An Offer You Can’t Refuse #6: King of the Roaring 20s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein (dir by Joseph M. Newman)


The 1961 gangster biopic, King of the Roaring ’20s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein, tells the story of two men.

David Janssen is Arnold Rothstein, the gambler-turned-millionaire crime lord who, in the early years of the 20th Century, was one of the dominant figures in American organized crime.  Though he may be best-remembered for his alleged role in fixing the 1918 World Series, Rothstein also served as a mentor to men like Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel.  Rothstein was perhaps the first gangster to to treat crime like a business.

Mickey Rooney is Johnny Burke, Arnold’s best friend from childhood who grows up to be a low-level hood and notoriously unsuccessful gambler.  Whereas Arnold is intelligent, cunning, and always calm, Johnny always seems to be a desperate.  Whereas Arnold’s success is due to his ability to keep a secret, Johnny simply can’t stop talking.

Together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

No, actually, they don’t.  They both commit crimes, sometimes together and sometimes apart.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Arnold turns out to be a better criminal than Johnny.  In fact, Johnny is always in over his head.  He often has to go to his friend Arnold and beg him for his help.  Johnny does this even though Arnold continually tells him, “I only care about myself and money.”

The friendship between Arnold and Johnny is at the heart of King of the Roaring 20s, though it’s not much of a heart since every conversation they have begins with Johnny begging Arnold for help and ends with Arnold declaring that he only cares about money.  At a certain point, it’s hard not to feel that Johnny is bringing a lot of this trouble on himself by consistently seeking help from someone who brags about not helping anyone.  From the minute that the film begins, Arnold Rothstein’s mantra is that he only cares about money, gambling, and winning a poker game with a royal flush.  Everything else — from his friendship to Johnny to his marriage to former showgirl Carolyn Green (Dianne Foster) to even his violent rivalry with crooked cop Phil Butler (Dan O’Herlihy) — comes second to his own greed.  The film’s portrayal of Rothstein as being a single-minded and heartless sociopath may be a convincing portrait of the type of mindset necessary to be a successful crime lord but it hardly makes for a compelling protagonist.

Oddly enough, the film leaves out a lot of the things that the real-life Arnold Rothstein was best known for.  There’s no real mention of Rothstein fixing the World Series. His mentorship to Luciano, Lansky, and Seigel is not depicted.  The fact that Rothstein was reportedly the first gangster to realize how much money could be made off of bootlegging goes unacknowledged.  By most reports, Arnold Rothstein was a flamboyant figure.  (Meyer Wolfsheim, the uncouth gangster from The Great Gatsby, was reportedly based on him.)   There’s nothing flamboyant about David Janssen’s performance in this film.  He plays Rothstein as being a tightly-wound and rather unemotional businessman.  It’s not a bad performance as much as it just doesn’t feel right for a character who, according to the film’s title, was the King of the Roaring 20s.

That said, there are still enough pleasures to be found in this film to make it worth watching.  As if to make up for Janssen’s subdued performance, everyone else in the cast attacks the scenery with gusto.  Mickey Rooney does a good job acting desperate and Dan O’Herlihy is effectively villainous as the crooked cop.  Jack Carson has a few good scenes as a corrupt political fixer and Dianne Foster does the best that she can with the somewhat thankless role of Rothstein’s wife.  The film moves quickly and, even if it’s not as violent as the typical gangster film, it does make a relevant point about how organized crime became a big business.

It’s not a great gangster film by any stretch of the imagination and the lead role is miscast but there’s still enough about this film that works to make it worth a watch for gangster movie fans.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening

Film Review: The Greatest Story Ever Told (dir by George Stevens)


The 1965 biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, tells the story of the life of Jesus, from the Nativity to the Ascension.  It’s probably the most complete telling of the story that you’ll ever find.  It’s hard to think of a single details that’s left out and, as a result, the film has a four hour running time.  Whether you’re a believer or not, that’s a really long time to watch a reverent film that doesn’t even feature the campy excesses of something like The Ten Commandments.

(There’s actually several different version of The Greatest Story Ever Told floating around.  There’s a version that’s a little over two hours.  There’s a version that’s close to four hours.  Reportedly, the uncut version of the film ran for four hour and 20 minutes.)

