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The Long Goodbye (1973)
Quirky, Atmospheric, Unique Altman Spin to Chandler!
I admit, when I first viewed "The Long Goodbye", in 1973, I didn't like the film; the signature Altman touches (rambling storyline, cartoonish characters, dialog that fades in and out) seemed ill-suited to a hard-boiled detective movie, and Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe? No WAY! Bogie had been perfect, Dick Powell, nearly as good, but "M.A.S.H.'s" 'Trapper John'? Too ethnic, too 'hip', too 'Altman'! Well, seeing it again, nearly 34 years later, I now realize I was totally wrong! The film is brilliant, a carefully-crafted color Noir, with Gould truly remarkable as a man of morals in a period (the 1970s) lacking morality. Perhaps it isn't Raymond Chandler, but I don't think he'd have minded Altman's 'spin', at all! In the first sequence of the film, Marlowe's cat wakes him to be fed; out of cat food, the detective drives to an all-night grocery, only to discover the cat's favorite brand is out of stock, so he attempts to fool the cat, emptying another brand into an empty can of 'her' food. The cat isn't fooled by the deception, however, and runs away, for good...
A simple scene, one I thought was simply Altman quirkiness, in '73...but, in fact, it neatly foreshadows the major theme of the film: betrayal by a friend, and the price. As events unfold, Marlowe would uncover treachery, a multitude of lies, and self-serving, amoral characters attempting to 'fool' him...with his resolution decisive, abrupt, and totally unexpected! The casting is first-rate. Elliott Gould, Altman's only choice as Marlowe, actually works extremely well, BECAUSE he is against 'type'. Mumbling, bemused, a cigarette eternally between his lips, he gives the detective a blue-collar integrity that plays beautifully off the snobbish Malibu 'suspects'. And what an array of characters they are! From a grandiosely 'over-the-top' alcoholic writer (Sterling Hayden, in a role intended for Dan Blocker, who passed away, before filming began), to his sophisticated, long-suffering wife (Nina Van Pallandt), to a thuggish Jewish gangster attempting to be genteel (Mark Rydell), to a smug health guru (Henry Gibson), to Marlowe's cocky childhood buddy (Jim Bouton)...everyone has an agenda, and the detective must plow through all the deception, to uncover the truth.
There are a couple of notable cameos; Arnold Schwarzenegger, in only his second film, displays his massive physique, as a silent, mustached henchman; and David Carradine plays a philosophical cell mate, after Marlowe 'cracks wise' to the cops.
The film was a failure when released; Altman blamed poor marketing, with the studio promoting it as a 'traditional' detective flick, and audiences (including me) expecting a Bogart-like Marlowe. Time has, however, allowed the movie to succeed on it's own merits, and it is, today, considered a classic.
So please give the film a second look...You may discover a new favorite, in an old film!
A Good Year (2006)
Gentle Humor, the beauty of Provence, and Russell Crowe!
In a change-of-pace from the heavy dramatics and CGI-heavy spectacle that Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott offered up, in "Gladiator", the warmly romantic "A Good Year" shows a charm and humor that should make this film a favorite of fans of a good love story and the beauty of Provence, for years to come! Based on Peter Mayle's 2006 novel, which, in turn, was loosely based his 1993 work, "A Year in Provence", the film is reminiscent of Diane Lane's 1993 comedy/drama, "Under the Tuscan Sun", and also brings to mind the 1961 Rock Hudson/Gina Lollobrigida comedy, "Come September"; all three films offer romance, a glowing Mediterranean atmosphere, and characters as unconventional as they are, endearing.
Crowe is a high-power, unscrupulous but wickedly funny British investment broker, who inherits the French estate and vineyards of his late uncle (Albert Finney, who plays the endearing codger in flashbacks). Under investigation for a more-than-a-little-shady stock transaction, the trip to France gives the broker a chance to let things simmer down, while he unloads the property...but childhood memories, old friends, the arrival of an unknown, illegitimate heir, from America (Abbie Cornish), and a feisty, beautiful local French girl (Marion Cotillard) all conspire to force Crowe to rethink his priorities, as he falls under the spell of Provence.
While the film offers few real surprises, the characters are all likable, the dialog is crisp and witty, and there is a tangible magic in the glorious French landscape.
All-in-all, "A Good Year" makes a GREAT date movie, and may have you booking a trip to France!
Lust for Life (1956)
Brilliant, Yet Painful Classic Offers Douglas' Finest Performance...
"Lust for Life", Vincente Minnelli's rich interpretation of Irving Stone's Vincent Van Gogh bio-novel, is a film both compelling and repelling; in delving into the psyche of the artist (unforgettably portrayed by Kirk Douglas), one can see an untrained, unbridled genius smashing convention to open viewers' eyes to a world defined by passion; yet in doing so, we share in the growing nightmares and agony of his creative mind, teetering toward the madness that would destroy him, and it is an unsettling experience, to be sure!
This is a film so rich in visual imagery (with a Technicolor 'palette' that attempts to recreate Van Gogh's view of his world), that it demands repeated viewings, just to savor the details. From wheat fields 'aflame' in color, to night skies that nearly writhe in waves of darkness, the elemental nature of the artist's vision is spectacularly captured. And in experiencing the world through his eyes, the loving, yet uncomprehending concern of his brother (James Donald), and more hedonistic, shallow patronizing, and gradual disgust of fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn, in his Oscar-winning performance), become elemental 'barriers', as well. Van Gogh wants to 'speak', but no one can understand his 'language', not even the artist, himself!
Kirk Douglas never plunged as deeply into a portrayal as he did, in "Lust for Life", and the experience nearly crushed him, as he related in his autobiography, "Ragman's Son". His total immersion in the role SHOULD have won him an Oscar (Yul Brynner won, instead, for "The King and I"), and his bitterness and disappointment at the snub would haunt him, to this day. With the passage of time, his performance has only increased in luster and stature, and it certainly shows an actor at the top of his form!
"Lust for Life" is an unforgettable experience, not to be missed!
3 Godfathers (1948)
Ford 'Christmas' Western Showcases Wayne, 'Stock Company'...
"Three Godfathers", John Ford's second version of Peter B. Kyne's oft-filmed story of three outlaws finding redemption, has been hailed by some critics as an unsung Ford masterpiece; while I wouldn't go quite THAT far, it is an exceptional western, with Ford's 'Stock Company', headed by John Wayne, offering warmly sentimental performances.
