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Go Into Your Dance (1935)
Jolson at this best
A relatively little-known Al Jolson vehicle, happily brought back by TCM, that's a pleasure to watch. Here, Jolson plays a Broadway star with a king-size ego who has alienated so many producers that he can't land even a bit part. So he decides to produce his own show, co-starred with a tap-dancing gamin played by Ruby Keeler. This is the only time the couple appeared on screen together and the chemistry works. Ms. Keeler wasn't that pretty and her dancing sometimes resembled an attempt to stamp out cockroaches but her spunky appeal shines through. The production numbers, particularly "A Quarter to Nine," are first-rate and the plot contrivances -- including a rub-out attempt by a ticked-off mobster -- don't detract from what the movie is really about. Watching Jolson sail through a half-dozen songs with his energetic verve, sidestepping a plot that never gets in the way.
I was surprised to see how many IMDb contributors gave this movie a thumbs down. The story isn't any more substantial than a few dozen other romantic comedies of the time. But it moves along at a merry pace, especially when the cast takes over an ocean liner. And there are enough plot twists to keep it rolling. Dick Powell is his usual easygoing self. Ruby Keeler is surprisingly good --for an actress who had more than her share of detractors. Hugh Herbert dithers amusingly. And even Joan Blondell scores as a woman on the loose. Add some stylish production numbers-- with the usual bevy of toe-tapping chorus girls led by Keeler and Paul Draper -- and you've got a pleasant 90 minutes or so.
The Doorway to Hell (1930)
Young Lew Ayres and James Cagney
If Lew Ayres hadn't refused military service during World War 2, he'd be remembered as one of the screen's most gifted actors. Here, at a remarkably early age, he gives a bravura performance as a smart, cocky, classy mob boss, making fools of the thugs who've sworn to rub him out. In support is Jimmy Cagney -- in only his second screen role -- as a double-crossing thug with a roving eye. Some contributors have complained that there's not a lot of gunplay in "Doorway to Hell" -- but that's no problem. The movie is more of a character study than a gangster film. And as such, it's remarkably entertaining (especially for a movie made back in 1930,) enlivened by Ayres' charismatic performance.
I Can't Escape (1934)
A first-rate B movie
"I Can't Escape" is a perfect example of a good 1930s "B" movie -- short (about 65 minutes,) stylish, well-acted and frequently surprising. The star is Osgood Stevens who had the looks of a Gable but a weakness for booze which short-circuited his career. Opposite him -- and every bit as good -- is Lila Lee, thinly disguised as a prostitute until she meets Stevens and settles into happy domesticity. After getting out of jail and pounding the pavements, Stevens encounters a pair of swindlers who are happy to hire him as the perfect fall guy when they take off with their clients' cash. How he avoids another prison stretch is ingeniously plotted, excitingly filmed. In short, "I Can't Escape" is a fine example of what's meant by the phrase, "they don't make 'em like that anymore."
The Walking Dead (1936)
Karloff at his best
Because he spent so much of his career making horror films, there's a tendency to forget what a splendid actor Boris Karloff was. "The Walking Dead" is a perfect example. An innocent man condemned as a murderer, he's brought back to life by inventor Edmund Gwenn. Oddly enough, he harbors no animosity against the men who framed him. But somehow, one by one, they suffer bizarre accidents. It's wonderfully typical Karloff stuff -- made more enjoyable by his sense of wonder at how these fatal incidents keep happening. Credit director Michael Curtiz with ingenuity in setting up the deaths and Karloff's mixture of confusion and grim satisfaction at his inadvertent revenge.
Another Face (1935)
Entertaining movie spoof
Some people get this movie, some don't -- just look at the IMDb ratings -- but count me among those who enjoyed it. Brian Donlevy stars as a hood with a notoriously large proboscis who goes under the knife of a plastic surgeon. Not only is his nose whittled away but having taken off for California, he now believes he's ready for a new career as a movie star. Just a few small problems intervene. He has no acting talent. And he hasn't quite escaped his shady past. Donlevy plays comedy better than most people might suspect, ably supported by Alan Hale as a studio mogul and Wallace Ford as a quick-on-the-trigger press agent. If it pops up on TCM again, give it a shot. As a satire on movie-making, it's surprisingly good.
Date Night (2010)
A night on the town...
Reading the reviews of "Date Night" here, it's obvious that people either loved or hated it. Put me in the plus column. Sure, what happens to the Fosters (Steve Carrel and Tina Fey) when they use assumed names to score a table in a glitzy restaurant turns out to be dangerous. Maybe even lethal. But this is a comedy, not a slice of life -- and the couple's misadventures as they avoid hit men, crooked cops and their own mistakes is thoroughly entertaining. There's just enough wordplay and action -- headed by a zany car chase through the streets of downtown New York -- to keep things perking. If you want logic, look elsewhere. But I'm happy to settle for some good laughs.
