Tired of checkers, chess, and cards? Has he got a game for you.
Man hunted in the wild by a supposedly more intelligent and powerful foe is a concept used numerous times in Hollywood with great success, perhaps reaching its pinnacle with 1987's sci-fi actioner Predator. The idea goes all the way back to The Most Dangerous Game, a pre-Code chiller starring Joel McCrae, Leslie Banks, and Fay Wray. When a luxury yacht of upper crust types runs aground off the Pacific coast of South America, only McCrae survives. He's landed on a jungle island owned by a mad Russian named Count Zaroff, played with walleyed fervor by Banks, who hunts humans for kicks.
Zaroff's creepy ole stone mansion doesn't look like a place where one might hope to find aid, but McCrae has no choice but to go there. He isn't the only stranded raw meat hanging around. Boats occasionally crash because the Count moved the channel markers that are supposed to warn boaters away from the rocks. With each shipwreck he has new game to hunt. Wray is already on the island, having run aground before McCrae. She has an inkling things are not kosher, and she turns out to be correct.
The movie is stagy and clunky in its expository sequences, like most pre-Code productions, and Wray's acting is a sheer hoot, but there are positives. There's striking outdoor footage shot around Rancho Palos Verdes, which adds excellent imagery to a film that is indisputably a high visual achievement, and that in turn helps the action sequences come across as both gripping and believable. And of course the basic idea always works. Hunter and hunted, a battle of wits, a match to the death. The Most Dangerous Game premiered today in 1932.
*sigh* I'm getting mighty fucking bored on this island. Even my best formal wear doesn't lift my mood anymore. My God. I suddenly have the most dastardly idea. And now we shall play a very dangerous game! Staring like cats! We'll be in danger of enjoying ourselves! Stand against the wall and I'll throw this knife at you. I mean—not at you. Close enough to be dangerous. I mean— Okay, I can see you're not into it. How about a little Russian roulette? That's a fairly dangerous game. Erm... Joel? I think we should flee before he gets to the most dangerous game. We're lost aren't we? I said flee. I didn't say flee with no goddamn idea which way you were going. Are you sure we shouldn't have turned left back there at the bog of doom? Just admit you're lost, Joel. And not to add to your worries, but I'm getting pretty hungry. If I'm snippy it's your fault. Okay, now we're just going in circles. See? He's found us! You never listen! Count! Can you hear me? I'll make you a deal! Take her, and let me leave!
Sinbad may be the star but it's the dancers who shine brightest.
Howard Hughes had an entire slate of personal flaws, not least of which was that he was a frothing racist, but in terms of filmmaking he understood the concept of value-added cinema. He often battled censors, because if he had a beautiful actress on hand he'd build something around her that was as provocative as the market would bear. Jane Russell is his most famous protégée, but he shaped projects for Jean Harlow, Gina Lollobrigida, Faith Domergue, and others. In Son of Sinbad he wanted to show Lili St. Cyr to great advantage, and along the way, in typical fashion, added more, more, and more. He brought aboard MGM dancer-actress Sally Forrest and famed peelers Nejla Ates and Kalantan to compliment St. Cyr, made them all ornately clad harem girls, and ended up with a movie that was nearly banned.
The stars of Son of Sinbad are Dale Robertson as the fictional Sinbad's son and Vincent Price as the historical figure Omar Khayyám, and in the story, which is set in Baghdad, horny Sinbad is busted making time with one of the Sultan's harem girls and is imprisoned along with Omar. In exchange for his freedom Sinbad reveals the existence of Greek fire, a dynamite-like explosive, which could come in handy because the Sultanate is at war with the Tatars. Sinbad doesn't actually have the secret to this weapon himself—it's locked inside the head of his friend Kristina, who can only reveal the process for making it while hypnotized. The Sultan is suitably impressed after a demonstration and agrees to free Sinbad and friends, but due to some palace spying third parties have learned about the weapon, and from that point forward more complications ensue.
While Son of Sinbad is a fantasy adventure with elements of comedy, audiences also knew to expect titillation from RKO Radio Pictures, and the movie leans into that expectation with its sexy costumed dance numbers. Any movie that offers St. Cyr in motion is automatically recommended, and you'll get a sense of why she was probably the most famous burlesque dancer in America, though neither she nor the other dancers remove much clothing. Even so, it's a nice showcase of the burlesque arts, and the dancing offers reason enough to watch the film, and would even if the movie were terrible.
