Hepburn brings a special kind of style to Hollywood.
We don't smoke, but Katherine Hepburn sure makes smoking look good in this RKO promo photo shot by Ernest Bachrach in 1935. Though she had a long and storied career, this early shot is pretty much her iconic image. Prints of it are even sold on Wal-Mart's website. Hepburn is incomparable. Her must-watch films include Bringing Up Baby, Adam's Rib, The Philadelphia Story, The African Queen, Long Day's Journey into Night, The Lion in Winter, the groundbreaking Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (which inspired an excellent reggae song by Black Uhuru), and On Golden Pond.
You can sum up Hepburn's output by saying she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar twelve times and won a quartet, the most ever. The Oscar has failed to stay as relevant as it could have over recent decades, and the Academy has made some embarrassing Best Picture choices (Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction—really?), but it's always been a reliable measure of acting quality, so Hepburn's four wins are meaningful. The one thing she didn't do was make a lot of pulp style movies. One that looks as if it qualifies is the 1946 drama Undercurrent. We'll circle back to that and the divine Miss H. in a bit.
What's being stolen? A previous movie's most successful ideas.
Every Hollywood star has that brief moment when they're invincible at the box office, but it seems as if Robert Mitchum, more than most others, was a guy who maintained his power for many years. When The Big Steal came out he'd already run the gauntlet of a drug bust, jail time, and the public repentance circuit, and seemed to emerge unscathed. The executive brains at RKO decided to match teflon Rob with Jane Greer in an attempt to replicate the pair's runaway success in the film noir monument Out of the Past. This time the studio went for a lot of banter and not much in the way noir style, as Mitchum plays an army lieutenant accused of a payroll robbery who pursues the real thief Patric Knowles through Mexico. Greer plays Knowles' fiancée, who he cold-heartedly divested of two-thousand bucks, because thieves are just a little more pragmatic than they are romantic.
The movie is fueled by that Mitchum/Greer chemistry, plus high speeds, resort wardrobe, wry looks, and the Out of the Past memories of movie audiences. Greer brandishes a gun again, just as in that seminal sequence in Out of the Past. Mitchum has a desperate fistfight, just as in Out of the Past. All of this retreading is supported by visually helpful location shooting in Veracruz and other areas of Mexico. The end result is a pleasant little chase film that's even comical at times. Or maybe the laughs came from our dark senses of humor. For example, you know how car pursuits sometimes go right through flocks of chickens, but the chickens never get hurt? In this movie one actually gets run over—at least if the numerous feathers drifting in the car's wake were any indication. That really amused us. Also nearly flattened were goats, a few cows, mules, children, and middle-aged ladies. In fact, all the near misses felt like a running gag about how Americans are always in a hurry.
Other aspects of the movie are equally tongue-in-cheek, including Mitchum's ugly-American stabs at Spanish, but however lightweight this is at times, in the end it's still categorized as a thriller, which means it needs to make pulses race. We wouldn't say it fully achieves that requirement, but it isn't bad either. Mitchum gonna Mitchum, and that's all a studio needed at this moment in time to make a movie work. He'd go on to headline Where Danger Lives, Angel Face, and a long string of good-to-middling dramas and noirs, all the way up to his other cinematic monuments, 1955's The Night of the Hunter and 1962's Cape Fear. The Big Steal is an okay flick, but its true value may be that it shows what the Mitchum charm can do for material that doesn't even deserve him. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1949.
Unless they're framed and sent to prison for life. In that case a few tears are understandable.
Above is a rare and vibrant Australian full bleed (i.e. borderless) promo poster from RKO Radio Pictures A/SIA for Dick Powell's classic film noir Cry Danger, released Down Under today in 1951. We wrote about this flick back in February, so if you're curious just have a look at this link.
You know what I love about you, Jane? You're as hot as me. It's like I switched my gender with FaceApp.
The promo poster for the classic film noir His Kind of Woman declares Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum the hottest combination ever to hit the screen. The windscreen? The screen door? We'll assume it means the silver screen. The movie was made by RKO Radio Pictures when it was run by Howard Hughes, so if you know anything about vintage cinema you already know this production was a mess. Hughes' micromanaging, meddling, and firings of actors led to heavy cost overruns and more than an hour of retakes. Despite these issues Mitchum and Russell do fine as the romantic leads, and support from Vincent Price, Jim Backus, and Raymond Burr helps them immensely. Are they the hottest whatever to hit the whatever? Well, of course. They'd be the hottest pushing a stalled car up a hill, or flossing their rearmost molars, or yakking in the toilet after an all night tequila binge. When you're hot, you're hot. We know quite well because—not to boast—people have said the same about us.
