Roger Corman’s Bloody Valentine: THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (20th Century-Fox 1967)

Low budget auteur Roger Corman had visited the gangster genre twice before, with 1958’s MACHINE GUN KELLY (featuring Charles Bronson in the title role) and I, MOBSTER (starring noir vet Steve Cochran ). Nine years later,  Corman produced and directed THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, with major studio backing, star power, and a million dollar budget. It’s still a Roger Corman film though, which means it’s a helluva lot of fun!

We’re in 1929 Chicago (as narrator Paul Frees tells us), a time of lawlessness, bootlegging, and mob killings on a daily basis. Two rival factions are battling to control the Windy City: the Southside gang led by ‘Scarface’ Al Capone (Jason Robards) and his Northside enemy ‘Bugs’ Moran ( Ralph Meeker ). Moran sends his top hood Peter Gusenberg (George Segal) to muscle in on Capone’s rackets, but when Big Al’s mentor Patsy is gunned down by Moran’s assassins, the crime boss goes off, vowing revenge, and assigning his torpedo ‘Machine Gun’ Jack McGurn (Clint Ritchie) to plot the infamous mass murder.

Robards goes waaay over the top as Capone, a part Corman originally wanted Orson Welles to play (can you imagine?). He bellows, hollers, snarls and growls like a rabid wolverine, pops his eyes, and mugs shamelessly while chomping on a big old stogie. Yet somehow, it all works, since Capone’s such a larger-than-life character anyway. Meeker’s just a trifle more subdued (but not much!) as Moran, whether roaring at his own men with equal intensity, or throwing darts at a picture of Capone in his office.

The rest of the cast is a regular Rogue’s Gallery of Hollywood hoodlums. Segal gets most of the supporting screen time as Gusenberg, and he chews the scenery with the best of them, especially in the scene with his spendthrift moll (Jean Hale). You’ll need a scorecard to keep track of all the Familiar Faces here: John Agar , Richard Bakalyan, Joseph Campanella, David Canary, Mary Grace Canfield, Alex D’Arcy, Mickey Deems, Bruce Dern Charles Dierkop , Milton Frome, Reed Hadley, Kurt Kreuger, Celia Lovsky , Paul Richards, Alex Rocco, Joan Shawlee, Frank Silvera, and Harold J. Stone all appear, in roles both large and small. Some of Corman’s stock players also make cameos, including Leo Gordon , Jonathan Haze, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Dick Miller (of course!), and Barboura Morris. Jack Nicholson, as a favor to Roger, does a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit as one of the hired killers. When Miller asks what his goombah is rubbing on his bullets, Jack (using a raspy voice), says, “Garlic. If the bullets don’t kill ya, ya die of blood poisoning!”

Howard Browne adapted his 1958 PLAYHOUSE 90 teleplay “Seven Against the Wall” into the screenplay. Browne was an old pro at pulp fiction, a former writer/editor of the magazines “Amazing Stories” and “Fantastic Adventures”. Browne only wrote two other films (1961’s PORTRAIT OF A MOBSTER and 1975’s CAPONE, with Ben Gazzara as Scarface), but he was prolific in TV, writing for, among others, CHEYENNE, MAVERICK, 77 SUNSET STRIP, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. His 1954 novel “Thin Air” was adapted as episodes of both THE ROCKFORD FILES and SIMON & SIMON.

There’s plenty of violent tommy-gun action though the actual massacre takes less than thirty seconds. Corman is ably aided and abetted by DP Milton Krasner and Lionel Newman’s period score. The sets were refurbished from films like THE SOUND OF MUSIC, THE SAND PEBBLES, and HELLO, DOLLY to replicate 1920’s Chicago, and there’s loads of vintage autos and 20’s slang sprinkled throughout. Corman allegedly didn’t like working in the studio confines, and returned to his home at American-International. The independent filmmaker wanted to remain independent, free of the constraints of big-budget moviemaking and studio politics. But with THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, he proved to the world he could work within those confines just as well as the big boys, and gave fans of his work an entertainingly bloody valentine.