The film was created as a 'tribute' to legendary actor Harry Carey, who had passed away in 1947, and had been young Ford's mentor, starring in his first version of the tale, "Marked Men", in 1919. This production would introduce Carey's son, Harry Jr., as likable young horse rustler, William Kearney ("They call me 'The Abilene Kid'"). Wayne took on the elder Carey's role ('Bob Hightower' in this version), the more pragmatic, but caring leader of the trio; and Mexican star/Ford regular Pedro Armendáriz completed the band, as sweet-natured, if wild-talking Pedro Roca Fuerte. The three are unrepentant outlaws, arriving in Welcome, Arizona to rob the bank, but it is quickly established that they are not 'bad' men...in fact, there are NO real villains in this film. Their antagonist, Sheriff Perley 'Buck' Sweet (Ward Bond), is introduced while gardening outside his home, and he and Hightower have a quite jovial conversation...until the trio discover what his occupation is! The bank robbery goes off without a hitch, but young Kearney is wounded during the getaway, and Sweet and his posse (including Ford regulars Hank Worden and Ben Johnson) are soon in pursuit.
To this point in the film, it could be said that this was a fairly standard tale; but the trio's convoluted escape through the Arizona desert leads them to a broken-down wagon at a destroyed waterhole, and a woman (Ford favorite Mildred Natwick), stranded, dying, and about to give birth. Pedro delivers the child, whom she names Robert William Pedro Hightower, entrusting the men, as the child's Godfathers, to take him to safety. She dies, and the three face a responsibility that will change their lives, forever...
Released by MGM (although filmed by Ford and Merian Cooper's Argosy Pictures, which explains why the film lacks the usual MGM 'gloss'), the production was ripe with entertaining 'back stories', the most famous involving barrel cacti, and Ford's legendary stubbornness. When Ford told his production team that the outlaws would survive by siphoning water from a barrel cactus, it was quickly pointed that the plants he selected were the wrong species, and wouldn't work. Ford loudly and colorfully disagreed...and, secretly, the night before shooting, liberally soaked all the cacti with so much water that when the cameras began rolling, the next morning, water flowed freely from the chunks cut out of them! There is a prophetic moment in the story; Pedro, his leg badly broken, is left with Hightower's pistol, which he uses to kill himself, rather than face a long, painful demise. Less than fifteen years later, Armendáriz, dying of cancer, would kill himself with a gun, rather than face the disease's ravages.
"Three Godfathers" is a western story of redemption, set at Christmas, making it an essential for the holidays. While it can't be called 'top-drawer' John Ford, even an 'average' film by the legendary director is better than 99% of Hollywood's product...and not to be missed!
First Television Version of Classic is Entertaining Retelling!
Thanks to the recent 'Special Edition' release of the 1947 classic "Miracle on 34th Street", this first 'remake' of the tale, included in the 'Special Features', is available for everyone to enjoy...and while it lacks the magic of the film, it is certainly entertaining in it's own right!
There were, surprisingly, five versions of the Valentine Davies Christmas story produced over 47 years, each offering a different emotional 'spin' to the question, "Could Santa Exist in a Materialistic World?". The 1955 version, aired as an episode of "The 20th Century-Fox Hour", was certainly the closest in 'look' to the original (utilizing footage from the film, to help offset a tiny budget, and offering Herbert Heyes, reprising his role as Mr. Gimbel), and benefits from a first-rate cast of major stars (Teresa Wright and MacDonald Carey, who had worked together in Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt", John Ford 'stock company' stars Thomas Mitchell and Dick Foran, Orson Welles' Mercury Theater alum Ray Collins, and veteran character actors Hans Conried and Whit Bissell). While 10-year-old Sandy Descher lacked the skeptical sweetness of Natalie Wood in the key role of young Susan, veteran director Robert Stevenson, juggling a large cast and short running time, kept things moving so quickly that her shortcomings were easily overlooked.
I'm a great fan of Oscar-winner Thomas Mitchell, and his portrayal of Kris Kringle is a gem, but he seems more a bearded leprechaun than Santa Claus, with a 'snap salute' greeting, and Irish mischief concealed behind those twinkling eyes! In a major divergence from the film, he actually DOES strike Sawyer (John Abbott), in front of a roomful of children, for attacking his claim of being Santa Claus (which, in the original, was a trumped-up charge to get Kris committed). Edmund Gwenn's portrayal was, and still is, the yardstick by which all "Santa Clauses" are measured...and, truthfully, no one else has ever come close.
The major problem in the 1955 production isn't in the casting, however; it is in the brevity. A magical story of renewing one's sense of wonder and innocence, of rediscovering love and why we need Santa Claus, requires time to unfold, and less than an hour simply isn't long enough! Despite all of the talent involved, this version never comes across as more than an 'abridged' copy of the original, and would be easily 'passed over' without it's classic ancestor's name attached to it. But it is still fun, and worth viewing!
Remington Steele (1982)
Wonderful Private Eye/Romantic Comedy, with Sparkling Brosnan Performance!
"Remington Steele" has become such a 'cult favorite' since it's 1982 debut that the show's many fans can recite episodes, plot lines, dialog, even the 'unrevealed' aspects of both Laura Holt and the mysterious Mr. Steele's past, and, amazingly, their futures, as well! For a show that some critics initially brushed off as a "Moonlighting" clone, the series has proved to be far more enduring, and beloved...with much of the credit going to the leads, beautiful and talented Stephanie Zimbalist, and the remarkable future 'James Bond', Pierce Brosnan. The premise of the show was clearly stated in the first season's opening credits; a brilliant young investigator, Laura Holt (Zimbalist), decides to start her own agency, but the era's chauvinistic attitude toward women prevents clients from hiring "a woman". So she invents a fictional 'boss', Remington Steele, brilliant, charismatic, but always busy on other cases, so potential clients would deal with his 'associate', Ms. Holt. The scheme works brilliantly, although, as the client list increased in stature, it became increasingly difficult to fend off their demands to meet Mr. Steele...and then HE appeared! A young, lean, enigmatic Irishman (Pierce Brosnan), initially involved in a smuggling operation (although on the "side of the Angels"), gets out of a difficult situation by declaring himself "Remington Steele", and quickly discovers the status (and available funds!) the 'Nom De Plume' gives him. Although Holt is initially furious at the pretender, an important client happily passes his business to 'Mr. Steele', and his physical 'presence', documented by the press, forces her to accept the mysterious stranger...on condition he NOT meddle in cases! Of course, the new Steele, whose passion is Classic Hollywood movies (as, indeed, Brosnan's was, as well), simply can't miss the chance to 'live out' the 'Film Noir Detective' lifestyle, creating a constant source of episode plot lines...and Holt and Steele would develop an increasingly romantic bond, as well, which would, eventually become a full-fledged romance. For many "Steele" fans, the first season's episodes are the most fun, with Brosnan less-than-competent as the master detective, Zimbalist displaying great comic timing in her reactions to his "successes", and James Read ("North and South", "Charmed"), providing a rugged sex appeal as her more dependable, skilled associate/'boyfriend'. But the Steele/Holt chemistry was so strong that Read would eventually be written out (as well as the two-dimensional secretary, Bernice Foxe, played by Janet DeMay), and a stronger character, motherly Mildred Krebs (the wonderful Doris Roberts), would be introduced as the new secretary/confidant, in the second season; her presence provided a stability that actually improved the show. So much has been written about the series, and so many legends surround it (the most famous being that NBC, on the verge of canceling the show after four seasons, upon hearing Brosnan had been chosen as the new James Bond in "The Living Daylights", quickly reprieved it for a season of 'made-for-TV' "Steele" movies, to take advantage of the publicity...costing Brosnan the 007 role, for a decade), that "Remington Steele" has achieved a fame that has far outlasted the series' five seasons. Certainly, the warmth and camaraderie of the cast and crew throughout the run made the production 'special' (unlike the frequently explosive atmosphere on the "Moonlighting" set), and there is ALWAYS talk of a 'reunion' show, reuniting Steele and Holt for a new adventure, even after a twenty-year 'retirement'! Not bad for a "Moonlighting" 'clone'!
