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The Barkleys of Broadway (May 4, 1949)

The Barkleys of Broadway
The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
Directed by Charles Walters
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are back, for one final engagement!

The Barkleys of Broadway was their first pairing in a decade. It was also the only film they made for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the only time they were onscreen together in Technicolor.

During the 1930s, Astaire and Rogers appeared together in nine films released by RKO Radio Pictures: Flying Down to Rio (1933), The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939).

In the 1940s, Ginger Rogers established herself as an actress in dramas and comedies, and Fred Astaire established himself as a successful solo star in musicals like Holiday Inn (1942) and Easter Parade (1948).

Astaire was set to make another film with Judy Garland, his co-star in Easter Parade. It was going to be called “You Made Me Love You,” after one of Garland’s hit songs. But when she was forced to drop out of the project, producer Arthur Freed cast Ginger Rogers to replace her … because the world can never have too much Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

When the two perform their first tap number in The Barkleys of Broadway, it’s joyful and exhilarating, and it’s hard to believe that more than 10 years have passed since they made a film together.

In The Barkleys of Broadway, Astaire and Rogers play Josh and Dinah Barkley, a married couple who are wildly successful onstage but who can’t go two minutes without bickering offstage. Their partner Ezra Millar (Oscar Levant) tries his best to keep them in check, but even he can’t keep them together when a handsome French playwright named Jacques Pierre Barredout (played by Jacques François) convinces Dinah that she should become a “serious” actress and star in his new play about Sarah Bernhardt.

Josh continues performing on his own. The high point of his solo career is the impressively surreal number “Shoes With Wings On,” in which a bunch of dancing shoes live up to their name.

Dinah struggles under Barredout’s dictatorial direction, so Josh takes to impersonating the Frenchman over the phone after rehearsals to give Dinah the kind of direction he knows will help her.

Eventually they are brought back together by Ezra’s machinations, which leads to an emotional performance of the song “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” which Astaire had previously sung to Rogers in the film Shall We Dance, but which they had never danced to on film before.

The Barkleys of Broadway is a lot of fun. It’s great to see Astaire and Rogers back together, and Oscar Levant is his usual acerbic, deadpan self. (He also gets a chance to do what he does best — entertain on the piano.)

The film’s music is mostly by Harry Warren, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin. (“They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is by George and Ira Gershwin.)

The story is inconsequential, but that’s the case with most movie musicals. This film is an excuse for some singing, dancing, and comedy, and it’s all wonderful. The fact that Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire would never make another film together makes it a slightly bittersweet viewing experience, but it’s not that bittersweet. After all, they left us with a tremendous cinematic legacy, and nothing lasts forever.

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.

Lured (Aug. 28, 1947)

If you go solely by the current DVD cover art for Douglas Sirk’s Lured, you’ll come away thinking it’s a thriller starring Boris Karloff and Lucille Ball; possibly a Gothic melodrama in which her character marries his character and is then terrorized by him in a creepy old mansion.

Or you might not.

But in any case, that’s what I thought, so I was surprised when it turned out that Karloff’s character in Lured is essentially a throwaway, and all of his scenes could be excised from the film without affecting the plot.

Of course, excising Karloff from the film would excise much of the ghoulish fun, since the sequence in which he plays a thoroughly mad former fashion designer who forces Ball to model his “latest creations” is one of the best bits in the picture, but it ultimately has very little to do with the central mystery about a poetry-obsessed killer who places ads in the personal columns.

In Lured, Lucille Ball plays Sandra Carpenter, an American dancer and actress who came to London from New York with a show. It folded after four nights and she was broke. So now she works in a dance hall called the Broadway Palladium where “50 beautiful ravishing glamorous hostesses” dance with men off the street for six pence a twirl.

It’s no picnic. After one of Sandra’s co-workers mentions that there’s just two hours left to go in their shift, Sandra responds, “Two hours in this cement mixer’s longer than a six-day bike race.” (Incidentally, Ball played a similarly occupied character on the CBS radio show Suspense in the January 13, 1944, broadcast, “A Dime a Dance.”)

