Horror Film Review: Burnt Offerings (dir by Dan Curtis)


This 1976 film is about a family so obnoxious that their own house tries to kill them!

Well, maybe it’s not entirely the family’s fault. The film suggests that the house would have tried to kill anyone who lived there because the house itself is possessed by ghosts or Satan or something of that nature. Still, you can’t help but feel that the house took some extra joy out of destroying the Rolf family.  I know that I got some extra joy out of watching them get destroyed.

Ben (Oliver Reed) is a writer. Ben’s wife, Marian (Karen Black), is a flake who becomes obsessed with the house as soon as she sees it. Their son 12 year-old son, Davey (Lee Montgomery), is …. well, there’s no nice way to say this. He’s a brat. He’s the type of kid who you would be terrified of your kid befriending at school because then he’d want to come hang out at your house all the time. The movie doesn’t seem to realize that he’s a brat but the audience does. And finally, Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) is Bette Davis, which means that she spends most of the movie delivering her lines in the most overdramatic and arch way possible.

The Rolfs are renting the house for the summer. The owners of the house are the Allardyces (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart) and you would think that people would know better than to rent a house from Burgess Meredith. I mean, how many horror films in the 70s specifically featured Meredith as some sort of emissary of the devil? The Rolfs are asked to do two things: look after the house and look after Mrs. Allardyce, who lives on the top floor and never wants to be disturbed. The Rolfs are assured that they’ll never see Mrs Allardyce and the Rolfs are like, “Sure! That makes sense!”

Anyway, as soon as the Rolfs move in, the house starts to make weird noises and shingles start flying off the roof and, at one point, Ben nearly drowns his son in the pool.  And while it’s kind of understandable, considering how annoying his son is, it’s still not a good look.

Yep, it’s pretty obvious that the house is evil but Marian loves it, almost as if she’s becoming …. possessed! Meanwhile, Ben keeps having visions of a sinister looking chauffeur (Anthony James, whose creepy smile is the only memorable thing about this film) and Davey keeps standing too close to the outside chimney. You don’t want to do that when a house hates your guts.

It all leads to the inevitable ending, which involves people getting tossed out of windows and *ahem* crushed by chimneys. The family’s so obnoxious that you can’t help but cheer when that chimney comes down.  In fact, to be honest, as little as I think of this movie, I always specifically watch it just to see that chimney come down on one certain character.  Things might not work out well for the Rolfs or anyone else watching this rather slow and predictable movie but at least the house survives.

Fly, baby, fly!

Now, I will admit that I do own this film on DVD, simply because I love the commentary track.  Director Dan Curtis, star Karen Black, and the film’s screenwriter, William F. Nolan, watch and discuss the film and it quickly becomes obvious that none of them remember much about making it.  While Karen Black tries to keep the peace, Curtis and Nolan bicker over who is most responsible for the parts of the film that don’t work.  When Anthony James shows up as the creepy chauffeur, Dan Curtis says that he doesn’t remember his name and then gets visibly annoyed when Karen Black spends the next few minutes talking about what a good actor Anthony James is.  It’s all enjoyably awkward and, as someone who has hosted her share of live tweets, I couldn’t help but sympathize with everyone’s efforts to find something positive to say about Burnt Offerings.

TV Review: Night Gallery 1.2 “Room With A View/The Little Black Bag/The Nature of the Enemy”


The second episode of Night Gallery originally aired on December 23rd, 1970 and it featured three stories, two of which were written by Rod Serling.  Serling, himself, introduced all three of the stories by inviting us to look at the paintings that may or may not have been inspired from them.

Room With A View (dir by Jerrold Freedman, written by Hal Dresner)

When a cranky, bed-bound man (Joseph Wiseman) discovers this his wife (Angel Tompkins) is cheating on him, he comes up with an elaborate scheme to get revenge.  It all hinges on his somewhat nervous nurse (Diane Keaton), who has no idea that she’s being manipulated.

This short segment is well-done but it doesn’t really feel like it belongs on an episode of Night Gallery.  There’s no elements of horror or science fiction to be found in this story.  Instead, it’s just about a manipulative man seeking revenge on his wife.  It’s actually easy to imagine this segment as being a flashback on a Monk-style detective show.  You just need a detective saying, “I finally figured out how you did it!”

