Warner Archive: Bette Davis and Warren William in The Dark Horse (1932)

In a bit of political maneuvering gone awry, dimwitted Zachary Hicks (Guy Kibbee) is nominated as an unlikely candidate for Governor at a Progressive party convention. The insanity that follows often does not see far removed from the current political landscape. This new release from Warner Archive is like a Frank Capra film with noble sentiment excised, to be replaced with gleeful cynicism.

As Hicks is clearly unlikely to win the election, secretary Kay Russell (Bette Davis) is easily able to convince party leaders that her boyfriend, Hal S. Blake (Warren William) is the campaign manager who can lead them to success. She manages this despite the fact that he needs to be sprung from jail for missing alimony payments.

Blake confidently takes the reigns from Kay once he gains his freedom. He coaches Hicks to a win by working with his idiocy to make him look smarter. With every movement plotted like the script of a play, he approaches politics as a performance.

William and Kibbee are perfectly cast. The pair were members of the consistently reliable stable of Warner Bros players in the pre-code years and they play their familiar character types with confident ease. Buoyed by a sharp script by the famously witty Wilson Mizner and the snappy efficiency of the studio's best early talkies, they fall comfortably in its familiar and consistently successful formula for comedy.

A very young Bette Davis plays what would probably have otherwise been the Joan Blondell role. While Blondell might have brought it a bit more zing, Davis is lots of fun to watch. She isn't the larger-than-life "Bette Davis" yet, but you can see her emerging. The budding actress already has the brisk, proud walk, those sweepingly expressive eyes and her voice is building up to that legendary grandeur.

Often Davis was the flirtatious, sexy and essentially sweet blonde in her early roles; here she is more powerful. Already, she could command a room. While she isn't the center of attention, she has plenty of opportunity to give a preview of what was to come.

This is a happy diversion for fans of the leads, lovers of pre-code movies and those who like their politics with a side of acid.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Warner Archive: Crime and Intrigue in Once a Thief (1965), The Secret Partner (1961) and Signpost to Murder (1964)

I recently watched three very different takes on the 1960s crime thriller now available on DVD from Warner Archive. Once a Thief (1965), The Secret Partner (1961) and Signpost to Murder (1964) tread similar ground, from bleak situations to twisty plots, but each film has its own unusual character.

French star Alain Delon and Ann-Margret as a couple? That's all I needed to draw me to Once a Thief. That pairing, and an unusual cast including Jack Palance, Van Heflin and John Davis Chandler as an incredibly creepy, subhuman thug, are what bring distinction to this otherwise routine take on a former convict who struggles to stay honest after serving eighteen months for armed robbery.

Director Ralph Nelson (Lilies of the Field [1963]) sets a good scene, with friendly, if scrappy teens hanging out on a city stoop, and stores, streets and nightclubs that feel real. A laidback Lalo Schifrin score, more jazzy than his typical groovy vibe, gives the drama a cool feel. You know what's going to happen though--Delon's going to be drawn back into crime, it's not going to go well.

So you are left with Delon and Ann-Margret, who are pretty hot together. They're married, with a kid, but they can barely wait for the little one to drop off to sleep before they launch into foreplay in the doorway. Ann-Margret can go a bit over-the-top when she gets angry, but for the most part, you feel her dilemma as a woman who knows she's married a man who is bad for her, but wants him so bad she can't leave him.

I had trouble watching Delon as an English-speaking character, he seems meaner, and less erotic when not speaking his native tongue. It struck me how the much older and less conventionally handsome Heflin as a detective almost seemed sexier than him sometimes, just by the force of his charisma. 

The action in The Secret Partner is preceded by a dying marriage, and the film has the same cold fish feel as a fizzling love affair. Stewart Granger stars as a shipping executive who is being blackmailed by his dentist because of a crime in his past. He is then framed for another theft, all while his wife (Haya Harareet) leaves him because she thinks all his payments are funding extramarital trysts.

This is a slow-moving, but attractive production, also with a fine jazzy score. I was struck by some of the unusual angles that Basil Dearden used to heighten the sense of dread and peril. However, there isn't much of interest to enliven the pretty feel of it. 

Most of the cast is effective enough, and there are some novel twists, it's just not terribly exciting. It's easy to see why Harareet (Ben-Hur [1959]) didn't have much of a film career. She's attractive, but so lacking in interest she's almost a void onscreen.

