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Hung Up (1969)
Timeline
6 November 2017
In Movies International #7, a special Horror Fantasy issue, dated January 1969, there's a special feature on this film, including stills of several scenes and a production photo with lights, 35 mm camera, and technical crew. This feature had to have been prepared, say, two months earlier at the latest, suggesting that the film was made in 1968. Yet IMDb lists the release date as May 1973, four-and-a-half years later! What happened? Was this such a bomb that it was put on the shelf for over four years? Is IMDb's release date wrong? Were the 1968 stills and production shot just faked for publicity purposes and the film actually made later? (I doubt this last since, in the 1969 article, Gozzi, Dassin, and Lockhart are in the stills, and Luntz is mentioned as director; it seems unlikely all would still be available four years later.)

Just another "lost" film... no IMDb user or external reviews, no Plot, key words, etc. Six votes, all from non-US users (who saw it when it came out?). Gozzi's last film in a short career.
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Visual Trickery Disguises Narrative Weakness
22 February 2017
James Quandt's strident narration of the "video essay" that accompanies the Criterion release of THE FACE OF ANOTHER complains about the reception the film received in the United States on its initial release. He quotes the critics of the time: "extravagantly chic," "arch," "abstruse," "hermetic," "slavishly symbolic," and "more grotesque than emotionally compelling." Stop right there! These critics knew what they were talking about.

The film combines several hoary and not particularly profound narrative contrivances. Here's a man attempting to seduce his wife, pretending to be another person--this was old when THE GUARDSMAN first went on stage and has been done countless times. Then there's the classic mad scientist, presented with very little nuance, delving into Things that Man Was Not Meant to Know. Related to this is that the story is only able to exist by grossly underestimating man's ability to adapt to the unknown. (An example is the 1952 science fiction story "Mother" by Alfred Coppel in which astronauts all return insane when confronted with the vastness of space.) These primitive tropes are shamelessly built on a simple narrative situation that is completely unable to carry them: a man with a disfigured face getting facial reconstruction. This happens all the time, so what's to "not meant to know"? If all this isn't enough, Teshigahara tacks on an unrelated, completely separate set of characters in their own undeveloped narrative that even Quandt thinks doesn't work. The dialogue by author/screenwriter Kobo Abe is risible, sounding like something out of a grade-B forties horror film.

To disguise the paucity of the film's narrative, Teshigahara has tricked it up with what Quandt admiringly calls "its arsenal of visual innovation: freeze-frames, defamiliarizing close-ups, wild zooms, wash-away wipes, X-rayed imagery, stuttered editing, surrealist tropes, swish pans, jump cuts, rear projection, montaged stills, edge framing, and canted, fragmented, and otherwise stylized compositions." These arty-farty gimmicks (and more) are, of course, hardly "innovations." They were endemic in the early sixties. Their extensive use seems a vain attempt to disguise the film's shallow content. Quandt also sees great significance in the many repetitions in the film: I see only repetition.

But even that is not the film's worst problem. Teshigahara often seems like a still photographer lost in a form that requires narrative structure. His inability to develop a sustained narrative makes the film seem far longer than its already-long two hours plus. Things happen, but the film doesn't really progress. The end result is little more than a compendium of tricks and narrative scraps borrowed from others.
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Disappointing
4 April 2016
This is sometimes compared to THE THIRD MAN or ODD MAN OUT, but it reminded me of Ophuls' THE RECKLESS MOMENT, because Mason plays almost exactly the same character: a guy with a seedy past who gets mixed up with the heroine for criminal reasons but who sort of falls in love with her, shows his honorable colors, and winds up saving her at the expense of his life. And Mason played it almost exactly the same way (except for the accent). In the four years between 1949 (THE THIRD MAN) and 1953, the whole world changed. In 1949, the Russians giving Valli a hard time about her passport seemed just a part of all the horrors and discomforts of the immediate postwar experience. Here, the Cold War is full blown, a permanent condition, and it overpowers the film. There's nothing here that remotely matches Trevor Howard's deep, world-weary, mordant cynicism, or the maturity of Valli's character, brought about by living in the complex and appalling world of Europe at the end of WW II. Much of this film is flatly photographed, and the spy stuff that makes up the plot seems shallow and contrived, not remotely in the same league as Graham Greene's THIRD MAN screenplay. The Bloom character is a bit too naive, and the characters of Knef, her husband and the spy fighter are stick figures. Though it's entertaining enough in a minor way, it can only be described as a disappointment.
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Side Show (1931)
The Barker Reimagined as a Vaudeville Star Vehicle
4 April 2016
Film buffs know that there were three official film versions of the play THE BARKER, namely THE BARKER (1928), HOOP-LA (1933) and DIAMOND HORSESHOE (1945), and real film buffs know that Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu made two unofficial remakes, A STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS (1934) and FLOATING WEEDS (1959). But do they know about SIDE SHOW?

Consider this: SIDE SHOW features a traveling carny show called Col. Gowdy's Big City Shows. The barker (Donald Cook) is going with a girl in the show (Winnie Lightner) who he promises to marry but never does. Lightner is putting her younger sister (Evalyn Knapp) through school, and one day Knapp shows up unexpectedly at the show. Lightner tells Cook that while Knapp is around, they have to pretend that they don't have a relationship. She tells the innocent young Knapp that she can not stay with the show, even though Knapp points out that it's summer and there is no school. Lightner is called away for a moment, and while she's gone Knapp asks Col. Gowdy if she can stay, and he says it's OK with him, and when Lightner returns this endorsement from the Colonel is enough for her to relent. Cook starts to fool around with Knapp in a cynical way but then falls in love for real. Later, Knapp is doing a hoochie coochie dance while Cook shills for the show, when a local boy gets fresh with her. Cook starts a fight with the local, all the carny folks yell, "Hey, Rube!" and there's a royal free-for-all involving the whole carny. When the affair between Cook and Knapp is discovered, Lightner makes a big stink, and the two lovers leave the show. Wow. You'll find all these details, some slightly recast, in THE BARKER (and in the close remake HOOP-LA), even the name of the show. This isn't quite a remake of THE BARKER, and the very perfunctory and tacked-on ending here isn't similar to the original film (or the later HOOP-LA alternate), but there are an amazing number of similarities. The explanation is that THE BARKER was made by Warners and so they were free to cannibalize it. The name of the show may have been reused so that existing footage or props showing the name could be reused.

