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Come on, Cowboys (1937)
Mesquiteeers and Monkeyshines
"Come on, Cowboys" comes close to being the most enjoyable of the Mesquiteer series starring the Bob Livingstone / Ray Corrigan / Max Terhune version of the trio. It combines almost all the elements that fans of the series loved, but like many of these B-plus B movies, it is filled with gaffes that its loyal followers happily ignore.
Although Ray 'Crash' Corrigan was most closely identified with his Tucson Smith characterization in the "Three Mesquiteers" series, he made a even greater impression, albeit semi-anonymously, as various gorillas and large apes in a score of films including the title roles in "Zamba," "White Pongo," and the Orangopoid in the original "Flash Gordon" serial. Corrigan was very skilled in imitating simian mannerisms a la Rick Baker and made a very effective ape, often frightening the more juvenile members of the audience. but for career reasons played most of these roles without billing. "Come On, Cowboys" marks the only time he played both his ape character and Tucson in the same film. As the audience is fully aware that 'Crash' is in the suit, the scene is played for laughs as he tries to frighten one of the henchmen into betraying his boss and is one of the film's highlights as well as a great in-joke for film buffs.
Corrigan, who plays a body builder in "Come On, Cowboys," started his career as a fitness trainer to the stars of Hollywood, where he made contacts who got him small parts in movies beginning with a role as a gorilla in "Tarzan and His Mate." Why did Corrigan get so many ape parts? The simple answer is that he owned the suit. His main competition for simian roles came from Charles Gemora and Emil Van Horn, both of whom also owned their own gorilla suit too, suits in Gemora's case,but neither was quite as fearsome as Corrigan's. Van Horn lost his when his landlady confiscated all his belongings for non-payment of rent.
In 1947 Corrigan sold his suit to Steve Calvert, who continued to play gorillas until 1960 in Poverty Row productions like "The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters," "Panther Girl of the Kongo," and "Bride of the Gorilla." Corrigan made a brief comeback in "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklym Gorilla," in which both actors donned the costume.
The many gaffes in "Come On, Cowboy" are typical of Republic's general one-take policy, but one wonders why director Joe Kane didn't do a quick retake of these short scenes. Tuscon mistakenly refers to Alibi as "Stony" in a brief shot and Stony refers to the Treasury Men as G-Men, not T-Men. A two minute reshoot could have corrected either of these dialogue flubs which were the fault of the actors, but Kane either never noticed or didn't care.
Chinese-American actor Willie Fung's 1930s screen persona was somewhat akin to an offensive comedic Asian version of Stepin Fetchit. In a comic scene, the actor plays a 1930s country and western song, "Don't Ever Get Married, My Son" on his 78 rpm Victrola. He is not happy with it, but the next side he plays is Chopin's depressing funeral march dirge, and he smashes the record. Surely director Joe Kane should have realized that the logic of these two polar opposite, completely different musical pieces being flip sides of the sane record was totally incongruous, and Kane should have instructed Fung to choose a different 78, but shooting the scene quickly obviously was the director's greatest priority.
The sloppiness was not just Kane's or the actor's. An even more obvious continuity error occurred in the cutting room. The scene in which Max Terhune is tied up on a dangerously careening buckboard alternates between locations that have a precipitous cliff on his left and others that have obviously flat terrain.
The film opens with the Mesquiteers performing at a circus owned by the trio's stand-up friend and his corrupt partner. Alibi does his ventriloquist act and card tricks, Tucson does a weightlifting strongman act, and Stony shows off his marksmanship. One wonders who's running their ranch while they're on tour. When their friend is jailed, the Mesquiteers again become Polyannas and agree to make their friend's year-old daughter their ward, even agreeing in court that one of them will get married to the child's pretty guardian as per the judge's order. Although neither Tuscon or Stony, a notorious skirt-chaser in earlier episodes, wants to get spliced, it doesn't seem to dawn on anyone involved to grant custody to the current guardian.
Although logic never seems to deter the Mesquiteer plots, they are filled with the type of action that kept the fans of 1930s Republic Westerns and serials coming through the turnstiles. This is the seventh appearance of the legendary Yakina Canutt in this seventh Mesquiteer entry as both stuntman and henchie. In "Come On, Cowboys" Canutt doubles for Corrigan and does his signature jump from a galloping stallion to a horse team on a runaway buckboard. Canutt would later expand on that 'gag' in the classic "Stagecoach" in 1939. The film also includes a rather uncharacteristically brutal scene in which the actor shoots two of his fellow gang members in the chest through the jailhouse window at close range to prevent their talking to the sheriff, a level of violence not common to the series.
The film ends with a reprise of the earlier wedding ceremony. How the trio get out of it is unexplained and becomes a real cliffhanger guaranteed to to bring the audience in when Mesquiteer feature #8 premiered in two months.
A brief caveat... most of the versions of "Come On, Cowboys" currently available on DVD are the 52 minute version edited for TV in the early 50s from its original 56 minute running time.
Conspiracy Theory Canadian-style
Murdoch and Crabtree, now demoted back to constable with Murdoch's return, investigate the murder of a Toronto alderman, who seems to have taken a bullet in the temple from an enigmatic sniper intent on assassinating the mayor. Both politicians are Irish Protestants riding in an open carriage during the city's annual Orange Parade, a spectacle designed to celebrate the Battle of the Boyne, fought in 1690 which established Protestant supremacy over the Catholics in Ireland.
According to the storyline, Toronto Protestants traditionally like to rub salt in the wounds of resentful Catholics by routing the parade to go through Catholic neighborhoods, a deliberate provocation. Apparently an irate Catholic tries to assassinate the mayor with a rifle shot when the procession passes a nearby building, but the errant shot misses the mayor, passes through his hat, and apparently by chance strikes the alderman in the temple, killing him instantly.
If the open carriage assassination scenario congers up memories of the assassination of America's only Irish Catholic President, John F. Kennedy, it is no accident. The entire episode is meant to echo the November 22, 1963 tragedy and maintains a subtext designed to satirize the various conspiracy theories attached to that event.
The episode title, "Back and to the Left" is meant to reference the movement of the President Kennedy's body after the fatal shot hit him, movement Warren Commission critics claim is consistent with a shot from the right front (i.e. "the grassy knoll"). Even though this murder occurs in 1899, Murdoch finds some movie film of the event, which he is able to supplement with a still photograph in a stereoscope to ascertain that the victim is forced "back and to the right" as the Zapruder Film apparently showed JFK's body to move.
The aldeman of the episode is named Alek Hidell, not coincidently an alias used by Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Nov. 22. When Dr. Ogden and her protégé Dr. Grace are able to prove that the bullet holes in the mayor's hat and the alderman's skull don't align and couldn't have followed such a torturous path, they refer to the slug as "the magic bullet," a clear reference to the stretcher bullet found at Parkland Hospital which allegedly created multiple wounds on Governor Connelly after passing through JFK's throat.
Initially the police believe the assassin to be an Irish Catholic firebrand who denies any accusation and refers to himself, as Oswald did, as a "patsy," who was tricked into transporting a rifle in a rug the same way Oswald transported his weapon into the Texas Schoolbook Depository in a long paper bag. Also like Oswald. he is assassinated himself before he can prove his innocence. Hidell's real killer is a second gunman who used boxes to hide in his "sniper's nest," which echoes the term used to describe the area of the depository utilized by Oswald.
Allusions to modern cultural references as self-parody and dramatic irony has always been part of "Murdoch Mysteries" great appeal. I understand that the JFK Assassination subtext was likely utilized to give some added interest to what would otherwise be at best a mediocre entry in this usually excellent series, but it also signifies that after 52 years, the America has sufficiently healed enough that it can tastefully satirize what was one of the most traumatic tragedies in our nation's history.
Anthony Quinn: An Original (1990)
From Anthony to Zorba
Tony Quinn was a magnetic, charismatic performer born in Mexico of an Irish grandfather. In this documentary he is well- remembered as Zampano the bestial strongman of Fellini's "La Strada" and as Zorba, Kazantakis's philosophical humanist in Michael Cacoyannis' "Zorba the Greek." Quinn's characters are the most Rabelaisian in film history: outrageous, raunchy, crude in every way, deliberately stubborn when he believed in the truth, relentless against hypocrisy, and against all forms of popular opinion; but, at the same time he was capable of profound insight into the human condition.
He won well-deserved Oscars for "Viva Zapata" in 1952 and "Lust for Life" in 1956 stealing every scene from the films' nominal stars, Marlon Brando and Kirk Douglas, a difficult task. Winning the lead actor award eluded him. I'm surprised he only won the two Oscars as he was deserving in the leads in "Zorba the Greek" and "La Strada." Quinn's private life was tempestuous: a long list of lovers, including Katharine DeMille, daughter of Cecil, whom he met on the set of his first film "The Plainsman" in 1936. The couple suffered tragic loss when their son drowned in the swimming pool of neighbor W. C. Fiels, a pool that Quinn had urged the comedian to fence in.
Quinn's last film was released posthumously in 2002. Besides his film legacy, he left the world ten children by three wives and scores of great screen moments to cherish. This biographical documentary reminds his fans of the loss of a great actor and screen personality.
King Rat (1965)
The Dark Side of Sergeant Bilko
This WWII prison camp drama set in the steaming Burmese jungle is a metaphor for the horrors of World War II and features what is easily George Segal's best dramatic performance, an even better one by James Fox, and lean, taut direction from Bryan Forbes. It also offers many insights on the British class system and takes a very grimly pessimistic view of the human condition. There is some humor but it is darkly sardonic and somewhat sadistic in nature. Segal's con artist extrodinaire Sergeant King is the dark side of Segeant Bilko and he employs bitter cynicism as opposed to the wisecracking humor of Phil Silvers. It is based on a novel by James Clavell, and is a better film, if not more entertaining, than the author's "The Great Escape," which was released a couple of years prior to "Rat." With the exception of Segal, the British cast members greatly outshine their American counterparts. Tom Courtenay, the always wonderful Denholm Elliott, John Mills, Gerald Sim, Leonard Rossiter, and Alan Webb all contribute memorable characterizations, but by far the best is James Donald as the compassionate, humane camp doctor, practically reprising his role of eight years earlier in "Bridge on the Rver Kwai' also set in a Burmese prison camp.
Gabriel Over the White House (1933)
A fascinating artifact from 1933
The American political film genre has a long and highly respected tradition. Classics like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Advise and Consent," and "The Best Man," generally reflect a liberal political outlook. When a movie politician veers from his initially progressive agenda, such as in "All the King's Men" and "A Lion Is in the Streets," it is usually a sign that he has lost his moral compass and sown the seeds of his own self- destruction.
In "Gabriel over the White House," Walter Huston's newly-elected President Hammond is initially a cynical career politician reminiscent of Warren Harding, a political hack steeped in the corrupt culture of backroom deals, nepotism, crony patronage, and influence-peddling. However, after a surviving a near-death experience he is transformed by an undefined supernatural force into an idealistic crusader for a much different agenda that he zealously pursues: a divine mission that includes an imperial Presidency that suspends Constitutional checks and balances, ignores civil liberties, and invokes martial law.
The use of the name Gabriel in the title posits that this change in American government is sanctioned and approved by some kind of divine authority. In addition, Director Gregory LaCava also associates Lincoln's image with Huston's transformation, which gives his subsequent metamorphosis a gravitas and moral authority it might not otherwise have. The casting of respected character actor Walter Huston may not have been an arbitrary choice. Just three years earlier, the actor had played the title role in D. W. Griffith's last major film, "Abraham Lincoln," a part that was very closely associated with his 1933 screen image. (This is well before Huston played more iconic roles such as "Dodsworth" and "Treasure of the Sierra Madre.")
Because of the tradition of American political films, viewers' preconceptions have often prompted the misreading of "Gabriel" as a Liberal diatribe. The film certainly does postulate that a totalitarian state of some stripe is the answer to America's problems. However, while there are certain aspects that may appear Leftist, there are more that are reminiscent of the Fascist policies of European National Socialism.
Huston authorizes Franchot Tone's character to create a private federal police force which operates totally at the whim of the now dictatorial President. This force receives no governmental oversight and enforces the President's will without due process. It is reminiscent of the then-powerful Ernst Rohm's SA in Germany. Rohm and the SA would not be eliminated until the infamous "Night of the Long Knives" in 1934. Although it's difficult to judge color in a black and white film, the uniforms of Tone's "storm troopers" appear to be brown. Their military tribunal summarily dispatches the undesirable criminal foreign immigrants without aid of counsel in the manner of a totalitarian state.
President Hammond's demonizing of foreign elements as the cause of the country's social ills suggests the tactics used by European fascism in the early 30s. What is the nationality of C. Henry Gordon, who plays foreign immigrant hoodlum Nick Diamond? Early on it is shown that Diamond's real name is something ending with a "ski." Although he is careful not to use a clearly identifiable Italian or Eastern European accent, Gordon, a native New Yorker, specialized in swarthy villains throughout his career, most memorably as the Muslim fanatic Surat Khan, who massacred prisoners including women and children under a white flag in the Errol Flynn epic, "The Charge of the Light Brigade."
Especially impressive is the bravura, almost 360 degree camera dolly during the firing squad sequence in which Gordon and his immigrant criminal associates are summarily executed. The shot ironically shows the Statue of Liberty in the background, clearly implying with in-your- face pointed irony that these executions are taking place on Ellis Island.
The saber-rattling show of military force toward the end of the film in order to collect outstanding WWI debt is somewhat reminiscent of Billy Mitchell's famous demonstrations of air power from a decade earlier. (In fact, it has been reported that archival footage from the Mitchell demonstrations is used in this sequence.) Among the countries Hammond signs agreements with are France, and ironically Italy and Japan. Huston's bellicose, thinly-disguised threats of military action are not unlike Germany's bullying of Europe during the Thirties.
One of the last statements the dying Huston character says is that the power structure he has left in place will last a "millenium." Does the use of a thousand years as a political time frame sound like a familiar paraphrase (i.e. Hitler's Thousand Year Reich)?
The original book was written anonymously by someone named Tweed. (How's that for a nom-de-plume?), but the real power and economic force behind "Gabriel over the White House" as a novel and movie was William Randolph Hearst. Although Hearst was a progressive reformer when he first began delving into politics, by the early 30s he had moved to the right and was a great admirer of Mussolini. (In the opening newsreel montage of "Citizen Kane," Kane, a thinly-disguised roman-a-clef version of Hearst, can be seen schmoozing with Facists.)
Despite this, Hearst was an avid Roosevelt supporter in 1932 although at that time he couldn't have known the full extent of FDR's New Deal agenda. Hearst had established his own production company, Cosmopolitan Pictures, at MGM in order to insure the production of star vehicles for his mistress, Marion Davies. This clout undoubtedly aided him in securing Metro's support of the picture. Hearst reportedly submitted the script to Roosevelt who apparently approved of it but asked for some changes. No one has said definitively what Roosevelt contributed, but it was agreed that for a variety of reasons, distribution would be postponed until 1933, well after the election.
Today "Gabriel over the White House" is looked upon today as an aberrant curiosity and relic from Hollywood's pre-Code era. In 1932 America was in a dark place, and I think "Gabriel" clearly reflects that angst-ridden period on our history.
The Nine Tailors: Episode #1.2 (1974)
A Confusing Chronology Explained
This is a most fascinating episode from Dorothy Sayers' "Lord Peter Wimsey" series and the second one produced for television with the wonderful Ian Carmichael, but understanding it requires piecing together its sometimes difficult and ambiguous chronology. In fact, an IMDb contributor correctly points out that terming the flu outbreak in this episode Spanish Flu is an anachronism as he sets the time frame as the late 1920s.
The 1918-1919 outbreak was one of the most horrific plagues ever, killing 40 to 80 million people worldwide. Although the 1918 pandemic is correctly termed Spanish Flu in Episode 1, by the end of 1919 it had mutated into a different, less virulent outbreak of influenza. The events of this episode and the two subsequent ones clearly occur in 1934, so having the characters use the term "Spanish Flu" adds to the already vague and hazy chronology.
This is logical as Dorothy Sayers' novel was published in 1934. Although no mention of that year is made in this chapter. it can clearly be extrapolated from the date given by the vicar, who says that the decomposed corpse dressed in prison garb and presumed to be Deacon was found in 1920, the year he and his wife moved in and two years after the real Deacon had killed a warder and escaped. Therefore, the disloyal butler had made good his jailbreak in 1918 after serving four years of his prison term.
That would date his conviction and jail term, as well as the robbery of the emerald necklace, back to 1914, four years earlier. That dovetails with the mention of Kaiser Wilhelm's "sabre rattling" at the wedding reception in Episode 1, and clearly refers to the German monarch's actions prior to the outbreak of hostilities on July 28, 1914.
During this episode, which takes place on New Year's Eve and Day and the subsequent Easter, it is mentioned several times that the robbery occurred twenty years earlier. If 20 is added to 1914, it adds up to 1934, the new year Sir Peter agrees to help bring in by tolling one of the churchbells as well as the year Sayers' mystery was first published.
El cochecito (1960)
On Golden Wheelchair
Despite a long and prolific career, Marco Ferreri is not as well known outside his native Italy as contemporaries like Fellini and Antonioni. His anarchic, iconoclastic vision of the world and bizarre, often surreal humor may be the reason. Although on the surface this early film initially seems grounded in the Neo-Realist tradition of DeSica's "Umberto D," it carries a bittersweet subversive theme that would become increasingly apparent in Ferreri's later work.
Jose Isbert plays septuagenarian Don Anselmo Proharan, a retired government minister who has reluctantly ceded his home to son Carlos, an officious, condescending solicitor, his bourgeoisie wife, and Yolanda, their homely daughter. Carlos' law offices, which he shares with his daughter's ambitious fiancé, are also located on the premises, so Don Anselmo is limited to a single stifling and confining room in his own home. As he also has to share space with Yolanda, the old man has no sense of peace and quiet or privacy. In addition, Carlos has control of his father's pension, which he parsimoniously doles out as a parent would to a child, further restricting the old man's freedom. Ferreri emphasizes the situation with very effective traveling shots that follow the old man around the house's constrictive, almost claustrophobic, corridors.
Don Anselmo's only escape seems to be attending funerals, and when his paraplegic friend Don Lucas gets a motorized wheelchair, known as a "cochetito," Proharan accompanies him to his wife's grave to leave flowers. Don Anselmo soon becomes obsessed with getting his own "little coach" and joining the subculture of other "cochetito" owners that Don Lucas belongs to which congregates and interacts daily. These physically challenged people have achieved an exhilarating sense of independence and freedom, and the old man views joining them as an escape from his restricted life with his tyrannical family. However, to join them, he needs his own "little coach."
