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The Courageous Dr. Christian (1940)
The most touching of the Dr. Christian series reminds us of what we should be like.
Practically every city and town has had one at least once during their existence; A Squatter's town, filled with dirty families, starving children and health conditions that are beyond deadly. If there wasn't a squatter's town, there was at least one home where dirt poor families lived practically without light or furniture or any of the basic needs of life. When the courageous Jean Hersholt discovers two children possibly sick and living in squalor with their out of work brother (Tom Neal), he decides he needs to get involved, and goes out of his way to find Neal a job. With the help of housekeeper Maude Eburne, the two children are placed in the large home of prickly spinster Vera Lewis, Eburne's old rival, who has always had a crush on the single Dr. Christian and has hopes of marrying him some day. But the troubles of the squatter village makes the town's wealthier folks uncomfortable as Hersholt strives to get funds to build a home for them on long vacant property owned by Lewis which results in him feeling forced to become engaged to her just so he can end this health crisis. It is through pleading with the townspeople's sometimes cold and selfish hearts that he hopes to open them to seeing the problems of the world through the eyes of others not as fortunate as them, so this health crisis (which results in a strain of spinal meningitis cases) can be brought to an end.
Yes, this is perhaps one of the most sentimental of the series, and thus very dramatic in places. But there are also some very funny scenes, one downright knee slapping as the two prankster kids unleash a stuffed bird, flying it like a boomerang in Lewis's living room, then replacing the bird with Lewis's fat cat which hysterically ends up in the bird's bowl. Animal activists might not be happy with that scene, but it is indeed quite funny. As prickly as she seems on the outside, Lewis is actually quite warmhearted, giving the veteran actress a great role to play out of the dozens of minor roles she had played for years, most memorably the nosy neighbor of Claude Rains and his four daughters. It's also the best entry in the series for veteran actress Maude Eburne, a character actress who always stole any scene she was in with her pickled voice and home spun demeanor. There's quite a lesson to be learned here, one humanity seems to have forgotten about, but still quite timely in the wake of camps like the squatters village popping up all over, particularly on the United States border where children were separated from their parents. When an old movie which is dated in many ways becomes current simply through one major aspect of its plot, it becomes irrelevant and dated no longer, and one of the best examples of that is "The Courageous Dr. Christian".
Remedy for Riches (1940)
Where have I seen a plot about an oil scam before?
Oh, yes! "General Hospital", in 1982, basically stole the plot of this film for six months of storytelling. Much of the details were updated, but one thing is clear: nothing much had changed but the decade.
Introduced for the second installment of the "Dr. Christian" series is Edgar Kennedy as the town grocer, seen early in the film trying to hold in his temper as the battleaxe Rene Riano samples his fruits and vegetables, borrowing string and getting free parsley from him without spending a dime. When she spills gossip about hotel planners looking for property in the area to buy, she ends up with a delicious box of strawberries as thanks, but it turns out that her confidences placed with him is already known through the rumor mill. But oil is allegedly discovered on another property which the hotel owners are interested in, and this stirs up the town to put their pennies together to invest. Jean Hersholt's wise Dr. Christian feels something isn't quite right and begins to investigate, which leads to a mad dash to save the town from being swindled.
Veteran character actor Jed Prouty is memorable in the role of the eccentric thief who aids Hersholt in discovering the truth, and Walter Catlett is very funny as the town traffic cop who helps Hersholt try to replace a cake that housekeeper Maude Eburne made for the town carnival contest. Very funny performances by Margaret McWade and Hallene Hill as spinster sisters deal with their adopting of a chicken Eburne found literally tap-dancing in one of her delicious cakes. The mixture of comedy concerning the preparations for the town carnival and all of its contests (reminding me of "Ma & Pa Kettle at the Fair") and the oil scam come together at the end, although sometimes the two different themes threaten to overpower the others. Still an amusing entry in the brief "Dr. Christian" series with a bunch of fine character actors giving amusing true to life performances.
Meet Dr. Christian (1939)
A sentimental and tear jerking screen introduction to what the medical field really should be.
The Academy of Motion Pictures of Arts and Sciences has given out the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award for years based upon the decision to honor one of the most humanitarian of any actor to ever step foot in front of a camera. Under contract to MGM as a character actor in the 1930's, Hersholt played roles of all kinds, but it is probably for his radio and movie series playing Dr. Christian for which he will be remembered for those who research why an obscure actor is still relevant 80 years past his prime. The first entry in the series is a moving look at a small town doctor who is hired by mayor Paul Harvey to run the town's health department. He has treated practically everybody in the town, so everybody loves him and turns to him for advice. He's got a devoted nurse (Dorothy Lovett), a motherly housekeeper (Maude Eburne), and the children all adore him for his patient way in dealing with them. But as he gets ideas in his head of improving his practice, he finds objections from the tight-fisted mayor Harvey who humiliates him in public and fires him from his town council position. When Harvey's perky pre-teen daughter (Patsy Parsons) is badly injured in a car accident, it comes down to what is best for Parsons rather than Harvey's pride, leading to some emotional scenes at the very end that may very well have you in tears.