But this film isn't primarily a romantic drama, but more an excuse as a vehicle for three stars, only one of which is part of the love triangle. There's Charles Butterworth, who is given a lot of amusing business, and also has a number of lines that he can only have written himself. Some examples (said more-or-less apropos of nothing): "I know all about love. I learned about love from the state highway commissioner." "Well, Colonel, take it or leave it, I'm going for a bus ride." And "I believe I'd like to have a nice bag of stuffed figs." At one point he reads a long self-composed love poem to Lightner, which gets sidetracked into describing a sandwich.

Then, of course, there's Winnie Lightner, the supposed star of the film, who does some rather raw routines not related to the plot. She sings a long song in a hula outfit. (Hawaiian music is used as background music throughout the film to fairly good effect, another carryover from THE BARKER.) The song is about a girl whose smile says "Take a look at this," with Lightner (filmed from the navel up) raising her grass skirt at this repeated line. In another scene she impersonates a high diver and so as not to reveal her (supposedly) feminine voice, she talks in deaf-and-dumb hand signals. These are performed very fast, but one can catch a glimpse of not only "the finger" but the classic symbol of the forefinger of one hand poked through the circled thumb and forefinger of the other. Another scene has her playing a geek in black-face, making amusing geek noises.

Kibbee, the third star player, is Colonel Gowdy, and though he has no vaudeville routines as the others do, the character is built up to give him the sort of scenes that he does best; drunk scenes, and a heart-to-heart with Lightner, who is like a daughter to him.

Then there's Vince Barnett (a journeyman doofus I always enjoy) in a small part as The Great Santini. Yup, The Great Santini. One has to ask, was Pat Conroy, the author of the novel on which the film of that name was based, thinking of this film when he used the name, or was that name used in various early films and/or plays as a generic character name. Finally, the film has a nice carnival atmosphere, crowds on the midway, etc. There's a great shot taken from the Ferris wheel as it swings down and reveals the actors on the side-show stage. Visually, there is no stinting.

This is one of those early-Thirties programmers where an anemic plot is used as a background for a few musical numbers, some comedy routines and anything else that comes to mind, all jammed into 65 minutes. In this case, the combination is very agreeable.
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Religulous (2008)
Falls Short of its Aspirations
1 April 2016
I'm yet another person who agrees with Maher's message but who doesn't really have that much respect for the vehicle in which he delivers it. The decision to make this a comedy (presumably to get people to see it) is just one of its many flaws. Maher takes on the obvious phonies and extreme cases (which he justifies in the commentary track because many of these folks do have large numbers of followers), and does tangentially make the case that undocumented belief is undocumented belief, regardless of whether it is wacky or mainstream. But this kind of easy cheap shot isn't going to change the minds of the fundamentalist followers and it allows more mainstream religionists to discount his arguments. He may have had trouble getting mainstream representatives of religion to engage with him, but if he had it wouldn't have been particularly funny and wouldn't have fit into the film Maher and Charles wanted to make.

One exception is a straightforward interview with Father George Coyne, a Vatican scientist, who describes the "fundamentalist approach to religious belief (as) kind of a plague." It's a plague worth fighting, one that many people of faith would join, and it's really the target of much of the film even though Maher says he is taking on all belief.

There are certainly some interesting and fun moments here, the highlight being the interview with impish Vatican Latin scholar Father Reginald Foster. Another is the interview with "ex-gay" minister John Wescott, who holds his own against Maher while maintaining strong rapport and good cheer, a really interesting character. The scenes in the Truckers Chapel are especially good. Maher doesn't mock these believers but treats them seriously and with respect. The rapport that Maher seems to have developed with these men suggests that their discussion may have been much longer than what wound up in the film. At the end of the scene, Maher accepts their prayers for him in a generous spirit and says, "Thank you for being Christ-like and not just Christian." This sequence, coming at the beginning, gave me high hopes for the film, hopes largely not met.

What I found reprehensible--and it happens several times--is the phony editing, where, after Maher makes his point there's a cut to the other person apparently chagrined or speechless. These isolated cuts obviously come from some other point in the conversation--really dishonest and cheap manipulation of film. All the interviews show evidence of being heavily edited, sometimes, one suspects, to somewhat change actual content. Maher has also been rightly taken to task in other IMDb comments for making some casual absolute statements of fact that are either incorrect or deserve more nuanced comment. One is the statement that there's a "gay gene," which is still under discussion in the scientific community (see "No, Scientists Have Not Found the 'Gay Gene'," dated October 10, 2015 on The Atlantic magazine website).

At the end of the day, the problem isn't really religion, it's people. Religion can serve as a vessel for codes of moral and ethical behavior and empathy with one's fellow man. But, human nature being what it is, religion is also a vessel for all sorts of intolerant and evil behavior. Things can be just as bad, or even worse, without religious belief. I think Maher copped out when he said that, well, Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, they were religions of a sort.
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Bad Girl (1931)
...Good Film
26 February 2013
Note: some scenes described in detail.

As usual for Borzage, this is full of sentiment, and the details of the plot are deadly. Never was the development of misunderstandings between two inarticulate people more aggressively, one might say more ruthlessly, pursued. When they're not playing "Gift of the Magi" (he giving up the dream of his own radio store for the big apartment he thinks she wants), they're busy each thinking that the other doesn't really want the baby. And how could Borzage resist milking the maternity ward scene, with its inevitable ethnic cross-section, older woman, and troubled mother. And here's another version of that typical pre-Code era film pair, the beautiful girl and the unhandsome blow-hard boob.

All that said, this is still a very good film in spite of itself, certainly deserving of its Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Borzage constantly redeems himself at the worst moments. A prime example: the evening before the baby's due Jimmy goes out to fight four rounds of preliminaries at $10 a round to pay the doctor. Sally is lying at home, convinced that he's with his drunken friends, or worse, and no longer loves her. Dunn's opponent is a mean-looking, cynical, paunchy guy who's about to knock him out in the second round. Oh, the ironic cross-cutting: he's getting the crap beat out of him, while she lies in bed, anxious and bitter. But, in a clinch, Jimmy begs the pug not to knock him out because his wife's going to have a baby. Why didn't you say so, says the obliging pug, I've got two of my own. In an amusing moment they chat away while pretending to lambaste each other. This takes the curse off the sentimental plot maneuvering.

