Columbia Pictures

Middle of the Night (1959, Delbert Mann)

Paddy Chayefsky adapted his own play for Middle of the Night and there are some clear alterations with original intent. Fifty-six year-old widower Fredric March is in garment manufacturing. His first scene has him hanging out with the other old guys in the factory, kvetching about how there’s nothing to do but visit their children. March’s character isn’t Jewish… but he was in the play. And apparently it was a big deal in the play. In the film, he’s probably Polish–though when he wows Kim Novak with Old World wisdom, it’s called a “European saying.” If it weren’t for Chayefsky’s dialogue for March and the boys–which comes up time and again–it wouldn’t be such a disconnect. Though occasionally March will do a light accent (with the exception of one scene where he goes all in) and it doesn’t come off. March is doing just fine. The film really doesn’t need the failed attempt at subtext leftover from the source play.

Novak is playing March’s twenty-four year-old receptionist. She’s recently divorced from musician Lee Philips (who, shockingly, originated the part on Broadway and isn’t in the film because the studio wanted some bland leading man type) and miserable. Confronted with Novak’s sadness, March shows some kindness. And becomes utterly infatuated with her. His business partner, Albert Dekker (in a devastating performance) is always out with younger women, but paying them for their time–well, putting it on customers’ expense accounts but March has no interest in that kind of thing. He feels sympathy and adoration for Novak. And finally works up the nerve to ask her on a date.

Now, until this moment in the film–the occasional awkward play adaptation aside–Chayefsky’s script hasn’t put any corners. Novak’s big opening scene where she breaks down to March is so thorough it looks like there’s added footage to her monologue (Carl Lerner’s editing occasionally has such problematic cuts it must have been something with the footage director Mann shot). Then the movie skips to their third date, when Novak has a hard talk with March. Now, she swears up and down she didn’t just keep going out with him because he was the boss and, based on the following ninety minutes of film, it’s more than believable. But then what was so successful about those first three dates? Sure, she’s lonely, but not actually alone (her best friend, Lee Grant, gets introduced in the last forty-five minutes but she should’ve been around at the time–not to mention kid sister Jan Norris who goes unmentioned until she appears at the same time as Grant). It seems like Chayefsky’s cutting some corners. And it sticks out. And it sticks out again when Grant and Norris show up, because why hasn’t Novak’s life been important until so much later… The movie wants a pass on it.

And I haven’t even gotten to the part where, after promising Novak he’ll leave her alone, March forces himself on her. At the factory, at night (presumably the Middle of the Night), and basically breaks her down into agreeing to their romance. But he’s good to her, even if it’s a little paternal. Or so she keeps saying. Their scenes together tend to be their problem scenes. March is incredibly likable so it’s all reasonable, he’s just always in a mood when he’s with Novak, which is all of her scenes in the movie until after the halfway point. Novak making their relationship seem real is a heck of a lot more impressive than what March has to put into it. He’s just got to puff out his chest because she’s this gorgeous twenty-four year-old who wants him. Or does a reasonable facsimile of wanting him.

Middle of the Night’s biggest defect is the utter avoidance of honesty between Novak and March. There’s a bit of a showdown scene in the third act, before a deus ex, but it’s too little, too late. They’re more than willing to be honest away from each other–the scene where Novak lays it out to best friend Grant is fantastic, ditto the one where March finally talks to Dekker about being a dirty old man (just a nice one)–and it’d have done wonders for the character development for them to be honest together. Especially if it had been in the first half of the picture or so, because Middle of the Night is kind of long at two hours.

It’s always well-acted, it’s beautifully directed and photographed (Joseph C. Brun’s black and white is breathtaking), and Chayefsky’s dialogue is always on point–when there’s not too much dialect flourish–so it’s not a bad two hours at all. The third act has some great pay-off, it just comes a little too late. All that time Chayefsky’s script skips over is apparently not just for the onscreen action, it’s like the character development paused for it too. Other than March’s puffed chest. Novak’s on pause for most of the movie.

With the exception of Philips, all the acting is good. March is great. Novak’s like one moment of onscreen realization away from being twice as good (the movie’s way too condescending towards Novak’s character). Edith Meiser’s good as March’s sister, who lives with him and doesn’t like the idea of Novak. Shocker. Joan Copeland plays one of two daughters–the other one doesn’t figure in at all. She’s really good at the beginning, when her writing is better; in the second half of the film, both she and Mesier are basically competing for bigger harpy. Martin Balsam’s fun as Copeland’s husband. It’s not a great part, but he does well with it.

