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Pay or Die! (1960)
The "Italian-American" Sherlock Holmes
As I am writing this, it's star, Mr. Ernest Borgnine, has just received a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild, and is still an active performer in his mid-nineties. With his Oscar for MARTY, and his performances in films like FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, THE CATERED AFFAIR, THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE WILD BUNCH, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE, and numerous other titles (and a stint as Lt. Quinton McHale on television) it has been a long and varied and distinguished career - far worthier than the shocked dismissal he received when he got that Oscar. Congratulations Mr. Borgnine.
Definitely one of his high points was this 1960 crime film/biography on the career of the detective on the New York Police force, Lt. Joseph Petrosino. Joe Petrosino is the perfect answer to bigots who only see Italian Americans as linked to crime by being criminals. In fact he was determined to eradicate those very criminals who were preying on the hard working Italian Americans in the United States. And he came damn close to doing so Petrosino made the Black Hand a personal study to the point that he was THE expert on it. He kept up pressure on the mob and undid much of their damage on the Italian-American community. But not all of it - it was too well organized for only this one man to fight. In 1909 he had a bright idea of traveling to Sicily and tracing the leadership of the mob to it's root. Brilliant in concept it was fool-hearty in actual practice. Petrosino was shot to death in Palermo.
The killer was never tried and convicted, and it looks like Petrosino (in following his information) may have been set up.
This version with Mr. Borgnine is pretty close to the actual story of the extortion/murder gang of the BLACK HAND and the Lieutenant's fight against them. And it does go to the tragic conclusion...which is handled so well that repeated watchings make one feel that maybe this time Borgnine will escape. Of course it does not (and sadly could not) happen.
He is recalled for his bravery and struggle and his murder by New York's finest and the people he tried to protect. As for the mob boss in Sicily - he did not quite escape his deserved fate. A more evil man, Mussolini, did not like the mob because they were setting up a rival power group to his. The mob boss was arrested in the late 1920s and found guilty of some criminal charges requiring imprisonment. He was put into a dungeon like prison on an island near the mainland. During World War II Il Duce ordered the prison be abandoned and it's staff and prisoners taken to mainland prisons...except this boss. He was left abandoned and locked up, and either was killed in some Allied bombing or starved to death.
My Bonnie Jean
"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" is on the surface the story of a woman who is too romantic for her own good. And unfortunately she is a teacher at a girl's school in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1936, and she does not realize how popular and dangerous she is.
Maggie Smith (who won her first of two Oscars for this performance) plays the part with a verve and style a real Jean Brodie would appreciate, and though Smith was a young woman at the time she also carries an additional burden of the character - not only is Jean a beautiful and enticing woman, but she is getting older and is worried about losing that critical edge in matters of sex that such types fear.
She is having affairs with the school's art teacher (Robert Stephens) and another teacher (Gordon Jackson - later "Hudson" in "Upstairs, Downstairs"). Both men want her to marry them, but she is too flirty (she'd say independent) to do so. None of this sits well with the prim head of the school (Celia Johnson - the sad heroine in the classic "Brief Encounter"). It also does not sit well with Ms Johnson that Brodie has developed a minor cult of personality with those girls who have her as a teacher. She constantly refers to the students as "her gails", and boasts she transforms them into young women by opening up their minds.
Actually she does open them (to appreciating art, life, love - she encourages them to "experiment" with men), but she is closing them to modern realities. Like many people in Great Britain in the 1930s (like George Bernard Shaw for awhile) she appreciates the firm "let's get things done" attitudes of Fascists on the continent like Mussolini and Franco (she does not mention Hitler, however). She believes them far more superior than the seemingly drab upholders of constitutional government like Stanley Baldwin (the current Prime Minister in 1936) or Ramsay MacDonald (the previous one). That the latter two, in the long run, did less harm than her heroes did is something she never gets a chance to talk about.*
[*In the novel and in a longer television version on Masterpiece Theater back in the 1980s, Jean does get her view thrown into her face - a refugee from the continent is invited to tell about how wonderful the Fascist "revival" is there, and the young woman gives Jean and her students an angry earful about how wonderful these leaders really are!]
She does have a bad affect on one chubby, somewhat slow girl named Mary MacGregor. Mary is convinced to run off to Spain to fight with her brother. But Mary happens to join Franco's side and is killed. Her brother was fighting Franco.
Johnson, in the end, is assisted by her school spies (one is a silent, wormy little woman whose brother is a local Presbyterian church elder), and by one of the girls who seems to come to her senses. In the end Jean is forced to leave the school, and confronts the girl who turned on her, whom she labels an assassin.
Actually the event are a little complicated here. The girl is having an affair with Robert Stephens, and sees he still carries his torch for Brodie. Fed up she is determined to get her vengeance on Brodie, and she tells Stephens why he will always be a third-rate painter. She is triumphant over Brodie, but she is aware that her character has been shown to be selfish and sneaky, and will never change. Johnson does get rid of Brodie, but has to be truly under-handed to do so. And Brodie, for all the shame of being forced out by these two still has her own sense of self-worth, comparing herself at the end to her ancestor Deacon William Brodie, the Edinburgh carpenter, cleric, and town councilor who was also a burglar at night, and was hung publicly on a gallows he had constructed.** Brodie might be down for the count as the film ends, but she will survive. Possibly better than her assassin will.
[**Deacon Brodie's story is better known to most people than we think. Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Tale of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde" was based on this tale.]
Those Forever Echoing Shots From that Hunting Lodge
History is so full of questions - what if such and such occurred, or if so and so had lived and not died, or if the weather had not been so bad on the date in question. There are all over the place, and Franklin Roosevelt dismissed this as "iffy" history. But people have hopes, dreams, and imaginations. Sometimes these run away with them.
On January 30, 1889 Crown Prince Rudolf Von Hapsburg of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was in his hunting lodge at Mayerling with his mistress Baroness Marie Vetsera. Rudolf was married to Stephanie, sister of King Leopold II of Belgium. They had a daughter, but were unable to have other children - such as a male child (Austria had a male only rule about its Emperors since the death of Maria Theresa, a co-ruler with her husband and later her son in the 18th Century). Rudolf therefore did not care about how his open affair with the Baroness affected his despised wife. However, the Vetseras were nouveau rich minor aristocracy, and it displeased the Emperor Franz Josef and the Empress Elisabeth ("Sisi"). The Emperor and his Prime Minister, Count Taafe, also wanted Rudolf to be more active in pursuing his regular duties at court and in the empire.
Rudolf was considered more liberal than the Emperor by many people. He may have been approached about taking the leadership of a separation movement from Hungary as potential King, but if he did nothing came of it.
That January day a shot rang out in the middle of the night. Some equerries ran to Rudolf's room but he answered the door and said nothing was wrong. Then, about six hours later, a second shot rang out. This time Rudolf was found with the top of his head blown off. Marie was dead from a shot in the skull too, but she was on her bed.
Mayerling (it helps that the scene of the tragedy sounds poetic) has been the subject of several films and television shows and many books. This writer uses the name as his nom-de-plume on another website. There is a fascination with that tragedy - one can see it as that of two young people who died rather than give each other up due to a demanding father. One can see it as the end of the hopes of liberalism in the old Austro-Hungarian Emprire. One even has a sense of the richness of the royal families of Europe in 1889 by the setting in that lodge. It is open to so many interpretations or feelings.
The 1936 film with Danielle Darrieux and Charles Boyer is the better version, but this 1968 version with Catherine Deneuve and Omar Sharif is actually quite good. It takes the view that Rudolf was a potential reformer and liberal, and that the reactionaries spurred on the events that led to the deaths. Franz Josef (James Mason) is shown hand-in-glove with the reactionaries (even screaming about Rudolf's friendliness with Jews), and not sympathetic about the need his son might have for Maria's companionship (given the really unlikeable Stephanie). Rudolf tries to make a deal - as an inspector general for the army checking out army weaponry and maneuvers. But nobody pays attention to him. The result is a total collapse of spirit leading to his suicide pact.
He does try to escape with Maria. Bertie, Prince of Wales (James Robertson Justice) is visiting - can Rudolf and Maria flee to England for diplomatic immunity? But Bertie knows the drill - when you are finished enjoying yourself go back home to the wife and mother (Alexandra and Victoria). He also knows that the brouhaha of giving shelter to Rudolf and his mistress would not sit well with Lord Salisbury's government, or the government of Germany (Austria's ally) under Otto Von Bismarck.
So the film ends with that final suicide, although to enhance the romance the dying Rudolf grabs the hand of his dead lover as a last snub at his father.
Was it like that? My romantic side wishes it was. But the evidence shows Rudolf was a weakling, who played with liberalism but really did not believe in it. Franz Josef (a hard working monarch, with his own side-friendship with actress Katherine Schratt) always mourned his wayward son, but he was ashamed of Rudolf's cowardice - what always bothered the old emperor was that Rudolf took six hours to turn his pistol on himself after shooting Maria. He could not make up his mind of doing the honorable thing (completing the suicide pact) or fleeing. Rudolf was a coward to the end.
Of Mice and Men (1939)
Lon Jr.'s best role
It was the misfortune of Lon Chaney Jr. that he had the historical film name he did. Being the son of the great silent film star associated with so many horror films, Lon Jr. might have escaped the pull of that reputation had his father lived really into the sound period. When Lon Sr. did his sole sound film in 1930 his film voice showed he could have handled the switch to sound. But he was dying (ironically) of throat cancer, and left the scene soon after. Had he lived he would have been used in many types of films, but many would have been the same type of horror films he was known for. Instead, his son inherited a great name and also the inevitable lure of those horror films.
He's not bad in them. For example, if he had not made OF MICE AND MEN he would have been best recalled for THE WOLFMAN ( as the doomed hero. He also was in horror films that have cult status, like MAN MADE MONSTER with Lionel Atwill. But he was forced to do many crappy films. Later films showed the fine actor he really was - most notably his ailing, old sheriff who just is too old to help Gary Cooper in HIGH NOON, and his determined good guy who thwarts racist Claude Atkins from turning in Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in THE DEFIANT ONES, but they were too few to keep him from being recalled as another horror actor.
Lenny Small is then his signature role - simple minded and so strong he does not know his own strength. Twice in the film he demonstrates this by his killing of the puppy he gets from Slim (Charles Bickford), and his killing of Curly's flirty wife Mae (Betty Field). Both times he kills by accident: he thought he was just showing the puppy who was master, and he kills Mae to keep her quiet (not wanting to set off a chain reaction that - ironically - he does still set off).
