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Only Yesterday (1933)
The Ultimate "Women's Weeper"--and yet.....
Unlike so many matinee weepers that were churned out during the depression about women brought to ruin through their attachment to handsome cads, this beautifully calibrated film offers so many treats in addition to a saccharine plot that it moves beyond matinee fluff; simply the opening scenes establishing the damage done to human lives in the 1929 are handling with persuasive dispatch, drawing the viewer into the shattered world of the wealthy and to the insensitivity that some show to others, setting the stage for the young woman who is drawn into a tragic life-changing romance. So many familiar faces grace the screen, from Franklin Pangborn as a few art dealer to Jane Darwell as the mother who keeps a good table; a pleasant surprise is the romance between Billie Burke, for once not merely an addleheaded silly, but an older woman in love with a younger man who annoys her when he whistles. And while John Bowles may strike some as a bit wooden, star Margaret Sullavan in her first major role lights up the screen with genuine warmth and humanity, making her tragedy all the more touching. Some keepers of the current film archives need to get ahold of a pristine print and share it with the public--perhaps it could be the next addition to the Criterion Closet!
International Settlement (1938)
What's Dolores Del Rio Doing In This Mess?
Del Rio was such an exotic and classically elegant actress that it's a pity when she gets stuck donating blood to a man who just tried to strangle her, stuck with a entire stock of absurd situations with bombs bursting in air during the Sino-Japanese war. It is unsettling to see the actual bombing and destruction of a major city used as a backdrop for "B" movie melodrama, even if George Sanders does get to wear a mustache and affect something other than world-weary attitude; the "B" film had great possibilities, but too much footage is given over to a pair of silly romantic magpies, one a Sacramento reporter trying to snag an important story but getting hung up on a budding romance. There are plenty of incidental pleasures, of course: the appearance of John Carradine doing his Irish best, Harold Huber and Leon Ames as greedy baddies, and a short running time. But I'd rather see Del Rio as Madame Dubarry any day!
A Man Named Pearl (2006)
A Community of Sharing Inspired By Artistic Obsession
So often films about eccentrics have a darker agenda, pointing up human oddities for the amusement of the masses; this film is direct and honest and means to showcase an individual who devotes his life and time to a private garden he enthusiastically to the public. In a tiny South Carolina town on the decline from an agricultural past, Pearl buys a home with some acreage and makes the decision not only have a neat and tidy yard, but, as the trees and bushes he plants grows, to sculpture them. He works in the yard every day, quietly but with purpose, and after several years, there are topiary abstracts wherever one looks, and if there is a visitor, the self-effacing man is pleased to chat with them, spending extra time with young people brought by elders who know Pearl is a dedicated, if self-effacing role model. Without being corny or hammering the viewer over the head, the film showcases a good man who freely shares a beneficial obsession.
Three Godfathers (1936)
Forgotten 1930's Classic Western With Gripping Central Performance
In 1929 actor Chester Morris was nominated for an Oscar for his strong performance as an ex-con in Alibi; he spent a good deal of his life playing tough-guy roles, too often typecast in second-tier "B" roles; here, some six years later, he gives a dynamic, believable turn as the bad boy of the town, the man in black who revels in his nastiness, unredeemed by the love of a good woman or anyone else.
He and two others pal up together to rob a bank during a church social, and run for the hills, there discovering a dying woman with a child; this could be a really silly melodramatic set-up, but director Richard Boleslawski knows what he is doing, knows how much melodrama to inject into a situation, is able to focus two of the best scene stealers in the business, Walter Brennan and Lewis Stone into producing distinctively compelling characters.
This film is a remake of several silent versions, the most notable starring Charles Bickford in the Chester Morris role (and later, more sentimentally, by John Wayne in a color version from John Ford), but the sense of authenticity in the town scenes and the visually arresting desert scenery give the actors a canvas which they do not fail to brilliantly fill in.
How often does a character in a Western film recite Macbeth's "Tomorrow" soliloquy from memory, or discuss the intricacies of Schopenhauer with a friendly but uncomprehending cowpoke? Lewis Stone manages a nice turn in his interchanges with Walter Brennan, himself putting the brakes on his usual cornball rustic.
