Silk Purse: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (Columbia 1945)

Columbia Pictures cranked out 52 films in the year 1945, mostly ‘B’ movies with titles like LET’S GO STEADY, I LOVE A MYSTERY, EVE KNEW HER APPLES, ROCKIN’ IN THE ROCKIES, TEN CENTS A DANCE, and THE ADVENTURES OF RUSTY, along with their continuing series featuring Blondie, Boston Blackie, The Crime Doctor, The Durango Kid, and The Whistler. They were programmers, budget jobs, designed to fill a double bill  and a theater’s seats, bread-and-butter movies with no pretenses to reach any artistic heights.

MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS was one of those programmers, a quickie cashing in on the success of the previous year’s hit GASLIGHT. Whereas MGM’S psychological thriller boasted stars Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer directed by George Cukor, Columbia headlined their contract players Nina Foch and George Macready , good, competent actors but hardly box office draws. And in place of Cukor, Joseph H. Lewis sat in the director’s chair, fresh from directing oaters at Universal and East Side Kids pics at Monogram. Lewis had made some critics take notice with his 1941 psychological horror INVISBLE GHOST starring Bela Lugosi, that is what few critics bothered to see the low-budget Monogram effort.

Lewis took the somewhat derivative script by Muriel Roy Bolton and created a noir mood aided by his cinematographer Burnett Guffey, who later worked on noirs like KNOCK ON ANY DOOR and IN A LONELY PLACE , and won Oscars for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and BONNIE & CLYDE. The opening scene of Julia Ross, returning to her rooming house in the rain, is vintage film noir. Budget restrictions helped give the film a claustrophobic atmosphere, as Julia is set up, drugged out, and awakened in unfamiliar new surroundings. The scene of her coming down the staircase, her plan to escape thwarted by “husband” Ralph Hughes, is framed to heighten that sense of oppressiveness, and the denouement , taking place on the rocky sea-shore, is a tense little masterpiece of noir filmmaking. Only the tacked-on happy ending ruins what could have been a gripping scene.

Nina Foch as Julia Ross is great in a role that would’ve been terrible in the hands of a lesser Columbia starlet, say Jeff Donnell or Lynn Merrick. Foch’s acting ability was such that you believe this improbable scenario could happen, and your sympathy lies with her and her plight all the way. It’s too bad Columbia czar Harry Cohn didn’t think she had enough “sex appeal” to be a star, and kept her in a slew of ‘B’ movies until her contract ended. Granted, she’s no Rita Hayworth (no one is!), but Foch was quite an attractive woman, and her acting was head and shoulders above most of the Hollywood starlets toiling at the time. Nina Foch would move on to supporting roles in prestige pictures, and was a respected acting coach right up until her death in 2008.

George Macready makes a convincing, civilized psychopath as Ralph Hughes, who along with his mother (Dame May Whitty) tries to ‘gaslight’ Julia into believing she’s really Ralph’s mentally unstable wife Marian Hughes. Macready, the consummate screen villain, is all restrained rage, his eyes bugging when angered, his fondness for knives a giveaway into his dark soul. MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS isn’t a perfect film, but it’s perfectly constructed by Lewis and his cast. While it didn’t help poor Nina Foch’s bid for Hollywood success, Macready would go on to portray Ballin Mundson in GILDA the next year, and a long film career. Director Lewis made more films noir, including SO DARK THE NIGHT and the essential noir classics GUN CRAZY and THE BIG COMBO. It’s here with JULIA ROSS that he made his reputation as an auteur to be reckoned with, a brisk ‘B’ programmer that’s poor in budget but rich in atmosphere.

Advertisements

Rockin’ in the Film World #14: SKI PARTY (AIP 1965)

American-International Pictures takes the “Beach Party ” concept to the slopes in 1965’s SKI PARTY, an endearingly goofy ball of fluff headlining Frankie Avalon, Dwayne Hickman, Deborah Walley , and a pre-‘Batgirl’ Yvonne Craig . It sells itself with a sly wink to the audience that says, “We know the whole thing’s absurd, and we don’t care”! Besides the off-the-wall comedy, the film features above average musical interludes by guests Lesley Gore and the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown.