John Steinbeck is in that select group of early to mid-century writers (with Eugene O'Neill, Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway - but for some reason not F. Scott Fitzgerald) who managed to win and deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature. Steinbeck's novels have been translated to the screen frequently. At least two of Steinbeck's best tales (the present one and THE GRAPES OF WRATH) were made into truly classic films, with a third one worthy of viewing as part of the James Dean legend (EAST OF EDEN). Most American students first come to him when they read OF MICE AND MEN. It is a good start for the novella is a complex development of the tragedy hinted at in the source of the title - the Robert Burns' poem TO A MOUSE.
George (Burgess Meredith) and Lenny have been migrant workers together for years. Cousins, George used to play jokes on Lenny, but when he saved his life (in a joke that backfired) he changes and takes care of the slow-witted giant. They dream of owning a small farm of their own, where they are not at the beck and call of other bosses. Lenny also hopes to raise little rabbits and have puppies as well. But Lenny inevitably causes some incident at each site that causes them either to be fired or to flee some mob or posse (the film is set in the 1930s, but the rural nature of the background makes it like a western). When they find themselves at the current ranch Slim and the other men welcome them, as does the owner. But the owner's son Curly (Bob Steele) is perpetually trying to prove himself by acting belligerently (except to tall, intelligent people like Slim). His wife Mae is bored and slightly flirty, and this gives Curly his perpetual suspicion of all the men on the ranch.
George therefore has his hands full trying to keep Lenny quiet and trying to keep Mae from coming onto his cousin. George has set a goal of saving $600.00 to buy a small farm, but has to keep the jobs he and Lenny got for several months to save up. However an old hand at the ranch named Candy agrees to go in with them, and they now only need a little over two hundred dollars. But their scheme (like that of the mouse in Burns' poem) is bound to go agley due to the death of Mae by Lenny.
Actually it is not the only scheme. Mae wants to get away from her mother and marries Curly (who she dislikes). She also wanted a Hollywood career, which she never gets. Curly wants to dominate the men with fear, and ends up with a crushed hand and a dead wife who never loved him. Crooky, the African-American farmhand, can't even get equality with his fellow white workers - he lives segregated in a room near a dung pile.
There are many fine set pieces here - the stupid fight that Curly picks with Lenny, that ends with the giant crushing his hand; the comparison of the camaraderie of the hands' dinner with that of Mae, Curly, and Curly's father (the latter has two males concentrating on their meal, while a bored Mae toys with her own); and possibly the two most poignant - the killing of Candy's old, dying dog by Doc, with the hands aware of what is going to happen but sitting around trying to forget it (the gunshot from outside reminds one that director Lewis Milestone had done similar work earlier in the decade in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT), and the dreadfully sad "execution" scene - with George trying to make Lenny as happy as possible in his last moments. OF MICE AND MEN was a powerful story in 1939, and remains so to this day.
A Mighty Wind (2003)
Actually a Comedy that has a Charm of its Own.
A MIGHTY WIND is not a simple sequel to the earlier comedy spoof THIS IS SPINAL TAP. There was nothing in that film that was really moving (the death of the drummers in the band became an occupational hazard after awhile). Instead, A MIGHTY WIND is a bittersweet film about the passing of a briefly appreciated musical trend, but more important the tragedy of two of that trends celebrities in the failure of their marriage. For the marriage of Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara) becomes the centerpiece of our attention by the last third of the film.
The up-beat small town Americana personified in the music of the three groups is not totally dead. One can hear people strumming 1960s kitch even today. But it was supposed to be a tonic to the rock and roll and protest songs of the 50s to the 70s. It just did not have the staying power of those songs. One of the ironies of the film is that Michael McKeon's group is spoofing "The Weavers", but that group (led by Pete Seeger) transcended this kind of music and ended up leading the vanguard of the anti-war protests of the 1960s. When McKeon is approached about a song concerning an incident in the Spanish Civil War that his two partners are not afraid to sing he looks rather put out - he just doesn't think it's their type of music.
The key to this film's difference from SPINAL TAP is that the numbers are actually just this side of good. One can hear all of them without being turned off by them seeming so naive. This is particularly true of Mitch and Mickey's number regarding the kiss at the end of the rainbow. It actually is moving as sung by them, and (in it's first performance) they did a kiss. It becomes their signature song. But the love that led to their marriage (a love on Levy's part that got him badly beaten defending O'Hara when she was insulted) does not last. Levy's Mitch has a mental problem, and the two divorced. But O'Hara's Mickey always was concerned about him - even after she had a successful second marriage. When he briefly vanishes just before they go on (he went out for some air and to get her a flower) she becomes hysterical thinking he may have gotten hurt. They do the kiss again for the live audience, but it is obvious that they really wanted to. But once they do they revert because they don't want to give each other the wrong signal.
That business gives a heart to the film totally missing from SPINAL TAP. This does not mean the comedy is not funny - it is on target. The interviews that reveal too much about the people being interviewed. The behavior of the dead impresario's older son who is concerned about whether flower arrangements at Town Hall may lead people to fatally injure themselves tripping over the dangling flowers, or that they will be confused by stage decorations mingling painted banjos that look like they are three dimensional next to real street lamps. The head of Town Hall showing the acoustics by singing "Ave Maria" badly. The belief of two of the singers in some reality involving color and levels of sound. The television network honcho (Ed Begley Jr.) who is Swedish, boasts of some obscure song he wrote that was big on Stockholm song charts years ago, and uses Yiddish words as a kind of proof of his being a producer. It is a wonderful movie, and superior (I feel) for that degree of sadness it reveal in the lives of two star-crossed lovers.
Ask a Policeman (1939)
Another Find on You Tube to be Enjoyed
In the 1930s the comedy teams that enjoyed the most popularity in the U.S and possibly England were the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy, especially as Stan Laurel was a British citizen by birth. But the English could point to their own master trio of comedians who made over six films together: Will Hay, Moore Marriott, and Graham Moffatt. Hay has been compared to Groucho Marx as both are the "authority figures" who ooze incompetence (but are sharp anyway). There the similarities really end - Marriott always played Harbottle, and aged, toothless man who really does not fit as the counterpart of Chico, and Moffatt is the fat young man who is actually sharper than Hay but moves to his own speed and agenda. Here, when confronted with a furious chief constable for the county that the three are policemen in, Moffatt finds his girlfriend is ready for a night at the pictures and politely wishes the angry official a good night while he takes her out. Harpo might have done something like that but faster and without words.
Hay, as Chief Dudfoot, has just got national attention for having the best record for over a decade of no crime being committed in his township. Unfortunately this is not due to diligence but to slackness and even some dishonesty (as he denies any poaching in his district we see Marriott and Moffatt passing with some dead birds and guns by the open window in the background). However, except for some blundering by the three with the printed script the BBC gave Hay, and some nearly too true comments by Marriott, the radio broadcast is a success. Even some local worthies, such as the local squire are there to share in the moment. Then the broadcast is ended suddenly.
Unfortunately the broadcast has brought the situation of how the police under Hay have really worked to the Chief Constable. He figures that it just does not make sense that absolutely no crime has been committed in the last decade. He sends a warning of a surprise visit. Naturally Hay and his deputies decide to do something to show they are doing their job - setting up a speed trap. Of course they really do not know anything about speed traps, and allow one young man to leave who lacked his driver's license or car insurance information (he never even got insured), while the second person they catch (and knock out) is...yes, the Chief Constable.
The film follows the foredoomed attempts by Hay, Marriott, and Moffatt to get something accomplished - in this case trying to look like they are succeeding in tracking down local smugglers. But they keep running into all sorts of problems concerning a mysterious beacon light (that looks like it was located at the roof of their police station), and a ghostlike hearse driven by a headless horseman (Desmond Llewellen, later to be "Q" in the first James Bond films, actually is the headless horseman but another actor is supposed to be the horseman later on). One of the best moments is when Hay learns from Marriott of an old rhyme about a smugglers' cave. Hay has to ask the father of Marriott (he looks so old Hay tells him not to worry about Balaclava!) what the last line is, and hears one of the most ridiculous concluding lines of a four line piece of poetry ever spoken.
There are other gems. Looking in old record books for some crime to create a crime wave with Hay reads about one poor soul who stole one sheep and was drawn and quartered two centuries before. Then he reads of a contemporary who threw his shrew of a wife over a cliff and killed her. He got fined four pence.
The fun continues to an end where the chase ends at a car testing track with a truck full of contraband pursued by a bus full of people (don't ask) and then the Chief Constable and his men in patrol cars. Even when the cars stop running the chase is left continuing as the film ends. Somehow it is fitting.
They Met in Bombay (1941)
Good director, grand cast, wobbly script, mediocre results
I am certain that THEY MET IN BOMBAY must have done well with the U.S. and British Commonwealth states (possibly India excepted) in 1941. The last half hour must have struck many a patriotic heart in these countries against a supposedly bloodthirsty and sneaky foe. But if analyzed it does not fully work. It tries to do too much, and the results show it.
Jessie Ralph is a Duchess who has a famous jewel, and Gable and Russell are jewel thieves, who are after the jewel by themselves. As a result of two separate schemes they manage to keep derailing each other's plans. Finally they decide to work together and steal the jewel, but they are being pursued by a Scotland Yard Inspector. They get aboard a freighter captained by Peter Lorre as a Chinese seaman. Lorre soon realizes they are not two innocents and they pay him to let them off the freighter before the ship arrives in port. But he contacts the authorities and says they are on his boat. Gable figures out there will be a double cross, and he and Russell steal a boat and get ashore just as Lorre is allowing the inspector on board.
Up to a point the film has a positive momentum (the director, Clarence Brown, does not really lose much time with his actors. But now a bit of script padding occurs which only barely makes sense. Gable reads in a local newspaper that a merchant is being investigated for corruption in selling grain to the British army. He is able to steal a Captain's uniform (his character was in the Canadian Army) and gets a new uniform to wear that fits him. He proceeds to commandeer British soldiers, go to the offices of the merchant, and plunder him of a box of money. So far the character of Gable's role is maintained. But now he finds he is ordered to report to the office of the local General (Reginald Owen) for sudden orders. An emergency to rescue British nationals and some Chinese (who requested asylum from some territory the Japanese army has been advancing in) requires all the British military to this rapidly deteriorating situation. Gable tries to get out of it, only to be brought up sharply by Owens that there is no exception to the orders.
I won't go into this side trip (brining the still scheming Gable into confrontation with the Japanese officer in charge (Philip Ahn)). The result is that Gable manages to present the military with a problem and finds himself the center of unwanted publicity. The film ends happily for Gable and Russell, but it has a conclusion that was only possible in the make-believe of Hollywood in 1940 regarding the British Empire and the Sino-Japanese War of that day (Britain and Japan did not go to war until December 7, 1941, the same day that they went to war with the U.S. - the equivalent to Pearl Harbor was the attack on Singapore and the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse).
