AlsExGal

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The Marriage Playground
(1929)

In the 1920s divorces were easy to obtain...
... birth control, not so much. And thus the dilemma of this film. At a seaside resort Martin Boyne (Fredric March) meets 17 year old Judith Wheater (Mary Brian) as she is trying to corral her younger brothers and sisters. There are at least half a dozen of them, I had trouble counting them all. It turns out Martin knows the parents - Cliff and Joyce Wheater (Huntley Gorden and Lilyan Tashman). But he didn't know that they had previously divorced, remarried others, then divorced and remarried again, and in each union there were children. And now the Wheatons are arguing again and the many Wheater kids do not want to be separated when the Wheater parents inevitably divorce.

Martin agrees to get all of the parties together - and that includes all of the ex-spouses, their spouses, and future Wheater spouses, and try to figure out a way for all of the kids to stay together. But it is futile as they start sniping at each other and eventually lose interest in the entire conversation as they have a polo match to go to.

The complicating factor is that Judith is falling in love with the older Martin, but Martin has a dragon lady of a fiancee to which he is devoted. On Judith's side, though, is the fact that she and Martin are the only real adults in the room.

It appears Judith has spent her entire life caring for her younger siblings and has not even been properly schooled, because early on she writes Martin a note and misspells common words badly. The film makes a point of showing you this, so it must have meant something.

This was a unique concept for a film - I don't think I've seen anything quite like it before - parents of means who act like children having lots of actual children and emotionally neglecting all of them. But it does suffer from some common early talkie problems such as scenes that go on too long and the necessity of having a rather static camera. What is great about it is seeing the furnishings, clothing, and manners of the well to do at the end of the roaring 20s.

Once Upon a Honeymoon
(1942)

A hodge-podge of genres
It's a war film, a bit of a horror film, a code busting romantic comedy, and a drama. In 1938 Austria Journalist Patrick O'Toole (Cary Grant) comes to American Kathy O'Hara (Ginger Rogers) to let her know that her future husband, the Baron Franz Von Luber (Walter Sleazak), is a Nazi. Except the conversation does not seem serious - ever.

O'Toole flirts shamelessly with O'Hara. She flirts back. But she does marry the Baron. And there are numerous other meetings later on where in one case O'Toole just decides to order a big lunch from room service in Poland, take his clothes off in the Baron's suite and borrow his pajamas, and take a nap. And each time Grant and Rogers meet they flirt shamelessly and then Ginger goes back to her husband, while romantic comedy music plays. Then Rogers just suddenly decides to leave the Baron for Grant. They traipse across Europe looking for a way back to America - even getting stuck in a concentration camp for awhile that inaccurately looks more like Juvenile hall.

For a war movie there are really no serious dramatic confrontations. It all plays out like The Awful Truth except in War torn Europe and the whole thing is off putting.

How can a film with an acclaimed director - Leo McCarey - bomb this badly, especially with a talented cast. The production values are top notch - this is not some Ed Wood film, so in fact it is worse than one. In an Ed Wood film you see things done wrong - poor and silly art design, laughably bad dialogue, poor cinematography. So this even fails as a bad film, because it is expertly presented, but it manages to be weird and boring to the point it is just annoying.

The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case
(1976)

Why would anybody believe Hauptman didn't do it?
This TV movie follows the facts of the case pretty faithfully. Charles Lindbergh's oldest child is kidnapped from one of his homes - scooped right out of his crib without the crime being seen or heard. He pays a ransom only to find out the baby was probably killed soon after if not during his capture, and two years pass before serial numbers that were part of the ransom are circulated by Bruno Hauptman and he is arrested for the crime.

The trial portion of the film shows, to me, irrefutable evidence - 14K of the 50K ransom at Hauptman's home, the balance of the amount invested with a broker. He quit his job the day the ransom was paid. The phone number and address of go between Dr. Condon scribbled on a wall in Hauptman's house, and an expert witness saying that the ladder used in the kidnapping was made from the same wood found in Hauptman's garage. Hauptman said the ransom money came from a business partner who went back to Germany and died of a lingering illness. But that business partner was indigent and lacked proper medical care precisely because of that. Why would he not have taken his money to Germany with him to get proper care?

I guess it is not that Hauptman does not look guilty, it is just the lingering doubts about everybody else - The Lindberghs suddenly decided to stay in their country home that night. Did Hauptman just get lucky or did he have inside information? Prior to Hauptman's arrest one of the servants in the Morrow household - Lindbergh's in-laws - killed herself rather than be questioned about the crime again. And then finally, decades later, Lindbergh himself turned out to have beliefs and actions - a belief in eugenics and a secret life with children by multiple women - that has tarnished his flying ace reputation.

