Saturday, April 30, 2011

Grey Market Cinema: College Humor (1933)

Back in October 2008, I wrote a review of a movie I had purchased from Vintage Film entitled She Loves Me Not (1934), a breezy little musical comedy starring Miriam Hopkins as a cabaret dancer who witnesses a gangland murder and has to hide out in the college dorm room of a Princeton student played by Bing Crosby.  It’s an enjoyable little romp, though I did mention in the write-up that I couldn’t quite decide which element of the film was more fantastic: Miriam Hopkins’ masquerade as a male student (the movie’s sort of a blueprint for Some Like It Hot, only on the distaff side) or Der Bingle (who was in his thirties at the time of the movie’s release) as a collegiate resident in the hallowed halls of ivy.

After watching College Humor (1933) last night—a rah-rah, sis boom bah movie that casts the Old Groaner as a professor, not a student—it’s a pretty close race between the two films as to which one strains the most credibility.  Bing plays Frederick Danvers, a teacher at a fictional school of higher learning dubbed Mid-West College, but I’m not exactly certain what his field of instruction is there—he would appear to be some sort of fine arts professor, though he spends most of his time singing to his students in class (Learn to Croon) while making time with one particularly fetching coed named Barbara Shirrel (Mary Carlisle).

There’s not a great deal of plot in Humor, which is sort of typical of the many vehicles Bing did for Paramount in the 1930s (both feature films and the short subjects he appeared in for comedy legend Mack Sennett), but it basically revolves around freshman Barney Shirrel and his introduction to collegiate life at good ol’ Mid-West.  Barney is played by comedian Jack Oakie, who’s about the same age as Bing when Der Bingle was attending Princeton in She Loves Me Not—but oddly enough, I didn’t have trouble with Oakie being too old for college because he looks like the sort of guy who would have been held back.  Barney has pledged a fraternity (Delta Alpha) and as such is being hazed by two frat brothers, one played by Richard Arlen who answers only to “Mondrake.”  (Please…no magician jokes.)  The other goes by the handle of Tex Roust, and he’s dramatically brought to life by character great Joe Sawyer, who was being billed as “Joe Sauers“ at this point in his career (I’ll bet it would have been funnier if he had convinced Paramount to use “Joe (Whiskey) Sauers”).  Delta Alpha is the jock fraternity, and all three bros play for Mid-West’s football team…but at one point in the picture Tex has to leave to marry his sweetheart and so he leaves Barney his prized football helmet and some words of advice on handle Mondrake—namely, keep him away from booze and women.

Which is easier said than done—Mon has taken a shine to Barney’s sis Barbara, who as I mentioned previously is making goo-goo eyes at Danvers.  (Again, it’s sort of peculiar that no one is made uncomfortable by this arrangement.)  At a fraternity dance that Barney and Mon are restricted from attending (the football coach has a strict rule about carousing while they’re in training), Danvers sings Learn to Croon for those present and gets flirty with Babs but then Mon shows up unannounced and he’s got a bit of a snootful.  As coincidence usually has it in the movies, this is the night before a big game (they play Nebraska, which I thought was pretty hooty) and when Mon doesn’t show up the next day Danvers volunteers to look for him…and finds the star player suffering in the local drunk tank with a hangover.  Barney helps Mon to recover in time to play and even though Mondrake carries the day and wins Mid-West’s president (Lumsden Hare) is so shocked—shocked, I tell you!—that a college football player would actually party like it’s 1939 that he kicks Mon out of school, despite Danvers’ attempts to intervene on the player’s behalf.

Devastated that his pal can no longer attend Mid-West, Barney attempts to shoulder the burden of being the team’s savior but he’s being beaten badly on the field in the REALLY BIG game against Yarwood College.  (Yes, this is apparently a bigger draw than the Nebraska game.)  It’s not until Danvers and Barbara work the cheering crowd into a frenzy that Barney finds the inspiration to play his heart out and win, and as the film comes to a conclusion Barney has married his college sweetheart, Amber Davis (Mary Kornman), and gotten a job in his father’s butter factory (though he’s having to start at the bottom, loading boxes of the product onto a truck).  Barney and Amber listen to a car radio as Danvers entertains on a radio program (Bing sings Learn to Croon for the umpteenth time) with Barbara at this side; the implication being that he quit his position at Mid-West after his efforts to reinstate Mondrake failed.  (Though the pixie in me likes to think he was shown the door for macking around with one of his students.)