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Best Version of the Classic, with a PERFECT Cast!!
Maureen O'Hara, the top-billed star of 1947's "Miracle on 34th Street", has proudly proclaimed that all three 'remakes' of this story were flops, which may sound a bit conceited...but she was absolutely right, the original IS the best!
Based on a story by Valentine Davies (who wondered how the real Santa Claus would react to the commercialization of Christmas), with an Oscar-winning screenplay by director George Seaton, the film is a triumph of perfect casting, perfect timing, and a sentimentality and humor that post-War America desperately needed. Contrary to general opinion, 20th Century Fox did not treat it as a 'minor' film (studio head Darryl F. Zanuck loved the story), but location shooting (at the first Macy's parade since the war began, as well as inside the store, during the Christmas 'rush') would push the budget to the limit.
O'Hara (unhappily yanked from a long-awaited return to her Ireland home), and popular Fox leading man John Payne were cast in the leads, but the real 'stars' of the film are Oscar-winning 71-year-old Edmund Gwenn (who is absolutely perfect as 'Kris Kringle', and convinced everyone on the project that he really WAS Santa Claus), and 8-year-old Natalie Wood (the most gifted of the post-War child stars), who brings young Susan brilliantly to life. Their scenes together are so sweet and irresistible that the film positively glows!
While elements of the story are 'dated' (the competition between Macy's and Gimbel's, the Postal information, etc.), it simply gives the 1947 version a 'timeless' quality that the 1994 version lacked...and in not attempting to incorporate 'magic' into the story (as the Attenborough production uncomfortably does), it actually seems MORE magical!
Several supporting players should be singled out; Thelma Ritter (in her screen debut), is wonderful as a frazzled mom; Gene Lockhart (the judge) and William ("I Love Lucy") Frawley (as the judge's campaign manager) are hilarious together; and Porter Hall, as the hiss-able 'psychologist', Sawyer, is a perfect foil for Gwenn. The entire cast is simply inspired!
While the film was, indeed, originally released in the summer of 1947 (to maximize profits), it is a bona fide Christmas 'Classic', and should be an essential part of your holiday collection!
The Lake House (2006)
Lovers Across Time in Entertaining Romance...
While the concept of lovers from different eras is hardly new (Bing Crosby's love of Arthurian-era Rhonda Fleming in "A Connecticut Yankee", Tyrone Power falling for Ann Blyth in Revolutionary War England in "I'll Never Forget You", and Christopher Reeve's bittersweet affair with Gilded Age beauty Jane Seymour in "Somewhere in Time", are just a few examples), the novelty of 'fated' lovers separated by two years, bonding through letters in a magical mailbox, gives "The Lake House" a unique poignancy all it's own.
Certainly, there are leaps of logic to contend with (Sandra Bullock could have easily have tracked down Keanu Reeves at any point, without protracting their rendezvous an additional two years, her relationship with her boyfriend is never resolved, nor is the fate of Jack, the dog, who simply disappears), but taken on it's own terms, the film is a very satisfying and romantic odyssey. Reeves and Bullock, who had a wonderful, goofy chemistry in "Speed", prove than they can handle a deeper, more mature screen relationship very well, with Reeves giving one of his best performances, and Bullock, whose career had stalled after "Miss Congeniality", proving again that she is underrated as a dramatic actress.
Based on the 2000 Korean film, "Il Mare", screenwriter David Auburn has given the production a 'Classic Hollywood' luster, with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman's "Notorious" playing on TV, and an ill-fated rendezvous reminiscent of "An Affair to Remember"; the presence of veteran star Christopher Plummer as Reeves' father enhances the 'feel'. While some may find this approach 'old-fashioned', Argentine director Alejandro Agresti recognized that a classic romance needed a classic approach, and, in my opinion, it succeeds quite well!
"The Lake House" certainly deserves a look!
Lucky Number Slevin (2006)
Style Over Substance, But an Entertaining Ride!
OK, so "Lucky Number Slevin" falls easily into the Tarantino/"Pulp Fiction" mold, from it's graphic violence and plot twists, to the off-beat humor and quirky characterizations. And it won't take long to guess what the big 'secret' is that holds everything together (although it is intriguing to see who fits where in the scheme of things). Saying all this, however, I really enjoyed "Slevin"!
A lot of the entertainment of the film comes from first-rate actors obviously enjoying themselves. Trapped in a case of mistaken identity, Josh Hartnett, sporting a broken nose and lack of wardrobe in the early part of the film, takes every mishap and disaster with such aplomb that it's easy to see why mob bosses Morgan Freeman and Sir Ben Kingsley look at him in stunned bewilderment (remember the gangster in the Marx Brothers' "Monkey Business" hiring the totally whacked-out Groucho and Company as shipboard bodyguards? Hartnett has that same "Are we on the same page?" attitude). Even more fun is the relationship between Hartnett and neighbor Lucy Lui (who has never been cuter or more energetic). When she walks into his 'borrowed' apartment, sees him naked, leaves, then pops back in, hoping to catch "the next show", you KNOW there is chemistry! And when was the last time you saw verbal sexual foreplay consisting of obscure James Bond trivia? That scene has such a Kevin Smith 'feel' to it that I looked for his name as a screenwriter!
