RHYTHM ON THE RIVER (Paramount, 1940), directed by Victor Schertzinger, is not a musical set on a riverboat floating down the Mississippi as the title may imply, but a story about song writing set mostly in New York City. Starring Bing Crosby in this well-intentioned but underrated musical about ghostwriting, its title might have suited Crosby's earlier riverboat musical MISSISSIPPI (1935) or a rarely seen Barbara Stanwyck BANJO ON MY KNEE (20th Century-Fox, 1936), RHYTHM ON THE RIVER is basically a series of "Rhythm" titles used for several Paramount musicals at that time, including Crosby's similarly titled RHYTHM ON THE RANGE (1936) or DOCTOR RHYTHM (1938). In fact, RHYTHM ON THE RIVER is actually one of the songs used for this production, which may not be as memorable or noteworthy as some others selected as part of its story.
The story revolves around Oliver Courtney (Basil Rathbone), a popular songwriter in demand for composing tunes for an upcoming Broadway show. Unknown to many, his melodies are actually composed by Bob Summers (Bing Crosby) with lyrics written by another, for which Courtney takes credit. Working for Courtney only a year, Summers refuses to be tied down to a contract, promising never to reveal who's been writing the songs to Courtney's music. When his lyricist dies, Courtney hires Sherry Lane (Mary Martin) to ghost write the words to his songs at $50 a week. Living in her aunt's boarding house where she has rented a room next to her band players (Harry Barris and Willy Mannone) constantly playing "Hold That Tiger," she's unable to concentrate on her work. Courtney suggests she go to Nobody's Inn in Tarrytown where she can compose in peace and quiet. Unknown to her, the Inn, managed by Bob's uncle (Charley Grapewin) and his wife, also lives there. Upon their acquaintance, and learning about their ghost writing profession for Courtney, it is decided they leave Courtney and have their own songs published instead. Problems arise when Bob and Cherry are unable to sell their songs to publishers for having all the earmarks Oliver Courtney while Oliver Courtney is having problems of his own unable to score anything on his own.
The supporting players include the droll Oscar Levant as Courtney's assistant, Billy Starbuck; Oscar Shaw, Lillian Cornell, William Frawley, Jeanne Cagney, Charles Lane, and John Scott Trotter, among others. The name Oscar Shaw may be unfamiliar to many, but somewhat known by anybody who's seen his last movie opposite The Marx Brothers in THE COCOANUTS (Paramount, 1929) where Shaw and Mary Eaton sang a duet to Irving Berlin's "When My Dreams Come True."
On the musical program: "What Would Have Shakespeare Have Said?" (sung by Bing Crosby, reprised by Lillian Cornell); "That's For Me" (sung by Mary Martin); "Hold That Tiger" (instrumental); "Only Forever" (sung by Bing Crosby); "When the Moon Comes Over Madison Square," "Rhythm on the River" (both sung by Crosby); "Ain't It a Shame About Mame?" "I Don't Want to Cry Anymore" (both sung by Mary Martin); and "Only Forever: (sung by Crosby and Martin). Of the many songs, "That's for Me" is actually better than the others, along with "Ain't it a Shame About Mame," while the slow in tempo "Only Forever" was good enough to be honored an Academy Award nomination as Best Song of 1940.
With this being another song promotion musical provided by Bing Crosby, RHYTHM ON THE RIVER is more a showcase for Mary Martin, in her second movie role. Though her mannerisms resemble that of actress Jean Arthur, especially when accusing Crosby's character as a masher, she does benefit well musically with a style all her own. What also makes RHYTHM ON THE RIVER quite enjoyable is the casting of Basil Rathbone, known for playing villains, swashbucklers and Sherlock Holmes in a series of mysteries during the 1940s, seen to good advantage in a lightweight comedic performance. Director Schertzinger reteamed Crosby and Martin once more for another musical winner, BIRTH OF THE BLUES (Paramount, 1941), where they once again perform well together.
RHYTHM ON THE RIVER, with last cable broadcasts on The Movie Channel (1992) and American Movie Classics (1993-1994), formerly available on video cassette, can be found on DVD (with Crosby's RHYTHM ON THE RANGE on its flip side), making this a good companion piece to Crosby's easy-going screen personality and the type of movies that made him famous. (*** song sheets)
EX-LADY (Warner Brothers, 1933), directed by Robert Florey, stars Bette Davis in her first leading role. Already two years into the motion picture business, and only a year at the Warner studio, Davis might have elevated herself to a leading status, but would take a few more years before taken seriously as an actress worthy of superior movie roles. Rather than offering Davis an original premise, the studio awarded her a remake of the more recent release of ILLICIT (1931) starring Barbara Stanwyck, James Rennie and Ricardo Cortez. For this retelling with some alterations, Davis plays a modern-day woman living by her way of thinking, with material predating the frankness and carefree living revolution of the 1960s and 70s.
The plot deals with Helen Bauer (Bette Davis), a commercial artist, in love with Donald Peterson (Gene Raymond), an advertising writer, who agrees to Helen's advanced idea of living together without getting married. She is confronted by her stern father (Alphonse Ethier), who opposes to her liberal ideas, while Helen considers her father's way of living old-fashioned and out of date. Although she feels getting married would complicate matters with her relationship, Donald prefers to make things right. After agreeing to a wedding ring, both Helen and Don find their joy of romance has now dimmed, causing Donald to lose his accounts in business to later focus his attention on Peggy Smith (Kay Strozzi), a wealthy advertiser,. After leaving her husband, Helen focuses her attentions on Nick Malvin (Monroe Owsley), Donald's competitor. Featuring Frank McHugh (Hugo Van Hugh); Claire Dodd (Iris Van Hugh); Ferdinald Gottschalk (Mr. Smith); Bodil Rosing (Mrs. Bauer); Gay Seabrooke and Bobby Gordon.
While EX-LADY is an interesting but dull pre-production code melodrama, its sole interest is on the young Bette Davis. As much as she may appear out of place as a modern-day woman with loose morals, she does what she could to make her performance believable, right down to her cigarette smoking manner that has become the Bette Davis trademark. With this being Davis' sole working opposite Gene Raymond, they satisfy but not enough to show any chemistry between them, even when sleeping in the same bed for the night. At 67 minutes, other than Davis and Raymond as center of attention throughout, some scenes, which might have been considered daring at the time, seem awfully tame by today's standards. Regardless, it's interesting to see the sort of material that got by to label EX-LADY something more than an an adult melodrama.
Aside from a 1974 broadcast on WPHL, Channel 17 in Philadelphia, EX-LADY has become a rarely seen movie gem until the days of cable television as Turner Network Television (TNT) and finally Turner Classic Movies (since 1994), along with distribution on home video and DVD, that makes EX-LADY readily available with great interest for its immoral views theme and Bette Davis rising above routine material. (*1/2)
HOLIDAY AFFAIR (RKO Radio, 1949), produced and directed by Don Hartman, is a delightful Christmas tale based on the story "The Christmas Gift" by John D. Weaver, made interesting for its original premise and casting. Starring Robert Mitchum, better known for his war, western and film noir mysteries during the latter half of the 1940s, offers him a change of pace doing light comedy without losing his screen image made popular at the time. Co-starring Janet Leigh (on loan from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) and Wendall Corey, the real scene stealer turns out to be the very likable child actor by the name of Gordon Gebert, in his second movie and first major role.
The plot development opens in New York City at Crowley's Department Store where shoppers gather at various counters for the Christmas rush. Among the crowd gatherers is Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh), working undercover as a comparison shopper, buying an electric train set from clerk, Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum), for $79.50. She returns home to her six-and-a-half year old son, Timmy (Gordon Gebert), who, wanting nothing more than a train set for Christmas, suspects the present he sees is for him. Having to return and get a refund on the train set, Steve, who goes against company policy by not reporting this comparison shopper, gets talked into writing her a refund slip and getting fired for his trouble by a suspecting floorwalker. Connie, a war widow living in the memory of her deceased husband through Timmy, is loved by Carl Davis (Wendall Corey). After a two-year engagement, he hopes to some day marry her and become part of the family. Problems persist as fate stepping in when Steve unintentionally becomes part of Connie's life by taking her out to lunch in Central Park, helping her with her Christmas shopping, and offered assistance at a police station for a crime for which he is innocent, with Carl, a lawyer by profession, defending his case. Because little Timmy has taken an immediate like towards Steve, especially after anonymously buying him the train set for Christmas, invites him to have Christmas dinner with them and Connie's visiting parents (Griff Barnett and Esther Dale). With plans to return to Balboa, California, for a upcoming job, and Connie's intention to marry Carl New Year's Day, Steve friendly gesture of appreciation stun his hosts as well as giving Connie a new meaning for comparison shopping. Veteran actor Henry O'Neill gives a likable performance as Mr. Crowley, department store manager, while the presence and distinctive voice of Henry Harry Morgan as the police lieutenant adds some additional humor to the story by Steve he finds so hard to believe.
What's liked about HOLIDAY AFFAIR is Robert Mitchum's performance and how his gentleman of nerve character honestly tells it like it is without holding anything back. His chemistry with little Gebert is realistically done and wonderfully played. Janet Leigh, still new to the movies since her cinema debut in 1947, is perfect as the young mother holding on to her past and unwilling to face reality, which is crucial to the plot's elements. Then there's Wendall Corey as the fiance who must compete with a perfect stranger he's only known for a few short days, who quips, "No time is wasted in making two people friends," that comes off as true and appealing. While Gordon Gebert didn't become a top-major child actor of the 1950s, at least HOLIDAY AFFAIR shows what could have been maybe had he had more opportunity to become the center of attention as the new Jackie Coogan (popular child actor of the 1920s) of his time.
Don Hartman's direction, which could have been sappy and overly done under less capable hands, is made enjoyable, becoming one of those movies that becomes more delightful through the passage of time. While it was said HOLIDAY AFFAIR to have been overlooked at the time of its release, it's annual tradition on cable channel's Turner Classic Movies has helped it become a good sort-after Christmas movie and annual movie tradition. Former shown on American Movie Classics in the 1990s, HOLIDAY AFFAIR has become available on both video cassette and DVD formats to add to one's Christmas movie collection and fine way to spend 86 minutes on Christmas Eve. (***1/2 train sets)
TARZAN THE FEARLESS (Sol Lesser Principal Productions, 1933), directed by Robert F. Hill, stars Larry Crabbe, better known as Buster Crabbe, Olympic swimming champion, to the role of Edgar Rice Burrough's creative jungle hero, Tarzan. A year after the highly successful TATZAN THE APE MAN (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1932), which introduced Johnny Weissmuller, another Olympic champion swimmer, as Tarzan, this latest installment was an attempt to reinvent the Tarzan character on an independently scale with new supporting characters. As the opening introduction states, "The worldwide popularity of the "Tarzan" stories has promoted to another tale, for the first time, a new story of the ape man's strangest and most romantic adventures." Initially released in both 12 weekly serial installments and tightly edited feature length film, it's the 85 minute edition that is seemingly available for viewing and reviewing by today's standards.
