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Pay or Die! (1960)
The "Italian-American" Sherlock Holmes
As I am writing this, it's star, Mr. Ernest Borgnine, has just received a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild, and is still an active performer in his mid-nineties. With his Oscar for MARTY, and his performances in films like FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, THE CATERED AFFAIR, THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE WILD BUNCH, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE, and numerous other titles (and a stint as Lt. Quinton McHale on television) it has been a long and varied and distinguished career - far worthier than the shocked dismissal he received when he got that Oscar. Congratulations Mr. Borgnine.
Definitely one of his high points was this 1960 crime film/biography on the career of the detective on the New York Police force, Lt. Joseph Petrosino. Joe Petrosino is the perfect answer to bigots who only see Italian Americans as linked to crime by being criminals. In fact he was determined to eradicate those very criminals who were preying on the hard working Italian Americans in the United States. And he came damn close to doing so Petrosino made the Black Hand a personal study to the point that he was THE expert on it. He kept up pressure on the mob and undid much of their damage on the Italian-American community. But not all of it - it was too well organized for only this one man to fight. In 1909 he had a bright idea of traveling to Sicily and tracing the leadership of the mob to it's root. Brilliant in concept it was fool-hearty in actual practice. Petrosino was shot to death in Palermo.
The killer was never tried and convicted, and it looks like Petrosino (in following his information) may have been set up.
This version with Mr. Borgnine is pretty close to the actual story of the extortion/murder gang of the BLACK HAND and the Lieutenant's fight against them. And it does go to the tragic conclusion...which is handled so well that repeated watchings make one feel that maybe this time Borgnine will escape. Of course it does not (and sadly could not) happen.
He is recalled for his bravery and struggle and his murder by New York's finest and the people he tried to protect. As for the mob boss in Sicily - he did not quite escape his deserved fate. A more evil man, Mussolini, did not like the mob because they were setting up a rival power group to his. The mob boss was arrested in the late 1920s and found guilty of some criminal charges requiring imprisonment. He was put into a dungeon like prison on an island near the mainland. During World War II Il Duce ordered the prison be abandoned and it's staff and prisoners taken to mainland prisons...except this boss. He was left abandoned and locked up, and either was killed in some Allied bombing or starved to death.
My Bonnie Jean
"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" is on the surface the story of a woman who is too romantic for her own good. And unfortunately she is a teacher at a girl's school in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1936, and she does not realize how popular and dangerous she is.
Maggie Smith (who won her first of two Oscars for this performance) plays the part with a verve and style a real Jean Brodie would appreciate, and though Smith was a young woman at the time she also carries an additional burden of the character - not only is Jean a beautiful and enticing woman, but she is getting older and is worried about losing that critical edge in matters of sex that such types fear.
She is having affairs with the school's art teacher (Robert Stephens) and another teacher (Gordon Jackson - later "Hudson" in "Upstairs, Downstairs"). Both men want her to marry them, but she is too flirty (she'd say independent) to do so. None of this sits well with the prim head of the school (Celia Johnson - the sad heroine in the classic "Brief Encounter"). It also does not sit well with Ms Johnson that Brodie has developed a minor cult of personality with those girls who have her as a teacher. She constantly refers to the students as "her gails", and boasts she transforms them into young women by opening up their minds.
Actually she does open them (to appreciating art, life, love - she encourages them to "experiment" with men), but she is closing them to modern realities. Like many people in Great Britain in the 1930s (like George Bernard Shaw for awhile) she appreciates the firm "let's get things done" attitudes of Fascists on the continent like Mussolini and Franco (she does not mention Hitler, however). She believes them far more superior than the seemingly drab upholders of constitutional government like Stanley Baldwin (the current Prime Minister in 1936) or Ramsay MacDonald (the previous one). That the latter two, in the long run, did less harm than her heroes did is something she never gets a chance to talk about.*
[*In the novel and in a longer television version on Masterpiece Theater back in the 1980s, Jean does get her view thrown into her face - a refugee from the continent is invited to tell about how wonderful the Fascist "revival" is there, and the young woman gives Jean and her students an angry earful about how wonderful these leaders really are!]
