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Diana Rigg versus the Mini-Killers (and a mini-budget!)
Diana Rigg's 1968 "Mini-Killers" project is shrouded in mystery. (Incidentally, it's "Minikillers" in the titles, no hyphen.) I've posted the details behind this movie in the "trivia" section.

Minikillers is comprised of 4 minifilms. Filmed in Spain the movie takes advantage of the scenic locales of Costa Brava – however most of the scenery is lost in the washed-out and blurry 8mm film print. Long story short: Minikillers looks like garbage. My DVDR is taken from the original 8mm film and looks rough; colors are muddy, faces are blurred. But Diana Rigg still glows.

Part 1: Operation Costa Brava – Lounging by the pool in her bikini, Rigg notices a toy doll walk up; somewhere distant a Telly Savalas-lookalike sets a time-bomb activation clock. The doll stops in front of some guy by the pool and squirts poison through its eyes; the guy dies. In the melee Rigg takes the doll, investigating; the bald henchman sees this and sends a stooge after her. A quick judo fight outside Rigg's house; she tosses this guy and as he slouches off she spots a clock which has fallen from his pocket – it's the same kind as the clock used to activate the doll. Rigg goes into her swank room to inspect the doll. Unseen by her another doll another comes in, controlled by the Savalas lookalike; Rigg leaves her place just as the poison sprays from doll #2's eyes – Rigg never even sees that it's there.

Part 2: Heroin – Rigg sits along the beach in a wrap, mini-camera in hand. She snaps photos of a yacht and the men onboard – including the mustache-sporting main villain – spot her. The main boss gives the order and the men on his yacht hoist a lever, activating a trap. A strange scene where Rigg realizes she is surrounded by mannequins on the beach – as if she didn't notice? A net comes up from the sand and ensnares the mannequins and Rigg and drags them into the water. Guntoting stooges in the yacht wait as the net's dragged from water – but it's empty! Meanwhile Rigg comes out of the ocean unseen by them – wearing only white panties and a bra, her wrap lost in the tumult – and sneaks onto into the yacht. She slinks onto the bottom deck, investigating – minikiller dolls everywhere. Ever curious Rigg looks into one, finds a bag of heroin tucked inside it – the dolls transport drugs as well. Cute bit where she waves a "naughty naughty" finger in the doll's face. Next she finds a photo of two men, with "Interpol" written above them, and X marks over each face; one of the faces is the man killed in part 1. The yacht gets back to the dock; while sneaking off Rigg's spotted by the Savalas lookalike. A few judo chops and she beats away her attackers; escapes into the main villain's car, races off. Ends with Rigg depositing the stolen car on the street and hopping into her own race car, jetting off; a cop puts a ticket on main villain's car for being illegally parked.

Part 3: Macabre – Rigg enjoys a coffee at an outdoor restaurant. The Savalas lookalike and the main boss watch her from afar. They take the minikiller (from part 1) from her car and activate it, then place it back in Rigg's car. She leaves and they follow in another car. She hears a ticking noise and so stops to look at the doll. Realizing it's been armed, she throws the doll at her pursuers and it explodes; men scatter. Cool bit where Rigg saucily gets out of her car and challenges the bald henchman. A quick fight: she judo-chops him and he plunges off of a hill, out cold. Back at her hotel a porter hands Rigg a note. Apparently she's asked to come to a certain address. That night, Rigg in sexy black minidress arrives at a palatial estate. Men there await with a coffin, one of them the Savalas lookalike. She beats them up and escapes in a horse-drawn carriage.

Part 4: Flamenco – Rigg sits in a packed nightclub, enjoying a flamenco dancer named Sali. In an upper balcony sit the main villain and his Savalas lookalike henchman. Sali it appears is the second of the two Interpol agents in the X'd out photo from part 2. Flamenco over, Sali goes to his dressing room. A minikiller appears and kills him. Later Rigg comes down to Sali's room. Before she can go in she's caught and strapped inside of a cliffhanger serial-type device: bound flat while the stone ceiling slowly descends on her; soon she will be crushed to a pulp. She reaches for the gears… Savalas lookalike comes along to see if she's dead, but discovers that the device is empty. A ring's been jammed between the gears. Savalas himself gets caught in the device. Rigg pounces off into Sali's dressing room, finds beside it a hidden room. Inside it several crates filled with minikillers. Rigg takes one of the dolls out of a crate, remembers the clock-activation device she got from the henchman in part 1. Meanwhile upstairs the main villain messes with a minikiller of his own, charging it up with a syringe of poison. Downstairs, Rigg sets up her minikiller to test it out. She winds the clock and sets it off, but somehow this sets off the minikiller in the main villain's hands. Poison sprays in his face and he dies. The film ends with Rigg enjoying a drink at a bar as cops lead off the bound Savalas lookalike; Rigg winks into the camera, takes another drink, and the credits roll.

The Man from Yesterday

Marvelous Production Values, Subpar Script
I've been working my way through Claudette Colbert's early films and this is one of the best. It doesn't offer the sauciness of "Torch Singer" and there are no milk baths in sight, but overall it's probably the most expansive production she was in, pre-"Sign of the Cross." For this is a "big" movie, the early '30s equivalent of a modern "event picture;" the sort of thing studios like to push just in time for the Oscars. It has some fantastic production values, only it's let down by a runtime insufficient to fully play out the story.