There are times on screen when sentiment can be over the top and the heart strings tugged at far too much, but for the first Dr. Christian film at least, there is a fine mixture of comedy and pathos, political conflict and human pride to deal with. Parsons is seen in the opening basically interfering in the life of the older brother (Jackie Moran) she worships, and it is because of his recklessness as a driver that she ends up on the operating table. This film takes great detail in bringing the conflict between Hersholt and Harvey to a head at the town picnic, and the look on Hersholt's face when Harvey humiliates him (as well as the townfolk's shock) is quite profound. I had hoped that some of the characters in the first film would re-appear somewhere in the film's six installments, but only a few of them do with no re-appearance by mayor Harvey. Some of the films of the series would have benefited by at least one scene of River's End's mayor appearing, even just for continuity sake. But the series as a whole is very good even though it might not fully stand the test of time. As a document of how life used to be (even though it was always darker than what is presented on screen), it gives its audience some hope for even a part time utopia where neighbors really care about each other, that a doctor with a lollipop for a young girl in a car accident will make the hurt go away, and that conflicts between people who have known each other for years can be resolved when they come to the awareness of what is really important.
The Blonde Captive (1931)
Truly one of the great embarrassments of motion picture history.
You know from the moment that this Lowell Thomas docudrama begins that it is going to be exploitation at its most frustrating. Thomas sits in a room with other men and tells them about the journey he took from the United States to Australia in search of the missing link, the mysterious neanderthal. Pictures from a book show an approximation of what these early humans may have looked at, comparing them to apes and to what Thomas refers to as the lower element of human beings. It is obvious from the start that this film will be used as an excuse for the white man to visit various "exotic" locations as a family would visit a zoo, and it truly exploits the natives of Hawaii, the Samoa's, Fiji, New Zealand and some of the remotest parts of Australia to make them look truly ridiculous. "Who is the blonde captive?", you might ask, and I'm still asking the same question now that I've seen the film, but one more important question, "Why?"
As much as I hated this film, there were some interesting visuals of wild life, including giant sea turtles, cute koalas (which are not really as friendly with humans as they look with the shot of one man pretty much covered by them) and of course kangaroo's. I couldn't bear to look at the shot of a turtle's heart beating after being removed, so be forewarned if you choose to put yourself through watching this. As for the footage of the natives, they are somewhat respectful in Hawaii, but as the natives get darker, so does the racism and the cracks at their expense, often tacky and always insulting. There's no attempt to understanding that traditions of these people have sustained them for years, and the natives (particularly the practically naked women) don't seem to realize how exploited they were simply to make Thomas and his crew feel more superior to them. It is that element which makes this film a disgusting example of white superiority that I hope has dwindled in the 87 years since this film was made.
Before Morning (1933)
I had to look this up to confirm, but indeed, used in ways outside of a cigarette, nicotine can be used as a poison, but every time I heard Leo Carrillo say it here, I started laughing at the ridiculousness of that aspect of the plot. I've seen plot lines of movies with practically every kind of poison used, but what should be a serious twist ends up being eye rolling. In watching many movies of all kinds, I have determined that there are several types of truly awful movies. The most obvious is the cheaply made science fiction or horror with a ridiculous looking monster, but those get laughs, so they are fun overall. Another is the type with horrendous dialog and hideous acting, but then again, they are fun to laugh at too. The third and possibly worst of the bad movie offenders is the case in which "Before Morning" falls: plot twists and elements and characterizations that become so ridiculous that you end up screaming out, "Oh, come on! Really?" at your TV screen or public revival house.
This is actually a fairly lavish looking Z grade melodrama with basically just a single set of the apartment of actress Lora Baxter who has decided to give up show business for love, much to the frustration of a playwright who wants her for his next play. When her old lover (Russell Hicks) shows up and finds out that she's going to get married (to the rather dull Blaine Cordner), he begins to show signs of getting sick. Going to lie down in her bedroom at her suggestion, he suddenly dies, and the heartsick Baxter calls up old friends who are at a party downstairs to get rid of the body for her. A short time later, doctor Leo Carrillo shows up and proceeds to blackmail her in a rather lengthy speech that is only interrupted by the arrival of Hicks' wife (Louise Prussing) who has a few secrets of her own. The twists get more and more preposterous with one coming out towards the end that had me truly frustrated. Slow pacing makes this sometimes excruciating to put up with, and you might be in shock to look at your watch afterwards to realize that only an hour has gone by.
The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954)
Hell hath no fury like teenage girls.
The inmates are running the asylum in this very funny British comedy about an all girl's school in which the students run rings around the not so rosy teachers who couldn't control them with a chair and a whip. Yes, Alastair Sim's Miss Fritton might look like a more showered version of "Matilda's" Miss Trunchbull, but she has the discipline capacity of a kitten. Indeed, Alastair Sims is in drag here, as well as playing Miss Fritton's brother, a rather sordid fellow with ties to a horse racing syndicate. When the brother learns that a Muslim princess has become a student, he brings his expelled daughter (the student ringleader) back, using his family ties to get sister to forgive her niece and take her back. Unbeknownst to the faculty, a police officer in disguise as a new teacher has arrived, and it is the seemingly prim and proper Joyce Grenfell who uses liberal forms of education to try to keep the girls in line but finds even that method cannot control these heathens who are desperate to make some cash from the local horse racing syndicate themselves. This brings in a criminal element when a valuable horse is stolen by the girls, but never underestimate the power of hundreds of screaming teens as they set their sites on increasing their paltry bank accounts.