On the other side of the proverbial aisle, Grant’s the best. She’s got one hell of a monologue about the misery of married life, which echoes Dekker’s–just separated by gender… and thirty plus years–she’s also the only one who’s able to make believe she’s got any concern for Novak. Sister Norris and mom Glenda Farrell at one point seem like they’re going to help Philips assault Novak, they’re so passively cruel and actively dismissive of her agency. The movie wants to say something about Norris being a young tart but doesn’t. And Farrell wins the harpy contest.

Every time Middle of the Night gets problematic, you just have to wait it out and eventually Mann will do something great or Brun will have an amazing shot and March and Novak will have gotten through whatever contrived problem they have and it sails on until the next problem. Then it just grinds until it passes again. And so on. March and Novak mesmerize, against the glorious black and white New York–fantastic score from George Bassman too. There are a lot of successful parts (the lead performances, the technical aspects–save those bad Lerner cuts, which don’t seem to be his fault), it’s just not a success overall. Someone needed to make some hard choices and neither Chayefsky nor Mann did.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Delbert Mann; screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, based on his play; director of photography, Joseph C. Brun; edited by Carl Lerner; music by George Bassman; produced by George Justin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Jerry Kingsley), Kim Novak (Betty Preisser), Edith Meiser (Evelyn Kingsley), Joan Copeland (Lillian Englander), Martin Balsam (Jack Englander), Glenda Farrell (Mrs. Mueller), Jan Norris (Alice Mueller), Lee Grant (Marilyn), Lee Philips (George Preisser), and Albert Dekker (Walter Lockman).


The Stepford Wives (1975, Bryan Forbes)

The Stepford Wives puts in for a major suspension of disbelief request in the second scene–what is Katharine Ross doing married to Peter Masterson. They’ve gone from being a somewhat posh New York couple to a New York couple with kids and so they’re moving to Connecticut. Lawyer Masterson is going to take the train in to town while aspiring photographer Ross hangs around in the country, ostensibly taking care of the kids.

Ostensibly because they disappear for the most part, even though they ought to be around all the time, yet aren’t. Not keeping track of the kids, except when they need to be around for emphasis or plot contrivance, is one of director Forbes and screenwriter William Goldman’s fails. It’s one of their joint fails. Both have their own personal fails. It’s not even one of their major joint fails. It’s one of the “oh, yeah, they forgot about this subplot” fails. There are many.

Ross is bored in the small town. She doesn’t have anything in common with the other wives, who seem solely interested in keeping a tidy houses for their hard-working men. And, right away, Masterson joins the town’s men’s club and starts spending every night with the boys. In their big scary restored mansion (more in it in a bit).

Luckily, Ross soon finds the other new “Stepford Wives”, starting with Paula Prentiss. They’re fast friends who, after consulting with another new-to-town wife, Tina Louise, decide to start a women’s group. Except it turns out all the other women have to complain about is not having enough time to clean their houses, which Ross, Prentiss, and presumably Louise (who gets one of the lousier roles in a movie with an endless supply) all find peculiar.

Meanwhile, at home, Masterson is drinking all the time but loving hanging out with the boys. The boys–Josef Sommer, Franklin Cover, and George Coe–are a bunch of bores. Creepy silver fox Patrick O’Neal runs the club. He used to work at Disney. The other guys all work in cutting edge technology. William Prince, playing a retired pin-up artist, is the only one with any social skills. Masterson only drinks to excess in private, like he’s got something to hide from Ross.

Not to entirely spoil the movie, but it’s because he and his friends are plotting to murder Ross. It’s not like Stepford isn’t in the dictionary. The “twist” is a whole other thing I don’t even want to talk about. It’s not undercooked, it’s raw; there’s a lot of undercooked material in Stepford, but the twist hasn’t even been in the oven. Not the way Forbes and Goldman want to do it. Apparently they disagreed on the ending and Forbes got his way, but even if Goldman had it his way, it wouldn’t make up for the awful character development throughout the film informing it.

Masterson’s kind of mean to Ross. There aren’t any good men in Stepford, which is fine and accurate, but Masterson’s still too much of a jerk right off the bat. He’s such a trollish jerk, it’s hard to believe he’s a lawyer. He’s not a jerk in the right ways. It’s also hard to believe he and Ross ever had chemistry. In the first act, before the murder plot, he thinks he’s piggishly charming, even though Ross never positively responds to him. Goldman entirely slacks off on Masterson’s character establishment and development.

