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Invisible Agent

Irresistible, goofy, action-packed sci-fi wartime comedy/drama: spoilers ahead!
I love this movie more every time I see it. Sure, there are little gaffes (they get original Invisible Man Jack Griffin's name wrong, and Jon Hall's teeth show up when only his skin is supposed to be visible with cold cream) and there's a regrettable, dated crack about how "Japs all look alike" (especially ironic since Hungarian Peter Lorre looks nothing like Keye Luke (who was Chinese) nor any Japanese you ever met) but in the main, it's one of Universal's best wartime efforts, with some terrific John P. Fulton invisibility tricks.

Curtis (Curt) Siodmak's script is surprising, funny and even scary (Lorre and that guillotine paper cutter!) and it moves like lightning. Betrayal is a constant theme, with witty commentary on the treacherous relationship of the Axis "partners" and the mutual backstabbing by the two Nazis played by Cedric Hardwicke and J. Edward Bromberg. ("I pity the Devil when you boys start showing up in bunches," cracks the hero.)

The invisibility drug still seems to lead to some kind of madness (its users often have to be "liquidated", per Hardwicke) but apparently the insanity is not as severe as that suffered by Claude Rains or Vincent Price in the previous entries. It makes hero Frank Raymond (née Griffin) both manic and reckless, as well as extremely suspicious of Ilona Massey, an irresistible Mata Hari-type in that negligee...!

Siodmak pulls out all the stops for the remarkably violent climax, with a prison break, a nasty fish-hook trap, a Nazi-Japanese brawl, all the villains getting machine-gunned or stabbed or self-disemboweled, a car chase, an air field set ablaze and then bombed, and that parachute escape from the crashing plane...man, wartime audiences must have cheered this thing!

Hurricane Island

Wild pirate fantasy, made for pennies
SPOILERS - It's no Black Swan or Cutthroat Island or even Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, but Hurricane Island is fun if you dial your expectations down to extreme low tide. It's a combination of historical epic and fantasy, set just two decades after Columbus's discovery of the New World.

You have beefy hero Jon Hall and his crew, carting famed explorer Ponce de León (Edgar Barrier) around Cuba and pre-colonial Florida in a bed as they seek a cure for the poison arrow that hit de Leon in the opening scenes. You have lady pirate (in 1513!) Marie Windsor, in her Technicolor-red lipstick, and evil pirate Marc Lawrence scheming with a warlike native brave.

Of course, the real Ponce de León was a slaver who put down Indian rebellions brutally and died from his poison-arrow wound; but in this version, he ends up an enlightened seeker of peace, grateful for the help of native shaman Okhala (Jo Gilbert), who guides the party to the Fountain of Youth, here represented by a backlot waterfall with a gush of water spouting up in the pool below. No, Ponce doesn't get any younger, but he does shake off that paralysis (shades of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade!) Alas, another sword-and-gun fight breaks out, apparently ruining the fountain which stops spurting.

The story by David Matthews is nonsense, with dialogue like Hall (re Windsor's wig): "A blond Spaniard?" Windsor: "You have never been to our northern provinces, there are many of us there." Hall is as wooden as his galleon and Windsor overacts wildly to compensate; unbilled in the otherwise unfamiliar cast is Lyle Talbot as a doctor.

It's the kind of B-movie a studio used to be able to crank out on existing Poverty Row sets representing colonial towns and ships, achieving a cheesy epic grandeur. You have to admire producer Sam Katzman and director Lew Landers, who with ratty costumes, bathtub miniatures and a visibly rushed schedule, manage to crowd in stunts, sword fights, Windsor's murderous schemes that end with her falling for that big lunk Hall, a bevy of starlets as women convicts (!) recruited to colonize Florida, a hurricane called up on cue by Gilbert (the same tree keeps falling over in their path), and Gilbert meeting a Lost Horizon-type fate...all in 71 minutes. You won't believe a moment of it, but you will watch it all with an incredulous smile.

Clear History

W.C. Fields would be proud
SPOILERS - so don't complain later.

