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Rock n'Roll's First Lady Gets Her Due, 30 January 2015

Wanda Jackson is a legendary country singer who is now most widely famous for her somewhat brief career as the first woman to record rock n'roll music during the mid and late 1950's. These records, while only modestly successful at the time, have given her an international cult following for decades, a following that amazing has grown larger with every new decade so much so that for the past 25 years Wanda has almost exclusively performed as a "rockabilly" artist to enthusiastic crowds around the world. Some of her famous fans include Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello, both of whom are interviewed for this documentary on her life and career. Wanda started out as a teenage country-and-western local radio singer in the early 1950's gradually growing to become fairly well-known but when newcomer Elvis Presley started performing on the country music scene he strongly encouraged her to join him and several other southern youngsters in singing a new genre of music, rock-and-roll. After first reluctant, Wanda jumped in with gusto before long and recorded a sizzling series of records for the Capitol label that still hold every bit of their impact over a half century later. Wanda and her husband-manager are interviewed (there's an amusing story on how they met, he was dating her best friend country star Norma Jean and Norma asked Wanda to "look after" Wendell while she was away in Nashville) as are her children and several fans, including people in the industry. This documentary ends with a fairly strong campaign to get Wanda in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which happily happened not that long after the film's release in 2008.

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Eighteen Little Piggies, 2 January 2015

I'm From Arkansas is what is is, a lowbudget "B" ("C", really) comedy-musical clearly made for rural southern audiences and likely not seen that much outside of that region. Hillbilly bed-and-board owner Maude Eburne's prized pig manages to knock out eighteen young-uns in one pregnancy that manages to become novelty news across the country (read the headlines, one is a good joke in reference to the smash comedy The Miracle of Morgan Creek, released earlier that year). A gregarious manager of a small-time singing act decides to bring the girls down to Arkansas on the presumption they can somehow get tied into the spotlight. Brassy Iris Adrian is the most cynical of the gals and when she mistakes Bruce Bennett (a major radio bandleader back in his hometown for a vacation) for a local rube, he decides to milk it and play the hick while romancing her.

Slim Summerville starred or was featured in scores of rural comedies for over a decade when this film was released, his earlier ones were for the major studios and had bigger budgets. Near the end of his career (he passed away in 1946), he is top-billed but has less screen time than either Bennett (surprisingly billed fourth when he was only a few years before considered possible major star material) or the always enjoyable Ms. Adrian, in the main lead, and the only truly starring role I can recall seeing her in (her specialty was snappy costarring small parts, even bits). Maude Eburne is a delight as always as "Ma" (one surprise later plot turn is Summerville's ardent pursuit of Eburne in marriage, he's always on her property so probably the major viewers presumed they were a long-married couple). Country music great Jimmy Wakely has a few nice numbers (including the legendary hit "You are My Sunshine" made famous by another Jimmy, Jimmie Davis), 50's pop star Mary Ford is in Wakely's girl group, and country star Merle Travis can be spotted in Bennett's band. Not a great comedy by any means, but a pleasant time killer.

Maude Eburne at Her Best, 25 August 2014

DOUGHNUTS AND SOCIETY is a surprisingly good comedy-drama from Mascot Pictures that looks to have a rather impressive budget for a "B" from poverty row. Obviously an attempt to make a Marie Dressler & Polly Moran type-comedy of two older best friend broads to scrap as much as they pal around (it even picks up the familiar theme of each being the mother of a child in love with the other's kid), this movie is at least as good as most of the Dressler/Moran efforts in part because while Polly Moran was really no rival for the magnificent Marie, Louise Fazenda and Maude Eburne are rather evenly matched in terms of talent, two very good dependable character actresses able to work wonders when the material is not always there.

