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.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

TCM TiVo Alert for October 23-31

October 23–October 31


THE GREAT DICTATOR (October 23, 5:45 pm): TCM shows this 1940 Charlie Chaplin masterpiece on a regular basis so it often gets overlooked. As he did in so many of his roles, Chaplin brilliantly portrays the film's protagonist, known as "a Jewish barber," with great empathy and humility while still being funny. And when you mention funny, his impersonation of Adolf Hitler – the character in the film is named Adenoid Hynkel – is spot-on and highly entertaining. The film, made before the United States was at war with Nazi Germany, has several iconic scenes, including Hynkel playing with a bouncing globe, and a chase scene between the barber and storm troopers. Chaplin's brilliance lied in his ability to make people think about the world while making them laugh. There is no finer example of that than The Great Dictator. The ending is beautiful. It's too bad life rarely turns out to have a happy Hollywood ending, but that doesn't diminish from the entertainment and importance of this landmark film. 

DODSWORTH (October 26, 6:00 am): Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is a rich automobile manufacturer who loves his job, but is convinced to retire early by his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton), a vain woman who is fearful of growing old. She wants to see the world, particularly Europe, lead an exciting life. Sam is a regular guy who wants to please his wife. Fran quickly grows bored of Sam and spends most of her time with other men. She eventually dumps him for a European noble, leaving Sam to mope around Italy, where he sees a divorcee (Mary Astor), who he first met while traveling on the Queen Mary to Europe. The two fall in love, but Fran wants to reconcile. I won't ruin the ending. Everything works exceptionally well in this film. The acting is top-notch (besides the three leads, David Niven is great in a smaller role in one of his earliest films, and Maria Ouspenskaya as a baroness is a scene-stealer), the story is first-rate, and with William Wyler as the director, the movie is filmed and paced perfectly.


THE DEVIL BAT (October 24, 1:30 am): Bela Lugosi is the whole show in this wonderfully ridiculous thriller. Bela plays a scientist who entices his victims to sample a new cologne he’s developed, and one that will attract a giant bat he keeps in the attic. It’s all about his revenge on two families he felt cheated him out of a partnership. With Dave O’Brien and Suzanne Kaaren. It’s hilarious watching Bela telling his victims to “rub some on the tender part of your neck” and then bids them cheery good-byes before sending them t their doom. A lot of fun if you simply take it for what it is.

DIABOLIQUE (August 28, 4:00 am): Frankly, I cannot recommend this picture enough. Think of a perfect Hitchcock film without Hitchcock. That’s Diabolique, which is directed by Henri-Georges Cluzot. To no one’s surprise, he’s known as “the French Hitchcock,’ and Hitchcock himself was influenced by this film. This is a masterful psychological horror film that builds slowly to a final 15 minutes that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Although the twist ending murder plot has been done many times since, it’s never been done better. Diabolique takes place at a school where Simone Signoret helps her friend Vera Clouzot (real life wife of the director) drown her ogre of a husband (Paul Meurisse), who “returns to life” in a really terrifying scene. It’s a taut, beautifully woven thriller with a climax that will truly shock you. Fans of Hitchcock will love this, as will anyone that loves a well-written thriller with the emphasis on character rather than going for the cheap thrill.

WE DISAGREE ON ... DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (October 29, 9:15 pm)