In the surviving copy often shown on Turner Classic Movies since 2011 (as opposed to shorter 72 minute editions presented either on commercial, public television and video tape since the 1980s), TARZAN THE FEARLESS, set in Africa, opens with Tarzan (Buster Crabbe) vine swinging to the delight of his chimpanzee companion. Tarzan is lord of the jungle, friend of the animals, and hero to those he rescues from danger. Next scene introduces a safari consisting of Mary Brooks (Jacqueline Wells), Bob Hall (Edward Woods), her fiance; and jungle guides, Jeff Herbert (Philo McCullough) and Nick Moran (Matthew Betz), on a trail searching for the missing archaeologist, Doctor Brooks (E. Alyn Warren), Mary's father. Studying ancient tribes and seeking for a lost Aryan civilization and rare emerald, Brooks has been abducted by worshippers of the ancient god Zar. As Tarzan follows the safari from a distance due to his interest in Mary's blonde beauty, it is also learned that Nick Moran also wants Mary for his wife. After locating her father's cabin, Mary is abducted and held captive by the evil High Priest Eltar (Mischa Auer). Frank Lackteen, Carlotta Monti, Ivory Williams and Everett Brown also support the cast.
While Buster Crabbe first leading role in the movies being KING OF THE JUNGLE (Paramount, 1933), by which he was cast as Kaspa, the Lion Man, which proved popular, rather than starring Crabbe in a new jungle series based on the Kaspa character, he entered the world of Tarzan in a whole new different adventure. Comparing this to the Weissmuller adventure would be typical for audiences and reviewers, with many favoring Weissmuller over Crabbe. Though Weissmuller had a good physical build to become Tarzan, so did Crabbe with his bigger chest. In the existing prints, there is no origin to the Tarzan character as to how a white man, with no method of speech except in grunts and calling himself Tarzan, ended up in Africa. Maybe there was more plot development to him and other actors to the story in the serial that appears not to be available for present viewing.
Unlike Weissmuller, Crabbe's Tarzan, who sports a leopard spot skin loincloth, bears a different sounding war cry many than Weissmuller. This is the same jungle yell used in latter independent Tarzans of the 1930s featuring Herman Brix and Glenn Morris. Heavily underscored using similar stock music used for some independent productions, TARZAN THE FEARLESS relies more on some exciting Tarzan/animal fights, last minute rescue or near death experience for attention purposes. As much as Buster Crabbe wasn't bad as Tarzan, Weissmuller really made this jungle hero his own, becoming the longest reigning and best known Tarzan of the screen (1932-1948) for years to come.
A public domain title made available from various video and DVD distributors, TARZAN THE FEARLESS has its moments, but with uneven plotline with numerous jump cuts make this a little hard to comprehend and appreciate. (**)
TARZAN'S REVENGE (A Principal Production released through 20th Century-Fox, 1938), directed by D. Ross Lederman, became the final independent "Tarzan" installment of the 1930s. Following three earlier minor attempts as TARZAN THE FEARLESS (1933), with Buster Crabbe, and THE NEW ADVENTURES OF TARZAN (1935) and TARZAN AND THE GREEN GODDESSS (1938), both with Herman Brix, all chapter serials later edited to feature length format. TARZAN'S REVENGE is a 70 minute Sol Lesser production with no prior weekly chapter elements to its name. The result being TARZAN'S REVENGE, regardless of its strong title, to be no threat to the ever popular Johnny Weissmuller Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer series (1932-1942). Often hailed as the worst of the Tarzan franchise, the leading players enacted by Olympic athletes as Glenn Morris and swimming champion Eleanor Holm, in her movie debut, did nothing to make this watchable nor the writers to make it exciting, even with screen credit given to its creator of Edgar Rice Burroughs as this based on his novel.
This low-budget project opens with the map of view Africa when a steamship traveling down the Luckdar River carrying passengers as Eleanor Reed (Eleanor Holm), her fiance, Nevin Potter (George Meeker), and her parents, Roger Reed (George Barbier) and his hay-fever suffering wife, Penny (Hedda Hopper). Roger's venture is to spend five to six weeks in Africa to capture rare animals such as a white crocodile for his New York zoo. Nevin spends more time shooting animals to improve his aim-shot practices than with Eleanor. Ben Alleu Bey (C. Henry Gordon), an Oxford educated African ruler with a 100-plus wife harem returning from Paris, takes an interest in Eleanor after she witnesses and defends one of his servants getting beaten by him. Upon the arrival to their destination, the Reeds are met by Johnson, manager of the safari company, with Olaf (Joseph Sawyer) hired to act as their guide through the jungle. At the same time, Olaf is paid heavily by Ben Allu to abduct and bring Eleanor to him once the safari gets close to his palace. Later, Eleanor is rescued by Tarzan (Glenn Morris) after getting stuck in the mud, and disappears. During the course of the story, Tarzan, who takes an interest in Eleanor, rescues the caged animals captured by Reed, while Eleanor finds herself captured and held prisoner by Ben Alleu, wanting her as part of her harem. Others in the cast include John Lester Johnson, Corbet Morris, Frederick Clark and Gordon Elliott.
While pieces of the story appears to be a rehash to how Tarzan met Jane in the Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan edition of TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932), TARZAN'S REVENGE is rather tame, and disappointing to fans of the Tarzan franchise. This Tarzan character comes 13 minutes into the story, and on the 22 minute mark, meets Eleanor for the first time. Tarzan barley speaks except to address himself as Tarzan. His belt out jungle yell, similar to the soundtrack used by both Buster Crabbe and Herman Brix, is quite different than the more iconic yell by Weissmuller. Considering the fact that Tarzan is accompanied by a chimpanzee, he is never addressed as Chetah. Heavily underscored by Hugh Risenfeld, production values show this is not MGM as Morris is no Weissmuller. While Eleanor Holm may be attractive, sporting white attire throughout the story, she is a better swimmer than she is an actress. Hedda Hopper's constant sneezing gets annoying after a while. C. Henry Gordon makes a good villain, but there seems to be something lacking with his mean image.
While the given title of TARZAN'S REVENGE is a misnomer, had the plot revolved around the vengeance Tarzan out to avenge someone who killed his mate or one of his animals, then TARZAN'S REVENGE might have become a better and stronger story. Aside from some underwater swimming, animal fights and native confrontation sequences, the plot revolves more on other characters than the Tarzan character, which is just as well since this Tarzan lacks character. Thankfully, Johnny Weissmuller continued his long running rein as lord of the jungle or both MGM and RKO Radio until hanging up his loincloth by 1948.
Distributed on video cassette in the 1980s, TARZAN'S REVENGE began to surface regularly on both commercial and public television after 1979, followed years later by cable television channels as American Movie Classics (1997-2000) and Turner Classic Movies (starting in 2012) as part of its long running "Tarzan" series package from 1932 to 1968. (*1/2 swing vines)
SATAN MET A LADY (Warner Brothers, 1936), directed by William Dieterle, is a mystery-comedy taken on the novel "The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiell Hammett. Previously filmed by Warners in 1931 starring Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez, this edition attempts to spoof the material from which it is based, along with following the pattern combining murder mystery and comedy made famous by Hammett's earlier screen edition of THE THIN MAN (MGM, 1934) starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Sadly, SATAN MET A LADY fails on both counts, trying to be amusing yet failing to get any laughs. The film overall not only has become the least favorite for Bette Davis fans, but Bette Davis herself. Cast opposite Warren William, with whom Davis co-starred in THE DARK HORSE and THREE ON A MATCH in 1932, both have reached a low ebb in their careers by this time.
The story introduces Ted Shane (Warren William), an eccentric private detective with a bad reputation for doing anything for money returning by train to San Francisco to rejoin partnership with Milton Ames (Porter Hall) at his detective agency. Ames is married to Astrid (Winifred Shaw), with whom Ted was romantically involved with three years ago. Overhearing about Shane on the train, Valerie Purvis (Bette Davis) arrives at the Ames Detective Agency for assistance in having Jackie Farrow, a man who deserted her, found. Ames takes the case. Later that night, Ames is found murdered in a cemetery (misspelled cemetAry in the story), along with Farrow. Shane becomes the prime suspect by Lieutenant Pullock (Charles Wilson) and Sergeant Roy Dunhill (Olin Howland) who both believe Shane did away with his partner to get back with Astrid. During the course of the investigation, Shane's secretary, Miss Murgatroyd (Marie Wilson) gets locked inside a closet by Anthony Travers (Arthur Treacher), and later ram sacks Shane's apartment while searching for a priceless artifact, a ram's horn, containing valuable jewels hidden inside. Also searching for the cornucopia are Kenneth Kennedy (Maynard Holmes), under orders by Madame Barabbas (Alison Skipworth) to stalk Shane, and Miss Purvis further complicating matters for Shane's detecting. Supporting players including Barbara Blane (Babe); Joseph King (McElroy); May Beatty (Mrs. R. Manchester-Arden) and William B. Davidson complete the cast.
Had SATAN MET A LADY been a shorter version of THE MALTESE FALSON, retaining its seriousness to the characters, the movie might have worked. Warren WIlliam had played detectives before, ranging from Philo Vance to a lawyer named Perry Mason, but lacks the charisma and amusements proved better suited for William Powell, or the tough guy image of the latter gumshoe style of Humphrey Bogart. William's amusements appear forced for comedy and too smiley polite when seriousness is involved. With Bette Davis receiving feature billing, making her first appearance nine minutes into the story, it is Warren William assuming much of the proceedings for much of its 75 minutes. With Alison Skipworth satisfactory as the crime boss dowager, Marie Wilson comes off best as the scatterbrained secretary having more scenes than Davis.
The material was reused again as THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), by first-time director, John Huston, with Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook Jr., becoming a remake much improved over the originals. Frequent television broadcasts established the third edition to develop as an all-time classic. Nearly forgotten, SATAN MET A LADY, which includes classic lines found in both Falcon editions, began to surface on television in the 1990s, along with availability on video cassette around the same time. At present, SATAN MET A LADY can be found on both DVD and Turner Classic Movies cable channel, assuring this more of a curiosity for Bette Davis fans before her super-stardom years (1937-1948), proving her fight for better roles was truly worth it. Watching SATAN MET A LADY certainly shows why. (*1/2)
MURDER BY TELEVISION (Cameo Pictures, 1935), directed by Clifford Sanforth, is an independently produced murder mystery often mistaken for a horror film due to the presence of its leading performer, Bela Lugosi. With classic horror tales of DRACULA (1931), THE BLACK CAT (1934) and THE RAVEN (1935), to his resume of classic fright films, MURDER BY TELEVISION became one of many Lugosi cheapies that would make his latter Monogram productions of the 1940s look more like lavish scale Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. An interesting fact that the title indicates the medium of television a decade or more before becoming a popular household item, MURDER BY TELEVISION is not the first motion picture to deal with television. Paramount's earlier carnations of INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933) dealing with "the radio scope" while THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1936 (1935) focused on the "radio eye," each resembling the entertaining equipment of television. With the exception of a female vocalist singing a tune titled "I Had The Right Idea," the movie overall does not consist musical numbers from popular entertainers performing on television in between scenes, which might have helped with the proceedings ever so slightly.
