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Caught in the Act (1941)
a dumb-a movie
Up until the 1950s, Italians in the movies were usually sinister gangsters or buffoons named Tony who sold bananas from pushcarts. This movie raises the buffoon character one level. His name is Mike and he is a competent construction foreman. However, after 15 years working for the same company in the construction trades, he seems never to have heard of crooked contractors, and he's still a talka like-a dis. As the movie opens, Mike has been afraid to ask his boss for the afternoon off to attend his daughter's wedding. The boss calls him in to the office before Mike can ask for time off and promotes him to the exalted position of sales rep for the company. I guess there's more to Mike than we see because you get the impression he'd have trouble keeping the banana pushcart business straight. Now for the "plot": as Mike is driving home, a glamorous blonde jumps into his car at a stoplight and forces him to drive at high speed to the suburbs. Naturally, the blonde is, by some coincidence, the moll of the gangster who is trying to create trouble for Mike's boss who won't buy the gang's porous concrete. Naturally, the police see Mike driving the gangster's girl friend and assume Mike is one of the gang. Naturally, the police arrest Mike and, when he tells them who his boss is, they naturally arrest the boss. When Mike is arrested, his wife assaults the cop, and she is arrested and, naturally, placed in the same cell the blonde is in. That's all the synopsis you'll get as I don't want to be blacklisted for writing spoilers. I only stayed to the end because nobody has ever seen or rated this movie before. My public service gesture for the New Year.
California Straight Ahead! (1937)
trains against trucks...again
Competition between railroads and trucking companies seems to have been a popular topic. Usually, the truckers were the bad guys who resorted to dirty tricks to put the railroads out of business. Paradise Express, made the same year as this movie, featured Harry Davenport as the owner of a beleaguered short line railroad. In the early 1950s, Ealing Studios made the Titfield Thunderbolt along the same lines. In California Straight Ahead, for variety's sake, the truckers are the good guys and the railroad the villain. The plot is typical: an airplane parts manufacturer has a shipment that has to get from the plant in the Midwest to San Francisco before an anticipated dock workers' strike shuts down the port. The manufacturer won't get paid if the goods aren't shipped. The factory apparently has plenty of inventory because they let the railroad and John Wayne's trucks both have a complete load to transport, but only the carrier that gets to the port first before the strike will be paid. And away they go. The trucks, in addition to the usual mechanical problems, also have problems inflicted by railroad goons. The details are hazy in my mind since I saw this movie once over 40 years ago. You can probably create your own scenario in your head and not be far off. The ending was a jaw dropper. I don't remember its exact real name but, as everybody stood on shore watching the freighter full of airplane parts sail west, we saw its name on the stern: Shigetsu Maru Yokohama.
The Jackie Gleason Show (1952)
60 years before the Jackie Gleason Show was the 1890s.
And now it's been 60 years, more or less, since the peak of the Jackie Gleason Show. I don't know how many geezers in 1954 pined for the good old days of Harrigan & Hart, and it seems odd that the present day senior citizens cackle at their memories of Jackie Gleason. In 1954, there was no videotape of the 1890s which the old folks could refer to for a cold splash of reality and maybe put an end to their babbling. But now there is a filmed record of the early 1950s TV shows of Gleason, Jimmy Durante, the Ritz Brothers, Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle et al, and you can watch most of them on Youtube. Painfully dumb is the only way to describe most of it. I just finished watching a 1951 clip featuring Reggie van Gleason, III. The Three Stooges are high art in comparison.
If I could reach into a barrel of all of Gleason's skits and pull some out at random to create a complete show, I would find:
At the top of the show, he recites verbatim the Mutt & Jeff cartoon from the previous Sunday funnies.
Ralph: One of these days Alice, Pow! right in the kisser.
Charlie Bratton: Hey Clem, what's that slop you're eating? Clem: Some day I'm going to kill that man.
Fenwick Babbit unbuttons and rebuttons a sweater with about 30 buttons and says "You're a nice man".
Reggie: Mmm boy are you fat.
Stanley Sogg: Tonight's movie is brought to you by Mother Fletcher.
Weirdo: I'm with you. Jackie: Oh no you're not!
