This Was Burlesque: THE SULTAN’S DAUGHTER (Monogram 1943)

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Monogram Pictures is mostly remembered today as the home of Bela Lugosi chillers that weren’t too chilling, Charlie Chan mysteries that weren’t so mysterious, and the Bowery Boys peculiar brand of buffoonery. The Poverty Row studio seemed to throw virtually anything at the wall hoping it would stick in order to compete with the major studios of the 1940’s (MGM, 20th Century-Fox, etc). They signed burlesque stripper Ann Corio to a contract, fresh off her appearance in 1941’s SWAMP WOMAN (released by PRC, a studio even more poverty-stricken than Monogram) and concocted a farce titled THE SULTAN’S DAUGHTER, which in spite of itself manages to entertain because of the talented comic actors in the cast.

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The opening says it all, as we gaze upon a book titled “Phony Phables”. The Sultan of Araban (Charles Butterworth ) has a daughter named Patra (Miss Corio), who owns all the country’s oil fields. Nazi agents (Jack LaRue, Gene Roth) want to buy them, but Patra will only sell to the Americans. Enter Jimmy and Tim (Eddie Norris, Tim Ryan), a pair of vaudeville hoofers stranded in Araban. The boys are duped into fronting for the Nazis to purchase the oil, passing themselves off as “subjects of the kingdom of Brooklyn”. Patra falls for Jimmy, while her American companion Irene (Irene Ryan) goes gaga for Tim. Evil Nazi sympathizer Kuda (Fortunio Bonanova ) kidnaps the sultan, Jimmy and Tim are implicated, then vindicated, and by film’s end, everything turns out for the best.

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Ann Corio’s quite a lovely women, but as an actress, she’s a great stripper. Ann doesn’t do any peeling here, but her costume’s skimpy enough to show her stuff to good advantage. A star of the Minsky’s Burlesque circuit, her movie career was brief. She later put together a traveling review titled THIS WAS BURLESQUE that was quite a successful nostalgia show. Supporting stars Tim and Irene Ryan were vaudeville veterans who had an act similar to Burns & Allen. Tim became a mainstay at Monogram, acting in and writing for many of their films. He’s pretty funny here, so I guess I can forgive him for his atrocious screenplay BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA . Wife Irene gets to display her comic talents, and has a pleasant singing voice. She’s best known of course for her long run as Granny on TV’s THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES!

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Then there’s Freddie “Schnicklefritz” Fisher and his orchestra. These guys were kind of cornpone precursors to Spike Jones, mixing comedy with swing music. Speaking of which, there’s plenty of jitterbugging and hepcat talk here. Director Arthur Dreifuss was an old pro at low-budget musical comedies geared for young audiences, helming many a Gale Storm production at Monogram. He concluded his career directing 1960’s youth flicks like RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP and THE YOUNG RUNAWAYS.

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THE SULTAN’S DAUGHTER is a fun little film, but certainly not essential viewing. It’s the product of a bygone era, a time when low-budget studios like Monogram churned out programmers designed to entertain the public and take their minds off the war for an hour or so. I’d recommend it to fans of Monogram Pictures, Ann Corio, or Irene Ryan. And any fans of Freddie “Schnicklefritz” Fisher, if there are any left out there!

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TCM + Criterion Partner for FilmStruck Streaming Service

Big news from TCM and Criterion, courtesy of Will McKinley’s great blog, “Cinematically Insane”!!

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Film Struck“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” John Lennon wrote in “Beautiful Boy.”

And FilmStruck, a just-announced subscription video-on-demand service from TCM, is what happens to Old Movie Weirdos while we’re waiting for the option to subscribe directly to TCM without cable or satellite.

To be clear: FilmStruck is not a standalone streaming version of Turner Classic Movies. But what it is (or will be when it launches this fall) is potentially something even better – a unique programming alternative to the linear TV channel with the same expert curation that’s made TCM beloved by fans for more than two decades. And while the service will not focus primarily on the Studio Era (as TCM does on-air), FilmStruck is expected to include a wealth of content that will appeal to those who prefer films of an older vintage. 

For a monthly subscription price expected to be in “the…

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Still Funny After All These Years: Harold Lloyd in THE MILKY WAY (Paramount 1936)

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Harold Lloyd was one of the “Big 3” comedy stars of the Silent Era, right up there with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in popularity. I’ve viewed and enjoyed comic gems like SAFETY LAST and THE FRESHMAN, and some of his hilarious shorts. His bespectacled, energetic character was wildly popular in the Roaring Twenties, but with the advent of sound and The Great Depression, audiences turned away from Harold’s brand of comedy. Recently, I watched 1936’s THE MILKY WAY and wondered why they did, because Harold Lloyd was just as funny as ever in it, and the film is just as good as any screwball comedy of the era.

