RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: February 2014

King of the Rocket Men (12 chapters) June 7-Aug. 23, 1949

King of the Rocket Men
King of the Rocket Men (12 chapters) (1949)
Directed by Fred C. Brannon
Republic Pictures

When I was a kid, one of my favorite comic books was The Rocketeer, by Dave Stevens. The protagonist, Cliff Secord, was a stunt pilot who strapped on an experimental jet pack and fought criminals and Nazi saboteurs. As a child of the ’80s who was obsessed with old radio shows and the pop culture of the past, The Rocketeer was amazing. It was a loving homage to the pulp entertainments of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.

As a budding adolescent, the thing I loved best about the series was Cliff Secord’s girlfriend Betty, who was clearly modeled after pinup queen Bettie Page.

Betty

But pretty much everything about The Rocketeer was great. I especially liked how up-front Stevens was about his homages. Cliff Secord’s jet pack and streamlined metal helmet were taken straight from Republic’s “Rocket Man” serials — King of the Rocket Men (1949), Radar Men From the Moon (1952), and Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), as well as Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1955), which was originally filmed as a TV series but ended up being released theatrically as a week-to-week serial.

King of the Rocket Men is the chapterplay that started it all. It was released by Republic Pictures and directed by Fred C. Brannon, who co-directed (with William Witney) one of my favorite serials of all time, The Crimson Ghost (1946).

King of the Rocket Men shares some similarities with The Crimson Ghost. Both are about a scientific consortium with one member who is secretly a criminal mastermind, and both feature the actor I. Stanford Jolley in similar roles. Instead of the Crimson Ghost, however, the evil genius in King of the Rocket Men is called “Dr. Vulcan,” and he’s the alter ego of one of the members of “Science Associates.”

King of the Rocket Men lobby card

In the first chapter of the serial, Dr. Vulcan — Traitor, noted “cyclotron expert” Prof. Drake, who was working on wild, unpublicized experiments on “flying suits” is killed after his car goes off a cliff (driven by remote control operated by some unseen evildoer, natch).

Our hero, Jeff King, springs into action with one of the flying suits, and blasts, zooms, and punches his way through 12 action-packed weeks of Saturday-afternoon entertainment.

King is played by Republic Pictures mainstay Tristram Coffin, who’s older and more distinguished looking than the average serial protagonist. He was only 39 or 40 when King of the Rocket Men was filmed, but his gray hair and stiffness give him a patrician air.

Rocket Man Title Cards

Every kid has dreamed of strapping on a jet pack and taking to the skies. Part of the appeal of King of the Rocket Men is that the controls of King’s flying suit are so simple even a child could operate them. There are only three controls — ON/OFF, UP/DOWN, and FAST/SLOW — and they all have numbered dials, even the ON/OFF switch, which really doesn’t make sense.

The serial also features Mae Clarke, who starred in much higher-profile films in the ’30s, like Frankenstein (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931), in which she famously received a grapefruit in the face from James Cagney.

In King of the Rocket Men, Clarke plays an intrepid reporter named Glenda Thomas. While Jeff King never shoves anything in her face, his treatment of her is occasionally less than gallant. For instance, in Chapter 3: Dangerous Evidence, he tells her to jump out of a speeding car. Miraculously, she doesn’t die or receive any injuries. He jumps too, and flies away, then they reunite while dusting themselves off. She says, “Thanks, Rocket Man! You know, at first I thought you were an invader from some other planet, but it’s plain to see you’re human and you’ve made a great scientific discovery. I’d like to write an article about you for my magazine.” He responds, “I’m sorry, that’s impossible.” He wants to put an end to the mysterious activities of Dr. Vulcan, and he doesn’t want her to publicize his actions. And then, like a true gentleman, he tells her to wait for the bus and he flies away.

King of the Rocket Men Chapter 8

Weird little moments like that aside, King of the Rocket Men is well-made, fast-paced entertainment, and highly recommended for any cliffhanger fans who haven’t seen it yet. It has plenty of stock footage of car crashes and explosions taken from earlier Republic serials, but the Rocket Man himself is unique. The jet pack technology might be pure hokum, but it’s still thrilling for kids and the young-at-heart when he takes to the skies.

