Monday, January 19, 2009

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #16

Three Strangers (1946) – A young woman (Geraldine Fitzgerald) asks two men (Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre) to her apartment to participate in a Chinese New Year’s ritual whereupon the “three strangers” will ask an idol representing Kwan Yin (the goddess of fortune and destiny) to bestow upon them great wealth from a shared sweepstakes ticket. The movie then goes off in three divergent paths to examine the circumstances of the participants: the woman, Crystal Shackleford, wants desperately to reconcile with her husband (Alan Napier); Greenstreet, who plays a solicitor named Jerome K. Arbutny, finds himself trying to cover up a matter of embezzlement; and Lorre’s a petty crook who’s needed to provide an alibi for another malfeasant (Robert Shayne) on trial for murder. This bizarre, offbeat concoction (scripted by John Huston and Howard Koch and directed by Jean Negulesco) is the best of the Greenstreet-Lorre teamings (though you certainly can make a strong case for The Mask of Dimitrios [1944]) and why it’s not available on DVD is a mystery I’ve never been able to solve (though the print I watched on TCM was beat-up in a few places), Lorre is really great in this movie, eschewing his usual histrionics for a more laid-back, world-weary demeanor and though Fitzgerald (who passed away in 2005) is probably best remembered today as Bette Davis’ supportive gal pal in Dark Victory (1939) I always thought she was better in scheming, villainous roles such as in this film and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945).

The Unholy Three (1930) – This was Lon Chaney’s only talkie—a remake of the 1925 film of the same name—and it’s for the most part a scene-for-scene copy (with the exception of the ending, which they changed to take advantage of that newfangled invention of sound). Lon’s a criminal mastermind who heads up a group of jewel thieves (midget Harry Earles of Freaks fame and Ivan Linow as a strong man); his base of operations is a pet shop in which he (in drag) plays the part of kindly Grandma O’Grady, selling parrots to wealthy customers (which allows the gang to case the houses before pulling off the heists). Three is interesting only for Chaney’s solo sound performance (he passed away shortly after from throat cancer); most of the other actors in the cast end up eating his acting dust…though I will admit co-star Lila Lee (as Chaney’s “moll”) has a certain charm about her. The major debit in the talkie Three is that it was directed by Jack Conway—who can’t quite measure up to the silent version’s man-with-the-directorial-reins, frequent Chaney collaborator Tod Browning. Before unspooling Unholy Three, TCM showed a rare Hal Roach comedy two-reeler, Three Chumps Ahead (1934), which features the “female Laurel & Hardy” team of Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly in a pleasant if unremarkable short in which Thelma lands a new boyfriend who’s all hat and no cattle…and Patsy is unable to convince her roomie of this fact. Even though I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of women engaging in L&H slapstick, the charms of Miss Todd and Miss Kelly usually outweigh my concerns.

Sergeants 3 (1962) – I can now state with pride that I’ve seen all of the “Rat Pack” films…though I’m not at all convinced about that “pride” part. Frankie, Dino and the rest of the gang remake Gunga Din (1939) out West; the two men—plus Peter Lawford—are cavalry sergeants who must deal with a fanatical group of Indians (led by Henry Silva) and are assisted by freed slave Sammy Davis, Jr. (in the Sam Jaffe “water boy” part) and Buddy Lester (as an Indian?). Apart from a pretty exciting runaway buckboard sequence (in which Francis Albert gets to do Indiana Jones before Harrison Ford), you will honestly not believe how bad this movie is—I was particularly embarrassed for Davis, who—when he’s not shuckin’ and jivin’—ends up becoming an ersatz Jerry Lewis in some of his scenes with Martin. Joey Bishop is in also in this one (and believing he’s a sergeant-major in the U.S. Cavalry somehow requires a larger leap of faith than swallowing his Indian role in Texas Across the River [1966]) as is Ruta Lee and the Crosby kids—Phillip, Dennis and Lindsay (their old man would appear in the last Rat Pack film, Robin and the 7 Hoods [1964]). If Sergeants 3 is supposed to be a comedy…well, I didn’t find anything funny in it (4 For Texas [1963] is far, far funnier). A major disappointment from director John Sturges and screenwriter W.R. Burnett (High Sierra, The Racket); one that I’m sure didn’t give John Ford too many sleepless nights.

Bye Bye Birdie (1963) – I tuned this in last night even though I’d already seen it only because I was curious to revisit it in light of the Irving Brecher book review I posted Saturday afternoon. I’ve stated in the past that when it comes to musicals I’m no expert but I’ve always found it impossible to dislike this one due to its relentless spirit of frivolity and fun. Here’s the plot for the unfamiliar: down-and-out songwriter Dick Van Dyke is given the opportunity of a lifetime when fiancée Janet Leigh pitches the idea of featuring Elvis Presley-like rock star Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) on The Ed Sullivan Show to bestow a final kiss on a lucky fan (Ann-Margret) before being inducted into the U.S. Army (Van Dyke will write the song Birdie performs, guaranteeing a huge payoff from what’s sure to be a million-selling record).

Irving Brecher wrote the screenplay for Birdie and was originally slated to direct the film (which I’m not entirely convinced would have been a good idea) until Columbia put George Sidney in charge (Sidney had received a princely sum of money up front for a movie that never got made and the suits decided to give him Birdie to even things out), and though Irv was a bit ticked off by this he still remained good friends with Sidney (particularly since Sidney’s father, Louis K., helped guide Brecher’s fortunes at MGM). In The Wicked Wit of the West, Brecher says he wasn’t crazy about the casting of Leigh (“She was over the hill, physically.”), preferring Chita Rivera (who had played the part in the stage musical)—but Leigh’s one of the main reasons why I enjoy this film so much…not to mention Paul Lynde’s uproarious turn as Ann-Margret’s irascible father (“The next time I have a daughter, I hope it’s a boy!”). Birdie’s crammed with so many musical numbers (Put on a Happy Face, Kids, A Lot of Livin’ to Do) and contains a fun supporting cast in Maureen Stapleton, Bobby Rydell, Mary LaRoche, Milton Frome...and of course, Ed Sullivan himself. (What's My Line's John Daly even has a brief cameo!)

1 comment:

Bill Crider said...

Paul Lynde was just great in BYE-BYE. I laugh just thinking about his performance, and that Ed Sullivan song is wonderful.