Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Films of Yasujiro Ozu at Film Forum Part 2

Returning to the comedy genre, What Did the Lady Forget? (1937) is a departure from the melodramatic Ozu films immediately preceding it. Members of his marvelous repertory group are here: Choko Iida and Takeshi Sakamoto are reunited after An Inn in Tokyo (1935) as husband and wife (Iida makes an entrance in a lavish get-up that would make Stella Dallas blush); another Inn alum and Ozu's go-to child actor, Tomio Aoki, appears as the schoolmate of Masao Hayama, another Ozu favorite. Sumiko Kurishima, the first Japanese female movie star in her only film with Ozu, stars as the frigid Tokiko, a bespectacled wet blanket who reluctantly hosts her visiting niece, rambunctious Setsuko (played with relish by the ill-fated Michiko Kuwano). The young girl smokes, drinks, and takes a shine to visiting geisha houses, immediately connecting with her bemused uncle Okada over her conservative aunt. The couple's strained marriage is tested by Setsuko's presence, especially when Okada lies about a golfing trip so he can spend a day away from home with his protege, a plot development Ozu re-used with sexes reversed in his later Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952). Some of the funniest moments occur in the girl talk scenes between Tokiko and her girlfriends, loud Chiyoko (Iida can do no wrong in my book) and subdued Mitsuko; another comic gem occurs when a clueless tutor attempts to help Mitsuko's son with his arithmetic homework. The film, at 70 minutes, is one of few films that might make some viewers wish Ozu, known for spending a considerable amount of time with his characters, had . The third act feels rushed, atypical for the director, and the pat resolution has none of the satisfaction of his later marital problem films. All this said, this is lesser Ozu, but as such is possibly most likely to win over newcomers to the director's oeuvre. It is laugh-out-loud funny, beyond charming, and sorely in need of a region 1 DVD restoration.

The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941), released the same year Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, feels more influenced by Western films than most of Ozu's work, in particular Leo McCarey's brilliant Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). A later film, the French Summer Hours (2008), also borrowed a great deal from Ozu's story of family troubles initiated by the death of its patriarch. This is one of Ozu's most gripping family melodramas, opening with a family photograph being taken of the Toda clan before the father dies of a coronary hours later. With the father's death come the creditors, demanding their debts be paid, forcing the children to sell the lavish family estate and everything of value and casting Toda's widow (Ayako Katsuragi) and youngest daughter, Setsuko (Mieko Takamine), out on the street. The two women, oldest and youngest of the family, are moved from one sibling's home to another, never feeling welcome in any of their new surroundings and eventually choosing to retire to a secluded rundown villa still in the family's possession. This last act of desperation does not sit well with youngest son Shojiro (Shin Saburi), who figures into the film's completely satisfying finale. It's a wonder why this film has not been given the Criterion treatment in this country. Toda Family is certainly not lesser Ozu, and might stand as one of his most accomplished works, in both narration and style. In fact, as one of the director's most accessible works that still manages to include all of his polarizing trademark flourishes, it's a very good choice for Ozu 101. Some viewers may find it unusual and rather awkward that Shojiro emigrates to China, considering Japan's horrific invasion of the large Asian nation over the years of the war. But casting aside real world events in favor of immersing yourself in Ozu's engrossing tale is best. Saburi is marvelous as head strong Shojiro, and he would join the director's repertory cast, appearing in a number of his works over the years. Mitsuko Yoshikawa, so funny and winning in What Did the Lady Forget?, demonstrates her acting range by playing the icy class-conscious elder daughter to perfection. Michiko Kuwano, who also appeared in Forget as the mischievous Setsuko, similarly plays against type as the friendly lower-class friend of this film's Setsuko; this would be one of her last films before dying young from an ectopic pregnancy. It's a shame that both of her Ozu films are generally unavailable to American audiences.

