The Buccaneer (1958) Review

Director: Anthony Quinn

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 119 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

During the War of 1812, pirate leader Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner) has to choose sides from between the United States and Great Britain in fighting near New Orleans. Anthony Quinn is best known as an actor, but this work finds him in the director’s chair. This is actually a remake of The Buccaneer (1938). Unfortunately, neither film is any good.

This is loosely based on a true story (Jean Lafitte was an actual high-seas brigand who became involved in the War of 1812), and Andrew Jackson (Charlton Heston) makes several appearances. There’s not really much worth reporting on the action front, as it’s pretty mediocre throughout. The movie contains a reenactment of the Battle of New Orleans, but don’t get your hopes up. It feels limited in scale and low in intensity. There are some nice pyrotechnics involving British rocket artillery, though.

The Buccaneer never feels all that authentic, with the whole production looking stagebound. A forgettable and undercooked romantic subplot turns out to be pretty important to the picture, with this melodramatic element dragging out the flick’s runtime, even after the Battle of New Orleans is over. The overall feature also feels a little too cutesy to be considered a hard-boiled war film.

So what goes right? Well, Elmer Bernstein’s musical score is quite good. It’s probably the best part of the whole thing. Sorry, Anthony Quinn, this one’s a dud. I’ve seen worse, but I still can’t recommend it. Sure, it reunited Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner after The Ten Commandments (1956), but that’s not enough for me to enjoy it. If you do happen to watch this misfire, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for Woody Strode, playing pirate Toro.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

His Girl Friday (1940) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Romance

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) tries to win back his reporter ex-wife, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), by having them cover a murder case together. When one thinks of screwball comedies with lots of rapid-fire, fast-paced dialogue, His Girl Friday is what they think of. According to the Trivia section for this movie on IMDb, the rate of dialogue for a normal film is about 90 words per minute, while this picture attacks you with about 240 words per minutes. Yowza!

Unfortunately, this rom-com isn’t as funny as the earlier collaboration between director Howard Hawks and actor Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby (1938). I suppose that if you think fast-talking 1940s wordplay is inherently funny, you’ll have a field day, but I was less amused. The best joke is probably the one where Grant describes how boring the character of Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) is by name-dropping a certain actor, which was supposedly an ad-lib by Grant (it almost made me do a double-take at the television set).

I did not find His Girl Friday to be a compellingly put-together film. It sometimes comes across as repetitive, and occasionally it feels like the two major plot threads – that of Cary Grant trying to win back Rosalind Russell and the murder case coverage – don’t come together seamlessly. Some sequences heavily focus on the Grant-Russell relationship, while others heavily deal with the attempt to stop an execution from taking place. The pace just isn’t as fast as the dialogue.

Overall, I was just left with a “meh” feeling after watching this classic. Perhaps I just should’ve watched Bringing Up Baby again. Anyway, it feels longer than its runtime would indicate and it’s rather talky (although that’s expected). I’d be dishonest if I said that it was bad, but I was largely indifferent to the somewhat forgettable flick being reviewed here. You could do worse, but you could also do better.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

China Sky (1945) Review

Director: Ray Enright

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 78 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Of the innumerable war-time propaganda movies that Hollywood cranked out during World War II, 1945’s China Sky must be one of the lesser ones. One of the intentions of this picture was to foster a friendship between the American and Chinese peoples in the face of Japanese aggression, but that message is overshadowed by a soap opera of plot. You see, Dr. Gray Thompson (Randolph Scott) is aiding a remote Chinese village during the Second World War with its medical needs, when a romantic triangle develops between him, his colleague Dr. Sara Durand (Ruth Warrick), and his wife Louise Thompson (Ellen Drew).

There’s a good story tying to get out of China Sky, but the melodramatic romance does it no favors. Rather than focus on the nitty-gritty of warfare in the Chinese countryside, this work is more concerned with Ellen Drew’s character’s jealousy of her husband working closely with a female coworker. The end result is a dull film with a largely non-combat-related plot that I didn’t care how it resolved.

