Saturday, July 30, 2016

VOICE OF THE WHISTLER (1945)


Auto magnate John Sinclair is working himself to death. Friendless and without family, he suddenly proposes marriage to a nurse, Joan Martin. He wants to spend his remaining days with someone who cares, offering her "my entire fortune for a few months of your life." 

To Joan, who grew up poor, this sounds dandy -- until Sinclair gradually regains his health... and discovers that she's sick of living in a lonely lighthouse with a husband she loathes... and her former fiance comes by, rekindling old feelings... 

The fourth in Columbia's Whistler movies based on the popular radio series, Voice of the Whistler shows how loneliness affects the lives of its principal characters. By the end, it has killed two of them physically, and one psychologically. Try pitching an idea like that at one of the major studios today, see where it gets you.

Voice of the Whistler appears to rise above its B-movie status by opening with a newsreel straight out of Citizen Kane. From that point on, however, it's onto the slightly shabby Columbia soundstages, starkly furnished and with as few knickknacks as possible in order to save some dough. 

The sense of cheapness even affects the dialogue. When John Sinclair initially decides he needs a vacation, he books passage on a steamer to Duluth. Duluth?! Dude, you're a multi-millionaire! At least try Block Island. 

Sinclair is taken under Sparrow's wing.
Nobody in Voice of the Whistler is who they appear to be.  Sinclair initially passes himself off as an ordinary guy named John Carter. Ernie Sparrow, who cares for Sinclair when the latter collapses on the street, was once a great boxer in the UK, but found true happiness as a cabdriver in Detroit. (Yes, this is fictional.) Joan Martin seems like the nicest nurse in town, until her grasping, greedy side comes to the fore. Her ex-fiance Fred, a friendly doctor, decides, literally overnight, to murder Sinclair. You'll never look at your neighbor the same way again.

"Pay no attention to the fiance behind
the window!"
Nurse Joan in particular is a real piece of work. Breaking the news to Fred that she's marrying Sinclair, she barks, "I've given you the chance to get ahead and you've failed!", adding for good measure, "You're soft!" After six months stuck with Sinclair, she spits at her now-healthy husband, "I've kept my part of the bargain. You haven't!" Joan might have taken the Nightingale Nursing Pledge, but she really needs to brush up on her interpersonal skills.

Living in a Maine lighthouse miles from
anyone 
else with a rich husband who
didn't die and a dumbass boxer who smells
like seafood -- what's not to love?
But all bets are off when Fred visits them at their Maine lighthouse, where Ernie Sparrow also lives because... well, it's not clear what he's doing there, other than having accepted Sinclair's invitation. If I thought I had six months to live with a pretty wife, having a washed-up Cockney pugilist hang around cracking wise would be the last thing I'd want around me 24/7. 

No fool he, Sinclair immediately figures out that Fred has come for more than fried clams and a can of New England Ale. In one of the sickest moments of any of the Whistler movies, Sinclair manipulates Fred into murdering him, only to turn the tables at the very last minute. And Ernie doing the same to him. And Joan doing the same to them.

As with the best of the entries in the series, Voice of the Whistler creates an uneasy tone right from the beginning, gradually amping things up until its startlingly strange finale. You leave the Whistler movies as if awakening from a particularly troubling dream that you can't immediately shake off, somewhat like being married to me.

Of course, none of the Whistler movies would be half as good without Richard Dix, the Bogart of the B's, as their perennially doomed "hero." Dix plays Sinclair with a stark reality and empathy that appears shockingly personal.

When we first meet him, Sinclair is a walking corpse, rich in money and celebrity, but devoid of any life. Regaining his health, he appears to be the happiest, heartiest person on earth. By the end, the now-insanely jealous Sinclair transforms into a stone-cold killer. In each phase, Dix is totally convincing.

Don't mess with Dix.
Once a leading man in silents and early talkies, Richard Dix saw his fortunes wane over time. Alcoholism, too, had by now taken its toll; in Voice of the Whistler, Dix can be heard occasionally slurring his dialogue, and not because he's tired. This unintended glimpse into the real man offers an emotional resonance lacking in many actors of his time or today's. 

