Category Archives: ★★★

Flash Gordon (1938, Frederick Stephani)

Flash Gordon is all about its gee whiz factor. The serial goes all out to create the planet Mongo, which has come out of nowhere (in space) and is on a collision course with Earth. Only scientist Frank Shannon has a plan to save the otherwise panicked and resigned Earth–take a rocketship to the new planet and try to change its course. Shannon can’t do it alone, of course, he needs help; luckily, Buster Crabbe and Jean Rogers’s plane has crashed nearby. And Crabbe is Shannon’s colleague’s son. And Rogers is cute. So, of course, Crabbe and Rogers agree to go off to space to save the world.

Right off, Flash Gordon establishes Crabbe is a force more than a character. Crabbe excels at the role’s physicality–he always tries to do something, no matter the odds. Sometimes it’s to advance the plot, sometimes it’s to stretch out a chapter, sometimes it’s just to lose some of his clothes. Until the last three or four chapters, Crabbe’s always getting stripped down, sweaty, or wet. More on the beefcake in a bit. Crabbe’s enthusiasm is one of Gordon’s greatest assets. He doesn’t overthink his thinly written “never give up” preppy fencer rich kid with a heart of gold. Sure, he’s on an alien planet, and he’s nothing but a man, but he’s got to save every one of us.

So Crabbe goes all in on the physicality. It gets more intense as the serial progresses. By the second half of Flash Gordon, Crabbe’s even doing exagerated arm motions while running. He’s all in on Flash, even when he shouldn’t be trying so hard. His overdone expressions during the swordfights are risible, but earnest. He doesn’t have the same problems in regular fight scenes, just the swordfights. Thankfully, swordfights occur less and less frequently as the serial goes on.

Director Stephani focuses the film on Crabbe whenever he’s onscreen. At least until the last third of the chapters; then Crabbe will either literally disappear or take a supporting part in a scene. It feels a little weird–while the chapters have an excellent momentum overall, Flash’s finale is protracted. The last chapter could’ve finished off the serial at almost any point after the halfway mark. Flash starts as Crabbe’s journey around the kingdoms of Mongo but real quick it’s just about him being maybe a prisoner, maybe not a prisoner, of evil emperor Charles Middleton. It depends on Lawson’s mood; she plays the emperor’s daughter and she takes an immediate liking to the cut of Crabbe’s jib. Both in terms of his earnestness and his beefcakery.

Flash Gordon is a serial for kids with beefcake for accompanying parental units. There’s also some degree of good girl with Rogers and Priscilla Lawson. With the cheesecake, there’s at least have the excuse all the Mongo royalty are pigs. With the beefcake… sure, Crabbe’s an Olympian, there’s got to be some interest in him. But Flash doesn’t stop with Crabbe–almost all the male characters are eventually stripped down and coated in oil. And if they aren’t, they’re wearing shorty shorts. Flash Gordon can be a trip. Watching Shannon calmly deliver nonsense science exposition while in black shorty shorts is something else.

The costume design is a strange mix of various costumed drama and adventure styles. You have Greek and Roman soldiers–because shorts, after all–next to a guy in a suit of armor. They all have swords and laser guns. Laser guns don’t get used much, because budget. Budget also comes in on James Pierce’s lionman and Duke York’s sharkman. Lionman just means ZZ Top beard. Sharkman means speedos and a diving cap, maybe some drawn-on fins. The actors give it their all, however, which is stunning. Their straight faces help make the non-complementary styles acceptable together.

The only disappointments in the cast are Middleton and Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson. Lipson’s the king of the hawkmen and he’s either annoying or too broad. It doesn’t help his first scene has him threatening to let his pet tiger eat Rogers since she doesn’t want to be raped. It’s a fairly intense scene for Flash, though Rogers’s under constant threat, whether from Lipson, Middleton, or Lawson. I think there aren’t any blond people on Mongo? So Middleton wants Rogers and Lawson wants Crabbe.

Anyway. Lipson’s not good. Middleton’s not either. The evil emperor never seems megalomaniacal or even regal. Towards the end, when Lawson is revolting against him too, Flash Gordon momentarily seems like a single dad warring against his rebellious teenage daughter, under the same roof, but in separate worlds. It’s only momentarily, because it’s not like Middleton would do it. The character’s one note, the performance’s similarly one note. If he were just a little better, the costume and makeup would probably carry him better.

But it doesn’t matter because Middleton’s far less important for the bulk of the runtime. He’s only important in the beginning and end. The rest of time, Middleton’s mostly around to crack the whip on scientist Shannon, because even though Mongo has spaceships of various designs and anti-gravity rays, somehow Shannon is smarter than all their scientists.

