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Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round (1934)
If only this film had a likeable protagonist...
... then it would be an even better film than it is. It is all about how the lives of several passengers intertwine on a transatlantic journey. Sally Marsh (Nancy Carroll) has gotten her old friend Chad Denby (Jack Benny) to hire her on to his entertainment troupe for the voyage so that she can get her brother Ned out of town in a hurry. Underworld kingpin Lee Lother (Sidney Blackmer) , his henchmen, and his girl are on the ship, and Lother has past ties to both Sally and Ned. Actually, Lother's best girl is actually married and thinks she has pulled a fast one on her husband with this cruise, when in fact he knows what is going on and is on the same ship with murderous intentions.
So the protagonist who weaves all of these people together? Grifter Jimmy Brett, played by top billed Gene Raymond. The problem is, Jimmy is a louse, and yet the film seems to be saying we should be rooting for him. But how could I? He makes his partner in crime (Sid Sliver) work his way across the Atlantic so Jimmy can stay in first class, he is willing to steal from anybody anywhere anytime, and just because he is getting romantic with Sally, a genuinely nice gal, I'm supposed to cut him a break? Well, I'll let you see how this all works out.
Don't expect cheapskate Jack Benny of 1940 and later. At this point he is still working on his radio persona after only two years of transitioning from film to radio and doing the occasional film. Also Patsy Kelly, part of Benny's entertainment troupe, is practically background noise she is so restrained compared to her usually noisy assertive character.
Keep an eye out for the Busby Berkeley type dance number in the film, because like Berkeley's filmed dance numbers over at Warner's, the audience couldn't possibly appreciate it unless they were hanging from the ceiling, and this is not the Poseidon Adventure.
John Wick (2014)
Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my dog, prepare to die...
... slaughtering a line from the superior "Princess Bride". It's a shame that Keanu Reeves is supposed to be one of the nicest guys to work with in Hollywood, because this film is a mess. We should stop asking Hollywood to come up with original ideas, because when they do, this is the result. 101 minutes of cliched action that checks all of the boxes - retired hit-man coming out of retirement, a boy and his dog, the perfect wife who is conveniently dead, stolen cars, Russian mobsters, a spoiled son who doesn't have half the restraint and judgment of dad precisely because dad spoiled him, and lots of blood. We should stop criticizing the millennials so much, because all we've bequeathed to them is 100K of student debt each for four year degrees that don't get them jobs and films like this. Kudos to the effects team, because they did good work. They are the only reason this film gets even four stars.
The Crosby Case (1934)
Passable little crime drama that is a titular remake...
... with the original "The Crosby Case" being a completely different movie made in the very early talkie era. The only thing they have in common is that both are murder mysteries.
The film opens on a man stumbling into the street and being hit by a careless cabbie, played by Warren Hymer. When the cabbie sees the man is dead he drives away, thinking he killed him.
Meanwhile the homicide detectives, headed by Police Inspector Thomas (Alan Dinehart), is trying to solve the murder of Dr. Crosby, who apparently was shot before the cabbie hit him. Whoever shot him must have been in a hurry because that person threw the gun on Crosby's desk. In Crosby's apartment the police find a single bedroom slipper....with a name on it? So pretty soon the police have rounded up the last patient to see Crosby alive based on an appointment book (Edward Van Sloan), the woman belonging to the bedroom slipper (Wynne Gibson), a random small time crook (John Wray), and the man who according to their records owned the gun that killed Crosby (Onslow Stevens). Each of these persons has something that they are trying to hide that has nothing to do with the murder, and so each is acting terribly guilty. So who did it? Watch and find out. It is briskly paced at only sixty minutes, and everybody does a good job. There are just some issues as to direction and police procedure that are weird.
When the police find out Crosby was shot, not just run over, they put his body back in his office. Do they plan to do the autopsy there? They mention Crosby is a "shady physician" known for malpractice more than practice, yet they never say what is meant by that. It might have been a more compelling drama if Crosby was not a corpse for the entire film. Finally there is some reporter hanging around in the inspector's office, so at home he puts his feet on the inspector's desk, yet he doesn't seem to want to scoop the murder and plays no part in solving the mystery at all. After the murder is solved he is STILL hanging around. That's pretty poor use of Skeets Gallagher, who was great with the clever biting quips over at Paramount.
What did I get about the era of 1934 by watching this film? First, police don't seem to use search warrants and have no problem with recording private conversations with no court oversight and nobody seems to care that they don't. Oh, and if you go blind in 1934, with no social safety net, some people at that time might think that they are better off dead. Shocking but true.
City Streets (1931)
Gary Cooper with a gat? Smile when you say that!
This is an odd film for several reasons. For one it is a gangster film made at Paramount, home of the sophisticated continental comedies and dramas. Also, you have Gary Cooper in a modern dress role but with that Montana twang on full display.
Gary Cooper plays "The Kid", a sharp shooter at a circus. His best girl is Nan Cooley (Sylvia Sydney). I can't say why they are going together, because Nan seems to dislike all of "The Kid's" outlooks and plans for the future. Nan's dad is a gangster played by an oddly cast Guy Kibbee (Pop), who is usually associated with being the comic relief over at Warner Brothers.
