“I can’t get celluloid out of my blood”: W.C.Fields in THE BANK DICK (Universal, 1940)

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W.C. Fields was a one of a kind genius. Fields’ unique brand of comedy was born in vaudeville, polished on Broadway, and reached perfection on the screen. There’s nothing to compare him to, his singular skewed worldview is that distinct. He made his firrst movie 100 years ago, the 1915 silent short POOL SHARKS, and today still has legions of loyal fans. I’ve just finished watching THE BANK DICK, and though it’s impossible to describe the lunacy, I’ll give it a whirl.

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Egbert Souse’ (“accent grave over the E”) is a henpecked husband who spends most of his time at The Black Pussy Café. After taking over directing a movie for the drunken A. Pismo Clam, he inadvertently captures a bank robber and becomes a local hero. Souse’ is given a job as a “bank dick”, working alongside his daughter’s beau, Og Oggilby. A con artist selling shares in a “beefsteak mine” has Souse’ persuade Og to “borrow” five hundred dollars from the bank’s coffers. The bank examiner, J.Pinkerton Snoopington, comes to go over the books, and Souse’ has the Black Pussy’s bartender Joe slip him a “Michael Finn”. It looks like the jig is up until the beefsteak mine strikes a bonanza. A second crook then robs the bank and kidnaps Souse’, leading to a wild car chase. All ends well as Souse’ once again nabs the crook, gets a Hollywood contract, and moves his family into a beautiful mansion, where they can all live happily while Souse’ spends even more time at his favorite watering hole!

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Yep, that’s the story. The rest of THE BANK DICK is filled out with Fields’ trademark craziness: slapstick silliness, sight gags, mumbled asides, and nonsense wordplay (“Don’t be a luddy-duddy. Don’t be a mooncalf. Don’t be a jabbernowl”). Character names like J.Frothingham Waterbury, Mackley Q. Greene, and Mrs. Muckle abound, thanks to screenwriter Mahatma Kane Jeeves (one of Fields’ many aliases). A supporting cast of Una Merkel, Grady Sutton (Og is probably his best role), Franklin Pangborn, and Shemp Howard add to the fun, all under the direction of comedy vet Edward Cline. But it’s W.C. Fields’ show all the way, and The Great One is at his best in THE BANK DICK. Like I said, it’s hard to describe with mere words. The only way to appreciate W.C. Fields is by watching. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll head down to The Black Pussy…..

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Big Entertainment: Fritz Lang’s THE BIG HEAT (Columbia, 1953)

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Fritz Lang is one of the most influential film directors of all time. Getting his start in Germany’s famed Ufa Studios, Lang became world renown for masterpieces like  METROPOLIS (1927) and M (starring Peter Lorre, 1931), and his Dr. Mabuse series. Lang fled the Nazi regime in the early 30s, coming to America to ply his trade. He became a top Hollywood director particularly famous for film noir classics like SCARLET STREET (1945, a personal favorite of mine), THE BLUE GARDENIA (1953), and WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1954). One of the best of these is 1953’s  THE BIG HEAT.

The movie starts with the suicide of Tom Duncan, head of the police records bureau. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is called in and interviews the widow. Bannion’s a family man with loving wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) and young daughter. While at home enjoying some quality time, he receives a call from a woman named Lucy claiming Duncan didn’t kill himself. He meets her at local watering hole The Retreat, where she tells him Duncan and her were lovers, and he planned on divorcing his wife. Bannion doesn’t believe the B-girls tale until she’s found tortured and strangled the next day.

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Bannion decides to investigate, but is warned to stay off the case by his boss, Lt. Wilkes. He presses further anyways, going back to The Retreat and speaking with an uncooperative barkeep. A threatening call to his wife sends Bannion to drop in on Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), an old-school gangster who runs the rackets, not to mention most of the city’s politicians. Bannion’s called on the carpet again by Wilkes. Frustrated, Bannion and his wife decide to have a night out at the movies. While he tucks in his daughter, Katie goes to warm up the family car. An explosion rocks the house, as the auto has been rigged with dynamite, killing Katie and shattering Bannion’s idyllic world.

