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Reviews

Teenage Rebel
(1956)

Mother-Daughter Drama
From a fairly successful Broadway drama, TEENAGE REBEL has been given, as everyone agrees, an absolutely terrible title. Our teenager, Betty Lou Keim, is not particularly rebellious, only suffering from the emotional baggage of her parents' divorce. As the story goes, her mother (Ginger Rogers) had left her father for another man (Michael Rennie) some eight years previously. Apparently embittered, the father had kept Keim completely away from Rogers by living with his daughter in Europe all that time, but he had now returned to the States to remarry and wanted some privacy for his honeymoon, thus had finally shipped the girl back to Rogers. Daughter Keim remains in the dark about all of this and is angry with her mother for leaving her when she was seven, for never seeing her since (not the mother's fault), and other than general feelings of abandonment is also suffering the pangs of loneliness, having lived too peripatetic a life in Europe to establish any roots there. The movie is mostly about Keim and Rogers breaking through these emotional barriers to re-establish a loving relationship.

In a relatively small role, Rennie was good as the understanding husband, Ginger for the most part was fine as the loving mother, but I found Keim too declamatory for film acting, not entirely her fault as the dialogue seemed clumsy from time to time (Ginger also fell into this declamatory trap occasionally). Keim had originated the role on stage where such acting is far more effective.

All in all, TEENAGE REBEL is an average to slightly above average movie.

And I must take special note of Ginger Rogers' physical appearance, positively stunning for a woman of 45. I don't believe that she'd looked that good in nearly a decade. It's a pity that her great film career was practically at its end.

In Person
(1935)

Out of sight, out of mind
Made between TOP HAT and FOLLOW THE FLEET, Ginger Rogers gives a performance far superior to the material of IN PERSON, a comedy/musical with a lame script and three fine songs composed by Oscar Levant and Dorothy Fields, two of them featuring sprightly dances from Ginger. Rogers plays a famous movie actress trying to recover from an attack of agoraphobia. Somehow she winds up at a cabin retreat with George Brent, himself more animated than usual, as he pretends not to know who she is, which apparently is meant to be some sort of a treatment for her mental problem. Most notable is Ginger's disguise, which features the inevitable glasses along with a dark wig and fake teeth. I, at least, found her quite unrecognizable thanks to those teeth, and Ginger does act like an entirely other person in posture and mannerism and even with a subtly different voice. It's a very fine performance.

Unfortunately there's nothing very funny about these scenes. Indeed, other characters treat her quite rudely, reacting to her looks as if she were the Elephant Man or something. Once up at the cabin the plot progresses like a mild I LOVE LUCY episode with the exception of the three musical interludes: 'A New Lease On Life' is a clever, light song accompanied by a clever, cute tap dance, one that might be easily compared with Astaire's 'Needle in a Haystack' routine from THE GAY DIVORCEE. Later Ginger sings 'Don't Mention Love To Me' in a 'movie within a movie' scene, not the sort of number that suited her voice. Finally we get 'Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind' complete with a full male chorus. This one is shot as a film being made on the RKO lot, and the movie will end in Ginger Roger's actual dressing room. The song, dance and setting are much more interesting than the plot twists, silly even by screwball standards and not nearly so funny as the good screwball efforts of the era.

IN PERSON turned a decent profit, probably due to Ginger Rogers' popularity more than anything. It was her first solo billing above the title, and if she wasn't already RKO's most popular star, she soon would be.

Oh, Men! Oh, Women!
(1957)

Oh My!
It's odd to say it about a film made by Nunnally Johnson, unquestionably one of the finest screenwriters in film history, but the script for OH MEN! OH WOMEN! desperately needed punching up from somebody like Neil Simon. As it stands, we have a psychiatric-based farce which isn't very funny. And when it tries for wisdom, it's considerably worse. Add in Johnson's typically static direction that emphasizes the staginess of the source material and you have a good long slog to get through even the film's relatively modest 90 minute running time. It would have been a disaster without its talented cast: David Niven, for the umpteenth time, gives us that unusual combination of stuffiness, befuddlement and charm that served him so well over his long career. Making his first film appearance, Tony Randall is already the Tony Randall that we would come to love, but in one of her last film appearances, Ginger Rogers is pretty much wasted as a bored wife. Playing her husband, Dan Daily does what he can with a fairly tedious character, and Barbara Rush is better than I expected, though she became more wearing as the movie went on. All in all, the film is an exceptional example of pure mediocrity.

As an aside, possibly the last person in Hollywood who would have actually seen a psychoanalyst in real life (she was a devout Christian Scientist) was Ginger Rogers, yet this was the third movie which saw Ginger's character on a shrink's couch: CAREFREE, LADY IN THE DARK, and OH MEN! OH WOMEN! Unfortunately, the movies deteriorated as the career moved on.

Magnificent Doll
(1946)

For the history you'll have to read a book
Dolly Madison's life as it was would seem to provide plenty of interesting material for a Hollywood Biopic, but the makers of MAGNIFICENT DOLL (script by Irving Stone, direction by Frank Borzage) apparently didn't think so. What we get of her life is dominated by a fictional love triangle between Aaron Burr (David Niven), Dolly (Ginger Rogers) and James Madison (Burgess Meredith). In reality, there's no reason to believe that Burr was any more than an acquaintance of Dolly Madison's. There is also little reason to believe that she was particularly unhappy in her first marriage. Her first husband and young child did, indeed, die of yellow fever, but there was another son who survived and grew up to become an alcoholic, a major embarrassment for Dolly and her second husband, James Madison. And she certainly had nothing to do with Aaron Burr's treason trial, or its aftermath! Indeed, nearly everything dramatized in MAGNIFICENT DOLL is nonsense while those events quickly passed over and accompanied by Dolly's voice-over narratives are generally accurate. One would have thought that there would be much of interest in Dolly's efforts as Thomas Jefferson's de facto First Lady, her accomplishments in whipping the new White House into shape, and her rescuing of the Declaration of Independence and Washington's portrait during the War of 1812, but Hollywood had other ideas.