These old gals co-own a doughnut dive but Maude is obsessed with high society and dreams of crashing it, spending her money for years on stocks and claims much to the much more sensible Louise's irritation. To the surprise of one and all, a woman representing a major corporation shows up to buy Maude's claim of a mine for $50,000 and 10 percent profit, believing oil may be in it. Maude in no time moves into a mansion with teen-aged daughter Ann Rutherford in tow. She asks Louise and her son to move with them but too proud Louise refuses which leads to one more spat as they separate for some time. Maude meanwhile tries to crash society with help of professional party thrower Hedda Hopper and while Maude proves a bit earthy for a socialite, it's actually pal Louise (attending the party after her initial declining it) who wreaks havoc on the proceedings, chasing a dog who has stolen her wad of cash around the mansion and turning the event into a farce.

Louise continues to look down on her old pal but does feel she needs to move up financially if not socially herself for her son's sake and the mother and son open up a parking building downtown to proves to be an enormous success, so much so that a rival tries to buy it and when Louise declines, sets to wreck her business.

Maude Eburne is terrific in this movie in a terrific performance as a crude old gal who wants the best things in life but can't quite polish herself up enough to be at home in this new world. Louise Fazenda, a great hayseed comedienne herself, has the more knowing role but in some way's it's also the most thankless part.

Pleasant But Unmemorable Family Drama From Poverty Row, 25 August 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

HAPPINESS C.O.D. (1935) is a "B" from Chesterfield Pictures and was virtually unseen for many decades, even the American Film Institute couldn't track down a copy to view for it's definitive reference book on American films of the 1930's. In the last several years, however, a print has surfaced and one learns that the movie is not a comedy at all as AFI (and IMDb) presumed but rather a family drama starring several character actors best known for their comic roles. I was particularly disappointed to see that the great, unsung character actress Maude Eburne actually does not have top billing as both sources claim but is rather billed third behind Donald Meek and obscure starlet Irene Ware.

Donald Meek stars as a businessman who lives in a mansion beyond his means, a widower with a teenager and two grown children living with him (although the older son has been away for a period) with all three of them spending money like it's going out of style. Meek's spinster sister Maude Eburne also lives with him and is the matriarchal figure for the family and this down-to-earth dame is disgusted by her spoiled niece and nephews. When Meek's boss puts on the pressure for him to sign the contracts, okaying a poor quality concrete for a hospital which will give boss man a big profit, Meek is basically being blackmailed by him, with boss "Uncle Lester" threatening to can him, knowing fully well the financial mess his employee is in.

This movie is basically a typical programmer with the hackneyed premise that money can't buy happiness (those kids would disagree) but it's fairly well acted even if it could use the comic edge some who haven't seen the film presume is in it. Maude Eburne is terrific as sassy Aunt Addie, one of her rare starring roles, and it's a shame she really doesn't have top billing here although Donald Meek is quite fine as well as the sympathetic father. Irene Ware as the daughter doesn't have much to do despite her second billing while William Bakewell as the older brother may have more lines but not much more of a fully sketched part. Beautiful young Polly Ann Young is featured as Meek's secretary, she will surely remind you of her legendary sister Loretta not only in looks but in manners and speech delivery.

I have to confess it took two attempts to sit through this little drama to completion. Anyone who has seen anything remotely similar will be able to tell you what's going to happen every step of the way but it is nice to know that the film still exists after so long with it's survival status being uncertain.

Fantastic Collection of Sixties Girl Pop Sounds and Video, 11 August 2014

GIRL GROOVES is an excellent two hour documentary that basically consists entirely of vintage television performances from the 1960's of various female vocalists and girl groups who had big pop hits back in that era hosted by Mary Wilson on The Supremes. This is the very best of these PBS documentaries I've seen, in part because it appears we are seeing the full numbers, not "dance bits" edited in to them like apparently was done in another show. These are very rare clips and I believe everything show was a major top ten hit. Most of these appear to have be lipsynched at the time (as was common on these shows). Highlights include The Shang-ra-la's doing "Leader of the Pack" from a daytime game show with Robert Goulet doing a fun cameo as the title role (a bit that happily does not destroy the appeal of the number) and a very rare chance to see Little Peggy March sing her blockbuster "I Will Follow Him" (she appears to be among the least successful lipsynchers though but hey the girl was barely a teenager and that great voice more than makes up it). There's lots of Motown plus quite a bit of other girl pop of the era including many soloists that one might consider a bit of a stretch as having the girl group sound like Jackie De Shannon, Skeeter Davis, Aretha Franklin, Lesley Gore, Fontella Bass, Petula Clark, and Mary Wells but then this show is NOT about girl groups as is usually done when covering when of the era but pop female music as a whole (and some of their other records clearly do have the girl group sound even though they're still solo recordings). It is surprising not to see Connie Francis, Brenda Lee,Patsy Cline, Nancy Sinatra, and Jeannie C. Riley included but then the time was limited. Mary Wilson still looks great and makes a terrific hose but one can help but note her "friend Diane" is not mentioned by her legendary full name (Diana Ross, of course!) suggesting this long feud might not quite be resolved yet.

