Thursday, April 30, 2015

You Really Should Watch...A Private Eye's Starter Kit Of Classic Crime Flicks

These aren't the best private eye flicks of all time. Heck, many of them don't even contain private eyes as such. (Nick and Nora are amateurs, really, who stumble upon crimes. Others are cops or claims adjusters for insurance companies. But they all "feel" like private eyes.) Here's a starter kit of classic and recent crime films (usually with private dicks) for the aspiring gumshoe.

THE BIG SLEEP (1946)

OUT OF SIGHT (1998)

A SHOT IN THE DARK (1964)

THE THIN BLUE LINE (1988)

VERTIGO (1958)

WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988)

SHAFT (1971)

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939)

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997)

THE THIN MAN (1934)

THE BIG EASY (1987)

NIGHT MOVES (1975)

OUT OF THE PAST (1947)

DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS (1995)

DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)

SHERLOCK JR. (1924)

KLUTE (1971)

THE NICE GUYS (2016)

THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)

CHINATOWN (1974)

ZOOTOPIA (2016)

STOLEN KISSES (1968)

LONE STAR (1996)

KISS ME DEADLY (1955)

BRICK (2006)

LAURA (1944)

BLOOD SIMPLE (1984)

REAR WINDOW (1954)

THEY ALL LAUGHED (1981)

THE BIG HEAT (1953)


1939: The Greatest Year For Movies

Updated as of 3-19-2021 (re-edits done with A)

Historians, critics and fans of movies often peg 1939 as the greatest year in history for cinema in general and the studio system in particular. And no wonder: it's chock full of classic films. Years ago, I decided if 1939 really was the greatest year in film history then I should see as many films from that year as possible. Good, bad, or indifferent, I wanted to know what I would see if I headed to the movies week after week during Hollywood's vintage year. Below is a list of every film I've seen from 1939. Long after I began the project, I decided to write quick summaries of the movies I was watching since so many of them are obscure; that's why I have detailed reviews of little known flicks and not a word about some I consider masterpieces. I'm pretty sure you know what Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Gone With The Wind are about, but details on the others might prove interesting. As I re-watch the best, I'll fill them in as well. Usually, if I offer serious spoilers, I alert you. Anyway, for movies rated two stars or less, it's probably more fun to read about the movies than actually watch them. So reader beware: for example, if you're planning to watch the Robert Benchley short Dark Magic, my notes on it will spoil the tepid visual gag at the end. You've been warned. 

One recurring thought: World War II is looming and Hollywood wanted to capitalize on the growing tension but avoid charges of war-mongering. So they often set war movies in WW I, when Germans (conveniently) were also the bad guys. Or they simply don't identify the Teutonic-like spies our heroes are foiling. Sometimes this works. Other times, it becomes silly, as in Conspiracy, where they don't name the vague country our hero is trapped in but the studio insists actors speak in a vague, "foreign" accent.

I'm a tough grader, so seven films -- so far -- that get a perfect four stars out of four is hard to beat. (Mind you, I need to watch The Women again, so it could drop to six.) Others argue for 1938 or 1940 or some other year further afield, like 1987, the vintage year of my youth. None of them have seven films as great as these plus another six nearly as good and then another two dozen worthy of three stars. Yes, 1939 has the most classics, near classics and a very strong bench. What year can beat it? None.

After the movies are listed by their rating, I offer capsule reviews, then I list them again alphabetically and then again by release date. So you can browse the list to see my favorites, scan the reviews, look up your favorites alphabetically or look at the release dates to see what you'd be watching week after week if you were living in New York City in 1939 and going to the movies a LOT. 

RELEASE DATES ET AL: Roughly 500 films were released by Hollywood in 1939. IMDB says 509 but take that with a rather large grain of salt. Release dates are also VERY tentative. Movies didn't have wide releases like they do today. 250 prints circulating would be a large number for a Hollywood A picture. A really top of the line movie might have 350 prints circulating. Remember, some movies would play at one theater for months on end, while others played for a week or two and were gone to make way for the next picture. Release dates are often from IMDB and it's not always clear if we're talking about the world premiere or the actual release in theaters when paying customers could attend. B movies -- like low-budget westerns -- didn't even necessarily play major cities like New York and LA. They were for the hinterland. A movie might open in Chicago or Kansas City long before it came to the biggest cities -- if at all -- especially for smaller, more obscure films. At best, one day I might go through the archives and get NYC release dates when possible by going through newspaper listings week by week for the entire year. And that would only tell us if and when a movie came to NYC, not its actual first release in a theater. 

P.S. Yeah, yeah, Rules Of The Game opened in FRANCE in 1939, not in the US. Sue me! Or just assume my 1939 self went to Paris for a quick trip before it was invaded. Some other classic are included on the same basis, like The Story Of The Last Chrysanthemum, which opened in JAPAN in 1939. Hey, I got around. 



1939 -- CINEMA'S GREATEST YEAR BY RATING

188 Movies, Shorts, Cartoons And Counting...


The Hound Of The Baskervilles ****
The Hunchback Of Notre Dame ****
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington ****
Rules of the Game ****
Stagecoach ****
The Wizard Of Oz ****
The Women ****


The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes *** ½ 
Gunga Din *** 1/2 
Love Affair *** ½
Midnight *** 1/2
The Roaring Twenties *** ½
The Story Of The Last Chrysanthemum *** 1/2


Allegheny Uprising (John Wayne and Claire Tevor) *** 
Another Thin Man *** 
Bachelor Mother (Ginger Rogers w baby and David Niven) ***
Beau Geste ***
Charlie Chan in City In Darkness ***
Clouds Over Europe see Q Planes
Daybreak see Le Jour Se Leve
Destry Rides Again ***
Dodge City ***
Drums Along The Mohawk ***
Each Dawn I Die ***
Five Came Back (Lucille Ball – plane crash in jungle) ***
Gone With The Wind *** (hateful, but beautifully crafted and well-acted)
Goodbye, Mr. Chips ***
Intermezzo: A Love Story ***
Invisible Stripes (George Raft, William Holden, Bogie, ex-cons) ***
Le Jour Se Leve aka Daybreak ***
Let Freedom Ring ***
The Little Princess ***
Ninotchka ***
Of Mice And Men ***
The Oklahoma Kid ***
Only Angels Have Wings ***
Q Planes aka Clouds Over Europe ***
The Saint Strikes Back ***
Son Of Frankenstein ***
The Stars Look Down ***
Union Pacific ***
Young Mr. Lincoln ***


The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn ** 1/2
Blackmail ** 1/2
Calling Dr. Kildare ** ½
Captain Fury ** ½
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island ** ½
In Name Only ** 1/2
The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt ** ½
Pièges (aka Personal Column) ** 1/2
Popeye The Sailor: Customers Wanted (cartoon short) ** 1/2
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex ** ½
The Rains Came ** 1/2
The Real Glory (Gary Cooper, Philippines, Moro rebellion) ** ½
The Saint in London ** ½
The Secret of Dr. Kildare ** ½
Stanley and Livingstone ** ½
Tell No Tales  ** 1/2
They All Come Out ** 1/2
Thunder Afloat ** 1/2
Torchy Runs For Mayor ** 1/2
Within The Law ** 1/2
Wuthering Heights ** ½
You Can't Cheat An Honest Man ** 1/2


Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever ** 
The Angels Wash Their Faces ** 
Babes In Arms **
Charlie Chan in Reno ** 
The City (doc short) ** 
Confessions Of A Nazi Spy **
Cuatro Corazones **
Dark Victory ** 
Dust Be My Destiny ** 
Fixer Dugan **
The Four Feathers **
Four Girls In White ** 
Four Wives ** 
Idiot's Delight ** 
The Kid From Kokomo **
The Lady And The Mob ** 
Land Of Alaska Nellie (TravelTalks short) ** 
Made For Each Other **
Maisie (Ann Sothern) **
Mr. Moto’s Last Warning **
...One Third Of A Nation ** 
Pacific Liner ** 
Picturesque Udaipur (TravelTalks short) ** 
Pride Of The Bluegrass ** 
Rural Hungary (TravelTalks short) ** 
Sergeant Madden **
The Spy In Black **
Tail Spin ** 
Three Smart Girls Grow Up ** 
Torchy Blane...Plays With Dynamite **
Twelve Crowded Hours **
Wife, Husband and Friend **
Women In The Wind **


Bad Little Angel * 1/2 
Blackwell's Island * 1/2 
The Cat and The Canary * 1/2
Conspiracy * 1/2
Dancing Co-Ed * 1/2
Dark Magic (Robert Benchley short) * 1/2 
Daughters Courageous * 1/2 
Espionage Agent * 1/2
Fast And Furious * 1/2
Fast and Loose * ½ 
The Fighting Gringo * 1/2 
The Flying Deuces (Laurel and Hardy) * 1/2
The Frozen Limits * ½
The Girl From Mexico * 1/2
The Great Man Votes (scenery chewing John Barrymore) * ½
Honolulu * 1/2
The Housekeeper's Daughter * 1/2
The Ice Follies of 1939 (Jimmy Stewart and Joan Crawford) * ½
Indianapolis Speedway (Pat O'Brien) * 1/2
It’s A Wonderful World (Jimmy Stewart and Claudette Colbert) * ½
Jesse James * 1/2
Juarez * 1/2
Judge Hardy and Son * ½ (Andy Hardy series)
King Of The Underworld * 1/2
Lady Of The Tropics * 1/2
Let Us Live  * 1/2
The Marshall Of Mesa City * 1/2
Miracles For Sale * 1/2
Mr. Moto In Danger Island * ½
Mr. Moto Takes A Vacation * 1/2
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase * 1/2
Nancy Drew...Reporter * ½
The Night Riders * 1/2
On Borrowed Time * 1/2
Panama Lady * 1/2 
Popeye The Sailor: Ghosks Is The Bunk short * 1/2 
Popeye The Sailor: Hello How Am I short * 1/2 
Popeye The Sailor: Leave Well Enough Alone short * 1/2 
Popeye The Sailor: Never Sock A Baby short * 1/2 
Private Detective * 1/2
Radio Hams (short) *1/2
Secret Service Of The Air * 1/2
Society Lawyer * ½
Sorority House * 1/2
Stand Up And Fight * 1/2
The Story Of Vernon and Irene Castle * 1/2
Stronger Than Desire * ½
Susannah Of The Mounties * 1/2 
That's Right -- You're Wrong * 1/2 
They Made Her A Spy * ½
They Made Me A Criminal * ½ 
Timber Stampede * 1/2 
Wings Of The Navy * 1/2
Wyoming Outlaw * 1/2
Yes, My Darling Daughter * 1/2


The Adventures Of Jane Arden *
Arizona Legion *
At The Circus * 
Bulldog Drummond's Bride * 
Bulldog Drummond's Secret Police * 
Coast Guard * 
Code Of The Secret Service * 
The Day Of Rest (Robert Benchley short) *
Everything Happens At Night *
Five Little Peppers And How They Grew *
Glimpses Of Australia *
The Gorilla *
Happily Buried (short) *
Henry Goes Arizona *Home Early (Robert Benchley short) * 
Home On The Prairie (Gene Autry vehicle) * 
An Hour For Lunch (Robert Benchley short) *
Jamaica Inn *
The Kid From Texas *
Kid Nightingale * 
Mama's New Hat (a Captain and the Kids short) * 
Nancy Drew...Trouble Shooter *
Naughty But Nice *
Nick Carter, Master Detective *
No Place To Go (short) * 
Old Hickory (short) * 
Poetry of Nature: A Pete Smith Specialty (short) * 
The Return of Doctor X *
Rhythm Romance aka Some Like It Hot * 
Rough Riders Round-Up * 
Seeing Red (short) * 
Smashing The Money Ring * 
Sweepstakes Winner *
These Glamour Girls *
Torchy Blane In Chinatown *
Way Down South *

Two Thoroughbreds  1/2 *

Charley’s (Big-Hearted) Aunt  no stars
The Cowboy Quarterback no stars
Harlem Rides The Range no stars
Midnight Shadow no stars
The Royal Rodeo (live action short) no stars
Sea Scouts (animated Donald Duck short) no stars 
A Small Town Idol (1921/1939 short) no stars 
Zenobia (Laurel And Hardy) no stars


THE ADVENTURES OF JANE ARDEN * -- The first of a would-be franchise starring a would-be hot new talent, "Th Adventures Of Jane Arden" also featured alongside a-up Ziegfeld Girl once promoted as the new "It" Girl to replace Clara Bow. Still this B movie is more interesting for the backstory of the talent involved than the movie itself. It's based on the smash hit comic strip about a girl reporter, proving Hollywood didn't start turning comic books into movies in the 2000s. While I assumed Jane Arden was a poor man's Brenda Starr, turns out Jane Arden was first. The comic strip ran from 1927 to 1968, spinning off a short-lived radio show, this movie, merchandising and more. A spunky gal who investigated the news, she was never a big success in the US but did well around the world (including Canada and Australia), inspiring Starr and others in her wake. Yes, Arden was the first female reporter of note (not to mention the most beautiful woman in news, as they often boasted). Come WW II, the strip dumped her then-current storyline and sent Arden right into the thick of things in Europe, albeit a fictional country. The movie begins with Arden looking to bust open a jewelry smuggling ring. In typically dumb fashion, she goes undercover and gets a job with the bad guys in my hometown of Bermuda. So she's on a dangerous assignment but that doesn't stop her newspaper's managing editor from staying with her on the cruise ship until AFTER she meets her contact and then trying to sneak away. Naturally, he's spotted and her cover is blown; at least the film lets Jane chide him for seeing her off. The Adventures Of Jane Arden has cheap dialogue of the wise guy sort and a lot of actors who come off poorly, notably Rosella Towne as our gal Jane Arden. Though depicted playing dice with the boys and being quick on her feet, Towne is a stiff and it's no surprise they never followed up on this film --  her touted career soon sputtered out. The same goes for director Terry Morse, who did better work as an editor and is best known today for having directed the American scenes featuring Raymond Burr for the butchered American version of the Godzilla debut that eclipsed the superior Japanese cut for decades. But never rule anyone out just because they're in a bad flick. Watching this, you'd probably single out William Gargan as the least bad. But in fact he had a good career, getting an Oscar nomination one year later and scoring in The Bells Of St. Marys and other films until throat cancer sidelined him as an actor and he turned to producing. Ditto the not awful James Stephenson who plays the main baddie. He stumbled into movies very late in life, starting at age 49 and though a few clunkers like this one arrived, Stephenson also received an Oscar nomination in William Wyler's The Letter opposite Bette Davis (playing a rare nice guy part), not to mention turns in The Sea Hawk, The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex and other major films. Not bad for a guy who started in 1938 and died suddenly of a heart attack in 1941. Finally, there's the sad case of Peggy Shannon. She plays Stephenson's hard-bitten moll, one he's tossing aside for Arden, a real "lady" and one he prefers even when he discovers Arden is a reporter. Shannon was a kid growing up in Arkansas until -- in true Hollywood fashion -- she visited an aunt in New York City at age 16 and was discovered by the great Florenz Ziegfeld himself. In two shakes, she was starring on Broadway, signed to a film deal and replacing Clara Bow in a major film. But Shannon was an alcoholic and difficult to deal with (those don't always go hand in hand). Her reputation for being a pain kept her from capitalizing on the early heat. She was reduced to supporting roles by 1939 and drinking more and more, dying of a heart attack in 1941 (the same year as her co-star Stephenson). In real life, Shannon's distraught new husband (a cameraman) died by suicide three weeks later, shooting himself in the same chair in which he found her body. It's the curse of The Adventures Of Jane Arden! Read about all those actors and you might glean a very modest bit of interest in this weak nothing of a movie. Know nothing about them and it will be forgotten before it's even over. And if I know my casting couch, the handsome young man on the ship who gets a line and some good camera time when announcing "All ashore that's going ashore!" was sleeping with someone! Opened March 18, 1939.

ALLEGHENY UPRISING *** -- Surprisingly nuanced film about folk in the colonies before the Revolutionary War. They chafe under the tyrannical behavior of a British soldier and the smuggling that threatens their livelihood. John Wayne leads them in semi-legal uprising, always striving to stay this side of the law while they risk their lives to expose the bad guys and force the British military to meet their demands. Love interest Claire Trevor fell hard for Wayne as a kid and desperately wants him to see her as a woman now, though he's too busy righting wrongs to notice. The British are not all bad and the colonists are not all good; heck, even the Indians are presented in a somewhat complex manner (given when the film was made). Smart little movie and quite effective despite the curse of dullness that dooms most films set in the Revolutionary Era. Opened November 10, 1939. 


ANGELS WASH THEIR FACES ** -- The Dead End Kids started on Broadway, then shot to fame in Hollywood when their play Dead End was turned into a movie. In 1939 alone, they made seven films for two different studios! At this stage they're still young-ish for the most part, but 20 years later they'd be middle-aged men still acting like kids as the Bowery Boys. (No, I can't reconcile my impression here with the fact that in 1939's They Made Me A Criminal the actors seem absurdly old for their roles.) Here they still have their dignity intact, doing a sequel to the much superior 1938 drama Angels With Dirty Faces. Instead of James Cagney as a tough guy they wrongly idolize, the kids are paired with Ronald Reagan as a crusading Assistant D.A. The newest member of the gang is framed for arson by a crooked developer and the kids are furious. The solution? Billy (Billy Halop) competes in a contest to be Mayor for a week. Once in power, he'll get his pal out of jail and put the bad guys away for good. Hijinks ensue, with the kids taking advantage of old laws still on the books so they can place some thugs in the stockade (literally) until the guys crack and spill the beans. Huzzah! Reagan is pretty loose and fun here by his standards and the Dead End Kids haven't strayed too far from their dramatic roots yet. In one scene, a crippled boy is trapped in an apartment building intentionally set on fire. The kids rush to the building next door, get a rope to the kid...and then watch the place collapse in flames, taking their screaming friend with it. It's pretty harrowing and the emotional highlight of a nothing B movie. Halop really does have the goods as the most passionate kid in the gang; no wonder he tried for a solo career. (He's also good in Dust Be My Destiny.) The rest were wise to milk this franchise for all it was worth. Opened August 26, 1939.


ANOTHER THIN MAN *** -- Maybe it's hard to remember the plot of this light mystery because the crime and the solving of it is so beside the point. You don't need me to tell you that Nick and Nora are the prototypical couple that inspired TV shows like Hart To Hart and Moonlighting and too many movies and indeed mystery novel duos to count. It's all down to that mysterious element known as chemistry, which William Powell and Myrna Loy enjoy in spades. Myrna Loy in particular is my idea of a great gal. Who wouldn't want to be married to her? It seems such effortless fun. This time around they are joined by a baby -- Nicky Jr. -- and the little tyke doesn't slow down the drinking or the fun one bit. The cast is brimming with wonderful character actors, from C. Aubrey Smith as Nora's ill-fated friend of her late father to Sheldon Leonard (the bartender in It's A Wonderful Life) as a goon who keeps threatening people with the dreams he has of their imminent demise. Somehow it ends with a baby party where Runyonesque shady characters all show up at Nick and Nora's with little babies in toy and they all get wonderfully jumbled up. Somewhere in there a crime takes place and is solved, but who cares? You can easily chart the film as a delightful battle of wits: Nick tricks Nora into the other room so he can skedaddle with the police (and keep her safe). Nora collects the names of his old flames so she can drop them like depth charges at opportune moments. Nick punishes her for following him by letting her be bullied around by a Marjorie Main as a boisterous landlady and so on. Their asides are as dry as their martinis. Their looks of affection and amusement and good-natured frustration are the bass line on which the entire movie spins out its melody. If Powell does a double take once too often when jousting with other characters, who can blame him? They can't compare to Myrna Loy. Maybe the second film is the peak in this series, but this third entry is right there with the original. Opened November 17, 1939. 

ARIZONA LEGION * -- An RKO western vehicle for George O'Brien, this is a dull little movie in which half the action is watching horses race around from one spot to another. It was shot in November of 1938, edited in December and released in January of 1939. Ahh, the good ole days. Despite myself, I found it a little intriguing, if idiotic. A Lieutenant Bob Ives in the US Cavalry is all duded up and riding a stagecoach back to a new posting near his hometown. Played by Carlyle Moore, he's an annoying fellow. Ives angrily dusts himself off, saying he's been away so long he'd forgotten how dreadful the dirt and mess of Arizona could be. A fellow passenger makes a seemingly polite comment and Bob bites his head off with some officious nonsense. They're robbed by a gang of bandits led by a portly, un-menacing fellow named Whiskey Joe. And when a fellow passenger insists he won't identify the man (since anyone who dares to testify against Joe is killed), Bob sneers at his cowardice. Dear god, is he our hero? I hate him already. Soon they're back home, arresting Whiskey Joe and we watch as a farce of a courtroom trial leads to an acquittal. To make matters worse for the by-the-book, stick up his arse Ives, the jury is laughingly led by his old pal Boone (O'Brien). Boone is drinking up his inheritance, hanging around with bad guys and dismaying the prettiest girl in town (Laraine Day). She breaks off their engagement though she can't quite bring herself to fall for Ives (who could?). Surely Boone hasn't gone all bad? Indeed not. It turns out Boone is undercover. The governor has formed the Arizona Legion, fourteen men who for some reason will protect stage coaches and foil robberies but feel the need to do it with a kerchief over their face until the criminal mastermind behind all this lawlessness can be uncovered. O'Brien looks pretty out of shape (by modern standards, I guess) and is more believable as a dissolute bum than an action hero, always walking into rooms with a self-conscious swagger. This is a long way down from his work with Ford, not to mention starring in Murnau's Sunrise in 1927, one of the greatest films of all time. Boone's sidekick is Chill Wills, who gets to tell tall tales and sing a comic number when they're not hunting down bad guys. (Wills of course was the voice for Francis The Talking Mule and may have lost an Oscar as a supporting actor in John Wayne's The Alamo by campaigning too hard. But anyone who refuses to support Richard Nixon because he prefers George Wallace instead deserves all the bad luck they can get. ) Hilariously, the duo foils numerous criminal acts but the bad guys don't recognize them, even though they're riding their own horses and wearing the same clothes when they show up at the local saloon minutes later. It's the kerchief! Who could figure it out? Worse is a "secret" door in the backroom of the saloon that seems to lead outside but is covered over with a giant Indian rug hanging on the wall. Never mind that anyone OUTSIDE would see the secret door. At the finale, Boone reveals his secret mission to Ives, announces he knows the criminal mastermind and yet for some reason doesn't actually say the guy's name. Ives steps out of the room and unwittingly tips off the villain, proving one last time what an idiot he is. We get some more running around until a final shoot out, the day is won and Boone gets the girl and kisses her while manfully shaking Ives' hand over her shoulder. Moore is so satisfyingly annoying as a martinet and stickler for the rules, I wondered what else he'd done. Precious little, actually. Almost everything he did before this film was tiny or uncredited bit roles, other than a supporting turn in Humphrey Bogart's Two Against The World in 1936. After perhaps the biggest role of his career in Arizona League came five more parts amounting to nothing in 1940 (radio operator, intern typing and so on) before he quit the business for good. I'm not saying he made the wrong choice, but the fact that I wanted to slap him the moment he came on screen is notable and actually in his favor. A smarter studio might have seen Moore's potential for playing annoying twerps and made something of him. Opened January 20, 1939.

AT THE CIRCUS * -- This is the tenth of 14 Marx Brothers films and boy does it show. Everything about At The Circus is tired, starting with the Brothers Marx, whose hearts clearly weren't in it. Director Edward Buzzell made about thirty movies and I don't think any of them were good. He killed off the Thin Man series and he probably should have killed off the Marx Brothers since the four movies that followed this one weren't any better. Anyway, the bland Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker) has turned his back on his aunt (Margaret Dumont, of course) and all her money to open a circus. He's just getting by but the bad guys steal $10,000, Jeff can't make a payment and the circus may go under. Jeff manfully urges his sweetheart (Florence Rice) to take her marvelous act (she sings to a horse!) and get while the going is good. No way. She pledges her devotion and after we see her absurd act and hear them duet on a dull love song, we wish they'd get married already and leave. Rice made some better films but Kenny Baker is so bland you'd swear he was cast just to make the Marx Brothers look nuttier in comparison. Even Zeppo has more charisma! (It's the same reason Ray Charles had those whiter-than-white back-up singers on classics like "Georgia On My Mind." After the funkiness of the Rae-lettes, those square vocalists were the only way to make him sound even more soulful.) Baker was a star singer on "The Jack Benny Show" in radio, but headed to the movies full-time in 1939, just in time to make this and ruin "The Mikado" for good measure.  Eventually he ran back to radio, hopefully dumping his idiot manager in the process. Back to our story: Chico likes the boss so he and Harpo call in a lawyer. Enter Groucho and the usual shenanigans. You've seen it all before, only funnier. The musical numbers are especially obligatory, with the exception of Groucho's "Lydia The Tattooed Lady." Otherwise, Harpo's harp solo is rather inventively shot, though unfortunately it's book-ended with a racist tableaux featuring every black actor on the studio lot, all of them dragooned into looking bug-eyed at lions and then in rapt pleasure over his strumming. Ugh. Grouch and Dumont have some of the old spark and a line here or there has a little zip...or might if they weren't presented so flatly and edited so poorly. Exhausting, right down to the final gag where lunacy breaks out after they present the circus acts for a bunch of swells while an ape/gorilla/fellow in a monkey costume breaks out of his cage and collars the bad guy. An orchestra is sailing out to sea (don't ask) and Groucho is asking the gorilla if the money it has recovered is all there. The cutting back and forth between the floating orchestra and the gorilla counting off bills is a master class in unfunny. Opened October 20, 1939.

BAD LITTLE ANGEL  * 1/2 -- A curious faith-based movie starring child star Virginia Weidler in one of her few leading roles. She had a great run as a spunky kid in The Women and The Philadelphia Story. Weidler could carry a film but the girl she plays here is such a drip that there's not much Weidler can do about it. The child is Patsy, an orphan who has a strong faith in God; you can tell because she's always sporting a crucifix and can barely speak a sentence without quoting the Bible or talking about our Lord. It begins with Patsy under the care of a Bible-quoting old woman who reads stories to the child every night. (Size matters, apparently. Every single copy of the Bible we see is monstrously big, just so we know it's no ordinary book.) The excellent supporting cast (which, like Weidler, can't overcome the trite material) includes Elizabeth Patterson as the feisty old lady. Patterson would later play the neighbor Mrs. Trumbull on I Love Lucy. She teaches Patsy about divination, using the Bible as a sort of Tarot card or Magic 8 Ball where you open it up randomly and point at a passage to see if it answers your prayer. It's actually frowned upon by actual religious folk but here is presented with a child's guileless simplicity. The evil orphanage tries to reclaim Patsy (because they can get cold hard money for taking care of her) and the old lady fights them off but soon dies. Branded a jinx, Patsy then runs away, this time using the Bible to tell her where to go. "Flee unto Egypt" it says. Patsy doesn't have enough money to get all the way to the Middle East but she doesn't think God will mind if she goes to Egypt, New Jersey instead. (Yep, there's such a place, known as New Egypt.) In typical Anne of Green Gables style, Patsy shows up, befriends a boy who has spunk (and a drunken father), confronts a mean old miser and gets taken in by the crusading editor of the town's paper. Her faith charms and changes one and all, of course. The rich old meanie is played by Guy Kibbee with understated believability, his butler is an over-acting Reginald Owens and the boy is played by Gene Reynolds, who's quite appealing here but would go on to much bigger success as a director and producer on smash hit shows like M*A*S*H and Lou Grant. Patsy's constant quoting of the Bible is the movie's only redeeming, offbeat touch here. Interestingly, no one else is remotely as religious. When she joins a family for dinner, they all dig in while she starts praying quietly and they awkwardly drop everything to politely join in. When Patsy starts praying over a Bible in the rich man's mansion, he looks at her suspiciously and wonders what the heck she could be doing. You'd think the entire country was godless before Patsy showed up. Faith is redeemed and if you think that's a spoiler, you're either a heathen or you've never seen typical Hollywood fare from the 1930s. Opened October 27, 1939.

BLACKMAIL ** 1/2 -- It's no surprise Edward G. Robinson is a compelling actor, even in a by-the-numbers flick for MGM where he plays a family man happily married to Ruth Hussey, dad to an adorable little boy (Bobs Watson of the Watson acting clan) and owner of a business that runs around putting out wildly dangerous fires at sites drilling for oil. He's got it all. Then a newsreel company is spotted filming Robison putting out another fire and his wife calmly tells him to turn his back and stay out of the camera's sight. What gives? Turns out Robinson is on the lam -- wrongly convicted of a crime, he was trapped on a brutal chain gang, fled for his life and started over in another part of the country with a new name and a new lease on life. Disaster strikes when a fellow jailbird spots Robinson in the newsreel footage, tracks him down and asks for a job...and then a little money...and then a little more money. Why, it's...BLACKMAIL! It's another MGM film that plays like a tough-talking Warner Bros flick which makes me think our ideas about the studios and their identities should be a little more flexible. Even when he seems to be an ordinary fellow, Robinson is compulsively watchable. And as the film progresses, this innocent man trapped in a nightmare becomes increasingly obsessed with getting revenge on the man blackmailing him, the very man who framed him in the first place all those years ago. That's when the movie kicks into high gear, with Robinson destroying everything he built because he can't bear the sheer injustice of his situation. The movie only falters at a too-neat finale. Hussey, Guinn Williams as Robinson's stalwart #2 and I guess Watson as the boy are all good. (The kid is unbearable when asked to emote but fine when just a typical boy.) But it's worth seeing not for them and not for Robinson but for character actor Gene Lockhart as William Ramey, the weasel who comes back into Robinson's life. You'll immediately recognize this consummate character actor from dozens of other roles (the sheriff in His Girl Friday, the judge in Miracle On 34th Street). Here he's just so wonderfully hateful, asking questions in an insinuating, infuriating voice and trying to act reasonable when you just know this skunk spells trouble. He's so good that when Robinson threatens to toss him into a raging oil fire at one point, you can't help urging him on. Do it! Do it! It's not a good enough role or movie for Lockhart's performace to be worthy of his best, but he sure makes the most of it. September 8, 1939.  


BLACKWELL'S ISLAND * 1/2 I'm late to the John Garfield Appreciation Society, but he's a terrific actor. His debut in Four Daughters is magnetic -- Brando and Jimmy Dean before there was a Brando or a Dean. One year later he stars in five films; one of them is pretty good and it ain't this one. Here Garfield is a crusading journalist, ready to pick a fight with any mobster who gets in the way of truth, justice and the American Way. His antagonist is a buffoon of a gangster named Bull Bransom who dotes over two giant Dobermans and plays practical jokes on everyone in sight. Stanley Fields easily slips from dopey to menacing in a soft soap version of Joe Pesci in GoodFellas. The guy might give you a gag cigar one moment and order you killed in the next; we buy the sense of danger embodied by Bull. It's not enough, though. Garfield gets Bull tossed in jail but the man is soon running the entire prison. The warden and guards -- either crooked or scared -- are in his pocket. So of course Garfield gets himself tossed in jail, uncovers the corruption, pairs off with a new city official pledged to clean up the town and they save the day. Early on, Garfield is rattling on about the press and tosses in a "see?" a la James Cagney. It's a good comparison since like Cagney, Garfield can play a good guy, a bad guy and all the gray in between. But even he needs a good script. Opened March 25, 1939.

BULLDOG DRUMMOND'S SECRET POLICE * 
BULLDOG DRUMMOND'S BRIDE * 

Bulldog Drummond is a staple figure in pulp fiction, radio, movies, TV, theater and graphic novels ever since H.C. McNeile began dashing off the novels in 1920. Bulldog is a wealthy adventurer looking for kicks after WW I trained him in the deadly arts and then peacetime spoiled the fun. Ten different actors gave it a go, including Ronald Colman, Ralph Richardson and Ray Milland.  For some reason, John Howard as the 11th Bulldog stuck, at least for eight films in a B movie series from Paramount. The last two came out in 1939 before the series took  a much needed break. For a low budget franchise, the movies had a solid cast, including Howard (best known for The Philadelphia Story and Lost Horizons) as the lead and dependable folk like H.B. Warner as the long-suffering arm of the law, E.E. Clive as an unflappable gentleman's gentleman, Reginald Denny as clumsy best pal/comic relief Algy, harmless Heather Angel as the love interest and tart Elizabeth Patterson as her aunt. It would be impressive if the results weren't so dire. I can't decide if I'd actually seen these movies before or they're just such cookie cutter exercises in formula it merely SEEMS like I've seen them before. In the poorly titled Secret Police, Bulldog is about to marry his fiancé when a cipher to buried treasure and bodies throw a monkey wrench in the proceedings. The film is barely an hour long but takes about three hours to get to the business at hand, includes a ludicrous shoot out in a library where the two gunmen are about eight feet apart and I kept losing track of the plot. Apparently, Bulldog's failure to actually marry his honey is a running gag in the series and the film ends with the nuptials delayed yet again. The joke is on Bulldog in Bride, with everyone determined to see the couple wed. A bank robber tries to interfere but this only sends the gang to France. Sure, a criminal mastermind is tossing bombs here, there and everywhere while searching for his stolen but missing loot. But the police literally turn the other way, far more focused on watching love prevail. It's almost funny, but alas, not quite. A modest professionalism keeps the whole affair this side of farce, unfortunately, but apparently no one wanted to see a married Bulldog and this particular series ended. Secret Police released April 14, 1939. New Bride released September 18, 1939.

