Category Archives: Film

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I started this blog in 2011 to report back on events I have attended, mainly theatre but also some concerts and sporting events.

It has also become a vehicle for some film, television (current and archive), book reviews, and some more personal pieces.

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On a professional level I worked for many years as a librarian, and also am a published writer and spent five years editing a journal for a major publisher. If you would like to know more, see my LinkedIn profile.

As of 2019 writing and editing has become my main job, and I am very keen to engage with productions, outlets, and arts organisations to expand my coverage and my reviews.

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1920s film musical reviews

My I L<3ve Musicals! list on Letterboxd.

Applause (1929)

‘Applause’, starring a young Helen Morgan made up to look like a washed up burlesque star, is about a singer, Kitty Darling, who has a lowlife husband and a daughter hidden away in a convent. Things change when the money runs out and the daughter is recalled from her safe and cosy world.

From the first scenes of large legged chorus girls wearily high kicking before slavering customers, to the scenes in the railway station where young April Darling sends her sailor lover away so she can bump and grind to save the family pride, ‘Applause’ is never anything other than engrossing.

But the acting honours go to Morgan, who is simply wonderful and heartbreaking. The ending, where she lies dying in her dressing room after overdosing on sleeping tablets, while April and her lover plan an escape for the three of them, is powerful and shocking. A hard hitting early talkie which you’ll remember for a long time.

The Big Revue (1929)

The six-year old Judy Garland making her debut on camera with her sisters (‘The Gumm Sisters’) is just one of the acts on show in this film, which showcases a few juvenile musical performers. She displays star quality even in this one number, which makes The Big Revue worth watching. I just love stumbling across these historical nuggets!

Broadway (1929)

An early backstage musical with wisecracking girls, a choreographer ‘with personality’, a gangster producer, a murder, and sweet little Billie (Merna Kennedy).

Brought to the screen from the stage show, this includes Paul Porcasi reprising his role as the nightclub owner Nick, and survives in both silent and talkie versions.

Director Paul Fejos displays an early affinity for the medium, with interesting camera shots and a few sequences which experiment with sound.

The musical numbers are sound enough, although Glenn Tryon is a bit, well, trying when he isn’t singing. Kennedy and Evelyn Brent go well enough, and the chorus line are decent, but the plot is confused and doesn’t really lift itself from the mundane.

The opening credits are unusual as the giant Devil laughs and stomps around the theatres and clubs of the great White Way. Men of power are corrupt and without morals, and the ambitious girls survive on a smile and the attention of a string of sugar daddies.

There’s also a Technicolor sequence, but it is in poor condition and by this time every other film seemed to have a similar showcase to keep the interest.

I liked this one, and the acting isn’t bad, while the pre-Code naughtiness pokes through here and there.

The Broadway Melody (1929)

This was the first big musical of the talkie era, in the days when musical numbers were still performed live rather than to playback, and before camera booths could allow the same kind of movement which existed before 1927, and before microphones could be small enough and portable enough to catch everyone’s voices.

Bessie Love (1898-1986), who was a marvellous actress still appearing in character parts fifty years later, and Anita Page (1910-2008). a pretty, pouty cutie who appeared to have the same slight eye problem that also afflicted Norma Shearer, are the leading ladies alongside the debonair Charles King (1886-1944), who despite his singing talents was finished in films and back on the stage by 1930.

The songs are by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, and you’ll recognise a couple of them from the later homage to the silent era, Singin’ in the Rain. They’re sparkling and well-performed, and if the bits in-between are a bit forced, and the plot is next to nothing, there’s lots of pre-Code fun including shots of the girls in their underwear, and a few naughty nods.

I like a lot of the early musical features and revues from 1929 into the early 30s, and this is one of the best, gaining itself a Best Picture win because of the way it revolutionised the industry, and to us nine decades on, we can see that the early talkies, despite some limitations, were not the clunky disasters which were parodied mercilessly in later years.

Broadway Scandals (1929)

Not actually ‘watched’ as this film is sadly lost, but thanks to the fact its soundtrack was done on Vitaphone discs, that aspect survives, and with a musical, of course the sound is more than half of the magic.

I can’t rate it, however, as it isn’t the complete thing. It sounds like a fairly bog standard revue of the period with diverting enough tunes.

The Cocoanuts (1929)

Directly lifted from their stage show, this was the first film appearance of the Marx Brothers, at this point a quartet with Groucho, Chico and Harpo being joined by Zeppo, and the long-suffering Margaret Dumont.

As this was made in 1929 it is undoubtedly creaky, but as a new screen team the boys definitely have their personalities sketched out and Groucho and Harpo in particular are great fun.

The Desert Song (1929)

This is a review based on seeing roughly half of this early talkie, a musical starring John Boles, Carlotta King and Louise Fazenda. The story within this operetta is around ‘The Red Shadow’, an outlaw who is also a quiet and unassuming chap when he’s out of his mask.

The songs are superb but their staging is rather static, filmed with one facing camera and microphones which are rather obviously placed – many actors talk to the spaces the microphones are in rather than to their peers on the screen!

‘The Desert Song’ duet is one highlight, ‘One Alone’ is another. And those musical sequences can easily be viewed online, even if the film in toto is harder to find.

Glorifying the American Girl (1929)

Viewing the censored version on the Mill Creek Classic Musicals set, which has some cuts for taste and decency, and no Technicolor sequence.

The glorious Mary Eaton (1901-1948, of the ‘Seven Little Eatons’, five of which were vaudeville performers from childhood) is the lead in the rags to riches story of Gloria Hughes, who progresses from the counter of a sheet music store to the Ziegfeld Follies. She is a great little hoofer with a nice voice, and she’s a cute little blonde chorine into the bargain.

There’s a nothing story about her predatory dancing partner, Danny Miller (Dan Healy, 1888-1969, another Follies veteran), who wants her body and soul, enough to agree to a contract, but of course there’s better pickings for her out there. It was the crowning glory of any girl performer to join the Follies in the 10s and 20s, and the final third of this film is a pretty good record of what these shows involved (‘personally supervised by Ziegfeld’).