"No Dolores! That Sounds Like Too Much Lipstick!", 13 March 2014

MACHINE GUN MAMA is a badly titled but sweet little "C" comedy from Poverty Row's PRC PICTURES with a talented cast all about a decade past the peak of their careers. Wallace Ford and El Brendel star as Americans in Mexico trying to return an elephant to it's rightful owner (just what these guys do for a living and just how they got the elephant is never quite clear). The fortysomething guys end up bumping into a small Mexican carnival that is deeply in debt, the perfect prospective buyers for the elephant. The fact the owner's daughter is a beautiful young woman doesn't hurt either. Alas, the villainous loan shark the carnival owners are in debt to also has designs on the girl and aims to get rid of these gringos - and their not so little elephant, too.

Wallace Ford is always good but at 46 he looks more than a decade his age, making it somewhat incredible that he could be the man of the gorgeous Armida's dreams (Miss Armida is no kid herself at 33 although she looks far younger, to the point one of the reviewers here presumes she is playing a teenager). El Brendel is an acquired taste as a comedian but I have to say I have never seen him give a more appealing and likable performance than here as the gentler of the duo, who is sentimentally attached to his beloved pachyderm named "Bunny". Rounding out the quartet of familiar faces from 1930's films is Jack LaRue as the villain. Luis Alberni is terrific as the leader of a flea circus whose star attraction Dolores has disappeared and now has transferred his affections to the elephant Bunny whom he now insists on renaming Dolores after his missing flea much to El Brendel's furor ("No Dolores! That sounds like too much lipstick!" he snaps.) Alberni and El Brendel work terrific together and it's a shame they didn't become a comedy team in some low-budget films.

Today people presume this is a war film with a trailblazing female hero but back in the 1940's I'm sure the public realized this was going to be the Mexican Spitfire knockoff that it is. Armida is for the most part much gentler than Lupe Velez and she's a more romantic, less comical actress. The print used for the Alpha DVD release is slightly above average for most of their public domain releases.

Lovely Film, Lovely Lady, 28 January 2014

GRANDMA MOSES is a 22 minute color film from 1950 on the legendary primitive artist who became an American phenomenon in the 1940's in her eighties and was amazingly famous for the rest of her life with the general public (she made it past 100 and lived into the early 1960's). Obviously shot on silent 16mm film, the movie has a quite appropriately charming original score by the famed composer Hugh Martin (Meet Me in St. Louis) heard throughout the film. Most of the film is narrated but we only hear Grandma's voice in a fairly brief scene in a voice-over as family photos are shown on screen in a segment in which she is showing the family picture album to a endearing trio of preschoolers who are right out of a vintage children's book. The film opens with several scenes of a ninetyish Grandma shown in her every day routines, doing chores on the farm, visiting with friends (at a "gossip fence" no less!), and the like, then some wonderful panoramic shots of rural New York where Grandma was born and raised. The segment with Grandma and the children follows and leads into the lengthiest segment of the film, scanning views of Grandma's art.

There isn't that much footage out there of Grandma (she was on television a few times in the 1950's) so this film is to be cherished, particularly for it being in color. One may regret so much footage is devoted to showing her artwork but one must remember back in 1950 there were no lavish, full color books of her art and probably the general public saw it, if anywhere, on the greeting cards and other ephemera that reproduced her work or the occasional magazine article with often B&W photographs. Still, there must be plenty of unused footage of Grandma taken for this film (there is quite a variety of different footage, even in different seasons here), one hopes it is preserved somewhere. It is curious though why Grandma's voice is used so sparingly here, she was quite a capable and interesting interviewee as can be heard on the excellent 1956 radio program BIOGRAPHIES IN SOUND available at

You can currently view this film on youtube and the Folkstreams website.