Nan helps "Pop" out whenever he wants to get rid of a getaway car or dispose of a weapon, but then one night her ruse doesn't work and she winds up being sent up the river for possession of a gun used in a murder done by dear old dad. And apparently "pop" only makes weak attempts to get her out of jail, although while she is inside he does use the opportunity to recruit the kid into the beer racket because of his handiness with a weapon.
Nan gets out and for some reason now sees The Kid as irresistible - a real about face in her attitude with no reason given. However she is very upset that dear old dad has her beau in with the rackets. Oh, and "The Big Fellow" (Paul Lukas), apparent head of the rackets, wants to throw over his current long time girlfriend and replace her with Nan, regardless of what Nan and the Kid think about it. Complications ensue.
The story is really conventional gangster lore - nothing to write home about. What makes it interesting is Mamoulian's direction and shots. He likes to linger on faces or even a stuffed bird. He's not really an "action packed" kind of director. There is great atmosphere with the prohibition era night spots taken over by the rowdy gangsters and shadows on the dark streets.
What makes it fun are some of the inconsistencies. The urban shots are done so that you feel like you are in a big city of the Northeast US. People in coats, talk of the cold, etc. But then the final chase scene comes and you see palm trees, canyons - it is obvious you are in southern California. And what is Cooper's character's real name? Everybody just calls him "Kid". That is who he is billed as.
I'd say watch it and just have fun with it. It certainly is different from a Warner Brothers gangster picture of the same era.
Running with Beto (2019)
A good introduction to Beto's campaign style...
... and the diverse group who supported his initially Quixotic run for the Texas Senate seat held by Ted Cruz, thought unbeatable at the beginning of the campaign. It shows you more about his wife and children than you normally get to see about a politician, and what I saw I liked. Beto is certainly a magnetic personable guy, but one thing I took away from this documentary is he doesn't seem quite ready for prime time yet.
As three term Congressman from the El Paso area he was certainly ready to be one of a 100 senators, but now he is running for president, and if there is anything that the presidency of Barack Obama taught me is that prior executive experience is necessary for a president to hit the ground running. Obama had only a partial term as a senator when he became president, thus he lacked experience in the skill of negotiation with different factions. By the time he had that experience it was two years later and Congress was controlled by the GOP who had no interest in doing anything but blockading whatever Obama might want to do. But I digress. Back to Beto.
Beto tells you a little about what he wants - gun control and universal healthcare - and a little about what he does not like - migrant children separated from their parents at the border and Trump's wall. What he doesn't tell you in this documentary is how he hopes to pay for what he does want, and what alternative he has to what he does not like. He is essentially a great personality without detailed policies where Hillary Clinton was a great policy wonk without a great personality, at least that's what came across in public.
Overall I would recommend this work as a good introduction to the man and the excitement he drummed up in 2018 in The Lone Star State. I am impressed that he seems unsullied from his six years in the House. And any native Texan as myself is impressed with anybody who can rattle off the names of all 254 counties in the place I will forever call home no matter where I live.
A Lady to Love (1930)
An interesting film with an interesting combo of actors.
For one thing, this film seems to be an anachronism itself. A film about a grape grower in the Napa valley in the middle of Prohibition, and not one mention about Prohibition in the film, with wine bottles flowing left and right. Edward G. Robinson plays Tony, the grape grower in question. He is a middle aged man and has decided to go to San Francisco to find a young wife. The priest tells him nothing good ever came from an older man marrying a younger wife, but Tony forges ahead. He finds Lena (Vilma Banky) working in a San Fran restaurant, and decides she is the one with no more conversation between them than "Here's your check".
Back home, Tony has his field hand, Buck (Robert Ames), help him write a romantic letter proposing, but then Buck says it will never work without a photo. They both go into town and get their pictures taken, but Tony does not like his photo at all. He looks at his photo, he looks at the photo of handsome Buck, and makes the bad decision of mailing Buck's photo to Lena along with his letter. Lena is apparently from Switzerland - she has a picture of a Swiss farm on her night table, and responds in the affirmative.
Buck doesn't know what Tony did with his photo, Lena is for sure in the dark, and Tony is wondering how to break the news when his bride arrives. Complications ensue. Now this entire film is based on the premise that Tony is older, Lena is younger, and so is Buck. But that is not exactly true. Vilma Banky, playing Lena, is actually only four years younger than Edward G. Robinson, who is playing Tony. And Robert Ames, who is playing Buck, is actually five years older than Robinson!
Note that they try to keep Vilma from talking as much as possible, and she is pretty good at pantomiming around the part, although her thick Austrian accent actually works for her here. Also note the habit of Italian Americans at that time of keeping portraits of the heads of both America and the home country proudly displayed. They were very proud of both countries. However, in 1930, it is the unfortunate fact that Herbert Hoover is president of the United States and Benito Mussolini is in charge of Italy. You'll miss their portraits sitting side by side in Tony's living room it if you don't look around on the set!
Recommend as one of the better early talkies with good direction by Victor Sjöström. I believe this was the last film he directed in America, disheartened by the American studio system ever since he had to tack on a feel good ending to 1928's "The Wind".
Van Helsing (2004)
One of the worst movies made by a major Hollywood studio I have ever seen...