It seems the producers are trying to get an anti death penalty message shoe horned in here, with dialogue from the New Jersey governor who delayed Hauptman's execution several times as well as a psychiatrist who wanted his sentence commuted to life so Hauptman could be studied. Then there is the crowd which is shown around the prison the night of the execution shouting for death only to go completely silent when it is announced Hauptman is dead. This was made about the time the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in the US, so perhaps that is the reason it is in there.

This is very well scripted and acted by not only the actors of the time, but some old Hollywood names - Joseph Cotten as Dr. Condon, Walter Pidgeon as the judge, Dean Jagger as one of the first expert witnesses, and Keenan Wynn as an aide to the governor.

Silk Stockings
(1957)

Not exactly touched by Lubitsch
This is a musical remake of Ninotchka. Something MGM did repeatedly in the 1950s was remake a golden era classic of theirs in musical format, and it usually landed with a thud. This is no exception. The only thing I found interesting was Fred Astaire, who is always a joy to watch. Without him this effort would probably be a 3 or 4 out of ten. The surprise in the original Ninotchka was Garbo as an effective dead pan comedienne, but Cyd Charisse just bombs in this parallel role. Maybe the difference is that Americans had a completely different attitude towards Russia than they did in 1939, right before WWII. Maybe that kept MGM from doing anything the least bit challenging with the material almost twenty years later.

The musical numbers just slow everything down and most of them are boring. Rouben Mamoulian is the director, and in fact it is his very last credited directing role. He and Lubitsch, who directed the original Nitnotchka, were at Paramount at about the same time in the 1930s, but he just is unable to work any magic on this film.

Torchy Blane in Chinatown
(1939)

Make it a 6.5!
This entry in the series has a pretty good supporting cast and an interesting script although, as is par for the course for Warner Brothers in the 30s and 40s, it is actually a remake of an earlier 1930s film. Three men who were involved in extracting a rare jade artifact from a Chinese tomb are threatened with death by the descendants of the person whose tomb was robbed via anonymous notes written in Mandarin. The three men come to the police for protection, but Lt. McBride (Barton McLane) seems to be running in circles when it comes to the vengeful descendants. McBride consults a Chinese American friend who tells him there are approximately four thousand Chinese Americans who are descended from the man whose grave was robbed, including himself!

Meanwhile, McBride is trying to keep Torchy away from what is going on, because he thinks any publicity in the newspapers will keep him from catching the criminals. She uses her usual wily ways to get around any impediments. I think I like this series better when Torchy and McBride are at least somewhat allied. Here they are both on their own trying to solve the mystery as almost adversaries.

I'd give this a 7 if it were not for some obvious things that the criminals are doing that would be picked up immediately by the investigating police and thwart their plan. But it is still good fast moving B fun from Warner Brothers.

Viva Villa!
(1934)

Rather entertaining - it's a shame practically none of it is true
About the only thing that IS true is that Pancho Villa fought on the side of Madero in the Mexican revolution. But you've got Wallace Beery doing what Beery did best - playing an amoral character as endearingly as is possible.

The film shows Villa's history back to childhood, when apparently his father was whipped to death for daring to speak up for his rights to the local land baron. In fact, nobody today knows exactly who Villa's father was. He is shown robbing his way through Mexico until he meets Francisco Madera and becomes quite enamored of the little fellow, played by Henry B. Walthall. There was a General Pascual Orozco - probably the treacherous person Joseph Schildkraut was supposed to be playing - but his fate was not what was shown in the film.

So the big picture is that this is a completely fictional biography of Pancho Villa who changes from bandit to revolutionary officer to exile and ultimately to - president of Mexico???

The film tries to deflect blame from all of the things he does by claiming that Villa could not tell right from wrong and was thus confused when people tried to hold him to account. He creates a persistent and ultimately fatal enemy in Don Filipe when he causes the death of his sister, played by Fay Wray. I've seen several versions of what happens to Wray at Villa's hands, and all but one version is vague, probably because this film was released almost simultaneously with the inception of the production code. As for what actually happened to Villa after Madero - the truth would probably been more interesting although not as romantic as the film, and the truth would definitely have been harder to film for it would have involved the invasion of the US, a counter American incursion into Mexico, Woodrow Wilson, General Pershing, airstrikes, German espionage, and a stolen skull.

An interesting aside - Lee Tracy initially was playing the role of the field journalist rather than Stuart Erwin. Tracy had left Warner Brothers the year before for MGM. But his career with MGM was over when, while on location in Mexico, a drunken Tracy relieved himself on his balcony and unknowingly on the heads of several Mexican federales standing below.