She does have a bad affect on one chubby, somewhat slow girl named Mary MacGregor. Mary is convinced to run off to Spain to fight with her brother. But Mary happens to join Franco's side and is killed. Her brother was fighting Franco.
Johnson, in the end, is assisted by her school spies (one is a silent, wormy little woman whose brother is a local Presbyterian church elder), and by one of the girls who seems to come to her senses. In the end Jean is forced to leave the school, and confronts the girl who turned on her, whom she labels an assassin.
Actually the event are a little complicated here. The girl is having an affair with Robert Stephens, and sees he still carries his torch for Brodie. Fed up she is determined to get her vengeance on Brodie, and she tells Stephens why he will always be a third-rate painter. She is triumphant over Brodie, but she is aware that her character has been shown to be selfish and sneaky, and will never change. Johnson does get rid of Brodie, but has to be truly under-handed to do so. And Brodie, for all the shame of being forced out by these two still has her own sense of self-worth, comparing herself at the end to her ancestor Deacon William Brodie, the Edinburgh carpenter, cleric, and town councilor who was also a burglar at night, and was hung publicly on a gallows he had constructed.** Brodie might be down for the count as the film ends, but she will survive. Possibly better than her assassin will.
[**Deacon Brodie's story is better known to most people than we think. Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Tale of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde" was based on this tale.]
Those Forever Echoing Shots From that Hunting Lodge
History is so full of questions - what if such and such occurred, or if so and so had lived and not died, or if the weather had not been so bad on the date in question. There are all over the place, and Franklin Roosevelt dismissed this as "iffy" history. But people have hopes, dreams, and imaginations. Sometimes these run away with them.
On January 30, 1889 Crown Prince Rudolf Von Hapsburg of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was in his hunting lodge at Mayerling with his mistress Baroness Marie Vetsera. Rudolf was married to Stephanie, sister of King Leopold II of Belgium. They had a daughter, but were unable to have other children - such as a male child (Austria had a male only rule about its Emperors since the death of Maria Theresa, a co-ruler with her husband and later her son in the 18th Century). Rudolf therefore did not care about how his open affair with the Baroness affected his despised wife. However, the Vetseras were nouveau rich minor aristocracy, and it displeased the Emperor Franz Josef and the Empress Elisabeth ("Sisi"). The Emperor and his Prime Minister, Count Taafe, also wanted Rudolf to be more active in pursuing his regular duties at court and in the empire.
Rudolf was considered more liberal than the Emperor by many people. He may have been approached about taking the leadership of a separation movement from Hungary as potential King, but if he did nothing came of it.
That January day a shot rang out in the middle of the night. Some equerries ran to Rudolf's room but he answered the door and said nothing was wrong. Then, about six hours later, a second shot rang out. This time Rudolf was found with the top of his head blown off. Marie was dead from a shot in the skull too, but she was on her bed.
Mayerling (it helps that the scene of the tragedy sounds poetic) has been the subject of several films and television shows and many books. This writer uses the name as his nom-de-plume on another website. There is a fascination with that tragedy - one can see it as that of two young people who died rather than give each other up due to a demanding father. One can see it as the end of the hopes of liberalism in the old Austro-Hungarian Emprire. One even has a sense of the richness of the royal families of Europe in 1889 by the setting in that lodge. It is open to so many interpretations or feelings.
The 1936 film with Danielle Darrieux and Charles Boyer is the better version, but this 1968 version with Catherine Deneuve and Omar Sharif is actually quite good. It takes the view that Rudolf was a potential reformer and liberal, and that the reactionaries spurred on the events that led to the deaths. Franz Josef (James Mason) is shown hand-in-glove with the reactionaries (even screaming about Rudolf's friendliness with Jews), and not sympathetic about the need his son might have for Maria's companionship (given the really unlikeable Stephanie). Rudolf tries to make a deal - as an inspector general for the army checking out army weaponry and maneuvers. But nobody pays attention to him. The result is a total collapse of spirit leading to his suicide pact.
