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Ann Vickers (1933)
Never less than notable
24 June 2005
It is doubtful if, at this point in time, anyone needs to be reminded of the consistent excellence of the versatile Irene Dunne, whose presence enhanced drama, comedy and musical films for many years. ANN VICKERS recalls to us how effective her subtle talent was even early in her career, playing a character alternately strong and vulnerable in a story too crowded with incident to give its major players the room they require to draw the characters fully. As a capable and resolute professional woman involved in social work and prison reform, Dunne's title character is curiously susceptible to the less-than-worthy men she finds more appealing than the steady earthbound types she encounters but does not favor. This contradictions accounts for a large part of the interest in her character, discreetly but firmly abetted by the nuances of yet another outstanding performance. Irene Dunne is perhaps the most reliable of all leading ladies. If you share the admiration of many for her work, this somewhat obscure picture will not disappoint you.
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Questionable strategy
24 February 2005
Perhaps it made sense from a commercial standpoint: bringing a great lady of the opera, Lili Pons, to a level at which the public could more easily relate to her - perhaps even to identify with her in some respects. The result, ideally, would have been to create a leading lady in films who sang divinely as she was surrounded by "us." Miss Pons gave it her best try - here and elsewhere - but it just didn't work. Most unfortunately, the filmmakers effort to generate the common touch involved presenting her in the most commonplace outfits, makeup and coiffure, downplaying the "glamour" associated with grand opera. Supporting her with the buffoonery of Jack Oakie and his cohorts, having her hiding under blankets, climbing here and there, etc. doesn't register either. Though no beauty, Lili Pons can radiate elegance and charm (along with her great vocalizing), as she does, in full costume, when she sings "Una voce poco fa" in this picture. Her movies don't give us enough of the Lili Pons that made her a stage presence, and might have made her a screen presence. To have her play against (her own) type - here and elsewhere - was a mistake.
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Light as a feather
13 December 2004
The picture is consistently out-of-joint as a result of the filmmakers' decision to deal with some rather substantial issues (marriage, poverty, ambition) as themes appropriate for a lighthearted, quasi-comic treatment. Smiling and accepting throughout, the characters suffer no more than mildly bruised feelings before turning their thoughts toward supposedly better days ahead. Seemingly, just about any setback can be overcome by optimism, however groundless, and an acceptance of whatever it is that life holds. That such naive characters would presume to counsel one another verges on the ludicrous. None is a success, all have been manipulated by others and by the vicissitudes of life itself - apparently without having learned a thing from their experiences. The wisest, most thoughtful of them all, played by Claude Rains, has good advice for his family, but has achieved no measure of success. Anne Shirley, sweet and innocent, lacks the wherewithal to come to grips with life. The foremost liability here is the egregious miscasting of John Garfield as a wide-eyed, vacuous sap who, for all intents and purposes, might have been born yesterday. What may have been meant to be a refreshing change from his familiar type of character results in a role which is not beyond him, but beneath him.
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Doesn't adapt well
24 November 2004
In spite of the effort to "open up" what had originally been a play, this drama, like so many other adaptations, remains stagebound and static. Even with imaginative sets, camera work and lighting, the scenes are essentially conversations: two (sometimes three) people talking, each representing a viewpoint in the story's conflict among moralities - scenes that are all but devoid of physical action, unless you count lighting cigarettes as action.

As for the characters themselves, they are largely one-dimensional, and unconvincingly unworldly for big-city people of the late 1930s. I found the Ida Lupino character hardly credible in her inability to resist the lure of small-time thrills promised by a fling with Goff: she does in fact resist him initially, she is gently warned about his likes by her father, with whom she has an excellent relationship, and despite her yearning for something more than what she has, Goff is no different from scores like him that she would have seen come and go over the years.

Lupino and Garfield are cast as "types," resulting in neither having an opportunity to utilize their considerable talents. Eddie Albert, as he so often does, plays an ineffectual nice guy. Aline McMahon is a complaining wife, a role that seems to have no particular function in the story. The honors do indeed go to Thomas Mitchell and John Quaylen, who make the most of characters given an opportunity to weigh things in the balance, change their minds, and act according to their principles. Even so, the "comical" closing scene is out of keeping with the overall mood of the picture.
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The Outfit (1973)
Unfulfilled expectations
23 November 2004
Reminiscent of numerous crime/suspense/action pictures from the 1940s on, the most surprising thing about this one is having Robert Duvall in the leading role: then (1974), as now, one of our most talented and memorable character actors, but playing a part that denies him the use of the nuances and subtleties of performance that distinguish his work - an unchallenging role which many others could have played as well because it is so undemanding.