Fortunately, Anthony Quinn arrives, playing Chinese guerrilla leader Chen-Ta, which brightens things up (yes, Quinn plays a Chinese person in this feature…it’s one of those kind of movies). There is some occasional action, and the war-related part of the story is concluded by a firefight in the streets of a Chinese town. Even Randolph Scott’s Dr. Thompson gets in on the action, mowing down a few Japanese soldiers with a Thompson submachine gun. He just loves healing and killing people.

China Sky is a relatively short flick, but it is not a memorable one. I was pretty checked-out for several scenes in the middle. Even the movie’s star, Randolph Scott, wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it, with Wikipedia currently saying that he found it “disappointing.” I suppose it had good intentions, but the outcome of the picture was somewhat boring. China (1943) is a far better World War II film with the word “China” in the title.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) Review

Director: Robert Mulligan

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Love with the Proper Stranger was just one of three movies starring Steve McQueen to be released in 1963, and it’s the weakest of the trio. It also just so happens to be the second McQueen film to have both the words “Love” and “Stranger” in the title (the other being Never Love a Stranger [1958]). Anyway, the picture that this review concerns is about aspiring musician Rocky Papasano (Steve McQueen), who is confronted by a woman named Angie Rossini (Natalie Wood) who says that she’s carrying their child.

Maybe this just isn’t my type of movie, but I found it to be a bore and a chore to get through. Love with the Proper Stranger toys with some interesting topics, like some moral issues (that I won’t spoil here) and the importance of asserting one’s individuality, but it sinks into a mire of talkiness. I would also fault it for having a false climax or two.

“I don’t care what happens to these people” (referred to as the Eight Deadly Words by the website TV Tropes) is a saying that can stop a film dead in its tracks. This was the reaction that I had to this feature. For most of the runtime, I was pretty apathetic to the outcome of the plot. Like any bad flick, I just wanted the whole thing to end (at 102 minutes, it certainly could’ve been worse, though).

In my opinion, the Elmer Bernstein musical score is just about the only thing to go right in Love with the Proper Stranger. The critics thought differently at the time, and it was nominated for five Academy Awards (although it didn’t win any). I guess I’m in the minority on this call. I find little redeeming value here, so I’d say that you can safely skip this one unless you’re a Steve McQueen completionist.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

Bringing Up Baby (1938) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Comedy, Romance

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The “screwball comedy” subgenre, rather than referring to just any comedy about silly characters, is actually something a bit more specific. It was actually a popular style of romantic comedy in the 1930s and 1940s that focused on mismatched partners who engage in a battle of the sexes. One of the most famous examples of this subgenre is, of course, Bringing Up Baby, about stuffy paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) who finds himself caught up in a series of misadventures with ditzy heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn).

For a movie released all the way back in 1938, this is a generally fast-paced work. The way that the two main characters find themselves in a constantly escalating parade of comic mishaps feels somewhat modern. This zippy and zany rom-com will make you laugh. It’s no surprise that this is usually considered one of the best screwball comedies of all time. However, the true scene-stealer of the flick is Baby – Katharine Hepburn’s character’s pet leopard.

Bringing Up Baby is, indeed, a winner, but it is not without a few faults. Hepburn’s woefully incompetent character is a bit grating at first, which briefly made me worry about the picture I was about to watch. One character goes through a change-of-heart at the end that wasn’t completely convincing. While the feature handles the compounding troubles that the characters face admirably, it does feel like a tad much after a while, especially during the jail sequence.

Directed by the versatile Howard Hawks (yes, the man who did Scarface [1932] helmed this project), this is a remarkably lighthearted and entertaining movie. It could be considered one of the building blocks of the modern rom-com, although it still holds up on its own. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn fans need to view it, but the real reason to watch it might be for the animals.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Fighting Caravans (1931) Review

Directors: Otto Brower and David Burton

Genre(s): Adventure, Romance, Western

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Fighting Caravans is an early sound western that stars the great Gary Cooper. To be frank, it’s nothing that special. Clint Belmet (Gary Cooper) is a Wild West scout who pretends to be married to lone Frenchwoman Felice (Lili Damita) on a covered wagon caravan headed to California. Of course, the journey will be perilous (those Native Americans aren’t going to give up their land without a fight), and Clint and Felice just might fall in love for real.