For most viewers, probably the most interesting thing about this segment will be the presence of a young Diane Keaton, playing the nurse and laughing nervously at her patient’s rather intrusive questions.

The Little Black Bag (dir by Jeannot Szwarc, written by Rod Serling)

In the 30th Century, a careless accident at a time travel station sends a black medical bag into the past.  It arrives in 1971, where it’s discovered by two homeless gentlemen.  One of the men is a disgraced former doctor named William Fall (Burgess Meredith).  The other, Hepplewhite (Chill Wills), has no medical experience but he does have a greedy spirit.  Fall wants to use the bag to do good,  Hepplewhite wants to use the bag to make money.  Meanwhile, in the future, poor put-upon Gillings (George Furth) is just trying to figure out what to do about the missing bag.

The Little Black Bag is this episode’s high point, featuring good performances from Meredith, Wills, and Furth and also ending with properly macabre twist.  This is another Rod Serling story about how terrible, at heart, most people are but Jeannot Szwarc’s direction is fast-paced and he never allows things to get too heavy-handed.

The Nature of the Enemy (dir by Allen Reisner, written by Rod Serling)

NASA’s latest expedition to the Moon has run into trouble.  The astronauts have discovered that there is something living on the lunar surface.  On Earth, the director of NASA (Joseph Campanella) tries to keep everyone calm while also figuring out the nature of the enemy.

This segment has an intriguing premise but it’s let down by a so-so execution.  Like a lot of less-than-effective Night Gallery segments, this one features a story that doesn’t so much conclude as it just stops after a somewhat weak punchline.

So, the second episode of Night Gallery was not an improvement on the first and it was nowhere close to matching the pilot.  Watching this episode, it was hard not to feel that the show had a few growing pains.  Did it want to be a horror anthology or a collection of short skits?  The 2nd episode reveals a show that was still trying to find it’s voice.

Previous Night Gallery Reviews:

  1. The Pilot
  2. The Dead Man/The Housekeeper

 

The Last Chase (1981, directed by Martyn Burke)


In the near-future (the movie takes place in 2011 but it was made in 1981 and it’s 2020 today so you do the math), over half of humanity has been wiped out by a plague and America has been taken over by a totalitarian government.  The government has outlawed cars and instead requires everyone to use public transportation.  The are rumors that, if you can make your way to Free California, you can drive whatever and whenever you want.  But to do that, you’d have to be able to drive down a highway and no one has a car!

Franklyn Hart (Lee Majors) is a former race car driver who lost his family to the plague and who now serves as an official government spokesman, encouraging people to ride public transportation and to not use fossil fuels.  However, Hart doesn’t believe what he’s preaching.  In fact, in a secret basement, he has a car!  It’s an orange Porsche and, by breaking into junkyards at night, he’s been able to get the parts necessary to rebuild its engine.  His plan is to show up the government by driving the Porsche across the country, all the way to California.  Accompanying Franklyn will be Ring McCarthy (Chris Makepeace), a bullied teenage computer expert who needs a father figure.  That sounds like a job for Lee Majors!

With Franklyn now driving across the country, the government knows that they have to stop him!  But how?  Because all of the other cars have been destroyed, the police have to ride around on golf carts that can’t keep up with a Porsche.  Since they’re apparently not a very well-organized group of fascists, they also don’t have any drones, bombs, or apparently anything else that they could use to take the incredibly conspicuous race car that is driving across America.  The government turns to J.G. Williams (Burgess Meredith), mostly because Williams owns a fighter plane that was last used in the Korean War.  Williams agrees to stop Franklyn and Ring but secretly, he finds himself sympathizing with their cause.

The most interesting thing about The Last Chase is the idea of California becoming a libertarian paradise where the residents are rebelling against overly stringent environmental regulations.  That alone makes this a fun film to watch on Earth Day.  Unfortunately, The Last Chase never really lives up to its intriguing premise.  Ironically, for a film called The Last Chase, there just aren’t enough chase scenes.  Instead, the movie spends a lot of time on Ring needing a father figure and Franklyn needing a new family to replace the one that he lost and who wants to see that when you could be watching an orange Porsche racing down the highway?  This is a movie that calls out for a Mad Max approach but instead, it’s more of an After School special about accepting your stepfather and running away with him to California.  It’s a strange message but at least the car’s cool.

