Thursday, January 8, 2009

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #12

Blind Alley (1939) – This classic B-picture (which could almost pass as a A) was one of Hollywood’s first attempts to marry off criminality to psychiatry, as an escaped thug (Chester Morris) busts out of the joint with his gang (moll Ann Dvorak, fellow goons Marc Lawrence and Milburn Stone) and holes up in the domicile of professor Ralph Bellamy, waiting on a boat that will take them to Freedom. Bellamy is fascinated by Morris, particularly a recurring and disturbing dream Chet has involving rain, an umbrella and iron bars—and begins to work a real mind game on Morris as the gendarmes begin to close in. Alley has dated in a lot of respects but it’s still fast-moving fun; Bellamy’s performance is one of the best I’ve seen him give and the supporting cast isn’t bad, either. Directed by Charles Vidor (way before Cover Girl and Gilda), with a screenplay by Philip MacDonald, Michael Blankfort and Albert Duffy based on the 1935 stage hit by James Warwick.

The Dark Past (1948) – A remake of Blind Alley, and I have to say that while I had high hopes for this film considering the director (Rudolph Maté) and cast…the 1939 version is still the better movie. William Holden plays the Chester Morris role (Holden is the only improvement here, since Morris has a tendency to chew a lot of scenery in the original) of an escaped convict hiding out with his gang in the country cabin of teacher/professor Lee J. Cobb while waiting to be picked up by a boat. (Cobb just isn’t convincing in the Bellamy part; I associate him too much with gangster and Western villain roles.) The differences between the two versions are slight: Cobb tells Holden’s story in flashback form, and the student (Stanley Brown) who gets croaked by Morris in the original has been transformed into an elderly professor (Stephen Garay) who takes a bullet in the shoulder—but other than that it’s pretty much a scene-for-scene re-do. Viewers will find quite a few familiar faces in Past (they also appeared in some of the Crime Doctor films previously discussed): Nina Foch (as Holden’s moll), Adele Jergens, Stephen Dunne, Lois Maxwell, Berry Kroeger and Wilton Graff; Ellen Corby has a small role as the sniveling maid played by Ann Doran in Alley.

Mister Roberts (1955) – TCM is featuring a Star-of-the-Month festival each Wednesday of this month, and the lucky actor to be feted in January is Jack Lemmon. Lemmon won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his turn as Ensign Frank Pulver in this popular wartime comedy-drama, with Henry Fonda (reprising his famous stage role, for which he won a Tony in 1948) as Lt. JG Douglas A. “Doug” Roberts, the cargo officer of the U.S.S. Reluctant—a floating prison run by the autocratic Captain Morton (James Cagney), a modern-day Captain Bligh. Roberts wants nothing more than to transfer from his current station to see some major action on a warship before WW2 ends; but Morton—knowing that his status depends on the outstanding work done by Roberts—is determined to keep him under his thumb. It’s been a long while since I’ve revisited this movie (it’s a favorite of my father’s, who tends to gravitate toward military films) but after seeing it last night it’s still first-rate; as a Cagney fan I thoroughly enjoy his performance even though the character is an out-and-out miserable bastard. John Ford started directing this film (which explains the presence of actors like Ward Bond, Ken Curtis and Harry Carey, Jr.) but left midway (some say due to illness, others claim Ford and Fonda didn’t get along) and the reins were turned over to Mervyn LeRoy; other scenes were handled by Joshua Logan (uncredited), who co-wrote the screenplay with Ford stalwart Frank S. Nugent. Among the supporting cast: William Powell (his last screen appearance as “Doc”), Betsy Palmer, Philip Carey, Nick Adams, Perry Lopez, Patrick Wayne, Tige Andrews and Martin Milner.

My Sister Eileen (1955) – This sprightly, unpretentious musical based on the 1942 film comedy (though not connected to Wonderful Town, the 1953 stage musical based on the same material) sort of breaks my rule on remakes; the 1942 movie has a great performance by Rosalind Russell (and a funny gag cameo at the end, which I’ll keep mum about in case there are those who haven’t seen Roz’s version) but the 1955 remake features Betty Garrett and Janet Leigh—who make a much more wonderful sibling team than Roz and Janet Blair. (I’m shamed to admit that before I got into classic movies, I thought of Garrett only as Laverne & Shirley’s landlady. Neptune's Daughter and On the Town took care of that soon enough.) Garrett and Leigh are Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, two sisters who hail from Ohio and who are determined to make a name for themselves in the Big Apple: Ruth has aspirations of writing for a magazine, Eileen’s been bitten by the acting bug. Eileen is a blonde, busty knockout who picks up potential suitors like Helmac picks up lint…which is a bit disconcerting to Ruth, who’s self-conscious about her own sex appeal—particularly when publisher Robert “Bob” Baker (Jack Lemmon) takes a shine to her and her stories about Eileen. Despite the presence of MGM veterans Garrett, Leigh, Bob Fosse and Tommy Rall Eileen isn’t a big splashy affair—but that doesn’t matter to me because my favorite kinds of musicals are the ones that don’t make a lot of big noise…plus I enjoy seeing performers like Leigh, Lemmon, Kurt Kasznar and Dick York sing and dance when they’re generally remembered for other things. Fosse once remarked that Eileen was one of his favorite films because it was the first musical he choreographed on his own—and while I generally try to avoid Fosse like bubonic plague I have to say it’s my favorite, too; his number with Leigh (a reprise of There’s Nothin’ Like Love) is sublime, and Give Me a Band and My Baby (performed by Fosse, Rall, Leigh and Garrett) is infectiously good fun as well. (Plus, you can't help but root for his character--a nebbishly soda jerk who's fallen for Leigh in a big way.) TCM has scheduled the 1942 original for February, and I’ve marked it on the calendar for a revisit.

1 comment:

Pam said...

I caught My Sister Eileen last night too. A breath of fresh air.