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A Disappointing Look at What Might Have Been
Universal was so impressed with the opening story for Julien Duvivier's anthology film Flesh and Fantasy that they cut it and filmed new material (under the helm of director Reginald Le Borg) to make it its own picture. Being something of a Universal completist, I waited years to see this one and finally got the chance last year. I was pretty disappointed with what I finally saw after hearing so many good things. I decided to give it a second viewing after a little bit of time to see if it's better with less expectations. Truthfully it isn't any better than it was the first time. The Duvivier material is great. A haunting little parable with lots of atmosphere. Had it been left in Flesh and Fantasy, it would have helped that movie out tremendously. Unfortunately the new material is strictly forgettable B crime picture stuff. Worse it winds up sinking the movie with a tacked-on "it was all a dream" happy ending. For those wondering, basically the first half-hour and the final few minutes are the Le Borg scenes and most of the stuff with the blind girl and her father is Duvivier's work. It won't be too hard to distinguish which is which as the direction and photography on the Duvivier parts is clearly superior, even with the less-than-stellar copy I saw.
It's not a bad movie but not the classic it could have been either. I'm glad I got to see it. Maybe someday Universal will release a cleaned-up version. Better yet maybe they'll release Flesh and Fantasy with the Destiny scenes Duvivier directed edited back in. I'd love to see that.
Bermuda Mystery (1944)
A group of men who served together in World War I decide to put $10,000 each into a fund that the last surviving member of the group will collect. Not surprising to anyone with a brain, members of the group start dying off. The niece (Ann Rutherford) of the first victim seeks help from a private detective (Preston Foster) to prove her uncle was murdered. Before long she's more interested in landing Foster as her new beau than she is in solving the mystery.
This is pretty weak. Preston Foster carries the movie more than his leading lady or supporting cast. Ann Rutherford had a lot of charms but this movie never really taps into any of them. In her best scenes she's just kind of there, bland and interchangeable with any of a dozen other B movie actresses of the time. In her worst scenes she's annoying and shrill. By the way, this was her only film released in 1944. It's one of only two Foster did that year. I found that interesting. The best of the supporting players is Jason Robards Sr. Richard Lane basically just plays a cop not too far removed from his most famous role as Inspector Farraday in the Boston Blackie series.
I was surprised to see this was made by 20th Century Fox. It looks kind of cheap with shabby sets and clothes. It looks more like it was made at a Poverty Row studio. None of the comedy works and the mystery story has no edge to it. There's also no chemistry between the stars. Foster was old enough to be Rutherford's father and looks it.
Appointment with Murder (1948)
Appointment with Boredom
Another forgettable in-name-only Falcon movie from Film Classics starring John Calvert. The plot has the supposed Falcon Michael Watling (Calvert) tracking down stolen paintings for an insurance company. Riveting stuff. Most scenes involve Calvert walking into a drab room and exchanging boring lines with someone you wouldn't be able to pick out of a lineup five minutes later. It's a cheap-looking film with little action or humor. Just lots of talking and not a single line of memorable dialogue. Calvert is very dull. He may sound a bit like Lee Van Cleef but has none of his screen presence. I miss Conway and Sanders. This is not a good movie. Only of interest to insomniacs.
Night Terror (1977)
Howler of a Duel knock-off with Valerie Harper playing a character so stupid it defies belief. I don't even want to spoil all the examples of how stupid this person is because it would ruin so many funny scenes for you. You have to watch. I will say that every single part of the lengthy gas station sequence is comedy gold. GOLD I tell you! A warning before you watch: the movie takes itself seriously. It's a comedy, but an unintended one. I'm telling you this because the first fifteen or twenty minutes before any actual driving starts is pretty dull stuff. Harper's line delivery is atrocious, which helps with the comedy but makes the film a chore to sit through whenever she's interacting with another person. It's really hard to believe this is the same actress who breathed life into one of the most colorful, likable characters in TV history, Rhoda Morgenstern.
Forget all the Duel comparisons. There's no tension or suspense here. You don't really care what happens to anyone, you just want to laugh at it all, particularly Harper's character. This is a great watch if you go into it with the right mindset. Take it seriously and you're in trouble. Finally, one of the highlights for me is this exchange between Harper's character and a man who is a word we aren't allowed to use anymore - Man: "You're a nice lady." Our Heroine: "Do you have any money?"
