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The World Gone Mad (1933)
Oh the (lack of) horror!...
... and that seems to be what lots of people complain about with this film, all because Mill Creek inappropriately included it in a public domain pack of 50 horror films when this is actually a crime/newspaper caper film. But don't take it out on Pat O'Brien, Neil Hamilton, Louis Calhern and company, because that was a decision made 75 years after this film was made!
The title is probably what got it included, and the title itself is a bit of a mystery for there is nothing of cosmos or craziness in this film. Instead it is about the murder and set up for disgrace of an honest DA (Wallis Clark) by gangsters, and how his newspaper columnist friend (Pat O'Brien) tries to solve the crime and redeem the name of his deceased pal, if for nothing else than for the sake of his widow and son.
The acting of the well known names here is very good. Little Majestic Pictures must have shot the works as far as budget to get so many relatively big names. But the screenplay is another matter. Sure, the plot as a whole makes sense, but there are holes in the plot that make no sense! Pat O'Brien's character seems to be psychic as far as figuring out almost immediately who the trigger man is. How? This is never explained. When the DA's good name is smeared the janitor at the rooming house where his body is found has a whole story about how the DA came there regularly for months to shack up with a lady not his wife and drink heavily. OK, so the janitor is lying. But if he is lying, why not lie completely? Instead he gives a totally accurate description of the girl who was one of the co-conspirators in the DA's murder. Why? You never see this janitor again, so maybe for doing such a bad job of lying for them, the mobsters fit him for a cement overcoat. We'll never know. There are lots of other plot holes too, but these are two big examples.
There is lots of precode naughtiness here, including language and sexual inuendos, and one almost graphic sex scene for the day of two unwed people in bed together. However, the total darkness and the fact that the scene is almost too prolonged takes away from its punch.
Overall, not a bad way to spend 70 minutes.
Don't Bet on Love (1933)
Lew Ayres as a punting profligate plumber...
... talk about playing against type! Of course this was before he was known for his roles as sympathetic physicians, but still it is a bit of a shock seeing Ayres play what is basically a very deplorable person.
The film tries to soft peddle it with an opening montage of stockbrokers selling bad stocks, bankers saying their banks are on solid ground, a man pretending to be blind and begging, and a common purse snatcher, I guess, the lesson being, that everybody has a racket and is on the take, but it didn't soften the blow for me.
Ayres plays Bill McCaffery, the son in McCaffery and Sons Plumbing. His dad tries to warn him against continuing to play the horses, and his best girl (Ginger Rogers as Molly) says she won't marry him until he stops playing the horses, yet he continues on. First he turns five dollars into 250 dollars, then he turns fifty dollars into 1500. When Molly says she is done with him because of his gambling, Bill takes the train to Saratoga and turns what was to be their honeymoon into a month long horse betting jag. He returns to New York with fifty thousand dollars after making all of the columns in the papers. 50K would be roughly a million dollars in today's money.
Dad and Molly stand their ground. And the law of gravity says what goes up must come down, but Bill is unswayed and thinks his luck will run forever, and complications ensue.
The film has some funny anecdotes that don't make you think any better of your fellow man. One involves a gold digger and the other involves Bill pulling a ruse that could land him in the penitentiary or even in the grave when he crosses a gangster.
I guess the funniest part (unintentional I am sure) of the film is when Bill is at a nightspot in Saratoga and out comes the floor show. They are actually rather pudgy girls in two piece outfits with stripes that make them look like convicts. Their dance routine is basically sitting down, crossing and uncrossing their legs, and then standing up again. Rinse and repeat. Talk about your all talking all singing all dancing convicts! Busby Berkeley this is not!
Lew Ayres and Ginger Rogers, who were married for six years, met making this film. It was probably a bad omen that, although in love and engaged, they spend most of the film feuding and apart.
I'd mildly recommend this, because it is a rare case of an existing Universal that is a straight precode in the Warner Brothers tradition. If you are a film history buff I would definitely recommend it.
The Mortal Storm (1940)
MGM enters the fray with a pre-war film about the dangers of fascism
This film was a powerful indictment of the growing Nazi menace designed as a warning to wake up a complacent America which was steeped in isolationism at the time. MGM had been avoiding making such films, although Warner Brothers had made several that overtly criticized fascism by 1940.
The film opens with the 60th birthday party of an imminent German professor. His wife, two stepsons, and his son and daughter are at the table. This happy family moment is meant to contrast with the rest of the film, which is a downhill slide into intolerance and fear from that point forward, as Adolph Hitler is named chancellor of Germany that very night.
Margaret Sullavan plays the professor's grown daughter, engaged to Robert Young who turns out to be a fanatical party member who sees obeying as a duty above all else. James Stewart is the family friend and geeky guy who loves Sullavan's character from afar and also loves democracy and hates bullies - things that will get you in trouble in 1930s Germany. The role of the Jewish college professor who refuses to bend his teaching to suit government beliefs is probably the best of Frank Morgan's career. It's a good serious role for someone so often relegated to the comic relief at MGM.
Other people have said that the word "Germany" is never used, but I am almost sure I heard it. For sure, everything else said certainly indicates without doubt that this is the country that is being talked about. The one thing the film does not do is mention the Jews specifically and the danger that they are in under the new regime. The closest the film comes is Sullavan's character talking to Robert Young about "her people".
The film is a powerful one, and includes a good but brief supporting role for Maria Ouspenskaya as the mother of James Stewart's character. She is no frail old woman - she knows what is at stake and what she is up against. You get the feeling she has seen authoritarian governments come and go before.
Highly recommended - it packs a powerful and heart rending punch.
Cold Turkey (1971)
Almost a who's who of 60s and 70s TV...
