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DVD Review: Red Skelton Whistling Collection

The Whistling Collection from Warner Archives features all three MGM films from the 1940s in which Red Skelton played Wally Benton, an actor/writer who plays the Fox, a radio detective who comes up with his own plots.

In Whistling in the Dark (1941) , Wally, his girlfriend Carol (played by Ann Rutherford), and the sponsor’s daughter are kidnapped by a racketeer who wants to murder a man who is en route to New York. Wally poses a threat to the racketeer's plans to lay claim to a wealthy woman’s fortune. Wally is forced to come up with a perfect murder plot and he has to figure out how to save his life from it and the life of the two women with him, as well as an innocent man set to die. He does so in a way that’s both ingenuous and hilarious, and it involves a brilliantly madcap fight with the thug Sylvester (Rags Ragland).

In Whistling in Dixie (1942), Wally and Carol travel down South to investigate mysterious goings on in a Southern town including the disappearance of a young man. There the Fox seems to have found Sylvester working for a local judge but it turns out to be his not so evil but just as dub twin brother Chester (also played by Rags Ragland.) There’s a genuine mystery, political corruption, a Confederate treasure, and lots of shenanigans involving twins.

In Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), Wally is framed as Constant Reader, a murderer who has been sending notes to a politician after committing his crimes. Wally has to prove his innocence and his efforts including going undercover as a pitcher on a Major League baseball team in which every player wears a beard. Several real-life Brooklyn Dodgers appear, including then-manager Leo Durocher. Ragland returns as Chester. The whole thing ends up in another madcap fight scene, this time aboard the ship.

Overall, the Whistling movies are a lot of fun. Unlike some lesser comedy detective mysteries, they never seem to forget that the lead isn’t just supposed to be funny, he’s supposed to be a detective. Throughout Wally shows  clever thinking, although his good plans occasionally go wrong. Skelton and Rutherford have strong chemistry. No one will confuse them for William Powell and Myrna Loy, but they make a nice on-screen pairing.

The stories' take on the radio drama of the era is fun and cute. The first two stories have quite a bit of cleverness behind their plots. The third is a bit more thin. The way Wally is framed weak, and like the second movie is centered on him and his girl trying to get married even though there wasn't a reason why they wouldn't have married after Whistling in Dixie. The final third of the movie is funny, but essentially it's two very long slapstick scenes at the ballpark and aboard the ship with the only breaks being people taking cabs to get one from scene to another. Nothing against slapstick, but I preferred the style of the other two movies better.

Still, all three films are good, and they all work with good performances from the returning cast and nice gags throughout. If you love detective movies with a dash of comedy or just love Red Skelton, this is a great collection to purchase.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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Movie Review: Smart Blonde

In the 1930s, a lot of detective movie series were made, particularly as "B" features. The Torchy Blane series was notable for featuring a female lead.

The first film in the series is Smart Blonde which was released in 1937 and introduced Torchy (played by Glenda Farrell) and her hotheaded boyfriend Police Lieutenant Steve McBride (Barton Maclane). It centers around the owner of a night club and several sports establishments wanting to sell out and live an honest life with his fiancee.  He's run his businesses honestly and called in a friend who'll keep them honest to buy his businesses. However, when the would-be buyer is killed, Torchy sets out to solve the case.

The beginning of the film is one of the best character introductions you'll see in a "B" movie. It used the era's trope of newspaper headlines to reveal Torchy Blane wrote big stories, hard news stories, front page stories, and then immediately we have Torchy speeding up in the back a cab which drives up near a moving train which she then jumps on to. Really, with her saying very little, the film establishes Torchy as this intrepid, no-nonsense reporter.

She's a fascinating character and Glenda Farrell plays her beautifully with a mix of charm and pure grit, determination, and energy. The film moves at a very fast clip.  Smart Blonde clocks in at fifty-nine minutes, so it's got a short time to unravel its mystery, but it does with snappy dialogue and a plot that doesn't slow down much at all.

The story isn't a screwball comedy, as so many early detective features were, but it is played for comedy and perhaps at times a bit overplayed. Steve McBride is a comic relief cop in the mold of Captain Street form the Mister Wong movies and he has an even more comical cop as his chauffeur and sidekick.  Some of the comedy is weak and there are unintentionally funny aspects of the film such as the costuming department had policemen in one scene wearing an entirely style of uniform from policemen in another. And of course, there's a little bit of underworld sentimentality mixed in.

Still, it's a fascinating bit of B-movie making that's a cut above most B-films, particularly in this era. It gives Farrell and Maclane the opportunity to play the leads and the result is a fun and pleasing hour of entertainment that should dispel the idea that a "B" movie automatically means a "bad" movie.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0


Video Theater 065: The Mandarin Mystery

Ellery Queen investigates the disappearance of a rare Chinese stamp and comes across two murders along the way.

