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

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Alibi (dir by Roland West)


1929 was a transitional year for Hollywood.

On the one hand, more people were going to the movies than ever.  The studio moguls were getting rich and directors, many of whom were influenced by German expressionism, were experimenting with new ways to visually tell their stories.  The days when an motionless camera would just be planted on the floor so that it could record actors moving in and out of the frame were over.

At the same time, Hollywood was also struggling to adjust to the arrival of sound.  Though many assumed that sound would just be a fad, it quickly turned out that audiences preferred sound pictures to the old silent melodramas.  Films that had been originally conceived as being silent were reshot with sound and the results were often mixed as Hollywood technicians struggled to figure out how to get the best and clearest recording possible.  Even harder hit were the actors, who had spent decades giving silent performances but who were now expected to adapt, overnight, to an entirely new style of acting.  Some actors saw their career abruptly end because their voice didn’t match their appearance or because they simply couldn’t memorize the dialogue that they were now required to actually speak.  Even the actors who could handle delivering their dialogue often struggled to find the right balance between acting too much and acting too little.

Take Alibi, for instance.  This crime film was released in 1929 and visually, it’s often a marvel.  But whenever the actors open their mouths and start to recite their dialogue …. yeesh!

Based on a Broadway play, Alibi tells the story of Chick Williams (Chester Morris, whose brooding good looks go a long way towards making up for his awkward screen presence).  Chick is a career criminal who has just been released from prison.  Because he’s a “jailbird,” (as they used to put it in 1929), Sgt. Pete Manning (Purnell Pratt) is convinced that Chick has hooked back up with his old gang and that he’s responsible for a recent robbery that left one policeman dead.  However, Chick has an alibi.  It turns out that, after getting out of prison, one of the first that Chick did was get married.  Chick’s new wife is Pete’s daughter, Joan (Eleanor Griffith)!  And Joan swears that, on the night of the crime, Chick was with her at the theater.

Despite his alibi, Pete is convinced that Chick had something to do with both the robbery and the murder.  Pete decides to send in an undercover cop, Danny McGann (Regis Toomey).  Pretending to be a permanently drunk businessman, Danny works his way into Chick’s mob.  But can Danny find the proof needed to take Chick down?

So, here’s what’s good about Alibi.  First off, it’s a pre-code film, which means that the characters are allowed to occasionally curse and that the gangsters all spend their time at a nightclub, watching the floor show.  It also means that Joan is allowed to openly discuss why she distrusts the police and the film shows the police being brutal in a way that would never be allowed during the production code years.  Secondly, from the very first scene, director Roland West creates an almost dream-like atmosphere, full of looming shadows and art deco sets and close-ups of menacing faces.  West’s camera prowls through the streets and clubs with a restless energy.

But then, as I mentioned earlier, someone will open their mouth and start to speak and the entire film comes to a halt.  The cast — some of whom went on to have long and successful careers — was obviously still struggling to figure out how to act in a sound film and the results are definitely mixed.  Eleanor Griffith delivers all of her lines in the same angry tone while Purnell Pratt stiffly defends the police force.  Regis Toomey, meanwhile, goes so overboard as Danny that you find yourself hoping that he’ll blow his cover and be forced out of the film.  Though he’s occasionally awkward, Chester Morris probably does the best out of the entire cast.  At the very least, he manages to communicate some genuine menace.

Seen today, Alibi is mostly interesting as a historical document.  It represents both the best and the worst of the early sound era.  When it was first released, Alibi was a hit at the box office.  Though no official nominees were announced for the 2nd Academy Awards, notes from the era indicate the Alibi was among the films considered for Best Picture and it’s usually listed as being a nominee.  The award itself was given to Broadway Melody.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: The Carey Treatment (dir by Blake Edwards)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  She has got over 170 movies on the DVR to watch and she’s trying to get it done before the start of the new year!  Can she get it done?  Probably not, but she’s going to try!  1972’s The Carey Treatment was recorded off of TCM on July 23rd.)

