Ladies in Retirement (1941)

Ladies in Retirementladies in retirement poster
Directed by Charles Vidor
Written by Garrett Fort and Reginald Denham based on a play by Denham and Edward Percy
1941/USA
Columbia Pictures Corporation

First viewing/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment DVD

Ellen Creed: Hell is like the kingdom of Heaven. It’s within.

This is a nice creepy story with some excellent female character performances.

Ellen Creed (Ida Lupino) works as a housekeeper/companion for retired actress Leonora Fisk.  Ellen has been responsible all her life for her two dotty sisters, Emily (Elsa Lanchester) and Louisa.  Emily, in particular, is out of control.  She collects trash to “tidy up the moors” and deposits it all over the house.  She also does not like anyone to tell her what to do.  Louisa is more gentle and sweet in her madness.

Emily gets a letter from London saying that if she does not remove her sisters from the home where they are staying the landlady will call the police.  She asks Leonora to let them visit for a few days but tells her sisters they will stay there always.  Leonora rapidly gets fed up and Emily, supposedly the “sane” one, takes drastic action to protect them.

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Then distant relative Albert Feather (Louis Hayward) comes to get bailed out of an embezzling offense.  After seducing the housemaid (Evelyn Keyes), he rapidly figures out a way to wrap Ellen around his little finger.

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This thriller had me on the edge of my seat by the end.  Louis Hayward is so deliciously vile that the viewer doesn’t know just what he will resort to.  Ida Lupino is quite understated in comparison.  Elsa Lanchester is, as always, a standout.  Recommended for those in the mood for a rather dark period piece, with a little comedy from the mad sisters.

Ladies in Retirement was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White and for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture.

For clips on TCM go here:  http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/480270/Ladies-In-Retirement-Movie-Clip-My-Treasures.html

The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)

The Bride Came C.O.D.Bride Came COD poster
Directed by William Keighley
Written by Kenneth Earl, M. M. Musselman, Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein
1941/USA
Warner Bros.

First viewing/Netflix rental

 

Sheriff McGee: One of you’s gonna get married and the other one’s going to jail, so you really got a lot in common.

Bette Davis proves a flair for comedy in this enjoyable outing with James Cagney.

Bandleader and publicity hound Allen Brice (Jack Carson) announces his engagement with Joan Winfield (Davis), whom he has known for only four days,  from the stage.  When the news hits the papers, Joan’s father (Eugene Pallette) is determined to stop the marriage.   Allen hires pilot Steve Collins (Cagney) to fly the couple to Las Vegas for the wedding but Steve’s plane is about to be confiscated for failure to make the payments.  He hatches a scheme with Joan’s father to kidnap her to Amarillo for a fee that will allow him to keep the plane.

Instead, Joan tries to parachute out of the plane and Steve crash lands during his attempt to keep her inside.  They land in the middle of the desert where they find a old prospector (Harry Davenport) living in a ghost town.  Multiple misunderstandings, fights, and hijinks ensue before the inevitable ending.  With William Frawley as the sheriff.

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This is essentially a Wild West version of It Happened One Night with quite a bit more slapstick.  I have seen Cagney in comedy parts before but I was particularly impressed with Davis’s timing.  She falls into a cactus quite expertly!

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The Ghost Train (1941)

The Ghost Trainghost train poster
Directed by Walter Forde
Written by Marriott Edgar, Val Guest, et al
1941/UK
Gainsborough Pictures

First viewing/Amazon Prime Instant Video

 

Station Master: If this be a natural thing where do it come from, where do it go?

I certainly didn’t do justice to this comic British thriller by watching it in pieces over a few nights on the old iPad but I probably couldn’t have taken Arthur Askey’s mugging all in one sitting.

A group of English eccentrics is stuck in an isolated waiting room with a dotty old station master when they miss their connection due to the antics of an annoying music hall entertainer (Askey).  The station master and a mad woman fail to scare the ill-humored company away on a stormy night with their stories of a runaway train that haunts the station.

