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She's one remarkable lady
A loving and revealing documentary about an extraordinary woman, this shows Ms. Hunt to be, among other things, a good actress, a fierce advocate of human rights, and a survivor of Hollywood's golden age with amazing recall. Generous with film clips and interviews of other survivors we're pleased to meet (Norman Corwin, Norman Lloyd, Walter Bernstein, Margaret O'Brien), it chronicles how she was blacklisted and not only survived it, but was motivated to become a force for good, in so many ways, notably as a hardworking UN functionary. It's also a sweet love story: After a brief first marriage (and they stayed civil and even worked with each other later), she met a perfect mate, the screenwriter Robert Presnell, and really did live happily ever after. She's such a force of nature that we're kind of left wondering what aspects of her we're not seeing, but what we do see is lovely and impressive and inspiring. Really, after watching this, you may be motivated to go out of volunteer for something.
The Female Animal (1958)
In widescreen glorious Universal black-and-white, this very '50s melo has an unusual angle amid all its conventional suds: What if the man couldn't decide between a mother or daughter? Tough choice, because the mom's Hedy Lamarr, in a relaxed performance as a slightly fading movie queen, and the (adopted) daughter is Jane Powell, a spoiled drunk Hollywood rich kid who becomes more likable as the script progresses. Faced with the difficult decision: George Nader, with a shaved chest, but looking mighty fit, and it's a real performance, not just the eyelash-batting he got away with in some other Universal product. He must have liked the screenplay: A lot of it is just the women talking about how handsome he is. There's also Jan Sterling, always underrated and absolutely splendid here, as the nasty-obnoxious even-more-faded movie queen saying sarcastic things to everyone else and making a pathetic play for Nader. It's ludicrous, but it's entertaining, and you may chortle at the '50s morality that says, no, ladies, you'd better not attempt to be cougars, youth shall seek youth and anything else is wrong, wrong, wrong. Not badly written, and, in a fun and budget-conscious touch, the pre-credits sequence later shows up again, with new connotations. Jane, in her first big non-musical, seems to enjoy all the luridness, and she's good enough to suggest maybe she should have tried more of these roles and fewer sunny-MGM things.
Rather a treat
MGM musical with several unusual assets: For one thing, it's unpretentious, and for another, it has a genuinely diverting screenplay, co-written by Herb Fields, an old hand at musical comedy librettos (he wrote a number of Rodgers and Hart hits). The unremarkable but serviceable plot has Robert Young double-cast as a fan-harassed movie star and a pineapple farmer who trade places, and movie-star-posing-as-farmer falls for Eleanor Powell, who's starring in a Honolulu floor show and accompanied by sidekick Gracie Allen. Gracie's material isn't up to standard, and George has practically nothing to do, and Powell's charms seldom went far beyond the Terpsichorean. But she does have a couple of fine solos, and the Harry Warren-Gush Kahn songs are agreeable. It's typically racially insensitive, with Eleanor doing a blackface salute to Bill Robinson not unlike Astaire's in "Swing Time," and the standard giggling-Asian-servant thing going on. Nevertheless, it's so modest and entertaining, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.
Paris Blues (1961)
More mood than story, but still
Adapted rather freely from a late-'50s novel, and boosted by a once-in-a-lifetime cast, this love letter to the Seine captures a moment, and a mood, that matter more than the lackadaisical plotting. Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier, expat jazz musicians, get involved with American tourists Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll, and they're such a gorgeous foursome you just want them all to get married and have lots of children. But wait. Woodward does already have two kids, which should be a major grappling point but is treated as a mere divertissement, while Carroll and Poitier squabble about whether he should be in Paris or fighting civil rights battles at home. The movie seems to advocate the latter, but I wonder if that's fair--all the jazz sequences, with the races happily enjoying each other's company and savoring the fabulous Duke Ellington music, look mighty alluring. There's one well-staged jazz romp with the two guys (they mime their instruments well) and Louis Armstrong riffing that's the most joyous thing you'll ever see, and there are lots of moodily photographed strolls through early-'60s Paris, looking glamorous and curiously bereft of cars. Not a whole lot happens, and Newman's character is rather more of a jerk than he has to be, and a couple of subplots (Newman's mistress; the cocaine-addicted guitarist) aren't well resolved. Martin Ritt had already worked well with Newman and Poitier on different projects, and would soon give the world "Hud," but this one isn't as substantial or moving. What it is is gorgeously photographed and scored, and full of beautiful people, and an alluring time capsule.
