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A lovely film, even with the propaganda.
Although presumably intended to inspire a nation already headed for defeat in World War II (at least those Japanese able to recognize reality knew this), "Army" is actually an excellent piece of movie-making; despite the simple, almost obviously cheap sets, the dialogue is crisp, and the characters appealing and fascinating.

The woman playing Waka, the wife of Mr. Takagi, is an exceptional actress, and her ability to move convincingly between joy and sadness, fear and obsequiousness, are quite impressive.

The context of the film cannot be overlooked. We now know that the training of Japanese soldiers during and before the war was brutal and sadistic, and the result was the creation of an army of men that shamed those who failed to live up to the ideals of total sacrifice, and made the word "surrender" unspeakable - and led directly to the scorn and cruelty of the Japanese over those allied soldiers who surrendered to them.

This rigid code permeates the film, and characters are continuously willing to end friendships based on the perceived failures of others to live up to the ideals. I lost track of how often characters call each other "idiots" for daring to speak any ideas that would be less manly than what Attila the Hun might approve.

The irony lost on the filmmakers was that despite their need to portray all things Japanese as superior to all things Western, the images they capture cannot help but demonstrate how western ideas and fashions had already become part of Japanese society: the commercial architecture is very American, and in the crowd scenes many men are wearing suits; straw hats, which may have been more in style in America in the roaring 20's, also appear to have been popular.

Two scenes stand out for their genuine beauty, both towards the end of the film: first, the scene in which Mr. Sakuragi is accepted by his two friends as genuine "war buddies" is quite touching; and more subtly, the domestic scene of Mr. Takagi's family eating dinner together one last time before his son Shintaro goes off to war is particularly charming in a lovely and quiet way.

A film well worth your time.

Bad Boy

Young, solid Audie
There is a reason Audie could play a troubled, haunted young man so convincingly: as a WWII veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, he suffered from headaches, nightmares and vomiting ever since leaving the service. Thus he perhaps had a chance to play himself here as he really was, more than he ever did in any Western, more than anyone really wanted to realize. Was he troubled and haunted in real life? He slept with a loaded gun under his pillow till the end of his life.

Only 24 when he made Bad Boy, Audie fools us for a bit into thinking he is just a wooden young actor: he fails to connect emotionally with anyone in the film, or with the viewer, for quite a long time; we think, is this going to work? But, stunningly, the boyish charm appears out of nowhere when he meets and interacts with Jane Wyatt. The sudden reversal is surprising, and pleasant, if too brief. But it demonstrates that he was a little more talented than many gave him credit for.

James Gleason is hilarious as the strong-arm of the boy's camp; weighing in at what I imagine to be no more than a painfully thin 110 pounds, he dominated by sheer personality. Lloyd Nolan is quite good, if a bit one-dimensional.

Finally, I have to wonder if those kids working with Audie must have been in terrified awe of this troubled young veteran; after all, he killed at least 240 Germans, confirmed, in the war; and had earned the right to wear every medal the Allies had to offer. And here he was, trading fake stage punches with teenagers. Amazing.

Miss Mend

Fascinating piece of Post-Civil War (Russian) film-making
Miss Mend is a 4-and-a-quarter hour sprint that will leave you breathless in its sheer epic expanse and non-stop running, driving, swimming and horse-back riding action - surely the most athletic silent movie ever!

Some of the other reviewers have guessed at the historical context of the film, albeit inaccurately. The Bolshevik revolution was over by 1926; the post-WWI Civil War in Russia actually had ended in 1922 (16 million Russians died between WWI and the Civil War). The Bolsheviks were in sole power, but it would still be 4 more years before Stalin consolidated and took sole dictatorial control of the Soviet Union. Stalin would ultimately micro-manage much of Russian film production - but not yet. Thus, and here I am guessing, Russian film makers probably had more freedom for these few years to experiment, and be less heavy-handed in their propaganda, then they soon would be. Hence, a Western-style series of films, including a lot of explicit criticism of Communism, which I doubt Uncle Joe would have allowed later, even if it is expressed by the bad guys.

And who are the "bad guys" exactly? We have to play along with the fact that those who see the Communists as evil are the bad guys; those looking to help the Soviet Union the good guys.

The plot is absurd, and one has to really over-look a lot of sloppiness in the details; just a few examples: 2 reporters locked in small coffin-shaped boxes in the hold of a ship for its entire journey from America to Leningrad - a 10 or 14 day trip - without food or bathrooms; the improbability that the Westerners and Russian people would be able to communicate with each other, given the unlikelihood that the Russians spoke English or the English Russian (French was the preferred second language of early 20th century Russia). And so on.

One scene appears to be the inspiration for "Weekend at Bernie's": one of the reporters grabs and nods the head of the unconscious Arthur Stern as he is questioned by his co-horts. He remains unconscious as he is carried from the car he is in - but not before opening his eyes and looking around just before being removed from the car.

The attempts at recreating Western or American life are hilarious - others have mentioned the reference to "Rocfeller and Co."; how about the "Police Office" sign, instead of Police Station? However, these are more than made up for by some outstanding visions of lovely Leningrad (today back to St. Petersburg).

Finally, the funniest title card in the history of Silent Film may have appeared in this film: "Who's next in line for an enema?" Fascinating film history. Try to watch at least some of it.

