Thursday, October 22, 2009

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #43 (Columbia, the gem of the ocean edition)

Two weeks ago, Turner Classic Movies ran a trio of films back-to-back-to-back in the wee a.m. night auditor hours that had been on my “Must See” list for a good many years or so. Fortunately, my continuing battle with insomnia allowed me to record and then watch all three and write up some capsule reviews…but as always, I warn you of possible spoilers.

Girls of the Road (1940) – It’s nice to know that if I ever actually meet TCM oracle “Bobby Osbo” in person—assuming that he hasn’t had his goons work me over for all the times I’ve poked fun at him on the blog—that we can find mutual points of agreement to have a chinwag over, and one of them is our fondness for actress Ann Dvorak. Ann is the star of this Columbia quickie, a message film that can’t quite rid itself of a faint exploitation odor, about a young girl who heads out for the open road after her father (Howard Hickman)—the governor of an unnamed state—discusses the problem of female vagrancy and how there’s little he can do to tackle the problem. She meets up with hard-boiled Helen Mack and some other lady hoboes (Lola Lane, TDOY fave Ann Doran, etc.) and spends what amounts to an hour’s running time asking them what makes them tick and trying to help them out in any way she can. It’s not until a young Marjorie Cooley draws her rations (Cooley plays a woman who foolishly spent what little money she had on a wedding dress rather than a bus ticket) that Dvorak finally resorts to bringing in her old man, who promises the women that his state will build them a home (called a “castle”) and find them work, thus making sure he’ll be swept back into office come election time (provided the Tea Partiers don’t start in on him with the accusation that he’s mollycoddling the poor and downtrodden, of course).

If Columbia had meant for this to be a serious movie addressing a serious problem during the Great Depression, they sort of fell short of the mark—it’s mildly diverting for today’s audiences but it can’t compare to similar films of its ilk, in particular William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933; which TCM unspooled before Girls). Dvorak and Mack are the best things in the picture—I like the camaraderie that develops between the two women, and how Mack’s hard-boiled shell begins to crack as she slowly learns that her friend is serious about helping out her fellow vagrants and not just blowing sunshine up her skirt. (Mack’s observation that “there are two kinds of girls on the road—those that like it and those who don’t” is about as somber as Girls gets.) Most of Columbia’s stock players show up in this one, including many of the individuals who provided first-rate support in the studio’s comedy two-reelers: Don Beddoe, John Tyrell, Eddie Acuff—and particularly Eddie Laughton, who has a nice bit as a sympathetic truck driver. (Bruce Bennett is in this one, too, as a police officer.) I will admit that I laughed out loud early on in the film when Governor Hickman is discussing the vagrancy issue with some civic-minded folk and one of them remarks to him: “Not every governor can have his daughter working for him…I envy you, Governor.” (Gosh…relatives on the government payroll—what a novel concept!) My blogging compadre Matt Hinrichs has an interesting take on this film as well, so go and have a quick read but come right back…

Black Moon (1934) – TCM had scheduled the 1933 rarity The Woman I Stole for a showing on October 15 but pulled it at the last minute for The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953) with Debbie Reynolds and Bobby Van. (I have since found out from Michael Schlesinger that this wasn’t TCM’s fault—Sony/Columbia didn’t have a good video print of Stole at the ready, which necessitated its cancellation.) So I’m glad I was able to get my Jack Holt/Fay Wray fix with this bizarre mellerdrammer in which Holt plays a big bidness tycoon whose wife (Dorothy Burgess), having grown up on a small island with a pronounced practicing of voodoo due to its large native population, returns to the island with their young daughter (Cora Sue Collins), nanny (Eleanor Wesselhoeft) and Holt’s secretary (Wray, who’s in love with her boss) and falls under its voodoo spell all over again. The magic of the island is so strong that in the movie’s climax, Burgess seriously contemplates choosing voodoo over motherhood by severely threatening the life of her child during a human sacrifice ritual.