And there are a lot of other fine sequences, too. The film starts with Eilers in a fancy wedding gown, being attended to by a dresser. She's so nervous, she tells best-friend Gombell, who's dressed as a bridesmaid. As they do the formal bride's walk through the phalanx of bridesmaids, in the corner of the screen one sees part of a tray of dirty dishes being carried by a waiter. Gradually the camera pulls back to show that they're modeling the gowns for a bunch of lecherous buyers. Then they go to Luna Park (nice shots of the park). Throughout these early scenes there are plenty of sharp pre-Code wisecracks about how men only have one thing on their minds. Funny, breezy stuff. They meet Dunn on the ferry on the way home, the first guy that doesn't make a pass. The scene shifts to the couple sitting at the foot of her rooming-house stairwell. As they talk, an old hen-pecked lush comes down the stairs, and an older woman uses the hall phone to tell her sister that their mother has just died. That may be pouring the milieu on a bit thick, Borzage style, but this scene is beautifully played by Eilers and by the older woman and is quite affecting. Later, when Eilers stays in Dunn's room (no hanky-panky, it seems) and he asks her to marry him, her brother kicks her out of the house, and Gombell, the brother's gal, walks too. (Single-mom Gombell's little boy is a terror. In the morning he won't scram: "I want to see Dotty get out of bed.") Sally is sure that Jimmy will desert her at the alter, and that's the beginning of all the tear-jerking plot elements.

But the film goes beyond those elements with a richness of detail, a generous painting of daily life in the city during the Depression. And, when all's said and done, what really makes the film, and where Borzage ultimately redeems himself, is in the performances. Eilers, who somehow never got the recognition she deserved, is beautiful and gives a strong, sensitive, emotional performance--for my money a more appealing one than most of Janet Gaynor's work for Borzage. Gombell, another undervalued thirties player, is really fine as the tough but good-natured pal, who doesn't let Dunn's dislike of her color her opinion of him as a good husband for Eilers. Her performance goes beyond the requirements of the script in very subtle ways. And Dunn, well, he plays the typical early-thirties boob of a husband, but even he has a bravura scene when he breaks down while having to beg the expensive doctor to handle his wife's childbirth. Borzage films are always full of sentiment, but not always honest sentiment. This scene with the doctor is full of sentiment, but it's honestly handled, and one can say the same for the whole film.
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Typical Entertaining Warners Film of the Time
15 January 2013
This is not "dull, trite and talky" as noted at the time by Variety, but a typically engaging 1932 Warners drama. The murder of a wealthy man in his country home is big news, especially since his wife seems to have quarreled with him that night about her boy friend. Two camps of reporters descend on the small town; the yellow journalists and the more responsible press. Joan Blondell is one of the bad crew, and is Kenneth Thomson's girlfriend, at least until the small town girl takes a shine to him. There are some nicely done scenes, particularly Blondell's cynically telling her rival what to expect from Thomson. She really belts it out in her inimitable style. Nearly as good is where Thomson himself tells the new girl what to expect; that he's an alcoholic and a manic depressive. It's good because he's pretty much telling the truth at the same time he's handing her a line. Tom Brown doesn't leave much of an impression as the local cub reporter, and the story cheats a bit on the solution of the murder. But the reporters' milieu, the good character-player line-up, and the general energy and pace of the production certainly make this worth seeing.
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Fine, Subtle pre-Code era Film With the Stars at Their Best
15 January 2013
Warning: Spoilers
I'm really glad to see the many thoughtful, positive comments about this film on IMDb, because it's one of my favorite pre-Code era films. The film books don't give it good marks: Halliwell ("not quite smart enough"), Hirschhorn's Warner book ("pallid stuff"), Homer Dickens ("not a very good film"), Maltin ("disappointing"). Don't believe these folks! Perhaps part of the problem is that this sentimental tale, while not an unfamiliar story, is nothing like the Cagney action films and comedies that preceded it. It just isn't what critics and viewers would expect. Interestingly, one critic, Howard Barnes, writing at the time the film was released, comes a little closer: "It is James Cagney's gift to execute a characterization with such clarity and conviction that (the film) becomes exciting and engaging through his participation ... he moves with fine restraint and assurance, making the screen drama a rather effective hodgepodge of melodrama and sentiment." Effective it is, but far from being a hodgepodge, the story is constructed unusually well for Warners at the time: no padding, no abrupt truncated bits, each sequence weighted properly in terms of the others. The melodrama is kept to a bare minimum: one can imagine a big action shoot-out scene at the end, with Cagney dying in her arms, and numerous other chances for standard melodrama, all avoided. Certainly, a key to the success of the film is Cagney's immensely subtle, nuanced performance; always charming, but never for a moment not a heel. As with the similar character in CEILING ZERO, Cagney knows to play the role as though he's a good guy and let the story tell the truth about the character. Blondell's performance, too, is extraordinary; the usual archetypical brassy blonde is here unexpectedly vulnerable. But the script is a full partner in these characterizations. Blondell's past is not glossed over: "I met him right here in this hotel, he was in the big city for a good time, the bellboy introduced us, you can figure it from there." There's Cagney's predatory request for sex in their first scene, taking advantage from the first moment of the fact that she likes him and that she's almost obligated and really has little choice. Of course, one looks ahead and can assume that Cagney will probably be killed and she'll marry Jory. But there are so many possible bad paths to this conclusion, and none taken here. In fact, it's a measure of the film's success that there's considerable tension built, and one isn't really sure during the watching exactly how it will play out. Not only is the story well told, but the dialogue is excellent, with the characters speaking their mind, though often indirectly. Exposition is masterfully integrated with the characterization in the dialogue. There's a large cast of fully drawn minor characters, too. Perhaps some would find Jory's Portuguese fisherman a bit much (though I am glad to see the IMDb comments are generally very favorable), but in the context the character works. And it's so nice to see Jory not the villain for once. What I love about the better early-Thirties films is that they don't point the viewer to an obvious interpretation of each scene, and their structure is fluid and not predictable in its details. The subtle moments don't call attention to themselves and may be missed by viewers used to a more straightforward style. This is a fine film with outstanding performances from Cagney and Blondell, and if you avoid it because of the "experts" you'll be missing a rewarding film.
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10/10
A Great Documentary about a Fascinating Talent
10 January 2013
I found this film an incredibly rich experience. As a documentary--a document--it's an extremely thorough and detailed examination of Doc Pomus's life and work. Pomus is a fascinating person, a major musical talent of his time, and it's also obvious he changed the lives of many who came in contact with him. A wide range of Pomus's cohorts and family members are interviewed, and the archival footage and recordings are incredible. It's densely packed with strong images, and every one has a reason for being there, furthering the narrative, adding to the mosaic in a meaningful way. But beyond the documenting of Pomus's life, this film stands on its own as a work of art. It flows like music, it has an emotional narrative in addition to the linear one, which isn't forced but is there naturally. As critic Ken Eisner says, "The overall feeling the film leaves you with is joyous, not elegiac." There's no substitute for having the tenacity to collect all the material, taking the time and care to put it all together meaningfully, and then having the talent to make the whole more than the sum of its parts. I can only think of one documentary that compares with this and that's Terry Zwigoff's acclaimed CRUMB. I hope this film gets wide distribution and the recognition it deserves.
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Slick But Not Very Cinematic
26 January 2012
Warning: Spoilers
This is a pretty good looking silent film. The sets and the crowd scenes are fine, the acting's adequate, the elaborate back-lighting's all there. There aren't really that many titles, but the story IS all told in the titles. After a while, one realizes that one hardly has to look at the pictures, just keep alert for the titles... so the pictures recede dramatically in importance. In the end, it's a journeyman job, with a lack of respect for the viewer's intelligence. For example, when a character tells other character about events we've already seen, the titles carefully spell it all out, or the scene is shown again, just in case the audience forgot. It's the tale of a poor violinist taken under the wing of a painter and tutored by a has-been violinist. When his granny cracks him on the bean, he actually travels up those ethereal stairs to the pearly gates where St. Peter tells him that he'll only be a great artist if he doesn't mess around with women. But does he listen? One can't blame him for breaking training with Russian princess June Novak, who's hot stuff in soft-focus close-ups. When he and the princess find themselves in the middle of the Russian revolution, he has a sword fight with a revolution leader--his old violin instructor!--and is clearly killed dead on screen while thousands of revolutionaries look on. Nevertheless, he manages to end the film in a clinch with his sweetie. It's all entertaining enough, but lacking the visually sophisticated storytelling techniques that Hitchcock (screenwriter and art director on this film) would employ when he became director, even in his first films.
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Malle's Homage to Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles
3 January 2012
It's interesting that no IMDb commenters seem to have caught Malle's significant homage in "William Wilson."

