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The Godless Girl (1928)
more sophisticated than the usual DeMille
This is a surprisingly complex film with stunning cinematography and terrific performances.
The opening titles tell us "It is not generally known that there are Atheist Societies using the schools of the country as their battle-ground--attacking, through the Youth of the Nation, the beliefs that are sacred to most of the people," adding "And no fanatics are so bitter as youthful fanatics." This leads the viewer to believe that the film is likely to be polemical and mainstream, but it takes a few switches along the way.
Our leads are introduced, "Judy, daughter of Atheism...Bob, son of Gospel...Intolerance vs. Intolerance," and immediately we see that conventions are going to be overturned, and extremism of every kind rejected. Bob (the extremely handsome Tom Keene. ne George Duryea) and Judy (the sultry, zaftig Lina Basquette,who was apparently Hitler's favorite American actress) are drawn to each other, despite their contempt for the others' views. They clash as Tom's true believers try to shut down a meeting of Judy's Godless Society ("Kill the Bible"). In the mêlée, a young girl falls through a top-storey banister to her death. Most of the kids flee, but Bob and Judy run to her side, and with Bob's friend, the bozo "Bozo," are taken in by the authorities and sent to reformatories.
Here, Judy is befriended by the pious Mame (marvellously portrayed by Marie Prevost), and both Bob and Judy are put through various trials by the guards and matrons, notably the guard captain played by Noah Beery. Mame's goodness drives the first cracks through Judy's atheist certainty, and this is aided in no small part by the heavy-handed device of crosses burned onto Judy's palms by an encounter with an electrified chain-link fence.
There is some unintentional meta black comedy in a scene where Judy and Mame are working in the reformatory butchery: Mame drapes some freshly-made sausages around her like strings of pearls and shows off for Judy. "I'm just puttin' on a little dog!" says Mame, played by Marie Prevost who would die of malnutrition in her apartment and end up gnawed by her starving pet dachshund before her body was discovered.
Bob plans a daring escape for himself and Judy and, while at liberty in an orchard, they discover not only that they are in love but that their rigid certainties have undergone some changes. Judy has begun to see a higher power operating behind the world's glory, and Bob's world view has darkened, acknowledging a level of evil that can not simply be sung away with hymns. This, again, is conveyed rather heavy-handedly, as they show their prisoner numbers transform with a single pencil-stroke into the words HELL (Bob's 7734) and LOVE (Judy's 3107).
But their idyll is short-lived; they're captured and returned to prison, where each is locked in solitary. An accidental fire in the girl's section leads to Bob's release to help quench the flames, but Judy is forgotten below. Bob tussles with the Guard Captain and leaves him in the fire while he releases Judy. Beery calls out, "Save me, kids--don't let me burn!" Bob, grown darker, is ready to leave him there to die, but the redeemed Judy cries out, "Don't judge him, Bob--SAVE him!" They do, and Beery recommends their release. Happy ending.
The print I saw on TCM was pristine and sharp--as clean and beautiful a if it had been shot yesterday, which really enhanced the beauty of the riot scene, the orchard idyll, and the suspenseful climactic fire. Carl Davis' new score was stirring, but his use of a leitmotiv clearly lifted from Paul Simon's "An American Tune" was extremely distracting.
The first comment, below, from 2003, describes a sexual dimension to the film which I failed to see (although there's a lovely scene in the orchard where Bob expresses a desire to live for today (i.e., "let's have sex") and Judy responds with her belief in a tomorrow that should keep today unspoiled (i.e., "no")). But then the commenter also mentions the sound-enhanced final scenes which, according to TCM, do exist, but in re-shot scenes which are not part of this restored print.
It's wonderful that TCM and the George Eastman House brought this film back to life. It can be seen on DVD in the collection "Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film" but I don't know if it has this version from DeMille's own nitrate print. It's worth seeing, if only because the conflict between non-believers and believers still rages today, and both sides could use a little of the tolerance this film preaches.
The Happy Time (1952)
A coming of age tale that is beyond charming
Three generations of French film charisma come together in this marvelous film about a family of French Canadians living in Ottawa (not Quebec!). Charles Boyer, in one of his earliest "character" roles after decades of being a leading-man lover, joins the up-and-coming Louis Jourdan and the old theatrical hand Marcel Dalio to make up the Bonnard family: Grandpere (Dalio) lives with Jacques (Boyer), his wife Susan (Hunt), and their son, Bibi (Driscoll). Jacques' bibulous, layabout brother Louis (Kasznar) lives across the street, with his shrewish, seamstress wife Felice and their possibly unmarriageable daughter. Desmonde, the third brother, is a traveling salesman with a rakish reputation--not unlike his father--who stays with Jacques' family when he's in Ottawa and who is a hero in the eyes of Bibi.
The story itself is small: Desmond comes to stay; Jacques, who plays violin and conducts the orchestra in a small burlesque and movie house, brings a sacked magician's assistant home to be the new maid; Louis storms out of his home and moves in on Jacques' porch; Grandpere falls ill; and Bibi deals with troubles at school and in the heart. But the writing and characterization are so true to life and moving that one gets utterly caught up.
The movie was based on a successful Broadway play (with Kasznar reprising his stage role, along with the young actress who plays girl-next-door Peggy), which in turn was based on a series of stories by Robert Fontaine about his own growing-up. The atmosphere is imbued with a certain French sophistication, but even more with the love and compassion all these members of the family have for each other. The conversation that the father, Jacques, has with his adolescent son, Bibi, as he tries to explain the tension between love and desire could be used successfully as a template for any such talk in any family on earth. But it is not just moving; much of the dialogue is as funny as in any family comedy you can think of.
I had never heard of this film, and only discovered it via Turner Classic Movies guest programmer. Sadly, it is not available in any video medium; I can't think of a better family film. If it comes around again on TCM, be sure to give it a try!
Blind Date (1934)
Triumph of love
Working girl Kitty (Sothern) is engaged to Bill (Kelly), who neglects her by working long hours at his garage in order to save money for their marriage. After being stood up on her birthday, Kitty goes on a double-date/blind date, where she meets department store heir Bob Hartwell (Hamilton). She falls in love, but leaves him when his protestations of love appear to cover a desire for her to be his mistress, rather than his wife. Faithful Bill rallies 'round to comfort her, and at last she gives in to his repeated requests to reinstate their engagement, pressured in part by Bill's support of her family after she loses her job. When Bob returns, however, convinced that he wants marriage after all, will Kitty follow her heart or her conscience?