Special Memorial Day Edition: THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS (20th Century-Fox 1944)

War is hell, not only on the participants, but on those left home waiting for word on their loved ones, dreading the inevitable. THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS is based on the true story of five brothers who served and died together as shipmates, and their family. It’s a story of patriotism, of grief and loss, and its penultimate moment will rip your heart out. Finally, it’s an American story.

The Sullivans are a proud, close-knit Irish Catholic family living in Waterloo, Iowa. Patriarch Tom (played by Thomas Mitchell ) is a loyal railroad man whose five sons (George, Frank, Joe, Matt, and Al) climb the water tower every day to wave goodbye as the train pulls out. Mother Alleta (Selena Royale) keeps the family fires burning, with the help of daughter Gen. The scrappy brothers are a pint-sized version of the Dead End Kids, getting into mischief like a Donnybrook with neighborhood kids on little Al’s (future Disney star Bobby Driscoll ) First Communion day, getting caught smoking corn silk in the woodshed (Pop’s solution is to give them each a real cigar, causing the boys to throw up), and sailing on the lake in a leaky vessel that capsizes (foreshadowing things to come). Despite the boy’s boisterous nature and their various misadventures, the Sullivan household is filled with warmth and love.

Time marches on, and the boys are now in their twenties. Al, the youngest, surprises the family by marrying sweet-as-pie Katherine Mary (a young Anne Baxter), and presenting the Sullivans with their first grandbaby. One winter’s day, news comes over the radio: “The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor!” While Mom phones a local woman whose son was stationed on the U.S.S Arizona, the brothers decide then and there to join the Navy. Brother Al feels left out, having a wife and baby to look after, until brave Katherine Mary reluctantly talks him into signing up. Tom and Alleta proudly display a flag with five stars in their window.

The boys are all together on the U.S.S. Juneau off the Solomon Islands, and get their first taste of action. George is wounded during the raging battle, and the ship is fatally hit. Ordered to abandon ship, the Sullivans won’t leave without taking George, who’s in sick bay. In the midst of all this chaos, the screen abruptly turns to black.

We’re back home in Iowa, where the Sulivans get a visit from Cmdr. Robinson (Ward Bond).  He’s the bearer of bad news, and when Alleta asks which of her sons is gone, he solemnly replies: “All five”. Gen and Katherine Mary leave the room in tears, while Alleta sits stoically, her face in shock. Tom hears the train whistle blow and excuses himself, dutifully making the slow walk to work in silence, his face a mask of anguish and torment, his head bowed low. He boards the train as it steadily moves past the tower, looking up as if expecting to see his children there one more time. He gives it a small salute as he passes before finally breaking down in tears. It is one of the most heart wrenching scenes in cinema, and beautifully underplayed by Mitchell.

The real five Sullivan brothers (left to right) Joe, Frank, Al, Matt, and George

What really happened to the five Sullivan brothers? On November 13, 1942, the Juneau sank after being hit by a Japanese torpedo. Navy brass ordered all ships in the vicinity to leave and avoid any further Japanese submarine strikes. Frank, Joe, and Matt were all killed instantly. Al, adrift in the ocean, drowned the following day. Eldest brother George survived four or five days on a life raft but, grief-stricken and delirious from hypernatremia (high salt content in the blood), jumped overboard. The parents were not informed until Alleta wrote a letter to FDR. On January 12, 1943, three Naval officials knocked on the door of the Sullivan home to relay the bad news: “All five”.

Today we celebrate the life and legacy of those brave souls who fought and died in service to our country and our way of life. Brave souls like George, Frank, Joe, Matt, and Al Sullivan. We salute their courage and the sacrifices they made, yet let’s not forget the loved ones left behind, and the sacrifices they made as well. Whether you’re chowing on hot dogs and cheeseburgers at a family cookout, or cheering at your local parade, or just kicking back and watching a ballgame, take a moment today to reflect on those who gave all in defense of freedom. And to maybe say a prayer for the loved ones left behind.