Release Date: December 23, 1936


DVD Review: I Was a Communist for the FBI

This week and next two weeks from now, I'll be taking a look at I Was a Communist for the FBI.  The first post will talk about the movie and next will discuss the radio program.

Any discussion of Communism in the 1950s will be controversial due to the “red scare.” My understanding based on the study of the era is that two things are true: 1) there were many innocent people charged with being Communists and 2) there were actual Communist who working to infiltrate others as agents of the Soviet Union and still others working to undermine and basic the basic social systems of the United States in order to bring about a people’s revolution.

There is also debate on the exact role that the real Matt Cvetic had or what he accomplished in his undercover work, but this debate doesn’t really matter as both the Movie and the Radio show were very fictionalized (though in different ways), so the exact truth of what actually happened to Cvetic has little to do with either.

In the film, Cvetic (played by Night Beat’s Frank Lovejoy) is in the tale end of his 9 years as a Communist for the FBI and it’s a miserable lot in life. His mother is dying and he rushes to her bedside too late to tell her the truth. His brothers look on with contempt for being a Communist and for the pain that brought his mother. When Cvetic's son learns that Cvetic is a Communist, he turns on him as well.

Cvetic has worked his way up into high circles of the American Communist Party and the film draws an interesting line between the rank and file Communists as represented by a Cvetic’s son’s teacher and the leadership.

The leadership is two faced and hypocritical. With rank and file party members, they're all about equality and the revolution of the proletariat. Among themselves, they're far more honest. When the Communists take over, someone's going to be in charge, so it might as well be them. They want to be like the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm. One of them who is working actively to incite Communist activists among Blacks casually drops the "n-word" and persists with even when Cvetic challenges him on it. Cvetic is ironically considered the "true believer" of this group of senior party members.

The party leaders are also cunning and ruthless, not caring if innocents or bystanders are hurt in the process. In one scene, dedicated to helping the Soviets stop American steel production by staging strikes with fake protesters. This leads to people being savagely beaten including Cvetic's own brother.

The teacher decides she's had enough and wants out of the party but the party sets out to liquidate her and Cvetic has to foil the plan without breaking his cover.  This is a bit of an add on but it's decently done.

Overall, the movie shows some ways in which Communists did  or could have operated at the highest levels  particularly how on one occasion, they staged a filibuster and managed to force their way through a non-Communist union to get their way on the strike.

The film is in a way targeted towards the casual Communist and tried to warn of the long-suspected ties between the Community Party USA and the Soviet Union in hopes of encouraging people to leave before they got in too deep similar to a radio series of the time called Last Man Out. 

Ultimately, nothing was too original about the movie's message or propaganda value but what makes it stand out is the performance of Lovejoy as Matt Cvetic, a man whose position is eating him up. After 9 years, he hates the people who like him and is alienated from his friends and family, he takes part in despicable plots. Lovejoy does a good job portraying a tortured man who continues being ripped apart by what he does because his love for country and concern for his son's future is worth the sacrifice even if part of that sacrifice is being despised by his son.

Overall,  this is a good but flawed film, with an ending that's a bit confusing. Still, this is a decent film that rises above average due to the complex issues surrounding Matt Cvetic.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: The Mask Of Dimitrios (1944)

In Mask of Dimitros, Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre), a Dutch mystery writer becomes intrigued when the body of a notorious criminal named Dimitros (Zachary Scott in his first role) washes up on shore. Leyden begins to trace the sordid career of Dimitros. Along the way, he encounters the mysterious man named Mr. Peters (Sidney Greenstreet) who also has an interest in Dimitros.

Leyden is a very different from the typical Lorre role. While Leyden’s a mystery writer, prior to seeing Dimitrios, he’s never seen a dead body. He goes through the story with a certain innocence and naivete that makes the character likable.

Greenstreet is far closer to type with Peters, an experienced criminal with genteel manners. It’d be tempting to view Peters as just another version of the Kasper Gutman character from the Maltese Falcon, but there’s a bit more to Peter than that, which becomes clear as the movie plays out. The film’s best scenes are the ones between Lorre and Greenstreet. The chemistry between the two is superb and every moment with them sharing the screen is a joy.

Most of the scenes with Zachary Scott were flashbacks to his very active criminal career as a sinister ruthless criminal. Sometimes, it felt these scenes went on too long particularly as the mystery surrounding Mr. Peters became far more interesting than recalling that Dimitros was a scoundrel. Still Scott was a great heavy.