Anyway, Mitchum plays a classic film noir patsy who accepts a pile of money to go to Mexico for unknown purposes, only to discover that the sweet deal he thought he was getting isn't so sweet after all. Russell plays a rich girl idling down south with her lover, a famous actor, but when she gets a gander of Mitchum she starts rethinking her romantic priorities. Any smart woman would. We won't reveal the plot other than to say it's adequate, though not awe inspiring. The last few reels make a hard right turn into comedy, which some viewers hate, but the major problem for us is that the ineptness of the villains during the extended climax strains credulity. In the end His Kind of Woman may not be your kind of movie, but guys (or girls) get to see Russell dress slinkily and sing a couple of songs, and girls (or guys) get to see Mitchum go about twenty minutes with no shirt, so there's a silver lining for everyone here. The film premiered in the U.S. today in 1951. Do you have someplace I can store this suitcase filled with my excess masculine heat?
Sure, you can sit next to me. But first you have to sign a liability waiver in case you get scorched.
You'll love this next trick. I put my finger in this cognac and it catches fire.
Hot as this guy is, I don't know whether to keep beating on him or start beating on me.
And once I take your face off I'll be the hot one. I'll have it all! Respect, envy, women, excellent service wherever I go! The world will be mine! Mwahh hah hah! Haaaaaaaah haha hahah!
You guys hungry? I've got some piping hot human souls here. They're dee-lish.
The lost world adventure She, starring Helen Gahagan and Randolph Scott, was produced by Merian C. Cooper, who made King Kong in 1933. With him involved you know She is a big production. It's also as pure a pulp movie as you'll find. It was based on H. Rider Haggard's pre-pulp tale She: A History of Adventure, which first appeared in 1886.
The story involves a man named Leo following in the footsteps of a distant relative who disappeared five centuries ago searching for a lost land and the secret to immortality. It turns out that secret is real and it's guarded by an ageless goddess, beautiful and cruel, who all those years ago made Leo's distant relative her consort. But he died, which means when the goddess sees Leo she believes he's her dead lover returned from the beyond, and she's determined to possess him again.
Gahagan is the goddess, Scott is Leo the explorer, and Helen Mack is his steadfast love, who takes none-to-kindly to some slutty goddess trying to lay her man. She is cheesy as hell, but it's also a high budget adventure with big sets, elaborate staging, and an insane fire stunt that comes during a chaotic climax. Movies this old always feel a bit alien, but it's still pretty good overall. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1935.
In rankings of America's most liveable places it's at the very bottom.
Destination Murder, for which you see a nice poster above, is a b-movie, but bottom-of-the-bill efforts soemtimes have cool plot set-ups and good twists. In this case it's multiple layers of wrongly presumed identity. Who's really the killer? Who's really the crime boss? Who's really a cigarette girl? In addition, whose side are all these people really on? With more budget we think this one could have been quite good, but alas, you do what you can with what you have, and here you have Joyce MacKenzie, Stanley Clements, and Hurd Hatfield. They're all solid performers who had long careers, but we bet you don't know any of their names. In addition, the writing falters in spots as it strives for sharpness, but ends up dulling its blade. For example:
“You see, Miss Mansfield, we're dealing with killers. And a killer has only one destination—murder.”
The writing hurts the end of the film as well, as the structure of the climax and the need to work a recurring player piano into matters strain credulity. But Destination Murder isn't a loss by any means. MacKenzie, playing a woman who infiltrates the mob in order to find her father's killer, has to carry the important parts of this film and manages it despite both budget and screenwriting hanging around her ankles. For fans of vintage film, this forgotten quasi-noir should be sufficiently entertaining, as long as you don't spend too much time imagining how much better it could have been. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1950.
Worst vacation spot in America, here we come! Take a close look, ma'am. Asses are just as unique as faces, and equally admissible in court. I don't think it's that one. The man I saw had a chin.
This is a Ride you should refuse.