The Happiest Millionaire (1967)
Fine work from the Shermans, and some other good stuff too
I loved this movie when I was eight, and a re-viewing of the 172-minute roadshow version on DVD reveals it to be a pleasant, tuneful, middle-of-the-road Disney effort that showed up at an unfortunate moment (when too many big musicals were clogging the market). Based on a hit Broadway play from ten years earlier, it's a leisurely--maybe a little too leisurely--look at the Biddles of Philadelphia during the runup to America's entry into the First World War, and the rather overlong romance of Cordelia Drexel Biddle and Angier Duke. Since they're played by a young Lesley Anne Warren and John Davidson, they're at least nice to look at and listen to, and there are some other standouts in the cast as well. As bickering representatives of both families, Gladys Cooper and Geraldine Page share a duet, "There Are Those," with lyrics worthy of Cole Porter--"posing cozy on their rosy status quos." Tommy Steele has a couple of energetic numbers and isn't as relentlessly hyper as he is in "Half a Sixpence" or "Finian's Rainbow," and Greer Garson, in the uninteresting mom's role, is warm and elegant. It's a sumptuous production, costing $10 million in 1967 dollars, and the costumes, sets, and cinematography are knock-your-eye-out. (The "Detroit" montage sequence is particularly luscious.) The Sherman Brothers are working at the same high level they brought to "Mary Poppins," and a couple of numbers, "It Won't Be Long Till Christmas" and MacMurray's "What's Wrong With That?" reprise, are really pretty deep and touching about family relationships and letting go of the kids, not something you'd expect from a big Disney musical. MacMurray's character is more than a little annoying and one-note, and AJ Carothers' screenplay is trite, and there's no dramaturgical reason this thing has to run on for nearly three hours. Nevertheless, to me it's comfort food, a lavish relic from the last gasp of Hollywood's studio system, and far less of a misfire than some other enormous '60s musicals that helped kill off the genre for decades.
Are These Our Children (1931)
What's the matter with kids today?
Wesley Ruggles, who's given great billing (he was pretty big in the early 1930s), really had a bee up his bonnet when he conceived this diatribe against Flaming Youth. Eric Linden, a good young actor but not here, is the upright high schooler who ventures on the wrong path after delivering a poorly received speech, and turns away from his too-good-to-be-true girlfriend, Rochelle Hudson, and toward loose women and alcohol. Linden can't make the transition convincing, but at least the pace picks up once he starts nightclubbing with bad girl Arline Judge and some other pals. Eventually, drunk and demanding more booze, he (very unconvincingly) shoots the older guy who hangs out with his grandma (Beryl Mercer, playing what she always played) and tries to dodge the cops. What do you think happens? Linden is virtually playing two different kids, Good Eddie and Bad Eddie, and it's impossible to pull off. He does get caught, of course, and recites a weepy Lord's Prayer as he's led off to the chair. Howard Estabrook did a poor adaptation of Ruggles's original story, and despite some arty transitions and striking photography, it's not much of a movie. But hey, maybe it did scare a teen or two from sneaking into speakeasies, or hanging with loose women.
The state of the art, 1930
RKO's intended follow-up to its massive hit "Rio Rita," with the same leading lady, director, composer, and some of the cast, isn't a very good movie, but it's a very good look at what was expected of an original movie musical in 1930. It's tuneful and lavish, and the final 20 minutes, in two-tone Technicolor, are delightful--most especially when Bill Robinson gets his three minutes of tapping in. We don't know who he's playing or why he's there, but he's wonderful.
