Short Takes: Wall Street, Mitchum, Lincoln and Mansfield!

This edition of Short Takes includes one underrated fairly new film, from 2011, a made for television movie along with communists, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Joan Blondell and Jayne Mansfield.

Trial (1953) Mark Robson

A courtroom drama, filled with hot topics like racism, vigilantism, the Klu Klux Klan, communism, police brutality, paranoia and the influence of the media. On trial, a Mexican youth accused of murdering a local white girl. One of his lawyers (Arthur Kennedy) is more interested in using the boy as a martyr to raise money for the communist party while the other (Glenn Ford) is an idealistic young law professor who never tried a case before. Made during the McCarthy witch hunt era the story line has a strong anti-communist feel to it, but still manages to reflect some of dark sides of the American dream. Continue reading

Short Takes: Bogart, Bacall and Widmark Times Two

This week’s short takes are not a particularly great bunch. Like most bloggers I tend to write about the films I love, or at least like. I decided that’s not fair; makes every film that is considered “classic” sound great. They are not. This group is not necessarily horrible, except for one; another is mediocre and another is just decent. Now mediocrity can be enjoyable on some levels, recently I have been watching some low budget Boston Blackie films from Columbia Pictures which have been on TCM every weekend. They are light hearted, a bit corny, but enjoyable pieces of detective fluff. Blackie, as played by Chester Morris, is the only one with any brains, and in every film has to prove his innocence to the two dumb and dumber detectives who see him as a one man crime wave. You see, Blackie was a former jewel thief, now gone straight. At best, these films are fair, lightweight entertainment. Classic? Well, I guess it all goes down to your definition of classic, which by the way, has been discussed recently by some members of CMBA and there is a particularly good posting on the subject by Gilby of  Random Ramblings of a Broadway, Film and TV Fan.  Anyway below are this week’s short takes. classics or not. Continue reading

Short Takes – Bogie, McQueen, Cassavetes and More…

My next full length review with be up on Monday morning. The change in schedule is due to my participation in the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger blogathon hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe .  I will be contributing a piece on the 1960 film, “Peeping Tom.” In the meantime, I thought I would post seven short takes on some other films that I have recently watched.

The Sand Peebles (1966) Directed by Robert Wise

When “The Sand Peebles” premiered in December 1966, the U.S. was already deep into its “quagmire” in Vietnam, a foreign policy disaster fueled by false fears that if one domino (Vietnam) fell, all the others in Southeast Asia would surely all fall too. Though set in 1926 in China, the analogy to Vietnam and the depiction of racism, prevalent at the time as well as the colonialism is all too clear.  “The Sand Peebles” is a three hour anti-war epic about the effects of wrong-headed foreign policy. Steve McQueen gives what is arguably his finest performance as a rebellious ship engineer. Richard Crenna is superb as the ships’ self-righteous Captain, as is Richard Attenborough as one of McQueen’s shipmates who falls for a local Chinese girl.  Visually, the film is epic and stunningly photographed. Only weak spot is Candice Bergen’s non-existent performance as a missionary. Continue reading

Short Takes III: Groucho, Doris and Frank James

Horse Feathers (****1/2) The only thing wrong with this hilariously funny Marx Brothers film is the absene of Margaret Dumont from the cast. Other than that this film, the fourth of five for Universal the Brothers made is outstanding.  At this point in time the Marx Brothers were in the middle of a series of iconic films that still stand today as gems of absurdist comedy. The anarchistic arm of comedy rules right from the opening scene when Groucho, as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, performs, “Whatever It Is , I’m Against It,”   and that pretty much is the theme of this short 75 minute film.

There are so many great scenes it is difficult to highlight just a few. I love the row boat scene with Groucho romancing Thelma Todd while she is attempting to seduce the team’s plays out of him. The entire sequence has a risqué and somewhat surrealistic feel to it all. When Thelma fall overboard and screams to Groucho to throw her a life saver, heroically he does just that, a candy life saver. The final wedding scene ends in what could be termed a riotous orgy. The scene opens with Groucho, Harpo and Chico standing off to the side as newlywed Thelma and an unseen groom, presumably Zeppo, are receiving their wedding vows from  the preacher. As soon as he pronounces the couple man and wife and says to kiss the bride, Groucho, Harpo and Chico literally jump all over Thelma falling into one big pile to the ground.   Directed by Norman Z. McLeod.