The cast is perfect, and not lethargic (as they should be with a questionable script like this). Brown (a good technical director) did not make a single mistake. That part of the forced plot is a variant of the old "Koepenick" Incident in Germany in 1906 (see the film THE CAPTAIN FROM KOEPENICK with Albert Basserman) where a convict, to get out of Germany, dressed up like a Captain and commandeered soldiers to bully his way around a town by his competent seeming swagger, does not seem to be avoidable. That the original story line got derailed unpardonably is too true to ignore. That the image of cruel Japanese soldiers just hit the patriotic nerves at a perfect time is also true. Those audiences must have cheered Gable in that sequence.
It was not a washout film - one can enjoy all the fine actors going through their paces. But it is not a well made film. Still it gets six stars for cast and director.
Nothing But the Truth (1941)
Creaky plot idea, that still works oddly enough
If you saw LIAR LIAR with Jim Carey a couple of years ago, you saw a variant on this movie's central premise: We are so jaded in society that we are willing to accept lying as second nature, and will lie to smooth over social relations and business relations. As long as the lie is not uncovered it is accepted. John Ford said it on a more serious basis in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE: If you have a choice between printing the colorful legend or the bare bones truth, print the legend.
Bob Hope works at a stock brokerage house owned by Edward Arnold, alongside Gleen Anders (Arnold's somewhat straying son-in-law) and Leif Ericson. Paulette Goddard, a niece of Arnold, gets him to promise to pay up to $20,000.00 to make up the balance of $40,000.00 needed for a charity that is building an old people's home. Goddard has promised this to the head of the charity, Grant Mitchell. She has $10,000.00 of the collected money of the charity, but Arnold will fully match the $20,000.00 if Goddard invests her $10,000.00 in a "sure thing" that will double the investment quickly.
Arnold has no intention of this altruism. He know Goddard gave Hope the money to invest, and with Strange and Ericson they bet $10,000.00 together against this $10,000.00 that Goddard gave Hope if for 24 hours the latter will only speak the truth.
The plot shows the pitfalls such a bet entails. Hope constantly is put on the spot by Arnold and company, asking embarrassing questions in private or at a dinner party he has to attend. And he keeps on having to make insulting revelations to people. They hope that Hope will give in and lie, but he is determined to see it through. Of course some of this backfires: Arnold is pushing a dubious mining venture, and when a would-be investor asks Hope's opinion the latter refuses to support the idea of investing in the company. Anders has been playing around with an actress pushing a play, and has to cover up by his own lying when Hope may be asked the truth by Anders' wife about Anders and the actress. And Goddard has to hope that Hope does not reveal anything to Mitchell about the investment of the $10,000.00 before 4 P.M the next day.
The idiocy of such plots always is that the hero or heroine caught in them does not insist on his/her right to tell everyone about the bet. If that was allowed, everyone would be circumspect about what they ask that person. Instead the hero/heroine has to act stupidly for the entire story until the deadline is reached.
Yet it is an amusing plot all the same (as Carey's film demonstrated). We do depend, despite our best wishes, on lying to get along all over the globe. It can't be avoided. So for all the ill-logic involved it remains a plausible enough commentary about human beings.
Hope and Goddard made an attractive pair of leads, in this, the third and last film they did together. Their co-star from THE GHOST CATCHERS and THE CAT AND THE CANARY, Willie Best reappears too, still doing some racist style humor (catch the suntan lotion joke), but also showing a degree of common sense Hope fails to latch onto. Arnold is good, but has been in better comedies (DEAR RUTH comes to mind) Anders is interesting because he is best recalled as Everett Sloans' weird and doomed partner Grisby in Orson Welles' classic THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, a straight and dark role. Anders made few movies in his career (usually he was on Broadway) so it is nice to see him trying comedy. Leif Ericson (who had been in THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 with Hope) was usually playing stick-in-the-mud characters in this period. He would not do good characters parts until the 1960s. Clarence Kolb is a newspaper owner who finds the editorials he writes put Hope to sleep. Leon Belasco is a Hungarian psychiatrist who is now practicing in Miami (where the film is set), who finds Hope and the others interesting potential clients.
The film seems based on a 1917 comedy of the same title that had a good run for the period. In looking over the cast of that play only William Collier had any Hollywood career (mostly in the silent period, and later as a writer or director). But the film is amusing and will be a welcome addition to Hope fans (especially as it is rarely shown).
Up in Smoke (1957)
Mildly amusing for Foulger and the central "Satanic" plot twist
As a kid I did enjoy the long series of poverty row comedies of Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and company, under the name of the East Side Kids or Dead End Kids. It is funny that from being the co-stars of the big production, DEAD END, and then through others like ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, ANGELS WASH THEIR FACES, and THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL, the gang of young actors ended up in this series of B features or worse. But this did not necessarily prove a disaster. They kids were good comics, especially Hall and Gorcey. Ironically though only one made it off the films on his own: Gabriel Dell, who worked with Steve Allen and others. And Dell actually (gradually) played characters that worked at loggerheads with Gorcey, Hall, and the others, usually as a junior heavy.
UP IN SMOKE was one of their last films, and actually deals with a curious twist on an old legend or story. Sach (Hall) makes a wish that if he could he would give his soul to the Devil for better luck. Enter the most cherubic of film Satans, Byron Foulger. Normally Foulger was a harried clerk or bank teller or something like that. Frequently he was a murder victim. But here he is a Devil (actually not THE Devil), who is trying to earn his station from his new master. So he is sent to answer Sach's wish.
What is the difference then between this situation and the devils in HEAVEN CAN WAIT (also a comedy), or ALIAS NICK BEAL, or THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER. The approach to the character of the Devil is different in each, though Ray Milland and Walter Huston are certainly businesslike and deadly (Laird Cregar is too, but also fair minded when he is aware of errors). Foulger though adds something that only Claude Rains (as the Devil in ANGEL ON MY SHOULDER) faced - that Satan might hot be able to control his evil actions. Rains keeps trying to twist situations to use Paul Muni to destroy a reformer's public face. Instead he finds various other small fry stepping in and wrecking things (but doing it when they are willingly doing evil - so he can't really complain). Foulger finds an interesting variant due to his "Victim" Sach: What happens if you have an idiot whom you have agreed to grant wishes to? For the running joke of the film is that Foulger keeps on granting wishes that are supposed to benefit Sach, but through the bungling of the idiot he loses all benefits and they go to third parties who have not made deals with the Devil. Foulger even complains he is not supposed to give away freebies to people. Towards the end Satan is so put out by Foulger's failure with Sach that he takes away one of the two little horns on his forehead (usually covered by his homburg).
It is a small reason to recall this film, but for a curious variant on an old theme I congratulate the screenwriters here.
A Little Romance (1979)
A Piece of Charm, and Lord Larry's Probably Last Good Film
Lauren (Diane Lane) is the daughter of an American woman (Sally Kellerman) now married to her third husband (Arthur Hill) and showing far too much interest in a self-important film director (David Dukes). One day Lauren is taken to see the shooting of a scene in the director's latest opus, with Broderick Crawford as one of the stars. She finds more interest in a book (an introduction to Martin Heidegger's philosophy) than the filmed scene (an attempted assassination). But she meets Daniel, a French boy who was taking a school trip to the châteaux the film was being shot. He is a movie fan, a bright boy who has worked out an almost flawless system to win horse races, and as bright on the subject of Heidegger as Lauren is.* The kids click, and a small romance develops. They also meet an elderly gentleman (Lord Laurence Olivier) who tells them of how Elizabeth and Robert Browning sealed their love by sailing in a gondola in Venice under the Bridge of Sighs at sundown while the bells of St. Marco are chiming. Lauren likes that story very much.
Due to Daniel defending Lauren's honor at her birthday party (he punches the drunken film director for making a stupid insinuation) he is made persona non grata to his girlfriend. Daniel and Lauren meet secretly and plan to flee to Venice to put the Browning legend to their own use. They get assistance from the elderly gentleman, and soon manage to raise the necessary funds to flee. But they are caught in only a few days of possible freedom for this. Part of the reason is that their funds disappear too quickly. Also Lauren 1) fails to mention she and her parents are returning to America in two weeks, and 2) she forgets to ask a friend to cover for her. The funds soon are replenished, but Daniel begins to have suspicions about the elderly old gentleman.
A LITTLE ROMANCE came out in 1979, and with THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL represents the last two good movies that Laurence Olivier appeared in. He would be in a few other films and give a variety of appearances (most notably as General Douglas MacArthur in INCHON) but these films were below quality in most standards. A cameo in WAGNER starring Richard Burton was in a good film, but Olivier was in support in that film.
The reason really was age and health - Olivier could do film and television, but on a limited basis (BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, LOST EMPIRES). In comparison Alec Guiness was doing far more work in the 1980s of any interest. But A LITTLE ROMANCE was a charming comedy romance dealing with two kids coming of age, and aided by a kindly old rogue. It was an easy role (except for the French accent, which to be truthful comes and goes a little). But his age is apparent here too. As the old gentleman is in his 70s it was not a big problem for Olivier to show that age. Still he looks frail here (as he did in THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL), and his frailty is covered in another way - he is supposed to be running in several scenes, but they are shot in distant shots (with an obvious younger double). But his deliver of his lines is still first rate, and he manages to make his rogue lovable and believable to the end.
So does the rest of the cast. The two young teenagers are lovable, and believable because they are bright (and vulnerable: Lane is upset by Kellerman's romance with Dukes, which she knows bothers Hill; Daniel is aware that his father is a barely legitimate taxi driver (who cheats his fares). Kellerman (usually a free spirit in her films) shows a bigoted edge towards Frenchmen, and a hypocrisy towards her daughter's coming of age versus her own sexuality promiscuity. Hill turns out to be bright and caring (similar to Tom Bosley in THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT) - finally rousing himself to confront his rival when the time comes.
When A LITTLE ROMANCE came out in 1979 I saw it in a first run theater. Now I have seen it again on DVD. It has not aged badly at all.
*Martin Heidegger's reputation in 20th Century Philosophy has been established, but it is tarnished by his being a supporter of National Socialism in Germany under Hitler. Still apparently it has been a major support in French philosophy studies until fairly recently. Interestingly enough Lauren is initially more favorably impressed by Heidegger than Daniel is (he has plowed through Heidegger's mentor's works).
The Wind and the Lion (1975)
The Young President and Young Superpower flexing muscles
In 1904 Theodore Roosevelt was at a cross-road. The nation's youngest President, he had served over three years of the term of his predecessor, the assassinated William McKinley. McKinley had been a fine Chief Executive, but a fatherly old fashioned type. T.R was not like that - he kept breaking rules, and in doing so became the most controversial President since Andrew Johnson. T.R. had been fighting most notably in foreign affairs (against Germany's threats to Venezuela in 1902; in the creation of the new state of Panama from Columbia in 1903 to build his Canal), and in financial fields (against mine owners in the coal strike of 1902). He was also trying to start national conservation. The public was fascinated, but the leaders of the Republican Party were not. "Accidental Presidents" rarely got nominations on their own (Fillmore was the only one who did - as a Know Nothing in 1856). There was no reason that T.R. would be more successful getting nominated.