Bruce Willis is also fun, as a very smug hit man (he seems nearly 'typed' as a hit man or cop, these days). Stanley Tucci, Danny Aiello, and "Forrest Gump's" Mykelti Williamson also shine (it was nice seeing Aiello and Williamson, who I haven't seen much of, of late).
Certainly, the ultimate 'pay-off' lacks the 'punch' of "Pulp Fiction", "Memento", or "Go", but it does reveal a compassion that is surprising, considering the body count!
Taken as a whole, Paul McGuigan's jaunt into 'Tarantino Land' is stylishly diverting!
Take the Lead (2006)
Clichéd Misfire, Redeemed, Somewhat, by Performances...
The life of Pierre Dulaine would, in itself, make a great movie or documentary; of mixed heritage, growing up in the Middle East, he discovered ballroom dancing as a teen in early '70s London, became a champion dancer, then emigrated to America, where he conceived the concept of teaching PS children dance, to build confidence and share in his passion, creating an urban program which has become a spectacular success.
Sadly, little of this reaches the screen, in "Take the Lead"; in it's place, you get a bored society dance instructor (Antonio Banderas), who, after seeing a car vandalized, decides to enlist his services at the local high school, where he turns detention into a makeshift dance studio for a stereotyped collection of misfits. Equal parts "Romeo and Juliet", "The Breakfast Club", and "Footloose", the film suffers from too predictable subplots, particularly of two black teens (Rob Brown and Yaya DaCosta), enemies after of a shared tragedy, who, naturally, fall in love. While Brown and DaCosta both give excellent performances, it takes precious time away from the dancing that provides the film it's magic. Equally distracting are the 'class distinction' jabs between the 'society' dance students, and intercity teens, and an attempt to meld classic pop 'standards' and 'modern' music, to create a new hybrid dance style, which immediately finds favor at a ballroom dance competition...a concept that was silly in the disco days of "Flashdance", and is even more ridiculous, today!
Frequently lost in all the 'baggage' is a restrained, yet charismatic portrayal of Dulaine by Antonio Banderas, and another of Alfre Woodard's tough-talking, 'heart of gold' School Principal roles; the chemistry between the pair is great fun, whenever they share the screen.
"Take the Lead" is, ultimately, an average film that misses an opportunity to be truly special; the kids, Dulaine, and dancing, itself, deserve far better!
Tarzan and the Huntress (1947)
Lackluster Tarzan Feature Marks Sheffield's Last 'Boy'...
TARZAN AND THE HUNTRESS suffers from a low budget and a ho-hum plot, although it is far less silly than the previous feature, TARZAN AND THE LEOPARD WOMAN; entrepreneur Tanya Rawlins (Patricia Morison), and her milquetoast lover (John Warburton), mount an expedition to capture animals to restock war-depleted zoos, a not unworthy goal...except they are primarily interested in making big money, which means depleting an area of a large part of it's wild animal population! The local 'lost city' ruler, King Farrod (Charles Trowbridge), showing remarkable farsightedness for the 1940s, limits them to one male and female of each species, which, although showing wise animal management, would not serve the money-hungry Rawlins, at all. Fortunately, she has a ruthless expedition 'boss' (Barton MacLane, making his second 'villainous' appearance in a Tarzan feature), and Farrod has a greedy nephew (Ted Hecht), so a scheme is hatched, to kill Farrod and his heir (Maurice Tauzin), and pay the new King a healthy kickback, in exchange for 'unlimited' hunting (an oft-used scheme of 'bad guys', which would continue to be popular, as recently as George Clooney's SYRIANA).
Of course, this being a Tarzan movie, our aging hero is friends with Farrod, and when the ruler is murdered, and the young prince disappears, Tarzan gets involved, which is BAD NEWS for Rawlins and her crew! The film utilizes more 'stock' animal footage than any of the other RKO/Weissmuller features, and unfortunately, it doesn't 'match up' well with the other footage, making the studio scenes look even cheesier; adding to this is a general listlessness in most of the performances, which hurts the overall movie. Even Cheeta seems bored!
The most interesting aspect of the film is Johnny Sheffield, who looks startlingly 'adult' in this, his last appearance as 'Boy'. That fact is not lost on screenwriters Jerry Gruskin and Rowland Leigh, who have Tarzan remark, on several occasions, how Boy is becoming "a man". After this feature, Boy would be off to "school in England" (and Sheffield would move on to his own series, as "Bomba, the Jungle Boy").
Weissmuller appears tired and a bit out-of-shape, although Brenda Joyce, as Jane, is as fetching as ever! The Tarzan series was obviously "winding down"; the next feature, the surreal TARZAN AND THE MERMAIDS, would mark the end of Weissmuller's reign as "King of the Jungle"...
Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946)
Beginning of Decline of Tarzan Series a Ho-Hum Adventure...
With the end of WWII, every Hollywood studio faced some major financial problems (a return of the high-priced talent, under contract and expecting to work, smaller audiences, as people had other ways to pass the time, increased production costs, government investigations into the industry), and for the smaller studios, the effect was most pronounced, as shooting budgets would be slashed on many features. TARZAN AND THE LEOPARD WOMAN marked the beginning of the decline of the RKO-Johnny Weissmuller films, with a BIG drop in quality from the previous year's TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS.
The film is a routine tale of a leopard cult which terrorizes the local African community, while attempting to thwart the government's plan to 'bring civilization' to another village, by capturing caravans and killing everyone, dressed in some REALLY cheesy, leopard-skin, clawed costumes! A dying survivor only has time to utter "leopards" before he expires, and while Tarzan quickly realizes this wasn't the work of animals (and HE would KNOW!), nobody believes him, and the cult turns loose an actual pack of leopards on the next caravan, to discredit him. Even Jane (Brenda Joyce, in her second outing in the role), thinks the Ape Man is getting a bit 'balmy', so Tarzan shrugs off his suspicions, and returns home to do some plumbing work on the tree house(??!!) Naturally, the cult, led by their 'plant' in the government, Nazi-like 'Dr. Lazar' (Edgar Barrier) and buxom, exotic high priestess, Lea (Acquanetta), worries about Tarzan again disrupting their 'Master Plan', so she sends her weaselly little brother (Tommy Cook) to spy on the Ape Man and his family.
Eventually, Tarzan DOES again get involved; he, Jane, and Boy are captured, and dragged into the cult's cave headquarters to be executed, so, of course, Cheeta has to save Tarzan (as always...) The Ape Man rescues the innocents, kills the baddies, and destroys the cult and their hideout...but, by this point, who really cares?
