Walkabout, and six more movies



Dec. 4, 2022

Today at the movies, let's just sit and watch trains go by. Chugga chugga chugga, whoo whoo.

Also, there's a dirty rotten copper in trouble, a dentist defenestrated, mute crossdressing, a big-budget musical badly sung, kids on their own in the wilderness, and strange things are afoot when Claude Rains gets back from vacation.

A Florida Enchantment (1914)
The Fat Man (1950)
Paint Your Wagon (1969)
Rogue Cop (1954)
RR (2007)
Strange Holiday (1945)
Walkabout (1971)

Pleasant surprise: The Fat Man.

Disappointment: Paint Your Wagon

Honorable mention: Rogue Cop

Best of show: Walkabout.

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A Florida Enchantment (1914) 

"I, Hauser Oglethorpe, in the year of our Lord 1813, was shipwrecked off the coast of Africa. I learned that the tribe of natives which rescued me recruited their ranks by capturing the women of neighboring tribes. These women soon became men. Quasi, their chief, confessed that he owned a tree, the seeds of which changed men to women and vice versa."

Swallowing one of these magic seeds allows Miss Lillian to become as much a man as her fiancé. They flirt with the same women, leading to mayhem, and Miss Lillian forces her maid to swallow a pill so she becomes he, and becomes her valet.

The gender-switcheroo is considered groundbreaking in cinema history, and while none of this is particular risque, leading lady and silent superstar Edith Storey looks damned fine in a suit and mustache. Playing his or her intended husband or wife (depending on the seeds) is Sidney Drew, who looks at least twice Storey's age, and sits somewhere in the Drew and Barrymore family trees as Drew Barrymore's great-great-great-something or other.

This is supposed to be a comedy, but drag and crossdressing isn't particularly funny in itself; to make it entertainment, you gotta do something funny or be very convincing, and this movie is neither, sorry.

For an audience of me 108 years later, it would've worked better as a drama.

As for the laughs. many are supposed to come from black maids and mammies, porters and housekeepers being played by white people in blackface, with exaggeratedly wide eyes and walking and gesturing broadly. They're a caricature of humans, and it's jarring, even in a silent film.

Verdict: NO, unless you're curating a museum.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Fat Man (1950)

The Fat Man was a very good old-time radio drama, but I hadn't known they'd made it into a movie. It's an enjoyable whodunit with some laughs, and a mystery worth unraveling.

J Scott Smart starred on radio, solving crimes despite being fat, and he stars again here. You probably don't know him from anything else; I sure don't, but he's perfect, and not just because the suit fits.

Directed by William Castle, famed as the king of movie gimmicks — I Saw What You Did, with shock buzzers wired to the theater seats, 13 Ghosts, with special glasses that made ghosts appear on the screen, and so on. There's no gimmick here, though, except that the protagonist is portly. 

Somebody kills a dentist who's about to announce a major breakthrough in dental technology, and the killer tosses the corpse out a window from great height. It's an effective shot, the body crashing through a skylight far below. There's something you don't see on the radio.

The cops say it was an accident, but the dead doctor's dental hygienist (Jayne Meadows) brings her doubts to the fat detective, Brad Runyan, interrupting his dinner. Cue the movie's tuba-centric score.

Runyan's fatness is used as a running gag, but morbidly obese myself, I wasn't offended. There's never anything mean about it, only several lines about the fat man's appetite and overeating. And it is funny watching him plop into a tiny sportscar and drive away, or frantically dance with Julie London (Emergency).

Runyan's wispy man Friday is also a laugh, oiling the fat man's salad or mixing the perfect bourbon smash.

There are so many laughs here it's almost a comedy, but the dark elements work very well, too.

Runyan has the annoying old-time habit of calling every woman "Sweetheart" instead of by her name, and the movie has a brief glimpse of blackface. Mostly, though, it's lightly enjoyable noir, especially when the investigation leads to a clown college, where Runyan grills noted greasepaint comedian Emmett Kelly. 

Verdict: YES.

On the radio show, the fat man's fatness was established by having Runyan step on the scales at the beginning of every episode. His weight varied from 237 to 239 pounds, which was comically fat back then. In a movie, they didn't need the scales, but 'fat' has gotten fatter. In 2022, he doesn't look fat enough to call him the fat man. I'd sure need to lose weight to be so svelte.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Paint Your Wagon (1969)

My parents took the family to see almost every movie musical of the 1960s and '70s, but we never saw Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's Paint Your Wagon. Watching it yesterday, I quickly figured out why. Mom & Dad must've read a synopsis of the plot:

There's a gold rush on, and Ben (Lee Marvin) and his prospecting Pardner (Clint Eastwood, as 'Pardner') live in a brand new town comprised only of men — all straight, I guess, and all horny.

A Mormon comes to town with two wives, and one of the locals complains, "It just ain't equitable, man, for you to be having two of something all of us here got none of." A bidding war ensures, and Ben buys Elizabeth (Jean Seberg), one of the Mormon's wives, for $800.

Then, because they're best buddies and she loves them both, Ben & Elizabeth invite Pardner to join them in a three-way marriage.

That's not the set-up, that's pretty much the entire movie. There's no doublecross or treachery, no scheming, no real conflict, no antagonist, and of course, no nudity or sex or anything.

See, other people wouldn't approve, so the whole movie is about pretending it's not a three-way marriage, and also ha-ha how bawdy the men are, until everyone learns the errors of their ways and the happy triple gets dismantled.

It's a sappy morality play with songs, a few of which are catchy and well-written enough that even Marvin and Eastwood can't mangle them too badly. Worth hearing is "They Call the Wind Mariah," "I Talk to the Trees," and the opening choral piece, "I'm On My Way." Somewhat surprising for Lerner and Loewe, half the songs feel like filler, like "It's been a Few Minutes Since a Song So We Are Singing Now."

It's odd seeing Eastwood play the sidekick, and odder hearing him sing, but he's borderline adequate. Seberg's singing was wisely dubbed, and musically, Lee Marvin is an acquired taste I'll never acquire. His rendition of "Wandering Star" was somehow a chart-topping hit, which proves that the collapse of civilization has been going on for a long time.

All of this takes two hours and forty frickin' minutes, which is far too long for a musical with such an uninteresting story and so many so-so songs, often sung off-key.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Rogue Cop (1954)

Robert Taylor plays Detective Chris Kelvaney, flashing a gun as his search warrant, tossing a trash can through your front window if you don't answer the doorbell, and we're told he's on the take.

Eddie (Steve Forrest) is his brother, a beat cop, and just the nicest, swellest fellow that could be.

Karen (Janet Leigh) is Eddie's girl, and she's sweet too, but maybe she has a past. Detective Kelvaney sure thinks so, as he busts into her apartment despite her protestations, slaps her around, and kisses her to show her how tough he is.

Kelvaney is the rogue cop mentioned in the title, and he's an awful man, but he's the character you're supposed to root for. While the Hays Code was in effect this is probably the best movie allowed about a bad cop, and within those parameters, it's pretty good.

It's based on a novel by William P. McGivern, whose other books became such noir classic flicks as The Big Heat, Odds Against Tomorrow, Shield for Murder, and a few others I haven't seen but plan to. The man was made of solid noir. 

The story opens with a murder at an old-style pinball parlor, and Wrinkles Fallon did it. Gotta love a bad guy who goes by 'Wrinkles'.

Good cop Eddie almost catches the killer, but at least gets a good look at him, and the mob wants bad cop Kelvaney to lean on his brother to forget what he saw. Baby brother, being very righteous, ain't having it.

There's a rollickin' fist-fight between Kelvaney and Alan Hale (the Skipper from Gilligan's Island). There's a very pushy priest playing the role of Kelvaney's conscience. Anne Francis plays a floozy fabulously, there's suicide in a bathtub, and plenty of noiry patter. George Raft rocks it as the local Mafia kingpin, and Vince Edwards pops up as a small-timer who thinks he's a big-timer.

Two scenes take place at a block-long newsstand full of hundreds of magazines and out-of-town newspapers, and man, that brought back memories — those big newsstands were the internet of that era, the only place to go for the latest news from all over.

All in all, it's a rousing dark drama from the old days. Probably it's even better than I think it is, because asking me to root for a bad cop is a mighty big ask.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

RR (2007)

Some people find trains fascinating, and I'm one of those people. I enjoy riding trains, and enjoy watching trains go by — giant machinery rolling on tracks across thousands of miles, serenely but loudly hauling everything mankind makes, including mankind, almost anywhere on earth.

Documentarian James Benning bills himself here as JB to match the film's abbreviated title. Dozens of times, he's set up his camera to film a train's approach, roar-by, and vanishing. There's no narration, because who needs it?

My complaint is that as some of the trains roll by, JB has added non-train sounds. One train gets President Dwight Eisenhower's retirement speech. Another gets baseball play-by-play. Another gets a Christian sermon. The talking is where the movie derails.

For the passing trains that are simply filmed and recorded, you can really become absorbed into the enormous spectacle, which is always, in reality or in RR, irresistible. Like an extrovert who won't shut up, when there's talking it's simply an annoyance.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦

Strange Holiday (1945)

This opens with a several-minute montage of men at war throughout history, complete with narration that clearly admires warfare. Have I signed up for a war movie? Hell, I hate war movies almost as much as I hate war, but it's written and directed by Arch Oboler, so I'll stick around. His work is usually interesting, and sometimes interesting but flawed.

That's what we have here. It's not a war movie, so I don't understand that opening montage, except that WW2 was still raging as it was made and released.

Claude Rains stars, and tells the camera his story in words and flashbacks from a prison cell. He took an ordinary vacation, but when he got back, everything had changed.

Like another Oboler disappointment, The Bubble, this movie squanders more than half its running time not only not revealing what's changed, but not even asking, and when what's happened is finally revealed…

Sorry, I can't tell you. No spoilers allowed. But you'll probably guess.

This might have been an effective object lesson for very ordinary people back then. In the whirlwind of where we are in 2022, it feels trite to me, but about 45,000,000 Americans could use this little lesson in civics.

"Freedom is never a gift, but a victory which each of us must guard with heart and mind."

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Walkabout (1971)

When I first saw this movie, in the late '70s, it was primarily because I'd heard that Jenny Agutter is nude in it. She is, and she's very pretty, but that's not why I re-watched it today, and anyway, there's lots less naked Agutter than I'd remembered.

Father, daughter, and son are headed for a lovely picnic, but Dad's brought a gun, starts shooting at the kids, lights the car afire, and then blows his own head off. So it's a family film.

The boy is barely old enough to walk and talk but he's as annoying as a real kid his age. The girl, in her late teens, tries to keep what's happened from him, and more urgently, tries to find their way across the arid Australian outback where they're now stranded.

They're soon desperate for water, and rescued by a native boy who speaks no English, but knows how to extract H2O from the ground. These three become friends despite the lack of a common language, and soon enough, the native boy notices the same thing I've noticed and so will you, that Jenny is, ah, noticeable.

The outback is beautiful, the imagery is amazing, and the story is riveting. Nic Roeg directed, so there are implications left dangling and mysteries unexplained, and figuring out the movie's meaning is up to you. My takeaway from Walkabout is a question: Are these kids making their way back to civilization, or away from it?

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Coming attractions:  

• Flatland (2007)
• Its Ugly Head (1974)
• Jeanne Dielman,
  23 quai du Commerce,
  1080 Bruxelles
• Mystery Train (1989)
• The Number 23 (2007)
• Paper Tiger (1975)
• Satanwar (1979)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   



  1. Prime Agutter fodder for me is Logan's Run and American Werewolf In London, the former a guilty pleasure and the latter simply the best horror comedy of all time.

    Also excellent and very overlooked are I Start Counting, The Eagle Has Landed, Equus, and China 9 Liberty 37 (Warren Fucking Oates! Monte Hellman!)

    Coming Attractions:

    Flatland is a wonderful book, didn't know there was a film.

    Jeanne Dielman: I presume you're watching this thanks to the recent Sight & Sound poll that shockingly named it best film of all time, and filmatists everywhere lost their collective shit! It's a wonderful film, though somewhat dishonest, more an experiment than an honest of expression of anything. Certainly not the greatest film ever made. Not even in the top ten films ever made by a woman... but I'm probably a misogynist.

  2. I've been watching that Quinn Martin Production, Cannon, starring William Conrad, and there's usually a 'fat' joke in there with every episode. He doesn't look particularly big during the first season, but by season five he looks uncomfortable and not as mobile. I love how he comes across as a well-educated man of the world whose eyes turn psycho when he needs to judo chop his opponent into submission.

    Never saw the much later Conrad vehicle, Jake and the Fat Man, but the promo photo I just saw has Conrad looking much skinnier than any season of Cannon, so not sure why they kept going with the 'fat' tag/joke. I also fail to see the humor. But this was an era when apparently Asian people were also automatically hilarious for existing. -- Arden

    1. I like 'filmatists', but prefer filmaniac.

      AmWereLondon is definitely good, in my recollection, but is the best horror comedy of all time? Hmmm. My mind immediately leaps to The Lair of the White Worm, and I'm sure there are myriad others I'm forgetting.

      Saw Jeanne Dielman a few days ago, still working on a review, and yeah, totally inspired by that rigged poll. I'd never even heard of it. Definitely a good movie, but just as definitely & give me a break, not the best movie ever made.

      Neither is Flatland, but if you're a math geek you'll like it, and you must be a math geek if you liked the book.

      I liked some Quinn Martin shows when I was a little Holland. The Fugitive, and Cannon. What I remember about Cannon is that he was a lollipop connoisseur, and he had a phone in his car, about the size of six volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica.

      Not quite Quinn Martin, but I also liked O'Hara and Harry O, back-to-back one-season shows with David Janssen. And Mannix, man. I have watched some Mannix recently, and it's still pretty good.


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