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Harold plays Burleigh Sullivan, a milquetoast milkman constantly in hot water for failing to meet his quotas. When a pair of drunken ruffians try to hit on his sister, meek Burleigh is forced to come to her defense. A fight breaks out, and Burleigh emerges from the pile victorious. The fight hits the papers because it seems Burleigh has knocked out the world’s middleweight champion! In reality, the milkman never touched him… he’s just a good ducker, and the champ’s friend did the slugging (seems Burleigh was picked on by bullies in his schooldays, and learned how to dodge a punch).

The champ’s manager, shifty “Honest” Gabby Sloan, tries to persuade Burleigh to get in the ring, but timid Burleigh declines. When Burleigh’s beloved milk wagon horse Agnes falls ill, the milkman changes his mind, needing money for the sick nag. What Burleigh doesn’t realize is Sloan and his gang plan on setting him up with a series of pugs taking dives so they can clean up at the box office for the big matchup between Burleigh and champ Speed McFarlane.

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It’s all pretty silly, but serves as a showcase for Lloyd’s comedic gifts. His physical agility is put to good use, he has a fine voice that fits his personality, and I really don’t understand why he wasn’t able to make the successful transition to talkies. After one more starring vehicle, 1938’s PROFESSOR BEWARE, Lloyd was off the screen until teaming with director Preston Sturges for THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK (1947), a sequel to Lloyd’s silent hit THE FRESHMAN.

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Lloyd is surrounded by a solid supporting cast, led by Adolphe Menjou as the scheming promoter Gabby. Gravel voiced Lionel Stander is dimwitted henchman Spider, William Gargan the chump of a champ, and Verree Teasdale (Mrs. Menjou offscreen) Gabby’s wisecracking moll. Helen Mack (star of SON OF KONG) plays sister Mae, Dorothy Wilson is Burleigh’s girl Polly (they “meet cute” when Harold needs a phone to call a doctor for his horse at 3AM), and Marjorie Gateson is a scream as society matron Mrs. Winthrop Lemoyne (who Harold gives a ducking lesson to in another funny scene). Charles Lane plays a reporter, Murry Alper a cabbie, and if you look real close, you’ll spot Anthony Quinn making his film debut as a fight spectator.

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Leo McCarey was an old pro when it came to directing comedy. McCarey got his start at Hal Roach studios, working with the likes of Charlie Chase and Laurel & Hardy. When talkies arrived, he was the go-to guy for the top comedians of the day: The Marx Brothers (DUCK SOUP ), W.C. Fields, Burns & Allen, Mae West. McCarey won two Oscars in his career, for 1937’s screwball hit THE AWFUL TRUTH and the sentimental 1944 GOING MY WAY. Many of you are probably familiar with Harold Lloyd’s silent classics, but don’t take his talkies for granted. If they’re anything like THE MILKY WAY, they’ll be worth watching.

 

 

Bravo for RIO BRAVO (Warner Brothers 1959)

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If there’s such a thing as the quintessential “John Wayne Movie”, RIO BRAVO may very well be it. Producer/director Howard Hawks created the perfect blend of action and humor, leading an all-star cast through this tale of a stand-off between the good guys and the bad guys. RIO BRAVO’s theme has been done over many times, most notably by John Carpenter in 1976’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Hawks himself remade the film, with Wayne again starring, as EL DORADO and RIO LOBO, but the original remains the best of the bunch.

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The plot itself is pretty basic. When disgraced deputy Dude (called Borrachon, Spanish for ‘big drunk’) walks into a saloon looking for booze, no-good Joe Burdette tosses a silver dollar into a spittoon for kicks. Sheriff John T. Chance stops Dude from embarrassing himself, only to receive a whack in the head for his efforts. Dude goes after Joe and a fight breaks out, and Joe kills a man in cold blood. Chance ends up arresting Joe for murder, realizing Joe’s cattle baron brother Nathan Burdette will try to spring the neer-do-well before the U.S. Marshal arrives in town. Chance has Joe locked up under the watchful eye of the crippled old geezer Stumpy, whose land was taken by the evil Burdette clan.

Chance’s old pal, wagon master Pat Wheeler, rolls into town and offers to help, but Chance turns him down, not wanting to put his friend in danger. One of Wheeler’s men, the fast-gun kid Colorado, could be of service but doesn’t want to get involved. The stagecoach pulls in, carrying flirtatious card sharp Feathers, and is sabotaged by Burdette’s men, hoping to delay the Marshal’s arrival. When Wheeler is killed by Burdette’s hired guns, Colorado changes his mind and joins the fight to hold Joe as Burdette’s hired killers lay siege on the jail.

