Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Here's my homework assignment after watching this heavenly film.

View another movie that's penned by Samson Raphaelson (Suspicion, The Shop Around the Corner).


heaven can wait 1943 is a delight for the eyes, with its gorgeous use of Technicolor, and the ears with a sharp script that delivers some very funny lines.

A dead Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) prepares to meet Satan after his earthly demise. His Excellency (Laird Cregar) isn't familiar with the less-than-saintly actions that prompted Van Cleve to take the down stairs to his desk.

Van Cleve tells his story and all of the women he crossed paths with since entering the world with a very rich New York City family in the late 1800s.


Henry's main ambition is burning through the money his family has earned. He stays up all hours of the night as a partyboy. He decides to straighten up his ways when he happens upon Martha (Gene Tierney). "I might even go to work," Henry suggests about her powerful sway over him.

There are several standout scenes in this 1943 effort from Ernst Lubisch (The Shop Around the Corner).

An early one happens when Henry pretends to be a bookstore employee when Martha tries to buy a book about making a husband happy. He senses she's not overly keen about the fella she's going to tie the knot with. Turns out her potential better half is Henry's cousin, the all work and no fun Albert Van Cleve (Allyn Joslyn).

Martha is the daughter of a Kansas-based meat packer E.F. Strable (Eugene Pallette). He gets the best opening line of any character in this film. Another scene worth savouring is his verbal tussle, with a butler's help, with his wife (Marjorie Main) over the Sunday funnies.


Charles Coburn (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monkey Business) delivers solid suport as Hugo Van Cleve, the grandfather who earned the family fortune and has a soft spot for Henry, even if he's a lazy oaf.

For all its fun, Heaven Can Wait also explores mortality -- watch for a neat montage of birthday cakes with an ever-growing number of candles -- and relationships. The Strables don't have much of a marriage. Henry loves Martha, but his eye does wonder . . .

Helene Reynolds didn't have a long career in Hollywood. She only appeared in 14 titles between 1941 and 1948. But she has a solid appearance near the film's end as Peggy Nash, a show girl who has caught the affections of Henry's son, Jack (Tod Andrews, Beneath the Planet of the Apes). Nash is on to Henry's ways to prevent a family scandal and quickly turns the tables on him.

Don't put off seeing this film. Make a date with Heaven Can Wait.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Spring Byington, who appears as Henry's mother, had guest spots on several 1960s television series including I Dream of Jeannie. Batman and Mister Ed. See if you can find her in the original Mutiny on the Bounty.

Marjorie Main appeared as Ma Kettle in several Ma Kettle films.

Gene Tierney was the star of the great American film noir, Laura.

Film editor Dorothy Spencer's other credits include To Be or Not to Be, also directed by Ernst Lubisch, and My Darling Clementine.

Don Ameche was one of the featured voice talents in Homeward Bound - The Incredible Journey

NOT SO FUN FACT: Laird Cregar's career was painfully short. He only made 16 films before dying in 1944 at 31.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Here's a movie that still makes its mark after 71 years.

The Mark of Zorro is great fun with a strong cast and exceptional score by Alfred Newman (The King and I, The Song of Bernadette).

Don Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) is in Spain, being schooled in the fine arts of horsemanship and fencing, when he gets the call to return home to California.

He doesn't take the news well. Vega expects his life of rousing adventure will soon turn to stupefying boredom.

But his folks haven't told him of some stunning developments back in Los Angeles. His father, Don Alejandro Vega (Montague Love) is out as governor.

The corrupt Don Luis Quintero (J.Edward Bromberg) and his nasty henchman, Capt. Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone), now rule the roost. Their subjects are afraid, not to mention broke because of all the taxes they're forced to pay.

The senior Vega won't lead a rebellion because he fears the effort will be crushed. A 30-year government veteran, he also believes in obeying the law. His son quickly decides he'll challenge the oppressive government.

Drawing on what he learned back in Spain, Don Diego will ride by night as Zorro (Spanish for fox). A mask will conceal his identity. He'll dress in black as he strikes back at Don Luis Quintero.

To throw off his opponents, and even his own family, Don Diego adopts a peace, not war, attitude who gets queasy at the thought of holding a sword. "Sword play is such a violent business," he says. His supposed beliefs disgust his father, and Fray Felipe (Eugene Pallette) and earn the contempt of Pasquale. The governor's right hand man is well skilled with his sword.

