Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Blackmail (1939)

Edward G. Robinson was flying high in 1939, confident and comfortable in his position near the top of the Hollywood heap. His box office appeal was such that he could be successfully cast in nearly anything, which possibly explains his turn in Metro’s seldom-seen Blackmail, which only vaguely resembles that other chain gang picture.

An oddly cast Eddie plays John Harrington, a wrongly imprisoned man who escapes a Deep South chain gang and starts a new life with a new name—John Ingram—with his wife (Ruth Hussey, wasted here) and son (Bobs Watson) in Oklahoma as, of all things, an oil field fire fighter. Whenever a gusher turns into a flamethrower, John and partner Moose (Guinn Williams) swoop in with nitroglycerine, dynamite, and asbestos suits and blow the inferno to kingdom come. But after a newsreel crew records some of his exploits, John’s past comes back to haunt him and he soon finds himself returned to the chain gang, craving revenge against the man “old friend” (Gene Lockhart) who blackmailed and betrayed him.

Robinson was still under contract at his home studio, Warner Bros. in 1939, and made this quick actioner on loan-out to MGM. Given the status of the performer and the studio, it’s somewhat surprising to see that Blackmail only rates 244 votes on IMDb. And while Robinson jolts any film he appears in, this is certainly one of his weakest star outings, and I spent much of my viewing time wondering if a different, and ugh—younger, taller—star, may have made for a better film. Nevertheless, at just 81 minutes this moves quickly and travels from location to location with the sort of polish that one expects from MGM—even MGM trying their best to do a Warner’s picture. The fire scenes are exciting and have a convincing sense of verisimilitude (not too much rear projection); the chain gang sequences somewhat less so, but only because they were created on the lot rather than in Louisiana, and because Eddie just can’t swing a pick axe with the same aplomb with which he brandishes a Tommy gun. However he does shine throughout the escape sequence, particularly when he clings desperately to the axle of a fruit truck as it barrels down a rocky unpaved road. It’s tense, scary stuff.

In the end Blackmail is an only mildly striking conflation of Warner Bros. exposé and Metro spectacle, albeit with one of the truly great stars. Light fare from Robinson’s most prolific period.

Read the biography of Edward G. Robinson I wrote for the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City magazine at this link. 

Blackmail (1939)
Starring Edward G. Robinson, Ruth Hussey, and Gene Lockhart.
Directed by H.C Potter
Running time: 81 minutes
Availability: airs on TCM
Grade: C+

Friday, May 24, 2013

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

In Douglas Sirk’s 1956 soaper There’s Always Tomorrow, Fred MacMurray’s perfect family learns the hard way that fathers need attention too. MacMurray plays Los Angeles toy manufacturer Clifford Groves, father of three and married these twenty years to his high school sweetheart, Marion (Joan Bennett, lovely once again after the disaster of Highway Dragnet).  As the movie unfolds, we meet a man who is taken utterly for granted by his wife and children. The kids treat him as little more than a cash machine, without pausing to consider where the money actually comes from and what their father has to put up with to earn it, while his wife is so wrapped up in the comings and goings of the kids that she’s often too busy or too tired to spend time alone with her spouse.

The Groves seem to be comfortable in their familial rut until Clifford chances into a former employee while at a business meeting in Palm Springs. Barbara Stanwyck plays Norma Vale, once a toy company employee before unrequited love forced her to flee the west coast for Manhattan and a wildly successful career as a fashion designer. She’s been carrying a torch for Clifford ever since, and the pair spend the balance of their time at the desert resort innocently reminiscing. Things go wrong when Clifford’s son Vinnie (Bill Reynolds) spies the pair having a good time and assumes the worst. Before long, the other Groves children are suspicious of their father, who moment by moment seems at risk of tipping for his old flame. So in the end it is left to Stanwyck, one of filmdom’s greatest martyrs, to do the right thing and save the Grove family from certain disaster.

It almost goes without saying that There’s Always Tomorrow props up the postwar notion of the perfect, patriarchal family unit, and that the dramatic tension (of this and countless other films just like it) springs from an external threat to the harmony of that unit. And while the outcome here is predictable, the film is interesting in the sense that it makes only the children aware of the peril to their family — the wife and mother carries on blissfully unaware. Certainly one might suggest that Joan Bennett’s Marion couldn’t be that naïve, but the movie makes no overt suggestion that anyone other than Grove children are aware that their father’s eyes are wandering. In this way the picture utilizes the vagaries of the ersatz affair to focus on the various wrong interpretations of the situation the Norma, Clifford, and most importantly, the children themselves. In this way There’s Always Tomorrow is quite successful.