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Lt. Wilkes and the police commissioner assure Bannion justice will be served, but Bannion’s not buying it. He turns in his badge and seeks solo vengeance. Leaving his daughter with best friend Hal, Bannion goes on a personal crusade to find Katie’s killer and rid the city of Lagana’s influence. He tangles with Lagana’s top torpedo Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), who has a penchant for burning women. Stone’s girlfriend Debby (Gloria Grahame), a bubbleheaded lush, makes a play for Bannion after Stone ditches her at the bar, but is rejected. When Stone finds out, the maniac scalds her with a hot pot of coffee, scarring her for life. The movie then kicks into high gear as new alliances are formed, secrets are revealed, and Bannion finally gets the closure he’s been looking for in a violent climax.

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Glenn Ford is perfect for the part of Dave Bannion, a stand-up guy if there ever was one. Bannion’s singleness of purpose drives THE BIG HEAT, as Ford’s warm scenes with his family are juxtaposed with the brutality of the rest of the movie. Oscar winner Gloria Grahame (1952’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL) gives another of her fine performances as Debby. Vince Stone was a breakthrough role for Lee Marvin, and the coffee throwing scene is jolting. Other notables in the cast are Willis Boucher, Jeanette Nolan, Peter Whitney, and Adam Williams. Look quickly and you’ll find Carolyn Jones, Dan Seymore, John Doucette, and Sidney Clute in smaller roles.

Behind the scenes, Charles Lang (no relation to Fritz) worked his magic as director of photography. One of Hollywood’s premier cinematographers, Lang was nominated for 17 Oscars, winning in 1934 for A FAREWELL TO ARMS. His work can be found in such diverse films as DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (1934), THE GHOST & MRS. MUIR (1947), SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), BLUE HAWAII (1961), WAIT UNTIL DARK (1967), and THE LOVE MACHINE (1971). He was given a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1991. Screenwriter Sydney Boehm has quite an impressive resume, too, responsible for such fare as UNION STATION (1950), WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951), BOTTOM OF THE BOTTLE (1956), and SHOCK TREATMENT (1964). Everyone contributes to the success of THE BIG HEAT, and if noir’s your thing, it’s a must-see. Even if you’re not a noir fan, you’ll enjoy the performances of Ford and company, and the talent behind the lens. THE BIG HEAT is big entertainment.

Gangsters On Horseback: James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in THE OKLAHOMA KID (Warner Bros, 1939)

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James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart traded in their tommy guns for six-shooters in THE OKLAHOMA KID.  The film moves like a serial, going swiftly from one set-piece to the next. The plot’s your standard cowboy outing, but what makes THE OKLAHOMA KID so much fun is seeing the two great gangster stars going through their paces in a Western setting.

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When the Oklahoma land rush is opened, Whip McCall (Bogart) and his gang decide to rob the stagecoach carrying newly minted silver to pay the Cherokee Nation. The Oklahoma Kid (Cagney), a free-spirited rascal, beats them to the punch. The Kid enters a camp where he meets Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp) and his pretty daughter Jane (Rosemary Lane). Jane’s beau, Ned Kincaid (Harvey Stephens), knows something about the Kid’s mysterious past. McCall then puts a “sooner” claim on a parcel of land that becomes Tulsa. The town is wide open thanks to McCall, now running the saloon and gambling joint. The concerned citizens decide to take on the racketeers, I mean outlaws, by running Ned’s dad John Kincaid (Hugh Southern) for mayor. McCall frames Kincaid for murder, then tricks Judge Hardwick into going to Kansas City, setting up his own corrupt judge to preside at the trial. Jane sends The Kid to fetch him back, but it’s too late. The hand-picked jury has found Kincaid guilty.

