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unfairly forgotten, 13 October 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This is a gem of a silent, made as silent film was reaching its peak as an art form just before the dawn of sound with a cast that contains two stars that will not be that successful after that dawn, and one supporting player - William Powell - who will be catapulted to fame because of that dawn. WARNING - I will be spoiling Todd Browning's Freaks further down in the review.

The film starts out focusing on two dapper looking fellows as they stroll down the avenue - Clive Brook as Heliotrope Harry Harlow and William Powell as Froggy. These two dapper fellows turn out to be armed robbers, and tonight their target is an illegal gambling outfit inside a private home. 70 years before the term home invasion is coined, that is exactly what they do - burst on to the scene, guns drawn, and relieve the guests of their jewelry and cash. Harry lets one woman keep her wedding ring because "marriage is the only institution in which he has faith".

As the two bolt out and down the street, the police arrive, much too soon for anybody in the house to have called for them. Hmmm. Who could have ratted them out? The answer comes quick enough - Harry's wife, low life Lilly (Olga Baclanova). She is assuming Harry is not coming home because he's been arrested, so she leaves their baby crying in her crib while she adjourns to the bedroom for some fun with her boyfriend. When Harry comes home and finds she did double cross him, both sexually and criminally, he kills the other man dead, but lets Lilly live. He then scoops their baby girl up and puts her on the doorstep of a wealthy couple who have recently lost their child. After he knows she is safe he warns Froggy to stay out of trouble so he can watch over his little girl, and then Harry turns himself in to a policeman, only after ascertaining he is a family man and thus catching a killer on the loose will be good for his career and thus his family.

Fast forward in time and Lilly eventually finds her daughter, being raised by a good wealthy couple. The girl is 17 and engaged and Lilly wants to make a scarlet woman out of her just to get back at Harry - for what I don't know, after all he IS in jail for murder. So she goes to the prison to tell him just what she plans to do just so she can see his agony. Olga is doing a great job of being evil here, because by this point in the film, heck, when she first appeared on the screen for that matter, I was ready for the gang from Tod Browning's Freaks to show up four years early and turn her into a chicken.

Now Harry has years to serve on his sentence, Froggy is just not up to the task of outwitting Lilly, and Lilly is days away from showing up at her daughter's home with proof she is the rightful parent. How will Harry save his daughter's virtue? Watch and find out. That's probably not possible though because I saw this film at Capitolfest this August in Rome, NY and it had not been shown anywhere since its original run in 1928.

How good is it? I can love some silent films - I don't like all of them, but I just adored this one. But my husband was the true test. He's got very eclectic taste - he likes anything from Busby Berkeley to Iron Man, but he admits he does not "get" silent film. Well, he was on the edge of his seat - literally - through this entire movie and said he thought it was great. Criterion should do a deal with Paramount and the Library of Congress - who currently curates it - and get this out where people can see it.

Unfaithful (1931)
Ponderous and intricate, 13 October 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I'm going to spoil this film pretty much completely, because watching this is not the same as hearing the story, mainly because of the talented Ruth Chatterton who was so good at playing a suffering woman as well as a free spirit, and here she plays both pretty much simultaneously.

Ruth plays Lady Fay Kilkerry, who marries Ronald Kilkerry (Paul Cavanagh) at the beginning of the film. They have a happy honeymoon and everybody just loves "Ronnie" - he's a war hero and such a fine fellow...except he isn't. Which is what Fay finds out when she follows Ronnie one day and sees his car parked in front of a large house when he's supposed to be elsewhere. She finds out the big house is largely empty except for Ronnie and his paramour whenever they are seeing one another, and Fay also finds a framed picture of Ronnie and a smaller picture of "their crowd". She finds all of this out by talking to the servants and by finding Ronnie's lost cigarette case inside. Aside - it must be nice to be able to afford to maintain a 7K square foot mansion year round for the occasional illicit rendezvous in the midst of a global depression, n'est-ce pas??