The transformation for Chester Morris from unregenerate bum to something admirable is powerfully done, and the intrusion of some 1930's sentiment not entirely unwelcome.
In 1936, the Best Oscar nominees were Paul Muni, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, William Powell and Walter Huston; with a better agent, Chester Morris might have been among them.
Holiday in Mexico (1946)
Ilona Massey, A Talking Chihuahua and Plenty of Technicolor!
Imagine a mainstream contemporary film that features a pianist playing Rachmaninoff and Chopin; imagine that same film featuring a Mariachi Band that can play Hungarian folk melodies at the snap of a finger. The same film even features a talking Chihuahua (long before Taco Bell). Now toss in a tale centering on a love-sick teenage soprano who falls in love with a man old enough to be her grandfather-and add another lovesick girl, just for fun, that does exactly the same, only with the first girl's father. It sounds a bit incestuous, but with MGM it's all good, clean, if occasionally draggy, fun.
Unlikely fare for the 2020's, but a huge hit for MGM in postwar America, 1946, Holiday in Mexico is set in several mythical South of the Border homes, brilliantly unreal but presented in irresistible Technicolor (with lots of those wonderful period lime-green pastels and electric pinks). If you are in the mood for absolute escapism and willing to suspect disbelief entirely, this immersion in teen angst features the first MGM appearance of young absolutely ravishing blue-eyed Jane Powell warbling a little bit of everything from opera to Ave Maria, sometimes accompanying her love object, Jose Iturbi, a popular semi-classical pianist, whose truncated version of Rachmaninoff's Concerto #3 may put your teeth on edge. But the man does have incredible power and technique, and like Liberace, it's up the keyboard, down the keyboard, bang, bang, bang! And Jose's actual grandchildren appear in the movie and hide under his piano in mouse masks!
This all hints at only a few treats available to those able to cheerfully immerse themselves in another fairly empty-headed but richly lavish presentation from MGM. Jane's Dad is played by a suave Walter Pidgeon, who gives some fatherly advice to Jane's awkward thwarted swain, Roddy McDowell, a few years removed from his superb sentimental triumphs in Lassie and How Green Was My Valley, here having some post-pubescent problem. Contributing to the Mexican Atmosphere is a glorious glittering production number with Xavier Cugat and as a guest star from Hungary (interesting how the script digs her into the plot) the radiantly glowing Ilona Massey (rhymes with "Lassie"), who only is allowed to radiate her continental charm with a single song. In short, 127 minutes of teen angst alleviated with ample music and the riches of MGM at its peak is on offer here; Singin' In The Rain it ain't, but what else is?
Five and Ten (1931)
Potential Fun Turns Turgid, Tiresome
A few days ago, I was fortunate enough to see Marion Davies in The Floradora Girl, a precode delight made a year before Five and Ten, a film full of zippy verve and romance, the kind of thing that Marion was really good at, getting into scrapes and hobnobbing with fellow chorus girls to figure out how to land a man.
This film also deals with how to land a man, but the man in this film is Leslie Howard, who seems ill-matched for the puckish quality of fun and frolic that shows Marion at her best; the pair comes close a few times to becoming more than puppets dealing with a slow-paced script, but the seems to be little real passion or give and take between them, instead a sort of scripted mooning that often brings the thing to a halt.
Among other things, the script deals with the problems of the nouveau-riche attempting to establish themselves into established society, and as a sidelight, the insensitivity of Marion's father, one of the most successful businessmen in New York, (played by Richard Bennet, so memorable some ten years later in Orson Welles' Magnificent Ambersons) losing his wife from inattention as well as alienating a son by insisting the kid become part of the new family empire, regardless of interest. Douglass Montgomery, listed in the film as "Kent Douglas," moons and mopes through most of the picture as an unmoored zombie, with a final scene that is ultimately just the opposite of its intention.
Five and Ten is not a bona-fide stinker, but much of it is a chore, and though it's always fascinating to watch Marion Davies try various character hats on, somebody forgot to give her a script not so gloomy and stage-bound and one more suited to her considerable skills as a comedienne.
