Saturday, January 17, 2015


Blessed with direction by the legendary William "One-Take" Beaudine; actors whose neighbors probably never even heard of; and a title that makes no sense whatsoever, Below the Deadline is more interesting than it has any right to be.

On the surface, it's just another B-criminal picture about one gambling king, Joe Hilton, mooching in on the territory of another, Oney Kessel. What gives Below the Deadline an interesting twist, though, is that Joe is a World War II vet who happily inherited the underworld job after the murder of his brother Jeffrey.

In a time when post-war movies portrayed vets as world-class heroes who, at worst, had a little trouble adjusting to civilian life, Below the Deadline must have been unique. From the moment we meet Joe, we know he's trouble. Having lost his soul somewhere on the Philippines' battlefields, he's returned with a redwood-sized chip on his shoulder and an itch for violence. One of those vets who hates civilians, Joe has no empathy for anybody's death outside a war zone.

"So your hat's still on, eh? Well,
take that!"
Joe's first move in taking over Jeffrey's business is beating the hell out of one his yeggs, Nichols, just to show him who's boss. The fight scene is strangely absorbing, being sloppy, violent and surprisingly lengthy. And it's always fun to watch a fight where neither guy's fedora is knocked off until almost the very last moment -- hats must have been tighter in those days. Joe's Jewish bookkeeper Pinky looks on approvingly, telling the others, "That's m' boy!", a catchphrase repeated throughout the movie. (Character actor John Harmon plays Pinky with an a naturalness that turns up in old B-movies from time to time. He's so good, so real that it's almost discombobulating -- how the hell did he get in this picture?)

Apparently her high school
graduation picture.
Still, even the hardboiled Joe needs a jane, and it's Lynn Turner, one of his croupiers. Discovering that she's underage, Joe fires her before getting serious with the wooing. Lynn is supposed to be 19, but doesn't look like any girl my daughter goes to college with. (The actress, Ramsay Ames, was in reality 26.) Lynn somehow sees some good in Joe, but failing to straighten him out, breaks it off. C'mon, lady, let the guy be himself -- a semi-psychopathic criminal with a violent streak!

Nor can Joe be reformed by his former CO, Sam Austin, who tries convincing him into going in on a private air transportation business. But something good finally takes hold, when Joe donates some serious scratch to an anti-gambling
Lynn is impressed at Joe's ability to
 get shot in the stomach and still not bleed.
mayoral candidate named Vail, a vet who lost his leg in Okinawa. Joe's rival Oney takes this personally, leading to a climatic shootout at Sam's office. (Guys, can't you take this outside? I'm trying to run an airline here!) Oney goes to the slammer, while Joe leaves the craps tables behind, taking a job with Sam and reuniting with Lynn. How he managed to avoid prison time for his illegal activities is left unexplained.
William Beaudine, in a rare
moment not yelling, "Cut! Print!"
Below the Deadline features all the hallmarks of a Monogram movie. Actors casting multiple shadows on the walls; grimy sets; a 65-minute running time; men's suit with mile-wide lapels, and women's hairdos that no stylist outside a movie studio would be able to replicate now. Special mention must be made to the aforementioned William Beaudine, who directed close to 1,000 movies and TV shows, from 1915 to 1968. (Now you know how he earned the nickname "One-Take".)

I'm no fan of remakes, but Below the Deadline is just waiting for an update: An Iraq war vet comes home to take over his brother's drug ring and wipe out his rival once and for all. His on-the-level girlfriend wants him to go straight. His army buddy tries to get him to join him in a software business. Climactic shootout in the giant offices of the software company. Comedy relief from the Jewish bookkeeper. 

There, Hollywood, I've given it to you. Just change the title. 


Friday, December 12, 2014


Uptown New York tells the well-worn of the story of a woman, Patricia Smith, in love with two men, Dr. Max Silver and gumball-machine entrepreneur Eddie Doyle. As its poster's tagline reads, A human story of a girl who was... just human! We all know what that means, don't we? Just to make it clearer, ViƱa Delmar, who wrote Uptown New York's scenario, was also the author of the novels Bad Girl, Loose Ladies and Kept Woman. No wonder she's the rare writer whose name was on the promotional materials.