Fay confronts Ronnie, he laughs it off, and Fay tells him that adultery may be OK in his crowd, but she wants a divorce. In England at the time adultery was the only grounds for divorce, and you must name the party in the adultery as part of the proceedings. Ronnie does the work for her - the woman is Gemma, her brother's wife. Fay's brother tried to commit suicide when Gemma tried to break their engagement, so if he finds out his wife is cheating on him, Fay figures on a repeat performance.

Fay's solution is bizarre. She'll keep her mouth shut about Ronnie and Gemma, but she begins going around demonstrating outrageous behavior - drinking, carousing with all kinds of men but not actually sleeping with them, and even belting out a torch song while wearing a revealing outfit when "the crowd" gets together. So everyone thinks - "poor Ronnie, such a fine fellow, yet he has such a rotten wife". Ronnie eats this sympathy up. In fact he seems to take pride in turning Fay into an object of ridicule and scorn. I could never figure out what was in this for Fay.

And then a poor artist comes along - Paul Lukas as Colin Graham. For all his talk about not having money he seems to always dress for the occasion and has some very elegant digs to boot. He is repulsed by Fay's behavior yet attracted to Fay at the same time, and they begin to spend time together. He finds she's not a derelict at all but a witty charming woman and he begins to fall for her. So how can this work out? A woman who wants to marry her poor artist friend, but she's already permanently married to an unfaithful husband from whom she cannot free herself without destroying her brother's marriage (sham though it is) and probably her brother in the process. Watch and find out. It is time well spent.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Did we all watch the same movie....., 28 September 2014

... or do I just have standards? Someone in the comment section said "Is this the most stupid movie ever or what ...highly advanced alien civilization trying to invade earth using giant creatures that are cloned??? or give birth??? and much more stupid humans using giant robots to wrestle them"... and then he goes on to give some options and ask why it was done this way. I'll tell you why, original poster, because it is one way to get alien invaders, giant cloned creatures, and giant robots all into the same movie. This - and all big budget action pictures made today - are not about American audiences. They are about overseas audiences, where 75% of the money is made. Specifically, China and Russia. Thus you have minimal dialogue, big explosions, buxom scantily clad females, and muscular macho men who look like they came straight out of a porn movie with break-away clothing.

How minimal is the dialogue? Well my husband watched this with one earphone on so he could hear the film, and one off so he could listen to me parodying the dialogue MST3K style by what I thought was going on just by the muted overacting. He stopped the film and took off the other headphone after awhile and said - "to not be hearing anything that's being said you are remarkably spot on". And this is exactly what the filmmakers are going for - something that you do not need to be an English speaker to follow.

I did watch it later with dialogue or else I would not be able to write this review in good faith. I'm giving this a three just based on the work done on the sets. After all, production values wise, this is not an Ed Wood production. I shall now prepare to be pelted by eggs and tomatoes, most of them, I assume, coming from Russia and China.

Salesman (1968)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A timeless film about the dual enemies of aging and failure, 26 May 2014

This film is about the trials and tribulations of four door-to-door Bible salesmen in 1968, on the eve of when their occupation was about to become extinct. Of course, the filmmakers could not know that at the time, but this fact is what adds to the sadness of this film today. The salesmen are four New Englanders named Paul "The Badger" Brennan, James "The Rabbit" Baker, "The Bull" and "The Gipper", their nicknames being derived from their individual sales tactics. Despite the holiness of their products, this really is a cutthroat business, as is made evident in some of the sales meetings that are shown. The main character, "The Badger", reminds me of Jack Lemmon's character in Glengarry Glen Ross. Life - and his profession - have beaten him down, and none of his sales pitches are working as he talks to one indifferent potential customer after another. These guys are always looking for a new angle to make the sale, but usually just about everything they come up with is not successful. Remember, this was in the days when people were unafraid to open their doors to strangers, and equally unafraid to be rude to them. The film not only makes you feel what these unsuccessful salesmen are feeling, it a time capsule for the end of the '60s, and a portrait of an occupation that doesn't really exist anymore due to telemarketing, Internet sales, two-income families meaning nobody is home during the day, and finally the fact that adult strangers on your doorstep are assumed to be potential criminals.

