Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Love Parade (1929)

Love Parade2

The Love Parade is one of four movies included in Criterion’s Eclipse Series boxed set of Ernst Lubitsch musicals. Made in 1929 for Paramount, The Love Parade is the earliest of the four. And it’s sheer delight.

The tiny central European kingdom of Sylvania is ruled by Queen Louise (Jeanette MacDonald). The queen is unmarried, a situation that has caused considerable concern to her councillors. Many suitors have been put forward, but all have been rejected by the queen.

Count Alfred Renard (Maurice Chevalier) is attached to the embassy of Sylvania in Paris. The count has acclimatised himself rather too well to life in Paris. He has been at the centre of a series of scandalous affairs, all of them involving beautiful young ladies. Now Count Alfred has been recalled to Sylvania in disgrace. He has been ordered to report to the queen in person to await her decision on a suitable punishment. The queen ultimately decides that his punishment will be to be constantly by her side. It is obvious that he has won Queen Louise’s heart and that he is equally smitten.


It is not long before their marriage is announced. Count Alfred will be the Prince Consort. He soon discovers that this impressive-sounding title is in fact attached to a position that requires him to do nothing at all apart from being the queen’s faithful husband. Inevitably he finds himself bored by his lack of meaningful duties and irked by the fact that he has no powers at all, not even over his wife. The marriage proves to be less than successful.

Meanwhile Count Alfred’s faithful servant Jacques (Lupino Lane) has been courting Lulu (Lillian Roth). Jacques discovers that life as a commoner is far less complicated than the lives of queens and prince consorts, a discovery that Count Alfred is also making.

The fact that Queen Louise and her Prince Consort are drifting apart causes great consternation among the queen’s numerous band of councillors. But can the royal marriage be saved? Since this is a musical there are no prizes for guessing the answer.


While this is certainly a musical Lubitsch is also able to make it a delightful and witty marital comedy.

The music is rather different from that featured in most Hollywood musicals of the period (being much less jazz-influenced than was usual), and indeed the structure of the movie is rather different as well. This is more of an operetta  than a standard musical. The music is however is just as appealing and just as wonderful as everything else in this movie. Dream Lover and My Love Parade are terrific songs.


I had no idea that Maurice Chevalier had once been young. But young he certainly is. He turns the charm up to full volume, to an extent that could easily have become irritating but fortunately isn’t. This is the movie that made Jeanette MacDonald a star and it’s not difficult to see why. She’s a great singer and as an actress she’s sexy, playful and utterly enchanting. Chevalier and MacDonald have perfect chemistry.

Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth provide the comic relief, and thankfully they don’t overdo it. They work superbly together and they are genuinely funny. That’s not to say that Chevalier and MacDonald don’t get plenty of opportunities to be amusing - they do and a fine job they make of it.


Picture quality on this disc is very disappointing. Anyone who thinks that because it is from Criterion they’re going to get an immaculately restored pristine print will have their hopes dashed. The picture is very grainy and flickery and there is considerable print damage. It’s better than Alpha Video quality but not much better. The source print was undoubtedly in very poor condition and sadly this is probably going to be the best transfer we’re ever going to get.

Luckily The Love Parade is such a gloriously frothy and delightful confection that you will soon find yourself not noticing the imperfections of the print. This is one of the most delectable musicals I’ve ever seen. It’s an absolute must-watch for fans of musicals or for fans of Lubitsch. This is the famed Lubitsch Touch at its best. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Tight Spot (1955)

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Tight Spot sounds like a movie that has the makings of a nifty little film noir thriller. With Phil Karlson directing our hopes are going to be even higher. What we actually get is something rather different, but it’s still something worth seeing.

Lloyd Hallett (Edward G. Robinson) is a government attorney who’s been trying to nail mobster Ben Costain (Lorne Greene). Finally he thinks he may have a chance. He can’t get Costain on any serious criminal charge but he might be able to get Costain’s US residency revoked, on the grounds that Costain perjured himself when he applied for residency may years earlier. That way he can at least get Costain deported. And if he succeeds it’s just possible that he may be able to get people to come forward to testify against the gangster on more serious charges. But first he needs a witness to prove that Costain perjured himself. He had one but that witness is now kind of deceased, very suddenly. Getting pumped full of lead tends to make you get deceased pretty quickly.


