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Monthly Archives: June 2012

Ruthless (April 16, 1948)

He wasn’t a man … he was a way of life.

The last line of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless could have been the capper to an epic tale of striving and loss, but after almost one hour and 45 minutes of not-quite-there dramaturgy and characters that seem more like symbols and types than actual people, that last line rings utterly false.

Ulmer is a good director — he’s been called “the poet of Poverty Row” — but nothing he’s made since Detour (1945) has really struck a chord with me.

Detour is not only one of my favorite film noirs, but one of my favorite films, period, and would easily make the list of my top 10 favorite films of all time.

I liked both The Strange Woman (1946) and Carnegie Hall (1947), but neither ascended to the pulpy, brilliant heights of Detour. It’s been more than 15 years since I saw Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), but I remember loving it. The wonderful lead performances by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff didn’t hurt, but Ulmer’s direction and surreal set pieces took it to a level that most Universal horror films can’t match. His dreamy horror film Bluebeard (1944), which starred John Carradine, is good too.

My point is that Ulmer is a director capable of great stuff, but Ruthless doesn’t show him in top form. Based on Dayton Stoddart’s 1945 novel Prelude to Night, the film is a series of flashbacks that tell of the merciless rise to power of Horace Woodruff Vendig (Zachary Scott).

The film begins with a glamorous party at Horace Vendig’s palatial seaside manor. He has thrown the party to coincide with his announcement that he is handing over all his wealth and possessions to world peace organizations. Among the guests are Vic Lambdin (Louis Hayward) and his date, Mallory Flagg (Diana Lynn). Vic is Horace’s oldest friend, and his reappearance stirs up old wounds and painful memories.

Horace was an unwanted child. His parents (played by Raymond Burr and Joyce Arling) split up, and both of them were more interested in their own love affairs than in their son. But after Horace saves a girl named Martha Burnside (played as a child by Ann Carter), her parents accepted him as their own child, which allowed him to attend Harvard and make his mark in society. Incidentally, young Horace is played by Robert J. Anderson, who also played James Stewart as a young man in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

In the series of flashbacks that follow Horace’s childhood, Zachary Scott and Louis Hayward play the younger versions of themselves and Diana Lynn, who plays Mallory, also plays the grown-up Martha Burnside. I’m not sure what the point of this dual role was. The two characters aren’t related, and if Mallory’s resemblance to Martha is meant to remind Horace of everything he has lost then not enough comes of it.

Horace’s ruthless business machinations and his seduction of women are inextricable. When he’s used a woman for all the social advancement she’s worth, he throws her aside for his next conquest.

The film’s theme of sex & business is made most literal in the sequence in which Horace takes over the entire financial empire of Buck Mansfield (Sydney Greenstreet) by seducing his wife Christa (Lucille Bremer). With her comes everything. She tells Buck that she couldn’t transfer her affection to Horace without also transferring her loyalty, but the idea that she holds the key to all of Buck’s assets is still pretty far-fetched. She eventually wises up, as all of Horace’s women do, and she screams at him, “From the first moment you weren’t kissing me, you were kissing forty-eight percent!”

On the IMDb page for Ruthless, there are many user reviews that proclaim the film a classic, and nearly the equal of Citizen Kane (1941). I don’t know what movie these people saw, and can only ascribe their enthusiasm for Ruthless to the deep desire that lies in the heart of every cinéaste to champion an unfairly neglected film.

Besides the style of the film, which is passable but nowhere near the technical brilliance of a film like Kane, the lead performance of Zachary Scott is too one-note to ever make the viewer truly hate or love Horace Vendig. (It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the scenes of Horace’s childhood, in which another actor plays him, are the most moving and compelling of the film.)

Scott crafts a character who is by no means likeable, but there’s also nothing particularly interesting or profound about his plutomania, and I could never dredge up the depth of feelings that his friend Vic experiences, making the “tragic” events of the film’s climax more laughable than sad.

Brick Bradford (15 chapters) (Jan. 5-April 12, 1948)

Brick Bradford is the worst of the three Columbia serials produced by “Jungle” Sam Katzman that I’ve seen so far, and that’s saying something.

The previous couple of Katzman-produced serials I watched — Jack Armstrong and The Sea Hound (both made in 1947) — suffered from a similar lack of focus across their 15 weekly chapters, but Brick Bradford takes it to a new level by setting up a tantalizingly trashy science-fiction scenario and then abandoning it halfway through.