Following newspaper clippings regarding the invention of television by Professor James Houghland (Charles Hill Mailes), and his rejection of all corporate offers, a demonstration of his invention is set to be presented in his mansion to various guests, regardless of death threats not to go on with the demonstration. Those in attendance are Richard Grayson (George Meeker), Doctor Henry M. Scofield (Huntley Gordon), Arthur Terry (Bela Lugosi), along with Houghland's wife (Claire McDowell) and daughter, June (June Collyer). As Scofield leaves the room to make a phone call, Houghland is mysteriously killed with his television plans stolen. Chief of Police Nelson (Henry Mowbray) is called to investigate. Complications ensue when Terry, found murdered, only to reappear alive again adding more confusion to the mystery. Supporting players include Hattie McDaniel (Isabella, the cook); Allen Jung (Ah Ling, the houseboy); Charles K. French (Donald M. Jordan); Larry Francis (Mr. Mendoza); Henry Hall, William Tooker and William Sullivan.
While the scripting offers nothing to very little regarding an expected suspenseful climax, had it not been for a couple of close-up telegrams reading the year date being 1935, anyone not knowing the release of MURDER BY TELEVISION would take this as an early 1929 talkie. Other than lacking any underscoring, its pacing is slow with no strength in plot. Hattie McDaniel offers a little of her stereotyping humor as a frightened black maid shouting out "Lordy, Lordy" after finding a corpse, while Japanese houseboy, played by Allen Jung, whose character idol happens to be Oriental detective, Charlie Chan, could have done some Charlie Chan investigation himself had the opportunity arised.
Early video releases dating back to the 1980s, the decade when MURDER BY TELEVISION was taken out of vault moth balls and broadcast on television for the first time in decades, include several sudden jump cuts from one scene to another without any conclusion of dialogue or sequences that certainly indicate this reportedly 60 minute edition to be an edited down 55 minute reissue. Though portions of the plot are confusing, maybe a restoration to full length might help a little and make a little sense. Not quite frightful nor even delightful, the presence of Bela Lugosi and title indicating television dating back to 1935 certainly has kept MURDER BY TELEVISION from decaying in some studio vault never to be seen again. As it stands, it no more than a curiosity for film scholars than anything else. (**)
THE FULLER BRUSH GIRL (Columbia, 1950), directed by Lloyd Bacon, was the studio's answer to its earlier comedy success to THE FULLER BRUSH MAN (1948) starring Red Skelton. Coming off in a similar fashion to the Skelton comedy, this sequel by title-relation only stars Lucille Ball in possibly her funniest comedy thus far, following her previous outing as MISS GRANT TAKES RICHMOND (Columbia, 1949). Though she had done comedy several times before, few where she wasn't very funny, THE FULLER BRUSH GIRL takes full advantage of Lucille Ball's talents in slapstick fashion, a sort of dress rehearsal to her future years on television, namely on "I Love Lucy" (1951-1957) opposite Desi Arnaz. Eddie Albert, who also had a successful career on television as well, particularly as Oliver Wendall Douglas in "Green Acres," (1966-1971), offers fine support as Ball's straight man involved in enough antics to classify this movie to television fans of viewing Oliver Wendall Douglas and Lucy McGillicuddy before their marriage to their television spouses to Hungarian born Lisa (Eva Gabor) and Cuban bandleader, Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz).
After a very funny montage opening superimposed during the opening credits, the story introduces Sally Elliott (Lucille Ball), engaged for three years to Humphrey Briggs (Eddie Albert), wishing him to earn enough money to buy their happy home at Fairview Hills. Sally works as a switchboard operator for Harvey Simpson (Jerome Cowan) at the Maritime Steamship Company as Humphrey, for the same company, earns his living as a file clerk. Because there is a job opening with a higher salary involved, Sally has Humphrey go to Mr. Simpson inquiring about that job, which he gets without asking for it, which causes some suspicion. After Sally gets fired from her job, her friend, Jane Bixby (Jeff Donnell) talks her into selling cosmetics for the Fuller Brush Company. Hoping to prove herself a good saleslady, Sally's luck becomes anything but successful. Because Clare Simpson (Lee Patrick) suspects her husband of being involved with another woman due to a perfume smell on his suit, the only one who can straighten out his situation is Sally. Simpson asks Humphrey to locate Sally and have her explain the accidental spilling of the cosmetic on his suit to his wife. Humphrey agrees but on his terms. Problems arise when Sally comes to the Simpson home to find Mrs. Simpson murdered. Humphrey, who believes Sally murdered her, goes to Mr. Simpson for help, only to find him dead as well. Both then venture out and clear their names to musing results.
Others in the cast are Carl Bento Reid (Mr. Christy); Gale Robbins (Ruby Rawlins); John Litel (Mr. Watkins); Arthur Space (Inspector Rodgers) and Sid Tomack (Banks). Look quickly for a cameo appearance and inside humor provided by Red Skelton himself. Song segments set at Gaity Burlesque include "Ladies of the Chorus" and "Put the Blame on Mame."
THE FULLER BRUSH GIRL is a fun movie from start to finish. Compared to THE FULLER BRUSH MAN where some of the Skelton gags seem quite lengthy before reaching its punchline, the Lucille Ball edition, containing some similar or same actions, come off better and funnier. Aside from Lucy's involvement by becoming an accidental baby sitter and later with a scientific child with a chemical set, Lucy strikes home with her imitation of a burlesque queen and having to go on stage to avoid getting captured by the killers. A wild chase on a ship highlights the story ending with two talking parrots getting in the last words. Lucy's drunkenness and her saying "I've got an idea" comes off quite close to her future television episodes showing the birth of Lucy and what is to become.
Formerly available on video cassette in 1998 and later DVD format, THE FULLER BRUSH GIRL has played on cable television's Turner Classic Movies since 2006. Fans or even non-fans of Lucy will definitely enjoy this 84 minutes of non-stop entertainment. (***)
WINTERSET (RKO Radio, 1936), directed by Alfred Santell, is not a movie set in the winter but a screen adaptation to the 1935 Maxwell Anderson prize winning play. Starring Burgess Meredith with Paul Guilfoyle, Maurice Moscovitch, Myron McCormick and Fernanda Eliscu in their movie debuts, it also co-stars Mexican actress Margo, all reprising their original stage roles. With the studio attempting to produce a motion picture to surpass the stage play through its artistic and heavy handled style in John Ford's earlier success of THE INFORMER (RKO Radio, 1935) starring Victor McLaglen, WINTERSET, which was critically acclaimed, is said to have done poorly at the box office. Overlooking the fact that the film lacks notable top marque names as Paul Muni, the performances are strong enough to be believable. In the style of KING KONG (RKO, 1933), WINTERSET is heavily underscored which at times drowns out the wording of the player's spoken dialogue. The story, which is said to have been loosely based on an actual incident, has developed into one of those dark and moody movies that needs to be seen a few times to actually feel the dramatic impact its director was attempting to present.
The story begins with a prologue, set in 1920 in a small manufacturing town near New York City. Three men, Trock Estrella (Eduardo Ciannelli), the crime boss and cold-blooded killer, assisted by Garth Esdras (Paul Guilfoyle) and Shadow (Stanley Ridges), enter and steal a parked car belonging to Bartolomeo Romagna (John Carradine), an Italian immigrant radical with a wife (Helen Jerome-Eddy) and young son, Mio (Bobby Caldwell). The car is used for a payroll robbery by which Garth shoots and kills the factory's paymaster. Found abandoned on the road by the police, the car is traced to its owner Bartolomeo who is arrested. Because of flimsy evidence at the trial, Bartolomeo is found guilty and sentenced to execution by Judge Gaunt (Edward Ellis). The prologue concludes outside the prison walls as mother and son watch for Bartolomeo's signal of death. Sixteen years later, 1936. The Romangna case is reopened by Professor Liggett (Murray Kinnell) at the Eastern Law College where law students believe and report to newspapers the Romangna case was unjustified. While Estrella has served time for petty crimes and short jail sentences, he has never arrested for the actual crime pitted against Bartolomeo. Now that the case is in the news again, Trock would like nothing more than to locate Romagna's son and others involved with the robbery put out of the way permanently. The now adult Mio (Burgess Meredith), who had been living a reclusive life, returns to the scene of the crime at the outskirts of the Brooklyn Bridge with his friend, Carr (Myron McCormick), to gather enough evidence and expose those responsible for his father's execution. He later meets and falls in love with Miriamne (Margo), unaware of her being related to one of the three killers involved in the payroll robbery. Co-starring Maurice Moscovitch (Mr. Esdras); Mischa Auer (The Radical); Willard Robertson (The Policeman); Alec Craig (The Hobo); and Barbara Pepper. It is said that future TV star, Lucille Ball, appeared as an extra, but couldn't find her.
WINTERSET has the distinction of being a stage play transferred to the screen with most of its original players reprising their roles. Aside from Meredith, Eduardo Ciannelli makes a believable crime boss with one notable scene where he turns coward when confronted by a man holding his gun towards him. Fine support goes to Edward Ellis as a guilt-ridden judge, Margo and Paul Guilfoyle both giving sensitive performances. While the conclusion of the story said to differ from the play, I feel the change beneficial to its weighty screen adaptation.
While WINTERSET has not developed into a sort-after classic, it did enjoy frequent television revivals on public and cable television stations as Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) in the 1980s, around the same time the movie was distributed to home video and decades later DVD. To date, it has never been presented on American Movie Classics (during its RKO Radio title showings prior to 2001) and Turner Classic Movies. Because poor prints in circulation make WINTERSET a little hard to sit through, its the sort of movie and stage reproduction should not go unnoticed. (***1/2)
HER HUSBAND'S AFFAIRS (Columbia, 1947), directed by S. Sylvan Simon, may sound like a melodrama involving a wife discovering her husband's extra marital affairs, but in fact, turns out to be a comedy about the advertising business. Starring Lucille Ball in her first movie for Columbia since her comedy short appearance opposite The Three Stooges in THREE LITTLE PIGSKINS (1934), HER HUSBAND'S AFFAIRS may not be the best comedy ever produced, but a step in the right direction for someone like Ball best known for comedy. After many years for RKO Radio and MGM where her career ranged from musicals, comedy and dramas, HER HUSBAND'S AFFAIRS offers Ball, a few years before her iconic television series of "I Love Lucy" (CBS, 1951-1957), in a sort of role best suited for her comedic talents. Cast opposite Franchot Tone as her business-minded husband, much of the story with familiar overtones, appears more like an extended television episode minus a laugh track and applause.
