When civilized men want anything, the uncivilized answer should always be no.
We knew we were in trouble about three minutes into White Savage, a movie that quickly revealed itself to be a bad hybrid of South Seas adventure and light romance. It features Dominican actress Maria Montez as the ruler of a Polynesian paradise called Temple Island that is coveted by two men. Good guy John Hall wants fishing rights to hunt sharks, while bad guy Thomas Gomez wants to steal the island's legendary treasure, which resides on the bottom of a sacred pool. Montez isn't keen on giving either man access, but she may not have a choice—she's liable to be betrayed by her brother, who's deeply in debt and willing to sell off their father's ancient land.
The movie features stalky, presumptuous male attitudes toward Montez, casts numerous bit players and extras in shoe polish, and features as an important character Charlie Chan portayer Sidney Toler in full inscrutable Asian mode, dispensing aphorisms for every occasion. In addition to these dubious aspects, almost the entire first half of the movie unspools to a highly annoying soundtrack of trilling flutes that are supposed to sound vaguely islandish. Don't get us wrong—we understand that the movie is meant to be largely lighthearted, but you know how to get future viewers to overlook flaws? Be a good movie. Excellence will buy a lot of forbearance. There's not much excellence in White Savage.
Are there any positives? Several. Montez is lovely. There's a tense, high stakes poker sequence that's a cut above average and shows that—similar to that old line from cowboy movies—white man not only speaks with forked tongue, but also plays with forked deck. Also positive, there's an outdoor island dance featuring some incredibly fit bodies of both sexes—we're talking co-ed six packs as far as the eye can see. And finally, because the movie is relentlessly dumb, if you're in the right frame of mind it can be funny. Otherwise, White Savage is just a throwaway wartime adventure set in the exotic Pacific islands, filmed in Los Angeles and environs, that takes viewers nowhere. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1943.
Who needs a good script when you have Mitchum and Russell?
Above is a surpassingly lovely poster for the thriller Macao with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, reunited by RKO Studios after the previous year's His Kind of Woman. It's always interesting how old movies introduce the romantic leads to each other. In filmmaking parlance, these encounters are sometimes called “meet-cutes.” But it isn't very cute for the man to have to save the woman from a sexual assault. It's also not cute when the price for being saved is an uninvited kiss, but this is the early fifties and in movies you have to expect that stuff. Nonconsensual wrestling match—bad. Nonconsensual kiss—okay. Mitchum goes in for his reward and Russell doesn't mind.
We joked about these two being the best looking pair you can find in vintage cinema, and they're both in top form here. The honchos at RKO knew they had a dream pairing. Placing them in an exotic port, giving them an obstacle to overcome, writing them some quips, and hiring a respected director like Josef von Sternberg and charging him with capturing Casbalanca-style magic was a no-brainer. The adventure involves Mitchum coming across a stolen diamond, then trying to sell more gems to a local criminal kingpin. Little does he know that it's all a scheme hatched by an American police lieutenant to capture said kingpin, leaving Mitchum stuck in the dangerous middle. Russell plays a lounge singer and seems ancillary to all the intrigue, but as the plot evolves she becomes central to the caper. Macao has its moments, and we certainly enjoyed it, but objectively speaking it's a middling effort, with too many narrative holes and too much boilerplate dialogue to offer any real thrills. The caper isn't compelling, and the villain—played by Brad Dexter as if he's on Quaaludes—has no real sense of menace. So the movie has the exotic port, the obstacle, and the quips—but no magic. Mitchum gets the girl, though, so that's something. Or maybe Russell gets the boy. However you prefer. What we'd prefer is more of this pairing, but sadly this was the last time the two starred together. While both their collaborations are watchable, they never made the blockbuster their onscreen chemistry deserved. Why not? Probably because Macao flopped so hard. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1952.
Everyone says she isn't real but could a figment of his imagination cause this many problems?
Secretaries make a habit of saving the boss's ass. It's in the job description. In Phantom Lady, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1944, the ass saving is literal, as Ella Raines finds herself the only person who believes her employer Alan Curtis didn't kill his wife. Curtis's alibi is as weak as they come—he spent the evening with a woman he never met before, whose name he never got, who he can only describe as wearing a strange hat, and who nobody can find to confirm his story. She's the phantom lady of the title—doesn't exist, at least as far as everyone besides Curtis is concerned. So after a quick trial, off to the death house he goes, where he sinks into a state of dismal acceptance of his own oblivion. That's when Raines decides to work her secretarial krav maga and crack the case. You think shorthand is hard? Try unraveling a vast conspiracy.