It is the performances here which are quite more memorable than the film itself which runs about 15 minutes too long and isn't quite as funny as I hoped it would be. Certainly, Sim is superb, a comic genius even in playing humorless officials in other films, and of course, best known for arguably the most popular version of "A Christmas Carol". He fortunately does not overplay the femininity of Miss Fritton or camp it up, so he simply just looks like a rather large, eccentric British matron. Grenfell, an actress I've caught in a few movies and tremendously enjoyed, underplays her part as well, although I missed her eccentric voice that she utilized in other films. That aspect alone shows her versatility, although on occasion, you can catch a glimpse of that part of her personality. She knew that this was a straight role, so she kept that aspect of her acting chops out of it. Still, memories of those other films (and an imitation of her by Kaye Ballard on "The Mothers-in-Law") prevail. so Grenfell is an actress quite worth exploring.
Some of the other well known British character actors really are just part of the ensemble including Beryl Reid, deliciously teaching her students geography through the history of champagne, and a very masculine made up Hermoine Baddeley, but it is the ensemble of girls (one of whom is drawn and quartered in an attempt to get information from) who get the most laughs in addition to Sim and Grenfell.
Aunt Clara (1954)
You don't have to be young and beautiful to be gorgeous.
In the 1930's, MGM's Marie Dressler won the hearts of movie goers around the world with her earthy demeanor and way of stealing a scene even from the likes of Wallace Beery and Jean Harlow. She was a woman in her 60's, rather heavy and with eyes and jowls that resembled a St. Bernard. Unfortunately, her death in 1934 prevented the world from any more performances from this older but gorgeous spirited woman, but Hollywood continued offering certain types of leading roles to women of her type, whether it be May Robson or the similar looking Alison Skipworth. It wasn't until years later that an equally big star of Dressler's stature came along, and that was England's Margaret Rutherford, another overweight, jowly woman who always looked like she was trying to prevent her teeth from slipping out. Equally as big hearted on screen as Dressler, Rutherford quickly became a popular fixture in both leading and supporting roles, and in the title role of this film, once again stole everybody's heart as the only person in a family of greedy hanger-on's to make an impression on the wealthy uncle who left everything to her rather than anybody else: simply because she was too busy helping others to show up and kiss his feet at his 80th birthday celebration.
As this film begins, the feisty Uncle Simon (A.E. Matthews) is planning this big to-do, and as expected, everybody shows up, with equally greedy reverend Raymond Huntley determined to get his hands on Uncle Simon's priceless greyhounds. But in line after line in the will, read almost immediately after Uncle Simon passes on right after the birthday party, mentions Clara getting everything, other than one daughter who gets a minimal amount of money. Clara must convince Uncle Simon's manservant (Ronald Shiner) to stay on, and together, they begin to discover everything that Uncle Simon had money invested in, getting themselves into all sorts of trouble and causing the family to use this against Clara to have her declared incompetent. But a twist of fate makes them see that they need Clara in their lives, possibly being too late. It's a simple comedy of family greed, an often repeated movie theme, where the team of Shiner and Rutherford steal every moment, and Rutherford completely stealing your heart.
Adam and Evelyne (1949)
Worth while for the gorgeous Jean Simmons, one of the great unsung heroines of the classic film era.
In reflecting on this film which I got to watch for a second time, I realized that Jean Simmons was playing a role that was exactly like one for which the very similar Audrey Hepburn later became successful for with "Sabrina". Simmons is a student in a boarding school, sent there by her widowed father when she was just a young girl, and who hasn't seen him since. She has collected all his letters and is preparing for him to come to take her away when fate steps in and he is killed. On her father' deathbed after a horse racing accident, he asks fellow gambler Stewart Granger to take her away from the boarding school and make her his ward, which Granger surprisingly agrees to without even thinking about it. But Granger's lady friend (Helen Cherry) is instantly jealous of the attention that Granger gives the young beauty, and she is sent away, returning two years later as a grown up beauty, just like Hepburn in "Sabrina". During that time, it is obvious that Cherry and Granger have grown apart, and Cherry uses her influence to passive/aggressively try to keep Granger and Simmons from getting further involved, citing Granger's gambling habit as a reason for them not to get too close. Simmons, realizing that her father was killed in a business that involved gambling, decides to take drastic steps to help Granger change his ways after Cherry makes one last desperate attempt to get further revenge and keep them apart.