... and I qualify that because of course there are worse films out there, but they were often made by poverty row studios with no budget. Universal Studios is not poverty row.
Why did I give it three stars? Because effects and cinematography have to count for something, and that this film has in spades. But in the plot and direction departments, this thing is one ugly mess. Van Helsing is the legendary vampire hunter, often ably played by Peter Cushing over at Hammer studios back in the 50s and 60s. Here you have another fine actor, underrated Hugh Jackman, playing Van Helsing, but you'd never get that by what goes on here.
So Universal drags out every legendary horror character in their catalog - not just Dracula, who actually IS a vampire. They manage to incorporate the Frankenstein monster and The Werewolf too. Bring in the mummy, the invisible man, and the creature from the black lagoon and the gang would all be here. There really is no plot to speak of, just lots of flying female vamps so you can get some gratuitous nudity in, and then there is a plot line installed to lampoon Jackman's role as Wolverine over at Marvel.
The bottom line - there must be something better you can do with your time. If not, then you need either a hobby or a job.
Overall a great story, but with some big legal plot holes
Brian Donlevy plays Walter Williams, a self made business man who prides himself on his cleverness and on his wife, upon whom he dotes to the point of sappiness. But his wife Irene (Helen Walker) wants to dump her handsome well off husband for slimy Jim Torrence. OK, so love is blind.
Irene comes up with a rather involved plan that gets her husband giving Torrence a ride to Denver, with hubby thinking he is a distant relative. On the way Torrence is supposed to kill Walter and make it look like a hitchhiker did it. Nobody knows where Walter went and with whom, so Irene could lie and say he went there alone.
But things don't go as planned and, although Jim hits Walter in the head with a wrench and rolls him into a ditch nearby, Walter is not dead. Scared by passing motorists who stop to see if he needs help, Jim rushes off in Walter's car and hits an oncoming gasoline truck. Jim is killed and his body burned beyond recognition. so everybody thinks it is Walter, including the not so grieving widow.
So meanwhile, based on Jim's last words to Walter, he knows that his wife plotted his death. His pride is as injured if not more than his head. He drifts until he finds himself in a small town in Idaho and makes a new life for himself working as a mechanic in a gas station owned by a beautiful war widow, played by Ella Raines.
Back in San Francisco, clever cop Tom Quincy (Charles Coburn) makes a case for Irene murdering her husband based on him finding out about the boyfriend. Walter is reading the papers and decides to just let Irene fry since she did intend to kill him anyways. So she has a boyfriend, the guy in the car DID burn to death, so there is no evidence any murder took place. Do the DA and judge not get this?
How does this work out? Watch and find out. I'll just say that for the production code to be fulfilled requires a second and equally "So what??" piece of evidence that doesn't prove a murder didn't take place anymore than Irene having a boyfriend proved one did take place. If you can ignore all that, it is a great story and I would recommend it.
With really good players, it is a shame this one is unrestored and in the public domain, but that also makes it easy to find and view.
The Prowler (1951)
Fate can turn on such small things
In this case, Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) sees a prowler standing outside her window and calls the police. She has the misfortune of one of those officers being whining scheming Web Garwood (Van Heflin), who sees Susan as not too hard on the eyes and also that she is the lonely young wife of a middle aged radio show cornball. Oh, and the cornball just happens to be wealthy.
Usually you can see some good or mitigating factors in a film villain, but Webb is bad to the bone. He thinks he's been the victim all of his life, and he hates being "just another dumb cop". And Susan buys his lines. Did he plan what happened all along? I don't know, but I don't see how he could have figured it any other way.
But then a monkey wrench gets thrown into his path that will tell the whole world what he is just when he thinks he is home free. But this is the production code era, so it had to be that way. But at least the way he is found out is rather unique. With John Maxwell as Bud Crocker, Webb's cop friend/partner who would drive anyone crazy with his endless dull talk about rocks.
Highly recommended for those of you who like film noirs.
Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne (2019)
This final episode had great acting, great production values, but, oh, that writing! Dany just turns on a dime into the "dragon lady"? I get where they are going with all of these characters, but they just went there too fast. Hey, D&D that rushed woke writing style will serve you well at Disney where they seem to ruin everything they touch. First the good - Drogon mourning Dany, Tyrion mourning his dead evil siblings. Now the bad. Grey worm only has one expression - a grimace. Tyrion is a prisoner who is told he is not there to speak and then winds up making a speech that determines the outcome of the series?? Oh, and he picks the new king too! Jon is given a life sentence but in a place where nobody really knows if he stays or goes? And the unsullied are going to be happy with Green Acres when they had their heart set on fighting an unending war?
Well, at least Arya's arc turned out OK. She becomes an explorer and sails off the edge of the maps until she finds a vast continent with the remains of a statue of a lady holding a torch stuck in the sands of a beach. She would have stayed there but for the odd lone inhabitant who keeps going on about prying something "from my cold dead hands". Annoyed by this person, she sails back to Westeros, never to speak of the place again.
Have we no journalists anymore?...
