Naughty Or Nice: SUSAN SLEPT HERE (RKO 1954)

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Looking for something a little offbeat in a Christmas movie? Try SUSAN SLEPT HERE, a film that could never get made today, as it concerns the romance between a 17 year old girl and a 35 year old man. I know some of you out there are already screaming “EEEEWWW!!!”, but indulge me while I describe the madcap moments leading to said romance.

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For starters, the movie is narrated by Oscar. Not Oscar Levant, but THE Oscar, the fabled Academy Awards statuette. This particular Oscar was won by Mark Christopher, screenwriter of fluffy Hollywood comedies yearning to pen a dramatic yarn and prove his mettle as a writer. Into his life comes teenage Susan Landis, a juvenile delinquent dumped on his doorstep by two cops who don’t want to lock her up til after the holidays. They figure Mark can watch her and get a good story idea in the process before she winds up on a prison farm until she turns 18.

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This idea doesn’t sit well Susan, who thinks the old rascal wants to get in her pants. Mark’s fiancé, the blonde ice princess Isabella, isn’t too happy with the situation either. Susan soon begins to fall for Mark’s kindness and gives him a big kiss under the misseltoe, just when his pal Virgil and attorney Harvey walk in the door. Mark decides he’s going to marry Susan – in name only, of course – in order to keep her out of the hoosegow, so he drives her over state lines for a quickie Vegas wedding, and keeps her up dancing all night so they won’t have time to consummate the honeymoon. Then Mark and his secretary Maude take off for Sun Valley so he can work on his script, leaving Susan alone with Virgil.

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Lawyer Harvey tries to get Susan to sign annulment papers, but she refuses. Later, Harvey sees Susan at a lunch counter- eating strawberries and pickles! Fearing the worst, he calls Mark to chastise him for getting her pregnant, but innocent Mark thinks it’s Virgil that did the dirty deed while he was away. Alls well that ends well, as we find out Susan’s not really preggo, she just digs eating strawberries and pickles! Mark soon realizes he’s fallen in love with Susan, and she pulls him into the bedroom to, uh, well… consummate!

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Screenwriter Alex Gottleib peppers his script with plenty of double entendrees and innuendoes, but it’s Frank Tashlin’s direction that makes the film come to life. Tashlin got his start in cartoons, working for animation studios Terrytoons, Van Buren, Ub Iwerks, Screen Gems, and most notably Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes”, cranking out classics with Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and (during the war) Private Snafu. He put his cartoon training to good use in films starring Martin & Lewis (ARTISTS AND MODELS, HOLLYWOOD OR BUST), Bob Hope (SON OF PALEFACE), and many of Jerry Lewis’s early solo efforts. Tashlin was also responsible for two of the 50’s funniest comedies, THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT and WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?, both with Jayne Mansfield. Most of his films resemble live-action cartoons, with wild sight gags galore, and filled with vibrant, eye-popping Technicolor, captured in SUSAN SLEPT HERE by Nicholas Musuraca, usually associated with the dark world of film noir!

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22 year old Debbie Reynolds plays 17 year old Susan, and she’s a frantic, funny ball of energy as the delinquent teen. 50 year old Dick Powell plays 35 year old Mark, and the difference in their ages really shows. You can tell he’s uncomfortable about the whole thing, and the filmmakers wisely chose to make Debbie the aggressor, chasing Powell with wild abandon. There’s a crazy dream sequence that has Powell in a spangled sailor suit, harkening back to his early Warner Bros musical days, with Debbie a sweet little bird in a gilded cage, and lovely Anne Francis (Isabella) as the Spider-Woman coming between them.

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Glenda Farrell , who was Powell’s age but looks much older, is his girl Friday Maude, and she gets the best lines, calling Isabella “Dracula’s daughter”, having an exchange with Powell’s maid (Maid: “Didn’t he just write a hit for Jane Russell?” Glenda: “His story is NOT what made that picture a hit!”), and this bit with Virgil; Him: “What do you know about motherhood?” Her: “I happened to have typed the script for ‘Stella Dallas’!”. Virgil is Alvy Moore, best known as Mr. Kimball on TV’s GREEN ACRES. Other Familiar Faces are Herb Vigran and Horace McMahon as the cops, Les Tremayne as the lawyer, and bits from Benny Rubin, Ellen Corby, Rita Johnson, and in a funny cameo, Red Skelton .

