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Dudes Are Pretty People (1942)
Hal Roach - King of the "D" Feature
In the 1940's Hal Roach Sr was famous for producing the Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang comedy shorts, began producing a string of features and "streamliners. Most of these films are jaw-droppingly bad and done with so little imagination or skill to make Roach something of a forerunner to Ed Wood, albeit a family friendly filmmaker. In the 1940's he began producing mini-western comedies starring Will Rogers' son Jimmy and Wallace Beery's nephew Noah Jr. Noah clearly had comic talent although it took his career some 30 years to recover from these fiascos before he hit his stride costarring with James Garner in THE ROCKFORD FILES. Jimmy Rogers, like director Hal Roach Jr., appears to have none (and judging by his 1940's features any papa Roach had had evaporated at this point.)
This lame little comedy with no laughs has the boys as earthy Montana cowboys out west briefly proving their worth with the local cowboys only to have Noah to be sidelined by a "girl dude" (in case you didn't know it, "dudes" here refers to the city slickers who vacation at the local dude ranches with their glamorous western outfits that are more country-western star than bona fide cowboy. The girl in question is played by Marjorie Woodworth, a pretty if unmemorable blonde who also had a brief career as a Roach leading lady (Hal Roach brazenly tried to hype this girl as the new Jean Harlow although she's more a Ginger Rogers type.) So this faux Harlow is teamed with Wallace Beery's nephew are they are no Kitty & Dan Packard that's for sure.
The movie goes nowhere but it's over in under 50 minutes (!!) so you won't waste too much time on it. The few well-known players among the supporting cast are character actress Marjorie Gateson, famed for playing snooty society women, here cast as Woodworth's aunt and totally wasted but she has more to do than poor Grady Sutton who incredibly has only one line of perhaps four words and is no more than an extra in two other scenes, one of which he is only briefly spotted among the many at the dinner table.
The Lost Appetite (1917)
Rare chance to see Silent Comedy team Lyons and Moran
Eddie Lyons and Lee Moran were one of the first comedy teams of the screen, very much of the Dean Martin - Jerry Lewis variety with Lyons the smooth leading man and Moran the comic goofball. In this film however they don't interact as one would consider for a screen team and are rather like just two actors in a film.
Lee Moran is Edith Roberts' country cousin (actually her brother in the American film but in the surviving British print he was made a "cousin") who is so depressed and eating less than normal than his mother sends him to visit with Edith in hopes a change of scenery will do him a world of good. Trouble is even with his "lost appetite" Moran eats like a hog and Edith and her husband Eddie Lyons are struggling to keep food on the table as it is for themselves. Visiting the family, Moran proceeds to gobble up everything in sight and even pigs out when he is Lyons' guest at a restaurant.
This is a cute little movie, not particularly clever but rather likable. This long-lost comedy short was recently discovered in the UK and was purchased by a film preservationist who now sells copies of it on ebay with all proceeds going to further film preservation.
Boobley's Baby (1915)
Sidney Drew Shines in Enjoyable Two Reel Comedy
Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew were a celebrated comedic team of the 1910's, he being of the famous theatrical Drew family (and uncle to the legendary Barrymore siblings). Sidney Drew is a fine comedian, perhaps the first of the type of middle-aged man confronted with the perils of daily life. Mrs. Drew (quite a bit younger than him) is a pleasant personality but decidedly a distant second in their team work.
Sidney is tired of never getting a seat on the streetcar while anyone accompanying a child is always guaranteed a seat. He decides to buy a life-sized baby doll and take it with him two and from work. Trouble is the new employee (Mrs. Drew) he has his eye on sees him with his "baby" and is outraged that a married father wants to pursue her. Upset that his scheme has cost him the girl he wants, Drew smacks the doll and takes it to throw in the river - unaware the girl is watching and totally horrified!
The black comedy bits are hilarious and a bit of a surprise for the strait-laced 1910's. A copy of this movie exists at the Library of Congress and another copy (reportedly a better one) was recently discovered in the United Kingdom and is available for purchase on ebay with the proceeds going to charity donation for film preservation for Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.
The Winding Stream (2014)
The Circle Still Unbroken
This documentary on the seminal country music act The Carter Family has it's work cut out for it. It was made some 80 years after the beginning of their career, there is no known motion picture film of A. P. Carter (who was still alive as late as 1960!!!), not all that much on Sara Carter either, and all three had been gone at the time for at least thirty years. Heck, all three of Maybelle Carter's daughters were also deceased by the time filmmaking commenced and her famous son-in-law Johnny Cash wasn't long for this world himself. And yet the film succeeds beautifully thanks to the very rare still photography, interviews with A.P. and Sara's children and grandchildren as well as Maybelle's grandkids and Cash in one of his very last interviews, the stunningly beautiful cinematography of the Carter's native rural Virginia (some areas remarkably unchanged after almost a century), and above all the excerpts of their still powerful music lead by Sara's haunting vocals and A. P.'s superb songwriting,or at least extraordinary taste in "songcatching" (much of his work was originally penned by rural southerners and given to him).
The Carter Family of course are most famous in recent decades thanks to their family ties to music icon Johnny Cash. Poor A. P. and Sara often get the short shrift in the Carter Family retelling, quite unjustly, and it's worth noting of the two reviews here one centers on Cash and Maybelle and doesn't even mention them, the other repeatedly refers to "A. C. Carter" (sic). Pro reviewers weren't much better as the Variety review is also Cash and Maybelle oriented. I feel the filmmakers gave us the right balance in presenting Cash but not really making this his story despite the Cash name being mentioned in the subtitle. I also like the fact that the contemporary musicians in the film were truly influenced by the Carter Family and not just a bunch of current big names parroting hackneyed comments to widen the film's audience or the suggest that their work is on the level with that of the legends profiled as is often the case with these type of music documentaries.
The film is a lovely piece of work and I'm certainly going to buy the DVD release for my personal collection.