This was the part in Humor’s paper-thin storyline that I had difficulty buying into—I couldn’t understand why everyone wanted to go to bat for Mondrake because the character was kind of a jerk, to be honest.  You could argue, however, that this makes the movie a bit more realistic in that you have somebody who despite his athletic prowess isn’t particularly likable…I knew a few of these douchebags in high school.  Arlen does pretty well in the role, but then again the entire cast for the most part acquits themselves nicely; I was quite impressed with Oakie, with whom I’m familiar with in mostly comedic turns like Million Dollar Legs, Super Sleuth and The Great Dictator…though I did think he was positively aces in the 1949 film noir classic Thieves’ Highway.

It’s either a girdle or he was in fine physical form at this point in his career—you must ultimately make the call.

But there are a number of elements in Humor that I found disappointing, and one of them is that despite the presence of former Our Ganger Mary Kornman Mar doesn’t get much to do and her character is required to emote in this annoying sort of baby talk voice that appears to be the fashion today with comediennes like Sarah Silverman.  Kornman was a delight as a child actress because she had this sort of winsomeness and poise as a kiddie thesp but that sort of dissipated as she got older and moved into adult roles.  She still had a reservoir of charm to fall back on—I think she’s falling-down funny in a Boy Friends short entitled Mama Loves Papa (1931)—but after making this movie she was sort of forced to take the midnight train to appearances in B-movies and the jaw-droppingly awful chapter play Queen of the Jungle (1935).

By the way, for those of you who just now took a sudden interest in the blog I need to warn you that no such sequence of the kind depicted in the above photo appears in the picture.

And speaking of Boy Friends, you might recognize this young rascal…

…yes, it’s our old pal Grady Sutton—billed in the film’s credits as “Timid Freshman.”  My enthusiasm for Sutton is such that he doesn’t even have to say anything in a movie to get me guffawing, but he’s got a wonderful bit in which he brings Oakie’s character his laundry and ends suffering a bit of verbal abuse as a result.  I’ll admit that I may be a bit biased but had I been in charge of this production I would have made Grady’s part much bigger.

Two more role expansions I would have also undertaken would be that of George Burns and Gracie Allen, who get pretty prominent billing in Humor but who are only in the film for two scenes, the longest being the fraternity party sequence where the married duo play the caterers for the whole affair.  George & Gracie started out making one-reel comedies for Paramount in 1930 and soon graduated to specialty bits in many of the studio’s feature films—they did two with W.C. Fields (International House and Six of a Kind) but four with Bing: Humor, The Big Broadcast (which was both Der Bingle and the Burns’ feature film debuts), the delightful We’re Not Dressing and The Big Broadcast of 1936.  George and Gracie’s exchanges are among the comedic highlights of Humor:

GEORGE: Never mind…what about this food here?
GRACIE: Oh—you mean the little snobs on toast?
GRACIE: The little snobs…the little chickens…snobs on toast…you put ‘em in…
GEORGE: Wait a minute…if that’s a snob, then what’s a squab?
GRACIE: Oh, don’t be silly…a squab is an Indian’s wife…

The other George & Gracie encounter occurs during the climactic football game and when Gracie is perturbed that one of the players has been tackled George tries to explain that the object in football is to score a touchdown.  “Well, they didn’t have to knock him down to tell him about it,” she replies.  I’ve always said that my favorite George & Gracie film appearance is in 1937’s A Damsel in Distress because they get to sing and dance with star Fred Astaire in addition to being the comic relief.  But they also get to strut their stuff in Humor in an all-too-brief bit where the two of them do a little song-and-dance, with Gracie singing in a delightful Irish brogue.

This is a little off-topic, but one of my favorite George and Gracie radio broadcasts is from December 1947 on a program in which Bing is their guest and Gracie tries to convince Der Bingle to retire from show business so that George can become the more popular singer.  In outlining her plan to George, she reminds them of when the three of them worked on College Humor and how Bing got to sing all the songs in the film, notably Down the Old Ox Road.  Gracie insists George should have been allowed to sing that because “after all, who knows more about that road than the old ox himself?”

In the entry for Humor at the always reliable IMDb, there is a note that reads: “When it premiered in New York City on 22 June 1933, the running time was 68 minutes and reviewers complained about the ‘choppy’ editing. As a result, missing sequences were restored and the running time was extended to 80 minutes, which is the version presently available on DVD.”  In watching the film last night, I’m not entirely convinced that restoring all those sequences helped the movie because there are still a few continuity jumps and the movie as a whole is sometimes a bit hard to follow (and it certainly shouldn’t be).  But the IMDb goes on further to say that Humor is one of 700 Paramount movies produced between 1929 and 1949 that were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 to distribute on television and as such are owned by that company—and the fact that College Humor is available on the DVD box set The Bing Crosby Collection would seem to indicate that Universal still owns the copyright, so why Vintage Film Buff is still distributing it is a question I can’t answer…I know that they have pulled movies from their inventory in the past (they used to offer the 1927 gangster flick Underworld on DVD but no more—I just happen to have one of them) when someone has raised this issue so it’s entirely possible they may just haven’t gotten around to doing so.  (I haven’t seen the Crosby Collection version of Humor but I’m going to gamble and say it’s a better print than the one VFB distributes, which is admittedly a bit rough in places.)

