Monday, December 27, 2010

It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947) Roy Del Ruth

This is a lesser known movie but very worth a watch. Some refer to it as a Christmas movie but it’s really not. It’s more a commentary on post-war society and on what being “rich” really means.

A hobo with an unexplained past figures out how to live in boarded up mansions of absentee wealthy people, gone for the season. He meets up with other unfortunates, who hook up with others, and the story takes off from there.

Victor Moore is the hobo star who is best known to me for his hilarious role in Swing Time (1936) as Pop Cardetti. Charles Ruggles is also a favorite and here he plays the second richest man in the world. These two had long-lasting careers beginning in silent movies and ending with a few appearances on television, and it’s great to see them together.

Filling out the cast are some soon-to-be TV stars, Don Defore (Ozzie and Harriet, Hazel) and Gale Storm (My Little Margie, the Gale Storm Show). And Alan Hale Jr, with over 200 TV and movie roles, became best known for playing Skipper on Gilligan’s Island.

Another notable performances is by actress Ann Harding. Most of her film roles were back in the 1930s, and she adds a beautiful and poignant presence as the ex-wife of Charles Ruggles. She also introduces us to “slumgullion.”

Look for character actors Edward Brophy as the local patrolman and Charles Lane as the recalcitrant landlord. Edward Gargan is the policeman in the park who is less than sympathetic to a supposed hobo (“If you need a place to stay, go to a flophouse. If you’re hungry, go to a soup kitchen”). I’m reminded of Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.

There are two hilarious sequences in the movie, neither having much to do with the plot. The first is Abe Reynolds as the tailor. He did not make many films but his monologue here will make you laugh out loud. (Reynolds also played the tailor in the aforementioned Swing Time.) The second scene, although not as witty, involves a waiter in a restaurant trying to balance an uneven table, and some aggressive musicians.

The musical score uses George M. Cohan’s “Mary” when Ruggles interacts with his ex-wife Mary, Ann Harding. But the original score is by Edward Ward, who has more than one hundred credits as composer/musical director. There are many clever lines in the movie, and Herbert Clyde Lewis and Frederick Stephani were Oscar nominated for Best Writing.

DeFore: “Just because I’m in bed doesn’t mean I’ll take this lying down.”

Brophy: “That joint’s as empty as a sewing basket at a nudist camp.”

Brophy and Moore: “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s cousin.” “Oh, your family connections must be better than that.”   

The classic line is the last of the movie so listen for it. This film is an enjoyable lark and is sometimes compared to It’s a Wonderful Life, with the theme of what it really means to be rich running through both. But don’t be fooled. It’s not anywhere near that good.

“To be without friends is a serious form of poverty.”

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Blob (1958) Irvin S Yeaworth Jr, Russell S Doughten Jr

It’s a campy 1950s sci-fi film that is still fun to watch. It scared the heck out of young viewers back in the day but today, not so much. The studio had Burt Bacharach and Mack David compose the song that plays during the opening credits and wanted it to be “non-threatening.” The song is light-hearted and goofy, and completely belies the tone of the film. “Beware of the blob, it creeps and leaps and glides and slides...”

Opening scene: Steve McQueen and Aneta Corsaut are teenagers watching for shooting stars, and see a big one. They go searching for the point of impact, along with an old man who lives nearby. We hear a slurping sound and a dog barking. The old man reaches the “arrival” and inquisitively, or foolishly, starts poking it with a stick. And that is where this narrative ends because you need to see the rest for yourself.

Thrown into the movie are hot-rodding, rebellious teenagers, a good cop and a bad cop (he has his background reasons), and a stuffed-shirt father who just may redeem himself. The teenagers, of course, win the day as the town is finally forced to believe their story. “How do you get people to protect themselves from something they don’t believe in?”

The sound recording is poor with studio echoes everywhere. Dialogue is stilted, and McQueen and Corsaut are 28 and 25, respectively, playing teenagers. The film did bring stardom to Steve McQueen as he was hired for the television series “Wanted: Dead or Alive” on the basis of this performance. Aneta Corsaut would later become best known as Helen Crump, Andy’s girlfriend, on the Andy Griffeth Show; this was her film debut.

The old man in the beginning should be noted as Olin Howland, an actor with more than 200 movie credits and who was taught to fly by the Wright Brothers. This was his last film. The original music in the film is credited to Ralph Carmichael, better known for his musical association with Billy Graham.

The movie isn’t nearly as good as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) or “Thing From Another World” (1951) and has nowhere near their staying power. But it’s an interesting little part of 1950s movie history.