THE CAT AND THE CANARY * 1/2 The 1922 stage melodrama set in an "old, dark house" has been turned into multiple films over the years. A 1922 film version is already billed as a comic/horror film and is very influential in terms of its visuals. But the best known version is this 1939 spin starring Bob Hope and Paulette Godard (who was perhaps becoming Mrs. Charlie Chaplin that same year). We're told this one is the real comedy version of a haunted house story but you'd have to be told that to know. Bob Hope's character is a joker but the rest is played strictly for suspense as far as I can tell. And for Hope, that's a good thing. His amiable coward act is coming into focus here and it works much better when there's actual danger, rather than just one-liners and schtick to contend with. But whether you consider this a comedy with suspense/horror elements or a suspense/horror film with comedy elements, it's definitely a bore. Deep in the bayous of Louisiana, the surviving relatives of an eccentric nut are meeting in  his spooky mansion cut off from the mainland to hear the reading of his will at midnight, ten years after he died. (They must ride a canoe to get there so they're all trapped there until morning.) The housekeeper Miss Lu (Gale Sondergaard) is a morose creature in all-black who communes with spirits and immediately predicts one of the people gathered will die that night. You've got two old biddies (Elizabeth Patterson, Nydia Westman), a young guy who snaps angrily at everyone (John Beal), what's intended as a heartthrob (Douglass Montgomery, a man with one too many "s's" in his name), the executor (George Zucco), a pretty young heroine who is well-known for her magazine illustrations (Godard) and a popular comic (Hope). Oh and there's a black cat and an escaped lunatic from the local asylum prowling the grounds, a maniac known as "The Cat." While Hope takes mild digs at the entire set-up of everyone trapped in a haunted mansion, the pretty young woman who is sure to inherit everything (as she does) and so on, the movie is flat and unfunny from start to finish. Among the many idiocies, the executor goes missing (they're trapped on a tiny spit of land and there's no getting off) but does this prompt them to search the house from top to bottom or, you know, panic? It does not. Even when they find the body, everyone merrily troops off to their own isolated rooms for the night. Again and again, people wander off alone into dark secret passages when any sane person would call out for help and gather everyone around. Even in 1939 this was dumb stuff. And again, except for Hope's asides, it's all played strictly for suspense. Hope is the only saving grace, acting with restraint and charm while refining his cowardly lion persona to a sharp point. The only reason to watch this is to see a star come into his own. Opened November 10, 1939.

CHARLEY’S (BIG-HEARTED) AUNT no stars – The umpteenth version of this tired farce that involves cross-dressing is very threadbare with cheap production values, no standout talent in the cast and the feeling that you’re watching some community theater troupe delivering a very bored performance of a play they’ve done one too many times. 


THE CITY ** This documentary short is about 43 minutes and a clean print can be found on YouTube. It's a rather didactic look at urban planning. Cities are bad and filled with smog and drunkards an unwholesome living. Rural life is great, but we can't all live on farms. The solution? The planned community of tomorrow. It's not the suburbs so much as smaller cities with lots of green space and the like. Nice touches include a babble of voice-overs that capture the hubbub of a metropolis and glimpses of traffic and crowds and automated pancake flippers in a diner that is half Modern Times and half Koyaanisqatsi. Other than the weird but not unappealing EPCOT future it imagines, the main draw is a score by Aaron Copland. Heavy-handed but not so far off the mark and well-assembled by pros all around. Opened May 26, 1939. 

COAST GUARD * -- A silly programmer starring Randolph Scott and Ralph Bellamy. The backdrop of air and sea rescue by the coast guard is merely there to heighten the romance as two best pals fall for the same gal. Bellamy is of course the straight arrow, dependable type while Scott is a womanizer. Bellamy and Frances Dee are all but engaged yet he’s no fool – he does everything he can to keep her away from Scott. Then, in a typically illogical move, he goes away and asks Scott to keep an eye on her. Naturally, they fall in love and Bellamy is crushed. Then the movie gets really dumb as Scott and Dee get married and make each other miserable while Bellamy stands around waiting for it to all fall apart. High adventure strikes as Bellamy gets stranded near the north pole and Scott goes to rescue him. (Bellamy spends days alone and unconscious on the ice in a horrible storm, but a spot of tea revives him nicely.) The model work done for the coast guard scenes is very dated; you can practically see the toy ships floating in a tub. The romance is unconvincing on every possible level. And Bellamy really is a vampire of a movie actor, sucking the life out of every scene he’s in. Almost any gal would rather be miserable with Scott than bored with Bellamy. Opened August 4, 1939. 

CODE OF THE SECRET SERVICE * -- Second of four films in the Ronald Reagan series as Brass Bancroft. See Secret Service Of The Air. Opened May 27, 1939 (but not in Los Angeles). 

CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY ** -- This film is far more interesting in its production and release history than the actual film itself. Still, the movie remains fascinating for what it shows and what it imagines in America in 1939 just prior to Nazi German plunging the world into war. It's prescient, damning and kind of remarkable. If only it were a little better.... Warner Bros. made the film and released it in May of 1939, four months before Germany invaded Poland and WW II started in earnest for Europe, at least. Nonetheless, it doesn't pull any punches. A German doctor (Paul Lukas) comes to the US to agitate among German Americans, urging them to embrace the Fuhrer's campaign against democracy and inferior races. He's shown preaching to willing audiences at German-American clubs, winning over a loser of a guy named Kurt (Francis Lederer) who likes to pretend he's important and a big thinker. Kurt is soon spying in a ham-fisted but effective manner (Americans are so trusting!), drawing in a big galumph of a pal behind him. Fistfights at American Legion Halls, Nazi propaganda being tossed out of skyscraper windows and from planes -- the Nazis are blanketing the country with their poison and America seems ready to boil over with tension. Edward G. Robinson, an FBI agent, is called in to crush the spy ring and naturally succeeds. In classic propaganda style, the Nazis are all portrayed as sad or hateful characters. Kurt is a loser, the doctor cheats on his wife and so on. There's a compelling sense of menace for a while. Robinson does a good job playing on their weaknesses to garner info but the second half is a lot less fun. The other major studios HATED this movie. They tried to get WB to dump it. They offered to pay for the entire budget if they could bury it. Why? Because they wanted to keep open the lucrative movie market in Germany and other countries that might have sided with it. WB persevered...and for their troubles got a flop. They re-released it again in 1941 with an update on what the Nazis had done since the movie first came out (an invasion here, an atrocity there). Watch it and you'll be even more puzzled and intrigued about how it was Japanese Americans were wrongfully imprisoned during the war and yet not a peep was said about Americans of German or Italian descent...even after an actual, honest to goodness Nazi spy ring -- The Duquesne Spy Ring -- was busted in 1941. No one ever said prejudice was logical. Opened May 6, 1939. 


CONSPIRACY * ½ -- A smidge under one hour, this B-movie (or C-movie, really) is a vague little political thriller that makes no sense. Allan Lane (best known for playing a Canadian mountie in serials and as “Rocky” Lane in a bunch of minor westerns) stars as a straight arrow American. He’s working on a ship as a radio operator; it’s pulling into harbor in a foreign country when he discovers a shipmate sending a coded message, probably about that mysterious cargo they’re carrying! Lane asks too many questions and before you know it the ship is boarded by the foreign military, the shipmate is dead and Lane must dive into the waters for his life – he slips onto land, soaked and bedraggled, only to immediately befriend a lovely woman (Linda Hayes) standing on the docks. Intrigue mounts: her brother was the shipmate sending the message, the ship is carrying material for poison gas, the country is a police state where no one is safe and Lane has been declared dead so now the government is determined to make that a fact so no questions will arise from the US embassy. It’s another 1939 movie that reflects the tense times with war in Europe and Asia exploding into the headlines. We never know the country so Hayes and half the cast must walk around speaking with a vaguely foreign accent, a hilarious decision that proves the only entertaining part of the movie. (“Trouble” becomes “twouble” and so on.) In real life, Lane was a football star at Notre Dame, so in one scene he’s describing a great game he played only to discover that the nightclub owner (an ex-pat named Tio) is a famed but disgraced college football coach gone into exile for gambling on the game. Tio’s sidekick? A former horse jockey, naturally, who says things like, “Now that’s what I call a photo finish!” after a close scrape with soldiers. The gang wanders around avoiding the police and the military, very little of it making sense. For example, Lane is a desperate fugitive but when he’s hiding alone in the apartment of Hayes and someone knocks at the door, he answers it! Hayes is particularly weak, delivering many of her lines in a stilted, awful fashion (she was a runner-up in Jesse L. Lasky’s “Gateway to Hollywood” radio talent search contest -- see The Marshal Of Mesa City --  but got a contract from RKO anyway, dropping out of the biz after three years then giving birth to Cathy Lee Crosby). Lane plays an unflappable American, always ready with a wisecrack and a sunny personality. He’s a pleasant screen presence and almost makes this watchable; with a lucky break or two he would have been a much bigger star. Opened August 1, 1939.

THE COWBOY QUARTERBACK  no stars -- Dire stuff. A B movie programmer about a hick named Harry Lynn who comes to play for the Chicago Packers. Complications ensue when his bossy girlfriend is sent back home, the cowboy falls in love with another gal who couldn't care less about him (at least she's got taste). Somewhere in the middle, gangsters swindle our hero and try to force him into throwing the big game. The redoubtable William Demarest is the fast-talking talent scout who signs the speedy yokel. Marie Wilson is the um strong-looking girlfriend. And vaudeville star Bert Wheeler of the famed duo Wheeler and Woolsey doesn't impress as the dim-witted athlete. It doesn't help that he was 44 at the time, about 24 years older than a rookie footballer should be. It would clearly be better to try and spot Wheeler's talent by seeing one of the many shorts he made with Woolsey. But this sure doesn't make you want to. Clem Bevans --who always plays an old codger -- appears briefly as an old codger delivering the mail. Opened July 29, 1939.

CUATRO CORAZONES ** -- This curiosity from the nascent Argentine film industry is no one's idea of a great movie. But it shows how cultures all over the world embraced what Hollywood was accomplishing but put their own spin on it. Hence this fluff set in a nightclub where every night the owners embraces an entirely new decor, songs are accompanied by a Busby Berkley-style revue with endless dancers waving their arms about and romance is in the air. For all that, it has a unique stamp: the mood toggles between light romance and tear-jerking melodrama, an unwed mother is at the heart of the story but her being unwed is a mere fact (not a scandal) and while we spend the entire movie watching as two couples are prepared for the happy ending, only one of them gets it. Indeed, the second, most enjoyable coupling seems to have occurred ONLY to the audience, not the characters. Enrique Santos Discépelo is the unlikely heart of the film. He's small, less than handsome and a fast-talking character -- Warner Bros. would have kept him on tap for "color" in a hundred films. And just when you expected him to be rat-like or at least lecherous, he proves inherently decent and quite fun. In real life, Discépelo was already famous for his tangos, having burst on the scene in 1928 and composed the all-time classic "Cambalache" in 1934. He was a figure in theater and nightclubs and with this film, Discépelo was surely the driving force: he co-wrote the script, co-directed with Carlos Schlieper (who went on to a substantial film career) and starred. The melodrama centers on insipid blonde Irma Córdoba, the unwed mother. Some bizarre laws mean the child's father will be able to claim the boy when he turns five years old, so she must keep the child hidden...in the home of her maid. Desperate for money, she and her pal Gloria Guzmán get hired as dancers in Discépelo's nightclub. Cordoba creates a near riot when her ne'er do well gambler husband (or his henchmen, I got confused) track her down. She flees out a back way and naturally the manager agrees to keep her friend on at double the pay because who can resist playing a white knight when a blonde is involved? The heartbreaking story of a mother fighting to keep her child is a bore, with Córdoba p-laintively saying the boy's name over and over -- while the kid himself, despite very limited screen time proves the least convincing of all. All the fun happens with Guzmán and Discépelo. She's got an angular, odd face that Almodovar would love. The men swoon over Córdoba but you want to spend time with Guzmán. She gamely tries to dance, spars with Discépelo and then the two of them bond when they take the kids out on excursions. (Córdoba presumably stays in her room, weeping.) The nightclub is a financial failure, the gambling boyfriend is closing in and it all comes to a head in a madcap finale turned tragedy turned sort-of happy ending. Did I mention Alberto Vila? He's the blander than bland romantic love interest for the blonde Córdoba. When he's not belting out romantic ballads amidst a bevy of (unpaid) showgirls, Vila stands around looking bored. Naturally, he and Córdoba are paired off at the end. That leaves a black widow of a woman on the outs -- she's a dour character (played by Herminia Franco) who loves Vila, writes checks to keep Discépelo's nightclub afloat and everyone else pays as little attention to her as possible, so shall I.  The shocker is that Guzmán and Discépelo aren't paired off at the end. They seem to be having fun together, with her realizing he has a good heart and he loudly proclaiming to one and all he's fallen in love. Since he barely sees the blonde, we assume he means Guzmán but at the end of the film it's clear only the (Ameican) audience even considered the idea. Cuatro Corazones isn't good by any stretch, but it's not bad. And the sense of Hollywood filtered through an Argentine sensibility, not to mention the very casual acceptance of an unwed mother, keep the interest high. And Discépelo and Guzmán had the goods. The studio system would have thrown them together again as the subplot in another film. In real life, Discépelo only made a few more films before dying unexpectedly in 1951 while Guzmán focused on the theater for the next 15 years and only returned to the movies in 1954. Opened March 1, 1939 in Argentina.

DANCING CO-ED * ½ -- When the distaff part of a famous dancing team gets pregnant, the studio decides to turn it into a publicity stunt. They hold a nationwide talent hunt at colleges across the country to find the perfect female co-star for dancing dreamboat's next movie. But why take chances? The studio plants a ringer (Lana Turner) in a small mid-western college. The school reporter is convinced it’s a scam, only to have the ringer herself “work” with him to see if they can spot the plant. Nothing special. Opened September 29, 1939.

DARK MAGIC * 1/2 -- Robert Benchley proves an unlikely comedy star. For me, his humor works better on the page. But here he is, starring in a string of comic shorts for seventeen years from 1928 through 1945 and the only thing that stopped him was Death. Many are droll essays, I think, on topics like "How To Read" with Benchley poking fun at himself as an expert. (John Hodgman owes a debt.) Then in 1937 he took on the persona of Joe Doakes, a bland character fairly indistinguishable from Benchley except that Oakes doesn't address the camera. In this flat comic routine, he's a sad sack husband looking for a gift to give his son, who he assures the clerk is NOT the brightest of bulbs. They alight on a magic trick set, with another employee smoothly performing trick after trick. Easy! He brings it home then struggles to recreate the magic. (Being a man, of course, he never bothers to look at the directions.) The son looks on with cynical disbelief while Doakes waves off his wife any time she intrudes. It ends with one elaborate trick finally working. Oakes puts himself into a giant bag and disappears...only to reappear dangling on telephone wires high above a street for the visual button. It's thin stuff and you can imagine Benchley shamefacedly hoping none of the other Algonquin set stumbles onto it at the cinema. (Opened May 13, 1939)

DARK VICTORY ** -- Bette Davis just walks into a room and you love her and hate her with equal passion and you most certainly can't stop looking at her. She's always prowling around in this melodrama about a vivacious young woman suffering a dreadful, terminal illness. Davis strides across her estate, thunders into the stables, cuts a swathe through her own dinner party, slices from room to room while barking out orders to her servants and even at the end when her sight is dimming and she has mere hours to live, Davis grabs desperately at doors and bed posts and walls to guide her path and keep her moving right up to the final shot where she lies down on her bed (atypically empty now that she's been redeemed) and sprawls across it in glorious, I'm ready for my close-up style to die. It's a pity absolutely everything around her is such a bore. Well, not Bogie. Humphrey Bogart is the man in charge of her thoroughbreds and his disdainful, teasing attitude towards his boss is the film's best -- if minor -- element. That's the set up for the film --- Davis a single, wealthy heiress running around and doing as she pleases, catered to her by her devoted secretary and best friend Geraldine Fitzgerald and nothing can stop her except for those blinding headaches...and a crash on a horse...and a tumble down the stairs that doesn't kill her but convinces her she might just need toi see a doctor. He rushes Davis to a specialist who falls in love about thirty seconds after she falls in love with him and twenty seconds before he diagnoses a brain tumor. They operate but it's no good -- ev every doctor concurs with the hilariously precise opinion that Davis will live ten months in perfect health when her sight will dim and within hours she will die. The surgeon George Brent chooses to keep this secret so she can enjoy life to the fullest. Of course she discovers the truth and suspecting him of merely pitying her, Davis goes on an epic romp, seeming to drink and smoke her way through every bottle, cigarette and eligible bachelor in sight. (Ronald Reagan as an affable drunk barely enters our consciousness, though he has a few scenes.) But then Bogie makes his own play (in the movie's best, most emotionally complex scene). Unfortunately, she rejects him and rushes back into the arms of Brent. In the movie's most hilarious segue, she's moved to Vermont and happy by god, happy! You can tell because she's rushing around outdoors, asking the mailman how is sciatica is doing and sporting a plaid shirt worthy of a lumberjack. Davis dressing down can't be taken seriously. Did the lights dim? Happiness of course has no place in a weepie and Davis is soon nobly dispatched. She and Brent are such a dull couple it's hard to believe they paired up in real life but pair up they did. I'd rather see Davis whoop it up with the boys or take a tumble with Bogie but this is a woman's picture and all about nobility. For all its nonsense, you can't take your eyes away from Davis for a moment. She's angular and angry and fidgety -- has a great actor ever seemed more uncomfortable onscreen than Davis? She manages that trick so compellingly that you know she's miserable and desperate and passionate and smarter than everyone else and might just say or do damn near anything and that's why you love her. Her character may be dying but she's completely alive. Opened April 22, 1939.

DAUGHTERS COURAGEOUS * ½  -- The backstory of this film is more interesting than the movie itself, a rather dull domestic drama. In 1938, director Michael Curtiz made Four Daughters, starring Claude Rains as a widowed music professor with four lovely daughters in a college town. Three of the sisters were played by three real life siblings – the Lane sisters – and they all juggled boyfriends and fiancés with ease. It was light, pleasant fare until John Garfield walked in from an entirely different movie. While they’re acting in a studio-bound bit of froth, Garfield burst onto the screen (in his movie debut) as an angry, rebellious, cynical loner. Garfield is positively magnetic and became an instant sensation. Where the other suitors look polite and wholesome, Garfield actually looks like he might do something with Priscilla Lane’s character. He’s a genuinely dangerous fellow. That film was a big box office hit and inspired two direct sequels – Four Wives and Four Mothers. But the real oddity is  Daughters Courageous. It amounts to a do-over of sorts, a darker and stranger little movie with much the same cast and some crucial differences. You have the same four daughters and John Garfield as the loner who romances Priscilla Lane. Instead of a widowed father you have a lonely mother abandoned by her husband Claude Rains some 20 years earlier. She’s about to settle down to marriage with a dull but kindly businessman when in pops Rains, ready to upset the apple cart. He approves heartily of Garfield, recognizing a fellow nonconformist and quickly wins over the girls, even though he’s been the most absent of fathers and doesn’t even know which is which. In a really ridiculous scene, he has just arrived. The whole family gathers in the living room with their various beaus while Rains sits literally in the corner some 20 or 30 feet away and is roundly ignored. SPOILER: the dull businessman plans to pay for acting school for one of the girls and give another one’s fiancé a VP job in his company. Rains wants back in and his wife still loves him, but she asks him to leave for good anyway. He talks Garfield into dumping the daughter so she won’t suffer the way her mother did all those years ago. Rains and Garfield hop on a train and head off for adventure, the daughter and mother pair off with their dull intendeds and sit down to dinner, a sad depressed look in their eyes as they accept domesticity and safety over real passion and fun. Everyone seems haunted by the sound of a train in the distance. You can’t help feeling they’ve made a terrible mistake and the only pleased person at the end is the dull businessman. Spinning off sequels of a hit film makes sense. Making a sort of strange remake of it, while emphasizing the bitterness and sadness of their square existence was truly a bizarre decision. Opened July 22, 1939. 

THE DAY OF REST * (short) -- Another Robert Benchley comic short. Here he's hoping to snooze in the backyard on a lazy Sunday. The kids are noisy, the maid is cleaning and Benchley looks perturbed, though W.C. Fields he's not. He tries cleaning out the attic, taking a picnic in the country, playing badminton, you name it! Finally, he sits on an absurd, u-shaped lounger insisting that solitude is the key to a day of rest...when a large crowd of friends bursts into the backyard. Zoinks! Opened September 6, 1939. 

DUST BE MY DESTINY ** John Garfield burst onto the screen in 1938's Four Daughters. In 1939 he made five films and none of them were good. But Garfield was always good in them. This is the best of the lot and if I was grading on a curve I might give it 2 1/2 stars. Garfield is very strong as a wrongly imprisoned man who decides the deck is stacked against him and he won't be a sucker any more. Even better, he's paired again with Priscilla Lane of Four Daughters; their chemistry here is terrific. The minute Garfield is released from prison, he hops a train with two kids, including Billy Halop of the Dead End Kids. A tough guy almost chokes one kid to death until Garfield interferes. So naturally he's sentenced to 90 days on a work farm. (Hey, talking back to the judge doesn't help.) There he tries to remain aloof but sweet and kind Priscilla Lane wins him over. Before you know it, her cruel stepfather is hurting the girl, Garfield steps in to stop it and the old bastard dies of a heart attack. They go on the lam because Garfield believes no one will take the word of a bum like him. What follows is a picaresque journey where kind people keep giving therm the benefit of the doubt but Garfield is too wounded to lower his shield or see any real goodness in the world. In one very effective scene, they're married on the cheap via a stunt at a stage show; their pain at sharing this intimate moment with a raucous crowd is quite moving. A nice Italian deli owner, a kindly woman in a store and a friendly newspaper editor all lend a hand. It climaxes with a court room trial where the love of Priscilla Lane is Garfield's only chance to win over the jury. Every witness is desperate to speak up for our hero but apparently the defense never gets to cross-examine a single one. Opened September 16, 1939.


EACH DAWN I DIE *** -- A prison film that hews so close to the genre, I wasn’t sure if I’d seen it before. James Cagney stars as a crusading journalist. When he gets too close to uncovering corruption, Cagney is framed: henchmen knock him unconscious, pour liquor all over him and place him in a runaway car. It careens out of control and kills three innocent people. The courts throw the book at him while taunting Cagney with the fact that his paper denounced drunk driving. Cagney enters jail convinced for some reason that he’ll be out in days, even though the powers that be (the governor, the head of the parole board, etc) are all determined to see he never makes it out. Inside, Cagney befriends George Raft, a fellow con serving 199 years. Cagney proves a good egg and the only guy without an angle so Raft takes a shine to him. When Cagney helps Raft break out, Raft determines to find out who framed his pal and spring him the legal way. You’ve got everything here: sadistic screws, dumb but lovable mugs (like a guy who is serving time because he was a dog catcher but couldn’t bring himself to kill the pets and kept setting them free) and one guy wound so tightly he’s constantly ready to explode. Interestingly, the Warner Bros. film makes an oblique point about the dehumanizing effects of prison and especially solitary confinement. (A few months in the Hole turns Cagney into a whimpering baby – it’s kind of surprising how often Cagney broke down and showed a weak side to his tough characters.) It’s a trim, well-acted 92 minutes until a positively nutty prison riot and a last-minute death bed confession, all so we can have a happy ending. Opened August 19, 1939. 

EVERYBODY'S HOBBY * -- Warner Bros. launched the Hobby Family in a poor attempt to duplicate the success of Mickey Rooney and the Hardy Family. In this case, the gimmick is that everyone has a hobby. The wife collects stamps, so poor Irene Rich furiously licks stamps in every scene she's in. I hope she got hazard pay. The son turns into a ham radio nut. The daughter is just mad about getting the latest 45s...almost as crazy as she is for the slightly sleazy Latin lover at the record store who showers her with gifts and is about twice her age. (While the clerk -- who turns out to be a thief -- is a bit of a cliche, the family makes no cracks about his ethnicity or his age, so there's that.) The uncle's hobby is avoiding work. And dad (a fine Henry O'Neill) has no time for a hobby. He's too busy dealing with a new boss at work demanding Dad publish sleazy stories at the newspaper. Dad won't do it! He's so frustrated, that mom suggests he take up an old hobby again: photography. Soon Dad has the hobby bug too so he and his son head off to the woods on a camping trip. Dad will worry about teh newspaper being closed down for good when he gets back.  It all works out and in just 54 minutes. A pyromaniac has been terrorizing the area. When yet another fire breaks out, the hobby of the son's ham radio allows them to save the dad. And dad's camera successfully captures the criminal in progress so an arrest can be made and the newspaper can be saved. The daughter and the lothario part ways, mom's stamp collection allows them to buy a new car to replace the one burned (I think; the details are already escaping me) and the uncle is cornered into going to work. Huzzah. It's forgettable except for two fun little moments -- the movie may be bad but it does happily embrace two cliches. When the father and son are trapped in a burning forest, we get one especially cheesy shot of them "jogging" through the fire and out of danger. They're clearly bouncing back and forth in front of a screen where the image of a burning forest is being projected. God bless 'em, they even "dodge" a falling tree in one of those hammy moments people would satirize for years to come. In another scene, the evil owner of the newspaper actually barks out, "Stop the presses!" Spotting cliches like that? It's a hobby of mine. Opened August 26, 1939. 

EVERYTHING HAPPENS AT NIGHT * -- If you’ve ever wondered how ice skater Sonja Henie became a movie star for a few brief years, this film will still leave you wondering. As an actress, Henie skates beautifully. Here in her most substantial role, Henie plays the daughter of a Nobel Prize-winning author hiding from publicity and the Nazis. Ray Milland and Robert Cummings are two reporters both hot on his trail and hot for Henie. They vie for her affection while taking way too long to figure out what is really going on and then, of course, trying to protect her and papa from the Nazis. Dull. Opened December 22, 1939.

FAST AND FURIOUS * ½ -- Nick and Nora-style married couple are rare book dealers. But they barely glance at a magazine much less discuss books before Franchot Tone and Ann Southern  escape the heat of the city to go to a seaside resort where the hubby becomes a judge in a beauty pageant and they all get involved in…murder! Pure nonsense but Tone and Southern have a nice bantering way about them. It's the third of three movies about rare book dealers/crime solvers, each one starring different people. So forgettable I watched it again halfway through before realizing I’d seen it before.  The best is 1938’s Fast Company. Opened October 6, 1939. 

THE FIGHTING GRINGO * 1/2 -- Actor George O'Brien made five westerns in 1939 and they're all bad and you can certainly include The Fighting Gringo in that. It features a rancher with a pretty daughter being cheated out of his holdings. With a pretty daughter, you just known Wade Bolton (O'Brien) and his buckaroos are not going to let that injustice stand. He gets the lay of the land by getting a good bath from the local barber (?), sitting in a barrel while the voluble man soaps up O'Brien's hair and rubs his neck and shoulders and chest. It's certainly not a gay scene, not even sub-textually but it sure is odd. Anyway, after a couple of very modest twists, O'Brien taunts each of the bad guys into thinking the other one has betrayed them and then everyone dukes it out at the finale. The final battle includes the baddies breaking down the big doors of the ranch with the lamest battering ram in the history of Hollywood. They grab a not-so-big tree trunk and sling it between two horses. Then they trot the horses right up to the door and rein them in at the latest second, letting a tiny bit of momentum swing the trunk forward to so it can "tap" on the door. If you raised and lowered a knocker, it might have the same impact. They do this twice and I thought, "Well, this could take a while" but in the next try the whole thing happily tumbled down. It's notable for two reasons. One, it costars Lupita Tovar as the love interest; she starred in the Spanish language version of Dracula, shot on the same set at night as the Hollywood version and considered by many to be superior. And it was written by the prolific but not very good writer-director Oliver Drake. He wrote four of O'Brien's westerns in 1939 and directed Arizona Legion. Here, for whatever reason, the Mexican characters are portrayed as decent, capable people. Not noble or helpless or anything -- just decent people in a jam. The very minor exception is one brief bit of slapstick when a minor character gets tangled in the branches of a tree and falls to the ground. The mild humor is at his expense but since all the other Mexicans are capable, intelligent and the like one can easily ignore it. The perspective is welcome, to say the least. And there's even a good final joke. Bolton seems ready to settle down with the rancher's daughter but the moment a chance for some excitement arises (Wells Fargo needs some guns, pronto!) he's kissing her hand, saying they'll talk again in the spring and running for his horse without a look back. She's notably miffed, but you just can't keep a good cowboy home on the range. Opened August 8, 1939. 

FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS AND HOW THEY GREW * -- The first of four movies from Columbia based on the children’s books. Barely an hour long, this is essentially episodic television before television was widespread. In this movie, the dirt-poor Peppers raise themselves while their widowed mom heads off to the factory to work for days at a time, leaving Polly Pepper (Edith Fellows) in charge of her brothers. Their pa died in a mining accident, leaving half of it to Polly. Wouldn’t you know it, the poor little rich boy they befriend is the orphaned grandson of cranky millionaire J.H. King (dependable character actor Clarence Kolb) who is trying to track down that very family so he can fleece them of their share for a pittance? Needless to say, they soon win his heart and not only does he not rip them off, he invites them into his home, though not before adventures with trying to bake a birthday cake for their hardworking mom, measles, and a scare of potential blindness for Polly. Dorothy Ann Seese is the “adorable” littlest Pepper at about four years old and she gets a ton of dialogue delivered in her cutesy little girl voice. Tommy Bond of “Our Gang” is Joey Pepper but they’re all about as anonymous as the story. Fellows holds the center pretty well and Kolb does what he can with a routine part but this is thin stuff. Thank goodness the sequels were all released in 1940 so I don’t have to watch them. Opened August 22, 1939.

FIXER DUGAN ** A B movie set among circus performers that you’ll forget soon after watching. Nonetheless, it has almost by accident two sterling actors who “might have been” if fate hadn’t intervened. Lee Tracy plays the title role, Fixer Dugan. We’re meant to believe a fixer is as much a part of circus life as the lion tamer and the master of ceremonies. He wanders around putting out fires: dealing with local cops, warning off shysters and generally smoothing things out when unexpected problems arise. In a good running gag, Dugan shows up whenever a customer complains they’ve been short-changed by a cashier. He’s filled with righteous rage, apologizes to the customer and fires the chastened employee on the spot! “Honesty is our policy,” he tells the happy customer. Then he really does chastise the cashier…for getting caught. There’s no romance here. Dugan says at one point, “To me, all dames are as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes.” But he’s caught between two women anyway: one is a high wire act and the other a lion tamer. They’ve been feuding for years. “I don’t know what I hate the most: her or spinach!” says the lion tamer. But when the aerialist dies in a tragic fall, Dugan and the lion tamer naturally find themselves looking after the woman’s tomboy child Terry (Virginia Weidler). They spend the rest of the movie trying to keep the kid out of the orphanage and outsmarting two dumb guys trying to steal the lions. (I love the bit where Dugan keeps popping a cigar into the mouth of one of the dopes. “Here, have a cigar!” “I don’t WANT a cigar!’) Tracy can do this fast-talking stuff in his sleep. He played the lead in The Front Page on Broadway and if Pat O’Brien hadn’t stolen his part for the film version, who knows? Mind you, he had other problems, such as hard living off screen and a hair trigger temper. Studio after studio signed him to deals and apparently lived to regret it. One studio even apologized to Mexico after his brawls south of the border made headlines during the filming of a movie. Weidler has a ball as Terry, playing along with some cons, undermining others when she thinks the carnies are fleecing people too much, letting kids slip under the tent to see the big show for a nickel a pop and so on. She and Tracy beat A League Of Their Own to the punch with their refrain at sad moments that “circus people don’t cry.” Child actor Weidler was already a major talent, scoring big alongside Mickey Rooney and proving herself a triple threat, when given the chance (she’d head to vaudeville when the movie roles dried up). In 1940 alone she’d have two great parts in Young Tom Edison and especially her scene-stealing work in the masterpiece The Philadelphia Story. But according to IMDB she got shunted aside by MGM when Shirley Temple showed up for teen parts and by 16 years old she was done; Weidler died at 41 of a heart ailment. This is by no means a good movie but you do get to watch some pros making the most of mundane material.  Opened April 21, 1939.

THE FLYING DEUCES * 1/2 -- A timid Laurel And Hardy vehicle in which the lads join the French Foreign Legion. Their best work was obviously done in the shorts but L and H did make a number of movies. This quickie for RKO is an expanded version of their short “Beau Hunks” and it shows, since the movie feels stretched out at 69 minutes. Ollie falls in love with a barmaid and when she spurns him, Ollie plans to commit suicide. He and Stan are about to do the deed when a soldier (who happens to be the barmaid’s husband) convinces them there’s no better way to forget a broken heart than joining the Foreign Legion. They’re game and sign on but after a few minutes of drilling Stan and Ollie wisely realize this isn’t the life for them and decide to leave. The Foreign Legion begs to differ and a wild chase ensues. The modest pleasures here include little extended bits, such as Ollie getting ready to commit suicide only to have Stan interrupt him at the very last moment time and again. Or the jailer locking Stan behind bars and then taking Ollie and locking him in as Stan gets out and then trying to put Stan back in until he gets frustrated with despair over ever having both of them inside the cell and with the door locked at the same time. Very desultory. Opened November 3, 1939.

