Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Three Smart Girls (1936)

The comedy-musical-romance Three Smart Girls, released in 1936, launched Deanna Durbin’s career. Since Deanna Durbin pretty much kept Universal Studios afloat for the next decade you could argue that this movie in effect saved the studio. 

Durbin was just fourteen at the time she made this movie. Universal weren’t quite sure that an unknown and untried fourteen-year-old girl could carry a movie on her own so she is in fact one of the three female leads, the three smart girls of the title. Durbin immediately proved that the studio needn’t have worried. Her star quality is obvious. Star quality is of course incredibly important but if an actress has that other intangible quality, likeability, it’s even better. And Deanna Durbin had plenty of likeability.

The three smart girls are Joan (Nan Grey), Kay (Barbara Read) and Penny (Durbin). They  are sisters and they live with their mother Dorothy. Ten years after her divorce Dorothy Craig still carries a torch for their father. Now the news that she has been dreading has arrived. Her ex-husband, Judson Craig (Charles Winninger), is about to remarry. He is going to marry a woman named Donna Lyons (Binnie Barnes). The three sisters decide that they must do something about this so they set off for New York to save Daddy from the clutches of the wicked adventuress Donna.

Of course Judson Craig has no wish to be saved. He’s a middle-aged man who is about to snare himself a glamorous much younger bride and that’s not something most middle-aged men want to be saved from.

As you might expect, the three girls cook up a scheme to throw a spanner into Donna’s wedding plans. At the same time Donna and her mother are scheming to get the three girls out of New York and out of their way.

The sisters have an ally in Judson Craig’s business manager Bill Evans and Evans comes up with what seems like the perfect solution - to set Donna up with a rich Hungarian, Count Arisztid (Mischa Auer). Being a gold-digger Donna is sure to chose a dashing nobleman with money over the middle-aged Judson Craig. There’s no need to tell Donna that the count is actually a penniless drunk. Complications ensue when Lord Michael Stuart (Ray Milland), who owns half of Australia, gets unwittingly mixed up in events.

This was the first of many Hollywood successes for director Henry Koster among which were quite a few more Deanna Durbin pictures including the delightful First Love.

Deanna Durbin was a very big star indeed, in fact she was at one time the highest paid star in Hollywood, but she hasn’t retained the kind of following among classic movie fans that you might expect. She’s not quite forgotten, but almost so. This may have something to do with her singing. Not that there’s anything wrong with. She was a great singer. But she was a proper soprano and her style of singing is probably a lot less accessible to modern audiences than the more familiar jazz/swing style of the 40s. It’s a pity because she really was a great star. She was a very competent actress (who could handle serious rôles on the rare occasions they were offered to her), she was very good at light comedy and she was thoroughly charming. Her performance here is just right. She’s a bit precocious, but not irritatingly so. She’s funny and she’s sweet.

Nan Grey (an underrated actress whose career was sadly short-lived) is very good as Joan. Charles Winninger is amusing as poor Judson Craig, surrounded by women whose machinations leave him perplexed. Binnie Barnes is also excellent as the scheming gold-digger Donna. Ray Milland is in splendid form as well.

We naturally get several songs from Durbin. Three Smart Girls is however mostly a comedy-romance and it is genuinely very amusing. I can’t really think of anything negative to say about this movie - it does everything it sets out to do and does so effortlessly and charmingly. It has a very strong cast, the script has all the standard complications you’d expect but it’s all very expertly executed.

This is the fourth Deanna Durbin movie I’ve seen and I’ve liked them all. I guess that makes me a confirmed Durbin fan.

Three Smart Girls is highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Undercurrent (1946)

Undercurrent is a 1946 MGM picture directed by Vincente Minnelli. It’s been described as a thriller and even as a film noir and that was enough to capture my interest. It turns out to be only very slightly noir and not entirely successful. The story has potential but there are serious weaknesses in the execution.

