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Where It's At (1969)
A Badly Dated Mod Las Vegas
Casting bone to pick: David Jannsen was 38 playing the father of Robert Drivas, who was then, 31 (yeah, I realize he's supposed to be just out of college, but clues in the script have him being a loafer and so he's probably 24-25 in the script--- that still puts Jannsen in parenting classes in Junior High). I assume the AMA wrote medical miracle up in their 1938 Year in Medicine. This movie hasn't aged very well at all and now it's main appeal is just to see a snap shot of Sin City, circa 1969 and all the incessant smoking, the weird hair (Drivas has an atomic comb over that makes him resemble a well-groomed hip Cousin It) and trendy fashions that went along with it. If anyone remembers, LV wasn't exactly London... the city coddled the mob and codger gamblers in those days. Drivas comes off as sexually ambiguous; his dad thinks he might be gay (in a sad irony, Drivas himself died of AIDS at 47) and the soapy conflict is from the generation gap issue (ahem, as if one may call 7 years a gap). Sonny boy wants to be his own man and dad wants to pull him into the casino (Caesar's Palace!), and plies him with girls (including the horny-for-money Edy Williams). Interestingly enough, the son doesn't seem to mind being thought of as gay--- unusual for the time and a cute Brenda Vaccarro is nearby to swoon platonically over him. What nudity there is is awfully lame--- just what was needed to pull the audience in for an 'R' rating in the early days of the MPAA rating system (which then was G-M-R- and X). The editing is HORRIBLE and there's stupid-silly overdubs by The Committee (a late 60's neo-avante-garde comedy troupe that mercifully faded off the map within a couple of years). Don Rickles is on board as a blackjack dealer... seemingly preparing him for a role as a floor manager in the much better CASINO two decades later. Not to give anything away, but they would've dealt with Mr. Rickles' character with power tools and a hole in the desert back then. A curiosity at best, far from Joshua Logan's usual caliber of work. Dos/Dias. Now go watch CASINO again...
Don't Get Nervous (1929)
Diminutive Georgie Price gives it his all before a static sound-enclosed camera (the shot of which is one of the interesting parts of this Warner's short) after nervous bantering with director Bryan "Brynie" Foy, who was, at the time, one of the handful of directors Warners--- specifically Darryl F. Zanuck, had confidence in grinding out talkies. Price is an interesting figure in Broadway history (read his IMDb bio) and his ability to imitate Al Jolson is clearly evident here, right down to the trademark whistle. Shot in New York, probably not long after his flop, "The Song Writer" closed at The 48th Street Theatre (his last Broadway effort). Tip of the hat to good ol' TCM for showing this as part of their Festival of Shorts! TCM is why AMC has become unwatchable by comparison... (had to get that anti-commercial shot in!).
Whatever Rudy got paid, it wasn't enough!
Three things occurred to me while watching Apacalypto: 1) The only reason this got made was it didn't have to be "pitched" in the typical sense--- no producer in town would've touched it without a language change and signing a marketable lead ("I see Will Smith"). 2) It's a shame it did so poorly at the B.O. thanks to Gibson's DUI rant--- this is exceptional film-making on every level. 3) Whatever Rudy Youngblood was paid, it wasn't enough. I thought Daniel Craig went through hell in one sequence in Casino Royale... this kid had the snot beat out of him for the entire shoot. Extremely fine film--- somebody tell Mel to stop smoking 5 packs a day and lay off the booze; he's got 25+ more life left in him to try to outdo himself. Give it a 10/10!
The Star Witness (1931)
See Beast of the City instead!
Walter Huston (himself a "wet") was on an anti-crime roll in the early 30's, here finding himself working for 'Wild Bill' Wellman. While certainly dated, there's some interesting pre-code elements: a particularly brutal beating, a kid gets tossed head-first into a closet with unusual realism not once but twice and Wellman does some interesting mobile camera work throughout (not easy given the machinery of the time). "Chic" Sale is also an interesting factor--- he's both the best and worst thing about the movie. Like Bert Mustin and Walter Brennan, he seems to have been born looking 85. It's hard to believe he's only 47 here, portraying a fiesty Civil War (a Yankee) veteran, out to locate his kidnapped great-grandson (by a gang headed by a guy who has a suspiciously Capone-sounding name) while out on furlough from the Old Veteran's Home. Count the modern unconstitutional actions by the authorities... put your brain on pause watching an incredibly simple plot make 85 minutes seem like three hours...
