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Love in the Rough (1930)
Showcase for Benny Rubin
"Love in the Rough" is a cute little comedy-musical with a golf club setting, starring a callow Robert Montgomery (who sings and dances!). The first hour is quite winning, though the plot bogs down a bit in the latter reels. There is a nice visual fade at the very end, so keep watching. The film has a surprising immediacy since it was filmed open-air on a real golf course rather than being studio-bound. And it provides a nice portrait of innocent courtship (just holding hands is considered pretty erotic).
The film is really a showcase for the comic talents of Benny Rubin, who is hoodwinked into being Montgomery's caddy. A lot of movie history books state that Rubin could not find work in the movies after the early 30s because he looked "too Jewish". Probably what they really mean is that his stereotypical Yiddish character (God-given looks included) was offensive. Of course, Chico Marx, Henry Armetta, Mantan Moreland, etc., got away with coarse ethnic stereotypes for years, so maybe he was really offensive to the moguls. Anyway, he has plenty of entertaining shtick to display in this picture, the highlight being a hilarious Yiddish palaver with another Jewish caddy. He's also menaced by a crude Italian greenskeeper. The politically incorrect portrayals are trumped by Roscoe Ates's incredible take on stuttering. In this movie, he takes his "art" to the extreme (he even gets Young's character to catch the bug). The dancing much of it comedic is fine, especially an interlude by one Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker.
One thing that really gets my goat is the writers' obvious ignorance of golf. They think that yelling "fore" means to be quiet, and that if an opponent's golf ball is blocking your putt, you have to putt around it! The latter leads to the climax, where the hero cleverly finds a way to overcome the obstacle.
The Immoral Three (1975)
Another anti-masterpiece from Doris Wishman
This latter day entry in the "roughie" sub-genre is one of the final films from the prolific exploitation queen Doris Wishman, sometimes described as the female counterpart to Ed Wood.
Three sexy women, raised separately as orphans, are summoned to a funeral, where they learn that they are in fact sisters and that the dead woman was their mother. The latter had been a secret agent the notorious Double Agent 73 (a reference to Wishman's earlier "Chesty Morgan" flicks) who had been murdered in the line of duty. (The actress shown playing her in flashback bears very little resemblance to that formidably proportioned actress-stripper, especially at the bust level -- but of course, who could?). She had used her feminine wiles (if you know what I mean) to seduce and betray enemy agents, but was rather careless in executing this modus operandi the unwanted daughters being one of the job hazards. The executor of the will tells the girls that they can inherit a cool million each as long as they can track down their mother's killer within one calendar year. Plenty of absurd violence and nudity ensues.
Fans of her earlier work may be surprised at the relatively large budget Wishman must have had at her disposal for this one. It's in living colour, we actually see people's mouths move while they talk (though out-of-sync in most cases), and one of the sequences may actually have been filmed in Las Vegas (mixed with plenty of stock footage, of course). The women are better looking than usual two have voluptuous 50s- style exotic dancer proportions, but lithe "Sandy" wouldn't be out of place in a Playboy movie today (except for her obviously natural bust). Of course, the men are generally horrid probably investors getting in on the "action".
But don't be deterred the film shows all the earmarks (and other body parts) that we've come to cherish -- canned lounge music cues, crass set decoration (now in hideous day-glo colour!), closeups of feet, aimless scenes of cars driving and pedestrians walking, and most of all, a complete lack of logic in how the characters act. The women's threads are dropped at random, and they alternate between abruptly seducing some lucky(?) male passer-by and being sexually assaulted by others. The prop master uses a couple of covered card tables laid end-to-end for the coffin and a cardboard box for the back of a picture frame; another photo has a bra hastily drawn over the breasts of the protagonist with a black magic marker. When the girls are skinny dipping, one of them does a handstand in the water (all the better to reveal her assets), and judging by the wobbly pose and quick cutaway, the lifeguard probably had to drag her off the bottom of the pool a split second after the shot.
No matter how obvious it may seem to you who the culprit is, you'll never guess the denouement; it comes totally out of left field. A must for fans of bad movies everywhere.