Like Toad in Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows," Don Anselmo becomes obsessed with owning one and regaining his lost dignity. When his tight-fisted son dismisses his requests for his own chair, the old man tries several gambits in which he feigns physical infirmity to get one. Frustrated, Don Anselmo sells his dead wife's jewelry in order to buy a cochetito outright, but the son, who has already earmarked the jewelry for his daughter, humiliates the old man by forcing him to return the "cochetito" and reclaimimg his mother's jewels.
After further humiliating him, the son threatens to institutionalize the old man, to the delight of granddaughter Yolande, who is only too eager to co-opt the bedroom for herself. His self-esteem shattered, a desperate Don Anselmo poisons his family's food and runs away from home like a disaffected teenager. The film ends ambiguously with many issues left unresolved.
Ferreri directed his early films in Spain, and Don Anselmo's repression by his bourgeoisie family could be interpreted as a quietly subversive allegorical criticism of Spanish dictator's Francisco Franco's repressive fascist state. The whimsical early scene when Don Anselmo sees a surreal line of men marching in military fashion armed with mop handles for guns and wearing toilet bowls for helmets is in stark contrast to the film's more sober conclusion when the fugitive old man is arrested by the iconic uniformed actual Guardia Civil.
In any case, Ferreri left Spain for his native Italy after the release of "El Cochecito" and although this minor masterpiece is relatively obscure, he soon received some international critical acclaim for trenchantly scathing social satires like "The Ape Woman," "The Conjugal Bed," "La Grand Bouffe," and Felliniesque burlesques like "Don't Touch the White Woman," a wild send-up of Custer's Last Stand set in Paris.
Ferreri would return to the theme of aging with dignity in the poignantly sobering realism of "The House of Smiles" nearly three decades later. The director has been quoted as saying that his job is to give the audience a "punch in the stomach." "El Cochecito" is a punch, albeit a gentle one.
Trade Winds (1938)
A Garnett, but Not a Diamond
"Trade Winds" has some enjoyable moments. This Tay Garnett-directed independent feature has the beautiful and talented Joan Bennett as a murderess on the run in the Orient pursued by a skirt-chasing former policeman played by a very miscast Fredric March. The film veers from whodunit, to travelogue, to screwball comedy, to romance, to courtroom drama without much consistency. Because the major emphasis is on comedy and romance, the film needs the versatility of a Fred MacMurray in the lead. Although a fine actor, March is out of his element in a role that requires a lighter touch.
The usually reliable Ralph Bellamy, who excelled as the proverbial light comic "other man" in classics like "His Girl Friday," "The Awful Truth," and "Brother Orchid," ends up as an oafish buffoon of a policeman of the type often played by Edgar or Tom Kennedy. His performance clashes with March's and at times he seems out of an alternative universe. Although Ann Sothern has a very enjoyable drunk scene, she's underutilized, and the usually reliable Thomas Mitchell is given little to do but growl as a police commissioner... wasted in a role than would have usually gone to a William Frawley.
The film's inconsistencies are likely the fault of writer/director Tay Garnett, who had a lengthy but inconsistent career resume' with at least one masterpiece ("The Postman Always Rings Twice") to his credit. He did helm some films with similar elements to "Trade Winds": "One Way Passage" with Powell and Francis, "Seven Sinners" with Dietrich and Wayne, and "China Seas" with Gable and Harlow, but unfortunately Garnett never developed a consistent style, and by the 1950s he was directing TV Western series episodes like "Death Valley Days" and "Bonanza". With a steadier hand like a Howard Hawks at the helm, and more appropriate cast choices "Trade Winds" may have been a minor classic, but now it's just a curiosity. By the way, two interesting sidebars: Dorothy Parker (of Algonquin Round Table fame) was a collaborator on the script and the enigmatic Dorothy Comingore appears briefly here (under the name Linda Winters) several years before her triumph in "Citizen Kane."
Penguin Pool Murder (1932)
A great recreation of a piece of New York history
As there are many reviews correctly praising the work of Edna Mae Oliver, James Gleason, and RKO studios set decorating department, suffice it to say that this is an outstanding opening entry into the Hildegarde Withers mystery series.
Most of the action of "The Penguin Pool Murders" takes place in a recreation of the beautiful New York Aquarium, which charmed and delighted resident and tourist alike for almost half a century beginning in 1896. The Aquarium was originally located on the southern tip of Manhattan as a leisure attraction for the new immigrant residents of Lower Manhattan for whom Central Park was too far to travel. It opened in the Castle Gardens section of the Park in what was Clinton Gardens, previously Fort Clinton, named after iconic New York State Governor DeWitt Clinton. Originally an island, the land connecting it to Manhattan was later filled in, and Battery Park served as the first stopping point for New Americans before Ellis Island was developed.
Although the Aquarium wasn't large by current standards (only 150 species), and its pools weren't large enough to ensure the well-being and survival of large aquatic mammals like manatees, porpoises, and dolphins, smaller ones like seals fared better.
There was great controversy when New York's "master builder," Robert Moses, who had little respect for preservation and tradition, proposed a bridge from the Battery to Brooklyn. When Moses was frustrated in his efforts for the Bridge, he began preparations for what would become the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in the 1930s. He began the demolition of the beautiful Clinton Gardens, and only its eleventh hour designation as a National, Landmark caused it to be rescued from oblivion and rebuilt as a treasured landmark..
The collection of animals had been relocated, some to the Bronx Zoo and others to other zoos in the Northeast when the Aquarium closed its doors for the last time in 1941. After the War a new aquarium was constructed and reopened in 1957 in Coney Island. The new facility had over 8000 specimens and 350 species. Although it afforded its permanent residents more space and helped to revitalize the Coney Island area, many felt that it was not an aesthetically pleasing place as the old Battery Park facility, and critics claimed that its unattractiveness was the egotistical Moses' ultimate revenge on the city that denied him his bridge.
Those who have seen Ric Burns' wonderful documentary miniseries "New York" realize that Moses' power made him the most influential individual official in.Big Apple history... and nobody elected him.
In recreating what is one of the few visual records of this beautiful piece of New York history in essentially what was only a B-film series, the RKO set set designers deserve tremendous credit. The mystery itself is first rate with Edna Mae Oliver and James Gleason exuding great humor and personal chemistry as two enjoyably mismatched detectives in this very intriguing whodunit.
A Unique Career Arc
Burt Lancaster started his storied career as an anti-hero in 40s Film Noir drama and an athletic action hero playing roles that would have gone to Errol Flynn a decade earlier. However, he was savvy enough to realize he couldn't be an action hero forever and wanted to grow as an actor.
He began to alternate his physically demanding, swashbuckling roles like "His Majesty O'Keefe,", "The Flame and the Arrow," "Ten Tall Men," and "The Crimson Pirate," which relied on his training as a circus acrobat, with serious dramas opposite more veteran co-stars like Joan Fontaine in "Kiss the Blood Off My Hands,", Shirley Booth in "Come Back, Little Sheba," Anna Magnani in "The Rose Tattoo," and Katharine Hepburn in "The Rainmaker." All the leading ladies were Oscar winners.
Lancaster usually came off second best to these more experienced performers, but he was learning the craft of screen acting from these seasoned players and expanding his dramatic range while maintaining his original fan base. Ultimately Lancaster evolved into a superb screen actor with an Oscar for "Elmer Gantry" and nominations for his two finest performances in "Birdman of Alcatraz" and "Atlantic City." He continued to keep his legion of fans happy with his more boisterous roles like "The Professionals" and "The Scalphunters." I can't think of another actor with that kind of career arc.
The Tall Texan (1953)
A Darkly Noirish Western
Robert Lippert, the force behind Lippert Films and later Regal Films, was a very resourceful Poverty Row filmmaker from the late 40s through the 50s who managed to make extremely interesting films with even more interesting casts on a low, sometimes shoestring, budget. He covered all the B film genres: Film Noir ("A Stolen Face"), Westerns ("Little Big Horn"), science fiction ("Rocket Ship X-M"), horror ("Lost Continent"), and war ("The Steel Helmet"). The studio occasionally even turned out more expensive period dramas (like "The Baron of Arizona") with class and some style.
In retrospect it seems inevitable that in the late 40s and early 50s elements of the newly emerging Film Noir genre would seep into the already well-established Western format. Memorable Noirish Westerns of the period include "Pursued," "Blood on the Moon," "The Furies," "Colorado Territory," "Ramrod," and two classics of the new hybrid genre: "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "Lust for Gold."
"The Tall Texan" is a minor masterpiece, interweaving themes from more traditional Westerns like "Stagecoach" with Noirish elements like lust, deceit, greed, betrayal, fate, paranoia, and irony with a disparate group of mismatched, morally ambiguous travelers thrown together by fate.
A great cast of Film Noir types (femme fatale Marie Windsor, laconic antihero Lloyd Bridges, fish-out-of-water sea captain with a shady past Lee J. Cobb, morally corrupt lawman Stanley Herrick, and ruthlessly unprincipled bottom-feeder Luther Adler) look as though they would be equally comfortable in a Twentieth Century urban setting with dingy buildings, rain-soaked streets and shadowy alleyways. However, they are also perfectly suited here, claustrophobically trapped in a metaphoric maze of giant boulders, unfriendly Indians, and their own greedy lust for gold.