Moon is an effectively atmospheric and spooky little B-pic (sixty-eight minutes total) that is very entertaining when it’s not enmeshed in the stereotyping that was so prevalent at the time. I refer to a supporting character played by veteran actor Clarence Muse; as “Lunch” McClaren he makes an engaging sidekick to Holt (“Lunch” hails from Augusta, GA, and when Holt asks why he left he replies: “Georgia got a little too small for me”) but on several occasions slips into that Willie Best/Mantan Moreland “Feets don’t fail me now” routine that makes modern-day audiences wince. (I don’t mind it so much when Moreland does it because as he once said in his defense: “If I wasn’t afraid of ghosts, I wouldn’t have been funny.”) Moon is the type of movie that you almost have to see in the wee a.m. hours in order to appreciate its full effectiveness—and in fact, would make a dandy double-bill with I Walked with a Zombie (1943). My only complaint with Moon is that the character of Juanita’s uncle (played by Arnold Korff) can be a little infuriating; one moment he’s warning Holt to get Burgess off the island P.D.Q. and the next, when Burgess turns up missing, he dismisses her vanishing act with a shrugging nonchalance that suggests she just went down to the corner for a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread. (“Uncle” Sam Wilson at Mondo 70: A Wild World of Cinema saw this one recently, too—and has an outstanding write-up here.)

The Missing Juror (1944) – The “dessert” of the three Columbias, and despite the fact that it’s not that challenging as a whodunit (I had the identity of the killer figured out about 18 minutes into the flick, and was smugly satisfied when it was confirmed at the twenty-two minute mark) it’s a most enjoyable early effort from future cult director Oscar “Budd” Boetticher, Jr. OTR vet Jim Bannon (he was the one-time announcer on The Great Gildersleeve and was also married to TDOY icon Bea Benaderet) plays newspaperman Joe Keats, a muckraker who’s fascinated with a recent spate of strangling murders because the victims were all members of a jury that pronounced a guilty verdict in a murder case involving Harry Wharton (George Macready)—who was later found innocent when a dying man (George Lloyd) exonerated him with a “deathbed” confession. Keats talks his former employer, editor Willard Apple (Joseph Crehan), into letting him cover the strangling story and in the process of investigation makes the acquaintance of juror Alice Hill (Janis Carter)…who shrugs Keats off at their first encounter but gradually begins to fall for his charms. The authorities—as they so often do in these movies—arrest an individual for the killings, but Keats is positive they have the wrong man…and must race to rescue Alice from the real murderer in an exciting climax.

The first thing I noticed about Juror was Bannon’s winning performance as Keats; Bannon had a tendency to be a bit stiff in his film roles, most notably in his turn as the too-good-to-be-true Sergeant Chris Royal of the RCMP in the Republic serial Dangers of the Canadian Mounted (1948), where even the balsa wood furniture has been known to out act him. (Among the bright spots on Bannon’s resume: playing the comic-strip character Red Ryder in a brief series of B-westerns produced by Equity Pictures and his starring role as Sandy North in the syndicated TV series The Adventures of Champion.) Bannon is much more animated here, demonstrating a sharp sense of humor that is regrettably absent from the three movies he made at the same studio based on radio’s I Love a Mystery. (I also enjoyed seeing Bannon and Macready work together here, since they were cast in the first and best of the series, I Love a Mystery [1945].) Here’s an amusing example of this, a bit of dialogue between Bannon’s character and a policeman named Regan (John Tyrell), who’s been assigned to watch Alice’s house:

KEATS: Quarter past twelve…

REGAN: Look, take it easy…you’re makin’ me nervous

KEATS: I’m making you nervous? How do you suppose it makes me feel to see you standing there munching your gum while some homicidal maniac is probably strangling my girl?

REGAN: Your girl?

KEATS: Well, she doesn’t know it yet…but she is…well, can’t you do something?

REGAN: About making her your girl?

KEATS: No, about finding her…

REGAN: I was told to watch the house, and I’m watching it…

KEATS: You’ve been watching it for four hours…she isn’t here…nobody knows where she is…

REGAN: I could hazard a guess…

KEATS: Yeah? Where?

REGAN: Comin’ across the street… (as Alice and her assistant come into view)

Juror is definitely a movie I’d recommend to anyone interested in Boetticher’s early work at Columbia; there’s an incredible scene where the murderer tries to dispose of Bannon in a steam bath…and if I learned anything from watching that Edgar G. Ulmer documentary, it’s that “fog is a B-director’s best friend.” There are plenty of familiar character faces in Juror, too: Jean Stevens (charming as Carter’s assistant), Al Bridge, Cliff Clark, Edmond Cobb, Del Henderson, Carole Mathews, Mike Mazurki (as a poetry-spouting masseuse), Forbes Murray and Ray Teal. A doff of the TDOY chapeau to TCM for showcasing these great early Columbia films—they’re a positive tonic for the sleepless!

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Kevin Deany said...

I taped these too, but haven't watched them yet. I will read your article after watching.

Always liked Helen Mack. She's so appealing and likeable in "Son of Kong" and "She."

I've been enjoying your site, Ivan. Thanks.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Thanks for encouraging my hehavior, Kevin!