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The show that might have been . . .
In this episode, Barnaby and J.R. investigate a jewel theft and find that it's linked to a kidnapping. They also find themselves working with two feisty newcomers to the sleuthing business, lawyer Alexander Street (Felton Perry) and investigator Stanley Donaldson (Sam Weisman). These two young men, who met while fighting in Vietnam, make a few rookie mistakes in the course of the story, generating some laughs, but they learn fast and their banter is fun. Given the prominence of these characters in the plot, and the detailed history that's revealed about them, it's clear that this episode was a backdoor pilot, a test run for a proposed TV series that never got made. Perhaps the concept of wisecracking buddies solving crimes and reminiscing about Vietnam was just slightly ahead of its time, or maybe the network bosses were slow to realize its potential. But Street and Donaldson were the forerunners of "Magnum" and related hits in the 1980s.
Window on Main Street (1961)
More unusual than it's reputed to be
"Window on Main Street" is a fairly rare specimen from the early era of network television -- a true comedy-drama series. Back then, you seldom saw the two elements mixed in a single episode of a program. Sitcoms played everything for laughs, while dramatic series kept things serious 90% of the time, then ran the occasional humorous episode to break up the monotony.
This series went for the laugh and the lump in the throat simultaneously each week. It didn't catch on with the public, much to the disappointment of star Robert Young.
Young plays a middle-aged author, fairly successful in the literary world but not really famous. As the series begins, he has just lost his family in an accident. Trying to cope with this tragedy, he returns to the small hometown where his career began, determined to write about the lives of its ordinary people. It's writing as bereavement therapy. In each episode, in cooperation with the local newspaper, he uncovers a fairly interesting story, or at least meets an extraordinary person..
This series is a sentimental, low-key celebration of life in a small town. (It's sometimes reminiscent of the old Andy Hardy movies.) Maybe audiences at the time found it corny, or bittersweet. But I find it sort of interesting. I can't think of another show quite like it.
Hold That Kiss (1938)
Likable little comedy
During the Great Depression, audiences liked to see the differences between rich and poor people played for laughs. This frothy romance from 1938 is in that vein. If you like mix-ups, silly situations and innocent fun in the classic Hollywood spirit, this should appeal to you.
Maureen O'Sullivan and Dennis O'Keefe play working-class folks in the big city who happen to meet under confusing circumstances. They quickly fall in love, but each gets the mistaken impression that the other is rich.
As the romance heats up, the two try harder and harder to impress each other with bogus details of their "privileged" lives. But each feels ashamed of being a phony, and each dreads the day when the truth comes out.
The girl's wacky relatives (including a younger brother played by Mickey Rooney) take her wealth charade to extraordinary lengths, and their antics supply most of the comedy in the film. Some of the gags are dated, but a few are still laugh-out-loud funny.
The main problem is with the leads. While O'Sullivan was perfectly cast in this movie, O'Keefe was not. He was more suited to tough guy roles than to this kind of gentle fluff. But he deserves credit for trying hard. The same could be said for the picture itself.
Three Sons o' Guns (1941)
Getting drafted builds character
In the months preceding the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States was already girding for possible involvement in World War II, and it began drafting young men into the military. Motion picture companies were doing their part to support preparedness, making movies that emphasized patriotism, the threat from abroad, and the need for men to answer the call. But America was still officially at peace, so the message was often subtle.
The classic draft-related movie from this period is "Sergeant York." As every film fan knows, it's a fact-based story about a devout pacifist who initially resists taking up arms but then becomes a hero in combat. "Three Sons o' Guns," released around the same time, is a different and far inferior film, but with the same "soft sell" approach to military duty. It's a comedy (an anemic one) about three likable brothers who dodge the draft because they've never learned a sense of responsibility.
This movie looks somewhat odd today. It's a pro-draft movie, but it never mentions why a draft is necessary. It's a pro-war movie that steers clear of the subject of war. The emphasis here is on how service in uniform can turn a deadbeat into solid, dependable man. You don't get the sense that there's much danger or sacrifice involved.
The plot revolves around the misadventures of the Patterson brothers -- played by Wayne Morris, Tom Brown and William T. Orr -- as they bicker, chase women and pursue outlandish career schemes while avoiding any real work. When Uncle Sam calls, they initially see no reason to change their plans. The boys' widowed mother (played by Irene Rich) is very indulgent of all their nonsense, but their hardnosed aunt (played by Marjorie Rambeau) is determined to see them in uniform.
Life in the Pattersons' hectic household, with a parade of beautiful girls and certifiable oddballs, is faintly reminiscent of "You Can't Take It With You," but without the laughs. While "Three Sons o' Guns" is lighthearted and even strangely innocent, its attempts at humor misfire. Its real value is as a historical curiosity.