THE FOUR FEATHERS ** -- One of many adaptations of the adventure tale by A.E.W. Mason, this 1939 feature film version is widely considered the best. Well, hold on -- my friend Pete saw an early director's cut of the 2002 version starring Heath Ledger that ran three hours long and he says it was vastly superior to the one released in theaters and this Korda extravaganza. I'll agree with him sight unseen since I am thoroughly unimpressed after watching this twice within three years just to make sure my indifference was accurate. The hyped-up boys own adventure involves a young man whose military-obsessed father honors courage and glory above all. So what if you die a horrible, painful death? Anything is better than being a coward! Their entire family history is bursting with war heroes and the father is secretly convinced his milquetoast son will be the shame of them all. Of course, the contempt he can barely suppress for his own son convinces the boy -- Harry Faversham -- that he really is a coward. (The possibilities for why a father would so despise his own son remain unexplored in any version.) Nonetheless, the miserable boy dutifully enters a military career and makes some good friends. Thankfully, his father finally dies and Harry can dump the career he despises and focus on the family estate and the woman he loves. Unfortunately, his father dies just as Harry and his friends are being called into duty to fight for Empire and glory in the heathenish lands overseas. When Harry resigns, his friends and even his fiancé assume Harry is a coward -- rather than being true to his own convictions.  Heck, he even thinks the military campaign is a misguided one, but no one cares. They hand over white feathers, a symbol of cowardice and the end of their friendship. His fiancé also turns her back on him so Harry snags another feather to say it's from her and leaves for good. But wait! Harry doesn't actually hate the military or believe the war is wrong or that his family's estate has been neglected for too long. (Even though many people depend on it for their livelihood.) No, deep down he simply is scared of proving a coward. Now he vows to head off on his own and prove his bravery. How? Not by simply rejoining the military but by disguising himself as a mute native, trekking perilously across unknown countries and somehow managing to put himself right in the path of his old friends, save their lives and help win a battle in the process. It's all ludicrous and not helped by the performance of stiff John Clements as Harry. We care so little about Harry or his friends or his dull romance with the unfortunately named Ethne (June Duprez) that it's hard to gin up enthusiasm about his crusade for redemption. (Crusade? About the right word here.) The film is a "lavish" Korda production, produced by Alexander and directed by Zoltan. It was filmed mostly in the Sudan and does indeed capture a certain exotic feel, thanks to "authentic" locations (i.e. not backlots, though not historically accurate, I assume) and lots and lots of native extras. However, the battle scenes are poorly shot. Again and again we hear fearsome depictions of the enemy massing to attack...but see long lines of "native" troops quietly moving into position in a rather dull manner. Close-ups of black and brown people speaking in their own tongue (without subtitles) was perhaps thrillingly unnerving back in 1939. But we see one particular extra in close-up three or four times at three or four different times in the movie. And most of the battles make barely a lick of sense. Overall, one feels the Kordas made the most of their expenses, not quite doing things on the cheap but certainly not giving any sense of scope. And what's with the cockamamie plan of our hero, so thin and unlikely a plan it beggars belief? Somehow Harry tracks down an old pal on a strange continent  just in time to save his life during a big battle. They just happen to be the two survivors left for dead, though Harry's friend would rather be dead. Played nicely by Ralph Richardson, Harry's friend had gone blind just before the big battle but managed to hide this minor fact from his troops. Now, what with everyone else dead and he being blind and stranded hundreds of miles from civilization, the poor man despairs and tries to end his life.  Richardson is pretty good, giving the film's best performance as the friend who also loved Ethne and then keeping a stiff upper lip over blindness until he believes everyone he knows is dead and all hope is lost. Oddly, Harry never says word one to him. What possible reason could there be for him to remain mum? He never says, "Cheer up, it's your old friend Harry and we're going to make it home!" It's cruel really, to not offer the simplest comfort, though the movie doesn't intend for this to seem cruel, just bizarrely noble. So Harry spends days (or weeks, it's unclear) leading his miserable blind friend through deserts and over hills and onto rivers until they reach a British garrison. It's quite dull, a long arduous journey but more dutiful in the telling rather than exciting or challenging. And then and only then does Harry secrete the white feather on his friend's person so it can be discovered much later and the truth be realized: the man he called coward has saved him. The rest of Harry's deeply improbable adventures include him stumbling into another big battle, freeing his captured friends and saving the day, sort of. By the end, we'd rather see Ethne team up with the blind Richardson (at least that would make sense since he loved her and she abandoned Harry). But of course The Four Feathers is too dully conventional for that. This is one of those golden age Hollywood films that has fallen somewhat into obscurity. As it should.  Opened August 3, 1939.


FOUR GIRLS IN WHITE ** -- Harmless programmer about young women training to become nurses. It’s as predictable and silly as you can imagine, but not bad for all that. Our heroine Norma Page (Florence White) is a gold-digger, in it to snag herself a husband.  Her little sister Pat (Ann Rutherford) is along for the ride. Norma is so savvy that when she is going to be late for her first day of classes she calls in a false alarm and then casually asks for a ride back to the hospital from the ambulance that shows up. In the ambulance is the dashing Dr. Melford (Steve Marshall), who'd be perfect for Norma if he wasn’t so devoted to medicine and research and instead would wise up and just go into private practice and make the big bucks. More her type (or so she thinks) is the playboy Bob Maitland (Kent Taylor), a patient at the hospital that she toys with beautifully. Rounding out the four girls in white are the giggly Gertie (Una Merkel) who flirts with a bumbling orderly (Buddy Ebsen, the same year he almost died putting on that silver paint to play the Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz) and the saintly Mary Forbes (Mary Howard), who has a baby daughter but for some inexplicable reason can’t see the child more than once a year while she trains to be a nurse so she can make money and be reunited with her baby. You won’t be surprised to know the head of the nurses is a battle ax with a heart of gold (Jessie Ralph) or that Norma discovers a passion for nursing (though not before some wild melodramatic twists.) It all climaxes with a natural disaster and some crazy derring do fit for a season finale of ER. Opened January 27, 1939. 

FOUR WIVES ** -- The film Four Daughters was a smash hit in 1938 for director Michael Curtiz and the Lane sisters, who starred. It produced two spin-offs in 1939: one is the sort-of remake Daughters Courageous and the other is this bland official sequel. (The franchise ended in 1941 with Four Mothers; the box office did not suggest a Four Grandmothers, apparently.) The original film's only interest is the blazing film debut of actor John Garfield, doing Brando long before Brando. That film was pure Andy Hardy territory till Garfield showed up and the movie and the Lane sisters were never the same. He died a fiery death but his character haunts the sequel, almost literally. His widowed wife is Ann (Priscilla Lane) and god knows she can't forget him. Yet the Lane sisters move fast. She's already engaged to marry dull music conductor Felix (Jeffrey Lynn) when Ann realizes she is carrying Garfield's baby. He doesn't mind, not a bit of it. You can see why Lynn was on the shortlist to play Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind. Every time Ann falls into hysterics over the memory of Garfield, Lynn professes his love even more.  Heck, even the party celebrating their elopement is spoiled when Ann follows his piano playing by offering her rendition of a tune by Garfield and then breaking down in sobs. Does Felix mind? Of course not! The only scene where director Curtiz rouses himself is a bit of bravura during the climax. Ann is in the hospital having given birth to her child prematurely. Felix is in New York conducting the world premiere of a symphony he's arranged by Garfield. (Selfless is his middle name.) And for six minutes not a word is spoken as the piece is played. We see Ann tortured by memories and the kindness of Felix, we see Felix in New York as Lynn apes the moves of a conductor very stiffly, we see her family riveted at home by the music being played, all of it offered up with consummate craftsmanship. It never rises above competent -- the scene is not one for a master class. But still, a six minute sequence of pure music as the emotional climax of a middlebrow entertainment is at least something.  And it could have been worse. Just watch Daughters Courageous. Opened December 25, 1939. 

THE FROZEN LIMITS * ½ – Would-be British Marx Brothers called Crazy Gang (with six or so instead of four; I couldn’t be bothered to actually count them all) head to the Yukon Territory to search for gold in a timid tale of nutty old coots, young love and a hidden mine bursting with “ore with an e.” That’s actually one of the more amusing jokes. Another oddball bit of whimsy worked: the Canadian Mounties keep singing in unison wherever they go. That was about it. Opened November, 1939 in UK.

THE GIRL FROM MEXICO * 1/2 -- Mexican filmgoers had several modest bright spots in Hollywood. In April a prestige pic celebrating Benito Juárez opened up. And in June a modest little B movie gave actress Lupe Vélez an honest to goodness franchise. This nothing of a film spawned seven sequels in all and it's easy to see why. Vélez feels fresh and alive on screen, even if she is playing off the worst stereotypes about Latina women. Dubbed the Mexican Spitfire by the ever-imaginative trades, here Vélez plays...a Mexican spitfire, a singer discovered by a publicity man and whisked from her small town to New York City with the promise of fame and fortune. Instead of a spitfire,  like to think of her as more like Lucy Ricardo, though here it's the woman playing the Latin lover while Donald Woods is the white bread love interest. So the girl from Mexico takes part in Lucy-like hijinks and mangles English in the charming manner white audiences love to smile over. Truly, Vélez is a fascinating figure and it's hard to know where  her real personality ends and the Latin persona Hollywood and the public expected of her begins. On the one hand, the film plays into those stereotypes entirely. But Vélez fed tidbits to the gossip columnists about her feuds with other female stars and stormy relationships with her male lovers. Fine as far as it goes; she played the game. But it's also possible Vélez was physically abusive to some of those men. I'll have to hold off on a proper appraisal until another biography is written or a new TV movie about her intriguing life is filmed. Her star power can't turn this minor movie into a vehicle worth your time but she's still fun. Woods is the nominal love interest and Linda Hayes is the villain as Woods hateful, lying and viperish fiancee. Needless to say, she's no match for Vélez. But the real fun comes thanks to the chemistry between her  and old coot Leon Errol as Uncle Matt. He's supposed to mind Vélez until she can make her nightclub debut. Instead she steamrolls him into taking her all over town: the Yankees, a wrestling match, a nightclub, you name it. They spark off each other nicely so it's no surprise Errol starred alongside her in all eight films.  Opened June 2, 1939.

GLIMPSES OF AUSTRALIA * -- A dull, unremarkable short, part of a series dubbed James A. Fitzpatrick's TravelTalks. See exotic Australia -- the flowers, the beautiful women, the gardens, the wide open spaces. Hardly worth dissing until it touts Melbourne and the modern progress of the country in general as a credit to the white race that has established itself some 9000 miles from their mother country, England. And in case you missed it, at the end they tout Australia as a "white man's paradise." Lovely! Opened November, 1939 in UK.

THE GORILLA * -- An exhausting suspense/mystery film starring the Ritz Brothers. Sort of the poor man's Three Stooges (if there could be such a thing), they are just three numbskulls who don't even bother to differentiate one from the other. In this tepid movie directed by Allan Dwan, a wealthy man finds himself the latest target of...The Gorilla! The newspapers wonder if it's a man or a beast, this mad villain who announces its victims and then kills them 24 hours later. One wonders how an actual gorilla would send notes of warning, but no matter. This wealthy man has a lot of problems: he seems to be sunk into financial despair and someone is putting the squeeze on him to pay back money. His niece is in town with her fiance and doesn't realize her entire inheritance has been squandered. The Gorilla has named him its next victim. Some strange man is lurking outside his mansion and peering in windows during a thunder storm -- spectacularly exposing himself every time lightning flashes though no one ever notices him. The financier has hired the hapless Ritz Brothers to protect him. A REAL gorilla is on the loose. And creepy Bela Lugois is his butler. Patsy Kelly is the maid who just knew she should have turned in her notice and gets off a few good lines and a few good screams. But the film is wildly uninteresting, with secret panels revealing hidden passages in virtually every room and so many twists and double twists that the finale involved not one, not two but three surprises and none of them explained Lugosi's supernatural ability to appear in any room at any time. One star strictly because it involves a guy in a gorilla suit and that has to count for something. Released May 26, 1939. 


GUNGA DIN *** 1/2 



HAPPILY BURIED * --  An utter bit of nonsense, though not quite goofy enough to recommend. It begins as a sort of quasi-musical and then settles down into a comedic drama. I've noticed this in some other shorts; maybe they wanted to make a musical but couldn't be bothered to pay for more than one song? In any case, two heirs to major corporations are about to marry and thus merge. He is the heir to the leading maker of square-shaped waffle makers; she is the heir to round-shaped waffle makers. Everyone is blissfully happy until the two lovebirds realize the other one somehow imagines their preferred waffle maker will reign supreme. But square shapes are so practical! but ROUND waffles are so pleasing! The wedding -- and the merger -- is off! The young man buries himself alive in a glass-sided coffin beneath his corporate headquarters to prove his love. Gawkers stream down into the hastily dug tunnel so they can stare at the man, who broadcasts live over the radio, singing of his undying love (even if she does prefer round waffles). It's a media sensation! She responds by heading to the World's Fair, where her company's display of the largest waffle iron in the world (on which a full orchestra performs while dancers dance across the surface). It's the hit of the fair and sales are soaring. So the man shows up and sneakily pretends her waffles are inferior...which of course causes the girl to swoon in his arms, since women are really meant to stay at home and make babies. The end. Like you, I imagined a finale where their two shapes would merge and they'd compromise on a star-shaped waffle or the original Belgian waffle shape of a heart...or something! Instead, the woman simply wakes up to her domestic desires and caves in. She should have left him in the coffin. It isn't half as entertaining to watch as it is to describe. Released April 14, 1939.

HARLEM RIDES THE RANGE no stars – In this all black western, Herb Jeffries gives Gene Autry a run for his money as the “dullest singing cowboy” on the big screen. In this case, the production values are even lower and the story so minimal, this film ranks even lower than Autry’s Home on the Prairie. Jeffries is a new foreman of a ranch who suspects foul play in the disappearance of a miner who may have hit a rich vein and has been missing ever since. Lucius Brooks is his sidekick, a fella who never saw work he couldn’t avoid or a word he couldn’t mangle. Brooks seems like a stereotypical “colored” character but in this context he’s just comic relief; sometimes a goof-off is just a good-off. Spencer Williams – the ground-breaking writer, director and producer – is along for the ride in a minor role and also had a hand in the script, such as it is. Williams of course went on to play Andy in the TV version of Amos “n’ Andy. Opened February 1, 1939.

HENRY GOES ARIZONA * -- A movie as dumb as its title. Character actor Frank Morgan gets a rare, almost unique chance to be the leading man in a film. (The Great Morgan barely counts as a film.) A pity that chance came here, a dimwitted Western comedy w Morgan as a down-on-his-luck vaudevillian who discovers he's inherited a ranch out west. So Henry goes Arizona, ungrammatically and unprepared for the bad guys who want to kill him and seize the ranch for their own nefarious but unexplained reasons. Very modest humor is made out of Henry's big city ways and scaredy-cat nature -- he's like Bob Hope without the sexual desperation (and funny one-liners) or Don Knotts without the slapstick. Anyway, he shows up and then tries to leave once danger is afoot but is charmed/shamed into staying by an adorable little girl who claims to be his niece. Naturally, Henry uses his theatrical talents to outwit the bad guys and save the day, not that you'd care. Morgan is such a charming screen presence, you feel sorry for him here. Tucking in the little girl at night, he exudes decency and sweetness -- if only the film had a half-decent script he surely would have made the most of it. Instead, you spend the film looking over his shoulder, wondering when the star of the film is going to make an entrance. Set pieces include Henry facing down a lynch mob by having a delicious meal and lots of beer ready for the gang, greeting one and all like old friends (not bad in theory but blandly done) and oh, well, that's about it. A running bit has Henry surprising himself with a gift for tossing knives; typically absolutely nothing comes of this talent even in the "action" climax. Some fine actors do what they can in supporting roles, including gabby Guy Kibbee as a lawyer/judge and Slim Summerville as a sheriff. Virginia Weidler is her usual dependable self as the kid, almost making you care for a minute or two. But when the climax involves a drawn-out bit with Henry trying to mount a horse and getting stuck on a tree limb and so on, you're ready to lynch the screenwriters. They are Florence Ryerson (who at least has one good credit to her name -- she's one of three listed on The Wizard of Oz) and Milton Merlin, who did this and said, Gee maybe I should try TV. Similarly, Owen Davis Jr. is a dreadful stiff as a nominal heroic figure and he turned to producing. Weidler made much better but retired from acting a few years later at 16 years old (!) and shunned the spotlight for the rest of her life. Director Edwin L. Marin is strictly B movie but a lot of B movie directors might have made more out of a pretty strong cast. Or at least put a "To" in the title. Opened December 8, 1939. 

HOME EARLY (Robert Benchley short) * -- What DID the other members of the Algonquin Circle make of Benchley's shorts? They're dreadful, middlebrow stuff and I imagine Dorothy Parker et al passing over them in silence. Do they pay well? is surely the only reasonable question. In this typical tired tale, Benchley arrives home early from work to discover his wife's bridge party is in full swing. his son is hiding upstairs so Benchley heads to the basement, after hoping to sneak out a copy of the evening paper. Alcohol is stashed in the basement, Benchley consumes, his son uses a pea shooter to irritate the ladies and by the end Benchley has donned an Indian headdress and charged whooping into the living room. It's as dull to write about as it was to watch. Opened May 27, 1939. 

HOME ON THE PRAIRIE * -- Gene Autry has to be one of the stiffest movie stars around (except when he’s singing). This very typical B movie plays more like a C or D movie. Autry is a cattle inspector. The bad guys have herds infected with hoof and mouth disease and are trying to sneak them to market and blame the problems on Autry. At 59 minutes, it’s very drawn out, thin fare. It would have made a very dull episode of a half hour TV western. At this length, only the mild songs keep it from getting no stars. Opened February 3, 1939.

HONOLULU * ½ -- Robert Young proves he’s more of a dependable TV presence than a magnetic leading man…even when he plays two leading men. In this movie Young plays a famous movie star looking for a break from his rabid fans. Young also plays a wealthy plantation owner in Honolulu who is a dead ringer for the star. They trade places and complications -- if not hilarity -- ensue. George Burns and Gracie Allen are along for the ride, providing the only sparks of humor in this tired farce. Opened February 3, 1939. 

AN HOUR FOR LUNCH (Robert Benchley short) * -- Oh dear, another Robert Benchley short, so obvious in its humor you wonder if the Algonquin was all that, after all. In this all too typical piece, Benchley tutors the audience into how to efficiently make the most of your lunch break. He'll get a haircut, exchanged a shirt, check up on a repair, grab lunch and maybe even check out some suits. None of it goes right, as you can imagine. Sadly, so did Benchley. Opened March 18, 1939. 

THE HOUSEKEEPER'S DAUGHTER * 1/2 -- Hal Roach -- a key player in the careers of Laurel And Hardy, Harold Lloyd and of course the Little Rascals -- also directed some features, though his heart remained with shorts. In 1939 he made two movies, the serious drama Captain Fury and this nutty comedy set in the world of newspapers and gangsters. The poster makes it look like a steamy drama and it does star Joan Bennett, now a brunette and all the better for it. She's a gum-snapping gangster's moll in the first scene, breaking up a poker match where the boys are fleecing a customer. What does she care? Bennett has had enough of her boyfriend Victor Mature (in his film debut) and the gang, absconding for her mom's home. There she melts immediately into a kind-hearted daughter, planning to spend some time with mom while the woman's wealthy employers are away. But the handsome son (a bland John Hubbard) is bored with archeology and wants to be a newspaper man. Around him our heroine becomes a sexy siren, of sorts. You know you're not in The Lady Eve territory because his interest in archeology is mentioned once and dropped while Bennett isn't teasing him or flirting but seems unaware of her effect, which dims the pleasure all around. Oh and amidst all this we watch one of the gangsters be cruel to his Broadway star girlfriend -- that raises the ire of a creepy little flower seller named Benny who spends the rest of the movie trying to kill the gangster with poisoned coffee but offing everyone else around him instead, starting with the Broadway star. That headline blaring crime proves the son's entre into the newspaper biz and the real focus of the movie. From crime drama to reformed bad girl to creepy murderer and finally lighthearted comedy a la The Front Page, all in ten minutes. For the rest of the movie, it's all silliness: the boring Hubbard takes lots of notes and tags along with real journalist Adolphe Menjou and photographer William Gargan. You know they're real journalists because all they do is drink, make up stunts to sell papers and sponge off Hubbard. For some reason, they move into his mansion, along with that squirrelly little flower seller Benny (George E. Stone). The "nuttiness" and misunderstandings increase until an all hands on deck finale at the mansion crowded with gangsters, returning parents, cops, firemen and the two journalists shooting off fireworks at one and all. For a brief moment, the insanity is kind of amusing, but the moment quickly passes and you emphasize with lead gangster Marc Lawrence when he fires his gun into the air to shut everyone up. Opened October 26, 1939. 

IDIOT'S DELIGHT ** Clark Gable's 1939 ended with the world premiere of the hit of all hits, Gone With The Wind,  a movie in which the entire world DEMANDED he play Rhett Butler and Gable did, to perfection. But it began with this bizarre oddity, a vehement anti-war vehicle starring a singing and dancing Gable and produced just as the world was sinking into war. Gable is a vaudevillian who serves capably in WW I and tries to pick up the pieces of his shabby career. For a while, he's paired with a drunken old broad posing as a mentalist. They're stuck in nowheresville when he stumbles across Norma Shearer, a half-nutty gal who speaks dreamily of the grand life she should have and why don't they do an act together? Gable is sort of amused and sort of wary but takes her for a bite to eat and then sends the kid on her way in his most appealing, Gable-like manner. She won't take no for an answer and breaks into his hotel room. Well, golly, he's only human. They talk for a minute, she looks up adoringly into his face, he looks down at her and they're poised for a kiss...and the camera zooms in on an open book on the table between them. Gable shuts the book and we fade to black. Yowzah! They are done reading, if you know what I mean. Cut to the train station with Gable kindly saying goodbye to the dippy girl. Many years later, Gable is on the road with "Les Girls," six leggy blondes that garner appreciation from every man in sight. They're criss-crossing Europe and on their last dime when the train they're on stops abruptly on the border between one country and another. War is about to break out and they're trapped at a lavish ski lodge during the off-season, a ski lodge inconveniently located next to a military air strip where planes are constantly taking off as WW II looms. Gable soon has the gals booked to perform so we get to see him trundle around the stage half-convincingly, even when singing "Puttin' On the Ritz." The stranded guests include Burgess Meredith as a crusading anti-war activist, Edward Arnold as a fat-cat arms merchant and a woman (Shearer) with an outrageous accent claiming to be White Russian nobility. Hey, haven't I seen you before? Gable seems to be playing along with whatever game Shearer is up to. But then he finally slaps his hands when he realizes who it is. I guess it has been almost 20 years, but still. Except for having Burgess Meredith summarily shot (off screen), Germans, Brits, Americans and everyone else get along nicely, regret the coming war and all eye the war mongering capitalist Arnold with distaste. SPOILER: the ending is bonkers, with Gable and Shearer trapped in the main hotel area instead of fleeing to the basement when bombs begin to fall. They plan to launch their act and sing "Abide With Me" as the entire place falls apart around their ears. That's the international ending, a rather bleak look at the inevitablity of war, though happily it can't get in the way of true love and a vaudeville act. After all, they do survice. TCM also follows this with the US ending, where they skip the hymn, the destruction is less over-whelming and they practice their mentalist act before embracing for the inevitable "We're alive!V Let's kiss!" moment. Opened January 27, 1939. 

INDIANAPOLIS SPEEDWAY * ½ -- Pat O’Brien stars (rather stiffly) as a race car driver and three time Indy champ who does it all so his kid brother (the even stiffer John Payne) can go to college. Little does he know little bro has chucked school so HE can become a race car driver as well. Even worse, Payne falls for Ann Sheridan, a friend of O’Brien’s long-suffering fiancé that O’Brien positively despises, blaming her for the death of another driver. O’Brien can provide fine support but he’s no leading man. Nonetheless, his vitriol towards Sheridan is so nasty and off the charts I figured maybe he’d had an affair with her or something. No he just can’t stand the sight of her. (Whores get more respect from the wives of their johns than she gets from him.) The brothers break apart after yet another horrifying crash and O’Brien spirals down but by gosh at the big race they bond again and make a dash for the championship. Sure, other guys may have to die along the way, but at least the race track can double as therapy for these two to work out their personal demons. This is a remake of The Crowd Roars (1932) which starred James Cagney and uses a LOT of the same footage, especially since the dependable Frank McHugh plays the same best pal “Spud” Connors in both. It’s quite routine but there’s a pretty fun gag at the very end. Comparing the two movies and seeing how much footage they reused keeps this a curio. Opened August 5, 1939. 

JAMES A. FITZPATRICK'S TRAVELTALKS -- series of travel doc shorts. 

Ancient Egypt 
Colorful Curacao 
A Day On Treasure Island 
Glimpses Of Australia 
Imperial Delhi 
Java Journey 
Land Of Alaska Nellie ** 
Mendelssohn's Wedding March 
Natural Wonders Of Washington State 
Old Natchez On The Mississippi 
Picturesque Udiapur 
Quaint St. Augustine 
Rural Hungary ** 
Valiant Venezuela 



JESSE JAMES * ½ -- 1939 was such a rich year for movies that almost everyone involved in this prestige Western didn’t just do better work in their careers, they did better work and got it released in the same calendar year. The director, star Nancy Kelly and character actor Henry Hull re-teamed on Stanley and Linvingston. Randolph Scott made 20,000 Men A Year which might have become his motto if he wasn’t rooming with Cary Grant. Tyrone Power’s movies from 1939 aren’t well known to me but Henry Fonda made two much better films: Drums Along The Mohawk and Young Mr. Lincoln. Of course they were all proud of this movie about the famed outlaws Frank and Jesse James. In this risible retelling in poorly shot color (I thought for a minute that TCM was showing a colorized monstrosity), the James brothers are noble, decent, honorable men completely done in by a rapacious railroad company. The railroad was jilting their friends and neighbors out of their homes when bullying and conning the poor suckers didn’t work. In a rare effective scene, Frank and Jesse tangle with the nefarious representatives and deliver some frontier justice. “If he ain’t the sneaky one,” says Fonda in astonishment when the ring leader of the bad guys tries to scythe his brother in the back. They’re forced to go into hiding since the strain of their arrest would break their ailing mother. But the evil railroaders dynamite their home anyway, even though they’ve been told repeatedly only a sick, old woman is inside. If that isn’t nasty, I don’t know what is. Frank naturally tracks the killer and guns him down in a fair fight. The brothers are forced to go outlawing, but they prey only on the trains of the company that done them wrong, politely taking only cash from passengers and urging them to sue the railroad to get it back. Everyone loves them, including the local marshal who pines for the same gal as Jesse but does right by them despite double-dealing from the law. There’s what passes for complexity at the time, with Jesse driven to despair and madness over his life on the lam. Essentially these are the most upright fellows a country could ask for and they’re memorialized right to the end when that coward Robert Ford steps in. (Cue the hissing.) It’s a lifeless affair, with Kelly and Power striking no sparks whatsoever. She’s constantly moping and whining out her lines; let Randolph Scott have her, I say. Power and Fonda can’t be all bad but they have very little to do here but bemoan their fate. That initial confrontation is pretty well-acted and their jailbreak is alright, but this is a slow, talky, boring and relatively action free film. As history it stinks. As a film on its own merits, it isn’t much better. It was a big hit and others rate it highly; I assume they haven't watched it in years. Opened January 27, 1939.

JUAREZ * 1/2 God save us from Important Films. Paul Muni almost always puts me to sleep, especially once he hit his stride with Great Man biopics like this one. Widely admired  by fellow actors and it's easy to see why. Muni deeply researched his roles  based on historic figures, demanded path-breaking makeup and effects to pull off his illusion and strove for accuracy at every stage. Marlon Brando once opined Muni was the greatest actor he ever saw. Today we would decry the brownface (or redface) of casting Muni to play the homely Mexican hero of Zapotec roots. But the fact that a major studio even told this story, much less cast its biggest stars in the film (including Bette Davis, Claude Rains and redhot newcomer John Garfield) is pretty amazing. Muni transformed himself so completely that Mexican audiences gasped upon first seeing him in the film. (Indeed, the studio head groused, why the hell cast Muni if you can't even recognize him?) Mexican audiences may have gasped at the resemblance but everyone else will yawn. Juarez involves revolution and invasion and counter-revolution and dramatic showdowns...but mainly it consists of people walking in and out of rooms mouthing platitudes and standing around looking bored.  Weirdly, the movie spends more time with Brian Aherne as Maximilian I of Mexico. He's a puppet leader installed by France and, admittedly, this European blue-blood can't imagine a world without kings to rule it. Still he's quite a decent man, refusing to sign a decree  handing land back to aristocrats after it was restored to peasants. Indeed Maximilian believes Mexicans voted to install him, so he's nice but not too bright. Max, as I'll call him, fights back for a while against oppressive measures and sincerely offers Juarez the post of Prime Minister. Max is even devastated to realize he's been played for a fool and struggles to know what is right to do. I assume Aherne -- like Muni -- strove for historic accuracy in the absurd facial hair he sports (his beard is like ram's horns that curl in on themselves). If not, Aherne was duped by the hair and makeup people as thoroughly as Max. The king's wife, played by Davis, is similarly duped and heads to France in a huff and demands Bonaparte support them as  promised. Davis can't really be boring, though it's a close call here. She has one good stretch in France where in about three or four minutes she cows Bonaparte and everyone around him, cracks under the mental stress, goes mad, believes they are poisoning her and then streaks out of the palace into a pitch black night. In the film's one visual flourish, Davis flees out of doors into an inky blackness that is  utterly complete. She runs off maniacally into utter darkness, her dress soon the only spot of light we can see as she flees further and further off into the distance, as if she were swallowed up into a black hole. Literally nothing else can be seen and for a film that is rigorously dull and staid, this surreal touch is astonishing. (I assume it was shot on a soundstage in utter  darkness and she had to run about a football field  away from the camera to get that effect.) Everything else is dull dull dull. Claude Rains does something I never expect of him: he overacts. Muni in contrast, underacts with tiresome dedication, mouthing every line with patient,  quiet grace and nobility, as befits a Great Man. He is shot like Jesus, lit like Lincoln and  sanctified like Joan of Arc. Worse, he carries around a picture of Honest Abe like a totem, which may be accurate but plays as slavish devotion rather than a feeling of kinship between two leaders. If I wasn't  determined to see every film possible from 1939, I would have turned the film off after his first two scenes -- they're so Noble and Brave and Uplifting you immediately want to run screaming and follow Bette Davis into that black hole of despair she ran for in such a panic.  Opened April 24, 1939. 

JUDGE HARDY AND SON * ½ -- A rather tired episode in the Andy Hardy series. But there’s one terrific scene for star Mickey Rooney. Andy Hardy’s mom has fallen seriously ill, with Andy and his sister risking life and limb to get her the medicine/doctor she needs. All they can do is wait. Andy is alone in the hallway and prays tearfully to God to spare his mother. Even back in 1939, scenes of prayer weren’t exactly common in the movies. This scene is so natural and moving and direct, with Rooney given a marvelous close-up that tears your heart out as he cries and pleads his case. It’s a corker. Opened December 22, 1939.

THE KID FROM KOKOMO ** -- An amiable trifle, set in the boxing world. This was one of three boxing films from 1939 I saw pretty close together, reminding me of how popular that sport was for decades right up to the night they broadcast a fighter dying in the ring on national TV. In any case, this light comedy is miles from such drama. Pat O'Brien made five movies in 1939 and he spits out his dialogue so quickly you imagine he was shooting for six. He's in pure "Front Page" mode here, playing a down on his luck boxing promoter who begins the film by selling off 50% of his prize fighter gunning for the championship. Unfortunately, he sells off 50% to at least four different promoters and when the dumb lug actually WINS, O'Brien has to high tail it out of town. He heads to the hinterlands to check out another hot prospect, only to stumble upon a gentle country lad who's got a vicious right. He hates fighting but this orphan is so sensitive that if you make any cracks abourt mothers or women in general or god forbid the mother who abandoned him decades ago, well it's lights out. The kid has been showered with promises by other promoters but he won't budge dfrom the small town where he loves working on a farm. His mom might return some day and how will she find him if he leaves the town she abandoned him in all those years ago? Wayne Morris brings a gentle sweetness to this big oaf, who  might have been played for laughs or as a pure dimwit. Instead, he's quite open and appealing. His career began in earnest by playing a boxer in "Kid Galahad" and it almost ended that way when he made his Broadway debut in 1957 playing a washed up boxer in a William Saroyan play. Morris was a rising star until WW II, when he left to serve as a fighter pilot, serving heroically but never quite regaining his career after the four year hiatus. What to do with a potential champ who won't fight? O'Brien and his gal pal Joan Blondell convince the kid he'll have a much better shot at finding his mother if he's famous and in the papers all the time. So he heads to New York, falls for journalist Jane Wyman and dedicates his wins to all the moms out there. Still, he hates fighting and threatens to leave. So O'Brien picks up a down on her luck actress old enough to be the kid's great grandmother -- he rescues her from jail and she pretends to be his mom and a movie that was just inoffensive almost becomes inspired. May Robson was about 81 at the time (maybe 80 when it was filmed) and she's hilarious pretending to be softhearted and kind. When Morris insists she drink a big glass of milk and the old biddy -- who'd prefer a shot of whisky -- smiles at him while grimacing with each gulp is genuinely hilarious. The movie catches fire even more with  third act that has some clever twists and a thoroughly unnecessary brawl between a bunch of old geezers and younger thugs. Running gags, some great jokes whizzing by at a hundred miles an hour and a great turn by Robson, who would die in 1942 -- this is too flawed to bump up to 2 1/2 stars but it's a pleasant bit of nuttiness nonetheless. Everyone probably forgot about the movie a minute after they finished filming but that's part of its tossed-off charm. Opened May 23, 1939.