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This sets the stage for action and some fine character studies from the cast. Predominant among them is John Wayne as the stalwart Sheriff Chance, determined to uphold the law no matter what the price. It’s really the beginning of the “John Wayne Movie” formula the actor followed in his 60’s and 70’s movies. That caused many critics to complain that The Duke was basically playing the same role in all his films. There’s some truth to that in his latter-day films (notable exceptions being TRUE GRIT and THE SHOOTIST). But at this juncture of his career, Wayne was more Movie Star than Actor, his films being box office smashes no matter what he was playing. John Wayne had more than proved himself as an actor for years (check him out in STAGECOACH, RED RIVER, SANDS OF IWO JIMA, THE QUIET MAN, or THE SEARCHERS for proof of that). He may have been coasting along for the last twenty years of his career, but any notions that he couldn’t act had been dispelled long ago, and indeed, he won the Oscar for his Rooster Cogburn turn in 1969’s TRUE GRIT. If he wanted to just make “John Wayne Movies” by that point, he’d earned the right, and filmgoers didn’t seem to mind. They were always entertaining star vehicles and became a kind of genre of their own.

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Duke was surrounded in RIO BRAVO by a top-notch supporting cast. Dean Martin (Dude) was still trying to shed the “Jerry Lewis’s partner” tag in the late 50’s, and his portrayal of the alcoholic deputy went a long way towards that goal. Martin was another actor who was accused of trading in on his persona rather than giving a good performance, but he was more than up to the challenge when given solid material. Teen idol Ricky Nelson (Colorado), who shot to fame on his parents TV show THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET, truthfully wasn’t much in the acting department, being cast here mainly to draw in the younger crowd. He was a better singer than actor, as Nelson proves in the middle of the film by dueting with Martin on “My Rifle, My Pony, & Me”, then a rousing “Get Along, Cindy” with Dino and (of all people) Walter Brennan ! The triple Oscar winner channels his inner Gabby Hayes here as the crotchety old-timer Stumpy, always complaining about Chance but remaining forever loyal

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Angie Dickinson (Feathers) was just beginning her career in Hollywood, and RIO BRAVO was her breakthrough role. Wayne’s old pal and frequent costar Ward Bond (Wheeler) was known by this time as another wagon master, Major Seth Adams of the TV hit WAGON TRAIN. The rest of the cast is rounded out by sagebrush vets Claude Akins, John Russell , Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez, Bob Steele, Bing Russell, and Myron Healey .

Behind the scenes, screenwriters Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett  crafted a great script based on a short story by B.H. McCampbell. The dialogue sparkles with wit, especially the scenes between straight-laced Chance and the seductive Feathers. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score includes the use of the haunting theme “Deguello”, played while Santa Anna’s troops laid siege to The Alamo, setting just the right mood. DP Russell Harlan worked with director Hawks on several films. He was a six-time Oscar nominee who never got his due.

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The same could be said about Howard Hawks, who only received one nomination (for 1941’s SERGEANT YORK) during his illustrious career. That may be due to the fact Hawks was so adept at any genre he worked in, whether it be western, screwball comedy, noir, even musicals and science fiction. Just a short list from his filmography highlights some of Hollywood’s greatest movies: SCARFACE (1932), BRINGING UP BABY (1938), HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), THE BIG SLEEP (1946), RED RIVER (1948), THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953). Hawks was finally recognized by the Academy with a lifetime achievement award in 1975, two years before his death. He remains one of America’s most influential directors of the Golden Age.

After Colorado warns that Walter Brennan (Stumpy) is standing next to a wagon full of dynamite, the older man retrieves a box of explosives and joins Chance.

RIO BRAVO is one of nine Hawks films declared culturally significant by the Library of Congress to be included in the National Film Registry. Besides that lofty designation, it’s a fun film that moves briskly along despite its two-hour, twenty-minute running time. Obviously, I love this movie, otherwise I wouldn’t be so long-winded here. The word “classic” gets bandied about pretty regularly when people discuss older films, but RIO BRAVO is one that’s well deserving of the sobriquet. Those who’ve never watched it owe it to themselves to go out and do so. And for those who have, rewatch and be amazed at Hollywood filmmaking at its finest!

 

When Doves Cry: RIP Prince

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This morning, I learned both Chyna and Guy Hamilton had died. These weren’t exactly unexpected deaths. Chyna, the former wrestler and porn star, had struggled with substance abuse issues for many years. Hamilton, director of such James Bond films as GOLDFINGER, LIVE AND LET DIE, and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, was age 93.

But Prince? That caught me completely off guard.

