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Shadows on the Stairs (1941)
Warner Brothers Romp Shows Off "B" Expertise
This little mystery is great fun, and zips along familiar cinematic paths with professional skill, all the Warner technicians called into play to fashion a quickie "B" mystery with some of the best of the character actors around, and one new guy, Turhan Bey, who was still wet behind the ears, but managed to be "clever and cunning" and craftily mysterious.
From the opening shots on a foggy wharf, with a mysterious large box hoisted off as ship and into a truck, the extremely mobile camera transports us quickly to an English boarding house crammed with lamps and antimacassars and ferns and portraits and zooms from upstairs to downstairs and in and out of doors as suspects in a crime skulk about and share concerns and accusations with mild hysteria lurking just below their civilized surfaces.
But this is not a serious film; it is a fast-paced gem full of strange relationships, a murder or two, folks running about in disguises, and, at last, a clueless police force showing up as things get out of hand, a couple of bodies in locked upstairs rooms.
I was never bored, was often amused, had a devil of a time attempting to pin down who-done-it, and much enjoyed the offbeat characters written into the script. Would that much of today's major films had the virtues of succinctness!
Frisco Sal (1945)
Spirited Barbary Coast Antics with Cowboy Flair
Turhan Bey as "Dude"? Is this the same Turhan Bey that enriched all those exotic Technicolor adventures opposite Sabu and Maria Montez, the handsome Hungarian usually cast as Arabian? Indeed it's the same magnetic actor playing a peace-loving tavern owner who wants to bring harmony to the booze halls of the Barbary Coast, much to the annoyance of shifty Alan Curtis, who runs what is ostensibly a "mission" just down the street, a place rife with miscreants and ne'er-do-wells. Toss into the mix fresh-faced virginal vocalist Susanna Foster, fresh from the East and searching for her long-lost brother, and conflicts build, bolstered by roistering, ebullient turns by such Universal stalwarts as blustery Andy Devine and crafty Samuel S. Hinds.
Toss into the mix two extended bar-room brawls, plenty of unexpected sentiment and some classy singing, and what results is a Western in the spirits of Destry Rides Again--not quite in the same class, but nevertheless more entertaining than one might except and needing a really good DVD transfer. Go Turhan!
Lost In The Garden
Many a time I have dragged unwilling guests to various early Eddie Izzard shows, hopefully to help them discover the considerable delights of Izzards's scatter-shot humor, his ability to assume identities of all kinds, to put hilarious spins on mankind's foibles--in short, to be a very funny, highly individual comic whose cheeky and irreverent humor is both scathing and incisive.
It it with regret that I found the Madison Square Garden cold and obvious, overly calculated, as if Izzard was cowed by his first major appearance in New York, feared the chill that almost every comic feels in his bones when the joke falls flat. This hour and a half set lacked the charming, sometime childlike silliness that Eddie can conjure up, and in place of that inventive fun that one excepts, seems far too scripted, and his all-too frequent use of the "F" word in place of wit or commentary or impersonation, seems a desperate cover-up for failing to charm the audience.
One complaint that has nothing to do with Izzard himself but everything to do with the production designer is the much too frequent use of audience shots, the camera set on different couples, supposedly rolling in hilarity, as if to demonstrate to the viewer that indeed, this is a funny program (when in truth if often lacks genuine hilarity) implying that everybody else is in hysterics--and why aren't you? I didn't pay to watch the audience.
I kept thinking that as Izzard moved though various civilizations and applied his shape-shifting tropes to the Egyptians or Aliens or Squirrels, that the inimitable stream of consciousness would rise to the top and sweep us along, but the act seemed to just get desperate, and wear the man out. It wore me out, and I was so in hopes to be swept away.
Scandal Sheet (1931)
Engrossing Surprise from An Early Talkie
What begins as a conventional Unfaithful Wife Story evolves into something more fascinating, as we see a ruthless editor of a major city newspaper tread on too many toes and get some comeuppance. There is some wonderful set work at play in this "B" film, with a fashionable ultra-mod apartment turned out as Kay's Love Nest with a naughty banker who offers whiskey in bottles the size of a glass brick, as well as some zippy tracking shots in a newspaper office setting a fast pace of hustle and rush.