The film has little to offer, other than some silly, if unintentionally camp 'cult dances', the ever-reliable humor of Cheeta, and the novelty of seeing Boy (Johnny Sheffield) in the midst of puberty. Johnny Weissmuller, at 42, looked more 'middle-aged' than ever, and his once-graceful swimmer's physique had packed on some pounds!
The series was definitely on a downward slide, and things would only get worse...
Tarzan's Desert Mystery (1943)
Follow-Up to TARZAN TRIUMPHS; Ape Man vs. Nazis, Part 2!
Following the HUGE success of TARZAN TRIUMPHS, RKO released TARZAN'S DESERT MYSTERY, which again offered Nazi villains (Otto Kruger, who'd played a similar role in Hitchcock's SABOTEUR, a year earlier, and veteran screen baddie Joe Sawyer), an American girl magician (vivacious Nancy Kelly, who sings a mean "Boola Boola"), and a chance to combine Nazi duplicity with an 'Arabian'-themed adventure (which was popular escapism during the war years). Even a fantasy element was tossed in, as giant lizards and a mechanical spider 'passing' as 'prehistoric' appear in a 'lost jungle' climax.
The plot is simple; Jane (at this point serving as a military nurse in London), sends Tarzan a letter, asking him to send his jungle fever remedy. The ingredients are in a 'lost' jungle, across a vast desert, leading Tarzan, Boy, and Cheeta into the adventure...
Dated, certainly, but a very enjoyable RKO Tarzan entry!
Tarzan Triumphs (1943)
Weissmuller's Tarzan RKO debut; Less Pretentious, Great Fun!
While Tarzan was a popular moneymaker at MGM, with the outset of WWII, the studio felt Johnny Weissmuller was getting too old, Maureen O'Sullivan wanted out of the series, and the overseas market was lost, so the series was dropped...but RKO would prove the Ape Man had a LOT of life left in him!
Veteran producer Sol Lesser, 53, loved the character, and snapped up the rights for the studio, wisely keeping Weissmuller, 39, and 'Boy' Johnny Sheffield, now nearly 12, in their signature roles. O'Sullivan, no longer interested in 'Jane', was written out (caring for her ailing mother in London), and the elements that fans loved best (nearly superhuman heroics, comedy from chimp co-star, Cheetah, wild animal footage) were 'beefed up', dropping the romantic interludes, the large number of black 'extras', that provided authenticity (but were expensive for a smaller studio to maintain, for a single series), and, indeed, most of the 'glossiness' that marked the MGM entries. Even the signature Tarzan 'yell' had to be replaced (as the manufactured howl, part Weismuller, part studio magic), was the property of the studio; Weismuller created a 'new' one, that would become so popular that it would be kept, long after he finally retired from the role.
The first RKO entry was perhaps the best of their series; TARZAN TRIUMPHS brought the Nazis into the jungle to tap the mineral resources of a 'lost' city, eventually kidnapping Boy, and leading the previously isolationist Ape Man to utter the famous tag line, "Now Tarzan make war!" With lovely Frances Gifford as a native princess, providing sex appeal (and a really weird scene of Boy trying to 'hook up' the princess and lonely Ape Man, to enlist his help against the Nazis), and Sig Ruman, who went from Marx Brothers' foil to one of Hollywood's busiest 'Nazis', as one of the villains, the action adventure is very entertaining (if extremely violent...Tarzan actually encourages the locals to grab a gun and kill, Boy shoots one Nazi soldier with a pistol, and even CHEETA machine guns one!), and the film was a huge hit for the studio.
Tarzan, at a new home, was back in the 'swing' of things!
Tarzan and the Amazons (1945)
Brenda Joyce's Debut as Jane in Top-Notch RKO Entry...
TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS is closest in 'style' to the earlier MGM/Johnny Weissmuller 'Tarzan' films (offering a crocodile fight, a 'classic' safari with many more black extras than in any other RKO 'Tarzan' feature of the era, far above-average production values), and is most famous for introducing American Brenda Joyce as the new 'Jane', back from the war. Joyce, 33, blond and wholesomely beautiful, lacked Maureen O'Sullivan's intellectual 'spin' to the role, but worked well with the 41-year-old Weissmuller, while providing a mother figure for 'Boy' Johnny Sheffield that the predominately 'kid' audience could relate to.
With a cast of terrific character actors (including Henry Stephenson, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Barton MacLane), and a plot involving a 'lost' city of women (guaranteed to arouse male hormones), the end result is one of the best-remembered RKO entries, and great fun to watch!
Donovan's Reef (1963)
Last Ford/Wayne Teaming a Lighthearted, Brawling Comedy...
What do you do when you're a workaholic 68-year-old director, and your doctor orders you to take a vacation? Well, if you are John Ford, you grab John Wayne and your 'Stock Company' of actors, jaunt off to Kauai, the "Flower Isle" of Hawaii, and make "Donovan's Reef", a old-fashioned, brawling comedy! While the film was certainly not 'top-drawer' for either the director or star, it is a pleasant diversion, and would mark the final 'film' teaming of the legendary pair.
"Donovan's Reef", equal parts "South Pacific", "Hawaii", "What Price Glory?", and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", was already 'nostalgic', by the time it was made, as so many actors who would have been Ford 'naturals' in key roles had passed away, or were too old to play the characters believably. Thus you have Lee Marvin instead of Victor McLaglen, Jack Warden in a 'Ward Bond' role, and Elizabeth Allen in a part 'tailor-made' for a younger Maureen O'Hara. Even Wayne, himself, at 56, seems a bit 'long-in-the-tooth' for the physical demands of his role (challenging the 32-year-old Allen in a swimming race?), as well as the romance (a fact that even the Duke would agree with; this would mark the last time he would play a romantic lead, 'winning' an actress so much younger). Also, knowing that in less than two years Wayne would lose a lung to cancer, one winces at the number of cigarettes he lights up, throughout the film. "Donovan's Reef" was certainly geared to an earlier time and sensibility.
All this being said, if you can leave 21st century wisdom about tobacco and alcohol abuse "at the door", the film is a treat, with postcard images of Hawaii, Lee Marvin, an 'over-the-top' joy as Wayne's drunken buddy/adversary (tuning up for his Oscar-winning role in "Cat Ballou"), hilarious support from Cesar Romero as the lecherous Governor/General, and Dorothy Lamour (who'd starred in Ford's classic South Seas adventure, "The Hurricane"), as a husband-hungry chanteuse, and, in memorable bit roles, Duke's son, Patrick, Edgar Buchanan, Dick Foran, and Mike Mazurki.
I truly wish there WERE a "Donovan's Reef" in our world...it's the kind of place where I'd want to live!
