No Surprises Here: GUN FURY (Columbia 1953)


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I watched GUN FURY expecting a surprise. What I got instead was a routine Western, not bad for its type, bolstered by a better-than-average cast, solid direction from veteran Raoul Walsh , and some lavish Technicolor location footage from Sedona, AZ. But I kept waiting and waiting for that “surprise” that never came. What am I talking about? Read on and find out, buckeroos!

Ben Warren, a peaceful Civil War vet, meets his intended bride Jennifer Ballard at the stagecoach station. The two lovebirds intend to travel to the next stop and get hitched. Also onboard the stage is mean desperado Frank Slayton, an “unreconstructed Southerner” feared across the territory, and his partner-in-crime Jess Burgess. Frank’s gang, disguised as Cavalry soldiers, lie in wait and rob the stage of it’s shipment of gold, stealing the loot killing everyone except Jennifer, who Frank has designs on and kidnaps.

But wait! Ben’s…

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The Last Gangster: James Cagney in WHITE HEAT (Warner Brothers 1949)


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When James Cagney burst onto the screen in THE PUBLIC ENEMY, a star was born. Cagney’s machine gun delivery of dialog, commanding screen presence, and take-no-shit attitude made him wildly popular among the Depression Era masses, if not with studio boss Jack Warner, with whom Cagney frequently battled over salary and scripts that weren’t up to par. Films like LADY KILLER , THE MAYOR OF HELL , and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES made Cagney the quintessential movie gangster, but after 1939’s THE ROARING TWENTIES he hung up his spats and concentrated on changing his image. Ten years later, Cagney returned to the gangster film in WHITE HEAT, turning in one of his most memorable performances as the psychotic Cody Jarrett.

Cagney is older and meaner than ever as Jarrett, a remorseless mad-dog killer with a severe mother complex and more than a touch of insanity. Jarrett has frequent debilitating headaches…

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End of an Era: THE ROARING TWENTIES (Warner Brothers 1939)


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Warner Brothers helped usher in the gangster movie era in the early 1930’s with Pre-Code hits like LITTLE CAESAR and THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and at the decade’s end they put the capper on the genre with THE ROARING TWENTIES, a rat-a-tat-tat rousing piece of filmmaking starring two of the studio’s top hoods, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart , directed with the top down by eye-patch wearing macho man Raoul Walsh for maximum entertainment.

The film’s story was written by Mark Hellinger, a popular and colorful New York columnist in the Damon Runyon mold who based it on his encounters with some of the underworld figures he knew during that tumultuous era. Hellinger was later responsible for producing some of the toughest noirs of the late 40’s: THE KILLERS BRUTE FORCE , THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS, and THE NAKED CITY. Jerry Wald, Richard Macauley, and Robert Rossen adapted Hellinger’s story for the screen, and the film…

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Lisa Marie Reviews An Oscar Nominee: In Old Arizona (dir by Raoul Walsh and Irving Cummings)


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Since the Oscars are approaching, I thought I would devote February to continuing my never-ending quest to watch and review every single film nominated for best picture!

With that in mind, I recently watched the 1928 film In Old Arizona.  In Old Arizona is a bit of an oddity in Oscar history.  Even though it is considered to have been a best picture nominee, it was never officially nominated.  In fact, in 1929, there were no official nominees.  Instead, the Academy simply announced the names of the winners.  The winners were selected by a small committee of judges.  The committee’s intentions are particularly obvious when you notice that not one film won more than one Oscar in 1929.  At a time when the industry was struggling to make the transition from silent film to the talkies, the 1929 Oscars were all about spreading the wealth and reassuring everyone that they were doing worthwhile work.  In Old Arizona‘s star, Warner Baxter, was named the year’s best actor while Broadway Melody was declared to have been the best picture.

(At that year’s Oscar ceremony, the second in the Academy’s history, the awards were reportedly handed out in 10 minutes and nobody gave an acceptance speech.  If this all seems strange when compared to the annual extravaganza that we all know and love, consider that Louis B. Mayer originally formed the Academy in order to give the studio bosses the upper hand in a labor dispute.  The awards were largely an afterthought.)