Embracing The Melodrama Part III #7: True Confessions (dir by Ulu Grosbard)


The 1981 film True Confessions tells many different stories.

It’s a story about Los Angeles.  It’s not necessarily a story about Los Angeles as it exists.  Instead, it’s a story about Los Angeles as we always imagine it.  It’s the late 40s and, having vanquished the Nazis in Europe, men are returning to California and looking for a new life.  Meanwhile, aspiring starlets from across the country flood into Hollywood, looking for stardom.  It’s a city where glitz and ruin exist right next to each other.  It’s the mean streets that were made famous by Raymond Chandler and, decades later, James Ellroy.

It’s a murder mystery, one that is based on one of the most notorious unsolved homicides of all time.  The bisected body of woman named Lois Fazenda has been found in a vacant lot.  When the newspapers discover that Lois was both a prostitute and a Catholic, she becomes known as “the Virgin Tramp.”  One need not have an encyclopedic knowledge of unsolved crimes to recognize that Lois Fazneda is meant to be a stand-in for Elizabeth Short, the tragic and infamous Black Dahlia.

It’s a story about corruption.  Crooked cops.  Rich perverts.  Greedy politicians.  Sinful clergy.  They’re all present and accounted for in True Confessions.  As quickly becomes apparent, Los Angeles is a city where you can do anything as long as you have the money to pay the right people off.

And finally, it’s a film about two brothers.  Tom and Des Spellacy grew up in a strong Irish Catholic family but, as they got older, their lives went in different directions.  Tom (Robert Duvall) became a detective, the type who is willing to cut corners but who, in the end, takes his job seriously.  Des (Robert De Niro) entered the priesthood and is now a monsignor in the Los Angeles diocese.  Des is ambitious and he has a powerful mentor, Cardinal Danaher (Cyril Cusack).

Though Tom and Des have gone their separate ways, they are still linked by Jack Amsterdam (Charles During).  To the public, Jack is a wealthy and respected businessman.  However, Tom and Des both know the truth.  When Tom first joined the department, he worked as a bagman for Jack and he knows that Jack made most of his money through a prostitution ring.  Des know that Jack donates to the Church as way to cover up his own corruption but Des looks the other way.  The Cardinal, after all, wants Jack’s money.

When Tom starts to investigate Lois’s death, it doesn’t take him long to figure out that Jack is probably the one responsible.  Meanwhile, Jack and his lawyer (Ed Flanders) start to pressure Des to convince his brother to let the case go.  Finding justice for Lois Fazneda could mean the end of both Tom and Des’s career.

Based on a novel by John Gregory Dunne, which was adapted into a screenplay by Dunne and Joan Didion, True Confessions is an imperfect but intriguing film.  This is one of Robert Duvall’s best performances and he brings a manic edge to the role that keeps the audience off-balance.  In the role of Jack Amsterdam, Charles Durning is the epitome of casual corruption and Burgess Meredith does a good job as an aging priest.  On the other hand, Robert De Niro seems strangely uncomfortable in the role of Des and you never quite believe that he and Duvall are actually brothers.  Director Ulu Grosbard does a good job of creating a proper noir atmosphere but, at the same time, he denies the audience the dramatic climax to which the film appears to be building up to.

That said, for whatever flaws True Confessions may have, it’s an always watchable and thought-provoking film.

Special Veteran’s Day Edition: THE STORY OF G.I. JOE (United Artists 1945)


cracked rear viewer

William Wellman’s THE STORY OF G.I. JOE tells the tale of boots-on-the-ground combat soldiers through the eyes of war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist for Scripps-Howard newspapers. The film was one of the most realistic depictions of the brutality of war up to that time, and made a star out of a young actor by the name of Robert Mitchum . In fact, this was the one and only time Mitchum ever received an Oscar nomination – a shocking fact given the caliber of his future screen work.