... Are they all just either left or right versions of Pravda? And lazy versions at that? The reason I say this is that in 20 minutes John Oliver manages to be more illuminating on the subject of "The Green New Deal" than an army of cable, network, and newspaper journalists have been in the past few months. He debunks the end of airplanes and of cows that have been right wing talking points. He points out that The Green New Deal was never written to be a bill to be voted up or down in Congress, but a back of the envelope calculation, a starting point for discussion, written on just fourteen pages versus The Cheesecake Factory's 21 page menu.
And he manages to be funny at the same time employing the help of Bill Nye in his discussion and even dragged his disappointment with Season Eight of Game of Thrones into the discussion. Highly recommended if you want to know what the Green New Deal does and does not discuss, because you are not going to get it from our so-called journalists apparently.
Rafter Romance (1933)
A cute little precode film
This has the same leading cast as "Professional Sweetheart", even the same director. It was lost for years because it was in legal rights limbo when Turner Classic Movies got the rights to it and five other films, but I digress.
The setup is simple but purely precode. A man (Norman Foster) and a woman (Ginger Rogers) -Jack and Mary - are forced by their landlord to move into the same attic together, with Mary having the premises at night and Jack having them during the day. Each has to be out of the attic 15 minutes before the other arrives "home" so that they never meet. The reason for this was that they were both behind on their rent with no real chance of catching up. Thus the landlord can rent their old rooms out to people who can pay the rent plus he gets rent for what has now been an unused part of the house - the attic - and Jack and Mary are not homeless. A win win.
Now the two have never met, but tensions rise immediately when Mary overhears Jack calling her a "skinny old maid". They play pranks on each other that escalate to the point we are in Looney Tunes territory. Meanwhile Jack and Mary have actually met on the street, and have begun to fall in love. What will happen when they each find out who the other is? Watch and find out.
As in many precode films, nothing really indecent goes on, yet this film would not have been allowed to be produced just a year later. The most extreme thing you see is Ginger Rogers in various stages of undress, and Jack seems to be in some kind of "boy toy" situation with Laura Hope Crews' character, Elise. He is an artist working as a night watchman and she is a rich woman who seems to want to "keep" him, although he is not willing to let it go that far.
This is Peter Benchley's biggest role so far in a film. Here he plays Mary's lecherous boss who is making the moves on Mary and at least one other girl in his employ. Not exactly the role I am accustomed to seeing Benchley in, and yet he still plays it with his signature dry wit.
The most shocking thing to audiences today, probably? The landlords, the Eckbaums, are Jewish, and they have a son that they tell to stand in the hall and wait for one of the tenants to get home, there is a message for this person. Well like so many teens he gets bored and starts doodling on the wall. What does he doodle? Swastikas! How odd.
The Couch (1962)
Much more than a rip off of Psycho...
... and in fact, it really is not a rip off of that film at all. A man, Charles (Grant Williams), calls the police department each time he is planning to kill, and in fact, tells them what time he plans to do so. He then kills - not a woman - but some random older man on the street with a single puncture through the heart with an ice pick.
After the murder the man then goes off to his regular 7PM therapy session. The guy is a good looking yet nondescript presence. And he has a thing for the therapist's receptionist (Shirley Knight) who happens to be the therapist's niece. There are a couple of scenes where he shows her how he feels with rather creepy approaches - at least that is how it would seem today.
This film was made by Warner Brothers, and I thought that odd at first because the film does not get its 7 stars from me for its production values. The indoor shots are pure poverty row, but the acting and the unexpected plot turns are well done. What to look for? Look at the bustling night scenes on city streets when it was safe to just walk down the street alone - well, except for the main character - and there were tons of mom and pop department stores. One even advertises "Eyeglasses on a Payment Plan". One laugh out loud moment? When we are first introduced to the receptionist, she is wearing the oddest looking dress I have ever seen. The bodice of the dress comes up in the front to give the impression her breasts are hanging out, even though she is modestly clothed! Guaranteed to get you the attention of a maniac! Featuring Onslow Stevens' last film appearance as the therapist.
Recommended because it is not only interesting, it is different!
Game of Thrones: The Bells (2019)
So called "Haters" of Season Eight I hear you...
... although I am relatively new to this TV show and have been binging back episodes to catch up. Yes, the writing and plot development seems rushed compared to previous seasons. I think I understand where you are coming from because I was a long time fan of Buffy The Vampire Slayer only to watch it go off a cliff in seasons six and seven. From great character development and dialogue that rolls trippingly off the tongue to flat dialogue, sudden developments that come out of nowhere and a final big bad that seemed neither. All because Joss Whedon wanted to go off and write a space western that was cancelled after 13 episodes. But I digress.
Looking at previous episodes of GOT, I think I know where you are coming from. It is not that the dialogue is bad it is just not present like it was in past seasons. That being said "The Bells" was visually stunning if heart breaking. And stop looking for "the reason" for Dany burning King's Landing to the ground with her one remaining dragon - who apparently does not need time to refuel. Loss of advisors, betrayal by the ones who remain, personal losses, and the madness that was probably always genetically embedded in her have turned her into the "Mad Queen". Just how mad is symbolized by the occasional puffs of green fire that ignite through the city, the wildfire planted by her father "The Mad King", seemingly impotent next to the destruction of Drogon's breath.
Then there was just one big "Huh??" moment for me. Arya, intent on getting revenge, accepting that she will not come back from that revenge for ages and will pay with her life, is given exactly two lines of admonition from the Hound to forget about revenge and live, and she just says "Okay!", oh, and "Thank you!".