Years later, Oscar historians came across the notes of the committee’s meeting.  The notes listed every other film and performer that the committee considered.  Before settling on Broadway Melody, the committee apparently considered In Old Arizona.  For that reason, In Old Arizona is considered to have been nominated for best picture of the year.

If it seems like I’ve spent a bit more time than necessary discussing the history behind the 1929 Oscars, that’s because In Old Arizona isn’t that interesting of a film.  It was a huge box office success in 1929 and it was an undeniable influence on almost every Western that followed but seen today, it’s an extremely creaky film.  Influential or not, there’s not a scene, character, or performance in In Old Arizona that hasn’t been done better by another western.

Based on a story by O. Henry, In Old Arizona tells the story of a bandit named The Cisco Kid (Warner Baxter).  Cisco may be an outlaw but he’s also a nice guy who enjoys a good laugh and occasionally sings a song while riding his horse across the Arizona landscape.  (California and Utah stood in for Arizona.)  The Cisco Kid may rob stagecoaches but he always does it with a smile.  Besides, he only needs the money so that he can give gifts to his girlfriend, Tonia (Dorothy Burgess).  What the Cisco Kid doesn’t know is that Tonia is bored and frustrated by his frequent absences and she has been cheating on him.  Then she’s approached by Sgt. Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe), the big dumb lug who has been ordered to bring the Kid in (dead or alive, of course).  Will Tonia betrayed the Kid?

If you’re watching In Old Arizona and hoping to be entertained, you’ll probably be disappointed.  Almost everything about this film has aged terribly.  Watching the film, it’s obvious that none of the actors had quite figured out how to adapt to the sound era and, as such, all of the performances were very theatrical and overdone.  Probably the easiest to take is Edmund Lowe, who at least managed to deliver his lines without screeching.  Sadly, the same cannot be said of Dorothy Burgess.  As for Warner Baxter, he may have won an Oscar for playing the Cisco Kid but that doesn’t make his acting any easier to take.

And yet, if you’re a history nerd like me, In Old Arizona is worth watching because it really is a time capsule of the era in which it was made.  In Old Arizona was not only the first Western to ever receive an Oscar.  This was also the first all-talking, all-sound picture.  Watching it today, without that knowledge, you might be tempted to wonder why the film lingers so long over seemingly mundane details, like horses walking down a street, the ticking of a clock, a baby crying, or a church bell ringing.  But, if you know the film’s significance, it’s fun to try to put yourself in the shoes of someone watching In Old Arizona in 1929 and, for the first time, realizing that film could not just a visual medium but one of sound as well.  For some members of that 1929 audience, In Old Arizona was probably the first time they ever heard the sound of a horse galloping across the landscape.

(I have to admit that, as a student of American history, I couldn’t help but get excited when one of the characters mentioned President McKinley.  McKinley may be forgotten today but audiences in 1929 would not only remember McKinley but also his tragic assassination.  By mentioning that McKinley was President, In Old Arizona not only reminded audiences that it was taking in the past but that it was also taking place during what would have been considered a more innocent time.  Much as how later movies would use John F. Kennedy as a nostalgic symbol of a more idealistic time, In Old Arizona uses William McKinley.)

In Old Arizona is no longer a particularly entertaining film but, as a historical artifact, it is absolutely fascinating.

Happy Birthday Errol Flynn: DESPERATE JOURNEY (Warner Brothers 1942)


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The actor known for his “wicked, wicked ways”, Errol Flynn was born June 20, 1909 in Hobart, Australia. The dashing Flynn skyrocketed to fame with a series of swashbuckling exploits: CAPTAIN BLOOD , THE SEA HAWK, and most notably THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. He was also featured in some of the great Westerns of the era (THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, SANTA FE TRAIL). Like all stalwart screen heroes, during the 1940’s Flynn made a number of wartime propaganda films to boost morale for the masses. One of these was DESPERATE JOURNEY, a totally improbable but highly exciting action yarn from the two-fisted, one-eyed Raoul Walsh, director of such macho fare as THE ROARING TWENTIES, HIGH SIERRA, and WHITE HEAT.