From the beginning, the viewer eavesdrops on cynical reporters attempting to bribe the little brother of a recent suicide, simultaneously offering the Mother cold cash for the dead boy's verse; editor George Bancroft sets the tone here as a heartless man who claims that no matter who the story damages--if it sells papers, it's news. His wife, Kay Francis, sits at home, draping various parts of her body with eye-catching fashion, and in one scene, other action front and center, there is some pre-code semi-nudity with mirrors catching the sort of undressing censored just three years later.
But it is the plot that, despite the soapy melodrama, rises above its origins, and provides no little suspense--with an odd, seemingly tacked-on ending, probably to please the money men. An additional incentive to early film fans is the rich casting of secondary players--Irving Bacon, Sid Saylor, Vince Barnett, Robert Parish, and even the man that become The Weenie King in The Palm Beach Story--Robert Dudley.
I Loved a Woman (1933)
The Skies Are Not Cloudy All Day
What a peculiar (but often fascinating!) film! The title has a little to do with Robinson's character, but it really isn't a woman he loves, but the meat-packing business! Eddie G., who wants to make the world more artistic and to clean up the Chicago slums, inherits an unsavory but highly successful business from his father, and makes an attempt to break away from corporate alliances--enter Kay Francis, in one of her vamp roles, this time as an opera singer aiming for the top European houses, but needing a little cash infusion to get there--she seduces the good EGR by sitting down at the piano--and suddenly warbles a contralto version of "Home On The Range"! No Tosca, no Mimi, no Traviata--this overdressed little flower brims blooms with the Western tune a total of three times--and it becomes an ironic interlude throughout the film--Robinson also attempts to capture the world food market, even buys cattle instead of just canning it! (Some echoes of Upton Sinclair feeds plot complications).
For early fans of Mr. Robinson and Our Kay, this is compelling fun, and frequently details fascinating turns of historical event--Teddy Roosevelt makes a personal appearance and WWI turns the world upside down. For those expecting the powerful one-note (but perhaps less well-rounded) characterizations which Robinson was often gave, there may be surprises as he ages--and hides out in another country. For others, this is a historical curiosity peopled with familiar early First National Faces.
Mystery Man (1944)
It's a fascinating comment on "B" Westerns, and possibly on films in general, that one of the reviews on this site plugs this simple Western film as one the "better Hoppy films," while one of the other five cites it as "lesser Hoppy." Both reviewers are right, of course, and each took the time to comment from separate viewpoints. In a world as big as the Wild West, there should be plenty of room for both opinions. Too bad the world isn't so big any more!
Black-clad, cool-headed Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd) must track down lawbreakers and get the guys in the slammer--and wouldn't it be a surprise to all of us if he failed to do so? Most Hoppy films have a distinguishing hallmark, and perhaps this one's is a Movable Herd and the men who move it.
Mystery Man is a low-key, genial cowboy movie with only one song tossed in for good measure, and the sheriff's daughter picking on whatever attractions Hoppy's second- hand man has to offer. For action fans, there is a good deal of gun-play behind boulders and dust-raising in Lone Pine, and' as is often the case, the cinematography by Russell Harlan is a major bonus point, taking what could show as dull chases and enhancing California desert landscape with background mountain majesties and banks of clouds. Harlan turns the ordinary into memorable--lucky us!
A Notorious Affair (1930)
Don't Take It Serious--It's Too Delirious!
This is a deliciously daft precode, notable for the appearance of a very pallid Basil Rathbone as a high-strung Italian violinist (or was he French?), one of the few available talkies made by wide-eyed, silent star Billie Dove, and mainly, the presence of a slinky, sex-mad countess Olga, played with great verve by Kay Francis, who early on establishes her credentials by trying out the stable boy and then checking out the older dude who works the feed duties: Kay is constantly on the prowl in a very modern sense, while the script sets up poor Billie as the put-upon wife who gives up fortune for love and finds out husband's real talent is infidelity.
For today's moviegoer, this is probably pretty dull stuff, but for the film historian, the fan of Kay Francis, or anybody who wants to enjoy the minor delights of an early "B" romance, this can be great fun.
Hoppy Serves a Writ (1943)
The Incidental Pleasures of "B" Westerns
This traditional "Hoppy" adventure was never meant to be any kind of classic, but mainly functions as Saturday Matinée fare, a pitting of the good guys against the bad guys with plenty of horse chases and gun-play to keep the kids in their seats and wanting to come back for more.