The story itself is the stuff of pulp fiction: unsavory characters, betrayal, revenge, double-cross, triple-cross; the action often strains credibility, what with people turning a corner a split second too early or too late, someone being in the wrong (right) place at the wrong (right) time, a hail of bullets missing the intended target while a single shot in the opposite direction is fatal. B pictures aren't expected to offer much more than that, but THE OUTFIT has a solid cast and crisp direction, generating the expectation (unwarranted, as it turns out) of something more than routine. All the characters are pawns of the plot: one-dimensional, unmotivated beings who never reveal what brought them to lives of coldblooded duplicity and degradation. They are presented to us fully formed (by greed, for the most part), and do not change in the least from beginning to end.

Robert Duvall was already highly regarded when this picture was made (post-GODFATHER). It is difficult to imagine what he felt a potboiler such as this would do for his career. Maybe he was as disappointed with the result as I was.
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Not bad.....if you can believe it
14 November 2004
A curious mixture of grit and fluff that doesn't work because of their incompatibility. Best is the rendering of the traveling salesman's grubby milieu: booze, poker games, floozies, boredom, played out in second-rate hotels and saloons. Though seemingly at home on the perimeter of these surroundings, cabaret singer and dancer Ivy (Joan Crawford) is incredibly naive, believing she has found fidelity and true love in her affair with the sleaziest of the traveling men. When he jilts her, she chooses suicide - until saved, at the last instant, by a cloyingly sanctimonious Salvation Army worker, Carl (played by a badly miscast Clark Gable), who persuades her that, whatever her mistakes, she has much to live for. Ivy devotes herself to the Army's mission, finds fulfillment and inner peace - until a chance encounter with her devious former lover causes her to fall by the wayside once again - until the latter's confrontation with Carl causes her to be saved once again - this time for keeps (we are meant to believe), as Ivy and Carl literally walk off into the sunset. It's all a bit much.

Guy Kibbee and Roscoe Karns score highest as a couple of washed-out drummers, present and future. An added bonus is Joan's very appealing "eccentric" dance routine. But her character, around which the story revolves, is simply too extreme and inconsistent to be convincing.
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See for yourself...or don't bother
4 November 2004
By this point in time, Marion Davies has received an honest evaluation as a performer: far from being a hopeless, no-talent Susan Alexander who appeared before the public solely through the wealth and ego of Hearst, she was nevertheless overmatched in many of her roles, displaying the abilities of a competent supporting player if the material were not too challenging.

Casting her in CAIN AND MABEL was a mistake. She has no discernible flair for comedy, her timing being awkward, her gestures and facial expressions being studied, rather than natural. If in fact it is her own singing voice that we hear, its lack of expressiveness is thankfully limited to a few bars. Being a former hoofer, Davies might be expected to acquit herself with some distinction as a featured dancer, but in fact in her one extended number here, her nimble and stylish male partner, Sammy White, rather than making her look good, illustrates just how numerous her limitations were. Further along, there is a balletic production number in which she poses gracefully in the close and medium shots, while the challenging movements and steps are all photographed in long shots, obviously performed by a double.

The story is trite and flimsy - not at all the screwball comedy it was clearly intended to be. Roscoe Karns and Allen Jenkins perform their characteristic screen roles, while Walter Catlett and Ruth Donnelly are unfortunately kept somewhat under wraps. Caught in the midst of all this - but doing his earnest best, as usual - is Clark Gable.

Postscript: Is it a fact that Hearst issued an order that Miss Davies was not to be kissed on the lips? In the half-dozen or so romantic clinches that follow the leading players' confession of their mutual love, Gable kisses her on the cheek and on the chin, getting as close to her mouth as possible, but clearly a number of other things in this forgettable picture.
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Nothing new
3 November 2004
A sage opined many years ago that all the stories had already been written: with slight variations and changes of locale, the closest thing to an "orginal" may result. This is borne out by EMPEROR OF THE NORTH, a story whose fundamentals have graced many a Western, whose character types have appeared frequently in not only Westerns, but crime movies, boxing films, and a variety of others not so easily typed - including costume pictures with swords and daggers as the weapons of choice. You can be sure there will be a fight to the finish at the end - and there is.

