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Three Sons o' Guns (1941)
Getting drafted builds character
In the months preceding the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States was already girding for possible involvement in World War II, and it began drafting young men into the military. Motion picture companies were doing their part to support preparedness, making movies that emphasized patriotism, the threat from abroad, and the need for men to answer the call. But America was still officially at peace, so the message was often subtle.
The classic draft-related movie from this period is "Sergeant York." As every film fan knows, it's a fact-based story about a devout pacifist who initially resists taking up arms but then becomes a hero in combat. "Three Sons o' Guns," released around the same time, is a different and far inferior film, but with the same "soft sell" approach to military duty. It's a comedy (an anemic one) about three likable brothers who dodge the draft because they've never learned a sense of responsibility.
This movie looks somewhat odd today. It's a pro-draft movie, but it never mentions why a draft is necessary. It's a pro-war movie that steers clear of the subject of war. The emphasis here is on how service in uniform can turn a deadbeat into solid, dependable man. You don't get the sense that there's much danger or sacrifice involved.
The plot revolves around the misadventures of the Patterson brothers -- played by Wayne Morris, Tom Brown and William T. Orr -- as they bicker, chase women and pursue outlandish career schemes while avoiding any real work. When Uncle Sam calls, they initially see no reason to change their plans. The boys' widowed mother (played by Irene Rich) is very indulgent of all their nonsense, but their hardnosed aunt (played by Marjorie Rambeau) is determined to see them in uniform.
Life in the Pattersons' hectic household, with a parade of beautiful girls and certifiable oddballs, is faintly reminiscent of "You Can't Take It With You," but without the laughs. While "Three Sons o' Guns" is lighthearted and even strangely innocent, its attempts at humor misfire. Its real value is as a historical curiosity.
Speaking of history, all three of the "draft dodgers" in this movie eventually served in World War II. While William T. Orr was assigned to a Stateside film unit, Tom Brown and Wayne Morris saw considerable combat. Morris, a Navy air ace in the Pacific, wound up as one of Hollywood's most celebrated real-life heroes of the 1940s.
Escape in the Fog (1945)
A little atmosphere goes a long way
Fog was a frequently used device in the "B" thrillers of the 1930s and '40s. It was a way to disguise the cheap sets while adding an element of menace. In this low-budget tale of enemy agents on the dark, glistening streets of San Francisco, the fog is almost one of the stars.
Nina Foch plays a World War II military nurse whose dream about a murder allows her to anticipate the real-life actions of the bad guys. It was just a single dream -- never really explained -- and otherwise she has no psychic powers. (She can't detect a spy hiding a few feet from her.) She's also not particularly smart, though no dumber than the federal agents she helps.
The heroine's love interest, as well as the subject of her dream, is a a kind of G-Man played by William Wright. He and his boss, portrayed by Otto Kruger, are at work on a plan to boost the war effort against Japan. Unfortunately, Nazi agents have compromised U.S. security and are on the verge of foiling the plan and committing some mayhem. The dreamer comes in handy.
In some ways, this movie is less "patriotic" than you might expect. Unintentionally, it makes American home-front security in World War II look amateurish. Everybody seems awfully naive. Wright's character gets a lot of mileage out of the little badge he flashes to local authorities, but it looks like a prize out of a cereal box. Most people would probably ask for more ID, considering that the fate of the nation hangs on his being legit.
"Escape in the Fog" has its corny and improbable elements, like most such movies. But it's entertaining, and the cast is more than adequate. Foch is more vulnerable and appealing than in her later roles. Wright, who got his best breaks during the war years but died too young to make much of a career, does fine in a rather routine role. And it's nice to see Kruger, who often played icy Nazi sympathizers, as one of the good guys.
This movie came out very late in the war, when the Nazis were already done for and the Japanese were only weeks from defeat. It does seem odd that Germans instead of Japanese are shown working as spies for Tokyo. My wild guess is that Asian actors, many of whom were still getting parts in films about the Pacific War, were not available for the average inexpensive "B" mystery. In this picture, even "Chinatown" has very few non-Caucasians, which actually prompts a subtle quip from one of the villains.
