The Land Down Under: THE SUNDOWNERS (Warner Brothers 1960)

G’day, mates! Let’s take a trek through the wilds of 1920’s Australian outback with  , Robert Mitchum Deborah Kerr, and a herd of bouncing sheep in THE SUNDOWNERS. Fred Zinnemann, generally associated with serious, tense dramas like HIGH NOON and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, lends a lighter touch than usual to this sprawling, almost John Ford-esque tale of an itinerant sheep drover and his family, and the wife who longs to settle into a home of her own.

Mitchum plays Paddy Carmody, a stubborn Irishman who has to keep moving, unable and unwilling to be tied to one place. He’s a wanderer with a fondness for booze and gambling, and Big Bob is perfect for the part. Mitchum’s penchant for dialects make his Aussie accent more than believable, and his facial expressions, especially during the sheep-shearing contest, are priceless. Deborah Kerr is his equal as wife Ida, the tough Earth Mother who’s loyal to Paddy but forever dreaming of a permanent home for them and son Sean (Michael Anderson Jr.). As good as Mitchum is, Kerr’s the heart of the film, and she was Oscar nominated for this performance, losing out to Liz Taylor in BUTTERFIELD 8.

Peter Ustinov  joins them along the way as Briton Rupert Venneker, like Paddy a wandering soul, who becomes attached to the Carmodys. Ustinov, as always, shines in the supporting role of the vagabond Englishman, who meets a match of his own in chatty hotelier Mrs. Firth (Glynis Johns, who was also Oscar-nominated). Dina Merrill and Chips Rafferty are among the supporting cast, as are a number of less well-known Australian actors.

The colorful, scenic cinematography is by Jack Hildyard, who won an Oscar for BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, and whose work can be seen in HENRY V, CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, THE VIP’S, and MODESTY BLAISE . Hildyard captures the hardscrabble back country wilderness with a keen eye, and kangaroos, koalas, and dingos pop up everywhere. The deadly forest fire scene is a highlight, as is the horserace later in the film. The delightful visuals are set to a marvelous Dimitri Tiomkin score.

THE SUNDOWNERS gathered five Oscar nominations in all, including Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay (Isobel Lennert ). It did not win any; in fact, the film did poorly here in the U.S., although it was a hit in Britain and Australia. It was only later, in part because of exposure through television, that it has come to be appreciated by many fans, including Yours Truly. It’s a warm, family oriented comedy-drama with beautiful location photography and top-notch performances by Mitchum, Kerr, and Ustinov. Fred Zinnemann made some of cinema’s finest films about the human condition, and THE SUNDOWNERS is one of them. It’s lighthearted tone is what probably keeps the cognoscenti from ranking it higher in Zinnemann’s body of work; to me, it’s worth reappraisal.

Diamond in the Rough: RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 (Allied Artists 1954)

Back in 1951, movie producer Walter Wanger (rhymes with danger) discovered his wife, actress Joan Bennett , was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang. The enraged husband tracked them to a parking lot, where Wanger shot Lang in the groin. That’ll teach him! Wanger was subsequently arrested, and sentenced to serve a four-month bid in a Los Angeles county farm. His stint in stir, though brief, affected him profoundly, and he wanted to make a film about prison conditions. The result was RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11, a ripped-from-the-headlines prison noir that’s tougher than a two-dollar steak.

Wanger hired Don Siegel to direct the film. Siegel was gaining a reputation as a director of muscular, low-budget features, and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 is a great early example of his harsh, brutal style. The movie’s sparse, shadowy setting was filmed on location at California’s infamous Folsom Prison thanks to the connections of one of Siegel’s assistants, a young man working on his first film named Sam Peckinpah . Gee, I wonder whatever became of him?

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 opens with narrator James Matthews intoning ominous newsreel footage of prison riots across the USA protesting inhumane conditions. We then turn to our fictional prison, where a single mistake by a rookie guard leads to chaos in Cell Block 11, led by hardened cons Dunn (Neville Brand ) and Carnie (Leo Gordon). They take over the solitary confinement block, using four guards as hostages, and trash the place. The warden (Emile Meyer) is called in as the inmates present their demands, and insist the press be alerted as well.

The entire prison devolves into chaos and rioting, and the state police are called in to quell things with smoke bombs and rubber bullets. An inmate is accidentally killed during the commotion, and five other guards are snatched by the cons. The warden hears Dunn’s demands: remodel the condemned solitary block, separate “the nuts” (those with mental health issues) from the other cons, get rid of leglocks and overzealous guards, teach the men a trade, and absolutely no reprisals for the rioters.