Under the taut direction of Elmo Williams, the editing genius who transformed "High Noon" from a routine Western into a taut, edge-of- your-seat masterpiece, "The Tall Texan" is a highly recommended sleeper that both fans of Westerns and Film Noir will enjoy.
Androcles and the Lion (1952)
An Apochryphal Androcles?
In a lengthy letter to the editor in the October 1960 issue of "Films in Review," a very young Robert Osborne supplies some erudition on the casting of "Androcles and the Lion." According to the film historian, shooting began with Harpo Marx in the title role and continued under the direction of Chester Erskine for five weeks. Osborne states that the film's producer and Shaw impresario Gabriel Pascal thought him "the perfect Androcles," and maintains that the rushes were thought to be "brilliant." However, RKO studio boss Howard Hughes had recently seen Alan Young on a TV show, and impetuously insisted that the part be recast. That meant all the footage involving Harpo had to be reshot.
Unfortunately because of the delay two other principle cast members were lost to other commitments: Rex Harrison as Caeser and Dana Andrews as the Roman captain. Footage with them was scrapped and is presumed lost. They were replaced with Maurice Evans and Victor Mature. The two other stars, Robert Newton and Jean Simmons, making her American film debut, were able to stay.
Although IMDb trivia claims that Harpo was only considered for the role, Mr. Osborne's reputation, gravitas, and record of film scholarship gives this anecdote credibility. It certainly is typical of the idiosyncratic and fickle Hughes that he would have these kind of caprices. Just one year earlier after John Farrow had completed "His Kind of Woman," the unpredictable billionaire brought in Richard Fleischer to shoot some additional scenes. Incredibly Fleischer ended up reshooting virtually the entire film when Hughes suddenly decided he now wanted Raymond Burr as the villain and had a large expensive set built in the studio tank for a superfluous sight gag involving Vincent Price that lasted only a few seconds on screen.
Although it's unlikely that any of this footage will surface, if indeed it exists, but one can always hope.
P.S. Victor Mature had a refreshingly off-beat sense of humor, and unlike other egotistical stars of the period, never took himself too seriously. According to co-star Jim Backus, he and Mature decided to go to a local café for lunch rather than suffer through a meal at the RKO cafeteria. The waitress was surprised to see the two men in ancient Roman military uniforms and was shocked and amused to hear the actors ask for the usual "servicemen's discount."
The Ox-Bow Incident (1942)
A Labor of Love for Wild Bill
Although writers have called the film version of Walter Van Tilburg Clark's grim condemnation of vigilante justice,"The Ox-Bpw Incident," a "faithful adaptation," it diverges significantly from its original source in three important instances.
In the novel the two fair-minded, affable saddle tramps played by Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan ultimately vote with the mob to summarily hang the trio of unfairly accused rustlers without a trial. Isn't that the most salient point about mob mentality made by Clark? Even though the two are otherwise honorable and reasonable, they end up going along to get along for reasons that even they are not clear about. Fox studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck obviously would not allow a valued contract player such as Fonda to besmirch his screen image by making such a choice, so Lamar Trotti's screenplay has Fonda's character and his partner vote against the mob and even physically resist them to no avail.
A second major shift is the reading of Dana Andrews' farewell letter to his wife at the end of the film. In the original novel, the specifics of alleged rustler Donald Martin's letter to his wife are never revealed. Clark leaves it to the imagination of the reader. Although I've seen the movie dozens of times and once owned a 16mmm print, which I showed annually to my students, I've always found the actual reading of the letter preachy and anticlimactic although I agree Wellman deserves great style points for the exquisite framing of Fonda and Morgan in the shot.
Finally, the narrative in the novel is told by the Art Croft character (played by Harry Morgan) and the action is filtered through his perceptions. Not only is Croft's point of view abandoned for this film adaptation, a lot of his lines are delivered by his partner Gil Carter This is understandable as Henry Fonda was a star while Morgan was not, so this change in perspective is not surprising.
Perhaps couching weighty philosophical concepts like justice in specific terms narrow and limit it for the audience, even trivialize it. I think that Clark intended to nudge the audience toward formulating or reconsidering their own ideas of what constitutes an ethereal abstraction like justice. What we get in the film is a definition that's been filtered through the attitudes and values of a socially conscious Hollywood screenwriter of the 1940s. Do Lamar Totti's thoughts even coincide with Clark's? We don't know. In addition, the Andrews character objected to his intimate final thoughts to his wife being 'passed around,,' even to save his life. Clark honored that in his narrative. I wish screenwriter Trotti had too.
These three points were concessions that Wellman had to make to get the picture made at all. He showed great courage in making what he knew would not be a commercially successful film. He resisted Darryl Zanuck and Fox's suggestion to cast Mae West in the Jane Darwell role to boost the film's meager box office prospects and had to agree to direct "Buffalo Bill" for Zanuck, a film and character he personally abhorred in order to get "Ox-Bow," a movie he believed in, made.
In order to do "The Grapes of Wrath" Henry Fonda had to agree to a lengthy Fox contact in 1940 and because of it had to do some pretty lousy films. The only one he was proud of was "Ox-Bow." Although Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn, Jane Darwell and the rest of the cast give expectedly fine performances, it is many of the usually anonymous character actors who do the best work of their long careers in "The Ox-Bow Incident." Frank Conroy (as the sadistic Major Tetley), William Eythe (as his weakling son Gerald), Harry Davenport (as the gentle storekeeper Mr, Davies), Leigh Whipper (as the sincerely religious, dignified former slave Sparks), Paul Hurst (as Smith, the boozy, loudmouth town drunk), Dick Rich (as the obnoxious, bullying Deputy Butch Mapes), Matt Briggs (as the unctuous, vacillating Judge Tyler), Victor Kilian (as Darby the cynical, laconic saloonkeeper), and Francis Ford (as the demented, senile Civil War veteran Dad) all vividly remain in the memory. If any of these nine journeymen actors gave a better performance elsewhere in their careers, I certainly don't know of it.
The credit for that should go to one of the most underrated directors in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Willam A. 'Wild Bill' Wellman. Although Wellman had to make some compromises to get the film made, without his determination it never would have been.
Torture Ship (1939)
A screen adaptation of "A Thousand Deaths," the first story sold by iconic American writer Jack London in 1899, was the choice of producer Ben Judell to launch his newly-formed Producer's Releasing Corporation. London would go on to a prolific, albeit abbreviated, career before dying from a myriad of diseases at age 40, and his name lent prestige to the launching of the fledgling PRC studio. Although Judell shrewdly exploited the film's connection with London, it remains one of the least faithful film versions of the author's work.
This screen adaptation only superficially resembles its literary source, and the now retitled "Torture Ship" is a barely seaworthy vessel. However, its interesting cast keeps the ship afloat long enough to keep it from foundering. Influenced by MGM's Leo, Judell chose a tiger as the logo for the maiden voyage of his fledgling company, but looking at this film as well as the studio's other output during its brief history, a feral alley cat might have been more apropos.
Noted scientist Dr. Herbert Stanton is indicted by the authorities when he tries to prove his theory that psychopathic criminal behavior is a treatable disease that can be cured by endocrine injections. In order to prove his hypothesis and flee prosecution, the discredited doctor hires a yacht and fills it with career criminals and serial killers (with such colorful names as "Poison Mary" and "Harry the Carver") and sails into the Pacific's international waters to freely experiment on his boatload of guinea pigs.
Unfortunately for the doctor his sociopathic patients object and mutiny against the crew and his assistants (who wear sparkling white hospital coats instead of the more practical and waterproof sou'westers and pea jackets.) Both sides struggle for power inside PRC's cramped sets, and the bodies literally pile up on PRC's cramped sound stages until justice and true love ultimately triumph.
Along with Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and others, Jack London is classified in the "Naturalistic" school of writing. They were influenced by such 19th Century figures as Freud, Darwin, and especially Emile Zola. Little of the original story and its intent remain. The Freudian implications of the doctor's son becoming a guinea pig is mitigated by changing the character to his nephew.
Although the setting may initially strike the casual observer as reminiscent of London's "The Sea Wolf," this 1899 work doesn't fit into the canon of the author's other short stories like "To Build a Fire," and "Love of Life." Its science fiction aspects more closely resemble H. G. Wells' "The Island of Dr. Moreau," and the character of the sincere but slightly demented Dr. Stander seems to presage the roles played by Boris Karloff in his Columbia 'B' films.
It is the ship's cast keep the the film interesting. Irving Pichel as Dr. Stanton adds an air of legitimacy to the proceedings and plays his mad doctor role in a straightforward manner as the type of dedicated but misguided scientist George Zucco would portray in later PRC releases. Pichel was an underused talent best known for his role in "Dracula's Daughter" and his sensitive voice-over narration in John Ford's "How Green Was My Valley." Pichel was also a workmanlike director as evidenced in "Destination Moon" in 1950, but unfortunately he was blacklisted during the HUAC period and, like Dr. Stanton, was forced to flee the country to avoid prison.
Gargoyle-like Skelton Knaggs, a poor man's Dwight Frye and arguably one of the screen's homeliest actors, drank himself to death in his early 40's as did author London. Knaggs contributes a welcome bizarre presence as Cockney career criminal Jesse Bixel, whose coke bottle glasses add a grotesque other-worldliness to the proceedings. "House of Dracula," "The Ghost Ship," and "Terror by Night," are among his most memorable credits.