The story introduces William Weldon (Franchot Tone), an advertising man working for Winterbottom Enterprises spending more time thinking up slogans for his campaign than with his attractive wife, Margaret (Lucille Ball). Professor Emil Glinka (Mikhail Rasummy) is his scientist partner who comes up with crazy scheme inventions as a magic hat placed on the head that nobody feels, shaving cream that removes hair without the use of a razor, hair growing tonic for bald-headed men, embalming fluid that converts people into glass, and a forever flower, all that seem to eventually backfire. William's problem is his wife, who steps into his business affairs where she gets the credit for its success instead of him. Problems arise when William is later put on trial for a proposed murder with Margaret stepping in his defense, and making matters worse for him. Featured in the cast are Edward Everett Horton (J. B. Cruikshank); Gene Lockhart (Peter Winterbottom); Nana Bryant (Mrs. Winterbottom); Pierre Watkin, Charles Trowbridge, and Larry Parks, following his success from Columbia's own blockbuster hit, THE JOLSON STORY (1946) appearing as himself.
While this comedy could have been a similar plot used for any one of the 28 "Blondie" movies at that time starring Penny Singleton (Blondie) and Arthur Lake (Dagwood Bumstead), interestingly, HER HUSBAND'S AFFAIRS includes "Blondie" regulars as Jonathan Hale, notable for playing Mr. J. C. Dithers, as Governor Fox, and Jack Rice in a smaller role. With the wife stepping in for her husband's business affairs quite common theme in both movies and television, Lucille Ball is the right candidate, and the sole reason for fans of her future television series to consider viewing this obscure 84 minute time filler.
Formerly available on video cassette, HER HUSBAND'S AFFAIRS has had some cable television viewing such as Cinemax for example, but better chances of finding it on Turner Classic Movies where it's been broadcast since it's humble beginnings of 1994. (**1/2)
OUR VERY OWN (RKO Radio, 1950), directed by David Miller, became producer Samuel Goldwyn's own contribution and latest tribute to the post World War II American family. Following his Academy Award winning success of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) which dealt with returning veterans coping with adjustments and family life becoming so different from the time they left home, OUR VERY OWN offers a more realistic account involving one particular American family involved with a situation they hope never to have to face. Starring Ann Blyth, best known to many as a spiteful daughter opposite Joan Crawford in the classic, MILDRED PIERCE (Warner Brothers, 1945), Blyth offers another standout dramatic performance out of her numerous musicals and fluff comedies since her movie debut in 1944.
Taken from an original story by F. Hugh Herbert, the plot revolves around the middle-class Macauley family of the suburban Los Angeles, California, area featuring parents Fred and Lois (Donald Cook and Jane Wyatt); their daughters, Gail (Ann Blyth), Joan (Joan Evans) and Penny (Natalie Wood); housekeeper, Violet (Jessica Grayson), and their dog, Belinda. Gail is romanced by Chuck (Farley Granger), a young television delivery man who must cope with Gail's flirtatious sister, Joan, who wants him for herself. Bert (Martin Milner) is interested in Joan, but she hardly gives him the satisfaction. Penny is a typical kid sister, annoying those around her, especially Frank (Gus Schilling), a delivery man setting up the family's first television set. Gail's best friend is Zaza (Phyllis Kirk), the only child whose widower father shows more interest in business deals than the well-being of his daughter. As much as the Macauleys are a typical American family, problems arise when Joan, searching for her birth certificate to apply for a job, finding Gail's adoption papers in her mother's drawer. Discovering this awful truth on her 18th birthday, Gail not only begins to act indifferently towards her family, but now wants to know where she came from. Upon learning the whereabouts of her birth mother (Ann Dvorak), Gail prepares to pay her a visit in Longbeach, wondering whether this visit might could be a mistake. Rita Hamilton (Gwendolyn) and Ray Teal (Jim Lynch) co-star in smaller roles.
Of the performers in the cast, Ann Dvorak, in one of her final screen roles, gives a realistically and sympathetic performance worthy of an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Jane Wyatt's performance, which appears to be a dress rehearsal for her later iconic television role of the perfect mother in "Father Knows Best" opposite Robert Young, also gives a compelling performance as well.
What makes OUR VERY OWN work so well for much of its 93 minutes is the fact of siblings discovering of their adoption reacting in the same manner as Gail, and how the adoptive parents would react when confronted about this dark secret. Another fact that how well the question is explained regarding the married couple, unable to conceive children to adopt, only to later conceive children of their own. Wyatt's explanation comes across realistically, speaking out for those having gone through the same thing. Along with other scenes reminiscent to a 1950s television show, the graduation commencement highlights it for me, reminiscent for those who have gone through the same path awaiting for a new beginning ahead. Ann Blyth is worthy of her acting talent with her commencement speech well said, leaving much to think about. Farley Granger is satisfactory as the boyfriend, but his better known more for Alfred Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (Warner Brothers, 1951) which was only a year ahead for him.
Formerly available on home video and later DVD, Samuel Goldwyn's contribution to the American family, which has become our very own, did include some cable television broadcasts over the years, including Christian Broadcast Network (CBN), Turner Network Television (TNT), American Movie Classics (AMC) and Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Sit back and enjoy. (***)
SPEEDWAY (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1929), directed by Harry Beaumont, stars William Haines in a typical race car story in typical William Haines fashion. With William Haines in the cast, the story revolves around two characters, William Haines and his portrayed character, Bill Whipple, which equals to William Haines. Aside from this being his final silent movie, SPEEDWAY is also notable for actual participation of world famous drivers with actual race car sequences through the cooperation of the Indianapolis Speedway Association.
Opening title: "According to Bill Whipple's impression of Bill Whipple, nobody had anything on Bill Whipple but Bill Whipple." Plot development focuses on Bill Whipple (William Haines), a top mechanic for the Indianapolis Speedway, assisted by Dugan (Karl Dane), his mechanical friend. Bill has a close relationship with Jim MacDonald (Ernest Torrence) and his wife (Eugenie Besserer), who treat Bill more like a son than a close friend. Mac, also a race car driver who's big dream since 1911 is to win the annual 500 mile decoration day racing classic. Mac holds a serious grudge against Lee Renny (John Miljan), a race car rival responsible for his serious crackup in Altoona a year ago. Bill, who never takes anything seriously, meets and becomes attracted to a beautiful blonde named Patricia Manning (Anita Page) while in a diner. His brash personality turns her off, but regardless of her rejections, he refuses to give up on her. When the doctor (Alfred Allen) diagnoses Mac's heart condition and to not participate in the upcoming race, further complications ensue as Mac and Bill become rivals caused by Bill's association with Renny. Aside from race car driver Harry Hartz appearing as himself, Polly Moran makes good with her five minutes as a wisecracking waitress which males any avid film buff think of future comedienne, Patsy Kelly.
Released in the final year (1929) of the silent movie era, SPEEDWAY is accompanied by fine 1920s style orchestral scoring through much of its 76 minutes, except during the annual 500 mile decoration race where sound effects and roaring of the crowd take precedence. One amusing sequence occurs when Pat (Page) piloting an airplane in her attempt of teaching Bill (Haines) a lesson by giving him a thrill ride. Bill, who fears airplane rides, appears ill at ease one moment, to suddenly smile the next in pretense of enjoying himself as Pat faces his direction. He and Page commend each other well enough to work together again, such as an early talkie and 1929 release of NAVY BLUES. Ernest Torrence, a gruff older man with a heart of gold, never disappoints with his presence while Eugenie Besserer (best known as Al Jolson's mother in THE JAZZ SINGER (1927), offers another sympathetic and caring performance. Though MGM used the title of SPEEDWAY for another race car story in 1968 starring Elvis Presley and Nancy Sinatra, it was not a remake.
Considering its typical story with Haines annoyance or entertainment value (depending on the viewer), it's a wonder had SPEEDWAY been a talkie would the movie have had the same affect? Unseen for many years until the arrival of Turner Classic Movies cable channel in 1994, SPEEDWAY has also been made available for rediscovery on DVD. (** finish lines)
HELL DIVERS (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1931), directed by George Hill, may not be the greatest film about aviation, but a good and very important one in the careers of Wallace Beery and Clark Gable. Taken from a story by Lieutenant Commander Frank "Spig" Wead, United States Navy, HELL DIVERS ranks some of the many military themes following the success of WHAT PRICE GLORY (Fox, 1926), and others ranging from the World War to peace time elements. Having teamed earlier in the crime drama, THE SECRET SIX (1931), Beery and Gable get more to do here as friendly rivals in the similar military manner of Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe at Fox or Jack Holt and Ralph Graves over at Columbia. Geared mostly for its male audience, HELL DIVERS consists of a typical story featuring flight operations, near death experiences and mid-air collisions for its highlights and having Beery and Gable showing their fondness for one another through fist fights one moment and friendly terms the next.
Filmed with the cooperation by the United States Navy, the story introduces H. W. "Windy" Riker (Wallace Beery), the best leading chief petty officer of the aviation squadron on the U. S. S. Saratoga. He has a bad reputation of being quick tempered and at odds with his superiors, namely Lieutenant Duke W. Johnson (Conrad Nagel) who stands up for him. Though good friends with Chief Petty Officer, Steve Nelson (Clark Gable), Riker socks him for correcting his explanation to his superiors for an incident that makes him out a lier. Their friendship turns to bitterness when Riker plays a practical joke on Nelson separating him from Ann Mitchell (Dorothy Jordan), the girl he loves, and later when Riker is reduced in rank and Nelson promoted to his former position. While on leave in Panama, Mame Kelsey (Marjorie Rambeau) tries to get these two rivals back together again, but problems persist even during their mock battle mission leaving them stranded on a rocky island. Other cast members include: Marie Prevost (Lulu Farnsworth); Cliff Edwards (Baldy); John Miljan (Lieutenant Commander John Griffith); Frank Conroy (The Chaplain) and Robert Young (Lieutenant Graham). With director John Ford regular, Jack Pennick, appearing as one of the mechanics, his presence, along with a sentimental moment involving John Griffith's (John Miljan) retirement leave, give HELL DIVERS a John Ford feel to it. Though Marie Prevost and Dorothy Jordan have little to do here, Marjorie Rambeau stands out most through her commendable performance opposite Beery.
Reportedly clocked at 113 minutes, circulating prints go at 109 minutes, indicating this to possibly be a latter reissue with one major jump cut in the middle of the story. HELL DIVERS is made interesting most by its MGM stock playing star power of its pre-mustache Clark Gable, in his 12th and final movie release of 1931, and Beery, the Academy Award winner as Best Actor for his title role as THE CHAMP (1931). While Beery would remain a Champ at MGM for many years to come, he and Gable reunited one more time in CHINA SEAS (1935) with Gable and Jean Harlow's names over Wallace Beery in the credits.