Masterson doesn’t transcend the material. It’s also not entirely the material’s fault. Maybe it’s just the casting director’s fault. Or just Forbes’s fault. Forbes has a shockingly bad handle on the material.

There’s satire and commentary about commercialism–at times–in Stepford Wives. Goldman usually comes up with adequate material and then Forbes utterly flops on it when directing the scene and the actors’ performances. You can see where the joke ought to be in Stepford, but instead of getting there, you watch Forbes repeatedly miss it.

The only excellent performance in the film is Ross. She’s outstanding. She’s got a crappy, underdeveloped character who can’t keep track of her kids, doesn’t have a believable “art” arc in her photography, and is inexplicably married to a jackass, but Ross is outstanding. The one thing Forbes does right is let Ross be alone. It’s no good once Forbes is trying generate scares–in that aforementioned scary mansion–but when it’s just Ross existing in a moment, it’s great. Ross is acting in a far better film than Stepford Wives. She’s just doing it in Stepford Wives.

Prentiss is likable but not good. She’s funny and seems to have a better handle on how to do the satire scenes than Forbes; she’s the only one who doesn’t look lost. But who knows because Forbes is hesitant to let the Wives act against one another too much in the same shot. He avoids those shots, preferring two Wives at a time in close-ups.

Paula Trueman is also fun. She apparently runs the town newspaper, or at least writes for it. She’s got a lousy part as it turns out. It’s like Goldman adapted the source novel without reading it. He never establishes continuity of behavior in the supporting cast. Trueman’s character doesn’t even get a name, even though the character–and actor–are a couple of the film’s stronger assets.

Otherwise the performances are basically just adequate. Even Louise, who gets a crap part, is just adequate. She just has more wasted potential than some of the other Wives, principally Nanette Newman. Newman is Ross’s neighbor who Ross never gets to meet without Prentiss being along because Newman has nooners with her husband. Is it for sure her husband? It’s worse if it is Sommer than if it isn’t, actually. There’s an extreme (and unexplored) connotation if it’s the latter, but if it’s the former… well, it’d be another of those major joint fails for Forbes and Goldman. Because even though the movie’s supposed to be satirical, Forbes doesn’t do metaphor. Even if it’s in the script. Forbes skips it.

I’m going a little longer than Wives deserves–unless one’s talking at length about Ross’s performance–but I do need to get to the finale. It’s like they ran out of money and decided to do a haunted house sequence. Because haunted houses always get scares. Except Owen Roizman doesn’t shoot Stepford like a thriller, he shoots it like a seventies drama. Michael Small’s score is for a seventies drama; mostly. When it’s trying for the horror, it’s for a bad horror movie. The music goes from one of the film’s pluses to minuses real fast.

So Forbes stumbles through the finale, which has Ross running from her fate. There’s no closure for Ross’s character arcs, not even the hint the character arcs have occurred. In fact, the finale gives one of the bad guys a monologue describing Ross to her. It’d be nice the monologue, which seems to greatly affect her, actually matched her character she’d been playing for the previous 110 minutes.

But it’s also a badly directed finale in a constrained set. It’s a bad, boring set and Forbes has no ideas for it. The movie deserves better. Ross deserves much better. She keeps Stepford afloat all by herself. Even as Forbes and Goldman try to sink it from under her.

The Stepford Wives is a peculiar, if predictable, fail.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Forbes; screenplay by William Goldman, based on the novel by Ira Levin; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Timothy Gee; music by Michael Small; production designer, Gene Callahan; produced by Edgar J. Scherick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Katharine Ross (Joanna Eberhart), Peter Masterson (Walter Eberhart), Paula Prentiss (Bobbie Markowe), Patrick O’Neal (Dale Coba), Tina Louise (Charmaine Wimpiris), Nanette Newman (Carol Van Sant), Paula Trueman (Welcome Wagon Lady), George Coe (Claude Axhelm), Josef Sommer (Ted Van Sant), Franklin Cover (Ed Wimpiris), Neil Brooks Cunningham (Dave Markowe), Carol Eve Rossen (Dr. Fancher), William Prince (Ike Mazzard), and Robert Fields (Raymond Chandler).


Batman and Robin (1949, Spencer Gordon Bennet), Chapter 15: Batman Victorious

For a few minutes in Batman Victorious, which is mostly a chase sequence–the invisible (though only temporarily) Wizard is on the run from Batman and the cops. There are some questionable (but more ambitious than anything else in the serial) invisible man special effects and a more lively feel to things.