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Glossy But Oddball "Men's" Soap Opera, 8 December 2013

MY SON, MY SON is an over-sized independent film released by United Artists, based on a popular novel of the 1930's. While the film may not have been completely true to the novel, I can't imagine the book being any better than this film given the absurd situations and characters.

Brian Aherne and Henry Hull are two young buddies who dream of the day they will have sons. Hull wants his son to be courageous and with honor but Aherne, tired of poverty and struggle, wants his son to enjoy the luxuries in his life he never had. Eventually each man marries although they remain lifelong friends. Hull has a son and daughter while Aherne has a son as a result of a loveless marriage to a baker's daughter whose shop he helped run.

Aherne becomes a best-selling novelist. He indulges his boy with the best of everything. The kid grows up feeling the world owes him a living without an honorable bone in his body, tracing drawings for school contests and stealing friends' books. He's also a pathological liar, able to lie himself out of any situation with his father. His conservative, religious mother Josephine Hutchinson fully sees her son for what he is but Aherne rejects her attempts at disciplining the brat. Years past and sonny boy is now 21 (and now played by Louis Hayward) but as selfish and spoiled as ever. Aherne goes uncover as a coal miner to obtain material for his next novel and meets young artist Madeleine Carroll who bewitches him completely but he cuts off their friendship since he is still married. Shortly thereafter he is widowed but has no way of tracking down the girl since he never knew her name and she never knew his real name. Meanwhile who should sonny Hayward happen to be pestering in the city but the lovely Miss Carroll who is apparently a few years older than he. She is amused with his company and lets him escort her to events although there is no real romance for either of them. Hayward happens to bring her to a play written by his father (and starring Hull's daughter, Laraine Day) and the star-crossed couple meet again. Aherne and Carroll are thrilled to be reunited and she's upfront with both men about their past relations. Hayward feigns to be OK that his dad has now won the affections of his date but behind the scenes is scheming and making Carroll as miserable as possible.

While generally well acted, this story is so hackneyed the viewer can tell every plot twist in advance. There is major irony when Carroll, discussing a novelist (and unaware she is actually talking to that novelist, Aherne) comments about the author's inability to write credible female characters, given the stereotypical women that populate this potboiler: the frosty saint (the wife, Josephine Hutchinson), the walking perfection (Carroll), the silly, emotional girl (Laraine Day). One particularly tasteless scenario has Day secretly in love with Aerne, a man she as known all of her life as a "uncle" (as she and her brother have always called him). I also have to wonder why on earth the wonderful Madeleine Carroll even accepted this film. Although she enjoys top billing, her part is far smaller than that of Aherne and Hayward and not much larger than Hutchinson's or Day's.

This was a rare starring film for Aherne, usually cast as a second lead, and frankly he is not up to the challenge. His speciality on screen was always something of a cad himself, in personality if not in actual roles, so this persona fails to mesh with this obsessively loving father role. Hayward is better though obviously older than his role; he was only seven years Aherne's junior, and while at 6'3" Aherne dwarfs the 5'10" Hayward, their scenes are shot at angles to play up the height difference to apparently make Hayward seem younger but at times only manage to make him look like a shrimp. This was also one movie that badly needed to be shot in sequence; Aherne's graying hair in the later scenes vary with each segment and in the final confrontation with Hayward it appears Aherne has his natural hair color from his youth!

It's a bit silly that a mediocre film like MY SON, MY SON gets what airplay on TV it does via TCM's "Oscar month" since it received a lone nomination in production design. It certainly didn't get any votes for the acting, directing, or the film itself! And certainly not the writing, despite the reliable Lenore Coffee doing what she can with this uninspired reversed-sex "mother love" soap opera plot.

