writers_reign

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Reviews

Sweet Charity
(1969)

Fosse Posse
Full disclosure: I have an aversion to Shirley MacLaine, all the calculated 'please love me' mugging makes me want to go through sick bags the way Billy Bunter goes through cream Buns. On the other hand, I love Jack Lemmon, I love Billy Wilder, so, if I want to see The Apartment, Irma La Douce, I have to take MacLaine. I also love Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields, and Neil Simon both separately and together as here so I finally watched Sweet Charity. Sue me. On the plus side they retained nine numbers from the Broadway score, a score rich in great take-home tunes - okay, they dropped Baby, Dream Your Dream but you can't have everything. MacLaine, of course, is a trained dancer, she started as understudy to Carol Haney in The Pajama Game, got a chance to go on, and the rest, as they say ... So she couldn't louse up the hoofing and even if she could she had Chita Rivera to run interference. More disclosure: MacLaine was half decent, John McMartin was fully decent and even Stubby Kaye's par-for-the-course OTT mugging wasn't too hard to take. A good seven.

Stranger in the House
(1967)

Strictly Masonic
I bow to no one in my admiration for James Mason, surely rated in the International rather than merely the UK Top Ten actors but even he should have thought twice before stepping into the ring with Raimu, who plyed this for Continental back in 1942 from an adaptation of the Simenon novel by Henri-Georges Clouzot, then Head of Scripts at Continental and shortly before he became a hyphenate writer-director. If anyone was going to take on the burnt-out lawyer who dries out to defend his estranged daughter on a trumped-up murder rap and ends up putting the town on trial Mason is as good as anyone they could have found and is the only reason for watching this piece of cheese. By bringing it forward twenty years they have allowed the 'swinging sixties' aspect to dominate to the films' detriment and even Bobby Darin who was capable of a half-decent performance (see: Captain Newman MD) comes on like a grotesque freak.

21 Days
(1940)

Crap Suzette
Hard - make that impossible - to believe that Graham Greene took a screenplay credit on this piece of cheese instead of selling everything he owned to buy his way out of it. Even Robert Newton can't save it (though presumably some bonding went on because both Newton and Leslie Banks later appeared in Oliviers' Henry V). The only word for this is dire - at least the only word that won't be censored and I doubt if anyone concerned would want to display it on their CV. Released in 1940 to cash in on Gone With The Wind it was actually shot in 1937 and feels like n end-of-term production at a third-rate Drama school.

Bend of the River
(1952)

Boys From The Hood
One of the best things about this oater is the location shooting near Mount Hood, Oregon. Anthony Mann had top-billed Jimmy Stewart a couple of years earlier in Winchester 73, albeit in black and white. The movie made a noise at the box-office so the actor and director tried it again this time in colour and shot against a spectacular background in Oregon. It's a fairly ho-hum story redeemed by a fine cast - Stewart is supported by Arthur Kennedy, J.C. Flippen and Harry Morgan - and a good time is had by all.

The Scoundrel
(1935)

The First Noel
If we discount Hearts Of The World in which, as a youngster, he had a small role, The Scoundrel was Noel Coward's first significant film in which he played the lead. It will be of special interest to anyone interested in the New York literary scene - the Algonquin 'Round Table' set for example for not only are the characters drawn from that milieu but it was actually shot in new York shortly before the Hollywood companies closed down their studios in New York and moved permanently to the West coast. Add to that the fact that co-writer-directors Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were very much a part of the Algonquin set - it was in fact Hecht to whom Herman Mankiewicz sent his now notorious telegram urging Hecht to take up a screenwting post in Hollywood where his only competition would be 'idiots' - and they found a part for prominent member Alexander Woolcott, more or less playing himself whilst leading lady Julie Haydon would go on to marry leading drama critic George Jean Nathan. Coward plays publisher Anthony Mullare, clearly based on the late Horace Liveright and has no problem convincing as the witty, urbane, narcissist, who wouldn't be caught dead without a bowl of bon mots within arms' reach. It's dialogue rather than plot-driven and Coward is well up to carrying the part. Veteran film buffs may well cherish seeing 'hard' men such as Eduardo Cianelli and Lionel Stander as effete hangers-on and it remains an interesting curio.

