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Islands In The Stream: Week Two
by Peter Sobczynski

And now, let us begin Week Two of this new endeavor in which I shall be offering a daily streaming recommendation for you to peruse from the vast amount of stuff out there. Hopefully you will find them helpful and/or entertaining and keep coming back every day until all this lunacy finally ends. If not, feel free to drop me a line at to explain how terrible I am at this or, even better, you could perhaps suggest a title of your own that I could tackle at some point.

The poster for the 1954 film noir "Crime Wave" blares "Before Your Shocked Eyes--The City Blasted Sin-Side Out! Every mugger nest, creep joint and dim-lit dive busts wide open in the year's bullet-riddled cops vs killers sensation!" In the case of most films, this might come across as little more than shameless hyperbole but in regards to this underrated gem, it almost feels like an understatement. Gene Nelson stars as Steve Lacey, a former criminal who did his time and has spent the last two years on parole and trying to lead a clean life with his wife, Ellen (Phyllis Kirk). Unfortunately for him, three of his former cell mates at San Quentin have just busted out and robbed a gas station, killing a cop in the process. Before too long, they all turn up at Lacey's doorstep and despite his best efforts,, he is soon mixed up with them against his will and to make matters worse, he also finds himself the target of Lt. Sims (Sterling Hayden), a hard-ass cop who is firmly of the once-a-criminal-always-a-criminal school of thought and who is convinced that he has reunited with his old pals. At first glance, this might sound like a fairly standard collection of genre tropes but what it may lack in blazing originality, it more than makes up for in its execution. The film clocks in at a lean 73 minutes and doesn't waste a single one of them--the screenplay is continually and inventively twisting things around so that Lacey keeps getting deeper and deeper into trouble no matter what he does and director Andre de Toth keeps things moving at a breakneck pace (possibly borne out of completing the film in just 15 days) and the decision to shoot most of it on location adds an extra edge of gritty reality to the proceedings. The performances also add a lot to the effectiveness of the film--although better known as a musical-comedy star, Nelson proves to be a more-than-convincing variation of the increasingly desperate anti-hero type, Hayden is just as good at the relentless cop and the array of heavies on display, which also includes a brief but memorable turn from the always eccentric Timothy Carey, are suitably twisted. Although shot in 1952, the film was not released until 1954 and by then, de Toth had already reunited with co-writer Crane Wilbur and actors Kirk, Buchinsky (who would later go on to slightly greater fame after changing his last name to Bronson) and Nedrick Young to make another film together, the 1953 horror classic "House of Wax." (TCM until April 27)

While I, like so many others, am firmly of the mind that the Marx Brothers reached their comedic zenith with the release of their still-amazing 1933 war satire "Duck Soup"--indeed, I would go so far as to call it the funniest American film ever made--if I had to name just one of the sequences from all of their films as their most hilarious, I think that I would have to backtrack two films to "Monkey Business," their 1931 effort that was the first of their projects to be written directly for the screen ("The Cocoanuts" (1929) and "Animal Crackers" (1930) were both based on their hit Broadway shows) to offer up the scene truly worthy of that honor. The premise of the film is slight enough to make gossamer seem like steel wool by comparison--Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo (the script doesn't even bother to give their characters names) play four stowaways on an ocean liner who get mixed up in the affairs, professional and otherwise, of a couple of rival gangsters--but is necessary to know in order to set up the scene in question. Their ship has finally come into port but since they are stowaways, they do not have the documents that they need in order to disembark. While trying to figure out a plan even as they continue inspiring mayhem, it transpires that a.) legendary French crooner Maurice Chevalier is also on the boat and b.) Zeppo has managed to lift his passport. They decide that they will each pretend to be Chevalier and use it to get off the boat but, for reasons never quite explained, it seems that in order to prove that each of them is Chevalier, they will have to sing one of his songs. As comedic premises go, this is about as surreal as they come but it gets even crazier as each one steps forth with their peculiar and highly unconvincing Chevalier impersonation (the only one who even comes remotely close is Zeppo and while he may be the one who is actually in the ballpark, his seats are terrible) that culminates with Harpo's singular take on the crooner in a sequence that pretty much leaves me helpless with laughter every time I see it. Sure, the sequence may be kind of irrelevant to the plot as a whole and it seems to have been inserted as a way of shoehorning a favorite routine from their popular stage revue "I'll Say She Is" into the mix but in terms of providing a few minutes of sheer comedic bliss, it cannot be beat. That said, I don't want to suggest that the film is worthy only because of that one particular scene--aside from the clunky final joke (the Marx Brothers films were notorious for their weak denouements but the one here pretty much takes the cake for its sheer arbitrariness), pretty much everything clicks from Groucho's verbal battles with Chico, the frustrated ship's captain and a gangster who is holding a gun but still cannot get in a word edgewise to the delightful presence of Thelma Todd, who scores plenty of laughs of her own as the frustrated moll. In fact, if it weren't for that ending and the existence of "Duck Soup," an argument could be made that this was the Marx Brothers true masterwork. By the way, if you are curious to see how the Chevalier sequence played out on stage--where it took place in the office of a theatrical agent--there is a filmed version of the original skit that they did for a Paramount Pictures promotional film entitled "The House That Shadows Built" and while it was intended to be seen only by exhibitors as a way of marking the studio's 20th anniversary, that segment can now easily be found on YouTube. (TCM through April 13)

