Ride the Trail to DODGE CITY with Errol & Olivia (Warner Brothers 1939)

1939 has been proclaimed by many to be Hollywood’s Greatest Year. I could make a case for 1947, but I won’t go there… for the moment. Be that as it may, 1939 saw the release of some true classics that have stood the test of time, including in the Western genre: DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, JESSE JAMES, STAGECOACH , and UNION PACIFIC. One that doesn’t get a lot of attention anymore is DODGE CITY, the 5th screen pairing in four years of one of Hollywood’s greatest romantic duos, heroic Errol Flynn and beautiful Olivia de Havilland.

DODGE CITY was Warner Brothers’ biggest hit of 1939, and the 6th highest grossing picture that year, beating out classics like GOODBYE MR. CHIPS, GUNGA DIN, NINOTCHKA, and THE WIZARD OF OZ. It’s a rousing actioner with plenty of romance and humor thrown in, shot in Glorious Technicolor by Warners’ ace director Michael Curtiz . And with a cast that includes Errol, Olivia, Ann Sheridan, Alan Hale, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, and a trio of Hollywood’s orneriest baddies (Bruce Cabot, Victor Jory, Douglas Fowley), it’s hard not to love this exciting sagebrush saga!

The railroad comes to Kansas, bringing progress and prosperity to the frontier town of Dodge City. Handsome Wade Hatton (Errol, of course!) and his pardners Rusty and Tex (Hale, Williams) have cleared the territory of buffalo years before, as well as clearing it of buffalo poachers Jeff Surrett (Cabot) and his henchmen Yancey (Jory) and Munger (Fowley). Now Wade’s leading a combination cattle drive/wagon train from Texas to Dodge, including beautiful young Abbie Irving (Olivia) and her wastrel brother Lee (William Lundigan), whose drunken shooting causes a cattle stampede to trample him, and Abbie blames Wade for it.

Meanwhile, back in Dodge, Surrett and his goons have turned the town into a lawless jungle of “gambling, drinking, and killing”, with his saloon girl Ruby (Sheridan) by his side. Surrett’s reign of terror has made Dodge the most lawless town in the West, until old rival Wade pulls into town, gets himself elected sheriff, and rounds up all the rowdies into the hoosegow. Surrett’s not licked yet though, but when Wade’s young pard Harry (child star Bobs Watson) is caught in a crossfire and dragged by horses to his death, the kid gloves come off…

It all culminates in an exciting climax aboard a burning railway car, and it’s not a spoiler to tell you the good guys emerge victorious, and Errol and Olivia live happily ever after! DODGE CITY serves as the template for many a Western to come, and Curtiz does his usual fine job in handling both the actors and the action. Some of the highlights include Hale swearing off liquor (!!!) and joining a Ladies’ Pure Prairie League meeting while a knock-down, drag-out saloon brawl rages on next door; the shadowy murder of crusading newspaper editor Frank McHugh ; and the aforementioned stampede, horse-dragging, and fiery finale. All of it brilliantly captured in Technicolor by Sol Polito and set to a typically majestic Max Steiner score!

And you want Familiar Faces? DODGE CITY has ’em in droves: classic era actors like Clem Bevans (the town barber), Monte Blue, Ward Bond (who has a good scene as one of Cabot’s henchmen), Wally Brown , George Chesebro, Chester Clute, Joseph Crehan, Thurston Hall (the railroad man), Charles Halton (Surrett’s weaselly lawyer), Gloria Holden (sympathetic as the little boy’s mom), Milton Kibbee, John Litel, Henry O’Neill (Col. Dodge himself!), Renie Riano (leader of the Pure Prairie League!), Russell Simpson, Henry Travers (as Olivia’s uncle), Cora Witherspoon, and others too numerous to mention!

Errol shines in his first of many Westerns to come, Olivia is more than a match for him, Hale and Williams are always welcome, Sheridan gets to belt a couple of tunes, Bobs Watson does his crying thing, the bad guys are totally hissable, and there’s enough material here for at least a half dozen other Westerns! DODGE CITY may not get as much love as other 1939 hits, but it deserves it’s place as one of the all-time greats.

 

Claude Reigns Supreme: THE UNSUSPECTED (Warner Brothers 1947)

As a classic film blogger, I’m contractually obligated to cover film noir during the month of “Noirvember”, so every Tuesday this month I’ll be shining the spotlight on movies of this dark genre!


Claude Rains  received second billing in 1947’s THE UNSUSPECTED, but there’s no doubt who’s the star of this show. Nobody could steal a picture like Rains, as I’ve stated several times before – his sheer talent commands your attention! Here, he gives a chilling portrayal of a cold, calculating murderer in a Michael Curtiz noir based on a novel by Edgar Award-winning mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong, and runs away with the film. Joan Caulfield gets top billing, but let’s be honest – it’s Claude’s movie all the way!

The film begins with a frightening scene played mostly in shadow, as a figure creeps into the office of Victor Grandison (Rains) and murders his secretary Robyn Wright while she’s on the phone. The call is cut off as she screams, and the figure hangs her body from the chandelier to make it look like a suicide. We get a brief glimpse of the killer’s face reflected in the polished desk…

That face belongs to Grandison, who we learn is the host of a radio series called “The Unsuspected”, and here Rains (as Grandison) uses his mellifluous cultured voice to relate true-crime tales of terror to his listening audience. A surprise birthday party is given in his honor at the mansion he lives in, owned by his late niece Matilda Frazer. Accompanied by his producer Jayne Moynihan, Victor’s greeted by his guests, including his other niece, the slutty Althea Keane and her lush of a husband Oliver, whom she once stole from Matilda. Homicide detective Richard Donovan, a friend of Victor’s, is also on hand, as is a mysterious stranger named Steven Howard.

