Friday, August 28, 2015
Williams stars as Caroline Brooks, a swimming teacher at a women's college who falls in love with song writer Steve Elliot (Red Skelton) during a trip to California. When Steve's friend and employer, George (Basil Rathbone), breaks up the couple's wedding with a phony bigamy claim, Caroline goes back to her job at the school, and Steve enrolls there as a student in order to convince her of his innocence. The faculty conspire to get Steve expelled, while his musician friends and new college classmates work equally hard to help him out.
As slight as its plot is, there are moments when Bathing Beauty falters, mostly in the bizarre waste of Basil Rathbone as the cause of Steve's marital woes. Williams occasionally shows her inexperience, as well, but she has a natural charm that quickly wins the audience over. She's an all-American beauty, tall, athletic, but utterly feminine, and she's especially flirtatious in her underwater scenes. The movie originally belonged to Red Skelton, with the title Mr. Co-Ed, but Williams usurped him and caused the focus of the picture to be altered. In spite of being knocked to second place, Skelton still has all of the movie's funniest scenes, and his character remains the most interesting and developed figure in the story. His ballet sequence, complete with pink tutu, is a scream, but he's also a lot of fun in his musical number, "I'll Take the High Note," performed with the adorably spunky Jean Porter. Skelton, whose mentor at MGM was Buster Keaton, excels at an expressive, physical comedy that recalls the silent era; he has the sweetness of a classic clown rather than the brash bravado of a Pre-Code comedian or more verbal comedic leads like Jack Carson. There's something sincere and vulnerable about Skelton's character that causes us to root for him even in the most ridiculous circumstances, like the scene when his romantic rival's huge dog keeps him trapped in Caroline's house, and he resorts to wearing her clothes in order to fool the beast.
Musical sequences fill as much of the film's running time as the narrative itself, offering audiences across the country a chance to enjoy the performances of the era's biggest acts. Although they play themselves, the musical stars also contribute to the story line by interacting with the protagonists and trying to help Steve, but they're really there to show off their stuff. Band leader Xavier Cugat and his orchestra open the picture with a poolside performance, assisted by Carlos Ramirez singing "Magic is the Moonlight." Harry James and his orchestra also perform, with James tearing it up on the trumpet. More unusual is the appearance of organist Ethel Smith as one of the college's music teachers; her numbers, which emphasize her footwork and sense of fun, are especially entertaining. Disney fans might recognize Smith from her "Blame It on the Samba" segment in Melody Time (1948), and she turns up again in the 1946 Williams picture, Easy to Wed.
Be sure to note familiar character actor Donald Meek in a brief but significant role; he gives Steve the idea to enroll at Victoria College. For more from George Sidney, see Anchors Aweigh (1945), The Harvey Girls (1946), and Kiss Me Kate (1953); Sidney directs Williams again in Jupiter's Darling (1955). Esther Williams and Red Skelton both appear in Ziegfeld Follies (1945), Neptune's Daughter (1949), and Texas Carnival (1951). See Williams with different leading men in Easy to Wed (1946), Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949), and Dangerous When Wet (1953). Skelton had a long television career, for which he is best remembered today, but you can see his earlier work in films like Ship Ahoy (1942), Panama Hattie (1942), and Du Barry Was a Lady (1943).
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Where will you find the asphalt jungle?
In a lonely place,
Where danger lives -
There they drive by night,
Lured by brute force
and the sweet smell of success.
Between night and the city,
Somewhere past Sunset Blvd.
You'll find the lady from Shanghai.
"Kiss me deadly," she moans.
Suddenly, in the moonrise,
You see her fallen angel face
And know that it's too late for tears.
"Besides," she says, "the damned don't cry."
What is her name, that phantom lady?
Is it Gilda, Laura, Mildred Pierce?
Out of the past she comes,
From the place where the sidewalk ends.
She's a bad blonde, a black angel,
Born to kill with a touch of evil.
She leaves you spellbound, possessed.
This woman is dangerous.
In the end it's the kiss of death,
You find yourself in the dark corner,
Facing the long goodbye
on dangerous ground.
Farewell, my lovely.
By the time the big clock chimes
you'll be D.O.A.
You're past the turning point.
There's no way out.
You've been a witness to murder
Sleep, my love, and
Kiss tomorrow goodbye.
