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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.
Welcome Stranger (1947)
Sentimental comedy gets warmer as it goes along
Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, who scored a hit playing Catholic priests in "Going My Way," reunited a few years later in this tale of small-town doctors. I expected this to be just a secular version of the earlier film. In a way it is, but it starts out considerably darker.
Crosby's character, a free-spirited young physician named Jim Pearson, is pretty much like the priest he once played, except that this guy has an eye for the ladies. Pearson is easygoing, quick with a quip and blessed with a great singing voice.
But Fitzgerald's character, Dr. Joe McRory, is a less likable version of the crusty old priest he portrayed earlier. At least at the beginning of the film, McRory is not just eccentric and cantankerous, he's moody and sometimes downright mean.
Early on, Pearson heads to the little community of Fallbridge, Maine, to assist McRory's practice. The two men meet accidentally without knowing each other's identities, and due to a series of trivial mix-ups, the old doctor develops a nasty grudge against the young stranger. McRory's insistence on quarreling at every turn is supposed to be funny, but it makes him seem almost unhinged.
The misunderstanding is soon resolved. But McRory, instead of laughing it off, tries to drive Pearson out of town, denouncing him as a quack and a scoundrel.
The prickly old doctor persuades the leading folks in Fallbridge to give Pearson the cold shoulder, too. Among these people is pretty schoolteacher/amateur nurse Trudy Mason (played by Joan Caulfield), who fights her obvious attraction to the newcomer by repeatedly insulting him.
None of this makes any sense, because young Dr. Pearson is always the soul of geniality. In fact, the attitude of the old doc and the town's elite is so illogical that you wonder how the hero will ever get through to them.
Fortunately, this is a Bing Crosby movie, with upbeat songs, contrived situations and gentle jests, some of them done with the proverbial wink at the audience. Eventually, the Crosby charm starts to work its magic on these stony New England hearts. Better late than never.
Some of the most memorable characters in this movie are the minor ones, the town's more marginal citizens who, unlike the establishment types, are friendly to Pearson from the start. Percy Kilbride is perfect as a cabdriver who likes to share his homespun philosophy. Frank Faylen plays the town journalist and town drunk, an interesting mix.
And Wanda Hendrix is totally convincing as a lonely, plain 13-year-old girl (the drunk's daughter) who develops a crush on the kindly young physician. It's hard to believe Hendrix was already 18 and on the threshold of the glamorous, sexy roles for which she's best remembered today. She was a better actress than I'd always thought.
Darker Than Amber (1970)
Confusing at times, but worth watching
Maybe this movie got chopped up a bit after its original release, as I've read, but it was not a model of clarity to begin with. By sheer chance, I saw it when it was having its world premiere in the summer of 1970, and I couldn't always follow what was going on.
I was a college student visiting downtown Miami for the first time when I noticed the marquee. I knew nothing about the "Travis McGee" character. The only reason I walked into the theater was because I had never seen a world premiere before.
I couldn't keep a handle on the plot, and I think that weakened the impact of the ending for me. Still, I was favorably impressed overall, because the action was so gritty and realistic. I especially liked the performances of Rod Taylor and William Smith, who were both well known to me. Their big fight scene was as memorable as everybody says.
Suzy Kendall, whom I had never heard of before, was easy on a young man's eyes. But her character was undefined. She seemed like a decorative jewel that men were willing to die for, and I never got a sense of her as a real person.
Since that afternoon so many years ago, I have had the pleasure of reading several Travis McGee novels. I like them very much. If I ever wind up seeing the movie again, maybe I'll understand it better.
Surprisingly solid "B" Western
The Lone Ranger and Tonto have a long, complex history on the screen, but Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels became forever identified with the roles thanks to the hugely popular "Lone Ranger" TV series, which ran from 1949 to 1957. That series inspired two full-length feature films, of which this is the second.
A stretched-out version of a typical "Lone Ranger" episode would have been unbearably cornball, but this movie avoids that trap. Shot in color at some beautiful desert locations, it has a reasonably intelligent plot, plus action that's a bit more adult (i.e. violent) than in the TV series. It even has a theme: prejudice against American Indians.
The story is about a series of killings of Indians by a gang known as the "Hooded Raiders." As in the TV series, the identities of the villains are clear to the audience fairly early, but in this movie their ultimate motive is not obvious at first. That allows the two heroes to do a bit of sleuthing, and the Lone Ranger gets a chance to doff his mask and don one of his trademark "disguises." (Even as a kid, I could see through these disguises easily, but the bad guys were always fooled.)
Considering that this film was intended mostly for youngsters, its treatment of racial prejudice is pretty powerful for the 1950s. Two of the characters are especially interesting -- a bigoted lawman who abuses the people he's supposed to protect, and a doctor who conceals his partial Indian heritage in an attempt to "pass" as white. The Hooded Raiders are probably meant to suggest the Ku Klux Klan, though they don't really wear their hoods that much. (Their lax attitude toward their disguises strains credibility at times, but it's a forgivable flaw.)
This is a better Western than I expected, and it's a fitting farewell for the Moore-Silverheels team. Though they later appeared in character for personal appearances and at least one commercial, this was the last time they played the Lone Ranger and Tonto in a real screen production.
To cap it all off, "The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold" has two of the great Hollywood beauties of the 1950s: Noreen Nash, as a wealthy schemer, and Lisa Montell, as an Indian maiden. For a lot of dads who were dragged to the theater in the 1950s, the sight of these two ladies must have been a pleasant surprise.