The screenwriter-lyricist, Anne Caldwell, was a Broadway heavyweight who had written with Jerome Kern, Victor Herbert, and other greats. Her lyrics and libretti are often clever and original, but this one's trite, derivative, and, by today's standards, offensive. We're in 1840s New Orleans, on a plantation populated by happy slaves who keep crooning "Mr. and Mrs. Sippi" ("I miss you so, I's jes' dippy"), which desperately wants to be "Ol' Man River" and isn't. Plantation scion Everett Marshall, a Met baritone with a fine voice and an odd face, loves Dixiana (Bebe Daniels), who is welcomed by his family until she reveals she's a circus performer. Her pals Wheeler and Woolsey, with subpar material, buck her up, and some meaningless plot complications happen to keep the young lovers apart until fadeout. Laid out much like a stage musical of the era, it veers between operetta, musical comedy, and farce (the W&W sections, which are boosted by the presence of the always-adorable Dorothy Lee). Anything Caldwell thinks will work, she puts in, and the screenplay wanders all over the place without really going anywhere. Luther Reed's direction is stodgy, but the camera's pretty mobile for 1930, and if you can get around the happy-slaves motif, snarling villain, awkward comedy, and halfhearted plot-song integration, you'll see a lavish example of what the studios thought the public wanted at the dawn of sound. They were wrong--too many musicals saturated the market, this one lost a bundle, and soon theaters were advertising, "This is NOT a musical." I can't imagine a modern audience sitting through this, but if you're a historian or a fan of early talkies, do seek this one out. Also, the UCLA restoration is pretty stunning.
Born to Be Bad (1950)
Saw this again recently after a couple of decades, and what sticks is Joan Fontaine--sweet, pretty, and evil. She's Christabel, the rootless blonde who turns up in San Francisco and moves in with lovely Joan Leslie, and takes over her boyfriend (Zachary Scott, not quite right for this part) and her life. It is, as several have commented, All About Eve-like, but more overt: How many times does Nicholas Ray close a scene with Fontaine, smiling to herself in an evil, I've-done-more-mischief, way? Robert Ryan's also on hand, virile as all getout, and Mel Ferrer is a quipping artist who gets most of the good lines; commenters who see the character as gay must have overlooked his line to Fontaine about how when he's not painting, he spends most of his time trying to sell himself as harmless to suspicious husbands. Some nice location photography, and the screenplay's not out of the top drawer, but it will do. Fontaine looks like she's having fun, and she seldom got to play such a baddie. Plus, it's distinctly un-Breen-Code-like--while Christabel is found out and humiliated, she gets away with quite a lot.
I Loved a Woman (1933)
Eddie G, the beef trust, and two unlikeable women
Warners-First National did a bunch of sweeping historic sagas around this time (one particularly good one: The World Changes), and this history of the meat industry is lavish but lopsided. Edward G. Robinson, not young enough at the beginning as an art lover in Athens and not old enough at the end as a retired meat baron back in Athens to escape criminal charges in the U.S., but excellent throughout, not very willingly takes over his dad's beef business when the latter dies, marries a charming Genevieve Tobin, and falls in love with ambitious opera singer (ha!) Kay Francis, who keeps serenading him with his favorite tune, "Home on the Range." She's an eyeful, but ruthless, and we grow to hate her, and Tobin, initially a sympathetic do-gooder, becomes an angry neglected wife. Robinson, too, loses whatever sympathy we had for him as he sells tainted beef to the U.S. army, dodges taxes and hides the books, and cheerfully cheats on his wife. He ends up senile and bitter, which he appears to deserve. Some plotting and character holes in this one, and in the end there's no one to root for, but it's pleasingly sprawling and certainly well acted.
Bandleader becomes star. Becomes a jerk. Reforms. The end
I'd looked forward to this Warners B as a rare chance to see the underappreciated David Manners in a leading role. As a struggling bandleader who discovers he has a voice and becomes a star, he's fine. But the character is such a jerk. Teddy, aided by a PR man (Ken Murray, who had a long career exhibiting home movies of Hollywood stars, but not much of one as an actor, and this shows why), who lusts after Teddy's girlfriend (Ann Dvorak, always welcome but doing nothing surprising here), soon is vain, demanding, unfaithful, greedy, and unreasonable with his bandmates. Nothing in the backstory indicates why this would happen. It's trite, and so is his comeuppance, as he suffers a PR disaster and returns to his saxophone. Even at 65 minutes it feels padded, with too many renditions of the two same old songs, and it feels like it's shaking a finger at us: Stay nice when you get famous, don't let this happen to you.
