Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Seven Little Foys (1955) Melville Shavelson

As with most biopic films, there’s probably some basic truth in this story of Eddie Foy, Sr., and his seven children but the screenwriters (Melville Shavelson and Jack Rose) changed his life story in many significant ways.

The story is a bit sentimental and somewhat predictable: an actor struggling to be successful gives his family short shrift, he becomes a celebrity, tragedy occurs, priorities are realigned. Despite this, the movie is still fun to watch because of Bob Hope. 
Although more dramatic a role than his usual fare, Hope still shows off his glib wit and sarcastic bantering. “You’ll feel right at home. There’s a lot of old goats in the lobby” (to his sister-in-law).

He also sings (“Nobody” by Bert Williams/Alex Rogers was particularly touching), dances, and continually shows off his lack of parenting skills, sometimes quite amusingly as when one son is sawing off the leg of a chair and no one takes any note of it.

The film includes the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903, which made Foy a hero for his actions in trying to calm the crowd. More than 600 people died in the fire and you can read more details of the tragic fire here.
Iroquois Theater Fire
So now it’s around 1912 or 1913 and Foy is a very successful actor, moving in between vaudeville and musical theater. He has seven children (none with his previous wife who died, and none with a companion with whom he spent 10 years and who also died) and decides to add his kids to the act.
Contrary to the movie, his children could sing and dance and his wife was also occasionally part of the act until her death in 1918. Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys lasted for five years but some of the younger Foys continued to perform as a group into the 1930s.

(Included in the Little Foys are Billy Gray, better known as Bud in TV's "Father Knows Best," and Jerry Mathers, later appearing as the Beaver in "Leave It To Beaver.") 

If none of this sounds interesting to you, watch the best 3 1/2 minutes of the movie, with Jimmy Cagney reprising his role as George M Cohan.
Cagney and Hope Dance

This was the directorial debut of Shavelson, who was a gag writer on Bob Hope’s radio show in the 1930s. He continued to collaborate with Jack Rose and Bob Hope, notably in the 1957 “Beau James”, another of Hope’s dramatic roles. 

The very talented Eddie Foy, Sr. (born 1856), died in 1928. I think he would have liked Bob Hope’s performance.

“What do you need friends for? You’ve got all the friends and enemies you need right here in this family.”

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Gojira (Godzilla) vs. Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

The first was made in 1954 in Japan and when the movie makers shopped for U.S. distribution, it was picked up, heavily edited, dubbed (sometimes), and released in 1956. I’m not sure which to recommend viewing first but if you watch the original and then the 1956 movie, you will hate the 1956 version even more. Characters and plots are slashed and rearranged, and new footage featuring Raymond Burr, as reporter Steve Martin, is spliced in throughout, and not seamlessly. It’s a mess.
Holes were punched in the plot, the storylines were truncated, and Burr’s presence was supposed to fill the empty spaces. He explains what’s happening when the dubbing is absent and his voice-overs are ever-present and annoying. Dubbed and described dialogue is changed almost completely from the original.

Burr is a reporter supposedly stopping in Tokyo for a few days to visit his old college friend, Dr. Serizawa, before Burr has to head to Cairo. Having watched the 1954 film first, I laughed at this as the two gents were obviously nowhere close to being the same age. 
Throughout the 1956 film, Burr and his interjected scenes stick out like sore thumbs and he pretty much stays expressionless. As the monster approaches the building from which he’s reporting, he does start to sweat, however. When the building collapses on him, I felt a sense of relief at his disappearance. Unfortunately, due to the re-sequencing of scenes, I guessed from the opening of the film that he survived.

Besides being stiff and expressionless, Burr’s dialogue is horrible. When asked by his home office about this monster, Burr responds, “It’s big, and terrible.” Well said, Mr. Reporter.