... and that is really no surprise since this film was written and directed by Norman Lear, architect of so many hit TV shows in the 1970s.
Bob Newhart plays Merwin Wren, a tobacco executive who pitches the idea of giving 25 million dollars to any town that gives up tobacco for one month. He figures this will redeem the image of the tobacco industry, and what town could get every smoker to give up smoking for a month?
Enter tiny town of four thousand, Eagle Rock, Iowa. It lost a major employer and people are leaving town. The military has said that Eagle Rock is at the top of the list to receive a new missile manufacturing plant, but they have to spruce up the town's infrastructure first. But how, with a diminishing tax base? So, encouraged by the town's preacher, Clayton Brooks, the town takes the pledge.
Wren's job is on the line if Eagle Rock succeeds, so he goes to the town to try and get just one smoker's foot to slip. Meanwhile, tobacco withdrawal hits the entire town hard with comic results. If you've ever watched a loved one go through such withdrawal, this will look familiar to you. The first half of the film is about the comic attempt to stop smoking. The second half is about how easy it is for greed to set in once the town becomes famous and is making just about as much money from tourism as it hopes to make from the tobacco company if it succeeds.
The film is classic Lear as he lampoons just about everything - men of the cloth, men of medicine - they were all men back then, marriage, big business, right ring groups that see Communism everywhere but really just want to be authoritarians themselves, and news anchors back when they were actually respectable and weren't just talking heads.
The billing of the cast is really odd in retrospect. As expected, Dick Van Dyke is top billed. But second billed is...Pippa Scott? She doesn't even have that big a role in the film! And Bob Newhart, who was really great at playing the slimy little weasel here is bottom billed!
I'd highly recommend it. It is certainly one of Dick Van Dyke's better film roles and you get to see Norman Lear at work just as he was becoming famous.
The Tattooed Stranger (1950)
CSI New York 1950
This was last week's entry of "Noir Alley" on Turner Classic Movies. Without host Eddie Muller's detailed wrap around comments, I might have given it a six. But his comments on what is bad about this film as well as about what is good about it raised my rating to a seven.
The producer was given only 125K with which to make this little crime film. The title comes from the victim - a girl is found in the passenger seat of a stolen car left in Central Park with her face blasted off. Her only identifying mark is a tattoo that indicates either she or a significant other was in the Navy. The police are shown going through their crime scene investigation, as it existed in 1950 - dusting for prints, taking photos, etc. The girl has never been fingerprinted, so they don't know who the victim is, much less anything about suspects. They find some samples of grass in the car that did not come from the park, and the medical examiner says the girl's arches have almost completely given way, which indicates she may have spent lots of time standing. Her fingers are stained with cheap purple ink which is often used on menus. So perhaps the girl is a waitress. And from this the detectives have to find not only who the killer is, but who is this victim.
So what is good or interesting about this film? The cast is almost completely anonymous in the world of feature films. For many it was the only feature film role that they ever had. However, many of the cast had lengthy careers on television, and this film feels like an episode of whodunnit TV 50s or 60s style, so that is no surprise. Also, the film was shot on location in New York City, so it is "practically a travelogue of mid century New York", to quote Eddie. You see the beaneries, the boarding houses, and the Bowery as they existed in 1950, when New York was home to lots of working class people and not a tony address affordable to just a few.
What is bad about it? I'd say the rather contrived romance between a botanist, brought in to identify the unique foliage found in the stolen car, and the "college boy" detective, as his partner keeps calling him. When you first meet the botanist she is in a lab coat and glasses, suitable for her profession. But after that, in spite of the fact that she is wading through high grass in empty lots, she has on pumps, some stylish dress, and is awkwardly carrying a purse! Plus background music that sounds like it is from "Leave it To Beaver" plays as opposed to the more "Dragnet" style score that accompanies the rest of the film. It is all so nauseatingly endearing.
What is funny about this film? Originally the script called for the girl's face - which you never see - to be blown off by a sawed off shotgun. But the censors objected and the weapon had to be changed, only because it was illegal to modify a shotgun in such a way. Like murder was not illegal? Head censor Joe Breen's warped logic just slays me.
Coffins on Wheels (1941)
Did people actually trust used car salesmen in 1941?
Maybe. It was a less cynical time. Plus the idea of a used car was relatively new. Ordinary people could only afford a car once the Model T's started coming off the line in 1908, and cars were built to last in those times.
So this episode in MGM's "Crime Does Not Pay" series is about racketeering used car salesmen. By racketeering I think that they just meant completely dishonest, because there seems to be no mob involvement. It opens with the dishonest salesman closing the deal on a car to an older fellow who needs the car to make deliveries and hold his job. The car breaks down shortly thereafter, and when the dealership tells him to get lost he goes to the police. Odd how the police department would have time to go over a bad used car with a consumer, but apparently here they do. The police mechanics tell the owner that the car was a former taxi and probably has over 200K miles on it. Examinations of the sales contract and the bill of sale don't hold any guarantees, so the police can do nothing in this case.
But then there are a couple of kids right out of an MGM family film screenplay that buy one of the lemon cars, and you just know this is going to end badly in a way that will get the criminals on the hook. You'd be right or else this would not be a "Crime Does Not Pay" entry.
A couple of things I took away from this. The introduction does not say that this scenario is exactly true. It is probably just representative of a number of actual cases. Also, why is everybody being raised by their grandparents in this short? The salesman who has a little daughter and buys the first lemon car looks like he is at least 50. The man who is the father of the teen who buys the second lemon car looks at least 60. Maybe the decade long depression the country had just come out of aged people badly, but it is very noticeable.
Still, a worthy entry in the MGM series if you are a fan.