The Munekata Sisters (1950) was produced by Toho Studios, the one time Ozu worked for the titans of Japanese film, and because it has remained in the Toho library, remains very difficult to see. It has been released on DVD in Japan, without subtitles, and a Spanish bootleg DVD, but that's about it. The studio allowed Film Forum to screen the film once over the course of the series, an 8pm screening on June 24, and needless to say the theater was packed with Ozu admirers anxious to see this obscure effort. While it's not Ozu's finest (in fact, some might argue it's his most commercial and Western feature), it does not deserve to languish away from the public eye as Toho seems to want. The news that her father has a mere year to live coincides with a crossroads in Setsuko Munekata's marriage to her alcoholic unemployed husband, Ryosuke. Setsuko's sister, Mariko, sneaks a peek at her sister's diary and learns that sis was once in love with old friend Hiroshi, and makes it her goal to reunite the two, coaxing her sister to pursue her own happiness and abandon her indifferent and often abusive husband. The reason why Munekata Sisters doesn't completely work is the fact that it is based on a then-popular novel, so the studio and its audience had built-in expectations for the film. Ozu injects his personal style into the project, and visually it is an Ozu film. Thematically, however, it comes up short and does not gel with the other films he was making around the same time (Late Spring, Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, Early Summer). The film is aided by the superb central performances by Kinuyo Tanaka and Hideko Takamine as Setsuko and Mariko, respectively. Takamine is a sprightly comic presence, afforded many lovely funny moments but also appropriately moving in dramatic scenes. Tanaka at first gives us very little to work with in her characterization of Setsuko, but as the film progresses and we learn how trapped she is in her marriage, how duty drives her daily life, how she is deserving of the happiness constantly denied her, the pain in her performance becomes almost unbearable. The final confrontation between husband and wife is a stunner, and audibly upset many Film Forum audience members. Takamine had worked with Ozu in his silent film Tokyo Chorus (1931), but sadly would not work again with the director. Tanaka was a favorite of another Ozu contemporary, the great Kenji Mizoguchi, and also appeared in a number of earlier Ozu features. She would later star in Equinox Flower (1958) for him. Ozu regular Chishu Ryu is inadequately used as the Munekata patriarch, and another Ozu favorite, Tatsuo Saito, is the doctor who delivers the bad news to Setsuko in the opening sequence.

The Films of Yasujiro Ozo at Film Forum Part 1

In one of his last silent films, An Inn in Tokyo (1935), Ozu tackles family dynamics in a Depression-era scenario, much darker and more serious than his subsequent more famous films from the late 1940s and into the 1950s. It in fact is very similar to the post-war neorealist films of Italy. Takeshi Sakamoto is a single father, wandering the country with his two sons, the eldest played by Ozu child actor regular Tomio Aoki, searching for a job and a way to feed his children. He stumbles upon an old friend, Choko Iida, who offers him employment and a place to live, but his growing love for a down-on-her-luck single mother (Yoshiko Okada) and her infant daughter leads to drinking and more trouble as he becomes determined to pay for the young girl's hospital bills. The film's aesthetic is one of dreary uncertainty, with many barren fields, dark alleys, and shadowy interiors; it's an unusual contrast to the lighter, airier compositions found in his later work. But this is a film that inspired my interest in seeking out more of Ozu's silent films. Without dialogue, the emphasis on performance, editing, and photography brings out a more vivid and compelling form of storytelling that I found nicely surprising in comparison to his sound works. This is a masterpiece of surviving early Japanese cinema.


Ozu's first talkie, The Only Son (1936), reunites the director with Iida as the single mother of the title character, who she sacrifices everything for so he can get a good education and make a name for himself. Visiting him in Tokyo years after he leaves for school, she discovers he is married, has a child, and is working as a night school teacher...and is deeply unhappy with the path of his life. Tension builds between mother and son, as she reveals just how much she has given up for him, and he reconsiders his aspirations and concerns over his future. The theme of human kindness trumping wealth is carried over into the sound era, as the son's wife sells her kimono to earn money so the family can spend a day out together, but the money goes towards a neighbor boy's hospital bills after he is kicked by a horse (the boy is played by Aoki). With sound, Ozu begins his tradition of a sparse narrative in favor of simple camera set-ups and quiet scenes of character interaction, often in the domestic space, with deliberate pacing that will either draw you in or repel you into bored slumber. Truth be told, for the longest time, I was in the latter camp, but approaching Ozu with one film after another, a wider appreciation for his accomplishments as a director began setting in. I can now count myself as an admirer and follower of his work. It was this one-two punch combo of Inn in Tokyo and Only Son that converted me, and led me to re-visit his other films through new eyes.