Indeed, Richard Dix became an even better, more interesting actor as he drifted into B's and his health deteriorated. He seems to be willing his characters to life as he himself was dying. Watch Voice of the Whistler and picture any contemporary actor his age -- only 52, but looking much older -- doing the same job. It isn't a coincidence that when he could no longer work, Columbia shot only one Whistler movie without him before ending the series. Richard Dix was irreplaceable.

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(Click on the Richard Dix label below for more of his movies.)

Monday, July 25, 2016

ANOTHER NICE MESS (1972)

When The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was cancelled after two and half contentious seasons, Tommy Smothers was convinced that Pres. Richard Nixon had a hand in its demise. Three years later, he tried to exact revenge by producing Another Nice Mess. It's a mess, I'll grant you that.


So obscure that most people weren't even aware of its existence at the time, Another Nice Mess is for people who ever wondered what President Nixon and Vice-President Spiro Agnew would have been like if they talked and behaved Laurel & Hardy. Are you on the bandwagon?

Character actor Herb Voland is Agnew/Laurel, while legendary impressionist Rich Little is Nixon/Hardy. It's an interesting idea; Voland and Little impersonate the comedians quite well, perhaps better than anyone else ever has. 

If you loved Way Out West, you may tolerate
Another Nice Mess. But it's unlikely.
Unfortunately, they haven't been giving a script or a budget worth their talent. Writer/director Bob Einstein is certainly familiar with Laurel & Hardy -- their classic dance from Way Out West, for instance, is replicated here. But Laurel & Hardy made everything appear effortless. Voland & Little, having not worked together before nor being physical comedians, look like they're, well, trying their best. 


I don't remember what's supposed to be
happening here, but it doesn't matter.
Further muddying things, Einstein adds sound effects and trick camera work more appropriate for The Three Stooges, as if realizing his target audience -- stoners, Nixon haters, and stoner Nixon haters -- wouldn't have the patience to sit through a deliberately-paced Laurel & Hardyesque movie.Never play to the stoners.


No performer given, and for good reason.
Too, one misses the infectious music that LeRoy Shields and Marvin Hatley composed for the Hal Roach pictures. While L&H's "Ku-Ku" theme appears from time to time in Another Nice Mess, a pop song titled "I Am the President" is performed ad nauseum by someone trying to sound like Arlo Guthrie. 

Old Hitler wishes he died back at the bunker, as does
the audience.


Oh, by the way, there's a plot, of sorts. An elderly Adolf Hitler is living secretly in the White House, trying to take over the presidency with the help of a sexy intern. That's comedy, folks.

Einstein tries to jazz things up (or pad things out) with clips of the real Laurel & Hardy "watching" the events onscreen; there's also genuine news footage of Nixon campaigning. Taking it one meta-step further, Rich Little occasionally appears as the "real" Pres. Nixon commenting on Another Nice Mess in the White House screening room. His vocal and physical resemblance are eerily spot-on; Einstein should have written a one-man stage show for Little as Nixon, and saved Tommy Smothers some money.

Nixon's shave is interrupted by a 
plumber's snake from Agnew's
bathroom. Just as funny as it sounds.
As bad as it is, Another Nice Mess could have been a lot worse. Entire scenes seem to have been left on the cutting room floor, accounting for its incredibly short 65-minute running time. What remains -- like "zany" running gags featuring Secret Service agents disguised as houseplants -- has been edited with the skill of a logger with a bad case of the shakes. So much for getting even with Tricky Dickie.


Steve Martin, far right, watches his movie
career almost end before it begins.
Bob Einstein was one of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour's writers/supporting players, as was Steve Martin, who makes his movie debut here as a hippie inadvertently launching a brick-throwing fight with Nixon, Agnew and a bunch of innocent bystanders. I don't recall seeing this clip during the American Film Institute's tribute to Steve a while back. 


