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1940's "North West Mounted Police" may have been Paramount's biggest box office success that year, but considering it as the first color film for director Cecil B. De Mille it must rank as one of his few failures. The Duck Lake massacre of 1885 led by Louis Riel (Francis McDonald) provides a solid backdrop for an abundance of poorly sketched characters unable to overcome the sluggish pace. The chief villain is Jacques Corbeau (George Bancroft), whose wildcat half breed daughter (Paulette Goddard) is in love with Mountie Ronnie Logan (Robert Preston). Gary Cooper toplines as the Texas Ranger sent north to bring Corbeau to justice, sparring with dedicated Sergeant Jim Brett (Preston Foster) over the lovely April Logan (Madeleine Carroll), sister of Ronnie. This makes it sound like a real snoozefest, and while it's not quite that bad it certainly isn't very captivating. Supporting players like George E. Stone are on and off in a flash, while poor Lon Chaney (previously seen in a silent role in De Mille's "Union Pacific") doesn't fare much better as Shorty, one of the trappers involved with Riel, who at least has a chance to exult in becoming a father. We last see him with his pretty young wife, properly scolding him before he meekly replies, "yes mama."
1937's "Slave Ship" looks today as gritty as it must have been shocking to audiences 80 years ago, a script concocted by several writers, including William Faulkner, who admitted that he merely doctored certain scenes that hadn't come off. George S. King's 1933 novel "The Last Slaver" was the basis for a story that remarkably pulled no punches in depicting the odyssey of the newly launched ship Wanderer, tasting blood on the runway as Lon Chaney delivers a stinging unbilled cameo as a doomed laborer unable to escape its path. Three years, and as many names later, the rechristened Albatross is now commanded by Jim Lovett (Warner Baxter) and first mate Jack Thompson (Wallace Beery), with cabin boy Swifty (Mickey Rooney) willing to fight anyone for what he believes in. The slave trade had fallen on hard times by 1860, officially a hanging offense, so after their most recent trip back from Africa, Lovett meets and marries young beauty Nancy Marlowe (Elizabeth Allan), deciding to start over with a new crew and sail to Jamaica in the business of trading goods instead of lives. This does not sit well with the crew, willing to continue their trafficking on human suffering despite the risks involved, forcibly taking control of the ship after a successful mutiny. Unable to prevent the six week voyage back to Africa, Lovett reveals all to his wife, who finds that she still loves him and is willing to forget about his past and work out their future. What they don't know is that Thompson plots to leave his captain behind while the fully loaded ship returns to America, only for the intended victim to turn the tables on his captors, producing a climax as rich in excitement as it is unpredictable. If not for the poorly done romantic scenes involving the little dog it might have been an enduring classic, but it's still a real find, quite unexpected for 1930s Hollywood. MGM's "Souls at Sea" may have earned all the accolades but Darryl Zanuck's pluck produced the better picture, under the assured guidance of director Tay Garnett, both John Ford and Howard Hawks proving unavailable. Beery actually plays the villain, George Sanders in support, Mickey Rooney the true standout.
1955's "Not As a Stranger" was producer Stanley Kramer's first of 15 films as a director, and he spent nearly a year getting it off the ground before it was even published as a novel, fortunately a best seller (author Morton Thompson dead well before its release). Robert Mitchum may at first seem an odd choice for Lucas Marsh, ambitious medical student turned country doctor, but he actually comes off better than Olivia de Havilland, a fine actress but miscast, saddled with a Swedish accent that tends to grate after a while. Cast with some of Hollywood's most notorious drunks, Kramer does surprisingly well in several cases: Broderick Crawford is steady as a rock as Dr. Aarons, Frank Sinatra solidifies his dramatic chops as Mitchum's intern buddy, and the often underused, always underrated Lon Chaney turns in the most powerful scene only 10 minutes in, playing Mitchum's alcoholic father, whose diagnosis of his own son proves to be right on the mark. A bit overlong, with Gloria Grahame in a stock seductress role that could have been excised without a hitch, the ending almost too pat to be believable.