Claudette (looking again like Betty Boop – I've gone on about this before but it's amazing how greatly this woman's appearance changed between 1932 and 1933) plays a young nurse who marries the ever-staunch Clive Brook. Why any girl would fall for this stoic killjoy is beyond me – and it's beyond the script, too. But regardless the two are mad for each other and spend a night out in WWI-era Paris, Clive a British soldier about to go back out into the field. We see him in battle shortly after this, a well-shot and produced scene which takes place right in the trenches. Soldiers stagger about in gas masks, machine guns rend the night, distant explosions provide brief snatches of illumination over the hellish landscape. I should point out that Karl Struss provided the cinematography and he's up to his usual skill in this scene and others.

Overcome by poison gas Clive's left on the field, considered dead. Claudette is informed by one of his battalion mates and she passes out – also because she is pregnant with Clive's child. Enter Charles Boyer, playing his usual Gallic charmer; a field surgeon, he takes an instant liking to Claudette and promises to care for her and her coming child. Only we soon discover that Clive in fact is still alive, taken prisoner by the Germans along with an American soldier (gravelly-voiced Andy Devine). Years pass and Claudette lives with Boyer in Paris, raising Clive's son. The couple goes to Switzerland for vacation, where Boyer intends to provide a little help at the local sanatorium in which wounded WWI soldiers convalesce. You guessed it – Clive is one of those soldiers, and though his doctors claim he should've died long ago, he persists in living, sticking to a daily regimen and clinging to life. Everything comes to a head with Claudette caught between these two men, uncertain if she should continue to "be the wife" for the man she believed dead, or if she should follow her heart and stay with the man who has cared for her and her child these past few years.

So really this is just a sumptuously-produced melodrama. A wealth of production details are thrown at what is a simple story too quickly told. For really the plot gets in the way, making certain characters seem too cruel or too stupid. As if realizing this, director Berthold Viertel handles affairs with a slick touch, fully capitalizing on the flawless art direction. Paris and Switzerland are recreated on the studio lot; in Switzerland we get an entire village, complete with taverns, boat-filled canals, and sweeping verandas. Paris too is expertly rendered, featuring bomb shelters and wide streets upon which several taxis jostle for space. It's all really incredible, and I have a feeling some of the sets (the canal in particular) are leftovers from Ernst Lubitsch's Paramount marvel of the same year, "Trouble In Paradise." We even get a bit of proto-special effects; in one scene Claudette watches a train leave the village, watching it through a window: her back is to us and we see the moving train out beyond, in the forest. Only, the jaded eye will soon realize it's nothing but a model train out there, moving through a miniature forest. But still, such simple and childish tricks only serve (for me at least) to make the film all the more enjoyable. I love the "artificial world" of old movies, and The Man From Yesterday takes place solely within one.

All the actors come off well but as usual Boyer's accent is as thick as oak. The man has always reminded me as a Desi Arnaz prototype. Clive Brook is just as staunch and humorless as in "Shanghai Express" and any other movie he ever appeared in. And Claudette here plays more of a dramatic role than the more sultry types she played in her Pre-Code years; even though this film is a Pre-Code it really offers nothing that couldn't be shown once the Code was enforced. My only complaint, again, is that the story is not fully developed, which harms some of the characterizations. And also I wish I had a better copy – yet another of the many classic films never released on DVD or VHS, The Man From Yesterday is currently only available as a bootleg-quality DVDR, one which seems to have been sourced from 16mm. Meaning the majority of those fine production details just come off like a black and white blur on your screen. A pity.

His Woman

A Captain, His Woman, A Baby…and two racial stereotypes
Well, this movie is certainly something. I'm just not sure what.

Gary Cooper plays the hardbitten captain of a merchant ship; while docked at a South American port someone leaves a caucasian baby in his boat. Cooper plans to take it with him to the US, he just needs someone to take care of it on the voyage. Enter Aloysius (Hamtree Harrington, what a great name) and Mark (Sidney Easton), his two African-American stewards – bumbling caricatures who speak in the phony "black American" patois acceptable in early Hollywood. IE, lots of "yassirs" and bug-eyed expressions of shock. Claudette appears as a seaport "entertainer" who wants to get back to NYC; she comes aboard as the baby's surrogate, employing skills she didn't realize she had. Along the way the baby instills in her the desire to "straighten up," and her and Cooper fall in love to boot. Only, Claudette has a shady past and it seems that every other mate on the ship has had her at one dingy seaport or another – all of them except for Cooper, that is, who despite being hardbitten is also a little too naïve. He buys Claudette's "my parents were missionaries who died and now I'm all alone" story and gets ruffled if anyone doubts her, ruffled to the point of fighting one of his men and knocking him overboard. It all comes to a head in NYC with a truly underwhelming courtroom scene.

Really, the whole movie is underwhelming. I mean, the film opens with a stock shot of a merchant vessel plying through the water, then a cut to the deck, and Gary Cooper ambles his way across it. THAT'S how the movie begins, no fanfare, no buildup, just another day at sea with Gary Cooper. Gary Cooper and his two racial stereotype crewmembers, that is; I have a theory that Malcolm X saw this film as a boy and it set him on his way. For truly this movie is offensive. I'm an open-minded guy and don't get offended easily, but this film goes out of its way to shoehorn every black stereotype into the characters of Aloysius and Mark. They are presented as incompetent nitwits who exist only to bulge their eyes and mutter banalities – in between loud prayers to "Gawd," that is.