Now Hallett has only one remaining possible witness - Sherry Conley (Ginger Rogers). Conley is serving time in a women’s prison, but if she can be persuaded to testify Hallett’s chances of nailing Costain are good. Of course persuading Sherry Conley might take some doing. Sherry is no fool and she has the idea that getting on the witness stand might lead to her becoming suddenly deceased as well.

The first step is to get Sherry somewhere safe. That job falls to detective Lieutenant Vince Striker (Brian Keith). Vince and Sherry don’t exactly hit it off. Policemen aren’t Sherry’s favourite people. Vince has other problems besides the fact that Sherry isn’t a fan of cops. Costain’s goons are going to be after her very soon and keeping her alive will be enough of a challenge. Getting her to agree on taking the witness stand seems like it’s going to be pretty challenging as well.


It’s a pretty standard crime thriller plot but plenty of excellent movies have been made with that kind of material. The surprise here is that the focus is not on the thriller plot so much as on Sherry herself, and on the tense love-hate relationship that develops between her and Lt. Striker. This is a character-driven piece rather than a plot-driven one. That means it’s going to have to rely very much on the performances on the three main players, and especially on Brian Keith and Ginger Rogers.

Ginger Rogers’ brilliance as a dancer is what her fame is always going to rest on but she was always a pretty decent actress. Casting her as a convict might not seem obvious but  Sherry Conley is not just hardboiled, she also has a wry sense of humour and she’s fundamentally good-natured even if that good nature has taken a few knocks along the way from the kind of life she’s led. It’s the sort of role Rogers was quite capable of handling and she does it very well here.


Brian Keith is a somewhat underrated actor who also has the ability to be hardboiled and gruffly sensitive. It’s obvious from the start that he and Rogers are going to work well together. With Edward G. Robinson in good form as well the movie’s focus on the characters rather than the plot works better than you might expect. Katherine Anderson as kindly prison warder Willoughby (who has to help baby-sitting the state’s prize witness) and Lorne Greene as mobster Costain provide good support.

With Phil Karlson in the director’s chair and Burnett Guffey doing the cinematography the thriller aspects of the movie are in good hands. Most of the action takes place in a hotel room which offers fewer possibilities than usual for getting a distinctive noir look. It also means the movie runs the risk of seeming very studio-bound but in fact the hotel room setting gives the movie a nicely claustrophobic feel. Lt Striker and Sherry are essentially in a trap. They’re not just in danger if they leave the room, they’re in danger if they stay there as well. William Bowers’ screenplay has enough in it, and just enough twists, to keep us interested.


The DVD transfer (in the Columbia Film Noir Classics III boxed set) is slightly grainy but is in general extremely good. It’s widescreen and anamorphic and contrast is good.

This is a tense study of a woman who has to overcome a considerable sense of grievance and self-pity. She has to learn that taking responsibility and giving instead of taking might actually be the key to rebuilding her life, and most of all she has to learn to believe that her life really can be rebuilt. She has to see herself as being worth something. To do this she has to learn to trust people, but if you’re going to do that you have to make sure you trust the right people.

Ginger Rogers’ fine performance is really the movie’s strongest point but it’s a good little noir thriller as well. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Hell Is a City (1960)

Britain's Hammer Films had made quite a few film noir-flavoured crime B-movies in the early 1950s. In 1960 they returned to the crime movie, but this time on a slightly more lavish scale, with the excellent Hell Is a City. Val Guest wrote and directed this gritty crime thriller which is really more of a police procedural than a full-blooded film noir.

Inspector Harry Martineau (Stanley Baker) of the Manchester City Police had been responsible for sending Don Starling (John Crawford) down for a long stretch. Now Starling has broken out of prison and Martineau wants very badly to send him back there. Starling badly injured a warder in the course of his gaol break so the whole force is equally anxious to get him. Reports of sightings of Starling have come in from all over the country but Martineau is convinced he will turn up in Manchester again.

