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Monthly Archives: January 2011

Stagecoach to Denver (Dec. 23, 1946)

Stagecoach to Denver, Allan Lane’s second outing as Fred Harman’s comic-strip cowboy Red Ryder, isn’t much different from his first. He’s a solid replacement for “Wild” Bill Elliott, but he lacks Elliott’s almost comical woodenness.

The one-hour oater takes place in a town called Elkhorn (which may or may not be in Colorado). As usual, Ryder and his aunt, the Duchess (Martha Wentworth), moved around plenty — most likely to keep the series’ titles fresh. This time around, the Duchess is running a stage line that serves all points south of Elkhorn, and her friend Big Bill Lambert (Roy Barcroft) is starting up a stage line that will serve all points north.

A little boy named Dickie (Bobby Hyatt), who has lost his parents, is getting shipped out to a relative he doesn’t know in Denver. This was the old days, when an orphan was simply told his parents “Went away on a long trip,” not that they were dead.

Dickie is caught up in the middle of nefarious doings when the sabotaged yoke of a stagecoach breaks, plunging him and the rest of the passengers into a ravine. The scheme was carried out to kill the land commissioner, who wouldn’t play ball with evil land baron Jasper Braydon (Wheaton Chambers).

Everyone on the stage dies except for Dickie, who is paralyzed from the waist down. “Doc” Kimball (Tom Chatterton) tells Ryder that he needs permission from Dickie’s nearest living relative to perform an operation that could repair his spine, but that could also kill him.

The bad guys intercept the stage carrying Dickie’s Aunt May, bind and gag her in a cabin in the woods, and replace her with a beautiful ringer (Peggy Stewart).

The fake Aunt May gives her assent, but struggles with her decision. If the boy dies, she feels it will be her fault, and she wants out of the scheme.

Meanwhile, Braydon, the evil land boss, starts forcing folks off their land in a dramatic and harrowing montage of stock footage.

Will Dickie walk again? Will he get the pony Ryder and his Indian boy sidekick Little Beaver (Bobby Blake) promised him? Will the beautiful young woman masquerading as Aunt May have a change of heart and aid the good guys? Will Emmett Lynn provide his usual brand of cornpone comic relief, this time as a character named “Coonskin”? Will Big Bill Lambert turn out to be one of the bad guys and have a furniture-destroying fistfight with Red Ryder? You’ll just have to watch it and find out.

Stagecoach to Denver is directed by dependable Republic journeyman R.G. Springsteen with his usual blend of vigor and indifference.

It’s a Wonderful Life (Dec. 20, 1946)

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and I’m not alone. When I was a kid, not a Christmas went by that it wasn’t shown on television multiple times. For many families, it’s required holiday viewing.

Like a lot of people, I didn’t see the film in its entirety until I’d already seen bits and pieces over the years and seen it satirized and referred to in countless TV shows and movies.

My first memory of seeing part of it was on my grandmother’s 13″ black & white TV. The film was almost over, and I had no idea what it was about. George Bailey (James Stewart) is experiencing what life would have been like if he’d never been born. He’s disheveled and looks terrified. Police officer Bert (Ward Bond) and cab driver Ernie (Frank Faylen) watch as he explores the abandoned, ramshackle version of his own home. The scene is full of darkness and shadows. It has the look of a film noir, and I found it scary.

If you’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, you might think it’s the exact opposite — sappy and sentimental — but that’s not the case. It’s a film full of dark moments, with a sense of desperation that’s always threatening to bubble to the surface. The most famous part of the film — George seeing what life would have been like in Bedford Falls, NY, if he’d never been born — occupies a relatively small amount of the total running time. Most of the film tells the story of an ordinary man who ended up living a very different life than he dreamed he would.