Speaking of history, all three of the "draft dodgers" in this movie eventually served in World War II. While William T. Orr was assigned to a Stateside film unit, Tom Brown and Wayne Morris saw considerable combat. Morris, a Navy air ace in the Pacific, wound up as one of Hollywood's most celebrated real-life heroes of the 1940s.
Escape in the Fog (1945)
A little atmosphere goes a long way
Fog was a frequently used device in the "B" thrillers of the 1930s and '40s. It was a way to disguise the cheap sets while adding an element of menace. In this low-budget tale of enemy agents on the dark, glistening streets of San Francisco, the fog is almost one of the stars.
Nina Foch plays a World War II military nurse whose dream about a murder allows her to anticipate the real-life actions of the bad guys. It was just a single dream -- never really explained -- and otherwise she has no psychic powers. (She can't detect a spy hiding a few feet from her.) She's also not particularly smart, though no dumber than the federal agents she helps.
The heroine's love interest, as well as the subject of her dream, is a a kind of G-Man played by William Wright. He and his boss, portrayed by Otto Kruger, are at work on a plan to boost the war effort against Japan. Unfortunately, Nazi agents have compromised U.S. security and are on the verge of foiling the plan and committing some mayhem. The dreamer comes in handy.
In some ways, this movie is less "patriotic" than you might expect. Unintentionally, it makes American home-front security in World War II look amateurish. Everybody seems awfully naive. Wright's character gets a lot of mileage out of the little badge he flashes to local authorities, but it looks like a prize out of a cereal box. Most people would probably ask for more ID, considering that the fate of the nation hangs on his being legit.
"Escape in the Fog" has its corny and improbable elements, like most such movies. But it's entertaining, and the cast is more than adequate. Foch is more vulnerable and appealing than in her later roles. Wright, who got his best breaks during the war years but died too young to make much of a career, does fine in a rather routine role. And it's nice to see Kruger, who often played icy Nazi sympathizers, as one of the good guys.
This movie came out very late in the war, when the Nazis were already done for and the Japanese were only weeks from defeat. It does seem odd that Germans instead of Japanese are shown working as spies for Tokyo. My wild guess is that Asian actors, many of whom were still getting parts in films about the Pacific War, were not available for the average inexpensive "B" mystery. In this picture, even "Chinatown" has very few non-Caucasians, which actually prompts a subtle quip from one of the villains.
McCloud: Lady on the Run (1975)
Good location scenery and a 'classic' twist
In this episode of "McCloud," the cowboy cop (played by Dennis Weaver) pursues an alleged murderer from New York to Mexico City. This fugitive happens to be a beautiful woman, and innocent to boot, so McCloud soon gets more personally involved than he had planned to be. Mariette Hartley plays the lady in question, and Clu Gulager plays the real killer, who must be unmasked and brought to justice to clear the lady's name.
It's fun to see McCloud in action outside the Big Apple. Being from New Mexico, the character knows Spanish and uses a lot of it in communicating with his Mexican hosts. That adds a touch of authenticity. Mexican tourist sites also play an important role in the action.
"McCloud" was usually less about classic mystery than about adventure and suspense. This episode is no exception. The audience knows the truth from the beginning, and the fun is in watching McCloud figure it out for himself.
I'll bet I'm not the first person to notice that this TV movie has clear echoes of the classic 1938 film "Trade Winds." I know that two movies about a man pursuing a female fugitive overseas are bound to be somewhat similar, and the story lines are mostly different. But too many of the distinctive little touches are the same. It's not a ripoff at all, but a kind of hidden homage that I really like. Watch both pictures from beginning to end and see if you agree with me.
The Delightful Rogue (1929)
An early talkie with some funny talk
Rod La Rocque and Rita La Roy. Did two co-stars' names ever go better together? I don't think so. And the title, "The Delightful Rogue," has that same l-and-r thing going on. It's all very euphonious.
But the movie itself is not so good.
This is an early sound film, and it will seem creaky and primitive to modern viewers. But that's not the real problem. No, the real problem is La Rocque's ridiculous accent.
In later films, when he spoke naturally, La Rocque sounded just fine, like the well-bred Midwesterner he was. But in this movie, he's trying to give us the voice of a Spanish pirate, the kind of character he previously played in silent movies. Unfortunately, no Spaniard ever sounded like this while speaking English . . . or while speaking Spanish. I doubt if anybody ever sounded like this. It's a unique way to speak.
In the comedy "The Girl From Jones Beach," Ronald Reagan played an American pretending to be a Czech immigrant. His accent was funny, but that was part of the plot. La Rocque's accent in this movie is both funnier than the one Reagan used and less authentic. It's hard not to laugh every time he opens his mouth.
