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The Devil and Miss Jones

Who's Minding the Store
THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES (RKO Radio, 1941), directed by Sam Wood, is not a horror film involving demons and soul possession, but an enduring comedy with an original premise written by Norman Krasna set mostly in a department store. An unlikely title for a comedy, yet everything about it works to perfection. Headed by Jean Arthur, the sole focus of the story rightfully belongs to Charles Coburn, the "devil" image in the opening credits with the "angelic" character lead of Jean Arthur and how their characters along with others become involved in each other's personal lives.

Plot summary: John P. Merrick (Charles Coburn), an elusive millionaire owner of Neeley's Department Store on 38th Street in New York City, is advised by his visiting directors to investigate labor problems taking place at his store. Because Thomas E. Higgins (Robert Emmett Keane), a hired investigator, intends on doing his job after the birth of his wife's baby rather than immediately, Merrick takes it upon himself to do the job himself. He poses as Higgins and acquires a position as a sales clerk in the shoe department on the 5th floor. While there he befriends Mary Jones (Jean Arthur), one of the co-workers, who takes pity on the man believing he is broke and taking a job below his means. Mary introduces him to Elizabeth Ellis (Spring Byington), another employee who shares her lunch with him. Merrick takes an immediate dislike towards Horace Hopper (Edmund Gwenn), a section manager who belittles him on doing poorly on his entrance exams. As Merrick takes personal notes on what needs to be done for improvements of the store, namely firing Hooper, who is also interested in Elizabeth, he later meets Joe O'Brien (Robert Cummings), Mary's boyfriend, who holds secret meetings for store employees revolving labor problems at the store. O'Brien hopes to get to meet Merrick in hope to resolve these issues. Problems arise when Merrick believes he would lose his friendship with these good people if he ever reveals his true identity. Co-starring S. Z. Sakall (George, the Butler); William Demarest (The Store Detective); Montagu Love, Richard Carle, Charles Waldron, Florence Bates and Regis Toomey.

What makes this comedy so astonishing is the fact the actors play their roles straight with situations that could actually occur being the cause for comedy. One great scene is where Merrick trying desperately to sell and put on a pair of real ugly shoes to a pre-teen girl (Betty Brewer) with no success. Another where Merrick tries desperately to find a bath house in Coney Island beach to change back to his street clothes, only to be accused and arrested of stealing from the lockers. Edmund Gwenn, so likable as Kris Kringle in MIRACLE ON 34th STREET (20th Century-Fox, 1947), is still likable in his unlikable role as the section manager. Jean Arthur, in her new hair style fashion for the 1940s, who earlier worked in EASY LIVING (Paramount, 1937), another department store set comedy where Arthur played Mary Smith, fits her role to perfection. Aside from being a gifted comedienne, she shows her true dramatic ability here as well discussing how lost she would be without Joe O'Brien. While Arthur was nominated for an Academy Award in THE MORE THE MERRIER (Columbia, 1943), which also co-starred Charles Coburn, in his Academy Award winning role as Best Supporting Actor, I personally feel Arthur should have been nominated as Best Actress for THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES instead, although Coburn did earn deservingly his nomination for Best Supporting Actor here along with Norman Krasna for his original screenplay, which seems to still hold up today.

Anyone shopping for a good comedy, try finding an old video cassette or DVD format for THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES, or wait for its next broadcasting on Turner Classic Movies cable channel where it's been showing since 2005. It's a real bargain. (***1/2)

Yolanda and the Thief

Flesh and Fantasy
YOLANDA AND THE THIEF (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1945) directed by Vincente Minnelli, stars Fred Astaire in his first musical release in lavish Technicolor. In spite of its reputation of losing money for the studio upon its initial release, and being a showcase for Lucille Bremer in her first major role, YOLANDA AND THE THIEF would go on record as a welcome change of pace for Astaire from his usual productions from the past. Even the weakest of the Astaire movies often has something going for it, including this. A mix of realism and fantasy taken from a story by Ludwig Bemelmens and Jacques Diery, its the sort of movie that could either be enjoyed for what it is or a complete misfire.

Opening in the country of Patria, the story focuses on Yolanda Aquaviva (Lucille Bremer), a convent-bred girl who, on her 18th birthday, is to leave her familiar upbringing surroundings to face the world on her own. Before leaving, her Mother Superior (Jane Green) suggests if she ever needs any help, to pray to her guardian angel for assistance. Being an heiress who has acquired control of her $72 million family fortune, she returns home by train to her estate in Esperando accompanied by her duenna (Mary Nash) and priest (Francis Pierlot) where she is to live with her Aunt Amarilla (Mildred Natwick). Also on the same train are Johnny Parkson Riggs (Fred Astaire) and Victor Budlowe Trout (Frank Morgan), a couple of crooks run out of town by the police. After learning about Yolanda through both their waiter and newspaper headlines, Johnny plots to follow Yolanda to steal her gigantic fortune. Overhearing her prayer to her guardian angel, Johnny later telephones Yolanda to tell her he is her guardian angel to assist her. He arranges for her to meet him at the Hotel Esperando as the humanly formed "Mr. Brown." While he succeeds in obtaining her confidence and her bag of $1 million in bonds, it mysteriously disappears. As much as Johnny and Victor suspect the mysterious Mr. Candle (Leon Ames), a passenger on the train, to be the prime suspect, it is uncertain what his connection to Yolanda is all about. Co-starring Ludwig Stossel; Leon Belasco; GiGi Perreau and Gino Corrado.

With music and lyrics by Arthur Freed and Harry Warren, songs include: "This is a Day for Love" (sung by Lucille Bremer); "This is the Day for Love" (reprise); "Angel" (sung by Bremer); "The Dream Ballet," "Will You Marry Me?" (sung by Bremer, chorus, danced by Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer); "Yolanda" (sung by Fred Astaire while playing a harp) and "Coffee Time" (danced by Astaire and Bremer). While "This is a Day for Love" is a pretty tune, with musical highlights featuring Lucille Bremer singing while in a bubble bath, the 15 minute "Dream Ballet" segment, and the dancing to the hand clapping crowd backdrop to "Coffee Time," YOLANDA AND THE THIEF produced no major song hits.

Possibly the problem of YOLANDA AND THE THIEF is the casting of Lucille Bremer. With only one previous movie to her name, Vincente Minnelli's direction of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), starring Judy Garland, and producer Arthur Freed's intention on promoting her into a major attraction, she just didn't have that star gazing ability to become another Garland or Kathryn Grayson. Though Bremer's dancing was agreeable, and was to dance again with Astaire in a musical segment from ZIEGFELD FOLLIES (1945), her career simply didn't make the grade and retired from films by 1948. Aside from great Technicolor, and some fine amusements involving a taxi ride that never takes place, even though Astaire is ageless, he seemed a bit too old for the teenage character of Yolanda. Frank Morgan as Astaire's partner in crime, a welcome presence, has little opportunity for being amusing. Had YOLANDA AND THE THIEF featured Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, the movie may have had a chance of becoming a minor MGM classic, especially since Kelly seems more capable of being a convincing but likable thief than Astaire.

Distributed on video cassette and later DVD format, YOLANDA AND THE THIEF can be seen and studied when shown on Turner Classic Movies cable channel. (***)

Any Number Can Play

Kyng of Gamblers
ANY NUMBER CAN PLAY (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1949), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, stars Clark Gable in one of his better roles, next to THE HUCKSTERS (1947) of the latter portion of his career. What makes this drama stand apart from the other Gable movies of the past is this time he plays a family man with a lovable wife and teenage son as opposed to he typically trying to win the girl and becoming a father to either an infant or young child by the film's end. His goal here is not to try to get the girl, but win the love and respect of his son. Another added bonus to the proceedings is the assortment of screen veterans in smaller but crucial roles as Frank Morgan, Mary Astor, Lewis Stone and Marjorie Rambeau (in a performance reminiscent to Ethel Barrymore).

The story focuses on Charley Enley Kyng (Clark Gable), a former bartender who worked his way up to gambling casino owner of 15 years now with a cardiac condition. He is advised by Doctor Palmer (Leon Ames) to give up his establishment for a better but restful life . An expert fisherman, Kyng is unable to give up his life of smoking and stressful living. Though he is well liked and admired by his employees, Tycoon (Barry Sullivan), Ed (Edgar Buchanan), Sleigh (Caleb Peterson), along with friends and gambling attendees as Jim Kurtstyn (Frank Morgan), Ada (Mary Astor), a four-time divorcee; Ben Gavery Sneller (Lewis Stone) and grand dame Sarah Calbern (Marjorie Rambeau), and his wife Lon (Alexis Smith), Kyng would want nothing more than to have the love and respect from his teenage son, Paul (Darryl Hickman). Also living in his household are Alice (Audrey Totter), Lon's sister, and her worthless husband, Robbie (Wendall Corey), who owes $2,000 in gambling debt to gangsters, Augie Debretti (Richard Rober) and Frank Sistina (William Conrad). Because Robbin works for Charley, he is blackmailed into having him fix a crap game with loaded dice so they can win what's owed them. After Paul is arrested for a brawl while out on a date, he refuses to have his father bail him out. After his mother arranges for his release, she intends on taking Paul to the casino to have him get reacquainted with his father. Co-starring Dorothy Comingore, Art Baker, Mickey Knox, Douglas Fowley and Isabel Randolph.

With the gambling proceedings being a reminder of Humphrey Bogart in CASABLANCA (Warners, 1942), Gable, who has played gambling casino owners before (MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (1934) immediately comes to mind), he fits his role perfectly, now being older with health issues. His father and son angle of the story, where father is ashamed of his son for not fighting back when struck while son is ashamed of his father for what he is, makes an interesting subplot that involves mostly gambling with film noir touches. Though THE GREAT SINNER (MGM, 1949), the studio's other participation to gambling, starring Gregory Peck, failed at the box-office, ANY NUMBER CAN PLAY holds up well with better story.

It's a wonder how the movie might have turned out had Gable's wife been enacted by Mary Astor (who was the right age for a woman with a teenage son and closer to Gable's age range as well) as opposed to the much younger Alexis Smith, with possibly a Claire Trevor or Joan Blondell in the Astor role instead? While Astor was type-cast playing mostly mothers for MGM, this role might have been more worthy and more substantial for her talent as well.

Regardless of lulls in the 103 minute production, ANY NUMBER CAN PLAY is fine just the way it is. Available on video cassette and DVD, ANY NUMBER CAN PLAY often shows on Turner Classic Movies cable channel, a best bet for Gable fans (*** chips)

Annie Oakley

Shooting Star
ANNIE OAKLEY (RKO Radio, 1935), directed by George Stevens, stars Barbara Stanwyck in one of her most notable roles of the 1930s. Being her first movie under the RKO Radio banner, and second of three opposite Preston Foster, this adaptation, from the story by Joseph A. Fields and Ewart Adamson, is more fiction than fact on the real life story of Annie Oakley, female sharpshooter, produced years before the popular Irving Berlin musical of "Annie Get Your Gun" starring Ethel Merman, the 1950 screen version of the same name starring Betty Hutton for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the basis of a television series (1954-1957) starring Gail Davis.

