Films: Drama/Romance


THE RACKETEER. Pathé Exchange, 1929. Robert Armstrong, Carol Lombard (sic), Roland Drew, Paul Hurst, Kit Guard, Al Hill, Hedda Hopper, Jeanette Loff. Story: Paul Gangelin, with dialogue by A. A. Kline. Director: Howard Higgin.

   The Racketeer was one of the earliest films of the sound era, and it shows. The players orate rather than speak in normal tones — most of them, that is, not all of them — and use their hands and excessive gestures to make sure the audience knows what their characters are thinking and doing.

   And yet the story itself is actually quite good, filled with nuances and little bits of action, if not full scenes, that mesh together in quite a fascinating, if not always satisfying, fashion. One cannot blame the actors. They do what the director wants them to do, and the director…

   Well, I’m no expert, but I have to assume that this early in the game he had to rely on two things: his instincts, left over from the silent era, and the limitations of the equipment he was forced by necessity to use.

   If you can understand and live with those limitations, this is an enjoyable film. Robert Armstrong is the racketeer of the title, a ruthless fellow when he has to be, but the screenwriter makes sure we know from the beginning that he also has a pragmatic, practical side. He turns one of his underlings who has betrayed him over the police, for example, instead of the usual long ride to nowhere.

   And he slips a vagrant violinist on the street fifty dollars rather than let a cop run him in. And this is the incident that begins the story itself. The vagrant has a girl friend (Carol Lombard), and as chance would have it, she needs a helping hand from this very same gangster to keep from being caught after cheating at poker at a charity function.

   Which begins a love triangle of sorts, not overtly per se, but a quiet, tacit one, one that (as expected) boils over at the end. Robert Armstrong is his usual professional self, but I’m afraid that at the time I might not have predicted much of a future in talkies for his leading co-star, already a veteran of some 40 or so silent films, but she learned, and how.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


THE VILLAIN STILL PURSUED HER. RKO, 1940. Anita Louise, Margaret Hamilton, Alan Mowbray, Richard Cromwell, Joyce Compton, Buster Keaton, Billy Gilbert and Hugh Herbert. Screenplay by Elbert Franklin and Ethel LaBlanche. Directed by Edward Cline.

   Never really funny but always highly amusing, this is a (mostly) straight-faced filming of William H. Smith’s popular temperance play, The Drunkard, first performed in 1844 and frequently revived for comic effect — as I write this it is still playing in Tulsa Oklahoma in a production that started in 1953, which makes it the second-longest-running play currently on the boards.

   The movie version offers a marvelous cast led by one of my favorite character actors, Alan Mowbray (best remembered as the hammy thespian in John Ford’s Wagonmaster and My Darling Clementine) with able support from that eternal juvenile lead Richard Cromwell; Hatchet-faced Margaret Hamilton, sympathetic for once as a dying ol’ widder woman; ditzy Joyce Compton, perfectly cast as Hazel Dalton, wandering lunatic; and Buster Keaton, as her brother William, whose doughty heroics here prompt bittersweet memories of his hey-day in the silents.

   The story, in case you’re interested, deals with kind-hearted but weak-willed Edward Middleton, who marries the poor-but-honest daughter of the dying ol’widder woman and is almost immediately led astray by Lawyer Cribbs, who nurses a hatred for his family (“I hated his father, I hate him, and if he should have any children, I shall hate them as well.”) and has some sort of secret buried in the woods — through which our wandering madwoman is wont to ramble.

   When our young hero succumbs to Demon Rum and flees to the City to hide his shame, it falls to his friend William to bring him home and save his wife and child from the machinations of villainous Cribbs — and incidentally cure his perambulating sister.

   Obviously this is not to be taken seriously, and Director Edward Cline, who worked with some of the great names in Film Comedy, does a fine job of keeping his players earnest and the pace accelerated. But the real show here is Alan Mowbray, who takes this rare (for him) starring role and runs away with it.

   It’s somehow fitting to see Mowbray as Cribbs, since he was a member of the Fields/ Barrymore/ Fowler circle, and W. C. Fields himself played an actor playing Cribbs in The Old-Fashioned Way (1934) to hilarious effect. Mowbray wisely chooses not to ape Fields, but puts his own stuffy hauteur into the part, and achieves the considerable feat of creating a classic screen villain who is also a wonderful comic character. Lovers of old weird movies live for films like this.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


OMOO OMOO THE SHARK GOD. Screen Guild Productions as Lippert Pictures Inc., 1948. Ron Randell, Devera Burton, Trevor Bardette, Pedro de Cordoba, Richard Benedict, Mate Richards, Michael Whalen, Rudy Robles. Written & directed by Leon Leonard.

