A light week for movies for me this week, as I spent most of my time plowing through season two of The Monkees. Beware the Frodis!
The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938) OK, so I know last week I was complaining how (the otherwise great) Sherlock Jr. barely had a plot and was instead a loose string of ideas cheaply glued together, and I know I’m now about to rave about a movie that uses less glue. But it’s OK, because The Big Broadcast of 1938 belongs in that wonderful genre of musical, the revue. A variety show-type radio broadcast set on an ocean liner racing to cross the Atlantic (got that?) is the clothesline on which the script hangs a series of popular songs, comedy routines, dance numbers, opera performances, even a cartoon. Along the way, we have gags from W.C. Fields, Martha Raye, Ben Blue, and, in his breakthrough role, Bob Hope (his “Thanks for the Memory” debuts here). It’s all wildly entertaining, while the subplots are light but lovable, holding our interest with ease. Best two-liner: “I want to be a singer in the worst way!” “You probably will be.”
The War Wagon (1967) Why didn’t John Wayne play bad guys? His character is technically an outlaw here – a rarity for the star – but the movie goes out of its way to remind us he’s really the hero, his criminal acts fueled by justified revenge, not criminality. Watching him lead a gang as they plan a heist, it’s easy to wish he went this route more often, working against the Man, not for him. He’s obviously having fun here, what with all the tough guy dialogue, but it’s not as all-out as it should’ve been; a few more roles like this and the Duke might’ve even learned to embrace the sort of verve costar Kirk Douglas brings to his own devilish, morally questionable sidekick character, who steals the show with a wink and a wry smile.
Crossfire (1947) An odd combination of film noir and Message Movie, luring us in with the promise of a murder mystery before revealing its true intent: to force post-war audiences to address the ugly truths of anti-Semitism. (It beat rival production Gentleman’s Agreement by debuting in theaters earlier, but lost to it in the Best Picture Oscar race.) The lack of subtlety in presenting the message creates a few bumps in the rhythms of the story, but for the most part, it’s a solid thriller refusing to pull its punches, the sort of socially conscious drama Warner Brothers churned out the decade before. Edward Dmytryk’s stylish, somber direction doesn’t hurt, either.
Wichita (1955) Everything goes in Wichita! This rip-roarin’ widescreen oater featuring a pre-Tombstone Wyatt Earp in the first days of a boom town comes from… director Jacques Tourneur? Huh. To be honest, my familiarity with Tourneur’s work ends with his horror and film noir titles, so it was a nice surprise to see his name pop up here, turning what could have been a typical work-for-hire genre title into something moody yet fast paced, action packed yet character driven. It’s bold and saucy, Kansas style!
The Bank Dick (1940) And we’re back to W.C. Fields and the loose, loose plotline. Once The Bank Dick works through its quarter-assed set-ups (including an awkward introduction overselling the name “Egbert Sousé” and a giddy yet unnecessary scene where he talks his way into the director’s chair of a movie inexplicably being shot in town), the script manages to tighten a little as Fields flimflams his way through a scheme involving heavy drinking, boondoggling, mogo on the a-gogo, and a beef steak mine. The film’s climax – a manic car chase through city streets and country roads – is equal parts great comedy and great stuntwork, some of the best I’ve ever seen.