Malle makes Wilson far more sadistic than Poe's character. In the opening school sequence, Poe's Wilson is, to be sure, a leader of the other students: "the ardor, the enthusiasm, and the imperiousness of my disposition, soon rendered me a marked character among my schoolmates, and by slow, but natural gradations, gave me an ascendancy over all not greatly older than myself." Any sadism is, at most, implied: "If there is on earth a supreme and unqualified despotism, it is the despotism of a master mind in boyhood over the less energetic spirits of its companions." In Poe, Wilson does not try to strangle his doppelganger, nor is he expelled from the school. He approaches the other's bed at night, apparently sees his own face on the sleeping boy and "passed silently from the chamber, and left at once, the halls of that old academy, never to enter them again."

In Malle's film, Wilson is torturing another student as a snowball fight rages in the background. The doppelganger makes his first appearance by hitting Wilson with a snowball. The snow fight, the torture, the significant hit by a snowball, the expulsion from school are not in Poe's tale.

But all these elements ARE in Jean Cocteau's novel LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES. The snowball fight not only is featured in Jean-Pierre Melville's film of the novel, but Cocteau filmed the scene earlier in his own BLOOD OF A POET. The torture is briefly in Melville's film, but described more fully in the novel: "By the spasmodic flaring of the gas lamp he could be seen to be a small boy with his back against the wall, hemmed in by his captives...One of these...was squatting between his legs and twisting his ears...Weeping, he sought to close his eyes, to avert his head. But every time he struggled, his torturer seized a fistful of gray snow and scrubbed his ears with it." As the snow fight continues, Cocteau's iconic character Dargelos throws a snowball that hits another student and puts in motion the events of the novel/film.

Dargelos is the same sort of malignant leader of his schoolmates as Malle's young Wilson. The headmaster calls his influence on his classmates unhealthy, and after an outrageous act he is expelled from the school. Even more to the point, Dargelos has a doppelganger in the form of the character Agathe. In Melville's film Dargelos and Agathe are played by same person, and their mysterious resemblance is important to the story.