La Rocque plays a buccaneer in the South Seas who gets control over two wealthy Americans who have a thing going on. Expressing his desire for the woman, he finds a way to test the love between her and her man. Pirates are often portrayed in fiction as sexual outlaws, and that's part of the message here, conveyed more frankly than Hollywood would have allowed a few years later. Still, the pace is slow, and nothing particularly racy happens on screen.
As the "woman in distress," La Roy is fairly convincing, at least compared to her male co-star. She has real sex appeal, with a fit body that made her a popular vaudeville dancer. (Both La Rocque and La Roy retired from films relatively early to pursue other interests.)
"The Delightful Rogue" has little to recommend it. But if you're one of those people who celebrate "International Talk Like a Pirate Day," check out La Rocque's effort. You've got to be better at it than he is.
Sadie McKee (1934)
More likable than you might expect
"Sadie McKee" was made just before Hollywood got serious about sanitizing its content, and the movie is set squarely in what we now call the pre-Code world. In this world, men are on the make, cops are on the take, rich people do pretty much as they please and prostitution is just another job option.
But while many other pre-Code film can leave you with a bleak feeling about human nature, this one is stocked with basically decent characters. Bribe-takers are just ordinary folks trying to get by. A clever seducer can't silence his own conscience. And when an aging, drunken millionaire orders up a young girl and takes her home for the night, the relationship quickly blossoms from exploitation into an odd kind of love.
Joan Crawford plays the title role, a plucky survivor whose ups and downs would have broken a lesser person. Gene Raymond, Franchot Tone and Edward Arnold play the three very different men in her life. The story is improbable at times, moving from flophouse to sleazy nightclub to mansion. But it's never gets so unrealistic that you stop caring. The ending is somewhat enigmatic, at least to me. I'm still wondering exactly where everyone stood at the end, and where things were headed. That's OK. I like a movie that leaves a little something nagging at you.
If the story is improbable, there's nothing unbelievable about how Joan Crawford's character turns men's heads. A lot of people still view Crawford through a "campy" lens, remembering her long years as a fading star with a lot of personal baggage (real and reputed). Forget all that stuff. In 1934 she was young and lithe and simply gorgeous. She carries this movie, and she carries it well.
The Last Time I Saw Archie (1961)
Truly a unique service comedy
Funny stories about con men in the military are nothing new, and this one seems especially implausible (even though it allegedly has some basis in truth). But that doesn't matter. Archie Hall is an unforgettable character, and the great Robert Mitchum brings him splendidly to life. For all the pros in the supporting cast, I'm not sure this quirky tale would even have worked without Mitchum.
Archie is a lowly GI serving on an obscure Stateside post during World War II. He and his pals feel the Army cheated them out of the plum assignments they deserved, but Archie doesn't waste his time complaining. Instead, with a mix of genius and audacity, he creates a splendid life for himself right where he is. Soon he's virtually running the camp.
The fast-talking Archie charms every beautiful woman in sight, including an enigmatic Japanese-American (played by France Nuyen) who may be involved in an espionage plot. His superiors are in awe of him and fall all over themselves to give him special privileges. And though his comrades in arms see through his games, and sometimes gripe about him, he's so successful that they can't resist jumping on his gravy train.
Jack Webb, who also produced and directed this film, plays the most strait-laced character in it, though not the self-righteous, uptight Webb usually seen on the screen. He plays Archie's buddy, Bill Bowers, who genuinely likes the con man but fears he's getting into something he can't talk his way out of. Thanks to Archie, Bowers finds his own love interest (played by Martha Hyer).
This movie has some laugh-out-loud moments but occasionally hits a serious note. It's neither as flag-waving as the military comedies of the 1940s nor as dark and anti-war as those of the '70s. It manages to be entertaining, moving and believable at the same time. For the believability, I give Mitchum the credit.
As many movie fans are aware, Bill Bowers and Arch Hall Sr. were real-life Army buddies who also happened to be in the film industry. When the movie came out, Hall disputed Bowers' recollections of their life in uniform. So how accurate this story is may never be known. And it's possible the main character was embellished, too. But even if the "Archie" we see here is mostly fictional, he's a great guy to spend a little time with.
Historically interesting, and still touching
This public service short, made to raise funds for Los Angeles charities, uses the two main characters from the enormously popular Andy Hardy film series. Here, as so often happened in the feature films, Andy (Mickey Rooney) gets a lesson from his father the judge (Lewis Stone) about doing the right thing.
In this particular case, Andy wants $200 to buy a car, but his father takes him on a tour of places that need the money more. While Andy and his dad stay in character throughout this little film, it dispenses with some fictional conventions. Judge Hardy notes that all the charities are in Los Angeles, "where Andy and I live," not the fictional small town of Carvel, where the movies are set. And an unseen narrator refers to Mickey Rooney, not Andy Hardy.