The Pusher (1960)
Dreary drug-themed melodrama with good locations
This low-budget, independent picture's most significant point of interest is its writing pedigree -- it's based on a novel by hard-boiled favorite Ed McBain, with a screenplay by the best-selling novelist Harold Robbins. This contributes to a very schizophrenic result. The influence of the former is obvious in the police procedural framework, with some interesting shot-on-location scenes in Spanish Harlem and other NYC locales. The latter's heavy hand is apparent in the overblown melodramatic scenes which especially mar the last couple of reels.
The story concerns a police detective who, while investigating the apparent suicide of a young Puerto Rican heroin addict, discovers that his middle-class daughter is involved in the same underworld. The parallels/contrasts between the white-bread girl and the poverty stricken ethnic types gives this exposé its main social significance -- presaging similar scenes in much more accomplished films like "Traffic". But of course, the good-girl-gone-bad scenario was a staple of old-time exploitation pix way back in the days of silent movies and Dwain Esper.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers, though competent enough for the most part, really have no sense of style or tension, and the film just staggers monotonously from sequence to sequence. It only comes to life during the scenes with a feisty Latin cabaret dancer (the boy's sister), and in the character of the slick pusher who lures the girls into a life of addiction and takes advantage of them in his Playboy-style bachelor pad. Though the subject matter was probably sensational at the time, most modern viewers will find the dramatic scenes clichéd and unsubtle, and the action scenes clumsy. The jazzed-up version of "Billy Boy" that reverberates on the soundtrack is a futile attempt at hipness.
The director was a top-notch Hollywood editor, but this was his only session at the helm of a movie. Watch for some absurdly intense, method-style emoting by the young actors playing gang members.
Vigorous B-pic overcomes low budget
This obscurity is one of the stream of grungy B-movies with boisterous jazz scores and snazzy credit sequences that followed in the wake of iconoclastic A-pix like "Anatomy of a Murder" and "The Man with the Golden Arm". The credits, with a twisting, falling cut-out silhouette, are a pretty cool Saul Bass imitation, and the main title appears abruptly at the very end of the picture.
The story concerns a hot-shot teen who stumbles onto a mob execution in progress. The gangsters conveniently set him up as the fall guy. He spends most of the picture on the run from both the cops and a brutish hit man called "the Indian" while he tries to unravel the plot against him.
This seems to be a one-off independent production and the low budget shows. The sets are minimal (several scenes look like they were filmed in someone's basement), the low-key lighting harsh, and the day-for-night photography and post-sync dubbing are too obvious. Nonetheless, the filmmakers are canny enough to make this a very watchable film. The throbbing score and quick cutting keep up the pace, the acting is edgy and believable, and there's a good sense of visual composition with noirish shadows. Best of all, the story throws something sensational at us every ten minutes (my favorite bit being a cat-fight that breaks out incongruously in the middle of a mob sit-down).
It doesn't have the resonance of "Blast of Silence" or "Angel's Flight", but taken on its own terms, it's much more successful than one would expect.
Panama Flo (1932)
Calls a spade a spade
Here's one of those totally obscure but jaw-dropping precodes that pop up at 2 am every month or so on TCM. This one fits squarely in the Tropical Tramps sub-genre, a cousin to the Carole Lombard flick "White Woman", but with an even rawer atmosphere.
RKO's cutie-pie sob-sister Helen Twelvetrees is surprisingly cast as a cabaret dancer in a sleazy Panama saloon. The old crone who runs the joint (Maude Eburne, in a wonderfully grotesque characterization) announces that she can no longer pay her dancers or supply them with promised tickets back home. But she invites them to hang around the club anyway and make money off the customers any way they please. Our heroine reluctantly helps relieve a two-fisted, hard-drinking oil man (Charles Bickford) of his wad of cash by slipping him a mickey, but he gets wise. Rather than do time in the nightmarish local hoosegow, she agrees to be Bickford's "housekeeper" in his shack in the croc-infested Venezuela jungle. Eventually, an aviator ex-boyfriend (Robert G Armstrong) shows up, and the testosterone flies like spit in a bullpen. The finale is quite a curve ball.