Alas, the drama that they did give us is rather sluggish and not very dramatic at all. Being short himself and giving off an intelligent air, Burgess Meredith was a good choice as James Madison, in real life a brilliant and scholarly fellow lacking much in the way of social graces. Today we would call the 'Father of the Constitution' a nerd. Ginger Rogers may seem unlikely casting for a 'Founding Mother', but in fact she was a first cousin of no less than George Washington himself, and if Dolly Madison was anything she was one 'Vivacious Lady'. Indeed, it would have been better if Ginger had allowed much more of her own natural vivacity to shine through, but she appears to have approached the role of an American Heroine with too much reverence for the movie's good. She also had a tendency to rush through her lines, possibly noticing the inherent dullness of the many long speeches with which she was saddled.

MAGNIFICENT DOLL actually belongs to the character of Aaron Burr, played more or less as a Byronic Hero (which wouldn't be anachronistic) by David Niven, a rare descent into villainy for that fine actor. He gets the Satanic charm down pat, but I'm not sure that the character's eventual madness really became this normally droll thespian. Burr is a difficult historical character to pin down, and such an interpretation of him is perfectly defensible.

Though these are all marvelous actors and the history is ripe for storytelling, MAGNIFICENT DOLL is mediocre at best. It would be nice to see another shot taken at telling the story of Dolly Madison.

Beautiful Stranger
(1954)

Rather turgid noir
TWIST OF FATE is set on the French Riviera and could have been improved with color cinematography, but probably not by much. Its black and white images are not particularly striking and do little to enhance the film's Noir status. A businessman (Stanley Baker) is running a counterfeit operation not because he needs the money but simply because he's bored with big business. It doesn't seem very likely. He's also bored with his wife and is keeping a mistress (Ginger Rogers) in very high style. She, an ex-showgirl, is either naive enough or self-deceptive enough to think that he's going to divorce his wife to marry her. This would seem to be somewhat less unlikely. One of her old friends apparently has had a nervous breakdown and is in a hospital somewhere. This unseen woman's husband (Herbert Lom), a thoroughly lowdown weasel, coincidentally meets Rogers at a ritzy gambling casino despite the fact that he is broke. He also coincidentally is working indirectly as a part of Baker's counterfeiting ring. Baker eventually will mistake Lom for Rogers' lover. Lom may be mentally unbalanced himself right from the beginning of the movie; he certainly is by the end of it. When the necessity arises, Lom proves himself to be an excellent safe-cracker, which may be the most unlikely incident of the entire movie. If you're getting the idea that the plot of TWIST OF FATE is something less than airtight, you would be right. It would be rather churlish to suggest that the love affair between Ginger Rogers and Jacques Bergerac was unlikely given that they were married at the time. He was something like twenty years younger than she and moved on to another actress (Dorothy Malone, I think) after a few years. But movies, including this one, end long before that point is reached, and I suppose that it's just as well.

As for performances, Rogers had seen better days, and for that matter would see better days in the future not only on stage but even in her few remaining film roles. Here this normally lively and sparkling actress comes across as quite ordinary, and such a passive role as 'Johnnie' simply doesn't become her. Baker is rather stiff, and as for the performance of the handsome but difficult to understand Bergerac, I'll quote Ginger's character from the movie ROBERTA: "I've seen worse, darling, but not much."

By far the best thing in TWIST OF FATE is the performance of Herbert Lom. Despite the fact that his character is loaded down with absurdities and demonstrates no redeeming social values whatsoever, Lom makes him fascinating to watch in a 'How degraded can the poor fellow possibly be?' sort of manner. That and a snappy pace are the movie's two positive attributes. It's not a disaster, just a mediocrity.

Twenty Million Sweethearts
(1934)

Slightly different minor Warner Brothers' musical
TWENTY MILLION SWEETHEARTS has no Busby Berkeley production numbers, indeed, has no dancing at all, and replaces stalwart Ruby Keeler with Ginger Rogers, but mostly it's a typical second string musical from a studio that put out a million of them in the thirties. So far as plot is concerned, Pat O'Brien is the actual star, playing the sort of fast- talking hustler, this one a talent scout, that showed up in countless Warners' pictures of the decade. Besides O'Brien, Lee Tracy made a career out of them, and Jimmy Cagney in his lighter moments was another of the brotherhood. This time it's O'Brien pushing a new singing sensation towards a radio career. Dick Powell is the very passive object of his machinations, and other than having some unusually nice songs to sing (the big hit, I'll String Along With You, is beaten to death in the movie), this is the kind of role that left him deeply dissatisfied and led to his surprising turn to tough guy Noir parts later in his career.

House composers Warren and Dubin came up with a very nice score, and it is the picture's strong point. What there is of humor in TWENTY MILLION SWEETHEARTS is mostly provided by Allen Jenkins and Ginger Rogers, and one wishes that their roles had been considerably extended. A very nice duet (or was it a quintet?) between Powell and the Mills Brothers of a song sung rousingly by Rogers a few scenes earlier was another highlight. The plot contrivances, however, are anything but rousing and pull the movie down to the mediocre level.

One thing I didn't understand: Dick Powell wows everyone with a rendition of 'The Man On The Flying Trapeze' while working as a singing waiter, but when he performs the same number as a radio audition it's seen as embarrassingly awful by everyone who hears it. What happened?

A Night in a Dormitory
(1930)

From humble beginnings
NIGHT IN A DORMITORY is the earliest film we have of Ginger Rogers, surely the only reason it is of any interest today. Ginger was 18 when it was made and this probably gives us a good idea of what she was like on a vaudeville stage. She sings in the little girl Helen Kane/Betty Boop voice that was popular at the time, and is cute as all get out. Strangely, she doesn't dance at all. For that we have Thelma White doing a nice tap number, and a chorus that was somewhat less well rehearsed than Ginger and Fred would be a few years later. Actually, the chorus is nearly as disorganized as the plot, if you would call it a plot. DORMITORY begins with a group of girls singing and dancing their lamentations over the fact of being stuck in their eponymous dorm for the evening. Then one girl sneaks in and tells another one about the hot night she's just spent at a place called 'The Melody Club'. The rest of this musical short consists of flashbacks to various incidents that have happened at the Melody Club. Mostly we get a couple of comedians tossing back and forth lame jokes concerning skipping out on their bill, a song and dance by Thelma White and female chorus, and two songs by Ginger Rogers, one of them backed by a mixed dancing chorus. These songs are decent enough, though in this early talkie the camera is stuck in only one or two positions while filming them. Unfortunately, our chorus is pretty inept, though I thought that the choreographer came up with a few clever moves for them as they bounced up and down a few stairs, the camera cutting to a pretty neat side view of the action a couple of times. But really, the little girl from Fort Worth is notably outclassing everyone around her. She seemed a natural in front of a camera from the very beginning.