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This is all pretty clearly a vehicle for Askey’s in your face brand of cheeky humor and works or not based on the viewer’s tolerance for it.  My own tolerance proved to be on the low side..

Clip – Arthur Askey singing “The Seaside Band”

Mail Train (1941)

Mail Train (AKA “Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It”)Mail Train
Directed by Walter Forde
Written by Val Guest, Frank Launder, et al
1941/UK
Twentieth Century Productions Ltd
First viewing/Internet Archive

 

fifth column n. A clandestine subversive organization working within a country to further an invading enemy’s military and political aims. [First applied in 1936 to rebel sympathizers inside Madrid when four columns of rebel troops were attacking that city.]

I could watch Alistair Sim read the phone book and he’s better than that in this wartime British detective story.

Inspector Hornleigh (Gordon Harker) of Scotland Yard is writing his memoir.  He doesn’t give much credit to bumbling sidekick Sergeant Bingham (Sim), who seems to spend more time chatting up lady witnesses than working. Hornleigh is saving the final chapter for a high-profile case involving fifth columnists.  Instead the team is assigned to undercover work on military base to find the culprits who are stealing men’s underwear from the warehouse. After some humiliating days training with heavy packs, the over-aged “recruits” stumble upon a spy ring that is smuggling information to Germany through the mails and the excitement begins.

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This made perfect late-night iPad viewing with just enough humor in the intrigue to spice things up.  The droll Sim’s weakness for a pretty face is priceless.

 

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

The Shanghai Gestureshanghai gesture
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Written by Josef von Sternberg, Jules Furthman, and Geza Herczeg based on a play by John Colton
1941/USA
Arnold Pressburger Films

First viewing/Amazon Prime Instant Video

 

Poppy: The other places are like kindergardens compared with this. It smells so incredibly evil! I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination. It has a ghastly familiarity like a half-remembered dream. *Anything* could happen here… any moment…

I thought I had seen Josef von Sternberg’s weirdest film when I saw The Scarlet Empress. And then came The Shanghai Gesture.

The plot is convoluted and I think is missing big chunks due to censorship problems.  The setting is Shanghai.  The opening title makes clear that this is not meant to be contemporary Shanghai or even a real place.

“Mother” Gin Sling (Ona Munson) runs a gamling house and den of (unspecified) iniquity in the foreign section of the City.  City officials have ordered her to shut down to please mogul Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston) who wants to do something or other with the land.  Gin Sling’s ears perk up at the name and she begins to scheme how she will defy the order.

Meanwhile, beautiful and elegant young “Poppy Smith” (Gene Tierney) drops into Gin Sling’s with a friend. She tries her hand at gambling and wins, announcing that she will never return.  But, for Poppy, Gin Sling’s is like the Hotel California.  She is unable to free herself from its grip due to her lust for pretty boy wastrel Dr. Omar (Victor Mature), her gambling addiction, and some unstated alcohol or substance abuse problem.  The poised Poppy rapidly racks up a huge debt to “Mother” and degenerates into a slovenly harridan.

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We gradually learn that “Mother” has something quite specific against Sir Guy and that “Poppy” has become the key part of a revenge plot.  The entire affair climaxes at
“Mother’s” New Years Eve dinner, to which all her many enemies have been invited.  With a cast of thousands including Maria Ouspenskaya, Albert Basserman, Eric Blore, and Mike Mazurki (as a sinister rickshaw driver!) and Marcel Dalio as a croupier.

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The whole thing plays out like a fever dream, including one memorable moment when half-dressed white girls are displayed in hanging baskets and offered for sale to Chinese sailors (just fooling says “Mother”).  The entire picture seems crowded with thousands of extras in every corner of the city streets and the casino, so much so that von Sternberg specifically honors them with a title card.  The art direction and costumes are lavish and bizarre.

The cast of pros in general is pretty good but poor Gene Tierney could have done with several more years of acting lessons.  She looks gorgeous but does not make a convincing degenerate or handle her many, many crying scenes in a believable way.