Big News (1929)
A decent time waster
An early talkie, and boy, does it show, with the static camerawork and uncertain sound recording. But it's a lively newspaper comedy-drama, energetically directed by Gregory La Cava and conveying lots of big--city-news atmosphere. Robert Armstrong, not the suavest or handsomest leading man, is a "Front Page"-style newspaperman pursuing an opioid story and squabbling with not just his editors but his wife, Carol (not yet Carole Lombard), who's only 20 or 21 here and not the incandescent presence she later became. Sam Hardy's a menacing thug, Gabby Hayes another newsman, and, most intriguingly, Cupid Ainsworth is the jacket-and-tie-wearing lady who dispenses advice to the lovelorn, along with wisecracks. There's much drunken behavior, of the type once considered hilarious, and it's fast-paced and lively. I kept wanting Armstrong to turn into Lee Tracy, and I wish it were more audible, but at 65 minutes, it doesn't wear out its welcome.
Knickerbocker Holiday (1944)
Nice try, but rather a botch
The 1938 stage musical, with book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson (a conservative, and he hated Roosevelt; not for nothing is a "Roosevelt" presented here as a dimwitted ancestor) and music by Kurt Weill, was a flawed but very interesting look at the dangers of despotism, with a near-amazing score and a legendary Walter Huston performance. It's noticeably watered down in this independently produced 1944 adaptation, with a fraction of the original score ("Nowhere to Go But Up," "September Song," "The One Indispensable Man," and snatches of "It Never Was You" in the background) overwhelmed by interpolations, mostly by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, and they're not very good. The story is simplified, the bloody battles are eliminated, and the fun device of having Washington Irving narrate the story and interact with these figures from the past is gone. Nelson Eddy's more animated than usual and of course sings well, but there's not a lot of chemistry between him and his leading lady, a pallid Constance Dowling. Coburn acts Pieter Stuyvesant well but sure doesn't deliver much of a "September Song," and the supporting cast is mostly nobodies, though "Shelley Winter" (no s yet) is a noticeable giggling soubrette, a role not in the original. What it does have going for it is a fetching production design that conjures up a whimsical old Nieuw Amsterdam, and some of Anderson's speculation about the damage corrupt leaders do does survive. It rushes to an end, though, and so much great Weill is missing. Worth a look, certainly, but if you want to know how it's supposed to sound, there are complete recordings out there now, and Huston's own "September Song," which became a posthumous hit for him when tacked onto a 1950 movie, "September Affair," is the ultimate example of somebody with no voice making a song unforgettable.
Young Cassidy (1965)
Big, expensive MGM biopic of Sean O'Casey, here called John Cassidy, which is the first odd thing. O'Casey, still alive, OK'd the screenplay (which is on the weak side), and the plays he wrote as depicted in the film are the plays O'Casey wrote, so why the name switch? "Young O'Casey" would have told audiences more. Rod Taylor, not much physically representing the title character, is nonetheless committed and fine and suitably sexy, and he's supported by an excellent cast, most prominently Maggie Smith, playing a conventional part--the spinsterish bookseller who falls in love with him--with an ambivalence that keeps us guessing about her. You'll miss Julie Christie, second-billed but in a tiny role, if you blink, and Edith Evans and Michael Redgrave are stately and predictable as the powers behind the Abbey Theatre, but Flora Robson, as Cassidy's mother, is very special indeed, and it's also fun to see Jack MacGowran and Sian Phillips as the rest of his family. John Ford started this one and Jack Cardiff finished it, bringing a superb visual sense (1910s-20s Dublin never looked so appealing) but not a lot of dramatic chops. It ends on a strange moment indeed, with Maggie leaving him because she loves him (O'Casey did marry, happily, but we see none of that), then there's a final scene after the credits that means to tie things up in a happy ending. It's misshapen, but there are some good sequences, especially involving the Troubles, and it's certainly beautifully shot.
The Warrior's Husband (1933)
By Jupiter, it's pretty good!
Just saw a beautiful print of this at MOMA, and was struck by several things. First, did it really cost only $400,000 to make? It's quite lavish, with thousands of extras, and while those are clearly flats representing the far reaches of the Amazon homeland, it looks like Fox spent a bundle on it. As with the stage source and subsequent Rodgers and Hart musical adaptation, "By Jupiter," it's largely an evening of sex-reversal jokes, but a lot of them are pretty good jokes. Elissa Landi, while perhaps less individual than Katharine Hepburn might have been, is a formidable leading lady, and Marjorie Rambeau is a hilarious Hippolyta. Ernest Truex overdoes the feminine-leading man stuff, but David Manners is a manly and appealing Theseus. It's fun to hear a lot of the dialogue that Rodgers and Hart adapted directly into song, or kept. Too bad it can't be seen more; TCM viewers would eat it up.
