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Delightful escapist fluff from Universal, 10 January 2015

I think it was Richard Barrios in his book "Song in the Dark" who said that Universal did not make anything worth watching outside of their monster pictures and Abbott and Costello films from the time the Laemmles lost control in 1936 until 1950. I beg to differ, and this film is part of my argument.

This is pretty much a cute little musical comedy about two Irish-American showmen, Michael O'Rourke (Jack Oakie) and Dennis Dugan (Donald Cook) who start out with rival show houses in the Bowery in the gay 90's and continue that rivalry to Broadway, thus the title. Even if these guys fight constantly, they fight like brothers, in a good natured way. Each one takes turns getting the other arrested due to some cooked up plan, but then bails the other one out with mutual friend Father Kelley (Andy Devine) going to the jail to do the actual bailing.

Oakie plays the crude but jolly showman, Cooke plays it smooth and sophisticated. Eventually they learn that they would both get further if they work together rather than against one another. That is pretty much the framework of the rather thin plot.

Because it is a rather thin plot, there are several subplots. Some people have said that this is what bogs down the film, but I think it is just part of the story of Broadway - a married dancing couple that finds out their art has become extinct and decide to bow out gracefully rather than cause trouble for the show getting backing, a young woman who was billed as the girl with "million dollar legs" who falls from a prop and may never walk again because of the accident, and a European actress who beguiles one of the two showmen into backing her in rather dismal plays that produce flop after flop all because he is blinded by love. Thus lady luck is the fickled one here, leaving you on top one day down the next, not any of the characters - they all have good intentions.

The one minus here - I don't know if it was because the film was trying to have the numbers follow so closely to what was popular in the early 20th century or not, but I just felt that the numerous musical numbers just landed with a thud. I can't recall one memorable musical number or song from the entire film. Fox was doing musicals set in the gay 90's at about the same time this film was made and their product seemed to be much better than this.

So if you want a cute little musical comedy with very little real conflict and pretty much happy endings all around I would recommend this one. It is perfect for someone recovering from a nervous breakdown.

This is a perfect romantic comedy..., 10 January 2015

... and probably my favorite A-list film. Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda display such chemistry and play off of each other so perfectly, and I have to credit director Preston Sturges, because in another pairing of the two at about the same time, in "You Belong to Me", their chemistry - heck the whole movie - just landed with a thud.

Fonda plays Charles, somebody born to wealth, and therefore with the leisure to do whatever he wants to do without thinking about the beauty of his situation. Charles chooses to study snakes. His no-nonsense self-made man father, perfectly played by Eugene Palette, holds his egg head son in only medium esteem, to quote another film, and has therefore assigned tough guy Muggsy (William Demarest) to be his body guard since he somewhat rightly perceives that Charles has no common sense or survival instincts. Charles is naïve, Jean (Stanwyck) is a con-woman wise in the ways of the world. She starts out to fleece the guy at cards when they find themselves on the same ship, but falls in love with him in spite of herself. When Charles finds out Jean is a con artist, he rejects her and she vows revenge, which she gets in the most imaginative way possible, all the while claiming that she doesn't love Charles anymore - but she does. She is a young woman wise to the "tells" in everybody else but blind to her own true feelings.

Eric Blore, usually given to expressing himself with looks and one liners, is given a rather intricate story to tell at a crucial moment in the film and carries it off wonderfully. William Demarest has never been funnier, and poor Charles gets no end of grief from his father. Sure he's clumsy, but at one point he's blamed for having the main course dumped in his lap at a dinner party caused by two servants fighting over who is going to serve the main course.

I won't give away any more, because the story is truly part of the delight here, but just let it be said that Jean teaches Charles that you can't tell what is in the present by looking at the wrapping paper, although the real moral of this film is that people in love believe what that want to believe. Highly recommended.

Tries to be a psychological thriller but fails, 9 January 2015

This movie won the Razzie award for Worst Motion Picture of 1994. Oddly enough though, it didn't win in any of the other "worst of" categories. This really says something about the film. The fact is, it is just hard to point to any one or even combination of factors of why it is so bad. It's not that any one particular performance is bad or an actor or actress is miscast or that there is particularly cheesy dialogue as is so often the case in a "bad film". It's just that the whole thing comes together to form a whole lot of nothing. It's more what isn't in the film than what is in it that makes it mediocre. Sure, the ending is unexpected, but it would also be unexpected if I found an extra broom when I was cleaning out my closet. That wouldn't make it remarkable, interesting, or even noteworthy. Because I never grew to care about the characters I couldn't be expected to care about the ending. The film is trying to be a psychological thriller with Willis as the protagonist trying to unravel the mystery. What comes out over the duration of the film are just many seemingly disjointed odd events meant to shock but just don't form any kind of cohesive plot. Instead we have what could have been a strong cast of characters in good performances spending the whole film trying to figure out exactly who they are supposed to be. The explicit love scenes between Willis and Jane March are just annoying more than anything as they seem to scream "This is a consolation prize to make up for the fact that you're sitting through such a bad film".