With that pedigree, I was hoping for some drug use and a bastard child thrown into Uptown New York -- especially when Patricia and Max spend the night together. However, the only genuine pre-code moments could be counted on one hand:

1) Max's overtly-Jewish family. His proud father invites friends over to announce that Max has graduated from med school -- or, as he says in his sing-song Yiddish accent, "I got for you a big surprise. I'm going to make for you a speech!" That kind of overtly-ethnic portrayal, the only kind portrayed in early talkies, would soon disappear, making movies waspier than an entomologist's greenhouse.

2) Eddie meets Patricia by rescuing her from a ladies room whose door is stuck shut. (Yes, he came in through the bathroom window.) No way would this be approved once the Hays Office dropped the hammer. Nor would they go for Eddie demanding, "Whatcha in there for, anyway?" But at least it gives me a new way to annoy my wife.

3) When Patricia yells at a couple of juvenile delinquents, the older of the two gives her an angry thumbs-up, which appears to be the '30s equivalent of "Up yours!" This gesture is worth trying at your next business meeting -- they'll never know what you're really thinking.

Uptown New York gives some interesting insight on what men expected of women in 1932. When Patricia asks Eddie why he's fallen so hard for her, he replies, "You're clean and good." This was movie-speak for "virgin," something we know she isn't. And once Eddie learns that Max had been her "sweetheart" two years earlier, it almost kills their marriage. Man, if that's what's going to stop Eddie, it's a good thing he's not around today.

"Of course I love you...
up to a point."
And talk about old-fashioned. The only reason Max didn't marry Patricia was because his family paired him off with a rich man's daughter so he could start a practice in Vienna before returning two years later. Such a trade-off! (Max is played by Leon Waycoff, who would soon change his name to Leon Ames, promptly becoming another of those "Oh, that guy!" character actors for the next 60 years. Don't believe me? Go here.)

Being a release from the long-forgotten Sono Art-World Wide studio, Uptown New York's low budget is onscreen throughout. Authentic New York shots consist only of stock footage, mostly under the credits. A sloppy process shot through a diner window looks like Times Square in the middle of an earthquake. And the climax -- Eddie begging Max to perform surgery on Patricia after she's hit by a truck -- is right out of Al Jolson's abysmal Say it with Songs from 1929.

Still, the movie has a nice scrappy feel about it, thanks mainly to Jack Oakie as Eddie. On loan from Paramount, Oakie is extremely likable. His naivete concerning Patricia's sexual history, along with his pride at owning a string of gumball machines across the city, is actually kind of charming in a goofy way. Guys undoubtedly identified with Oakie in a way impossible with, say, William Powell.

"Look at me when you're
talking to me!"
Oakie's performance -- all of his performances, in fact --  are that much more remarkable when you consider the after-effect of his childhood bout of scarlet fever. As Oakie's temperature rose, he could hear his eardrums pop -- and, he told a reporter, "that was the last thing I ever heard." Next time you read about an A-lister wrecking his dressing room trailer because he's been supplied with stale peanuts, just watch any Jack Oakie movie and remember: he's lip-reading his co-stars because he's deaf.

Most astonishing about Uptown New York, however, is Sono Art-World Wide's notorious pre-credit logo: a comely young woman strategically holding two spinning globes directly in front of her. The screenshot doesn't do it justice. You have to see it in action for the full effect. Supposedly dreamed up by studio investor (and one-time "king of comedy") Mack Sennett, it couldn't have been anything other than an outrageous in-joke meant to grab the audience's attention long enough for them to sit through an entire movie. 

As you can tell, it worked for me.


Saturday, December 6, 2014

DECOY (1946)

Decoy is a good name for a movie that looks like a typical film noir, only to feature a plot twist alien to the genre; stars a couple of unknowns who look like two other, famous actors; and features a third actor playing completely against type.

After Frank Olins is given the hot seat for an unspecified crime -- selling loose cigarettes? -- his two-timing girlfriend Margot Shelby seduces the noble Dr. Lloyd Craig into injecting him with the life-reviving drug Methylene Blue (which I hereby trademark as a new color for Uniqlo). 

It's all for love -- that is, the love she has for the 400-grand Olin's got socked away in the woods. Once Olin hands over a map leading to the money, he's plugged by Jim Vincent, his overpriced mouthpiece who's also Margot's third lover. How does this dame keep these guys straight?

Now in over his stethoscope, Dr. Craig is forced at gunpoint to drive Margot and Jim to the buried loot. Before the night is over, Margot has fatally run over Jim before finding the money and shooting Dr. Craig to death. Or so she thinks.