Crabbe and Rogers spend the first half of the serial making new enemies and then turning them into allies. Lawson’s usually around to undermine them and try to get Crabbe for herself. She eventually has to enlist double-dealing high priest Theodore Lorch to figure it all out.

When Flash Gordon does have its second half slowdown, things start getting repetative. How many times can Middleton lie to Crabbe? How many times can Crabbe and company escape yet end up back in Middleton’s palace? Will Shannon ever get his stupid radio to Earth fixed–seriously, it’s like nine chapters about it; way too much.

These repeats don’t end up hurting Flash much. Turns out its nice to see the actors get some down time and just to hang out. Crabbe and Rogers make cute puppy eyes. Lipson gets less annoying. Shannon’s practically an adorable old scientist guy by the end.

And it’s always exciting. Even when the editing stalls out or the cliffhanger resolution is a little lazy. Because Flash isn’t about the cliffhangers, it’s about the gee whiz. Thanks to Crabbe, most of the cast, and the enthusiastic production values, Stephani is able keep that gee whiz going through all thirteen chapters of Flash Gordon. When it seems like the gee whiz might run out, it just starts back up strong again. Flash can never fail.



Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), Theodore Lorch (High Priest), Duke York (King Kala), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).



The Seventh Sin (1957, Ronald Neame)

The Seventh Sin has three problems. The first is the third act; it’s too rushed. Given the constraints of the film production–a shot-in-Hollywood production about a cholera outbreak in a rural Chinese town–there’s not so much to be done about it. The film has a limited cast, especially once the action moves from Hong Kong to that town, and the roles are restrictive. The second problem is Miklós Rózsa’s music. It’s occasionally perfectly good melodramatic stuff, but Rózsa also has a lot what he must have considered Chinese themes. Regardless of their origin, they come off as trite or condescending and completely alien to the film’s narrative. They’re as patiently false as the rear screen projection shots, only without the actors there to get the scenes through.

The third problem is the big one. It keeps The Seventh Sin down, even when everything else is working (though, obviously, not much of Rózsa’s score). “Leading man” Bill Travers is awful. He’s mediocre at the start, seemingly unable to fully handle the part of a vindictive cuckold, but once he actually has some character development to essay? Travers butchers it even worse.

Now on to the good. Lead Eleanor Parker. She starts the film desperately unhappy, floundering, angry, and completely transforms through her experiences. The Seventh Sin is front-loaded. The most dramatic story stuff is at the beginning, when dull Travers learns Parker’s having an affair with charming Jean-Pierre Aumont. By the time Travers drags Parker to the cholera outbreak, there’s not much drama left. They’re both resigned and burned out. Parker’s already gone through one entire dramatic arc with the character and then she has to build another one, only without any outside incitement. Despite Travers singlehandedly turning the tide of the cholera epidemic, Sin’s all about how Parker experiences it and how that experience changes her. And a lot of her experience is just sitting around miserable.

Sometimes she does have George Sanders, playing an Englishman who’s settled in the town to occasionally run an import and export business, but mostly to get drunk and snoop into people’s personal lives. He finds a kindred spirit in Parker and much of the second act involve his attempts to discover her secrets and then what to do with those discoveries.

All of Parker’s development comes in these quietly composed wide shots; she’s often alone in them, negotiating her place in space. When someone else comes into the shot–specifically Travers–it’s an intrusion. The subdued tension explodes. Parker argues magnificently in the film. The script never really gives Sanders a chance to keep up, which seems a missed opportunity (but not once the narrative plays out). At the beginning of the film, Travers actually does hold his ground for a moment or two but he quickly gets lost. It’s impossible to imagine how The Seventh Sin would’ve turned out with a better performance in his role.

While Ronald Neame gets the sole credit, Vincente Minnelli directed much of it–most of it? And given Neame left because he (incredibly and stupidly) disliked Parker’s performance, maybe Minnelli’s responsible for all the great direction of Parker.

Besides Parker and Sanders (who plays a soulful drunk just like he’s a soulful drunk), Aumont is pretty good. Françoise Rosay is excellent as a Mother Superior who gives Parker quite a bit of advice; it’s mostly from a humanistic standpoint, not a religiously influenced one, which makes the scenes particularly effective.

Good black and white photography from Ray June. He does a lot better with the matte paintings than with the rear screen projection.

Karl Tunberg’s script holds strong for almost the entire film, until the third act rush. That last minute stumble is mostly Tunberg’s fault, but Minnelli (or Neame) could’ve tried to do something to save it. The finale manages to have Parker in every second but lose the character’s depth. Her personal journey becomes perfunctory, which is a big problem given it’s the entire picture.