And it's not just that. Whole chunks of this film are composed of nothing more than a baby crying. Minute after minute evaporates as the baby screams and bawls, with various characters attempting in vain to placate it. In addition the movie is very static, paced so leisurely that it appears to be out for a Sunday drive. Cooper can do little to save it; his character is a vapid sort, and it's obvious he had a hard time reckoning the polar characteristics with which he's been foisted: we're supposed to believe his character is a non-nonsense sea captain who commands respect in his grizzled men, yet at the same time he's so naïve as to buy whole-hog Claudette's obviously fake background story. As for Claudette – well, what can you expect: she's as good as ever. Her role offers her a bit more room and she does a good job portraying the whole "bad girl goes good" angle. This early in her career she still has that waiflike look – big Betty Boop eyes, fragile body. I swear this lady drank some sort of elixir – just compare how she looks in this film to say "Sign of The Cross," released the following year, or even "Cleopatra," from three years later. It's like she went through a second puberty.

Production-wise the movie's underwhelming as well. Don't expect the usual Paramount opulence here. Rather than a nice portrayal of a madhouse South American bar early in the film, the sets are mostly spartan-looking cabins within Cooper's ship, or the equally-austere deck. Once the ship gets back to New York we're only graced with a few stock shots of the city, and from there to a basic office room for the trial. The direction, too, offers little to appreciate; the whole thing, from beginning to end, is as basic as bread.

Special note: This film contains one of the worst line readings I've ever had the pleasure to hear. I'm talking "Ed Wood production" bad. When Claudette's back with her high-living galpals in NYC, all of them sitting around in negligees with their legs dangling in pure Pre-Code lasciviousness, she gets ribbed by them for falling in love with Cooper. Try as they might, the girls can't get Claudette to revert to her old ways. One of the galpals, a pretty blonde, shakes her head and says, "Well, I just give up." It is, by far, one of the worst deliveries of a line EVER.

Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise)

Senses-Shattering Expressionistic Masterpiece
Part of the string of long-lamented "woman's story" movies that were so popular in the early 1930s, this Pre-Code melodrama is wonderful, expressionistic, and even surrealistic in its set design, and it's a crying shame it's not received a proper DVD release. It's occasionally run on cable, so one must scour the Web to find a DVDR copy.

This 76-minute movie is based on a thousand page novel; safe to say, the story's been telescoped. It hurtles along like some nightmarish, out-of-control train. Plot lines and characters are introduced and swept away before we have the chance to get our bearings. But like pretty much all classic movies, it boils down to a simple love story.

The film operates as an endless sequence of Garbo and Gable together, then splitting up, then longing for one another, then searching for one another, and then spurning one another again due to some sort of misunderstanding. But the way the story is presented…it's as surreal as a Josef Von Sternberg film. And like Dietrich in those Sternberg movies, Garbo here is a Destroyer Of Men; they become obsessed with her, and when they leave her (either by choice or command) they are consumed with the memory of her. Gable is the prime sufferer here; at the opening of the film he's a nice guy, quick to smile and good-natured, but as his obsession increases he becomes a grizzled, hate-filled lunatic – at the very end of the movie he even drops a prostitute off a balcony onto the tables below!

Greta Garbo and Clark Gable (Hitler's two favorite actors…I wonder if this was his favorite movie?) lead the cast, but make no mistake: this is Greta's picture all the way. And she shines: the movie allows Garbo to portray a range of emotions and she handles all of them with panache. She really comes off like some waif lost in the Black Forest in the opening scenes, only instead of the Black Forest it's some backwoods sargasso of the American Midwest. Shorn of his moustache, Gable is still his likable self; despite the surreal aspect of the film he still gets some of his Gable-isms in there. My favorite example being how he exchanges "craned-neck" looks with his dog. Gable and Garbo have good on screen chemistry, even though longstanding rumor is they didn't like one another in reality.

The opening scenes of the movie are full-on German Expressionism. Susan's redneck home is like the funhouse reflection of reality, all drooping shadows and surreal perspectives. The sequence in which we see Susan's birth could've been lifted straight out of a Dr. Caligari remake. Unsettling camera angles guide us through a disturbing sequence in which we see Susan growing up, all of it relayed by her shadow as it grows in height along a wall. The final shot of this sequence is magnificent: the last shadow we see on the wall is Garbo's, and her profile is so distinct that she is immediately identifiable even though we don't actually see her.

This film also contains an enjoyable sequence where Clark Gable becomes THE LUCKIEST GUY IN FILM HISTORY: He awakens to find the luminously gorgeous Greta Garbo cooking his breakfast!