He does try to escape with Maria. Bertie, Prince of Wales (James Robertson Justice) is visiting - can Rudolf and Maria flee to England for diplomatic immunity? But Bertie knows the drill - when you are finished enjoying yourself go back home to the wife and mother (Alexandra and Victoria). He also knows that the brouhaha of giving shelter to Rudolf and his mistress would not sit well with Lord Salisbury's government, or the government of Germany (Austria's ally) under Otto Von Bismarck.
So the film ends with that final suicide, although to enhance the romance the dying Rudolf grabs the hand of his dead lover as a last snub at his father.
Was it like that? My romantic side wishes it was. But the evidence shows Rudolf was a weakling, who played with liberalism but really did not believe in it. Franz Josef (a hard working monarch, with his own side-friendship with actress Katherine Schratt) always mourned his wayward son, but he was ashamed of Rudolf's cowardice - what always bothered the old emperor was that Rudolf took six hours to turn his pistol on himself after shooting Maria. He could not make up his mind of doing the honorable thing (completing the suicide pact) or fleeing. Rudolf was a coward to the end.
Of Mice and Men (1939)
Lon Jr.'s best role
It was the misfortune of Lon Chaney Jr. that he had the historical film name he did. Being the son of the great silent film star associated with so many horror films, Lon Jr. might have escaped the pull of that reputation had his father lived really into the sound period. When Lon Sr. did his sole sound film in 1930 his film voice showed he could have handled the switch to sound. But he was dying (ironically) of throat cancer, and left the scene soon after. Had he lived he would have been used in many types of films, but many would have been the same type of horror films he was known for. Instead, his son inherited a great name and also the inevitable lure of those horror films.
He's not bad in them. For example, if he had not made OF MICE AND MEN he would have been best recalled for THE WOLFMAN ( as the doomed hero. He also was in horror films that have cult status, like MAN MADE MONSTER with Lionel Atwill. But he was forced to do many crappy films. Later films showed the fine actor he really was - most notably his ailing, old sheriff who just is too old to help Gary Cooper in HIGH NOON, and his determined good guy who thwarts racist Claude Atkins from turning in Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in THE DEFIANT ONES, but they were too few to keep him from being recalled as another horror actor.
Lenny Small is then his signature role - simple minded and so strong he does not know his own strength. Twice in the film he demonstrates this by his killing of the puppy he gets from Slim (Charles Bickford), and his killing of Curly's flirty wife Mae (Betty Field). Both times he kills by accident: he thought he was just showing the puppy who was master, and he kills Mae to keep her quiet (not wanting to set off a chain reaction that - ironically - he does still set off).
John Steinbeck is in that select group of early to mid-century writers (with Eugene O'Neill, Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway - but for some reason not F. Scott Fitzgerald) who managed to win and deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature. Steinbeck's novels have been translated to the screen frequently. At least two of Steinbeck's best tales (the present one and THE GRAPES OF WRATH) were made into truly classic films, with a third one worthy of viewing as part of the James Dean legend (EAST OF EDEN). Most American students first come to him when they read OF MICE AND MEN. It is a good start for the novella is a complex development of the tragedy hinted at in the source of the title - the Robert Burns' poem TO A MOUSE.
George (Burgess Meredith) and Lenny have been migrant workers together for years. Cousins, George used to play jokes on Lenny, but when he saved his life (in a joke that backfired) he changes and takes care of the slow-witted giant. They dream of owning a small farm of their own, where they are not at the beck and call of other bosses. Lenny also hopes to raise little rabbits and have puppies as well. But Lenny inevitably causes some incident at each site that causes them either to be fired or to flee some mob or posse (the film is set in the 1930s, but the rural nature of the background makes it like a western). When they find themselves at the current ranch Slim and the other men welcome them, as does the owner. But the owner's son Curly (Bob Steele) is perpetually trying to prove himself by acting belligerently (except to tall, intelligent people like Slim). His wife Mae is bored and slightly flirty, and this gives Curly his perpetual suspicion of all the men on the ranch.