I can't find any Rudy the Repairman quotes and you needn't look for any on my account. This show may have been a landmark of early television but it has very little entertainment value today.
Red Nightmare (1962)
Your tax dollars at work: the Cleavers meet the pod people
This Department of Defense sponsored inanity was done better 20 years earlier by Disney in his cartoon about the little boy living in Naziland. By 1962, it was completely redundant to preach to the American people how nasty it must be to live under a Communist dictatorship. There were recent examples of the suppressions of the uprisings in Poland and Hungary, first person testimonies by refugees and articles by the 100s in the popular magazines. Castro's mass executions of his opponents were even more recent. It would have been terrible if all those well off, white Christians in the movie had to surrender their way of life. No s**t, Dick Tracy.
I understand there have been cuts to the original release, and the 28 minute version I saw was not complete. Nowhere in that version is there any clue about what Communism is, besides nasty, and how it could possibly take over the US. Not necessary. Superimpose this lesson over the barrage of propaganda films that preceded it that gave valuable clues on how to recognize a Communist, and you have contributed to a mood of hysteria. How to recognize a Communist: does he read Pravda on the subway? Does he speak against our government? Does he not wear a flag lapel pin (no, no, that was later)? is he an atheist (Jew is close enough)? Does he stir up discontent by advocating better treatment for blacks? Does he think signing loyalty oaths is silly? Maybe there's nothing you and I can do to stop an ICBM, but we sure can stop the subversive worms from destroying us from within. Red Nightmare is just the coach's halftime locker room speech to keep the team fired up against people who call each other comrade and talk about commissars and the proletariat.
The Looking Glass War (1969)
an obtuse movie version of a satirical novel
POSSIBLE SPOILERS In the novel, British military intelligence in 1961 was looking for something to justify its existence. Some ambiguous aerial photos suggested the East Germans had constructed a missile site. Instead of sharing this information with... who? (sorry I don't know the other intelligence service. MI6?) the military people, who had not run an operation in years, decided to do what they knew best: send one of their now aged WWII spies with WWII equipment ( a 40 lb. tube radio with different crystals to change transmitting frequencies) into East Germany to verify the existence of the missile installation and radio back his findings. The East Germans were mystified by the strange radio messages until an old sergeant vaguely remembered how English spies had sent out messages 20 years earlier. The poor spy's floundering around created an international incident and the military intelligence people were ordered to pull the plug on the operation. LeCarre's caustic comments on the military intelligence service were swept aside and the movie was made treating all the bumbling as a serious spy story. Ah well. In 1961 the cold war was very serious business.
Zoo Parade (1950)
an early TV classic
I agree with reviewer Krorie that Zoo Parade, primitive as it was, was more enjoyable than the later more sophisticated Wild Kingdom, perhaps because, in those days of early TV, everything was live and everything was magical. Marlin Perkins and his straight man sat at a desk and keepers brought in animals for Marlin to explain to the audience. At intervals, the straight man would tell us about Ken L Ration and its magic ingredient: chlorophyllin that helped stop doggie odors. That was the first time I'd heard of chlorophyllin which, losing the final "in" became wildly popular as chlorophyll and was added to toothpaste and chewing gum (and I don't know what else). Every product with chlorophyll was green. The gum looked like green Chiclets. I distinctly remember the day six keepers carried out a python to exhibit. I don't know which came first, but there was a Chas Addams cartoon showing a bunch of zookeepers holding a python. As Marlin told us about the python the Zoo Parade keepers were holding, the snake suddenly had a bowel movement all over the hand of the keeper at that point of the snake's anatomy. You could see the other keepers biting their cheeks and trying hard to stay serious. At the end of every show as the credits rolled and the theme song played, there was a cartoon picture of the dog on the Ken L Ration label whose eyes moved back and forth. This was high tech stuff and a cartoon of the star of the show with moving eyes was also used at the end of the Groucho Marx and Jerry Colonna shows. It's hard today to give the show a star rating. I might have given it 10 stars in 1952, but lots of stuff from 1952 is unwatchable today.
