For Reel


Find the Blackmailer (1943)
August 22, 2015, 5:59 pm
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Director: D. Ross Lederman
3 Stars
Find the BlackmailerJerome Cowan had a small supporting role in The Maltese Falcon as Humphrey Bogart’s partner, and in 1943 he was rewarded for his years of work at Warner Brothers with a leading role in Find the Blackmailer, another picture about the search for a big black bird. Indeed, the film plays as a direct spoof of the noir classic, with Cowan’s fast-talking private investigator navigating a world of criminals in a convoluted plot. Cowan is a likable and unique presence as a leading man–his persona is as if William Powell were half-rat, with his elegance downplayed and sleaziness enhanced. As his client, Gene Lockhart gives a dependably great, understated performance. Running at just under an hour in length, Robert E. Kent’s screenplay struggles to fit in enough plot to stuff the measly running time, with a number of meaningless diversions and scenes that simply play for too long. Regardless, Cowan’s off-color appeal is worth a gander, as is Lockhart, who treats the decidedly B-material with an obliging restraint.



Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943)
July 28, 2015, 4:02 pm
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Director: Gordon Douglas
2.5 Stars
Gildersleeve on BroadwayThe third entry in the Gildersleeve series has the misleading title of Gildersleeve on Broadway, which would make one expect that Throckmorton’s latest mishaps land him a role in a major play. While uprooting the character does seem like a well-reasoned ploy to bring new interest into the series, the New York setting is largely a wasted opportunity–Gildersleeve interacts with high society urbane folk, but much of the material simply takes place in a hotel. This time, Billie Burke lends some enjoyable comedic support as a society dame who instantly develops an infatuation with Gildersleeve, and Hobart Cavanaugh is her eccentric brother with a William Tell infatuation. Much of the humor of the picture involves bystanders mistaking a homosexual relationship between Throckmorton and Summerville’s druggist, Mr. Peavey (an expanded role for the enjoyably deadpan Richard LeGrand). There are some enjoyable reaction shots, particularly from a window washer played by Leonid Kinskey. If one thinks the homophobic humor is dated, just take a look at the first act in which Throckmorton goes to the drug store in search of sedatives to knock out his love-struck niece! Despite the impressive cast additions and a few enjoyable gags (there’s a nice bit of physical comedy with a drunk who walks along a window ledge), this is largely a dull, forgettable installment in the series.



Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943)
July 27, 2015, 11:53 am
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Director: Gordon Douglas
3.5 Stars
Gildersleeve's Bad DayThe second installment in a series of filmed adaptations of the long-running radio program The Great Gildersleeve, Gildersleeve’s Bad Day is an improvement over its predecessor. Harold Peary returns as Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, the pompous, bloviating dunce who in this installment is thrilled to be called for jury duty. Believing himself to be well-versed in the law, Gildersleeve becomes responsible for a hung jury in a case that everyone else perceives as being fairly cut-and-dried. Unbeknownst to him, it is assumed that he has taken a bribe by a pair of crooks who wish to get their associate out of his conviction. The first film featured little in the way of plot–there was a loose through-line in the suggestion of a marriage proposal, but it mostly felt like a series of small ideas cobbled together. This installment creates a better mounting tension, with Gildersleeve getting deeper into trouble as his family (including Nancy Gates and Freddie Mercer as his niece and nephew) attempts to bail him out. Peary, again, proves to be an acquired taste, but he’s more palatable when the root of the comedy involves others reacting to his quirks, unlike his mediocre attempts at very gestural screwball gags in the first installment.



Cry ‘Havoc’ (1943)
March 29, 2015, 9:31 pm
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Director: Richard Thorpe
3.5 Stars
Cry 'Havoc'One would be hard-pressed to find a better cast of actresses than the one established in Cry ‘Havoc’, a rather unusual World War II propaganda film starring almost exclusively women. The film takes places almost entirely in a bunker in Bataan in which a group of nine nurses (mostly volunteers) wait out their inevitable confrontation with the Japanese. Margaret Sullavan and Ann Southern share the lion’s share of the screen time, and watching them together shows a nice contrast in two disparate but equally wonderful performers. Both are intentionally unglamorized and carry it through with their physical performances–Sullivan is often sullen and hunched over, traversing her space with a heavy-footed sort of step, while Sothern carries herself with a certain cocksure attitude that reads almost masculine. Providing support are excellent supporting players like Joan Blondell, Fay Bainter, and the underrated Marsha Hunt, who gives a nice performance as the only one of the volunteers with actual medical experience. Being a wartime production, the film stops often for characters to recite speeches about the virtues of freedom and the importance of sacrifice, but the film occasionally balances such overstated moments with nicely accomplished, quiet gestures, such as Sullavan walking through the living space of a fallen soldier and considering his absence in the room.