The White Crow
(2018)

Black Russian
This was screened on television and it was the old story - I thought I'd watch the first minute or so then switch channels and became engrossed. There are no opening credits and helmsman Ralf Fiennes has crammed the film with - to me - total unknowns with the exception of himself, speaking Russian yet, but though unknown to me every one was totally brilliant. I had no prior knowledge of the project which turned out to centre on Nureyev's defection to the West in 1961 with flashbacks to his childhood and life until the defection with nothing beyond. Oleg Ivenko, making his acting debut, is a dancer himself so has little difficulty handling the ballet scenes; Fiennes does well in the dual role of director and actor, playing Rudi's teacher and mentor Pushkin but the acting honours are stolen by Chulpan Khamatova as Pushkin's wife. May struggle to make its neg cost back but don't let that deter you.

I Met a Murderer
(1939)

Maine Event
When James Mason as Norman Maine walked into the sea in the second (and best) version of A Star Is Born he was merely replicating something he had done in England back in the day when he was at one level a prominent actor and on another a part of the history of early British sound film, in fact students of the period will get an extra bang out of this movie. The Ostrer family were major players behind the scenes and daughter Pamela Ostrer married a young writer-director Roy Kellino, both of whom befriended up-and-coming actor James Mason to the point where all three collaborated on the screenplay of I Met A Murderer, Mason played the leading man opposite Pamela Kellino, with Roy Kellino directing them both. In the fullness of time, of course, the Kellinos were divorced and Pamela became Pamela Mason and retired from the screen and Roy gradually slipped off the radar. As a farmer Mason is slightly less convincing than Arthur Mullard play the lead in The George Sanders Story whilst as a murderer he's a bad second to Alan Lake as Hamlet - and I write as a great admirer of Mason. Apparently the film was financed by Wrigley who supplied the stick of gum for which it was shot, which explains why for most of the time it has the feel of a silent film with music telling us what to feel. A definite curio.

Red Garters
(1954)

Stars And Garters
A one-off that never caught on but worth an 'e' for effort. Helmer George Marshall already had one spoof western under his belt in Destry Rides Again and now he spoofs two genres with one stone adding musicals to the mix. At the time - early fifties - both genres were still putting bums on seats, in fact that very same year MGM released one of the finest 'western' musical hybrids in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers so arguably both genres were ripe for satirising and it's nobody's fault if it doesn't quite come off. The BLM Brigade will go into spasm when they get a load of Minnie Redwing and Gene Barry's Gilbert Rowland has to be seen to be believed. Worth a look to see what might have been.

Come Blow Your Horn
(1963)

Oh Brother
In a sentence this is The Tender Trap with bagels and lox. Two of the top 'Ss' in the business, Simon and Sinatra can't be bad, throw in Lee J Cobb and what's not to like. It was the first of Neil Simon's plays to reach the screen and an adaptation of his very first play and if this shows up at times we all have to learn our trade and overall Simon makes a fairly decent fist of it. Cleffers Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen got to write the title songs for both movies and it's hard to choose between them.

Mank
(2020)

Touch Of Evil
If you know that the 's' in George S Kaufman stands for Simon chances are you'll recognise ninety, maybe even one hundred per cent of the references in Mank. If you like films about filmmaking you may not enjoy it as much as you were hoping you would. I've given this review a header Touch Of Evil and that, I feel, can be justified on several levels; the way Mank treated Hearst, in whose home he had often been a guest, the way Welles treated Mank, or ... fill in your own example.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
(2020)

Call and Response
The late August Wilson is celebrated for his 'Philadelphia' cycle of ten plays all but one of which are set in his home town, the city of brotherly love. The exception is this one, which was the first in the cycle and is set in Chicago where four black musicians are waiting for the legendary blues singer Ma Rainey who is late for her date to cut two sides - the time is 1927 when discs were made of shellac. All of Wilson's work explores the 'black' experience and this is no exception and trumpet player Chadwick Boseman (in what turned out to be his final film) loses no time needling the other three and the 'N' word is flung about liberally. Although Viola Davis has the eponymous role it is Boseman who has the lion's share of the dialogue yet at the end of the day it remains a powerful piece of ensemble acting.

