Friday, February 28, 2014

A Close Call for Boston Blackie (1946)

I have a real affection for the Hollywood studio programmers of the '30s and '40s, especially the mystery series like "The Whistler", "The Saint", "Mr. Moto", etc. My grandfather introduced me to these films as a kid and I've come to enjoy them more and more over the years for the reliable entertainment they provide. One of my favorite series is "Boston Blackie", starring Chester Morris as Jack Boyle's popular character, and made by Columbia between 1941 and 1949. This is an average entry in the series, which is to say it's a fun way to spend an hour with its blend of light mystery and comedy. This time, Blackie has to look after the baby of an ex-girlfriend and protect her from her recently-paroled husband. He finds himself falsely suspected of a murder in the process, but things turn out okay in the end.

One of the joys of watching Hollywood studio programmers is the sheer level of craftsmanship that went in to them. This one was shot by Oscar-winner Burnett Guffey (FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, BONNIE AND CLYDE) and even in this routine entry you can see the level of experience that everyone working on these films brought to them.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Curtain at Eight (1933)

Odd little mystery about a matinee idol, Wylie Thornton, who manages to make a lot of enemies as a result of his numerous romantic entanglements backstage in the theater. One night, during his birthday party, Thornton gets bumped off by an unknown killer, and Detective Jim Hanvey (C. Aubrey Smith) is called in to solve the case. There's a plot device featuring a chimp who's handy with a pistol, so that gives you some idea of about how seriously to take the proceedings. Fun to see Smith playing something other than a British military officer! Sam Hardy, an actor I always enjoy, provides the wise-cracking comic relief as Smith's detective partner. Technically it's a pretty creaky and low-budget early talkie (produced by the Poverty Row studio Majestic Pictures) but there are enough fun moments that make it worth a watch if you like this sort of thing.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Big Trail (1930)

Landmark early sound Western starring John Wayne nearly a decade before his star-making performance in STAGECOACH. This epic saga of the trek Westward by covered wagon was shot in the pioneering 70mm Grandeur process, which is expertly used to capture the breathtaking landscapes. Director Raoul Walsh uses the widescreen frame to emphasize the story's epic qualities and heightens the sense of authenticity by packing each shot with an incredible amount of visual detail.

It's easy to see the qualities in John Wayne's performance here that would make him a screen icon, even though he spent the next nine years working in low-budget films for Poverty Row studios. When it came to casting THE BIG TRAIL, Walsh supposedly asked his friend John Ford if he could recommend anyone for the lead. Ford immediately suggested Wayne and the rest, as they say, is history.

Incredibly, in addition to the 70mm and standard 35mm versions, the film was simultaneously shot in three different foreign language versions as well.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Faithful (1910)

This one-reel slapstick comedy, directed by D.W. Griffith for the Biograph company, is notable today as one of the very first films to be shot in Hollywood. The premise finds respectable gentleman Adonese (Arthur V. Johnson) attracting the attention of the good but simple-minded Faithful (future comedy producer Mack Sennett) after knocking him down and buying him a new suit. Faithful is so moved by this act of kindness that he follows Adonese everywhere, much to the latter's dismay. The film's plot is standard farce, no doubt inspired by the French comedies of the Pathe company that had already inspired earlier Griffith comedies made back East.

Griffith began taking his company West in the winter of 1910, and this film reveals the variety of locations that he found available to him upon his arrival. There are shots looking toward the Hollywood Hills and, later, a shot taken from the top of the hills looking down at the area that is now Hollywood Blvd. The film was shot by Griffith's long-time cinematographer Billy Bitzer. Griffith was working in many different genres at this point in his career, cranking films out to keep up with the demand. Just a couple of years after making this film, Mack Sennett would turn from acting to heading up America's first great comedy factory.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Stylish, atomic age, hard-boiled detective thriller featuring Mickey Spillane's private eye "Mike Hammer" (played here by Ralph Meeker) as he tries to solve the murder of the mysterious Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman). Meeker's cold, violent portrayal of Mike Hammer seems worlds apart from screen detectives of just a decade prior, acting by any means necessary to get the information he's looking for, without any particular sense of honor or ethics. Director Robert Aldrich establishes a mood of heightened paranoia, aided by Ernest Laszlo's stark, high-contrast B&W cinematography. Gaby Rodgers is especially effective as the duplicitous Lily Carver, aka Gabrielle, who leads Hammer in pursuit of the plot's MacGuffin - a radioactive device referred to only as "the great whatsit" - whose diabolical contents are finally revealed in the film's nearly apocalyptic finale.

Spirited Away (2002)

I'm not normally a fan of Japanese anime - or animated films in general for that matter - so I had not yet seen any of the Hayao Miyazaki films, despite hearing great things about them. I finally saw SPIRITED AWAY and have rarely been so taken with a film after a first viewing. The powerful sincerity of its pathos never relies on cheap or manipulative sentimentality like so many "family" films. The beautiful animation from the team at Studio Ghibli is a splendid thing to behold, creating its own universe populated with unique and distinctive characters in the service of telling a powerful and moving story. This was the first Miyazaki film I have seen but I plan to see more of his work now.

