MY FAVORITE SPY. RKO Radio Pictures, 1942. Kay Kyser, Ellen Drew, Jane Wyman, Robert Armstrong, William Demarest, Harry Babbitt, Ish Kabibble. Director: Tay Garnett.
I don’t have much to say about this movie. Either you like band leader and long-time radio star Kay Kyser in the role of a movie hero, or you don’t. His overripe meekness and exaggerated gestures of astonishment and surprise can wear on you awfully quickly.
He’s no Pee Wee Herman, though. I think of him as an early Woody Allen type, southern style. Utterly cornball, in other words, but still funny.
His orchestra plays only a minor role in this one, as Kay is asked by the army to help unroot some spies working out of the night club where he and his band are playing, The only problem is that he’s not able to tell his wife what he’s doing, and their honeymoon is constantly being interrupted. You can see what this means, and you can take it from there.
— Reprinted from Mystery*File 37, no date given, considerably truncated and revised.
THE COCK-EYED WORLD. Fox Film Corporation, 1929. Victor McLaglen, Edmund Lowe, Lily Damita, Leila Karnelly, El Brendel, Bob Burns, Stuart Erwin. Director: Raoul Walsh. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.
I was not in a great mood for this reprise of performances by McLaglen and Lowe as Top Sergeant Flagg and Sergeant Harry Quirt, last seen in a 1926 success, What Price Glory?, but my grumpiness evaporated early on, beguiled by the combative charm of the leads and non-stop action orchestrated by director Walsh.
The crowded plot follows the two rascals from Siberia by way of Coney Island to Central America, with brawls and womanizing pretty much summarizing the early scenes, then shifting to a more serious engagement in Central America that has the boys fighting for country, girls and the studio’s profit margin.
This film is definitely pre-code, with girls, girls, girls in various stages of dress and undress. And oh, yes, there’s familiar comic El Brendel gracing yet another film with his ubiquitous and not always amusing presence. A lively romp that escapes the leaden ace of so many early sound films and races to a satisfying conclusion.
PS. Jim G. was particularly impressed by the beautiful Lily Damita, future wife of Errol Flynn.
GOIN’ SOUTH. Paramount Pictures, 1978. Jack Nicholson, Mary Steenburgen, Christopher Lloyd, John Belushi, Danny DeVito, Veronica Cartwrighht, Ed Begley Jr. Director: Jack Nicholson.
Even if I told you this was a Western, you’d still know it was a comedy, just by looking at the list of people in it. The only two cast members of any consequence, however, are Nicholson and Steenbergen — the first film appearance of the latter, at the very young age of 25.
Nicholson is a horse thief, a former member of Quantrill’s Raiders, an outlaw through and through, and of no good to anyone to boot. Captured in Mexico and broght back (illegally) across the border to be hanged, he is saved from the noose at the last minute by Steenbergen’s speaking up at the last minute to say that she will parry him. (A local ordinance carried over from the Civil War, when men were scarce.)
It’s not really a husband she’s looking for, however. She has a mine on her property that needs working, and she’s desperate to find the gold she’s sure that’s there before the railroad comes in and takes over the land.
One look at Nicholson in this movie will show you just how desperate she is. He is the scruffiest looking star of a major motion picture that I can ever recall seeing. He is manical capering gnome of a man, leaping for the sheer joy of living, with a leer in every glance to sends his new wife’s way.
And Mary Steenbergen, although still young, is a quintessential “old maid,” with fussy, virginal ways, but totally in charge of the situation, until, of course, it blushingly (and inevitably) goes out of control.
The rest of the cast is there for background, nothing more, except for perhaps Veronica Cartwright, who plays the outlaw’s former love, he “first woman he ever had to pay for.” Sparks fly, misunderstandings abound, nefarious double-dealings run amuck. And for a Jack Nicholson movie, there are surprisingly few moments of enigmatic incomprehensibility. This is a funny movie, worth looking out for.
— Reprinted from Mystery*File 37, no date given, slightly revised.
THE WRONG BOX. Salamander Film Corp., UK, 1966. Michael Caine, Nanette Newman, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Ralph Richardson, John Mills, Peter Sellers, Wilfred Lawson, Tony Hancock. Director-producer: Brian Forbes. Based on the book by Robert Louis Stevenson & Lloyd Osbourne. [Osbourne was Stevenson's stepson.]