This film was a lot better than I'd expected it to be. The character of Bill at first comes off as the sort of loud comic Irishman type that Jack Carson played so often. But Kelly (and the script) infuse the character with real compassion and love, and Bill turns out to be the best person in the entire group. Viewers may find themselves rooting for him against the feckless Hartwell! The tone of the film wavers, however, between light-hearted romance and a much darker side, especially in the depiction of a dance marathon and a rather horrific accident at Bill's garage.
The cast is rounded out by the dependable Jane Darwell as Kitty's mother, an impish but not yet thoroughly obnoxious Mickey Rooney as Kitty's younger brother, and Spencer Charters as Kitty's ne'er-do-well father.
Party Girl (1930)
Dreadful, but not dreadful enough to be delicious
Douglas Fairbanks jr had already been in the movie business for 14 years when he made this film, despite being a youthful 21 years old. Although he would go on to become one of the more delightful actors of the '30s and '40s, he shows little promise of that here, nor any sign of talent acquired during his previous 25 films.
A prologue announces the virtuous intention of depicting a moral scourge so that an informed public can combat it--but this is clearly just a CYA that allows the intriguingly-named "Personality Pictures" company to run this cheesy exploitation flick past the already toothless production code office.
Maude Lindsay (Almeda Fowler) runs a "party girl" service for business functions, and she tries to send her hootchiest coochies to the United Glass soiree. (The only real humor in the entire film comes from her secretary continually addressing her as "Madame Lindsay," and Lindsay admonishing her, "Don't call me madam!") John Rountree is an upright business man who wants to work with the district attorney to eliminate the party girl influence on doing business; his son Jay (Fairbanks) is a ne'er-do-wheel frat boy in love with dad's secretary, Ellen (Jeanette Loff)--a girl with a secret.
Jay and his frat brothers crash the United Glass party, and a drunken Jay is trapped by a party girl, herself in a delicate situation.
The usual confusion ensues.
As the previous commenter notes, the sound quality is abysmal, but it may be just as well--the dialogue is no great shakes. There are certain scenes painful in their laughableness, especially the death scene of a tender young thing who's fallen 6 stories, and yet appears not to have a scratch on her.
It's a dreadful film, and not even dreadful in that delicious "so bad it's good" sort of way.
Should Ladies Behave (1933)
Alternating witty and dreadful
By the end of the first 15 minutes, we've been introduced to three couples: Gussie and Laura (Lionel Barrymore and Alice Brady), Leone and Geoff (Mary Carlisle and William Janney), and Max and Winkie (Conway Tearle and Katharine Alexander). Gussie and Laura have an unpleasant-appearing marriage, with Gussie irritable and Laura flightier than a very, very flighty Billie Burke. Leone is dissatisfied with the Callow Geoff. Winkie, who we'll learn is Leone's oft-married sister, is having an affair with artist Max, who is introduced to, and entranced by, Leone.
Winkie arranges a rendezvous for Max and herself at Gussie and Laura's place, where Max falls further victim to Leone's innocent charms while the vapid Laura believes that he has come back to claim her after a promise she recalls him making to her 25 years ago.
Gussie's aggravation with Laura becomes tiresome to the viewer, and Laura's ditziness does so as well. Max's instantaneous enthrallment by the unrealistically child-like Leone (who still retreats to her almost life-sized doll-house under stress) rings as false and stagy as one might expect from something based on an early-20th-century stage play. But through the viewer's frustration there are glimmers of real quality. Winkie is a great character and Alexander does her wonderful justice. Gussie's scenes with Leone, especially when he tries to talk her out of her plans with Max, are very moving--as is Laura's attempt to do the same.
It's difficult to recommend such a spotty film, but it's almost worth it for Geoffrey's solution to his relationship problem and, especially, the wonderful reveal at the very end.
I found myself liking this film far more than it deserved. And the Adrian gowns are fantastic--especially Laura's black gown with the open shoulders.
Souls for Sale (1923)
A truly enjoyable romp down Hollywood's memory lane comes to us courtesy, really, of Turner Classic Movies' "Young Film Composers Competition." The latest winner, Marcus Sjowall, was given the opportunity to provide a score to a silent film that had lost its own, and a very fine job Mr Sjowall did, too.
In 1923, Rupert Hughes directed this production of his eponymous novel. The scandals of the very early 1920s had evidently been on his mind, and Hughes wanted to counteract all that bad publicity. He acknowledges the scandals, then sets out to surmount them with title-card after title-card describing the long hours and hard work of Hollywood's employees, going so far at one point as to describe the work as "factory-hard," which must have been startling to young girls slaving away in sweatshops for pennies a day.
The story that conveys this message of virtuousness in Babylon concerns one Remember "Mem" Stodden, the daughter of a reverend who denounces Hollywood from his pulpit. Mem has married Owen Scudder in haste, but does not plan to repent at leisure--she hops from their train on the honeymoon trip. Stumbling through the desert, Mem collapses on the location set of a sheikh film (just as Eddie Cantor would do 14 years later, in "Ali Baba Goes to Town"), where she attracts the attention of the leading man. She shuns the film folk, though, and goes to work at a small hotel, but is laid off at the end of the season.
She decides to try her hand at the movies after all, and this begins perhaps the oddest part of the film. Successive scenes show movie people at work--directors, actors, cameramen, extras--and clearly this is Hughes at work, rehabilitating his coworkers. This is neither about the Glamour Factory nor an industry expose; it's more of a big infomercial for the movie business. It's fascinating to note which real-life stars are still recognizable today, and which prompt a confused, "Who??" Which isn't to say that Hughes doesn't get his digs in here and there. The vamp, the sheikh, the publicity shots that create a myth, the national screen sweetheart who's maybe just a little bit catty in real life--Hughes captures it all. My favorite set piece of this kind is Mem's screen test: she watches in the screening room in horror as she mugs and prances about on-screen, just as many silent actors of her era did: "Has anyone ever been so terrible on film"? Another nice one is Reverend Steddon's stunned reaction when he runs up to Mem on a circus picture set only to find a stunt man dressed in aerialist drag.
These scenes of Hollywood life are intercut with the travels of Owen Scudder, who is, it turns out, a wanted man, a Bluebeard who marries then kills. We see him court another victim, and later get very satisfactorily hoist with his own petard. Eventually, he reads about his wife's success, and comes to Hollywood to cash in.