In short, this is one glorious mess and should be approached with a sense of humor and high camp detectors at the ready.

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Major Barbara (1941)

Major BarbaraMajor Barbara
Directed by Gabriel Pascal
Written by George Bernard Shaw
1941/UK
Gabriel Pascal Productions

First viewing/Netflix rental

 

“It is quite useless to declare that all men are born free if you deny that they are born good.”  — Major Barbara, George Bernard Shaw

Rex Harrison and Wendy Hiller were born to play Shaw.

Agnostic socialist Adolphus Cusins (Rex Harrison), a Greek scholar, is a flop at public speaking.  He goes to see how Salvation Army Major Barbara Undershaft (Wendy Hiller) draws in the crowds and promptly falls in love with her.  She takes him home to meet her family, which lives in a palatial mansion thanks to her estranged father’s (Robert Morley) money.  Papa is a munitions manufacturer

Major Barbara is shown slowly converting hard case Bill Walker (Robert Newton). Although the Army is very hard up for cash, she refuses to take even a pound from him until he is saved.  Then Papa shows up at the mission and begins corrupting it with a much bigger offer.  With Deborah Kerr in her very first credited movie role as a Salvation Army worker.

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I can’t exactly love this very talky and intellectual film.  Director Pascal worked hard at opening up the stage play but didn’t fully succeed.  Nonetheless, the cast is fabulous and the argument about jobs versus religious cant is interesting.

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All Through the Night (1941)

All Through the Nightall through the night poster
Directed by Vincent Sherman
Written by Leonard Spigelglass, Edwin Gilbert, and Leo Rosten
1941/USA
Warner Bros.
First viewing/Amazon Instant Video

Leda Hamilton: [to reporters] Well, I also feel it’s about time someone knocked the Axis back on its heels.

Alfred “Gloves” Donahue: Excuse me, Baby. What she means it’s about time someone knocked those heels back on their axis.

This entertaining gangster/propaganda piece doesn’t quite know whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama.  But what a cast!

“Gloves” Donahue (Humphrey Bogart) is distracted from his regular gambling racket by a call from his mother (Jane Darwell) about the murder of his favorite cheesecake baker. Mysterious blonde Leda Hamilton shows up at the bakery during his investigation and he follows her to the nightclub where she works.  There he also encounters her menacing accompanist Pepi (Peter Lorre) and witnesses another murder, this time of a waiter who holds up five fingers as he is dying.

Tailing Pepi takes Gloves to a warehouse and thence to an auction house run by the even creepier Ebbing (Conrad Veidt) and assistant “Madame” (Judith Anderson).  Gradually, Gloves ferrets out a nest of Nazi fifth columnists who are preparing for their first big sabotage operation.  Plenty of fisticuffs ensue.  With William Demerest, Frank McHugh, Phil Silvers, and Jackie Gleason as members of Gloves’s gang.

 

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Bogart has great comic timing and it is a pity he didn’t get to show it off more.   This is packed with more action, messages, and gags than can reasonably crammed into one movie but it’s a lot of fun.

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The Common Touch (1941)

The Common Touchcommon touch poster
Directed by John Baxter
Written by Herbert Ayres, Barbara K. Emary and Geoffrey Orme
1941/UK
British National Filma

First viewing/Amazon Prime Instant Video

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, / Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,/ If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much;/ If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, / Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son! — “If”, Rudyard Kipling

I imagine that this pleasant little movie about pulling together was just what the doctor ordered for the British during the Blitz.

Peter Hibbert is taken from his cricket team at an English public school to run his family’s business at age 18 following the death of his parents in an accident.  Management expects him to be a figure head but Peter insists in taking an active role in the firm.  He learns that some tenements and a place called Charlie’s is slated to be demolished by his firm to build an office building.  Peter has been unable to get straight answers as to why this is happening and decides to investigate for himself incognito.

