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The Firefly

No donkey was hurt in the making of this film.
Jeanette MacDonald plays a Mata Hari spy for the Spanish in reversing the overthrow of the Spanish Crown by Napoleonic forces. The Production Code of 1937 keeps her dalliances with French officers as innocent, but no doubt they were anything but. It's a playful and beautiful love story between the hardened Nina and the patriotic Andre, caught up in both sides of a senseless imperial war. I never understood why Alan Jones was rejected by the studios after his amazing, virile performance in this film. No doubt he didn't understand either. He switched studios, but fared no better and went on to pursue a successful singing career. The film is full of great dialogue and great singing. The Donkey Serenade is a masterpiece of singing, editing and musical direction. I'd love to know more about that gorgeous boy who played the piccolo.

My Place

An original tale about time and place
I was well and truly an adult (50+) when I first watched this series. Strange that an ongoing tale about 10-year-olds getting up to mischief over a 200-year period would move me so greatly. I became aware of the series because of a book I was editing. I was enthralled from the first episode. It has a unique perspective. Each episode covers the story of a ten-or-something year old child, who gets into trouble but learns their lesson. Each episode goes back ten years in time. So the adults in one episode often become the children in the next. At the heart of the series is a magnificent tree that the children play on or meet at. In some episodes, they see an Aboriginal girl in the tree, but she quickly fades. The series creates a vast history lesson that has been used in schools to teach Australian children about their past. All kinds of political issues are dealt with - multiculturalism, immigration, Aboriginal rights, the two World Wars, the rise of the labour movement, the convict legacy - but it also deals with personal family issues, tragedies and grief. The girl in the tree is the subject of the last episode. A mischievous Aboriginal child that assumes her way of life will go on forever. Not so. I shed tears for this. Of course, the series has lots of modern interpretations of the past, but the intentions are sincere.

Honey West: The Perfect Un-crime
Episode 20, Season 1

The great department store robbery
This is one of my favourite Honey West episodes. In the opening scenes, the duo follows a trail left by a mysterious client, with Sam of course openly reluctant. Not to bother. Honey is adamant that, despite the client's tendency for intrigue, he needs to be listened to. They then follow more trails leading them up a fire escape with nowhere else to go.

Suddenly, a hand reaches out and drags Sam backwards into a hotel room. It's hilarious, with much mayhem and feeling around in the dark, only to find when the lights go on, that Mr X is a strange little man, who as chief accountant with a major department store, has stolen a large sum of money. However, he's seen the error of his ways and wants Honey and Sam to help him put the money back.

This all happens before the opening credits. It's a delicious and creative scenario. Sam, of course, hates the idea, but Honey is putty in the strange but charming little man's hands. However, Sam, as we all know, is putty in Honey's hands.

Moral issues aside and long story short, the episode ends with a crazy, beautifully choreographed and typically Honey West fight scene in the department sports store with the real villains. It's bizarre, slapstick and crazy laugh-out-loud funny. Added to this, the episode gives Aunt Meg one of her few opportunities to shine as the third detective of Honey West and Co.

In case you haven't realised, I love this episode. But then, I love the whole Honey West series. It's hard for me to find fault with it. Yes, a few episodes are cringe-worthy, but this is definitely not one of them.

The Two Mrs. Carrolls

Enjoyable film, but lousy casting
This could have been a fantastic mystery melodrama, but it's hopelessly let down by the ridiculous casting. Humphrey Bogart is just plain silly as the psychopathic artist and Barbara Stanwyck is even more silly as the wide-eyed, sweet young thing who marries him. Their screen histories at that point were too stratospheric and their screen personas too hard-boiled to make this modest dramatic romance material at all believable.

It's basically a B film, and a very good one at that, but it would have worked much better with a cast of middle-range or second-tier actors. The standout performance is that of Anne Carter. In fact, she is the main reason to watch it. I'm a big fan of Alexis Smith, but she seems to be playing a caricature of her own ice-queen screen persona. She is also hopelessly miscast.

