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Grade:  B+/B


Rated PG

People who grew up watching Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, In Search of the Castaways, Summer Magic, The Moon-Spinners and That Darn Cat! no doubt think of Hayley Mills as a Disney actress. But other than those early films and much later sequels to The Parent Trap, Mills made far more movies and TV shows with other studios. And the coming-of-age comedy The Trouble with Angels (Columbia, 1966) still stands as one of her best ‘tween and teen films.

Mills gets second billing behind Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday) in this story of students sent to live and study at the St. Francis Academy for girls, which is located in a convent and staffed by nuns. Russell plays the droll longsuffering Mother Superior, who, like Peter Pan’s shadow, seems to be everywhere the girls are, no matter what hijinks they’re trying to pull. And this is most certainly a hijinks film.

It opens on a train headed for St. Francis, with an openly rebellious Mary Clancy (Mills) lighting up a cigarette despite the no smoking rule. Onboard she meets Rachel Devery (June Harding), who seems “simpatico” and delighted to have found a friend. From that moment the two become inseparable . . . and insufferable as they begin their first year at St. Francis Academy.

The film documents their antics over the four years that they spend in the nunnery, whether it’s pranks and practical jokes, defiance of rules, or the kind of simple shenanigans that many teens pull when they haven’t prepared for class or are trying to get out of P.E. Mary and Rachel aren’t bad girls, mind you, but they behave more like hares than the tortoise approach Mother Superior seems to take, clearly hoping that over time she might make some difference in the girls’ lives. As a result, The Trouble with Angels has more depth than the typical light comedy, and viewers are encouraged to see things from both sides. It’s a surprisingly subtle transformational film in the Going My Way mold.

Columbia certainly picked the right director for the job. Not only was Ida Lupino one of the few female directors working in Hollywood, but she was also a bit of a rebel herself. She bucked the studio system by refusing roles and films she thought were not strong enough—so much so that she was frequently suspended by Warner Bros.

So how does a 1966 film about Catholic schoolgirls hold up today?

It’s still fun and entertaining becauseof the depth, the subtlety, the intelligent writing, and the crisp pacing. There’s also something inherently timeless about a wise adult who tries to mentor semi-resistant young people, whether we’re talking about Yoda and Luke Skywalker or a nun and a Catholic schoolgirl she identified as the ringleader. The pranks and antics keep it fun, while the relationship between the nuns and the girls keep it interesting.

In the irony department, famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee turns up as an outside instructor that Mother Superior hired to teach the girls graceful movement. Russell had played Lee’s mother in the musical biopic Gypsy in the film she made immediately before this one, and film buffs will find such additional layers fun. Some familiar faces turn up, too, like Mary Wickes, who also donned a habit in the Sister Act films and played the secretary to TV’s mystery-solving priest, Father Dowling.

Collectively, this group of nuns is as entertaining as the ones from The Sound of Music, with individual personalities (eccentricities?) that shine through their habits—whether it’s teaching the girls how to swim, how to play an instrument, or any of the subjects that make school a beneficial burden.

Mills was 19 when Angels was shot, and perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is that the actress who plays Sundance to her Butch was 28 years old at the time—older than some of the actresses who played nuns. But the two work well together and are plenty convincing that they are in need of both maturity and understanding. The Trouble with Angels remains good fun and a great choice for family home theaters.

Entire family:  Yes

Run time:  111 min., Color

Studio/Distributor:  Columbia/Sony

Aspect ratio:  1.85:1

Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 2.0

Bonus features:  D (only a trailer)

Barnes & Noble link


Rated PG for mild thematic elements

Language: 0/1—Nothing here to report

Sex:  1/10—Some revealing band uniforms, girls en masse shopping for bras (and trying some on over their blouses) and brief allusion to one parent having an affair

Violence:  0/10—Nothing at all; you were expecting rulers across the knuckles?

