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Who was the first singing cowboy? Gene Autry? Ken Maynard? John Wayne!?
Though debatable Ken Maynard was certainly one of the first cowboys to
sing on the big screen. Rather than a guitar, he sang while playing the
fiddle! Gene and Roy sang in the manner popular in the 30's; Gene was
mainly a crooner and Roy more of a ballad singer who was also one of
the best yodelers around. Ken, on the other hand, sang in a more
traditional style, similar to say Grayson & Whitter, a hillbilly duo
popular in the 1920's, whereas Gene and Roy were influenced by the
hillbilly blues legend Jimmie Rodgers. Roy could out sing Gene. Gene
had no problem out singing Ken. (Truthfully, even Mr. Spock could have
out sung Ken.) And to my way of thinking, Tex Ritter could out sing the
whole bunch. As a footnote to all this, Gene felt so indebted to Ken
for helping him get started that he helped Ken by sending him money
when Ken was down and out in his final years.
In "Heroes of the Range," Ken sings "Our Old 45's" while playing a fiddle given to him by one of the outlaws so he could prove that he was Lightning Smith, noted for his fiddle playing. He also demonstrates he is the outlaw whose identity he has taken by punctuating his name written on his bunk with bullets. The outlaw leader, Bull (Harry Woods), insists that he could do the same thing with his name if he practiced a few years.
The story about a US marshal who infiltrates an outlaw gang to get the goods on them is as old as the prairie. There is not much that is new in "Heroes of the Range," but there is plenty of action from start to finish. Near the beginning of the film is a wild runaway wagon chase. The outlaws have Johnny Peters who is blackmailed into telling them about the next express money shipment. Before he can tell them, he is wounded. Outlaw leader Bull and his henchmen are taking Johnny to their hideout to nurse him back to health so he can talk when his pretty sister, Joan, pursues them in her buckboard. Ken has stopped by a wrangler camp to get some vittles when he sees the runaway. He rescues the damsel just before her buggy plunges over a cliff and splinters into a thousand pieces. With Joan's help, Ken joins the outlaws but is put in jeopardy when, you guessed it, the real Lightning Smith shows up. There are more chases, fisticuffs, and thrills before the resolution.
Not as good as his early shoot-em-ups, "Heroes of the Range" was made just as Ken's film career began slip sliding away as a result of personal problems, especially temperament and drinking. This outing is still exciting to watch and is better than most of his later films. It is always good to see Ken at the height of his popularity as a cowboy hero riding his beautiful steed Tarzan, wearing his shirt with arrow pockets, his big hat, and looking the way a Saturday matinée star should look. That is the way he will always be remembered by his legion of fans.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Though based on a true story according to the credits, this riveting
thriller (not a mystery) contains a few fanciful elements. When Robert
Lord's wife, Abby, is kidnapped, he quickly raises one million dollars
for the abductors. He and his son, Corey, deliver the money to a
specified location. The kidnappers consist of a pair of lovers,
Crawford Blake and Sally. Obviously the entire ploy is Blake's idea.
Naive Sally believes all the lies Blake has told her about using the
money for a honeymoon in Hawaii after safely releasing Abby. Driving a
van with Sally and a restrained Abby in back, Blake is on his way to
find a convenient spot to kill Abby. Abby becomes sympathetic to
Sally's plight, realizing that she is being used by Blake for his
nefarious deeds. She is able to escape but in the process Sally is
accidentally killed. Apparently, Blake really did love Sally for now,
even with the million dollars, he plots Abby's demise getting close to
her daughter, Maddy. Blake becomes engaged in order to kill.
The story is well plotted, even becoming somewhat complicated at times. There is suspense and thrills aplenty provided by director Matthew Hastings that puts this made-for-TV film above the average. There is not much humor included that would have eased the tension somewhat which makes for intense viewing. Since it is TV, the commercials may actually assist in giving a break from the intensity of the drama.
A major weakness concerns believability. Of modest means considering the life style presented, Robert Lord is able to raise one million dollars in just a few hours by putting his house, his cars, and his small business up for collateral. A close banking friend is able to swing the loan for him. When the friend disappears mysteriously, his character is virtually dropped from the story, almost as if his murder is not significant. There are also several other parts of the story that are difficult to accept as presented in the film.