Times and tastes change, and Tashlin’s 50’s films today may be considered sexist. I like his stuff, as he brings that cartoony sensibility to all his films. You’ll have to decide for yourselves whether SUSAN SLEPT HERE belongs on your Christmas watch-list. I enjoyed it, it’s full of Hollywood in-jokes and skewers all Tashlin’s favorite targets- teenagers, television, psychiatry, and SEX! Give it a shot; if you feel offended by it, I’ll be glad to send you a safety pin.

Christmas Surprise: IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE (Allied Artists 1947)

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I’d never heard of IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE until it’s recent broadcast on TCM. This unsung little holiday gem was a TV staple for decades before being pulled from viewing in 1990, only resurfacing in 2009 when a small but dedicated band of classic film fans put the pressure on to see it aired once again. And I’m glad they did, for this charming, unpretensious comedy boasts a marvelous cast, an Oscar-nominated screenplay, and a Frank Capra-esque feel without a lot of the Capra-corn.

Capra himself was scheduled to direct it back in 1945, but instead he chose to make another Christmas film you may have heard of, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Veteran Roy Del Ruth obtained the rights, and IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE became the first release of Allied Artists, the larger budgeted, more prestigious arm of Monogram Pictures (and you know how much I love Monogram movies!). The film was cast, shooting began, and the movie was released- in Easter season! I’m not quite sure why a movie based around the Christmas season was released on Easter, but it didn’t matter, as moviegoers packed their local theaters, and Allied Artists had a huge hit on their hands.

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The story: When “industrial wizard” Michael J. O’Connor, “the second richest man in the world”, goes south to Virginia during the winter months, hobo Aloysius McKeever and his dog Sammy appropriate the property. McKeever meets Jim Bullock, a homeless vet evicted from his room because O’Connor bought his building to put up another skyscraper. McKeever invites Jim to stay with him until he gets settled somewhere.

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O’Connor’s headstrong 18 year old daughter Trudy, still depressed over her parent’s divorce, runs away from boarding school and heads to the family mansion. She’s caught by McKeever and Jim, who think she’s a thief trying to steal a mink coat. When she overhears the two talking about the reason they’re in her home, she plays along, calling herself ‘Trudy Smith’ from Dubuque, Iowa, one of fourteen children with an alcoholic father who beats them all regularly.

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Trudy falls for Jim, and while they stroll down the street they run into a couple of Jim’s old Army buddies, Whitey and Hank, and their families, currently all living in their car due to the housing crisis. Soon all nine people are squatting in the O’Connor homestead, and Jim comes up with a plan to turn a former Army camp into housing for homeless veterans. O’Connor tracks down Trudy, but she persuades pop into playing along so Jim won’t think she’s a spoiled little rich girl. He does for a time, but soon gets fed up with the situation and threatens to call the police, forcing Trudy to call mom Mary in Palm Beach, who arrives and gets in on the charade by posing as an Irish cook!

Got all that so far? Good, but there’s a catch: unbeknownst to each, O’Connor is bidding on that same Army property as Jim, causing more complications. But you just know everything’s going to work out in the end; after all, it’s a Christmas movie, and that’s what Christmas movies do! Producer/director Del Ruth wraps things up neatly with a bow on top, and screenwriter Everett Freeman sends us all home happy in the end (his script lost the Oscar to another Yuletime classic that year, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET!).

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Victor Moore gets top billing as McKeever, a gentle soul of a hobo who’s wiser than his outward appearance lets on. Moore was a star of Broadway and early silent flicks who became a reliable character actor (GOLD DIGGERS OF 1937, SWING TIME). He’s definitely an acquired taste, but is more than acceptable here. The young lovers are well played by Don DeFore and Gale Storm . I’ve told you about my long-time crush on Miss Storm here through viewing reruns of her sitcom MY LITTLE MARGIE. Gale had a lovely singing voice to boot, but for some reason Del Ruth chose to have her dubbed! Doesn’t matter, Monogram’s home-grown starlet shines anyway as Trudy.

