Cleaning Out the DVR Pt. 23: Spring Cleaning Edition


Continuing my quest to watch all these movies sitting in my DVR (so I can record more movies!), here are six more capsule reviews for you Dear Readers:

FIFTH AVENUE GIRL (RKO 1939; D: Gregory LaCava) – A minor but entertaining bit of screwball froth revolving around rich old Walter Connolly , who’s got  problems galore: his wife (the criminally underrated Veree Teasdale) is cheating on him, his son (Tim Holt in a rare comedy role) is a polo-playing twit, his daughter (Kathryn Adams) in love with the socialism-spouting chauffer (James Ellison ), and his business is facing bankruptcy because of labor union troubles. On top of all that, no one remembers his birthday! The downcast Connolly wanders around Central Park, where he meets jobless, penniless, and practically homeless Ginger Rogers, and soon life on 5th Avenue gets turned upside-down! Ellison’s in rare form as the proletariat Marxist driver, Franklin Pangborn shines (as usual) as Connolly’s butler, and Ginger makes with the wisecracks as only Ginger could. There are some similarities to LaCava’s MY MAN GODFREY, and though FIFTH AVENUE GIRL isn’t quite as good (few film comedies are!), it’s a more than amusing look at class warfare. Fun Fact: Screenwriter Alan Scott wrote most of Ginger’s classic films with Fred Astaire (TOP HAT, FOLLOW THE FLEET, SWING TIME, SHALL WE DANCE, CAREFREE), and penned the Rogers/LaCava follow-up PRIMROSE PATH, costarring Joel McCrea.

THE FLYING DEUCES (RKO 1939; D: A. Edward Sutherland) – Laurel & Hardy join the Foreign Legion after Ollie is rejected by (unknown to him) married Jean Parker, whose husband Reginald Gardiner becomes their captain! To say complications ensue is putting it mildly in this fast moving (only 69 minutes) comedy, with a cast that includes L&H regulars Richard Cramer, Charles Middleton (who played a similar role in their short BEAU HUNKS), and of course James Finlayson. The gags come fast and furious in this, the best of their non-Hal Roach movies. Fun Fact: This is the film where The Boys perform their famous “Shine On Harvest Moon” song-and-dance routine, sweetly sung by Ollie.

THE TATTOOED STRANGER (RKO 1950; D: Edward J. Montagne) – A young girl is found shotgunned to death in a parked car in Central Park. The only clue to her identity: a Marine Corps tattoo. This low budget police procedural moves fast (it clocks in at just over an hour), contrasting the latest in 50’s forensic investigating with good old fashioned legwork, and benefits from it’s NYC location shooting. The cast is made up of mostly unknowns, all of whom are good, including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role for a young Jack Lord. Not the greatest cops-chase-down-killer flick, but certainly not the worst, either. Fun Fact: Director Montagne went on to create the sitcom MCHALE’S NAVY, and produced most of Don Knotts’ 60’s movie comedies.

WITNESS TO MURDER (United Artists 1954; D: Roy Rowland) – Barbara Stanwyck spies George Sanders kill a woman from her apartment window across the street, but with no body or any clues to go on, no one believes her, and Sanders (who’s also an ex-Nazi!) gaslights her, leading the cops to question her sanity. Gary Merrill is the cop who helps crack the case, and the supporting cast includes brief but memorable bits by Claire Carleton and Juanita Moore as Babs’ fellow mental patients. Stanwyck and Sanders help elevate this somewhat derivative entry in the “Woman in Jeopardy” noir subcategory. Fun Fact: The real star of WITNESS TO MURDER is DP John Alton, whose dark cinematography can be found in classics like HE WALKED BY NIGHT, RAW DEAL , and THE BIG COMBO .

GUN THE MAN DOWN (United Artists 1956; D: Andrew V. McLaglen) – Big Jim Arness, TV’s heroic Marshal Dillon on GUNSMOKE, turns to the dark side as a bank robber who’s shot and left for dead by his compadres, who drag his woman along with them to boot! Patched up by a posse and sent to prison, he does his time and returns years later seeking revenge. A routine but very well made Western, as well it should be – director McLaglen was a sagebrush specialist, as was screenwriter Burt Kennedy , cinematographer William Clothier was a favorite of John Ford, and the producer was none other than The Duke himself, John Wayne ! The cast is peppered with sagebrush vets like Harry Carey Jr., Robert Wilke, Don Megowan, and Emile Meyer. A minor outing with major talent before and behind the cameras that’s sure to please any Western buffs. Fun Fact: A brunette Angie Dickinson is given an “introducing” credit as Arness’ love interest (though it’s actually her fourth credited film); three years later, she costarred with Wayne in the classic RIO BRAVO .

NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS (MGM 1971; D: Dan Curtis) – Second feature film spinoff of the popular 60’s Gothic soap opera (following HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS ) sans Jonathan Frid (the vampire Barnabas) and Joan Bennett (matriarch Elizabeth), but featuring many of the show’s cast – David Selby, Kate Jackson, Lara Parker, Grayson Hall, John Karlen, Nancy Barrett, Chris Pennock, Thayer David – in a tale about ghosts and reincarnation, revolving around the beautiful but evil 19th Century witch Angelique (Parker). This underrated entry is slow to develop, building with an unsettling sense of dread; worth sticking with for horror buffs. Feature film debut for Jackson, who got her start on the soap before rocketing to stardom as one of TV’s original CHARLIE’S ANGELS, and the later hit series SCRECROW AND MRS. KING. Fun Fact: Robert Cobert’s appropriately eerie score incorporates several familiar music cues from the show, including the haunting “Quentin’s Theme”, which became a #13 hit in the Summer of ’69 for The Charles Randolph Grean Sounde:

 

Pre Code Confidential #22: GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE (MGM 1933)

One of the most bizarre films of any era is GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE, a political fantasy extolling the joys of a totalitarian dictatorship in America! Produced by the independent Walter Wanger , a staunch anti-Fascist(1) , and financed by William Randolph Hearst, the left-leaning newspaper magnate(2) who served as the inspiration for CITIZEN KANE, the film shows what would happen if all the political power in Washington were consolidated in one man – and shows it to be a good thing!

Newsreel footage is interspersed with the inauguration of President Judson Hammond (Walter Huston ), newly elected at the height of the Depression. Hammond is a typically phony, glad-handing politician, more concerned in towing the party line and maintaining the status quo than helping the people that elected him. Though he promises peace and prosperity, Hammond tells the press he regards the problems of unemployment, homelessness, and rampant crime as “a local problem”. He’s more interested in playing with his little nephew (Dickie Moore ) in the Oval Office than listening to a radio appeal from John Bronson (David Landau), leader of the “army of the unemployed”, to meet and discuss the Nation’s troubles. Hammond, like most politicians, just doesn’t care – the bachelor president’s idea of job creation is giving his ‘side piece’ Pendie Malloy (Karen Morley ) the position of personal secretary.

The bubbleheaded Hammond also gets his kicks driving at high speeds, which results in a car crash that puts the president in a coma. Doctors say in private he’s “beyond any human help” – and that’s when a breeze wafts through an open window, and Hammond is bathed in a white light, the implication being a visitation from a Higher Power. Hammond comes out of the coma a changed man, no longer just another party hack, but a man determined to serve the people. He fires his entire Deep State Cabinet and meets with the unemployed “forgotten men”, taking his message directly to the people, calling for the creation of a Construction Army that puts everyone to work on infrastructure. An outraged Congress screams for his impeachment, leading him to disband that cesspool of do-nothings and use the power of the Presidency to declare martial law, making himself Supreme Leader of the country!

Hammond goes into action, putting a moratorium on housing foreclosures, changing the nation’s banking laws, giving direct aid to agriculture, and repealing the 18th Amendment, opening government liquor stores throughout the land. This doesn’t sit well with the criminal element, putting their bootlegging operations out of business, and the crime lord Nick Diamond (C. Henry Gordon ) retaliates by not only bombing the stores, but a drive-by at the White House that injures Pendie! Hammond creates a Federal Police Force, led by his Press Secretary Beek Beekman (Franchot Tone ), who use armored tanks and machine guns to obliterate the gangsters, then sentences them to death at a military tribunal, executing the enemies of the state by firing squad!

In his last master stroke, Hammond decides to pull America out of her financial doldrums by making Europe and the rest of the world pay their war debts by threat of force, gathering the heads of state on his yacht for a grand showing of America’s military might, and calling for worldwide disarmament. The nations of the world agree to his terms, and they all sign Hammond’s “Washington Covenant”, fulfilling his earlier promise of peace and prosperity. The president collapses during the signing, and once again that eerie wind blows through the window as Judson Hammond expires, his job complete.

Gregory LaCava (l) with Walter Huston, Franchot Tone, and Karen Morley

GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE was directed by Gregory LaCava , who headed Hearst’s animation studio Independent Film Services from 1915-18 before moving to live-action two-reelers and eventually full features. Most of LaCava’s films are comedies with social commentary thrown in, like FIFTH AVENUE GIRL, STAGE DOOR, and his most famous movie, MY MAN GODFREY. Here, his direction takes things seriously, though I can’t help but believe, knowing LaCava’s own political views, that there’s more than a touch of satire involved.