You’ll spot some familiar faces if you’re quick, including Johnny Weissmuller, Irving Berlin, Helen Morgan, and Mrs Ziegfeld, Billie Burke, but the lion’s share of the show is given to Eddie Cantor, whose comedy was popular enough to keep him in stardom on stage and screen well into the 1930s, and remembered with enough affection for a film to be made about his life in 1953. It might be hard to understand his appeal now, but in 1929 he was a huge attraction.

This film was fully restored by UCLA some years ago, with the censored pre-Code bits reinstated, and the finale put back to its original two-strip Technicolor state, but it remains unavailable, while these flat public domain prints can be found on the Internet Archive, YouTube, and budget sets like Classic Musicals.

Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929)

Lost except for ‘Tiptoe Through The Tulips’ and the finale, this is a difficult film to review, but from what’s available the musical sequences were sumptuous. It’s a moot point whether the rest of the film would stand up today.

Happy Days (1929)

The most disappointing of the anthology shows put out by the major studios at the dawn of talking pictures, and the birth of the movie musical.

This entry into the genre comes from Fox (not yet ‘Twentieth Century Fox’), showcasing a roster of stars including Will Rogers, Charles Farrell, Marjorie White, El Brendel, George Jessel, Dixie Lee (the first Mrs Bing Crosby), Janet Gaynor, and Edmund Lowe.

Its notability is mainly from being the first feature film to be shown in a widescreen process (these prints are now lost), but even at 80 minutes it tends to drag, although there are a couple of musical highlights (White’s ‘I’m On A Diet Of Love’, Lee’s ‘Crazy Feet’, the minstrel finale of ‘Mona’).

The ill-fated White, killed in a car crash in the mid-1930s, is a sparkling delight, but you might struggle to put names to some of the ‘stars’ on show here, and even with a paper-thin plot this film doesn’t really go anywhere. I’m being generous giving it a three-star score because I am a sucker for musical revues, but you might not be so accommodating.

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929)

Admittedly slow-paced and dated, there is a certain charm to this film that makes it very enjoyable.

I particularly liked the novelty acts and comedy routines – Bessie Love, Marie Dressler, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton’s Egyptian lady.

And the Gilbert/Shearer Romeo and Juliet section is worth sitting through the rest for anyway (despite its washed out colour, which oddly looked better in the little snippet showed in When The Lion Roars).

I can’t say I was disappointed with any of it – you get mind-boggling acrobats, you get weedy voiced Marion Davies, you get Jack Benny playing his violin and Conrad Nagel as smooth master of ceremonies, and Charles King singing that hideous song about mothers, and Ukelele Ike, well, playing a ukelele, and Joan Crawford’s ungainly dancing … it’s just a real treat, and nice to see from a technical point of view that the sound isn’t bad at all and despite its advanced age it is still watchable.

The Jazz Singer (1927)

The Jazz Singer has crossed into popular culture as the film which finally killed off the silent screen, and it was the first film to include musical moments as part of the plot.

Your view on this film will solely depend on your liking, or not, of star Al Jolson. If you find him unbearable, you might well find this film a difficult watch; on the other hand, if you enjoy his brand of humour and song, this might have some moments you will like.

The silent drama which surrounds Jolson’s excursions into song seems a little laboured, although Eugenie Besserer is touching as his mother, and that’s the first Charlie Chan, Warner Oland, as the Cantor.

Perhaps the best moment in this piece of cinema history is Jolson’s break into ‘talking’ before his song. The ‘wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet’ has passed into folklore.

The Love Parade (1929)

I love Maurice Chevalier and his films with naughty Jeanette Macdonald just sparked and sparkled.

This early Lubitsch talkie is a musical and if the songs are not top notch, and if the plot is a bit silly (she is the Queen of some mythical Kingdom, he is a randy and disgraced French courtier), then no matter.

Much has been made of the gender politics where she has to relinquish power to her mate – but she does it in the same way Mary Pickford’s Kate did in The Taming of the Shrew.

Macdonald is a revelation here if you have only ever seen her in her teamings with her later singing sweetheart pairing with Nelson Eddy (although those films were sweet and romantic).

With Chevalier the sparring is sexy and resolutely Pre-Code – they make a fine pair and they fizz under their director’s firm touch.

A Plantation Act (1926)

A valuable record of the minstrel act which made Al Jolson famous.

Blackface was the first form of entertainment that could be described as typically American, and became the most popular art form during the 1840s. The songs and dances included may have attempted to be authentically black, but it was the use of spirituals (such as Swing Low, Sweet Chariot) that became more prevalent in later years. There were also influences from other traditions such as the circus.

Jolson was undoubtedly the most famous blackface performer of the early 20th century, and well beyond the mid-point of the century minstrel shows commanded huge audiences. I can recall seeing the Black and White Minstrels on television as a child in the 1970s.

It is perhaps worth noting as well that even African-American performers became minstrels, in many cases as a first route into showbusiness.

So, minstrel shows and blackface performance is historical fact and important to the understanding of the evolution of showbusiness, music and live stage routines.

This short presents Jolson performing three of his most enduring numbers, including “April Showers” (which I will always associate with my grandad, who used to sing it). His character is the predicatable happy slave worker, content with his lot, which although it makes for uncomfortable viewing today, was nothing unusual at the time.

Viewing this as an example of early talkie entertainment, it is fairly static in its presentation, but the Vitaphone sound disc is clear, and Jolson puts his songs across well. There’s an attempt to make a farm/plantation setting believable, with strategically placed chickens and a barn, and the print available is tinted.

Hard to rate, but it isn’t awful, and it isn’t outstanding. Rating against other Vitaphone shorts of the period it is average.

Red Hot Rhythm (1929)

This film is lost so I am commenting purely on the one clip that is available, a Multicolor number featuring either Alan Hale or James Clemmons (no one seems really sure), a line of flame-haired dancers, an orchestra, and some fiery effects. The dancing is somewhat hyperactive and the song (the title song) is catchy.

Photoplay back in 1929 said the colour sequences and dance numbers were the only thing of importance about this. Thanks to Vivian Duncan of the Duncan Sisters this – very low quality – clip has been saved, but director Leo McCarey thought this was one of his worst films.