It Had to Be You
(1947)

A bit past its sell date
IT HAD TO BE YOU is an imaginative fantasy/comedy, but by 1947 the era of screwball was pretty much finished. Its comedy is real but forced, not least in the hyperactive performance given by Ginger Rogers, almost as if she didn't have confidence that the material could play without a serious push. But fantasy requires a lighter touch than it got from Rogers in this movie. Cornel Wilde's performance isn't exactly understated either, but it remains controlled and effective, and surprisingly, he seems to have had more of a flair for farce than he had for the adventure flicks that filled his career.

His George McKesson is certainly an unusual character. Something of a guardian angel for Ginger's Vicki, George appears not as a disembodied spirit but as a physical man, and in the image of her subconscious 'true love' who turns out to be a fireman, also played by Wilde. This is an angel who doesn't know exactly why he's been sent to earth (beyond helping Victoria, of course), and has to discover the secret right along with her. He isn't much of a help in this regard, merely serving as an embarrassment to her as he comes between Vicki and her latest false fiancée. Ultimately, George would seem to be more of a plot device than anything else, but that's fair enough, the movie has no pretension to being anything more than an amusement, and it amuses tolerably well.

Did Wilde ever have another chance to do comedy? If not, it's a pity. As for Ginger, IT HAD TO BE YOU is something of a milestone in her career. This is the last time she played a character noticeably younger than her actual age (a common occurrence up to this point. MONKEY BUSINESS is kinda, sorta an exception). 1948 would be the first year since 1928 in which she would not make any films at all (an unfortunate contract signed with a fledgling studio would be the cause of that delay). When she returned in THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY she played a mature wife, and it would be mature characters for the rest of her career. And it would be a different Hollywood. The Classic Period was already slipping away, and it slipped away a lot faster for its aging female figures, particularly those who weren't the type to play human grotesques. Maybe that's the reason she seemed so uncharacteristically frantic in IT HAD TO BE YOU. She sensed that time was beginning to run out. Happily, she would have a long and graceful denouement.

Tender Comrade
(1943)

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time
Actually, it all still sounds like a good idea. Group of women working in an armament factory while their men are overseas at war. Check. Women live together to split the rent, share camaraderie. Check. Subplots nearly write themselves: fidelity, infidelity, rationing, loneliness, etc. Have it done by a talented cast, a good director, a respected writer. What could go wrong?

Pretty much everything in my view. An overdose of sentimentality is the main culprit, beginning with the lachrymose musical score that insists on telegraphing to the audience the emotions it's to feel despite the fact that those emotions are painfully obvious in the first place. Blatantly symbolic shots of our main couple (Ginger Rogers and Robert Ryan) introduce flashbacks to cringe-worthy effect. Fantastic mountains are made out of molehills (a simple kindness by a butcher to five women, i.e., giving them an extra pound of bacon, is treated as if Benedict Arnold had just wandered onto the premises); (spoiler alert) no less than a 7 minute speech is given poor Ginger Rogers to lament the death of her husband. That she underplayed it with all her might made this ending at least tolerable, but still...

The cast is a strong one. Robert Ryan had little opportunity to play romantic leads, or good guys in general, and does so quite well in TENDER COMRADE. For whatever reasons, Ginger Rogers had better performances, indeed, almost inevitably gave better performances than she did here. She resorted to her usual habit of changing her voice to portray her character at a younger age, but this time it simply made the character seem shrill and emotionally immature, and these flashbacks must have taken place only 2 or 3 years earlier than the present so it didn't make much sense to change her voice like that. The rest of the cast, Kim Hunter, Ruth Hussey, Patricia Collinge, Mady Christians, are uniformly effective. The writing would seem to be the movie's primary problem. I agree with those who consider Dalton Trumbo's high reputation to be questionable. In Hollywood it's hard to say for sure since virtually all scripts are the products of committees (either multiple writers working together or serial drafts from different writers who often never meet), but generally I'd say of all of Trumbo's better contributions (KITTY FOYLE, ROMAN HOLIDAY, SPARTACUS, EXODUS) that the films' excellencies are not dominated by their scripts.

TENDER COMRADE is mostly remembered for political reasons. Mostly the Production Code of that era made any overt Communist propaganda impossible no matter how much it may have been desired by some (though the wartime alliance between the Soviets and Americans did lead to a couple of out-and-out propaganda flicks. THE NORTH STAR comes to mind). Trumbo, of course, joined the Communist Party around the time he wrote TENDER COMRADE, and by his own words he might as well have been a member the previous 10 years. Any pro-Communist sentiments in TC are so tenuous as to be indistinguishable for any but those really looking for them (someone like Ginger Rogers' mother rather than Ginger herself, I should guess). We might recall that Trumbo's noted pacifist novel 'JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN' was written while the Hitler/Stalin pact was in effect and Trumbo's efforts were in line with the Party's, i.e., keep the U.S. out of the war. As soon as Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, Trumbo miraculously transformed into a bloodthirsty interventionist, the Trumbo we see in TENDER COMRADE, to the extent that he informed on possible Isolationists to the FBI, bragging about his efforts in this regard in a letter he wrote to the FBI, reprinted in ADDITIONAL DIALOGUE. While Communism murdered approx. 100 million people (this is not counting war dead. See THE BLACK BOOK OF COMMUNISM for details), the difficulty that Trumbo and his ilk (exceptionally talented in covering up irrelevant details such as the intentional mass starvation of the Ukrainian people by the Soviet government) had in getting writing jobs in Hollywood for a decade or so is, of course, the major barbarity of the last century.

Oh, I should add that the short scene early in the film between Ginger Rogers and Jane Darwell was exceptionally touching, easily the best thing in TENDER COMRADE.