Rather than starting with the traditional biographical fashion of Annie Oakley as a child who develops her shooting skills at a very young age, the story begins with this opening title: "No fiction is stranger than the actual life of Annie Oakley who came out of a backwoods village half a century ago to astonish the world" before moving to its plot summary. Set at the turn of the century, Annie Oakley (Barbara Stanwyck), a farm girl known for quail shooting, in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her mother (Margaret Armstrong), sister, Susan (Adeline Craig) and little brother, Wesley (Delmar Watson) to participate in the shooting contest against Toby Walker (Preston Foster), "the greatest shot in the whole world." With name mistaken for Andy Oakley, James MacIvor (Andy Clyde), the local hotel owner, finds it impossible for a woman to be an expert marksman. Annie proves her worth at the contest, nearly beating Toby until she purposely misses a shot for Toby to come out the winner. With her skills observed by press agent, Jeff Hogarth (Melvyn Douglas), he convinces Annie to join the troupe of Buffalo Bill's (Moroni Olsen) Wild West Show. Being the only female among cowboys, she becomes Toby's counterpart in sharpshooting events. During their union, Toby teaches Annie some shooting tricks to advance her style. As much as he has fallen in love with her, Toby finds it to be good publicity pretending to be rivals in the public eye. His scheme works all too well when, following a shooting accident that affects his eye vision, Toby goes on with the show. When shooting a coin held by Annie, through misjudgment, injures her hand. This incident loses Toby's standing with the Wild West Show, with Jeff preventing Toby from seeing Annie ever again.

Pert Kelton co-stars as Vera Delmar, Toby's former vaudeville partner; with Chief Thunder Bird as Chief Sitting Bull. Dick Elliott (Major Ned Buntline), Si Jenks, Brandon Hurst and Willie Best can be seen in smaller roles. Being more fiction than historically accurate, ANNIE OAKEY aims to please through much of its 88 minutes. The re-enactment and well-staged Wild West Shows are one of the highlights. Although some could imagine Jean Arthur playing Annie Oakley, Barbara Stanwyck gives it her best shot. Preston Foster's character of Toby Walker, based on the real sharpshooter named Frank Butler, is also properly cast here as is Melvyn Douglas. Some humor involving Indians for comedy purposes is tastefully done. For any accurate accounts not presented in the movie on the real Annie Oakley, simply read books written about her life and career.

Formerly available on video cassette and once shown regularly on American Movie Classics prior to 2001, ANNIE OAKLEY, currently on DVD, can be seen on occasion on Turner Classic Movies. (*** rifles)

Journal of a Crime

Diary of a Mad Housewife
JOURNAL OF A CRIME (First National Pictures, 1934) directed by William Keighley, stars Ruth Chatterton in her sixth and final film for the studio in a melodramatic tale of a long suffering wife. While this material, from the play by Jacques Bevan, could have gone to Kay Francis, another studio resident of stories such as this, Ruth Chatterton does what she can to make her character believable during the plot's 64 minute briefing.

The story opens in Paris (where nobody speaks with a French accent) during the late evening hours where Francoise (Ruth Chatterton) is seen outside the theater where her playwright husband Paul (Adolphe Menjou) and its director, Chautard (George Barbier) are inside rehearsing a musical play titled "Adecia." Once outside, she spots and overhears Paul conversing with Odette Floret (Claire Dodd), its leading lady who happens to be her husband's mistress, discussing for Paul to divorce his wife and marry her or else their affair is over. Unable to hurt his wife, Paul, who is desperately in love with Odette, makes his promise to her. Arriving home at 3 a.m., Paul finds Francoise awaiting him, but is unable to break the news to her. The next day, during rehearsals, Paul informs Odette he couldn't tell his wife, but promises to do so that very night. At the same time, Costelli (Noel Madison) 13 blocks away from the theater, robs the bank, killing its bank clerk. With the police in hot pursuit, Costelli abandons his car and hides inside the theater mixing with the crowd in rehearsal. Inside the auditorium, a gunshot is heard, killing Odette on stage, causing a search and capture of Costelli put under arrest. Paul discovers his own gun inside a bucket of water and immediately believes his wife responsible. Refusing to admit her crime of passion to the police, with Francoise wanting to hold on to her husband, Paul remains with his wife, awaiting for the day she confesses to the police, secrets written privately through her day by day accounts in her journal of a crime. Co-starring Douglass Dumbrille, Philip Reed, Henry O'Neill, Henry Kolker, Jane Darwell and twelfth billed, Walter Pidgeon.

What attracted me to JOURNAL OF A CRIME initially was the 12th billed Walter Pidgeon, a former leading actor in late silent and early talkies (1928-1931) who would achieve major stardom in the 1940s. Aside from he briefly seen singing during the rehearsal sequences involving Claire Dodd, he is given no camera close-ups nor major scenes. Another thing that attracted me to this production is Ruth Chatterton. With a handful of movie roles for Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer dating back to 1928, the only movie of hers to be repeatedly televised since the 1960s was her iconic role in DODSWORTH (Samuel Goldwyn, 1936) starring Walter Huston. Thanks for cable channel as Turner Classic Movies are the Chatterton/Warner Brothers dramas (1932-1934) revived and rediscovered again. Beautiful Claire Dodd, typically cast as the other woman, is no different here than her other movies of this era. She's a fine actress rarely given a chance to act against type. Adolphe Menjou is satisfactory, as always, playing the grief-stricken husband.

The premise of JOURNAL OF A CRIME is a reminder of W. Somerset Maugham's play and motion picture retelling of "The Letter" in which wife murders her lover, in this instance, her husband's lover, and how the wife must suffer for her sins of her crime. And how Chatterton suffers. Also available on DVD to see how the movie finishes. (**1.2)

Special Agent

One for the Books
SPECIAL AGENT (Warner Brothers, 1935), directed by William Keighley, teams Bette Davis and George Brent for the fifth time since their initially pairing in 1932. Following the success to the studio's own G-MEN (1935) starring James Cagney, leading other yesterdays gangsters as Edward G. Robertson working on the side of the law in similar themed BULLETS OR BALLOTS (1936), SPECIAL AGENT ranks another crime caper dealing with federal agents versus crime incorporated. While Bette Davis heads the cast with George Brent in the title role, the story really belongs to the third-billed Ricardo Cortez as the mean and feared crime boss who stops at nothing.

The story focuses on Bill Bradford (George Brent), a special agent of seven years for the Department of Internal Revenue, assigned to work undercover as an ace newspaper reporter to obtain confidence with Alexander Carston (Ricardo Cortez), a crime boss and manager of the 122 Club gambling casino, to acquire enough evidence from his secret books and statements for his arrest on income tax evasion. Julie Gardner (Bette Davis) is Carston's trusted personal bookkeeper who gets paid well, but fears that one day she will be killed off as other victims who have gone against Carston. During his investigation, Bill becomes involved with Julie while at the same gathers Carston's enough information regarding underworld or police tips so to gather his trust. Eventually, Julie agrees to risk herself by helping Bradford with enough evidence needed for Carston's arrest. Unknown to all, there is an informer at the bureau working secretly with Carston, allowing the racketeer to be one step ahead of Bradford's schemes. As Julie is to appear in court testifying against Carston, she mysteriously disappears.

Jack LaRue, J. Carroll Naish and Joseph Sawyer as Carston's hoods; with Irving Pichel, Henry O'Neill, Robert Strange, Robert Barrat and Paul Guilfoyle round up the cast. Plot was revamped by Warners as GAMBLING ON THE HIGH SEAS (1940) starring Jane Wyman, Wayne Morris and Roger Pryor in the Davis, Brent and Cortez roles. While the title SPECIAL AGENT was reused for a 1949 Paramount crime drama starring William Eythe, it is not a remake.

Being one of many crime capers of the 1930s, SPECIAL AGENT is another one of those films that holds interest throughout its fast-paced 76 minutes. Considering the fact that she is a secondary character to George Brent's leading performance, Bette Davis is of sole interest who makes this minor crime caper special for film buffs. Her role could have been played by any studio contract player as Ann Dvorak or Margaret Lindsay, and still be satisfactory, but is fine just the way it is. While Ricardo Cortez could play detectives (the 1931 edition of "The Maltese Falcon") or good-natured characters (1932's "Symphony of Six Million") with conviction, it is his recurring typecasting here as the czar of racketeers that gathers him more attention away from its leading players.

SPECIAL AGENT, which never had a home video distribution but available on DVD, can be seen on cable television's Turner Classic Movies. (***)

The Letter

Return to Sender
THE LETTER (Warner Brothers, 1940), directed by William Wyler, stars Bette Davis in one of her top melodramas based on the W. Somerset Maugham story, previously filmed by Paramount in 1929 starring Jeanne Eagles. Wyler, who earlier directed Davis in her Academy Award Best Actress win for JEZEBEL (1938), provides Davis with another Academy Award nominated performance for this more stylish and moody presentation. Returning Davis to Maugham material, following her show-stopping role of the cockney waitress named Mildred in OF HUMAN BONDAGE (RKO Radio, 1934), THE LETTER, first staged in 1927, offers her another challenge to behold in the best Bette Davis tradition.

The story starts on a hot quiet evening where a visible full moon enlightens a rubber company's Singapore plantation. All is peaceful until gun shots are fired, forcing a young man (David Newell) to come out of a cottage as Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) continually fires until he stumbles down to his death. Robert (Herbert Marshall, who appeared as the lover in the 1929 edition), her husband, away on business at Plantation 4, is notified to return home at once. Learning of the incident, Robert engages Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), his good friend and lawyer, to handle the case. As Leslie is questioned, with her actions testified as self defense, for that Geoffrey Hammond, whom she had know as a casual acquaintance for seven years, had tried to attack her. Before the murder trial is to be set, Howard learns that Leslie had sent Hammond a letter to come visit her the night of the murder. Suspecting she and Hammond were lovers during Robert's absence, Howard also discovers the letter which Leslie wants back happens to be in the possession of Hammond's widow (Gale Sondergaard). She not only wants $10,000 for it, but Leslie to come in person to pick it up. This leaves Howard's decision to continue as Leslie's attorney, or be disbarred in assisting her for paying for the incriminating letter. Co-starring Frieda Inescort (Dorothy Joyce); Bruce Lester (John Withers); Elizabeth Earl (Adele Ainsworth); Victor Sen Yung (Ong Chi Seng); Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Cooper) and Willie Fung (Chung Hi). Although Cecil Kellaway's name is listed in the closing credits as Mr. Prescott, his scenes are not visible in the final print.

The success to THE LETTER rests on its fine supporting cast, namely James Stephenson, whose performance not only outshines Herbert Marshall's, but having more scenes than the male co-star. As good as Stephenson was, to a point of receiving an Academy Award nominated as Best Supporting Actor for his work, he soon starred in a couple of movies of his own before his untimely death in 1941. Who knows how far his career might had gone had he lived? Gale Sondergaard is unforgettable as the widow who speaks only Malay and Chinese, using emotions more with her eyes than with dialogue, a performance that should have at least been nominated for her in the Best Supporting Actress category. Another added bonus aside from Wyler's strong direction is the now memorable and haunting underscoring by Max Steiner that has made THE LETTER a classic of its kind. Also nominated as Best Picture, Bette Davis has the distinction of having her other 1940 release of ALL THIS AND HEAVEN,TOO also nominated as well. Though Davis was nominated for THE LETTER, audiences and critics probably were more in favor of watching Davis being good in being bad as opposed to her earlier role as a good governess.

