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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Watch List For 9/19/12

LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLE (1957; released 1958) --- You want so much for this to be good and it just isn't. Virtually no air combat here, presumably the whole reason you'd watch a movie called Lafayette Escadrille. This was William Wellman's dream project, its story he wrote years before. There's even the director's son playing Wellman as a young flyer. Mainly though, it's a vehicle for Tab Hunter at his swooniest, and love scenes weigh heavy on the pace. Also too much You're In The Army Now clodhopping among raw recruits that include fresh faces Will Hutchins, David Janssen, Clint Eastwood, Tom Laughlin, more. A curiosity that might have been the talking equivalent of Wings if Warners hadn't sealed the checkbook.

Half of money blown on The Spirit Of St. Louis should have been re-routed to make a great picture of this. Wellman renounced Lafayette Escadrille --- did others take over from the beginning to reshape his vision? 1957 was a long way past the director's Wings peak, and injuries WW received during the Great War, plus encroachment of age, played havoc with his ability to sustain long and involved shooting schedules. Maybe some of what grounded Escadrille was limit these circumstances placed on Wellman, no longer the energetic and vigorous helmsman who'd gone aloft to grab moments of authenticity for previous air epics. Training scenes smack of the real thing as Wellman would describe it. Here's where we get a sense of the conflict he experienced, but that war was long ago by 1957, and kids, even Tab Hunter fans, just weren't interested (an $823K loss).

The plot device that makes Tab a fugitive wasn't welcomed by me, as it took him out of the war and possibility of air action. Again, it's dogfights we want and don't get (until nearly the end --- and comprised of stock footage from 1938's Men With Wings). Hard to defend Lafayette Escadrille even if you're a Wellman loyalist. Leonard Rosenman did a good score, though. Wellman himself narrates to the effect that nearly all members of his real-life squadron died in combat. The future director survived, of course. According to Frank Thompson's bio, WW was in on fierce fighting, shooting down Jerrys with the rest. Wellman's own memoir was known to be salted for dramatic effect, but even if you took a mere half for truth, that still left a dramatic and exciting story to be told in Lafayette Escadrille, if only Warners had been more supportive of it.

DICK TRACY'S DILEMMA (1947) --- How to reconcile RKO's tough noir approach with a comic strip kids followed faithfully. The Dick Tracy series kept fanciful character names, but otherwise was straight-up police thrilling for general patronage. Morgan Conway had been Tracy in the first two. He was fine, but a public got restless for Ralph Byrd to return from late-30's serials and take up duty. Dick Tracy's Dilemma is actually roughest of the four pic lot. Jack Lambert's hook-hand killer looks/acts horror-derived (Tracy needed Sherlock Holmes to help track this Creeper down), and moppets must have gone home to nightmares from watching. Only an hour long, so how trying could it be? Done in a day when movies treated comics as comics. We need to go back there.

HELLFIRE (1949) --- Crook gambler Bill Elliott gets religion and goes about reforming the rest of the West. You'll not believe this concept until you see it (Hellfire's end title reads "Amen"). Sincerely felt though, and that I liked. There's also Trucolor and Marie Windsor, only question being which is lovelier. Republic was upgrading their westerns and using seasoned casts, best of them retaining energy of B's with trappings of near-A's. Bill reads from the Bible when not yanking his sixes. Must have sold, as other gunfire preachers followed Hellfire's wake. Did I mention Marie Windsor? She's an outlaw gal Bill straightens out, to which you sit wondering why this one-of-a-kind never achieved stardom she so deserved. Forrest Tucker and Jim Davis are on hand yet again for Republic. They must have slept in their cowboy suits. Trucolor was a limited process, but give me more of it. Hellfire's on Netflix. You won't get burned for watching.

SECRETS OF A SECRETARY (1931) --- Love the title, as Claudette Colbert runs precode and early-career gamut to stolid Herb Marshall romance accompaniment. Threatened to be creaky, but really wasn't (maybe a little, but I'm tolerant). Another where the rich girl goes broke and gets humbled, wish fulfillment perhaps for Depression onlookers (see MGM's Dance, Fools, Dance for more of same). She marries a "gig" (as in -olo) and thereby plummets to titular secretarial status. Colbert could react to stock situations like real people. Even when Cleopattering, she was as you and I --- what actress did dialogue so deftly? Secretary was filmed on Paramount Long Island stages ... when these crowd up with extras, you expect seams to burst. To hit all bases, there's love rivalry, blackmail, gangland nightspots, with murder attendant, all paced decently and varied as to background. Precode Paras are a garden waiting to be harvested. Only a few have seen DVD release. This was a dub someone handed me in a hotel lobby. What a way to collect.