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Friday, April 29, 2011

Grey Market Cinema Double Feature: Blood Money (1933)/Pleasure Cruise (1933)

Back in October of last year, The Large Association of Movie Blogs offered up a survey to be completed amongst its members to assemble a list of the Top 10 Pre-Code films and out of 86 films (spread out among the 23 voters who participated) submitted this was the AFI-like result:

1.)    Duck Soup [1933]
2.)    Baby Face [1933]
3.)    It Happened One Night [1934]
4.)    Freaks [1932]
6.)    Three On a Match [1932]
7.)    The Public Enemy [1931]
8.)    King Kong [1933]

Two of the films from the LAMB’s final tally were also on my list, which means two things: 1) my tastes are a bit more eclectic than your average classic film fan, and 2) I don’t consider movies like Duck Soup or It Happened One Night to be “pre-Code” films except for the fact that they were produced and released before the Production Code was put into place.  My choices were Five Star Final (1931), The Story of Temple Drake (1933), The Beast of the City (1932), Employees Entrance (1933), Skyscraper Souls (1932), Shanghai Express (1932) and Waterloo Bridgethe original 1931 version with Mae Clarke.  My top pick was the 1933 cult crime melodrama Blood Money…and because I was the only person who put it on their list this would seem to suggest that I am either a) some sort of pathetic movie savant, or b) it’s the best pre-Code film you’ve never seen.

Since I’m not comfortable calling myself a savant because that sort of nickname is a hop-and-a-skip down the path to intolerable cruelty, I’m going to assume many people haven’t seen it.  And if you haven’t, you need to rectify this at your first opportunity.  It turns up every so often on Fox Movie Channel but I was able to buy a copy a few years ago from Vintage Film, and I can honestly say it was money well spent.

George Bancroft is Bill Bailey, a disgraced-cop-turned-bail bondsman and as a result of his new profession traffics between the underworld and proper society, a friend to not only the criminal element but judges, cops and politicians as well.  His services aren’t cheap and he doesn’t let sentimentality get in the way of business—in one scene he has a poor old mother turn over the deed to the family homestead in return for bailing out her sixteen-year-old son.  His “steady” is a nightclub owner named Ruby Darling (Judith Anderson, in her film debut) whose brother Drury (Chick Chandler) has no sooner finished a stretch in the pen when he’s knocked over a bank and stolen some cash and bonds…and because the theft is Drury’s third offense he’ll go to the Big House for life if he’s tried and convicted.  Bailey tells Drury he’ll post his bail and orders him to lay low but if the district attorney (Bradley Page) charges him with the theft he’ll need to jump bail.

The romantic courtship between Bill and Ruby has become a bit strained because Bailey has fallen for a flighty young socialite named Elaine Talbart (Frances Dee), who was caught shoplifting a bag from a department store and subsequently required Bailey’s influence to pull her out of that scrape.  Elaine’s a klepto because she’s also a thrill seeker; she’s fascinated by crime and other forms of immorality and gets a wicked glint in her eye when the subject is discussed.  When she and Bill are at the racetrack to watch a greyhound she has a financial stake in they run across Drury and Elaine goes for the thief like a feline does catnip.  When the heat is turned up on Drury and it looks as if the D.A. will prosecute (Drury’s alibi, a former girlfriend, has decided to sing to the cops) he gets ready to take it on the lam and plans to meet up with Elaine later in an undisclosed hidey hole to get married.  He hands her the cash he’s stolen along with a briefcase filled with bonds—the cash is to square things with Bill, and the bonds need to be disposed of because they’re of no use to him since they’re recorded and easily traceable.