The nomination was something to be really sought after. The Republicans had been doing a pretty good job running the government since 1897. The Democrats were in disarray (Bryan had lost two previous elections, and was not sought as a candidate this time, and William Randolph Hearst, the powerful newspaper owner and Congressman,had a large number of supporters but was too controversial). The conservative and moderate Republicans hoped that the convention would nominate Senator Mark Hanna for the Presidency. but he died suddenly in February 1904.
Then all hell broke loose. A Greek-American merchant named Ion Perdicaris was kidnapped in Morocco by the notorious brigand and rebel leaded Raisuli. Raisuli was doing this to ransom the gentleman, but T.R. used the incident to look forceful and Presidential. Demanding action at the point of military intervention, he said. "I want Perdicaris alive, or Raisuli dead!"
Events played out so that Roosevelt was able to get his portly merchant away from Raisuli (who got his ransom). But the statement of forcefulness so captured the nation's imagination that Roosevelt got the 1904 Presidential nomination. As the Democrats decided to avoid Bryan or Hearst (both of whom are far more interesting people) for the then head of the New York State Court of Appeals, Justice Alton Brooks Parker, the Republicans had such a landslide election that they carried three of the solid southern states as well!
John Milius took this curious episode of American foreign policy and Presidential politics and built up this well made and well acted film. Milius changes a number of things - he makes Ion Perdicaris a woman, played by Candice Bergen, who is kidnapped with her son and daughter by Raisuli (Sean Connery). He also creates a non-existent U.S. invasion of Morocco by our Navy and Marines. But actually these changes don't weaken the film.
Perdicaris is shown gradually understanding that Raisuli is more of a leader (and a good one) for the Moroccans than the corrupt Sultan and his Bashaw (actually the relatives of Raisuli) running the show. She gradually mirrors a similar realization by Roosevelt (Brian Keith) that no matter what our arms accomplish abroad we have to respect that we cannot run all these countries as well as their own people.
In actuality T.R. would not have been as willing to admit that third world countries could rule themselves (Columbia was unable to rule itself and sell the Canal route to the U.S., so we had to push matters.). However he was capable of sensing changes in nations. If he had not been he would have not won the Nobel Peace Prize for settling the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.
The best portions of the film are those showing the way the Sultan and his uncle run the country. Those scenes at the Sultan's palace where he watches a game of polo played on bicycles, or where he uses a machine gun set up as a toy, happen to be true (he also had a railroad track and train set up for his amusement - it was supposed to be for the public). The Sultan was a spend-thrift, and rapidly letting the country go to the dogs as long as he was amused. This would bear bad results in a couple of years. So did the rivalries we see between France and Germany (both with financial holdings in Morocco).
Raisuli, as played by Connery, is a fierce believer in Islam's inevitable re-emergence as the world's power. He even uses a trip to a well to illustrate that the modern powers drip away or waste power like the well bucket drips water, and the Islamic peoples await those drips and collect them. Thus they eventually get the power back. But this misses that in the past Islam was in control from roughly 750 A.D. through 1571 A.D., and it too dripped away the power - which went to Europe. In fact it happens to all centers of power, Western, Islamic, and Asian (Chinese/Japanese/Indian). No center of power has been permanent.
In the end, in 1906, Franco-German rivalries hit the roof and a conference of the great powers (including the U.S.) was held at Algeciras. They ruled that France was in the right, so ending the First Moroccan Crise. A second one ended in 1912 a bit more in favor of Germany due to an accommodating France. And two years later came World War I.
John Huston plays John Hay the Secretary of State. His personal distaste of his new chief is obvious. Probably it was due to Hay's memories of service under the only other great Republican President up to that time - Lincoln. Huston knew that one could get the same results quietly without T.R.'s fireworks. Still he worked well with Roosevelt.
The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd (1980)
The Strange Case of John Wilkes Booth's Doctor
Dr. Samuel Mudd's name and position in American history is set for all time. Either he was a loyal supporter of the Confederacy who totally decided to support the plots of John Wilkes Booth (as many still insist) or one of the biggest victims of mistaken judicial vengeance of all time. As some modern research shows he was a typical slave holder and sympathizer with the South, but he was a prosperous southern landowner and doctor from southern Maryland.
Marylanders resented Lincoln and his government from the start of the Civil War, and probably might have joined the Confederacy. But Lincoln had need to keep Maryland in the Union (otherwise the position of Washington as capital would be nearly impossible to sustain). The President had had problems with the citizens of Baltimore with a possible assassination plot against him in February 1861 (see THE TALL TARGET). Lincoln got to his inauguration safely, but in April 1861 there was a bloody massacre in Baltimore when citizens rioted against Northen troops under Massachusetts General Benjamin Butler headed for Washington. Butler ordered the troops to fire, killing many in the mob. The result was the song (sung to "Oh Tannenbaum") that remains the only state song of defiance against the Federal government: MARYLAND MY MARYLAND*.
During the war Lincoln suspended habeas corpus as a security measure, and many leading Democrats and critics in Baltimore were imprisoned (despite opposition of Chief Justice Roger Taney, who was from Maryland - Lincoln ignored Taney's court decisions). Mudd was not the only "conspirator" in the Booth circle from Maryland. So were David Herold, Mary and John Surratt, George Atzerodt, Edmon Spangler, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O'Laughlin. Only Lewis Powell (from Florida) came from outside the state.
[*In recent years signs and symbols of the lingering Southern White loyalty to the Confederacy (such as flags with the "Stars and Bars" in them) have been criticized by other groups as racist. The state song of Virginia, Carry Me Back to Old Virginny, had to be rewritten to remove a long cherished line about a slave recalling "old Massa". Yet nobody has yet criticized MARYLAND MY MARYLAND despite it's history of being written by southern white supremacists working against the Union and Emancipation. I suspect it's because of it's circumstances. If a similar song had been written and sung by 1970 student protesters about the incident at Kent State the same reaction would probably result - hands off because of the tragedy involved and the honoring of victims of state controlled violence.]
We certainly are aware now that Mudd was made an acquaintance of Booth the previous year when the actor was searching for routes to get out of Maryland with a kidnapped Lincoln. \Mudd introduced Booth to some men about the sale of horses. But Booth did accidentally break his leg during the assassination. The questions will always be, did Booth always plan to visit Mudd for a night's rest, or did he visit him for the sole purpose of fixing his painful leg?; did Mudd actually not recognize a poorly disguised Booth in the evening moonlight when he came, or did he welcome his friend and agree to help him? Both of these questions are the main hinges of the mystery. The military court verdict against Mudd really never answered them perfectly.
Dennis Weaver got one of his two or three best movie roles as Dr. Mudd, and certainly shows the determination of the doctor to fight for his name and reputation. Unlike Warner Baxter in THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND (where the main "villain" was a Lincoln-worshiping John Carridine) Weaver has a harsh warden to deal with (Mike Maguire, best recalled as "Professor Sumner Sloane", "Diane Chambers" initial boyfriend in CHEERS). Baxter faced a more reasonable warden in his film (Harry Carey). This film also reminds us of non-Lincoln prisoners in Fort Jefferson, such as the British born St. George Grenville (who may have escaped or drowned in an escape in 1868).
As mentioned elsewhere, Richard Dysart does well as Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. Stanton's reputation as a bullying, belligerent man is true - given any task he demonstrated his determination to do it well, and devil to anyone who stood in the way. But Stanton (who initially did not think highly of Lincoln - they had worked on a law case years earlier - and he thought the gifted Illinoisian was not a good lawyer) learned to admire his chief, like Secretary of State Seward did, and he ended a close friend. His harsh treatment of the conspirators, including Mudd, was due to fury at what they did to that friend. It is doubtful that Seward or Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles would have acted less harshly had they been in charge of the trial.
This film is quite good at giving a fuller view of what Mudd had to go through once he fell into the hands of the authorities (though he did not get a separate trial - as has been pointed out). Still, despite adequate direction and above - average script, one misses the hand of a master director, like John Ford for THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND. But as a good follow-up to that film this one does well.
Still though we have no perfect movie or television serial about the Lincoln Assassination, nor have we gotten any film about Mary Surratt. What's up, Hollywood? Time's a-wasting.
This Day and Age (1933)
Ah, Those days before the Warren Court
As pointed out in an earlier review on this film, it was one of several in the early to mid 1930s that felt the public had it with civil and criminal rules and regulations, the laws of evidence, and the Bill of Rights. Before we get too huffy about this, recent changes on the Supreme Court, since the days of Chief Justice Earl Warren, have shown that this area is flexible (i.e. the criminal defendants are not getting the free ride Warren supposedly gave them). Recently a decision turned Miranda on it's head - apparently since the warning is so well known if the defendant does not request it it is considered waived. On the other hand, Justice Scalia actually has written some really good opinions regarding limits to police search and seizure.
The state of procedure, evidence, and criminal defense protection was in flux in 1933. Perfect example of it's limitations (and on target in this film): Al Capone was sent to Atlanta Penetentiary (and later to Alcatraz) for tax evasion in 1931 - yet his gang was one of the bloodiest in American history. No murders were legally (i.e., in a court of law) tied to "Big Al", so the government got him through a back door. This led to the cynical comment : "You can murder anyone in the U.S.A, but don't fail to pay your income taxes!"
Another way to show this flux period in our legal rights was the Supreme Court decision in 1932 by Anthony Scalia's 1930's model, the brilliant, conservative jurist George Sutherland. Normally opposed to certain innovations in the Roosevelt New Deal, Sutherland was a libertarian and a fiercely devoted lover of our individual rights. He wrote the Scottsboro Decision in 1932 regarding the legal lynching directed at the Scottsboro defendants (all young African-Americans) in an Alabama rape case. Sutherland made it clear that all defendants in criminal cases deserved representation in court, and rejected the death sentences passed on the defendants who had no adequate representation. Next time you read of the "Four Reactionary Horseman" on the 1930s Court, please remember to separate Sutherland a bit. He wasn't a real reactionary like his colleague James MacReynolds.
One keeps in mind the flux of our legal system, even though Judge George Barbier shows a student the huge number of statutes and rules that governed courts in 1933. Civil Procedure rules for Federal Courts were not even settled until the 1938 case of ERIE v. THOMPKINS. With all this confusions rats frequently fell through the holes of the law, making the public cynical about how really good the law was. If they had watched what a really well oiled organized law could degenerate into at the time (Stalin's Russia; Hitler's Germany) they might have realized things were not as bad as they thought.