Phantom Lady also stars the great Franchot Tone, Elisha Cook, Jr., and one-ethnicity-fits-all character actor Thomas Gomez. As performers, the top end of the cast ranges from good to great, but the script isn't the best clay with which to mold. There are positives, though. The direction by Robert Siodmak is interesting, the set design is eye-catching in places, particularly in Tone's wacky bachelor pad with its odd concrete bed, and there's a great bit set in a jazz cellar that plays like something out of Reefer Madness without the drugs. It'll teach you that jazz music is crazy enough to bend reality all by itself. You'll also learn that in case of murder it's good to have someone in your corner. Preferably someone with a winning smile, a nice figure, and excellent investigative skills.
When commies get their hooks into you it's forever.
The Woman on Pier 13, for which you see a very nice promo poster above, had a pre-release title that tells you everything you need to know about it. That title was I Married a Communist. What you get here is a melodrama about Laraine Day, whirlwind married to successful San Francisco industrialist Robert Ryan, an exemplar of American free enterprise, but who was once a member of the communist party back in New Jersey. Uh oh.
Long before meeting and marrying Day, he exited the party without even thanking his hosts for the snacks, moved to Frisco, and changed his name. Married life is going wonderfully until the commies track him down and threaten to expose him if he doesn't give over two fifths of his salary each month and sabotage labor negotiations between San Fran shipping magnates and striking dockworkers. They kill a guy in front of him, just so he knows they mean business. The sneaky, thieving, blackmailing, murdering rats. They're cruel squared. All they needed to be worse were monocles and riding crops. And maybe a handy tray of stainless steel dental hooks. And speaking of hooks, wait until you see what what Ryan can do with one. The Woman on Pier 13 is well made and pretty fun, but it's less useful as cinema than as a time capsule of anti-commie propaganda. It premiered today in 1949.
Robert Montgomery rides into town and trouble soon follows.
We'd seen the movie adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes' novel Ride the Pink Horse before, more than once, but decided to watch it again because its premiere date was today in 1947. It differs from the book, of course—it's more streamlined, the real life town of Santa Fe becomes fictional San Pablo, the villains are more proactive, the heartless anti-hero Sailor becomes the not-so-bad Lucky Gagin, and the Mexican girl Pila is an adult instead of a fourteen-year-old. All these changes work fine. The most striking addition is the movie's use of Spanish dialogue, five or six lines worth, untranslated and unsubtitled. It adds authenticity, plus a touch of bonus material for Spanish speakers. Robert Montgomery directs and stars, handling the dual chores solidly. In the end Ride the Pink Horse is a good film noir that has increased in stature over the years. It's always been one of our favorites, but we admit that after seeing so many rote entries it's the quirky ones that tend to stand out. We wouldn't recommend this to novices as their first noir, but if you've seen many and are looking for something that surprises, Ride the Pink Horse will do the job. You can learn more about the movie by reading our detailed write-up about the novel here.
Humphrey is pitch perfect as always but it's Edward who makes this movie sing.
Above, one of many promo posters for the classic drama Key Largo. This movie, as you doubtless know, is great. It hinges on Edward G. Robinson's bravura performance as a washed up gangster trying to make a comeback, but he gets ample onscreen help from co-stars Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Gomez, Claire Trevor, Dan Seymour, and others. And John Huston in the director's chair is no slouch bringing the foreground drama and hurricane background to life. Key Largo is often called a film noir. Is it though? Hmm... Bogart certainly fits the bill in terms of characterization, but since the movie lacks most other noir elements we're inclined to call it a straight crime drama. But that's just our opinion. It was first seen by the public at a Hollywood preview in mid-July 1948, and went into full national release today.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1918—Wilson Goes to Europe
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sails to Europe for the World War I peace talks in Versailles, France, becoming the first U.S. president to travel to Europe while in office.
1921—Arbuckle Manslaughter Trial Ends
In the U.S., a manslaughter trial against actor/director Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle ends with the jury deadlocked as to whether he had killed aspiring actress Virginia Rappe during rape and sodomy. Arbuckle was finally cleared of all wrongdoing after two more trials, but the scandal ruined his career and personal life.
1964—Mass Student Arrests in U.S.
In California, Police arrest over 800 students at the University of California, Berkeley, following their takeover and sit-in at the administration building in protest at the UC Regents' decision to forbid protests on university property.
1968—U.S. Unemployment Hits Low
Unemployment figures are released revealing that the U.S. unemployment rate has fallen to 3.3 percent, the lowest rate for almost fifteen years. Going forward all the way to the current day, the figure never reaches this low level again.
1954—Joseph McCarthy Disciplined by Senate
In the United States, after standing idly by during years of communist witch hunts in Hollywood and beyond, the U.S. Senate votes 65 to 22 to condemn Joseph McCarthy for conduct bringing the Senate into dishonor and disrepute. The vote ruined McCarthy's career.
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