Uncle Vanya
(2020)

I'm ready to cry 'Uncle'
You have to work at it to screw Checkhov and though Conor McPherson does his best the actors remain loyal to Checkhov and the David Mamet adaptation coupled with Louis Malle's direction is still the movie version to beat. Although the smart money says The Cherry Orchard is Checkov's piece de resistance I have always had a soft spot for Vanya and this new version weighing in at two and a half hours does nothing to make me change my mind. Filming live performances in a theatre has come a long way since Richard Burton's Hamlet and this is a triumph of the genre.

Fear Strikes Out
(1957)

(Almost) Perfect Game
Let me get a couple of negatives out of the way first. The very real baseball team the Boston Red Sox forms a large part of this movie but apart from their home ground, Fenway Park, and the manager at the time, Joe Cronin, no one else is name-checked; not owner, Tom Yawkey, or well-known team-mates of Piersall, Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doer, Johnny Pesky. John Piersall (Karl Malden) is established within minutes as a brutal control freak with tunnel vision focussing on one goal, a place in the Red Sox line-up for son Jimmy (Anthony Perkins). Given this single-mindedness surely the last thing he would have welcomed and/or permitted was a girl in Jimmy's l which would clearly be seen as a threat/rival, but, after walking in on Jimmy and Mary talking and being introduced we cut to some time later when Jimmy and Mary are not only married but living with Jimmy's parents apparently happily. The film does a lot of this; cutting to the chase, ignoring normal development. In the same way we are not told that Piersall and first wife Mary had nine children, that Jimmy married three times and played for another three teams before retiring. Here's the thing: none of this matters! In a more run-of-the-mill film it would matter but Fear Strikes Out has two towering perfomances from Karl Malden and Anthony Perkins as John and Jim Piersall respectively, both worthy of Best Actor Oscars and unfairly overshadowing Perry Wilson as Jimmy's mother and Norma Moore as his wife. Trivia question: What do Karl Malden and Angela Lansbury have in common? They both played monsters, the ultimate Stage Mother From Hell, Lansbury in Gypsy and Malden in Fear Strikes Out. If you're looking for a baseball film that isn't really about baseball at all then this is for you.

Summer Holiday
(1948)

Small Town Boy
On paper this was to die for; strong book based on a play by Eugene O'Neill (his only comedy Ah, Wilderness, in fact), score by three-time Oscar winner Harry Warren, direction by Rouben Mamoulian, and a cast headed by Mickey Rooney. Alas, the studio lost faith in it, kept it on the shelf for two years then jettisoned half the score for good measure. It seems clear they were aiming for another Meet Me In St Louis, both films were set at the turn of the century and focussed on a family but this one missed by a mile. I'm not prepared to write it off completely; it has a fair quota of charm and people like Selena Royal, Agnes Moorhead, Walter Huston and Frank Morgan aren't exactly chopped liver but it could have been so much better.

Rhapsody in Blue
(1945)