Brick Bradford was directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr and based on the daily newspaper strip created by writer William Ritt and artist Clarence Gray that began in 1933.

Brick Bradford was a square-jawed, spacefaring, time-traveling adventurer in the mold of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. He’s played by serial superstar Kane Richmond, who also starred in Spy Smasher (1942), one of my favorite serials, and as Lamont Cranston, a.k.a. The Shadow, in The Shadow Returns, Behind the Mask, and The Missing Lady (all 1946), as well as innumerable other B movies and chapterplays over the course of his career. When he appeared in Brick Bradford he was pushing 41, and he would only appear in one more film before retiring from acting — William Nigh’s Stage Struck (1948).

Richmond is definitely not the problem with Brick Bradford. He still looks great and can carry himself in a fistfight. The problem is that it leaves so many plot threads hanging at the end.

Chrome-domed, bespectacled scientist Dr. Gregor Tymak (John Merton) invents an “interceptor ray” that could be used to shoot down atomic weapons, but that could also be easily tinkered with and made into a terrifying weapon. Definitely not something that should fall into the wrong hands.

Tymak has also invented a “crystal door” that can be used to move through space and time, or through what Tymak calls “the fifth dimension.” He uses it to travel to the far side of the moon, which no one has ever seen before. Despite what you may have heard, the dark side of the moon is as bright as high noon in California, has a breathable atmosphere, and is the perfect place to mine “lunarium.” It also has plenty of moonhabitants, who are mostly overweight middle-aged men with capes and Centurion helmets.

Unsurprisingly, producer Katzman’s vision of life on the moon isn’t too far removed from his vision of life in the jungle, but I felt like there was some cheesy good fun to be had on the moon with the evil dictator Zuntar (Robert Barron) and his queen Khana (Carol Forman), and their war against the “exiles,” a group of scientists from the earth who were able to reach the moon and form a utopian civilization. For the first half of Brick Bradford, Brick and his sidekick Sandy (Rick Vallin) travel back and forth to the moon through the crystal door, battling the evil super spy Laydron (Charles Quigley, the hero of the 1946 Republic serial The Crimson Ghost) on terra firma and Zuntar and Khana in orbit.

In chapter 8 of the serial, however, Brick and Sandy use Tymak’s experimental “Time Top” to travel from 1948 America to 1748 Brazil and team up with pirates to find some secret plans Tymak hid in the past among some buried treasure. This diversion is mercifully brief, but when it’s over there is literally not one more mention of the moon or anything that happened on it.

There’s some fun stuff with Tymak’s “Z-ray machine,” which is worn around the neck like a tourist’s camera (Tymak explains that the Z-ray “creates the illusion of invisibility, just as the mirror reflects the illusion of form”), but aside from that the last five chapters of the serial are a boring collection of fistfights and cliffhangers in and around Tymak’s farmhouse in the California countryside. It’s standard serial stuff, and I probably wouldn’t have found it so frustrating if I hadn’t spent every minute wondering what was going on up on the moon. Imagine if a Flash Gordon serial introduced Ming the Merciless in the first several chapters and then completely forgot about him for the climax!

Test Tube Babies (April 9, 1948)

Test Tube Babies
Test Tube Babies (1948)
Directed by W. Merle Connell
Screen Classics

W. Merle Connell’s Test Tube Babies premiered in San Francisco on April 9, 1948. Then it went on a road show tour of the U.S., and if it happened to be banned in your state you could just drive over to the next state to watch it (see the newspaper ad below). Like most exploitation films, Test Tube Babies was reissued under a variety of titles over the years, including Sins of Love, Blessed Are They, and a longer, recut version called The Pill in 1967.

Also firmly in the exploitation tradition, Test Tube Babies is a train wreck of two very different films. One is a woodenly acted informational film about artificial insemination and the other is a woodenly acted drama about a less-than-perfectly-happy young married couple whose friends are all drunks and swingers.

That young couple are George and Cathy Bennett (William Thomason and Dorothy Duke), and the lack of children in their marriage after the eternity of 12 months is causing them great unhappiness. George isn’t happy that Cathy spends time with the sleazy gigolo Frank Grover (John Michael), and she isn’t happy with all of the wild parties they keep having. But without children, what’s there to do but host swinging make-out parties?

These wild parties consist of a hot record on the phonograph, plenty of drinks, women undressing after gin spills all over them, and men yelling things like “Show ‘em how they dance in the burlesque houses!”

