Against All Flags (1952)

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I don’t like the cut of your sail!  In 1700 British officer Lt Brian Hawke (Errol Flynn) on the British ship Monsoon infiltrates a group of pirates led by Roc Brasiliano (Anthony Quinn) located on Libertatia on the coast of the island of Madagascar  He poses as a deserter and falls in love with pirate captain ‘Spitfire’ Stevens (Maureen O’Hara). He proves his worth and is aboard Brasiliano’s vessel when they loot a Moghul ship and kidnap a harem of women protected by their chaperone Molvina MacGregor (Mildred Natwick) who hides the identity of Princess Patma (Alice Kelley). Meanwhile, Hawke is gathering information through his romance with Spitfire to attack the pirate base …  You’re a real rooster, aren’t you!  Nobody is who they claim to be here in a movie that’s full of rousing action, furious innuendo and Taming of the Shrew-ishness. O’Sullivan is resplendent as the pirate queen and Flynn gets one of his last good action roles (and his final pirate part in Hollywood) although a life of excess had already taken a toll on his glorious looks. They have great fun knocking sparks off each other, particularly when he’s training her to be a lady and instructing her in etiquette. The moment when O’Hara, all decked out in her piratical duds, outbids Flynn for Kelley at a slave auction and says to Flynn, I think I prefer you as a bachelor is just a preview of coming attractions:  she then pulls back the girl’s veil, sees how beautiful her new possession is and observes to Flynn, Curse me if I can blame you too much! One for a queer film compilation for sure. Written by Aeneas MacKenzie as a vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks Jr. it was then rewritten by Joseph Hoffman, and directed for the most part by George Sherman but when Flynn broke his ankle production was postponed, Sherman moved on and Douglas Sirk took over a further ten days’ filming upon Flynn’s eventual return. It looks stunning thanks to Russell Metty and Hans Salter handles the boisterous score. Lambasted by the critics, this made a shedload of money in its time. When he comes back with blood on his hands then he can hoist his own black flag but not before!

Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952)

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This is a story about money … remember it! Ageing heir-less millionaire Samuel Fulton (Charles Coburn) wants to leave his fortune to the unsuspecting family of his first love Millicent Blaisdell but not before testing his prospective heirs by living with them under the guise of a poor boarder under the alias John Smith.  He finds history repeating itself when he leaves them an anonymous bequest and observes Millicent’s daughter Harriet (Lynn Bari) losing the run of herself keeping up with the town’s richies and urging her own daughter Millie (Piper Laurie) to wed the son (Skip Homeier) of a wealthy family instead of Dan (Rock Hudson) who works in her dad’s (Larry Gates) pharmacy while studying at night …  Hot diggity Millie, you’re the cat’s miaow!  Set in Tarrytown, New York at the end of the Twenties, this nostalgia-fest was one of several smalltown films made by Douglas Sirk and his first in glorious Technicolor.  Not quite a musical, it takes its song and dance cues from diegetic sources so we have singalongs courtesy of the wireless and a windup travelling pianola.  This has a sharp moral lesson under the fun and it’s the kids who are smarter than the parents – little Roberta (Gigi Perreau) is the one who knows the value of friendship and paints alongside ‘John Smith’ while he starts working as a soda jerk in the store.  Twenty-one year old James Dean makes his infamous debut as the kid ordering a super-complicated malt to which Coburn makes the disarming retort, Would you like to come in Wednesday for a fitting? Handsome William Reynolds as Howard, the son who gets a gambling habit, would make another notable appearance for Sirk in All That Heaven Allows along with There’s Always Tomorrow, while Hudson and Dean would both make another film together – the legendary Giant. Hudson of course became a star under Sirk’s direction in a handful of productions for Universal. Here he’s comfortable in a funny ensemble piece.  Adapted from a story by Eleanor H. (Pollyanna) Porter by Joseph Hoffman, this is an utter delight, camouflaging its social comment with an abundance of witty lines and smart playing. What else can you expect from the nouveau riche?