The film was made in 1944 and arguably this would have looked better had it been filed without the restrictions inherent with wartime filmmaking but in the pre or post war eras, but still the movie doesn’t look bad and has some great atmospheric scenes.

This isn’t a must-watch film or a classic but it’s certainly a well-made film featuring two of Hollywood’s most memorable actors in roles that are a little out of the ordinary.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: Bancroft Of The Secret Service Mysteries Collection

These films star future President Ronald Reagan as Brass Bancroft, a flyer turned Secret Service Agent who battles alien smugglers, counterfeiters, thieves, and fifth columnist in these films from 1939-40.

From my experience of watching B films, these are about average. The films are not as good as the Nick Carter films for the same era. And despite being about a law enforcement officer, these really aren't detective stories (except perhaps the third film). The strength of the franchise is really two fisted action and adventure.

As a historical curiosity, it's interesting to see the future leader of the free world at work in his late 20s and looking his best. Reagan is great whenever he's on screen exuding great charm and charisma.

The action sequences are pretty good in this one. While not up to the standards of our special effects driven world, the various chases, fistfights, and peril of these four films are fun to watch and there are some standout moments that are great for various reasons. The first film did a great job casting our villains as true menaces to decency when (in response to another Secret Service man trying to bust the plane mid-flight), the pilot opens a hatch in the plane that drops the Secret Service men as well as all the illegal aliens being smuggled right to Earth in a scene that's very shocking. While the identity of the bad guy is not much of a secret in the third film despite the attempt at a veneer of mystery, the reveal of the "boss" is a beautiful work that's just great to watch.

Also, viewers of the 1950s Superman TV show will recognize John Hamilton (who played Perry White) who appears in three of the four films as various authority figures.

On the downside, unlike Donald Meek's character in the Nick Carter series, Eddie Foy Jr.'s comedic sidekick character Gabby Walters doesn't really help the series and from a plot standpoint, it only made sense for him to be in the first film. While there are  amusing moments where Foy's charm shines, the character far too often is annoying, particularly in the last film.

The rest of the cast was mostly serviceable. Nothing amazing but nothing really bad either. The writing was dodgy at times. In the first movie, the film really took a long round about way of achieving its goal with the Secret Service going to great pains to have Bancroft convicted by a jury under his own name on a trumped up counterfeiting Charge so he could go undercover in prison rather than simply have him imprisoned under an assumed name. as would happen in the third film In the final film, the plot involved a secret fictional weapon which the filmmakers tried to demonstrate. Unfortunately they didn't have the budget to do it effectively and the result is a somewhat confusing end.

It's also worth commenting on as to the dearth of women in these features. Each film has one woman each in the main cast and except for Lya Lys in Murder in the Air none of them actually stand out.

Overall, the films are okay B-movies with some nice acting by Reagan and a few standout moments. But there's a lot of this that's also pretty forgettable even by B-movie standards.

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DVD Review: The Saint Double Feature

In 1941, George Sanders left the role Simon Templar in the Saint series and was replaced by Hugh Sinclair.

The contrasts between Sanders and Sinclair is pretty striking.  For Sanders, the Saint was an early highlight of a career that would see him earn parts in A pictures and even earn an Academy Award. For Sinclair, this was as good as it got.  Sinclair just didn't have the presence that Sanders did, and so both of his Saint films were below Sanders best stories. Though both films were better than Sanders subpar The Saint's Double Trouble.  

The Saint's Vacation (1941)  is the better of the two films and truthfully above average when compared to most 1940s B detective features. The Saint is on vacation and gets involved in international intrigue over a music box which serves as the stories Macguffin. It's not an original idea, but the execution of it in this film is pretty enjoyable. The end is somewhat frustrating and drawn out particularly since we never get to find out what exactly the hubbub was about other than that it was a Macguff.

The Saint Meets the Tiger  (1943) is based on the first Saint Novel and finds the Saint on the trail of international gold smugglers. Most of the movie is a little boring and hard to follow, so it's a bit below average. However, at the end of the movie, a madcap scene where the Saint's sidekick and girlfriend are knocking people out aboard a ship really livens things up.

So in short,  the two films are almost mere images of each other. The Saint's Vacation is an above average film that's pretty interesting in the beginning but is bogged down by a slow ending. The Saint Meets the Tiger is a below average film that's propped up by an ending that's a lot more fun than the film itself.

Overall, I'd give the DVD 3.0 out of 5.0 and recommend it only for Saint completists at its retail price.


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A Look at the Nancy Drew Films

1938 and 1939 saw the release of four films starring Bonita Granville as Nancy Drew. In the film, Drew is a precocious teenager who is always stumbling into mysteries.