Dr. Peter Carey (James Coburn) is the epitome of 1970s cool.  He’s got hair long enough to cover the top half of ears.  He’s got a fast car.  He’s got a rebellious attitude and a girlfriend (Jennifer O’Neill) who rarely questions his decisions.  Though you don’t see it in the movie, Dr. Carey probably smokes weed when he’s back at his fashionably decorated apartment.  How do I know this?  Well, he’s played by James Coburn.  Even if some of them are nearly 50 years old, you can still get a contact high from watching any movie featuring James Coburn.

Anyway, what the Hell is The Carey Treatment about?  Dr. Carey has just recently moved to Boston, where he’s taken a job at a stodgy old hospital.  The hospital’s chief doctor, J.D. Randall (Dan O’Herlihy, of Halloween III: Season of The Witch fame), might want Dr. Carey to tone down his free-livin’, free-lovin’ California ways but no one tells Peter Carey what to do.  In fact, the entire city of Boston might be too stodgy and conventional for Dr. Carey.  You see, Dr. Carey not only heals people.  He also beats up people who try to stand in his way.  Peter Carey is a doctor who cares but he’s also a doctor who can kick ass.

And he’s going to have to kick a lot of ass because Dr. Randall’s daughter has just turned up dead.  The police say that she died as the result of a botched abortion and they’ve arrested Carey’s best friend, Dr. David Tao (James Hong).  (The Carey Treatment, it should be noted, was filmed before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion.)  The Boston establishment is determined to use Dr. Tao as a scapegoat but Dr. Carey is convinced that his friend is innocent.  In fact, he doesn’t think that the death was the result of an abortion at all.  Carey sets out to solve the case … HIS WAY!

If it seems like I’m going a little bit overboard with my emphasis on the Dr. Peter Carey character, that’s because this entire movie feels more like a pilot for a weekly Dr. Carey television series as opposed to an actual feature film.  It’s easy to image that each week, James Coburn would drive from hospital to hospital, solving medical mysteries and debating social issues with stuffy members of the Boston establishment.  Henry Mancini would provide the theme music and Don Murray would guest star as Dr. Carey’s brother, a priest who encourages the young men in his parish to burn their draft cards.

It might have eventually become an interesting TV show but it falls pretty flat as a movie.  James Coburn is in nearly every scene, which would usually be a good thing.  But in The Carey Treatment, he gives an incredibly indifferent performance.  He seems to be bored by the whole thing and, as a result, Dr. Peter Carey is less a cool rebel and more of a narcissistic jerk.  The mystery itself is handled rather haphazardly.  On the positive side, Michael Blodgett gives a wonderfully creepy performance as a duplicitous masseur but otherwise, The Carey Treatment is nothing special.

If you want to see a great James Coburn film, track down The President’s Analyst.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Change of Habit (dir by William A. Graham)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  How long is it going to take?  Some would say forever but, here at the Shattered Lens, we’re hoping that she might have it all done by August.  Anyway, she recorded the 1969 film Change of Habit off of Starz on March 20th!)

It’s Elvis vs. God for the heart of Mary Tyler Moore!

(Okay, so that may be a little bit glib on my part but, seriously, that pretty much sums up Change of Habit.)

Change of Habit opens with three nuns walking through New York City.  There’s the forgettable nun, Sister Barbara (Jane Elliott).  There’s the black, streetwise nun, Sister Irene (Barbara McNair).  And then there’s the idealistic and wholesome nun, Sister Michelle (Mary Tyler Moore).  Because they’re nuns, even notoriously rude New Yorkers are nice to them.  They walk across a busy intersection and all of the cars stop for them.  A cop sees them jaywalking and just smiles and nods at them.  In case you were ever wondering why someone would become a nun, it’s because nuns always have the right-of-way and they don’t have to obey arbitrary laws.  It’s a good life.

The sisters are shopping and, as the opening credits roll, the three of them duck into a dressing room and change into contemporary civilian clothing.  Obsessively, the camera keeps zooming in on everyone’s bare legs.  You can literally hear the film’s producers telling all the boys in the audience, “This may be a G-rated Elvis film but that’s not going to stop us from implying nun nudity!”

It’s Sister Michelle’s idea that the nuns should wear contemporary clothing, the better to relate to the Godless youth of the 1960s.  Unfortunately, now that they’re dressed like everyone else, they have to actually obey traffic laws.  When they attempt to cross the street for a second time, cars honk at them and the cop yells at them for jaywalking.