"Dilemma" offers an interesting look at how things have and have not changed in the United States. The narrator's portentous-sounding revelation about the many "Mexican, Gypsy or Chinese" youngsters in L.A. seems dated now, but it comes with a message of tolerance that was somewhat controversial in 1940 America. The scenes of disabled children in painful-looking medical contraptions are as moving today as they must have been then. And the visit to a home for unwed mothers, with its understated narration, is still powerful.
The kids we see here are part of the older generation now, if they are still alive. I hope this film did its part to make their lives better. Its message is timeless.
Act One (1963)
Good intentions, limited appeal
Playwright Moss Hart delighted readers with his bestselling memoir of his early career. But when producer Dore Schary turned the book into a script after Hart's death, something got lost. This is a bland movie. While people interested in the literary scene of the 1920s will surely enjoy watching it, there's not much to enthrall the average viewer.
George Hamilton plays the young Hart, a talented guy with big dreams and little money. His close-knit Jewish family inspires him to push on with his writing career, but his equally penniless friends can sometimes be more discouraging than supportive.
After many disappointments trying to market his plays, Hart gets a foot in the door when the famed George S. Kaufman agrees to collaborate with him. But Hart soon finds that writing as part of a team can be harder than working alone. Jason Robards Jr., as the maddeningly eccentric Kaufman, is the best part of this movie.
"Act One" is about a man's struggle to come up with a good story to tell, but the story it tells is disappointingly weak. Especially in the early portion, it seems more like a series of anecdotes than a narrative. That may be because the film was adapted from a memoir, but a better writer than Schary might have been able to make it flow better.
Besides Kaufman, there are lots of real historical personages portrayed in the film, such as writers Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott and actor Archie Leach, who would later become film star Cary Grant. But they come and go so fast that the effect is often more like name dropping than characterization. Some of them don't even have any lines. (Bert Convy does have a few lines as Leach, but he speaks them without a trace of a British accent.)
Despite its flaws, this picture will appeal to viewers who are really interested in the people and events depicted. Otherwise it's hard to recommend as entertainment. Though it gets considerably better, more intense, toward the end, I suspect that many people won't stay with it that long.
Mission Over Korea (1953)
Not a great war film but slightly unusual
This may have been the last Korean War picture filmed while the conflict was still going on, because it premiered just days after the war ended. But it's actually set at the very beginning of the war, which is sort of unusual. All the action takes place in the summer of 1950, a particularly desperate time for South Korea and for American forces.
History buffs and military enthusiasts should find this interesting, because it looks at what U.S. troops were up against at that critical moment. The "mission" in the title is survival, and the tone of the movie is often grim. The characters are not winning big battles but mostly just holding off the enemy, helping trapped units retreat and working to form a secure perimeter.
To add a bit of realism, there's footage of South Korean soldiers in combat, and there are scenes of black soldiers fighting alongside whites. (The Korean War was the first modern U.S. conflict without racial segregation in the ranks.) Such things were often ignored in Korean War films of the '50s.
John Hodiak and John Derek play U.S. pilots caught in the thick of things. Hodiak's character is a by-the-book captain, while Derek's is a brash young lieutenant, reckless and often insubordinate. The difficult relationship between them as they're tried in combat is the backbone of the story. It's not a great story, and to tell the truth, most of the characters are war movie stereotypes. Besides the two feuding officers, these walking clichés include a Korean orphan boy, a beautiful Army nurse (played by Audrey Totter) and two wisecracking but brave enlisted men.
This was one of Hodiak's last movies and his next-to-last war film. Like Van Johnson, he was unable to serve in World War II due to medical issues but looked so natural in uniform that he got typecast in movies of that period as a military man. But Hodiak, unlike Johnson, succumbed to his health problems at a young age and was not around long enough to get beyond the typecasting. It's too bad we never got to see his full range.
Lady in the Lake (1946)
An odd look, but a great voice
Robert Montgomery starred in and directed this quirky mystery based on Raymond Chandler's novel "The Lady in the Lake." The whole movie is seen through the eyes of private detective Philip Marlowe, and his face (Montgomery's face) is shown only occasionally, mostly as a reflection.
This is a clever approach but not very audience-friendly, or at least it wasn't with the limited technology of the 1940s. As a viewer, you're supposed to be part of the action, seeing things exactly as Marlowe would see them. But you're always aware that what's supposed to be a pair of curious eyes is just a swiveling camera. Everything seems slow and unreal.
Fortunately, Montgomery sounds exactly the way Marlowe should sound, with an insolent edge to his voice even at those rare times when he's not making a wisecrack. He essentially narrates this film, just as the character of Marlowe narrated the novels, and that's a big plus. There's plenty of crackling dialogue, too.
Screenwriters were always taking liberties with Raymond Chandler's convoluted plots. They had to. But it initially puzzled me that a novel set in midsummer should be turned into a movie set at Christmastime. I think I've figured out the answer.