Winnetou und sein Freund Old Firehand

An odd German western, not without interest
There is no question that this film is a wreck. But, like a wreck, it is not without interest. For one thing, the pace is good, the dialogue sometimes odd and not any more clichéd than any other Western of the era, and, happily, unlike too many international Westerns, has an easy plot to follow.

And it has some interesting characters. Most unusual and self-contradictory is the English army man (played by Victor de Kowa), who acts like a highly affectatious Monty-Pythonesque old poof (and he walks really weird), but he wants to marry the boy Jace's mother; bragging like Baron Munchausen, he turns out to actually be a good shot. A difficult character to figure out.

Rod Cameron is not unappealing as the easily-smiling hero; the main attribute of the kid playing his son is that he looks like David Spade. Cameron's main side-kick is the amiably over-weight Vladimir Medov, anticipating Lee Van Cleef's amiable chubby side-kick in "Sabata" by three years.

But Pierre Brice's Winnetao, to me, seems completely out of place; I get that this actor and character starred in a series of films, but his role was a relatively unimportant one here, and it was hard for me to get over Winnatao and his sister romping through the west in leather jump suits and tennis shoes. Ridiculous, actually.

And there are too many flaws of logic to overlook as well. In the first 10 minutes, for example, we are treated to one of the worst cases of "how many bad guys do we have to kill before their number starts to decrease" that I have ever seen. Specifically, in the opening battle, I counted 13 of Silers' men attacking Cameron and the Indians. The good guys kill 9 of them off their horses. 8 of the bad guys ride up to the ledge for closer combat. Two more are shot to death, and 7 ride back after withdrawing. Yikes!

I also scratched my head in confusion in the later sequence in which Silers and Sanchez together first attack the town defended by Cameron. The defenders "trap" them in a ring of fire that looks to be no more than 8 inches high. Terrified, the bad guys retreat. Was the 8 inches of fire that great an obstacle?

On the other hand, the movie treats us to more religious imagery, treated with genuine reverence, than we are wont to see in typical spaghetti Westerns (or any Westerns, for that matter). The scene in which the priest holds up a gold crucifix in the face of the invading outlaws, momentarily stopping them in their tracks, is affecting and oddly pleasing. One image of him, shot from below and in front of him, is very well done, as his arms, holding the cross above his head, frame a perfect Byzantine-style halo around his head. A good moment for the camera-man.

A lost opportunity for a truly horrifying moment was the interesting scene in which a parade of dead peasants in their wagons slowly ride back into town. The director opted here for the suggestion of horror, when I think a more graphic display of the many murdered men sitting upright in the wagons would have been more effective.

This isn't the worst Western by any means, and is odd enough to just perhaps merit your attention for its long 98 minute run-time.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Attention: This is Not a Shakespeare Movie
Don't get me wrong: this is a fine movie, and often a dreamy and captivating one at that; but, if you are expecting to see an interpretation of a Shakespeare play, you will be disappointed. What I mean is, Warner Brothers decided that the movie should focus primarily on what movies do best, which is to create a magical experience for the viewer; hence, the overwhelming majority of the movie is spent on phantasmic and mystical sets, wondrous special effects, and outrageous costumes and dance numbers, all for the goal of transporting you into a dream-world of fairies and gnomes and star-crossed lovers.

For a secondary goal, the producers wanted to show off their two major stars, James Cagney and Mickey Rooney. Rooney, only 14 or so, was a young man of incredible talent, possessing perhaps the finest natural gift for entertainment in all of American cinematography. Does he over-act here, as many have complained? I don't think so; he is appropriately exuberant, and, well, Puckish. A worse problem is that his voice was just changing, and is awfully harsh and grating at times, caught as it is is between childhood and adulthood.

Mendelssohn's music is featured heavily also throughout, being used to enhance the spectral quality of our film.

But what about Shakespeare? The play itself is one of the Master's shorter plays, and can be read through out loud in about 2 hours. A Shakespeare play is primarily about the words, and the poetry. Unfortunately, the producers of this movie version easily cut out over 80% - I am not exaggerating - of the lines of the 4 lovers and Theseus and Hippolyta. Almost no speech of more than 4 or 5 lines remained unmassacred. As a result, the script is choppy and unpoetic, dreadful really. A lot of the logic of the speeches and the story are completely lost, due to the devastating excising of the script; just one example: Theseus overrides Egeus' wish to have Demetrius marry Hermia, without him ever actually being told that Demetrius no longer loves her, and has fallen for Helena instead.

If you are a hard-core Shakespeare reader, you will also note, frustratingly, how just about all the "thees" and "thous" have been changed to "you-s". One of the great pleasures of reading Elizabethan drama is to follow how playwrights' characters switch back and forth between thee-ing and you-ing, depending on the relationships between the speakers; "Thee" is used either to express closeness, or deliberate informal insult and contempt; "You" is subtle, defining a respectful relationship, or helping to preserve distance between speakers. All of this is lost in the movie.

And why do so many of the characters have to laugh uncontrollably while they are speaking? Just another minor irritation, I guess.

So, while this version of MND is great fun as a movie, don't expect to get to hear a lot of the poetry of the Bard.

The Finger Points

In defense of Richard Barthelmess
I know that Richard Barthelmess is not everyone's cup of tea, when it comes to sound pictures. Yes, his pace is always slower than that of the actors around him. When in dialogue with other characters, he always waits two full beats before speaking (watch for that, it's quite unique to him).

But I like him a lot. In an era dominated by fast talkers, like the great James Cagney and E.G. Robinson, I frankly enjoy the change of pace. More than that, Barthelmess has an exceedingly pleasing gentle nature (again contrary to the more aggressive stars of the era), but best of all are those deep-set brooding eyes of his. He may be the best brooder in all of film history. And he does a lot of brooding in "The Finger Points".

I wonder if Clark Gable, another fast-talker, felt agitated in his many dialogues with Barthelmess, having to always wait those extra few seconds to say his next line.

A strong supporting cast make this a fun and quick little film. Note that Barthelmess's "Breck" is named after two Confederate heroes, Robert E. Lee and John Breckenridge; probably accidental was naming the managing editor of the newspaper "Wheeler" after another Confederate General, but of cavalry.

Regis Toomey is particularly interesting as a man in love with Fay Wray, but who loses her to Barthelmess. It is pleasing to see his character stay true in friendship to them, rather than let bitterness control him. And it is ironic that he never finds out in the end the role he played in Barthelmess's death.

Look out also for the many scenes in which the camera interestingly moves backward for a lengthy distance as the characters move towards the audience. Quite clever and interesting as well.

Old Gringo

Peck is mesmerizing, but it's just too long.
The main reason to watch this film is the absolutely mesmerizing performance of Gregory Peck. Aged 73 at the time of filming, his deep voice resonates and rumbles out of the screen magnificently, punctuated with heavy breathing, completely dominating the screen whenever he speaks. There is a scene in which he woos Jane Fonda as they sit on a log; it is hard to imagine any woman not falling for the aging Peck as his words pour forth to her like poetry. This is the voice I imagine God speaks with.

Peck's character is world-weary, and he engages everyone around him with detachment and some irony; except, watch for the scene towards the end in which he takes General Arroyo's black horse out for a ride in the country. The pure joy on Peck's face is delightful, genuine and pleasing to see.

And speaking of the horse: one of the most spectacular and shocking animal moments in screen history has to be the shot of General Arroyo shooting his horse in the head, near the end of the film. The timing of the sprawling horse is flawless, the effect electrifying.

Jimmy Smits is excellent as General Arroyo, and it is interesting how the general becomes more sympathetic as the movie moves along.

Sadly, though, the parts don't come together to make a great whole. Yes, "Old Gringo" is beautifully filmed, but it goes on for too long, and furthermore, it is tiring to have to work out, through the first half-hour, who is fighting for which side, and who are the Mirandas.

Worst of all is the presence of Jane Fonda. She's not bad, but look: if you want to look skinny, hang around fat people. If you don't want people to notice that your acting is wooden and uninspiring, don't appear in a movie with Gregory Peck. I think an actress like Kate Capshaw (who plays a similar character in the 1987 TV-movie version of "The Quick and the Dead") would have played Ms. Winslow much more appealingly.

A final question: is Peck already dead when he is "executed" at the movie's end? His eyes are first looking at Arroyo, then moments later facing forward at the executioners. Hard to say.

"Old Gringo" is worth watching to see Gregory Peck still eat up the screen in this, the winter of his career; but have the fast-forward ready.

The Half-Naked Truth

How can you go wrong with Eugene Palatte playing a eunuch?
The Half-Naked Truth is like a machine gun on steroids, a super-fast paced movie and a stage for Hollywood's greatest carnival barker, Lee Tracy. Tracy spends the entire 75 minutes racing at break-neck speed through miles of monologue - because his character never talks with, only at, those around him - and it's wonderfully exhausting to keep up with him.

Eugene Palette plays one of the funnier roles I have ever seen him in. He's supposed to be Tracy's assistant, but he's not above pulling his own shenanigans on the side, particularly with respect to giving "private" acting lessons to a rather reluctant hotel maid.

At least a couple of the other reviewers here, unfortunately, have got the running gag about Pallete's sexuality wrong: as per Tracy's publicity idea, Palette, complete with turban, is fresh out of a Turkish princess's harem. The idea is NOT that he is a woman, but that he is a EUNUCH. And the movie revisits this inside joke a few times, always to the understandable indignation of Mr. Palette himself!

The plot itself really stretches credibility, but it doesn't matter. It's a fun and quick ride, so just enjoy.

Home in San Antone

Good music and the great William Frawley - but that's it.
"Home in San Antone", running a mercifully short 65 minutes, barely rises to the level of a B-movie. The acting is pretty bad, and the story makes absolutely no sense at all. There may never have been a more confusing radio program prize show in all of broadcasting history.

However, the movie has a couple of things going for it that keep it from being a complete waste of time: first and foremost, the presence of the always-cantankerous William Frawley, still a few years from Lucy, playing what he generally plays best, a cranky and domineering detective who manages to get everything wrong (I think he played the exact same role in "Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man" two years later, with the same suit and hat).

Frawley may also be the victim of the most unconvincing stunt double ever; his double is tall and lanky, and the clothes don't fit him at all. This HAS to have been a joke amongst the folks who produced this movie.

An addition, this is a movie in which the music is actually better than the plot; the legendary Roy Acuff and his Smokey Mountain Boys play a number of old-time country songs, which I found catchy and enjoyable.