Martineau’s judgment proves to be correct. Starling is back in the city, and being on the run he needs money. A lot of it. If the warder dies (which seems likely) it will be murder so Starling intends to skip the country. To raise the cash he organises a robbery, using the same accomplices who had been with him on his last job, the one he got sent down for. His plan is to rob bookmaker Gus Hawkins (Donald Pleasence). Actually the plan is to rob the bookie’s two clerks while they’re on the way to the bank with the previous day’s takings.

The robbery goes like clockwork, apart from one small detail. The gang had bundled 19-year-old Cecily Wainwright into the car with them and she started screaming so to shut her up Starling hit her. He hit her hard. Too hard. Starling could find himself facing two murder charges. But they can only hang you once so Starling is now more dangerous than ever.

Martineau and his sergeant, Devery (Geoffrey Frederick), get a lucky break on the Hawkins robbery case. Some of the money included in the bookie’s takings was stolen money, money that had been marked with a dye. Anyone touching that money will have their hands stained green.

Martineau doesn’t yet know that Starling was involved in the Hawkins robbery but he has his suspicions. Meanwhile an increasingly desperate Starling is looking for a place to hide out.

Stanley Baker was one of the great British screen actors and he gives another fine performance here. The movie’s focus is as much on Martineau, and on his increasingly rocky marriage, as it is on the hunt for Starling. Martineau is under pressure both at home and on the job. But that’s not going to distract him from hunting down Starling. Martineau takes his job very seriously. Baker shows us just the right amount of Martineau’s sensitive side and he does it subtly, the inspector not being the sort of man who likes to reveal his inner feelings.

John Crawford is good as the violent and ruthless Starling. Donald Pleasence gives a nicely judged performance as Gus Hawkins, the bookmaker who turns out to be a rather kindly man with his own marital problems.

Billie Whitelaw gets the femme fatale role as Gus’s wife Chloe, who happens to be an old flame of Don Starling’s. Poor Gus didn’t know what he was getting into when he married Chloe. Whitelaw is terrific. The other supporting players are solid.

Val Guest did some notable movies for Hammer and this is one of his best. While it’s not really noir it is very stylish, as you’d expect with Guest directing and Hammer’s ace cinematographer Arthur Grant behind the camera. British thrillers of the 50s often seemed to end with chases over rooftops and the one in this film is particularly well done.

Hammer became noted for their ability to make movies that looked more expensive than they were and this film certainly looks impressive.

The UK Cinema Club DVD offers a very fine anamorphic transfer (the movie was shot in black-and-white in 2.35:1 aspect ratio using Hammer’s Hammerscope process). Picture quality is very crisp and contrast is excellent.

Hell Is a City is a fine example of the superb thrillers the British film industry was making at this period. It’s a perfect blending of police procedural and thriller elements, well-crafted and well-acted. A thoroughly entertaining crime movie. Even if it’s not really noir fans of that genre will still find plenty to enjoy here. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Adventure in Sahara (1938)

Adventure in Sahara1

The Samuel Fuller Collection DVD boxed set is a bit of a misnomer. Several of these movies can’t really be described as Sam Fuller movies. They’re movies released by Columbia with a Sam Fuller connection, but that’s not quite the same thing. Adventure in Sahara, dating from 1938, was based on an original story by Fuller but that’s the extent of his contribution.

This is a fairly standard Foreign Legion adventure. Even in 1938 the cruel sadistic Foreign Legion officer who drives his men to mutiny was a rather tired cliché.


In this case the cruel sadistic officer is Captain Savatt (C. Henry Gordon). When American aviator Jim Wilson (Paul Kelly) receives word that his brother Robert is dead, he decides he wants to meet this Captain Savatt. His brother had enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and his letters had suggested to Jim that Captain Savatt’s brutal discipline had been the cause of Robert’s death. So Jim now enlists in the Foreign Legion and requests that he be sent to the unit commanded by Captain Savatt.