Michelle, Irene, and Barbara get jobs working at a free clinic.  The clinic is run by John Carpenter (Elvis Presley).  Carpenter is looking for aspiring actresses to appear in a movie about a babysitter being stalked by a masked murderer on Halloween and … oh sorry.  Wrong John Carpenter.  This John Carpenter is a no-nonsense doctor who will stop at nothing to bring peace and good health to the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in New York!

That’s right.  It’s an Elvis film with a social conscience!

And that probably sounds like a joke but Change of Habit‘s heart is in the right place.  It’s intentions are good.  At least a few of the people involved in the film were probably trying to make the world a better place.  There’s a subplot involving an autistic child that, when you consider this film was made in 1969, is handled with unusual sensitivity.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that the rest of Change of Habit doesn’t feel totally and completely out-of-touch.  The entire film feels so dated that I imagine it probably even felt dated when it was initially released.  This is one of those films where the local black militants give Sister Irene a hard time about being a sell-out, just to eventually admit, during a block party, that maybe white folks aren’t so bad after all.  By the end of the movie, they’re even joking with the cops.  All that was needed was for Elvis to sing a song or two.  To be honest, there are times when Change of Habit feels like the 1969 version of Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi commercial.

Of course, the majority of the film deals with Elvis falling in love with Mary Tyler Moore.  He doesn’t know that she’s a nun and, as she falls in love with him, she’s forced to make a difficult choice.  Does she follow God or does she follow Elvis?  Actually, the film ends before she officially makes that choice but there’s little doubt as to what she’s going to eventually do.  In his final non-concert film appearance, Elvis is totally miscast as a serious-minded doctor and, it must be said, he looked miserable throughout the entire film.  You get the feeling he’d rather be doing anything than starring in Change of Habit.  (Maybe he was already thinking about how much he wanted a special FBI badge.)  Mary Tyler Moore is a bit more believable as a nun.  Fortunately, both Moore and Elvis were likable performers and their likability makes Change of Habit, as ludicrous as it often is, far more watchable than it has any right to be.

In the end, Elvis may not have saved society but he did get to sing a gospel song or two.

The Fabulous Forties #44: His Girl Friday (dir by Howard Hawks)


His_Girl_Friday_poster

The 44th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was the classic 1940 comedy, His Girl Friday.

Earlier this week, when I mentioned that Cary Grant’s Oscar-nominated work in Penny Serenade was not the equal of his work in comedies like The Awful Truth and The Philadelphia Story, quite a few people took the time to let me know that their favorite Cary Grant film remains His Girl Friday.  And I can’t blame them.  Not only does His Girl Friday feature Cary Grant at his best but it also features Rosalind Russell at her best too.  Not only that but it’s also one of the best films to ever be directed by the great Howard Hawks.  There are a lot of career bests to be found in His Girl Friday, and that’s not even counting a supporting cast that is full of some of the greatest character actors of the 1940s.

The film itself is a remake of The Front Page, that classic story of an editor trying to keep his star reporter from leaving the newspaper in order to get married.  (Along the way, they not only manage to expose municipal corruption but also help to hide and exonerate a man who has escaped from death row.)  The action moves fast, the dialogue is full of quips, and the whole thing is wonderfully cynical about … well, everything.  The major difference between The Front Page and His Girl Friday is that the reporter is now a woman and she’s the ex-wife of the editor.  When Cary Grant’s Walter Burns attempts to convince Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson to cover just one last story, he’s not only trying to hold onto his star reporter.  He’s also trying to keep the woman he loves from marrying the decent but boring Bruce Baldwin.

Bruce, incidentally, is played by Ralph Bellamy.  Bellamy also played Grant’s romantic rival in The Awful Truth.  To a certain extent, you really do have to feel bad for Ralph.  He excelled at playing well-meaning but dull characters.  As played by Bellamy, you can tell that Bruce would be a good husband in the most uninspiring of ways.  That’s the problem.  Hildy deserves more than just a life of boring conformity and Walter understands that.  Not only do Walter and Hildy save the life of escaped convict Earl Williams but, in doing so, Hildy is also saved from a life of being conventional.