Howard, it seems, married Matilda before she died in an accident at sea. Victor is suspicious of Howard, thinking he’s out for Matilda’s money (which Victor’s been lavishly living off), and has Donovan do a background check. Turns out Howard has money of his own (his dad’s in oil), and Althea takes an interest in him. But Matilda is not dead, and she returns home with no recollection of who Howard is…

The strength of THE UNSUSPECTED lies in Rains’s performance as Victor, a smiling cobra who’s smooth as silk and deadly as a razor. Victor is outwardly  kind and gentle, masking the murderous beast within. He’s wound tighter than a drum, and it’s not until the final scene where, while broadcasting his show, he realizes he’s been found out and is trapped, that he cracks under pressure and makes his confession. Anyone interested in a Master Class in film acting need only to watch Claude Rains perform in this film – or any of his films, for that matter!

Nominal star Joan Caulfield (Matilda) was a popular player in the 1940’s and early 50’s, usually cast in lighter, more comedic fare. She’s okay in this one as the loving niece of Rains, but let’s be honest… the film’s remembered today as a showcase for Rains’s talent. Constance Bennett (Jayne) was a big star in the 30’s, now moved into character roles as she’d gotten older. Audrey Totter , adding another superb ‘Mean Girl’ characterization to her impressive film noir resume, is at her bitchy best as Althea. Hurd Hatfield doesn’t get much to do as soused spouse Oliver, Fred Clark (making his film debut) as Donovan is good as always, and Jack Lambert stands out as Victor’s sometimes accomplice Poole. Michael North (usually billed as Ted) failed to impress me in the key role of Howard.  There’s plenty of other Familiar Faces to spot: Nana Bryant, Bess Flowers (in the birthday party scene), Art Gilmore (as Victor’s radio show announcer), Douglas Kennedy , Harry Lewis, and Ray Walker .


This was Curtiz’s first film for his new production company and he made the most of it. His skillful direction is aided by DP Woody Bredell , who worked on all those 40’s Universal Horror flicks and with Robert Siodmak during that director’s Universal run of film noir classics. Frederick Richards’s editing really stands out, and Franz Waxman provides another classic score. There are echoes of LAURA and GASLIGHT in THE UNSUSPECTED, but the film’s not derivative; it’s a powerful noir drama made by pros, and though it may not be at the top of anyone’s film noir lists, it’s a damn good one, with Claude Rains leading the way in another memorable performance.

Hollywood History Lesson: Errol Flynn in SANTA FE TRAIL (Warner Brothers 1940)

A movie lover could get pretty spoiled living on a steady diet of Errol Flynn/Warner Brothers epics from the 30’s and 40’s. You’ve got Flynn, the personification of the classic “movie star”, performing heroic feats and romancing his leading lady (usually Olivia de Havilland ). A historical setting   serving as the backdrop to move the story along, expertly directed by Michael Curtiz or Raoul Walsh, a cast full of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, a majestic music score (mainly Max Steiner , but there were others equally as talented), action, drama, humor, conflict… what more could a film fan ask for?

SANTA FE TRAIL has all this and more, an energetic pre-Civil War tale guaranteed to hold your interest for its 110 minutes no matter which side of the Mason-Dixon Line you live on. It’s characters are drawn from history, but historic accuracy be damned… these films were all about entertainment! Flynn plays West Point Cadet Jeb Stuart, and Ronald Reagan is his best bud George Custer, who, along with Phil Sheridan, James Longstreet, and George Hood (all later to become opposing generals), get into an altercation with Cadet Rader, a staunch supporter of violent abolitionist John Brown. Rader is given a dishonorable discharge for spreading subversive ideas, and Stuart and Custer are sent upon graduation (by West Point Commandant Robert E. Lee, no less!) to “the most dangerous branch of the United States Army”, Fort Leavenworth in the bloody Kansas Territory, a hotbed of violence and unrest fomented by Brown’s misguided reign of terror.

Both Stuart and Custer become enamored of fellow grad Bob Holliday’s sister Kit… and since Flynn plays Stuart and Kit is Olivia de Havilland, guess who wins? Papa Holliday is trying to get his railroad across Kansas to the Santa Fe Trail (hence the film’s title), but is having difficulties due to all the blood-soaked raids going on. Stuart and Custer are assigned to guard a shipment of Bibles, not knowing the crates are filled with rifles heading to Brown’s encampment (yep, the old “guns hidden in crates marked Bibles” routine!). When the weapons are accidentally discovered, Brown’s disciples reveal themselves… including Stuart’s old nemesis Rader!

Stuart goes undercover to find John Brown’s latest hideout, but he’s betrayed by the U.S. Army brand on his horse. Captured by Brown and his men, doomed to hang at dawn, our man Jeb attempts escape, becoming trapped in a burning barn until Custer and the cavalry ride to the rescue! With John Brown seemingly vanquished and out of the territory, Stuart and Custer are reassigned to Washington, not knowing Brown is in the vicinity, and plotting his infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry…

Errol Flynn doesn’t exactly sound like a Southerner, but he more than makes up for it with his courtly manners and dashing heroics. He could turn on the charm at the drop of a hat, and was at the peak of his popularity while making SANTA FE TRAIL. Released right after Christmas 1940, the film was a big success at the box office, and the team of Flynn and Olivia de Havilland would hit it big again the next year in THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, with Errol portraying Custer this time around at the Battle of Little Big Horn. That one would be their last screen pairing, and while Olivia went on to receive two Oscars, Errol continued doing what he did best, charming the pants off movie lovers onscreen… and young girls offscreen! (As for poor Ronald Reagan, once again he loses out to Flynn in the romance department. Oh well, he wound up doing okay for himself a few decades later!)