ED: A. Of all the versions made of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic over the years, this is my favorite. This is the film that established Frederic March as a serious actor and he is superb in it, as is Miriam Hopkins as Ivy. Director Rouben Mamoulian teamed with cinematographer Karl Struss to make full use of the camera not just as a recorder, which had been the case with sound films of the era, but also as an active participant in the framing and movement of the film. Note the use of wipes and fades to move from scene to scene and first-person perspective to heighten our viewing experience. Even transitional shots and effects are used to intensify our attention. The lengthy dissolves linger beautifully into superimposed imagery, for example, the image of Ivy’s legs superimposed over the scene of Jekyll and Dr. Lanyon’s conversation. Mamoulian makes full use of camera positioning for some extraordinary shots. Watch also for the scene where Hyde appears to be breaking the fourth wall – looking through the camera and into the next room. Returning to the performances let me note that March won the Best Actor Oscar (which he shared with Wallace Beery for The Champ). This would be the only acting award granted for a horror film until Anthony Hopkins won for The Silence of the Lambs. March gives a nuanced performance, carefully straddling the line between the repressed Jekyll and the libidinous Hyde without going overboard into the ecstasies of overacting. Hopkins dazzles as Ivy: after Jekyll drives off a man who tried to attack her and takes her back to her flat, her attempt at seducing Jekyll is exquisitely done, and tragic, as Jekyll resists, but Hyde, the beast within Jekyll, remembers. Although I also love MGM’s 1941 remake with Spencer Tracy as Jekyll/Hyde and Ingrid Bergman as Ivy, it’s the 1931 version that triumphs due to Mamoulian.

DAVID: B-. This is a good film with solid performances by Frederic March in the title role and Miriam Hopkins as Ivy, a sexy and sexual bar singer who catches the eye of Dr. Jekyll. Also, the camera work and makeup that shows Jekyll's transformation to Mr. Hyde is impressive for a 1931 film. The main issue I have with the film is I'm just not a fan of the story. That makes enjoying a movie version of the film – and there have been a lot of them – challenging. This film isn't as true to the Robert Louis Stevenson book as other versions though it is among the better ones. Interestingly enough, I prefer the 1941 movie, which stars Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman (who is absolutely delicious in the "bad-girl" role). That version is almost a scene-by-scene remake of the 1931 film, minus some of the Pre-Code sexual innuendo. The differences are the 1941 film stars actors I consider stronger than March and Hopkins, and better special effects because of the advancement of the technology over those 10 years. I wouldn't discourage anyone from watching the 1931 version, and recommend it to those who are fans of the genre.

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

Thursday, October 18, 2018


Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Venom (Columbia/Marvel, 2018) – Director: Ruben Fleischer. Screenplay: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg. Stars: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed. Color, Rated PG, 1 hr, 52 minutes.

Anti-hero: A protagonist in a story lacking conventional heroic qualities and attributes such as idealism, courage and morality. I found this summation from Wikipedia pretty accurate in the case of Eddie Brock/Venom (Tom Hardy). Eddie is a fearless reporter when exposing injustice but he takes it to foolhardy levels. He’s not physically strong and he’s not particularly suave with the love of his life, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), an up and coming lawyer. His latest broadcast makes accusations against the powerful Carlton Drake/Riot (Riz Ahmed) and results in both he and Anne getting fired.

Drake’s experiments with human/symbiote meldings horrifies scientist Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) and she agrees to smuggle him into the company headquarters to, hopefully, clear his name and get Anne back (she’s also left him). It’s there he discovers the alien creatures Drake has been bringing to Earth for human hosts as an advance party for a full-out invasion and it’s there he’s paired up with Venom. Eddie is now a kind of superhero, except without a secret identity or alter-ego. He’s literally two beings in one.

Venom is all for the extermination of weak, human life until he spends time actually walking in Eddie’s shoes. He’s always hungry and humans are delicious, “Eyes! Lungs! Pancreas! So many snacks, so little time!” He’s extremely powerful and can re-form any part of his body into a weapon. When he gets angry with you he can, and will, bite your head off. His natural form is a sticky, clingy black ooze that is as mobile as an amoeba and fast moving.

In her time apart from Eddie, Anne starts dating Dr. Dan Lewis (Reid Scott). Eddie’s strange behavior while Venom is in him causes her to think he’s got a parasite. (Note: Never say that word in Venom’s presence. It disturbs him greatly.) Dan persuades Eddie to submit to a full body MRI which sends Venom convulsing in an epileptic-like seizure. The results of Eddie’s blood tests make Dan very concerned when everything is off the charts. They both try to help Eddie until Anne witnesses the change from Venom back to Eddie after a massacre.

