Atomic Age Classics, Vol. 8: How to Be a Housewife (2011 DVD). I like ephemeral films and try to find any way possible to get them, whether it’s on YouTube or Archive.org. One of the cheaper ephemeral film collections on the market is Alpha Home Video’s Atomic Age Classics, which collects 1940s-70s films in themed DVDs which run around 90 minutes apiece. These have been around since 2005, with the latest two volumes just out this year. I jumped at the chance to pick up the How to Be a Housewife volume, which for the most part delivers on its kitschy promise of industrial shilling disguised as benign how-tos geared toward the Donna Reed wannabe set. The subjects covered within How to Be a Housewife certainly belong to a different era: would today’s hausfrau really want to know the best ways to prepare lamb (Now About Lamb, 1965) or how to get the most out of a fashionable fur coat (Fashion in Furs, 1964)? The films are unrestored and pretty blandly presented, but totally fascinating all the same. One has to wonder why these big companies bothered to make films in which their product is barely mentioned at all. This couldn’t be more evident in the set’s last two films. Paging Women, made by SC Johnson in 1962, plays like an extended lifestyle/homemaker news segment complete with overly perky host (and a fashion segment filmed at Eero Saarinen’s stunning TWA terminal!). Meanwhile, Pepsi Cola’s Women of the World from 1974 looks at various progressive ladies from around Europe and Africa in a way that would make Bea Arthur’s Maude beam with joy (if she overlooked the Pepsi product placement, of course). What a riot. For more Atomic Age goodness, kindly check my review of the Hygiene, Dating and Delinquency volume from 2007.
Come Next Spring (1956). I gave this one a curious check on Netflix streaming, since it stars one of the handsomest actors of the ’50s, raven-haired Steve Cochran, alongside one of my personal faves from that era, Ann Sheridan. Cochran and Sheridan are both very good in this understated period drama, shot in color against grassy fields meant to evoke the midwest of a bygone period. Cochran plays an ex-alcoholic who, returning from a decade-long bender, finds a not-so-welcome homecoming. Wife Sheridan is attempting to run the family farm while raising a daughter (Sherry Jackson) who went mute from the family disappearance and a son (Richard Eyer) whom Cochran never knew. He’s completely clean and willing to make amends, but even the townsfolk treat him like a leper. Heartwarming Americana which calls to mind Friendly Persuasion (1956), or perhaps a less cloying Pollyanna (1960). Cochran, who was usually cast as swarthy heavies, does a great job. I also enjoyed the opportunity to see Sheridan in a later role, when she matured into playing more poised, level-headed types. Both of the kids were quite natural and appealing. The colorful supporting cast includes Walter Brennan, Sonny Tufts and an unrecognizable Mae Clarke. Worth seeking out if you have Netflix!
If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969). I always wanted to see this silly film based on its title alone, so I bit when it popped up on ThisTV recently. The film attempts to do European travelogue, gag-driven comedy and romance, all in one chaotic package. Whether it succeeds depends on how much you can stomach lowbrow humor and cute, but dated, ’60s kitsch. The film follows a diverse group of American tourists as they take a European bus tour guided by scrappy Brit Ian McShane, who has an eye for beautiful tourist Suzanne Pleshette. Oddly enough, I thought the scenes with McShane and Pleshette held up best — they have an appealing chemistry and make a nicely attractive pair. Comedically, the film plays up “Ugly American” stereotypes with predictable results, although there are a few memorable gags (an American and a German WWII vet simultaneously describing the same heroic battle they fought in the same way, for example). This would-be extravaganza was produced by David Wolper just before embarking on the more memorable Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, by the way. If the idea of a proto-Love Boat/’60s Euro travelogue sounds appealing to you, by all means check this out.
Manpower (1941). This Edward G. Robinson movie has a strangely magnetic pull on me; I first saw it in the early ’90s on one of my local UHF outlets’ pre-TCM version of the “Late Late Show,” then jumped when the film finally became avaialble on DVD via the Warner Archive. Part of its appeal it that, although it’s not an especially standout film in any particular area, it has a bit of something for everything mashed together in a way that somehow comes together beautifully. Robinson plays a power line worker who shares his dangerous vocation with a bunch of rowdy buddies which include Alan Hale, Frank McHugh (who does his signature nasal laugh a few times), Ward Bond, and best friend George Raft. Robinson is something of a big brother to the crew and takes it upon himself to aid the daughter of an older co-worker who dies in an accident. The daughter is an exotic beauty and ex-con played by Marlene Dietrich, whom the earnest Robinson falls for despite cynical pal Raft’s knowledge that she belongs in the sleazy clip joint where she sings and dances for tips. Seeing it for the fourth or so time, I can see that the ending is rather ludicrous, but otherwise it’s a pip that just oozes with 1940s verve. Part of that verve lies in the camaraderie that director Raoul Walsh sets up with Robinson and his onscreen buddies; all that onscreen clowning looks kind of obnoxious, but it’s also spontaneous and real (and strangely not common in studio-bound pictures from this era). I also enjoy the few scenes with Dietrich and her oddly cast (but wonderful) fellow hostesses, played by Eve Arden and my gal Joyce Compton. Walsh also has a good eye for interesting setups and places, with scenes in a nightclub, hospital, dressing room, hash joint and even a department store ladies’ fashion section brimming with flavor. It’s a swell picture, all right.
The Vanishing (1988). Efficient Dutch thriller that turns several serial killer tropes on their heads (this was remade in 1993 with Kiefer Sutherland, as well). A young man is vacationing (and occasionally arguing) with his girlfriend when they stop at a roadside convenience store. The woman disappears seemingly without a trace, despite having dozens of customers around as witnesses. This prompts the man’s three-year effort to locate the girlfriend and her abductor, an otherwise ordinary fellow with a wife and two teen daughters. Despite getting poky at times, this was an intriguing film with excellent characters. Tim Krabbé’s screenplay takes a lot of chances with the formal structure of the story, with scenes darting back and forth in time. Once the abductor (a chilling Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) is found, his recounting of the incident is absorbingly told in flashbacks. The characterization of the killer as a regular guy who methodically takes on the kidnapping as a sick experiment recalls Joseph Cotten in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, one of many nifty echoes that this film evokes. The twist ending was also very effective.