Country Music as Captured By Photographers
This well-made documentary on country music is not so much about the history of the music but rather how the genre was publicized and perceived, particularly in still photography with comments from several of the photographers themselves on their work and careers in the industry as well as comments from a couple dozen country singers commenting on their own careers, their images, and country music including Merle Haggard, Kenny Rogers, Charley Pride, Connie Smith, Garth Brooks, and Tanya Tucker.
The editing of this film is excellent, flowing well from photo to photo and cutting back and forth from the interviews. There is some commentary though from some of the "experts" and "historians" that is inaccurate. One person describes Dolly Parton in her early career as "in Porter Wagoner's band and (who) occasionally made records" - she was his "girl singer" but she was a full-fledged country star herself from the beginning and regularly recorded popular solo records from day one. Another completely misunderstands Ray Charles' early work recording "country and western", these albums were not aimed or sold to the country audience but to the traditional pop market just like dozens of other such albums of country covers from pop stars ranging from Bing Crosby to Connie Francis to The Supremes albeit Charles' were overwhelmingly the most successful of these albums. Perhaps worse of all because she should know better is Rosanne Cash (infamous among many in the industry for being a bit of a snob against mainstream country music) who insists her father Johnny Cash was more into blues than country in his formative years, complete BS proved false by her own mother's memoir which quotes Cash's letters to her from his Army stint in which he frequently comments on liking and buying current country records and usually hard country acts like Hank Snow.
The film doesn't work so well when it tries at the end to tie modern-day "country" acts like Keith Urban and The Band Perry into the storyline. Current country music is country in name only and most people who like the old stuff can't stand the new stuff and vice versa. Fortunately this segment is fairly brief. This film is very made and should be of interest both fans of the genre and students of popular culture.
Happy Birthday, Gemini (1980)
"I Didn't Get No Attention When I Was a Kid But Did I Turn Out Weird? NO!!"
HAPPY BIRTHDAY GEMINI turned out to be a happy surprise for me, the best widely lambasted movie I've seen in years. A wild farce about some earthy, low-income Philadephians, it's based on a hit play that premiered in 1977 and was still running almost a year after this modest movie adaptation was made! I remember the bad reviews at the time of it's release but had never seen the movie until recently watching it on youtube where it exists in a not very good print that has been sliced into ten episodes but this is likely to be the only place you will be able to see it, it was briefly released on videotape in the 1980's and probably played on cable premium channels a few times back then but I doubt it's been on TV since as much for its limited appeal as for Madeline Kahn's hilarious potty mouth.
20-year-old college student Francis Geminiani is not happy by a surprise visit from his quasi-girlfriend Judith and her brother Randy on the eve of his birthday mainly because he's begun to realize he's gay and actually attracted to the brother rather than the sister. The wealthy young siblings though are warmly welcomed by Francis' father and his middle-aged girlfriend (Rita Moreno playing an Italian Catholic!)and a neighbor, aging floozy Bunny Weinberger (Kahn) and her twentyish, plump, clumsy asthmatic son Herschel.
Top-billed Kahn is actually a secondary character (second-billed Moreno has an even smaller role) but she's delicious as a faded, crude mantrap who is just realizing her best days are now behind her. Her unsuccessful suicide attempt is a gem of a comic scene. The fairly obscure young leads (Robert Viharo, Sarah Holcomb, David Marshall Grant) are good but not unexpectedly unable to hold their own with a master comedienne like Kahn. On the other hand the even less known actor Timothy Jenkins as Bunny's infantile son whom she alternately babies and bullies actually steals the film in an endearing performance. Sadly he appears to never had another major part. Theirs is one of the best smother-mother and child duos created on film and there's even a lovely moment when they sing "Moon River" together off key as Kahn hammers at the piano.
The direction is not particularly good and the film resembles a TV-movie programmer from the era with it's camera shots but the script still has much of the punch of the play and the seven leads are all quite good. No small part of it's lack of success in 1980 was it's sympathetic attitude to homosexuality (though nothing remotely sexual ever happens) which was way ahead of the general population of the era. This might have been a hit a decade or so later but then we wouldn't have the wonderful performances of Kahn and Jenkins in that film.
The Silent Years (1971)
Important series introducing a new generation to silents
I loved this series as a teenager especially the charming and warm introductions in the second edition by Lillian Gish (apparently filmed in her New York apartment!). THE SILENT YEARS introduced kids of the seventies to a long-lost fascinating era of film. I would love to see somebody release the programs on DVD. Another IMDb member listed the movies aired in the Welles collection so I researched and found the titles in the second season and have submitted it to IMDb:
(1) WHAT PRICE GLORY 6-18-75 (2) THE EAGLE 6-25-75 (3) THE IRON HORSE 7-2-75 (4) THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA 7-9-75 (5) COLLEGE 7-16-75 (6) BROKEN BLOSSOMS 7-23-75 (7) PECK'S BAD BOY 7-30-75 (8) THE TEMPEST 8-6-75 (9) DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS 8-13-75 (10) RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE 8-20-75 (11) SEVENTH HEAVEN 8-27-75 (12) THE IRON MASK 9-3-75.
I'm fairly certain I saw THE CAT AND THE CANARY during the Gish run, perhaps it was as Lugonian mentioned for DR JEYKLL & MR HYDE in season one just not run in New York.
Moonlight and Cactus (1944)
Slight Musical Comedy Worth a Look for the Legendary Andrews Sisters
This little WWII era musical was one of a half-dozen or so B movies Universal Pictures produced "starring" the legendary sister trio The Andrews Sisters, although here as in the others they are subordinate to the main storyline and are basically around just to sing. This is a typical, unmemorable boy meets girl tale starring the utterly gorgeous Elyse Knox (later, Mark Harmon's mother) and the pleasant but obscure Tom Seidel. Seidel owns a dude ranch and when he and his service buddies (most of them remarkably long in the tooth like Shemp Howard and Tom Kennedy) have a 10 day pass he takes them back home where he finds a young beauty (Elyse) is now managing the place with a all-girl crew including the Andrews gals. She's doing a fairly great job - though has a "little" problem with somebody apparently stealing some of the cattle! The storyline is second to the songs which are almost non-stop once the Andrews appear by the end of the second reel. The songs themselves aren't that much but their singing is wonderful. Blonde Patty Andrews has more to do in the story than older sisters Laverne and Maxine and she has a bit of a Betty Hutton touch to her limited number of lines (her sisters have virtually none).Elyse Knox is utterly beautiful and carries herself with a pleasant dignity like something of an American Madeleine Carroll. The most amusing moment has Shemp Howard pretending to be Patty as he runs his hands over Tom Kennedy's torso from behind in hopes of locating the money Kennedy has won from him in a crap game. This little movie shot on just a few sets (and not a cactus in sight, by the way) has some charm and if you admire any of the cast it's definitely worth a look.