Burgess Meredith  plays Pyle, who embeds with the 18th Infantry’s ‘C’ Company in order to give his stateside readers the grim realities of war from the soldier’s point of view. The men accept him, affectionately calling him ‘Pop’, as he shares their hardships, heartbreaks, and victories. Meredith’s voice over narrations are taken directly from Pyle’s columns, detailing the cold nights, dusty…

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Horror Film Review: The Sentinel (dir by Michael Winner)


Here’s the main lesson that I’ve learned from watching the 1977 horror film, The Sentinel:

Even in the 1970s, the life of a model was not an easy one.

Take Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) for instance.  She should have everything but instead, she’s a neurotic mess.  Haunted by a traumatic childhood, she has attempted to commit suicide twice and everyone is always worried that she’s on the verge of having a breakdown.  As a model, she’s forced to deal with a bunch of phonies.  One of the phonies is played by Jeff Goldblum.  Because he’s Goldblum, you suspect that he has to have something up his sleeve but then it turns out that he doesn’t.  I get that Jeff Goldblum probably wasn’t a well-known actor when he appeared in The Sentinel but still, it’s incredibly distracting when he suddenly shows up and then doesn’t really do anything.

Alison has a fiancée.  His name is Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) and I figured out that he had to be up to no good as soon as he appeared.  For one thing, he has a pornstache.  For another thing, he’s played by Chris Sarandon, an actor who is best known for playing the vampire in the original Fright Night and Prince Humperdink in The Princess Bride.  Not surprisingly, it turns out that Michael’s previous wife died under mysterious circumstances.  NYPD Detective Rizzo (Christopher Walken) suspects that Michael may have killed her.

(That’s right.  Christopher Walken is in this movie but, much like Jeff Goldblum, he doesn’t get to do anything interesting.  How can a movie feature two of the quirkiest actors ever and then refuse to give them a chance to act quirky?)

Maybe Alison’s life will improve now that she has a new apartment.  It’s a really nice place and her real estate agent is played by Ava Gardner.  Alison wants to live on her own for a while.  She loves Michael but she needs to find herself.  Plus, it doesn’t help that Michael has a pornstache and may have killed his wife…

Unfortunately, as soon as Alison moves in, she starts having weird dreams and visions and all the usual stuff that always happens in movies like this.  She also discovers that she has a lot of eccentric neighbors, all of whom are played by semi-familiar character actors.  For instance, eccentric old Charles (Burgess Meredith) is always inviting her to wild parties.  Her other two neighbors (played by Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo) are lesbians, which the film presents as being the height of shocking decadence.  At first, Alison likes her neighbors but they make so much noise!  Eventually, she complains to Ava Gardner.  Ava replies that Alison only has one neighbor and that neighbor is neither Burgess Meredith nor a lesbian.

Instead, he’s a blind priest who spends all day sitting at a window.  He’s played by John Carradine, who apparently had a few hours to kill in 1977.

But it doesn’t stop there!  This movie is full of actors who will be familiar to anyone who enjoys watching TCM.  Along with those already mentioned, we also get cameos from Martin Balsam, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, Eli Wallach, Richard Dreyfuss, and Tom Berenger.  There are 11 Oscar nominees wasted in this stupid film.  (Though, in all fairness, Christopher Walken’s nomination came after The Sentinel.)

Personally, The Sentinel bugged me because it’s yet another horror movie that exploits Catholic iconography while totally misstating church dogma.  However, the main problem with The Sentinel is that it’s just so incredibly boring.  I own it on DVD because I went through a period where I basically bought every horror film that could I find.  I’ve watched The Sentinel a handful of times and somehow, I always manage to forget just how mind-numbingly dull this movie really is.  There’s a few scary images but mostly, it’s just Burgess Meredith acting eccentric and Chris Sarandon looking mildly annoyed.  If you’ve ever seen Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, or The Omen, you’ll figure out immediately what’s going on but The Sentinel still insists on dragging it all out.  Watching this movie is about as exciting as watching an Amish blacksmith shoe a horse.

There’s a lot of good actors in the film but it’s obvious that most of them just needed to pick up a paycheck.  I’ve read a lot of criticism of Cristina Raines’s lead performance but I actually think she does a pretty good job.  It’s not her acting that’s at fault.  It’s the film’s stupid script and lackluster direction.