Lyle Talbot, who plays the ship's chief officer and Stanton's nephew, started his career very promisingly at Warner Brothers in the early 30s but moved to B films and soldiered on for some five decades in lesser roles in low budget film and TV, reaching his cinematic nadir in Ed Wood's "Plan 9 from Outer Space."
Wheeler Oakman, the de facto leader of Dr. Stanton's criminals, was a villain's villain in hundreds of Hollywood films from 1912 to 1948 playing lowly henchmen as well as crime bosses in both big studio and Poverty Row productions. Despite Oakman's mustachioed, sinister appearance, he was once married to beautiful silent screen star Priscilla Dean.
Sheilah Bromley was a promising ingénue only a few years earlier, playing opposite a youthful John Wayne several times under the name Sheila Manners, but by 1939, her features had hardened, and here she was cast as "Poison" Mary Slavish.
Jacqueline Wells (later known as Julie Bishop) is one of the 30s most enduring minor stars, most noticeably as the female lead in 1934's "The Black Cat." She played opposite Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne in the 40s, and co-starred with Bob Cummings in the situation comedy "My Hero" in the 1950s.
"Torture Ship" was one of the last directorial voyages helmed by Victor Halperin. After making the highly successful low budget independent "White Zombie: in 1932, he was recruited by major studio Paramount for "Superatural" with Carole Lombard and Randolph Scott. Unfortunately the film didn't create a stir, and he went back to Poverty Row's Gower Gulch. Some of his disturbing extreme closeups of the drugged guinea pigs on "Torture Ship" are lifted from similarly effective shots that he used of the zombies in "White Zombie." Despite this self- plagiarism, "Torture Ship" never becomes a patch on the 1932 classic.
CAVEAT EMPTOR: The film is in public domain and copies have various run times ranging from 48 to 63 minutes. Many are severely truncated and begin "in medias res" with the criminals already aboard the ship and plotting revolt against Stander and the crew.
Yankee Buccaneer (1952)
The REAL Porter, Farragut, and Pirate War.
"Yankee Buccaneer" is based on a historically fictional screenplay hurriedly put together when Errol Flynn hurt himself during the filming of "Against All Flags' at Universal, and it became apparent that the actor would need considerable time to recuperate. It was decided to utilize the standing sets and personnel and turn out this B picture programmer depicting two of the most famous figures in American Naval history, David Porter and David Farragut.
As portrayed by Jeff Chandler, Porter is a martinet and stickler for regulations who is particularly hard on his first officer, David Farragut. As portrayed by Scott Brady, Farragut is brash and prone to be insubordinate, In real life, although both men served in the 1821 - 1825 War against the Caribbean pirates, they did not serve on the same ship, and the screenplay about Porter's going undercover as a privateer never happened.
Too bad the Tinseltown writers didn't follow real history, which would have made a much more interesting story. Farragut (born 1801) was actually the adopted son of Porter (born 1780), and that's a story in itself. Porter's father David Porter Sr., a Revolutionary War veteran, met and befriended another naval veteran, Spanish-born Jordi Farragut, a former Spanish merchant captain. Suffering from tuberculosis and sunstroke, Porter Sr. died as a guest in the Farragut home. In a tragic coincidence, Farragut's Scots-Irish wife Elizabeth passed away from yellow fever the very same day.
Porter, Jr., visited the Farragut family to express his thanks for their care of his father and sympathy for the death of its matriarch. Despite having ten surviving children of his own, including six sons, Porter, Jr., offered to adopt Jordi's seven year old son, James Glasgow Farragut. Out of gratitude, the young Farragut changed his name to David Farragut.
David Porter was already a veteran of the Undeclared War against France, the Barbary Pirate War, and was first to capture a British ship in the War of 1812. Young Farragut enlisted in the Navy in 1810 at the tender age of nine and was very active during the War of 1812 including being wounded and captured by the British in 1814 off the coast of Chile.
The real Porter had the reputation of being a hard drinker and often caroused with friends including renowned writer Washington Irving. In the film however, the drinking is left to his chief petty officer, played by George Matthews, as Porter conveniently looks the other way.
After the War of 1812 was over, pirate activity literally exploded in the Caribbean. Between 1815-1823, there were over 3000 documented acts of piracy in the region. Spanish gold was no longer the prime target, and commercial goods like sugar, rum, dyes, and coffee were plundered by the corsairs, whose chief centers of operation were Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, and especially Cuba.
The pirates, some of whom were Americans, were a bloodthirsty lot who were not above butchering the passengers as well as the crews of the victim ships. This interruption of the free market affected the American economy to such a point that President Monroe authorized the creation of a West Indian squadron of ships in 1821 to eradicate the problem.
Farragut served as a lieutenant during the conflict beginning in 1821, and Porter gave up an influential post to be the Commander of Operations in the Caribbean in 1822. Eradicating the pirates was very difficult because many operated out of coastal swamps and rivers, which were too shallow for Porter's bigger ships to navigate. His fleet included sixteen large vessels, several of which were financed and outfitted personally by him, and five "Mosquito" ships, which he used to pursue the buccaneers into inland waterways. Farragut commanded one of these smaller "Mosquito Fleet" boats and did not serve on the same boat as Porter as the film depicts.
Things did not turn out happily for Porter. American policy dictated that captured pirates not be brought to the U.S. for trial but be turned over to the local government. This frustrated Porter because it was routine for the pirates to bribe their way out of the charges and return to plundering. Even the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Jean Lafitte, returned to the Jolly Roger and was released after his capture after paying off a local official. (Ironically he was killed on the high seas shortly after by one of his fellow buccaneers.)
When one of his officers was imprisoned by the local government in the Spanish town of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, an enraged Porter invaded the town. As Spain was an American ally at the time, this was an unsanctioned action, and Porter was court-martialed and suspended. In the film, Porter forces a duplicitous Spanish envoy to walk the plank in order to get evidence of his collusion with the pirates, and the film ends with his anticipation of being court-martialed for these actions, not the invasion of Fajardo.
A disgruntled Porter resigned to become commander-in-chief of the Mexican Navy (1826-1829) but subsequently repatriated himself upon his return to the States and was appointed Minister of the Barbary States. He died in 1843 aged 63 while serving as Ambassador to Turkey.
David Farragut, his adopted son and namesake, served honorably during the Mexican War and was the North's greatest naval hero of the Civil War. He died in 1870.
Across the Wide Missouri (1951)
Needs more Whitmore
"Across the Wide Missouri" was planned as a sprawling saga of early 19th Century Americana, so there are questions as to how and why it ended up in its present truncated 78 minute form, not much longer than a "B" picture. There shouldn't be any argument that director William A. 'Wild Bill' Wellman's original vision was grander in scope, even epic. Evidence of the cutting can be clearly seen in the cover of the DVD, which duplicates the original one sheet poster. Actor James Whitmore, a big favorite of Wellman's, is given co-star billing and is listed fourth overall in the cast behind MGM leading men Clark Gable, Ricardo Montalban, and John Hodiak and ahead of such venerable character actors as Adolphe Menjou, J. Carrol Naish, and Jack Holt.
Whitmore had starred in the director's previous film, "The Next Voice You Hear" in 1951 and had earned an Oscar nomination for his scene-stealing performance in Wellman's iconic 1949 WWII actioner "Battleground." In the released version Whitmore is not billed in the opening credits and does not appear in the 78 minute film until some 33 minutes into the movie. He cannot be spotted with the mountain men in the sizable "Rendezvous" sequence early in the picture and is not seen on the trek over the Rockies until they're halfway there when he suddenly appears out of nowhere on top of a snow-covered mountain. For the remainder of the film he has only a handful of unimportant lines, which makes one wonder why one of Hollywood's most respected character actors would be squandered in what is essentially a bit role. Among the many ironies associated with this film is that, according to studio records, his character's name is "Bit."
Wellman's MGM contract had concluded with the completion of "The Next Voice You Hear," but when Metro found themselves without a director for their scheduled epic, they asked Wellman to helm the film. 'Wild Bill' agreed on the condition that he be allowed to bring his family along with him on location - at the studio's expense, an offer he couldn't refuse when MGM agreed to his request. With three A-list stars, an exceptional supporting class of character actors, and breathtakingly beautiful locations, it should have been a blockbuster. It wasn't.
The blame, if any, can be laid at the feet of studio boss, Dore Schary, who undoubtedly panicked after attending a preview when he found that the audience that had cheered the opening credits "lost interest" about halfway through. Producer Sam Zimbalist, who wasn't involved with the picture, suggested drastic cuts to be bridged by an afterthought narration by Howard Keel. Although scripted by Talbot Jennings, one of the film's co-writers, the narration is leadenly heavy-handed and overly literal and drowns the director's visual subtleties. An embittered Wellman remarked, " They cut out all the action and put in a narration to fill the holes. This was a good, long picture the way I made it. I've never seen it and I never will." Ironically Wellman re-signed with MGM, and his next picture, "Westward the Women," covered some of the same territory as "Missouri," albeit more successfully.
An added irony is that the same Dore Schary, supposedly the most literate and tasteful of all studio heads in Golden Age Hollywoosd, was a serial offender. Only a few months earlier he butchered John Huston's brilliant adaptation of "The Red Badge of Courage" down to "B" picture length of a mere 69 minutes with bridging narration spoken by non-other than... James Whitmore!