"No news to report in Gotham city."
Made-for-TV PSA short about how much it sucks to get your vehicle stolen. It stars Johnny Five from the Short Circuit movies. The short starts with Johnny becoming an American citizen and moving into the suburbs. Then his pickup truck is stolen and he goes to the police department to report it, which is where the lectures begin. It's pretty stupid but amusing enough. I admit I was smiling during most of it. Perhaps that's due to the nostalgia of seeing Johnny Five. He's not voiced by the same actor from the movies, by the way. Here he sounds like a Michael Jackson impersonator. Anyway it's worth a look if you can find it on YouTube or something. Good for a few laughs and some nostalgic kicks seeing the robot from Short Circuit in something different. Also there are lots of tips for budding car thieves, which was probably something the makers of this didn't think through that much.
The Frog Prince (1988)
Annie and Dig'em
Cannon Movie Tales version of the Frog Prince fairy tale. As with the other Cannon Movie Tales I've seen, it's full of corny songs and "nice try" sets and costumes. It also has a slight story padded out to make a feature length film. But hey there's Annie herself, Aileen Quinn, and Helen Hunt before she was a star. Quinn's the lead as Princess Zamora, who befriends a prince who was cursed and turned into a frog man. In my head I called him Dig'em Frog, after the cereal mascot. Quinn does a decent job, although it's easy to see why her career didn't go anywhere. Hunt plays her sister Henrietta, who's a total bitch. Clive Revill offers nice support as the King. John Paragon (Jambi from Pee Wee's Playhouse) plays the Frog Prince (Dig'em). The frog makeup is pretty good for the limited budget, but perhaps it's a bit creepy for a kids film where the frog is a good guy. I could see this makeup being used in a horror movie. Anyway, this is one of the more enjoyable Cannon fairy tale movies I've seen. It's not great by any means but it is entertaining. For an adult, at least. Not sure how this would fly with kids. The frog might give them nightmares.
Lady for a Night (1942)
"I want to be quality folk."
Yawner starring Joan Blondell as a woman from the "wrong side of the tracks" who is desperate to get into high society and doesn't care much about what she has to do to make it happen. John Wayne plays a riverboat operator in love with Joan. All I can say is: P-U! What a stinker! One of Duke's most boring movies. He honestly had no business in this. Just listening to him talk in that oh-so-familiar manner of his while dressed up like a "dude" fawning over brassy Blondell...it's just nauseating. I love John Wayne but this role was just not a good fit for him. That isn't to say it would be a good film without him; it wouldn't. I don't see what other reviewers are seeing. There is nothing about this that I found fun and certainly nothing that would make me want to see it again. I love Duke and I really like Blondell (in her 1930s films at least) but this just didn't do it for me. I felt the two had no chemistry and I frankly couldn't stand Blondell's character so I wasn't rooting for her at all. Everyone else in the cast is forgettable. The story takes some dark turns but it never really gets exciting, in my opinion. John Wayne is the primary selling point to this but it probably isn't going to appeal to many people who watch it for him. It's easily one of his weakest roles.
Halloween Is Grinch Night (1977)
The second Grinch special
The second animated TV special featuring Dr. Seuss' arguably most famous creation, The Grinch. This one isn't the absolute must-see classic that "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is, but it is decent on its own. The animation is good, especially by the standards of television animation at the time. The voice work is solid. Yes, Boris Karloff is missed but Hans Conried is an admirable replacement. I found the songs unimpressive. Certainly no standouts like in the Christmas special. All in all, it's an interesting effort that should please most Seuss fans. Just try to go into it not expecting anything on the level of the more famous Grinch story.
East Side Kids (1940)
Technically the first East Side Kids movie but it really doesn't seem like it
First film in Monogram's East Side Kids series, although you wouldn't know it at first glance. None of the more recognizable Dead End Kids who would later make up the ESK during the series and the later Bowery Boys series are present here. No Leo Gorcey, no Huntz Hall, no Bobby Jordan, no Gabriel Dell even. We do get former Little Tough Guys Harris Berger and Hally Chester. Whoop-de-doo.