I notice that in old movies, it is always the pairing of older men with younger women that become serious romances (just look at the bulk of Audrey Hepburn's films), and when older women were involved with younger men, it was obviously a financial arrangement, with the younger man often a smarmy gigolo type. Certainly, Granger and Simmons were both very attractive in spite of their age differences, and would even marry after this film was released. The spark between them is obvious, so the age difference here is inconsequential. I didn't find much of the script believable, particularly Granger's agreement to take Simmons into his household in the first place without first meeting her. Simmons could play so many different types of characters, and even when she was cast as a true lady, there was always a hint of a fiery personality underneath, as she shows here when she throws an object off of her desk in the boarding school, only to hit an arriving school official in the forehead as she walks into the room. Her performance is simply marvelous in every aspect and thus she becomes the heart and soul of the film. After looking at Ms. Cherry's credits, I was surprised to discover the number of films she made and the fact that I hadn't seen her up until my first viewing of this or anything since makes me want to investigate her work more. She's a cool presence who subtly stirs the pot here, but it is Simmons whom you will come out remembering from this most of all.
About Mrs. Leslie (1954)
Never underestimate the passions of a lonely older woman. You may be surprised.
1954 was an outstanding year for leading ladies in film, and sadly, with only five Oscar nominees, there have to be some who do not get nominated. Unfortunately, one of those not nominated gave one of the greatest performances ever seen on screen, one that truly stands the test of time and will tear your heart out. That is Shirley Booth, fresh from her Oscar winning turn in "Come Back Little Sheba", returning for her second film and every bit as memorable as she was in that William Inge classic. When you first meet Mrs. Leslie, it is assumed that the "Mrs." part is simply just an honorary title she has not to be considered an old maid by the people who rent rooms from her. They include a man who likes to drink far too much (and runs over her flowers when trying to pull in the driveway), an idealistic young lady searching for love, and a spoiled teenager filled with entitlement who will make you want to reach through the screen and throttle her. Their assumptions about their landlady are completely wrong, as the audience finds out through her reflections on her life with the shy Robert Ryan, playing against type.
Once a nightclub chanteuse, Booth met the handsome industrialist Ryan who swept her away for summer vacations on the ocean and gave her the romance she has been craving all of her life. When around Ryan, Booth can truly be herself, and she gives up her career as a singer so she can be with him. But they are summer flings only, and when September arrives, it is back to reality for Booth who must find other ways of supporting herself because of a blackballing in the nightclub scene for her running out on her contract simply to be with Ryan. She mothers him in a way he obviously seems to need mothering, as it is obvious that his character has many hidden demons that would prevent them from actually getting married. But he gives her the honorary name of Mrs. Leslie when they are together simply so she won't feel that their romantic summers are about living in sin.
The connections between her past and present lives help make her more understandable in the way she deals with her tenants, particularly the nasty Eilene Janssen as the 18 year old tenant who expects Booth to wait on her hand and foot and shows no gratitude for anything, leading to a confrontation when Booth ends away Janssen's ill-mannered date. So her character is far from perfect, interfering in subtle ways that makes her more human. Brief appearances by familiar character actors such as Ellen Corby (a gossipy neighbor), Percy Helton (a frustrated bartender), Harry Morgan (a business associate of Ryan's) and Mabel Albertson (a fussy customer) add some amusing characterizations. This is extremely well written and directed, but when it is all over, you will come out singing the praises of Ms. Booth who only did one film comedy ("The Matchmaker") before taking on the TV sitcom role ("Hazel") which overshadows much of the great dramatic work she did on screen and has made her classic stage work ("My Sister Eileen", "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn") completely forgotten.
Abie's Irish Rose (1946)
The rose might be crumbling, but the scent is still present.
As a Broadway play, "Abie's Irish Rose" is to non-musical theater historians what "Cats" is to musical theater historians, a popular show that seemed to run forever and now is considered a theatrical history joke. I have been searching for this movie forever, just curious over how bad it would be, and while I can understand the weak reviews, I found parts of it charming, if somewhat cringe-worthy on a sentimental and stereotypical level. For a play as hated as it is, the themes have been spoofed and re-used over and over again, even spawning a sitcom ("Bridget Loves Bernie") and a hysterical line in the musical "On the Twentieth Century" where the character of Oscar Jaffe sings about willing his tickets to this surprising hit to one of his cohorts. Even soap operas have, perhaps, unknowingly gotten in on the "Abie's Irish Rose" spoofing, as a 1983-1984 storyline on "General Hospital" had an Irish restaurant owner (Rose Kelly) falling in love with a Jewish reporter (Jake Meyer) and interference from friends and family creating problems in a relationship that went nowhere. "Ryan's Hope" went into further detail in a storyline involving Pat Ryan learning about Jewish culture from his girlfriend Nancy's traditional Jewish parents who had their reservations but basically didn't interfere with the couple.
For this second movie version of the play by Anne Nichols, the setting has been updated to the end of World War II where a soldier of Jewish heritage (Richard Norris) meets a feisty Irish girl (Joanne Dru) and marries her on the spur of the moment. They have a difficulty returning to his home town of New York City where Norris is spotted by old family friends (George E. Stone and Vera Gordon) who immediately spot the fact that Norris is in love. Norris's traditional Jewish father (Michael Chekhov) is thrilled to meet Dru, whom Norris nervously gives a Jewish name to, and encourages them to marry right away. But when Dru's stereotypical boisterous Irish father (J.M. Kerrigan) arrives, the cat gets out of the bag, and a family feud pits Chekhov and Kerrigan against each other, even though they are soon presented with grandchildren that will obviously either bring them together and end the feud or create more issues.