Rio Rita (1929)

Bebe Daniels, with a ridiculous accent and a trilling voice to rival Jeanette MacDonald, is Rita, being romanced by mysterious gringo John Boles. Their operetta duets are fairly pretty and Bebe gets to wear some good costumes.

In another storyline interwoven with that of Rita are Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey (with little Dorothy Lee) in a comic divorce-based plot. Woolsey is the wise-cracking cigar-chomper with the glasses, Wheeler the little guy with the high voice and a nice line in song ‘n dance.

Rio Rita is a fun early musical with primitive Technicolor bits and one Berkeley-esque overhead shot with the frilly girlies doing their thing round Wheeler. Dorothy Lee’s voice reminded me of Helen Kane (the lady who introduced I Wanna Be Loved By You before Marilyn got her hands on it).

My favourite bit music-wise is the catchy ‘Sweetheart, We Need Each Other’; otherwise the invisible girl only seen by the boys after quaffing some seriously strong plonk is a really funny bit.

And I did like the fact that for 1929 this wasn’t as primitive as other early talkies I’ve seen. Good stuff (and an invaluable record of a Ziegfeld show of course).

Sally (1929)

Originally filmed in 2-strip Technicolor, this film now survives as a mainly black and white print with some colour footage intact. This rags to riches story (Sally starts from an orphanage and ends up with her own show on Broadway) stars Marilyn Miller – little seen and perhaps only known to film buffs because of Judy Garland’s impersonation of her in ‘Till The Clouds Roll By’. Miller was a beautiful and talented artist, as ‘Sally’ proves.

Supporting her is a very young Joe E Brown (best known as Captain Andy in the third film version of Show Boat) who is a lot of fun, and Alexander Gray, who like many other leading men of the early talkies is a bit of a stuffed shirt. You’ll also spot the Keystone Kops’ Ford Sterling as ‘Pops’.

‘Sally’ is a hugely enjoyable early talkie. The colour sequence is lovely and bright – it is a pity that we lose the impact from the rest of the film. The songs are good and Miss Miller is a treat to watch.

Show Boat (1929)

The first film version of the Kern-Hammerstein musical, which had premiered on stage in 1927, from the Edna Ferber novel published a year before.

What remains of this film (and it is sadly incomplete) is a part-talkie with a prologue of songs from the original show (including Helen Morgan singing ‘Bill’ – she would get to play Julie in the 1936 film). I know I have seen the ‘Hey Feller’ segment with picture as well as sound before, but this version shown on TCM retains an ‘overture’ title card to accompany the songs.

The first sound segment begins after around half an hour and centres on Gaylord and Magnolia acting on stage together, then planning to marry, and eloping. Laura La Plante is far too mannered as Magnolia – although this is not as noticeable in the silent sequences – I much prefer Irene Dunne’s playful take on the character, or Kathryn Grayson’s haughty naivete, while Joseph Schildkraut is a little bit stiff with his Germanic accent as Gay, lacking the charm of either Allan Jones or Howard Keel.

The second sound segment is after Gay loses their money on an expensive horse and starts to ridicule Magnolia for wanting to sing, but this is where the track has been lost, so we get subtitles, and it doesn’t really work to paper over the cracks.

Emily Fitzroy is a priceless Parthy (she can be comic, cruel, and tragic, often at the same time), and Alma Rubens does well as Julie (although the racial storyline is completely removed, and she is fired from the Cotton Blossom simply for being too fond of the infant Magnolia, who – it is strongly hinted – might be her child).

Of the songs in the musical, we hear ‘Old Man River’ and ‘Goodbye My Lady Love’ as background music, but there are no songs as such (in the original print there were five songs, but not in the same context as in the stage show). Joe and Queenie, in this surviving version, are purely peripheral, and unlike any other version, we lose Captain Andy quite early on, during the raging storm in which Magnolia gives birth to Kim. No ‘After The Ball’ reunion for father and daughter here.

Interestingly this is the only one of the films which includes Hetty the whorehouse madam who is the Belle Watling to Gay’s Rhett Butler (he really is a river rat, and a cheat in all senses as well as a gambler), and this is how Julie comes back into the story, not as a lounge singer missing her man. There is also no reunion for Gay and his daughter Kim, so ultimately this film is more downbeat than the others.

Because it is no longer a musical in its surviving form (it kills the scene where Magnolia sings ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine’ towards the end to see her sing it but not hear it!), I cannot give it a higher score, but the differences in storyline, some excellent performances, and that inclusion of Morgan’s song in the prologue, nudge it up just a tad, and TCM’s attempt to salvage lost sound sequences is laudable.

Show of Shows (1929)

Some marvellous musical numbers jostle with low comedy (MC Frank Fay is an acquired taste) and snatches of high drama (John Barrymore as Richard III).

This was the Warner Brothers entry into the revue anthology films of the early days of talking pictures, showcasing most of their stars – Mary Astor, Richard Barthelmess, Monte Blue, Hobart Bosworth, Chester Conklin, Lupino Lane, Myrna Loy, Chester Morris, Rin Tin Tin, Ben Turpin, and Loretta Young.

Enjoyable, even if it is now a shadow of what it was (it was originally presented in colour), it only survives from a black and white copy for television.

Splinters (1929)

Fun army revue film which, despite ageing sound and worn-out visuals, still manages to be entertaining. It is based on the stage revue of the same name, and was one of the first sound films to be released in Britain.

Nelson Keys and Sydney Howard star, Jack Raymond directs and Herbert Wilcox produces. The musical numbers have survived in better condition than the scenes around them.

Sunny Side Up (1929)

One of the early talkie musicals, this one teams silent sweethearts Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor, and gives them both the chance to share their questionable musical gifts.

This film shouldn’t work at all, but Gaynor has charm, and Farrell is watchable, and there are other compensations including the sparky Marjorie White (who should have had a long and fruitful career, but sadly died early, in 1935).

Recently given a lavish restoration, this musical sends its audience away humming the tunes, and in between has made them laugh and forget their troubles, just a bit. Why ask for more?

Syncopation (1929)

Who knows now there was a third Bennett sister who was born between Constance and Joan? But there was, and Barbara Bennett plays the female lead here, Flo.

It is fairly clear why her screen career didn’t endure, and sadly her personal life was no better and her life ended by suicide in 1958.