The Weapon (1956)
Do I Hear A Zither In The Ruins?
This little second string effort from Republic Films was cunningly photographed in London after the Blitz, and there are echoes of The Third Man in much of the atmospherics, as a kid in the run from a crime he did not commit hides at night in crumbling ruins near the Thames, and hungry during the day, hires on for a ham sandwich in a warehouse gearing up for day traffic. The kid flushes out an actual murderer, and the two of them get wrapped up with the two
Hollywood actors used for marquee bait, Lizabeth Scott and Steven Cochran, who do their best to make something of not much, with a romance budding in the ruins. Both actors manage well enough, though in their past each could be electrifying; poor Herbert Marshall walks through an uninspiring bit as an English inspector, and the screen does light up with the fascinating and lively appearance of Nicole Maurey as a "professional hostess." If you don't expect a lot of suspense built on logic and honest tension, but are happy with a tour of London at Night and some time with Hollywood Stars going through their paces. this is not a bad 78 minutes at the movies.
Attention Lana: You've Got Competition!
Tormento can be purchased as part of a Criterion Eclipse Set entitled "Raffaello Matarazzo's Runaway Melodramas," and they do indeed runaway and sometimes get lost--but no matter: the camera always returns to the suffering heroine, Anna Ferrari (lushly played by Yvonne Sanson) who endures heartbreak and loss each time she turns around, and sometimes before she gets a chance to get her breath--just as she loses a job, she gets pregnant and her well-meaning hubby ends up for twenty in the slammer--for a crime we know he didn't commit. This is the sort of 50's weepy stuff churned out by the big studios in 30's and 40's Hollywood, often starring Lana Turner who always wore her grief very well and suffered spectacularly in Technicolor. Just as Lana often did, Anna loses the custody of her child, this time to a Stepmother From Hell, an unforgiving, dessicated old thing that probably eats baby turtles for breakfast. Will Carlo (perfectly played by Errol Flynn look-a-like Amedeo Nazzari) find a Get Out Of Jail Free card? Will the grandchild escape the nasty clutches of the Wicked Stepmother? Will Anna manage to convince the nuns she belongs outside in the sunshine? Your tolerance for this well-made but often risible melodrama depends a good deal on your enjoyment of the well-crafted weeper.
No Sad Songs for Me (1950)
A Trio of Fine Performances
Although it's sometimes difficult to do, judging a 1950's film with 2000's social mores and sense of letting it all hang out is probably not the best way to view this film, a sensitive and understated tale of a woman with cancer.
Having lived through a time when the word was usually whispered rather than stated, and was usually not talked about in polite company, I know that Sullivan's horror at discovering not only that she cannot have a child but that she is also stricken with a killer illness is quietly realistic for the time (this is not a spoiler, such information revealed with the first ten minutes of the film).
Sullivan delivers an amazing subtle performance, understated in her refusal to stage hysterical scenes of unhappiness, quietly demonstrating strength in attempting, as many people do, to not "become a burden." Underrated Wendell Corey, who is a powerful player in such melodramas as Harriet Craig and Desert Fury, is Sullivan's Mr. Average Guy, an amiable husband who loves his wife, kid, and work--and it is at work he meets a young woman who tempts him, a woman whose history reveals some hidden strengths.
Enough said. Sure it's a weeper, supremely so as it gathers steam, but unlike a Crawford or Davis film, Sullivan's heroine is all about self-effacement and loving no matter what the cost, and thus appears to many contemporary viewers as a dated woman; the Oscar-nominated music score George Dunning (with plenty of help from Brahms) constantly underscores the film with a quiet persuasiveness; the supporting cast, including a delightfully thoughtful Natalie Wood deliver the goods.