THIS DAY AND AGE is about how the children of a town's high schools learn the limitation of the law the hard way when a friend of their's (Harry Green, a tailor in this film) is first bombed by a member of Charles Bickford's gang, and then shot by Bickford in a confrontation in the ruined shop. The leading student in the nearby high school happens to wanders into the middle of the incident, and is knocked out. Bickford does not shoot him because he has set up a semi-clever alibi with a double in a dark corner of his road house. The kid happens to tell the police and Bickford is arrested, but his high priced lawyer makes mince-meant out of the student, and Bickford has that alibi. As the D.A. (Charles Middleton, of all people) tells the kid Bickford was likely to slip through their case from the start.
The kids begin organizing in small groups, but one goes badly with Bickford realizing they are looking for evidence and shooting one as a burglar (framing the second for the murder). Then the fed up students decide to go full throttle. One romances Bickford's right hand man to keep him away while Bickford is kidnapped by the student bodies of three high schools, and forced to confess or be dumped into a pit of real rats. When the police arrive (and surprise Bickford's gang) the Chief of Police deputizes the students (and ignores Bickford's griping about the rats). Bickford is brought into town by the students and police, and his confession is signed before Barbier and Middleton.
DeMille did only a handful of social commentary films in his career. His touch is evident, especially handling the scenes of Bickford's confrontation with the high schoolers. Not quite as intricate as his parting of the Red Sea (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS). The most juvenile aspect of his film planning is the various "acts" put on by Bickford at the Road House: Roller Skating trios, and dance girls dancing to various nursery rhymes. But some of the nursery rhymes (like Three Blind Mice, when the kids are organizing, and Bickford is beginning to worry) are not bad contrapuntal points to the action. The film suggests that DeMille might have tried more social commentary films - but perhaps wisely stuck to history and spectaculars.
Bickford works under a bigger fish called, "the little fellow". We only see this fellow once, when everything is on the verge of collapse, sending orders for play tickets and a boat out of the country. But we only see him from the back. One comment he makes is curious. He asks for a boat to Greece. In 1933 the audience would have known how Samuel Insull was pulled off a freighter to Greece when fleeing indictment.
John Carridine plays an assistant principal here - quite a different role from his mad scientists or "Bluebeard" the puppeteer. But how can I ever get the image from my memory of Billy Gilbert (the manager of the Road House) as a minion handling machine guns out to Bickford's gang?
Dr. Crippen (1963)
That Mysterious Night At Hilldrop Crescent, 01/31/1910
I have done some reviews before on some programs or movies that were based on the murder of Cora Crippen (i.e. "Belle Elmore") one century ago. The two movies that come to mind are WE ARE NOT ALONE (Paul Muni, Flora Robson, Henry Daniell) based on James Hilton's blistering novel of authority gone to seed, and THE SUSPECT (Charles Laughton, Stanley Ridges, and again Henry Daniell) which dated the story back eight years, and added a killing as well as altering that final dash across the ocean. Ian Holm appeared in We, THE ACCUSED, a few decades ago, in which the story was totally in the British Isles as well. The basics of the tale remain the same - sad, decent "doormat" husband of termagant wife turns on her and he and his decent girlfriend are destroyed by the society's ideas of justice, right and wrong. How true this is to the actual case is another matter.
This 1962 film is rarely seen on television (I watched a ten part division of it on You Tube, but it appears to be complete). It was a fairly sparse production, the biggest expenses seeming to be the actors: Donald Pleasance as Dr. (or "Dr.") Hawley Harvey Crippen, Cora Browne as Cora Crippen, Samantha Egger as Ethel Le Neve, Sir Donald Wolfit as prosecutor Sir Richard Muir, and James Robinson Justice (who merited a separate cast listing in the opening credits) as "Captain McKenzie" of the Montrose (actually Captain Henry Kendall, who happened to be alive in 1962 - he died in 1965). The acting is excellent, especially that of Pleasance, Browne, and Egger. Aside from a model of the Montrose seen at night there were few special effects. But then few were needed.
Crippen is the odd duck among British murderers or defendants in murder trials. Others were convicted and later doubt cast on the conviction - most notably Timothy Evans in the Christie Case (see 10 RILLINGTON PLACE), William Herbert Wallace for the murder of his wife in 1931 (see THE MAN FROM THE 'PRU), and Derek Bentley for being old enough to hang for the killing of a policeman by his friend and partner, the underage Christopher Craig (see "LET HIM HAVE IT CHRIS!"). Yet unlike the last three, who most people assume were innocent or less guilty (Bentley) than they were treated, Crippen is the reverse. Most people still believe he killed Cora, but feel he was under intense pressure from his victim. It's impossible to come to any agreement now on that point.
Cora was oversexed, but there is evidence that Crippen initially was attracted to her when they married (by the way, he was married before, had a son, but his wife died - the son survived him). Cora had a hysterectomy (the surgery scar discussed in this film squeamishly avoids the reason for the scar). Tom Cullen in his book CRIPPEN: THE MILD MURDERER, has suggested that this was the true tragedy of the story - both wanted children. Had they had some it might have united them.
Cora still could have sex and admirers, and did flaunt both. It disgusted her husband, but he kept quiet. She and her lovers (their "boarders") treated him with contempt, and an early scene of him cleaning their shoes shows how life was really cruddy for him. But eventually he hired Miss Le Neve, and found the great love of his life. Cora found out and the crisis arrived - and at the end she was dead.
The film is taking it's cue from a theory (first voiced by the great British barrister Sir Edward Marshall Hall) that the hyoscin bromide given Belle was to calm her down and cut her sexual drive. Actually it is hard to tell - in sufficient doses hyoscin is deadly. So it proved here. Moreover Cora's head was never found in the remains, and some claimed they heard a gunshot that night. Possibly Hawley had to silence her screams due to giving her too much of the medication.
Hawley's popularity was cemented by his insistence that Ethel not be mentioned at his trial (in fact, they had separate trials - not one like this film). Ethel was defended by F.E.Smith, the future Lord Chancellor Lord Birkenhead, and won acquittal. Hawley's decision to assure his own conviction to save Ethel is what makes him gain our respect in the end.
Was he (as Filson Young tried to suggest) half spiritually good and half revolting? Possibly. I happen to wish his sentence had become a prison sentence, but it seems unlikely it could have been. That forgotten, pretentious spy novelist William Le Queux claimed he met Crippen who knew all about poisons, and Le Queux suggested he was one of the most dangerous men in the world. But most people liked him, including Inspector Walter Dew (who retired from the police after the conviction - he hated having to testify against the man who became his friend). But I leave you with this thought - he was a successful businessman in the sale of harmful, patent medicines and in questionable medical "institutes" for ear care. There was a darker side to Hawley we all tend to turn away from.
Man of Conquest (1939)
The Raven Who Gave Us Texas
If I may, if you want to understand the career of Sam Houston, turn to a wonderful old biography of the man called "The Raven" (Houston's nickname with the Indians) by Marquis James. It won the Pulitzer Prize for biography back in 1937 or so. Houston was one of the two really big historical figures remembered from our Westward Expansion who were not gunfighters, gunslingers, or military men. He and "Deseret" / Utah founder Brigham Young are still impressive figures - and far more memorable than some of the U.S. Presidents of their age. In fact, Young's confrontation with the U.S. Government in the so-called "Mormon War" of 1857-60 makes one really wish he had been U.S. President rather than the joker we had at the time (James Buchanan). Houston might have made an interesting President too, but his only attempt to really get a nomination was in 1856, and it was with the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party.
Houston had fought alongside Andrew Jackson, and rose in Tennessee politics as a Congressman and Governor. Then his very promising marriage to a socially connected young woman collapsed. The actual reason is still unknown, but this film wisely keeps most of the details in, including how it led to a divorce (unheard of in 1829), the resignation of Houston, and then a prolonged bender (he got a new name for awhile of "Big Drunk"). But with the help of the Cherokees (whom he always treated well) he regained his balance. He tried to get a better deal for them when they were ordered on the "Trail of Tears" by his pal Jackson, but I don't think he was as successful as the movie makes him. Then he turned to Texas, and eventually became the avenger of the Alamo at the battle of San Jacinto, and one of it's Presidents (there were about four Presidents of Texas). After it entered the Union he became it's senator. Later he was Governor of Texas as well.
This film has some things going for it (so it deserves a "6"). Richard Dix, for once, has a part that fits him - his tendency to overact is not as evident. Joan Fontaine (in an early part) plays the snobbish first wife well. Gail Patrick (normally better known for her comic parts) plays the second wife nicely as understanding and loving. A number of prominent character actors are here, including C. Henry Gordon as Santa Anna, Ralph Morgan as Stephen Austin, Victor Jory as Travis, and Robert Armstrong as Jim Bowie. Even Jim Thorpe was an extra in the cast. But best was Edward Ellis as Andy Jackson, managing to make that dyspeptic President thoughtful and wise. His performance for this film makes us realize he was more than the actual "Thin Man".
Herbert Yates always tried to make one prestige Republic film a year "Man Of Conquest" was the choice for 1939, and to an extent it is quite a cut above his regular cowboy fare. But it backfired this time: He tried go give a small fee to Marquis James for the use of the book. James rejected the paltry sum, so the film title was changed. Most of the material in the movie (mangled or otherwise) came from James' biography. This led to a plagiarism case which the great lawyer Louis Nizer discusses in "My Life In Court". It was won because the script writers copied a bit of poetic license used by James in the biography (an Indian chant sequence) that he added for color - including the language. Yates settled out of court.
Houston has been seen in several films about Texas, like "The First Texan" and television's "The Road To Texas". But no definitive film has ever been made - possibly because he was a slave owner (as was Jackson). He does deserve one for his outlandish, and on the whole successful career. But if one would like to see a proper cap-off to any of these films, try to catch the old "Profiles In Courage" episode on Houston, starring J.D. Cannon, showing his fierce devotion to the Union in 1861, and how it led to political oblivion. Cannon in the conclusion puts his successful Confederate opponents to shame.
CBS Playhouse: Dear Friends (1967)
Faint memories of a 1967 drama, and a footnote for Pernell Roberts
It is many years back now that I saw this drama, and I can't recall everything, but I remember the basic plot. Four couples, close friends, are meeting for a dinner party. James Daly and his wife are in a serious slump, and their marriage seems doomed to collapse. The other three couples seem to be perfectly happy, but as the evening goes on we learn this is not the case, and that Daly and his wife have reasons to count their blessings with each other. Pernell Roberts and Rosemary Harris are married, but barely tolerate each other (Robets in one moment I always recalled wishing out loud that he could throw Harris out of a window and watch her splatter). David Wayne is married to Anne Jackson (ironically not married in this drama to her husband Eli Wallach, although he is in the show too). They are apparently happily married, but they have agreed to a marriage without children. They are pretending that they can't have any. In reality this too is causing a growing threat to their happiness.