This creates a kind of love rectangle, made up of Mem, her director, her leading man, and her no-good husband, all of which is satisfactorily settled in the dramatic closing scenes.
The film has had a lot of work done--many of its title cards seem to have gone missing, and the ones that are substituted often have modern-sounding phrasing, which led me to wonder if we were getting the same story as was originally told. The score is superb: evocative and subtle. The print is choppy; at one point a brief scene is inserted of one of Scudder's victims without context or explanation, and that can get a little disconcerting.
But it's an interesting film, funny and touching in many places, and a wonderful evocation of time and place.
Stamboul Quest (1934)
Better than I'd expected
I watched this more for Myrna Loy than for George Brent, whom I'd always considered wooden and stolid. Imagine my surprise to see a playful, puppyish Brent, with only a few small foreshadowings of his priggish side.
Myrna Loy is even more beautiful than usual, in a series of spectacular gowns (most notably one that is backless, nearly sideless, with a front that consists mostly of a flower, two rhinestone straps, and good intentions). She plays a German counter-espionage spy, Fraulein Doktor, who is notorious in many countries for her skill at getting information. It is clear that she didn't mind using sex to do so, which must have made negotiations with the Hays Office more fraught than usual.
There was a real Fraulein Doktor, who had run a school for spies in Belgium. She was still alive when the film was made (though suffering from drug addiction in a Swiss sanitorium), so the writers and producers had to tread carefully in their depiction of her. Loy's trademark sang-froid serves her well as she jokes about missions with her boss (the excellent Lionel Atwill), manipulates targets, and deals with the smitten Brent. The plot twists and twists and then twists a final time (just when you think you've anticipated the double-crosses, there's one last to surprise you). The cautionary references to Mata Hari help ground the story in its historical context.
The cast is great fun, with Mischa Auer as an efficient aide-de-camp, Leo G Carroll as a double-agent, and the wonderfully villainous C. Henry Gordon as Fraulein Doktor's main target.
The end, however, is simply odd. One hardly knows what to make of that final scene--it seems almost like an hallucination. Its unsatisfactory cap to the movie led me to give it a lower rating than I would have otherwise.
Eternal Love (1929)
Pretty people in a Lubitsch silent
The problem with silent films, often, is that techniques or stories that seemed innovative at the time are old-hat and clichéd by the time a modern audience sees them. While the story of "Eternal Love" falls into that category of cliché--if you can't tell what's going to happen next at any given moment, you haven't seen enough movies--it's redeemed by its sets, its performances, and its director.
Those familiar with John Barrymore from his talking-picture roles, when mostly he was playing a caricature of himself, will be taken aback at his handsome intensity (except when he's wearing too much make-up). The two female leads, Camilla Horn and Mona Rico, are beautiful as well, although of the ice-queen and the lusty peasant varieties: Horn is like a Raphael Madonna, while Rico is more of a Caravaggio.
So, Barrymore loves Horn, while Rico lusts for Barrymore--and poor Victor Varconi moons after Horn in the background. Just as Horn gets her guardian's consent to a marriage with Barrymore, however, strong drink and a willing woman trap Barrymore into a marriage with Rico. (It is somehow unsurprising that strong drink should be Barrymore's downfall.) Varconi gets to comfort the grieving Horn--but how will it all end? Well, badly.
Along the way, however, Lubitsch manages some nice comic touches--especially at a village carnivale, to which Barrymore wears a pair of checked bell-bottoms that would have been at home in Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love. And he gets terrific performances out of his actors, especially Varconi, who throws a wonderful sidelong glance at Barrymore during the trapped man's nuptial procession. Varconi and Horn also have some terrific moments when Horn betrays her still-burning love for Barrymore after she learns he's missing in a mountain blizzard.
The movie is short and the scenery is magnificent, so if the prospect of some big stars in their prime isn't enough, there's plenty to fall back on!
A Cock and Bull Story (2005)
Film version of a possibly unfilmable--some might say unreadable--novel
Just saw this at the New York Film Festival, where it was met with the wild enthusiasm and raucous laughter it so fully deserves.
I intentionally avoided reading any reviews before I went, as I was so curious to see how Winterbottom (whose "24-Hour Party People" I had loved) would approach this bear of a book.
The film begins with the two stars getting made-up and chatting about the size of their roles and the color of their teeth (the actors, who appeared with Winterbottom in the post-screening Q&A at the festival, assured the audience that this opening scene, as well as their conversation over the end credits, was completely improvised). The scene shifts to Tristram Shandy beginning the narration of his life with an anecdote about Groucho Marx--and proceeds to go wild from there.
The cast is made up of some of the finest actors in British television--apart from the two leads, Dylan Moran of "Black Books" and David Walliams of "Little Britain" appear, as well as Stephen Fry, Shirley Henderson, and a host of others, including a splendid turn by Keeley Hawes in a role that consists of little more than labor pains and screaming--and one American: Gillian Anderson in a couple of wonderful scenes, one as herself and the other as the Widow Wadman.
As one of the actors observes in the film, Laurence Sterne had written "a post-modern novel before modernism had even been invented," and Winterbottom honors that admirably.
Four Men and a Prayer (1938)
Preposterous but occasionally entertaining
Four brothers receive telegrams from their father, telling them he has been dishonourably discharged and bidding them meet him at their home. They arrive to learn that he has the evidence to prove he was framed in his court-martial, but before the end of the evening Father has been murdered in his locked study, and his papers stolen. The four brothers fan out across the globe in search of the four men their father mentioned who might be able to prove his innocence--sort of an inverted version of the Four Feathers.
The brothers, played by George Sanders, David Niven, William Henry, and Richard Greene (who, from a distance, looks oddly like Brendan Fraser), are staunch in support of their dishonored father (played by the only actor who could command unquestioning faith in his military honor: C. Aubrey Smith). In their travels, they are haunted by Greene's irritating American girlfriend, played by Loretta Young as not much more than a series of costume changes (she shows up in some of the oddest hats imaginable, and one fur-trimmed number that makes you wonder if she's a Plushy fetishist--she does make up for it, however, in a lovely gown-to-watch-revolutions-by). Perhaps her most far-fetched moment, however, is her light-hearted banter after an evening of watching a military massacre.
Along the way, the tone of the movie changes almost as often as Young's wardrobe. You think you're in a sort of amateur detective yarn, and suddenly you're watching innocent peasants mowed down by the military. The director, John Ford, is quoted in the AFI Catalog as having said, "I just didn't like the story, or anything about it, so it was a job of work." His lack of passion really shows.