When Sandra is offered a tryout for a part in the new Fleming & Wilde show, she jumps at the chance, not so affectionately referring to her current place of employment as a “slaughterhouse.”

But just as she arranges a private audition with Mr. Fleming over the phone, she sees the headline of the London Courier. Her friend and fellow taxi dancer Lucy Barnard (Tanis Chandler) has just become the eighth victim of the “Poet Killer”!

So two very different men enter Sandra’s life, and things will never be the same for her.

One is the charming and insouciant Robert Fleming (played by the the charming and insouciant George Sanders), who initially wants to cast Sandra in his show, but soon wants her to play the leading lady in his own life, till death do them part.

The other is Inspector Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), who tests Sandra’s powers of observation and then enlists her in Scotland Yard after she passes with flying colors.

Their policewomen are very clever, he says, but the killer only places ads for young, beautiful women. (Sorry, ladies of Scotland Yard. No offense intended, I’m sure.)

Sandra then has to respond to every personal ad for young, unattached women. The police will write the responses, but Sandra will have to keep the appointments. A humorous montage follows, natch.

Lured is a mixed bag. Douglas Sirk is a great director, but Lured isn’t one of the films he’s remembered for. It’s well-done, and Sirk’s fascination with surface opulence masking (or possibly masking) darker forces is in full effect. The plot, however, twists and turns through so many contrivances that it’s hard to keep track of everything, let alone take any of it seriously.

It’s worth seeing, however, by anyone who’s a Sirk completist, or anyone who wants to see Lucille Ball in a glamorous leading role in a beautifully art-directed film. She didn’t have too many of those, you know, after I Love Lucy.

Moss Rose (May 30, 1947)

Gregory Ratoff’s Moss Rose is a murder mystery set in Victorian London. It stars Peggy Cummins — a beautiful blond actress who looks like a doll come to life — as Rose Lynton, a Cockney chorus girl. Rose works under the stage name “Belle Adair.” She may have grown up in Shoreditch, but she aspires to be a fine lady.

Margo Woode plays Rose’s friend Daisy Arrow, a fellow actress who has a mysterious boyfriend. He’s a handsome, well-dressed gentleman who Rose only catches glimpses of as he moves in and out of the shadows. Daisy only appears in a handful of scenes before Rose discovers her corpse in bed in the room they share, an open Bible lying on the bed next to her with a dried and pressed moss rose laid across its pages. Was it her suitor who killed her? Or someone else?

Vincent Price — always a welcome sight — plays Inspector Clinner, the Scotland Yard detective who investigates the case along with his lumpy little partner, Deputy Inspector Evans (Rhys Williams). Soon, the identity of Daisy’s suitor becomes clear. He’s a wealthy gentleman named Michael Drego, and he’s played by the always oily Victor Mature, whose lack of a British accent is explained away by the fact that his Canadian father took him away from England when he was very young.

Rose plays girl detective, and it’s not long before she seems to be two steps ahead of the police in identifying Michael as Daisy’s murderer. At first it’s unclear what she wants from him, or why she fails to identify him to the police. She initially blackmails him, but then gives the money back and tells him that all she wants is for him to take her with him to his home, Charmley Manor, for just two weeks. Michael denies that he is guilty of Daisy’s murder, but he tells Rose he’ll go along with her scheme because he’s desperate to keep his family’s name out of the spotlight.

Most of the film takes place at Charmley Manor, which is presided over by Michael’s mother, Lady Margaret (played by the grandest Hollywood dame of them all, Ethel Barrymore).

Lady Margaret keeps her son’s childhood room exactly as it was, because when he was taken away by his father, she knew it was the last time she’d ever see that little boy again. She doesn’t allow anyone in the room, not even the servants, but after her first flash of rage at Rose when she discovers her snooping around the room, she softens, and tells Rose that there’s nothing like a secret to bring two people together.

Complicating matters for Rose at Charmley Manor is the presence of Michael’s fiancée, the beautiful Audrey Ashton (Patricia Medina). Lady Margaret grows to accept Rose, even going so far as to tell people that she is her “companion,” but Audrey sees Rose as a threat to her impending nuptials, and rightly so.