I wish I could give more details (especially about the problems of Wallach's marriage, but unfortunately I can't. I recall the cast was doing a good job in their performances, so I am rating it a "six". Maybe one day the tape of the play may turn up and be shown again. Like so many dramas of the 1950s - 1980s they seem to remain in limbo The reason I am reviewing this now is in honor of the late Pernell Roberts. Having left BONANZA because he felt there was not sufficient development in the scripts there of his character "Adam", he branched out to improve as an actor. This 1967 drama was one of the first he made after he left BONANZA, and as I mentioned he did show he was quite memorable in the role.
The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
"The Happiest Man on the Face of the Earth"
Although there have been several biographic or historic films about baseball this one may be the most notable as a film biography. Lou Gehrig was (unforutnately) always in the shadow of his fellow Yankee, Babe Ruth, due to Gehrig being a quiet gentleman type (rather like Christy Matthewson, a great baseball pitcher of thirty years earlier). Ruth was like a parade, always generating excitement wherever he went. It was not until Ruth left the Yankees in 1935 that Gehrig finally came into his own as the leading team member. But ironically he would have only four years to enjoy his "reign".
The best place to start with Gehrig is actually the biography by Ray Robinson, IRON HORSE: LOU GEHRIG IN HIS TIME. Coming from a poor background, Gehrig had the grades to reach Columbia University. The film captures the snobbery he met there quite well (his mother cooked for the fraternity, and he was their waiter) and his membership in the fraternity never seemed to matter. But he was soon signed by the Yankees. And after a year he was out of their farm team and in the stadium. He became part of the 1927 "Murderer's Row" team which won the World Series.
The film traces his gradual meeting with Eleanor Twitchell of Chicago (Theresa Wright) and their marriage despite problems from his controlling mother. There is also the issue of the Ruth-Gehrig "feud" here shown by two sports writers (Walter Brennan for Gehrig, Dan Duryea for Ruth) arguing over who is the better baseball draw.
And it all culminates with the illness that ends his streak of 2,130 consecutive games that he played in (a record that was only broken by Cal Rifkin ten years ago), and the discovery that he had amyothropic lateral sclerosis, a disease that even today is still fatal. It is a particularly cruel illness because not only is the sufferer losing control of his body, but he is also fully in control of his or her faculties to the end, and so knows he or she is dying. It all culminates here with the final day at Yankee Stadium where Gehrig was honored amidst thousands of fans and many dignitaries. His eloquent and sincere speech of thanks became one of the memories of the 1930s we all recall, culminating in the words I put in the summary line.
The direction of Sam Wood is up to his best standards, keeping the movie going and holding our attention. It is the performances of Cooper, here really playing an American hero or quiet style, and Wright as his lover and wife and helpmate, realizing how soon she will lose all so quickly (and - in real life - living over half a century after him as a living part of Yankee history). Cooper got nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Jimmy Cagney for YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, another biography of an American figure of note (George M. Cohan). As Cohan was a baseball fan he probably would have enjoyed the irony here.
According to Robinson the speech of Gehrig's became a matter of unexpected importance to Cooper. Cooper was constantly asked by fans to repeat the Gehrig farewell speech. He eventually memorized it word for word so that he could repeat it whenever asked.
The Fountain of Youth (1958)
Welles goes to television
It is not true that Orson Welles never received adequate recognition from his peers in the entertainment world. In 1941 he shared the Oscar for best screenplay for Citizen Kane (and in the 1970s got a lifetime achievement award Oscar as well). He was one of the first recipient of the American Movie Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award, He actually got the Grand Prix of the Venice Film Festival for 1955 for OTHELLO. But 1958 was a particularly good year for him. He got the Grand Prix of the Brussels World's Fair for his film TOUCH OF EVIL. He got a special award for a recording of his speech against capital punishment from COMPULSION. Finally he won the Peabody Award for his production of this television movie for Desilu Productions. Yeah, he really never got recognition.
Welles had gotten to know Lucille Ball when he started in Hollywood in 1940 - 41 at RKO (where Lucy frequently mead films like STAGEDOOR). He was impressed by her and wanted her for an early project, THE SMILER WITH A KNIFE, which he toyed with as an alternative first project with HEART OF DARKNESS and (eventually) CITIZEN KANE. The friendship seems to have survived, and Welles was one of the Hollywood stars who appeared on I LOVE LUCY, doing his magic act (which Lucy spoils by trying to show her ability as a "Classical actress"). While there he must have been approached by Lucy and Desi Arnaz to do a half- hour production as a potential first episode of an anthology series (with Welles as the host and narrator). The result was THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH, which finally was shown in 1958.
Set in the 1920s, THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH is based on a story by John Collier. The hero is a promising endocrinologist played by Dan Tobin, who is supposed to be engaged to a Broadway starlet (Joi Lansing). But he has to study in Vienna for three years with Professor Winkelman. When he returns he discovers that the fickle Lansing dumped him for a handsome tennis star played by Rick Jason. Swallowing his anger Tobin pretends to accept this. When they return from their honeymoon he invites them to his laboratory. He has just announce an amazing aging discovery, and both narcissistic lovers show great interest in this - it turns out that he claims the has a serum that came out of a dead man, and that three people have access to it. One is Winkelman, one is himself, and one is the third tube he presents to Lansing and Jason. They plan to divide it in half, but are told that only drinking the entire vial is effective, so that only one of them can drink it.
The second half of the episode (of course) follows the slow struggles of Lansing and Jason regarding the "fountain of youth" given to them. In truth, of course, it is more of an "apple of discord" that Tobin has maliciously set up to split the couple. As such it works, as both talk themselves into using it "secretly" without telling the other, and refilling the vial with water and bitters or quinine. Only at the end does Tobin inform Lansing of the truth.
Welles was quite clever with various still photos and shadows and other visual tricks in the episode that one rarely saw in television in 1958 (maybe one saw something like it with comedian Ernie Kovaks). He also had an opportunity to direct Tobin and Lansing, not to mention (in a bit part) Nancy Culp and gave Welles a second chance to direct Billy House, his checker playing Mr. Potter from THE STRANGER. The result is entertaining enough, and the issues of aging and how we fear it but cannot really do much to stop it (even now, in 2009, there is little one can do but take care of oneself) remain to perplex us. Welles' series would have been quite a good one, but although he mentioned a story for the following week about a monster green plant no further tales were made. It is our loss.
One final point - the clever use of photography and stills and such for this episode makes one recall the start of Welles' next major film THE TRIAL where he uses a series of pictures to tell a story about a man trying to gain entrance to the palace of justice and failing. One wonders if the experiment in THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH led to Welles considering this matter for THE TRIAL two years later.
"When a doctor goes bad he is the first of criminals...."
Certainly an intriguing comment for Holmes to say to Watson in "The Adventure of The Speckled Band" - unfortunately when he does illustrate it he mentions Dr. William Palmer and Dr. Edward William Pritchard, both quite notorious poisoners but more like third rate doctors, and tells Watson they were at the head of their profession. Hardly.
Ms Julia Stonor comes into Holmes' rooms at 221B Baker Street, telling Holmes of her fears. A few years earlier her sister Helen died under peculiar circumstances: Helen and Julia lived with their mother's second husband Dr. Grimsby Roylott (of Stokes Moran), a moody man who they can get along with. Roylott has a bad temper, and once threw a tradesman to the ground when he annoyed him. Roylott lives on an income that is based on his being in charge of the girls' trusts funds. Helen though met a young man, and they announced their engagement. Roylott was silent at this news. Then, a couple of weeks later Julia heard some whistling noises during the night, and then heard her sister screaming. She and her step father found Helen in her bed dying, her last words, "The speckled band!". At the time a gypsy camp was near the house, and Julia thought this was what the reference was too - but she saw no trace of any gypsy in the room.
Why has Julia Stonor come? Well she too wants to marry and has just gotten engaged. So she has announced it too. Now that gypsy group is back, and she is worried about her sharing her sister's fate.
Holmes agrees to take the case, and Julia (relieved) leaves. A couple of minutes later her step-father pops up, brandishing a riding crop and warning Holmes to keep his meddling out of his family affairs. "I'm not a man to be trifled with", Roylott tells him. He then takes the poker from the fireplace and bends it in his bare hands. Then he leaves.
Holmes looks carelessly after Grimesby Roylott leaves and mentions casually to Watson he is not to be trifled with either. And Conan Doyle has Holmes straighten out the poker with his bare hands.
"The Speckled Band" was the second of the short stories that Conan Doyle wrote in THE STRAND MAGAZINE in 1891-92 that were collected in his book THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (still one of the two best collections of the shorter stories). It is also one of the most frequently anthologized tales by Conan Doyle, and a clever one (despite some vagueness about the weapon used). To us it is fairly simple to see who is the villain and what is the killer. Conan Doyle used the same trick in two other stories in THE ADVENTURES series, "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" and "A Case of Identity", so that one ends up suspicious of all step-fathers. But that was a common thread in Victorian fiction. Step-parents, after all, had little real affection for the children of dead predecessors or divorced predecessors. One fascinating but rare exception is the step-father step-daughter relationship in Henry James' contemporary novel WHAT MAISIE KNEW, but that has a built-in tragedy at the end of its own.
Since the story is so well known I won't give away the conclusion. I will say it is interesting that this repeat of the Jeremy Brett episode of his splendid series of Holmes' stories is shown the same night as MURDERS AT THE ZOO (on another channel) which hinges on a similar plot idea. Brett is finely languid and then active as the great detective, abetted by David Burke (his first Watson on the series). As Roylott, Jeremy Kemp gives a threatening bully performance that is hard to beat. It was Kemp's second entry into the world of Sherlockian Villainy - he was the anti-Semitic Austrian-Hungarian nobleman against Nicol Williamson's Holmes and Alan Arkins' Sigmund Freud in THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION.
Conan Doyle liked the story, and would write a full-length play THE SPECKLED BAND in 1910, which was a theatrical success. He would rename his villain Dr. Rylott. And Lynn Harding, the old Victorian actor and melodrama star - Tod Slaughter's rival, would repeat his original performance as Rylott in the 1936 film version of the play and story opposite Arthur Wontner as Holmes.
Murders in the Zoo (1933)
Paging Raymond Ditmars
I first came across this film in a review in one of William Everson's compendiums of horror film classics. He spoke quite highly of it, but until tonight I never had seen it.
MURDERS AT THE ZOO has the plus of Lionel Atwill as a big game hunter named Eric Gorman. He is quite an expert on deadly animals and brings them to the zoo in the city he lives in. But his wife Evelyn (Katherine Burke) has a way of attracting younger, and handsomer men to her attention. Atwill is fiendishly possessive and jealous, and proceeds to kill any man who is having an affair with his wife. But he uses his knowledge of the wild and animals (he later explains he loves animals because of their honesty regarding their feelings, including kill or be killed) to destroy these men. We first see him tying up and leaving a man in the jungle to be destroyed by man-eating tigers. But first he sews the man's lips together so he can't lie or kiss another man's wife (or call for help). A close-up of the man with bloodied, threaded face is briefly shown on camera.
