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Thieves Fall Out (1941)
Fast And Funny
What a nice surprise. This is the type of Warner Brothers early forties broad comedy that tends to meander and never find itself. "Thieves Fall Out" does just the opposite. After a walk-up start, it works into a trot and then a gallop with the laughs coming from a twisty, lovably nutty plot and a riotously broad performance from Jane Darwell (Ma Joad, and "Mary Poppins" 's bird lady).
Eddie Albert wants a raise from his employer and father, Alan Hale, so that he can afford to marry Joan Leslie, the daughter of Hale's chief competitor in the mattress business. Jane Darwell, as Eddie's gangster-obsessed Grandma (and arch-nemesis of her son-in-law, Hale) schemes with Eddie to sell his legacy, a hundred thousand dollars which he will inherit when his mother dies, so that he can buy a factory his father's business depends upon and go into business for himself. When the legacy winds up in the hands of gangster Anthony Quinn, Eddie's mother (the joyfully overacting Minna Gombell) finds herself trembling in the crosshairs.
That's a darned funny set-up, and once we get there, we're off and running.
Nice guy Eddie Albert's no Eddie Bracken, at least laugh-wise, and Joan Leslie's great potential as a comedienne was not yet realized in 1941. The often hysterically funny Alan Hale is underused, too, especially in his comic battles with his mother-in-law, Darwell, which could have carried this thing for an hour. There's also an obnoxious Reggie Mantle-type rival for Eddie that we don't get a lot out of. The rivalry between the two in-law mattress kings doesn't get us much.
None of that matters, because with Darwell's blustering buttinskyism the film finds its stroke and never loses it. With snappy dialogue and a gun moll spirit, she is pitted against virtually every member of the cast in one scene after another, and the sparks fly. She brings it all in for a landing right on time.
The title, incidentally, comes from an old proverb: "When thieves fall out, honest men come by their own." I looked it up for ya.
The Wagons Roll at Night (1941)
Galahad Goes Home
Warner Brothers really liked this story. Adapting a magazine story about the circus, they first filmed it as a boxing story- "Kid Galahad"- in 1937 with Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, Chester Morris, and Humphrey Bogart as the villain. Chester Morris returned in the same role for a loose (and uncredited, I think) comedy remake, "The Kid From Kokomo", exactly two years later in 1939. In 1941 Bogart returned in a semi-villainous version of Robinson's role for this one, and the original circus setting was restored. (And Gig Young, who narrated the trailer for this one, returned in 1962 for the Elvis Presley boxing version).
"The Wagons Roll At Night" works because of the crisp pacing, lots of fireworks (and lions!) and especially the great cast. Eddie Albert plays the Chester Morris role- a lion-tamer this time- with his usual aw-shucks simplicity, and it works fine. Bogart- as the corrupt circus owner- is in gangster mode here, and that always works fine. Joan Leslie- hands off Bogie's sister!- in a girl-next-door role isn't going to miss- Warner Brothers hadn't yet begun to fully misunderstand and derail her promising career. But this one belongs to soulful Sylvia Sidney, as a fortune teller and Bogie's mistress. Her caught-in-the-middle character is the glue in this version. She's understated, elegant, and wonderful as the forgotten woman who makes basic decency a form of unsung heroism.
Those lions deserve a belly-rub, too- they do more roaring than MGM's entire film library, driving sequence after sequence and keeping the energy strong. You'll always know where this one is going, especially if you've seen any of the many other versions, but you'll never be bored as Bogie builds to a boil.
Deduct one star for the casual animal cruelty of 1941, but give it back just for casting Sig Ruman. I love that guy.
The Lady Takes a Sailor (1949)
Romantic comedies usually involve two characters in conflict. To make it work, for starters, they need to be likable, somewhat evenly matched, and in a fun and funny situation. That's why "The Lady Takes A Sailor" doesn't work.
Jane Wyman and Dennis Morgan are in an interesting (not fun or funny) situation: her career and personal reputation- like Aimee Semple McPherson's, a few years earlier- hinge on proving the truth of a wild story behind her brief disappearance, while Morgan's career depends on keeping that truth a military secret. Since Jane is clearly the wronged party- she's shipwrecked, kidnapped, drugged, mocked, and lied to by Morgan- we're rooting for her, but amid mixed messages that she should sacrifice everything for an ungrateful military.