As much as I admire Curb Your Enthusiasm, Clear History is funnier. For one thing, it moves like lighting, with a season's worth of Curb's big moments, one after the other and all part of a logical plot. Instead of loose improv, each is a tight comedic scene with sharp dialog (by David, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer, his old Seinfeld brain trust) delivered by a stellar supporting cast: Jon Hamm, Kate Hudson, Danny McBride, J.B. Smoove, Eva Mendes, Philip Baker Hall, an unrecognizable Michael Keaton as Joe Stumpo, an unbilled Liev Schreiber as a scary Chechen...and an unfortunately underutilized Bill Hader.

One classic line comes when Larry's Nathan Flomm tries to undo his rash resignation, arguing that the act of apology is sufficient and whether he really means it is irrelevant. Hamm is appalled: "That is literally the ONLY thing an apology has to be, is sincere." And then, of course, Nathan can't resist pointing out his boss is making an insincere apology, just to pound the final nail in his own financial coffin.

That other great comic misanthrope W.C. Fields said there is nothing funnier than a henpecked man. Fields was famed for playing braying drunks and con-men in most of his movies (My Little Chickadee, International House, Poppy, The Big Broadcast, etc.), but in his three greatest comedies (It's a Gift, The Man on the Flying Trapeze and The Bank Dick) Fields played the flip side of that character - the put-upon family man and frustrated dreamer.

By the same token, David is best-known for Curb, portraying himself as a privileged idler who irritates everyone. But he's much funnier and more relatable as Nathan/Rolly...the guy who blew his big chance and is now contentedly scraping by under a new name in idyllic Martha's Vineyard. Yes, he has the same annoying Curb persona: the racial and sexual hangups, the tin-ear for others' feelings, and the OCD persnicketiness...but why wouldn't Rolly be as popular with these friends, who are themselves cheerful slobs, cranks and resentful townies? It makes as much sense as the meta-Larry on Curb having friends.

The writing is fiendishly clever; what seem like simple jokes turn out to reveal character and propel the plot: I laughed out loud when The Fountainhead came Rolly's TV halfway through - inspiring Rolly's revenge plot. It looked like Jon Hamm's naming both his kid and his car after Howard Roark was finally going to bite him in the ass. A few twists later, we learn Hamm's character has repented his Ayn Rand ways and David's Nathan/Rolly is undone by his own pride -- Clear History is like the farce version of Breaking Bad.

But the Fountainhead scene was when I decided this film is Larry David's The Bank Dick.

The fight on the road with Kate Hudson, building to a perfect reversal of expectations - and then the most hilariously mean use of a motorcycle accident in any comedy - suffice it to say, I found this the funniest movie of 2013, even though it wasn't in a theater.

The Bunglers

Hit-men tangle with a tango dancer
Blake Edwardsian (is that a word?) tomfoolery about bungling hit-men, a sultry tango dancer, and criss-crossing murder plots.

The goofy Kearin and the exasperated Von Buskirk, a kind of lethal Stan and Ollie, are on a collision course with gorgeous gangster's moll McClain, who proves to be quite different from what they bargained for.

Love enters the picture, and the bodies start falling.

Sumptuously shot...the color scheme alone is a pleasure to view.

Mucho hilarity, with an added plus: The droll animated credit sequence, the kind you used to see on movies...but on a short film, a real, rare luxury.


The Son of Dr. Jekyll

This film cheats worse than the villain does
The story starts out talking about Hyde as if he were a true monster who had murdered his wife. It shows a furry-headed, heavy-browed Hyde running into a house which is then set ablaze by a pursuing mob. Jekyll, now looking like a normal human, steps out of an upper story window and falls to his death.

But (SPOILER!) thirty years later, his old friend Dr. Lanyon is revealed to have falsified Jekyll's notes in a scheme to drive the Son of Dr. Jekyll mad, so Lanyon can steal the Jekyll estate...to replace his own fortune lost defending Jekyll Sr.