Directorial and visual elements for its opening comes reminiscent to director Lewis Milestone's opening style for RAIN (United Artists, 1932), another W. Somerset Maugham adaptation starring Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson, a role best known for Jeanne Eagles on stage. The popularity of THE LETTER lead to latter remakes, including THE UNFAITHFUL (WB, 1947) starring Ann Sheridan and Zachary Scott, changing a letter to a busted statue; and again as a 1982 television movie under its original title starring Lee Remick.

Because of frequent television broadcasts and reputation, many regard the Davis version to be the best of all editions. A sad fact that this edition couldn't have ended the same way as the 1929 version. Wyler, Davis and Marshall would be reunited again for THE LITTLE FOXES (Samuel Goldwyn, 1941), another hit to the Davis resume of classic films. Formerly on video cassette and currently on DVD, THE LETTER (1940) can be seen more frequently than the 1929 original on Turner Classic Movies cable channel. (***1/2)

The Wizard of Oz

Once Upon a Time
THE WIZARD OF OZ (Chadwick Studios, 1925), directed and starring Larry Semon, is a curious silent screen adaptation labeled in the opening credits to be adapted from the book by L. Frank Baum. In actuality, this version is more Semon than Baum. Though the weasel-faced comedian was one of the more popular entertainers of his time, with more comedy shorts than feature length films to his name, Larry Semon is hardly a memory today. It's through this edition of THE WIZARD OF OZ that keeps the Semon name alive. By this statement, this may seem strange, considering the fact that Semon's WIZARD OF OZ was a commercial flop upon release and regarded to be one of the worst movies ever made. As much as this could have become a lost movie forever, it's still available for viewing regardless of its past and current reputation.

Semon opens the movie with his signed dedication reading: "In the lexicon of life there is no sweeter word than Childhood, its books and its memories to bring back memories, and to bring back those memories and odd mayhap, a smile or two in purely entertainment is my desire." The story introduces a middle-aged toymaker (Larry Semon) with doll replicas of three major characters from "The WIzard of Oz" book. Moments later his little granddaughter is seen coming down the stairs to sit on his lap and have him read the L. Frank Baum story of "The Wizard of Oz." Starting with the opening passage of "Once upon a time," the present day story shifts to a mythical kingdom revolving around such characters as Prince Kynd (Bryant Washburn), Ambassador Wikket (Otto Lederer), Prime Minister Kruel (Josef Swickard), the Princess Vishuss (Virginia Pearson), and The Wizard of Oz (Charles Murray), labeled as "a medicine show hokum hustler." The town folk of Oz discover their baby princess, Dorothea, is gone. The next scene shifts to a Kansas farm where a girl named Dorothy (Dorothy Dwan) is seen living under the care of her Aunt Em (Mary Carr) and Uncle Henry (Frank Alexander). She is also befriended by likable farmhands (Larry Semon, Oliver N. Hardy and Spencer Bell, credited as G. Howe Black). Dorothy later learns she's not related to her aunt and uncle but a founding, and that Uncle Henry holds a sealed letter found on her years ago that's not to be opened until her 18th birthday. Before the letter can be read, a cyclone occurs where the farm hands and Dorothy, taking shelter in the tool shed, find themselves being blown away through the clouds and crashing into the mythical kingdom of Oz. The Prime Minister attempts in keeping his new visitors ignorant of the fact that Dorothy is the long lost princess, followed by a series of incidents nobody in Oz could ever imagine. Also in the cast are Frederick Kovert (The Phantom in Basket), with Chester Conklin and Allan "Farina" Hoskins in smaller roles.

While THE WIZARD OF OZ may have been an attempt on becoming something magical as Douglas Fairbanks overlong fantasy as THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924), the character names of Kynd, Wikket and Kruel used in THE WIZARD OF OZ plays more like a spoof than fantasy. In satire fashion, this should have been retitled LARRY SEMON'S BURLESQUE ON OZ. For many who has seen the much better known and admired 1939 sound edition to THE WIZARD OF OZ starring Judy Garland (Dorothy) and Frank Morgan (The Wizard), would be disappointed by this one. First off, this edition does not have Dorothy's dog, Toto, nor the Wicked Witch of the West, which would have been expected. Larry Semon only disguises himself as a Scarecrow to hide from his captures, a disguise he uses throughout the storybook narration. Oliver Hardy (later of the Laurel and Hardy comedy team) briefly dresses as The Tin Man, while G. Howe Black playing the black farmhand by the name of Snowball, reminiscent to Willie Best in the sound era, disguises himself in a lion costume to be mistaken for a real lion. With more misses than hits, much of the humor, cruel or otherwise, falls short on Snowball, namely when flying through the air during the cyclone with strike of lightning rods making him move faster. Dorothy Dwan (then Mrs. Larry Semon) makes due as Dorothy, but is overshadowed most by Semon's comedy antics and cartoonish chasing scenes.

Formerly available on video cassette in the 1990s with inferior underscoring and offscreen narration to its title cards, other than an earlier television broadcast on "When Silents Were Golden" on the Nostalgic Channel (shown Saturdays in 1994-95 season), Semon's WIZARD OF OZ began surfacing more frequently on Turner Classic Movies cable channel where it premiered July 3, 2005, restored with new orchestral scoring similar to the Harold Lloyd silent comedies conducted by Robert Israel, the same print found on DVD. While scoring in various shorter prints (some as little as 65 minutes) differ, the fine orchestration by Israel makes this 85 minute edition of THE WIZARD OF OZ worth viewing at least once. (**)

King of Chinatown

Chinese Protection
KING OF CHINATOWN (Paramount, 1939), directed by Nick Grinde, the third in the cycle following the studio's title pattern of KING OF GAMBLERS (1937) with Akim Tamiroff, and KING OF ALCATRAZ (1938), with J. Carrol Naish, teams the aforementioned individual performers in a new "King" melodrama by which Akim Tamiroff assumes the title role. Anna May Wong, having already starred in DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (1937) and DANGEROUS TO KNOW (1938), heads the cast once again, topping her previous efforts thus far. While her work in DANGEROUS TO KNOW was more of a showcase for Akim Tamiroff, her reunion with Tamiroff for KING OF CHINATOWN finds them both equally matched and essential to the story.

Set in San Francisco where a Chinese New Year's celebration is taking place, the story introduces Frank Baturin (Akim Tamiroff), manager of The Silver Club, a gambling casino he uses as a front. In actuality he's the notorious "King of Chinatown," head of a protective association for local Chinese businesses. The Professor (J. Carrol Naish), a scholarly looking gentleman with a prison record, who keeps the books for his crime boss, hopes to some day take control of his corrupt business. After losing $20,000 in a benefit boxing match between an American and Chinese prizefighter, Baturin learns he's been double crossed by one of his henchmen, Mike Gordon (Anthony Quinn). In the meantime, Mary Ling (Anna May Wong), a respected surgeon for Bayview Hospital, engaged to local attorney, Robert Lee (Philip Ahn), wants to leave the hospital for better pay elsewhere. Her father, Chang Ling (Sidney Toler), a pharmacist who refuses to pay protection money to Baturin's hoods, makes it known of his intentions on doing something about it. Later that night, gunshots mistaken for firecrackers cause injury to Baturin as his car lose loses control to crash near Ling's shop. Because Mary Ling believes her father to be responsible and not wanting him arrested, she immediately takes action in having Baturint sent to the hospital where she takes the case to perform an emergency operation. Keeping him out of reach of telephone calls and visitors, Baturin slowly recovers, unaware that both the Professor and Gordon have teamed together taking over his establishment. Wanting to keep Mary Ling from leaving his services, Baturin offers her at $200 a day to act as his nursemaid at his home. Needing that extra money to establish a Red Cross nursing unit in war-torn China, she accepts. Problems arise trying to protect her patient from both the outside world and those wanting to have him killed. Co-starring Roscoe Karns (Rep Harrigan, ambulance driver); Bernadene Hayes (Dolly Warren, hospital nurse); with Ray Mayer, Richard Denning, Charles Trowbridge and Pierre Watkin in supporting roles.

KING OF CHINATOWN is a prime example of creative movie making, regardless of its short length of 57 minutes. Its shows that bigger doesn't necessarily mean better. Anna May Wong is excellent in her leading role, working opposite Philip Ahn, as in DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI, playing her love interest. Quite effective is J. Carrol Naish assuming character type performance reminiscent to the similar acting style enacted by Stanley Ridges also playing a Professor in BLACK FRIDAY (Universal, 1940) starring Boris Karloff. Take notice that Anthony Quinn, in his third go round in an Anna May Wong movie, share no scenes together. Sidney Toler, who had already replaced Warner Oland in the popular "Charlie Chan" series, gets his dress rehearsal for future Chan role to come, enacting that as a wise Chinaman. With Wong having one more movie before leaving the Paramount banner later in 1939, KING OF CHINATOWN should go on record as her finest work for the studio at this point.

Nick Grinde's direction allows but a few lags, but the plot moves swiftly enough to prevent unnecessary scenes to slow down its action. While KING OF CHINATOWN did enjoy frequent television revivals prior to 1973 on WPIX, Channel 11, in New York City, it never had any home video distribution. It can be found both on you-tube or purchase on DVD from a private collector. It's well worth the time rediscovering Anna May Wong or Akim Tamiroff, "king of chinatown." (***)

Dangerous to Know

Against All Odds
DANGEROUS TO KNOW (Paramount, 1938), directed by Robert Florey, stars Anna May Wong in another minor crime melodrama for the studio, following her initial program production of DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (1937), by which she was the sole figure. For DANGEROUS TO KNOW, Wong heads the cast, but plays the secondary character to Akim Tamiroff, who's the main focus here. Wong is also supported by a fine assortment of Paramount contract players normally leading characters, namely Gail Patrick and Lloyd Nolan. Anthony Quinn, who appeared but had no scenes opposite Wong in DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI, would have a couple minor ones this time around. Based on the play, "On the Spot" by Edgar Wallace, by which Anna May Wong appeared and reprises her stage role for this screen adaptation.