One of the many plot points in the novel concerned a supposed drowning at a lakeside resort in the California mountains (the lady in the lake). Marlowe spent a good part of the book nosing around the resort, and Chandler's putting him in that bucolic setting was a refreshing change of pace from the previous novels.
But shooting scenes from Marlowe's point of view in the great outdoors would have been a chore. So while the screenplay retains the drowning incident, everything about it happens off-screen. The mountains are snowy and mostly deserted, so Marlowe barely even pays them a visit. The urban scenes from the book are emphasized instead. That's a pity.
I wish Montgomery had made another, more conventional Marlowe film. But this is all we've got. It's a sometimes enjoyable oddity.
Welcome Stranger (1947)
Sentimental comedy gets warmer as it goes along
Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, who scored a hit playing Catholic priests in "Going My Way," reunited a few years later in this tale of small-town doctors. I expected this to be just a secular version of the earlier film. In a way it is, but it starts out considerably darker.
Crosby's character, a free-spirited young physician named Jim Pearson, is pretty much like the priest he once played, except that this guy has an eye for the ladies. Pearson is easygoing, quick with a quip and blessed with a great singing voice.
But Fitzgerald's character, Dr. Joe McRory, is a less likable version of the crusty old priest he portrayed earlier. At least at the beginning of the film, McRory is not just eccentric and cantankerous, he's moody and sometimes downright mean.
Early on, Pearson heads to the little community of Fallbridge, Maine, to assist McRory's practice. The two men meet accidentally without knowing each other's identities, and due to a series of trivial mix-ups, the old doctor develops a nasty grudge against the young stranger. McRory's insistence on quarreling at every turn is supposed to be funny, but it makes him seem almost unhinged.
The misunderstanding is soon resolved. But McRory, instead of laughing it off, tries to drive Pearson out of town, denouncing him as a quack and a scoundrel.
The prickly old doctor persuades the leading folks in Fallbridge to give Pearson the cold shoulder, too. Among these people is pretty schoolteacher/amateur nurse Trudy Mason (played by Joan Caulfield), who fights her obvious attraction to the newcomer by repeatedly insulting him.
None of this makes any sense, because young Dr. Pearson is always the soul of geniality. In fact, the attitude of the old doc and the town's elite is so illogical that you wonder how the hero will ever get through to them.
Fortunately, this is a Bing Crosby movie, with upbeat songs, contrived situations and gentle jests, some of them done with the proverbial wink at the audience. Eventually, the Crosby charm starts to work its magic on these stony New England hearts. Better late than never.
Some of the most memorable characters in this movie are the minor ones, the town's more marginal citizens who, unlike the establishment types, are friendly to Pearson from the start. Percy Kilbride is perfect as a cabdriver who likes to share his homespun philosophy. Frank Faylen plays the town journalist and town drunk, an interesting mix.
And Wanda Hendrix is totally convincing as a lonely, plain 13-year-old girl (the drunk's daughter) who develops a crush on the kindly young physician. It's hard to believe Hendrix was already 18 and on the threshold of the glamorous, sexy roles for which she's best remembered today. She was a better actress than I'd always thought.
Darker Than Amber (1970)
Confusing at times, but worth watching
Maybe this movie got chopped up a bit after its original release, as I've read, but it was not a model of clarity to begin with. By sheer chance, I saw it when it was having its world premiere in the summer of 1970, and I couldn't always follow what was going on.
I was a college student visiting downtown Miami for the first time when I noticed the marquee. I knew nothing about the "Travis McGee" character. The only reason I walked into the theater was because I had never seen a world premiere before.
I couldn't keep a handle on the plot, and I think that weakened the impact of the ending for me. Still, I was favorably impressed overall, because the action was so gritty and realistic. I especially liked the performances of Rod Taylor and William Smith, who were both well known to me. Their big fight scene was as memorable as everybody says.
Suzy Kendall, whom I had never heard of before, was easy on a young man's eyes. But her character was undefined. She seemed like a decorative jewel that men were willing to die for, and I never got a sense of her as a real person.
Since that afternoon so many years ago, I have had the pleasure of reading several Travis McGee novels. I like them very much. If I ever wind up seeing the movie again, maybe I'll understand it better.
Surprisingly solid "B" Western
The Lone Ranger and Tonto have a long, complex history on the screen, but Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels became forever identified with the roles thanks to the hugely popular "Lone Ranger" TV series, which ran from 1949 to 1957. That series inspired two full-length feature films, of which this is the second.
A stretched-out version of a typical "Lone Ranger" episode would have been unbearably cornball, but this movie avoids that trap. Shot in color at some beautiful desert locations, it has a reasonably intelligent plot, plus action that's a bit more adult (i.e. violent) than in the TV series. It even has a theme: prejudice against American Indians.
