Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Stalag 17 (1953)

Two films, a decade apart, offer very different takes on the Allied prisoner-of-war experience during the Second World War.

The Great Escape, from director John Sturges in 1963, boasts an all-star cast including James Garner, Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough. It's based on the true story of the largest POW escape and the resulting massacre of 50 of the escapees. McQueen's exploits on a motorcycle at the film's end is a lasting image from that film. Shot in colour by director John Sturges, The Great Escape is a must-see film. The book on which it's based, Paul Brickhill's The Great Escape, is also a great read. Here, POWs work together to outwit their German captors who are continually looking for tunnel activity. The film, despite the murder of so many young men, ends on an optimistic note.

Stalag 17, shot a decade earlier in gritty black and white by Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard), centres the conflict on the prisoners themselves. The film ends on a cynical note.

When two prisoners attempt an escape early in the film, Sgt. J.J. Sefton (William Holden) bets the pair will be caught within minutes of slipping out of camp. His prediction proves true and the other prisoners that share the barracks with him are convinced Sefton tipped off the Germans. Sefton's charmed existence in the camp certainly makes him a suspicious character - he bribes the guards, enjoys access to luxuries the others can only dream about - liquor, eggs and makes no qualms about wanting no part of escape efforts. He's dedicated to making himself as comfortable as possible while in captivity. Sefton isn't very nice, but he's no traitor. And, despite what people think of him, he offers many diversions to pass the time, from gambling to moonshine and a telescope to see female prisoners being deloused.

Sefton tries to find the tipster in the barracks as demands for retribution against him escalate. He's in a situation that can't be solved with his business savvy. The stakes get raised when the Germans learn from their source that a recently captured American, Lieut. James Dunbar (Don Taylor), destroyed a train carrying much-needed ammunition. The SS want him.

Stalag 17, as a drama, works very well. Misplaced loyalties and quick judgments take their toll. It's the film's comedic efforts that wear thin on this viewer. Holden deserved his Oscar nomination, and win, for best actor. But the supporting actor nod for Robert Strauss as 'Animal' Kuzawa is baffling. He's infatuated with Betty Grable and longs to meet Russian women who are held prisoner in a nearby compound. His dreams of being with The Girl with the Million Dollar Legs grow tiresome, as do the efforts of his buddy Sgt. Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) to redirect his attentions.

Stalag 17 does offer an early cinematic nod to post-traumatic stress disorder with Joey (Robinson Stone), a prisoner who doesn't speak after seeing the other members of his bomber crew killed in their aircraft.

Wilder's film, then, is something of an uneven effort. The mystery surrounding the tipster is riveting. The comedy, often, just isn't that funny.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Several members of the film's cast appeared in an earlier Broadway production including Strauss and William Pierson.

Stalag 17 also earned Wilder an Oscar nomination for best director.

Don Taylor went on to direct with credits including The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) and The Final Countdown .

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Monkey Business (1931)

How fitting.

A movie that's a barrel of laughs starts with the Marx Brothers in four barrels. They're stowing away on an ocean liner. Don't let the labeling on said wooden containers fool you. It's no herring to say this is a comedy worth seeing.

Puns and wordplay aplenty are stashed in the screen play of this 1931 film from director Norman McLeod, who also directed Groucho and company in Horse Feathers. That film followed in 1932.

Groucho: "Tell me, has your grandfather's beard got any money?"

Chico: "Money? Why, it's heir to a fortune."

Second Officer: "Who are you?"


Groucho: "I'm the tailor."

Second Officer: "That reminds me. Where are my pants?"

Groucho: "You've got 'em on."


Groucho: "Would you mind getting up off that fly paper and give the flies a chance?"

Chico: "Oh, you're crazy. Flies can't read papers."

Just like The Cocoanuts, reviewed last week on this site, Monkey Business centres its plot on criminal shenanigans. Here, gangster Briggs (Harry Woods) wants to muscle in on the territory of fellow crime king Joe Helton (Rockcliffe Fellover). Each bad guy recruits a pair of Marx Brothers to act as their respective muscle. Good luck with that.

The singing and dance numbers that kept pulling viewers away from the comedy in The Cocoanuts is tempered this time around. There's little rug cutting, save Groucho making some moves on Briggs' dame, but Maxine Castle makes her sole film appearance singing O Sole Mio. Harpo accompanies her on harp.

The laughs slow down a bit when the Marx Brothers arrive on land, but there's still the occasional zinger to keep audiences amused.

Henchman: "Keep out of this loft."

Chico: "Well, it's better to have loft and lost than never to have loft at all."

Keep your ears tuned to the dialogue. You'll likely miss a great laugh if you're distracted.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Director Norman McLeod's last credit was for an episode (Once Upon a Time) of The Twilight Zone in 1961.

Billy Barty (Legend, Willow) makes an uncredited appearance in Monkey Business.