So this time it's hoboes and railroad men. Though set in the Great Depression, the era seems almost an afterthought: there is no sense of desperation, the vagrants (considering their status) are relatively clean and decently dressed, and most appear to have a fair amount of spending/betting money on hand. From time to time they awkwardly lapse into hobo and railroad lingo which is delivered in a stiff, almost Shakespearean manner - i.e., about as far removed from everyday speech as one could imagine.

There are repetitions of episodes central to the story, and no effort to explain the source of the Borgnine character's intense sadism. The baptism scene, doubtless intended to be amusing, is totally gratuitous, as there was no need for Lee Marvin to be a participant in order for him and his partner to steal the others' clothing.

Good tracking shots and an effective (if overdone) use of extreme closeups, but this unoriginal adventure deserves its place in semi-obscurity.
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Girl Crazy (1932)
Total ineptitude
13 October 2004
It is not easy to turn GIRL CRAZY into a disaster, given the Gershwin score and a somewhat serviceable plot - but the creators of this version have succeeded in doing just that. There were six writers given screen credit for this scenario: perhaps that was the problem, or maybe the screenplay was even worse until that number was reached.

The gags (can I call them that if they are not funny?) are so forced, so weak, so juvenile as to make an audience squirm. Wheeler and Woolsey were never worse; at their best (it says here) they were second-raters, with a very limited assortment of poses, gestures, and facial expressions. No one in this cast offers demonstrable talent. An amateur cast (and director) could have done more with the material (I've seen it happen). And let us not overlook totally mindless rendering of "I Got Rhythm" in the film's big production number.

Why did you tell me to watch this?
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Leave it in the vault
10 September 2004
There has always been an audience for this type of picture: the exotic adventure filled with intrigue, shadowy motives, duplicity and questionable identities. The best of such films will also be somewhat credible; the lesser ones, such as this, will bear little relation to realistic characters or believable happenings (despite the claim that this was based on a true story).

STAMBOUL QUEST is a cinematic comic strip in which everything is subordinate to the plot. Unfortunately, that plot sorely lacks suspenseful or adventurous elements, so that even with its reliance on double and triple cross, invisible ink, temporary insanity and a backdrop of references to Mata Hari, there is little to provoke the viewer's interest.

Despite an exalted Hollywood reputation, screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz characteristically loads his films with uncinematic (and often lengthy) scenes of two characters in a room, talking...and talking. When the dialog is less than stimulating, as is the case here, the scenes are flat and the picture drags. Mankiewicz's approach is much better suited to the stage.

Myrna Loy does nicely with a part that requires her to keep her more intense emotions in check. But George Brent fails as an extroverted, happy-go-lucky American set in contrast to the formal, tradition-bound Old World characters who surround him; his high-spirited cavorting may be worthy of an adolescent, but would surely not generate feelings of love in Myrna Loy's worldly, self-possessed counterspy.

The main supporting roles are handled commendably by Lionel Atwill and C. Henry Gordon, both appearing in parts they have played on more than a few other occasions: the stiff, mannered European, and the wily, scheming Middle Easterner respectively.

There is not much to recommend this picture. It has been all-but-forgotten, and deservedly so.
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Jean Harlow's reputation
17 August 2004
For those, like myself, who heard about Jean Harlow before viewing any of her pictures, the expectation was to see a glamor girl with somewhat limited performing skills, not unlike Marilyn Monroe at a later time. Not to take anything away from Marilyn, but Jean Harlow proved herself to be a very adept performer, an appealing combination of brazen sexuality and shameless manipulation, always with a comic touch. While sometimes getting her comeuppance (and appearing to enjoy it) at the hands of strong characters played by the likes of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, in "Red-Headed Woman" the men in her life are pushovers for her wily charms. Chester Morris earnestly tries once, twice, three times to resist her, and apparently comes THAT close to succeeding, but her persistence ultimately renders him helpless. The wealthy and distinguished (and elderly) Henry Stephenson doesn't have a chance: when Jean's pal Una Merkel suggests that she's aiming too high this time, that her plans have no chance of success, Jean replies, "He's a man, isn't he?"