Adult situations:  3/10—Several instances of juvenile smoking (cigarettes and cigars)

Takeaway:  The Trouble with Angels remains current because the Catholic church remains constant in so many ways, and the characters under Lupino’s direction aren’t caricatures

Review: LITTLE MISS MARKER (1934) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+


Not rated (would be PG)

Child actor Shirley Temple became a household name in the 1930s and was considered to be 20th Century-Fox’s greatest asset. When she was only seven years old, the studio assigned a team of 19 writers to develop original stories for her. Discovered at age three, she became the inspiration for stage mothers all across America who pushed their own small children to become singers and dancers. Her signature song (“On the Good Ship Lollipop”) sold 500,000 copies on sheet music—presumably to those same stage mothers—while her likeness was used to sell such merchandise as dolls, clothing, plates, and glassware. She even had a drink named for her, and was the first performer to receive a special Juvenile Oscar.

By the time a six-year-old (but looking younger) Temple appeared in Little Miss Marker (1934)—the film that established her as a star—she had already acted in 13 film shorts and nine feature films. By contrast, Dorothy Bell, the female lead who plays a nightclub singer in this Damon Runyon adaptation, had only one film short and a single feature to her credit.

Runyon was a journalist whose published short stories celebrated the denizens of Prohibition-era Broadway: hard-boiled newsmen, gamblers, bookies, singers, racketeers, reformers, and other colorful characters that inhabited his little corner of Brooklyn. They were people who frequented racetracks and clubs, had colorful nicknames, yet had a soft spot. If you’ve seen Guys and Dolls, you’ve seen the most famous adaptation of two of his short stories. But “Little Miss Marker” comes in second, having spawned this film and three remakes.

In Little Miss Marker, bookie Sorrowful Jones (Adolphe Menjou) accepts an unusual I.O.U. “marker”: the daughter of a desperate man looking to get back on track with a racing win. When the man never returns to get her and pay his debt, the bookie is forced to take the child home. Soon he, his associates, and everyone under the thumb of racketeer Big Steve (Charles Bickford) find themselves being charmed by her. That includes the racketeer’s girlfriend, club singer Bangles (Dell), who envisions a more respectable life when she looks at the orphan.

Of Temple films, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “It is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” But not everyone could forget their troubles. America wasn’t exactly equal, and films from this era, with their unfortunate racial stereotypes, are a reminder of that. Willie Best, like Stepin Fetchit, played a lazy, simpleminded, easily spooked character whose eyes bug out and words meander in a slow exaggerated drawl. But at least he received credit for his work, as did Wong Chung for a single walk-on line spoken again as an stereotypical caricature of what white America thought Asians sounded like when they spoke English. Mildred Gover, who plays the club singer’s maid, isn’t even credited . . . though at least her delivery seems less caricatured as the film progresses. At one point we even catch her having a drink and putting her feet up on the furniture when the missus isn’t home.

So yeah, a few unfortunate cultural stereotypes mar a film that otherwise is entertaining in a hokey sort of way. Hardened men and women become like putty in the hands of “Marky.” When they realize they’re having as much of a negative effect on her as the positive effect she’s having on them, they resolve to do something about it—even if it involves sabotaging Big Steve’s plan to use the girl as “owner” of a racehorse that they plan to use to fix a race, or holding an elaborate dress-up party to refuel the child’s belief in fairy tales. And even if it means kidnapping a doctor when, like Pollyanna, Marky needs emergency care.

Shirley Temple was America’s screen orphan and her movies were a mainstay on family-oriented TV movie series of the ‘50s and ‘60s. But these days the safest ones to watch with your small children remain those that are the least outdated and have the fewest unsavory characters in need of transformation.

Those would be Heidi (1937), The Little Princess (1939), Bright Eyes (1934, “The Good Ship Lollipop” film), and Captain January (1936), in that order. But Wee Willie Winkie (1937, Temple’s favorite) and Little Miss Marker aren’t far behind. While this Little Miss Marker might lose by a nose to Bob Hope’s Sorrowful Jones (1949), it remains far superior to the 1980 adaptation or looser remakes like Little Big Shot (1935) or Forty Pounds of Trouble (1962).

Entire family:  Yes

Run time:  80 min. Black & White

Studio/Distributor:  Universal/Kino Lorber

Aspect ratio:  1.37:1

Featured audio:  DTS 2.0 Mono

Bonus features:  C+

Amazon link

Clip (spoiler)

Rated “Passed” (would be G today)

Review of NEVER SAY DIE (1939) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B/B-


Not rated (would be PG)

Bob Hope comedies have been entertaining families for generations, perhaps because Hope’s onscreen persona is a likable, somewhat bumbling and cowardly, non-threatening kid version of an adult. Before Hope took his vaudeville shtick on the road with Dorothy Lamour and Bing Crosby, he was paired with “Big Mouth” Martha Raye in a pair of screwball comedies. They had the leading roles in Give Me a Sailor (1938) and Never Say Die (1939), both of which involved multiple possible couples in a comedy where romance for the leads happened unexpectedly.

