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       ET AL.
       Short reviews of the other stuff I watch


        Updated 11/10/2015

Death Flies East (1935)

Jailed as an accessory to the murder for which her employer, Dr Moffat (George Irving), was wrongly convicted, Evelyn Vail (Florence Rice) is allowed to work as a nurse in the prison infirmary where her kindness wins her many friends, and her conduct an early parole. When a grateful inmate tips her off to the fact that the real killer has been convicted of a different murder in New York and is scheduled for execution, Evelyn takes the drastic step of breaking parole and flying east under a false identity, hoping against hope that the convicted man might be persuaded to confess to the earlier crime. However, when a murder is committed mid-flight, Evelyn’s secret is revealed. Her only hope – and Dr Moffat’s – is a fellow passenger who decides to play amateur detective... Certainly not a disaster movie, Death Flies East is an entertaining albeit highly improbable little comedy-thriller, which pulls a rabbit from its hat in the shape of an absent-minded professor who emerges as both the film’s romantic lead and its detective. And while we might deplore his hassle-her-until-she-gives-in-out-of-sheer-weariness style of courtship, and while we might likewise consider he should be paying a bit more attention to the “vitally important” mission which has him flying east in the first place, it’s just as well for Evelyn that Gordon turns out to be better at his hobby than he is at his job. Having taken a shine to his pretty fellow-traveller, and correctly interpreted her nervousness and inept attempts to disguise herself, Gordon nevertheless becomes convinced that Evelyn is guilty neither of the crime of which she was convicted, nor those of which she is now accused---the in-flight poisoning of two of the other passengers, one of whom survives and is left behind in a hospital, the other – who turns out to be a police lieutenant on a case – dies... For a film of its brief running-time, approximately 65 minutes, Death Flies East is overloaded with Odious Comic Relief in the dual forms of deaf passenger Mrs Madison (Irene Franklin) and Evans (Raymond Walburn), the world’s pushiest insurance salesman. However, it compensates for these painful missteps by springing a most surprising denouement to its subplot involving what looks like an attempt by Japanese spies to get their hands on the papers that Gordon is carrying to Washington, but which turns out to be something entirely different...

13 Hours By Air (1936)

On a New York – San Francisco flight, substitute pilot Jack Gordon (Fred MacMurray) develops a fixation on passenger Felice Rollins (Joan Bennett) – even though he thinks she is the female member of a gang of jewel thieves. In fact Felice is an heiress in her own right, rushing to San Francisco to stop her west-bound kid sister marrying a Russian lounge lizard. However, there is a crook on board: cop-killer Curtis Palmer (Alan Baxter), who is pursued by undercover agent “Doctor” James Evarts (Brian Donleavy). When Gordon is forced by a snowstorm to put the plane down in the foothills of the Rockies, a flurry of gun-play leaves both Evarts and co-pilot Freddie Scott (John Howard) severely wounded, while Gordon finds himself held at gun-point, forced to fly to Mexico---at least until some unlikely passengers intervene... 13 Hours By Air is almost a disaster film – ALMOST – but boy, it takes its own sweet time getting there. The first two-thirds of the film are bad comedy, dominated by Gordon and his embarrassing romantic past catching up with him every time he tries to make time with Felice, and by the formal Odious Comic Relief, obnoxious brat Waldemar Pitt III (Benny Bartlett) and his hysterical governess, Miss Harkins (Zasu Pitts). However, once the plane hits bad weather and Gordon is forced to put down in the snow-bound wilderness, things take a turn for the serious, and the better. For such an obscure little drama, this is a film with a surprisingly impressive pedigree, with Mitchell Leisen directing and, besides those already named, Ruth Donnelly, Fred Keating, Dean Jagger and Jack Mulhall in supporting roles. Ultimately, however, this is a film most interesting in its minutiae. We must realise, for instance, that the film’s title is the airline’s boasting slogan: it only takes thirteen hours to fly from coast to coast. Meanwhile, it is the non-American passenger who shocks everyone by carrying a gun---which is disposed of by opening a door and tossing it out while in flight. Amusingly these days, the airline itself is “United Airlines”---so perhaps the combination of guns on board, pilot bribery, unrestrained children, fist-fights in the aisle, smashed windows and forced landings isn’t so surprising after all. Disaster-movie-wise, we can only grin knowingly when the plane’s single radio gets smashed, and when the film’s climax finds Felice Rollins occupying the co-pilot’s seat while Jack Gordon flies the plane.

