Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sweethearts (1938)

Sweethearts, released by MGM in 1938, is one of the eight Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy musicals. This is the first of their musicals that I’ve seen, and I’m hooked.

Like so many 1930s musicals this is a backstage musical. Husband and wife team Ernest Lane and Gwen Marlowe have been appearing together for six years in the smash hit broadway musical Sweethearts. Their marriage is a happy one and it’s a happy production. There are no clouds on the horizon. At least there are no clouds on the horizon for Gwen and Ernest. There is a very big cloud on the horizon for the show’s producer, Felix Lehman (Frank Morgan). That cloud is Hollywood. A major studio is trying to lure Gwen and Ernest to Hollywood. This would be a disaster for Lehman. It would also be a disaster for everyone at the theatre, and for composer Oscar Engel (Herman Bing) and for playwright Leo Kronk (Mischa Auer). Something must be done to keep Gwen and Ernest in New York and to keep the show running.

Leo Kronk has a plan to do just that. The Hollywood studio is only interested in the two stars as a package deal. If Gwen can be convinced that Ernest is having an affair with his secretary Kay Jordan (Florence Rice) the Hollywood deal will be off. The plan succeeds but of course since this is a lighthearted musical romance we’re pretty confident that everything will work out in the end for Gwen and Ernest.

That’s all there is to the plot. That’s all the plot the film needs. The plot is just an excuse for  some great musical numbers and for some light romantic comedy. The screenplay (co-written by Dorothy Parker) provides plenty of wit and amusement and the fine cast makes the most of it.

The production in which the two stars are supposed to be appearing is actually Victor Herbert’s 1913 operetta Sweethearts.

While the movie’s plot has little to do with Herbert’s operetta it does include a great deal of Herbert’s glorious music. Eddy and MacDonald were both very fine classically trained singers and both had careers in recording and in opera in tandem with their film careers. The singing is very much in the operetta style which may not appeal to everyone. It’s certainly very different musically from most Hollywood musicals. Personally I thought the songs were terrific.

I’m not sure that anyone would rate Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy among the acting greats but they’re more than adequate for this sort of vehicle. They’re both likeable and charming and they handle the comedy with complete assurance. Frank Morgan and Herman Bing are funny, and Mischa Auer is very funny as the egotistical, scheming but not overly talented Leo Kronk.

This was a very early three-strip Technicolor and must have looked stunning at the time. It still looks great although the colour on the TCM print is perhaps just a little faded. MGM spent plenty of money on this movie and it’s generally very well spent. Director W. S. Van Dyke was no auteur but he was efficient and very competent. Some of the musical numbers are given the big production treatment (and very effectively) but this is a musical that puts more emphasis on the vocal performances than on the staging. There’s none of the cinematic bravado that one associates with the Busby Berkeley style but this movie doesn’t need that kind of treatment.

It’s one of the oddities of Hollywood that a Hollywood musical like this relies on the idea that Broadway is the home of true artistry while Hollywood is crass and vulgar and commercial and we’re supposed to hope that Ernest and Gwen keep out of the clutches of those wicked Hollywood moguls!

I saw this one on TCM and their print is in reasonable shape but this film would certainly benefit from a thorough high-definition restoration. Sadly there probably isn’t enough of an audience for this style of musical to make such a desirable outcome likely. The Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy musicals have been released on DVD in the Warner Archive series but not having seen the DVDs I can’t say how much better they look than the TCM print.

Sweethearts is all froth and bubbles but delightfully so. A well-crafted film with wonderful performances, excellent music, plenty of humour and romance and sparkling dialogue plus lush Technicolor cinematography. Pure lightweight entertainment but utterly captivating. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Another Man’s Poison (1951)

Another Man’s Poison is a deliciously overheated 1951 British crime melodrama with Bette Davis delivering one of the most outrageously over-the-top performances in a career studded with over-the-top performances.

Davis plays Janet Frobisher, a successful crime thriller writer who lives in a slightly gothic old house in Tarnmoor, a small village on the Yorkshire Moors. Her peaceful existence is interrupted by the arrival of George Bates (Gary Merrill). Bates wants to see Janet’s husband and he wants to see him urgently. Janet is estranged from her husband but Bates knows he has  been there recently. He knows this because he and her husband have just robbed a bank together. A policeman was shot during the robbery so Bates is a man in a great deal of trouble. He claims that Janet’s husband did the shooting but the police think Bates did it.

Janet explains that her husband can’t see him at the moment on account of being dead, Janet having killed him that morning.