The Gay Divorcee (1934)
A good warm up for "Top Hat"
This was the first RKO film that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did in which they are the central characters. In the first two they play wise cracking supporting roles, and if you don't know what is going on you might say "Hey, why don't Gene Raymond and Delores Del Rio get out of the way and let Fred and Ginger do their stuff?". It was because Fred and Ginger as a team were a bit of a surprise to RKO.
At any rate, like I said, this seems like a warm up for "Top Hat" a year later, but it is still a great film. But the two share a few pieces of the basic formula. Fred and Ginger meet in such a way that annoys Ginger and gets Fred interested, and once Ginger begins to return Fred's affection a complete misunderstanding that Fred knows nothing about causes Ginger to lose all interest in a now confused Fred. Edward Everett Horton plays Fred's loyal but befuddled friend, and Eric Blore, who at first seems like a minor character who is in the film mainly to flummox Horton's character plays a much bigger part in the plot than you would ever imagine. Erik Rhodes plays an Italian who never really has a chance as third vertex in a triangle in which the other two are Fred and Ginger, but he plays that part with great comic style.
A couple of mistakes fixed by "Top Hat" that this one has - First, Fred Astaire is given no solo dance numbers. Second, too much Alice Brady can get annoying. In "Top Hat" her part is taken by Helen Broderick who had a great dry comic wit.
Still, highly recommended.
At last somebody besides Disney has made an unnecessary remake
In this case it would be Columbia. If you have seen the 1990 film there is nothing new here. What you have is updated technology - part of the film involves cell phones - and there is better CGI and a more diverse cast. The underlying lessons of the plot are the same, just how they get there is different. One thing that I felt was really lacking in this film was atmosphere. In the original it seems like it is perpetually Halloween. It is always foggy and the university is littered with gargoyles and religious imagery. And shame on Kiefer Sutherland for doing a cameo that has nothing to do with his character Nelson in the original 1990 film. That would have been an interesting flash forward.
Because the original was made almost 30 years ago is the only reason I can figure that some people give it a positive review. I give it three stars for the technical team, which seems to be the only stars I give to many modern movies these days. Where are the original ideas? Every generation has its storytellers and visionaries, are the studio suits freezing them out because they are afraid of offending someone or more afraid of not making a profit than they are of making a mediocre film? The original Flatliners was probably about a 7/10, not a great movie but worth seeing. It did not need to be remade.
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
A plain vanilla gorilla movie...
... and it probably wouldn't be remembered at all if not for Bela Lugosi being second billed as Dr. Mirakle and Leon Ames (so early in his career he is still going by Leon Waykoff) as Pierre Dupin, a medical student. And yet it is on DVD!
Dr. Mirakle is a mad scientist, and he meets Pierre and more importantly his girlfriend Camille (Sidney Fox) at a circus sideshow where Dr. Mirakle claims he can talk to his gorilla, Eric, and that the gorilla is lonely. It is obvious Mirakle wants Camille to be Eric's "girlfriend", but she is difficult to get close to. So he continues trying - and failing - with prostitutes, who are easily abducted. and not missed. He injects gorilla blood into their blood, probably in an attempt to turn them into gorilla like creatures as a companion for Eric, but the experiment always fails and the girls die. Dr. Mirakle blames the failures on the girls' "sins". There were some things that you couldn't come out and say even in the precode era, and what he is probably trying to say is that he needs the blood of a virgin - enter Camille. Mirakle's assistant dumps the bodies into the Seine. That is where Dupin comes back into the picture as he is frequenting the Rue Morgue where their bodies end up, and is trying to determine the cause of death.
The dialogue is pedestrian, and so is the acting. Only Lugosi comes alive at all. And there are some really obvious shots of a man in a gorilla suit that is supposed to be Eric and repetitive close up shots of the gorilla himself that do not impress. What does impress is the set design. It is very detailed and interesting and worth a look. Plus there are a couple of scenes, that, if it wasn't for the fact that King Kong came out a year later, I would swear were stolen from that more famous film.
Probably for fans of Lugosi and of interesting and atmospheric set design only.
Being John Malkovich (1999)
Three who deserved one another
I give my nine points for originality and the quality of production though, not the likeability of the characters. John Cusack and Cameron Diaz play Craig and Lotte Schwartz, a married couple that are going through the motions and don't seem to realize it. Cameron Diaz is made up to be so dowdy looking that she is initially not even recognizable. They live in a basement apartment crowded with animals (Lotte is an animal lover who works at a pet shop). Craig is a puppeteer who cannot find work in his chosen field and even gets beat up on the street for staging what one beefy dad thinks is a sacrilegious puppet show.
At the suggestion of his wife, Craig goes looking for a regular job, and due to his fast hands he gets a job as a file clerk at LesterCorp. There he meets Maxine, a pretty but sociopathic young woman who, fortunately for society, seems to have no violent impulses, because if she did believe me she would follow them. Craig falls for her. Lotte falls for her. And they both make a play for her simultaneously when she comes over for dinner one night. She rejects them both.
Maxine made it clear from the beginning she considered Craig a pathetic loser, but she needs him to exploit something that Craig discovered - a door that leads to a portal in which anybody who enters gets to "become" John Malkovich for fifteen minutes. At the end of the fifteen minutes the person is spit out on the side of the road at the entry to the New Jersey Turnpike. As a team they reopen Lestercorp at night and charge people 200 dollars apiece to "become John Malkovich". Neither of them knows what this portal is doing there behind a file cabinet and why it leads to Malkovich, but they initially don't care past its monetary value.
It is part drama, part comedy, and even part horror and completely weird. And what the portal is doing there is all wrapped up in Dr. Lester, owner of Lestercorp, who is the only likeable character in the film, and even he has more than a bit of a Dr. Frankenstein/God complex.