Aside from the moral backflips Lanyon has to perform to go from valiant friend to chiseler and murderer, the movie never comes clean about who Mr. Hyde was. In order to make young Jekyll look insane, Lanyon fakes those notes and swaps "Acrostyn" for another chemical, so that Jekyll Jr. turns hairy and fanged - then faints - in the movie's only transformation scene. It's an odd medical breakthrough for Lanyon to have gone broke defending.

Or is young Jekyll only hallucinating his transformation? Lanyon even boasts that he only needed mob hysteria to turn Edward Jekyll into a "monster." But a hallucination would be an even bigger cheat - because the audience sees an actual transformation after Edward is unconscious.

Then the closing crawl smugly notes that both Jekyll's original notes and Lanyon's forgery are archived at Scotland Yard as a solution to the Jekyll/Hyde myth. Huh?? When did it become a myth? Opening crawl, meet end credits! The movie does get props for reusing Mamoulian's color-filter trick for revealing painted makeup in stages from the Fredric March 1932 version (actually, first used to "cleanse the lepers" in DeMille's 1927 King of Kings.) And Holmes Herbert from that film shows up here as a policeman. Lester Matthews (the hero of "The Werewolf of London") plays lawyer Utterson, a character from Stevenson's novella usually omitted in screen adaptations. Alexander Knox, the model of rectitude as "Wilson", is wonderfully manipulative as Lanyon.

Apparently, the idea was to make a monster movie with a minimum of expensive makeup sessions, and the script seems to have had numerous contradictory revisions. The production values are fairly threadbare, not many steps up from a 3 Stooges short of the era; at one point, Jekyll's "1890" home is clearly a modern 1951 house with flagstone facing. But the studio cleverly reuses the big fire scene from the opening to close the picture with a bang.

But that bang is still not loud enough to make you forget all the illogical and dishonest tricks the story plays on the viewer.


Clever hook for a movie...too bad movies also need ENDINGS.

It was a great idea for a movie: What if they opened a time capsule and inside were predictions for every disaster of the last fifty years, plus predictions for three more - what would you do?

Well, in this film, it doesn't matter what you do. History is immutable. The so-called hero, after he goes through all this trouble to unravel the code...is powerless to save his own son. And apparently even angels (excuse me, aliens) who are capable of either time travel or extremely specific precognition...are uninterested in doing anything beyond saving thirty or forty kids.

Like "The Forgotten" (SPOILER!) about a mother whose child vanishes not only physically, but from all human record or memory except hers, this story resorts to advanced extraterrestrials to explain its mystery.

But the aliens here are a pretty useless bunch. They can predict the moment of a deadly solar flare 50 years in advance (not to mention many other much smaller disasters). So what do they do? Contact authorities, awe them with their predictions, get them building giant space arks to save a big chunk of the world's population (and, by the way, the culture that makes them human, as opposed to primate specimens)? Do these angels care about the incredible biodiversity of the doomed Earth? Nope. They'll whisk away a few dozen kids and some housepets (and to hell with everyone and everything else) then maroon them on an alien planet. No older members of their species, no technology to help them when, I dunno, it rains or snows...or someday a meteor comes along.

In six months, we'd be watching "The Lord of the Flies."

Apparently, all that these incredibly wise, angelic aliens care to preserve is our genetic stock (psi-power sub-variety). Socrates? Aquinas? Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Mozart, Jefferson, Emily Dickinson, Buster Keaton, Louis Armstrong, Tina Fey? Naah. Who needs that crap? We have a bunch of cute kids whose education stops at the fourth grade.

Terrible, boneheaded ending, the kind that sends an audience out in the foulest of moods, feeling condescended to and ripped off.


Toothless, pointless...whatever happened to Oliver Stone?
Instead of tearing W a new one, this film applied some Desitin, patted him on the back and said "there, there." I can't help but think that this, along with World Trade Center, represents a kinder, gentler, and newly boring Oliver Stone, focusing on inoffensive dramaturgy and lookalike casting (except Cromwell as Poppy Bush). It seems he now wants to be a Serious Prestige Director Who Gets An Oscar, rather than the passionate, irreverent wiseguy he was when he made his great films.