In their fourth and final film together, Stanwyck and MacMurray impress — though she has the better role and does a little more with it. MacMurray’s chief task is to play a robotic family man (there’s a great piece of Sirkian symbolism for this in the film) brought back to human emotion through contact with another woman, while Stanwyck gets to sacrifice love for likely spinsterhood in an effort to save him — in exchange Sirk famously gives her the tears through the rainy window treatment. While this isn’t as soapy and outrageous as some of Sirk’s technicolor melodramas (this one is black and white) it instead favors believable scenarios and underplayed performances. At 84 minutes it is over much too quickly, but it remains a solid, entertaining, and even thoughtful outing from Sirk and company.

A note about the poster: Poor Joan, relegated to a black and white tip-in, which seems ironic in that it its placement is indicative of her standing not only in this picture, but in the business as well. In the wake of her 1951 scandal, this seems about as much as she could manage; set apart, looking longingly up at her peers. 

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)
Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Joan Bennett
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Released by Universal International
Running time: 84 minutes
Availability: widely on DVD, airs on TCM.
Grade: B+

Thursday, April 18, 2013

William Bendix — Deja Vu!

Here are two great William Bendix posters … sort of! 

The Blue Dahlia, Paramount Pictures, 1946

Cover-Up, Strand Pictures released thru United Artists, 1949

Friday, February 8, 2013

Oh Barbara! Poster of the Day!

Barbara, Warners, and the Big Q…what’s not to love? 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Women in War (1940)

Republic’s 1940 feature Women in War is rare enough that you won’t ever happen upon it on television, and are unlikely to see it at all short of a concentrated effort to do so. It tallies a mere 15 votes on IMDb, alongside three user reviews, two of which are by fellow completist Arne Anderson — one of which reports that the film is utterly unavailable, the second written after he managed to track it down — as I recently did. After years of wistfully staring at this title on my to-see lists, I was awfully disappointed by it when I finally got the chance.

Set in Britain in the heady early days of the conflict, Women in War tells the story of Pamela Starr (Wendy Barrie), a party girl charged with manslaughter after shoving a drunken RAF pilot over a balcony. Pamela’s long-lost mother, Matron O’Neil (familiar-face Elsie Janis), now in charge of the nurses’ corps, secretly engineers a deal with the courts in the hope that by taking her tough-cookie daughter into the war effort, she can provide the affection and discipline needed to allow her to turn the corner. But the chip on Pamela’s shoulder just grows larger after the other new nurses, who remember only the newspaper gossip from her trial, spurn her. Pamela copes by striking up a casual romance with another flier, Larry (Patric Knowles), which only makes things even worse for her in the barracks — he’s already engaged to Gail (Mae Clarke), one of her fellow nurses. Isolated and bitter, Pamela’s refuses to stop seeing Larry, and their relationship grows to the point that he decides to leave Gail, who retaliates by trying to kill Pamela during a midnight trip to the front lines. Huddled underneath an intense artillery barrage (the filming of which earned an Academy Award nomination for Special Effects), the two women retreat to the cellar of a church, while O’Neil searches frantically for them amidst the cascading shells…

Women in War is emblematic of the naïvely casual and overly romanticized outlook the movie-going public had in those months of 1939 and early 1940 that historians now refer to as the “phony war,” before Dunkirk, when the situation changed dramatically. During the very same week that this film was released to theatres, global newspaper headlines told the horrific story of the British Expeditionary Force’s chaotic evacuation from France, which forced the public to reformulate its attitude and its commitment to the total war effort. It’s unlikely that a film such as this, which employs a wartime milieu without the gravity it demanded, would have even been made had it been scheduled for production just a few months later. The spate of nursing pictures — even the overtly romantic ones — that would soon issue from the studios went out of their way to not only demonstrate the value of nurses, but also the incredible risk and toil required to be one.