Elaine, greedy little nymphomaniac that she is, hands off the bag to Bill who’s decidedly nonplussed about being handed something worthless and though he explains to Ruby that he’s throwing in with the cops because Drury fleeced him there’s ample evidence to suggest that siccing John Law on her brother is payback for stealing his girl.  So Ruby arranges a meeting with the leaders of the underworld and asks for their help in shutting Bailey down financially…but the mobs soon decide he must be terminated with extreme prejudice.  I’m a little hesitant to reveal the outcome of the film for those who haven’t seen it but Money has one of the most unforgettable wrap-ups in film history when the character of Elaine—who lies, steals and sleeps around for the thrill of it all—contemplates shacking up with a man who’ll probably slap her around on occasion (as she says at one point in the film: “What I need is someone to give me a good thrashing…I’d follow him around like a dog on a leash…”)

A movie with crisp dialogue (much of it loaded with double meanings) and unforgettable characters that depicts an amoral universe, Blood Money was written and directed by Rowland Brown, a young hopeful who came to Hollywood in 1928 to work for Fox Film as a laborer and found himself promoted to screenwriting after two years as a prop and gag man.  He wrote such films as Fugitives (1929), Points West (1929) and The Doorway to Hell (1930) before getting an opportunity to ride herd on a film he also wrote, a gangster flick called Quick Millions (1931) that starred a young Spencer Tracy.  He followed that success with a Richard Dix prison picture entitled Hell’s Highway (1932)—which was shown on TCM one late Saturday evening some time back—while contributing to the screenplays of State’s Attorney (1932) and What Price Hollywood? (1933) and the following year directed his third film in Money, which out of his abbreviated oeuvre ranks as his masterpiece.  His tenure as a director was abbreviated because he did not work or play well with others; he chafed under the rigidity of the studio system and the projects he began work on after Money ended up either aborted or passed on into other hands.

Brown’s employment future in this country went south after he decked a producer in a scuffle and though he fled to England to try and jump-start his career (he was the first assigned director of 1934’s The Scarlet Pimpernel but was fired a month later) the writing was pretty much on the wall as far as directing went and he relegated himself to paying the rent by writing stories and screenplays for films like Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and Johnny Apollo (1940).  Brown’s self-destruction is a pity; he had a unique outlook on the world at the time and what motivated its inhabitants—as film historian Danny Peary (an early champion of Money; he included it in his Cult Movies 2 book) observed:

[Brown] refuses to moralize about one’s participation in crime—which he considers a legitimate business during the Depression, one that helps cities run smoothly—because a person has no obligation to lead the clean life (there is no such thing in Brown’s world).  The only crime of which a person must be ashamed and for which there must be retribution is a double-cross.  If you get caught committing murder or thievery, etc., you just shrug your shoulders and go to jail without regrets; you knew the rules.

Suffice it to say that if a movie like this ever emerged out of the M-G-M stable people would have suspected Louis B. Mayer of hitting the bottle or Irving Thalberg running a white slavery ring.  Instead, Money was produced at 20th Century Pictures (shortly before the company merged with Fox) by Darryl F, Zanuck and its original negative is believed to have been wiped out in the infamous 1937 fire at the studio that ravaged so many films in its vaults.  Money was considered lost for over forty years before it resurfaced as an attraction at film societies in the 70s/80s but because the movie has never been available commercially on VHS or DVD by a major studio it’s pretty much remained unseen by a good many film buffs.  Someone has posted it in multi parts on YouTube, claiming it is out of copyright and therefore requires no licensing to post—and since I’m not a lawyer (though I played one on the short-lived sitcom Miranda Wright, Copyrights Attorney) I will leave this up to your discretion as to whether or not the party responsible speaks the truth.

In the sequence where Elaine seeks Bill’s help in getting her out of the scrape she’s in she provides him with a phony name (“Jane Smith”) and asks to make a private call at a nearby telephone.  Bailey has the phone tapped, and when he learns that her real name is Talbart he has his major domo (Etienne Girardot) look up “Talbart” in the social directory and this is what her finds:

That kills me—“Capitalist.”  (As if the part about “vice president” and “board of directors” wouldn’t have already hipped you to that.)  And for you future TV fans, the woman pictured on the right here has "some ‘splainin to do":

My favorite character in the film is this woman with the monocle…

…who, when offered a cigar by Bancroft’s Bailey inhales it deeply and then says disapprovingly to him: “You big sissy!”  Never fails to break me up.

Paired with Blood Money is Pleasure Cruise (1933), a romantic comedy starring Genevieve Tobin and Roland “Topper” Young.  Tobin and Young are married couple Shirley and Andrew Poole; she’s the breadwinner in the family while he plays house husband (he’s an out-of-work author) and Andy is extremely jealous of the men in Shirl’s office, believing them all to be on the make for his spouse.  (An amusing bit by director Frank Tuttle—shown via a framed photograph of Shirley—lets the audience in on the secret that most of Shirl’s office wolves are elderly men who’d have to down three bowls of Wheaties just to get up the strength to talk to her.)  Andy and Shirley’s marital status is a bit strained due to his jealousy and so he suggests they take separate vacations: he’ll get in a little fishing and she’ll take the titular trip to the Baltic Sea.