Relationships and back stories will be found only in the 1954 film where the characters are given some depth. Takashi Shimura, as Professor Yamane, is a shell of himself in 1956 (if you’re a fan of Kurosawa movies, you will recognize Shimura immediately). You will also miss the still relevant debate about whether the information is too important to disclose to the public.
A crucial scene near the end when Doctor Serizawa has to decide whether or not to use his invention (the Oxygen Destroyer) to kill Godzilla is drastically shortened and changed, and loses most of its impact. Reactions of the love interest go unexplained as does any explanation of how the invention works.
Other poignant scenes are cut, such as a war widow cowering with her child under the onslaught of Godzilla. Mentions of the atomic bomb are gone as is any commentary regarding politicians and bombs.
The last words of the both movies reflect the difference in tone.
1954: But if we keep on conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear, somewhere in the world, again.
1956:  The menace was gone... so was a great man. But the whole world can wake up and live again.

There’s more to say about the special effects (no stop motion animation here) and the monster (he hates trains and lights, and has steamy-looking, fire-spewing breath) but you should view the films for yourself.
I’m left with the sad, painful, last scream of Godzilla before he drops to the sea floor, and my last painful view of the 1956 film.

Here is Director Ishiro Hondo before the Hollywood massacre.
"Initiate Security Command Code 129!"

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Kansas City Confidential (1952) Phil Karlson

A mastermind (Preston Foster) plans and executes a successful bank heist. An ex-con (John Payne) is framed and he takes umbrage. Since he’s fired from his job, he now has nothing but time to solve the crime. The opening, scrolling credits promise the perfect crime, and we are immediately hooked.

The heist scene is awkward as the armored truck cops come out of the bank with guns drawn but yet are stiffly taken unawares when three masked men jump them from a truck pulled up next to their truck.

We know the culprits from the beginning and the movie involves watching the star pigeon, John Payne, unravel the story. Most people will remember him from “Miracle on 34th Street” but Payne had so much more to offer, as you can see here and in 99 River Street

Payne is physically abused for two days in jail by the police looking for a confession but he gets released due to additional evidence (and the lack of Miranda rights).

We are introduced to three criminals, one at a time, whose names and faces are forever etched in bad-guy film history: Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef, and Neville Brand. Each of them is under the threat of a life or death sentence and their menacing faces and actions permeate the movie, to great effect. And the mastermind knows just how to handle them.
“I’m giving you one chance to get out from under. Three hundred grand and a clean get-away, out of the country.” How could a bad guy on the lam resist?

“It makes you cop-proof and stool-pigeon proof, and it’s gonna stay that way!” (on wearing masks, and perhaps inspiring Ben Affleck’s “The Town.”)
Payne also encounters the evil ones one at a time as he attempts to sort out the event that sent his life down the tube. “OK, so I’m moving blind but I’ve got you as a bird dog!” 

There’s a lot of heavy slapping, sweating, close-ups, and double-crossing, and 300 grand is always the number: the cut, and the reward.
The dialogue is standard, and wonderfully, film noir:
“You’ve been giving me the fisheye all night.”

“If I can spot you back of those trick cheaters, so can the cops.”

“I know a sure cure for a nose bleed; a cold knife in the middle of the back!”

The film opens in Kansas City but the bulk of it takes place in Mexico with the requisite Tomaso and Teresa. Everything changes when the mastermind’s innocent daughter (and law student) shows up in Mexico and takes a hankering to the patsy.

(Coleen Gray plays the daughter, and although you may not recognize her name, Gray has more than 100 movie and TV credits to her name and is still alive today as of this posting.)
So what’s a father/mastermind to do?  Watch and find out.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Out of the Past (1947) Jacques Tourneur

People may quibble about what qualifies a movie to be classified as film noir, but no one would argue about this movie. It’s classic noir.

Shortly after the film opens, we’re taken into a long flashback where we are filled on characters and events. Eventually, we’re back in the present where the movie remains until the surprising ending.

Robert Mitchum is a world-weary, ex-detective living a quiet life in a nice small town when suddenly his past catches up with him and he’s pulled back into the dark, underbelly of the criminal world. “How big a chump can you get to be? I was finding out.”