Mirror mirror on the wall,
who's the damnedest of them all?
Filled with little moments that separate it from other low budget crime pictures, Decoy opens with the ghostly Dr. Craig washing his hands in a bathroom right out of the Beggars Banquet album cover. Gazing at his reflection in a broken mirror, he seems shocked to be alive. After silently hitching his way to San Francisco, he plugs Margot but good before expiring. The oddly-named cop Joe Portugal drops by a moment later to hear Margot's deathbed -- make that death couch -- confession. It's a testament to her strength that she can inaugurate a 65-minute flashback after being shot in the chest. Ambulance? What ambulance?

Margot's nastiness comes wrapped in silk, thanks to her generous boyfriend Frank Olins. But considering that she's keeping two other guys punching the clock in her bedroom, Olins, the toughest of the bunch, is probably the biggest sap of the three. Imagine being electrocuted, then brought back to life an hour later, only to be shot by your sweetie's lover before your body's barely warm again. Hardly seems worth the trip.

He's not the only one
playing with fire.
You can't help feel sorry for him -- after all, he's played by Robert Armstrong, who brought King Kong to New York 13 years earlier. His stunned, disbelieving reaction to just lighting a match after being brought back to life is almost pitiful. "I'm alive!" he shouts, arousing memories of Frankenstein, "I'm alive!" Not for long, bub, not for long.

The original version of Midnight Run.
And for all this meshugga, Dr. Craig gave up his altruistic career as a slum doctor. As with Frank Olins, you feel bad for the doc, a good guy suckered by a pretty face, a sweet line of lies, and a body to revive the dead for. Herbert Rudley, who plays Dr. Craig, juices up the sympathy by being a near-double for Charles Grodin, the ultimate hangdog actor.

A fur hat for a cold mind.
Unlike other tough dames of this genre, Margot is a sophisticated, smooth-talking Brit. That's be due to "Miss Jean Gillie," as she's billed in the credits, being a sophisticated, smooth-talking Brit herself.  And by the looks of her, I'd wager she was being groomed as the next Joan Fontaine. (Aspiring actresses: if you want that kind of special billing in the credits, marry the movie's producer, as Miss Gillie did.)

A kiss to build a laugh on.
One more welcome twist is the great character actor Sheldon Leonard on the right side of the law for a change, as Det. Joe Portugal. Sneering as if his paycheck depended on it, he's all too familiar with Margot's type: the trollop with a heart of ice. Yet not even a misanthrope like Joe can resist her allure. Going in for a kiss requested by the dying Margot, he's unexpectedly spurned by the most contemptuous laugh ever captured on celluloid.

Supposedly a "lost" film until recently, Decoy is a welcome surprise to noir fans who thought they had seen them all. There was more than a little thought put into all aspects of its production, from the bizarre script to the atmospheric cinematography, and is the kind of Monogram production that rightfully drove the French cinema buffs into throes of extase. This Decoy, without doubt, is the real thing.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

THE BRAVE (1997)

When you read "A FILM BY" attached to a person who's never even directed traffic, and "SPECIAL APPEARANCE BY" with a big name, it can mean only two things. The movie is going to be self-consciously grim with a lot of heavy symbolism, and the big name is onscreen for five minutes. Just warning you. 

If you wonder why a movie starring Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando flew under your radar, don't worry. The Brave was never released in America, and is available only as a DVD from Asia. For that, you can thank its critical reception following its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. To say that it was negative would be to describe the bombing of Hiroshima as a stern warning. 

Certainly the story should have met the approval of America-loathing cheese-eaters. Raphael, a poor American Indian living with his family in a trailer next to a garbage dump, agrees to be tortured and murdered in exchange for $50,000. In the week he has remaining to live, he tries to make life better for his people. That's it, kimosabe. 

How. Or more like, what the --?
Johnny Depp's first of many mistakes, other than agreeing to direct and rewrite the script, was to cast himself as Raphael. Despite his claims to be part Cherokee or Creek -- disputed by the tribes themselves -- Depp looks as Native American as I do, which is Irish. Long black hair and a bandana do not an Indian make. You wonder why his character just doesn't hop a bus to the nearest modeling agency if he wants to make some serious dough -- he's more beautiful than most women.

