Category Archives: Starring Robert Armstrong

Mighty Joe Young (1949, Ernest B. Schoedsack)

From the first scene, Mighty Joe Young is concerning. There’s a nice establishing shot of an Africa plantation, with some great matte work, then little White girl on the plantation Lora Lee Michel sees a couple African men passing with a basket. She wants what’s in the basket, so there’s a nice lengthy barter sequence where you try to figure out not if it’s racist, but in how many ways it’s racist. Michel’s supposed to be adorable but is annoying and bad, which is more than Mighty Joe can handle. It’s going to be bad way too frequently; annoying and bad is just too much. Michel gets the basket and the baby gorilla it carries. When dad (a completely checked out Regis Toomey) gets home, he says she can’t keep the gorilla but of course she can because she’s precocious and mom’s dead.

Toomey’s foreshadowing for the supporting performances in the rest of the movie, which is familiar faces giving—at best—checked out performances and, in the case of Nestor Paiva, annoying ones. Though maybe it’s not Paiva’s fault; he’s playing the part like you want to see him get eaten by lions but Mighty Joe Young is a cloying kids’ movie and there’s not going to be any great feline feasting. Worse, there’s going to be lots of lions thrown around for stunts.

The film skips ahead twelve years and 8,000 miles west to New York City, where promoter Robert Armstrong is gearing up for an African expedient. He’s opening a new safari-themed Hollywood night club, even though sidekick Frank McHugh thinks it’s a bad idea. You know who doesn’t think it’s a bad idea? Out of work rodeo cowboy Ben Johnson, who’s character’s last name is Johnson and you feel like it’s because Johnson would forget anything else. Johnson’s not unlikable or annoying—actually quite the feat—but he’s beyond amateurish. Director Schoedsack does nothing for his actors.

So off Armstrong and Johnson go to Africa, joined by one of the aforementioned checked-out supporting performers, Denis Green (really, it’s hard to fault any of the actors when Ruth Rose’s script has the blandest dialogue and Schoedsack’s got zero interest in directing the cast). They’re just about to come home with all the tigers Johnson and his fellow cowboys have lassoed when Mighty Joe Young comes a-knocking–previewing the film’s impressive composite shots, where stop motion Joe will interact with the live action—and Armstrong, feeling his Carl Denham coming on, decides they’re going to rope it and bring it back with them.

Only after Joe beats up a bunch of cowboys—the cowboy thing, which goes away for most of the movie after this sequence, seems the most desperate bit of quadrant hunting—does Terry Moore appear and calm the the mighty ape. Moore is playing Michel grown-up; though, in the weirdest, definitely ickiest while not for sure being intentionally gross quadrant hunting, she’s not yet legal age, which means the contract she signs with Armstrong to do a night club act isn’t legal and also it means when thirty-year old Johnson is her love interest, he was going to have to take Moore back to Oklahoma to marry her because even in 1948 it seems like California wasn’t okay with literal dudes taking child brides. Oklahoma was, of course.

Anyway.

Things go terribly wrong and there’s a long Joe wrecking Safari-themed night club scene and fighting lions. The strange thing about the action is what the film’s willing to do stop motion and what it’s not. It uses stop motion lions sparingly, instead cutting in the real ones, usually just when a thrown lion hits something, giving the aforementioned air of animal abuse. With the horses too, in the Joe vs. cowboys scene. It also seems like the kind of movie where they’d hurt animals, while the main plot is about how you shouldn’t hurt an animal. After the night club, Johnson and Moore have to get Joe out of town—the cops want to shoot him dead—so Armstrong helps them get out.

The climax isn’t even about Joe vs. the cops or Joe escaping, it’s this out-of-nowhere orphanage fire, where Johnson, Moore, and the ape have to save children. That sequence is pretty good. The lasso thing comes back and is dumb, but it’s at last suspenseful. Most of it, anyway. They push it, which isn’t a surprise.

The stop motion’s good, but underutilized. While nothing about Joe is interesting—it feels like budget King Kong, especially the model design on Joe; the movement is great, the model itself is eh—some of the other effects, particularly with the occasional person, clicks. There’s some potential to it.

About halfway through it seems like the film’s greatest tragedy is wasting Armstrong, who’s sort of spoofing himself, sort of just doing a broad comedy performance. It rarely all comes together—Rose’s script and Schoedsack’s direction work actively against it—but, again, the obvious potential is visible. Armstrong and McHugh really ought to have been a lot more fun together.

Moore’s awful. She’s not unlikable but she’s tiring. Johnson’s at least not tiring, but it might be because he’s so unmoving you forget he’s not scenery.

A distressingly bad score from Roy Webb doesn’t help either.

From go—well, okay, from the first scene with actors—Mighty Joe Young is clearly in dire straits. The special effects sequences are technically engaging but rarely dramatically. Who knows what better writing and better direction might’ve wrought. Perhaps something entertaining, but at least the great performance Armstrong can so obviously deliver, if only someone were interested in him doing so.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack; screenplay by Ruth Rose, based on a story by Merian C. Cooper; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Ted Cheesman; music by Roy Webb; costume designer, Adele Balkan; produced by Cooper; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Robert Armstrong (Max O’Hara), Ben Johnson (Gregg), Terry Moore (Jill Young), Frank McHugh (Windy), Denis Green (Crawford), Nestor Paiva (Brown, a drunk), Douglas Fowley (Jones, another drunk), Paul Guilfoyle (Smith, yet another drunk), Lora Lee Michel (Jill Young, as a girl), and Regis Toomey (John Young).