But Andy decides to employ a little subterfuge to see for himself if Wifey is being unfaithful—he pulls some strings and gets a shop on the high seas vessel working in the ship’s barbershop so he can eyeball every move Shirley makes.  He’s got good reason to be concerned because one of her fellow passengers, a wolf named Richard Faversham (Ralph Forbes) is in overtime making advances to Mrs. P. even though she spurns him at pretty much every turn.  Hilarious consequences also result when another passenger, Mrs. Signus (Una O’Connor, quite a departure from her usual housekeeper/charwoman roles), has eyes for Andy and in one funny scene Andy hides in the closet in her stateroom to keep Shirley from finding out (she begins yelling at him through the door, convinced he’s Mrs. Signus’ lover, and he tries to throw her off the scent by speaking French).

I have to be honest—I’m not entirely certain why the VFB people wedded this movie to Blood Money (the DVD is called “Pre-Code Hollywood #3”) because after what takes place in Money the situations in Pleasure Cruise will all seem rather tame; several of the reviews at the always reliable IMDb say it’s quite frank and daring because of a scene where Tobin’s character supposedly drunkenly sleeps with Forbes’ sebaceous ladies man…but really, there’s nothing really too daring about this because she actually spends the night with her own husband—who’s locked Forbes in his stateroom, donned a similar dressing gown and splashed Forbes’s cologne in an effort to fool his wife.

Suffice it to say, the only time I really enjoy watching Roland Young is when he’s talking to ghosts or performing miracles and as cruise ships go, I liked it better when he was on the one with Bob Hope and he was trying to kill him.  I haven’t seen Tobin in too many films—The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935) and The Petrified Forest (1936) are the only two I could remember after glancing at the IMDb—but she’s very pleasant in this, and has a naturalness that I liked very much.  Unfortunately, Minna Gombell—who plays Tobin’s confidante—doesn’t get much to do here and she’s always been a particular fave.

Tomorrow, if I achieve my packing quota (and if my next-door neighbor’s cousin comes to collect this free couch I’m giving her) I hope to have up another review of a VFB DVD and I hope that in reading these it will spur you to mosey on over to the site and check out to see if they might have something you’d like (kick the tires, that sort of thing).  After that, Philip “Pinch Hitter” Schweier has sent me a couple more reviews from his current film noir vision quest that I hope to be posting later on next week.

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

“Win as if you were used to it, lose as if you enjoyed it for a change…”

Oh, yeah—this blog’s getting highbrow this morning with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote…but it’s the best one I could find to title this post that also announces the winner of TDOY’s Marlene giveaway, none other than Chuckie Award champion and She Blogged by Night proprietor Stacia Jones.  While Stacia takes her victory lap I want to thank everyone for entering and only wish I had been able to give all the entrants a free copy of Charlotte Chandler’s MARLENE: Marlene Dietrich – A Personal Biography just for e-mailing…particularly my fellow Jaw-jan and blogging colleague Elisson, who made Sprite Zero come out of my nose when he sent me an entry that read: “I vant to be alone... mit dis book in mein hands, so I can read it at mein convenience.”  (Okay, he mixed in a little Garbo there but I still thought it was funny.  I think you will, too; he blogs at Lost in the Cheese Aisle—or to use the German translation, Verloren im Käsegang…)  Thanks again also to the good people at Simon & Schuster for providing the free swag; I'm going to put the TDOY prize closet under lock and key for a brief spell until we've settled in at the new House of Yesteryear.

I’d like to be able to say that I finished packing everything in boxes and am ready to move at a moment’s notice but since I’m under oath I’ll refrain from doing so.  I do, however, have some relatively good news in that my official move date into the new Rancho Yesteryear has been coordinated until next Saturday (a week later than when I originally thought).  And because I have been scribbling some reviews down for one of the best places online to locate hard-to-find movies, Vintage Film, I might be able to offer up a little additional content here between now and Moving Day.

