Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Maltese Falcon

Film in Focus

By Ed Garea

The Maltese Falcon (aka Dangerous Female WB, 1931) – Director: Roy Del Ruth, Writers: Maude Fulton, Brown Homes (s/p), Lucien Hubbard (uncredited), Dashiell Hammett (novel). Stars: Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels, Dudley Digges, Una Merkel, Robert Elliott, Thelma Todd, Otto Matieson, Walter Long, Dwight Frye, J. Farrell MacDonald & Agostino Borgato. B&W, 80 minutes.

Those new to classic film are usually surprised to learn that not only was there an earlier version of this iconic film, but also how much it’s like the 1941 remake, which is considered by critics and film historians to be the definitive version. Those of us who have spent years watching classic films know that Warner Bros, frequently recycled its films. In fact, the 1941 version was the second remake of the 1931 original. In 1936 the studio remade the 1931 version as Satan Met a Lady, with Warren William, Bette Davis and Alison Skipworth in the Kasper Gutman role. (This version is so different and so wretched it deserves its own review.)

Having read the novel and seen the movie as a teenager, I was a big fan of Hammett and his writings. I saw the 1931 version in college and marveled at its faithfulness to the text. Over the years the love of both these movies and the author never left me. And I spent many an hour reading obscure articles on the author, the book and the movies.

The main difference between the 1931 and 1941 versions is the transcendent issue of care. In 1941 great care was taken to ensure a good movie. The screenplay and the cast were chosen after careful deliberation and the director, though a novice, went to great lengths to ensure the movie’s quality.

For anyone who has not seen the ’41 version or read the book, the plot goes as follows: Sam Spade (Cortez) and Miles Archer (Long) are private eyes hired by the attractive Ruth Wonderly (Daniels) to tail a nefarious character named Thursby, suspected in her sister’s disappearance. Archer opts to follow Thursby but is shot and killed in doing so. The police are suspicious of Spade. Complicating things is the fact that Spade was engaged in an affair with Archer’s wife, Iva (Todd). The police then discover Thursby’s body, also shot to death.

Spade needs to clear himself. Wonderly hires him to protect her but is evasive on the details. Spade discovers that she and three other criminals named Cairo, Gutman and Wilmer are after a jewel-encrusted falcon, yet no one admits to having it. What does the bird have to do with deaths of Archer and Thursby? Will Spade find the real murderer before the police pin rap on him? And is he falling for a client he knows he can’t trust?

Both ’31 and ’41 versions adhere to this basic plot. The difference is that Spade is shown to be much more of a womanizer than he is in the ’41 version. We first meet him as a woman is leaving his office. We don’t see her face, but we do see her adjusting her stockings, which spells out what was going on behind the closed doors. Right after she leaves, Spade is kissing his secretary, Effie (Merkel) on the neck and giving an admiring glance to her posterior before cleaning up his office, which suggests it was in use as an adult playpen.

The relation between Spade and partner Miles Archer (Long) is much the same as in the 1941 version. Spade is having an affair with Archer’s wife, and we’re pretty sure Archer is aware of it, but doesn’t care. 

After Spade is notified of Archer’s murder, he goes down to the scene of the crime. Things follow as in the ‘41 version except for the fact that, while leaving, Spade stops to chat in Chinese with a local merchant. (this scene is not in the book, either.) 

In then ’31 version Ruth spends the night at Sam’s apartment and while she sleeps he sneaks over to her flat and searches it, looking for the falcon, convinced that she knows where it is. However, he finds nothing.    

The introduction of Cairo, Gutman and Wilmer happen for the most part as they do in the ’41 version, though in Huston’s version there is more emphasis on Gutman, thanks to a wonderful performance by Sydney Greenstreet. Gutman is accompanied by his right hand man, Wilmer (Frye), who plays the role much like Elisha Cook does in the later version.

The ’31 version now plays out like the later version, with Gutman drugging Spade after Cairo tells him the falcon is due in on a boat from China; the bird being dropped off at Spade’s office by Captain Jacoby (Borgato) before he dies from gunshot wounds; and Spade returning home after hiding the falcon to find Cairo, Gutman, Wilmer, and later Ruth (who was hiding) waiting for him.     

Sam insists that he will deliver the statue as soon as they agree on a fall guy in order to clear him with the police and Gutman reluctantly agrees to hand Wilmer over. When Effie delivers the statue to Sam at his apartment, they discover it is valueless. Wilmer uses the opportunity to escape through the kitchen window, while Gutman and Cairo stick up Spade and demand all of the money they’ve given him returned. 

Wilmer later kills Gutman and Cairo while Sam accuses Ruth of killing Miles. Though he has fallen in love with her, he turns her over to the police. In a departure from the book, we see Ruth at her trial, where she is identified by an eyewitness from Chinatown – the same one who was talking with Spade on the night Miles was murdered. Ruth is convicted and sent to prison, with Sam receiving a political appointment as a reward.

The differences between the ’31 and ’41 versions have everything to do with the economic climate of the times. In 1931, Hollywood was holding on by a thread, weathering the effects of a depression that seems to be getting deeper rather than tapering off as other depressions and panics had in the past.

The philosophy of Warner Bros. in 1931 was to make movies, make them fast, and then get on to the next one. The novel, about a crew of low-life characters in pursuit of a legendary jewel-encrusted bird, seemed perfectly suited to be filmed.

As in the book, Sam Spade has well-deserved reputation as a ladies’ man, seducing female clients and even having an affair with his partner's wife. As in the book, Cairo, Gutman and Wilmer are homosexuals. Gutman, refers to Wilmer, as his "gunsel," which is prison slang for both a hired gun and a passive homosexual.