Power is a treat to watch as Vega/Zorro. There's good reason why he was a huge matinee idol. He's a good looking young buck (in his mid 20s when this film was made) who can act.

His romancing of the governor's teenaged niece, Lolita Quintero (Linda Darnell) includes a great scene in a chapel. She's praying. Zorro, dressed as a padre, is trying to elude the governor's men. Thinking he's a man of the cloth, she wants advice about finding love. Zorro tries to conceal his identity while trying to sneak peeks at the lovely young lady. Great stuff.

Save some popcorn for the final showdown between Pasquale and Zorro. Their duel is thrilling to watch. Rathbone more than fills the bill as the chief villain. Relish how good he is at being bad.

Director Rouben Mamoulian shows off his chops in the film's opening scene with a field of swordsman practising their craft in a field.

Pallette, a veteran actor with 251 titles to his credit over his career, is a hoot as a priest more than eager to take up arms against Quintero. He repeatedly asks for God's forgiveness as he whacks soldiers on the head during the film's final fight scene.

Alfred Newman, who won nine Oscars for his musical work, provides the rousing score.

This is entertainment, folks. Well recommended.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Rouben Mamoulian was fired from helming what would become one of Hollywood's most acclaimed film noirs, Laura.

Linda Darnell appeared as Henry Fonda's love interest in My Darling Clementine.

Both films are reviewed on this site.

This fact isn't so fun. Tyrone Power died of a heart attack in 1958. He was just 44. Darnell died in a house fire in 1965. She was 41.

Gale Sondergaard, who appears as Quintero's wife, Inez, appeared in an episode of Get Smart in 1970.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Pickup on South Street is no con job.

This early effort from American director Samuel Fuller (The Big Red One) offers great performances, including one nominated for an Oscar, fine camera work and, at times, intense violence that could make viewers flinch.


Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) is a pickpocket who's running out of chances. New York's finest have already nabbed him three times. If he's caught again, he goes to the big house for life.

He targets Candy (Jean Peters) on a crowded subway train. Skip's no dip when it comes time to steal other people's money, but he doesn't know two nearby federal agents are watching the young lady. Candy is a mule, transporting American military secrets to the Communists.


Check out the year this film was released. The Cold War between America and the Soviet Union was hot, hot, hot. Candy, and her handlers, want the microfilm that Skip pocketed back. Police offer the veteran crook a deal if he'll come clean with the sought-after secret. He's suspicious they'll be true to their word. McCoy's not worried about national security. He smells plenty of cash to be made by holding out for a rich payout before returning the film.

Widmark (Panic in the Streets (Fox Film Noir)) is impressive as the tough-talking thief who eagerly goes toe-to-toe with his police nemesis, Capt. Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye). Thelma Ritter earned an Oscar nomination for her work as Moe, an informer who will sell information about pretty much anybody, including those she's close to.

Richard Kiley (Jurassic Park, Howard the Duck) also stands out as Joey, the nervous, under-the-gun Communist agent who starts to sweat when Candy tells him her purse was picked.

Victor Perry is a hoot in a brief appearance as Lightning Louie, another hustler ready to make a buck by doling out information others want.


Pickup on South Street gets solid treatment from The Criterion Collection. The 80-minute film's DVD extras include two segments, with a total running time of 30 minutes, of Fuller talking about his film noir effort. Fuller describes his love of subways and the affinity he has for pickpockets and other criminals. He wrote South Street's script too.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Victor Perry's film resume is slim. He appeared in just five titles released between 1952 and 1956.

Jean Peters married reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes and didn't appear on screen for nearly 20 years after A Man Called Peter came out in 1955.

Milburn Stone appeared as Doc during Gunsmoke's 20-year run on television.

Thelma Ritter received five Oscar nominations for best supporting actress between 1951 and 1963. She never won. Composer Leigh Harline won an Oscar for best score for Pinocchio.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Black Fox: The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler (1962)

Here's something different.

Black Fox is a war documentary that cuts between the life of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and a 12th century folk tale. Reynard the Fox was a cunning killer with a quick tongue perfect for getting him out of trouble. His reassuring words also soothed the worries of other animals. It's an apt comparison to Hitler.


Add in narration for Marlene Dietrich (Witness for the Prosecution, Destry Rides Again) and an often jarring score from Ezra Laderman and Black Fox is a documentary that is a little off-the-beaten path.