Not every old movie survives because it's good. If you doubt us, check the contemporary reviews for The Devil Thumbs a Ride. They're disastrous. What you have here is a clunky RKO b-noir, only sixty-seven minutes long, about a bank robber who hitches a ride with an amazingly naive driver and proceeds to drag him into the worst trouble of his life. The pair and two women they pick up during a pit stop eventually end up in a secluded house where the villain reveals his true nature as a liar, bully, sexual predator, and worse. You have to feel bad for these dullards victimized by the hitchhiker, but you'll feel worse for the audiences that paid money to see the movie. Way back in 2009 when we featured the film's other promo poster we hadn't yet seen it, but now that we have we can't recommend it. Its terribleness does verge on humor at times, though, which is something, and movie buffs might be interested to know that it stars Lawrence Tierney, who's these days best known for having played Joe Cabot in Reservoir Dogs. But still, not the best vintage Hollywood has to offer. The Devil Thumbs a Ride premiered today in 1947.
Gangsters try to steal Robert Ryan's boxing future.
In film noir there are procedural cop movies. The Set-Up is a procedural boxing movie. It tries to take viewers behind the scenes of the violence, bloodlust, and money to focus on the nuts and bolts of the fight game. Starring Robert Ryan as an aging heavyweight and Audrey Totter as his fretful girlfriend, most of the first half of the film takes place in a claustrophobic locker room as boxer after boxer goes out for subsequent bouts of a six card program like gladiators in Rome's Coliseum. Ryan is the main event, and when his name is called the action shifts to the ring for his fight, which is shown in something close to real time.
Ryan is hoping a win over an up and coming young fighter will earn him one last shot at fortune and glory, but he has no idea the fix is in. Somebody should have told him, because if he wins the bout he'll be in heaps of trouble. This is a good flick. It was helmed by Robert Wise, has some fantastic directorial extravagances, and looks spectacular in general, like the gritty documentary photos of Arthur Weegee Fellig, which is no small feat for a film shot entirely on an RKO backlot (Weegee, incidentally, has a cameo as a timekeeper). In the realm of boxing movies The Set-Up stands toe to toe with most. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1949.
She doesn't come with a cup holder but all her other features are top notch.
Above, a beautiful promo image of U.S. actress Susan Hayward made to publicize the 1952 RKO western The Lusty Men, about cowboys on the dangerous rodeo circuit, and their fretful wives. They have plenty of reason to fret, as the movie progresses. This image appeared in a Japanese magazine called Roadshow much later than the 1952 film, around 1972. You can see a previous image of Hayward here.
Anselmo Ballester helped set the artistic standard in the competitive world of Italian movie illustrators.
Anselmo Ballester is yet another virtuoso poster artist from Italy, where cinema promos were taken perhaps more seriously as art pieces than anyplace in the world. We've documented many of these Italian geniuses, including Mafé, Luigi Martinati, Sandro Symeoni, Mario de Berardinis, and others. Ballester, born in 1897, predated nearly all of his colleagues (only Martinati was born earlier) and enjoyed a fifty year career working for studios such as Cosmopolis, Titanus, Twentieth Century Fox, and RKO Radio Pictures. He also worked in commercial and political advertising. For the titles of the above works just check the keywords below. They're in top-to-bottom order in Italian and English.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1950—The Great Brinks Robbery Occurs
In the U.S., eleven thieves steal more than $2 million from an armored car company's offices in Boston, Massachusetts. The skillful execution of the crime, with only a bare minimum of clues left at the scene, results in the robbery being billed as "the crime of the century." Despite this, all the members of the gang are later arrested.
1977—Gary Gilmore Is Executed
Convicted murderer Gary Gilmore is executed by a firing squad in Utah, ending a ten-year moratorium on Capital punishment in the United States. Gilmore's story is later turned into a 1979 novel entitled The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer, and the book wins the Pulitzer Prize for literature.
1942—Carole Lombard Dies in Plane Crash
American actress Carole Lombard
, who was the highest paid star in Hollywood during the late 1930s, dies in the crash of TWA Flight 3, on which she was flying from Las Vegas to Los Angeles after headlining a war bond rally in support of America's military efforts. She was thirty-three years old.
1919—Luxemburg and Liebknecht Are Killed
Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, two of the most prominent socialists in Germany, are tortured and murdered by the Freikorps. Freikorps was a term applied to various paramilitary organizations that sprang up around Germany as soldiers returned in defeat from World War I. Members of these groups would later become prominent members of the SS.
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