Saturday, May 20, 2017

PAROLE, INC. (1948)


Equity Pictures presents this uninteresting film about a federal agent's undercover mission. The Orbit Production is split between studio sets and location shooting with the obligatory train steam whistle sound track in the distance. The opening title credits are accompanied by an Alexander Lazlo score, a B-movie composer and music director for NBC Radio at the time. The music has a slight documentary angst about it and the opening roll of introductory text seems to support this. Yet the score could be used for many dramas with a burlap background beneath the titles. l cannot imagine many talked about the film after its initial run, although Michael O'Shea was popular. This movie's lack of suspense or any surprises makes for a long seventy-five minutes, including the minimum fist-a-cuffs action.


The film opens from O'Shea's hospital bed as we see him verbally, still gasping for air, transcribe his thoughts over a Dictaphone about his recent investigation. His head looking like it was bandaged by Miss Winthrop's third-grade class using masking tape indiscriminately. While his character sets up the film's premise through flashbacks, each time cutting back to his hospital bed, O'Shea's bandages begin to look a tad more medically approved. The nurses got a real chuckle with those third-graders!

O'Shea goes undercover to flesh out the gang responsible for buying paroles for convicted criminals. His lackluster voice-over narration has all the raw toughness of Danny Kaye. Evelyn Ankers, owner of a dinner club, employs several of her “boys” to do her bidding. The film plays out in slow motion as it cuts between informative scenes and the lull of O'Shea's narration. The Police Commissioner, Lyle Talbot, looking particularly oily in a pencil thin mustache, arranges a fake news headline which reassures the gang about O'Shea's supposed criminal history. Soon enough we are back to the hospital and by now, bed sores are probably O'Shea's biggest concern.


Turhan Bey plays the gang's attorney—hunk of Ankers—who is the kingpin of buying paroles with inside help from two crooked parole board members. In pinstriped suit and dark Vitalis hair, Bey looks every bit the matinee idol and stands out from all the other average looking people in the film. Harry Lauter, always on hand for supporting role, plays the well-reasoned board member whose discerning vote is constantly dismissed by the overriding committee.

The excitement nearly crescendos. The ending is the least imaginative as we quickly learn how O'Shea ended up in the hospital in the first place. It also supplies the moviegoer with his current status. He is finally out of that “Craftmatic” bed with dreams of going dancing again. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A WELL-KNOWN HOLLYWOOD SHORT LIST

I am breaking from my usual comments on low budget movies to address five high budget actors and actresses for the “Five Stars Blogathon” hosted by http://www.classicfilmtvcafe.com/. There were some solid performances in the B-movie genre in spite of being saddled with a poor production or a bad agent. A few of those seemingly forgotten actors might appear on anyone's expanded list. But my candidates stand the test of time and are universally accepted as some of the best of Hollywood regardless of the era. Despite starring in a few less than successful films, their performances were not at fault. Each are impossible to ignore on screen and in their best films the running time is not quite long enough.


Edward G. Robinson
Except for the ubiquitous carnival fun house distortion mirror, your average mirror never confused Edward G. Robinson with Errol Flynn of the Thirties. With handsome leading men being hand-picked by studios, it may be hard to figure how E.G. made it onto a soundstage at all. Not hard to figure are the polished performances of this tremendously dedicated, classically trained actor. His talent resuscitated many a script, transforming the movie into a memorable encounter. There have been those who seem fully aware or intimidated by camera and crew a few feet away. Their acting is turned on and off by their presence, perhaps trying too hard to make a good impression. There was never any hint of this in Robinson's acting. He inhabited his characters to become one of the most famous actors of any era. His distinctive voice and small stature was a polarizing magnet to audiences. From light comedy to heartfelt dramas or a crime story, he made it look so easy. His funny asides in “Larceny, Inc” to his amusing character in “The Whole Town’s Talking,” to his performance in “The Stranger,” each illustrated an actor of great versatility. He returned to his crime roots in a believable role for, “Key Largo.” In his book, “The Actor's Life: Journal 1956-1976,” Charlton Heston wrote about Robinson’s last screen appearance in “Soylent Green.” Though E.G. was terminally ill, "He never missed an hour of work, nor was late to a call. He never was less than the consummate professional he had been all his life.” Yet, to go throughout his entire career without an Oscar nomination after appearing in nineteen academy nominated films is a bit mind-boggling. He did receive a Cleo award which included a self-parody ending line for a 1964 Maxwell House television commercial. Finally a career fulfilled! “Listen here, Hollywood. May a pox be cast on ya', see!”


