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Lavish MGM production, set circa 1936 but with clothes and makeup (especially Susan Hayward's) strictly 1961, this cumbersome drama wants to be a mix of political intrigue, marital soap opera, and star power, but it comes up a bit short. In a nameless Southern state (which the screenwriters awkwardly disguise by having characters say "the state" over and over and over), hooker Hayward fascinates and marries gubernatorial candidate Dean Martin, a passive good- guy sort who does the bidding of Wilfrid Hyde-White, the greedy, unethical local boss who siphons state projects to his buddies, shades of 45. She shoves her way into the lieutenant governor's position, then, when Martin's car is blown up (we never find out by whom), becomes acting governor and shakes off the passivity Martin has been practicing. There are minor subplots involving Martin's college buddy Martin Balsam and Ralph Meeker, who's good as a lackey of Hyde-White's who keeps trying to cozy up to the title character, but the emphasis is on Susan's hair, her clothes, and her tough-gal demeanor: When a character says, "Give my regards to the governor," she snarls back, "You're talking to the governor." Dean looks disinterested and hasn't much to play, and Hyde-White employs an odd accent that isn't quite Brit and isn't quite Dixie. We're supposed to cheer as he's brought down and the governor's marriage recovers, but it's a pretty simplistic view of politics, and a key plot point--the opposition has a taped confession of Hayward's prostitute past--is resolved in an unpersuasively offhand way. Enjoyable, and very nicely shot, but you'll forget it the minute it's over.
The Last Gangster (1937)
A weird hybrid
Made at MGM but starring a Warner Brothers icon, and this strange gangster pic has ample ingredients reeking of both studios. Edward G. Robinson, clanking on all cylinders, is a Capone-like capo who gets rich during Prohibition, is sent up the river for a decade, and becomes obsessed with the little boy his wife (Rose Stradner, unknown to me and quite interesting) bore. She's an immigrant and utterly, somewhat implausibly unaware of her husband's dirty business, but she gets educated by a newspaperman (James Stewart, not very compelling here, except for an uncharacteristic Cesar Romero mustache) who falls in love with and eventually marries her. The Warners influence is evident not just in Robinson's snarling and grimacing but in the stepped-up violence, quicker-than-usual editing, and hilariously overblown musical score, by Edward Ward. But the ideal home life of Stewart, Stradner, and their adorable little boy, complete with suburban trimmings and Louise Beavers doing maid things, are utterly MGM. There's some excitement, and a good supporting cast, notably Lionel Stander as Robinson's henchman, but it's all kind of predictable. And when you want it to settle down, another Edward Ward blast assaults the senses. But what's really interesting, and still timely, is how Robinson's character, Joe Krozac, is self-centered, not as smart as he thinks he is, used to getting his own way, outraged when he doesn't... he's Donald Trump!
The Astonished Heart (1950)
Noel Coward's name appears so many times in the opening credits that you think it's going to be a parody: starring, written by, based on a play by, music by... (Celia Johnson is top-billed at the start; he is in the closing credits). He's "one of the most famous psychiatrists in the world" and living a happy upper-class existence in postwar London, which looks pristine and rich, with wife Johnson, until her schoolmate Margaret Leighton shows up to form a triangle. The dialog does have some Coward wit and polish, and the structure is clever--we learn at the start that something terrible's happened, but we take our time finding out what it is. Johnson's as excellent as you'd expect, and it's fun to see Leighton in a more glamorous mode than she usually employed, and it's literate and soigné. But Coward is not, let's face it, a likely object of affection for this particular triangle, and it's hard not to giggle when you know that after each day of shooting he's going home with Graham Payn (who plays his man-Friday, and has an irritating voice). Even his character, as others have noted, is rather dull, and you wonder why both of these two resourceful, attractive women would be throwing themselves at him. Worth a look, and buttressed by a particularly elegant Coward musical score, but not one for the ages.
The Ghost Ship (1943)
Efficient little RKO suspense B, with Val Lewton producing and loads of fog, has third mate Russell Wade discovering that Captain Richard Dix is nuts and murderous, and can't convince any of his fellow crew of that. A young Mark Robson directs carefully, building the suspense slowly and efficiently, and one does spend a lot of the movie wondering what new threat is around the corner on deck. Dix is fine, declaiming some man-and-superman philosophy that must have resonated in wartime and still does, and Wade has an everyman appeal that makes us sympathize with his plight. It's over rather abruptly, and the happy-ish ending isn't altogether convincing, but if you want to see what a well-produced, atmospheric B looked like in 1943, here's an excellent example.
The Life of Vergie Winters (1934)
"Back Street"-type nonsense, but Ann's wonderful
This was one of a forgotten genre that thrived through the 1930s, the weepie about an unmarried woman who loves a married man and stays faithful to him, sometimes having his child as well-- "Madame X," "Back Street," "Stella Dallas," "The Sin of Madelon Claudet," "The Strange Case of Clara Deane," on and on. This one, scripted by the reliable Jane Murfin, doesn't offer a lot of variation on a tried-and-true formula, but it does boast an important asset: Ann Harding, at the peak of her powers. As the milliner who loves John Boles, is deliberately separated from him by her father, and eventually is wrongly convicted for his murder, she's characteristically intelligent and appealing, with a stillness, a thoughtfulness that makes her more interesting than many actresses in similar roles. Some plot twists don't really work (Helen Vinson would NOT do that on her deathbed), and Alfred Santell's direction and the supporting cast are so-so--nice to see a young Betty Furness, though, and the always appealing Frank Albertson as her suitor. But Ann brings more genuine conviction to the title part than it deserves, and by the improbable kind-of-happy ending, I'll admit, I shed a tear or two for Vergie.