As we all know, it’s fashionable right now to attack the news media.  Quite frankly, modern media often makes it very easy to do so.  For that matter, so do a lot of a movies about the media.  To take just two of the more acclaimed examples, there’s a smugness and a self-importance to both Good Night and Good Luck and Spotlight that becomes more and more obvious with each subsequent viewing.  (Admittedly, Edward R. Murrow was prominent way before my time but, if he was anything like the pompous windbag who was played by David Strathairn, I’m surprised that television news survived.)  Far too often, it seems like well-intentioned filmmakers, in their attempt to defend the media, end up making movies that only serve to remind people why the can’t stand the old media in the first place.

Those filmmakers would do well to watch and learn from a film like His Girl Friday.  His Girl Friday is a cheerfully dark film that is full of cynical journalists who drink too much and have little use for the type of self-congratulation that permeates through a film like Spotlight.  Ironically, you end up loving the journalists in His Girl Friday because the film never demands that you so much as even appreciate them.  There are no long speeches about the importance of journalism or long laments about how non-journalists just aren’t smart enough to appreciate their local newspaper.  Instead, these journalists are portrayed as hard workers and driven individuals who do a good job because deliberately doing anything else is inconceivable.  They don’t have time to pat themselves on the back because they’re too busy doing their job and hopefully getting results.

If you want to see a film that will truly make you appreciate journalism and understand why freedom of the press is important, watch this unpretentious comedy from Howard Hawks.

In fact, you can watch it below!

The Fabulous Forties #28: Jack London (dir by Alfred Santell)


Jack-London-1943

The 28th Film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was a 1943 biopic about the writer, Jack London.  Not surprisingly, the title of the film was Jack London.

Now, I should start this review off by mentioning that I know very little about Jack London.  I don’t think that I have ever read any of his short stories or his novels.  I know that he wrote a novel called White Fang but that’s largely because there’s been so many different film versions of the book.  (Long before directing Zombi 2, even Lucio Fulci made a version of White Fang.)  Here’s what I do know about Jack London:

  1. He was a prominent writer at the turn of the century.
  2. He was reportedly an alcoholic.
  3. He was a Socialist who even ran for mayor of Oakland, California on the party’s ticket.
  4. He was an atheist.
  5. In 1916, depending on the source, he either committed suicide, died of alcohol poisoning, or simply passed away as the result of 40 years of hard living.

Of those 5 facts, 4 are totally ignored in Jack London.  The film does acknowledge that Jack London eventually became a prominent writer, even going so far as to open with stock footage of a U.S. warship being named after him.

As for his alcoholism, we never see London drunk.  Indeed, the film’s version of Jack London is so earnest that it’s hard to believe he’s ever had a drink in his life.

As for his Socialism, we are shown that London grew up in a poor family.  When, after serving at sea, he takes a writing class, he argues with a professor over London’s desire to write about the poor.  However, we never hear London express any specific ideology.  We certainly don’t see him running for mayor of Oakland.

As for his atheism — yeah right.  This film was made in 1943!  There’s no way that Jack London was going to be portrayed as talking about why he didn’t believe in God.

As for his death — well, Jack London ends with the writer very much alive.  There’s not even a title card informing us that London eventually died.

Instead, Jack London is much more concerned with Jack (played by Michael O’Shea) dealing with the Japanese.  Oh sure, we get some scenes of Jack London watching a shootout and breaking up a bar fight in Alaska.  And Susan Hayward shows up as Jack London’s always supportive wife.  (For that matter, Louise Beavers also shows up as Jack London’s always supportive house keeper.)

But, in the end, the majority of the film features Jack London as a war correspondent covering the turn of the 20th century war between Russia and Japan.  When he’s captured by the Japanese, he observes the harsh way they treat prisoners and is shocked when he witnesses several prisoners being ruthlessly executed.  When he talks to a Japanese commandant, he’s outraged as the commandant explains how the Empire of Japan is planning to take over the world.  When Jack finally gets back to America, he’s less concerned with writing White Fang and more concerned with warning the American people to remain vigilant…

Jack London is basically wartime propaganda disguised as a biopic.  The entire point of the film seems to be that if Jack London was still alive, he would want the men in the audience to enlist and the women to buy war bonds.  None of it is subtle and, beyond its value as a time capsule of how Americans viewed the Japanese in 1943, none of it is particularly interesting as well.