In fact it not only starts out as a romantic melodrama, it remains pure melodrama for a very long time before any thriller elements kick in. That’s not necessarily a problem. I quite like melodrama and it’s something Minnelli had a definite flair for. There is however one major problem, for me at least. The stars are Robert Taylor and Katharine Hepburn. Now Robert Taylor is no problem. He was a fine and very underrated actor. But I really really dislike Katharine Hepburn, for a myriad of reasons. On the other hand it does also feature Robert Mitchum, at that stage not quite a star but on the way to being one.

Hepburn plays the dowdy middle-aged Ann Hamilton, daughter of a prominent scientist. She’s unmarried and seems destined to stay the way, until handsome tycoon Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor) appears on the scene and sweeps her off her feet. They are soon married but that means she has to deal with Washington high society, mixing with congressmen and senators’ wives. She feels that she doesn’t fit in, that she’s awkward and dowdy, and she really doesn’t fit in.

All this takes up a large chunk of the film’s running time and it has to be said that it’s rather dull. Nothing much happens at all until Ann finds a book that she thinks belongs to her husband. In fact it belongs to his brother Michael. The brother he hates with a passion. Alan Garroway convinces himself that Ann has started quoting from the book (a book of English pastoral poetry) as a way of baiting him.

More and more it seems that Michael is coming between Ann and Alan, even though she has never set eyes on him. She doesn’t even know what he looks like. She does hear stories about him though. Contradictory stories. There are even those who think Michael is dead. It’s no use asking Alan. He gets angry and uncomfortable at any mention of his brother. Naturally Ann becomes obsessed with the subject and naturally this leads to trouble.

Now getting back to my problem with Katharine Hepburn. As so often with Hepburn’s performance there’s a brittleness and a lack of real warmth. We need to care about Ann but it’s not easy. The one thing Hepburn was good at was playing slightly odd women and Ann certainly comes across as slightly odd but I’m not sure that it’s the right approach for this story. We’re also supposed to feel that Ann is vulnerable, that she’s a Woman in Peril, but Hepburn just can’t achieve that. She’s too naturally domineering. It was a very unsuccessful piece of casting.

Once Robert Taylor started to move away from his early matinee idol persona he proved to be very good at playing characters whose surface charms conceals an inner darkness. His rôle is Undercurrent is just that sort of rôle. Alan Garroway is all charm but after a while we see hints of cruelty although we can’t be sure if he wants to be cruel to others or whether he’s being cruel to himself. He’s a character who could just as easily turn out to be the hero, or the villain.

Mitchum was a different style of actor but in this film he tries to achieve the same effect. He’s laid-back and perfectly at ease with the world but we’re supposed to still sense that he could well be dangerous. He could also turn out to be the hero, or the villain. The ambiguity of the two major male characters is obviously the core of the movie. Mitchum was a great actor but in this film he’s totally overshadowed by Taylor.

Vincente Minnelli knew how to extract every ounce of melodrama in a story. In this case it helps that the black-and-white cinematographer is by the great  Karl Freund. The visual style is not really noir but it has its moody moments.

The Warner Archive release offers a very strong transfer (in the correct 4:3 aspect ratio).

Undercurrent slots into the women’s noir sub-genre (mostly dominated by Joan Crawford’s 1940s movies) which combines melodrama with touches of film noir. The miscasting of Katharine Hepburn and the excessively tame performance by Mitchum are the two problems that prevent it from being a success. Robert Taylor’s superb performance almost manages to save it. Worth a rental, and maybe a purchase if you’re a hardcore Robert Taylor fan.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Time to Remember (1962)

Time to Remember is a 1962 entry in Merton Park Studios’ cycle of Edgar Wallace adaptations.

It opens with a safe-cracking job gone wrong. The leader of the gang, Jumbo Johnson,  flees across the rooftops with the jewels but when he falls from the roof the jewels are not on him. He obviously stashed them somewhere and the surviving members of the gang want to know where. His widow wants to know as well. Naturally Scotland Yard would be very interested in this information also, as would the insurance company and the French police  (one of the members of the gang was a Frenchman named Victor and he’s fled to Paris with some of the loot).

Jumbo died of his injuries in the hospital but no-one is sure whether he said anything before dying, anything that would provide a clue to the whereabouts of the jewels. If he did tell someone then that someone is keeping the information very quiet.

