in this week’s edition of (4) recently watched movies…
THE STAR WITNESS
The same year he made The Public Enemy, Safe in Hell and Night Nurse, William Wellman directed this picture about a family who not only witnesses a mob murder from their window, but actually gets great big eyefuls of the gangsters as they escape through the family’s apartment (you’ll always remember to lock your door after watching that scene). The gangsters stop just long enough to brutally rough up the family (and I do mean brutally!), threaten and scare them into instant amnesia where the law is concerned. Walter Huston plays the tough as nails DA trying to get the family to testify, because he really wants a gangster seated in the electric chair, and so he makes threats of his own to the family about the penalty for perjury. They find every excuse in the book not to co-operate, opening up the floor for a moral debate between duty and safety, comfort and sacrifice, what’s right and what’s inconvenient. Vaudeville comedian Chic Sale plays the grampa, and though his performance and appearance verge on the cartoonish, the rural “old man” (he was really only in his mid 40’s) was one of his most popular stage acts. Grampa’s the only family member all gung ho about speaking up because, as he exclaims in a rousingly patriotic speech, where would freedom and democracy be if everybody cowered before bullies? Grampa’s body may be getting frail and bent but his will is unbending, and his spine was hardened into steel during the Civil War, as he likes to remind the young ‘uns ad infinitum, often accompanied by his flute rendition of Yankee Doodle, which in the best Hitchcock style just happens to come in handy later on in the plot. But grampa likes the drink, and had some that night, so he’s far from the perfect witness, and what’s worse, he disappears right at the crucial courtroom moment. The youngest of the clan, Dickie Moore, really gets put through the wringer, first beaten, then kidnapped and held by the gangsters, but the boy’s a clever whippersnapper and gets himself noticed. The cast also includes Eddie Nugent, Sally Blane (Loretta Young’s sister, in case you didn’t know). In the gangster’s corner, along with Speakeasy favorite Nat Pendleton, there’s Ralph Ince, brother of Tom, the director, pioneering producer and studio-builder who died under mysterious circumstances aboard the Hearst yacht (as “seen” the movie The Cat’s Meow, where Tom was played by Cary Elwes). Ralph Ince was a talented director himself and often made news for his dating and nightlife escapades. Ralph also died young, in a car accident in 1937, and speaking of early demises, Chic Sale died of pneumonia in 1936. Though neither a landmark pre-code nor anywhere near the top tier of Wellman works, The Star Witness is gripping with loads of grit, activity, action and sensationalism packing quite a punch into a short run time, and a lot of fun to watch.
LOVE IN THE ROUGH
This one is definitely targeted at a very specific demographic—it’s an early talkie golf musical. Robert Montgomery plays a shipping clerk whose golf prowess allows him to keep his job and gives his boss, who’s struggling with a disastrous golf game of late, the harebrained idea to take Montgomery along to an exclusive country club as an equal for some lessons. I love Robert and will watch pretty much anything with him in it, and I couldn’t totally dislike this movie but neither did I love it, and can totally see that to the average viewer it might be a pretty clunky amalgam of early talkie problems and bumpy timing, some bits of eyerollingly, overly silly, even unfunny slapstick. It would probably appeal to Robert diehards like me, and members of our Montgomery admiration society will welcome the opportunity to see him as young and charming as he is here. Having said that though, it’s not a total loss, since there’s something kinda cute about the romantic parts, though for some people the biggest positive feature may very well be Benny Rubin, the vaudeville star playing Robert’s co-worker who tags along as his caddy. Courtesy of Rubin some funny (and some not so much) moments ensue: he bumps into another Jewish caddy, he wrecks the extremely hulky groundskeeper’s treasured jalopy, then spends the rest of the movie dodging him, he fakes a sore throat and gets a searing hot spoon on his tongue, and so on like that. Montgomery falls in love with heiress Dorothy Jordan, and par for the course (see what I did there? Non-golfer made a golf funny) for rom-com of any era, he never manages to work up the guts to tell her he’s not actually rich, especially when his fibbing starts really rolling down the green and he’s suddenly touted as the new VP of International Shipping, which thrills Dorothy to no end, since her father won’t accuse her of bringing home a fortune-hunter. So he never mentions it, until after they elope. There’s a funny bit where she makes him promise not to buy such-and-such mansion and he says, Oh don’t you worry about that; it’s the type of awkward moment Montgomery was so good at pulling off. Going off on a tangent related to weddings, Dorothy Jordan was supposed to further display the musical talent seen here, in 1933 opposite Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio, but Ginger Rogers got that role after Dorothy put the priority on her honeymoon with director Merian Cooper, maker of that year’s hit King Kong and all-around fascinating man who I wrote a little about here. Back to Love in the Rough: keep your eyes peeled for the future “Blondie” Penny Singleton, here still credited as Dorothy McNulty.