MGM: When the Lion Roars
(1992)

One of the best documentaries on the entertainment industry ever made
This documentary was made back in 1992, and does a very good job of detailing the history of MGM. Part one starts in 1924 with the opening of the studio in 1924 and and ends with the death of wonder boy Irving G. Thalberg in 1936. Part two concentrates on what are considered "the golden years" from 1936 to 1946. Part three is about the decline of the studio after 1946. Patrick Stewart narrates, and there are some particularly interesting although not surprising revelations, such as Helen Hayes describing studio head Louis B. As a gentle yet evil person.

I guess I enjoyed part one the most because I really disagree about 1936-1946 being MGM's peak years. I think they were at their best from 1924 up to shortly after the death of Irving Thalberg. His foresight and creativity are what fueled the silent film and early sound projects that really put the studio on the map. At any rate, if you enjoyed the much shorter "Universal Horror" documentary on the Carl Laemmle years of Universal Studios, you'll enjoy this one too. Highly recommended.

The Informers
(1963)

Great little British crime film
This starts out to be one kind of crime film and evolves into something else entirely. A lead detective tells his subordinates to stop using informants because he believes they should transition to more modern methods. But inspector Johnnoe does not intend to take a useful tool out of his toolbox just because he needs to add some additional tools. So he disobeys orders and continues using them, and one in particular - Jim Ruskin.

There have been a string of bank robberies going on in London, and Jim has a tip on who is involved. But the crooks see Jim watching them, and his drunk routine does not fool them. They take Jim prisoner and murder him, but not before he phones Johnnoe's house and leaves a message as to who is responsible for the robberies. So now as a result Johnnoe is hanging around and bothering the thieves and they have to do something to discredit him, because murdering an inspector will just get more heat on them.

When it comes to a lone nut criminal or one lone ranger of a cop, American cinema is pretty good. But nobody does films about ensemble crimes and teamwork like the Europeans. And since I hate to watch subtitles, I really like British crime and noir films. This one goes to such a wild place I'll just let you watch how it play out. The one actor I recognized was Derrin Nesbitt, who just excelled at playing memorable and unpredictable sociopaths. I'd highly recommend this.

Zebra in the Kitchen
(1965)

Too tedious even for tiny tots
It seems like this film was trying to duplicate Walt Disney's success and magic with animal and wildlife based films in which there is some interaction with humans. The problem is Walt Disney had Winston Hibler and MGM did not.

The tedium begins with the opening credits and opening song. In spite of that British invasion mid 60s rocking sound, it is repetitious and tiresome. So the story is about a kid (Jay North, whose acting career is on its last prepubescent legs) who is friends with a mountain lion, Sunshine, that lives near his ranch. But his dad's illness requires that he do less strenuous work and move to the city, so the family leaves the ranch and thus the mountain lion behind. Except they don't, because the kid hides the lion away in the back of their truck. What happens to Sunshine once the family gets to the destination comprises the rest of the film.

So it's no secret that at one point, the animals in the local zoo get loose. In fact that happens at the film's midpoint and is stretched out so long it is boring, and yet it is a great example of bad filmmaking. This movie was obviously made on a budget, and though the scenes of the mountain lion are well shot, there didn't appear to be enough money to shoot the other animals properly. So you have shots of animals in extreme close-up, other animals that are obviously stock footage, and a few animals that are humans in animal suits. You can practically see the zippers. The crowds of people fleeing the zoo animals are shown in sped up action. That hasn't been funny since the silent era and the Keystone Cops.

Then there is director Ivan Tors doing some shameless plugging for his other movie - "Clarence The Cross-Eyed Lion" by having Andy Devine say "I'll be a cross-eyed lion" without any context and also having actor Marshall Thompson make a cameo appearance. For legal procedure it is odd too. It is the first time I ever saw a defendant plead from the witness chair, and have a judge basically just go "Aw shucks!" when confronted by obvious perjury. Too boring for kids and too inane for adults, I'd simply avoid this one.

The Long Memory
(1953)

This would probably be a 7/10 if not for...
... that annoying cloying dame that takes up way too much space in this film. I'll get back to her later.

John Mills plays Philip Davidson, a man wrongly convicted of manslaughter who spends twelve years in prison after three people give false testimony against him. He was on a boat to ask the owner to not involve his daughter in his criminal activity, since he wants to marry her. But just then three men come aboard. Two of them get in a fight, and one is killed when he falls. Then Davidson gets into a fight with the killer, a fire breaks out, and he and the others manage to get off the boat, but not together. But Davidson's story, in order to check out, would require there to be two bodies on board the burned boat and only one is found. Nobody believes his version of the story and he is convicted. Since one of the people who lied was his fiancee he is understandably bitter. She lied to cover up for her father who was helping a criminal escape, the other two lied to save their own hides.