Beauty and the Bus (1933)
With friends like Patsy...
Patsy Kelly is the friend from hell. Everything she touches turns to ruin in this Hal Roach short. The girls win a car (what appears to be an extremely rare 1933 Chrysler roadster) in a raffle and things immediately go wrong, all thanks to Kelly. This had to be one of Roach's most expensive shorts for the year, given not only the trashing of a perfectly good $675 car, but there's also one of the largest multi-chain car accidents/traffic jams I've ever seen on film. Look for the late Tommy 'Butch' Bond in an early scene and Harold Lloyd veteran Tiny Sandford in one of his usual bruiser roles. Kelly was a mere 23 (born to act 35), the tragic Thelma Todd was about 28 here and looks pretty darn hot. This is one of the better Todd-Kelly shorts and a lot of fun. Who else but Roach would create a girl-girl comedy team? Strong 8/10.
You Can't Take It with You (1938)
Capra's first pairing with star Jimmy Stewart comes off like a well-made cookoo clock. Harry Cohn, as much of a total ass as he was, was smart enough to know what an asset he had in Capra--- by 1938 (thanks to Capra) Columbia was no longer known as the biggest pile on Poverty Row-- it was a major studio. Audiences in the 30's wanted to see a Frank Capra film after the relative failure of Lost Horizon, he scored a corker with this adaptation of the hit Broadway show (begging the question whether it can be called a 'screwball comedy"). For my cable-TV fees, it's much better than "Holiday"--- Jean Arthur is far more appealing than Kate Hepburn. Great cast; I wonder how hammy Lionel Barrymore got L.B. Mayer to loan him out? It's great to see a 20-ish Dub Taylor, an apparently even younger Ann Miller, Eddie Anderson (minus Mr. Benny), Donald (living up to his name) Meek, Stewart's perennial dad, Samuel S. Hinds (one can only assume Beulah Bondi wasn't available as mom) is on hand as Jean Arthur's dad, who oddly subordinates his paternal role to Mr. Barrymore. Everyone shines--- even a despondent H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower!!!!). Great entertainment: a 10!
The Girl Hunters (1963)
Spillane is no Ralph Meeker
The Girl Hunters should be required viewing for any writer with an urge to step out in front of a camera because here's what can go wrong. 1. Make sure you can act (Spillane's acting range rivals plywood). 2. Don't beat a single song in the soundtrack to death: There's one serviceable tune played by Eddie Calvert here that's treated like a farm animal; it's heard at least 15 times and is liable to drive you nuts. 4. Make sure the romantic subplot doesn't require suspension of disbelief: the babe (Shirley "Goldfinger" Eaton) here is in her early 20's and there's no convincing chemistry to explain why she'd peel off her bikini (what she wears 90% of the time in the picture) for the likes of the middle-agy private eye. (!!!Warning!!! unbelievably, they kiss... and trust me, what you see cannot be unseen). Spillane's appeal couldn't be his acting talent. What glue there is that holds the low budget thing together is veteran "Crime Does Not Pay" ex-MGM director Roy Rowland and the mildly interesting slant on vile commies... an angle that was already getting long in the tooth by 1963, outside of doomsday black comedies and big-budget political thrillers and the curiosity of seeing Spillane's interpretation of his own ham-handed character in what could be rightly called a vanity project. I doubt this baby was ever on the lower half of a double bill alongside Seven Days in May or The Manchurian Candidate. For the still-definitive Mike Hammer stick with Ralph Meeker (a vastly better actor) in Kiss Me Deadly made 8 years earlier.