Or maybe it just feels more lively because last chapter means Batman and Robin is almost, finally over.

There’s some Batman and Robin running around outside, which is good. Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan (unless its one of his many stand-ins) are always exuberant when they get to play outside in their costumes.

It’s a dumb reveal on the Wizard, but Batman and Robin has always been pretty dumb.

Jane Adams gets more to do than usual–including being a damsel in distress for the first time in a while. Of course, Lowery (as Batman) does leave her tied up in the driver’s seat teetering on a cliff but whatever, she’s not going to fall. She still never reacts to her brother being murdered. And William Fawcett’s walking goes unaddressed.

Lowery, elbows bent so he looks like a squirrel holding a nut (it’s so prevalent it’s almost like he thinks it’s a “bat” gesture), has an exposition dump at the end to wrap up loose threads. They make no sense. Because it’s just terrible.

But it’s finally over. Finally.

CREDITS

Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and Royal K. Cole, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Robert Lowery (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Johnny Duncan (Robin / Dick Grayson), Jane Adams (Vicki Vale), Lyle Talbot (Commissioner Jim Gordon), Don C. Harvey (Henchman Nolan), Lee Roberts (Henchman Neal), William Fawcett (Prof. Hammil), Leonard Penn (Carter), Rick Vallin (Barry Brown), Michael Whalen (Private Investigator Dunne), George Offerman Jr. (Henchman Jimmy), and Eric Wilton (Alfred Beagle).


Batman and Robin (1949, Spencer Gordon Bennet), Chapter 14: Batman vs. Wizard!

Okay, I’m not wrong–wheelchair-bound, ornery scientist William Fawcett really does just walk around in front of everyone and no one reacts. He’s been zapping himself with electricity to regain use of his legs, making him a suspect for being masked, supercriminal the Wizard. Except only to the audience because no one knows he can walk.

Except in Batman vs. Wizard!, everyone knows he can walk.

There are probably cut scenes from Batman and Robin, which is a terrifying proposition.

After Batman, Robin, and the cops chase an invisible Wizard in the opening, the chapter just concerns itself with winnowing down the Wizard suspect pool. There’s even costumed Wizard in action–after the invisibility ray wears off. The Wizard costume plays much better on screen than Batman or Robin’s costumes, which is kind of funny. Maybe if he’d been a more physically active villain, the serial would have more memorable action scenes.

The Wizard eventually threatens Lyle Talbot, leading to the good guys setting a trap but forgetting to put a man on the roof. Because they’re all idiots. The Wizard, face-covered and voice-disguised, is probably the most likable character in Batman and Robin. Sorry. Talbot’s usually fine but he starts grating here. Ditto newscaster Rick Vallin. Some of it might be the dialogue, but they’re still annoying.

The cliffhanger’s kind of fun just because it showcases the good guys’ aforementioned stupidity. Batman and Robin glamourizes crime; the only actors whose performances don’t end up unbearable are the crooks.

CREDITS

Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and Royal K. Cole, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Robert Lowery (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Johnny Duncan (Robin / Dick Grayson), Jane Adams (Vicki Vale), Lyle Talbot (Commissioner Jim Gordon), Don C. Harvey (Henchman Nolan), Lee Roberts (Henchman Neal), William Fawcett (Prof. Hammil), Leonard Penn (Carter), Rick Vallin (Barry Brown), Michael Whalen (Private Investigator Dunne), George Offerman Jr. (Henchman Jimmy), and Eric Wilton (Alfred Beagle).


Power of the Press (1943, Lew Landers)

Power of the Press runs a thin–not slim, but thin–sixty-four minutes. It’s paced better than expected (publicity stills suggest quite a few cut scenes); scenes never seem rushed, scenes never seem truncated. Instead, they’re just deliberate. Otto Kruger is a blue blood New York City newspaper publisher who dabbles in fascism. He couldn’t buy his way into politics, but Daddy already bought him a newspaper. Or some of one.

Guy Kibbee, in the closest thing the film’s got to a protagonist, is the new majority owner. He’s a small-town newspaper man from Nebraska who inherits that majority stake because he still cares about the news. About the freedom of the press. About democracy. About the ninety-nine percent (actual line, 1943–“fake news” gets repeated a whole lot too). Kibbee’s got his ethics and ace assistant Gloria Dickson on his side. But can they save a great metropolitan newspaper? Can they bring some clarity and truth to it?