The reason for this is the brilliant special effects work of brothers Howard Lydecker and Theodore Lydecker, who ran Republic’s special effects and miniatures department. As they proved in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), simple techniques like a dummy on a wire and running the film in reverse are only as good as the technicians who employ them. The Lydecker brothers were magicians. Prior to Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), I think the effects in Adventures of Captain Marvel and King of the Rocket Men were the best flying-human effects achieved on film.

I Was a Male War Bride (Aug. 9, 1949)

I Was a Male War Bride
I Was a Male War Bride (1949)
Directed by Howard Hawks
20th Century-Fox

Here’s what I knew about I Was a Male War Bride before I watched it: It’s a screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks. It’s the only Howard Hawks movie my cinephile friend Oskar doesn’t like very much. Cary Grant dresses in drag at the end.

Beyond that, I went in with no preconceptions, and I had a great time. I laughed more at I Was a Male War Bride than any comedy I’ve watched in the past few months.

I’m sure it’s hard for a lot of people not to unfavorably compare I Was a Male War Bride with Howard Hawks’s two previous screwball comedies with Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940). Both films are widely acknowledged classics. Taken on its own merits, though, I think I Was a Male War Bride is great. It’s a really funny movie, with a wonderful blend of witty dialogue and physical comedy.

Ann Sheridan plays Catherine Gates, a lieutenant in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and Cary Grant plays Henri Rochard, a captain in the French Army.

Capt. Rochard is an incorrigible skirt-chaser and Lt. Gates is a hard-nosed officer with a quick wit. When the film begins, they’ve already been paired on multiple missions, and have the easy romantic-comedy repartee of two bickering people who profess to hate each other but can’t get enough of each other.

The opening scene of the film mocks the military’s obsessive use of acronyms and initialisms, when Capt. Rochard is so caught up in making sense of abbreviations that he can’t decipher the door of the women’s lavatory. And the film as a whole mocks the endless layers of bureaucracy and red tape everyone in the military has to contend with.

I Was a Male War Bride is based on the memoirs of the real-life Henri Rochard, a Belgian who married an American Army nurse, which were published under the humorously verbose title I Was an Alien Spouse of Female Military Personnel Enroute to the United States Under Public Law 271 of the Congress.

There’s a lot I loved about this film. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, with great gags and crisp dialogue that is frequently sexually suggestive, and Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan have wonderful chemistry.

My one problem with the film was that I could never accept Cary Grant as a Frenchman. Cary Grant is one of the all-time great screen stars, but he had two speeds: Comedy and Drama. He never altered his accent and barely ever changed his mannerisms. I wouldn’t have had trouble accepting him as a “French” military officer if it wasn’t so inextricably linked to the film’s plot. The film has a good deal of authenticity. Much of it was shot in Germany, and a lot of the throwaway dialogue is in German, so the fact that Grant doesn’t look French, doesn’t act French, and never speaks in French is really bizarre.

On the other hand, Cary Grant is perfect for this type of comedy, and I don’t think I Was a Male War Bride would have been a better film if his role had been played by Jean Gabin or Jacques François.

Grant and Sheridan

The final sequence with Grant in drag didn’t play as humorously for me as it probably did when the film first played in theaters. Seeing a popular male star dressed as a woman isn’t a novelty anymore, after movies like Tootsie (1982) and The Birdcage (1996). And this certainly wasn’t the first movie to feature a man in drag, as anyone who’s seen The Devil-Doll (1936) can attest.

The only thing funny about seeing Cary Grant in drag is that you’re seeing Cary Grant in drag. He plays a woman the same way he plays a Frenchman, only with a bit more discomfort.

But the scenes of him in drag take up a blessedly short amount of screen time, and didn’t diminish the overall good time I had watching this film. It’s a great comedy with great stars, and holds up really well. It was also 20th Century-Fox’s highest-grossing movie of 1949, and Howard Hawks’s third most financially successful film of all time, after Sergeant York (1941) and Red River (1948).

