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Short reviews of the other stuff I watch

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Third Finger, Left Hand (1940)

Magazine editor Margot Sherwood Merrick (Myrna Loy) invents a husband in order to hold onto her job, a position that she knows her lecherous publisher’s jealous wife would never allow her to occupy if Margot weren’t a married woman. A chance encounter with artist Jeff Thompson (Mervyn Douglas) leads to romance, but the straight-laced Thompson walks out in disgust when he discovers that Margot is married. Hurt but unable to forget, Thompson begins to investigate the mysteriously absent “Merrick”, and upon proving to his own satisfaction that there is no such person, he punishes Margot for her deception by publicly announcing himself to be Merrick. As circumstances grow increasingly complicated, Margot tries to rid herself of her “husband”, only to realise that she cannot do it without a divorce – and that the only way she can divorce him is to marry him in the first place.... Third Finger, Left Hand is a let-down. After starting out looking like a seriously-intentioned albeit comedic examination of the difficulties of career women during the forties, it ends up in blithe agreement with the male philosophy that Margot denounces so scornfully at the outset, that “single woman have no reason to be in the workplace, except as a way of attracting men”: after putting herself through hoops in order to hold onto her career, Margot ends up tossing it all away and pursuing Thompson literally across the country, apparently forgetting that she has a career at all. Moreover, the puritanical and smugly superior Thompson is, frankly, rather unlikeable; as so often in these kind of movies, the second male lead – Lee Bowman as company lawyer Phillip Booth – seems a much more attractive prospect, yet is dismissed without a second thought. Still, the film very nearly redeems itself with two late sequences. The first is when, after a Niagara Falls wedding, Margot and Jeff encounter friends from his home town of Wapakoneta, Ohio – and Margot exacts full revenge on her “husband” by posing as a slang-slinging, gum-snapping Brooklynite. (One does wonder where the refined and aristocratic Margot learnt such language.) The second comes when Margot and Jeff are on their way to Reno, Phillip along to negotiate the settlement (and to marry Margot, so he hopes). Desperate to stall, Jeff inquires of Sam (Ernest Whitman), the conductor, if there might by another lawyer on board, only to learn that Sam himself is studying law by correspondence – and that, on the basis of his time-consuming obfusculation of Phillip, he has the makings of a very excellent lawyer, too. The funny and uncondescending use of a black character in such a role in a film of this vintage (and from this studio) is unexpected and refreshing.

The Three Musketeers (1933, 12 episodes)

In the desert of Algiers, a troop of soldiers is under attack by the forces of a mysterious individual known as "El Shaitan", who is leading an Arab revolt against the Foreign Legion. The lives of the last three men, Clancy (Jack Mulhall), Renard (Raymond Hatton) and Schmidt (Francis X. Bushman Jr), are saved when Lt Tom Wayne (John Wayne), from the American embassy in Paris, fires upon the attacking Arabs from his plane. Clancy explains that they were trying to stop a caravan that was running guns. The three grateful soldiers laugh that they are “the Three Musketeers” and Tom their D’Artagnon; the four swear eternal friendship. Tom then travels on to visit his sweetheart, Elaine Corday (Ruth Hall), and her brother, Armand (Creighton Chaney). Armand, however, has a deadly secret: he has been blackmailed into helping El Shaitan, and was with the caravan. El Shaitan declares Tom an enemy, and orders Armand to use him and his embassy connections to bring another shipment of arms into the country. Armand does so, but the ruse is discovered; and Tom, in Paris, finds himself accused as a gun-runner. Escaping back to North Africa, Tom gets the truth out of Armand, who is then killed by El Shaitan. Tom is found standing over the body, and is soon wanted for both gun-running and murder.... The opening credits of this serial insist that it is “a modern version of the famous story”, but any resemblance between this serial and M. Dumas’ novel is, as they say, entirely coincidental. You can also forget anything you ever heard about the iron discipline of the Foreign Legion: when they aren’t either breaking into their CO’s office, or breaking their pal Tom out of military prison, these Three Musketeers spend most of their time in town, eating and drinking and – [*shudder*] – singing in taverns, and brawling in the street; they get positively indignant when asked to perform any actual, you know, duties. The main problem with The Three Musketeers is that is never lives up to its exciting and quite complex first episode, but devolves into repetitive scenes of riding back and forth across the desert, and white people sneaking around dressed up as “Arabs”. Actually, this latter aspect is one of this serial’s more pleasing absurdities, particularly when Tom Wayne, a foot taller than anyone else, and with his military boots and his tie showing, is supposed to be impenetrably disguised, to the point where he can infiltrate the band of Arab rebels without being detected. (Of course, it helps that, although they know Tom is onto them, the rebels never change their password!) At this point in his career, John Wayne is still incredibly awkward, far more at home in his action scenes than in those with dialogue. Ruth Hall is an adequate heroine, mercifully the dashing-across-the-desert kind, rather than the stand-around-screaming kind. (She attempts a French accent for about five minutes during the first episode, then forgets about it.) Lon Chaney Jr, still billed as “Creighton”, gives one of his best early performances as the tormented Armand. Noah Beery Jr also shows up for just long enough to get shot in the back; while that’s legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt under the mask as “El Shaitan” (although it isn’t his voice).