All of these added Cocteau elements are so strong that one assumes that Malle intended viewers to recognize the reference.
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Where is the five-year plan?
20 March 2011
This is obviously by far the best film in the rather limited genre of the "city tone-poem." The pacing is excellent, the editing is really stylish, and, for the most part, the subjects selected are interesting, either intrinsically or because of the editing. But what's more amazing than the quality of the film is the subject matter, because, with the exception of a shot of Lenin's portrait, this seems not just neutral politically but positively bourgeois in outlook. There ARE sequences of industry in action, automated machines twisting and turning, great steel furnaces, and girls on an assembly line making packets of cigarettes, all of which remind one of those American industry-distributed films of the 'fifties that were shown on rainy-day school lunch-hours. This isn't so surprising, since the Soviet view of industry regimentation seems to have been similar to the West's at the time. But the rest of the film is really amazing in that it is almost exclusively concerned with decidedly middle-class people at play. At play! Why aren't they out working on the latest five-year plan? Contrast this to Grigori Kozintsev's contemporary films: the party in THE NEW BABYLON (1929) is shown as wicked in comparison to the drudgery of the workers supporting it, and the girl in ALONE (1931) is admonished for her selfish desire to have a happy home life with a husband when there are Siberian children to teach. But here we see pretty girls in stylish clothes, middle class families out for a ride in carriages and *gasp* autos, beauty shops with manicurists (engagingly cross-cut with the film editor at work), Sunday at the beach, a magician entertaining children, merry-go-rounds, spectators having fun at a motorcycle race, very non-regimented basketball and soccer games, people at a reducing salon, relaxed couples drinking and eating at a bar, posters of entertainment films (and the audience of the film we're watching, trooping into a fairly plush theatre and enjoying themselves thoroughly), etc. The film is a celebration of life as it is, with bums waking up on their benches at the start of the day seen as a poetic celebration of life. Bums in the workers paradise?? In one sequence, happy mothers of newborns, old women in grief in a cemetery, and young people getting marriage licenses are contrasted, in an intended tapestry of life. The emphasis is on the emotions of the individual. There's a wry commentary on the young to-be-marrieds: some look as though they're not well matched; one woman covers her face when the camera intrudes. Affectionate, ironic, even satiric, comment on the human condition is the obvious purpose of the film. Typical is a sequence contrasting a young female nude long-distance swimmer applying grease to her body, with another young woman with a perm applying lipstick to her mouth. How did this paean to pleasure seeking and personal fulfillment, this hymn to individualism, ever get made in Russia in 1929?
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A Fine Little Film
20 March 2011
Warning: Spoilers
This was released in September 1934, so even the announcement of pregnancy has to be done in inaudible whispers in the ear, but it still has the essential element of the pre-Code era, that open style and loose narrative structure that doesn't try to "lead" the viewer. This isn't a "comedy," a "romance," or a "drama." It has elements of all three but it's a film to be taken as a totality that goes from one moment to another in unexpected ways and doesn't have a predictable plot. At first we see Lee Tracy at the track, trading wisecracks with the law and fleecing suckers. When the cops are after him, he takes off with an aging drunk, Henry Walthall, to his home town. There Tracy meets Walthall's daughter Helen Mack, and they fall in love. Tracy settles down with a store job and things seem fine. Tracy good-naturedly chafes at the job, but this isn't one of those tales about the footloose guy who loves the gal but can't settle down. Tracy's a guy in charge of his life; he understands that Mack is worth settling down for, and does what's necessary without it clipping his breezy nature. But then she dies in childbirth. There's a an amazing scene after she dies that demonstrates the range of the Tracy persona, which always had depth of character under the wisecracks. He stands there in shock, alone with the baby, and muses, "What's it all about?" There's just so many great things about the film, starting with Frawley. Frawley was said to be acerbic and unpleasant in person, but it's hard to believe he was all that bad, his performances are so detailed, zesty, affectionate, and real. Here, he plays a race-track sharp, but with a stylish command of language that gets him through any scrape. At one point he sits at the piano and does a wonderful rendition of "Carolina in the Morning" for Baby LeRoy that brought applause from the Film Forum audience. (It's said that he claimed to have introduced the song in "The Passing Show of 1922" at the Winter Garden.) Minna Gombell, an underrated performer of the era, is fine as Frawley's girlfriend/wife, and the other supporting players are uniformly good. Tracy uses track slang throughout, and at one point uses classic rhyming slang, the very same heard in British working-class films of the sixties. There's another musical sequence when Tracy and Mack have a party to celebrate being married for six months. It's a large, happy, raucous party which is another indicator that Tracy has adjusted to married life but is still his spirited self. Eddie Peabody does a banjo solo, and then he and Tracy play a banjo duet, each strumming on one banjo and playing the chords on the other. The way they're sitting you barely notice that they're intertwined like that. Very high energy numbers. The film as a whole, though, is rather low key, not intent on proving anything, but just telling out its tale. The comedy, the romance, the drama are all done with a rare good nature. The closest thing to a nasty character is Clarence Wilson as the owner of the retail store where Tracy and Mack work, but it's a reflexive sort of nastiness that no one bothers about too much. Today's audiences might be puzzled by this film that never tells them what to think or to expect, but it's a fine little film.
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Strachy (1938)
Delightful Film of its Time
11 February 2010
I really loved this film for its total assurance in utilizing all of the film grammar of its time, a way of looking at images that's now totally lost. In ways similar to the great French films, it has the ambiance, the use of sound and editing, of light and shadow, the music, the style of acting, the meandering story told through anecdotal detail, all woven effortlessly into a seamless, enchanting whole. And like the Scandinavian films of the period, it mixes tawdry realism with mystical elements. It's not that it's derivative so much as that all these directors were breathing the same cultural air, the cinema atmosphere of the time. So it's filled with wonderful arty touches: the opening of dancing shadows on a screen; raindrops falling in a glistening puddle used as a narrative bridge; the long tracking shot of the outside back corner of a moving car, with the thoughts of the unseen girl inside whispered on the sound track; the wind blowing the abandoned wedding dress; the scream of the landlady who finds the hanging suicide overlapping the scene where the other girl reads the delivered suicide note. The story: two girls kick around the music hall circuit. One is made pregnant by a nasty producer, and is blackmailed by him when she has an abortion. The other, the lead character, an attractive blonde, has a crush on the headline singer in the show. When she readily sleeps with him he finds it disturbing. So when the show closes she goes on tour and has more ups and downs until the satisfying ending. It's not a truly great film, but it's quite wonderful anyhow.

Aka SPOOKS or THE GHOSTS or ANXIETY.
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Enjoyable, not really great
4 June 2009
This film doesn't have a very good reputation, e.g., "slow moving" (Maltin) and "a slight, stiff play is swamped by the cast" (Halliwell). IMDb comments are mixed. Well, it does have the limitations one would expect from Korda filming a period play in lavish Technicolor. It is pictorially static, with overly bright colors. For the most part, the actors' voices are animated but their bodies are strangely inert. But in general I thought this wasn't that bad an adaptation, somewhat better than the trendy 1999 version, if only because Korda understood the period he was filming. It seems to me that Wilde's plot complications have been smoothed out a bit here (his name is not even on the credits!) so that the solution follows the problem too quickly and the whole thing can be over in 96 minutes and still have a spectacular recreation of crowds in period costume at the Ascot races. (Perhaps this is an unfair comment since IMDb notes that an original version was a half-hour longer.) With the casting and the spirited performance of Goddard, Mrs. Cheveley becomes the most animated and virile character in the film. Lady Chiltern's conception of morality should stem from a vigorous, naive idealistic vision. She should be a dynamic, slightly-otherworldly treasure with a fairytale view of the world and be the core of the film, for the plot hinges on her vision of purity. The casting and somewhat stodgy performance of Wynyard in the role weakens the story. The character becomes merely an upright, slightly stuffy moralist. Hmmm. Perhaps the criticisms directed at the film are justified. In spite of this, I quite enjoyed this, my third go-around with the play. The Importance of Being Earnest is perhaps more witty and amusing, but this story has a much more provocative drama at its core, with interesting things to say about ethics, morality and idealism. I find it odd that it is universally described as a comedy. Certainly there's a lot of pithy, epigrammatic dialogue, and some light moments, but the basic story is a clear-cut moral drama. The anguish of Sir Chiltern and his wife is real, the stakes are high and virtually life-threatening, and the moral decisions are agonizing.
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Kick In (1931)
Top Notch in all Departments!
1 June 2008
This was called a "B" film by Bow biographer David Stenn when he introduced the first showing of the restored print of this film at New York's Film Forum, but then Paramount never really gave Bow an "A" film budget. If the term "B" film implies anything less than a top-notch, tight, tense, realistic drama with an intelligent script and excellent performances, then this is definitely not a "B" film!

