Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Swing Hostess (1944)

There is one major reason to see the 1944 musical Swing Hostess and that’s the fascinating glimpse it provides of weird forgotten technologies. Like the telephone jukebox.

It sounds like an outrageous idea, but it really existed. These were non-automated jukeboxes. You put your coin in the jukebox, then picked up the attached telephone which connected you to an operator in a central control room. This served perhaps several dozen jukeboxes in various locations and contained banks of turntables, one for each jukebox. The operator then played the requested record which was transmitted through the telephone line to the jukebox. Strange but true.

The heroine of this movie, a would-be singer named Judy, gets a job as a jukebox telephone operator while waiting for her big break. We get to see this bizarre operation in action. A friend suggests she should make a record as a kind of early version of an audition tape, and this affords us yet another fascinating glimpse of vanished technology as we get to see a 1940 recording studio in operation, with the recordings made directly onto vinyl. This movie is a treasure trove for old technology junkies.

Back to our story. The ageing owner of the recording studio has discovered a tall blonde singer and has decided she’s going to be the next big star. He has no idea if she can actually sing or not, but she’s tall and blonde and that’s good enough for him. In fact Phoebe can’t sing at all, but there’s a mix-up and a recording of Judy’s song gets released under Phoebe’s name. This gets Phoebe a job as singer with the famed Benny Jackson Orchestra which is about to start a season at a new night-club. Judy had been desperately hoping to land this gig.

The plot revolves around a series of further confusions as Judy and her pal and agent Marge try to sort things out so Judy can get her big break after all. Judy and Marge live in theatrical boarding house inhabited by assorted magicians and acrobats who all pitch in to help.

Yet another interesting thing about this movie is that it’s a musical B-movie, made by Poverty Row studio PRC (famed for the incredible cheapness of most of their movies). In spite of this it manages not to look too shoddy and it does have a certain charm.

The comic relief provided by Benny’s offsider Bobo and by Judy’s pals in the boarding house is less painful than in most American movies of this era. The acting is generally not too bad, and Martha Tilton is likeable enough as Judy. She was in fact better known as a singer than as an actress and sang with Benny Goodman’s Orchestra so she was a fairly substantial singing star and carries off the musical numbers with ease. And as an actress she’s certainly passable.

The songs are decent enough as well. All in all it’s 76 minutes of pretty reasonable entertainment.

It’s in the public domain so it’s easy enough to get hold of (and can of course be downloaded legally). The downloaded print I saw was pretty rough but watchable. have no idea if the various DVD releases are any better. If you can pick it up cheaply it’s worth a look.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Mr Moto’s Last Warning (1939)

The 1930s saw a tremendous vogue for Hollywood B-movies featuring Asian detectives. Since they were based on literary models there was clearly a similar vogue for books featuring Asian detectives. Among the most interesting of the movies were the Mr Moto movies, with Peter Lorre as Mr Moto. Mr Moto’s Last Warning, made in 1939, is a highly entertaining example.

The other well-known Asian movie detectives were of course Mr Wong, played by Boris Karloff, and Charlie Chan. While they have all attracted criticism for having non-Asian actors playing the lead roles the interesting fact is that (based on the few I’ve seen) they don’t appear to be the slightest bit racist. Mr Wong, Charlie Chan and Mr Moto are all brilliant crime-fighters, and brave and honourable men.

Mr Moto is perhaps the most interesting. Unlike the others he is Japanese rather than Chinese, and he’s something of an action hero! Mr Moto’s accomplishments are varied, including a considerable talent for stage magic, and they also include a mastery of judo. It’s odd but highly diverting to see a character played by Peter Lorre as an early martial arts hero.

Mr Moto is also more than a mere detective. He works for what appears to be a distant ancestor of Interpol, and is as much a secret agent as a policeman. In Mr Moto’s Last Warning he must foil a dastardly plan to poison relations between Britain and France by sabotaging the French battle fleet. The plot is absurdly far-fetched but it’s unquestionably amusing and entertaining. It’s set in Egypt but this is the 20th Century Fox backlot version of Egypt.