The story opens with Nicholai Kusnoff (Anthony Quinn) "secretary" to the rich and powerful mobster, Stephen Recka (Akim Tamiroff), at City Hall visiting with Mayor Bradley (Porter Hall) where they both overhear a conversation in the next office between Councilman Murkil (Robert Brister) and Johnny Rance (Edward Pawley) plotting against Recka. He reports the news to Recka while hosting his birthday party at his luxurious apartment, with Madam Lan Ying (Anna May Wong) his Oriental mistress greeting the guests. Among party attendees are Senator Carson (Pierre Watkin), his wife, Emily (Hedda Hopper), and Margaret Van Kase (Gail Patrick), their friend and socialite, who crashed the party to meet the notorious Recka. Her dark beauty interests Recka, much to the dismay of the jealous Lan Ying, who secretly loves him. Rhapsodizing at his huge theater organ for relaxation, Recka intends to force his advances on Margaret, regardless of her engagement to Philip Easton (Harvey Stephens), an ex-football star now working as a bonds salesman. Because of his shady deals and eight unsolved murders, including the recent one of Johnny Rance, Victor Brandon (Lloyd Nolan), inspector of the bureau of detectives in the homicide department, assisted by Duncan (Roscoe Karns), knows he's responsible but needs enough evidence to put him under arrest. Brandon and Recka happen to be on friendly terms mainly because their birthday falls on the same day. To get Easton out of the way and gain Margaret as his wife, Recka arranges to have this young man abducted so the suspicion on the missing $218 in bonds will fall on him. What further plans Recka has will be dangerous to know. Co-starring Hugh Sothern (Harvey Greggson); Donald Brian (Judge Parker) and Harvey Clark (Mr. Barnett).

Aside from Anna May Wong assuming an almost similar name of Lan Ying Lin from DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI to just Lan Ying, the plot revolving Steve Recka is somewhat reminiscent to Peter Lorre's character from MAD LOVE (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1935), from his crazed obsession to a woman (Frances Drake) who does not love him, and organ playing. For DANGEROUS TO KNOW, it is now Tamiroff who is having his mad love and relaxes himself by rhapsodizing classical music on his huge theater organ. Recka shows his vicious qualities by having one of his victims plunging to his death from his 11th story window. Anna May Wong's jealous instincts outshines the Recka character by playing a record of Shirley Ross vocalizing "Thanks for the Memory" before doing something drastic.

Portions of DANGEROUS TO KNOW is leisurely paced but well conceived through much of its 70 minutes. Unseen on New York City television since 1972 where it was last broadcast on WPIX, Channel 11, DANGEROUS TO KNOW remains a forgotten curiosity that has never been distributed on video cassette nor shown on cable television. Availability on DVD can be purchased from a private collector of this and other long obscure programmers from the Paramount film library such as this. (**1/2)

She Had to Say Yes

Big Business Girl
SHE HAD TO SAY YES (First National Pictures, 1933), directed by Busby Berkeley and George Amy, reunites Loretta Young and Winnie Lightner, having teamed together in PLAYGIRL (1932). With Lightner's name above Young's in PLAYGIRL, as with SHE HAD TO SAY YES, both films belong to Loretta Young, with her name this time around over Lightner's. Being the directorial debuts of dance director, Busby Berkeley, and film editor, George Amy, it is also notable for being the final Warner Brothers production for its leading female players, as well as a chance for both directors in showing they are capable of doing more than their titled professions. Interestingly, Lightner, whose popularity in THE GOLD DIGGERS OF BROADWAY (1929) landed her a series of starring roles for the next few years (1930-1932), including a similar titled drama of SHE COULDN'T SAY NO (1930), for this production, she was obviously being phased out by being given little to do in both plot summary and comedy relief.

Set in New York City, Florence "Flo" Denny (Loretta Young), works for the garment industry of Sol Glass and Company Cloaks and Suits. She is engaged to Tommy Nelson (Regis Toomey), a salesman for the same company. At the staff meeting, its company president, Sol Glass (Ferdinand Gottschalk), who finds stiff competition is forcing his business to be losing sales. Daniel's suggests by having the stenographers acting as customer girls to entertain the out-of-town buyers to obtain new accounts and commissions. With Birdie Reynolds (Suzanne Kilbourn) the first to volunteer, Daniel makes certain that the clean-cut Florence not to become one of them. When Birdie is unavailable to entertain Daniel Drew (Lyle Talbot), an important client arriving from Chicago, Flo volunteers her services, unaware that by doing this, Tommy will be free to spend more time with Birdie. With the help of her close friend and roommate, Maizee (Winnie Lightner), Florence breaks off her engagement with Tommy and finding herself seeing more of Daniel instead. Wanting to earn back her respect by wanting out as a customer's girl, Florence is dismissed from the company, and later finds herself accused of resorting to cheap tactics tin getting Daniel Haines (Hugh Herbert), to sign an important contract for Daniel, leading to misunderstandings regarding her reputation. Co-starring Helen Ware (Mrs. Haines); Harold Waldridge (The Office Boy); Charles Lane (Mr. Bernstein); Harry Holman, Jed Prouty and Fred Kelsey.

For a movie with directorial credit by two men, it is hard to determine which parts of the story were directed by Busby Berkeley and George Amy. The only scenes pertaining to Berkeley's directorial style would probably be the ensemble fashion sequence featuring chorines from his earlier musicals playing models as Renee Whitney, Toby Wing and Barbara Rogers, along with a one girl night club dance segment. George Amy might been responsible for some of the dramatic sequences, but this only a guess on my part.

While Loretta Young carries much of its 64 minute material, Winnie Lightner is limited and virtually forgotten she's was even in the movie by the time the THE END closing title reaches the screen. Regis Toomey and Lyle Talbot do what's expected of them, but nothing more than showing men to be no different from any other male when accusing Flo for the very sin they are most guilty themselves. Hugh Herbert plays it straight, with little of his trademark buffoonery for which he is famous. Scenes move swiftly, but become a little distorted later on.

Never distribute on video cassette, SHE HAD TO SAY YES, a forgotten pre-code battle of the sexes theme quite common for its time, is available for purchase on DVD and viewing on Turner Classic Movies cable channel. (**)

Keeper of the Flame

Death of a Hero
KEEPER OF THE FLAME (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1942), directed by George Cukor, teams Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn for the second time. Following their initial success in the comedy WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942), one would expect their second union to be of a similar nature with laughs with doses of drama and romance. Instead, KEEPER OF THE FLAME is more of a dark, moody and psychological melodrama offering none of the ingredients of Tracy and Hepburn the public loved so well as with future amusements as ADAM'S RIB (1949), PAT AND MIKE (1952) and DESK SET (1957). Based on the novel by I. A. R. Wylie, the material presented has more of a feel of director Alfred Hitchcock than George Cukor, along with its sociological message combined with doses of mystery.

The story begins during a rainy thunderstorm evening where a car is seen driving off a collapsed bridge, followed by spread headlines reading "Robert Forrest Killed," and "Death of a Hero." Steven O'Malley (Spencer Tracy) is introduced as a news correspondent having just returned from Europe on his next assignment. He is accompanied by reporter friends, Freddie Ridges (Horace McNally) and Jane Harding (Audrey Christie) outside the Forrest gates awaiting for an interview with the widow. During the funeral procession, O'Malley comforts a crying boy, Jed (Darryl Hickman), son of the Jason Rickards (Howard Da Silva), the gatekeeper, claiming to be responsible for Forrest's death. Overheard of wanting to write the life story of Robert Forrest, O'Malley is approached by Geoffrey Midford (Forrest Tucker), cousin of the widow, who threatens him against it. Still hoping for an interview, it is Jed who steers O'Malley down the right path to the home of Christine Forrest. While inside, O'Malley finds Christine Forrest (Katharine Hepburn, appearing 25 minutes into the start of the story) lighting a candle in her husband's memory. Startled at first by his presence, Christine later agrees to provide enough information for a tribute to the national hero husband, along with the assistance of Clive Kerndon (Richard Whorf), her husband's private secretary. During the course of the story, O'Malley stumbles upon Forrest's mother (Margaret Wycherly), an insane invalid, along with enough material of unforeseen circumstances that places both Steven and Christine in danger for their lives. Co-starring Frank Craven (Doctor Fielding); Donald Meek (Mr. Arbuthot); and Blanche Yurka (Anna Taylor). Audrey Christie, in her movie debut, appears as a Glenda Farrell-type newspaper woman with some love interest to O'Malley. Percy Kilbride as Orion, a taxi driver, is the only actor here to offer some lighter moments in the story.

For a Tracy and Hepburn movie, KEEPER OF THE FLAME is the only one in which they share no love scenes. As much as Hepburn does well in her difficult yet offbeat assignment, one would wonder if the movie might have succeeded to better advantage had Greta Garbo played the grief-stricken widow instead. Even if this might not have succeeded with Garbo having no chemistry with Tracy, possibly casting her in this stylish film noir mystery might have broadened Garbo's range against type in heavy dramatics, or put an end to her career. Much of the players here come off looking depressed, making the movie feel more like a funeral than a suspense mystery. The plot is often slow and talky until it picks up with a Hepburn's well performed nine minute monologue to Tracy followed by a suspenseful climax of truth and danger.

Formerly distributed on video cassette and later presented on DVD, KEEPER OF THE FLAME had played on numerous cable channels, notably on Turner Classic Movies. While the movie might prove disappointing for first time viewers, KEEPER OF THE FLAME is of sole interest in the teaming of Tracy and Hepburn in something completely different in both style and visual aspects. (**1/2)


The Girl of the Golden West
RAMONA (United Artists, 1928), directed by Edwin Carewe, stars Dolores Del Rio in this silent screen adaptation to the 1884 book by Helen Hunt-Jackson. More of a curiosity today for those who have seen the lavish 1936 Technicolor sound edition starring Loretta Young and Don Ameche, especially when comparing both editions in visuals and style. Previously filmed in the silent era first as a 1910 short subject starring Mary Pickford and Henry B. Walthall, under the direction of D. W. Griffith, and again as a 1916 feature directed by Donald Crisp starring Adda Gleason and Monroe Salisbury, this third retelling features Del Rio and Warner Baxter, it's another grand mix of romance with racial prejudices set in "Early California - in the colorful days of the Spanish Dons." The Girl of the Golden West

RAMONA (United Artists, 1928), directed by Edwin Carewe, stars Dolores Del Rio in this silent screen adaptation to the 1884 book by Helen Hunt-Jackson. More of a curiosity today for those who have seen the lavish 1936 Technicolor sound edition starring Loretta Young and Don Ameche, especially when comparing both editions in visuals and style. Previously filmed in the silent era first as a 1910 short subject starring Mary Pickford and Henry B. Walthall, under the direction of D. W. Griffith, and again as a 1916 feature directed by Donald Crisp starring Adda Gleason and Monroe Salisbury, this third retelling features Del Rio and Warner Baxter, in another grand mix of romance with racial prejudices set in "Early California - in the colorful days of the Spanish Dons."

The story introduces Ramona (Dolores Del Rio), a half-breed Indian girl who was adopted by Senora Moreno (Vera Lewis), wealthy Spanish sheep rancher. She has a son, Don Felipe (Roland Drew), whom she favors over Ramona by finding fault in everything and anything she does. After three years convent educated, Ramona returns to her hacienda where her beauty attracts the attention of Alessandro (Warner Baxter), the captain of the sheep shearers, and son of the last chief of the Temecula Indians. Good friends with Felipe and worker for Senora Moreno's ranch land, Alessandro finds love with Ramona and marries her under the officiation of their good Franciscan friend monk, Father Salvierderra (John T. Prince). Senora Moreno, who disapproves of their union, tells Ramona of her heritage that her late mother mother was Indian and her father white. Realizing where she belongs, she goes away with Alessandro where they take refuge in a cottage in the mountains. Following the birth of their daughter, a series of unfortunate events take place. As their homeland attacked by white bandits finds Ramona a wandering outcast while Don Felipe, whose mother has since died, desperately leaves his ranch hoping to find her. Other cast members include Mathilde Comont (Mardya); Michael Visaroff (Juan Canito); Jess Cavin (The Bandit Leader); and Shep Houghton (The Mexican Boy).