When he was young, George dreamed of going to college, traveling the world, and becoming a titan of industry. His life is an emotional game of tug. He puts off college, stays in Bedford Falls, and even gives away the money he and his wife Mary (Donna Reed) put aside for their honeymoon in order to save the family business, Bailey Building & Loan. George always does the right thing because he’s a decent person, but he’s a real person, too. Each little depredation eats away at him. He loves his wife and four children, but when the evil old Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) spirits away $8,000 from his absent-minded Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), George loses hope. It looks as if the family business might not only be ruined, but George might also be headed to prison.

George asks Potter for a loan, and Potter points out that while he needs $8,000, he carries a life insurance policy worth $15,000, which means he’s worth more dead than alive. The desperate George takes this cruel assessment to heart. He heads home, yells at his children, trashes part of the house, and goes out to get good and drunk. After getting punched in the face in the bar, he crashes his car, stumbles to a bridge, and contemplates killing himself. It’s at this point that a frumpy angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who has “the I.Q. of a rabbit and the faith of a child,” arrives to show him just how much he really is worth.

It’s a Wonderful Life works as well as it does because it earns every one of its emotional moments. Take, for instance, one of the pivotal moments of George Bailey’s boyhood. George (played by the wonderful Bobbie Anderson, later to be known professionally as Robert J. Anderson) has an after-school job in the local pharmacy, and stops old Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner) from making a fatal mistake. The audience knows that Gower has slipped up not only because he’s drunk, but because he’s distraught following the death of his son. When George returns, having failed to deliver the poisonous “medicine,” Gower beats him savagely. When Gower finally realizes the fatal mistake George has stopped him from making, he breaks down and embraces the boy in an outpouring of emotion.

I really meant to re-watch It’s a Wonderful Life and write a review of it before Christmas. But one thing led to another and I got behind in my movie-watching schedule. I’m glad I didn’t get around to seeing it until now, though. It reminded me just what a great film it is. So many “holiday films” are unwatchable after December 25, but It’s a Wonderful Life was just as engaging and emotionally satisfying in mid-January as it is any other time of the year.

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (Dec. 18, 1946)

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball begins with a montage of Dick Tracy and his rogues’ gallery from the Sunday funnies — B.O. Plenty, Gravel Gertie, Vitamin Flintheart, Flattop, etc. — and ends with a face that Chester Gould never drew. He’s a chrome-domed, pug-nosed bruiser called Cueball, and his cartoon image eventually dissolves into the visage of the character actor who plays him, Dick Wessel, looking menacing as all get-out as the recently paroled thug.

In the opening scene of the film, Cueball sneaks onto an ocean liner that has just docked, forces his way into the compartment of a passenger named Lester Abbott (Trevor Bardette), and demands he hand over his diamonds. When Abbott fights back, Cueball wraps a braided leather strap around his neck and strangles him to death. It’s not as shocking as the murder that opens Dick Tracy (1945), but it’s still fairly gruesome by ’40s standards. (We see it in silhouette, and Cueball even drives his knee into the small of Abbott’s back as he garrotes him.)

Police detectives Dick Tracy (Morgan Conway) and Pat Patton (Lyle Latell) run down clues and question Abbott’s employer, jeweler Jules Sparkle (Harry Cheshire). Pat trails Sparkle’s diamond cutter, Simon Little (Byron Foulger), to a meeting with his hideous assistant Rudolph (Skelton Knaggs), while Tracy follows Sparkle’s secretary, Mona Clyde (Rita Corday), to a rendezvous with antiques dealer Percival Priceless (Douglas Walton).

Meanwhile, Cueball seeks help from Filthy Flora (Esther Howard), the proprietor of a waterfront dive bar called “The Dripping Dagger,” and it becomes clear that he is a pawn in a game he doesn’t fully understand. He’s a pawn who kills as easily as other men breathe, however, and before the film is over, he’ll have murdered three people in his quest to get $20,000 for a score of diamonds worth $300,000.