Captain Savatt’s command is Fort Agadez, a remote outpost in the Sahara Desert. Jim soon discovers that Savatt is more than just a brutal disciplinarian. He is a sadist who enjoys hounding men to their death. Eventually the men cannot take this treatment any longer. They propose to mutiny, and they have selected Jim Wilson to lead the mutiny.


The situation is complicated for Jim by the presence of his girlfriend Carla (Lorna Gray) at Fort Agadez. Carla is also a flyer and she had set out to look for Jim. Her plane came down near the fort and she is now Captain Savatt’s guest. Carla doesn’t understand why Jim would be leading a mutiny and she doesn’t like it.

Also unhappy is Lieutenant Dumond (Robert Fiske). Dumond is a good officer and he is also a humane man. The men have no quarrel with Dumond but when the mutiny breaks out he feels that his duty compels him to oppose it. Nobody, least of all Jim Wilson, wants to harm Dumond but they don’t really know what to do with him.


Jim had come up with an ingenious plan for disposing of Savatt in such a way that it would appear that Savatt and the men loyal to him had been killed by the Arabs. Savatt and his loyal troops are given one bullet each and enough food to get them well clear of the fort, but not enough food to allow them to reach the nearest outpost. But is a man like Savatt going to be so easy to kill? Whatever his faults Savatt is a brave man of iron determination and he has no intention of perishing in the desert. He intends to survive and to take his revenge on the mutineers.

The characterisation in this movie is pretty simplistic. Savatt is a cardboard cut-out villain while Jim Wilson is the brave noble hero. C. Henry Gordon manages to make Savatt a memorable figure even if he can’t give him any great complexity. Paul Kelly is unable to make Jim Wilson much more than a clichéd and slightly dull hero. The other characters in the movie are divided into equally simplistic categories of good guys and bad guys. Dwight Frye probably could have made Gravett, Savatt’s loyal informer among the men, into something interesting but he isn’t given sufficient screen time.


Director D. Ross Lederman churned out enormous numbers of B features. His one great virtue as a director was his ability to keep within limited budgets and tight shooting schedules. He was typical of the directors who spend their whole Hollywood careers turning out unambitious but solid B-movies. Unambitious and solid seems like a fair way of describing this movie.

It’s impossible to say to what extent Maxwell Shane’s screenplay reflects Fuller’s original story. The story was in any case early Fuller, before he developed his much more colourful and much more intense mature style.

The DVD offers us a very good print of this largely forgotten movie. em>Adventure in Sahara
is a harmless time-waster. If you buy the Sam Fuller boxed set you’ll buy it for other more notable movies but there’s no reason not to give this one a spin.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Big Bluff (1955)

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The Big Bluff is a low-budget 1955 crime movie that is almost dark enough to be film noir, but not quite. Nevertheless it’s a nifty little crime flick that is worth a look.

Valerie Bancroft (Martha Vickers) is a rich girl who has it all. Or rather, she had it all until one tiny complication came up. She has heart problems. Bad heart problems. Her doctor believes she’ll be lucky to live another year.

No-one is prepared to take the responsibility for telling her she’s dying. Marsha Jordan (Eve Miller) is her secretary/companion, and the closest thing she has to actual family. She can’t bear the idea of telling Valerie the truth, but she agrees with Valerie’s doctor when he advises her to get out of New York and take a relaxing vacation. As it turns out, LA might not have been the wisest choice of a place where Valerie can relax.


What Valerie finds in LA is not relaxation but love. She falls in a big way for the handsome charming Ricardo de Villa (John Bromfield), Rick to his friends. Marsha Jordan sees through Rick right from the start. To her it’s obvious that Rick is only after Valerie’s money but Valerie can’t see it. She is convinced that she has found True Love at last.

The audience already knows that Marsha is right. Rick is a two-bit gigolo, a low-life loser who has always lived off women. Rick thinks he’s found the proverbial gold mine - not only is Valerie rich but he won’t even have the bother of having to kill her. If he marries her he has only to wait a few months before she conveniently dies. You see Valerie’s doctor, the well-meaning but overly trusting Dr Peter Kirk (Robert Hutton) has spilled the beans about Valerie’s heart condition.


