Monday, November 28, 2011

Dick Tracy's G-Men (1939)

Released by Republic Pictures  Dick Tracy's G-Men is 15 chapters of thrills and excitement directed by William Witney and John English, and stars Ralph Byrd as the fearless square-jawed crime fighter, Irving Pichel, Ted Pearson, and Phylis Isley (aka Jennifer Jones).  The musical score is by William Lava, and the serial is based on the cartoon strip by Chester Gould.

Zarnoff (Pichel) the "International Master Spy" is captured by Dick Tracy and the FBI and is imprisoned and sentenced to death.  But when he is able to escape the gas chamber, Zarnoff vows revenge on Dick Tracy and the government.  Some of the dastardly acts committed by Zarnoff include attempts to sabotage an ammunition convoy and assassination attempts on foreign dignitaries, to smuggling and selling government secrets.  All the while Zarnoff manages to stay barely one step ahead of Tracy and his G-Men who are in hot pursuit.

The serial does have a few of those "you've got to be kidding me" moments.  Like when Tracy ends up in the water somehow and then manages to climb out with his hair still wet but his clothes pretty dry.  You would figure being in an international spy ring that when you were at your hideout you would at least lock the windows, but Tracy climbs right in and then uses their phone to call for backup.  Tracy cleverly escapes being bound and gagged with the aid of a cigarette lighter.  He also manages to survive a vault full of poison gas without even so much as a headache.  One of the last chapters of the serial is shown as a sort of re-cap of everything that's happened up to that point, in case the viewer has stretched their viewing over a period of time long enough to forget what's previously transpired.

But, I guess you have to take the bad with the good.  And with over four hours of viewing time, you're not expected to be on the edge of your seat for every single minute.  I find it's always better to watch these serials in small doses as they were intended, because for some viewers, watching them for long periods they become kind of repetitious.  The villains are always concocting some sort of devious plan for dispatching Dick Tracy, but they always act surprised when he shows up time after time.  Dick Tracy was also almost killed in the Hindenburg explosion when Zarnoff, not to be confused with Dr. Zorka from The Phantom Creeps, manages to blow up the dirigible again.  And as I always say, serials always seem have the best dressed thugs and gangsters - always dressed in suits, ties, and fedoras.

  The ending was a little unexpected, but as Tracy says "in one way or the other they always get it".

Ralph Byrd does another nice job as Tracy, and Pearson is solid as Tracy's partner Steve Lockwood.  Pichel puts in a strong performance as Zarnoff, a villain who's cunning and evil.  Isley/Jones has a small part as Gwen, Tracy's secretary, but does a good job making phone calls and getting the sandwiches etc.  I thought the name William Lava looked familiar in the credits.  He was very a prolific composer in his own right,  but also collaborated with other top names such as Henry Mancini, Franz Waxman, and Max Steiner.

Really nice transfer on the DVDs from VCI Entertainment, great image quality and sound.  Overall a pretty good serial with lots of excitement and only a few eye-rolling moments.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Six Degrees of Classic Film -- Round One

Thanks Page -

Mabel Normand was in Head Over Heels (1922) with Adolphe Menjou.

Next person up - Becky at ClassicBecky's Brain Food

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Cheat (1931)

I haven't watched many of Tallulah Bankhead's films, and never really thought of her as a pre-code glamour gal, but after viewing The Cheat I see her in a very different light.  The is the third time the story was filmed, after the 1915 and 1923 versions.  This version was directed by George Abbott and stars Tallulah Bankhead, Irving Pichel, and Harvey Stephens.  When Elsa Carlyle (Bankhead) foolishly gambles away $10,000 on a hunch she uses a charity's money to replace her losses.   Her husband Jeffrey (Stephens) is constantly scolding her because of her extravagant spending, so when he refuses to invest in a supposed "sure thing" tip on the stock market Elsa takes cash from their safe at home and invests the money herself.  The "sure thing" turns out to be a flop, so now she is in deep trouble.

