Dancing Co-Ed (1939)

Dancing Co-Ed 1939Freddie and Toddie Tobin are one of the most popular dancing duos working and are about to start making a new movie together, but when news breaks that Toddie is pregnant, they need to find someone to take her place in their new film. The studio moguls decide that instead of getting another big-name star to take Toddie’s place, they should cast an unknown and hold a nationwide contest for college students to find her replacement. But to make sure they’re choosing someone who is up to the demands of working with a dancer like Freddie, they choose a real dancer named Patty Marlow (Lana Turner) and enroll her in college so she can “win” the contest.

Patty isn’t too happy about the prospect of going back to school and since she isn’t all that educated to begin with, the studio’s press agent gets his secretary Eve (Ann Rutherford) to take her entrance exams for her and pays for her to go back to school, too. While at school, she ends up falling in love with Pug Braddock (Richard Carlson), who works for the school paper. Much to her surprise, she also starts to really like journalism, too. Pug is skeptical about this big nationwide contest and wants to do an expose about it. Patty tries to continue with the contest, while trying to convince Pug she’s on the level at the same time. Of course, it isn’t long before he finds out the truth, but everything works out in the end.

Some movies don’t aspire to be anything more than lighthearted fun and that’s exactly what Dancing Co-Ed does. Fluffy, formulaic, nonsense plot? Absolutely! But is it fun to watch? Oh, yeah! I’ve spent all day not feeling very well and this was exactly the sort of movie I needed to lift my spirits a little bit. Not only does it have a very young Lana Turner, still pretty early in her career at this point and very beautiful and charming, it has a really great supporting cast with people like Ann Rutherford, Roscoe Karns, and Monty Woolley, who plays one of Patty’s professors. It’s simply a really cute movie. Nothing Earth shattering, but sometimes you just need something fun and cute and Dancing Co-Ed fits the bill perfectly. I loved it.

A Woman of Affairs (1928)

A Woman of Affairs Garbo Gilbert

Diana Merrick (Greta Garbo) and Neville Holderness (John Gilbert) have been friends since childhood and ever since they were very young, Diana has been madly in love with Neville. They want to get married, but Neville’s father doesn’t approve and sends him to work in Egypt for a few years, where he will be able to make a lot of money. Diana wants to wait for him, but after a couple of years, she marries David Furness (John Mack Brown), someone Diana’s brother Jeffry (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) adores. It isn’t that Diana doesn’t like David, it’s that her heart will always belong to Neville. On their wedding night, David and Diana are visited by the police and David suddenly commits suicide.

Diana knows why he killed himself, but won’t say, and Jeffry believes David did it because of her. David’s death drives a huge wedge between Jeffry and Diana. Jeffry, already a heavy drinker, keeps drinking his way down a path of self-destruction while Diana becomes a woman notorious for having lots of affairs. The years go by and Neville comes home, but he’s engaged to marry Constance (Dorothy Sebastian). Just before their wedding, Diana calls for a doctor friend of theirs, who happens to be having dinner with Neville and Constance that night, to get help for Jeffry. Jeffry is extremely ill and won’t let Diana help. After she leaves, Neville follows her out and they end up spending the night together.

Several months later, after Neville and Constance are married, Neville gets a message saying that Diana is sick and she keeps asking for him. She’s been recovering from a miscarriage and is in a delirious state. When he goes to see her, she doesn’t even recognize him. But when she comes to her senses a little bit, she declares her love for him, not realizing he’s brought Constance with him. Neville’s never stopped loving her, but now that he has a chance to be with his true love, does he leave Constance behind?

A Lady of Affairs is pure melodrama, but it’s really great melodrama. Few actresses were made to work in silent film the way Greta Garbo was. The simple movement of her eyebrows spoke volumes and she is positively radiant in this movie. She gives a fantastic performance and although I wouldn’t say this is the best pairing of Garbo and John Gilbert (it’s awfully hard to top the cinematic explosion that is Flesh and the Devil), but Gilbert is very good in it, too, and it’s easy to see why they were such a hit with movie audiences. Great stars, beautiful cinematography, an interesting story (a bit scandalous for its time, but still toned down from the book it was based on), it all adds up to one entertaining movie.

The Murder Man (1935)

The Murder Man 1935When J. Spencer Halford (Theodor von Eltz), a business man known for his shady dealings that have swindled lots of people out of their money, is found murdered in his car, it’s exactly the kind of story local newspaper reporter Steve Grey (Spencer Tracy) is best at handling. His reputation for writing about murder cases has earned him the nickname of “The Murder Man.” At least, this would be the perfect story for Steve, if his other coworkers could find him; he also has a reputation for being a hard drinker who often wakes up in places that aren’t his home.

When he’s found and gets to work, he comes up with a theory that Halford was killed by a shot fired from the shooting gallery across the street and that Halford’s business partner Henry Mander (Harvey Stevens) killed him to collect on his insurance policy. Enough evidence is found to support that theory, Mander is put on trial, and Steve is one witness to testify against him. His testimony is enough for him to be found guilty and Mander is sentenced to death.