There are no interviews in this film, just Dietrich's off-camera narration and mountains of archival photographs, film footage and artwork from talent such as Pablo Picasso, George Grosz and Gustave Dore.


Black Fox offers a solid base tracing Hitler's rise to power beginning with his disillusionment with the defeat of Germany in the First World War.

A message runner on the western front for four years, Hitler was wounded twice and temporarily blinded by a British gas attack.

Hitler blamed Jews, Communists and pacifists for his country's defeat in the four-year war.

An attempted putsch in 1923 didn't end well for Hitler, but he soon developed a more cunning approach to seizing political power. The German military was still a strong force in the European country post-First World War. Hitler pushed military might to attract support while eliminating rivals within his own party. Free speech? Not under Hitler's rule. Books are burned. Writers and artists were exiled, put in prison or killed.

Black Fox offers numerous graphic shots of Nazi atrocities before, and during, the Second World War. Parents of younger viewers taken note. Shootings, hangings, incineration and mass graves are all depicted in this film.

Black Fox reminds viewers of the numerous opportunties countries such as England, France and United States had to challenge Hitler before Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Fear of war, and lack of preparation, stopped this possibility.

Black Fox quickly skips by 1941 to 1944 with a montage of shots including the liberation of France, invasion of Italy and bombing of Germany, before ending with Hitler's last hours.

This nearly 50-year-old documentary's big strengths are its description of how Hitler seized power and its prominent use of artwork to depict one of the darkest times mankind has known.

RATING: 7.5/10

Secrets of the Dead: D-Day (2004)

Hurray for the mavericks.

Several unconventional thinkers helped Allied leaders overcome many of the deadly obstacles Nazi Germany prepared for an invasion of France during the Second World War. Their story is not often told, but the first half of this very well made PBS documentary offers riveting details about their special creations.


Secrets of the Dead: D-Day also offers a welcome chance to hear of the experiences of American, British and German men who were part of D-Day on June 6, 1944.

To escape mines, hedgehogs and barbed wire, American, British and Canadian troops needed specialized equipment.

Andrew Jackson Higgins, a New Orleans boat builder, had starting building what would become assault craft used on D-Day a decade earlier. With some effort, he was able to get the American navy to pay attention to what he made. Even Nazi leader Adolf Hitler learned about Higgins and dubbed him 'The New Noah.'

Nicholas Straussler was a Hungarian engineer who created a flotation system for tanks to navigate on to the Normandy beaches and provide firepower for soldiers. The Allies learned the importance of getting tanks on the beach pronto after the disastrous raid on Dieppe, a French port, in 1942.


Archival films show early protoypes. A British man, Bob Grundy, tries the flotation system with a tank in the present day. A Second World War veteran who 'swam' to shore with such a tank watches.

Major Gen. Percy Hobart was a British military engineer who devised a number of modified tanks for use in the invasion inclduing a crab tank that used flailing chains to detonate landmines. The Bobbin tank put down a canvas cloth for tanks to ride on so they wouldn't sink into the soft blue clay on the beach.

Learning how these machines came to be is fascinating. The last half of this 95-minute documentary focuses on the invasion itself.


Secrets of the Dead: D-Day includes remembrances from British glider pilots and tank crews, American paratroopers and a German soldier who was part of the defence force at Omaha beach where American troops landed.

Their stories are funny, informative and moving.

My big beef with this fine effort is based on being a Canadian. Where are the remembrances from the Canadian veterans? Canadian troops landed at Juno Beach, but receive scant attention here. Why couldn't at least one Canadian veteran been tapped to recount his experiences on June 6, 1944?

Secrets of the Dead: D-Day offers a great package -- details about new military weapons that helped make the difference in June 1944, archival footage that tracks the development of these weapons and interesting interviews with veterans who were at Normandy 67 years ago. Narrator is Liev Schreiber (X-Men: Origins of Wolverine).

RATING: 9/10

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Last Man on Earth is first choice for good horror

Plenty of truly awful horror movies made their way to theatres in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Killer Shrews offered "the wildest of flesh eaters." The Giant Gila Monster presented "an amazing Kong-like monster." Promises. Promises.

Horror films with intelligence, along with some good chills, were truly a rare commodity. Enter The Last Man on Earth, a 1964 Italian release with genre great Vincent Price. This film isn't great, but it is good and worth a look.