These Wilder Years (1956)
A major motion picture touching on the topic of unwed pregnancies (although the word 'pregnant' is never mentioned) in 1956 must've been been pretty mature stuff. But I have a couple of problems: although Cagney's great as the steel tycoon searching for his abandoned son but he's practically 20 years too old to be completely believable (by the math involved his character should've been in his late 30's, not 57). If you can suspend that disbelief, Jimmy shows a lot of depth (this being in the last real active period of his career) and the script may have hit home, given that his children were adopted. Being an MGM picture means hauling out Walter Pigeon and he's also good in the role of the top flight attorney. This isn't a physical film, there's no fist fights or smoking guns, just a handful of old pros acting convincingly given a script that appears to be missing a few pages. It's also odd that for Steve Bradford to be such a notable former resident of the town, he doesn't get noticed or seems to feel the urge to look anyone up or harbor one nostalgic thought about the place; his life there is a complete mystery. Even the climactic confrontation feels empty. The ending seems a little strange today (dodging a spoiler) and feels added to tack on an upbeat ending.
Super Fly (1972)
Technically, it's awful.
The fact that Ron O' Neal actually comes off as a sympathetic character in this mess is pretty amazing. Even more so than "Shaft," this has not aged well. Wrapped in every early 70's urban cliché, you've got coke magnate Youngblood Priest tooling around town in a stereotypical pimped-out Caddy Eldo wearing pimp threads with no apparent thought given to keeping a low profile. Yeah, he wants out of the game after scoring $300K on 15 kilos but he's conflicted--- it's not enough money after splitting it with his partner and he's running up against some greedy (also stereotypically) corrupt cops. Gordon Parks Jr. has a lousy grasp of cuts and staging. You don't have to be a USC Film School grad to see how much superfluous padding was added to almost every scene to stretch out the running time. The acting itself ranges from barely competent to laughable with the fight scenes looking like outtakes. The mess is lifted considerably by Mayfield's score and the glimmer of O'Neal's acting talent. "Super Fly" was a monster hit and wrought the even worse "Super Fly TNT" sequel, but this one makes audiences appreciate "Shaft," directed far more competently by Park's father. I could rant about the ridiculous early 70's urban fashion sense, the lack of production values, etc., etc., but I have to acknowledge that based on the monster grosses, Super Fly hit a nerve with audiences. Music aside, it's a poorly rendered film and hasn't aged well.
Has worn worse than the clothes
Okay so there's a huge pile of films from the late 60's and early 70's that haven't worn well--- "Easyrider" leaps first to mind, but after seeing "Shaft" on TCM, we've got a new contender. I realize this is one that started the onslaught on our racial consciousness and while it's better than "Superfly," "The Mack," "Shaft in Africa," "Cleopatra Jones," et al, it's a shock to see how tacky things were 36 years ago. The hip lingo is horribly dated, the incessant reminders that us Caucasians are hopeless honkies is irritating and yeah, there's the wardrobe. I can't help it, it's distracting seeing middle aged guys wearing plaid suits with wide polyester ties (Starsky & Hutch fashion icon Antonio Fargas even has a cameo as a sidewalk informant) wearing laughable hats. Why did they have to throw in Shaft verschtionking a barfly when he's got a loyal (and far classier) woman back at the ranch? The plot is incredibly simplistic and is an ominous indicator of the even worse things to come in the Blaxploitation genre. Alright then, what's right? The late Gordon Parks could construct great complex exterior shots and draw out a fairly credible performance by the inexperienced Richard Roundtree. He could have been a whole lot worse. The best actor here is Moses Gunn (seen to better advantage in "Ragtime"). Ignoring Issac Hayes' title track lyrics that asks the rhetorical question, "who's the big Black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks?" (yeesh... but I'm just talking' about SHAFT!), the soundtrack is pretty decent. So there's a lot to be embarrassed about for those involved but there's also some redeeming qualities to the movie. I rate it a 3 for 10.
Ken Burns hits another one out of the ballpark! This amazing examination of the genesis of radio reveals the principals for what they really were: Marconi is quickly dismissed for his disinterest and lack of vision (and a knowing nod to Tesla), Lee DeForest, a social outcast with questionable ethics and more dumb luck than genius, David Sarnoff as the cunning capitalist and Edwin Armstrong, the dynamic tragic force behind the medium. Burns reveals DeForest's feet of clay: he stumbled upon the heterodyne circuit yet couldn't explain how it worked! Armstrong, comprehending it's function, vastly improves upon the design, creating the super-heterodyne, virtually invents FM and briefly becomes General Electric's largest stockholder before falling as a pawn to the Machiavellian manipulations of David Sarnoff. This plays like a corporate soap opera set against the dominate mass medium of a the first half of the 20th Century. Small complaint: the introduction is far too drawn out before the story begins. Unless you're a radio buff it's unlikely you'll recognize the names (or voices) of those being interviewed. But this is a minor quibble--- Empire of the Air is an entertaining exercise in history and rates right up there with Burns' Horatio's Drive. 10 out of 10.