Lured (1947)

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Would it be against Anglo-American tradition to tell a girl when the next audition is?Sandra Carpenter (Lucille Ball) is a London-based dancer who is distraught to learn that her friend Lucy Barnard (Tanis Chandler) from the nightclub where she’s working has disappeared. She’s approached by Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), a Scotland Yard investigator who believes her friend has been murdered by a serial killer who uses personal ads to find his victims. The lure is poetry along the lines of Charles Baudelaire. Temple hatches a plan to catch the killer using Sandra as bait, and Sandra agrees to help. But complications arise when the mystery appears to be solved and Sandra becomes engaged to a nightclub owner and man about town Robert Fleming (George Sanders) with whom she’s already become acquainted and who shares his home with his business and legal partner Julian Wilde (Sir Cedric Harwicke) …  I’m not interested in references as much as character/I can see that for myself. Director Douglas Sirk commands this gamy mystery with verve, making a total entertainment from Leo Rosten’s screenplay, peopled with performers right in their characterful element delivering edgy lines with great wit. From the opening titles – a torch shining on the names – the mystery is driven with pace and style with running jokes (including a crossword filled in by H.R. Barrett, played by George Zucco) and enormous style.  Boris Karloff has a great supporting role as a formerly successful fashion designer living in a fantasy world while Sanders is suave as you like and Ball is … ballsy! Annette Warren, who dubs blonde club singer Ethelreda Leopold here, would also provides Ball’s singing voice in Fancy Pants and Sorrowful Jones. Gorgeously shot by Billy Daniels, this is a remake of a 1939 French film (Pieges) directed by Robert Siodmak. She’s won her spurs, she deserves to be happy

Thunder On The Hill (1951)

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You did not come here. You were led here by Our Lord. Sanctimonious Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is leading the team at the convent/hospital of Our Lady of Rheims, a hillside refuge for a community in Norfolk during a terrible flood. Her colleagues dislike her intensely – but Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) knows that she is motivated by guilt over the death by suicide of her sister. When Valerie Cairns (Ann Blyth, the wicked daughter from Mildred Pierce) arrives accompanied by the police it takes a while for the penny to drop as to why she’s rejecting Sister Mary’s kindness:  she’s a murderess en route to the gallows at prison in Norwich. She’s due to be hanged the following morning but the breaking of the dyke and the downing of telephone lines now mean her execution is delayed. She insists on her innocence and Mary believes her – because she knows what guilt really is. There are a number of people at the convent who are hiding guilt relating to the death by overdose of Valerie’s crippled composer brother including the wife (Anne Crawford) of the doctor on duty (Robert Douglas) who reacts with shock to a photograph of the murdered man. Her husband promptly sedates her.  As Sr Mary researches the newspapers and is given an unsigned letter by slow-witted handyman Willie (Michael Pate) that implicates a third party in the murder, Sr Mary determines to bring Valerie’s fiance Sidney (Philip Friend) from Norwich by boat with Willie.  The handyman destroys the boat so that Valerie cannot be taken to be hanged. The police sergeant is now going to charge Sr Mary with interfering in the course of justice and the guilty party is closing in on her while she is reprimanded by Mother Superior … Slickly told, atmospheric thriller directed by Douglas Sirk with an unexpected take on the melodrama combined with an Agatha Christie group of conventional characters hiding something nasty all gathered in the one building.  There’s a marvellous scene in a belltower when the murderer reveals themselves. The contrasting figures of the desperate and hysterical Blyth and calm but determined Colbert make this a fascinating spin on a crime thriller with a play on the concept of divine intervention which would also be pivotal in Sirk’s later Magnificent Obsession. An engaging, stylish tale adapted by Oscar Saul and Andrew Solt from Charlotte Hastings’ play Bonaventure, enhanced by some very fine performances and sharp dialogue particularly when it’s delivered by Connie Gilchrist as the acerbic cook Sister Josephine whose insistence on saving newspapers (preferably The Sunday Times) saves the day.

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

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The films of director Douglas Sirk were regarded as ‘women’s pictures’ and weren’t properly re-evaluated as satires of class until the late Sixties:  never mind that, when I was 13 and saw this on TV all I knew was it was one of the most spectacular movies I’d ever seen and Rock Hudson was a hunk. All true. Staid widowed Jane Wyman is wooed by the younger man who cuts those gorgeous birches in the garden and she’s never given him a second thought – until they strike up a conversation one day and this mother of two obnoxious college students finds herself being romanced. The vicious country club set don’t like it but she finds a new way of being, amongst him and his offbeat friends, who have to explain to her how war has affected men like him and getting back to the land and being true to yourself and not your twinset is actually a good idea. It’s Walden versus Eisenhower. All hell breaks loose when the kids find out and Jane is given a TV set to distract herself during the lonely Christmas vacation … Stunning exploration of womanhood by a director at the height of his powers with images you will never forget (by Russell Metty) of the changing seasons in the life of a woman who has to find her own way, for herself. Screenplay by Peggy Fenwick from a story by Edna Lee and Harry Lee and produced by Ross Hunter, who had put Hudson and Wyman together in the previous year’s Universal smash, Magnificent Obsession, with the same director. For that desert island.