The Stepford Wives (2004)
Timely Theme, Mishandled and Manhandled!
Ira Levin's cautionary novel, "The Stepford Wives", was a fascinating fable of the ultimate male backlash to feminism; in 1975, director Bryan Forbes turned the novel into a chilling variation of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", as innocent wives are substituted by zombie-like robots, their husbands bonding in a smugly evil male cult. Unsettling and ambiguous, the fate of the actual women is left to the viewer's imagination, making it far more frightening than a pat resolution would have been.
This concept was apparently lost on Paramount, DreamWorks, and Frank Oz, who wavered between camp and black comedy heavy-handedness, in this 2004 remake. Scripted by Paul Rudnick, the women are no longer normal, sympathetic wives, but high-powered execs, with apparent agendas against men, and husbands little more than doorstops. Their fate, to become blond-haired sex-slave bimbos locked in 'June Cleever' mode, while their idiot spouses adjust their breast sizes by remote control, and swap the wives for favors, demeans both men and women, and even offers an out-of-place jab at homosexuals, as a funny gay spouse is turned into a right-wing religious zealot politician (how an openly gay couple would ever be even allowed in this community is ignored).
While spoofing the earlier film isn't, in itself, a bad idea, no one involved in this project apparently had a clear vision of what they were aiming at, so continuity and logic are sadly missing. As other critics have rightly noted, the status of the wives waivers between being robots and being micro-chipped and brainwashed humans, making the Nicole Kidman 'template' body, and finale 'revelation' of community leader Christopher Walken's actual status as ridiculous as an ATM-spewing wife, and remote controls to adjust emotional responses and breast sizes, labeled, conveniently, with each wife's name. All the pretty, golden-hued settings, and Matthew Broderick's emergence as a 'good guy with a heart' who saves the day can't compensate for the quagmire of a plot.
The real shame of it all is that the potential for a good film hovers over the proceedings, just out of reach, and some really fine performances are all for naught. Glenn Close gives a strangely sympathetic twist to the film's villain, Walken is the most engaging (and youthful) he's been in years, Bette Midler and Roger Bart are both hilarious, Jon Lovitz is at his silly best, and Nicole Kidman again proves herself more than adept at comedy, and portraying American women. Matthew Broderick seems to be making a career of playing milquetoast males (Ferris Bueller, where are you?), and for 'eye and ear candy', nothing can quite match Country music sex symbol Faith Hill's orgasmic moans, and cup-size changes. All this, lost in a truly misguided film.
What a waste!
Bride by Mistake (1944)
Sweet-Natured Chestnut of Rich Girl's Search for Love...
"Bride by Mistake", while having the pedigree of a story by Norman Krasna, and an updated (to wartime) screenplay by Henry and Phoebe Ephron, is ultimately light-hearted romantic fluff, a 'B' feature that wartime audiences loved, but seems quaint and dated, today. This isn't a put-down of the film; I enjoyed it, and star Laraine Day has a timeless, fresh-scrubbed beauty that can still win hearts, in our more jaded times, but don't expect it to be released on DVD anytime in the near future...
The story is an oft-told one; rich girl, not wanting to marry a 'gold-digger', has her friend/secretary pose as her, and looks for someone to 'fall' for her as an 'average' girl, instead of a wealthy one (of course, when the girl is Day, 'average' just doesn't really apply!) She almost immediately meets handsome AAF Captain Anthony Travis (Aussie actor Alan Marshal, working hard to affect an American accent), who is attracted to her...but she decides to test his affection, by thrusting him at the bogus rich girl, again and again...until, surprise, he finally proposes to the 'rich' one!
This being a comedy, things DO work out, and Day and Marshal head for a motel (after MARRYING, of course!)
The film features a terrific supporting cast, including ageless Edgar Buchanan as Day's guardian, beautiful Marsha Hunt (who never achieved major stardom, but SHOULD have) as her secretary, ever-reliable Allyn Joslyn, hilarious as the mid-western Mideast linguist secretly married to the secretary, and especially Slim Summerville, in a small but memorable role of the caretaker observing all the monkey business.
Not a 'classic', but enjoyable on it's own terms, "Bride by Mistake" is a happy little time-passer...
Blind Horizon (2003)
Nifty Little Thriller, Better Than You'd Think!
"Blind Horizon", an amnesia action/mystery with some 'big name' stars, went straight to DVD without ever being theatrically released, so many have 'written it off' as a lousy film; but if you give it a chance, this is actually a very entertaining little gem! Directed by Michael Haussman, the distributor, Lion's Gate, dissatisfied with the rambling 'director's cut', brought in ace film editor Alain Jakubowicz to punch up the film, and his re-cut gives the movie an edgy, fast-paced 'look', reminiscent of Christopher Nolan's "Memento", especially in the central portrayal of Val Kilmer's "Frank Kavanaugh". A likable 'lost soul', shot and left to die in the desert, who knows vague details of a plot to assassinate the President, he gradually discovers he is not a 'nice' person, and is, in fact, a key player in the high-level conspiracy. But as with Harrison Ford, in "Regarding Henry", his amnesia offers him an opportunity to 'change' his whole persona...if he can survive the attempts to silence him, and conquer his own instincts as a 'hit man'.
Blessed with a first-rate cast, "Blind Horizon" offers many intriguing supporting portrayals, from a likable local sheriff (Sam Shepard), and his politically ambitious deputy (Noble Willingham), to the mysterious 'fiance' (Neve Campbell) Kavanaugh can't seem to remember, and the beautiful nurse (Amy Smart), he'd LIKE to know better, to a mysterious 'contact' (Faye Dunaway), who drifts in and out of his dreams, with missing pieces of the puzzle. Kilmer is, as always, eminently watchable, capturing both the innocent and unsavory sides of Kavanaugh very effectively, and making his climactic actions worth waiting for.
Of special note is the film score, written by the collective group of composers, Machine Head. Working with non-traditional instruments, the 'sound' is both musical and mysterious, and ideally suits the film's ambiguity.
"Blind Horizon" certainly deserves a look, as a film far better than it's ill-fated history would indicate. I enjoyed it, and I think you will, too!
Plunder of the Sun (1953)
Greed, Buried Treasure, and Glenn Ford, too!
While much of Glenn Ford's early 1950s film output are unabashedly 'B' movies (he filled the same niche as Robert Mitchum did, at RKO), the movies are, by and large, very entertaining, and "Plunder of the Sun", shot in Mexico for Warners and John Wayne's Batjac Productions, is no exception. Directed by John Farrow, this action drama offers noir elements (an ambiguous hero, a 'fallen' woman, brutal violence, and an 'expressionist' use of light and shadow), John Huston-like characters (reminiscent of both "The Maltese Falcon" and "Treasure of Sierra Madre"), and an actually pretty accurate look at ancient Indian civilizations that built cities with pyramids when Europe consisted of little more than tribes.