On his side, Kruger’s got literal hitman Victor Jory and managing editor Lee Tracy. It’s unclear if Jory’s in it for the fascism or the money, but Tracy is definitely in it for the money. Robert Hardy Andrews’s screenplay (from a Sam Fuller story) has some rather decided thoughts on fascists and capitalists–and some, sadly, apt insight into how the two support one another.

The movie sets up Kruger and the paper, then brings in Kibbee. Those events take however long a round-trip train ride is from New York to Nebraska, plus a day. The rest of the movie, featuring Kruger using the newspaper to frame an innocent man, sabotage the Allied Powers a little, murder an immigrant, frame Kibbee, and whatever else, it all takes place in about a week. Maybe less. We don’t even get to see Kibbee’s apartment. It’s all at the newspaper.

Until it’s not in the third act, which is when Press hints at what might have been if it weren’t so short and so perfunctory. It’s a low budget, homefront jingoist newspaper thriller. There are crime aspects, there are conspiracy aspects. It’s a reasonably successful one too. Kibbee’s occasional dictated editorials (delivered as monologues) are definitely rousing. And they’ve got some teeth. The racists are traitors one is particularly awesome (and depressing given the film’s from 1943). Kruger’s a great villain. The way the script paces revelations into his backstory alongside a sort of intensifying villainy… Kruger’s dangerous, even though probably none of the main characters are in danger.

Tracy’s second-billed, but his part’s rather small for most of the film. He’s good. He can bark orders and he can stop and listen. There’s remnants of a romance (or at least hope of one) between him and Dickson. More time would be a subplot though and Power of the Press doesn’t do subplots.

Kibbee’s fine in the “lead.” Sometimes good, like during his monologues, but the movie sets him up as a cute old grandpa, then hints at giving him an actual part, then gives up on it to do the homefront newspaper thriller stuff.

Minor Watson is good in a minor (and uncredited) role.

The film’s adequately produced. Director Landers has some good shots, he has some bad ones. Mostly he just has adequate ones. Ditto the photography and editing. Neither impress or disappoint. They both help imply a greater world outside Press, which the budget doesn’t allow shown. Including street scenes. For a New York City-based newspaper thriller… Press didn’t even get the backlot.

It’s still thin, successful or not. Maybe it shouldn’t have gone out on such a fun third act either. From the first scene, Press is focused on being threatening enough to be serious. There’s no fun. Grandpa Kibbee doesn’t have any cute hobbies. But then in the third act, with the right scenes, the actors interact right and it gets fun. Too bad the whole thing isn’t fun. Charm wouldn’t hurt Press. Everyone in the picture’s got charm, they just barely get to employ it.

2

CREDITS

Directed by Lew Landers; screenplay by Robert Hardy Andrews, based on a story by Samuel Fuller; director of photography, John Stumar; edited by Mel Thorsen; music by Paul Sawtell; produced by Leon Barsha; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Guy Kibbee (Ulysses Bradford), Gloria Dickson (Edwina Stephens), Otto Kruger (Howard Rankin), Lee Tracy (Griff Thompson), Victor Jory (Oscar Trent), Rex Williams (Barker), Frank Yaconelli (Tony Angelo), and Minor Watson (John Cleveland Carter).


Brenda Starr, Reporter (1945, Wallace Fox)

Brenda Starr, Reporter never has a chance. Worse, lead Joan Woodbury never has a chance. Of all the characters in Brenda Starr, Woodbury gets the worst. Well, wait. No. Lottie Harrison gets the worst part. She’s Woodbury’s cousin (and roommate) and she’s constantly making fat jokes at her own expense. Other characters get close, but Harrison gets the majority of the worst jokes. It’s unfortunate–but is apparently comic strip accurate.

Based on my cursory research–I read Brenda Starr back in the nineties for a bit, but had no idea going into the serial knowing who was from the comic strip and who wasn’t. Anyway, based on cursory research, only William ‘Billy’ Benedict is playing another comic strip character. He’s the idiot newsroom gopher. The script plays him for dumb laughs, but it never works. Benedict’s terrible, Fox’s direction of him (and the actors in general) is lousy, and the script isn’t funny. So they’re these painful scenes. And Benedict is on the bottom of the Brenda Starr caste system. It goes Benedict, dimwit copper Joe Devlin, photographer Syd Saylor, Woodbury herself, then Kane Richmond is at the top of the food chain. Alongside Frank Jaquet as Woodbury and Saylor’s boss, which is weird.

