Prizefighter and the Lady, The (1933)

“He’s just a big kid — playful and thoughtless.”

Synopsis:
As a beefy bartender (Max Baer) begins training with a washed-up boxing promoter (Walter Huston), he falls for the singing moll (Myrna Loy) of a gangster (Otto Krueger), who is jealous but primarily worried about Loy’s happiness — especially given Baer’s enormous ego and roving eye.

Genres:

Review:
W.S. Van Dyke directed this pre-Code showcase for world heavyweight boxing champion Max Baer, who exhibited natural acting chops and was easily able to slip into the title role. Unfortunately, his character isn’t exactly likable — he’s self-absorbed, arrogant, and an inveterate player — so it’s hard to maintain sympathy for Loy’s interest in him. The storyline is essentially a woman giving her life up for a man who doesn’t deserve her, and thus it’s hard to know what outcome to root for. There is a surreal interlude at one point, during which Baer sings and dances in a revue with a bevy of much-smaller women, showing off his strength and size; this is worth a watch (though Baer is no Gene Kelly). The film ends with a lengthy fight between Baer and Primo Carnera, who he soundly defeated in real life the following year — thus making this flick of historical interest to boxing fans, but probably not others.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Myrna Loy as “The Lady”
  • The surreal musical number (!!)
  • Creative direction

Must See?
No, unless you’re curious.

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Viva Las Vegas (1964)

“Can you check my motor? It whistles.”

Synopsis:
A musically talented racer (Elvis Presley) hoping to win enough money in Vegas to buy a motor for his car vies with an Italian count (Cesare Danova) for the affections of a beautiful pool manager (Ann-Margret).

Genres:

Review:
Elvis Presley met his real-life and cinematic match when he paired up with feisty Ann-Margret for this most enjoyable cult musical, directed with flair by George Sidney and featuring vivid sets and costumes, rousing song-and-dance numbers, nice use of Vegas locales, and a super-fun romantic rivalry (with plenty of genuine sparks flying). It’s hard to pick a favorite musical number, given that nearly all of them satisfy both musically and choreographically (and there’s a nice mix of on-stage and “narrative driving” songs). The title number, naturally, will stick in your head long after it’s done (just reading this review has likely placed it there…), but my personal picks would probably be “The Lady Loves Me” and “Appreciation”. The storyline — consisting of a love triangle, rivalry for musical dominance, and a car race — is appropriately fluffy yet relevant enough to ground the songs in a realistic context. As noted in the New York Times’ review, Viva Las Vegas “remains friendly, wholesome and pretty as all get-out”, and is certainly worth a film fanatic’s time.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Elvis Presley as Lucky
  • Ann-Margret as Rusty
  • Fun chemistry and rivalry between Presley and Ann-Margret
  • Many enjoyable musical numbers



  • Solid direction by George Sidney
  • Nice use of Las Vegas locales
  • Colorful cinematography and sets

Must See?
Yes, as a cult favorite.

Categories

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Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

“We’ve been fighting it for years — and we know from experience, the less talk there is about it, the better.”

Synopsis:
A widowed journalist (Gregory Peck) assigned to write a story about antisemitism decides to go undercover as a Jew to gain an insider’s perspective on discrimination. While his mother (Ann Revere), son (Dean Stockwell), colleague (Celeste Holm), and former GI buddy (John Garfield) are fully supportive, his fiancee (Dorothy McGuire) has reservations about how far Peck should extend his ruse, leading to tensions in their new relationship.

Genres:

Review:
Elia Kazan’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Laura Z. Hobson’s best-selling novel remains a thoughtfully crafted, well-acted drama which neatly surfaces the insidiousness of bias. The dramatic tensions building up to Peck’s decision to go underground as a Jew extend for a bit too long (and would likely have occurred to his character much earlier), but all that unfolds thereafter feels authentically discomfiting. Moss Hart’s screenplay incisively shows how — despite having just emerged from a bloody world war fueled in part by antisemitism — America remained secretly prejudiced itself, with prospective employees changing their names to sound “less Jewish”, and unspoken norms of WASP elitism perpetuating segregation. Peck is fine in the central role, but it’s the supporting players who stand out here — particularly Revere and Holm — and Arthur Miller’s cinematography is effectively atmospheric throughout. Gentleman’s Agreement isn’t comfortable to watch, but remains worthy viewing many years later.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine supporting performances


  • Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography
  • Moss Hart’s provocative screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as a still-powerful indictment of enduring prejudice, both implicit and explicit.