They’re obviously both in difficult situations but Bates thinks he has an answer. If he poses as Janet’s husband he can hide out there indefinitely, and if Janet can produce a husband who is very much alive she’ll be off the hook for the murder of the husband who is now very much dead. The husband has been in Malaya for some years and no-one in the village has ever seen him so the plan should work.

There are a few complications. Janet doesn’t want a husband, alive or dead. She certainly doesn’t want George Bates as a husband. And George seems to be taking the posing-as-married thing a bit too seriously. He seems to be falling in love with her. That’s inconvenient since Janet is busy trying to carry on her affair with Larry Stevens (Anthony Steel). Larry is engages to Janet’s secretary Chris Dale (Barbara Murray),which is another complication.

There’s also the problem of the local vet, Dr Henderson (Emlyn Williams), who is a man with an insatiable curiosity. He’s Janet’s closest neighbour and he seems to be popping in all the time, asking some slightly worrying questions.

As you can see there’s plenty of potential for steamy melodrama here and that’s exactly what this movie delivers. The plot twists are sometimes a little predictable but in some ways that’s a plus - it adds to the fun when you can see each catastrophe coming. Catastrophes there are in plenty. George’s ingenious plan is the match that sets light to the powderkeg that has been building up as a result of Janet’s manipulativeness and possessiveness. 

Davis’s performance is deliriously over-ripe and superbly enjoyable. Val Guest’s screenplay offers her some choice bitchy dialogue which, as you would expect, she relishes. Just when you think Davis can’t get any more excessive there’s the horse episode and the excessiveness level goes right off into the stratosphere.

Gary Merrill and Emlyn Williams provide good support. Merrill holds his own surprisingly well even when Davis is in full flight.

While the story may not hold many surprises it’s the execution that matters and the execution is so manic that you don’t have time to notice the gaping plot holes. Gaping plot holes such as expecting us to believe that there’s not a single solitary soul who has ever set eyes on Janet’s real husband. Or that a bank robber can disappear from view merely by pretending to be someone’s husband even though his photograph has been plastered on the front page of every newspaper in the country. And my favourite - a major plot point is that the most incriminating piece of evidence against George is the fingerprints on the gun used in the robbery, even though George has the gun in his possession and could easily just rub the damned fingerprints off!

Irving Rapper directs with energy and style. He’s particularly fond of extreme high-angle shots which he uses very effectively.

Simply Media’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but the transfer is a very good one.

This is a movie that makes no sense at all but with Bette Davis in this sort of form that doesn’t matter in the slightest. Another Man’s Poison is a high camp extravaganza that will delight any Davis fan. Forget about logic and just sit back and enjoy the ride. Highly recommended.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Mystery Junction (1951)

I’m very very fond of British crime thrillers of the 1950s but it has to be admitted that Mystery Junction is not of the great examples of the breed. It was made by Merton Park Studios which means it’s an ultra-low budget movie, in fact it’s more or less a quota quickie. That’s not always a bad thing but Mystery Junction contains the one plot element that I find to be pretty much unforgivable. Unfortunately I can’t reveal what that element is without revealing a major spoiler which I’m not going to do.

Mystery Junction does have a perfect setup for a crime thriller. It starts on board a train. A proper train, one with corridors and compartments, the way trains are supposed to be. Halfway through the action switches to a lonely railway station waiting room with a group of passengers stranded, entirely cut off from the outside world by a very severe snowstorm. Naturally someone has cut the telephone wires! And one of these people is a desperate murderer.

OK, it’s not a startlingly original setup but this is the kind of classic scenario with which no director (or writer for that matter) can go very far wrong.

One of the passengers on the train is Larry Gordon (Sydney Tafler), a popular writer of detective stories. He is sharing a compartment with an elderly lady who of course turns out to be a huge fan of his books. While she’s asking him all the usual questions they hear a scream. It’s probably just a noise made by the train but being a writer of detective stories Larry can’t very well just ignore such a thing. He has to investigate. After all, it might be a murder! And in fact that is exactly what it is. There’s also a man in a locked compartment with a gun.

Larry does the obvious thing and alerts the guard. It soon becomes clear that there is definitely dirty work afoot. A policeman, Detective-Sergeant Peterson, is escorting a prisoner on his way to stand trial for murder. The prisoner is the notorious Steve Harding (Martin Benson). There was another policeman escorting the prisoner but he has now disappeared.

A dozen or so passengers disembark from the train at a rather isolated rural station to wait for a connecting train. With the snow getting steadily worse it is likely that there will be no connecting train for many hours. The passengers take refuge in the waiting room. It’s a somewhat tense situation. This little group includes Sergeant Peterson and his prisoner, and it also includes a murderer. It may also include one or more accomplices of Harding, with plans to aid his escape. 