Wyman and Morgan are not equally matched. There's no cleverness (or fun) in their conflict, just a lot of confrontation, in which he effortlessly bullies, stalks, and taunts her. She's a helpless victim and he's basically a cad and a thug.
Morgan's character is therefore totally unlikable, and the idea that he might win this fight, much less get the girl, clouds any fun that this film has to offer. With all that, it hardly matters that the film is completely unfunny, or that the message is (once again) that women don't really need careers when a man- (even a repellent one!)- comes along.
Incidentally, nothing against Wyman, Morgan, director Michael Curtiz, or Eve Arden, who all had fine careers and did excellent work elsewhere.
The Kid from Kokomo (1939)
Heavyweight Robson For The TKO
There has to be a story here: Warner Brothers celebrates the second anniversary (less three days) of the release of its own "Kid Galahad" with a similarly-titled, VERY similar story, "The Kid From Kokomo". Both films feature a tainted manager and his long-suffering girlfriend fleeing from a crooked situation and accidentally discovering a farmer they can turn into a champ in the ring. Both fighters are played by Wayne Morris. Both fighters find love, have mother issues, battle the mob, and are faced with throwing a title bout. There's also a key difference: "The Kid From Kokomo" is rowdy, fast-paced, and often hysterically funny.
I signed on for Joan Blondell here- I'll watch anything she's in- and this might be her most lovable performance. She sets the pace from the beginning, as usual for her bubbly thirties self- and she's crisply funny and spot-on as a semi-reformed bubble dancer. Her handling of two hilariously lazy hillbilly rustics in an early scene raises the bar on this comedy. But even Joan steps back to make way when a batty old kleptomaniac suddenly appears, hauled before a judge, and instantly takes over the film.
Holy H. Smokes, it's May Robson! This is the wildest, funniest performance you will ever see from anyone born before the American Civil War. May mugs, schemes, bellows, and prances as an aging con artist who stumbles into a sweet set-up. The fun she's clearly having is an irresistible force for the rest of the film.
"The Kid From Kokomo" has a major secret ingredient for a comedy of this type: wonderful, funny supporting characters (and the cast to play them). The whole thing feels like Preston Sturges might have waved his hand over it. It never loses the pace, and it never loses control- even the brawling is funny. It exits with a bang precisely when it should, and leaves us laughing.
Stay Away, Joe (1968)
Stay Awake, Joe
They wanted to make a good Elvis film. They wanted to bring his screen image up to date. They just didn't have the commitment to do what it took, as evidenced by a gun-slinging Joan Blondell (I love her anyway) and the almost unbelievable decision to let Elvis act near a comic bull, to or about which he will inevitably sing, with tragic results.
The film they wanted to make here, more or less, in my opinion, is "The Rounders" (1965): a bawdy, modern western with a smallish feeling, driven by life-sized characters and the fringe world they inhabit. Good idea. And there are a lot of things going for "Stay Away": the location shooting, an excellent cast; and even the meandering plot serves the film well, to a point. Elvis is clearly on board this time with his unapologetically horny, scheming, and semi-corrupt character- a much needed change of pace.
But they just can't get Elvis off of "Gilligan's Island". "Stay Away, Joe" is defeated by a number of things, ranging from the decision to let Elvis sing "diagetically" (i.e., in the film rather than over it), a make-up job on Burgess Meredith (who is completely wasted) that would make Bozo blush, and most especially, the overly broad comedy.
Broad comedy is a nice fit for this film. But in one of several fight sequences, they push through a progression of painful cartoonish clichés that starts with timpani and slide-whistles and degenerates into the old favorites- someone gets something over the head and goes cross-eyed, little guy's punches bounce off big guy, etc. If that really makes you laugh, I beg your pardon, I guess. Joan Blondell chasing Elvis around with a gun and actually shooting at him while friends and family stand by and chuckle further erode the sense that we're in a more believable world than Hope and Crosby or Martin and Lewis inhabit. Blondell's daughter is one of the saddest clichés: the exploitable sexpot with a small child's mind. It all just doesn't fit.
So unless you love Elvis and Elvis films as much as I do, stay away- Joe
Joy of Living (1938)
Couldn't Be Cuter
Irene Dunne is the Broadway star being bled and bullied by a family of sponges; Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is the handsome free spirit stalking her and- of course- just the medicine she needs.