Director Roy Del Ruth staged the film to emphasize its sexual mystique. Ruth Wonderly spends the night in his apartment, Spade tells her he’ll sleep on the couch, but when she awakes the next morning, there’s an obvious indentation in the pillow she's not using to suggest where he really slept. (It seems as if the writers added the line about Sam sleeping on the couch to put off the censors.) There was also a scene added during the confrontation at Spade’s apartment. Sam, suspecting Ruth of stealing $1000, confronts her in the kitchen and makes her strip to prove she didn’t steal the money. Although she undresses out of camera range, Spade has a few articles of her clothing thrown in his face. When the censors later objected to the scene, studio production chief Darryl Zanuck tried to assuage them by saying that because she didn’t throw her underwear at Spade, the audience knew she wasn't naked. 

Although the film's gay element is somewhat subdued, it was far more apparent than in the ’41 version. For instance, at Spade’s apartment, Gutman fondles Wilmer's cheek while setting him up to be the fall guy.

As in the ’41 version, Cairo, Gutman and Wilmer meet their demise off screen, del Ruth leaving it too the imagination of the audience. Huston merely has Spade telling then police about Cairo and Gutman about too leave town and warns them about Wilmer.       

The final confrontation between Spade and Ruth occurs as in the ’41 version, the main difference being that Bogart’s Sam Spade is not as indifferent as Cortez is in the Pre-Code version. For instance, Ruth cries, “Then you’ve been pretending. You don’t care. You don’t love me!” To which Spade can only reply, “Oh, I think I do. But what of it?” Bogart’s Spade doesn’t pussyfoot around, telling her that he can’t be sure of her loyalty, that someday, when it suits her, she’ll kill him. (“All we’ve got is that maybe you love men and maybe I love you.”) He also brings in a detective’s code about having to take action when one’s partner is killed; it doesn’t matter what you may have thought of him. And the final denouement is the epitome of the noir relationship: “I won’t because all of me wants to.”

The fatal flaw in the 1931 version is its complete lack of tension. We really don’t get the feeling that Cairo and Gutman are going to pose much of a threat to Sam Spade. This, I think, has much to do with the quality of the acting. Cortez, as Spade, grins and mugs his way through the film, and Dudley Digges and Otto Matieson are nowhere near the menace level of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, who almost steals the ’41 version from Bogart. The only performance with noting in the 1931 version is Bebe Daniels, who is excellent as Ruth Wonderly, although she has nowhere near the acting chops of Mary Astor. Thelma Todd and Una Merkel aren’t around that much to make a proper impression; more’s the pity. 

In the final analysis, the Pre-Code version is a wonder when first viewed, but repeated viewings bring out its weaknesses in comparison to the 1941 classic. However, it’s far more worth the time than the 1936 version, Satan Met a Lady, which was so wretched that its star, Bette Davis, fled to England to get out from under her contract to Warner Bros. 

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Quick Millions

Film in Focus

By Ed Garea

Quick Millions (Fox, 1931) – Director: Rowland Brown. Writers: Rowland Brown (story & s/p), Courtney Perrett (story & s/p), Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur (s/p, uncredited), John Wray (add’l dialogue). Stars: Spencer Tracy, Marguerite Churchill, Sally Eilers, Bob Burns, John Wray, Werner Richmond, George Raft, John Swor, Leon Ames & Edgar Kennedy. B&W, 72 minutes.

Like so many other Fox pre-Code features, Quick Millions is rarely shown and not widely available on DVD. Once Little Caesar (1930) made the gangster a hot commodity, other studios were looking to cash in, and this effort from Fox is rather par for the course. It was the directing debut of Rowland Brown, a former newspaper reporter and contract writer for Fox. It is also the film debut of George Raft, who has a featured role in the picture.

Star Spencer Tracy is Daniel J. “Bugs” Raymond, a truck driver who just spent a little time in stir for fighting with a cop (Kennedy). Broke and with callous girlfriend Daisy De Lisle (Eilers) on the verge of leaving him, Bugs, who describes himself as a “guy with a one-ton brain who’s too nervous to steal and too lazy to work,” is looking for an angle to get rich.

He first goes to parking garage owners, seeking to sell protection for $75 a week. But one owner tells him there’s not enough business to warrant protection money, so Bugs vandalizes cars parked on the street and drums up the necessary business for the garages. Having been a truck driver Bugs realizes that truck drivers are the ones who make everything in the city run smoothly and without them everything stops cold. His next angle leads him to join forces with with Nails Markey (Richmond), who, with his father, owns 200 produce trucks. From 1925 until 1931, through intimidation, threats and murder, they organize all the trucks in the city.

Another angle has Bugs and Nails throwing a party for prominent citizens, during the course of which they arrange for thugs to hold up the guests. In so doing they collect enough evidence of wrongdoing among the guests to keep them from interfering with their racket. 

Now that he has the goods on his potential enemies Bugs decides to muscle in on the most lucrative market in the city – that of construction. Bugs zeroes in on weak-willed real estate developer Kenneth Stone (Wray), and using sabotage and purchased inside information supplied by a board member, Bugs coerces Stone into paying him to supply trucks for the building of his new tower. When Stone realizes he stands to lose a quarter of a million dollars because the tower will not be completed on time, he accepts Bugs's offer to see that it is finished ahead of schedule if Bugs is appointed director of the firm.

Now established in legitimate business, the downfall of Bugs Raymond begins. And with any gangster it starts with a woman. Dissatisfied with Daisy because she isn’t cultured enough to meet his new standards, Bugs ships her off to Europe while he sets his sights on Stone’s sister, Dorothy (Churchill). She meets all his criteria: attractive, college-educated and a granddaughter of a former governor. In line with his new found social status, Bugs begins dissociating himself from his gang as he plays billiards and golf and goes to the opera with his bodyguard, Jimmy Kirk (Raft). 

Nails, angered that Bugs has given him the high hat, decides to take over the gang, ordering attacks on the city’s food industry, contrary to Bugs’ previous orders. When a radio commentator speaks out against the crime wave, Nails sends Jimmy to silence the “loud speaker.” When the headlines connect Bugs with the killing he realizes Jimmy is a liability and arranges to have him killed.