Elsa reluctantly accepts an expensive oriental gown from art collector Hardy Livingstone (Pichel), and figures that he'll only want one thing in return for the gift but tries to act naive.  When she loses her investment money and is embarrassed to tell her husband, she has no choice but to try to get the money from Livingstone because she knows he would do anything to have her.  He offers to replace the cash if she "would only be a little nicer" to him. 

When her husband secures a deal at work, he tells her that they're rich and offers to payoff her debts.  Elsa now thinks her troubles are over but they are really only beginning.  When the time comes to pay off the slime-ball, money won't satisfy him.  As a sort of fetish, Livingstone has small dolls made up to resemble his female conquests, as sort of trophies, and he won't be satisfied until he adds Elsa to his collection.

When he reveals his intentions to her she resists, they scuffle, a shot rings out, and the swine hits the ground (sorry I got a little carried away).  A brief courtroom drama ensues and results in a riot.  And that's about as close as I'll get to revealing the ending. 

Director George Abbott directed three other films in 1931, Secrets of a Secretary with Claudette Colbert, Stolen Heaven with Nancy Carroll, and My Sin with Bankhead and Fredric March.  Pichel starred as Fagin in the 1933 film version of Oliver Twist and appeared in many other films.  He also directed many films including The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and the science fiction classic Destination Moon (1950). 

Pichel does a nice job in the film.  Stephens is rock solid as the loving husband.  Bankhead is cute, but I can think of a few other pre-code cuties that I also enjoy watching.  Of course the the film has references to drug use, sex, infidelity, etc.  Everyone knows that in these pre-code films morals and political correctness go right out the window, so I'll refrain from giving my usual  "view in the context ..." speech.

With a running time of about 68 minutes it goes by pretty quickly, and a good thing too because I don't think I could have taken much more of that scumbag casanova.

Overall a pretty good film with a nice twist at the end.  So if you have an hour or so to kill, check it out ...  I think you'll enjoy it ...

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The General (1926)

This film is a masterpiece, and one of the best and funniest films I have ever seen.  The General was directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, and stars Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Joe Keaton (Buster's dad), Glen Cavender, and Jim Farley. From making the viewer empathize with the characters, to the thrilling chase scenes, to the some of the funniest moments ever filmed The General has everything.  Every stunt Keaton performs is better than the one before it, and his fascination with trains is evident and the focal point of the entire feature.  I think the attention to detail as well as the chemistry between the main characters is what makes the film so great.

The story begins at the start of the Civil War.  Johnnie Gray (Keaton) tries to enlist as a soldier in the Confederate army.  He gets turned down but not because the army doesn't want him, but because they think he'll be more valuable to them in his current job as an engineer.  Of course they don't explain this to Johnnie so he, and everyone else including his girl, think he didn't join because he was unfit or that he was a coward.

When Johnnie's train is stolen by Union spies the fun begins as he tries to track down his missing locomotive, and his beloved Annabelle (Mack) who was kidnapped while she just happened to be on the train at the time it was taken.  From this point on the film becomes a showcase for Keaton's many talents whether they are his directorial skills, physical stunts, or his slapstick gags and routines.

Marion Mack is adorable, I would love to have her for a sweetheart, and I think she plays the role of the dizzy girlfriend really well.  I personally think she steals some of Buster's thunder in some of the scenes she shares with him.  One great scene has Johnnie Gray and Annabelle being chased by the Union army. While Johnnie has his hands full trying to stay ahead of the enemy, Annabelle picks up a broom and decides to tidy up the engine a bit.  Keaton's reaction is priceless. 

The stunts are unbelievable.  I imagine the film must have been fairly costly to make due to the lavish scenery, props, and cinematography.

The score by composer Robert Israel does just what it should, it enhances every single scene. Overall, what an incredible film.  I actually ended up watching this a few times over the past couple of days, and to be honest with you, I would have no problem sitting through it again. For anyone who isn't familiar with Keaton's work this is a great film to start out with.  And for Keaton fans, just sit down and enjoy the magic one more time ...