I've long preferred Paramount to MGM, but movies like this sway me. Again, the biggest problem with this movie is that it isn't available. It's prime content for the next "Pre-Code Hollywood" or "Forbidden Hollywood" DVD releases – or better yet, a "Pre-Code Greta Garbo" collection which could include this as well as the uncensored version of her "Mata Hari." Now that I think of it, according to the book "Sin in Soft Focus," this film too was cut before release; despite the Code not being fully enforced yet, there was still a Greta/Gable scene which upset the Hays Administration enough that they had something removed. If that scene still exists, then it would make a wonderful addition to a proper release of this neglected movie. (If I recall correctly, the cut scene took place in the penthouse suite – the scene in which Garbo attempts to humiliate Gable).

Other examples of senses-shattering "woman's story" melodramas of the 1930s: Claudette Colbert's "Torch Singer," Sternberg/Dietrich's "The Blonde Venus," and Clara Bow's "Call Her Savage." For a 1940s version – watered down in that Post-Code style but still as wacky as any of the above – see Bette Davis's "Now, Voyager."

Dancers in the Dark

Plodding Pre-Code Melodrama with an Expressionistic Main Set
Another Pre-Code obscurity, Dancers in the Dark is a middling melodrama about a dancehall singer/dancer Gloria (Miriam Hopkins) who finds three men pining for her: wet-behind-the ears saxophonist Floyd (William Collier, Jr), smart-alecked bandleader Duke (Jack Oakie), and murderous crook Louie (George Raft).

Gloria seems to have a drama-ridden past but innocent Floyd has fallen for her anyway. And she likes him just as much. They plan to get married but Floyd's childhood friend Duke doesn't like it. He arranges it so that Floyd has to leave town for a month-long gig with a band in Pittsburgh. Obedient Floyd leaves, planning to marry Gloria when he returns. Duke figures that soon enough Gloria will be back to her old tricks. But then Louie shows up, one of those old flames of Gloria's, a two-bit crook who immediately moves in on his old territory. Only Gloria stops his advances; she's in love with Floyd. Soon even Duke's putting the moves on her; his original idea was to get Gloria to forget about Floyd, but instead he finds himself falling for the tough-talking blonde.

Intersperse the above melodrama with the occasional song and dance number and a pointless robbery scene and you have Dancers in the Dark. A lot of these Pre-Code flicks are regrettably now obscurities but some of them have been forgotten for a reason; at this moment I'm considering Dancers to be one of the latter. For this is an overly-talky, plodding affair in which nothing seems to happen except for people sitting around and talking…and talking…and talking.

I blame screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. These days he gets credit for writing "Citizen Kane" and admittedly his dialog is good – but at least in Kane he had Orson Welles, a director who understood what separates films from plays. Mankiewicz had a long screen writing career behind him but more than that he was a playwright, and his scripts generally fall under the same rubric; like plays they are composed of precious little "movie content" and instead feature endless scenes of dialog. What with the talent and the surreal set, a director could've done wonders for this movie, turned it into a fast-moving piece of Pre-Code luridness. But David Burton directs the film in as stage-bound a manner as Mankiewicz's script. For example, that aforementioned robbery scene. We don't even see it; Louie and his croney discuss the robbery, we see them sneak up to the place, then a ham-fisted screen-pan and we see them coming out after performing the deed. We only discover what happened via their dialog, of course.

Most notable about the film is its main set. Really the film only takes place on the one set and it's a doozy: this massive dance floor with a bandstage in the center, with surreal architecture swooping and spanning above and about the entirety. Oblong shadows are cast all over the expanse, lending the film a German Expressionistic/Dr. Caligari feel. Paramount went to some lengths to create this set; it's unfortunate the story doesn't live up to it. I can only imagine what a Josef von Sternberg or a Lubitsch or even a Leisen would've done with such promising décor. That being said, I only wish I could see the set better; I'm certain it would look all the more incredible on a better print than my sourced-from-16mm bootleg copy.

Acting-wise everyone performs admirably; Raft has the sneering gangster bit down pat and Jack Oakie's at his gum-chewing, line-dropping best. Miriam Hopkins carries the brunt of it, ranging from drama to comedy. She handles it well but I feel she emotes a bit too much in certain scenes. Lots of overly-dramatic stuff which, again, probably would've gone over well on a theater stage but comes off as hammy in a film. She sings a few numbers, particularly "St. Louis Blues," but she's obviously lip-synching. I have no idea who really sang the number, but whoever it was had one belter of a voice.

Honor Among Lovers

Pre-Code how-to on sexual harassment in the workplace
We've all had to sit through those tedious sexual harassment videos at work – bland, patronizing productions that are required viewing for all new employees. Companies could make the experience a whole lot more fun if they just showed this film instead.

Moustache-sporting Fredric March is wealthy CEO Jerry Stafford, a debonair gadabout who secretly pines for his cute and unattached secretary Julie Traynor (Claudette Colbert). Not so secretly, actually – within the first ten minutes Stafford hits on Julie with abandon and then steals a kiss which leaves her flustered. He brushes it off with a "I was surprised just as much as you were" (though a careful reviewing of the scene confirms that he wasn't surprised at all), then pops open the wine – they're having lunch in his office, natch – and asks her to go on a cruise around the world with him. Safe to say, this guy would be in white collar prison these days. Even better, a few scenes later Julie marries her low-incomed broker of a fiancé (Philip Craig, as played by the Pee Wee Herman-looking Monroe Owsley); she reports to work the following Monday to tell Stafford she won't go on that cruise with him after all, on account of marriage. Stafford's response? He fires her!