Son of India (1931)
Quintessential Transitional Hollywood
This incredibly well-produced MGM weeper is rich in studio-bound atmospherics, with entire Indian villages and epic jewelry stores recreated on a Hollywood backlot; the geniuses who assembled lush gardens and exotic princely surroundings provided their American audiences with a taste of mad romance unencumbered by logic or common sense, as rather fey Ramon Novarro, the leading hot star of the period, creates another ethnic type antithetical to his native Mexican roots, and does so with quiet dedication. Regardless of societal strictures, he and precious Madge Evans ignore convention, throw caution to the winds, and fall deeply into a heavy-breathing relationship, a possibility that the Hollywood Code would have completely forbidden only a few years later, as even the mention of mixed race marriage was generally taboo. And Novarro's rather precious, if effective style, would give way, too, to the whip-cracking undeniable masculinity of Clark Gable, who would brook no nonsense from anybody, and whose early films with Jean Harlow still crackle with lively sexual energy. Character stalwarts C. Aubrey Smith, Conrad Nagel and Marjorie Rambeau provide opposing viewpoints to the hapless lovers in this offbeat but oddly enchanting relic of a disappearing era.
South Sea Sinner (1950)
Tropical Delights To Be Savored
"She's been in more laps than a napkin," Shelley remarks about another girl who hangs out at the local tropical gin mill, in another post-WWII thriller, only without the thrills. What the film does offer is an amiably sleazy atmosphere, and that curious leading man MacDonald Carey, accused of dealing with the enemy, and while wanting to clear himself encounters Shelley singing one of her several dubbed songs; it's not exactly Actor's Studio stuff, but she seemed to be more than game to toss it around and chat up Liberace, who, in his first screen appearance, plays Chopin to the rowdy seafaring men--and later on in the film, in a completely absurd moment, is pounding out some curious up-the-piano, down-the-piano, concerto backed by an orchestra we never see, lights at the party dimmed discreetly so Lee can have his moment. It takes about the first 20 minutes for this film to find it's melodramatic feet, but there's a crafty, sleazy villain who loves to slap tender cheeks (Luther Adler), some tight-lipped servants hiding in the shadows gathering secrets, and a the leading lady in various Orry-Kelly outfits heaving her craft with wonderful energy: will she have another Orange Blossom or a double martini--dry?
Vanity Street (1932)
There's Something About Mayo...
This zippy little pre-code from Columbia is stark and primitive in many ways, but offers many pre-code pleasures; gruff cop Charles Bickford lives a lonely, spartan life and when he comes across a starving young woman in trouble offers her a chocolate milkshake (with two eggs!) and a place to sleep--the young woman, played sympathetically by winsome Helen Chandler, ultimately manages to find her way into a current Follies show, and has the opportunity to move up the dating ladder--but still yearns for the good natured police Daddy who fails to see what she has to offer. Meanwhile, various salacious relationships are hinted at, one a gigolo blackmail of an older woman, and another involving blonde sexpot Mayo Methot (later half of the "battling Bogarts"), who plays a hard-boiled fallen star form the Follies ( who dominates every scene she' s in by sheer force of will--this dame spells trouble with a capital "T"! ) Not really too much mystery here, but a fast-paced pre-code available in crisp new transfer and an entertaining way to spend a nostalgic afternoon at the movies
They Had to See Paris (1929)
There's No Place Like Home
There were many popular films during the period when this film was made that stressed the warmth and honesty of the average American, that in spite of European culture being championed for its rich social and artistic culture, the ordinary, plain-speaking American was, if not superior, just as good, and small town life, grounded in the traditions of family and decency was just as admirable as anything one might find in the ancient cultures of Europe, of Paris in particular, the city of high life and fine culture.
And what plain-speaking American could better represent the best of the small town ethos would be better than man-of-the-people and celebrating philosophical comic, Will Rogers, appearing here in his first American talkie, and in contrast to all his family co-stars, so down-home and folksy, he exemplifies the wise, loveable man of the street worthy of everyone's emulation.
There are some incredibly rich early renderings of small-town Oklahoma life outside and inside Will's Garage business, capturing the essence of the high regard given him by his friends and family and local children, and there is a remarkable series of scenes as a parade of cars drive out to see a gusher erupt, as as folks line up at the bottom of the hill, hundreds of gallons rush down to the watchers and engulf their shows in black oil.
This film can be slow by today's fast-paced sense of sit-com humor, but there is much to enjoy as the transplanted family attempts to ingratiate themselves with the aristocratic French--except for Will, who always holds out for commonsense and cannot understand why his wife rents him a manservant to help him put on his trousers. The sound quality in the film gets a bit muddled now and then due to age, but there are subtitles, and even without them, the plot moves nicely along. It's lesser Borzage and lesser Rogers, but still fascinating to fans of early sound films.