Alrhough the perennial impersonator of Hitler, Bobby Watson, plays Bennett’s nice as pie husband, your eye will get drawn to Morton Downey’s crooning and to the cutie who plays Peggy: that’s the bubbly Dorothy Lee, who found fame with Wheeler and Woolsey.

Word has it that Bert Wheeler saw Syncopation and looked all over town for Dottie, knowing she was just right for his sweet and silly musical comedy romance schtick. You can see here what Wheeler saw in her.

Ian Hunter is the impresario who offers Flo and Benny a break: he’s always a bit stiff, but has his english charm to pull him through.

Director Bert Glennon became a cinematographer for the likes of John Ford, and this film certainly looks good, even if it is stilted by the technical limitations of the time.

“Do Do Something” is the musical highlight of this film, which was RKO’s first musical, while Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians are top-billed as the band.

Trivia note: Watson is the diction coach tormented by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain.

 


Book review: Strolling Player by Gabriel Hershman

Albert Finney was one of the young Northern actors who gained fame in the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of the 1960s.  From Salford, and blessed with a memorable name few would associate with a movie star, he has shone in a parallel career on the stage, starting after RADA graduation with a spell with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Gabriel Hershman’s book is the second of three books focusing on British actors with interesting careers and private lives; we have already seen Ian Hendry profiled in Send in the Clowns – and next year we will see Hershman’s authorised biography on Nicol Williamson.

Strolling Player puts Finney centre stage, with an appraisal of his acting CV alongside anecdotes of a more personal nature; with this being a living subject you might have anticipated cooperation and an interview, but sadly that’s missing from the book: however, colleagues and friends fill the gap nicely and try to shed some light on the elusive actor.

Highly recommended to theatre and cinema fans, and those who have caught one of Finney’s rare television appearances. Hershman’s writing style is accessible and interesting and this is a fine addition to anyone’s biography shelf.

Strolling Player: the life and career of Albert Finney is available from The History Press, Amazon and some bookshop chains.


West Side Story, 1961 – ★★★★★

UK viewers, this is on right now on My5. So if you haven’t seen it, tune your television this minute!

Romeo and Juliet in New York. Natalie Wood wasn’t Puerto Rican, nor could she sing (she’s dubbed by Marni Nixon), but she’s, as her character Maria tells us ‘so pretty’, she falls in love so sweetly, and her last sentence is absolutely heartbreaking.

Richard Beymer couldn’t sing either (he was dubbed by Jimmy Bryant) but his Tony is chiseled perfection, the gang member who would rather have a job, who grows up but still stands up for his best friend Riff (the Mercutio of this tale, played by ever-acrobatic Russ Tamblyn), and in doing so, pitches both sides into tragedy.

Leonard Bernstein provided the music, a fusion of Latino with street slang, and a young Stephen Sondheim started his lifelong flirtation with wordplay on the lyrics. Jerome Robbins did most of the choreography, and directed key pieces although Robert Wise gets the credit. Robbins did ‘The Jet Song’, ‘America’, ‘Cool’ …

Tucker Smith plays Ice, and he also sings for Riff in the opening number, and his flicked hair and pale blue eyes make you look out for him in scenes. Eliot Feld, a glorious dancer, is Baby John, and just watch him go in the ensemble numbers. Rita Moreno and George Chakiris, real-life lovers in 1961, sizzle as Anita and Bernardo, both gaining Best Supporting wins at the Oscars for their trouble. Moreno is a sensation in the role most comparable to Juliet’s Nurse.

Then there’s the song ‘Maria’. Maria, Maria, Maria. The most beautiful song for the most beautiful girl sung by the most beautiful boy after their eyes have locked across a crowded dance floor and everyone else melts away to blurs. It’s a shout-out of love and joy and one of the greatest musical movie moments ever put on the screen.

Tony and Maria in the wedding scene, in the bridal shop, in the evening. Doc (Ned Glass) in the Friar’s role, letting the lovers meet even though he knows and understands the dangers. The tenements that gleam when they should be downtrodden. John Astin trying to keep order at the dance, while the boys and girls spit and hiss at each other, sometimes with hate, sometimes with lust.

Susan Oakes as Anybodys, who might just be the first musical depiction of a trans boy. Gina Trikonis as Riff’s girl, Tony Mordente as Action, David Winters as A-Rab. Maria wanting her neckline lowered just a little bit, just a little bit, as she is no longer wanting her dress for playing.

The perfection of ‘A Boy Like That/I Have a Love’, where Anita glimpses the rumpled bed and where Maria asserts her newly found knowing-ness. Love is love is love even after the unthinkable has happened, and Anita in her grief can help or hinder just anything.

Jose DaVega is Chino, and he’s a decent sort, but he will cause us to cry by the end, and even sarcastic Lieutenant Schrank to take a breath, just a little. That ending, the saddest of all endings, but a glimmer of hope, just maybe, before we switch to the graffiti inspired credits.

Did I mention how much I love this film?

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Remember the Night, 1940 – ★★★★

Everybody’s favourite Stanwyck (to Letterboxders, anyway), and one I hadn’t seen until today. Putting aside the fact that bits of it remind me of ‘The 39 Steps’, others of ‘Susan Slept Here’ and others of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and ‘Mr Deeds Goes To Town’, I have to add my praise to that of the general majority.

Barbara Stanwyck is Lee, a jewel thief (must be something in the air, as yesterday I was watching a film with Myrna Loy in a similar profession), and here she is teamed for the first time of three with Fred MacMurray, here playing a prosecuting attorney, John, who succeeds in getting her trial postponed for decision til after Christmas, and ends up taking custody of her over the festive season instead.

MacMurray isn’t one of my favourite actors, but he’s very good here, and Stanwyck is in good form as the career criminal who opens proceedings in the court by watching her defence lawyer with barely-disguised amusement.

She’s no victim here, and in fact she is perhaps better than she was in femme fatale mode in ‘Double Indemnity’. Her gift for fun eventually paid off as Preston Sturges, screenwriter here, went on to write and direct ‘The Lady Eve’ for her, which gave her a chance to broaden her range.