One is caught up in and involved in the characters from the start. Toomey is released from prison, his wife Bow waiting for him. He finds it hard to get a job, but he is determined and is helped out financially by a fellow crook who is happy to see him go straight. The detective who sent him up doesn't believe anyone can go straight and keeps an eye on him. Finally he gets a good job and after three years a substantial promotion. But then his pal, the thief, pulls a jewelry heist--from the district attorney's house!--and is seriously wounded. There are many twists to the plot, all of them believable, completely character driven and tautly presented. The performances are superb: Fenton as Bow's coke-fiend brother, Crisp as the Police Chief, tough but fair even though he's in a tight spot with the DA, and Hurst as the bad detective, thoroughly despicable and totally unlikable but still a human character, not a stock villain. Not to mention Toomey, who gives surprising force to the lead character, a man with inner strength even though he knows he's been dealt a position of weakness, and Bow, equally steadfast against the odds. Especially good is Wynne Gibson as the thief's girl. Her love for him is deep and her grief when he dies is ultimately is what brings about the denouement. In fact, one of the great things about the film is that, though the odds are against them, both couples derive great strength from their love. The story moves fast, and although it's tightly plotted, there's nothing that happens that's expected. Just top notch construction. On a second viewing, I found that the story still moved so swiftly and inevitably that I was again completely wrapped up in the characters and events. This is indeed a top-notch thirties film! Very realistic, well structured, well written script, great acting, great pace. Now that it has been restored, it should be made available on DVD as soon as possible!
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Great sense of the Seedy City
1 June 2008
THE TATTOOED STRANGER was made two years after THE NAKED CITY and is obviously strongly influenced by it. Both films start with the murder of a woman and no clues. Both feature a team of a veteran and a neophyte detective. Both emphasize the legwork the young detective has to do, going from store to store throughout the city. In both the young detective tries to catch the killer alone. And both even feature a location with gravestones in the final chase. Yet, still, STRANGER is much more effective in capturing the real, everyday city, and is a memorable film in its own right. THE NAKED CITY rarely looks as though it were filmed with a hidden camera; in that bigger-budget production, the real locations look more like sets, with hired extras, studio camera-work and lighting, etc. (The exception, of course, is the breathtaking finale on the Williamsburg Bridge.) And the foreground action takes precedence; one doesn't get a strong sense of the texture of the city the way one does in STRANGER, where almost the entire film is made on various locations, including The Bowery.

The detection and the crime are quite realistic, and the bit players--including two tattoo experts and various luncheonette owners--seem as though they were pulled off the street. The excellent pacing matches a good script and performances appropriate to the story. The dialogue is sharp: pointing the body out to morgue attendants arriving just after the shootout, "He's over here, just the way you like him." And the young clean-cut cop has a nice sense of what a cop can get away with. In one of those greasy luncheonettes he tells a customer who seems interested in his conversation, "Joe, your ice cream's melting." With its real sense of the seedy atmosphere of the city, its agreeable pacing and crisp dialogue, THE TATTOOED STRANGER is a top notch film in its genre, able to hold its own in comparison to bigger-budgeted films.
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The Original Story Was Better!
1 June 2008
Warning: Spoilers
The screenplay of MYSTERIOUS INTRUDER is by Eric Taylor, based on his own story "Murder to Music," which appeared in the May 1936 BLACK MASK magazine. Taylor was not one of the first tier BLACK MASK writers, and his work for the magazine varies in quality, but this was a good one, one of his best. At around 16,000 words, the story could have been transcribed to a 61 minute feature with little expansion, and Taylor 's screenplay generally follows his story, but there are numerous small changes and some major ones, and they're all for the worse. A story that originally made perfect sense is often trashed for minor effects. In the story one knows from the beginning that the first girl is the detective's stooge. Actually showing the scene where she meets the old man means that, to fool the audience, she has to be afraid of Pontos (the only character name retained from the story), which makes no sense, since in fact he's her accomplice. A strong moment of surprise in the story is when the detective suddenly accuses the fake girl of trying to get him killed. Taylor has carefully set up the relationship between the two so that the revelation has some punch. In the film it seems like just another meaningless plot twist. In the story, he has his secretary call in and say she's the real girl so that the phony will be released. In the movie, he himself tells the newspapermen, so of course the cops know he sent the phony. The latter part of the film diverges significantly from the story. The denouement of the story is a great scene where the detective seems to be in a bad spot, with the bad guys having their guns on him, but he calmly points out that they have limited options unless they want to kill off "half of San Francisco." And a significant point in the story is that they're not really professional tough-guy crooks except for their hired man Pontos, so the detective's sudden action play after he has them unnerved makes sense. The stooge girl isn't killed, and there's no final scene back in shop, and of course the detective is not killed and the rightful owner, the authentic girl, gets the recordings. There doesn't seem to be much point to the film's end. Having the recordings broken seems a little hard on the character of the innocent young girl who deserves a break. There are other plot flaws in the end of the film. It ends with the ironic note of the cops thinking the detective was guilty. But he had made a call to the cops before he died, so presumably when they get back to headquarters they'll know that he was on the level. Also, at the beginning of the film Pontos apparently takes the recordings with him, yet at the end they are found in the store. And the old storekeeper hadn't seemed aware that he or the recordings were in danger, so why would he hide them inside a base drum? Aside from being more logical, the original story has a more authentic atmosphere, and Taylor adds a number of telling, small details not in the film.

One doesn't necessarily expect a strong plot from a series film like this, but in this case the author based the screenplay on his own tightly plotted, excellent story. But instead of following the story, he restructured it so there are plot flaws and loose ends. Ah, well.