But the chaotic story (filled with pointless red herrings, such as the role Young's father may or may not have played in the evil-doings) does have some wonderful light moments, most of them provided by Niven, who is just delightful throughout: conversing with a boat steward in Donald Duck voices, playing with rubber toys, mocking Henry's incipient whiskers, roughhousing with his brothers when they reunite on a boat dock. These touches make the film less painful than it would be otherwise. The wonderful George Sanders, however, is painfully underutilized.
Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937)
Terrific fun, but watch out for that blackface
In his second "back to the past" dream film (four years after "Roman Scandals"), Eddie Cantor skewered FDR and the New Deal in this satiric look at the Arabian Nights. Cantor and screenwriter Gene Fowler wanted to do a take on "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," with the difference that, as much as they poked fun at FDR's policies and oratory, the New Deal policies that Cantor institutes in Baghdad don't backfire quite the same way as the Yankee's did at King Arthur's court.
Hobo Aloysius Babson, a film fan and autograph hound, stumbles onto an Arabian Nights film set and gets made an extra. A miscalculation on his medicine sends him into a dream, however, and he finds himself at the court of the Sultan of Baghdad. Giving his name as "Al Babson," they assume he's the son of Ali Baba, and after surviving an assassination attempt made with his stunt knife, he's made an adviser to the king.
The film is full of Cantor's trademark humor, singing and dancing, and the obligatory rueful reference to Cantor's family full of daughters. A troupe of African musicians--who speak no language but Cab Calloway's--provides a terrific swing number (unhappily, Cantor performs it in blackface), and Cantor and Tony Martin deliver a catchy number, "Vote for Honest Abe," that works as a campaign song for Sultan Abdullah.
The production cost over a million dollars, not a little of which went to create an impressive flying carpet effect. Sadly, two of the crew were killed when the carpet fell on them, and Cantor himself got so knocked about and bruised in the scenes on the carpet that he was elected an honorary member of the Hollywood Stunt Men.
The film ends with Al Babson attending a film premiere in which he sees Eddie Cantor (another common Cantor touch), and a host of stars such as Victor McLaglan and Shirley Temple are also seen there (understandably: the premiere was for "Wee Willie Winkie").
All in all, the film is great fun, with fast-paced and topical dialogue and lots of great sight gags (a "W.P.A. Filling Station" for watering local camels). It's very much of its time, so if you're at all familiar with the New Deal era, it will be an entertaining hour and a half.
Just Imagine (1930)
A curiosity, only
Only the truly stupendous art direction of this film saved it from a rating of "1." David Butler directed what was probably supposed to be a star vehicle for El (short for Elmer) Brendel, a long time vaudevillian, but which was more of a testament to the art deco style and the endless quest to imagine a long-distant future. Made in 1930, looking briefly back to 1880, the film pictures a 1980 in which cars have been replaced by personal planes, food and alcohol have been reduced to pill form, babies are purchased from a machine, and the marriage tribunal acts as matchmaker. The clothes are mostly skimpy or see-through for the women and odd lapel-less suits with side buttons for the men (actually not so inappropriate for 1980--they looked like something out of a Human League video).
People no longer have names, but rather are identified with a combination of letters and numbers which sounds suspiciously like names (J, RT, LN, D, etc.) In two of the exceptions to this trend, the villain is MT (empty?) and the heroine's father is AK. (Given the poke at Henry Ford's anti-semitism, practically the only funny moment in the film, I couldn't help wonder if AK represented the common abbreviation for the Yiddish expression "alte kake," or "old fart.") The plot, if one can call it that, revolves around the star-crossed love of J and LN, facilitated by Brendel and capped by a phenomenal trip to Mars (take that, Mr. Bush). There we learn that as early as 1930, the tradition of women in space wearing skimpy clothing already was in place.
There's no real plot, and not a lot of humor, and the songs aren't even that good. (Better DeSylva, Henderson, and Brown numbers can be heard in their biopic, "The Best Things in Life are Free.") There really isn't anything to watch this for other than the spectacular production design.
Long, but worth the investment of time
WW2 movies tend to reflect the country in which they're made. Even more, they tend to reflect that country's best notion of itself: so American war movies emphasize the brash, take-charge American spirit, while British war movies celebrate the ideal of decency and fair play that that country has long cherished. "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" is no exception to that, which is why Churchill's unhappiness with it seems so odd. Perhaps he didn't like the notion that long-standing traditions were being called into question--but the filmmakers take great pains to show that every generation has laughed at the stuffiness of the one before; that this was not impudence but inevitability.
The film starts--rather confusingly, I confess; I had to watch the beginning again after the end to help make sense of it!--with a war-time exercise: a Regular Army invasion of a London defended by the recently-formed Home Guard. The war is to begin at midnight, but a brash young soldier, recognizing that this war's enemy doesn't play by the rules, decides to jump the gun and capture the major-general of the Guard at his Turkish baths. This is successful, leaving the captured officer apoplectic over this abandonment of the way things are done. "War begins at midnight! War begins at midnight!" he cries, as the young soldier makes fun of the older man's paunch and mustache. The enraged major-general attacks the soldier and throws him into the pool, sparking a flashback to reveal him as the young, clean-shaven Roger Livesey, in that very Turkish bath, back after a long bout as a prisoner during the Boer War.
What follows is, first, the story of Livesey's own brash initiative to counter anti-English propaganda in Germany, a duel, and the meeting of Livesey and Walbrook, the German officer who will become Livesey's friend, and who rejoices in the name of Theodor Kretschmar-Shuldorff. Livesey and Walbrook also both meet Deborah Kerr, luminescently beautiful at a scant 21 years of age. She chooses Walbrook, and lives with him in Germany; Livesey returns home, passing his time hunting (this is shown quite cleverly) until the Great War erupts and his soldiering talents are needed once again.
The movie takes us through WW1 and its aftermath, through English action and German reaction, through marriages and deaths of family and friends, up to the beginning of the Second World War. Now Walbrook, living in England, is facing internment and is rescued by Livesey--balding, plump, and walrus-mustached, the very image of a Colonel Blimp. Both are widowers (both having married Deborah Kerr, through a neat device), and Livesey is facing obsolescence in the Army. Here Walbrook delivers the most stunning speech of the film, as he lays out for Livesey why the old style of soldiering needs to be adapted to this new and insidious enemy (do check the "Memorable Quotes" section for portions of it!). It may be this speech that made Churchill uncomfortable, but there was no call for unease. Walbrook salutes the tradition of gentlemanly sportsmanship that Livesey has embodied through 40 years of soldiering, but emphasizes that England can take no chances in losing a fight through blind attachment to "the rules of the game." The stakes are now too high, and victory must not be sacrificed to the standards of an earlier and nobler time.