The film does lip service to realities of war, as early on O’Neil tells her recruits: 
“I hope none of you have come here with the beautiful notion that war is noble and romantic. Some of you dewy-eyed creatures may be under the impression that it will be your function to soothe the fevered brows of handsome young men when on duty, and to philander with the convalescents when you’re off. Unfortunately, war isn’t like that.”
Yet that seems to be precisely the notion that all of the nurses have, and the film does nothing to dispel them. There are no wounded soldiers to tend to, no tragedies along the way, and no sour news from other fronts. The war seems terribly far away, if it’s even happening at all. All our nurses have time to do is chase fliers, and all they have to be concerned with are the most immature aspects of their schoolgirl romances. The film’s finale is its most damning sequence: When the nurses are ordered to drive desperately needed medical supplies to the front, Gail — our ‘woman scorned’ — childishly forsakes her duty in order to exact revenge on Pamela. She diverts their vehicle into an evacuated French village that is under heavy bombardment, hoping to get them both killed. When O’Neil realizes what has happened, she too drives her truck into the village — showing audiences that as far as these nurses are concerned, the needs of the wounded on the front lines finish a distant second to their own personal drama. And when the shells really start dropping, too many of the nurses lapse into hysterics.

In June 1940 the Battle of Britain was in the offing, and the terrifying nights of the Blitz would then follow. It was a time when English and Canadians — and soon Americans — of all ages and from all walks of life were asked to make extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of their nations and one another. Women in War is a shallow film that fails to measure up to the requirements of its time. Its women are shallow, silly, and incompetent rather than confident, devoted, and strong. When inspiration was needed, it stooped merely to entertain. 

Women in War (1940)
Directed by John Auer
Starring Wendy Barrie, Mae Clarke, and Elsie Janis
Released by Republic Pictures
Running time: 71 minutes
Availability: very rare
Grade: D

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Greatest Movie Poster of All Time?

The poster of the day is for the 1933 film The Sin of Nora Moran, a low budget programmer (aka Voice from the Grave) starring Zita Johann of The Mummy fame. Although Orson Welles was said to have been influenced by this when developing Citizen Kane, this remains that oddest of films in that it is more well known for its poster than it is on its own merits. When Premiere listed their 25 best movie posters in history, this finished second, while IndependentCritics.com said this was the greatest poster of all time. What do you think?

I’m not so sure — certainly it’s dripping with pathos, has a nice simplicity, as well as a sensational amount of sex appeal (even for pre-code 1933) — but as provocative as the image is, the pose is lifted from ancient Greeks, and the design is too top-heavy (ouch, sorry) for me. My five-minute Photoshop tune-up is included below. In this case I like mine a little better. I tweaked the scaling, alignment, and spacing of the disparate elements, and moved the title to the bottom of the design. I also reduced the size of The and Of in the title so that it would center a little more easily. Nora’s figure and the shape of the title type are both rather triangular, and I like her resting on the title much more than when it hangs over her head — although one could argue that conceptually the weight of her “sin” should be bearing down on her! These are more hi-res than usual, in case you’d like to download. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Hit Parade of 1941 (1940)

I’ve seen countless Hollywood musicals, and any more it’s rare that I discover a film that I enjoy, or have even the slightest desire to write about. Such is the case, however, with the elusive Hit Parade of 1941. There have been numerous films to appear under the Hit Parade banner, and they have little in common with each other. The most well-known is the 1943 entry starring Susan Hayward — it’s available via Netflix streaming and is well worth a look — and just like the Hit Parade of 1941 it’s a double Academy Award nominee, in both the Song and Score categories.

Of course all of these films — just like the Broadway Melody series — are little more than cinematic fluff, but that rather goes without saying. Hit Parade of 1941 is nevertheless a charming and entertaining film that, excuse the horrible pun, hits all the right notes. It features radio star Kenny Baker, who I first encountered in the odd 1937 film Mr. Dodd Takes the Air. If you know Baker at all, it’s likely from his supporting role in the Garland’s The Harvey Girls. He had boyish good looks and a beautifully clear voice. The studios tended to use him in unsophisticated, innocent, aw-shucks parts, and Hit Parade is no different.