   Two disparate books come together in one desperate film in Omoo Omoo the Shark God. Herman Melville is one of those Great Authors whose power has always…. well has always escaped me somehow. I labored through Moby Dick in college under duress, and fifty years later found Billy Budd a crashing bore. I can enjoy Conrad, Marlowe, Shakespeare and even de Quincey, but I find reading Melville akin to eating Brussels sprouts. Blame my literary taste buds.

   At the other end of the spectrum, I thoroughly enjoyed a recent book called Talk’s Cheap, Action’s Expensive: The Films of Robert L. Lippert (Bear Manor Media, 2014) by Mark Thomas McGee. For those unfamiliar, Lippert was a producer of dubious ethics and even dubiouser taste, releasing films from the late 40s to the 60s. To his credit, we have The Last Man on Earth, The Fly, Rocketship XM, the Quatermass movies and the early films of Sam Fuller.

   On the debit side, we have the other 70 or so films he bears responsibility for, almost all of them done quickly and artlessly with both eyes on the budget: Films like The Lost Continent (’51) with Cesar Romero and those crummy dinosaurs; King Dinosaur (’55) with even crummier monsters; Fingerprints Don’t Lie (reviewed here earlier;) the Lash LaRue movies; Sins of Jezebel; Queen of the Amazon; Superman and the Mole Men; The Alligator People, a whole bunch of British B-movies with faded American stars.

   I could go on, but you get the point, or if you don’t you won’t. Lippert’s favorite actor was Sid Melton and his most-used actress was Margia Dean, with whom he was sleeping. I rather enjoy Lippert’s films myself. Some are touched with genius, some amusingly inept, and some are simply jaw-droppingly awful, but they all have that sense of quiet desperation Thoreau spoke of so movingly.

   And oddly enough, the talents of Lippert and Melville once met, in a remarkable little film called Omoo Omoo the Shark God.

   Well anyway the credits tell us this is based on Omoo, though I don’t recall any cursed idols, budding romance or native blood-brothers in Melville’s autobiographical novel. Perhaps writer/director Leon Leonard saw something in it I didn’t. (I told you I had a critical blind spot there.) Or maybe the film is an extended commentary on the book, a fictional critique and thematic riposte.

   I guess we’ll never know. All I can say for sure is that the story revolves around an obsessive sea captain guiding his ship back to a remote island in search of some mystical black pearls he stole from the eyes of a native idol years ago and hid someplace. Romance blooms along the way between the Captain’s daughter and our hero (Devera Burton and Ron Randell), and once we get to the island sundry complications ensue, including hostile natives, greedy sailors and some sort of curse.

   This is all done in typical Lippert style, played out on cramped sets and filled out with stock footage. I don’t believe there’s an original exterior shot in the whole movie. But one can clearly see the thematic references to Moby Dick: the mad captain, compelled to pursue a horrible fate; the inversion (White Whale becomes Black Pearls) and the incredible boredom as the story moves like a becalmed iceberg. The studio jungles are about what you’d expect from a movie like this, helped a bit by Benjamin Kline’s expert photography, and Albert Glasser’s music tries hard to convince us something’s going on, but this is basically an hour of nothing much. And yet…

   And yet I find myself wondering what prompted writer/director Leon Leonard to this tawdry madness in the first place. He had no previous experience writing or directing for the movies; his only other screen credit is a bit part in an obscure Rudy Vallee short, Campus Sweetheart, and he seems to have worked mostly in the Theatre as a musical director. So how did he come to bring Melville to the screen?

   Whence this film?

   I tell you, it’s enough to make a man think.

TANGLED. Ben’s Sister Productions, 2001. Rachael Leigh Cook, Shawn Hatosy, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Estella Warren, Lorraine Bracco. Director: Jay Lowi.

   There are a lot of gaps in my movie-watching career, and the period from the mid 1980s on to, well, practically now, is the largest one. I’m trying to fill in the gaps in that period, but the doing is going a lot slower than I’d like. There are just too movies from the 30s and 40s that are on my Want to See Next list, that films like this one just have to work their way in somehow.