The Confession
(1964)

A guilty pleasure, or at least semi-pleasure
QUICK, LET'S GET MARRIED looks like the cheapest film Ginger Rogers had appeared in since, oh, THE THIRTEENTH GUEST or something like that. It was barely shown in theaters, and then only years after it was made (my guess is that Elliot Gould's later success got it whatever play it did have). A partial reason is that the film was confiscated in Jamaica (where it was shot) before it could be properly edited. Perhaps it might have been more coherent if completed under better circumstances, who knows? As things stand, it was an unmitigated disaster. Rogers said that she would never have made it if it hadn't been produced by her husband (William Marshall, the last of her marriages) and that it cost her the friendships of director William Dieterle, writer Allan Scott, and co- star Ray Milland (perhaps they were never paid?). At least, perhaps not knowing any better, Elliott Gould seems to have relatively fond memories of his first film role. So far as I know, no one else has ever talked about the experience.

It's probably my lousy taste, but I kinda like it.

QUICK, LET'S GET MARRIED is an odd combination of miracle play and Italian sex farce. A remarkably talented group of people were involved in making it, though for the most part they were near the ends of their careers or towards the beginnings. William Dieterle was a fine director (HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME among many other fine films), but he was called out of retirement to do this, and I can't say that I recall any other comedies in his oeuvre. Allan Scott, veteran writer of many a better Ginger Rogers film, authored the script. The cast includes superb veterans like Rogers, Milland and Cecil Kellaway mixed in with talented newcomers like Gould, Barbara Eden and Michael Ansara. Jamaica is a fresh setting for a movie in 1964, though little is made of it. This really should have been a decent flick.

The plot: A professional thief (Milland) buys a map for a hidden treasure in a town in Italy called Toleno. On something of a lark, he goes there to find the treasure. Besides gold and jewels, which he finds buried beneath a stature of St. Joseph, he is attracted to the madame of the town brothel (Ginger Rogers). One of her prostitutes (Barbara Eden) is pregnant and despairingly prays at the statue, threatening suicide. Hearing her from beneath St. Joseph, Milland speaks to her and his voice is taken as the miraculous voice of St. Joseph himself.

Writer Scott's point seems to be that the faith of the people change their lives for the better even if this is really no miracle at all. Bumbling mayor Ansara repents of his corruption (a very nice performance in an unusual role for Michael), the father of the child forgoes his wandering ways to be with Pia (Eden), even the thief and the madame seem to fall genuinely in love. At the end there is the suggestion of a true miracle by way of a convenient earthquake and a deaf-mute (Gould) speaking. Even our guilty couple, Milland and Rogers, are miraculously deprived of their ill-gotten gains, and they take their just desserts with admirably high spirits.

This is almost entirely played for comedy, and Scott gives some clever lines to Milland and Rogers, Ansara and his buddy the pawnbroker, and to tone-deaf bishop Kellaway. Barbara Eden is stuck playing it straight, but she does well in doing so. Some characterizations turn on a dime. Rogers' Madame Rinaldi is very mean towards Eden's Pia originally, but positively maternal towards her afterwards. Much the same can be said of the father of Pia's baby, rejecting her through the first half of the movie and then accepting her for no apparent reason. The film's post- production problems are likely responsible.

All in all, if you can forgive the inherent shoddiness of B-movies, you might enjoy QUICK, LET'S GET MARRIED. At least I did.

Harlow
(1965)

Which Harlow Bio Is Worse?
Hard to say, they're both pretty awful. If the Carol Lynley version ever had a chance, the bizarre filming technique of Electronovision ruined it before it had even begun. Used so they could shoot quickly (8 days!), it made the film look like a cheap television show shot on videotape. But with the script they used, it probably didn't matter much anyway.

I'm no expert on the personal life of Jean Harlow, but on screen she was a raucously brilliant comedienne who projected very overt sexuality, an unusual combination. Lynley's Harlow gives no indication of comedic ability, is petulant all the time, seems angry at the world for little reason, and yearns to be a serious actress. She's sexually frustrated, is broadly hinted to be frigid, and has no luck with men. Most of this has little to do with the real Jean Harlow, by all accounts a sweet, unassuming personality who seems to have been far from overwhelmed with sex and didn't take it all that seriously, wasn't especially ambitious, but did, indeed, have little luck with men. Her relationship with her mother (Ginger Rogers) is possibly accurate. Mama Jean was something less than a horror but did seem pushy and used her daughter to a degree. If one wants to get a real idea of Jean Harlow, better than these film biographies is a roman a clef that she made called 'BOMBSHELL', a very good self-referential comedy that has the added advantage of starring Harlow herself.

As for HARLOW, Carol Lynley seems woefully miscast (Carroll Baker seemed better cast and was a better actress, but it didn't help), while some of the supporting actors (Ginger Rogers, Hurd Hatfield, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Hermionne Baddely) do well under impossible circumstances. This was Ginger's last film role, though she worked steadily on stage for another 20 years. Seeing this great contemporary of Jean Harlow is the only reason I could give for watching HARLOW today.

Don't Bet on Love
(1933)

Don't bet on this movie
DON'T BET ON LOVE is a dull little morality tale warning against the evils of betting on horses. Lew Ayres has a steady job as a plumber, not to be sneezed at in 1933, a year which was still at the lowest depth of the Great Depression, yet he has a fondness for playing the ponies and, from what we see here, astounding luck in picking them. His father, Charles Grapewin, disapproves, and fiancée Ginger Rogers disapproves even more. Ginger won't marry him unless he quits gambling, something Lew promises to do, but he's not a very honest fellow in this movie and just can't help but follow any hot tip that he runs across. Ginger calls off the wedding, Lew runs through the ups and ultimate down of the gambling life, and everybody lives happily, if modestly, ever after.

The cast is better than the material even if our two leads are somewhat miscast (Tom Dugan as the comical 'best friend' perhaps fares best). Ayres had the manner neither of a plumber nor of a gambler (doctors and lawyers were more in his line), and Rogers is pretty much limited to nagging him throughout. The director moves his camera a lot but to little effect, and there's a general aura of cheapness to the production and flatness to the drama. Too bad as it's the only time that soon-to-be husband and wife Ayres and Rogers ever worked together, and they were capable of much, much more.