Although this should be a victory for Steve, he feels awful about it. His boss and his girlfriend Mary (Virginia Bruce), the newspaper’s advice columnist, both convince him to take a vacation, but that doesn’t do much good. Just before Mander is set to be executed, Steve’s fellow reporter Shorty (James Stewart) convinces him to do the final jailhouse interview with Mander. It should be an explosive story, but after meeting with Mander, Steve can’t write the story. He knows Mander is innocent and knows who really killed him and must tell the truth before it’s too late.

The Murder Man is an absolute gem. A very tightly-told crime story with a great twist at the end. I usually find most plot twists to be rather predictable, but I liked this one. It’s also noteworthy for being a major film milestone for two film legends — Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart. This was the first movie Spencer Tracy made while under contract to MGM; he went on to work for the studio for 20 more years. He certainly made the most of his MGM debut, he was great in it. This is also the first featured, credited film role for Jimmy Stewart. Since it’s an extremely early role for him, he’s not given a whole lot to do, but it’s still just fun to see Jimmy Stewart in his first featured role. Virginia Bruce rounds out a great cast as the sympathetic, likable girlfriend. I’m not sure why I’ve never heard of it before today, but I sure am glad I decided to watch it. As much as I find it ridiculous that a real reporter would have this much power over a murder investigation, these types of 1930s newspaper movies sure are entertaining.

The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960)

Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond 1960Jack Diamond (Ray Danton) gets his start in the criminal world as a small-time crook in New York. He wants to start dating dance instructor Alice Scott (Karen Steele),  but when she turns him down, he sabotages her intended dancing partner so she’ll choose him instead and when they’re in the middle of a dance competition together, he sabotages their top competition to win. Later that night, while he’s at a movie with Alice, he sneaks out and robs a jewelry store. But he has his eyes set on bigger and better things.

Working with his ailing brother Eddie (Warren Oates), he decides he wants to get ahead by stealing from criminals because he knows they can’t call the cops on him. Not wanting to start small, Jack decides to go after the notorious Arnold Rothstein (Robert Lowery) by trying to get a job working as his bodyguard so he’ll have access to all his tricks of the trade. Of course, Arnold Rothstein is not an easy man to get close to and Jack has to resort to buying thousands of dollars worth of clothes and charging it to Rothstein, knowing he’ll send some of his men to bring him to Rothstein to explain. Rothstein is impressed, but not enough to hire him — not yet anyway. But he does get there eventually and he begins to think he’s invincible.

It isn’t long before Jack plans to kill Rothstein and takes over his crime syndicate. He runs the syndicate with ruthless abandon, his yearning for power never satiated. But sooner or later, Jack learns the hard way that what must come up must come down when even his closest henchmen and Alice, now his wife, can’t deal with him anymore.

I love a good gangster movie, so The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond was naturally a hit with me. I don’t know much about the life of Legs Diamond, so I have absolutely no idea how historically accurate it is, but it was at least entertaining. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a Ray Danton movie before, but I was very impressed by his performance as Legs Diamond. I’m not sure why it isn’t better remembered as one of the all-time great gangster performances in film, but he was really fantastic. The movie, as a whole, may not be one of the all-time best gangster flicks, but it’s still a very entertaining movie. Absolutely worth seeing for Ray Danton and Lucien Ballard’s great cinematography.

The Gazebo (1959)

The Gazebo 1959

Elliott Nash (Glenn Ford) is a prominent television writer and director. Although he likes his job, it is a very stressful occupation and it’s made him very high strung. Not a bad person, he’s the type of man who nurses injured pigeons back to health, just stressed out a lot of the time. He and his Broadway star wife Nell (Debbie Reynolds) recently bought a house together in the suburbs so he can get away from the city and be able to relax a little.

In addition to his job responsibilities, there’s something else that’s been eating Elliott up inside. Lately, he’s been getting phone calls from a man trying to blackmail him into paying him to keep some scandalous pictures of Nell out of the papers. But the blackmailer is asking for higher and higher amounts of money, more than he can afford at the moment. The only way he can get the money is to sell the house, but Nell just loves it and refuses to agree to selling it, despite Elliott’s best attempts to sabotage the home.

When Nell purchases a historic gazebo to put in the backyard, it needs to be placed on a concrete foundation. When Elliott finds out it will take 24 hours for the concrete to set, Elliott decides to lure the blackmailer to his house by telling him he has the money so he can kill him and bury him in the backyard where the gazebo will be. Elliott goes through with the plan, despite a few mishaps along the way. But then he later finds out that the real blackmailer was found dead in his apartment. So who is buried under the gazebo?