As much as RAMONA is a reflection of the times depicted in both motion picture and book from which this is based, it can also be classified the story being the best of times, the worst in times, and difficult of times for its leading characters. The best of times comes with Ramona's wonderful relationship with her half-brother, and romance with Alessandro. The worst of times as Ramona is being treated differently because of her heritage; Alessandro being refused treatment for his sick daughter by a white doctor, and later he being accused as a horse thief by a settler, who refuses to hear his explanation. Regardless of circumstances in how the American Indians have been mistreated and misjudged may cause some uneasiness to view, performances overall are believably played thanks to its fine direction and good location scenery.

After many years of being listed a lost movie with no prints to have survived, RAMONA was discovered in Prague in 2010, restored, rescored and theatrically screened for the first time in decades in 2014. RAMONA made its cable television premiere August 19, 2020, on Turner Classic Movies, hosted by Jacqueline Stewart. Though presented by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, it's a pity the original synchronized musical score, sound effects and theme song to "Ramona," didn't survive the print to be included for its television presentation. Having been discovered and shown at all certainly makes RAMONA worthy of its movie history and heritage. (*** peace pipes)

Daughter of Shanghai

Dangerous to Know
DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (Paramount, 1937), directed by Robert Florey, is one of several similar themed stories produced at that time regarding Chinese smuggling of human cargo, and the dangers revolving through this illegal activity. It stars Anna May Wong in the title role in a story not set in Shanghai but that as a daughter of a Chinaman living in San Francisco. As with many second features produced by Paramount, DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI is relatively known for being a rare instance of having Asian actors playing Asian characters, an assignment well performed by Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn.

The story begins with newspaper clippings montaged on screen with headlines dealing with a smuggling ring of human cargo. The story gets underway as two pilots, Harry Morgan (Anthony Quinn) and James Lang (John Patterson), are seen transferring Chinese aliens in the back of the airplane into San Francisco, and are being pursued by a government airplane. To destroy the evidence and lose $6,000 , the human cargo on board get released through a flip floor door below where they all drop to to the ocean left to drown. Kim Lee (Philip Ahn), of the department of justice, is hired to investigate these crimes. Lan Ying Lin (Anna May Wong) is introduced as the daughter of Quin Lin (Ching Wah Lee), a successful merchant of San Francisco's Chinese Art Importation. As he is assisting Mary Hunt (Cecil Cunningham), one of his influential customers he's known for eleven years, Quin is approached in the next room by Frank Barden (J. Carroll Naish) and Andrew Steele (Larry "Buster" Crabbe) suggesting he work with them in their smuggling ring. Naturally he refuses and has men escorted out. Mrs. Hunt assists Quin by inviting him to her home to meet with a man who can help him. On their way by taxi to Mrs. Hunt's estate, both father and daughter are taken to the wrong part of town where the taxi enters into the back of the truck labeled Lambert's Van Storage Co. Where the victims become targets to a shooting. With Quin Lin killed and Lan Ying left for dead, she survives and manages to break away without being seen as the taxi is released and dumped into the ocean. After coming to Mrs. Hunt's home , Lan Ying meets with Chinese G-Man, Kim Lee (Philip Ahn), a man who could assist her. She then decides to go out on her own to locate a man known Hartman, who might be the ring leader of the organization. Tracing Otto Hartman (Charles Bickford) to a cabaret on a Central American island of Port O Juan, she is hired as a dancer called "The Daughter of Shanghai," while at the same time trying to gather information from a book that may include the evidence she needs. How Lan Yin will be able to get on the Jenny Hawks boat bound for San Francisco becomes another matter of life and death if captured. Co-starring Evelyn Brent (Olga Derey, Hartman's jealous mistress); Fred Kohler Sr., Guy Bates Post, Pierre Watkin, Frank Sully, Ernest Whitman and Mae Busch (of Laurel and Hardy fame).

For Anna May Wong's leading role, DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI contains enough ingredients to hold interest throughout its fast-paced 63 minutes. Crucial scenes include Wong's two near death experiences, along with characters making viewers wonder which one(s) who can or who cannot be trusted. Though Charles Bickford gets second billing under Anna May Wong in the credits, his character is minor, appearing late into the story, while Philip Ahn, billed ninth, with enough scenes to be classified as her co-star. It is also interesting finding Cecil Cunningham, usually playing female managers or wisecracking characters, often without screen credit, to have a significant role of a wealthy matron, and Buster Crabbe, billed as Larry Crabbe, playing a villain rather than the hero.

Rarely shown on commercial television for decades, broadcast on New York City television's WPIX, Channel 11, in 1973, DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI has become a worthy rediscovery when it premiered on Turner Classic Movies June 10, 2008, with re-broadcasts later as part of the topic of "Asian Actors on Film" and Star of the Month tribute to Anna May Wong.

While Wong had leading parts in other Paramount features (1937-1939), DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI happens to be the best of the lot. Never distributed on video cassette, a copy on DVD can be found from a private collector. (**1/2).

Murder with Pictures

One Dangerous Photograph
MURDER WITH PICTURES (Paramount, 1936), directed by Charles T. Barton, is a quaint little newspaper story and murder mystery from the studio's second feature unit. Starring Lew Ayres, who, by this time, was an ordinary actor who hasn't had a solid blockbuster since the Academy Award winning production of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (Universal, 1930). Before his career was awarded a new and successful chapter with his "Doctor Kildare" hospital series for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1938-1942), MURDER WITH PICTURES is a prime example to the many routine programmers Ayres was doing by this time. Based on the story by George Harmon Coze, the finished product does offer some twist and turns normally found in murder mysteries, but nothing quite suspenseful as anything directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

The plot begins at a trial of crime boss, Nate Girard (Onslow Stevens) for the murder of his partner, Joe Cuslick. As I. B. McGoogin (Paul Kelly) and Phil Doane (Benny Baker) reporter and photographer of the Daily Post await for both verdict and the arrival of crack photographer, Kent Murdock, the jury enters the courtroom with a "Not Guilty" verdict. After Girard, Stanley Redfield (Ernest Cossart his defense attorney, along with his associates leave the courtroom to return to his place of residence, Girard is approached in the elevator by Meg Archer (Gail Patrick), a mystery woman who wants to talk to him privately, and Kent Murdock (Lew Ayres) stepping in through a trap door from above to take some pictures. As everyone heads to the apartment, Redfield invites Murdock and the press to stop over later in the evening to attend Girard's celebration victory party. While there, Murdock interviews Meg Archer, and is caught kissing her by Hester Boone (Joyce Compton), a bubble dancer and his jealous fiancee, who happens to be there on an invite by McGoogin so he can get a scoop from the mystery woman himself. After Murdock and Bubbles leave, a photograph is then being taken at the very same time Redfield keels over and dies. Because of the mysterious disappearance of Meg, she becomes the prime suspect of Redfield's murder. Murdock unwittingly acquires a picture plate that might be the clue to the murder, especially after finding his apartment was searched and offered $5,000 for the negative by a mysterious caller over the telephone. As another reporter, having acquired the dangerous photo, is murdered while developing the photo plate in the dark room, further convinces the police Meg Archer connected to these crimes. Murdock, accompanied by Johnny Mercer (Anthony Nace), his new assistant, believes otherwise and tries tries to clear Meg's name, unaware of the danger that awaits him.

Featuring the supporting cast of Joseph Sawyer (Inspector Bacon); Don Rowan (Siki); Frank Sheridan (The Police Chief); Irving Bacon (Keogh); and Purnell B. Pratt (George, the Newspaper Editor). With Platt and Sheridan properly placed in their typical roles, it's interesting finding movie gangster-type, Joe Sawyer, on the right side of the law, and Ernest Cossart, usually cast as a butler, playing a lawyer instead.

MURDER WITH PICTURES is routinely produced 71 minute mystery that improves with its second or third viewing after knowing the final results. Commonly presented on late show television in the 1960s and 70s, MURDER WITH PICTURES had been out or circulation for quite some time, especially in the New York City area where it was last shown on television's WPIX, Channel 11 in 1972. Later available on video cassette and DVD format, MURDER WITH PICTURES is no masterpiece by any means, but satisfactory programmer from the early years of young Lew Ayres before his most famous role as "Doctor Kildare," and Best Actor nominee in JOHNNY BELINDA (Warner Brothers, 1948), for which he is best noted. (** flashbulbs)

The Great O'Malley

Officer of the Law
THE GREAT O'MALLEY (Warner Brothers, 1937), directed by William Dieterle, stars Irish actor properly cast as an Irish policeman by the name of O'Malley. Having previously played an officer of the law by the name of O'Hara in THE IRISH IN US (1935) where James Cagney starred and gathered most of the attention, his role of O'Malley solely belongs to O'Brien, with some notable attention to some of his supporting players, such as Humphrey Bogart and Ann Sheridan, who would become major star performers by the 1940s, and the little child actress by the name of Sybil Jason, the studio's answer to 20th Century-Fox's Shirley Temple. Though cute and agreeable in her role, Jason never became a major child actress of her time. After co-starring in two movies starring Temple at her home studio, Jason would become lifelong friends with the legendary child actress.

Set in New York City, the story introduces James Aloysius O'Malley (Pat O'Brien), whose late father was also a policeman, as a "by the book" officer who passes out citations for petty crimes and ordinances. He takes his job very seriously, even to a point of criticizing his own mother (Mary Gordon) for breaking the law for littering. One day he stops John Phillips (Humphrey Bogart), a family man with a wife (Frieda Inescort) and a child, Barbara (Sybil Jason), while on his way to his first job he's has in years, for a violation driving his Model T car with a bad muffler. Only a few minutes late, John loses his job to another man. In desperate need of extra money to buy food for his family, he tries to pawn off some personal items. Unable to get the $10 needed, John steals $400 from the pawnbroker. Later he is stopped by O'Malley for a traffic violation, unaware that he is now a wanted man. Later arrested, John is put to trial and sentenced to serve two to ten years in the state penitentiary. His wife informs Barbara that her father has gone away on his new job in Canada. Because of the incident that could have been prevented, but has only ruined a man's life instead, Captain Cromwell (Donald Crisp) asks O'Malley for his resignation, but is refused. Cromwell decides to make or break O'Malley by reducing him to school crossing guard at Public School 141. Although O'Malley finds his new job humiliating, he soon takes an interest in a girl with a lame leg, who happens to be the daughter John Phillips, and the child's teacher, Judy Nolan (Ann Sheridan). Other members of the cast include: Henry O'Neill (Defense Attorney); Hobart Cavanaugh ("Pinky" Holden); Frank Sheridan (Father Patrick); Lillian Harmer (Miss Taylor); Frank Reicher (Doctor Edwin Larson), with Granville Bates, Henry Armetta and Stanley Fields in smaller roles.