On the voyage back home from India Burke meets an American traveler played by John Lodge. Lodge and Burke begin an affair (which Atwill soon is aware of). Atwill pretends he is unaware of it, and invites Lodge to a dinner party (to raise funds for the zoo - this is the depression). At the party Lodge dies, the victim (apparently) of the bite of a green mamba snake that Atwill brought back from India which may have escaped from it's cage. The person that was responsible for the care of the new acquisition is Randolph Scott, here not in his normal western milieu but playing a reptile expert. Scott, with assistant and girl friend Gail Patrick, is struggling to create an anti-toxin for snake venom, particularly those of the deadly Mamba snakes. Atwill jumps to the conclusion that Scott has been criminally negligent regarding watching this deadly snake, and wishes to press charges against him. However, Burke is less willing to believe Scott is responsible, and soon is aware of who is responsible...which is not healthy for her.
The use of a deadly snake for killing purposes goes back to Conan Doyle and "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" in the first collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories. But the character I found interesting here is Scott, the reptile man at the zoo. It is hard for us to realize but in the 1930s Americans were still fascinated by the world of zoos and aquariums and the people who searched for or dealt with rare animals. Frank Buck's book BRING 'EM BACK ALIVE described his adventures hunting and trapping dangerous animals (it was a big best seller). The career of Clyde Beatty, as an animal trapper specialist, was followed and led to his career as a circus entrepreneur. But another figure of interest in New York City (which apparently is the city in this film) was Raymond Ditmars, who was in charge of the reptiles in the city zoos and was a recognizable authority on snakes. It is probable that he is the basis for Scott's character (especially in searching for anti-toxins).
Atwill gives one of his finest performances here, Gorman's fascination with animals being as important as his sexual insanity (hinted at by his weird, occasional smiling stares and Burke's obvious disgust at him). The acting is competent, particularly Scott and Patrick. There is this problem I find with the fans and opponents of poor Charley Ruggles. Playing an alcoholic reporter trying this last chance job as a publicist, Ruggles is drunk in a couple of scenes (not through the entire film), and has a very funny moment when he finds himself next to the missing green mamba snake - leading to a request for information that could only appear in such a film prior to the real enforcement of the code on movies. He plays a major role in finally bringing Atwill to book at the end. And his last appearance (although drunk) is a curious counterpoint to his Major Applegate in BRINGING UP BABY only four years later.
I only have one real problem with this neat little movie - how did Atwill contrive to use his "weapon" without being observed by the people at the dinner? It never is really explained.
My Learned Friend (1943)
Farewell Mr. Hay
You Tube has done another service putting this film on it. Otherwise all I had was a description in a book by Leslie Halliwell.
Halliwell writes of MY LEARNED FRIEND in his book HALLIWELL'S HUNDRED, where he discusses movies that are flawed but good viewing. The flaw here was that Will Hay was in the last comedy of his great career but looked ill. It really did not effect the movie as much as say Stan Laurel's appearance in ATOLL K did, but it was obvious that Hay had looked better (less pale) only a year or two earlier. Still for an ill man he gives a strong comic performance, backed by two good ones by Claude Hurlbert and Mervyn Johns. Apparently he also directed some scenes.
Hay is a seedy ex-barrister named William Fitch, first seen in court where he is being tried for fraud. He has been writing letters to wealthy people apparently lying to get them to give him money. The case has been handed (reluctantly) to Hurlbert as barrister (in training) Charles Babbington. He's been in training nearly ten years, and still is considered less promising than some new men on the job. If he loses the case he will be thrown out of the law firm he is in.
And he loses. The apparently open-and-shut case gives Hay a grand old time playing off Babbington with his indignation and incompetence and the magistrate who rapidly realizes Fitch is smarter than he seems. He has apparently written under a female name for money. Nonsense, says Fitch, his middle name is Evelyn and he had documents to prove it. He writes that he has three tots in front of him, He did - they were three glasses of beer in the pub he wrote the letter in!. The case is dismissed as is Babbington's career in the law.
Fitch latches on the downcast Babbington in a pub and buys him a drink while they discuss their futures. A possible partnership is put on hold when one Arthur Grimshawe (Johns) pops up. He was unfortunate to have Fitch represent him nearly twenty years earlier in a case about forgery - apparently Grimshawe was innocent but framed. He has just finished his term in prison, and he has started plans to hunt down everyone who sent him to prison and kill them. One is his former barrister. Fitch and Babbington are horrified hearing this, and their feelings are compounded when they shortly hear that the judge at the trial has just mysteriously drowned in the Serpentine.
The film follows our two well-meaning bunglers trying to catch up and stop the murderous Grimshawe (who is always not only one or two steps ahead but actually able to pop up almost anywhere to give them little clues to the next killing of this false witness or that one). They try to warn a crime kingpin and manage to help create a riot in his gang's headquarters. They try to save an actress and destroy a theatrical production of a "pantomime" of Aladin. Finally they realize the diabolic final murder, which is a replica of a famous attempted seventeenth century event. Only this one is better organized. It leads to Fitch and Babbington nearly wrecking a London landmark.
Words can't really describe the fun of this film, with scenes like a hapless Babbington watching as his property is stolen in the gangster's lair, and he is picked up by a woman who threatens him with her hair pin. Fitch tries to warn one victim and ends up willingly forgetting his mission to try fleecing the same victim in a poker game! Grimshawe moves silently step by step, allowing everyone to fall over their own feet while the waters part for his. If one recalls Johns' marvelous performance as the trapped architect with the recurring nightmare in DEAD OF NIGHT, his performance as the gleeful and vengeful Grimshawe suggests that his architect might have had a happier future in some prison or asylum than we first thought.
In short, MY LEARNED FRIEND was (despite Hays appearance) a good final movie turn for a great comic mind. It certainly is well worth searching out and seeing.
They never really solved the murder of Father Dahlme
History is loaded with homicides that never were solved, some of which have become part of global history (such as the 1888 Whitechapel or "Jack the Ripper" Murders, or the 1892 Fall River or "Lizzie Borden Case). The murder in Bridgeport, Connecticut of Father Dahlme in 1924 is a relatively forgotten case, except it was made into this film that was an early directing experience of Elia Kazan. Starring Dana Andrews, Jane Wyatt, Ed Begley Jr., Robert Keith, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur Kennedy, Karl Malden, Philip Coolidge, Cara Williams, the film was a "B" feature that was lucky enough to have top character actors and even some filming in Connecticut (but not Bridgeport - actually it was shot in Stamford).
Father Dahme was a popular figure in Bridgeport who was shot on the main street while lighting his pipe on a dark night. But there were at least half-a-dozen witnesses to the shooting. Unfortuntately the killer wore a dark coat and light hat (which many American males had as parts of their wardrobes) and evaded capture quickly. Pressure was put on the local government to find the killer (the political issue deals with the new "reform" party being confronted by the outed old party - represented by newspaper owner Taylor Holmes - is well handled in the film). Finally a suspect, an unemployed war veteran (Kennedy), is arrested in Ohio. A trail of circumstantial evidence seems strong enough to bring charges against Kennedy, completed by the so-called confession (signed) that he gave them.
The case is presented to the State Attorney (Andrews), but he is noticing how weak the individual links are. With the use of his staff and friends he tests out various points, and finds that while the witnesses in most cases are probably honest in their testimony (one exception is Cara Williams, who has a grudge against Kennedy), they might be mistaken. So is some more important ballistics tests.
Andrews proceeds to surprise everyone by pulling the rug out of his case. The Judge warns him about disbarment and possible trial for malfeasance in office. Chief of Detectives Cobb is furious that his men are being considered forcing that confession. And banker-politician Begley turns out to show a sneaky and vicious streak demanding Andrews change back to prosecuting Kennedy for his own reasons.
It is an exciting story, and follows the main points of the mystery correctly. This is understandable because the screenplay was based on an article in "Reader's Digest" the previous year by "Anthony Abbott" (Fulton Oursler) the creator of the "Thatcher Colt" mysteries, which were popular in the 1930s (several of which were turned into films, such as THE PRESIDENT'S MYSTERY PLOT). The result is Kennedy is released from prison, and while the film admits some people in Bridgeport believe he was guilty, two other suspects (both of whom die violently in different ways) are shown as potential alternate perpetrators.*
The odd performance of the prosecutor turned out to demonstrate his integrity to the public. It was Homer Cummings, a Democrat from Connecticut who was former Democratic National Chairman, and who (from 1933 - 1939) was Attorney General of the U.S. under Franklin Roosevelt. This is quite a fascinating conclusion to the film (and to history) but not so unusual. The Massachusetts prosecutor of Lizzie Borden was William H. Moody, who would end up Attorney General of the U.S. and later a U.S. Supreme Court Justice under Theodore Roosevelt (Lizzie, by the way, sent him a letter of congratulations!).
Altogether a well-done "B" feature, and one with point as a civics lesson. In fact, with it's view of just what should be expected from our public prosecutors seeking true justice, BOOMERANG makes a nice companion film to TWELVE ANGRY MEN, which looked at what to really expect from our juries.
(*If you check the WIKIPEDIA article on "Homer Cummings" you will find that the suspect who was the basis of Arthur Kennedy's character died in 1961. Apparently nothing criminal was associated with him afterward.)
The first time the two great film Taylors were together
Most of the anti-Communist films of the 1940s - 1950s are crap. No doubt about that. Thrown together they had preposterous plots emanating from the Kremlin to sap our national resources or strength. For example one film has Lee Marvin heading a major atomic spy ring outside a missile range from a hamburger/hash stand! The best films of the period dealing with communist threats were the science fiction films like THE THING or THEM wherein the monster was a symbol for the threat to Americans (from an "alien" source). Occasionally a semi-documentary might attract attention, but not much.
Oddly enough this early movie was somewhat above average. First it correctly looked at our wartime friend and partner England as a possible source of leakage. This turned out to be somewhat true (but the Rosenberg Case would soon show homegrown spy rings existed as well). Secondly it showed something usually ignored or rendered minor in most of these films. Here it is developed into the issue: who are you going to show greater loyalty to, the Communist Party or your naive spouse?
What I really like about CONSPIRATOR is that Robert Taylor plays the central figure - whom American and British audiences were to hiss at. He had tackled a few ambiguous characters before World War II, most notably William Bonney in BILLY THE KID (but that screenplay, like Darryl Zanuck's film of JESSIE JAMES, whitewashed a great deal of the bad out of the central character). But after the war MGM treated Taylor (now a seasoned leading star of theirs) to a wider variety of parts, including more villainous characters. Think of him in the somewhat earlier UNDERCURRENT with Kate Hepburn and Robert Mitchum. Both of these films could not have been made with Taylor in the 1930s.