Frankie and Dwayne play a pair of slightly overage college students (Avalon was 25, Hickman 31!) trying to woo Deborah and Yvonne. The two knuckleheads can’t figure out why they can’t get to first base, while college Romeo Aron Kincaid scores with every babe on campus. When the whole gang (including Beach movie regulars Luree Holmes, Michael Nader, Salli Sachsee , and surfing champ Mickey Dora) go on a skiing vacation during mid-term break, Frankie and Dwayne disguise themselves as British birds “Jane” and “Dora” in an attempt to learn the secret to achieving paradise by the dashboard lights!

Avalon and Hickman make SOME LIKE IT HOT’s Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon look like a couple of Playmates, but that doesn’t stop Kincaid from falling madly in love with “Dora”! ‘Beach’ girl Bobbi Shaw plays a sexy Swedish ski instructor (“Yah, yah”) who Frankie seduces to make Deborah jealous, with  him entering a ski jump contest even though he can’t ski! His brilliant idea is to jump in a helium-inflated suit, with disastrous results. Funnyman Robert Q. Lewis is on hand as the screwball ski lodge director, and a yodeling polar bear keeps popping up for no reason except to add even more surrealism to the story. If you’re wondering where Annette is, she has a cameo in the beginning as a college biology professor (!!), and the ubiquitous Dick Miller appears towards the end as a cab driver.

SKI PARTY was the first feature film for director Alan Rafkin, whose TV resume reads like a Sitcom Hall of Fame. Just a small sampling: MY FAVORITE MARTIAN, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW (27 episodes), GET SMART, THE ODD COUPLE, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW , THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, SANFORD & SON , M*A*S*H, LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW, COACH (87 episodes), and SUDDENLY SUSAN. Rafkin’s also responsible for a pair of Don Knotts movies, THE GHOST & MR. CHICKEN and THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST.

Also making his first movie straight from the TV ranks was screenwriter Robert Kaufman. Kaufman fared better in his film career, writing the DR. GOLDFOOT spy spoofs starring Vincent Price , DIVORCE AMERICAN STYLE, FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, THE HAPPY HOOKER GOES TO WASHINGTON, the vampire comedy LOVE AT FIRST BITE, and HOW TO BEAT THE HIGH CO$T OF LIVING. His script finds Avalon and Hickman frequently breaking the Fourth Wall, along with a slew of slapstick hijinks (and you all know how much I love slapstick hijinks!).

As I said before, the music is solid 60’s gold, with Lesley Gore doing her big hit “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows”:

The whole things ends up on the beach (where else?) with The Hondells doing a couple of surf numbers. The four main stars get a few decent rocking tunes to sing, but the highlight comes when James Brown and The Famous Flames, playing the resort’s ski patrol, perform the smash “(I Got You) I Feel Good”. And on that note, take us home, James:

More “Rockin’ in the Film World”:

ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK

THE BLUES ACCORDIN’ TO LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS

BEACH PARTY

WILD IN THE STREETS

JAILHOUSE ROCK

IT’S A BIKINI WORLD

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS

JIMI HENDRIX: ELECTRIC CHURCH

THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT

HAVING A WILD WEEKEND

HEAD

KID GALAHAD

 

 

Familiar Faces #6: Jack Norton, Hollywood’s Favorite Souse

For fifteen years, whenever Hollywood producers needed a drunk, they called Jack Norton. The perpetually inebriated man with the funny moustache made a career out of playing drunken barflies, mostly in uncredited bit parts. Everyone knew they were in for a good laugh when Jack, the ultimate Familiar Face, staggered onscreen. In real life, Jack Norton was a teatottler who never touched the stuff, and learned to “play drunk” by following tipsy people around and copying their mannerisms. Now that’s dedication to your craft!