Tuesday, August 11, 2015
Richard Greene plays the Englishman Sir Ronald Burton, who comes to the Black Forest looking for the vengeful count (Stephen McNally) who killed his friends. Under an assumed name, Sir Ronald gains admission to Count Karl von Bruno's castle as a guest, but his investigation is complicated by his attraction to the count's beautiful wife, Elga (Paula Corday, also known as Rita Corday). When the count discovers the truth about Sir Ronald and Elga, their lives are in peril, but the sympathetic Dr. Meissen (Boris Karloff) offers them a dangerous chance to escape.
Greene, best remembered for playing Robin Hood in a 1960 TV series, makes a charming and likable protagonist, with an early sword fight scene establishing his heroic character. He looks good in his eighteenth-century costume, as well, so we understand why Elga might be attracted to the gallant Englishman instead of her sadistic spouse. Stephen McNally keeps his villain's rage more or less under control until the last quarter of the picture, but Karl still gives us plenty of warning that he's a very dangerous man, and when he finally cuts loose we see the real brute beneath the civilized facade. Corday is lovely as the forcibly wed Elga, although early on she doesn't act as though she understands the extent of her husband's cruelty, and shouldn't she know better than anyone? We get the strange idea that theirs is a chaste marriage, which might make The Black Castle more suitable for the matinee kiddies but doesn't at all address the horror of being married to a psychotic egomaniac.
The tame sexuality is a sign that The Black Castle isn't really a horror film at all, in spite of Karloff and Chaney lurking around the castle's dark corridors. The opening is the most horrific scene in the whole movie, with Sir Ronald and Elga about to be buried alive after taking a powerful drug to evade Karl's evil plans. The story then flashes back to show us how they ended up in such jeopardy. Karloff's Dr. Meissen wavers between good intentions and cowardice as he tries to help the pair escape from Karl, but he's mostly there to advance the plot, and Karloff has to make the most of what he gets. Chaney gets even less to do as the mute henchman Gargon; almost anyone could have lumbered around and grunted in the few scenes where he appears, looking like a cross between Igor and Quasimodo. The more interesting henchman roles go to John Hoyt and Michael Pate as Karl's fellow counts, Steiken and Ernst, with Pate basically reprising his role from The Strange Door (1951).
Be sure to note character actor Henry Corden in the role of Fender; he's best remembered today as the voice of Fred Flintstone. Nathan Juran went on to direct 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and, as Nathan Hertz, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). See Karloff give Count Karl a more sinister role model in The Black Cat (1934), and catch Chaney in a more talkative mood in Inner Sanctum Mysteries like Weird Woman (1944) and The Frozen Ghost (1945). You'll find Richard Greene in The Little Princess (1939), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), and Forever Amber (1947). Stephen McNally, who started his career as Horace McNally, was a regular in Westerns; look for him in Winchester '73 (1950), The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), and Tribute to a Bad Man (1956).
Thursday, July 23, 2015
Thompson plays Major Jeff Cummings, who works at the U.S. Air Force base just outside the bucolic Canadian town of Winthrop, where the locals are none too happy about the constant noise of planes and potential radiation generated by the military's atomic reactors. When villagers start dying under strange circumstances, the Canadians immediately blame the Americans, and Jeff tries to make peace with Barbara (Kim Parker), the attractive but understandably angry sister of the first victim. Jeff soon becomes convinced that Barbara's employer, Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves), is somehow connected to the deaths, but he's not prepared for the truth about the deadly creatures that Walgate's research has unleashed.
The acting in Fiend without a Face is better than that found in most pictures of its era and genre, although a lot of characters are only introduced in order to be killed off by the invisible monsters. The character types represented are familiar, including the practical soldier hero, the smart but feminine love interest, and the overreaching scientist, blinded to the consequences of his actions by his own ambition. Marshall Thompson and Kim Parker play their parts seriously but not woodenly, and they have a nice little romance brewing with moments of humor and humanity. Kynaston Reeves has some good scenes, too, as the aged professor slowly realizes his responsibility for the disaster and struggles to make things right. If the plot is frankly outrageous, and the monsters utterly impossible, the actors are at least good enough to keep the audience invested in the story and not overly conscious of the supremely nutty premise that drives the action forward.