I have never been much of a fan of April Fool's Day, especially in the digital age when the internet is swamped with allegedly clever faux news announcements that are inevitably passed around as being the real thing by extremely gullible people who evidently failed to check their calendars that morning. However, one good thing--possibly the only really good thing--about April Fool's Day is that it helped give us "April Fool's Day," a 1986 horror-comedy hybrid that promised audiences the usual array of slasher movie tropes and ended up subverting their expectations at every turn. On the surface, the setup is as seemingly cliched as can be--on the weekend before April Fool's Day, a group of college friends gather to spend the weekend at the remote island mansion belonging to the family of Muffy St. John (Deborah Foreman), a Vassar student who is a cousin of one of the partiers. When they arrive, following the injury of a deckhand caused by their horseplay, it turns out that Muffy has rigged the mansion with an array of pranks and practical jokes. All is fun and goes for a little bit but before long, the jokes take on a darker edge and Muffy's cousin mysteriously vanishes and another visitor, Kit (Amy Steel), is convinced that she saw his dead body. Naturally, the phones are out, there is no way off the island until their boat returns on Monday and as the weekend progresses, the would-be revelers begin to disappear one by one as the bodies begin to stack up. Eventually it comes down to the last two and they make a couple of shocking discoveries that eventually lead to its equally startling conclusion. It is that conclusion, which I would not dream of hinting at, that has always caused horror fans to argue over it--some love the inspired twist that it brought to an increasingly tired subgenre while others found the twist to be stupid and the movie as a whole to be nothing like the straight-up horror film they had been led to expect by the marketing. Those naysayers did have a point--the ads did make it look like a standard slasher film (it was even made and released by the people behind the "Friday the 13th" franchise), which meant that those expecting just that would come away disappointed while those who might have been intrigued by its unique charms would stay away on the assumption that it was just another anonymous bloodbath. Happily. enough time has passed since the heyday of the slasher boom so that it can be judged on its own considerable merits--the surprisingly stylish direction by Fred Walton (whose previous feature had been the 1979 cult favorite "When a Stranger Calls"), the smart and clever script by Danilo Bach and a bright cast including the always-delightful Foreman (who previously gained notice for starring opposite Nicolas Cage in the equally subversive and entertaining 1983 film "Valley Girl"), Steel (recognizable to gorehounds for playing the Final Girl in "Friday the 13th Part 2") and Thomas F Wilson, better known as the various incarnations of Biff in the "Back to the Future" films. If you have never seen "April Fool's Day" before, you are in for a treat. If you have seen it before, be assured that it still holds up nicely--just don't tell anyone how it ends. For those still into the whole physical media thing, Shout! Factory has just released a nice special edition of the film.(StarzEncore)

In between his years serving as Andy Griffith's sidekick on "The Andy Griffith Show" and his years serving as a reliable second banana on the big screen in a series of silly family comedies, often in tandem with Tim Conway, and on television on "Three's Company," comedian Don Knotts made a series of comedies that found him front and center as a would-be journalist forced to spend the night in a haunted house ("The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" (1966)), a NASA janitor who is reluctantly sent into space ("The Reluctant Astronaut" (1967)), a naive Old West dentist in a remake of "The Paleface" ("The Shakiest Gun in the West" (1968), the unwitting publisher of a "Playboy"-style magazine ("The Love God?" (1969)) and the unsuspecting dupe in an embezzlement scheme ("How to Frame a Figg" (1971)). As odd as these films were (and seeing Knotts attempt to transform himself into a Hugh Hefner type is certainly eye-opening), the strangest of them all was his first turn as a leading man in "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," an offbeat and charming 1964 comedy-fantasy that manages to milk a surprising amount of emotional heft out of a seemingly absurd premise. Set just before America's entrance into World War II, Knotts plays Henry Limpet, a supremely meek man whose only great obsession in life is fish--he is so fascinated with them that he genuinely wishes that he could become one. After being deemed 4F by the Navy when he tries to enlist. While on a trip to Coney Island with his henpecking wife (Carole Cook) and obnoxious best friend (Jack Weston), he falls into the ocean and, through the magic of animation, is transformed into a dolphin and finally feels at peace for the first time, even falling in with fellow dolphin Ladyfish (Elizabeth MacRae) and assisting U.S. submarines in finding and sinking enemy U-boats. Although the basic premise of the film made it sound like a standard-issue family comedy of the type that Walt Disney was cranking out at the time, the mix of seemingly incompatible genres (it even turns into a musical at certain points) and the gently wistful and almost melancholic tone made it quite different from the usual kiddie matinee fare. Not surprisingly, the film failed to catch on when it first came out but, in the tradition of such eventual classics as "The Wizard of Oz," "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and "Tron," it proved to be ahead of its time and would soon develop a cult following thanks to the endearingly odd story, the not-bad animation and the lovely and understated performance by Knotts, a turn that may not be as gut-busting as some of his other work but which allows him to bring an enormous amount of heart, soul and empathy to a character that could have just been written off as a joke in lesser hands. This is a perfect film for both young kids currently cooped up inside and their parents, who may well have seen and loved it when they were children themselves. (TCM)