There Goes My Heart (1938)
Diverting souffle with a few lumps
Late screwball nonsense, with much It Happened One Night in it, this Hal Roach-produced romantic comedy is better in fits and starts than as a whole. Spoiled heiress Virginia Bruce, an always-capable blonde who's a little tentative here, escapes grandpa Claude Gillingwater's yacht and hightails it to New York, where she has the good luck to fall in and room with Patsy Kelly, who yells all her lines and is unfailingly funny. The other roommate, Nancy Carroll--an early-talkie leading lady, and a splendid one, who'd fallen on hard times by now--is a troublemaker who underhandedly gets Virginia in trouble at the department store where they all work, which, in Hollywoodish coincidence, is owned by Virginia's granddad. Newspaperman Fredric March, virtually reprising Clark Gable's Peter Warne, chases the heiress's story and falls in love with her. All reasonable enough, but some things just don't make sense. Why, why do March and editor Eugene Pallette and news photographer Arthur Lake have a drunk scene that does nothing? Why, if the leading couple has sworn each other off, do they keep gravitating back, except to rush to a happy ending? What's this island retreat of March's, where is it, and is there or isn't there a town there, as the presence of Harry Langdon at the end, as its local priest, would suggest? It rushes to a conclusion without explaining some key plot points, and Norman Z. McLeod, accomplished comic director though he was, brings it no real distinction.
Outcast Lady (1934)
Was The Green Hat this crazy?
That's allegedly the source material for this stilted "women's picture," directed by Robert Z. Leonard wishing he were George Cukor. Constance Bennett, lovingly photographed and lively, but lacking the British accent of everyone around her, loves Herbert Marshall, but his father won't permit his son to associate with her disreputable clan, so Herbert runs off to India. Constance dithers for four years then marries a very rich nice man, who's also adored by her young brother, to an extreme that can only be called suspicious. On their wedding night she learns that her groom committed some unspecified unspeakable crime and went to prison under a different name, and he's so ashamed by the revelation that he jumps out of the window. Her brother renounces her and runs off to drink and ruin, while she tells a lie to preserve her late husband's honor. Marshall, meanwhile, marries nice Elizabeth Allan, though his heart's forever with Connie. The brother dies, Elizabeth sends Herbert back to Connie, the truth comes out, Herbert's rotten father apologizes, and Connie's so devastated by the revelation that she jumps into her roadster and slams suicidally into a tree. It's a stiff but entertaining one, with unlikelihood piling on top of unlikelihood and everybody being insufferably noble. The only other notable element is Mrs. Patrick Campbell, third-billed but on screen for only a minute or two. Worth a look to see just how excessive women's weepies could be at the time.
The Doorway to Hell (1930)
Putting on Ayres
I like Lew Ayres--he proved himself a versatile actor in everything from the Dr. Kildare series to "Johnny Belinda" to "Holiday" (which he steals from Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn) to his moving early work in "All Quiet on the Western Front." In this, a prototypical Warners gangster flick, at 21, he's a bit young to convincingly play a mob boss who lords it over a sea of bootleggers and other crooks; when he snarls, you're just not sure they'd cower in response. Plus, his right-hand man is being played by Cagney, and he crackles and grins and burns up the screen. That said, it's an interesting early talkie, happily pre-Code (Cagney has an affair with Ayres' wife, a calculating Dorothy Matthews, and the screenplay doesn't over-judge them for that), directed by Archie Mayo with some striking compositions and a slam-bag prison-breakout climax, and with some thoughtful work by Ayres. He's just not quite the commanding, charismatic protagonist you'd like him to be.