Never Say Die, which was based on a long-running Broadway play, is the better of the two. The writing is crisper and Raye and Hope (they were billed in that order) relate to each other so wholesomely and with a certain amount of naiveté that you begin to realize Universal might have been hoping they’d become the studio’s version of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. They’re not—probably because Raye and Hope don’t quite have the chemistry that Garland and Rooney did. But Never Say Die is still a fairly solid early comedy for both of them.

It’s a tale of two fortunes (and two fortune hunters), as wealthy hypochondriac John Kidley (Hope) gets a diagnosis intended for a dog and thinks he has only a month to live. He decides to put his fiancée, Juno (Gale Sondergaard) on hold while he runs off to the fabled spa of Bad Gaswasser, half hoping for a miracle but more practically wanting to go out in style.

Meanwhile, Texas heiress Mickey Hawkins (Raye) has her own problems. She’s in love with a bumpkin bus driver from home (Andy Devine) and wants nothing to do with Prince Smirnov (Alan Mowbray), to whom she’s been betrothed. Turns out the Prince, like Juno, is also a golddigger.

Screwball comedies from the late thirties and early forties often involved class clashes, disguises and mistaken identities, fast-clipped dialogue, romantic mix-ups, and farcical rotations of characters. This one works as well as it does partly because it was based on a successful play by William H. Post and William Collier Sr.— but also because one of the screenplay writers was none other than Preston Sturges, who elevated the screwball comedy to a sub-genre with his intelligent writing.

Never Say Die never reaches the same heights as the Sturges-directed The Lady Eve or The Palm Beach Story, though, because it doesn’t have the same level of sophistication. It’s a screwball comedy for the masses, without the subtly withering embedded commentary on the upper classes. While it’s also not quite as madcap as another Sturges comedy for the masses—the WWII-era The Miracle of Morgan’s CreekNever Say Die does manage to do a lot with the cliché that “three’s a crowd.”

Never Say Die is directed by Elliott Nugent, whose best film might just be Nothing But the Truth (1941), another one in which he directed Hope, that time opposite Paulette Goddard. Nugent is a storyteller first and a satirist second, and that’s evident in Never Say Die. Though the film isn’t one of the great screwball comedies, it’s still fun enough and wholesome enough for the entire family to watch—if the kids are so inclined.


Review of A MAN CALLED OTTO (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-


Rated PG-13

A Man Called Otto (2022) offers another serving of a Hollywood trope we’ve seen many times over: the grumpy widower whose life is brightened somehow by a younger person.

In Finding Forrester the old man was a Salinger-like recluse dogged by a young wannabe writer. In Gran Torino it was a crusty racist war veteran softened by a teenage Lao Hmong refugee. In About Schmidt it was a still-numb and rudderless old coot that found some sense of purpose by corresponding with a Tanzanian boy through a Plan USA program. In Murphy’s Romance it was a widowed druggist who found an unlikely romance with a young single mom. And in Disney’s animated Up it was a gruff old codger with a cane who became stuck with an overly talkative boy scout insisting he help the elderly man in order to earn a merit badge.

There are many more examples to cite, but this Tom Hanks film tweaks the trope to make it both schmaltzier and darker. Otto (“O-T-T-O”) is so lost and depressed after losing his beloved wife to cancer that he tries to take his life onscreen—multiple times, and by multiple means. If this were a Taika Waititi film, those attempts would have been rendered more comically. But director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner) goes for a deadpan blend of dark humor and pathos that doesn’t quite scream “Don’t try this at home,” the way broader humor might have done.

A Man Called Otto is a bit of a Hanks family affair, with Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson, sharing a producing credit and son Truman playing a younger Otto in flashbacks. In the early going those flashbacks with Sonya (Rachel Keller) keep the film from being a total downer, like a film version of “Bolero” that plays over and over again because Forster tends to overstate Otto’s grumpiness, anger, and unexplained Barney Fife-like mission of guarding a gated cul-de-sac block of row houses in the Pittsburgh, Pa. area. The average viewer will, at some point, think, Okay, I get it. He’s an angry old bird. Move on. The film runs six minutes past two hours, so it could certainly have used a heavier hand in the editing room.