(This post is respectfully dedicated to the brave men and women who gave their lives to the ideals of Freedom and Liberty)

 

Something Wilder: THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER (20th Century-Fox 1975)

The late Gene Wilder was well loved by filmgoers for his work with Mel Brooks, his movies alongside Richard Pryor, and his iconic role as Willie Wonka. Wilder had co-written the screenplay for Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and now branched out on his own as writer/director/star of 1975’s THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER.

The zany tale, set in 1891, finds Sherlock’s jealous brother Sigerson (Wilder, who derisively calls his more famous sibling “Sheer-Luck”) assigned to the case of music hall singer Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn) who’s being blackmailed by opera singer Eduardo Gambetti (the enormously funny Dom DeLuise ). Assisting Sigerson is his own Watson, the pop-eyed Sgt. Orville Stacker (Marty Feldman), blessed with “a photographic sense of hearing” that he can only access by whacking himself upside the head. The plot thickens as Sigerson learns Jenny’s a practiced liar (who only trusts men when she’s sexually aroused), she’s actually the daughter of British Foreign Secretary Redcliff… which is another lie; she’s Redcliff’s fiancé, and has handed over an important document to Gambetti, who’s about to sell it to none other than the infamous Professor Moriarty (Leo McKern)!

Wilder displays a keen eye for film in his directorial debut. Like his friend Brooks, he’s obviously a student of the medium, and the film is a visual delight. There’s plenty of laughs to be had, like the scene where Sigerson and Sacker are trapped by Moriarty and Gambetti in a tiny room menaced by a buzzsaw, and escape by the seats of their pants… literally! The comic highlight is “A Masked Ball”, an opera parody starring Gambetti and Jenny invaded by Sigerson, Sacker, and Moriarty’s henchman (Roy Kinnear) where the document is passed around, all with expert comedy timing. Following this is a swashbuckling sequence with Wilder taking on the dastardly McKern.

Wilder, Feldman, and Kahn are all reunited from YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, while McKern and Kinnear were previously paired in The Beatles film HELP! Douglas Wilmer, who starred as Sherlock in the 60’s BBC TV series, donned the deerstalker cap once again; his Watson is Thorley Walters, who essayed the part in three Holmes films. And yes, that’s the voice of Mel Brooks behind the door in a parody of “The Lady or The Tiger?’.

There are plenty of musical sequences in the movie, including the bizarre “Kangaroo Hop”. THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER is a madcap romp, but just a notch below Wilder’s films with Brooks. He’d go on to write and direct three more films; THE WOMAN IN RED was his most popular, though I prefer his silent era spoof THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVER (let’s not talk about HAUNTED HONEYMOON). Still, it’s a solid first effort for Wilder in the director’ seat, with a sterling cast of comic pros, and if you like Mel Brooks’ brand of buffoonery, you’ll definitely enjoy this film, too.

 

Jurassic Joke: THE LOST WORLD (20th Century Fox 1960)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventure novel THE LOST WORLD was first filmed in 1925 with special effects by the legendary Willis O’Brien  . O’Brien gets a technical credit in Irwin Allen’s 1960 remake, but his wizardry is nowhere to be found, replaced with dolled-up lizards and iguanas designed to frighten absolutely no one. This one’s strictly for the Saturday matinee kiddie crowd, and though it boasts a high profile cast, it’s ultimately disappointing.

Genre fans will appreciate the presence of The Invisible Man himself, Claude Rains , in the role of expedition leader Professor Challenger. The 71 year old Rains is full of ham here, playing to the balcony, and still managing to command the screen with his sheer talent. Challenger claims to have discovered “live dinosaurs” in the remote Amazon rainforest, a claim scoffed at by the scientific community, especially rival Professor Summerlee (the equally hammy Richard Hayden). The crusty Challenger asks for volunteers to accompany him on a return journey, and we meet the rest of the cast: Michael Rennie as big-game hunter Lord Roxton, David Hedison as intrepid reporter Ed Malone, Jill St. John as Roxton’s girl Jennifer Holmes (complete with a teacup poodle), and Ray Strickland as her younger brother David.