The movie closes with a clever line by Maddy. As Blake is being led away, she coldly looks him in the eye and exclaims, "Aloha!"
Coming full cycle, Hollywood seems to be back on the theme of good cop
vs. bad cops controlled by the mob. Recently "16 Blocks" successfully
pitted honest Bruce Willis against dishonest city hall. For a time,
with "The Big Easy" being an early example, this type movie presented
the image of a totally corrupt government from top to bottom with
omnipresent mob ties indicating cynical times, even the one good cop
being tainted, just not as much as others. "The Big Heat" is a prime
example of this type film in the early Cold War period, emphasizing the
importance of one good man standing up against all odds, in particular
unconcerned citizens who either themselves become tainted or who are
simply apathetic as long as they are left alone. "The Big Heat" like
"High Noon" showed that the good must take a stand or the entire house
will come crumbling down with the rodents taking over.
Glenn Ford was never a versatile actor. In the right role he could carry the load sufficiently to get by. In the wrong role, his acting was amateurish. That he had potential is indicated by his performances in two movies, "Gilda" and "The Big Heat." Arguably, his role as Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion is the better of the two. Perhaps it is the inimitable director Fritz Lang that prods Ford on to realize his true talents. There is no doubt that Ford makes Sgt. Bannion come alive and puts real flesh on his bones. Ford is so good in this film and in "Gilda" that he deserved more recognition than he got from the Hollywood big wigs.
The two shining performances are given by Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin who run away with the show. They provide one of the legendary scenes in film history that just about everyone has either seen or read about, when Vince Stone (Marvin)--note the last name of Stone--pitches a container of boiling coffee into Debby Marsh's (Grahame) face, scarring her for life. Vince Stone's demise is also memorable. The coffee sequence alone is worth the price of admission.
An opium den, a dirty little boy (actually a midget), prostitutes
galore, a violent fracas in a dive, a motel for sexual shenanigans,
scantily clad babes with cleavage a lot, a boozer falling down the
stairs, a racially mixed clientèle in a bar with Asians, Africans, and
Anglos treated equally, does this sound like a film playing at the
local shopping mall? Wrong. These are all scenes from a 1933 musical.
The first half of "Footlight Parade" is preparation for a musical extravaganza which occupies the last half of the film. Chester Kent (Cagney) is about to lose his job and does lose his playgirl wife as a result of talking pictures squeezing out live stage musicals. His producers take him to see a popular talky of the day, John Wayne in "The Big Trail." Before each showing of the flick, a dance number is presented as a prologue. Shorts, news reels, serials, and cartoons would later serve the purpose. Kent gets the idea that a prologue chain would be the road to salvation for the dwindling live musical business. Kent is basically an idea man along the lines of choreographer Busby Berkeley. Could it be that Cagney's character is patterned after Berkeley? Could be.
In preparation for the prologues, Kent learns that his ideas are being stolen by a rival. He uncovers the traitor, fires him, then unbeknown to him a new leak is planted in the form a dazzling temptress. His assistant, Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell - soon to be Mrs. Dick Powell) has the hots for Kent and is determined to expose the wiles of the temptress. A new singer from Arkansas College shows up in the form of Scotty Blain (Dick Powell) who turns out to be a real find and is paired with Bea Thorn (Ruby Keeler). The resulting three prologue musicals, which couldn't possibly have been presented on any cinema stage of the day, are as fresh and enjoyable today as they were over seventy years ago, "Honeymoon Hotel," "By a Waterfall," and "Shanghai Lil."
Of special note is the song and dance of tough-guy James Cagney. Like Fred Astaire and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Cagney's dancing appeared natural and unrehearsed, although hours went into practice to get each step just right. Not as good a singer as Astaire, Cagney's singing, like Astaire's, sounded natural, unlike the crooning so popular at the time. It's amazing that one person could be so talented and so versatile as James Cagney.
Most critics prefer the "Shanghai Lil" segment over the other two. Yet the kaleidoscopic choreography of "By a Waterfall" is astonishing. How Berkeley was able to film the underwater ballets and to create the human snake chain must have been difficult because it has never been repeated. The close up shots mixed brilliantly with distant angles is a must-see. The crisp black and white photography is much more artistic than it would have been if shot in color.