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It’s Charles Ruggles who really made the film for me as the millionaire O’Connor. Ruggles’ facial expressions, vocal inflections, and willingness to take a pratfall or two are a joy to behold, and the veteran comic character star walks away with the movie’s acting honors. Pre-Code darling Ann Harding (HOLIDAY, THE ANIMAL KINGDOM, THE LIFE OF VERGIE WINTERS), always a welcome presence, has terrific chemistry with Ruggles as his former spouse. Young Alan Hale Jr (Gilligan’s Skipper!) plays Jim’s pal Whitey, and Dorothea Kent (a lovely lass) is his wife. Other Familiar Faces joining in on the fun are Leon Belasco, Edward Brophy, Chester Clute, Dudley Dickerson, James Flavin, John Hamilton, Charles Lane, George Lloyd, and Grant Mitchell.

IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE will be on my Christmas watch list from now on, a delightful screwball tale the whole family can enjoy. Tired of the same old holiday movies? Give this one a try; you can thank me later!

 

METEOR is a Crashing Bore (AIP 1979)

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American-International Pictures had gotten pretty fancy-schmancy by the late 70’s. The studio was leaving their exploitation roots behind and branching out to bigger budgeted films like FORCE TEN FROM NAVARONE, LOVE AT FIRST BITE, and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, with bigger name stars for marquee allure. Toward the end of 1979 they released METEOR, a $16 million dollar, star-studded, special-effects laden, sci-fi/ disaster film spectacle that bombed at the box-office and contributed to the company’s demise.

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Coming at the tail end of the disaster cycle, METEOR is formulaic as hell. Take a group of well-known stars (Sean Connery, Natalie Wood Karl Malden Brian Keith , Martin Landau, Henry Fonda ), give them a disastrous menace to combat (in this case a five-mile wide meteor hurtling toward Earth), add some conflict (US/USSR Cold War relations), and some scenes of destruction, and voila! instant disaster movie! Unfortunately, by 1979 audiences had already grown tired of the formula and its various permutations, leaving METEOR to crumble like so much space dust.

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A brief summary: former NASA scientist Paul Bradley (Connery), creator of America’s secret nuclear missile defense satellite Hercules, is plucked from his yacht race and brought back into service by ex-boss Harry Sherwood (Malden). A wayward comet has struck the asteroid belt, and now the aforementioned five-mile-wide meteor (nicknamed Orpheus) threatens good ol’ Mother Earth. The President (Fonda) holds a televised speech admitting they have the nuclear satellite, and asks for Russia’s cooperation, knowing they too have one (code name Peter The Great). The Ruskies send scientist Dr. Dubov (Keith) and his astrophysicist interpreter Tatiana (Wood) to help, much to the chagrin of commie-hating General Adlan (Landau). Now that the two superpowers have joined together, can they put aside their differences and turn their respective missiles at Orpheus instead of each other in time to avert a global catastrophe?

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It’s not exciting as it may sound. Connery looks bored, Malden and Landau overact, and Fonda’s obviously only there for the paycheck. Only Keith and Wood seem engaged in the material, though Trevor Howard does okay in his tiny role as a British astronomer. Besides the big names, there are other, lesser Familiar Faces in lesser roles: Joseph Campanella, Richard Dysart, Bibi Besch, Sybil Danning, Gregory Gaye, Clyde Kusatsu, newscaster Clete Roberts, and Uncle Walt’s nephew Roy Disney (wait… how’d he get in here??). They even got THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE’s Ronald Neame to direct, hoping to capture some of that movie’s popularity. Didn’t work- the new film was nowhere near that early disaster classic in terms of character development, script, or excitement.

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The special effects scenes are good, not great. There’s a tsunami in Hong Kong, an avalanche in the Swiss Alps, and a meteor fragment that destroys a large swath of New York City. There are some unintentionally funny moments, like watching Connery and Malden slog through a muddy flood in a subway tunnel, Malden’s comb-over flopping down his shoulder. We get ominous music every time Orpheus appears onscreen, kind of like when “Bruce” shows up in JAWS. It’s all silly and overwrought, and by the next year AIP founder Samuel Arkoff, his big-budget gambles all gone sour, sold the company to Filmways, which was later bought out by Orion, which in turn was sold to MGM, who now own the rights to the AIP catalog. Old Sam should’ve stuck with beach parties and monster movies.

The Roots of STAR WARS (20th Century Fox 1977)

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It had to happen sooner or later so, with the new ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY being released tomorrow, I figure now is a good time to take a look at one of the biggest films of the 1970’s, STAR WARS (retitled A NEW HOPE for you revisionists, but to me it’s still just STAR WARS). I’m pretty sure everyone reading this post is familiar with the story, so rather than rehash the plot, I’m just going to dive right into some points of interest for classic film fans.