I also sort of enjoy the idea that Taylor, a friendly, but sincere witness for the H.U.A.C subcommittee against Communist infiltration into the movie industry actually did this film. It is his only chance to show what he thought of a Communist agent, and his interpretation (and the screenplay's) show he saw them as naive fools.
Also it is the first time in his career that Taylor starred with the only female star of his rank (or higher) with the same last name: Elizabeth Taylor. Just leaving such films as NATIONAL VELVET, LITTLE WOMEN, and LIFE WITH FATHER, she finally came of age here as a young bride. In some ways I have always felt that Ms Taylor's glorious beauty was at a pristine height in films of the early 1950s like this one or FATHER OF THE BRIDE. Here she is in love with her dashing wartime hero husband, whom she gradually realizes is not as heroic (for England) as she thought (though he would disagree - witness his scene telling her about how he has joined one of the great causes of all time!).
The film follows their courtship, their marriage, and the discovery of his treason by her. The issue of course is whether or not he will be turned in by her, or will he love her enough to withstand pressure by his Kremlin bosses to (errr)...eradicate his error totally.
The film (as mentioned in another recent review) is above average. Taylor does play this English "Col. Redl" (of an earlier war, in a different country - but serving another Russia) as a man torn apart, but refusing to acknowledge his error of judgment. In fact his final decision puts to stop to any type of acknowledgment. The one flaw in this film is similar to the later, wretched ROGUE'S MARCH with Peter Lawford and Leo G. Carroll. The omnipotence of the British Secret Service in ferreting out traitors is shown at the tale-end. I may add that in 1949 that Secret Service (MR5) contained such "patriots" as Burgess, McClean, and Philby. Yeah they really would have been watching Taylor closely!
Crime of Passion (1956)
The Curse of Phyllis Dietrichsen
I have always had a secret pantheon of actresses (like all movie lovers do) who I could watch most of the time quite happily. In the so-called "Golden Age" of talking films the two twin lights were Bette Davis and Kate Hepburn. I never have really chosen which of the two was the greater. The number of Oscars they won, totaling six - two for Davis and four for Hepburn - meant nothing because Hepburn won one for MORNING GLORY, which is now a historical curiosity, and one for GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, which she knew was a joint one for herself and Spencer Tracy, while Davis' first Oscar was not for Joyce Heath in the badly written DANGEROUS. So the Oscars they won are not really great measuring devices.
Anyone else on that top line - well, I suppose that everyone can fill in some name (Crawford, Russell, Lombard, Garbo, take your pick). To me the third one would have been their only real peer as an actress who could play anything: Barbara Stanwyck. She never got a specific Oscar, although she did get nominated for her best recalled role of the villain Phyllis in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (still the champion icy killer of that period). Towards the end of her career (like Davis and Hepburn she worked up to the end, in her case mostly on television), she got an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. Somehow, given her abilities as sex object (BABY FACE), tragic mother (STELLA DALLAS), killer (DOUBLE INDEMNITY), comedienne par excellence (THE LADY EVE, BALL OF FIRE), even willing to sing in a musical number (LADY IN BURLESQUE - imagine Hepburn trying to sing in a film!), a lifetime award seemed actually more fitting than any particular film choice by the Academy.
Having said that, I must admit one giant reservation for Stanwyck. While Davis was frequently characterized as appearing only in "woman's movies" (then how explain THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER or WATCH ON THE RHINE?) and while Hepburn seemed to be too much the social snob (even in PAT AND MIKE or DESK SET?) they never got as seriously type-cast as Stanwyck did after her best known villain role. Phyllis Dietrichsen is a fascinating bitch - no other way to explain her evil spell on people. She destroys or threatens anybody who is in her way to wealth, using her sexuality as the ultimate weapon. Possibly the sexiest unseen moment in film noir is that brief time off screen between her and Fred MacMurray in his apartment, beginning with them kissing, and ending with her fixing her face with her compact and lipstick. You know they were screwing at that point.
But after that film's success the three stars had different trajectories. MacMurray did an occasional heel again (THE CAINE MUTINY, THE APARTMENT), but was mostly playing good guys. Eddie Robinson played all sorts of characters in all kinds of films, but never another insurance expert. But it is like Stanwyck found herself playing variants of Phyllis every four or five pictures. Not in all her film noir (in the TWO MISS CAROLLS she is threatened by insane husband/killer Humphrey Bogart) but look at some of the other films: THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, THE FURIES, THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN. Her great intensity was constantly used to make her the most lethal of the three greatest actress (Davis comes next with THE LETTER and THE LITTLE FOXES, but with a bland iciness that rarely breaks until the end).
CRIME OF PASSION is nowhere near as good as DOUBLE INDEMNITY or THE FURIES or even THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS. In fact it has some of the worst writing in a film noir I have come across. Film noir plots at their best are logical outcroppings of humanity and twists of fate (Neff selling insurance to a greedy monster; Robinson spending a pleasant evening with Joan Bennett when they are forced to kill her jealous, insane lover in THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW). Here it comes down to this - do not marry a woman who is insanely into your job status! That's the plot.
Stanwyck works on a newspaper, and she has been contacted by a killer. She dislikes Detective Royal Dano, who belittled her with a sexist remark (actually one of the small, rare, realistic pluses in this 1957 film), and uses her tip to help handsome, nice Sterling Hayden. Hayden and she hit it off, and marry. But she is appalled that he is unwilling to push for promotions she thinks he deserves (at one point later on, Raymond Burr will make the point that Hayden really did not merit the promotions - and pays for saying so). Stanwyck (like Dennis Price in a far better film) starts seeing how to remove competition for her husband, and ends up romancing Burr (married to Fay Wray). But when that fails to change things, she kills Burr - and suddenly Hayden is temporarily promoted. So it can work for awhile.
The dialog is awful. If she were arguing with Hayden about killing someone for a fortune maybe it would work. But she is arguing with a character reminiscent of the young David Morse on ST. ELSEWHERE in terms of "live and let live" philosophy. This might have been better as a comedy in which the lack of push by Hayden leads Stanwyck into finally divorcing her husband (much to his relief). Instead it leads to Hayden belatedly realizing the nut he married. The best character in it is Burr, who when seeing the results of his tawdry affair comes to his senses and resolves to end it and return to Wray, the woman he always loved. One wishes that had been built up a bit. CRIME OF PASSION is only worth seeing if one wants to see all of Stanwyck's films. But be prepared to be disappointed.
The Great Mr. Handel (1942)
If not for him we would be stuck with Dr. Arne and William Boyce!
This is not a great film but it is an interesting one for what it attempts to show. Movies that really dig deeply into the creative processes that lead to great music are rare, because the time and innovative ideas that are needed don't transfer well into 90 to 120 minutes of film. We are shown people rattling off rhyming words and lines as though that is the process for song - it isn't. Yet Sammy Cahn, one of the best of song writers, for years would demonstrate how he composed, and even with the best of his intentions it looked like a set-up job for his audience.
The story here is about one of the giants of music, George Frederick Handel (Wilfred Lawton). Handel was a contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach, but while Bach flourished in Dresden, Saxony, Handel was in the backwaters of the petty German states. He headed for Great Britain, and settled in London. Soon his series of operas, like Judah Maccabeus, were hits with the public. But he was a thorough artist and not a sycophant. He wanted quiet from his audience to listen to his music, and to the singers in his pieces sing. So when he found that the then Prince of Wales (Frederick, son of George II and father of George III)(Max Kirby) only went to see his singer, Elizabeth Cibber (Elizabeth Allen), at Covent Gardens theater, he showed his anger at Prince Fred's talking out loud and annoying Ms Cibber. Handel would finally (in the middle of a performance) bang the pianoforte or harpsichord he played to stop the music until His Royal Highness shut up. Prince Fred disliked this kind of lack or due regard to him (due to his position as heir to the throne).
The film follows the ploys used by Fred, due to his social position, in trying to ruin Handel and force him back to Germany. Fred threatens to boycott Vauxhall Gardens (the elite met there in the evenings for fun) unless music by others were played (he recommends Gay's THE BEGGAR'S OPERA). He and his friends have gangs of noisy troublemakers bang objects and play instruments badly outside the theater to prevent the customers from hearing the music of Mr. Handel. They certainly succeed in preventing him and his theater friends from prospering at all. Then, just as Handel finds a goal for him to strive to recover his prosperity (he wants to build a foundling home) he suffers a serious illness.
At this bleak time he gets a commission for a new piece, called THE MESSIAH. An oratorio on the life of Christ and it's meaning to the world, Handel realizes this is the type of music that will finally establish his talent with a worthy subject. Deeply religious, we watch Handel drive himself without food to write and compose the piece that we know gave him immortality. And at the end we see it's successful premiere in Dublin in December 1742 and in London in March 1743. King George II of Britain established the custom (still observed today) of rising at the repeat of the Hallelujah Chorus. Even a stymied Prince Frederick had to rise if his father did.
How true is it? I don't really know the full story, although I am certain the movie does well in showing the difficulties in putting on 18th Century opera in several scenes. It also shows the precarious position of artists (even great ones like Handel) in keeping fiscally sound due to the problems of patronage or the problem of official dislike. As such the film serves a good purpose. These topics are rarely touched on in movies.
But how serious a threat was Prince Fred to Handel? I read a biography of Prince Fred twenty years ago. His parents hated him (the Hanovarian monarchs had problems between fathers and sons from George I in 1714 to George III and George IV in 1795). Fred was the son in the chain who never got the throne (his son is George III, raised by his mother and her friend/lover Lord Bute). Fred may have used his influence against Handel (for whom...Dr. Thomas Arne with his best known piece "God Save the King/Queen" or the symphonic composer William Boyce?), but his father was there as a corrective - and George II liked Handel's music. Also, given the dates of this film, within three years of the London performance of THE MESSIAH, Fred and his father were both worried about the possibly imminent arrival from Scotland of their Stuart cousin and enemy Bonnie Prince Charlie. That was a really major issue of the day to face up to. Fred died in 1752 - he was fatally injured in a tennis game. If this story was really true, Handel probably heard the news with a quiet smile, thinking "the Lord works in mysterious ways."
Lawton is best recalled as "Alfred Doolittle" in the 1938 PYGMALIION, or as the decrepit old servant "Peacock" in THE WRONG BOX. He is pretty good actually in showing an artist striving to perfect his work in a far from perfect social world. He also is good showing his religious intensity while composing his masterpiece. Kirby does well with Fred, but the character's flaws are not pushed beyond typical snobbery and self-absorption. Allen does well showing how an opera aria was performed in 1742. It was mores static than today. Her voice was quite charming too.