Broadway Bad
(1933)

Strong cast, weak story
A soap opera about chorus girls, Broadway BAD features a strong cast with star Joan Blondell, male lead Ricardo Cortez, and supporting actress Ginger Rogers, who was just about to hit the big-time. The opening shot is rather elaborate, and there's a very nice scene in a dressing room that centers on Joan and Ginger, but that's about it. The rest is a lachrymose story about mother love, not unusual for the times and not particularly well done. Blondell doesn't get to do much, if any, wisecracking, Cortez is not particularly sleazy for a change, and Rogers has only a small role as the best friend, though she's spirited as usual. 3/10.

Follow the Leader
(1930)

Not the old football coach
Ed Wynn was a popular comedian for many decades. He starred in FOLLOW THE LEADER and didn't have much of a film career. Ethel Merman, THE Broadway musical star of the century, made her film debut in FOLLOW THE LEADER and didn't have all that much of a film career, either. Ginger Rogers had one of her earliest film roles in FOLLOW THE LEADER and I'm tempted to say that if you looked good in something like FOLLOW THE LEADER you had it in you to become a film legend, but 'good' is stretching it even though Ginger probably came out the best of anyone involved in this turkey, mostly because she had so little to do. I'm afraid that I found FOLLOW THE LEADER completely unfunny and downright incoherent. It seemed that huge amounts of screen time were given over to a comedian named Lou Holtz, and these minutes were painful to behold. I wouldn't be surprised if FOLLOW THE LEADER was the worst film in the resumes of everyone involved.

The Sap from Syracuse
(1930)

Don't be disappointed
As I write, THE SAP FROM SYRACUSE has a 7.1 rating on IMDb, albeit from very few voters. It's not the worst movie you'll ever see, but it ain't that good, either. Jack Oakie plays his usual dumb lug with a huge grin and a heart of gold, Ginger Rogers is the heir to some kind of mine in Macedonia of all places, there's a crooked family retainer trying to cheat her out of her inheritance, Oakie is a construction worker mistaken for a great engineer whom Rogers believes can help her save her property, etc. It's a low budget comedy which I'd call more pleasant than funny, and it might serve as a not-too-painful distraction from a boring afternoon, but nothing more. Oakie is Oakie, Ginger in only her second or third feature film is all right, there isn't much else to say about it so I won't.

Honor Among Lovers
(1931)

Actors with a future
HONOR AMONG LOVERS was shot at Paramount's Astoria Studios in New York. This was a relatively primitive setup where low budget pictures were shot using the young talent so plentiful on the Broadway stage. The Marx Brothers first two films, THE COCONUTS and ANIMAL CRACKERS, were shot there, but I'm not sure there are any other Astoria efforts that are widely known today. In a few years the cast of HONOR AMONG LOVERS (Claudette Colbert, Frederic March, Ginger Rogers, Charles Ruggles) would have been an all star lineup, but in 1931 they were a collection of young actors (though Ruggles wasn't all that young) trying to get somewhere. HONOR AMONG LOVERS probably didn't help all that much.

Colbert is a super-efficient secretary whose boss (March) has the hots for her. Instead of the boss, she marries a weaselly stockbroker, leaving sexually harassing March to pine away for her while her husband gets into all kinds of trouble. Affairs end happily if not particularly plausibly.

Claudette plays a character who is pretty much perfect all the way through and never loses her temper no matter how badly the boss harasses her. March's character seems to learn his lesson somewhere along the way, remaining scrupulously faithful to his ideal love no matter how out of character that seems, and the actor is smoothly convincing both as a scoundrel and as a saint, not an easy accomplishment. Rogers and Ruggles have little to do but do it amusingly, Ginger playing a 'dumb blonde' (actually more of a dumb redhead) role for I believe the only time in her career. She's in the movie early, disappears through most of it, and pops up again near the end, the smallest role of her career. She would leave for Hollywood soon thereafter.

Directed by Dorothy Arzner, the only woman regularly working as a director in Hollywood at the time, HONOR AMONG LOVERS is a pretty bland picture, notable for historical reasons only.

Tight Spot
(1955)

Good cast, decent melodrama
TIGHT SPOT features an A-list cast, however none were A-list at the time, with Brian Keith about to rise to solid star status while Ginger Rogers and Edward G. Robinson were on the downhill side of heights that Keith would never approach. Which is not to say that anyone's abilities had seriously flagged. TIGHT SPOT remains a B-picture, but the performances elevate it to a strong 'B', and that's a lot better than some dreary high budget production. Is it a noir? Columbia likes to think so, and the Brian Keith character makes this a reasonable claim, but the movie centers around Ginger Rogers' Sheri Conley, and Sheri isn't a femme fatale, not by a long shot.

Ginger's performance is rather controversial. Sheri is an over-the-hill model who appears to have taken as her own role models the kinds of brassy dames common in the films of her adolescence and played by actresses such as Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell and...well, Ginger Rogers. It would be a natural thing for someone like Sheri to do, and it must be said that director Phil Karlson must have agreed with Rogers in this interpretation even if it didn't exactly fit into the typical noir milieu (near the end of her film career, Rogers certainly didn't have the power to overrule her directors in such matters of interpretation). She'd played a character in a similar situation in a polar opposite fashion in STORM WARNING only a few years earlier, tight and withdrawn rather than outgoing and wordy as here. I'll go so far as to say that you'll like TIGHT SPOT to the degree that you like Ginger's interpretation of her role. In any event, she provides energy to a film otherwise lacking in it.

Edward G. Robinson was one of the finest actors that the screen has ever seen, and he's letter perfect here even if he's somewhat wasted. Brian Keith is as solid as always, as is the rest of the cast, with special kudos for Lorne Greene in a small role as the heavy. Phil Karlson was generally a better director than his material (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL being his one real masterpiece), but he seems caught between a rock and a hard place here, either dissipating the claustrophobic atmosphere by opening it up too much or staying in that hotel room until tedium ensued (many scenes undeniably go on too long, with way too many words).

TIGHT SPOT is a decent film, and with two of the genuine greats of cinematic history in its cast, it's one that shouldn't be missed.