The Secret 6 (1931)
Gangsters loose at MGM
Despite the title, the Secret Six (a group of masked crime-fighting citizens) don't have much to do in this gangster thriller. On the other hand, it's a chance to see a young Clark Gable just a few years before MGM promoted him to super-stardom. As a probing newspaperman, he's billed way down in the cast list but gets more than ample time to show off his acting chops. Another surprise is Ralph Bellamy before he was sentenced to a life of losing the girl in countless comedies as an urbane mobster -- and he's surprisingly menacing. The star of the movie is Wallace Beery as a slaughterhouse worker turned mob boss and he does his usual job, growling, grimacing and chewing the scenery. Well worth watching in a genre that MGM usually left to Warner Bros.
Paper Bullets (1941)
Hey, gang, it's PRC
Reading the comments on "Paper Bullets" (aka "Gangs Inc.,) readers are disappointed that it didn't make more sense. But what did you expect? It's a PRC film and they were churned out in a few days. At least, it's a chance to see a very young Alan Ladd who had his cool charisma down pat before he became a star. On the other hand, if you're baffled by Joan Woodbury's rise from prison inmate to gangland queen, you're probably ahead of the writers whose job was to knock out something resembling a script, then go one to the next low budget thriller. As a return to the days when small neighborhood movie houses were shut out of the films from the major studios -- and forced to rely on Monogram and PRC -- it's a colorful bit of history. And as a movie, it really isn't that bad.
Here Comes Carter (1936)
"Here Comes Carter" is one of those cinematic throwaways that Warner Bros. (and the other major studios) ground out back in the pre-television days. It stars Ross Alexander, a likable young performer and closeted homosexual who killed himself at the age of 29, Glenda Farrell back when she was still a knockout and Anne Nagel who was a better actress than most of the glamour girls on the Warner Bros. lot. The plot doesn't make a whole lotta' sense. One minute, Carter is a movie studio publicist, the next he's an imitation Winchell, broadcasting Hollywood gossip. There's a subplot about a gangster's plan to bump off Carter but that gets lost in the shuffle. One suspects that the screenwriters were making this thing up just in time to send pages of script to the sound stage where the movie was already filming. Yet, in its own hackneyed way, "Here Comes Carter" is fun.
A Shot in the Dark (1935)
The real mystery here is how -- and why -- this movie got made. At a mythical college where most of the students have apparently been flunking for years -- since they're all in their thirties -- a body is found hanging outside a dorm window. Suicide? Nah! That'd only be a short subject. The poor lad was bumped off, a murder followed by two more. And if you haven't figured out who the culprit is about five minutes in, it's time to brush up on your 1930s grade-C thrillers. Charles Starrett in the days before he rode the range, can obviously act. His girl friend (whose name I'll omit out of respect) struggles to say a few lines. Hopefully, she moved on to a more suitable career. One last question. Can anyone who's seen the movie tell me why the killings were committed? If so, you're way ahead of the screenwriter.
Tomorrow at Seven (1933)
No clues to the killer...
There's a murderer loose in the spooky Louisiana estate that serves as the setting of this mystery. Is it the mansion owner's lawyer's zoftig daughter? Or either one of the two characters who turn up claiming to be the coroner. Or maybe it's mystery writer Chester Morris who could be researching the plot of his next blood-curdling thriller. As unlikely as it seems, perhaps it's one of the two buffoons tossed in for slapstick relief, Frank McHugh and Allan Jenkins. Don't expect any clues from the screenwriter who seemed to be making up the story as it went along and had no idea of the culprit until it was time to turn in a script and he had to pin the slaying on somebody.
Union Station (1950)
Needs a few more surprises...
The setting is terrific -- director Rudolf Mate does a splendid job, exploring every nook and cranny of a metropolitan railroad station. There's even a lengthy sequence below the gleaming terminal where old tracks, vintage cars (and maybe a few buried bodies) reside.But the story itself lacks subtlety. The good guys, led by William Holden as the station's security chief and Barry Fitzgerald as his older crony, are dedicated and heroic.. The bad guys, led by Lyle Bettger as a psycho kidnapper, are evil incarnate. The plot, centering on a kidnapped heiress -- who happens to be blind -- unfolds in by-the-numbers style. Enjoy the tour of Union Station. But don't look for any unexpected twists as the tale unfolds.
Bogart is back in stir...