Though Hanks—like Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, James Garner, and Ed Asner before him—is the focal character and the one who grows and changes, the heart of the film belongs to a pregnant Mexican woman named Marisol (Mariana Treviño), her two young daughters, and her bumbling husband (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). Without this family, Otto is a dead man, and without Treviño the film is a train wreck. Treviño has been acting for 10 years, but A Man Called Otto has to be considered her breakout role for U.S. audiences. She received no nominations for her performance, but Marisol’s exhuberance, honesty, and literal foot-in-the-door no-nonsense approach to life and relationships model the kind of virtues and values that parents might hope their children could attain. And her onscreen daughters Abbie (Alessandra Perez) and Luna (Christiana Montoya) get the assist. Scenes with them and Otto can seem cloying at times because they’re so purposefully intended to show Otto beginning to soften, but the young actresses channel their screen mother’s knowing enthusiasm along with their own characters’ innocence and naiveté to make those scenes funny.

Is it manipulative? Heck yeah. You’ll find yourself near tears one minute and laughing the next, and you know it’s because most of the scenes seem shot with the sole purpose of moving the audience. Some viewers will resent that, while others will appreciate a roller coaster ride that dips down for much of the first half and climbs throughout most of the second.

But if you give it any thought, Otto’s depression and anger would have been plenty to pull at audience’s heartstrings without the filmmakers adding a seemingly tacked-on side plot about a friendship that dissolved over automobile makes and a parallel sad medical situation. All of that feels like unnecessary piling on. The film would have been helped by fewer downer subplots, fewer trips to the cemetery, and more diverse characters like Malcolm (a transgender kid who had Otto’s wife for a teacher) and Jimmy (a neighbor whose fitness walking style will crack you up). There’s no happy ending here, only a happy transformation.

Is it family fare?  Perhaps, for families with tweens and older children. I’m a film critic, not a mental health professional, but a UCLA study reported that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people age 15-24, with nearly 20 percent of high school students admitting that they’ve had serious thoughts of suicide. That’s a crazy statistic. Would it help them to watch a depressed and angry man who thinks he has nothing to live for find his way? Parents who know their children might have the answer. I don’t. I do know this: a film isn’t a substitute for professional evaluation and treatment, but it could very well be a starting point for a discussion that could lead to seeking outside help.

Entire family:  No

Run time:  126 min. Color

Studio/Distributor:  Columbia/Sony

Aspect ratio:  1.85:1

Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1

Bonus features:  C

Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital Copy

Amazon link


Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving suicide and language

Language:  7/10—Some audience members seem to bristle at the mere mention of “transgender,” and that word is spoken, along with an f-bomb, a few profane God damns, shits, hell, SOB, etc.; turns out that angry old men have a potty mouth

Sex:  1/10—Nothing here, even in flashbacks, which are intended to be tender; just a few kisses

Violence:  3/10— Otto loses it with a honking driver, physically manhandling the guy and threatening him, and there are lesser examples of physicality

Adult situations:  7/10—Aside from the multiple suicide attempts, two of which have him experiencing a near-death vision of his wife, there’s some alcohol and smoking, and one death

Takeaway:  A Man Called Otto is based on a best-selling novel by German writer Fredrik Backman, so given the number of aging male actors in Hollywood I would say there’s a pretty big incentive for future novelists to keep feeding this trope

Review of DOUBLE CROSSBONES (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-/C+

Adventure Comedy

Not Rated (would be PG)

Today’s audiences know Donald O’Connor mostly as the third wheel in the 1952 Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds musical romance Singin’ in the Rain—you know, the “Make ‘Em Laugh” guy?

But O’Connor, a former vaudevillian, also had his share of top billings, starting with 1938’s Tom Sawyer, Detective and continuing with a series of romantic leads and Francis the Talking Mule pictures. Typecast as a mild-mannered nice guy / funny man, he became Universal’s version of Bob Hope. 

Hope made a Western comedy-musical in 1950 (Fancy Pants), and so did O’Connor (Curtain Call at Cactus Creek). Double Crossbones, which followed a year later,is Universal’s answer to the Hope comedy The Princess and the Pirate, in which a bumbling non-pirate finds himself at sea pretending to be one.

