Films: Drama/Romance


JEWEL ROBBERY. Warner Brothers, 1932. William Powell, Kay Francis, Helen Vinson, Hardie Albright, Alan Mowbray, Andre Luguet, Henry Kolker. Director: William Dieterle. Shown at Cinefest #14, Syracuse NY, March 1994.

   The two leading stars of Jewel Robbery, aided a more than capable supporting cast, exhibited the qualities of charm, wit and style in the story of a bored society wife (Francis) who is attracted to a polished crook (Powell). He pulls off an elaborately staged robbery in which he completely clears out the stock of an elegant jewelry store.

   The fast-moving 70 minutes of high-toned fluff climax with an exciting rooftop escape by Powell, leaving Francis tied-up in an apartment to throw off the police. Someone said to me that the actors must have relished working with such a polished script and this had some of the flair of a vintage Lubitsch comedy-drama. In the final shot Francis, in a tight closeup, looks at the audience, smiles and puts a finger to her lips, inviting us to join her as accomplices in her complicity with Powell.

   Dieterle was fond enough of this device to use it again, as I was reminded the other day when while channel hopping. I happened upon the final scene of the Dieterle-directed All That Money Can Buy (also known as The Devil and Daniel Webster). Here Walter Huston (as Old Scratch), rubbing his chin thoughtfully, looks from one side of the frame to the other, then in an expected move, smiling diabolically and looking directly at the camera, points at the viewer.


W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM – Christmas Holiday. Doubleday Doran & Co, hardcover, October 1939. Reprinted many times.

CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY. Universal Pictures, 1944. Deanna Durbin, Gene Kelly, Richard Whorf, Dean Harens, Gladys George, Gale Sondergaard, David Bruce. Screenwriter: Herman J. Mankiewicz, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Director: Robert Siodmak.

   Raymond Chandler once commented favorably in passing on Somerset Maugham’s 1939 novel Christmas Holiday, which I happened upon at a flea market a week after reading Chandler’s comment. Okay, it has Murder in it, and even a bit of detective work, I guess, but it’s no more a Mystery than Anna Karenina is a Joke Book.

   A young man goes to Paris over the Holidays to sow a wild oat or two, gets set up with a prostitute, and is so moved by her devotion and her personal tragedy that he forgets to sow any oats at all. Seems she was a poor working girl who got married to a nice young man who turned out to be a thief and a killer. And she’s working now as a hooker, partly to help him out in prison and partly because of the guilt she feels over his failures.

   It’s a damfine novel, and I can see why Chandler enjoyed it; the central theme of a decent fellow doing a little bit of good without making a fuss about it must have appealed to him a lot.

   Christmas Holiday was turned into a movie, kinda, by Universal in 1944, one of those films that runs roughshod over the source, then comes out completely different and quite enjoyable by its own lights.

   The basic elements of Maugham’s novel are all there — a sardonic reporter introduces a callow young man to the prostitute wife of a convicted killer; the young man does her a small favor and learns something in the process — but the Universal execs, with the wisdom of their breed, hired writer Herman Mankiewicz to add lots of lurid bits to the proceedings, and got director Robert Siodmack to layer on dollops of sinister noir stylistics. The result is rather a far cry from what Maugham actually wrote, but it’s also an engagingly perverse and chilling film, despite the off-key casting of musical stars Gene Kelley and Deanna Durbin.


SHAKES THE CLOWN. IRS Media, 1991. Bobcat Goldthwait, Julie Brown, Blake Clark, Paul Dooley, Kathy Griffin, Florence Henderson, Tom Kenny, Adam Sandler, Scott Herriott, LaWanda Page, Jack Gallagher, Robin Williams. Written & directed by Bobcat Goldthwait.

   I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found Bobcat Goldthwait kind of easy to resist. He’s in the same funny-irritating mould as Sam Kinison and Gilbert Gottfried, only not as funny. Or as likable, for that matter. So I was much surprised to find myself enjoying this pleasantly off-kilter comedy-mystery.

   Goldthwait plays Shakes, an alcoholic Party Clown whose progress of steady decay is suddenly interrupted when he’s framed for murdering his boss and must rally his feeble wits and willpower to avenge his old friend and save his own grease-painted hide.

   Okay, nothing much too new here so far, It’s just the old down-on-his-luck PI story fitted out with big shoes and a shiny red nose. But Goldthwaite adds a soupcon of eccentricity to the proceedings, and — somehow — keeps it deftly balanced just below the surface for the entire film. It starts almost imperceptibly, with lines like: “You know, when we first built this place, there were no Clowns in this neighborhood.”