Paul Brennan really seems to have the saddest story of the four. His sales are dwindling, and he is really too old to start over in another occupation. Paul's sales become so poor that at one point that he is partnered with a more aggressive salesman so Paul can observe his technique in the hope that something will rub off on Paul. This younger, sharper salesman, who obviously has not yet developed a tolerance for human frailty, is constantly snapping at Paul for his poor technique and unenthusiastic delivery. If you're an older person who has ever worked for a younger one, you know what I'm talking about. As sorry as you may feel for him though, when we see Paul using the possibly superstitious beliefs of his customers to get them to buy products they may not be able to afford, you have mixed feelings about the man. Is Paul purely being manipulative, or is he resorting to desperate means to survive? Probably a little bit of both is true. Paul realizes that his time as a salesman is coming to a close, and it's not like he has a big bank account to fall back on. Such career struggles are expected when you are in your 20's, but by the time you are Paul's age you are expecting something more...more job stability, more respect, more financial security.

The film does add some humor throughout the film to keep the viewing experience from being too much like a funeral for both Paul's career and the profession of door-to-door salesman itself. Sometimes the salesmen lighten up and even have some camaraderie in their conversations. Sometimes there is a funny remark from the "no sale" Boston housewives the salesmen encounter, and sometimes there are even funnier remarks from the salesmen as they leave a house where they've been refused. There's also an episode in a hotel pool in the middle of the night that is rather humorous.

I'd say that even though the film has a very dated look to it, you should watch it because what it has to say about the human spirit, aging ungracefully, choosing the wrong career, and then failing at that career is timeless.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
What was she thinking???, 6 May 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This film is Elsie Ferguson's only surviving film, and it is the only talking picture she ever made. Ms. Ferguson plays Mary Bancroft, a successful attorney and candidate for office in the upcoming elections. The first scene, however, is in an orphanage with a nun clutching a baby girl that has just been given up for adoption by the mother because she is starving. The mother is not shown, and the nun indicates that the mother did not divulge the name of the father, the insinuation being that the child was born out of wedlock.

The next scene is in the law offices of Mary Bancroft. She apparently has been spurning the advances of the district attorney (John Halliday as John Remington), although she considers him a close friend. However, that doesn't mean that any holds are barred when they spar in court. Mary agrees to take the case of a 19 year old cabaret performer (Marion Nixon as Nora Mason) who admits to shooting her father but refuses to say why she did it. After playing twenty questions with her as to why, Mary can tell - and the audience can too - that it is probably because her father approached her sexually in some way, although this is never actually said.

Now I'm going to spoil this movie completely, mainly because the plot is not at all unique. The interesting parts are the players and their performances. What results is that, in court during Nora's murder trial, a nun from a local orphanage appears to reveal that Nora's "father" is in fact not her biological father at all - that Nora is adopted. So here Mary Bancroft is with a girl that is the same age as her daughter, adopted from the same institution as her daughter, brought to the institution on the same day as she brought in her daughter, and when the judge and DA see the card from the orphanage that has Nora's birth mother's name they beg of her not to reveal the birthmother's name in court. Like my title says, what was she thinking???? Did she not get that there was a high probability that Nora was her daughter? The fact that Mary Bancroft could be insightful and clever enough to be a successful attorney in what was very much a man's world in 1930 and not see this coming from a mile away is just ridiculous.

What makes this even crazier is at the end Mary tells Nora that she's paced the floors every night of her life wondering about what happened to her, although you could have fooled me given her top of the world carefree demeanor up to the point she realizes she is defending her own daughter against a murder charge.