The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) is a return to the concept of traditional versus contemporary values, but one that is often overshadowed by Ozu's preceding and subsequent films (1951's Early Summer and 1953's Tokyo Story, respectively). Rather than explore the dynamic between parents and children, Green Tea focuses on the stagnant marriage of Taeko, a spoiled upper-class woman, and Mokichi, her dull husband. Taeko's social circle of lady friends includes her niece, Setsuko, a single woman with a modern sensibility about dating and marriage. While Mokichi tries to bond with their maid, Fumi, instead of his wife, Taeko regularly lies to her husband so she can go on spa getaways with her girlfriends. As per usual with Ozu, the film takes its time developing into a solid narrative, and the turning point occurs when Setsuko abandons an arranged marriage interview at the Kabuki theater and, returning to her aunt and uncle's house, is taken to a bike race and gambling casino by her uncle and Non-chan, his work apprentice, who naturally becomes a solid romantic interest for the rebellious young woman. This immediately sparks questions of their arranged marriage for Taeko and Mokichi, and if they've reached their breaking point. An argument over the way Mokichi eats his favorite meal, described in the film's title, leads to the film's very good third act, with genuine suspense over whether the couple will reconcile and if so, just how will it happen. If it's possible for there to be an underrated Ozu film, it's this one, rarely spoken of in the same breath as his more popular films, but a worthwhile starter film for newcomers to his oeuvre and one for Ozu admirers to give a second look.

The Films of Allan Dwan at MoMA Part 3

We enter the 1940s and 1950s with this continuing Allan Dwan retrospective, as Dwan reached a relative high before plummeting to the lowest point of his creativity.

Based on a popular play from the WWI era, Friendly Enemies (1942) was reportedly shot in 9 days, according to Dwan, but in fact took 21 days to produce (nice lie, there, Dwan). Shot on a set on loan from Paramount to independent producer Edward Small, for whom Dwan made five films, this patriotic propaganda piece, while still set in 1918, was timed perfectly to coincide with WWII and the need for national support of the war effort. Character actor darlings Charles Winninger and Charles Ruggles are Karl and Heinrich, two lifelong friends who emigrated to the U.S. from Germany and have made good in their plans for a better life. However, where Heinrich (who insists on being called Henry) has adopted the U.S. as his new home, Karl still feels allegiance to the heimat, so much so that he donates money to a propaganda machine claiming to be pro-Germany during the world war conflict. Karl's son, engaged to Heinrich's daughter, has secretly enlisted in the army to fight for America, much to his father's chagrin, though dear old dad feels much worse when he learns the money he donated went towards a German spy ring's bomb attack on the ship sending his son over to Europe. The film never really escapes its stage-bound origins, and other than Winninger and Ruggles, only fellow character actor great Otto Kruger makes an impression as the slimy villain Anton Miller. Nancy Kelly and James Craig are atrocious as the young couple (Dwan rarely, if ever, delivered on building believable romances in his films), though Craig is a stunningly handsome figure, and one referenced by Gore Vidal regularly in his camp classic "Myra Breckinridge". The narrative gains momentum near the end, though Karl's complete reversal in his national allegiance is overwrought and ridiculous, throwing out his German newspapers and replacing his framed portrait of the Kaiser with President Wilson. Ultimately Friendly Enemies is goofy pro-America propaganda, but is an interesting time capsule piece demonstrating how Hollywood worked hand-in-hand with the government to sell the war to the American public.