Part of the Third Act of Astaire's career..., 9 January 2015

... with the first act being his dance partnership with his sister and his second act being his RKO years.

"Second Chorus" is not a widely known film, but it will probably be enjoyable to any fan of Fred Astaire. If you're not particularly fond of Astaire, you might want to pass on this one since seeing Astaire in action in an unusual role is the main attraction. The story is that Danny O'Neill (Fred Astaire) and Hank Taylor (Burgess Meredith) are leaders of a band. The two have been intentionally failing in college, because they like the atmosphere, and also because as long as they are officially students they can spend their time running the band and making a pretty good living at it. When Ellen Miller (Paulette Goddard) enters the picture, they both get greedy and want her attention for themselves. Thus they each double-cross the other and both wind up getting expelled from the university, thus ending their cozy arrangement with their band. They spend most of the rest of the film continuing to double-cross one another, this time over trying to get into Artie Shaw's band as well as trying to win over the affections of Ellen, who now works for Shaw.

The things that are not so great about this film are the less than great comic timing, and the tiresome scenes with J. Lester Chisholm, played by Charles Butterworth. Mr. Butterworth is no Edward Everett Horton, and as a less-than-adequate character actor you just want to shoo the guy off stage every time he turns up. Also, if you're watching this film to see lots of Astaire's wonderful dancing, you'll likely be somewhat disappointed. He does do some singing and dancing, but this film mainly shows off his comic abilities, of which the mischievous Astaire has plenty. This part would have been better if the comic timing of the script had been tighter, though.

Derelict (1930)
A misleading title..., 9 January 2015

...because the word "derelict", at least to me, conjures up images of some drunken chronically unemployed person living the life of a vagabond. Instead the title probably should have been "dereliction of duty", but that likely would not have sold as many movie tickets as a film titled "Derelict".

The film is basically about a kind of Popeye versus Bluto rivalry between two sailors on two different commercial ships run by the same company. They both talk about how much they want to put the other one in the hospital, and they do come to blows once, but most of the time they just annoy one another.

Like Popeye and Bluto you never really know why these two guys dislike each other, yet seem to have some kind of mutual respect and admiration going too. Bancroft plays one of the sailors, Bill Rafferty, and William "Stage" Boyd plays his adversary, Jed Graves. Boyd's part looks like something that in the silent era would have gone to Clive Brooks, but Brooks' aristocratic British voice would simply not have gone with the part.

The feud between the two sailors escalates when Rafferty gets promoted to captain over Graves because Graves has brought a woman on board before and the shipping company is afraid Graves might do it again. The great irony here - Rafferty has just stolen Graves' date during shore leave, accidentally fell in love with her, and invited her to stow away on board the next morning, all happening BEFORE he gets the promotion. Complications ensue.

There are some very realistic scenes here of ships at sea cast adrift on the waves of a bad storm. It has quite fluid motion for an early talkie. I'd say it's probably worth your time.

Only for the fan of the 1930's musical revue type movies,, 4 January 2015

One thing you can say about Sam Goldwyn's ventures into musicals. He could either hit them out of the park ("Whoopee", "Palmy Days", "The Kid From Spain", etc.), he could miss completely ("One Heavenly Night"), or he could come up with a film that really is a bit of a mess but enjoyable for the classic film lover. The problem here seems to be that the film is trying to imitate to some degree the Warner Busby Berkeley films of 1933, the problem being that it is five years later. You'd think that of all people Goldwyn would have gotten that, since Busby Berkeley was directing his dance numbers in his Eddie Cantor films before Warner Bros. got a hold of him. Kenny Baker is obviously trying to stand in for Dick Powell, and he's good enough, it's just that musicals were transitioning to a different phase by 1938, the year this film was released. Thus the backstage banter between chorus girls doesn't come off very well after the code. The Ritz Bros. are obviously trying to stand in for the Marx Bros. and they do have a funny routine about a cat, but in the end they do get a bit tiresome. The film does have the dashing Adolphe Menjou, and he improves just about every film he's in including this one. The Technicolor is gorgeous and the Gershwin music is wonderful.

