Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #70

Since I thought this past weekend was going to be a busy one, what with some projects I was working on and the like, I slacked off on last week’s Serial Saturdays and Doris Day(s) and instead finished up a couple of reviews for ClassicFlix—one of which has already been posted, Day of the Outlaw (1959).  I also peeked at some free HBO/Cinemax that U-Verse was nice enough to gift us, but mostly got caught up on some items that I had stashed on the DVR:

Rain (1932) – Technically, this should fall under the category of what I jokingly call a “Cinematic Vegetable,” because although I had seen bits and pieces of it (I had a college instructor use clips in a film class I once took) I’d never sat down and screened it all the way through.  Stranded on the slightly-moist island of Pago Pago (that’s where the titular precipitation comes in), good-time gal Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford) whoops it up with a group of American soldiers stationed there…much to the disapproval of the bluenose wife (Beulah Bondi) of fire-and-brimstone preacher Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston), who uses his considerable political muscle on the island’s guv’nor to threaten Sadie’s deportation.  Sadie seeks salvation and redemption from the right Reverend Alfred…but is it all a con on her part?

Based on the famous W. Somerset Maugham story, Rain did dismal box office but is kind of a cult favorite today, thanks to Crawford’s performance (one of my favorites of La Joan) and director Lewis Milestone’s splendiferous visual style (which the instructor in my film class took special pains to note).  I still think the 1928 version (Sadie Thompson) is a better movie (despite its being incomplete), but the 1932 version is fun to watch—plus you get the added benefits of character greats like Guy Kibbee, William Gargan and Walter Catlett.

The Wet Parade (1932) – This one aired on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ right after Rain (part of a Walter Huston tribute), but what made this doubly humorous was that outside it was, in fact, a real toad-strangler (thanks, Toby) in Athens while the two films aired.  The best way I can describe Parade is that it’s an elongated Crime Does Not Pay short subject; the effects of Prohibition are demonstrated on two families, one headed up by Southerner Lewis Stone—Stone commits suicide when he finds himself unable to resist the power of demon rum, and we follow his two children (Dorothy Jordan, Neil Hamilton) up North where a similar situation befalls Huston (he’s unable to get booze once Prohibition kicks in, and he’s forced to drink paint thinner before killing his wife in a rage).  Huston’s son, played by Robert Young, turns Elliot Ness and becomes a T-Man to atone for his father’s dipsomaniac misdeeds.

The movie was adapted by John Lee Mahin from Upton Sinclair’s novel…and while I’ve not read Sinclair’s book, I may have to because I was really entertained by Parade despite its heavy-handed moralizing.  The person who cast Jimmy Durante as Young’s fellow Fed gets major props (though they missed an opportunity to have Durante say during his death scene: “I’m SUR-rounded by assassins!”), and though I only caught a glimpse of him from the side I picked out Max Davidson as the store owner (other thesps I noticed with amusement include Heinie Conklin and Clarence Wilson).  Huston’s blustery father didn’t quite work for me, but I thought everyone else did fine.  Oh, and Myrna Loy plays a blonde floozy who takes a powder on Neil “Commissioner Gordon” Hamilton after Hamilton downs some bad liquor that renders him sightless.  (Thanks a lot, Miss Perfect Wife.)

Sweepstakes Winner (1939) – Jerry Colonna demonstrates how to steal a movie despite having no material to work with; he’s the most memorable part of Sweepstakes Winner, a programmer that I admittedly watched for him, Allen Jenkins and a young Marie Wilson—a few years from her radio fame on My Friend Irma.  Wilson is a naïve ditz who inherits a grand from her deceased grandpap and keeps getting richer and richer despite the constant efforts of Jenkins and Charley Foy to separate her from her winnings.  (Colonna plays a chef in a greasy spoon Marie finds work in as a waitress, where she meets her paramour in Johnnie “Scat” Davis.)

I was a little disappointed that the interactions between Wilson and Jenkins weren’t sharper (the best exchange is when Allen tells her “You need a keeper!” and she innocently responds “Oh…how much would one cost?”) but this didn’t keep me from loving Wilson in this movie…and let’s be honest, it’s less than an hour long—it’s not like it’s going to take a huge chunk out of your life or anything.  Added bonus: Jimmy Cagney impersonator Frankie Burke shows up as a jockey, and his character’s name—Chalky Williams—is also the name of an actor who plays a bit part in Cagney’s A Lion is in the Streets (1953) (see separate entry).