After the dedication of the new tower, Stone and other intimidated businessmen tell the district attorney that they are through with graft and promise to back his crackdown on the racketeers. Bugs also has a setback on the personal front as Dorothy rejects him, preferring to stay engaged to her beau who is returning from Europe, after which they will be married. 

The setbacks convince Bugs to return to his life as a hoodlum and he convinces Nails to help him in his latest angle: the kidnapping of Dorothy at her wedding. Bugs will have her at any cost. Daisy, who Nails has propositioned after Bugs threw her over, suspects he is plotting against Bugs, but keeps silent. On the way to the church, Nails shoots Bugs and tosses his top hat from the car window as it passes the church.


Quick Millions is not a film that is interested in exploring any of the social issues it inadvertently raises. Once Bugs leaves the cab of his truck we are no longer presented with the street level perspective which dominates the film until that point. Rather, the film is a fascinating, if flawed, portrayal of a gangster who leaves not only his fellow gang members behind, but also his fellow truckers to join the swells on the other side. In so doing he leaves behind what made him prosper and pays the ultimate price. Once Bugs establishes himself on the other side, there is very little attempt to provide insight into the society characters he now associates with, as Brown prefers to give a superficial account rather than delve for meaning. 

The film’s attraction comes from the performance of Tracy. His Bugs is cool and calculating, not an angry street kid like Cagney in Public Enemy, a power-driven killer like Robinson in Little Caesar, or a psycho like Paul Muni in Scarface. Tracy’s Bugs is interested in achieving the American dream the quickest and easiest way possible, and ironically, once he does that he sets in motion the cause of his downfall.

The problems with Quick Millions lie in its direction. The film moves quickly – too quickly – in telling its story, using a vignette style to give us a picture of his rise from truck driver to mob boss, and of the reasons behind his downfall. It’s a fascinating story, focusing as it does on racketeering rather than bootlegging, but it’s told in superficial style by Brown, which makes it instantly forgettable once the film ends.

Unlike its contemporaries, gunplay is minimized, though we see the undercurrent of violence in scenes of the racketeers spraying water on cement, blowing up buildings and riddling milk cans with bullets. The murders in the film are handled in a rather stylized manner, almost like silent cinema, only with sound effects. Besides the murders, Brown utilizes a great lighting effect at the testimonial; as the robbers move in the lights go out and the scene is presented in darkness, which adds to its effect. Another excellent touch is the scene of Raft dancing to “Frankie and Johnnie.” Brown focuses on his dancing legs, then cuts to the next scene where we see Raft’s legs before committing the murder. But these scenes aren’t enough to overcome Brown’s uninspired direction and the film fails to capitalize on the momentum provided by these scenes.

Brown seems so intent on his vignette approach that he leaves several large plot holes in his wake. When Jimmy is killed at a gas station the killer is immediately arrested by police, but nothing more comes of it. And the scene of the intimidated businessmen joining with the DA just seems to come out of nowhere and is left swaying in the breeze, and there is no further development.

As for the acting, Tracy is superb. Even at this early stage he exhibits the underacting style that made him so effective and which contributed to his reputation among his fellow actors. Later, aspiring actors would crowed the set of a Tracy film hoping to pick up tips and strategy.

This was George Raft’s first film, and while he doesn’t handle the delivery of dialogue too well, he has already nailed the ferret-like persona he would later use to great effect in Scarface. Marguerite Churchill is fine as Dorothy, playing off Tracy to great effect. Sally Eilers, on the other hand, is badly underused. It would have been nice to see more of her character, especially in the final scene, where she realizes that Nails is going to bump off Bugs. It’s a scene of great potential, but all Brown does is cut away to Bugs and Nails in the limo.

In the final analysis Quick Millions disappoints. Anyone expecting another Little Caesar or Public Enemy will likely go away disappointed. But the film is a Must See because of Tracy’s performance in his first starring role and the fact that Fox pre-Codes are difficult to find.     


The working title of this film was Sky Line.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Hold That Ghost

Film in Focus

By Ed Garea

Hold That Ghost (Universal, 1941) – Director: Arthur Lubin. Writers: Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo (story & s/p), John Grant (s/p), Edmund L. Hartman (uncredited). Stars: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello. Richard Carlson, Joan Davis, Evelyn Ankers, Mischa Auer, Marc Lawrence, Shemp Howard, Russell Hicks, William B. Davidson, Milton Parsons, Ted Lewis & The Andrews Sisters. B&W, 86 minutes.

Filmed right after their breakout hit, Buck Privates, but not released until after In the NavyHold That Ghost is, in this author’s opinion, their finest film, a wonderful send-up of The Old Dark House genre, even though the studio panicked and almost ruined it.

It was originally titled Don’t Look Now, and later, Oh, Charlie!, but just before its release, the studio – reacting to audience fervor for the musical interludes in Buck Privates – decided to re-tool the film by adding musical interludes and a new opening. It made the film almost incoherent at times, as characters came and disappeared and others entered without introduction to the audience. That it remained as funny as it is was a tribute to both the writing and the comedy stylings of the boys.

The movie opens with Chuck Murray (Abbott) and Ferdinand “Ferdie” Jones (Costello) working as relief waiters at Chez Glamour, a nightclub where The Andrews Sisters and Ted Lewis and His Orchestra are appearing. A subplot involves gangster Moose Matson (Davidson), his lawyer Bannister (Hicks), and torpedo Charlie Smith (Lawrence), who threatens to rat out Moose to the DA unless he’s given a cut from Moose’s latest heist. Chuck and Ferdie end up being fired after head waiter Gregory (Auer) catches them eating a patron’s food.

The next day Chuck and Ferdie are back working at the gas station when none other than Moose Matson pulls in for gasoline. As they service his car the cops spot Moose and the boys find themselves inadvertently kidnapped as Moose speeds away. Moose is killed in a shootout with the pursuing police, and as he dies he pulls a copy of his Last Will and Testament from his jacket.

During a meeting with Banister they learn they are the sole beneficiaries of the will, but Bannister tells them there is no money: “Moose Matson always said that he kept his money in his head. We never learned what he meant.” The only tangible asset is an old tavern on the highway out of town. Bannister buzzes for his associate, Charlie Smith, to accompany the boys to their inheritance. Charlie makes plans with Chuck and Ferdie to meet him at the corner the next day, where they will catch a private bus driven by Harry Hoskins (Parsons) to the tavern. “It’s going to be a pleasure to take you boys for a ride,” Smith tells them. As Chuck and Ferdie leave the office Ferdie has second thoughts about the inheritance. Chuck chides him for his attitude, but then shots ring out from a passing car, missing Ferdie, but hitting his hat. As the car speeds away we see Charlie Smith inside along with other gang members.

Arriving on the corner at the prescribed time the boys learn that other passengers have also hired the bus: Norma Lind (Ankers), Dr. Jackson (Carlson) and radio actress Camille Brewster (Davis). As they drive to the tavern a thunderstorm breaks out and it’s decided to rest for the night at the tavern until the weather clears. They unload the groceries and enter the tavern, hear a backfire and run outside, only to see Hoskins driving off with their luggage. They’re stuck.

As the night progresses, strange things happen. Smith disappears while searching the basement, and later his corpse turns up unexpectedly several times. The water in the tavern is undrinkable. Ferdie's bedroom turns out to be rigged with hidden gambling equipment. The girls are scared by what appears to be a ghost. Two detectives show up but vanish soon after starting their investigation. Chuck and the doctor decide to search for the detectives while Ferdie examines a map to find the quickest route back to town. However, the candles on the table move mysteriously and scare Ferdie.     

Chuck takes Ferdie to a room they deduce is Moose Matson’s bedroom. A long cord hangs by the bed. Ferdie asks what it’s for and Chuck tells him “you pull that when you want your breakfast.” As Ferdie yanks the cord the curtains separate to reveal a closet door. Chuck tells him to open it, but Ferdie refuses: “I know what happens in those mystery pictures. A guy walks up to a perfectly ordinary door, he opens it up and zowie!Out falls a body right on its kisser.” Chuck opens the door and there is nothing there. Ferdie feels ashamed and slams the door. As he does so Charlie Smith’s body, bound and gagged, falls out from behind some curtains. Ferdie faints and Chuck drags him out, calling for the doctor. The doctor examines Smith and tells the others that he’s been strangled. “Is that Serious?” asks Ferdie. “The man is dead,” Chuck replies. “Oh, that’s serious.”

Later, Chuck tries to find Ferdie another room, but the problem is that, in each room, as Ferdie tries to go to bed, he finds his room has changed into a gambling parlor, thanks to a trick coat tree; but when he goes to get Chuck he takes the article of clothing off the tree, which causes the room to change back when Chuck enters. Downstairs, Norma finds Jackson testing the tavern's water, and the two begin to feel a mutual attraction. Unable to find the police, and convinced that someone is trying to scare them out, the group decides to leave the tavern. Chuck seats Ferdie at a table and gives him a map of the area to find a way out. Later, Camille joins him and we are treated to one of Abbott and Costello’s classic bits – the moving candle routine – before they are jumped by a “ghost,” a thug with a sheet over him.

As Chuck and Camille are trying to figure out what Moose meant when he said he kept his money in his head, Ferdie arrives to join the discussion. This leads to a funny bit on “figures of speech,” with Ferdie hitting on the solution about Moose’s money when he points to a moose’s head on the wall, and says, “You mean he kept his money in that thing?” Chuck and Camille think he’s crazy and Ferdie begins reaching into the head to prove himself wrong when bills suddenly begin coming out, followed by what Ferdie thinks is a tonsil (roll of bills).  

Members of the gang appear and demand the money, leading to a chase through the building with Ferdie knocking them out one by one with the bag of money. Alerted by the sound of a police siren, the gangsters scamper out of the tavern, unaware that the "siren" was actually Ferdie. 

With the gangsters gone, Chuck and Ferdie count the money, but the doctor tells them that the water they drank last night has therapeutic properties, and Ferdie and Chuck are inspired to transform the club into an nightclub. The boys hire Ted Lewis and The Andrews Sisters to headline, and even Gregory, the maitre d' who fired them from Chez Glamour, turns up as a waiter. Jackson and Norma arrive fresh from their honeymoon, and when they ask Ferdie about Camille, he tells them that he and Camille had a “runaway wedding,” she got the license and he ran away. Ferdie works the cash register, but when Chuck checks it, he finds it nearly empty, then discovers all the money hidden in Ferdie's tuxedo.


The problem with Hold That Ghost is, though it is hilarious at times, it has a choppy plot. Characters enter and disappear with no explanation and plot threads are suddenly dropped with no explanation. 

Robert Lees and Frederic Rinaldo completed the screenplay on January 14, 1941, a week or two after Buck Privates wrapped. Their vision for the film was to move Bud and Lou from supporting players in a romantic plot with music to the focus of the film – real characters who do much more than simply come in to supply a routine or two to liven the pace. 

As written, it’s a funny, though incoherent, film. The problem is that the cuts that were made in order to fit in the musical sequences, led to the loss of several plot lines. Characters come and go without sufficient explanation. A prime example are the detectives who arrive after Smith’s body is found. We see them looking about, but they suddenly disappear and no more is said. Several supporting characters, members of Smith’s gang (such as Paul Fix), also have had important scenes cut.

Perfectly paced by director Lubin, the film is filled with funny gags and classic routines. The idea of Matson as a gangster who doesn’t trust anyone adds to the fun as the boys discover that due to their kidnapping, they are his only heirs. (“Whereas anybody who would associate with me in the first place must be a rat; and Whereas I can’t tell my friends from stoolies, leeches or chiselers; and Whereas it’s impossible to foresee who will turn yellow when the going gets tough; therefore I hereby bequeath all my worldly possessions to those with me at the final moment when the coppers dim my lights.”) But as mentioned before, the only asset is the roadhouse, where it’s suspected to be the hiding place for the Moose’s dough. 

While waiting for Charlie at the corner we meet the other passengers, the most memorable of which is Camille Brewster (Davis), who introduces herself as “Camille Brewster the radio actress.” In spite of Camille’s self-introduction, the only thing she’s known for is the opening scream from a radio show called Tales of Terror. She tells the boys, “I told them I was an actress, not just a sound effect, so I quit. Guess I’ll have to go back to the movies.” Chuck asks, “Movie actress?” “No,” she says, “usherette.”

Once they reach the tavern, Chuck and Ferdie help Camille and Norma with dinner while Charlie Smith goes down to the basement to “rustle up some heat.” As he searches for Moose’s bankroll a pair of hands emerge from the furnace, grabbing Smith around the neck and pulling him in.

Upstairs the evening meal is punctuated with classic bits of Abbott and Costello dialogue as soup is prepared and everyone minus Charlie sits down to eat. Ferdie reaches out with his hand and is given an etiquette lesson by Chuck: “Don’t reach! You want something, ask for it. You have a tongue, haven’t you?”  

Yeah, but I can reach further with my hand,” replies Ferdie. 

Ferdie and Camille then perform one of the best routines ever seen in an Abbott and Costello film as they take part in a “water ballet” on the dining room floor where there is a large puddle from a leaking roof. Though the scene itself was scripted, the improvisation from both Costello and Davis raises the dance to hilarity. Running through the puddle Ferdie slips and falls down, which leads to the two splashing each other like a pair of kids before Camille, attempting to rise, falls backwards into a bucket, which Ferdie plays like a bongo to a Latin beat as they depart the room. In Joan Davis, Costello has met his match, a comic who can perform pratfalls and rattle off witty lines as well as he. Almost stealing its from Costello, it’s a shame they never worked together again.

Afterward, when the group decides to look for Charlie Smith, Chuck, Ferdie and the doctor search the basement. Ferdie opens the furnace only to find a pair of glowing eyes that blows out his candle. “Ah, it’s only the wind,” Chuck says. “Since when does the wind eat garlic?” Ferdie asks. 

Watch for the next scene where Norma and Camille decide to look upstairs and are scared by an owl. Their screams bring up the men from the basement, but Ferdie wants no part of going upstairs. As he shouts, “Did you see the puss she (Camille) made?” we see Joan Davis trying to keep from cracking up. When we realize that this scene must have been rehearsed and gone through earlier blown takes, it’s a testament to the comic ability of Lou Costello.

As the group continues to search for Smith, they discover hidden rooms and come to the realization that Moose used the tavern as a speakeasy during Prohibition. Meanwhile, Ferdie becomes convinced that the tavern is haunted, as strange things continually happen to him when he is left alone.

After Ferdie chases off the gangsters by imitating a police siren, everyone watches while the boys count the money. However, in the original version the money turns turns out to be counterfeit. That’s when Dr. Jackson tells Chuck and Ferdie that could mask more money right here. The water that tasted so bad turns out to have therapeutic qualities. “It’ll make sick people feel like dancing,” he says.

In the original ending, the boys have turned the roadhouse into a health spa with Camille as the dietician. In the last scene a rich woman is in Moose Matson’s old bed and asks Camille what the long cord is for. Camille says its purpose is to ring the staff. The woman pulls the cord and out falls Charlie Smith. The movie ends with a close-up of Camille screaming.

The new scenes required a rewriting and reworking of the existing footage. Joan Davis was not available for all the retakes, which explains her absence at the end of the edited film. having by that time reported to 20th Century-Fox for a role in Sun Valley Serenade (1941). As she was unavailable for the re-shoots, Davis had to be written out of the new scenes (including the new nightclub finale). In one scene, the tavern money counting scene, her back is to the camera and it was assumed that this was not Davis but a double. According to studio records, Davis was on hand for retakes during that sequence. However, in the rush to complete the retakes she just happened to be facing the wrong way.

Universal said it changed the movie at the behest of patrons at test screenings who “missed the music.” However, the studio would have been better served by releasing the musicals first, as they did with In the Navy, and held Hold That Ghost over until the next year when the musical fad ran its course. Despite the butchery, though, the film holds up better today than do their service comedies.


Co-writers Robert Lees and Fred Rinaldo would later work together and write Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. They both ended up being blacklisted for supposed Red connections during the Hollywood witch hunt.

The animated opening was done by studio animator Walter Lantz’s crew.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

TCM TiVo Alert for November 1-7

November 1–November 7


LITTLE CAESAR (November 5, 8:00 pm): The movie that made Edward G. Robinson a legitimate movie star. Warners set the standard for its gritty, engaging, violent, tense-filled gangster films in 1931 with the release of Little Caesar on January 9 and Public Enemy with James Cagney on April 23. Both are among my favorite films. In Little Caesar, Eddie G. plays Caesar Enrico "Rico" Bandello, a small-time hood who does everything possible to become a mob boss in Chicago. Robinson's portrayal of Rico, also called Little Caesar, is among the most authentic in cinematic history. His ability to get into character, playing someone that cold-blooded, ruthless and single-minded without a concern about anything or anyone else is impressive. The ending is a classic with Rico gunned down in the gutter saying with surprise, "Mother of mercy! Is this the end of Rico?"

GASLIGHT (January 11, 8:00 pm): As a huge fan of Joseph Cotten and Ingrid Bergman, it's great to see that when the two teamed together in this 1944 film that the result was spectacular. Gaslight has fantastic pacing, starting slowly planting the seeds of Bergman's potential insanity and building to a mad frenzy with Cotten's Scotland Yard inspector saving the day and Bergman gaining revenge. While Charles Boyer has never been a favorite of mine, he is excellent in this role as Bergman's scheming husband who is slowly driving her crazy. Also deserving of praise is Angela Lansbury in her film debut as the couple's maid. Lansbury has the hots for Boyer and nothing but disdain for Bergman. A well-acted, well-directed film that is one I always enjoy viewing no matter how many times I see it.


ALEXANDER NEVSKY (November 4. 2:00 am), As with the rest of director Sergei Eisenstein’s work, this is a Must See, a brilliant tour de force that unfortunately foresaw the horrors of the near future. And like most of Eisenstein's best films, Alexander Nevsky was conceived as a morale film whose aim was to rally Russian patriotism. Though set in the 13th century, the villainous Teutonic Knights are obviously meant to represent the then contemporary threat of Hitler and his Wehrmacht. With Russia besieged by both these knights and the Tartars, a charismatic leader is needed to save Russia from the onslaught of barbarians who stoop so low as to kill babies (Eisenstein depicts the villains tossing screaming infants into bonfires). The hero who comes forward to save Russia is the legendary Prince Alexander Nevsky, portrayed by Nikolai Cherkasov (who bears a striking resemblance to Gary Cooper). The turnaround for Nevsky occurs at the battle of ice-covered Lake Peipus in 1242, filmed by Eisenstein in spectacular fashion, using specially-commissioned music by Sergei Prokofiev as an underlining and to supply emphasis. Ironically, Leningrad was saved from total starvation by the Germans as the Soviets ferried supplies and took away starving children across frozen Lake Pagoda. Watching it today, even after all this time, it still has the power to enthrall and captivate the viewer, no mean feat.

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (November 5, 8:00 am): Ernest Lubitsch was at his absolute best when he directed this wonderful gem about two feuding co-workers at a Budapest notions store who do not realize that they are secret romantic pen pals. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan, as the employees, bring the concept of charm to its ideal. They are aided and abetted by a sterling cast, including Frank Morgan (in one of the best performances), Joseph Schildkraut, Sara Haden, Felix Bressart, William Tracy, and Inez Courtney. It boasts a superb script by Samson Raphaelson, who adapted it from Nikolaus Laszlo’s play, Parfumerie. In fact, the film was so compelling that it was later remade as a Judy Garland musical, In the Good Old Summertime (1949), a Broadway musical, She Loves Me (1963, revived in 19934), and the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle, You’ve Got Mail (1998), where the lovers correspond via e-mail. However, the original still stands head and shoulders above the remakes and is an essential

WE DISAGREE ON ... MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (November 1, 6:00 am)

ED: B-. Mighty Joe Young is no classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it is quite watchable. My partner absolutely hates it, probably the result from some trauma suffered in childhood where his parents broke his crayons to make sure that he watched the movie. We should see the film for what it is – the entertaining, friendlier version of King Kong that Son of Kong tried, but failed, to be for the studio. This time around, however, the film has a much more pronounced subliminal message than did either two Kong films. Willis O’Brien was an early version of today’s animal activist, he believed that animals should be left alone, and further, be free to be left alone. Joe Young was happy living in the wilds of Africa until Robert Armstrong and his pals showed up to take both Joe and his companion, Jill (Terry Moore), back to “civilization” as part of a nightclub act. The poor ape is abused by drunken audiences and placed in a cage between performances. Anyone who sees the scene of Jill visiting Joe in his prison can’t help but be moved by Joe’s plight. When Joe has a natural; reaction one night to his audience abusers, he (no pun intended) goes ape and is ordered to be shot by a judge. But Joe escapes, and to show what a good guy he really is, rescues about a dozen orphans from a burning building. The judge relents and Joe and Jill return to Africa to live happily ever after. Unlike the earlier Kong movies, this film is quite obviously aimed at the kiddies. Most of the budget went for O’Brien’s special effects, and Armstrong was brought in to remind audiences of King Kong. (In fact, this film often played on a double, or triple, bill in some cities to cash in on its predecessors.) As such, important things such as plot, direction, and star power went by the wayside, which hurts the film. Disney remade Mighty Joe Young in 1998, but steer well clear of that one, as one would of all King Kong reboots.

DAVID: D+. I'm not a fan of King Kong so you can imagine how much I dislike this pathetic Kong rip-off. Ed is partially correct about this film and trauma I suffered in childhood, but it has nothing to do with crayons or at least I don't think it does. My father was a huge Kong fan and he loved this film so I've seen it about a dozen times. I freely admit I haven't seen this film in about 30 years, but when you've seen it as often as I did and loathe it, the memory of this train-wreck of a movie stays with you for a very, very long time. The plot reminds me of Curious George meets Santa in the courtroom scene of Miracle on 34th Street. There is barely a plot. There's a pathetic attempt to be some sort of message movie though I don't understand what the film's message is. Ed wrote the film has a more pronounced subliminal message that the first two Kong films. The message must be extraordinary subliminal because I don't get it at all, or maybe I do and it hasn't reached my consciousness yet despite seeing it so many torturous times. The acting is atrocious. The special effects are a mixed bag, but not awful. However, Joe's changing height is laughably bad. He's sometimes the height or a person and then he's much taller in other scenes. At least the movie doesn't take itself seriously, or it shouldn't take itself seriously as it comes across as a cheap-looking attempt at slapstick comedy. That's not saying much, but the all-too-few bright spots save the movie from getting an F. 

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Friday, October 26, 2018

First Man

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

First Man (Universal, 2018) – Director: Damien Chazelle. Writers: Josh Singer (s/p), Jamres R. Hansen (book). Stars: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke. Color, Rated PG-13, 141 minutes.

It’s a rare thing indeed when I view a biopic. This one interested me, even though I knew the story, having lived through the 1961-1969 period and followed the Gemini and Apollo missions avidly. My teen years were at times terrifying – the Cuban Missile Crisis – and extremely hopeful – the Space Race. This movie brought back that hope and, at the same time made me glad I didn’t decide to become an astronaut.

The movie follows the lives of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) as they experience the successes and the failures of America’s competition with the Soviet Union in the dangerous fledgling manned space program. At the same time they have to deal with the death of their youngest child Karen (Lucy Stafford) and explain to their two sons Mark (Connor Blodgett) and Rick (Luke Winters) that Dad is going to the moon and he might not come back. That possibility became scarily clear after Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith) and Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke) are killed in a command module fire on a test of Apollo 1.

Janet probably would not let Neil go to the moon if she saw what the audience witnessed on a docking mission with an orbiting Aegina rocket and the spacecraft started spinning out of control. I for one would not enter a cramped space that rattled and shook as if it were made out of tin atop hundreds of pounds of rocket fuel. The effects were that good. Many times the photography was hand-held as if the audience was a press employee following the actors. Normally, this would leave me a bit nauseous but it worked in this film. The acting was superb and the characters convincing. The two hours and twenty-one minutes could have been shortened to under two hours by reducing the few scenes where nothing is going on, no one is talking and it seems like an endless staring contest. Otherwise, it’s an excellent movie.

I enjoyed seeing all the familiar astronauts in NASA history; Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber), Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), Pete Conrad (Ethan Embry), Dave Scott (Christopher Abbott), John Glenn (John David Whalen), Wally Schirra (Shawn Eric Jones), as well as the two other members of the Apollo 11 crew, Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Mike Collins (Lukas Haas). My favorite line was from Janet Armstrong when her radio monitor was shut off at a crucial moment. “You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!”

First Man is a film worth seeing.

Rating: 4 out of 5 martini glasses.

225 Park Avenue South (18th Street), New York City

I love French food and I also love steakhouses. Boucherie has the best of both worlds, with The traditional French menu on a placemat-sized card and the steakhouse menu on a separate leather-bound card.

I was seated near the front window, a great location great. My server, Boban, was eager to please. When it was discovered there was no Beefeaters gin, he quickly got the idea of Botany gin and I was able to enjoy my favorite martini.

My drink set off the intense, garlicky flavor of the Escargots de Bourgogne, made traditionally and served in the familiar six-cupped crock with parsley, butter, lemon, garlic and shallots. The sliced French bread helped get every drop of the intoxicating butter sauce. The surprise for me was that there were twelve snails in the serving instead of the usual six. They were savory and a little chewy but great.

Despite having dined at over two thousand restaurants, I’ve never had a Salade Niçoise. I had my own ideas about the recipe and just recently heard what would make it interesting yet I was still surprised at the pan-seared Ahi tuna, baby arugula, Haricots verts, tomato, Niçoise olives, organic hard-boiled egg, fingerling potatoes and balsamic vinaigrette dressing. The size of the dish alone was a show-stopper and I took my time enjoying all the ingredients. Everything was fresh, the Haricots were crisp, the potatoes were tender and the tuna beautifully prepared and delicately flavored.

As my entrée was seafood, I chose the 2017 Alain Geoffroy Petit Chablis, from Burgundy, France – a crisp, fresh white that had a little sweet flavor mixed with the iodine-like tang. It accented the spicy flavor of the Lotte Rôtie aux Coques – roasted monkfish, cockles, chorizo, white wine, piquillo peppers and spring peas. The spice from the peppers and the chorizo made the meaty monkfish taste like a new breed of fish. I loved the excitement of it and the crunchy peas cut the spice nicely.

It’s been a long time since I last had Crêpes Suzette, when the waitress spilled the Grand Marnier onto the table and blue flames danced everywhere. She tried to put them out with a napkin and set that on fire too. Such a memory. But I ordered them anyway. What arrived was not flambé, just wet, thin orange pancakes with a globe of vanilla ice cream perched on a peach half. It tasted as boring as it looked. Boban noticed right away and suggested replacing the dish with Profiteroles. I agreed, even though I consider them boring too. I was wrong. This fluffy pastry was not what I expected. It was a fresh-made sphere of sweet puffy dough that Boban covered in dark chocolate sauce.

The double espresso was very good but the Chateau Laubade Extra Armagnac was excellent! Again, a long time since I even saw Armagnac on a menu. It was delightful. I think I might return to Boucherie to try their steakhouse menu.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Foreign Agent

The B Hive 

By Ed Garea

Foreign Agent (Monogram, 1942) – Director: William Beaudine. Writers: John W. Krafft (s/p), Martin Mooney (story & s/p). Stars: John Shelton, Gale Storm, Ivan Lebedeff, George Travell, Patsy Moran, Lyle Latell, Hans Schumm, William Halligan, Kenneth Harlan, Herbert Rawlinson, Boyd Irwin, David Clarke, Fay Wall, Edward Pell, Sr., & Paul Bryar. B&W, 64 minutes.

Those who have seen a lot of Monogram’s output during the Second World War might well come to the conclusion that when goofier movies are made, Monogram will make them.

It might be argued by some that this is a train wreck movie. However, train wreck films are made by major studios and have budgets. This is Monogram, where the budget at times is practically nonexistent.

In only a little over an hour Monogram gives us a nearly incomprehensible story of a Hollywood starlet who teams with a technician to take on Japanese spies in California.

The movie opens with the murder of a Hollywood lighting technician named Mayo, found hanged in his apartment by a maid.  At the time of his murder he was working on a new kind of filter that would allow a searchlight to expose enemy aircraft without visible light. 

He was murdered by two foreign agents named Nick Dancy (Travell) and Okura (Lebedeff). They work for master Nazi spy  Dr. Werner (Schumm), who in turn works with Robert Nelson  (Pell Sr.) and Elliott Jennings (Irwin) who head a Quisling-type organization called the North American Peace Association, funded by the Nazis. 