Atlantic Flight (1937)

This one was a real disappointment. It starts out looking like a disaster movie, with pilot Dick Bennett (real-life aviator Dick Merrill) flying through a dangerous storm in order to make sure a critically-ill child passenger reaches medical assistance in time---and it also ends like a disaster movie, with a trans-Atlantic race against time to deliver a life-saving serum. In between, though---yee-ouch! The bulk of this film is taken up with a story of pilots competing for contracts by winning various match races, and with the rivalry-cum-romance between aviation-company heads Bill Edwards (Weldon Heyburn) and Gail Strong (Paula Stone). Hey! – you know that obnoxious “romantic” convention that insists that the best preparation for marriage is a man and woman being completely hateful to one another? It’s older than you think. Atlantic Flight not only uses it, it spells it out in words of one syllable, after our, ahem, lovebirds have a public spat:

Observer #1:  “How long has this been going on?”
Observer #2:  “Second round.”
Observer #1:  “They’re practically engaged!”

The perverse attraction of this film is just how bad the performance of Dick Merrill is---something he was well aware of himself, and which makes the viewer realise how much talent is involved in putting together even a low-budget B-movie. When the film was made, Merrill was celebrated for various record-breaking flights, and actual newsreel footage of his exploits is used in this film. As an actor, however, Merrill was a great pilot: the film-makers dance around his shortcomings by giving him as little dialogue as possible; he spends most of the film standing rigid and silent, visibly praying for a call of, “CUT!”, while the rest of the cast play out their dialogue scenes around him.

The Hurricane (1937)

Here’s an observation, and something worth looking into more closely, for those of us interested in the roots of the disaster movie---in the late 1930s, Hollywood produced four “almost disaster” movies, one after the other, all in black-and-white, all done with practical effects---San Francisco (1936), The Hurricane (1937), In Old Chicago (1938) and The Rains Came (1939). Then WWII began, after which, presumably, disaster-for-entertainment was considered inappropriate. Pity. Each of these four films contains an extraordinary disaster sequence, yet none of them is a disaster movie by my simplest definition of the genre---that is, in none of these four cases is the disaster what the film is about. The Hurricane, one of John Ford’s least well-known films, is set in a French colony in the Pacific Islands. Raymond Massey plays Eugene DeLaage, the governor of the colony, whose devotion to “the law”, administered without compassion, alienates him from both the people he is governing and from his wife, Germaine (Mary Astor), whom he passionately loves. His refusal to see things from the islanders’ point of view likewise puts him at loggerheads with Father Paul (C. Aubrey Smith), the Catholic priest who is in charge of the local mission, and Dr Hersaint (Thomas Mitchell). In fact, the more the others oppose him, the more rigidly DeLaage clings to the letter of the law. A crisis is reached when Terangi (Jon Hall), a native employed as an officer by a local shipping firm, is provoked into a fight while in Tahiti. As a native, Terangi is automatically jailed to “teach him a lesson”, even though everyone agrees that a white man in the same situation would never have been punished. Terangi’s imprisonment is doubly tragic in that he has only just been married to Marama (Dorothy Lamour), his childhood sweetheart. Despite the pressure and pleading of those closest to him, Governor DeLaage refuses to intervene on Terangi’s behalf---while he, unable to bear imprisonment, undergoes a cycle of attempted escapes and recaptures that only increase his sentence from months to endless years. At last he succeeds in escaping---but in the process, accidentally kills a guard. Terangi makes it back to his home and is reunited with Marama and the daughter he has never seen before, but word of his escape soon reaches DeLaage, who is determined to re-capture the fugitive. Before he can take action, however, the island is hit by a devastating hurricane... They can spend as many millions of dollars as they like on CGI effects these days, but in my opinion the disaster sequences in these black-and-white dramas of the 30s have never been surpassed; though, mind you, it helps when a director has a complete disregard for the safety of his cast and crew, as John Ford evidently did. I stand by my ruling that The Hurricane is not a disaster movie, but it nevertheless contains one of the most breathtaking disaster sequences ever captured on film. It is stunning to watch the hair-raising twenty-minute hurricane scene that climaxes this film and realise that, yes, that was Jon Hall, Mary Astor, Dorothy Lamour and C. Aubrey Smith being put in what looks like – and almost certainly was – real physical danger.