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Rumble Fish (1983)

“He looks really old — like, 25 or something.”

Synopsis:
A teenage punk (Matt Dillon) living with his alcoholic father (Dennis Hopper) and hanging out with his childhood friend (Vincent Spano) romances his Catholic-school girlfriend (Diane Lane) while preparing to engage in a “rumble” with a rival from another gang (Glenn Withrow) — but when his idolized older brother (Mickey Rourke) suddenly appears back in town, Dillon is forced to confront the truth of his veneration for the mysterious “Motorcycle Boy” (Rourke).

Genres:

Review:
Frances Ford Coppola’s adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s novel is a visually poetic, directorially innovative look at a teenage hoodlum navigating life on the streets while dealing with dysfunctional family dynamics and romantic entanglements. Unfortunately, while we get a strong sense of the milieu Rusty James (Dillon) lives in, he isn’t a particularly appealing or charismatic protagonist; he may be quick on the rumble but isn’t smart enough to (for instance) foresee a rivalrous take-down by his gang-mate (Nicolas Cage), and it’s hard to feel much pity in general for him. Hopper is well-cast (if type-cast) as Dillon’s dad; Lane is appropriately sexy as Dillon’s love-interest; and Rourke projects a convincing aura of paranoid world-weariness. Ultimately, however, the visuals nearly overtake the storyline in Rumble Fish, and are the primary reason for viewing it at least once; see stills below for a sense of what’s in store.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Innovative direction



  • Excellent use of local (Tulsa, Oklahoma — though left unnamed) sets

  • Stephen H. Burum’s cinematography (be sure to watch the Blu-Ray DVD)



Must See?
Yes, as a visually stunning cult favorite.

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Creation of the Humanoids, The (1962)

“Why is it that the more we become like men, the more they hate us for it?”

Synopsis:
After a nuclear holocaust in which robots (referred to as “Clickers”) have begun to outnumber humans, a scientist (Don Doolittle) works with two renegade Clickers (George Milan and Dudley Manlove) to create increasingly human-like androids; meanwhile, the head of an underground anti-Clicker society known as the Order of Flesh and Blood (Don Megowan) — whose sister (Frances McCann) is living “in rapport” with a Clicker (David Cross) — falls in love with a beautiful scientist (Erica Elliott) he feels eerily connected to.

Genres:

Review:
Perhaps best known as one of Andy Warhol’s favorite films, this low-budget sci-fi post-holocaust flick is — as DVD Savant writes — “one weird movie”. In addition to featuring, shall we say, unexceptional performances, it’s incredibly talky (and literate), coming across more like a staged play than a cinematic experience; DVD Savant notes that it may have less than 100 camera set-ups and is comprised of only 4 to 5 major scenes (and this reviewer admits to falling asleep late at night during my attempted first viewing). However, what’s actually said is bold and interesting enough to capture one’s attention, and worth listening to closely. To cite DVD Savant once again:

The film’s political sophistication is still timely. The Order of Flesh and Blood is a radical minority that wields undue political power. It espouses a reactionary definition of “human-ness” and seeks to destroy inferior imitations, an aim that seems chauvinistic and “racist” considering that mankind is dying out and needs its robots. Members of The Order wear Civil War Confederate uniform pants and caps, suggesting the Civil Rights issue; the word “Clicker” is a demeaning epithet comparable to the “N” word. The Order also carries a ceremonial dagger, as did the Nazi elite. It uses thug tactics to intimidate ordinary policemen, and plants bombs like modern terrorists. The worst horror Cragis [Megowan] can imagine is mechanized miscegenation, a mixed marriage between human and robot.