Mr. Soft Touch (July 28, 1949)

Mr Soft Touch
Mr. Soft Touch (1949)
Directed by Gordon Douglas and Henry Levin
Columbia Pictures

I saw Mr. Soft Touch two weeks ago at the Music Box Theatre, and I loved everything about it.

I couldn’t find many reviews of Mr. Soft Touch online, but most of the reviews I found were lukewarm, and criticized its dichotomous nature. “It can’t make up its mind if it wants to be a film noir or a comedy” seems to be the consensus. Another refrain I saw was “Could have been a holiday classic but misses the mark.”

Most of those reviews blame the fact that the film has two directors.

Well, for once in my life I don’t care what went on behind the scenes, or which director contributed to what parts of the film, because I loved Mr. Soft Touch and I’ll sing its praises from the rooftops.

It probably helped that I saw it on the big screen in a real theater on a gloomy winter afternoon. If it wasn’t a pristine and fully restored 35mm print then it was a damned good facsimile of one. I watch most of the movies I review on DVD (occasionally Blu-ray) or on a streaming service, but that’s out of necessity. If you love classic films there is simply no substitute for the theatrical experience.

Glenn Ford

Mr. Soft Touch stars Glenn Ford as Joe Miracle, a shady character who’s running from the law with a bag full of cash when the movie begins. The opening sequence is suspenseful and features some great San Francisco location shooting. Joe Miracle uses his wits to get through a series of close shaves and eventually winds up hiding out for several days in a settlement house run by a woman named Jenny Jones (Evelyn Keyes).

The settlement house is staffed by Jenny and a group of older women, including actresses Beulah Bondi and Clara Blandick. They tend to the needs of homeless men, juvenile delinquents, and poor immigrants.

For the first reel or two of Mr. Soft Touch I kept waiting for a flashback sequence that would show how Joe Miracle wound up with a bag full of cash, fleeing for his life, and biding his time until he can hop on a steamer bound for Japan. A flashback like that would have been a classic film noir device, but the story unfolds in a linear fashion, and everything is explained along the way.

A bunch of gangland toughs are on Joe’s tail, and they’re led by the always entertaining mug Ted de Corsia. There’s also a muckraking radio reporter, Henry “Early” Byrd (played by a bespectacled John Ireland), who sends warnings to Joe over the airwaves but who might not have Joe’s best interests at heart.

Significantly, Mr. Soft Touch takes place at Christmastime, and adds the layer of “holiday film” to the already rare blending of hard-boiled noir, romantic comedy, and “social issues” picture.

Santa Ford

I got very involved with the story and characters in Mr. Soft Touch. I tend to dislike movies that have an inconsistent tone. Despite the blending of genres, I never felt like the tone of Mr. Soft Touch shifted uncomfortably from one genre to another. It was unpredictable, but it all worked.

I don’t know which director did what, but I never had the sense that there were two different films fighting each other for supremacy. Mr. Soft Touch is all about dualities, though, so perhaps having two directors works in the film’s favor. Joe Miracle’s last name is an Americanization of a much longer Polish surname that starts with the letter M. But it also symbolizes the unexpected gifts of the holiday season, and the element of the unexpected that he brings to Jenny’s settlement house. The title of the film has a double meaning, too. Joe Miracle has hands that can make the dice in a craps game come up the way he wants them, but the title of the film also refers to the goodness lurking behind his tough exterior that Jenny helps expose.

It’s a somewhat odd film, but a thoroughly enjoyable one.

Mighty Joe Young (July 27, 1949)

Mighty Joe Young

Mighty Joe Young (1949)
Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack
Argosy Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

This review originally appeared last year on The Mortuary as part of The Ludovico Film Institute’s program on Ray Harryhausen.

Mighty Joe Young is a wonderful fantasy movie, but I doubt it would have much staying power without the special effects work of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen.

At a young age, Harryhausen was influenced by the groundbreaking stop-motion effects O’Brien created for the dinosaur epic The Lost World (1925). At a slightly less young age, Harryhausen was even more bowled over by O’Brien’s work on King Kong (1933), and a lifelong obsession was born.