There’s a good amount of stripping and undressing in Test Tube Babies, but most of it is fairly discreet. The only actual nudity I spotted occurred during a cat fight that begins with the line “Why you cheap tramp!” and ends with the bleached blonde Mary Lou Reckow rolling around on the floor with another actress and losing her top.

After that fight, George and Cathy vow to never throw another party like THAT again. Cathy tells George they need a family. He agrees. This conversation occurs after the movie is already more than half over, and it’s the first time in Test Tube Babies that they talk about going to see an obstetrician or gynecologist (which they can’t pronounce).

The obstetrician, Dr. Wright, is played by legendary non-actor Timothy Farrell, who worked as a bailiff in the L.A. Sheriff’s Department while acting part time. Farrell is probably best remembered today as the narrator of Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda (1953), in which he also appeared as the doctor. Unlike Thomason and Duke, Farrell is able to correctly pronounce “gynecologist,” but I did find it weird the way he kept saying “sperms.”

Test Tube Babies was produced and presented by George Weiss, who would go on to have a long career presenting Z-grade exploitation and sexploitation films dressed up as informational documentaries to circumvent Hollywood production codes. His films include timeless classics like W. Merle Connell’s The Devil’s Sleep (1949), Lillian Hunt’s Too Hot to Handle (1950), Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda (1953), Robert C. Dertano’s Girl Gang (1954), Maurice H. Zouary’s Nudist Life (1961), Joseph P. Mawra’s Olga’s House of Shame and White Slaves of Chinatown (both 1964), and many, many more.

The Big Clock (April 9, 1948)

Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) wasn’t the only film in which Ray Milland got into trouble because of booze.

In John Farrow’s The Big Clock, based on the best-selling novel by Kenneth Fearing, George Stroud (Milland) misses the 7:25 train home because he’s knocking back stingers with Pauline York (Rita Johnson), a former model for Styleways magazine, one of the many imprints of Janoth Enterprises. In the film, Janoth is a Manhattan publishing juggernaut that also owns magazines with names like Artways, Airways, Sportways, Futureways, and Crimeways.

Stroud is the executive editor of Crimeways, and not long after the film begins he offers Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) his resignation. He’s been promising his wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan) a honeymoon since they were married, and now that they’ve been married long enough to have a five-year-old son, her patience has reached its breaking point.

Of course, Stroud strains her patience even further by missing that 7:25 train home, and Georgette leaves for their belated honeymoon alone while he goes out to nightclubs and passes out dead drunk in Pauline’s apartment, fully clothed on the couch. Oh, and did I mention that Pauline is the girlfriend of Stroud’s temperamental boss, Earl Janoth?

In Fearing’s 1946 novel, it’s made explicit that George Stroud has sex with Pauline (whose last name in the book is Delos, not York). He’s a regular cad and even has an overnight bag ready for any illicit sleepovers that might come his way.

With The Big Clock, Farrow crafted a remarkably faithful version of Fearing’s best seller. Stroud’s extramarital affair couldn’t be shown in a Hollywood film, obviously, and all mentions of homosexuality had to be expunged from the script, but in adapting the book Farrow and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer seemed to adopt an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach.

There are some minor changes that neither add nor detract from the story, like how the Strouds of the film have a five-year-old son while the Strouds of the novel have a five-year-old daughter, but there’s one big change that works extremely well. In the novel, “the big clock” was merely George Stroud’s personal metaphor for the rat race — the vast machinery of life and society that never stops ticking forward — but the big clock has been made literal for the film. It’s an enormous contraption that dominates the lobby of the building that houses Janoth Enterprises, and — no surprises here — the climax of the film involves a good amount of crawling around in its works.

The central conceit of The Big Clock is too good to screw up. Stroud leaves Pauline’s apartment moments before Janoth steps out of the elevator and sees a shadowy figure leaving down the stairs. Janoth and Pauline have words, he flies into a rage, and murders her. Janoth’s co-publisher Steve Hagen (George Macready) convinces Janoth that they need to find the mysterious witness and eliminate him.

Since Crimeways has an investigative team, Janoth and Hagen put Stroud in charge of the search for the mysterious witness. Stroud knows Janoth killed Pauline, but he can’t speak up or his marriage will be ruined. He also can’t mess up the search for himself too badly without raising any red flags. All he can do is try to stay one step ahead of things.