   Which is a roundabout way of saying I picked this one at random out a box in the basement that’s been there for at least four or five years, maybe even longer. I’m not sure why I bought it in the first place, but after watching it last night, I’m glad I did.

   It wasn’t because of the actors in it, as I couldn’t have placed names with faces with any of them, except one, that one being Lorraine Bracco (of The Sopranos fame, but I saw her first in Medicine Man with Sean Connery). In any case, of the players in the three leading roles, I can tell you now that I was impressed.

   Taking Rachael Leigh Cook first, she plays Jenny, the center of this romantic drama, a diminutive young girl with plenty of spirit and two suitors, sort of, but that’s the story. One of them is David (Shawn Hatosy), an almost baby-faced lad who’s known Cook longer, but theirs is a friendship only, platonic you might say, although you know from watching him that he’d like it to be more. The other is David’s former roommate, Alan (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who’s another free spirit, dashing, adventuresome, with dangerous-looking eyes, and everything David is not.

   But even though sparks between Jenny and Alan are obviously immediately, the latter takes the time to ask the David if the way is clear, and David reluctantly says yes, although you know he’d like to say no. He even warns Jenny about Alan, telling her that falling for him would be a bad idea.

   The story of this doomed three-way relationship is told in flashback by David to female detective Andersle (Lorraine Bracco), having been picked up by the police who have found the bodies of the other two in a secluded wooded area.

   It’s been a while since my college days, both undergraduate and graduate, but I recognize pieces of each of the three major players in the students I knew back then, and the love affairs they had, the rivalries, the break-ups, and the getting back together again. Not a whole lot has changed, except nobody I knew back then ended up in a situation anything like this one. Not that I knew about, anyway.

   In any case, it’s the skill of the actors that reminded me of my younger academic days more than any movie or book I’ve seen or read in quite a while. All three leads were convincing, and the next time I see a film that they’re in, I’ll be sure to take more than a quick glance at it.

   One other thing. I’m sometimes annoyed when a film exists in the form of extended and sometimes overlapping flashbacks, but in this case, it was the only way it could have been done. I enjoyed this one.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:          


FEMALE ON THE BEACH. Universal International, 1955. Joan Crawford, Jeff Chandler, Jan Sterling, Cecil Kellaway, Natalie Schafer. Director: Joseph Pevney.

   There’s that infamous scene in The Hustler (1961), the one anybody who’s ever watched the film will not easily forget. Where Piper Laurie’s character uses lipstick to scribble on a bathroom mirror, following a seedy dalliance with George C. Scott’s character and just prior to taking her own life. The words: PERVERTED. TWISTED. CRIPPLED. Those words speak volumes about the lurid, seedy, sad atmosphere that permeates Robert Rossen’s masterpiece.

   And that’s the same type of environment that seems to exist in the 1955 thriller, Female on the Beach, in which a (miscast) thirty-something Jeff Chandler portrays Drummond Hall, a rather uninspiring character who falls for, and marries, a fifty-year old sauced up widow, Lynn Markham (Joan Crawford). For most of the movie, we are led to believe that “Drummy” (Chandler) murdered the previous tenant of Markham’s beach house and that he ultimately has his eye on Markham’s life as well. Notice that I say: “seems to.” That’s because the story, the characters, and the atmosphere never quite gel into a coherent, believable cinematic whole.

   But it’s not for a lack of trying.

   In fact, the movie tries too hard to be something that it’s not: a compellingly watchable murder mystery. And don’t let the black and white cinematography fool you, for it’s not noir, either. Not remotely. Instead, it’s a middling thriller with some good moments, over the top acting from Joan Crawford, and a lurid, psychologically twisted claustrophobic Orange County, California beach house setting. I guess that’s worth something.

   The push-and-pull, cat-and-mouse love affair between Chandler and Crawford is alternately bizarre, off-putting, and unintentionally hilarious. Check that: maybe it was intended to be funny, or at least tongue firmly in cheek. Make no mistake: Female on the Beach is a strange movie about strange characters doing strange things on the beach. But ultimately, despite Chandler’s best efforts at portraying a character quite different from those larger than life heroes he often portrays, it’s not a particularly engrossing film.