Then there's the idea of going through with being murdered. (Every review of The Brave says Raphael has been hired to appear in a snuff movie, but that wasn't made clear to me.) If you received $50,000 and was told return in a week to get sliced, wouldn't you maybe, just maybe, get the the hell out of Dodge?

So just why does Raphael intend to return? Because the snuff movie producer trusts him. Oh, brother. They should have called this movie The Stupid. (In the novel upon which The Brave is based, Raphael is indeed a mentally-defective drunk.)

"Sorry you don't have a shirt, kid.
But you can ride on the merry-go-round!"
OK, so maybe you do have some kind of honor. You hold up your end of the bargain because you're, I dunno, brave. But you have two kids and a wife back in the trailer next to the dump. You'd do right by them. Like opening a savings account with that 50 grand. Getting advice from a good accountant. Buy them some nice clothes instead of the rags they're walking around in.

Nah, you'd do what Raphael does -- build a carnival out of scraps from the dump. Then take your kid grocery shopping, where you load up your carts with junk food and race up and down the aisles, knocking over displays and laughing. Then throw a party for the tribe. Why not just buy a case of Grey Goose while you're at it and call it a day? (One of the party guests, whose character credit is "MAN EATING LEG", is Iggy Pop, who also wrote the score. Because Iggy's just as Indian as Depp.)

Crucifixion symbolism alert!
If you think all this would attract too much attention, well, you just aren't ready to make a movie. Raphael's old partner in crime, Luis, drops by for his share of the score and, when he doesn't find it, beats up the wife and son. Because no self-respecting ex-con like Raphael would ever take revenge for such a thing. 

Depp washes his sins away and, in doing so,
drives all the girls in the audience crazy with lust.

Just kidding! That night, Raphael goes all Mike Tyson on Luis, first biting off his ear, then breaking his neck. And he does all this in front of two hookers. That's OK -- he's going to be murdered tomorrow anyway! But first, he stops off to see his father, who performs a ceremony calling up the spirits to... well, I dunno, the old guy didn't say exactly. Then Raphael goes to town the following morning to get killed. A real popcorn movie, The Brave is.
Last War Dance in Arizona.

Marlon "Special Appearance" Brando plays McCarthy, the snuff movie producer -- if that's what he really is -- as if he never left the set of Apocalypse Now. Pushing himself around in a wheelchair, blowing a harmonica, mumbling his flowery dialogue (self-written by the sounds of it) through suspiciously large, red lips, the gargantuan method actor has apparently been visited by the ghost of Lee Strasberg with the instruction, "You are a talking whale!"

It's commendable, in a way, that by this stage of the game, Brando didn't care what people thought of him. But in comparing his bizarre maundering here to his epic soliloquy in Julius Caesar, you're almost awed by how far down he's come -- or rolled. And yet... you keep yearning for him to reappear in The Brave because his wackiness stands in such stark relief to the rest of the movie.

As for Depp's direction, it's Very Serious. A low shot of Raphael on one side of the screen and a priest on the other, while divided by the church, is a little too on the nose. On the other hand, his choice of keeping The Brave dialogue-free for the first ten minutes is actually interesting. Best of all is the early scene with Raphael applying for a job in a rundown office with faulty fluorescent lighting, a manager with a bad attitude and an unidentified, muttering freak in the corner of the room. (You have to see it to really appreciate it -- kind of like Orson Wells meets David Lynch.) Raphael being led through an increasingly-hellish series of dark hallways and giant elevators to meet McCarthy gives The Brave a genuine, welcome creepiness that never returns. Other than Brando playing harmonica.

Between takes: Brando minus his
hairpiece, while Depp wonders what the hell
he's saying.
In the wake of The Brave's poor reception, Johnny must have thought twice about directing ever again. Certainly the idea of tackling something as serious as this never crossed his mind. From here on out, it was clear sailing with Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Alice in Wonderland, and the Dark Shadows parody. Like his idol Marlon Brando, Johnny Depp is more than willing to go from "most respected actor of his generation" to "human cartoon." Maybe he is The Brave after all.

Confession: My copy of The Brave is 30 minutes shorter than its official two-hour running time. That in itself should have prevented me from writing about it, but probably made me that much more positive about the whole thing.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014


I'm no film historian, but I'll go out on a limb and declare The Fearmakers the first movie to expose push-polling -- the "art" of asking a question a certain way in order to get the desired answer and, thus, steer the public to a certain way of thinking. Something like, "Do you think The Ol' Fish-Eye is one of the best blogs about obscure movies, family hijinx, and satire of current events that you've ever read?" 