Obscure Glossy MGM Soaper with Good Performances, 21 November 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

THE AGE OF INDISCRETION is a surprisingly frank post-code soap opera from 1935, given the full MGM polish despite no major names in the cast being a programmer ground out to fill the desire for new pictures every week. The end results are a satisfying if not overly memorable film.

Paul Lukas stars as a book publisher whose catalog of serious literature isn't paying the bills. His shallow, money-loving wife Helen Vinson is having an affair with Ralph Forbes and when Lukas gently requests she cut the spending sprees what little affection she has for him and their son David Lee Holt quickly disappears as she decides to ditch them for the wealthy lover. Trouble is after the divorce and remarriage Helen discovers Forbes is a mama's boy whose mother May Robson controls the family purse strings and isn't too fond of her new daughter-in-law. Arch-conservative Robson is appalled that Vinson has abandoned her son and pushes for her to seek custody, meanwhile Lukas tries to move on with his life and raise his son with some help from his devoted secretary Madge Evans.

This movie is very well acted and has a good script although Robson's character isn't particularly credible, hard to imagine this cold, penny pinching old miser would insist on her son's social climbing wife adding her kid to the family particularly when she hasn't even met the boy (it would have been far more probable this character would have insisted her son and his wife supply her with actual blood grandchild.) When Robson and Holt finally do meet, on neighboring cabins in the mountains it's not clear if this is a coincidence or Robson snooping on Lukas. The scene where Robson walks in Lukas' cabin and is furious to find him and his secretary pillow fighting in his bedroom in their pajamas (they'd been sleeping in separate rooms, mind you) is a stunner and the following court case is quite blunt about what presumably has been going on between the couple (so much so that this film was banned in Canada because of the courtroom scenes). The resolution alas comes off little too rushed. The cast is terrific although Lukas' Viennese accent occasionally makes his lines different to understand.

MGM had tried to make Madge Evans, a pleasant but unmemorable actress into a star for almost five years at this point and was soon to let her go after this film, the irony being she is better in this film than I've ever seen her before as well as at her peak in beauty. Helen Vinson is a memorably cold wife and May Robson is superb as always although her courtroom confession seems a little incredible, who wouldn't believe something scandalous for the day was going on after that scene she walked in on? Little David Holt was a quite good child actor of the time, he may be best known for his funny performance as Tom Sawyer's sissy cousin in that 1938 classic which happened to reunite him with Miss Robson yet here he's equally terrific as a more all-American boy type (though Southern accent comes through strongly on occasion making him a bit incredible as Lukas' son). Obscure character actress Catharine Doucet has a terrific cameo as a late-middleaged, best-selling "trash" romance novelist who has set her cap for the newly unattached Lukas. Movie buffs will want to watch for future Paramount starlet Shirley Ross in a small part as Evans' roommate and former silent star Mary McLaren playing the maid at the Robson estate.

TCM seems to only show this vintage soaper once or twice a decade, likely due to it's lack of big names. While not a classic, it certainly deserves more circulation than that.

You Can Have Ginger Snaps - if You Chew Them Slowly, 10 November 2013

Charley Chase in my opinion made the best comedy shorts of any comedy act in the 1930's, solo comic or group. NURSE TO YOU happens to be one of his very best as an ultra cheapstake whose rather eccentric doctor Billy Gilbert gets his name confused with an elderly patient named "Case" and gives him the latter's grim diagnosis of six months to live (though maybe one should know to avoid a doctor who tells him he can eat ginger snaps but not apples or bananas!) With seemingly nothing to lose, Chase scuddles his mild-mannered personality and fights fire with fire and then some when facing with annoying, aggressive people including a belligerent street cop and his long-bullying boss Clarence Wilson.

Charley is such an endearing and hilarious comedian it's incredible he is rarely considered one of the comic greats of the industry. His acting is always superb, his humor still as sharp and witty as it was eighty years ago. He also almost always has top notch supporting players and certainly does here, notably the wonderful unsung character actor Clarence Wilson, who basically created the mean, little elderly boss man stock character in scores of films that Charles Lane would later be well known for in later decades. Despite it's theme this is in no way a "black comedy", it's 19 minutes of giddy fun.

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