Like Morgan Conway’s previous outing as Dick Tracy, this picture is a solid, unpretentious police procedural that moves at a nice clip. Many of the characters never appeared in Chester Gould’s comic strip, but they’re crafted in the right spirit. Gould’s bad guys may have been grotesque caricatures with ridiculous names, but he treated them with dead seriousness. Dick Tracy vs. Cueball does the same thing. There’s plenty of comic relief whenever the pill-popping Vitamin Flintheart (Ian Keith) is onscreen, but there’s nothing funny about Cueball slapping Filthy Flora across the face with his leather braid before he chokes her to death with it.

Gordon M. Douglas directs with energy and élan. His camera setups are utilitarian, but the angles and lighting create a dramatic noir atmosphere. Dick Tracy vs. Cueball is a violent B mystery thriller with 0% body fat and a lot of muscle.

The Yearling (Dec. 18, 1946)

The Yearling
The Yearling (1946)
Directed by Clarence Brown
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The Yearling, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, is a hard movie for me to review. It’s a beautifully filmed picture, and is a great example of just how good the sometimes-gaudy Technicolor process could look.

But it’s also one of the saddest “family” films I’ve ever seen. I would certainly never show it to a child under the age of 12, and would only show it to a child 12 or older if they knew the basic story and specifically requested to see it. I’ve seen The Yearling called “heart-warming,” but I found it emotionally draining and depressing.

I don’t know why so many animal stories for young people involve a beloved pet dying, but they do. Unlike The Yearling, however, the animals in Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller at least die after a heroic struggle of some kind. In The Yearling, the 12-year-old protagonist is forced to shoot his beloved deer, whom he raised from a fawn, because it’s eating their cash crops. The message, obviously, is that life is hard, and growing up and becoming a man involves unpleasant tasks, but it still left me feeling more dejected than inspired.

Young Jody Baxter (Claude Jarman, Jr.) is a dreamer — sweet and sensitive despite his hardscrabble life in the Florida scrub country in the late 19th century. He has an easy rapport with his father, Ezra “Penny” Baxter (Gregory Peck), but a more difficult relationship with his mother, Orry (Jane Wyman), who is as hard and unforgiving as pioneer women come. Early in the film, Penny tells his wife, “Don’t be afraid to love the boy.” The film cuts to a scene of Wyman standing in front of the graves of all her dead children, David Baxter, who died at the age of 1 year, 3 months, Ora Baxter, who died at the age of 2 years, 4 months, and Ezra, Jr., who was stillborn, and we see precisely why she is afraid to let down her guard around her only son.

Jody yearns for a little pet of his own, but his parents never let him have one for practical reasons. After Penny is bit by a rattlesnake, however, he shoots a doe for its heart and liver, which can pull the poison from his wound. (I’m pretty sure this is what we would now call “unscientific.”) The doe leaves behind a little fawn, which Jody’s parents allow him to adopt. Jody names the fawn “Flag.”

But why? Why do they finally relent in that situation? The Baxters are practical people who could have seen the handwriting on the wall. When you’re a family that depends on every last penny of income your meager crops provide, having a domesticated deer living on your farm is bound to cause trouble.

Claude Jarman Jr

And trouble Flag causes. Jody’s parents are patient after the year-old Flag eats a large portion of their cash crop of tobacco. Penny and Jody plant a new crop of corn to help make up for the loss. But when Flag eats most of the corn, Jody promises to erect a fence so tall that Flag won’t be able to get over it. His father injures his back, and can’t help him, even though he wants to.

If this was just a story about learning responsibility, then Jody toiling far into the night, in the rain, over the course of several days, all alone, just to build a fence (which appears to be more than six-feet tall) to not only save his family’s crop but also the life of his beloved pet would be enough. But the moment Flag easily jumps over the fence and goes back to work on the corn, my heart dropped. I knew what was coming next, but still couldn’t quite believe it when it happened.