While the Hope film is a classic comedy that was frequently televised and released for home video, Double Crossbones got buried somehow—a forgotten little treasure that was recently dug up by Kino Lorber and released for the first time on Blu-ray for family home theaters. Like many films from the ‘50s, it’s a fun costumed romp that’s heavy on light entertainment, with a plot that’s just complicated enough to keep it interesting.

O’Connor is engaging as always, but surprisingly up to the task of shivering a few timbers and slitting a few gullets—far less cowardly than Hope’s characters. He plays shopkeeper’s apprentice Davy Crandall, whose boss turns out to have been selling stolen merchandise bought from pirates. When he’s wrongfully accused of being one of the pirates, Davy ironically takes to the high seas with his newfound sidekick (Will Geer) and bumbles his way across the Spanish Main to the top of the brotherhood (and sisterhood—pirate Anne Bonny makes an appearance).

Double Crossbones is directed by Charles Barton, who would later direct Disney’s The Shaggy Dog (1959), and in both films the comedy is mostly situational. Fans of classic TV will recognize Geer as the grandpa from The Waltons and Hayden Rorke as the suspicious Dr. Bellows from I Dream of Jeannie. And if the actor playing Captain Kidd looks familiar, it’s because Alan Napier would go on to play Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred, in the campy sixties Batman series.

There’s action, but the violence is minimal compared to films today.

There’s comedy, but the jokes aren’t as clever or in-your-face as in films today.

There’s drama, but not the melodrama of most films of the era or the anxiety-driven films of today.

As I said, Double Crossbones is light entertainment, but fun and watchable light entertainment that manages to sneak in a comic dance routine from O’Connor . . . who indeed makes his cutlass-and-pistol-wielding audience laugh.

Will he have the same effect on audiences today? Probably not. Hope’s The Princess and the Pirate (1944) is still the better movie of the two, and The Crimson Pirate, Treasure Island, and Against All Flags are the best of the pirate movies that Hollywood made in the fifties. Everything else falls somewhere in the 2-2 ½ star range out of 4, and Double Crossbones lands near the higher end of those colorful genre films. It’s guilty pleasure pirate booty that still makes for an entertaining family movie . . . perhaps as the warm-up for one of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies?

Entire family:  Yes

Run time:  76 minutes Color

Studio/Distributor:  Universal / Kino Lorber

Aspect ratio:  1.37:1

Featured audio:  DTS 2.0

Bonus features:  C

Amazon link


Not rated (would be PG for some violence)

Language:  1/10—Squeaky clean, but I might have missed something

Sex:  0/10—Tepid, not torrid, love interest, with an occasional embrace

Violence:  3/10—There are swordfights (uh, “Pirate!”) and brawls, but nothing cringeworthy

Adult situations:  2/10—Pirates hang out in pubs in Tortuga, and so there’s drinking and smoking in such scenes

Takeaway:  Disney’s Treasure Island sparked several dozen pirate movies in the fifties, more than were made in the previous decades, and Double Cross is an artifact of that era

Review of BLUE HAWAII (4K) (1961)

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Grade:  B-
Musical comedy
Rated PG

How do you explain the Elvis Presley phenomenon?  You start with the music. Until Elvis, rock and roll was an evolving synthesis of blues, gospel, jazz, boogie woogie, and western swing. As a type of music that was deliberately dance-oriented, it hooked America’s youths. But Elvis and his “rockabilly” variation made the new music sexy, with hip-swiveling gyrations that caused girls to scream and faint. In no time at all, he became the biggest rock-and-roll star of them all and is still recognized by Guinness as the best-selling solo musical artist of all time, with more than 500 million records sold worldwide.

If you saw Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis you learned that Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager, was exploitive as a promoter. The big money was in movies, so he pushed Elvis away from giving concerts (some of which were banned or caused riots) and instead pointed him in the direction of Hollywood. From 1956-69, Elvis starred in 30 films. Since Elvis wasn’t doing concerts anymore, his movies were the only way fans could actually seehim perform, and they turned out in droves. As a result, Hal Wallis remarked, “A Presley picture is the only sure thing in Hollywood.”

