For Reel


Cross-Country Romance (1940)
July 14, 2016, 12:03 pm
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Director: Frank Woodruff
2.5 Stars
Cross-Country RomanceThis programmer saw RKO jump on the runaway heiress bandwagon that started with It Happened One Night. Gene Raymond plays a doctor who finds unexpected cargo in his trailer in Wendy Barrie, who has just fled her wedding ceremony. The two quickly start a journey that takes them across the trailer parks and diners scattered in small towns across the United States, and what begins as disdain for one another grows into love. Barrie is quite good in the role, even if screwball comedy doesn’t quite seem her strong suit—there is an amusing bit near the beginning where she glamorously positions herself after she fakes having fainted, only to be annoyed by Raymond’s failure to notice. Raymond, on the other hand, is as dull as leading men get at this period, and Barrie doesn’t have the fire of an Ann Sothern to make either the banter or sexuality really crackle on her own. Like many of these genre pictures, the biggest pleasures come in the locations and characters met along the way, with Berton Churchill and Tom Dugan producing some laughs as a bumbling duo who attempt to claim the reward on Barrie.

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Mexican Spitfire Out West (1940)
June 20, 2016, 3:08 pm
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Director: Leslie Goodwins
2 Stars
Mexican Spitfire Out WestIn Mexican Spitfire, accomplished vaudeville star Leon Errol was given second billing to Lupe Velez and a lion’s share of the screentime—given the dual role of Uncle Matt and Lord Epping, Errol’s performance was almost solely responsible for driving the plot forward. If Mexican Spitfire Out West is largely a retread of its predecessor, it doesn’t match up due to how greatly it loses sight of its other players in the process of awarding even more screentime to Errol. Again, Uncle Matt takes the task of impersonating Lord Epping while Dennis (Donald Woods) tries to secure a business deal with the real mogul. Meanwhile, Carmelita (Lupe Velez) pursues a divorce to get more attention from her husband. Velez had already been short-shrifted in her own picture with the previous film, and that is more of a glaring problem in this installment—for a series that is named after her hot-tempered character, she is not given any memorable lines, nor is she costumed as well or filmed as beautifully as she was in the earlier films in the series. Errol’s hijinx are fairly amusing, but already tired at this point, and the film’s misunderstandings aren’t quite as clever or as satisfying as they need to be to sustain the comedic drive of the picture.



Mexican Spitfire (1940)
June 20, 2016, 12:42 am
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Director: Leslie Goodwins
3.5 Stars
Mexican SpitfireWhen The Girl from Mexico, a low-budget programmer starring Lupe Velez, found unexpected success in connecting with audiences, RKO Radio Pictures rushed a sequel only six months later titled Mexican Spitfire, giving the namesake to a series that would last a total of eight films. Unlike the Maisie series (which was happening concurrently with the Mexican Spitfire films), this second installment picks up almost exactly where the last one left off, including the same characters and continuing the action established in the first picture. And, in almost every way, it is a total improvement. For starters is that Leon Errol is treated as the asset that he was (so much so that he risks overexposure in a dual performance), and specifically the film handles his relationship with Velez remarkably well—their greeting at the beginning of the picture is a touching one, conveying the excitement of old friends reconnecting in a way that is entirely convincing. Furthermore, just as Errol’s contributions are recognized, screenwriters Joseph Fields and Charles E. Roberts find worthy material for Linda Hayes and Elisabeth Ridson as Dennis’ (Donald Woods) ex-fiance and aunt, who now conspire to reconnect the former lovers and push Carmelita out of the picture. If women fighting over a man is nothing unusual for the genre, the dynamic plays out in a progressive way if only because Carmelita is wrought as particularly crafty and not to be undone by simple tricks. Mexican Spitfire is constructed as a standard screwball comedy in the way that it indulges mistaken identities and romantic misunderstandings, but the unique characterizations and especially the relationship between Velez and Errol makes the formula feel new.