This role was made for Mitchum and he pulls it off beautifully. There’s a very striking scene, after the flashback has ended, that finds Mitchum standing in front of very large wrought iron gates that will lead him into “who-knows-what” while his sweet, innocent girlfriend is driving away.
His nemesis is played by the smoothly sinister Kirk Douglas in his second film ever. Douglas smiles, Mitchum does not, but they both smoke, and smoke, and smoke, sometimes with each other, and sometimes at each other. At one point, Douglas offers Mitchum a cigarette and in response, Mitchum lifts his hand holding a cigarette and says “smokin’ ”.  I found that really funny.

The two of them are wonderful together and play off each other very effectively.
“Let’s go down to the bar where we can cool off and try to impress each other.”
One of the femme fatales is the lovely Jane Greer, and you will never know when to believe her throughout the entire movie. (“You’re no good and neither am I. That’s why we deserve each other.” [Greer]).
The always-stunning Rhonda Fleming has a small role as a less than dedicated secretary, and Virginia Houston is the faithful girl-next-door.

Richard Webb (of Captain Midnight fame) is the good, home-town guy trying to do right by everyone. Steve Brodie is Mitchum’s partner, ex-partner, and then blackmailer wanna-be (“I wish it was nicer to see you.” [Mitchum]). Paul Valentine aptly plays a Douglas henchman.

Noted radio announcer, Ken Niles, has a brief, ill-fated part, and Dickie Moore is a deaf mute and a loyal Mitchum friend. He reads lips and communicates with Mitchum via sign language. (Moore was a well-known child/juvenile actor, still alive today and still married to actress, Jane Powell.)

There are three character actors to watch for in their very minor roles. Mary Field is the diner owner (over 150 movie roles), Eunice Leonard, known as “the beautiful maid” is the lovely woman questioned in the club, and John Kellogg (131 movie and TV parts) plays Lou Baylord.

The screenplay was based on a novel by Geoffrey Homes (Daniel Mainwaring) and Homes is also credited as the screenwriter. Frank Fenton and James Cain are uncredited writers and which of these men really wrote this clever, hard-boiled dialogue is unknown to me. The banter/patter runs non-stop and the entire movie is filled with witty, quotable quotes.

“Oh, Jeff, I don’t want to die!” “Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I’m gonna die last.”
“It was the bottom of the barrel, and I scraped it.”
“Well, if you’ll drop this junior league patter, we may get this conversation down where it belongs.”

The trenchcoat-clad Mitchum is smart enough to know when he’s walking into a trap, but also thinks he’s smart enough to outsmart everyone else. The plot twists and turns while bodies continue to pile up (once in a while I was reminded of “The Maltese Falcon”). Double-crosses abound but nothing more of the plot will be revealed because that would take away the fun.
Cinematography is by Nicholas Musuraca, and as you can see in this film, he was known as the “Master of Lighting” at RKO. The black and white photography is superb and the use of light and shadows is masterful, indeed. The gritty atmosphere is enhanced by some shooting on location in California and Nevada.

Music was composed and directed by Roy Webb and C. Bakaleinikoff, respectively, two talented RKO veterans. The music is subtle but adds to the tension and suspense.

The director, Jacques Tourneur (“Cat People” 1942, cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca), keeps the action tight and quick, and the dialogue quicker.  

The title of the novel is used once by Mitchum when he senses he might have been outplayed: “Build my gallows high, baby.”

The final scene with Dickie Moore is ambiguous to some but perfectly clear to me.
 “Oh Jeff, you ought to have killed me for what I did a moment ago.” “There’s time.”

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

99 River Street (1953) Phil Karlson

“There are worse things than murder. You can kill someone an inch at a time.”

Frequently I find “frame-up” movies annoying and frustrating to watch, possibly because many of them are poorly done. But this is not one of those movies, and it’s a wonderful contribution to film noir.

John Payne, known more for his appearance in “Miracle on 34th Street” than anything else, plays a starring role as an ex-boxer. His unhappy and devious but beautiful wife is played by Peggie Castle (who had a short, unhappy life of her own). Payne is now driving a cab, and ends up driving into a world of trouble.

His performance is award-winning (although he didn’t win any :) He is short-tempered, likes to use his fists, and is a man whose self-image was based on his boxing ability.