Also featuring Mary Kay Place as the object of Dr. Lester's lust who has convinced him he has a terrible speech impediment - he does not, John Malkovich as himself, and Charlie Sheen as himself and Malkovich's friend. It is great seeing Charlie Sheen when he was still healthy.
Very highly recommended. But the plot is so weird you just have to let go of your reason and go with it.
The runt of the litter...
... and let me say that I really miss George E. Stone as "The Runt" in this last Boston Blackie entry. Stone as The Runt was not that helpful in solving any of the crimes in the Boston Blackie series, but he had a naive charm and fierce loyalty to Blackie that made him a joy to have around. Sid Tomack's Runt is more like a gentleman's gentleman to Boston Blackie, an Alfred to his Batman. He's just not fun to watch.
The mystery is among the least compelling of the series too. The Chinese proprietor of laundry (eye roll) is found dead behind the counter at his business, and because Blackie is outside and has laundry at the establishment, Farraday accuses him? This seems a bit contrived versus where there were some entries where Blackie really DID look guilty. So Blackie sets out to solve the mystery as to who is the killer and what is the motive. The whole thing was rather dull involving jewel thieves hiding their wares in tea, and by the end of the film I needed some tea to stay awake.
Now the good. Chester Morris always satisfies as the suave cool reformed thief Boston Blackie. And there is a bit about a tour of "Chinatown" that does poke fun of the stereotypes people held at the time concerning Asian people. A tour guide promises to show a gullible tour group "the seamy side" of Chinatown. He shows them a "Chinese gambling den" (it is really just some Asian guys playing poker like anybody else might do) and "Chinese slave girls working their way to freedom" (again staged - as soon as the tour group leaves the women start talking about their college classes), and supposedly a "tong war" breaking out. Just one thing - didn't anybody in the group think of calling the police about the allegedly enslaved girls?
This one is really a take it or leave it proposition. Without Chester Morris in the lead, I would definitely have left it.
Black Angel (1946)
Featuring the softer side of Dan Duryea, ....
... a satisfyingly menacing Peter Lorre, and a bunch of other people I never heard of before. No seriously, you have Broderick Crawford in a very bit part as a cop, but everybody else is pretty obscure. And Universal really had to limp along in that state from 1936 when the Laemmles lost control and took virtually everybody with name recognition working for the studio with them, into the 1950s. And yet this one works.
Martin Blair (Dan Duryea) is a songwriter who has been on a drunken jag since his wife singer Mavis Marlowe found fame and dumped him. One night, on what would have been their wedding anniversary, he attempts to see her, is bounced out of the building by the doorman, gets plastered, and is taken home by his good friend Joe, and locked in his room. After he is thrown out, Martin sees a mysterious character (Peter Lorre) admitted to see Mavis by the doorman. Even later, Kirk Bennett, who has had an affair with Mavis comes up to her apartment to tell her he can't pay her blackmail anymore to keep her quiet about the affair. He finds her body, manages to touch everything, and then panics and leaves but is spotted by Mavis' maid as she returns from her night out.
Bennett is arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to die for Mavis' murder. All the while his cheated upon wife Catherine stands by him. Then - rather late it seems - she goes to confront Martin, whom she thinks is the killer. When she finds that Martin was locked in his room, out stone cold drunk at the time of the murder, she relents.The two oddly decide to pair up, present themselves as a musical team, and try to investigate shady nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre) and solve the murder and save Kirk.
The thing is, while Catherine and Martin are posing as a musical team, they actually start making beautiful music together. Martin is on his longest dry stretch in years, and with Catherine rather ambivalent, you can't help but wonder, given Duryea's usual screen persona, is he now that motivated to find the real killer and send Kirk Bennett back to his wife's arms? Watch and find out.
This one has an ending worth waiting for - I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it. Don't let the somewhat slow middle deter you. Highly recommended.
Even if you ignore the story, I could spend 150 minutes staring at the art design...
... and the story is worth paying attention! It is just about a perfect silent film experience. It is the story of a two-tiered society. Above ground, a modern city, with most of the young people immersed in decadent behavior and leisure, because all of the machines, below ground, do the work. Joh Fredersen is the architect of the city, and must be some kind of strongman, because if he fires you the result is you are sent to live "in the depths", below the city, with the workers. The workers have an existence so bleak that they trudge together in some kind of synchronized slouched shuffle as the shift changes among those tied to the giant machines. Even those getting off for the shift show no joy. It is almost prescient of concentration camp occupants a decade or so later .
Freder, Joh Fredersen's son, has life change for him when Maria, a beauiful young prophetess, emerges from the depths with the children of the workers' city and mentions that these young men playing above are their brothers. He wants to learn all he can about the workers below, and does not share dad's indifference at their fate. Worried about the prophetess perhaps inciting the workers to rebel, and worried about his son's over concern for and curiosity about the workers, Joh Fredersen goes to consult the inventor Rottwang.
This is his first mistake, because Rottwang hates Joh Fredersen, and he's quite open about it. Apparently "Hel", Fredersen's wife, once belonged to Rottwang, but married Fredersen and died giving birth to Freder. Forgive and forget are just not in Rottwang's vocabulary, and to prove it he has a giant statue, a kind of tomb erected in his home to her memory. So when Fredersen asks for Rottwang's help to destroy the faith that Freder and the workers have in Maria, he shouldn't be so sure that this isn't a plan to destroy Fredersen instead, and yet Fredersen stupidly trusts him.