The jewels have to be somewhere in the house where the robbery took place so getting access to the house is obviously very desirable. That brings real estate agent Jack Burgess (Harry H. Corbett) into the picture. Burgess is not a very good estate agent and he’s not a very honest one either but he’s just smart enough to figure out where those jewels might be.

Sammy, the getaway driver in the ill-fated robbery, also has some ideas about how to get the missing jewels. He thinks Victor is the key. When Sammy arrives in Paris Victor has vanished but Sammy thinks Victor’s girlfriend Suzanne may have the answers. Suzanne is no more honest than any of the other characters, all of whom are trying to double-cross each other.

This is a fairly light-hearted entry in the series, even at times verging on farce. The plot has enough twists to keep things interesting and there’s a decent sting in the tail.

This is a movie in which the police play only a peripheral part - it’s mostly villains and grifters trying to outsmart each other.

Harry H. Corbett is a delight as the shifty Burgess. Corbett is of course best remembered for the classic sitcom Steptoe and Son but he was a reasonably versatile actor in both comic and relatively serious roles.

Ray Barrett gets an early important rôle as Sammy. Yvonne Monlaur adds the necessary glamour as the cheerfully amoral Suzanne.

Director Charles Jarrott had an up-and-down career but he’s in good form here, keeping things moving along at an extremely brisk pace. The rooftop escape sequence is well executed.

The low budgets of these Merton Park Edgar Wallace movies aren’t really a problem. The people involved knew what they were doing and they knew how to get perfectly satisfying results whilst spending very little money.

This one is included in Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries Volume 3 DVD boxed set. It gets a very good 16:9 enhanced transfer.

Time to Remember is one of the lighter but more enjoyable movies in this series. It achieves everything it sets out to achieve, without any fuss but with energy and a certain amount of style.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Dick Tracy vs Cueball (1946)

Dick Tracy vs Cueball was released in 1946. It was the second of the RKO Dick Tracy feature films, following Dick Tracy, Detective. Morgan Conway returned as Dick Tracy. After this film he was replaced by Ralph Byrd who had played the rôle in the four Republic serials.

The formula for these Dick Tracy movies was intriguing - take your standard crime B-movie, add lots of film noir visual style, add a touch of gothic atmosphere, a dash of horror movie imagery and then sprinkle some comic-book weirdness on top. It makes for a delicious concoction.

In this instalment Harry Lake, a vicious thug nicknamed Cueball for his total baldness, has just been released from prison and now he’s involved in a plan to steal a fortune in diamonds. Cueball gets the idea that he’s being double-crossed by his partners, and he’s right. Cueball’s normal response to anyone who gets in his way is to kill them (by strangling them with his hatband!) and he starts to deal with his erstwhile partners in his accustomed manner. The opening dockside sequence is very noir and its result is the first of a series of corpses. This brings ace Homicide cop Dick Tracy into the case.

The trail initially leads Tracy to a low dive known as the Dripping Dagger where he hopes to get some information from Filthy Flora. There’s also a crooked diamond dealer, Percival Priceless, who is almost certainly mixed up in the conspiracy.

We pretty much know everything that’s going on from the start but the fun part is whether Dick Tracy will track down the bad guys before Cueball kills them all. Tracy’s girlfriend Tess Trueheart helps out on this case, going undercover as a rich woman in the market for very expensive diamonds, and of course this means that she’s in imminent danger of getting rubbed out by Cueball.

Morgan Conway looks wrong for Dick Tracy but his performance feels right. Anne Jeffreys plays Tess, as she did in the first film. This film adds a new comic relief character, Vitamin Flintheart (played by Ian Keith channelling his inner John Barrymore). He acts as a kind of unofficial advisor and takes a more direct part in the investigation on occasion. He’s a genuinely amusing character. The standout performance is by Dick Wessel as the truly chilling Cueball, a guy who gets more homicidal the more bewildered he gets, and he gets very bewildered.

This movie’s main problem is that Gordon Douglas’s direction lacks the stylishness and visual inspiration that William A. Berke brought to Dick Tracy, Detective. It’s also (disappointingly) a bit more straightforward in plot terms.