Interlude (1957)

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What does anyone see in June Allyson? Goodness knows, but she was the go-to wife next door for the 1950s and Rossano Brazzi was the go-to exotic Romeo in any number of films featuring WASPy women looking for a bit of rumpy-pumpy away from home. James Cain’s story had already been adapted and filmed by John M.Stahl but here it’s German auteur Douglas Sirk on directing duties, returning to home turf, with Allyson as a reporter taking a job at an American cultural mission in Munich. She meets up with an American doctor, Morley, who is very keen on her – but not as keen as she is on the troubled symphony conductor who charms her and takes her on a spin in his sports car to Salzburg and then to his lake house … After spending the night, she finds out that he is married. He literally has a madwoman in the attic, as it were. With a change in cinematographer (William Daniels) and location, Sirk focuses almost entirely on the workings of desire in all his characters. Stahl’s melodramas were rich resources for Sirk’s particular avocations, as we have seen in Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life, but this operates in a different, more clearly musical mode, as you’d expect in a classical melodrama – with contributions from Frank Skinner and Henry Mancini. You will recognise one piece of music from two of his other films of the period:  how many times did he use it?! Candice Bergen’s mother Frances plays the disapproving co-worker and Marianne Koch does a fine job as the wronged and crazy wife. And, y’know, grudging kudos to Allyson, playing girlish at 40. Jane Eyre on Tour in Yerp.

Written on the Wind (1956)

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Thanks to UK’s Drama channel, Douglas Sirk’s cycle of 1950s American melodramas is being screened each Saturday (with commercial breaks, sadly) and the prints are pretty good!. This is the high point of the series, stylistically, thematically, dramatically. The cast is stunning, the music, sets, design and direction spectacular. If you need me to tell you that the staircase scene is a pinnacle of cinema then this is for you. A must-see classic.

Magnificent Obsession (1954)

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Magnificent indeed, this melodrama from German emigre director Douglas Sirk, adapted from the famous novel by Lloyd Douglas. It’s an instance of Technicolor kitsch glory that brought fame to Rock Hudson and remains an exemplar of the genre. The top talent from Universal-International were assembled and became a regular team for Sirk’s cycle of middle class hysteria.Amazing locations (principally around Big Bear Lake at San Bernardino National Forest), beautiful, colour coded costumes and interiors amplify the central premise which is of course ludicrous:  a selfish millionaire whose antics have caused the death of a local doctor himself returns to medical school to restore the sight of the man’s widow with whom he falls in love. Fabulous!

Imitation of Life (1959)

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This is a stunning film about American women, race, sexism, work, performance, relationships, family, mothers and daughters. It stars Lana Turner, lately the star of a huge scandal in which her lover, a gangster named Johnny Stompanato, was allegedly stabbed to death by her 14-year old daughter Cheryl (was it really her?!) and needing another big role to sustain a career that had begun in classic Hollywood style at Schwabs’ Drug Store, or so the myth would have it. The novel by Fannie Hurst was a bestseller that had already been adapted in 1934 and directed by John Stahl, starring Claudette Colbert. The role of Lora Meredith, the widowed (maybe) actress trying to make it in a coldwater flat with a tiny daughter, was perfectly inhabited by Turner. Her brassy look was hardening into something darker and the grasping ambitious matriarch that she becomes is not a huge leap for an empathetic audience. Two screenwriters were involved in the adaptation:  Eleanore Griffin, who had a long career, principally in originating screen stories. She would go on to adapt Hurst’s Back Street in a few years. Allan Scott had written some of the great musicals in the 30s – Follow the Fleet, Top Hat, Swing Time, Carefree, Shall We Dance… Their combined interpretations work amazingly well here. Both of them would die in 1995. The director was German emigre Douglas Sirk. He was reappraised as an auteur in the late 60s and his kitschy melodramas of the 50s were interpreted as analyses of society in the United States, distinguished by garish colours, stunning production design and coded drama. There are so many dramatic high points here it seems useless to enumerate them, but the performance by the great Mahalia Jackson is a personal favourite and Susan Kohner’s uneasy presence as the half-caste girl is perfectly matched by Sandra Dee’s sweetness. Juanita Moore is an ocean of decency as the help. It is too easy to put this down as a melodrama, but it really is one, in the original, political sense. Classic.