I should mention here that Jerry Stafford is the hero of this film. Yes, we're certainly in the world of 1930s cinema.

Stafford doesn't turn out to be the biggest cad. That would be Craig, who by his and Julie's first anniversary has become wealthy, due mostly to the money Stafford has given his brokerage firm. Craig loses all of his newfound wealth on a silk deal Stafford cautioned against. Only problem is, Craig used some of Stafford's money as well…without telling him. Destitute, Julie goes to Stafford and asks for money, offering herself in exchange. Here the movie becomes like the 1930 version of "The Cheat" (available on the Pre-Code Hollywood DVD set), with foul play, accidental shootings, and exonerations. Only in this movie no one gets branded.

This was the second of four on screen pairings for Colbert and March. The following year they reunited for DeMille's "Sign of the Cross" and, a month after that, for Mitchell Leisen's "Tonight Is Ours" (filmed in late '32 but released in January '33 – and ostensibly credited to director Stuart Walker, who according to all and sundry did nothing). I enjoy these two together, though apparently Colbert didn't; March was notorious for getting a bit too "familiar" with his leading ladies. Colbert reportedly disliked the man – there are stories of March wandering around "in a daze" on the set of "Sign of the Cross," he was so nuts about her.

Overall, a predictable melodrama that's most memorable for its (nowadays) jawdropping displays of sexual harassment in the workplace and the fact that it features three celebrities (Colbert, March, and a twenty one year-old Ginger Rogers) on the brink of their still-enduring fame. Dorothy Arzner's directorial work is okay, but nothing incredible -- the camera's static most times and, other than a solemn scene of Claudette walking up a hauntingly-lit staircase toward the end of the film, there aren't many novel shots. Arzner's work was much better in her subsequent film with March, "Merrily We Go To Hell" (also included on the Pre-Code Hollywood DVD set).

The Misleading Lady

A "Taming of the Shrew" -ish Pre-Code…COMEDY?
The 1932 obscurity Misleading Lady is designated as a "comedy," but I'm not sure that's a proper designation. Because really, this is one twisted film – even when taking into consideration the sordid world of Pre-Code cinema.

Claudette Colbert stars as Helen Steele, a glamorous socialite who's bored with her staid life of luxury. Claudette by the way looks bizarrely young here – if you've seen Lubitsch's 1931 film "The Smiling Lieutenant," she pretty much looks the same in this movie. Bobbed hair cut chin-length, her kohled eyes anime-sized, she appears almost waiflike; indeed it's hard to reckon her appearance in this movie with how she looked just a few months later in DeMille's "Sign of the Cross."

The plot's preschool simple: Helen Steele wants to be an actress, and in order to convince a theater director she's the right leading lady for his new play, she bets she can make the famous, Hemingway-type big game hunter Jack Craigen (Edmund Lowe) propose to her…in three days. (If I'd had the role of Craigen this film would've been five minutes long – "Yes, I WILL marry you!" The End.)

Helen plies Craigen with charm, Claudette really laying it on thick. Sulky, slinky, casting languorous looks, sprawling on divans and blowing thick puffs of cigarette smoke through her nostrils. Three days? More like three minutes and I'd be down on one knee.

But anyone can see where the plot's going: Helen gets her man with ease but guess what, she finds that she's developed feelings for him too. Craigen proposes and through a laborious, pre-audio tape method Helen records his proposal on vinyl as proof of her conquest. The record's inadvertently played however and Helen's ruse is discovered. Craigen storms off, Helen tries to apologize…

And here the movie gets really weird.

An enraged Craigen tosses Helen into an autogyro and flies her against her will to his cabin in the middle of the snow-swept woods. There he manhandles her, drags her around, berates her, forces her to disrobe due to her soaking clothes (a nonetheless erotic scene in which Claudette is stripped down to her undergarments while cloaked in Sternbergian shadow), and even pinions her to the ground with a steel chain girdled about her waist. Through it all Claudette screams, she shrieks, she sobs. You want very much to murder this Craigen, and you wonder once again why this movie is designated as a "comedy."

But it gets worse. A psychopath named Boney (Stuart Erwin) – an escaped mental patient who believes he's Napoleon – turns out to be hiding in Craigen's cabin. But before you think this movie's about to get even more twisted, it turns out Boney's one of those harmless, "slapstick" sort of psychopaths one only encounters in movies; Erwin attempts to lend the character a sort of Marx Brothers feel but fails miserably. I wonder if he's fully to be blamed. Stuart Walker directed this mess, and word is that despite (indeed perhaps due to) his theatrical background he had no competence in film directing; the majority of his films apparently were directed by assistants (ie Mitchell Leisen, who directed the Walker-credited films "Tonight is Ours" and "The Eagle and the Hawk," receiving only an "assistant" credit for his efforts).

And make no mistake – Misleading Lady is a mess. Like most other early talkies this movie is ALL OVER THE PLACE. The first twenty minutes are a delightful romantic comedy, nearly screwball – bored socialite Helen attempting to tame the Great White Hunter but inadvertently falling for her prey. Thirty minutes in the movie becomes a date rape fantasy from hell, with Helen now the screaming abductee of her onetime prey. And the final twenty are something else altogether, nothing but drawn-out "comedic" bits with psycho Boney blathering about Wellington and Waterloo. In fact Claudette actually disappears from the film for several minutes and the abduction angle is just forgotten.