1937's "Wife, Doctor and Nurse" is a supposed comedy which often forgets about the humor to focus squarely on the soap opera life of Park Avenue doctor Judd Lewis (Warner Baxter), recently wed to somewhat spoiled socialite Ina Heath (Loretta Young), who tries to put up with his frequent absences performing surgeries at the hospital. Matters are further complicated by the fact that his devoted nurse Steve (Virginia Bruce) has been unknowingly in love with her employer for years, only realizing it now that he has married another. Incredibly, both females decide to leave rather than risk being a 'frustrated woman,' the indecisive finale proving not only improbable but also objectionable for the censors of the day, forcing studio chief Darryl Zanuck to bow to their demands for numerous cuts. Today's audiences will find little meat on these tired bones, so it's up to the cast to keep everything afloat, Baxter and Young an unlikely pair, an age difference of 24 years, Virginia Bruce coming off better on less to work with. Few among the supporting cast have moments to shine, small roles for Jane Darwell (as the doctor's housekeeper), Sidney Blackmer (as a fellow surgeon), and Elisha Cook as an interne. It's particularly disappointing for Lon Chaney fans, during his two year sabbatical as a Fox contract player, billed on screen as the doctor's chauffeur Scott, but around 80 seconds screen time and little dialogue. Unbilled in 20 of his 32 titles for Fox, this part turns out to be just another bit for an actor still awaiting his big break two years away from "Of Mice and Men."
1937's "Angel's Holiday" helped cement Jane Withers' position as Fox's second biggest box office child star after Shirley Temple, which she held for two years. Jane's Angel is the daughter of famed mystery writer Waldo Everett (John Qualen), naturally involving herself in a real life puzzle involving movie star Pauline Kaye (Sally Blane), her disappearance a publicity stunt engineered by her manager, and racketeer Bat Regan (Harold Huber), who gets in on the action by tailing Angel. Not one of the star's better vehicles, though she does her impression of Martha Raye, then bamboozles the entire police force to free Pauline's cohort in mischief (Frank Jenks). Billed on screen as Regan's top henchman Eddie is Lon Chaney (entering at the 46 minute mark), still fairly new to 20th Century-Fox, his two year stint under contract yielding little in the way of featured roles; he appears in two further Jane Withers pictures in the coming months, "Wild and Woolly" and "Checkers," both an improvement on this one. One scene finds him cleaning his gat at the breakfast table, to which Bat Regan has a comment: "ain't you got any better etiquette than to be cleaning your rod at the table? Eddie's always in a bad mood before he has his breakfast, he's liable to pull a gun on himself!" Later on Chaney bullies Joan Davis: "hey, what do you think you are?" "what do I look like?" "you couldn't be that!"
"Miracle at Boot Hill" finds the Old Ranger (Stanley Andrews) introducing this story after mine owner John Woods is ambushed by his foreman Bill Groat (Peter Hansen), who covets both wealth and Woods' pretty young widow Ella (Penny Edwards). Storekeeper Herb Driscoll (Chris Warfield) fails to convince Sheriff Cosgrove (Robert G. Anderson) of his suspicions, since he himself has carried a torch for Ella Woods. Some time later, a mysterious stranger (John Carradine) arrives in town, claiming that he is an emissary of the Lord able to restore life to the dead, announcing that the occupants of Boot Hill shall soon return to their loved ones. One by one the townspeople secretly reveal their reasons for wanting the deceased to stay buried, but Driscoll appears to be the only one willing to see John Woods rise from his grave. This does not sit well with Groat's plans, as he plots to marry the widow and is determined to offer up a generous bribe to have his way. We're pretty much left in the dark as to the stranger's ability to actually perform the miracle he promises, but John Carradine's otherworldly presence and sonorous voice carries the outlandish plot with great conviction. This was actually a reunion between Carradine and Eddie Quillan, co-stars in the immortal John Ford classic "The Grapes of Wrath," the latter as Widower Mayberry, who has no desire to see his late wife reclaim the inheritance left to him. Interestingly, director Bud Townsend went on to helm cult titles like "Terror at Red Wolf Inn" and Cathy Lee Crosby's "Coach," with his 1966 feature "Nightmare in Wax" going out on a famous double bill with Carradine's "Blood of Dracula's Castle."
1937's "That I May Live" today survives in a 45 minute TV print shorn of 25 minutes, resulting in the loss of Lon Chaney's unbilled role as an engineer. The basic plot survives intact however, as convicted safecracker Dick Mannion (Robert Kent) falls in with the same gang that railroaded him for his earlier crime, joining up rather than be killed, only to be neatly framed yet again, this time for the murder of a bank guard. Disguising a monkey wrench as a gun fails to impress a strong willed waitress named Irene Howard (Rochelle Hudson), who intuits the stranger's compassion and soon has him on the path to success in partnership with a wandering peddler, Tex Shapiro (J. Edward Bromberg). Marriage and a baby finds the couple suddenly in danger once more, so Tex devises a plan to guarantee Dick's safety while Irene returns to her waitressing roots to entrap the gang that framed her husband before. There's no way of knowing just how much is missing from current prints, though much of it deals with the courtship of Irene and Dick. Lon Chaney fans can only hope that a complete version pops up someday, otherwise this one will be lumped in with other Fox titles that found him on the cutting room floor - "Love is News," "Born Reckless," and "Walking Down Broadway." Director Allan Dwan did work with Lon on "One Mile from Heaven," "Josette," and "Frontier Marshal," his opinion on this film summed up in a single word: "horrible."