Perhaps Churchill disliked the notion that such standards might need to be sacrificed. Certainly he, of all Englishmen, was aware of the dangerous nature of the Nazi threat. Powell and Pressburger avoid seeming disloyal by putting this speech in the mouth of a German who has rejected Naziism--who has seen his own children caught up in its sway, and left them behind. Walbrook is freer to recognize the nature of the threat and acknowledge the need to adapt to a new fight than Livesey is, as the embodiment of tradition.
But this is not a rejection of that tradition. In the early scenes, a raucous Livesey and a friend outrage the sensibilities of an old soldier at the baths. Following that, Livesey incurs the wrath of a superior officer for taking diplomatic matters into his own hands. Livesey's character is made to see that the impudent young soldier who took him prisoner is no different than he was in his own headstrong youth. And Livesey, because he does still embody the English virtues that the film celebrates, resolves to forgive, protect, and dine the young soldier, saluting him as the film ends. He sees that he can still embrace the old ways, while making room for the new.
It's just an extraordinary film. It's long, but no scene could hit the cutting room floor without damaging the whole. The three stars do some of their best work ever, and Powell & Pressburger film them all in the rich, vibrant Technicolor they brought to films such as "A Matter of Life and Death" and "The Red Shoes."
Today We Live (1933)
Dreadful, when it's not laughable
In what would be his first screenplay, based on his own short story "Turn About," William Faulkner delivers a bizarre story of loyalty, sacrifice, and really strange relationships. The story originally was about only the Tone, Young, and Cooper characters, but MGM needed to put Joan Crawford in another picture to fulfill her contract, and Faulkner obliged by creating a female role. Crawford insisted that her lines be written in the same clipped style as her co-stars' Young and Tone, leading to much unintentional hilarity as these three communicate in a telegraph-like shorthand that sounds like a Monty Python sketch ("Wuthering Heights" performed in semaphore). Seriously, the almost entirely pronoun-less sentences make Ernest Hemingway read like Henry James.
The film also reflects some familiar Faulkner themes, with an almost unnaturally close relationship between brother and sister (as may be found in his "Sanctuary," and elsewhere). When Young proposes to Crawford, in Tone's presence, in lieu of an engagement ring ALL THREE exchange their childhood engraved rings with one another. The closeness of Tone and Young is also noticeable, especially as they go off to their Thelma & Louise fate. Frankly, it's creepy.
Not as creepy to this New Yorker, however, as the recurring theme of the massive cockroach, Wellington, which Crawford cheerfully catches (and which is shown gamboling over her hands--I had to turn away!) and Young turns into a gladiator. Blech.
That being said, there are some nice performances. Young is particularly engaging in a scene where he's taken up in Cooper's fighter plane, and Roscoe Karns is delightful as Cooper's flying buddy. Tone, despite his inability to express himself through realistic dialogue, has a nice moment, dashing away his own furtive tears over his buddy Young's fate. Crawford, stripped of meaningful dialogue as well, mostly comes across as either wooden or melodramatic, which is quite a balancing act for one role.
The battle scenes--not surprisingly, for a Howard Hawks film--are the most exciting part of the entire picture. But not enough. As far as I'm concerned, this is 75 minutes of my life I'm never going to get back.
The Great Lie (1941)
Couldn't be more bizarre if it tried with both hands
Jeanine Basinger, in her wonderful book "A woman's view: how Hollywood spoke to women, 1930-1960," spends three pages analyzing this strange brew of a film, which centers on what Basinger refers to as "one of the great crackpot deals." Alcoholic playboy Brent wakes up after a 3-day wedding binge with concert pianist Astor to discover their marriage is invalid: Astor had mixed up her divorce decree dates, and she was still legally married to her first husband. For reasons unclear, this makes Brent fly down to see old friend Davis, who is attended to by Hattie McDaniel in a role that out-Mammies Mammy from "Gone with the Wind." We learn that Davis, though in love with Brent, has refused to marry him because of his drunkenness--she doesn't want to be a nagging mother of a wife to him. Brent returns to Astor, saying he'll marry her on the day her divorce is final, but she is adamant about playing a concert in Philly that day.
So Brent marries Davis instead. Not long after their wedding, Astor tells Davis she's pregnant. Not long after that, Brent flies off on some mysterious mission over Brazil, and disappears, feared dead. This is where the crackpot deal comes in: Davis convinces Astor to give birth to Brent's baby and turn it over to Davis, who will support Astor financially in exchange. Astor, astonishingly, agrees.
This gives Davis the chance to be a nagging mother of a wife to Astor, in a shack in Arizona that serves as a birthing room, culminating in a marvelous bitch-fest as Astor rebels against Davis' control. It also gives Davis a chance to play expectant papa, pacing up and down in her jodhpurs as Astor gives birth. Very strange gender role mixing here! Brent, of course, is found, only slightly grayer at the temples, and Davis allows him to assume the baby is theirs--not such a Great Lie, really, but a lie. But when Astor discovers that Brent is alive, she decides she wants the baby back, thinking it will get her Brent as well. Who will he choose?
Brent is much less wooden than usual in this film; in fact, he's almost delightful in the opening scenes. Davis and Astor are simply tremendous, Davis having asked that Astor's part be built up from its minor role in the original story. Lubitsch had suggested Astor for the role, and Davis was thrilled with the choice. Astor takes the ball she's been given and runs with it, chewing scenery right left and sideways. Davis is...well, she's Davis, and that's never a bad thing.
Astor makes a surprisingly convincing concert pianist, although she did not do her own playing, nor did the keyboard close-ups use her hands. Brent, a licensed pilot, actually did do his own takeoffs and landings.
Basically, the film is insane and implausible and ridiculous, although lord knows it did work within the framework that Hollywood had created. If you willingly suspend your disbelief and your understanding of human nature, you can sit back and enjoy a surreal romp.
Our Town (1940)
Broadway vs. Hollywood
There have been a lot of irate comments posted here about the change in the ending of the play: a character who died on Broadway is almost magically resurrected in the film, and her conversations with the dead are revealed to be a dream.