This was one of the weapons in WB's promotional arsenal for their big budget production of "Forty Second Street." Harry Warren was undoubtedly ONE of America's foremost composers--- demonstrated by the fact that many of the 75+ year old songs in his catalog are still known (and used in modern soundtracks) today. That said, I have to grumble when this implies he reigned supreme over the likes of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin or even Cole Porter in 1933--- Warner's puffery to be sure. This Vitaphone 'Pepper pot' short (weren't these shot in NYC?) is essentially Harry at the piano playing a menage of his well known songs, culminating with a short cut to the finale of Lloyd Bacon's 42nd Street. Somewhere in that shot are Ginger Rogers, Toby Wing and Una Merkel tapping away like mad. Interesting curio!
Gabriel Over the White House (1933)
Fascism IS LIBERAL?
How can a relatively obscure 70+ year-old movie be so polarizing? I love these comments from folks who accidentally stumbled across TCM trying to find FOX News... in historical context, Gabriel Over the White House was shot prior to FDR's presidency (although somewhat edited after his March, 1933 inaugural). Nobody could have realized what FDR's policies would ultimately entail, the plot is right up WB's alley as the principal studio willing to address Depression-era issues. Hitler? The average American hadn't heard of Adolf in early 1933 and whatever Mr. & Mrs. Citizen knew about fascism at that point was of the Italian variety: Il Duce and his on-time trains. I don't see this as advocating fascism, rather another example of Warner's willingness to recognize that there was something wrong out there in 1933 (okay, largely thanks to the efforts of the soon departed Darryl Zanuck); you wouldn't hear that from the escapism provided by Radio Pictures, Universal or Paramount. MGM would only rarely acknowledge the Depression (and lose money nearly every time it did). That said, even by Warner Bros. standards, this movie is bizarre. The President is possessed by a heavenly entity and pushes quickly through 4 subplots: an ineffective cabinet, dealing with the Bonus Marchers, the criminal empire and lastly, the national debt, each thinly interconnected. Each issue is solved forcefully and sometimes utilizing some strange special effects (cardboard tanks and dive bombing our own WW1-era fleet). The President makes a eerily prophetic speech about the futility of war, ominous given what would happen within six years in China and Europe. Walter Houston gives a stilted one-dimensional performance, which is all the role demands. Despite the strange execution, if you watch Gabriel Over the White House with your brain engaged, I doubt any 2 people would see it the same way. That alone makes it remarkable. That this movie is known today at all is thanks to TCM.
We're Only Human (1935)
"I feel fine, get me an ambulance!"
How many 1930's movies can boast appearances by so many notable character actors? RKO managed to assemble the cream of every other studio's character crop: the under-rated WB veteran Arthur Hohl, Mischa Auer, Maroni Olsen, James Gleason, Jane Darwell (as his Ms.), Hattie McDaniel (one scene as what else? A maid)... plus one of my favorite 'oily guys,' Harold Huber and, as a child, future film documentarian, Delmar Watson? I think I even spied the ubiquitous Ed Brophy in one scene. The plot is strictly B-movie material: a gung-ho cop (Preston Foster) is bent on bringing down the city's crooks single-handedly, even promising a 30-day deadline. Bad guy (funny man Mischa Auer in a dramatic turn) escapes and her gets suspended. There's several way-cool scenes: the primitive polygraph and a terrific lead-filled finale. Plus you get an amazingly hot 24-year old Jane Wyatt (who left me wondering why she never fell for the peroxide bottle like so many 30's starlets) in what I think was only her third film role. RKO was pulling itself out of the Depression in 1935--- "We're Only Human" was produced by the newly promoted Edward Kaufman, who moved in to fill the void left by the departure of Meriam C. Cooper. In a year when the studio produced monster hits like 'Top Hat" and "The Informer," this is certainly not on the same plateau, but entries like this helped put the studio in the black for the first time since 1930. Three things I noticed: Preston unloads his S&W inside Wyatt's apartment without anyone calling the cops, and when you do see the cops, they all appear to be driving already-then-old 1929 Lincoln Phaetons and finally, Ms. Wyatt displays a shocking lack of driver's safety by sucking face with Preston Foster so long that they should've rightly ended up running off a cliff or wrapped around a tree. Thank God for rear projection.