Many years ago, I was in a bookstore and found a modest-looking paperback that would prove to be an essential volume of my already extensive library of film history books. It was a 1973 book entitled "B Movies: An Informal Survey Of The American Low-Budget Film 1933-1945" that was written by Don Miller and edited by Leonard Maltin that provided a concise and fascinating history of a style of filmmaking that was rarely discussed--certainly not at length--in the official histories of Hollywood at that time. (You can--and should--get it for your Kindle.) The book also provided tantalizing descriptions of a number of movies that at that point tended to be on the elusive side and made you yearn to see them right then. For me, the film that he cited that sounded the most intriguing was an RKO musical called "Melody Cruise" (1933). Now at that time, I was not a particularly big fan of the genre but Miller's brief explanation of the film and the unique stylistic choices it deployed to tell its story sounded absolutely fascinating. Alas, despite religiously scouting the TV listings for it, it took years before I was able to track it down and by that time, I was almost afraid to look at it for fear that I had built it up so high in my mind that the reality of it would inevitably come across as a disappointment. Happily, that proved not to be the case as the film proved itself to be an absolute gem definitely deserving of a bigger audience. The plot, not surprisingly, is pure and unadulterated froth. Two old pals--the married Pete (Charlie Ruggles) and bachelor playboy Alan (Phil Harris) set off one winter's night on a cruise from New York to California that will take them through the Panama Canal. In order to ensure that he doesn't do anything foolish like fall in love and get married during the trip, Alan traps Pete into ensuring that he will remain single--he mails Pete's wife a list of her husband's marital indiscretions in an envelope stating it should only be opened on the occasion of his marriage. One of his fellow cruise mates is Elsa (Greta Nissen), who he has been conducting a playful but non-threatening flirtation with for a long time. The real trouble comes in the form of Laurie (Helen Mack), another passenger whom he genuinely falls in love with even though she initially wants nothing to do with him after seeing him with Elsa. As for Pete, he has troubles of his own when a couple of lingerie-clad guests (June Brewster and Shirley Chambers) from his going-away party are discovered in his cabin after the ship sets sail and he has to keep them hidden away so as to avoid a scandal. It all sounds silly and forgettable but what makes it striking is not so much the story but the way in which it has been told--for a good chunk of the running time, the story has been edited in time to the rhythm of the music (the opening sequence in which the sounds of a city beset by a snowstorm help form the melody for the opening song is especially impressive) in a manner that must have been fiendishly complicated for director Mark Sandrich to accomplish but the results are often spectacular. (His talents were presumably recognized by the studio bosses because he soon moved on to direct such musical classics as "The Gay Divorcee" (1934), "Top Hat" (1935) and "Shall We Dance" (1937).) Beyond the stylistic gambits, the film also works thanks to the impressive musical numbers (this was one of the first screen musicals in which the songs were designed as a method of furthering the story along) and the comic stylings of Ruggles, whose antics trying to keep his stowaways hidden are very funny. "Melody Cruise" may not be the most well-known of titles but it really deserves a look--if you look close enough, you may even spot a then-unknown Betty Grable in one of her earliest roles. (TCM thru April 29)

Since a good number of us might have been watching baseball at this point under normal circumstances, I figured that a film revolving around the sport might be a good choice. Alas, the classic "Death on the Diamond," a 1934 gem in which a mysterious killer goes around killing members of the St. Louis Cardinals (Spoiler Alert. It does not have a happy ending), is not available to stream at this time, I decided instead to go with "Kill the Umpire," a slight-but-amusing 1950 comedy starring William Bendix just two short years after playing the title role in "The Babe Ruth Story." Here, he plays Bill Johnson, a one-time baseball player whose obsession with the sport conflicts with his attempts to carry a regular job as he is continually getting fired from jobs for sneaking off to ball games. After a stint with the phone company goes badly when he slips away to a bar to watch a game, his long-suffering wife (Una Merkel) is about to leave him for good when her father (Ray Collins), a recently-retired umpire) hits upon the perfect solution--Bill should become a baseball umpire himself. As someone who thinks that umpires are the scum of the earth, Bill is appalled but nevertheless goes off to the umpire school run by Jimmy O'Brien (William Frawley). Although the plan is to do badly enough to get kicked out, Bill eventually warms to the task and winds up working for the Texas Interstate League and winds up running afoul of gamblers who are trying to bribe him and fans who want to slaughter him when they believe he got a key play wrong. The film is little more than a trifle and will probably not go down as anyone's idea of a classic and some may find the Bendix character to be just a little too obnoxious at times for his own good. However, it is still a fairly funny work in the end and that is largely due to the screenplay by Frank Tashlin, which he did during his transition from directing animated cartoons at Warner Brothers to making features such as "Son of Paleface," "The Girl Can't Help It" and a number of vehicles for Jerry Lewis. Not surprisingly, the screenplay is heavy on the kind of elaborate sight gags that he used to specialize in with his cartoons and many of them are inspired--the best are probably the scene in which he drunkenly tries to fix a telephone line and winds up inadvertently interrupting a number of conversations and the extended final sequence in which he tries to sneak out of his hotel and make it to the park for the big game while avoiding the mob that is ready to tear him to pieces. Sure, "Kill the Umpire" won't make anyone forget the lack of real baseball but as a silly way of killing 90 minutes or so, it gets the job done. (The Criterion Channel)

The legendary--there is no other word to describe him--Roger Corman turns 94 today and a number of streaming services, such as Shout Factory TV and The Film Detective, have elected to commemorate the event with extended blocks of programming dedicated to just a tiny fraction of the nearly 500 movies that he has been involved with as a director or producer dating back from 1954 to today. Obviously, I wanted to highlight one of those films in that incredible oeuvre, but which one? Do I pick one of his offbeat cult classics like "A Bucket of Blood" (1959) or "The Little Shop of Horrors"? How about one of his celebrated adaptations of the works of Edgar Allan Poe such as "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961) or "The Masque of the Red Death" (1964)? Perhaps I could pick one of the films that he produced for the likes of Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme or one of the countless talents that he take a chance on over the years? After no small amount of thought, I have elected to go with "Rock All Night," one of the nine (!) features that he directed in 1957 alone and one of the most unusual of the lot. Judging from the title and the appearance of The Platters in the early scenes , you might assume that this was a quickie ground out to cash in on the rock music trend but it quickly goes off in unexpected directions. The real star is Corman stalwart Dick Miller in a rare lead role as Shorty, a diminutive guy with a big mouth and a chip on his shoulder towards the world in general. After getting tossed out of one bar, he turns up at Cloud Nine, a seedy dive populated that evening by a clientele that includes a would-be boxer, a couple of alpha male types and a hipster musical manager (Mel Welles) with his latest protege, a pretty singer named Julie (Abby Dalton) who tends to freeze up when asked to perform in front of people. Before long, two more people arrive in the form of Jigger and Joey (Russell Johnson and Jonathan Haze), looking for a place to lay low following a robbery gone violently wrong. Once they are identified, they take everyone hostage but the only one who refuses to play along is Shorty, who spends his time needling both the thugs and the outwardly macho types in there who refuse to take a stand against them. Although it is rarely discussed as one of the great Corman films, one could make the argument that it is the quintessential Corman production of its era--it was clearly designed to be shot as quickly and cheaply as possible, it contains numerous members of Corman's emerging stock company (Miller, Welles and Haze) as well as soon-to-be-familiar faces (Johnson would soon become better known as the Professor on "Gilligan's Island") and it has an outrageous amount of padding for a film that only clocks in at 62 minutes. And yet, as weird riffs on "The Petrified Forest" go, it is still pretty entertaining thanks to an inspired screenplay by Charles B. Griffith (the stuff involving the music promoter is especially amusing) and the sight of Dick Miller in a rare lead role as the antihero who proves to be a big man when it counts and (Spoiler Alert!) even gets the girl in the end, taking her away to go see his favorite movie, which I will leave for you to discover. "Rock All Night" may not be a classic but it provides viewers with an hour or so of solid B-movie entertainment of the kind that Corman would generate for moviegoers for decades to come. (Shout Factory TV)

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originally posted: 03/31/20 02:57:28
last updated: 04/06/20 00:56:44
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