Sharp, Classy, Very Good and completely unknown
Medic had the bad fortune to be scheduled opposite I Love Lucy. Richard Boone, in the character of Dr. Konrad Styner, introduced the stories about doctors' experiences and acted in at least one episode, Flash of Darkness. Had anybody seen it, that episode would have been discussed in every news magazine and on every talk show. In it, Dr. Styner was at his office when he received a call that an atomic bomb had been dropped over the nearby city. He and his staff rushed to an improvised medical center and treated the injured while not knowing if their own families had survived. In 1954, the possibility of an atomic bomb attack by the Soviets was considered very real, and school children practiced marching calmly to the basement (three minute warning) or scrambling under the desk (no warning). Yet, I am not aware that there was any reaction to this show.
In another episode, Never Come Sunday, a couple have an autistic daughter. The medical profession can do nothing for the child's condition and the mother desperately seeks out expensive quacks who hold out the promise of a cure. Unfortunately, this show could run today and be as pertinent as it was a half century ago.
In the episode, My Brother Joe, a 10 year old boy succumbs to injuries he sustained from being hit by a drunk driver.
The show was not exactly escapist fare. It dealt with real issues not often seen on television, and dealt with them realistically and without sensationalism. No wonder it didn't do well.
So This Is New York (1948)
Too New Yorky?
This movie really was not a success, but give the studio credit for throwing a lot of talent at it. The movie was, if we are to believe IMDb, Stanley Kramer's first production. He and writer Carl Foreman collaborated on two more movies in the next three years: Champion, and High Noon. Kramer went on to produce many thoughtful movies (too many to list here) and Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Director Richard Fleischer also had a long career after So This Is New York, up to and including Conan the Barbarian.
Morgan had a reputation of, for a comedian, being an intellectual. He wrote for and became friends with Fred Allen. When his success on radio brought him to Hollywood's attention, his fellow New Yorker, Stanley Kramer, and he came up with a Ring Lardner tale called the Big Town. The choice was almost inevitable: Lardner's cynicism outmatched Morgan's. With Morgan being little known outside New York, they loaded the cast with familiar faces, not necessarily big stars, but familiar faces: Jerome Cowan, who was in every other Warner Brothers movie of the early 40s ( e.g., Miles Archer in the Maltese Falcon), Rudy Vallee, Hugh Herbert, and Leo Gorcey (perhaps a Carl Foreman connection here: Foreman wrote two Bowery Boys scripts a few years earlier). The ladies, Virginia Grey and Dona Drake, were glamorous. The score was by Dmitri Tiomkin, but I honestly can't remember a note he wrote. He did a more memorable score when he rejoined Kramer and Foreman on High Noon.
The weak link, I regret to say, was Henry. Aside from the witty voice-overs, he mostly sat and looked glum while the others acted rings around him. Even Arnold Stang, the stooge from Henry's radio show, stole their one brief scene together. And, there was zero chemistry between Henry and his wife played by Virginia Grey. Henry Morgan fans will be willing to overlook his shortcomings as a screen actor because this is his only comedy movie role. The rest of the world won't, and there are more of them than there are of us.
a Roman a G clef
This movie was made just a few years after the publication of Young Man with a Horn, a fictionalized homage to pioneer jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke who had died in 1931 at the age of 28. The film story parallels Beiderbecke's career more closely, although still fictitiously, and with the bluebird of happiness making an improbable appearance in the last reel. At the beginning of the movie, you could be misled into thinking the story is going to be about Louis Armstrong, for his fictional equivalent is the first shown. But the plot takes us north and Louis is left behind in New Orleans to reappear only briefly years later for an odd non-depiction of the legendary all night jam session featuring Bix and Louis. By "non-depiction" I mean that none of the playing at the session is heard, just a shot of the musicians looking weary as the sun comes up. To my thinking, this was a missed opportunity as Louis was alive and well when the movie was made and could have provided a sound track, and the Bix character's playing was done by Bunny Berigan, who had played in bands with Bix, and who could have stood toe to toe with Armstrong in a jam session for some really exciting music.
Oh, I almost forgot. There is some sort of a plot involving a girl and her father. They quickly become totally irrelevant.
The listing of the famous swing musicians in the cast of characters is very misleading: they do not appear in the story at all, just in a tacked on musical number at the end.
To sum up: the movie is something of a formless mess. It will be of interest only to Jackie Cooper fans and Beiderbecke fans curious about another fictionalization of their hero's life.