Film Review: The Hindenburg (dir by Robert Wise)


80 years ago, on May 6th, 1937, the Hindenburg, a German airship, exploded in the air over New Jersey.  The disaster was not only covered live by radio reporter Herbert Morrison (whose cry of “Oh the humanity!” continues to be parodied to this day) but it was also one of the first disasters to be recorded on film.  Looking at the footage of the Hindenburg exploding into flame and sinking to the ground, a mere skeleton of what it once was, it’s hard to believe that only 36 people died in the disaster.  The majority of those who died were crew members, most of whom lost their lives while helping passengers off of the airship.  (Fortunately, the Hindenburg was close enough to the ground that many of the passengers were able to escape by simply jumping.)

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of speculation about what led to the Hindenburg (which has successfully completed 63 flights before the disaster) exploding.  The most commonly accepted explanation was that it was simply an act of God, the result of either lightning or improperly stored helium.  Apparently, there was no official evidence found to suggest that sabotage was involved but, even back in 1937, people loved conspiracy theories.

And really, it’s not totally implausible to think that the Hindenburg was sabotaged.  The Hindenburg was making its first trans-Atlantic flight and it was viewed as being a symbol of Nazi Germany.  One of the ship’s passengers, Captain Ernest Lehman, was coming to the U.S. in order to lobby Congress to give Germany helium for their airships.  With Hitler regularly bragging about the superiority of German industry, the theory was that an anti-Nazi crewman or passengers planted a bomb on the Hindenburg.  Since no individual or group ever stepped forward to claim responsibility, the theory continues that the saboteur must have perished in the disaster.

At the very least, that’s the theory put forward by a film that I watched earlier today, the 1975 disaster movie, The Hindenburg.

A mix of historical speculation and disaster film melodrama, The Hindenburg stars George C. Scott as Col. Franz Ritter, a veteran of the German air force who is assigned to travel on the Hindenburg and protect it from saboteurs.  Ritter is a Nazi but, the film argues, he’s a reluctant and disillusioned Nazi.  Just a few weeks before the launch of the airship, his teenage son was killed while vandalizing a synagogue.  Ritter is a patriot who no longer recognizes his country and George C. Scott actually does a pretty good job portraying him.  (You do have to wonder why a seasoned veteran of the German air force would have a gruff, slightly mid-Atlantic accent but oh well.  It’s a 70s disaster film.  These things happen.)

Ritter is assigned to work with Martin Vogel (Roy Thinnes), a member of the Gestapo who is working undercover as the Hindenburg’s photographer.  Tt soon becomes obvious that he is as much a fanatic as Ritter is reluctant.  Vogel is a sadist, convinced that every Jewish passenger is secretly a saboteur.  Thinnes is chilling in the role.  What makes him especially frightening is not just his prejudice but his casual assumption that everyone feels the same way that he does.

And yet, as good as Scott and Thinnes are, the rest of the cast is rather disappointing.  The Hindenburg features a large ensemble of actors, all playing characters who are dealing with their own privates dramas while hoping not to burn to death during the final 15 minutes of the film.  Unfortunately, even by the standards of a typical 70s disaster film, the passengers are thinly drawn.  I liked Burgess Meredith and Rene Auberjonois as two con artists but that was mostly because Meredith and Auberjonois are so charming that they’re fun to watch even if they don’t have anything to do.  Anne Bancroft has one or two good scenes as a German baroness and Robert Clary does well as a vaudeville performer who comes under suspicion because of his anti-Nazi leanings.  Otherwise, the passengers are forgettable.  Whether they die in the inferno and manage to make it to the ground, your main reaction will probably be to look at them and say, “Who was that again?”

Anyway, despite all of Ritter and Vogel’s sleuthing, it’s not much of mystery because it’s pretty easy to figure out that the saboteur is a crewman named Boerth (William Atherton).  Having seen Real GeniusDie Hard and the original Ghostbusters, I found it odd to see William Atherton playing a sympathetic character.  Atherton did okay in the role but his attempt at a German accent mostly served to remind me that absolutely no one else in the film was trying to sound German.

Anyway, the main problem with The Hindenburg is that it takes forever for the airship to actually explode.  The film tries to create some suspense over whether Ritter will keep the bomb from exploding but we already know that he’s not going to.  (Let’s be honest.  If you didn’t already know about the Hindenburg disaster, you probably wouldn’t be watching the movie in the first place.)  The film probably would have worked better if it had started with the Hindenburg exploding and then had an investigator working backwards, trying to figure out who the saboteur was.

