The Great American Pastime: IT HAPPENED IN FLATBUSH (20th Century-Fox 1942)

Major League Baseball’s Opening Day has finally arrived! It’s a tradition as American as Apple Pie, and so is IT HAPPENED IN FLATBUSH, a baseball movie about a lousy team in Brooklyn whose new manager takes them to the top of the heap. The team’s not explicitly called the Dodgers and the manager’s not named Leo Durocher, but their improbable 1941 pennant winning season is exactly what inspired this charmingly nostalgic little movie.

When Brooklyn’s manager quits the team, dowager team owner Mrs. McAvoy seeks out ex-player Frank Maguire, who seven years earlier was run out of town when an unfortunate error cost the team the pennant. She finds him running a club out in the sticks, and convinces him to come back to the Big Leagues. He does, bringing along his faithful bat boy/sidekick ‘Squint’, and just before the season’s about to begin, Mrs. McAvoy abruptly dies. Her family members, led by majority owning niece Kathryn Baker, know absolutely nothing about baseball and want to sell, but Frank woos and wins Kathryn over.

Ownership spends big money to bring in new players, and the Brooklyn nine go on an incredible hot streak. But when Frank stands Kathryn up on a date to accept a speaking engagement, their romance hits a bump. Further turmoil is caused when Frank starts his rookie phenom pitcher in a crucial game, and the rook gets shellacked. Poison pen sports columnist Danny Mitchell, who led the charge to run Frank out of town all those years ago, dips his venomous pen in ink once again, and things fall apart, with the players petitioning to have Frank removed. Will Frank and Kathryn get back together? Will Brooklyn rally and win the pennant? Will there be a happy ending? (I know, silly questions, right?!)

The criminally underrated Lloyd Nolan is convincing as baseball lifer Frank Maguire, and gives a passionate performance. Carole Landis also shines as socialite Kathryn, and the two have good screen chemistry. They made one other film together, the WWII drama MANILA CALLING, and it’s a shame they didn’t make more. Sara Allgood’s role of feisty Mrs. McAvoy is brief but memorable, Robert Armstrong plays the hissable columnist, William Frawley the sarcastic Brooklyn GM, Scotty Beckett the irrepressible ‘Squint’, Jane Darwell is Nolan’s Irish mum, and there’s more Familiar Faces than you can wave a bat at: James Burke, Gino Corrado, Mary Gordon, Matt McHugh, Jed Prouty, and many, many more.

Dodgers vs Reds at Ebbets Field: Umpire George Magerkurth takes a pummeling from overwrought Brooklyn Dodgers fan Frank Germano who objected to some of his calls. (Photo by Hank Olen/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)My favorite scene is based on a true-life incident that occurred during the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1940 season, as Nolan goes out to argue with the umpire over a bad call, and a fan runs out of the stands, slugging the ump and causing a riot! Actual footage of the incident is spliced into the scene, and a courtroom coda features Nolan giving an impassioned, patriotic plea on the fan’s behalf (gotta get that WWII angle in the film somehow!). Director Ray McCarey handles the material well; like his more successful, Oscar-winning older brother Leo McCarey, Ray got his start at the Hal Roach fun factory, directing Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy shorts. He guided The Three Stooges in two of their best at Columbia, the Oscar-nominated MEN IN BLACK and the football spoof THREE LITTLE PIGSKINS (featuring a young Lucille Ball), and though his feature film career consists mainly of little ‘B’ films like IT HAPPENED IN FLATBUSH, his body of work deserves to be rediscovered.

So grab your peanuts and Cracker Jacks, the frosty beverage of your choice, and get ready, because baseball season has begun at last! Let’s root, root, root for the home team, and you know what’s coming next, right?…


LET’S GO, RED SOX!!

 

 

 

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.


Marlowe at the Movies Pt 2: LADY IN THE LAKE (MGM 1947)

lake1

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories are all done in first-person narrative, so it must have seemed logical to director/star Robert Montgomery to shoot THE LADY IN THE LAKE in the subjective point-of-view. Aside from a few brief narration scenes, we see everything through the eyes of Marlowe. The actors play straight to the camera, doubling for the private eye. Does it work? Well….I guess that all depends on YOUR point of view!

lake3

“My name is Marlowe”, the film begins, as we see him sitting at his office desk. He relates the tale of how he submitted a short story to a pulp magazine, and received a reply from an editor named “A. Fromsett”. The movie is told in flashback, and now the POV changes to that of Marlowe’s for the bulk of the story. We meet A. Fromsett, who’s a gorgeous woman named Adrienne. She likes his story, but has an ulterior motive: Adrienne wants to hire Marlowe to find her publisher’s missing wife Crystal, a “liar, a cheat, and a thief” who’s run off to Mexico for a quickie divorce. Marlowe doesn’t trust Adrienne or her motives, but the perennial down-on-his-luck gumshoe takes the case.

lake2

The effect of Adrienne speaking directly to the camera is off-putting at first and lends an artificial quality to the film as a whole. I could clearly see the actors acting, playing to the camera, and as a result I wasn’t as engrossed in the story as I was in MURDER MY SWEET. The novelty of the first-person POV wore off quicker than a Monday morning hangover. It distracts from the story, rather than pulling me in as intended. It’s one of the reasons I don’t enjoy all those “found-footage” films of recent vintage.

lake4

Robert Montgomery’s first directorial effort is an interesting but ultimately disappointing film. Montgomery himself is another reason I didn’t like LADY IN THE LAKE as much as I thought I would.  Even though we mostly just hear his voice, I didn’t find him sufficiently “hard-boiled” enough to be convincing as Marlowe. I would’ve preferred cast member Lloyd Nolan in the role, and had Montgomery switch off to play Nolan’s Lt. Degarmot. Nolan had plenty of gumshoe experience, playing Bret Halliday’s pulp detective Michael Shayne in seven films (including TIME TO KILL, an adaptation of Chandler’s The Brasher Dubloon). He also stood out in films like BATAAN, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, A HATFUL OF RAIN, PEYTON PLACE, THE GIRL HUNTERS (with author Mickey Spillane playing his own hard-boiled P.I., Mike Hammer), ICE STATION ZEBRA, and AIRPORT. Nolan also portrayed cranky Dr. Chegley on the groundbreaking late 60’s sitcom JULIA, starring Diahann Carroll.    

Audrey Totter (Adrienne), a noir queen featured  in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, THE UNSUSPECTED, and THE SET-UP, later joined the cast of TV’s MEDICAL CENTER as head Nurse Wilcox. Other Familiar Faces in THE LADY IN THE LAKE include Tom Tully, Jayne Meadows (better known as Mrs. Steve Allen), Leon Ames, Morris Ankrum , and Richard Simmons. No, not the 80’s fitness guru, this Richard Simmons later gained fame in the 1950’s series SGT. PRESTON OF THE YUKON. Also appearing briefly as Adrienne’s shapely secretary (who Marlowe can’t keep his eyes off of) is Lila Leeds, noted as Robert Mitchum’s accomplice in that famous 1947 pot bust (just follow this link).

Miss Lila Leeds
Miss Lila Leeds

THE LADY IN THE LAKE is to me a failed experiment in the film noir genre. I think I would have liked it better if director Montgomery had shot it in the usual objective POV, and stepped back to allow Lloyd Nolan to play Marlowe. Then again, that’s just MY point of view. I’m sure there are fans of this film out there who have their own. What do all you Cracked Rear Viewers think?