Moss Rose is based on The Crime of Laura Saurelle, one of author Joseph Shearing’s many Gothic thrillers, which were quite popular at the time of the film’s release. (Shearing was one of several pseudonyms used by writer Marjorie Bowen.) It’s a decent whodunnit that will keep you guessing. Michael Drego is the prime suspect, but Inspector Clinner loves flowers — moss rose in particular — and he’s played by Vincent Price, so he always seems suspicious, especially when he’s cutting himself a piece of moss rose in Lady Margaret’s greenhouse and he has a maniacal gleam in his eye. There is also Lady Margaret’s intense-looking butler, Craxton (George Zucco), and as we all know, butlers are always under suspicion. The ladies aren’t exempt from suspicion, either. We learn that Audrey made a mysterious bulk purchase of three Bibles just like the one found next to Daisy Arrow’s corpse, and she’s obviously jealous of any woman in whom Michael shows an interest. And Lady Margaret is hard-headed and clear-eyed, but she seems like a different person whenever she speaks of her son.

Despite the wealth of suspects, Moss Rose turned out exactly how I thought it would, but it wasn’t a bad way to kill some time.

Scared to Death (Feb. 1, 1947)

Christy Cabanne’s Scared to Death is a terrible film, but I had enormous goodwill toward it after the first reel. I get that way when the front door of a house flies open in a movie to reveal Bela Lugosi and little-person actor-extraordinaire Angelo Rossitto standing on the front porch, wearing matching black suits.

If you don’t know Rossitto by name, you might recognize him by sight. He had an incredibly long career in TV and movies, stretching from 1927 to 1987. He was the quiet, dark-haired dwarf in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and Blaster’s better half, Master, in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a lot to do in Scared to Death, and the sheer awfulness of the movie ground down all my goodwill to dust by the final reel.

Scared to Death is notable for two reasons — Lugosi only appeared in three color films, and Scared to Death is the only one in which he received top billing. Also, it’s a picture that’s narrated by a dead woman on a slab in a morgue. Trust me when I tell you that neither of these things is a reason to run out and see Scared to Death.

The color process used for Scared to Death was Cinecolor, which is a two-color film process, and it just doesn’t look that good, at least in the public domain print I watched. Also, the narration by the dead woman is interesting at first, but it becomes unbearable after the first dozen or so times her corpse cuts into the action to speak its piece. Part of the problem is that the sound editing is so terrible during the transitions that the viewer will start to dread the corpse’s appearance, especially if the viewer is sensitive to loud, abrupt noises.

Scared to Death is only worth seeing if you love corny old horror-comedies or are a connoisseur of bad films. Lugosi and Rossito are always fun to watch, as is George Zucco, but everyone else in the cast is either flat or intensely grating, like Nat Pendleton, who supplies comic “relief” as the dim-witted police inspector.

Bottom line — among films narrated by a dead person, Scared to Death will never be confused with Sunset Boulevard (1950).

The Flying Serpent (Feb. 1, 1946)

George Zucco was born in 1886 in Manchester, England. He appeared in nearly 100 movies during his 20-year career. He was a fine actor, but he appeared in a lot of bad movies. Case in point: The Flying Serpent, which was directed by prolific schlockmeister Sam Newfield under the pseudonym “Sherman Scott.”

Like White Pongo (1945) — the last steaming pile of celluloid by Newfield that I saw — The Flying Serpent begins with an onscreen prologue that raises more questions than it answers. The viewer is told that the “wiley [sic] Emperor Montezuma,” in order to outsmart Cortez, hid his treasure somewhere far to the north of San Juan, New Mexico, where the Aztec ruins are located, and implored his guards to protect it.

I’m pretty sure none of that is true. And I’m pretty sure the filmmakers are confusing San Juan County in New Mexico, where the Aztec Ruins National Monument is located, with the town of San Juan, which is in a neighboring county. I’m also pretty sure they either didn’t know or didn’t care that the name of this national monument is a misnomer, since the ruins are actually ancestral Pueblo structures, and have nothing to do with the Aztecs. But I digress.