There's great slangy patter, lots of innuendo, and some very seedy sets. The principals play it full-throttle, and though it's definitely not great art, it shows what realities Hollywood could vigorously grapple with before the Code. Apparently, contemporary critics mocked the picture for its unbelievable shifts of character, but I'd say that this very unpredictability helps give it a modern edginess. Don't miss it when it turns up again. Remade by the studio as "Panama Lady" with (wait for it...) Lucille Ball in the title role (and she's surprisingly good).
Sworn Enemy (1936)
Mainly routine, but keep watching till the end
For the most part, this is a competently made (great sets, and the editing is particularly crisp) but uninspired melodrama about a steadfast Average Joe standing up to the racketeers who have wronged him. But I have some advice -- don't give up on it too soon (as I nearly did).
The opening 50 minutes are pretty much seen-it-all-before, middle-of-the road MGM stuff, but suddenly in the last reel things perk up immensely. First, we have a beautifully designed and psychologically poignant scene explaining the chief villain's desire to back an up-and-coming fighter. This is followed by the movie's real knock-out punch -- Florence Rice, up to this point the stereotypical pretty-and-loyal girlfriend, agrees to help infiltrate the mob by auditioning as a chorus girl at their club. She adopts the guise of a sexy champagne-swilling dame keen on seducing the crime boss. Although she expresses slight reluctance at first, one surmises that she secretly revels in being such hot stuff in her sexy new togs. Soon, a couple of sips of bubbly have her diving into her role so enthusiastically that the sequence is absolutely jaw-dropping (she flashes a lot more cleavage and leg than you would expect in a post-code movie.) These two scenes turn the movie on its ear, revealing a fascinating subtext of perversity and hidden desire.
Afterwards, the action climax is hurried and sloppy, but it uses a plot device that would later turn up to much more nerve-wracking effect in an Anthony Mann noir.
Murder in the Private Car (1934)
Top-notch railway-set second feature
This is a fast-paced and highly enjoyable comedy-thriller from the MGM B-movie mill. The plot concerns a pretty switchboard operator who discovers that she is the long-lost daughter of a wealthy industrialist. On a cross-country train trip to visit him, a mysterious villain threatens her and her entourage with murder through messages and the occasional disembodied voice.
The first two-thirds of the movie are played mainly for laughs, with sharp, witty dialog and goofy situations. This leads to a frantic no-holds-barred climax as a runaway railway car hurtles down a mountain line, narrowly missing speeding trains coming its way.
Charlie Ruggles creates another wonderfully eccentric character, a "deflector" -- something like a detective, but instead of solving crimes he uses his savvy to prevent them from occurring. He mangles many an old aphorism, and has some terrific exchanges with the equally incisive Una Merkel. He even gets to interact with some circus animals in amusing fashion. Pre-code buffs will enjoy some of the subtly racy asides (listen for Ruggles' full name, for instance), but modern viewers may be dismayed by the racially insensitive material to which "Snowflake" is subjected as the frightened porter (he has a larger role than usual, and certainly plays the demeaning stereotype with aplomb).
Definitely worth an hour of any buff's time, and a "keeper" for railway aficionados.
Heat Lightning (1934)
Strong B-picture with precode interest
A fine example of minimalist film-making, this Warners B-pic offers a proto-feminist scenario delivered with some swell precode attitude. Two sisters (one world-weary, the other innocent) run a service-station-cum-caravansary on an isolated desert highway. Every passerby kids them about how dull and lonely this existence must be, but in the space of one night they serve host to a pair of criminals on the run, a couple of gold-diggers on the way back from Reno with their swag (and with a wise-guy chauffeur), plus a large family of Mexicans on the way to a fiesta.
The main thrust of the film is melodramatic, as even in their isolation the women cannot avoid mistreatment by treacherous men. However, it's also filled with neat little comic bits and clever wisecracks. Director Mervyn Le Roy creates plenty of atmosphere with few resources, and the cheap-jack desert-palms backdrop (with the Mexican father tenderly serenading his family in the background) sticks in the memory. Le Roy uses an almost slow-motion tracking shot to great effect to show the hallucinatory influence of an ex-lover on the older sister as he intrudes into this sweaty environment. And it's pretty clear that there's a lot of casual sleeping around going on -- a lot of the jokes and situations probably wouldn't have survived the censors if this were a more prominent picture (and definitely not a year later). But the picture never flaunts its raciness -- sex is just part of the fabric of life.