THE KID FROM TEXAS *– This B movie struggles hard to turn its tired boy meets girl premise into an actual movie and falls pretty flat. It’s good for a laugh at the beginning – our hero is a cowboy named Bill Malone (from Texas, if you weren’t paying attention) who is just plain loco for polo, even though he’s the only fella in the state who wants to play it. When a wealthy playboy comes out there looking for horses for his team, the cowboy (Dennis O’Keefe) shows off his stuff and we see him riding the range in full cowboy regalia…and a polo mallet, whacking away at a ball. Before you know it he’s followed that horse back east so he can try his hand at the game. And darned if the playboy’s sister (Florence Rice) ain’t durn pretty. Why she just can’t STAND him at first, though he’s so dosh-garn polite. Along for the ride is the dependable Jessie Ralph as the wealthy Aunt Minnie -- who takes a shine to the cowboy and his tall tales -- and Buddy Ebsen as a cowboy pal who gets the lamest excuse for a lame dance routine imaginable. Malone behaves like a doofus in his first polo game and heads off to a Wild West show…which he promptly turns into a showcase for polo, with cowboys squaring off against Indians. It’s as dumb as it sounds, with an Annie Oakley style gal tossed in to turn his head just long enough to keep the movie from being a short. It ends with a reaction shot of a horse laughing, which just about says it all. Opened April 14, 1939.

KID NIGHTINGALE * Hollywood is filled with so many ludicrous storylines that I would never suggest Kid Nightingale is the dumbest idea for a movie I've ever seen. But it's pretty asinine, even for a B movie probably churned out in ten days or so during the heyday of the studio system. I was tempted to imagine the leading man John Payne was trading off of the popularity of John Wayne when choosing his name, but of course Wayne was just hitting stardom with Stagecoach in 1939 and Payne is his real name, so nix on that. Anyway, the film is set in the world of boxing, or to be precise boxing promoters. Mike Jordan (Edward Brophy) is on top, with all the big names signed to his agency. Charles Paxton (Charles D. Brown) is on the ropes, with only a few bums to his name and desperate desire to get back on top. In walks the shady, fast-talking talent scout Skip Davis (Walter Catlett). He roams the country looking for rising boxers he can pass on to the big leagues and score a few bucks. When his latest "find" proves a bust, Davis naturally drowns his sorrows at a restaurant with singing waiters. Payne roams the place while bursting into glorious song when two almost identical looking brutes insist on singing along in loud, off-key voices. Payne blows a gasket and knocks the two galumphs out in record time...and is then evicted from the restaurant for fighting in the same breath. (Truly, he has barely landed his blows when the rest of the staff has tossed him out on his keister. Seriously, they did NOT waste time in the movies back in the day.) Davis realizes this guy with fists of gold names Steve Nelson (Payne) is his meal ticket and rushes him back to New York. Nelson promptly falls hard for piano player Judy Craig (Jane Wyman). He reluctantly starts boxing but only on the promise they'll get him voice lessons with a great Italian singing instructor. Six months of studying and he's sure he'll open at the Met! He's actually not a good boxer but he IS handsome and the singing bug is a great gimmick. Nelson starts touring the country and fighting opponents who are patsies or paid to take a fall, not that he's aware. We see headline after headline of Nelson knocking out an opponent in the first or second round...and then bursting into a lullabye or singing an aria! The gals flock to his bouts and Nelson's popularity becomes so big he gets a chance to fight the champ. But he'd rather sing, so the promoters hire a former wrestler to pose as the Italian maestro and convince Nelson that boxing is the best way to improve as a singer. Okay.... So he gets the big bout, his own team is betting on the champ to pummel him into the ground when suddenly every blow he takes draws out a gorgeous high C and the like from our hero...and he wins! End of movie! On the bright side, it's 57 minutes long. On the down side, what a waste of talent. Payne was the poor man's Dick Powell who consistently -- and wisely -- got out of his contracts and fled to new studios that brought him more and more fame. He's best known for starring in Miracle On 34th Street but his smartest move was make a string of movies for a division of Paramount: Payne reportedly insisted they be shot in color and got the rights to the films to revert to him after a number of years, making him rich in retirement when he licensed them to TV. Heck, he was also smart enough to option Ian Fleming's Moonraker, though nothing came of it. The others are good too, with Catlett making much out of nothing as the fast-talking Davis. But I'm growing very fond of Charles D. Brown, who plays the down on his luck promoter Jordan. He has a blink and you miss it scene in The Ice Follies Of 1939 but there and here he is so spot-on, so naturally comfortable and believable on film that you buy him instantly in any role. He's a pro who had a career on Broadway as well. Unheralded as far as I can tell, he's just one of many talented folk who never quite got the lucky break or right role or director or studio that would champion him to stardom.  Opened November 4, 1939.

KING OF THE UNDERWORLD * ½ -- Poor Kay Francis. Despite a notable speech impediment, she was a Hollywood star. (Robert Osborne says she was dubbed “the wavishing Kay Fwancis” by studio wags.) She starred in the Ernst Lubitsch gem Trouble In Paradise, one of the all time champs back in 1932. But now it’s 1939 and she doesn’t even get above the title billing despite being the female star: Humphrey Bogart is above the title and Francis comes clumped together with the rest of the cast. Even worse, her husband in the film is a wimpy nobody, a pushover doctor who performs surgery on a pal of Bogey’s. In return, Bogey gives him $500 as a thank you and the doc starts living the high life. When Bogey starts insisting the doc perform secret surgery on his gangster pals when they’ve been shot, the doc has no way to back out and suddenly he and Francis are dragged into the underworld. Bogey has delusions of writing his own memoir and constantly talks about Napoleon. It all comes to nought and ends in a boring showdown. Francis is nonplussed and after about a dozen more movies, she was through. Opened January 14, 1939.


THE LADY AND THE MOB ** – I’m probably being a little generous to this modest little flick, but it has an amiable charm that had me smiling even as it meandered along. Fay Bainter has great fun as the richest woman in town, a skinflint of an old woman who gets upset when her dry cleaner ups his prices. She’s also wary of her son’s latest fiancé (Ida Lupino). When she finds out the dry cleaner is being extorted – and so are all the other local businesses – she swings into action. Hattie recruits a “gang” of eccentric mugs who once did crimes but kinda sorta went clean. They go toe to toe with the bad guys and after a stirring speech winning over the local businessmen despite the risks, Hattie also wins over Lupino. The two women join forces while the hapless son/fiancé Fred (Lee Bowman) stands helplessly aside. Her gang is filled with oddballs, like a squeaky voiced fellow and another who constantly wants to start shooting. Nothing particularly clever in how its all resolved but Bainter has a lot of fun playing a spry elderly ball of fire (she was 46 at the time). Lupino isn’t nearly as vivid as she would be in other films but has a few good moments. Better than your average bear. Opened April 3, 1939.

LADY OF THE TROPICS * 1/2 -- If you wonder why people complain when, say, a Jewish New Yorker plays a Mexican in a TV ad for liquor, just watch an old Hollywood movie like "Lady Of The Tropics." This doomed romance is set in French Indochina and features the plight of people "trapped" by their mixed race background. As a somewhat sympathetic local (white) priest puts it, these poor creatures remind him of flying fish, creatures of the water but always trying to soar above it and never fitting in anywhere. Our louche hero is played by Robert Taylor, a playboy without money who makes himself an amiable guest at any mansion with a tennis court and a pool. He's latched onto a very wealthy family and is engaged (or perhaps engaged to be engaged) to their daughter (Mary Harrison). Their yacht pulls into Saigon for a little sight-seeing, hoping to catch some exotic sights, including the poor doomed creatures of mixed race that titillate their imagination. The family isn't hateful so much as mildly clueless and lacking in tact. Taylor is a cut above, but don't cut him too much slack: he falls hard for Hedy Lamarr as Mamon, a woman so beautiful she outshines everyone else in the movie (including the Oscar-nominated cinematography). That's saying something since she's usually swaddled in outrageously elaborate French fashion that make her appear to be in mourning or at least one veil short of a burqa. Taylor soon dumps his wealthy girlfriend (she takes it quite well, actually) and devotes himself to Lamarr, even going so far as to -- gulp -- look for work. There's a problem: her former suitor is Pierre Delaroch, another half-caste and one of the most powerful men in Saigon. He blocks Lamarr's attempts to get a passport, blocks Taylor's attempts to get a job and waits patiently for their romance to founder on the rocks of money (or rather, the lack of). It's all quite dull, but what makes the film risible is seeing Lamarr, Joseph Shildkraut (as Pierre) and Gloria Franklin (as Lamarr's mixed-race best pal, a local singer) all done up in makeup to appear "racialized" and speaking in stilted, pidgin English to indicate their exoticness. Now here's a counter-argument. For its time, the film was making a confused attempt to be positive in its depiction about the plight of people of mixed race ostracized by society. And surely the film would never have been made without Lamarr as the leading lady. Nonetheless, it's an embarrassing curio, as doomed by its good intentions as poor, pitiful Mamon. SPOILER: I did like the final lines of the priest, who otherwise is a little too cynical and worldly and judgmental for my taste.  On Mamon's deathbed, he reassures Taylor with his most sympathetic words, saying, "My son, she goes where there is no east or west. And she will be judged by one who alone knows how great or little her sins were." At least screenwriter Ben Hecht got it right in the end. Opened August 11, 1939.

LET FREEDOM RING *** -- I've never given Nelson Eddy a second thought. I'd seen clips of him duetting with Jeanette MacDonald in silly looking scenes where he's dressed as a Mountie. The operetta-like music was dated and over-done, no one ever mentioned their movies as being of any interest and that was it. If I ever saw one of his films from start to finish I've forgotten it completely. But one of the happy results of seeing every film made in 1939 is that you stumble on flicks and actors you would never otherwise see. In 1939, Eddy starred in two non-MacDonald films: Balalaika and Let Freedom Ring. Both are happy surprises. While Balalaika is held back by a stiff female lead and a bizarre storyline (which is also its most appealing feature), the Western Let Freedom Ring is a treat. It's filled with good actors and deftly incorporates Eddy bursting into song in ways that are clever, smart, convincing and move the story along. I'm not quite sure HOW they managed to make it seem natural but by God they did. Eddy is a Harvard-educated lawyer. He returns home to his aged but feisty father (Lionel Barrymore) just as a ruthless businessman is burning people out of their homes so he can snap up land before the railroad comes to town. Eddy pretends to side with this ruthless man (Edward Arnold), devastating his dad and the girl he loves (Virginia Bruce). He won't tell them the truth because he's afraid it will endanger them and tip off the bad guy to his real goal. So Eddy pretends to agree with Arnold, pals around with the man's muscle, played by Victor McLaglen in full, hard-drinking but soft-hearted Irishman mode. McLaglen keeps the influx of foreign workers in line but has no idea Arnold is actually terrorizing the farmers and home owners of the area. So what does Eddy do? How does he rouse up the influx of immigrants and locals to fight back? He publishes a newspaper! Eddy partners with a friend, steals the local printing press (and the local editor named Underwood (!), played with blustery perfection by Raymond Walburn) and lights a fire with his rousing rhetoric. It's an ode to the newspaper AND a constant celebration of the people who make up America, reminding us how despised each wave of immigrants has been. Sure, the stereotypes of the Italians and Germans and Irish and Russians are often crude and basic, but Eddy keeps exhorting them to see themselves as Americans, not slaves to some boss man. And the music is interwoven quite snazzily indeed. Out West, with no other entertainment around, performing of any sort is a welcome diversion from the hard work of staying alive. So when Eddy bursts into song at a bar, it seems perfectly reasonable for the grizzled workers to all stop and listen in rapt attention. Director Jack Conway and cinematographer Sidney Wagner frame the men watching Eddy with almost documentary realism in a few vivid shots throughout the movie. But that's just the start. Eddy reunites with his true love Bruce and he sings and she joins in and so does the cook of her restaurant and it's as natural as breathing because they're just joining voices, not "performing." Eddy also makes up a song to signal to a fellow conspirator about danger and every time he sings on "command" by his new boss, his sweetheart is moved and knows in her heart that he is still the same good man she loved. Late in the movie, Eddy sings the title song to rouse the workers once and for all -- it's a celebration of the individual, of being your own man, of voting, of the various ethnicities that make up the country and why they should do what they know is right. And to top that, they bring out "My Country Tis of Thee" at the finale and when everyone joins in singing, the bad guys just up and leave because they know the game is up. I haven't even touched on Eddy's friend, who lets people punch him out -- if he gets up by the count of ten they have to pay him a dollar. Oh and the mysteriously reserved croupier at the local bar (played by the great H.B. Warner) who seems to have consumption, speaks in a quiet and reserved manner, dresses like a dandy and so clearly has his own interior life you wouldn't mind an entire film about him. And Gabby Hayes! Arnold is so commanding as the bad guy it's easy to take him for granted but even his character is complicated enough to keep us off balance. Eddy is a casual treat, singing and charming his way through the movie, not to mention convincing us he could go toe to toe with McLaglen in a fist fight. It helps to have a tart screenplay by Ben Hecht, a classic MGM supporting cast and direction by Conway, who did the definitive A Tale Of Two Cities, Libeled Lady, the fun Boom Town and many others. But all credit to Eddy. Clearly, an actor I'd never thought twice about deserves more attention.  Opened February 24, 1939. 


LET US LIVE * ½ Pretty stiff melodrama. Henry Fonda is a decent guy who drives a taxi. He gets falsely identified as a killer and sentenced to the chair. His girlfriend/fiance Maureen O’Sullivan works desperately to prove his innocence. The cops are so lazy it's not fun. (Even when Fonda is in jail and the same gang pulls another brutal heist that's clearly the work of the same villains, the cops can’t be bothered to imagine Fonda might be innocent.) The film’s lone saving grace involves the ending (so stop reading if you don’t want a spoiler). SPOILER: Fonda becomes deeply cynical about the law and justice and is clearly bitter. But he remains so even after being freed, which is the one touch that seems interesting and fresh. His faith isn’t restored: it’s shattered forever and the movie makes no bones about that. Opened March 29, 1939.

THE LITTLE PRINCESS *** A sharp, foolproof vehicle for Shirley Temple. The little darling is packed off to Miss Minchin's School For Girls because Daddy must go off to the Second Boer wars and Mommy is dead. With loads of money and her own pony, Sara (why not just call her Shirley?) is greeted with open arms. Still, it's clear Miss Minchin is more of a Miss Hannigan of Annie fame by nature. Sara is sunshine to one and all (except to Miss Minchin). Nonetheless, when Daddy is presumed dead and all her money is gone, the only reason Sara isn't tossed on the streets is a fear for bad publicity. Instead she's sent into a filthy, desolate attic space and turned into the lowest of servants. Older students for some reason despise Sara and take petty revenge on the little girl for being so kind and sweet. How dare she! On her off hours, Sara scours local hospitals searching for Daddy, who was bonked on the head and has no memory or identification but does quite often murmur the words, "Sara! Sara!" Will she find him? Oh please. Despite the very familiar arc, The Little Princess is smartly made and satisfying. The crusty neighbor to the school has an Indian man servant named Ram Dass, a courteous fellow who is charmed by Sara's knowledge of his language and customs. Sure it's Cesar Romero in brown face, but the dignified character is a welcome one. (Even his name is distinguished.) Some other deft moments almost dare the audience to keep up: just from watching Sara and Arthur Treacher do a dancehall routine, we gather they've become friends and that Treacher's character (the brother to Miss Minchin) has a vaudevillian background that would shame her and to which he longs to return. And while Miss Minchin is calculating, she's not as viciously evil as the novel -- Sara is put to work, but of course charity only goes so far. In the novel, she is beaten, intentionally starved, sent out in bitter weather wearing rags and so on. The film is a little too pat for me to give it three and a half stars, but it was a close call. Opened March 10, 1939.

MADE FOR EACH OTHER – Overwrought drama about newlyweds struggling to make a life for themselves. James Stewart is a young attorney in a big firm, great at law but not great at office politics. Everyone expects him to marry the boss’s daughter but on a business trip he meets and marries Carole Lombard in a whirlwind weekend. It ruins his chances at work and forces them to live with his mother, who is petulant and needling, making their home life a misery, even after they give birth to a baby boy. Lombard is fine but has some hysterical moments of laughing and crying where she seems on the verge of instability. Even in this undistinguished nothing of a movie, Stewart finds moments of grace and emotion and humor. When he’s nibbling on a chicken leg and Lombard is pushing him to ask for a raise from his skinflint boss, she asks, “Are you a man or a mouse?” He snaps back, “A mouse!” making it funny and honest and sweet. He gnaws at the chicken leg, struggling with a piece, talking with his mouth full, voicing his concerns and fears and hopes and dreams and it’s all so natural and believable and moving. What an actor. It climaxes rather bizarrely with the baby getting pneumonia and a desperate need for a serum that’s only available thousands of miles away. This crisis is what finally gives Stewart backbone to demand something and sets their life on the right course. Opened February 10, 1939.

MAMA'S NEW HAT  * -- A nondescript short in the ongoing MGM series starring The Captain and the Kids, themselves based on the comic strip created by Rudolph Dirks to compete with his own Katzenjammer Kids strip he abandoned after legal tussles. Both strips flourished for decades (indeed more than a century for the original) and spun off shorts and the like, including this series directed in part by Fritz Freleng, It didn't succeed and he returned to Warner Bros, hat in hand. Here the naughty boys find a new hat for mama. When it falls into the mud, they steal one from a horse and take that home, with the determined horse in hot pursuit. Chaos ensues, none of it terribly interesting. Opened February 11, 1939. 


THE MARSHAL OF MESA CITY * ½ -- A very B western notable for a complicated plot. Mesa City is a Wild West town plagued by thugs and rowdy men, no thanks to the Sheriff (Leon Ames). He's the ringleader of the criminals, bullies everyone into doing as they’re told and even has the judge in his back pocket. The Sheriff tries to woo the schoolteacher (Virginia Vale) but she’ll have none of it and leaves town for good. His gang chases after her stagecoach which loses a wheel and crashes to a halt. She might have been killed but it’s the Old West and everyone brushes this off after a quick comment. Before they can drag her back, in walks “retired” marshal Cliff Mason (George O’Brien, in a very large cowboy hat). He escorts her back, starts to woo her himself and when the sheriff tries to have him killed, decides he’ll un-retire and clean up this town. The Sheriff brings in a gunman (Henry Brandon) to take care of Mason. But Mason saves the man's life (inexplicably, some random guy at a bar is about to shoot the gunman in the back) and they pair up to right wrongs. The final showdown takes place in a smoky fog (the jail was set on fire) so our heroes just walk slowly into the mist and we can’t see what happens – sort of dramatically interesting and a nice dodge for a B movie’s big climax on a small budget. Usually, a marshal outranks a sheriff but this movie makes mulch of the law and who controls what and everyone is arresting everyone else every five minutes. The history of the cast is far more interesting than the film. O’Brien was plucked out of obscurity by John Ford for The Iron Horse and used him in bit parts forever. O’Brien also starred in Sunrise, one of the all-time greats. But sound dimmed his star a bit and he was reduced to B Westerns thanks to his barrel-shaped solidity and deep voice. O’Brien’s offscreen career is even more notable. He was the son of the chief of police of San Francisco; hanging around police stables is how he became horse savvy. O’Brien served with great distinction in World War I, World War II (he was also the heavyweight boxing champ of the Pacific Fleet), Korea and Vietnam (he was recommended for admiral but retired with many medals as a captain). Virginia Vale was the winner of Jesse L. Lasky’s “Gateway to Hollywood” radio talent search contest (see Conspiracy). After peaking with 12 movies in 1941, she did a few in 1942 and one in 1945 and left Hollywood for good, working for Lockheed for 30 years and serving as an ice skating judge on the side. The very dependable Leon Ames would shoot to fame in Meet Me In St. Louis, leading to a long and successful career as a character actor and father figure. But he’s best known for being one of the original 33 actors who met in secret to form the Screen Actors Guild (Ames had card #15). Finally, the hired gunman turned lawman Henry Brandon was 6 feet 5 inches (extremely tall for Hollywood) and this was one of his rare good guy roles. Brandon played the bad guy in Laurel and Hardy’s Babes In Toyland and onstage made a career out of playing the villain in a melodrama called The Drunkard that he performed for years and then reprised in the 1980s. He was the longtime companion of Mark Herron, who was once married to Judy Garland, which is about as gay as it gets. Opened November 3, 1939.

MIDNIGHT -- I guess it's no surprise Midnight got lost in the shuffle. The year 1939 is so chock full of major films, something had to be underrated and that is definitely the case with this delightful comedy. Don Ameche wouldn't be this charming again for decades (Trading Places, Cocoon and Things Change). Claudette Colbert can proudly list it among her masterpieces It Happened One Night and The Palm Beach Story. It's one of the first pairings of Billy Wilder and Leigh Brackett and shows them quickly finding their groove. Sure, director Mitchell Leisen so frustrated Wilder that his work here pushed that man to direct. But it's still the best film Leisen ever made...and giving Wilder a shove into the directors chair is no bad thing. Colbert is a charming, beautifully dressed but penniless refuge from Monte Carlo, arriving in Paris with nothing but pluck. Ameche is the cabbie who gamely drives her around town as she tries to land a job. She fails, but succeeds at winning his heart. But Colbert is in no mood to marry a poor cabbie and slips away. While Ameche rallies the cabbies of Paris to track her down, Colbert stumbles into a fancy party. Soon she's caught the eye of a lothario (the deadly dull Francis Lederer), earned the ire of the married but jealous Mary Astor and been "hired" by John Barrymore to split apart his wife and her lover for good. That's the plot and it has the cynical, fast-paced style you'd expect of Wilder and Brackett (or Preston Sturges).  Mind you, the biggest treat about seeing this film is having no expectations about it. Surely if it were good you would have heard about it, given the talent involved? And yet, it's very good indeed, much to your increasing astonishment. Why don't people talk about this film more often, you wonder? Heck, Turner Classic Movies rarely even shows the movie, when you'd think an under-appreciated gem like this would be their bread and butter. A second viewing revealed some pacing flaws and such, but it's a treat that deserves to loom larger in the careers of all involved.  Opened March 15, 1939.

MIDNIGHT SHADOW -- A no-budget mystery made with an all-black cast, this is a curio strictly of interest for scholars and cultural historians. Once in a while an all-black cast of talented actors came together in the early days of Hollywood. But  more often than not, these B movies were peopled with amateurs who never acted before and would not do so again, which is certainly the case for most of the people here, including the lovely light-skinned Frances Redd, who was a popular model but obviously not an actress. She is the love interest for two men. One is the shady Prince Alihabad, a mesmerist who works the theater circuit but also gets pretty high and mighty, telling her father that his family insists the men in it all marry women of means. The other is handsome Edward Brandon, who stands around and mopes. On a very busy night indeed, Redd's father shows Prince Alihabad the deed to oil fields he's gifting to his daughter, the Prince asks the daughter to elope with him (which makes little sense since he clearly wants her money), the former boyfriend hangs around outside spying on everyone, someone breaks into the house and drugs her parents and steals the deed and I think someone ELSE breaks in and kills the father. It's hard to tell. Midnight Shadow is clumsily wrapped up in under 55 minutes. Points of interest: this seemed to be considered a launch for a potential series, since the comic relief is provided by a duo of would-be detectives named Lightfoot and Lingley. Lightfoot walks around in a Sherlock Holmes style outfit and smokes a pipe, furiously looking for clues; while Lingley gets bug-eyed around a dead body. (Apparently, stereotypes die hard, even when an all-black cast is making a movie for an all-black audience.) They actually have one or two very modest moments of amusing banter but obviously their fame was not meant to be. Prince Alihabad is clearly a fraud but he's also clearly a Muslim, which doesn't seem to be a problem for the girl's family. (Later, he's called a Hindoo by Lightfoot.) Even in these circumstances, Jess Lee Brooks is commanding as Sgt.  Ramsey, spitting out dialogue as if it meant something and cross-examining witnesses in such a ferocious manner he could teach Perry Mason a thing or two. Brooks died at the age of 50, with almost all of his roles being uncredited ones, including his turn as the preacher showing a movie in a key scene of Sullivan's Travels. And finally, it's worth contrasting Clinton Rosemond as the father here with his role in 1939's Stand Up And Fight. In that movie he's a tremulous slave who sho' nuff loves his massah, Robert Taylor. Here he's an educated, well-off man of means entertaining suitors for his daughter in a stately home. Midnight Shadow may have been crappy and he probably shot all his scenes in one or two days at most, but it's easy to imagine which film he found more satisfying. Opening date unknown, 1939.

MIRACLES FOR SALE * 1/2 -- A B movie programmer, "Miracles For Sale" is notable for its setting in the world of professional magicians and the blandly affable presence of Robert Young as the lead. Young bemoaned his also-ran status as a contract player, only getting the roles Robert Montgomery and others turned down. In this case, it's the role of a man retired from performance and now making his living by creating stage illusions for other acts. Young also doubles as a debunker of psychics and the like. A young woman comes to him desperate for help, though she won't explain why. Soon a famous magician is found dead in a "locked room," if you count a New York City apartment with a chain on the door as a locked room. (The police do. They seem absolutely dumb-founded: how could anyone get in or out? Uh, a window?) Young must prevent a psychic from defrauding people, uncover the murderer and keep his small-town dad entertained in the process. Not a bit of it makes any sense, with the set-up of the murders as uninteresting as the last-second solution. Florence Rice is a bland blond, playing Young's love interest. Only dependable actors in minor roles have any fun, with William Demarest his usual top-notch self as a detective, Cliff Clark solid as the Police Inspector and Frank Craven fine as the small-town dad, though the running gag of him getting entangled in his son's illusions pales quickly. The only point of interest is Young, not because he's good but because he's so mild. Never objectionable, never terribly interesting, he seems the definition of a 1950s TV star, the sort America welcomed into their homes week after week -- polite company you could depend on to say something vaguely amusing or interesting without ever actually stirring things up or insisting on your full attention. The reliable fourth for a game of bridge, that's Robert Young. Maybe I'm colored by our knowledge of the huge success he would enjoy on the small screen, playing the dad on "Father Knows Best" and everyone's favorite GP on "Marcus Welby M.D." Young did alright in some noirs, such as "They Won't Believe Me" and "Crossfire." But even here he's either salt of the earth or unconvincing. You believe Young when he's sensible and chiding the fake psychics that prey on the gullible. But when he tries to suggest that the divide between this world and the beyond is thinner than we believe, when he tries to get a little spooky and suggest actual psychics can penetrate the veil? Pshaw. We don't buy him for a second. Young felt he was cheated out of the serious career he might have had. Even with two huge TV hits, fame and an Emmy, he attempted suicide in 1991 and spoke openly about the disease of depression and bitterness over his career. For costume fans, Rice sports a particularly absurd outfit in the first 15 or so minutes, a dress with an elaborate fur wrap that is taken off to reveal sleeves that go up and up in a three-tier, Japanese pagoda sort of effect that was the movie's best trick of all. Opened August 14, 1939.

MR. MOTO’S LAST WARNING ** -- A trim little programmer with Peter Lorre as the famous international policeman. One of three Motos released in 1939 on the eve of war. This one came out on January 20 and had Moto frustrating the plans of saboteurs who hope to blow up ships off the coast of Egypt, sowing division among the British and French. We’re never told the government these baddies work for. Officials merely gasp when they discover the truth during the last moments of the film. Germany, anyone? (One cute in-joke shows a Charlie Chan film playing at a movie palace, but about to close.) Opened January 20, 1939.

MR. MOTO IN DANGER ISLAND * ½ - A nondescript entry in which Mr. Moto takes on drug smugglers in Puerto Rico. Two points of interest: tragic character actor Warren Hymer (who drank himself out of Hollywood by urinating on Harry Cohn’s desk) plays a big palooka and humanitarian Jean Hersholt is one of the many suspects. Opened April 7, 1939.

MR. MOTO TAKES A VACATION * ½ --  Final Mr. Moto with Peter Lorre just as the Japanese would soon become enemies of the US and a movie series with a Japanese hero untenable. This one finds Mr. Moto protecting the crown of Sheba and on the trail of a master criminal. Quite routine. Opened July 7, 1939.

NANCY DREW AND THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE * 1/2 -- The host on TCM pronounced this fourth and final Nancy Drew movie of its era to be the best reviewed. Maybe, but it's all relative. This is inoffensive, B movie stuff that sort of (but not quite) captures the charm of the plucky Nancy Drew character. It features actor Bonita Granville probably at the peak of her success. She scored an Oscar nomination for These Three, the film adaptation of Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour. Granville played a hateful child at the heart of the story and was the youngest person at the time to score an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Granville remained a supporting actor by and large, scoring a hit with a My Man Godfrey retread called Merrily We Live in 1938, the same year she launched a modest franchise around Nancy Drew. Granville was capable and played minor roles in some great films like The Glass Key, Now Voyager and a couple of Andy Hardys. But she enjoyed more success as a producer with her husband, overseeing films and TV shows based on Lassie and The Lone Ranger. Indeed, her final screen appearance was a cameo in The Legend Of The Lone Ranger in 1981. People probably had high hopes for that movie while no one expected much out of Nancy Drew back in 1938. Still, four films in two years wasn't bad. Granville was a fine Nancy though it's no surprise this Nancy isn't quite as self-sufficient as the heroine of the books. Most of her friends are gone and Ned has been changed to Ted, god knows why. Anyway, two old ladies are being harassed to leave their mansion just days before they'll have the right to donate it for use as a children's hospital. Nancy wants to make sure they succeed and keeps cajoling Ted to forget the ice delivery job he's been hired for and help her solve the mystery. It's all pretty stupid with one of two gambits happening again and again: either Nancy is trying to share crucial information but is ignored by her dad and the police or Nancy SHOULD share crucial information but decides to HIDE it from her dad and the police. It ends with a goofy action climax that depends on Ned -- I mean Ted -- to save Nancy and the day, while they almost accidentally drown the villain in the process. It's a glorified TV episode, like a lot of B movie franchises, overseen here by director William Clemons, who also did a Torchy Blaine and three entries in The Falcon series. I was a little surprised by the scene where Ted is seen in his boxers and a t-shirt. I suppose it was all perfectly respectable but seemed pretty racy to me for the time. Frankie Thomas played Ted in the series and he had a fascinating career that covered all the bases (except for vaudeville). His parents were journeymen actors and they all worked on Broadway, then Hollywood, then radio and TV. His mom was trying to get work on the stage when the guy said he had nothing for her but could use her son and soon the little tyke was on stage opposite Jimmy Stewart. He had a good role in the film Boy's Town but it was all downhill from there, including his aw-jeez work on the Nancy Drew flicks as her long-suffering boyfriend. But what a career! Thomas did Broadway (including reportedly the biggest role written for a juvenile on stage at the time), Hollywood, switched to radio and then TV where he appeared on early soaps, snagged the key role of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and rode that part into the sunset. At one point, Tom Corbett played on two channels at the same time, ultimately appearing on all four major networks. Thomas went on to write mystery novels starring Sherlock Holmes, not to mention books on how to play bridge (he toured the country as an expert) and was even buried in his space cadet uniform! If the guy wasn't dead, I'd track him down for an interview.  Opened September 9, 1939.

