Third Finger, Left Hand (1940)
Magazine editor Margot Sherwood Merrick (Myrna Loy) invents a husband in order to hold onto her job, a position that she knows her lecherous publisher’s jealous wife would never allow her to occupy if Margot weren’t a married woman. A chance encounter with artist Jeff Thompson (Mervyn Douglas) leads to romance, but the straight-laced Thompson walks out in disgust when he discovers – as he thinks – that Margot is married. Hurt but unable to forget, Thompson begins to investigate the mysteriously absent “Merrick”, and upon proving to his own satisfaction that there is no such person, he punishes Margot for her deception by publicly announcing himself to be Merrick. As circumstances grow increasingly complicated, Margot tries to rid herself of her “husband”, only to realise that she cannot do it without a divorce – and that the only way she can divorce him is to marry him in the first place… Third Finger, Left Hand is a let-down. After starting out looking like a seriously-intentioned albeit comedic examination of the difficulties of career women during the forties, it ends up in blithe agreement with the male philosophy that Margot denounces so scornfully at the outset, that “Single woman have no reason to be in the workplace, except as a way of attracting men”: after putting herself through hoops in order to hold onto her career, Margot ends up tossing it all away and pursuing Thompson literally across the country, apparently forgetting that she has a career at all. Moreover, the puritanical and smugly superior Thompson is, frankly, rather unlikeable; as so often in these kind of movies, the second male lead – Lee Bowman as company lawyer Phillip Booth – seems a much more attractive prospect, yet is dismissed without a second thought. Still, the film very nearly redeems itself with two late sequences. The first is when, after a Niagara Falls wedding, Margot and Jeff encounter friends from his home town of Wapakoneta, Ohio – and Margot exacts full revenge on her “husband” by posing as a slang-slinging, gum-snapping Brooklynite. (One does wonder where the refined and aristocratic Margot learnt such language.) The second comes when Margot and Jeff are on their way to Reno, Phillip along to negotiate the settlement (and to marry Margot, so he hopes). Desperate to stall, Jeff inquires of Sam (Ernest Whitman), the conductor, if there might by another lawyer on board, only to learn that Sam himself is studying law by correspondence – and that, on the basis of his time-consuming obfusculation of Phillip, he has the makings of a very excellent lawyer, too. The funny and uncondescending use of a black character in such a role in a film of this vintage (and from this studio) is unexpected and refreshing.
13 Hours By Air (1936)
On a New York – San Francisco flight, substitute pilot Jack Gordon (Fred MacMurray) develops a fixation on passenger Felice Rollins (Joan Bennett) – even though he thinks she is the female member of a gang of jewel thieves. In fact Felice is an heiress in her own right, rushing to San Francisco to stop her west-bound kid sister marrying a Russian lounge lizard. However, there is a crook on board: cop-killer Curtis Palmer (Alan Baxter), who is pursued by undercover agent “Doctor” James Evarts (Brian Donleavy). When Gordon is forced by a snowstorm to put the plane down in the foothills of the Rockies, a flurry of gun-play leaves both Evarts and co-pilot Freddie Scott (John Howard) severely wounded, while Gordon finds himself held at gun-point, forced to fly to Mexico—at least until some unlikely passengers intervene… 13 Hours By Air is almost a disaster film – ALMOST – but boy, it takes its own sweet time getting there. The first two-thirds of the film are bad comedy, dominated by Gordon and his embarrassing romantic past catching up with him every time he tries to make time with Felice, and by the formal Odious Comic Relief, obnoxious brat Waldemar Pitt III (Benny Bartlett) and his hysterical governess, Miss Harkins (Zasu Pitts). However, once the plane hits bad weather and Gordon is forced to put down in the snow-bound wilderness, things take a turn for the serious, and the better. For such an obscure little drama, this is a film with a surprisingly impressive pedigree, with Mitchell Leisen directing and, besides those already named, Ruth Donnelly, Fred Keating, Dean Jagger and Jack Mulhall in supporting roles. Ultimately, however, this is a film most interesting in its minutiae. We must realise, for instance, that the film’s title is the airline’s boasting slogan: it only takes thirteen hours to fly from coast to coast. Meanwhile, it is the non-American passenger who shocks everyone by carrying a gun—which is disposed of by opening a door and tossing it out while in flight. Amusingly these days, the airline itself is “United Airlines”—so perhaps the combination of guns on board, pilot bribery, unrestrained children, fist-fights in the aisle, smashed windows and forced landings isn’t so surprising after all. Disaster-movie-wise, we can only grin knowingly when the plane’s single radio gets smashed, and when the film’s climax finds Felice Rollins occupying the co-pilot’s seat while Jack Gordon flies the plane.