Raymond Massey  plays John Brown with religious fervor and a mad gleam in his eyes. Brown’s anti-slavery cause was just, though his methods touting violent revolution were extreme to say the least. Massey’s Brown feels he’s guided by God’s hand, and the actor portrays him as an unsympathetic zealot with a Messianic complex. The film itself is ambiguous about the question of slavery,  with both sides represented by Stuart and Custer, making it more an issue of State’s Rights vs Federal Power than a moral one, in order to appeal to the audiences both North and South. It’s a tricky balancing act, but somehow screenwriter Robert Buckner (who wrote five other Flynn vehicles) makes it work.

Van Heflin  is equally villainous as Rader, Brown’s military adviser, who later has a change of heart when Brown reneges on his payment. Alan Hale Sr. and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams , Flynn’s offscreen drinking buddies, are on hand for comic relief. The cast is huge, and among them you’ll find Alan Baxter , Ward Bond , David Bruce , Hobart Cavanaugh, Victor Kilian, John Litel, William Lundigan, Charles Middleton, Henry O’Neill, Moroni Olsen, Gene Reynolds, Frank Wilcox, and many others (if you’re really sharp, you’ll recognize Grace Stafford, the future voice of Woody Woodpecker!).

Curtiz delivers another gem in the director’s chair, guiding his large cast through their paces and proving once again he was a cinematic genius. His staging of the bloody battle at Harper’s Ferry is  a master class in how to film  an action scene, in collaboration with DP Sol Polito, editor George Amy, and special effects man Byron Haskin, with Max Steiner’s music roaring in the background. SANTA FE TRAIL may not be historically accurate, but it’s a stunning example of the Hollywood studio system at its apex, with talent before and behind the camera the likes of which they just don’t make anymore.

 

Cleaning Out the DVR #20: ALL-STAR PRE-CODE LADIES EDITION!



I know all of you, like me, will be watching tonight’s 89th annual Major League Baseball All-Star G
ame, and… wait, what’s that? You say you WON’T be watching the All-Star Game? You have no interest in baseball? Heretics!! But I understand, I really do, and for you non-baseball enthusiasts I’ve assembled a quartet of Pre-Code films to view as an alternative, starring some of the era’s most fabulous females. While I watch the game, you can hunt down and enjoy the following four films celebrating the ladies of Pre-Code:

DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (Paramount 1931; D: Lloyd Corrigan) – Exotic Anna May Wong stars as Princess Ling Moy, an “Oriental dancer” and daughter of the infamous Dr. Fu Manchu (Warner Oland)! When Fu dies, Ling Moy takes up the mantle of vengeance against the Petrie family, tasked with killing surviving son Ronald. Sessue Hayakawa (BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) plays Chinese detective Ah Kee, assigned to Scotland Yard to track down the last of Fu’s organization, who falls in love with Ling Moy. This was the last of a trilogy of films in which Oland portrays the fiendish Fu (1929’s THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCH, 1930’s TH RETURN OF FU MANCHU), and though he perishes early on, honorable daughter Wong is just as devious as dear old dad! Director Corrigan and cinematographer Victor Milner do some interesting work with shadows and light, overhead shots, and camera angles; though Corrigan is best remembered today as a character actor, he directed 12 features (and one short) between 1930 and 1937, and is quite good behind the camera. A film that’s structured like a serial, with secret passageways, sadistic tortures, and definite horror undertones, fans of Anna May Wong won’t want to miss it. Fun Fact: Bramwell Fletcher, who plays Ronald, was the actor who “died laughing” in 1932’s THE MUMMY .


MILLIE (RKO 1931; D: John Francis Dillon) – For a brief, shining moment in the early 1930’s, sad-eyed beauty Helen Twelvetrees was one of the Pre-Code Era’s most popular stars, gaining fame in a series of “women’s weepies”. MILLIE was my first chance to see this actress I’d heard so much about, and she excels as Millie Blake, who we first meet as an innocent college girl who marries rich Jack Maitland (Robert Ames), has a child, then discovers he’s a cheating cad. Getting a divorce (and giving up custody in the process), Millie’s next beau also turns out to be a two-timer, causing her to declare her independence from men and become a wild party girl. Years pass, and her now 16 year old daughter (Anita Louise) is almost compromised by one of Millie’s ex-lovers (John Halliday ), whom Mama Bear Millie shoots, leading to a scandalous trial. Joan Blondell and Lilyan Tashman are on hand as Millie’s golddigging pals (see picture above), and director John Francis Dillon knew his soapy stuff, having also guided Pre-Code ladies Ann Harding (GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST), Evelyn Brent (THE PAGAN LADY), and Clara Bow (CALL HER SAVAGE). MILLIE’s a bit dated (okay, more than a bit) and slow going in places, but Miss Twelvetrees made it all worthwhile. Fun Fact: Edward LeSaint plays the judge, and made a career out of magistrate roles; Three Stooges fans will recognize him from their 1934 short DISORDER IN THE COURT.

THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN (Warner Brothers 1932; D: Michael Curtiz ) – “I’m a pretty bad egg”, says Molly, but Ann Dvorak (SCARFACE, THREE ON A MATCH, HEAT LIGHTNING) is a pretty good actress, starring as poor working girl Molly, who gets pregnant and jilted, gives up her child, and hits the road with small-time crook Leslie Fenton. She leaves the bum to work in a dance hall, encountering naïve young Richard Cromwell. Fenton shows up, steals a car, kills a cop, gets shot himself, and Molly and the starry-eyed kid take it on the lam. Dubbed “the beautiful brunette bandit” by the press, Molly dyes her hair blonde, and the pair lay low… until fast-talking reporter Lee Tracy makes his appearance! There’s great chemistry between Dvorak and Tracy in this racy, double entendree-laden little movie, with a dynamite twist ending I did not see coming. It’s also packed with Familiar Faces: Ben Alexander, Louise Beavers, Richard Cramer, Guy Kibbee , Hank Mann, Frank McHugh , Charles Middleton, and Snub Pollard all pop up in small roles. This lightning-paced entry is an unjustly neglected Pre-Code gem that deserves a larger audience! Fun Fact: A newspaper headline misspells Molly’s last name as “Louvaine”.

SMARTY (Warner Brothers 1934; D: Robert Florey ) – Queen of Pre-Code Joan Blondell is back, and therapists would have a field day with her character of Vicki, a manipulative minx who equates being hit with being loved. Before you jump out of your skin, this is a romantic comedy – now you can jump! S& M overtones abound, and sexual innuendoes fly freely, as Joan’s incessant teasing of hubby Warren William (including a reference to “diced carrots”, obviously a penis size dig) leads him to slapping her face at a bridge party, and Joan winding up married to her divorce lawyer, Edward Everett Horton , who she also tortures into smacking her – but it’s a ploy to get back together with Warren! The censors must’ve been apoplectic viewing SMARTY, one of the last films in the Pre-Code cycle, as Joan also appears in various stages of undress, a voyeur’s delight. Despite the kinky subject matter, the movie is quite funny, with solid support from Claire Dodd, Frank McHugh, and Leonard Carey. Let me be clear: hitting women is NOT funny, but you’re doing yourself a disservice in letting that stop you from watching this outrageous screwball comedy. Fun Fact: Look fast for Dennis O’Keefe in one of his early, uncredited parts as a nightclub patron.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Errol Flynn in THE SEA HAWK (Warner Brothers 1940)

Warner Brothers pulled out all the stops for their 1940 epic THE SEA HAWK. There’s dashing Errol Flynn swashbuckling his way across the Silver Screen once again, the proverbial cast of thousands, high seas action, romance, political intrigue, superb special effects, and a spirited score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The only thing missing that could’ve possibly made this movie better is Technicolor, but since Jack and his bros had already spent $1.7 million (equivalent to almost thirty million today) to produce it, why quibble?

Flynn is in fine form as privateer Geoffrey Thorpe, captain of the pirate ship Albatross, in service to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I. When they attack and plunder a Spanish ship carrying Ambassador Don Alvarez de Cordoba and his beautiful niece Maria, Captain Thorpe is reprimanded and told to lay off the Spanish. Spain, however, is building up their Armada with world conquest in mind, and Don Alvarez has been sent to conspire with the traitorous Lord Wolfingham. Thorpe and his crew have a plan to attack the Spaniards on land in The New World where they’re looting Native gold to finance their plot for domination. The Queen tells him no officially, but off the record gives Thorpe the okay. This leads Thorpe and company into a trap, captured, and sentenced by Spain to life imprisonment as Spanish galley slaves.

Of course Thorpe, being Errol Flynn and all, hatches an escape plan, and he and his men take over the Spanish ship after learning the Armada is headed for England. The valiant Thorpe returns to the motherland and engages in a deadly swordfight with Wolfingham, an action scene that rivals Flynn’s duel to the death with Basil Rathbone in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD . Flynn is quite the handsome rogue in this one, although the kicker here is he’s shy around women! An in-joke, to be sure! Anyway, he wins the hand of the fair Maria before returning to sea and his swashbuckling ways.

Beautiful Brenda Marshall plays Maria, at first repelled by Flynn’s buccaneer ways but soon falling for him. Miss Marshall starred in some memorable films (CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS, THE CONSTANT NYMPH, BACKGROUND TO DANGER), but her screen career lasted a mere five years. She retired after becoming Mrs. William Holden. Claude Rains lends his villainous presence to the part of the unctuous Don Alvarez. His co-conspirator Lord Wolfingham is none other than Henry Daniell, one of the screen’s great villains (CAMILLE, JANE EYRE, THE BODY SNATCHER ). Daniell is noted for his appearances in three Sherlock Holmes films, including a turn as Professor Moriarty in THE WOMAN IN GREEN. Flora Robson interprets Queen Elizabeth I a bit differently than Bette Davis in THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (also starring Flynn); her speech at film’s end rallying her subjects to fight against the enemy is a not-so-subtle plea against German aggression in those days before U.S. involvement in World War II.

Other cast members are burly Alan Hale Sr. as Thorpe’s second in command Pitt, Una O’Connor as Maria’s servant, Gilbert Roland as Spanish Captain Lopez, and a veritable Who’s Who of Familiar Faces: David Bruce , Edgar Buchanan , Clyde Cook, Donald Crisp , Pedro de Cordoba, Ian Keith , J.M. Kerrigan, Frank Lackteen, Jack LaRue, Montagu Love, William Lundigan, Lester Matthews , Gerald Mohr, Nestor Paiva, Jay Silverheels , James Stephenson, Victor Varconi , and others too numerous to mention. It seems like everyone who wasn’t employed at the time took part in this one except Rin Tin Tin!

Master storyteller Michael Curtiz directs the film, his tenth and last with Flynn in five short years. Though the two weren’t exactly best buds (to put it mildly), their films together are among Hollywood’s finest. Korngold’s majestic score is certainly among the greats as well, adding to the pageantry and spectacle. Special effects were handled by Byron Haskin (later the director of WAR OF THE WORLDS) and Hans Koenekamp (THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS ), and for 1940 they’re pretty damn good! Howard Koch and Seaton Miller wrote the screenplay, and knew just when to insert some comedy or heat up the action. I’d love to see THE SEA HAWK on the big screen, as it was meant to be seen, but if I have to settle for the comfort of my living room, I’m okay with that, too. It’s one of the grandest of entertainments produced during Hollywood’s Golden Age, and one you definitely need to keep an eye out for!