Savant’s entire insightful review is worth reading, so I humbly refer readers there for more in-depth analysis. Also worth noting are the starkly minimalist and brightly colored sets, as well as the effective make-up done on the Clickers, whose eyes are (literally) piercingly silver behind enormous contact lenses.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effectively minimalist sets and costumes

  • Jack Pierce’s make-up designs
  • Hal Mohr’s cinematography
  • An unusually literate script

Must See?
Yes, once, as a curiosity — but be sure to watch it when you’re wide awake and can focus. Listed as a Camp Classic and a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Mississippi (1935)

“There’s no excuse for a man not fighting!”

Synopsis:
A pacifist (Bing Crosby) engaged to a southern belle (Gail Patrick) disappoints both Patrick and her father (Claude Gillingwater) by refusing to fight a duel with Patrick’s prior suitor (John Miljan), who she eventually marries. After accepting a job as a crooner on a performance ship run by Commodore Jackson (W.C. Fields), Crosby reunites with Patrick’s younger sister (Joan Bennett), who has not-so-secretly loved Crosby for many years — but will Crosby’s new identity as “The Singing Killer” (earned after he accidentally shoots a man in a fight) spoil their romance?

Genres:

Review:
Bing Crosby co-starred with W.C. Fields for the first and only time in this Rodgers & Hart musical — an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel Magnolia — which showcases Crosby singing a number of ditties, W.C. Fields doing his comedic shtick, and offensive depictions of post-Civil War African-Americans (including a group of singing children referred to as the “Pickaninnies”). Blonde Bennett’s pining for Crosby in earlier scenes (as he’s busy romancing her beautiful but inflexible sister through music) quickly gets tiresome, and we simply find ourselves waiting for the moment when they will finally have their chance to realize they’re destined for one another. The mistaken identity plot is pretty silly, too, making this one only must-see for either Crosby or Fields completists.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A few humorous moments with Fields

Must See?
No. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book, though I’m not sure why.

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Mark of the Devil (1970)

“I work to serve God — to rid the world of all evil.”

Synopsis:
After falling in love with a bewitchingly beautiful barmaid (Olivera Katarina) in a European village, a count (Udo Kier) apprenticing as a witch-hunter to a lord (Herbert Lom) is distressed to learn that not only the town’s local witch-hunter (Reggie Nalder) but Lom and his team are deeply corrupt, arresting and torturing townspeople either for financial gain or sadistic satisfaction.

Genres:

Review:
Infamous for garnering a “V for Violence” rating at the time of its release (and for offering vomit bags to audience members) this English-dubbed West German horror film is merely “torture porn” wrapped in the guise of a respectable historical drama a la The Conquerer Worm/The Witchfinder General (1969) or The Devils (1971). Handsome, wide-eyed young Udo Kier displays exactly one expression throughout the film, and it’s humorously ridiculous to hear “sensual music” on the soundtrack every time he sees or interacts with feisty Katarina (who is no great actress, but is appropriately lust-worthy and has fine screen presence). The film’s message — that witch-hunting was deeply corrupt and driven by impulses far removed from religiosity — is well-taken (and likely true), but again, simply a vehicle for scene… after scene… after gratuitous, gory scene… of medieval torture (think stretching racks, Chinese water torture, rape, tongues ripped out, etc.). Naturally, this kind of flick has its fans — but for all other film fanatics it will make for tough viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nice cinematography and use of outdoor sets

Must See?
Nope. Appropriately listed as Trash in the back of Peary’s book.

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Trouble With Girls, The (1969)

“Stay away from the locals, kiddo. You’re the boss now — don’t forget that.”

Synopsis:
The manager (Elvis Presley) of a travelling Chautauqua show during the 1920s flirts with girls, sings a few songs, and manages various day-to-day concerns while helping to solve the mysterious murder of a local druggist (Dabney Coleman).

Genres:

Review:
Elvis Presley’s next-to-last film was, as Stuart Galbraith writes in his DVD Talk review, “not so much an Elvis movie as a movie with Elvis in it”. He accurately notes that the script is Altman-esque in its meandering focus on various subplots and quirky characters — such as a union-supporting children’s performer (Marlyn Mason) distressed about being asked to cast the mayor’s untalented child instead of the gifted daughter (Anissa Jones) and young friend (Pepe Brown) of a single mom (Sheree North) who’s been carrying on a troubled affair with a slimy pharmacist (Dabney Coleman). Speaking of ‘trouble’, the film’s title (huh?!) makes no sense other than as a false lure for Presley’s fans. North gives a memorable, sympathetic performance as a woman desperate for comfort and relief, but her dramatic role in the film’s final third is ultimately humiliating, and it’s hard to know what to make of the storyline overall.

