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Destination Moon (June 27, 1950)

Destination Moon
Destination Moon (1950)
Directed by Irving Pichel
United Artists

The classic era of Hollywood science fiction kicked off with Rocketship X-M (1950), but it wasn’t meant to be that way.

Producer George Pal’s Destination Moon was a lavish Technicolor production two years in the making that endeavored to depict space travel as realistically as possible. Rocketship X-M was a quick cash-in that was shot in less than three weeks with a budget of less than $100,000, which is how it was able to beat Destination Moon into theaters by about a month.

As a science fiction fan, I can’t help but be impressed by Destination Moon. Its dedication to scientific accuracy is admirable, and for 1950, its special effects are top-notch. On the other hand, as a fan of compelling drama, I have to admit that Rocketship X-M has a more engaging script, better actors, and is more fun to watch.

This is the problem with most “hard sci-fi,” which Destination Moon most definitely is. The ideas are fascinating, but the presentation is pretty dry.

The director of Destination Moon, Irving Pichel, understood this, which is perhaps why the second reel of the movie depicts a group of men watching a film strip that explains space travel in a fun and funny way with our old friend Woody Woodpecker.

Woody Woodpecker

Unfortunately, other attempts to inject fun into the film, like a last-minute replacement on the crew named Joe (Dick Wesson), who’s from Brooklyn and provides comic relief by pronouncing the word “work” as “woik,” aren’t as successful.

Destination Moon is based on Robert A. Heinlein’s 1947 novel Rocket Ship Galileo, which I read a few years ago. The basic idea of a mission to the moon carried out by a small crew — as well as a general commitment to scientific accuracy — is retained in the film version, but little else is. Heinlein’s novel was the story of a trio of teenaged boys reaching the moon with the help of their uncle. Once on the moon, they thwart a plot by Germans intent on establishing a Fourth Reich with the moon as their base.

The film version dispenses with the “boys’ adventure” aspect of Heinlein’s novel, as well as the idea of an enemy force already present on the moon. (Although a character in the film does state that the U.S. must reach the moon before a foreign nation is able to establish a missile base there.)

These storytelling decisions all makes sense, since Destination Moon was intended to be a realistic film.

Spacewalk

Even though Destination Moon doesn’t have the same dramatic verve as Rocketship X-M, and even though some of its science is dated, it’s still a tremendously successful science-fiction film, and holds up well today, provided you’re a “serious” sci-fi fan.

Sure, some of the effects look hokey today, but it’s not for nothing that the film won an Academy Award for best visual effects.

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The Arnelo Affair (Feb. 13, 1947)

Arch Oboler’s The Arnelo Affair is a crime melodrama with so much voiceover narration that most of it can easily be understood and enjoyed by blind people.

Oboler cut his teeth in radio. His most famous work was for the horror anthology Lights Out, which is one of the scariest and most gruesome radio shows of all time. Oboler was a native of Chicago and the child of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. He was a prolific writer — one of the most talented in the medium of radio. His work as a film director is more hit or miss.

The Arnelo Affair, his third film, is based on a story by Jane Burr and takes place in Chicago. It starts out promisingly, with a lot of heat between its protagonist, Anne Parkson (Frances Gifford), and the magnetic, mustachioed nightclub owner Tony Arnelo (John Hodiak). Anne is married to a lawyer and all-around stuffed shirt named Ted (George Murphy), who’s such a drip that he won’t let their 9 year-old son, Ricky (Dean Stockwell), touch any of the tools in the room in their house marked “Ricky’s Workshop.”

The Parksons have been married for 12 years (which, if Gifford’s character is the same age as she is, means they got hitched when she was only 14 or 15), and Anne is clearly neglected and unloved. When her path crosses Arnelo’s, his persistence and menacing charm draw her to him.

Eve Arden, at this point typecast as the worldly and knowing friend of the troubled female protagonist (see also Mildred Pierce and My Reputation), plays Anne’s friend Vivian, who cautions Anne that “Canaries and hawks don’t make good playmates.”

She’s right, of course, and when Arnelo murders one of his other girlfriends in order to draw Anne closer to him, Anne will realize what a dangerous game she’s been playing.

Oboler’s script is perceptive about infidelity, and the dialogue is more believable than in most melodramas, but Oboler’s direction is flat, and he relies too heavily on voiceover narration by Gifford to explicate her character’s emotions. The Arnelo Affair isn’t bad, but after 45 minutes it loses momentum and never really picks up again. It might have made a better 60-minute B movie programmer from one of the small studios than a 90-minute maudlin MGM melodrama.

My Reputation (Jan. 25, 1946)

Curtis Bernhardt’s My Reputation, which premiered on January 25, 1946, and went into wide release a day later, was filmed in 1944. Prior to its stateside theatrical release, My Reputation was released for military use, and was shown to troops as entertainment during World War II. The screenplay, by Catherine Turney, is based on the novel Instruct My Sorrow, by Clare Jaynes.

On paper, this movie didn’t interest me, and I probably never would have watched it if I wasn’t doing this project. A prototypical “women’s picture,” My Reputation is about a young widow living among the upper crust of Lake Forest, Illinois, in 1942. Once I started watching it, however, it quickly drew me in. It’s a quality picture from beginning to end. The actors all deliver heartfelt performances, the situations and dialogue are realistic, and the direction, editing, and cinematography are all top-notch.