I found it strange that both fathers were written as widowers, with no female influence on them outside of Gordon's big hearted Jewish neighbor, perhaps the only one who sees that Dru and Norris are very much in love and deserve their chance at happiness in spite of their religious and cultural differences. The updated story has the couple dealing with the overcrowding hotel situation in London, with Eric Blore amusing as the hotel manager. While certainly no classic or groundbreaking as a great play, "Abie's Irish Rose" is funny and even touching at times, even though the situation is quite contrived. Certainly, the stereotypes do have some valid points in their older characters being more traditional and the younger generation being more open to change, even though other plays and musicals (most notably "Fiddler on the Roof") have dealt with mixed marriages more realistically and didn't resort to pathos and sentimentality to structure its story around. This certainly doesn't deserve the "Bomb" rating I've seen in various movie review books, although I wouldn't give it any awards either.
Paradise Isle (1937)
Never before or since has a tropical paradise been so boring.
Darn those greedy white men, invading the peaceful Polynesian islands in search of pearls, and paying the natives to dive, risking their lives for people who could care less about them. Actually, here it is only one greedy white man (William B. Davidson) who uses the presence of a blind survivor of a shipwreck (Warren Hull) to anger native George Piltz into diving as the girl he loves (Movita) falls in love with Hull. Davidson further plots to get his hands on the pearls by having a local drunk (John St. Polis) pose as a doctor to pretend to treat Hull which leads to the accidental death of a young island boy St. Polis is forced to treat. This film is simply just boring from beginning to end, definitely no threat to the real gems of this genre ("The Hurricane", "South of Pago Pago"), and the actors playing the natives are completely miscast. There's also the stereotyping of them as overly eager to please every visitor who comes to the island, in spite of the dangers they face in what the white man demands of them and the natural conditions in which they live.
Go-Get-'Em, Haines (1936)
Instantly forgettable? Frankly, I couldn't remember the basic plot of this movie by the time it ended.
Reporter William Boyd hops along a lavish ocean liner in an effort to question a public utilities company owner who ends up murdered. With the aide of an aging actor and his daughter (Sheila Terry), Boyd gathers everybody who is a suspect together, and reveals the killer. That's basically all in this slow moving mystery that of course has leading man Boyd sparring with leading lady Terry before the final clinch, a predictable aspect of many a B murder mystery that laces in bits of comedy before everything is wrapped up. There are a few surprise, especially how the killer is revealed, an element that might have you jaw dropped. For me, it did come as a complete surprise, the one aspect of the film that I did not expect and left me touched in spite of how bored I had been over the past hour.
Girl on the Spot (1946)
A rare chance to mix Gilbert and Sullivan with murder.
Pretty Lois Collier is a forgotten Jane Powell type singer who is a witness to murder here and becomes the target of some buffoonish hit men (Richard Lane and Edward Brophy) as she prepares to star in a Broadway revival of "The Pirates of Penzance". She's being mentored by the sweet Ludwig Stossel, a faded conductor whose Gilbert and Sullivan company is only put on Broadway as a way of trapping the killers. In addition to songs from "Pirates", there are also a few tunes from "HMS Pinafore", and smart viewers will immediately notice a resemblance between this and the finale of the 1978 comedy thriller "Foul Play" where Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn had to trap a killer during a performance of "The Mikado". I found the actual performances of the two Gilbert and Sullivan operettas to be substandard outside of Collier, rather cheap looking, and certainly not at all Broadway worthy. Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were performed with great regularity at New York's City Center up until the 1960's, but until the 1980's revival of "The Pirates of Penzance" (updated for modern audiences), they were not considered worthy of a fully staged Broadway revival. The performance of "Pirates" at the end jumps from the beginning of the show to the very end after its interruption, making a jarring cut for Gilbert and Sullivan fans. However, the sight of Lane and Brophy in very bad drag (trying to look like society matrons) is hysterical, especially as they hem and haw over shooting Collier because of "how beautiful" it all appears to be, weeping while struggling to put off shooting her. In spite of the weak community theater like performances of the two classic shows, this does end up being an entertaining movie, and the coincidence of how this was later re-done in "Foul Play" quite amusing. Donald MacBride is also very funny in his usual characterization as the slow-burning policeman, getting laughs from basically doing what he had done since his film debut years before.
The Girl Who Dared (1944)
Genuinely spooky retread of many films, especially "Topper Returns".