For a small-time swindler like Rick it seems like a perfect set-up. In a few months’ time he will be a very wealthy widower and then he can marry Fritzie (Rosemarie Stack). Fritzie is already married, to the very jealous Don Darvell (Eddie Bee), but Rick is confident this is is a minor problem that can easily be circumvented. Very soon there are wedding bells for Valerie and Rick.

It all seems ridiculously easy but there’s an unexpected snag. You might think that the excitement of marriage would be too much for someone as ill as Valerie, but in fact marriage proves to be very good for her. So good in fact that within a few months Peter  is able to report an astonishing improvement in her health. Her health has improved so much that he is now inclined to be quite optimistic about her prognosis. He gives her husband Rick the good news - Valerie is not going to die after all. As you might expect this good news is not good news at all for Rick. He now has the one thing that he and Fritzie hadn’t counted on, a healthy wife who might live for decades.


This changes everything for Rick and he will now have to take some active steps, but this is where he proves to be less than sure-footed.

Fred Freiberger’s screenplay is predictable but this is the sort of movie where that doesn’t matter too much. Our anticipation of events generates much of the suspense and although  the twist ending is unlikely to come as a major surprise it’s still enjoyable enough watching it unfold.

Director W. Lee Wilder was Billy Wilder’s brother. He had a fairy lengthy but undistinguished career. He does a reasonably good job here. He has quite a fondness for low-angle shots which he uses effectively.


John Bromfield’s performance is the key to the success of this movie. He has to convince us that even though he’s an obvious low-life he can still fool Valerie and keep on fooling her. This he does quite effectively. Valerie is a problematic heroine - the viewer is likely to be quite irritated by her obtuseness and naïvete where Rick is concerned. The supporting cast is generally good, a pleasant surprise in what was clearly a low-budget movie from an obscure independent production company.

Every now and then Alpha Video will release a DVD that pleasantly surprises us by being of quite reasonable quality. We then get lulled into a false sense of security and we think it is safe to buy further DVDs from this company. And then along comes a DVD like this one and we are reminded of just how atrocious an Alpha Video DVD can be. This is a truly horrific transfer. It looks like a bad twelfth-generation VHS tape that has been left out in the rain for a few weeks and then rescued from somebody’s trash can. This is a truly miserable DVD presentation.

Having said that, the Alpha Video DVD is probably going to be your only chance to see this forgotten movie. If you’re a connoisseur of crime B-movies this one is worth checking out. It’s no masterpiece but it’s perfectly decent entertainment.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Houston Story (1956)

The Houston Story belongs to what may be one of the rarest of all film noir sub-genres - the Texas noir. The Lone Star State may not be an obvious noir setting but it works pretty well in this underrated movie.

Gene Barry is Frank Duncan, an oil driller with big dreams. He’s come up with what he thinks is a great money-making scheme. All he needs is the finance to get it rolling. The finance will have to come from the Mob. You see, Frank’s scheme is not exactly honest. His idea is to tap into existing oil wells and steal the oil, on a very large scale. First he needs to make some mob connections, which he does in a rather ingenious but obscure way by planting a story that a certain dead body that has been found belongs to a popular canary, a canary who just happens to be the girlfriend of a mobster.

Frank eventually achieves his object - he gets a meeting with Paul Atlas (Edward Arnold). Atlas controls the Mob’s operations in this territory. Frank sells Atlas on his plan. Frank is now in, but he’s not as far in as he thinks he is. What Frank fails to realise is that even though the Mob needs his knowledge of the oil business they will never trust him completely. He’s an outsider, and he’s an ambitious outsider which makes him even more suspect.

An even bigger problem for Frank is Zoe Crane (Barbara Hale). She’s the singer he used to make contact with Atlas. Zoe’s boyfriend is Gordy Shay (Paul Richards), Paul Atlas’s second-in-command. Shay is already annoyed by Frank’s raid rise in the organisation and he’s also insanely jealous where Zoe is concerned. And it’s pretty obvious that Zoe and Frank Duncan have been making eyes at each other. In the fullness of time Shay’s consequent dislike of Frank will have serious repercussions, for both Shay and Frank.