After he gets out, Davidson occupies an abandoned barge where he wants to be alone to plot his revenge. But people keep bothering him. First there is some old man who claims the barge is his and wants Davidson to pay rent. He agrees. But if he paid rent the old man would have to leave him alone and he'd rather pop in on a regular basis and annoy him with cups of tea. Then there is a reporter trying to get a story. And finally, what I mentioned initially, there is this dizzy annoying woman who speaks with some kind of continental accent who tries to be philosophical but is just shrill and annoying, claiming she loves Davidson when she barely knows him. She drags down the entire film with her nonsense. Davidson asks her to leave but she keeps finding reasons to drag out her stay. If Garbo had this much trouble being alone she would have jumped off a bridge at some point. I realize the film is conveying the message of how revenge destroys the humanity of the avenger, but in this inadequate actress they found a poor messenger.

The complicating factor is that Davidson's treacherous former fiancee is married to a police superintendent, and if it is revealed his wife is a perjurer it would mean his career. And there is one final twist I will save for you to discover.

Niagara
(1953)

An odd noir in many ways
You have Marilyn Monroe showing a different side of herself in this part - a wife tired of her mentally strained and troubled husband (Joseph Cotten) and willing to commit murder - or put someone else up to it actually - in order to rid herself of him. Then there is Joseph Cotten in a rare role as a troubled soul and eventually villain. He broods night and day, going from philosophical to accusing to violent and turning over furniture. I can see why Monroe's character Rose or anybody else would quickly find this tiresome.

You also have Jean Peters and Max Showalter as Polly and Ray Cutler, married for three years that are just now taking their honeymoon. Their paths meet with the troubled couple in Niagara Falls. Polly has a terrible shock while staying there, and at first her husband just decides that they should go home, seeming more like he is annoyed at her and the situation than he is concerned for his wife's well being. But then Polly tells him she ran into his company VP today, that he has heard a lot about Ray, and wanted them to have dinner. Suddenly Ray is backing out of his exit plans because everything takes a a backseat to him slobbering over his boss. You can tell Ray is on his way to being as big a blowhard as his blowhard VP is. And poor Polly, besides this social climbing husband of hers, Cotten's character keeps menacing her.

You don't see many noirs shot in Technicolor like this one is, and perhaps they did it to capture the beauty of the falls and the quaintness of the surroundings. It's very much worth your time for the rather unique performances and beautiful cinematography.

Love Laughs at Andy Hardy
(1946)

The last of the actual Andy Hardy films...
...and the Hardys seem as uncomfortable and out of place in 1946 as MGM did, with the changing times that they just couldn't seem to quite tap into from this point forward.

Andy comes home to Carvel after two years as a soldier, and he seems to have matrimony on his mind, specifically his college girlfriend Kay. They didn't call it the baby boom for nothing. There are several endearing and humorous moments, but something is just missing from the old formula. For one thing, everybody is noticeably older. Mickey Rooney is obviously a man in his mid twenties, and Lewis Stone is obviously elderly. They would look rather silly having their old man to man talks at this point, and to a large degree the film avoids that. It does tap into a conversation lots of returning soldiers were probably having with themselves - whether or not to take advantage of that GI bill and finish a college education, or go out into the world without it and start trying to make a mark right now, which everybody had usually done up to this point in time.

One rather humorous incident - Andy is fixed up on a date with a girl who is a foot taller than he is. How did this happen? The guy who did the fixing had them both in the swimming pool at the time, thus avoiding the issue of the height difference.

This will be the last Hardy family film for 12 years, so this is pretty much an end to the franchise.

You're Only Young Once
(1937)

The Hardy family films find their blueprint
There was a previous film about this family -"A Family Affair" - made also in 1937. That starred Lionel Barrymore as Judge Hardy and Spring Byington as Mrs. Hardy. Also the Hardy's daughter is married, and her marital problems figure into the plot in a major way. Mickey Rooney is very much a supporting character at that point.

This film changes everything. Lionel Barrymore had health and mobility problems, so Lewis Stone takes over the role of Judge Hardy and very much makes it his own. Spring Byington was not under contract to MGM, so she is not in this film or any other Hardy pictures as Mrs. Hardy. The rest of the supporting cast remains the same, except now Judge Hardy's daughter Marion is now magically single, never married, because more interesting situations can come about that way.