And most of the picture is quite good.

Except Travers. Travers is terrible.



Directed by Ronald Neame; screenplay by Karl Tunberg, based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Ray June; edited by Gene Ruggiero; music by Miklos Rozsa; produced by David Lewis; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Eleanor Parker (Carol Carwin), Jean-Pierre Aumont (Paul Duvelle), George Sanders (Tim Waddington), Bill Travers (Doctor Walter Carwin), Françoise Rosay (Mother Superior) and Ellen Corby (Sister Saint Joseph).


Encore (1951, Pat Jackson, Anthony Pelissier, and Harold French)

With the exception of some overly confident rear screen projection and a problematic middle story, Encore is an almost entirely successful anthology of three W. Somerset Maugham stories. Each story has a different director and screenwriter; otherwise the crew is the same.

Maugham introduces each story, usually saying something to mildly detract from it–he emphasizes the stories being fictionalizations of real life, which seems a tad pointless, but it’s better than when he assails one of his characters. More on that one in a bit.

The first story is an extremely dry comedy, with loafing Nigel Patrick trying to get money out of his successful older brother, played by Roland Culver. Pat Jackson directs it, T.E.B. Clarke does the script for it. Both Patrick and Culver are fantastic–Patrick’s solution to Culver not lending him money is to take menial jobs in Culver’s social circle to humiliate him. So for a while the segment is just Patrick being a perfect bastard and Culver getting more and more frustrated. The jobs are always funny–and always involve Culver’s bewildered client, Charles Victor–before it takes a very fun turn at the end.

Clarke’s script is fast and funny, Jackson’s direction is the same. Jackson lets Patrick walk off with scenes (usually over Culver–but not always) to great effect.

From that very high start, Encore immediately gets in to trouble with the second segment. It starts before the segment itself, with Maugham complaining about a woman he once didn’t like. It’s appropriate, dire forecasting.

Directed by Anthony Pelissier and written by Arthur Macrae, the second segment is about annoying cruise ship passenger Kay Walsh. No one can stand her. She’s talkative and friendly, which is obnoxious to captain Noel Purcell and ship’s doctor Ronald Squire. Lots of the complaints have to do with Walsh being a woman, which seems like lazy writing on someone’s part (Macrae’s or Maugham’s), and it reduces every character in the segment to a caricature. At the end, it turns out the caricatures were intentional so there could be a last minute reveal.

Despite the characters being astoundingly thin, the performances are all generally fine. Once she gets to do, Walsh is quite good (good enough someone should’ve rethought the adaptation of the story, as it’s no good for film). Pelissier’s direction, albeit peppered with stock footage of the ocean, the Bahamas, and so on, is quite good. He’s directing for the actors, shame the script isn’t there for them.

The final segment starts with yet another troubling introduction from Maugham. It’s going to be about dangerous stunt performers, he says, who he wishes would just do something safer.

Glynis Johns (top-billed for the whole picture) is a high diver. She dives eighty feet into five feet of water, which is covered in flames. She does it twice a night for rich diners at a Riviera resort. Husband Terence Morgan is her announcer and manager. Johns is getting sick of the life, while Morgan is negotiating longer and longer, and more and more lucrative, contracts for her. When they meet retired daredevil Mary Merrall (and her husband, Martin Miller), Johns’s crises become more immediate.

Harold French directs this segment, from a script by Eric Ambler. It’s the biggest segment–though there’s still some questionable rear screen projection on the Riveria, there’s a physical eighty-foot diving platform and a lot of sets. There’s the restaurant, there’s a casino, it’s a lot more open than either of the preceding segments. It’s not about the sets or the stunts, however, it’s all about Johns and her growing fear. About Morgan and his working class dreams. Of the three, it embraces its sentimentality the most and is the most ambitious. French and Ambler don’t have a last minute reveal or some really funny situational comedy to fall back on. They just have the actors. And the actors succeed.

Excellent performances–from Patrick, Culver, Walsh, Johns, Morgan, and Merrall–excellent direction, solid production values (excepting the problematic rear screen, of course) result in an entirely satisfactory, rather successful film.



Directed by Pat Jackson, Anthony Pelissier, and Harold French; screenplay by T.E.B. Clarke, Arthur Macrae, and Eric Ambler, based on stories by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Desmond Dickinson; edited by Alfred Roome; music by Richard Addinsell; produced by Antony Darnborough; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring Nigel Patrick (Tom Ramsay), Roland Culver (George Ramsay), Charles Victor (Mr. Bateman), Peter Graves (Philip Cronshaw), Kay Walsh (Miss Molly Reid), Noel Purcell (Captain), Ronald Squire (Doctor), Jacques François (Pierre), John Horsley (Joe, Mate), Glynis Johns (Stella Cotman), Terence Morgan (Syd Cotman), Mary Merrall (Flora Penezzi), and Martin Miller (Carlo Penezzi).