Steve Martin and Bob Einstein pretend they
had nothing to do with Another Nice Mess.
Dick & Spiro as Stan & Ollie could have worked as a recurring seven-minute sketch on the Smothers Brothers show. But as a movie, Another Nice Mess hangs together like a fallen clothesline. Tommy Smothers himself admitted it was "terrible", allowing it to fall into public domain; prints are as faded as a forgotten 1940s Cinecolor b-movie.

Just for fun, if you ever run into Steve Martin, tell him your favorite movie isAnother Nice Mess. His reaction will probably be more entertaining than anything in the movie.

Monday, July 18, 2016

BLONDE ICE (1948)


Memo to idiots of the male sex: If your bride is making out with her ex-boyfriend a minute after you've exchanged "I do's", don't continue to Niagara like nothing happened. Otherwise, you'll wind up dead in your living room clutching a gun that's been wiped clean of prints and no powder burns on your hands. Thank Blonde Ice for that bit of advice.

"Darling! I was only whispering into
his mouth!"
Claire Cummings has barely gotten through the honeymoon phase of her honeymoon when her husband, Carl Hanneman, discovers her writing a love letter to her ex, newspaper reporter Les Burns. Faster than you can say "No-good dame," Carl returns to their home in San Francisco with the letter in his pocket and divorce on his mind.

If Les was smart, he'd drive straight into
a brick wall.
Eager to collect an inheritance, Claire pays a pilot $500 to fly her to Frisco on the qt, where she knocks off Carl and returns to the honeymoon bungalow in one night. When Claire later returns to Frisco for good, she sweet-talks Les Burns into picking her up at the airport with the ol' my-husband's-gone-to-work-in-New-York routine. 

They're greeted at home by hubby's corpse on the floor. In short order, the police suspect foul play, and zero in on Les at the culprit. He loved her, right? And hated Carl for marrying her, right? And Claire was 400 miles away the night of the murder, right? 

Al and Les exchange the fine art of the
stink-eye.
Just to make things more interesting, the oily Al Herrick, a newspaper colleague of Les', latches onto the same angle -- mainly because he was Claire's boyfriend back in the day, too. It's harder to figure out who has the worst taste in lovers, Claire or the blockheads who fall for her. (The only other things all her boyfriends have in common are thin mustaches and baritone voices brought about by a couple dozen Pall Malls a day.) James Griffith plays Al like a cross between Franklin Pangborn and Clifton Webb, only hetero, which is just as bizarre as it sounds.

Every 40s drama needed one scene
where one person looked away
from the other during a
conversation
Claire eventually racks up two more victims -- the pilot who flew her to Frisco to kill her husband, and her new fiancee, Congressman-elect Stanley Mason (which must make Blonde Ice the only bad-girl noir featuring an assassination). And in a thoughtful gesture, she tries to pin the latter on Les Burns. Only through the machinations of psychiatrist Dr. Kippinger does Claire finally break down and confess -- leading to yet another, climactic killing. Her trigger finger must have callouses.

For its meager pedigree, Blonde Ice is rich in b-movie dialogue, tossed about like a time-bomb with a short fuse. When Les discovers that Claire is engaged to Stan, he snorts, "Claire Cummings Hanneman Mason. If this keeps up, you won't be able to get your 
Make that two scenes.
initials on your silverware!" 

And a moment later, he gets another classic line when she tries wrapping him around her deadly little finger: "You're like a poison. Take a little bit and you're finished. But too much becomes an antidote." I hear ya, brother, I hear ya.


Only the shrink seems to be concerned that Claire
is making ready with the revolver. Maybe that's why
he's a shrink.
If Claire's character were a man, he'd be immediately pinned as a creepy villain whose sorry end can't come soon enough. However, as played by Leslie Brooks, she exudes a sick sexiness that make men deaf, blind, and stupid -- proof that women have it easier than men.

What was it about janes like these that made movies like Blonde Ice so popular? For male ticket-buyers, it was a safe way to witness revenge on every dame that did them dirt. For women, they got to live vicariously through a totally uninhibited character, while enjoying the anti-heroine's punishment as a salve to their own guilt.

But maybe Al Herrick puts it best: "I know that Claire Cummings is a nut if I ever saw one." Yeah, but you slept with her, pal.

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