THE NIGHT RIDERS * ½ -- It’s amazing how many nooks and crannies there are in Hollywood history. John Wayne is one of its biggest stars. And the B movie series The Three Mesquiteers featured fifty one (51!) westerns from 1936 to 1943 or more than six movies a year. Eight of them starred John Wayne and yet I’d never heard of it. The lame pun in the name of the series is of course a nod to the Three Musketeers -- the Mesquite lets you know they are cowboys instead of swordsmen in France. Wayne’s stint in the series occurred right before and after he became a star of the first order thanks to Stagecoach. But his exiting the series didn’t really matter since they’d had a rotating cast throughout. In this movie barely more than an hour long, there’s a preposterous plot where a conman pretends to be a foreign nobleman with the deed to a huge chunk of land in the west. (As in HUGE -- it covers multiple states or territories.) Oh well, the authorities can’t do anything about it so he takes charge of the equivalent of two or three states and starts browbeating the homesteaders for money before kicking them off their land. Our heroes spot a fraud and uncover the bad guy, not without complications, including the assassination of President Garfield. (I didn’t see that one coming!). The film has no racial overtones whatsoever so the real oddity here is the title of night riders (an allusion to the KKK) and the fact that our heroes don disguises exactly like the vicious hate group when they go galloping around the countryside dispensing justice. It’s sheer happenstance and no coded message I can grasp is intended, unless it's to retroactively paint the KKK as noble do-gooders. Come to think of it, that's not so hard to believe since Rhett and Ashley also joined a KKK-like group in the year's biggest hit. The unintended message is how blasé people were to this imagery in Hollywood at the time. This is a very anonymous movie with one bizarre touch: apparently one of the mesquiteers is a ventriloquist. Being able to throw his voice a la ventriloquism plays a quick role in getting them out of an early scrape. Then later in the film, they’re at a tense dinner with the bad guy when suddenly out of nowhere that cowboy’s dummy (a little cowboy, duded up nicely) is suddenly brought out and the bad guy and his gal chat with the dummy, pretending it’s a person and playing along with the cowboy’s talent while never quite acknowledging it. This guy has been riding all over the area fighting evil and apparently he’s been lugging around his toy so he can do party tricks at a moment’s notice. It’s not even played for laughs, which makes the whole scene wonderfully surreal. It’s about the only distinctive moment in the entire, bland movie. That and the KKK costumes are the sole curiosity value other than seeing Wayne on the edge of stardom still churning out anonymous fare. You might assume he would become a star one way or another. Or you can watch this and see how close he came to slipping into obscurity. Sure he was working steadily but you’d never really expect Wayne would dominate screens for years to come by watching this flick. How easily a film star might have been a footnote. Opened April 12, 1939.

NINOTCHKA *** -- Finally saw Ninotchka again after many years, on New Year’s Eve. As I vaguely remembered, it’s a little creaky but saved by Greta Garbo’s hilarious turn as a dour Soviet emissary extraordinaire. She arrives in Paris to clean up the mess of three bumbling emissaries very ordinaire – Buljanoff, Iranoff and Kopalski. Their mission is to sell the crown jewels of Russian royalty for much needed funds. But Melvyn Douglas is the Countess’s lover and convinces the fellows to live it up and have fun and split the proceeds fifty/fifty rather than face a long court battle (not a bad deal, actually). One scene indicative of the wit of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch’s script simply shows us the door to their hotel suite. As waiters come in with food, roars of approval can be heard. Champagne? Bigger roars. Cigarette girls? The loudest roar of all. Then comes Garbo, grim, determined, beautiful. Melvyn Douglas falls hard even before knowing she might spoil his fun. Their battle of wills – communism vs capitalism, but really joy and pleasure vs duty and abstinence – is the heart of the film. Garbo deploys a hilarious dead pan delivery of her lines for almost half the movie. But the story goes on quite a bit, with a drawn out section back in Moscow as Garbo pines for her man but returns to duty with vigor. It’s all a bit labored as the movie struggles to arrange a happy ending. Frankly, my original four stars out of five was a little generous. Melvyn Douglas is no William Powell though he’s certainly never more appealing than here, the best work in his prime. But seeing Garbo melt at the sight of a silly French hat makes this worth watching again. Opened October 6, 1939.

NO PLACE TO GO * A dim-witted little film that runs under an hour and is the very definition of a B movie. Andrew (Fred Stone) is a widowed retiree, happily ensconced in a home for war veterans. He's having a grand old time but his guilt-ridden son (Dennis Morgan) imagines dad is wasting away in some miserable place and insists Andrew come live with him and his bride Gertrude (Gloria Dickerson). She's none too pleased, but not meanly so. Gertrude just has better things to do than watch over an old man who is in the way and would have been much happier to stay in the retirement home. It's all politely awkward until the movie takes a left turn: Andrew befriends a ragamuffin of a kid named Tommy (Sonny Bupp), finds ANOTHER group of retired men he can hang out with, gets ripped off by Tommy's dad, wrassles the man to the ground and moves into a the new retirement home nearby, boy in tow. Not worth a minute of your time, though the cast is interesting. Dennis Morgan would become a star one year later when he played opposite Ginger Rogers in "Kitty Foyle." Meanwhile, the actress playing his wife was on the way down. Gloria Dickerson began with a smash, scoring the lead in 1937's They Won't Forget Her and followed up with more prestige material. But she got a little too clever, left MGM... and immediately got stuck in B movies until she died in a house fire in 1945, just 27 years of age. Fred Stone was one of the biggest names in turn of the century entertainment, both as a circus act and a vaudeville star with a partner who died unexpectedly. Stone made some silent films, faded away...and then came back playing Katherine Hepburn's dad in "Alice Adams." It was a good third act, capped by a role in 1940's The Westerner with Gary Cooper. And the kid? He's quite good but was apparently miserable the whole time. Sonny Bupp was the last of his family to enter showbiz, but he dreaded going to work. His claim to fame was definitely playing the young version of Orson Welles in "Citizen Kane" but in general Bupp found his time in Hollywood to be time ill-spent. With movies like No Place To Go, who can blame him? Released September 23, 1939.

OF MICE AND MEN *** -- John Steinbeck's breakthrough work is a novella turned play turned film. Endlessly (and easily) teachable, it's a standard text of high schools right alongside A Separate Peace and other works that helpfully illuminate ideas like imagery, symbolism and themes in literature. I find the novella pretty tiresome in its fairy tale-like repetition and Steinbeck surely did better work. Nonetheless it has an elemental power and the clear-eyed 1939 film version is the best adaptation I've seen of this problematic work. When I read it on page, I always figure it will work better on film (or stage). But when I see it on film, I think...maybe it works better on the page. It's that kind of tale -- too noble and obvious to enjoy, too busy sermonizing to just tell a story. Anyway, producer Hal Roach rushed this into production to make sure that his film based on a work by the red-hot writer would make it to the screen before The Grapes Of Wrath. It has a certain, low-budget, no-nonsense vibe about it and that works in the film's favor. Any more money and time to add to the production value and the sentimentality would have overwhelmed. (Aaron Copland's astringent score is a major plus in this regard and money well spent.) Burgess Meredith is a good fit as the older, wiser migrant worker George, reluctantly keeping an eye on the "slow" Lenny, as they referred to those with special needs back in the day. Lon Chaney Jr. recreated his stage performance as Lenny and it's so vivid and iconic you're not surprised in the least he was as readily imitated as Jimmy Stewart's stutter and led to even Looney Tunes doing a riff on it. You know the story: two guys go from ranch to ranch looking for work. They're always one step ahead of trouble because the dim-witted Lenny is kind-hearted but can snap the neck of a pretty girl or crush the hands of a guy if he gets scared or excited. He wouldn't hurt a fly, not intentionally, but Lenny can bring the walls down around him before his mind realizes what his fists are doing. Lenny's incipient violence is no joke: before reaching a new ranch, George schools Lenny about where to hide if (but really "when") he gets in trouble. They keep their heads down and even dream about buying a farm of their own some day -- a dream that works its magic on fellow outcasts, namely an aging, one-armed worker with a stash of cash and a black employee treated with disdain by the rest. But trouble in the form of the belligerent son of the ranch owner and his bored but pretty wife ends those dreams all too quickly. Of Mice And Men is elemental and the film might have hit greatness except for a few problems. Meredith is very strong for most of the movie, but he falters at the climax, spoiling two big scenes -- one where he must react to the brutal violence Lenny committed and later when he perform a mercy killing. Meredith just isn't convincing. Neither is the direction of Lewis Milestone, who was perhaps disheartened to be working under such cheap conditions. When the director saves his energy for a money shot, it's a puzzling one: Meredith and a fellow hand come to an understanding about the fate of Lenny and the camera calls attention to itself by pulling back and back at this key moment, leaving Meredith on one side of a barn and the other actor way over on the other side, lost not in the landscape but just the interior of a barn. Just when you might want to go in close to see George's anguish, Milestone fussily pulls away. Given it's practically the only such camera move in the entire film, this is distracting and makes no emotional sense. That fellow ranch hand is played by Charles Bickford, a solid actor who is the film's other outstanding element. His character and George have an easy rapport as men who understand each other. But the film overplays this a bit with the two taciturn characters barely looking at each other. Another problem is the botched climax where groups of men  are tracking down Lenny. It's shot confusingly and the sense of impending doom is wasted. This is clearly due to limited funds and a need to make much out of little but more care would have solved the problem. And again, at the crucial moment, Meredith is not up to the task. The film shies away and -- worse -- tacks on an ending to "punish" George, taking the sting out of the painful moment we've just witnessed and turning a tremendous sacrifice into merely a crime that must be paid for. Opened December 24, 1939.  


OLD HICKORY (short) * A stiff and dull short film lionizing Andrew "Stonewall" Jackson. Actor Hugh Southern played Jackson in The Buccaneer, a 1938 film starring Frederic March as pirate Jean Lafitte. Presumably someone decided Southern might as well play the great man (and genocidal figure) again in this kiddie-oriented short that jumps through four key moments of Jackson's adult life: nobly partnering with Lafitte in the Battle of New Orleans, nobly promising his dying wife he won't fight a duel to defend her honor, nobly inviting regular folk to his inauguration and then nobly placing the good of the United States over his Southern roots. The narration makes much of Jackson being a regular Joe, a man of the people -- but Southern portrays him as a stuffed and mounted member of the aristocracy. A snooze. Director Lewis Seiler must have lost a bet or something to have to tackle this. Opened December 23, 1939.  


ON BORROWED TIME * ½ -- Whimsical is always a dangerous word. When you hear a play or film or book described as “whimsical,” you’re usually smart to run in the opposite direction. This oddball film is based on a play by Paul Osborn about a cranky old man determined to look after his orphaned grandson. When Death in the form of Mr. Brink (as in, “on the brink of….”) shows up, Gramps tricks the fellow into climbing an apple tree in his yard and – thanks to a magical wish – keeps Death trapped there. No one in the world can die until Death gets back down and Gramps doesn’t plan on allowing that until his grandson is grown and standing on his own two feet. Lionel Barrymore is in fine dudgeon as Gramps and never hesitates to ham his way through each and every scene. What else could he do with such twee material? It’s actually an interesting concept, but the film never deals with the ramifications of how people would react if suddenly Death was held at bay. The local doctor realizes the danger and acts accordingly. But mostly we have paper tigers, like a mean old aunt who wants to adopt the boy – rather grotesquely named “Pud” – so she can get a hold of his money. The story is tiresome in the extreme, breezing past the death of the boy’s parents in an auto accident (the kid barely seems to notice, he loves his Gramps so much) and then reaching a risible finale that would not pass muster today in its attitude towards “cripples.” (Better death, apparently, than a wheelchair as far as this movie is concerned.) The film’s biggest flaw however is Bobs Watson as Pud, an affected performer who weeps rather hideously whenever called for. It’s not nice to dislike a child when he’s crying, but that’s how Pud makes you feel. Opened July 7, 1939.

...ONE THIRD OF A NATION ** -- Well, here’s a fascinating oddity. It’s based on a play by Arthur Arent that was put on by the WPA and every cliché about the WPA’s leftist leanings is on display here. The play shows an Everyman who wants to get some decent housing – he travels through 250 years of housing history in the US, meeting landlords and supers and desperate tenants and all sorts of characters that depict the horrible housing conditions for most of the country’s history. They turned that story into a film? Not quite. One Third Of A Nation (unfortunately, I missed the moment when the title was explained) the movie was released in 1939 and sticks mostly to the present. Sylvia Sidney stars as a young woman who lives in a tenement house that catches fire. Her little brother (future director Sidney Lumet!) falls from a dilapidated fire escape and is crippled for life. First the boy is whisked to the hospital by a wealthy man horrified to discover he’s the slum lord that owns this tenement. He vows to right this wrong and begins by kicking out a whore, until Sidney’s friend –a leftist – wises him up to the hypocrisy of this. Everyone stands around declaiming their speeches in a stiff manner, with Sidney and the wealthy playboy (Leif Erikson) falling in love without realizing it. But the theatrical origins of the show start to take effect. First the boy Joey (Lumet) comes back from the hospital on crutches and goes a little nutty. The rundown building literally starts talking to him and flashes back to the 1800s when the tenement was the site of a cholera epidemic. The building laughs at the boy and tells the kid desperately poor people will always keep moving in. The kid snaps and sets the building on fire. It’s a dullish melodrama, but on the fringes you can spot some fun: the scenes shot on city streets have an authentic feel and it looks like they filmed firemen working to put out a real fire. The defiant whore is never punished, unusual for a post-Code movie and the fires include bodies on fire that leap in despair from the building, screaming in fright. None of that can rescue the movie’s dullness, but it’s intriguing nonetheless, right down to the Soviet kitsch of the finale with smiling profiles superimposed over scenes of new and wholesome buildings where tenants can walk in parks and swim in pools. Maybe at least one third of a nation can be okay after all! Opened February 10, 1939. 


PACIFIC LINER ** A cruise ship features Victor McLaglen belowdecks, determined to stoke coal so the ship can make record time. It also features a stowaway with cholera that makes a mess of everything. A new doctor (Chester Morris) battles with McLaglen over the treatment of the men even before the epidemic strikes. Alan Hale is a crew member who almost ritualistically fights McLaglen every voyage...and loses. Barry Fitzgerald wins the Irish lottery and then dies happily.  The lone black character is called the Professor and is well spoken, a rarity for movies at the time. That's undercut by the fact that he reverts to voodoo when the cholera strikes and is felled the moment he stops...but it's better than nothing. McLaglen holds the screen with his ferocious personality and doesn't wear out his welcome as the heart of the film. Not bad. Opened January 6, 1939. 


PANAMA LADY * ½ -- Lucille Ball starred in four movies released in 1939. This certainly isn’t a good one but it’s got glimmers of maturity and Ball is pretty appealing, even when not joking around. Ball plays a down on her luck cabaret performer. She's one of a motley group of gals going through the motions in a seedy club in Panama.  The financially struggling club owner dumps them all. Luckily, Ball has an aviator fiancée. Unfortunately, Roy (Donald Briggs) is a heel who smuggles guns to profit off war and is just stringing Ball along for the fringe benefits. The plot gets quite confused: Ball feuds with other gals, stumbles on his smuggling ring and gets dumped back in Panama, broke and homeless. She’s forced into a cruel little scam with her former boss: they roll a drunk named McTeague (Allan Lane) for his thick wad of dough. He wises up, calls the cops and demands Ball fly into the heart of the jungle and serve as his “housekeeper” while he drills for oil. In the film’s rare bit of adult behavior, McTeague clearly expects much more from Ball. She turns him down but this isn’t playful banter. When he demands more once they’re at his isolated cabin in the jungle, it feels more like a potential rape than sparks flying among two people. Ball keeps him at bay (a gun helps), McTeague finds oil and Ball’s bum of a boyfriend comes back to kill Ball and steal his oil find in the bargain. On the side, you’ve got natives who work for McTeague that range from lazy to murderous, especially the lovely young Cheema (Steffi Duna) who would like to keep McTeague for herself. The whole story is told in flashback (!), with McTeague a rich man and Ball wandering the streets of Manhattan, clearly down on her luck and working as a prostitute to survive. “Do I have to draw you pictures?” she asks him testily. Lane also made “Twelve Crowded Hours” with Ball in 1939 and he’s got at least B movie star potential. (Lane made tons of Westerns and ultimately provided the voice of the talking horse in “Mr. Ed.”) Donald Briggs made nine movies released in 1939 and reunited with Ball on “The Lucy Show” where he played a recurring role on seven episodes. Opened May 12, 1939. 


PICTURESQUE UDAIPUR (short) ** -- "The voice of the globe," James A Fitzpatrick had a good gig creating travelogue shorts. He traveled all over the world shooting exotic locations and then providing breathless voice-overs. Sometimes cluelessly racist, often condescending but still, people didn't travel the world in the 1930s so you can imagine the lure of his pieces. Here he's visiting one of India's oldest cities. Cliches abound -- cows in the street! the people live in peace and tranquility! -- but it's not all bad. Fitzpatrick takes a stab at distinguishing between reincarnation and transmigration, which I certainly didn't expect. If he ends by insisting Hinduism is incomprehensible to Western minds, well, at least he tried. Opened May 13, 1939. 

PIÈGES aka PERSONAL COLUMN ** 1/2  -- An odd duck. Director Robert Siodmak's final film before absconding to Hollywood, Pièges aka Personal Column is a light/dark French trifle that deals in crime and serial killers and white slavery...but with a romantic comedy layering on top. From the start, the tone is sophisticated and adult. In a Psycho-worthy twist (on a modest level), we begin with a "taxi dancer," a woman who dances with men in a club for a small fee. The possibility of romance or at least a commercial transaction is always in the air but this woman spurns the oafish man who tries to woo her. Why? Because she's just answered a personal ad that's too good to be true. Indeed, she's soon offed and we realize she's not the heroine, but her best pal will be. That woman is Marie Déa (a revelation to me) as Adrienne. She is recruited by the police to answer personal ads so they can ferret out what is feared to be a serial killer. (Not that the idea of a serial killer held much currency back then.) Siodmak creates a vivid world filled with strong characters who register strongly, from Adrienne's police escort/guardian angel to a string of nut-jobs. She stumbles across a once-famous fashion designer who has gone mad and insists she parade in his latest outfits to an imaginary audience. Then she stumbles on a white slavery ring. And while she doesn't find the serial killer, she does find true love with night club impresario Robert Fleury (Maurice Chevalier). But in a late film twist, perhaps she has found the killer after all and doesn't know it? At first, the movie is brisk and confident, thanks to an excellent production and a strong cast. It's a pity the episodic nature grinds to a halt in act three where our heroine suspects Robert, he is arrested and brow-beaten, she becomes convinced of his innocence and it all takes FOREVER to resolve. But Déa is delightful (I'll be sure to check out her other work) and Chevalier quite charming, certainly better than I expected even if his two musical moments are nonsense shoe-horned into the story. No more than a curio but worth a look. Opened in France on December 16, 1939 (and in the US on February 2, 1941). 

POETRY OF NATURE: A PETE SMITH SPECIALTY * -- A Pete Smith Specialty are a series of shorts, often attempting humor or educational in nature. This one combines the worst of both tendencies in a short looking at the wildlife around Californias' redwoods, with Smith providing the "hilarious" commentary to the banal actions of woodland creatures. Quite tiresome. Opened June 17, 1939. 


POPEYE THE SAILOR: 

CUSTOMERS WANTED ** 1/2 (Opened January 27, 1939)
LEAVE WELL ENOUGH ALONE * 1/2 (Opened April 28, 1939) 
GHOSKS IS THE BUNK * (Opened June 14, 1939) 
HELLO HOW AM I * (Opened July 14, 1939) 
NEVER SOCK A BABY * (Opened November 3, 1939)

In the seven minute short Customers Wanted, billed as "A Max Fleischer Cartoon," Popeye and Bluto are carnival barkers for competing penny arcades hoping to woo an amusement/boardwalk crowd. Jack Mercer voices Popeye and Bluto marks the voice debut of Pinto Colvig in the part, reportedly. (Both per IMDB.) The one customer they lure in is Wimpy, though he isn't much of one. True to form, Wimpy will gladly watch bits of various shorts they play for him on their machines but cannot pay. He will, of course, be happy to pay you Tuesday for a penny today. First Bluto pulls Wimpy in to see what's on tap, showing Wimpy a short within a short, this one where Bluto is wowing Olive Oyl with his moving skills. Popeye then drags Wimpy into HIS arcade to see a continuation of the same short, with Popeye proving even more formidable in the moving department. Then Wimpy is yanked into Bluto's parlour to watch Bluto triumph in a baseball short and then back to Popeye's where he plays both pitcher and catcher while outfoxing Bluto the batter. Sick of this back and forth, the two eternal enemies start beating each other black and blue...with Wimpy heading outside and raking in the coins as he convinces a swarm of customers to dig into their pockets so as not to miss the fight of the century. A lot is going on here, including a clever recycling of old shorts. I also liked how the shorts were brought to flickering life on the screen as we watched, starting with individual cards painted with scenes (like Popeye pitching) until the whirling machines sped up and the cards blurred into seamless action. It's also quite meta, thanks to Popeye and Bluto screening shorts that star themselves, with Wimpy getting the upper hand at the finale. Plus, Mercer is in fine form, dishing out his usual droll asides. For me, this is about as good as the one-note Popeye shorts get.  

The others from 1939 are far less engaging. Leave Well Enough Alone at least has an interesting plot. Popeye feels sorry for the pets caged up in Olive Oyl's store and pays $500 (!!!) to free them all. "Sold to an American!" he announces when the sale goes through. But the pets create havoc in the real world. When the puppies are being rounded by a dog catcher, Popeye pays up to rescue them again and herds the little mutts and other creatures back into the store. The puppies do look adorable when sitting in the window of the store. But I'll never understand why the dog catcher wasn't played by Bluto. 

Ghosks Is The Bunk may be more coherent but it's still pretty tiresome. Olive Oyl tells a ghost story to Bluto and Popeye and she and Bluto laugh when the sailor man cowers under the couch. To make matters worse, Bluto heads to a deserted hotel and rigs it up to seem haunted, hoping to REALLY scare Popeye and even Olive Oyl. It works well until Olive gets splattered by invisible paint, Bluto becomes convinced she's a real ghost and runs for the hills. 

Hello How Am I should be trippier, with its random, rather metaphysical action. I can't even really describe it (Olive Oyl makes dinner; Wimpy disappears and Popeye is shadowed by himself. Plus Bluto lurks around in disguise. Did the writers take acid? It does result in one good line. Popeye sees his doppelganger and wonders, "If I'm not me, who am I?" 


Finally, there's the parental advice of Never Sock A Baby. (If you have to be told that, please don't be a parent.) Is corporal punishment a good idea? Popeye is confronted with a crawling baby that needs disciplining, with an angel and devil arguing for no supper or a good spanking when the baby won't behave. While they're debating, the baby runs away, avoiding hair-raising hazards as Popeye rushes to the rescue. Each Popeye short usually offers one muttered aside worth hearing and this time it's Popeye growling, "Don't drown till I get there" as he rushes after the little tyke. Weirdly it was all a dream and Popeye admonishes the parents in the audience, "If you spank kids, I betcha your conscience will get ya!"


PRIDE OF THE BLUE GRASS  ** -- An "inspiring" horse racing B movie overseen by Bryan Foy, the pride of the B movies at Warner Bros. (Foy's official nickname was "Keeper Of The B's.") In typical B movie fashion, this just over 60 minute flick races through its storyline: a father and son are on hard times and have all their hopes invested in a new colt. A lightning strike kills the father and leaves the young man Danny (James McCallion) on his own. He's pals with Midge (Edith Fellows), the daughter of a wealthy horse breeder. Despite the two being the same age and clearly fond of each other, I guess naming her "Midge" makes clear this won't be a romance. Danny's dad was a disgraced jockey/trainer, though interestingly we never learn WHY he was disgraced. Midge's ailing but not mean dad (Granville Bates) wants nothing to do with Danny. The boy gives Midge his prized colt Gantry The Great and goes off to seek his fortune. But his late father's shame dogs the lad and he can't succeed anywhere. He's about to be thrown into correctional school but Midge rescues him and convinces her dad to give him a job in the stables. Now Gantry is a fine, fiery horse but no one can tame him...no one but Danny of course. Despite setbacks, major success ensues...until Gantry is blinded by a vicious trainer who knocks down Danny and then is attacked by the horse. Well, surely that's it for Gantry who is scheduled to be put down...until Danny steals him away in a backfield and trains the horse to be a jumper. 
Though blind and never having run in any steeplechase race before, Gantry is somehow entered in the Grand National in Europe, with the fate of the horse farm and all their dreams hanging in the balance. I wonder what will happen?  Gantry The Great aka Elmer Gantry was indeed blind and plays himself. However, the blindness is about where fact ends and fiction begins. Gantry did exhibitions at state fairs and the like but certainly never competed in a horse race and certainly never at the Grand National. I like that we never learned exactly what Danny's dad did (was he wrongly accused or did he make a mistake of hubris or in fact was he guilty of some ethical lapse?). It's a B movie for sure with stock footage and voice-over filling in gaps. Heck, in two scenes where they flash headlines on the screens, I noticed they only wrote the first paragraph of the supposed news story about Gantry; read the second graph and you realize it's text from some entirely different article they never bothered to blur out or rewrite. Now that's penny pinching! I also liked that the two kids didn't have some romance tossed into the mix. Fellows is fine as a slightly spoiled daddy's girl who knows how to get her way. Bates is fine as her dad. Sam McDaniel somehow maintains his dignity as a compatriot to Danny, despite "hilarious" mangling of big words and some banal comic moments. True, he's a stand-in for the horse during training but his insight allows them to figure out how to help Gantry compete and McDaniel gets the final dignified line of the movie. I'm sure he had many worse roles to play (indeed, he appeared in 11 blink and you miss 'em roles in 1939 and this was the only credited one and amounts to the third lead.) Finally, I thought McCallion was very appealing as Danny and wondered about his career. Turns out he was a journeyman but a good one. McCallion played on Broadway and then broke into radio, doing regular voice-overs on Gangbusters, a true crime radio show that enacted headline grabbing stories and ended with descriptions of criminals on the loose, encouraging viewers to look out for and turn them in, a la America's Most Wanted. Then he got regular work in the movies and especially TV, notably as an ex-jockey in the series National Velvet, which ran for 58 episodes. A solid actor. Opened October 7, 1939.

PRIVATE DETECTIVE * 1/2 --  In August of 1939, actor Jane Wyman starred in the last of nine movies starring Torchy Blaine, a fast-talking reporter who ran circles around her detective boyfriend and the rest of the police force while solving crimes. A few months later she launched a new would-be series about a fast-talking female detective who ran circles around her long-suffering detective boyfriend and the rest of the police force while solving crimes. At less than one hour in running time, this is pure B movie fare and doesn't rise to even the heights of the so-so Torchy series, which had one or two better than average episodes. Still, Wyman is appealing (only later would she become a bore), it's relatively painless and I was diverted a little just by trying to figure out the mystery. Not who dunnit, but the movie's convoluted attempt to offer up twists and turns that made no sense to me whatsoever.  Since every description of the movie I found online has substantial errors, I'll recount the plot, though it's hardly worth the bother. It begins in court, with our heroine Jinx prepared to testify in a custody battle between a husband and his ex-wife. We know she's the one to root for because the wife weeps tragically and Jinx screws up her face in distaste over the behavior of the husband's attorney. Quite why she knows not to trust the guy isn't clear, but she doesn't. The battle is over custody of their son, a child who has been willed a massive estate by the kid's grandfather. Now suddenly showing paternal interest, the husband is pulling every trick to paint his ex-wife as a floozy and drunk and slattern who practically has sex with men in front of her little boy. (This is the accusation that sets her weeping.) Jinx won't have it! She wants to quite the case and refuse to testify but before she can the husband and wife have a late night meeting, someone kills him with a gun and the wife is seen fleeing the scene by a nosy neighbor. Who killed him? The wife? Her fiancee? The sleazy lawyer? Or perhaps the thuggish chauffeur who overhears the husband saying he'll get rid of the dumb oaf now that he knows the bum is an ex-con and in violation of parole. The husband always hated the chauffeur and wanted to fire him but the brute knows too much. Don't pity the chauffeur: he gets angry when confronted over the fact that he's three sheets to the wind when getting set to drive the little boy out of the city to a secret hideaway. Sadly, the movie is just getting started and I kept losing the ins and outs of a plot that just makes no sense. Jinx overhears where the wife is hiding out...but instead of getting the jump on her detective boyfriend she waits to follow him there. Late in the film, we realize Jinx has typed a note explaining why the lawyer is the murderer...even casually predicting the impossible to predict bit of evidence she's about to discover in his office files. When confronted by the villain while ransacking the office, Jinx is on the phone to her boyfriend saying where she is and explaining all to him...and instead of shouting out "Help, he's pulled a gun!" she quietly hangs up without even being asked to do so. While Jinx spends the whole movie crawling out on to ledges and dodging bad guys and out-thinking everyone, she spends the finale woozy and out of the way while the men bash the hell out of each other in an elaborate fist fight. In an interesting touch, the detective and his sidekick are seen immediately after the fight with bruised and swollen faces, a rare instance of classic Hollywood showing actual physical damage from being punched repeatedly in the face. (The sidekick should know: he was played by former boxing champ Maxie Rosenbloom, the Jewish champ who played lots of lovable oafs in the movies and TV, opened one of if not the first comedy club with Slapsy Maxie's and had a good supporting role in the classic live tv movie "Requiem For A Heavyweight.") On the downside, Jinx is a little overwhelmed by the attempt on her life and insists with a smile she wants to give up detecting and get married. Hollywood's idea of a happy ending. Opened December 9, 1939.

Q PLANES *** -- Jaunty doesn’t even begin to describe this interesting British film that’s paced like The Front Page, which is to say fast fast fast. It’s just a few months before WW II would break out and everyone knew it was coming. The bad guys aren’t identified but are probably Germans. British test planes are disappearing with top secret equipment and espionage agent Ralph Richardson is the only one who realizes it’s not just a series of “accidents.” But this is as much a breezy comedy as it is a spy story. Richardson is eccentric and unflappable and dapper (and reportedly an inspiration for Steed in the TV series The Avengers). His sister is a newspaper reporter who keeps scooping him. He also has a girlfriend that Richardson continually makes plans with and then cancels at the last minute. Then there’s Laurence Olivier as a test pilot. Like everyone else, he speaks in rapid fire patter that’s hilariously vivid. If Olivier is exchanging insults with the head of the plane manufacturer, you know it’s the sort of movie where they yell at each other but deep down, by George, they really like each other. Comic, serious, silly, well-acted if not terribly inventive plot-wise. (For instance, the bad guys have a secret ray to disable planes that looks like something out of Buck Rogers and is probably more important and useful than anything they could discover in their spying.) Fresh and fun. Opened June 20, 1939. 

RADIO HAMS * 1/2  A short dubbed "A Pete Smith Specialty." That usually meant some light comic, human interest piece. But in this case it was a lightly fictionalized look at the world of ham radio operators. The set-up is the mother of the house telling someone to call the youngest boy of the family to dinner. The first to go finds the kid entranced by his short wave radio set, on which he can hear dispatches from around the world. This leads to a series of reenactments, showing dangerous emergencies (like a sick man or a downed plane) and how a network of amateur (aka "ham") radio operators can play a crucial role. One by one, members of the family go in search of the boy to bring him to dinner until they're all crowded into his room, listening to the radio. The depictions of actual crises engender some dramatic tension even if that contrasts with the dumb gag that bookends the short. Still, it's easy to imagine kids remembering this short more than the feature film and clamoring for their own short wave radio set as soon as they left the theater. Released May 20, 1939. 

THE RAINS CAME ** 1/2 -- A prestige pic from FOX directed by Clarence Brown and starring Myrna Loy (both on loan from MGM) and George Brent (on loan from Warner Bros). No wonder actors resented feeling like studio property, being loaned out like so many props! It's based on a novel by Louis Bromfield, a perennial best-seller who won the Pulitzer Prize very early in his career and is now remembered more for his pioneering work on organic farming than his fiction. The quiet life of the British colonials in the Indian region of Ranchipur is upended when the beautiful and deeply unhappy Myrna Loy comes to town with her belligerent, aging husband in tow (he's there to buy some stallions from the local nobility). Loy is the former lover of a dissolute painter (Brent). They spar playfully and with genuine regret over what might have been, but there's no real spark. She immediately sets her sights on the noble, high caste and handsome Dr. Safti (played in brown face by Tyrone Power). Meanwhile, Brent is fending off the very persistent come-ons of a neighbor's beautiful 18 year old daughter (Brenda Joyce). For 45 minutes, the tone of the movie is sexually frank and adult and quite watchable. Then, rather shockingly if you don't know the plot, a massive earthquake strikes, the local dam collapses, water floods in and the resulting devastation is truly stunning. Then cholera breaks out! The film beat The Wizard Of Oz in the newly created Oscar category of Special Effects (which combined both visual and sound in one award). And rightly so. The miniature work remains pretty jaw-dropping and the human toll is very real. Unlike most "disaster" movies, The Rains Came doesn't climax with the tragedy or focus merely on who survives. Half the film is a pretty engaging drama and the rest of the movie deals with the practical and real after effects of the disaster. It's very admirable in its tone and seriousness. Of course, one could dismiss the movie for having Tyrone Power stiffly playing a young Indian doctor (fated to rule his nation, by the way). Not to mention the great but diminutive Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya as the Maharani or numerous minor roles that are caricatured or an emotional climax where we're told Safti must pull himself together because he's damn near white! Yes, it's all here. But what's also here is a very real romance between Loy and her Indian object of desire. In this case, it's the white woman burning with desire...and it's not for his exoticism but the genuine moral poise, intelligence and decency of this man. She lusts after him but then she admires and truly falls in love with him and that love saves her soul, redeems her. An interracial romance where the dark-skinned person represents civilization and morality while the light skinned creature is fallen but can be saved? That's pretty fascinating in my book and makes this movie worth watching. It's also very well-acted, with the obvious exception of Power, who happily isn't asked to do much more than look handsome and quietly heroic. Brent is very good as the washed-up painter while Loy has subtle fun playing against her wholesome image as the perfect wife. A lesser actress might have hammed it up but Loy makes this woman very real. Nigel Bruce has a hammier time as her thoroughly unpleasant husband. As the Lolita-like girl stalking Brent, Joyce shows real promise. (She later played Jane to two Tarzans but never got the career she perhaps deserved.) The racial elements not to mention the Hayes Code need for a fallen woman to suffer and die (with a shining, saved look in her eye) keeps this from being good. But from the special effects to the notably positive portrayal of an interracial romance to the solid acting, there's a lot to like here. Opened September 15, 1939.

THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X * -- B movie notable because it features Humphrey Bogart in a dreadful secondary role (Bogie reportedly said it was the worst of his career) and of course because it came out in 1939. The rather laborious tale barely makes it to 60 minutes but seems to take forever in spinning out its tiresome story. In short, a junior reporter and a young doctor stumble across the fantastic experiments of a scientist, experiments that have successfully brought people back to life! Of course, keeping them alive proves trickier but the scientist is working feverishly to create artificial blood...never mind that creating artificial blood alone would make your name forever. Until he succeeds, Bogie -- as the clammy, pale-faced, back from the dead child-murdering Doctor X -- will just have to kill and kill again to keep up a fresh supply of blood. We only discover this about two reels in. For most of the time we follow bumbling reporter Wayne Morris who sets up to interview famed actress Angela Merrova (the wonderfully named Lya Lys), then finds her dead body, then finds her alive again after she too is revived by the mad scientist. That leads him and his pal (Dennis Morgan) to the real heart of the mystery. Enter Bogie, who makes his entrance sporting a dash of white in his hair a la the Bride Of Frankenstein, clutching a bunny rabbit in his hands a la Blofeld and whispering out his lines in the best Peter Lorre manner. Ten years into his career, Bogie must have been aghast to be tackling such material, but such was the life of a contract player. Indeed, the film is filled with decent actors, from Morris (who looks like an overgrown kid but would have one final hurrah in Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" before dying unexpectedly) to Morgan (who has a strong screen presence and with a little luck might have had a better career) to of course poor ole Bogie. It's worth recording on TCM just skip to the 22 or so minute mark and watch Bogie's hilariously camp entrance. Opened December 2, 1939. 

ROUGH RIDERS ROUND-UP * -- In this forgettable Roy Rogers programer, it's 1900 and he and his pals are Rough Riders decommissioned and looking for work after fighting in Cuba is over. When Teddy Roosevelt is badmouthed by some braggart, Roy punches the fellow out and they all decide it might be best to head to the Arizona territory and work as border patrol. Bad guys are rustling cattle and heading over to Mexico to hide out. Chasing after them might start a war between the two nations, so Roy and the boys are frustrated. In the only interesting element of the film, the US official is a bit of an oaf while the Mexican official is smart and looks the other way when the Rough Riders dash across the border to catch the criminals. No harm, no foul. It also includes a runaway girl Roy fancies, a bar brawl and one absurd scene where he and his pals are locked up and lo and behold, there's a guitar sitting in the corner so Roy can pick it up and belt out a song. When he's not singing, Roy is as stiff as always, so I wish he'd carried the guitar around for the entire film. It's directed by Joseph Kane, who churned out Westerns starring Roy, Gene Autry and John Wayne at Republic for more than 20 years. And maybe even some of them are good. Rough Riders Round-Up (I see no apostrophe on the poster so I'm not using one here) is one of nine films Kane directed that came out in 1939.  Opened March 13, 1939. 

THE ROYAL RODEO (live action short) no stars -- In this roughly 15 minute short starring Scotty Beckett and John Payne, the very young king of a European country is cowboy crazy and invites a Wild West show to give a command performance -- just in time for the king of the cowboys to foil a military coup. Yeehaw! "Our Gang" star Beckett plays the boy king and Payne of "Miracle On 34th Street" plays the cowboy. We see the kid struggling to pay attention to his royal duties and rushing to a balcony when he hears the parade of entertainers marching down main street. The best scene follows: while the soundtrack makes it seem as if the entire citizenry has turned out to give the troupe a massive welcome, onscreen we see a handful of villagers seemingly outnumbered by the cowboys and "Indians" on horseback. In woeful material like this, you take your pleasure where you can. In short order the boy insists on a full show and Payne gladly agrees. The cowboys sing lustily, the "Indians" pretend to rob a stagecoach and are thwarted and the bearded military head of the country seethes at this dreadful waste of time. Tipped off by the king's lovely assistant, Payne slips away just in time to overhear the general plotting to overthrow the government the next morning and seize power. Instead of sneaking away to protect the king and foil the plot, Payne strolls in and tells the evil-doers he's heard everything. And then? He apparently goes to sleep and tells no one. Do the plotters lock him up so their plan won't be stopped? No, they too apparently go to bed---and then proceed with their coup. The mind boggles that no one on set spoke up to point out that none of this makes any sense, even for a foolish little short. Anyway, the coup proceeds, the boy is snatched up and the bad guys race to the border since apparently if they can cross it everyone will just accept their plan has worked. The cowboys race in on horseback and -- since they seem to be the only ones with guns -- they save the day. We cut back to the castle where the bad guys are sentenced to die and the cowboys break into song extolling the American form of government ("The Good Ole American Way"). Maybe the little king agrees: at the very least he ends the film tossing away his kingly robe and revealing he's got his own cowboy duds and a pair of six-shooters of his own. Yeehaw! This mess was directed by George Amy, who had an excellent run as a film editor at Warner Bros. He worked on many of the films of directors Michael Curtiz and Howard Hawks, winning the Oscar for "Air Force" in 1943. You wouldn't know it from watching this. Beckett had a fair amount of success as a child actor but here he looks completely at sea. When Payne sits down to sing him a song about what it takes to be a real cowboy ("That's The Way To Be A Buckaroo"), Beckett turns this way and that, smiling broadly but utterly clueless at what he should be looking at or reacting to: most of the time, he seems to be staring witlessly into space. If you told me this was his first day on a film set, I'd believe you. The entire thing looks like an excuse to show off Technicolor but no dice there either: some of the costumes sure "pop" but they're garish and off-putting, making you long for the days of black and white. (November 25, 1939.)

SEA SCOUTS no stars -- An eight minute Disney short from 1939 starring Donald Duck, Huey, Dewey and Louie (and a shark). True, I'm no fan of Donald Duck; though his spluttering behavior amuses some he seems one of the least interesting Disney characters -- and there is some serious competition for that designation, starting with Mickey Mouse in most everything after he became the Disney spokes-mouse. Here Donald is trying to captain a sailing vessel with the willing but incompetent assistance of H, D & L. Hilarity ensues, though of course it does not. The humor is tepid and the gags tiresome. Dick Lundy made his uncredited leap to the director's chair with this cartoon after working as animator on numerous projects including Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. He did dozens of shorts over the next 20 years and I trust he got better. Opened June 30, 1939.

SECRET SERVICE OF THE AIR * ½ 
CODE OF THE SECRET SERVICE
SMASHING THE MONEY RING *  

B movie series starring Ronald Reagan as Brass Bancroft, a pilot who is recruited by the Secret Service to smash an illegal alien smuggling ring in the first of four adventures. There’s one doozy of a moment in this first film. In the opening scene, a nervous pilot is smuggling people into the US; he believes the plane is being tracked, panics and dumps his load. The pilot pulls a lever,  a trap door in the bottom of the plane opens up and all the passengers go tumbling to their death, screaming as they fall thousands of feet to the ground. It's shocking and effective and so powerful, I'm giving the entire film an extra half a star for that moment alone. You take the rest of the film seriously after a grim, brutal slaughter like that. But that’s about it for surprises. Reagan is competent here, pretending to be a down on his luck pilot, winning the trust of the bad guys and bringing them to justice. A mild twist or two towards the finale keeps it from being too predictable. But the best part of the movie is his name: Brass Bancroft! Still it moves along and frankly, most of the other actors are so stiff, Reagan looks like a movie star in comparison.  Opened March 4, 1939. 

The series began for two reasons. After countless films at Warner Bros. making bad guys the most popular characters around, the studio was pressured to make some films showing law enforcement in a good light. Plus they wanted to see if Reagan might have the makings of a star. Hence, the Brass Bancroft series. Secret Service of the Air opened in March, followed by Code of the Secret Service in May of 1939, Smashing The Money Ring in October and Murder In The Air in May of 1940, after which the series ended and everyone heaved a sigh of relief. Code is considered by Reagan the worst movie he ever made, though damned if I can tell the difference between the three flicks in the series that I've seen. Code is set south of the border and featured counterfeiters along with some especially incompetent and stereotyped Mexican lawmen. Smashing features the relatively novel idea of a counterfeiting ring inside a prison. It has one decent moment where a daughter visits her bad-guy-gone-good father in prison (Margot Stevenson and Charles D. Brown). Brown brings effortless empathy and decency to his moment, the score suddenly kicks in with a little flourish and their 90 seconds of heartfelt discussion is shot and handled with care, right down to the blocking as he leaves and she hurries over for one last glimpse through the bars. You just know he's going to be killed soon, which is exactly what they were aiming for. Anyway, Eddie Foy Jr. is along as Brass's comic relief sidekick and the most painful moments of each film involve his mugging. Nonetheless, Reagan is alright amidst all this nonsense, which is no small achievement. Two notes about Code of the Secret Service. Reagan mocked it all his life and the film was so bad that producer Bryan Foy (the head of WB's B unit) reportedly tried to get it shelved for good. Maybe, though that sounds pretty apocryphal, as does an anecdote on the TCM website where a ticket taker at the time is said to have chided Reagan, "You should be ashamed of yourself." Even more remarkably, Secret Service agent Jerry Parr saw the film repeatedly as a child and was inspired to pursue his career because of it. Later, he would be on the detail protecting President Reagan and notably acted bravely during the 1981 assassination attempt. This is widely reported so I guess it's true, though one has to wonder: how could a kid see Code Of The Secret Service over and over again? It was second on the bill and I doubt it lasted more than a week. Still, it's a good story as is this one: Warner Bros wouldn't shelve the turkey Code Of The Secret Service entirely but it did agree to NOT open the film in LA. 

SEEING RED (comedy short) * -- I'm no Red Skelton fan, but I doubt even his champions find much to cheer in this dire comedy short. Skelton is fired by his boss and puts a hex on the man. When the boss takes his wife out to a nightclub for dinner and dancing, the man starts to believe the curse is working. Red Skelton haunts him everywhere: Skelton is the cab driver, the doorman, the coat check person, the maitre d', the waiter, the entertainment and on and on and on.  And on. It's a one joke skit that repeats said joke for 19 min. Worse, the people don't do anything funny; the only humor is supposed to derive from the fact that Skelton plays them all. The kicker at the end is Skelton in drag playing the man's wife. Those who appreciate him might like seeing some very mild clowning he works in, such as a bit at work where he mimes a woman getting ready for a night out or when the waiter demonstrates how one should eat corn on the cob. As always with Skelton, the appeal escapes me. Opened August 26, 1939.

SERGEANT MADDEN ** --Well it certainly doesn't feel like a Josef Von Sternberg film. This drama is hard-bitten but not much of a forerunner to film noir, as some suggest. Nonetheless, Sergeant Madden is a bleak, odd, interesting little drama. Wallace Beery plays a New York City cop who bleeds blue and loves the force more than anything. It's a subdued Beery on display. Von Sternberg reportedly wouldn't stand for Beery's usual maudlin tics -- MGM was furious about the Teutonic bully messing with their meal ticket (Beery was a hugely popular actor at the time) but the end result speaks for itself: Beery is quite affecting. It's not worth going into but they have a son of their own, an adopted son (the orphaned child of a fallen comrade) and a little Irish girl who practically joins their family as well. The wife dies, the kids grow up and one of them becomes...well, not a bad apple, but a disappointment. In most any other film, it would have been the orphaned lad who wasn't "really" their son that went wrong, even though they raised him. Interestingly, the kid who goes wrong is Dennis Madden, played as an adult by the snarling, hard-nosed Alan Curtis. The adopted son grows up to be a nice, soft-spoken fella (Tom Brown) so naturally the Irish lass gravitates to the bad boy. He's not really bad (not yet), just eager to make a name for himself as a cop and ready to cut corners. In the movie's best moment, we see Dennis as a little boy, sitting on his dad's knee and swinging his leg in boredom as Beery drones on and on about good cops and bad cops and how a decent, honest policeman should behave. That cuts to the adult Dennis sitting in police school, swinging his leg in boredom as an instructor talks about proper behavior on the force and how the job should be done. Dennis isn't crooked or ready to plant evidence. But the first day on his beat, Dennis pushes a smart-mouthed kid onto the ground and makes enemies out of most everyone. He's a great marksman (the best in his class) but he sure doesn't waste time with niceties. Dennis wants to get ahead and he takes his shot -- literally -- by gunning down a kid who stole a $24 piece of fur from a store and is running away, unarmed. Why? To get a gangster friend of the kid to make a move on him in revenge. Then Dennis can bust the guy and really move up the ranks. Other cops back at the station are aghast at this cold-blooded killing but Dennis has no patience for their guff. Killing the kid just saved the city money, he says. Do they know how much it costs a year to put a kid in juvie? We saw Dennis getting in fights as a little kid, but he didn't seem a bad seed. So what the heck happened? A lesser movie would have made him the orphan -- genes will out. But this is Sergeant Madden's own flesh and blood. A bad movie would have shown Beery as a foot pad, sort of a loser who never got far in the force or even a little crooked on the side. Not this movie. True, he was never Police Commissioner, but he had a nice home and loved his job and did at least move up the ranks a little. The film never takes the easy way out and is more believable than one might expect, from Beery's willingness to turn in his own son but reluctant to pull the trigger on him, even as he sees Dennis shoot another cop. It's pretty tough, right down to the "suicide by cop" finale. The cinematographer is John F. Seitz (Double Indemnity, et al) but I can't say I spotted much of interest here. And while Cedric Gibbons is credited as the set designer, I curse the person responsible for Madden's home. When we jump forward in time to the present and the mother has died, suddenly there's a "divider" between the living room and dining room. It's essentially some hanging tassels, but the whole affair is so ugly and elaborate it looks more like a spider web -- the tassels rise up as you get to the center of the room, hanging half way down on the side. So for the rest of the movie, actors moving from one space to another have to dodge tassels and slip through the middle (Beery sort of swaps them aside when he has to run the gauntlet) while everything taking place on the far side of the camera is seen lurking behind this ungodly eyesore. Dennis is a bad apple but that curtain is the real crime here. Opened March 24, 1939. 
 

A SMALL TOWN IDOL no stars A 1921 Mack Sennett comedy, the film A Small Town Idol is best remembered for giving an early glimpse of Ramon Navarro as a dancer. It ran 70 minutes long, cost $350,000 and for some reason took a year to make. Maybe that expense is one reason it was completely repurposed many years later. The film was cut down to this 19 minute short, slathered in sound effects and music and given a jokey narration. It undercuts everything that takes place onscreen, apologizes for being a silent film and plays up the appearance of Navarro as if he were the star. The plot is unimportant since the attitude of this travesty is condescending and cruel. I haven't the foggiest idea if the original is any good, but that's no excuse. Opened February 11, 1939, which is unintentionally interesting, since it opened almost 18 years to the day after the original film. (Original film opened February 13, 1921.)  Opened February 11, 1939.  

SMASHING THE MONEY RING * -- The third of four films in the Brass Bancroft series, starring Ronald Reagan. See Secret Service Of The Air. Opened October 21, 1939. 

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN *** -- Strong third entry in the Frankenstein series, this is long on atmosphere and solid actors, albeit short on action. Overall, however, for someone like myself who is not a fan of horror, it's quite a happy surprise. In an era where movies were churned out by the hour, the classic blockbuster Frankenstein in 1931 didn’t spawn a sequel until 1935. Bride of Frankenstein of course is the James Whale classic that added dollops of humor to the mix and in some lights is even better than the original. Both were smash hits but the studio still waited another four years before Son Of Frankenstein. That’s an eternity for those days. (In comparison, Son Of Kong came out six MONTHS after the original.) According to the TCM introduction, Universal was purchased by a company that thought horror films were low rent and tawdry so they produced no movies in the genre that made Universal a success. That didn’t work out so well and the company was sold again, this time to people who said, Hey, let’s film some of those cheap and tawdry movies that make tons of money. Hence Son Of Frankenstein which apparently was cheap to make (a reported $250,000). All of the budget was apparently spent on the sets. Those sets are what I remember most vividly about this relatively quiet drama. Basil Rathbone and his wife have arrived at his father’s estate for the first time in the young man’s life. He’s ready to claim his inheritance but the townspeople are cold and unforgiving. The last thing they want is another Frankenstein in their midst, creating monsters. The local policeman is suspicious because a number of people have died under mysterious circumstances, all of them linked to Igor’s trial where the servant was found guilty, hanged and pronounced dead – only to be still alive and walk away. What with Rathbone as Frankenstein, Boris Karloff as the Monster and Bela Lugosi as Igor, this is a movie packed with strong actors. And those sets! Frankenstein’s mansion is a Germanic nightmare, filled with sloping walls and dramatic stairways and secret passages. There’s also a dilapidated laboratory the young Rathbone has fixed up. Add in a thunderstorm and before you know it the Monster is roaming the countryside again. Other than a lot of talk and some angry mutterings from the villagers, it’s practically over before it begins. But the sense of foreboding is strong and some quirky humor left over from Bride can still be found, especially in the scenes with Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh. As in the Mel Brooks parody, he has one wooden arm and shifts it into place to salute, shake hands and yes even stabs darts into it for easy access when playing a game with a frantic, worried Rathbone. Brooks didn’t have to change a beat to get his laughs because Atwill was getting them already, although they came with an uneasy undercurrent that works well here. Really, a good looking, trim B movie with an excellent cast making the most of a familiar story. Opened January 13, 1939.

SORORITY HOUSE * 1/2 -- Pure B movie programmer, but just enough of a spark at the beginning to fool you into thinking it might surprise rather than disappoint. Ultimately, it disappoints. Director John Farrow and the screenplay by a newish Dalton Trumbo get things off to a sprightly start. In about three minutes we meet our heroine Anne Shirley, the daughter of a simple but smart grocer. She's too savvy to overpay for a farmer's chickens (he's loaded them up with buckshot to get a higher price). Her mom is dead, dad loves her, she yearns for college but of course that's impossible. A grocery store chain is trying to buy dad out but instead he's at the bank borrowing $1000, lies to his daughter and says he's set it aside over all these years and off to college she goes! All in less than five minutes, I'm sure, though it zipped by before I could pull out a stopwatch. Anne Shirley shot to fame playing Anne Shirley of "Anne Of Green Gables, " taking method acting to the extreme by adopting the name of that character for her own. (Take that, Brando.) Like that plucky heroine, Shirley can exude decency and kindness without effort and you just know she's going to win over those snotty sorority girls. (She had just auditioned for the role of Melanie in "Gone With The Wind" and oh she would have been perfect. Olivia de Havilland made Melanie so saintly you wanted to slap her. Shirley would have been so natural and good in her sweetness that you would have taken her side rather than rolling your eyes at her. What a pity.) Shirley would retire from acting at the age of 26 in 1944, having delivered one more great film with "Murder, My Sweet.") Of course, first she has to realize there are sorority girls to woo. Anne arrives at school a wide-eyed but friendly person clueless about rushing. She is assigned to a boarding house filled with freshmen girls who are desperate to go Greek (especially the Gammas) or sophomores and older resigned to a life of insignificance. Her roommate Dotty (Barbara Read) wears glasses to signify brains and an indifference to all that sorority nonsense. She's the dry wit of the gang while their other roomie Merle (Pamela Blake) is positively desperate to join. Anne immediately catches the eye of Big Man on Campus Bill Loomis ("Bill Loomis!!" every girl feverishly repeats). Played politely by James Ellison, Bill somewhat innocently tells every sorority on campus that Anne is an heiress and sics them on her. She's bedazzled by her sudden popularity but just as sweet and kind as ever, convincing Bill she's some special gal. Meanwhile, Merle has a pushy aunt who comes to town and boorishly spoils her chances of getting into any sorority, much less the Gammas. ("The Gammas!" every girl feverishly repeats.) It's all predictable nonsense...almost. While Dotty is caustic, she and Anne are both kind and helpful to Merle's quest. Dotty does open Anne's eyes to some of the meanness of Greek life but she's no spoilsport, readily admitting she would have loved to be a pledge. Yet this is neither sad nor conflicting of her to say -- just honest. The movie isn't quite a celebration of a girl's dream to be in the big sorority and it's not a condemnation either (even though one rejected hopeful attempts suicide). It's just matter of factly realistic, in its way. The best moment is when Anne realizes the Greeks think she's wealthy and our heroine is momentarily embarrassed or uncertain of her loving father -- a tight, dramatic close-up shows her befuddlement over what to do as she lies to her dad -- Shirley captures how even the idea that her character is confused proves deeply unsettling to her. Trumbo kept himself amused by tossing in two quick monologues for the dad -- he comforts a girl who doesn't get pledged with the story of a fella who never even made it to college...but ole Abe Lincoln turned out alright. Oh, says the girl, she could never be someone as grand and important as that! "No," says pa. "But you could be the MOTHER of him." Her eyes widen in delight at such a prospect, relegating the movie to far less than one could hope, with Anne never even thinking of going to class and finding true happiness in being engaged to good ole Bill Loomis. Bill Loomis! Another speech by pa says gangs and cliques and nations pitting people against one another are a source of meanness in this world -- which is not his way of condemning the Greek system, but urging his daughter to not reject people just because they're in a sorority after all. No matter -- this speech was reportedly used as evidence by the HUAC committee in denouncing Trumbo as a no good dirty commie. That'll show HIM for defending the girls of Gamma. The Gammas! Opened May 5, 1939.

THE SPY IN BLACK ** -- The very first modest collaboration between the great Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. On the eve of World War II, they managed to tell an anti-German story by setting it in WW I, though for all intents and purposes you imagine it dealing with events soon to happen. The rather rococo story involves a young schoolteacher (Valerie Hobson) headed to the Orkney Islands. She’s given a lift to the ship that will transport her there, thanks to an elderly dowager who turns out to be a Nazi spy. The girl is choked to death (we think) and the female chauffeur takes her place. At the same time we meet submarine commander Conrad Veidt, whose sub has a lovely lounge area. His secret orders are to head to the Orkneys and meet up with the spy and follow her orders. Those come from the "fake" schoolteacher who has befriended a bitter UK serviceman that offers up secret information which will allow the submarine and others to strike a deadly blow to the British navy. Both men of course fall in love with the spy. But wait! She’s not the spy! She’s the real school teacher who was thrown off a cliff but survived anyway. They stopped her replacement and put the schoolteacher back in the girl’s place. Her fiancé also shows up to complicate things (he must be tied up, for appearances sake) though strangely she’s still giving her affections to the fake British turncoat (he’s a patriot; it’s a trap for the Nazis) AND the poor fiancé is left tied up for ages. The melodrama gets really crazy when instead of just arresting Veidt once he’s delivered the fake plans that will doom the submarine, for no good reason they allow him to hang around. He figures things out, escapes while posing as the fiancé, arranges the revolt of German prisoners on a prison ship and is then  sunk by his own submarine! The two lovers clutch each other in joy and someone presumably unties the poor fiancé by the end. The print shown on TCM was very, very dark and many scenes were hard to follow, especially night scenes. It’s all silly nonsense with not enough elan from the solid cast to make it more than mildly watchable. Opened October 7, 1939.

STAND UP AND FIGHT * 1/2 -- Made the same year as Gone With The Wind, this is a very convoluted drama that is set in 1844 and revolves around the Fugitive Slave laws forcing free states to return escaped people to their "owners" in slave states. But it's more complicated than that, with the movie addressing both fugitive slaves, slave catchers, abolitionists AND the march of progress as trains overtake stagecoaches as the main means of transportation. Not to worry: in true Hollywood fashion you can watch the movie and barely grasp all the political issues at play, much less have your ideas challenged. Nonetheless, despite its confused nature, I doubt strongly this one played in the South. I almost gave it two stars just for keeping me on my toes with its many, many plot twists. Robert Taylor stars as a down-on-his-luck slave owner. At the beginning of the film he woos the ready-to-be-wooed Yankee Florence Rice but not before announcing loudly at a party that he's broke and everything he owns is being sold off immediately. He's not the "bad" sort of slave owner because he insists on keeping the families of slaves together, even though it means he'll get less for them. Merely setting them free, of course, is out of the question. In this not-good-but-interesting movie's first of many unexpected moments, late at nite Taylor blithely suggests Rice stick around unchaperoned so they can sleep together. (It's virtually that blunt.) When she is taken aback, he mocks her for being a prude. When she upbraids him as a sad sort of example of a Southern gentlemen, he retorts that Southern women know their place. This spat means it will take quite a bit longer for their inevitable romance to bloom. So she takes off and he's desperately looking for -- ugh -- work. That sends Taylor out West where he considers employment with the railroad. Said company wants control of the lines owned by a financially struggling stagecoach company, run by the always blustering Wallace Beery. Now, hold onto your hats. The stagecoach is losing money because of the encroaching Iron Horses. Beery is using those coaches to illegally shuttle slaves to freedom in a side business that may or may not be keeping the stagecoach afloat. (I think it's just lining Beery's pockets.) HOWEVER, Beery is being betrayed by his henchmen who are secretly getting paid by abolitionists to ferry slaves to freedom but then selling the enslaved people off again to other slave owners so they can make twice the money. Taylor is asked to spy on the stagecoach but refuses since the idea is tacky for a gentleman. Then he proceeds to do precisely that. Oh, and the stagecoach is owned by that Yankee gal Rice. Taylor is thrown into jail when he fights men cheating him at poker, is "bought" by Beery, refuses to be freed by Rice and then breaks up the bad guys, fights Beery twice, saves his life and then Beery returns the favor and then they both almost die and everyone lives happily ever after. Except for the enslaved people, of course. It's all very, very confusing but somehow interesting what with about seventeen different ideas fighting for attention. I'm sure actor Everett Brown enjoyed this a lot more than Gone With The Wind. In that movie, he plays Big Sam, who is thrilled to be digging ditches for the Confederacy and tells Miss Scarlett how they're going to send those Yankees packing. Here, he's a slave who questions the white men who are betraying the abolitionists. He takes action rather than passively suffering by breaking a bottle, slitting the canvas of the stagecoach they're in and attacking the driver, thus leading a revolt of slaves who shoot and kill some of the evil slave traders before dying themselves. Sure they all seemed to die (it's unclear if any got away) but in this context, that's a happy ending. Opened January 6, 1939.

THE STORY OF VERNON AND IRENE CASTLE * 1/2 -- A dour end to the official screen duo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (they would reunite ten years later for one more film -- The Barkleys Of Broadway). The team tips their hat to an earlier dance sensation: husband and wife Vernon and Irene Castle. In the film version, Irene is a would-be actress and Vernon a two-bit comic character. They fall in love, form a dance team and gosh before you know it they're in Paris...penniless. But after some colorful hard times, they become the toast of the town. World War I interrupts and Irene has a very bad feeling about it...Vernon holds out as long as he can (he's British) but finally enlists in the air corps. He survives reconnaissance missions but dies in a tragic training accident back in the US. Irene bursts into tears but their ghostly selves dance off into the sunset. It's that kind of movie. Very few songs and a stolid, boring tone predominates, with Walter Brennan and Edna May Oliver providing some much needed snap as sidekicks. One remarkably dull passage is a seven minute (!) montage showing their massive success and how they endorsed everything from hats to candy. It goes on and on and on. Tragically, most of the dancing is uninteresting as well. They're impeccable, of course, but there's little inventiveness, except for an early bit where Astaire playfully upstages a guy doing an impromptu tap dance on the street. Their final number -- a reunion in Paris during the war -- is very nicely judged and beautifully done, a tribute to the Castle's style with some genuine emotion. According to TCM, a lot of people from RKO and even other studios came to watch their final dance number when the movie was being made; if it was the final live number in the movie, they had a great send-off. Opened March 29, 1939.

SUSANNAH OF THE MOUNTIES * 1/2 -- A typical Shirley Temple vehicle finds our heroine orphaned (again!) when Indians attack Sue and her family in Canada. She's discovered by a kindly Mountie (Randolph Scott) and the adorable tyke makes herself quite at home. Though only 11 years old, Sue develops a crush on the Mountie (who's named Monty!) and is annoyed by the presence of pretty Margaret Lockwood, the daughter of the head of the Mounties. So rising tension between the First Nation people and the white intruders provides a colorful backdrop for Temple's usual storyline of a cute kid finding her parents or creating a new family. Except...it kind of doesn't, which may explain why this flick is especially forgettable, coming hard on the heels of one of her best films -- A Little Princess. Indians of course are treated stereotypically, with the opening credits managing to insult them by saying something like, "The Indians used in this film came from the Blackfoot Reservation..." which makes them sound like a type of car or breed of horse. Yes, they had some actual Blackfoot Indians but most were left in the background. The two adult roles -- Chief Big Eagle and Wolf Pelt -- are played by non-indigenous actors, including a Russian Jew. Yet the biggest Indian character is Little Chief and he's played by Martin Good Rider, also a Blackfoot. Yes, the kid has to grunt a lot and speak in pidgin English but still it's an actual role with some complexity and warmth. (He and Temple have pretty good chemistry.) Amusingly, the two sign their own peace treaty and it consists entirely of Temple's demands, with nothing in exchange for Little Chief. So at least that's historically accurate. They also smoke a peace pipe and while Temple is presumably woozy just because she's inhaling tobacco smoke, I like to think she's getting a little stoned. Our star jumps from deeply traumatized (after all, she barely survived a massacre) to cheery quite quickly, but that sort of nonsense is to be expected. On the bright side, most of the Indians are stereotypes but essentially decent folk. An all-out war almost erupts but only because there's a traitorous Indian AND a traitorous railroad boss. Luckily, Temple is there to help the white man and the red man learn how to live together so cooler heads can prevail. Even odder is the fact that Scott and Lockwood are not paired off romantically at the end, neither seems ready to adopt Temple and her future is left quite up in the air. So put that in your pipe and smoke it. Opened June 23, 1939.

SWEEPSTAKES WINNER * -- An unpleasant little movie that grates on you more and more as it trudges along. It stars Marie Wilson, whose claim to fame is playing the ditzy title character in My Friend Irma on the radio, on TV and in film. Somehow, I've never seen her tackle that role in any medium but if she's reprising her schtick here -- as I imagine -- then it seems no great loss. Marie is a simpering fool of a girl who comes into the city with $1000 in her pocket and a determination to buy the offspring of a winning racehorse her family once owned. She isn't lovably ditzy or silly-smart a la Judy Holliday or any other variation on that theme one can make up. She's just bland and annoying. Two down on their luck gamblers stumble across this bumpkin and naturally they are determined to "help" her while fleecing the gal at every opportunity. The two bozos are stymied at every turn of course, as her natural goodness allows the gal to stumble into the right deal every time. The men are supposed to be charming ne'er do wells in the Damon Runyon vein. But they are so determined to screw her over again and again that you really start to hate them, which clearly is not the film's intent. And oh my god, just when I assumed the movie was winding up I realized it was only half way over. We had to endure an entire second act where she gets the race horse and finds the only jockey who can take it to victory, which he accomplishes by making woo-woo siren-like sounds, sending the animal into a frenzy of speed. By the end, we're all losers. The one actor of note is the jockey, played by Frankie Burke. He grew up in Brooklyn and was told so many times that he resembled Jimmy Cagney that Frankie finally hopped on a train and headed to Hollywood. He didn't get discovered or meet Cagney so back to Brooklyn he went...where Frankie was immediately discovered by a talent scout looking for kids who looked like Jimmy Cagney. Frankie appeared in the classic melodrama Angels With Dirty Faces and little else. His parts were mostly uncredited, despite popping up in about 16 films. Finally, after "Shadow of a Thin Man" in 1941 he gave up. He drifted here and there, got married, had a kid and then decided to head for the open road, becoming a hobo in the 1960s which apparently stuck until he died of lung cancer in 1983. Opened May 20, 1939.


TAIL SPIN ** -- A silly melodrama about women competing in an air race for prize money and glory. Most are hardscrabble gals risking it all for fame and fortune or more often just so they can get by, eat, pay their bills and make it to the next air race. That’s the M.O. of Alice Faye, who is so focused on competing she can’t see the great guy standing in front of her. Proving this is a woman’s film, he waits on the sidelines until she finally asks him to join her in Los Angeles -- she gets a firm sponsorship and can be the breadwinner. In fact, she doesn’t even say she loves him -- she just invites him along for the fun! Then there’s Constance Bennett, a hell of a flier, but she’s wealthy and can afford the best equipment and fastest plane; the others build their own and have to bargain for parts. Naturally, they resent her, though she’s not so bad once you get to know her. Some fun aerial and parachuting sequences are seen, but it’s mostly backdrop for the melodrama of their personal troubles. Two interesting moments: a slap fight between Faye and Bennett is very fun. Faye says Bennett is a spoiled rich girl and Bennett says it’s better than being a…and gives Faye a look that says slut. Faye SLAPS Bennett, who looks shocked and then SLAPS Faye back and then they each trade slaps again before rolling on the floor. Later when a pilot dies in a crash, his airplane-flying wife (a dreadful Nancy Kelly, also bad in Jesse James) is watched over all night long by her friends. In the early dawn she steals away, grabs a plane and dives it straight into the ground so she can join her husband in heaven. Her face is beatifically resigned as she plummets to her death. Oddly, the others actually sort of endorse her suicide by saying it was kind of beautiful. I wasn’t expecting that. So-so in general but offbeat material and flying sequences make this a little unusual. See also Women In The Wind. Opened February 19, 1939.