Let me just say that my husband likes few silent films, but he'll sit down and watch Metropolis every time because the sets are so engrossing. Such symbolism goes on here. "Maria" must be an analog of the Virgin Mary. There are references to one of the machines when it boils over and explodes as "Moloch" the god to which human beings were sacrificed by being thrown into a raging fire. When Maria appears in the catacombs below the workers' city, it appears to be some kind of makeshift chapel with three crosses on one side and two crosses in the middle. Why five crosses? Then when Maria talks about the Tower of Babel she turns it into some kind of lesson on mistreated and abused labor. And then there is a reference to "Babylon the Great" in such a way as I think Saint John never intended. And on it goes.
With this being a little more than a decade out from WWII, I couldn't help but wonder what happened to these German actors and actresses. Brigette Helm, who played Maria, lived a long life, but the coming of sound and the take over of the German film industry by the government caused her to retreat to Switzerland, where she lived until 1996 at age 90. Alfred Abel, who played Joh Frederson, died in Berlin in 1937. Gustav Frohlich, who played Freder, lived until age 85 in 1987. He served in the German army during the war, and he was banned from acting from 1941-1943 because of a dust up he had with Joseph Goebbels over Frohlich's girlfriend at the time.
I'd highly recommend this for a bewildering plot and eye popping art design.
Chandu the Magician (1932)
Curses, foiled again! ...
... I almost expect somebody in this film to say those tired old lines. This is one of the few precode Fox films that has managed to survive. So many were lost to vault fires or just nitrate deterioration from neglect. Odd how this obscurity survived and is on DVD even!
Chandu (Edmund Lowe) is a magician who seems to just be "graduating" as the film begins with a ceremony full of mumbo jumbo that I cannot make sense of even when I rewind and replay it several times. Chandu finds out that his brother-in-law, who was working on a death ray invention, has been kidnapped by Roxor (Bela Lugosi), and so he rushes to his sister's side to protect her and her daughter and try to save his brother-in-law before Roxor can learn the secret of the death ray. And what does Roxor want? Power? RIches? Fame? no he wants to destroy society so mankind will revert to beasts and he can be the smartest guy in the world. Weird. I guess this is what happens when a sociopath is forced to wear a dunce cap as a kid.
If this sounds like something out of silent film, that is how it plays out too. The romance scenes, the action scenes, everything plays out with silent film technique in direction and acting. I generally really like Edmund Lowe and his roles, so I have to lay this at the feet of the director. I could take this in stride in 1929 and 1930 during the transition to sound, but that time is long over.
Probably the most tiresome character, though, is Albert, Chandu's loyal companion. He is cowardly, a drunk, and always having to be rescued by Chandu even though saving Albert from himself is NOT his primary mission. Prohibition was still in force, so maybe all of these unfunny drunks I encounter in these Prohibition era films are supposed to be knocks at an unpopular law. But today, it's just not funny.
Mildly recommended for fans of Edmund Lowe and Bela Lugosi.
Mr. Skeffington (1944)
Who would want to marry this vain vacant creature?...
... That would be Fanny Trellis, later Skeffington. She has all of these male admirers and yet she can't seem to talk about anything more interesting than her manicure. I mean, her looks won't last forever, right? Right. That is what this film is all about. Fanny has a brother, Trippy, that bests her in the "waste of flesh" department. He spends all of Fanny's and his inheritance, is forced to get a job, and is caught embezzling from his employer, Mr. Skeffington, who is smitten by Fanny. Why, I have no idea.
So forget the synopsis that says "Popular and beautiful Fanny Trellis is forced into a loveless marriage with an older man, Jewish banker Job Skeffington, in order to save her beloved brother Trippy from an embezzlement charge". That is not what happens. Job Skeffington tells Fanny he will give Trippy time to repay the debt, and then months go by and he hasn't brought the subject up again at all. When Fanny finds out that Job is the secret admirer who commissioned a painting of her, SHE pursues HIM for marriage - not that he is anything less than enthusiastic - and she does it ONLY to save her brother.
But then the weirdest thing happens. Trippy has been angry at Skeffington because HE stole from Skeffington and got caught. He is even angrier when he finds out Fanny married Job and rescued him and packs off to England to fight in WWI, which the US has not joined yet. So the Skeffington marriage limps along on four square wheels for a couple years. A daughter is born that has none of mom's looks and most fortunately, none of her lack of character. Then the notice comes that Trippy has died in the war, and now Fanny completely ices out Job. There is the eventual divorce. Mom packs off little Fanny to live with her father so as to be able to maintain her active dating life without a reminder of how old she actually is.
And then comes the day when Fanny contracts diphtheria while out on a sailing outing with a beau twenty years her junior. And diphtheria is no beauty treatment. Post diphtheria Fanny is balding, wrinkled, and matronly figured. I have no idea how diphtheria gives you osteoporosis, but from her posture, that's what happened. And now Fanny finds out what exactly she has in male interest and personal character without her beauty - zip, zilch, nada.
Maybe this is a pretty conventional story, but Bette Davis is really great as Fanny. The makeup and fashion department have to be given credit here too. Ironically, Bette Davis was a knockout in her 20s and early 30s, but her looks fell apart in record time. She was already going downhill by the time this film was made, in 1944. Yet she truly looks mid to early 20s in the first part of the film. And she truly looks 45-55 in the last part of the film.
WWII is brought into the plot of this film in a sideways sort of way, and it is refreshing to see a film made during wartime that does not get oppressively patriotic. Claude Rains excels as the used and abused financial wizard Job Skeffington. He is endearing as the loving father and the rejected husband. And yet he is not overly melodramatic. In fact he injects quite a bit of subtle humor into the role. Honorable mention to Walter Abel as George Trellis, Fanny's and Trippy's cousin, who must have gotten down on his knees every night and thanked his lucky stars that in spite of common grandparents, he has nothing in common with either of his cousins.
How DID Warren Hymer's character get in and out of Stalinist Russia?