Up The Swanee
Back in the day showtune buffs spoke knowlegably about the 'Big Five' by which they meant Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers, acknowledged as the cream of Broadway composers. Berlin never did get a bio-pic but in the three years between 1945 and 1948 the other four were featured as stars of their own lives by MGM (Kern and Rodgers) and Warners (Gershwin and Porter) and whilst facts were thin on the ground in all four cases the music was to die four. The Gershwin bio, the only one of the four in black and white, appeared in 1945 and introduced Robert Alda (father of Alan) as George Gershwin. He made a decent fist of the role but had to wait five years to really make his mark on Broadway as Sky Masterson in Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls. Alexis Smith played a fictional love interest for Gershwin and would have better luck the following year as Linda (Mrs Cole) Porter in Night and Day and there is not even a mention of Kay Swift, the real life close friend of Gershwin and subject of a great crack by Oscar Levant; spotting the couple entering a restaurant Levant observed loudly 'There goes George Gershwin and the future Miss Kay Swift'. Perhaps significantly Swift's most celebrated composition was Can't We Be Friends. Because of the pettiness of the time there is no mention of Gershwin gems like A Foggy Day, They Can't Take That Away From Me, They All Laughed. Reason: They were written for Fred and Ginger who were with RKO and far be it for Warners to give a plug to a rival studio. That still leaves plenty of fine Gershwin material to draw on and we get a decent selection. Oscar Levant plays himself and dubs Alda on the piano and it's well worth seeing.

I'll See You in My Dreams
(1951)

Airs And Graces
Yet another bio-pic that fits where it touches. Lyricist Gus Kahn was a first-rate technician but enjoyed a far lower profile than the Cole Porters of this world making it that much easier to fabricate a life. This is an excellent effort that succeeds brilliantly on its own terms and benefits from sure-footed direction from Michael Curtiz and great support from Mary Wickes in particular but also James Gleason, Jim Backus and Frank Lovejoy. Like the Gershwin bio-pic Rhapsody In Blue, from the same stable, it's in black and white - clearly les freres Warner didn't squander colour on frivolous projects - but that does nothing to impair the quality. Danny Thomas in his film debut as the lyricist has more than a touch of the Redwood about him but Doris Day more than makes up for this and squares away the musical chores with finesse. Overall all it's a charmer and a great addition to the songwriter bio-pic genre.

Don Chicago
(1945)

Don Minus Juan
Amy Veness was unforgettable in the supporting role of Mrs Flint in the best film version (Celia Johnson, Robert Newton) of Noel Coward's magnificent This Happy Breed in 1944. The following year she played a character named Bowie Knife Bella which had to be seen to be believed - Finlay Currie played Bugs Mulligan in the same movie, a piece of junk entitled Don Chicago that makes Old Mother Riley look like Citizen Kane. We've all heard of and perhaps even seen films that are so bad they're good; this is so bad it's good and terrible. Minus five stars.

Beware, My Lovely
(1952)

Tease For Two
Ida Lupino, whose company, The Filmakers, produced this title is clearly saying to the audience, look, we don't have the time and/or the budget to set this up logically but if you'll trust Robert Ryan and myself we'll make you forget that and carry you with us, and she is as good as her word. What we're being asked to ignore is this: Ryan hops a freight to a strange town where he knows no one. Immediately he lands a job doing housework for a widow. How? Lupino lives in the town, surely she knows a local handyman or two, how did she get word to Ryan, a stranger? Once we get past that the two leads are brilliant.

Child's Play
(1972)

Boys Town
This is one for the hybridologists. James Mason coming on like Rattigan's Andrew Crocker Harris, the Himmler of the Lower Fifth and Beau Bridges as Taplow. There's even A Leif Ericson figure from Tea And Sympathy in the shape of Robert Preston, it's all terribly overwrought with agonising all over the place. Just about watchable.

The Five Pennies
(1959)

Hard Times
Some jazz musician bio-pics, The Glenn Miller Story, The Benny Goodman Story - fit where they touch but offer nostalgic largesse via their soundtracks; others - Drum Crazy, The Fabulous Dorseys - verge on the risible and recently with Bolden a new category emerged, surreal. The Five Pennies fits where it touches but as Nichols didn't originate any major hit records the soundtrack is largely down to Mrs Danny Kaye, songwriter Sylvia Fine who weighs in with a couple of easy listening entries via the titles song and Lullaby In Ragtime. As the eponymous Nichols Danny Kaye plays himself for 95 per cent of the time, throwing in a couple of tries at straight drama as required. As the faithful wife Barbara Bel Geddes is much easier to take than the saccherine June Allyson in the Miller bio-pic and it's a pleasant enough time-waster.