Payne has a couple of pals, Frankie Faylen as the cab company dispatcher, and his old boxing manager, Eddy Waller (named “Pop” of course), in a very small role. Payne is also acquainted with an aspiring Broadway actress, Evelyn Keyes. Faylen puts in his usual solid performance and Keyes is fantastic.

She is wonderful and luminous throughout the movie but two scenes in particular stand out. The first is her re-enactment for Payne as to what happened when she met a producer for a part (it includes a great twist). And the second scene is towards the end when she gives an amazing seductress performance in a cafĂ©.  
The bad guys are played with equal aplomb by Brad Dexter, Jack Lambert, and Jay Adler. Dexter is sinister, Lambert is double-crossing bad, and Adler pulls the strings. They’re all violent and you’ll see a lot of punching, slapping, and knock-outs throughout the movie.

One of the more humorous lines is made by Elam near the end. A previous encounter between Elam’s karate chops and Payne’s fists left Elam a little bloodied. Later on Elam gets the drop on Payne and brings him to Adler who asks who this is. Elam answers that “it’s one of the guys that beat me up.”

A gum-chewing passport forger is played by Ric Roman, and look for Ian Wolfe, the ubiquitous character actor, in a small role in the theater.

Writing credits are shared among Harold Essex, George Bruce, Harold Greene, Rowland Brown, and the uncredited director and star, Phil Karlson and John Payne.

The musical score is dramatic and enhances every scene (Arthur Lange and Emil Newman) and the cinematography (Franz Planer) is beautiful in black and white with creative camera angles, many of which shoot up at the characters. Watch for the pre-Mrs. Robinson leg image with Castle and Dexter. And also look for a beautiful, long shot of the final fight at the harbor.   

The action is fast-paced and the plot is clever. Beginning and ending with a boxing match, the movie is neatly tied together with the voices in Payne’s head replaying his last official fight.

Here are a few parting, wise words from John Payne: “When you get clipped on the chin, that’s exactly when you have to keep your head.”

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Strip (1951) Laszlo Kardos

The movie begins in the present and quickly moves into Mickey Rooney’s flashback. which takes us through the rest of most of the movie that includes some Rooney voice overs. The few minutes in the present provide several pertinent facts so there’s not too much suspense. 

Rooney gets to play an adult as a recently discharged vet who meets some interesting people in and around Los Angeles. The plot doesn’t hold a lot of surprises and the dialogue is average. What makes this film worth watching is the musical score and the setting of Los Angeles, particularly the Sunset Strip. The movie is quite stylish, complete with neon flashing signs.

Jazz musicians featured include Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden in performances of “Shadrack,” “Basin Street Blues,” and more. But the number one song from the movie is “A Kiss to Build a Dream on,” performed four times throughout the movie.  (The song was nominated for a Best Original Song Academy Award.)
While visiting a few nightclubs, we are also treated to performances by Vic Damone and Monica Lewis, both of whom were huge stars in their day.

Rooney shows himself to be a skilled drummer and a very naive man. William Demarest is wonderful as the crusty, soft-hearted nightclub owner nicknamed “Fluff.” He and Rooney perform one of the four versions of the award-nominated song previously mentioned.

Sally Forrest plays Rooney’s love interest and was not often seen in films. She gives a fine performance as an ambitious showgirl and dancer. James Craig plays the handsome heavy effectively and sufficiently slimy. He loves his indoor plants, and he is usually sitting down when he’s talking to Rooney. (“You talk pretty big for a little man.”)
Don’t miss the brief and humorous appearance of the talented child actor, Tommy Rettig. (His appearance as Bartholemew Collins in “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.” in 1953 was fantastic, and he was the first Lassie master on the TV show). Kay Brown has a sweet and memorable role as a hat check girl, one of her four film roles ever. In the credits, she’s called Edna, but she’s referenced only as “kid” or “honey” throughout the movie.
The usual MGM studio personnel had a hand in the production; Cedric Gibbons and Edwin B. Willis are credited with Art Direction and Set Decoration, respectively. Sound is by Douglas Shearer and Special Effects by A. Arnold Gillespie and Warren Newcombe. The black and white cinematography was beautifully done by Robert Surtees, and the dances were ably staged by well-known choreographer, Nick Castle. 