In the hands of a good B director, with a decent B budget and a strong but lesser-known cast, this might have been a sleeper hit or even a cult classic. Sadly, it's just an embarrassment.

Nor the Moon by Night

Good film. Wretched title.
The original British title, 'Nor the moon by night', proved a little too abstract for US distributors, so they came up with the hopelessly boring 'Elephant Gun'. Big mistake. Who seriously would want to see a film about an elephant gun?

The original title comes from a biblical psalm: 'The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is the shade on your right hand. The sun will not strike you by day nor the moon by night.' It doesn't have much to say about the film, but it's one of the best film titles ever, as is the title song.

The plot stands somewhere within the African Hollywood great white tradition - between King Solomon's Mines (redemption through plunder), African Queen (missionary cynicism) and Hatari (zoo capitalism). Of course, the plot centres on the love triangles and power struggles of the whites, with the inscrutable Africans forming a Greek chorus. Even so, it's a riveting drama that grips you from the start. A repressed correspondence bride (Lee) travels to Africa to marry her long-time pen pal (McGoohan), only to find that he is off on African business stuff and she has to deal with his sexy brother (Craig), who picks her up to deliver her to her destination. Along the way love and lust intervenes. Meanwhile, the pen-pal brother is busy falling for the daughter (Stirling) of local game-mafia hood and domestic abuser (Pohlmann).

All in all, it's a good yarn. Made too early to seek British amends for the plundering of African wildlife and resources, but at least the surrounds have become a major tourist destination.

The Return of Jack Slade

A Western with heart
I'm no fan of Westerns, but I've been a fan of John Ericson for a while, after seeing his moving performance in Rhapsody (1954). I tracked down this film without high expectations. Yet, from the opening credits and the haunting 'Yellow Rose of Texas' theme, I was hooked.

The opening scene in the Law Academy was quite shocking, especially in light of recent US school and college massacres (though he didn't shoot or kill anyone), but it set the scene for the story of a troubled young man seeking redemption.

Due to an accident of fate, Slade (Ericson) finds himself working as an undercover agent within the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang. Before seeing this film, I hadn't heard of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, the firm that hires Slade to go undercover. Founded in 1850, it became the major private law and order contracting firm for the US government. It did a lot of good work in the 19th century in tracking down the Jesse James gang, the Reno Gang and The Wild Bunch. However, from the 1890s and the rise of the labor movement, it became the US government's #1 violent strikebreaker. What a shame.

But back to Jack Slade. The film focuses on his commitment to his task and the relationships he meets along the way - the brief but doomed friendship he forms with alcoholic drifter, Johnny (Johnny Turner), falling in love with outlaw Texas Rose (Mari Blanchard, their love story so beautifully portrayed), his ultimate betrayal of outlaw mentor Billy Wilcox (Max Showalter) and the inevitable show-down with psychopathic bad guy, Harry Sutton (Neville Brand).

Made in the closing stages of the McCarthy era, it made passing reference to the connection between social deprivation and criminality. The outlaws are mostly portrayed as human beings, rejecting the society that rejected them. They sing folk songs around the camp fire and support each other.

The ending is uplifting, with the clichéd ride of the lovers into the sunset. However, he is a marked man and she is a wanted criminal. In real terms, their future is bleak. But, hey, it's a western. The good guys triumph, and he's well connected. The Pinkerton Agency will no doubt ensure he enters some 19th century version of the witness protection scheme.

Honey West

What an injustice!
Why this series was dropped after only one season is one of those mysteries of behind-the-scenes TV politics.

As well as providing reliably enjoyable entertainment, it gave us tight-knit plots, great dialogue, well-established character actors, lots of off-beat (albeit sometimes corny) humour, a sizzling onscreen chemistry between the leads and an overall innovative approach to television - in its editing and creative style, and its trailblazing female protagonist. On top of that, the lead actress, Anne Francis, scored a Golden Globe best actress award and one episode, The Gray Lady, a nomination.