Price is Robert Morgan, an American scientist who has survived a worldwide plague that has killed millions, including his own wife and daughter.

Three years have passed since humanity was wiped out. That leaves Morgan and the undead, a cross between zombies and vampires, in an unnamed American city.

"Another day to live through. Better get started," says Morgan near the black and white film's start.

He kills vampires during the day. They try to bust into his home at night. "Morgan, we're going to kill you," one promises as he and his gang try, yet again, to dispatch him from the living. Garlic and mirrors posted outside the home help keep the ghouls at bay.

There's hope for Morgan when he meets a woman during daylight. But, and this is where the film gets interesting from a thinking perspective, danger associated with her might be even worse than what the undead propose.

Don't expect any serious jolts when watching The Last Man on Earth. But there are some eerie scenes including a flaming pit where the plague victims are brought and the unexpected return of one of Morgan's loved ones.

Some of the dialogue wasn't in synch in the Madacy Entertainment Group DVD I viewed. That was a little distracting, but didn't last long. The film's score is a little overbearing at times too, but I found that problem peaked early on.

The film is based on a work by Richard Matheson, who also wrote scripts for 16 episodes of the original Twilight Zone including the classic Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.

A tagline, "alone among the crawling creatures of evil that made the night hideous with their inhuman craving!", is a little rich. These undead pretty much suck at putting a real scare in Morgan's mortality.

Those petty points aside, and with current-day concerns such as SARS and an influenza pandemic, The Last Man on Earth is still worth a look.

Ranking: 7/10

The 13th Mission (2004), The Goebbels Experiment (2005)

Two Second World War documentaries make for two very different viewing experiences in the days leading up to Remembrance Day in Canada.


The 13th Mission is a powerful effort from Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that nicely ties together a pair of storylines -- the women who built Avro Lancaster bombers at a factory in southern Ontario and the seven-man crew that flew one of the aircrafts a week after D-Day. It's a good companion piece to Rosies of the North, a National Film Board documentary reviewed in September by this site.


Actors stand in for the real workers and flyers, as if they are being interviewed more than 60 years ago about their experiences. But their words are taken from interviews and letters they wrote at the time. Audiences hear what these people had to say about their experiences, good and bad, without a scriptwriter acting as middleman.

The women describe the pride they took in their job and the importance of making sure each rivet was properly placed.

The bomber crew recounts one of the most amazing stories of the Canadian military during the six-year war. When their Lancaster was hit by a German fire, mid-upper gunner Andrew Mynarski (Scott Gibson) saw rear-gunner Pat Brophy (Shawn Mathieson) was trapped. Rather than bail out, Mynarski crawled through burning hydraulic fluid to try and free his friend. Mynarski was awarded the Victoria Cross, for gallantry, for his efforts.


Accompanying the docudrama is a 13-minute documentary from The Journal, a CBC Television current affairs program. Five of the seven members of that bomber crew reunite and share their memories of Mynarski. He couldn't get Brophy out and jumped from the bomber with his clothing and parachute on fire. Brophy shares his memories about the night and a special gift he had from Mynarski on that flight.

The 13th Mission, and the documentary, are rivteing viewing.

Not so successful, surprisingly, is The Goebbels Experiment. Joseph Goebbels was the minister of propaganda for Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.

This effort from German filmmaker Lutz Hachmeister (The Real American: Joe McCarthy) also draws exclusively from Goebbels' own words, narrated by British actor Kenneth Branagh.

He describes his lonley childhood, health problems and his barely getting by when he enters the workforce. In 1924, he calls for a firm hand in Germany and the throwing out of the Jewish people. Goebbels meets Hitler in 1926 and is thrilled with the First World War veteran's plans for his country.

"He has it all thought out," said Goebbels. He praises Hitler for his "stupendous mind" and notes he is "a born motivator."

The 13th Mission has a narrator to provide context of Canada's involvement in the Second World war, with one million serving in the military and another military dedicated to the war effort back home.

Such a guiding hand is missing in The Goebbels Experiment. There is startling footage in the film, inlcuding some in colour, and catty comments from Goebbels about others, including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

RATINGS: The 13th Mission 9/10
The Goebbels Experiment 7/10

For more information on The 13th Mission, go to www.cbc.ca/canadianexperience

FUN FACTS: Actor Scott Gibson apepared in another Second World War effort, The Pacific. Christopher Jacot guested on Degrassi: The Next Generation.