Based on the story with material that was previously done in the silent era as THE MAKING OF O'MALLEY (1925) with Milton Sills and Dorothy MacKaill, this latest update gathers enough attention through its Warner Brothers stock company in their properly placed roles. As mentioned earlier, O'Brien handles his role perfectly as a no nonsense policeman. While Humphrey Bogart has become relatively known for playing gangsters, villains and later detectives, this along with his earlier BLACK LEGION (1936) does he get the rare opportunity playing a father of a small child. Of all the cast members, O'Brien is the sole focus who nearly takes second place to Sybil Jason. No matter, since he won't ever give her a citation for scene stealing. Regardless of some syrupy scenes, and how the Great O'Malley gets through his humiliation with job demotion, the movie is satisfactory 70 minute production.

Viewed mostly on Turner Classic Movies cable channel, THE GREAT O'MALLEY, which was at one point in history was rarely shown on television since the 1960s, has become available on DVD. It would be nice to have the silent 1925 movie available one of these days for O'Malley comparison. (***)

Little Men

Louisa May Alcott's "Pocketful of Miracles."
LITTLE MEN (RKO Radio, 1940) directed by Norman McLeod, marks the second screen adaptation to the 1871 Louisa May Alcott novel, a sequel to her novel success of "Little Women." Being a long-awaited sequel to the studio's own LITTLE WOMEN (1933) starring Katharine Hepburn (Jo March) and Paul Lukas (Professor Bhaer), the first screen version to LITTLE MEN (Mascot, 1934) followed, featuring Erin O'Brien-Moore and Ralph Morgan to the leading characters of Jo and Professor Bhaer. Six years later, this latest installment, which could have been a scene-by-scene remake, bears little resemblance to the 1934 release. The major characters of Jo and Professor Bhaer, now enacted by Kay Francis and Charles Esmond, still manage a farming boarding school for children, encountering new situations and new characters while struggling to pay off their mortgage to keep their school open.

Set in Connecticut some years after the Civil War, the prologue begins with Major I. I. Burdle (George Bancroft) a confidence man, whose friend, Willie, the Fox (Jack Oakie) arrives with the news that their friend and fellow crook, Teddy, has died, leaving Burdle his orphan son, Danny, to raise. Burdle, who is not fond of children, decides to leave the year old infant on the doorsteps of a state orphanage. Unable to follow through his plan, Burdle has a change of heart and raises the boy as his own. Twelve years later, Burdle has raised Danny (Jimmy Lydon) to become a chiseler like himself, selling medicine bottles that cures alcoholism to suckers who buy them. Advised by a truant officer to give Danny a normal childhood by going to school, Burdle takes her advise against his own judgment. Reunited with Willie, who had escaped prison and left for dead, Burdle and he both take Danny to Plumfield Boarding School run by Jo (Kay Francis) and her Swiss husband, Professor Bhaer (Charles Esmond). Because the school is in desperate need of $5,000 before their lease expires, Bhaer, believing Burdle to be an investment broker, entrusts him his life savings of $2500 for he to invest and double the funds. While living a natural environment with the other boys and girls, Danny hates the place and longs to be with his father. Now on their own, Burdle and Willie continue selling medicine bottles. Burdle loses Bhaer's money to the Omaha Bank that has failed. To save Danny from disgrace, Burdle must come up with a miracle to honestly regain the money and save the school from closing.

The supporting cast consists of Ann Gillis (Nan); Richard Nichols (Teddy Bhaer); Casey Johnson (Robby); Johnny Burke (Silas); Lillian Randolph (Asia, the Maid); Schuyler Standish (Nat, the violinist); William Demarest (The Constable); Sterling Holloway (The Reporter); Lloyd Ingraham (The Judge), Isabel Jewell (Stella), and a cow named Elsie, introduced in the credits as "The moo girl of the New York World's Fair," playing Buttercup.

An average production that mixes sentimentality and family values in the similar fashion to BOYS TOWN (MGM, 1938) starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. It is Jo who takes in every wayward child into her wing, including her own and sister's children as well. Those who remember Jimmy Lydon as the comical teenager in the "Henry Aldrich" movie series for Paramount (1941-1944), will get a glimpse of him in a serious role. That of a troublesome teen who becomes a problem to others. Of the major characters here, Jack Oakie comes off best as the bank bandit with amusing one-liners and amusing situations definitely not existent in the Alcott book. Ten minutes longer than the 1934 edition, LITTLE MEN, at 84 minutes, is satisfactory entertainment.

A public domain title, over the years, this 1940 edition of LITTLE MEN has become available on both video and DVD formats, with frequent showings on public television in the 1980s. There were limited broadcasts on cable television, such as CBN in 1987, and Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: April 16, 2007) as well. The premise of LITTLE MEN was retold again in 1998, first as motion picture and then a short-lived television series. Whether it be LITTLE WOMEN or LITTLE MEN, Louisa May Alcott's stories of family values are quite relevant today. (**1/2)

Little Men

Louisa May Alcott's "School for Boys"
LITTLE MEN (Mascot Studios, 1934), directed by Phil Rosen, is an independently produced screen adaptation and sequel to Louisa May Alcott's book, "Little Women." Following the recent success of LITTLE WOMEN (RKO Radio, 1933) starring Katharine Hepburn (Jo March) and Paul Lukas (Professor Fritz Bhaer), that has become an all-time classic, rather than RKO Radio producing its very own sequel with Hepburn and Lukas reprising their original roles showing their characters some years after their initial marriage, this edition, distributed by another studio, features Erin O'Brien-Moore (Jo) and Ralph Morgan (Professor Bhaer) in their places. As much as this could have been a continuation to the lives of Jo's other sisters, Amy, Beth and Meg, in chapter form, LITTLE MEN focuses more on Jo and her ambition to take in orphaned/unwanted boys into her home for a better life, with the assistance of her husband as their schoolteacher.

Set several years after the Civil War, the story revolves around Jo (Erin O'Brien-Moore), married eight years to Professor Bhaer (Ralph Morgan), along with her two children, Robert (Ronnie Cosbey) and Teddy (Eddie Dale Heiden), their housekeeper, Asia (Hattie McDaniel), all living in a New England farmland with Jo's homeless "little men": Demi (Dickie Moore), Jack (Tad Alexander), Dickie (Buster Phelps), Tommy Bangs (Tommy Bupp), Bobby Cox (Stuffy), Donald Buck (Billy), Dickie Jones (Dolly), Richard Quine (Ned) and Emil (George Ernst). The home also includes girls, Daisy (Cora Sue Collins) and Nan (Jacqueline Taylor). Franz (Junior Durkin), the eldest of the teenage boys, is infatuated with the older of the girls, Mary Anne (Phyllis Fraser). Nat Blake (David Durand) comes to the Bhaer home known as the Plumfield School for Boys on a recommendation from Laurie Laurence (Robert Carleton), Jo's former beau from her younger days, now married to her sister, Amy. Almost immediately, Nat feels right at home with his new surroundings. A talented violinist, Nat plays at the birthday gathering of Laurie and his guests. On his way home by carriage driven by Plumfield handyman, Silas (Irving Bacon), Nat is reunited with his best friend, Dan (Frankie Darro), an orphan living on the streets shining shoes and selling newspapers. Nat takes Dan to Plumfield where Jo agrees in taking in another boy under her care. Bhaer, however, feels Dan would be a bad influence on the other boys. Aside from keeping Nat from his habit of lying, Bhaer finds himself separating Franz from fighting with Dan, saving the boys from a fire started by a lighted smoking pipe, and suspecting Dan from stealing a dollar from Tommy. With no other choice, Bhaer dismisses Dan from the school and takes him to the home of Schoolmaster Paige (Gustav Von Seyffertitz) where he feels the troublesome teen would get better disciplined. Live soon changes for both parties.

While Erin O'Brien-Moore makes a good substitution to the role previously enacted by Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Morgan, in a physical sense, is agreeable as Professor Bhaer, though is not accented ias the character originated by Hungarian born Paul Lukas from LITTLE WOMEN. As much as Junior Durkin and Dickie Moore assumed leading roles prior, notably Durkin as HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1931) and Moore as OLIVER TWIST (1933), their scenes here are limited here with most attention going towards actors, David Durand and Frankie Darro.

Over the years, LITTLE MEN (1935) did play on commercial television years before becoming a 45 minute featurette in a 1983 public television showing of "Matinee at the Bijou," followed by availability on both video cassette and DVD format. Regardless of how the movie follows or strays heavily from the Alcott novel, LITTLE MEN gets by on its own merits, ranging from sentimentality, some humor, and most of all, moral values and learning from mistakes. Of the few latter remakes to LITTLE MEN in later years, none are as notable and retold on screen than LITTLE WOMEN. (**1/2)

Lady Killer

Larceny, Inc.
LADY KILLER (Warner Brothers, 1933), directed by Roy Del Ruth, is not a drama about a serial killer stalking women, nor a romantic story about a bachelor with a slew of girlfriends. It's more of a bright and breezy 74 minute comedy starring James Cagney. Following the pattern of his earlier works as BLONDE CRAZY (1931) or HARD TO HANDLE (1933) where Cagney plays a wiseacre with schemes to success, LADY KILLER is no different except with a few added touches that hold attention to what the Cagney character is going to do next. If notable at all, LADY KILLER is also noted for Cagney's reunion with a couple of his PUBLIC ENEMY (1931) co-stars, Mae Clarke and Leslie Fenton. This time Clarke, whose brief scenes from THE PUBLIC ENEMY involving a grapefruit with Cagney, gets more to do here with her leading man along with some physical action involved to show that grapefruit scene was only a screen test. In fact, LADY KILLER contains a couple of in-jokes revolving a grapefruit only understood by those who have seen THE PUBLIC ENEMY first to understand and appreciate here.

The story revolves around Dan Quigley (James Cagney), a wise guy usher and gambler working for the Strand Theater in New York City who gets more complaints than compliments from his patrons. After getting fired, Dan goes to the Randolph Hotel where he finds a lost purse. Unable to get the lady's attention, he finds an address inside the purse where he locates the apartment of Myra Gale (Mae Clarke), who invites Dan in for a drink, followed by a card game in the next room with her "brother-in-law," Spade Maddock (Douglass Dumbrille), and his guests, Pete (Raymond Hatton), Duke (Leslie Fenton) and Smiley (Russell Hopton). After losing $50, Dan soon discovers he's been duped. After getting his money back, rather than leaving, Dan joins in their racket and interests them to some of his profitable ideas. Things go well enough where they open a gambling casino. When a murder takes place during a robbery, to avoid arrest, Quigley and company Dan and Myra heading for Los Angeles. While there, Dan is taken to the precinct for questioning while Myra heads for the hotel where she meets with Spade, who talks her into running off with him to Mexico and ditching Dan. After being released with no larceny evidence against him, Dan finds he's unable to find work until he is spotted by Mr. Williams (William B. Davidson), a movie director for National Studios, on the streets. Dan works his way from movie extra to mustached leading man. He soon becomes interested in actress and co-star, Lois Underwood (Margaret Lindsay). All goes well until Myra and the old gang return to cash in on Dan's success in a very different way. Co-starring Henry O'Neill (Mr. Ramick), Marjorie Gateson (Mrs. Marley); Willard Robertson (Mr. Conroy); Robert Elliott, George Chandler, Harold Waldridge and James Burke,

James Cagney is the sole interest here, and never disappoints nor lets his audience go. With this being his fifth and final movie 1933 release shows Cagney really had a very busy year. He works well with his female co-stars, Margaret Lindsay and Mae Clarke, both with whom he would work separately again later on. Another added bonus besides elements of surprise is the behind the scenes look on the set on how movies are made.