Monster movies live and die, however, on the strength of their real protagonists, the creatures themselves, and Fiend without a Face offers some of the weirdest, most disturbing freaks of psychic science one could possibly imagine. For the first half of the movie they remain invisible, leaving us to deduce their natures from the clues they leave behind after each new attack. Special effects and some energetic acting from the victims offer hints about what the creatures are like and how they kill their prey; a farm couple is strangled, and an autopsy reveals that their brains and spinal cords have been sucked out through small holes in their heads. Later incidents provide new evidence, until the creatures get enough power to make themselves visible and horrify us with the full extent of their monstrosity. Thanks to Professor Walgate's imagination, they look like giant brains with spinal cords attached, and they move like sentient slugs, using tentacles to propel themselves and locate their targets. They ooze grotesquely when shot, and the finale turns into a brain slug bloodbath, with the surviving humans holed up in a house and surrounded by the persistent fiends. Their attack on the house prefigures the violent determination of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968), but the vampire brains know how to cut the phone lines, which makes them even scarier. The brain slugs combine the grossest and most disturbing aspects of several different horror movie creatures, but it's hard to think of anything else quite like them in the genre's history. Where else are you going to get invisible atomic vampire brain slugs that leap on their victims to suck out their spinal cords?
Arthur Crabtree, who directed Fiend without a Face, started as a cinematographer; his other directorial efforts include Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) and a dozen episodes of the 1950s Ivanhoe TV series starring Roger Moore. Marshall Thompson starred on the TV series, Daktari, and also appeared in films like Battleground (1949), To Hell and Back (1955), and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958). Look for character actor Kynaston Reeves in Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) and School for Scoundrels (1960). For more atomic monsters, try The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Them! (1954), and Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster (1955).
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Mitchum plays a young doctor named Jeff Cameron, who unexpectedly meets trouble when the seductive Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue) tries to commit suicide and is placed under his care. Almost immediately, Margo and Jeff begin a steamy romance, and Jeff decides to dump his steady girlfriend, Julie (Maureen O'Sullivan), in order to marry Margo. Jeff finds out too late that Margo is already married, and her husband (Claude Rains) ends up dead after an altercation with Jeff. Dizzy and disoriented from a concussion sustained in the fight, Jeff accompanies Margo on a run for the Mexican border, but her mental instability and the pair's bad luck get worse with every passing hour.
Jeff is one of Mitchum's most straight-laced and passive noir protagonists, just a normal young professional until Margo tempts him into the depths. Admittedly, his resistance is pretty weak, especially when he already has a good match in Julie, who lacks Margo's glamor but shares Jeff's professional world and is grade A wife material. Once he's in over his head, Jeff lets Margo take the lead, largely because he keeps passing out thanks to a poker blow from Margo's husband, but also because Margo constantly manipulates the situation to her own ends. Mitchum's best scenes are the woozy ones, where he doesn't really know what's going on and has to plunge ahead in spite of it, always getting himself deeper and deeper into Margo's crazy scheme. Faith Domergue, perfectly cast as the unstable siren, has her finest moments when Margo is at her worst; the wildest, most maniacal actions light a strange fire in her dark eyes, and we believe that she's capable of anything. Her scenes with Rains are electric; he has just a hint of madness about him, too, so that we understand their attraction to each other as well as their mutual hatred. Sadly, Rains' character gets killed off early in the picture, but his warnings haunt Jeff until the end. "If you take her," Lannington tells Jeff, "it's a long road. There's no turning back!" Like Edward G. Robinson's trolley car speech in Double Indemnity (1944), the admonition proves prophetic.
From the moment Jeff and Lannington have their fatal encounter, the action of the picture never lets up, but the protagonists are driven forward more by cruel quirks of fate than their own intentions. Jeff and Margo think the police are after them long before Lannington's body is actually found, which forces them to abandon their plan to fly to Mexico in favor of a more dangerous journey by car. They make rookie mistakes; neither is an experienced criminal, so they get into more jams and become more desperate with each new error. For Jeff, drifting in and out of consciousness, the trip has a nightmarish quality, reflected in the desolate landscapes and strange characters they encounter. All around them are opportunists, eager to take advantage of their obvious problems, like the car dealer who profits by swapping an antiquated clunker for their car and even gets Margo's forgotten fur coat into the bargain. There's a darkly comical element to many of their misadventures, especially the town that forces them to stop and get married because of some goofy local festival going on. In a screwball comedy it would be the start of marital bliss, but in this setting it's a perverse punishment, giving Jeff exactly what he thought he wanted at a point where he no longer wants it. When he finally realizes the extent of Margo's madness, it's too late to walk away; Jeff and Margo can only be separated by the same kind of violence that first brought them together, and the finale is an explosive confrontation on the Mexican border, a symbolic line that mirrors the film's juxtapositions of good and evil, sanity and madness, and life and death.