Gene Barry is best remembered for his starring role in the immensely popular early 60s TV series Burke’s Law. The easy charm he displayed in that series stands him in good stead here. Frank is a guy who uses his charm to get what he wants, especially from women. The doubt that one has initially is whether Barry can adequately convey Frank’s ruthlessness and ambition. In fact he does a very fine job. Frank is a convincing crook but his essential likeability ensures that he never loses the audience’s sympathy, and that sympathy is of course essential in a film noir.

Barbara Hale makes an effective femme fatale. Zoe is every bit as ruthless as Frank, and possibly even more so. She is not interested in a man unless he has power and money, especially money, and she will dump a guy in the twinkling of an eye if he is no longer able to provide her with what she wants.

Jeanne Cooper is adequate in the role of Madge, a waitress in a cafe frequented by oil drillers. She’s another of Frank’s women, but she is no real competition for the glamorous Zoe. Edward Arnold does well as Paul Atlas, a mobster with a couple of weaknesses that will play an important role as the plot unfolds. Paul Richards is a bit too much of a weasel to carry off the role of Gordy convincingly.

This is one of a number of crime B-movies with a touch of noir that were directed by William Castle before he found his true niche in horror. Castle was always keenly aware of the golden rule that whatever else you might do you must never let the audience become bored. There’s not much chance of that happening in this taut 79-minute feature. Robert E. Kent’s script avoids too many obvious noir clichés.

While Frank is a crook, or at least an aspiring crook, right from the get-go he can still be seen as a noir hero. He’s driven by his ambition and his greed but the world of big-time organised crime turns out to be a whole lot nastier than he’d expected. He’s dishonest but he’s not evil enough to fit easily and successfully into this world.

Sony have released this movie as a made-on-demand DVD. Picture quality is slightly grainy but generally pretty good. Sound quality is fine. The transfer is widescreen and anamorphic.

The Houston Story is a nifty little B noir that benefits from its slightly unusual setting. Well-crafted and well-acted and thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Lady Confesses (1945)

PRC was just about the bottom of the barrel as Hollywood studios went in the golden age so it’s always best not to approach one of their releases with excessively high expectations. Having said that, The Lady Confesses is a pretty decent murder mystery with a faint tinge of noir.

Larry Craig (Hugh Beaumont) and Vicky McGuire (Mary Beth Hughes) are planning to get married. Or at least they were, until Larry’s wife turned up one day. Norma Craig had disappeared almost seven years earlier. Once the full seven years is up the court will consider her to be legally dead and Larry and Vicky can marry. So Mrs Craig’s sudden reappearance is inconvenient to say the least.

That inconvenience is soon removed. Norma Craig is found dead. Murdered in fact. Given that Larry and Vicky both had motives for wanting her permanently out of the way it’s not altogether surprising that the idea that one of both of them might have murdered Mrs Craig  has occurred to the cops. Captain Brown (Emmett Vogan) has certainly given the idea some consideration.

Larry has a reasonably good alibi. Several people saw him at the 711 Club on the evening his wife was killed, although curiously enough club owner Lucky Brandon (Edmund MacDonald) denies having seen Larry. That’s odd, since they had a conversation in his office and somewhat later that night Larry saw Lucky come in the back door of the club. Coming in the back door is something else that Lucky denies, so the thought has now occurred to Larry and Vicky that Lucky might have been involved in the murder.

Vicky has no alibi at all so it’s a matter of some urgency that the police should find the killer as soon as possible. So Vicky decides to play at amateur detective for a while. And of course goes very close to getting herself killed in the process.

Mary Beth Hughes was a more than competent actress who made a lot of movies and her filmography includes a number of movies in the film noir and mystery genres. She gives a fine performance here. She was quite capable of playing the femme fatale (and did so to considerable effect in Anthony Mann’s very underrated The Great Flamarion) but in The Lady Confesses she’s the heroine, and a rather bright and breezy one.