TELL NO TALES ** 1/2 -- Sure, I worked on my college newspaper and I've been a freelance writer for decades. But I don't idealize the glamour and excitement of newspapers: the reporter barking out "Copy!" while holding up a just-written story which some eager kid grabs and then races to the printer; the editor-in-chief with a bottle in his drawer and a cigar in his mouth; the spinning of the presses as copies of the NEXT day's headlines start piling up like a peek into the future. I've no illusions about all that; not in real life. But at the movies? Then I'm an ink-stained wretch with a smile on my face. A newspaper setting -- especially back in the glory days of the 1930s and 1940s -- starts my heart a-racing. This trim little corker starring the underrated (?) Melvyn Douglas offers a nifty shot of adrenaline in just the first five minutes. We watch Douglas as editor in chief Michael Cassidy of The Evening Guardian. In a flurry of action, he kills a story about the long-ago crimes of a local politician because the man has reformed and wants to do good, browbeats a reporter who got drunk while staking out the deathbed of a public figure ("Get back to work!" Cassidy growls, shaming and forgiving the man in a single breath) and arranges a surprise 75th birthday party for the aged copy editor Miss Mary (Zeffie Tilbury) who is the heart and soul of the whole operation. Oh and he gets a telegram from the new owner of the newspaper telling Cassidy it's all over -- they're shutting down The Evening Guardian so the man's sleazy tabloid competitor can have an open playing field for readership. What to do? Line up shots at the local bar and keep an open tab for the rest of the office, naturally. But wait! The bartender discovers they've just stumbled across a $100 bill that can be traced to kidnappers everyone wants to track down. It's a break in the biggest story of the day! A local school teacher who bravely identified the kidnappers is under police protection. But if Cassidy can smuggle the young and pretty woman Ellen Frazier  (Louise Platt) out from under the eyes of the police and then trace the journey of that $100 bill, they might just track down the criminals, save the day and use  the ensuing blockbuster story to save The Evening Guardian. By God, it might just work! What follows are a string of vignettes  as Cassidy  (and Frazier until she's kidnapped by the bad guys) follow that $100 bill. Each person who has it remembers where they got it from, $100 bills not exactly growing on trees in 1939. Cassidy stumbles into everything from a store selling expensive cigarette cases to the home of a doctor whose wife is cheating on him to the wake for a washed -up boxer turned nightclub owner (a slightly cliched but more respectful than usual glimpse of the lives of black Americans) to an impending wedding (a funny and effective bit of levity) to an underground casino and finally the bad guys themselves. It's punchy, fun and pretty light on its feet from actor turned director Leslie Fenton, making his debut here but never quite catching on despite five more films to his credit. If Platt had more screen time to play off Douglas and could have dug into his betrayal (he lies to her and risks her life in order to save his newspaper, for starters)  the story would jump up a notch. As it is, they have an easy chemistry. Platt seems to have lost interest in acting. In 1939 she starred in this and the all-time classic Stagecoach, but after a few more movies and very scattered TV work over the next decade or so, she was done. Zeffie Tilbury is a treat  as the copy editor and you can even spot how she covers up the near-blindness that barely slowed the actress down. (Tilbury would be Grandma in The Grapes of Wrath, one year later.) Douglas of course had a much lengthier, Oscar-winning career than Platt, ranging over 50 years from The Old Dark House and Captain's Courageous to 1939's Ninotchka (which I've downgraded from classic status after rewatching it),  Hud (his Oscar), I Never Sang For My Father and the capper of Being There. It's a good career if you don't look too closely. Douglas often elevated so-so material, with Tell No Tales as good an example as any. Opened May 12, 1939. 


THAT'S RIGHT -- YOU'RE WRONG! * 1/2 Bandleader Kay Kyser found his schtick with the so-called Kollege of Musical Knowledge. You needed a way to stand out in the crowded field of big band music and Kyser wasn't going to make it on music alone. (Their big hits would be novelty numbers of a sort.) Tommy Dorsey turned the spotlight on amateur musicians, much like U2 inviting a kid on stage to play a guitar during a number. Benny Goodman showed versatility by including performances of his trio and quarter alongside the full band arrangements. Think of the Rolling Stones when they pause for an acoustic bluesy set amidst all the fireworks of "Start Me Up" and "Sympathy For The Devil." Kay Kyser? He tossed in a quiz show format. His radio show became a regional hit, just like his band and got its big break with a national broadcast and a sponsor in 1938. It worked. Kyser may have been on the radio, but he embraced the goofy Kollege Koncept by donning a cap and gown, dragging audience members onto the stage and letting them compete for cash prizes. It was a big hit and ran for a decade, including a brief stint on TV. Kyser was almost manic in his enthusiasm onstage and RKO said, Let's put him in a film and see what happens. Named after one of Kyser's catch phrases -- "That's right -- you're wrong!" -- the result is dull fare enlivened by its meta premise. In the film, the head of a struggling studio hits on the red-hot band led by Kyser as their sure-fire prospect for a hit and demands an exec sign them right away. Well, Kay Kyser doesn't WANT to go all Hollywood. What would his fans think? But the band loves the idea and since the actual band is playing itself, you get to see singers like Ginny Simms and Harry Babbitt sing their songs while musician Ish Kabibble (a sad sack who can claim a certain mopey Ringo Starr-like appeal) holds his own on camera. Ok, Kay gives in, but what kind of movie can they build around a regular guy like him? The gang moves to Hollywood, rents a big mansion and everyone but Kay lets the excitement go to their heads. Ish even takes polo lessons. Two screenwriters go crazy trying to come up with a vehicle for Kay, but it's all wrong! The dependable Edward Everett Horton and Hobart Cavanaugh play the screenwriters, to delicious effect. Wherever they go, the screenwriters carry the Academy Award they won with them, plopping it on a desk or bringing it poolside or you name it. A producer decides it's hopeless and tries to get Kyser to quit by insisting none of the band members can make the movie with him. They'll be replaced by Hollywood starlets and the like. Lucille Ball pops in for a slinky cameo. Well, Kay won't do it and he reluctantly tells the two swell screenwriters he can't let down the band and they're all going home. Oh no you don't, they say! So they write a NEW script in which...and immediately retell the entire plot of the movie we just saw. How does it end, asks Kay? We don't know, they say, but we'll find out when you decide what to do next. So Kay quits the movie and heads back on the road with his band, leaving Hollywood behind for good. When his agent says Hollywood is begging them to come back, the entire band gives the agent the heave ho, insisting Hollywood just isn't for them. This movie was a big hit and led to several more film hits featuring the gang. But the only thing that works in the entire film are the scenes where Kyser and his band simply recreate what they do on the road. One central musical number is dopey, but most of them work and the studio knew it: most of the finale just dumps the storyline and lets Kyser do his stuff. But the meta nature of it doesn't stop there. In the film, singer Ginny Simms is intrigued about going solo but worries Kay will feel betrayed. No, no, no, he assures her. Take your shot with my blessing. Well, she leaves and then comes right back again. In real life, Simms and Kyser made several more films, starred in a radio comedy and almost got married...until Sims left him and went out on her own. That's showbiz! Opened November 24, 1939. 

THESE GLAMOUR GIRLS * Oh, those Kingsford College boys are all the rage! That's the starting point for this nonsense, a film in which all of the most eligible bachelorettes are desperate to get an invite to the weekend of parties taking place at Kingsford. The Kingsford men are the glamour boys, walking down New York City streets and receiving admiring glances from one and all as they slum it on the weekends. Forget Harvard, Kingsford is the creme de la creme! When one of these charming rascals (Lew Ayres) decides to hit a dance hall and drunkenly suggests the gal he's taken a shine to joins him at Kingsford, she is thrilled. He escorts her home...and doesn't even try and force his attentions on her! That counts as a gentleman in her book. So plain Jane Thomas (Lana Turner) breaks the bank to get a suitable nightgown for the weekend. Sure, she realizes her drunken Prince Charming is the heir to a Wall Street fortune, but she's not a gold digger. She just wants to enjoy a taste of the high life, if only for a weekend. Well! The other high society gals are snotty or mean or indifferent to her, Prince Charming aka Phil Griswold III already has a date and the schlub who agrees to escort her is aghast when he realizes she's from Kansas (!) and her blood is less than blue. Of course, she looks like Lana Turner so even when one of the gals snipes Lana's a dance hall girl that just means the guys line up for a turn on the floor. Everyone dines in white tie and swoops from formal to formal, in between trysts and backstabbing, that is. Phil's betrothed is actually in love with Joe (Richard Carlson) a student who -- horrors -- must work his way through college and she refuses to follow her heart. Phil of course has fallen for the plucky Jane. And another gal on the Kingsford circuit has been going to these events for years (five!) and is so old (24? 25?) she keeps staring in horror at her wrinkly face and when she can't con a student into marrying her commits suicide. Luckily, Phil's dad is disgraced on Wall Street with charges of fraud. So his fiancé is free to choose the poor fellow she actually loves instead of the newly broke Phil and he can head back to the dance hall, tickets in hand, to woo Jane all over again. Ah romance! Lew Ayres made many fine films and this isn't one of them. Still, he should have been a much bigger star. Opened August 18, 1939.

THEY ALL COME OUT ** 1/2 -- Well, that was interesting. Jacques Tourneur made his US debut as a director with this "Crime Doesn't Pay" short expanded into a feature film. It's an MGM movie but feels Warner Bros and when you learn its documentary origins, the whole thing makes sense. It begins with two actual government officials discussing the important work done in the US prisons. Homer S. Cummings is the US Attorney General and he's just fine opining on camera. Far less comfortable is James V. Bennett, the Director of the Federal Bureau Of Prisons, who we can see rubbing his hands nervously while Cummings is talking, looking for all the world like a schoolboy hoping he won't be called on. Sadly, he is, but Bennett blurts out his spiel on reform and the camera soon moves on and Bennett and we can exhale with relief. (Cummings is good enough to return at the end to address the camera and tell us again how it's important to help criminals reform because...they all come out.) The film proper includes a gang of bank robbers. Rita Johnson is Kitty, the dame who cases the joints and Bernard Nedell is the tough as nails ringleader Reno Madigan. They're doing alright but they need a new driver. In walks Tom Neal as Joe Cameron. He can't get a break since a bum right arm keeps him from most work and a minor rap means he's a drifter. Harassed by cops and growing more desperate by the day, Joe is more than ready to stop being a sucker and see if crime might pay after all. Thrown in for color is Edward Gargan as a big lug who I guess would be muscle if they ever needed muscle. And John Gallaudet is the final member of the gang, a guy who has no defining trait until halfway through the movie he suddenly lunges at Kitty, ready to slice her open for being a double crossing dame just like every other dame in the world. Reno slaps him down and no one seems too perturbed by the fact that he's a lunatic who believes women are persecuting him. Tourneur's skills are on full display, turning a modest budget and minor cast into solid entertainment. The movie is brisk, no-nonsense and never overplays its hand. Johnson is hard-edged but not so hard-edged that you can't buy her softening up later on. And Tom Neal is similarly appealing, making the case that this guy is hard enough to go bad. He's not seduced by the criminal world; this guy walks right in with his arms wide open. But what the hell. You may not approve of his choices but, given the tough times, you can see why he made them. Well, it's ultimately just a minor, familiar story, yet the movie's left turn made it interesting to me. The entire gang is captured and the criminal justice system springs into action. In a fascinating scene, a board of men look at each prisoner from every angle (their upbringing, education, skills, mental health and so on) and propose the best way of helping them. Only Reno is seen as an unlikely candidate for reform. Everyone else is funneled into a setting that might actually benefit them. Oh it's do-gooder in the extreme but the mere idea that society could see criminals as human beings that the system had failed rather than animals to be locked up is refreshing. The heart of the film is the growing relationship between Kitty and Joe. From their first banter to their final declaration of love, it's played at a very realistic, believable level. It's hard to separate the performers from their tragic real life stories. Johnson would go on to some very good films, like Here Comes Mr. Jordan, My Friend Flicka and the 1947 noir They Won't Believe Me. But it all but ended in 1948 when a hair dryer collapsed on her, leading to partial paralysis and brain surgery. She had trouble walking for a while, couldn't concentrate and fell prey to alcoholism, dying just seven years later. Neal on the other hand was self-destructive. He made one great film -- the super low budget noir Detour -- and here he's got a compelling intensity that makes you think of John Garfield. A one-time amateur boxer, Neal retired with a 31-3 record. What catches your eye is that they almost all ended with knock out, usually in the first round. (Even the three he lost.) In real life he was apparently abusive in one relationship and ultimately went to jail for the involuntary manslaughter of his third and final wife. Long before that, Hollywood blacklisted him for beating the crap out of actor Franchot Tone. (Tone was hospitalized and to make it doubly unfair, Neal was the one fooling around with Tone's girlfriend. If anyone had a right to be angry it was Tone.) So Neal was a bastard. But the bastard had talent and even if he'd never reform in real life, at least you can see it happen on screen.  Opened August 4, 1939. 

THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL * ½ -- In this dull Warner Bros. drama, John Garfield is a boxing champ forced out of town on a bum murder rap without a penny to his name. He wanders onto a ranch where the Dead End Kids are wisecracking it up while they look to get "regenerated" (i.e. reformed). One of their older sisters is blonde enough to attract Garfield’s attention. Always wary of being a sucker, Garfield finally – sort of – learns to help out others. In truly odd casting, Claude Rains is a tough detective who wants to track Garfield down and bring him to justice to regain a reputation lost after frying the wrong guy in the electric chair. Rains is all wrong in the role, especially as he approaches the part. Garfield and the gal never convincingly click and the Dead End Kids just don’t belong on a ranch (and look about 25 to 30 years old to boot). Slim pickings. Opened January 28, 1939. 

THREE SMART GIRLS GROW UP ** -- In 3 Smart Girls Grow Up, Deanna Durbin must untangle the romantic confusion of her two older sisters in New York City while her beloved father walks around in a fuddle when not making millions on Wall Street. The blonde is marrying a family friend but it's the OTHER sister (a brunette) who really loves him. To console the loser, Durbin dragoons Robert Cummings into falling for the brunette, but he too wants the blonde. Hilarity ensues. I haven't seen the first or third film in the series and it surely doesn't matter. The only puzzle here is why Universal took so long to make a follow-up to the wildly successful Three Smart Girls back in 1936...or another four years to follow this with Three Smart Girls Join Up aka Hers To Hold. The Andy Hardy series made 13 (!) films from 1937-1942. Coming to this film -- and Durbin -- cold, a few things impress. Her lyric soprano voice adds class to the affair, a bit of high brow sophistication to very familiar stuff. But it's blended in very cannily and Durbin always has some business to attend to so no one will get too bored as she trills away. The first song is tossed off casually at a party and then Durbin is teased by her sisters later that night for showing off. So Durbin responds by tossing off high notes as they get ready for bed and very convincingly presents herself as an every day gal who just happens to have a voice that would fit in nicely at the Met. Later she sings at a rehearsal but spends most of the performance joking with a fellow musician. When Robert Cummings tosses off some classical piano, two of the sisters moon after him while Durbin gets angry at him for flirting with the wrong sister. The movie is a few steps away from actually being good but it's bursting with solid supporting work and deft bits of business. Maybe the strongest asset is Cummings, who was rightly signed by Universal to a long-term contract after his performance here. He breezes into the film with all the confidence of a leading man. Just two years later he and Durbin co-star in It Started With Eve. By then, Durbin is a sexy, confident woman while Cummings already seems blander and less interesting. But here he's like John Garfield in Four Daughters (without the edge). Cummings feels like a man, a star, a genuine charmer who wakes up the film considerably, including a delightful low key monologue Cummings delivers perfectly.. He's also got the best line in the film. When he visits the mansion of the three smart girls for the first time, they ask if he had trouble finding the place. Cummings confesses he did; Cummings says he walked by the place twice, thinking it was the Museum of Natural History. Indeed, even by the insane standards of old Hollywood, the home they inhabit is bonkers. The rooms are so big you could land a plane in them, as Liza Minelli joked in Arthur. In one scene, Durbin must storm out of a room, storm through the next room and then head up the stairs before delivering her final zinger in a huff on a landing. The distance she must travel is so great that Durbin practically sprints to the stairs and the landing just so the scene can end in a reasonable amount of time. It truly does have massive rooms as big as a museum. And yet, in the film's most absurd detail of all, in this mansion of a thousand rooms with servants underfoot, the three sisters share one (!) relatively modest bedroom. At least each smart girl has her own individual bed. Even more bizarrely, they wear matching outfits to sleep; the unintentional effect is far funnier than anything else in the film. Now if only the rest of the movie weren't so darn predictable. Durbin has real talent  but never got the decent scripts she deserved. And for whatever reason she only recorded a few dozen sides for Decca so her musical output is just as indifferent. (Though the scene where her father asks Durbin to sing him a tune and she delivers an Irish tune is worth replaying.) No wonder she got bored and gave it all up. But with this and It Started With Eve, you can see Durbin had the chops and the box office success -- everything but a good film to show it off in. 

THUNDER AFLOAT ** ½ -- Since the US wouldn’t enter the war for three years, films released in 1939 that wanted to take a jab at the Nazis had to be circumspect. Otherwise Hollywood -- aka the Jews, as any whisper campaign would have it -- would be accused of war-mongering and so on. How to get around this, not so subtly? Set your film during WW I, when the Germans were already the bad guys. That’s how we get to this B movie about a salty sea captain played by Wallace Beery. He’s competing for a pricey contract against a younger, more handsome captain (played by Chester Morris). When he loses the deal, Beery and his plucky daughter (Virginia Grey) trick Morris into enlisting and snag the contract for themselves. Success! Until their beloved boat is sunk by a Nazi submarine plying American waters, that is. Beery vows revenge (when not tugging up his pants, a rather odd but consistent character trait of his). So he enlists, only to discover his new commanding officer is…Chester Morris. Beery hates orders but sniffs out Nazi subs with ease and they both fight each other and the rigid chain of command until the finale when it’s not giving anything away to say they finally sink that hated sub and head off to do more damage. At the same time, the battling Morris and Grey finally admit that gosh, they kind of like each other, don’t they? Harmless fun delivered by pros who know just what sort of movie they’re in but give their all in the right spirit and elevate it from B movie to, oh, B+. Opened September 15, 1939. 

TIMBER STAMPEDE * 1/2 -- One of five westerns starring George O'Brien that came out in 1939. After four more flicks in 1940, he'd be done except for the occasional bit part tossed his way by director John Ford. That's a far cry from his heyday in the silents when O'Brien starred in Ford's The Iron Horse and F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, one of the all-time greats. None of the westerns from 1939 are any good and Timber Stampede is the rule that brooks no exception. (Huh? I mean to say, it's no good either.) But O'Brien isn't bad and he's certainly the best thing in it, along with Chill Wills tiresomely doing his best Will Rogers, whether or not the scene calls for it. O'Brien is a cowboy minding his own business when fat cat businessmen make a sleazy deal to build a railroad, just so they can claim all the land, cut down the trees in a frenzy and make a lot of dough on lumber. The fast-dealing includes fake claims made by stooges who carry around a tiny home no bigger than a doll house so witnesses can aver the stooge has properly occupied the parcel by building a cabin with a door and windows. Hey, no one ever said it had to be big enough for a human! The bad guys even bring in a female journalist to sell the story as "progress." She's none the wiser, even if she does develop a hankering for O'Brien. He's got an uncle who runs the local newspaper but the bad guys buy up the newspaper's debt from the bank and run the old feller out. O'Brien will have none of it and the finale includes an elaborate scheme to snag a photo of the bad guys in action (cameras are still a novelty) and running off a special edition of the newspaper to expose the crime. Never mind that the sheriff and everyone else in town is in on the deal, apparently just printing the story will bring the criminals to their knees. It's the power of the press! One good moment includes a hired gun stepping in to assassinate O'Brien. They face off but before the man can draw, O'Brien shoots off his hat. It's sort of a courtesy gesture, one killer to another ,and the assassin backs off. It's a memorable bit and hey, I'll take it where I can get it.  Opened June 30, 1939. 

TORCHY BLANE IN CHINATOWN *
TORCHY RUNS FOR MAYOR ** 1/2
TORCHY BLANE...PLAYS WITH DYNAMITE ** 

Torchy Blane is a fast-talking reporter, solving crimes and amiably clashing with the cops. She's perennially engaged to Lieutenant Steve McBride and always right when she decides there’s something suspicious about such-and-such or so-and-so. They made nine films in all from 1936 to 1939 and Torchy was usually played by Glenda Farrell with familiar Warner Bros. vinegar. Journeyman actor Barton MacLane got as close to a leading man as he ever would playing her beleaguered boyfriend. And throughout the nine film series, Tom Kennedy played the dim-witted, poetry-spouting cop Gahagan. "Chinatown" was one of three movies Farrell made after ditching the series and then being lured back. It’s pretty dire, with a plot that’s banal in the extreme. Seemingly the entire cast stands around in a group and rushes from room to room while the bodies pile up. A modest sop to the parade of Oriental stereotypes is a scene where McBride talks with the “mayor” of Chinatown, a man who speaks in broken English but offers insight into the case and is treated with friendly respect. Hey, it’s better than nothing. Far superior is "Torchy Runs For Mayor," with Torchy battling corruption at City Hall. It’s the eighth in the series and the last with Farrell and they all seemed to raise their game with a better than average storyline that sort of makes sense. The final film in the series stars Jane Wyman as Torchy in "Torchy Blane...Plays With Dynamite." She’s no one’s idea of a fast-talking, "Front Page"-style newspaper reporter, but Wyman is pretty good and this case isn't bad either. Gahagan is less dumb than usual and there’s an amusing bit about a rigged wrestling match at the finale. And no, I have no clue as to why they include the ellipsis in "Torchy Blane...Plays With Dynamite" rather than "Torchy Blane Plays With Dynamite" or even "Torchy Blane Plays With Dynamite!" 

To modern movie goers, B movies like these play more like episodes of a TV series than movies. By that standard, "Torchy Blane" is not appointment TV but it is passable entertainment if you happen to stumble on it late at night and are very bored.

Chinatown: Opened February 4, 1939. 
Mayor: Opened May 13, 1939. 
Dynamite: Opened August 12, 1939.


TWELVE CROWDED HOURS ** -- A twisty little B movie about a reporter trying to bust a numbers racket. It goes for a breezy, "Thin Man" sort of attitude, creating a world where everyone knows everyone else, from the cops to the reporters to the criminals. It doesn’t succeed, but the effort is appreciated and it passes by amiably enough. B movie director Lew Landers was churning them out but this film has some nice touches. Especially noteworthy is the opening and closing flourish: it begins with the sun setting and the camera travels down a New York City block at waist level while we watch life unfold. A window shade is drawn down, an empty milk bottle is put out, a man tired by his day’s work trudges home while the shapely legs of a gal step out for a night on the town. It ends with us seeing this all in reverse the next morning: the window shade is raised, a full milk bottle is taken in, the gal trudges home and the man heads off to work in a jaunty manner. Nothing else in the film matches this clever bit of business. Reporter Nick Green (a dependable but never truly captivating Richard Dix) is crazy about his girlfriend Lucille Ball, but she’s mad his stories put her no-good brother behind bars. Green vows to bring down the gangster really responsible for the crime her brother has been jailed for. Green starts by snatching a bag with $80,000 right from under the gangster’s nose. A very complicated game of back and forth ensues, with a dim-witted cop thrown in to keep Green and the gangster guessing who did what. One extended scene has so many people ducking in and out of doorways and stumbling across one another that it generates a sort of surreal fascination. Mostly the movie just moves along, with everyone going through their paces about as you’d expect till it all finishes up in just over an hour. Opened March 3, 1939.

TWO THOROUGHBREDS 1/2 * -- Tiresome little B movie (C movie?) about a boy and his horse. Criminals steal a thoroughbred but the colt gets away from them. Sad little orphan boy David finds the helpless colt, looks all around to see if anyone lost it, even reads the papers but to no avail. HIs mom died when he was a little boy and his miserly aunt and uncle keep him in the barn. Thinking there might be some money in it, they grudgingly let him keep the colt and raise it. The boy lives in the hayloft and communes with animals, speaking in a whiny voice whenever he has to talk to adults or while praying to his saintly dead mother. (About the only time he shows some spunk is when his aunt mocks the boy's mother.) Anyway, the owners of the colt return home from a trip, the boy realizes he has their stolen colt, he tries to bring it back, but darn it the colt won't come and they get it back anyway but he's too ashamed to say it's theirs. They like the lad and arrange things so he'll confess. Confess? Confess what? He didn't steal the colt and tried to bring it back. It's all too contrived. And yet he does "confess" and they all love him and the colt. The end. The lead Jimmy Lydon had a tough life, but his role here is pretty thankless; I've never seen the Henry Aldrich wanna-be Andy Hardy franchise tales that are his claim to fame. The only fun touches come from his hateful aunt and uncle, with the aunt played by Marjorie Main. She of course would go on to her own successful series as the far more likable Ma of Ma and Pa Kettle. Opened December 8, 1939.

WAY DOWN SOUTH * -- Bizarre curio makes Gone With The Wind almost seem nuanced. On a plantation, the massah dies and leaves everything (including his beloved "darkies") to his young son, Bobby Breen. Breen was a child actor with an angelic voice -- kind of a male Deanna Durbin -- and vehicles like this were just an excuse to have him chirp out a number or two. In this case, the boy’s crooked executor treats the enslaved people cruelly, beating them and such when of course the massah never did no such thing. This cruel man also wants to sell them off, not even keeping families together! The lad must risk everything to prevent such a terrible fate. Surprisingly, the story and script are by Langston Hughes and the pioneering black actor Clarence Muse, who plays Uncle Caton in the film. Full credit to the filmmakers for employing them but demerits to someone somewhere for the absurd tale they delivered. A bizarre high point occurs when Breen despairs of being able to halt the auction of the enslaved. The men, women and children of the plantation gather in a barn during a storm, weeping and wailing over their fate. Breen stumbles in from the rain, dressed in rags, gets up on a bale of hay and launches into “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” Yes, he's singing an old Negro spiritual to his slaves! It’s actually quite a good arrangement and performance I must say. (You can find it on YouTube.) Breen in general is good, despite the annoyingly wholesome character he plays here. A real oddity. Opened July 21, 1939.

WIFE, HUSBAND AND FRIEND ** -- In  this very silly comedy, Loretta Young plays a socialite who always dreamed of becoming a great opera singer, the very same dream her mother harbored for many years. Her voice is quite good for an amateur but it's quite clear she's not some undiscovered gem. Warner Baxter is her "working class" contractor, a man who doesn't want to deny his wife anything but also doesn't want to have her be embarrassed on the stage. Her singing coach (Cesar Romero)  -- like singing coaches everywhere -- insists she has great talent and needs lots and lots of lessons and before you know it she's book a concert recital and Baxter is forced to fobbing tickets off on all their friends so the place won't be empty. Things get really nutty when Baxter becomes the object of affection for a genuine operatic star (Binnie Barnes), a woman with the mannish name of Cecil Carver. She hunts Baxter and discovers to everyone's astonishment that HE in fact has a one in a million voices. before you know it he's secretly touring the country and knocking 'em dead. Young is put out that he's the real talent but SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER it all turns out right when in a ridiculous turn he's cast in an Italian opera and freezes onstage. As long as neither of them has talent, they can be happy together, or at least that's the icky message of the finale. END OF SPOILER END OF SPOILER. The film was remade in 1949 as Everybody Does It, but the discordant ending and general absurdity kept me from truly enjoying this one. But it has some great touches. So many great comedies have minor characters who have a major fixation. In this one, it's Young's father, played by George Barbier. He's hilariously funny in ranting and raving about the curse of music that runs in the women of their family and warns Baxter to stamp out this disease or he'll be paying the price for the rest of his life. Binnie Barnes as the man hungry opera singer is just plain weird. Maybe they were scared to just show her as lustful, but the result is this character ranges from lascivious to almost psychotically focused on her career and making Baxter a star. I literally had no idea what she really thought or wanted, which was pleasingly disconcerting. Certainly one of the pleasanter trifles of 1939 and Young, who I usually find a bore, was pretty loose and fun here. Oddest detail of all? It's based on a short story by noir novelist James M. Cain. Opened March 3, 1939.

WINGS OF THE NAVY * 1/2 -- As a recruiting tool for the US military, this isn't half bad. As a film, it isn't half good. Maybe my math is off, but it feels like 80% of the movie is devoted to shots of planes taking off, landing and flying around, along with scenes of cadets marching around and learning the do's and don'ts of being a pilot. That's not terribly interesting, but it's ok. The 20% of the film devoted to a plot of sorts feels so scattered and offhanded you wonder why they even bothered. The Harrington brothers have a weighty legacy to live up to when it comes to their family and its service as fliers in the U.S. Navy. George is the older brother (George Brent) and he's got it all: a sweet gig as a pilot in the navy, a beautiful girlfriend named Irene (Olivia de Havilland, sitting around and waiting for "Gone With The Wind" to open ten months later) and designs for a new sort of plane that is just what the Navy is looking for.  John is the younger brother (played by the affable John Payne), always in his big brother's shadow and fretting over his assignment to submarines when what he really wants to do is fly. But George knows John will show off -- he's a great kid, but so determined to outshine his big brother, he's liable to crash and burn. Nuts, says John, who shows up at flight school anyway. He proves a natural and when George is gone for two weeks, John dutifully squires Irene around until -- darn it -- they both realize they've fallen in love. Who can blame her? Brent is only eight years older than Payne but if they told us he was Payne's dad, I'd buy it. And since he's twelve years older than de Havilland, if I were her I'd be eying the young, strapping Payne in a heart beat. Everything here is done abruptly -- we don't see the two kids fall in love; we're just expected to assume it. One recruit freezes up and dies but we barely know his name. Only Frank McHugh makes an impression as the comic relief -- a farm boy eager to fly. Late in the film we're dropped into a debate over "real" flying versus the "big boats" that John is eager to pilot to Hawaii. Heck, the screenplay is so lazy they just give the two leads their real names. The only surprise is why they didn't name the girlfriend Olivia. By the way, she had five movies that opened in 1939; four of them were quite good. Opened February 11, 1939.

WITHIN THE LAW ** 1/2 -- A trim crime drama that feels more like a Warner Bros. movie than one from MGM, the company that put it out. Though new to me, this was a very well known property that began as a hit Broadway play in 1912 (the longest running drama of the season) followed by all sorts of touring companies and FIVE feature film adaptations climaxing with this 1939 number. Previous stars who played the lead before Ruth Hussey included Norma Talmadge and Joan Crawford. (A TV adaptation also appeared in 1952 and there was even a novelization of the play.) What's all the fuss? Not much, but it's got a certain sting. Mary Turner (Hussey) is a store clerk at a Macy's-style department store in NYC. A fellow employee is shoplifting and when store detectives close in, that woman stashes her loot in Turner's locker. Before you know it Turner's been sentenced to three years in prison. Two early moments stick out. In one, Samuel S. Hinds as Mr. Gilder, the head of the company, gives a righteous speech that otherwise bland director Gustav Machaty showcases with an abrupt and unexpected full body shot, Hinds pointing his hand in determination. In the other moment, Hussey as Turner lets loose when condemned to jail and a lifetime branded as a criminal; she switches from earnestly appealing to Gilder to hysterical cursing, promising she'll spend the rest of her life enacting revenge. That's followed by the best part of this 65 minute trifle. Turner heads to prison  alongside tough-talking con artist Agnes (Rita Johnson), dressed to the nines for her destination with the pokey. Johnson is great as a seen-it-all pal, but Hussey transforms from an innocent into an expert in the law, thanks to a lot of time burying her nose in the prison library. Without overdoing her tougher edge, Hussey shows Turner as a woman determined to use every twist and loophole in the law to make Gilder pay. They get  out, Agnes hooks up with her con artist pals and before you know it they're all doing the bidding of Turner, who knows how to pull cons that keep all their actions "within the law." We only get to see one scam but it's fun: Agnes buys a fur coat, pays with a check that bounces that day, checks out of her hotel and -- sensing a scam -- the department store has her thrown in the clink within hours. The twist? Her check is cleared moments later as planned, the store realizes they've tossed an "innocent" woman into the slammer and happily pay a king's ransom of $20,000 to keep the whole messy affair out of the papers. Then Turner goes for the long play. She slowly seduces Gilder's handsome son (Tom Neal) for one final humiliation. They get married on the sly but naturally, they really do fall in love (much as she hates to admit it). The rest of the gang gets restless waiting for her next play and it all climaxes with a burglary gone wrong. The supporting members of the gang are pretty vivid and specific, without feeling like types. Really the only problem here is that the romance between Neal and Hussey is taken for granted; it would have been more satisfying if we'd actually seen them fall in love. As it is, I'm a little generous with two and a half stars but you can see why the basic story proved so durable for decades. Who doesn't enjoy rooting for a con artist? Opened March 17, 1939.