Having grown up in the 1940's, I watch the old Westerns today for reasons other than a gripping plot about which the outcome is clearly foretold. The photography in this one, for example, is exceptional, with cinematographer Russell Harlan going beyond the usual camera set-ups to capture the beauty of location shooting in Lone Pine, California-- the desert-like conditions shot against mountain vistas, the beauty of rustling sycamores framing the action, and exceptional long shots giving us such keen perspectives as robbing of the Well's Fargo Stage from several angles (Harlan, incidentally, went on to film the indelible images of To Kill A Mockingbird). FYI, an unsolicited commercial: Platinum Productions (though Echo Bridge) has released the Cassidy adventures in multiples for very little money, and the transfers are remarkable!
Another incidental pleasure of Hoppy Serves A Writ is Hoppy himself, of course, a cool character who always seems a little above the chaos around him: William Boyd, a leading man from the 1930's found his niche in these Westerns--and we don't have to listen to him sing! Frequently pointed out is Robert Mitchum's first major appearance in a film: a performance at the edge of narcolepsy, but Mitchum actually saddles up a few times and rides; future Superman George Reeves has a meatier role as a dude with attitude, attempting to romance the sole female on the film, but losing her to Hoppy's cute, mild-mannered assistant. And for those with an eye for familiar character actors, the laconic Byron Foulger serves as a shopkeeper; Victor Jory, so often a villain in both Westerns and crime films, sports a nasty scar on his cheek that marks him as the one to hiss.
In all, this is 64 minutes of matinée fun, perfect for a Saturday afternoon with a bowl of popcorn and all your memories of time well spent with your Hollywood pals.
Fabio Montale (2001)
Delon In Mellow Fade Out Role: Retired Cop Targeted by Mafia Guns
For years, Alain Delon has held the mantle of the handsome brooding detective, soft- spoken almost to the point of silence, quietly going about the business of murder-- or solving them. In Europe Delon has been a major star since the 1950's, justly celebrated for films made with Visconti, Antonioni and Clement; his few American films didn't do much to enrich U.S. appeal, but no matter. Le Samourai, Rocco and His Brothers, Mr. Klein, Purple Noon and many others justly cemented his reputation, and here towards the end of his career, he has made this swan-song to a lifetime of crime in the movies, playing a cop about to retire.
Fabio Montale is set mainly in Marseilles (where Delon actually grew up), and the rich Technicolor and sense of place contributes greatly to this series of related cat-and- mouse detective thriller, as Montale, the title character, attempts at last to make some kind of dent in mafia crime.
As the three parts continue, it is evident that for one reason or another, it is dangerous to know Montale; even though he is much loved by the populace, and especially by his mom-and-pop neighbors, who have a seaside home where Montale likes to hang out, there lurks in the darkness people who want to do him in, who want to drag him into deadly shooting when he is ready to retire. It is a civilized entertainment with a quality script, plenty of suspense, and a richness of character development in it's 4 1/2 hour running time.
Children of Pleasure (1930)
Primitive Tuneful Delight For The Archivist Only
If you are possibly going to spend 75 minutes or so out of your life watching an early musical from MGM, there's a strong chance you already know what you're in for--this short quickie, compared to a creation from Busby Berkeley at Warner's a few years later, is primitive indeed, but captures a time and place in Hollywood like few other films are able to do.
The plot is simple--winsome secretary loves a songwriter who falls for a society dame. The songwriter is zippy Lawrence Gray who smiles through his tears, and composes a song when he wants to express himself in love or out of it. One of his interpreters (and comic relief) is a Sophie Tucker type, a sort of Red Hot Mama attached to her ethnic pianist (at least that's how's he's played). We get some peeks at various musical numbers, some out-of-step minstrels in a theatre and a nutty song and dance in a nightclub--and "you ain't seen nothing" until you've seen the production number for "Dust," one of the hero's hits--with several helpings of actual dust--and later, a catchy little number "The Whole Darned Things For You."
The pleasures in this film are to be found in the sense of history it represents, awkward dealings with the sound, none of it prerecorded--even an outdoor encounter with comedian Jack Benny is fascinating, and one wonders if the subway entrance was a location shot or on the MGM lot. "Jiminy Cricket" Cliff Edwards also makes a jokey cameo, and the film zips along at a good pace--but ending as if the producer decided the company had run out of resources and just called "cut" and "print." Children of Pleasure is an archivist's delight!