Where Do We Go from Here?
(1945)

Genie Eith The Light Brown Air
Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin were both major players when working with others but less successful as collaborators witness their Broadway flop Firebrand Of Florence featuring Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya. This film has the air of Broadway origins despite being written for the screen. Fox had a decent roster of musical talent on the Lot, John Payne, Dick Haymes, Don Ameche, Betty Grable etc yet opted for Paramount leading man, not known previously for singing and dancing. As virtually always Ira's lyrics were out of the right bottle but Weill's music fails to beguile and the quality of the ten-minute operetta in the Columbus sequence contrasts sharply with the rest of the footage. Worth a watch as a curio.

They Met in the Dark
(1943)

Mason On The Square
With Talking Pictures yer pays yer money and yer tikes yer choice. For my money that choice is weighted heavily towards the Old Mother Rileys and Gert and Daisys of this world but every now and again that dross is forgiven when it thows up something like this, a title completely unknown to me despite top-billing James Mason and thoroughly entertaining. Hype is a wonderful thing and it's infectious, don't believe me? Check out the reviews posted here and count how many times this movie is compared unfavourably with the pedestrian at best work of Alfred Hitchcock which proves that if you repeat something enough times - in this case Hitchcock was a 'master' the gullible filmgoer will begin to believe it. This is an excellent print and despite the odd risible incidents - it takes place in the very middle of wartime yet Mason and Howard - to say nothing of Tom Walls and his spy ring - have no trouble whatsoever taking a train to Liverpool at practically a moments' notice. Overall well worth a look.

Give a Girl a Break
(1953)

Three On A Match
In MGM terms this was a 'B' movie which makes it the equivalent of an 'A' movie at the two other outfits, Fox and Paramount, who had a strong focus on musicals. Funny thing about MGM, they had trouble with threes; take On The Town, Frank Sinatra, check, Gene Kelly, check and Jules Munchin? Same thing here, Marge Champion, Debbie Reynolds and Helen Wood? That apart we're talking slightly terrific; Burton Lane and Ira Gershwin weighed in with a great score, not a clinker amongst them and if MGM had put a few bucks behind them they may well have made a noise on radio and/or juke-box. Alas, the studio didn't even see fit to issue a single let alone an album. It was also a great chance to see Bob Fosse and Gower Champion dancing up a storm in the same movie. The studio was well served for female hoofers and Debbie Reynolds wasn't going to give either of them any sleepless nights but after this they threw in the towel on Marge and Gower Champion which was a shame. Alll in all it's a delightful effort.

Gunn
(1967)

Ancient Pistol
This resembles a collage of technicolored outtakes from the black and white fifties series 77 Sunset Strip complete with jazz-inflected score, this time around Hank Mancini moves in on Jerry Livingston and there's only one lead instead of two. Helen Traubel wanders in on her way to and/or from the Met to play a non-singing 'mother' (The Brothers Go To Mothers was a number in its own right in the original Peter Gunn) and Lou Grant himself - in the shape of Ed Asner - takes a leave of absence from the City desk to play the tame cop aka Gunn's best buddy. Blake Edwards keeps it on a low light and the whole is a passable time-waster.

Boys in Brown
(1949)

Men In Red (Faces)
For reasons best known to 1) himself, or 2) the person or persons to whom he sold the rights, writer-actor Reginald Beckwith was not featured in this 1949 adaptation of his 1940 hit play. Although it seems like he is the only English actor who wasn't wheeled out for this proction it only SEEMS that way and we look in vain for stalwarts like Sam Kydd, Vic Maddern, Alfie Bass et al. What we do get is Dirk Bogarde attempting an accent (in this case Welsh) as far beyond his capabilities as cockney was to Dick Van Dyke, the ubiquitous Jimmy Hanley, more wooden than Pinnochio, as ever, Dickie - all-I-want-is-a-knighthood- Attenborough, Jack Warner as the progressive governor, Thora Hird as mum and Barbara Murray as Little Nell. It passes the time painlessly enough and that's the best you can give it.

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