Max von Sydow plays Jesus.  On the one hand, that seems like that should work because Max von Sydow was a great actor who gave off an otherworldly air.  On the other hand, it totally doesn’t work because von Sydow gives an oddly detached performance.  The Greatest Story Ever Told was von Sydow’s first American film and, at no point, does he seem particularly happy about being involved with it.  von Sydow is a very cerebral and rather reserved Jesus, one who makes his points without a hint of passion or charisma.  When he’s being friendly, he offers up a half-smile.  When he has to rebuke his disciples for their doubt, he sounds more annoyed than anything else.  He’s Jesus if Jesus was a community college philosophy professor.

The rest of the huge cast is populated with familiar faces.  The Greatest Story Ever Told takes the all-star approach to heart and, as a result, even the minor roles are played by actors who will be familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few hours watching TCM.  Many of them are on screen for only a few seconds, which makes their presence all the more distracting.  Sidney Poitier shows up as Simon of Cyrene.  Pat Boone is an angel.  Roddy McDowall is Matthew and Sal Mineo is Uriah and John Wayne shows up as a centurion and delivers his one line in his trademark drawl.

A few of the actors do manage to stand out and make a good impression.  Telly Savalas is a credible Pilate, playing him as being neither smug nor overly sympathetic but instead as a bureaucrat who can’t understand why he’s being forced to deal with all of this.  Charlton Heston has just the right intensity for the role of John the Baptist while Jose Ferrer is properly sleazy as Herod.  In the role Judas, David McCallum looks at the world through suspicious eyes and does little to disguise his irritation with the rest of the world.  The Greatest Story Ever Told does not sentimentalize Judas or his role in Jesus’s arrest.  For the most part, he’s just a jerk.  Finally, it’s not exactly surprising when Donald Pleasence shows up as Satan but Pleasence still gives a properly evil performance, giving all of his lines a mocking and often sarcastic bite.

The Greatest Story Ever Told was directed by George Stevens, a legitimately great director who struggles to maintain any sort of narrative momentum in this film.  Watching The Greatest Story Ever Told, it occurred to me that the best biblical films are the ones like Ben-Hur and The Robe, which both largely keep Jesus off-screen and instead focus on how his life and teachings and the reports of his resurrection effected other people.  Stevens approaches the film’s subject with such reverence that the film becomes boring and that’s something that should never happen when you’re making a film set in Judea during the Roman era.

I do have to admit that, despite all of my criticism of the film, I do actually kind of like The Greatest Story Ever Told.  It’s just such a big production that it’s hard not to be a little awed by it all.  That huge cast may be distracting but it’s still a little bit fun to sit there and go, “There’s Shelley Winters!  There’s John Wayne!  There’s Robert Blake and Martin Landau!”  That said, as far as biblical films are concerned, you’re still better off sticking with Jesus Christ Superstar.

Mardi Gras Film Review: Lady Behave! (dir by Lloyd Corrigan)


The 1938 film, Lady Behave!, begins with a woman named Clarice (Patricia Farr) getting ready to go out and celebrate Mardi Gras.  Even though Clarice invites her older sister, Paula (Sally Eilers), to come with her, Paula refuses.  Paula has work to do at home.  It’s pretty obvious that this is the way that it’s always been between the two sisters.  Clarice has fun while Paula stays home and waits for her to return.

Fortunately, Clarice does return in the morning.  As she tells Paula, she had a great time during Mardi Gras.  In fact, she had such a great time that she ended up getting married!  She married a wealthy northerner named Stephen Cormack (Neil Hamilton).  The only problem is that Clarice is already married!  She’s totally forgotten that she only recently became the wife of a dissolute playboy named Michael Andrews (Joseph Schildkraut).  By getting married a second time, Clarice has committed bigamy!  She could go to prison for 10 years!

Whatever is Paula to do?

Well, what if she arranges for Clarice to leave the country?

What if she tries to bribe Michael into accepting an annulment?

What if Paula goes up to New York and pretends to be Clarice (because, after all, Stephen was pretty drunk when he married her)?

What is she does all three!?

Of course, when Paula goes up to New York, she discovers that Stephen is out of the country.  She moves into his mansion, where she discovers that his two children — Patricia (Marcia Mae Jones) and Hank (George Ernest) — are convinced that she’s just a gold digger who only wants to steal their father’s money (and, it should be noted, also their inheritance).  When Michael shows up at Stephen’s mansion, he explains to Paula that he needs $10,000 for a horse and he’ll only agree to an annulment if he gets the money.  However, when he meets Patricia and Hank, he tells them that if they pay him $30,000, he’ll help to break up the marriage between Stephen and Paula (who, of course, everyone but Michael thinks is actually Clarice).