We did need her view of the carnage on the ground, but the set up for her change of heart just was not there. So it must be a disappointment to see your brilliant TV show become just above average, because I've been there before. But that doesn't mean I'm not watching the last episode.
A special tribute to a unique man
At the TCM 2014 Classic Film Festival, TCM host and film historian Robert Osborne thought he was onstage to allow the audience to ask him some questions about himself. But then his mic went dead and out came Alex Trebek to notify Robert that this was a special tribute to him. It is amazing that the TCM crew managed to keep this a secret from Robert since he was always in the middle of the preparations for these festivals.
Robert was quite touched as old friends Eva Marie Saint, Robert Wagner and wife Jill St. John, and Diane Baker came by to pay tribute to him. That is what made Robert special - not only was he a charming host and full of knowledge about old Hollywood, he actually knew all of these folks too!
Essentials co-host Alec Baldwin showed up to introduce a blooper reel to the audience that was quite revealing. It showed Robert could be quite the cut up when he wanted to be.
This recently re-ran for the combo of TCM's 25th anniversary and Robert Osborne's birthday, and although I miss his wit and wisdom, seeing him again in this rather informal setting made me realize just how much. Robert died on March 6, 2017, exactly one week after my 90 year old aunt died, and it always bothered me that I mourned the guy more than my aunt, whom I didn't know that well. Rewatching this tribute made me mourn him all over again.
TCM has not been the same without him, and I doubt that the world will ever see such a combination of humanity, film knowledge, and charm again. TCM and the audience were lucky to have him on the air for almost 22 years before he left the channel in early 2016 for health reasons. And this 2014 TCM Film Festival was the last he got to attend, so it was TCM's last chance to honor him at the festival. I'm glad that they did.
I know bureaucratic nightmares can occur anywhere BUT...
... was this system really better than the czar??? Several people have mentioned how radiation sickness does not occur as fast as shown in episode one of the miniseries - the only thing I have to go on reviewing this - but I will give it that for dramatic license purposes. Other than that it really keeps you glued to your seat, especially if you can remember this incident when it happened, like I can.
The thing I took away is that everybody was so accustomed to playing "follow the leader" in the old Soviet Union that the leaders on the job at the power plant could only go by the playbook, and their charges were too entrenched in groupthink - and fear of reprisal - to do anything but what they were told although everything in their senses told them that something had gone terribly wrong that no book of procedures could handle. The members of the government were more concerned about how all of this would look to the central committee than anything else.
And then there are the images of children playing in "the snow" while their mothers look at the fire from the reactor in the distance, standing in "the snow" nearby. The snow being, of course, nuclear fallout. Almost everybody you meet in this episode is a dead person walking and either they don't know it yet or they can't imagine a disaster of the magnitude that is in progress.
The one thing that rather disrupted the illusion of the drama? Everybody is speaking with British accents. Nobody tries to speak with a Russian accent! It is almost like the film "The Death of Stalin" where you have a bunch of American actors who sound like - well - a bunch of American actors!
The accent business is only worth knocking off one star. I would still highly recommend it. It is the anatomy of a nightmare.
EDIT: After watching the first three episodes of this miniseries, I up my rating to 10. I withdraw my earlier desire for Russian accents and have decided that this would have been too Boris and Natasha. It is perfect as it is. Jared Harris as protagonist and nuclear physicist Valery Legasov is nailing the part of a man of science dealing with a government that is in the late stages of rotting from the inside out. Likewise Stellan Skarsgård is pitch perfect as the Soviet career party man who is the government representative sent to deal with the Chernobyl disaster. These two form an uneasy alliance as they have to deal with each other to deal with the disaster. I would mention everybody else specifically, but let's just say everybody nails it. And the score is haunting, a cross between the score of a horror film and a heartbeat. This is perfect television.
POSTSCRIPT: Best line - Gorbachev to Legasov - "You made lava?"
Best character arc - Stellan Skarsgård's Boris Shcherbina as he transitions from the Soviet party man who thinks he can solve problems by threatening to throw people out of helicopters to someone who appreciates the beauty of a caterpillar. It is a horse race as to who gets the Emmy - him or Jared Harris, but my bet is on Skarsgård at this point.
Dear Murderer (1947)
Fool for love..
...that is what the lead/murderer is in this film. I'll explain.
Lee Warren has to go to America on a prolonged business trip. While in the US he sees a social page of the paper and there is his wife - who hasn't written him very much - dancing and out on the town with a barrister. He comes back to England without tipping off his wife and manages to kill her lover yet make it look like suicide - he uses gas. As he is cleaning up after the murder who pops into the dead man's flat but his wife and ANOTHER man. It turns out that the now dead barrister was right. His wife did have other lovers, and this lover in particular, Jimmy Martin, is somebody she wants to marry. Turns out she considers it over with the now dead barrister. Has Lee killed in vain?
Well, not exactly. He figures he can try to make this suicide look TOO obvious, get the police to believe it is what it really is - murder covered up to look like suicide - and frame Jimmy Martin in the process.