Her Husband's Affairs (1947)
When The" Little Lady" is The Brains of The House
This somewhat black comedy is from the pen of Ben Hecht and may remind you a bit of his classic NOTHING SACRED although it's more in the tone of the Hepburn & Tracy films. Lucille Ball stars as a newlywed, newly retired from a successful career writing ad copy but now "just married" to her former co-worker Franchot Tone. Trouble is Tone was never quite the "ad man" his wife was and is hell bent to prove his worth to the company. When an eccentric scientist friend of his invents a new embalming fluid (to turn corpses into permanent glass statues!) he mentions as a side note, it can also be used for an "instant shave" on facial hair. Tone sees this use as his ticket to success and fortune and promotes it in a big time product premiere inviting dignities and the famous (including actor Larry Parks in a cameo as himself) to try the product. They all rave about it but the trouble is that it GROWS hair thicker and worse than before within 24 hours. The day after is a major fiasco for the corporation but it's Lucy to the rescue as she cleverly points out this "new" turn is perhaps an even bigger market - selling it to men bald or with thinning hair - and a new campaign starts much to her husband's irritation. (This particular plot twist the viewer can see miles away given supporting actor Edward Everett Horton is fitted with a very phony looking skull cap to play bald for the first several reels. You can see the edges lines of it on the small screen, can't imagine how obvious it was on the big screen). Determined to be back in the driver's seat, Franchot plots more behind the scene maneuvers which ends up having him on trial for the presumed murder of the professor.
The comedy is hit and miss but Lucy is always excellent and she looks a vision in some very attractive fashions. Tone is over the top at times but does well, the trouble is the brazen sexism of his character is more than a little unpleasant to latter-day viewers and likely to more than a few 1940's ones as well. There's also delicious irony with the movie's theme that Lucy is far more talented than he as "ad man" as the movie starts off with Tone twiddling with lots of unfunny shtick as he plots out his newest ad copy while that goes on for several minutes but Lucy merely raises her eyebrow in sleepy exhaustion as is far funnier showing - to no surprise of course - she's also his superior as a comic and an actor. Among the supporting cast Columbia character contractee Nana Bryant stands out as a socialite who can't help but take a discreet dip in the miracle product during it's premiere to rid herself of a touch of facial hair and lives to regret it.
The Greatest Question (1919)
Ludicrous Griffith Melodrama, Definitely one of His Lesser Films
"The Greatest Question" seems quite damning evidence for D. W. Griffith's detractors and their charges of overrated directing skills and his handling of minority characters. Lillian Gish is lovely in this but this is one of her less empathic Griffith heroines. Best known as Robert Harron's final film, his role isn't much and it's one of his least memorable performances. Ralph Graves is wasted in a bit part as his brother. Edward Wagenknecht tears into Josephine Crowell for overacting in THE FILMS OF D W GRIFFITH but I found her a believable if psychotic villainess, on the other hand Mama of the boys, Eugenie Besserer really chews the scenery on occasion and her slatternly husband (George Fawcett) is rather creepy but of course not as much as a the perv Crowell's married to (George Nichols) who lusts after underage Lil and earlier killed another young girl (witnessed by Gish's character as a child). Griffith's handling of concurrent scenes at different locations is just horrendous, worse than the most hackneyed silent serial and the scene with Besserer and Graves at the graveyard is just weird and poorly staged (most unusual is the mix of Christian fundamentalism and spiritualism though apparently not that uncommon in the late 19th and very early 20th century). The pastoral setting is lovely though, too bad it wasn't used for a genuine romance instead of this absurd little melodrama.
The Old Barn Dance (1938)
Not Enough Dancing - or Singing - in The Barn
Slight Gene Autry vehicle will be a disappointment to those hoping by the time it's a full-fledged country-western musical along the lines of similar "b" movies from the period. Gene stars as a cowboy who sells wild horses in auctions with his group from town to town, singing and entertaining the crowds to get their attention. A young woman whose father owns a small town radio station tries to hire him to help out her failing station as a tractor seller wants an act for him to purchase radio time. Gene is not interested, given tractors are competition for his horses, but the girl tricks Roy into signing a contract just to appear on the radio but not letting him know his slot is sponsored by the tractor salesman. Of course the tractor salesman is also a crooked sort who signs the locals to contracts they can't make payments for and the locals blame Gene (WTH?) and go to whup him, of course they can't but good guy Gene tries to right the wrong done in his name.
Gene has some good western numbers but this is a kind of silly story and the leading lady's actions seem as mercenary as the bad guy. The ending is surprising violent with at least one corpse and in Gene's action scenes toward the end are rather brazenly done by a stuntman who scarcely resembles him.
The Angel with the Trumpet (1950)
A Family's Affairs
Henrietta Stein is a young woman on the back side of twenty having a discreet affair with Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria in the 1880's. Their relationship is little more than a friendship to Rudolf although Henrietta is in love. 31-year-old Rudolf in fact openly confesses his love for a seventeen year old to Henrietta. Realizing their is no future with Rudolf, Henrietta accepts the proposal of Alt, a prosperous piano manufacturer. Rudolf commits suicide on the night of the wedding although his actions appear to be unrelated to the marriage.
Henrietta has a comfortable, settled life as Mrs. Alt but by the turn of the new century has become bored and is neglected by her husband. A Baron friend of Rudolf's whisks her away to a week of public if chaste romance which results in a duel fought between the Baron and Alt. The film then follows the family through two World Wars and a changing Austria.