Things I Learned From Watching This SerialTM:  every single Arab in the world is called El Something-or-other.

Underwater Warrior (1958)

This docu-drama is based upon the experiences of Commander Francis D. Fane, who played a major part in the evolution of the US navy’s Underwater Demolition Team between the end of WWII and the Korean War. The film follows its Francis Fane stand-in, David Forest (Dan Dailey), through the UDT’s gruelling recruitment program, his almost-involvement in an invasion of Japan – when word comes that the war is over, Forest and his men are, for a moment, disappointed – his active role in campaigning for his sometimes-scorned branch of the service, and his courage in testing out new equipment and strategies. The film is necessarily episodic, and different sections may appeal to different viewers. I’m sure no-one out there will be surprised to hear that I found most interesting that part of the story dealing with Forest’s attempts to boost enlistment in his beloved underwater unit, during which he recognises that the main barrier to recruitment isn’t fear of the enemy, but fear of sharks, and embarks on a project to determine just how much of what man “knows” about sharks is accurate. (While I appreciate Fane/Forest’s debunking of a lot of shark mythology, I could have done without his testing the toughness of shark-skin first by firing spear-guns at them, then by grabbing a small shark by the tail and poking it repeatedly with a knife!) The story climaxes with the crashing of an experimental military plane just chock-full of top secret new technology, and the aging Forest’s perilous attempt to find and destroy the plane before it can fall into the wrong hands. The role of David Forest is an interesting change of pace for song and dance man Dan Dailey, and he is well-supported by James Gregory as the medical officer who works with him, Claire Kelly as his wife, and Ross Martin as his inevitable Noo York-spawned best friend.

The Vintage (1957)

Two Italian brothers, Giancarlo (Mel Ferrer) and Ernesto Barandero (John Kerr), are on the run: Ernesto is wanted for murder after killing a man who was beating a woman; Giancarlo contrived his escape. Their wanderings lead them to a French vineyard on the verge of the harvest, where the owner, Louis Morel (Leif Erickson), thinks of nothing but the possibility that his grapes will be ruined by a threatened hailstorm. The brothers are taken on as pickers. As they join in the work and the play of the other workmen, both Giancarlo and Ernesto end up emotionally entangled. Ernesto becomes infatuated with Léone (Michèle Morgan), Louis Morel’s wife, while Giancarlo attracts Léone’s young sister, Lucienne (Pier Angeli), angering Etienne Morel (Jack Mullaney), Louis’s cousin and agent, who wishes to marry her. All the while, the law is closing in.... This is a fair drama hurt by its inappropriate casting, with Americans playing Italians, Italians playing Frenchmen and Frenchmen playing Spaniards; only Michèle Morgan is well-cast, both in character and nationality, as the loving but neglected wife who is stirred to new life by the admiration of a young man. Most existing prints are pan-and-scan, which also does the film great harm: the location shooting, meant to bolster the passions-amongst-nature feel, loses a great deal of its impact this way.