Typhoon (1940)

The Hurricane may today be one of John Ford’s least known films, but at the time it was at least influential enough to prompt the production of this exceedingly weak imitation. A little girl, Dea, is the only survivor of a shipwreck and is cast away on a deserted island, where she grows up to be Dorothy Lamour (of course). Along the way she acquires a sarong (of course) and a pet chimpanzee – a good trick, considering we’re in “the South seas” – and builds a tree-house which is high enough to protect herself and Coco from the violent storm waters which periodically sweep across the island. Dea’s isolation comes to an end when a crew of pearl-hunters in a private submarine (!) is wrecked on the island after falling foul of a native big-wig with a gun-boat (!!). Johnny Potter (Robert Preston), the navigator, is separated from his crew-mates when he passes out in a drunken stupor. Dea finds him on the beach and promptly falls for him because he reminds her of her father, who was also a seagoing man and a drunken sot. (I’m not sure which part of that deserves the bigger “Ew!” so I’ll just say one loud collective “EW!”) Dea and Coco take Johnny back to the tree-house and forcibly dry him out, and he enjoys an idyllic interlude with the innocent Dea. Meanwhile, Skipper Joe (Lynn Overmann) faces a mutiny from his native crew, who steal his submarine but only succeed in sinking it and drowning themselves. Joe, Johnny and Dea begin building a boat, but their escape from the island is thwarted by Kehi (Chief Thundercloud), who will go to any extreme to wreak vengeance upon Joe and Johnny... Typhoon is ultimately a waste of time, and a rather unpleasant one at that. When you get right done to it, nothing happens in this film except that two separate groups of natives die horribly, mostly because of their own stupidity, while the white characters (and the chimpanzee) survive; I guess this is supposed to constitute “a happy ending”. The film does pick up a bit during the climactic sequence, when Kehi decides to take care of Joe and Johnny by instituting a scorched-earth policy on the island – which burns surprisingly well for a patch of land regularly inundated by tropical storms – only for our alleged heroes to be ironically rescued when the titular storm hits, putting out the fire and wiping out Kehi and his followers. However, the typhoon sequence isn’t a patch on the one from The Hurricane, on which it was obviously modelled, and it isn’t really worth sitting through the rest to see it. That said---the Academy disagreed with me on that point: Typhoon was nominated for an Oscar for its special effects. (Unfortunately, the special effects category was not introduced until 1938, so The Hurricane was not recognised in this respect, though it did win for its sound recording.)

Tornado (1943)