I saw a very poor print of this movie - bad visually and bad audibly, and it seems it is missing the first few minutes. But that is better than nothing.
This film tended to disappoint, but then I have to give it a break since I am viewing it with the benefit of hindsight. Here you have Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow, two of MGM's brightest stars of the 1930's, and I instantly thought of them together in "Libeled Lady" five years later. That film this is not.
A sailor (Warren Hymer as Spike), has an address book full of the names of girls all over the world and what is good about them. Spike tries them all, but he keeps finding the same tattoo marking them for some other man and walking out in disgust. Finally, Spike finds out that the man who tattooed them is Bill (Spencer Tracy), another sailor who has been getting the best of him - and to be fair that is not a difficult affair - all over the world. The two have a fist fight but then become fast friends.
And then one night at a circus Spike sees Goldie (Jean Harlow) performing, and he is enamored all over again. Bill warns Spike against her, but is he just trying to get her for himself or is his friendship true? Watch (if you can find a copy) and find out.
There is just not nearly enough Spencer Tracy or Jean Harlow in this film and too much Warren Hymer, whose schtick I can only take in small doses. He is second billed under Tracy and probably gets the most screen time. Jean Harlow doesn't even appear until halfway through the film. Finally what Tracy you get is the wise guy he usually played before he left Fox for MGM and became the voice of integrity in most of the films he was in from that point forward.
What good can I say? Maybe it's a tribute to Tracy's acting acumen that I believe he is a near illiterate schmoe here and I also believe his roles over at MGM. Also, I think this might be the first film role where you see a bit of Jean Harlow's screen persona beginning to emerge. In Hell's Angels her part was overdone due to Howard Hughes' warped view of the trustworthiness of women. In Public Enemy she is playing a Texan in Chicago with a New York accent (????) but here you see that "tough dame" emerge that was so well done just a few months later. For this it is worth seeing and for those reasons I recommend it.
Just one more thing - towards the beginning Spike is in Odessa romancing a Russian girl. I have no idea how as an American he managed to traipse around Stalinist Russia without being apprehended by the secret police. Maybe it was because, in the words of HBO's Chernobyl, he "came off like a naive idiot. Naive idiots are not a threat."
Not just another teen movie!
This is an independent film that has not one actor or actress I have ever heard of, but, wow, is it original! The characters don't even have last names in their credits. They are just Dawn, Tobey, Bill, etc.
Dawn is a high school girl who has taken a pledge of chastity until marriage. She is a classical beauty, a rather Scandinavian looking girl. She has a wastoid of a stepbrother (her stepdad's son) who spends his time sleeping, having rampant casual sex with a slew of girls, and keeping a "pet" attack dog in a cage in his room.
Well, unfortunately, Dawn's first sexual experience, with a boy who seems so nice and so sweet on her, turns into assault with devastating effects on the boy, that being death. Dawn is at first horrified by what has happened, does some internet research, and realizes she has "teeth" down there. At first she feels like this is some kind of punishment, some kind of chastity belt, but then she realizes that these teeth only attack when she feels violated. As she learns to control these "teeth" she begins to feel empowered. And although the journey is unpredictable, the destination is entirely predictable from about a quarter of the way into the film. That's the reason I don't give it an eight.
There is not an over abundance of gore, just enough so that you see what happened. I will say the film does have men coming off as very opportunistic, either that or Dawn is the unluckiest girl in the history of the world. And the film has one quirky gimmick. Throughout the film you see two towers of a nuclear power plant. The assumption you might make is that Dawn has this physical feature from growing up in the plant's shadow. But not one word is ever spoken about it. That's what makes it great. The film doesn't lecture you about anything that happens here. It just tells a story and leaves the viewer to draw their own conclusions, and it really works as a dark comedy/horror combo. I'd recommend it.
There's a time and place for everything and it's called college!...
... That's a great quote from South Park a few years back. I don't know whose high school/middle school experience this is supposed to mirror, but I live in a suburb of a pretty liberal American city, and I don't recognize this at all. I have to wonder who exactly IS the audience for this show? I wouldn't want minors to watch this and I can't believe adults would be anything but turned off by the constant profanity and rampant IV drug use with drug dealers as young as eleven!
This might have been better if it had focused on high school grads first going to college, the culture shift they experience, and some of the issues that come up in this show. Seeing young kids involved in stuff this serious is just disgusting.
Sam Levinson, son of acclaimed director Barry Levinson, is the creative force behind this. Maybe he should get a few tips from dad on how to handle extraordinary subject matter and still connect with ordinary audiences - "Homicide Life on the Streets", "Good Morning Vietnam", "Tin Men" to name a few of dad's triumphs.
I give it six points for Zendaya, who is always an interesting actress even in a show that is chock full of shock value for shock's sake.
Petticoat Junction: The Ringer (1963)
It's interesting taking a look back sometimes...
... although this episode woke me out of a sound sleep for two reasons. One, when was the last time you saw an obscure TV show/movie from 56 years ago on late late night TV instead of somebody peddling something you don't need and even sprucing up the set to make it look like it is CNN to add credibility? Well, that is how I ran across this first season 1963 episode of Petticoat Junction.
Betty Jo (Linda Henning), the youngest of innkeeper Kate Bradley's three girls, and the - what was called back in the day - "tomboy" of the family, is the first woman to ever enter the Shady Rest's Annual Horseshoe Tournament. The winner has always been "Pixley Fats", I guess a take on Minnesota Fats the famous billiards player, and remember this was only two years after the movie "The Hustler" back when films had much longer running times.