The warden has been asking for some of these same changes for years, but his pleas have fallen on deaf ears. He’s willing to sign off on them now, but the governor (Thomas Henry Browne) refuses, and the prison commissioner (Frank Faylen) orders TNT to be planted on the outside wall of the cell block. Meanwhile, warring factions in the cell block leave Dunn injured, and his lieutenant “Crazy Mike” Carnie takes command. Carnie plans to begin killing hostages, but when the commissioner’s plot is discovered, they chain the hostages to a pipe on the other side of the wall. Dunn recuperates just in time to take a phone call from the warden: the governor has relented, and the prisoner’s demands for change will be met. But two weeks later, it turns out it was all for naught. The state legislature repudiates the warden’s and governor’s signatures, and Dunn is to stand trial for leading a riot and kidnapping the guards. Though Carnie and some of the other “nuts” are sent to the State Mental Institution, the rest of the demands will not be met.

The cast of RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 consists of some legitimate hard guys. Neville Brand was a highly decorated soldier during World War II, earning a Purple Heart, Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, and six other medals for bravery and valor in combat. Leo Gordon was thrown out of the Army, and later served five years in San Quentin for armed robbery. The warden of Folsom reused to let Gordon in at first, but Siegel, who once called Gordon “the scariest man I have ever met”, talked him into it. Among the cons, guards, and reporters, you’ll find Familiar Faces like Whit Bissell (whose first credited role was in BRUTE FORCE ), Roy Glenn, Dabbs Greer (whose final film appearance was in THE GREEN MILE), Frank Hagney, Jonathan Hole, Alvy Moore , William Phipps, William Schallert , and Carleton Young. Some of the actual Folsom cons and guards appear as extras.

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 tells a very bleak tale of desperate people driven to desperate measures. It’s lean and mean, like the best films noir, and delivers it’s message with sledgehammer potency. This compact diamond-in-the-rough is among director Siegel’s best work, and is highly recommended by yours truly.

Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll: RIP Chuck Berry

“Johnny B. Goode”. “Roll Over, Beethoven”. “Sweet Little Sixteen”. “Rock and Roll Music”. The most iconic songs of the Golden Age of Rock’N’Roll belonged to one man, Chuck Berry. When I got home this evening and heard the news he passed away at the age of 90, I knew I’d have to preempt my regularly scheduled post and pay tribute. Because without Chuck Berry, there’s no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no Beach Boys, no rock and roll as we know it. He was that influential on 20th century music, and the uncrowned King of Rock and Roll.

Sure, Elvis was bigger, but it was Chuck Berry who wrote the soundtrack for a generation of kids listening to their radios searching for relief from the blandness of 50’s commercial pop. He spoke their language, the language of teenage lust, hot rods, high schools hops, all set to a rocking back beat. Berry was influenced by the jump blues of Louis Jordan and the electric blues of T-Bone Walker, the western swing of Bob Wills and the soulful singing of Nat King Cole, added his own “duck walking” brand of showmanship, all propelled by Johnnie Johnson’s honky-tonk piano, and created something totally unique. He called it rock and roll.

Chuck was no saint. Far from it. As a teen, he did time in a reformatory for armed robbery and car theft. He was found guilty of violating the Mann Act for crossing state lines with a 14-year-old waitress, got sued for installing a camera in the ladies room at his restaurant, did four months for tax evasion, and was busted for possession of weed. Chuck Berry was rock and roll’s real bad boy, and a notoriously cranky curmudgeon, but his fans remained ever loyal despite his flaws. They knew his talent outweighed all his faults.

Much as teens idolized him, the adults hated him, mainly because he was a black man selling teenage sex to their children. But he still sold out concerts and was featured in Hollywood rock flicks like ROCK ROCK ROCK and GO JOHNNY GO! Like most 50’s rockers, he suffered a career slump during the 60’s, but came back strong in 1972 with the #1 double-entendre hit “My Ding-a-Ling”:

The 1987 rock doc HAIL! HAIL! ROCK’N’ROLL a 60th birthday concert filmed by Taylor Hackford featuring a veritable Who’s Who of classic rockers joining Chuck onstage. There was Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, and more celebrating the music of their idol. Earlier this year, on Chuck’s 90th birthday, it was announced he would be releasing his first new recording in 38 years, “Chuck”. I for one am eagerly awaiting it’s release.