Reuniting Dwan with the marvelous Gail Patrick in what would be her last film, The Inside Story (1948) is a deliberately paced comedy of errors set in a small Vermont town in 1933 during the Depression. While the story is slight (an envelope of $1000 is accidentally dispersed among a group of townspeople, all of whom desperately need it), it is enlivened by the marvelous cast of familiar faces and delightful characters. When you went to work for Republic Studios during this period, it was pretty clear, depending on your previous star status, that your career was either not going in the right direction or you were being afforded better work than most majors were offering. In the case of Inside Story, it was mostly the latter. Gathered together here is a confident class of talented character actors and actresses, each given the opportunity to shine as unique characters. Patrick in particular, rarely given a leading role during her tenure at major studios in the 1930s and 1940s, shines as a devoted wife forced to support her household when her sad sack husband can't find employment as an attorney. She is much warmer here than many viewers can believe, based on her best-known roles. Top-billed is Marsha Hunt, soon to become a victim of the McCarthy blacklist, but here simply superb as a feisty small town girl forced to work at her father's hotel while waiting for her artist boyfriend to sell one of his paintings. Notice a pattern here? The women in the film are the movers and shakers, surrounded by men forced into stagnation by the Depression. Even the richest person in town is a woman, Geraldine Atherton, the wise-cracking owner of a once lucrative mill, played to perfection by divine character actress Florence Bates. Gene Lockhart (as Hunt's father, the blustery innkeeper), ever-charming Charlie Winniger (as Uncle Ed, the bumbling hotel clerk and narrator of the story), the hilarious Roscoe Karns (as the insurance agent whose money vanishes into the town's population), and crotchy Will Wright (as the money-grubbing banker) are all at the peak of their form in the world of Hollywood character acting. Tough guy Allen Jenkins and gangly Tom Fadden also show up as a New York gangster and a farmer, respectively. All of this gushing over the cast does not, however, excuse the almost far too light pacing of the story. It takes 45 minutes for the big plot development to take place, but once that happens, the narrative action never lets up, and truth be told, it's more involving because we've spent so much time with the characters and have grown to love them. One could almost call this film a low-rent Capra picture, by way of Dwan, and that is meant as a compliment.

Continuing his assured work at little Republic Studios, Woman They Almost Lynched (1953) is one of Dwan's most enjoyable films, and is a good example of low-budget westerns sometimes exceeding  their generic limitations. Joan Leslie, a good decade after she was the ingenue darling of Warner Brothers, is given a far better role than she was ever given at her old studio, as Sally Maris, a prim and proper young lady who takes a stagecoach to Border City, where her brother Bill owns a saloon. Another fallen star, Brian Donlevy (reportedly a pain in the ass to work with), co-stars as Quantrill, a rebel rouser who massacres the Union soldiers escorting Sally on her journey, then attempts to blackmail the foreman of Border City's lead mines into filling his pockets with the stuff. Jim Davis (before "Dallas" and, er, Dracula vs. Frankenstein) is Quantrill's right hand man, who intends to force Sally into matrimony before leaving town. Audrey Totter could never play a believable "good girl"; her eyebrows and mouth always had a perpetual sneer to them, though she gets to play both sides of the fence as Kate Quantrill, a wanton woman who was abducted by Quantrill before she could marry Sally's brother...and took the Stockholm syndrome to a whole 'nother level by marrying her kidnapper. Her feud with Sally reaches two violent climaxes with a cat-fight for the ages and a gunfight in the streets of Border City. The movie stops cold for two song numbers featuring Totter, who can at least lip synch quite well (pretty sure her vocals were dubbed by Peggy Lee). Totter is joined by her B-list film noir contemporary, Ann Savage, several years after her incredible turn as Vera in Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945), who plays the ringleader of the wisecracking trio of saloon girls. You barely recognize her because, well, she smiles a lot and wears makeup and garish costumes, a far cry from the dirty, sweaty, snarling look film fans are familiar with. She is marvelous support in her last film for 33 years. Frankly, the men are left in the dust here (in some cases literally). Even the town mayor is a brash, hard woman, Delilah Courtney, played by Nina Varela with such toughness and ferocity that Hope Emerson would cower in fear. Similarities to Johnny Guitar (1954), also produced by Republic the following year, are far too glaring to chalk up to coincidence, right down to the casting of youthful Ben Cooper in essentially the same role (though his character here has a famous name). This film does not reach the masterpiece levels of Nicholas Ray's color gender-bending western, but Dwan's woman-on-woman conflict does feature some interesting sexual politics of its own, namely when Sally advises Kate to "act like a woman". In a gender role reversal on Guitar, Kate wears pants and Sally a dress, while in Ray's film the heroine wore pants and the villainess wore a dress. Come the finale, sisters are doing it for themselves in a wholly satisfying twisting turn of events. Most wonderful of all is Leslie, stretching her acting muscles, getting physical with stunts, and still looking damn near perfect.