This film takes the family to Catalina Island for a vacation - a long way from Carville. No one family member takes center stage. Instead, both Marion and Andy have romantic problems and learn a few lessons. Lewis Stone as Judge Hardy is probably the central figure if anybody is. And Judge Hardy, before leaving for vacation, takes a chance that could leave the family bankrupt if things don't go his way. And he never even bothered to talk to his wife about it UNTIL it becomes a problem!

MGM apparently correctly judged they had a winning formula in the Hardys, since Lewis Stone appears in a rare epilogue to talk about how this will be a series. It turned out that the series is a good representative of MGM's output prewar and probably American values and outlooks pre war as well. WWII changed everything, and though the series had installments after WWII, it was never quite the same.

This is a good introduction to the Hardy family as it existed in every film but the first one. And that first one is worth watching on its own terms.

Three Strangers
(1946)

Three Strangers, three stories
Alfred Hitchcock was interested in directing this, and I can see why. Because it plays out like three intertwined episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Crystal Shackleford (Geraldine Fitzgerald) lures two strangers, solicitor Jerome K. Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet) and drunkard Johnny West (Peter Lorre) to her London home on Chinese New Year in 1938 because of her belief that if three strangers make the same wish to an idol of Kwan Yin, Chinese goddess of fortune and destiny, the wish will be granted.

They must not know each other's names until after the wish is made, and she has thought this out and believes that the only common wish they could make is for money. So they wish for a sweepstakes ticket to come in, and they all sign their names to it. Crystal says that part of the bargain is that if the ticket wins they will bet it all on the ensuing horserace. Well of course they agree to this, because they don't really think anything will come of it anyways. So they go their own way having thought this episode nothing more than somewhat amusing.

Johnny is mixed up in a robbery that turned to murder even though he was just the look-out and drunk and did not really know what was going on.

Arbutny has embezzled money from a client's estate and the investment goes south, with him having insufficient funds to avoid disgrace and jail.

Crystal wants her husband back, but he is in love with somebody else and is adamant about wanting a divorce. She seems obsessed with winning more than she is in love.

Now I can see how Arbutny's problem would be solved by money. But as for Johnny and Crystal - no amount of money could get them what they want. And it's a strange film where Peter Lorre plays the most well adjusted character, somewhat resigned to whatever fate he gets as destiny.

Then the paths of these three people converge again and the whole thing ends quite ironically. If you are looking for Greenstreet and Lorre together, they really are not for the vast majority of the film, but it still plays to their strengths and I'd recommend it.

The Crime of Doctor Crespi
(1935)

A tale of two typecast actors...
... that being Erich Von Stroheim and Dwight Frye. Von Stroheim plays Dr. Crespi, the chief surgeon at a hospital. Early scenes show him being dictatorial, like most of the parts he played. He bullies Dr. Thomas (Dwight Frye) when he doesn't know the exact time of death of a patient.

A woman that he loved who married somebody who was once Crespi's friend comes to Crespi and asks him to operate on her husband who has been in an accident and needs a skilled surgeon. Crespi agrees, but instead he has a hideous fate planned for the man that he feels stole the girl he loved and has had a more prominent career than Crespi.

Crespi discounts Frye's character as somebody he can bully into submission and keep quiet about what he has done, but he has perhaps watched Dracula and Frankenstein one time too many, for Frye is not playing the fool in this one. I think this is the only film I have seen - there may be others - where Frye plays a normal person, albeit in an abnormal situation.

The one thing that is done that almost seems like filler material is the insertion of a troubled romance between a random doctor and a nurse. It's the only real negative in the film as it just bogs the proceedings down with a situation that isn't even interesting.

The art design is very good for a poverty row product, with some kind of strange half skeleton half alien knickknack adorning Crespi's office. Maybe Erich Von Stroheim was a visitor from outer space all along? That would explain a lot!

The Young Philadelphians
(1959)

Kate did her son wrong...
... by not marrying his father in the first place. Let me explain.

Kate Judson (Diane Brewster) marries socialite Bill Lawrence (Adam West... yes THAT Adam West). Kate marries him because her mother wants the marriage into high society. But apparently, Bill is gay. The film comes as close to saying that as you could in 1959. He runs out of the honeymoon suite. Kate runs to the man she really loves, construction company owner Mike Flanagan (Brian Keith). When she returns home later that night she learns Bill has died in an accident. Nine months later a son is born. But the mother in law has PIs all over the place and tells Kate she knows this is not her grandson and offers to pay her off as long as she and the baby relinquish the Lawrence name. Kate refuses, because the Lawrence name will open doors for her son some day. She also refuses to marry the father whom she loves, because "people will talk" and possibly figure out his real parentage.