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The iconic rocker was 57, and had just recently performed in Atlanta. He burst on the scene with a hybrid of psychedelic funk rock that was uniquely Prince. Hit albums like DIRTY MIND, CONTROVERSY, 1999, AROUND THE WORLD IN A DAY, and SIGN “O” THE TIMES became classics as Prince crossed musical, racial,  and gender borders to create his own distinct artistic vision. He was one of the first black artist to be featured in heavy rotation on MTV, back when they actually were about music, and his visual style helped bring a wider audience to his music. He starred in the mega-hit film PURPLE RAIN, followed by UNDER THE CHERRY MOON and GRAFFITI BRIDGE.

Musicians like Sheila E, Morris Day, Vanity 6, and Apollonia got their starts with Prince. His songs were covered by everyone from Sinead O’Connor to Tom Jones:

He was a maverick in the music business who once changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. He battled with record companies, determined to hold the rights to his music, even pulling his videos from YouTube. The best I could find is this live rendition of the classic PURPLE RAIN:

RIP, Prince Rogers Nelson. The doves are crying tonight.

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Darkness on the Edge of Town: WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (20th Century Fox 1950)

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I recorded WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS way back in June, and haven’t watched it until just recently. It was well worth the wait, for this is one of the finest noirs I’ve seen yet. Director Otto Preminger reunited with the stars of his film LAURA, Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, to give us a bleak crime drama that more than holds its own with the best films noir of the era.

Police Detective Mark Dixon (Andrews) is a proto-Dirty Harry cop, a tough SOB not above laying the smackdown on New York City’s criminal element. Another assault charge leads to Mark being demoted by his superiors. Mark’s got a reason for his brutality tactics, though: his father was a criminal, and he’s psychologically compelled to clean up the corruption in his city.

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He’s particularly got a hair across his ass about gambling czar Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), who was set up in business by Mark’s father. When a murder occurs at one of Scalise’s floating crap games, Mark wants to pin it on the gangster, but new Lt. Thomas (Karl Malden) warns him not to fly off the handle. Suspect Kenneth Paine (Craig Stevens) is tracked down by Mark, and a scuffle breaks out. Mark kills Paine accidentally, and covers it up by making it look like Paine’s left town. Paine’s ex-wife, model Morgan (Tierney) was also at the crap game, and Mark questions her. Things take a wrong turn when Morgan’s cab driver dad Jiggs (Tom Tully ) winds up implicated for Paine’s death, and now Mark has to prove the old man’s innocence without letting the truth about himself be known.

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WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS is a classic example of the “downward spiral” in noir. The web of lies Mark’s spun causes things to rapidly spin out of control. Preminger keeps things moving at a fast clip from a taut screenplay by Ben Hecht. DP Joseph LaShelle’s black & white photography is appropriately stark and as good as his Oscar-winning job on LAURA, as is Louis Loeffler’s editing. Cyril Mockridge’s score set just the right tone.

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Andrews and Tierney made a solid screen team, and Merrill is surprisingly good as a gangster type. Besides those previously mentioned, Familiar Faces in the cast are Bert Freed, Ruth Donnelly, Neville Brand, Robert F. Simon, and Harry Von Zell. And Tierney’s then-husband, fashion designer Oleg Cassini, has a bit as (what else?) a fashion designer. WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS may be no LAURA, but it compares favorably to genre titles like THE BIG HEAT and THE KILLERS. It’s an underrated treat noir fans won’t want to miss.

It Was A Very Good Year: LOST, LONELY, AND VICIOUS (Howco 1958)

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Happy birthday to me! Yes, I share my birthday with such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, Christine McIntyre, Peter Ustinov, Henry Mancini, and coach Bill Belichick! Seeing as how we here in Massachusetts have a three-day weekend (Patriot’s Day on Monday), I’ll be pretty busy. But before I step away from the blogosphere for a few days, I thought I’d try to find something to share from the year I was born (yes, I’m THAT old!!).

What I stumbled upon was LOST, LONELY, AND VICIOUS, a fictional retelling of the James Dean mystique, right down to the two leads (superficially) resembling Dean and his REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE co-star, Natalie Wood. It’s the story of Johnny Dennis (initials JD, get it?), a young actor “obsessed with death” on the cusp of stardom. Despite the awful acting and wretched dialogue, I kind of enjoyed it. No accounting for taste, I guess! There aren’t any actors of note here, except perhaps Lilyan Chauvin as Johnny’s drama coach Tanya. She was a real-life acting coach whose best known film role was probably as Mother Superior in the holiday slasher flick SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT .

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From Howco International, the folks who brought you such classics as THE BRAIN FROM PLANT AROUS and THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, amuse yourselves by watching LOST, LONELY, AND VICIOUS. See you in a few days, film fans!