Peter Gunn (1958)
Hot on the case... cool under fire. Should've been an hour!
I just finished watching 3 compilation series DVD's and was hoping to have a flashback on what I had thought was the coolest show (actually even then in syndication) from my early 1960's childhood. Yup, there was Craig Stevens racing around in his Plymouth Fury convertible (wearing "$30 shoes, a $200 suit and carrying a solid gold cigarette lighter") and guitar strumming Lt. Jacoby, complete with Charlie the Tuna's voice (even he drove a Christine-like Plymouth) and Lola Albright's "Edie" was as sexy as I remembered. Mancini's music is still way cool. But Jeez-Louise, the scripts stink! The problem is the :30 minute format allowed for maybe :22 of story and it appears that the producers just opted for atmosphere over cohesive plot. The series begged for an hour format. Several episodes I watched are completely illogical and/or just plain silly--- some make the revamped Amos Burke, Secret Agent or the 77 Sunset Strip clone, Surfside Six look Masterpiece Theater. Frankly most of the scripts are pointlessly stupid, and follow a format that invariably contain an immediate homicide (victims are quickly dispatched by bullets or the obligatory knife in the back), introduce a superfluous oddball character (Jack Webb used to do this with Dragnet, but usually less outrageously and certainly more sparingly)--- often a stereotypical beatnik, that simply wastes precious plot time. Next comes the fists and cut to a scene at Mother's Jazz Club where Edie makes googly eyes at Pete. Murders are solved somewhere around :19 and you can bet a Franklin half dollar that it was someone Pete met before the first cigarette commercial. It was kind of weird seeing several cast members of future Andy Griffith Show in one episode. In retrospect, it's odd that the perennial 1950's-60's also-ran ABC network (remember it's first #1-rated series wasn't until "Marcus Welby" a decade later) never realized they had all the elements here for a much better hour-long show. Peter Gunn is one of those television memories better left rattling around in a nostalgic corner of your head... I'll look for the two RCA albums of the show's music instead. Blaaech! 3/10 for Mancini, the threads and cool 50's Mopar wheels + the occasional glimpse of a talented-yet-under-employed character actor working for $250 1958 scale rent money. If Herschel Bernardi were still alive I'd love to ask him what it was like to work for 3 minutes screen time every week. Those Starkist commercials would be like Shakespeare.
The Beast of the City (1932)
Jean Hersholt as a bad guy?
I love pre-code gangster movies! While Warner's is the indisputable king, MGM threw out all the stops in what appears as an attempt to go head to head with Warner's in making a crime drama. The results are remarkable. The stars here are the cops, something WB didn't focus on until 3 years later with G-Men. Walter Huston does a remarkable job as a police captain whose badge is on the rise but whose not afraid to get his hands dirty. His career is endangered by his reckless, irresponsible younger brother (well played by Wallace Ford, very early in his career), also a cop, who's got an eye for hard-bitten gangland moll Jean Harlow. There's several fantastic scenes: Harlow's memorable line-up, Harlow's hoochie koochie dance, running outdoor gun battles and an outrageous final face-to-face confrontation between the cops and Hersholt's gang in a restaurant. Judging by the 1930's police tactics depicted, it'd be a miracle if anyone on the force survived till retirement. Cops continuously run fearlessly headlong into hails of lead without a thought to taking cover. Look for a young Mickey Rooney and those twin girls (the 14-year old Crane twins) that briefly announced Hal Roach's opening Our Gang credits as Huston's kids. Huston probably drew upon this role for the extremely weird Gabriel Over the White House the following year. Seeing Jean Hersholt (by all accounts one of the most lovable guys in Hollywood--- yeesh, he's got a humanitarian award named in his honor) playing a greasy Capone-esquire crime lord stretches disbelief, but at this point in his career he was considered a 'heavy,' and image that would drastically change over the next decade when he became synonymous with kindly Dr. Gillespie. Beast of the City gives you all this plus creative pre-Miranda police interviewing techniques--- it's cool to see those great 1929-31 Lincoln police cars racing around chasing bad guys with their blaring one-way radios. Beast of the City ranks with the best of the genre and thanks to TCM and TiVo I've seen it a dozen times... this is excellent! Rates a 10!