George therefore has his hands full trying to keep Lenny quiet and trying to keep Mae from coming onto his cousin. George has set a goal of saving $600.00 to buy a small farm, but has to keep the jobs he and Lenny got for several months to save up. However an old hand at the ranch named Candy agrees to go in with them, and they now only need a little over two hundred dollars. But their scheme (like that of the mouse in Burns' poem) is bound to go agley due to the death of Mae by Lenny.
Actually it is not the only scheme. Mae wants to get away from her mother and marries Curly (who she dislikes). She also wanted a Hollywood career, which she never gets. Curly wants to dominate the men with fear, and ends up with a crushed hand and a dead wife who never loved him. Crooky, the African-American farmhand, can't even get equality with his fellow white workers - he lives segregated in a room near a dung pile.
There are many fine set pieces here - the stupid fight that Curly picks with Lenny, that ends with the giant crushing his hand; the comparison of the camaraderie of the hands' dinner with that of Mae, Curly, and Curly's father (the latter has two males concentrating on their meal, while a bored Mae toys with her own); and possibly the two most poignant - the killing of Candy's old, dying dog by Doc, with the hands aware of what is going to happen but sitting around trying to forget it (the gunshot from outside reminds one that director Lewis Milestone had done similar work earlier in the decade in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT), and the dreadfully sad "execution" scene - with George trying to make Lenny as happy as possible in his last moments. OF MICE AND MEN was a powerful story in 1939, and remains so to this day.
A Mighty Wind (2003)
Actually a Comedy that has a Charm of its Own.
A MIGHTY WIND is not a simple sequel to the earlier comedy spoof THIS IS SPINAL TAP. There was nothing in that film that was really moving (the death of the drummers in the band became an occupational hazard after awhile). Instead, A MIGHTY WIND is a bittersweet film about the passing of a briefly appreciated musical trend, but more important the tragedy of two of that trends celebrities in the failure of their marriage. For the marriage of Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara) becomes the centerpiece of our attention by the last third of the film.
The up-beat small town Americana personified in the music of the three groups is not totally dead. One can hear people strumming 1960s kitch even today. But it was supposed to be a tonic to the rock and roll and protest songs of the 50s to the 70s. It just did not have the staying power of those songs. One of the ironies of the film is that Michael McKeon's group is spoofing "The Weavers", but that group (led by Pete Seeger) transcended this kind of music and ended up leading the vanguard of the anti-war protests of the 1960s. When McKeon is approached about a song concerning an incident in the Spanish Civil War that his two partners are not afraid to sing he looks rather put out - he just doesn't think it's their type of music.
The key to this film's difference from SPINAL TAP is that the numbers are actually just this side of good. One can hear all of them without being turned off by them seeming so naive. This is particularly true of Mitch and Mickey's number regarding the kiss at the end of the rainbow. It actually is moving as sung by them, and (in it's first performance) they did a kiss. It becomes their signature song. But the love that led to their marriage (a love on Levy's part that got him badly beaten defending O'Hara when she was insulted) does not last. Levy's Mitch has a mental problem, and the two divorced. But O'Hara's Mickey always was concerned about him - even after she had a successful second marriage. When he briefly vanishes just before they go on (he went out for some air and to get her a flower) she becomes hysterical thinking he may have gotten hurt. They do the kiss again for the live audience, but it is obvious that they really wanted to. But once they do they revert because they don't want to give each other the wrong signal.
That business gives a heart to the film totally missing from SPINAL TAP. This does not mean the comedy is not funny - it is on target. The interviews that reveal too much about the people being interviewed. The behavior of the dead impresario's older son who is concerned about whether flower arrangements at Town Hall may lead people to fatally injure themselves tripping over the dangling flowers, or that they will be confused by stage decorations mingling painted banjos that look like they are three dimensional next to real street lamps. The head of Town Hall showing the acoustics by singing "Ave Maria" badly. The belief of two of the singers in some reality involving color and levels of sound. The television network honcho (Ed Begley Jr.) who is Swedish, boasts of some obscure song he wrote that was big on Stockholm song charts years ago, and uses Yiddish words as a kind of proof of his being a producer. It is a wonderful movie, and superior (I feel) for that degree of sadness it reveal in the lives of two star-crossed lovers.