However, the bonus here is that the movie isn't terrible. The lavish sets, beautifully painted backdrops, and colorful costumes transport the viewer—not to ancient Baghdad, but to a magical, soundstage-bound, Technicolor realm similar to that from old Bible flicks. Robertson is fine as Sinbad Jr., but Price, as he tended to do, excels in his second banana role. The man was a born star, and a born ham. As long as you don't expect a masterpiece you'll be entertained. And as a point of added interest, Kim Novak makes a quick and uncredited appearance as a Tatar woman. It was her first screen role, but because the movie was delayed—like many Hughes projects—it was not the first time audiences had seen her. Son of Sinbad did eventually hit cinemas, though, premiering after more than a year of delays, today in 1955.
It doesn't show on my face but I'm enjoying this immensely.
Jane Greer and guns. There are quite a few photos of her armed. This one was made when she was filming Out of the Past, but it doesn't depict the iconic moment when she shot Steve Brodie. She shot him from the front door. Here she's by the fireplace, about where Brodie was when she ventilated him. So we guess RKO Radio Pictures made an entire set of Greer with a gun, complete with wardrobe changes. She looks good in all of them. See her armed and dangerous in three production photos—two from Out of the Past and one from The Big Steal—here, here, and here.
The toughest case to solve is a case of amnesia.
The poster above was made to promote the mystery Two O'Clock Courage, an interesting little noir-adjacent obscurity released today in 1945. It was directed by Anthony Mann of T-Men fame, and stars Tom Conway as a hapless everyman and Ann Rutherford as a cabbie who almost runs him over, but instead takes him under her wing. Conway needs help, you see, because he's been bonked over the head, and has no clue by whom or why. In fact, he doesn't remember anything before meeting Rutherford. Everything is a big fat blank. With his brain back to factory reset, he's a nice enough guy, but he soon learns that Rutherford found him near the scene of a murder. Did he have anything to do with it? He fears he might have. He and Rutherford pair up to sleuth their way to a solution, with cops and the press underfoot all the while.
The movie, while a mystery, also aims for laughs in the style of The Thin Man, with quips, wacky secondary characters, Bettejane Greer (Jane Greer) comically overacting the effects of alcohol, and an inspector who's entirely too willing to defer authority to nosy amateurs. Maybe it was uproarious in its day, but in our day it's a bit tedious. The problem is Conway's stumbling, stammering performance. A little more agency and competence would have played better, in our opinion. His all thumbs persona isn't a dealbreaker, though, thanks to Rutherford's presence. The two even manage to generate a few legit chuckles. As for the mystery, they're pretty bad as sleuths, but they eventually solve it, because with respect to cinematic amnesia you can always count on one thing—it's easy come, easy go.
So you really have total and complete amnesia? I guess you don't remember, but I've let you ride in my cab, like, hundreds of times and you owe me probably three grand. Cash only, please. Oh, also we've had dozens of wild, carnal nights together. Since you forgot we better do all those again.
Hepburn brings a special kind of style to Hollywood.
We don't smoke, but Katherine Hepburn sure makes smoking look good in this RKO promo photo shot by Ernest Bachrach in 1935. Though she had a long and storied career, this early shot is pretty much her iconic image. Prints of it are even sold on Wal-Mart's website. Hepburn is incomparable. Her must-watch films include Bringing Up Baby, Adam's Rib, The Philadelphia Story, The African Queen, Long Day's Journey into Night, The Lion in Winter, the groundbreaking Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (which inspired an excellent reggae song by Black Uhuru), and On Golden Pond.
You can sum up Hepburn's output by saying she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar twelve times and won a quartet, the most ever. The Oscar has failed to stay as relevant as it could have over recent decades, and the Academy has made some embarrassing Best Picture choices (Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction—really?), but it's always been a reliable measure of acting quality, so Hepburn's four wins are meaningful. The one thing she didn't do was make a lot of pulp style movies. One that looks as if it qualifies is the 1946 drama Undercurrent. We'll circle back to that and the divine Miss H. in a bit.
What's being stolen? A previous movie's most successful ideas.