PIER 13. 20th Century Fox, 1940. Lynn Bari, Lloyd Nolan, Joan Valerie, Douglas Fowley, Chick Chandler, Oscar O’Shea, Adrian Morris. Director: Eugene Forde.

   In this semi-spritely remake of Me and My Gal, a 1932 film starring Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, and directed by Raoul Walsh, it’s the chemistry between leading players Lloyd Nolan and Lynn Bari that keeps this otherwise ordinary crime film from sinking far below the water off Pier 13.

   He’s Danny Dolan, the new cop on the beat in the area, while she’s Sally Kelly, the wise-cracking and gum-chewing waitress whom he meets on his first day on the job. He’s attracted to her at once, there’s no doubt about that, but it takes her a while to show that she’s interested too.

   Trouble is, a notorious jewel thief is back in town and he has a hold on Sally’s sister, and he wants her help once again to pull off his next robbery. As I said earlier, there’s not too much to this as a crime story, and of course it all turns out well. It’s only the banter between the two lovers that makes this a movie worth watching. When sparks fly like this, there’s bound to be a fire.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


DOWN IN THE VALLEY. Element Films, 2005. Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse, Rory Culkin, Bruce Dern, John Diehl, Geoffrey Lewis, Elizabeth Peña, Kat Dennings. Screenplay and Director: David Jacobson.

   To call Down In The Valley a contemporary Western doesn’t really do it justice. It’s a daring movie, one that both conforms to, and subverts the Western genre, all the while pretending to be a love story between a drifter and a bored, rebellious suburban teenage girl. In that sense, it mocks the audience, playing with the expectation that this is going to be just another misbegotten romance.

   Sometimes the effort works extraordinarily well; others times it falls flat. Pancake flat, leaving the viewer wondering whether it was worth the time. And I grant you this: the movie doesn’t always make perfect sense. It certainly won’t appeal to all tastes.

   But with beautiful cinematography, terrific acting by Ed Norton and Evan Rachel Wood, and a poignant reminder that those who stay true to the mores of the Old West simply can’t function in the contemporary West, Down In The Valley remains an overall thoughtful, if imperfect, story about the perils of taking escapism and national mythology a step too far.

   Ed Norton portrays Harlan Fairfax Carruthers, a drifter working at a San Fernando Valley gas station. He says he’s got a background in ranching, is from South Dakota, and speaks with a drawl. And he says he doesn’t drive a car.

   It doesn’t take much for the restless Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) to fall for the mysterious stranger, who also takes a shine to her younger brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin). The siblings’ stepfather (David Morse) however, doesn’t much care for Harlan. White trash loser, or something like that, is what he calls him.

   Harlan’s a complicated character and we never really learn exactly who he is, or who he is supposed to be. But one thing is clear: he’s from modern suburban Los Angeles. He is definitely not a gunslinger from the Old West. Tragically, however, that is what he imagines himself to be. I say tragically, because Harlan’s flight out of reality, and into a celluloid daydream, ushers in a wave of violence and tragedy for the people with whom he comes into contact.

   Norton is exceptional in his role, portrays the dangerously unstable Harlan so convincingly that one cannot imagine another actor playing this bizarre character, a man so fundamentally broken by the modern world that he chooses to live out his life as if he belonged in a dusty 1880s street, rather than in a 1970s gas station. He’s an outlaw gunslinger in a realm of jam-packed freeways, strip malls, and dingy motels.

   Let me repeat: Down In the Valley doesn’t always work. For example, it sometimes makes far too much use of symbolism and metaphor when subtlety would have done the trick. Sometimes too much pop psychology isn’t good for a movie and grates on the nerves.

   The movie definitely has a message, although it’s not exactly clear what it is. That the Old West was, at root, a violent society and that we shouldn’t miss its passing? That suburbanization results in alienation from nature? That society will always have drifters who pose a menace to the community?

   Thankfully, the movie eschews a happy, tidy ending where everything is set aright. It leaves the viewer with a somewhat disconcerting vision of the ability of one man, one psychologically bruised, lonesome gun toting drifter, to wreak so much havoc on an already dysfunctional family. At times clichéd, others poignant, Down In The Valley is a romance, neo-noir, and Western wrapped in a character study. It’s certainly worth a look. Just don’t go into it expecting a totally coherent, flawless narrative.

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