However, the modern viewer has one strategic advantage over the viewer that saw this in the first-run. We're not trapped in the perspective of a 1938 movie-goer so we can enjoy the film for what it is - some great musical numbers with a little good comedy and a lot of silliness.

One thing I don't get. This film first appeared on DVD as part of the giant Hollywood Musicals Collection late in 2008. One of the other films making its debut on DVD was the long awaited "Whoopee" starring Eddie Cantor. Why did this film get an individual pressed release rather than "Whoopee"? Was MGM allergic to money or something? Fortunately Warner Archives came to the rescue and procured the rights to almost everything Goldwyn and did release "Whoopee", although it was burned not pressed.

A different kind of western adventure, 3 January 2015

It must have been a difficult thing to make a movie in 1940 about the Mormons in the 19th century with polygamy being practiced by them at that time, but Daryl F. Zanuck gave it a try, even managing to get it past the production code and the censors of the time. He is definitely trying to parallel the trek of the Israelites from Egypt to the promised land headed by Moses with the Mormons traveling from Nauvoo to Salt Lake headed by Brigham Young. There are some colorful characters thrown in such as John Caradine's Porter Rockwell, a rather wild scout, who pulls his guns on a prosecutor during a trial so that Brigham Young (Dean Jagger) can have a chance to speak in Joseph Smith's defense, and the judge lets him get away with that?? Then there is also a romance thrown in with Mormon Jonathan Kent (Tyrone Power) and non-Mormon Zina Webb (Linda Darnell) slowly falling for each other as they travel across the continent with the Mormons. When Jonathan proposes marriage, Zina has reservations - first off, she is not a Mormon, and more importantly, she doesn't want to be the first of many Mrs.Kents. Her reservations were probably justified.

There is even a bad guy in the (fictional) person of Angus Duncan (Brian Donlevy) who claims that Joseph Smith told him that he was to head the church in case of his death, and then causes trouble for Brigham Young every step of the way, including trying to get the Mormons to follow him to California rather than stop at Salt Lake. And yes, Angus is just like Edward G. Robinson's trouble making character in "The Ten Commandments", but remember, this film was made sixteen years before "Ten Commandments".

The whole time, as Brigham makes decisions that effect the lives of all of the Mormons, he confides in wife Mary Ann that he is not sure that he is being led by God to make all of these decisions, so that he carries a burden of feeling that he could be misleading the others when he tells them to do this or that, but all the while his heart is in the right place. The film brings up some valid points to anybody that believes in God - How do you really know when He is speaking to you? How do you know a true prophet from a false one? I'm no expert on LDS history, in fact I'm not LDS at all, but if you want a rousing Western adventure that is a little different you might give this one a try.

This film must have been somewhat convincing to non-Mormons as a realistic portrayal of what happened, because I distinctly remember this film being shown in elementary school back in history class when I was growing up in Texas! Do note that Dallas, Texas was probably lacking in large numbers of people who were neither a Baptist nor a Methodist back in 1967. Catch this one if you can. The performances are excellent even if the history may be a little off.

Holiday (1930)
Probably could not be made the year before or the year after..., 3 January 2015

... given its subject matter. This is not a precode at all. Rather it is the filmed version of a 1928 play that made perfect sense in the roaring 20's. This film could not be made before 1930 because sound films hadn't evolved to the point where dialogue and movement could be shown as they are here. It could not be made after 1930 for several years (It was filmed again in 1938) because depression era audiences would simply be befuddled at a young woman (Ann Harding as Linda) who is so unhappy and bored with her rich lifestyle while many in the audience would just want to know when they are going to eat again.

The story revolves around a rich young woman, Julia Seton (Mary Astor), who is returning home with her fiancé (Robert Ames as Johnny Case), whom she has known for only ten days. The Setons are terribly rich - I mean how many homes have elevators in 1930? - and they are divided into two groups. The stodgy business centric part of the family that runs things headed by patriarch Edward Seton (William Holden - no not THAT William Holden), and the unhappy Setons who seemed trapped on a merry go round from which they cannot get off. These are Julia's two siblings, Ned (Monroe Owsley) who drinks heavily to deal with the fact that he has no say in his own life, and Linda (Ann Harding), free in spirit but not in deed.

Johnny has a strange idea of how to live his life. He has been buying some stocks and as soon as he gets enough money together, he wants to go on "holiday". He wants the retirement part of his life to be when he is young, not just to have fun but to make sure that what he does for the rest of his life is what he really wants to do. Linda thinks this idea is grand, but fiancée Julia just thinks this is a goofy notion from which she can eventually distract him.

