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.

Big Fish (2003) Review

Director: Tim Burton

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Romance

Runtime: 125 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Big Fish doesn’t really look like your stereotypical Tim Burton film for the most part, but, if you look close enough, you can find his fingerprints. The story is about a dying old man, Edward Bloom (Albert Finney, and played by Ewan McGregor in the flashbacks), who recalls the events of his life in the form of fantastical tall tales. This creates conflict with his son, Will (Billy Crudup), who just wants to know what actually happened for once in his life.

This Southern Gothic-tinted movie is about people who choose to believe comforting lies over sober truths. The flick itself seems to come down on the side that the power of good storytelling should trump cold reality, something I can’t really get behind, but the feature is just so wonderful that I can’t hold this against it too much. Albert Finney’s character resembles a pathological liar, yet this is a motion picture you can’t turn away from.

I may not agree with the moral of the story, but Big Fish is beautifully-done and oh-so colorful. Between all of the memorable characters and whimsical locations is a film that consistently engages the viewer and tugs on the heartstrings. The finale is a real tearjerker. The inclusion of a Pearl Jam song (“Man of the Hour”) over the ending credits feels like a minor misstep, though. Maybe Danny Elfman’s Oscar-nominated musical score should’ve played over the end instead?

This feature defies the odds by having a somewhat episodic plot, but managing to never lose focus. It’s pretty Spielbergian in nature, so it probably shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the project was originally going to be helmed by Steven Spielberg before Tim Burton was put in the director’s chair. Overall, this fantasy-dramedy is excellent and highly moving, even if its message doesn’t resonate with me.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Blowing Wild (1953) Review

Director: Hugo Fregonese

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Romance, Western

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Could Blowing Wild be considered a western movie? It’s set in South America around the time of its release date (1953), but it still involves tough guys wearing cowboy hats wielding six-shooters in confrontations with outlaws on the fringes of civilization. I’d say it has enough western film tropes to qualify as one. The plot of this flick is about a group of oilmen – Jeff Dawson (Gary Cooper), Ward “Paco” Conway (Anthony Quinn), and Dutch Peterson (Ward Bond) – fighting for survival in bandit-infested territory in Latin America.

Blowing Wild features two of the greatest tough customers to ever grace the silver screen: Gary Cooper and Anthony Quinn. They’re in top form, as you would expect, and they’re backed up by an exquisite sense of atmosphere. At times it feels like an oil-oriented (rather than gold-oriented) version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Backing up all of this is a surprisingly good theme song: “Blowing Wild (The Ballad of Black Gold)” sung by Frankie Laine, with music by the great Dimitri Tiomkin.

This is an excellent look at adventurous, hardy men trying to make a living on the edge of human advancement. There’s lots of action (by 1950s cinema standards) to keep you on the edge of your seat. We’ve got gunfire, punches, explosions, and speeding vehicles. Blowing Wild also has a bit of a romantic triangle, but it’s nothing that can’t be solved with a little violence.

This is one of the best action-adventure movies of the 1950s. It has a unique plot and setting, with quite a bit of physicality and excitement. It takes the western genre and sets it in mid-twentieth-century South America, which succeeds like gangbusters. I find it shocking that this picture isn’t more popular. It does contains a brief moment of unintentional humor, though. When the opening credits end, a title proclaims that “All events, places and persons depicted in this film are fictional,” which is immediately followed by another title saying that this story is set in “SOUTH AMERICA.” I didn’t know that that continent was fictional.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Last Outpost (1935) Review

Directors: Charles Barton and Louis J. Gasnier

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

Runtime: 76 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Outside of Gunga Din (1939) and North by Northwest (1959), Cary Grant isn’t really known as an adventure hero, but he certainly fits that role in The Last Outpost, from relatively early in his career. The film concerns itself with the exploits of British officer Michael Andrews (Cary Grant) in the Middle East and North Africa during World War I. It’s not top-of-the-line, but it still makes for reasonably rousing escapism.

The first third of this flick deals with Grant’s character in Ottoman-held territory in the Middle East, while the middle act is more romance-heavy, as he wines and dines nurse Rosemary Haydon (Gertrude Michael) while in Egypt. The last third is the most action-packed, as Grant’s character is deployed to Sudan to help put down a rebellion there that’s sympathetic to the Central Powers. Each act has a personality of its own, but the film still manages to feel coherent.