Baker plays David Farraday, who helps his zany uncle (Hugh Herbert) run a Connecticut trading post (or is it a swap shop? or maybe a flea market?) that advertises on WPX, a Brooklyn radio station. The station is floundering, so when the elder Farraday threatens to pull his sponsorship the station manager makes the trip to the suburbs hoping to convince him to hang on a little while longer. Yet somehow, Farraday pulls an impressive swap of his own, and trades the swap meet for the radio station! Both Farraday men easily transition to life as radio station owners, and quickly set their sights on the newly expanding world of television. (A 1940 film that embraces television? How Hollywood’s attitudes would change in the coming decade!) Longtime advertiser Mrs. Potter (character actress par excellence Mary Boland) is happy to sign on in support of WPX’s new television hour, but only if it features her niece Annabelle (Ann Miller). The problem is that, in spite of thousands of dollars in singing lessons, Annabelle can’t carry a tune. David has an idea: he asks singer and wannabe girlfriend Pat (Frances Langford) to dub Annabelle from a nearby sound booth. It works for a while, with predictable movie musical results. But fortunately for us all, Annabelle doesn’t want to sing anyway — we know what she wants to do…

Hit Parade of 1941 has what you are looking for: the comedy bits are actually funny, and the musical numbers are memorable. Baker and Langford make a good couple: solid chemistry and superb voices. Langford wasn’t exactly a minor star, but given her looks and talent it is somewhat surprising she wasn’t bigger. Although she only made two dozen or so films, mostly light musicals similar to this one, the “Sweetheart of the Fighting Fronts” was a staple of Bob Hope’s USO tours, an on the radio. In addition to Baker and Langford, Hit Parade gives us two more couples: Patsy Kelly and Phil Silvers, and Mary Boland pairs with Hugh Herbert. Top to bottom, it all works. One of the most entertaining musical acts in the film is, oddly enough, “Borrah Minevitch and His Harmonica Rascals.” I know, I know, but trust me. If you can’t manage to locate this film, you can catch them in two pictures that are a little easier to find: 1942’s Always in My Heart with Kay Francis and Walter Huston, or in the 1936 Sonja Henie movie, One in a Million. These guys are worth it, fulfilling the same role as the Nicholas Brothers in numerous Fox pictures; they don’t contribute much to the story, but they punctuate it with something rather special.

The stars themselves do quite well too, but one musical sequence is truly spectacular. It finds Langford behind the microphone at a Manhattan nightclub, belting out “Swing Low, Sweet Rhythm,” while Ann Miller takes to the dance floor in an skimpy black get-up cadged from the cigarette girl. It’s a show-stopping treat of a number, offering the chance to see two beautiful young women doing what they do best. Langford is in great form, a full swing orchestra behind her — while Miller spins, sparkles, and taps her way across the floor — knowing no one in the world save Eleanor Powell could match her. It’s one of those moments that remind us why we like these films; it brims over with that special magic of the best forties musicals. You’ll stop what you are doing and pay close attention, hoping it will go on forever. But everything about these films, just like the months and years of that all-important decade — and the flickering images themselves — is fleeting. 

Hit Parade of 1941 (1940)
Directed by John Auer
Starring Kenny Baker, Frances Langford, Ann Miller, Patsy Kelly, and Phil Silvers.
Released by Republic Pictures
Running time 88 minutes.
Availability: Rare
Grade: A-

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Leatherneck (1929)

1929’s The Leatherneck must have been perfect matinee fare for depression era boys looking to escape for an hour or so into the far-flung adventures of the United States Marine Corps. The film is brief, straightforward, and uncomplicated— with a healthy dose of buddy humor, fisticuffs, and male bonding. It was clearly intended for the raucous appetites of young men with a developing sense of bravado, and hints at the military camaraderie of later films such as Gunga Din and The Lost Patrol.