I, too, was in this play in high school--gosh, wasn't everybody?--and I loved the spareness and the emotion of the original. Mostly, I loved the evocation of early-20th century small town life...a life gone by now, and remembered by fewer and fewer people. The original play--and the countless high school or community theatre revivals--took place on a spare stage, but that was perhaps a little too adventurous for Hollywood in 1940. Instead, the brilliant production designer William Cameron Menzies went to work to evoke the actual details of that small town life, and to my mind he succeeded brilliantly. I remember being stopped in my tracks by the tool the milkman uses to apportion out the milk (cream?) to his customers: a kind of tubular shovel that allowed him to fill up their own containers and still give an equal amount to all. How on earth did Menzies know about such things? Was it his own memories he drew upon?
Some have said that Thornton Wilder might have been horrified by the changes that were wrought in his work. It would be instructive for those people to consult the American Film Institute Catalog for this film. In the notes, the editors remark that no changes were made without Wilder's permission. Further, regarding the fate of Emily, AFI quotes this letter from Wilder to Sam Lesser, the producer, "Emily should live....In a movie you see the people so close 'to' that a different relation is established. In the theatre, they are halfway abstraction in an allegory, in the movie they are very concrete. So, insofar as the play is a generalized allegory, she dies-we die-they die; insofar as it's a concrete happening it's not important that she die; it is disproportionately cruel that she die. Let her live--the idea will have been imparted anyway." I hope that will silence the outrage on Wilder's behalf; he seemed pretty happy with it.
And I was as well. The important thing to me was the mood that was evoked. I, too, thought that some scenes went on too long--the cemetery segment did seem to drag a bit. But the overall effect is so lovely, so moving.
One other thing--for those who feel that both Holden and Scott looked too old for their roles: have you ever looked at a high school yearbook from the 1930s or 1940s? I used to look at my parents' yearbooks all the time. Those teenagers looked ancient. There was no culture of youth, no worship of childishness then the way there is today. Their goal was to grow up as soon as possible, and they worked hard all through their adolescence and teenage years. For me, seeing the baby-face of William Holden, looking almost unrecognizably young, the last thing I thought of was whether he looked too *old* for his part! So, regardless of whether you know the stage play or not, you should check out this film. Especially if you love Americana, such as "Our Vines Have Tender Grapes" or the first "State Fair" (also with Frank Craven!) or "Meet Me in St Louis." "Our Town" will not disappoint.
What Price Hollywood? (1932)
Powerful look at Hollywood in the early years
Another film that deserves a wider viewership and a DVD release, "What Price Hollywood?" looks at the toll Hollywood takes on the people who make it possible.
Adela Rogers St John wrote the Oscar-nominated story of a fading genius of a director, destroyed by drink, who launches one last discovery into the world. Lowell Sherman, himself both a director and an alcoholic, played the sad role that had been modeled, in part, on his own life. (Sherman's brother-in-law, John Barrymore, was also a model, as was the silent film director Marshall Neilan.) The divinely beautiful Constance Bennett plays the ambitious Brown Derby waitress who grabs her chance. Neil Hamilton, paired to great effect with Bennett that same year in "Two Against the World," plays the east-coast polo-playing millionaire who captures Bennett's heart without ever understanding her world.
George Cukor directed the film for RKO, and already the seeds of his directorial genius can be seen. Wonderful montages and double exposures chart Bennett's rise and fall as "America's Pal," and I've rarely seen anything as moving as the way Cukor presented Sherman's death scene, using quick shot editing, exaggerated sound effects and a slow motion shot. As startling as it looks today, one can only imagine the reaction it must have caused over 70 years earlier, before audiences had become accustomed to such techniques.
While the romantic leads are solid--Bennett, as always, especially so--and Gregory Ratoff is mesmerizing as the producer, hats must be doffed to Lowell Sherman for his Oscar-calibre performance. The slide from charming drunk to dissolute bum is presented warts and all, and a late scene in which the director examines his drink-ravaged face in the mirror is powerful indeed. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like for Sherman to play such a role and it was, in fact, one of the last roles he took for the screen, before concentrating on directing--then dying two years later of pneumonia.
When David O. Selznick made "A Star is Born" for United Artists five years later, four years after leaving RKO, the RKO lawyers prepared a point-by-point comparison of the stories, recommending a plagiarism suit--which was never filed. The later movie never credited Adela Rogers St John or any of the source material of "What Price Hollywood?" for its own screenplay, which was written by Dorothy Parker from, supposedly, an idea of Selznick's.
"What Price Hollywood?" is a great source for behind-the-scenes tidbits--Cukor fills the screen with images of on-set action (or inaction), with various crew waiting about as they watch the film-in-a-film action being filmed. This movie works as history and as innovation, but it also works on the most important level, as a well-told story.
Invisible Stripes (1939)
Programmer with some bright spots
"Invisible Stripes" was based on a book by the same former prison warden responsible for the (far better) "20,000 Years in Sing Sing." Casting really does matter.
George Raft turns in a characteristically wooden performance as the ex-con trying to go straight in a world stacked against him. It really is heart-breaking to watch the different ways he loses jobs, unable to shake the shadow of the "invisible stripes" that cover any convict. The strictures on parolees in the 1930s, if accurately depicted, *do* seem a little on the strong side--they weren't even allowed to have drivers licenses! Raft is paired with, in the accurate words of another reviewer, an "unrecognizably young" William Holden. Flora Robson, who plays their mother, was actually six years younger than Raft at the time of shooting. Jane Bryan is convincing and touching as Holden's long-time fiancée.
Bogart spices up the story considerably, in a performance that may have been routine on the page but which comes fully to life in his hands. The film was originally to have been cast with Jimmy Cagney and John Garfield, but Bogart replaced Cagney in order to give him a vacation. I can't help but wonder how much better the film would have been with Garfield in the Raft role. Raft may have known the gang life inside out, but he couldn't act his way out of a paper bag.
A nice little noir-type movie
I imagine there will be many who dispute the characterization of "Impact" as film noir, and I can't blame them. It's not photographed in typical noir fashion, to be sure, but its themes are definitely in the noir neighborhood. There is a stark contrast between the murderous doings in San Francisco (and on the road), and the pastoral joys of Larkspur, Idaho--a contrast that is emphasized by the score, which favors harp and flute for Larkspur and dramatic strings, or even complete silence, for the rest of the film.
