Cleaning Out the DVR Pt. 22: Winter Under the Stars

I haven’t done one of these posts in a while, and since my DVR is heading towards max capacity, I’m way overdue! Everyone out there in classic film fan land knows about TCM’s annual “Summer Under the Stars”, right? Well, consider this my Winter version, containing a half-dozen capsule reviews of some Hollywood star-filled films of the past!

PLAYMATES (RKO 1941; D: David Butler ) – That great thespian John Barrymore’s press agent (Patsy Kelly) schemes with swing band leader Kay Kyser’s press agent (Peter Lind Hayes) to team the two in a Shakespearean  festival! Most critics bemoan the fact that this was Barrymore’s final film, satirizing himself and hamming it up mercilessly, but The Great Profile, though bloated from years of alcohol abuse and hard living, seems to be enjoying himself in this fairly funny but minor screwball comedy with music. Lupe Velez livens things up as Barrymore’s spitfire girlfriend, “lady bullfighter” Carmen Del Toro, and the distinguished May Robson slices up the ham herself as Kay’s Grandmaw. Kay’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge bandmates are all present (Ginny Simms, Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason, Ish Kabbible), and the songs are decent, like the flag-waving “Thank Your Lucky Stars and Stripes” and the ambitious “Romeo Smith and Juliet Jones” production number finale. Yes, it’s sad to watch the looking-worse-for-wear-and-tear Barrymore obviously reading off cue cards, but on the whole, it’s not as bad as some would have you believe. Fun Fact: This was Barrymore’s only opportunity to perform ‘Hamlet’s Soliloquy’ on film – and The Great Profile nails it!

THE MCGUERINS FROM BROOKLYN (Hal Roach/United Artists 1942; D: Kurt Neumann ) – In the early 1940’s, comedy pioneer Hal Roach tried out a new format called “Streamliners”, movies that were longer than short subjects but shorter than a feature, usually running less than an hour to fill the bill for longer main attractions. He cast William Bendix and Joe Sawyer as a pair of dumb but likeable lugs who own a successful cab business in BROOKLYN ORCHID, and THE MCGUERINS FROM BROOKLYN was the second in the series. If the other two are funny as this, count me in! Bendix, warming up for his later LIFE OF RILEY TV sitcom, gets in hot water with his wife Grace Bradley when she catches him in a compromising position with sexy new stenographer Marjorie Woodworth, and complications ensue, complete with bawdy good humor and slapstick situations. Max Baer Sr. plays a fitness guru hired by Grace to make Bendix jealous, and character actors Arline Judge (Sawyer’s girl), Marion Martin, Rex Evans, and a young Alan Hale Jr. all get to participate in the chaos. It’s nothing special, but if you like this kind of lowbrow humor (and I do!), you’ll enjoy this fast-paced piece of silliness. Fun Fact: Grace Bradley, playing Bendix’s ex-burlesque queen wife Sadie, was the real-life wife of cowboy star William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd.

A DANGEROUS PROFESSION (RKO 1949; D: Ted Tetzlaff) – The plot’s as generic as the title of this slow-moving crime drama starring George Raft as  Pat O’Brien’s bail bond business partner, whose ex-girlfriend Ella Raines’ husband is arrested for stock swindling and winds up dead. The star trio were all on the wane at this juncture in their careers, and former DP Tetzlaff’s pedestrian handling of the low rent material doesn’t help matters; he did much better with another little crime film later that year, THE WINDOW . Jim Backus plays Raft’s pal, a hard-nosed cop (if you can picture that!). Fun Fact: Raft and O’Brien were reunited ten years later in Billy Wilder’s screwball comedy SOME LIKE IT HOT.

THE LAST HUNT (MGM 1956; D: Richard Brooks) – Writer/director Brooks has given us some marvelous movies (BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, THE PROFESSIONALS , IN COLD BLOOD), but this psychological Western is a minor entry in his fine canon. Buffalo hunter Robert Taylor partners with retired Stewart Granger for one last hunt, and personality conflicts result. Taylor’s character is a nasty man who gets aroused by killing, while Granger suffers from PTSD after years of slaughter. Things take a wrong turn when Taylor kills a white buffalo, considered sacred by Native Americans. There are many adult themes explored (racial prejudice, gun violence, the aftereffects of war), but for me personally, the film was too slowly paced to put it in the classic category. Lloyd Nolan steals the show as the grizzled veteran skinner Woodfoot, and the movie also features Debra Paget as an Indian maiden captured by Taylor, and young Russ Tamblyn as a half-breed who Granger takes under his wing. An interesting film, with beautiful location filming from DP Russel Harlan, but Brooks has done better. Fun Fact: Those shots of buffalo being killed are real, taken during the U.S. Government’s annual “thinning of the herds”, so if you’re squeamish about watching innocent animals being slaughtered for no damn good reason, you’ll probably want to avoid this movie.