Well, as Betty Jo gains on the usually suave and together Pixley Fats in the contest, you might think this is going to be an episode about female empowerment, about how women can do anything if they put their mind to it. But then Kate comes to Betty Jo's room one night while the contest is ongoing and talks to her about how sad it is that Pixley Fats has nothing in his life but this horseshoe contest, and then how Betty Jo has many things in her life now, but has "the greatest thing that can happen to a woman" to look forward to - a husband and children. If I wasn't awake BEFORE I was awake NOW.
Petticoat Junction season one is available on DVD, so I'll say watch and find out what happens, but you know I was almost six when this first aired, and our family used to watch this show. So this sexist drivel is buried deep in my subconscious. I'll never know how I ended up in engineering before many women were going into that field, unless it was constantly being told that homely gals like myself have to learn to make their own way in the world. So there's THAT buried deep in my subconscious too. But enough about me.
Petticoat Junction started airing in the fall of 1963. This was only the seventh episode. This was before JFK was assassinated, before the Beatles came to America, years before college kids were burning draft cards, before the Civil Rights era began to bear any real fruit. So the America portrayed here is still very firmly rooted in the culture of 1950s America. So it is interesting to watch because of that.
Also it is great to see Bea Benaderet and Edgar Buchanan looking so well and ambulatory just after the show premiered. Bea Benaderet was diagnosed with cancer in 1967, had to leave the show, and died in the fall of 1968, a couple of years before Petticoat Junction ended its run. Recommended for the time travel aspect of it all.
The Mummy (1959)
Cushing and Lee are the reason to see this Hammer version of the film...
... because there is nothing really remarkable with the plot. If you have seen either the 1932 version or the 1999 version you've seen similar elements of it, just with a more articulate mummy with more individual initiative. The film opens with John Banning (Peter Cushing), his father Stephen (Felix Aylmer) and his uncle Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley) searching for the tomb of Princess Ananka in Egypt. For some reason that has nothing to do with the film, Cushing's character has a broken leg that doesn't mend well. He limps around for the entirety of the film with no impact on the story.
His father and brother find the tomb, only after a mysterious Egyptian implores the pair not to desecrate it, but to no avail. John Banning's father is alone in the tomb for awhile, and when the uncle rejoins him, Stephen is laying across the princess' tomb out of his mind.
The father spends years in an insane asylum back in England, John marries his best girl who turns out to look like Ananka, and the mysterious Egyptian appears in England three years later with a large sarcophagus full of "relics" and a heart full of revenge.
I can understand why Christopher Lee got tired of some of these Hammer roles. It is true that he goes around looking menacing while Cushing gets all of the character development in most of them, with this film being no exception.
The one thing that distinguishes this film is that at least you get to see Lee in an extended sequence in old Egypt as the high priest Kharas at the time his secret love Ananka is entombed. One of the endearing things about these old Hammer horrors is that although the modern or, in this case, the Victorian era sets are well done, anytime they venture into the ancient or mystical the set pieces and the costumes look like they were purchased with S&H green stamps. I would swear I saw that wand Kharas keeps waving around in the ancient Egypt sequence in Walmart last week.
At any rate, good tension, good performances by Hammer regulars Cushing and Lee, good show. Just one more thing - Why does Cushing's character keep such an extensive collection of weapons when he doesn't know when to break out the big guns and when he definitely doesn't know how to "cover" a room when he does? Just my two cents.
Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round (1934)
If only this film had a likeable protagonist...
... then it would be an even better film than it is. It is all about how the lives of several passengers intertwine on a transatlantic journey. Sally Marsh (Nancy Carroll) has gotten her old friend Chad Denby (Jack Benny) to hire her on to his entertainment troupe for the voyage so that she can get her brother Ned out of town in a hurry. Underworld kingpin Lee Lother (Sidney Blackmer) , his henchmen, and his girl are on the ship, and Lother has past ties to both Sally and Ned. Actually, Lother's best girl is actually married and thinks she has pulled a fast one on her husband with this cruise, when in fact he knows what is going on and is on the same ship with murderous intentions.
So the protagonist who weaves all of these people together? Grifter Jimmy Brett, played by top billed Gene Raymond. The problem is, Jimmy is a louse, and yet the film seems to be saying we should be rooting for him. But how could I? He makes his partner in crime (Sid Sliver) work his way across the Atlantic so Jimmy can stay in first class, he is willing to steal from anybody anywhere anytime, and just because he is getting romantic with Sally, a genuinely nice gal, I'm supposed to cut him a break? Well, I'll let you see how this all works out.
Don't expect cheapskate Jack Benny of 1940 and later. At this point he is still working on his radio persona after only two years of transitioning from film to radio and doing the occasional film. Also Patsy Kelly, part of Benny's entertainment troupe, is practically background noise she is so restrained compared to her usually noisy assertive character.
Keep an eye out for the Busby Berkeley type dance number in the film, because like Berkeley's filmed dance numbers over at Warner's, the audience couldn't possibly appreciate it unless they were hanging from the ceiling, and this is not the Poseidon Adventure.
John Wick (2014)
Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my dog, prepare to die...
... slaughtering a line from the superior "Princess Bride". It's a shame that Keanu Reeves is supposed to be one of the nicest guys to work with in Hollywood, because this film is a mess. We should stop asking Hollywood to come up with original ideas, because when they do, this is the result. 101 minutes of cliched action that checks all of the boxes - retired hit-man coming out of retirement, a boy and his dog, the perfect wife who is conveniently dead, stolen cars, Russian mobsters, a spoiled son who doesn't have half the restraint and judgment of dad precisely because dad spoiled him, and lots of blood. We should stop criticizing the millennials so much, because all we've bequeathed to them is 100K of student debt each for four year degrees that don't get them jobs and films like this. Kudos to the effects team, because they did good work. They are the only reason this film gets even four stars.