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First off, the movie was originally imagined as a loving homage to serials like FLASH GORDON and BUCK ROGERS. Writer/director George Lucas originally intended to remake FLASH, but couldn’t obtain the rights, so he created his own space opera universe, cobbling bits and pieces from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Joseph Campbell, The Bible, and other sources, including the movies he grew up with and admired. There’s a definite John Ford feel to much of STAR WARS, especially THE LOST PATROL  (the droids trekking across Tattoonie) and THE SEARCHERS (Luke discovering the fate of his aunt and uncle). I’d swear Ford himself was calling some of the shots, the composition is that close. Being a huge Ford fan myself, I’m always pleased when someone decides to “borrow” from the old master!

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Sergio Leone  also gets some love, during some of the action scenes and use of close-ups. Another Italian director who doesn’t get mentioned when STAR WARS influences are cited is Antonio Margheretti, whose 60’s low-budget sci-fi lunacies sprang to mind as I rewatched the movie. And everyone should be aware of the influence Japanese director Akira Kurosawa has on this film. I do know the scene where a man’s arm is cut off by light sabre, and again where Han Solo is offered “Two thousand now, plus fifteen when we reach Alderaan” are direct references to Kurosawa’s classic YOJIMBO.

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I’ve not seen Kurosawa’s THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, so I can’t comment on the correlation between the characters in that film and the banter between CP3O and R2D2. I can say with some certainty the two loveable droids have a direct lineage to classic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy , with a dash of Abbott and Costello for good measure. CP is obviously modeled after Rotwang’s creation Maria in Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS, while R2 resembles nothing less than a sentient vacuum cleaner! R2 does have a moment when he gets zapped by Jawas that brought to mind FORBIDDEN PLANET (which itself was a heavy influence on another space opera franchise- STAR TREK !).

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The evil Lord Darth Vader was so malevolent it took two actors to portray him! Well, not really, the truth is physical presence Dave Prowse’s heavily accented voice didn’t fit the character. Lucas wanted Orson Welles to provide Vader’s ominous tones, but went instead with James Earl Jones, who does a superb job. Prowse had once played the Frankenstein Monster alongside Peter Cushing in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, and the two are reunited here as the great Mr. Cushing plays equally evil Gran Moff Tarkin. I couldn’t help but wonder what the film would’ve been like if Lucas had chosen Christopher Lee to portray Vader, and gave us fans another chance to watch Hammer Film’s two greatest icons together!

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The light sabre duel between Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) is no doubt inspired by the grand final battle between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD . Sir Alec himself thought the movie was a lot of “rubbish”, but lends a dignified presence to the proceedings. Some of the films he made with British director David Lean, mainly LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, cast a large shadow over the look of STAR WARS. War films as a whole play a part in influencing the movie, as Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor was behind the camera for THE DAM BUSTERS, the attack on the Death Star was pretty much lifted from 633 SQUADRON, and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE has also been cited as an influence.

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I could go on and on, but you get the picture. As much as STAR WARS has influenced a generation of filmmakers, the original itself has its own roots firmly in the cinema of the past. There’s the James Bond-ish battles between the Stormtroopers and the Rebels, the old “walls-closing-in” gag, the opening shot recalling 2001, the CASABLANCA like bar scene, the cocky Han Solo echoing both Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster… and I’m not 100% certain, but when Leia calls Chewbacca a “walking carpet”, is that a reference to THE CREEPING TERROR?? Only George Lucas knows for sure!! Lucas took the futuristic visual aesthetic of his THX-1138 , combined it with the full-blooded teen angst of AMERICAN GRAFFITI and his love of film, and gave us an adventure that’s truly stood the test of time. So when you all rush out to see ROGUE ONE tomorrow night, remember without classic films past, there is no STAR WARS. And maybe, just maybe, this little post will persuade a few of you to revisit some of those thrilling films of yesteryear, made long ago, in a studio far, far way…

A Refreshed Reader for 2017

The New WordPress Reader… like or dislike? I think it’s a much cleaner layout, how about you?

The WordPress.com Blog

Reader is WordPress.com’s town square, where you can follow your favorite sites and read them in a distraction-free environment. We’ve been working on a refresh for months, and we’re thrilled to share it with you today. For readers, we hope these changes will surprise and delight you, adding more diversity to your stream and exposing you to posts you’ll love. And for writers, we want to put your awesome work in front of a whole new audience.