That said, the film held a muted appeal for me. Its twists were just novel enough to surprise me and keep my attention to its bitter end, where I wondered if there was anyone worth rooting for.

I enjoyed seeing Stuart Whitman take on a rare starring turn in Signpost to Murder. He's an unusual star, not exactly handsome leading man material, but not quite a character actor either. With his slender waist, high shoulders and square chest, even his appearance seems to defy categorization.

Here Whitman stars with Joanne Woodward, in a nearly house-bound film that clearly shows its roots on the stage. He's Alex Forrestor, a man who has been committed to a mental institution for the murder of his wife. 

The hopeful, and seemingly cured convict breaks out when a doctor tells him of an old law which grants a new trial to escapees who can elude capture for two weeks. His hiding place: Molly Thomas' (Woodward) house, which is down the road from the institution.

And what a bizarre house it is. Filled with oddly placed chairs and couches, all of them seeming to discourage any sort of interaction between guests, the most unusual feature is a creaky old mill wheel which is visible through a large window in the living room and the bedroom on the floor above. The drippy squeaks of this odd feature punctuate the film's soundtrack for almost the entire running time and you can't help but wonder how Molly keeps from going crazy.

Though she is at first understandably reluctant to harbor a fugitive, Molly becomes attracted to Alex very quickly. You can only guess that she's got a taste for bad boys, or maybe the rush she gets from fear. 

Police detectives, her maid, even the local pastor tromp through her house, looking for Alex and trying to comfort her over the murder of her husband in the woods the day of Forrest's escape. Though the man hiding in her bedroom could have made her a widow, she never thinks to give him up, even though she easily could.

Whitman and Woodward are an uncomfortable match. It isn't easy to accept them as irresistibly attracted to each other, but they commit to the convictions of their characters with fascinating intensity.

It doesn't all quite come together as it should, but these people are so strange, so off-center in their behavior, that the film is fascinating in an unsettling way. There were a few twists that surprised me, even though in retrospect I couldn't believe I didn't see them coming. It was almost as if I had been sold on the character's odd sense of logic.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Classic Links

I was saddened to hear of the passing of singer and actress Monica Lewis last week. The 93-year-old had a lively Twitter presence, and I always got a little thrill when she liked my tweets. It looks like her account will live on as a tribute to this lovely woman. You can't ask for anything more than to have fun like she was right up until the end. RIP.

Rob Zombie is going to direct a movie about the last years of Groucho Marx. It's based on the memoir by Groucho's assistant, and a huge Marx Brothers fan, Steve Stoliar. I wonder if it'll address the charming love affair Marx had with Bud Cort near the end of his life?

I'm so excited that TCM will be partnering with Women in Film Los Angeles to launch a multi-year effort to pay tribute to classic female filmmakers. Just another reason movies from the golden age of Hollywood are more relevant than ever.

Jacqueline T. Lynch of Another Classic Movie Blog has just published a lengthy (656 pages!) biography of Ann Blyth. Check out this review from Laura's Miscellaneous Musings for more details.

I love this much-needed tribute to Richard Johnson, whose passing last week didn't draw much attention, particularly when Christopher Lee also left us.

You know what Psycho (1960) needed? More kittens.

Faye Dunaway was seen buying a copy of the Mommie Dearest (1981) screenplay at Larry Edmunds Bookstore in Hollywood. Apparently she plans to write a memoir of the film's production. Could it possibly be as crazy as the film?

Warner Archive: Wallace Beery in Viva Villa! (1934)

The MGM version of the life of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa takes the expected liberties with the truth, but it doesn't plunge too far into fantasy. On DVD now available from Warner Archive, Wallace Beery leads a strong cast through this rousing pre-code epic.

Remarkably polished for its era, Viva Villa makes excellent use of its Mexican locations. The chaos and violence of the revolution comes through in the clouds of dust pierced by sunlight and the busy crowds of fighting men. The big studio gloss and sentimentality are less potent here, as the hangings, whippings and injustice against the peons are presented in brutal detail.