There has been one sequel to date, a 1972 production directed by Larry Hagman, “Beware the Blob," the only film Hagman ever directed. The screenplay took off from the last lines of the original movie:  "I don’t think it can be killed but at least we’ve got it stopped.” “At least if the Arctic stays cold.”  Chuck Russell directed a 1988 remake, and there is currently a 2011 version in development.

Here is one last piece of trivia in case you find yourself on Jeopardy someday. The movie being viewed in the theater in the film’s classic scene is the 1955 “Dementia” by John Parker. Take the movie for what it is and enjoy it.

“It’s kind of like a mass that gets bigger and bigger.”
“Don’t go in there, Jim It’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life!”   

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Thing From Another World (1951) Christian Nyby, Howard Hawks

Think 1950s science fiction and this film has to be near the top of the list. The director credited with the movie is Christian Nyby, and there are divergent opinions on the level of Hawks’ involvement. But after you watch it, you will know that it’s a Howard Hawks film. Hawks was noted for quick, overlapping dialogue (remember “His Girl Friday”?), and this movie is replete with it.

The movie opens in a Officer’s Club in Anchorage, Alaska, and a group of Air Force personnel are soon sent to investigate a mysterious crash at an arctic scientific outpost. They arrive and are in immediate conflict with a brilliant but naive scientist. Preserve our lives and possibly the world’s, or the protect a source of possibly superior knowledge and information? And who gets to decide?  “There are no enemies in science, just phenomena, and we are studying one.”  “No pleasure, no pain, no emotion, no heart. Our superior in every way.”

There’s a wonderful scene early on when air force personnel and scientists are gathered at the scene of the crash. As they circle with their elongated shadows, the light slowly dawns on their faces as to what they have found.

The characters are on the whole quite likeable, and their dialogue and interactions are laced with wit and humor. (“We’re getting nowhere.” “We’re consistent!”) There’s also a  good deal of suspense and no wasted scenes. 

You won’t see “The Thing” until about an hour into the movie, and slowly, more and more of it is revealed. You’d never know it but it’s James Arness in a role he took, and hated, before his Gunsmoke fame. No other big name stars will be found here, just a cast full of experienced character actors, some with familiar faces.

The cinematography by Russell Harlan makes heavy use of light and shadows for dramatic effect. A noted cinematographer, Harlan has over 100 credits to his name, including his work in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

Dimitri Tiomkin was a well-known Hollywood composer and conductor with hundreds of musical score credits (e.g., “High Noon,” “It’s a Wonderful Life”). His score for “The Thing” is suitably eerie when there’s about to be an alien moment, complete with a soprano descant at one point, and theremin by Samuel, and is altogether effective. 

John Carpenter remade the movie in 1982 starring Kurt Russell. I haven’t seen it so I can’t comment on any comparison. But I can recommend the 1951 version. How can you resist a closing like this?

“Watch the skies everywhere! Keep looking! Keep watching the skies!”

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Mortal Storm (1940) Frank Borzage

To fully appreciate this movie, one has to understand its historical significance. It was released in 1940, before the U.S. had entered WWII. The majority of Americans did not want to get involved in “Europe’s War,” information was starting to leak out about the treatment of the Jews, and yet appeasing Hitler was still the name of the game. But Louie B Mayer, as head of MGM, and Frank Borzage plunged ahead, portraying the Nazis as brutal, ignorant, and anti-Semitic. This was a bold move in 1940, and Hitler banned all MGM films in German-controlled countries after the film’s release.

The film is set in 1933, just as Hitler comes to power in Germany. The setting is a small German town near the border of Austria. Frank Morgan is the respected Professor Roth, teaching at a local college. He has two step-sons from his wife’s previous marriage, and he and his wife have had two children together. The word “Jew” is never mentioned but we know that Profession Roth is Jewish, and his step-sons are not.

The effects of Nazi politics on this family slowly play out, beginning with a happy family birthday party and ending with a camera panning through the now deserted home, and snowfall filling in the last footprints, walking away. It’s a  powerful film, with this family being a microcosm for all of Germany and its conquered countries. It dispelled with the notion of a person, or a country, being able to remain neutral.

There are a few things you’ll want to ignore, the first and foremost being the use of rear projection filming for the ski scenes. The other is the accents or lack thereof. Everyone in the film is a German and it would make sense for them to all have the same accent, whatever it might be. But we have Nazi officers speaking English with a German accent, and the wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya with her heavy Russian accent, playing Jimmy Stewart’s German mother. Everyone else has a distinctive American accent. But these are trivial points.

Robert Young and Jimmy Stewart pop up effectively into the movie in Frank Morgan’s classroom. The always enchanting Margaret Sullavan plays the daughter of the Professor. Robert Stack and William T Orr are the Aryan step-sons, and their mother is played by Irene Rich. Watch for Ward Bond as a cruel Nazi torturing Bonita Granville (of Nancy Drew fame) for information. Dan Dailey also makes an brief appearance as a stalwart Nazi.