So now Stone turns out a movie that will encourage any remorseful Bush voter to think, "Well, of course I was right to have supported him...he meant well." Give me a break.

With the most stupidly corrupt leader in American history as his subject, a rage-filled, sadistic yet passive-aggressive antihero worthy of a blistering satire...Stone instead delivers a wet little Hallmark drama about how a cold daddy produced an unloved, frustrated child. Who just happened to kill a hundred thousand people (left almost entirely off screen, of course.) There are plenty of ironic laugh-lines for smug liberals, but they'll fly right over the heads of Republicans who can enjoy this shameless apologia free of irony.

Where were the remarkable highlights (that is to say, low points) of Bush's public career? "She said, 'please don't kill me' ", "All right, you've covered your ass?" "F--k Saddam, he's going down,"...and ten minutes of lobotomized staring at a children's book...while America was under attack? Well, never mind history...you can't have your main character too unlikable, can you? For all the mentions of "yellow cake", you'd never know that phrase did not just refer to an unsupported claim, but to an obvious lie, a childish forgery that the CIA's own experts disclaimed...nor would you guess that Bush and Cheney stood accused of betraying the identity of the CIA agent whose husband pointed out this inconvenient fact (nor that Bush commuted the sentence of a convicted felon who might otherwise have testified to their treason.) To portray Bush and Cheney's worst crime as being just too darned vigilant is an outrageous libel upon history. (Just a reminder: "you've covered your ass" was W's reply to the CIA handler who tried to show him the Aug 6th memo, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside U.S.")

The leads are sledgehammered into a mold designed to produce relatable movie characters, instead of highlighting their most interesting facets. From watching the dewy-eyed, sensible, liberal, good-hearted gal called Laura Bush here, you'd never dream the genuine article actually told survivors of dead soldiers that "no one suffers more than the president and I" or that she once killed a boyfriend by running a stop sign.

Oliver Stone - who once made a mainstream movie that accused the CIA of murdering JFK - wants us to believe Bush (who's been repeatedly photographed with wine-colored fluid in his glasses at state dinners and has fallen off bikes, Segways and his own two feet too often to count) passed out on a pretzel...with nothing but O'Doul's at hand? Really? Really?? Whatever happened to Oliver Stone?

The Fountainhead

You'll laugh, you'll cry...actually no. But you will laugh.

Never have so many fine actors floundered in such a sea of shoddy pamphleteering. Which is not to say the movie's not entertaining - it is. It's just not very good.

This was Ayn Rand's final screenplay in her brief Hollywood career, which is a tragedy for connoisseurs of bad soap opera. It's tempting to blame director King Vidor for all the scenes where characters turn their backs on the hero to declaim their speeches to just left of the camera – a staple of daytime serials ever since – but the speeches themselves are so over-the-top that avoiding each other's eyes may have been the only way for actors to deliver them without cracking up.

Rand's scenes constantly begin with some character summoning the heroic architect Howard Roark to deliver a snide ultimatum, which he impassively rejects, at which point the Other Character turns on a dime and flings him/herself at his feet, metaphorically or (in the case of Patricia Neal's Dominique) literally.

Even when Roark is not around, people behave with bizarre inconsistency, as if different writers had been assigned successive scenes. Take Raymond Massey's Gail Wynand, whose sexually ambiguous name (spelled like Gail Russell rather than Gale Gordon) seems to explain his lack of passion for his wife and his devotion to Roark. Wynand is willing to ruin his paper rather than retract his backing for Roark...until his board of directors softly suggest that he back down. Whereupon he instantly turns on Roark, so viciously that suicide (after rehiring Roark) is his only possible atonement.

Wynand's wife-to-be Dominique is a particularly kinky customer, humiliating and abusing Roark until he satisfies her by (in oblique, Old Hollywood fashion) raping her. Dominique definitely goes Scarlett O'Hara one better in bringing rough sex to the forefront in movies, but her particular fetish forces her to go through the whole movie in a temper, until she surrenders to Roark's perfection and Finally Gets What She Needs. You buy the affair because of the palpable heat between the gorgeous Neal and Gary Cooper...not because of the loony dialog.