Nearing the end of his career, The Restless Breed (1957) is a tremendously cheap western, produced independently on ridiculously phony-looking sets and distributed by 20th Century-Fox. Shabbily directed and edited, and just as poorly acted (though leading man Scott Brady, at his beefcakiest, gives it his all), there is very little to recommend about this cliche-ridden genre entry. Brady saunters into town to seek vengeance for the murder of his lawman father, befriending the local preacher and his adorable adopted moppets, including the eldest, Angelita (Anne Bancroft). It's humiliating to watch Bancroft, five years before her first Oscar win (1962's The Miracle Worker) and ten years before her career-defining work in The Graduate (1967), in such a thankless and cliched role. It's almost too perfect that Roger Corman regular Leo Gordon shows up as the standard heavy, because this film looks and feels like a Corman film from the same period: super cheap and bringing nothing new to the table. The most irritating element of the film is the editing; Dwan cuts from action to random cutaway shots of characters in what look like alternate dimensions listening in on who the audience should really be looking at. Scott Marlowe's screen time is pretty much all in cutaway, as he chews on the edge of his hat or on a piece of rope while listening to supposedly important dialogue. He ditches town during the finale...leaving us to wonder what the hell was the point of his character and all that cutaway footage anyway? Jim Davis returns to work with Dwan in what is essentially a glorified cameo as the mysterious murderer of Brady's father, who shows up in the final 10 minutes. Perhaps the ultimate reason the movie doesn't work is because by 1957, westerns had taken over television, proving the most successful programs with viewers nationwide. Even though this film was shot in color (the print shown at MoMA was in black and white), there's nothing here you couldn't see on television for free. It's not even shot in the then-standard Fox CinemaScope, since the shoddy sets would be more obvious if photographed with any attempt at grandeur. Among the worst films of Dwan's filmography. In his interview with Bogdanovich, the two claim that he was making an intentional comedy in an attempt to save face. Unlike Woman They Almost Lynched, which has particular moments of clearly intentional camp and tongue-in-cheek humor, this film fails even on that level.

The Films of Allan Dwan at MoMA Part 2

Continuing on with the Allan Dwan series, thankfully each successive film revealed a far better portrait of the director and his work than the first week of screenings had indicated. While I am still not convinced Dwan is an auteur worthy of plentiful accolades, I do think that his work is far more important in discussing the B-movie units in the Hollywood studio era. As his career in sound films continued, Dwan's knack for finishing films quickly made him ideal for cranking out programmers for all of his contracted studios, including Fox Films/20th Century-Fox, United Artists, and Republic, not to mention his other studio work in-between. If anything, Dwan was perfectly capable of delivering solid small features with slight hints of finesse and enough entertainment value to warrant scholarly attention to the classic B-movie-making process.

Produced near the start of his long association with Fox Films, and subsequently 20th Century-Fox, Wicked (1931) has some interesting elements going for it: it's pre-Code, features women-in-prison scenes, and even has a little gangster violence. But in its brief 55 minutes, Dwan sets up a lot of potential that is rarely fulfilled. Margot Rande is imprisoned for accidentally shooting a policeman as they attempt to arrest her bank robber husband, giving birth to a daughter and forced to relinquish her to a children's home while completing her sentence. Upon her early release, she learns her raison d'ĂȘtre has been adopted by a wealthy childless couple, and stops at nothing to get her daughter back. Some superb camerawork excepted, this is a disappointment, made all the more unfortunate because there is so much potential here. The ending is in particular sloppily resolved, as if the studio was going to shut down production so a quick conclusion was shot so the film could be released on the bottom half of a double bill. The primary fault with the execution is, as with many Dwan films, in the casting. He proves time and time again that he was not at all an actor's director, and leading lady Elissa Landi, a pale imitation Ann Harding, is never reigned in from her over-the-top theatrics that sink any possible dramatic weight in her character's plight. One wonders what another actress could have done with this role, like Ann Dvorak or Loretta Young (who did play a similar role in 1934's Born to Be Bad). Landi is hopelessly inadequate, and Victor McLaglen as her knight in shining armor is little better. The proceedings are enlivened by Una Merkel, the bubbly Southern comic character actress who was always a welcome addition to many a low-budget studio film in the 1930s, as Margot's post-prison living companion. Merkel is second only to Joan Blondell in the comic blonde casting pool of the decade.