Black Widow
(1954)

Who's the Black Widow?
Immediate spoiler:

I suppose the 'Black Widow' of the title is Ginger Rogers' 'Lottie', who seems to have devoured the identity of husband Reginald Gardiner entirely. Not that there appears to have been much of a character in him to devour in the first place. Gardiner does a fine job of playing the kept husband, but surely he should have been younger rather than older than his ultimately insecure diva wife. That ironic turn in Lottie's bitchy character didn't seem particularly likely to me (what exactly was she supposed to have seen in him?), but Lottie as the 'Black Widow' gives us a clue to the mystery before the mystery even begins.

If those characters seemed unlikely, Van Heflin's producer seems incredible. What could have been in his mind to give a girl he barely knew the run of his apartment when he wasn't there? And how naive could a major Broadway producer be? The scene in which Heflin pushes around and threatens a girl in order to gain information from her is almost like a genuine noir character trying to break out, but Heflin was so nice before this scene and remained so nice afterwards that the sudden violence, limited as it was, appeared out of character. And Peggy Ann Garner's 'Purpose Girl' rarely gave me the impression of having any particular purpose. She seemed a bit scatterbrained and gave the impression of making up things as she went along.

BLACK WIDOW's main interest is probably as an experiment in making something like a film noir by way of CinemaScope and striking color. It doesn't really work but had to be tried. The width of the screen and technically necessary visual distances from the characters plays too much against the intensity required for effective noir. Rather than characterization and moral ambiguity we get set design and pseudo-stage blocking. Form and substance work too much at cross purposes.

The always solid Van Heflin is, uh, solid as the lead, Ginger Rogers is properly flamboyant as our femme fatale (though this sort of role doesn't really suit her), Gardiner may give the best performance of all while being the most miscast. Peggy Ann Garner was okay, though the movie would have been much improved had she been more than okay, while George Raft was wooden even by 'Dragnet' standards. The troubled Gene Tierney had little to do and sat on the couch most of the time while doing it. You get the impression that Nunnally Johnson or Daryl F. Zanuck or somebody was doing her a favor by casting her in such an undemanding role.

Truth to tell, BLACK WIDOW is much more of a whodunit than it is a film noir, and as such it's effective enough. The 'suicide' of Garner's character certainly caught me by surprise the first time I saw it, and the puzzle of what had happened retained a certain academic interest throughout. Looking at it for what it is, BLACK WIDOW is a decent movie; looking at it for what it is not (something directed by Hitchcock rather than Nunnally Johnson, say) is probably unfair.

Forever Female
(1953)

Should have been better
The topic of aging actresses seemed to be in the Hollywood air of the early fifties, perhaps because the great generation of thirties' actresses had reached middle-age by then, an age poisonous to their career arcs whether justifiably so or not. There are many parallels between the real life of Ginger Rogers and the character that she plays (Beatrice Page) in FOREVER FEMALE, a real Hollywood rather than a fictional Broadway female. Ginger was then in her early forties, had often played younger than she was but was at the point where that wasn't plausible anymore, had just married a considerably younger man (Jacques Bergerac), would retreat to her ranch in Oregon to rest and recuperate from the pressures of stardom, and had no intention of retiring from the acting profession even if she realized that things would be different for her in the future. The similarities could hardly have escaped her attention when she studied the script.

However, on a deeper emotional level she probably wasn't playing herself. As I recall it, Ginger played divas at least three times, in WEEKEND AT THE WALDORF, FOREVER FEMALE and BLACK WIDOW. They are variations based on a similar template, and she seems to have approached these characters from the outside, as if they were the products of her observations and mimicry abilities, which were considerable. The chorus girls and radio singers and shop girls of her earlier career she seemed to grasp from within; in any event, she seemed more suited to such roles. But like for Beatrice Page, those days were over for Ginger whether she wanted them to be or not. There's a sense of vague desperation to her performance here, and genuine emotional depth is only reached towards the end, a rather greater depth than the Epsteins provided in their writing, I think.

The script and the production of the film are marred by a lot of odd contradictions. Rogers intentionally plays Beatrice somewhat over- the-top, as is mandatory for any proper diva, but the hammiest performance by far comes from Patricia Crowley, who practically shouts her way through every line. Between her idiotic 'Siamese' this and 'Siamese' that, and her repeated silly name changes, she is, indeed, about as irritating a character as I have ever come across. Trying to sell that character as a great young actress was as impossible as trying to sell Patricia Crowley as Paramount's hottest new star. FOREVER FEMALE probably never had the 'oomph' to be a major success, but the publicity campaign that it received concentrating on Crowley's prowess surely served as a final nail in its coffin.

William Holden played the kind of naive doofus that he'd been saddled with for most of the 1940s, but after SUNSET BOULEVARD such roles seemed terribly inappropriate for him and I believe that he's miscast here. In fact, Holden was much closer in age to Ginger Rogers than he was to the much younger Patricia Crowley, so how is Ginger making a fool of herself in going after him while he winds up naturally paired to Pat? The casting works against the themes of the film. Paul Douglas, however, is rock solid as always.

I'm really being too hard on FOREVER FEMALE, wishing for what it might have been rather than appreciating it for what it is. The writers of CASABLANCA, a trio of leads with enormous accomplishments, an interesting subject which is handled with some wit, FOREVER FEMALE is a decent movie. It's just that it should have been a whole lot more than decent.

Dreamboat
(1952)

TV satire
DREAMBOAT is a pleasant and amusing satire on early television, but I can't help but believe that an opportunity for something more was missed by writer/director Claude Binyon, whose writing seems better than his sluggish direction. It also serves as a nice star vehicle for Clifton Webb who, to paraphrase the famous Cary Grant line, may always play the same character but he plays it beautifully.

Old movies really were a staple of many television stations in the old days and this plot isn't all that far-fetched. Other reviewers have described it so I won't repeat their efforts. Hollywood delighted in skewering its new rival, television, just as it had done with radio some twenty years before. DREAMBOAT's parodies of the contemporary commercials of its time (I especially liked the 'penetroleum' effort) as well as the extinct silent films from the twenties hit their marks nicely. Those sorts of things hadn't been done much by 1952 so you might describe DREAMBOAT as being mildly creative. When it wanders from its main plot it's sprightly and very funny, if not particularly deep. The idea that an old actor can claim privacy in an effort to squelch the showing of his old films, however, is quite unrealistic. And DREAMBOAT drags when it turns to its subplot about young lovers Anne Francis and Jeffrey Hunter.