This flick is decidedly an old-timey affair. There are times when it feels creaky, even by the standards of the time. The comic relief, provided by drunken mountain men Bill Jackson (Ernest Torrence) and Jim Bridger (Tully Marshall), will probably provoke as many eye-rolls as actual laughs. The action scenes, such as a large barroom brawl and a battle at a river crossing with some Native Americans, feel somewhat clunky, but they’re alright, I suppose.

The movie is not particularly friendly to the indigenous populations of North America, who’re treated as faceless baddies to be gunned down. The “i-word” (the one with a “j” in the middle) gets thrown around incessantly. This contributes to the Pre-Code nature of film, since this picture was released prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code. Other Pre-Code content includes Gary Cooper’s character trying to bed Lili Damita’s character as part of their husband-wife act.

If you’re going to watch Fighting Caravans, please keep in mind its 1931 release date. Cooper and Damita (who’s probably better known as being the wife of Errol Flynn for a while) can’t really rescue this oldie. That being said, it looks like it had a decent-sized budget and there is some action to be found here. The feature was quickly remade as Wagon Wheels (1934) with Randolph Scott in the the Cooper role.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965) Review

Director: Robert Mulligan

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Opinions vary on the Steve McQueen drama Baby the Rain Must Fall, but you can put me down in the “hated it” category. The plot of this sleep-inducing film is about impulsive, down-on-his-luck rockabilly singer Henry Thomas (Steve McQueen) getting out of prison to meet his wife, Georgette Thomas (Lee Remick), and his daughter, Margaret Rose (Kimberly Block), in rural Texas. I suppose that this flick is supposed to be an existential “mood piece,” but it didn’t make me feel anything other than the minutes ticking away.

The thing about Baby the Rain Must Fall is just that it’s so boring. Some reviewers have pointed out that it’s depressing, too, but I have no problems with a downer of a movie if it engages the emotions. This one doesn’t. There’s nothing wrong with the picture’s performances, but the end product meanders around aimlessly. Eventually, the feature decides to call it quits and ends.

The film in question was based on the 1954 play The Traveling Lady, and, to its credit, it doesn’t feel like it was based off of something as confining as a work of theater. Also, we need to talk about Steve McQueen’s lip-syncing during the musical numbers. It’s pretty atrocious, and probably would’ve been laughable in a less dour movie. The song with the same title as the movie, written by Elmer Bernstein and sung by Glenn Yarbrough, was a commercial success, though, reaching number twelve on the Billboard Top 100 and number two on the easy listening charts.

Baby the Rain Must Fall is tedious and uneventful more than anything else. Obviously, this is not one for fans of McQueen’s most action-oriented side (although there is a brief fight involving his character). Instead, it will probably only appeal to those looking for an ultra-low-key slice-of-rural-life drama. There’s an audience for this sort of thing, but it certainly isn’t me.

My rating is 3 outta 10.

The Honeymoon Machine (1961) Review

Director: Richard Thorpe

Genre(s): Comedy, Romance

Runtime: 87 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the few light comedies that actor Steve McQueen did during his relatively short career was The Honeymoon Machine. According to Wikipedia, Cary Grant was actually the first choice for the McQueen role, but he turned it down. In this film, a sailor in the U.S. Navy, Ferguson “Fergie” Howard (Steve McQueen), leads an attempt to use a top-secret supercomputer to make a financial killing at a roulette table in a Venetian casino.

This movie is pretty quaint nowadays. It’s somewhat amusing to see the characters obsessed with a massive, clunky, primitive-looking computer that they can’t even bring ashore (they communicate with it via signal lamp). Now, we have gadgets that could out-think that behemoth of a device that can fit in our pockets. Technology marches on. Overall, the picture sort of resembles an actionless version of Kelly’s Heroes (1970), with American military personnel trying to make a quick buck under the noses of their superiors.