Gregory Peck
With his commanding voice, female-weakening smile, angular good looks and stature, he was definitely someone to watch in the Forties. Peck was destined for screen immortality almost out of the gate and his fifty-four years of excellent performances catapults him to the top of any actor’s list. He will forever endure as one of the best representatives of Hollywood’s Golden Age. “Spellbound” may have solidified his career but he was just getting started. From his interpretation of a good-natured father in, “The Yearling,” the undercover reporter in, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” to the stressed-out combat pilot in, “Twelve O'Clock High,” each role fit him perfectly. His Oscar performance as the wise father and patient lawyer in, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” stands singularly alone. Critics complained about his stiffness in certain roles or in general. Maybe stoicism was a more positive moniker. Most thought he was miscast in “Moby Dick.” Though Peck apparently agreed, I find his Captain Ahab scary, commanding and appropriately stiff. The versatile actor rolled on. Who would have figured the western star of such classics as, “Yellow Sky” and “The Gunfighter,” or an Army lieutenant in “Pork Chop Hill,” as the unassuming professor with spy, Sofia Loren, in “Arabesque,” Peck's last outing for light comedy. When one considers Peck's entire body of work, comedy does not readily come to mind. But his first meeting with Loren’s character is funny because of his authentic delivery and charm. She enters the room and says hello. Peck, without looking up responds with a short, unconcerned, “Hello.” He does a double take, and astounded by her beauty, cannot compose a sentence, only excitedly repeating, “Hel-lo, Hello! Hel-l-l-o Hello!” Few actors could make such an effective use of a single word.  


Jean Arthur
The list of genuine comediennes with as many classics gets very narrow after considering Arthur at her nearly “ten-year zenith.” Adorable, thy name is Jean Arthur. Her characters of strength may be one reason her movies seem so relevant some seventy-five years later. Her silent films are now forgotten because she had no voice. A voice distinctly suited for comedy, wacky or not. Her child-like voice doubled her charm as if part tomboy and dainty ingenue. That voice gave her an “everyday girl” appeal, someone smart but still a bit confused about relationships yet always talking to men on equal terms. There were moments her voice sounded like her impression of an octogenarian as her voice crackled with her pitch squeezed to new heights. She interpreted her roles with a unique delivery that remains singularly endearing. Arthur was delightful as the savvy reporter when,“Mr. Deeds goes to Town,” and is hilarious as the out-of-work secretary mistaken for a millionaire's mistress in, “Easy Living.” For “The Talk of The Town,” she again plays a single, well educated female amid two male suitors with a few hilarious twists. For, “The More the Merrier,” her legendary voice and subtle facial nuances were both funny and alluring, especially to McCrea who was powerless to resist. Their scenes are innocent and pure yet may have set new standards for screen chemistry. She was worthy of the Oscar nomination. Other females of the Golden Age handled comedy well enough, which may have as much due to a great script than anything else. But to be flummoxed, smart, sassy, sympathetic, empathetic, resourceful, sad and funny in a single character, you need to be Jean Arthur.


Spencer Tracy
Tracy always elevated a film several floors simply by showing up. Adept at comedy or drama, with his natural style he seemed to walk through his roles as if he knew his part from birth. That he was destined to do one thing perfectly in his life. Act. His early Thirties films helped jump start his career but by the end of that decade, his Hollywood stardom was planted firmly for ions with excellent films too numerous to mention. I have always defended his performance as Jekyll and Hyde. Coming off his first Oscar performance and the enjoyable, “San Francisco” or “Boom Town,” maybe it was a shock for Tracy fans and critics. Tracy's Hyde was not a physically grotesque creature, in the likes of John Barrymore or Frederic March, but a disgusting, psychological menace of terrifying proportions. His constant threatening of Bergman —”I am such a tease, aren’t I?”— as he calmly eats fruit, spitting the seeds on her apartment floor. All the while planning another “fun” evening together purely for selfish desires and ego. His performance, sometimes subtle, is a beautiful thing to watch. He would later team up with March for, “Inherit the Wind,” where Tracy wins the audience and court case over his costar in their respective roles. If his private life was not joy-filled, his comic timing is of course, legendary. Especially with Hepburn. Tracy could be the favorite father, a saintly priest or a despicable criminal. One can almost imagine him listening to his fellow costars deliver their lines, as if he just dropped by, then recite the appropriate lines in response in a most natural way. As his stocky stature seemed to allude, his acting was solid year after year.