   Then after Shakes has barely survived a kiddie party, he makes his way to his favorite bar, The Twisted Balloon, where Clowns — in full makeup — sit around drinking, swearing, and talking about getting laid.

   A Villain Clown is introduced (I don’t know who plays him, but he makes Jack Nicholson look like Pinky Lee) with a couple of Rodeo Clowns for Hired Muscle. Clearly now, we are in someplace not quite where we thought we were.

   And so it goes as the story slowly orbits around the edges of the Planet. The Cops all dress like 40s Detectives and talk about Health Food. Clowns drive around in gaudy cars and harass mimes, whom they view somewhat like Blacks view Koreans. Very gradually, the film develops an understated loopiness all its own like a toned-down take on Roger Rabbit. It even has Guest Stars: Robin Williams turns up as a loquacious mime, and I’d swear (it’s hard to tell behind all that makeup) Tom Hanks plays one of the Baddie’s minions!

   Whatever the case, Shakes the Clown emerges as a surprisingly inventive and intelligent piece of film-making, and not a bad Caper Movie either. Catch it.

SHE COULDN’T TAKE IT. Columbia Pictures, 1935. George Raft, Joan Bennett, Walter Connolly, Billie Burke, Lloyd Nolan, Wallace Ford, James Blakeley, Alan Mowbray, Donald Meek. Director: Tay Garnett.

   Like the definition of film noir, and perhaps even more so, the concept of the screwball comedy has always been nebulous to me. Some films definitely fall in the category, beginning perhaps with It Happened One Night (1934), while other comedies are most clearly not. She Couldn’t Take It, as the case at hand, I’m going to say is; that is to say, if categories are important.

   What the film most definitely is not, is a classic. The members of a screwball family make the headlines so often with their upper class escapades and spending habits that the father (Walter Connolly as patriarch Daniel Van Dyke) would rather go to prison than have to deal with their debts any longer.

   And jail, as it turns out, suits him well, and it is where he meets former bootlegger and racketeer Spot Ricardi (George Raft), whom be befriends and on his deathbed, makes hm the guardian of the family. The comedy comes into full play then, and so does the romance, as Ricardi falls in love with daughter Carol Van Dyke, most fetchingly played by a young and very lovely Joan Bennett.

   The criminous aspect of this film comes when Carol, in order to have some money to spend, arranges with a rival of Ricardi’s (Lloyd Nolan) to have herself kidnapped so she and he can split the ransom. Naturally things do not work out nearly as well as she planned. Very badly, in fact.

   What takes place on the screen during this movie is obviously very contrived and the story does not flow as well as it should as a result, but as I say, Joan Bennett is always worth watching, and even George Raft turns in a performance in which he seems to be much more relaxed than he was in later films. Available on YouTube for free (see below), at least for now, this is far from being a “must see” film, but you may find as many moments worth watching as I did.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

UNION DEPOT. First National PIctures/Warner Brothers, 1932. Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee, Alan Hale. Director: Alfred E. Green.

   What makes Union Depot particularly worth watching is the commanding screen presence of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joan Blondell as a would-be romantic couple. “Would-be” being the operative phrase here, as the movie takes place in one eventful day, both in and around a train station where numerous passengers come and go in the urban hustle and bustle. (The film’s British title, Gentleman for a Day, does the movie more justice.)

   Although there’s simply not enough time between the two leading characters to end up as lovebirds, the characters they portray — flawed and all-too-human sorts doing the best they can during the Great Depression — are well constructed enough to keep you engaged with the proceedings.

   “Chick” Miller (Fairbanks) is a low-rent criminal with a heart of gold. One day, while hanging around with his perpetually drunk pal, “Scrap Iron” (Guy Kibbee), he manages to steal a uniform belonging to an Information Desk worker at the local train station. Chick thinks that the suit, along with some cold hard cash he acquired along the way, will be enough to get himself a good, hot breakfast at the diner inside the station.

   All well and good, until he both meets up with Ruth (Blondell), a chorus girl who is neither as innocent nor sinful as she appears, and haphazardly comes into possession of some counterfeit greenbacks belonging to one Bushy Sloan (Alan Hale, Sr.) From then on, it’s a romantic comedy/melodrama/crime film all in one and, while the film occasionally begins to feel considerably dated, it’s overall a rather enjoyable pre-Code feature.

   For those looking for something a little extra, Union Depot also benefits tremendously from having a surprisingly action-packed and violent nighttime chase scene. It takes place in the rail yards just outside the station, and it looks as though it was taken straight out of a film noir from the late 1940s. Talk about ahead of its time!


TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY. BBC Films, UK, 1990. Samuel Goldwyn, US, 1991. Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman, Jenny Howe, Carolyn Choa, Bill Paterson, Christopher Rozycki, Keith Bartlett, David Ryall, Stella Maris, Ian Hawkes, Deborah Findlay. Screenwriter-director: Anthony Minghella.

   You could not do much better than Truly Madly Deeply, a film I urge you all to rush right out and rent or buy. Now I realize I may be a well-known sucker for Love Stories, but I tell myself I’ve toughened up some in the last few years. Bushwah: This thing had me choking back big wet sobs almost as soon as it started.

   Plot-wise, Truly is sort of like Ghost for Grown-ups: Juliet Stevenson, a remarkably sensitive actress of whom I’ve never heard, has the Demi Moore part, a woman whose lover has been suddenly and senselessly taken from her. The film takes rather a bit of time detailing the crippling Blue Funk into which she’s fallen, but she’s a good enough actress that I didn’t mind.

   Then, back into her life, for no apparent reason whatsoever, and with a burst of absolutely no special effects at all, comes the ghost of her Departed played with quirky relish by Alan Rickman, who is best known as the baddie in Die Hard, Quigly Down Under and Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. Given a chance to do an out-and-out Good Guy for a change, Rickman wisely plays it cool and slightly aloof, never actually reaching out for the sympathy Patrick Swayze demanded in Ghost, but getting it anyway.

   The similarities don’t end there. Truly even revives an obscure 60s Rock ‘n’ Roll song, and the duet/dance that the two leads do to it is every bit as memorably bittersweet as “Unchained Melody” was in Ghost.

   The major difference, in fact, is in the Plot. There’s no fast-paced pulp-novel, edge-of-the-seat story moving Truly to a gripping conclusion. Instead the movie turns into sort of an allegory for the heroine’s adjusting to Loss and getting on with her Life. She simply learns (Warning!) that you just can’t keep on loving someone who’s dead the way you loved them when they were alive. (End of Warning!)

   Hmmm. Like most Great Revelations, this one’s obvious enough to seem profound when you put it right. And Truly, Madly, Deeply puts it across beautifully.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS. Paramount Pictures, 1941. John Wayne, Betty Field, Harry Carey, Beulah Bondi, James Barton, Samuel S. Hinds, Marjorie Main, Ward Bond, Marc Lawrence, John Qualen, Fuzzy Knight. Based on the novel by Harold Bell Wright. Director: Henry Hathaway.

   Directed by Henry Hathaway and filmed in glorious Technicolor, The Shepherd of the Hills is an ambitious melodrama that, despite its best intentions, misses the mark. While the film boasts a superb cast and a series of conflicts that propel the plot forward, it nevertheless comes across as both too stagey and extraordinarily dated in terms of both dialogue and subject matter.

   Deep in the Ozarks lives the Matthews family, a superstitious clan of moonshiners who believe that they’re living under a curse stemming from Young Matt’s (John Wayne) father abandoning his wife, Sarah, as she lay dying. For years, Young Matt has been indoctrinated with hate for his missing father and has even gone so far as to swear a blood oath to kill the man, if and when he should find him.

   So when an urbane stranger from the city by the name of Daniel Howitt (Harry Carey) arrives in the Ozarks and purchases some Matthews land, it doesn’t take long to figure out that our Mr. Howitt is Young Matt’s long lost father returning to make amends. Making matters even more complicated for Wayne’s character is his begrudging love for Sammy Lane (Betty Field), a goodhearted young woman. She is the first to figure out that Daniel Howitt is actually Young Matt’s long lost father.

   Although some scenes in the film are far better than others, both in terms of acting and in staging, The Shepherd of the Hills really doesn’t have any memorable lines or scenes that remain ingrained in a viewer’s mind for very long. This movie isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, John’s Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, also released in 1941. If you’re a John Wayne fan and haven’t seen this particular film, by all means go right ahead. But just don’t go into it expecting the type of Hathaway-Wayne movie magic that was still years in the making.


POWER OF THE PRESS. Columbia Pictures, 1943. Guy Kibbee, Lee Tracy, Gloria Dickson, Otto Kruger, Victor Jory. Based on a story by Samuel Fuller. Director: Lew Landers.

   I’d be lying to you if I said that Power of the Press was anything resembling a great movie. In fact, it’s an extraordinarily dated flag-waving programmer from the Second World War, one that has dialogue at moments that is so artificial, preachy, and stale that it is almost cringe worthy.