If you've seen Jean Harlow's 1933 screwball masterpiece "Bombshell", you've seen a fairly similar story done much better, but "Joy of Living" comes off just fine- thanks mostly to two terrific leads at the top of their game, given plenty to work with. Dunne and Fairbanks spar with wit and energy to spare, and wonderful dialogue and funny situations keep this one rolling, even if it can't quite decide to go full-screwball.
One of those great thirties casts, with Jean Dixon, Guy Kibbee, and Eric Blore (and quick drive-bys from Franklin Pangborn and Grady Sutton) adds another touch of class. The songs of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields (including "You Couldn't be Cuter"), and Dunne's wonderful talent as a singer, bring enough extra to make this one special.
Petticoat Fever (1936)
Ice-Bound Screwball Fun
Robert Montgomery is a fine actor with an impressive range in both comedy and drama. His default settings would have seemed to make him a sort of good-looking, dapper chump, usually a funny one, and he could have sailed through a fine career as well-dressed arm-candy, but he was far too talented to fall into any such persona. In comedy, he was at his sharpest playing dryer, edgier funnymen who were in on the joke. "Petticoat Fever" gives him the funniest character I've seen him play, and he energizes this oddly claustrophobic and icebound screwball sleeper in a way that is purely masterful.
Montgomery is a sour, mumbling radio operator stuck in a frozen isolation that is slowly grinding his nerves until Myrna Loy and her fiancé, Reginald Owen, are stranded in his rustic cabin by airplane trouble. Screwball comedies usually move rapidly from place to place, but the fun here is in Montgomery's scheming and manipulation to keep Loy within reach. His sparring with her and especially with a wonderfully over-the-top Owen- who knew he could be this funny?- is a case of a fine script made special in performance. The dialogue is terrific at times, and the pacing is briskly fun, but Montgomery's face tells the story in every scene- he's a clown on a mission and he brings this one home with a bang. There isn't a wasted moment. "Petticoat Fever" deserves to grow a reputation.
Holiday Affair (1949)
An Overlooked Package
You can take the simplest, most familiar story and make it special and fresh all over again with a little warmth and inspiration. By opening with a very whimsical title-sequence shot following what proves to be a department store's toy train in close-up, this Golden Age Christmas charmer announces its intention to keep it small, sweet, and light without ever getting sticky or sentimental.
Janet Leigh is adorable as the (incredibly young) single mother; Robert Mitchum is dashing and unusually (for him) lovable as the dreamer who has to take her away from the (slightly) wrong man, and it all revolves around a cute kid at Christmas and the circumstances that keep throwing these two lonely souls together. There isn't a slow moment on the trip, and when it all leads back- (spoiler? I don't think so)- to that opening shot, in truly inspired fashion, well, the jingle bells ring.
This is the kind of film you love to stumble onto late at night or on a rainy Sunday, and say "Now, where has this one been hiding?"
I Was a Male War Bride (1949)
Brace yourself for what might be an unpopular opinion: this is a rare swing and a miss for Cary Grant and Howard Hawks, two artists near their peaks, both with great batting averages.
A strangely uncharming Grant and an oddly unsexy Ann Sheridan simply snipe at each other while paired on a dull military mission for nearly an hour, absent any real chemistry or laughs; eventually the two surprisingly unlikable characters seem to glance at their watches and realize it's time to fall in love and move on to the next thing.
The next thing is what I call a frustration comedy: a series of circumstances work to foil the characters at every turn. In this case, it's thick-headed U.S. Army bureaucracy that torments newlyweds Grant and Sheridan in a way that is unpleasant at best (and extremely grating for this viewer). For one extended sequence, Grant is denied a place to sleep in either army or civilian quarters, turned away from one place and then another and another, even officiously pulled from an improvised bed and sent into the night, simply because he is a "male bride". It's almost as much screwball fun as watching someone being put on hold by an automated phone service. (The Army must have HATED this damaging portrayal).
Once the wooden pair are married, the comic focus of the film shifts to flogging the joke spelled out in the title, and though it's the type of thing Grant usually did superbly- see "Bringing Up Baby", also with Hawks- it simply isn't funny here.
Well, even the great ones miss now and then, and fortunately Grant's, Hawk's, and Sheridan's fine legacies don't hang on this stumble.