The minor characters behave as if the movie were set (or at least written) on Mars: Angry mobs boycott a paper and tear down newsstands, all to protest the firing of the reptilian architecture critic Toohey, who dresses like Clemenceau and proclaims a self-loathing version of Marxism that would have earned him a icepick from Stalin. How did this fruitcake get so popular with the Joe Sixpacks of 1949?

The hilarious thing about the film is that everyone on view accepts that its hero is a genius. Roark, a paper-thin conceit instead of a character, never doubts himself for an instant, which imparts even to Gary Cooper an aura of unbearable smugness.

So where is dramatic conflict to come from?

Well, from the embittered paranoia that pervades every other character in the story. Even Roark's admirers are convinced he's too brilliant to succeed, while the villains are determined to bring him down, not because they're Philistines, or because his designs look as cold and forbidding as Albert Speer's, but because they hate Genius. After two hours of Roark's tin-Jesus certainty, you start to sympathize with them.

Imagine a movie in which the antagonists are not motivated by different ideals or greed or lust or revenge...but because they hate the hero's Goodness...and you have some idea of the depth of the writing in The Fountainhead.

Robert Douglas, on vacation from his usual swashbuckler villainy, is excellent as the scheming Toohey. Ironically, with his gift for glittery-eyed resentment, Douglas might have been far more believable as Roark than the stiff, earnest Cooper...but this casting would have laid bare the hero's narcissism and rendered him unwatchable.

As it is, Cooper, that laconic cowboy American, is visibly flummoxed by delivering Roark's rant in the courtroom climax. He spouts Rand's rambling derision for the common man in a speech that he scarcely seems to believe...as if he knew it would have earned him a clip in the jaw from Capra's Mr. Deeds.

Slaughter Trail

Plan 9 From the Old West
Hilariously inept - like "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" remade by five-year-olds.

Spoilers ahead: Despite its title, and the high bodycount, "Slaughter Trail" is in fact a musical with Injun battles instead of dance numbers.

If you ever wondered what Ed Wood might have done with a B-movie budget, this film should answer your question. Some decisions may have been bad only in retrospect, such as filming in the short-lived Cinecolor process, which resulted in faces changing hue within the same shot. But there was definitely some ill-advised skimping on the film's main set, a cavalry fort that seems to be partly a Norman castle.

Terry Gilkyson, who later wrote the 'The Bare Necessities' for Disney's "The Jungle Book", supplies a score full of original ditties which would have been wonderful for a cartoon but which fit Western action like a fuzzy slipper stuck in a stirrup. One song tells how "horse hooves pound, and their melody sounds, like the hoofbeat serenade"...during a dead-serious scene of a cavalry patrol. Other songs literally narrate the story shot by shot, introducing characters, describing their moods and gestures - as they happen on screen - and even stop to advertise the Cinecolor process(!)

The script sends ferocious Navajos on the warpath to avenge the killing of two of their band by an outlaw trio. By the end of the film, what looks like a hundred Navajos and cavalrymen have bitten the dust (thanks to repeated footage of the same characters dying over and over.) But the chief is satisfied once he sees the trio of badguys have been slain. As the singer helpfully informs those of us who weren't paying attention, the Navajos ride away, their battle called off. The cavalry captain, surrounded by the corpses of his fallen comrades, cheerily waves his appreciation.

The direction could most charitably be described as wooden, or more to the point, Wood-en. Navajos are consistently shot off their horses in pairs -- never just one. Virtually every red man on foot dies by throwing his hands in the air and keeling over. The film also employs the most cautious stuntmen in Hollywood, who crouch before dropping off a one-story roof (and still fail to stick the landing) or turn to look behind them as they slide, "dead", down a rocky slope.