Larry Gordon will find himself in a curious position - being asked by a murderer to solve another murder. And there may soon be even more murders to solve. This film has, by the standards of 1950s British crime movies, a rather impressive body count!

This was a rare opportunity for Sydney Tafler to play a lead role. Tafler was talented and reliable actor and rather versatile, being able to play likeable, sinister or even downright sleazy characters as required and being reasonably adept at dramatic roles and light comedy. In this film he’s likeable and fairly heroic.

The supporting cast is generally quite competent. Martin Benson is a convincingly menacing hoodlum. Barbara Murray is solid enough as Pat Dawn, one half of a not overly successful show business team. There’s just the slightest hint of a romance sub-plot between Pat and Larry.

Writer-director Michael McCarthy’s brief career was cut short by his very early death. As a director he proves himself to be professional enough within the very limiting confines of the film’s extremely low budget. He achieves quite an effective atmosphere of menace and claustrophobia. The feeling of claustrophobia may well have been considerably enhanced by the minuscule budget - most of the action is confined to a single room, presumably because there was no money for any more sets. It works well enough.

The plot is somewhat on the outrageously complicated side, with double-crosses and guilty secrets and hidden identities. It might not be very believable and it does rely somewhat on coincidence but in a movie of this type that tends to be more of a bonus than anything else.

Network’s DVD release is par for the course for this company - in other words it’s barebones but the transfer is superb.

If not for its one fatal flaw Mystery Junction would be a reasonably enjoyable crime thriller. As it stands it’s still a fairly harmless time-killer. Worth a rental.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Mirror Crack'd (1980)

After the success in the 1970s of a couple of movies based on Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries it seemed logical enough to attempt an adaptation of a novel featuring Christie’s other popular series detective, Miss Marple. The result was The Mirror Crack'd in 1980 and it’s rather entertaining.

This British production boasts a galaxy of British and America acting talent. All-star films of this era often collapsed under the weight of too many stars (many of them being somewhat faded stars) but in this case they’re all well cast and they all do well.

There is great excitement in the picturesque little English village of St Mary Mead. Hollywood film star Maria Rudd (Elizabeth Taylor) is there to make a movie, along with her director husband Jason Rudd (Rock Hudson) and producer Martin N. Fenn (Tony Curtis).

All is not well with the film people however. Marina hasn’t made a movie for several years and has had a series of breakdowns. She is kept together, after a fashion, with pills. Things start to go really wrong when Fenn arrives at a party with another Hollywood star, Lola Brewster (Kim Novak). Lola is playing a small part in the film. Marina and Lola hate each other. Which is putting it mildly.

The party ends with an even bigger disaster. A woman from the village, a devoted Marina Rudd fan who has been looking forward to meeting her idol again (they met briefly during the war), keels over dead. Poison is suspected, and subsequently proved. But why on earth would anyone want to poison such an inoffensive soul?

Detective Chief Inspector Craddock (Edward Fox) is puzzled but perhaps his favourite aunt can help. His aunt being a certain Miss Jane Marple (Angela Lansbury), who has rendered him some very useful assistance in the past.

The key to the case seems to be the complicated relationships between Marina, Jason Rudd, Lola Brewster and Martin Fenn. 

Chief Inspector Craddock’s task might be frustrating but it has its compensation - he is a keen movie fan and is thoroughly enjoying mixing with the stars (he remembers some of Marina’s movies better than she does).

Although it’s based on an Agatha Christie novel the movie is not as plot-driven as you might expect (although Christie fans will be aware that there was actually a good deal more to her work than ingenious plotting). There’s quite an emphasis on character, and especially on the troubled life of Marina Rudd. This makes sense - there’s not much point in having major stars in a movie if they’re not going to be given something useful to do. Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in particular get the chance to demonstrate their acting chops. 

The vendetta between Marina and Lola provides some of the film’s best moments, with some gloriously bitchy dialogue which Taylor and Novak deliver with relish. Taylor of course could play the bitch onscreen as well as any actress who has ever lived and Novak proves herself to be just as capable.

Edward Fox makes a very amiable detective, a thoroughly decent fellow who is no fool either. Whether Christie purists will approve or not I found Angela Lansbury to be a more than acceptable Miss Marple. She’s convincingly shrewd, she’s gently amusing and she’s likeable whether being syrupy. 

Director Guy Hamilton did not make a huge number of movies but among his relatively modest output can be found under-appreciated gems like The Best of Enemies and Funeral in Berlin as well as no less than four Bond movies (including the classic Goldfinger and the very underrated Diamonds Are Forever). Hamilton was quite at home with the mystery and suspense genres, especially when combined with the opportunity for visual excess, and he displays a sure touch here.