The Street with No Name (1948)
Zanuck must've really, really loved Warner Bros.' G-Men from 13 years earlier... it's got the same director (the reputedly snobby William Keighley), the same capable Lloyd Nolan. But the problem is that Mark Stevens seems to sleep walk through his part as the undercover guy--- he displayed a lot more range in 'Dark Corner' (RKO, 1946), one of the best of the 40's film noir's. Sure, there's Richard Widmark as the bitch-slapping hood and a plot with some mild subterfuge, but there's nothing at the core of 'Street With No Name' that's really memorable. The late, great John McIntyre shows the most grit. Everyone involved did far better work at some other point in their careers. This is just another of the semi-documentary detective flicks so popular in the years immediately following WW2. Unfortunately, it's far from the best. I'll take 'Naked City' or '13 Rue Madeline' over this anytime.
Blue of the Night (1933)
Franklin Pangborn as a Jilted Fiancée?
Holy cats... Blue of the Night has cute society girl Babe Kane on a train bragging to Der Bingle that she's engaged to none other than Der Bingle. Then he goes off and gets a story planted announcing the engagement. Babe is in a tither and in an inspired bit of casting designed to challenge the suspension of disbelief, the lightly loafered Franklin Pangborn appears as the jilted fiancée, who overhears what he thinks is a plot. This Bing is a fraud? When Bing shows up at the party he bets his way-cool 1932 Cadillac roadster against five bucks that Bing is an impostor. Bing left is i.d. back at home so he sings-- and whistles--- his way through the title song long enough to prove he's the real deal and drives off with Babe in Pangborn's car. Several things distinguish this from Bing's other shorts: it wasn't directed by Mack Sennett so it doesn't have a tacked on car/motorcycle chase, it has very high production values and best of all the ravishing 17-year old Toby Wing (with a decidedly southern drawl) in a swimsuit... humma humma! Otherwise, it's got the typical 'Bing ends up engaged or married plot with the happy couple leaving a debris trail of unhappy relatives and fiancées in their wake' plot that never varied much. As Crosby's shorts go, this is one of the better ones. VIII out of X.
Walking Tall (2004)
Crawling not walking...
I recall seeing the hit Bing Crosby-produced original in 1973 and thought it was okay... and a fitting tribute to the memory of Sheriff Pusser and his family. So I reordered it on NetFlix and they sent me the remake by mistake. My complaints? First off, this bears no resemblance to the Pusser story (Washington state?). It's more of 'Road House' meets 'Rambo.' There's nothing here that anyone hasn't seen done better a dozen times before. The phoned-in script could've been written on a damp cocktail napkin and 'The Rock' could be used to describe his acting range. Nothing about this version approaches the level of creative inspiration. It's a total waste of time. Thankfully, it's also one of the shortest movies I've ever seen. Bleeaaach and yawn... back in the mail you go.
The Boondock Saints (1999)
It keeps getting worse...
I've been told this film's gained something close to cult status over the past 6 years and I fail to see why. The main problem lies in Dafoe's character, who descends into an outrageous cross-dressing cartoon once he begins to sympathize with the boys. Woefully thin stuff--- because this isn't a comedy and it's certainly not a murder mystery (making a "spoiler" virtually impossible). Plot-wise, it just plain sucks. Technically, there's some slightly redeeming aspects. The camera work is very good and there's a visually clever insertion of Dafoe placing himself in the midst of a crime scene. The casting of chubby porn star Ron Jeremy (Hyatt) as a Russian (?) mafioso is less than inspired--- he's more cartoony than Dafoe. And amid the script that goes nowhere, there's one or two well-written lines but ultimately, this is a complete waste of time. This goes up near the top of my list of all-time worst movies. Awful!