The star is Brian Donlevy, who surely deserves an Oscar for not blushing. After the endless final battle scene -- "climax" is scarcely the word -- he scans a list of the dozens of his troopers killed, and shrugs, "It could've been a LOT worse." Trooper Andy Devine gets to sing and robber/murderer Gig Young laughs at Andy's antics...which leads a character who had been held up by masked bandits to rat Gig out: "I'd know that laugh anywhere!"

And lest anyone forget just what a nasty piece of work Howard Hughes could be, recall that as head of RKO, Hughes was first in line to blacklist original star Howard Da Silva when HUAC denounced him. It would take Hughes another six years to finish running that once-celebrated studio into the ground, but it didn't help things when he insisted on reshooting Da Silva's every scene for this film, substituting Donlevy.

It was nearly a decade before Da Silva was able to work in Hollywood again. But all things considered, for getting him out of "Slaughter Trail", he should have sent Hughes a thank-you note.

The Path to 9/11

What it leaves out is as damning as what it includes
What it includes: A scene that never happened, of Clinton administration officials calling off a raid that would have netted bin Laden - fictional, according to the 9/11 Commission Report (issued by a Republican-dominated Congressional committee -- you know, the one before which Bush and Cheney testified together, both declining to swear an oath to tell the truth.)

What it omits: A very telling scene that did happen - the famous anecdote from Ron Susskind's The One Percent Doctrine, in which a CIA handler who flew to Crawford to make sure sure Bush read the August 6, 2001 memo ("Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside U.S.") reported Bush's hostile response: "All right, you've covered your ass now."

These two facts sum up all anyone needs to know about the integrity and agenda of these filmmakers.

Disneyland: I Captured the King of the Leprechauns
Episode 26, Season 5

Elaborate promo for Walt's upcoming "Darby O'Gill"
For a TV episode, very well-produced (in black-and-white -- unlike the expensive Technicolor feature "Darby O'Gill and the Little People" which it was promoting.)

The episode is included on the "Darby" DVD, and it's a revelation. Pat O'Brien was well used, and Walt himself was a pretty good actor. The story is wonderfully nonsensical: O'Brien convinces Walt to go to Ireland and use actual leprechauns, rather than have his artists draw them. In Ireland, Walt meets a Dublin librarian who talks about the legends, then he sits in on a storytelling scene with the "real" Darby (Albert Sharpe). Later Darby leads Walt to the old ruins to meet leprechaun Phadric Oge (Jack McGowran) and then King Brian himself (Jimmy O'Dea), where he decides to film both Darby and Brian as characters in his film. There are also scenes lifted from the movie, featuring Sean Connery, Janet Munro, Estelle Winwood, Kieron Moore and others...all of which Walt speaks of as if he had filmed them for a documentary. He then returns to California, where O'Brien has the temerity to act shocked and disbelieving that Walt actually met the little people.

All in all, an elaborate promo episode of Walt Disney Presents, featuring Walt in the same painstaking camera set-ups used in the movie to blend the full-sized Darby and the foot-high leprechauns -- a process done all in one shot without optical work, using forced perspective, as explained on an excellent featurette on the same DVD.

Whatever Happened to Dobie Gillis?

At least Hickman, Denver and Faylen got some work out of this
A sad comeback for a funny series. I saw it thirty years ago, and can remember very little of it except that Frank Faylen recreated his role as Herbert T. Gillis, though he was frail and rather hoarse yelling, "Dobie!"

I think, but am not sure, that Sheila James was in it as Zelda, but Florida Friebus (as Winnie, Dobie's mom) was noticeably absent. Maynard G. Krebs showed up late in the show, no longer a workaphobic beatnik, but now a zen-calmed hippie guru, which was about as funny as it sounds.

The follow-up TV-movie, "Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis", came along 11 years later and was a bit more successful at reviving the feel of the series, along with bringing back other TV cast members like Steve Franken and William Schallert.