One of the most memorable aspects of The Last Outpost is how stock-footage-intensive it is. There’s plenty of scenes borrowed from the documentary Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925) and the battle sequences in the third act are augmented by footage from The Four Feathers (1929) (according to the IMDb Trivia page for the movie). These scenes tend to stick out like a sore thumb and make the picture’s budget seem smaller than what it probably was.

Running only seventy-six minutes, this is an enjoyable war-time action-adventure story that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Cary Grant finds himself in some interesting predicaments, both on and off the battlefield, and the final third has enough combat to satisfy those looking for thrills. The plot synopsis on IMDb contains some spoilerish details, so, if you’re dead-set on watching this feature, I’d avoid reading it. It’s interesting to note that co-director Louis J. Gasnier’s next project would be Reefer Madness (1936).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Tell It to the Marines (1926) Review

Director: George W. Hill

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

Runtime: 103 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

While he’s probably more well-known these days for his more grotesque roles, Lon Chaney actually had his biggest box office hit with 1926’s Tell It to the Marines. In this military service comedy, a tougher-than-nails American Marine sergeant, O’Hara (Lon Chaney), promises to whip undisciplined recruit “Skeet” Burns (William Haines) into shape, as both pursue Navy nurse Norma Dale (Eleanor Boardman). This still-entertaining silent film has a little something for most cinemagoers.

As mentioned earlier, a significant portion of the picture revolves around a romantic triangle, as was common in Lon Chaney movies. Both Chaney and William Haines’ characters are yearning for Eleanor Boardman, but things get complicated when Haines gets in a brawl on a Pacific island over native girl Zaya (Carmel Myers). The whole flick’s a bit of a rom-com, and the humorous elements work effectively enough.

Tell It to the Marines really kicks it into gear during the last act, though, when the Marines are dispatched to China to rescue some nurses from marauding bandits. Big-budget spectacle takes over, and we get a nice action scene involving Chaney and Haines holding a bridge over a cliff against the Chinese warlord’s (Warner Oland) forces. The third act is easily the most memorable part of the film, with its derring-do and fireworks.

Tell It to the Marines was, according to the IMDb Trivia page for the feature, Lon Chaney’s favorite role. It’s not hard to see why. Acting without his usual make-up, Chaney really shines as a tough guy with a heart of gold. His performance led to him becoming the first movie star to become an honorary U.S. Marine. That’s high praise indeed! So, if you’re a Chaney fan, this one is required viewing.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Soldier in the Rain (1963) Review

Director: Ralph Nelson

Genre(s): Comedy, Romance

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Great Escape (1963) is, by far, the most famous Steve McQueen movie of 1963, but he released two other flicks – Soldier in the Rain and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) – that same year. The former of those two is a military service comedy about two American soldiers – Maxwell Slaughter (Jackie Gleason) and Eustis Clay (Steve McQueen) – wheeling and dealing, falling in love, and having each other’s backs in fights. This is a light comedy “from a simpler time,” I suppose.

The humor in Soldier in the Rain is generally gentle and fairly old-fashioned. Steve McQueen, generally known for his tough guy roles, is much lighter than usual here. The scenes on the military base successfully evoke a certain atmosphere of rigid army life meeting Jackie Gleason and McQueen’s characters’ loose, opportunity-hunting style. This feature barely has any plot at all, mostly just moving from one scenario to the next.

However, it’s not all just fun and games in Soldier in the Rain. The picture does introduce some more serious drama elements towards the end, and there is a prominent romantic subplot. This is certainly not an action movie, but it does contain an exceptional barroom brawl. This fist fight contains some striking choreography, and gives McQueen a chance to show off his inner action hero.

The friendship between the characters played by Gleason and McQueen is the centerpiece of this film. Other notable features of this comedy include its jazzy musical score from Henry Mancini, an early appearance from (pre-Batman) Adam West as “Inspecting Captain,” and an agreeable eighty-eight-minute runtime. Overall, this is a serviceable movie that provides a few laughs and some excitement from a bare-knuckle fight sequence.

My rating is 6 outta 10.