Eventually, Stephen shows up and he assumes that Paula actually is Clarice.  Paula and Stephen quickly fall in love and it turns out that Stephen is very serious about his new marriage.  He even wants to take Paula on a honeymoon.  Of course, he thinks Paula is Clarice and Paula is freaking out because they’re not actually married but she wishes that they were.  But, if they did actually get married, Stephen would be guilty of bigamy and then he’d have to leave the country like Clarice and….

Yes, this is one of those somewhat busy screwball comedies where almost every action is motivated by a misunderstanding and where all of the dialogue is extremely snappy.  To be honest, it’s all a bit too hyper.  Though the film originally had a running time of 70 minutes, most of the existing prints are only 57 minutes long.  This film has a lot of plot for only 57 minutes and it’s often difficult to keep track of what’s happening from one scene to the next.  That wouldn’t be a problem if this film starred someone like William Powell and Carole Lombard (or, for that matter, Cary Grant and Myrna Loy) but instead, this film features Sally Eilers and Neil Hamilton, who are likable performers but not quite likable enough to carry the film over it’s rough edges.

On the plus side, Joseph Schildkraut has some very funny scenes as the flamboyant Michael.  And Marcia Mae Jones and George Ernest both do a great work as Stephen’s paranoid children.  They consistently made me laugh.  Otherwise, Lady Behave! is a bit too frantic for its own good.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Diary of Anne Frank (dir by George Stevens)


From 1942 to 1944, a teenage girl named Anne Frank lived in hiding.

She and her family lived in what was sometimes called The Secret Annex, three stories of concealed rooms that were hidden behind a bookcase in an Amsterdam factory.  At first, it was just Anne, her older sister Margot, and their parents.  Eventually, they were joined by another family and eventually a dentist, with whom Anne did not get along.  Life was not easy in the concealed space and tempers often flared.  As the months passed, Anne had a romance-of-sorts with Peter, the teenage son of the other family, but she wondered if she truly felt anything for him or if it was just because they were stuck together.  Anne looked forward to someday returning to school and seeing all of her old friends, again.  However, she knew that she could not leave the Annex until the Nazis had finally been forced out of the Netherlands.  She and the other occupants had to remain in hiding and they had to remain perfectly quiet eight hours a day because they were Jewish.  If they were discovered, they would be sent to the camps.  So, they waited and Anne kept a diary.

Tragically, the Nazis did eventually discover the Secret Annex.  Of the 8 occupants, only Anne Frank’s father, Otto, would survive the war.  The rest died in various concentration camps.  Anne Frank’s mother starved to death in Auschwitz.  Her older sister, Margot, was 19 when she fell from her bunk and, because she was in such a weakened state, was killed by the shock.  Anne Frank, it is believed, died a few days after Margot.  She died at the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, one of the 17,000 prisoners to succumb to Typhus.  Before she died, Anne Frank spoke with two former schoolmates who were also being held at Bergen-Belsen.  She told them that she had believed her entire family was dead and that she no longer had any desire to go on living.

However, Otto Frank did survive and, at the end of the war, he returned to the Secret Annex.  That’s where he discovered Anne’s diary.  After editing it (a process that Anne, who aspired to be a journalist, had already started doing shortly before she was arrested), Otto arranged for the publication of the diary.  The Diary of A Young Girl (or, as it was titled in some countries, The Diary of Anne Frank) was a bestseller and has remained one ever since it was first published.  Along with being recognized as being one of the most important books ever written, it’s also been adapted for both stage and screen.

The first such screen adaptation was in 1959.  It was directed by George Stevens and it starred 20 year-old Millie Perkins as Anne.  (Perkins bore a great resemblance to Audrey Hepburn, who was reportedly Otto Frank’s preferred choice for the role.  Hepburn turned him down, saying she would have been honored to have played the role but believed that she was too old to believable as a 14 year-old.)  Joseph Schildkraut played Otto while Diane Baker played Margot and Gusti Huber played Edith Frank.  The Van Daans were played by Shelley Winters and Lou Jacobi while Richard Beymer played their son (and Anne’s tentative boyfriend), Peter.  Ed Wynn, who was best known as a comedian, played the role of Albert Dussell, the dentist to whom Anne took a dislike.  (The surviving family of Fritz Pfeffer — who was renamed Dussell in Anne’s diary — objected to the way he was portrayed in both the book and the film.)