Though consistently enjoyable, the movie never builds up enough intensity to be classed with the immortal second features like Detour (though the climax does pack a punch). Surprisingly, the two leads never really click. Aline MacMahon and Ann Dvorak were always marvelously idiosyncratic in supporting roles, but here the former's baroque style seems overdone for the milieu, and the latter doesn't have much opportunity to vent her repressed passion (maybe the censor trimmed that bit). Overall, though, the performances from the many familiar faces are excellent, my particular favorite occurring in the opening scene featuring Edgar Kennedy as the henpecked spouse of Jane Darwell.
Definitely worth seeking out for aficionados (but hard to find). Some might compare it to The Petrified Forest, but it gives me a bit of an offbeat Shack Out on 101 vibe, too.
I Loved You Wednesday (1933)
Stylish pre-code romance
This is a rarely-seen but stylish light melodrama from Fox Studios about a globetrotting romantic triangle. The title is derived, appropriately enough, from a poem by sophisticated jazz-age poet Edna St. Vincent Millay -- a poem that speaks of the transience (rather than transcendence) of love.
In Paris, a beautiful young American ballet dancer is involved with an American architectural student (they appear to be sharing living quarters). When she discovers that he has a stateside wife, she hightails it to South America and pairs up with a U.S. engineer. A few years later, they are back in New York when the ex-lover appears out of the blue.
The plot is run-of-the mill and unconvincing, but it's the sophisticated pre-code attitude towards male-female relationships (not unlike "The Common Law") and the fascinating look at early 30s social mores that make the movie worthwhile. There are neat throw-away incidents and comic turns, some clever visual transitions and wonderful set design from co-director William Cameron Menzies. This is particularly true in a bizarre futuristic dance number which features sinewy soldiers in ancient-Egyptian-like gear abducting skimpily-clad dancing girls. There's also a rather jarring sequence set at the construction site of Boulder Dam which is almost ruined by some abysmal back projection.
Elissa Landi, showing off her long limbs, is ethereal as always but lends little depth to the pivotal role. Warner Baxter is his usual masculine self; but the acting honours go to the underrated Victor Jory as the caddish ex-lover, and Miriam Jordan as his sardonic high-society wife. Mischa Auer makes a welcome cameo appearance.
idiosyncratic, creative sex & violence
"Joe Caligula" was banned for several years in France, not for its sexual content (which is mild), but for its violence. It makes an interesting bridge between two revolutionary films of the Sixties, the ultra-stylized A Bout de soufflé (Benazeraf was sometimes called the "poor man's Godard") and ultra-violent Bonnie and Clyde (remember that the authors originally wanted Godard or Truffaut to direct). It obviously has a higher budget than Benazeraf's earlier crime flicks, and has a more mainstream look without sacrificing (for better or worse) his raw eccentricities.
A brash young gang of hoods is knocking over jewelry shops, gas stations and road houses, causing conflict with the established criminal organization. The gang is led by an amoral, image-conscious hipster who may have a thing for his gorgeous sister (à la Scarface) and vice versa. This all leads to reprisals that escalate in brutality.
All the director's trademarks are present -- thoughtful compositions against desolate backgrounds, actors self-consciously posed like Hollywood archetypes, beautiful but treacherous women draped around their macho psychotic men, Crazy-Horse saloon stripteases and a good cat-fight, wonderful jazz/blues/60s-pop tracks, and witty in-jokes for culture demons. Also, a lot of people getting in and out of cars, clumsy continuity, arch (often risible) dialog and zombie-like acting which only add to the formal distancing (not unlike Jean Rollin's modus operandi). What makes this one stand out from the pack is the meticulously planned use of creative violence (even though there was evidence of cutting in the print I saw.) Recommended mainly for specialists looking for something offbeat and personal.