This isn't the fault of the actors, however. Francis is especially appealing in her small role, and Hunter is handsome, which is about all he has a chance to be. The entire cast of DREAMBOAT is exceptionally strong for such a modest comedy and a better script and snappier direction might have gotten something very special out of them. Everyone is in fine form as it is, Webb being his usual acerbic self, Ginger Rogers appropriately over-the-top as the aging silent film star (she looked rather like the young Gloria Swanson in her dark wigs, and SUNSET BOULEVARD hadn't been that long ago), the fine comical actor Fred Clarke is his usual efficient self, and Elsa Lanchester as the sex-starved college dean steals every scene that she's in. DREAMBOAT isn't a cinematic masterpiece, but it provides a very pleasant 83 minutes for its audience.

Monkey Business
(1952)

In my opinion, this is a silly opinion
It's a matter of opinion, but you could say that Howard Hawks closed out the classic Screwball Comedy period with MONKEY BUSINESS the way that Orson Welles closed out the Film Noir movement with TOUCH OF EVIL. For Cary Grant, his research chemist in MONKEY BUSINESS is practically a continuation of his archaeologist in Hawks's earlier BRINGING UP BABY. There are also animals playing important roles in the plots of these films, but otherwise the movies are very different. MONKEY BUSINESS is something of a one joke fantasy (a chimp concocts a fountain of youth mixture), but this one joke is played out as an elaborate and building 'theme and variations' which is often inspired even if it does go on a bit too long. The film advances steadily, if that's not a contradiction, into ever crazier territory, beginning with an underplayed deadpan scene between absentminded scientist Grant and his patiently understanding wife Rogers and progressing into the crosscut surrealism of Grant's 'scalping' of his rival while leading a band of child 'Indians' while Rogers is mistaking an infant for her husband! It's not to everyone's taste, but catch it in the right mood and this is downright hilarious.

If Cary Grant wasn't the finest light comedian that film has ever produced, he was extremely close. He plays confused like no one else, and MONKEY BUSINESS is inconceivable without him. Ginger Rogers also was an expert hand at verbal wit as well as slapstick, and an old hand at comically playing younger than her actual age. She may have gone over-the-top in places, but she also provided many funny moments. Marilyn Monroe was expert at playing dumb blondes and thus is perfectly cast, and Charles Coburn is always a welcome face in a movie.

MONKEY BUSINESS was something of a disappointment at the box office, though not the utter disaster that BRINGING UP BABY had been, and perhaps for this reason Howard Hawks always expressed dissatisfaction with it. Never one to take the blame for inadequacies, he seems to have singled out Ginger Rogers as his 'whipping girl' for this one. Hawks had wanted the younger Ava Gardner to play Cary Grant's wife and Grant had vetoed it, not wanting to have love scenes with an actress young enough to be his daughter (a common occurrence in movies of the fifties, including Grant's movies). Casting the 41-year-old Rogers was Grant's suggestion, and though Hawks acquiesced, multiple sources tell us that he treated her coldly during the shoot. His claim that she dictated disastrous changes in the script is doubtful to say the least as Ginger Rogers in 1952 had no power to dictate anything to either Howard Hawks or to any film studio. In my opinion, Hawks was lucky to have her.

MONKEY BUSINESS isn't the best movie that any of its principals were involved with, but it remains entertaining 64 years after it was made. A fitting end for the great Screwball Era.

We're Not Married!
(1952)

Anthology comedy
Light as a feather anthology features a large cast and a premise that was old at the time (among others, Hitchcock had used it before and Dick Van Dyke would come up with the funniest version a decade later on his TV show). Due to a technicality, the marriages of five couples are invalid. Given a second chance, what will they do?

The first segment has Ginger Rogers and Fred Allen playing a bickering radio couple whose program is heavy on product placement, light on anything else. It was a version of a popular skit Allen had done on radio with Tallulah Bankhead and predictably proved to be quite funny.

Marilyn Monroe pops up in the second segment as a beauty contest hopeful. It has a clever twist at the end and a nice little performance from veteran character actor James Gleason.

Eve Arden and Paul Douglas are wasted as a bored couple who prove boring to watch.

Obvious is the segment featuring Zsa Zsa Gabor as a gold digger, but Louis Calhern gives a fine performance as her husband.

Finally, Eddie Bracken and Mitzi Gaynor go searching for a preacher in what is supposed to be the most touching segment, and which certainly isn't funny in any way.

All in all, pretty ordinary.

The Groom Wore Spurs
(1951)

Could have been better, never was going to be all that much
THE GROOM WORE SPURS is the sort of low budget comedy that Hollywood turned out by the hundreds during its classical era (approx. 1930-1960). They were mildly funny (if that), contained no hidden meanings, had the definite virtue of being short, and often lacked the fast-pacing that such material desperately needed. That sizes this movie up to a 'T'. It only stands out by virtue of its stars. Jack Carson was on the upper tier of actors often seen in such material, but Ginger Rogers flew far above that level. Presumably the offers were thin for her at that point and she was getting itchy to do something. It had been a long time since Ginger had performed in anything as cheap-looking as THE GROOM WORE SPURS.

Still, she's fine in it, if nothing special. Carson is his usual blustering self (am I the only one who thinks he was far better in his rare serious roles such as A STAR IS BORN or CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF than he was in his more usual comedies?). Their love affair is even more implausible than usual. The ending takes a turn which suggests that the filmmakers had no idea how to fill out the allotted 80 minutes of film time. Joan Davis is almost entirely wasted (though admittedly I'm not a big fan of hers). If you're in the mood for a mild and completely innocuous comedy, this might be a decent choice.

Addendum: Several people have suggested that the movie would be better with Lucille Ball in Ginger's role. It seems to me that Lucy spent 15 years making movies like this without elevating them into anything special.

Storm Warning
(1951)

Ginger Noir
Even when I first saw STORM WARNING as a teenager on a late night television broadcast long, long ago, I realized that Ginger Rogers, Doris Day and Ronald Reagan were very odd casting for a film about the Ku Klux Klan. Still, the movie worked for me then and it works for me now. As many have noted, this is no documentary on the Ku Klux Klan. It treats the Klan more as your typical crime syndicate, a subject that was coming into prominence at around this time (see THE PHENIX CITY STORY among many others). Take STORM WARNING for what it is rather than for something that it is not and you'll find plenty to admire about it.