Harryhausen’s first professional work was a series of Puppetoons shorts for George Pal at Paramount Pictures. During World War II he worked on various short films. He also worked on commercials and an anthology short called Mother Goose Stories. But Mighty Joe Young was his first big feature film. He was working under the direction of his idol, Willis O’Brien. (In supplementary features on the DVD of Mighty Joe Young that I watched, Harryhausen affectionately refers to him as “Obi.”) O’Brien did all of the continuity sketches, but the majority of the painstaking stop-motion animation was carried out by Harryhausen.

Mighty Joe Young armature

In reality, Mighty Joe Young was a metal armature with hinges and ball-and-socket joints covered with rubber and fur. But on screen, he is a living, breathing creature with emotions that are as easy for the audience to understand as the most overwrought histrionics of a silent-movie actor.

For instance, watch the clip below, which shows Mighty Joe Young’s first appearance at the Golden Safari Club (which was reportedly inspired by the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles). Look at the mix of emotions on Joe’s face. Confusion. Concern for the girl he’s holding up, who is his only friend. And curiosity about all the people thronged to see him. Mixed with the music of “Beautiful Dreamer” (Joe’s favorite song), it’s a powerful moment, and it was created one frame at a time by Ray Harryhausen with metal, rubber, fur, and bits of clay for Joe’s lips and brow.

If Mighty Joe Young had been played by Ray “Crash” Corrigan in a gorilla suit, it just wouldn’t have had the same effect.

Mighty Joe Young is a series of grand stop-motion set pieces. Each is more spectacular than the one before it, and each tells us more about Joe’s character. When we first see him, he’s a ferocious beast, smashing open a lion’s cage. His ferocity remains formidable, but we grow more sympathetic to him as we begin to see his noble heart. Not to mention the fact that he’s mistreated by humans in infuriating ways.

The human protagonists of the film aren’t nearly as interesting as Joe, but they all give good performances.

Robert Armstrong plays Max O’Hara, the blustery Hollywood producer who brings Mighty Joe Young to America. It’s a very similar role to that of Carl Denham, who Armstrong portrayed in both King Kong (1933) and Son of Kong (1933), both of which — like Mighty Joe Young — were directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack.

According to Harryhausen, writer Ruth Rose patterned the character of Max O’Hara on producer Merian C. Cooper, who always wanted things “bigger!”

Moore and Joe on stage

Terry Moore plays Joe’s oldest human friend, Jill Young, a white girl who grew up in Africa on her father’s farm. She purchased Joe from two natives when he was still an infant. (She was lonely and had no one to play with.) In many ways, Jill is as much of an outsider in America as Joe is.

Film fans today probably know Ben Johnson best from his work with Sam Peckinpah — he appeared in Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), Junior Bonner (1972), and The Getaway (1972). Or possibly they know him as “Sam the Lion” in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) or as G-man Melvin Purvis in John Milius’s Dillinger (1973). If you’re a horror fan, you might know him from Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) or Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train (1980).

In Mighty Joe Young, Johnson plays Gregg, an Oklahoma ranch hand and rodeo rider, which is exactly what Johnson was in real life. He’s a little wooden, but his authenticity makes up for it. Johnson had bit parts in a bunch of films before Mighty Joe Young, but this was his first leading role, and the first time he had his name in the credits.

Moore and Johnson

Mighty Joe Young won one Oscar at the 22nd Academy Awards, for best visual effects.

Despite Harryhausen’s spectacular special effects, Mighty Joe Young was a box-office disappointment at the time of its release, and plans for a possible sequel, in which Joe would team up with RKO’s other hot jungle property — Tarzan (at this point played by Lex Barker), were scrapped.

But it was just the beginning for Harryhausen.

Mighty Joe Young will be shown on TCM on February 24, 2014.

Too Late for Tears (July 17, 1949)

Too Late for Tears
Too Late for Tears (1949)
Directed by Byron Haskin
United Artists

With Too Late for Tears, director Byron Haskin continued his postwar run of unremarkable but solidly entertaining B movies.

After I Walk Alone (1948) and Man-Eater of Kumaon (1948), I wasn’t expecting anything special from Too Late for Tears. But I was expecting a well-paced, twisty little thriller, and that’s exactly what I got.