Variety called Blue Hawaii a “handsome, picture-postcard production,” and that’s what it was. With Hawaii becoming the 50th state on August 21, 1959, Americans wanted to see and learn more, and location filming added to the film’s interest—along with a tagline that promised “Ecstatic romance…Exotic dances…Exciting music in the World’s Lushest Paradise of Song.”

Elvis plays Chad Gates, the son of a wealthy pineapple plantation owner (Roland Winters) and a doting, suffocating mother (Angela Lansbury). Chad dreads seeing his parents after returning from military service and instead goes straight to his beach house to hang with his girlfriend (Joan Blackman as Maile) and local musicians. The premise was genius, since Elvis himself had only recently returned stateside after a stint in the Army. Blue Hawaii was his third post-service film, following Flaming Star and Wild in the Country. Not wanting to work at the family business, Chad instead proposes to start a tourist guide business with Maile. But their first client proves that Chad’s charm is both an asset and a liability as he is tasked with showing a schoolteacher and her four teenage charges a good time.

On a four-star scale, all Elvis movies fall in the 2-to-3 star range, but Blue Hawaii makes everyone’s Elvis Top 10 movie list because of the music. Some of the movies skimped on songs, but this one has 15 of them, including “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” which sold a million copies as a single release. The soundtrack album spent 20 weeks at the top of the Billboard Pop Albums chart. Some of the songs are throwaways, but there are some solid ones here too, like “Almost Always True” (though it’s a bit mind-boggling that Maile would smile and groove along with him as he fudges, in song, the question of whether he was faithful to her). Other upbeat songs that work as something more than soundtrack music include “Rock-a-Hula Baby,” “Beach Boy Blues,” and possibly “Slicin’ Sand,” while Elvis’s renditions of “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” “Aloha Oe,” and “Blue Hawaii” are serviceable enough.

Blue Hawaii finished as the 10th top-grossing film of 1961—so successful that it would provide the formula for many of the Elvis films that followed. The image that these films cultivated was an Elvis meant to be everything to women. A nice guy and a perfect gentleman yet handy with his fists if need be, he also had a slight bad boy or rebellious streak. He was also good with kids and respectful of elders—the kind of guy that, despite the attitude, you could still bring home to meet Mom and Dad. The formula called for Elvis to have at least two women interested in him, at least one cutesy scene with children, one scene with elders, and one scene where he comes to the defense of a woman. And as much as the formula Elvis movie is ridiculed—Top Secret! offers a pretty wicked spoof!—it was still what fans seemed to want. Year after year.

Do the Elvis films still work? Probably not, unless you’re wanting to put yourself in the mindset of young people from the time period, or unless you’re an Elvis fan. If you are, this still ranks in the top third of his films.

This Paramount release contains a superior 4K feature and a Blu-ray version with special features that’s a little grainier.

Entire family:  Yes (pretty wholesome, overall)
Run time:  101 min. Color
Studio/Distributor:  Paramount
Aspect ratio:  2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Bonus features:  C
Includes: 4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray, Digital Copy
Amazon link
Rated PG for mild sensuality

Language:  1/10—I didn’t catch anything

Sex:  3/10—Women come on to Elvis, and a girl who’s supposed to be 17 throws herself at him and flirts with others; a woman loses her top in the ocean but nothing is shown and nothing is sexualized

Violence:  2/10—Just a brief restaurant-bar fight

Adult situations:  3/10—One young woman acts up and ostensibly tries to drown herself and is subsequently “spanked” in a rather outdated sequence; flirting and suspicions of cheating

Takeaway:  It’s dizzying reading all of the movies, studio recordings, benefits, and other things that Elvis did, and you can’t help but wonder if he wasn’t so overworked if his personal outcome might have been different

Review of BEDTIME FOR BONZO (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Not rated (would be G)

Bedtime for Bonzo (1951) is one of those legendary movies that I hadn’t gotten around to seeing until Kino Lorber came out with this sparkling new 2K Master Blu-ray release.

As it turns out, Ronald Reagan was a better actor in the political arena than he was in movies. He’s out-acted in this one by a chimpanzee named Peggy, whose performance earned her a PATSY Award (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) from the American Humane Society. But it’s fun to watch a comedy starring the future 40th president of the United States, and this film was so much a part of the public consciousness that Reagan used a “Bonzo” campaign to help him win the White House in 1980.