This is the prototypical Jean Harlow character, done to the hilt by a very skilled performer who, in the final analysis, probably has more in common with Mae West than with Marilyn Monroe. If she played virtually the same character in almost every picture, she wasn't the first to do so. Her reputation as an actress deserves to be greatly enhanced.
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Broadminded (1931)
Weak comedy, but take note of.....
20 July 2004
Even staunch fans of Joe E. Brown may be disappointed by this one, which fails to utilize his comic skills, such as they are, with maximum effectiveness. The foremost liability is the scenario, bulging with some of the feeblest jokes and flat sight gags that one is likely to find outside of a high school drama club original. But wait.....

Playing against type (to say the least) are Bela Lugosi doing an effective comic turn as a temperamental Latin/Hungarian (his accent is variable), and Ona Munson (she of the gritty roles in "Gone With the Wind" and "Shanghai Gesture" that came later) as an ingenue. These are curiosities worth seeing. But wait.....

Thelma Todd is here, too, playing the kind of role she did best, even if she hadn't Groucho's priceless reactions to her vamping. And what of Marjorie White, someone altogether new for me (and like Thelma Todd, destined to die young): a perky pepperpot with exceptional comedic attributes, mugging and bouncing throughout, creating a very appealing character without any of the comic (sic) lines having been written for her.

All in all, a third-rate picture well worth seeing.
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Penthouse (1933)
Fun and games in the underworld
17 July 2004
There is lots of entertainment value in this picture - quality acting, sharp dialog, quick pace - but those who are looking for a story based in realistic circumstances may be disappointed. Despite there being a goodly number of unsavory types among the characters, just about everyone comes across as clean-cut, friendly, ready with a smile, and not the least bit threatening. This takes the sharp edge off a picture with lots of promise in its early development. Nat Pendleton plays a crime boss as if he hasn't a care in the world, more than ready to use his resources to make others happy. The Myrna Loy character is appealing (much as her Nora Charles was), but defies explication: charming, intelligent, well-mannered and well-spoken, but content to serve the paying customers as a hostess/bar girl/prostitute. It just doesn't add up. Mae Clark, as a less refined colleague, is much more believable.

[Don't fail to notice the latter, in a fit of anger, ready to throw a perfume bottle against the wall, then noticing the label and substituting a lesser brand; or Loy, keeping her composure as Warner Baxter chooses not to remain in her assigned room for the night, then immediately surveying her looks - right profile, left profile, hair, makeup - in a mirror, wondering if something has been lost.]

The picture needs more grit, given its subject matter. Comic relief from Charles Butterworth and Tom Kennedy are just what it doesn't need.
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Pleasant surprise
8 July 2004
Evidently MGM was grooming Lana Turner to be featured in musicals at this stage of her career. Unfortunately that effort was abandoned, with mixed results. In this conventional backstage romantic triangle, she is a very winning performer, and a surprisingly effective dancer in her three musical numbers (partnered in two by George Murphy and in one by Joan Blondell). Her spirited youthfulness and fresh beauty are put to good use in her role as an innocent small-town girl who (almost) is spoiled by some wily denizens of big, bad Broadway. Joan Blondell plays the protective older sister convincingly, willing to sacrifice her own happiness for that of "the kid." Not many viewers would associate Lana Turner with this type of picture, but, as indicated, she more than holds her own. Too bad that in her pictures, as in her life, she became an "experienced" woman too soon.
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What a waste!
5 June 2004
If, like myself, you might be drawn to this picture because of your admiration of the unique talent of Lee Tracy.....forget it. Cast as a "good Joe" rather than the snarly, hyperactive conniver he excels at playing, Tracy is stuck with a role that virtually anyone could have played with as much, or as little, distinction. The story is ludicrous, the attempts at humor enfeebled, and the reliance on confusion of look-alikes reduces the plot - such as it is - to a level that might be appreciated by children, as long as they aren't too mature. Lee Tracy fans, stay away! There are many classic performances by him elsewhere. For Tom Kennedy fans, it might be worth a look.
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If you like Donald MacBride.....
2 June 2004
.....this one should not be missed. Usually limited to a few minutes of screen time as a mercurial, frustrated figure of supposed authority (cop, manager of some sort) with a very short fuse, MacBride logs many minutes here in a juicy supporting role, allowed to exhibit a seemingly full range of mugging, double-takes, arm-waving and growling. Perhaps insufferable to some, but if you care for his shtick, it is presented to great advantage here. Like Leon Errol's Lord Epping, if you are a fan you can't get too much of a good thing.