Dear Old Alma Mater: John Wayne in TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY (Warner Brothers 1953)

Tomorrow’s the big night, as my New England Patriots go up against the tough defense of the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII. Tom Brady and company will be going for Ring #6, and everyone here in Southern New England is super excited, looking forward to another victory celebration! I’ll be attending a huge party with plenty of food, big screen TV’s, raffles, squares, and like-minded fans, but before the festivities begin, let’s take a look at TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY, a football-themed film starring none other than Big John Wayne !

St. Anthony’s College is a struggling Catholic university run by sweet old Father Burke, who’s getting to be as decrepit as the school itself. The powers-that-be want to close his beloved St. Anthony’s, seeing how the school’s $170,000 in debt, but old Father Burke comes up with an idea. Citing Deuteronomy 32:15 (“The beloved grew fat and kicked”), the padre decides what St. Anthony’s needs is a winning football program, and sets about to hire a new coach.

This leads him to a pool hall, where he finds Steve Williams, a hard-drinking ex-coach, part-time bookie and ladies man banned from the sport for recruitment violations. Steve’s down on his luck, and his cheating ex-wife Ann is trying to gain custody of their daughter Carole out of pure spite. Pretty but no-nonsense child welfare officer Alice Singleton is sent to Steve’s humble hovel to investigate, and the free-spirited Steve finds himself at odds with the all-business Miss Singleton.

So Steve, needing to show gainful employment, takes Father Burke up on his offer, and he and Carole move into a room under the school’s bell tower. The elderly Burke pulls some strings with his old student, now Cardinal O’Hara, and gets St. Anthony’s scheduled against powerhouses Santa Carla, Holy Cross, Villanova, and Notre Dame. Realizing what a sorry excuse for a team he’s inherited (“You couldn’t beat Vassar at tiddlywinks!”), Steve is up to his old tricks, bringing in a bunch of ringers and wheeling and dealing his way to free equipment and a spot playing at the Polo Grounds. But resentful Ann is determined to take Steve down at any cost…

TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY is a gentle, sentimental tale with Wayne likeable as the not-so-honest but well-meaning coach. Duke knew a thing or two about football, having played for USC, and makes Steve a totally believable character. He’s a loving father to Sherry Jackson’s Carole, and the two have an undeniable chemistry (Wayne always seems to work well with kids). Jackson went on to costar in the Danny Thomas sitcom MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY, and a bunch of episodic TV and low-budget films (WILD ON THE BEACH, THE MIN-SKIRT MOB, THE MONITORS) followed.

Veteran Charles Coburn plays the warm Father Burke in his own inimitable style. Donna Reed is welfare officer Alice, and you know she’s gonna end up with Duke by film’s end. Noir dame Marie Windsor is the spiteful Ann, and the rest of the cast includes a young, crew-cutted Chuck Connors as one of Steve’s assistant coaches, Frank Ferguson, Dabbs Greer , Ned Glass, Lester Matthews , Olan Soule, and Tom Tully. Familiar Face spotters will want to keep a sharp eye out for James Dean as a spectator during the big game.

Michael Curtiz  directed from a script by Melville Shavelson and Jack Rose, with music by Max Steiner . The football scenes are well-staged, and everyone gives 110%, but despite the talents in front and behind the camera, TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY is a minor film that’s enjoyable but harmless. Those who like football and/or John Wayne will like this agreeable little entry. In fact, I know two critics who give the movie two big Thumbs Up, and they’re not Siskel & Ebert:

All together now: LET’S GO PATRIOTS!!

 

Rally ‘Round The Flag: Errol Flynn in VIRGINIA CITY (Warner Brothers 1940)

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VIRGINIA CITY is a big, sprawling Western, filled with action, humor, and star quality. It’s the kind of movie they used to show around these parts every afternoon at 4 O’clock on DIALING FOR DOLLARS (George Allen was the local host), helping to spark my interest in classic films past, a flame which still burns bright today, two hours of pure entertainment, with square-jawed Errol Flynn going against square-jawed Randolph Scott backed by a Civil War setting and yet another sweepingly epic Max Steiner score.

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We’re told “only the characters are fictional… The story is true” as we watch Union Captain Kerry Bradford (Flynn) and his two buddies Moose and Marblehead (Errol’s frequent co-stars/offscreen drinking compadres Alan Hale Sr and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) attempt to tunnel their way out of Libby Prison, aka ‘The Devil’s Warehouse’, when they’re caught by commanding Captain Vance Irby (Scott). He tells them Confederate troops are ready to shoot to kill wherever they pop up, then leaves them to their fate, as he has a visitor, former flame Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins ). Miss Julia knows the South is losing the war and virtually bankrupt to boot, but has some exciting news: rich Southern sympathizers in Virginia City, Nevada, have put up five million in gold for the cause. Vance goes to see President Jefferson Davis himself with a plan to transport the loot to Texas and help save the Confederacy.

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Kerry and his crew keep digging, right below the munitions dump, which they blow up and escape (a little foreshadowing here). They make it to General Meade’s camp and tell him they suspect a plot in Virginia City, so he sends them west by stage, which coincidentally also carries Julia. Riding along is bandit John Murrell (Humphrey Bogart , sporting a pencil-thin moustache and terrible Mexican accent!), who tries to hold them up but is foiled by I’m-smarter-than-you Kerry. They all make it to Virginia City (except Bogie, who’ll pop up again later), and Kerry and Vance run into each other at the Sazerac Saloon, where Julia works as a dance-hall singer, and seems to be smitten with both of them.