Note: Watch for (underutilized) cameos by Vincent Price, John Carradine, and ringleted Susan Olson of “The Brady Bunch” fame.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Colorful historic sets

  • Jacques Marquette’s cinematography

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one unless you’re a Presley completist.

Links:

Humanoids From the Deep (1980)

“It starts out as a fish — but is humanoid in its final stages.”

Synopsis:
In a small fishing town where dogs begin mysteriously dying and a Native American (Anthony Pena) attempts to prevent the imminent arrival of a cannery, a scientist (Ann Turkel) explains to a local fisherman (Doug McClure) and his wife (Cindy Weintraub) that mutant sea monsters are responsible for the killing or raping of numerous teens (including Meegan King, Lynn Schiller, and Lisa Glaser). Can the humanoids be stopped before they ravage the entire town during the annual Salmon Festival?

Genres:

Review:
Nearly every review of this Roger Corman-produced horror flick calls out how many other films it either imitates or draws inspiration from — including Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), The Horror of Party Beach (1964), Jaws (1975), Halloween (1978), and — in its shock-ending — Alien (1979). It’s beloved by fans of the genre for its no-holds barred treatment of what is only hinted at in all these other films — namely, the rape of nubile, sexually active young women by aliens (yes, that happens here, on-screen). While decent use is made of coastal locales, and a few of the actors put forth reasonable effort, for the most part this film is terribly acted, laughably cliched, and overall simply an exploitative gore-fest. Clearly there’s an audience for all this, but all-purpose film-fanatics needn’t seek it out.

Note: Humanoids…’ female director (Barbara Peeters) is apparently now doing research for a documentary about domestic abuse entitled “Inheritance of Rage”. Go figure.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Good use of on-location shooting

Must See?
Nope — only if this is your cup of tea.

Links:

Say Amen, Somebody (1982)

“When I came up in gospel, we didn’t do concerts — we did revivals.”

Synopsis:
American gospel founders Thomas A. Dorsey and Willie Mae Ford Smith share their histories, talents, and abiding faith in this documentary about the evangelical roots of the musical genre.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his review of this “warmhearted documentary by George T. Nierenberg about some of the pivotal figures of gospel music”, Peary writes that it’s “wonderfully uplifting seeing aged gospel icons talk about what it means to sing gospel music”, and that “the music’s founding father, the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey — who’s as exciting to watch as Little Richard — and semi-retired Queen of Gospel Willie Mae Ford Smith, give highly spirited performances”. He further adds that it’s “good to see the gospel tradition being carried on by the middle-aged Barrett Sisters and others much younger”, and notes it’s “also interesting to watch revealing interviews and some of the cinema-verite footage showing the performers at home.” However, he argues that “the director doesn’t know how to juxtapose the concert material with the chatter, and the film loses momentum and, amazingly, becomes dull”.

While Peary wishes “the young filmmaker had had a veteran around to help him construct this film better — because the proper footage for a stronger film is there”, the film stands on its own as a uniquely structured ethnographic glimpse. It’s far from linear, but perhaps that’s not a necessity; what we see here is a milieu rather than a history per se (though historical information is woven throughout). Peary writes that “gospel music works when the singers transmit their emotions to their listeners (the church congregation)”, and then complains that “every time we really get into the swing of things and feel intoxicated by the music, Nierenberg pauses for a lot of behind-the-scenes chatter” — however, isn’t that precisely the point? Gospel singers — like all artists — have personal lives and beliefs that are impacted by (and shape) their art, and that’s very nicely highlighted here (particularly in reference to gender roles and expectations). On the other hand, Peary’s right that the film could perhaps have benefited from a bit more focus, simply to help us better understand some of these unique and interesting characters.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine ethnographic footage



  • An interesting glimpse into gender roles and expectations within this historical niche of the gospel world
  • Many rousing musical performances

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly recommended.

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