Granny Get Your Gun (1940) – My Facebook compadre Hal Erickson writes about this movie at “Earl [sic] Stanley Gardner claimed to have wept openly when he saw what Granny Get Your Gun had done to his original Perry Mason yarn; some viewers may be inclined to do the same.”  I won’t begrudge Gardner getting upset…but I thought Granny was a real pip; May Robson plays a feisty senior citizen whose granddaughter (Margot Stevenson) refuses to take her advice in her divorce proceedings with wanker Hardie Albright.  Albright later turns up dead in a trailer court bungalow, and May confesses to the crime to keep Stevenson out of the pokey (she’s got a young daughter).

What makes Granny such a pleasurable romp is the first-rate chemistry between Robson and her questionably competent lawyer, TDOY fave Harry Davenport—Harry’s character has a fondness for the good stuff and he’s constantly misplacing shot glasses filled with whiskey he’s put down to look respectable (“How did that get there?”).  May and Harry are worth the price of admission, and Clem Bevans steals a few scenes as Davenport’s “assistant” (the bit where he held his hand out for Harry’s shot glass made me guffaw heartily).  Pity someone didn’t think about instituting a series based on this short-and-sweet mystery-comedy.

Black Gold (1947) – Anthony Quinn is TCM’s Star of the Month for April, and seeing that Phil Karlson directed this programmer was all the initiative I needed to sit down for a watch.  Quinn is Charley Eagle, a Native American rancher who has dreams of entering a horse in the Kentucky Derby.  He may get his wish in the titular equine, a colt he obtained by mating the horse’s ma with a champion owned by a Colonel Caldwell (Thurston Hall).

Filling in the background on this story is an orphan named Davey (‘Ducky’ Louie), whose father was killed by coyotes (not the animal kind) smuggling him and his pop over the Mexican border; Davey is later adopted by Charley and his wife Sarah (Katherine DeMille), who become fabulously wealthy when oil is discovered on their property.  (Black Gold also features a message about racial tolerance.)  The movie is a surprisingly engaging B-pic, though Louie’s histrionics will get on your nerves after a fashion.  Raymond Hatton, Kane Richmond, Moroni Olsen, Jonathan Hale and Elyse Knox round out a splendid cast…but DeMille, as Quinn’s stoic spouse (which she was in real life as well), is the best thing in the movie.

A Lion is in the Streets (1953) – This one has been on my “must-see” radar for a long while now…but to my disappointment, it wasn’t as good as I had hoped.  James Cagney plays Hank Martin, a traveling peddler in a small Southern town who proves quite effective at stirring up resentment among the sharecroppers toward the local cotton gin owner (played by Larry Keating…This is Your FBI!).  Hank uses the trial of a friend (John McIntire) accused of murder (for killing one of Keating’s goons) to start building a political base for a gubernatorial run; he ends up having to compromise his principles with a power broker (Onslow Stevens) to secure the vote…and like Willie Stark, this leads to his eventual downfall.

This sort of explains the problem I had with Lion; it’s a little too much like All the King’s Men (Streets was adapted from the novel by Adria Locke Langley), which I think is a superior film (its casting faults not withstanding).  Cagney’s character is described as “charismatic” but I didn’t kind him particularly captivating—I kept thinking “All Jimmy needs are a few teachers to yell at and he’d be Chris Christie with a Southern drawl.”  I also had difficulty believing why Barbara Hale—who plays Hank’s wife Verity (her nickname is “Sweet Face,” which reminded me of Wallace Wimple’s rarely-seen wife Sweetyface on Fibber McGee & Molly)—continued to stay with Cagney’s Martin when it’s become pretty evident he’s a dick (and an unfaithful one at that; he diddles around with Anne Francis on the side).  Jeanne Cagney plays John McIntire’s wife, which I thought was nice since Jeanne’s film career was kind of brief; A Lion is in the Streets was really a family affair—Jimmy and Jeanne’s brother William was producer of the last film to bear the “William Cagney Productions” banner.  (It was also the last movie Jimmy made with character great Frank McHugh.)

The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958) – The producers of this movie took a bath at the box office; the second feature based on the 1949-57 TV series (and classic radio program as well) wasn’t as well-received as the 1956 Lone Ranger—I suppose folks decided to wait for 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger.  It matters not one whit to me, however; Lost City of Gold was a lot of fun for both myself and my mother (she loves that masked man so) as it tells the tale of five silver medallions which, when assembled properly, will reveal the location of the titular burg.  The Lone Ranger (Clayton Moore—and no one else, podnuh) and Tonto (Jay Silverheels) attempt to reveal the mystery villain who’s killing off the medallion owners (and they also get in a racial tolerance lesson as well).  Lone Ranger fans will love it.