Richmond’s the dreamy police lieutenant who Woodbury always seems to be competing with. Because all either of them do is go to the scenes of crimes, either in progress or to follow-up, and get in trouble with the bad guys. Richmond never investigates anything. Woodbury never actually publishes stories. The Reporter part of the title is a complete misnomer after the third or fourth chapter because Woodbury becomes Richmond’s de facto deputy. Any information she finds, she has to turn over to Richmond and get permission to use it in a story. Managing editor Jaquet isn’t a crusader, he’s a stooge for the cops and sells Woodbury out every chance he can get.

And it’s no spoiler to say the serial isn’t about Woodbury going out against orders and saving the day. It’s not. It’s about her going out against orders and not saving the day until she learns her lesson. Once she learns her lesson, the bad guys start kidnapping her more. They’ve also hold her hostage various times throughout. Sometimes Woodbury gets to save herself, usually it’s up to Richmond.

Shocker the serial is much better when it’s Woodbury and not Richmond doing the saving. Richmond’s obnoxious and not very good. Woodbury’s sympathetic and fine in a poorly written part, but her performance never impresses. She’s likable though. She’s totally solid lead and if she got to do anything solo, the middle chapters of Starr would work much better.

It probably wouldn’t save the thing. The ending’s real, real bad. The serial rallies towards the end, at least in parts, with this subplot involving Ernie Adams and Wheeler Oakman. They’re two-bit crooks who are trying to blackmail George Meeker’s gang leader. He works for an unknown boss who speaks to Meeker and the gang. Starr’s constant with its thugs–Jack Ingram, Anthony Warde, and John Merton are more sympathetic than most of the rest of the cast too. Especially Ingram. Ingram can’t hide his exasperation with the serial from his face. It’s kind of funny.

Meeker’s pretty good. Adams and Oakman are both better than good, Adams more often. Oakman’s scenes with Woodbury are pretty weak, unfortunately, but because of the script.

Before I forget, sometimes screenwriters Ande Lamb and George H. Plympton repeat conversations. Especially with Adams and Oakman. It’s not just the same expository information, it’s the same lines. From the same character. And it doesn’t seem to be a mimeograph error, it seems like filler.

Okay, back to the acting. Saylor’s bad when he’s the butt of jokes, better when he’s sincere (worrying about Woodbury, kind of a dopey uncle), sometimes real funny when he’s doing physical humor, sometimes not. It all depends on how much Fox’s setups are going to mess things up. Fox will occasionally have a good action sequence or a good big scene but it’s somehow never encouraging; it’s always clear they’re flukes.

The script has occasional flukes too. Marion Burns is awesome as this magician who Adams and Oakman enlist to get Meeker. She gets a three or four chapter arc. Cay Forester gets an arc early on, which is unfortunately lost. Brenda Starr, Reporter is incomplete. It was thought entirely lost until it was restored in 2011, unseen for almost seventy years. The missing material is from early chapters and might have a good performance from Forester. She’s not in what’s left enough to gauge her performance. But it’s not like more Brenda Starr would make anything better. The serial forgets subplots–or introduces big ones deus ex machina. It doesn’t build to anything. A bad serial can seem like all it needs is the first chapter and the last, everything in between is inconsequential. Brenda Starr isn’t consequential until the penultimate chapter. And even then the last two episodes would be full of redundancies. There’s just no story.

The basic plot has Oakman knowing about a payroll heist, which happens before the first chapter starts. Instead of investigating the heist, idiot cops Richmond and Devlin hound Woodbury, who’s at least managing to investigate something. Meanwhile, Meeker is a model citizen running a crime empire out of a night club. Meeker plays it like a sleaze-bag running a crime empire out a night club, yet Richmond and Jaquet treat him like a prince. Even for what’s obviously a cheap, rushed serial, Starr gets mind-boggling dumb.

There’s some bad day for night photography from Ira H. Morgan. Brenda Starr mostly takes place at night–Woodbury will get woken up at two in the morning and go out and get in trouble while Harrison is at home cooking for her. Harrison cooks for everyone. Lamb, Plympton, and Brenda Starr creator Dale Messick sure are comedic geniuses. But there are a lot of poorly lighted night scenes.