The story is about a series of killings of Indians by a gang known as the "Hooded Raiders." As in the TV series, the identities of the villains are clear to the audience fairly early, but in this movie their ultimate motive is not obvious at first. That allows the two heroes to do a bit of sleuthing, and the Lone Ranger gets a chance to doff his mask and don one of his trademark "disguises." (Even as a kid, I could see through these disguises easily, but the bad guys were always fooled.)
Considering that this film was intended mostly for youngsters, its treatment of racial prejudice is pretty powerful for the 1950s. Two of the characters are especially interesting -- a bigoted lawman who abuses the people he's supposed to protect, and a doctor who conceals his partial Indian heritage in an attempt to "pass" as white. The Hooded Raiders are probably meant to suggest the Ku Klux Klan, though they don't really wear their hoods that much. (Their lax attitude toward their disguises strains credibility at times, but it's a forgivable flaw.)
This is a better Western than I expected, and it's a fitting farewell for the Moore-Silverheels team. Though they later appeared in character for personal appearances and at least one commercial, this was the last time they played the Lone Ranger and Tonto in a real screen production.
To cap it all off, "The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold" has two of the great Hollywood beauties of the 1950s: Noreen Nash, as a wealthy schemer, and Lisa Montell, as an Indian maiden. For a lot of dads who were dragged to the theater in the 1950s, the sight of these two ladies must have been a pleasant surprise.
Whistling in Dixie (1942)
The one that went south
Red Skelton played the radio sleuth known as "the Fox" in three comic mysteries of the early 1940s. All had the word "whistling" in the title.
This is the second of the three, and by far the weakest.
The first one, "Whistling in the Dark," was an excellent remake of the 1933 film of the same. The last one, "Whistling in Brooklyn," was an extremely enjoyable farce. I recommend both.
"Whistling in Dixie" can be funny at times, but too often it's boring. I suspect it was made simply because the title seemed irresistible. The phrase "whistling 'Dixie' " was popular American slang at the time. And Ann Rutherford, who co-starred as the Fox's love interest in all three movies, was best known for her role in a Southern epic, "Gone With the Wind."
This movie is full of corny "Southern" dialog, and there are some dated portrayals of African-Americans. Nothing here is any more more offensive than what you'd find in the typical 1940s film about the segregated South. But gosh, this kind of stuff was tired even then.
Skelton's slapstick routines are weaker than usual. He and Rags Ragland, his sidekick and foil in all three "Whistling" films, work very hard, but some of the material falls flat.
If this movie leaves you cold, don't rush to judgment. You may like the other two "Whistling" entries, because they are much better. And if you love this one, you will definitely want to see the other two.
Could have been considerably better
I'm a great admirer of Ross Macdonald's mystery novels (though I have not read the one on which "Harper" is based). And there's certainly a lot to like in this film, including Paul Newman's standout performance and the sunny sights and cool sounds of California in the 1960s. But in comparison to the noir classics of the 1940s, this one is rather weak.
The problem is with the slow beginning.
Harper is hired to find out whether a millionaire has disappeared. It's not even clear that the man is actually missing, let alone that he is in any danger. And for the first 40 minutes or so, nothing much happens, except that the detective meets various characters, none of whom seem terribly concerned about the possible mystery. It's easy for the viewer's attention to lag.
Once the action starts, the plot is much more fun, but if you're like me, you'll find yourself unclear about some of the clues that were strewn around in the beginning. And you'll have to think back on just who some of these characters are, and how they are linked to one another.
Truly cerebral mystery fans may get into "Harper" from the beginning. I respect their ability to do. But I think the movie would have been more enjoyable with some of its action and suspense coming earlier. If you find the first 40 minutes a bit unclear, try watching them again before you watch the rest of the film. If you're willing to do so.
The Falcon in Mexico (1944)
Jet lag before the Jet Age
Something happened to the Falcon on his flight down to Mexico. He was never the same after he landed.
For the first 15 minutes or so of this movie -- set in a large U.S. city -- everything is terrific. The Falcon meets two beautiful women, commits two minor crimes, finds a corpse, gets wrongly accused of murder, escapes from custody and learns that something mysterious is going on south of the border. It doesn't all happen in exactly that order, but there's plenty of fast-paced fun.
But once the Falcon and one of the women fly to Mexico, the excitement levels off. The plot slows to a crawl. Events, including murders, seem almost random, and even the characters appear bored at time. At one point, the Falcon warns a Mexican gentleman that somebody may try to kill his daughter. The man shrugs off the tip and assures our hero that Mexico is a very safe place. He's not even curious about where the threat comes from!
The problem with the main part of this movie is that there's so much Mexico, there's no room left for mystery. There's travelogue-style footage of lakes and mountains, and some of it is very good. There are songs in Spanish, performances of masked Mexican dancers and shots of Mexican fishermen at work. There are even stereotypical "comic" Mexicans who talk like Speedy Gonzales. But there's no suspense, and the ending is very weak.