My Dream Is Yours (***1/2) an odd little musical with a young Doris Day and second banana Jack Carson in the male lead role. Despite being a musical there are dark overtones of alcoholism and the death of a husband/father in the war. I am not much of a Doris Day fan (I’m diabetic and cannot take the sugar rush) generally avoiding her films like I would a hornets’ nest, but Martin Scorsese discusses this film in the new book, CONVERSATIONS WITH SCORSESE and liked it. Coincidently, it recently popped up on TCM and thought, with the Scorsese recommendation, I would give it a try. The film is a mixed bag, but  there is a wonderful dream sequence blending live action and animation featuring Bugs Bunny, along with Doris and Jack that is the highlight of the film. Location shots in Hollywood including Schwab’s Drugstore and The Brown Derby add a nice flavor. Directed by Michael Curtiz.

The Return of Frank James (**1/2) Fictional version of Frank James pursuit of the Ford Brothers for the killing of his brother Jesse. As portrayed by Henry Fonda, Frank James is a gosh darn, soft spoken, man of the land kind of guy just out for good ol’ American revenge. I find Fonda such a likable actor, he could play a serial killer and you gosh darn want to like him. Henry Hull is entertainingly blustery as the newspaper editor/lawyer who defends Frank in court. The recently deceased Jackie Cooper’s death scene in the film has more corn than tears, and the film is also hurt by some serious stereotyping dialogue forced to be read by the black members of the cast. Nicely photographed by George Barnes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Cast includes Gene Tierney, John Carradine and Donald Meek.

Short Takes II: Three Reviews

Theodora Goes Wild  – (1948) Small town girl living with her two Aunts leads a double life as a Sunday school teacher and organist while secretly writing bestselling “sexy” novels, one of which causes an uproar when the local town newspaper serializes it, much to the dismay of the self righteous local “literary society,” a group consisting of stuffy skirted elderly ladies, who want the so called “filthy” book banned. A entertaining if non-extraordinary romantic comedy thanks mainly to a sparkling and charming performance by Irene Dunne, with some fine assistance from Melvyn Douglas as  a book illustrator, who has a big secret of his own  that comes to the surface halfway through the film. Dunne’s character break out of her plain Jane small town mode once she hits New York and meets Douglas revealing herself to be a much freer spirit than anyone back home would have ever believed. The cast also includes Thomas Mitchell. Thurston Hall and Spring Byington. Directed by Richard Boleslawski. Based on a story by Mary McCarthy. (***)

Open City (1950) – A landmark Italian film made with black market film stock, few professional actors and extremely limited finances, in other words, Guerilla filmmaking, Italian Style. The film centers on a group of resistance fighters eventually betrayed by a former mistress of one who is seduced by the German lesbian assistant of the Gestapo officer in charge, a sadistic creep named Bergmann. The film still contains brutal scenes of torture that must have been truly shocking to filmgoers when the film was first released. My only problem with the film is the extreme broad strokes of good versus evil director Roberto Rossellini, and scriptwriter Federico Fellini, paint. The resistance fighters have God, Church and family on their side versus the evil  Nazis who are vile, sadistic, heartless, homosexual, lesbian, anti-religious zealots.  Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi star.  (****1/2)

Moonrise (1948)  – Frank Borzage’s moody expressionistic and lyrical criminal tale of guilt, anger, violence and ultimately redemption contains a nice performance from Dane Clark who as the son of a convicted murderer has been tormented his entire life by schoolmates and others for his father’s sins.  When Clark,  now a young man, accidently kills one of his tormenters he must confront the choices in his own troubled life. Be like his father, a man on the run, facing a similar fate, or surrender to the law freeing himself of his guilt and his past. Gail Russell is his understanding love interest. Some early performances from Lloyd Bridges and Harry Morgan, listed here as Henry Morgan. (***1/2)