Lights of New York (1928)
Okay so I gave this a 6 but to be fair you can't grade Lights of New York in any ordinary sense. The camera's immobile, the acting's on par with lumber and the script's below second-rate. I love the dialog--- Wheeler Oakman's "But... they... must not... find... Eddie" and the infamous, "Take.. him... for... A... ride" is stupifyingly awful (further proof of his thespian skills can be seen in his death scene... then he keeps on breathing!). But hey, this was the very first all-talking movie! There's every reason in the world to make allowances for every one of it's shortcomings. I've seen The Jazz Singer released around 8 months earlier and this represented a huge leap over part-talkies. It's hard to be overly critical on the technical aspects when it's apparent that everyone was dealing with new fangled sound and heavily soundproofed cameras--- not to mention sound requiring completely new types of direction. This is a gem that deserves to be seen and judged for what it is, a historical artifact. Eugene Palette is the best actor here (no surprise).
Winning Your Wings (1942)
$245 a month for a 2nd LT!
Newly-minted LT Jimmy Stewart gives a folksy appeal to guys from 18 to 26 to join up and fight the axis!
Jimmy would go on to make an admirable career in the Air Force Reserve and become the recognizable face of the Strategic Air Command in the 1950's--- here you can get a first glimpse of this enthusiasm. Winning Your Wings is aimed at recruiting officers--- more specifically at what must have been hordes of guys with the qualities but not necessarily the educational credentials to make the cut. Don ("Hazel") Defore does a bit as a 26-year old married gas station jockey who's not sure he's qualified. There's a run down of what must have been virtually unknown commissioned positions (navigators, meteorologists) and a run down of the 9-man crew of a B-17, all framed within Stewart's likable homespun drawl. Look for a nearly unrecognizable Peter Graves in the Flying Fortress. And go for Captain, they knock down $450 a month!
Mighty Lak a Goat (1942)
Very good, considering...
Short Subject units existed primarily to 1) train and assess contract talent and 2) to provide low cost theatrical filler for major studios' theater chains.
Errh, except in the case of Our Gang. Incredibly, Hal Roach shuttered shorts production in 1938, officially stating they were no longer economically viable (for the real reason read his IMDb bio). The one exception was Our Gang, which the bean counters at Roach's (soon to be former) distributor saw as having some life left in it.
Unfortunately, the series which was so well crafted and nurtured at Roach's boutique studio unraveled quickly at Metro. At Roach it was treated as their signature product, under the aegis of Louis B. Mayer it became just another assignment. I've seen every one of the MGM Our Gang one reelers and 90% of them don't hold a plug buffalo nickel compared to the earlier Hal Roach shorts. MGM for all it's strengths, couldn't grasp comedy and Our Gang had some unique challenges that the studio didn't handle very well--- as the kids aged they were invariably replaced with less talented (Bobby Blake), even obnoxious (Janet Burston) substitutes. Unfunny moral lessons quickly replaced gags. Although MGM was able to ride the 20+ year run of the series for 5 years after buying it from Roach but, aside from a handful of exceptions, these final 52 shorts were awful. Mighty Lak a Goat happens to rate as one of these rarities--- it's actually watchable. The plot's simple: The gang gets splashed by mud from a passing car and Froggy uses some cleaning fluid to clean them off--- but it has an unexpected side-effect, it makes the kids reek. They become outcasts at school and there's a nicely done gag in a movie theater where the actors in a serial react to their funk. For a modern audience, there's an added surprise of seeing a young Ava Gardner in a brief shot as a the theater cashier. She was married to Mickey Rooney at the time and Mickey's dad, Joe Yule, Sr. appears in the theater audience.
MGM Our Gang's probably should be rated differently than the Roach shorts--- the first 4 they made rival their predecessors but things quickly sank. Mighty Lak a Goat would be no better than a mediocre Roach entry, but judged against it's MGM peers (especially against the later most dreadful ones), it's extremely good. 6/10. It's unfortunate that these MGM entries are what most people today connect with Our Gang; try to see the 1932-37 Roach productions and compare for yourself!