Every Hollywood star has that brief moment when they're invincible at the box office, but it seems as if Robert Mitchum, more than most others, was a guy who maintained his power for many years. When The Big Steal came out he'd already run the gauntlet of a drug bust, jail time, and the public repentance circuit, and seemed to emerge unscathed. The executive brains at RKO decided to match teflon Rob with Jane Greer in an attempt to replicate the pair's runaway success in the film noir monument Out of the Past. This time the studio went for a lot of banter and not much in the way noir style, as Mitchum plays an army lieutenant accused of a payroll robbery who pursues the real thief Patric Knowles through Mexico. Greer plays Knowles' fiancée, who he cold-heartedly divested of two-thousand bucks, because thieves are just a little more pragmatic than they are romantic.
The movie is fueled by that Mitchum/Greer chemistry, plus high speeds, resort wardrobe, wry looks, and the Out of the Past memories of movie audiences. Greer brandishes a gun again, just as in that seminal sequence in Out of the Past. Mitchum has a desperate fistfight, just as in Out of the Past. All of this retreading is supported by visually helpful location shooting in Veracruz and other areas of Mexico. The end result is a pleasant little chase film that's even comical at times. Or maybe the laughs came from our dark senses of humor. For example, you know how car pursuits sometimes go right through flocks of chickens, but the chickens never get hurt? In this movie one actually gets run over—at least if the numerous feathers drifting in the car's wake were any indication. That really amused us. Also nearly flattened were goats, a few cows, mules, children, and middle-aged ladies. In fact, all the near misses felt like a running gag about how Americans are always in a hurry.
Other aspects of the movie are equally tongue-in-cheek, including Mitchum's ugly-American stabs at Spanish, but however lightweight this is at times, in the end it's still categorized as a thriller, which means it needs to make pulses race. We wouldn't say it fully achieves that requirement, but it isn't bad either. Mitchum gonna Mitchum, and that's all a studio needed at this moment in time to make a movie work. He'd go on to headline Where Danger Lives, Angel Face, and a long string of good-to-middling dramas and noirs, all the way up to his other cinematic monuments, 1955's The Night of the Hunter and 1962's Cape Fear. The Big Steal is an okay flick, but its true value may be that it shows what the Mitchum charm can do for material that doesn't even deserve him. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1949.
Unless they're framed and sent to prison for life. In that case a few tears are understandable.
Above is a rare and vibrant Australian full bleed (i.e. borderless) promo poster from RKO Radio Pictures A/SIA for Dick Powell's classic film noir Cry Danger, released Down Under today in 1951. We wrote about this flick back in February, so if you're curious just have a look at this link.
You know what I love about you, Jane? You're as hot as me. It's like I switched my gender with FaceApp.
The promo poster for the classic film noir His Kind of Woman declares Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum the hottest combination ever to hit the screen. The windscreen? The screen door? We'll assume it means the silver screen. The movie was made by RKO Radio Pictures when it was run by Howard Hughes, so if you know anything about vintage cinema you already know this production was a mess. Hughes' micromanaging, meddling, and firings of actors led to heavy cost overruns and more than an hour of retakes. Despite these issues Mitchum and Russell do fine as the romantic leads, and support from Vincent Price, Jim Backus, and Raymond Burr helps them immensely. Are they the hottest whatever to hit the whatever? Well, of course. They'd be the hottest pushing a stalled car up a hill, or flossing their rearmost molars, or yakking in the toilet after an all night tequila binge. When you're hot, you're hot. We know quite well because—not to boast—people have said the same about us.
Anyway, Mitchum plays a classic film noir patsy who accepts a pile of money to go to Mexico for unknown purposes, only to discover that the sweet deal he thought he was getting isn't so sweet after all. Russell plays a rich girl idling down south with her lover, a famous actor, but when she gets a gander of Mitchum she starts rethinking her romantic priorities. Any smart woman would. We won't reveal the plot other than to say it's adequate, though not awe inspiring. The last few reels make a hard right turn into comedy, which some viewers hate, but the major problem for us is that the ineptness of the villains during the extended climax strains credulity. In the end His Kind of Woman may not be your kind of movie, but guys (or girls) get to see Russell dress slinkily and sing a couple of songs, and girls (or guys) get to see Mitchum go about twenty minutes with no shirt, so there's a silver lining for everyone here. The film premiered in the U.S. today in 1951. Do you have someplace I can store this suitcase filled with my excess masculine heat?