Thursday night is Must-See-TV night here in the House of Yesteryear and I’m pretty stoked because there’ll be new episodes of Community (“Bringin’ it in for a boob bump, ladies…”) and Parks and Recreation…but tonight is also the hail-and-farewell of TV’s Boss-From-Hell, Michael Gary Scott (Steve Carell) of the hit sitcom The Office.  There has been a lengthy discussion on the Internets as to whether or not Carell’s exit should have just wrapped up the series for good—fellow Copeland contributor and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz argues in this well-written essay that they should have already closed the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin even though I strongly disagree.  Others have pointed out that a couple of the last episodes have been a little sloppy with the sentiment, suggesting it’s more of an affectionate goodbye for the actor than the character he plays (I like critic Alan Sepinwall’s dissent on this theory, by the way).  But because I seem to be in a real YouTube mood this morning, here’s a little homemade music video gem that will serve as a reminder to those of us misty with nostalgia of all the good times the show had to offer before Steve decided to hang it up and start work on…well, what is he planning on doing?  Get Smart 2?

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“You cannot bash in the head of an American citizen without written permission from the State Department….”

In Stardust Memories (1980), director-star Woody Allen has a little fun at his own expense (not to mention his fans) when he allows the filmmaker he plays in the movie, Sandy Bates, to be approached by devotees who gush that they’re huge fans of his work, especially his “early, funny movies.”  I can’t help but laugh out loud every time I see this because I admittedly prefer most of Allen’s early vehicles as opposed to the somewhat pretentious content of the films in the twilight of his career.  One of my favorites is Bananas (1971), a film that released to theaters forty years ago on this date and which you can read about over at Edward Copeland on Film…and More—in the essay I discuss how the Woodman pays tribute to many of the film comics of the past, notably the great silent clowns (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd), Bob Hope and especially The Marx Brothers.

And since I couldn’t think of a proper way to finish this post, here’s the trailer for the film on that newfangled YouTube the younger folk keep talking about:

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Just wanted to take a brief second from being smothered by cardboard boxes to remind the TDOY faithful that the deadline for entering the giveaway to win a free copy of Charlotte Chandler’s MARLENE: Marlene Dietrich – A Personal Biography is tonight at 11:59pm EDT.  I’ll choose a winner after that time and then will send that individual his or her prize as soon as I can…assuming I haven’t packed it by accident.  This impressive volume (a $26.00 value) would be most welcome on the bookshelf of any classic movie fan and since I don’t have copies to give out to everyone who entered I wanted to give you a heads-up and let you know that The Classic TV and Film Café is also giving away a copy of this book and you can read the details here.  You can also gaze at a pair of reviews written by (update) three of my fellow CMBA (Classic Movie Blog Association) compadres, Via Margutta 51The Great Entertainers Media Archive and The Lady Eve’s Reel Life (it’s the same dame!), if you’re curious as to what their take is after reading this tome.

On a slightly related subject, The Classic TV and Film Café asked their readers to choose their favorite primetime animated series from “the classic era” and The Flintstones edged out Rocky and His Friends (aka The Bullwinkle Show) on a vote of 38% to 32%.  (Sounds like Pebbles was stuffing the ballot box.)

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Guest Review: Gun Crazy (1950; aka Deadly is the Female)

By Philip Schweier

Before there was Bonnie and Clyde (1967) there was Gun Crazy (1950), the story of two young kids crazy in love. So in love they’d rather not work for a living, and so crazy they turn to crime.

The story begins one rainy night as 14-year-old Bart Tare (Russ Tamblyn, before he moved to New York’s West Side and joined the Jets) gazes longingly in the local hardware store window at a revolver on display. He then picks up a rock, smashes the window and attempts to make off with the firearm, only to stumble at the feet of the local constabulary.

At his hearing, it is revealed that Bart’s older sister is his only guardian, but she’s due to be married in a few weeks, and she and her betrothed want him to live with them. She relates how as a child, Bart became a crack shot with his BB gun, only to snuff out the life of an innocent barnyard chick. Realizing what he’d done, Bart showed true remorse, and would never use a gun to kill. Bart’s two best friends, Dave and Clyde, both agree.

So you see, your honor, Bart didn’t want to hurt anyone. He just wanted to have a gun, since the one he’d brought to class one day was taken away from him. (No, I’m not making that up.)

Nevertheless, it’s not Bart having a gun that’s the problem. He broke the law, and he’s going to have to go away for a while. Years later, following one stint in reform school and another in the army, Bart (John Dall) returns home. Dave (Nedrick Young) is now the editor of the local paper, and Clyde (Harry Lewis), like his father before him, is a deputy sheriff.

The three buddies head off to a carnival, where Bart challenges Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), the carnival’s sharpshooter, and wins.  Bart takes a job with the sideshow, but when the carny owner tries to have his way with Annie, Bart is forced to plug him.

No, wait, that’s not how it happened, though moving in on the girl of a man who’s the best marksman after Sgt. Alvin York isn’t the brightest move a fella could make.

