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.


Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 9: Film Noir Festival Redux

prev

Welcome back to the decadently dark world of film noir, where crime, corruption, lust, and murder await. Let’s step out of the light and deep into the shadows with these five fateful tales:

redux1

PITFALL (United Artists 1948, D: Andre DeToth) Dick Powell is an insurance man who feels he’s stuck in a rut, living in safe suburbia with his wife and kid (Jane Wyatt, Jimmy Hunt). Then he meets hot model Lizabeth Scott on a case and falls into a web of lies, deceit, and ultimately murder. Raymond Burr  costars as a creepy PI who has designs on Scott himself. A good cast in a good (not great) drama with a disappointing ending. Fun Fact: The part of Scott’s embezzler boyfriend is played by one Byron Barr, who is not the Byron Barr that later changed his name to Gig Young.  

redux2

THE BRIBE (MGM 1949, D:Robert Z. Leonard) Despite an A-list cast, this tale of a G-man (boring Robert Taylor ) assigned to break up a war surplus smuggling racket is as tedious as Taylor’s monotone voice overs. Agent Rigby is sent to the island town of Carlotta, off the coast of Central America, to crack the ring responsible for illegally selling airplane engines. He falls in love with married nightclub singer Ava Gardner (who can blame him?), whose booze soaked hubby (John Hodiak) is a major suspect. The oppressive heat in Carlotta seems to make the film’s players sluggish, like the movie itself. Obvious bad guys Charles Laughton and Vincent Price engage in a ham-slicing contest, with a slight edge going to Laughton here. Fun Fact: I couldn’t watch this without being reminded of the superb noir send-up DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, which borrows some of this movie’s names (Rigby, Carlotta) and many of it’s scenes. Watch that instead of  THE BRIBE, it’s a lot more fun!

redux3

THE WINDOW (RKO 1949, D: Ted Tetzlaff) This taut little thriller became a major hit for RKO, and child star Bobby Driscoll won a special Oscar for his performance as a 9 year old who likes to tell tall tales witnessing a murder. No one believes him, not his parents (Arthur Kennedy , Barbara Hale) or the cops, and he’s punished by Mom and Dad. Dad works nights and Mom’s called away to visit her sick sister, so little Tommy gets locked in his room overnight, and the killers who live upstairs (Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman) come to get him. The chase through an abandoned building is gripping, and former DP Tetzlaff (MY MAN GODFREY, NOTORIOUS) ratchets up the suspense. Filmed on location in NYC (a novelty in those days) and based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, THE WINDOW is unique, entertaining, and well worth watching. NOT SO FUN FACT: Disney star Bobby Driscoll (SONG OF THE SOUTH, TREASURE ISLAND, voice of PETER PAN), unable to shake the child star label, became a hopeless drug addict, drifting through a life of arrests and addiction. In the mid-60’s, he was briefly associated with Andy Warhol’s Factory group of underground filmmakers. Sometime early in 1968, he died alone in an abandoned New York tenement house. The body wasn’t identified, and Driscoll was buried in a pauper’s grave. His mother, seeking Bobby in 1969, asked the police for help, and through fingerprints he was finally ID’d. Bobby Driscoll was 31 years old.

  hitchhiker

THE HITCH-HIKER (RK0 1953, D: Ida Lupino) Fear is the theme of this dark, disturbing psychological tale based on the true story of serial killer Billy Cook. Director Lupino cowrote the script with producer hubby Collier Young, about two pals on a fishing trip (Frank Lovejoy, Edmond O’Brien) who pick up a hitchhiking killer (William Tallman), and are taken hostage and forced to do his bidding. Extremely tense drama enhanced by Nicholas Musuraca’s camerawork, and a chilling performance from Tallman as Emmett Myers, as cold-blooded a killer as there is in noir. His deformed, unblinking dead eye will give you nightmares! O’Brien is also outstanding here, as usual. Fun Fact: Tallman is of course best known to audiences as perennially losing DA Hamilton Burger on TV’s long-running PERRY MASON, where he was outwitted every week by noir icon Raymond Burr.