The plot to this one has a mustacheless Leon Ames playing a cop trying to nab some gangsters and prove tough guy Knuckles (Dave O'Brien) is innocent of murder. Knuckles' younger brother is one of the street yutes that makes up our title gang. They help Ames prove Knuckles is innocent by nabbing the real killer, gangster Mileaway Harris (great name), played by Dennis Moore. Cheap-looking B movie that is surprisingly better than some of the later East Side Kids pictures, although that's nothing to brag about. Worth a look as a time-killer I suppose.
Boys of the City (1940)
"I ain't got no lace on my undershirt."
En route to a boys camp for the summer, our favorite juvenile delinquents find themselves stranded overnight at a crooked judge's house. There they battle racketeers and the usual old dark house tropes. This is former Dead End Kid (and future leader of the gang) Leo Gorcey's first entry in the East Side Kids series (also the first for his brother David). As such it feels like much more of a proper start to the series than the first film did. Returning from the first one is Dave O'Brien as Knuckles, the reformed gangster acting as the boys' guardian. It's a forgettable movie in every way. At this point Gorcey hadn't yet developed his malapropism-spouting character and he doesn't have Huntz Hall, either, and he was always best with Huntz. Plus the Kids, regardless of which version, did this material better in several other pictures.
These Wilder Years (1956)
"Some people never forget the one they dropped."
James Cagney stars in this story about a middle-aged tycoon who is looking for the son he gave up for adoption decades before. Barbara Stanwyck plays the woman who runs the orphanage he left the baby at. She won't help him because of legal and ethical issues regarding the child's privacy. Decent picture with solid acting from the leads. I appreciate the story, which seems ahead of its time with its frank depiction of adoption issues and out-of-wedlock pregnancies. I also appreciate that they didn't go the romance route with Cagney and Stanwyck. The stars don't turn in the best performances of their careers but they're both good. Fine support from Betty Lou Klein, Don Dubbins, and Walter Pidgeon. It's one of those sober low-key dramas that there were so many of in the 1950s. They were often good but lacking a little punch, you know. That's the case here. It's a fine movie but needs to pick up the pace a little and maybe add more spark to the plot.
The Gallant Hours (1960)
Good even if it's not something I'd like to see again
Docudrama about Admiral William F. Halsey; specifically his experiences during World War II. It's directed and narrated by Robert Montgomery. James Cagney stars and does an excellent job with a quieter, more subtle type of performance than the ones he was known for. Negatives include a slow pace, lack of action, no subtitles when needed, an overuse of devices like narration and background chorus, and Dennis Weaver going full hick accent with his country boy role. Positives include the aforementioned Cagney turn and a sincerity that I can't help but respect. You can tell they (Montgomery, Cagney, et al.) really wanted to make a great film about a man they admired. It's not a movie that I will ever watch again, but I can certainly see the appeal for many others.
Wake of the Red Witch (1948)
One of Duke's stranger parts
One of John Wayne's more divisive and different films from the 1940s. He plays a semi-villainous sea captain out to settle a score with a shipping tycoon. It's one of Duke's darker roles and as such it allows him to flex his acting muscles a bit. He does well in the role but, ultimately, it's not a good picture. What does it in is the downbeat story and muddled characterization. Luther Adler plays the guy Duke is seeking revenge against. I don't even know if he's the villain or Duke is, which is one of the more baffling parts of the film as both are shown to be bad guys in different ways. Gail Russell plays the woman at the heart of their troubles. I would say she was underutilized but her performance isn't the best so perhaps less was better in this case. Paul Fix and a mustachioed Gig Young play Duke's friends. Most people who check this out are going to dislike it, I think. But it is fascinating in a way, especially for someone who has seen most of John Wayne's work. Speaking of which, this bears a few similarities to another Wayne film about love triangles and men at sea - Reap the Wild Wind.
Sleeping Beauty (1987)
Turns out it was never about the sled
Cannon Movie Tales tackles Sleeping Beauty, with Raquel Welch's daughter Tahnee in the title role. I think this might be her biggest part outside of the Cocoon movies, where all she had to do was look good. That's saying something since she doesn't show up in this until about the halfway point. Before that, it's all set up with her parents and elves and fairies and singing. Directed by David Irving (brother of Amy), the rest of the cast includes Morgan Fairchild as Sleeping Beauty...err, Rosebud's mother the Queen, David Holliday as the King, Jane Wiedlin and Sylvia Miles as good and bad fairies respectively, Kenny Baker and Shaike Ophir as elves, and Nicholas Clay as the Prince who awakens her with a kiss. Yes, Sleeping Beauty's name is not Aurora here but Rosebud. I prefer that since it allows me to view the ending to Citizen Kane in a whole new light.