Brian Donlevy turns in a solid performance as the loving husband and successful industrialist who discovers his beloved wife is scheming with a lover to kill him; the scene where he breaks down after realizing this is more than solid, and reveals a depth of emotional understanding that Donlevy rarely showed, or at least got the chance to show. Helen Walker is just tremendous as the scheming wife, whose lightning-fast wit helps her transfer the murder rap from herself to her husband, despite her surprise at his being alive at all.
Charles Coburn slips in and out of an Irish brogue as the detective who suspects Walker and supports Donlevy, even at the expense of undercutting the D.A.'s case. Anna May Wong has a small role that emphasizes how the years have worn on her since her beautiful turn in "Shanghai Express." Philip Ahn has an even smaller role as Wong's uncle, who responds to Coburn's condescending query, "You savvy English?" with an urbane "Yes. Also French, Italian, and Hebrew" (reminiscent of his character years earlier in "Something to Sing About").
The plot gets a little convoluted, and the triumphant ending may seem like a bit of an anticlimax, but "Impact" should still be better known than it is.
Strangers May Kiss (1931)
Pre-Code film with a different version of pre-Code morality
This film is profoundly confused about what kind of morality it's embracing.
Norma Shearer plays a modern young woman, having an affair with a dashing foreign correspondent (Neil Hamilton, in his first role with MGM). Her long-time friend Steve (the eternally effervescent Robert Montgomery), who has an inclination towards drink, has been in love with Shearer all their lives, but she won't give him a tumble (she actually uses that hoary old line, "I love you, but I'm not in love with you"). Shearer and Hamilton have no interest in marrying, but prefer their open relationship. Shearer's aunt extols the joy of marriage one evening, but when she sees her husband of 12 years kicking up his heels with a bimbo, she goes home and kills herself.
Shearer and Hamilton head off for Mexico, where Hamilton reveals that he actually has a wife back in Paris (so apparently he DID once believe in marriage...). He leaves for Rio and refuses to take Shearer. She proceeds to sleep her way across Europe in order to drown her grief, which, of course, is one way of dealing with it. Montgomery finds her two years later in Spain where, despite her string of dalliances, he still tries to marry her. But Shearer gets a cable from Hamilton who has now divorced his French wife and is waiting in Paris, willing to marry. By the time Shearer responds, however, Hamilton has heard about her past two years of affairs, and is so repulsed that he never wants to see her again. He claims she should have WAITED for him, DESPITE her not knowing if she would EVER see him again. And...she AGREES. The level of double standard is staggering.
Montgomery, however, STILL wants to marry her. Hamilton claims that a marriage to Shearer would leave him haunted by those "shadows on the wall," but Montgomery says, "What wall?" But Shearer says no. She says, in fact, that his wanting to marry her knowing of her promiscuous past proves that he doesn't actually love her.
A year or so later, Montgomery and Shearer are at the theater, when they run into Hamilton. Time has mellowed him a bit, and he tells Shearer that they belong together. Montgomery watches her go, observing wryly that at least he'll always have a champagne bottle waiting for him.
So, first, let's establish that I'm a huge fan and avid watcher of pre-Code film, and I'm not trying to judge this movie with a 21st-century sensibility. But let's figure out what the film is telling us:
1) marriage isn't necessary if there is true love (Shearer and Hamilton, at the beginning)...2) marriage can only lead to heartbreak, because the man will inevitably cheat (Shearer's aunt and uncle)...3) men can abandon wives and go off with lovers and embrace free love and that's OK (Shearer and Hamilton in Mexico)...4) women can't (Shearer and Hamilton in Paris)...5) men who love women who've had promiscuous pasts don't really love them (Shearer and Montgomery)...6) women should wait forever for the man they love, through all the misunderstandings and rejections, and never ever get involved with anyone else, on the off chance that the man they love will decide they belong together (throughout)...7) a man who wants to marry a woman despite her promiscuous past can't actually love her, although a man who has punished and heaped contempt on said woman and then finally decides he wants to marry her despite it DOES actually love her
Well. This film sends so many mixed signals, you need an air traffic controller.
Interestingly, in the novel on which this film is based, the Shearer character eventually commits suicide after years of waiting in vain for the Hamilton character to return to her. So, the mixed signals may come from the Frankenstein-like effort of fusing a happy-ending head onto the original tragic body.
Montgomery is, as always, charming and natural, which shows up in stark contrast with Shearer's silent-movie-born overacting. You may want to stab yourself in the eye after watching Shearer throw back her head and laugh gaily for the umpteenth time. Hamilton does a serviceable job in a thankless role, but it's always difficult to keep from visualizing Police Commissioner Gordon when he's on screen.
I found this movie almost unbearably frustrating--but that's just me. Others, clearly, were more open to it. But I prefer a film that obeys its own internal logic, no matter how screwy it may be in relation to "reality." "Strangers May Kiss" doesn't carry that off.
Something to Sing About (1937)
Cagney at his naturalistic best
The plot of this film is fairly ordinary--bandleader/hoofer goes to Hollywood and becomes a star, studio wants to play up his credentials as a lover so they put the kibosh on announcing his marriage and cook up an on-set romance for the papers, the strain threatens his marriage. If it were with any other cast, that might have been the end of it. But with Cagney in the starring role, the movie just pops. The man had star quality positively oozing out of him, which had been evident from his earliest bit roles, in films like "A Handful of Clouds."
This was Cagney's second and last film with Grand National studios, where he'd taken refuge during a contract dispute with Warner Brothers. The first film had cast him in standard dramatic fare, but this one reunited him with his NY dance coach, Harland Dixon, who staged the dances for the film. Cagney's dancing is even more spirited than in "Yankee Doodle Dandy"--at one point, where other dancers might kick their heels, he kicks his knees! According to a NY Times article cited in the AFI Catalog, Cagney practiced his steps with Fred Astaire before filming.
What's most striking to me, though, in this film is Cagney's incomparably naturalistic acting. One scene in particular, where Cagney phones his fiancée back in New York while sitting in the dark in his Hollywood apartment, and listens to her sing a new song, is as moving and realistic as anything I've seen.
Many scenes will evoke more famous moments from later films--Cagney dancing on piano keys, like Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia in "Big," or Cagney working on his pear-shaped tones, like Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain." Cagney gives them all his unique brand of liveliness. There is also an almost anachronistic recognition of the degradation Hollywood visited on minorities, in the person of Philip Ahn, who plays Cagney's manservant, Ito.