To say that Humphry Bogart paid his dues is an understatement. From the time he joined Warner Bros. until his breakthrough role in "High Sierra," he was the studio's most reliable scowling, snarling double-crossing hood. Here's he's a penny-ante crook who enlists Billy Halop to join him in a quick stick-up. The pair are quickly caught and packed off to prison where Halop has continual bouts of conscience and Bogart masterminds an escape. If that sounds familiar, the plot -- and variations on same -- were standard Warner Bros. fare, especially in the 1930s. Bogart manages to pack a lot of charisma into a stereotype and Halop's ex-Dead End performance is pretty good, as well. But the movie itself doesn't veer too far from an all-too-familiar formula.
The Phantom Broadcast (1933)
Murder and mayhem on Poverty Row
Back in the thirties, every studio had its own distinctive style...there were star-studded epics like "Gone With the Wind" at MGM, breezy comedies like the Hope-Crosby "Road" movies at Paramount and gangster films with the likes of Bogart and Cagney at Warner Bros. Then there were the Poverty Row studios, principally Monogram and PRC, where "quickies" were churned out on five day schedules. So it's no wonder that while Monogram's "The Phantom Broadcast" is entertaining, it's also confusing. The premise is that piano player Norman Wilder, a hunchback, is the behind-the-scenes voice for a murdered radio crooner. There are a few obvious questions like why no one notices that while the crooner is performing, his pianist is simultaneously singing up a storm. Or how a few characters enter someone's apartment then apparently forget that it's not their own home. Someone at the studio may have noticed that lapse but was told Monogram's policy...no retakes. Still, "The Phantom Broadcast" is fun. And you can't say that about quite a few movies from the major studios.
No Escape (1953)
Stylish "B" thriller
Proof once again that a "B" picture needn't be "B" quality. But that was true of quite a few second features at MGM which gave even their lesser films a patina of quality. Lew Ayres stars as a drunk piano player cum songwriter who stumbles on a corpse and could be targeted by the police as the killer unless he can solve the crime. Sonny Tufts co-stars, wearing a suit that makes him look like a 300 pound wrestler walking around incognito. Ayres took a bad rap when he refused to serve as a soldier during World War 2 but distinguished himself as a medic. If nothing else, this film is a reminder of what a blithely ingratiating actor he was. Well worth watching
Ah, for the good old days of simple story lines. "Crooner" follows the rise and fall of Ted Taylor, a small time band leader whose musicians are underpaid and getting restless until a drunk Guy Kibbee (in a surprisingly tiny role) tosses him a megaphone. Now when he sings, women swoon. But all the attention goes to his head and even his paramour, Ann Dvorak, is turned off. Unfortunately, David Manners in the title role isn't much of an actor and even worse as a crooner. Dvorak's a lot better and J. Carroll Naish as the nightclub owner stuck with paying Manners' escalating tab, is fine. Throw in Ken Murray (yeah, that Ken Murray) as a hustling publicist and if only Manners wasn't so stiff -- and his band so listless -- this would have been a lot more entertaining. Whether this was inspired by Rudy Vallee or Bing Crosby is anybody's guess. Not bad -- but shoulda' been better.
Exclusive Story (1936)
Class act from MGM
During the 1930s, MGM gave even its "B" movies a touch of class and "Exclusive Story" is typical. Stu Erwin co-stars as a crusading newspaperman attempting to expose the racketeers behind a lottery scam, masterminded by Robert Barratt. He'd like society lawyer Franchot Tone to join him, serving as a special prosecutor. But Tone is having too much fun catering to his upscale clients. Then a mysterious fire aboard a ship bound out of Havana hits Tone personally -- and the mob has met its match. Over at RKO or Universal, this would have been a decent second feature. Here, while it's still a "B," it has style, sumptuous sets and first-rate performances.
The Famous Ferguson Case (1932)
Any movie that starts off with an apology is in trouble. But "The Famous Ferguson Case" opens with a long-winded credit crawl warning against newspapers that takes sides in a sensational murder case and run scare headlines. Only Tom Brown as a local reporter seems content to deal with the facts. As for the visiting journalists, they spend most of their time boozing, ribbing each other and occasionally filing stories back to New York. Joan Blondell is along for the ride as a sassy member of the band who is less than impressed with her male colleagues. Not a bad little thriller -- but not a very good one, either.