I've seen the public domain film, "Topper Returns", many times and have pretty much memorized all of the plot twists and dialog in that creepy last chapter of that short-lived screwball ghostly comedy series. Immediately upon beginning to watch this Republic mystery comedy, released just a few years later, I began to notice the similarities. A car breaks down on the way to a spooky mansion where mayhem is about to occur, the heroine (here Lorna Gray) deals with the wise-cracking mechanic (Peter Cookson) with whom romance is about to blossom, and once they get there, they find out that they actually were not invited, but other guests have shown up out of the blue as well. Several people are murdered, and the search for uranium on the distant property (disconnected from the mainland and only accessible by a Key Largo bridge like causeway) leads to further mystery. Like Eddie "Rochester" Anderson in "Topper Returns", there is a scaredy cat black servant (here Willie Best), and like the outcome of "Topper Returns", there is a clever way of trapping the killer. There are also secret panels and surprising clues and even twin sisters (Veda Ann Borg) who obviously hate each other. This is a surprisingly entertaining, if completely unoriginal, who-done-it, grasping the viewer in and not letting go until the final comes just an hour later. The spark between Gray and Cookson makes it all the more entertaining, and Borg gets to display two sides to her usual brash personality to make for an interesting characterization. In spite of the humiliating type of role Best plays, he is very funny, which speaks highly of his talents as a comic, even if it is a shame that he had to endure the types of parts he was cast in during his long career.
Pardon My Nightshirt (1956)
1956? Seems more like 1936!
Comedy had changed quite a bit from the silent era, through the studio era, and movie shorts paved the way for sitcoms. This is the third version of a Columbia short, one starring Charlie Chase, and the other starring Andy Clyde who returns to the same story that he had done 18 years before. Reading that footage of both previous shorts were used for this made me cringe even though the entire short feels like it was already old and simply a 1956 re-release. The comedy is overtly racist, even by mid 1950's standards, and I can't imagine it getting many laughs at that time. The story surrounds the presence of the "nightshirt bandit", with Clyde in the wrong place at the wrong time and accused of being the bandit. It's extremely unfunny no matter what year it was made, and an embarrassing example of Hollywood at it's most racist and pathetic in efforts to make a quick Buck.
Doctor, Feel My Pulse (1944)
Nothing contagious here but laughter.
Joining the likes of Joan Davis, Cass Daley and Judy Canova, Barbara Jo Allen is a forgotten gem of a funny lady whose lightning timing made her very funny in spite of extremely dated material or situations that had been covered by other comics. This short for example is a remake of a Charlie Chase short, but I found his antics not as amusing as Barbara's. She's actually billed in most of her roles as Vera Vague (her character name) which is more in line with her characterization, a wacky sort of character whose funny faces try to hide her good looks but somehow fail. As a hypochondriac business woman, she spends more time warning her associates about germs than getting anything done, and then goes to see her doctor, and ending up in a sort of mental ward where the patients and other associates seem to be trying to treat her. Is this all a dream in her state of paranoia, or some sort of lesson? Allen/Vague is tossed around like a sack of potatoes, and it's no wonder she didn't need a real doctor by the time this was over. Of course, women like Vera paved the way for the sitcom stars that came just a few years later.
Defective Detectives (1944)
Hire a buffoon, and you get what you pay for.
Twenty minutes of El Brendel is enough to get a sense of what his annoying style of comedy was all about, but fortunately here, he's joined by silent comedy legend to share the laughs which here are more physical than verbal. For those unfamiliar with El Brendel, to say a little bit goes a long way is an understatement as his over the top Swedish accent becomes just too much in the dozens of feature films he appeared in during the 1930's. Mr. Brendel and Langdon are inept maintenance men who get so much on their detective bosses nerves to the point where he puts them on a case following a gangster's moll simply to get out of their hair. Of course, they end up following the wrong woman (his wife!), creating all sorts of public disturbances. Much of the comedy is extremely dated and thus unfunny, a reminder of why some classic comedy teams stand the test of time and others do not.
Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)
It ain't no classic, but Elvira knows how to hold them both (I mean it all) together.
An old friend of mine used to utilize lines from this movie as a part of his routine wisecrack response, whether saying, "If I wanted your opinion, I'd beat it out of you!" or responding to "What should I call you?". "Tonight". Cassandra Peterson, with a bawdy sense of humor and a self-deprecating way of keeping herself in check, makes every moment count. It is obvious that this was a film made for the audiences, not the critics, and it's just the type of popcorn movie that audiences flocked to before society began to take itself way too seriously. Usually, in horror spoofs like this, mere mortals end up in an old dark house, unsure of how to handle the spooky people who live there, but here, the all too goody goody Massachusetts town has the horror brought to them, or at least in ghoulish form. Inheriting part of her great aunt's estate, Elvira heads back to her mother's home town where she finds the prejudices mighty high upon her arrival, especially from the manipulative, Gladys Kravitz like Chastity Pariah (a delightful Edie McClurg) who has absolutely no sense of fun other than tasting everything in bulk at the boring socials that the town throws on special occasions.
Immediately noticing that the young people are quite repressed, Elvira sets out right off the bat to change all that, inciting the wrath of nasty waitress Susan Kellerman who is upset that Elvira has enticed her supposed boyfriend, the hunky Daniel Greene. This leads to a bit of mean-spirited revenge that spoofs "Flashdance" but ends up with Elvira soaked with something other than gold glittered water. Elvira, through the help of a mysterious cookbook that her nefarious uncle (W. Morgan Sheppard) wants to get his hands on. In disguise as a supposed respectful townsperson, Sheppard has some nefarious plans up his sleeve, which literally sets the town (and Elvira) on fire. But between Elvira's chesty muscles, her street smarts and a magical dog, Sheppard is going to have his work cut out for him. It's the dark arts vs. the white arts, because it is made very clear that even though she dresses in witch's black and looks like Barbara Steele in "Black Sunday", Elvira ain't into all that Satanic garbage.