Willard Robertson’s speech as the flowery defence chap is hilarious, and even more so when you note in real life he gave up a career in law for the stage. Sterling Holloway, always fabulous, and with the weirdly musical voice, is fun as a cousin of MacMurray’s. ‘Snowflake’ Toones plays John’s slightly slow servant but he isn’t quite as daft as he first appears. And Beulah Bondi ages up yet again to play MacMurray’s mother.

This is a romance, a festive one, and a courtroom drama, and succeeds at all of them. What a happy discovery!

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Whipsaw, 1935 – ★★★½

Spencer Tracy had switched studios from Fox to MGM in 1935, and this role has more in common with his tough guy programmers than the more sophisticated fare his new studio would eventually offer him.

This is a fairly minor crime picture but it’s lifted by the sparkling chemistry between Tracy (as a G-man posing as a crook) and Myrna Lou (as a hard-boiled jewel thief). They positively crackle in their scenes together, which makes this film a pleasure to watch.

Director Sam Wood is content to let his stars just do their thing, and they do it well. Romance beckons by the halfway point, and the whole story of the stolen pearls sinks into second place.

A happy discovery, currently available on YouTube.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Whistle Down the Wind, 1961 – ★★★★★

“I said yeah. You’ll hear about me again.”

I gave this just shy of a five star score last time, but now I can’t find any fault with this film.

Fourteen-year-old Hayley Mills is absolutely superb as the girl who thinks she has discovered Jesus living in her barn, and Alan Bates (in his first starring role) matches her scene for scene as the convict whose desperation, fatigue and confusion leads him to play the part she has created for him.

The joy of this film is the simple allegory about Christianity and the evolution of the young girl who finds herself attached to the mysterious man, and the huge group of children who become his followers.

Filmed in Clitheroe and Burnley in Lancashire, largely using local children, this showcases the performance of young Alan Barnes as Charlie, who brings an innocent and deadpan humour to the situation.

Magical, moving, and just as relevant to an audience of adults as it is to children (I first saw it aged about eight, and I’m watching it now more than thirty years later), this is one of Brian Forbes’ best films, beautifully directed and photographed.

This is a film which gives back more with each viewing. Quite simply one of the perfect examples of British cinema of the 1960s.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


The 39 Steps, 1935 – ★★★★½

#38 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

John Buchan’s novel puts our hero Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) in mortal danger when a mysterious female spy in black finds herself with a dagger in her back, in his flat, shortly after he has met her at the music hall.

On the run, he meets sulky blonde Madeleine Carroll on a train, but has to break and escape when she threatens to give him away. Events across the country conspire to reunite them, though, where they eventually become handcuffed together to their mutual discomfort – and the audience’s amusement at that scene with the stocking.

This is such a rich film, with a wide array of characters populating the fringes (notably Peggy Ashcroft as the unhappy crofter’s wife, dreaming of the well-dressed ladies in town, but cowed by her Bible-bashing and domestically violent husband – played well by John Laurie).

It’s a wrong man theme, and one which Hitchcock referred to again and again over the years. Donat gives Hannay an air of strictly English bewilderment at his predicament while keeping a sense of amusement.

The scene where Hannay addresses a political rally due to a mistake of identity prefigures Holly’s book club appearance in Reed’s ‘The Third Man’.

Incidentally the bad guy’s distinguishing feature has been used several times in lesser films which followed this, while the Mr Memory close (not in the novel) is a clever twist, and the spy theme cropped up in comic fare such as ‘Let George Do It’ (1940) and ‘The Goose Steps Out’ (1942).

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The Scarlet Tunic, 1998 – ★★★

A disappointing adaptation of one of my favourite Thomas Hardy stories, ‘The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion’.

The love story between the lonely German hussar and the girl trapped into an unwanted engagement should simmer with passion as it moves to the eventual tragedy, but this all feels just a bit too chocolate box and safe.

Emma Fielding, as the girl whose head is turned, looks and sounds too modern and isn’t my idea of the character of Frances at all. Jean-Marc Barr is slightly better as Matthaus. There are character actors a-plenty in the cast: Simon Callow (too much bluster), John Sessions, Jack Shepherd, Lynda Bellingham, Gareth Hale, Andrew Tiernan.

Perfunctorily directed by Stuart St Paul, best known for his 1980s pop videos and as a stuntman, this was an attempt to cash on the period boom which followed ‘Pride and Prejudice’, but it failed to provide the requisite happy ending – there are few of those in the works of Hardy.

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Wuthering Heights, 1967 – ★★★½

I’m giving this an extra star on today’s rewatch as it is a lot better than I remembered. The outstanding performance in this is that of the late Angela Scoular as Cathy, who is quite remarkable in her hysteric passion for the Gypsy boy Heathcliff (a smouldering and petulant Ian McShane).

The Lintons are a bit dry (Edgar, played by Drewe Hedley, and Isabella, by Angela Douglas, although she has a moment or two of presence) but play their part in this tragic tale. William Marlowe’s Hindley is more roundly characterised than usual and his grief at the death of his wife is well portrayed, as is his eventual drunken collapse.

Directed by Peter Sasdy (who directed Countess Dracula, the Adrian Mole TV series and the creepy Viktoria for the ‘Supernatural’ TV anthology), and adapted by Hugh Leonard (who also dramatised the 1978 version of this story), this is a superior television drama which benefits from being one of the last shot in black and white, giving the wild moors and dour Yorkshire setting a focus you might not have got in colour.

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Two Sundays – ★★★★

Two Sundays’ is Simon Gray’s companion piece to ‘Plaintiffs and Defendants’ – both were presented in the Play for Today series in 1975, with roughly the same casts.

Some characters are mirror images of those they played in the earlier play, some lines appear in both works, and there are areas in which they – the characters and the situations – overlap.

This play involves flashbacks into a past which two middle-aged friends can’t quite acknowledge, as well as some more mundane family things with wives and children. Memories fade into each other, thoughts bring back things which are buried.

Really, this is a two-hander between Alan Bates as Charles, with a pregnant wife but putting his guilt at a wasted life into a first novel, and Dinsdale Landen as Peter, a boozy, bored, adulterous executive who can’t quite reconcile what he was with what he is.