Ask a Policeman (1939)
Another Find on You Tube to be Enjoyed
In the 1930s the comedy teams that enjoyed the most popularity in the U.S and possibly England were the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy, especially as Stan Laurel was a British citizen by birth. But the English could point to their own master trio of comedians who made over six films together: Will Hay, Moore Marriott, and Graham Moffatt. Hay has been compared to Groucho Marx as both are the "authority figures" who ooze incompetence (but are sharp anyway). There the similarities really end - Marriott always played Harbottle, and aged, toothless man who really does not fit as the counterpart of Chico, and Moffatt is the fat young man who is actually sharper than Hay but moves to his own speed and agenda. Here, when confronted with a furious chief constable for the county that the three are policemen in, Moffatt finds his girlfriend is ready for a night at the pictures and politely wishes the angry official a good night while he takes her out. Harpo might have done something like that but faster and without words.
Hay, as Chief Dudfoot, has just got national attention for having the best record for over a decade of no crime being committed in his township. Unfortunately this is not due to diligence but to slackness and even some dishonesty (as he denies any poaching in his district we see Marriott and Moffatt passing with some dead birds and guns by the open window in the background). However, except for some blundering by the three with the printed script the BBC gave Hay, and some nearly too true comments by Marriott, the radio broadcast is a success. Even some local worthies, such as the local squire are there to share in the moment. Then the broadcast is ended suddenly.
Unfortunately the broadcast has brought the situation of how the police under Hay have really worked to the Chief Constable. He figures that it just does not make sense that absolutely no crime has been committed in the last decade. He sends a warning of a surprise visit. Naturally Hay and his deputies decide to do something to show they are doing their job - setting up a speed trap. Of course they really do not know anything about speed traps, and allow one young man to leave who lacked his driver's license or car insurance information (he never even got insured), while the second person they catch (and knock out) is...yes, the Chief Constable.
The film follows the foredoomed attempts by Hay, Marriott, and Moffatt to get something accomplished - in this case trying to look like they are succeeding in tracking down local smugglers. But they keep running into all sorts of problems concerning a mysterious beacon light (that looks like it was located at the roof of their police station), and a ghostlike hearse driven by a headless horseman (Desmond Llewellen, later to be "Q" in the first James Bond films, actually is the headless horseman but another actor is supposed to be the horseman later on). One of the best moments is when Hay learns from Marriott of an old rhyme about a smugglers' cave. Hay has to ask the father of Marriott (he looks so old Hay tells him not to worry about Balaclava!) what the last line is, and hears one of the most ridiculous concluding lines of a four line piece of poetry ever spoken.
There are other gems. Looking in old record books for some crime to create a crime wave with Hay reads about one poor soul who stole one sheep and was drawn and quartered two centuries before. Then he reads of a contemporary who threw his shrew of a wife over a cliff and killed her. He got fined four pence.
The fun continues to an end where the chase ends at a car testing track with a truck full of contraband pursued by a bus full of people (don't ask) and then the Chief Constable and his men in patrol cars. Even when the cars stop running the chase is left continuing as the film ends. Somehow it is fitting.
They Met in Bombay (1941)
Good director, grand cast, wobbly script, mediocre results
I am certain that THEY MET IN BOMBAY must have done well with the U.S. and British Commonwealth states (possibly India excepted) in 1941. The last half hour must have struck many a patriotic heart in these countries against a supposedly bloodthirsty and sneaky foe. But if analyzed it does not fully work. It tries to do too much, and the results show it.
Jessie Ralph is a Duchess who has a famous jewel, and Gable and Russell are jewel thieves, who are after the jewel by themselves. As a result of two separate schemes they manage to keep derailing each other's plans. Finally they decide to work together and steal the jewel, but they are being pursued by a Scotland Yard Inspector. They get aboard a freighter captained by Peter Lorre as a Chinese seaman. Lorre soon realizes they are not two innocents and they pay him to let them off the freighter before the ship arrives in port. But he contacts the authorities and says they are on his boat. Gable figures out there will be a double cross, and he and Russell steal a boat and get ashore just as Lorre is allowing the inspector on board.