The Three Musketeers (1933, 12 episodes)
In the desert of Algiers, a troop of soldiers is under attack by the forces of a mysterious individual known as “El Shaitan”, who is leading an Arab revolt against the Foreign Legion. The lives of the last three men, Clancy (Jack Mulhall), Renard (Raymond Hatton) and Schmidt (Francis X. Bushman Jr), are saved when Lt Tom Wayne (John Wayne), from the American embassy in Paris, fires upon the attacking Arabs from his plane. Clancy explains that they were trying to stop a caravan that was running guns. The three grateful soldiers laugh that they are “the Three Musketeers” and Tom their D’Artagnon; the four swear eternal friendship. Tom then travels on to visit his sweetheart, Elaine Corday (Ruth Hall), and her brother, Armand (Creighton Chaney). Armand, however, has a deadly secret: he has been blackmailed into helping El Shaitan, and was with the caravan. El Shaitan declares Tom an enemy, and orders Armand to use him and his embassy connections to bring another shipment of arms into the country. Armand does so, but the ruse is discovered; and Tom, in Paris, finds himself accused as a gun-runner. Escaping back to North Africa, Tom gets the truth out of Armand, who is then killed by El Shaitan. Tom is found standing over the body, and is soon wanted for both gun-running and murder… The opening credits of this serial insist that it is “a modern version of the famous story”, but any resemblance between this serial and M. Dumas’ novel is, as they say, entirely coincidental. You can also forget anything you ever heard about the iron discipline of the Foreign Legion: when they aren’t either breaking into their CO’s office, or breaking their pal Tom out of military prison, these Three Musketeers spend most of their time in town, eating and drinking and – [*shudder*] – singing in taverns, and brawling in the street; they get positively indignant when asked to perform any actual, you know, duties. The main problem with The Three Musketeers is that is never lives up to its exciting and quite complex first episode, but devolves into repetitive scenes of riding back and forth across the desert, and white people sneaking around dressed up as “Arabs”. Actually, this latter aspect is one of this serial’s more pleasing absurdities, particularly when Tom Wayne, a foot taller than anyone else, and with his military boots and his tie showing, is supposed to be impenetrably disguised, to the point where he can infiltrate the band of Arab rebels without being detected. (Of course, it helps that, although they know Tom is onto them, the rebels never change their password!) At this point in his career, John Wayne is still incredibly awkward, far more at home in his action scenes than in those with dialogue. Ruth Hall is an adequate heroine, mercifully the dashing-across-the-desert kind, rather than the stand-around-screaming kind. (She attempts a French accent for about five minutes during the first episode, then forgets about it.) Lon Chaney Jr, still billed as “Creighton”, gives one of his best early performances as the tormented Armand. Noah Beery Jr also shows up for just long enough to get shot in the back; while that’s legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt under the mask as “El Shaitan” (although it isn’t his voice).
Things I Learned From Watching This SerialTM: Every single Arab in the world is called El Something-or-other.
Time Bomb [aka Terror On A Train] (1953)
A young man slips off a freight train carrying a load of armed mines from their construction depot to a naval base at Portsmouth. He is caught crossing the railway yards but in the ensuing scuffle drops the bag he was carrying, which is full of wires, detonators and tools. The railway police alert their superiors, with Railway Superintendent Jim Warrilow (Maurice Denham) put in charge of the operation. Warrilow seeks out Canadian UXB expert Peter Lyncort (Glenn Ford), who has been living in England since the war, and persuades him to undertake the job of finding and disarming the bomb. The train carrying the mines has been shunted off the main line and into as quiet a depot as can be found; and while the police set about evacuating the surrounding area, Lyncort begins a nerve-wracking race against time to find the explosive device—which could be inside any one of dozens of mines… Ah, now—this one I was really disappointed in, which I must say is sold very misleadingly as being about “a bomb planted on a train”. So it is—they just fail to mention that the train is stationary in a yard, and that the authorities are so unwontedly efficient, hardly anyone is ever in danger except name star Glenn Ford…as if. The other odd thing about this film is that we never really get at the bomber’s motives, with a later passing reference to “fascist police” our only hint of his political leanings, or what point he is trying to make. The result is a reasonable suspense film, but – say it with me, folks! – definitely not the disaster movie we were expecting. Ann Vernon, second-billed as Lyncort’s estranged wife, is unnecessary to the plot and really only in the film as padding. (She is in the process of leaving Lyncort when she hears about his role in the emergency and realises she still loves him, yada-yada.) Much more interesting is Maurice Denham as Jim Warrilow, who puts the viewer on edge from the moment he is called out to take charge of the business, and promises his anxious wife that he won’t “stick his silly neck out”. When Warrilow subsequently insists upon staying close and assisting Lyncort himself, we fear the worst… Time Bomb is a film that carries a nasty twist in its tail when, after Lyncort eventually locates and disarms “the” bomb, the vindictive bomber, who has since been taken into custody, reveals that there are in fact two bombs on the train, and that they won’t have time to find the second one before it is due to go off. Until this point, Lyncort has simply worked his way methodically through the mines, from one end of the train to the other; but this revelation drives him to take drastic measures…
