You’re The Top!: Eleanor Powell Was BORN TO DANCE (MGM 1936)

Dancing masters like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and The Nicholas Brothers all agreed… Eleanor Powell was the tops! The 24-year-old star made a big splash in MGM’s BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936, and the studio quickly followed up with BORN TO DANCE, showcasing Eleanor’s tap-dancing prowess in a fun musical-comedy-romance featuring a cavalcade of stars, and an original score by Cole Porter. Yep, Leo the Lion was going big on this one!

The plot’s your typical Boy Meets Girl/Boy Loses Girl/Boy Wins Girl Back fluff, this time around concerning submarine sailors in port and the babes they chase after. Nora Paige (Eleanor) enters the Lonely Hearts Club (no, not Sgt. Pepper’s! ) looking for work as a hoofer (“You don’t use a fan?”, says wisecracking Jenny Saks, played by wisecracking Una Merkel ). Nora shows what she can do in the hot number “Rap, Tap On Wood”, a joyous dance number (that Eleanor makes look so easy!). Enter sailor Ted Barker (Jimmy Stewart… hey, what’s he doing here??) and it’s love at first sight, because that’s the way things work in these movies!

When Ted saves musical comedy star Lucy James’ (Virginia Bruce) pet peke Cheeky from drowning, the publicity machine gets cranking: “FAMOUS ACTRESS IN LOVE WITH GOB” read the headlines, and poor Nora is stood up while Ted dines with Lucy. Misunderstandings abound, as Nora tells Ted she’s a married woman with a child (actually Jenny’s kid, whose dad is Ted’s sailor pal ‘Gunny’) so he’ll leave her alone. Nora then gets a job as a Broadway understudy for… who else but Lucy! The temperamental Lucy gets Nora canned, Jenny spills the beans, and the whole thing ends up with a rousing, twelve-minute, patriotic, Depression-busting showstopper set on a battleship that becomes a dazzling showcase for the terpsichorean talents of Miss Powell.

The stars of “Born to Dance”: Frances Langford, Buddy Ebsen, Eleanor, Jimmy, Una Merkel, Sid Silvers

Eleanor has some marvelous numbers, and I especially enjoyed the athletic love dance she does in Central Park after Jimmy croons Porter’s classic “You’d Be So Easy To Love” to her – and far as Jimmy’s singing goes, let’s just say Bing Crosby had nothing to worry about! Curiously, while Stewart was allowed to sing, Eleanor’s vocals are all dubbed by Marjorie Lane (wife of actor Brian Donlevy). The number “Hey, Babe, Hey” is another stunner, performed by Eleanor, Jimmy, and fellow cast members Una, Sid Silvers (Gunny), Buddy Ebsen (Mushy), and Frances Langford (Peppy), each getting a chance to shine. And then there’s that finale “Swingin’ the Jinx Away”, where Eleanor is a whirling bundle of energy and shows just why her contemporaries considered her the best ever!

Beautiful Virginia Bruce

Virginia Bruce has never looked more beautiful to me, but then again I’ve only seen her in two other films – as the tortured victim in the Pre-Code KONGO and the title role in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN , where I hardly saw her at all! Miss Bruce gets to introduce the world to the Porter standard “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” here, and her voice is as lovely as the rest of her. Una Merkel gets all the good laugh lines; after seeing Ted with Lucy James in the papers, she quips, “That dame’s first name shoulda been Jesse”. And to her precocious daughter (Juanita Quigley): “Sally, you’re gonna drive me to stop drinking!”. Blustery Raymond Walburn is on hand as the blustery submarine captain, Helen Troy has a cute bit as a nasally telephone operator, and Reginald Gardiner plays a cop who comes across Ted and Nora in the park and breaks into a funny impersonation of famed conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Dependable Roy Del Ruth directed, and with this cast it must have been a dream job. I know I use the phrase “They don’t make ’em like this anymore” a little too frequently on this platform, but in this case the old cliché fits like a glove. And they sure don’t make stars like Eleanor Powell anymore, a multi- talented lady whose career was all-too-brief, but oh-so-memorable:

Halloween Havoc!: THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET (Universal 1942)

The natives are getting restless… and you will too, while watching THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET, which feels a lot longer than its 61 minute running time. The film does have a few saving graces, mainly the great Lionel Atwill as a mad scientist experimenting with bringing people back from the dead, and is an early endeavor for future film noir auteur Joseph H. Lewis . But the extremely lame script by Al Martin, whose inexplicably long career included the Lewis-directed Bela Lugosi vehicle INVISIBLE GHOST, manages to sink this shocker despite Atwill’s and Lewis’s best efforts.