There are plenty of positive interpretations of The Yearling. Death is a part of life, and we all must learn this sooner or later. It could also be seen as a young boy coming to understand his mother’s pain and hardship. Like her, he has now lost something fragile and beautiful that died too young. But these were all things my head understood after watching the movie. My heart felt empty, as though I had just been shown the utter futility of cherishing anything frivolous or out of the ordinary.

The Yearling won three Academy Awards; one for Best Color Interior Direction (Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse, and Edwin B. Willis), one for Best Color Cinematography (Charles Rosher, Leonard Smith, and Arthur Arling), and one honorary Oscar for the young star of the film, Claude Jarman, Jr., who was given an award for “Outstanding Child Actor of 1946.” I thought that Jarman’s performance was good, but I didn’t believe him during two scenes in which he registers horror and disbelief. Peck is good, as always, but he seems miscast. He registers earnestness and decency, but his accent is never quite right. Wyman, I thought, gave the best performance in the film, which was impressive, considering how unsympathetic her character was for most of the running time.

Oh, and there’s a disclaimer at the end that all scenes involving animals were supervised by the American Humane Association. We’re used to seeing this now, but it was fairly new in the ’40s. After several horses were killed during the making of Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and Jesse James (1939), there were numerous audience protests, which led to supervision by American Humane of most Hollywood films involving animal performers. This said, I’d really like to see behind the scenes for the amazing sequence in which Penny and Jody hunt a bear, and their dogs attack it over and over. I guess the bear was just hugging the dogs before it tossed them safely away, but it looked pretty damned real to me.

Boston Blackie and the Law (Dec. 12, 1946)

D. Ross Lederman’s Boston Blackie and the Law, produced by Ted Richmond, is the twelfth of 14 Boston Blackie features released by Columbia Pictures from 1941 to 1949.

Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black was a gentleman thief and safecracker created by author Jack Boyle in 1914. Stories featuring Boston Blackie appeared in The American Magazine, Cosmopolitan, and Redbook, and the character showed up in a number of silent films starring a variety of different actors. When Chester Morris stepped into the role in Meet Boston Blackie (1941), however, he was on the road to becoming inseparable from the character. Meet Boston Blackie was the first “talkie” featuring Boston Blackie, and Morris would go on to play Blackie in all 14 programmers released by Columbia Pictures. Morris also played the character on the radio, in a 1944 summer replacement series for Amos & Andy. When Blackie returned to the airwaves in 1945, Richard Kollmar took over the part, and starred in more than 200 episodes.

The radio version of Boston Blackie is the one I’m most familiar with, and while I’m a regular listener, it’s never been one of my favorite shows. Occasionally there’s a really crackerjack episode, but mostly they’re middle-of-the-road mysteries with more corn than the state of Iowa. Judging solely by Boston Blackie and the Law, which is the first Boston Blackie movie I’ve ever seen, the film series is pretty similar. Blackie is a likable rogue, but his puns are pretty lame, and he’s got plenty to go around.

Boston Blackie and the Law begins in a festive fashion, with Blackie performing a magic show at the annual Thanksgiving party at Women’s State Penitentiary. An old lady in the audience says, “I didn’t know Boston Blackie was a magician.” A young blonde responds knowingly, “There isn’t a trick he doesn’t know.”

That young blonde is Dinah Moran, a.k.a. prisoner #31329 (played by Constance Dowling), and when Blackie offers to make someone disappear in his “Phantom Cabinet,” she volunteers. Blackie promises Warden Lund (Selmer Jackson) the disappearance will be only temporary, which gets a laugh from the audience, but no one’s laughing when he pulls back the curtain of the cabinet a second time and Moran is still nowhere to be seen.

Enter the long-suffering Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) and his bumbling sidekick, Sgt. Matthews (Frank Sully). Farraday is Blackie’s foil; an eternal chump who always suspects Blackie of wrongdoing, and who always trips over his own feet while Blackie effortlessly solves the crime his own way.

After Blackie gives the imbecilic Sgt. Matthews the slip, he and his sidekick, “The Runt” (George E. Stone), follow clues to a stage magician named “Jani” (Warren Ashe) and his pretty, dark-haired assistant Irene (Trudy Marshall).