Up to a point the film has a positive momentum (the director, Clarence Brown, does not really lose much time with his actors. But now a bit of script padding occurs which only barely makes sense. Gable reads in a local newspaper that a merchant is being investigated for corruption in selling grain to the British army. He is able to steal a Captain's uniform (his character was in the Canadian Army) and gets a new uniform to wear that fits him. He proceeds to commandeer British soldiers, go to the offices of the merchant, and plunder him of a box of money. So far the character of Gable's role is maintained. But now he finds he is ordered to report to the office of the local General (Reginald Owen) for sudden orders. An emergency to rescue British nationals and some Chinese (who requested asylum from some territory the Japanese army has been advancing in) requires all the British military to this rapidly deteriorating situation. Gable tries to get out of it, only to be brought up sharply by Owens that there is no exception to the orders.
I won't go into this side trip (brining the still scheming Gable into confrontation with the Japanese officer in charge (Philip Ahn)). The result is that Gable manages to present the military with a problem and finds himself the center of unwanted publicity. The film ends happily for Gable and Russell, but it has a conclusion that was only possible in the make-believe of Hollywood in 1940 regarding the British Empire and the Sino-Japanese War of that day (Britain and Japan did not go to war until December 7, 1941, the same day that they went to war with the U.S. - the equivalent to Pearl Harbor was the attack on Singapore and the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse).
The cast is perfect, and not lethargic (as they should be with a questionable script like this). Brown (a good technical director) did not make a single mistake. That part of the forced plot is a variant of the old "Koepenick" Incident in Germany in 1906 (see the film THE CAPTAIN FROM KOEPENICK with Albert Basserman) where a convict, to get out of Germany, dressed up like a Captain and commandeered soldiers to bully his way around a town by his competent seeming swagger, does not seem to be avoidable. That the original story line got derailed unpardonably is too true to ignore. That the image of cruel Japanese soldiers just hit the patriotic nerves at a perfect time is also true. Those audiences must have cheered Gable in that sequence.
It was not a washout film - one can enjoy all the fine actors going through their paces. But it is not a well made film. Still it gets six stars for cast and director.
Nothing But the Truth (1941)
Creaky plot idea, that still works oddly enough
If you saw LIAR LIAR with Jim Carey a couple of years ago, you saw a variant on this movie's central premise: We are so jaded in society that we are willing to accept lying as second nature, and will lie to smooth over social relations and business relations. As long as the lie is not uncovered it is accepted. John Ford said it on a more serious basis in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE: If you have a choice between printing the colorful legend or the bare bones truth, print the legend.
Bob Hope works at a stock brokerage house owned by Edward Arnold, alongside Gleen Anders (Arnold's somewhat straying son-in-law) and Leif Ericson. Paulette Goddard, a niece of Arnold, gets him to promise to pay up to $20,000.00 to make up the balance of $40,000.00 needed for a charity that is building an old people's home. Goddard has promised this to the head of the charity, Grant Mitchell. She has $10,000.00 of the collected money of the charity, but Arnold will fully match the $20,000.00 if Goddard invests her $10,000.00 in a "sure thing" that will double the investment quickly.
Arnold has no intention of this altruism. He know Goddard gave Hope the money to invest, and with Strange and Ericson they bet $10,000.00 together against this $10,000.00 that Goddard gave Hope if for 24 hours the latter will only speak the truth.
The plot shows the pitfalls such a bet entails. Hope constantly is put on the spot by Arnold and company, asking embarrassing questions in private or at a dinner party he has to attend. And he keeps on having to make insulting revelations to people. They hope that Hope will give in and lie, but he is determined to see it through. Of course some of this backfires: Arnold is pushing a dubious mining venture, and when a would-be investor asks Hope's opinion the latter refuses to support the idea of investing in the company. Anders has been playing around with an actress pushing a play, and has to cover up by his own lying when Hope may be asked the truth by Anders' wife about Anders and the actress. And Goddard has to hope that Hope does not reveal anything to Mitchell about the investment of the $10,000.00 before 4 P.M the next day.