Claudette Colbert
Though at times her high cheekbones and big wide-set round eyes gave a slight quirkiness to her face, there is no denying her appeal. Her slender body was much simpler to reason with and her skin was the envy of every porcelain doll. Her charm and sophistication were unequaled as was her insistence to be fashionable at all times on screen. All of which may account for her appearing taller than her rather short stature. Colbert’s silky, alto vocal range was another of her engaging qualities which could melt through any script. Her comedies are legendary and rank as some of the best of the Golden Age. Even if critics neglect it, “It’s a Wonderful World” is one of my favorites which includes her most memorable and charming line, “I swear by my eyes!” Keeping her sophistication intact, she held back on pure physical comedy. But she fit right in responding to it. “The Egg and I” came close with her character tackling the unknowns of farm living. Sort of a “Green Acres” predecessor, you might say. After World War II her success continued with a mix of highly regarded dramatic roles and comedies, culminating her career with a Golden Globe for the television miniseries, “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles.” Colbert was a smart business woman. She stood firm on her professional demands, of which there were many. She was shrewd enough to choose roles to maintain her Hollywood image. But what really mattered to audiences at the time was her flowing charm, self-assured characters, effortless acting and the uncanny ability to personify the expression of revelation. If Clark Gable was a man’s man, Colbert was, indeed, a woman’s woman.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

THE JUDGE (1949)


This odd, shoestring budgeted film is told with voice-overs through the eyes of a judge, Jonathan Hale, who has witnessed a defense attorney’s career rise and fall. The odd use of Gene Lanham's wordless a cappella choral effects instead of an instrumental score gives it an eerie, avant-garde science fiction feel...if it were the Sixties. To finish out the Forties with it is just weird. Couple the narration with the choral score, the opening suggests an early television Sunday morning inspirational film. Other than the opening melody a mixed vocal ensemble sets the mood with cued chords only. Like a macabre “Swingle Singers.” You might recognize the first few measures of the opening theme as sounding like a cross between, “The Adventures of Superman” television theme and John William’s “Superman” movie theme. Perhaps a bit ironic that John Hamilton (The Daily Planet's Perry White) is in this film as a police lieutenant.

Milburn Stone plays the noted criminal attorney whose practices are at least unethical if not illegal. “A waste of a mind misused,” so says the judge. He is infamous for his loopholes in the law, springing the guilty. This takes a toll on his conscience after seeing his picture beside the word “shyster” in the dictionary. He now wants restitution for his actions and for all those he has maligned in the process. Speaking of maligning, enter his disloyal wife, Katherine DeMille. She is having an affair with the county police psychiatrist, Stanley Waxman, in his first credited film. This is no secret any longer to Stone, whose performance sets him apart from his co-stars. He is compelling. DeMille is not, though adequately irritating.


The opening apartment scenes between a mental patient and a boy’s violin practice in the next room is disturbing. Continuity takes a hit in the early stages with the best bits past the halfway point with an oddly used flashback dream sequence near the film’s end. Perhaps a last minute idea to pad the film. While Stone lies unconscious on the floor from a blow to the head, he experiences a dreamnightmareabout his wife. In his mind, he settles the score on their psychic rift between them. At the end of this sequence is the funniest use of the chorus, when Stone is slapped across the face by DeMille. As soon as her hand makes contact we hear a rapid, “Whaah Ohh,” two-note eerie descending chord.

Stone’s unsettling use of a straight-jacket on his hired killer, played by “under the radar” actor, Paul Guilfoyle and Stone's implementation of Russian Roulette is pretty intense. He seems possessed by a demon at this point, with the viewer not knowing who might be killed, who wants to be killed or who will be framed for either. The ending resolve is both ridiculously rapid and implausible. Still, “The Judge,” is a unique seventy minutes of film though few would call it successful. The a cappella chorus is its defining element. “Honey, let’s go and see that film that uses only an a cappella score!”