First to Fight (1967) Review

Director: Christian Nyby

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

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Loosely based on the real-life story of American Marine John Basilone, who became a U.S. war hero, First to Fight is a solid, if somewhat unremarkable, entry into the war genre. World War II is raging, and U.S. trooper Jack Connell (Chad Everett) is sent back to the United States to drum up support for buying war bonds after becoming a hero at the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific Theater. There are some similarities with other war flicks that have been made throughout the decades, but it still manages to be watchable.

The grenade-chucking battle scenes stick out in memory. The opening, nighttime firefight is especially fearsome. The battles have some careful choreography and are fairly violent for a 1960s movie. A few blood squibs are briefly visible during the hectic action sequences. The war zone takes up a great deal of the runtime in the first and third acts, with an okay romantic subplot occupying the middle act.

When the main character is on the home front, he spends most of his time romancing Peggy Sanford (Marilyn Devin). These scenes are not intolerable, but I think that most viewers would rather see what’s going on on the front lines. The movie masterpiece Casablanca (1942) ends up getting referenced quite a bit during this section of the picture. Hell, the characters even watch it in the theater. However, all of this just makes you want to view that film instead.

All in all, First to Fight is reasonable entertainment. I’m actually a bit surprised that it’s not remembered more fondly. The action scenes alone should’ve prevented this one from being almost completely forgotten. There’s one element to the work that I haven’t commented on yet, and that’s the presence of Gene Hackman as Tweed in one of his earliest roles. This flick was released the same year as his breakout film Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and it shows his potential to be a great movie star.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) Review

Director: Wallace Worsley

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 133 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Lon Chaney solidified his position as one of the greatest actors of the silent era with the 1923 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Set in fifteenth-century Paris, France, an ugly-looking hunchback living in Notre Dame cathedral named Quasimodo (Lon Chaney) finds himself wrapped up in a plot to start a revolt by the French underclass. This silent film was directed by Wallace Worsley, who also helmed the exceptional The Penalty (1920), the gangster drama that was Lon Chaney’s breakout motion picture.

This big-budget historical epic has production values that still impress. The sets made for the flick are absolutely incredible. There are a few I-wonder-how-they-did-that moments, such as when Quasimodo is clambering all around the exterior of Notre Dame. Chaney’s performance is mesmerizing. He was forty when The Hunchback of Notre Dame was released, but he has the physicality of someone half that age here. He truly was the Man of a Thousand Faces.

Chaney’s a sight to see, but the film around him isn’t always doing him favors. There are a lot of characters to keep track of here, and the hunchback of Notre Dame almost becomes a supporting character in his own movie. The plot of the flick is pretty typical silent-era melodrama. Remove Chaney and the sets, and nobody would remember this picture. Fortunately, those two things are present, making it a rather good production overall.

Okay, the story in the 1923 adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame isn’t its strong suit. Acting and spectacle are what it does best. Seeing Chaney fight a mob by dousing them in boiling lead is worth watching the film for. The movie’s politics are certainly undercooked (is it saying that battling against royalist oppression is a bad thing?), but Chaney is one of the all-time greats, so I’d say “watch it.”

My rating is 7 outta 10.

I Walk the Line (1970) Review

Director: John Frankenheimer

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Gregory Peck stars in a rural crime-drama with a soundtrack consisting of tracks from Johnny Cash? Yes, this film exists…and it’s not too bad either. In small-town Tennessee, Sheriff Tawes (Gregory Peck) falls in love and has an affair with Alma McCain (Tuesday Weld), the daughter of local illegal moonshiner Carl McCain (Ralph Meeker). Blood will be shed before this story is over.

Of course, the most famous element of this picture is its Johnny Cash soundtrack (“I Walk the Line” is unsurprisingly present). It’s not enough to make the movie worth watching by itself, but it does improve the scenes that it appears in. There isn’t much action here, but there is suspenseful excitement at the very end. This is far from Gregory Peck’s best role, but he’s fine in I Walk the Line.

Even though I Walk the Line is about the main character’s personal dilemma, it isn’t a particularly inspiring (for the lack of a better word) one. How about not having an affair, especially with a moonshiner’s kid? How about that, Mr. Peck? Think! Gregory’s character’s wife, Ellen Haney (Estelle Parsons), and his deputy, Hunnicutt (Charles Durning), probably end up suffering the most from his affair, even if both of their roles are pretty forgettable.

According to the IMDb Trivia section for this work, it is “[c]onsidered by many to be Peck’s worst film.” Ouch. Okay, I don’t think that it’s that terrible (haven’t these viewers seen Marooned [1969]?), but it doesn’t give you very many compelling reasons to set aside some time for it. I Walk the Line is watchable, despite being neither-here-nor-there in the recommendability department. Normally I’d say “Gregory Peck fans might enjoy it,” but, considering its reputation, I’ll just keep my mouth shut.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Where East Is East (1929) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 65 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Where East Is East is the last of the ten films that Lon Chaney starred in that were directed by Tod Browning. It is also Lon Chaney’s second-to-last silent movie (the final one being the now-mostly-lost Thunder [1929]). Set in Southeast Asia, Where East Is East is about animal trapper Tiger Haynes (Lon Chaney) reluctantly giving away the hand of his daughter – Toyo (Lupe Velez) – for marriage, but finding out that her fiancĂ© – Bobby Bailey (Lloyd Hughes) – may not be as faithful as he appears to be.

A silent melodrama through and through, I don’t think that this film does enough to separate itself from the rest of the bizarre lost triangle flicks Chaney did during his career. Sure, it has an exotic setting, but it doesn’t really have too many memorable set-pieces. Chaney does use a chair to handle a loose tiger in one scene, which is pretty cool, but, other than that, don’t go into this one expecting much action.

