Films: Drama/Romance


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


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!

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


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.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


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.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


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.

EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE. First National Pictures/Warner Brothers, 1933. Warren William, Loretta Young, Wallace Ford, Alice White, Hale Hamilton, Albert Gran, Ruth Donnelly. Director: Roy Del Ruth.

   While 20 year old Loretta Young is breathtakingly beautiful in this film, star billing rightly goes to Warren William. As Kurt Anderson, the fire-breathing and much hated manager of the Franklin Monroe Department Store, he is the Evil Boss personified, trampling down and firing employees at will who can’t meet his standards, and absolutely cutthroat in his dealings with suppliers who can’t meet their contracted deadlines on time.

   He is on the job 24/7, and anyone who can’t keep pace with him is swept aside like yesterday’s dead leaves. Even the board of directors hates him, including the owner of the store himself, but they can’t fire him. Why? Because in the middle of the Depression, the store makes money.

   Anderson has one flaw, perhaps. He is not married — he doesn’t have time for a wife, he says — but he does have an eye for the ladies. Which is where the enchanting Madeline comes in (Loretta Young). He seduces her, quite frankly so, even though the scene shifts quickly to the following day. Once on the payroll as a model, though, she catches the eye of Wallace Ford, a miniature Kurt Anderson in the making, but as the latter’s newly appointed assistant — the previous having been summarily dismissed as deadwood with no new ideas in years — he can’t ask her to marry him.

   But they do anyway. Get married, that is, and in secret, which means that Madeline must continue to fend off Anderson’s advances, unsuccessfully so, which makes this a somewhat racy comedy as well as a serious romantic drama, one definitely made in the pre-Code era.

   But getting back to Warren William, what he does so well is to play an utter cad, but one with good reasons for doing what he does. Deadwood should be replaced. Standing up to the bankers on the board of directors should be done; all they’re interested in the money coming in, with no effort on their part, at the expense of the workers Anderson would have to let go if he were to retrench and cut back as they advise him and as every other business is doing — and failing as a result.

   Warren William makes us, the viewer admire, if not quite like him, even as we hate him. That’s a tough job for any actor to pull off, and William makes it look easy.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


LISA. 20th Century Fox, 1962. Stephen Boyd, Dolores Hart, Leo McKern, Hugh Griffith, Donald Pleasance, Harry Andrews, Robert Stephens, Marius Goring, Finlay Currie, Geoffrey Keen, Jack Gwillim. Screenplay by Nelson Giddings, based on the novel The Inspector by Jan de Hartog. Directed by Philip Dunne.

   An unusual adventure story/thriller in that despite the tension and real suspense, there are few real villains in the story and many small flawed but human heroes instead.

   The place is Holland in 1946 and Peter Jongman (Stephen Boyd) and Sgt. Stollers (Donald Pleasance) are Dutch policemen tracking a suspected ex-Nazi, Thorens (Marius Goring), who they believe is part of a white slavery ring offering to smuggle refugees to America and Canada but actually selling them to brothels in South America. They intercept Thorens on the boat train to Hoek and London while he is transporting one Lisa Held (Dolores Hart), a concentration camp survivor, and Jongman follows them to London.

   In London Jongman is angered to learn from his policeman friend (Jack Gwillim) that Scotland Yard can do nothing so he confronts Thorens himself. There is a struggle and he knocks Thorens down. Outside the flat he meets Lisa and learns she is a concentration camp survivor Thorens offered to transport to Palestine. Jongman offers to take her back to Amsterdam and she agrees having nowhere else to go, and along the way decides to help her get to Palestine, but once back in Amsterdam he learns from his superior (Geoffrey Keen) that Thorens was killed and he is wanted for questioning and the girl suspected of murder.

   But Jongman has a secret that plagues him and decides to risk everything to get the girl to Palestine, setting off an international manhunt along the way.

   Based on a novel by bestselling novelist Jan de Hartog (The Captain, The Key, etc.) Lisa is unusual in that it concentrates on small human acts of kindness and humanity rather than villains or villainy. There are villains, Thorens played briefly but menacingly by Marius Goring, the unseen, for the most part, Nazis from the war, and a ship of modern pirates they encounter along the way, but they play relatively small roles.

   In a quiet and subtle way Lisa is about kindness and regret in the face of the horrors of the war. Jongman is haunted by having stayed as a policeman during the Occupation and his failure to save a Jewish girl he loved that he had believed the Germans would leave alone if he cooperated. Saving this one girl is his chance at redemption. Lisa herself, a survivor of Nazi medical experiments, is dead inside and has to be reborn through the love that develops between Jongman and herself, and the simple kindness they encounter along the way, Palestine is a dream of new life to her among others wounded as she was since she believes she can’t survive among normal people, but the journey will transform her into a living breathing woman again.

   At each turn the two encounter good people who help them along the way; Jan (Finlay Currie( the river master who knows every smuggler in Holland and has known Jongman since he was a young policeman on the River Police; grumpy old Captain Brandt (Leo McKern), the barge captain who helps smuggle them out of Holland; Sgt. Stollers, too good a policeman not to be ahead of Jongman at every stop and too good a man not to risk is career to save him; Van der Pink (Hugh Griffith) the canny Dutch smuggler in Tangier; Roger Dickens (Robert Stephens) the humane British agent whose job; however much he hates it, is to stop them from entering Palestine and see Jongman goes back to England to face the law; and, Captain Ayoub (Harry Andrews) the Arab gun smuggler who also smuggles Jewish refugees into Palestine.

   It’s a strong movie. The scene where Lisa relives the horror of her ordeal in the medical experimentation camp is powerful stuff, and there are more than enough setbacks and tension to engender suspense while the romance that develops between Jongman and Lisa is affectingly played by Boyd and Hart as simple and human. This was Hart’s last film before she became a nun, and supposedly her favorite of the ones she did.

   This is an intelligent and ultimately heartwarming film about redemption and sacrifice, survival, decency, and hope. It isn’t political and it doesn’t beat the viewer over the head about the horrors that lay behind it, but deals with them in a straight forward manner, both the horrors men can perpetrate upon each other, and the small kindnesses and moments of human decency that sometimes redeem them.

   No one should be surprised McKern, Griffith, and Andrews steal the thing whenever they are on screen. All three were veteran scene stealers by the time this film was made. Boyd was a more than capable leading man whose ability to play a villain as well as a hero enriched his performances, and Hart, in her few roles, had a short but remarkably strong career.

   The film is richly shot in color in Cinemascope on location across Europe and in the Middle East with a rich score by Malcolm Arnold; add to that brief but strong performances by Donald Pleasance, Robert Stephens, Finlay Currie, and Marius Goring, and Lisa is a strong and affecting film that does exactly what author Jan de Hartog intended of his novel, to give people hope in the face of the horrors of the past.

Next Page »