Dr. Ralph Benson offers a man $1000 to let him put the man in a “catatonic state”, and revive him later. Benson has mad dreams about conquering death and disease with his untried (and definitely not FDA approved) methods. When the man doesn’t return home the next day, his wife calls the cops, who come a-knocking, and Benson takes a powder out the window. The man is dead, and an APB is sent out for Benson, who shaves his beard, dyes his hair, and jumps on a cruise ship headed to New Zealand. Here we meet the rest of the cast: lovely Patricia Wentworth and her ditzy Aunt Margaret, equally ditzy boxer Red Hogan, lovestruck young purser Jim, and Ship’s Officer Dwight.

After Benson murders a detective on his trail and throws him overboard, a catastrophic fire breaks out onboard, and everyone abandons ship. Our main cast get stranded on an uncharted desert isle (no, not Gilligan’s), and the superstitious natives (who naturally speak English!) take them prisoner, to be thrown into a fire for bringing “evil spirits” to their happy home. The Chief’s daughter is dead, and Benson says he can restore her to life (which he does with a shot of adrenaline – seems she only suffered a mild heart attack). The natives now worship Benson as “The God of Life” and do his bidding, including keeping the others captive now that they know his true identity. The mad Dr. Benson plans to continue his life-and-death experiments here on this tropic isle, by making Patricia his bride and using her as his latest “experiment”…

Lionel Atwill’s as Mad as a Doctor can be, with that insane glint in his eyes and God-complex in his soul helping him to rise above the weak material. This was his last starring vehicle after a 1941 sex scandal involving orgies and porn at his home ruined his career; he’d be relegated to smaller supporting parts in the future. Nat Pendleton (Red) and Una Merkel (Aunt Margaret) salvage what they can in comic relief roles, but Claire Dodd (Patricia) and Richard Davies (Jim) are as boring as horror movie romantic leads can be. KING KONG’s Noble Johnson is once again an island chief, John Eldridge the officious Dwight, and Anne Nagel , Milton Kibbee, and Al Kikume have tiny cameos.

Lewis uses tight close-ups and shadows to hide the budget limitations, and almost (but not quite) succeeds. The opening scene in Benson’s office is probably the spookiest, but once we get to Universal’s backlot island things go steadily downhill. Lewis does employ a neat trick of having Atwill’s ether-soaked cotton pressed directly into the camera to transition from scenes; other than these few instances he was still a work in progress. THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET is for fans of Lewis and/or Atwill only, an eminently missable entry in the Universal Horror canon, though if you’re in the mood for bad cinema you might just get a kick out of it!

Base-Brawl: William Bendix in KILL THE UMPIRE (Columbia 1950)

Ahh, spring is in the air, that magical time of year, when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of… baseball!! That’s right, Dear Readers, Opening Day is upon us once again, and what better way to celebrate the return of America’s National Pastime than taking a look back at KILL THE UMPIRE, a 1950 comedy conceived in the warped mind of former animator Frank Tashlin and directed by ex-Warners vet Lloyd Bacon.

Big lug William Bendix stars as Bill Johnson, an ex-major leaguer whose passion for the game keeps him from holding a regular job because he keeps playing hooky to go to the ballpark. Bill hates only one thing more than missing a game – umpires! But when his exasperated wife threatens to leave him, his ex-ump father-in-law suggests he go to umpire school to save his marriage. Bill balks at first, but then reluctantly agrees, not wishing to lose his spouse. He does everything in his power to get ejected out of the school, including donning a pair of thick “Coke-bottle’ glasses, but eventually comes around. Bill and his roomie Roscoe are sent to the Texas League, where he finds Texans hate umpires even more than he does, at one point getting knocked out by a tossed cowboy boot! Some gamblers attempt to bribe Bill, but he causes them to lose by having their team forfeit, causing a Texas-sized riot at the old ball game! Fans want Bill’s head on a platter, and it all culminates in a wild chase with Bendix in drag, pursued by an angry mob and angrier gamblers. But as you probably can guess by now, all’s well that ends well.