redux5

THE PHENIX CITY STORY (Allied Artists 1955, D: Phil Karlson) Another true story, this one of corruption in a small Alabama town ruled by gambling, prostitution, dope peddling, and murder. The unique prologue features real-life newsman Clete Roberts interviewing some of the locals, including the widow of slain Attorney General candidate Albert Patterson. Then the story unfolds, as Patterson (John McIntyre) refuses to get involved in the efforts to clean up the town. When son John (Richard Kiley) returns home, he does, and finally the older man relents, after the violence escalates to include the murder of a child, and a family friend. That violence is shockingly brutal for the era, and realistically handled onscreen by director Phil Karlson, who’d later helm another Southern crime tale, WALKING TALL. Screenwriters Crane Wilbur (HOUSE OF WAX) and Daniel Mainwaring (OUT OF THE PAST, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) pull no punches, and supporting actors Edward Andrews, Kathryn Grant (the future Mrs. Bing Crosby), James Edwards , Jean Carson (one of the “Fun Girls” from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) and John Larch are all top-notch. Don’t miss this one! Fun Fact: This is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite movies, and there are plenty of examples of it’s influence on his films to keep an eye out for here!

noir

Saddle Sore: BILLY THE KID (MGM 1941)

billy1

What kind of topsy-turvy world is this? Perennial bad guy Brian Donlevy is on the side of the law, loveable Gene Lockhart is the villain, and almost 30 Robert Taylor is BILLY THE KID. This 1941 Technicolor horse opera has only a passing resemblance to reality, and was actually a remake of a 1930 film starring Wallace Beery and Johnny Mack Brown, which depicted the outlaw’s legend a bit more truthfully… but not much!

billy2

In this version, Billy joins up with ruthless cattleman Hickey, who’s out to takeover Lincoln County. They start a stampede of rival Keating’s cattle, and during the commotion Billy encounters childhood friend Jim Sherwood, now working for Keating. Billy and his pal Pedro switch sides, and Pedro takes a bullet for it. The Kid is out for revenge, but Keating’s cooler head prevails, and he sets out to seek help from the territorial governor.

billy3

But Keating doesn’t make it, as we see the familiar trope of his empty horse returning to the ranch. Hickey tries to make it look like Keating was killed escaping the law, but the hotheaded Billy ain’t a-buying it. He, Jim, and the Keating hands ride into town, but when kill-crazy Billy goes too far, Jim has him locked up while he negotiates with Hickey. Billy escapes of course, and hunts down the men responsible for Keating’s death. Jim and Hickey corral Billy, who shoots the bad hombre in the back. Billy and Jim have a final showdown, which Billy loses on purpose by drawing with his right hand instead of his usual left.

Yeah, that’s the whole shootin’ match in a nutshell, pardner. You might recognize some of the Monument Valley locations, but you’ll notice the painfully obvious matte shots more. The color cinematography was Oscar nominated, but lost to THE BLACK SWAN. Director David Miller’s no John Ford either; he had an uneven career, his best film being 1962’s LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, an existential tale of a cowboy at odds with modern society starring Kirk Douglas.

billy4

Robert Taylor is stoic and tight-lipped as Billy, and not in a Gary Cooper way. Taylor was a handsome hunk who made the girls swoon, but not a great actor by any measure. He had a long film career based on his looks, though I can’t think of any movies he really stands out in. Brian Donlevy was better cast as a slimy villain in Westerns like UNION PACIFIC, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, and THE VIRGINIAN; as a hero he’s only so-so here. It’s jarring to see Gene Lockhart as the baddie after having so much sympathy for him in 1938’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL , where he played Bob Cratchit. Lockhart is one of those character actors who’s good in whatever role he did, one of my favorites being the weasely sheriff in HIS GIRL FRIDAY.

"Even a man who's pure of heart, and says his prayers by night..."
“Even a man who’s pure of heart, and says his prayers by night…”

Let’s not forget the Familiar Face Brigade, and this movie’s loaded with them. Lon Chaney Jr is one of Keating’s henchmen, just before turning into THE WOLF MAN that same year. Ian Hunter (Keating) was King Richard in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD and the long-lost dad in Shirley Temple’s THE LITTLE PRINCESS. Every cowboy movie’s gotta have an ingénue, and undistinguished MGM starlet Mary Howard fills the bill here. Thar’s plenty of sagebrush vets filling out the rest of the cast, including Olive Blakeney, Dick Curtis, Arthur Housman, Cy Kendall, Henry O’Neill, Kermit Maynard, Frank Puglia, Chill Wills, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, and Grant Withers.

BILLY THE KID strives to be a thrilling action epic, but falls far short of the mark. It has more in common with Saturday matinee B-Westerns than John Ford or Cecil B. DeMille. The casting leaves a lot to be desired, especially with stiff Taylor in the title role. Speaking of which, why did they even bother to use the real William Bonney as the protagonist in this unfactual flick? Why not GEORGE THE KID, or SIX-GUN STEVE, or even A BOY NAMED STU? If you want Billy the Kid, you’re better off catching Paul Newman in THE LEFT HANDED GUN or Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.

%d bloggers like this: