Down the Noir Highway

What could make a reputable insurance instigator go bad? A beautiful woman? Lots of loot? A sense of empowerment? For Joe Peters (Charles McGraw), it’s all of these things but it’s definitely a femme fatale named Diane (Joan Dixon) who first ignites the copper’s lust and then his greed. Roadblock (1951) is a cleverly plotted, terse little film noir that has more twists and hairpin turns than a winding mountain road. What makes it stand out from other low-budget noirs produced at RKO is Charles McGraw’s compelling performance as an easily seduced sucker unlike his usual tough guy roles and Joan Dixon’s sultry presence.  Continue reading

Justice is Served

Now this is the sort of film title I’d like to see in an era where the rich are getting richer, the middle class is eroding and the poor are becoming a majority. But Millionaires in Prison (1940) is not in the muck-racking tradition of Inside Job (2010) or Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) or Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room (2005). Instead, it’s a 1940 grade-B programmer from RKO which serves up two terrific premises but doesn’t quite deliver on either in the expected way. Still, it’s rather astonishing that the filmmakers were able to shoehorn two ambitious storylines along with a romantic subplot (two of the convict protagonists have girlfriends on the outside) into a 65-minute movie.   Continue reading

When Ginger Met Ronald

Chemistry between actors is a curious thing. It can result in some kind of indecipherable but wondrous alchemy that crackles and pops or a concoction that simply refuses to strike fire like soggy matches.  It works best or most memorably when the least likely actors are paired together in a movie and click beyond all expectations – Fonda and Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen or Lancaster and Kerr in From Here to Eternity. When it doesn’t work, you end up with something inert and lifeless like Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl or Sophia Loren and Anthony Perkins in Desire Under the Elms. There is also that gray area in between where it both sparks and fizzles out simultaneously, allowing you to see the potential in a promising pairing. Such is the case with Lucky Partners (1940), which stars Ginger Rogers and Ronald Colman in a whimsical romantic comedy based on the 1935 French comedy written directly for the screen by the prolific dramatist/actor/director Sacha Guitry. That’s part of the problem right there.    Continue reading

Wear the Face of Your Enemy

When the United States officially entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hollywood got busy producing morale-boosting entertainments with a heavy accent on flag-waving patriotism and pro-American propaganda. One of the stranger efforts to emerge from this uncertain time in U.S. history was First Yank in Tokyo (1945), a B-movie espionage thriller directed by Gordon Douglas and set inside a Japanese concentration camp.  Continue reading

Divine Intervention

A political allegory that was one of the first films to openly address the problems resulting from the Great Depression, Gabriel Over the White House (1933), directed by Gregory La Cava, takes on such pressing issues as unemployment, homeless people and the rising crime rate in a storyline that comes across like a populist turned fascist fantasy. You also won’t see another Hollywood film from the 20th century in which our fearless leader is viewed by his constituents as either a madman or a messiah.  Continue reading

The Corporate Ladder and How to Climb It

Despite a long and prolific career, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is more famous for being the son of the silent era superstar Douglas Fairbanks Sr., his Hollywood social connections (including ex-wife Joan Crawford) and a handful of films in which he’s overshadowed by his co-stars (Greta Garbo in A Woman of Affairs [1928], Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar [1931], Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory [1933], and Cary Grant in Gunga Din [1939]).  Continue reading

Jacques Tourneur’s Pulp Fiction Pipe Dream

RKO may have been seen as low on the totem pole in the Hollywood hierarchy compared to MGM, Warner Bros. and other larger studios but their importance in film history is assured by a remarkable roster of talent that at one time included such directors as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. One of RKO’s most famous contractees was Jacques Tourneur who secured his reputation in the forties with Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943) and Out of the Past (1947).

Tourneur’s work in the early to mid-fifties might not have matched his glory years at RKO but he still managed to turn out occasional gems like the underrated Joel McCrea western, Stars in My Crown (1950), a late period noir (Nightfall, 1956) and a cult horror classic, Curse of the Demon (1958). Even the less distinguished films from his final years are worth a look and Timbuktu (1958) is a genuine curiosity, flaws and all.  Continue reading

Lee Tracy Does Washington

Whenever a repertory cinema like NYC’s Film Forum or a film archive like the George Eastman Museum programs a Pre-Code series you can bet that Lee Tracy is bound to be in a few of the famous titles such as The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, Love is a Racket, Doctor X, Blessed Event (all released in 1932) and Bombshell (1933). He’s also likely to be playing some kind of shady careerist such as a carnival barker, ambulance-chasing lawyer or tabloid newsman. That’s probably due to his legendary performance on Broadway in 1928 as reporter Hildy Johnson in The Front Page, written by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to play the role in the 1931 screen version – Pat O’Brien won that honor and Rosalind Russell played the female version in Howard Hawks’ 1940 remake, His Girl Friday – but Fox Pictures realized Tracy’s potential and brought him to Hollywood in 1929.  Continue reading

There’s No Business like Zombie Business……

Poster - Zombies on Broadway_02In 1941, the unexpected success of Buck Privates – a whopping $10 million dollar B-movie blockbuster – officially launched the comedy team of Abbott and Costello who became Universal Studios’ most profitable film franchise for more than a decade (The duo made their debut in One Night in the Tropics (1940) in supporting roles but the musical comedy with top billed Allan Jones and Nancy Kelly was not a boxoffice hit). Naturally, it inspired other studios to follow suit but it wasn’t as easy as it looked. Case in point – Wally Brown and Alan Carney (no relation to Art Carney), two former nightclub comedians recruited by RKO for a series of low-budget farces beginning with The Adventures of a Rookie (1943), a blatant attempt to ape the formula of Buck Privates. For critics who thought the humor of Abbott and Costello was déclassé, Zombies on Broadway (194) was a further step down but perfect for eight year old boys who enjoyed the simple concept of two nitwits with one (Brown) assuming superiority over his dim bulb pal (Carney).   Continue reading