Miner Pete Ramsey is just “a regular guy” until he falls for gold-digging chanteuse Victory Kane (Nancy Kelly), and promptly forgets his working-class roots. Chasing the big bucks that will enable him to give Victory everything she wants, Pete works his way from mine superintendent to manager to owner – not by the cleanest of methods – and in the process alienates all of his former workmates and friends with his ruthless pursuit of profit. Pete’s activities threaten the financial security of his former employer, Gary Linden (Morgan Conway), who works to destroy him. Secretly hiring “Big Joe” Vlochek (Nestor Paiva), who blames Pete – wrongly – for an accident in which his daughter, Sally (Gwen Kenyon), was blinded, Linden makes sure that Pete’s new mine is dogged by failures and breakdowns. However, at last Big Joe’s course of secret sabotage goes too far, bringing about a cave-in that traps some of the workers below ground. Meanwhile, above ground, a tornado tears towards the town... Another not-disaster-movie that seemed to promise so much but ended up delivering very little, considering that it features not just a tornado but two mining disasters as well. Tornado opens with the devastation of the mining town of Linden, Illinois: a brief but well-staged sequence incorporating footage of real tornado damage. The visuals focus in upon one particular house ruined in the storm, a new mansion belonging to Pete Ramsey, with the voiceover narrator suggesting that this was God’s way of teaching Pete a lesson. (Too bad about the seventeen people actually killed by the twister, but I guess you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs...) The film then flashes back to a year earlier to show us Pete’s ruthless climb up the ladder and its consequences. Pete is so wilfully blind with regard to Victory that it is impossible to feel anything but exasperated with him---and in fact, it’s hard to find anyone in this film to sympathise with. Victory is carrying on with Gary Linden behind Pete’s back, and Linden in turn is pumping her for information he can use against Pete; Sally clings like a limpet to Pete despite the fact that he’s married; Pete’s brother, Bob (Bill Henry), keeps quiet about being responsible for Sally’s accident, even though he knows Big Joe blames Pete; while Big Joe’s vengeful sabotage is carried so far that he not only endangers some of the fellow-workers he’s supposed to be standing up for, but manages to trap himself underground without the medication he needs to avoid lapsing into unconsciousness. On second thoughts---maybe that twister wasn’t overkill on God’s part after all; He just could have aimed the thing a little better...

Train Of Events (1949)

The theme of this set of not-disaster-movies is that any given film will start out looking like one, only to then let me down. This British production is a case in point. It opens with a devastating crash, as a speeding train cannot pull up in time to avoid colliding with a petrol tanker that hasn’t quite made it across the tracks. It then reverts to flashback, introducing us to the various people on board and showing us how they came to be on the train. The main body of the film consists of four separate segments, each one ending with its characters boarding the train. In “The Engine Driver”, train driver Jim Hardcastle risks his promotion by covering for his future son-in-law, Ron Stacey (Patric Doonan), who fails to turn up for work the morning after a blazing row with his fiancée, Doris (Susan Shaw): a decision that places Hardcastle behind the controls of the doomed train... In “The Actor”, Philip Mason (Peter Finch) murders his unfaithful and drunken wife, Louise (Mary Morris), hiding her body in his trunk prior to joining the rest of his acting troupe on the train, which will carry them to their point of embarkation for Canada. However, the police are on Mason’s trail... In “The Prisoner-Of-War”, a girl, Ella (Joan Dowling), tries to hide the man she loves, a former German soldier who escaped from a prison camp and has been on the run ever since. Finally Ella decides that Richard (Laurence Payne) must flee the country---even if she can’t afford to go with him... In “The Composer”, a famous composer-conductor, Raymond Hillary (John Clements) is involved with a celebrity pianist, Irina Norozova (Irina Baronova). However, Hillary’s long-suffering wife, Stella (Valerie Hobson), has dealt with these situations before... There’s a lot to like about Train Of Events, one of countless British “train” films: we are not surprised to find Charles Crichton and Basil Dearden behind the camera, among others, while the ensemble cast is uniformly excellent. The problem with this film is its overall tone. It is not unusual for a disaster movie to include humour – or “humour” – but this is usually just a form of leavening, with the films on the whole taking themselves rather seriously. This film, conversely, has a facetious attitude that undermines any attempt at building suspense, despite what we know is coming. Then, too, we’ve expected to believe that the appalling crash we witness in the opening sequence results in only a bare minimum of casualties – and those only in connection with the “serious” subplots – while everyone else escapes with only cuts and bruises. This disconnect ultimately makes Train Of Events a slightly uncomfortable experience.