A Simplified Design

We want Reader to feel like a magazine you can cozy up with, so we’ve streamlined the design, featuring clean text on a simple white background. We’ve also increased the information density so you can see more of the sites you love with less scrolling.

New Post Layouts

There’s a huge variety of content in Reader. We want to make sure it looks great no matter what, so the layout now responds to what’s in the post. For example…

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Flight of Fancy: Vincent Price in MASTER OF THE WORLD (AIP 1961)

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MATSER OF THE WORLD is AIP’s answer to Disney’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA . Both are based on the works of Jules Verne, and involve fanatical protagonists commanding futuristic ships (an airship in this case). The difference is in budget, as studio honchos Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson didn’t have the financial means to compete with the mighty Walt Disney. They did have Vincent Price though, and within their monetary constraints came up with an entertaining mini-epic enhanced by another solid Richard Matheson script.

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Price stars as Captain Robur, who’s fantastic flying airship Albatross rules the skies of 1868. When his amplified voice bellows some scripture from a mountain (does this make Vinnie the Voice of God?), balloon enthusiasts Mr. Prudent, daughter Dorothy, and her fiancé Phillip Evans, along with government agent John Strock, investigate, only to be shot down by Robur’s rockets and taken prisons aboard his flying fortress.

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Robur and his crew (dressed in striped shirts ala 20,000 LEAGUES) plan to force the nations of the world to end war by bombing the crap out of any warships they fly over. This “peace through strength” tactic doesn’t go so over well with the prisoners, whose escape attempt winds up with Evans and Strock being dangled from the Albatross at high altitude. To make matters worse, there’s a budding rivalry between the two men for Dorothy’s affections.

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The fact that Strock is played by Charles Bronson   and Evans by little-known British actor David Frankham should tell you who wins in that department! Bronson’s good in an early good-guy role, especially his impassioned “honor be damned!” speech. Mary Webster, another Brit, is the object of their affections. Veteran Henry Hull overacts as bombastic munitions manufacturer Prudent, but it’s still good to see the former WEREWOLF OF LONDON onscreen again. Vito Scotti is the supposed comic relief as chef Topage, and muscleman Richard Harrison and AIP vet Wally Campo are Robur’s main crewmen.

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Vincent Price stated this was one of his favorite roles. As the Nemo-like Robur, Price tones it down and offers an intelligent portrait of a man who uses his genius to try to end the folly of war. His end soliloquy, quoting from Isaiah 2:4 (“All the nations will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never shall they learn war anymore”) while the Albatross descends to its inevitable doom, is stirring stuff. I know, Robur’s supposed to be a madman and the nominal villain of the piece, but I found myself rooting for him more often than not.

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I couldn’t root for the not-so-special special effects of Tim Baar, Wah Chang, and Gene Warren though, but hampered by the low-budget, I guess they did their best. There’s tons of stock footage interspersed throughout the film, including an opening montage of early attempts to fly you’ve seen a hundred times. Director William Witney puts his experience with serials (CAPTAIN MARVEL, SPY SMASHER, MYSTERIOUS DR. SATAN) and B-Westerns to good use, moving things along at a brisk pace. Daniel Haller’s art direction stands out, but Les Baxter’s score is intrusive. MASTER OF THE WORLD is an uneven film, certainly not in the category of Disney’s Jules Verne classic, but an okay way to spend an hour and a half. If you shut your brain off and don’t expect too much out of it, you just might enjoy it.

Hillbilly Deluxe: MURDER, HE SAYS (Paramount 1945)

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George Marshall has long been a favorite director of mine. Though he excelled in all genres (particularly Westerns), it’s his comedies that first caught my attention. Marshall guided W.C. Fields through his first for Universal, YOU CAN’T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (with radio foils Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy), did some of Bob Hope’s best films (THE GHOST BREAKERS, MONSIER BEAUCAIRE, FANCY PANTS), and directed MY FRIEND IRMA, the debut of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, later teaming with the pair for SCARED STIFF. He’s also responsible for the classic comic Western DESTRY RIDES AGAIN with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, and the remake with Audie Murphy. But his wackiest comedy is undoubtably the off-the-wall MURDER, HE SAYS.

