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.


Games People Play: Alfred Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER (Warner Brothers 1954)

 

Alfred Hitchcock  wasn’t afraid to take chances. When the 3-D craze hit in the 1950’s, the innovative director jumped on the new technology to make DIAL M FOR MURDER, based on Frederick Knott’s hit play. The film is full of suspense, and contains many of The Master’s signature touches, but on the whole I consider it to be lesser Hitchcock… which is certainly better than most working in the genre, but still not up to par for Hitch.

Knott adapted his play for the screen, and keeps the tension mounting throughout. The story is set in London, and revolves around ex-tennis pro Tony Wendice, whose wife Margot is having an affair with American mystery writer Mark Halliday. Tony comes up with an elaborate plot to have her murdered by stealing a love letter Mark has written and blackmailing her, then setting up his old school acquaintance C.A. Swann, a man of dubious moral character, to carry out the killing. He plans things to a T, but you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. A stopped watch and a botched strangling end with Margot plunging a pair of scissors into Swann’s back, so Tony must quickly come up with a Plan B, pointing the finger of guilt at Margot, who’s tried and sentenced to hang….

Hitchcock creates some interesting overhead shots to add depth to the 3-D process. Unfortunately, by the time DIAL M FOR MURDER was released, the process was going out of fashion, and the film was mostly released in standard 2-D. It also suffers from staginess, with most of the movie confined to the Wendice apartment. It plays more like an extended, color episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS rather than a Hitchcock thriller, and the director himself has stated he considered it a work-for-hire project. Still, this is Alfred Hitchcock we’re talking about, and even lesser Hitchcock is head and shoulders above what most directors could do with the material.

The cast is top shelf, with Ray Milland as the charming, coldly calculating Tony Wendice. Milland could (and did) play any role with style, and his smooth operator Wendice makes a chilling villain. Grace Kelly is ice blonde Margot in  her first of three Hitchcock films, and as always she’s a stunning presence. Robert Cummings, star of Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR , plays Mark, unaware that Wendice knows he’s involved with Margot. John Williams comes on the scene midway through the film as Inspector Hubbard, investigating the murder and coming up with an elaborate plan of his own to catch the killer. Anthony Dawson, who was the body double of Ernst Stavro Blofeld in two James Bond films , plays the sleazy Swann. Williams and Dawson both reprise their roles from the Broadway original, and as for Hitchcock’s traditional cameo… well, you’ll just have to keep your eyes peeled.

DIAL M FOR MURDER may not be Grade A Hitchcock, but the performances are all solid and the suspense held my interest until the end. Can ask for more than that, even if it is one of Hitch’s minor films… it’s better than none at all! I’d like to thank Maddy at MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS for hosting her 2nd Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon … follow the link for more movies by The Master of Suspense!

 

Halloween Havoc!: ALIAS NICK BEAL (Paramount 1949)

The worlds of supernatural horror and film noir collided to great effect in ALIAS NICK BEAL, John Farrow’s 1949 updated take on the Faust legend. The film wasn’t seen for decades due to legal complications, but last August the good folks at TCM broadcast it for the first time. I have been wanting to see this one for years, and I wasn’t disappointed! It’s loaded with dark atmosphere, a taut screenplay by hardboiled writer/noir vet Jonathan Latimer , and a cast of pros led by a ‘devilish’ turn from Ray Milland as Nick Beal.

The Faust character this time around is Joseph Foster, played by veteran Thomas Mitchell . Foster is an honest, crusading DA with political ambitions. When he says aloud he’d “give my soul” to convict racketeer Hanson, Foster receives a message to meet a man who claims he can help. Summoned to a seedy tavern on the fog-shrouded waterfront, he meets the dapper Nick Beal, who describes Foster as an “incorruptible enemy of the legions of evil”, with just a hint of disdain. Beal leads the DA to Hanson’s hidden ledger, containing proof of the gangster’s various crimes. While Foster looks it over, Beal mysteriously vanishes into the night.

Soon Foster’s party bosses offer him the governorship, and up pops Beal again. Foster’s wife warns him to stay away from the stranger, so Beal recruits a down-on-her-luck bar girl named Donna Allen to do his bidding. The Reverend Dr. Garfield, an ally of Foster’s, feels he’s seen Nick somewhere before, but can’t quite place him (Garfield: “Did anyone ever paint your portrait?” Beal: “Yes, Rembrandt in 1665”). Beal’s machinations, including a bargain with corrupt political boss Faulkner, put Foster in the governor’s chair, causing the party to disown the formerly incorruptible DA, accusing him of “misuse of unauthorized campaign funds”. Beal demands the office of Keeper of the State Seal, Faulkner demands his cronies get choice appointments, and the beleaguered Foster confesses all in his inauguration speech, resigning from the post. Politically and financially ruined, his marriage in a shambles, Foster is at his lowest ebb when Beal decides to cash in on their bargain, accompanying him to “los isla de las almos perditas”… Spanish for the island of lost souls!! Can Joe Foster be saved??

Ray Milland was one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood, moving from romantic leading man to two-fisted hero to despicable villain with the greatest of ease. His Nick Beal is suave and sophisticated, cunning and cruel, and his sinister malevolence permeates every scene. He scares the hell out of Donna, manipulating a word-for-word dialog between her and Foster before it even happens. His whistling though the chiaroscuro shadows and fog bound wharf of DP Lionel Linden’s cinematography is eerie to behold, and Milland makes for one hell of an emissary of evil.