The crew fly to South America, where guide Manuel Gomez (Fernando Lamas) and his partner Costa (Jay Novello) will take them by chopper to the unchartered plateau deep in the wild. We get some breathtaking shots of the Amazonian jungle along the way (presumably by DP Winton Hoch ) before landing, where a giant lizard destroys the helicopter, stranding the expedition. The monsters they encounter are a sorry lot indeed, just blown-up reptiles and (in one scene) a goofy superimposed green spider. I mean, the studio sprung for Cinemascope and DeLuxe Color, and they give us el cheapo special effects! Not to mention they had Willis Freakin’ O’Brien on the payroll!

There’s a love triangle between Rennie, St. John, and Hedison that fails, mostly due to the sexist script by Allen and Charles Bennett. The dialog’s on a par with Allen’s sci-fi shows like LOST IN SPACE, dumbed down to children’s level. Lamas tries to bring some panache to his role, as Gomez holds a dark secret, but he too is doomed by the script. There’s a subplot about the lost city of El Dorado that didn’t amount to much. In fact, the film as a whole doesn’t amount to more than a semi-pleasant diversion.

THE LOST WORLD could’ve been much better, but is sunk by the crummy special effects and ludicrous script. You’d be better off watching the 1925 silent, and you can, if you’re interested. It’s in public domain, so instead of me babbling on about how lousy the newer version is, here’s 1925’s THE LOST WORLD in its entirety:

 

My Reason to Watch WILSON (20th Century Fox 1944)

Normally I wouldn’t watch something like WILSON, producer Darryl F. Zanuck ‘s 1944 biographical box office flop about the 28th President of the United States. It didn’t sound like my cup of tea. But when I turned TCM on last night, there was Ben Mankiewicz introducing the film, so I decided I’d watch a little. I ended up watching the whole thing, and while it’s not very exciting, I did get engrossed in the movie, but not for the story.

The film itself follows the life and career of Woodrow Wilson, and his rise from President of Princeton University to Governor of New Jersey to U.S. President. How much is truth and how much fiction, I couldn’t tell you. I can tell you that character actor Alexander Knox is a dead ringer for Wilson, and pretty much carries the film with his statesmanlike manner. Ruth Nelson plays first wife Ellen, who dies a tragic movie death, and Geraldine Fitzgerald is quite good as Wilson’s second bride Edith, who takes charge when the president suffers a stroke.

The main reason I stayed up to watch WILSON was the marvelous supporting cast of character actors, a veritable Who’s Who of Classic Films! There’s Thomas Mitchell as Wilson’s trusted aide Joe Tumulty, Charles Coburn as economic advisor Dr. Holmes, a very young Vincent Price as Treasury Secretary McAdoo, an almost unrecognizable Sir Cedric Hardwicke as political rival Henry Cabot Lodge, Thurston Hall as Jersey Senator “Big Ed” Jones, Eddie Foy Jr. as Eddie Foy Sr. (who else?), plus Sidney Blackmer, Three Stooges nemesis Symona Boniface, Francis X. Bushman, Gino Corrado, Marcel Dalio, Francis Ford , Reed Hadley, Charles Halton, John Hamilton, Cy Kendall, George Macready, Edwin Maxwell, Isabel Randolph, Roy Roberts, Dewey Robinson, Ian Wolfe, Will Wright, and a host of other Familiar Faces. Keep a sharp eye peeled for quick cameos from James Cagney and Robert Cummings. I didn’t spot Bess Flowers, but I’m sure she’s in there somewhere!