And the movie features a galaxy of fun B-movie acting talent. There’s Ricardo Cortez as a spymaster masquerading as a second-rate ventriloquist, Virginia Field as his warm-hearted criminal English girlfriend, George Sanders as a French spy and John Carradine as an English spy. There are countless outrageously bad accents.

The movie plays some amusing games with national stereotypes. Mr Moto adopts a movie Japanese accent and persona for the benefit of the locals and the tourists when working undercover, but at other times he speaks faultless English. The national stereotype that comes in for the most outrageous lampooning is in fact the English.

Peter Lorre is a delight, as always.

It’s all silly fun, but thoroughly enjoyable.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bad Blonde (1953)

Bad Blonde (the original British title was the much less picturesque The Flanagan Boy) was one of the series of excellent film noir B-movies made by Hammer Films in Britain in the early 50s, before the company switched to the horror films for which they’re mostly remembered.

These movies all featured one American star, with strong supporting casts of excellent British character actors. The American import was usually someone whose career was no longer flying high, but mostly they were fine actors and Hammer got good value out of them. In this case the US import is Barbara Payton, and she’s the bad blonde.

The Flanagan boy of the British title is Johnny Flanagan (Tony Wright), a merchant seaman and aspiring boxer who is discovered by Sharkey (Sid James) who runs a boxing tent at a carnival. Sharkey believes Flanagan has the potential to be a champion and persuades promotor Giuseppe Vecchi (Frederick Valk) to become the kid’s manager. Everything would be hunky dory except for one thing - the middle-aged and overweight Giuseppe has a very young and very attractive (and very blonde) wife named Lorna (Barbara Payton).

Lorna doesn’t care about Flanagan’s talents in the ring but she’s eager to see how he shapes up in the bedroom. And she’s obviously fairly impressed by his performance. Soon there’s a torrid little love affair going between the two of them. Johnny Flanagan is a nice enough kid but he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer and with Lorna he’s way out of his league. He’s basically like a deer caught in the headlights.

When Lorna mentions to Johnny how wonderful it would be if only Giuseppe could meet with some sort of accident, an accident of the fatal variety, it’s clear that this situation is not going to end well for our innocent bright-eyed young pugilist. He’s nowhere near smart enough even to contemplate getting involved in schemes of that sort, but when Lorna tells him that he really really loves him and she wants them to be together forever then poor Johnny is going to do whatever she asks him to do.

The movie owes quite a bit to The Postman Always Rings Twice, and it compares reasonably well to the 1946 Hollywood adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel. It’s less glossy but that’s actually an advantage. It’s a sordid tale and works better as a B-movie. Reginald le Borg was a capable B-movie director and he’s turned out a well-paced and competent film.

Tony Wright is rather dull as Johnny, but he’s a weak-willed character so that doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that he convinces us that Johnny is naïve enough about women (and life in general) to fall completely under Lorna’s spell.

Barbara Payton’s career was a brief one, cut short by her reckless and scandal-filled private life. She did a couple of good films in the early 50s, most notably the underrated Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye starring opposite James Cagney. As the scandals mounted she found doors closing on her in Hollywood and headed to England where she made two movies for Hammer (the other being the rather good sci-fi film Four Sided Triangle). She makes a terrific femme fatale in Bad Blonde - she’s brassy, sexy and dangerous and in general she’s a very bad blonde indeed.

The big surprise is Sid James as Sharkey. Not just seeing him as a straight character actor (which is what he was until he found fame as a comic actor) but the fact that he’s so good.

I’ve now seen four of Hammer’s film noirs and while the best of them are certainly the ones helmed by Hammer’s ace director Terence Fisher they’re all pretty good, and all are definitely worth seeing. If you love crime B-movies you’ll have a good time with this Bad Blonde.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Swing Time (1936)

Swing Time was the sixth of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals and is often regarded as their best. In fact in many ways it’s a complete mess of a film, but somehow it works.

Fred Astaire is Lucky Garnett, dancer and gambler. After the other members of the theatrical troupe in which he’s performing sabotage his wedding he is given one last chance by the prospective bride’s father. If he goes to New York and comes back with $25,000 he’ll have proved himself responsible enough, and the wedding can go ahead. Lucky reaches New York, but his plans for making that money are disrupted when he meets dance teacher Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers). It isn’t love at first sight, in fact on her part it’s hate at first sight, but somehow they seem destined to be thrown together.