So ... it was dropped after one season. Why? For heaven sake why?

Yeah, I've read some stuff about the network ratings blunder of showing it on a Friday night when most of its potential viewers would have been out for the evening and those that stayed in watched Gomer Pyle (no VCR or DVD in those days), and producer Aaron Spelling's comparative cost decision of importing The Avengers rather than going to a second season, even though ABC studios wanted to renew.

Whatever. At least we are left with a gorgeous, but sadly limited, TV feast of 30 episodes to look back on.

The Man I Love

Free spirit versus family duty
This a soap opera tour de force, which basically means it's a very good film about women.

One of the women (Lupino) is a free spirit, following her heart and soul to live the life she wants, even if it's not the life that is best for her. Her sister (King) is straight down the line, married and devoted to a man damaged by war, but still equally devoted to keeping her dysfunctional family intact. Their younger sister (Vickers) is masochistically devoted to a married man, a self-destructive pursuit that is annoyingly vindicated by film's end. A neighbor (Moran) seethes with non-fulfilment, a party girl straight-jacketed by marriage and responsibility.

The lives of these women are laid bare over the course of a Christmas- New Year period of celebration, ending in a curious mixture of tragedy and transcendence. Of course, being a 1940s film under the Production Code, the 'good' women get their just rewards, but the 'bad' women are punished with either death or sexual rejection.

Lupino's central character pushes the boundaries of 1940s film heroines. A cynical dame who fights tooth and claw, literally bashing up a man to prevent him from doing more self-destructive violence to himself and others. The man's intended victim (Alda) is left open- mouthed and seemingly repentant. Her actions are also protecting her brother (Douglas), an overall creep but, as with all the roles in the film, an ultimately sympathetic character.

Yet, she loses out in the love stakes. There is still a hope left in the end that the man she loves (Bennett) will come back to her. Maybe, maybe not. Whatever, she followed her heart and protected her family.


Sumptuous, melodramatic and thoroughly entertaining!
This was loosely based on the Henry Handel Richardson novel, 'Maurice Guest', which explored obsessive, destructive and unrequited love amid the backdrop of music students in Leipzig at the turn of the twentieth century. This film adaptation took huge liberties with the plot, played down or eliminated most of the characters, sanitized the sexuality and ditched the bleak ending (though happily so).

Enough has been said here about Elizabeth Taylor's breathtaking gorgeousness, the lushness of the classical music score and the brilliant instrumental simulations by Vittorio Gassman and John Ericson, but not enough about Charles Vidor's direction, which keeps the film on a thoroughly entertaining, albeit melodramatic, path.

The best part IMO is the last fifteen minutes or so, which takes a wrenching turn and builds the tension with a spectacular rendition of Rachmaninoff's Concerto 2 (by far the best version I've ever seen on screen). Ericson's performance here is amazing and almost runs away with the film.

Last but not least, leave cynicism aside and enjoy that hopelessly gorgeous ending!

Murder by Proxy

Best of the Hammer noirs
Although these dozen or so pre-horror Hammer noir films of the early 50s are largely forgotten, they are making something of a comeback through TCM and other vintage film outlets. Of these, 'Blackout' is definitely the best of them.

It's well acted and (despite complaints here about the convoluted plot) well written with plenty of humour. Obviously the producers had to struggle with a low budget that inevitably compromised its production values, but the film makes the most of what it had. Still, it's a treat for Dane Clark fans and those who can see an unrealised talent in Belinda Lee before dying far too young. Their on-screen chemistry is terrific and so are Clark's scenes with Eleanor Summerfield (one of my favourite British supporting actors).

One of 'Blackout's most interesting elements is that, unlike most film noirs, that usually involve male protagonists with a token femme fatale, the plot of 'Blackout' is mostly female-driven.

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