The Crosby Case (1934)
Passable little crime drama that is a titular remake...
... with the original "The Crosby Case" being a completely different movie made in the very early talkie era. The only thing they have in common is that both are murder mysteries.
The film opens on a man stumbling into the street and being hit by a careless cabbie, played by Warren Hymer. When the cabbie sees the man is dead he drives away, thinking he killed him.
Meanwhile the homicide detectives, headed by Police Inspector Thomas (Alan Dinehart), is trying to solve the murder of Dr. Crosby, who apparently was shot before the cabbie hit him. Whoever shot him must have been in a hurry because that person threw the gun on Crosby's desk. In Crosby's apartment the police find a single bedroom slipper....with a name on it? So pretty soon the police have rounded up the last patient to see Crosby alive based on an appointment book (Edward Van Sloan), the woman belonging to the bedroom slipper (Wynne Gibson), a random small time crook (John Wray), and the man who according to their records owned the gun that killed Crosby (Onslow Stevens). Each of these persons has something that they are trying to hide that has nothing to do with the murder, and so each is acting terribly guilty. So who did it? Watch and find out. It is briskly paced at only sixty minutes, and everybody does a good job. There are just some issues as to direction and police procedure that are weird.
When the police find out Crosby was shot, not just run over, they put his body back in his office. Do they plan to do the autopsy there? They mention Crosby is a "shady physician" known for malpractice more than practice, yet they never say what is meant by that. It might have been a more compelling drama if Crosby was not a corpse for the entire film. Finally there is some reporter hanging around in the inspector's office, so at home he puts his feet on the inspector's desk, yet he doesn't seem to want to scoop the murder and plays no part in solving the mystery at all. After the murder is solved he is STILL hanging around. That's pretty poor use of Skeets Gallagher, who was great with the clever biting quips over at Paramount.
What did I get about the era of 1934 by watching this film? First, police don't seem to use search warrants and have no problem with recording private conversations with no court oversight and nobody seems to care that they don't. Oh, and if you go blind in 1934, with no social safety net, some people at that time might think that they are better off dead. Shocking but true.
City Streets (1931)
Gary Cooper with a gat? Smile when you say that!
This is an odd film for several reasons. For one it is a gangster film made at Paramount, home of the sophisticated continental comedies and dramas. Also, you have Gary Cooper in a modern dress role but with that Montana twang on full display.
Gary Cooper plays "The Kid", a sharp shooter at a circus. His best girl is Nan Cooley (Sylvia Sydney). I can't say why they are going together, because Nan seems to dislike all of "The Kid's" outlooks and plans for the future. Nan's dad is a gangster played by an oddly cast Guy Kibbee (Pop), who is usually associated with being the comic relief over at Warner Brothers.
Nan helps "Pop" out whenever he wants to get rid of a getaway car or dispose of a weapon, but then one night her ruse doesn't work and she winds up being sent up the river for possession of a gun used in a murder done by dear old dad. And apparently "pop" only makes weak attempts to get her out of jail, although while she is inside he does use the opportunity to recruit the kid into the beer racket because of his handiness with a weapon.
Nan gets out and for some reason now sees The Kid as irresistible - a real about face in her attitude with no reason given. However she is very upset that dear old dad has her beau in with the rackets. Oh, and "The Big Fellow" (Paul Lukas), apparent head of the rackets, wants to throw over his current long time girlfriend and replace her with Nan, regardless of what Nan and the Kid think about it. Complications ensue.
The story is really conventional gangster lore - nothing to write home about. What makes it interesting is Mamoulian's direction and shots. He likes to linger on faces or even a stuffed bird. He's not really an "action packed" kind of director. There is great atmosphere with the prohibition era night spots taken over by the rowdy gangsters and shadows on the dark streets.
What makes it fun are some of the inconsistencies. The urban shots are done so that you feel like you are in a big city of the Northeast US. People in coats, talk of the cold, etc. But then the final chase scene comes and you see palm trees, canyons - it is obvious you are in southern California. And what is Cooper's character's real name? Everybody just calls him "Kid". That is who he is billed as.
I'd say watch it and just have fun with it. It certainly is different from a Warner Brothers gangster picture of the same era.
Running with Beto (2019)
A good introduction to Beto's campaign style...
... and the diverse group who supported his initially Quixotic run for the Texas Senate seat held by Ted Cruz, thought unbeatable at the beginning of the campaign. It shows you more about his wife and children than you normally get to see about a politician, and what I saw I liked. Beto is certainly a magnetic personable guy, but one thing I took away from this documentary is he doesn't seem quite ready for prime time yet.
As three term Congressman from the El Paso area he was certainly ready to be one of a 100 senators, but now he is running for president, and if there is anything that the presidency of Barack Obama taught me is that prior executive experience is necessary for a president to hit the ground running. Obama had only a partial term as a senator when he became president, thus he lacked experience in the skill of negotiation with different factions. By the time he had that experience it was two years later and Congress was controlled by the GOP who had no interest in doing anything but blockading whatever Obama might want to do. But I digress. Back to Beto.
Beto tells you a little about what he wants - gun control and universal healthcare - and a little about what he does not like - migrant children separated from their parents at the border and Trump's wall. What he doesn't tell you in this documentary is how he hopes to pay for what he does want, and what alternative he has to what he does not like. He is essentially a great personality without detailed policies where Hillary Clinton was a great policy wonk without a great personality, at least that's what came across in public.
Overall I would recommend this work as a good introduction to the man and the excitement he drummed up in 2018 in The Lone Star State. I am impressed that he seems unsullied from his six years in the House. And any native Texan as myself is impressed with anybody who can rattle off the names of all 254 counties in the place I will forever call home no matter where I live.