THREE WISE GIRLS (1932) --- Jean Harlow's unreal enough in early roles to seem like a platinum Betty Boop. Starring at Columbia was not a help. Their precodes lack polish of Metro and energy of Warners. Three Wise Girls would lay like dead fish if not for Harlow and an interesting cast. She's doused with lip rouge (to bring out light facial features?) and her mouth's bee-stung after Mae Murray (out of) fashion. Costuming doesn't always flatter. Soon-to-be-contracting MGM would have its work cut out with raw material that was early Harlow. Wise Girls partner Mae Clarke said JH was "an embarrassment" (see David Stenn's Harlow bio). I don't doubt that's true, more so then than now, however.

Harlow did work hard at improving, so I'm sympathetic to whatever's awkward about her here. So-called "bad" performances often serve pulpy precodes best. Who wants subtlety and understatement in these? The director was William Beaudine, pulling plows since the teens. Would Bowery Boys later ask him what it was like guiding Jean Harlow? Mae Clarke is effective in a pro-actress way. I don't wonder that she disdained Harlow. Third wise girl is Marie Prevost (of doggie dinner fame), weight gain confining her to comic/wisecrack support. Neither Clarke nor Prevost have much hope holding the screen when Harlow enters. She's a moving candle that leaves other players in darkness. Cheers to Columbia for making Three Wise Girls available in its recent Precode collection. Quality's a wow.


Anonymous Bob said...

One of the many joys of the RKO Dick Tracey was Ian Keith as Vitamin Flintheart -- Barrymore by way of the Sunday strip. It's a terrific performance, and Keith chews the scenery like nobody's business.

And a moment, please, to remember that there were few players more easy to take than Herbert Marshall....

4:35 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I'll watch MARIE WINDSOR instead of GARBO and DAVIS anyday.

9:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder how well HELLFIRE played in the Christ-drenched Bible Belt of the South in the 40's-50's...The title alone was enough to turn away a substantial number of "saved" movie-goers, much less their little lambs. In the Sixties, that most progressive of eras, my own mother, who was only an on-again, off-again Methodist, forbade me to see CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED, simply because of its title, and I have been mad about it ever since that time, goddamnit.

7:05 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

HELLFIRE was a regular attraction on one of our local TV channels growing up in the 60's. Always a favorite of my cowboy crazy kid brother (me to!) Will have to look that one up on Netflix.

7:33 PM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

The maddening thing about the RKO Tracys is that while they're good looking and decently acted movies, the villains weren't just bland; they were bums. For real life police, violent two-bit thugs are a real threat to the public and not always easy to bring down. But in the movies, you want to see your ace lawman take on crime lords and powerful madmen, not some loser who has to sleep in a truck.

1:25 AM  
Anonymous Les said...

I have a similar problem with the villains in those Tracy pictures. Compared to the fabulous creations Chester Gould came up with for the comic strip, the movie bad guys are maddeningly bland and, well, ordinary.

The early '50s TV series, at least the couple of episodes I've seen, are even worse. That series looks like it was filmed on a rock-bottom budget.

12:07 AM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

Shortly before Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy opened, one of the New York PBS stations ran all of RKO's in one afternoon. It was a good thing I videotaped and watched them separately over the course of a few weeks. Otherwise, I would have slipped into a coma. Only the one with Boris Karloff made any positive impression on me.

3:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So glad to see Hellfire get some attention. It's a film I love dearly.

Even considering its cast and Trucolor, the sincerity you mention may be its strongest point.

My favorite trivia about it is that the preacher is H.B. Warner -- who played Jesus in the silent King Of Kings. Fitting.

12:48 PM  
Blogger moviepas said...

Oct 1 2012
Not sure what you mean about the Van Dyke book, that is that you have got the 1948 but never seen the 1977 reprint. I have ordered a copy of the 1948 just now thru ABE Books. There are many there at this time.

3:58 AM  

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