One last sad irony... as I write this review, news that Judy Lewis, age 76, passed away today is on the Web. She was the secret love child of Clark Gable and Loretta Young, conceived during the filming of another Wellman Western epic, "The Call of the Wild" in 1935. Miss Young never acknowledged that Lewis was her biological daughter and claimed she was adopted. Lewis' memoir "Uncommon Knowledge" was published in 1995.
Fast moving and lots of fun
"Hollywood Out-takes and Rare Footage" is a lot of fun for fans of old movies. The blooper section shows some iconic classic stars like James Cagney, Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, Claude Rains, and Errol Flynn flubbing their lines, mishandling a prop, or taking an accidental pratfall. Edward G. Robinson is refreshingly good-humored about his gaffs, but Humphrey Bogart takes his miscues more seriously. In one blooper from "Dark Victory" he apologetically explains to the director that he blew his line because he backed into a hot stove during the scene, burning his derrière. Easily the funniest clips feature singing cowboy Dick Foran. An apparently out-of-shape Foran fails to lift himself onto his horse several times, repeatedly exclaiming with frustration, "I can't get my ass off the ground!"
The source of these vintage bloopers is the editing department at Warner Brothers. During the 1930s, it routinely printed and kept the funniest outtakes from its films, which were edited into a blooper reel to show in-house to Warner personnel at an annual party each year. These compilations have been preserved, which is the reason that most of the flubs from the 30s that have survived to this day come from Warners.
Although many of today's self-indulgent stars intentionally create flubs for their own amusement, that practice was rare in the economy-minded studio system during the dark days of the Depression. Despite that, there are a few bloopers of the intentional variety here. Tough cons George Raft and James Cagney spontaneously break into a waltz in prison as warden George Bancroft asks to cut in a deleted scene from "Each Dawn I Die." Lou Costello deliberately uses obscenities to Brenda Joyce in "Little Giant," blowing take after take. Although it's not possible to know his motivations, it does seem somewhat mean-spirited on his part.
For years an out-take clip from "International House" with W. C. Fields was supposed to have recorded an earthquake striking the studio. The Great Man is seen evacuating the sound stage cautioning everyone to remain calm. Since this documentary was released in 1983, it has come to light that the earthquake was a hoax engineered by Fields with the earthquake effect achieved by the cinematographer shaking the camera.
Some of he "rare footage" are pleas for good causes and charities: Shirley Temple asking for support for the Red Cross, Frank Sinatra pleading for religious tolerance, and Bugs Bunny pitching War Bonds to his audience. However some of them seem strangely ironic. "At Home with Joan Crawford" is a 1953 promo for Ted Williams' charity for dying children, The Jimmy Fund. Crawford is seen lecturing her adopted children about sharing and generosity to the less fortunate. Her daughter Christine would later pillory her mother after her death in 1977 with the infamously bitter biographical memoir "Mommy Dearest." Another sequence originally filmed as a promo for safe driving to be broadcast on the 1955 TV show "Warner Bros. Presents" has Gig Young interviewing James Dean dressed in character as Jett Rink on the "Giant" set. Dean cautions young people to drive safely and ad-libs "because the life you save may be MINE." ironically he was killed shortly afterward, and the studio pulled the spot from the broadcast.
Another poignant clip shows Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall doing wardrobe tests for the proposed Warner comedy "Melville Goodwin, U.S.A." Initially, Bogie is smiling for the camera and his actress-wife but later is seen wincing in pain for several moments. After a while he relaxes back into a smile. The silent footage and its narration does not give us any explanation for Bogie's seeming apparent look of discomfort, but shortly thereafter he would be diagnosed with the fatal cancer that would take his life at age 57. The picture would eventually be made as "Top Secret Affair" with Kirk Douglas and Susan Hayward.
A variety of other enjoyable clips round out the film. The 1939 Academy Awards are highlighted by Hattie McDaniel's emotional acceptance speech. Short Mickey Rooney mugs and ad-libs while standing cleavage- high to a buxom Jayne Mansfield. Assorted premieres include the star-studded red carpet for 1954's "A Star Is Born" and Mae West's "I'm No Angel." W. C. Fields Pre-Code comedy "The Dentist" contains a salaciously hilarious scene with Fields and Elise Cavanna simulating sex during a tooth extraction. Bela Lugosi as Dracula vamps Mae Questal in her Betty Boop character from a "Screen Snapshots" short, and "Hollywood Extra Girl," a promo short for "The Crusades" depicts iconic dictatorial director Cecil B. DeMille browbeating his cast and crew on set.
"Hollywood Out-takes and Rare Footage" moves fast and will serendipitously delight every fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Jimmy the Gent (1934)
Cagney is polished as an unpolished con-man.
Jimmy Corrigan is an unpolished, unmannered, unscrupulous con man specializing in finding bogus claimants for the unclaimed fortunes of wealthy people who die without an heir. Charles Wallingham, his chief rival, has stolen away his "Girl Friday," Joan Marsh, with whom Corrigan is still smitten.
When he goes to Wallington's office to try to win her back, he is struck by its contrast to his own organizational style. Instead of the herd of crude and ugly "mugs" he has working for him, Wallingham's operation boasts a gaggle of beautiful, well-mannered, cultured secretarial hostesses who serve clients tea and crumpets with friendly smiles. Unlike Corrigan, Wallingham is well-dressed, cultured, and erudite. In order to try to win back Joan, as well as improve his operation, Jimmy decides to transform himself into a "gent."
Cagney and Davis are in top form in this early example of the new screen genre that would be soon known as 'Screwball Comedy." Cagney draws upon all the vocabulary in his unique body language: his arching back and idiosyncratic walk, to great comedic advantage, and there are smaller examples of the Davis mannerisms that would later inspire impressionists for decades. Both Cagney and Davis had a great affinity for fast-paced dialog, and this 1934 effort contains a similar premise to "His Girl Friday," the high water mark of the genre, as an unprincipled con-man tries to woo back his business partner/girl friend.
It's interesting that the two stars' only other collaboration would be eight years later in "The Bride Came C.O.D.," another fast-paced Screwball Comedy. Too bad they didn't make more together. They could have been Warners' answer to MGM's William Powell and Myrna Loy.
The Man with Two Faces (1934)
"The Dark Tower" translates to black comedy
George S. Kaufman was one of the towering figures of 20th Century American theater. He occasionally lent his enormous talent to Hollywood as in the Marx Brothers'"A Night at the Opera," but he is best known for adaptations of his theater work. Kaufman frequently worked with collaborators as varied as Moss Hart and Edna Ferber and here combined his prodigious talent with a fellow member of the renowned Algonquin Round Table, acerbic critic Alexander Woollcott. The resultant thriller with comic overtones, "The Dark Tower," reminds the viewer of "Sleuth," a great showcase for actors with a flair for theatrics and makeup.
Like "Sleuth" its impact comes from the revelation rather late in the play that one actor has been playing dual roles, but "The Man with Two Faces" telegraphs that surprise because of the very nature of the film medium. Even the most casual viewer will realize quite quickly that Damon Wells and Jules Chautard are both played by Edward G. Robinson after the first close-up of the bearded Frenchman. The film's producers seem to have conceded that point with the changeover to the title "The Man with Two Faces" in order to promote contract player Robinson as a deserving successor to Lon Chaney. So what is the movie's great appeal?
Although the storyline comes out of 19th Century melodramatic tradition, the actors tackle their roles with such enthusiasm, the film becomes a guilty pleasure.
Mary Astor is Jessica Wells, a beautiful and talented actress returning to the stage after a three year absence due to an undisclosed mental breakdown. Although her triumphal comeback seems certain, family and friends are shocked when Vance, her long-lost husband, shows up at the family home. Louis Calhern plays this slimy character with flamboyant relish as Vance immediately exerts his influence on the usually vivacious Jessica. She is Trilby to his Svengali as she immediately reverts to a sleepwalking automaton blindly obeying his every wish.
The authors never make clear what the hold Vance has on her is, but hints of a Caliostro-like hypnotic power are suggested. The avaricious and opportunistic Vance has heard that his estranged wife holds half the rights to the current play, a prospective mega-hit with her in the cast, but a sure flop with Jessica in her current somnambulist state. Calhern plays the vain, larcenous conman with obvious over-the-top élan. He feeds cheese to the pet mice he carries with him in a cage, threatens to kick in the head of an elderly housekeeper, punches his wife in the face with a pinkie ring, and orders garishly gaudy silk ties on the family's dime.
Robinson plays Jessica's loyal but alcoholic brother, who goes on the wagon to lend his theatrical prestige and expertise to his sister's comeback while helping her to reclaim her talent as her on-stage acting coach. He quickly realizes that the viperous Vance must be dealt with once and for all (crunched "underfoot on the sidewalk" according to Jessica's manager, Ricardo Cortez), so he enters into an elaborate sting that will get rid of the vermin-like Vance permanently.
The bravura of Calhern's enjoyably shameless overplaying is balanced by Robinson's subtle underplaying, and several of the supporting roles are extremely well done -- especially Arthur Landau as an homicide detective, Emily Fitzroy as a crusty housekeeper, and Warner favorite Mae Clarke as Robinson's low-rent girlfriend.
In order to substitute for the loss of the play's original surprise revelation of the dual role, the authors have substituted a wryly ironic denouement, surprisingly satisfying for this highly enjoyable Pre-Code black comedy.
Smart Blonde (1937)
A Questionable Scene
"Smart Blonde,' an above-average entry in the very popular "Torchy Blaine" B-film series about the feisty girl reporter who inspired the Lois Lane character, may be guilty of the same subconscious prejudice that pervaded many of the films of the Thirties.
Although it is otherwise a wonderfully entertaining low-budget mystery, there is an isolated scene where tough guy cop Steve McBride, Torchy's boyfriend, insists that she remain in a locked car after he leaves her because they're in a "rat-hole" of a neighborhood. Glenda Farrell's Torchy is an especially aggressive and brassy professional in the typical fashion of other 1930s Warner heroines like Joan Blondell and Bette Davis, and she usually is confidently resourceful enough to strike out on her own in pursuit of a story in any circumstance.
Four individuals are then shown in the street of that "rat-hole" neighborhood The first is an African-American aimlessly loitering by leaning against the wall of the building where Steve enters. The second is an Orthodox Jewish-American with beard, glasses, and hat walking past the door. The third is a Chinese-American who walks past Torchy in her car and suspiciously eyes her. The fourth is in the far background and not clearly identifiable as a ethnic type.
"Smart Blonde" was nothing more pretentious than any standard, assembly line programmer of the period. The "rat-hole" neighborhood was meant to suggest an area that the usually plucky and independent Torchy should be wary of. Although it's doubtful that any overt racism was intended, it's notable that the signifiers of the bad neighborhood are three readily identifiable minority types.
Director Frank MacDonald was a workmanlike studio journeyman who told stories as quickly and efficiently as possible. The source material was one of the Kennedy and McBride stories by Frederick Lewis Nebel and went through six different Warner staff writers, emerging as assembly line product.
Kennedy, the reporter half of the crime-fighting duo, was a male alcoholic in the original stories, so the problems of presenting drunks heroically under the newly-implemented motion picture code was easily solved by transforming him into the sober, female Torchy Blaine, whose only vice was a good sirloin steak. That change eliminated the problem while maintaining tensions in the relationship.
It should be noted that pulp crime fiction writer Nebel(under the name Brett Halliday) was also the creator of another popular screen detective, Michael Shayne, portrayed by Lloyd Nolan in seven films for Fox in the Forties. Given the alterations of both characters by the studios only confirmed Nebel's contempt of Hollywood.
Il seme dell'uomo (1969)
"Mystery Meat' in a surreal landscape
Marco Ferreri was one of the most fiercely independent and brashly challenging directors in world cinema with strong radical views on relationships between the individual and society. He purposely does not try to make his often undisciplined work easily accessible and deliberately challenges his audience to interpret his uniquely personal vision. Only those who have an affinity for his acerbic humor, confusing, often meandering, plot lines. and surreal, obscure symbolism can expect to leave a Ferreri film feeling fulfilled.
Post-apocalyptic visions about survivors of some worldwide holocaust have been a sub-genre in movie science fiction since Arch Oboler's "Five" in 1951, the story of five survivors of a nuclear holocaust. The aftermath of nuclear war seems to have been a favorite for filmmakers although other Doomsday scenarios have branched out to such varied global cataclysms as a new ice age, global warming, a destructive plant virus, a rogue comet, and unspecified government research projects.
Ferreri chooses a strain of the Plague, more virulent than anything previously seen although there are no scenes of mass death or suffering seen anywhere in the movie. This Post-Apocalyptic landscape genre provides the wildly idiosyncratic Ferrreri with a wide canvas on which to include his Daliesque imagery and extravagantly baroque metaphors. Whether you consider him a neglected genius or a self-indulgent poseur, no one can accuse him of being dull. I think both his supporters and detractors would agree that he is definitely an acquired taste.
We first meet Cino and Dora dining casually with other travelers in an airport tourist market. We are notified of the threat of worldwide plague on the oversize TV in the restaurant area, but the visuals consist only of archival b/w footage of panicked crowds and burned-out cities with some Vietnam-era helicopter shots thrown in for good measure. Nothing of current "plague" is seen, and all those in this duty-free facility seem to be indifferently conducting business as usual, oblivious to the crisis.
When Cino and Dora come across a school-bus on a deserted highway with a dead driver and passengers, none shows any sign of any disease, least of all the black pustules characteristic of the Plague. Shortly thereafter the couple is overtaken by a helicopter and brought to a makeshift quasi-military command post.
It is sparsely populated and the main structure is a clear plastic cylindrical dome. A medic is inside administering oxygen to an apparently dead woman although the cause of her death, as well as the child beside her, seems to be a slit throat. They are then wrapped in aluminum foil and their bodies are laid with others in an open field, where the corpses are incinerated with a napalm flamethrower.
After a few perfunctory questions to Dora about the status of her relationship with Cino, they are released after being given a single "magic bullet" pill that will keep them free from plague and other diseases for six months. The leader obviously feels sympathy for Dora as he rebuffs his subordinate's suggestion that the young couple be summarily executed. He cautions them that the plague has become much worse, and they should not leave the area. He instructs her to find a nearby house, presumably abandoned, and avoid other people indefinitely.
They find an unusual stone house on the beach with its dead taxidermist owner (director Ferreri in a cameo) sitting on the porch and decide to make this their new home. Thinking of posterity, Cino decides to convert the house into a museum with himself as curator. His first exhibit is an improbable giant wheel of Parmesan cheese. The other objects he catalogs are mundane and kitschy artifacts from common life including a View-Master stereoscopic viewer replete with scenes of New York, a frequent Ferreri bete noir.
After Ferreri's body disappears without explanation, a caricature of him with his signature chin strap beard is hung on the wall. In fact, Cino begins to grow his own chin strap beard as he displaces the owner and sets up housekeeping. It seems obvious that the "plague" that is decimating civilization is a allegorical, not pathological, one. Depending on one's interpretation, this "plague" is a parable for society's repression of individuality, crass commercialism, and crushing conformity.
The Post-Apocalyptic science fiction genre allows Ferreri to create a surreal environment in which anything is possible, and he is free to populate the landscape with his wildly free-wheeling images: a group of black-shirted neo-fascist horsemen whose androgynous leader makes the couple sign a pledge in blood that they will procreate, a zeppelin-like balloon that Dora hopes will rescue them but is in reality an American Pepsi-Cola blimp, and the rotting carcass of Moby Dick that washes up on the beach.
Besides these more obvious symbols there are small throwaways like Ferrari's signature red gun, a recurring artifact that appears in other of his films and an incongruous American gum dispenser at the military base. Even the most ardent Ferreri fan will find it difficult to connect the dots between the film's cognitive and personal metaphors. (e.g. the TV announcer declaring that the color yellow will be used as code for the plague and Dora's choice of "Brooklyn" yellow gum from the dispenser.)
After Dora decides she does not wish to bring a child into such a world, an attractive middle-aged French woman appears to insinuate herself into the household and promptly seduces Cino, eager to bear his child. When she later tries to usurp Dora's position by murdering her, Dora turns the tables on the interloper and beats her to death, cooking and serving up her leg to Cino as what she characterizes as a "mystery" meat." The plot by this time is by no means resolved, but if you're still watching the film by this time, you've realized that watching Ferreri's movies is, like "mystery meat," an acquired taste.
La casa del sorriso (1991)
Previous film excursions on the subject of geriatric romance has concentrated on the more ethereal and platonic aspects of the experience. The heartbreakingly beautiful "Make Way for Tomorrow," directed by Leo McCarey, told the story of two aging septuagenarians (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi), whom logistics and economics force out of their home and into living apart. On the last night they will ever spend together, they reenact their honeymoon held decades earlier in New York City. Their final moments together are tender and bittersweet, and the subject of sex never enters the equation.
In "On Golden Pond" Ethel and Norman Thayer (Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda) are being separated by something more insidious than mere economic considerations, Norman's progressive descent into dementia. This will likely be the last summer that they will spend together at their beloved lake cabin and the poignancy of that realization leaves no room for any consideration of the carnal side of their relationship.
Marco Ferreri's highly original "The House of Smiles" explores very different territory. Adelina, a 70 year old former "Miss Smiles" beauty queen and model, is a resident at a senior citizen retirement home. Her 'joie de vie' and unfaded beauty make her an object of attraction to the male residents, especially Andrea, a dapper and charming septuagenarian living there with a wife undergoing treatment for an unspecified illness.
When their initial attraction evolves into physical desire, they try to find places suitable for private rendezvous, but the culture of the institution conspires against them. Their fellow residents, usually preoccupied with food, incontinence, and TV soap operas, are alternately shocked by, envious of, and fascinated with the concept of senior sexuality. Andrea's wife and Adelina's widowed daughter-in-law voice their disdain for the relationship, and the chorus of disapproval is joined by the hospice staff who find their comfortable routines disrupted by the amorous pair, who consistently refuse to conform and act their ages.
Ironically, the transitory community of migrant African workers at the complex provides the couple with sympathy and enables the romance by providing an appropriately named "watermelon" camper, painted pink with black seeds as a clandestine rendezvous.
Unlike the couples in the previous films, Adelina and Andrea do not have a long romantic history to reflect on. Like two adolescents, they are in the first blush of mutual attraction and literally can't keep their eyes... and hands off each other.
Unfortunately the mean-spirited full-time staff decides to cool the inconvenient relationship by cruelly stealing 'The Queen of Smile's dentures, a blow to her pride and self-esteem. The inefficient bureaucracy of national health care moves too slowly to help her and her parsimonious family, the recipients of what's left of her fortune, selfishly refuse to part with any of it to help her. Adelina and Andrea's solutions to their problems are alternately poignant and funny. Will the pair find fulfillment and happiness? The feisty, self-sufficient, and non-conformist Adelina is not someone to give up in the face of adversity, and her optimism makes her a survivor.
Plan 92 from Japan.
As serial addicts know, chapter plays are driven by a logic all their own, a logic which often ignores plausibility. Viewers should always check their common sense in the lobby to enjoy these old cliffhangers. "Batman" is no exception and contains some especially enjoyable lapses of credulity.
My favorite "Batman" moment involves the message that the captain of a Japanese submarine wants to impart to spymaster Daka. Although he speaks to him on short wave radio, he does not give him the message directly but tells him to follow "Plan 92," a labarynthian scheme which involves sending his henchmen to Smuggler's Cove to pick up a coffin that is only be accessible at low tide. Why the message was not communicated while they were speaking to each other directly is not explained.
Instead of using a more discreet truck or van to transport the coffin, Daka orders his men to contact a third-party local funeral parlor to transport the coffin back to the ring's headquarters. The audience can only surmise what the henchmen could possibly say to the undertakers to explain why a coffin would be on partially submerged rocks near a beach that wouldn't arouse suspicion. When the coffin does arrive, it shows no sign of having been underwater and contains the body of a uniformed Japanese soldier. Daka explains that he is in a state of "animated suspension" and revives him with smoke-filled electrical charges directed a la Dr. Frankenstein into his wrists.
Although the soldier will only be conscious for "a few moments" before dying with finality, Daka wastes time by first welcoming him to the country that will soon become "a colony of Japan's expanding empire." The soldier sits up with difficulty, delivers the Banzai greeting and conveys the message that the henchmen should steal the Lockwood plane, (one of the film's MacGuffins), and rendezvous with the submarine at Pelican Island. Before he dies, the soldier rips a button off his uniform, gives it to Daka, and tells him it contains more information. Why the information is formatted this way is also unexplained. He then dies with finality, only too happy to have given his life for the Emperor.
The rationale which required the death of a soldier and the coffin to convey a byzantine message that could have been communicated directly by radio is left a mystery. Serials usually omit logical explanation.
In another delightful scene, Daka orders Batman brought into headquarters inside a coffin so that he can feed him to his pet crocodiles. Actor J. Carroll Naish obviously relished playing the sadistic Zaca, and his scenes involving him feeding the crocodiles roasted chickens from a zombie's picnic basket are among the film's most enjoyable.
When the coffin carrying Batman arrives, Zaca doesn't seem to want to open the coffin in order to confirm that the Caped Crusader is indeed inside it and summarily orders the six foot pine box thrown into the narrow, constricted crocodile pit. It obviously hits at least one of his beloved pet crocs on the head, and, even if the heavy wooden box didn't injure him, it would have severely restricted further movements of the reptiles in the narrow confines of their habitat. Why not simply take the body out of the coffin first? Any serial lover will know the answer. The body is one of Daka's henchmen, not the Dark Avenger, inside the pine box. Later on, when the crocodile pit is shown, the pine coffin has mysteriously vanished. So much for logic and continuity!
Sleepers West (1941)
The Narrowest Margin
"Sleepers West," originally titled "Sleepers East," is one of the most enjoyable of the seven Michael Shayne detective mysteries from Sol Wurtzel's B-picture unit at Fox. This entry, however, is not based on any of the scores of Shayne pulps written by Brett Halliday, but on a novel by Frederick Nebel, notable as the first star writer of the legendary BLACK MASK magazine in the 1920's. Although Nebel licensed his most famous character, Torchy Blaine, to the movies in the 1930's, he held Hollywood in contempt and avoided adapting any of his material to the screen.
The film's premise has Shayne covertly escorting a secret surprise witness to a high-profile San Francisco trial aboard a cross-country passenger train. While trying to keep her location and identity a secret, he also has to contend with sinister on-board forces that are trying to silence her. The setting of a sleeping car has traditionally been an intriguing background for thrillers from Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" to Sidney Lumet's "Murder on the Orient Express," and the restrictions of narrow dining cars and narrower sleeping berths, the incessantly repetitive sound of the train's mechanics, and the readily available supply of red herrings add an air of claustrophobic excitement to the proceedings.
If the film's plot of a secret witness threatened by sinister forces sounds familiar, it is because that entire premise was later borrowed without attribution for the highly-acclaimed 1952 Noir thriller, "The Narrow Margin" directed by Richard Fleischer. It was remade in 1990 with Gene Hackman under the same title and credited the '52 film as the source. Despite the fact that "Sleepers West" is largely ignored and forgotten, as is the entire Shayne series, one must wonder why it receives so little attention.
A possible explanation lies with Fox's conception of the Shayne persona. The original Halliday stories were largely ignored by the studio's screenwriters, and the tough, no-nonsense character of Shayne himself was reshaped for the wise-cracking, breezy style of actor Lloyd Nolan, who bears little resemblance to Halliday's hard-boiled gumshoe.
No matter. "Sleepers West" and the other series entries are great escapist fun, filled with sharply witty dialogue and some of Hollywood's most idiosyncratic character actors at their peak, including Mary Beth Hughes, George Chandler, Eddie Brophy, and, in possibly the best role of his lengthy career, Louis Jean Heydt. "Sleepers West" also gives significant screen time to some of best black comedians of Hollywood's Golden Age as Pullman porters. Those of you who remember and appreciate the unsung talents of Mantan Moreland, Ben Carter (Moreland's old nightclub partner), Fred "Snowflake" Toones, and Sam "Deacon" McDaniel are in for an enjoyable 74 minutes.
Storm Warning (1951)
An "Imperfect" Storm
A Warner Brothers movie exposing the Ku Klux Klan in 1951 sounds very compelling, but despite its laudable intent, "Storm Warning" pulls all its punches, fudges issues it should have confronted, and ultimately lacks the courage of its own convictions.
In "Storm Warning" the Klan is variously referred to as a "mob," "hoodlums in sheets," and a "gang," According to D.A. Ronald Reagan, it is a "private money-making racket" controlled by a few for personal profit. These are terms normally associated with a criminal conspiracy such as the Mafia. No mention is made of the Klan's racism, anti-Semitism, or anti-Catholic biases.
The only prejudices specifically expressed by Klan members are directed against such vague generic groups as "busybodies," "troublemakers," and "outsiders." With the exception of a scattered sparse handful of anonymous black extras, (who may not even be Rock Point residents), among the many hundreds outside the courthouse, this would seem to be a town without minorities.
The town's location is also fudged. Although non-Klan members are resentful of Washington, New York, and those from "Up North," no one in town speaks with any type of regional Southern accent or utilizes any Southern colloquialisms. There are no cultural references to Southern life or history. People in Rock Point eat hamburgers, not grits. It looks like California orange country, and it indeed was filmed in Corona, California.
Even though the film's trailer mentions the KKK, the actual words "Ku Klux Klan" are not used in the film. What emerges is a softened, quasi-generic illegal organization known simply as "The Klan." Warner Brothers was on the cutting edge of socially conscious films in the 1930's, but by the late 40's and early 50's, were behind the curve on tackling anti-Semitism and race hatred. Clearly the studio had second thoughts about offending their Southern consumer base and blunted the edge of what could have been a courageous statement on race relations in America.
Another downside is the writers' obvious cribbing from "Streetcar Named Desire." Not only are character dynamics of this film's domestic triangle lifted from the Williams classic, but even minor details are shamelessly copied. Steve Cochrane's Stanley-like character, referred to as "stupid" and an "ape," introduces himself to his sister-in-law in a stained T-shirt, wonders who has been stealing his liquor, cries like an immature child, excels at bowling, enjoys a strong sexual chemistry with his pregnant wife, causes his sister-in-law to primp up in anticipation of meeting him, and later attempts to rape her in the climactic scene.
One wonders why Warners was not sued for plagiarism, but as the studio had released "The Glass Menagerie" in 1950 and "Streetcar" in 1951, it's probable that Williams gave at least tacit permission for the use of his intellectual property.
Despite these complaints, there are some very good things in "Storm Warning." Journeyman director Stuart Heisler easily does the best work in his career. He invests "Storm Warning" with a strong Noir sensibility and utilizes his chiaroscuro lighting to great advantage on the rain-soaked streets of Rock Point to create some strikingly unusual imagery. The scene of Ginger Rogers vomiting behind a telephone poll after witnessing the murder is startling effective for a film of this period.
Heisler also utilizes the big crowds very skillfully in spite having to use many non-professionals as extras. This is especially true in the critical street scene outside the courthouse and his well-framed compositions during the climactic Klan rally.
His direction of Steve Cochrane as the none-too-bright Hank Rice character is commendable. Cochrane's "business" of tugging his floppy white socks up his exposed legs while sitting on a grain bag in ill-fitting pants, dutifully awaiting audience with his Klan superiors is perfect iconography for his infantile, shallow persona. In fact, the entire cast is well-handled by the director, and ubiquitous character actor Hugh Sanders has the best role of his prolific career as the Klan leader.
"Storm Warning" turned out to be the last real quality role of Reagan's career before his slow decline as star with films like "Bedtime for Bonzo" and TV work like "Death Valley Days." The Gipper acquits himself very well in the only political-themed film of his career as the principled, crusading District Attorney and foreshadows his future role in national politics.
Although "Warning" can still hold its own as period melodrama, it missed the streetcar in making a serious, socially conscious comment on racism in American society.