The Longhorn (1951)
Low Budget Verisimilitude WIthout Comic Sidekick
This zesty little programmer fom Monogram starring the stolid, value-driven "Wild Bill" Elliott has a feeling of real detail, likely because of a low budget, and so incidents of setting up and taking down a Cattle Drive campsite have a feeling of actuality, the cook's utensils assembled quickly, the men wrapping themselves in horse blankets every night, all led by the indomitable, tight-lipped "Wild Bill." willing to give those less fortunate a leg up if they honestly try (he hires a batch of local outlaws, ignored by the rest of the community) but ruthless when it comes to willful disorder on the trail, i.e. drinking.
One of the strengths of this short, action-packed cattle drive from Oregon to Wyoming, is the lack of a stupid sidekick for the hero--the sort one has to endure with many B" Westerns--in Tim Holt adventures, for example, there is Ray Whiteley, a fixture who might have been funny at the time, but today seems a little silly and interminable. Instead of the comic, this trim little adventure features an Indian attack, a stampede, a little romance, and some skullduggery by one of the hired hands. A plus is a little lesson about the viability of the Longhorn as a value herd, a dilemma solved by breeding them with Hereford.
Sure as shootin', the huge herd is never seen with one of the filmed cowhands anywhere near, all the footage stolen from some larger epic, but who cares? For 70 minutes we get acquainted with stolid "Wild Bill," perhaps a wee bit old at 47 to be a romancing cowpoke as well as a man fast with his fists, but in the tradition of William S. Hart, he carries on a great tradition.
Come On, Leathernecks! (1938)
Don't Tell It To The Marines!
This is a sort of Boy's Own Adventure concerning a stubborn lad who has an opportunity after his years at Annapolis to choose between becoming a wealthy and cherished gridiron giant or following in his father's footsteps and becoming an officer in the marines. Richard Cromwell, still struggling with possibilities of stardom, having made a strong impression in 1930's Tol'able David, was handed secondary roles in Lives of A Bengal Lancer, This Day and Age, and Poppy, but never quite made a strong showing as a star, regardless of his handsome and graceful mien, and this foray into golly-gee heroics is strictly Saturday matinee stuff; although he has the lead role, the plot is completely predicatible, and although Cromwell is seconded by some significant character actors, including Leon Ames, Marsha Hunt and Edward "Timothy Mouse" Brophy, this is not the sort of film to burnish a resume.
Kansas Raiders (1950)
A friend of mine claims to love movies, but once, when watching a King Kong remake, as the giant gorilla crushed a ship with a giant, hairy paw, he exclaimed "A gorilla can't do that!" It seems to me that most of us do not go to films for an actual history lesson, much less for accuracy, but for a well-make story enacted with enthusiasm by a well-chosen cast, for a good soundtrack and often, brilliant color and startling scenery.
I was highly entertained by Kansas Raiders, accepting it was a Hollywood western, full of well-made action sequences, nicely drawn characters and some semblance of conflict. There are so many interpretations of Jesse and Frank James in films, and so many theories about what kind of men they really were that I have stopped worrying about which one interpretation might be correct; I'll go to scholarly works of history for that, should it be necessary.
This said, Kansas Raiders is an action-packed film with Audie Murphy, certainly watching in this early effort, and a magnetic performance by Brian Donlevy as Quantrill, dictator of a brutal army (I must admit I felt sorry for Donlevy the actor, as all through the film, indoors and out, riding a horse in the blazing sun on dusty trails, he wears what appears to be a heavy wool confederate uniform with gold braid and a high collar). It's fun to see Tony Curtis in his sixth Hollywood film, in a good part of his scenes, playing plaintive folk songs on a harmonica). And there's Richard Arlen, a star in his own right twenty years earlier. as a Union officer.
So there's all kinds of reasons to enjoy this Western, should you wish to. If your looking for real-life in a Western movie, you can likely skip about 70 percent of the Hollywood product from the 40's and 50's. Otherwise, there's a gold mine to be discovered!