A Cry in the Night (1956)
A Rare 'Family Noir'
"A Cry in the Night" starts fast: an idealized fifties couple parked in a convertible at the local Inspiration Point, a conked boyfriend, a kidnapped teenage girl (inevitably, the police captain's daughter). From there it fans out into a number of ideas, most of which wander into the dark and disappear, none of which are delivered with any particular inspiration.
We get the question of personal responsibility and "getting involved" when no one else on the scene responds to Natalie Wood's cries for help- from which the title derives- with anything more than mockery. We get the question of how a monster is made when we meet Raymond Burr's horrific and self-absorbed mother. We get the idea of Natalie Wood, victim, fighting to survive by forging a personal connection with her captor. We get the idea that her home life was another form of captivity. Nonetheless, all we really get is a police chase, and it's a pretty mundane one.
From Raymond Burr, we get an interpretation of an unstable but very human mentally-challenged person that builds in places on Lon Chaney Jr.'s performance in "Of Mice and Men", but is still just an unconvincing sketch. From nearly every one else, we get a lot of scenery-nibbling where chewing is called for: Edmond O'Brien, as the missing girl's father, takes his anger level to about a seven and is always willing to stop and quibble about minor distractions. Natalie Wood does a fine job, but knowing what she had been through personally by this time in her young life makes her character's situation more than a bit painful.
Perhaps fortunately, sexual tension is greatly minimized by the era of the film: it's there, eventually, but a much more overt rape threat might truly have demonized Burr's character and thus done a disservice to people who were already marginalized in society.
Unsurprisingly, the subplot in which the Taggart family problems are brought to light by the ordeal at hand is absurdly simplistic and about as subtle and deft as a sledgehammer.
It all moves briskly enough, and Burr's creepy lair is a plus, along with the exciting situation, but there's a much better film in this material. To see a fairly similar story in far more skilled hands (only a year earlier), check out William Wyler's "The Desperate Hours".
Storm Warning (1951)
The Scent Of Compromise, And An Odd Duck
This has to be the only anti-Klan/social message film you'll ever see that doesn't mention race even once. African-Americans appear only as extras in this story; I'm pretty sure no one even gets a line of dialogue. As if that wasn't distracting enough, there's a tacked-on theme that the Klan is simply a money scam, with the various local wizards getting rich off of dues, emblem and white sheet and pillow case sales and what-not, and that the whole terrifying organization is one forensic audit away from some really bad press. On top of all that weirdness, it's made very clear- and don't think this wasn't thought through, hashed out, and thoroughly negotiated- that the Klan murder that opens the film was the unintended act of a loose cannon, rather than a real lynching. Past all that hedging, though, they really give that bad ol' Klan what-for! The result is an almost unimaginably odd duck- an openly crusading film that must have made the Klan and the NAACP pretty equally unhappy back in 1951.
What we're left with is a pretty good Noir that is brisk, tense, gripping, and very exciting when it needs to be, driven by the kind of villains you love to root against- bullies and cowards. Ginger Rogers and Doris Day are cast well out of their comfort zones in humorless, non-glamorous (though Rogers plays a model), and mostly unlovable roles. Both pull it off admirably. Reagan is right in his wheelhouse as the straight-arrow prosecutor fighting an uphill battle. Odd to find these three future Republican stalwarts in this de-fanged cop-out, but they manage to make something out of the leftover pieces that's well worth your very short viewing time. "Storm Warning" is also nicely staged and spooky; it delivers a small town from the 1950s that you won't want to visit- but boy, is it vivid and real.
It would be interesting to know what went on behind the scenes- who chickened this thing out, and what the early drafts looked like. They clearly had no heart to make an "Ox-Bow Incident" or "Gentleman's Agreement", but they gave what they could.
The Oblong Box (1969)
A Cinematic Edsel
Edgar Allan Poe wrote an essay called "The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale". He believed in maintaining one mood and seeking one effect in prose designed to be read in an hour. If this 1969 British film had shared anything more than a title with Poe's 1844 short story (which takes place on a ship), it might have benefited from fewer characters, fewer incidents, less back story, and as a result, less diffusion of that single effect that a good horror story strives for.
This is a well-crafted film, good looking and enjoyable. Vincent Price is always a treat. There's just too much going on with too many characters, none of whom are really given the chance to take hold with us or resonate.