The Working Man (1933)

Shoe magnate John Reeves (George Arliss) loses interest in his successful company when he learns that his long-time business rival – and one-time romantic rival – Tom Hartland has died. Handing over the running of his company to his capable but officious nephew, Benjamin Burnett (Hardie Albright), Reeves takes a fishing holiday, during which he accidentally encounters the children of his old rival, Tommy (Theodore Newton) and Jennie Hartland (Bette Davis). Reeves is disgusted to find them spoiled and empty-headed, and oblivious to the fact that the manager of their father’s business, Fred Pettison (Gordon Westcott), is deliberately running the company down in order to profit by its sale. Keeping his true identity concealed, Reeves gets himself appointed the Hartlands’ trustee, determined to pull them into line and to save their father’s business – and if that means threatening the success of his own business, well, so be it.... After starting out looking like a fairly serious examination of a lonely man who has devoted his life to business, The Working Man grows increasingly funny as its plotline becomes more and more convoluted. The film centres, of course, on yet another wonderful character performance from George Arliss, in one of the “mistaken identity” roles at which he excelled; but for mine its real triumph is the shift in sympathy that it wins for Benjamin Burnett, who at the outset is as obnoxious as he is efficient, convinced equally of his own infallibility and that his uncle is simply “past it”. (He starts referring to himself as “the Napoleon of shoes”....and can’t understand why his uncle starts signing his letters “Wellington”. [The accidental joke here is that the following year, George Arliss would star in The Iron Duke.]) But Benjamin is due for a fall, and is finally brought to his knees by his growing affection for his astonishingly inept new secretary – who just happens to be Jennie Hartland, incognito. “You have robbed me of my efficiency!” he finally tells her tragically – which in the context of this film is perhaps the greatest declaration of love a girl ever received. As Jennie, a radiant young Bette Davis gives a very nicely judged performance, vacillating convincingly between selfish brat and sweet girl. This was the second time the young actress was cast opposite George Arliss – the first was the previous year’s The Man Who Played God, later re-made as Sincerely Yours – and in later years Davis always spoke affectionately and gratefully of the veteran actor, and the guidance that he gave her during this critical period in her career. As Pettison, Gordon Westcott makes a very convincing rat. Conversely, J. Farrell MacDonald is likeable as Reeves’ old fishing buddy, the one person in on the secret of his identity. Edward Van Sloan appears in a disappointingly brief supporting role.

Yesterday’s Target (1996)

Three amnesiacs find themselves targeted by two different covert organisations. The Company, led by Miles Holden (Malcolm McDowell), uses the psychic Winstrom (LeVar Burton) to locate and track the three, while the president of The Foundation, Aaron Winfield (Richard Herd), is similarly guided by a young near-mute telepath called Roland (David Netter). While working at his cleaning job, Paul Harper (Daniel Baldwin) is approached by Winfield, who tries to warn him that he is in danger. Harper brushes this aside, but soon after is attacked by Holden’s goons, and while defending himself discovers that he is possessed of tremendous telekinetic abilities. Harper’s injuries land him in the hospital, where an x-ray reveals that he has a strange metal object embedded in his leg. Meeting up with Winfield, Harper learns to his disbelief that he is a time-traveller, sent back from 2025 on a vital mission; a mission left undone due to the amnesia brought on by the time transfer. As he struggles with this knowledge, Harper’s memory begins to return in flashes as he recalls a future of violence and persecution, but also the woman who for three years he had forgotten: his wife, Jessica (Stacey Haiduk). Harper discovers that the travellers’ mission was two-fold: to prevent the formation of The Company, but also to remove Aaron Whitfield from the leadership of The Foundation – even if they have to kill him to do it. The issuer of these orders? Aaron Whitfield.... Yesterday’s Target is a fair little science fiction offering whose ambitions are bigger than its budget – and also of the abilities of those trying to realise them. Original it is not; it pinches ideas from all manner of sources; but at least it tries to do something interesting with its pilfering. It is revealed that the three time-travellers, each of whom possesses some extraordinary mental power, are part of a group of people who represent the next stage in human evolution, and who have just begun to be born at the time of the story’s main setting after their mothers undergo eleven month pregnancies. (Like Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive movies, Yesterday’s Target suggests that Homo sapiens won’t exactly be thrilled to meet his successor.) The old time-travel paradox chestnut is always welcome, and they play their cards well enough here to hold the interest, even though the punchline to this plot thread is the revelation of a blood relationship between two of the characters that should, truthfully, have had both of them shrieking in horrified denial. The other thing that holds the viewer’s attention, although not in a good way, is star Daniel Baldwin, whose resemblance to the latter-day Steven Seagal is quite terrifying: the baggy clothing unsuccessfully concealing a weight gain, the little piggy eyes, the bandanna, the carefully staged action’s all here! (Unsurprisingly, the sex scene, when it happens, is shot in tasteful silhouette; and hilariously, when Paul and Jessica are woken in the middle of the night in response to an emergency, they both emerge from their bedroom fully dressed!) Trevor Goddard has a small supporting role in this as one of Holden’s goons, and once again the poor SOB is stuck doing an accent; this time he seems – when he remembers – to be trying to sound English. The ending of Yesterday’s Target is oddly indeterminate, in a way that suggests this was shot as the pilot episode to a series – although it’s hard to know where the story could have gone from here.

Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939, 12 episodes)

This serial opens with a little history – kind of – with Benito Juarez leading Mexico to independence and becoming President about thirty years before he actually did. Never mind. They get the next bit right, with Juarez’s followers stabbing him in the back as soon as he turns it. Juarez wants to fund his Republic with gold from the rich San Mendolito mines, but some of the members of the San Mendolito Council have other ideas. The loyal Don Francisco (Guy D’Ennery) warns Juarez that the local Indian population is being stirred to revolt by “Don Del Oro”, the personification of a Yacqui god, but adds that he has gathered “a troop of patriots” to guard the gold shipments. The other council members, meanwhile, secretly toast their plan – and Don Del Oro.... Before long, Don Francisco is tricked into a duel and mortally wounded. His ward, Ramon (William Corson), fights back, but is struck down from behind. Before he can be killed, a masked figure dressed in black intervenes.... The dying Francisco tells Ramon that the masked man, known as Zorro, is actually his nephew, Diego Vega (Reed Hadley). Telling Diego to take his place on the council, Francisco warns him that there are traitors there, but dies before he can reveal the true identity of Don Del Oro. Later that day, Francisco’s sister, Donã Maria (Helen Mitchel), and her ward, Volita (Sheila Darcy), are appalled, and the members of the council pleased, when Ramon introduces the foppish and blasé Don Diego, who grumbles about everything from the fatigue of his journey to having to join the council. That night, however, Zorro gathers Don Francisco’s troop, pledging to fight the traitors and prevent the Yacquis from revolting. The men cheer him, declaring themselves to be “Zorro’s Fighting Legion”.... Whew! And that’s not even the end of the first episode! Most of the serials I’ve been watching up to this point were produced by Nat Levine’s threadbare Mascot Pictures, but Zorro’s Fighting Legion was made by Republic, and has actual – gasp! – production values. (That Republic looks classy by comparison should tell you all about Mascot.) It’s actually a pretty good adaptation of the Zorro story, and Reed Hadley has a blast in his dual role. His Zorro makes an amusingly flawed hero, though, forever tripping over or falling into traps, while his method for summoning his “legion” has to be seen to be believed: in an episode called “The Flaming Z” – no, honestly! – he lights a gigantic ‘Z’ on a hillside, which, apart from nearly burning down the whole area, is seen and simply copied by the bad guys! Other off-beat touches include the accurate adoption of single shot pistols, meaning that most fights consist of one missed shot and then swords drawn, while second-billed Sheila Darcy is only in three episodes as the “heroine”, Volita (whose exclamations of “Saints protect us!” suggest that the writers were confusing their Catholics). Perhaps the greatest mystery here is where Zorro hides his gleaming white horse between adventures: you’d think someone would notice it. The best part of this serial is the cliffhangers: there’s a distinctly different ending to each episode, and most of the “outs” are pleasingly non-cheaty. The weakest part is the secret identity of Don Del Oro: we know it’s one of the councillors, but since they’re pretty much interchangeable, what does it matter? The Halloween costume meant to represent Don Del Oro is a hoot, though. Truthfully, at the beginning of this I was rather on “Don Del Oro’s” side, as he made speeches about the dispossession and exploitation of the Yacquis....only then he started in with that whole “I shall be Emperor of all Mexico! Mwoo-ha-ha-ha-ha!” stuff. Oh, well....

Read the Stomp Tokyo review of Zorro’s Fighting Legion here.

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