Cash on Demand (1961) Quentin Lawrence

  

An effective little psychological thriller from England’s Hammer Studios that keeps you on edge for its entire 80 minutes in length. Peter Cushing is a Scrooge like manager at a local bank. Two days before Christmas a man posing as an insurance investigator (Andre Morell) enters with plans to rob the bank while his partners are holding Cushing’s wife and son hostage. Whether intentional or not the screenwriters have given us a unique twist on Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” including an ending that pleads for the line “God bless us everyone.”  Peter Cushing would have made a superb Scrooge as he proves here, bullying his staff unmercifully over one petty matter after another. Andre Morell is perfectly hateful as the arrogant bank robber.

The film reunites Peter Cushing and Andre Morell who were superb together, as Sherlock Holmes and Watson, just a few years earlier in Hammer’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”  “Cash on Demand” is the kind of small film that just would not get made today. There are no special effects or flashy moments. It is simply an unadulterated caper film with good writing and solid story telling that demands your attention. Hammer Studio’s was mostly known for its horror films, however they did make a few psychological thrillers in the early 1960’s (Scream of Fear, Stop Me, Before I Kill) that are worthy of being better known today that they are.

Short Takes: Three Reviews

“Kind Lady” is a 1951 remake of a 1935 film based on a play written by Edward Chodorov which itself was based on a story by English novelist Hugh Walpole. The story is involves an elderly woman and art collector (Ethel Barrymore) who meets a starving artist (Maurice Evans) and sociopath who charms his way, with the help of friends, into her house.  Posing as her nephew he holds her prisoner in her own home convincing everyone the kind lady is mentally incapable of taking care of her own affairs. The film is a little loose in style rendering it less effective as a shocker than it could have been but it does have its share of good moments. Fine performances from Barrymore and Maurice Evans. Cast also includes Angela Lansbury, John Williams, Keenan Wynn and Betsy Blair. John Sturges, best known for his work on “Bad Day at Black Rock” and “The Magnificent Seven” directs. (***1/2) Continue reading

Short Takes: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) Preston Sturges

 

I have always hesitated to watch this film because I, for whatever reason on my part, lacked any attraction to the two leading stars Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken.  Well, I finally bit the bullet, smacked myself a couple of times and said this is a Preston Sturges film, just watch it! Subsequently I finally picked up a copy at the local library and happily report how foolish I have been to have avoided this clever work.

Trudy Klockenlocker (Betty Hutton) is a war time victory girl who dates soldiers about to leave for the war.  She sees this as her patriotic duty! On one of these wild evenings Trudy gets drunk, marrying one of the unknown soldiers she partied with and the next morning cannot remember a damn thing about how it all happened. Complications ensue when she soon finds out she is pregnant. Local 4-F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) is in love with Trudy tries to help (she borrows his car to go out and party while he goes alone to a movie) but cannot compete with the soldiers and constantly find himself in trouble with Trudy’s hyper protective father (William Demarest). False identities, jail time for Norval and the birth of sextuplets all contribute to the surprisingly miraculous and controversial going ons.

For the time period this has to be one of the most audacious comedies ever made, a bold satire making sophisticated fun of marriage, small town life, soldiers, and the government all the while pushing the buttons of the production code. Sturges takes on small town values, the sanctity of soldiers going off to war, local politics presenting an almost anti-Capraesque view of America reminding one that he was one of the best screenwriters of his time and now.

 The film was held up from release for about a year resulting in Sturges having three films released in 1944 (Hail, The Conquering Hero and The Great Moment being the other two).  The film was a big hit with audiences when it hit the screens in January becoming Paramount’s biggest money maker for the year.
The cast includes fifteen year old Diana Lynn as Trudy’s kid sister along with many of Sturges regulars including Demarest, Chester Conklin, and Porter Hall among others. Reprising their roles from “The Great McGinty” are Brian Donlevy as the Governor, and Akim Tamiroff as the Boss in cameos. 