Of the two plays, this is the most accomplished, although as a pair they are very interesting. And with support from Georgina Hale, Simon Cadell, and others, it has a cast which keeps you watching through its tight one-hour running time.

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Plaintiffs and Defendants – ★★★½

‘Plaintiffs and Defendants’ was the first of a pair of plays written by Simon Gray for the Play for Today series in 1975. Both plays share the same casts but in different roles, some mirroring each other – a fascinating idea.

This play introduces us to Peter, a solicitor who is embroiled in a case of child custody. His wife Hilary is remote and irritated with him and their life together with teenage son Jeremy, while out of hours Peter has been carrying on with the unstable Joanna. The other characters are Charlie and Alison (who we don’t actually see as such), friends of long-standing of Peter’s, and Sallust, a quiet and dour legal pupil of Peter’s who can easily beat him at squash.

In a wordy 60 minutes, we find out about the state of mind of Peter and about things in his past that have impacted on his life – it is one of those plays which includes the type of conversations you’d only ever find in plays and not in real life. This being so it still feels very real and the characters stand up as fully-rounded.

Alan Bates (Peter) and Joanna (Georgina Hale) are probably seen on screen the most, although Simon Cadell (Sallust) and Dinsdale Landen (Charlie) also make a memorable impact. This is a tale of lost opportunities, of giving up things and starting them again, of boredom and routine, and it is played extremely well.

Followed by ‘Two Sundays’ in the same series, although the two plays can stand as separate works as well as a linked pair.

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Gigi, 1958 – ★★★★½

One of my favourite musicals, and MGM’s last great hurrah of their Golden Age, this Lerner and Loewe score might suffer in places by not having traditional singers, but makes up for it by the charm and exactness of the casting.

Leslie Caron is a girlish delight as the would-be courtesan, being coached by her grandmother (Hermoine Gingold) and aunt Alicia (a spirited Isabel Jeans) to become the passive sport of kings. Louis Jourdan is the attractive leading man, Gaston, full of ennui and a lack of interest in the glorious females at ‘Maxim’s’ – his rendition of the title song is a high point of many in the film.

The film still belongs to that glorious Gallic ham, Maurice Chevalier, though, still playful and sparkling into his seventies (even though according to Caron in an interview I saw her give at the British Film Institute some years ago he was ‘grumpee’ throughout filming). His Honore welcomes us into a Paris full of lovers, thanking heaven for little girls, and he’s adorable.

Many have said this film is problematic because of its attitude towards women, and indeed perhaps creepy in its pursuit of the young, but I let that pass. I like to watch Chevalier and Gingold as they ‘remember it well’, and see Gigi’s blossoming from a sulky young thing into a beautiful woman, and the excellent score, even when it is mangled by talk-song.

Directed by Vincente Minnelli for the Arthur Freed Unit, in vibrant Metrocolor, this is well worth watching, and deserved the eight Academy Awards it was given.

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The Imitation Game, 2014 – ★★½

I doubt very much that the Spartacus-like scene which appears halfway through this film: ‘if you fire Alan, you’ll have to fire me too’ really happened.

However, I have visited Bletchley Park and I have become quite familiar with the story of Alan Turing, who was probably our cleverest scientist here in Britain in the war, and who fell foul of the indecency laws in place in the time against practising homosexuals.

The story was covered in an earlier play for television called ‘Breaking the Code‘ – itself adapted from a 1986 stage play – in which Derek Jacobi played Turing, and in which his eventual death was definitely flag-posted as suicide.

Here, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing in his usual detached and mannered style, and the chronology hops and skips from glimpses of Turing as a child, of his war work at Bletchley, and of his eventual persecution by the police (who initially believe him to be a spy).

Some of the artistic licence is ridiculous though – Turing was not a solo worker at Bletchley, nor was his machine creation named after a childhood friend he had a crush on; there was no conflict with commanders who wanted to fire Turing and his collaborators; his relationship with Joan Clarke was not a romantic one; Turing was not autistic (perhaps Cumberbatch is so stuck on his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes he got confused?); no-one ever thought he was a spy; and it is by no means clear that Turing’s death was suicide, despite it being stated as such here.

Perhaps the worst changes to the historical record are the blackmail plot involving John Cairncross (now thought to be the fifth ‘Cambridge spy’) and the depiction of Turing’s mental deterioration following his chemical castration. These are regrettable, but the fact that a major film was produced about a major LGBT figure and received Oscar nominations should be cause for celebration.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing, for what it is worth, is a better performance than that of Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, which was the winner of the Best Actor prize in competition.

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The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934 – ★★★★

#39 in Reverse Hitchcock project.

A handful of Swiss maps. A slimy and snake-eyed Peter Lorre in fur coat and hat. Leslie Banks and Edna Best are the couple in the Alps (good use of back projection in the absence of location work), with their growing daughter, Nova Pilbeam.

You may know this film title better by its remake over twenty years later, and by Hitch’s remark that the earlier version was the work of ‘a talented amateur’ rather than the 1950s ‘professional. In that, Doris Day saved the day by singing ‘Que Sera Sera’ to locate her kidnapped child. This time, the corresponding character uses the skills she displays early on in sport to dispatch the bad guy, again using the iconic setting of the Royal Albert Hall.

Here, there’s a lighter touch from the start, with the dancers trapped by a wool thread leading quickly into something much darker (a dance rather than a market scene as in the remake). There’s more inventiveness, too, with a smashed window and a mysterious message.

Leslie Banks would work for Hitch once more, as the wild and violent smuggler in ‘Jamaica Inn’, and you may recall him from his pivotal role in ‘Went The Day Well’, directed by Cavalcanti, or as the police inspector in ‘The Arsenal Stadium Mystery’.

Here he is far more British and reserved than James Stewart was in the same role, hesitatingly requesting the presence of the British Consul, and getting flustered in a dinner jacket. He’s more convincing in the role of someone getting tied up in international problems than any American would be.

Edna Best (and what a sequence where she spins, faux faints, and pitches a vital clue into the fire is) was a fairly pretty girl who had an undistinguished career, better known these days as one of the wives of actor Herbert Marshall, who had also collaborated with the Master in films. She does well enough in her only Hitchcock appearance, and is perhaps the first of the classic blondes.