Attacking the role of Villa with his typical gusto, Beery can play it a bit broad on occasion, but his big persona fits the role. He makes some odd choices: scrunching up his face to almost comic effect, often closing one eye like he's a bit drunk and tending to play the revolutionary like he wasn't the sharpest tool in the drawer, which given his accomplishments is highly unlikely. Still, he is never less than mesmerizing and he manages to tap into the complexities of a man who is crude and violent one moment, gentle and generous the next.

The biopic touches on the major events of his life: bearing witness to the murder of his father, his days as a bandit, his recruitment by Francisco Madero to fight officially as a soldier for the new Mexico and the fall out from his successful, but highly controversial methods.

Villa is often accompanied by American reporter Johnny Sykes, played by Stuart Erwin (it is always clear that this role was originally meant for Lee Tracy). The working relationship between the two is fluid; sometimes Sykes reports on Villa, sometimes Villa alters his reality to accommodate what the journalist has already written. I thought that was an amusing comment on the way we view, and sometimes create, our heroes.

Fay Wray is another stand out in the cast, playing a glamorous Mexican socialite. She seems a lightweight presence at first, but in a surprisingly violent scene with Beery, she demonstrates why her talents were greatly underused in Hollywood.

There's plenty of action to get the blood pumping, though many of the battle scenes can be disturbing as it is clear that several horses were seriously hurt during the making of the film. Despite this unfortunate, real brutality, the MGM machine chugs along efficiently here--this is big studio epic making at its most assured.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Beach Party Blogathon: The Beach Girls and the Monster (1965)

Take a beach party movie a la Frankie and Annette, mix it with the creature from the Black Lagoon, and shake it till it loses most of its brain cells and that's The Beach Girls and the Monster (1965).

Far from his heyday playing hunky leading man to Dorothy Lamour and Maria Montez, John Hall directed and starred in this low budget stinker which would also be his last film. With a hip surf score courtesy of Frank Sinatra Jr. and lots of dishy looking youngsters, this is nevertheless a long hour that feels padded despite its short running time.

Still, it's got some goofy moments that have to be seen to be believed and a simultaneously irritating and amusing surreal sense of just about everything. Either that, or a touch of insanity, have brought me back for multiple viewings.

I thought I'd missed something, but no, this is how the movie begins
The movie starts abruptly with a bevy of girls in bikinis bopping for dear life on the beach. Apparently they were real go-go dancers, so it isn't shocking that no matter what happens, those kids keep bopping away like Energizer bunnies.

No need to worry about the build up of suspense here, the beach monster makes his first appearance mere minutes into the film. After tossing a fistful of sand into her boyfriend's face, a beach girl trots up the beach, and takes sudden interest in a dark cave. Apparently the monster has been hanging around in this dank alcove, waiting for the opportunity to snag a go-go dancer.

As he waddles out of his hiding place, the monster looks a lot like the tin woodman draped in seaweed. When you finally get a glimpse of his face, you don't feel fear, but rather, nostalgia for those old bathtub toys that squirted water out of the mouth hole when you squeezed them. Silly as he looks though, this guy is a killer and he strangles the curious girl.

Everyone is mildly concerned, the police are called and the teens keep right on dancing. They even continue to have weenie roasts and sing-a-longs on the beach at night. Despite the fact that their friend has been murdered and the killer is still on the loose.

This nonchalance about the threat of murder greatly irritates Hall, who is Dr. Otto Lindsay an oceanographer who lives in a house on a hill above the beach. He hates the beach parties and tells a policeman that "The boys are a bunch of loafers and the girls are little tramps." His son Richard is one of those loafers and it angers him that he has given up his work alongside him in the lab.

Hall, not in his prime, but still a handsome older man
Junior is taking some time to find himself though. After surviving a car wreck where he was driving and his friend Mark (Walker Edmiston) was crippled, he decides to live it up a bit and take some time to appreciate the beach girls. An aspiring sculptor, Mark lives with father, son and Lindsay's young wife Vicky (Sue Casey). This sexy stepmother attempts to seduce Richard and failing that, wedges herself into a tight dress and goes on the town.

Mark sculpts the doomed temptress Vicky
The killings continue, and so do the beach parties. Seeming to grow tired of the teens though, the monster kills Vicky after one of her illicit dates. Mark becomes suspicious, and finds a monster head in a locked closet. Could the doctor be the killer?