You'll notice that from the moment they arrive, Johnny seems to spend all of his time conversing with Linda and that Julia spends most of her time conversing with her "bucks on the brain" Dad. Complications ensue.

Ann Harding does have some dialogue and over the top moments that only someone as regal as she could pull off. Lots of actresses would have looked silly going on and on about how the playroom was the only place in the family mansion in which she was ever happy. Plus, she is making a BIG leap of faith in her final decision in the film. It is easy to see why Katharine Hepburn was cast to play Linda in the 1938 remake - they have very similar acting styles.

Let me also compliment Mary Astor's acting here. As both Johnny's fiancée and her father's daughter you are never quite sure where she is coming from up to the very end.

Edward Everett Hornton and Hedda Hopper have a small but crucial role as a couple who are friends of Linda and have a sense of humor that most of the stodgy Setons do not appreciate, but are needed to show that Linda does at least have some allies in her life. Highly recommended.

A great WWII era British murder mystery, 1 January 2015

By gum, from the 1940's through the 1960's, when the British put together a murder mystery with a psychological edge, nobody could beat them! This little thriller starts out in WWII as a team of surgeons and nurses are quite busy repairing the bodies of people hit by Nazi planes whose targets are not military but civilian in an effort to beat down the morale of British citizens.

One night a fellow named Higgins is brought in, badly injured by one of these Nazi bombs, and he dies on the operating table. He says something right before he goes under the anesthetic to one of the members of the team - I won't tell you what - and you think "Oh this is easy, THAT person did it." Then you find out another member of the team has psychological issues stemming from her mother's death in a raid while she was away from home, that there are jealousy issues over a woman between the two doctors, and yet another member of the team just likes to cause trouble.

Big tip here - if you suspect that someone is guilty of murder, do not stop a social event in a room that includes all of the suspects and say "I know there has been a murder, I know who the murderer is, and I am now going alone out into the dark of night to retrieve the evidence that will convict that person!" You will wind up dead, and so does that person.

Enter stage left Alistair Sim as a representative of Scotland Yard -in other words a cop - and he is every bit as unlikeable as any murderer could be. He announces that Higgins was murdered, he announces that the five surviving members of the surgical team are suspects, and he also announces that four poison pills are missing from the pharmacy. The implication is that the one of the five that is the murderer plans to kill the other four. On his way to solving the case, Sims' character seems to really enjoy making women cry hysterically and causing the doctors to come to blows with only words and insinuations.

There will be several places right up to the end where you are SURE you know who is guilty and you will be wrong right up to the ironic ending. Watch and find out who did it and why. I guarantee you'll be on the edge of your seat right up to the end, which is when the confusing title of this film is explained.

Being a college graduate in the Depression could be so depressing..., 1 January 2015

... and this fast moving little film using Warner Brothers' contract talent hits all of the important points of young people starting out with big dreams and what becomes of them all in the first couple of years after graduation. Young people today can probably see many parallels in the experience of the seven young people followed in this film versus what they experience today trying to elbow their ways into careers.

The story starts out on graduation day for four college seniors and buddies. Franchot Tone plays Bob, a guy who wants to be a newspaperman and has a crush on the sister (Margaret Lindsay) of fellow graduate Fred (Robert Light), who is all set up to go into the stock brokerage firm of his father. Tom (Ross Alexander) aspires to be an architect and marry his girl Trudy (Jean Muir) as soon as possible. Finally there is "Smudge" (Dick Foran) who has been the big college football player for four years and wants to parlay that into a coaching job.

Some of them - with difficulty and perseverance - get jobs in New York City - strangely enough this is the destination of all of them, none of the jobs pay that well, and roommates are a necessity in such austere times, often in boarding houses with a great view of the brick wall across the alley. Romance is found for all but Fred - he has the least screen time - but money is the roadblock for matrimony for all of them.

The film does a great job of interweaving the stories of all of the graduates, but the focus stays mainly on Tone's character, Bob, as a couple of times he has the distasteful task of being the action reporter on the scene of some tragedy related to his friends or their families. It is a harrowing journey but it has a rather upbeat ending with, ironically, Ross Alexander's character telling Bob to keep a stiff upper lip. This is ironic because Ross Alexander ended his own life just a little more than two years after this film was released.

If you liked the gritty reality of "Wild Boys of the Road" I think you'll like this film too. Highly recommended.

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