The Rockford Files: The Man Who Saw the Alligators
Episode 16, Season 5

A 90-minute Rockford -- if you can find it intact.
The episode, unlike the normal hours or occasional two-parters that filled two hour-long slots, ran in a 90-minute slot. Given the length of network TV shows at the time, it probably ran 78 minutes. For syndication, the 52-minute Rockfords were cut to 44 minutes (by contrast, today's network shows are about 41 minutes long -- nearly one-third of each hour is advertising.) This longer-than-usual episode was cut to shreds to make it an hour episode. Fingers crossed for a full-length release on the Season 5 DVD.


"The Man Who Saw the Alligators" resurrected the character of hit-man "Anthony Boy" Gagglio (played by a truly scary George Loros, more recently Ray Curto on 'The Sopranos'). Anthony Boy had been shot to death in an earlier episode, "To Protect and Serve", but in this episode reference was made to him surviving with a lot of surgery, so that he is now required to make frequent trips to the bathroom.

Rockford and his fetching accountant repair to an isolated mountain cabin to prepare for an IRS audit. Jim is also recuperating from dental surgery. But his luck continues downhill with the arrival of Anthony Boy and his erstwhile partner Syl, now bent on revenge for Rockford getting them shot and arrested. Rockford is actually a secondary character this time around, as the story centers on Anthony Boy, and his betrayal by his little brother and his mother...to mob boss Joseph Minette (Joseph Sirola, nasty as always). Minette doesn't want Anthony Boy stirring up trouble -- so he plans to wipe out EVERYBODY at the cabin.

A funny, chilling and tragic Rockford episode, with its theme of maternal betrayal a foretaste of writer David Chase's later series, 'The Sopranos.'

The Yoke's on Me

I saw this as a kid, before it had been yanked from the rotation, and even then it left a bad taste in my mouth. There were some competently worked out gags, but making slapstick villains out of American citizens who'd been interned in camps strictly due to their race was amazingly tasteless.

Moe himself might have wanted this one buried. He was a liberal guy. In his autobiography he told of visiting a town in the segregated South, where he saw a black man get off the sidewalk to avoid passing too close. Moe stepped into the street to show it wasn't a problem, and the man then got back on the curb. Then off again. Finally, the man told Moe nervously that if Moe didn't stop trying to share the sidewalk with him, he might get them both lynched.

Another thing: There are exploding ostrich eggs but no oxen in the film, so the title should actually be (if anyone cares) "The Yolk's on Me."


All right, what was Vincent's game-plan again?
Spoiler alert: Vincent's plan to avoid prosecution is to take a cab to each of five targets' homes and kill them all in one night, then kill the cabbie, making it look like the suicide of a crazed spree-killer instead of the work of a professional hit-man. Apparently, from what cop Fanning says, he has done this at least once before.

So this means...

1) Vincent feels sure no one will question the idea of a "spree killer" who happens to kill the prosecutor and four of her witnesses in a major gangster's trial.

2) Once the plan goes south and Max witnesses the first murder, Vincent thinks Max is dumb enough to help him commit four more murders, on the promise that Vincent won't kill him.

3) Vincent will not kill Max and find a dumber, or at least more cooperative cabbie, even after Max throws away the addresses of his targets.

4) Vincent will send Max into a nightclub unsupervised, to get a copy of his targets' addresses from a major gangster who will kill both Max and Vincent (or at least, destroy Vincent's professional reputation) if he suspects Max is not the real hit-man.

5) Vincent will spend all night chatting, in public, with various victims, their acquaintances and employees, witnesses, Max's dispatcher...and will even insist on going to the hospital to visit Max's mom. Because later, all these witnesses will assume it was Max who wigged out and killed everyone associated with this trial, and not his loquacious, silver-haired passenger.

Now, this all makes sense...if Vincent is having a mental breakdown.

Or am I thinking of "The Matador"?

Roman Holiday

The best picture Frank Capra never made...
...but almost did. Others have noted the similarities between this film and "It Happened One Night." According to Joseph McBride's biography, Capra bought the story "Roman Holiday" from Ian McLellan Hunter. Hunter, who fronted for blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, said Capra (who was having his own problems with HUAC and was even accused of being a communist by a Hearst paper's columnist) did not know the original story was Trumbo's.