This film has such an array of interesting shots and flourishes – a model train set, camera angles looking down, looking up, smoke filled rooms, the sun-worshippers’ temple – but the stand-out performance is from Lorre, in his first English-language film following his emigration from Nazi Germany.

He is a skin-crawling, repellent, borderline evil character; from his work in Germany, especially in ‘M’ (1931), he demonstrates a wide range which was not always apparent away from the Continent, but here he is well-cast as the ringleader of a deadly murderous plot.

Even when speaking his lines phonetically, having little command of English, he dominates the sequences in which he appears. He would be far less restrained in his second Hitch film, ‘The Secret Agent’.

I prefer this film to its remake as it has less gloss and more intriguing plot, not to mention a particularly nasty dentist, many years before Laurence Olivier’s ‘Is it safe?’.

At seventy-five minutes, it is a lean example of a superior British thriller, and a good example of the Master of Suspense in embryonic form.

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Waltzes from Vienna, 1934 – ★★★

#40 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

What’s this, a curious observer may ask. It is a romantic musical comedy directed by … Hitchcock?

A bit of explanation might be necessary. In the 1930s there was a real vogue for operetta in British film, many of which started leading lady Jessie Matthews, who also appears here. So it would not be unknown for a rising director to be assigned a film like this.

It was Hitch’s only project during 1934, and he has said he only made it in order to keep working. However, together with his wife and constant collaborator Alma Reville, he still worked out a meticulous shooting schedule and screenplay, including the inclusion of musical interludes.

Music matters in this surface biopic of the creation of Johann Strauss II’s seminal ‘Blue Danube’ (in an elaborate and comical bakery scene). It isn’t just there for pretty scene accompaniment, but also for dramatic effect here and there. And of course, being Strauss, the music is fabulous.

A note on the casting – the aforementioned Matthews is a spirited Resi, Edmund Gwenn (in his second appearance of four for Hitch) is an effective if brusque Strauss the elder, while Esmond Knight is almost unrecognisable – being so young and before he was partly blinded in the Second World War – as a floridly romantic Strauss the younger.

In terms of a successful biopic, ‘The Great Waltz’ (1938) covered similar ground (and was even sillier – a horse and carriage ride provides musical inspiration), and as a Hitchcock film, this could be filed under ‘minor’, but I enjoyed watching it again.

Watched on the French DVD (Le chant du Danube) released in 2005, which has better picture and sound quality than the one in Network’s Jessie Matthews series.

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Mad Jack, 1970 – ★★★★★

“I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.”

The first half of a double bill at the BFI Southbank of TV dramas directed by Jack Gold, this one focuses on poet-soldier Siegfried Sassoon and his 1917 declaration that he wishes to serve no longer in the British Army, risking disgrace and court martial.

In Tom Clarke’s excellent play, Michael Jayston (a man who in his youth had a beautifully expressive face, described in a contemporary review quoted in the notes at the cinema today as ‘sensitive yet masculine’) is note-perfect as Sassoon, a man of bitter conscience who sees the first-hand waste of men under his command, and the fallacy of the reasoning behind continued conflict, despite being awarded the Military Cross himself.

Much of the play is a solo effort, where Jayston recites poems of Sassoon’s in voiceover, either over scenes of otherwise contemplative quiet, or over conversations.

One particularly good juxtaposition is over a scene between Sassoon and a senior officer played by Clive Swift, while the poem (I think, ‘The General’) plays over the event; and another is where the poem ‘Does It Matter’ is heard just after the ill-fated Ormand, who dreams of a return to a life with no surprises, a wife, three children and a job as a bank manager, gives the matter-of-fact revelation that he has seen a man shot by his own officer ‘just to get the others out of the trenches’.

There are other character parts who do less: David Wood as Ormand (who has a fun singing number in the mess); Michael Pennington as a brother officer, Cromlech, who has a hang up about class; Jonathan Cecil as a waspish Lytton Strachey; Donald Sumpter as the stammering, piano playing Wilmot; and a lively bosom-bouncing Ann Beach as a music-hall artiste who recalls Maggie Smith’s turn in the film ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’.

The play does not shy away from the horrors of trench warfare – there is a prolonged sequence in which Sassoon and Cromlech head out to the barbed wires where dead comrades are stripped of their greatcoats, trousers, and boots (Sassoon dislodges one man’s leg during this operation and is promptly sick), and other dead men are seen rotting in the open, or floating under water with staring eyes.

It also makes clear the cost of any loss of courage, quoting and showing a notice which describes, dispassionately, the execution of three deserters.

Sassoon’s statement of defiance is only précised here, although it is quoted in three different points throughout the film.

Our sympathies are purely with him, although his motivation is less clear than it may appear – is a personal, emotional, matter as Cromlech alleges, or is he indeed insane due a nervous breakdown as the Army supposes in order to quiet any insurrection from the ranks?

This is an excellent piece of work, which may benefit from some knowledge of the subject and his poetry, but which stands alone as a document of anti-war drama.

Gold directs well, with many scenes of Jayston in shadow, or on deserted beaches, or simply reacting in close-up to memories or thoughts in his head. Jayston is one of our best actors (these days you’re more likely to see him in a guest role in one of our medical or crime dramas) and in the 1970s he did some genuinely excellent work, of which this is a prime example.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the title, Sassoon was called Mad Jack by his men because he was reckless, and one assumes, indeed courageous.

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Faith and Henry – ★★★★★

The second film on the BFI Southbank double-bill of TV dramas directed by Jack Gold, this is a charming tale of Lancashire lad Henry (John Baron, last seen in a bit part in ‘When The Boat Comes In’) and his growing friendship over a walk home by the canal with Jamaican girl Faith (Hilary Baker, who seemed to appear only once more on screen, in ‘Short Cuts’ in 1976).

What it catches perfectly is the more innocent days where children could walk through fields and do simple things like toss stones in streams, look at the view, jump across streams and where young lads go skinny dipping. It’s a time I remember well.

It is a nostalgic piece in which a world we have lost is closely depicted, and in its young and untested cast it has a pair of performances which show a growing friendship.