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The Kid decides he’s going to bust Kincaid out of jail, but the old man won’t go with him, preferring law and order over anarchy. McCall incites a lynch mob to grab Kincaid and they hang him high. The truth is now revealed: The Kid is Kincaid’s son! He tracks down and kills McCall’s gang except for Doolin (Edward Pawley), who confesses McCall gave the order for the frame-up and lynching. Meanwhile, Ned has been named U.S. Marshall and goes to arrest McCall. The villain gut-shoots Ned, then engages in a wild brawl with The Kid. McCall’s about to finish The Kid off when Ned, in a last desperate act, shoots the bad guy down, thus saving his wayward brother before he dies.

Cagney’s Oklahoma Kid is a smiling, swaggering maverick who has no use for “civilization” (and he explains why in a well-written, libertarian speech to Judge Hardwick). He’s a charming rogue of an outlaw, and his portrayal of The Kid is fun to watch. Cagney even gets to sing a tune (“I Don’t Want To Play In Your Yard”) during the course of the action. Bogart plays his usual slimy bad guy as McCall, dressed all in black and ordering around his minions. The cast is full of Western veterans (Ward Bond, George Chesebro, Bob Kortman, Al Bridge), and director Lloyd Bacon keeps things moving along. Max Steiner’s music helps set the mood, and the cinematography of legendary James Wong Howe adds greatly to the overall atmosphere. THE OKLAHOMA KID is a fun movie to watch, made even more fun by the presence of Cagney and Bogart out of their gangster element.

Gods of the Hammer Films 3: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and THE MUMMY (1959)

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(third in a series)

The gang’s all here in 1959’s THE MUMMY – Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, director Terence Fisher, writer Jimmy Sangster – but the result is far different than CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA. Based on Universal’s 40s Mummy series, not the 1932 Karloff classic, THE MUMMY is as slow moving as…well, as a mummy! Try as they may, the film suffers from budget constrictions and a poor script. Definitely not one of Hammer’s shining moments.

It’s 1895, and the Banning family (father Steve, son John, uncle Joe) are on an archeological expedition in Egypt when they stumble upon the tomb of Princess Ananka. Father finds the sacred Scroll of Life and, upon reading it, is driven mad by the sight of mummy Kharis (Christopher Lee) returning to life. Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), servant of the great god Karnak, vows vengeance on those who’ve dared to desecrate the tomb.

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Three years later, in jolly old England, John (Peter Cushing) visits his dad in the sanitarium. Dad warns him of the curse of Karnak, but the son doesn’t believe him. Bey has ventured to England, and hired a pair of drunkards to transport some “relics” to his new abode. The relics in question contain the mummified remains of Kharis. When they pass by the sanitarium, Dad senses Kharis’ presence, smashing his windows, and the spooked drunks lose their cargo in a swamp. Bey goes to the swamp and using the Scroll of Life (no tanna leaves necessary), revives the mummy and sends him to kill the infidel.

John and Uncle Joe discuss the legend of Ananka and Kharis (in a flashback sequence to 2000 BC). They’re interrupted by Kharis, who throttles Joe. John shoots the monster but bullets don’t affect it. The police inspector (Edd Byrne) doesn’t believe John’s story, and neither does John’s wife Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux), who of course is a dead ringer for dead Ananka. Kharis returns to kill John, but is stopped in its tracks when it gets a load of Isobel.

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The inspector does some investigating, and comes around to John’s way of thinking. He warns John not to try anything rash, so naturally John pays a visit to his new Egyptian neighbor. Bey thought John was dead, but plays it cool. The two have an interesting debate abut religious beliefs, with John goading the foreigner about the “third-rate god” Karnak. Later, Bey leads Kharis back to the Banning home, and the mummy chokes John until Isobel interrupts again. Furious Bey commands Kharis to kill Isobel, but the mummy turns on its master, killing Bey and carrying Isobel off to the swamp. John and the police pursue them and the good guys finally win the day.

I can’t really fault the cast and crew for the failure of THE MUMMY. The Universal Mummy saga just isn’t on a par with the source material from previous Hammers (Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle). The “comic relief” drunkards make me long for Wallace Ford (Babe in the originals). Hammer’s Mummy movies, unlike their Frankenstein and Dracula series, were few and far between (1964’s CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB, 1967’s THE MUMMY’S SHROUD, 1971’s BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB). And also unlike the other series, there’s no continuity from one film to the next. Different movies, different mummies. Hammer did much better with their undead Count and mad Doctor Frankenstein. They should’ve let THE MUMMY stay in its tomb.