Through a series of flashbacks, The Leatherneck tells the story of the court martial of a wrongly accused Marine. It stars William “Bill” Boyd as Tex (as Hopalong Cassidy, Boyd would go on to be a screen icon of the thirties and forties), who in the days immediately following the armistice has been saddled with the unenviable task of guard duty. He strikes up a fast friendship with one of the stockaded Germans, Otto “Fuzzy” Schmidt (Alan Hale), with whom he shares a love of beer and brawling. Moments after the film’s beginning the duo becomes a trio as Private Hanlon (Robert Armstrong, Carl Denham from King Kong) joins their ranks. Owing to these newfound friendships, Fuzzy decides to become an American citizen — as well as a Marine — and is soon reunited with his pals when their unit is transferred to politically tumultuous Russia. There Tex falls in love with and quickly marries Tanya (Diane Ellis), a local girl whose aristocratic father owns a Manchurian potassium mine. However “Captain” Heckla, an American opportunist (war profiteer, if you like), steals the mine by arranging for Tanya’s father and brother to be murdered by the Bolsheviks. Heckla then kidnaps Tanya and absconds with her to the mine, leaving the marines to think Tanya shared the same fate as her family. But when Fuzzy and Hanlon learn that Heckla is running the potassium mine, they suspect that Tanya is still alive and abandon their posts in order to investigate. Tex follows, and when he arrives at the mine he discovers that Hanlon has been shot, Fuzzy has been tortured, and Tanya is nowhere to be found. They attempt to return to their unit, but Hanlon dies en route, and Fuzzy is barely functional after days and days of torture. Tex is charged not only with desertion, but also with Hanlon’s murder, and is placed on trial for his life. While Tex’s life hangs in the balance, the audience asks: Where is Tanya?

This is an entertaining light adventure film, though it works better as a buddy picture than it does as an exposé of life in the Corps. Beyond the firing line sequence described below, there are no spectacular set pieces or long action scenes, but the performances more than make up for any deficiencies. Boyd, Hale, and Armstrong have great chemistry, using broad physical acting to compensate for the film’s lack of dialogue. Diane Ellis offers little as the picture’s sole female, but she gives Boyd the chance to wax romantic and makes the show worthwhile for the young ladies that may have found their way into the theater. In addition to the three leads, Fred Kohler stands out as a sufficiently dastardly Heckla. (He should be recognizable to crime film buffs for supporting roles in two of the period’s groundbreaking films: Underworld and Thunderbolt.)

The Leatherneck’s best scene, in which Tanya’s father and brother are executed, is out of character with the rest of the film: it was likely inserted to give wide-eyed audiences a sense of the violence of the Soviet revolution, and is striking in its expressionism: rather than seeing the men themselves riddled with bullets, the camera goes shot-reverse shot between the victims and the sneering machine gun crew as it pans across a wall of shadows, starkly rendering each shadow as it spasms and crumbles to the ground. This is quite a rare film, even considering its Academy Award nomination in the Writing category. While it doesn’t rise to the same level as another of Bill Boyd’s military silents, Two Arabian Knights, it’s still worth seeking out.

Before I close, a few words about The Leatherneck’s director, Howard Higgin, who died too young at age 47. In spite of his brief career Higgin was an important filmmaker during the transition years at the end of the silent era. He got his start working as a production manager in the late teens and early twenties for Cecil B. DeMille, shadowing the great director on his light comedies and dramas starring Gloria Swanson — a few also featured a young William Boyd. Higgin was directing by 1923, and would helm more than twenty films before his death in 1938 — he’d serve as screenwriter on another twenty more. If nothing else he was a Welles-ian trouper, employing the same actors over and over again. Boyd starred in five of his directorial efforts, including Clark Gable’s breakout film The Painted Desert, High Voltage with Carol Lombard (they too worked together often), and Skyscraper with Leatherneck cast member Alan Hale. Hale also worked with Higgin and Fred Kohler on the delightful and utterly unseen Sal of Singapore, which I look at in depth at Where Danger Lives.

Higgin’s films did well at the box office, and were well thought of by critics and the academy. Three of his features (The Leatherneck, Sal of Singapore, and Skyscraper), each written by Elliot J. Clawson, were nominated in the 1930 Best Writing category. Clawson was also nominated for a fourth film in the same category that year, The Cop, which although not directed by Higgin, amazingly starred William Boyd, Alan Hale, and Robert Armstrong! Truly, Hollywood was a small town.

Final note: Many of these films, including The Painted Desert, High Voltage, The Racketeer, and others are available to watch for free at the Internet Archive. Simply connect via IMDb.

The Leatherneck (1929)
Directed by Howard Higgin
Starring William “Bill” Boyd, Alan Hale, and Robert Armstrong
Released by Pathé Exchange
Running time: 65 min. (IMDb), 56 min. (my copy)
Grade: B