There’s not much to like about Brenda Starr, Reporter. It makes casualties out its better cast members. Its visual range is from ugly to low mundane. It’s a fail because of the production, not the cast. Not even the bad ones. Not even Richmond’s cop. Who you end up hissing after a while, he’s such a patronizing dick.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Wallace Fox; screenplay by Ande Lamb and George H. Plympton, based on the comic strip by Dale Messick; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Charles Henkel Jr.; music by Edward J. Kay; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Joan Woodbury (Brenda Starr), Kane Richmond (Lt. Larry Farrell), Syd Saylor (Chuck Allen), George Meeker (Frank Smith), Wheeler Oakman (Heller), Cay Forester (Vera Harvey), Marion Burns (Zelda), Lottie Harrison (Abretha), Ernie Adams (Charlie), Jack Ingram (Kruger), Anthony Warde (Muller), John Merton (Joe Schultz), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Pesky), and Joe Devlin (Sgt. Tim Brown).


Brenda Starr, Reporter (1945, Wallace Fox), Chapter 13: The Mystery of the Payroll

While most of the thirteen chapters of Brenda Starr, Reporter don’t deal with it, The Mystery of the Payroll is what the whole thing is supposedly about. And it gets solved in the last chapter. Though not really. I mean, it’s solved, but not satisfactorily. In fact, one of the big twists just raising more questions. Luckily, there’s no time to answer them because the serial is over.

After what should be an action-packed cliffhanger resolution (it isn’t, though there’s at least some action in a long shot), the story moves back to the newspaper office. Joan Woodbury is in trouble again with boss Frank Jaquet for disobeying copper Kane Richmond. Pretty soon, there’s a deus ex machina reveal and the wrap-up begins.

I suppose it’s efficiently executed; there’s quite a bit of wrapping up to do, even if none of it involves Woodbury. Given how poorly the serial leaves her, it’s probably better she didn’t get any of that material. It’s mostly Syd Saylor and William ‘Billy’ Benedict.

This chapter might be Benedict’s least annoying performance in the serial. He’s not a constant drag on the proceeding like usual. Or it might just be the “final chapter” energy.

Payroll is a disappointing end to a disappointing serial. It might have been nice, at least once, for Woodbury to take the titular Reporter job seriously instead of just being an adventurer.

Of course, the same goes for inept copper Richmond.

Brenda Starr, Reporter is a drag. Mystery of the Payroll might have been able to brace it after the last few chapters’ general competence. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

CREDITS

Directed by Wallace Fox; screenplay by Ande Lamb and George H. Plympton, based on the comic strip by Dale Messick; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Charles Henkel Jr.; music by Edward J. Kay; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Joan Woodbury (Brenda Starr), Kane Richmond (Lt. Larry Farrell), Syd Saylor (Chuck Allen), George Meeker (Frank Smith), Wheeler Oakman (Heller), Cay Forester (Vera Harvey), Marion Burns (Zelda), Lottie Harrison (Abretha), Ernie Adams (Charlie), Jack Ingram (Kruger), Anthony Warde (Muller), John Merton (Joe Schultz), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Pesky), and Joe Devlin (Sgt. Tim Brown).


Brenda Starr, Reporter (1945, Wallace Fox), Chapter 12: Murder at Night

Murder at Night features two murders at night. It doesn’t, however, have much night. Ira H. Morgan’s day-for-night photography is so inept, most of the action seems like it’s taking place late afternoon. The visual cues run contrary to the script, which has all the action taking place over hours.

So, basically, no one sleeps in Brenda Starr. Cousin Lottie Harrison stays up all night in case Joan Woodbury comes home and needs a meal cooked for her (and any guests).

Oddly enough, the script introduces a whole new element–there’s a mole for the bad guy at Woodbury’s newspaper. Woodbury doesn’t even know the bad guy’s identity. Everyone thinks George Meeker is on the up-and-up, not realizing he’s running a gang for the still unseen (and not really heard from lately) “Big Boss.”

There’s some energy from the finale chase scene, which does set up a real cliffhanger, but the chapter–penultimate or not–is more of the same from Brenda Starr. There are double-crosses, there are betrayals, there is repetitive dialogue. Practically all of Wheeler Oakman’s dialogue involves begging Woodbury to turn him over to the cops; she always refuses, with her reasons getting thinner as the chapter progresses.

The chapter also has a pointless flashback to another chapter. Time killer.

There’s a lot to wrap up in the final chapter–the “Big Boss,” the mole, the secret code (presumably the location of some stolen money)–and Starr needs to use all its remaining time wisely, which seems highly unlikely given the serial to this point.