Alan Eaton, an army vet released from an enemy detention camp during the Korean War, returns to the Washington PR firm he built with his business partner, who mysteriously died the day after selling out the company to Jim McGinnis. Eaton discovers that McGinnis has been working as a front for a shady organization intent on manipulating statistics in order to shape, rather than report, public opinion for their own nefarious reasons. The deeper Eaton digs for the truth, the more his life is in danger. He shoulda stayed in the POW camp.

Don't look now,  but the guy with the
notepad is redder than a blushing cardinal.
The Fearmakers never explicitly states that Communists are pulling the strings. But when one of McGinnis' clients is the Committee for the Abolition of Nuclear War, you know that there's a pinko in the woodpile -- lots of pinkos and they're everywhere: the flight Eaton takes to Washington, the boarding house where he stays, and, of course, at work.
Responding to a beating by one of McGinnis' stooges, Eaton mutters, "I've been worked over by professionals. They call it co-existence!" -- the dog whistle of Communism. As John McCain, another POW, would tell you, peace is the first sign of treason.

"How did I afford an Edsel? Oh, I forgot,
it was free!"
Despite looking like a cross between Moe and Shemp Howard, Dana Andrews is agreeably low-key as Alan Eaton, prone to violence only when provoked. You can tell he's a tough guy -- when offered bacon and eggs for breakfast, he replies, "I generally have a cigarette and coffee in the morning." (Just how many people hearing that would have thought, Me too?) If that's not 1950s enough, Eaton's secretary Mary drives a spanking new Edsel, a desperate product placement for a car nobody wanted.

"You want a poll? I'll give you
a pole you'll never forget!"
"Forget about 'Blue Moon' -- I'm such
a Commie, I sing 'Red Moon'!"
While Dick Foran and Kelly Thordsen are pitch-perfect as McGinnis and his scummy henchman Hal Loder, The Fearmakers' real surprise is 33 year-old Mel Torme as Barney Bond, the eager beaver of the PR company. Squinting through Coke-bottle glasses, nervously wiping sweat from his face, trying without success to win the respect of McGinnis, Torme makes for an unexpectedly good character actor in the Byron Foulger mold -- a mousy creep with a nasty side. Probably the only thing preventing him from carving out a second career in movies was the response from the audience -- "Hey, that's Mel Torme! What's he doing there?" (His credit reads "Presenting Mel Torme" -- conveniently forgetting that this was roughly his 15th movie appearance since 1943.)

By never using the word "Communist," The Fearmakers ages much better than most other anti-Red melodramas of its time. You can pretend that Democrats or Republicans are the bad guys here, and it would play just as well -- better, in fact, because they're pulling this kind of thing all the time. The brainwashing Eaton endured by the Reds is no different than that being conducted in the name of polling. Only now they call it "information gathering." Sounds less red, and more red, white and blue.


Monday, November 24, 2014


Forget about I Love a Mystery and The Shadow Strikes. The movies based on The Whistler are how to bring a radio series to the screen. From their unsettling opening theme music (whistled, of course) to their violent climaxes, the Whistler  B-movies -- ranging from fine to terrific -- put many A's to shame.

The Power of the Whistler, one of the best in the series, tells of the story of fortune teller Jean Lang, who predicts death within 24 hours for William Everest, an amnesiac she meets in Greenwich Village. As Jean and her sister Frances try to put together William's past from the items in his pocket -- a train schedule, lighter, doctor's prescription, and the like -- they gradually discover that the gentle-spoken man isn't quite as gentle as he seems. But as predicted, William keeps his appointment with death right on time.

"I don't know who you are, you don't know
who you are -- come home with me!"
For all its quiet terror, there's a charming, unintended naivete running through The Power of the Whistler. When William has a dizzy spell upon first meeting Jean, she suggests he sit down somewhere close by. "The owner of this car won't object, I'm sure!" she chirps merrily. And when the driver finally does appear, he happily gives them a lift to where they want to go. (This is supposed to be New York, remember.)

That's not a flattering look for him.
Now, say you're a young woman who meets a guy 25 years your senior, and you have no idea who he is. Would you bring him back to the apartment you share with your younger sister so he can stay the night? Of course! There's nothing strange about this, nor how your sister's parakeet suddenly turns up strangled to death when your back is turned. On the other hand, he makes a swell over-easy egg for breakfast the following morning! (The parakeet is just one of three cute little animals who meet a grisly death at his hands. Yeah! That's what I'm talkin' about!)