These are light mystery comedies with typical 1930s suspense stories. The mysteries aren't bad, but the comedy really reigns supreme. The books and the movies are like night and day. This was really standard Hollywood practice when they'd bring a detective to radio or film. They'd be far more likely to adapt the character to what was popular at the time rather than take a risk on making a movie based on what made the books work.

Thus Nancy while bright, intelligent, and brave, also makes some klutzy mistakes and can charge in too quickly to danger, making her a typical 1930s heroine.  Other changes are less clear. Why they changed the boyfriend's name from "Ned" to "Ted" I'll never know.

That said, the movies are good fun for what they are, light mysteries with a touch of Screwball comedy. The best of the films is the only one in the public domain: Nancy Drew, Reporter. It features a pretty intriguing plot and the comedy consistently hits with one scene where Nancy, her boyfriend, and two younger kids perform a song to get out of a tight spot in a scene that seems like an inspiration for the 80s cult hit Adventures in Babysitting.

Bottom: All four films are pretty fun but those expecting the straighter mysteries and the super competence of Nancy in the novels may be disappointed.

Rating 3.5 Stars out of 5.0

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Video Theater 044: I’ll Name the Murderer

A gossip columnist investigates a murder.

Release Date: January 27, 1936



A Look at the Mr. Moto Film Series

The Mr. Moto films have been released in two four movie box sets, though one film, Mr. Moto's Last Warning is in the public domain and has been available for years on dozens of DVD release.

Mr. Moto was created by James Marquand in 1935 and came to film in 1937 with Peter Lorre playing the role for eight films. All Oriental Detectives played by white actors are controversial, but in many ways, Lorre's performance is different from the portrayal of several actors of the character of Charlie Chan.

Moto speaks in far less proverbs and is also a very active character, a master of the martial and disguise. His capacity and exact reason for being a detective follow him around the world with plenty of intrigue and more than its fair share of violence with Moto killing a few of his enemies in the course of the series.

There were eight Moto films released between 1937-39. For the most part, they are quite enjoyable with well-written plots, great acting by Peter Lorre, and plenty of excitement to go around. Moto operates as a complete man of mystery in the first film with you not even knowing what he wants. The second features Moto on the trail of a treasure and establishes a far more Eastern character.

The first two films were top notch. The third film, Mr. Moto Gamble was actually originally intended as a Charlie Chan feature that was handed over to Moto. This showed up. While Moto did get to use Judo, this one was a bit of an oddball, but entertaining in its own right.

The fourth film The Mysterious Mr. Moto Takes a Chance finds Moto undercover in Thailand as an archaeologist, actually undercover under two false identities.  This film would introduce the worst element of later Moto films-the idiot sidekick. Here, it's a minor distraction but around the time of the seventh film, it'd really begin to wear.

The second half of the Moto films began with The Mysterious Mr. Moto which has Moto going undercover as a Japanese killer and escaping with another convict from Devil's Island and this one actually has Moto dealing with Anti-Oriental prejudice, a novel twist for the time.

The sixth film, Mr. Moto's Last Warning is a great film with the star of the original Maltese Falcon playing a villainous ventriloquist as Moto appears to have been killed off for most of the film.

The seventh film was still okay, but it Danger Island was clearly a declining effort. The stupid sidekick was more annoying and the inclusion of the gratuitous Black character afraid of "the spook" doesn't age well for modern audiences. While the mystery is clever enough, a bad casting choice mars the solution.

The Final Lorre film Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation is proof that most mystery series of the era went one movie too long.  Really,  Lorre was tired, the writing was tired. As the commentary on the DVDs recounted, Lorre had felt like the studio had lied to him and instead of giving him a variety of rolls, had simply changed from casting him a murderous monster to casting him as Moto.

Speaking of the commentary, I have to give credit 20th Century Fox. They did a fine job of assembling interesting and informative commentators who knew their Moto. Each one except the last Moto film had a mini-featurette on the Moto films, the culture of the time, or Peter Lorre.

The eighth film didn't have this. As an extra, it offered up a long lost 1965 Mr. Moto film starring Henry Silva that probably would have been better staying lost.  The Moto character had changed from the original Japanese character to a Japanese American with a strong Japanese accent in the 1950s radio show to Silva's Moto with no sign of being Japanese by any measure. Fox added as an extra, Mr. Silva providing commentary on the film. However, it became clear that the then 78 year old Silva had little real recollection of his work on the forgettable film forty years before, so instead he rambled on without any rhyme or reason for most of the film.

Putting aside, the issue with the eighth film (and it's awful extras), the Moto series at its best was well-done, exciting, and  entertaining. It's a great showcase for Lorre, particularly if you've only seen him playing him the villain.  Fox added some good extras and even the Silva film is of interest if you want to see anything with Moto in it.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0
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