Never distributed to home video, but available on DVD, HELL DIVERS can be seen on occasion when broadcast on cable television's Turner Classic Movies for some good old-style entertainment. (***)
RUMBA (Paramount, 1935), directed by Marion Gering, reunites George Raft and Carole Lombard, following their initial teaming of BOLERO (1934). Hoping to recapture the success of BOLERO, the studio came up with RUMBA, not a sequel but more of a rehash or follow-up story featuring its initial players in different character roles. Unlike BOLERO, RUMBA is seldom revived nor discussed. After a few revivals on public television in the 1980s, RUMBA has disappeared completely. As much as many might label RUMBA inferior to BOLERO, the film in itself gets by through its usual story, with the dancing being the highlight of the shortcomings of the plot, even though Raft and Lombard were no match the current dancing craze phase of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
The story opens in Cuba where Joe Martin (George Raft), an egotistic dancer accompanied by his dancing partner, Goldie Allen (Iris Adrian), finds that his lottery ticket bearing the number of 17171 has won $5,000. As he goes to collect his winnings, it so happens that Diana Harrison (Carole Lombard), an American socialite vacationing in Cuba with her fiance, Hobart "Harvey" Fletcher (Monroe Owsley), also has won the lottery bearing the exact same number. It so happens that Joe's ticket is a forgery sold to him by a corrupt peddler. While Diane is in the right, Joe holds a grudge against her. As Diane and company come to the Rolling Tar Club, they spot the dance act of Joe and Goldie. Feeling Joe needs the money more than she, Diana approaches Joe in his dressing room with her thoughts, but finds Joe's pride won't let him accept money, especially from a woman. After being dismissed from the club, Joe accepts Diana's wager that he couldn't form a dance act and club for himself. After meeting Carmelita (Margo) in a gift shop, Joe invites her to accompany him at a fiesta where he witnesses a new dance craze called the Rumba, with intentions of using it as his new dance act with Carmelita as his new dancing partner. Known for having a mind of an elephant, for that elephants never forget, Joe and his friend and newspaper reporter, Flash (Lynne Overman) join forces in forming El Elephante Club where Joe dances under a new name of Jose Martinez. Once again Joe meets up with Diana and party as patrons, with Diana wanting Joe to become her rumba dancing teacher. While slowly becoming attracted to each other, Carmelita breaks them up. Returning to New York, Diana's father tells her about Joe's involvement with the underworld with mobsters out to rub him out if he should return to New York. At the risk of his own life, Joe comes to New York anyway to perform his dance act, publicized as "The Dance of Death."
Other in the cast include Virginia Hammond (Mrs. Harrison); Paul Porcasi, Soledad Jimenez, Jameson Thomas and Akim Tamiroff. While Gail Patrick appears Patsy Fletcher, Diana's society friend, they would reunite as rival sisters in the comedy classic opposite William Powell in MY MAN GODFREY (Universal, 1936). As much as there were a couple of songs vocalized, done entirely in Spanish, only "The Rhythm of the Rumba" featuring its interpretation to the history of the Rumba dance from past to present, is a ten minute expansion to the five minute dance finale to 1934s BOLERO, and moderately staged.
Surprisingly short for 71 minutes, RUMBA did not earn a third Raft-Lombard collaboration to Spanish dance titles as TANGO or CARIOCA for example. Raft would dance again in his future films, but is better known and admired most for his tough guy image in playing gangster or detective types. As much as Lombard excelled best in comedy, she displayed her talent for heavy dramatics as well, namely RKO Radio's IN NAME ONLY (1939) and VIGIL IN THE NIGHT (1940).
To date, the availability of RUMBA can be found on DVD through Vintage Film Buff, accompanied by BOLERO, Raft's favorite movie role. Both worthy companion pieces of the two movies featuring the short-lived dance team of Raft and Lombard. (**1/2).
LOST IN A HAREM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1944), directed by Charles Reisner, marks the second of three Abbott and Costello comedies for MGM. Taking another loan from their home base of Universal, this production is a spoof on either Paramount's "Road" comedies featuring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, or the then current Arabian Nights adventures minus the Technicolor backdrop. It does include a villain, wonderfully played by Douglass Dumbrille, who had menaced another comedy team of The Marx Brothers in A DAY AT THE RACES (1937) and THE BIG STORE (1941), as earlier menaced Abbott and Costello in RIDE 'EM COWBOY (Universal, 1942). For romantic subplot, Marilyn Maxwell and John Conte come along for the ride with plot that's mostly a series of vaudeville gags put together in story form for much of its 90 minutes of entertainment.
Following a narrative introduction from a crystal glazer (Milton Parsons), the story begins in a mythical city of Port Inferno where Hazel Moon (Marilyn Maxwell) works as a singer at the Cafe of All Nations, accompanied by Peter Johnson (Bud Abbott) and Harvey D. Garvey (Lou Costello), who had earlier helped her stranded troupe and now has acquired them jobs as magicians for their good nature. Prince Ramo (John Conte) wants to meet with Hazel, but while in need of her assistance to help him regain his throne taken from his wicket uncle, Nimativ (Douglass Dumbrille), she simply mistakes him for a masher. Following a riot that sends Pete, Harvey and Hazel to jail, Ramo agrees to their escape in return for Hazel's assistance, considering how Nimativ is attracted to rarely seen blondes. After Ramo and his caravan return to Barabeetla to get him out of power by stealing his uncle's hypnotic rings, Pete and Johnson pose as Hollywood talent scouts while Hazel, much to her dismay, to find herself chosen to become Nimatiy's wife number 37, among other unforeseen results. Others in the cast include: Lottie Harrison (Teema); J. Lockhard Martin (Bobo); Adia Kuzenikoff (Chief Gnamu); and Ralph Sanford (Mr. Ormulu). On the musical program is Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra with songs featuring: "What Does It Take to Get You?" (Sung by Marilyn Maxwell); "Sons of the Desert," (good tune) "Old John Silver," and "Noche De Ronda" (dance number).
Among the gags by John Grant involving Abbott and Costello, such as the opening magic act, other highlights include them with a third party, Murray Leonard as the Derelict, with their classic exchange of "Pokomogo! Slowly I turn. Step by step!" This familiar routine dating back to vaudeville has been performed by other comics as the Three Stooges as later by Lucille Ball in her classic 1950s show of "I Love Lucy." Leonard's character adds much to the story, especially when reappearing numerous times when least expected. He would do his "Pokomogo" routine again with Bud and Lou on television in "The Abbott and Costello Show." Another funny bit involves Bud and Lou hypnotized as termites and eating anything made of wood, followed by Costello disguised as one of Nimativ's harem wives. While some comedy material works, others such as the very extended one involving an invisible friend named Mike is often amusing, especially when sound effects are concerned, but is something that could have been shortened a bit before viewer's lost of interest sets in. Marilyn Maxwell plays a satisfactory heroine, but with Abbott and Costello around, she gets little to do except look pretty.
While Abbott and Costello got lost again in LOST IN ALASKA (Universal, 1952), the much better LOST IN A HAREM, formerly available on video cassette and later DVD, can be seen and appreciated the next time it turns up on Turner Classic Movies cable channel. (**1/2 sheiks)
THE MILLIONAIRE (Warner Brothers, 1931), directed by John G. Adolfi, is a title that bears no relation to the successful 1950s television series of that same name starring Marvin Miller. This Millionaire happens to be a rich little gem starring George Arliss with plot elements based on the story "Idle Hands" by Earl Derr Biggers (creator of "Charlie Chan" mysteries), as well as a talkie remake to THE RULING PASSION (United Artists, 1921), that also starred George Arliss. Though Arliss is the center of attention during much of its 80 minutes, as he was in many of his stage plays and movies, contemporary viewers and film buffs would personally view THE MILLIONAIRE more for the brief three minute segment featuring James Cagney, shortly before his leading performance as THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931) that made him an overnight star in his own right.
The story introduces James Alden (George Arliss) as a self-made millionaire in his sixties having worked his way up as president of Alden Motor Company. He is advised by his associates, McCoy (Sam Hardy) and Ed Powers (Charles Grapewin) of having to save on cost and production on car engines as opposed to Alden's satisfaction using quality material instead. Though dedicated to his hard work, his family physician, Doctor Harvey (J. C. Nugent) advises him to not only to stop smoking pipes and cigars, but to also give up his profession for the sake of his health, his wife, Laura (Florence Arliss) and daughter, Barbara (Evalyn Knapp). After leaving his establishment after many years, leaving McCoy and Powers in charge, the Aldens go west to a California resort where, six months later under routine and medication, Alden takes the advise of Schofield (James Cagney), a fast-taking life insurance salesman, to fight boredom by returning to the working force. Going under an assumed name of Charles Miller, Alden buys a half interest to a gas station from Mr. Peterson (Noah Beery), with Bill Merrick (David Manners) and Al (Spec O'Donnell) as his new partners. Aside from keeping his double life a secret from his family and smoking again, Alden soon discovers his lack of customers to be due the opening of a new state highway where Peterson's prosperous new gas station is located. Being a shrewd businessman, Alden competes with Peterson while trying to keep his employer, Bill, with ambition of becoming an architect, from learning the girl he is dating happens to be his daughter, and showing interest in wanting to marry her. Other cast members include Bramwell Fletcher (Carter Andrews); Ivan Simpson (Davis, the Butler); J. Farrell MacDonald (Dan Lewis). Charles Evans (The Gardener); Tully Marshall (Mr. Briggs); and Ethel Griffies (Mrs. Andrews).
The plot, done with humor and zest, rings true in most parts when a hard working individual finds himself forced to retire, to become grumpy when idle and bored, only to be full of life again when assuming another job to occupy his spare time. Though George Arliss is best known playing historical figures as his Academy Award winning performance as DISRAELI (1929); ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1931) and VOLTAIRE (1933), he is most enjoyable in light comedy such as this. One notable scene where Alden nostalgically looking over his office one last time before leaving to the underscoring of "Old Acquaintance," is reminiscent to Walter Huston's masterful performance as DODSWORTH (Samuel Goldwyn, 1936). As much as the John Alden role might have been played by Will Rogers in similar fashion, or funnier tradition by W. C. Fields, Arliss is perfectly cast and believably placed. THE MILLIONAIRE did lead Warners with further editions as THE BIG NOISE (1936) starring Guy Kibbee; and updated reworking with THAT WAY WITH WOMEN (1947) featuring Sydney Greenstreet.