The best thing about the film, and the biggest surprise, is that Richard Dix is perfect as the sleazy, not-so-smart, PI; who would have thought it? It's nice to see Charles Lane on screen for more than 30 seconds, quite a rarity. And Castle doesn't do such a bad job with the script that he's given; the film is reasonably atmospheric and the pace is good. If you like series programmers this film should satisfy.
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An Atmospheric Adventure film
14 January 2008
I have a vivid memory of the condensed version of ISLE OF LOST SHIPS that was shown on the TV program "Silents Please" in 1960-61. The imagery was stunning and atmospheric, a vast array of half-sunken ships from all eras, all floating in thick seaweed, with the players scrambling from ship to ship. But which version was shown on that show--the 1923 or the 1929 film? (Of course, it's possible that footage from the 1923 film was incorporated into the 1929 version since they were both made by First National.)

Steve Joyce at silentsf.com says that the 1923 version is a "lost" film. Janiss Garza at allmovie.com describes that version as though she may have seen it, though she was probably drawing on contemporary descriptions. The great William K. Everson, who had seen just about every movie ever made, said in 1960 of the 1923 version, "how we'd like to see that one!" The occasion of this remark was his showing, at the Theodore Huff Society, a one-reel condensation of the 1929 version that had been made by Robert Youngson for theatrical release. Hal Ericson at All Movie Guide (picked up on many sites) says that this one-reeler is titled AN ADVENTURE TO REMEMBER, a film listed on IMDb as released in 1953, but with no details as to subject.

Both Paul Killiam, who produced the material for "Silents Please," and Youngson were in the same business of repackaging silent films for general audiences of a later era. It's reasonable to assume that the two, each making abbreviated versions of ISLE OF LOST SHIPS at the same general time, were drawing from the same source, namely the 1929 film.

The IMDb site indicates that MoMA has a print, and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research (wisconsinhistory.org) lists a 16mm print of the 1929 version in their holdings, but neither indicates whether their print is sound or silent. Most references indicate that the 1929 film was made in both sound and silent versions. Everson in his 1960 notes states that it "was one of the early sound-on-disc films for which the discs have been apparently lost," without indicating that there was a silent version. The TV Guide reviewer (tvguide.com) actually seems to have seen the film ("The direction is often atmospheric, though it struggles a bit with plausibility") and, by stating that it was "a remake of a 1923 silent," suggests that a sound version was seen. The contemporary TIME review (11/11/29) seems to suggest that this may have been essentially a silent film with dialogue scenes added: "Occasionally effective camera work fails to make up for stolid sequences of dialog explaining the locale."

But even if some sequences are weak, I remember the scenes shown on "Silents Please" as being so dramatic, atmospheric and mysterious, that I wish this could be released on DVD.
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Silents Please (1960–1962)
A Great Show
14 January 2008
I remember this as a wonderful show that was respectful to silent films, chose great examples, and did a great job of trimming them to fit that half-hour time-frame, with narration that was good and not overpowering. I particularly remember a segment about the Sargasso sea as being visually stunning (probably ISLE OF LOST SHIPS).

Like other commenters here, I remembered the show first without Kovaks and then with Kovaks. According to THE COMPLETE DIRECTORY TO PRIME TIME NETWORK TV SHOWS by Brooks and Marsh, "Silents Please" ran from August to October 1960, with no on-screen host. It was then replaced by the Kovaks' show "Take a Good Look," which ran until March 1961, at which time "Silents Please" again took over the slot and ran through October 1961, this time with Kovaks as host.
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Very Similar To...
2 December 2007
This is an enjoyable light murder mystery, but I might have enjoyed it more if I hadn't recently seen BLIND ADVENTURE, made the year before by Ernest B. Schoedsack for RKO. The plot elements, as I recall, are strikingly similar: a foggy London night, the hero accidentally going into a house and finding a body, which is then missing when he comes back with help; a young girl's relative disappearing, and a foreign ambassador of some sort who seems legit but is a bad guy; constant breaking into the house in question; all the action occurring in one evening; and the hero and the girl-in-distress an item by the evening's end. And, in both instances, comedy relief that actually adds to the film! Roland Young was very pleasing in BLIND ADVENTURE, but no one can match Butterworth at his best, which he is here. Once again, one feels that he had to have written many of his lines. Here, he's married that very day to Una Merkel, who affectionately calls him "Mousey." Colman: "Never leave your wife." Butterworth: "I'll speak to her about it." When Drummond finds adventure, he calls up Butterworth and asks him to tag along, without a care that it's Butterworth's wedding night. Butterworth isn't really an innocent here, he knows what he's missing out on. In response to one of these calls, he says, "we've reached sort of a critical moment." Robert Armstrong in BLIND ADVENTURE seems a more real, more interesting character. Here, both the script and Colman play it as a not-to-be-taken-seriously, boy's-own adventure, a tacit acknowledgment that this is just another caper in a series. One nice addition here is that the inevitable policeman who doesn't believe there's a problem is C. Aubrey Smith. You're on his side, really. Why doesn't this boy scout let him get some sleep?