And listen for the “I was only following orders,” the excuse that would hauntingly return during the Nuremberg Trials in 1945. Bond delivers several of the most chilling statements in the movie to Sullavan, as Freya Roth, Jewish from her father, Aryan by her mother:
“You belong ‘in part’ to the German race.” “Your name doesn’t sound very well to German ears.”  In 1940, it was just the beginning.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) Robert Aldrich

Filmed in less than three weeks, this is a film noir detective story not to be missed. Based on a novel by Mickey Spillane, the dialogue is snappy and wise-cracking, and always entertaining. It’s the ultimate pulp fiction.

The opening sequence is one of my favorites. Before any credits role, we see bare feet running down a highway at night. Next up we meet Mike Hammer, slamming on his breaks so as not to hit the barefoot woman, saying,  “You almost wrecked my car. Well? Get in.” We’re immediately hooked.
From here on in, the movie is fast-paced action with a plot that is not spoon-fed. It’s difficult to review the movie without giving anything away, but the film should be viewed without any previous knowledge and information for the full impact. Shocking murders take place but not in the bloody Quentin Tarantino sense. The scenes will stay with you but not give you nightmares.

Ralph Meeker plays Mike Hammer to perfection. He’s a sleazy bedroom detective, a tough guy who relishes a bit of violence. After picking up the running feet, he becomes further and further entangled in nefarious and mysterious activities. We follow along with him as he tries to figure things out, and just maybe get a piece of the action. It’s a brutal world and Hammer is not uncomfortable in it.
Cloris Leachman has her film debut as the running feet. Albert Dekker is a perfectly sinister Dr. Soberin. Maxine Cooper is well played as Hammer’s Girl Friday, and look for villains, Jack Lambert and Jack Elam, early in their careers. Paul Stewart, Marian Carr, and Wesley Addy also have notable roles. Percy Helton has a memorable part as Doc Kennedy; you won’t forget his screams.  And Gaby Rodgers? You won’t see her anywhere else because she had two movie roles and only a few TV appearances. But you will remember her. And here’s a Gaby piece of trivia: she co-wrote the popular country-western song “Jackson.”

The black and white cinematography of Ernest Lazlo is spot-on, crisp and atmospheric. Aldrich’s direction is taut and he never lets up with the story. Hitchcock had his “MacGuffins”, and much later Tarantino had his Briefcase. In between the two, Aldrich introduces us to his “Great Whatsit.”  So step into the world of Mike Hammer as he tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and stay alive.
“What did they pay you? I’ll top it.”
“You can’t top this: they said they’d let me breathe.”

Friday, December 3, 2010

Upperworld (1934) Roy Del Ruth

This is an odd little movie but not without its merits. The first is Warren William, a prominent star in early talkies due to his beautiful voice and patrician good looks that included a John Barrymore-ish profile. The second is Mary Astor, known more today for her appearance in “The Maltese Falcon” (also directed by Roy Del Ruth). She’s a status-seeking wife and William is her indulgent and very wealthy husband. Their son, who’s packed off to camp like we’d put our dog out, is played by popular child actor, Dickie Moore.

A young Ginger Rogers is a showgirl with a heart of gold, or greed. She’s attracted and attractive to William, who is otherwise a somewhat happily, though neglected, married man. Rogers’ boyfriend/manager is effectively played by J. Carroll Naish, who keeps his eye on the money.

A maybe affair ensues along with an attempt at blackmail, a couple of murders, and a scandalous trial. Along the way, you will meet Andy Devine as a pleasant chauffeur, John Qualen as a bribeable janitor, the handsome Robert Barrat as the police commissioner who may have been paid off, and the intrepid Sidney Toler, as a policeman who finds pertinent information and won’t be stifled.

The ending is somewhat abrupt and when the chauffeur props Dickie Moore up on the railing of a cruise ship to Europe, I have to admit I cringed.

But it’s interesting to see an early Ginger Rogers, who had only one pairing with Fred Astaire behind her; she was on the cusp of stardom. Dickie Moore went on to make more than 100 movies, retired at age 29, and married Jane Powell in 1988. Sidney Toler came to fame later for playing Charlie Chan from 1939-1946. Warren William died young in 1948 at age 54 and is not so well known today but should be appreciated for his body of work.

The movie is a Warner Brothers production and the musical credits go to Leo F. Forbstein. He signed with Warner Brothers in 1926 as head of the music department and director of the Vitaphone Orchestra. When he died in 1948, he had almost 600 credits to his name. This is a movie for movie buffs only but it has its worthy moments.