Everything comes to a head when all of the main characters show up at the log cabin (despite that it's in the middle of the woods) and Helen and Craigen embrace, truly in love. Even though he kidnapped her, stripped her, chained her to the floor. Show this flick to Women's Lib groups and they'll go mad. And I can't say I'd blame them – this movie is just flat-out WRONG. The diverse parts don't hang together and the abduction-in-the-woods sequence is unforgivable; in today's day and age Craigen would be locked up and his public image ruined for life.

Claudette's super-cute throughout, displaying all of the traits which would rocket her to stardom in a few years – and which would sustain her throughout her six-decade career. She does both comedy and drama, trading quips and batting her big anime-girl eyes in the more romantic parts. And she really projects terror in the abduction sequence. This is likely the closest she ever got to appearing in a horror film, and Claudette pulls it all off – gnashing her teeth, whimpering in fear, screaming, crying so hard that she sobs. These scenes could've easily come off as histrionic but Claudette gives them the right touch, makes it all believable. You feel her terror. Which only strengthens my argument that this movie is not a comedy.

The World and the Flesh

Bolshevik Rape Fantasy
The twisted world of Pre-Code cinema, where anything went… Here's an obscure Miriam Hopkins film which has been neglected and forgotten. A sterling example of the "anything goes" attitude of early talkies, The World and the Flesh focuses on the Russian Revolution, lending the bloody proceedings a healthy dose of Paramount Glamour.

Miriam plays Maria, a member of the fading aristocratic set, on the run from the increasingly powerful communists. The film opens with the aristocrats hiding out on a freight train, smuggling themselves into one of the few remaining strongholds of the old empire. The communists are everywhere and will kill these aristocrats with pleasure; nerves are frayed and tension runs high. We soon learn that Maria has only recently come into this life of luxury; she was a famous dancer who started out from poverty, acquiring high-society patrons along the way. Now she's one of "them," a fertile prospect for the poverty-class-championing communists who instead associates herself with the rich.

The aristocrats find a safe haven and promptly resume their luxurious lifestyle, dining in high class, bejeweled, attended by servants. Enter Kylenko (George Bancroft) and his communist mini-navy. They storm the palace, smash up things, take everyone prisoner. Maria shows her stuff by refusing to acknowledge them; while the commies wreck the party, Maria insists that the aristocrats keep dancing as if nothing's amiss – and when they won't, she forces her partner to dance with her! One thing I love about classic cinema is how characters are defined in such economical ways – and Miriam Hopkins of course excels as a fiery, strong-willed type. You want to dance with her, despite the armed commies about.

The film continues on as a sort of tables-turned, then turned-again affair: first Maria and her aristocratic pals are the prisoners, then Kylenko and his commies are the prisoners, and etc. This allows director Cromwell to work up the suspense and also enables a lot of tension-filled, character-driven material. But this is also where trouble sets in. For Kylenko is the one who reveals that Maria was once part of the working class, that in truth she should be on the side of the communists…and that if she would give herself to him, he would set her free. So we have Maria trying to capitalize on this for the benefit of her fellow prisoners, going up to Kylenko's cabin to spend the night, under the pretense of suddenly being in love with him. And guess what happens?

Really, this movie's a sort of Bolshevik Rape Fantasy. Much like the Myrna Loy/Raymond Novarro Pre-Coder "The Barbarian," a movie in which "barbarian" Novarro abducted innocent white girl Myrna Loy, turning her into his own private sex toy…and she liked it. It's the same sort of thing here – for after a night of good lovin' Miriam's character falls head-over-heels for her erstwhile rapist. Indeed she's ready to cast aside her aristocratic life for him…this murdering, obnoxious, commie rapist. Truly, they don't make 'em like THIS anymore.

The late-developing romance sours the entire film. Miriam and Bancroft make for an unseemly pair, the bearlike Bancroft towering over the posh Miriam. This of course reinforces the image of Bancroft's Kylenko as a rough sailor sort, but it only serves to make the romantic stuff all the more ridiculous. And the ending…Maria carried off on Kylenko's stout arms, all smiles and tears of joy…are we supposed to NOT ask what happened to her aristocratic friends, with whom we saw her in every preceding sequence? Aristocratic friends which included women and children, all of whom had been placed on death row by the communists?

Production values are strong. Paramount's my favorite of the old studios and here they deliver their patented Continental charm. Russian cities are rebuilt in glorious artificiality; in the opening scenes we get a lot of tracking shots through city streets. John Cromwell directs with finesse, playing up the suspense and action. In fact this is a rare Pre-Code with genuine action scenes: lots of shootouts and fistfights. The soundtrack's not as silent as most early talkies, with a bit of a score playing at times. All in all, despite the bad taste the romantic angle leaves, this film deserves to be resuscitated – it would make a good candidate for the next "Pre-Code Hollywood" DVD collection.

The Antonio Treatment

Yet another lame HGTV attempt to be more like the TLC or Bravo networks...
For the past 6 years I've been a second-hand HGTV viewer. My wife's a devotee of the network so usually the TV's on the channel. Though I don't actively watch any of the shows I'm familiar with ALL of them. And over the years I've noticed how HGTV has tried very hard to become more like the networks TLC or Bravo -- "edgier" programming, more of a focus on hosts and personalities, and of course, forced drama to spare (I love it when they try to make it seem, via fancy editing, that David Bromstaad is mad about something. I seriously doubt that guy has been truly angry in years.)

Anyway, this Antonio Treatment is the absolute nadir of HGTV's image overhaul.

I caught the "sneak peak" (duly over-advertised by HGTV) on New Year's Day. I watched in mounting nausea with my wife -- who, I can happily report, also loathed this. And she claims to have liked this guy during the "Design Star" show!

It's like HGTV execs sat around and said, "You know, this Miami Ink show gets a lot of good ratings on TLC...let's do something like that, only with designers!" A bad idea both on paper and on video. But lo and behold, here swaggers Antonio with his tattooed assortment of "co-designers" with unimaginative names, each of them looking more like convicts than decorators. (Need I mention they're all also "musicians?" No, I've never run across any of their albums, either.)

Indeed, they prove so incompetent that one of them nearly cuts off his fingers in the premiere episode, throwing a massive mirror into a dumpster...without any sort of protection or planning or common sense. And despite the massive injury which ensues, Antonio and his tattooed "buds" show absolutely no compassion for the idiot; Antonio even jokes that he'll buy the poor fool a "prosthetic arm."

I have no idea what audience segment HGTV hopes to capture with this show. It falls completely outside of the rubric of their past programming. I mean, how many average HGTV viewers know who the bands Helmet or the Chelsea Girls are? In the premiere episode Antonio even casually mentioned HR Geiger -- again, do you think the average "Design on a Dime" viewer would say to herself, "Say, he means the twisted German artist who designed the creature from ALIEN!"?

HGTV has attempted to brand this guy as "the rebel of redesign" which is the most laughable marketing hyperbole I've come across in many a year. They also like to proclaim that "you've never seen anything like this before!" Well, maybe not -- as long as you've never watched anything on Bravo or TLC.

Arise, My Love

Claudette Colbert's favorite of her own films
Claudette Colbert stated that Ernst Lubitsch was "by far" her favorite director, but this film, directed by Mitchell Leisen, she stated to be her favorite movie. Released in 1940, it marked her fourth collaboration with Leisen (he'd co-directed without credit sequences of the 1932 Cecil B. DeMille production "Sign of the Cross," the movie which made Claudette a star), the man who directed her in more films than any other director.

One can see why Claudette liked this film the best: it gave her a meatier role than the parts she'd played over the preceding several years. Ever since 1934's "It Happened One Night" Claudette had mostly done comedy films. This isn't a complaint – the lady had better comedic timing than just about any other actress in Hollywood. But here in Arise My Love she was able to cover the gamut of her talent, from comedy to drama, something she hadn't gotten to do since the Pre-Code years (check out her 1933 "Torch Singer" for an example). Indeed it's this mixture of genres which seems to offset the critics of today. For Arise My Love answers the unasked question: "What if Casablanca had been done as a screwball comedy?"

Produced so in-the-moment that the script was rewritten daily to encompass the latest events, Arise My Love was released in 1940 and covers the hectic events of one year, starting in the summer of 1939. Claudette is Gusto Nash, a no-nonsense newspaper reporter who dreams of scoring big headlines. She frees Tom Martin (Ray Milland), a Nazi-hating pilot who's imprisoned on death row in Spain, part of the Liberty battalion of US soldiers who helped that country fight the encroaching Nazis (and lost). The first thirty minutes of this movie are 100% action, with escape via land and air. After this the film moves into screwball territory, with Tom hot for Gusto and Gusto trying to reign in her feelings; she wants to focus on her career. After this we move into drama; together at last, Gusto and Tom are soon separated, Gusto to cover the Nazi menace in various points of Europe, Tom battling the Germans in the Polish air force.

Everything hangs together despite the mixing of genres. If I had any complaints it would be that the film ends a bit too weakly, Claudette delivering a passionate soliloquy to a silent Milland. Doubtless this gung-ho speech was intended to stir patriotic fervor in the audience of the day, but now, decades after WWII, it seems a bit anticlimactic. Indeed, the opening thirty minutes of the film are more climatic than the ending. But there are a lot of enjoyable moments. Claudette and Milland have good chemistry and both get a chance to display comedic and dramatic skills.

The Sturges/Brackett script is up to the level of their previous Claudette productions ("Bluebeard's Eighth Wife" and "Midnight"), though, again, they don't get as much chance here to unleash their trademark comedy. Leisen's direction is good, too, as is the cinematography and production values. Claudette and Milland traipse about Europe in a variety of locales, from Paris to countryside inns deep in France; all of it done on a set, all of it featuring that Classic Film glamor.

Released well after the enforcement of the puritanical Code, Arise My Love still gets in a few surprises – first, there's a delightful scene where Gusto comes up to Tom's room to snap his photo for her article. Tom however thinks she's coming up for sex. This develops into a scene filled with hilarious misunderstanding, with Gusto arranging the setup and Tom becoming increasingly bewildered: "So where shall we do it? How about the chair?" "What?" "Right – too conventional." All of it like "Three's Company," but still very funny. Also, shortly after this scene Gusto and Tom talk in a restaurant; Tom's pretending he's waiting for a (nonexistent) Swedish girl, but really he just wants to be with Gusto (who thinks she's just getting material for her article). There's a moment where Tom asks Gusto to pick out some flowers – flowers he pretends to be buying for the Swedish girl but are really for her. As Tom purchases the flowers she picked out, Gusto looks at him with a dawning understanding that turns into a look of longing – and then, very abruptly, she puts her pen in her mouth. Dr. Freud calling!

Despite Claudette's preference for this film, it's never been officially released – not even on VHS. You'll need to scour the sordid world of online DVDR trading/sales to find yourself a copy, one which most likely will have been sourced from a cable TV broadcast.

Tonight Is Ours

Unjustly forgotten Colbert/March/Liesen film
Filmed two months after they paired in DeMille's "Sign of the Cross," Claudette Colbert and Fredric March are reunited in Tonight Is Ours -- here she's Nadya, self-exiled princess of a mythical European kingdom, and March is Sabien, a French national (I assume) who does...well, something. The movie's never very clear on who Sabien is and what he does for a living.

This was the directorial debut for Mitchell Liesen. He's credited with an "associate director" tag, but word is he did most of the chores. There's a visual resemblance between this film and "Sign of the Cross" -- no surprise, as Liesen personally directed sequences of that film as well (although he didn't receive credit for his work). This is a movie that revels in glamour.

The story begins with a "meet cute" between Sabien and Nadya: they run into each other at a costume ball, both of them masked, and quickly repair to the garden where they kiss. Only then do they take off their masks, only to discover that they each believed they were kissing someone else. But no matter, bells are ringing, and swept up with dawning love they spend a starcrossed night together, going from place to place -- a dance party, a bar, a jazz club -- all while still in costume. The costumes are a sight to behold: Colbert wears a sort of art deco clown getup, complete with a puffy collar and sequins which threaten to overwhelm the camera. She wears a domino mask to complete the ensemble. March wears a harlequin outfit, tight-fitting and emblazoned with a giant heart. He wears a black cowl which covers most of his face, leaving only his mouth and chin free, sort of like Batman. These costumes (and others glimpsed in the opening costume party scene) are the highlights of the film, but really a lot of work went into the garments throughout the movie.

The months pass and the two become inseparable, only -- and this is something the movie makes clear -- they don't "sully" their love by having sex. This ends up making the movie a giant tease; just as Sabien and Nadya yearn to consummate their love (Sabien especially!), so too do we viewers yearn to see them do so. But then destiny interferes: an official from Nadya's kingdom arrives to announce the death of her husband, killed by dissidents. Nadya is now queen. She must return home. But the couple is destined to meet again.

The movie's based on a play by Noel Coward, and much has been changed. Coward hated the film but I think it's fantastic. It only has two problems, as far as I'm concerned -- the subplot of the dissidents threatens to overpower the main plot, and their demands are too easily solved at the end of the film. Also, I had a hard time understanding their aims -- the dissidents Nadya meets with at the end are a wellspoken, peaceful lot, yet at the same time there are other dissidents sneaking around with guns -- guns they intend to kill Nadya with. And my other problem is that the second half of the film slows down somewhat -- the first half of this movie is 100% screwball, a year before the genre existed, with rapid-fire dialog, the main characters going from party to party, and nothing but glamour. The second half of the film becomes more of a palace politics sort of thing, with Nadya having long conversations with her administrator, her husband to be, and her mother-in-law to be.

But on the whole this is a great movie. March is good in this -- sometimes he comes off as too stiff (ie "Sign of the Cross"), other times he's incredibly dynamic ("Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"). Here he bridges the gap -- the guy could spin out lovey-dovey dialog better than any other actor in Hollywood, and he pours it on thick for Colbert. And as for Colbert herself -- my god, she is gorgeous in this film. Colbert was beautiful throughout her life, but I've always had a preference for "Early '30s Colbert," with her big eyes, apple cheeks, and bobbed chin-length hair. She is more beautiful in this film than in any other I've seen her in, save for "Sign of the Cross." In fact I might just prefer her here -- though her costumes aren't as revealing as those in "Cross" (and there are no milk baths in sight), she isn't relegated to wearing the stylized wigs she wore in that film.

Pre-Code naughtiness: Lots of dialog about sex -- when stating why she shouldn't be queen, Nadya basically admits to having slept around with several men. When Nadya relates to Sabien why she left her husband the king, we see it happen via flashback -- basically, the king insisted Nadya pretend to be a slave, so he could chase her around, whip her, and then take her. Early in the film Nadya wears a satin gown -- much like the one Clara Bow wore toward the end of "Call Her Savage," during her destruction of the hotel room -- and it's cut so low that Colbert's cleavage basically hangs out. And the Sabien/Nadya consummation scene is lensed as if Ernst Lubitsch was behind the camera -- Sabien turns off the light, and we see the door to the bedroom close behind them.

It's a shame this movie is so little known. A Claudette Colbert DVD boxset will be released in November 2009, and unfortunately this movie isn't included on it -- one can only hope that it's being saved for a forthcoming "Pre-Code Hollywood" DVD collection.

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