These first two movies do manage to convey at least some of the necessary comic-strip feel, with larger-than-life slightly bizarre villains and some odd and slightly grotesque minor characters. The Dick Tracy films have a unique flavour of their own and it’s a flavour that I find pretty appealing. There really isn’t anything quite like them in the world of 1940s Hollywood B-pictures.

My copy of this movie comes from a Mill Creek public domain DVD set but the image quality is quite good. Sound quality is acceptable although with some occasional very mild crackling.

In 1978 the Medved brothers included this movie in their list of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. This is patently absurd (as are almost all worst films lists). It’s a competently made very enjoyable B-movie with a touch of appealing oddness. Dick Tracy, Detective, which I reviewed here, is definitely better but Dick Tracy vs Cueball is fun and it’s still highly recommended.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936)

Charlie Chan at the Circus came out in 1936 and was the eleventh of the 20th Century-Fox Charlie Chan movies featuring Warner Oland. The Chan movies were really on a roll at this time.

Charlie decides to take the whole family (including the thirteen children) to the circus. A man named Kinney, part-owner of the circus, asks for Charlie’s help in relation to death threats against him. It seems Kinney was right to be concerned since that very evening he is found dead in the business wagon. Kinney had alienated just about everybody so the number of possible suspects is embarrassingly large.

It’s almost a locked-room murder. Fans of locked-room mysteries will be disappointed that that aspect of the mystery is quickly cleared up. There is however no need for despair - there are still plenty of puzzles that need solving. And it’s still a cool murder method - the murder weapon was the circus’s ape Caesar.

Charlie gets roped into the investigation and he has Number One Son Lee (played by Keye Luke) to help him. While he’s always a step behind his father Lee does enough to suggest that maybe one day he could have the makings of a real detective. Of course he would be able to do more detecting if he weren’t so distracted by the charms of a lady contortionist (who is less than pleased by his attentions).

Charlie knows he’s on to something when an attempt is made on his own life, with a deadly cobra as the instrument of his intended destruction. All the killings and attempted killings make good use of the circus background.

As the investigation proceeds it becomes apparent that most of the potential suspects have unexpected but very convincing motives.

This is a film in which we see more of Chan’s home life than usual since we get to see  all thirteen Chan children as well as Mrs Chan. And while Lee Chan as usual provides comic relief he’s certainly not a bumbling nitwit. He displays some good observational skills and his ideas are sound even if he makes a few basic errors in putting them into practice.

Chan also gets some invaluable assistance from the circus’s two midget dancers, Colonel Tim and Lady Tiny, and what’s pleasing is that their performances are not overdone. In fact all of the supporting players give fairly restrained performances which is just as it should be - there’s more than enough here to keep viewers interested and too much hamminess in the acting would have been an unnecessary distraction.

Warner Oland and Keye Luke are both in fine form.

The circus setting is used to maximum advantage, actually driving the plot rather than just providing a colourful backdrop. Not everybody loves circus movies but I do and circuses and murder always seem to me to a winning combination.

And we get not just lots of circus atmosphere but we also have the added bonus of a guy in a gorilla suit (always a worthwhile asset in any B-movie).

A lot of the outdoor scenes were shot at a real circus and some of the extras are actual circus performers.

Director Harry Lachman went on to direct several of the Sidney Toler Chan movies as well as the very decent 1942 horror flick Dr Renault’s Secret for Fox. He gives this movie plenty of energy. The screenplay by Robert Ellis and Helen Logan provides a solid plot and we get a lot of Chanisms - Charlie’s little homilies which I’m sure he knows are nothing but platitudes but that’s the whole point. Charlie wants the villains to think he’s a harmless windbag.

Not everybody likes the ending to this movie but I think it wraps things up pretty neatly in a very B-movie way.

This movie is included in the Charlie Chan Collection, Volume 2 DVD boxed set. Fox have come up with a pretty good transfer for this movie. They spent a lot of money restoring the Chan movies (and the Mr Moto movies) and it was money very well spent.

There are a few extras including the Charlie Chan at the Movies featurette (which is quite good).

Charlie Chan at the Circus is a very fine entry in 20th Century-Fox’s Charlie Chan cycle. Highly recommended.