The musical numbers fit nicely into the movie and do not interrupt the plot. It’s an entertaining little movie and worthy of 85 minutes. And if you ever hear “send in Behr and Boynton,” run for the door!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Cover Up (1949) Alfred E. Green

Meet “a small town with big secrets.” Dennis O’Keefe is the insurance investigator who arrives to gather information about an apparent suicide before his insurance company will pay out benefits.

He immediately suspects something is afoot. The gun is gone, the bullet is gone, and there is no coroner’s report. William Bendix as the town sheriff is less than cooperative and acts more like a brick wall.  O’Keefe starts to believe foul play and sets out to prove the death was murder, not suicide.
The first thing O’Keefe finds, or senses, is a town-wide conspiracy of silence. He doggedly persists and gradually discovers that many of the town’s people had a motive to kill the man. “There are too many people in this town that wanted Philips dead.” 

Clues and red herrings are tossed every which way, and you’ll be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Bendix and O’Keefe play well off each other, and throughout the movie you’ll be wondering where Bendix falls on the good/evil line.
At the center of the film is the Weatherby family, with stalwart actor Art Baker as its titular head. His beautiful, older daughter is played by Revlon Girl, Barbara Britton. And Ann E. Todd is the younger daughter who has a very amusing scene with O’Keefe while she was flirting with him.
But as Hilda the housekeeper, Doro Merande, takes over every scene in which she appears. She’s caustic, funny, and rules the household. Virginia Christine (Folger Coffee’s Mrs. Olson) also appears in a pivotal role.
Cinematography is by Ernest Laszlo, who had a lengthy career that culminated in eight  Academy Award nominations and one Oscar in the 1960s and 70s. Original music was composed by Hans Salter, and the musical score falters only at the end when it cheesily moves into “O Come All Ye Faithful” (but it was Christmas time).
Combine “Bad Day at Black Rock” with “Double Indemnity,” make it ‘lite’, and you have this film. It’s nowhere near the caliber of those two films but it’s an interesting little mystery that will take up only 80 or so minutes of your time.

“I hoped with everything I had that it wasn’t you.”

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Them (1954) Gordon Douglas

“It’s them all right.” This is another wonderful 1950s science fiction film that spawned many subsequent radiated/mutated creature movies. It’s the cold war era, and this movie was one of the earliest to look at possible effects of nuclear technology, with a good, well-acted cast.

James Whitmore and Chris Drake (one of whom stays with us for a while) are officers on patrol in New Mexico when suddenly they see a young girl (Sandy Descher) carrying a doll, wandering alone in the desert. She can’t speak and has apparently been traumatized. It’s a memorable beginning and you won’t forget her face. “She’s a classic case of hysteria conversion.”

The little girl is a mystery but when the owner of a general store is found dead, with nothing stolen but sugar, the mystery deepens. Here is the coroner’s report:
“He could have died five ways. His neck and back were broken, his chest was crushed, his skull was fractured, and here’s one for Sherlock Holmes - there was enough formic acid in him to kill twenty men.”  Now we have a real murder mystery.

The professionals are brought in, scientists Edmund Gwenn and his daughter, Joan Weldon (how nice to see a smart woman who doesn’t become a screaming victim). They have their suspicions, which are quickly and terrifyingly confirmed. And now, what to do about it? Gween is terrific as the eccentric but brilliant doctor. Before his Gunsmoke fame and after playing the creature (Thing from Another World, 1951), James Arness is here as an FBI agent.

Mary Alan Hokanson has a small role as Mrs. Lodge, the mother of missing boys that may or may not be alive. Olin Howland is remarkable as an alcoholic ward patient who reveals crucial information, along with his repeated line: “Make me a Sergeant in charge of the booze!” And look quickly for Leonard Nimoy as a Telex Sergeant in army headquarters. Noted character actor Lawrence Dobkin plays a Los Angeles City Engineer. Before his TV fame as Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone, Fess Parker appears here in a small but very effective role as a patient in a mental ward, institutionalized because of what he claims he saw.

