50 Movie Hollywood Legends, Disc 6

Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, 1947, b&w. Stuart Heisler (dir.), Susan Hayward, Lee Bowman, Marsha Hunt, Eddie Albert. 1:43 [1:30]

A nightclub singer helps her boyfriend get a job as a radio singer. He succeeds. They marry. He succeeds more. She quits her job—after all, he’s making all the money they need or want. She has a baby. He’s gone a lot of the time. Meanwhile—well, the opening scene shows her downing a double (straight up) in about five seconds before going on, and as time goes on she has lots of doubles, to the point of seeing double, falling down drunk and starting out again the next morning. Also, she smokes and has a bad habit of dropping the lit cigarette when she’s pretty well lit. Eventually, her husband files for divorce and custody, she kidnaps the child…and, well, you can pretty much guess what happens next. After that, according to the sleeve, “with hard work and her husband’s support, she overcomes her addiction.”

Except that, in the version I saw (which appears to be missing a scene or three), the last minute of film has her going from being bandaged in a hospital bed to sitting up and assuring her husband that it’s all going to be OK from now on. No hard work, just instant cure. Never mind that. Susan Hayward is quite effective (good enough for an Oscar nomination), Eddie Albert is excellent as her husband’s songwriting partner and her friend and accompanist (the only constant through the breakup), and it’s well filmed (and a decent print), but certainly not a landmark in cinema, even as a “sudser” and precursor of all those Lifetime TV movies. Supposedly based on the life of Bing Crosby’s wife Dixie Lee. $1.25.

The Big Wheel, 1949, b&w. Edward Ludwig (dir.), Mickey Rooney, Thomas Mitchell, Mary Hatcher, Michael O’Shea, Spring Byington, Hattie McDaniel. 1:32 [1:23].

If you go by the sleeve, this is a similar story to Smash-Up, but with a race car driver as protagonist: He gets drunk, ruins his life (in this case by killing another driver because he doesn’t recognize that alcohol and gasoline don’t mix), and eventually manages to recover. Well, no. Set aside the fact that alcohol and gasoline mix very nicely; that’s not really the plot.

Mickey Rooney stars as a young would-be racecar driver whose father was also a race-car driver, who was killed in a crash at the Indy 500. The start of that last sentence may tell you a lot about how you’ll approach this flick. If you find Rooney immensely irritating as an actor, it helps that he’s playing an arrogant, bullheaded young driver—but makes him less sympathetic than I think he’s supposed to be. Anyway, yes, he crashes into another driver—and yes, he was drunk: But that was the night before, and he was trying to warn the other driver that his wheel was about to fall off. But, of course, since this punk was fond of saying “I’ll drive right over ‘em” with regard to other drivers, people aren’t likely to believe his story. That’s the key plot turn. Naturally, it all sort of works out in the end.

I’m not fond of Rooney and that may color my rating. It’s reasonably well filmed and not badly acted. Lots of car racing scenes. All things considered, it’s another middling $1.25.

Killing Heat (original title Gräset sjunger), 1981, color. Michael Raeburn (dir.), Karen Black, John Thaw, John Kani, John Moulder-Brown. 1:45 [1:30].

Let’s see if I can summarize the plot. A man asks a woman to marry him. She says yes. They wind up in South Africa (the old apartheid South Africa), on his badly-run farm. She’s miserable from the get-go, and doesn’t especially hide it, mostly moping around looking like death warmed over. He gets terribly ill from time to time. She winds up dead—but since the film begins with her dead, we knew that already.

The sleeve says something about her being a successful woman and having a hard time coping with the new country, and being involved with another man. None of that comes through in the picture. What comes through is…well, nothing much, as far as I could tell. Again, it might make more sense with the other 15 minutes. Maybe. Karen Black gives perhaps the most dispirited, dreary, flat performance of her career (or at least of any of her movies I’ve seen). I didn’t care about any of the characters. If I was watching this from start to end, I would have given up a third of the way in: It’s slow, uninteresting, with no particular point that I could find. It’s just blah, and unpleasant blah at that. Maybe I’m missing something, but I think I’m being charitable even to give it $0.25.

The Fat Spy, 1966, color. Joseph Cates (dir.), Phyllis Diller, Jack E. Leonard (in twin roles), Brian Donlevy, Johnny Tillotson, Jayne Mansfield, “the Wild Ones.” 1:20

I’d call this a triumph of programming. On its own, this teen/bikini/singing flick is a poor example of its kind, with third-rate songs (I’m being kind here), a plot that’s thin even by the standards of the genre, and dancers who don’t seem to much like dancing. But as the second disc on this side, it’s badly-needed comic relief with a little life to it, making it watchable nonsense.

It’s nonsense, to be sure, and mediocre nonsense at that. Maybe it’s intended as a spoof on the teen-bikini movies, but those always seemed to be spoofing themselves. Phyllis Diller is, well, Phyllis Diller. Jack E. Leonard is so-so in his twin parts. Jayne Mansfield makes the most of an odd part, but the script gives her nothing to work with. The Wild Ones were a very minor and (on evidence) not very talented band—apparently best known for doing the first, non-hit, version of “Wild Thing.” The print is very good and the sound is fine. Independently, probably $0.75. Through the genius move of pairing it with a depressing, badly-done downer, it shoots up to $1.00.

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