The Ghost Ship (1943)
February 24, 2015, 9:01 pm
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Director: Mark Robson
4 Stars
The Ghost ShipRichard Dix’s career was in the downswing by the time he made The Ghost Ship in 1943. Although he was an enormously successful silent star and even had a fairly graceful transition into talkies (his career highpoint was an Academy Award nomination for Cimarron), he had become mostly relegated to B-pictures and serials by the early 1940s. One of his very best roles is in this Val Lewton produced horror picture in which he plays a sea captain who is going mad. He utilizes his stoic, calm demeanor to great effect in the earliest sequences, but by the end transitions into a convincing portrayal of madness. A great example of the quality of suspense in Lewton pictures occurs in a terrific sequence in which Russell Wade, suspecting that Dix is on his way to murder him, spends a sleepless night trying to rig an alarm system in his room. Director Mark Robson brilliantly plays with sound and the absence of it–things become more frightening when the sound is gone and there is nothing to be seen. When Wade emerges from his cabin to observe a door just outside of his room, the door takes on a threatening quality of its own, looming at the end of the hallway and obscuring the horrors lurking behind. It’s minimalist suspense at its finest.



Whistling in Brooklyn (1943)
December 1, 2014, 1:54 am
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Director: S. Sylvan Simon
3.5 Stars
Whistling in BrooklynThe last of Red Skelton’s Whistling trilogy, this installment involves the same formula as its predecessors but with distinctly higher production values. This time, The Fox (Skelton) finds himself the prime suspect in a murder investigation and is on the run from both the police and the mob while he tries to clear his name by finding the real killer. Whistling in Dixie upped the intensity of the first film by including a long suspense sequence involving a potential drowning, and that sense of high stakes action is replicated here with a very effective set piece that takes place in an elevator shaft. Furthermore, Skelton’s skills as a physical comedian are more pronounced than in the other installments, with director S. Sylvan Simon allowing more of the laughs to come from his bodily control than his one-liners–in the most memorable sequence, Skelton finds himself participating in a baseball game at Ebbets Field while in disguise as a pitcher. Ann Rutherford and Rags Ragland deliver their dependably excellent performances, and Jean Rogers is amusing as a nasally reporter sidekick.



Mr. Lucky (1943)
November 23, 2014, 3:08 pm
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Director: H.C. Potter
3.5 Stars
Mr. LuckyEarly in the 1940s, Cary Grant began a shift in his screen persona from a rather straightforward wisecracker to something with more of an edge. His charming, agreeable personality was especially challenged in Hitchcock’s Suspicion in 1941, in which Grant was cast as the husband of a woman who believes him to be a murderer. Mr. Lucky is not nearly as dark in that respect, although it does cast Grant as an opportunistic gambler who tries to swindle a charity while dodging the draft. The difference between his performance here and in his darker roles is that the audience actively roots for his change of heart–he may be slimy, but he’s never threatening. He’s cynical, but he laughs about it. Perhaps Mr. Lucky would have been more memorable had it pushed the darker aspects of the character more completely, but as it is it serves as a fairly agreeable comedy. Grant gets plenty of opportunities to be silly (the faces he makes while learning to knit are hysterical) and his talented co-star Laraine Day is given a role with a fair bit of authority–it’s not simply that she’s sweet that Grant is inspired to turn the corner, but that she’s empowered enough to kick him into shape.