Most hilarious of all are the 3 ladies with the very short skirts who were forced to sing the brief and silly jingle for Hurrah Laundry over and over and over again. Gentlemen, these may be the most attractive and fabulous pairs of legs to appear anywhere on film through the entire 1940's.

Having said all that, this is not a movie to put on your must-see list.


Excellent trial drama, but weird and slightly creepy
Overall, a good offering from MGM, with above average script and a fast pace, racing to a quite interesting and unexpected twist of an ending.

But having said that, the movie has some creepy undertones that set it apart even from other pre-Code films. Most obvious, right from the beginning, is the weirdness of Helen Twelvetrees, the beautiful star of Unashamed (her career unfortunately over by 1938), kissing everyone in sight in the first 10 minutes of the film. A lot. Her boyfriend; her brother; her father; on the lips; on the cheeks; did I say "a lot"? Robert Young, normally normal, is weirdly obsessive over his sister. They hug and hold and kiss a great deal, and it's unnerving a little, being brother and sister and all. I wonder if audiences in 1932 felt the same way. But he just wants to "protect" her, he says.

Fascinatingly, the pre-Code element of open pre-marital sex is not just one that goes along for the ride here; rather, publicly acknowledged pre-marital sex, and the shame that is supposed to be concomitant with it, are the CENTRAL drivers of the plot. We should be grateful that films like this were made before the Hayes Commission came to pass.

There are some other surprises and weird diversions along the way. The German father is quite graphic in his resentment over Robert Young's murder of his snotty and selfish son, looking forward to being present when Young burns on the electric chair. A jury member cannot hear the proceedings, and asks Lewis Stone to speak louder; weird - not sure of the reason this is in here.

And sadly, when Louise Beavers, playing the African-American housekeeper, takes the stand at the trial, we cringe as she is forced to misunderstand "perjury" to mean "polygamy", although I had to listen to the lines several times to understand what she was getting at. This is supposed to be funny.

Finally, pay close attention to Helen Twelvetrees' left arm, about 3 minutes into the movie, when she is standing with her boyfriend on what appears to be a dock or a pier. As she turns away from the camera and then back again, her left arm stretches out, and it hyper-extends by a shocking amount, bending backwards by a good 20 degrees. As my wife, a nurse, said, when I showed it to her, Yikes!

An excellent movie to spend 75 minutes watching and thinking about.

Glad All Over: The Dave Clark Five and Beyond

An Exciting Tribute to the Beatles' First "Rivals"
This is a lovely production that will absolutely, mesmerizingly transport you back in time to the incredibly insane universe of the British Invasion. With a perfect balance of music, original black and white and color film clips and photos, and interviews with modern but rockingly aging stars, PBS's Dave Clark Five tribute justly honors the greatest of the second-tier British groups of the 1960's.

Like the Beatles, the DC5 worked for hard for their success. They practiced and played thousands of hours, developing a tight sound and teamwork, gradually growing in local fame in the English city of Tottenham, so that by the time they busted out into national, then international, fame, they had the stage polish of the veterans they already were.

Two noteworthy things really stand out in this production. First, notice the genuine modesty of the boys. They never took anything for granted, and were perpetually grateful for their success, and the joy they were able to bring millions.

Secondly, as the documentary dishes out generous portions of the DC5's music, pay attention to the fantastic voice of the lead singer, Mike Smith. The songs might be unhip by today's standards, but Mike's voice is powerful and soulful, one of the best of the 1960's, and I am glad that the several stars who were interviewed for this program recognized it as such.

After staying away from the stage for many years, Mike returned to it in the late 1990's. Sadly, he only had a couple of years of performing left: in 2003, he fell in a freak accident at his house in Spain, and became paralyzed. He never performed again, dying in 2008. I was lucky to have seen his band at the Mohegan Sun, in 2003 I believe, and he was incredible: he sang for 2 hours straight, blasting out every great Dave Clark Five song, his voice never faltering: he really sounded just like the records; it was awesome.

It is hard to find film of the DC5 performing their songs live; although everyone seems to agree that they were excellent live performers, most of their TV performances were lip-synced. So, during this program pay close attention to the DC5's Command Performance before the Queen, which is live; and shortly thereafter, a clip of them singing "You Got What it Takes": I believe Mike is singing live over the prerecorded backing.

Thank you PBS for making this program possible.

The Washington Masquerade

Focus on those massive hands
If you are watching the great Lionel Barrymore, then it is not possible for you to be wasting your time. "Washington Masquerade" can be considered a showcase for Barrymore, and he delivers a wide ranging performance for our entertainment.

However, I think the most fascinating way to take in this film is to focus on Barrymore's famously arthritic hands. Like a tic that cannot be controlled, these hands never stop moving, restlessly in continuous motion throughout this film. I do not know if this was a conscious decision on the director's part, but those enormous hands, with their lengthy fingers, keep moving, moving, and moving; now sweeping his hair back, now smoothing out his clothes, now grabbing on to his lapels, now wiping or covering his face and brow, the hands are the true stars of this film.

Brother John Barrymore may have been known as The Profile, but Lionel should be known as The Voice, the distinctive pitch and tone Lionel's alone. The final scene, in which he delivers a scorching speech to a committee of Congressmen, may be hokey and dated, but it's still an electric performance by the great one.