The idiocy of such plots always is that the hero or heroine caught in them does not insist on his/her right to tell everyone about the bet. If that was allowed, everyone would be circumspect about what they ask that person. Instead the hero/heroine has to act stupidly for the entire story until the deadline is reached.
Yet it is an amusing plot all the same (as Carey's film demonstrated). We do depend, despite our best wishes, on lying to get along all over the globe. It can't be avoided. So for all the ill-logic involved it remains a plausible enough commentary about human beings.
Hope and Goddard made an attractive pair of leads, in this, the third and last film they did together. Their co-star from THE GHOST CATCHERS and THE CAT AND THE CANARY, Willie Best reappears too, still doing some racist style humor (catch the suntan lotion joke), but also showing a degree of common sense Hope fails to latch onto. Arnold is good, but has been in better comedies (DEAR RUTH comes to mind) Anders is interesting because he is best recalled as Everett Sloans' weird and doomed partner Grisby in Orson Welles' classic THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, a straight and dark role. Anders made few movies in his career (usually he was on Broadway) so it is nice to see him trying comedy. Leif Ericson (who had been in THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 with Hope) was usually playing stick-in-the-mud characters in this period. He would not do good characters parts until the 1960s. Clarence Kolb is a newspaper owner who finds the editorials he writes put Hope to sleep. Leon Belasco is a Hungarian psychiatrist who is now practicing in Miami (where the film is set), who finds Hope and the others interesting potential clients.
The film seems based on a 1917 comedy of the same title that had a good run for the period. In looking over the cast of that play only William Collier had any Hollywood career (mostly in the silent period, and later as a writer or director). But the film is amusing and will be a welcome addition to Hope fans (especially as it is rarely shown).
Up in Smoke (1957)
Mildly amusing for Foulger and the central "Satanic" plot twist
As a kid I did enjoy the long series of poverty row comedies of Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and company, under the name of the East Side Kids or Dead End Kids. It is funny that from being the co-stars of the big production, DEAD END, and then through others like ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, ANGELS WASH THEIR FACES, and THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL, the gang of young actors ended up in this series of B features or worse. But this did not necessarily prove a disaster. They kids were good comics, especially Hall and Gorcey. Ironically though only one made it off the films on his own: Gabriel Dell, who worked with Steve Allen and others. And Dell actually (gradually) played characters that worked at loggerheads with Gorcey, Hall, and the others, usually as a junior heavy.
UP IN SMOKE was one of their last films, and actually deals with a curious twist on an old legend or story. Sach (Hall) makes a wish that if he could he would give his soul to the Devil for better luck. Enter the most cherubic of film Satans, Byron Foulger. Normally Foulger was a harried clerk or bank teller or something like that. Frequently he was a murder victim. But here he is a Devil (actually not THE Devil), who is trying to earn his station from his new master. So he is sent to answer Sach's wish.
What is the difference then between this situation and the devils in HEAVEN CAN WAIT (also a comedy), or ALIAS NICK BEAL, or THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER. The approach to the character of the Devil is different in each, though Ray Milland and Walter Huston are certainly businesslike and deadly (Laird Cregar is too, but also fair minded when he is aware of errors). Foulger though adds something that only Claude Rains (as the Devil in ANGEL ON MY SHOULDER) faced - that Satan might hot be able to control his evil actions. Rains keeps trying to twist situations to use Paul Muni to destroy a reformer's public face. Instead he finds various other small fry stepping in and wrecking things (but doing it when they are willingly doing evil - so he can't really complain). Foulger finds an interesting variant due to his "Victim" Sach: What happens if you have an idiot whom you have agreed to grant wishes to? For the running joke of the film is that Foulger keeps on granting wishes that are supposed to benefit Sach, but through the bungling of the idiot he loses all benefits and they go to third parties who have not made deals with the Devil. Foulger even complains he is not supposed to give away freebies to people. Towards the end Satan is so put out by Foulger's failure with Sach that he takes away one of the two little horns on his forehead (usually covered by his homburg).