Ginger Rogers plays a dress model, presumably modeling for some small garment district company, who's hitting the small town Southern circuit (we must deduce 'South' from the bus's itinerary on which Rogers is traveling. Otherwise the town could plausibly be anywhere in the Midwest, or even much of the West, though 1930 would be a more likely date for Klan domination of a city than was 1950). It's a modest position, and with a still marvelous body together with her rather worn face, Ginger very much looks the part. The first scene shows her kidding around a lot with her traveling companion. Such levity completely disappears once she witnesses the killing. It's a nice touch.

Ginger also looks very plausibly the older sister of Doris Day. The psycho-dynamic similarities with A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE are too striking to be missed. This must have been the influence of the stage production of STREETCAR as STORM WARNING seems to have completed filming before the film version of STREETCAR began (the 10 month difference between the films' premieres indicates this time-line). Indeed, besides the obvious similarities with STREETCAR: older sister coming to visit recently married and now pregnant sister; meeting her in a bowling alley; younger sister sexually enthralled with blue collar hubby to the point of blinding herself to his animalistic nature; elder sister's attempts to get her away from husband; husband's attempt to rape sister-in-law, etc., there are also similarities with Elia Kazan's later ON THE WATERFRONT: Siblings strive to protect one another rather than aiding the cause of justice, in both cases by covering up the guilt of a crime syndicate involved in a murder; similar criminal hearings feature absurdly lying witnesses and interrupt the narratives; protagonists receive brutal beatings during the melodramatic climaxes, and crime bosses scream at their underlings to hang together or they will all hang separately. I think it's pretty clear that Elia Kazan took a look at STORM WARNING and that the influences go both ways.

But be that as it may, we have here a Noir-tinged social drama notable for its generally sunny cast and extreme dark violence (was there a more explicit scene of its kind than the attempted rape in STORM WARNING between, say, 1934 and PSYCHO in 1960?). Stuart Heisler and Carl Guthrie were at the height of their directorial and photographic powers respectively when shooting STORM WARNING. Ginger Rogers' grim, emotionally buttoned-down portrayal of her character is perfect for the role and completely unlike her usual screen persona. Steve Cochran's pseudo-Stanley Kowalski is brutal and effective, and Doris Day is fine in what I believe was her first serious role. They give us a fine movie that should be much better known.

The Barkleys of Broadway
(1949)

8 out of 10
THE BARKLEYS OF Broadway has a script written by Comden and Green for Astaire and Judy Garland as a followup to EASTER PARADE. The script doesn't seem to have been much changed when Ginger Rogers came on board to replace Judy. Ginger, having signed a contract with a new studio (Enterprise Studios, which to the surprise of the industry wound up making very few movies before going bankrupt) hadn't done much of anything for about 2 years other than reading possible scripts, and was available. Most of the musical numbers would receive a radical makeover, though 'A Weekend in the Country' still seems very much like a stroll down the Yellow Brick Road.

At the ages of 38 and 50, Rogers and Astaire serve as the oldest couple that I know of to headline a musical comedy, and it was probably a good idea to make them an established married pair rather than to repeat the courting rituals of the usual (and the usual Astaire/Rogers) musical. Unfortunately, the musical numbers are not especially well-integrated into the plot. Oscar Levant's Tchaikovsky interlude, spectacular as the playing is in itself, does nothing but kill time as we wait for the emotional climax of 'They Can't Take That Away From Me'. Similarly, Astaire's solo with the dancing shoes is impressive, but it stops the plot cold immediately after a dramatic turning point, Dinah's walking out on Josh. These interludes, plus a generally pokey second half, stretch the proceedings out to an uncomfortable length. And there's no ultimate reward for it, as the great 'Let's Face The Music And Dance' had been for the overlong FOLLOW THE FLEET. And most of all, one must wonder at the idea of burying the first dance number beneath the opening credits! Decisions don't get any dumber than that.

Whatever the movie may have been like with Judy Garland, it is laden with the mystic chords of memory with Ginger Rogers as one of its stars. For some reason, somebody seems to have had ROBERTA on their minds. The best number in BARKLEYS, 'Bouncing the Blues', sees Fred and Ginger dressed in very similar costumes to those they wore in the great tap dance number 'Hard to Handle' from ROBERTA. Where the earlier number is graced by spontaneous ejaculations from Ginger and Fred, 'Bouncing the Blues' is burdened by forced (recorded) interjections from Fred, and it's no accident that such echoes are on the final sound track. Also, the romantic ballad 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes' dance ends with Fred taking Ginger's hand as they exit stage right to be met with her loving gaze as prelude to a comedic proposal and acceptance (she proposes, he accepts); in BARKLEYS, 'They Can't Take That Away From Me' ends exit stage left with Fred similarly taking Ginger's hand, but this time she turns her face down and away from him as prelude to rejecting his proposal to get back together. It's quite effective if you notice it, but I'm not sure that many will (John Mueller, author of ASTAIRE DANCING, thinks that the 'Highland Fling' number is a parody of the 'Night and Day' dance from THE GAY Divorcée. I've never been able to see that myself).

For good or ill, the movie centers around the character of Dinah Barkley. That's mostly good, though Ginger's turn as Sarah Bernhardt must be the low point of her entire career (especially odd for an actress who regularly underplayed her most emotional scenes). However, she received the best contemporary notices for the film, and would have been considered the most important actor in it by contemporary audiences. The script isn't especially sharp, and the musical score is the least of all the Astaire/Rogers films, though this says more about the extraordinary quality of the music from their RKO efforts than it does about THE BARKLEYS OF Broadway in particular (for example, the song 'You'd Be Hard To Replace' seems to me a lovely tune that is pretty much thrown away in the film). Still, it's always great to see the wondrous Astaire/Rogers pairing, and it's nice to have a chance to see them in color. It says everything about the quality of this series that I give BARKLEYS an 8 out of 10 rating though I consider it only the 8th best of the 10 films they made together. There's simply never been anything like them.

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