Thursday, January 15, 2009

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #15

No Greater Glory (1934) – Here’s an entertaining little oddity, courtesy of director Frank Borzage and adapted from the Ferenc Molnar novel The Boys of Paul Street (previously filmed in 1929 and 1934 and later remade in 1969, 2003 and 2005) by Jo Swerling. Two street gangs made up of Polish juvenile delinquents engage in a “war” over possession of a vacant lot; one of the kids, Nemescek (George P. Breakston), is smaller than his fellow gang members and is picked on regularly…but he demonstrates that courage isn’t always found in the biggest and/or boldest, gaining respect not only from his comrades but the individuals in the other gang as well. This anti-war allegory is a bit uneven (it sometimes skids dangerously into the territory of an Our Gang short) but ultimately gets its point across; Glory is also headed up by an impressive group of child actors that include Frankie Darro, Jackie Searl and Donald Haines (a former Our Gang member hisownself). (Breakston, who can be a bit annoying at times as the unlikely hero, had a long career at MGM playing Mickey Rooney’s sidekick F. Baker “Beezy” Anderson in the Andy Hardy series.) The adults are played by character faves like Ralph Morgan (Frank’s bro), Egon Brecher, Samuel S. Hinds, Lois Wilson and Frank Reicher. Certainly a movie to keep an eye out for, particularly in light of the recently released Murnau, Borzage and Fox DVD box set.

The Red Badge of Courage (1951) – Sure, it was required reading in high school…but would you believe that this is the first time I’ve actually sat down and watched the film adaptation of Stephen Crane’s classic war novel? A young Union Army recruit (Audie Murphy, in a first-rate performance) turns tail and runs during his first experience in battle but later redeems himself…and learns that there’s a thin line between courage and cowardice. This John Huston picture was the tackling dummy in the notorious struggle for power between old guard Louis B. Mayer and new blood Dore Schary at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (an account that was told in Lillian Ross’ book Picture); the studio cut out some twenty minutes to end up with a film that almost seems over as soon as you blink. Huston ignored the donnybrook because he was too preoccupied with the pre-production on The African Queen, but when he later tried to assemble a “director’s cut” he learned that the missing footage was missing, believed destroyed. (Star Murphy also tried to make a deal to buy the film from MGM, with little success.) Unlike the mutilated The Magnificent Ambersons, the abrupt version of Courage really doesn’t hurt one’s enjoyment of the film (though it is sad when you learn that Royal Dano’s role was shrunken considerably); it’s a timeless classic (Huston once said it was one of his favorites of his entire oeuvre) with some truly offbeat casting—cartoonist Bill Mauldin, Douglas Dick, John Dierkes, Arthur Hunnicutt, Andy Devine and Robert “I was kicked in the head by a mule” Easton are among the credited performers. (You can also spot Whit Bissell, Dick Curtis, I. Stanford Jolley, Emmett Lynn, William Schallert and Glenn Strange among the soldiers—proving that a Union win was in the bag from the beginning.)

Right Cross (1950) – I taped and watched this yesterday ostensibly because I’m a Dick Powell fan…but the viewing took on a slight melancholy tone since the late Ricardo Montalban is in the picture as well. Montalban is a champion Latino boxer who starts to ponder his future when his right hand is injured sparring and his doctor (Frank Ferguson) tells him it will only be a matter of time before it’ll be of no use to him. His lawyer (Tom Powers) suggests he sign a contract with promoter Allan Goff (Barry Kelley) because Goff will look after him even when he’s unable to fight anymore—but Ricardo’s under contract to Sean O’Malley (Lionel Barrymore…with wheelchair), whose daughter Pat (June Allyson) is carrying a torch for him. I was disappointed with this movie for several reasons: the romance between Allyson and Montalban isn’t convincing (Allyson spends most of the film making goo-goo eyes at her real-life husband, Powell, who plays a wisecracking sports reporter and Ricardo’s “gringo” buddy) and any film that starts out pretending the fight racket is legitimate loses a hell of a lot of credibility from the get-go. Still, Montalban and Powell’s characters have a good rapport, and the supporting cast is pretty good…with Wally Maher, Larry Keating and Kenneth Tobey as Powell’s fellow news hounds (or should that be sports hounds?) and an uncredited Marilyn Monroe in one of her early films as a young lovely (named “Dusky Ledoux”) Powell attempts to make a move on in a restaurant he frequents. Oh, Dick sings in this one, too, for those of you who prefer Musical Powell to Tough Guy Powell.

Mystery Street (1950) – Okay, technically I’m cheating here because I didn’t see this one on TCM but rather dug into the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives for my DVD copy…but there have been so many of my fellow bloggers singing the praises of this dandy police procedural (with Ricardo Montalban as a doggedly determined cop and egghead Hah-vahd criminologist Bruce Bennett assisting) that I couldn’t pass up a chance to give it the once-over. (I gambled on TCM showing this one during the inevitable Ricardo Montalban salute—which will take place on January 23. No Mystery Street, but there will be showings of Neptune’s Daughter, Border Incident, Battleground and Across the Wide Missouri.) “B” gal and TDOY fave Jan Sterling takes advantage of tipsy Marshall “Daktari” Thompson and “liberates” his car to journey to a rendezvous with a paramour who rewards Sterling for making the trip by shooting, strangling…and then dumping her body on a beach. Montalban is brought in on the case (the crime took place in Barnstable) and despite his initial reluctance, comes to depend on Bennett’s forensics skills to put the pieces back in the puzzle. A neglected little treat that in many ways is a precursor to the TV series CSI and its abundant progeny, Montalban is excellent as the cop and Street also contains a fine turn by Elsa Lanchester as a conniving blackmailer (she steals every scene she’s in.) (It’s also interesting to note that Wally Maher—who plays Montalban’s partner—relies on his extensive radio background to be the only member of the cast to attempt to sound like somebody from Boston.) Street also features such notables as Ralph Dumke, Walter Burke (as a bird watcher who finds Sterling’s skeleton), Great Gildersleeve replacement Willard Waterman (as a mortician), Ned Glass and King Donovan…who not only plays a reporter in this film but in the previously mentioned Right Cross. Good early effort from John Sturges, who later went on to bigger and better things in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and The Magnificent Seven (1960).

(Note: As Laura from Laura's Miscellaneous Musings has so correctly pointed out, I apparently cannot delineate the difference between Sally Forrest and Betsy Blair--so I went ahead and deleted my earlier snarky comment. Thanks for the help, Laura...and for those classic movie fans who just can't get enough of film reviews, check out Laura's blog for some great stuff!)


Laura said...

"Sally Forrest (as a gal pal of Sterling’s) receives second billing in this but it seems to me she receives less screen time than Betsy Blair, who plays Thompson’s concerned wife."

Actually, that was Sally Forrest playing the wife, and Betsy Blair as the waitress who lived in Sterling's apartment house...

So glad you got to check this movie out and that you enjoyed it.

I've been enjoying your site.
Best wishes,

Toby said...

Barry Kelley has been popping up on my radar lately - your mention of him in Right Cross, as Diamond Jim Brady in the last episode of 'Maverick', and for the first time, in the first episode of 'Burke's Law'. Either I haven't noticed him in the past, or I just have not ever seen him before, but I've liked what I've seen so far.

And I flipped past Right Cross yesterday - Montalban was in the practice ring, shooting daggers at Powell sitting next to Allyson - but didn't stay with it. Spooky synchronicity in scheduling that....

Laura said...

I'm happy I could help! Thank you for the kind words and the link. :)

Best wishes,