At around the movie’s midpoint, we get vintage newsreel footage of America preparing for World War I (the war to end all wars, remember?), and history buffs can get glimpses of historical figures like King George V, General Blackjack Pershing, and Teddy Roosevelt, along with silent stars Douglas Fairbanks Sr, Mary Pickford, Marie Dressler, and Al Jolson pitching in for the war effort. So while WILSON the movie didn’t exactly hold my interest, staying up to play “Spot the Classic Stars” certainly did. If you’re a classic movie buff like me, you’ll have yourself a ball!

 

Rockin’ in the Film World #10: THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT (20th Century Fox 1956)

Frank Tashlin  combines two of 50’s America’s favorite obsessions, sex & rock’n’roll, in THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, Jayne Mansfield’s first headlight headlining role. When Jayne sashays across the screen, turning heads, melting ice, boiling milk, and cracking eyeglasses a star is born, in CinemaScope and gorgeous DeLuxe color. But the film is stacked with more than just Jayne’s Twin Peaks; it features performances from rock royalty like Little Richard, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, The Platters, and a host of others.

The plot is very simple (and very familiar): a goony gangster (broadly played by a hilarious Edmond O’Brien ) hires a down-on-his-luck agent (Tom Ewell of THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH) to make a singing star out of his honey (our girl Jayne). Only problem is, Jayne can’t carry a tune in a bucket, shattering lightbulbs whenever she starts to warble. Seems she doesn’t want to be a star anyway, just to settle down and be domestic. Tom and Jayne quietly fall in love, the gangster gets jealous, and you just know that by film’s end everything will turn out for the best.

Interspersed in all this are the cream of classic 50’s rockers belting out their big ti.. er, hits! Little Richard does the title tune, “Ready Teddy”, and “She’s Got It”. The Three Chuckles (whose lead singer Teddy Randazzo costarred with Tuesday Weld in ROCK ROCK ROCK  ) perform “Cinnamon Sinner”. Fats Domino lends his New Orleans-flavored R&B to “Blue Monday”. Gene Vincent blasts his mega-hit “Be-Bop-A-Lula”. Eddie Cochran belts out “Twenty Flight Rock”. Abby Lincoln does a Gospel-tinged “Spread the Word”. The Platters doo-wop to “You’ll Never, Never Know”, and Nino Tempo, Johnny Olenn, Eddie Fontaine, The Treniers, and Freddy Bell & The Bell-Boys also appear.

Tashlin’s trademark cartoony gags bounce playfully throughout the film, beginning right off the bat with the pre-credits introduction by Ewell. It’s packed with double entendres by the truckload, most of them involving Jayne’s ample endowments. There’s a funny fantasy scene where Ewell, still carrying the torch for ex-client Julie London, sees her everywhere singing her own big hit, “Cry Me A River” (and by the way, the future Nurse Dixie McCall of TV’s EMERGENCY was pretty darn hot herself!). Surpassing that is the sight of O’Brien gyrating wildly and croaking out the song “Rock Around the Rock Pile”, a precursor of sorts to Elvis Presley’s showstopping number in JAILHOUSE ROCK .

Despite the classic rockers, Tashlin’s Looney Tunes humor, and a beautiful pastel color scheme, all eyes will be on Jayne Mansfield. She’s really good in this, giving a sweet-natured performance as the girl who just can’t help it. Jayne was red-hot at the time due to her Broadway smash WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? (later filmed by Tashlin), and 20th Century Fox signed her as a rival to Marilyn Monroe. She was a good actress, though now best remembered for her sexpot image, and it’s a shame her career took such a downward trajectory so fast. With the right material, we’d probably be looking at Jayne Mansfield today for more than her obvious assets.

Legend has it when THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT was released in England, a 16-year-old kid in Liverpool saw his rock idols perform for the first time. The lad’s name was John Lennon, and soon he met 15-year-old Paul McCartney, who auditioned for Lennon’s teenage band by doing an imitation of Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” from the film. McCartney got the gig, and within a few years The Beatles  were the biggest rock’n’roll band in the world. That’s how influential THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT was in the history of rock’n’roll, and any fan of rock music, Jayne Mansfield, or Frank Tashlin needs to put it on their must-see list.