Captains Courageous (1937, Victor Fleming)

As Captains Courageous enters its third act, Spencer Tracy (as a Portugese fisherman) reminds Freddie Bartholomew (a spoiled blue blood kid Tracy rescues after he falls overboard from an ocean liner) it’s almost time to go home to his regular life. It’s a shock for Bartholomew, but also for the viewer. Even though the first act is mostly Bartholomew and his regular life–bribing his teachers, threatening his classmates, whining a lot about how his rich dad (Melvyn Douglas) will exact his vengeance–it’s been forever since the film has been anywhere but a fishing boat. Just when the film is sailing its best, Tracy comes along to ring the bell and announce its going to be wrapping up.

Fleming’s direction is strong throughout, but most of the fishing boat scenes are contrained. The transition from second to third acts is when Captains really gets out on the water. Franz Waxman’s score is phenomenal during those sequences; the film’s enraptured with the fishing life. Bartholomew’s on board with it, this obnoxious ten-year-old who–shockingly–becomes a part of the crew.

While setting up Bartholomew’s backstory, screenwriters John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly, and Dale Van Every keep the film’s focus moving. Sometimes it’s on Bartholomew, sometimes it’s on Douglas, sometimes it’s on tertiary supporting cast members. Fleming handles it fine, but Bartholomew’s always got to be the biggest jerk possible. He’s intentionally unsympathetic. And the film keeps that approach for quite a while once he’s onboard the fishing boat.

The boat’s got this great cast–Lionel Barrymore’s the captain, John Carradine’s a fisherman who can’t stand Bartholomew, Mickey Rooney’s Barrymore’s son and a proven teen fisherman–and Bartholomew clashes with everyone to some degree. Even if he’s not being a complete jerk, there’s a clash. The script starts getting a lot more nuanced in how it positions the characters; another reason it’s become so separated from the boarding school and Bartholomew’s rich kid life. But the film never tries to force a redemption arc on Bartholomew, it’s all character development, it’s all part of his arc.

It works because the acting is so strong, especially in how the actors work off one another. Barrymore’s kind of gruff, but also kind of cuddly. He doesn’t have time to get worked up about Bartholomew being a little jerk, whereas Carradine rages beautifully on it. Even though Rooney’s closest in age to Bartholomew, their relationship never forgets the difference of experiences–something the film brings in beautifully in the third act. Bartholomew and Tracy are wonderful together. Fleming knows it too; he’ll fill the frame with their faces, with the lovely Harold Rosson photography, and the film becomes very heavy and very quiet in this deep, soulful way.

Tracy’s got a strong part and his performance is incredibly measured. He never goes too far with it, never pushes at it. There’s a give and take with the other actors–principally Bartholomew, but also Carradine; Tracy never seems reserved or guarded or even indulgent to his costars. He just keeps the right temperment throughout, which isn’t easy given a lack of both melodrama and action for much of the second act. The film’s tension comes from Tracy’s muted exasperation. It’s awesome. And his curled hair looks great.

The third act has some high points and some lower ones. Captains doesn’t run out of ideas, it runs out of patience for sturdily linking them together. It’s like Fleming knows he can get away with it, thanks to the actors, thanks to Waxman, thanks to Rosson. The script sets up opportunities and the film ignores them, rushing to the end.

Fleming’s right–he can get away with it–especially since the third act gives Barrymore his best moments in the film. As sort of implied, Barrymore’s been sage all along. Only he hasn’t had the motivation, time, or space to reveal it. Barrymore’s always good, but in the third act, he’s phenomenal. It’s a shame the rest of the third act isn’t as successful.

Nice or great performances throughout, strong script, great pace from director Fleming, Captains Courageous almost sails through. It gets bogged down at the finish. It could’ve been better, but it’s still quite good.



Directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly, and Dale Van Every, based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling; director of photography, Harold Rosson; edited by Elmo Veron; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Louis D. Lighton; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Freddie Bartholomew (Harvey), Spencer Tracy (Manuel), Lionel Barrymore (Disko), Mickey Rooney (Dan), Melvyn Douglas (Mr. Cheyne), Charley Grapewin (Uncle Salters), John Carradine (Long Jack), Sam McDaniel (Doc), and Oscar O’Shea (Cushman).