William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945)

This excursion into fascist fantasy was written by Carey Wilson, who would later produce and narrate propaganda films for the war effort and the Department of Defense. Hearst himself is rumored to have penned some of Hammond’s speeches (3), inputting his own political philosophies into the narrative. The real newly elected president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, watched and enjoyed the film, stating “it would do a lot of good” (4), and actually incorporated some of Hammond’s political ideas into his New Deal. Hearst was a steadfast Roosevelt supporter until disagreements regarding FDR’s vetoing of the Bonus Bill (which would’ve supplied extra aid to WWI vets) and support for joining the World Court (5), coupled with Hearst’s continued fawning over Adolf Hitler, caused a political rift that never healed.

MGM boss Louis B. Mayer hated GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE, and wanted to lock it up and throw away the key after sitting through a preview (6). But all the fuss and furor some critics have over this film is meaningless; after all, this is America, Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, right? A political dictatorship? It could never happen here… or could it? COULD IT?

Sources 

(1) Hollywood Renegade Archives (website)

(2) William Randolph Hearst: His Role in American Progressivism (Ray Everett Littlefield III, University Press 1980)

(3) The Hollywood Movie Made For FDR’s Inauguration (Richard Brody, The New Yorker)

(4) The Hollywood Hit Movie That Urged FDR to Become a Fascist (Jeff Greenfield, Politico, 3/25/18)

(5) The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst (David Nasaw, Houghton Mifflin 2000)

(6) The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code (Leonard J. Leff and Jerald Simmons, University Press of Kentucky 2001) 

Pre Code Confidential #17: BED OF ROSES (RKO 1933)

If someone you know is one of those film fans wondering what’s all the hubbub about “Pre-Code” films, may I make a suggestion? Watch BED OF ROSES with them, a totally amoral concoction from director Gregory LaCava , with Constance Bennett and Pert Kelton getting about as sinful as Stormy Daniels without actually performing onscreen sex! This one’ll have your eyes popping out seeing what they could get away with back in 1933, when the Great Depression was at its lowest and lust was riding high!

Lorry Evans (our gal Constance) and her pal Minnie Brown (the devilishly delightful Kelton) have just been released from a Louisiana slammer after serving time for hooking. You’d think they’d have learned their lesson, but no… soon as they get out, Minnie sweet talks a trucker for a ride, offering to pay by hopping in the back with him while Lorry drives! These two ‘ladies’ then hop a steamboat to The Big Easy, looking to fleece some chumps. Minnie manages to score some hootch and hooks up with a couple of travelling salesmen, while Lorry’s got her eye on bigger game, namely rich publisher Stephen Page. When Lorry gets busted ripping off one of the chump’s wallet, she takes a swan dive straight into the mighty Mississippi.

Fortunately for Lorry (and the film… otherwise it’d be shorter than its 67 minutes!), she’s fished out of the river by Dan, captain of a cotton barge. When they pull into port, Lorry scoots off with Dan’s loot and, passing herself off as a reporter, slinks her way into the sanctimonious Page’s office. She gets the publisher bombed, and sets things up so when he awakens, he gets the impression they had wild sex! Scheming Lorry blackmails the older Page, who sets her up in a luxurious ‘love nest’. Lorry’s living large now!

But the larcenous little sexpot feels bad about Dan, and returns to the docks to repay his dough, telling him she has a job as a “governess”. Dan, who’s kinda sweet on her despite her grafting ways, wants to take her out, but she can’t commit. Who pops up at Lorry’s penthouse digs but old pal Minnie, now married to one of those chumps, and Lorry confesses to her friend that she’s falling in love with Dan. He proposes, but Lorry gets cold feet when sugar daddy Page threatens to tell Dan what she’s really all about. A wild Mardi Gras party ends up with Lorry on the run, but true love is triumphant in the end.

Constance Bennett doesn’t get the attention many actress of the era do today, but at the time she was the highest paid actress in Hollywood. Films like SIN TAKES A HOLIDAY, WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? (which served as the basis for A STAR IS BORN), OUR BETTERS, and MOULIN ROUGE were box office smashes, as were later ones like TOPPER and MERRILY WE LIVE. By the 40’s Constance’s film career was practically over, though she’d invested wisely and was a very rich woman. She’s sexy, saucy, and a whole lot of fun in this one, a go-go golddigger who will use whatever means necessary to reach her goal of easy living, until she meets her match with Captain Dan.