Time Bomb [aka Terror On A Train] (1953)

A young man slips off a freight train carrying a load of armed mines from their construction depot to a naval base at Portsmouth. He is caught crossing the railway yards but in the ensuing scuffle drops the bag he was carrying, which is full of wires, detonators and tools. The railway police alert their superiors, with Railway Superintendent Jim Warrilow (Maurice Denham) put in charge of the operation. Warrilow seeks out Canadian UXB expert Peter Lyncort (Glenn Ford), who has been living in England since the war, and persuades him to undertake the job of finding and disarming the bomb. The train carrying the mines has been shunted off the main line and into as quiet a depot as can be found; and while the police set about evacuating the surrounding area, Lyncort begins a nerve-wracking race against time to find the explosive device---which could be inside any one of dozens of mines... Ah, now---this one I was really disappointed in, which I must say is sold very misleadingly as being about “a bomb planted on a train”. So it is---they just fail to mention that the train is stationary in a yard, and that the authorities are so unwontedly efficient, hardly anyone is ever in danger except name star Glenn if. The other odd thing about this film is that we never really get at the bomber’s motives, with a later passing reference to “fascist police” our only hint of his political leanings, or what point he is trying to make. The result is a reasonable suspense film, but – say it with me, folks! – definitely not the disaster movie we were expecting. Ann Vernon, second-billed as Lyncort’s estranged wife, is unnecessary to the plot and really only in the film as padding. (She is in the process of leaving Lyncort when she hears about his role in the emergency and realises she still loves him, yada-yada.) Much more interesting is Maurice Denham as Jim Warrilow, who puts the viewer on edge from the moment he is called out to take charge of the business, and promises his anxious wife that he won’t “stick his silly neck out”. When Warrilow subsequently insists upon staying close and assisting Lyncort himself, we fear the worst... Time Bomb is a film that carries a nasty twist in its tail when, after Lyncort eventually locates and disarms “the” bomb, the vindictive bomber, who has since been taken into custody, reveals that there are in fact two bombs on the train, and that they won’t have time to find the second one before it is due to go off. Until this point, Lyncort has simply worked his way methodically through the mines, from one end of the train to the other; but this revelation drives him to take drastic measures...

Floods Of Fear (1958)

A late and extreme thaw puts the Humboldt Valley in imminent danger of flooding. As evacuations are carried out, convict labourers are brought in under guard to work on the reinforcement of the local dykes. However, the water rises too rapidly and the dyke collapses, sweeping the prisoners and their guards into the raging waters. Donovan (Howard Keel) is pulling himself to safety when he hears someone calling for help and finds Elizabeth Matthews (Anne Heyward) stranded on the roof of her car. As she cannot swim, Donovan helps her to her house, a large, two-storey wooden structure whose upper floor is above the water-line. Twice more Donovan goes to the aid of someone stranded in the water. The first is another prisoner, Peebles (Cyril Cusack); the second is an injured prison guard, Sharkey (Harry H. Corbett). Peebles furious reaction reveals to Elizabeth both that he is a man of instinctive violence, and that Donovan is serving a life sentence for murder. Tensions in the house escalate as the flood waters continue to rise, with Sharkey determined that neither prisoner will escape, Peebles having designs on Elizabeth, and Donovan with only one thought on his mind: to find and kill Jack Murphy (John Crawford), his former business partner, who framed him for the murder of his wife... Floods Of Fear is a strange and not entirely successful suspense film. It was a British production, made at Pinewood Studios and directed by Charles Crichton, but is set in America, its cast a mixture of Americans and British actors trying, or in some cases not trying, to put on an American accent. Meanwhile, the script tries to reinforce the setting with constant references to the governor, the mayor, the sheriff and so on, but the results are just jarring. (Amusingly, there is also an attempt to “look American” by having numerous black actors amongst the bit players: far more than you’d find in an actual American production of this time.) Of the cast, Cyril Cusack is most memorable as the unspeakably creepy Peebles, whose small frame and unthreatening appearance hide a frightening sadistic streak. Howard Keel is fair as Donovan, but Anne Heyward becomes irritating as Elizabeth. Granted, her character is in a horrible situation, but Elizabeth is so consistently snivelly that it gets harder and harder to sympathise. Inevitably, Donovan and Elizabeth end up falling for each other in spite of everything, and she tries desperately to stop him carrying out him plan of vengeance against Jack Murphy and so becoming the killer she now believes in her heart he is not. Meanwhile, the police are closing in... Though it does not entirely work as a thriller, it is worth watching Floods Of Fear for the flood sequences, which are a mixture of well-executed studio-set and model work and stock footage, and which are never less than impressive.

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