Yes! Dr. Lindsay manages to slip into his extra monster costume and strangles mark, but he is caught by Richard and his girlfriend. The frantic doctor takes off in his tiny convertible, wearing half the monster costume and driving like a maniac until he plummets off a cliff.

How anybody manages to survive in this flick is beyond me. No one seems capable of taking the most basic self-protective measures. 

I mean, if you're going to keep partying on the beach all night, at least take some kind of a weapon? But no, instead they bring a guitar, and a decapitated puppet head called Kingsley the Lion (which was created by Edmiston, who was also a puppeteer and children's television host) who serenades the group of dippy teens. The constant barrage of gags in this scene seem very much the desperate efforts of the filmmakers to give the scene wacky charm. It's almost endearing.

Kingsley croons
So that's The Beach Girls and the Monster. It doesn't make any sense, the characters are mostly idiots, long scenes of dancing and surfing footage make the hour-long film feel twice as long, but the music rocks and it's not without its lame-brained charm.

This post is my entry in The Beach Party Blogathon, co-hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. To read more posts, take a look at the submissions for day one, twothree and four.

Classic Links

A few sad losses this week: actors Richard Johnson (loved him best as a spy in Deadlier Than the Male (1967)), Christopher Lee (I know he was a great Dracula, but The Wicker Man (1973) will always be my favorite of his performances) and musician Ornette Coleman, who was the subject of a Shirley Clarke film I reviewed last year.

I missed the chance to see it at SIFF, but I'm still hoping to catch this Marlon Brando doc. soon. It's based on audio featuring the actor himself.

Maybe I wouldn't want to see the movies in this list of the Bottom Five Silent Films, but I had a good laugh reading about them.

Poor 35mm film stock. First it's almost completely put out of production, now it's being used as a cover for smuggling drugs.

Warner Archive: HUAC Tension in Guilty by Suspicion (1991)

The communist witch hunt of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the resulting blacklisting of several Hollywood talents, is one of the darkest episodes of the studio age. It destroyed careers, friendships and families, and created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. 

Guilty by Suspicion, recently re-released on DVD by Warner Archive, attempts to capture the tone of the times, and occasionally it does, though the results can be uneven.

Robert De Niro stars as David Merrill, a Hollywood director based on real life blacklist victim John Berry. He is liberal, and all but apolitical, but when his friend Larry Nolan (Chris Cooper) names him as a Communist sympathizer while testifying before the committee, he is suddenly the focus of HUAC himself. His offense: attending a few meetings out of curiosity in his youth.

Merrill resists testifying, knowing that he will also be asked to name names. His independent-minded ex-wife Ruth (Annette Bening) stands by him, while everyone else he knows falls away, fearful of scandal. Finally giving in to the pressure, he testifies, only to find that he cannot influence the committee as he had hoped.

Guilty By Suspicion is a glossy, expertly-conceived Hollywood product. It looks good, the actors are slick and it glides through its story with a fair amount of ease. Something about it rubs me the wrong way though. It felt so calculated, so performed rather than felt. I could see the gears turning in the actors' heads. I wondered if a lower budget and a little added grit could have given it more authenticity.

Part of my irritation was with De Niro, who would drag out a version of his "you talkin' to me?" Taxi Driver speech every time he got angry. He'd repeat himself with the same cadence and in the same tone. It was distracting. I kept seeing De Niro, not Hollywood director David Merrill.

In an interesting contrast, Martin Scorsese steals his few scenes as director Joe Lesser (based on Joseph Losey), who chooses European exile over testifying. I'm glad that Scorsese focused his career on directing, but can't help wishing he'd devote a little more energy to acting. He's always an exciting presence on the screen, charismatic, natural and full of the verve you'd find in a classic Hollywood character actor.

Overall, I felt like most of the film could have been about most any kind of scandal affecting an individual. It was almost too personal, focusing so much attention on Merrill that the larger picture suffered. I don't know how much meaning it would have had for me if I didn't already know so much of the real story.

It is only in the last scene, where Merrill testifies, that I fully felt the frustration and fear imposed by HUAC. The bullying tactics of the committee, and the director's futile attempts to reason with them, or even to be heard, get your blood boiling. You can see how rotten the whole process is and how nothing good could come of it. If only the rest of the film felt this intense and painfully real.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
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