He finds that Charlie’s is a gathering place for homeless and poor men and grows to love the establishment.  How to save it?  There are numerous musical numbers both in a night club setting starring the daughter of one of the men and by street musicians who entertain in the shelter.

common touch 1The story is slightly marred by a resolution that comes out of nowhere.  The plot also contains one of my least favorite elements, the “noble” suicide.  Still, this kept my interest all the way through and has beautiful sets and some nice music, most performed in the canteen.

Clip – Street musicians practicing at Charlie’s

A Woman’s Face (1941)

A Woman’s FaceWoman's Face poster
Directed by George Cukor
Written by Donald Ogden Stewart and Elliot Paul from a play by Francis de Croisset
1941/USA Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

First viewing/Netflix rental

Lars-Erik Barring: You couldn’t be mean. You’re too pretty!

This film was much different than I expected and I truly enjoyed it.

The story is a remake of the 1938 film A Woman’s Face (“En kvinnas ansikte”) with Ingrid Bergman and takes place in contemporary Sweden.  It is told as a number of flashbacks based on witness testimony at Anna’s murder trial.

When she was a child, Anna Holm (Joan Crawford) was caught in a fire started by her drunken father and her face was badly disfigured.  She has lived as a bitter, hard, and ruthless blackmailer who runs a country inn as a front for her operation.  One night, handsome ne’er-do-well Thorsten Barring (Conrad Veidt) comes into her office to ask for credit to cover a meal he has ordered. They recognize each other as kindred spirits and he is the first man who has looked her in the eyes without flinching. They start seeing each other and Anna is in love for the first time.

She meets plastic surgeon Dr. Gusaf Segert (Melvyn Douglas) by chance when she is at his house blackmailing his wife about some incriminating love letters.  He too looks at her without flinching and announces that he can fix her face.  She goes through several painful operations and emerges a beautiful woman.

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Barring finally reveals that there is only one four-year-old grandchild standing between him and a large inheritance from his uncle.  The couple hatch a scheme to send Anna as a governess to the county estate of uncle Consul Magnus Barring (Albert Bassermann).  Anna, still madly in love with Barring, is to murder the boy there.  This proves to be easier said than done.  With Marjorie Main as the Consul’s long-time housekeeper and Donald Meek as a criminal associate of Anna’s.

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I thought the story was very well told as the plot elements were ever so gradually revealed. I was so engaged that I never saw some probably predictable developments coming.  The snowy setting is beautiful as well.  Joan Crawford is a sometime thing for me but Cukor gets a wonderfully subdued “unglamorous” performance out of her both before and after her surgery. Veidt is suitably charming and villainous.  I’m surprised that this one didn’t get quite a few Oscar nominations but 1941 is turning out to be a year packed with gems. Recommended.

Trailer

Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)

Shadow of the Thin ManShadow of the Thin Man poster
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke
Written by Harry Kurnitz and Irving Brecher based on characters by Dashiell Hammett
1941/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

First viewing/Netflix Rental

Lieutenant Abrams: You know that jockey Golez, the one who was caught throwing the fourth race yesterday? He was shot.

Nora Charles: My, they’re strict at this track!

This is one series that maintained its quality standards through several films. The dialogue still sings in the fourth “Thin Man” movie.

Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) still enjoy married bliss and plenty of cocktails as little Nicky hits pre-school age.  Nick has become a bit of a horse racing devotee and is that the track when the body of a jockey that rode in a fixed race is found.  He resists the urging of the police to come out of retirement and remains strong when his friends, a commissioner and crusading reporter Paul Clarke (Barry Nelson) who are fighting organized crime in gambling urge him to get involved.  But when Paul is accused in the murder of a racketeer, Nick and Nora are on the case.  With Donna Reed in one of her first roles as Paul’s girlfriend.

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I picked out the murderer early on (one of the least likely suspects) but who watches these for the mystery?  The wisecracks are still great and the chemistry between Loy and Powell only seems to deepen.

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