While Paris Sleeps (1932) is a prime pre-Code programmer, and perhaps the strongest Dwan title in the series thus far. It also should be noted that seeing this, Call Her Savage (1932), Hullabaloo (1933), and Wild Girl (1932) at recent MoMA screenings provides overwhelming evidence that the Fox Films library (before the merger with 20th Century) is one ripe for reappraisal. Their pre-Code titles are so different from Warner Brothers' gritty films of the same era, but no less surprising and entertaining. The film reunites Dwan with his Zaza (1923) child actress, Helen Mack, blossomed into a lovely twenty-something and delivering a quite compelling performance as Manon, a young French orphan whose mother has recently died and whose father died a war hero, or so she was told. However, the truth is less admirable: while he is a war hero, he accidentally killed a man in a bar fight, sentenced to a life imprisonment. Dwan opens the film with his escape from prison, and follows his journey through the back streets of Paris in search of his daughter, and when he finds her working in a dance hall frequented by "women without virtue" (pre-Code for prostitutes), he makes it his mission to do her one good deed to compensate for his absence in her life. In a swift 61 minutes, Dwan weaves a believable tale of patriarchal duty and self-sacrifice, with gripping suspense during the film's final race against time. In stark contrast to his earlier talkies (reviewed elsewhere), While Paris Sleeps has astonishing cinematography, and the set design, transforming a studio sound stage into the foggy alleys of Paris, seems to be the same used in Frank Borzage's 7th Heaven (1927). In a nice touch, all written dialogue is shown in French first, then fades into English. There is an organized crime subplot that allows for a rather horrific scene of a police informant thrown into a flaming furnace, kicking and screaming throughout. This gang also makes plans for Manon, namely shipping her to Brazil as part of the white slave trade. Yes, you heard that right, white slavery, one of many topics soon to be dispelled from Hollywood films after the Code. As in all Dwan films, the romance is stale and unconvincing, but Mack tries her darndest. She must surely be one of the most under-appreciated ingenues of the era. Victor McLaglen, three years before his Oscar win for a similar performance in John Ford's The Informer (1935), is a blustery likable presence, far better here than his previous work in Dwan's Wicked, and it's fun to see another Zaza co-star, Lucille La Verne, as the dance hall madam. One can only hope that 20th Century-Fox will start releasing the films of the original Fox Studio at some point as part of its movie-on-demand collection. There are bound to be more jewels like this one in the library.

A year before working with her again in One Mile from Heaven (see Dwan part 1), Dwan and Claire Trevor created slightly sophisticated diamond thieving fun in 15 Maiden Lane (1936). The duo would make 6 films together, and this is one of the best. Another brisk 20th Century-Fox quickie, this actually has enough charm and intrigue to pass for a studio A-picture, if it weren't for the 64 minute running time and the rather pat conclusion. The title is the address of the most lucrative jewelry retail building in New York, where an expensive diamond has gone missing. The prime suspects are Frank Peyton (suave Cesar Romero, who never looked better) and Jane Martin (Trevor), revealed to be professional jewel thieves who decide to work together fleecing the city's wealthy of their jewels. The twist is that Jane is actually the niece of an insurance agent, deciding to do some inside detective work of her own and trace the recent series of jewel thefts all the way to the top. Admittedly, some of the mystery becomes a tad convoluted, but it all comes together by the third act, taking some violent turns along the way. Trevor, resembling at times an earthier Lana Turner, never became a major leading lady, one of the great mysteries of classic Hollywood. She was never less than excellent in everything, coming to the larger attention of the public and the industry in William Wyler's Dead End (1937, for which she received an Oscar nod) and John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). But even those proposed star-making roles didn't make her hot box office. A new book, "Claire Trevor: Queen of the B's and Hollywood Film Noire" by Carolyn McGivern, will be released in July of this year, and about time, too. In Maiden Lane, she is sexy, smart, resourceful, and completely endearing. You will want to see everything she's ever done, a noble and worthwhile quest. Romero, remembered today mostly for his work on "Batman" and other late-period career moments, was at one point a reliable romantic lead in B-pictures, a fact vividly supported by his work here. What a delight to know now that he was batting for the man lovers' team. Marvelous support comes from slick Douglas Fowley as a devious P.I., Lloyd Nolan as the no-nonsense detective on the case, and Robert McWade as Jane's increasingly aggravated uncle. Another widely unavailable film worth tracking down.