Sure, you can sit next to me. But first you have to sign a liability waiver in case you get scorched.
You'll love this next trick. I put my finger in this cognac and it catches fire.
Hot as this guy is, I don't know whether to keep beating on him or start beating on me.
And once I take your face off I'll be the hot one. I'll have it all! Respect, envy, women, excellent service wherever I go! The world will be mine! Mwahh hah hah! Haaaaaaaah haha hahah!
You guys hungry? I've got some piping hot human souls here. They're dee-lish.
The lost world adventure She, starring Helen Gahagan and Randolph Scott, was produced by Merian C. Cooper, who made King Kong in 1933. With him involved you know She is a big production. It's also as pure a pulp movie as you'll find. It was based on H. Rider Haggard's pre-pulp tale She: A History of Adventure, which first appeared in 1886.
The story involves a man named Leo following in the footsteps of a distant relative who disappeared five centuries ago searching for a lost land and the secret to immortality. It turns out that secret is real and it's guarded by an ageless goddess, beautiful and cruel, who all those years ago made Leo's distant relative her consort. But he died, which means when the goddess sees Leo she believes he's her dead lover returned from the beyond, and she's determined to possess him again.
Gahagan is the goddess, Scott is Leo the explorer, and Helen Mack is his steadfast love, who takes none-to-kindly to some slutty goddess trying to lay her man. She is cheesy as hell, but it's also a high budget adventure with big sets, elaborate staging, and an insane fire stunt that comes during a chaotic climax. Movies this old always feel a bit alien, but it's still pretty good overall. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1935.
In rankings of America's most liveable places it's at the very bottom.
Destination Murder, for which you see a nice poster above, is a b-movie, but bottom-of-the-bill efforts soemtimes have cool plot set-ups and good twists. In this case it's multiple layers of wrongly presumed identity. Who's really the killer? Who's really the crime boss? Who's really a cigarette girl? In addition, whose side are all these people really on? With more budget we think this one could have been quite good, but alas, you do what you can with what you have, and here you have Joyce MacKenzie, Stanley Clements, and Hurd Hatfield. They're all solid performers who had long careers, but we bet you don't know any of their names. In addition, the writing falters in spots as it strives for sharpness, but ends up dulling its blade. For example:
“You see, Miss Mansfield, we're dealing with killers. And a killer has only one destination—murder.”
The writing hurts the end of the film as well, as the structure of the climax and the need to work a recurring player piano into matters strain credulity. But Destination Murder isn't a loss by any means. MacKenzie, playing a woman who infiltrates the mob in order to find her father's killer, has to carry the important parts of this film and manages it despite both budget and screenwriting hanging around her ankles. For fans of vintage film, this forgotten quasi-noir should be sufficiently entertaining, as long as you don't spend too much time imagining how much better it could have been. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1950.
Worst vacation spot in America, here we come! Take a close look, ma'am. Asses are just as unique as faces, and equally admissible in court. I don't think it's that one. The man I saw had a chin. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1966—LSD Declared Illegal in U.S.
LSD, which was originally synthesized by a Swiss doctor and was later secretly used by the CIA on military personnel, prostitutes, the mentally ill, and members of the general public in a project code named MKULTRA, is designated a controlled substance in the United States.
1945—Hollywood Black Friday
A six month strike by Hollywood set decorators becomes a riot at the gates of Warner Brothers Studios when strikers and replacement workers clash. The event helps bring about the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which, among other things, prohibits unions from contributing to political campaigns and requires union leaders to affirm they are not supporters of the Communist Party.
1957—Sputnik Circles Earth
The Soviet Union launches the satellite Sputnik I, which becomes the first artificial object to orbit the Earth. It orbits for two months and provides valuable information about the density of the upper atmosphere. It also panics the United States into a space race that eventually culminates in the U.S. moon landing.
1970—Janis Joplin Overdoses
American blues singer Janis Joplin is found dead on the floor of her motel room in Los Angeles. The cause of death is determined to be an overdose of heroin, possibly combined with the effects of alcohol.
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