QUEEN OF BLOOD (AIP 1966; D: Curtis Harrington ) – The Corman Boys (Roger and Gene) took a copious amount of footage from the Russian sci-fi films A DREAM COME TRUE and BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN, then charged writer/director Harrington with building a new movie around them! The result is a wacky, cheesy, but not completely bad film with astronauts John Saxon , Judi Meredith, and a pre-EASY RIDER Dennis Hopper sent to Mars by International Institute of Space Technology director Basil Rathbone in the futuristic year 1990 to find a downed alien spacecraft. There, they discover the ship’s sole survivor, a green-skinned, blonde-haired beauty with a beehive hairdo (Florence Marly) who’s an insect-based lifeform that feeds on human blood like a sexy mosquito! Sure, it’s silly, and the cheap sets don’t come close to matching the spectacular Soviet footage, but I’ve always found this to be a fun little drive-in flick. Harrington’s good friend, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND Editor Forrest J Ackerman , appears at the end as one of Rathbone’s assistants, carrying a crate of the alien’s glowing red eggs! Fun Fact: There are also some recognizable names behind the scenes: future director Stephanie Rothman (IT’S A BIKINI WORLD, THE STUDENT NURSES, THE VELVET VAMPIRE) is listed as associate producer, AMERICAN GRAFFITI  and STAR WARS producer Gary Kurtz is credited as production manager, and actor Karl Schanzer (SPIDER BABY, BLOOD BATH, DEMENTIA 13) worked in the art department!


THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (AIP 1972; D: Lee Frost) – A loopy low-budget Exploitation masterpiece that’s self-aware enough to know it’s bad and revel in it! Terminally ill scientific genius (and out-and-out racist) Ray Milland has only one way to survive – by having his head grafted onto the body of black death row convict Rosey Grier! Then the fun begins as the Rosey/Ray Thing escapes, the Rosey side setting out to prove his innocence while the Ray side struggles for control. This wonderfully demented movie has it all: an extended car chase that serves no purpose other than to smash up a bunch of cop cars, the Rosey/Ray Thing on a motorcycle, a two-headed ape (played by Rick Baker), a funky Blaxploitation-style score, and a cameo by Exploitation vet William Smith!  Ray and the rest of the cast play it totally straight, making this a one-of-a-kind treat you don’t wanna miss! Fun Fact: Director Frost was also responsible for Exploitation classics like CHROME AND HOT LEATHER, THE BLACK GESTAPO, and DIXIE DYNAMITE.


Outside the (Hat) Box: PHANTOM LADY (Universal 1944)

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Interested in a Hitchcockian 40’s thriller full of suspense and noir style? Then PHANTOM LADY is the film for you, a small gem based on a Cornell Woolrich novel and  directed by the talented Robert Siodmak. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this film noir like many do, but it certainly contains many of the stylistic elements of the genre in its gripping murder mystery story. Pretty damn close, though!

The Hitchcock influence clearly comes from Joan Harrison , former secretary and screenwriter for The Master of Suspense, who became one of only three female producers working during Hollywood’s Golden Age. There’s Hitchcock’s famed McGuffin to be found in the form of a “crazy hat” worn by the mysterious woman of the title that’s crucial to the film’s plot. Add the tension ratcheted up by screenwriter Bernard Schoenfeld and you’ve got a Hitchcock movie without Hitchcock.

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The noir elements come directly from the German Expressionist school courtesy of Robert Siodmak , soon to become one of the most influential directors in the noir canon. Working hand in hand with the brilliant cinematographer Woody Bredell, Siodmak creates a dark atmosphere loaded with shadows and light, best realized when the protagonist Kansas follows the suspicious bartender down the mean streets of New York, mostly silent until the scene’s nerve-rattling end. Another scene finds Kansas finally realizing who the killer is, now trapped alone with him in his spacious apartment. These scenes (and others in the film) are noir filmmaking all the way.

The reason I don’t consider PHANTOM LADY true noir isn’t the stylistic elements, but the film’s plot as written. The main character, Kansas, isn’t on a downward spiral, though her boss is certainly in trouble, sentenced to die for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s straightforward “find-the-killer”, well done for certain, but not in the category of other noirs produced that year, like LAURA and DOUBLE INDEMNITY. In 1944, what we now call film noir was just beginning to emerge, and though this movie is definitely filmed in the noir style, I consider it more of a straightforward suspense drama.

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The cast is outstanding, especially Ella Raines as ‘Kansas’ Richman, working diligently to prove her boss’s innocence. This was the beautiful Miss Raines first starring role, and the actress uses her versatility and range to maximum advantage. She also appeared in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO, TALL IN THE SADDLE (with John Wayne), the aforementioned UNCLE HARRY, and two true Siodmak noirs, THE SUSPECT and BRUTE FORCE . Raines also starred in the early TV drama JANET DEAN, REGISTERED NURSE, which was produced by Harrison. Ella Raines was never a major star, but made important contributions to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and deserves recognition for her efforts.