Our Gang (1922)
Our Gang was the first installment produced in the long-running shorts series... to confuse things it was the third film released. Hal Road and director Fed Newmeyer shot the 2-reeler around Los Angeles in the late Spring of 1922 and previewed it in several theaters around town. Based on his belief in the concept rather than the lukewarm public reception, Roach green-lighted the series but scrapped most or all of the original footage and brought Robert McGowan in to rework it, officially releasing Our Gang on Nov. 5, 1922 (One Terrible Day was the first film to be released, followed by Fire Fighters). Sadly, Our Gang is considered a lost film. But since film historians tend to rely on production dates Our Gang, can be called the first film and that makes it significant. After all, how many film series can claim to have survive through the advent of sound across 21 years, innumerable cast changes, 2 distributors, a studio change, through 221 installments (including a feature--- not to mention that thing in the 90's)? No doubt about it: Our Gang (or The Little Rascals, if you prefer) had legs.
Most modern audiences have never seen any of the 88 silents (the transition to sound began with crude synchronized sound effects during the 1928 season, but complete conversion to talkies wouldn't occur until the following year).
Significant events: 1922: series begins as a 2-reeler (roughly 22 minutes) and distributed through the Pathe Exchange, a pioneering French film company with offices in New York City (it ironically, financed and distributed Roach's primary competitor Mack Sennett). 1922-1926: Although boasting many likable kids (Johnny Downs, "Farina" Hoskins, Joe Cobb, Jackie Condon, etc.). Mickey Daniels becomes the un-official star of the series. His departure in 1926 leaves a series void that wouldn't be filled until the arrival of Jackie Cooper in 1929's Boxing Gloves. 1927: Roach ends his association with the rapidly disintegrating Pathe Exchange (with The Smile Wins, short #66) and signs a distribution and financing deal with MGM. Technology note: MGM, despite being the stellar studio in the world, takes a long wait-and-see attitude regarding talkies (primarily due to the huge expense that parent Loew's Inc. faces in converting it's vast theater chain to sound. This stretches out 'Our Gang's part-talkie period, allowing uncoverted studios to run silent versions). 1928: Barnum & Ringling (#74) is released with synchronized sound effects. 1929: Small Talk (#89; released as a 3-reeler) is the first all-talking Our Gang short. 1929-31: Jackie Cooper becomes a major star and departs for features after 15 Our Gang shorts (ending with Bargain Day, #106). 1932: George "Spanky" Mcfarland debuts in Free Eats (#112). Dickie Moore appears in 8 shorts beginning with Hook and Ladder (#116) and leaves for a successful feature career. 1934: Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas debuts in For Pete's Sake (#127) and would remain with the series until the end. 1935: Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer debuts in Beginner's Luck (#135) and, over time, becomes a headache (his antics would end his series tenure at MGM). 1936: Roach bombs with General Spanky, a 71-minute feature (technically Our Gang #150). 1938: Roach sells the Our Gang unit to MGM and exits shorts production completely in favor of feature films. These MGM-produced entries are generally dismal. 1943: Series production ends with the 221st production, Tale of a Dog (Our Gang shorts are released into 1944).
Farm Hands (1943)
Farm Hands has one huge thing going for it: Janet Burston's not in it. The death knell for MGM's Our Gang's was the fact that as Hal Roach's holdovers aged they were invariably replaced by an unlikable cast of untalented kids (the sole exception was Buckwheat) in unfunny plots that usually centered around a lesson. This mentality was a radical departure from the earlier, vastly more entertaining Roach/McGowan entries; unfortunately these later MGM installments are what most people have seen. Here, by 1943, MGM had been producing the series for 5 years and allowed it to descend into what might be called benign disinterest only to be summarily shelved when studio bean counters pointed out the last several productions had actually lost money in their initial release. As this final roster of kids go, Robert Blake became a decent actor, but you'd never know it from seeing him as a child. Billy "Froggy" Laughlin is a one-trick pony, riding on the voice (okay, he also had crossed eyes), but he never looks like he's actually enjoying himself "acting"--- he reportedly never did and died tragically in his middle teens in a motor scooter accident. Farm Hands has the kids spending some time on Mickey's uncle's farm and has them screwing up their chores, ultimately winding up in a hay baler. All the gags are pretty watered down but at least this short has some action. 2/10.