Well, this is all going swimmingly except for two things. One, the inspector on the crime, Penbury, played by the great Jack Warner - no not THAT Jack Warner - is suspicious about how neatly everything is sewn up. The second thing is that Lee Warren, for all his caution and care as a murderer, is really a fool for love when it comes to his wife. He confesses all to her when they are alone and says he told her just so he could watch her suffer. But then she leaves so he can't watch her suffer, and when she returns days later she says she has decided she loves Lee after all, but he just CAN'T let Jimmy, both innocent and of no longer any interest to her, die for a crime he did not commit. He must find a way to get Jimmy off and yet not confess himself. And the poor slob believes her.
I'll let you watch and see how this all ironically plays out. The main problem with this film is not the acting or direction or the story - all are great. The film is too dark at points, and at other points the soundtrack downright overpowers the dialogue. I think I'd give it another star if it wasn't for these technical details.
Costarring the great Hazel Court as Jimmy Martin's cast off girlfriend. You might remember her as the scream queen of circa 1960 Roger Cormen horror films. Highly recommended.
The Upturned Glass (1947)
A top flight British noir with the great James Mason.
I'm putting a spoiler warning on this because you might feel it is somewhat spoiled. I do take careful pains not to give the best parts away.
I often wonder why James Mason isn't better remembered. I guess it is because he played so many gray or outright sinister characters in his career. He really was "the odd man out" career wise.
Here he plays a man giving a lecture in criminology on "sane" criminals. He tells the story of a brain surgeon who is permanently and unhappily married to his wife from whom he has been separated for years. And then one day into his cold therapeutic life comes a woman with a child who is going blind. Her maternal devotion touches him, as everything about her is different from his own estranged wife. He operates on the girl and says for the first time he feels nervous about it, because for the first time he is personally invested in a patient.
The girl recovers and he and the woman begin to spend time together outside the professional arena. They end the relationship when they both realize neither could ever be free - she is married too - and she especially doesn't want anything to negatively impact her only daughter. And then comes word that the woman has died by falling out of an upper story window in her home. The man investigates and realizes that her death was neither an accident nor straight up suicide, but that the guilty party could never be brought to justice under British law. So he plots a course to murder the person responsible which comes off without a hitch with the police never suspecting it even was a murder.
From the dramatization I have never seen such a cooperative murder victim. And then you realize that is because the murder has not happened yet. I'll let you watch and find out what really does happen and how it actually does happen.
I will say this much - at one point the murderer gives himself away because he takes it upon himself to help someone he did not have to help. He saves a life. The other person involved who finds him out calls him insane. But this other person is coldly indifferent to whether the person who is saved lives or dies. He was perfectly willing to let the person who lived just die, and advises the murderer to let it go too. Who is the worse person?
Produced by as well as starring James Mason, this one, produced outside the range of the American production code of the time, is worth seeing. Highly recommended. With Mason's own wife as the villainess.
Red-Headed Woman (1932)
A precode in reverse?
Most films made for prohibition era audiences painted the poor as virtuous and the rich as those who were keeping them down. This one turns that mainly Warner Brothers model on its head. Here it is the poor but beautiful office worker, Lillian (Jean Harlow), who sets her cap for her rich married boss, Bill Legendre (Chester Morris). She is persistent, because Bill is hard to break down. He has known his wife, Irene (Leila Hyams), since they were kids, and is really in love with his wife.
Bill caves a few time to Lillian's sexual heat, but he would never have left his wife for her. Lillian gets that, and is counting on the wife's pride to do the rest. It works, Irene leaves Bill and leaves the field to Lillian. But Lillian's undoing is that she cannot leave well enough alone, even after she is the second Mrs. Bill Legendre.
Harlow just fills this screen with her presence. She had been in other MGM productions for the last year or so, but this was her star making role. It's more than her beauty. This girl has "It" as much as real red head Clara Bow had it in the silent era. Una Murkel plays Jean's pal who seems content to sit on the sidelines and watch, but you get the feeling if she could pull something like this off she would. Henry Stephenson has a great comical role in this film. And look for Charles Boyer in a very small but important role as Stephenson's chauffeur.
I can't help but notice how similar this plot is to the production code film "The Women" - rich man loves his wife but likes sex with poor social climbing homewrecker with a plot that turns on the pride of the wife. I wonder if there is any connection?
At any rate, highly recommended plus it has a great hummable theme song that is even performed by a crooner at its midpoint - "Red Headed Woman".
The Ghost Comes Home (1940)
Probably made as a star vehicle for John Shelton...
... and if you've never heard of him then you know how well that went. Well, not everybody could be Van Johnson!
MGM certainly put a pretty good effort into this one, putting their better character actors and actresses in leading roles here, and in 1940 MGM had some of the best supporting actors around. It is all about a hapless pet shop owner, Vern Adams, who actually buys more animals than he sells who has an opportunity to sail to Australia and help an old friend divvy up half a million dollars for the town he is from. Before he leaves, he is talked into buying ten thousand dollars in travel insurance from one of his boarders.
Well, Vern is as bad a traveler as he is a businessman, and he winds up in jail in New York City for two months through a series of unfortunate events and never gets to travel to Australia. In the meantime the rich friend dies without making provisions for the town, but worse, the ship Vern was going to sail on sinks with no survivors. Vern's family naturally thinks he died and cashes in the life insurance policy, which certainly improves their lives - this was like two hundred thousand dollars back in 1940. But then "the ghost comes home" and the family realizes the insurance company will want their money back and they've already spent it. How does this work out? Watch and find out.