The Four Poster (1952)
Who was Jan de Hartog? Whoever he was, he wrote a splendid, perceptive, entertaining play, "The Four Poster," which was a Broadway hit with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy (how I'd have loved to have seen them in it), and, during that run from 1951 to 1953, was filmed and released by Stanley Kramer. Two-character plays were rare then, and two-character movies rarer still, but this one survives quite beautifully, preserving de Hartog's clear-eyed, comprehensive views on marriage, ego, womanhood, and creativity. The husband, played a bit stiffly to my eye by Rex Harrison, is a self-centered writer who nonetheless shows great sensitivity to his wife when it's required, and the wife, played beautifully by Lilli Palmer, is a searching individual whose identity is tied up almost exclusively in her marriage. The real-life marriage of this couple was, as other posters have noted, fraught, and the tension plays well into their characterizations. It's cleverly augmented by John Hubley's animated transitional sequences, which are rather brilliantly scored by Dmitri Tiomkin. Musical theater fans will know that the piece was successfully turned into "I Do! I Do!", and they'll be intrigued by the changes librettist Tom Jones made (the characters' names, the somewhat happier ending). I'd tried to track this one down for years and am glad to have finally seen it. It's unique. And it works.
Rio Rita (1929)
A fascinating antique
A very rare chance to see a 1920s stage musical preserved more or less intact on the screen, this RKO entry, along with Warners' "Desert Song," is in pretty good shape for 90, and still entertains. Not the book, by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, and not the direction nor clumsy adaptation of Luther Reed. And TCM's print, missing 35 minutes of the original, has some terrible cuts. What you do get is an authentic bad 1920s musical book and a catchy stage score that wanders between operetta and musical comedy, divided more or less equally between lovers John Boles and Bebe Daniels (the former) and Wheeler and Woolsey and the adorable Dorothy Lee (the latter). Top billing, interestingly, goes to Ziegfeld, who produced the stage show and had nothing to do with the movie, and the sets and costumes are indeed Ziegfeld-lavish, and look great in the two-tone Technicolor of the third act. Boles sings very well but looks paunchy (and Paula Laurence, who worked with him on stage in "One Touch of Venus," told me he was the dullest man who ever lived), while Daniels, embodying some unpalatable Mexican cliches in speech, is vivacious, pretty, and convincing. The Wheeler-Woolsey stuff is variable, but Bert Wheeler, a first-rate song and dance man, does get to do some splendid stepping, and you'll probably be humming "Sweetheart, We Need Each Other" for days. He and Lee pair so well together that RKO kept teaming them. Yes, it's a ridiculous story that doesn't make sense, and the political incorrectness is off the charts. But if you want to know what a night out on 44th Street might have been like in 1927, you can't do better than this.
Bad Guy (1937)
Bad guy, strange movie
An MGM melodrama-romance-documentary B, this one packs a little of everything into its 70 minutes or so. The bad guy of the title is Bruce Cabot, a lineman who gets mixed up in a gambling-related murder, is sentenced to the chair, gets out of it, and returns to his unofficial brother (Edward Norris, who's OK), upon which they both romance Virginia Grey. Cabot, who always had an easy machismo and is very well photographed here, adds some needed ambiguity: Is he really a bad guy? A good guy gone wrong? Just a good guy? Turns out he's a bad guy, so you're meant to be happy at his final fate, but it's hard to. The story's slim, so Edward Cahn pads it out with way too much footage of electrical linemen, including Norris and Cliff Edwards attending an electrical seminar/demonstration. A so-so B all in all, but there's real chemistry between Grey and Cabot (if not Grey and Norris), and a couple of good speeches--one by Cabot romancing Grey, one by Norris sussing out his complicated feelings about Cabot--lift it a bit above the ordinary.
Stick with the '50
Stewart kept returning to Elwood P. Dowd after definitively filming "Harvey," in 1950, and this 1972 Hallmark TV production, taped shortly after a Broadway revival, catches him doing his usual, competent thing, with an attractive cast around him. Minus commercials, it's about an hour fifteen, and that betrays the cuts and revisions that have been made to Mary Chase's script. The romance between Dr. Sanderson (a miscast Richard Mulligan) and Nurse Kelly (Madeline Kahn, about to become prominent thanks to "What's Up, Doc?"), is missing. Dowd's age is moved up to 57 (Stewart was 64 and looks it), and Helen Hayes is OK as Veda, though not a patch on Josephine Hull's Oscar-winning performance, and I liked Marian Hailey's Myrtle, though retaining the romance between her and Wilson (a superannuated Jesse White, who was better in 1950) is cringeworthy. All in all, it's straightforward and entertaining, but the movie, with its exteriors and additional dialogue and Henry Koster's sympathetic direction, is superior in pretty much every way.