Speaking of a whole lot of fun, I can’t say enough about Pert Kelton’s Minnie. In films such as THE BOWERY, THE MEANEST GAL IN TOWN, KELLY THE SECOND, and YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, Pert is as brassy as the best of ’em, and her presence always livens up the proceedings. She was the original Alice Kramden in Jackie Gleason’s THE HONEYMOONERS comedy sketches, but the dreaded blacklist forced her out. Pert Kelton was off screens large and small until the early 60’s, when she staged a mini comeback with supporting roles in THE MUSIC MAN, LOVE AND KISSES, and THE COMIC , and a smattering of TV appearances.

Joel McCrea  was a young up-and-comer when cast as Dan, and his easygoing charm was already evident. John Halliday (Page) is one of those Familiar Faces I’m always talking about; his best known part is as Katherine Hepburn’s father in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. Jane Darwell , Tom Herbert, Matt McHugh , Robert Emmett O’Connor, Franklin Pangborn , and Samuel S. Hinds also pop up in small roles. The dialog and situations are about as risqué as you could get back then without having the theater raided, and LaCava keeps it all running smooth and brisk. BED OF ROSES makes for a great introduction to the Pre-Code Era, and will have you drooling for more like those chumps drooling for more of Lorry and Minnie. It doesn’t get shown very often, but is well worth seeking out!

 

Pre Code Confidential #14: THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH (RKO 1932)

Director Gregory LaCava is remembered today mainly for a pair of bona fide classics: MY MAN GODFREY and STAGE DOOR. LaCava, who started his career in early silent animation, was also responsible for THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH, a Pre-Code screwball comedy begging to be rediscovered. It’s a crazy, innovative, pedal-to-the-metal farce headlined by fast-talking Lee Tracy and “Mexican Spitfire” Lupe Velez as a pair of carny con artists who work their way up to The Great White Way in grand comic style.

Tracy does his rapid-fire spieling schtick as a carnival barker promoting hot-tempered tamale Lupe, a hootchie dancer who spends most of the movie wearing next to nothing. Together with pal Eugene Pallette , they leave the carny life behind (with the law on their tails!) and head for Broadway, where Lee promises Lupe he’ll make her a star. The trio pawn Lupe off as Turkish Princess Exotica (with Tracy pawning off an unwitting Pallette as a eunuch!), and set their sights on Broadway impresario Merle Farrell, played to perfection by the perpetually befuddled Frank Morgan. Tracy’s promotional stunt includes importing a lion named Stamboli straight from Coney Island!

Soon hustler Tracy has Lupe under contract to Merle Farrell’s Follies, where the former hootchie becomes a Broadway sensation singing and dancing to the double entendre laden “The Carpenter Song”. She then dumps the loquacious Lee for old goat Morgan, causing him to promote a new find, hotel maid Gladys, redubbing her Eve, Queen of the Nudists! The hustling huckster also manages to snap a photo of Morgan and Lupe in a compromising situation, which he proceeds to plaster all over the producer’s office. Morgan’s no fool, so Lupe gets dumped, and Eve gets her follies spot. Lee misses his spicy little enchilada though, and a riotous scene finds every noise he hears reminding him of “The Carpenter Song”. The unhappy Tracy decides to chuck it all and return to carny life, where he finds his pal Pallette running the old show, and little Latin Lupe doing her hootchie thing once again. And they lived happily ever after!

Lee and Lupe make a great screen team, their styles meshing perfectly amidst all the zaniness going on here. Morgan and Pallette’s comic talents add to the merriment, and Shirley Chambers’ dumb blonde turn as Gladys/Eve holds her own with the star quartet. Franklin Pangborn is on hand as (what else?) the hotel manager, and “Queen of the Extras” Bess Flowers has a larger than usual part playing Tracy’s secretary. Max Steiner contributes the music, and even appears as the conductor at the Follies! We also get Teresa Harris (Barbara Stanwyck’s BABY FACE companion) in a brief bit as Lupe’s maid.

LaCava and Corey Ford’s screenplay is full of sharp, sparkling dialog, off the wall comedy situations, and blazing banter between Lee and Lupe. THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH is a Pre-Code delight, a forgotten little gem waiting to be savored by movie buffs. So what are you waiting for – go find it!

Read more “Pre-Code Confidential”!

LADY KILLER (1933)

KONGO (1932)

MAKE ME A STAR (1932)

THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932)

HOLLYWOOD PARTY (1934)

THE SECRET SIX (1931)

PLAY-GIRL (1932)

BABY FACE (1932)

BLONDE CRAZY (1931)

CLEOPATRA (1934)

THE MALTESE FALCON (1931)

DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE (1931)

FLESH (1932)