Jani, whose real name is John Lampau, bears a strong resemblance to Boston Blackie, which comes in handy when Blackie needs to impersonate him. (To enjoy a movie like this, you have to buy that Inspector Farraday and Sgt. Matthews can’t recognize Blackie up close just because he’s wearing a turban and a false Van Dyke beard.)

As usual with these types of B mysteries, I was left with more stupid questions than the film had trite answers when the words “The End” appeared onscreen. But I enjoyed it. Columbia’s mystery series of the ’40s — like The Whistler series and The Crime Doctor series — were top-notch B-movie entertainment, and Boston Blackie and the Law isn’t bad, either.

Paisà (Dec. 10, 1946)

Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà (Paisan) is the follow-up to his wildly successful 1945 film Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City).

Roma, Città Aperta is one of the most famous examples of Italian neorealist cinema, and is better known than Paisà, but I think that Paisà stands head and shoulders above Roma, Città Aperta as an artistic achievement. It’s a sprawling, chaotic picture of life in Italy during the last days of World War II. The title of the film comes from the word that American soldiers called Italians — “paisan,” or “buddy” — and over the course of six vignettes the film explores a variety of Italian characters’ attempts to communicate with and understand their occupiers.

Rod Geiger, the American G.I. who carried Roma, Città Aperta back to the United States, worked closely with Rossellini on Paisà, and is listed in the credits as a producer. Most of the Americans in the film were played by off-Broadway actors cast by Geiger’s father, who ran a theater in New York. Depictions of foreigners and foreign cultures in movies are tricky to get right. Usually there are at least a few things that just don’t ring true, but there were times while I was watching Paisà that I forgot that I was watching a “foreign” film featuring American characters. The American actors play their parts in a naturalistic, unaffected fashion, and their dialogue often seem ad-libbed. There are even aspects of the film that ring more true than anything coming out of Hollywood at the time, like an extremely drunk African-American soldier (played by Dots Johnson) who is full of anger and resentment.

Many writers contributed to the film, including Klaus Mann (the son of Thomas Mann), who wrote a treatment. A few of the six episodes that comprise the film function as parables, and have endings that border on being trite, but the overall effect of Paisà is an overwhelming panorama of violence, yearning, friendship, misunderstanding, and horror.

The film is a journey from the south of Italy to the north, and the segments take place in Sicily, Naples, Rome, Florence, a monastery in the Apennine mountains, and in a partison hideout in Porto Tolle. Unlike the American characters, the Italians mostly play themselves. The Sicilians are all played by Sicilian non-actors. The partisans in Porto Tolle are played by real partisans. A street urchin in Naples named Pasquale is played by a real street urchin named Alfonsino Pasca. The monks in the Apennines were really monks, but they were dubbed by different actors, since their accents would have made it clear that they were from the south of Naples, not to the north.

Most of the segments of Paisà end tragically, with characters the audience has grown to care about killed in combat. The deaths are senseless and sudden, and the feeling that no one is safe makes Paisà one of the most affecting and least cliched war films I’ve ever seen.

The Crimson Ghost (12 chapters) (Sept. 21-Dec. 7, 1946)

The Republic serial The Crimson Ghost, directed by William Witney and Fred C. Brannon, features one of the most iconic cliffhanger villains of all time. His grinning skull mask was appropriated by the band The Misfits, and may be how the character is best known today, since his face appears on nearly all of their T-shirts and album covers.

The Crimson Ghost’s mask is also the most memorable and sinister part of him in the serial itself. He gets involved with the action — gunplay, car chases, and fistfights — too often to be mysterious or ominous, and his hideouts are generally rustic or quaintly subterranean, but damn that mask is cool!