Barbara Stanwyck plays the protagonist, Jessica Drummond. When the film begins, Jessica’s husband has just died, leaving her a widow and their two sons, aged 12 and 14, fatherless. The executor of the late Mr. Drummond’s estate, lawyer Frank Everett (Warner Anderson) clearly has feelings for Jessica, but they are not reciprocated. Jessica’s mother, Mrs. Mary Kimball (Lucile Watson) has worn mourning clothes ever since her own husband died decades earlier. Jessica’s mother is scandalized when Jessica refuses to dress differently after her husband’s death. “Our kind of people wear black,” she says matter-of-factly.

My Reputation reminded me a little of Mildred Pierce (1945) in its nuanced portrayal of a single woman navigating tricky social waters. It didn’t hurt that Eve Arden, who played Mildred’s best friend, here performs a similar duty as Jessica’s reliable gal pal, Ginna Abbott.

When Jessica goes on a skiing vacation with Ginna and her husband, Cary (John Ridgely), she meets the the insouciant and charming Maj. Scott Landis (George Brent), who is on leave from the war. The two strike up a friendship that blossoms into a romance, but Jessica distances herself from him when he becomes too sexually forward. Landis isn’t a heel, but he is a bit of a rogue, and clearly states that he has no plans to marry. Despite this, Jessica can’t get him out of her mind, and when their paths cross again, she gives in to his advances, consenting to at least kissing. Whether more transpires between them is left up to the viewer, but there is no implication that they consumate their love. This doesn’t change the scandalous nature of their relationship, and Jessica quickly finds herself ostracized from the gossipy circles in which she runs. She stands up for herself, but the disapproval of her mother and her friends is nothing compared with the criticism she receives from children, especially her younger son, who says, “But you belong to dad. It doesn’t make any difference whether he’s dead or not.”

My Reputation ends on a hopeful note, but its depiction of an intelligent, sensitive woman living in a stifling social milieu is still hard to watch. The viewer’s frustration is mitigated, however, by the excellence of the production, especially the attention to detail that makes a well-made film such a joy to watch. For instance, in a scene in which Jessica confronts her mother, the shot is framed so that a large portrait of Jessica as a child and her mother as a younger woman hangs in the background between them. The juxtaposition says nearly as much as their heated words.

Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (Oct. 5, 1945)

AbbottCostelloHollywoodAbbott and Costello were one of the most popular comedy teams of the ’40s. They’re still famous for their “Who’s on first?” routine, and a lot of their film and radio work is still funny, as long as you’re in the mood for their old-fashioned brand of burlesque antics. If you’re not in the mood for them, or if one of their bits falls flat, Lou Costello is the most irritating man on earth.

In Abbott and Costello in Hollywood they play a couple of bumbling barbers named Buzz Kurtis (Abbott) and Abercrombie (Costello). Who’s ready for lots of physical humor involving shaving cream and shoe polish?

When we first meet the boys, they’re in the supply room of Hollywood Shop: Barbers to the Stars. Even if you’ve never seen an Abbott and Costello picture before, as soon as you see Abbott instructing Costello on how to shave a customer’s face without cutting him while Costello listens attentively, holding a straight razor poised above a balloon covered with shaving cream, you’ll know the balloon is not long for this world. If you have seen an Abbott and Costello picture before, you’ll know that after the balloon breaks and sprays shaving cream all over Costello’s face, there will be a second balloon. Will there be a third balloon? I don’t want to give anything away.

Thankfully, the movie doesn’t coast on barbering gags, since Abbott and Costello decide they want to be Hollywood agents at around the 30-minute mark. As with any Abbott and Costello picture, however, the plot is secondary to gags and wordplay, so it doesn’t really matter whether they’re playing geologists or Portugese noblemen. A lot of the routines in this movie are clunkers, but a few are laugh-out-loud funny, such as the one in which Costello hides out by pretending to be a dummy on the set of a western, and finds himself being punched in the face and thrown over a balcony in take after take by craggy-faced tough-guy character actor Mike Mazurki.

Most of the “stars” they meet in Hollywood (like Rags Ragland) are long forgotten, but if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see a young Lucille Ball in a small role.

Objective, Burma! (Jan. 26, 1945)

objective_burma_xlg
Objective, Burma! (1945)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Errol Flynn was rejected for military service due to his enlarged heart, tuberculosis, morphine addiction, and bouts of malaria. But that didn’t stop him from making some kick-ass war movies.

Raoul Walsh, who made a number of fine films, directed this patriotic World War II action film starring Flynn as an Army Captain named Nelson. World War II junkies will enjoy the fact that Objective, Burma! features weapons, gear, and uniforms that are all original and accurate.

Of course, the story itself is not all that accurate. The British apparently objected when the film was released, since it took the basic story of an operation by British Chindits and retold it as an American operation. (Flynn, an Australian, seems to be playing an American in the film, though his accent is hard to place.) One of the producers, however, said that the film was also largely inspired by the 1940 film Northwest Passage, which took place during the French and Indian War. So, like a lot of Hollywood productions, it’s a war film that could just as easily have been a Western.

If you’re looking for historical accuracy (or, for that matter, Japanese soldiers who don’t look suspiciously Filipino and Chinese) look elsewhere, but if you’re looking for a gritty war movie that delivers the goods, Objective, Burma! fits the bill.