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
Is it possible to be racist and entertaining? Sure. And if you doubt it, take a look at "The Mask of Fu Manchu." On one side, we have a group of nobly dedicated scientists and historians searching for the gold mask and sword once wielded by Ghengis Khan. On the other, we have cunningly evil Boris Karloff, his sloe-eyed daughter, Myrna Loy, and a horde of thugs determined to wipe out the white race. Any doubt who's gonna' come out on top? Fortunately, Karloff's performance in the title role is so demonically wicked, you're almost tempted to say let the villains win for a change. But no, our lucky band of crypt-invaders including Lewis Stone and Charles Starret (before he became a full-time cowboy) aren't about to allow a few thousand raving thuggies get the upper hand. No way this movie could be made now. But back in those more innocent -- and dreadfully naive days -- it wasn't a problem. And even if the racism makes you cringe, Karloff's performance is a class act.
Guilty Hands (1931)
You gotta' have a gimmick...
When strait-laced district attorney Lionel Barrymore discovers that his daughter has been having an affair with ladies man Alan Mowbray, he confronts him. But Mowbray isn't easily intimidated. Barrymore's daughter is simply the latest in his long line of conquests and he will only leave her when he has made her life miserable. Barrymore has only one option -- to commit the perfect crime, murdering Mowbray. But this is a movie -- and you can't let a killer get away. So in what has to be one of the weirdest cop-outs in Hollywood history, Barrymore pays for his dastardly deed. I won't spoil the fun by telling you how it happens -- but you've got to give the screenwriter credit for truly bizarre ingenuity.
Other Men's Women (1931)
The trains steal the show
Okay, the story is hokey but it's 1931 and movies have only been talking for about two years. And the tale of love -- wedded and on the sly -- is familiar. But what makes this movie a stand-out are the trains, monster locomotives, followed by streams of box cars that careen across the countryside. They're impressive and become even more so when torrential rains hit and the tracks are flooded. For Grant Withers and Regis Toomey, once best pals now arch-enemies, the challenge is to get through without losing their train or their lives. Withers (before he was drummed out of Hollywood as a drunk) is tremendously likable. A youthful Mary Astor comes off well. Jimmy Cagney shows up in a few scenes and does a nifty tap dance. But in the end, it's the "performances" that director William Wellman amazingly gets out of the trains that makes 'Other Men's Women" the terrific entertainment it is.
The Old Dark House (1932)
A nightmare classic...
I was about 12 years old when I first saw "The Old Dark House" at the Annex Theater on Manhattan's East Side. Which wouldn't be unusual except that within a few days, the Annex Theater had vanished. It never turned up again in an ad or movie listing. Which made it a curiously appropriate venue in which to watch one of the great horror movies of all time. The film opens on a car slogging through a torrential rainstorm whose occupants seek shelter in a lonely manse rather than risk plunging off a cliff. The people in the house are all mad. Ernest Thesiger is a menacingly genial host. His sister makes it clear that she hates visitors; "there are no beds" she keeps screeching. The butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff) is a mute servant who is only homicidal when he drinks. Which he does whenever there's a storm. Somewhere on the third floor, there's a locked door to keep a madman with a butcher knife from running loose. It's clear that the wayfarers,led by Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton and Gloria Stuart may not live through the night. J.B. Priestly's screenplay is both literate and frightening while James Whale (of Frankenstein fame) turns up the terror with wonderfully skewed camera angles and effects. In short, "The Old Dark House" is a rarity...a genuine horror classic.
Motive for Revenge (1935)
If it only made sense...
"Motive for Revenge" is a slack grade C thriller from the mid-1930s. Not every plot has to have a few shreds of logic but this one defies common sense. Donald Cook -- in a performance so wooden it gives timber a bad name -- is a bank clerk who can't come up with the funds to satisfy his wife and her doting mother. So he robs the bank, gets collared by the cops and is sent off to the slammer for seven years. Which provides an excuse to throw in a slew of prison stock footage. Meanwhile, the missus marries a bloated, arrogant buffoon who manages to get himself shot. Whodunit? The answer probably surprised even the screenwriters who came up with it. Irene Hervey gives a remarkably deft performance and a few decent stage actors manage to make the most of their cardboard roles. But otherwise, it's strictly Grade C.
Tread Softly Stranger (1958)
Suspenseful British "B"
When the British make a "B" movie, they tend to get it right -- and "Tread Softly Stranger" is a good example. George Baker as Johnny has left London and returned to his childhood home -- a scraggy northern town -- to escape the bookmakers who are screaming for his hide. His brother, Dave, a payroll clerk at a local steel mill, is a wimp, hopelessly smitten with next door neighbor Diana Dors. When the brothers set out to heist the mill's payroll, everything that can possibly go wrong does -- no surprise. But there's a nifty twist at the end that certainly is surprising. The atmosphere -- from grubby pubs to the factory's blistering operations -- provide a colorful backdrop. Worth watching.