Monday, February 10, 2014

A Night in Casablanca (1946)

Late Marx Bros. comedy is also probably their best film since A DAY AT THE RACES. A mild parody of the Humphrey Bogart classic, the film really has more to do with the Brothers on the trail of a Nazi war criminal (played by expert comedic foil Sig Ruman) trying to smuggle stolen art out of Casablanca.

The film features some of Groucho's best lines (his scene at the hotel desk with a Mr. and Mrs. Smyth is a highlight), Harpo has some great sight gags (contributed by an uncredited Frank Tashlin), and Chico has a fun piano solo performing "Beer Barrel Polka". Also features the Bert Kalmar-Harry Ruby tune "Who's Sorry Now?"

Directed by Archie Mayo, written by Joseph Fields and and Roland Kibbee. Also starring Charles Drake, Lois Collier, Lisette Verea, Dan Seymour, and others.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Gangster Story (1959)

When Woody Allen made TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, he must have had this film in mind, which features a plot device of a bank robber staging a heist by pretending to be filming a movie about a bank robbery. Except this premise is rendered entirely ludicrous here by the fact that there is no crew or equipment present, and indeed no indication whatsoever that a filming is actually in progress, even as the robber walks out carrying a sack of money, waving to the policemen, and driving off.

That gives some idea of the rest of the film, about a gangster (played by Walter Matthau in a performance that resembles a cross between Humphrey Bogart and Ned Sparks) whose brilliant heist plan attracts the attention of some mobsters (who are about as menacing as the Bowery Boys) that want to recruit him for their scheme to rob a country club. The film is filled with such ridiculous scenes as Matthau knocking a man out and stealing his car in the middle of a crowded parking lot, killing a man on a golf course with a club, and wheeling the safe out of the country club office in broad daylight.

This was the first - and only - film directed by Walter Matthau. Unfortunately the direction is highly inept, including mismatched day-for-night shots, violating the 180 degree rule, and an entirely post-dubbed soundtrack that has the result of giving all of the dialogue an oddly-paced, clipped style that is unnatural and distracting. The acting is amateurish and even Matthau comes off quite poorly here. The most interesting part of the film is its extensive location footage of late '50s LA, but even the photography is so mediocre that there isn't anything particularly effective done with any of it.

Directed by Walter Matthau. Written by Paul Purcell from a story by Richard Grey and V.J. Rhems. Edited by Radley Metzger. Starring Matthau, Carol Grace, Bruce MacFarlane, Gerrett Wallberg, Raiken BenAri, David Leonard and others.

Friday, February 07, 2014

The Cocoanuts (1929)

The Marx Brothers made their screen debut in this filming of their 1925 Broadway hit. A satire on the Florida land boom of the '20s, this early talkie appears rather quaint now. Due to the constraints of shooting for sound film, the pacing often seems slightly off, and the overall energy lacking. The comedy holds up well enough, though, and the film features one of the Marxes' most frequently quoted bits, the "Why a duck?" routine.

Margaret Dumont reprises her stage role as the wealthy Mrs. Potter, and Kay Francis makes an early appearance as a villainous but seductive thief. The romantic leads are bland but inoffensive. The music numbers (with songs by Irving Berlin) are generally creaky and unmemorable, with the exception of the bizarre "Monkey Doodle Doo".

Directed by Joseph Santley and Robert Florey. Adapted by Morrie Ryskind from the stage play by George S. Kaufman. Also featuring Oscar Shaw, Mary Eaton, Cyril Ring, and Basil Ruysdael.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

A Day at the Races (1937)

The general consensus among comedy fans seems to be that when the Marx Bros. signed with MGM in 1935, their films were robbed of the pure anarchic spirit that marked their earlier films for Paramount. While it's true that producer Irving Thalberg softened their characters (and added an emphasis on the supporting romantic couple and lavish musical numbers) in order to broaden their audience appeal, the first two films the team made for MGM under Thalberg's supervision remain two of the finest films that they appeared in.

A DAY AT THE RACES does contain excessive padding, especially in the "Water Carnival" sequence, but there are also several excellent comedy sequences that rank among the Marxes' finest: the "Tootsie Fruitsie" ice cream routine, the examination scene, and especially Groucho's tour-de-force phone call bit where he poses as the blustering and befuddled Col. Hawkins. The brothers are supported by expert foils including the incomparable Margaret Dumont and Sig Rumann. It's a handsomely-produced and highly entertaining combination of comedy and music, even if it does go on a little too long.

Directed by Sam Wood; written by Robert Pirosh, George Seaton and George Oppenheimer from a story by Pirosh and Seaton, with uncredited material by Al Boasberg, Leon Gordon and George S. Kaufman. Also featuring Maureen O'Sullivan, Allan Jones, Douglas Dumbrille, Leonard Ceeley, Esther Muir, and others.