Considering when it was made, "The Falcon in Mexico" probably had a public relations component. During World War II, the U.S. government encouraged Hollywood to portray Latin America in a favorable light. But in a mystery movie, an exotic setting goes only so far. After a crackerjack start, this little whodunit is ultimately unsatisfying. It's at its weakest where it should have been strongest.
The Saint Strikes Back (1939)
Wasting the Saint's time
In this, the second "Saint" film, George Sanders takes over the role of Simon Templar and makes it his own (though Louis Hayward was excellent in the debut of the series). But even Sanders' talents can't make this a good movie. It's too confusing.
At just 64 minutes, "The Saint Strikes Back" is packed with unexplained plot twists, huge helpings of comic filler and enough suspicious characters to form two football squads.
In many an early detective novel, the writer included a list of characters, major and minor, so the reader could refer back to it when things got murky. Something like that would have helped a lot here. Maybe the characters could have worn name tags, or the actors could have used their real names.
To make things worse, the ending is off-hand and anticlimactic, an utter dud. As a mystery fan, I felt cheated, and I rarely feel that way even when I've guessed the solution. Simon Templar might as well have said, "Enough of this case! Let's move on to another." Fortunately, Sanders' later "Saint" films were much better than this.
The Return of the Whistler (1948)
The offbeat 'Whistler'
The "Whistler" series of mysteries in the 1940s was one of the immediate ancestors of "film noir." The stories were usually dark, the characters were morally ambiguous, and the shadowy, anonymous narrator ("I am the Whistler") added an extra touch of creepiness.
This last entry in the series is different from the others. It's lighter, in both senses of the word. Though it's an adequate "B" mystery, it's no grimmer than an Agatha Christie film.
The difference is partly due to the writing and directing, but the absence of Richard Dix, the aging former star who played the leads in the previous films, is a big factor. Dix had a "noir" persona if ever there was one. He looked like a man haunted by the past and worried about the future. Here he's replaced by fresh-faced young Michael Duane, who just doesn't have the same gravitas.
The plot is a variation on a familiar theme. A man's new fiancée vanishes, and he quickly realizes how little he really knows about her. The more he learns what seems to be the truth, the more it makes sense simply to forget all about her, but he can't get past the feeling that somebody is lying to him.
The mystery woman is played by Lenore Aubert, who was sort of the poor man's Hedy Lamarr in the 1940s. She's supposed to be a French widow here, though she doesn't sound terribly French. (She was actually born in Slovenia and raised in Austria, and her Gallic-sounding screen name was dreamed up by Hollywood.)
This is a decent little crime story, but it's not representative of the "Whistler" movies. If you don't happen to like it, at least give another film in the series a look.
A solid, fair introduction to a complex figure
History buffs will find plenty to quibble with in "MacArthur." Like a lot of World War II movies, it has its share of minor errors. And American military enthusiasts are certain to have strong opinions on Douglas MacArthur already, which will affect their views of the film.
But all in all, I think this is a remarkably balanced look at an extremely controversial person. For those who know little about MacArthur, it's a good place to start. He was a larger-than-life figure, and in this film you can see both why he was revered and why he was despised.
Although MacArthur came of age in the 19th century and became a general in World War I, this movie focuses on his high and lows in World War II and the Korean War. During that time he was an iconic figure. "Iconic" is an overused word, but it applies to him. With his trademark hat and corncob pipe, plus his curiously old-fashioned way of speaking and his instinct for controversy, he was unmistakable and larger than life.
During the late 1970s, the post-Watergate era, traditional war pictures were no longer in vogue. "M*A*S*H," the mildly pacifist TV series set in the Korean War, treated MacArthur as a rather silly figure. But this movie, made in 1977, takes the man seriously, while showing his flaws clearly. It also is more frank than most classic films about how little consensus there is in warmaking. Leaders quarrel and connive while making policy, and the most loyal grunts are often dismayed at the decisions that put them in harm's way.
Gregory Peck is excellent in capturing the complexity of Douglas MacArthur. Peck was an outspoken political liberal, and one has to assume he was no admirer of the unabashedly right-wing MacArthur. But he takes on the man's persona admirably.
After heaping so much praise on "MacArthur," I must admit it is not great cinema. It's more interesting than moving. But if you're under 50 and know Douglas MacArthur only as a name in the history books, this will be an eye-opener. Like any good introduction to a subject, it should encourage you to seek other information and form your own opinions about the man and his times.
Joe Butterfly (1957)
Unusual and pleasant service comedy
Comedies about U.S. troops in occupied Japan were kind of a subgenre in the 1950s. Many of them were as much sentimental as funny, and that's true of "Joe Butterfly." It's far from hilarious but gives you a warm feeling.