Magic store owner Al Flosso is a puppeteer in his second and final film appearance.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Cocoanuts (1929)

It's hard to go nuts for The Cocoanuts.

But give this comedy starring The Marx Brothers a crack anyways.

Groucho and his siblings spout off lots of great lines. It's hard to get all these zingers in one viewing. There's some fine physical comedy involving a pair of adjoining hotel rooms too.

What's hard to figure out, to audiences in 2013, is what's up with all the musical interludes. Is this a nod to vaudeville - a little musical entertainment to go with the feature film? Making their only big screen appearances, Gamby-Hale Ballet Girls and Allen K. Foster Girls dance for your enjoyment during several numbers including Monkey-Doodle-Doo. This, dear readers, features the oddest wardrobe I've ever seen for a big screen dance number. Even Harpo Marx has a couple of solo numbers. There's also musical entertainment from Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton singing Irving Berlin's When My Dreams Come True.

Their characters, Bob and Polly, are wild about each other. Bob's an architect working at a hotel to earn some cash. Polly's mother, Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont), doesn't think much of the earnest architect who also boasts a fine singing voice. She'd rather see her daughter walk down the aisle with Yates (Cyril Ring), a cad who's planning to steal Mrs. Potter's very valuable necklace. He's in cahoots with Penelope (Kay Francis, in her film debut).

Yates and Penelope plan to make it look like Groucho, Harpo and Chico stole Potter's jewelry.

The picture quality in the DVD copy I watched varied widely. It can also be very hard to make out everything that is said. But, there's still plenty of laughs to be had. But what gives with all the music?

RATING: 7.5/10

FUN FACTS: Margaret Dumont starred in seven films with the Marx Brothers including A Day at the Races and A Night at the Opera.

Co-director Robert Florey also helmed Murder in the Rue Morgue, Tarzan and the Mermaids (yes, really) and The Beast with Five Fingers.

Wow. Cyril Ring amassed an impressive 406 screen credits in his career. Internet Movie Database is a wonderful resource.


"There's a man outside, wants to see you, with a black a moustache."

Groucho: "Tell him I've got one."

Groucho to Harpo who's threatening to throw a phone: "Don't throw that. It's only for long distance."

Chico has no money to pay for his hotel room.

Groucho: "Oh, you're just an idle roomer."

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Misfits (1961)

Prepare to drop your jaw watching The Misfits.

That reaction will likely not be due to the film itself - it's awfully slow-going for the first 90 minutes -- but rather the cast of screen icons director John Huston assembled for this 1961 drama.

There's plenty of star power here - Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter.

The Misfits would be the last completed film for both Gable and Monroe. Clift died a few years later in 1966.

Roslyn Taber (Monroe) is in Reno for a quick divorce from Raymond (Kevin McCarthy). "You could touch him, but he wasn't there," she says of her former flame. She's a lost soul. Guido (Wallach) is the tow truck driver who gets her and landlord Isabelle Steers (Ritter) to court when Roslyn's new car is on the fritz. He's a widower and is bowled over by Taber's looks. Guido is buddy's with Gay Langland (Gable), a rancher who bid farewell to his wife years ago and enjoys a string of affairs. When the two fellas meet the two ladies in a bar, an idea is proposed.

Taber is welcome to bunk at Guido's place in the country so she can figure out what'll be next in her life. Gay's there too. He's interested in Roslyn, but the feeling isn't mutual - at least not initially. Guido and Perce (Clift) are also interested in the newly-available young woman.

Gay appreciates the freedom the outdoors in Nevada offers, but doesn't extend that appreciation to the wild mustangs that roam around a nearby mountain. Their numbers are declining because opportunists like him are rounding them up and selling them for dog food. When Gay, Guido and rodeo cowboy Perce head off to corral six horses, the sensitive Roslyn is outraged. Gay's practical nature doesn't fit well with her love of animals.

There's a lot of boozin' and hurtin' in The Misfits. Perce's body keeps getting banged up from riding bulls and broncos. He's torn up inside too with the death of his father and getting shut out of his farm by his stepfather. Guido pines for his late wife and is jealous when other men are interested in Roslyn. Even Isabelle is banged up, with an arm in a sling because she "misbehaved" when celebrating another boarder's divorce.

There's little chemistry between Gay and Roslyn. Roslyn finds Guido to be more talk than action. She tries to save Perce before he kills himself at a rodeo.

Playwright Arthur Miller's script has some sharp lines of dialogue, but The Misfits doesn't start to get real interesting until the horse wrangling begins. By then, most viewers will have given up on this film.

RATING: 5/10

FUN FACTS: Eli Wallach, as of this writing in 2013, is still alive. He'll be 100 in 1915.

Monroe was filming Something's Got to Give when she died in 1962. Monroe was 36.

Kevin McCarthy appeared in the cult classic, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and its remake.

Estelle Winwood is effective in a brief appearance as a woman collecting donations for a church charity. She appeared in an episode of the original Twilight Zone, Long Live Walter Jameson.