Now for the performances - Elsie Ferguson reminded me very much of Glenda Jackson in her prime. She looked to be in her mid 30's although she was 47 when she made this film. John Halliday was excellent as always, and these two dominated the film and gave very good natural performances making me forget that this is an early talkie. I hardly recognized Marian Nixon as she had a very hardened, sullen, used-up look about her, but given her part this may have been a combination of good make-up and a good performance. Grant Withers, as Nora's fiancé, has had his time in the sun at Warner Brothers by now and in just a year of being built up as a leading man he is on his way down.

The art design in this one is good too - much better than I'm used to seeing in surviving WB early talkies. Just one thing had me scratching my head. When Nora is doing the second of two dance numbers at the cabaret, for some reason the background scenery is changed from just curtains to a dead tree. I could never figure that one out.

Watch this one mainly as the only filmed record we have of Elsie Ferguson.

4 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
When the truly annoying are killed does anyone really care?..., 6 May 2014

...and annoying is the best way to describe tenor and opera singer Gino D'Acosta (Leo Carrillo). In the looks department he is a solid 5/10 yet in spite of that and his obvious lack of sincerity and subtlety he is a lady's man with two currently on a string, he has an understudy that badly wants his big chance, then there are the boyfriends (husbands??) of the girls he is stringing along, and a lunatic that wants to kill D'Acosta because he won't sing an opera he has written. So when D'Acosta dies on stage it is no surprise to the audience. On hand to solve the murder is the reason I - and maybe most people - hang around. That reason is Chester Morris as Detective Steve Farrell. He teams up with Dr. Adams' niece Toni (Madge Evans) who is a chemist and helps him analyze evidence. You see, at first it is thought D'Acosta was poisoned by some wine he drank before going onstage, but the autopsy proves that the poison was delivered while he was performing, and now it is a combination of Steve's detective work and Toni's forensic analysis that work to crack the case. Madge Evans is playing this role somewhat as a screwball comedienne Jean Arthur style, and the result is a good performance and good chemistry between herself and the always entertaining Chester Morris who plays this role as a good yet tough guy.

So what's not so good about this film? Mainly the short running time combined with, IMHO, an excess of opera music. The time taken up by the opera music could have been used to beef up the plot a bit more. Still I'd recommend it for fans of B murder mysteries from the 30's and 40's and definitely for fans of Chester Morris.

wartime Kildare without Kildare, 5 May 2014

This is the third entry in the Dr. Kildare series in which Van Johnson and Keye Luke play residents vying to be Dr. Gillespie's assistant. Several other people have mentioned this, and I noticed it before I read anything here, so I don't feel bad mentioning it again. Did anybody else see the parallels between this film and House, M.D.? Think about it. A brilliant diagnostician with a foul disposition (Barrymore as Dr. Leonard Gillespie) and a crippling disability is ordered to get an assistant and makes it a competition among the hospital's best and brightest, with Red Adams (Van Johnson) and Dr. Lee (Keye Luke) being the finalists. Was Molly Byrd, head nurse and Dr. Gillespie's oldest friend who bears Gillespie's grouchiness and insults with humor, in fact a model for Wilson? There are the usual interesting medical cases interspersed with the personal dilemmas of the staff - mainly Red - that comprise the drama. One interesting thing to notice is how the war is brought into the film, in statements that seem over the top and even a bit silly today. For example, even though Keye Luke has been in previous films in this series, it is again stressed at the beginning of the film that he is Chinese, just so nobody thinks there might be anybody of Japanese descent in the cast. Both residents mention how they want the assistantship to Gillespie so they will have a leg up going into the medical corps. At this point the war is almost over. Where have they been all of these years? A very young and lovely Ava Gardner shows up where you least expect her, and she is a woman of mystery to Red. Is Red falling for her or is something else going on here? Watch and find out.

Commissioner Gordon, how could you!!!, 26 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

My title refers to the bad behavior of artist Larry Maynard (Neil Hamilton), an American heir of great wealth who decides to assuage his boredom and be a starving artist in France for awhile at the beginning of the 20th century. What immerses one more in the experience than pitching woo to one of the local French farm girls (Helen Hayes as Madelon Claudet), luring her away from her family and farm with promises of matrimony and excitement, and then living with that girl in Paris while the art critics tell you what you don't want to hear - that you have no talent.

Alan gets a cable from home - his dad has had a stroke. He promises to return shortly - maybe he even believes that promise. But once back in America Alan's spine of Jello wins out and he marries the girl his wealthy family wants him to marry. You only see one scene at his bachelor party with him discussing with a groomsman that his romance with Madelon was "real". Yeah buddy - real pleasant and real over - for him. Meanwhile Madelon has discovered she is pregnant and waits for an Alan that never returns and probably never even writes- he is that big of a coward. He probably just figures his silence is deafening. So there she is pregnant, abandoned, and shunned by her family back in Normandy.

Now the actual film runs through this quite quickly. In fact, the film is very quickly paced and if you don't pay attention you'll get lost. A very genuine precode moment in a film that insinuates a lot but really shows nothing - Madelon has just given birth. Knowing she is an abandoned single mother she wishes aloud that she would die and that the baby would die. But when she has the baby placed next to her that scorn turns to love. He is no longer an extension of Alan, but her child. Helen Hayes makes this transformation with just facial expressions - no dialogue.

The actual story that follows is everything that Madelon does and suffers for the sake of her son, plus a few injustices thrown in for good measure that have her being a victim of circumstance that serve to separate her from her son for years. But she does what she has to do to get the boy a first rate education, and for a woman like Madelon that means turning to the world's oldest profession and I don't mean farming.

The end of her story has her used up and old before her years - probably being in her mid 40's but looking 20 years older - so desperate she is turning herself in to be a ward of the state so that she can at least get medical care and food. Meanwhile her son (Robert Young as Dr. Lawrence Claudet) has become a great young physician of Paris whose star is rising. He believes his mother is long dead and that his education and living expenses while a student were courtesy of her estate.

Now this story is being told in flashback by an old friend of Madelon's, Dr. Dulac. He has been a substitute dad to Lawrence all of these years, and knows what Madelon has been doing to care for the boy. The point of the story was to convince Lawrence's wife, who was getting ready to leave him in the middle of the night, that her sacrifices as a physician's wife were nothing compared to what others (Madelon) had suffered. How will all of this work out? Watch and find out.

The story is nothing that would win an award for best screenplay. Movies about suffering sacrificing moms are as old as filmmaking itself. The payoff is in how Helen Hayes convincingly portrays her character without the help of very good dialogue and with a film that moves quite quickly through everything. Helen Hayes' filmography is not very lengthy, mainly because her forte was the stage. This makes her good performances as a film star even more impressive.

My one problem with the entire film - the premise of the opening. As the film opens, it is the middle of the night and Alice Claudet is creeping into her husband's study to leave him a letter saying she is leaving plus she leaves the key to the house next to the letter. Dr. Dulac, sleeping in a chair in the study, is awakened by her movement and thus starts the conversation between them and the story of Madelon. Why did Alice feel it necessary to leave behind the key to her own house? This is not the Holiday Inn, it's her home too! And why is she OK with somebody unrelated to her and her husband sleeping in a chair in their house? Weird stuff from MGM, but worth it for Helen Hayes alone.

Strange little curio from the early talkie era, 19 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This movie will probably be enjoyable mainly to those of us interested in the early talkie era of films. This movie is an odd combination of a Ziegfeld-like musical revue and a psychological study of a man's descent into madness, and was based on a story by Ben Hecht. It is not your melodrama set to music that you would typically see in 1929.