Jack in 1934’s “A Duke for a Day”

Jack Norton was born in Brooklyn in 1882, and began his show biz career in vaudeville. He soon moved to Broadway, starring in Earl Carroll’s Vanities. Coming to Hollywood in 1934, Jack played his first lush in FINISHING SCHOOL, an early effort for Frances Dee and Ginger Rogers. After that, his specialty would be in constant demand, though he did do other, non-alcoholic roles, such as reporters in films like ALIBI IKE , PAGE MISS GLORY, and AFTER THE THIN MAN.

with William Demarest in Preston Sturges’ “The Palm Beach Story” (1942)

Comical drunks became his bread and butter though, and Jack had a long and prosperous career reeling his way across the screen. He worked with all the comedy greats of the era, including the Ritz Brothers (KENTUCKY MOONSHINE), Bob Hope (GHOST BREAKERS, LOUISIANA PURCHASE, MY FAVORITE SPY), Olsen & Johnson (CRAZY HOUSE, GHOST CATCHERS), The Great Gildersleeve (GILDERSLEEVE ON BROADWAY, GILDERSLEEVE’S GHOST ), Laurel & Hardy (THE BIG NOISE), Jack Benny (THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT), Abbott & Costello (THE NAUGHTY NINETIES), and Danny Kaye (THE KID FROM BROOKLYN). Jack was featured in the first Three Stooges Columbia short WOMEN HATERS, and again in RHYTHM AND WEEP and MALACE IN THE PALACE.

Jack (in pith helmet) as director A. Pismo Clam in “The Bank Dick” (1940)

Classic comedy fans cherish best his turn as drunken movie director A. Pismo Clam in W.C. Fields’ THE BANK DICK , so bombed the producers hire Fields (as Egbert Souse’, not exactly the model of sobriety himself!) to replace him! Jack was also a favorite of Preston Sturges, who used him as part of his stock company in THE PALM BEACH STORY, MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK, HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO, and THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK (Harold Lloyd’s failed comeback attempt).

Jack with Billy DeWolfe in 1946’s “Blue Skies”

Jack pops up in movies both classic and no-so classic, adding his particular talent to RUGGLES OF RED GAP, SHE GETS HER MAN, GOLDDIGGERS OF 1937, PICK A STAR, THE GREAT GARRICK, JEZEBEL, THE LONE WOLF SPY HUNT, THE ROARING TWENTIES , THE VILLAIN STILL PURSUED HER, COVER GIRL … the list, like a barfly’s story, goes on and on. Illness forced him to slow down after 1949; he made just a handful of TV appearences before passing away in 1958. Jack Norton was never a major star, but his crocked cameos in so many films are one of the reasons we all love watching classic movies so much. Our eyes light up when he pops up three sheets to the wind, and we smile and say, “Hey, there’s THAT GUY again!”. A Familiar Face indeed, and one of those unsung working actors we all know and love!

Mad Libs: Hope & Crosby on the ROAD TO MOROCCO (Paramount 1942)

Bing Crosby and Bob Hope travel the ROAD TO MOROCCO, the third in the “Road” series and by far the funniest. The plot involves two shipwrecked Americans who wind up in an absurd Arabian Nights style adventure complete with beautiful princess Dorothy Lamour and murderous desert sheik Anthony Quinn , but you can throw all that out the window as Bing and Bob trade quips, sing, and break down the Fourth Wall to let the audience know it’s all in good fun, so sit back and enjoy the zany ride.

Bob and Bing were already established superstars when Paramount teamed them for ROAD TO SINGAPORE (1940), which was a huge box office hit and followed quickly by ROAD TO ZANZIBAR (1941). By the time they made MOROCCO, the pair had their act down pat, with Der Bingle the smooth-talking crooner who always gets the girl, and Ol’ Ski-Nose the cowardly wisecracker. Scripts were just a framework as the two hired their own gagsters to punch things up and ad-libbed madly, sometimes without even letting the rest of the cast and crew in on it. Their onscreen anarchy convulsed war-weary 1940’s filmgoers with laughter, as they skewered everything in their paths, including the hand that fed them, Paramount Pictures!

Some of their best gags are in this film: riding a camel through the desert while singing “The Road to Morocco” (“Where we’re goin’, why we’re goin’, how can we be sure/I’ll lay you 8 to 5 that we’ll meet Do-ro-thy La-mour”), Bob trying to get a free meal by acting like an idiot (not a stretch!), Bing selling Bob into slavery (which is how he ends up as Lamour’s concubine), trying to pull the old “pat-a-cake” routine on Quinn without success (he must’ve seen the previous movies!), stranded in the desert by Quinn’s army and seeing mirages, including one of Lamour where the trio sing “Moonlight Becomes You” in each others voices. The song, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, became a #1 hit for Bing that year, and is a standard today in The Great American Songbook:

The highlight comes when Bing and Bob attempt to rescue Lamour and handmaiden Dona Drake (who’s hot for Hope!) from Quinn’s clutches by sabotaging his party honoring a rival chieftain with whoopee cushions, a dribble glass, the old hot foot, and gunpowder-loaded cigarettes (as Crosby laces the tobacco, Hope quips “Hey, whaddaya doing, making reefers?”!!), all while being kibbitzed by a pair of talking camels! They escape for America, and all’s well that ends well, until bungling Bob goes for a smoke in the ship’s powder room and blows it to smithereens, an excuse for Hope to crack an Oscar joke to cap the shenanigans off.

From Hope playing dear, departed “Aunt Lucy” in drag to this exchange: Bob: “First, you sell me for two hundred bucks. Then I’m gonna marry the Princess, then you cut in on me. Then we’re carried off by a desert sheik. Now we’re gonna have our heads chopped off!” Bing: “I know all that”. Bob: “Yeah, but the people who came in the middle of the picture don’t”. Bing (flabbergasted): “You mean they missed my song!?!”, ROAD TO MOROCCO is tons of foolish fun, an enjoyable romp through the desert sands with two of the 20th Century’s greatest entertainers at the top of their game. If you’ve never travelled down the ROAD with Bing and Bob, this one’s a great place to start.

Goats and Nuts and MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (Paramount 1932)

Hail, hail Klopstokia! MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is  total  movie anarchy, a throwback to the halcyon days of Mack Sennett. It’s a comedy cornucopia filled with sight gags and verbal nonsense, led by legendary W.C. Fields as president of the mythical country of Klopstokia, about to default on its loans until itinerant brush salesman Jack Oakie comes up with a plan to enter the hale and hearty Klopstokians in the 1932 Olympics and win the huge cash prize being put up by his employer!

Klopstokia is noted for “Goats & Nuts”, their chief exports, imports, and inhabitants! All political disputes are settled by arm wrestling, and President Fields is the strongest of all, though he’s constantly being challenged by his Secretary of the Treasury Hugh Herbert. Presidential daughter Angela (Susan Fleming, future wife of Harpo Marx) and brush salesman Migg Tweeny (Oakie) “meet cute” and immediately fall in love. When asking for her hand, Angela tells her dad she calls Migg “Sweetheart”, which the Prez mistakes for Migg’s real moniker! (Migg: “Listen, my name’s Tweeny” Prez: “You’ll always be ‘Sweetheart’ to me” Migg: “I know, I know, but there’s talk already…)

Secretary Herbert and his traitorous cabinet (including Keystone veterans Irving Bacon, Vernon Dent, and Billy Gilbert , who performs his comical sneeze routine) plot to put Klopstokia’s athletic team out of commission by hiring super-spy Mata Machree, “A Woman No Man Can Resist”! She’s played by luscious Lyda Roberti, parodying Garbo (who starred in 1931’s MATA HARI) and sings the risqué “When I Get Hot in Klopstokia”. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen lithe Lyda slink and wiggle her way to a man’s… err, heart.

You all know what a sucker I am for punny wordplay, and MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is loaded with it, thanks to screenwriters Henry Myers and future Oscar winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz . Here’s a couple of examples:

Migg: “You know what? I love you!”

Angela: “In Klopstokia, we have another way of saying that”

Migg: “In public??”

Then there’s this: Angela: “All the girls in this country are named Angela, and all the men are named George”

Migg: “Why?”

Angela: “Why not!”

Fields is a riot, as always, whether having troubles with his top hat, juggling clubs to stay in shape, or performing as a one-man band. Cross-eyed silent comedian Ben Turpin keeps popping up (for no reason!) as a cloak-and-dagger spy, Andy Clyde as Fields’ Major-Domo could give The Flash a run for his money, and little Dickie Moore steals whatever scenes he’s in as Angela’s brother Willie – apparently the only male in Klopstokia not named George!! All this absurdity is expertly handled by director Edward F. “Eddie” Cline, who went back to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops, and worked with nearly every great comic in history, from Chaplin and Keaton, to Wheeler & Woolsey and Olsen & Johnson, to the Ritz Brothers and the Andrews Sisters!

MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is sheer nonsense, and I mean that in the best way possible. Predating the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP by a year, the film shares its anarchic spirit, and the two together would make a great double feature when you need to just cut loose and laugh. And we all need that in this day and age!!

Another Milestone!

I received a pleasant surprise this morning while doing my daily stats check… Cracked Rear Viewer has reached the magic number of 500 WordPress followers! Add that to the readers on social media (Facebook, Twitter) and via e-mail, and this two and a half year old blog is now 1,467 strong. I thank you all for your support, and will strive to continue bringing you my “fresh takes” on classic movies and retro pop culture. Onward and upward!

Cold in Them Thar Hills: THE FAR COUNTRY (Universal-International 1955)

James Stewart and Anthony Mann’s  fourth Western together, 1955’s THE FAR COUNTRY, takes them due North to the Klondike during the Gold Rush of 1896. It’s a bit more formulaic than other Stewart/Mann collaborations, but a strong cast and some gorgeous Technicolor photography by William H. Daniels more than make up for it. The film is definitely worth watching for Western fans, but I’d rank it lowest on the Stewart/Mann totem pole.

Jimmy is Jeff Webster, a headstrong cattleman who drives his herd from Wyoming to Seattle to ship up north to the beef-starved gold miners for a huge profit. Webster killed two men along the way who tried to desert the drive, and barely escapes Seattle before arriving in Skagway, Alaska. There, he unintentionally interrupts a hanging being conducted by crooked town boss ‘Judge’ Gannon, who confiscates Webster’s herd as a fine for spoiling his fun. Webster and his two compatriots, talkative old Ben and boozy Rube, are then hired by saloon queen Ronda Castle to lead her on the trail to Dawson. Ronda’s more than a bit fond of the tall, laconic Webster, as is young French-Canadian tomboy Renee Vallon. But Webster’s got plans of his own, as he and his crew re-steal the cattle from Gannon and cross the border into Canada, where there’s gold in them thar icy hills…

Stewart’s Jeff Webster is an independent sort who has no use for either foolishness or companionship, save that of old Ben. Like all Stewart’s post-WWII characterizations, he’s aloof and bitter, claiming he doesn’t need anybody, but that changes over the course of the film. Walter Brennan once again provides his patented sidekick schtick as Ben, and you can’t go wrong with that in a Western! The women in Webster’s life are Ruth Roman as sexy saloon owner Ronda and pretty Corinne Calvet as Renee. Miss Calvet is an acquired taste; I’m not a big fan, but she’s more than adequate in her role.

John McIntire , never a big star but always a welcome presence, does a good turn as Gannon, a villain with charm and a sense of humor. Jay C. Flippen plays the souse Rube, a character who plays an important part in the proceedings. The main cast is supported by Familiar Western Faces galore, including Steve Brodie , Paul Bryar, Royal Dano, John Doucette, Jack Elam , Kathleen Freeman, Terry Frost, Connie Gilchrist, Cubby Johnson, Harry Morgan , Eddie Parker, Chuck Roberson (who was John Wayne’s stunt double for decades), Eddy Waller, and Robert J. Wilke.

Also in the cast is Jimmy Stewart’s favorite costar, a sorrel stallion named Pie, who Stewart rode in 17 films. The two were first paired in Mann’s WINCHESTER ’73, and worked together until 1970’s THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB. Stewart and Pie were so in tune that when the horse was called upon in THE FAR COUNTRY to walk down the street alone, foiling an ambush by the bad guys, all Stewart had to do was whisper a few simple instructions in Pie’s ear, and the stallion completed the scene in one take!

Screenwriter Borden Chase began his career writing for the pulps, and his short story DR. BROADWAY was adapted into Mann’s first film as director. Chase also wrote the scripts for WINCHESTER ’73 and BEND OF THE RIVER, but is more closely associated with the films of John Wayne: THE FIGHTING SEABEES, FLAME OF THE BARBARY COAST, TYCOON, and the classic RED RIVER. Daniels’ breathtaking location footage of Alberta’s Jasper National Park add a majestic realism to the movie, and Mann’s direction is on point. Though it’s not my favorite of the Stewart/Mann Westerns, these two could do no wrong together, and THE FAR COUNTRY still makes for an entertaining film.