Evelyn Daw, as Cagney's fiancée, was a discovery of the director, Schertzinger, and this was her first film. She's got a cute little smile, but her voice is absolutely wrong for the sort of band Cagney is supposed to be leading. She does well enough, though, and holds her own with William Frawley as Cagney's sympathetic press agent and Gene Lockhart as the studio boss. The only real sour note is sounded by Mona Barrie, as the Hungarian star set up as Cagney's love interest by the studio press machine. She's neither attractive nor talented, and one has to wonder why she was supposed to be such a big star.
This movie is out on DVD, unlike all too many of Cagney's early efforts, and it's worth checking out for a side of Cagney seen entirely too seldom.
Cause for Alarm! (1951)
Less noir than blanc
Gracious. The most suspense engendered by this weak and unfocused film is whether I would be able to bear watching it to the end.
After a whirlwind WW2 romance, temporary nurse Ellen marries impetuous fly-boy George, despite Dr. Ranney's unspoken love for her. The war over, and George suffering from an unspecified complaint, Ellen finds herself dealing with a cantankerous and paranoid husband, who is certain that she and Ranney are trying to kill him. Confronting Ellen after duping her into mailing a letter incriminating both her and Ranney, George drops dead--and Ellen must try to get back the letter.
So much for plot. Reviewers who have referred to this overwrought trifle as "noir" must have missed the abundant California sunshine that suffuses this picture with light, extending even to the beach scenes during the courtship flashbacks. With nary a shadow to be seen, this hardly qualifies as noir. If anything, it's linked more to the New Realism of postwar disappointment as played out in the *vastly* superior "The Best Years of Our Lives." For example, what IS the mysterious illness that leaves veteran George feeling less than a man? But overtones of New Realism are wholly beside the point, as that aspect of the film is ignored completely. The script is based on a radio play, and those melodramatic roots are showing. As Ellen, Loretta Young seems to get stupider and stupider as the movie progresses, until the viewer half wishes she'd be caught, convicted, and executed, and put us all out of our misery.
The best parts of the film are the fussy and bureaucratic post office workers who drive Ellen to distraction, and the brief glimpse of a teen-aged Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer as one of two boys repairing a hotrod, who give Ellen directions.
The film is short but seems to last forever. Your call.
Journal of a Crime (1934)
Odd but strangely compelling
Ruth Chatterton, married to playwright Adolphe Menjou, learns that he has fallen in love with Claire Dodd, the star of his new production, and plans a divorce. Chatterton attempts to woo her husband back in a spectacularly clingy and abject performance that fails as expected. Finally, she shoots Dodd with Menjou's gun, conveniently enough while an escaping bank robber and murderer is hiding in the building--who is arrested for the crime.
Most of the film involves the toll that the knowledge of her guilt, and of her husband's contempt for her and abiding love for Dodd, takes on Chatterton. The film is a psychological study of the nature of guilt and of denial. An evocative film score highlights Chatterton's inner struggles.
The performances by the two principles, Chatterton and Menjou, are really tremendous. The direction is also often quite striking, particularly a scene of Chatterton attending a party for the play's 100th performance, where strings from balloons hang down in front of her face like prison bars.
Several character-actor stalwarts appear, in parts of varying substance, including Douglas Dumbrille as the Attorney General, George Barbier as the director, and Jane Darwell as a dinner guest. Look quickly for a shockingly young Walter Pigeon as Dodd's baritone co-star.
As others have noted, the film's ending is unusual for the time, clearly indicating that the Hays Office was not yet enjoying the ascendancy it soon would. Compare this ending, though, with that of "Hat, Coat, and Glove" (also 1934), where there is even less justification for a murderer's happy ending.
If you want to see an out-of-the-ordinary mood piece, check this film out.
The Man in Possession (1931)
A surprising delight
Anytime one sees P.G. Wodehouse's name in the opening credits as a contributing writer, one should know that one is in for a good time. When the star of the piece is the always charming Robert Montgomery, it's a dead cert.
It is a shame that so few Montgomery vehicles are available on VHS and especially on DVD. He always appears to be having the best time of anyone on screen. No one could convey quite so insouciant an air, or had quite so charming and boyish a smile. Montgomery uses both attributes to great effect in this film, in which he plays the disgraced son of a haute-bourgeois family who ends up, through a series of complex machinations, posing as the butler in the household of his estranged brother's fiancée (played to great effect by the very lovely Irene Purcell).
The supporting cast is stellar as well, with the acerbic Charlotte Greenwood as the fiancée's maid and partner in poverty (not the fiancée herself, as another reviewer has stated), the foppish Reginald Owen as Montgomery's brother and Purcell's fiancé, a wonderfully gruff C. Aubrey Smith as Montgomery's father, and the always entertaining Alan Mowbray as the smarmy Sir Charles.
The plot is lighter than air, and would float away completely were it not anchored by this very talented cast. The happy ending given to the two admitted bounders (Montgomery and Purcell) is one that could only have occurred before the enforcement of the Hays Code, when charm was considered more meritorious than virtue. Hear, hear!
Wake Me When It's Over (1960)
Delicious writing and acting
I've not read the Howard Singer novel, but seeing this film is going to send me straight to the library for it. I watched this on a whim, because I wanted to see an Ernie Kovacs film performance different from his turn in "Bell, Book, and Candle." The cast in this film--from Kovacs, to newcomer Dick Shawn, to the marvelous Marvin Kaplan, to a wonderfully subdued Jack Warden--is top-notch, and the writing is just splendid. The film takes on military bureaucracy, sexual mores, international relations, postwar backlash, and mixes it all up with the sort of hijinks that Sergeant Bilko was best known for. It's sheer delight.
Shawn is the victim of a bureaucratic snafu: listed as dead after having spent 2 years in a German P.O.W. camp, the Air Force decides to issue him a new serial number instead of reinstating his old one, then discharges him the next day. As a result, with only one day's service on his record, Shawn is re-drafted 7 years after his official discharge, and stationed on the remote Japanese island of Shima, where the hostile inhabitants still have a shrine to a downed Japanese plane.
The air base C.O. is a cavalier flyboy, played by Ernie Kovacs, with the only other real authority being the doctor, played by Jack Warden. The 100 men stationed there are bored out of their skulls (Don Knotts has a nice turn as the activities counselor), and with Shawn's arrival a plot is hatched to keep the men occupied, improve local relations, and dispose of a great deal of G.I. surplus material.
The movie is a little on the long side, and the subplot with the female lieutenant seems a little forced, but the action and snappy dialogue will keep you engrossed throughout.
Sadly, this film is not available on VHS or DVD, which is a crying shame. Watch for it on television; you won't regret it.