Before you can ask how anyone sent by Montezuma to protect treasure 500 years ago could still be around to fulfill his duty, enter Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. First seen in the shadows (or possibly just the murk of the lousy print used for the public domain DVD I watched), Quetzalcoatl is a puppet of indeterminate size locked safely behind iron bars in a secret mountain lair attended to by the archaeologist Dr. Andrew Forbes (Zucco). When Dr. Forbes pulls a lever, the stone roof of the cage opens, and the flying serpent takes wing. In flight, with nothing to give the puppet a sense of scale, it looks a little like the giant flying monster in the Japanese film Rodan (1956).

The only other appearance of Quetzalcoatl on film I can think of right now is Larry Cohen’s B movie classic Q (1982), in which the enormous Mesoamerican deity terrorizes Manhattan. Unlike Rodan or Q, however, the monster in The Flying Serpent turns out to be ridiculously small once it appears in the same frame as a human. When it lands on its first victim, Dr. John Lambert (James Metcalf), it looks as if he’s being attacked by a feathered Labrador Retriever with wings.

The Flying Serpent isn’t nearly as bad a film as White Pongo, but it never quite reaches the level of craziness I demand from an entertaining bad B movie. Zucco is always entertaining to watch, though, no matter how far down in the gutter he’s slumming.

Midnight Manhunt (July 27, 1945)

MidnightManhuntAnn Savage and William Gargan play competing newspaper reporters in this mercifully brief bottom-of-the-bill B mystery from Pine-Thomas Productions. Distributed by Paramount Pictures, Midnight Manhunt has the look and feel of a P.R.C. cheapie, right down to its minimal sets and poorly handled mixture of comedy and suspense.

The film begins promisingly, with the great George Zucco (playing a hitman named Jelke) shooting a man in a hotel room, then taking a cool quarter of a million in diamonds from the corpse’s inside jacket pocket. It’s a great sequence; wordless and thick with atmosphere (although the lack of any sound when Zucco fires his revolver is strange). Unfortunately, Zucco doesn’t show up again for awhile, and the film quickly settles into a series of shenanigans at a wax museum where Leo Gorcey works the night shift. Gorcey’s character and trademark malapropisms will both be familiar to anyone who saw him in any of the innumerable Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys movies he appeared in. When the feisty girl reporter (Savage) who lives on the second floor of the wax museum discovers the body of the dead man, she recognizes him as an infamous gangster who had disappeared years earlier. Wanting the scoop for herself, she hides the body by setting it up in one of the wax museum’s displays. Gargan plays her ex-boyfriend and rival reporter. A lot transpires in the film’s short running time (an hour and four minutes), but none of it adds up to much. Savage and Gargan have good chemistry, and I would have rather the film just focused on their characters. Zucco is also good, but he doesn’t get much screen time.

Midnight Manhunt isn’t a terrible film, but it’s all over the place. It’s also really stagy and a lot of the humor is dated. If, however, lines like “I think he’s havin’ optical delusions” and “I figgered it out through a process of mental reduction” give you a chuckle, then it’s probably worth a look.

House of Frankenstein (Dec. 1, 1944)

house_of_frankensteinIn an effort to more deeply penetrate the pop culture of the 1940s and 1950s, I’ve been listening to radio shows and watching old movies pretty much in the order they were released. I’ve been doing this for awhile, but since we have to start somewhere, we’re starting on December 1st, 1944. World War II was in full swing in both Europe and the Pacific, and a little film called House of Frankenstein was released in theaters in the United States.

House of Frankenstein is 11 pounds of shit in a 5-pound bag. Seventy minutes just isn’t enough time for Boris Karloff as a mad scientist, Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man, John Carradine as Dracula, J. Carrol Naish as a sympathetic circus hunchback, and a whole lot of other stuff. I love all the horror movies from Universal Studios in the ’30s and ’40s, and this is a fun flick, but it’s all over the place, and never really finds its way. Recommended only if you’ve already seen Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter, The Wolf Man, Son of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and several others that I can’t immediately recall. If that seems like a lot, it is. If after watching all of those movies you feel that all the combinations of monsters and madmen has already been done, you’d be right, but if you still feel like seeing it done, you could do a lot worse than this movie.

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