This has a fairly clever plot and pretty good acting. If you are a fan of the MGM formula and MGM stars - even the smaller ones - it is probably worth your time. Morgan is great as always as the befuddled "ghost" and Billie Burke excels as his dizzy but disappointed wife. Ann Rutherford is the Adams' daughter who fears she may have to marry the son of the town banker if she wants to get dad out of this insurance mess, and John Shelton plays the guy she really loves and the one who saves the day.
The problem is, Shelton just has no screen presence, nothing to make you remember him because he is oh so good or oh so bad. In the looks department he is dead average. Because he is at the center of the plot, I think he sinks the film by at least a star. You give the same role to every man James Stewart, and this film would have worked, but by 1940 Stewart was too big of a star to be in a B film like this. With Donald Meek in an uncharacteristically sinister role that is truly a delight.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
All remakes pale in comparison
This is romantic comedy at the peak of perfection. Oddly set in Budapest in a small gift and accessory shop, the place runs with the precision of the army, but with warmth and comradarie among the employees. Although made 80 years ago in a Budapest that was destroyed by WWII, you can recognize the types of people in the story and workplace relationships today. The main gist of the plot is that long time employee of Matuschek and Company , Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), is constantly clashing with more recent hire Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). What they don't know is that they are actually secret and anonymous pen pals to one another. Against this backdrop of open bickering and secret romantic thoughts there is the predicament of shop owner Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) who has discovered his wife of 22 years is cheating on him and has gotten it into his head that Kralik is the other man - he isn't.
European native director Ernst Lubitsch is probably using his memories of his home of origin in describing all of these characters. There is open formality in all of the relationships, but there is a warmth and caring for one another underneath. Add this to the fact that the story takes place around Christmas and it is just the perfect holiday movie.
1940 was really James Stewart's year. He won the Oscar for Philadelphia Story, but I think he showed more range in this film and in The Mortal Storm, which if you wondered what happened to the gentle souls in this film during that conflict, you have three of the players here showing up there somewhat answering that question.
What doesn't work for me but is not enough to take off a star for? Pepe the store errand boy. He just seems like he is too much out of the Bronx and the Bowery boys to fit into this old world story. But he does have his humorous moments.
The lesson I took away from this film? Don't be so in love with love as an ideal that you overlook the person right in front of you.
The Pursuit of Happiness (1934)
A revolutionary war comedy by George!
How often do you see a comedy set in the revolutionary war? How often do you see an unmarried couple in bed together during the production code era? For that matter how often do you see a married couple in bed together during the production code era? Well, at least in this film you do, although this was released early in the production code era - just two months after the code went into effect.
Francis Lederer plays a Hessian musician and professor of languages who gets caught up in the conscription by the Duke of Hess who is being paid by King George to send soldiers to fight in the American Revolutionary War. Max (Lederer) is a lover not a fighter, so he deliberately misses whenever he is told to shoot and deserts as soon as possible. Mainly he does this because he does not want to be a soldier, but the Americans were also sendng notices around telling the Hessians if they joined the American side they got 40 acres of land. Plus the poet in Max is overjoyed by "the pursuit of happiness" promised by the Americans.
Unfortunately, Max makes his way to rural Connecticut which was still quite Puritan at the time and gives himself up there. Very quickly the American soldiers realize this guy is not a Trojan Horse. He really is, in actuality, a victim of circumstance who wants to join this great experiment called America.
Max is confused by some of the customs - putting people in stocks for drinking or swearing, and can't figure out why the entire town cowtows to the arbitrary rulings of the squire of the town. In his own words "You may be able to pursue happiness but these strange customs make it hard to catch".
Max gets into more trouble when he meets Prudence (Constance Bennett) a beautiful girl living on a neighboring farm. A local member of the militia is already interested in Prudence and won't let "some foreigner" get in the way. How does this all work out? Watch and find out.
Charles Ruggles and Mary Boland play wonderfully off of each other as Prudence's parents. Thankfully, for once Paramount couldn't let Ruggles do his drunk act or else he would have spent the entire movie in the stocks! Adrian Morris plays the militiaman in love with Prudence. He looks much like John Candy but shows none of Candy's charm. Walter Kingsford is an ominous humorless presence as the Squire, which is exactly what the role required. Lederer is terrific as the bubbly scholarly gentleman - a stranger in a strange land.
I highly recommend this film because it is clever AND because it tries to bring in some actual history to the movie. There really was a courting practice called "bundling" that existed into the 19th century, the Puritan rulers of New England really were in juxtaposition to the pursuit of happiness, and there really was a Colonel Sherwood in the American forces during the Revolutionary war.
The Lawyer's Secret (1931)
The story and the actors are better than the dialog and pacing..
... and I'll lay that at the feet of the directors (count 'em - there are two). This is an early talkie and suffers from the slow pacing of many of those films, plus there is no score whatsoever. The dialog is minimalist in a story that really demands many more words than we get, and much more in the establishment of relationships.