So the son grows up to be Paul Newman, Mike Flanagan overpays him to work at his flourishing construction business, and as he grows into manhood he is now rubbing elbows with some of the most insufferable snobs ever committed to celluloid. They lie. They cheat. They steal. They mess with him professionally and romantically. He tries to keep his honor, but they don't make it easy for him.

If Kate had married Mike in the beginning she would have had all of the money she ever needed because Mike was very successful, avoided both her and her son's suffering, and yes, those snobs would have had nothing to do with her family, but after watching this film that seems like a plus.

Billie Burke as a widow worth a billion dollars in today's money is hilarious. She ventures out on Christmas just to make sure her dog is mentioned in her will. Robert Vaughn is a standout as a blue blood friend of Newman's character who drinks heavily to deal with the hypocrisy of his relatives.

The Last Crooked Mile
(1946)

It's hard not to like BUT...
...It has more plot holes than a piece of Swiss cheese.

The film opens on a bank robbery and a shoot out between the robbers and bank guards. The gang took three hundred thousand dollars whose serial numbers were not listed, so there is no way to trace the stolen money.

The gang has thought of everything - they switch cars, hide the loot in an unusual place on the new car, and take off. But the bank president mentions something unusual about one of the robbers - he has polished well manicured nails - and this gets them caught in the road block, causes them to shoot it out with the police, and the car crashes down a ravine killing all inside. So the entire Jarvis gang is dead, and where the money is dies with them. Enter detective Tom Dwyer (Don Red Barry) who offers to find the loot for the 10% reward.

Now Barry makes an interesting crime picture protagonist. He looks somewhat like a cross between Chester Morris and Don Rickles, if you can conceive of such a thing, doing his best James Cagney while smiling like the Joker. He comes across a carnival museum making a show out of the Jarvis getaway car, there are always two hoods hanging around, a dead man shows up in a rollercoaster who wasn't there when the ride started, and then there is Detour's Ann Savage who belts a few tunes at the local club.

There are people being shadowed, an attempt to gun down Barry on the streets, and two attempts to run over Ann Savage with a car, and this is the first time I've ever seen a private investigator with a welding certificate before. Maybe he learned it during the war?

Not to spoil anything for you, but the entire heist and who winds up being responsible for various crimes and the twists and turns in the plot that are revealed are convoluted and at worst just incoherent. But it keeps moving, has great dialogue and atmosphere, and it keeps you guessing because who would ever determine the crazy actual denouement?

This rare crime film from 1940s Republic Pictures is worth your time. Just don't think too hard.

Pickup
(1951)

If you could see what Hugo Haas hears..
... you would probably be not so patient.

Hugo Haas is the Orson Welles of this production - writer, director, star. He plays Jan Horak, a middle aged man with simple tastes, winding down his career of walking the railroad tracks and looking for maintenance issues. He's a widower who gets his pension in six years. He meets gold digger Betty (Beverly Michaels) at a local carnival. She is the aggressor here, eager for money. Eventually, she and Jan talk, they even see each other a few times. But Betty wants everything now, and Jan is a slow and steady wins the race kind of guy, so she decides to move on to more agreeable prey. Except she is being thrown out of her rooming house and the landlady is going to sic the law on her if she does not pay her back for some stuff that belonged to her that Betty hocked. In case you haven't picked up on it yet, Betty is completely bad news.

Desperate, she gets Jan to marry her so she can at least have a roof and stay out of jail. The day after their wedding Jan suddenly and completely loses his hearing, so he is going to retire early due to his disability. But a car hits him and somehow that restores his hearing. He goes home to tell Betty the good news, but overhears her talking about how she wants out because she married a healthy man and now he is a cripple. So he plays deaf to find out what she is up to, and quickly realizes he has married a monster.

In the meantime she becomes involved with Steve, a younger man who is going to be taking over walking the tracks from Jan since he is retiring. And this is odd because Steve knows what she is. She ruined a friend of his and tells Steve straight up she is dumping Jan because he is deaf but first she wants to empty his bank account. Subtlety is not her forte. What would happen to Steve if he runs out of health or money?

So Jan hears her plotting with Steve, hears about going to a lawyer seeing if she can get money in a divorce, hears her saying she could get his money if she and Jan had a joint account - Jan refuses to sign the paperwork. And when all else fails she convinces Steve that Jan is beating her to get him to murder Jan. All the time Jan is pretending to be deaf. Watch yourself and see how this all pans out.