The ramshackle plot throws numerous obstacles in their path but of course you know that in the long run nothing will be able to keep them apart.

That the movie works is no thanks to George Stevens, surely one of the most ponderous of all Hollywood directors of that era. His direction is uninspired and it’s undoubtedly due to him that the movie is too long. It’s also no thanks to the writers. Half a dozen people worked on the script, and it shows. It’s all over the place.

There are other factors counting against the film as well. Lucky has the kind of gratingly unfunny comic sidekick that ruined so many American movies of that era. In this case it’s Victor Moore, and like me you’ll probably spend the whole movie hoping he gets run over by a bus. And there’s a sub-plot involving him and Penny’s buddy from the dancing school, Mabel (Helen Broderick). She’s not as bad as Moore but a little bit of Helen Broderick goes a long way.

The movie works for three reasons. Firstly, Jerome Kern’s music is superb (several of the songs quickly became standards, including A Fine Romance and The Way You Look Tonight). Secondly, it features fabulous art deco-inspired sets and looks wonderful. And thirdly and most importantly, it has Fred and Ginger. When Fred and Ginger are together the movie sparkles. And their dance duets are simply stunning. The dance duets in fact contain all the plot exposition and all the emotional resonance, and all the sexual chemistry, that the movie requires.

Astaire and Rogers had both developed as actors as well as dancers by this time. Whatever other flaws the movie has their performances are faultless. Ginger Rogers is especially impressive.

It’s also an object lesson in how to use dance routines for more than just spectacle. Astaire was becoming steadily more ambitious in his choreography but most crucially when these two dance together they really dance together. The dancing conveys a wealth of emotion. This is not a romantic comedy with musical numbers tossed in - the music, the songs, the dancing, are the heart and soul of the movie.

Astaire and Rogers are in fact so good that even with so many strikes against it Swing Time ends up as a triumph.

This is an example of a movie that I actually appreciated more after listening to the commentary track by John Mueller (apparently a major authority on the Astaire-Rogers films).

He makes some interesting points, including the fact that there was not a single onscreen kiss between Fred and Ginger until their eight film together. This was due to reluctance on Astaire’s part. It was partly because he claimed to feel uncomfortable doing love scenes, and partly because his wife didn’t like the idea of his kissing other women. But Mueller claims the main reason was that for Astaire an onscreen kiss would have been an admission of failure. Astaire considered that the dance duets in the movies were the love scenes and that if they worked properly they would convey everything that needed to be conveyed about the way the characters felt about each other.

The print used for the DVD release is unfortunately not all that great, but it’s perfectly watchable, the sound quality is excellent and the disc includes quite a few extras.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Miss Sadie Thompson (1953)

Miss Sadie Thompson was the third screen adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s classic short story Rain (originally published as Miss Thompson. The second adaptation, made in 1932 under the title Rain and starring Joan Crawford and Walter Huston is in my opinion one of the great Hollywood movies. A remake of this movie in 1953 was always going to have problems, and Miss Sadie Thompson has a multitude of problems.

The plot remains substantially faithful to Maugham’s story. A steamer docks at a small South Pacific island. The passengers are expecting to stay for a day or two but one of the sailors is diagnosed with typhus and the island is placed under quarantine. The passengers will be stuck there for at least a week. The passengers include a doctor and how wife. The doctor represents a scientific, enlightened and tolerant view of the human condition. Also on the passenger list is a missionary Dr Davidson (José Ferrer) and his wife, on a tour of inspection of the mission hospital on the island. Dr Davidson represents an unscientific, bigoted and exceptionally intolerant view of the human condition.

And there’s one more passenger, Miss Sadie Thompson (Rita Hayworth). The marines stationed on the island immediately recognise Sadie as a girl who enjoys a good time. A good time with men. Lots of men. To say she’s an instant hit with the marines would be an understatement. As the doctor remarks, the situation has arrived and it has the marines well in hand.

