Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #3

For some odd reason, TCM showcased a mini-marathon of movies Monday afternoon (beginning at 1:45pm) featuring the talents of one Josephine Owaissa Cottle, who classic movie and television fans know much better as the irrepressible Gale Storm. Storm’s movie career started out with a sixth-month contract with RKO Pictures in the 1940s, but when that was up she was forced to secure work at the Monogram and Universal studios in that same period. The theme of this festival (with the exception of the last movie) seems to be “Make Mine Monogram”—and while it probably would have been prudent to save these mini-reviews for the annual In the Balcony celebration, I figured what the hey:

Foreign Agent (1942) – John Shelton (who, I have to admit, I’ve only seen in one other big picture, Abbott & Costello’s The Time of Their Lives) is a movie studio extra named Jimmy (he has no last name—Monogram couldn’t afford it) who tries to get reclassified to help out in the war effort…but is drafted to root out subversive elements in the movie capital instead (was it always that easy to land high-profile jobs like this, a la Kay Kyser?). Gale plays Mitzi Mayo, who’s a bit luckier landing work at the same studio (she also performs in a somewhat sleazy dive where her musical accompaniment is the bartender, playing an accordion)—her father, a lighting technician, has been murdered by Nazi agents looking for the plans to a searchlight filter he invented in his copious free time. Together, the young couple work together to unmask these Nazi swine (represented by Hans Schumm, a particularly nasty piece of work) and with the help (or hindrance, depending on your point of view) of comedy relief couple Patsy Moran and Lyle Latell. They get the job done in sixty-four minutes, aided and abetted by director William “One-Shot” Beaudine. Verdict: cheap, but painless.

Revenge of the Zombies (1943) – This “horror” film is absolutely from hunger—but if you sit back and view it as the subtle comedy masterpiece (yes, I'm being sarcastic) it is, you’ll get much more enjoyment out of it. John Carradine is a mad scientist who’s creating an unbeatable army of zombies for the Third Reich, but his grandiose scheme is stymied a bit when the brother (Mauritz Hugo) of Carradine’s wife (Veda Ann Borg) comes snooping around with a detective pal (Robert Lowery) to investigate Sis’ untimely death. Storm is Carradine’s loyal secretary, who refuses to believe that her employer could ever stoop to such shenanigans as reanimating the dead. For all intents and purposes, however, the show belongs to Mantan Moreland—whose ad-libs and “feets-don’t-fail-me-now” humor make Zombies much more entertaining than it should be (Moreland: “In about thirty seconds, I’m going to be eleven miles away from here”). Also in the cast are Bob “Trooper Duffy” Steele (who may or may not be a Nazi), Barry Macollum, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, James Baskett (and you thought Song of the South was embarrassing—though Baskett does demonstrate the first cinematic evidence of what inspired Don King’s ‘do) and Sybil Lewis. Warning: due to a generous dollop of stereotyping, easily offended audiences might want to think twice about sitting down with this one. (And the black actors don’t fare so well, either.)

Nearly Eighteen (1943) – Let’s be upfront about this: if you go into a Monogram musical with the intent of seeing some just like the wonderful movies released by MGM you’re in for some serious disappointment. Eighteen is a good example; Gale is Jane Stanton, a would-be chanteuse who lands work at a dive (they’re all pretty much dives at Monogram) run by Luis Alberni—but since she’s a month away from her eighteenth birthday, Alberni can’t hire her according to the law. Instead, he sends her to work for bookie Rick Vallin and sidekick George “Joe McDoakes” O’Hanlon, but she ends up in plenty of hot water when the cops raid the jernt. Her next step is to try and secure a position with a prestigious singing/dancing academy (run by Bill Henry) to bone up on her craft, but the problem is that they only grant free tuition to girls from eight to fourteen. No problem: she’s seen The Major and the Minor, and the next thing you know she’s “Janie” Stanton…and the wacky complications ensue. Hey…it barely runs over an hour—you could do much worse.

Campus Rhythm (1943) – Probably the best of the Storm offerings shown that afternoon—Gale is Joan Abbott, popular vocalist on a radio show sponsored by a breakfast cereal (she’s known as the “Crunchy-Wunchy Thrush”). Joan wants to quit radio for a while and fulfill a lifelong dream of going to college; her uncle (Douglas Leavitt) and business manager (Herbert Heyes) have other ideas, unfortunately—and since Unk is in charge of her contract he signs a new one to keep any funny ideas about the Halls of Ivy out of her mixed-up little head. So Joan rebels, swipes the name of the secretary—Susie Smith—and heads for Rawley College, a institute of higher learning that has enrolled some of the oldest individuals known to movie audiences as students, including would-be bandleader Buzz O’Hara (Robert Lowery again) and college newspaper editor “Scoop” Davis (Johnny Downs of Our Gang fame). The plot in this one is as thin as Kleenex (Joan hopes to get a college education but keeping out of the public eye…while she and Downs strike up a romance), but the musical numbers are well-done (if not particularly memorable) and I enjoyed this one especially because I got to see two old-time radio veterans strut their stuff: Candy “I’m feelin’ miiighty loooow” Candido (sidekick to Jimmy Durante on radio) and GeGe Pearson, who did the female characters on The Red Skelton Show (post-Harriet Hilliard and pre-Lurene Tuttle). Pearson has a pretty impressive set of musical pipes, but sadly, this was her only feature film appearance or which I'm aware. Third banana Tom Kennedy is also in Rhythm as a cop; he’s not listed in the entry at the IMDb but since he’s given so little to do I’m not surprised he was overlooked.

The Texas Rangers (1951) – Gale abandoned Monogram for Universal around the late 1940s, and in this oater she’s working for Columbia in a fairly impressive programmer (in color, no less) helmed by cult director Phil Karlson. George Montgomery—a bit of handsome beefcake whose acting isn’t particularly impressive—is a jailed outlaw who’s released and inducted into the Texas Rangers (along with sidekick Noah Beery, Jr.) in order to assist in smoking out the notorious Sam Bass (played with admirable charisma by William Bishop, who I last saw in The Boss). Gale, whose character is the editor of the Waco Star, is opposed to Montgomery’s release because he was involved in the shooting murder of her father (some people still carry a grudge, I guess.) If this film had beefed up Storm’s role a bit I’d easily call it the winner of the mini-marathon—but nevertheless, it’s a good solid oater that also stars John Litel (he doesn’t play a lawyer in this one…he just looks like one), Jerome Courtland, Douglas Kennedy, Mister John Dehner (as John Wesley Hardin), Ian MacDonald (the Sundance Kid), John Doucette (Butch Cassidy) and stuntman/supporting Stooges player Jock Mahoney. (Most rewarding bit in the film—for me, anyway—seeing serial and two-reeler stalwarts like Jim Bannon, Dick Curtis, Kenne Duncan, John Merton and Dick Wessel…in color.)

1 comment:

Andrew Leal said...

Two John Dehner references within a month. Good show, sir.