A great supporting cast helps this become an entertaining mixture of slob comedy, horror spoof and cult classic, with McClurg delightfully stuffy, especially in her description of Elvira past the initial statement of "a woman of easy virtue". Character actor favorites William Duell and Pat Crawford Brown steal their moments as a married couple who own the local motor inn, with Duell much easier going than his judgmental wife, and getting a great last line in on Ms. Brown. Sheppard becomes one of the great campy movie villains, much like Christopher Lloyd in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?". There's also some great music here, including "Shout!" where the teens all willingly help Elvira fix up her house and a campy Vegas number which was Elvira's goal from the start to get away from the syndicated TV station where her only asset for the new station owner was located just below her neck. How she deals with the perverted pig is deliciously funny, as is the repercussions it presents for a stuffy news reporter, a gag later repeated with Kellerman's vindictive waitress.
Gallery of Horror (1967)
The absolute worst of the anthology horror genre.
Certainly among five different stories within one movie, there must be something redeeming. It certainly isn't the use of the castle from American International's cheepy "The Terror" (1963), so different looking as far as film stock is concerned that it becomes jarring every time the castle is shown, or the sets used within the film itself which seemed to be recycled from the first sequence throughout the fifth. The first sequence is probably the best, featuring narrator John Carradine in his only acting part within the film, playing the man who pays a visit upon the newleyweds who have purchased an abandoned mansion with a secret, followed by two individual stories about vampires (one with the obvious and already used name of Alucard) that features a Van Helsing with a secret (slightly amusing). But the absolute worst has Lon Chaney Jr. delivering his usual lame performance as a scientist who interferes in the experiments of some of his students, and gets the wrong body for their attempts to bring a Frankenstein like monster to life. Carradine and Chaney only appear in one sequence each, and at least Carradine's narration is subtle, if not juvenile. However, the younger actors all play multiple roles and their acting is certainly not anything worth writing about.
Chaney returns to his iconic role, to which more is the woe.
Rule of thumb in the 1960's in making a schlocky horror film: visit local pre-school's and kindergarten's, collect various art supplies (paper mache, styrofoam, large pieces of cardboard and colored construction paper, popsicle sticks, etc.), and hire a faded actor like John Carradine or Lon Chaney Jr.). Pull together bits and pieces of short stories and expand with as many idiotic small details that you can think of. Mix all of these together and stir. Bake for an hour, and then send to a drive-in theater, and there you have it: a schlocky horror film along the lines of "Face of the Screaming Werewolf".
The faded star here is Chaney, running around, snarling, grabbing screaming women, then barely missing an elevator as a woman inside screams. Another ghoul throws a man off of the roof, but fortunately, there's an awning to catch him. The film starts off with a flashback to an Aztec temple sacrifice ceremony where one of the characters in the present day was once an Aztec princess. This sequence is where the paper mache and styrofoam come in handy, painted to look like bricks, and held together by jarred paste. The actors look nothing like what the Aztecs must have, and the sequence as a whole goes on far too long. Chaney is there for name only, and most of the intended frights only bring laughs. At only an hour, this won't make you feel that you've wasted too much time, and you'll find plenty to laugh at, not laugh with.
The Horror of It All (1964)
As an actor, Pat Boone is a great singer.
You think that the Munsters and Addams Family were the only ookie and creepy families on screen in 1964? Wait until you meet the Marley's, a weird British family consisting of a wacky inventor great uncle, the bedridden patriarch who finds odd places to hide his will, his son who keeps death masks of all the relatives who have darkened the family name (a good thing in their family bible), a niece who drinks only Bloody Mary's, and is more dour than Wednesday Addams, and the seemingly normal daughter (Erica Rogers) who is engaged to American traveling salesman Pat Boone. After a car accident that doesn't seem quite so accidental, Boone must walk to the home of his fiancee where he is greeted by pops (Dennis Price), a dour fellow who warns him in bits and pieces about the characteristics of their family. In addition to those I mention above is an odd uncle who is quiet but dastardly and another uncle once held prisoner by head hunters who believes that he has the skull the size of a pear and seems to be cannibalistic himself.
Yes, this is a badly written movie, but it was written with so much tongue in cheek that it is impossible to hate. Boone's acting is, well, just bland, but the other actors seem to get that they are spoofing the horror genre and put their all into having fun just overplaying everything. The best sequence comes when Boone chit-chats with the inventor uncle who keeps coming up with ideas of things that have already been invented, like electricity. His idea of a horseless carriage is hysterically funny, and just wait until you learn what he uses in place of gasoline. Andree Melly makes every moment she is on screen unforgettable, with her deadpan manner extremely funny. When Boone suddenly breaks into a very bad horror themed song, you are laughing so much at it all that it comes to you that in spite of how silly it all is that you are actually having a good time.
Police Court (1932)
An inconsequential title describes nothing about this movie.