Rarely seen for many years, and never distributed on video cassette, THE MILLIONAIRE began to surface on public television in the late 1980s before becoming a regular fixture on cable television's Turner Classic Movies, where this and other richness of Arliss acting style can be seen and rediscovered by contemporary viewers of classic cinema. (***1/2)
MAYTIME (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1937), directed by Robert Z. Leonard, marks the third screen collaboration of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, which is regarded by many to be the very best movie. Following their earlier successes of NAUGHTY MARIETTA (1935) and ROSE MARIE (1936), MAYTIME not only peeked for them as a team, but often said to be a personal favorite of MacDonald. Though MAYTIME originated as a 1917 Sigmund Romberg stage operetta, followed by a 1923 silent screen adaptation starring Ethel Shannon, this 1937 edition, at an elaborate scale of 132 minutes, is more of a revamped story retaining the original song, "Sweetheart (Will You Remember)," from the play, which, next to "Indian Love Song" from ROSE MARIE, has become a signature love song most associated with MacDonald and Eddy than anything else.
The story begins at the turn of the century during a May Day celebration where Miss Morrison (Jeanette MacDonald), an elderly lady living alone with her maid, Ellen (Rafaela Ottiano), overhears neighbor Barbara Roberts (Lynne Carver) being offered a singing career in New York City by Monsieur Bulliett (Russell Hicks), much to the dismay of Kip Stuart (Tom Brown), who loves Barbara but doesn't want to lose her. After an argument that separates the two, Miss Morrison comforts Barbara's decision by telling her about herself and how her younger years parallels with that of Barbara's. In her flashback story, set in the days of Napoleon's France of 1865, Miss Morrison is Marcia Mornay, a youthful protege under the careful training of her middle-aged voice teacher, Nicolai Nazaroff (John Barrymore), who guides her to becoming a successful opera singer. On the evening of her concert performance for Emperor Louis Napoleon (Guy Bates Post), Nicolai proposes marriage to Marcia. Believing she owes everything to him, she accepts his proposal. Unable to sleep, Marcia takes a carriage ride that ends up at another part of town where the horse disconnects itself from the carriage, thus running away and forcing its cabby (Charles Judels), who goes after it. Being left behind, Marcia comes to a nearby cafe where she is attracted to the singing of Paul Allison (Nelson Eddy), a young American like herself. Through his encouragement, she meets him again for breakfast the following morning and later at a May Day festival at the St. Cloud Fair where she confesses her love for him but is promised to someone else. Realizing they met too late, they part company. Seven years later, with Nicolai both husband and acting manager, Marcia is now a world famous opera singer, returning to New York City where Nicolai arranges her next engagement at the Metropolitan Opera Company to star in "Czaritza," where her baritone leading man happens to be an unknown singer. During their performance to a full house, Nicolai comes to realize her duets with this leading man to be naturally realistic, causing him to become both jealous and suspicious of having known each other before. Others in the cast include: Herman Bing (Paul's friend, August Archipenko); Paul Porcasi, Sig Rumann, Walter Kingsford, Billy Gilbert and Harry Davenport.
The musical segments consists of great melodies as "Now's the Month of Maying," "The Paper and the Fife," "Les Filles de Cadiz," "Plantons La Vigne," "The Student Drinking Song," "Vive La Opera," "Virginia Ham and Eggs," "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," "Le Regiment De Sambre Et Meuse," "Les Huguenots," "Cavatine Du Page," Santa Lucia," two renditions of "Sweetheart (Will You Remember)," Opera Montage: "Miserere," "Liebestod," "Marguerita," "Sempre Libera," I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls" (from THE BOHEMIEN GIRL) , "The Last Rose of Summer," and LUCIA DE LAMNERNOOR," "Czaritza" based on Tchiakovsky's Fifth Symphony; and "Sweetheart (Will You Remember) (Finale), among others.
After repeated viewings of MAYTIME since my introduction to its annual May showing during the after midnight hours in 1977, aside from the movie with lavish sets and costumes which makes this production cry for Technicolor, I've come to realize Miss Morrison's narration to her tragic fate leaves certain scenes unanswered. Had she mentioned to what had become of her husband after what he had done to separate her from Paul, then MAYTIME would have been perfect from start to finish, rather than leaving minor unanswered details to the imagination of its audience. Overlooking these minor flaws, MAYTIME is an exceptional production highlighted most for the real fine chemistry and duets of MacDonald and Eddy to have them labeled as sweethearts forever.
Distributed on video cassette in 1985 and decades later on DVD, MAYTIME can be seen and appreciated whenever broadcast on Turner Classic Movies (****)
THE MAN WHO DARED (Warner Brothers, 1939), directed by Crane Wilbur, is a minor second feature production previously produced by the studio as STAR WITNESS (1931) starring Walter Huston, Charles "Chic" Sale and Sally Blane. Sometimes labeled under another title, I AM NOT AFRAID, THE MAN WHO DARED (bearing no relation to the 1933 Fox Film of the same name starring Preston Foster) is another studio theme dealing with sole witnesses to a crime who become threatened when summoned to court to expose those responsible. While the 1931 original dealt with gangsters as the threatening source, this latest edition uses a corrupt politician and his henchmen this time around.
With the opening sequences exposing newspaper headlines regarding "Mayor accused of civil league launches probe" and "Scandal in City Hall," the story gets underway with Stuart McCrary (Emmett Vogan) to testify before the grand jury against the corrupt Mayor Lawson (Charles Richman). As Lawson's men sneak into the garage to place a bomb inside McCrary's car, McCrary, discovering dictaphone and wires up his chimney indicating bugged telephone conversations, heads out to the district attorney with the news, taking his wife (Grace Stafford), afraid of being left home alone, along with him. At the same time, the Carter family, gathered together for a peaceful dinner, having witnessed men inside the dark garage with flashlight next door, to find their meal interrupted by a sudden explosion. The Carters come face to face with Nick Bartel (John Gallaudet) inside their home, posing as a police officer, to be fingered as one of the three men who have set the bomb, killing the McCrary's. For this, the Carters are threatened to keep silent about the incident. The Carter family, consisting of the hardworking bookkeeper, Matthew (Henry O'Neill), his wife, Jessie (Elisabeth Risdon); their children, Madge (Jane Bryan), Ralph (Jimmy McCallion), Billy (Dickie Jones), Teddy Roosevelt (John Russell), along with Matthew's feisty old father, Ulysses Porterfield (Charley Grapewin), a Spanish Civil War veteran visiting from a veterans home, do their civic duty by exposing Bartel's photo to the district attorney as the man who threatened them. Because they are eye witnesses, the Carters are given police protection until the court hearing. After Matthew is abducted to an abandoned warehouse where he is bribed, brutally beaten and returned home after midnight in an injured state, and later the kidnapping of one of their sons on his way to a football game, do the Carters refuse to testify, except for Grandpa, whose self respect is testify, but how to go about becomes the problem.
Although Warner Brothers stock player, Jane Bryan, heads the cast, she has very little to do compare to Charley Grapewin, who is very much the leading player in a role that starts off as comedy relief before becoming a straightforward performance. Not as violent as STAR WITNESS, there are some uneasy moments here pertaining to the brutality that could make the movie uneasy viewing for some. Others in the cast as Boyd Irwin, Don Douglas and Norman Willis. At 59 minutes, the movie could have offered a few extra minutes resulting to a more satisfactory finish.
Not as well known to STAR WITNESS due to its frequent broadcasts on Turner Classic Movies cable channel, THE MAN WHO DARED is swiftly paced even with certain scenes not ringing true to make this all believably acceptable. For better Jane Bryan movies where she is seen to better advantage, simply check out other movies where she co-stars opposite legendary performers as Bette Davis, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and especially Paul Muni in the rarely revived WE ARE NOT ALONE (1939), often hailed as her finest movie performance. (**)
AH! WILDERNESS (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1935), a Clarence Brown production of Eugene O'Neill's comedy of recollection, is not a story about a family living solely in the wilderness as the title depicts, but actually a title derived from a line of a poem. While Wallace Beery gets star billing, his role is actually a supporting one to co-stars Lionel Barrymore and Eric Linden, who obtain much of the film's 100 minute narrative. Under Clarence Brown's direction, it's a wholesome scenario set in 1906 derived upon the average Miller family of Connecticut and their daily routines by which nothing exciting really happens, yet its outlook involving them is anything but dull.
Opening in a small New England town with the graduating class of 1906 gathered together as their attended families watch with pride. Richard (Eric Linden), the second son of Nat (Lionel Barrymore), a newspaper owner, and Essie Miller (Spring Byington), intends on attending Yale University as did his older brother, Arthur (Frank Albertson). He is in love with Muriel McComber (Cecilia Parker), who lives across the street, yet their relationship does not meet with the approval of her father (Charles Grapewin) because of Richard's anti-capitalist ideas. Also among those in the Miller household are Richard's younger siblings, Mildred (Bonita Granville) and Tommy (Mickey Rooney), along with his father's brother, Sid (Wallace Beery) and mother's sister, Lily (Aline MacMahon). Lily loves Sid but refuses to marry him due to an incident that took place 18 years ago and his refusal to give up liquor. During America's annual 4th of July celebration, Richard, who is fast approaching manhood, takes a temporary separation from Muriel to learn more about women. He gets his chance by showing his manhood entering a hotel bar called The Pleasant Beach House to encounter Belle (Helen Flint), who not introduces him to some boozing what the facts of life is really all about. Other members of the cast include: Edward Nugent (Wit); Helen Freeman, Tom Dugan, Norman Phillips Jr. And George Offerman Jr.
While AH! WILDERNESS was taken from a 1933 play starring George M. Cohan, the film itself was possibly inspired by wholesome themes and simple life of ordinary people from STATE FAIR (Fox, 1933) starring Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor. In fact, when STATE FAIR was musicalized successfully in 1945 starring Jeanne Crain and Dana Andrews, AH! WILDERNESS was also musicalized in the same manner as SUMMER HOLIDAY (1948) featuring Mickey Rooney in the same role enacted here by Eric Linden. With both screen adaptions produced by Technicolor, the only difference between the two was that SUMMER HOLIDAY didn't do as well as STATE FAIR. As much as the title to both original play and movie seem awkward, with SUMMER HOLIDAY being a better title fit, the 1935 adaptation is quite good on its own merits. Often classified as Eugene O'Neill's only comedy, the product in itself is screwball slapstick in a sense, but mostly a feel-good movie with a chuckle or two. Some humor falls on Wallace Beery's familiar pattern and drunken moments along-side with the serious-minded Lionel Barrymore.
While George M. Cohan could have reprised his Nat Miller role he performed on stage, or enacted by Will Rogers from Fox Studios, the selection of Lionel Barrymore as the head of the family proves a finer fit through his scene stealing performance of both sentimentality and sincerity. His closing segment with his son is both heartfelt and rewarding. The casting of Barrymore, Linden, Parker, Byington, Grapewin and Rooney reunited in similar fashion for A FAMILY AFFAIR (1937), which in turn developed into the total 16 film "Andy Hardy" series retaining Rooney and Parker, and substituting Barrymore and Byington in subsequent installments with Lewis Stone and Fay Holden.