For more of Mitchum's noir films, see Out of the Past (1947), The Racket (1951), and Angel Face (1952); he also worked with John Farrow on His Kind of Woman (1951). Faith Domergue's career never quite came together, but you can find her in The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), Santa Fe Passage (1955), and This Island Earth (1955). Catch Claude Rains making other noir turns in Moontide (1942), Notorious (1946), and The Unsuspected (1947). John Farrow also directed Wake Island (1941), for which he won an Oscar for Best Director, Alias Nick Beal (1949), and Hondo (1953). Maureen O'Sullivan, best remembered as Jane to Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan, was married to John Farrow; the two worked together on The Big Clock (1948) as well as Where Danger Lives, but their most famous collaboration would be their actress daughter, Mia Farrow, the third of their seven children.
Friday, July 17, 2015
Fredric March plays former banker Al Stephenson, who returns from years of service in World War II and struggles to resume his civilian life. His wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), has waited faithfully, but his children have grown up in his absence, and his perspective has been permanently altered by his wartime experiences. His companions on the return trip face problems of their own. Fred (Dana Andrews) suffers from traumatic memories of his time as a combat pilot and finds himself unable to land a decent job, while his materialistic wife (Virginia Mayo) resents their poverty and his intrusion on her independence. Homer (Harold Russell), a young sailor, struggles the most; having lost both of his hands in the war, he angrily rejects his family's pity and questions whether his devoted high school sweetheart (Cathy O'Donnell) really wants him for a husband.
Although March won Best Actor for his performance, the strength of the picture really relies on the combined efforts of the ensemble cast, with each character adding a distinct personality and perspective. Director William Wyler weaves the stories together so that each narrative thread gets the attention it merits, and each actor gets a chance to shine. Dana Andrews offers a compelling look at the loss of importance a returning war hero might experience as well as the effects of PTSD, and Fred's crumbling marriage provides a stark contrast to the gentler romantic experiences of Al and Homer. Not every girl waited for her guy to come home, and not every couple could pick up where they left off when the war was over. The film, however, wants to reassure audiences still piecing their own lives back together, so Fred discovers a better love interest in Al's daughter, Peggy (Theresa Wright), who reacts very differently than Fred's wife to his financial problems and his frequent nightmares. Harold Russell, a non-actor who had lost his hands in a military training accident, gives viewers a moving and utterly realistic picture of the wounded veteran's post-war life as Homer, who uses metal hooks strapped to his stumps in place of his lost limbs. Russell might not have the Hollywood looks of his costars, but that only strengthens our sense of his role as an everyman, a regular, all-American guy who might be anyone's brother, son, or sweetheart. The Academy gave Russell an Honorary Oscar for inspiring veterans, never guessing that he might actually win Best Supporting Actor for his role, so Russell ultimately made Oscar history by winning two awards for a single performance.
Unlike war movies that rallied American commitment to the effort during the war or glorified its battles afterward, The Best Years of Our Lives never shows a single combat scene, even in Fred's flashback moments in the cockpit of a decommissioned plane. It does not aim to depict the adrenaline fueled, masculine world of the war itself, but rather the workaday world of jobs and wives and quiet nights at home that follow when the battlefields are left behind, when men must figure out how to be ordinary citizens again and women must learn to love them in spite of how they have changed. Al drinks too much, Fred wakes up screaming, and Homer pushes away the people who care about him most. Each has been irrevocably altered by his experiences, but each works hard to find a way forward. Milly and Homer's girl, Wilma, face their own problems in trying to build futures with these new versions of once familiar men, while Fred's wife, Marie, is unwilling or unable to accept the struggling, humbled civilian after the conveniently absent hero. She's the only person who seems genuinely sorry that the war is over. For her, perhaps, the best years of her life were those when Fred's paycheck arrived without Fred to tell her how to spend it, but for the others, we hope, the years alluded to in the film's title lie ahead. In 1946 it was still an open question, but in the film that hope glimmers like a fervent, quiet prayer. Hadn't these men and women, who had sacrificed so much, earned it with their blood and tears?