Dependable everyman Arthur Kennedy and icy femme fatale Lizabeth Scott play a married couple, Alan and Jane Palmer. One night on a lonely stretch of road in the Hollywood Hills, a huge sum of money literally falls into their laps. They are both tempted by the possibilities that so much cash offers, but they have different ideas about how to proceed. Alan sees nothing but trouble ahead and thinks they should turn the money over to the police. Jane thinks they’d be fools to give it up so easily.

Jane is a striver who’s not above chipping her manicured fingernails to claw her way to the top. She tells Alan that she was never poor, but something much worse — her family was “white-collar poor, middle-class poor,” and they could never quite keep up with the Joneses. Alan tells her there will always be Joneses with more money and shinier toys. Money isn’t the key to happiness.

Lizabeth Scott

Jane disagrees, and the plot of the film is driven by her limitless avarice. Dependable beanpole villain Dan Duryea shows up in the early going as a man named Danny Fuller who’s after the money for his own reasons. He throws his weight around, and attempts to intimidate Jane with harsh words and several slaps to the face.

When she says to him, “What do I call you besides Stupid?” he responds, “Stupid’ll do if you don’t bruise easily. Otherwise you might try Danny.”

But in the great tradition of tough-talking bad guys in film noirs, Danny badly underestimates the craftiness and ruthlessness of the femme fatale in the picture.

Lizabeth Scott appeared in a lot of noirs. She chronically underacted, but it works for movies like Too Late for Tears, which are light on characterization but heavy on plot. In addition to the Palmers and the vicious Danny, there is also Alan’s suspicious sister, Kathy Palmer (Kristine Miller), and the mysterious stranger Don Blake (Don DeFore), who may not be who he claims to be.

Too Late for Tears is not a classic film noir, but it’s a good afternoon time-waster. It premiered in Los Angeles on July 17, 1949, and went into wide release in August. It was re-released in September 1955 under the title Killer Bait. It’s in the public domain, so you can download it from archive.org here: http://archive.org/details/TooLateForTears. You can also watch the film in its entirety on YouTube (link below).

Killer Bait

The Great Gatsby (July 13, 1949)

The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby (1949)
Directed by Elliott Nugent
Paramount Pictures

Long before Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio played F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American striver Jay Gatsby, another iconic blond pretty boy tackled the role.

I first saw Elliott Nugent’s version of The Great Gatsby in 2012 as part of Noir City 4 at The Music Box Theatre. Although in the lobby after the screening I overheard one audience member very angrily denounce the film as “not noir in any way,” and I couldn’t disagree, it’s not a bad film and I’m glad I saw it.

At one point, both Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power were attached to the project. According to several websites, Tierney was deemed “too beautiful” to play Daisy Buchanan by both Nugent, the director, and Richard Maibaum, the producer, but none of those websites have a source for that claim. Personally, it seems an insane reason not to cast an actress as Daisy Buchanan. She’s the unattainable object of Gatsby’s romantic longing. Whether or not she’s really the most beautiful woman in West Egg, Long Island, is immaterial. Film is a visual medium and a beautiful actress playing Daisy just makes sense.

Betty Field, who plays Daisy in this film, is attractive, but she possesses none of the ethereal beauty of an actress like Tierney. Also, I can think of no better actress than Tierney to project outward beauty coupled with inward emptiness and callousness.

Alan Ladd, however, makes a better Jay Gatsby than I imagine Tyrone Power would have. Ladd was a handsome actor whose understated persona was always somewhat unknowable. Viewers could project whatever they wanted onto him.

Because of this, Ladd is perfect as Gatsby, the bootlegger who single-mindedly built a fortune and passed himself off as a man who came from money. Gatsby’s outward appearance was perfect, but like the beautiful books in his study, which all have uncut pages, there is nothing behind the façade.

Alan Ladd

The early parts of the film play up Gatsby’s early days in organized crime, exploiting Ladd’s facility with gangster movies and film noirs. Eventually, though, the film settles into a talky version of the novel that is largely drawn from Owen Davis’s stage adaptation that opened in 1926 and ran for 112 performances.