As a film, it has its flaws.  George Stevens specialized in big productions but that was perhaps not the proper approach to take to an intimate film about a teenage girl coming-of-age under the most difficult circumstances imaginable.  Because this was a 20th Century Fox production from the 50s, The Diary of Anne Frank was filmed in Cinemascope, which made the annex itself look bigger than it should.  Scenes that should feel claustrophobic often merely come across as being cluttered.

But, in the end, the story is so powerful and so important that it doesn’t matter.  Though the Annex was recreated on a Hollywood sound stage, the exteriors were actually filmed in Amsterdam.  When we see the outside of the factory where the Frank family lived, we are seeing the actual factory.  When we see repeated shots of the uniformed Nazi police patrolling the streets at night, we know that we’re seeing the actual view that Anne Frank undoubtedly saw many a night from the Annex.  And because we know the story, we begin the film knowing how it’s going to end and that adds an even greater weight to each and every scene.  It’s impossible not to relate to Anne’s hopes for the future and it’s just as impossible to not mourn that Anne never lived to see that future.

Stevens originally planned for the film to end with a scene of Anne at Bergen-Belsen.  To their discredit, 20th Century Fox removed the scene after preview audiences complained that it was too upsetting.  People should be upset while watching (or, for that matter, reading) The Diary of Anne Frank.  Even today, there are people who still seem to struggle with acknowledging the enormous evil that was perpetrated by the Nazis and their allies.  As a result, it’s not uncommon to find people who, when they don’t outright deny that it happened, try to minimize the Holocaust.  It’s a disgusting thing.  There was recently a viral video, which was released by NowThis that featured a student at George Washington University saying, “What’s going to happen if there’s another Holocaust? Well, we’re seeing what’s happening. We’re seeing people die at the border for lack of medical care. That’s how Anne Frank died. She didn’t die in a concentration camp, she died from typhus.”  NowThis later said that the student meant to say that Anne Frank “didn’t die from a concentration camp, she died from typhus,” and you really have to wonder just how fucking stupid someone has to be to think that 1) that’s somehow an improvement on what was originally said and 2) that typhus and the concentration camp were not essentially the same thing.  Even if one accepts that the student misspoke, it would seem that her main complaint was the the concentration camp didn’t have proper medical care, as opposed to the fact that it was specifically created to imprison and kill Jewish people.  It’s an astounding combination of ignorance and antisemitism.  NowThis later edited her comments out of the video, which again seems to miss the point of why people were upset in the first place.  Instead of just saying, “Hey, this idiot is a Holocaust denier and, regardless of whether she hates Trump as much as we do, we want nothing to do with her,” NowThis instead said, “Well, if that comment offends you, we’ll take it out and you won’t have to hear it.”  To me, that’s why The Diary of Anne Frank is still important and why it should still be read and watched and studied.  There are too many ignorant people and craven, weak-willed organizations out there for us to turn our backs on teaching history.

The Diary Anne Frank was nominated for best picture of the year.  While Shelley Winters won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, the Best Picture Oscar went to Ben-Hur.  Interestingly enough, Ben-Hur’s director, William Wyler, was originally interested in directing The Diary Anne Frank before George Stevens was brought on board.

Pre Code Confidential #10: Cecil B. DeMille’s CLEOPATRA (Paramount 1934)


cracked rear viewer

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When I hear the words ‘Hollywood Epic’, the name Cecil B. DeMille immediately springs to mind. From his first film, 1914’s THE SQUAW MAN to his last, 1956’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, DeMille was synonymous with big, sprawling productions. The producer/director, who’s credited with almost singlehandedly inventing the language of film, made a smooth transition from silents to talkies, and his 1934 CLEOPATRA is a lavish Pre-Code spectacular featuring sex, violence, and a commanding performance by Claudette Colbert as the Queen of the Nile.

1934: Claudette Colbert in title role of Cecil B. DeMille's film Cleopatra.

While the film’s opulent sets (by Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier) and gorgeous B&W cinematography (by Victor Milner) are stunning, all eyes will be on the beautiful, half-naked Colbert. She gives a bravura performance as Cleopatra, the ambitious, scheming Egyptian queen. She’s sensuous and seductive, wrapping both Caesar and Marc Antony around her little finger, and devious in her political machinations. If I were compare her to Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 Joseph…

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