Formerly available on video cassette in the 1990s, and later DVD format, AH! WILDERNESS along with its latter musical remake featuring family values of long, long ago can be viewed and admired on Turner Classic Movies cable channel. Ah! Wilderness. (****)
CRIME SCHOOL (Warner Brothers, 1938), directed by Lewis Seiler, reunites Humphrey Bogart with "The Dead End Kids" from their initial union from Samuel Goldwyn's DEAD END (United Artists, 1937) starring Sylvia Sidney and Joel McCrea. Following its commercial success made famous for its introduction of Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, Gabriel Dell and Bernard Punsley to the screen, all from the original 1935 stage production, Warners, having acquired these teenage actors to their contract, produced its own interpretation featuring "The Dead End Kids" in a story set in a reform school. While Bogart played a hoodlum in DEAD END who attempts to steer the boys into a life of crime, in CRIME SCHOOL, he does the opposite as a good guy steering the boys away from crime to a better life ahead.
The story begins with character development to six young hoodlums of the New York City slum area where Frankie Warren (Billy Warren), following the death of his parents, being reared by his hard working older sister, Sue (Gale Page); Lester "Squirt" Smith (Bobby Jordan), whose mother is a boozer; Charles "Spike" Hawkins (Leo Gorcey), who steals; Richard "Goofy" Slade (Huntz Hall); George "Fats" Papadopolas (Bernard Punsley) and Timothy "Bugs" Burke (Gabriel Dell). With missing items connected to the boys association with Junkie (Frank Otto), a junk dealer who has them steal items for him to sell. Not satisfied for being given a measly $5 for his stolen goods leads Frankie in a fight with Junkie with Spike hitting Junky over the head with a blunt instrument. Believing him dead, the boys escape but are soon captured and arrested by the police. The boys are sent to a court hearing for Junkie's head concussion under Judge Robert E. Clinton (Charles Trowbridge) who is forced to sentence them all to two years in reform school for not naming the actual culprit. Almost immediately upon their arrival, the boys witness harsh conditions under the cruel Warden Morgan (Cyril Kendall) Following a fight with another inmate (George Offerman Jr.), Franke escapes but is captured, brutally whipped and sent to a hospital with his bruises left untreated. Enter Mark Braden (Humphrey Bogart), the commissioner of corrections, familiar with Frankie's case, to observe the school's brutality to fire much of its staff, along with its drunken doctor (Spencer Charters), the brother-in-law of the warden, to reform the school with better staff and conditions. Though Cooper (Weldon Heyburn) remains, he secretly works under Morgan to assure Braden's revamping of the crime school and confidence with the inmates fails. Others in the cast include Paul Porcasi, Helen MacKeller, and Donald Briggs.
Though not as well known and iconic as ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938) featuring The Dead End Kids with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, CRIME SCHOOL, with its fine mixture of grim realities and humor, mostly involving The Dead End Kids, its theme elements can hardly be regarded an original premise. It's mostly several movies combined into one 86 minute production, including scenes lifted from James Cagney's THE MAYOR OF HELL (1933); the closing portions revamped from Pat O'Brien and Humphrey Bogart's SAN QUENTIN (1937); which in turn were both rehashed again in HELL'S KITCHEN (1939) featuring The Dead End Kids, the latter being the official remake of THE MAYOR OF HELL. Even the scene involving Bogart's "going over the books" with Cooper behind closed doors is reminiscent to James Cagney's GREAT GUY (Grand National, 1936). Billy Halop's showdown and confrontation with Leo Gorcey is no different from DEAD END. While the casting did not actually have studio regulars as Joseph Sawyer or Barton MacLane, the heavy-set Cyrus Kendall, in a somewhat similar fashion of the latter villain types of Laird Cregar or Raymond Burr, nearly gathers enough attention here. Gale Page, in her movie debut, makes an engaging older sister to the Halop character.
Never distributed to home video, CRIME SCHOOL, currently available on DVD, did get plenty of commercial television decades ago before its latter availability on Turner Classic Movies, where this and other "Dead End Kids" melodramas can be seen and rediscovered by fans to the long running and popular "Bowery Boys" (Monogram-Allied Artists, 1946-1958) series featuring Crime School residents of Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall. (***1/2)
THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL (Warner Brothers, 1939), directed by Busby Berkeley, is not a gangster story regardless of title, nor a musical, regardless of directorial credit usually associated with musicals. It's one of an assortment of films produced 1939-40 to be remakes of those produced by the same studio as 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING (1932) remade as CASTLE ON THE HUDSON (1940), THE CROWD ROARS (1932) remade as INDIANAPOLIS SPEEDWAY (1939)and THE LIFE OF JIMMY DOLAN (1933) redone as THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL. With its original starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Loretta Young, Aline MacMahon and Guy Kibbee, this new edition features John Garfield, Gloria Dickson, May Robson and Claude Rains as its new characters. Garfield, having made an impressive screen debut in FOUR DAUGHTERS (1938) that earned him an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor, and Berkeley, wanting to break away from musicals, obtained what proved favorable for both, a remake with alterations and slight changes to become a watchable 90 minute Warner Brothers style production.
The story opens in a boxing ring where Johnnie Bradfield (John Garfield) wins his title as the new world champion. With his reputation for living the clean life ("no booze, no women, and love for his mother"), Johnnie is later seen boozing it up in his apartment with his gal, Goldie West (Ann Sheridan) with gathering consisting of his manager, Doc Ward (Robert Gleckler), and guests, Budgie (Barbara Pepper) and Charlie Magee (John Ridgely). When Magee is exposed as a reporter acquiring enough scandalous information on Johnnie's good name, Johnnie takes a sock at Magee, then slips and falls. Doc, meanwhile, takes a liquior bottle to Magee's head, accidentally killing him. To avoid scandal and arrest, Doc and Goldie drive the unconscious Johnnie to his upstate training camp where they leave him at his cottage. Taking both Johnnie's watch and girlfriend with him, the drunken Doc drives in high speed, leading he and Goldie in a fatal car accident. The following morning, Jimmy awakens to find his name in a newspaper linked to his own death and a murder charge of Magee. After Malvin (Robert Strange), his lawyer, takes his savings for attorney's fee, leaving him with $250 to his name, advises Johnnie to go under the guise of Jack Dorney to avoid recognition, and be "afraid" by not using his fists. After being chased off a freight train, "Jack" walks aimlessly long distances until stumbling upon an isolated Arizona farm for juvenile delinquents founded by the deceased Father Rafferty. Now managed by Grandma Rafferty (May Robson) and Peggy (Gloria Dickson), sister of Tommy (Billy Halop), one of the city kids there, Jack finds his newfound life until Detective Monty Phalen (Claude Rains), known for a long ago incident for unwittingly sending an innocent man, Barney Scholfield, to his execution, to suspect Johnnie to still be alive, taking time away from the police force to find Johnnie and prove his theory.
Others in the cast besides the aforementioned Billy Halop are other "Dead End Kids" credited as Bobby Jordan (Angel); Leo Gorcey (Spit); Huntz Hall (Dippy); Gabriel Dell (T. B.) and Bernard Punsley (Milty). Coincidentally, the character names for the "Dead End Kids here are the exact same ones used by them for their screen debut of DEAD END (United Artists, 1937). Although they could have been the same characters now in a country ranch, this is not actually its sequel. Interestingly, the female lead is played by the fifth billed Gloria Dickson, while the better known and third billed Ann Sheridan gets limited screen time. As much as many reviewers claim Claude Rains miscast in his role, its a wonder how it would have been performed by such notable reliables as Harry Davenport or Henry Travers instead?
THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL marks the first time John Garfield played a boxer on film, with his best being the much stronger performance being BODY AND SOUL (United Artists, 1947). The support of The Dead End Kids provide usual antics for them, including a strip poker scene involving a 12-year-old English boy (Ronald Sinclair) being tricked into losing both his military uniform and movie camera, along with a serious scene involving some members of the gang with Garfield trapped inside an irrigation water tank with fear of drowning.
Becoming a public domain title, THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL has been placed on home video by various distributors since the 1980s, later on DVD. Cable television broadcasts can be found mostly on Turner Classic Movies where this and other John Garfield movies can be found for viewing and rediscovery. (***).
MURDER ON A HONEYMOON (RKO Radio, 1935), directed by Lloyd Corrigan, became the third and final installment to the "Hildegarde Withers" mystery series starring Edna May Oliver, but not its last. Following prior entries of THE PENGUIN POOL MURDER (1932) and MURDER ON THE BLACKBOARD (1934), each co-starring James Gleason as Inspector Piper, MURDER ON A HONEYMOON, from the novel "The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree" by Stuart Palmer, is no indication regarding a honeymoon for Withers and Piper. The honeymooning couple in this story is of secondary importance, but overall an another agreeable murder mystery with comedy overtones made interesting during much of its 74 minutes of crime solving guessing.
The story opens amusingly on a seaplane to the Catalina islands where Hildegarde Martha Withers (Edna May Oliver), in fear of flying, seated with closed eyes awaiting her landing to begin her vacation away from her New York City school and students. Hildegarde shares her seaplane ride along with other passengers as honeymooning couple, Marvin and Kay Deving (Harry Ellerbe and Dorothy Libaire); Joseph B. Tate (Leo G. Carroll), a French movie director; Phyllis La Font (Lola Lane), a showgirl to act in Tate's movie; Roswell T. Forrest (George Meeker) and pilots, Dick French (Chick Chandler) and Madden (Matt McHugh). As the seaplane lands, Roswell Forrest is found dead, death diagnosed by Doctor O'Rourke (Arthur Hoyt) from a heart attack. Hildegarde's assumption is diagnoses murder! She then notifies Inspector Oscar Piper (James Gleason), her friend from the New York City police department, to come to Catalina and assist her in crime solving. Believing the murder victim as part of a Graber gangland killing, more mystery ensues when the body disappears without a trace, followed by more murders preventing Hildegarde from what was to become her restful vacation retreat. Others in the cast include Willie Best (Willie); DeWitt Jennings (Captain Beagle); Spencer Charters (Chief Britt); Morgan Wallace (Arthur J. Black/MacArthur), Irving Bacon (George) and Mr. Jones, the dog.
While not quite Agatha Christie mystery writing or Alfred Hitchcock direction, the scripting by Seton I Miller and Robert Benchley, the fine chemistry between Oliver and Gleason, and the surprise revelation of the killer still rank MURDER ON A HONEYMOON recommended viewing. One memorable scene has Hildegarde with her hair down (literally) coming face to face with a mysterious figure with a gun wanting to subdue her and put out of the way. Though the series could have wonderfully ended here as a trilogy, the studio resumed the series with three more installments, all with James Gleason accompanied by Hildegarde Withers recasting of Helen Broderick and concluding twice with ZaSu Pitts, none having the wit and flare to Oliver's wonderful characterization.