For the most part, I enjoyed this. It's not perfect, of course, and it doesn't compare to the animated Disney classic. It's not even the best of the Cannon Movie Tales series. But thankfully it's also not the worst. As with the others, the biggest issue (besides the low budget that means we have cheap sets and costumes and special effects) is that they take a short story and stretch it to the breaking point. The best part of the movie are the really cheesy songs, many of which are (unintentionally?) funny. The song about ripped pants (I kid you not) had me rolling. The cast does a fine job. Most of them are playing it up like they are in a kids movie. It's not very good but it's worth a look for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are the corny songs.
La muerte viviente (1971)
"I don't understand. What is this voodoo?"
Another of the dreadful Mexican cheapies Boris Karloff made at the end of his career. All were filmed in 1968 and released later. It's pretty sad that this is one of Karloff's final roles. The plot involves voodoo, as a number of these dreary ugly horror movies made during this period do. I guess the voodoo fad was late making its way to Mexico. There's not a single positive thing I can say about this wretched unwatchable excuse for a film. Even the ailing Karloff, who filmed his scenes in a studio stateside and had to rest in a wheelchair between takes, can do nothing to help this. It actually makes me sad to see him like this. Anyway, Karloff buffs may want to check this film off their list. I see no other reason anyone else should subject themselves to this.
Flame of Barbary Coast (1945)
Not one of Duke's best
Lesser John Wayne vehicle with Duke playing a character named...Duke. Set in early Twentieth Century San Francisco (a popular setting for many movies made during the classic Hollywood era), Duke plays a gambler who falls for a saloon singer (a miscast Ann Dvorak) and crosses swords with accented villain Joseph Schildkraut, who believes the lady belongs to him. Dvorak, about ten years past her prime (career-wise not looks; she was still lovely) was a poor fit for a sultry singer that turns men's heads. By contrast, Virginia Grey appears in a supporting role and seems a much better fit for the lead role. Dvorak also has remarkably little chemistry with John Wayne. Not to bag on her. She was a great actress, particularly in her pre-Code films where she had grittier roles than this. Schildkraut was a decent actor who certainly could make you hate him. But every film I've seen where Duke's opponent is a wimpy tycoon or bureaucrat or something always seems to suffer for it. The villain in a John Wayne movie needs to be intimidating. This guy just isn't. Creepy at best. For his part, Duke does fine. Not really his type of role as written on the page but he sort of makes it his. Worth a look for Wayne fans but it's not one of his best.
Work of Art
Disney classic that I've always respected but have only come to really enjoy in the last ten years or so. When I was a kid, I found it a little on the dull side. It's a series of animated short stories set to classical music. It's hosted by composer and music critic Deems Taylor, whose monotone delivery and severe charisma deficiency tends to dry things out and, I think, hurts the pacing some. In my opinion, taking him out altogether would only improve the film but others may disagree.
Of the stories, the best are Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria, The Pastoral Symphony, Rite of Spring, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and Dance of the Hours. The other segments are all slight but enjoyable. There isn't a bad segment in this, unless we count the forgettable intermission.
This is not for all tastes, obviously. It's longer than need be and perhaps a bit boring for younger children. Still, there's no harm in trying to make them watch it. Maybe they'll love it. Even if they don't, I'm sure most adults with taste will. It's a beautiful work of art, regardless of the minor nitpicks I talked about earlier. The animation and combination of music and poetic imagery is just gorgeous. Given when this came out it's all the more impressive. Definitely worth a look, for Disney buffs and really for everyone.
The Whales of August (1987)
Not for all tastes but a treat for fans of the stars
Measured, mostly pleasant film featuring several elderly stars in their final (or close) roles. Lillian Gish and Bette Davis play sisters who spend the summer together on an island off the coast of Maine. There isn't much of a story beyond these two dealing with their long-simmering issues. Both legendary actresses give performances that would put many actors young enough to be their grandchildren to shame. 93 year-old Gish is especially good. Vincent Price, Ann Sothern, and Harry Carey, Jr. offer solid support. It's a very slow-going film. That and the lack of a more interesting plot are the main reasons I'm not rating it higher. Obviously classic movie buffs will love it more than most.