As I said, it’s not a bad film, but it’s not a particularly compelling one. Ladd is a good Gatsby, and the other performers are generally fine. I liked Barry Sullivan as Daisy’s husband Tom and loved Shelley Winters as Tom’s mistress Myrtle.

The film is at its best when it most resembles a hard-boiled noir, but those moments are few and far between.

The biggest flaw, of course, is that it’s a straightforward and very literal adaptation of a great American novel, and possesses none of Fitzgerald’s elegant prose. It’s worth seeing, but far from a masterpiece. It’s a great example of why the phrase “the book was better” became a cliché.

The Big Steal (July 9, 1949)

The Big Steal

The Big Steal (1949)
Directed by Don Siegel
RKO Radio Pictures

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer starred in my favorite film noir of all time, Out of the Past (1947). It’s not everyone’s favorite film noir, but I think most noir aficionados would at least put it in their top 10.

The Big Steal probably isn’t in too many noir fans’ top 10 lists, but it’s a damned good picture. I actually don’t think it’s a noir at all, even though it’s often classified as one. (It’s available on DVD as part of the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 box set.)

Except for the noir-heavy power of the two leads and the presence of lovable film noir lummox William Bendix as a heavy (as well as the fact that the MacGuffin of the film is a large sum of money), there’s really nothing “noir” about The Big Steal.

The Big Steal is a fast-paced chase movie set in the sun-drenched countryside of Mexico. Robert Mitchum plays a US Army lieutenant named Duke Halliday who’s been accused of stealing a military payroll. On his trail is Capt. Vincent Blake (William Bendix). The film opens with Capt. Blake catching up to Duke on a ship docked in Veracruz, but Duke quickly gets the upper hand and goes on the lam with Blake’s identification papers.

Duke has a “meet cute” scene with American tourist Joan Graham (Jane Greer). She thinks he’s a boor; he thinks she’s a scold. She speaks Spanish; what he speaks barely qualifies as “Spanglish.”

They go their separate ways. She goes to the hotel room of her ne’er-do-well fiancé Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles) and demands he return the $2,000 he “borrowed” from her. Fiske slips away while she’s in the shower and Duke shows up, looking for Fiske, since Fiske has a lot more money than Joan realizes.

At just 71 minutes long, this is a movie that doesn’t waste any time. Duke and Joan are chasing Fiske, and Capt. Blake is chasing Duke and Joan. Mexican police officials Inspector General Ortega (Ramon Novarro) and Lt. Ruiz (Don Alvarado) are chasing all four of them, with no particular urgency.

There’s plenty of action. Siegel keeps the tone light, but when there’s gunplay or a fistfight, it’s swift and tough, which is as it should be.

Mitchum and Greer

While I love Jane Greer in Out of the Past, her character in that film is a classic femme fatale — icy and unknowable. Her role in The Big Steal is more similar to the screwball comediennes of the 1930s. Greer and Mitchum have an easy chemistry, trading barbs and falling for each other along the way. He cracks wise about women drivers, and later she gets to show him exactly what a woman driver can do in a high-speed chase on a twisty mountain road.

Oh, and there’s one more connection with Out of the Past. The Big Steal is based on Richard Wormser’s story “The Road to Carmichael’s,” but the screenplay is by Gerald Drayson Adams and Daniel Mainwaring. Daniel Mainwaring also wrote the screenplay for Out of the Past, which was based on his novel Build My Gallows High.

Don Siegel was a craftsman who had a long career in Hollywood. He directed some of my favorite films of all time, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Dirty Harry (1971), but there are a ton of his films I haven’t seen. I’ve seen his first film, a short called Star in the Night (1945), which is a sweet little Christmas parable starring J. Carrol Naish. I haven’t seen his next few films, the documentary short Hitler Lives (1945), the mystery feature The Verdict (1946), or the romantic melodrama Night Unto Night (1949), which starred Ronald Reagan and Viveca Lindfors (who was married to Siegel from August 10, 1949, to May 26, 1954).

Watching The Big Steal reminded me just how much I love Siegel’s films, and made me happy that I still have so many left to see.