CREDITS

Directed by Wallace Fox; screenplay by Ande Lamb and George H. Plympton, based on the comic strip by Dale Messick; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Charles Henkel Jr.; music by Edward J. Kay; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Joan Woodbury (Brenda Starr), Kane Richmond (Lt. Larry Farrell), Syd Saylor (Chuck Allen), George Meeker (Frank Smith), Wheeler Oakman (Heller), Cay Forester (Vera Harvey), Marion Burns (Zelda), Lottie Harrison (Abretha), Ernie Adams (Charlie), Jack Ingram (Kruger), Anthony Warde (Muller), John Merton (Joe Schultz), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Pesky), and Joe Devlin (Sgt. Tim Brown).


Brenda Starr, Reporter (1945, Wallace Fox), Chapter 11: On the Spot

This chapter has Joan Woodbury not just getting out of a trap, she executes a great plan for it too. A surprising one. Not a lot of surprises in Brenda Starr, Reporter, so getting any of significance–even this late (On the Spot is the penultimate penultimate chapter)–is nice.

Overall, it’s not a bad chapter. Too much with idiot cop Joe Devlin. Starr’s either got condescending super-cop Kane Richmond (who hasn’t solved a single thing… though neither has Woodbury) or idiot Devlin. On the Spot gives Devlin the illusion of more to do, but then cuts away when it’s his turn.

Syd Saylor’s playing the same type of part–dimwit sidekick–but he’s at least good at it. And his character isn’t as much of a dimwit.

After the escape sequence, it’s all about Ernie Adams scheming until the cliffhanger. Of course Woodbury has inserted herself into that situation; she’s tried to call for back up, but William ‘Billy’ Benedict messes it up.

There are a lot of thin characters in Brenda Starr but Benedict’s got the worst. Whenever he shows up on screen, the serial becomes practically intolerable. I’m not sure if anyone could play the role of office numbskull with charm, but Benedict doesn’t.

Still, it’s a lot better of a chapter than the serial usually puts out.

CREDITS

Directed by Wallace Fox; screenplay by Ande Lamb and George H. Plympton, based on the comic strip by Dale Messick; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Charles Henkel Jr.; music by Edward J. Kay; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Joan Woodbury (Brenda Starr), Kane Richmond (Lt. Larry Farrell), Syd Saylor (Chuck Allen), George Meeker (Frank Smith), Wheeler Oakman (Heller), Cay Forester (Vera Harvey), Marion Burns (Zelda), Lottie Harrison (Abretha), Ernie Adams (Charlie), Jack Ingram (Kruger), Anthony Warde (Muller), John Merton (Joe Schultz), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Pesky), and Joe Devlin (Sgt. Tim Brown).


Brenda Starr, Reporter (1945, Wallace Fox), Chapter 10: A Double-Cross Backfires

Brenda Starr is rallying in its last third–A Double-Cross Backfires is a solid serial chapter. Sure, Joan Woodbury gets interviewing and kidnapped duty, but there’s some good action and some actual suspense.

The chapter opens in Marion Burns’s house–rigged for her psychic scam–and no one except Burns can find their way through it. Lots of curtains, false walls, all sorts of stuff. Perfect location for a thrilling shootout, even if Fox’s direction is boring.

And Burns is rather good. She’s underutilized, but at least she’s underutilized in a supporting role as opposed to Woodbury, who’s underutilized in the ostensible lead part.

The action scene has Kane Richmond chasing a bad guy’s cab and then climbing a roof to duke it out with him. Again, not great direction from Fox, but good enough to get it through. Richmond’s still a condescending jackass overall, however.

Maybe the most salient factor in the rallying is Ernie Adams. He’s a stoolie who all of a sudden has a bunch more to do. Adams knows how to act a scene where the director isn’t going to give him anything. He’s a delight.

So, Backfires doesn’t.

I just wish Brenda Starr had this level of energy and inventiveness (and the strong supporting cast–not the tiresome cops and newspaper sidekicks) throughout.

CREDITS

Directed by Wallace Fox; screenplay by Ande Lamb and George H. Plympton, based on the comic strip by Dale Messick; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Charles Henkel Jr.; music by Edward J. Kay; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Joan Woodbury (Brenda Starr), Kane Richmond (Lt. Larry Farrell), Syd Saylor (Chuck Allen), George Meeker (Frank Smith), Wheeler Oakman (Heller), Cay Forester (Vera Harvey), Marion Burns (Zelda), Lottie Harrison (Abretha), Ernie Adams (Charlie), Jack Ingram (Kruger), Anthony Warde (Muller), John Merton (Joe Schultz), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Pesky), and Joe Devlin (Sgt. Tim Brown).


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