This 1966 version of The Wrong Box is a movie graced by the beetle-like humor of Dudley Moore and a perfect caricature of a fact-spouting pedant, played by Ralph Richardson.
The film is not as good as the sum of its parts, and is not particularly enhanced by a romantic subplot involving Michael Caine and a forgettable British actress, but the manic attempts of two members of the inimitable “Beyond the Fringe” company, Moore and Peter Cook, to make certain that their uncle, played by Richardson, is the last surviving member of a “tontine” and, thus, inheritor of a fortune of some one hundred thousand pounds, are often very funny.
Cook is the fast-talking “brains” of the team, constantly maneuvering around the sweet-talking bumbling of overactive Lothario Moore, but Moore gets the best line. After it is pointed out that Cook has altered a death dertificate but inadvertently put on the next day’s date, Moore comments, “here today, gone tomorrow,” a perfectly logical statement in the context of this zany Victorian comedy.
It is one of the few films I have seen in which the line “the butler did it” is uttered to truly comic effect, and the final scene is a triumph of comic miscalculations that somehow seem inevitable and right.
A funny take-off on caper-and-chase films, The Wrong Box did not find much of an audience in this country in its original release and is sometimes hampered by a too-obvious and arch adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson original story by the America scriptwriters, but the talented cast surmounts most of the weaknesses, and the film is worth watching for.
– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 1, January-February 1982 (slightly revised)
Editorial Comment: My own review of this film, posted here on this blog almost six years ago (!) agrees with Walter in all but one important aspect.
KING OF THE RODEO. Universal, 1929. Hoot Gibson, Kathryn Crawford, Slim Summerfield, Monte Montague. Director: Henry MacRae. Shown at Cinefest 19, Syracuse NY, March 1999.
One of the high points of the weekend. Hoot is thrown out by his rancher father because he wants to ride in a rodeo in Chicago rather than go to college. Hoot’s films are notable for their superb action and good humor and his search for his rodeo shirts (ill-advisedly stolen by the film’s villain during the commission of a more serious crime) provided both laughs and thrills in a motorcycle/car chase that kept this eternal adolescent on the edge of his seat.
SPRING PARADE. Universal, 1940. Deanna Durbin, Robert Cummings, Mischa Auer, Henry Stephenson, S. Z. Sakall. Director: Henry Koster.
Saturday night featured a “lost” Deanna Durbin musical Spring Parade, with the unbeatable Deanna playing a girl from the country who befriends the Emperor Franz Joseph II in pre-war Vienna, benefiting her boyfriend, the insufferable Robert Cummings and her employer, S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, being his usual … uh … cuddly self. DD is in fine voice and there’s a scene at a beer garden where she sang and danced her way into my heart. I love this kind of schmaltz.
SWING HOSTESS. PRC, 1944. Martha Tilton, Iris Adrian, Charles Collins, Cliff Nazarro, Harry Holman, Betty Brodel, Philip Van Zandt, Earle Bruce. Music and lyrics by Jay Livingston, Ray Evans and Lewis Bellin. Director: Sam Newfield.
There are maybe three reasons to watch this low-budget wartime musical, and the first, by a wide margin, is Martha Tilton, perhaps best known as a longtime singer for the Benny Goodman band. In Swing Hostess she plays an aspiring singer named Judy Alvin who can’t seem to catch a break in show business, what with a series of never-ending mixups between who sang what song on which recording disk, missed phone calls and messages, and a competitor (Betty Brodel, sister of Joan Leslie) who can’t sing but whom fortune seems to smile upon a lot more often.
Miss Tilton made only a handful of movies, and was one of the stars in even fewer, but she has a pleasant and relaxed onscreen presence that should have opened the door for making many more. She sings six songs in Swing Hostess, all charmingly and in good cheer. Back in the 1940s you’d have gotten your money’s worth from this film from the music alone. (If you’re of a certain age, today as well, for that matter.)
Another interesting aspect of Swing Hostess is that a sizable portion of it takes place at Judy Alvin’s day job, as she waits for bandleader Benny Jackson (Charles Collins) to notice her. Instead of self-contained juke boxes, back in 1944 they apparently consisted of units with phone lines to a central location where the operators would locate the 78 on a rack and play it back to the person on the other end whose nickel or dime it was. I’ve not been able to find anything online about this kind of operation, if it really existed, so if anyone knows more, tell me about it.