Dr Davidson is alarmed at the threat that Sadie represents to the moral fibre of the island community, not to mention the effect she’s having on the marines. He has no doubt that wicked women like Sadie must be destroyed before they corrupt the morals of simple folk like the islanders and the marines. In fact the marines are practically queueing up to have Sadie corrupt the morals. The stage is set for a showdown between two mutually incompatible moral outlook, and Dr Davidson is convinced he knows enough about Sadie’s past to destroy her.

Surprisingly the problems are not what you’d expect. Given that the subject matter of Maugham’s story would be enough to give anyone at the Production Code Administration apoplexy you’d think the story would have been severely watered down. But that’s not really the case. For a 1953 movie it’s quite daring. The word prostitute is uttered more than once.

The next paragraph contains spoilers for this movie.

And it’s made very clear that Dr Davidson rapes Sadie. And while in the 1932 version you could argue that Sadie was deliberately provoking the preacher, you can’t make that argument in this case. He rapes her because she is powerless, because no-one will take the word of a known prostitute against that of a preacher, and he rapes her because he hates and fears her. Sadie has done nothing to provoke such a response. It’s hard to think of any 1950s movie that shows a clergyman in a worse light than this film.

The ending is a clumsy attempt to have it both ways, to satisfy the censor while still trying to have an ending that is both happy and moral. It is only possible because Sadie herself has been turned into an innocuous good-time girl who is really only waiting for a nice guy to come along to jump at the chance of marriage, respectability and babies.

End spoilers.

So why does the film fail? Partly because of a ill-advised attempt to turn it into a emi-musical, which is totally incompatible with the very dark plot. Partly because the role of Dr Davidson and his relationship with Sadie is poorly developed, and José Ferrer in nowhere near as good an actor as Walter Huston. And partly because Rita Hayworth is completely wrong for the role of Sadie. She was a fine actress but she was no Joan Crawford, and she is unable to explore the depths of the character the way Crawford did. Crawford’s Sadie is a much stronger character and the struggle between her and the preacher has a kind of epic quality to it. Crawford’s Sadie is both more conniving and more sympathetic, a degree of complexity that Hayworth simply cannot match (at least not given the rather unsatisfactory script that she has to work with).

The Technicolor photography actually works against the movie, robbing it of the claustrophobic feel that made the 1932 version so effective.

The Columbia Region 4 DVD is rather poor - it’s very grainy and the Technicolor cinematography seem rather drab.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Jigsaw (1949)

Jigsaw is a good example of the dangers of believing the IMDb when it tells you that a movie is a film noir. This 1949 B-movie is most certainly not a film noir.

What it is is a combination of mystery thriller and social problem movie. As a mystery thriller its main problems are the complete lack of mystery, suspense and thrills. As for the second genre to which it belongs, social problem movies are my least favourite movie genre and this is a particularly inept example.

Howard Malloy (Franchot Tone) is a virtuous crusading Assistant DA. His pal Charlie Riggs is a virtuous crusading newspaperman. They uncover a dastardly right-wing group called The Crusaders which is making a fortune selling tie pins and badges to its members. You might think that’s a pretty unlikely way to make a fortune but logic is not exactly this movie’s strong point.

Malloy discovers that this group has links to many influential people in business and government, and he meets their most dangerous agent - a beautiful blonde nightclub singer named Barbara Whitfield. The plot meanders about pointlessly until the final showdown in an art galley.

The movie was later re-released as Gun Moll in a vain attempt to make this turkey sound vaguely interesting.

The acting is uniformly awful but Jean Wallace who plays the nightclub singer deserves special mention for one of the worst performances ever put on film. The cringe-inducing dialogue and clunky script did nothing to help the actors. Fletcher Markle’s ham-fisted directing is the icing on the cake.

This is political propaganda at its crudest, a movie that bludgeons the viewer with its message that right-wing conspiracies are everywhere and that they can only be defeated by abandoning dangerous concepts like freedom of speech.

The only merciful thing about this movie is that it only runs for 70 minutes. It’s 70 minutes of unrelieved tedium. Maybe not the worst movie ever made, but it’s definitely a contender.

There are brief cameos by several big stars who must have bitterly regretted being involved in this cinematic fiasco.