Frances brings William's scrip to the drug store where it was filled. Turns out it's a prescription for poison. As the druggist says, "There's not much call for it." I would hope not. Is it unusual to fill out a prescription for poison at CVS these days? (William forged the scrip himself, but please.)

William, meanwhile, has strong-armed Jane into accompanying him to visit a "friend" in New Jersey he's suddenly remembered -- the judge who sent him up the river. By now, Frances and her boyfriend Charlie have figured out that William is "an escaped maniac" -- the only kind of maniac they have in these movies. The police were never notified because the prison warden believed William had been cured anyway. That's a very good reason to keep the information from the public. Especially when William sends the warden a birthday cake laced with poison. (Oh, so that's what it was for!)

"Your name's written in ink?
That's good enough for us!"
If that doesn't give you faith in the system, William gets through a police dragnet by offering foolproof ID: a name written on the label of the suit jacket he stole from the prison warden upon his escape. Surely there must be some sort of happy middle between outright incompetence and getting X-rayed at the airport. Fortunately for all, William meets a particularly nasty end in a hayloft that even had my usually-peace loving wife cheering.

Nor have I seen a cop in Central Park
during broad daylight.
Per usual with the Columbia B's, the sets for The Power of the Whistler are drab, but help set the mood. The Central Park scenes, meanwhile, feature ambient studio sounds -- the closing of a door, a chair squeaking on the floor -- I've never heard during my visits. No problem -- at least the actors say their lines correctly! And despite what they say, there are no Dexter or Harris Streets in New York, so don't expect to visit them on your next TCM Movie Tour. 

The Whistler movies appear to be a blueprint for the much-later Twilight Zone. In this case, your host is The Whistler, who always speaks the same introduction: "I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows." He works for the NSA now.
You might want to pay attention to that whistling
shadow behind you, mister.
The Whistler himself -- itself? -- is best described as Fate in sardonic human form, seen only as a shadow with a trench coat and fedora, waiting patiently for the losers in his tales to meet a ghastly end they can never escape.

The other thread running through all but one of the Whistler movies is Richard Dix, one of the most underrated actors of the '40s. Continually described in The Power of the Whistler as "good-looking," he has instead the appearance of a man who's seen too much of life's darker side. He is, to use an archaic phrase, "ruggedly handsome," a description no longer used for today's pretty-boy actors. Just for comparison, Dix is 52 in The Power of
the Whistler, the same age that Tom Cruise is now.
Switching with ease from compassionate to terrifying in the bat of an eye, Dix -- as in The Ghost Ship -- gives extraordinary depth to William Everest, a character that other actors would play as a jacked-up nut job. He starts his morning saying grace at the breakfast table. By the evening, he's murderously approaching Jean with a genuinely bloodcurdling expression in his eyes -- and is absolutely convincing both times. By any standard, Richard Dix is the real power of The Whistler.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Al Jolson's stunning late-in-life comeback helped people forget that it was movies like Say it with Songs that drove him out of the public consciousness to begin with. So bad is Say it with Songs -- a musical about an emotionally-manipulative singer with a gambling problem who's imprisoned for manslaughter (sounds fun!) -- that it seems like a personal vendetta by scenarist Darryl F. Zanuck. Even the ridiculous call letters of the radio station where Jolson's character Joe Powers sings, QRSA, sound like some kind of a private joke. 

Zanuck couldn't even be bothered giving Powers' five year-old son a name, being referred to only as "the little kid," "junior" and, of course, "little pal" -- the name of the movie's breakout hit. I thought you needed to name your child before bringing him home from the hospital.

Jolson tries not to strangle his little pal.
Joe's imprisonment, by the way, was due to fatally beating up the radio station manager, Arthur, for trying to blackmail Joe's wife Kitty. (He would renew Joe's contract only if Kitty was "nice" to him.) In an outrageous abuse of jurisprudence, the judge presiding over his trial questioned Little Pal regarding his dad's state of mind before the killing. The bigmouth brat's helpful testimony: "He said he was going to kill him dead!" Thanks, kid. Now go play in traffic. 

Killers love nothing more than
being forced to listen to maudlin
pop songs.