Ford is Al Colby, a down-on-his-luck American recruited by rotund Thomas Berrien (Sidney Greenstreet-channeling Francis L. Sullivan) to slip a package through Mexican customs. When Berrien unexpectedly dies, a variety of characters offers Colby money, potential treasure, or his life, in exchange for the mysterious package, which he discovers contains part of an ancient document mapping where a hidden cache of priceless artifacts is buried. Seduced by both beautiful native girl Patricia Medina, who seems involved with all the 'major players', and drunken American 'party girl' Diana Lynn (doing a 'Gloria Grahame' impression), and 'educated' through beatings and genial lectures by the mysterious 'Jefferson' (scene-stealing Sean McClory), Colby teeters between succumbing to the vast wealth the document promises, and 'doing the right thing', and turning everything over to the Mexican authorities, who legally 'own' the artifacts. While Ford's portrayal lacks the subtle shadings of Bogart or Mitchum, he handles the moral dilemma quite well, and he certainly can take a beating!
With much of the action filmed at actual Aztec sites, in Oaxaca, Mexico, the film has an authentic 'feel', is fast-paced, and very watchable.
Certainly worth a look!
The Big Heat (1953)
Fritz Lang 'Essesntial' Noir Showcases Actresses...
"The Big Heat", Fritz Lang's concise, hard-hitting Noir drama, both defines the genre in it's 'mature' form (with the obligatory black and white, high contrast photography, a short running time, a hero, portrayed by Glenn Ford, who teeters between justice and vengeance, and villains, particularly Lee Marvin, every bit as shaded and complex as Ford), and tosses in, almost casually, a fascinating subtext, that the three central female characters of the film are, in fact, as essential as their male counterparts, and even more interesting! Portrayed by Jocelyn Brando (Marlon's older sister), Jeanette Nolan, and the fabulous Gloria Grahame, they are not only pivotal to the plot, but actually become the characters you're most likely to leave the film talking about.
Beginning with the suicide of a cop 'on the take', who leaves a letter exposing the mob's connections with the police and local government, the film first introduces Nolan, as a less-than-grieving widow, who steals the letter, and uses it as leverage to enjoy 'the good life'. An underrated actress, usually cast in sweet-natured supporting 'grandmotherly' roles, Nolan here gets to cut loose, blackmailing the mob while tossing false 'leads' to cop Ford, and adjusting her 'image' to suit whatever situation she faces. Her portrayal, alone, would make this an extraordinary film!
Ford, the dedicated, honest homicide detective, has a history of ruffling official feathers to find the truth, and much of his strength comes from the love and support of wife Brando. Not your 'traditional' 50s wife, she 'samples' his drinks and food, hints at her satisfying sex life (remarkable, in itself!), and casually smokes while preparing dinner, sweetly bantering with her husband. In the smallest of the central female roles, it is easy to 'lose' her, between the flashier performances of Nolan and Grahame, but, in fact, she is the catalyst of the plot, whose untimely demise would set the chain of events in motion.
Then there is Gloria Grahame, the 'party girl' mistress of enforcer Lee Marvin...wisecracking, and blissfully ignorant of the risks she takes in verbally 'jabbing' her boyfriend's relationship to mob boss Alexander Scourby, she grabs the screen, each scene she's in, and makes Marvin's performance, as a genial yet psychopathic sadist, even better. When she warms up to Ford, she is rewarded with a pot of scalding coffee in the face, disfiguring her, and providing the hook to blow things wide-open...
Three powerhouse performances, by three terrific actresses!
Fritz Lang's American film work was always remarkable, and "The Big Heat" showcased him at the top of his form.
The film is, deservedly, a classic!
Engrossing Mystery of TV Superman's Death...
It has taken nearly a half-century to finally produce a film about the mystery surrounding 'Superman' George Reeve's death, but it was worth the wait..."Hollywoodland", despite some minor factual errors, is, perhaps, the finest 'true' Hollywood film ever made. Unflinching in it's willingness to "name names", to illustrate the caste system that would make (and break) actors, and the extent the film community controlled both the police and the press, the film works as both a terrific noir-style detective story, and a bittersweet biography of the charming, doomed actor who would become an unwilling hero to a generation of children.
The film tells parallel stories, after Reeves' nude corpse is discovered, in June, 1959. The first involves a seedy P.I., Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), who is 'tipped' that Reeves' mother, Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith) believes her son's death was not suicide, but murder, and needs a good investigator to dig up the truth; the second, done in flashback, relates the post-war tale of actor George Reeves (Ben Affleck), who will do anything to jump-start a career 'dead-ended' into 'B' serials by the late '40s. A flirtation with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane, who is superb), the aging but still-sexy wife of MGM exec Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), provides Reeves an 'angel' to promote him, but also erodes his dignity, as he becomes a well-compensated 'gigolo' to Mannix.
Simo quickly discovers that the police investigation had been botched, with incongruities (three bullet holes at the crime scene, the murder pistol having been wiped clean), conveniently ignored. A growing list of suspects emerges...could the killer be the jilted lover, Toni Mannix, her overly-protective husband, Eddie, Reeves' coarse ex-fiancé, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney)...or someone else? Meanwhile, an embarrassed Reeves auditions for a kiddie show, "The Adventures of Superman", never expecting it to get a sponsor...then sees the show 'picked up', literally changing America's viewing habits, and 'typing' him forever as Superman...costing him any hope of an acting or directing career...
The performances are uniformly excellent, with Brody's jaded yet still idealistic Simo both believable and sympathetic. He laughs at the hypocrisy rampant in Hollywood, but is torn by his son's pain over seeing his hero, Reeves, betray his trust by killing himself. The performance nearly equals Lane's complex, anguished portrayal of Toni Mannix, a woman watching the last of her beauty fade, ripped away by losing her younger lover.
Ben Affleck deserves a particular 'nod', as Reeves; while bearing only a passing resemblance to the star, at best, he gives the role a depth he has never displayed on-screen, previously. What you see isn't the smug, arrogant Affleck persona of nearly all of his films; instead, you see a sweet, often naughty but likable rogue, who sees his dreams of great roles and screen immortality end in red and blue tights in a 'kiddie' show...the only complaint I have is the nearly cartoonish portrayal Affleck gives, as 'Superman', in the staged AOS scenes and personal appearances; Reeves never portrayed the Man of Steel as a buffoon on TV, or drank heavily before a 'live' appearance; he was too much of a professional, and cared too much about his influence on kids, to give anything less than his best.