By 1946, most of Republic’s finest serials were behind them, but the studio still made the best cliffhangers in Hollywood, and The Crimson Ghost stands up as solid entertainment. It’s also one of the earliest examples of post-war, Atomic Age, pulp lunacy. Granted, the storytelling isn’t that different from pre-war Republic serials, but The Crimson Ghost does contain a number of science-fiction elements, and some of the fear and paranoia that came from living in a world with atomic weapons was beginning to creep in.

Charles Quigley plays scientific criminologist and “outstanding physicist” Duncan Richards and Linda Stirling plays his lovely and plucky assistant, Diana Farnsworth. In the first chapter of the serial, “Atomic Peril,” Prof. Chambers (played by Republic mainstay Kenne Duncan, his hair dyed gray and playing against type as a good guy) demonstrates his invention, the “cyclotrode.” The cyclotrode is roughly the size of a bread box, with a rotating cylindrical metal coil on top. It can “repel any atomic bomb attack” by shorting out electric systems, a stunning display of which is shown when Dr. Richards pilots a little model of a B-29 and Prof. Chambers locates it somehow with the cyclotrode and shoots it out of the sky. After the demonstration is over, one of the observing scientists says, “I haven’t felt so safe since before the bomb fell on Hiroshima.”

Prof. Chambers says that he plans to hand the cyclotrode over to the government and begin work on a larger model, but one of his fellow scientists is secretly masquerading as the Crimson Ghost (voiced by I. Stanford Jolley) and commanding a small army of henchmen in his spare time. One of the Ghost’s henchmen — disguised as a janitor — gets the drop on Prof. Chambers with the old “revolver in a feather duster” trick, but Prof. Chambers manages to destroy the prototype, and a small-scale, ridiculous little arms race is on.

Republic Pictures always had the best fight stuntmen in the business, and the brawls in The Crimson Ghost are all really well-done. The first one is a doozy, with Quigley’s stunt double leaping over a conference table, later sliding down its length, and of course breaking lots of furniture along the way. The second fight features the most memorable stunt in the serial, when Quigley’s stunt double leaps up and kicks off of a wall to take down two assailants.

Over the course of The Crimson Ghost, Dr. Richards and Diana constantly cross paths and mix it up with the black-robed baddie and his right-hand man, the suit and fedora-wearing Ash (played by Clayton Moore, who is best known to legions of baby boomers as the Lone Ranger). Like all serials, the plot is massaged, kneaded, and stretched out to fill 12 chapters. There are plenty of fistfights and car chases — the bread and butter of chapter plays — but there are also plenty of nutty pseudoscientific contraptions like the Crimson Ghost’s “slave collars,” which are outfitted with small diaphragm radio receivers that allow the Ghost to order the wearer around like his own personal zombie; the collars also explode when removed, killing the unlucky victim.

It quickly becomes clear that the Ghost is really one of the professors with whom Dr. Richards regularly meets, so why he keeps telling them his plans is beyond me, but it makes for plenty of action when Ash and his henchmen show up every time Dr. Richards and Diana attempt to secure an “X-7 transformer tube” (which Richards explains is “a special radium vapor tube we’ve been developing for a death ray machine”) or procure the heavy water necessary to supply the cyclotrode’s tubes.

There are plenty of cool gadgets, like a transcription disc sent to Dr. Richards that carries a message from the Crimson Ghost that ends with a release of poisonous gas, radioactive tracking devices, dissolving sprays, and a cigarette case that releases a tiny puff of knockout gas.

The Crimson Ghost was one of three serials I watched repeatedly in high school (The Adventures of Captain Marvel and Spy Smasher were the other two). I loved Linda Stirling as Diana, whom Dr. Richards treats like a secretary even though she can pilot a plane, mix it up with Ash, and even throw her little body out of a speeding car and remarkably not have any scratches or bruises on her face. Watching it again made me realize that she’s a really bad actress, even by the standards of Republic Pictures, but her ineptitude as a thespian didn’t change the way I feel about her, or about The Crimson Ghost, which is a top-notch serial with plenty of rewatchability.

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