È tornato Sabata... hai chiuso un'altra volta!

Unmitigated confusion, but saved by the presence of the great Lee Van Cleef
"The Return of Sabata" is not quite as bad as some reviewers make it out to be, nor quite as good either. It's not quite funny enough to be a comedy, or dark enough to be a drama. Its primary characteristic is the confusion of the plot; it's not that there are many twists and turns, as much as the basic points of the plot never make much sense. Some reviewers suggest watching it a couple of times to unravel the strands of disorder – but it is not really good enough to watch more than once.

If you read this before watching the movie, here is what you should think about as you view it: the bad guy, Joe McIntock, has three sets of hard assets: the real money, the counterfeit money, and the gold. How are they related? What exactly are McCintock's and Sabata's goals and plans regarding them? I was not able to figure it out in one viewing. But I did not even realize these were the issues until it was too late.

All spaghetti westerns are deliberately odd, but there are some noteworthy things to look for here:

1. In the original Sabato, Lee Van Cleef is bald, his natural look. In the one scene in which he appears without a hat here, though, he has a lustrous head of silver hair.

2. Pedro Sanchez, who appears here in his third Sabata movie (he is Van Cleef's chubby sidekick), was dubbed in the first two Sabatas by an actor with a Mexican accent. Here, however, he has an American-Western accent, but occasionally slides back into a slight Spanish accent. It is all very disconcerting.

3. The theme song states emphatically that Sabata is "nine-fingered". IMDb suggests that this is not quite accurate, that actually he was missing the "last joint of his middle finger".

4. The movie features the most beautiful dance hall girls of any western I have ever seen. McIntock's wife, played by Jacqueline Alexandre, an only occasional actress, is also stunningly beautiful.

In sum, "The Return of Sabata" is nothing great, but watching Lee Van Cleef is never a waste of one's time.

Take Care of My Little Girl

Dreamy Crain, Smart Robertson - a relaxing and enjoyable film
To be honest, it's not a great or landmark film. The themes are kind of dated - I don't remember fraternities or sororities singing like this when I was in college in the 80's - and the script not particularly snappy or clever. However, it was easy and fun to sit and watch this movie, like wearing the comfortable old slippers that my wife hates. After all, does the script really matter terribly, when you get to watch the talented and incredibly beautiful (and in color!) Jeanne Crain, the great Dale Robertson (being extra wise and folksy) and a strong early performance by (later) John Ford favorite Jeffrey Hunter? Ms. Crain is a fantastic and subtle actress - watch how frequently the camera lovingly lingers on her face, and how she so exquisitely expresses her thoughts with only the lightest changes of facial expression. And when she gets that dreamy look, with her eyes half closed - that look that is all Jeanne Crain's.....

Enjoy the actors, don't expect too much, and you will enjoy this odd entry from the early 1950's.

Hobson's Choice

The perfect English comedy
Let me start right off by saying that this may be the single greatest comedy of all time. Certainly the greatest I have ever seen. It is perfect from the first from to the last. Every scene, every line, is an absolute delight. Every character is appealing and full of great Brit eccentricism.

In particular, John Mills as the evolving Willie Mossop, cobbler extraordinaire, may be the most likable character ever created in a movie. What a fine performance from one of England's greats.

All right, let's get serious. British comedy has always been, to me, and many others, always funnier than our own here in the states. They are wittier and more playfully written, and the quirkiness of being British cannot be matched here. Let's face it, even the accents are just plain funnier. And this movie has it all in spades.

Charles Loughton is perfect as the arrogant and haughty father and patriarch, whose daughters run rings around him.

A couple of notes. First, the prolific Prunella Scales, who plays daughter Vicki, went on many years later to achieve immortality as Sybil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers with John Cleese. Second, the Victorian London accents are a little tough to follow at times, and I had to use closed-captioning to go back and read what the actors were saying at some points. Third, I found it amusing how the characters would leave out the definite article "the" in certain situations: "get back into shop!" and "going to dentist", for example. Any linguists have any comments? Finally, a little continuity error: when the wedding feast is done, John Mills removes a couple of items from a nearly empty table; moments later, when Brenda De Banzie comes by a few moments later, the table suddenly fuller, including having on it flowers that were not there before.

In sum, this movie should be on every comedy and British movie lover's must-see list.

Bed of Roses

The dirtiest 15 minutes you'll ever see from the 1930's!
I have watched many movies of the 1930's and I think I can make the following statement in clear conscience: the first 15 minutes of 1933's "Bed of Roses" is the dirtiest sequence of main stream film to grace the screen for the next 25 years! Wow, it is awesome. The great Constance Bennett, and her hooker partner Minnie, both just out of jail, need a ride to New Orleans. Minnie cozies up to a truck driver, asks for a ride, he says "what's your offer?" Then, a minute later, Bennett sidles up, and Minnie asks her, "can you drive?"! Implied yet relatively explicit is the suggestion that Minnie will be "paying off" the driver in the back of the truck! Wow! Then, once on the riverboat, the two girls are short of cash, so Minnie quite obviously whispers a rude offer into the steward's ear. He rejects the offer, but she doesn't mind - "nothing personal" she declaims. Judy Garland never behaved this way with Mickey Rooney over at MGM!