13 HOURS BY AIR
Fred MacMurray, Joan Bennett, Zasu Pitts, John Howard, Alan Baxter, Brian Donlevy, Ruth Donnelly, and in smaller roles, Dean Jagger, and Dennis O’Keefe. They’re all directed by Mitchell Leisen in an aeroplane thriller where many different subplots and cross-purposes intertwine to create suspense galore!!! Well not galore, maybe, but pretty close (how much is in a galore, anyway?) and certainly plenty enough to keep things moving very quickly with no room for boredom and a movie I really enjoyed. MacMurray is attracted to Bennett though he suspects her of being a jewel thief, which is understandable since she offers up a massive diamond to pay for her plane ticket. Pitts brings the high-strung easily flustered side of her screen person, playing the governess for a world class grade A brat named Waldemar (you can just hear Pitts, can’t you? “Waldemaaar! Ohhh dear…”), but you can forgive the kid after he uses his considerable and fearsome gift for pranking for good at just the right moment (clever little boys seem to be a theme this week). You put yourself in that era when flying around in that big shiny plane must have seemed so impossibly glamorous and cool, with the added cachet of a cruise-style promise of interaction with all the different types of characters. On the other hand, this movie must also have scared the cr@p out of those late-adopters of new technology just getting their mind around the idea of flying, after they watched so many criminals (more suspected than actual), a daring flight through a storm and an emergency landing. MacMurray pilots the plane in the second half of the flight, which frees him up during the first half to put the moves on, and more closely examine Bennett; the tone of the movie shifts along with MacMurray’s role, turning from lighter banter and fun episodes of silliness to far more serious and exciting action, with a great winter sequence toward the end. The movie title was stretching the truth however; I read that it was NOT 13 but more like 17 hours for that same trip. If you can overlook that little bit of false advertising, fun movie.
Watched this one on the recommendation of Dorian from Tales of the Easily Distracted, because of TOTED’s great post on it last week. Admission time: I tend to neglect post – 1960 movies, especially anything foreign, due to a) having been turned off early on by a few overly arty slowly paced arthouse films, b) just generally favoring older stuff, so I have tons of later era “essentials” like Topkapi yet to watch and someone really has to push me into seeing them, and I’m glad I did, because I really liked it. There were many memorable lines and moments besides the heist itself which I see now was so influential, *ahem* just plain heisted, by Mission: Impossible! I was wowed by how handsome Maximilian Schell was here, with a timeless look and wardrobe, you could just plunk him in any era’s movie or fashion mag, and set the girls a-sighing. Most of all though, I liked the performance of Peter Ustinov as the dupe, Schmo, man or Jelly, self-admittedly spineless coward afraid of heights, who nonetheless somehow comes through and plays his part so well (in the movie and in the heist, for which he is recruited late in the game, before the gang figures out he’s spying on them). Ustinov’s deadpan banter with Turkish agent Ege Ernart made me rewind and rewatch, toymaster Robert Morley has a great many choice moments, like the key manipulation of the searchlight gears, and wiping the greasy cloth all over his face. The great cast are each as gears in an intricate machine, set up, inserted, engineered and then reconstructed by Schell’s adaptations as obstacles pop up. Overall a very fun movie and now may I direct your gaze to Dorian’s TOPKAPI post over at TOTED!
Quick Reviews are brought to you by the movie-crazy fangirl who is very hard to disappoint, so long as I see some actors I like and a half-decent non-boring story, who even enjoys the odd bad movie.