Thomas Mitchell as Foster is the film’s main focus, and the actor was a master of eliciting sympathy from an audience, as he proved time and again in classic movies from STAGECOACH  to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. His wife is played by Geraldine Wall, usually relegated to uncredited or bit parts, and she shows she could’ve done so much more if given half a chance. George Macready , of all people, plays the good Rev. Garfield, who stumbles on to the truth about Beal. This is probably my favorite performance by actress Audrey Totter , who plays the prostitute Donna, trapped in Beal’s dark web. Her early scenes as the hardcore hooker stand in sharp contrast to what happens when Beal glams her up and sics her on Foster, and her fear of the demonic Beal is palpable. Totter, one of noir’s best bad girls, really gets to shine in this part!

A plethora of Familiar Faces parade across the screen on the sides of both good and evil. Among them you’ll recognize Henry O’Neill as Judge Hobson, Fred Clark as the crooked boss Faulkner, Daryl Hickman as a teen involved with Foster’s Boys Club, and Danny Borzage, King Donovan , the ubiquitous Bess Flowers , Maxine Gates, Theresa Harris , Percy Helton, Nestor Paiva, Tim Ryan, Douglas Spencer, and Phil Van Zandt. ALIAS NICK BEAL works on so many levels, as fantasy, as film noir, as a political expose’, and as dark horror, and reminded me so much of the works of Val Lewton. With that excellent, powerhouse cast and timeless story, it’s a classic that will fit well into your Halloween viewing season, but can be enjoyed any time of year.

Pre Code Confidential #9: James Cagney in BLONDE CRAZY (Warner Brothers 1931)

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When James Cagney burst onto the screen like a machine gun barrage in 1931’s THE PUBLIC ENEMY, a star was immediately born. His rough-and-tumble personality was perfectly suited to films of the era, and he’s given a good showcase in BLONDE CRAZY, along with Pre-Code cutie Joan Blondell , who could dish it out with the best of them. Though it’s a little creaky in spots, BLONDE CRAZY is tons of fun, and Cagney gives everybody a lesson in what being a movie star is all about.

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Cagney plays Bert Harris, a bantamweight bellboy looking to make a fast buck during the Depression running crap games and selling bootleg hootch. When he first meets blonde Anne Roberts (our girl Joan) he ogles her body lecherously, and we know right from the get-go what his intentions are! But Anne’s no sucker, she a been-around-the-block kinda gal, and soon this dynamic duo are running the old “gotcha” game on square Mr. Johnson, setting him up for blackmail like a rat in a trap, with Anne as the cheese.

The pair take their ill-gotten gains and high-tail it to the big city, hooking up with slick con man Dapper Dan (Louis Calhern ) . Dan and his squeeze Helen end up conning Bert out of his loot, and Bert has to pull a jewelry store swindle to get his and Anne’s money back. Meanwhile, Anne meets up with a swell guy, earnest stockbroker Joe Reynolds, played by a VERY young (24 at the time) Ray Milland.

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Bert heads to the Big Apple to get even with Dan, and he and Anne stage an elaborate horse racing con to bilk the bilker. Bert finally pops the question, but Anne confesses she’s in love with Joe, and after she gets hitched, Bert takes a year off to live the high life in Europe. Upon his return, Anne asks for his help, as Joe’s done a little swindling of his own at the firm. Bert’s plan goes awry as Joe sets him up, winding up in a car chase with the law, getting tommy-gunned, and sent to stir for his troubles. Anne realizes Bert’s the guy for her after all and visits him in the prison infirmary,  promising to wait.

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Cagney’s magnetic personality carries the film, with his roguish charm and optimistic outlook. The way he calls Joan (and every skirt he lays an eye on) “huuuuuney” show his devil-may-care attitude toward life, and is reflected in his dialog, ripping off statements like “The world owes me a living” and “Not tough, just mercenary” with that trademark staccato Cagney delivery. The Depression’s robbed him of a shot for a decent life, so he makes his own the only way he knows how, by conning the suckers of the world. The film also gives us Jimmy’s famous line “That dirt, double-crossing rat!”, bastardized by scores of impressionists as “You dirty rat!”.

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Let’s not forget Joan Blondell, one of Pre-Code’s Queens, who’s on equal footing with Cagney here. Her hard-broad persona always comes with a soft heart, and her longevity in films is testament to her acting talents. I lost count of how many times she slaps Cagney’s face in this film, but it must’ve been pretty raw by the time filming ended! It wouldn’t be a Pre-Code without a little raciness, and Joan’s bathtub scene with Jimmy certainly fills the bill!

There’s a plethora of Familiar Faces in smaller roles, including Guy Kibbee , Noel Francis, Nat Pendleton , Maude Eburne, Ward Bond , a pre-Western ‘Wild’ Bill Elliott, Russell Hayden, and Charles Lane . An actress I’d never noticed before named Polly Waters turns up as Jimmy’s first girlfriend, and she’s a bundle of sexual joy to behold! Miss Waters was featured in a handful of Pre-Code films, mostly in smaller roles, and I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for her.

BLONDE CRAZY, Polly Walters, Joan Blondell, 1931
Battling Blondes: Polly vs Joan!

Director Roy Del Ruth guides the players through their paces with his usual deft hand, keeping things moving at a brisk speed. BLONDE CRAZY shows Cagney at his  Pre-Code best, and he and Joan take the movie and run away with it. A pair of aces for sure, huuuuuney!

 

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