One Night in the Tropics (1940)
February 23, 2016, 3:03 pm
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Director: A. Edward Sutherland
2.5 Stars
One Night in the TropicsBudd Abbott and Lou Costello’s second appearance on screen was in 1941’s Buck Privates, which proved to be such a success for the duo that they were leading men for the rest of their careers. One year earlier, however, they made their screen debuts in this minor musical as supporting players. As they were billed behind bland leads like Allan Jones, Nancy Kelly, and Robert Cummings, it is needless to say that they stole the show (although Cummings does have a likable charisma about him). Among the routines they bring to the table is perhaps their best known “Who’s On First” bit, which stops the show even as a condensed version. In fact, the duo is such a breath of fresh air that it is to the detriment of the rest of the plot, which in itself is not a bad one (adapted from a novel by Earl Derr Biggers, who excelled with gimmicky narratives like Seven Keys to Baldpate). Jones plays “Lucky” Moore, a gambler who has the bright idea to sell “love insurance” to his friend Steve (Robert Cummings) as a guarantee that he will marry Cynthia (Nancy Kelly). Things get complicated when Lucky begins to fall for Cynthia, just as Steve is falling for another girl–should Lucky follow his heart, he’ll have to shell out $1 million!  There is some amusing banter between the foursome, and the conceit that each member of a couple is longing for someone else does create convincing tension. Other than that, however, the songs are forgettable and the leads are interchangeable, and those problems become evident every time a scene between Abbott and Costello really works!



The Blue Bird (1940)
January 1, 2016, 1:08 pm
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Director: Walter Lang
3.5 Stars
The Blue BirdThis ill-advised answer to The Wizard of Oz was a turning point in the career of a 12-year-old Shirley Temple, who 20th Century Fox didn’t know what to do with once she hit adolescence. It was her first flop and marked the downturn of her career, ending her contract with the studio that brought her stardom within a year of its release. And yet, if The Blue Bird is not the light fantasy fare that audiences might have expected, it is ambitious and daring, dealing with ideas of mortality in an earnest, uncommonly curious way. In a hugely memorable setpiece, Temple and her little brother (Johnny Russell) venture to the land of the Future, where children wait patiently to be born. Among those they encounter are a little girl who identifies herself as their future sister who won’t be on Earth for very long and a boy who dreads his birth as he knows that his fight against injustice will lead to his death. Shot in Technicolor on impressively designed sets, the film deserves comparisons to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in that it matches its fantastical circumstances with incisive philosophical themes. The great Gale Sondergaard has a hugely entertaining role as Temple’s cat-turned-human, and early sequences allow Temple to play somewhat against type as a bratty tween.



Strange Cargo (1940)
August 11, 2015, 2:47 pm
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Director: Frank Borzage
4 Stars
Strange CargoIn the climactic sequence of Strange Cargo, a hardened criminal (Clark Gable) is about to let a man die (Ian Hunter) in order to ensure his freedom. At the last possible moment, he discovers that the man he is sacrificing is God, and that only through his repentance can he ultimately find the peace that he’s looking for. Hunter’s positioning on a floating piece of debris as if he were on the crucifix is as obtuse an image as any in director Frank Borzage’s filmography, but Strange Cargo nonetheless does show a tremendous evolution in his themes from his earlier pictures. Whereas he dealt with a number of suffering romantics who finally accepted that a true, pure love denotes sacrifice and takes precedence over all other material matters in his 30s films, Strange Cargo suggests a more complete personal reformation. That is, Gable can’t be saved purely through his relationship with Joan Crawford–in fact, in the final moments, he’s stripped of her. Instead, Hunter’s Christ figure is the catalyst for his own sense of personal redemption, his acceptance of his place in the world and a greater understanding of how he fits into it. As is typical of Borzage, the major characters in Strange Cargo are driven nearly to death before their repentance is complete, echoing Borzage’s running theme that such personal harmonies (whether those be romantic or those involving one’s relationship to the world) can bring one to a state of transcendence.



Gold Rush Maisie (1940)
March 2, 2015, 2:44 pm
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Director: Edwin L. Marin
3.5 Stars
Gold Rush MaisieThe third of the Maisie films is a radical diversion from other installments in the series. While it follows the expected outline of the stranded Maisie (Ann Sothern) trying her best to make a living in a new locale, it just about abandons her romantic exploits (although chemistry is occasionally teased between her and a hermetic rancher played by Lee Bowman) and takes on a much more somber tone. It seems absurd to put the brassy showgirl in the middle of The Grapes of Wrath, but something about the mix works. After all, Maisie is an icon of the working class–a woman who begins every film with nowhere to go and by the end of it finds some level of financial success and changes lives while she’s at it. Gold Rush Maisie seriously confronts poverty by introducing the Davis family (Virginia Weidler, Mary Nash, John F. Hamilton & Scotty Beckett), a Joad family knockoff who she gains an enormous affection for. The tropes of the noble poor are the expected ones (in their introduction, the matriarch distributes a paltry supper to her family and takes the least for herself), but Sothern’s reaction shots and the calm sincerity in which she talks to the family really sells the dynamic. Although it doesn’t provide the laughs and lightness of tone expected of the series, Gold Rush Maisie is one of the more interesting installments.