In Old Oklahoma (1943)
"Consarn yer dadblamed gasoline buggy!"
I didn't expect much from this one but it's better than it has any right being. On the surface it looks like an ordinary, run-of-the-mill B western with cowboy John Wayne leading a revolt against greedy oil baron Albert Dekker. Oh and the obligatory pretty school teacher Martha Scott, who catches the eye of both Wayne and Dekker. But it's actually a fun little movie that captures your attention and never drags. Wayne and Dekker play their white hat/black hat parts well, and Scott is charming with a nice chemistry with Duke. Supporting cast features greats like Gabby Hayes, Marjorie Rambeau, and Paul Fix. And just wait until Teddy Roosevelt shows up. That was my favorite part.
Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947)
One of the best screen versions of the Beanstalk story
Originally part of Fun & Fancy Free, this cartoon was released on its own later. It's arguably the best animated version of the Jack and the Beanstalk story, and some might even say it's better than the film versions. It's narrated by Sterling Holloway, replacing the narration from Fun & Fancy Free by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. I'm not sure the reason for the change but I would never complain about hearing Holloway's distinctive voice. Nice animation and voice work. Really just a fun cartoon all around.
Originally part of the movie Fun & Fancy Free, this cartoon was released later on its own as a theatrical short. It's the lesser of the two shorts that made up that film, but it's not bad by any means. The story is about a little bear named Bongo falling in love and having to fight a bigger bear for his lady. Flimsy story but it's well-paced and fun. It's narrated by Dinah Shore, who also sings. She has a lovely voice. Worth a look but you might as well seek out Fun & Fancy Free so you get the Mickey beanstalk short as well.
Scrooge; or Marley's Ghost (1901)
Early adaptation of the famous Dickens tale. I believe it's the earliest film version (that survived, at least). IMDb lists the runtime as 11 minutes but the only versions I could find were 3 minutes and change. They cram a lot into that 3 minutes. Points for that but I can't imagine any viewer who wasn't familiar with the story knowing what was going on. There are a few title cards but, again, unless you know the story already they don't explain much. So you have this guy being tormented by Christmas spirits with little explanation. There's clearly a lot missing. Still, the effort is good for its time and limitations and some of the technical stuff is impressive.
Santa Claus (1898)
19th Century Santa
British short film made near the end of the 19th century. Which is very cool to me, by the way, watching something made before my great-grandparents were born. It's a little over a minute long and basically just shows Santa Claus visiting a house on Christmas Eve. Interesting for historical reasons, both for film history and Christmas/Santa history. It's hard to rate a thing like this. For the most part, when I rate a movie or short or TV show, I tend to rate it on a technical level compared to similar pieces of its time or before. I also consider historical importance but ultimately entertainment value trumps all for me. This entertained me as much as a minute and change short from 1898 possibly could, and it has some technical prowess for the time on display. So that's where I'm coming from rating this as high as I did. Others will rate it higher but I just couldn't and I felt like rating it lower would be unfair.
La lune à un mètre (1898)
The Astronomer's Dream
Fantastic short film from pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès. A great companion piece to his later classic, A Trip to the Moon (1902). That name was also given to this one when released in the US. The original (and more fitting) name is The Astronomer's Dream. The story to this is an astronomer who looks like Merlin is visited by a woman and a demon and has dreams about the moon. The special effects and sets are really cool, especially when you consider this film's age. Méliès was ahead of his time in many ways. Definitely worth a look for anyone into film history or silent shorts or anyone with a few minutes to spare. I can't imagine anyone seeing this and regretting it. Well, a-holes maybe.
The Saint's Return (1953)
Louis Hayward returns to the character he helped launch on the big screen in the first of RKO's The Saint series back in the '30s. He portrayed a gritty and tough Saint in one movie before George Sanders took over and made the role his own, bringing a suaveness and sophistication to the part. It's a nice bookend for the character, I suppose, to have the same actor start and essentially finish the series. Hammer was probably hoping this might revive the series for them. Unfortunately it did not and the reason is this movie is lifeless. Whatever appealed to Hayward about the role of Simon Templar in 1938 that helped his performance there so much seems long gone here. This time around he seems to be just going through the motions and collecting a paycheck. No one else in the cast stands out in any noticeable way and the script is a cure for insomnia, so there really isn't much else to say about this. It's a dull movie that you'll probably forget a minute after the end credits appear.