Lupe Velez is very much in the background in this entry, and Mantan Moreland, with notable comic skills, has little to do. The gangsters hiding in the basement are an awkward insertion, unrelated to the story line - such as it is. MacBride steals the show, in perhaps his greatest performance.
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Languishing in Obscurity
1 June 2004
Here is a picture that not only deserves recognition for its considerable merits, but is one whose existence remains largely unknown, even to those with more than a casual interest in film. Its characters are sharply and honestly drawn, defined primarily by crackling dialog that is both earthy and literate. These are real people, with no illusions about themselves or the world they move in; they speak from the heart, revealing their needs, longings and frustrations. The performances are rock-solid by all the players (and how refreshing to discover one of Frank Morgan's few roles in which he does not dither and sputter). Fast-paced and seamless, the direction is also deserving of special praise.

Admittedly (or arguably?) the ending is less than totally convincing, what with Joe's change of heart occurring too quickly and without sufficient motivation. Similarly, his determination to succeed (yes, at any price) is presented at the start as a result of his gangster brother's having been murdered. This appears unnecessary, and more than a little contrived. He wants to break out of a poor, aimless existence, and has a loyal, loving girlfriend encouraging him to do so. That's more than enough.

Even with those weaknesses punctuating the first and last five minutes of this picture, it remains a first-rate drama that can easily hold its own with a host of better-known films.
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Deep Valley (1947)
A performance to cherish
26 April 2004
A touching story of people finding (or re-discovering) within themselves a capacity for love: low-keyed, underplayed, and presenting an extraordinary challenge to Ida Lupino as a young woman totally lacking in confidence or a sense of self-worth, an emotionally stunted creature whose needs and aspirations are internalized, until.....

Her marvelous performance must rely on nuance to acquaint us with what is going on within the character: a lowering of the eyes, a tilt of the head, an ungainly walk without swinging her arms, a halting, inarticulate stammer, and more - much more - the types of things that define excellence in acting, absent of any opportunity to chew the scenery.

Long acknowledged as a first-rate talent who never received her due (and whose career was never properly promoted), Ida Lupino demonstrates in this film just how much she was capable of achieving, if given the opportunity.
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Bombshell (1933)
Super entertainment
30 March 2004
Count me in. This slam-bang, snap-crackle-pop picture is a doozy, never pausing for breath as it zips along its nifty, irreverent way, superbly cast so as to let everyone do what he/she does best.

As if its entertainment value were not enough, it has something to say, so cleverly that it mocks itself along with a half-dozen other victims. Where the movie business is concerned, nothing is what it seems to be - except when it is. At the center of it all are a press agent to whom lies come so naturally that he would require a moment of intense concentration before he could utter a word of truth - if he wanted to; and a colossal star, neither educated nor bright, a small-town girl who, without half-trying, becomes what every woman yearns to become - except that she yearns to be something else.

Jean Harlow was considerably more than a glamor girl. Limited (as many studio players were) to one type of screen persona, she brought it off with success in both comedy and drama, perfecting the mannerisms, gestures and nuances. Lee Tracy, born to play the kind of role he was given here (and elsewhere), is without peer as the fast-talking, shifty-eyed conniver, a rascal beholden to no ethical sense but his own. Their supporting cast - with a special nod to Frank Morgan's tipsy, dithering poseur - is uniformly excellent. Don't miss this one.
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Used People (1992)
Try, try again
25 March 2004
If this is not (intentionally or otherwise) a pilot for a TV series, what is it? Episodic, altogether lacking in unity and narrative flow, there is enough caricature and stereotyping to offend the sensibilities of most Jewish- and Italian-Americans. To understand the characters' motivations, a viewer must look beyond what is presented here - i.e., must imagine why these characters act as they do, since the explanations are not forthcoming in the film. If you were left wondering what is going to happen next to Pearl, her daughters, her grandson, her new husband and his family - all of their situations left open-ended - you were more absorbed in this claptrap than most viewers are likely to be.