 

Fall in Love with LAURA (20th Century Fox 1944)

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If you’re like me, you’ve probably watched LAURA more than once. It’s one of the top film noirs, indeed one of the top films period of the 1940’s. LAURA is unquestionably director Otto Preminger’s greatest achievement; some may argue for ANATOMY OF A MURDER or even ADVISE AND CONSENT, and they’re entitled to their opinions. But though both are great films, only LAURA continues to haunt the dreams of classic movie lovers, its main themes of love and obsession transferring to its fans even 73 years after its initial release.

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Preminger, along with scenarists Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhart, weave an intricate, sinister tapestry around the violent death of beautiful New York ad exec Laura Hunt. Cynical police detective Mark McPherson is determined to solve this particularly gruesome murder; Laura was killed at close range by a buckshot-loaded shotgun blast to the face. McPherson begins by questioning Waldo Lydecker, the acerbic newspaper columnist who relates via flashback how he “discovered” Laura and became her mentor, aiding her career and introducing her in high society circles, circles that contain lowlifes like the freeloading Shelby Carpenter, living off Laura’s Aunt Ann’s ‘generosity’ while becoming Laura’s fiancé.

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McPherson grills both Shelby and Ann, as well as Laura’s loyal housekeeper Bessie. He reads her intimate diary and letters from admirers, immersing himself in Laura’s life so deeply he becomes obsessed, falling in love with the dead woman. Waldo calls him on it, and McPherson lets on he’s uncovered Waldo’s own obsession and outright jealousy through the letters. McPherson gets drunk, falling asleep in the chair under a huge portrait of Laura.

Then Laura Hunt walks through the door, alive and well, and his entire world turns upside down….

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Now the fun really begins, as McPherson must discover who the dead girl was, and who knew what. The first comes easy, the second a bit more complicated. In the midst of all this mystery, McPherson and Laura fall in love, and the killer shows his hand in the exciting conclusion. LAURA has more twists than a pretzel, and is twice as tasty in its unfolding of the tale. The dark, moody cinematography by Joseph LaShelle deservedly won the Oscar that year; LaShelle was also nominated eight other times for films like MARTY, THE APARTMENT, and THE FORTUNE COOKIE. David Raskin’s haunting score includes Laura’s theme, which became a 40’s juke box hit with added lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Louis Loeffler’s skillful editing aids in ratcheting up the suspense.

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Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are the most romantic couple in noir, and both became genre icons. The pair again teamed with Preminger for 1950’s WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS. Vincent Price is the sleazy gigolo Shelby, and Judith Anderson is good as Ann. But it’s Clifton Webb’s portrayal of the acid-tongued Waldo Lydecker who walks away with acting honors. The columnist “with a goose-quill dipped in venom” is simply stunning to watch as a man obsessed, going to any lengths to make Laura his and his alone, resorting to murder to achieve his goal. Webb had appeared in a handful of silent films, but this was his first foray to Hollywood since 1930, and he totally dominates every scene he’s in. He was nominated for, but did not win, Best Supporting Actor; the Oscar went to Barry Fitzgerald for GOING MY WAY. But LAURA put Webb on the map in Hollywood, and he went on to star in films like THE DARK CORNER,   THE RAZOR’S EDGE, TITANIC, THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN, and his signature role as Mr. Belvedere in three film beginning with SITTING PRETTY.

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LAURA was also nominated for Preminger’s direction, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Black & White Art Direction, for a total of five. It should have won more, but Leo McCarey’s sentimental GOING MY WAY dominated the Oscars that year. Both are classics, but for my money LAURA’s the better film, its dark look at love, lust, and obsession way ahead of its time. This is Otto Preminger’s masterpiece, a true cinema classic that stands up to the test of time and deserves its reputation. Definitely must viewing for readers of this blog!