However, the scenes of the explosion almost make up for everything that came before.  When that bomb goes off, the entire film suddenly switches to black-and-white.  That may sound like a cheap or even sensationalistic trick but it actually works quite well.  It also allows the scenes of passengers and crewmen trying to escape to be seamlessly integrated with actual footage of the Hindenburg bursting into flame and crashing to the ground.  The real-life footage is still shocking, especially if you’re scared of fire.  Watching the real-life inferno, I was again shocked to realize that only 36 people died in the disaster.

In the end, The Hindenburg is flawed but watchable.  George C. Scott was always at his most watchable when playing a character disappointed with humanity and the real-life footage of the Hindenburg disaster is morbidly fascinating.

Oh, the humanity indeed!

The Fabulous Forties #35: That Uncertain Feeling (dir by Ernst Lubitsch)


That_Uncertain_Feeling

The 35th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was — wait a minute?  I’m on my 35th Fabulous Forties review?  Let’s see — there’s 50 films in the box set so that means that I only have 15 more of these to write and I’ll be done!  And then I can move onto the Nifty Fifties, the Sensation Sixties, the Swinging Seventies, and the Excellent Eighties!  YAY!

Anyway, where was I?

Oh yeah, the 35th film.

First released in 1941, That Uncertain Feeling is a movie about sophisticated people doing silly things.  Socialite Jill Baker (Merle Oberon) gets the hiccups whenever she gets nervous or irritated.  Her trendy friends suggest that she try the new big thing: seeing a psychoanalyst!  At first, Jill is reluctant but eventually, she gives in to the pressures of high society and she goes to visit Dr. Vengard (Alan Mowbray).  Dr. Vengard tells her that her hiccups are a result of her marriage to Larry (Melvyn Douglas) and suggests that the best way to cure them would be to get a divorce.

At first, Jill is horrified at the suggestion.  Whatever will people think if she gets a divorce!?  However, Larry is kind of a condescending jerk.  (Or, at least, he comes across as being a jerk when viewed by 2016 standards.  By 1941 standards, I imagine he’s supposed to be quite reasonable.)  And Jill happens to meet another one of Vengard’s patients, an outspoken pianist named Alexander Sebastian (Burgess Meredith).

Soon, Jill is not only contemplating getting a divorce from Larry but perhaps marrying the eccentric Sebastian as well!  When Larry realizes that Jill is dissatisfied with their marriage and that she is attracted to Sebastian, he gives her a divorce.  He even pretends to be an abusive husband so that she can file for divorce on grounds of cruelty.  (It’s funnier than it sounds.)  Jill and Sebastian get engaged but, once Larry starts to date again, Jill realizes that she’s not quite over her ex…

I was really excited when I saw that The Uncertain Feeling was an Ernst Lubitsch film.  Lubitsch directed some of my favorite Golden Age comedies, films like Ninotchka and Heaven Can Wait.  But That Uncertain Feeling is not quite up to the standard of the other Lubitsch films that I’ve seen.  As played by Burgess Meredith, Sebastian never comes across as being a realistic rival to Larry.  The character is so cartoonishly eccentric that it becomes impossible to see what Jill sees in him.  At the same time, Larry comes across as being such a chauvinist that it’s far easier to understand why Jill would divorce him than why she would ever want to take him back.  The end result is a rare Lubitsch misfire.

However, as long as we’re talking about Lubitsch, make sure to see The Smiling Lieutenant if you get the chance.  Now, that’s a good Lubitsch film…

(And be sure to follow it up with The Love Parade...)

The Fabulous Forties #2: Second Chorus (dir by H.C. Potter)


I’m currently in the process of watching and reviewing all 50 of the films in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties DVD box set.  Yesterday, I got things started by reviewing Port of New York.  Today, I’m looking at the set’s 2nd film, 1940’s Second Chorus.