Miner Pete Ramsey is just “a regular guy” until he falls for gold-digging chanteuse Victory Kane (Nancy Kelly), and promptly forgets his working-class roots. Chasing the big bucks that will enable him to give Victory everything she wants, Pete works his way from mine superintendent to manager to owner – not by the cleanest of methods – and in the process alienates all of his former workmates and friends with his ruthless pursuit of profit. Pete’s activities threaten the financial security of his former employer, Gary Linden (Morgan Conway), who works to destroy him. Secretly hiring “Big Joe” Vlochek (Nestor Paiva), who blames Pete – wrongly – for an accident in which his daughter, Sally (Gwen Kenyon), was blinded, Linden makes sure that Pete’s new mine is dogged by failures and breakdowns. However, at last Big Joe’s course of secret sabotage goes too far, bringing about a cave-in that traps some of the workers below ground. Meanwhile, above ground, a tornado tears towards the town… Another not-disaster-movie that seemed to promise so much but ended up delivering very little, considering that it features not just a tornado but two mining disasters as well. Tornado opens with the devastation of the mining town of Linden, Illinois: a brief but well-staged sequence incorporating footage of real tornado damage. The visuals focus in upon one particular house ruined in the storm, a new mansion belonging to Pete Ramsey, with the voiceover narrator suggesting that this was God’s way of teaching Pete a lesson. (Too bad about the seventeen people actually killed by the twister, but I guess you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs…) The film then flashes back to a year earlier to show us Pete’s ruthless climb up the ladder and its consequences. Pete is so wilfully blind with regard to Victory that it is impossible to feel anything but exasperated with him—and in fact, it’s hard to find anyone in this film to sympathise with. Victory is carrying on with Gary Linden behind Pete’s back, and Linden in turn is pumping her for information he can use against Pete; Sally clings like a limpet to Pete despite the fact that he’s married; Pete’s brother, Bob (Bill Henry), keeps quiet about being responsible for Sally’s accident, even though he knows Big Joe blames Pete; while Big Joe’s vengeful sabotage is carried so far that he not only endangers some of the fellow-workers he’s supposed to be standing up for, but manages to trap himself underground without the medication he needs to avoid lapsing into unconsciousness. On second thoughts—maybe that twister wasn’t overkill on God’s part after all; He just could have aimed the thing a little better…
Train Of Events (1949)
The theme of this set of not-disaster-movies is that any given film will start out looking like one, only to then let me down. This British production is a case in point. It opens with a devastating crash, as a speeding train cannot pull up in time to avoid colliding with a petrol tanker that hasn’t quite made it across the tracks. It then reverts to flashback, introducing us to the various people on board and showing us how they came to be on the train. The main body of the film consists of four separate segments, each one ending with its characters boarding the train. In “The Engine Driver”, train driver Jim Hardcastle risks his promotion by covering for his future son-in-law, Ron Stacey (Patric Doonan), who fails to turn up for work the morning after a blazing row with his fiancée, Doris (Susan Shaw): a decision that places Hardcastle behind the controls of the doomed train… In “The Actor”, Philip Mason (Peter Finch) murders his unfaithful and drunken wife, Louise (Mary Morris), hiding her body in his trunk prior to joining the rest of his acting troupe on the train, which will carry them to their point of embarkation for Canada. However, the police are on Mason’s trail… In “The Prisoner-Of-War”, a girl, Ella (Joan Dowling), tries to hide the man she loves, a former German soldier who escaped from a prison camp and has been on the run ever since. Finally Ella decides that Richard (Laurence Payne) must flee the country—even if she can’t afford to go with him… In “The Composer”, a famous composer-conductor, Raymond Hillary (John Clements) is involved with a celebrity pianist, Irina Norozova (Irina Baronova). However, Hillary’s long-suffering wife, Stella (Valerie Hobson), has dealt with these situations before… There’s a lot to like about Train Of Events, one of countless British “train” films: we are not surprised to find Charles Crichton and Basil Dearden behind the camera, among others, while the ensemble cast is uniformly excellent. The problem with this film is its overall tone. It is not unusual for a disaster movie to include humour – or “humour” – but this is usually just a form of leavening, with the films on the whole taking themselves rather seriously. This film, conversely, has a facetious attitude that undermines any attempt at building suspense, despite what we know is coming. Then, too, we’ve expected to believe that the appalling crash we witness in the opening sequence results in only a bare minimum of casualties – and those only in connection with the “serious” subplots – while everyone else escapes with only cuts and bruises. This disconnect ultimately makes Train Of Events a slightly uncomfortable experience.