Available on video cassette and DVD format, LADY KILLER gets occasional showings on Turner Classic Movies, where it often becomes part of any star tribute to James Cagney, who's certainly a star here and LADY KILLER one of his tributes. (***)

So Long Letty

Vacation from Marriage
SO LONG LETTY (Warner Brothers, 1929), directed by Lloyd Bacon, is an early sound presentation with material that presents itself like a1950s television situation comedy, minus the laugh track and audience applause. It stars Charlotte Greenwood, who reprises her 1916 stage role farce by Elmer Harris, which was reworked in the silent era for Robertson Cole Studios in 1920 starring Colleen Moore and T. Roy Barnes. While this sound edition could have had to studio use its own contract comedienne as the wild and crazy Winnie Lightner, the powers that be were smart enough to have Charlotte Greenwood reprise her original role as Letty, who is both magnificent and hilarious. Fortunately for having survived intact, SO LONG LETTY still provides loads of laughter after all these years.

Opening title: "During the height of the season at the Ardmore Beach Hotel, you can get an excellent six dollar room for thirty-five dollars a day." Registering at the hotel is cranky millionaire Claude Davis (Claude Gillingwater Sr.), president of the Ketchup and Tomato Company, accompanied by his granddaughters, Ruth (Marion Byron) and Sally (Helen Foster), for a visit with his nephew, Tommy, living in a bungalow a half mile down the road. After settling down, Letty Robbins (Charlotte Greenwood), representative of the hotel beauty parlor better known as "Beauty's handmaiden" arrives with a sales pitch of beauty aides for the granddaughters. With her annoyance failing to make an impression, Davis angrily checks out and goes someplace else for peace and quiet. Next scene finds Letty's husband, Tommy (Bert Roach), returning home to find his wife not home yet with their cottage in disorganized state. Smelling a home cooked dinner being made next door, Tommy goes to pay a visit with Grace Miller (Patsy Ruth Miller) until his wife returns. Enter Uncle Claude, who believes the clean-cut cottage belonging to Tommy and mistaking Grace to be his wife. While Uncle Claude intends on giving Tommy his inheritance and lead to believe "Mrs. Robbins" is going to have a baby, Letty enters the scene. Rather than telling his uncle the truth, he passes Letty off as his next door neighbor. Upon Uncle Claude's departure finds Grace and her husband, Harry (Grant Withers), and Tommy and Letty at odds with each other, wishing they have married someone else. Harry and Tommy come up with the idea by switch partners for a week to see how the other half lives. With Letty living with Harry, and Tommy living with Grace, situations become even more complex when Uncle Claude returns to the scene. Let the fun begin!

During its fast-pace 64 minutes, SO LONG LETTY fits in for some fine tunes with clever lyrics, including: "The Beauty Shop" (Sung by Charlotte Greenwood); "So Long, Letty" (sung by Bert Roach and Greenwood); "My Strongest Weakness" (sung by Greenwood); "You're One Sweet Little Kiss" (sung by Grant Withers); "Clowning" (sung by Greenwood, Roach and Withers); "So Long, Letty" and "So Long, Letty" (reprises). While "My Strongest Weakness" is the film's strongest song, "Am I Blue?" and "Let Me Have My Dreams," introduced in ON WITH THE SHOW (1929), are heard mostly as background music. Other members of the cast are Harry Gribbons (Joe Casey); Hallam Cooley (Clarence DeBrie); Lloyd Ingraham (The Judge) and Wilbur Mack (The Desk Clerk).

For an early talkie, SO LONG LETTY is underscored through much of it, almost like a silent movie with dialogue and no inter-titles. Other than Charlotte Greenwood's fine comedic timing that serves the film's purpose for fine amusements, including her dog howling cry, it's also interesting seeing Bert Roach in a major role as opposed to later years reduced to unbilled bit parts. Let's not forget Roach in his co-starring role in director King Vidor's silent classic, THE CROWD (MGM, 1928) starring Eleanor Boardman and James Murray. Very much a reproduced stage play which takes place mostly in two bungalows, SO LONG LETTY is never dull. Its only disappointment is when the series of mishaps is all over.

Never distributed on home video, but later found on DVD through Turner Home Entertainment, SO LONG LETTY gets occasional broadcasts on cable television's Turner Classic Movies, where a handful of long forgotten gems as SO LONG LETTY to be brought back to life again. (***)

The Champ

Punch-Drunk Love
THE CHAMP (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1931), directed by King Vidor, stars Wallace Beery in the title role for which he won an Academy Award as Best Actor. Another worthy performance goes to the kid actor playing his son, Jackie Cooper, in his MGM debut and first of four movies opposite Beery. Taken from an original story by Frances Marion, who also won an Academy Award for her original screenplay, THE CHAMP is a grand mixture of fatherly love, hero worshipping (from boy's point of view), heavy sentiment and a well staged climax for which Beery offers enough emotion and strength that made Beery the champ at MGM for many years to come.

The story revolves around Andy Purcell (Wallace Beery), better known as "Champ," a one-time championship prizefighter who lost his title years ago due to his drunken binge while in the boxing ring. He is now a single father raising his young son, Dink (Jackie Cooper), who loves him unconditionally. As much as Dink tries to keep his dad sober, Champ manages to get himself drunk the very day he is to be commissioned with some fight promoters arranged by his trainers, Sponge (Roscoe Atyes) and Tim (Edward Brophy). Later when Dink shows interest in a racehorse, Champ wins enough money at the gambling tables to buy it for him. Renaming the horse "Little Champ," they enter him at the Caliente Race Track where Dink meets up with Linda (Irene Rich), a society woman, unaware the lady happens to be his mother. Now remarried to Tony Carson (Hale Hamilton) with a little daughter named Mary Lou (Marcia Mae Jones), Linda discovers the boy's identity and, having lost custody to Dink through her divorce from Andy (whom she felt was not in her class), she now wants her boy hoping to give him a better upbringing. After losing Little Champ at the gambling tables, along with other setbacks, Champ insists Dink go live with his mother. Because of their admiration for each other, Champ intends on becoming a better father to Dink who still believes his father will become champ again.

Overlooking the fact that Wallace Beery was overweight playing a prizefighter, and that this movie might have failed had it not been properly presented with conviction, THE CHAMP punches a wallop after all these years. With Beery and Cooper equally matched, Cooper might have been honored an Academy Award competing against Beery had it not been for his Academy Award nomination already for his excellent performance in SKIPPY (Paramount, 1931). Having previously been honored a Best Actor award for his supporting role in THE BIG HOUSE (MGM, 1930), THE CHAMP really was the shoulder punch Beery needed, namely for two crucial scenes: One where he punches his fist repeatedly on a brick wall covered with blood after regrettably slapping Dink; the second in his dressing room as he tries to get little Dink to look up and smile, a scene both compelling and heart-felt. Cooper's comes on his own with a tear-inducing moment enough to get any viewer to shed some tears themselves. Irene Rich, a former leading lady in silent movies in the 1920s, offers sincerity as a rich mother hoping to regain those missing years without Dink. Jesse Scott does well as Jonah, Dink's best pal. Then there's Dell Henderson, Lee Phelps and Frank Hagney in smaller roles.

The popularity of THE CHAMP found its story revamped as THE CLOWN (MGM, 1953) starring comedian Red Skelton (in a very rare dramatic performance) and Tim Considine. Though sequels rarely compare to originals, THE CLOWN is surprisingly effective and worth seeing. The latest edition, THE CHAMP (MGM, 1979) was updated featuring Jon Voight and Ricky Schroder. As much as Voight improves physically as a prizefighter, the color update just didn't go through enough rounds to compete with the two earlier editions.

Formerly available on video cassette and later on DVD, THE CHAMP did have some cable television showings over the years such as The Movie Channel (1991) and later a fixture on Turner Classic Movies. (****)

All Over Town

Hi-Jinx Theater
ALL OVER TOWN (Republic Pictures, 1937), directed by James Horne, stars the comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson in their second feature for the studio, following COUNTRY GENTLEMEN (Republic, 1936). Although popular vaudeville headliners having appeared in some early sound comedies for Warner Brothers (1930-1931), which hardly matched their stage successes, ALL OVER TOWN is no exception. Due to low-budget scales and some forced humor, ALL OVER TOWN is often regarded to be slightly better than most. As much as the premise does show great promise, considering its fine character types as James Finlayson, Franklin Pangborn and Fred Kelsey (notable for playing stooge detectives), around for humor purposes, the final results still show weakness in comedy rather than the strength of entertainment value.

Opening title: "Not in the wide open spaces nor in the depths of the vast wilderness -- but in a remote section of Manhattan Island struggle the last of their tribe -- the true vanishing Americans." Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson (as themselves) play vaudeville entertainers from Oklahoma staying at Mother Wilson's Home for Ladies and Gentlemen of Vaudeville Profession. Other than being accompanied by their pet seal, Sally, they are close friends with Don Fletcher (Harry Stockwell), a pianist and composer of numerous unpublished songs. Being behind on their rent owed to landlady, Mother Wilson (Blanche Payson), the trio seek employment at the Eldridge Theater, a theater with a bad reputation of being jinxed and haunted due to an unsolved murder of actor, Ramsey Taylor. Having inherited the theater from her now deceased father and heavily in debt, Joan Eldridge (Mary Howard) hires Olsen and Johnson and their seal for an upcoming show, especially after being lead to believe they are oil millionaires who could finance the show. William Bailey (Eddie Kane) wants control of the theater for investor, Peter Stuyvesant Phillips (Otto Hoffman), and tries to convince Joan to sell the theater to him. After discovering Olsen and Johnson are not millionaires after all, it is Don, believing the show will become a success, who advises Joan to have her production crew to rehearse without salaries. Further hi-jinx prevail when Bailey is shot and killed, having Olsen and Johnson to endanger themselves by doing a radio broadcast hoping to expose the murderer, regardless of the fact that they have no idea who the killer is. Featuring D'Arcy Corrigan, Stanley Fields, John Sheehan, Lew Kelly and Gertrude Astor in supporting roles. Olsen and Johnson are credited for composing a song they perform titled "McDougal's Mackerel."

As much as director James Horne had worked wonders with Laurel and Hardy comedy/western of WAY OUT WEST (MGM, 1937), it's a pity he didn't do equal justice to Olsen and Johnson's ALL OVER TOWN. Considering the fact the Olsen and Johnson failed to have a cult following due to frequent television revivals of other comedy teams as Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers or Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, what maybe sets Olsen and Johnson back is Chic Johnson's constant high-pitched laugh and forced humor, which grows tiresome very quickly. When their pet seal, Sally, gets more laughs than the Ole and Chic, something is definitely wrong.