My Blood Runs Cold (1965) – I’ve only seen two of William Conrad’s three theatrical features released in 1965 (this one and Brainstorm), but why I like about the oeuvre of The Man of a Thousand Voice is that he cast those pictures with many old-time radio pros; Brainstorm features the likes of Harry Bartell and Stacy Harris, while Two on a Guillotine (the one I haven’t seen) boasts veterans Parley Baer and Virginia Gregg in its cast.  My Blood Runs Cold spotlights TDOY fave Jeanette Nolan, who models this funky bit of millinery:

Plus you’ll see Howard McNear and Shirley Mitchell in smaller parts.  Blood stars Joey Heatherton as a spoiled socialite who can’t shake the attentions of a drifter (Troy Donahue) she nearly ran down with her automobile; he confides in her that he believes himself to be the reincarnation of a man who was mahdly in love with Joey’s great-great grandmamma.  It won’t take long for the viewer to suspect that something is rotten in Denmark (though the movie takes too much time for the big reveal, which is why I nicknamed this one “My Foot Falls Asleep”).  I bow to no one in my respect for Conrad’s incredible talent, but film directing is something he should have stayed away from (he seemed to do okay on the small screen, though).  Donahue and Heatherton make a most unappealing couple, and Barry Sullivan plays—here’s a stunner—a complete asshole.  (Conrad himself does the Fugitive-like narration at the beginning, and can be heard on a police radio as a deputy sheriff.)

The Whales of August (1987) – Another “cinematic vegetable” that I have been avoiding for too long (if I stopped to think about it, I could have rented this during my brief time with Ballbuster Blockbuster Video).  David Berry adapted his successful stage play about two elderly sisters spending the summer in their Maine cottage—which they’ve owned for half a century; sister Libby (Bette Davis) is blind with cataracts and prickly as only Bette can play her…while sister Sarah (Lillian Gish) continues to abide like little children, while expressing an interest in a Russian aristocrat (Vincent Price) vacationing in the area.  Sarah should do the sane thing and find Libby alternative living arrangements—but the occasion of her forty-sixth wedding anniversary reminds Sarah that Libby was there for her when Sarah’s husband died…and Sarah will reciprocate for Libby despite their advancing years.

The high-wattage acting of Gish, Davis, Price (I just loved him in this) and Ann Sothern (as the sisters’ best friend is reason enough to cozy up to this one; plus the fact Sothern garnered an Oscar nom for her performance) makes this a must-see for classic movie fans.  (This inspiring quartet is joined by Harry Carey, Jr. as a cantankerous handyman.)  Mesmerizingly directed by Lindsay Anderson (Mike Fash’s lush cinematography makes me want to go rent a cottage on my own), August also features Sothern’s daughter Tisha Sterling playing the younger version of her character in a flashback, with Margaret Ladd as the young Libby and Mary Steenburgen as Sarah.


Rick29 said...

Ivan, I must admit I rather enjoyed MY BLOOD RUNS COLD. It loses steam along the way, but the coastal setting and opening scenes held my attention--as did Joey. Loved WHALES OF AUGUST. Former Animals member Alan Price composed the pretty score. He also did the terrific music for Anderson's O LUCKY MAN.

Bill O said...

Supposedly when the Whales of August director complemented Gish on her close-up, Davis said "She should be good. She invented them!".

Java Bean Rush said...

Crawford convinces you from the get-go that she is the character in her version.

Have you seen the Rita Hayworth version of Rain - MISS SADIE THOMPSON?

The earlier films are great, but I prefer the hot and humid set design of the 1953 remake. It's sweaty and grungy - perfect for themes of vice.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Java wanted to know:

Have you seen the Rita Hayworth version of Rain - MISS SADIE THOMPSON?

I haven't, but I hope to rectify this soon because TCM has scheduled it and the DVR has been set.

Mike Doran said...


Sorry that I can't recall the exact date offhand, but some time in the next couple of weeks TCM will be showing Two On A Guillotine.

I've seen this, and while I wouldn't put it on the AFI Top 100, it's not at all bad: the great Henry Slesar was one of the writers, and Bill Conrad has an on-camera walk-on (he was a bit heavier in those days than during his TV Star period).

Anyway, maybe someone who's memorized the TCM schedule can give you the right time and day for the showing.
Best wishes!

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Sorry that I can't recall the exact date offhand, but some time in the next couple of weeks TCM will be showing Two On A Guillotine.

I'd only be too happy to supply the date in time - tomorrow evening (May 4), at 6pm EDT.

I programmed the DVR as soon as I saw it on the TCM schedule, and I'm looking forward to watching it sometime this week.

Thanks for the reminder, Mike!