Chuck Berry will live forever as one of the greats in rock’n’roll history, and one of the last century’s music pioneers. I own a compilation disc titled simply “Blues” that showcases his best recorded blues performances, and I’ll leave you with his “Wee Wee Hours”. All hail the uncrowned King!:

“The Hat Me Dear Old Father Wore (Upon St. Patrick’s Day)” – Gene Kelly in TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME

Continuing today’s salute to St. Patrick and all things Irish, how about Mrs. Kelly’s baby boy Gene dancing up a storm to “The Hat Me Dear Old Father Wore” from the 1949 musical TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME (which you can read about here).  Does it get anymore Irish than this?

Happy St. Patrick’s Day: IRISH LUCK (Complete Movie 1939)

Here’s a wee bit o’Hollywood blarney for you, 1939’s IRISH LUCK, a Monogram programmer starring Frankie Darro and Mantan Moreland , the first of their seven “amateur sleuth” films together. Grab yourselves some Guinness and a Corned Beef sandwich and enjoy!

Green Cheese? No, it’s THE GREEN SLIME (MGM 1969)

We all love a good cheese-fest every now and then, right? Well, THE GREEN SLIME delivers the limburger by the rocket-load, with its rock bottom special effects, silly looking monsters, overwrought dialog, and a cool heavy-metalish theme song (Who was that singer belting out the tune? More on that later!). This MGM/Toei Studios mashup was made with a Japanese crew and American cast, with an Italian pedigree, no less.

An asteroid codenamed ‘Flora’ is hurtling toward a collision course with Earth, and Comm. Jack Rankin is sent to space station Gamma-3 with orders to blow the thing to smithereens. Gamma-3’s Commander, Vince Elliott, holds a longtime grudge against Rankin, and his fiancé Dr. Lisa Benson just happens to be Rankin’s ex. I smell a love triangle brewing! Rankin, Elliott, and other crew members blast off to the asteroid to plant explosives, but there’s this Blob-like, pulsating ooze around gripping their escape vehicles (ominous music plays whenever the slime is shown in close-up!). One of the men wants to bring some of the stuff back, but Rankin smashes his dreams (and the sample), and they barely escape with their lives.

However, a splash of the slime gets on one of their spacesuits and makes it back to the station, and that’s when the fun really begins! The Green Slime gets loose and starts killing people. The stuff feeds on ‘energy’ and reproduces at an alarming rate, creating horrible monsters… well, they’re not so horrible, just midgets in rubber monster suits. Kinda cute, in their own monsterous way. The one-red-eyed, tentacled lil’ demons (that make dolphin-like noises) begin to take over the station, killing everyone in their path by electrocuting them. Can the Green Slime be stopped???

Well, of course it can, but only by evacuating Gamma-3 and blowing the whole thing to kingdom come! This movie is derivative as hell, cobbling pieces of everything from Hawks’ THE THING to IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE , but it does have an endearing goofiness about it that makes it fun for sci-fi fans. Something not many people know (I sure didn’t) is THE GREEN SLIME is an unofficial sequel to Antonio Margheretti’s (aka Anthony Dawson) Italian Gamma-1 movies (WILD WILD PLANET, WAR OF THE PLANETS, etc). The special effects here are even cheezier though, if you can imagine.

Star Robert Horton looks like he’d much rather be home on the range in TV’s WAGON TRAIN than stuck in his space suit. Maybe that’s why his character Rankin is such a prick! Costar Richard Jaeckel (Elliott) seems frustrated having to play second banana once again, though he does get to redeem himself at the conclusion. Luciannna Paluzzi (Lisa) is beautiful, but can’t muster up any emotion for her one-dimensional role. The rest of the cast is a bunch of American actors who were probably on vacation and decided to pick up a quick paycheck. Hey, even actors gotta eat!

Kinji Fukasaku’s direction leaves much to be desired, in fact it’s pretty non-exsistant. He saw better days with 2000’s BATTLE ROYALE. THE GREEN SLIME is a Saturday Matinee flick that knows it, so I can’t really deride it too much. It just is what it is. As for that theme song, the singer belting out that proto-metal tune was Rick Lancelotti. Who, you may well ask? Lancelotti, also known as Rick Lancelot, was a minor 60’s figure who sang covers on TV’s SHINDIG, sang vocals for the kiddie show THE BANANA SPLITS, and worked briefly with rock maestro Frank Zappa. So now you know more about THE GREEN SLIME then you probably ever wanted (or needed) to! You’re welcome!