This is actually a story of "father love", a rare topic in Hollywood movies, dealing with the oddest of movie fathers, a desperate alcoholic (Henry B. Walthall) who in the opening scene is scolded by a judge for being one of the finest actors in the American theater who has destroyed his life through booze. Teenaged son Leon Janney pleads for another chance for his father, just like Janet Gaynor and Judy Garland did in "A Star is Born" with Frederic March and James Mason, but despite Janney's trust in Walthall's determination to remain sober, he ends up in jail for six months thanks to becoming involved in a barroom brawl. That doesn't stop the big hearted Janney from continuing to fight for another chance for his father, and after telling off a movie mogul who won't give Walthall another chance, Janney finds himself offered the lead in a movie about.....get this....father love. Determined not to become a success without his actor father by his side, Janney pleads for the role of the father to go to his own dad, but after years of boozing it up, will Walthall be actually prepared to face his toughest assignment in front of the camera?
Where they got the title for this film is beyond me. There are only two scenes in a courtroom, and they only serve the purpose of moving the plot along. First, there's the establishment of loyal son Janney sacrificing everything for dad, and then, there's the scene of Walthall being sentenced. Everything in between shows the harshness of the acting profession, with Walthall going from well respected actor who has pretty much destroyed his life to a pitiful remnant of what he was before, cast in a small role in a movie, yet unable to finish his scenes due to obvious cirrhosis of the liver. Walthall then must take the only job available to him; Playing Abraham Lincoln at a traveling carnival, with his Gettysburg Address collecting a crowd even with carnival music in the background. Through it all, Walthall's character tries to retain all the dignity he can muster, and the actor delivers an outstanding performance. I'm sure the pathos involving son Janney must have had women crying their eyes out in the theater, but for as melodramatic and over the top as it is, it is also fortunately very touching. The ending scene is straight out of "A Star is Born" which was not originally made until five years after this poverty row drama was released.
Motive for Revenge (1935)
If only the revenge was on the mother-in-law.
The stereotypical busy body mother-in-law is the true villain here, a vain and selfish woman so consumed with the material things her and daughter Irene Hervey got from her late husband that she manipulates her daughter into want, forcing struggling husband Donald Cook to embezzle from the bank he works for. Sentenced to seven years in prison, Cook is only comforted by Hervey's promise to wait for him, a promise Lloyd intends to make Hervey renig on. Five years go by and Hervey divorces Cook so she can marry, obviously with Lloyd's urging, the extremely possessive wealthy business man Edwin Maxwell who treats Hervey like a possession. When Cook is released, he makes his presence known, and it is obvious that he is not happy that Hervey betrayed him, setting up a confrontation that will become front page news.
Yes, the story is contrived, and certainly, it paints an ugly picture of the nagging mother-in-law, brute of a husband (Hervey's second), and young women as materialistic without reasoning. But the script allows the viewer to see Hervey's guilt, Cook's regret, and allow justice to be served. Certainly, the payoff for Lloyd isn't as satisfying as I would have liked it to be, but in spite of an over emphasis on sentiment, I found it engrossing as marital drama. The presence of idiotic detectives searching for the missing Hervey and Cook serves no purpose other than low comedy, but a view of one of them with a laughing parrot reminded me, inappropriately, of the dumb thugs in "The Fuller Brush Girl". A last minute twist doesn't come out of left field, having been hinted at throughout.
The Midnight Warning (1932)
There's a plague of weak old creaky movies.
At just over an hour, getting through this will depend on your attention span at the moment the Mayfair studio logo begins. This is an odd pre-code mystery featuring William "Stage" Boyd and Claudia Dell, two names practically forgotten today by all but the most devoted of classic movie fans. It involves the disappearance of a young man and his sister's (Dell) efforts to find out what happened to him. This leads her to become involved in some pretty spooky events, at one point in a morgue surrounded by corpses and hearing her name being called over and over. Boyd is her boyfriend, helping her to solve this mystery, which when unraveled still leaves a few unanswered questions. The creakiness of the film isn't helped by long pauses of dialog, although that does aide in the more sinister parts of the film. In regards to the film as a whole, it truly lacks any interest beyond a single viewing, so even if it ain't midnight, you've been warned.
Midnight Intruder (1938)
Breaking and entering can change your life.
Dashing Louis Hayward exudes charm as a down on his luck actor who breaks into a seemingly abandoned mansion on a dark, stormy night, and ends up changing his life. He's suave and sophisticated, but absolutely unaware of the drama he's about to involve himself in because of his innocent crime. Put in a difficult position, he pretends to be the son of the owners, returning home after a long absence, and is unaware of family drama which has estranged the real heir from his parents. When news of his return makes the paper, Hayward is visited by the real heir's secret wife, desperate because he (Eric Linden) has just been accused of murder.
The mixture of comedy and mystery makes this an above average programmer, well acted and never overstaying its welcome. Good performances by Linden, Sheila Bromley as the wife and Nana Bryant as Linden's kindly socialite mother aide the film, with J.C. Nugent very funny as Hayward's cohort. But it is the easy going performance of Hayward which stands out, especially in a scene with Bryant where she praised him for his unselfish actions.