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The players are all in place, and the stage is set for action, romance, and intrigue, as Vance tries to move the gold out of Nevada, Kerry tries to stop him, Julia is torn between two lovers, and Murrell has plans of his own. There’s danger and excitement at every turn, with Vance forming a wagon train full of gold across the desert, Kerry and company in hot pursuit. Director Michael Curtiz uses some interesting lighting and shot selection to tell the tale, and there’s some fine stuntwork by Yakima Canutt, including one that echoes the previous year’s STAGECOACH . Curtiz was a master film storyteller, not only visually but utilizing strong characterizations to get his story across to the viewer. I know I’ve said it before, but Michael Curtiz is one of the most underrated directors in the Golden Age of Hollywood films.

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The ever-gallant Errol Flynn is always the good guy no matter what side he’s on, whether as a Yankee captain here, or portraying Jeb Stuart in SANTA FE TRAIL. His gallantry is equally matched by Randolph Scott, my second-favorite Western star (you regular readers know my first by now!). This is the only film the two appeared in together, and their chemistry made me wish there were more. Most reviewers pan Miriam Hopkins’ performance as Julia, but I thought she was more than adequate, with just the right amounts of proper Southern belle and sexy dance-hall floozie, though her emoting can become a bit too much. It’s Bogart’s last Western, unless you count TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, and stardom was lurking just around the corner, so the less said about his role here, the better!

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Flynn, Hale, and Williams always seem to be having a grand old time onscreen together, probably because they were all buddies offscreen, or maybe they were passing a bottle of hootch around between takes! The two sidekicks add solid comic relief to the proceedings, as does Frank McHugh as a fellow stagecoach passenger. There’s more Familiar Faces than you can shake a stick at, including Ward Bond Douglass Dumbrille , Paul Fix, Thurston Hall, Charles Halton, Russell Hicks, William Hopper, Dickie Jones (later of TV’s THE RANGE RIDER and BUFFALO BILL JR), John Litel, Charles Middleton (as Jeff Davis), Moroni Olsen, George Reeves, Russell Simpson, and Frank Wilcox.

Victor Kilian appears at the end as Abe Lincoln and gives an impassioned speech that seems appropriate in these tumultuous political times: “We’re not enemies but friends… there is no spirit of revenge in our victory, there must be no harboring of hatred in their defeat… We’re now one people, united by blood and fire, and at that from this day forward our destiny is indivisible, with malice toward none, with charity for all… let us now strive to bind up the nation’s wounds”.

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Mr. Lincoln. Now let’s all dust ourselves off, go forward together, and watch an exciting classic movie like VIRGINIA CITY!

Why I Love THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (Warner Brothers 1938)

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Readers of this blog know CASABLANCA is my all-time favorite movie, but THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD is definitely in the Top Ten, maybe even Top Five (I’d have to think about it… sounds like a future post!). The story’s been told on-screen dozens of times, from the silent 1922 Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler to Disney’s 1973 animated version to the recent Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott offering. But it’s this 1938  classic that remains definitive, thanks to a marvelous cast, breathtaking Technicolor, and the greatest cinematic swordfight in history.

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You all know the legend of Robin Hood by now, so no need for a recap. Instead, I’ll go right into what makes this film so great, starting with Errol Flynn as the brave Sir Robin of Locksley. Flynn was at the peak of his career here, after starring in such action-packed hits as CAPTAIN BLOOD   , THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, and THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER. The dashing Australian’s charisma jumps through the screen in scene after scene, and his athletic performance is a joy to behold. Maid Marion puts it best when she says, “He’s brave and he’s reckless, yet he’s gentle and kind”.

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Marion of course is Olivia de Havilland , in the third of her eight films with Flynn. Olivia was 22 at the time, and this film cemented her status as a movie star. Lady Marion Fitzwalter isn’t just some stereotypical damsel in distress. A haughty noblewoman at first, looking down her nose at the outlaw Robin, she soon has a change of heart when she sees firsthand the plight of the oppressed Saxons. Marion aids in freeing Robin from the gallows, and is imprisoned for her troubles. Her love scenes with Errol are electricifying; you can see the warmth they have for each other in their eyes.

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Basil Rathbone  is at his evil best as Sir Guy of Gisbourne. He’s just so despicable, I can just imagine the booing and hissing of 1938 audiences. Imperious, full of himself, conniving, and deceitful, Rathbone is the baddest of screen bad guys here. Both Rathbone and Flynn were accomplished fencers, and their climactic duel to the death may very well be the most exciting three minutes in Hollywood history. Basil’s matched in the villain department by Claude Rains’ Prince John, the effeminate usurper to his brother Richard’s throne. Both men were among the greatest actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and together they’re a terrific pair of foils for the jaunty Flynn.

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Let’s not forget Robin’s Merry Men, consisting of a fine cast of character actors. Patric Knowles makes a charming Will Scarlet, ever loyal to Robin. Alan Hale Sr., an offscreen pal of Flynn, is just right as Little John, and their first meeting battling with staffs over who’s going to cross that log is just one of many memorable moments. Gruff voiced Eugene Pallette gives a rowdy edge to Friar Tuck, who also meets Robin under not the best of circumstances. Even Herbert Mundin (Much the Miller) and Una O’Connor (Marion’s handmaiden Bess), both of whom I usually find annoying, are welcome additions to the cast.

Familiar Face spotters will want to catch Ian Hunter as good King Richard, and Melville Cooper as the rotten Sheriff of Nottingham. Look closely for Lionel Belmore, Harry Cording, Frank Hagney, Holmes Herbert, Carole Landis, Lester Matthews, and Leonard Mudie. Oh, and there’s another star appearing in this: Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger, as Marion’s steed!