Hiding behind the generic B-western title of Trail of the Vigilantes (1940) is one of the finest comic westerns Hollywood has ever made, as Dwan takes a tired story (cattle rustlers and a town's leader-turned-villain against outsider hero and comic relief assistants, with pretty girl love interest) and infuses it with inventive sight gags, snappy dialogue, and some of the best stunt work of the low-budget genre. According to Dwan, the film was written as a straight action picture, but he saw the cast he was handed and decided to have fun with it. Everyone in front of and behind the camera seems to be having a blast, and that sense of frivolity and creative excitement is vividly felt by the audience. Franchot Tone, the former Mr. Joan Crawford, is maybe the best he ever was as an investigative reporter who ventures to Peaceful Valley, a Western town with very little peace due to a rise in cattle rustling. Burly Broderick Crawford (always unconventionally sexy to these eyes) and irritating comic relief Andy Devine (afforded few good lines here) become his chums and bring him, as well as master of disguise Mischa Auer, to work on a local ranch. When Tone isn't fending off the advances of underage farmer's daughter Peggy Moran, he discovers the man in charge of protecting local farms from rustlers has a sinister past and may be the culprit behind the recent crime spree. Of course, he is played by reliable cad Warren William, so you know he's up to no good from his introduction. The final knock-down drag-out saloon brawl, followed by a roof-top chase and a violent fall to the death, is a stunner, and the clever comic elements enliven what would otherwise be a dull Saturday matinee western. This Universal programmer comes highly recommended, if you can find it anywhere.

Rendezvous with Annie (1946) was made as Dwan was funneling his way downwards in Hollywood studio prestige. Republic, a low-budget outfit best-known for its B-movie westerns, was apparently a place where Dwan felt comfortable and happy, as studio brass rarely interfered in his production process, and his films for the studio are among his most entertaining. The best way to describe Rendezvous is a mentally challenged Preston Sturges film, as it attempts to combine elements of Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (both 1944) but with none of the sly wit and attention to character that make Sturges' films classics. Here, Eddie Albert is a poor replacement for Eddie Bracken, as an American soldier stationed in London who goes AWOL on a three-day pass and secretly flies home to his small New Jersey hometown to surprise his wife (Faye Marlowe, in a strictly amateur hour performance) for their second anniversary. Nine months later, he returns home after being discharged and discovers his wife has given birth to a son...that the entire town thinks was fathered by another man. In order to gain an inheritance from his wacky uncle, Albert has to prove that he is the true father of his baby by tracking down anyone who can confirm his visit. The only problem: it was such a covert operation that turning up witnesses proves difficult. Considerably longer than Dwan's usual quickies, this is a painless comic misadventure helped by a very good supporting cast, including C. Aubrey Smith as a British aristocrat, Raymond Walburn as a slimy banker, William Frawley ("I Love Lucy") as a general who collects the autographs of every person he encounters, Phillip Reed and James Millican as Albert's fast-talking, quick-thinking Army buddies (a movie about them would have been better), and vivacious Joyce Compton (unforgettable as Dixie Belle Lee in 1937's The Awful Truth) as a nightclub photographer. A real casting coup appears in the form of Gail Patrick, sigh, Gail Patrick... 10 years previously, Patrick made her well-known mark as the devious sister to Carole Lombard in La Cava's My Man Godfrey (1936); the director cast her again the following year in another classics, Stage Door (1937). While her star never soared during her Hollywood career, her striking features and, sigh, that smooth, silky voice ensured her consistent work. She is a scene-stealer here as a nightclub singer aiding Albert in his mission, and has one heck of an introductory scene. Patrick would retire two years later, after working with Dwan again on The Inside Story (1948, to be covered later). The restricted budget shows most during scenes in Albert's hometown: Woodville looks nothing like a small contemporary town in New Jersey, or anywhere else for that matter, as it's obviously shot on the studio backlot so often used for Republic's quickie westerns.