This ambitious British film seems to be two movies tacked together, the first half seems to be a fictionalized period biopic along the lines of The Great Waltz but with the dawn of World War I for the section half becomes a Cavalcadesque family saga. The cast is very good, particularly Eileen Herlie although she absurdly ages in a period of six years (still having her youthful beauty in 1914 but becoming an old lady by 1920). This film has likely been seen by more American audiences in the past decade than in it's original release back in 1950 due to it's availability online and on public domain DVD releases. The movie looks a bit more of an epic than it really is with the lavish Alt home and the decades sweeping story but sets are somewhat limited and one can't help noting the cast is rather small for a film covering such a long period. This mix of history with fiction (the movie suggests Rudolf's suicide was due to his frustrations with his father and their differences on running the country) and undeveloped plot suggestions (there's a very light hint that Henrietta is pregnant with Rudolf's child at the time of her marriage to Alt but that story is never confirmed or acknowledged in the film) doesn't always work but it holds one's interest until the last reel if not quite succeeding in making one care about the characters.
Rainbow Over Broadway (1933)
A Midwest Family Feud Moves to Manhattan
This poverty row musical from the early 1930's headlines Joan Marsh, a starlet who often stunningly resembled Jean Harlow in publicity photos (though not so much here or in other movies) but actually her part is fairly secondary.
Don (Frank Albertson), a local boy who has made good in show business as a pianist at a lavish New York nightclub, is back in town and run into an old flame Judy Chibbins (Joan Marsh) who invites him to her home where she and her brother Bob (a curiously unbilled George Grandee) hope to interest him in some songs they have written. The Chibbins family is broke in part due to their widowed father (Lucien Littlefield) having married erstwhile Broadway star Trixie Valleron (Gladys Blake) whose expensive tastes have gone through the family fortune. The Chibbins kids openly despise Trixie and when she steals Don's focus during their song-plugging, singing their songs in a sentimental, "old" fashion rather than the jazzy melody the kids envisioned they blow up and Don skedaddles pdq rather than listen to more of Judy's wrath.
Back in New York the singing star of the club walks out in a snit with the owner, leading Don to recall Trixie and suggest her for the gig. He telephones Judy who is at first reluctant to given her dreaded stepmother the break but agrees when Bob wires funds for the whole family to come and promises to put her and Bob's songs into the act until a false name so Trixie won't reject them. Trouble continues in New York though when Trixie seems as much interested in socializing with old friends as with resuming her career and one predatory old pal in particular (May Beatty) may talk her out even attempting the comeback.
Although IMDb states the movie runs 72 minutes the film (available on DVD from Alpha) actually barely runs an hour and the American Film Institute confirms a 62 minute release although 72 minutes had also been alleged (one suspects the movie was cut pre-release to fit more easily into double bills; an introductory scene of Judy and Don running into each other in town is not in the movie but is mentioned in the synopsis quoted by AFI). This movie has an incredibly rushed feel like most short poverty row titles from the 1930's, the film's ending is so quick and unexpected it almost appears a final scene was cut as well but most likely this is just a typical super-fast poverty row wrap up.
Lead Grace Hayes was a vaudeville star of the 1920's who made occasional minor appearances in films during the 1930's. She generally plays her role as a haughty Hedda Hopperesque matron although curiously as a performer she is a brazen Mae West impersonator, singing one number in an exact replica of one of West's costumes from She Done Him Wrong with mannerisms, blonde wig, and decked in rhinestones, even brazenly quoting one of West's trademark lines "How 'm Doin'?" after the song. Snob she may be she is more appealing than her stepchildren whom the movie seems to side with yet they are remarkable obnoxious, rude adult brats who would be right at home in a 21st century reality show. Glenn Boles plays the baby brother of the family (twentyish); he's best known by buffs by being one of Moss Hart's real life boy toys in the 1930's (he went on to a distinguished career as a psychologist).
The movie's best scene is the encounter with Trixie's old "pal", the obviously much older "Queenie" played by character actress May Beatty who is supposed to be a contemporary of hers but looks almost old enough to be her grandmother. This is the largest part I've ever seen May Beatty in (she usually played bits) and she's a lot of fun if a most improbable ex-showgirl from just a generation ago. The songs are remarkably pleasant for such a cheapie and the cast does well but it appears the screenwriter ever heard of the concept of a second draft.
Rock n'Roll's First Lady Gets Her Due
Wanda Jackson is a legendary country singer who is now most widely famous for her somewhat brief career as the first woman to record rock n'roll music during the mid and late 1950's. These records, while only modestly successful at the time, have given her an international cult following for decades, a following that amazing has grown larger with every new decade so much so that for the past 25 years Wanda has almost exclusively performed as a "rockabilly" artist to enthusiastic crowds around the world. Some of her famous fans include Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello, both of whom are interviewed for this documentary on her life and career. Wanda started out as a teenage country-and-western local radio singer in the early 1950's gradually growing to become fairly well-known but when newcomer Elvis Presley started performing on the country music scene he strongly encouraged her to join him and several other southern youngsters in singing a new genre of music, rock-and-roll. After first reluctant, Wanda jumped in with gusto before long and recorded a sizzling series of records for the Capitol label that still hold every bit of their impact over a half century later. Wanda and her husband-manager are interviewed (there's an amusing story on how they met, he was dating her best friend country star Norma Jean and Norma asked Wanda to "look after" Wendell while she was away in Nashville) as are her children and several fans, including people in the industry. This documentary ends with a fairly strong campaign to get Wanda in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which happily happened not that long after the film's release in 2008.
I'm from Arkansas (1944)
Eighteen Little Piggies
I'm From Arkansas is what is is, a lowbudget "B" ("C", really) comedy-musical clearly made for rural southern audiences and likely not seen that much outside of that region. Hillbilly bed-and-board owner Maude Eburne's prized pig manages to knock out eighteen young-uns in one pregnancy that manages to become novelty news across the country (read the headlines, one is a good joke in reference to the smash comedy The Miracle of Morgan Creek, released earlier that year). A gregarious manager of a small-time singing act decides to bring the girls down to Arkansas on the presumption they can somehow get tied into the spotlight. Brassy Iris Adrian is the most cynical of the gals and when she mistakes Bruce Bennett (a major radio bandleader back in his hometown for a vacation) for a local rube, he decides to milk it and play the hick while romancing her.
Slim Summerville starred or was featured in scores of rural comedies for over a decade when this film was released, his earlier ones were for the major studios and had bigger budgets. Near the end of his career (he passed away in 1946), he is top-billed but has less screen time than either Bennett (surprisingly billed fourth when he was only a few years before considered possible major star material) or the always enjoyable Ms. Adrian, in the main lead, and the only truly starring role I can recall seeing her in (her specialty was snappy costarring small parts, even bits). Maude Eburne is a delight as always as "Ma" (one surprise later plot turn is Summerville's ardent pursuit of Eburne in marriage, he's always on her property so probably the major viewers presumed they were a long-married couple). Country music great Jimmy Wakely has a few nice numbers (including the legendary hit "You are My Sunshine" made famous by another Jimmy, Jimmie Davis), 50's pop star Mary Ford is in Wakely's girl group, and country star Merle Travis can be spotted in Bennett's band. Not a great comedy by any means, but a pleasant time killer.
Doughnuts and Society (1936)
Maude Eburne at Her Best
DOUGHNUTS AND SOCIETY is a surprisingly good comedy-drama from Mascot Pictures that looks to have a rather impressive budget for a "B" from poverty row. Obviously an attempt to make a Marie Dressler & Polly Moran type-comedy of two older best friend broads to scrap as much as they pal around (it even picks up the familiar theme of each being the mother of a child in love with the other's kid), this movie is at least as good as most of the Dressler/Moran efforts in part because while Polly Moran was really no rival for the magnificent Marie, Louise Fazenda and Maude Eburne are rather evenly matched in terms of talent, two very good dependable character actresses able to work wonders when the material is not always there.
These old gals co-own a doughnut dive but Maude is obsessed with high society and dreams of crashing it, spending her money for years on stocks and claims much to the much more sensible Louise's irritation. To the surprise of one and all, a woman representing a major corporation shows up to buy Maude's claim of a mine for $50,000 and 10 percent profit, believing oil may be in it. Maude in no time moves into a mansion with teen-aged daughter Ann Rutherford in tow. She asks Louise and her son to move with them but too proud Louise refuses which leads to one more spat as they separate for some time. Maude meanwhile tries to crash society with help of professional party thrower Hedda Hopper and while Maude proves a bit earthy for a socialite, it's actually pal Louise (attending the party after her initial declining it) who wreaks havoc on the proceedings, chasing a dog who has stolen her wad of cash around the mansion and turning the event into a farce.
Louise continues to look down on her old pal but does feel she needs to move up financially if not socially herself for her son's sake and the mother and son open up a parking building downtown to proves to be an enormous success, so much so that a rival tries to buy it and when Louise declines, sets to wreck her business.
Maude Eburne is terrific in this movie in a terrific performance as a crude old gal who wants the best things in life but can't quite polish herself up enough to be at home in this new world. Louise Fazenda, a great hayseed comedienne herself, has the more knowing role but in some way's it's also the most thankless part.
Happiness C.O.D. (1935)
Pleasant But Unmemorable Family Drama From Poverty Row
HAPPINESS C.O.D. (1935) is a "B" from Chesterfield Pictures and was virtually unseen for many decades, even the American Film Institute couldn't track down a copy to view for it's definitive reference book on American films of the 1930's. In the last several years, however, a print has surfaced and one learns that the movie is not a comedy at all as AFI (and IMDb) presumed but rather a family drama starring several character actors best known for their comic roles. I was particularly disappointed to see that the great, unsung character actress Maude Eburne actually does not have top billing as both sources claim but is rather billed third behind Donald Meek and obscure starlet Irene Ware.
Donald Meek stars as a businessman who lives in a mansion beyond his means, a widower with a teenager and two grown children living with him (although the older son has been away for a period) with all three of them spending money like it's going out of style. Meek's spinster sister Maude Eburne also lives with him and is the matriarchal figure for the family and this down-to-earth dame is disgusted by her spoiled niece and nephews. When Meek's boss puts on the pressure for him to sign the contracts, okaying a poor quality concrete for a hospital which will give boss man a big profit, Meek is basically being blackmailed by him, with boss "Uncle Lester" threatening to can him, knowing fully well the financial mess his employee is in.
This movie is basically a typical programmer with the hackneyed premise that money can't buy happiness (those kids would disagree) but it's fairly well acted even if it could use the comic edge some who haven't seen the film presume is in it. Maude Eburne is terrific as sassy Aunt Addie, one of her rare starring roles, and it's a shame she really doesn't have top billing here although Donald Meek is quite fine as well as the sympathetic father. Irene Ware as the daughter doesn't have much to do despite her second billing while William Bakewell as the older brother may have more lines but not much more of a fully sketched part. Beautiful young Polly Ann Young is featured as Meek's secretary, she will surely remind you of her legendary sister Loretta not only in looks but in manners and speech delivery.
I have to confess it took two attempts to sit through this little drama to completion. Anyone who has seen anything remotely similar will be able to tell you what's going to happen every step of the way but it is nice to know that the film still exists after so long with it's survival status being uncertain.