Never distributed on home video, MURDER ON A HONEYMOON enjoyed occasional broadcasts on commercial television in the 1960s before its frequent cable television showings on American Movie Classics (prior to 1999) and Turner Classic Movies, where fans of the series and cast can both enjoy and rediscover the short-lived series based on Stuart Palmer's mystery novels and amusing character portrayal of Hildegarde Withers. (**1/2)
THE OLD MAID (Warner Brothers, 1939), directed by Edmund Goulding, teams Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins (in Warner Brothers debut) for the first time. Being strong-willed women playing strong-willed women, they work against each other with equal standing. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Zoe Atkins, and novel by Edith Wharton, THE OLD MAID is definitely prime Bette Davis drama. Of her four top-releases of 1939, with DARK VICTORY being her most admired (even by Davis herself), THE OLD MAID is a superb production that, in later years has become one of her least televised and revived. George Brent, Davis's most frequent co-star, working together for the ninth time, has only a few scenes during its opening passages, while comedienne, Louise Fazenda, attempts dramatic fare here for what proved to be her final movie role. Being the first movie for which Davis' character is named Charlotte, a name she would use again in NOW, VOYAGER (1942) and HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964), THE OLD MAID is Davis' Charlotte at classic best.
Set during the Civil War, the story opens in 1861 with the wedding of Delia Lobell (Miriam Hopkins) to Jim Ralston (James Stephenson). Two years prior, her fiance, Clem Spender, has left her before returning to her and become a proper husband. Not wanting to wait for his return and become an old maid, Delia breaks off her engagement to marry another. The very day of her wedding, a telegram arrives of Clem's arrival. Feeling it would be of bad taste for Clem to show up on Delia's wedding day, Charlotte (Bette Davis), Delia's cousin who also loves Clem, meets him at the train station with the news, which upsets Clem. He comes to a showdown with Delia, who refuses his love, and leaves. During the wedding ceremony, Charlotte follows Clem to comfort him. Clem later enlists in the war promising to return to Charlotte. After Clem is killed in the war in 1864, Charlotte opens a daycare nursery in 1866 for war orphans, taking a special interest in Clemtina (Marlene Burnett), known only to the family Doctor, Lanksell (Donald Crisp), to be Charlotte's daughter. With Charlotte's plans to marry Jim's brother, Joe (Jerome Cowan), she reveals to Delia that Clemtina to be her out of wedlock daughter with Clem being the father. Both surprised and angered, Delia talks Joe into releasing Charlotte from her marriage. After Delia's husband dies, she arranges for Charlotte and Clemtina to move in with her and her two children for companionship. With this arrangement, and Charlotte unable to reveal Clemtina's past, lets it be known Charlotte to be the Clemtina's spinster aunt with Delia passed off as her mother. Years later in 1884, the now adult Tina (Jane Bryan), having developed her love and compassion towards Delia, resents her "Aunt" Charlotte, who, in her eyes, has become a spiteful old maid, unaware of how her sacrifice is really hurting her. Others in the cast include William Lundigan (Lanning Halsey), Cecilia Loftus (Grandma Henrietta); Rand Brooks (Jim) and DeWolf Hopper (John Ward).
THE OLD MAID is further evidence of being perfect movie material that could never be remade with equal standing. Davis is believable first as a carefree youth with transformation to a bitterly spinster aunt. Fortunately, her aging, as well as Hopkins, do not go overboard with heavy wrinkles from the make-up department. Miriam Hopkins proves her worth in being just as good in a secondary role than she is in the lead. Her performance as the conniving cousin with good-hearted intentions makes this worth viewing. Jane Bryan, in her fourth and last opposite Davis, is delightful in posture as a free-spirited girl who resents her "aunt's" criticism for her actions. Her closing segment in the story is truly heart rendering.
Unseen on television since the 1960s, THE OLD MAID came out of mothballs in the 1980s with cable broadcasts on Cinemax, Showtime and Turner Network Television before becoming a permanent fixture on Turner Classic Movies. Formerly distributed on video cassette in the 1980s, it's currently available on DVD, assuring rediscovery to a movie that deserves further recognition than it deserves. Next and final Davis and Hopkins teaming, OLD ACQUAINTANCE (1943) is also worthy recommendation as well. (****)
THE MERRY WIDOW (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1925), personally produced, directed and adapted by Erich Von Stroheim, is a visually elaborate silent screen treatment to the famous 1905 operetta by Franz Lehar. Regardless of the story changes presented here, it is more Von Stroheim than Lehar, obviously. Overall, a rousing success upon release, this MERRY WIDOW ranks, along with THE BIG PARADE, of 1925, John Gilbert's most memorable roles, along with Mae Murray, a popular leading lady of the silent screen, whose name and films dating back to 1916, have been long unavailable, unseen and forgotten through the passage of time, in the title role.
The story, set in "Castellano, 'the city in the sky,' capital of the kingdom of Monteblanco, embraced eternally by the encircling White Mountains," opens with character development of royal characters King Nikita (George Fawcett), Queen Milena (Josephine Crowell) and Baron Sadoja (Tully Marshall) "whose millions are the power behind the throne." Prince Danilo Petrovich (John Gilbert) and Crown Prince Mirko (Roy D'Arcy), Army militant cousins, return home from the regiment. Having their ways of charm with women, Danilo and Mirko become interested in Sally O'Hara (Mae Murray), the "premiere danseuse" of the Manhattan Follies, whose troupe arrives at Monteblanco on their way to Castallano, staying overnight to perform for the royals. Becoming acquainted with Danilo, who keeps his royal background a secret, and Mirko, heir to the throne, Sally falls in love with Danilo, agreeing to become his wife. It's on her wedding day does Sally learn the truth through Mirko about Danilo, while Danilo is being held back and talked out of marrying Sally by Queen Milena because Sally is nothing but a commoner and not of royal blood. With Sally left at the altar, she ends up marrying Baron Sadoja, the rich, middle-aged cripple, whom she does not love. Upon his death on their wedding night, Sally becomes the country's richest widow, earning the alluring title as "The Merry Widow." As Mirko and Danilo attempt to win her back, they end up rivals, even to the point of dueling for her love. Others in the cast include: Edward Connelly (The Ambassador); Albert Conti (The Adjudant); Dale Fuller (The Chambermaid); with Sidney Bracey and D'Arcy Corrigan in smaller roles.
A lengthy production at 137 minutes, THE MERRY WIDOW is a merry affair, made enjoyable through its excellent organ scoring to Franz Lehar melodies as his iconic "Merry Widow Waltz," conducted by Dennis James. While its director, Von Stroheim, could have enacted the role of Danilo, John Gilbert is a satisfactory substitute. Aside from some lavish European style settings, castles, the Maxim cabaret with crowd extras in the Von Stroheim directorial mode, Gilbert's dancing with Mae Murray ranks one of its true highlights. Because THE MERRY WIDOW appears to be one of the very few movies in circulation, and available on DVD, to feature the frizzy-haired blonde Mae Murray, THE MERRY WIDOW would be a worthy rediscovery to her once popular legend and how she became known as The Merry Widow, whenever shown on cable television's Turner Classic Movies, where the 1925 original premiered in 1998.
In closing, THE MERRY WIDOW was revamped by MGM as operettic musicals: 1934 starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, and a 1952 Technicolor adaptation starring Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas, both retold very differently from the 1925 silent adaptation. Which of the three versions ranks the best certainly relies on anyone who's seen all three to decide. (***)
WOMAN OF THE YEAR (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1942), directed by George Stevens, marks a good follow-up for Katharine Hepburn's second MGM comedy, following her comeback performance for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) opposite Cary Grant and James Stewart. Needing worthy material to equal or surpass her MGM debut, Hepburn selected an original screenplay provided by Ring Lardner and Michael Kanin, with Spencer Tracy as her chosen leading man. With Tracy as her ideal choice, it not only proved favorable for both, but ended up as a start for a series of eight additional Tracy and Hepburn movies, with their last movie together in 1967. Though they are totally opposites, on screen and off, their chemistry shows in their initial pairing, featuring a grand mix of comedy and drama along with fine support by Fay Bainter and Minor Watson, also giving intelligent performances.
Set in New York City, Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy), a sportswriter at the New York Chronicle, competes with Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn), a female columnist working for the same newspaper. Because Tess, appearing on an "Information Please" radio program, suggesting that baseball be discontinued for the duration of World War II, Sam attacks her remark in his column. It is through their editor, Mr. Clayton (Reginald Owen) these two rivals meet face to face, causing attractions for both. To get Tess interested in baseball, Sam has her accompany him at the all-male press box, while later, Tess gets to have Sam attend her functions where he gets to meet some of her clients. Though Sam really doesn't fit in with Tess's company, with the exception of her aunt, Ellen Whitcomb (Fay Bainter), and her father, William Harding (Minor Watson), a diplomat of international affairs who both like Sam, he surprises everyone when he and Tess get married. It is through their marriage that has Sam come to realize he's taking second place to Tess's career, with indifferent ideas and responsibilities causing a friction in their lives. Co-starring William Bendix (Pinkie Peters); Gladys Blake (Flo Peters); Dan Tobin (Gerald); Roscoe Karns (Phil Whittaker); Sara Haden and Ludwig Stossel.
With unknown writers of Lardner and Kanin winning Academy Awards for their original screenplay, WOMAN OF THE YEAR presents itself as an original script idea never done before. Though Hepburn has played feminist characters before during her years at RKO Radio (1932-1938), her Tess Harding is as independent minded and stronger than before. Tracy's Sam Craig is much more likable, winning viewers attention and sympathy when trying to show his wife the sort of women she really is. One notable scene presents Tess's selfish traits when, after taking in Chris (George Kezas), a little refugee boy new to their household, that he could be left alone in their apartment for four hours without any adult supervision while she attends her "Woman of the Year" award. Feeling they have taken responsibility for the child, it is Sam who does the sensible thing by remaining with the boy while Tess attends the function by herself. Tess would eventually attain audience sympathy while attending the the wedding ceremony of her father and aunt, to truly understand the meaning of wedding vows. This scene alone, which is so well done, I feel, being a crucial scene that honored Hepburn an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress.
Lighter moments include Hepburn's attending her first baseball game with her huge hat coming in the way of the spectator sitting behind her; Tracy's attendance to a function where he sits opposite a man who doesn't speak any English; Sam and Tess's honeymoon unintentionally interrupted by Tess's friends and Sam's pals; followed by a extended and scoreless sequence where Hepburn's Tess tries to prepare breakfast for her husband knowing full well she can't even boil water.
Tracy and Hepburn, who play straight for one another, make a fine combination, amusingly and dramatically. Available on video cassette since the 1980s, and later on DVD, WOMAN OF THE YEAR, once a favorite on the late- night television, is broadcast, along with other Tracy and Hepburn films, on Turner Classic Movies cable television where their work can be seen and studied.(***1/2)