Three Hearts for Julia (1943)
September 8, 2014, 2:30 am
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Director: Richard Thorpe
2.5 Stars
Three Hearts for JuliaAlthough the cast and premise of Three Hearts for Julia is bound to excite fans of the remarriage comedy, it is much more likely to be of interest for those interested in the domestic and gender politics of 1940s America than anyone looking for a screwball trifle. Simply put: it’s not particularly witty or humorous at any turn, despite the considerable talents of Ann Sothern (miscast as a rather plain snob) and Melvyn Douglas as her soon-to-be ex-husband. Director Richard Thorpe bafflingly invests a considerable amount of screen time on orchestral performances and seems at odds with what he wants the tone to be–Douglas spends an awful lot of time sulking for a determined romantic lead in an airy comedy. Despite its failings, however, the film is interesting in the way that it addresses marriage during World War II in that it depicts the anxiety that soldiers might have had of their wives becoming independent and eager to leave their marriages. The men in the movie do all they can to control women in rebuttal–whether that be by Douglas literally kidnapping his wife until she loves him again, or by a refugee conductor (Felix Bressart) trying to create order out of his rambunctious all-female orchestra.



The More the Merrier (1943)
June 2, 2012, 9:46 pm
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Director: George Stevens

The housing shortage facing Washington D.C. during the second World War is the premise behind The More the Merrier, a sexy screwball comedy from director George Stevens. Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur – in their third on-screen pairing after The Silver Horde and Adventure in Manhattan – are joined with Charles Coburn as a threesome that reluctantly share a small apartment in the capital. The early goings are an endearing comedy of space. Stevens finds mileage in the familiar trope wherein characters who aren’t supposed to discover each other come within inches of bumping heads. While it is all terribly amusing, what really makes the picture special is its unabashed eroticism, perhaps as sexy as any Hollywood film from the 1940s. In an unforgettable scene, McCrea walks Arthur home and on the way begins to paw at her, kissing her neck as she squirms in resistance. Finally she caves in, grabbing McCrea’s head in both of her hands and thrusting her lips onto his. Later, a risqué device is used in which McCrea and Arthur lay on their beds in adjacent rooms that share a wall. Stevens brings the camera to an overhead shot, nearly eliminating the shadow of the barrier and creating the illusion that the couple is in bed together. As an assault against the production code, it is just as blunt as the most daring films of Hitchcock or Sturges with such suggestions. Stevens is more remembered today for his late social problem pictures like Shane and Giant, however The More the Merrier is certainly a compelling argument that the merits of his early work demand a critical reevaluation.



The Hard Way (1943)
February 23, 2012, 2:07 am
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Director: Vincent Sherman

It is said that Vincent Sherman’s The Hard Way, a stage-life melodrama starring Ida Lupino and Joan Leslie, was loosely based on the 17-year-old Ginger Rogers’ short-lived marriage with her first husband, Jack Pepper. In an early scene, a vaudeville duo spells out the relation bluntly when one man asks the other, “Doesn’t she remind you of Ginger?” The question serves as a humorous in-joke because it is directed at none other than Dennis Morgan, with whom Rogers starred in Kitty Foyle. Rogers, strangely enough, was offered Lupino’s role as the ambitious woman whose drive fuels her sister’s career, as was Bette Davis (Lupino once famously referred to herself as a “poor man’s Bette Davis” because she often took the parts that Davis rejected). Neither of the heavyweights could have been any better than Lupino, however, who gives one of her greatest and fiercest performances as the tragically driven woman whose only desire is to better her sister’s life. Though it was commonplace for the ambitious women to be punished in this era of Hollywood, the treatment of Lupino seems especially cruel. One might say that it makes the tragedy all the more resonant – that is, she is so utterly selfless that she lives her life to better someone else and, in the end, is left with nothing. The way that the picture handles the book-ending segments of the picture, however, involving Lupino’s attempted suicide and the officers who bear witness to it, is quite deplorable (while on what will be her death bed, one of the men has the gall to dismissively quip, “women“). Though the Production Code would certainly not let a women get away with foul deeds, Lupino’s actions are never excessively cruel, and certainly not warranting, even by the strictest moralizing conventions, her utter dismissal. Despite this frustration, Lupino’s work is noteworthy, and the great character actor Jack Carson gives one of his most memorable performances as Leslie’s first husband.