McCloud: Lady on the Run (1975)
Good location scenery and a 'classic' twist
In this episode of "McCloud," the cowboy cop (played by Dennis Weaver) pursues an alleged murderer from New York to Mexico City. This fugitive happens to be a beautiful woman, and innocent to boot, so McCloud soon gets more personally involved than he had planned to be. Mariette Hartley plays the lady in question, and Clu Gulager plays the real killer, who must be unmasked and brought to justice to clear the lady's name.
It's fun to see McCloud in action outside the Big Apple. Being from New Mexico, the character knows Spanish and uses a lot of it in communicating with his Mexican hosts. That adds a touch of authenticity. Mexican tourist sites also play an important role in the action.
"McCloud" was usually less about classic mystery than about adventure and suspense. This episode is no exception. The audience knows the truth from the beginning, and the fun is in watching McCloud figure it out for himself.
I'll bet I'm not the first person to notice that this TV movie has clear echoes of the classic 1938 film "Trade Winds." I know that two movies about a man pursuing a female fugitive overseas are bound to be somewhat similar, and the story lines are mostly different. But too many of the distinctive little touches are the same. It's not a ripoff at all, but a kind of hidden homage that I really like. Watch both pictures from beginning to end and see if you agree with me.
The Delightful Rogue (1929)
An early talkie with some funny talk
Rod La Rocque and Rita La Roy. Did two co-stars' names ever go better together? I don't think so. And the title, "The Delightful Rogue," has that same l-and-r thing going on. It's all very euphonious.
But the movie itself is not so good.
This is an early sound film, and it will seem creaky and primitive to modern viewers. But that's not the real problem. No, the real problem is La Rocque's ridiculous accent.
In later films, when he spoke naturally, La Rocque sounded just fine, like the well-bred Midwesterner he was. But in this movie, he's trying to give us the voice of a Spanish pirate, the kind of character he previously played in silent movies. Unfortunately, no Spaniard ever sounded like this while speaking English . . . or while speaking Spanish. I doubt if anybody ever sounded like this. It's a unique way to speak.
In the comedy "The Girl From Jones Beach," Ronald Reagan played an American pretending to be a Czech immigrant. His accent was funny, but that was part of the plot. La Rocque's accent in this movie is both funnier than the one Reagan used and less authentic. It's hard not to laugh every time he opens his mouth.
La Rocque plays a buccaneer in the South Seas who gets control over two wealthy Americans who have a thing going on. Expressing his desire for the woman, he finds a way to test the love between her and her man. Pirates are often portrayed in fiction as sexual outlaws, and that's part of the message here, conveyed more frankly than Hollywood would have allowed a few years later. Still, the pace is slow, and nothing particularly racy happens on screen.
As the "woman in distress," La Roy is fairly convincing, at least compared to her male co-star. She has real sex appeal, with a fit body that made her a popular vaudeville dancer. (Both La Rocque and La Roy retired from films relatively early to pursue other interests.)
"The Delightful Rogue" has little to recommend it. But if you're one of those people who celebrate "International Talk Like a Pirate Day," check out La Rocque's effort. You've got to be better at it than he is.
Sadie McKee (1934)
More likable than you might expect
"Sadie McKee" was made just before Hollywood got serious about sanitizing its content, and the movie is set squarely in what we now call the pre-Code world. In this world, men are on the make, cops are on the take, rich people do pretty much as they please and prostitution is just another job option.
But while many other pre-Code film can leave you with a bleak feeling about human nature, this one is stocked with basically decent characters. Bribe-takers are just ordinary folks trying to get by. A clever seducer can't silence his own conscience. And when an aging, drunken millionaire orders up a young girl and takes her home for the night, the relationship quickly blossoms from exploitation into an odd kind of love.
Joan Crawford plays the title role, a plucky survivor whose ups and downs would have broken a lesser person. Gene Raymond, Franchot Tone and Edward Arnold play the three very different men in her life. The story is improbable at times, moving from flophouse to sleazy nightclub to mansion. But it's never gets so unrealistic that you stop caring. The ending is somewhat enigmatic, at least to me. I'm still wondering exactly where everyone stood at the end, and where things were headed. That's OK. I like a movie that leaves a little something nagging at you.