Folks, I am ever-grateful that the "Code" forced Hollywood to keep its movies very clean for 2 or 3 decades: the art of that period will never be surpassed again. But taking this path makes all those slightly naughty movies of the early 30's that much more fascinating and wonderful to see, like they got away with something, and we are the beneficiaries of that daring.

Another interesting decision the director makes is to take about 15 minutes worth of early action, which takes place on the Mississippi River, and have it all occur in a quite heavy fog. The hazy sheen in which the actors perform is noteworthy for how long this goes on for. Again, daring and interesting.

Constance Bennett is fantastically seductive, cynical, world-weary and manipulative. Joel McCrea is great being himself. And Samuel Hinds, one of my favorite minor character actors, with his perpetually silvery hair, is his usual fatherly best.

A great one from the early days, not to be missed, even if not one of the characters has a Louisiana accent.

Two Flags West

Intelligent script and pleasing conclusions
"Two Flags West" starts off feeling like it will be a rather clichéd affair: Cornel Wilde as an honor-bound good guy, the Confederate soldiers unreconstructed and unbowed, Jeff Chandler as an unmovable rebel-hater, and so on. But stick with it: "Two Flags West" develops into an unusually smart movie in which the strands of plot do not end predictably (for example, the expected flourishing of love between Linda Darnell and somebody, anybody, never occurs), and the dialogue becomes increasingly nuanced and thoughtful.

This is a movie whose intelligence does not insult your intelligence.

Joseph Cotton has always fascinated me. He is not particularly handsome, always looking older than he probably is, and his voice is strangely distinctive. But he is a wonderful actor, and his Southern Colonel is more than just obviously conflicted about whether he should stay with, or abandon, the Union army with his men: his conflict is more subtle, as he ponders where his future ultimately lies in a post-Civil War country; his very interesting dialogues about this with Linda Darnell, especially toward the end of the film, are quite pleasing to this lover of Westerns (me), who otherwise cheerfully acknowledges the clichés that often dominate this genre.

The battles with the Indians are violent and nasty: we really suffer with the lonely horse soldiers of the west who are slaughtered in the fort. And the glorious black and white photography does a great job of bringing out the loneliness and understated beauty of the plains (though filmed in New Mexico) (contrast John Ford's celebratory treatment of Monument Valley).

A great little Western with unexpected endings to the various strands of plot. It will leave you exceptionally fulfilled and pleased at the end.


Great early Stanwyck
TCM recently featured Barbara Stanwyck as their star of the month, giving them an opportunity to show a good number of the numerous films she pumped out very early in her career with Warner Brothers and Columbia. It is fascinating to watch several movies with the same star immediately one after another, because this way you get to determine how good an actor really is: do they become tiresome, or do they have staying power?

Barbara Stanwyck was the real thing. Thanks to her understated skills, I found myself appreciating her more and more, the more films of hers I watched. By herself she could pull even the weakest script into something worth watching.

"Shopworn", a typical quicky, was one of the best from those early days. Her range of talent was immense, playing, within this one film, a poverty-stricken waif and a successful Broadway star, playing happy and sad, incensed and appreciative, kindly and outraged, always with a dignity and slight detachment that are wondrous to watch. Again, it is sometimes only by watching multiple films of hers in succession to these nuances start to really make themselves known.

This is a strong film, with a very good cast. Regis Toomey is very likable as Stanwyck's love interest, and Clara Blandick and Oscar Apfel, as Toomey's mother and her consort, are deliciously manipulative and evil. Zasu Pitts adds a little mild comedy to the proceedings, providing a nice contrast.

Look for some very brave and quite interesting camera angles and panning sequences; one particularly good shot was taken of Stanwyck reaching under her bed for a suitcase - the camera is at floor level, shooting the scene from under the bed! Very unique and perhaps a little experimental for the time.

I highly recommend this fast-paced little film; and highly recommend seeking out early Barbara Stanwyck gems like this!

The Secret Bride

A humdinger from Warner Brothers
"The Secret Bride" is a quintessential early 1930's Warner Brothers film. It starts quickly, and never slows a step. Not a second is wasted, as the plot relentlessly pushes forward, never pausing to take a breath. Though Barbara Stanwyck is the nominal star, the lines are spread out quite nicely, giving many other actors quite a lot of screen time and dialogue.

Warren William is one of my favorite actors from this era. Tall and darkly handsome, he seems to be permanently smarmy and manipulative. In fact, in the movies I have seen him in, his characters are so deliciously sleazy and disingenuous that it took me a while to accept the idea that he is a genuine good guy here.

Douglas Dumbrille has a meaty role also as Warren's assistant in the Attorney General's office. He too is often corrupt and sleazy (one of my favorite movie scenes ever is the climax of "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town", when Gary Cooper punches him and good). And was Grant Mitchell born looking old? He never appears young in any film ever (and with good reason - he was born in 1874 - and was 58 when his film career took off!)

One really funny moment occurs when Barbara Stanwyck goes to Mitchell's offices to find him. After being told he is not there, Stanwyck asks the receptionist for his home address - which she joyfully gives him without a thought - street address and apartment number! Things sure have changed.

I also enjoy how these early films never actually mention what state the movie takes place in, even though the governor plays a large role in the story; nor are specific political parties ever mentioned - a nice approach.