The Big Clock is full of nail-biting suspense — especially the last reel — and features fine performances all around. I can’t picture anyone but Charles Laughton as Janoth, a grotesque, vain, sensitive, mercurial publishing genius with one of the silliest little mustaches you will ever see on film, and Milland is perfect as a very intelligent man who knows just exactly how badly he’s trapped but who never stops trying to figure out his escape route. I also especially liked Harry Morgan as Janoth’s personal masseur and probable hit man Bill Womack, a creepy guy who wears dark clothes, has a perpetual scowl, and never speaks.

And in case you were wondering, the director, John Farrow, is indeed Mia Farrow’s father. He and Maureen O’Sullivan were married on September 12, 1936, and had seven children together; Michael, Patrick, John Charles, Mia, Tisa, Prudence, and Stephanie.

Tarzan and the Mermaids (March 29, 1948)


Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948)
Directed by Robert Florey
Sol Lesser Productions / RKO Radio Pictures

Tarzan and the Mermaids was Johnny Weissmuller’s last go-round as the Lord of the Jungle. It was directed by Robert Florey, produced by Sol Lesser, and released by RKO Radio Pictures. It was Weissmuller’s twelfth time starring in a Tarzan film. (His first six Tarzan films were released by M-G-M and the last six were all released by RKO.)

The M-G-M Tarzan films are generally superior — the production values are higher and Weissmuller was younger, so he better looked the part — but the RKO Tarzan films are a lot of fun, too. They’re B pictures, no doubt about it, but they’re well made for what they are, and it’s always fun to see Weissmuller swing, yell, swim, grunt, and get the bad guys.

Tarzan and the Mermaids was filmed entirely on location in Mexico, at Studios Churubusco and locations in Acapulco and Mexico City. The film doesn’t actually take place in Mexico, but rather in and around “the forbidden island of Aquatania,” which lies at the end of the river that runs past Tarzan and Jane’s home.

If you’ve ever seen a Tarzan movie you know that Tarzan and his mate Jane (played by Brenda Joyce) live somewhere on the continent of Africa, so Aquatania is probably meant to exist somewhere in the Indian Ocean, but there’s no mistaking it for anything but Mexico, even if the people of Aquatania are dressed to look vaguely Polynesian.

Then again, no one watches a Tarzan film for geographic or anthropological accuracy. For that matter, no one should watch a Tarzan movie and expect its story to accurately reflect its title.

To wit, the closest thing to a mermaid in Tarzan and the Mermaids is the beautiful Mexican-born actress Linda Christian, a.k.a. “The Anatomic Bomb” (and soon to be Mrs. Tyrone Power). Christian plays “Mara,” a young woman Tarzan drags out of the river.

Mara is on the run from her tribe’s high priest, Palanth (George Zucco), who has demanded she marry the “god” Balu, a slow-moving, bejeweled monstrosity that stands atop the cliffs and causes his worshipers to quake in fear.

Balu is just a guy wearing a costume, of course. He’s a villainous pearl trader named Varga (Fernando Wagner), and he and Palanth have a lucrative scam going. I wasn’t clear on how Balu planned to consummate his forced marriage to Mara (costume on or costume off?) but since she falls under Tarzan’s wing before that can happen, her reunion with her true love, Tiko (Gustavo Rojo), is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

I enjoyed Tarzan and the Mermaids despite its flaws. John Laurenz’s character “Benji” is similar to the Chito Rafferty character he played in numerous RKO westerns, and he seems mind-bogglingly out of place in the film, but other than that I didn’t have any major complaints. Dimitri Tiomkin’s musical score is rousing, there are some spectacular cliff diving stunts, and Weissmuller is always a treat to watch as Tarzan, even when he’s middle-aged and puffy.

Oklahoma Blues (March 28, 1948)

Oklahoma Blues
Oklahoma Blues (1948)
Directed by Lambert Hillyer
Monogram Pictures

By 1948, the singing cowboy genre was starting to get a little long in the tooth. Television would soon provide a home for a few popular crooning cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry — as well as countless reruns of B westerns from the ’30s and ’40s — and at this point, a Poverty Row western like Oklahoma Blues feels more clichéd and predictable than ever.

In this 56-minute programmer, directed for Monogram Pictures by dependable workhorse Lambert Hillyer, Jimmy Wakely plays a singing cowboy named “Jimmy Wakely” who ends up posing as an outlaw called “the Melody Kid” after his big-mouthed friend Cannonball Taylor spreads tall tales. (Cannonball Taylor, incidentally, is played by Dub “Cannonball” Taylor.)

Like most singing cowboy flicks, the plot of Oklahoma Blues is nothing you haven’t seen before, and is mostly a framework for a little comedy, a few fistfights, some shootouts, and — most importantly — a bunch of songs sung by Jimmy Wakely.