My Music: '60s Girl Grooves (2013)
Fantastic Collection of Sixties Girl Pop Sounds and Video
GIRL GROOVES is an excellent two hour documentary that basically consists entirely of vintage television performances from the 1960's of various female vocalists and girl groups who had big pop hits back in that era hosted by Mary Wilson on The Supremes. This is the very best of these PBS documentaries I've seen, in part because it appears we are seeing the full numbers, not "dance bits" edited in to them like apparently was done in another show. These are very rare clips and I believe everything show was a major top ten hit. Most of these appear to have be lipsynched at the time (as was common on these shows). Highlights include The Shang-ra-la's doing "Leader of the Pack" from a daytime game show with Robert Goulet doing a fun cameo as the title role (a bit that happily does not destroy the appeal of the number) and a very rare chance to see Little Peggy March sing her blockbuster "I Will Follow Him" (she appears to be among the least successful lipsynchers though but hey the girl was barely a teenager and that great voice more than makes up it). There's lots of Motown plus quite a bit of other girl pop of the era including many soloists that one might consider a bit of a stretch as having the girl group sound like Jackie De Shannon, Skeeter Davis, Aretha Franklin, Lesley Gore, Fontella Bass, Petula Clark, and Mary Wells but then this show is NOT about girl groups as is usually done when covering when of the era but pop female music as a whole (and some of their other records clearly do have the girl group sound even though they're still solo recordings). It is surprising not to see Connie Francis, Brenda Lee,Patsy Cline, Nancy Sinatra, and Jeannie C. Riley included but then the time was limited. Mary Wilson still looks great and makes a terrific hose but one can help but note her "friend Diane" is not mentioned by her legendary full name (Diana Ross, of course!) suggesting this long feud might not quite be resolved yet.
Machine Gun Mama (1944)
"No Dolores! That Sounds Like Too Much Lipstick!"
MACHINE GUN MAMA is a badly titled but sweet little "C" comedy from Poverty Row's PRC PICTURES with a talented cast all about a decade past the peak of their careers. Wallace Ford and El Brendel star as Americans in Mexico trying to return an elephant to it's rightful owner (just what these guys do for a living and just how they got the elephant is never quite clear). The fortysomething guys end up bumping into a small Mexican carnival that is deeply in debt, the perfect prospective buyers for the elephant. The fact the owner's daughter is a beautiful young woman doesn't hurt either. Alas, the villainous loan shark the carnival owners are in debt to also has designs on the girl and aims to get rid of these gringos - and their not so little elephant, too.
Wallace Ford is always good but at 46 he looks more than a decade his age, making it somewhat incredible that he could be the man of the gorgeous Armida's dreams (Miss Armida is no kid herself at 33 although she looks far younger, to the point one of the reviewers here presumes she is playing a teenager). El Brendel is an acquired taste as a comedian but I have to say I have never seen him give a more appealing and likable performance than here as the gentler of the duo, who is sentimentally attached to his beloved pachyderm named "Bunny". Rounding out the quartet of familiar faces from 1930's films is Jack LaRue as the villain. Luis Alberni is terrific as the leader of a flea circus whose star attraction Dolores has disappeared and now has transferred his affections to the elephant Bunny whom he now insists on renaming Dolores after his missing flea much to El Brendel's furor ("No Dolores! That sounds like too much lipstick!" he snaps.) Alberni and El Brendel work terrific together and it's a shame they didn't become a comedy team in some low-budget films.
Today people presume this is a war film with a trailblazing female hero but back in the 1940's I'm sure the public realized this was going to be the Mexican Spitfire knockoff that it is. Armida is for the most part much gentler than Lupe Velez and she's a more romantic, less comical actress. The print used for the Alpha DVD release is slightly above average for most of their public domain releases.
Grandma Moses (1950)
Lovely Film, Lovely Lady
GRANDMA MOSES is a 22 minute color film from 1950 on the legendary primitive artist who became an American phenomenon in the 1940's in her eighties and was amazingly famous for the rest of her life with the general public (she made it past 100 and lived into the early 1960's). Obviously shot on silent 16mm film, the movie has a quite appropriately charming original score by the famed composer Hugh Martin (Meet Me in St. Louis) heard throughout the film. Most of the film is narrated but we only hear Grandma's voice in a fairly brief scene in a voice-over as family photos are shown on screen in a segment in which she is showing the family picture album to a endearing trio of preschoolers who are right out of a vintage children's book. The film opens with several scenes of a ninetyish Grandma shown in her every day routines, doing chores on the farm, visiting with friends (at a "gossip fence" no less!), and the like, then some wonderful panoramic shots of rural New York where Grandma was born and raised. The segment with Grandma and the children follows and leads into the lengthiest segment of the film, scanning views of Grandma's art.
There isn't that much footage out there of Grandma (she was on television a few times in the 1950's) so this film is to be cherished, particularly for it being in color. One may regret so much footage is devoted to showing her artwork but one must remember back in 1950 there were no lavish, full color books of her art and probably the general public saw it, if anywhere, on the greeting cards and other ephemera that reproduced her work or the occasional magazine article with often B&W photographs. Still, there must be plenty of unused footage of Grandma taken for this film (there is quite a variety of different footage, even in different seasons here), one hopes it is preserved somewhere. It is curious though why Grandma's voice is used so sparingly here, she was quite a capable and interesting interviewee as can be heard on the excellent 1956 radio program BIOGRAPHIES IN SOUND available at archive.org.
You can currently view this film on youtube and the Folkstreams website.
My Son, My Son! (1940)
Glossy But Oddball "Men's" Soap Opera
MY SON, MY SON is an over-sized independent film released by United Artists, based on a popular novel of the 1930's. While the film may not have been completely true to the novel, I can't imagine the book being any better than this film given the absurd situations and characters.
Brian Aherne and Henry Hull are two young buddies who dream of the day they will have sons. Hull wants his son to be courageous and with honor but Aherne, tired of poverty and struggle, wants his son to enjoy the luxuries in his life he never had. Eventually each man marries although they remain lifelong friends. Hull has a son and daughter while Aherne has a son as a result of a loveless marriage to a baker's daughter whose shop he helped run.
Aherne becomes a best-selling novelist. He indulges his boy with the best of everything. The kid grows up feeling the world owes him a living without an honorable bone in his body, tracing drawings for school contests and stealing friends' books. He's also a pathological liar, able to lie himself out of any situation with his father. His conservative, religious mother Josephine Hutchinson fully sees her son for what he is but Aherne rejects her attempts at disciplining the brat. Years past and sonny boy is now 21 (and now played by Louis Hayward) but as selfish and spoiled as ever. Aherne goes uncover as a coal miner to obtain material for his next novel and meets young artist Madeleine Carroll who bewitches him completely but he cuts off their friendship since he is still married. Shortly thereafter he is widowed but has no way of tracking down the girl since he never knew her name and she never knew his real name. Meanwhile who should sonny Hayward happen to be pestering in the city but the lovely Miss Carroll who is apparently a few years older than he. She is amused with his company and lets him escort her to events although there is no real romance for either of them. Hayward happens to bring her to a play written by his father (and starring Hull's daughter, Laraine Day) and the star-crossed couple meet again. Aherne and Carroll are thrilled to be reunited and she's upfront with both men about their past relations. Hayward feigns to be OK that his dad has now won the affections of his date but behind the scenes is scheming and making Carroll as miserable as possible.