The Honeymoon Machine is based on the 1959 play The Golden Fleecing. This is not hard to believe, considering the confined nature of the flick. There’s a few scenes at the beginning set aboard the naval ship that McQueen’s character is assigned to, but most of the runtime is spent in a couple of hotel rooms and the casino floor. Fortunately, these are pretty luxurious hotel rooms, so it gives the audience some eye candy. To complicate the plot, the main character falls in love with Julie Fitch (Brigid Bazlen), the daughter of Admiral Fitch (Dean Jagger), his commanding officer.

This rom-com is a hard one to have strong feelings about. It’s short (at 87 minutes long), so it doesn’t exactly waste your time, but it’s so lightweight that it doesn’t really offer anything new (well, other than fancy computers for 1961 audiences). The humor isn’t particularly appealing. According to the IMDb Trivia page for this picture, Steve McQueen left the first public screening of it early and swore to never again work for MGM.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Espionage Agent (1939) Review

Director: Lloyd Bacon

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, Thriller, War

Runtime: 83 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Espionage Agent was among the first American movies to warn the U.S. populace of the dangers posed by the Nazi regime in Germany. In fact, it was released in September 1939, the same month that World War II broke out. The plot’s about an American diplomat in Morocco – Barry Corvall (Joel McCrea) – who falls in love with a Nazi spy – Brenda Ballard (Brenda Marshall) – in the days leading up to the Second World War.

Unfortunately, this film doesn’t offer much in the way of excitement. The most engaging part of the feature is the presumably somewhat fictionalized opening montage of foreign sabotage in the United States prior to that nation’s entry into World War I (the 1916 Black Tom explosion is mentioned). Yup, the best sequence is the one at the beginning of the flick. After that, we get a car wreck and a pistol-whipping, but the action is severely lacking.

Espionage Agent was made to brace the United States against the wave of infiltration of the country by agents of totalitarian governments (like the Nazi and Soviet ones) that was going to take place. It’s an intriguingly political movie, even if it avoids pointing fingers too blatantly (the swastikas on the Nazi troops’ armbands are covered up). Its warnings seem to come from a place of encouraging isolationism, rather than international cooperation, though.

Sometimes this picture feels like a recruitment ad for the U.S. State Department, but that’s okay. The real problems here are its anticlimactic ending and leisurely pacing. It means well, but the budget just isn’t there. It would be interesting to see a remake related to the information war being waged on free nations by the dictatorships of the world currently being waged.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Souls at Sea (1937) Review

Director: Henry Hathaway

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1937 adventure-drama Souls at Sea teams up Gary Cooper and George Raft, two of the biggest tough guy actors of the time period. The story’s hard to describe without going into spoilers, but I’ll give it my best shot. In the 1840s, two sailors crossing the Atlantic Ocean – Michael “Nuggin” Taylor (Gary Cooper) and Powdah (George Raft) – find themselves wrapped up in a plot involving slave smuggling out of Africa.

Souls at Sea promises an exciting movie, but it easily gets sidetracked by two romantic subplots. These love scenes don’t offer much different from what was typical at the time. The love-dovey stuff threatens to consume the entire picture, so much so that the action finale seems to come out of nowhere when it arrives. However, the climax does offer some entertainment value.

The grand finale rescues the film, although the special effects are a mixed bag. Some of the destruction looks so real that you don’t stop and think about it as visual effects, while those transparent silhouettes of people running in front of fire and explosions aren’t exactly convincing. The ending also gives Gary Cooper a chance to show off a surprisingly dark side of him that we usually don’t see.

This feature has some interesting ideas, but its execution is only so-so. For much of the runtime, it has routine romance on its mind, when it should be focused on high-seas thrills. It’s an okay movie, despite a few slow spots. It should be mentioned that this flick’s attitude towards African slavery has aged better than some of the other films from around the same time – like Gone with the Wind (1939) or Santa Fe Trail (1940).

My rating is 6 outta 10.