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This black comedy gem stars the underrated Fred MacMurray as Pete Marshall, pollster for the Trotter company (“Like the Gallup Poll, but not as fast”), sent to tiny rural Potowanamie to find missing coworker Hector P. Smedley. He rides his bicycle to the home of the Fleagle family, a murderous gang of hillbilly outlaws led by the whip-cracking Maw Fleagle Smithers Johnson. Falling into a hole, he’s taken to the dilapidated old house, meeting Maw’s homicidal twin dimwits Mert and Bert, Maw’s latest husband Mr.  Johnson, and crazy daughter Elany. Gun-toting Grandmaw Fleagle is dying (the brood has poisoned her, causing her to glow in the dark!), and she’s harboring a secret- bank robber son Ollie Fleagle stashed $70 Grand somewhere, and the only clue is a nonsense song that only his daughter Bonnie will recognize.

Grandmaw kicks off, leaving the lyrics to the tune on a sampler she gives to Pete. Then brazen Bonnie shows up, having escaped from prison, clutching a cigar in her teeth and gun in her hand. Only it’s not Bonnie, it’s Claire Matthews, whose father was falsely imprisoned in the robbery and wants to find the loot to clear him. The Fleagle brood attempt to kill Bonnie/Claire with poisoned gravy on her grits, winding up with Mr. Johnson’s untimely demise instead. Soon the REAL Bonnie shows up and the game’s afoot…

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This premise sets up a heapin’ helping of slapstick gags and goofiness, with MacMurray showing off his comic skills to good advantage. He mugs, double-takes, pratfalls, and tosses off one-liners with the best of them (there’s even a quick quip referencing his noted saxophone playing!). The scene where he tricks the doltish twins by pretending to converse with the ghost of Hector Smedley is a comic highlight, as is the riotous ending in the hay barn. If you’re only familiar with Fred MacMurray for his dramatic roles, gentle Disney comedies, or the long-running MY THREE SONS, watch him put his clowning hat on, he’s a delight!

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Equally delightful is Marjorie Main as Maw, a warm-up for her Ma Kettle role, only this hillbilly matriarch is deadlier than a rattlesnake. Whether killing a fly on the wall with her whip or slyly commenting on her home décor (cattle skulls, quipping to MacMurray, “Pretty, ain’t they?”), Main broadly plays this grotesque caricature of motherhood to the hilt. Peter Whitney  in a dual role as twins Mert and Bert made a living off playing no-account white trash types. Helen Walker (NIGHTMARE ALLEY ) acts tough impersonating killer Bonnie, vulnerable as Claire, and is more than a match for MacMurray. That perennial slimeball Porter Hall shines as Mr. Johnson, Jean Heather (who costarred with MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY) is loony Elany, and Barbara Pepper (who’d later play Arnold’s “mom” Mrs. Ziffel on GREEN ACRES) is the real escaped con Bonnie.

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MURDER, HE SAYS benefits from Marshall’s fast-paced direction, it’s 91 minutes flying by faster than the train to Potowanamie. It’s full of physical schtick, in-jokes, and demented black comedy that classic film lover’s will eat up like Maw’s grits… just make sure you pass on the gravy!

 

Happy 100th Birthday Kirk Douglas: THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (MGM 1952)

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Today is the 100th birthday of movie legend Kirk Douglas! Like Olivia de Havilland earlier this year, Kirk is one of the last living Golden Age greats. Bursting onto the screen in film noir classics like THE STRANGE LOVES OF MARTHA IVERS and OUT OF THE PAST , he first received top billing in the 1949 boxing noir CHAMPION, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance. Later, Kirk starred in some of the best films Hollywood has to offer: ACE IN THE HOLE, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , LUST FOR LIFE (his second Oscar nom, though he never won the statue), PATHS OF GLORY, SPARTACUS, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE. One of my personal favorites is 1952’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.

One of those Hollywood movies about making Hollywood movies, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is expertly directed by insider Vincent Minnelli, who knew this material like the back of his hand. Aided tremendously by DP Robert Surtees’s  B&W  photography, with a fine score by David Raskin, Minnelli directs Charles Schnee’s roman a clef screenplay about an ambitious producer who’ll stop at nothing to get his artistic vision onscreen. Classic film fans will have a blast figuring out just who is based on who, some obvious, others not.