1937's "Born Reckless" speeds along at a breathless 59 minutes, not cut down from 78 as one author asserts, this was the original running time, meaning a rush job in the editing department resulting in the absence of Lon Chaney's unbilled role as a garage mechanic. Second billed Brian Donlevy was in familiar territory, having played a G-man in disguise earlier that year in the equally fine "Midnight Taxi" - here, he's champion race car driver Bob 'Hurry' Cane, who blows all his winnings and takes a job with the Martin cab company, as Dad Martin (Harry Carey) is an old friend. This brings all sorts of risks since the Excelsior company run by Jim Barnes (Barton MacLane) is not on the level, taking out every rival who doesn't pay into his lethal protection racket, at $5 per cab. Top billing goes to Rochelle Hudson as Sybil Roberts, Barnes' chief moll with expensive tastes and questionable motives, seemingly taking a liking to the new driver in town, trying to steer him in Excelsior's direction. So assured is Donlevy that the actor didn't let two injured fingers on his left hand impair his performance, a painful film to make but the results are first rate (shooting title "Armored Taxi"). Natural funny men Eddie Dunn and Syd Saylor are uncharacteristically among the bad guys, while Lon Chaney would also find himself on the cutting room floor in Fox features like "Love is News," "That I May Live," and "Walking Down Broadway," a rather forgettable period preceding his sudden stardom in 1939's "Of Mice and Men."
1944's "Follow the Boys" was hardly the first entry in the studios' rush to provide wartime entertainment in the form of a musical revue featuring contract players going all out for victory. Universal didn't have the kind of stars that the majors had, so they resorted to borrowing George Raft and Vera Zorina to kick off the initial storyline, vaudeville hoofers lamenting its demise only to find new life in serving the armed forces by performing on a worldwide scale. W.C. Fields drops by to play out his ancient (circa 1903) pool routine, done earlier in 1915's "Pool Sharks" (his screen debut) and 1934's "Six of a Kind." Jeannette MacDonald reprises her greatest triumph, "Beyond the Blue Horizon," as do The Andrews Sisters (they sing a medley of their hits), while bandleaders Charlie Pivak, Freddie Slack, Ted Lewis ("is everybody happy?"), and Louis Jordan round out the musical portion. There is an amusing dog act that ends in breathless fashion, and Orson Welles indulging in one of his favorite pastimes, prestidigitation, with gorgeous Marlene Dietrich an assistant that any magician would literally die for (being sawed in half just about does it!). Around the half hour mark Raft addresses an assembly of actors making up most of Universal's stable, mostly silent and observing, some granted a line or two - Andy Devine, Lon Chaney, Randolph Scott, Evelyn Ankers, Alan Curtis, Turhan Bey, Nigel Bruce, Lois Collier, Peter Coe, Susanna Foster, Gloria Jean, Thomas Gomez, Elyse Knox, Maria Montez, Robert Paige, and Gale Sondergaard. For Lon Chaney fans, it's enough to see him sitting right behind Sophie Tucker, wearing the same mustache from his just completed "Calling Dr. Death," since a few months earlier he was definitely absent from Olsen and Johnson's "Crazy House" (this was the last time he was unbilled on screen).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
1937's "Second Honeymoon" reunites the stars of "Love is News," Tyrone Power and Loretta Young, this film coasting along at a slower pace than its predecessor, less amusing and quite predictable. Loretta, living in Miami with second husband Lyle Talbot, just happens to encounter former spouse Power (yeah, right!), and they immediately kiss before we learn that they USED to be married! From there surprises are few, as Talbot may be a good provider but is also prissy and businesslike, while the happy go lucky Tyrone, the very qualities responsible for his divorce, proves now to be irresistible to the undecided bride. There are some minor complications involving Marjorie Weaver, whose Kentucky working girl catches the eye of both husbands, winding up marrying Power's new valet Stuart Erwin. Among the unbilled reporters appearing in the final reel is Lon Chaney, getting some unintelligible dialogue and virtually nothing to do, one year into his forgettable two years as a Fox contract player, his role in the earlier "Love is News" excised from the film prior to release. Chaney did survive as another reporter in Power's "Thin Ice," opposite Sonja Henie, and plays a photographer in the upcoming "Alexander's Ragtime Band," with his future co-star John Carradine assuming the role of a taxi driver.
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