Hugh Beaumont is quite adequate as the male lead. The Poverty Row studios lacked the roster of talented character players that all the major studios possessed but the supporting cast here is not overly bad, with Claudia Drake being quite good as night-club chanteuse Lucille (who seems to know more about the murder than she should).

Sam Newfield was an incredibly prolific director of B-movies, mostly of the very low budget variety, for an assortment of Poverty Row studios. He had a reputation for being able to churn out movies very quickly and on budget. Within the inevitable limitations entailed by rock-bottom budgets he was quite competent and he does a solid job with this one. The low budget helps to make this movie look more noir than it intended to be. You always get plenty of shadows in a PRC movie - they don’t want you looking too closely at their threadbare sets. Combined with the sleazy glamour ambience that always comes from night-club settings this is just enough to qualify this offering as a film noir.

Helen Martin’s screenplay doesn’t exactly break new ground but it has enough twists to maintain the audience’s interest.

Alpha Video’s DVD release is about what you expect from that company. Picture and sound quality are fairly poor but the movie is still quite watchable.

The Lady Confesses is a reasonably diverting way to spend 64 minutes. It’s no masterpiece but it’s worth a watch for fans of 1940s crime B-movies.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Too Many Husbands (1940)

Too Many Husbands, made at Columbia in 1940, makes use of the woman with two husbands idea. This idea, and variations on it, seemed to have an endless fascination for the makers of screwball comedies.

Vicky Lowndes (Jean Arthur) is married to publisher Henry Lowndes (Melvyn Douglas). She had been married to his best friend and business partner Bill Cardew (Fred MacMurray). Bill disappeared in a yachting accident a year earlier and was presumed dead, allowing Vicky to remarry. The only trouble is, Bill didn’t die. After a year on a previously uncharted tropical island he was picked up by a passing freighter and now he’s back.

This is obviously rather embarrassing to Vicky, who finds herself with one husband too many. Embarrassing, but after thinking about it she decides she likes the idea. Now she has two men competing for her, each of them trying to prove that he is the ideal husband. Vicky didn’t think either of them was ideal when she was married to them. she thought that they both neglected her. Now they will both have to work much harder to prove themselves.

The idea’s potential for creating ever-increasing confusion and jealousies is pretty thoroughly milked. It’s a classic screwball comedy idea and with people who know what they’re doing on both sides of the camera (which this film has) it was always going to work.

The three leads are all splendid. The trick of course was to have the right chemistry between the leading lady and both of her leading men, and that requirement is amply fulfilled. Henry and Bill are very different sorts of men but both are equally likeable and we have no difficulty in believing that Vicky could have fallen in love with both of them, and in fact still be in love with both of them.

The other potential difficulty is that the audience might feel a preference for one husband or the other but Douglas and MacMurray both turn on the charm and so the audience finds itself wanting both of them to get the girl.

There is however one difficulty that this movie can’t overcome. Having set up the situation and milked its potential for laughs the script (by Claude Binyon from a play by W. Somerset Maugham) has to find a satisfactory ending, an ending that will leave all the principals happy. That of course is impossible. The movie tries to persuade us that somehow everyone does live happily ever after but the resolution feels forced and somehow seemed to me to be trying way too hard to be cheerful and zany.

A more minor problem is that Vicky’s behaviour is rather selfish and even at times downright cruel, to the point where she risks losing the audience’s sympathies.

Director Wesley Ruggles helmed several other good screwball comedies and he handles his duties here with energy and panache. The energy is very important. Screwball comedy has to be exceptionally well-paced in order to convey the necessary feeling of crazy situations spinning wildly out of control. Ruggles has no problems in this area.

This movie is included in the Columbia Icons of Screwball Comedy volume 1 DVD boxed set. It’s a very pleasing transfer. Both the Icons of Screwball Comedy sets are great value and can be unhesitatingly recommended.

Too Many Husbands is generally great fun. With a more satisfactory ending it could have been a screwball classic but even as it stands it’s a very enjoyable 81 minutes.