Chaney’s character’s relationship with his daughter is sort of creepy, perhaps intentionally so. They’re always hugging and kissing each other. I kind of doubt that people in the 1920s were constantly doing that, so it may have been a touch added by director Tod Browning to add some perversity to the mix. Also of note is an ape played by Charles Gemora. I mean, just look at this man’s filmography on IMDb! He must’ve been Hollywood’s go-to guy for playing gorillas on the Silver Screen. The dude even showed up in Island of Lost Souls (1932) as “Gorilla on Pier.”

Overall, this is an aggressively average outing for Lon Chaney. There are a few good moments (like the hunt in the opening scene), but it pales in comparison to the likes of The Penalty (1920) and West of Zanzibar (1928). It doesn’t have much to say (other than “don’t mess with Lon Chaney”…but you already knew that, right?), so I can’t really recommend it. There are worse movies out there, but a Chaney flick where he plays a vengeful animal trapper in Southeast Asia should’ve been so much better.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Wild at Heart (1990) Review

Director: David Lynch

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

Runtime: 125 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Wild at Heart is a crime-thriller from director David Lynch about two lovers – “Sailor” Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) – who find themselves on a road trip to Hell while trying to escape the latter’s mother, Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd). This is David Lynch we’re talking about here, so this is a deliberately weird work that won’t appeal to viewers looking for something – well – coherent. However, I love surrealism, so will Wild at Heart do the trick for me?

First of all, those expecting this to be Eraserhead: Road Trip! will be sorely disappointed. Yes, there are scenes in this flick with an oneiric feel to them, but I don’t think that the movie went far enough off the deep-end to be truly memorable. There’s this strange sense of unease throughout many sequences, but there isn’t a whole lot of dream logic. Some may be thrown off by the film’s odd sentimental streak and dark humor.

With allusions to everything from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to Elvis Presley, this picture’s approach can feel scattershot. Try something surreal, and, if that doesn’t work, try another surreal trick. Nicolas Cage’s hammy performance is amusing at first, but it’s not enough to sustain the two-hour runtime. Willem Dafoe (as killer Bobby Peru) is a highlight. Just look at that bastard’s moldy-mouthed grin beneath the bank-robbing stocking he’s wearing over his face! Terrifying, isn’t it?

There were times where I think I understood what David Lynch was going for here, but I just didn’t care enough to appreciate it. I totally dig movies that make you feel like you’ve stepped into somebody’s dream, but I couldn’t get on the same wavelength as this one. It’s a little repetitive and not quite surreal enough. Some plot threads don’t really go anywhere. I like the idea of this movie more than its actual execution.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

The McConnell Story (1955) Review

Director: Gordon Douglas

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Despite being released only two years after the end of the Korean War, The McConnell Story lacks the immediacy that it should have. The based-on-a-true-story plot is about American airman Joseph C. McConnell (Alan Ladd), who, after serving in World War II, becomes a jet fighter ace in the Korean War. It’s a promising idea for a movie, but it simply doesn’t live up to its potential.

This film has the squeaky-clean, white-bread aesthetics of your stereotypical 1950s Hollywood production. I wish I was joking about how the picture spends more time on the various abodes that McConnell and his wife, Pearl “Butch” Brown McConnell (June Allyson), venture through than on aerial warfare, but I’m not. Speaking of June Allyson, the already-married Alan Ladd reportedly fell in love with her during the filming of this work.

I would not recommend this flick if you’re just in it for the action. The World War II scene is reliant on stock footage, although the dogfights in the skies above Korea fare better. They’re extremely limited in number, but they don’t appear to use much, if any, pre-existing footage. A glance at Wikipedia reveals that actual aircraft were used for these sequences, which helps with the authenticity.

The McConnell Story isn’t bad when it’s airborne, but it spends so much time grounded that I can’t say “watch it.” It turns out to be just another one of those generic ’50s war films that do little to stand out from the crowd. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years, this one will become melded with The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) in my memory.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Tootsie (1982) Review

Director: Sydney Pollack

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 116 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

A down-on-his-luck actor named Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) decides to dress up as a woman to get a role on a television soap opera. This may be a silly cross-dressing comedy, but it has attracted a lot of attention from critics over the years. Not only was it nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture, the American Film Institute named it the sixty-ninth greatest American-made movie of all time in 2007 as part of their AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies – 10th Anniversary Edition retrospective.

Tootsie has proven immensely popular with actors over the years. In fact, the website TimeOut reported that this was actors’ favorite flick ever as part of a top one hundred countdown they did, where performers choose their most beloved motion pictures. It’s not hard at all to see why actors have latched onto this rom-com. It delves into the world of struggling stage and screen performers and sympathizes with their day-to-day “battles” to get roles. Dustin Hoffman also delivers an incredible performance here, completely disappearing into both Michael Dorsey and his female alter-ego Dorothy Michaels.

This is actually a very funny movie, as it tries to wring out every possible humorous situation a cross-dresser could find themselves in. It does feel a little long, in terms of runtime, for a comedy, though. Other very minor drawbacks include some stuck-in-the -1980s aesthetics (which really aren’t much of a big deal at all) and an ending that I wasn’t the biggest fan of.

Tootsie is an odd, yet important, lesson in empathy that feels just as relevant as ever. Okay, I don’t enjoy it quite as much as the critical establishment does, but it still makes me laugh frequently. Is this the definitive gender-bender comedy? I’m certainly not qualified to answer that question, but this work is clearly in the running for such a title. Bill Murray (as Jeff) does show up in this flick, but he wanted his name omitted from the opening credits to prevent the audience from thinking that this would be a Caddyshack (1980)-style movie.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

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.