Sturges received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay that year (he was also nominated the same year for “Hail the Conquering Hero”) losing to Lamar Trotti for “Wilson.” The Jerry Lewis/Frank Tashlin 1958 film “Rock a Bye Baby” is a loose remake of this film for which Sturges received a screenwriting credit. 

****

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) Anatole Litvak

“The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse”  is an odd little Warner’s film with Edward G. Robinson as a Park Avenue doctor who decides to do some research on criminal behavior by becoming a criminal himself. After stealing some expensive jewelry at a dinner party he seeks out a fence by the name of Joe Keller who turns out to be Jo Keller (Claire Trevor), a woman. Jo’s gang includes “Rocks” Valentine (Humphrey Bogart), a young Ward Bond, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom and Warner Brothers’ regular Allan Jenkins.

To continue his research the good doctor goes on “vacation” in Europe freeing him up from his practice to secretly join the gang in a series of daring robberies. This is a out of the ordinary film that manages at times to be suspenseful, funny, and sinister with a whiff of mad scientist thrown in for good measure. At times the actors seem to be in different films; Bogart in a straight gangster film with “Rocks” in the ranks of his greatest slime ball characters while Robinson acts as a scientifically aloof madman obsessed with his findings going to any length to save his breakthrough research.

In the final courtroom scene Clitterhouse is on trial for poisoning “Rocks” after he discovered the Doctor’s real identity and blackmails him forcing in to stay in the gang. Clitterhouse objects to testimony in court that he must be insane fearing all his research would be disregarded. Still the jury finds him innocent by reason of insanity leaving Clitterhouse not only confused but innocent of murder charges, an ending that was daring for its time when the production code was strictly enforced and criminals must pay for their sins.

The script was written by John Wexley and John Huston based on a play by Barre Lyndon, and was directed by the reliable Anatole Litvak. It was during the filming of this movie that Bogart and Huston met and became friends, a partnership that would lead to some of Hollywood’s greatest films. Huston, Robinson, Bogart and Trevor would reunite some ten years later in “Key Largo.”    

 ***

The Little Giant (1933) Roy Del Ruth

This is a reprint of a short review from my Weekly Wrap column that I have been doing over at  the “Watching Shadows on the Wall” blog,  I am reposting some of the short reviews I have written over there that fit into the scope of 24frames.

 

From Little Caesar to Little Giant. Just two years after Edward G. Robinson made celluloid history as Rico in Mervyn LeRoy’s “Little Caesar” he and Warner Brothers were spoofing his tough guy image in this little gem.  With a story line similar to the better known “A Slight Case of Murder”, which was made some five years later in 1938, this film has Robinson as gangster Bugs Ahearn who decides to get out of the bootlegging business and go straight after Roosevelt’s victory over Hoover and the government’s announcement to repeal prohibition.

Rich from his 12 years of bootlegging, he decides to relocate to California and mingle in high society. The film becomes a fish of water story as Bugs, hiding his true identity, become a target for every scam artist on the west coast especially the evil Cass family. From pretty Polly Cass (Helen Vinson) who seduces him hoping to marry so she can get a quickie divorce and a large settlement, to her brother who sells Bugs polo ponies and finally, the father who sells Bugs an investment firm on the verge of bankruptcy and has the law coming down on them for fraud. Also on board and about the only honest person in the film is Ruth Wayburn (Mary Astor) who of course falls secretly in love with our gangster hero.

The mix of slapstick and verbal humor, many that play on Robinson’s gangster screen image, keeps this film moving at a snappy pace. The film is directed by Roy Del Ruth whose career seems to have flourished during the pre-code era while he was at Warners. His works from this period include “The Maltese Falcon” (1931), “Blonde Crazy”, “Lady Killer”, “Blessed Event”, “Employee Entrance” and “Taxi.”

“The Little Giant” is the least known of four comedy gangster films Robinson did in his career, at least with him in the lead, and deserves to be known better than it is. TCM always has the other three in their rotation (The Whole Town’s Talkin’. A Slight Cast of Murder and Larceny Inc.) however, this one seems to have fallen off the map. It deserves better.

***1/2