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An RAF bomber squad is sent on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines to take out a train depot. They accomplish the task, but are shot down by Nazi heavy artillery. Forced to…

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The Second Annual Academy Awards: 1915


Continuing to reimagine Oscar history one year at a time, LMB and I take a look at what 1915 could have been.

Through the Shattered Lens Presents The Oscars

John Wilkes Booth (Raoul Walsh) flees after shooting Abraham Lincoln in D.W. Griffith's Birth Of A Nation John Wilkes Booth (Raoul Walsh) flees after shooting Abraham Lincoln in D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation

The second annual Academy Awards were handed out on January 20th, 1916.  For the second and final time, the ceremony took place in the Empire Room of the Waldorf Hotel in New York City.  Just as in the previous year, the awards were handed out after dinner and a speech from Academy President Mack Sennett.  Again, the winners were announced before the actual ceremony and were given certificates of achievement.  According to contemporary reports, the winners who were present all gave brief acceptance speeches but nobody bothered to record what anyone said.

As in the previous year, winners were selected by a jury of distinguished citizens.  The 1915 jury consisted of:

  1. Harry Chandler, businessman
  2. Owen McAleer, former mayor of Los Angeles, California
  3. Ellery Sedgwick, publisher of…

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Benny’s From Heaven: Jack Benny in THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT (1945)


horn11Jack Benny claimed 1945’s THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT killed his movie career. After rewatching it, I can’t understand why. This comedy/fantasy is just as good as any Bob Hope or Red Skelton film of the era. Yet the critics of the time savaged it, and Benny spent the rest of his life cracking jokes about what a turkey the movie was. I disagree, and think THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT deserves a second look.

Jack plays Athanael, a third rate trumpeter playing third trumpet for a radio show sponsored by Paradise Coffee (“the coffee that makes you sleep”). Lulled to sleep himself by the dulcet tones of the show’s announcer, Athanael dreams he’s playing his trumpet in a heavenly orchestra. Beautiful harpist Elizabeth (Alexis Smith) recommends him to the chief angel (Guy Kibbee) for an important mission. It seems Earth has been acting up, with “persecution and hatred everywhere”, and The Big Boss (aka God) has decided to eliminate it. Athanael is sent to play “the first four notes of the Judgment Day Overture” precisely at midnight and signal the end of the world.

Our hero lands at a swank hotel, where he’s spotted by two fallen angels (Allyn Joslyn, John Alexander) who’re comfy with their corrupt lives. Athanael saves a desperate cigarette girl (Dolores Moran) from suicide and misses his chance to blow at midnight. He loses the trumpet when he can’t pay for a meal and Elizabeth is sent to straighten out the mess. The fallen angels conspire with a slick thief (Reginald Gardner) to steal the horn. A merry mix-up ends with everyone hanging from the hotel’s rooftop scrambling for the horn.

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I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say Athanael wakes from his dream to deliver the punchline. There are lots of historical and heavenly puns (seeing people jitterbugging on the dance floor, Athanael exclaims “I must tell St. Vitus about this”)and plenty of silly sight gags. The score by Franz Waxman adds to the fun, aided by music cues you’ll surely recognize from Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes (an uncredited assist from cartoon maestro Carl Stalling).

The cast is loaded with comic actors like Franklin Pangborn, Margaret Dumont, ex-wrestler Mike Mazurki, and Hollywood’s favorite souse Jack Norton. And then there’s Jack. He’s perfect in the role, and his impeccable timing, comic delivery, and that unmistakable mincing walk are on full display. Director Raoul Walsh was better known for his tough, manly films (THE ROARING 20’S, HIGH SIERRA, WHITE HEAT), but handles the comedy with a sure hand.

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While THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT is no classic, it’s not as bad as you may have heard. It’s certainly not as bad as Jack Benny made it out to be all those years. He certainly got some mileage out of making fun of it, though. Watch and judge for yourself. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Then again, I’m a huge Jack Benny fan, in case you haven’t guessed, so I may be a little biased.