Dancy and Okura bring Mayo’s papers to Dr. Werner but nothing of note is found in them aside from an autographed photo of Mayo’s daughter, Mitzi (Storm), a struggling actress at the studio. This leads Werner to believe that she might have the plans. (How many daughters – even if they are movie stars – give their father an autographed photo?)     

Meanwhile, the film shifts gears as Mitzi's boyfriend Jimmy (Shelton), an actor at the same studio, tells her that he is joining the Army. Mitzi, who shares an apartment with stuntwoman Joan Collins (Moran), also sings at the Harbor Club. Joan, who is practically engaged to studio sound man Eddie McGurk (Latell), borrows Mitzi’s car for a date with Eddie. They are followed by Dancy and Okura, who, mistaking them for Mitzi and Jimmy, steal Joan's diamond engagement ring and Mitzi's car.

Later, as Mitzi and Jimmy return to Mitzi's after a date, they discover the house has been ransacked. Mitzi confesses to Jimmy that she has the plans for the filter and asks him to keep them safe. Jimmy suggests that they show the plans to George McCall (Harlan), an electrician at the studio who might be able to build the filter.

When Jimmy goes to the recruiting office to sign up, it’s explained to him that there are many ways he can help his country right here at home. Jimmy is asked to defer his plans to join the Army to help radio commentator Bob Davis (Halligan) investigate subversive groups. When Jimmy goes to his office he becomes involved in a fight that was apparently staged by Davis to test Jimmy’s mettle (and to pad out the rather thin plot). Having passed his entrance exam, Jimmy is assigned to watch Nelson and Jennings and report on their activities.

Later, Joan goes to see Mitzi perform at The Harbor Club. While there she recognizes one of the men who robbed her and calls Eddie. When Eddie arrives a fight breaks out and the men flee. However, one has dropped his wallet and an examination of the papers inside reveal his connection to Werner's group. 

Meanwhile, Davis discovers that his office is bugged. With Jimmy's help, he feeds the eavesdroppers false information as Jimmy discovers the location of the spies's headquarters and sets up a system to tape their interactions. During a lull in the action Jimmy and Mitzi play around with one of Davis’s recording machines. Speaking with horrible German accents, they somehow decide they’d be good in Nazi movies. (“Everybody’s making them these days!” Jimmy says.) But then they think it over and decide they don’t want money badly enough to play Nazis (!). Later, while listening to the tapes Jimmy and Mitzi learn the group plans to bomb Los Angeles. They agree to turn the recordings over to the FBI.      

However, Werner’s men discover they were being bugged and trace the tap to Mitzi's apartment. There they capture Jimmy, Mitzi and Davis. Jimmy then plays them the recording that he and Mitzi made, convincing the spies that it’s actually Werner and his mistress Anna (Wall) planning to double-cross them. During the ensuing confusion, U.S. government agents arrive and arrest Werner and his men. Later, Jimmy and Mitzi watch a demonstration of her father's invention, and Jimmy tells Mitzi that he loves her.


As a spy movie, the only thing Foreign Agent has going for it is a mercifully short running time of 64 minutes. It’s more interesting as a rather unpleasant mirror of its times – 1942 America. When it was made the possibility of a Japanese raid on Los Angeles was seen as very possible, giving the plot of this movie the illusion of being ripped right out of the day's headlines. And so the movie’s goal seems to be to remind Americans to keep their lips zipped about defense matters and the like, and also to be suspicious of foreigners, because spies are everywhere. 

The film is marked by its casual racism, which is so over the top that it engenders more laughs today than outrage. For instance, one of the songs Mitzi sings at The Harbor Club is an entertaining little ditty written by Bill Anderson and titled “It’s Taps For the Japs, Buddy,” with lyrics like “that sneaky race is gonna diminish/’cause what they’ve begun we’re prepared to finish!” (With only an on-screen accordionist as accompanist.)

The main drawback of the film is its dopey plot reinforced by some amazingly shoddy acting. As Mitzi, Gale Storm gives an amazingly lifeless performance, but compared to the others in the cast she comes off like Myrna Loy. John Shelton, as Jimmy, is, as they say, what might be described as mercifully inadequate. He spends his time as an extra on the studio lot whining such witty lines as “Why do they give all the American military movies to foreign directors?” Obviously a deep thinker.

The movie’s plot spends too much of its time wallowing in Mitzi and Jimmy’s insipid love story. It’s all too obvious that Mitzi’s night job as a lounge singer is simply a poor excuse to perform a few seemingly endless awful musical numbers and eat up even more of the plot before returning to our foreign agents of the title as they plot away. 

Even worse than the love story between Storm and Shelton is the comic relief duo of Patsy Moran and Lyle Latell. It seems that every time the film begins to demonstrate a plot, director Beaudine cuts back to these two as they engage in a form of argument found mainly in bad sitcoms. At least it’s better than some of the utterly inane morale propaganda cut-ins, like the starlet at a bar who complains that her boyfriend has just been shipped off to Australia, leading the bartender to admonish her by pointing at a poster with a picture of a dead hand with a caption that reads “Somebody blabbed!” That’s as subtle as it gets.     

There also is a curious scene concerning a first-generation American whose family was still back in mother Russia standing up to Nazi thugs at a rally. That he is practically the spitting image of Stalin was obviously Monogram’s idea of showing support for the Soviet Union.

And, of course, there are the accents. One would think that the terribly phony German accents of Mitzi and Jimmy would be spotted right away by the Axis spies. Actually, they would  if the spies’ own accents weren’t just as atrocious.      

Actually, the idea of spies operating on Hollywood studio lots is a good one, and was used in quite a few B-movies of the time. But no studio used it as outrageously as Monogram did with Foreign Agent.