This is a very low budget film. Most of the film is three people in a couple of rooms - Jan, Betty, and Steve. The rest are shots of preexisting exteriors. Hugo Haas gives the best performance, probably because he wrote and directed this so he knew what he wanted from his character. Beverly Michaels could probably have done well in higher budget noirs, but apparently she was very hard to get along with according to Haas.

This is a pretty good noir with a most unusual script, and I'd recommend it.

Roadblock
(1951)

Square jaw McGraw goes full scofflaw
Charles McGraw plays insurance investigator Joe Peters who, in the opening minutes of the film, recovers 100K in stolen loot in a very novel way, showing his talent and zest for the job. Later he meets gold digger Diane (Joan Dixon) who makes it clear to him that she is not interested in living on a budget, but they start dating anyways.

Joe really wants to marry Diane, so he gives in to temptation and goes in on a big heist worth 1.2 million dollars with a well organized gangster using privileged information that Joe has about a federal reserve/bank fund transfer. Meanwhile, Diane decides that she loves Joe and doesn't care about his middling salary after all.... Information he could have used YESTERDAY. But the gangster in which Joe confided now knows the layout and he won't stop the heist, whether Joe wants to stay in for his cut or not.

This is a fairly entertaining film, with the pace being snappy and interesting, but the believability factor is just not there. Joe goes from honest working man to a thief who is willing to kill in order to cover up his crime just like that. The same goes for Diane's immediate transformation from gold digger to ideal 50s housewife material.

If Joan Dixon looks somewhat like Faith Domergue, there is a reason for that. She was one of many of Howard Hughes' actress/girlfriends on the RKO lot during Hughes' time as head of RKO, although she acquits herself marvelously here.

Before Dawn
(1933)

Stuart Erwin takes charge!
This old dark house film is hardly a mystery. You pretty much know who the bad guy is going to be upfront. Yet it has its charms.

After a gangster dies, his elderly widow proclaims that now she is going to cash in on his one million in gold which she has kept all of these years. But on her way to get the gold she sees the gangster's ghost and falls down the stairs and dies. Meanwhile, Stuart Erwin is a plain clothes policeman making the rounds and arresting fraudulent psychics. Patricia (Dorothy Wilson) and her father (Dudley Digges) get rounded up in the dragnet. It turns out that Patricia is a legit psychic, but her dad is dishonest and greedy. After she convinces the police of her authenticity, they decide to take Patricia to the old dark house where the gangster's money is to try and solve who this "ghost" was and where the money is. Unfortunately they bring her father along for the ride.

In spite of the villain being obvious, this one does have some very good atmosphere. And you have to wonder why such a house was built with secret passageways, secret rooms, and trap doors in the first place. Plus it is fun to see Stuart Erwin in a role where he is the forceful confident protagonist throughout rather than a human Droopy like figure as he usually is.

The Big Street
(1942)

Yes, people can be THAT in love with a person who is THAT awful to them...
... It happens all the time. You see it when they get married and then in divorce court every day. Is it healthy? No, of course not. But it happens.

This is a Damon Runyon story about a bus boy - Little Pinks (Henry Fonda) - who falls in unrequited love with a mercenary snob of a nightclub singer, Gloria Lyons (Lucille Ball). She's the mistress of gangster Case Ables (Barton McLane) who knocks Gloria down some stairs when she attempts to break up with him so she can pursue a millionaire for matrimonial purposes. The injury results in Gloria being paralyzed from the waist down, and everyone abandons her except Little Pinks, when it turns out her so called friends are as snobby and mercenary as she is. Pinks writes cards to her allegedly from people she used to know while she is in the hospital to make Gloria think she is remembered.

Pinks takes her to live in his tiny apartment when she is discharged, wheels her in her wheelchair from New York to Florida in the middle of winter for her health. They get lots of lifts, but that was in the day when driver and hitchhiker could be pretty sure giving somebody a ride would not end in some grisly murder. The entire time he allows her to treat him like a servant. But for that matter, she treats everybody who is not rich or high society like a servant, refusing to admit to herself that her circumstances have radically changed.

One thing that is never explained. Why is just about everybody who WAS in New York during the first half of this film in Miami in the second half? I thought the concept of snowbirds was a post War one, but I digress.

The film has great dialogue and wonderful character actors, including Agnes Moorehead and Eugene Pallette as a married couple who meet during an eating contest. I'd recommend it because it showcases Fonda in an understated performance and this is probably the best film Lucille Ball ever made with her best performance.

