and even bringing them to the yard in front of the jail so John can see his children. She is much more of a mom to these kids than their actual mother. Then there is the sweet romance that brews between Mamie and Jerry the milkman. You know how Jerry feels upfront, but you are not sure just how serious Mamie is until the very end. In this film that is a sea of characters who have bad intentions or at least bad actions, Mamie and Jerry are a breath of fresh air and actually take up more screen time than Richard Dix gets.

I'd recommend it, but just remember this little precode was probably never intended to be an A list film.

Worth it just to see Montgomery and Garbo in their only film pairing, 1 March 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

There is really nothing that unique about the plot. Variations on it have been done prior to this and would be done after this. Plus, for a precode, it sure had lots of moral lessons.

The film opens on a party as wealthy Raymond Delval (Lewis Stone)is pouring champagne into five glasses stacked one on top of another. He and his companions then toast each other and Yvonne Valbret (Greta Garbo) as their artistic inspiration - she has been the subject of the writing of one, the model for the sculpture of another, and the subject of a painting for a third. They all seem to be somewhat in love with her, and she is also being "kept" by yet another wealthy man. Garbo is simply beautiful here - an old soul yet full of energy. Her eyes settle on young André Montell (Robert Montgomery), as she is bored with artists. There is instant electricity between the two of them, and the not so subtle insinuation is that they begin sleeping together almost immediately. Now anytime somebody - in this case Garbo - can make the dapper Montgomery look like a tongue tied innocent schoolboy, you know you have a sophisticate on your hands. It turns out that Andre is still a student and plans to enter the consular service sometime soon.

Andre idealizes Yvonne, and although he was at the party - a place where he said he knew nobody so you have to wonder WHAT he was doing there in the first place - he has no idea she has such a checkered past right up to her present living arrangements. Also, there is another fellow who went to prison for embezzlement just trying to get enough money to dazzle Yvonne with presents. Although Andre seems horrified at Yvonne's past lifestyle when he finds out, you have to wonder if he didn't think something was up, because when his "respectable" family pays him a surprise visit shortly before Yvonne comes to call, he heads her off at the pass and is even just a little rude to her in not wanting his family to know about her. If Andre was so in love with her, wouldn't he want the family to meet her rather than shoo her out into the street? So Andre, after learning the whole truth about Yvonne's past, breaks off the relationship. However, Yvonne does not go back to her old life as mistress of a wealthy man, and eventually she becomes poor. Andre sees her in a café and when she doesn't have the money to pay for her meal, does it for her, and things seem to pick up where they left off, but not really.

Andre buys Yvonne a house, so she is in a "kept" situation once again, but she figures this is OK because she believes that she and Andre are in love again. Plus Andre has put her out in the French countryside, and you have to wonder if the isolation isn't intentional because Andre is not exactly being on the level with Yvonne. You see, he has become engaged to a "respectable" girl of whom his family approves and in keeping with his future profession as a consul. Something has got to give, and I'll let you watch and see how this works out.

Like I said in the beginning, there is nothing special about this plot, but it is worth it just for the acting, the atmosphere, and the art design. Earning honorable mention here is Lewis Stone. In the precode era he played more than a few cads, and he does a magnificent job here too, making teenage girls into his mistresses so that when he tires of them they will not be too old to find another man. How generous of him! Recommended but hard to find and not even in the Warner Archive yet at the time I am writing this.

Bordertown (1935)
A strange little film, 28 February 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This is a variation and predecessor of "They Drive By Night", and it periodically airs on Turner Classic Movies and seems to be in good condition. That's important because this film is on DVD-R via the Warner Archive and has had absolutely no restoration done to it - whatever happened to be in the Warner vault is what you get. I just thought I'd mention that in case you decide to purchase it - there is no other way to own it.

This film is not an introduction to Bette Davis. She had first worked at Universal and then switched over to Warner Brothers in 1931 where she starred opposite George Arliss in "The Man Who Played God". Universal thought she didn't have any potential. Bette Davis is still playing a largely supporting role here. Paul Muni is the actual star as a Latino man with big dreams (Johnny Ramirez) as he finally graduates from night school with a law degree. However, his first case finds him totally unprepared to the point of malpractice. Next he loses his temper and punches the opposing attorney in the nose. The judge recommends that he be disbarred, and our hero's short law career is over. A disheartened Johnny wanders down to a border town where he becomes friends with Charlie Roark (Eugene Palette), and soon becomes partners with him in a casino there. Bette Davis plays Roark's wife who secretly loves Johnny. She thinks the only thing coming between her and Johnny is her marriage, so she leaves her drunken husband in the garage one night with the car running, making his death look like an accident to the authorities. However, Johnny really loves a society girl, and this drives Roark's widow to even more desperate measures.

Muni's last lines in the film and the apparent moral to the story will have modern audiences probably saying "What the...", but you have to remember this was made in 1935 and appreciate it for the performances.

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