In the end, Jack London plays out like one of those earnest but dull educational films that tend to show up on PBS when no one’s watching.

Shattered Politics #7: Meet John Doe (dir by Frank Capra)


Meet John Doe

I cannot stand the phrase “pay it forward.”

The idea is that somebody does something nice for you and then they say, “Pay it forward” and suddenly, you are magically required to go out and do something nice for someone else.  For one thing, I hate the obligation of it all.  I have this fear that as soon as I finally get finished paying it forward, some stranger is going to hand me a Coke and say, “Pay it forward,” and suddenly I’ll have to do it all over again!  And really, honestly, I shouldn’t have to pay it forward just because someone  gives me a Coke.  If you’re going to tell me to pay it forward, at least give me a car or a Victoria’s Secret gift card or something.

Ultimately, “pay it forward” is something that people say to make themselves feel good but it’s actually a pretty shallow concept.

The same thing can be said about John Doeism, the philosophy that rests at the center of the 1941 film Meet John Doe, our latest entry in Shattered Politics.  John Doeism is a grassroots political movement that is based around the slogan, “Be a Better Neighbor.”  Much like “Pay it forward,” “Be a better neighbor” sounds good and it’s easy to say but its main appeal is that it doesn’t require that much thought.  If anything, it sounds like the first step on the road to serfdom…

That said, I still like the film.

Meet John Doe opens with lay-offs at a major metropolitan newspaper.  (These lay-offs are signified by a handsome young man who points at people and then runs his finger across his throat.)  Among those laid off is columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck).  However, before Ann is officially let go, she is told to write one final column.  Understandably angry over her treatment, Ann responds by making something up.  She writes and prints a fake letter from a man calling himself “John Doe.”  John Doe explains that he’s unemployed and that he will be committing suicide on Christmas Eve.

Well, quicker than you can say twitter death hoax, everyone in the entire country reads John Doe’s letter and demands to know who he is.  The newspaper’s editor, Henry Connell (James Gleason), rehires Ann and puts her in charge of finding the real John Doe.

When numerous unemployed and homeless men start to show up at the newspaper, claiming to be the real John Doe, little do they realize that they are, in fact, auditioning.  Ann finally decides that Joe Willoughby (Gary Cooper) has what it takes to be the public face of John Doe.  Not only does he have a compelling personal story (he’s a former baseball player whose career was ended by an arm injury) but he looks and sounds like Gary Cooper.

(And, as I typed that last sentence, it suddenly occurred to me that Meet John Doe managed to predict American Idol…)

Joe is soon a celebrity, reading speeches that have been written for him by Ann and encouraging people across the nation to be a better neighbor.  And Ann is falling in love with Joe.  However, Joe is not comfortable with his new role.  For one thing, he doesn’t like being a hero for telling a lie.  Secondly, he knows that rival newsmen are eager to expose him as being a fraud.  And finally, there’s a sinister publisher named D.B. Norton (played by Edward Arnold, who previously played corrupt Boss Taylor in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington) who is eager to be President of the United States.  He wants to turn John Doeism into a fascist political movement and, unless Joe endorses him, he’ll reveal that Joe’s a fraud…

Meet John Doe was Frank Capra’s follow-up to Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  It features many of the same themes as Mr. Smith, with the main difference being that Meet John Doe is a lot more preachy.  Whereas Mr. Smith saved its big speech for the end, Meet John Doe has several big speeches spread throughout its running time.  (There’s also a scene where a guy named Bert tells the story of how he was inspired by John Doe and, I swear, it literally goes on forever.)

So, no, Meet John Doe is definitely no Mr. Smith Goes Go To Washington but I still liked it, mostly because of the chemistry between Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck.  I wanted to be Barbara Stanwyck’s character.  Seriously, watching a film like Meet John Doe, leaves me convinced that I was born several decades too late.  If I had been born in 1918, I could have been a quick-witted, cynical, and secretly romantic intrepid girl reporter at a major metropolitan newspaper.

Girl Reporter

Even better, I would never have to worry about ever being told to “pay it forward.”