While generally well acted, this story is so hackneyed the viewer can tell every plot twist in advance. There is major irony when Carroll, discussing a novelist (and unaware she is actually talking to that novelist, Aherne) comments about the author's inability to write credible female characters, given the stereotypical women that populate this potboiler: the frosty saint (the wife, Josephine Hutchinson), the walking perfection (Carroll), the silly, emotional girl (Laraine Day). One particularly tasteless scenario has Day secretly in love with Aerne, a man she as known all of her life as a "uncle" (as she and her brother have always called him). I also have to wonder why on earth the wonderful Madeleine Carroll even accepted this film. Although she enjoys top billing, her part is far smaller than that of Aherne and Hayward and not much larger than Hutchinson's or Day's.
This was a rare starring film for Aherne, usually cast as a second lead, and frankly he is not up to the challenge. His speciality on screen was always something of a cad himself, in personality if not in actual roles, so this persona fails to mesh with this obsessively loving father role. Hayward is better though obviously older than his role; he was only seven years Aherne's junior, and while at 6'3" Aherne dwarfs the 5'10" Hayward, their scenes are shot at angles to play up the height difference to apparently make Hayward seem younger but at times only manage to make him look like a shrimp. This was also one movie that badly needed to be shot in sequence; Aherne's graying hair in the later scenes vary with each segment and in the final confrontation with Hayward it appears Aherne has his natural hair color from his youth!
It's a bit silly that a mediocre film like MY SON, MY SON gets what airplay on TV it does via TCM's "Oscar month" since it received a lone nomination in production design. It certainly didn't get any votes for the acting, directing, or the film itself! And certainly not the writing, despite the reliable Lenore Coffee doing what she can with this uninspired reversed-sex "mother love" soap opera plot.
Age of Indiscretion (1935)
Obscure Glossy MGM Soaper with Good Performances
THE AGE OF INDISCRETION is a surprisingly frank post-code soap opera from 1935, given the full MGM polish despite no box-office names in the cast, being a programmer ground out to fill the desire for new pictures every week. The end results are a satisfying if not overly memorable film.
Paul Lukas stars as a book publisher whose catalog of serious literature isn't paying the bills. His shallow, money-loving wife Helen Vinson is having an affair with Ralph Forbes and when Lukas gently requests she cut the spending sprees what little affection she has for him and their son David Lee Holt quickly disappears as she decides to ditch them for the wealthy lover. Trouble is after the divorce and remarriage Helen discovers Forbes is a mama's boy whose mother May Robson controls the family purse strings and isn't too fond of her new daughter-in-law. Arch-conservative Robson is appalled that Vinson has abandoned her son and pushes for her to seek custody, meanwhile Lukas tries to move on with his life and raise his son with some help from his devoted secretary Madge Evans.
This movie is very well acted and has a good script although Robson's character isn't particularly credible, hard to imagine this cold, penny pinching old miser would insist on her son's social climbing wife adding her kid to the family particularly when she hasn't even met the boy (it would have been far more probable this character would have insisted her son and his wife supply her with actual blood grandchild.) When Robson and Holt finally do meet, on neighboring cabins in the mountains it's not clear if this is a coincidence or Robson snooping on Lukas. The scene where Robson walks in Lukas' cabin and is furious to find him and his secretary pillow fighting in his bedroom in their pajamas (they'd been sleeping in separate rooms, mind you) is a stunner and the following court case is quite blunt about what presumably has been going on between the couple (so much so that this film was banned in Canada because of the courtroom scenes). The resolution alas comes off little too rushed. The cast is terrific although Lukas' Viennese accent occasionally makes his lines different to understand.
MGM had tried to make Madge Evans, a pleasant but unmemorable actress into a star for almost five years at this point and was soon to let her go after this film, the irony being she is better in this film than I've ever seen her before as well as at her peak in beauty. Helen Vinson is a memorably cold wife and May Robson is superb as always although her courtroom confession seems a little incredible, who wouldn't believe something scandalous for the day was going on after that scene she walked in on? Little David Holt was a quite good child actor of the time, he may be best known for his funny performance as Tom Sawyer's sissy cousin in that 1938 classic which happened to reunite him with Miss Robson yet here he's equally terrific as a more all-American boy type (though Southern accent comes through strongly on occasion making him a bit incredible as Lukas' and Vinson's son). Obscure character actress Catharine Doucet has a terrific cameo as a late-middleaged, best-selling "trash" romance novelist who has set her cap for the newly unattached Lukas. Movie buffs will want to watch for future Paramount starlet Shirley Ross in a small part as Evans' roommate and former silent star Mary McLaren playing the maid at the Robson estate.
TCM seems to only show this vintage soaper once or twice a decade, likely due to it's lack of big names. While not a classic, it certainly deserves more circulation than that.
Nurse to You! (1935)
You Can Have Ginger Snaps - if You Chew Them Slowly
Charley Chase in my opinion made the best comedy shorts of any comedy act in the 1930's, solo comic or group. NURSE TO YOU happens to be one of his very best as an ultra cheapstake whose rather eccentric doctor Billy Gilbert gets his name confused with an elderly patient named "Case" and gives him the latter's grim diagnosis of six months to live (though maybe one should know to avoid a doctor who tells him he can eat ginger snaps but not apples or bananas!) With seemingly nothing to lose, Chase scuddles his mild-mannered personality and fights fire with fire and then some when facing with annoying, aggressive people including a belligerent street cop and his long-bullying boss Clarence Wilson.