Top Ten Reasons CASABLANCA is The Greatest Movie Ever Made!!

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Seventy three years have passed since CASABLANCA was first released. What can I possibly say about this film that hasn’t been said before, by writers far more skilled than me? Well, since CASABLANCA is my all-time favorite, I feel obliged to put my two cents in. So, here are my top ten reasons why CASABLANCA is the greatest movie ever made:

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  1. Humphrey Bogart as Rick.  While Bogie was already a star thanks to THE MALTESE FALCON, his performance here sent him into the stratosphere. Cynical, self-centered Rick Blaine, bitter over a lost love, sticks his neck out for nobody. His character is multi-layered, and his true nature wins out in the end. Without Bogie in the role, CASABLANCA wouldn’t be half as good.
  2. Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa.  Beautiful Bergman underplays her part in what should have been an Oscar winning turn (sorry, Greer Garson). Ilsa’s feelings are torn between Rick and husband Victor Laszlo, and the depth of those feelings come right through the screen.rains
  3. Claude Rains as Captain Renault. Corrupt, cagey Renault is one of Rains’ best roles. Playing a man who claims to have “no convictions”, Rains shows why he was one of cinema’s best character actors. His banter with Bogart throughout the film is priceless.
  4. The Dialogue.  Every line is a gem, with many of them becoming part of the lexicon (“I’m shocked, shocked…”, “Here’s looking at you, kid”, “Round up the usual suspects”). Writers Howard Koch and Julius and Phillip Epstein came up with a perfect script. (And Phillip became grandfather to a boy named Theo Epstein, who guided my beloved Boston Red Sox to World Series title in 2004, ending an eighty-six year drought!!)

    'Casablanca' Film - 1942...No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features (1082971b) 'Casablanca' - Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson and Sydney Greenstreet 'Casablanca' Film - 1942
    ‘Casablanca’ Film – 1942…No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage
    Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features (1082971b)
    ‘Casablanca’ – Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson and Sydney Greenstreet
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  5. Dooley Wilson as Sam.  African-American Sam is written and played as a friend and confidant to white Rick ,rather than a servant.  The two men are equals, a rarity for a 1942 film. Besides the heart wrenching “As Time Goes By”, Wilson also sings “It Had to Be You” and “Knock On Wood”, which brings me to….
  6. The Music. Max Steiner’s score hits all the right notes, setting the mood for the drama. Speaking of music, the duel between the Germans singing “Watch on the Rhine” and Laszlo leading the patrons of Rick’s in “La Marseillaise” is one of Hollywood’s finest moments. supp
  7. The Supporting Cast. Without a doubt, the greatest supporting cast ever assembled. Paul Henreid is the moral core as Victor Laszlo, Peter Lorre’s brief bit as weaselly Ugarte is pivotal to the plot,  Conrad Veidt the epitome of Nazi oppression. CASABLANCA is fun for movie fans who love to play Spot the Stars: look, there’s S.Z. Sakall, Dan Seymore, Sydney Greenstreet, Lenoid Kinskey, John Qualen, Gino Corrado, Madeline LeBeau, Frank Puglia, Marcel Dalio, Joy Page, Hemlut Dantine, Torbin Meyer….
  8. Emotional Manipulation. Any good movie knows how to play its patrons, but none better than CASABLANCA. It’s an emotional roller coaster ride, and no matter how many times I see it, I still get caught up in it. I know what’s coming, but I cry at the end anyway.
  9. Michael Curtiz. The man simply does not get enough credit for being one of the all-time great directors. You can’t make a film like CASABLANCA without a top director at the helm. Just look at his resume… soul

   10. CASABLANCA Can Never Be Duplicated!  Anyone out there have fond memories of the 1955       TV version with Charles McGraw? Or the 1983 one starring David Soul? Didn’t think so.