Apparently Butterworth was an off-screen drinking buddy of such literary wits as Robert Benchley and Corey Ford. Note that Benchley wrote "additional dialogue" for BLIND ADVENTURE, presumably for Young's Butterworth-like character.
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Apache Drums (1951)
A Western to Stand Beside Lewton's Horror Classics
16 September 2007
Like Lewton's horror films, one doesn't notice the low budget (the lowest ever for a color film at that time, per Lewton) because of the excellent character development and the plot tensions. And like his horror films, it's what you CAN'T see that's so terrifying. The final scene is in an adobe church with high, open windows. Outside one can hear the Apache drums and chants, the light from the burning town flickers on the walls, and one is forced to imagine the scene outside, as do the small band of settlers claustrophobically huddled inside. Indians appear at the windows from time to time like fun-house pop-ups. It's a nightmare situation mined for all its possibilities. Other scenes have a similar effect. A man without a gun comes on a just-massacred traveling party; suddenly, danger seems to exist all around him. Later, the hero is traveling with a party of armed men; suddenly he finds himself alone on foot on a flat plain with nowhere to take cover and a band of Apaches riding toward him at full gallop. And the opening scene: a gunfight occurs off-screen, shattering the peaceful scene of a kitten being served milk (an example of what Lewton called a "bus" scene after the sudden appearance of the bus in THE CAT PEOPLE). Though these situations may not be unique to this film, they are obviously the sort that appealed to Lewton, and are handled very effectively. But the core of the film is the characters: the protagonist, a card sharp who plays the angles (his nickname is "Slick") and is fast with a gun, a wise-ass who isn't all bad; the virtuous sheriff who isn't all good; the preacher, an old man with a lot of gumption, not a bad judge of character, but a reactionary Irish Catholic priest with a strong racial prejudice. Other typically interesting Lewton characters are the madam who's happy enough to leave town if someone will buy her out at a good price, the cavalry officer who understands the Indians, and particularly the stoic Indian scout, faithful to the settlers to the end. The very fact that these characters don't move to extremes in extreme situations, that they have both good and less positive traits, is what gives this film its grab. It's a film that doesn't force the viewer to follow its path, and doesn't automatically go to the dramatic limit suggested by the situation... That's why Lewton's films are great!
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Great, Unknown Bunuel
16 September 2007
I had seen nearly all of Bunuel's films, including his early "commercial" Mexican ones, but had actually never heard of this one before seeing it. This is really an extraordinary film! The great cast is just the beginning. It starts much like an "A" Western, with lines drawn between diamond miners and corrupt Mexican officials. Leading archetypical characters are introduced in a classic manner: the arrogant lone stranger with a distinctive cowboy hat; the old prospector who just wants to build a nest-egg so he can open a restaurant in Paris; his deaf-mute daughter; the cynical gal who does well by doing the best she can; and the naive priest. This last is, of course, a very Bunuelian character; his every good deed backfires on him, and his proselytizing is financed by big companies who find Christianized natives a cheap source of labor. The events have a classic cast and are filmed with great, stylish skill and action-film panache. But classic Bunuelian touches abound. An example: the soldiers who arrest the stranger on a trumped-up charge stop off at the church to pray, and brutally kick him to a kneeling position. The deaf-mute girl, who he had previously treated cruelly, happens to be kneeling next to him and strokes his face in compassion.

When a street battle goes badly, the lead characters all seek escape on a small steamer going up-river, and when a faster patrol boat catches up to them, they take off in the jungle on foot. At this point they quickly become lost. The pace perceptibly slows, and it becomes a film of another sort entirely. Finally, in a Bunuelian ironic ending, death comes to this strange garden. The kicker of the ending (which must have seemed much stronger in 1956) must have been in the original novel and is probably what attracted Bunuel to the story. The final scenes put one in mind of Herzog's later AGUIRRE; in fact, the whole second half of this film follows a path similar to AGUIRRE.

I am amazed that I can find no reference or commentary on this film in print, other than in checklists of Bunuel's work. I can only assume the film is caught in the classic Catch 22 of being unavailable because it is unknown and unknown because it is unavailable. It should be considered a major film in Bunuel's oeuvre! The comments of aw-komon-2, dbdumontiel, and UndeadMaster on this site are all right on the mark. This is definitely a film that cries for rerelease and reevaluation.
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Unexpected, Vital Must-See performance!
16 September 2007
This is the Spanish version of Fox's PURSUED, with the Spanish title translated literally as Nothing Like a Woman. A small boat arrives at the squalid dock of a small south seas port. (The port being too small for a seagoing ship, passengers must come ashore by small boat.) A woman with an interesting face, but not particularly young or beautiful (Singerman), comes ashore and takes a rickshaw to a seedy night club. It's morning and the floor is being scrubbed, the chairs atop the tables. The woman approaches the female owner of the club and asks for a job. "Can you sing?" "No." "Can you dance?" "No." "What do you do?" "Recitations." Although background material for the film has indicated that the actress is a "legendary cabaret poetry reciter," foreign language versions of early thirties Hollywood films are generally lackluster, so the viewer is inclined, with the café owner, to give a cynical chuckle. But the owner's sycophantic side-kick suggests that she hear her out, and so the stranger stands before them to start a recitation. Immediately, though she continues the recitation uninterrupted, the scene changes to the club in the evening, with a crowded audience, and the performer on a balcony. The scene change serves economically to tell us that the audition was successful. But the recitation itself is the real convincement. Like the owner, we're forced to swallow our chuckle in the face of an awesome, powerful, exciting performance. The poem is a paean to physical love, startlingly explicit, haunting, vigorously poetic, and with a use of onomatopoeia similar to Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo." One can hardly believe that a recitation could be so thrilling, so dynamic and visceral. Naturally, nothing in the film that follows matches this performance, but still, it hovers over the entire film, even though the story is a somewhat conventional south seas tale, with the stock characters of a powerful, menacing, ugly big wheel in a white suit and hat, and a handsome, innocent, weak (and temporarily blind) young man who falls for the poet. The pictorialization of the tropics and the seedy digs of the poet, the little public square, and the jungles of the plantation is well done and appropriate to the melodrama. The players, especially the villain and the sympathetic doctor, are all quite good, though none besides Singerman go beyond standard professional performances. Singerman performs recitations three more times in the film, one a word-picture essay of the sights and sounds of Buenos Aires, complete with the calls of street vendors. They're all good but don't match the power of the opening performance. As a whole, the film more than holds its own when compared to other tropical-isle films of the time. Jory probably made a good villain in Fox's English-language version, but for Singerman's performance alone, I'm sure this is a more memorable production!
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Pathetic!
11 September 2007
John Wayne is quoted as saying that this was his worst film, and is the Duke ever right! It should be titled "Girls Demand Their Money Back," because there's not an ounce of excitement or anything else. This is a totally inept film in every category, and features that deadly slow dialogue generally only found in films made a year or two earlier: "Say...(pause)...you're not coming to school...here...(long pause)...are you?" Apparently the idea was to make a college sex farce, but there's absolutely no sex and no farce. Sample: Spinster psychology teacher tests kissing in class, using blood pressure meter. She tries it herself and her meter goes way up. Ha, ha. Then the gals challenge the guys to a basketball game. Apparently the idea was that they'd distract the guys with their costumes, but the costumes are so modest that I didn't catch the point until the end of the game. One can see the temptation to theatrically program a rare Wayne film that also stars Virginia Cherrill (and which was released the same week as her classic performance as the blind girl in CITY LIGHTS!), but this isn't just dull, it's just absolutely pathetic and incompetent in every way. It should only be shown in fan-boy living rooms.
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