The Law West of Tombstone (1938)
Not Your Usual "B" Western, For Sure...
In the usual world of the "B" Western, character and plot are usually fairly straightforward, and one knows after the first ten minutes not only how it will end, but who is going to end up with the girl--if anyone does. In this endearing oddity, your appreciation may depend on your tolerance for eccentricity, whethere it is enjoying that brilliant veteran of so many silent western Harry Carey appearing as the town's benevolent liar, a jolly man who can also lead a crowd, but who is a master of social manipulation. Tim Holt, ostensibly the star and hero, is a sort of moody but well-scrubbed hero, capable of two expressions--one petulant and pouty, and the other agreeable and smiley...there seems to be no room for any kind of thoughtful expression. He and the judge share a love-hate relationship, and into it are thrown all sorts of beloved character actors, whether Ward Bond, bare-chested and speaking with a Mexican-Italian accent, or Charles "Ming" Middleton, lurking at a poker table, sulking. The treatment of the native American tribe is totally insensitive and ludicrous, especially when Carey convinces them to leave the land next to a river for the seashore of sunny California. In short, if you want some reliable old-fashioned Cowboy Action, a la Roy Rogers or Hoppy, this ain't it. But if you want a fast-paced curiosity from the "B" movie that can be a lot of fun in so many ways, this can be a delight!
The Lost City (2005)
Could Have Been A Contender...
Politics aside, this long tale of the wealthy dealing with a revolution might have succeeded except for two things: one was the too-frequent appearance of Bill Murray in shorts, perhaps adding side commentary to the plotline, but whose dime-store Nihilism wears thing after about one minute, and who was probably added to the film to bring in any audience not necessarily interested in Cuba, and the second mistake was allowing Andy Garcia to direct the film, as the film frequently lost focus, wasn't sure of a strong narrative footing, and Garcia himself, usually a persuasive actor, seemed at sea with both romance and politics. On the positive side, the visuals are often dazzling, whether in a brassy night club awash in zesty feathered dancers, or a wide-ranging tobacco farm in the bight tropical sunshine. There's a plot about revolution, too, although we never hear much about why it might be necessary, and there's romance, though the film lapses into hypnotized prettiness whenever Garcia and his adored lock eyes. The attempt is o obvious, but objectivity flew out the door with all the choices to be made, and the film is about 25 minutes too long.
Le rossignol (2005)
Surreal Immersion In Dreamlike Imagery
I think this needs more than a single viewing; it helps to have some inkling of the plot, but most of what occurs can be enjoyed simply on the simplest plot level as a young sleepy lad dreams himself into the magic of a vase, and follows his imagination into a folkland of lyrical dreams, nightingales, emperors, and oddly, flying universal price stickers... One can go onto Wikipedia and follow the beginnings and development of the work in composer Stravinsky's mind, and there is also a curious "making of" document that accompanies the DVD, but for about an hour of colorful and imaginative, dreamlike and striking filmmaking, this is more than worth your time--but then--watch it again! The soprano Natalie Dessay is marvelously skilled, absorbing with her command of her considerable a abilities, and mesmerizing with a care to the work itself, and filmmaker Christian Chaudet is in command of a often funny, curious and genuinely imaginative world.
Now I'll Tell (1934)
Method Acting Before Brando: Tracy Has It!
Regardless of the antecedents of plot to actual persons living or dead, this film exudes power from the performances, especially those of Spencer Tracy and his wife in film, Helen Twelvetrees, the latter rather a forgotten star for a brief period in the early 1930's; the famous Tracy intensity glows off his performance as a incorrigible gambler, whose charge comes from the challenge, not the win, and who neglects his wife in so many ways--among them an almost public fling with Alice Faye; the latter home-town blonde of the late 1930's here as a blowsy, blonde-out-of-a-bottle good time girl who creates a permanent rift in Tracy's marriage.
For film fans, there is a delightful cast of vintage character actors, Hobart Cavanaugh being a particular standout, and little Miss Shirley Temple making a brief appearance kissing her Daddy The Honest Judge goodnight.