Unlike most fresh meat in prison, Joe doesn't get on with the others by providing drugs, but, rather, singing them a chin-up number, "Birdies Sing in Cages, Why Can't You?" Yeah, that's what the boys in gray would want to hear in real life, a third-rate TED Talk set to music. No way would they hold his face down in an unwashed toilet while taking turns being "nice" to him.

Once he's out of the slammer, Joe tracks Little Pal down to the boarding school Kitty has enrolled him in while she works for Robert Merrill (a surgeon, not the opera singer who was always on The Ed Sullivan Show.) After a brief reunion, Joe leaves, not noticing that Little Pal is following him through the busy Los Angeles streets, where he gets mowed down by a jalopy. Considering that he was the ultimate cause of Joe's prison term, this would seem like just desserts.

"Who's that old guy putting the moves
on you all the time?"
While in the hospital, the kid is diagnosed with damage to his spine, nerves and vocal chords. You'd leave your kid in the hospital for a spell, right? Not Joe Powers. He carries Little Pal to Dr. Merrill, who has loved Kitty since he was "a young intern." Judging by his age, that would have made Kitty about six months old at the time. Merrill offers to perform life-saving surgery for free if Joe gives up kid to Kitty. Otherwise, it'll cost $5,000. That must have been part of the 1929 version of the Hippocratic oath. (Little Pal's private school doesn't even notice that he's missing until Merrill calls them the following day. What the hell kind of medical and educational standards does Los Angeles have anyway?)

Taken aback by Merrill's questionable ethics, Joe swears to "rob every house in town" in order to pay another surgeon instead, which makes no sense whatsoever. But he soon has a change of heart, returning the kid to Merrill and his dangerous-looking X-ray machine. (It appears to give cancer to people three floors below.) Little Pal can walk once more, but regains his power of speech only when hearing Joe singing "Little Pal" on a record, leading to a happy ending for the audience, who no longer has to watch the movie.

No microphone was needed for Jolson
to be heard over the airwaves.
It's been said that to truly appreciate Al Jolson, you had to have seen him live in concert. And during his upbeat numbers, that legendary to-the-rafters style is infectious, being the only times Jolson performs naturally. But no dramatic actor was he, especially during emotional scenes when his vocal chords quiver as if caught in a wind tunnel. Didn't anyone at Warners remember that Jolson was a star of Broadway musical comedies?

There are times, too, when he appears to be ad-libbing his lines, and not in a good way. When accused by Dr. Merrill of kidnapping Little Pal from school, Jolson replies, "Say, what's the idea? I came in to see about saving my boy's life, and you start beating around the bush!" Umm, yes, alright, have a seat...

Director Lloyd Bacon instructs Jolson
to believably sit still for two minutes.
Say it with Songs has an undeniably cheap look to it as well, with an outrageously phony painting of the Brooklyn Bridge standing in for the real thing being the worst of it. It was a strange way to treat Jolson, who saved the studio's bacon when bankruptcy loomed. After all, The Jazz Singer made movie history in 1927 as the first feature with singing and talking sequences. The following year, The Singing Fool, another part-talkie, immediately became the highest-grossing movie ever made (surpassed by Gone with the Wind 11 years later). 

"Alright, Jolie, enough
Say it with Songs tried to replicate The Singing Fool's success by bringing back Jolson's co-star, Davey Lee, as his son. The latter movie made "Sonny Boy" the biggest-selling record of the year, so, true to formula, Jolson warbles "Little Pal" over and over and over here. One wonders what this barely-out-of-diapers kid thought of a bombastic entertainer singing in his face like a cyclone all the time. 

Maybe Warner Bros. cynically thought that anything with Jolson's name on it would sell tickets. If so, they were wrong. Say it with Songs premiered at Warners' flagship theatre in Times Square, but was pulled after two days of negative reviews and bad business. While Jolson continued to flourish onstage, movie audiences didn't care much to hear him say it with songs or anything else for that matter.

Parental cruelty alert: Davey Lee retired from movies at his mother's request in 1930 in order for him to have a normal childhood, forcing him to give up a weekly salary of $30,000 (or about $428,000 in today's money). I got Davey's autograph, by the way, at an Al Jolson centennial convention in in 1985. What was astonishing then was just meeting someone who had starred in movies with Al Jolson in the 1920s. Now, it's knowing that he was only three years older than I am now.