Capra, who envisioned Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant as the leads, supervised Hunter's writing of the screenplay for 14 weeks. Hunter recalled him as disengaged and dispirited, unwilling to fight tightfisted Paramount Pictures, which refused to spend any money on location shooting. When he left Paramount, Capra turned the project over to William Wyler, who was better able to twist the studio's arm.

Three Godfathers

Tougher, truer than the John Wayne/John Ford version
Warning: Spoilers for two versions below:

This film was a revelation.

Ford's 1948 Technicolor version, scripted by Laurence Stallings and Frank S. Nugent, while action-filled and pretty, is a lesser film which pulls its punches, pushes its performances, and is shot through with sentimentality. Ford's mellower mood is certainly understandable, as he opens his film with a visual dedication to his recently-deceased friend Harry Carey, Sr., a veteran of Ford's films who had starred in a silent version of this tale; and the film is Harry Jr.'s first role for Ford.

Edward E. Paramore Jr. and Manuel Seff's 1936 script, directed by Richard Boleslawski, is tougher minded, which makes its antihero's change of heart truly moving. Unlike John Wayne's likable, harmless Bob Hightower, Chester Morris's Bob Sangster is a cold, dangerous brute who still manages to redeem himself, giving up his life to save a stranger's baby. Wayne's character, by contrast, gives up only a year of his life, in jail.

There's the remarkably dark, unnerving moment after Stone and Brennan depart the story, when Morris prepares to abandon the squalling infant on the desert. He yells for the kid to shut up. The baby keeps wailing offscreen, so Morris turns back, aims his pistol and fires. The crying immediately stops. Then the camera reveals that Morris has just shot a rattlesnake that was endangering the child. An unforgettable scene for any era, especially the heavily censored 1930s. This, and Morris's wrenching sacrifice at the climax, are far more powerful than anything Ford attempts in his "3 Godfathers."

Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Fun yet marred by a remarkably depressing "happy" ending
As wonderful as this original version is, it and all its remakes have one horrible, gaping plot hole.


Does it bother anyone else that in the end, Joe Pendleton is erased? I don't mean he dies and goes to Heaven like presumably every other soul in the movie's universe. I mean, because of Edward Everett Horton's foul-up (and Claude Rains's heavenly cover-up), Pendleton ends up in the body of K.O. Murdoch with no memory of his previous life as Pendleton. In fact, he is Murdoch, although he still looks like Robert Montgomery (no doubt "Quantum Leap" was inspired by this, four decades later).

Sure, he has some faint residual feelings of Pendleton's that make him hire James Gleason to be his manager, and he and Evelyn Keyes will no doubt fall in love. But the Joe Pendleton who grew up and lived his life and knew both of them before his memory was erased...PERMANENTLY CEASES TO EXIST. Pendleton is the only guy in all Creation who never gets into Heaven, thanks to of a bureaucratic mistake.

He'd have one helluva lawsuit, if only he had any memory of how badly he got ripped off.

It Happened One Christmas

If you like colorizing, you'll love this act of cultural vandalism
This gender-swap vanity project goes one enormous step beyond colorization, inserting the usually-likable Marlo Thomas in place of James Stewart, in one of the great American films. If the copyright on the original had not lapsed, this crime against film history could not have occurred. It is certainly lovingly produced, and well cast...aside from the misbegotten lead and some terrifying scenery-chewing by Cloris Leachman. That Ms. Thomas' perky performance isn't up to Stewart's legendary portrayal isn't even the worst part; as producer, that she would inject herself into such a story without radically rethinking it is very much the point.

As it is, the teleplay by Lionel Chetwynd (whose contributions include such thudding, on-the-nose rephrasings as "You're just a spider, and I'm glad I didn't fall into your scurvy little web") slavishly follows the original except when it would be ridiculous not to notice that its hero is now a woman. In those scenes, the writing calls to mind Samuel Johnson's famous critique, "Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good."

If you are one of the few who have not seen the original "It's a Wonderful Life", please do yourself a favor and watch it first...even if it is in black-and-white. Warning: If you do, you will not be able to endure this one.

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