Take the time to appreciate Hoagy Carmichael and Gladys George in small supporting roles as the pianist, Butch, and Fred's stepmother, Hortense. William Wyler won two additional Best Director Oscars for Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Ben-Hur (1959), with a total of twelve Best Director nominations over the course of his impressive career. For more of Fredric March, see Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), and I Married a Witch (1942). Myrna Loy is best remembered as William Powell's witty costar in The Thin Man movies, but check out Pre-Code roles in Thirteen Women (1932) and The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) for a contrast to her later, more maternal persona. Don't miss Dana Andrews in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Laura (1944), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). If you like Virginia Mayo's bad girl act, be sure to catch her in White Heat (1949).
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Robert Young plays police detective Finlay, the man in charge of figuring out who killed Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene). Evidence seems to incriminate Corporal Mitchell (George Cooper), one of three soldiers known to have been drinking with Samuels at a bar that night. Mitchell's friend, Keeley (Robert Mitchum), believes that Mitchell is innocent and tries to protect him from the police until the truth can be revealed, but even Mitchell isn't quite clear about what happened. The only people who seem to know what really took place are Mitchell's companions, Montgomery (Robert Ryan) and Floyd (Steve Brodie), and they have their own reasons for letting Mitchell take the blame.
Robert Ryan earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, which drives the picture forward and increases in intensity as the investigation proceeds. Early on, Ryan's character tries to pass himself off as an average guy and upstanding citizen, but Robert Mitchum's Keeley quickly casts doubt on his motives, and Montgomery gives himself away as a bigot with his cracks to Finlay about non-soldiers and people with "funnier names" than Samuels. Ryan plays Montgomery as a stick of dynamite always ready to explode; he shifts from false friendliness into dangerous rage at the barest provocation, making even his unit mates afraid of him. Next to Montgomery, George Cooper's Mitchell looks like a lamb led to the slaughter, and he's actually one of the film's most passive characters, drifting through a mental haze and completely led by the smarter and more active Keeley. During Mitchell's night of confused rambling, he encounters a jaded but ultimately sympathetic working girl, Ginny, played to great effect by Gloria Grahame, who also picked up an Oscar nomination for her performance.
Although anti-Semitism serves as the picture's specific focus, Crossfire invites the viewer to see this kind of prejudice as just one instance of a larger problem. Finlay draws a pointed comparison between the way Jews are mistreated in the 20th century and the way Irish Catholics were abused in the 19th, and he also observes that a minor character, Leroy (William Phipps), is subjected to similar treatment by Montgomery simply for being from Tennessee. Anti-Semitism stands in for all kinds of prejudice, even within the context of the story's production history; in The Brick Foxhole, the original novel by Richard Brooks, the subject was homophobia, but RKO knew that kind of story would never get past the Breen Office, and the screenplay changed the identity of the victim. Crossfire was not the only 1947 picture to deal with the topic of anti-Semitism; the Best Picture winner for that year was Gentleman's Agreement, in which Gregory Peck plays a reporter who pretends to be Jewish in order to find out about bigotry and prejudice for himself. Gentleman's Agreement went home with eight nominations and three wins, while Crossfire struck out with all five of its nominations, but the two movies still make for a provocative double feature.
Edward Dmytryk earned an Oscar nomination for Best Director for Crossfire; his other films include Murder, My Sweet (1944), The Caine Mutiny (1954), and Warlock (1959). See more of Robert Ryan's noir work in The Set-Up (1949), On Dangerous Ground (1951), and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). Don't miss Robert Mitchum taking the villain's role in The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962); you'll find both Mitchum and Ryan in the 1951 noir film, The Racket. Robert Young transitioned to television and lasting fame as Marcus Welby later in his career, but for more of his work from the 1940s see Lady Be Good (1941), The Canterville Ghost (1944), and The Enchanted Cottage (1945). Gloria Grahame later won her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952); she's best remembered today for roles in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Big Heat (1953), and Oklahoma! (1955).