Now this is a movie that’s well overdue to be rediscovered. Not your typical Debbie Reynolds flick, but if you appreciate dark humor, it’s a very funny movie. Glenn Ford was absolutely hilarious in the scene where he’s trying to carry out his murder plot and Debbie Reynolds is just a delight. I really liked Glenn Ford and Debbie Reynolds together as a duo. And since I mainly know Glenn Ford from movies like GildaBlackboard Jungle, and The Big Heat, seeing him in a more comedic role was a nice change of pace.  The Gazebo is also noteworthy for being the film debut of Carl Reiner and featuring John McGiver in a great supporting role. Given its offbeat style of comedy, it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but it was right up my alley.

A Foreign Affair (1948)

A Foreign Affair 1948

In the aftermath of World War II, American Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) is sent to Germany to evaluate the morale of American troops still in the area. When she arrives, she comes bearing a homemade chocolate cake for Captain John Pringle (John Lund), a gift from his fiancee. Before long, she’s being whisked off on a tour of the city, during which she’s appalled to see American servicemen cavorting with German women. In fact, when she’s mistaken for a German woman by a couple of  American servicemen, they take her out for drinks at a club where singer Erika von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich) is performing.

While at the club, Phoebe learns that Erika was reportedly the girlfriend of a prominent Nazi leader who is now being protected by her American soldier boyfriend. She also sees a very familiar-looking cake being passed around the club. Unbeknownst to her, John is Erika’s secret boyfriend and he had traded his cake on the black market for a new mattress for her. Once Phoebe is able to prove Erika had ties to Nazi officials, she orders Erika’s apartment to be monitored constantly to find out who her boyfriend is and, still oblivious to who the person responsible is, assigns John to the task.

Following an awkward encounter outside of Erika’s apartment, in which she confronts John for keeping her waiting while Phoebe watches on, Phoebe drags John along to look up files on Erika. To prevent her from finding Erika’s files, John tries to convince Phoebe he’s in love with her. When he kisses her, she really does fall in love with him and John, still willing to protect Erika, even agrees to marry Phoebe to prevent her from investigating. Meanwhile, Colonel Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell) is aware of John’s relationship with Erika and wants him to keep seeing her in the hopes she will lead them to other Nazi officials.

From a historical standpoint, A Foreign Affair an absolutely fascinating movie to watch. It’s a movie dealing with Nazis and post-WWII Germany that was written and directed by a man who left Germany when the Nazi Party rose to power, stars an actress who despised the Nazis so much she renounced her German citizenship. It’s a role Dietrich absolutely despised, given how her character’s willingness to associate with known Nazis was in direct conflict with her own views. In fact, there’s a scene where Dietrich wears a gown she wore while performing for American troops during the war. It’s also a movie that was released shortly after the end of the war and was actually filmed in Berlin.

Even without the historical significance, it’s simply a good movie. A Foreign Affair is pure, unadulterated Billy Wilder — full of biting wit, razor-sharp dialogue, and a good amount of cynicism. In addition to Billy Wilder’s brilliant writing and direction, Jean Arthur is perfect as the uptight and repressed Phoebe. Although Dietrich hated this role, she worked very well with Billy Wilder and over 10 years later, he’d direct her again in one of her best performances in Witness for the Prosecution. It’s just a wonderful film. I’ve yet to be completely disappointed by a Billy Wilder movie.

Hearts of the West (1975)

Hearts of the West 1975More than anything else in life, Lewis Tater (Jeff Bridges) wants to be a writer of Western novels. When he sees an advertisement for the University of Titan, he decides to enroll in some correspondence writing classes. The University of Titan had a Nevada address, so despite the advice from his family, Lewis decides he’d rather take classes in person so he can enjoy the atmosphere of being out west.

After making the long trip out to Titan, Nevada, he shows up at the address only to find out the University of Titan doesn’t actually exist; the “school” is run by a couple of con artists operating out of a local hotel. As fate would have it, Lewis ends up staying in the same hotel as the con artists and gets into a fight with them. In the tussle, Lewis takes their car and drives out into the desert until it runs out of gas. Then he decides to get out and walk through the desert and happens to wander onto the set of a movie being filmed by Tumbleweed Studios, a studio that specializes in “B” Westerns.

The film crew helps him out and let him ride back into town with them. He has a crush on their production assistant Miss Trout (Blyth Danner) and makes friends with actor Howard Pike (Andy Griffith), who recommends he get a job at a local restaurant. At least this way he can spend time around cowboys and get some inspiration for his big novel. He also applies for a job at the studio and is hired by Bert Kessler (Alan Arkin). Lewis starts out doing stuntwork, but works his way up to featured roles and becomes a star. Meanwhile, he has to watch out for the con artists from the University of Titan, who are looking for him.

Not one of my favorite movies, but Hearts of the West is quite pleasant and good for some laughs. The cast is fantastic; it’s full of great stars who I never knew were in this movie, mostly because I’d never even heard of this movie until I saw it in today’s lineup on TCM. Jeff Bridges was perfectly cast as the youthful and naive Lewis and I really liked Alan Arkin as Bert Kessler. Andy Griffith was a pretty good fit for playing a cowboy film star. It’s a little too slowly paced for my liking, I found myself starting to tune out here and there. Not bad, but not that great, either.