Twelvetrees is handed the heavy melodrama, but handles most of it well, particularly as the plot develops, exuding a sort of Lillian Gish quality of loving forgiveness.
Yes, it's pre-code melodrama, and most of the plot can be predicted, but I found the honesty of the performances and the interaction of the characters, mixed with a good deal of local color (street performers, brassy night club singers, boxers on the take) made the film fascinating, if not a classic. One hopes that the Fox archives will get ahold of it and make a decent print--and release it in a box of early Spencer Tracy at Fox films.
The San Francisco Story (1952)
Too Briefly, Florence Bates Gives It Oxygen
This is sort of a desultory effort on the part of the star, Joel McCrea, a man who usually takes command of a scene merely by his presence, but here looks tired and like he would rather be on his own ranch instead of this talky, studio-bound production. The thing probably looked good on paper--and if you've got the knowing sultriness of Yvonne DeCarlo, things are set up for some hot romance, at the very least. But the script is a little unfocused, and there's a lot of chatter about the legal Vigilante group, and Sidney Blackmer attempts to show some menace by mouthing menacing lines--but for an action-packed Western or a thoughtful revisionist history lesson, this effort falls flat, and would be a loss leader except for two brilliant, lively scenes with character actor Florence Bates, sporting an eye patch and plenty of life as her own Shanghai Lil (helped along by a massive, silent Tor Johnson) and this viewer perked up and wondered how the rest never recovered; even the final confrontation lacks either suspense or tension, and just allows almost everybody to go home quietly.
The Bottom of the Bottle (1956)
Van Johnson's Finest Moment In Film
Usually Van Johnson is cast as a nice guy next door, the kid from just around the block who just happens to be around when everybody wants to dance--and in many ways, he was the happy simpleton to June Allyson's perky plans, or played off Esther Williams by just being nice and attractive in a chubby way.
Here, Johnson earns his chops as an escaped convict with a severe drinking problem who runs to his brother for help only to meet the same brick wall the two of them built growing up.
The brother, played coldly by stolid Joseph Cotten, is a wealthy rancher, but has problems of his own, having married for reasons never quite made clear, but mired in a long-time childless relationship with svelte, intelligent Ruth Roman, here, as in so many films, holding an anchor on some out of control emotions.
Except for what I felt was an unnecessarily saccharin final five minutes, the plot zips with some intensity along the Mexican-American border, and the assured direction of veteran Henry Hathaway assures the viewer of a Cain-Abel story with modern ranch trimmings.
Johnson, who passed away in 2008, could always be relied upon to be an easy leading man in musicals, from Two Girls and A Sailor, In The Good Old Summertime (with Judy Garland), but also served well in wartime dramas Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Caine Mutiny; in this film, however, Johnson stretched his talents beyond the usual and turned in his most distinctive role.
Let's Go Native (1930)
"I Didn't Recognize You WIth Your Clothes On!"
It's an old line, for sure, but not the usual approach Kay Francis usually used in her romantic relationships. But this is not the usual Kay Francis film, as her role is secondary to Jeannette MacDonald and Jack Oakie in this delightfully silly romp from Paramount. It's a pre-code kind of film, with all kinds of humor in dubious taste, and thus quite appealing to viewers who enjoy a trip into an unrestrained Hollywood product.
There must have been something in the Paramount water in the early 30's, as once in a while they released something completely off-the-wall, full of very broad humor, eccentric stunts, wild dance moves, and plot absurdities--two prime examples were directed by Leo McCarey--this one, and three years later, the comic jewel Duck Soup, with all four Marx Brothers. In between, W.C. Fields starred in Million Dollar Legs, another screwy film taking place in Klopstockia, the nation where all the men are named George and the women are named Angela, and where the office of President is decided by arm wrestling.
In this film, absurdities abound, and if you like your humor more linear or sophisticated, the nonsense may not be appealing...native girls in hula skirts on a remote island speak with a "poifect Brooklyn accent," gravel-voiced Eugene Palette, a house mover, cautions his workers to handle with care, and then, naturally and continually inadvertently smashes vases to smithereens. Oakie breaks out in several tap routines with great charm and elan, and Jeanette seems to be having fun just along for the ride. It makes almost no sense at all, unlike say, Abbott and Costello or The Three Stooges, who at least follow a logical plot line, bordering if not crossing into the territory of surreal.