The casting may seem strange, with action star Audie Murphy in a comic role and Burgess Meredith playing an Asian. But both are pretty good. Murphy plays a member of a military journalism unit arriving in Tokyo just after the war. Meredith's quaintly named character, "Joe Butterfly," is a roguish but likable black marketeer who latches on to him.
Not many movies about the military deal much with the black market, unless to treat it as something exotic and sinister. But it was part of life for U.S. troops stationed in places like Japan in the 1940s, and this movie is less judgmental about it than most.
Murphy, boyish-looking and soft-spoken, is the heart of the film. His character is easygoing, almost naive, whether he's befriending Joe or falling in love with a Japanese girl.
This is not as strange as it sounds. Though he got to Hollywood because of his real-life World War II heroics, and then played mostly tough guys, Murphy was never crazy about war films. He made only two movies actually set in World War II. When he did play men in uniform, he liked films that humanized the GI. This film does that.
Recruiting a famous white actor to play a major Asian role may seem strange today. It may even seem offensive. But it used to be done frequently, so maybe it's forgivable. Meredith gives it his best shot.
If you don't expect too much, this one is worth a look.
The Golden Idol (1954)
Maybe the low point of this junior jungle series
This was not the last Bomba movie (two more were made shortly thereafter), but it may be the weakest. The whole series, never terribly well made, was just running out of "spiz" by this time, and it shows.
Playing the villain is Paul Guilfoyle, a longtime Hollywood bad guy (who should not be confused with the current actor of the same name). His character is an evil Arab potentate making trouble in the jungle. Guilfoyle had played a similar role in "Bomba and the Hidden City," but he doesn't reprise that role here. Not exactly. He simply plays a similar character to allow for use of footage from the earlier film.
Those recycled scenes, coupled with familiar stock footage of wild animals, give this movie a particular air of cheapness. Many of the scenes are shot at night, with people dashing around amid the foliage. It's often hard to tell what, if anything, is going on.
And Bomba's jungle seems very small. He keeps coming back to the same places -- the same pond, the same clearing, the same rock formation. Does he really know his way around the primeval forest?
The story is much like those in other Bomba films: Bad guys mistreat the natives, shoot animals and menace a pretty American girl whose work has brought her to the jungle. In this case, the girl is an archaeologist looking for the "Golden Idol of Watusi."
Johnny Sheffield was well past his teens by this point, and his increasing maturity may have doomed the series anyway. At one point in "Golden Idol," someone refers to Bomba as a "jungle man" instead of a "jungle boy." But he still looks young and fit enough to be credible.
It's easy to make fun of Bomba movies, but not really fair. I have to admit that I enjoyed them myself as a boy. Their racial attitudes are outdated, but some far better films of the era were much more insensitive in that regard. All in all, these little jungle adventures are well-meaning, simplistic, good-versus-evil tales. Still, if you want to get acquainted with the character, an early Bomba movie would be a better place to start.
Two Flags West (1950)
Superb Civil War western, unjustly forgotten
"Two Flags West" is a real surprise, entertaining and powerful. It contains its share of Hollywood clichés: Yankees and Rebels teaming up to fight Indians; an unhinged officer commanding a lonely outpost; a beautiful women creating tension among comrades in arms. But it's original in the way it handles them.
Jeff Chandler plays Maj. Henry Kenniston, a Union officer put in charge of a desert fort after being partially disabled by a war wound. Distrustful of Indians and bitter about his assignment, he dreams of returning to the war and taking revenge on the Confederates who hurt him and killed his brother.
Worst of all, Kenniston is obsessed with his brother's widow (played by Linda Darnell). He's an honorable man in his own way, and he feels a genuine sense of responsibility toward her. He tells himself he's keeping her at the fort for her own protection. But in his heart, he lusts after her, and he hates himself for doing so.
When reinforcements arrive at this troubled outpost, Kenniston is shocked to find that most are former Confederate POWs. They have pledged to serve the Union as Indian fighters as long as they don't have to make war on fellow Southerners.
To the already unstable major, being put in command of such troops is a crushing insult. And it doesn't help his state of mind when the Southerners' leader (played by Joseph Cotten) and an idealistic Union officer (played by Cornel Wilde) begin to show interest in the beautiful widow themselves. Kenniston soon embarks on a course of action guaranteed to alienate both the Indians and the Southerners -- and endanger the peace.
"Two Flags West" is a well plotted western, with events that flow from the characters' motivations instead of from a predictable plot. It's full of action, and its violence is grimly realistic for the time it was made.
Chandler is excellent as a complex, disastrous leader who inspires anger, pity and even some admiration in the viewer. Darnell, in one of her better roles, makes a convincing object of desire. Cotten and Wilde are fine, although they could have switched roles and still been just as effective.
Any fan of westerns ought to enjoy this a lot, and non-fans should give it a look.