Don't start watching this unless you are prepared to sit for the whole 64 minutes - with your seatbelt on. A quick, fun ride indeed.

The Woman in Red

A little dated, but I liked it.
By 1935 Barbara Stanwyck was Warner Brother's female equivalent of James Cagney, a star they could count on to pump out 3 or 4 quality pictures a year. In "The Woman in Red", Stanwyck notably keeps a short leash on her emotions, internalizing to a large degree her frustration at "not being good enough" for her husband's old money family, and not being able to respond to the deliciously evil sarcasm and machinations of Genevieve Tobin's "Nicko"; happily, though, before the quick 68 minutes are up she has exploded a number of times to satisfyingly tell everybody off who deserves it.

Now this is a tough drama to really get into, initially; the tension completely depends on us understanding that in the early 20th century, someone who was a "professional rider", ie. someone who got paid to ride a rich horse-owner's horse in a show, was socially quite inferior to the horse-owners themselves. Thus Stanwyck, a "professional rider", would always be the target of insult and derision by the wealthy snobs around her - including her husband's entire family. This doesn't really resonate today. But we can pretend.

Gene Raymond, who plays the wealthy Johnny Wyatt, scion of the Long Island Wyatts, actually ends up being quite sympathetic; with his ridiculous boyish charm and blond hair, he convinces Stanwyck to marry him after knowing her for only a few days, and we really expect this to end up badly - but it doesn't. Corny? Maybe. So sue me, I am a sucker for happy endings!

Finally, the courtroom scene at the end is quite well played. The actor playing the prosecutor plays his man brutally - that is, he is relentless and a little cruel. Well done.

Don't expect too too much, and enjoy this brisk number from First National Pictures.

The Admirable Crichton

Witty and gentle, a lovely film
I found myself thinking about "The Admirable Crichton" (aka "Paradise Lagoon") for days after I saw it. I think this is due primarily to the exceptionally tender scenes of romance and affection sprinkled very lightly throughout the film. Kenneth More, as the butler, is a very attractive character: he can be gentle, sometimes slightly rude or standoffish, but never to be mean: he always has everyone else's best interests at heart. The early scene in which he kisses the admiring housemaid Eliza on the yacht is adorably played: not predictably mushy, but rather with a lovely mix of British stiff upper lip and tenderness.

The movie is especially satisfying in the ending (Super Spoiler Alert). Having been returned to civilization, only Sally Ann Howes' Lady Mary wishes that their lives could continue on the same projectory as when they were all still shipwrecked; that is, she still wants to marry More's butler Crichton! At first, More keeps his emotional distance from Lady Mary, acting overly formally in her presence, like in the old days. But the director made a wonderful decision to let the two characters meet in private one last time, to share a deep-felt goodbye hug, as More one last time reminds Lady Mary that their relationship is impossible. She understands, and with this closure is ready to move on. Beautifully done, indeed, and super-satisfying.

In sum, all the cast is spectacular, the constant irony in the film fantastic, the British wit superb, and the characters well delineated.

And finally, we now know where the inspiration for Gilligan's Island must have come from. Such wacky inventions the castaways came up with on the island, I always thought, could only come from the mind of Russell Johnson's "Professor"; but now I know that the butler Bill Crighton was the first to invent a phonograph powered by a water wheel, and a razor made from sharpened clam shells.

Don't miss it.

Babes in Arms

A Wild and Uneven Ride with a highly caffeinated Mickey Rooney
Wow, I just finished watching "Babes in Arms", and my head is spinning. We old movie fans are used to seeing ethnic humor and even the occasional bit of blackface in early Hollywood films; but what "Babes in Arms" gives us is outrageous by any definition: an entire cast of a "show within a show", numbering at least 50 to 75 people, including Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, every one in blackface, performing not just a minstrel skit, nor a single musical number, but an entire 20 minute full-blown minstrel show in spectacular MGM full-production mode. It goes on and on and on. Dialect jokes. Banjoes and songs about Alabammy. And finally, Judy Garland, having removed her blackface, comes out and performs an additional number ("I'm Just Wild About Harry") as an only slightly darkened black woman. Wow.

On the other hand, is it really possible that the manic Mickey Rooney was only 19 when he made this? He really shows why he may be the single most talented American performer of the last century. He dances, he sings, he does drama, he does comedy, and he has incredible control over his every move and muscle. And he does unbelievable and hilarious impressions of Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore. And Franklin Roosevelt.

A few quick notes: June Priesser, who plays "Baby" Rosalie, was a terrible actress. But watch out for her stomach-churning contortionist back-rolls when she first comes out on a stage.

The child actor who plays Mickey Rooney at age 5 dancing on a Vaudeville stage for a few moments early on really does look like Mickey Rooney!

I think Judy Garland actually has some of the same lines in this movie as she does in "Wizard of Oz", done in this same year. Watch out for when Mickey Rooney feints early in the film; Garland reacts to this exactly, and I mean exactly, as she does in Oz when the Lion feints. Eerie!

When Judy Garland, as Eleanor Roosevelt, sings "My day, my day", she is referring to an actual long-running newspaper column written by E.R. from 1936 to 1962.