In 1969 attitudes to immigrants from the Caribbean (Faith’s father is a bus driver) were not entirely positive, which makes the acceptance of the girl by Henry, and of Henry by her parents, all the more surprising, but refreshing. (Incidentally Henry’s home has central heating which, in a 1960s Lancashire, must have been unusual indeed!).

This aside, it is a touching and well performed tale, and the location work gives the sense of an industrial and natural landscape (the rocks on which Henry and Faith first sit at the top of the hill are ‘chemical waste’ he informs her in a matter-of-fact tone) which has long gone.

There’s a running joke around a 9lb piece of cheese Henry buys from a shop shortly after the two leave school (having lived above a butcher’s shop for years, his family cannot abide meat), and around the smells of the landscape (cheese and molasses).

Aside from Faith and Henry, we meet both sets of parents – Faith’s loving couple who call each other ‘lover’ and ‘queenie’, she does evening classes and revises for her O levels while cooking fried herring for tea’; Henry’s middle-aged pair who still enjoy a bit of loving flirtation which bothers their maturing son.

Julia Jones, who plays Henry’s mother Ada, wrote this perceptive and interesting play, which is quiet, gentle, and very successful. Notably Faith is not destined to be a housewife but dreams of being a pilot; she’s very much her own woman, declining to be Henry’s ‘girl’ but instead offering to be his ‘friend’.

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Number Seventeen, 1932 – ★★

As part of my side reading during the Reverse Hitchcock project (of which this is #41), I have been dipping in and out of Patrick McGilligan’s marvellous ‘Alfred Hitchcock: a life in darkness and light’, which I highly recommend as a step by step study of the director’s career.

Anyway, from McGilligan one can glean some explanation about this project, including the fact that Cockney actor Leon M Lion was a stage ham who was forced upon Hitch along with the play he had made a public hit, ‘Number Seventeen’. He clutters up the film with his over the top close-ups and poor reactions.

Hitch viewed the project as an elaborate ‘tease’: he exaggerated everything, from plot twists to music, chase climax to literally dumb heroine. The special effects and play opening (from the leaves blowing up to the old house, where man with hat enters to find a vast space of shadows, all accompanied by exaggerated music, are stretched to a silly point, deliberately.

Again by McGilligan’s account, the model work in the final chase (a chase to end all chases) was not done to look cheap for the sake of being cheap, but to show what could be done with miniatures. Hitch was of course a whizz with miniatures, notably in ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Strangers on a Train’.

‘Number Seventeen’ is a nothing when put against Hitchcock’s more elaborate work, but as a knowing practical joke on his bosses at BIP, who had given him the project after removing him from the romance ‘London Wall’, it is fun to watch.

Lion is absolutely terrible, though, and it is beyond comprehension these days how he could ever have been a success to theatre audiences, proving only how tastes have changed over the years.

John Stuart (his last appearance of three for Hitch if you count ‘Elstree Calling’), Donald Calthrop (a final appearance of five) and Anne Grey (her sole appearance) fare slightly better – but only just.

This is a thriller set largely in an empty house, with mistaken identities, lost valuables, dingy shadows, and creaky settings. It just isn’t very thrilling, or very accomplished, despite the obvious farcical and mischievous tone throughout.

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Rich and Strange, 1931 – ★★★½

#42 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

“Someone just pinched me.” “Where?” “You know where.”

We open in a busy office where termite-like workers beetle and wait for the clock, then out in the rain they go with umbrellas and bowlers, down into the underground.

It’s a busy and inventive opening as the hero of the hour, Fred (Henry Kendall), people-watches and tries to read his newspaper in the busy carriage. Such is the dull and routine existence of our daydreaming worker bee.

Home to rain-soaked streets and a loving wife, Emily (Joan Barry, who had provided voice dubbing for Anny Ondra in ‘Blackmail’). She has a cut-glass voice and a blonde coiffure, and is completely annoying.

Within the first ten minutes Fred and Emily are given a large sum of money from a relative to allow them to experience ‘life’, and their fortunes look set to change. What happens when they decide to up sticks and cruise the Orient sets the scene for the rest of the film, with scandalous nightlife, broad farce and covert infidelities the order of the day.

The trouble is, fun though this material is, it is rather thin – and although a persistent myth states that Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville concocted the story in memory of their own honeymoon adventures, it is in fact based on a novel of the same name by Dale Collins, an Australian writer who specialised in sea-based romances, one of which was filmed as ‘His Woman’ in the same year as ‘Rich and Strange’.

Kendall is a dull leading man and one wishes for a Robert Donat, a Ronald Colman or a Gary Cooper to liven the material. A prolific actor in quota quickies, Kendall is perhaps most memorable in ‘Death at Broadcasting House’ (1934) or ‘The Mysterious Mr Davis’ (1939).

He was a highly accomplished stage revue artist, who deserves some kudos for appearing successfully in a show with those two scene-stealing Hermoines, Baddeley and Gingold, in 1941. Some of this comic gift is evident here and there during the lighter passages of this film, and I wish more had been made of it,.

Barry had a fairly break screen career before retiring on her marriage in 1934. She appears here without distinction, and is not particularly attractive, failing to convince in her on-ship flirtation. Hitch would be on surer ground with someone like Madeleine Carroll or Carole Lombard later in his career.

The tone of ‘Rich and Strange’ is a playful one and this is reflected here and there in the camera work and in the score, while the couple embark on their adventure. As the gentleman who makes a play for Emily, Percy Marmont appears sympathetic rather than predatory, in a role which seems a perfect fit for an actor like Ian Hunter, but Betty Amann’s fake princess (‘Fred had met a Princess!’) seems just that, exotic but rather annoying.

I must mention the marvellous Elsie Randolph as a twittery ship passenger, a spinster forerunner of characters played by the likes of Esma Cannon in later fare. She’s plain as mutton but effortlessly snatches what crumbs she can from the whisper of plot. You may recall her as the receptionist many years later in ‘Frenzy’.

‘Rich and Strange’ is a rewarding comic romance which, while not in top echelon of Hitchcock films, is certainly not without interest. It’s a solid effort a cut above similar British fare, and although it tanked at the box office, and caused the termination of Hitch’s relationship with BIP, it would seem ripe for re-evaluation.

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