5 Steps to Danger
(1956)

Suspenseful and keeps you guessing
We first meet John Emmett (Sterling Hayden) when he's having his car towed. He says he is from LA and is going on vacation and to see relatives in Texas. We never find out what he does, or why he seems to have some money, or for that matter hear from or see anybody he knew separate from this plot. He is impulsive enough to just sell his broken but rather expensive car for cash - but he does dicker for price - and he is impulsive enough to accept Ann Nicholson's (Ruth Roman's) offer to share a ride with her as far as Santa Fe and share the driving although she is a total stranger.

From that point the suspense ratchets up as John is first confronted by a nurse who is working for Ann's psychiatrist who says Ann has just had a nervous breakdown and needs to be watched, and is stopped by cops who say Ann is wanted for murder, and then hears Ann say she actually has military plans she smuggled out of East Germany that she needs to deliver to some old family friend who is working for the government in Santa Fe. John is very trusting about all of this when it comes to Ann, and you wonder why he doesn't insist they go to the police right away but he doesn't.

From that point it is a swirl of people who could be spies or could be on the side of the US government, or maybe Ann really is crazy, and the tension and suspense never lets up.

Eddie Muller of TCM's Noir Alley said he'd like to think that Hayden's rather unexplained character is actually Johnny Clay from "The Killing", which he made right before this film, having escaped the cops and on his way to a new life. I found the film very suspenseful and engaging, even if you have to suspend your beliefs on how somebody would act in John Emmett's position.

Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate
(1971)

Very dated film about dating
This film led to The Snoop sisters, a short lived TV series in which two elderly ladies get caught up in murders as twin Miss Marples.

The story is about four elderly ladies in southern California, all pretty well off, all played by easily recognizable actresses of Hollywood's Golden age. They eat, shop, and play bridge together, but they are also rather bored. So they decide to fill out a form for a computer dating service, making up the girl who is trying to date - 5'7, blonde, blue eyed, 125 pounds, 23. They give her a made up name, making sure nobody else who has that name is in the telephone book, and also indicate she has no phone so nobody will try to contact her. Thus any correspondence will be by mail through the service.

But things run amok. Their imaginary dating profile matches with a nearby psychopath. The funniest part of the film is this guy's inner monologue translated into hippie talk - "Gotta stay cool. Don't get too heavy.... She'll think this is groovy" And so on. The guy sounds like Austin Powers without the charm and flair for fashion. And everything is about him, perceiving every coincidence or mix up as some lie or disrespect paid to him. This leads to him believing that a girl in a bar is actually his computer date, and when she says she is not, he kills her.

The four older women read about the crime in the news and think it has something to do with their computer dating antics, and thus begin their investigation, bumping into the police several times along the way.

Of the four older ladies Helen Hayes is supposed to be the most modern one with the most precocious ideas. But they don't make this ridiculous like some films did of 50 years ago, having older women act like 25 year old hippies, just in older bodies.

Fury
(1936)

At first it seems like it is meaninglessly meandering...
... because you have this typical Depression era love story with a young couple in love but not enough money to get married at a time when married women were not expected to work after marriage. The guy, Joe WIlson (Spencer Tracy) is an optimistic fellow, living with his pseudo gangster brother and his baby brother that the gangster brother is trying to influence.

Joe quits a dead end job and buys a gas station and starts to make plenty of money. His fiancee (Sylvia Sidney) has been away from him a year working as a teacher to also save money. And then the day comes for them to reunite - there finally is enough money. He drives a car across country to meet up with her. And she waits and waits for him. Joe is never late. But little does she know that things have gone terribly wrong. That's where this tale goes to a very dark place.

Without giving away too much, a chain of events are set off that rips all optimism away from Joe and leaves him a changed and bitter guy, and he sets off on a really terrible yet understandable road of revenge.

This is probably the first real meaty role at MGM that Spencer Tracy got, and others followed soon after. It's also a rare 1930s message picture from that studio, dealing with mob mentality and violence. Although most mob violence was directed at African Americans during that time, so it does not quite have the courage of its convictions, it is still is engaging.

Stagecoach
(1939)

Not only is this Ford's first great Western...
It may well be the first psychological Western; where complexity of character vies with action and setting in overall importance. In other words, bravo to Dudley Nichols for a fine screenplay that shows several key characters with both virtues and flaws, like John Carradine's gallant and hair trigger tempered ex Confederate soldier, Louise Platt's elegant and gentle, yet snobbish cavalry wife, and Thomas Mitchell's self destructive and insightful doctor, to go along with the more standard heroes (John Wayne's noble gunfighter) and villains (Burton Churchill's despicable banker.) Give it an A. If anyone can say that John Wayne "cannot act," then they are saying that there is no difference between The Ringo Kid, in this film, and, say, Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers" or Col. Nathan Brittles in "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon." This is obviously an indefensible position.

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