A sailor winds up blowing all his pay at a gambling joint while on leave, he "borrows" a car to get back to his ship on time, gets caught doing that, and then is apprehended in the murder of the guy running the gambling joint. It doesn't help that his gun shot the man. But the truth is the sailor sold his gun to a fellow gambler so he could stay in the game awhile longer. He doesn't have any witness to him selling the gun, and he has no idea who it was he sold the gun to. Will he hang or not? Watch and find out.
This film is full of Paramount talent from the silent era trying to make it in talkies - Clive Brook, Richard Arlen, Charles Buddy Rogers. Plus there is the new talent brought in for talking film - Fay Wray and Jean Arthur. Don't expect screwball Jean Arthur. Here she is so plain vanilla you can hardly taste her.
As for relationships, forget about it. How do I know that Fay Wray and Clive Brooks are engaged? Because they tell me they are! There is zero chemistry between them. There is more chemistry between Charles Buddy Rogers and Fay Wray as brother and sister!
This could have risen to an 8/10 with better direction and dialogue, given the delightful irony of the situation. But I'll give it a respectable 6 as is. If only Hitchcock could have gotten hold of it. It's just the kind of "wrongly accused" story he so loved to direct.
The Go Getter (1937)
Inspiring and funny little WB Depression era film.
George Brent is the only big name WB star in this one, and he plays Bill Austin, a sailor who loses his right leg to a dirigible crash. So he is honorably discharged by the navy, but at a time when anybody with any kind of disability was looked upon as defective, Austin is looking for work during the Great Depression among an army of unemployed men who have no disability. The search goes on for months. Finally, he is determined to get a job as a salesman at the Rick's Lumber Company, and he manages to do just that, although he has to go over the head of the two actual heads of the company to the retired owner of the company.
He succeeds beyond the point of the lumber company to even deliver product, and then Austin solves even that problem. It's just a shame we really don't get to see how he does it except for one brief scene. Austin has been somebody that the owner, Cappy Ricks sees almost like a son. But when he threatens to take Cappy's daughter away from him via marriage (Anita Louise as Margie), Cappy is not so happy about having to live alone and decides it is time to give Austin the "blue vase" test.
Now that test eats up a very large part of the film running time and amounts to an impossible task that nobody has ever been able to perform before. If Austin passes he gets to run the Shanghai office and Cappy figures he gets to keep his daughter. If he fails, he has agreed to fire Austin and he figures he STILL gets to keep his daughter.
How you feel about this film is going to amount to how much you enjoy the mechanics of this "blue vase" test. If you find it tedious you would probably rate this film a 5. If you find it fascinating and funny - I did - you would probably rate this film a 7 or 8.
Kudos to casting John Eldredge as the unlikable actual head of Cappy's lumber part of the business. He has zero compassion and likeability and he plays this role completely believably. What is unbelievable is that he was Cappy's daughter's beau until Bill Austin came along.
There really is little intense conflict going on and thus this is a nice film to watch if you are recovering from a nervous breakdown. What is really interesting is how some lines of dialogue that seem very precode got thrown into this production code era film and the censors either approved it or didn't notice in the first place. I'd recommend this one as unusual and entertaining.
Winner Take All (1932)
A paint by numbers boxing film, but Cagney makes it worth your time
If it wasn't for the presence of cocky James Cagney, I'd probably say skip this one. It has a very mediocre plot line involving pride coming before a fall, with Cagney playing the boxer whose story is the object lesson. Cagney plays Jimmy Kane, a boxer who has a heart condition who, for some reason, needs a rest cure out West in the desert for a few months. His trainer is played by Guy Kibbee, who says things that lead you to believe that Kane loved the nightlife and that he is glad he is going somewhere that there isn't any.
But that doesn't mean Kane doesn't find a woman out at the rest cure ranch where he is staying. He runs into widow Peggy Harmon (Marian Nixon) who is at the ranch for her little son's sake (Dickie Moore) and they hit it off. When she can't raise the money to stay the extra three months that her son needs, Kane risks his health for a 2000 dollar fight to help her out. He winds up with a messed up nose and a cauliflower ear as a result.
Kane gets the medical OK to leave before Peggy can, and he pledges fidelity to her. The newly healthy Kane rises to the top of his profession again. And then he meets a society gal - Joan (Virginia Bruce). Joan is fascinated by Kane, but not sexually attracted to him and is also extremely embarrassed by his ignorance whenever they are out with "her set". The thing is, Kane doesn't see this and thinks Joan is as gaga over him like he is over the moon for her. His postcards to Peggy get increasingly infrequent and terse. Complications ensue.
This one does have a few things to recommend it. For one, this is one of Virginia Bruce's earliest credited roles and she does a a good job of playing a bad girl. And she isn't obvious either. You never know EXACTLY where she is taking this thing with Cagney's character. There is also a rather odd conversation when Joan's set is discussing Russia and "the great social experiment going on" over there and "the five year plan".
This film doesn't give the normally colorful and hilarious Guy Kibbee much to do, and that was a bit of a disappointment as was the bland part Marian Nixon got stuck with as Peggy. But, hey, how often do you get to see a plastic surgery angle dragged into a precode boxing film where it is the man trying to pretty up for the woman? Mildly recommended, and mainly for Cagney who never disappoints.