Treasure Of The Jamaica Reef (1975)
Some people whose identities I didn’t really catch, for reasons that were never quite clear (hey, blame overloud music in the expository scenes), travel to the West Indies to search for a famous sunken galleon and a long-lost cave supposedly containing treasure from it, after securing sole international salvage rights for the operation. However, two other people (never quite clear about them, either) get wind of the arrangement and plan to let the salvagers do all the hard work before stepping in to relieve them of any finds. Things don’t do quite to plan for them: hand-grenade + boat = explosion so powerful it doesn’t even leave debris. This movie was shot on location, and it is evident that the actors enjoyed the experience very much; the production also had repercussions for two of its participants, inasmuch as the Cheryl Stoppelmoor “introduced” here later married her co-star David Ladd. However, about 80% of this film consists of scuba-diving scenes, so approach with caution. The film has the expected leisurely pace, but does manage to build some suspense when, forced by circumstance to take on the grim task of recovering occupied coffins from a sunken liner, one of the salvagers becomes trapped in the wreck with a very limited supply of air. Stephen Boyd, Chuck Woolery and David Ladd are the main salvagers, with Rosey Grier lending a hand; Darby Hinton is a young hanger-on; and Ms Stoppelmoor provides set decoration by wandering around in a skimpy bikini. On all the available evidence, no animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture. However, a visit to the IMDb would suggest that my print was cut, as there are references there to a murder scene that never happened (and yes, reading the fine print we see a credit for “re-editing”). As things stand, film’s alternative title, Evil In The Deep, makes no sense whatsoever. Possibly the film was re-named at a later date, to cash in on The Deep.
The Hurricane may today be one of John Ford’s least known films, but at the time it was at least influential enough to prompt the production of this exceedingly weak imitation. A little girl, Dea, is the only survivor of a shipwreck and is cast away on a deserted island, where she grows up to be Dorothy Lamour (of course). Along the way she acquires a sarong (of course) and a pet chimpanzee – a good trick, considering we’re in “the South Seas” – and builds a tree-house which is high enough to protect herself and Coco from the violent storm waters which periodically sweep across the island. Dea’s isolation comes to an end when a crew of pearl-hunters in a private submarine (!) is wrecked on the island after falling foul of a native big-wig with a gun-boat (!!). Johnny Potter (Robert Preston), the navigator, is separated from his crew-mates when he passes out in a drunken stupor. Dea finds him on the beach and promptly falls for him because he reminds her of her father, who was also a seagoing man and a drunken sot. (I’m not sure which part of that deserves the bigger “Ew!” so I’ll just say one loud collective “EW!”) Dea and Coco take Johnny back to the tree-house and forcibly dry him out, and he enjoys an idyllic interlude with the innocent Dea. Meanwhile, Skipper Joe (Lynn Overmann) faces a mutiny from his native crew, who steal his submarine but only succeed in sinking it and drowning themselves. Joe, Johnny and Dea begin building a boat, but their escape from the island is thwarted by Kehi (Chief Thundercloud), who will go to any extreme to wreak vengeance upon Joe and Johnny… Typhoon is ultimately a waste of time, and a rather unpleasant one at that. When you get right done to it, nothing happens in this film except that two separate groups of natives die horribly, mostly because of their own stupidity, while the white characters (and the chimpanzee) survive; I guess this is supposed to constitute “a happy ending”. The film does pick up a bit during the climactic sequence, when Kehi decides to take care of Joe and Johnny by instituting a scorched-earth policy on the island – which burns surprisingly well for a patch of land regularly inundated by tropical storms – only for our alleged heroes to be ironically rescued when the titular storm hits, putting out the fire and wiping out Kehi and his followers. However, the typhoon sequence isn’t a patch on the one from The Hurricane, on which it was obviously modelled, and it isn’t really worth sitting through the rest to see it. That said—the Academy disagreed with me on that point: Typhoon was nominated for an Oscar for its special effects. (Unfortunately, the special effects category was not introduced until 1938, so The Hurricane was not recognised in this respect, though it did win for its sound recording.)