As I stated earlier, the story occasionally veers from the truth; while it was true that wrestling was considered, when acting and directing jobs 'dried up', "Superman" was again picked up, after a season off the air (a fact not mentioned in the film), and Reeves happily planned a return to the steady paycheck of the series, abandoning the wrestling move (with NO 'training' film of an 'out-of-shape' Reeves ever shot); while Eddie Mannix and Reeves were portrayed as enemies, they were, in fact, at least casual friends (Reeves actually started dating Toni BEFORE her marriage, and Eddie was aware she was still involved, afterward); the fact that Reeves' body was embalmed before an autopsy could be performed is never mentioned, but is even further evidence of a police 'cover-up'; Reeves' mother was never 'bought off' to keep her silent; the 'kid-with-a-real-gun' scene never actually occurred (it was actually fabricated by Reeves to try to avoid making appearances in the uncomfortable and embarrassing costume, although his concern about children was genuine). There are other glitches, in the film, as well, but the film DOES accurately tell the story, for the most part.
All-in-all, "Hollywoodland" is a remarkable film, about a most bittersweet time in my generation's lives.
It should not be missed!
Cheaper by the Dozen 2 (2005)
Sequel to 2003 Hit Lacks Original's Charm...
"Cheaper by the Dozen 2", a 'by-the-numbers' sequel to the Steve Martin/Bonnie Hunt hit of 2003, takes up two years later, as dad Tom Baker (Martin), now a 'house father', unhappily deals with his children's increasing independence. Oldest daughter Nora (Piper Perabo), VERY pregnant (but not by her 2003 'flame', Ashton Kutcher, who passed on the sequel), plans to move with her husband to a new city; oldest son Charlie (Tom Welling, taking a break from "Smallville"), is contemplating a future away from home, as well. Daughter Lorraine (Hilary Duff, as irritating and one-dimensional as she'd been in the original), is graduating from high school, and wants to leave the family to attend college cross-country. BIG changes are afoot, and Tom ISN'T happy!
While all this could make for a serious, warm family comedy (in the vein of "Parenthood"), 20th Century Fox, preferring the 'quick bucks' a 'kid-friendly' slapstick-themed farce would generate, quickly moves the film into a "Meatballs" mode, with Martin and (the underused) Bonnie Hunt taking the kids on a last 'family vacation', to a lake retreat they'd used, disastrously, years earlier. Back then, Tom had ended up competing with smarmy Jimmy Murtaugh and his brood...and sure enough, they AGAIN run into the now-rich Murtaugh (Eugene Levy, doing his usual 'schtick'), his 'trophy' wife, Sarina (the surprisingly good Carmen Electra), and his 'over-trained' children...again leading to the expected competition, and LOTS of pratfall opportunities for Martin.
A budding romance between Welling's Charlie, and Anne Murtaugh (Jaime King, returning to 'G'-rated fare after sex-and-violence-drenched "Sin City") is sweet, and Alyson Stoner, as Sarah Baker, blooming from 'Tom Boy' into womanhood, is a film standout, but too much of the film devotes itself to an almost 'sitcom' level "Father-Is-An-Idiot" slapstick, the kind of stuff that Steve Martin has spent much of his career moving away from. One assumes that with his rewarding but much riskier "Shopgirl" playing at theaters, Martin decided to 'play it safe' with a sure moneymaker, just in case...
With the expected 'having a baby at the WORST possible time' finale, "Cheaper by the Dozen 2" ends, as it began...pleasant, but predictable.
It certainly COULD have been far better!
In Old California (1942)
Duke as a Druggist in Entertaining 'B'-Movie...
One of the many gradually improving westerns Republic created for their biggest star in the early forties, "In Old California" was still very much in the 'B'-picture mold, but was a very entertaining tale of young Boston druggist Wayne relocating to Sacramento (echoing his real-life father's journey from Iowa to California, as a pharmacist), where his modern ideas and integrity (and the attentions from saloon girl Binnie Barnes) puts him at odds with 'town boss' Albert Dekker. While fundamentally a pacifist (Wayne diffuses potential confrontations with an ability to bend coins in his fingers!), Dekker, seeing him as a threat, decides to eliminate him by switching medicine with poison, discrediting him...but Wayne would soon have an opportunity to redeem himself...
The film benefits from the comic talents of two of Hollywood's best comedians, Edgar Kennedy (master of the 'Slow Burn') and Patsy Kelly (an old pro at sarcastic wisecracks), the teasing byplay between Wayne and Barnes, and his confrontations with Dekker (one of the 1940s' best 'villains', and a perfect foil for the young 'straight-arrow' leading man).
One of Wayne's more 'offbeat' oaters, but still a popular entry, during one of Wayne's busiest years!
Dark Command (1940)
Duke in 'Bloody Kansas', in his first Republic 'A'-List Feature!
After the spectacular success of John Wayne in "Stagecoach", Republic realized they actually had an 'A'-list star...still making 'B' movies! While Duke was on loan to RKO for "Allegheny Uprising" (continuing to 'farm out' their biggest star out to major studios would provide a MAJOR source of cash for the small studio), Republic worked on creating their first 'major' western, borrowing MGM's Walter Pigeon, top Warner director Raoul Walsh (who'd directed Wayne's failed initial 'starring' role, "The Big Trail", ten years earlier), Claire Trevor (in what would be her third teaming with Wayne in two years), rising star Roy Rogers (who'd inherited the "Singing Cowboy" roles a dubbed Wayne had played in the thirties), and ever-popular Gabby Hayes (a frequent Wayne co-star for nearly a decade).
The result of all the assembled talent was a well-crafted, if still modestly-budgeted film, showcasing Duke's charisma and 'star' quality. As an illiterate but straight-talking Texan in Lawrence, Kansas, Duke wins the hearts of the townspeople and (eventually) banker's daughter Trevor, over intellectual schoolteacher William Cantrell (Pidgeon, playing a variation of infamous Southern guerrilla fighter William Quantrell). With the beginning of the Civil War, Cantrell, showing the signs of insanity his mother (the ever-wonderful Marjorie Main) had warned him of inheriting, recruits an 'army' of mercenaries, dons a stolen Rebel uniform, and burns and pillages, with Duke in pursuit, climaxing in a last-ditch defense of Lawrence.
While very 'fast and loose', historically, "Dark Command" is great fun, and the Wayne/Trevor chemistry was never more enjoyable!