End of an Era: THE ROARING TWENTIES (Warner Brothers 1939)

Warner Brothers helped usher in the gangster movie era in the early 1930’s with Pre-Code hits like LITTLE CAESAR and THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and at the decade’s end they put the capper on the genre with THE ROARING TWENTIES, a rat-a-tat-tat rousing piece of filmmaking starring two of the studio’s top hoods, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart , directed with the top down by eye-patch wearing macho man Raoul Walsh for maximum entertainment.

The film’s story was written by Mark Hellinger, a popular and colorful New York columnist in the Damon Runyon mold who based it on his encounters with some of the underworld figures he knew during that tumultuous era. Hellinger was later responsible for producing some of the toughest noirs of the late 40’s: THE KILLERS BRUTE FORCE , THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS, and THE NAKED CITY. Jerry Wald, Richard Macauley, and Robert Rossen adapted Hellinger’s story for the screen, and the film has a novel way of moving through the decade via montage, nine of them to be exact!

WWI vets Eddie Bartlett, George Hally, and Lloyd Hart (Cagney, Bogie, Jeffrey Lynn) return home to vastly different circumstances. While Hally returns to saloonkeeping and Hart begins a law career, Eddie finds himself an out-of-work mechanic. Pal Danny Green (Frank McHugh) gives him a job driving hack, but when the Volstead Act goes into effect, Eddie becomes a bootlegger. He joins forces with saloon owner/hostess Panama Smith (Gladys George), and soon buys a fleet of cabs to deliver the hootch. Lloyd becomes his lawyer, and Eddie is off and running in the illegal booze business.

Sweet Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), who once sent Eddie her picture during the war (she was a teen at the time), is trying to break into show business, so Eddie gets her a job as a singer in Panama’s joint. He’s infatuated with Jean, but she only has eyes for Lloyd. Meanwhile, competition in the rackets causes violence to escalate between Eddie and rival Nick Brown (Paul Kelly). George is working as Brown’s lieutenant, but double-crosses him to join forces with Eddie. Pal Danny’s body is dumped in front of Eddie’s nightclub, and the mobster goes for revenge against Brown, only to be double-crossed by that double-crosser George!

Times change, the stock market crashes, prohibition’s repealed, Lloyd and Jean get married, and Eddie hits the skids, crawling into a bottle with only loyal Panama by his side. Jean searches for and finds Eddie in a run-down gin joint and asks for help. Lloyd is now with the DA’s office, and George, still a top hood, wants to put him on ice. This last segment has the look and feel of an early Thirties Warners gangster pic, as the studio pays homage to itself and its  films. The famous final scene featuring Cagney, pumped full of lead and dying on those snow covered church steps, with Panama uttering the memorable last line “He used to be a big shot”, is one of my favorites in cinema history.

The casting is perfect. Cagney is Cagney, and can do no wrong far as I’m concerned. Bogart is thoroughly despicable as rotten George, the kind of villain you want to “boo and hiss” at. Priscilla Lane is all sweetness as Jean, and even gets to sing some period songs like “Melancholy Baby”, “I’m Just Wild About Harry”, and “It Had to Be You”. But it’s Gladys George who steals this one as Panama, the proverbial “tough-dame-with-the-heart-of-gold”, a part usually reserved for the likes of Joan Blondell, Glenda Farrell, or Claire Trevor. Gladys was better known to audiences for “woman’s pictures” like VALIANT IS THE WORD FOR CARRIE and MADAME X, but here she gets down-and-dirty with the best of ’em. I don’t think Joan, Glenda, or Claire could’ve done it any better than Gladys, she’s that good, and should’ve been Oscar nominated. Gladys later reunited with Bogart as Miles Archer’s widow in THE MALTESE FALCON.

As you’d expect in a Warner Brothers film of this era, there are tons of Familiar Faces floating through the plot, way too many to mention them all here, so I’ll just list Elisabeth Risdon, Joe Sawyer, John Hamilton, Jack Norton (as a drunk, of course!), Eddie Acuff, Abner Biberman, Raymond Bailey (Mr. Drysdale from THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES!), Maurice Costello, Wild Bill Elliott, Bess Flowers, Donald Kerr, George Tobias, Ben Weldon, and Frank Wilcox, and let you find the rest! Happy hunting, film fans!