Instead, Bart and Annie leave the heady lights of showbiz and get married, touring the countryside and making goo-goo eyes at each other, until they find themselves in Las Vegas.

You know that saying, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas?” That goes for your money, too.

Finding themselves broke and unable to pay their bill at a two-bit fleabag hotel, the two decide to shoot their way out, taking the meager desk receipts along the way. Thus the two embark on a life of crime, hitting one small target after another.

Interesting thing about their rampage is that Annie seems the one willing and eager to dole out some lead to anyone who stands in their way. Bart’s the one who shows restraint, visions of dead chicks in his head. Eventually, they wise up that the weed of crime bears bitter fruit, and the only way for crime to pay is for them to pull one last big job – an Armour-ed car heist.

As in hot dogs; Armour hot dogs. What kind of thieves steal Armour hot dogs?!

No, it’s the payroll they’re after. They take jobs in the meat-packing plant and make plans to clean out the company. After sketching it all out, it’s agreed – how could this plan miss?

Their big day arrives, and Annie is chastised by her boss (Anne O’Neil, if I’m not mistaken) for wearing slacks at work. “Tomorrow I expect to see you in a dress,” she tells her. “Preferably something low-cut with spaghetti straps.” (Okay, I was in the kitchen during this scene, so I may not have heard that right).

True to form, it all goes horribly wrong, culminating in the deaths of Annie’s boss (I’m sure Annie felt she had it coming) and a luckless security guard. Bart is filled with guilt, but like the dutiful chump he is, he sticks by his killer wife (Wouldn’t you?!) and they take it on the lam.

They return to Bart’s hometown, where Bart’s sister is none too happy with this turn of events, but for the safety of her children, she cooperates. But Bart’s buddies Clyde and Dave soon dope out where he’s hiding. Realizing the jig is up, Bart and Annie lead the authorities on a merry chase into the mountains. Cornered, Annie’s about to open up on Clyde and Dave, but Bart won’t have it. He guns her down, just as police bullets tear into him.

I knew Bart would somehow end up killing Annie, but I figured it would come sooner. I expected her to abandon him to face the judicial music alone, and I was pleased to know the movie wasn’t so predictable.

Joseph H. Lewis directed this little melodrama, and unlike many film noir selections, it’s short on shadows and dramatic lighting, but long on interesting filmmaking. During one bank heist, he places the camera in the back seat of the car, and the audience watches the entire hold-up (shot in a single take) go down as if a passenger in the back seat. Legend has it no one outside the principal actors and people inside the bank aware that a movie was being filmed, so the reaction of bystanders on the street was real.

As for the actors, Peggy Cummins seems to be the poor man’s Lizabeth Scott, but without the husky voice. John Dall kind of reminded me of Jimmy Stewart’s smarmy brother. Tall and lanky, Dall has something of pervy grin on his face much of the time. That is, until he becomes a wanted fugitive. That would wipe the smile of anybody’s face.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Guest Review: The Set-Up (1949)

Frequent Thrilling Days of Yesteryear commenter/contributor Philip Schweier offers up his take on my favorite of actor Robert Ryan’s films—Phil received a DVD set of films noir for Christmas (I’m guessing it was Warner’s Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 1) and apologizes for being so tardy in getting around to seeing them but as he told me in an e-mail: “These Rockford Files episodes don’t watch themselves…”  Mr. Schweier’s guest review-dom will continue later on Wednesday with his ruminations on the noir classic Gun Crazy (1950).

The Set-Up (1949) offers the audience a glimpse into the seedy underbelly of “the sweet science,” boxing. Sure, it’s rampant with fixed bouts, unscrupulous managers and the like, but this film is more of boxing’s nod to film noir – or film noir’s nod to boxing.

Robert Ryan plays Stoker Thompson, a 35-year-old boxer who is clearly past his prime. So far past that his corner men, Tiny and Red (George Tobias and Percy Helton) have set Stoker up to take a dive (hence the title of our melodrama). However, they’ve neglected to let Stoker in on their little scheme; otherwise they’d have to cut him in for a percentage of the money, which turns out to be a measly $50. Sure, it was in 1949 dollars, but it still sounds a little cheap to me. So cheap Red is quite content to gyp his partner out of a larger share of the deal.

Taking a dive would only distract Stoker from his own problems, namely, that his wife Julie (Audrey Totter) is fed up with the fight game. She’s followed her man from town to town, always one punch away from the road to fame and fortune. But as age has crept up on him, it’s clear that he could just as easily end up a punch-drunk palooka like the guy what sells programs over at the arena. She’d be happy enough if he settled down and operated a newsstand or worked as a barkeep somewhere.