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The veteran actor Franchot Tone gets top billing, even though he doesn’t appear until the film’s second half. His Jack Marlow is a chilling figure, seemingly a friend to Kansas’s boss before revealing his true, psychotic nature. The way the camera and lighting focus on his hands, seemingly having a murderous mind of their own, is effective and chilling. Universal leading man Alan Curtis is Raines’ boss, falsely accused of murdering his wife, and character actor Thomas Gomez portrays Inspector Burgess, the cop who arrests him based on the evidence at hand, yet believes in his story about the mysterious Phantom Lady. Aurora Miranda (sister of Carmen) plays a key role as an entertainer, and old friend Elisha Cook Jr. is his weaselly little self. Familiar Faces in the film include Virginia Brissac, Joseph Crehan, Theresa Harris, Fay Helm , Doris Lloyd, Matt McHugh, Jay Novello, Regis Toomey, and the uncredited voices of Milburn Stone and Samuel S. Hinds during the court proceedings.

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PHANTOM LADY may not completely fall into the noir genre, but whatever you want to label it, it’s a well-made, suspenseful tale from a cast and crew of professionals guaranteed to keep you entertained. It doesn’t fit neatly into a category box, and I’m okay with that. Give it a chance and make your own judgement call, either way I think you’ll be more than satisfied.

Tough As Nails: BRUTE FORCE (Universal-International, 1947)

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The prison movie has long been one of the most popular of the crime genre. Beginning with 1930’s THE BIG HOUSE, to THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and beyond, audiences flock to get a forbidden glimpse behind the walls. Newspaper columnist turned film producer Mark Hellinger gave us one of the starkest, most realistic looks at prison life in  BRUTE FORCE, as relevant now as it was back in 1947.

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Westgate Penitentiary is a walled island facility much like Alcatraz, ruled with an iron hand by Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). The warden (Roman Bohenen) is weak and inefficient, and the prison doctor (Art Baker) a drunk. Inmate Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), just back from solitary thanks to having a shiv planted on him by one of Munsey’s stoolies, is desperate enough to plan a jailbreak with his cellies in R17. They stage a fight in the machine shop and drive the rat to his death while Joe visits with the doctor, making sure he has an airtight alibi. The politicians are in an uproar about the prison’s lack of discipline, and threaten the warden that changes will be made if things aren’t straightened out. Joe makes a proposition to Gallagher (Charles Bickford), a veteran con, to break out. Gallagher declines, stating he’s up for parole soon, and has it pretty easy playing both sides of the fence.

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Flashbacks are used throughout the movie to humanize the cons in R17, as we see them on the outside with their women. Joe’s girl Ruth (Ann Blyth) is a cripple with cancer. His lawyer tells him she refuses to have a life-saving operation until he returns. Joe doen’t want her to know where he is, as he’s shielded her from his criminal life. Joe gets a message to visit a con in the infirmary, who tells him the drainpipe is the answer to his way out. A cryptic reference to “Hill 633” provides Joe with the means to carry things out. Munsey causes one of the cellmates (Whit Bissell) to hang himself, and the warden, under more pressure, revokes all convict privileges. All scheduled paroles are cancelled, and Gallagher now agrees to go along with Joe’s escape plan. Munsey sends the men to work in the drainpipe, but what they don’t know is there’s a rat among them, and Munsey’s on to their scheme. Just before setting things into play, the warden is forced to resign, and Munsey is put in charge. The cons riot while the breakout is on, culminating in a death struggle between Joe and Munsey in a gory ending inside a flaming guard tower.

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Burt Lancaster’s Joe Collins is the ultimate anti-hero, clearly a criminal, but we sympathize with him. His love for Ruth shows us his softer side, and though he’s on the wrong side of the law, we cheer him on, rather than the corrupt Captain Munsey. Cronyn’s Munsey is vain, sadistic, and tyrannical. His methods of intimidation and brutality make him as bad (if not worse) than even the hardest con. It’s a subtle, well drawn portrait, and I think it’s Cronyn’s best screen performance, which is saying a lot considering his long body of work. The rest of the cast is a testosterone fueled bunch, including Howard Duff (billed as “Radio’s Sam Spade in his first screen role”), Jeff Corey, Sam Levene, Jack Overman, John Hoyt, Jay C. Flippen, and Gene Roth. The ladies are represented by Blyth, Yvonne DeCarlo, Ella Raines, and Anita Colby. Black actor Sir Lancelot plays Calypso, who serves as a sort of Greek chorus for the film, much like he did in Val Lewton’s 1943 I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.

The screenplay by Richard Brooks is tough as nails. Brooks wrote another Hellinger movie, THE KILLERS, and worked on John Huston’s KEY LARGO, before becoming an acclaimed writer/director of his own with THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, ELMER GANTRY, IN COLD BLOOD, and LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR. Director Jules Dassin came up through the ranks of b-movies before scoring with THE CANTERVILLE GHOST. He collaborated with Hellinger again on THE NAKED CITY , and made NIGHT AND THE CITY before falling victim to the Hollywood blacklist. Moving to Europe, Dassin continued his fine work in films like RIFIFI, TOPKAPI, and NEVER ON SUNDAY with his wife, Greek actress/activist Melina Mercouri.

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BRUTE FORCE is a violent, gritty movie that was way ahead of its time. It’s a no holds barred look at a hard life, and retains its punch even today. Well worth watching for its realism, and particularly for Hume Cronyn’s chilling performance as Captain Munsey.  A true classic!

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