If the story is improbable, there's nothing unbelievable about how Joan Crawford's character turns men's heads. A lot of people still view Crawford through a "campy" lens, remembering her long years as a fading star with a lot of personal baggage (real and reputed). Forget all that stuff. In 1934 she was young and lithe and simply gorgeous. She carries this movie, and she carries it well.
The Last Time I Saw Archie (1961)
Truly a unique service comedy
Funny stories about con men in the military are nothing new, and this one seems especially implausible (even though it allegedly has some basis in truth). But that doesn't matter. Archie Hall is an unforgettable character, and the great Robert Mitchum brings him splendidly to life. For all the pros in the supporting cast, I'm not sure this quirky tale would even have worked without Mitchum.
Archie is a lowly GI serving on an obscure Stateside post during World War II. He and his pals feel the Army cheated them out of the plum assignments they deserved, but Archie doesn't waste his time complaining. Instead, with a mix of genius and audacity, he creates a splendid life for himself right where he is. Soon he's virtually running the camp.
The fast-talking Archie charms every beautiful woman in sight, including an enigmatic Japanese-American (played by France Nuyen) who may be involved in an espionage plot. His superiors are in awe of him and fall all over themselves to give him special privileges. And though his comrades in arms see through his games, and sometimes gripe about him, he's so successful that they can't resist jumping on his gravy train.
Jack Webb, who also produced and directed this film, plays the most strait-laced character in it, though not the self-righteous, uptight Webb usually seen on the screen. He plays Archie's buddy, Bill Bowers, who genuinely likes the con man but fears he's getting into something he can't talk his way out of. Thanks to Archie, Bowers finds his own love interest (played by Martha Hyer).
This movie has some laugh-out-loud moments but occasionally hits a serious note. It's neither as flag-waving as the military comedies of the 1940s nor as dark and anti-war as those of the '70s. It manages to be entertaining, moving and believable at the same time. For the believability, I give Mitchum the credit.
As many movie fans are aware, Bill Bowers and Arch Hall Sr. were real-life Army buddies who also happened to be in the film industry. When the movie came out, Hall disputed Bowers' recollections of their life in uniform. So how accurate this story is may never be known. And it's possible the main character was embellished, too. But even if the "Archie" we see here is mostly fictional, he's a great guy to spend a little time with.
Historically interesting, and still touching
This public service short, made to raise funds for Los Angeles charities, uses the two main characters from the enormously popular Andy Hardy film series. Here, as so often happened in the feature films, Andy (Mickey Rooney) gets a lesson from his father the judge (Lewis Stone) about doing the right thing.
In this particular case, Andy wants $200 to buy a car, but his father takes him on a tour of places that need the money more. While Andy and his dad stay in character throughout this little film, it dispenses with some fictional conventions. Judge Hardy notes that all the charities are in Los Angeles, "where Andy and I live," not the fictional small town of Carvel, where the movies are set. And an unseen narrator refers to Mickey Rooney, not Andy Hardy.
"Dilemma" offers an interesting look at how things have and have not changed in the United States. The narrator's portentous-sounding revelation about the many "Mexican, Gypsy or Chinese" youngsters in L.A. seems dated now, but it comes with a message of tolerance that was somewhat controversial in 1940 America. The scenes of disabled children in painful-looking medical contraptions are as moving today as they must have been then. And the visit to a home for unwed mothers, with its understated narration, is still powerful.
The kids we see here are part of the older generation now, if they are still alive. I hope this film did its part to make their lives better. Its message is timeless.
Act One (1963)
Good intentions, limited appeal
Playwright Moss Hart delighted readers with his bestselling memoir of his early career. But when producer Dore Schary turned the book into a script after Hart's death, something got lost. This is a bland movie. While people interested in the literary scene of the 1920s will surely enjoy watching it, there's not much to enthrall the average viewer.
George Hamilton plays the young Hart, a talented guy with big dreams and little money. His close-knit Jewish family inspires him to push on with his writing career, but his equally penniless friends can sometimes be more discouraging than supportive.
After many disappointments trying to market his plays, Hart gets a foot in the door when the famed George S. Kaufman agrees to collaborate with him. But Hart soon finds that writing as part of a team can be harder than working alone. Jason Robards Jr., as the maddeningly eccentric Kaufman, is the best part of this movie.