Tashlin’s loony screenplay features many of his trademark cartoony sight gags, like Bendix wearing an over-inflated chest protector, then getting his spikes stuck in a wooden floor, with hilarious results. The chase is a riot too, with our hero being dragged water-skiing style on a piece of fence behind an ambulance. Tashlin strikes the right balance of situation comedy and slapstick hijinks, aided by Bacon’s deft direction. Bacon was adept at any type movie, but got his start with Chaplin and Mack Sennett; his comedy bona fides include GOLD DUST GERTIE, THE IRISH IN US , A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER, and MISS GRANT TAKES RICHMOND.

“This ballpark has sho’ gone crazy!”

William Bendix plays it broad as baseball nut Bill. He was no stranger to baseball pictures, having starred two years earlier in THE BABE RUTH STORY. No stranger to comedy, either: Bendix starred in radio’s THE LIFE OF RILEY sitcom, later bringing it to television (in fact, his RILEY TV costar Tom D’Andrea plays roommate Roscoe). It’s nice to see Una Merkel get a substantial part here as Bendix’s beleaguered wife. Ray Collins , of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater and TV’s PERRY MASON, plays father-in-law Jonah. Three Stooges fans will get a kick out of seeing many Columbia Short Subject Players in small roles: Murray Alper, Stanley Blystone, Vernon Dent, Dudley Dickerson (“This house has sho’ gone crazy!”), Emil Sitka, Dick Wessel, and Jean Willes appear, and the familiar strains of “Three Blind Mice” play over the opening credits! You’ll also find Familiar Faces like William Frawley , Billy Gray, Frank Hagney, Alan Hale Jr. , and others in the mix.

Some may find KILL THE UMPIRE a bit dated, but it’s still got plenty of laughs in it to make it worth your time. And it’s available on YouTube for your convenience! Makes a good pre-game warm-up…. now let’s Play Ball!

Oh, and one other thing…. Let’s Go Red Sox!!

Pre Code Confidential #11: THE MALTESE FALCON (Warner Brothers 1931)

Everybody knows the 1941 Humphrey Bogart/John Huston classic THE MALTESE FALCON, but only true film fanatics watch the original 1931 version. Since I fall squarely into that category, I recently viewed the first adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s seminal private eye yarn. The film, like it’s more famous remake, follows the novel’s plot closely, with the added spice that Pre-Code movies bring to the table.

Cortez is no Bogie, but he’ll do

The odds are six-two-and-even if you’re reading this post, you don’t need a plot recap. What I intend to do is go over some of the differences between the two versions. Let’s start with Sam Spade himself, the prototype hard-boiled detective. Suave, slick-haired Ricardo Cortez  interprets the role as a grinning horndog who’s never met a skirt he didn’t like. We meet Spade in the opening shot, clinching a dame in silhouette at the door to his office. Then the door opens and the camera pans down to the girl’s gorgeous gam, hitching up her stocking, so there’s no doubt that more than just business was being conducted behind that closed door. This sets the tone for Cortez’s character, an amoral man completely out for himself. We later discover he’s been banging his partner Miles Archer’s wife Iva (and as she’s played by the lovely Thelma Todd  , who could blame him?!?). He’s also got a thing going on with secretary Effie ( Una Merkel , another Pre-Code cutie). Cortez made a career playing shady types, and though his Spade differs from the more cynical Bogart , he does well in the role of less than honorable gumshoe.

Bebe in the bathtub/la-dee-da-dee-dah!

Bebe Daniels plays opposite Cortez as the lying, duplicitous Ruth Wanderly, enacted in the Huston film by Mary Astor. Miss Daniels, a star in the silent era, was more closely associated with early musicals (DIXIANA, 42ND STREET), and is no match for Astor in the dramatic department. However, she does get to strut her Pre-Code stuff more freely than Astor did ten years later. There’s a scene where Ruth and Sam are passionately kissing while a record comes to an end; the scene changes to Daniels asleep in his bed the next morning. Sam answers the door to find Iva, who spies Ruth peeking through the bedroom door… in her kimono! Later, when a thousand dollar bill goes missing from an envelope, Sam orders Ruth to “take off your clothes” so he can search her… and she does! Though she’s no Mary Astor (let’s face it, few actresses were), Bebe Daniels does fine in the pivotal role of Ruth Wanderly.