Without Orders (1936, Lew Landers)

Without Orders has enough story for a couple movies or at least one twice as long–it runs just over an hour. Instead, everything gets abbreviated. There's flight attendant Sally Eilers who has a sturdy fellow in pilot Robert Armstrong, but he's too concerned about helping her with her career and not enough with sweeping her off her feet. Her sister, Frances Sage, is a nightclub singer who gets wrapped up with Vinton Hayworth's sleaze ball stunt pilot, whose father (Charley Grapewin) owns Armstrong and Eilers' airline.

Needless to say, things get complicated.

For almost the first half of the film, there are these quick little scenes–Orders makes time for the melodrama, but not for anything around it. Ward Bond has a couple moments with personality and they're almost it for the film. It still works out nicely, thanks to the actors.

Hayworth is great as the vain flier; he's simultaneously charming and odious and the script keeps any judgements at bay for a while. Similarly, the script does make Armstrong's sturdiness seem a little boring. Eilers does a lot better with the professional scenes than the romantic ones–Orders is a little bit too chaste, which probably cuts back on the possibilities for her role.

Grapewin and Sage both provide good support.

Where Orders really takes off (pardon the pun), is with the airplane in trouble sequences. Landers does a great job with the actors, sure, but Desmond Marquette's editing keeps everything taut.

It's a little thin overall, but surprisingly successful.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Lew Landers; screenplay by J. Robert Bren and Edmund L. Hartmann, based on a story by Peter B. Kyne; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Desmond Marquette; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Sally Eilers (Kay Armstrong), Robert Armstrong (Wad. Madison), Vinton Hayworth (Len Kendrick), Ward Bond (Tim Casey), Frances Sage (Penny Armstrong) and Charley Grapewin (J.P. Kendrick).


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The Most Dangerous Game (1932, Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel)

Running about an hour, The Most Dangerous Game shouldn’t be boring. But it somehow manages. Worse, the boring stuff comes at the end; directors Schoedsack and Pichel drag out the conclusion with a false ending or two.

The film doesn’t have much to recommend it. That laborious ending wipes short runtime off the board, leaving nothing but good sets, Henry W. Gerrard’s photography and Leslie Banks’s glorious scene-chewing performance as the bad guy. James Ashmore Creelman’s script occasionally has good dialogue, most of it goes to Banks. Unfortunately, Creelman’s script doesn’t have a good story.

Still, the script isn’t Game‘s problem. Simply, Directors Schoedsack and Pichel do a rather bad job. They rely heavily on second person close-ups–the actors are performing for the viewer, showing exaggerated emotion; it’s a terrible choice. Joel McCrea seems silly in the lead and Fay Wray is often just plain bad. She has a couple good moments, early on, but they’re amid some atrocious ones.

The hunt–if you don’t know what kind of animal is “the most dangerous game,” I won’t spoil it (though you should)–starts up over halfway into the film. Here Schoedsack and Pichel present a really boring chase sequence through the magnificent jungle sets. Their action is two dimensional. They also never establish their setting, which would have made the action play better… and give Game more weight.

Robert Armstrong is hilarious, but he isn’t not enough to save the picture.

And Max Steiner’s score is dreadful.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel; screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman, based on the story by Richard Connell; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Archie Marshek; music by Max Steiner; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Joel McCrea (Robert Rainsford), Fay Wray (Eve Trowbridge), Robert Armstrong (Martin Trowbridge), Leslie Banks (Count Zaroff), Noble Johnson (Ivan), Steve Clemente (Tartar) and William B. Davidson (Captain).


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Penguin Pool Murder (1932, George Archainbaud)

Penguin Pool Murder, besides the peculiar title (and lack of a definite article), opens like almost any other early thirties mystery. A possible unfaithful wife, Mae Clarke, has a swindling louse of a husband, Guy Usher. When he ends up dead, there are multiple suspects.

Only the murder occurs at the aquarium (hence the title) and, it just so happens, a schoolteacher is giving her class a tour. The schoolteacher in question, played by Edna May Oliver, is half what sets Penguin apart. The other half is James Gleason as the police detective. He soon–first reluctantly, then enthusiastically–enlists Oliver as his partner.

The banter between Oliver and Gleason suggests the pair is an established comedy team but Penguin‘s their first pairing. From the moment the two get together, the film is a delight.

Even before they do, the film’s production values go far to recommend it. There are no exterior shots in the entire picture, but every set is exquisite–particularly the aquarium. Archainbaud has some great set-up shots and his direction is generally strong… though his inserts are bad. Editor Jack Kitchin’s weak cutting undoubtedly contributes, but Archainbaud’s direction is responsible for the jump cuts.

The mystery itself isn’t much of one–the film, which is very short, runs out of interesting suspects fairly quickly. Fourth billed Clarke disappears after the first act, leaving Robert Armstrong (as her attorney) to fill her slot.

He, and Clarence Wilson, are strong supporting assets.

Penguin‘s a lot of fun.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Archainbaud; screenplay by Willis Goldbeck, based on a story by Lowell Brentano and a novel by Stuart Palmer; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Jack Kitchin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Edna May Oliver (Miss Hildegarde Martha Withers), James Gleason (Police Inspector Oscar Piper), Robert Armstrong (Lawyer Barry Costello), Clarence Wilson (Bertrand B. Hemingway), Mae Clarke (Gwen Parker), Donald Cook (Philip Seymour), Edgar Kennedy (Policeman Donovan), James Donlan (Security Guard Fink), Guy Usher (Gerald ‘Gerry’ Parker) and Joe Hermano (Chicago Lew).


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