The performances are not at all bad, but then, one-dimensional characters don't present much of a challenge.
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Above average of its type
9 February 2004
This picture distinguishes itself from the all-too-familiar reverential and sentimental quasi-biographies of show business legends by emphasizing the complex relationship between Lon Chaney and his first wife, Cleva Creighton, and by treating their problems in an even-handed manner. She emerges as flawed and difficult to deal with - but so does he. Their child is caught in the middle.

The story would be of interest even if it did not concern a famous person. Chaney's career provides a colorful background to an essentially human drama, one which may present its characters too often as one-dimensional prototypes lacking depth or subtlety, but is nevertheless a drama which (except for the maudlin deathbed scene) effectively develops the genuine emotional conflicts at its core. In a solid cast, Dorothy Malone, as Cleva, is most notable.
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Undeservedly obscure
1 February 2004
A fast-paced tale of love, action and sacrifice - the kind of Hollywood staple they don't make anymore. More than a little melodramatic and very much a period piece, the film is worth watching most of all for some stunning visual effects and an absolutely marvelous (supporting) performance by Joan Blondell in the kind of role that suited her perfectly: a wisecracking, hash-slinging dame - a floozy who thinks she's looking for love, but is only out for a good time. Mary Astor is convincing in the lead role, but Joan steals the show.

A curiously ambiguous ending might make you wonder what point the film was trying to make about morality. Be assured that after the Code was in effect, this picture would have ended differently.
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New Moon (1930)
16 January 2004
Having deleted much of the music in the stage production, the film makers injected a lengthy battle sequence - presumably to offer something the original could not. This was a regrettable decision for an operetta, as it alters the tone of the film to such an extent that the romance, sweetness and charm of the earlier segments are pushed to the background, and music seems inappropriate for what follows. The editing of this film, particularly in those battle scenes, is heavy-handed; but even the light moments are pockmarked by overly-long pauses, and shots of sets that remain empty for several seconds, until someone walks into the frame.

Lawrence Tibbett lacks the commanding presence of a leading man. He and Grace Moore do not make for an electrifying couple. She looks old enough to be his mother (or, more charitably, he looks young enough to be her son). Of course, they sing beautifully and/or vigorously, as required. That's why they're in the picture. But it's not enough. Little or no help from Roland Young and Gus Shy in supposedly humorous supporting roles.
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Style and substance
7 January 2004
This is an absorbing, intelligent picture, bolstered by sensitive performances and adept handling of an adult story. Its fundamentals may be overly familiar, and perhaps a bit too much plot gets in the way of believable, touching characterizations. But you will care about the main characters, whose weaknesses and oversights lead them to the brink of ruin - even if (in a questionable decision by the film makers) they are given the trappings of art deco luxuries, instead of being brought closer to a lifestyle familiar to the audience.

Powell and Loy, alone and together, are fine, as always. Credit Isabel Jewell with a low-key, yet emotionally-charged performance. Jessie Ralph is excellent is one extended scene in which she babbles and equivocates as the tension builds to a quiet frenzy. Una Merkel softens her familiar screen mannerisms to play the character, rather than vice versa.

Not a well-known film, "Evelyn Prentice" is most definitely worth your while.
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Without entertainment value
2 January 2004
It is entirely possible that at the time of its initial release this picture was considered "mature" and "daring" because of its suggestiveness concerning sex (primarily of the procreative kind). It may even have caused a few very innocent souls to blush from time to time. Making allowances for the foregoing, there is nevertheless nothing of interest for today's viewer in such an insipid, painfully unfunny situation comedy - the kind which (minus the sex) used to fill prime time on weeknights. The characters are 100% genuine cardboard: real persons don't talk or act or strike poses like the types seen here. Sheepish smiles, double-takes, gulps and smirks may come to the fore occasionally in real life, but not constantly. Apparently, they are intended to amuse us - like the characteristic gesture of pouring a stiff drink when an awkward moment seems to be approaching. I can only wonder whose idea it was to cast Richard Widmark in this entirely inappropriate role. Was it intended to demonstrate his versatility as an actor? He fails badly, and conspicuously. Doris Day and Gig Young play characteristic roles without any measure of distinction.

Many episodes of 1950s TV situation comedies produced better results than this. Someone should have warned the paying customers to stay home.
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