Friday, 27 April 2018

Bus Stop, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Leave Her to Heaven, Sanders of the River - old movies to avoid

I'm not sure whether Bus Stop (1956) is the worst film I've ever seen, but it's certainly on my list of the ten worst. It made a lot of money, and cemented Marilyn Monroe's status as a sex goddess who could also act (she made it right after a stint at the Actor's Studio in New York).  A virginal 21-year old cowboy, Beau, is on his way by bus from Wyoming to compete in a rodeo competition in Phoenix, when he falls for Chérie, a waitress/singer/whatever, who's slowly making her way across the country to Hollywood, stopping off to earn money by taking odd jobs along the way. Smitten, Beau wants to take Chérie back to Arizona with him, and, at one point, kidnaps her and forces her onto the bus heading home. Monroe isn't bad as Chérie, but Don Murray's Beau is one of the most annoying, stupid, noisy, charmless, childish, moronic characters ever to have appeared on the Big Screen...

...I don't know whether we're supposed to smile indulgently at his disgustingly selfish, antisocial behaviour, but I would be surprised if any adult could suffer through five minutes of Murray's execrable performance without wishing someone - anyone - would grab a shotgun and blow his head off just to shut him up. It was billed as a romantic comedy - but there isn't a single laugh in it (I forced myself to watch every damned minute of the thing), and the lack of sexual chemistry between the two leads is embarrassingly evident: this guy's acting opposite Marilyn Monroe at her most gaudily gorgeous, and he can't even manage to make us believe he fancies her? Avoid at all costs, even if it means faking a heart attack.

True Confession is a 1937 screwball comedy starring Fred McMurray as a penniless, charmless, stiff-necked young lawyer who can't stand liars, and won't defend anyone he believes to be guilty. We're asked to believe that he chose to marry ditzy Carole Lombard, an unsuccessful romance writer who happens to be an inveterate liar. I gave up after a mirthless half hour spent wondering how an actress who had been so funny in the previous year's My Man Godfrey, and even better in Nothing Sacred, the film before this one, could give such a truly rotten performance.  It was hard to know which was more maddening - her ghastly, high-pitched voice or Fred McMurray's irritating moustache. What an absolute turkey!

Leave Her to Heaven is a 1945 film noir, which did well with critics and audiences. It's one of Martin Scorsese's favourite films. The story is intriguing: a novelist marries a beautiful woman, who turns out to be a narcissistic psychopath willing to destroy anyone who threatens to divert her husband's attention from her. *SPOILER ALERT* In a genuinely chilling scene, she deliberately allows her husband's paralysed brother to drown in a lake, and then kills their unborn child - the "little beast" as she refers to it - by staging an accident. Later, realising she has alienated her husband forever, she commits suicide, making it look like murder, and fingering her adoptive sister for it. Great stuff! And yet it left me cold. Four reasons, I think - first, it's shot in the sort of eye-wateringly bright technicolour more suited to MGM musicals than twisted noir tales. Second, almost all of it takes place outdoors, in bright sunlight, amid ravishingly beautiful, rugged scenery - very un-noir. Cornel Wilde was an okay actor, but he's just too lightweight for this role. I generally enjoy Gene Tierney's acting, but, while she makes a valiant stab at conveying the twisted depths of her character's twisted psyche, she never really convinces. Shame, because this should have been a classic of the genre. Vincent Price, as Tierney's ruthlessly discarded fiancée, is better than either of the leads.

Sanders of the River (1935) was a British film, based on an Edgar Wallace bestseller, starring Paul Robeson as an African chief and Leslie Banks as "Lord Sandi", a British colonial administrator who governs the natives as if he were a stern but kindly headmaster in charge of a school filled with huge, rambunctious, untrustworthy ten years olds. I hate to sound like a Guardian reader, and I'm bored with the habitual disparagement of British colonial rule, but even I had to watch much of the it through splayed fingers, sphincter muscles clenched in embarrassment. Jomo Kenyatta was one of the extras - one imagines this played a part in shaping his attitude to the British. Robeson was so appalled by the finished result, he tried to buy up all prints of the film in order to destroy them. Can't really blame him.

Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) was a 20s-set George Roy Hill musical comedy-romance starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing and James Fox. It was a hit. God knows why. I hated every minute of it (apart from Beatrice Lillie as a white slaver - she's funny). As is often the case, Miss Andrews' relentless twinkly-eyed pertness made me want to push her face in, while I kept wishing someone would stage an intervention to save James Fox from further humiliation. It's all just too bright and frenetic and happy and loud and BIG and I can only take so much of that sort of thing (usually about five minutes) - I've never been much of a one for jolly parties. I enjoy some early '60s musicals - e.g. My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, West Side Story - but I can't name a single one released between 1966 and the end of that decade (and there were a lot of the damn things) that I enjoyed or have any desire to see. Am I missing any joyous classics?

The odd thing about my vintage movie-fest (I've watched over 200 in the past six months) is how few real stinkers there have been, and how many genuine gems I've come across. Granted, I've chosen what to watch with the aid of a number of guides, and I've kept away from obvious stinkers (I'm not a fan of camp classics, mediocre time-fillers or hilariously bad movies). Nevertheless, the proportion of the 200 old movies I've recently seen for the first time that I would rank somewhere between "very good" and "excellent" is truly remarkable. The real mystery about the old studio system is not how it managed to produce so many poor films, but how it managed to produce so many great ones.


  1. Very much enjoy your posts about vintage films. Thanks.

    Poor old Don Murray. By the way, he was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar and a Bafta for "Bus Stop". You wonder what these "award" juries are all about?

    He reappeared in the 2017 version of "Twin Peaks" as the head of the insurance company. The only reason I recognised him was a prominently displayed poster of "Bus Stop" hanging behind his desk.

    1. A Bafta? That's surprising - I'd assumed it was one of those films that would only have appealed to American audiences. Damn thing cost $2.2m to make, and raked in $7.27m at the box office - that's what I can't get my head around. Maybe that's what having Marilyn Monroe wandering around half-nekkid buys you.

      I had no idea the old guy in Twin Peaks was Don Murray - he was good in it! He's 88. I now feel guilty about saying mean things about him.