The Region 4 DVD offers a good anamorphic transfer without any extras apart from a trailer.

The Mirror Crack'd offers plenty of enjoyment. It looks splendid. It has a pretty decent plot. It has some fine acting from Rock Hudson, Edward Fox and Charles Gray (as the butler) and some deliciously ripe but entirely appropriate over-acting from Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak and Tony Curtis. Angela Lansbury is an engaging and lively Miss Marple, being just feisty enough to have a bit of bite without ever becoming irritating or saccharine. It’s not a movie to be taken seriously but it doesn’t wasn’t to be taken seriously. This is not a substantial and nourishing meal - it’s a slice of rich chocolate cake and if you’re in the mood to indulge yourself it offers plenty of enjoyment. Highly recommended.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Here Come the Waves (1944)

I’ve become quite a fan of Bing Crosby’s musicals so I was predisposed to like Here Come the Waves. I did enjoy it, but perhaps not quite as much as I’d anticipated.

Released in 1944, this was obviously an attempt by Paramount to show they were doing their bit for the war effort. Betty Hutton plays a dual role as twin sisters Rosemary and Susie Allison, a couple of singer/dancers who get carried away by doing a song promoting recruitment for the WAVES and end up joining up themselves.

Rosemary is the elder sister by twelve minutes and she’s the sensible practical one. Susie is blonder and flightier. Much flightier. In fact she’s your basic Hollywood Dumb Blonde. Susie is a fan of popular crooner Johnny Cabot (Bing Crosby). Actually to say she’s a fan is an understatement. She pretty much swoons every time she listens to one of his records. When she actually meets him she faints dead away.

Naturally she’s excited when she learns that Johnny has enlisted as well. With only a million or so people in the Navy she’s bound to run into him again. And of course she does.

The problem is that Johnny falls for Rosemary rather than Susie. Johnny’s best pal Windy (Sonny Tufts) falls for Rosemary as well. Susie and Windy come up with all sorts of elaborate schemes to disrupt any romance between Johnny and Rosemary. This should be easy since Rosemary doesn’t even like Johnny but she soon shows disturbing signs of changing her mind about him.

Since Betty Hutton plays both identical twins it’s not hard to guess that at some stage the plot will make use of this and we’ll see Rosemary mistaken for Susie or Susie mistaken for Rosemary. This does indeed happen.

One of Susie’s bright ideas was to forge a letter from Johnny to the naval authorities suggesting that he should put on a show to help recruitment for the WAVES. This will take him away from his ship and therefore away from any chance of combat - the idea is that Rosemary will then think he’s a coward.

The show turns out to be a great success and of course the Allison twins are part of it. Meanwhile Johnny is trying to do everything he can to get sent back to his ship.

The plot is nothing startling but it’s sufficient to provide some romantic intrigues and provide the excuse for the musical numbers.

Mark Sandrich had directed some of the best of the Astaire-Rogers musicals of the 30s so he was obviously qualified to helm this production, which he does efficiently enough.

Bing Crosby is very good. Betty Hutton throws herself into her roles with enthusiasm - perhaps too much enthusiasm! It’s a matter of taste of course but her performance as Susie is sometimes a bit too much of a good thing.

My other main reservation about this film is also a matter of taste. My own preference is for musicals that, if they’re going to attempt big musical production numbers, offer as much visual as aural splendour. Here Come the Waves doesn’t quite manage to do that. The production numbers lack any real visual flair although the songs are pleasant enough. The final production number is little more than a recruiting ad for the US Navy which would have been OK (you expect that in a wartime film) but it’s rather stodgy and unimaginative.

The best thing about the movie is the amusing treatment of Johnny Cabot’s fame. Bing Crosby was arguably the first genuine pop star in the modern sense and he did inspire fanatical devotion among his admires, especially those of the female persuasion. Therefore Johnny Cabot spends much of the movie trying to avoid being mobbed by female fans. The plot actually makes some clever use of this. 

Here Come the Waves is included in Universal’s excellent Bing Crosby: Screen Legends DVD boxed set. The transfer is extremely good. There are no extras.

Overall this is a frothy and fairly entertaining musical. How much you enjoy it probably depends on how you feel about Betty Hutton. If you’re not bothered by her excessiveness then you’ll love the picture. If her over-the-topness does bother you might not be quite so entranced but since the DVD boxed set is so good and so very much worth buying you might as well give it a go anyway. So with that minor caveat, recommended.