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Michael Curtiz took over the directorial reigns from William Keighley, though both receive screen credit. Curtiz was Warner’s go-to guy, and doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. The fact is, this is the man who directed CASABLANCA, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, CAPTAIN BLOOD, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM , THE SEA HAWK, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, MILDRED PIERCE, LIFE WITH FATHER, and WHITE CHRISTMAS, among many others. I’ve said it before: anyone with that kind of resume deserves to belong in the conversation of all-time great directors. Period.

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The stirring score by film music pioneer Erich Wolfgang Korngold won an Oscar, as it should have. It’s one of Hollywood’s most exciting pieces of music, and can be enjoyed without the movie. Indeed, it’s been played by numerous symphonies for decades now. The art direction (Carl Jules Weyl) and editing (Ralph Dawson) also won Oscars, and the costumes by Milo Anderson and cinematography by Tony Gaudio should have. Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller crafted the perfect action script, well-balanced with humor and romance. Producer Hal Wallis does his usual meticulous job getting every detail right, and the Technicolor is bright and vivid. If you want to turn young kids on to classic films, this is the one to show them.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD is for kids of all ages, from five to ninety-five. It’s must viewing for lover’s of classic film, and as close to perfection as a movie can get. This enduring film has passed the test of time, and will be remembered and viewed as long as there are movie lovers left alive. Don’t miss it!

In Like Flynn: CAPTAIN BLOOD (Warner Brothers 1935)

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Australian Errol Flynn made a splashy Hollywood debut in 1935’s CAPTAIN BLOOD, a big, sprawling epic about pirates of the Caribbean. But this captain’s no Jack Sparrow, he’s a virile man of action who leads his crew from slavery to salvation and wins the hand of beautiful Olivia de Haviland in the process. Director Michael Curtiz was given an almost million dollar budget for this one, and he pulled out all the stops, with large-scale battle scenes and the proverbial cast of thousands.

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It’s the year 1685, and England is going through a rebellion to depose tyrannical King James II. Doctor Peter Blood is summoned by his friend Jeremy Pitt to help some men wounded in battle. They’re interrupted by the King’s men, who arrest and charge them with high treason. The rebels are held for three months under brutal conditions before being sentenced to hang. But King James has a more dastardly idea, and sends Blood and the rebels to the West Indies to be sold into slavery. The men are shipped to Jamaica, where they’re bought by the cruel Colonel Bishop at twenty pounds per man to work in his sugar mill. The impudent Blood almost gets condemned to labor in the mines, but Bishop’s niece Arabella takes a liking to him and buys Blood for herself, for a measly ten pounds. Blood is resentful of the smitten young lass, who also helps him get a position as doctor to the island’s incompetent, gout ridden Governor, while the rest of the rebels suffer torture and whippings courtesy of her sadistic uncle.

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Blood and his men plan an escape, which is suspected by Bishop, who flogs Jeremy. When the good doctor tries to comfort his friend, Bishop intercedes. He’s about to receive the same treatment when cannon fire rings out. The city of Port Royal is under attack by Spanish pirates, and the rebels escape during the battle. They commandeer a Spanish ship, and decide to become pirates themselves, a “brotherhood of buccaneers” beholden to no country. Now-Captain Blood leads his crew of privateers in an onslaught of looting and kidnapping, while the hateful Bishop is appointed new governor, vowing revenge.

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In the pirate stronghold of Tortuga, Blood forms a partnership with devious Frenchman Levasseur. Meanwhile, Arabella returns from a trip to England with envoy Lord Willoughby. Levasseur and his men capture the ship and hold them hostage, with the pirate planning to keep Arabella for himself. Blood and his men arrive and, in a reversal of fortune, he buys Arabella as his slave. Levasseur protests, and the two captains engage in a swordfight won by Blood. When Arabella rebuffs Blood for his pirate ways, he orders the crew to return her to Jamaica, despite the fact that the English fleet is at Port Royal. The ship arrives at the harbor only to discover French warships, and it’s then that Willoughby explains England and France are at war. He offers Blood’s crew a pardon and commission in the Royal Navy, which they scoff at until hearing the scoundrel King James has been deposed, and England’s now ruled by good King William III. Blood and his men raise a captured French flag and sail into Port Royal, engaging the warships in a blazing sea battle. Victorious, Captain Blood wins the heart of fair Arabella, and Willoughby appoints him new governor of Jamaica, much to Bishop’s chagrin!

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Warner Brothers took a huge gamble in casting newcomer Flynn to star in this lavish production, but it paid off and made Flynn a name to be reckoned with in Hollywood. He remained so for the next twenty years, despite his “wicked, wicked ways” as a notorious womanizer, drinker, and secret heroin addict. His costar was fairly new to the screen at the time, too. Nineteen year old Olivia de Haviland had made three films prior to the role of Arabella Bishop, and the teaming of Flynn and de Haviland made sparks fly. The duo did eight films together, including the outstanding THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD in 1938. Errol and Olivia were made for each other onscreen, though the demure de Haviland didn’t approve of Errol’s real-life philandering. She was “the girl who got way”, but they did remain friends through his life.

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CAPTAIN BLOOD features a cast of Hollywood’s best, including that master villain Lionel Atwill as the evil Colonel Bishop. Basil Rathbone portrays Levasseur, and the movie features that great duel between Blood and the Frenchman. This was the first screen swordfight pitting Flynn against Rathbone (both were accomplished fencers), and would be elaborated on in ROBIN HOOD. Ross Alexander (Jeremy) was being groomed for better things at Warners, with featured parts in large films and starring roles in B’s like BRIDES ARE LIKE THAT and HOT MONEY. But the unfortunate Alexander was a closeted homosexual whose first wife (in what was known as “a marriage of convenience” back then) killed herself. Struggling with depression, debt, and a potential gay sex scandal, Alexander committed suicide in 1937, tragically ending what was once a promising career. There are plenty of others from the Familiar Face Brigade onboard, such as Guy Kibbee, Henry Stephenson, Donald Meek, J Carrol Naish, Leonard Mudie, E.E. Clive, and Matthew “Stymie” Beard.