The history of animals forced to perform in Hollywood movies is not a happy one that often involved beatings and other abuses. But according to numerous accounts, Peggy was a real pro who enjoyed working and was therefore not subject to some of the cruel treatments that befell other simian performers. PETA tells us that even as recent as a decade ago there were “at least a dozen” chimpanzees working in Hollywood.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, though, chimpanzees were extremely popular and appeared in such live-action films as Monkey Business (with Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe), Disney’s The Monkey’s Uncle (with Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello), the early Planet of the Apes films, all of the Tarzan features, every episode of the Jungle Jim TV series, and a 1961 series called The Hathaways, which was about a realtor and his wife, who happened to be the manager-owner of three chimps working in Hollywood.

Now there are none, thanks to the efforts of PETA and other groups, and CGI has forever removed the need to train animals for motion picture performances. That said, there is something fascinating about watching Peggy, who, as Bonzo, gets way more screen time than any of the human actors. We watch her climb up trees and buildings, steal and return jewelry, ride a tricycle, walk “like a person,” and act like a couple’s child throughout the film—as in a real, wholesome family.

That’s actually the premise of this film, the plot of which might remind viewers of My Fair Lady without the music or an academic version of Trading Places. Reagan plays psychology professor Peter Boyd, who sets out to prove the nature vs. nurture debate by hiring a woman named Jane (Diana Lynn) to move into his house and pose as the chimp’s “mother” while he plays the part of the father . . . albeit an absentee one much of the time, because he also happens to be engaged. He conveniently fails to tell that to his fiancée (Lucille Barkley) or Jane, who, like Bonzo, becomes enamored with the thought of being part of a family.


Review of FANCY PANTS (1950) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B/B-
Western comedy
Not rated (would be G)

Families that watch I Love Lucy reruns on TV will enjoy seeing Lucille Ball in this Western comedy—the fourth film to be based on Harry Leon Wilson’s popular 1915 novel Ruggles of Red Gap, and the second feature film Ball made with comedian Bob Hope.The humor in this film is certainly a cousin to the antics home audiences loved about that classic TV series, which began airing in 1951.

Fancy Pants(1950) is the costumed follow-up to Sorrowful Jones (1949), and both films are pleasant diversions. Hope and Ball click together with a natural ease. Maybe that’s why the fast friends co-starred in four feature films and a made-for-TV movie, and also hosted each other on their TV series and specials. Their first film is still their best, but Fancy Pants isn’t far behind. And children will undoubtedly prefer Hope and Ball in Western getup and giddy-up to the duo’s earlier Damon Runyon racetrack comedy.

In this one, Ball is brassy and uncultured, but not to the point of annoyance (I’m thinking here of Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown or Shelley Winters in Pete’s Dragon). And Hope is Hope, his vaudevillian shtick honed to perfection over a series of “Road” pictures with Dorothy Lamour and Bing Crosby. Director George Marshall (Destry Rides Again, The Ghost Breakers) gives them the reins, too, so they can create comic moments reflective of their strengths.

In 1950, only John Wayne was earning more money at the box office than Hope. Here Hope plays a bad American actor working in London as a butler in a play, and when the whole mediocre cast is hired to pose as upper-crust Brits for an event, he’s mistaken for a real Butler and sees the opportunity as the role of a lifetime . . . and a way to pay the bills.

The film opens in England, where the matron of a newly rich Western family (Lea Penman) has taken her tomboyish daughter Agatha (Ball) to learn how to be more cultured and refined. The starter pistol for an often-used plot of mistaken identity is the telegram Mrs. Floud sends home that she is bringing a “gentleman’s gentleman”—which the whole town interprets as British royalty. Suddenly, Hope is an actor named Arthur Tyler playing the part of a butler named Humphrey who’s also playing the part of the Earl of Brimstead. And the complication?  The town uses the Earl’s visit as a way to entice Pres. Theodore Roosevelt to make Big Squaw one of his very few stops on a tour of the West. Throw in a slow-building attraction between Agatha and Humphrey and a jealous cowboy (Bruce Cabot) who thinks Agatha is his “girl,” and the Western farce plays out better than anything Arthur Tyler had been a part of.