Unfortunately, sources where this film is available in a decent quality print do not exist, and the DVDs currently available are terribly washed out with fuzzy sound; one seems to be only to see it at Museum and College Retrospectives. It's time for whoever currently controls the early Paramount product to dig these things out--especially the early Kay Francis films not available.
I Married an Angel (1942)
Jeanette Does The Hula
For MacDonald/Eddy fans who expected a traditional operetta with the usual give and take romance that typifies the genre, this nutty weirdness from MGM has got to give them the heebie-jeebies. For others open to something different, filled with studio style, glorious costumes, nonsense worthy of a Marx brothers film, this film can be good fun. There are some scenes not far removed from a classy burlesque show, with Binnie Barnes engaging Jeannette in some sort of jitterbug--and who is the sweetie who jumps into the crowd scene and starts leading nobody in particular?
First and foremost, Jeanette's singing remains glorious, and unlike most of her films, she doesn't need to maintain soprano dignity at all times, but is given the opportunity to say a good many things she doubtless wanted to say in some of the other films--this was 1942, after all, and there was a good deal of censorship. But this was also based on a late Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical, and spicy situations were inherent in the script, though tamped down.
This is lavish in a way only MGM could manage, but has a whiff of Paramount in it's sophisticated treatment of romance and setting. And also because it is from MGM who advertised "more stars than there are in Heaven," it's provides an opportunity to see dozens of character actors, however briefly, especially in a banquet scene that turns into a very weird version of musical chairs.
It's too bad that some of the end scenes with MacDonald appearing in Carmen and in Faust (what's she doing with that moth-eaten terrier?) weren't of ample length, so her voice could be showcased even more than it was in the glorious over-blown scene where "Angel" Jeanette is surrounded with harps.
If a viewer wants straight operetta romance with the usual formula--New Moon, Naughty Marietta, or Maytime (one of their very best!) this off-the- wall effort is not it. But if a viewer seeks something that director Major W.S. Van Dyke let fly for fun, you may find this as amusing as I did.
Comet Over Broadway (1938)
Quintessential Matinée Melodrama For Our Kay
Many reviewers treat this film as a major studio production, an All About Eve of its time, and scathingly criticize it's inadequacies, of which there are admittedly many. But there are multiple pleasures to be had in a very short running time, though many of them are guilty ones.
This soapy yarn centers around a hometown newsstand girl who becomes an international actress almost overnight in order to make sure her dull hubby John Litel doesn't stay into the clink where he was tossed when he offed a bad actor by decking him for insulting Our Kay. The film was made during a later period of Kay's career, when Warners was attempting to convince their fading star to break her contract so they wouldn't need to pay her exorbitant contract fee; Gutsy Kay didn't care much at this point, but gamely let herself be cast in B movies like this one, second string films, weepers made specifically for women's matinees—a time long before television. She still made the money.
The Orry-Kelly costumes that Kay styles are ravishing; as she rises from burlesque sweetie to continental darling, the dresses rise to the occasion, often deliciously outrageous. And there are some worthwhile performances from familiar Hollywood character actors, the best likely from Minna Gombel as a "wise old broad" who knows her way around and babysits Kay's souvenir from her small town marriage—and you may want to strangle Sybil Jason, a child star who mugs and grimaces until you want to scream for her to get off the screen! (During an early backstage visit as Kay meets the famous out-of-town thespian, one also gets a glimpse of Susan Hayward, who has a single line in an itty-bitty part).
And since we never, ever, get to see what talents catapulted Kay to world fame on stage-she's always ready to go on or meeting with someone after the show; we don't get to see The Comet In Action! But this is melodrama at its most extreme, and by the end of the film you may never forgive yourself for sticking with it—unless you find the absurd conclusion as much fun as I did. Comet Over Broadway is not a great film, and maybe not even a very good one—but it's never dull and is cunningly crafted so that you can hardly wait to see not only what Kay will wear next, but if her heart will take her where it should.