WOMEN IN THE WIND ** -- Were aviatrixes all the rage in 1939? Were all-female flying competitions sweeping the nation? There must be some headline news that spurred Hollywood to make not one but two movies about this topic. The first -- Tail Spin -- came out in February. This one came out second and has a pretty strong cast. Kay Francis is the no-nonsense gal who wants to enter a flying competition so she can pay for her brother's operation; he's the ace pilot who taught her everything she knows. Listen close for the speech defect that Francis masked so well. Eve Arden is the fast-talking pal who also sports a mean set of wings. Her onscreen presence is effortless, as always. Unfortunately, the romantic male lead is William Gargan, a drip intended to be a sexy, playboy version of Charles Lindbergh. He's just set a world record in flying so Francis wants to borrow his plane and guilts Gargan into it. But his gold-digging wife decides he's too famous to dump; she rescinds their Mexican divorce and claims the plane for her own. Francis scares up her own fast flyer and the race is on. Tail Spin has more melodrama and more well-shot flying sequences; this one feels slightly more believable, by Hollywood standards. Also in support are Max "Slapsie Maxie" Rosenbloom, a real life former boxer playing a dimwitted former boxer who is Gargan's right hand. The diminutive Frankie Burke is another hanger-on. Gargan is the main drawback: he worked steadily in Hollywood but never to much effect. It's hard to imagine any woman falling for him. Appropriately, Gargan died during a transcontinental flight between NY and San Diego. Presumably he was not the pilot. Opened April 15, 1939.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS ** 1/2 -- I've always had reservations about Wuthering Heights, beginning with the novel, a melodrama that depends on a character only hearing HALF of a speech. If Heathcliff waited a moment longer to hear the rest of Cathy's speech where she declares her undying love, they might have been spared a lifetime of agony! Instead, he's off to America before she's finished talking and both Cathy and his maid obstinately refuse to share this vital bit of information to him for decades to come. Nonetheless, while the novel does have its virtues, the film only underlines its flaws. The movie begins with ok child actors in the three main roles. The well-off siblings Cathy and Hindley take offense at their father bringing home a dirty orphan boy (the quite good Rex Downing). Cathy soon warms up to him but the son nurses a grudge. As soon as their father dies it's off to the stables for poor Heathcliff. He grows up nicely into Laurence Olivier while Cathy is the more tiresome Merle Oberon. (Oh, how Vivien Leigh would have nailed the mercurial nature of this woman!) Olivier can't bear to leave her side, even if it's to run off and make his fortune. What does money matter when you're in love? In pops David Niven as a milksop of an aristocrat to give Cathy bland, passionless kisses that leave you wondering who to pity more, him or the girl. In the film's best moment, the truculent Heathcliff for some reason puts a curse on the home of Niven and storms off. Cathy is thrilled to imagine him exploring the wide world. Her disappointment when she realizes he is still at home, still dirtying his hands in the stables is acute -- here, at least, the film makes sense of their doomed romance. Then comes the overheard conversation that finally convinces Heathcliff to leave for good and he's off. One hour into the film and finally, we get some real drama. Oberon's nonsensical back and forth between the safe Niven and the moody Olivier is so willy nilly it's hard to care. But now she's married to Niven, so Heathcliff's return can only bring pain. In director William Wyler's best gambit, we see Heathcliff enter their home from a far distant door; he strides up to them in intimidating silence. For quite a few scenes, Olivier simply glowers. His quiet, powerful presence is so thoroughly discomfiting it's almost surprising Niven doesn't collapse and say, "Take her! Take her!" This tension reaches a climax at a dinner party where Niven's sister throws herself at Heathcliff, who barely acknowledges her while smoldering in the general direction of his one true love -- it's all thrillingly underlined musically with a solo on the harpsichord. After that, we just tap our toes until the end, a death scene where Oberon over-emotes painfully and the whole bitter melodrama of the novel is betrayed by a soppy film ending where true love triumphs. It's a far cry from what Bronté envisioned and deeply unsatisfying to those who prefer their doomed romances to remain just that: doomed. Olivier is impressive and makes an excellent Heathcliff but he's the only really outstanding element in the movie. Opened April 7, 1939.

YES, MY DARLING DAUGHTER * 1/2 -- A would-be screwball comedy that can't decide if it wants to be zany or serious. I suppose the premise is rather shocking for the era, since it involves young lovers determined to spend the weekend together at a cabin...even though they're not married! Oh they don't plan to have sex, but of course it will be a temptation and the young lady's reputation will be ruined forever if anyone spots them. Priscilla Lane is the determined young woman who begins the film angry at her boyfriend Jeffrey Lynne because he didn't show up at her college graduation. She comes from money, while he is poor as a church mouse. But she knows that and so she wired him $25 so he could make the trip...so what's he all upset about? When they realize they're not angry but actually in love, he has a confession to make: he can't get work as an architect so he's headed to Belgium for two years to sell razor blades. (Seriously.) She decides they simply must spend every moment together -- preferably away from her pushy family -- so they can discuss the future and see if they're really compatible. He's a little uneasy about that -- what will people say? Yet she's awfully persuasive and they tell white lies to everyone so they can sneak off to a lake and rent two cabins and take walks in the moonlight and so on. Naturally, her family finds out about it, but what can a mother do? Fay Bainter is the progressive matriarch who went to jail nineteen times to secure the right for women to vote. Can she really push for women to get equal rights and then expect her daughter to conform to society's tiresome old conventions? The movie seesaws back and forth between upper crust blitheness and good old-fashioned tut-tutting, all to the film's detriment. It's perfectly captured in the scene at the lake where the two young lovers seem to be sharing pillow talk until we realize he is sleeping on a cot out on the porch and she's chastely inside. They share a smooch by pressing their lips against the window screen and the two kids lie back happily, both of their faces creased in the screen's patchwork pattern, a gag more befitting a low brow comedy short. A weird subplot involves Roland Young (of Topper fame) who shows up at the family estate for the weekend. Turns out he was the first love of Fay Bainter but they were kept apart by her mother and the fact that she was arrested for her suffragette work. He assumed she stood him up; she assumed he abandoned her. The unspoken idea is that Bainter shouldn't keep her daughter away from this young man the way THEY were separated all those years ago. Except she's quite happily married and expresses no regrets while he is paired off by the end with her thrice-divorced sister Genevieve Tobin, just back from Reno and ready for husband number four. The fact that it might be weird for the man to marry his one true love's sister occurs to precisely no one. Scenes veer awkwardly from vaguely nutty to deadly serious, with May Robson harrumphing her way through the proceedings as Granny Whitman. On the other hand, Roland Young literally mumbles most of his dialogue in what is meant to be a supercilious, sophisticated manner, showing why his success in Topper (and a fun part in The Philadelphia Story) were the exceptions rather than the rule. Here the young lovers, actors Lane and Lynne appeared in a few movies together, most of them better -- The Roaring Twenties and the Four Daughters films, to be exact. Lane was pretty interesting, making a few great films like the aforementioned  Roaring Twenties and Hitchcock's Saboteur and a thankless role in Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant. She began 1939 by impulsively getting married on January 14...and then impulsively running away the next day and having it annulled. (That must have been an epically bad wedding night.) She dated a publisher for two years, publicly announced their engagement in late 1941...and then dumped him a few weeks later when she met Joseph Howard, a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. They got married just a few months after meeting in 1942 but this time it was true love:  Lane made just four more films and left Hollywood for good. And how did this film get such a dreadful title? Well, it's based on the hit play of the same name by Mark Reed. He had four shows on Broadway: She Would and She Did in 1919 (good title!), Skyrocket in 1929 (good title!) and Petticoat Fever in 1935 (another perfectly good title). That's three flops, one for each decade, though the latter was turned into a film starring Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy. But Reed was persistent and this poor man's Philip Barry finally hit pay dirt in 1937 when Yes, My Darling Daughter proved a success and ran for almost a year. I assume Reed died soon after; how else to explain that he was never heard from again? Opened February 25, 1939.

YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN ** 1/2 -- The casual oddity of this W.C. Fields vehicle is enough to maintain interest. Fields plays the shady proprietor of a traveling circus, always fleeing town and crossing state lines when bills are unpaid or the fleecing of customers becomes too rampant. He owes a ton of money and might soon lose it all. His daughter Constance Moore feels obliged to marry a pliant but awfully dull high society type with sniffy, blue-blooded parents. But her heart isn't in it -- she really loves one of the circus's new acts, a ventriloquist act starring Edgar Bergen and his sidekick Charlie McCarthy. Mind you, Bergen is just as dull as the rich boy when wooing her, but at least he's good at his job. That's literally it for this thin film, not nearly one of Fields's best. The barebones plot is just an excuse to let Fields toss off physical humor, mumbled asides and classic bits. It's almost enough. My favorite of his minor diversions is a routine where he is selling tickets, wincing over this or that indignity, bantering with the customers, giving the fish eye to employees who bang open the door to his office and simmering with rage, all while his hat seems to have a mind of its own, jumping this way and that as his foot crashes through the floor, gets stuck in a pail and so on. Thank God for DVRs -- it's a treat to replay this scene again and again and work out all the bits of business he tosses off with elan. What makes the film truly odd is Bergen and McCarthy (and Mortimer), a man and his dummy routine that became hugely popular on the radio (!) and continues into the movies, even as the close-up shows Bergen almost haplessly bad at trying not to move his lips when tossing his voice. Who cares? The sparky Charlie McCarthy is a terrific foil for Fields (they had a huge "feud" on the radio and this film builds on that) while the less Bergen speaks the better. Several stage routines are quite amusing and anytime McCarthy battles with Fields is fun. The dummy gets shoved down an alligator, threatened with a buzzsaw and must jump out of a hot air balloon and does it amusingly. No wonder they got their own movie in 1939: Charlie McCarthy, Detective. This one climaxes with a crazed ping pong match that shows Fields uncharacteristically (?) making use of editing and sound effects and other movie tricks to create a routine that wouldn't have been possible in vaudeville. For once, Fields is not "honest" and it's a treat. Still, I can't help wishing Charlie McCarthy ended up with the girl. The film is anarchic enough to make you think it might just happen. Opened February 18, 1939.



1939 -- CINEMA'S GREATEST YEAR ALPHABETICALLY

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn ** 1/2
The Adventures Of Jane Arden *
The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes *** ½
Allegheny Uprising (John Wayne and Claire Tevor) ***
Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever ** 
The Angels Wash Their Faces ** 
Another Thin Man *** 
Arizona Legion *
At The Circus *
Babes In Arms **
Bachelor Mother (Ginger Rogers w baby and David Niven) ***
Bad Little Angel * 1/2
Beau Geste ***
Blackmail ** 1/2 
Blackwell's Island * 1/2 
Bulldog Drummond's Secret Police * 
Bulldog Drummond's Bride * 
Calling Dr. Kildare ** ½
Captain Fury ** ½
The Cat And The Canary * 1/2
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island ** ½
Charlie Chan in City In Darkness ***
Charlie Chan in Reno **
Charley’s (Big-Hearted) Aunt (tired farce) no stars 
The City (doc short) ** 
Clouds Over Europe see Q Planes
Coast Guard * 
Code Of The Secret Service * 
Confession of A Nazi Spy Ring **
Conspiracy * 1/2
The Cowboy Quarterback no stars
Cuatro Corazones **
Dancing Co-Ed * 1/2
Dark Magic (Robert Benchley short) * 1/2
Dark Victory **
Daughters Courageous ** 
The Day Of Rest (Robert Benchley short) *
Destry Rides Again ***
Dodge City ***
Drums Along The Mohawk *** 
Dust Be My Destiny ** 
Each Dawn I Die ***
Espionage Agent * 1/2
Everything Happens At Night *
Fast And Furious * 1/2
Fast and Loose * ½ 
The Fighting Gringo * 1/2 
Five Came Back (Lucille Ball – plane crash in jungle) ***
Five Little Peppers And How They Grew *
Fixer Dugan **
The Flying Deuces (Laurel and Hardy) * 1/2
The Four Feathers **
Four Girls In White ** 
Four Wives ** 
The Frozen Limits * ½ 
The Girl From Mexico * 1/2  
Glimpses Of Australia *
Gone With The Wind ***
Goodbye, Mr. Chips ***
The Gorilla *
The Great Man Votes (scenery chewing John Barrymore) * ½
Gunga Din *** 1/2 
Happily Buried * 
Harlem Rides The Range no stars
Henry Goes Arizona * 
Home Early (Robert Benchley short) * 
Home On The Prairie (Gene Autry vehicle) *
Honolulu * 1/2
The Hound Of The Baskervilles **** 
An Hour For Lunch (Robert Benchley short) * 
The Housekeeper's Daughter * 1/2
The Hunchback Of Notre Dame ****
The Ice Follies of 1939 (Jimmy Stewart and Joan Crawford) * ½ 
Idiot's Delight ** 
Indianapolis Speedway (Pat O'Brien) * 1/2
In Name Only ** 1/2
Intermezzo: A Love Story ***
Invisible Stripes (Geroge Raft, William Holden, Bogie, ex-cons) ***
It’s A Wonderful World (Jimmy Stewart and Claudette Colbert) * ½
Jamaica Inn *
Jesse James * 1/2
Le Jour Se Leve aka Daybreak *** 
Juarez * 1/2 
Judge Hardy and Son * ½ (Andy Hardy series)
The Kid From Kokomo **
The Kid From Texas *
Kid Nightingale *
King Of The Underworld * 1/2
The Lady And The Mob **
Lady Of The Tropics * 1/2 
Land Of Alaska Nellie (TravelTalks short) ** 
Let Freedom Ring ***
Let Us Live  * 1/2
The Little Princess ***
The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt ** ½
Love Affair *** ½
Made For Each Other **
Maisie (Ann Sothern) ** 
Mama's New Hat (a Captain and the Kids short) * 
The Marshall Of Mesa City * 1/2
Midnight *** 1/2
Midnight Shadow no stars
Miracles For Sale * 1/2
Mr. Moto In Danger Island * ½
Mr. Moto’s Last Warning **
Mr. Moto Takes A Vacation * 1/2
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington ****
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase * 1/2
Nancy Drew...Reporter * ½
Nancy Drew...Trouble Shooter *
Naughty But Nice *
Nick Carter, Master Detective *
The Night Riders * 1/2
Ninotchka *** 
No Place To Go (short) * 
Of Mice and Men ***
The Oklahoma Kid *** 
Old Hickory (short) * 
On Borrowed Time * 1/2
...One Third Of A Nation **
Only Angels Have Wings *** 
Pacific Liner ** 
Panama Lady * 1/2 
Picturesque Udaipur (TravelTalks short) ** 
Pièges aka Personal Column ** 1/2 
Poetry Of Nature: A Pete Smith Specialty short * 
Popeye The Sailor: Customers Wanted ** 1/2 
Popeye The Sailor: Ghosks Is The Bunk * 1/2 
Popeye The Sailor: Hello How Am I * 1/2 
Popeye The Sailor: Leave Well Enough Alone * 1/2 
Popeye The Sailor: Never Sock A Baby * 1/2 
Pride Of The Blue Grass **
Private Detective * 1/2
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex ** ½
Q Planes aka Clouds Over Europe *** 
Radio Hams (short) * 1/2 
The Rains Came ** 1/2
The Real Glory (Gary Cooper, Philippines, Moro rebellion) ** ½
The Return of Doctor X *
Rhythm Romance aka Some Like It Hot *
The Roaring Twenties *** ½ 
Rough Riders Round-Up * 
The Royal Rodeo (live action short) no stars
Rules of the Game **** 
Rural Hungary (TravelTalks short) ** 
The Saint in London ** ½
The Saint Strikes Back ***
Sea Scouts (Disney short) no stars
The Secret of Dr. Kildare ** ½
Secret Service Of The Air * 1/2 
Seeing Red (short) * 
Sergeant Madden ** 
A Small Town Idol no stars 
Smashing The Money Ring * 
Society Lawyer * ½
Son Of Frankenstein ***
Sorority House * 1/2
The Spy In Black **
Stagecoach ****
Stand Up And Fight * 1/2
Stanley and Livingstone ** ½
The Stars Look Down ***
The Story Of Vernon and Irene Castle * 1/2
Stronger Than Desire * ½
Susannah Of The Mounties * 1/2
Sweepstakes Winner *
Tail Spin ** 
Tell No Tales ** 1/2 
That's Right -- You're Wrong * 1/2 
These Glamour Girls *
They All Come Out ** 1/2
They Made Her A Spy * ½
They Made Me A Criminal * ½ 
Three Smart Girls Grow Up **
Thunder Afloat ** 1/2 
The Timber Stampede * 1/2 
Torchy Blane In Chinatown *
Torchy Blane...Plays With Dynamite **
Torchy Runs For Mayor ** 1/2
Twelve Crowded Hours ** 
Two Thoroughbreds 1/2 * 
Union Pacific ***
Way Down South *
Wife, Husband and Friend **
Wings Of The Navy * 1/2
Within The Law ** 1/2
The Wizard Of Oz ****
The Women ****
Women In The Wind **
Wuthering Heights ** ½
Wyoming Outlaw * 1/2
Yes, My Darling Daughter * 1/2
You Can't Cheat An Honest Man ** 1/2
Young Mr. Lincoln ***
Zenobia (Laurel And Hardy) no stars


1939 -- CINEMA'S GREATEST YEAR BY RELEASE DATE
(Most release dates per IMDB)

(Now, dates for NYC opening are per New York Times Screen Calendar -- their movie listings -- and advertisements as seen in their archives via TimesMachine)

January 1939

Friends -- dir Lev Arnshtam opens NYC on 1-1-1939 per IMDB, NYT reviews it on 1-2-1939

I Stand Accused (1938 -- opens NYC on Jan 4, 1939 per NYT) page 99 of 125 in Sunday, 1/1/1939 issue) ad on 1-5 page says "First NY showing)

Zaza (Cukor, Claudette Colbert, Hollywood premiere 1938, seems NYC premiere and commercial run in 1939 -- on Jan 4, 1939 *(Benny Goodman plays on bill, crowd boos movie and claps impatiently and chants "We want Benny")

The Cowboy and the Lady (1938, LA) opens at State on Broadway and other Loews theaters on 1-5-1939 per NYT (1-4-1939 page 29)

There's That Woman Again (12-24-1938 per IMDB), Melvyn Douglas opens Radio City Music Hall on 1-5-1939 per NYT (1-4 page 29) (reviewed NYT 1-6)

Tempest aka Storm aka Orage starring Charles Boyer opens Thalia on 1-5 per NYT (1-4 page 29)

King Of The Underworld * 1/2 -- opens Jan 6 in NYC at Rialto per NYT on 1-4, p. 29, reviewed 1-7

Going Places w Dick Powell (opens at Strand on Jan 6, 1939 per NYT 1-5 page 25)(reviewed 1-7) 

Pacific Liner ** (Opened January 6, 1939) 

Stand Up And Fight * 1/2 (Opened January 6, 1939)

Un Domingo En la Tarde aka On A Sunday Afternoon (opens NYC on  1-6, reviewed 1-7-1939 NYT) bullfighting film starring famous matador Lorenzo Garza. Played at Teatro Hispano 

Concert in Tirol aka Konzert in Tirol -- fictional film w Vienna Boys Choir w flimsy excuse of storyline opens 1-6 and reviewed in NYT on 1-7 at 86th St. Garden Theatre


Arrest Bulldog Drummond -- British film, opened in UK in 1938. Opens in NYC on 1-11-1939 per NYT on 1-8-1939 page 126)

Peck's Bad Boy With The Circus (1938) kiddie flick opens in NYC and reviewed in NYT 1-11, page 24


Pacific Liner W Victor McLaglen opens NYC Jan 12 per NYT info on Jan 9, page 16;

Topper Takes A Trip * (Opened January 12, 1939)

Trade Winds (1938) opens commercially in NYC on 1-12, reviewed in NYT 1-13 page 23)


Jesse James * 1/2 (World premiere on Friday Jan 13 at Roxy, ad in NYT on Sunday 1-8, page 126)

Sable Cicada aka Diao Chan (Chinese film opened Hong Kong in 1938), opens NYC on 1-13 per NYT info on 1-9, page 16

The Great Man Votes * 1/2 (Opened January 13, 1939) (opens NYC 1-19 per NYT calendar on 1-15, page 132)

Son Of Frankenstein *** (Opened January 13, 1939)

Disbarred w Otto Kruger (opens Jan 18, per NYT calendar on 1-15, page 132)

Arizona Legion * (Opened January 20, 1939) Mr. Moto’s Last Warning ** (Opened January 20, 1939)

Four Girls In White ** (Opened January 27, 1939) 
Idiot's Delight ** (Opened January 27, 1939) 
The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt ** 1/2 (Opened January 27, 1939)
Popeye The Sailor: Customers Wanted ** 1/2 (Opened January 27, 1939)

They Made Me A Criminal * ½ (Opened January 28, 1939)


February 1939

Harlem Rides The Range no stars (Opened February 1, 1939)

Home On The Prairie (Gene Autry vehicle) * (Opened February 3, 1939)
Honolulu * 1/2 (Opened February 3, 1939)

Torchy Blane In Chinatown * (Opened February 4, 1939)

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn ** 1/2 (Opened February 10, 1939)
Made For Each Other ** (Opened February 10, 1939)
...One Third Of A Nation ** (Opened February 10, 1939)

The Captain and the Kids -- Mama's New Hat short (Opened February 11, 1939) 
A Small Town Idol no stars (Opened February 11, 1939) 
Wings Of The Navy * 1/2 (Opened February 11, 1939.)

Fast and Loose * 1/2 (Opened February 17, 1939)
Gunga Din **** (Opened February 17, 1939)

Nancy Drew...Reporter * 1/2 (Opened February 18, 1939)
You Can't Cheat An Honest Man ** 1/2 (Opened February 18, 1939.)

Tail Spin ** (Opened February 19, 1939)

Let Freedom Ring *** (Opened February 24, 1939)

Yes, My Daughter * 1/2 (Opened February 25, 1939)


March 1939

Cuatro Corazones ** (Opened March 1, 1939)

Stagecoach **** (Opened March 2, 1939)

Twelve Crowded Hours ** (Opened March 3, 1939)
Wife, Husband and Friend ** (Opened March 3, 1939)

Secret Service Of The Air * 1/2 (Opened March 4, 1939)

The Ice Follies of 1939 * 1/2 (Opened March 10, 1939)
The Little Princess *** (Opened March 10, 1939)
The Saint Strikes Back *** (Opened March 10, 1939)

The Oklahoma Kid *** (Opened March 11, 1939)

Rough Riders Round-Up * (Opened March 13, 1939. )

Midnight *** 1/2  (Opened March 15, 1939)

Within The Law ** 1/2 (Opened March 17. 1939)

The Adventures Of Jane Arden * (Opened March 18, 1939) 
An Hour For Lunch (Robert Benchley short) * (Opened March 18, 1939) 

Society Lawyer * 1/2 (Opened March 21, 1939)

Sergeant Madden ** (Opened March 24, 1939) 

Blackwell's Island * 1/2 (Opened March 25, 1939) 

Let Us Live  * 1/2 (Opened March 29, 1939)
The Story Of Vernon and Irene Castle * 1/2 (Opened March 29, 1939)

The Hound Of The Baskervilles **** (Opened March 31, 1939)


April 1939

The Lady And The Mob ** (Opened April 3, 1939)

Love Affair *** ½ (Opened April 7, 1939)
Mr. Moto In Danger Island * ½ (Opened April 7, 1939)
Wuthering Heights ** ½ (Opened April 7, 1939)

Dodge City *** (Opened April 8, 1939)

The Night Riders * 1/2 (Opened April 12, 1939)

Bulldog Drummond's Secret Police (Opened April 14, 1939) 
Happily Buried (short) * (Opened April 14, 1939)
The Kid From Texas * (Opened April 14, 1939)
They Made Her A Spy * 1/2 (Opened April 14, 1939)

Glimpses Of Australia * (short Opened April 15, 1939)
Women In The Wind ** (Opened April 15, 1939)

Fixer Dugan ** (Opened April 21, 1939)
Zenobia no stars (Opened April 21, 1939)

Dark Victory ** (Opened April 22, 1939)

Calling Dr. Kildare ** 1/2 (Opened April 28, 1939) 
Popeye The Sailor: Leave Well Enough Alone * 1/2 (Opened April 28, 1939) 


May 1939

Sorority House ** (Opened May 5, 1939)
Union Pacific *** (Opened May 5, 1939)

Confession Of A Nazi Spy Ring ** (Opened May 6, 1939)

It’s A Wonderful World * 1/2 (Opened May 10, 1939)

Panama Lady * 1/2 (Opened May 12, 1939) 
Tell No Tales ** 1/2 (Opened May 12, 1939) 

Dark Magic (Robert Benchley short) * 1/2 (Opened May 13, 1939) 
Picturesque Udaipur (TravelTalks short) ** (Opened May 13, 1939) 
Torchy Runs For Mayor ** 1/2 (Opened May 13, 1939)

Only Angels Have Wings *** (Opened May 15, 1939)

Rhythm Romance aka Some Like It Hot * (Opened May 19, 1939)

Radio Hams (short) * (Opened May 20, 1939)
Sweepstakes Winner * (Opened May 20, 1939)

The Kid From Kokomo ** (Opened May 23, 1939)

Captain Fury ** 1/2 (Opened May 26, 1939) 
The City ** (Opened May 26, 1939) 
The Gorilla * (Opened May 26, 1939) 

Code Of The Secret Service * Opened May 27, 1939 (but not in Los Angeles) 
Home Early (Robert Benchley short) (Opened May 27. 1939) 


June 1939

Le Jour Se Leve *** (Opened June 9, 1939 in Paris)
Young Mr. Lincoln *** (Opened June 9, 1939)

Popeye The Sailor: Ghosks Is the Bunk * 1/2 (Opened June 14, 1939) 

Charlie Chan in Reno ** (Opened June 16, 1939)

Nancy Drew...Trouble Shooter * (Opened June 17, 1939) 
Poetry Of Nature: A Pete Smith Specialty short (Opened June 17, 1939) 

Clouds Over Europe see Q Planes (Opened June 20, 1939)
Q Planes aka Clouds Over Europe *** (Opened June 20, 1939)

Maisie ** (Opened June 22, 1939)

Five Came Back *** (Opened June 23, 1939)
Susannah Of The Mounties * 1/2 (Opened June 23, 1939)

Wyoming Outlaw * 1/2 (Opened June 27, 1939)

The Saint in London ** 1/2 (Opened June 30, 1939)
Sea Scouts (Disney short) no stars (Opened June 30, 1939)
Stronger Than Desire * 1/2 (Opened June 30, 1939)
The Timber Stampede * 1/2 (Opened June 30, 1939) 


July 1939

Naughty But Nice * (Opened July 1, 1939)

Mr. Moto Takes A Vacation * 1/2 (Opened July 7, 1939)
On Borrowed Time * 1/2 (Opened July 7, 1939)

The Rules of the Game **** (Opened July 8, 1939 in Paris) 

Popeye The Sailor: Hello-How Am I * 1/2 (July 14, 1939) 

Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever ** (Opened July 21, 1939)
Way Down South * (Opened July 21, 1939)

Daughters Courageous ** (Opened July 22, 1939)

Beau Geste *** (Opened July 24, 1939)

Goodbye, Mr. Chips *** (Opened July 28, 1939)

The Cowboy Quarterback no stars (Opened July 29, 1939)


August 1939

Conspiracy * 1/2 (Opened August 1, 1939)

The Four Feathers ** (Opened August 3, 1939)

Bachelor Mother *** (August 4, 1939)
Coast Guard * (Opened August 4, 1939)
They All Come Out ** 1/2 (Opened August 4, 1939)

Indianapolis Speedway * 1/2 (Opened August 5, 1939) 

The Fighting Gringo * 1/2 (Opened August 8, 1939) 

The Wizard Of Oz **** (Opened August 10, 1939 in LA; August 17, 1939 in NYC)

Lady Of The Tropics * 1/2 (Opened August 11, 1939)

Torchy Blane...Plays With Dynamite ** (Opened August 12, 1939)

Miracles For Sales * 1/2 (Opened August 14, 1939)

In Name Only ** 1/2 (Opened August 18, 1939)
Stanley and Livingstone ** 1/2 (Opened August 18, 1939)
These Glamour Girls * (Opened August 18,1939)

Each Dawn I Die *** (Opened August 19, 1939)

Five Little Peppers And How They Grew * (Opened August 22, 1939)

The Angels Wash Their Faces ** (Opened August 26, 1939) 
Seeing Red * (Red Skelton comedy short) (Opened August 26, 1939) 


September 1939

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes *** ½ (Opened September 1, 1939)
The Women **** (Opened September 1, 1939)

The Day Of Rest (Robert Benchley short) * (Opened September 6, 1939) 

Blackmail ** 1/2 (Opened September 8, 1939)
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island ** 1/2 (Opened September 8, 1939)

Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase * 1/2 (Opened September 9. 1939)

The Rains Came ** 1/2 (Opened September 15, 1939)
Thunder Afloat ** 1/2 (Opened September 15, 1939) 

Dust Be My Destiny ** (Opened September 16, 1939) 

Bulldog Drummond's Bride (Opened September 18, 1939) 

No Place To Go * (Opened September 23, 1939)

Dancing Co-Ed * 1/2 (Opened September 29, 1939)
The Real Glory **1/2 (Opened September 29, 1939)

Espionage Agent * 1/2 (Opened September 30, 1939)


October 1939

Fast And Furious * 1/2 (Opened October 6, 1939)
Intermezzo: A Love Story *** (Opened October 6, 1939)
Ninotchka *** (Opened October 6, 1939)

Pride Of The Blue Grass ** (Opened October 7, 1939)
The Spy In Black ** (Opened October 7, 1939)

Babes In Arms ** (Opened October 13, 1939)
Jamaica Inn * (Opened October 13, 1939)

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington **** (Opened October 19, 1939)

At The Circus * (Opened October 20, 1939 in US. Opened NYC on November 16, 1939) 

Smashing The Money Ring * (Opened October 21, 1939) 

The Roaring Twenties *** ½ (Opened October 23, 1939)

The Housekeeper's Daughter * 1/2 (Opened October 26, 1939)

Bad Little Angel * 1/2 (Opened October 27, 1939)


November 1939

The Frozen Limits (Opened in UK November, 1939)

The Flying Deuces (Laurel and Hardy) * 1/2 (Opened November 3, 1939)
The Marshall Of Mesa City * 1/2 (Opened November 3, 1939) 
Popeye The Sailor: Never Sock A Baby * 1/2 (Opened November 3, 1939) 

Kid Nightingale * (Opened November 4, 1939)

Allegheny Uprising *** (Opened November 10, 1939)
The Cat and The Canary * 1/2 (Opened November 10, 1939)
Drums Along The Mohawk *** (Opened November 10, 1939)

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex ** 1/2 (Opened November 11, 1939) 

Another Thin Man *** (Opened November 17, 1939) 

The Secret of Dr. Kildare ** 1/2 (Opened November 24, 1939)
That's Right -- You're Wrong * 1/2 (Opened November 24. 1939) 

The Royal Rodeo (live action short) no stars (Opened November 25, 1939)


December 1939

The Stars Look Down *** (Opened December TK, 1939 in UK Per Academy -- December 1939, in UK)

Charlie Chan in City In Darkness *** (Opened December 1, 1939)

The Return of Doctor X * (Opened December 2, 1939)

Henry Goes Arizona * (Opened December 8, 1939)
Two Thoroughbreds 1/2 * (Opened December 8, 1939)

Private Detective * 1/2 (Opened December 9, 1939)

Gone With The Wind *** (Opened December 15, 1939 -- actually not road-showed till 1940)
Nick Carter, Master Detective * (Opened December 15, 1939)

Pièges aka Personal Column ** 1/2 (Opened December 16, 1939 in France; opened in US on February 2, 1941)

Everything Happens At Night * (Opened December 22, 1939)
Judge Hardy and Son * ½ (Opened December 22, 1939)

Old Hickory (short) * (Opened December 23, 1939) 

Of Mice and Men *** (Opened December 24, 1939) 

Four Wives ** (Opened December 25, 1939) 

Destry Rides Again *** (Opened December 29, 1939)
The Hunchback Of Notre Dame **** (Opened December 29, 1939)

Invisible Stripes (Opened December 30, 1939) ***


CHECK:

Number of theaters in US: About 14,000 independently owned theaters. Studios controlled another 500-1000 each. (The seven majors active with theaters included Warner Bros., MGM, Paramount, RKO, Columbia, Fox and Universal. A total of maybe 18,000 to 20,000 screens, since theaters equal screens. (No multiplexes back then.) As mentioned above, a really top of the line major studio A picture might have 350 prints circulating.

The Stars Look Down (Opened December TK, 1939 in UK) ***  Per Academy -- December 1939, in UK.


Fall In * (1939 per TCM) stars William Tracy
Hay Foot * stars William Tracy
Tanks A Million * stars William Tracy

Here Comes Trouble *

Charley’s Big-Hearted Aunt (tired farce) no stars (Release date in US unknown) 1940 UK film, directed by Walter Forde and starring Arthur Askey

The Frozen Limits * ½ (US release date unknown; UK film released November 1939 in UK; stars Jimmy Nervo and the Crazy Gang, Marx Brothers-like troupe)

Midnight Shadow -- release date unknown

Updated as of 3-3-2021