It is a small reason to recall this film, but for a curious variant on an old theme I congratulate the screenwriters here.
A Little Romance (1979)
A Piece of Charm, and Lord Larry's Probably Last Good Film
Lauren (Diane Lane) is the daughter of an American woman (Sally Kellerman) now married to her third husband (Arthur Hill) and showing far too much interest in a self-important film director (David Dukes). One day Lauren is taken to see the shooting of a scene in the director's latest opus, with Broderick Crawford as one of the stars. She finds more interest in a book (an introduction to Martin Heidegger's philosophy) than the filmed scene (an attempted assassination). But she meets Daniel, a French boy who was taking a school trip to the châteaux the film was being shot. He is a movie fan, a bright boy who has worked out an almost flawless system to win horse races, and as bright on the subject of Heidegger as Lauren is.* The kids click, and a small romance develops. They also meet an elderly gentleman (Lord Laurence Olivier) who tells them of how Elizabeth and Robert Browning sealed their love by sailing in a gondola in Venice under the Bridge of Sighs at sundown while the bells of St. Marco are chiming. Lauren likes that story very much.
Due to Daniel defending Lauren's honor at her birthday party (he punches the drunken film director for making a stupid insinuation) he is made persona non grata to his girlfriend. Daniel and Lauren meet secretly and plan to flee to Venice to put the Browning legend to their own use. They get assistance from the elderly gentleman, and soon manage to raise the necessary funds to flee. But they are caught in only a few days of possible freedom for this. Part of the reason is that their funds disappear too quickly. Also Lauren 1) fails to mention she and her parents are returning to America in two weeks, and 2) she forgets to ask a friend to cover for her. The funds soon are replenished, but Daniel begins to have suspicions about the elderly old gentleman.
A LITTLE ROMANCE came out in 1979, and with THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL represents the last two good movies that Laurence Olivier appeared in. He would be in a few other films and give a variety of appearances (most notably as General Douglas MacArthur in INCHON) but these films were below quality in most standards. A cameo in WAGNER starring Richard Burton was in a good film, but Olivier was in support in that film.
The reason really was age and health - Olivier could do film and television, but on a limited basis (BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, LOST EMPIRES). In comparison Alec Guiness was doing far more work in the 1980s of any interest. But A LITTLE ROMANCE was a charming comedy romance dealing with two kids coming of age, and aided by a kindly old rogue. It was an easy role (except for the French accent, which to be truthful comes and goes a little). But his age is apparent here too. As the old gentleman is in his 70s it was not a big problem for Olivier to show that age. Still he looks frail here (as he did in THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL), and his frailty is covered in another way - he is supposed to be running in several scenes, but they are shot in distant shots (with an obvious younger double). But his deliver of his lines is still first rate, and he manages to make his rogue lovable and believable to the end.
So does the rest of the cast. The two young teenagers are lovable, and believable because they are bright (and vulnerable: Lane is upset by Kellerman's romance with Dukes, which she knows bothers Hill; Daniel is aware that his father is a barely legitimate taxi driver (who cheats his fares). Kellerman (usually a free spirit in her films) shows a bigoted edge towards Frenchmen, and a hypocrisy towards her daughter's coming of age versus her own sexuality promiscuity. Hill turns out to be bright and caring (similar to Tom Bosley in THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT) - finally rousing himself to confront his rival when the time comes.
When A LITTLE ROMANCE came out in 1979 I saw it in a first run theater. Now I have seen it again on DVD. It has not aged badly at all.
*Martin Heidegger's reputation in 20th Century Philosophy has been established, but it is tarnished by his being a supporter of National Socialism in Germany under Hitler. Still apparently it has been a major support in French philosophy studies until fairly recently. Interestingly enough Lauren is initially more favorably impressed by Heidegger than Daniel is (he has plowed through Heidegger's mentor's works).