Gabbo (Erich Von Stroheim) is a ventriloquist, apparently living with his girlfriend Mary (Betty Compson) who also helps him in his act. His mannequin, Otto, seems to take on a life of his own. At first you believe that Gabbo is only imagining Otto is talking, but very shortly you see that Otto is moving and talking from several feet away from Gabbo - but always in Gabbo's presence - regardless of whether other people are around or not, and these other people see Otto move and speak too. Everyone just attributes this to Gabbo's talent and eccentricity, nothing else. Gabbo is constantly berating Mary, complaining that his coffee is too hot or too cold, blaming his lack of success on her, and finally daring her to leave, which she does. Time passes, and Gabbo becomes the star of the Manhattan Revue, a successful Ziegfeld-like Broadway production, and a show in which Mary is also starring as a singer and dancer with her partner and boyfriend, Frank (Donald Douglas). Mary begins to make some friendly gestures towards Gabbo, which Gabbo happily interprets as Mary's desire to reunite with him. However, things are not as they appear in more ways than one, and when Mary tells Gabbo a secret she has been keeping he goes completely mad. Gabbo even punches Otto saying it is his fault that Mary has left him.

The musical part of the film has some lavish numbers that appear very typical of Ziegfeld's productions, although the famous showman had nothing to do with this movie. Besides the pre-Busby Berkeley dances in which the people in the chorus descend a staircase and then proceed to dance on the stage in a straight line with the camera either focusing on the dancer's feet or costumes but seldom both, there are some rather inventive numbers. One involves the dancers performing with some giant pinwheels raised in the background. Another one has the performers dressed as spiders that first sing while raised on a giant spider web, then some of them climb down and perform the rest of the act on stage. The odd staging and costumes in the musical numbers just add to the surrealistic mood of Gabbo's growing insanity.

It seems that since Otto's speech and motion are not figments of Gabbo's imagination, that perhaps Otto's personality is the "human side" of Gabbo. Otto is what Gabbo would be like if he was less self-involved. Mary seems to hint at this several times early in the film when she says that the only kind words Gabbo ever said to her came from Otto. At the end of the film, after Mary makes clear to Gabbo she will never return to him and why, Otto never moves or speaks again. It is as though Otto's lifelessness shows that any remaining humanity in Gabbo has burned out for good. Erich Von Stroheim was particularly good as Gabbo. Being both a director and an actor himself in both the silent and talking era might have helped him in this. If you are interested in obscure early talkies, I'm sure you'll like this movie.

Like Normal People (1979) (TV)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A great look at the best and the worst of the 1970's., 19 April 2014

I remember clearly seeing this film on Friday, April 13, 1979. I was trying to finish up the spring semester at college, and originally turned on the TV as background sound. But then it got and held my attention and really sucked me into the storyline and this young couple's fight to be "like normal people". This movie is apparently based on a true story of a mentally challenged couple that fought and won the right to marry. There was a movie with a similar story line that had aired just a few weeks before starring Richard Thomas and Julie Kavner.

The film shows the life of mentally challenged Roger Meyers (Shaun Cassidy) from his infancy up to the point that he marries Virginia (Linda Purl). It shows how the entire family is effected by Roger's handicap and the depression he is thrown into after being accused by a local cop for sending an obscenity-laced letter to a teenage girl, all because Roger sent her a valentine plus the fact that the mentally disabled were often considered sex fiends in those days. It turns out that a "normal" boy from school actually sent the letter.

Roger's mood improves when his parents decide to send him to an institution that believes in normalizing the mentally challenged, not warehousing them. In particular his mood improves because he meets Virginia. Their mutual crush is considered somewhat endearing until it turns to love and they talk of marriage.

What is the worst of the 70's I was talking about? Mainly it has to do with the attitude towards the mentally challenged and sex - that people believed that they are either asexual or over-sexed with no middle ground and that regardless of the cause of the retardation, they must not be allowed to reproduce. (Roger and Virginia did not have congenital retardation).

What was the best of the 70's that I saw here? That middle class people such as Roger's family could effectively deal with Roger and his needs without going broke, that the state actually offered some meaningful financial help to such families back then, and that in 1979 if Roger and Virginia had been of average IQ that they would have been able to marry and live modestly with modest jobs - not shackled with six figures of student debt and a mandatory college education in order to have that same modest lifestyle today.

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