Drake sends his drones and minions, including Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) to capture Eddie, marveling in the success of the human/symbiote experiment. Meanwhile, Riot, the leader of the invasion force is in Malaysia and travels from host to host and eventually settles in Drake. On a humorous note, one of the hosts is a Papillion dog. Riot wants to start the invasion and use one of Drakes rockets to alert the rest of his kind and Venom/Eddie now are simpatico and decide to stop him. And the big chase scene and final battle are on.

Venom is a good movie, not a great one, but good. It has no dead spots whatsoever and is entertaining from end to end. The humor is on the dark side, but it breaks up some of the serious violence going on. I particularly liked Venom’s confession to Eddie, “On my planet, I’m kind of a loser, like you.” Tom Hardy is such a lack-luster actor the audience couldn’t wait until he transformed into Venom. Michelle Williams walked her way through the script occasionally sporting emotion but was mostly not believable. Riz Ahmed played the cartoon villain to the hilt. All he lacked was the evil laugh, something Hugh Laurie does perfectly. And what would a Marvel Comics movie be without an appearance by Stan Lee as a Dapper Dog Walker whose advice to Eddie/Venom is “Don’t give up on her. Either of you.” (Referring, of course, to Anne.)

If you want more of Venom, be sure to stay through the initial credits and see the next challenge to the unlikely duo.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 martini glasses.

 Bedford & Co.
118 East 40th Street, New York

Bedford & Co is located in the venerable Renwick Hotel, listed in Historic Hotels of America, a place that once hosted John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The menu was all on a single side of a large card and had several interesting appetizers and main courses. I ordered a Negroni – Tanqueray gin, Campari, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and orange zest. Having never tasted a Negroni before I realized I had almost created one when I had my first cocktail. Before the classic martini was my favorite, I was mixing gin with sweet vermouth as a teenager. I liked it. The Campari gave a novel bitter twist to the flavor.

I started with the Fairy Tale Eggplant – grilled with roasted pine nuts and a garlic aioli garnished with parsley. These delicate little finger-long eggplants were sliced in half, cooked to juicy tenderness and topped with crunchy pine nuts. The aioli was almost secondary the flavor of the first two, yet added a sophisticated note.

My choice of wine was a varietal, the 2013 Spring Valley Vineyard Frederick, from Walla Walla, Washington – 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 10% Merlot. It accented the dishes with spice in them and backed off on those that didn’t. A very accommodating red.

Next came the Spanish Octopus – wood-grilled with cucumber, chili and squid ink vinaigrette – was, once again, remarkably tender and with a nice smoky flavor from the wood that mixed nicely with the sweet cucumber and spicy chili. I never cease to be amazed at how a dish so easy to make wrong can come out delicious so many times.

I was interested in the Duck Breast entrée but it was sided with kohlrabi on the menu, which I never liked. However, listening to the conversation with diners near me, I learned that the dish was prepared a different way that night and it involved black cherry sauce and spinach. Much better! The large slices were dark pink and juicy. The nearly black spinach mitigated the sweet cherry sauce and the net flavor was heaven.

My dessert looked and tasted like – for lack of a better description – a S’Mores Cupcake. The chocolate and graham cracker cake part was topped by a fluffy, singed marshmallow meringue. It was no too much, just the right size and decadently sweet at the same time. A double espresso cut that sweetness right away. But then I saw the list (yes a list) of about seven Absinthes. I chose the Jade 1901 Absinthe and my server brought out an ornate (probably antique) Absinthe preparer. It looked like a silver space ship filled with ice water. Four spigots projected from its lower end, one poised over my glass of Absinthe. A slotted spoon rested across the mouth of my glass with a sugar cube on it. It was fascinating as the water dripped from the spigot over the sugar and into my glass as it turned the clear golden liquid to smoky green. Lovely. I can see why this drink was banned in so many countries on the suspicion that it drove people mad.

I had a delightful time dining at Bedford & Co. and who knows? Maybe I’ll stay at the Renwick Hotel on my next stay-cation.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.