The plot is really rather dopey and not worth saying anything more about, but some of the supporting cast is worth a mention. I’ve probably heard comedian Cliff Nazarro’s double talk ability before, but if so, I’d forgotten about it. All I can say is amazing. Earle Bruce, whose nice guy character seemed to be on a direct path to Judy’s heart, is dumped in the middle of the movie and sent off to the army instead. This gives bandleader Benny Jackson a clear shot, which he takes full advantage of, but since this was the only movie that Bruce ever made, even at this late date I’m going to cry foul.
WALLACE SMITH – The Captain Hates the Sea. Covici-Friede, hardcover, 1933. Film: Columbia, 1934. Victor McLaglen, Wynne Gibson, Alison Skipworth, John Gilbert, Helen Vinson, Fred Keating, Leon Errol, Walter Connolly, Walter Catlett, Donald Meek, The Three Stooges. Screenplay: Wallace Smith, based on his book of the same title. Director: Lewis Milestone.
I can’t find out much about Wallace Smith except that he might have been a newsman in Chicago back in the 1920s — that heady Front Page era — before he graduated to novels and thence to Hollywood where he did about a dozen screenplays, including an adaptation of his own 1933 novel The Captain Hates the Sea, and it was seeing this film that prompted me to seek out the book.
Well, the novel is a pretty fine job. Smith, obviously day-dreaming in the third-person, spins a tale of an alcoholic Hollywood writer who breaks off a doomed relationship with a movie actress to take passage on a ship bound from California to New York, telling himself he’s going to sober up and write that novel he’s been putting off.
Also on board are a thief and his moll on the lam with stolen security bonds, a dumb (or is he?) cop who falls for the moll, a reformed floozie and her jealous husband, plus assorted side characters, some colorful and some merely backdrops, but all well thought out. And oh yes, they’re joined halfway through the trip by a hooker who got run out of Panama and seems to be channeling Miss Sadie Thompson.
With characters like this you wouldn’t need much of a plot, but Smith provides a witty, fast-moving thing, with the stolen bonds turning up yon and hither, a couple of affairs, deceit and treachery, fire in the hold, storm at sea and a suicide. All told with a pleasantly sardonic air that somehow keeps from sounding too snide or too pat. In fact, it’s just right, and I’m going to seek out more by this elusive author.
The film Columbia made of this in 1934 was directed by none other than Lewis Milestone, legendary director of Of Mice and Men, All Quiet on the Western Front and Ocean’s Eleven, who handled it with the hip wit and snappy pacing typical of 1930s films.
Adapting his book, Smith did a good job of paring the tale down to its essentials and softening it up just enough to keep the censors mollified without losing the sadder-but-wiser touch he did so well.
This being a Columbia picture, Director Milestone had to settle for second-string actors — the ship’s band is portrayed by the Three Stooges — but he picked his cast well, with Victor McLaglen outstanding as the dumb cop, Helen Vinson and Fred Keating very smart and sexy and as the thieves, Leon Errol as a comic steward, and especially John Gilbert, that tragic one-time star now on the skids, perfectly cast as the boozy writer.
Looking at him here, suave and virile, one wonders how Gilbert might have fared had Louis B. Mayer not elected to destroy his career, but we’ll never know; this was his last film. I should also throw a kudo to Walter Connolly as the eponymous Captain, radiating quiet (and quite funny) desperation, dealing out lines like “I feel sorry for the sheep-headed woman or child that tries to get into the very first lifeboat ahead of me!” and generally imparting an air of comic authority to the whole thing. Definitely one to catch.
Editorial Comments: The video clip shows the first ten minutes of the film, but for some reason we don’t get to see the full screen. A big chunk of the left side is missing. And even though the clip says it’s part 1 of 7, those leaving comments say that part 8 has never been posted.
The book is not included in Hubin, and the film is categorized on IMDB as a comedy, which is how I’ve tagged it, but there appears to be enough criminous content for Al to include it. (There are two other books by Wallace Smith included in Crime Fiction IV, one marginally.)