The Second Greatest Sex (1955)
I can give you all the data/ On that gal named Lysistrata
That's a typical couplet from this Universal musical, a rather desperate attempt to cash in on MGM's success with "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." It hews to that formula very closely: Take an ancient myth ("Lysistrata" instead of "Rape of the Sabine Women"), set it out West, write a plot-specific score (in this instance, by many hands), and cap it with lots of athletic choreography (by Lee Scott, who's no Michael Kidd, but that is, admittedly, a high bar). George Marshall, by now something of a Western musical veteran, having just wrapped "Red Garters," directs briskly, and it's an interesting cast. Neither George Nader nor Jeanne Crain could sing, both are dubbed, but both sure were pretty. Kitty Kallen, a popular recording artist at the time who didn't have much luck with movies, has one nice ballad. The always wonderful Tommy Rall, inexplicably eighth-billed, does some astounding leaps. Keith Andes, too hunky to be playing a priest, gets to sing a song, one of those pseudo-religious mid-'50s things, while chopping down a tree, and winds up with Mamie van Doren. Bert Lahr clowns, Paul Gilbert gets a big specialty number, Jimmy Boyd squeaks, and the story gets spun out decently enough. It's another enterprising mid-'50s musical, trying to keep a fading genre alive. Is it good? Not very. But fun? You bet.
The Bad Seed (1956)
Stagey, and I love it for that
Adapted from a hit novel by William March and play adaptation by Maxwell Anderson--an established, Pulitzer-winning playwright--this version has a screenplay by John Lee Mahin, a veteran and accomplished screenwriter himself, and he wisely lets the stage origins show. It does wander outside the Penmark household for some key scenes, but it's pretty stagey, and Mervyn LeRoy, the director, seems to encourage that. The intact stage conventions give us the impression we're just watching a hit 1950s stage melodrama, a macabre one with two theatrical performances at its center. Nancy Kelly overacts hideously, which only makes it more fun, and Patty McCormack is remarkable--watch how skillfully she conveys Rhoda's self-discipline, and how easily it comes apart when she's threatened. Theatrical, too, is Henry Jones's Leroy, he's given soliloquies this character would never have, but they help us understand him. The Production Code-induced moralistic ending is also fun, and so are the stage bows, and so is Christine giving Rhoda a theatrical spanking, and so is the not-as-smart-as-it-thinks-it-is 1950s psychological analysis. A wallow, and a front seat at the 46th Street Theatre in 1954.
A Kiss in the Dark (1949)
Alleged comedy, and comedy is not what Delmer Daves did well, about a cloistered concert pianist (David Niven, who's supposed to be 27 and was 41 and seems to know it) romancing a model (Jane Wyman; comedy was never her forte, either) in a New York apartment house run by Victor Moore, in his usual adorable-old-man mode (he twinkles almost as much as Barry Fitzgerald would). Every actor in this thing does what we've seen him/her do before, from Broderick Crawford bellowing to Joseph Buloff and Maria Ouspenskaya peddling florid accents, and poor Wayne Morris playing a character that makes no sense, a fiance of Wyman's we're supposed to hate. The slapstick is elaborate and badly staged, the conflict is essentially resolved long before it's over, and about the nicest thing is Max Steiner's scoring of the title song, which is by Victor Herbert, who doesn't even get a screen credit. I'm surprised to see so many user reviews calling it charming and fun; I generally like Warner comedies from this period, but this one's a waste.
Glamour for Sale (1940)
As these Columbia Bs go, not bad
A very post-Code look at "escort services," albeit they're places where there's nothin' dirty goin' on, this is a brisk little B with an appealing Anita Louise helping undercover agent Roger Pryor, with an uncommonly unattractive mustache, close in on the thugs running the thing. Considering all the dialog about how good these girls are, it has a nicely tawdry atmosphere, and Don Beddoe is authentically menacing as the thug-in-chief. A couple of bad songs with bad voice doubles round it out, and at just an hour and change, it won't bore you.