Review of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (Criterion Collection Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-
Not rated (would be PG)

Maybe the kids aren’t old enough for Donnie Darko and that old slasher pic Halloween, or they’re still unsettled after you broke your own rule and let them watch it . . . or It.

Maybe they’re too old for Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin, and maybe Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, like retail stores these days, lumps Christmas and Halloween a bit too uncomfortably together in one tidy package.

Or maybe everyone has had their fill of Hocus Pocus, Hocus Pocus 2, and Monster House and you’re all Halloweentowned and Beetlejuiced and Sleepy Hollowed out.   

If so, you might turn your attention this trick-or-treat season to the most benign (and still funny) serial killer film ever made.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) begins, “This is a Halloween tale of Brooklyn, where anything can happen—and it usually does.” We see all sorts of Halloween decorations before the cameras zoom in on the old gabled Brewster house, which is located next to a cemetery—the next best thing to an isolated haunted house. But there aren’t any ghosts here, and the only “monsters” are two sweet, misguided little old ladies . . . who flavor the elderberry wine they offer lonely older gentlemen with arsenic and strychnine. 

Criterion released a Blu-ray of this classic black-and-white dark comedy just in time for Halloween, and it’s going to be one of those films that sticks with you because of the situation, those little old ladies, and star Cary Grant. Even more than His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby it reinforces what a wonderful comic actor Grant was. Though Bob Hope was the first choice of director Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life), Grant so totally made this role uniquely his that you can’t imagine anyone else as the star.

Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a recently married writer who returns to the home where he was raised by two elderly aunts so he can tell them the good news and introduce them to his wife (Priscilla Lane). But very early in the film he learns that Aunt Abby (Josephine Hull) and Aunt Martha (Jean Adair) have taken to offing the men who respond to their ad for a boarding house room. Why? Well, it all makes perfect sense in their sweet, twisted minds. And while it comes as a surprise, it’s not a complete surprise to Mortimer, who knows that insanity has haunted the Brewster family for generations. A brother still living with the aunts (John Alexander) thinks he’s President Teddy Roosevelt and yells “Charge” every time he runs up the main staircase, while an older brother had been institutionalized for being criminally insane (Raymond Massey as a Boris Karloff lookalike). That brother shows up with classic horror actor Peter Lorre in tow as Dr. Einstein, while the familiar-voiced Edward Everett Horton (Fractured Fairy Tales) appears as Mr. Witherspoon.



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Grade:  C+/B-
Fantasy musical comedy romance
Not rated (would be G)

Disney didn’t invent family movies. As early as the 1930s, studios were adapting literary classics by Stevenson, Verne, Kipling, Dickens, and Twain with the intent that they might appeal to whole families. Disney’s philosophy was to make films for children that adults could also enjoy; those early family films were made for adults, but with content that might also keep children entertained. So many of these films were pleasant entertainment, which is to say a kind of middle-of-the-road offering meant to please a lot of people a little.

When The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther reviewed A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court(1949), he called it “that good time to be had by all.” Like many costumed adventures the studio system produced, this Twain adaptation featured a fantasy common to children (being transported to another time and place) and musical numbers that were a staple back then. While the adults were enjoying the romance and music, children were engaged by the escapist adventure and comedy, with everyone appreciating crooner Bing Crosby (The Bells of St. Mary’s, Going My Way, Holiday Inn) as Hank Martin, an easy-going blacksmith/mechanic from 1912 who awakens from a bonk on the head to find himself in medieval England, where he falls for King Arthur’s niece (Rhonda Fleming), becomes a knight, and has to out-wizard Merlin (Murvyn Vye) in order to survive.    

But that was then, and this is now. Despite the engaging premise, A Connecticut Yankee doesn’t have quite the same crackling energy and spitfire gags as Bob Hope’s costumed pirate romp The Princess and the Pirate (1944), nor does it have the intricacy of plot and memorable scenes that still make Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester (1955) a great film. Both of those costumed adventures are stronger than A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which may have been more restrained because director Tay Garnett had a better track record with dramas and war movies than he did musicals or comedies. In fact, his last comedy prior to this one was seven years earlier: the bomb My Favorite Spy, with Kay Kyser. Everything in A Connecticut Yankee seems as mellow as Crosby’s character, when a more accomplished comedic director might have varied the pacing and contrasted Crosby’s mellowness with more madcap situations or manic characters.


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