Charley is such an endearing and hilarious comedian it's incredible he is rarely considered one of the comic greats of the industry. His acting is always superb, his humor still as sharp and witty as it was eighty years ago. He also almost always has top notch supporting players and certainly does here, notably the wonderful unsung character actor Clarence Wilson, who basically created the mean, little elderly boss man stock character in scores of films that Charles Lane would later be well known for in later decades. Despite it's theme this is in no way a "black comedy", it's 19 minutes of giddy fun.
Spring Is Here (1930)
Rodgers & Hart & Two Guys Named Gray
SPRING IS HERE is a charming curio that is a bit more fascinating than it is good entertainment but it's that too. This is one of the first movie musicals to have been a film version of a Broadway musical, an early semi-success for Richard Rodgers and Lorenzo Hart. The most interesting thing to me is that while the songs are quite nice (though they are mostly indistinguishable love songs, with the notable exception of the outstanding classic "With a Song in My Heart"), the "book" (story) is the highpoint, thanks to lots of really funny wisecracks and some racy "adult" situations that are quintessential late 1920s/early 1930s Manhattan humor.
Coquette Bernice Claire sneaks back home at 5 am, having abandoned both the party she attended and her longtime dullish boyfriend Alexander Gray after meeting the jazzier Lawrence Gray there. Father Ford Sterling is outraged at this new "beau", a stranger who would keep his daughter out all night and tries to push her bland boyfriend into marrying her. Bernice however will have none of it with a new man to consider. Her "kid" sister Inez Courtney (allegedly 16 and, as has been mentioned, looking quite into adulthood) has sympathy for Alexander and tells him the way to get her back is to become a romantic cad and flirt with other women. That night at the family's party, Alexander reluctantly follows this advice and kisses and flirts with practically every woman at the party (including, most outrageously, Bernice's bird-brained mom Louise Fazenda). He does manages to invoke Bernice's jealousy but then Lawrence shows up and manages to still hold her attention.
This little movie (barely over an hour) is cute little musical but it's certainly imperfect and while an "early" musical, it was not one of the first ones (movie musicals had been around already for a year in 1930) for some of it's flaws to be dismissed. Most annoying is the movie is almost completely filmed as if it were a stage musical, with performers usually facing toward the camera rather than toward each other in love songs!! Lawrence Gray gets top billing here apparently because he had the most film experience of the young leads (including the male lead in lone Duncan Sisters feature musical, IT'S A GREAT LIFE) but his part is decidedly secondary to Alexander Gray and Bernice Claire's and he is rather miscast as a "fascinating" stranger, if anything he's duller than Alexander. Alexander Gray looks a lot like contemporary actor Aidan Quinn with a touch of James Cagney. He's better looking than his rival and gives a good performance as the bashful beau, alas while his singing is good he unfortunately twists his mouth into strange shapes while singing which is quite distracting. Bernice Claire has a lovely voice but her character is kind of a brat which is a mistake for a romantic lead I don't think Rodgers & Hart ever repeated again. Veteran comedienne Louise Fazenda spouts her lines with an affected ring perhaps to suggest simple-mindedness and it does get to be a bit much at time.
The movie is stolen by silent comic sidekick Ford Sterling as the patriarch of this family of femmes, he's hilarious and much more appealing in the type of put-up middle-aged man that Edgar Kennedy would play in scores of movies. Sterling is so terrific in this it should have led to a major career as a supporting character actor in talkies. SPRING IS HERE is no classic but absolutely worth checking out for fans of the art deco era, movie musicals, Rodgers & Hart, and silent-era comedians and holds up as entertainment a little better than most musicals from 1929-1931 despite it's imperfections.
BOLERO is the worst 1930's film I have yet seen with major stars and a big budget. This phenomenally boring melodrama wastes the talents of the cast and despite reportedly being a hit in 1934 is a very minor title in their filmographies. I'm guessing this was made to cash in on the surprise success of the dancing team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and Paramount decided to whip up a star dance team of their own. Problem is neither star appears to have been able to do the more complicated dance moves and their dance numbers together are shot either from a distance with obvious doubles or so close you don't really see much of their dancing. That might not be so bad if the story held your interest but it just doesn't, a paper-thin tale of a scheming, smalltime dancer from the working class named Raoul (George Raft) who learns the public is basically only interested in male dancers if they have beautiful dance partners so he goes through a couple of girls, upgrading as he moves into ritzier circles. He has a harsh "don't mix business with pleasure" motto though which leads to complications from partners who want more than a dance.
He meets his match when Helen (Carole Lombard) shows up one night and blatantly announces she wants to be his new partner, even while he is currently enjoying success with Frances Drake! Lombard is perfectly fine with Raft's no-romance angle, she too wants to use her dance skills to climb in society and possibly nab a rich spouse. She attracts the attention of a handsome young Lord (Ray Milland) when in England and Raft discovers he just might not be so disinterested in his partner after all.
I love Lombard but this role doesn't offer much for her, she's supposed to be kind of predatory as well but we never see this in her personality. She doesn't even make her entrance into the film until almost a half hour. Despite being in almost every scene, George Raft is not given a fully developed character either, it's never really explained why Raoul is so frosty to his early dance partners even with not wanting a romantic angle on their relationship. William Frawley is pretty good as Raft's long-suffering brother who finances his schemes during his early struggling years and later becomes his manager when things are going good. Famed "fan dancer" Sally Rand shows up in the middle of the picture as Annette, a headliner on bill with Raft and Lombard, and is certainly offers the film's most memorable moments with her legendary feather dance with the camera discreetly at a distance in the moments the feathers aren't quite covering her faux-nude leotards.
The movie suffers though from a bad script and at times bad direction. A ludicrous bit of Raft's character being condescending to others has him haughtily raising a tea cup to sip repeatedly through the movie. The "war" scenes are very badly done with stock footage packaged around Raft and Frawley virtually alone on the battlefield. Beautiful Lombard has some nice fashions but a rather unflattering flattened short hairstyle. Raft looks sharp in his suits but his character comes across so self-centered it's hard to believe all of these women are just falling over themselves in hopes of landing him. This one is only for completist devotees of Raft or Lombard although perhaps the rare chance at seeing Sally Rand in action makes it worth at least one viewing.