Second_Chorus_poster

As much as I love all of my Mill Creek box sets, watching Second Chorus reminded me of one of the drawbacks of watching a Mill Creek release.  Since Mill Creek specializes in films that have fallen into the public domain, a lot of their DVDs are more than a little rough.  The Mill Creek version was obviously transferred from a seriously deteriorated print.  As a result, the picture is often dark or blurry while the sound is occasionally iffy at best.  That’s a shame because Second Chorus is an entertaining little film.

In Second Chorus, Fred Astaire and Burgess Meredith both play college students.  (Burgess is the wacky one while Fred is … well, he’s Fred Astaire.  He’s confident, he’s suave, and he’s always ready to perform.)  Fred appears to be in his late 30s while Burgess looks closer to 50 but, fortunately, their age is meant to be a part of the joke.  Fred and Burgess have intentionally failed their final exams for seven years so that they can stay in school and continue to lead the college jazz band.  They are perennial college students and who hasn’t known a few of them?  (Apparently, in 1940, there was no such thing as academic suspension.)

When a debt collector comes looking for them (apparently, Burgess bought a set of encyclopedias that he never paid for), Fred manages to charm the collector’s secretary (Paulette Goddard) away from him.  Paulette agrees to serve as Fred and Burgess’s manager and even manages to get them a job with real-life band director Artie Shaw.  (Shaw plays himself and seems to be perpetually annoyed whenever he’s on screen.)  Will Fred finally accept some responsibility, act maturely, hold down a job, and maybe win the heart of Paulette Goddard?

Now, I should point out that, while I enjoyed Second Chorus, Fred Astaire apparently considered Second Chorus to be the worst film that he ever made.  While Second Chorus is definitely no Top Hat, I think that Fred Astaire was being a little too harsh in his assessment. The music is good, the dancing is fun to watch, and the plot … well, who really cares about the plot? It’s undoubtedly a silly film that has very little going on underneath the surface but Astaire and Meredith make for a surprisingly effective comedy team.

And while nondancer Paulette Goddard may not have had as effective a chemistry with Fred as Ginger Rogers (but then again, who did?), I still loved watching them perform the I Ain’t Hep To That Step But I’ll Dig It number.  This entire number was reportedly filmed in one take.  Goddard had little dance experience but it didn’t matter because her partner was Fred Astaire and Fred was so good that he could make anyone look like a natural.

Second Chorus is an entertaining little movie.  Just avoid the Mill Creek transfer.

Film Review: There Was a Crooked Man… (1970, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)


Crooked_manI first saw There Was A Crooked Man as a part of TCM’s tribute to the great actor Warren Oates.  Warren Oates was rarely cast in the lead but, as a character actor, he appeared in supporting roles in several great films.  Unfortunately, There Was A Crooked Man is not one of them.

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and written by the screenwriting team of Robert Benton and David Newman (best known for writing Bonnie and Clyde), There Was A Crooked Man is meant to be a comedic western.  Outlaw Paris Pittman (Kirk Douglas) is arrested while visiting a bordello.  Paris is sent to an Arizona prison, where everyone tries to get him to reveal where he has hidden the stash from a $500,000 robbery.  Pittman uses everyone’s greed to manipulate them into helping him attempt to escape.  Standing in Pittman’s way is the new warden, a liberal reformer played by Henry Fonda.

There Was A Crooked Man is a long movie that features a lot of familiar faces.  Burgess Meredith plays The Missouri Kid, who has been in prison for so long that he is now an old man.  Hume Cronyn and John Randolph play a bickering gay couple who eventually become a part of Pittman’s scheme to escape.  Even Alan Hale, the skipper from Gilligan’s Island, shows up as a guard named Tobaccy!  There Was A Crooked Man is a big movie but it’s also not a very good one.  It’s not serious enough to be a good drama but it’s not funny enough to be a good comedy either.

At least the movie has Warren Oates going for it.  Oates plays Harry Moon, a prisoner who is drafted into Pittman’s escape plot.  It is a typical Warren Oates supporting role but he steals every scene that he appears in.  Even in the smallest of roles, Warren Oates was worth watching and he’s the best thing about There Was A Crooked Man.

Hume Cronyn, Warren Oates, Kirk Douglas, Michael Blodgett, and John Randolph in There Was A Crooked Man

Hume Cronyn, Warren Oates, Kirk Douglas, Michael Blodgett, and John Randolph in There Was A Crooked Man