This material of murder and comedy makes one think about WHO DONE IT? (Universal, 1942), one of Abbott and Costello's best comedies, compiled with character types (William Bendix and Mary Wickes), fast-paced chases around the radio studio, and a surprise finish. A pity ALL OVER TOWN didn't provide enough workable gag material to make this a laugh-out-loud classic comedy. It's been said that Olsen and Johnson's latter production, HELLZAPOPPIN (Universal, 1941) showed the comedy team at their finest. Yet, the only Olsen and Johnson Universal comedy of three to have played on cable television in recent years was CRAZY HOUSE (1943) on American Movie Classics in the 1990s.

A public domain movie title formerly distributed on video cassette, and later DVD, ALL OVER TOWN can be found in two versions: its original 62 minute edition (minus Republic Pictures logo) or shorter 52 minute reissue released through Hollywood Television Service, the print used for television broadcasts in the 1960s to fit into one hour time slots with commercial breaks. (** seals)

Ebb Tide

Fantastic Voyage
EBB TIDE (Paramount, 1937), a Lucien Hubbard production directed by James Hogan, was a successful sea adventure following the pattern of 1937s SLAVE SHIP (20th Century-Fox), CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (MGM) and Paramount's own SOULS AT SEA. EBB TIDE has become long unseen and forgotten movie title through the passage of time, being the studio's second Technicolor production following THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE (1936), Based on a 1894 story "The Ebb-Tide" by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osborne, previously filmed in 1922 with James Kirkwood, Lila Lee and Noah Beery, this latest installment stars Oscar Homolka (in association with the Gaumont British Company), in his American film debut, with Frances Farmer, Ray Milland, and Barry Fitzgerald in fine support.

Opening title: "Tehua in the South Seas in 1890, an island of happy indolence." In a story told in two parts, the first half begins with beachcombers Robert Herrick (Ray Milland), from England; Huish (Barry Fitzgerald) a sailor; and Captain Jakob Thornecke (Oscar Homolka), strolling along the island beach. Though Thornecke is a disgraced drunken captain having lost his Sea Rangers ship, he is later commissioned to sail a Yankee schooner to Sydney, Australia, after the deaths of both its captain and shipmate. Taking Herrick as mate and Huish as steward, Thornecke begins having second thoughts taking his cargo of champagne to Peru, sell both merchandise and ship and pocket the money on mines,. This scheme is overheard by Faith Wishart (Frances Farmer), daughter of the deceased captain, who orders Thorneck at gunpoint to resume sail for Australia. During the course of the story, the captain gets drunk, nearly sails the schooner into a passing typhoon, and later discovers the champagne bottles are not only filled with water, but discovers Faith's father's intentions to sabotage the schooner for insurance money. With limited supply of food on board, the schooner weights anchor on a deserted island of Kanaki, where the second half of the story finds its crew involved with Richard Atwater (Lloyd Nolan), an American supported by two guards and female servant (Lina Basquette), on the island living in richness of pearls, who may possibly be insane. Charles Judels, Charles Stevens, and David Torrence complete the cast.

Of its leading players, Lloyd Nolan's performance, reminiscent to Leslie Banks in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (RKO Radio, 1932) gathers much attention here, but in a more somber manner. The story was reworked again ADVENTURE ISLAND (Paramount, 1947) with Rory Calhoun, Rhonda Fleming and Paul Kelly.

Known in recent years as the only color movie featuring Frances Farmer, EBB TIDE is something of a predecessor to the many 1940s Technicolor South Seas island tales from its opening credits underscored by islanders singing its title tune of "Ebb Tide" by Leo Robin and Ralph Ranger, to Technicolor beauty and sailing adventure. While it doesn't have the top-notch casting of Warner Brothers' own Errol Flynn, Olivia De Havilland and Basil Rathbone, Milland, Farmer and Nolan are fine substitutes. In his very rare opportunity heading the cast, Oscar Homolka, with enough close-ups, is not as memorable as he later became for his excellent performance as the family uncle in I REMEMBER MAMA (RKO Radio, 1948) starring Irene Dunne.

Unseen on commercial television since the 1970s, and public TV since the early 1980s, thus far EBB TIDE was never shown on cable television nor distributed on video cassette. Theatrically released at 94 minutes, beware of shorter prints on DVD by private collectors. As much as EBB TIDE needs restoration, it's still a fine sea adventure worth seeing. (*** bells)

Eternally Yours

Love and Magic
ETERNALLY YOURS (United Artists, 1939), a Walter Wanger Presentation directed by Tay Garnett, is a light romantic comedy with familiar overtones assisted by magical ideas thrown in for good measure. Starring Loretta Young and David Niven, their third collaboration and first in which they are the main attractions to an original screenplay written by Graham Baker and Gene Towne, about a magician's love for a lovely lady engaged to another.

As the opening credits get underway with an offscreen male vocalist singing the title tune, the story begins with a view of New York City followed by a bridal shower taking place at the Angel's Rectory, founded by Bishop Hubert Peabody, grandfather of its guest of honor, Anita Halstead (Loretta Young), engaged to Don Burns (Broderick Crawford). Along with her assortment of female guests, including her best friend, Gloria (Eve Arden) and Aunt Abbey (Billie Burke), Anita acquires an advertisement introducing debonair magician and mind reader, Tony Halstead, better known as The Great Auturo (David Niven), to which she and her friends decide to attend his special afternoon engagement for ladies to see what their future foretells. Of the many ladies surrounding Arturo, he immediately spots and becomes attracted to Anita. Following his private reading with her, Arturo and Anita get married. With Anita acting as his assistant, they go on a world tour performing magic acts. Eighteen months later while in England, Anita feels its about time she and Tony settle down for a normal married life in Connecticut. Tony, however, has other plans. After doing his death defying stunt jumping 100,000 feet from an airplane with his hands handcuffed behind his back with only moments to free himself and open his parachute in time for a safe landing, Arturo intends on resuming this dangerous act. Unable to live in worry any further, Anita leaves and divorces Tony. She later resuming her relationship with Don and marries him, while Lola DeVere (Virginia Field) becomes Arturo's new assistant. While his divorce from Anita finds him incapable of performing successfully, his next trick is to get Anita back.

ETERNALLY YOURS is helped considerably by its worthy cast of Hugh Herbert as Arturo's servant, Benton, breaking away from his typical buffoonery by playing it straight; Raymond Walburn and Zasu Pitts as the Binghams, Harley and Cary; Ralph Graves (Mr. Morrissey); Fred Keating (Master of Ceremonies) and its director, Tay Garnett, as the airplane pilot. In spite of its impressive cast, the end result is a fairly amusing comedy. Loretta Young (with some extreme close-ups) and David Niven (in his star making performance) do well in their initial lead pairing. Though it contains no slapstick nor climatic chases, the death defying airplane jumping sequence is both exciting and fearful. Young and Niven would team again a couple more times in the 1940s, with the Christmas fantasy of THE BISHOP'S WIFE (RKO Radio, 1947) opposite Cary Grant, to be their most famous and possibly best collaboration of all time.

As much as ETERNALLY YOURS has played regularly on commercial television since the 1950s, its renewed interest and rediscovery turned up further in the 1980s when shown on public television, availability on video cassette and decades later, on DVD. Cable television showings over the years included the Nik-at-Night Movie, Arts and Entertainment and finally Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: July 25, 2012). Being a public domain title, ETERNALLY YOURS at least is a look back at future Academy Award winners of Loretta Young, David Niven and Broderick Crawford in material quite common then and something worth having a look today. (**1/2)

Border Flight

For the Good of the Service
BORDER FLIGHT (Paramount, 1936), directed by Otho Lovering, is a routinely produced programmer about the United States Coast Guard, based on the story by Ewing Short. Heading the cast are Frances Farmer, John Howard, Roscoe Karns and Robert Cummings, but the sole attraction here is Grant WIthers, former leading man of early talkies, playing a conceited pilot who would rather abide by his own rules than those from his superiors. With formula reminiscent to other aviation themes of the period, namely a few by Warner Brothers featuring James Cagney and Pat O'Brien such as CEILING ZERO (1935), it's Grant Withers and John Howard acting out their parts in the Cagney and O'Brien tradition.

Set in San Diego, California, the story begins with Dan Conlon (John Howard) and Bob Dixon (Robert Cummings) being sworn in as United States Coast Guards by Commander Morsley (Samuel S. Hinds). Also among the Coast Guards is Pat Tarnell (Grant Withers), Dan's former school rival, who later interferes with his romance with his fiancee, Ann Blane (Frances Farmer). With the Coast Guard dealing with smugglers sneaking raw furs into the country, causing the death of young Dixon, Morsley is ordered to have these smugglers captured and arrested. As Pat and Dan are ordered to stop their rivalry, Pat continues to make his play with Ann, causing for his resignation from the service. Due to his dismissal, Pat goes against the Coast Guards siding and working for the smugglers instead. Also in the cast Donald Kirke (Fleming); Matty Fain (Jerry); Frank Faylen (Jimmie); Edgar Dearing and Emily Fitzroy. Roscoe Karns stands out as chief mechanic Calico Smith, who frequently recites in song to the old tune, "School Days."

For film scholars, the sole interest for viewing BORDER FLIGHT is the presence of Frances Farmer, rediscovered in the 1970s through two published books, "Shadowland" by William Arnold, and "Will There Really Be a Morning?" an autobiography by Farmer herself. This was followed by the motion picture, FRANCES (1982) wonderfully played by Jessica Lange, and a 1983 television movie, WILL THERE REALLY BE A MORNING? Starring Susan Blakely. Regardless of Frances Farmer's then newfound rediscovery, so few of her movies saw reissue on television. While William Arnold's 1978 publication of "Shadowland" labeled in Chapter 13 that no print of BORDER FLIGHT survives, it is far from that. At the time of his research on Farmer's life, BORDER FLIGHT was probably hard to locate for viewing. It frequently broadcast on New York City television on WPIX, Channel 11 between 1966 to 1972, usually on a one hour time slot with commercial breaks. At present, the only way to view Farmer's BORDER FLIGHT is to locate a DVD from a private collector, which is what I did.

Regardless of Frances Farmer's name heading the cast, she and Robert Cummings both have little to do, with much of the proceedings going to John Howard and Grant Withers. Though sources clock BORDER FLIGHT at 68 minutes, circulating jump cut 58 minute editions seem to be what's currently available. One moment Conlon and Dixon are watching Ann talking to another recruit before suddenly there is a pilot (Howard) in trouble with his airplane missing his landing gear, just to name a few. Even if BORDER FLIGHT can be viewed in its entirety, its photoplay plays fast helped by some well photographed action and aerial scenes. Maybe Farmer didn't care for this particular assignment, her second movie, but better roles lay ahead, namely COME AND GET IT (United Artists), her fourth, and final 1936 movie release, regarded by many to be her best motion picture. (** airplanes)

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