Stoker and Julie live in a dingy little fleabag across the street from the arena, in the section of Paradise City where sailors go the moment they hit dry land. No kidding, it looks like Pottersville, the alternate universe town from It’s a Wonderful Life. Saloons, bars, dime-a-dance halls, pinball machines and other risky propositions are enthusiastically patronized by gamblers, bookies and “women of negotiable affection.”

So when Julie decides she’s not going to the fight to cheer Stoker on, he of course doesn’t believe her. “A fighter’s gotta fight,” he tells her, and heads over to the arena where he joins other fighters in a tiny locker room that looks like it was borrowed from the second basement of the local Catholic school. No less than six different fighters share close quarters, from rookie high school athletes to brain-damaged mooks. There’s even a token Negro (to use the vernacular of the day) fighter, Luther Hawkins (played by James Edwards).

I actually found this interesting, given the shared locker room in the age of segregation in which the film is set, but further research revealed the film is based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March, in which the fighter in question is black. According (apply grain of salt here), it was the intention of director Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music) to cast a black actor in the lead role, but was unable to find a suitable African American thespian is those pre-Sydney Poitier days.

Nevertheless, Luther plays a pivotal role, insisting he has a feeling in his bones he’s going to take his opponent, which he does. Practically from his introduction, Stoker has been insisting the same thing, and when Luther wins his fight, it convinces Stoker there’s no way he could lose.

This brings us back to Red and Tiny, and their collusion with Little Boy (Alan Baxter), the local crime lord. They’re so convinced Stoker’s going to lose the fight, they see no reason to bother Stoker with such details? As Red explains it, “There's no percentage in smartenin' up a chump.”

So Stoker enters the ring, aware that his missus has decided to take a powder for the evening. She spends her time wandering the nearby streets of the neighborhood, dodging one Damon Runyon reject after another, while Stoker gazes longingly at her empty seat in section C, row 4. But her absence is perhaps just the tonic he needs to duke it out with Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling), a 23-year-old boxer clearly in his prime.

Nelson complains that Stoker seems to fighting for real, but is told that Stoker needs to make it look good, and despite a second wind in the third, it looks like he’s (finally) down for the count, as prescribed. But wait! He’s getting back up! And the story stretches into the fourth round, where a solid punch lays Nelson out and Stoker is declared the winner.

Back in the locker room, all the other fighters have left (Stoker’s event was the last fight of the evening), and only Gus the locker room attendee (Wallace Ford) and his assistant are left, playing solitaire and reading Thrilling Romances. So when Little Boy and his goons enter looking to give Stoker his due (Red and Tiny vanished a long time ago), Gus and his pal are only too happy to beat a hasty retreat.

Fans of film noir crime drama are likely to be disappointed. Instead of shoot-outs and prowling around in the shadows, we’re treated to moments of Stoker staring across the street at his hotel room windows, hoping his wife will comes see him fight. But the action is dark and gritty, with a palpable hint of danger easily felt by the audience.

Nevertheless, the film has a number of interesting elements. One is that there is no theme music at the beginning or end of the movie. It starts with the sound of the bell, and opening credits are played over the sounds of a boxing match. Closing credits roll as sirens and police cars arrive on scene.

Another is that the story unfolds, more or less, in real time. It starts approximately at 9:05, as the early bouts are in full swings and Red meets with Little Boy’s fixer Danny (Edwin Max), running through the matches just a little more than an hour later.

But what I enjoyed most were the patrons of the boxing ring, as they stand about commenting on the night’s match-ups. One woman complains that she only comes to the fights because her family brings her, and how she spends most of them with her hands over her eyes. Later, she is shown enthusiastically yelling “KILL HIM!” during the Stoker Thompson-Tiger Nelson fight.

Other audience members get into the spectacle with varying degrees of interest. One sports fan splits his time between the fights and a baseball game on his portable radio. Another seems to be more a fan of the concession stand than the ring, downing popcorn, burgers, hot dogs, beer and more popcorn within the film’s 72 minutes. A blind member of the audience has the action described to him, urging one fighter “Go for his eyes.” Most notable is Herbert Anderson, famous for his role as the father of Dennis the Menace in the classic TV series, as a fight fan.

Ryan, as Stoker, brings a certain verisimilitude to the story, as he was boxer during his days at Dartmouth. But less important than the boxing is his ability to play the every man – every man who ever believed in himself even when the woman who professes to love him no longer shares his faith; every man who struggles against his own advancing years and creeping mortality; every man who ever had a dream beaten out of him.

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