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Movie star Georgia Lorrison, director Fred Amiel, and writer James Lee Bartlow have all turned down former mega-producer Jonathan Shields’ request to participate in his comeback film. All three are summoned to the office of studio exec Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon  ), who knows why the trio hate Shields so much. Flashbacks tell us each of their tales, beginning with Amiel (Barry Sullivan), who was an “AD on Poverty Row” making “four-day quickies” when he first encountered Shields. Jonathan’s father was a former studio chief who was so hated by Tinseltown the son had to hire mourners for dad’s funeral, including Amiel. Determined to restore the Shields name to its former glory, the pair begin producing and directing low-budget “B’s” for Pebbel. Given a script for a horror shocker called “Doom of the Cat-Men”, they turn an average potboiler into a masterpiece of quiet terror, and the movie becomes a surprise hit. When Pebbel wants a sequel, Shields pushes to make Fred’s adaptation of the book “The Far Away Mountain”, asking for a million dollar budget. He secures the services of Latin heartthrob Victor ‘Gaucho’ Ribera (Gilbert Roland, basically playing himself), and gets his wish- but there’s a catch. Shields hires big-name German director Von Ellstein, leaving poor Fred out of the picture.

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Next up is Georgia, daughter of the late matinée idol George Lorrison, who Jonathan knew back in the day. Georgia is played by Lana Turner, and she’s absolutely fabulous! The movie star’s daughter is a hot mess, a boozer and a “tramp” with suicidal tendencies working as an extra, but Shields is determined to make her a star. Her insecurities cause Georgia to get smashed and almost stop production on his latest epic, and Shields confronts the drunk and self-pitying Georgia in her apartment, a scene that’s pure Hollywood dynamite! When she confesses her love for him, Jonathan strings her along to get the performance he wants out of her. The preview is another hit for Shields, but he doesn’t show up for the celebration. Georgia leaves the party and drives to Shields’ mansion, catching him dallying with extra Lila (Elaine Stewart). Heartbroken, Georgia flees in tears, vowing never to have anything to do with the man who made her a star again. This is without a doubt my favorite segment of the movie, and Kirk and Lana are terrific together!

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Finally we come to James Lee (Dick Powell ), a college professor whose novel ‘The Proud Land’, a Civil War saga “liberally peppered with sex” is a best seller. Shields desperately wants to adapt it to the screen, with Bartlow writing, but he’s reluctant to go to Hollywood. His Southern belle wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame in her Oscar-winning role) is another matter, and she persuades hubby to fly to the West Coast for two weeks as a courtesy to Shields. Two weeks turn into months as James Lee works on the script, but Rosemary, star-struck and blinded by the Hollywood lights, becomes a distraction. Shields talks him into leaving for Lake Arrowhead so the two can work in peace, getting his randy old pal Gaucho to “squire” Rosemary around town. Tragedy strikes when Gaucho and Rosemary die in a plane crash as they’re heading for Acapulco. Shields tries to keep Bartlow busy with work, but their film suffers a blow when Von Ellstein walks off the set, causing Shields himself to take over the director’s reins. The movie bombs, and it’s soon revealed Shields set up Gaucho with Rosemary, knowing the notorious ladies man would sweep her off her feet, freeing Bartlow to write. The ending finds all three still refusing to work with Shields again, but they all eavesdrop on Pebbel’s conversation with the producer, listening intensely as he describes his latest vision over the phone…

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THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is filled with stars, but Kirk Douglas is the one who shines brightest as the ruthless Jonathan Shields, destroying anything in his path that gets in the way of his artistic vision. He’s the Super-Glue that holds the film together, and at the top of his game. There are so many Familiar Faces in this one your head will spin, like Leo G. Carroll as the Hitchcockian Henry Whitfield, Paul Stewart as Shields’ yes-man, plus Stanley Andrews, Barbara Billingsley (Mrs. Cleaver!), Madge Blake, Vanessa Brown, Francis X. Bushman, Louis Calhern (the voice of George Lorrison), THEM’s Sandy Descher, Steve Forrest, Kathleen Freeman, Ned Glass, Dabbs Greer, Kurt Kaszner, Paul Maxey, May McAvoy, Jeff Richards, Kaaren Verne, Ray Walker, and of course the ubiquitous Bess Flowers !

Winner of five Academy Awards (besides Grahame, the picture also won for Best Art Direction, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Costume Design), THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is a must-see for all classic film lovers, and fans of the great Kirk Douglas. Happy 100th Kirk, here’s to a hundred more!!

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