These Wilder Years (1956)
These milder years
Two very big stars who didn't spend a lot of time at MGM were united there for this little soap opera, interesting mainly as a barometer of '50s morality. Cagney, a used-to-getting-his-way tycoon, wants to track down the son he had (horrors) out of wedlock, so he enlists the unwilling aid of Stanwyck, who runs the clinic for unwed mothers that handled his case decades ago. It's visually dull and prosaic in words, and both stars seem constrained; Cagney manages to throw a few curves in his characterization of a morally ambiguous man, but Stanwyck, polite and circumspect, is less interesting than usual. The most impressive work comes from Betty Lou Keim, a '50s TV actress as an unwed mom-to-be (Debbie Reynolds almost played it) who wraps up the plot. Walter Pidgeon, riding out is Metro contract, is also around, dispensing legal barbs as Cagney's used-to-winning lawyer. You'll be glad to know that Cagney eventually does find his son, in a well-written scene, and there's a mildly hopeful, mildly surprising ending. But mild is the operative word here.
Alias Nick Beal (1949)
Interesting, atmospheric late-'40s near-noir, shot through with smoky exteriors and great moody lighting. But it's just a variation on the Faust legend, and not an imaginatively conceived one. Thomas Mitchell, a good man running for governor, is courted by Ray Milland, who's essentially the devil. He talks in epigrams and charms when he wants to and bends fate to his will, and he enlists femme fatale Audrey Totter (who's splendid) to lure Mitchell away from his good, moral, dull wife. There's some fine Franz Waxman blasting beneath the surface, and some good character actors turn up--Fred Clark as a corrupt pol, Darryl Hickman as a bad kid turning better. What ruins it for me is the sanctimonious posturing, from a too-good-to-be-true priest to some absurd plot points- -Milland refuses to be touched, and is ultimately done in by being unable to touch a Bible. Though Milland's top-billed, Mitchell is really the lead, and he's good. But the picture sermonizes too much for its own good.
Born to Love (1931)
Not uninteresting pre-Code soap suds, wherein Yankee nurse Bennett, in London (nice historical touch: a bus advertising "Chu Chin Chow") meets Captain Joel McCrea, they have a torrid romance and pledge their troth, and while carrying his child she hears he's dead. We know he's not--he's second-billed, and there's an hour to go--but she thinks he is, so she marries Paul Cavanagh on the rebound and we wait for the fireworks that will erupt when McCrea returns. Connie's histrionic- -she gets to love, yell, sob, scream, and put on a phony British accent, even though she's playing American--and Paul Stein's camera likes to linger on her overemoting. But Joel McCrea was certainly the personification of solid masculine American values circa 1918 or 1931, and his sincere underplaying nice complements her overplaying. The screenplay doesn't hate her for having a child out of wedlock, and the happy ending isn't that happy. So, by 1931 standards, it's an adult movie. Just not a very good one.
Three Sailors and a Girl (1953)
First-rate second-rate musical
Warners borrowed Jane Powell from MGM in 1953 and put her in a Doris Day kind of role, as an up- and-coming Broadway leading lady starring in Sam Levene's not-very-integrated-looking musical. Together they charm sailors Gordon MacRae, Gene Nelson, and Jack E. Leonard (trying to be Jackie Gleason, the Fat Funny One) into investing, and turn an out-of-town flop into a Broadway smash. Not an original story by any means, but it's lively, and the Sammy Fain-Sammy Cahn songs are good. It seems stinting of the screenwriters not to write in a girlfriend for Nelson, who has two spectacular tap numbers, and the no-name supporting characters (Georges Givot as a temperamental Ezio Pinza-like basso, somebody else as the sarcastic secretary, somebody else as the doofus playwright) don't have much interesting to do. But the songs and dances are really lively, and it's a chance to see Levene playing a Nathan Detroit-like schemer at the top of his form. MGM was making better musicals, even Warners was, but this one's an unpretentious good time.
Brigsby Bear (2017)
Delightful, with one large caveat
Unexpected little comedy from Kyle Mooney, who co-wrote and stars, and is a sweet presence as a man-child suddenly thrust out into the real world after living a very, very constricted existence. In an era where so many comedies are loud and raucous and determined to wring laughs out of vulgarity, this one's small and quiet, and as it progresses, it shows you the best of humanity, in a convincing way. That's the word for it, humane. But it's also... far-fetched is too mild. The central conceit makes no sense: WHY did the Mark Hamill and Jane Adams characters subject him to this? Was it some sort of mind experiment? Something else? Give us a line or two that explains the premise, and I'll raise it to an 8.