Diggs & Frye… more than just friends?

The villainous trio of Casper Gutman, “Dr.” Joel Cairo, and the gunsel Wilmer Cook are portrayed with no ambiguity about their homosexuality. Right off the bat, Effie tells Sam a “gorgeous new customer” has arrived, and in walks the effeminate Dr. Cairo (Danish actor Otto Matieson). Gutman (Irishman Dudley Diggs) sports feminine curls and is more than fond of his hired goon Wilmer, played by none other than Dwight Frye. It was a very good year for Frye, as he appeared in both FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA for Universal in 1931. There’s also some homophobic slurs tossed by Spade at the homicide dicks Dundy and Polhaus (Robert Elliott, J. Farrell McDonald), as he teases Dundy with the sobriquets “sweetheart” and “darling”, much to their chagrin.

When Warner Brothers wanted to re-release the ’31 version in 1936, the then-in-place Hayes Production Code had a fit, claiming it was too “lewd” and unacceptable to be put on the Silver Screen again. Warners then commissioned a remake, retitled SATAN MET A LADY, changing some things around and starring Warren William and Bette Davis in the Cortez and Daniels roles. The new film was a bomb (Davis hated it), and Hammett’s story sat untouched until John Huston got ahold of it in 1941, and the rest is film history. The Huston/Bogart MALTESE FALCON remains the definitive version, and is still my favorite, but this  Roy Del Ruth  1931 Pre-Code take has a lot to offer. While not nearly as atmospheric or influential as the later film, this MALTESE FALCON is at least the stuff that Pre-Code dreams are made of!

The “Pre Code Confidential” Files:

  1. LADY KILLER
  2. KONGO
  3. MAKE ME A STAR
  4. THE MASK OF FU MANCHU
  5. HOLLYWOOD PARTY
  6. THE SECRET SIX
  7. PLAY-GIRL
  8. BABY FACE
  9. BLONDE CRAZY
  10. CLEOPATRA

“I can’t get celluloid out of my blood”: W.C.Fields in THE BANK DICK (Universal, 1940)

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W.C. Fields was a one of a kind genius. Fields’ unique brand of comedy was born in vaudeville, polished on Broadway, and reached perfection on the screen. There’s nothing to compare him to, his singular skewed worldview is that distinct. He made his firrst movie 100 years ago, the 1915 silent short POOL SHARKS, and today still has legions of loyal fans. I’ve just finished watching THE BANK DICK, and though it’s impossible to describe the lunacy, I’ll give it a whirl.

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Egbert Souse’ (“accent grave over the E”) is a henpecked husband who spends most of his time at The Black Pussy Café. After taking over directing a movie for the drunken A. Pismo Clam, he inadvertently captures a bank robber and becomes a local hero. Souse’ is given a job as a “bank dick”, working alongside his daughter’s beau, Og Oggilby. A con artist selling shares in a “beefsteak mine” has Souse’ persuade Og to “borrow” five hundred dollars from the bank’s coffers. The bank examiner, J.Pinkerton Snoopington, comes to go over the books, and Souse’ has the Black Pussy’s bartender Joe slip him a “Michael Finn”. It looks like the jig is up until the beefsteak mine strikes a bonanza. A second crook then robs the bank and kidnaps Souse’, leading to a wild car chase. All ends well as Souse’ once again nabs the crook, gets a Hollywood contract, and moves his family into a beautiful mansion, where they can all live happily while Souse’ spends even more time at his favorite watering hole!

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Yep, that’s the story. The rest of THE BANK DICK is filled out with Fields’ trademark craziness: slapstick silliness, sight gags, mumbled asides, and nonsense wordplay (“Don’t be a luddy-duddy. Don’t be a mooncalf. Don’t be a jabbernowl”). Character names like J.Frothingham Waterbury, Mackley Q. Greene, and Mrs. Muckle abound, thanks to screenwriter Mahatma Kane Jeeves (one of Fields’ many aliases). A supporting cast of Una Merkel, Grady Sutton (Og is probably his best role), Franklin Pangborn, and Shemp Howard add to the fun, all under the direction of comedy vet Edward Cline. But it’s W.C. Fields’ show all the way, and The Great One is at his best in THE BANK DICK. Like I said, it’s hard to describe with mere words. The only way to appreciate W.C. Fields is by watching. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll head down to The Black Pussy…..

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