Though not nearly as socially conscious as "Gold Diggers of 1933," "Footlight Parade" stands on its own as one of the most amazing and outrageous musicals ever put on the big screen.
Not a bad outing for Durango Kid fans; there's plenty of action with
the second lead, Jock Mahoney, playing who else but...Jack Mahoney.
Jock doubles for Charles Starrett as the Durango Kid, which made
doubling easy yet complicated. In one scene Jock Mahoney as Jack
Mahoney is chasing Jock Mahoney as the Durango Kid, in other words Jock
is chasing himself. Having two cowboy leads is not necessarily doubling
the viewer's fun. Though Mahoney and Starrett worked well together,
much better than Smiley Burnette and Starrett, attempting to give the
Saturday matinée crowd two heroes at one time tended to confuse the
Smiley gets to perform, showing off his multitude of musical talents, including a harmonica duet with Harmonica Bill. His comedy is lame to the point that the film makers speed up the action mechanically to make Smiley appear funny. At the end Smiley talks directly to the audience which had been done previously by the likes of Groucho Marx, George Burns, and would be one of the highlights of the later movie, "Tom Jones." The way Burnette does it seems a bit forced and distracts from the denouement of the film.
The story centers on a stage line run by pretty Betty Coulter (Delores Sidener in her only film appearance) who hires Jack Mahoney to help after Jack's father, Henry (Edgar Dearing), is murdered by Pop Rockland (Steve Darrell) in retaliation for Henry killing one of Pop's sons during a stage coach stickup. During the fracas, Jack and Betty fall for each other. A seemingly disreputable outlaw, Steve Baldwin (Starrett in yet another of his "Steve" manifestations), enters. Baldwin tells only Henry that he is a postal detective on the trail of thieves who have been robbing the U.S. Mail. Circulating a fake reward poster that reports Steve as a wanted man with a price on his head, Steve is able to join the outlaw band to catch Pop and his surviving two sons. Playing a pretend bad guy, Starrett gets to show off his acting ability. He actually does a good job portraying the good and the bad in the same person to the point that he even looks different when he changes from one character to the other. His third role as Durango is a bit less challenging, since Durango wears a mask.
The title "Pecos River" is even more irrelevant than usual for a shoot-'em-up. Not only is the Pecos River not in the picture, but there is no river at all. The scenery looks a lot more like southern California than any place in Texas.
Though this Durango Kid outing is somewhat routine, fans of Charles Starrett and Smiley Burnette should enjoy it. "Pecos River" also gives the viewers a chance to see a great stuntman turned actor, Jock Mahoney, in a starring role yet still performing stunts.
Harry Joe Brown and Randy Scott produced some of the best westerns
Hollywood ever made. This is one of them, one of only two films
directed by the brilliant writer-producer Roy Huggins, who ended up
devoting much of his time to some fine TV series, including "Maverick"
and "The Rockford Files." A person can only spread himself so thin yet
it's unfortunate that Huggins didn't direct more movies. There is so
much highly creative work here, both on and off the screen.
The story written by Huggins concerns the final days of the tumultuous Civil War that not only split the nation asunder, but families and friends as well. Major Matt (Scott) is in command of a small band of rebel soldiers whose assignment is to hijack a union gold shipment in far off Nevada and take no prisoners. They succeed only to learn that Lee surrendered to Grant several weeks earlier. What to do? The major and his rebels decide to keep the gold and determine what to do with it later. The only rascal amongst the rebels is Ralph, an early role for Lee Marvin, who as usual steals the show. It seems his meanness has only grown as a result of all the violence he has experienced during the war. His killer proclivities have come to dominate his psyche. Though old pals in the saddle, Ralph and the Major are continually at each other's throats. Also a member of the rebels is a youngster who has not yet tasted blood, Jamie (Claude Jarman Jr. who first scored big as a twelve-year-old in "The Yearling").
As the rebels make their getaway, knowing that they will be hunted down as murderers and traitors by the Yankees, they are set upon by a gang of outlaws who claim to be seeking justice but who really want the gold. The rebels are chased to an outpost via stagecoach where they hold up in what turns out to be a standoff. The leader of the outlaw gang is Quincey, portrayed by veteran actor Ray Teal in one of his best roles. He was always a reliable actor who could be counted on to give a good performance. But this time he goes beyond the expected and turns in one of the best acting jobs ever. Today he is most famous for playing Sheriff Roy Coffee in the ever popular "Bonanza" TV series. Another surprise is to see Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams, who usually played good old boy types, half-comic, half tough guy, as one of the meanest hombres around, Smitty. He is more sadistic and cruel than Lee Marvin in this film, which is saying a lot. Sweet Donna Reed is, well, sweet, but handles the part of a nurse, Molly, engaged to a slime ball, Lee Kemper (Richard Denning of TV's Mr. North fame), beautifully. Jeanette Nolan and Clem Bevans are effective as daughter and father of a young man who died in battle after his father had been killed in the war. The lead role is filled admirably by Randolph Scott. He captures all the nuances and contradictions of Major Matt while remaining charming enough to capture the heart of Nurse Molly. The rest of the cast including the redoubtable Frank Faylen provides the necessary support for this excellent western.
The title "Hangman's Knot" is metaphoric. Literally, the knot is tied to hang Cass (Faylen), but the knot also stands for the symbolic noose around the neck of each character for various reasons explored by the interaction of a great cast.
There is a lot of music in "Rancho Grande" including the title song
which is performed perhaps too often, although it's good to hear Gene
sing it one time in Spanish. Frog gets to perform, which is always a
treat. He was a wonderful songwriter and musician who could play over a
hundred instruments, including a few concoctions of his own. Even his
rather sophomoric humor is not bad this time. The writers give him a
sparing partner in the guise of Effie Tinker (Ellen Lowe) and their
scenes together are funny. The famous band leader Pee Wee King
(co-author of "Tennessee Waltz") is a bonus in the music department,
shown leading the Pals of the Golden West. One weakness is the lack of
action except for a casino fracas during the first part of the movie.
It's all music and melodrama until the final chase and shootout, Gene's
cowboys and ranch hands versus Emory Benson and his gang of saboteurs
who are attempting to keep a dam from being constructed. Gene's early
films usually surreptitiously supported the President's New Deal which
promised to end the Great Depression and help the working people get
started once more.
The story is similar to other Gene Autry oaters where easterners go west because of a ranch inheritance which usually involves Gene being the foreman with Frog his helper who have to westernize the dude or dudes. This time there are three youngsters, the youngest, Patsy Dodge (Mary Lee), wants to be a cowgirl, the older boy and girl, Kay and Tom Dodge (June Storey and Dick Hogan respectively) want fun and games instead. Kay and Tom fly a private airplane to claim their share of Rancho Grande. Both decide it would be entertaining to stampede horses that Gene and his cowboys have just rounded up, by buzzing the equines. Ultimately, the three Dodge's are rounded up to hear a reading of their grandfather's will. Gene is put in charge, but the main instructions involve the completion of a dam being built to provide water and electricity for those who live on the Rancho Grande. The executioner of the will Emory Benson (Ferris Taylor) turns out to be a snake in the grass who wants to poison the minds of the Dodge kids so they will go back east and he can get control of the land. Part of his ploy is to prevent the dam from being finished. How Gene and Frog westernize the kids and foil Benson's scheme takes up the rest of the film.
Without much action, those who enjoy Gene's crooning and Frog's funning will like "Rancho Grande." Others may get bored before the final chase sequence which has plenty of excitement and marvelous stunt work. Also look for a few familiar faces in the cast, many having only cameos. Hank Worden (later Mose of "The Searchers") appears briefly as a cowhand. Look too for Roscoe Ates who would go on to play comical sidekick Soapy Jones; former cowboy star Rex Lease; Slim Whitaker, Bud Osborne, Cactus Mack, Jack Ingram, and even Roy Barcroft. The viewer may not know the names but will certainly recognize the mugs.
The comic geniuses, Laurel and Hardy, made so many hilarious shorts
that it is hard to choose a best one. Certainly "The Music Box," which
garnished the duo an Oscar, is as good as the best humor ever put on
celluloid. Though Laurel and Hardy made at least two masterful feature
films, "Way Out West" and "Sons of the Desert," their shorts are among
their greatest moments on the big screen. "Them Thar Hills" is non-stop
laughter both physical and verbal from beginning to end.
Mr. Hardy is in need of rest, says wise doctor Billy Gilbert. He has had too much high living. Mr. Laurel suggests that they move down to the basement, but Dr. Gilbert counters with recommending a trip to the mountains and to be sure and drink lots and lots of water. Laurel convinces Hardy to rent a hook-on trailer and the boys are off on another misadventure. Just before they decide on a camping spot near a well, a bunch of moonshiners dump their payload into the well to destroy the evidence as the revenuers close in on them. Though the idea of putting whiskey or moonshine into the drinking supply for comedic effect was not new--Charlie Chaplin used the ploy for one of his classic shorts, "The Cure," as early as 19l7--the situation is different and Laurel and Hardy adapt it to their unique brand of humor.
The two are doing just fine in an outrageously funny scene where the two prepare a meal with making a pot of coffee becoming as funny as falling off a chair backwards. Naturally they use the spiked well water for the coffee. Both proceed to get looped. Enter a couple who have run out of gas and seek the assistance of Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy. Bad mistake. what takes place is one of the funniest slapstick routines ever filmed. Aiding in the sequence is a Laurel and Hardy regular, Charley Hall, second only to the magnificent James Finlayson as a perfect foil for the boys. His companion in hilarity is another Laurel and Hardy regular, Mae Busch, one of the screens great comediennes.
Anyone who doesn't roll with laughter watching "Them Thar Hills" needs to have his/her funny bone checked out immediately. Those who enjoy "Them Thar Hills" should check out its sequel, "Tit for Tat," and let the fun continue.
Under the knowing direction of Ronald Neame who began in movies as a
cinematographer, "The Man Who Never Was" becomes an intelligent
espionage thriller based on a true event from World War II. The two
most gripping parts of the film concern the set up and the attempt by
the German High Command to verify the documents that have fallen into
their hands perhaps by chance. With veteran actor Clifton Webb at his
best, the at times far-fetched story is made believable.
The Allies hit upon an idea conceived by Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu (Webb) to have a dead body carrying seemingly valuable wartime information wash ashore in Spain. The cadaver has letters from Allied commanders outlining the invasion of Europe to liberate it from Nazi domination. The Allied military leaders are in reality planning an invasion through Sicily and Italy but the fake documents show that the invasion is to come through Greece. Thus Operation Mincemeat is born. This fake route would encourage the German High Command to pull some of its troops from Sicily for deployment in Greece thus saving the lives of many an Allied soldier. Every detail worked out by Montagu and his advisers is explored in minute detail.
Enter Patrick O'Reilly (Stephen Boyd later of "Ben-Hur" fame), a Nazi stooge, who is landed in London to verify the identity of the dead body. Edge-of-the-seat suspense follows O'Reilly as the viewer debates whether he will be successful in exposing the sham. The most engaging scene is when O'Reilly checks up on the girlfriend in the picture found on the body. She also supposedly wrote a love letter accompanying the photo.
Acting is top notch by everyone involved. The fine actress Gloria Grahame who portrays the dead man's alleged girlfriend, Lucy Sherwood, is somewhat wasted in a small role where she is miscast, though she does have one telling sequence when confronted by O'Reilly in her apartment. Grahame was at her best when playing a femme fatale in noir features.
By all means, try to find this movie gem presented in wide-screen format. Otherwise, the film is not nearly as effective.
Though the ending is highly predictable, the events leading up to the
ultimate confrontation between killer and victim are filled with
thrills and suspense. The weakest part of this made-for-TV flick is the
blossoming romance between Christine (Natasha Gregson Wagner) and her
part time live-in Jeff (Aaron Pearl). Too much time is taken away from
the action to devote to this relationship which degenerates into soap
The plot is excellent. A highly ambitious second-rung corporate executive, Victor Sandeman (Currie Graham), is losing his life style as a result of poor investments. He sees a way out via a company merger, but the old man who runs the business opposes the deal. Victor decides to murder the old-timer so his weak-willed highly malleable son will be in charge. Thus the merger will be approved through Victor's manipulation of the heir. One problem, while carrying out his nefarious ploy with the old man's body still in the trunk, he rear ends a vehicle. The driver whose car is hit, Christine Sternwald, remains adamant that all the information needed for insurance purposes be provided. This leaves Victor in a quandary. He makes up his mind to get rid of the accidental witness. This leads to several neat complications in the story involving mistaken identity, frustrating lures, and a police investigation into a homicide made to look like a heart attack leading to a car crash.
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