Sunday, May 29, 2022

Film Rolls, Round 2: Steel and Lace, Havana Widows, and I've Got Your Number

When we last left this silly experiment, Mookie: was leading Bruce, 8 ½ stars to 5 ½ stars as both landed on box sets. I have not actually abandoned it, but the writing has gone kind of slow. But let us continue!

Your roll, Mookie!

5! Just enough to jump to the next part of the board and Steal and Lace

And how does Bruce respond?

That 8 helps catch up a little, hitting a DVD double feature from the Warner Archive Sale.

And how are the movies?

Steel and Lace

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Grading on a curve? Maybe. The thing about a movie like Steel and Lace is that at least a few parts of it are better than they have any right to be, given that this thing was shot for video and is clearly built around what the practical effects team can do, and the hints of a little unexpected ambition make it better than expected. It's not really a good movie, but one can see the good movie trapped inside it and wonder what would happen if there was a little more studio support or money or someone with more talent at the helm.

It's pretty simple high-concept stuff - talented pianist Gaily Morton (Clare Wren) is raped by Daniel Emerson (Michael Cerveris), and after he's acquitted, she commits suicide but appears to return from the dead, targeting Emerson and the four hangers-on that alibied him. In fact, her engineer brother Albert (Bruce Davison) has built an android in her image and pointed it at those he blames for her death, leaving a trail of bodies for a detective (David Naughton) and his crime photographer ex-girlfriend (Stacy Haiduk) to follow. Pretty basic rape-revenge stuff, with a sci-fi angle that lets director Ernest Farino and writers Joseph Dougherty & Dave Edison go big.

And go big they do - this may be nasty exploitation whose courtroom scene look like they were filmed in a hotel conference room, but the kills are impressively splattery, all the more satisfying for how they are by and large visited upon those who deserve it. Farino had a long career in visual effects before this movie (his directorial debut) and it's been much of his work since, and he knows both what he can get away with at this budget and how to handle things on set to get that done quickly and have a little more time all around. The action is by and large not complicated, but built for impact.

And somewhere underneath, there's something not half-bad going on with the story. The dialogue is terrible and none of the cast really manages to sell it, but Clare Wren does fairly well articulating a quietly growing sense of self and discomfort with the idea of extending her targets beyond those responsible for Gaily's death, and the writers are quite aware of just where Albert is not entirely different from Emerson et al; his android isn't a real recreation of his sister, but a simulation that makes him feel comfortable. It's messy, and you wonder what someone capable of really good trash would make of it, but it's not awful.

Havana Widows

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, DVD)

It's kind of fun to imagine how you might remake Havana Widows today, because while so many of the details feel like they might change (and not just because Havana isn't exactly a playground for zany New Yorkers any more), it's the sort of farce that is able to get the audience on its wavelength quickly - it's barely an hour long, after all - and zip through a bunch of goofy scenarios without feeling particularly rushed.

It has a couple of sassy blonde dancers, Mae (Joan Blondell) and Sadie (Glenda Farrell) getting stiffed on their pay but inspired by a former colleague who has come back from Havana with a rich new husband. They just need some stake money to get there, which comes via Herman (Allen Jenkins), an on-again/off-again boyfriend of Sadie's, who himself has taken it from his gangster boss. Once there, they target a rich-looking fellow (Guy Kibbee) for blackmail, except that Mae becomes genuinely fond of his ne'er-do-well son (Lyle Talbot). Can they do it before the hotel evicts these girls posing as rich widows who are behind on their rent, or Herman and his boss come looking for their money?

Maybe the Depression setting makes the gold-digging more palatable, especially considering that Sadie and Mae seem so much brighter and more deserving of the comfort money can bring than the various men they encounter and woo. In any event, director Ray Enright and writer Earl Baldwin make light farce out of what could be a nest of vipers, with everybody just likable enough that one enjoys seeing them stay about a step ahead of trouble that they probably deserve. One thing leads to another in rapid-fire fashion without feeling particularly rushed, with Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell making a fun pair - pretty, sassy, sharp without being really mean, seeming to fall into their complementary roles with ease, playing off each other and the various folks around them with style. It's full of fun bits and supporting characters who maybe have one joke apiece but can milk it for all it's worth.

For some reason, it's second-billed on the Warner Archive DVD - maybe the shorter length makes it more the B movie than the A picture in a 1930s double feature - but it's a fun little trifle that holds up, and it might be fun to see some of today's funny ladies take a run at this sort of thing.

I've Got Your Number

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, DVD)

The 69-minute bit-of-everything movie is a lost art for a lot of reasons, although it seems like the sort of thing that streamers might find a reason to bring back, because they've got a lot of the same incentives to crank out a lot of movies that don't need to be big enough to justify a special trip out (or can be part of a double feature), maybe putting folks under contract to do three or four light popcorn flicks a year. They haven't though, even though they could probably use a catalog full of movies like I've Got Your Number that aren't exactly special but which are enjoyable and good for a night's entertainment for a nickel (or a buck, or whatever the pro-rated cost of your Prime subscription is).

For being so short, it's got a fair amount going on, with telephone line workers Terry (Pat O'Brien) and Johnny (Allen Jenkins) responding to service calls, crossing paths with hotel switchboard operator Marie (Joan Blondell), who loses her job because an ex is in the mob, and then helping her get a new job where said ex has an idea how to use her as a dupe, but fortunately the smitten Terry has an idea of how to use his skills to prove her innocence. It is, by twenty-first century standards, not exactly legal, but it's at least novel for 1934.

Director Rey Enright and screenwriters Warren Duff & Sidney Sutherland compact all that well enough that there's room for all of that to happen, for scenes showing enough about the phone company's operations that the last-act hijinks make sense, and to introduce enjoyable (if stock) supporting characters like Eugene Pallette's boss, frustrated at Terry's antics in a way typically reserved for police captains and newspaper editors, and Glenda Farrell's fake medium. Pat O'Brien is probably the lead in terms of driving the story, but it's not hard to see why Joan Blondell is top-billed; she sort of pushes her way to the front with her confident New York accent while still being enough of the good girl to be taken advantage of and accept a little help. It's the sort of movie that doesn't have a lot of memorable moments, but it sure gets the job done while it's going and never wears out its welcome.

… So, where do we stand after Round 2?

Mookie: 10 ¾ stars - respectable, except…

Bruce: 11 stars - a decent double feature is a good way to make up ground.

Now we take the viewed movies out, reshuffle the movies, and here we are:

Moving everything after the double feature back one pulls Mookie back into the first box, but both ready to jump ahead fifty years with a good roll.

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