   So why did I continue to watch until the very end?

   First of all, so you don’t have to! Second, at a running time of just over an hour, it’s really not that big a time commitment. More importantly, there are actually some good names attached to the project, not the least of which is Samuel Fuller who, under the name “Sam Fuller” is credited with the story, albeit not the screenplay.

   Furthermore, the cast includes two well-known character actors from the era: Guy Kibbee, who portrays a wholesome small town newspaper publisher who takes over a New York City newspaper and Otto Kruger, his nemesis who has been abusing the power of the press to push an isolationist, America First agenda.

   As I said before, it’s overall not a particularly good film, but with solid craftsmanship from director Lew Landers, Power of the Press is worth watching as a history lesson, if for no other particular reason. Not every wartime film was nearly as iconic as Casablanca (1942); some were just little programmers like this one meant to rally the American public against fascism. Of interest in that regard is the fact that, after writing the story for this film, Fuller served overseas in the U.S. Army, taking part in beach landings as well as the liberation of a concentration camp.

SECOND CHANCE. RKO Radio Pictures, 1953. Robert Mitchum, Linda Darnell, Jack Palance, Sandro Giglio, Roy Roberts, Dan Seymour, Mlburn Stone. Director: Rudolph Maté.

   A classic case of a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be. The opening scene, as gangster hit man Jack Palance offs Milburn Stone in his hotel room suggests that this is the beginning of a fine film solidly in the noir category. But the bulk of the middle of the film is both a travelogue filmed in at fiesta time in beautiful downtown Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico, and a romantic drama that’s as dull as dishwater.

   Linda Darnell is, as it turns out, a mobster’s ex-girl friend on the run from the aforementioned Palance. As fate would have it, she finds a soulmate in all-but-burned-out boxer Robert Mitchum, and the cure for her run-away-from-it all blues. The ending, though, eventually, especially for those with their 3-D glasses on, as they did during the film’s initial release, is a spectacular thriller set on a stranded cable car stranded hundreds of feet above a rockier terrain than you can ever imagine.

   You have to wait a long time before the ending, though, or at least so it seemed that way. Mitchum is Mitchum, as always, and that’s all to the good, but Linda Darnell, who was only 30 when she made this film, looks 10 years older, and believe it or not, utterly matronly. But I also hasten to add that even going up cobbled streets in high heels, she’s a better runner than Jack Palance is, and no, I didn’t believe it either.


NIGHT UNTO NIGHT. Warner Brothers, 1949. Ronald Reagan, Viveca Lindfors, Broderick Crawford, Rosemary DeCamp, Osa Massen, Art Baker, Craig Stevens. Based on the novel by Philip Wylie. Director: Don Siegel.

   Years before he directed Clint Eastwood, Don Siegel worked with Ronald Reagan in Night Unto Night, a romantic melodrama with a tinge of sunshine noir. Set on Florida’s alternatingly sunny and stormy East coast, this early film by Siegel is overall a highly uneven feature, but is nonetheless an immensely watchable postwar psychological thriller that defies easy categorization. Consider it a Gothic romance crossed with a ghost tale, or as a crime film without really any significant criminal act. It’s not great, but it’s good.

   Reagan and Viveca Lindfors portray star-crossed lovers, each living in the shadow of death. Reagan’s character, John Galen, is a scientist in the business of developing medicine to save lives. In one of life’s dark ironies, he learns that he is slowly beginning to develop epilepsy. His response to this is to flee from his native Chicago and rent a house on the Florida coast. Most importantly, he wants to be alone and to shut out the world.

   That’s easier said than done, however, as he slowly becomes entangled with two European sisters, Ann Gracy (Lindfors) and her highly seductive sister, Lisa (Osa Massen). After Lisa fails to seduce Galen, she becomes enraged when it’s revealed that Galen and Ann have fallen in love.

   If things weren’t complicated enough for our physically declining protagonist, he soon learns how psychologically scarred Ann is from the death of her first husband. So devastatingly broken in fact, that she hears his voice speaking to her from beyond the grave. Unfortunately, Lindsfors tends to overact these scenes, making them more maudlin than terrifying.

   Siegel’s use of atmosphere in cinematic storytelling, on the other hand, can’t be beat. Add in a dark and stormy night battering the windows of an old house, a gun collection, and you’ve got yourself one overwrought post-war melodrama that tries, even if not all that successfully, to say something about love conquering death. Still, for Reagan fans and those interested in seeing what Siegel’s early output was like, Night Unto Night, at a running time of less than ninety minutes, is well worth the effort.

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