"Act One" is about a man's struggle to come up with a good story to tell, but the story it tells is disappointingly weak. Especially in the early portion, it seems more like a series of anecdotes than a narrative. That may be because the film was adapted from a memoir, but a better writer than Schary might have been able to make it flow better.
Besides Kaufman, there are lots of real historical personages portrayed in the film, such as writers Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott and actor Archie Leach, who would later become film star Cary Grant. But they come and go so fast that the effect is often more like name dropping than characterization. Some of them don't even have any lines. (Bert Convy does have a few lines as Leach, but he speaks them without a trace of a British accent.)
Despite its flaws, this picture will appeal to viewers who are really interested in the people and events depicted. Otherwise it's hard to recommend as entertainment. Though it gets considerably better, more intense, toward the end, I suspect that many people won't stay with it that long.
Mission Over Korea (1953)
Not a great war film but slightly unusual
This may have been the last Korean War picture filmed while the conflict was still going on, because it premiered just days after the war ended. But it's actually set at the very beginning of the war, which is sort of unusual. All the action takes place in the summer of 1950, a particularly desperate time for South Korea and for American forces.
History buffs and military enthusiasts should find this interesting, because it looks at what U.S. troops were up against at that critical moment. The "mission" in the title is survival, and the tone of the movie is often grim. The characters are not winning big battles but mostly just holding off the enemy, helping trapped units retreat and working to form a secure perimeter.
To add a bit of realism, there's footage of South Korean soldiers in combat, and there are scenes of black soldiers fighting alongside whites. (The Korean War was the first modern U.S. conflict without racial segregation in the ranks.) Such things were often ignored in Korean War films of the '50s.
John Hodiak and John Derek play U.S. pilots caught in the thick of things. Hodiak's character is a by-the-book captain, while Derek's is a brash young lieutenant, reckless and often insubordinate. The difficult relationship between them as they're tried in combat is the backbone of the story. It's not a great story, and to tell the truth, most of the characters are war movie stereotypes. Besides the two feuding officers, these walking clichés include a Korean orphan boy, a beautiful Army nurse (played by Audrey Totter) and two wisecracking but brave enlisted men.
This was one of Hodiak's last movies and his next-to-last war film. Like Van Johnson, he was unable to serve in World War II due to medical issues but looked so natural in uniform that he got typecast in movies of that period as a military man. But Hodiak, unlike Johnson, succumbed to his health problems at a young age and was not around long enough to get beyond the typecasting. It's too bad we never got to see his full range.
Lady in the Lake (1947)
An odd look, but a great voice
Robert Montgomery starred in and directed this quirky mystery based on Raymond Chandler's novel "The Lady in the Lake." The whole movie is seen through the eyes of private detective Philip Marlowe, and his face (Montgomery's face) is shown only occasionally, mostly as a reflection.
This is a clever approach but not very audience-friendly, or at least it wasn't with the limited technology of the 1940s. As a viewer, you're supposed to be part of the action, seeing things exactly as Marlowe would see them. But you're always aware that what's supposed to be a pair of curious eyes is just a swiveling camera. Everything seems slow and unreal.
Fortunately, Montgomery sounds exactly the way Marlowe should sound, with an insolent edge to his voice even at those rare times when he's not making a wisecrack. He essentially narrates this film, just as the character of Marlowe narrated the novels, and that's a big plus. There's plenty of crackling dialogue, too.
Screenwriters were always taking liberties with Raymond Chandler's convoluted plots. They had to. But it initially puzzled me that a novel set in midsummer should be turned into a movie set at Christmastime. I think I've figured out the answer.
One of the many plot points in the novel concerned a supposed drowning at a lakeside resort in the California mountains (the lady in the lake). Marlowe spent a good part of the book nosing around the resort, and Chandler's putting him in that bucolic setting was a refreshing change of pace from the previous novels.
But shooting scenes from Marlowe's point of view in the great outdoors would have been a chore. So while the screenplay retains the drowning incident, everything about it happens off-screen. The mountains are snowy and mostly deserted, so Marlowe barely even pays them a visit. The urban scenes from the book are emphasized instead. That's a pity.
I wish Montgomery had made another, more conventional Marlowe film. But this is all we've got. It's a sometimes enjoyable oddity.