You will hear the famous Wilhelm Scream four times in this movie so listen for it. The musical soundtrack was composed by Bronislau Kaper, a well-known Hollywood composer with more than 100 credits to his name (Green Dolphin Street, Life of Her Own). Cinematography by Sidney Hickox is excellent. (Hickox made one more film after this and then moved successfully into television.) Los Angeles in the 1950s is the final star of the movie. The settings, including downtown and a river basin, are beautifully photographed.

Viewers today may find the special effects less than adequate, but in 1954 they were nominated for an Academy Award (no individual credited). Don’t miss this movie if you are a fan of old science fiction films. It has an exciting conclusion down in the storm drains of Los Angeles.

“We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true: ‘And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation and the beast shall reign over the earth.’ "

Monday, January 10, 2011

This is the Night (1932) Frank Tuttle

The night you watch this film, it will be the night for laughing.  Perhaps known more for being Cary Grant’s full feature film debut, it’s a delightful movie with witty dialogue and clever farce.  Adultery and suspicion of same are the themes that make up the plot, and they are lightly bandied about.

Grant is memorable but plays a supporting role to the other four main characters, the first of whom is Lili Damita. The French actress’ career was brief but she is superb in this role. Besides being beautiful, she puts in an effective performance, mastering two characters, and does comedy very well.

Charles Ruggles and Roland Young are incredibly funny and masters of comic timing.  Thelma Todd is visually stunning and owns the running gag, “Madam has lost her dress!” When the gag is being set up in the beginning of the film, it’s accompanied by a melody that’s frequently repeated, and a crowd chanting. It’s a bit of comic opera. Listen for that melody throughout the film, and also for the lovely “This is the Night”, composed by Sam Coslow and Ralph Rainger.

Irving Bacon is the last piece of this hectic puzzle and plays ‘Sparks,’ the chauffeur of Roland Young. He always happens to be present whenever Thelma Todd loses a piece of clothing. (Bacon’s roles were always small but he was a prolific character actor with hundred of movies to his credit.)

There are so many humorous scenes in this movie that it’s difficult to choose highlights. But nonetheless, watch for the few minutes when luggage is being loaded onto a train, and also for the drinking scene with Young and Ruggles. “This problem’s going to be very absorbing.” What are you going to absorb it with?” “Scotch, I think.”

Cinematography is very well done (Victor Milner) and noted director, Jean Negulesco, worked uncredited on the film as a technical director. 
There are several interesting back stories to mention. Lili Damita would later become better known as the first wife of Errol Flynn. And Thelma Todd died in 1935 at age 29 under mysterious circumstances, either accidental death or murder. The incident was never solved and rumors still abound about mob ties and her violent live-in boyfriend, director Roland West.

But murder, mayhem, and notoriety aside, this is an entertaining 80 minutes that will be well worth your time.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Tell-Tale Heart (1941) Jules Dassin

I stumbled upon this 20 minute film on Turner Classic Movies and was instantly mesmerized. Directed by Jules Dassin, the movie stars Joseph Schildkraut as the Young Man, and he is wonderful to watch. Most film fans will know him as Frank Otto in 1959's Diary of Anne Frank, or as Ferencz Vadas in the 1940 Shop Around the Corner.

The Old Man is played by Roman Bohnen, The First Deputy Sheriff is Oscar O’Shea, and Will Wright plays the Second Deputy Sheriff. And that rounds out the cast.

Cinematography is very stylish and beautifully filmed in black and white by Paul Vogel. The musical soundtrack was composed by Sol Krandel and consists primarily of the beating, thumping heart. It’s very effectively done.

Unfortunately, the screenwriter (Doane R. Hoag) and the director completely changed the relationship of the Old Man and the Young Man. The short story can be read in less time than it takes to watch the film and it’s pretty straight forward. The other objection I have is that the last lines of the Young Man, and the film, were changed.

Other works by Poe have been filmed, and greatly modified from his original writings, but in a tight film like this, why don’t we let genius of Edgar Allan Poe speak for itself.