The best sequence involves the man in the red hood (around whom the story attempts to revolve) being bullied into a crazily debauched pub, with interesting results, but even here, we don't have enough time to develop any real emotional color. Things just keep happening as the plot hurtles forward from place to place and character to character. The three leads share very little screen time and relate to each other minimally.
The long, rambling plot synopsis for this film on Wikipedia makes for a pretty good exercise in trouble-spotting, and the fact that I felt the need to seek it out after viewing simply underscores the point. A bit less might have given us room for a lot more.
I'm sure I'll give "The Oblong Box" another try in a few years- it's far from a waste of time. But as of now it doesn't crack my top ten Vincent Price movies in which someone is buried alive.
Home Before Dark (1958)
You're A Tough Broad, Charlotte Bronn
This is a strong drama built entirely on Jean Simmons' outstanding performance as a woman recovering from a breakdown and searching for love and a home, only to find her own strength instead. Director Mervyn LeRoy and novelist/screenwriter Eileen Bassing confidently put the entire burden on Simmons, who appears in nearly every scene, and the actress delivers a character who continually defies and exceeds the expectations of those around her, and the viewer.
We meet Charlotte Bronn as she is returning from a long stay in a mental hospital following a nervous breakdown that included episodes of violence and paranoia. She's shaky and vulnerable and painfully self-aware. But even before she first appears at the end of the long hallway, walking towards the camera and into her new life, those closest to her have already begun to let her down.
We quickly begin to learn the source of her downfall, but Simmons doesn't give us a victim and the film doesn't back away from real mental illness- the portrayal of Charlotte's recovery and gradual tilt towards relapse is surprisingly sharp and modern.
"Home Before Dark" is understated, in an almost documentary style, more smart than clever, but the energy and pacing are crisp enough that the film always seems within one twist of becoming a noir thriller or Hitchcock suspense. Charlotte is desperate for acceptance, her husband's love, and the truth about her marriage, all of which are withheld, and we naturally expect a handsome man- any of several on hand- to step forward and solve her problems, either romantically or as a confidant. The film's value comes from its steady refusal to take those easy paths.
The pathos is tastefully understated but powerful nonetheless- Charlotte says she's not beautiful, she says she knows her husband doesn't love her and that she's not worthy of love- and her husband simply fails to contradict her. The film is, among other things, a relentless study of one spouse failing another.
We root for Charlotte Bronn as she stumbles- her story never does. This is one of Simmons' best.
Marriage on the Rocks (1965)
How Not To Make A Comedy
This is a depressing exercise of that mid-sixties genre in which the Greatest Generation skewers the Swinging Sixties and its own middle age at the same time. You've seen it plenty: Mom or Pop makes the scene, does the Frug, and flirts with infidelity, embarrassing the teenage daughter, while humoring her pretentious boyfriend as he spews pseudo-modern, pseudo-intellectual psychobabble. The marriage is in some kind of mid-life jeopardy and we get lots of racy dallying with modern morality before- (surely this is not a genre-wide spoiler!)- reaffirming traditional values in a final clinch. Actually, some of these are kind of fun, and they're nearly always fun to look at and listen to.
Not this one.
The comic situation here takes way too long to develop, spends a great deal of that time telling you exactly what's going to happen before it happens, and isn't even a little bit funny or believable. Whatever comic opportunities are there just aren't delivered upon, and the pacing is excruciating. The characters are such loose sketches that we aren't tempted to buy them either. Perhaps worst of all, the comic talents of a great cast are wasted, and not just the principles- while Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and a very game Deborah Kerr are striking out, great talent like Reta Shaw, Kathleen Freeman, John McGiver, and Parley Baer are left to ride the bench in a film that's thirty minutes too long.
The Scottish mother-in-law and Cesar Romero's shyster, both broadly stereotyped, bring the only really lively support, and it's mostly just bellowing and posturing.
The only redemption here, if any, is Dean Martin's bachelor pad, a wonderful set on which nothing really happens. And the color is pretty nice and lively for the most part, as per the period. And brunette Nancy Sinatra gives it her best and is always fun to watch. She has great chemistry with her dad and Dean.
To cleanse your soul of this, pull out Preston Sturges' immortal "The Palm Beach Story" and see how a marriage comedy should move and breathe.