So there you have it! A one of a kind movie, still as powerful as when it first hit the screen. CASABLANCA is the greatest movie ever made, and remains my favorite. I could watch it over and over, like listening to a favorite song. If you’ve never seen it….what are you waiting for???

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Spooky Screwballs: THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (Universal, 1940)

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THE INVISIBLE WOMAN usually gets lumped in with Universal Picture’s monster movies, but has more in common with BRINGING UP BABY or MY MAN GODFREY. In fact, it’s one of my favorite screwball comedies. There are no scares in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, but there sure are a lot of laughs!

When rich playboy Dick Russell (John Howard) discovers his wild lifestyle has left him flat broke, he has to quit funding eccentric Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore).  The crackpot inventor takes an ad in the paper looking for a “human being willing to become invisible…no remuneration”. His ad is answered by Kitty Carroll (Bruce), a model always at odds with cruel boss Growley (perennial sourpuss Charles Lane). Kitty answers the “call to adventure”, and is given an injection, then placed in the professor’s invisibility machine (“It tickles!”)

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The experiment’s a success, and invisible Kitty seeks revenge on Growley for herself and all working girls in a hilarious scene. Meanwhile, mob boss Blackie Cole (Oscar Homolka), hiding out in Mexico, has got wind of the new invention. He sends three goons (Donald MacBride, Edward Brophy, Shemp Howard) to con the addle-brained inventor, but Kitty arrives in time to thwart them.

Russell and faithful butler George (Charles Ruggles, who has the best lines and takes most of the pratfalls) retreat to his hunting lodge. Gibbs and his invisible protégé’ soon follow, with Gibbs telling Russell his money worries are now over. Invisible Kitty imbibes too much brandy, and the alcohol has a strange reaction, causing her to remain invisible. Returning to Gibbs’ lab, they discover housekeeper Mrs. Jackson (Margaret Hamilton) locked in a closet and the machine gone! The gangsters have stolen it, but they forgot to take the formula. The inventor says “without the injection, that machine is apt to do strange things to people”.

The gangsters soon find out when boss Blackie makes deep-voiced henchman Foghorn enter the machine first, and he changes to a soprano! The other two thugs are sent back to retrieve Professor Gibbs, who’s given Kitty a reagent to turn her visible again. She’s warned to steer clear of booze (“When you dissipate, you disappear”). The goons grab Gibbs and Kitty after overpowering Russell and his befuddled butler, taking them to the Mexican hideout. Foghorn, angry at his falsetto fate, goes to Russell and rats his comrades out.

In the lab of Blackie’s Mexican scientist (Luis Alberni), Kitty spies a bottle of grain alcohol on a table and swigs it down, turning invisible again. She takes down the hoods single handedly, right before Russell and company arrive. Determined to make the playboy feel like a hero, she shoots at them and jumps in a pool, where Russell and Kitty finally embrace. They get married and have a baby in the film’s funny coda.

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Virginia Bruce is bubbly and beautiful as Kitty Carroll, giving a wonderful comic performance. Universal’s special effects wizard John P. Fulton does his usual splendid job, though Kitty’s shadow can be seen in the showdown with her and Growley. The comic cast is given lively direction by A. Edward Sutherland, who started in the silent era with Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops, later putting comedy legends like W.C. Fields, Mae West, Burns and Allen, and Abbott & Costello through their paces. Screenwriters Robert Lees and Fred Rinaldo were partners in hilarity for years, writing CRAZY HOUSE for Olsen & Johnson and many scripts for Abbott & Costello, including their best, A&C MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Sadly, both writers ended up on the Hollywood blacklist in the 1950s during the Communist witch hunts. Rinaldo’s last credit was 1952’s JUMPING JACKS starring Martin and Lewis. He died in 1992. Even more sadly, the 91 year old Lees was decapitated in his home by a drug crazed robber in 2004.

But let’s not end this on a down note. THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is a fast-moving, fun film with terrific acting from a great ensemble cast. Virginia Bruce never looked lovelier (when she’s visible, that is) in one of her best remembered roles. Don’t come looking for scares and shudders, but be prepared to laugh along with THE INVISIBLE WOMAN.