Finally, the final song and dance number is the most mind-numbing, over-the-top tribute to America, dancing, how we are not Nazis, American Indians, Asian Indians, dancing, the Roosevelts, and dancing, that I have ever seen. Yes, it was early WWII, but still, you wonder if anyone even in 1939 thought this was a little too much?

Recommended for its high energy, its Rooney and Garland, its more Rooney, its offensiveness, and its too much of everything. It is history, and should be watched by all.

Topper Takes a Trip

If you Liked the Original, You May Like this More
This may be an odd suggestion, but I think this film actually benefited from the absence of Cary Grant. Now I love Cary Grant, but in the original Topper, he is conspicuous by his absence from much of the action, and it is a distraction: after all, he was supposed to be the star. Here, however, we get to focus exclusively on the wonderful Roland Young and the drop-dead gorgeous Constance Bennett.

Young is quite frankly great as the bumbling and often mumbling Cosmo Topper. He is so good at pretending to be pulled, pushed and twisted around by the invisible Mrs. Kirby that you really completely believe unseen forces are constantly roughing him up. And he so thoroughly throws himself into dancing by himself, kicking his feet around in a jig, and kicking at invisible dogs, that it is a real joy.

Have I mentioned that Constance Bennett is gorgeous? How many marriages on the set must have been broken up by her walking around in a bathing suit for a good portion of the film? Billie Burke was also much more interesting here than in the original. The writers surely delighted in giving her so many inane and nonsensical lines, which she, in her well-meaning but confusing daffiness, plays to perfection.

Finally, Franklin Panghorn has a lovely and meaty role as a manager of a French hotel; but his French accent has to be one of the worst ever. Luckily the film is filled with upset, screaming Frenchmen all always yelling at the same time.

I don't think everyone will agree with me, but I found "Topper Takes a Trip" to be at least as enjoyable as the original (except for the long introduction with its extensive borrowing from the original). Highly recommended.

Das Weib des Pharao

A Luscious Restoration with a Breathtaking Score
The fabulous restoration of this film alone makes it worth viewing. The pictures are glossy and luscious as to be almost magical. It makes you realize that even though the movies were still silent in the 1920's, the quality of the film was first rate.

Also extremely noteworthy of the version recently shown on TCM is the spectacular orchestral score, really one of the best. Try to actively listen to the music if you can from time to time - especially in the late battle scenes, it is worthy of Wagner.

The sets are over the top, and the cast begins as a cast of dozens, then scores, then hundreds, and then literally thousands as the climactic battle scenes are reached. The Germans really outdid themselves here, easily matching the Hollywood spectacles of the same era. With great skill, director Ernst Lubitcsh was able to interweave outlandish spectacle with a lot of close-up tragedy, perhaps having learned this technique from watching D.W. Griffith fliks.

Unfortunately, the exaggerated emotive acting is a little painful to watch at times. This is the kind of over-acting histrionics that would be mocked by some for many years after the advent of sound.

The plot occasionally borders a bit on the unbelievable as well. I think the silliest thing was when, early in the film, the pharaoh is about to sign a peace treaty with the Ethiopians, when suddenly he is informed that someone is "approaching" the Treasury! In great shock, the king abandons the ceremony to deal with this incredible event personally! This would be like President Roosevelt walking out on the Yalta Conference in order to deal with a dog that had piddled in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House. Silly indeed.

The actor playing the hero "Ramphes" may also have the ugliest haircut in the history of serious film.

But these are minor distractions. "The Loves of Pharaoh" is art, and it is movie history, and the glorious restoration makes it well worth viewing.

Young Bride

How I discovered a wonderful actress, Helen Twelvetrees
The great thing about Turner Classic Movies is that no matter how many old movies you have seen, you will regularly come across actors and actresses whose names you have never heard before, but once you see them, are fascinated, and glad to make their acquaintance. So it was with the beautiful and oddly named Helen Twelvetrees. She was a very good blond actress whose career barely spanned the decade of the 1930's. Here, in "Young Bride", she is delicate and vulnerable, but not in an annoying weak way; she has a face full of beautiful character, one that you want to comfort and murmur to how everything will be alright. A lovely find, and too bad she was not a major star.

On the other hand, I have never been a fan of Eric Linden, who plays her immature braggart of a husband. I think it is that horrendous Bronx accent of his; even when he is playing sympathetic, which is rare in this film, I just don't find him to be all that appealing. I don't think I was the only one who felt this way, as his career dried up quickly as the 1930's moved on.

A very interesting cultural aspect of this film is how so much of it takes place in a "dance hall"; this is a public tavern where men came and bought tickets to dance with the female hired help. It appears that there was a great demand for these kinds of establishments, as a way for men to meet girls and socialize in a pre-TV and pre-Internet Depression-era society. Particularly fascinating is that it seems that at a certain weird level, open lewd behavior was strictly prohibited; at one point in this film, the fellow who is in charge of watching the dancers sternly calls to Eric Linden to "keep your feet moving"! (ie - no hanky-panky on the floor!) I wonder if such places really existed. Certainly this is a portrait of an urban America that died a long long time ago...

When not in the dance halls or Twelvetree's apartment, most scenes take place in a public library. Isn't that a weird combination? Throw in the fabulously stuttering Roscoe Ates as a bartender and you have a unique, slightly odd movie that, primarily thanks to the delightful screen presence of Helen Twelvetrees, is worthy of an hour and a quarter of your time.

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