Oklahoma Blues mostly takes place in a little town called Rainbow’s End. The town fathers are pushing State Commissioner Walton (J.C. Lytton) to make Rainbow’s End the county seat, but there’s stiff competition from Yuba Junction. Their chances look especially grim after a series of holdups perpetrated by the Drago brothers, Matt (Zon Murray) and Slip (George J. Lewis). Commissioner Walton vows not to make Rainbow’s End the county seat unless someone can roust the outlaws and clean the place up, so Sheriff Sam Oldring (Steve Clark), undertaker Beasley (I. Stanford Jolley), and Judge Emerson (Frank LaRue) hire Jimmy Wakely, whom they think is the singing killer called the Melody Kid.

Wakely takes a shine to local restaurant proprietor Judy Joyce (Virginia Belmont), but she bristles at the reputation of the Melody Kid and vows to leave town and close her restaurant if Wakely is hired in an official capacity. Naturally he makes it a condition of his being hired as sheriff that she stay and keep cooking for him.

If you’re a fan of B westerns, this picture delivers exactly what you expect and not much more. As funny sidekicks go, Cannonball Taylor isn’t very funny, and Judy Joyce is a pretty terrible actress, but Oklahoma Blues delivers where it counts — the music. The film features “Oklahoma Blues,” by Jimmy Wakely, “Judy,” by Tiny Stokes, and “On the Strings of My Lonesome Guitar,” by Smiley Burnett and Jimmy Wakely, as well as snippets of other country & western tunes, all sung by Jimmy Wakely.

Incidentally, I recently bought the Monogram Cowboy Collection Volume 1 DVD set, so I’ll be reviewing more of these pictures as they come up in the rotation.

All My Sons (March 27, 1948)

All My Sons was not Arthur Miller’s first play, but it was his first success, and the work that put him in the public eye. He won a Tony Award for best author and the play’s director, Elia Kazan, won the Tony for best direction of a play. All My Sons ran on Broadway, at the Coronet Theatre, from January to November 1947 for a total of 328 performances. It starred Ed Begley, Beth Miller, Arthur Kennedy, and Karl Malden.

Irving Reis’s film version premiered in New York on March 27, 1948, and went into wide release in April.

All My Sons stars Edward G. Robinson as Joe Keller, the owner of a factory that made airplane parts during World War II. His partner and former next-door neighbor, Herbert Deever, went to prison for shipping faulty cylinder heads.

The defective parts caused the deaths of 21 airmen, but Joe Keller was exonerated of any wrongdoing in court. (In the original play, Keller’s partner is called “Steve Deever,” and he never appears on stage. In the film, Herbert Deever is played by Frank Conroy in a dark and emotionally wrenching scene in which one of the main characters goes to visit him in prison.)

Joe Keller’s son Larry’s plane went down in the Pacific during the war. Larry was declared MIA, but Joe’s wife Kate (Mady Christians) refuses to believe her son is dead, and keeps everything in Larry’s bedroom the same as the day he shipped out. All his suits are hanging in the closet and all his shoes are shined.

When the film begins, Joe and Kate’s other son, Chris (Burt Lancaster), who also served in World War II, is attempting to mend fences with Ann Deever (Louisa Horton), the girl he wants to marry. Ann and Chris love each other, but several obstacles stand between them. Not only is she the daughter of Joe Keller’s disgraced and imprisoned former partner, but she used to be Larry’s girl, and Chris won’t be able to get his parents’ blessing while his mother still holds out hope that Larry is alive somewhere. “You marry that girl and you’re pronouncing him dead,” Joe Keller shouts at Chris. “You’ve no right to do that!”

I find Robinson an odd choice, physically at least, to play Lancaster’s father. He’s about the right age — 20 years older than Lancaster — but the two men couldn’t look more different. Aside from this quibble, however, Robinson is perfectly cast. His bluster and bonhomie cover up a deep well of guilt that slowly, over the course of the film, bubbles to the surface.

Movies based on plays can suffer from a sense of artificiality, but All My Sons is a perfect example of how to adapt a play for the screen. While the dialogue is pretty heavy on exposition for the first reel, it never feels stagey or bound to a single location. Small changes like the addition of Herbert Deever as a speaking character help make the film work as a cinematic experience, and Russell Metty’s dark, atmospheric cinematography and Leith Stevens’s effective musical score really tie everything together.

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