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The rousing score is by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, one of Hollywood’s pioneers in film music. The Romantic composer won an Oscar for THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, and wrote the film music for ANTHONY ADVERSE, THE SEA HAWK, and KING’S ROW before turning to symphonies and operas in the late forties. Casey Robinson’s screenplay is full of wit and action, and was a write-in candidate for the Oscar that year. Some of Robinson’s other works were DARK VICTORY, NOW VOYAGER, THE SNOWS OF KILAMANJARO, and 1962’s THE SON OF CAPTAIN BLOOD, starring Errol’s own son Sean Flynn. CAPTAIN BLOOD is based on the novel by the prolific Rafael Sabatini, whose historical adventures were popular in the early 20th century. Sabatini’s works were brought to the screen numerous times, with SCARAMOUCHE, THE SEA HAWK, and THE BLACK SWAN among the more well-known titles. There’s action, adventure, and romance galore in this movie, and a charming debut by Errol Flynn. The language, the swordplay, and the sexy screen team of Flynn and de Haviland all combine to make CAPTAIN BLOOD one of the most entertaining swashbucklers to grace the Silver Screen. The only thing that could improve this film is if it were shot in color. Don’t let that stop you from watching, because CAPTAIN BLOOD is just as glorious in black & white, a great Hollywood movie that can be enjoyed over and over again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top Ten Reasons CASABLANCA is The Greatest Movie Ever Made!!

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Seventy three years have passed since CASABLANCA was first released. What can I possibly say about this film that hasn’t been said before, by writers far more skilled than me? Well, since CASABLANCA is my all-time favorite, I feel obliged to put my two cents in. So, here are my top ten reasons why CASABLANCA is the greatest movie ever made:

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  1. Humphrey Bogart as Rick.  While Bogie was already a star thanks to THE MALTESE FALCON, his performance here sent him into the stratosphere. Cynical, self-centered Rick Blaine, bitter over a lost love, sticks his neck out for nobody. His character is multi-layered, and his true nature wins out in the end. Without Bogie in the role, CASABLANCA wouldn’t be half as good.
  2. Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa.  Beautiful Bergman underplays her part in what should have been an Oscar winning turn (sorry, Greer Garson). Ilsa’s feelings are torn between Rick and husband Victor Laszlo, and the depth of those feelings come right through the screen.rains
  3. Claude Rains as Captain Renault. Corrupt, cagey Renault is one of Rains’ best roles. Playing a man who claims to have “no convictions”, Rains shows why he was one of cinema’s best character actors. His banter with Bogart throughout the film is priceless.
  4. The Dialogue.  Every line is a gem, with many of them becoming part of the lexicon (“I’m shocked, shocked…”, “Here’s looking at you, kid”, “Round up the usual suspects”). Writers Howard Koch and Julius and Phillip Epstein came up with a perfect script. (And Phillip became grandfather to a boy named Theo Epstein, who guided my beloved Boston Red Sox to World Series title in 2004, ending an eighty-six year drought!!)

    'Casablanca' Film - 1942...No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features (1082971b) 'Casablanca' - Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson and Sydney Greenstreet 'Casablanca' Film - 1942
    ‘Casablanca’ Film – 1942…No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage
    Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features (1082971b)
    ‘Casablanca’ – Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson and Sydney Greenstreet
    ‘Casablanca’ Film – 1942
  5. Dooley Wilson as Sam.  African-American Sam is written and played as a friend and confidant to white Rick ,rather than a servant.  The two men are equals, a rarity for a 1942 film. Besides the heart wrenching “As Time Goes By”, Wilson also sings “It Had to Be You” and “Knock On Wood”, which brings me to….
  6. The Music. Max Steiner’s score hits all the right notes, setting the mood for the drama. Speaking of music, the duel between the Germans singing “Watch on the Rhine” and Laszlo leading the patrons of Rick’s in “La Marseillaise” is one of Hollywood’s finest moments. supp
  7. The Supporting Cast. Without a doubt, the greatest supporting cast ever assembled. Paul Henreid is the moral core as Victor Laszlo, Peter Lorre’s brief bit as weaselly Ugarte is pivotal to the plot,  Conrad Veidt the epitome of Nazi oppression. CASABLANCA is fun for movie fans who love to play Spot the Stars: look, there’s S.Z. Sakall, Dan Seymore, Sydney Greenstreet, Lenoid Kinskey, John Qualen, Gino Corrado, Madeline LeBeau, Frank Puglia, Marcel Dalio, Joy Page, Hemlut Dantine, Torbin Meyer….
  8. Emotional Manipulation. Any good movie knows how to play its patrons, but none better than CASABLANCA. It’s an emotional roller coaster ride, and no matter how many times I see it, I still get caught up in it. I know what’s coming, but I cry at the end anyway.
  9. Michael Curtiz. The man simply does not get enough credit for being one of the all-time great directors. You can’t make a film like CASABLANCA without a top director at the helm. Just look at his resume… soul

   10. CASABLANCA Can Never Be Duplicated!  Anyone out there have fond memories of the 1955       TV version with Charles McGraw? Or the 1983 one starring David Soul? Didn’t think so.

So there you have it! A one of a kind movie, still as powerful as when it first hit the screen. CASABLANCA is the greatest movie ever made, and remains my favorite. I could watch it over and over, like listening to a favorite song. If you’ve never seen it….what are you waiting for???