Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Tide of Empire

Yet another movie that's available from the Warner Archive is Tide of Empire.

A late silent with a synchronized score and sound effects, the movie is set mostly in late 1840s California, although we get an introduction to old Spanish/Mexican California and its noble families with large ranches. One such family is the Guerreros, led by patriarch Don Jose (George Fawcett) with son Romauldo (William Collier Jr.) and daughter Josephita (Renée Adorée). Of course, the late 1840s means the Americans have gained the territory in the Mexican-American war, and they've just discovered gold up at Sutter's mill in the northern part of the territory. The discovery of gold brings lots and lots of Anglos to pan for gold and try to make their fortune.

One such Anglo is Dermod D'Arcy (Tom Keene, although he's credited as George Duryea, which was his birth name). He comes on his fast horse looking for gold, and when he finds that Don Jose is entering one of his horses in a race with another Hispanic nobleman, Dermod decides to make his horse the third. And wouldn't you know it, Dermod has the fastest horse. There's been wagering on the race, and that results in Dermod winning the Guerrero ranch. Not that Dermod really wanted it. And once he meets Josephita, he of course falls in love with her. So he wants to deed the ranch back to her family, but as he's about to do that, Don Jose dies!

Josephita and Romauldo both have good reason to be bitter. There's also the matter of all those Anglos coming into the territory looking for gold. They've been finding it, and are going to ship it back east via the shipping company run by Messrs. Wells and Fargo. But not if some people have their way. They'd just as soon hold up the shipments and take the gold for themselves. Romauldo joins one such gang....

Tide of Empire is a breezy, well-made late silent. When it comes to silents, I've always preferred the comedies and adventure movies, but Tide of Empire certainly succeeds in entertaining. Not that there's anything particularly new here; I couldn't help but think of The Trail of '98 which was about the gold rush in the Klondike and released about a year before this one. With certain scenes, I was wondering whether I had seen them before. Still, fans of silents will like Tide of Empire.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Down Argentine Way

For some reason, I thought Down Argentine Way was available on DVD courtesy of Fox's MOD scheme. It's not as far as I can tell, but it turns out there is a standalone DVD that's probably out of print because you can get it at Amazon but not the TCM Shop. Amazon also does the streaming video thing, and there's also a four-film Betty Grable set that is apparently in print, as it's available from both Amazon and the TCM Shop.

Although the movie is in a Betty Grable box set, it's actually Don Ameche who gets top billing and shows up first. He's Ricardo Quintana, an Argentine and son of Don Diego, a wealthy horse breeder. Don Diego is looking to sell some of his horses in the US, and sends Ricardo there to handle the sales. Get the highest price, but with one caveat: don't sell to Willis Crawford (Edward Fielding), who apparently screwed Don Diego over while the two were at boarding school in Paris ages ago, or any member of his family.

While in America, Ricardo meets the beautiful Glenda (Betty Grable). He falls in love with her, and she with him, as well as with one of the horses he's selling. However, there's one catch. Glenda's last name is Crawford: she's Willis' daughter. No sale.

Glenda is determined to get that horse, and frankly determined to get Ricardo as well, so she follows Ricardo back to Argentina, accompanied by her aunt Binnie (Charlotte Greenwood). The usual complications ensue. One further complication is that Don Diego's horses only do show-jumping, ever since one of his beloved horses died in a flat track race 15 years earlier. Ricardo and Glenda decide to train Don Diego's current favorite for the big flat track race.

The plot of Down Argentine Way is silly and predictable, and you know where it's going. But there are still good reasons to watch it. Charlotte Greenwood provided support in several Fox musicals of the 1940s, notably this one and The Gang's All Here, and she's got a great high kick for musical numbers and pretty good comic timing. More noteworthy would be the Hollywood debut of Carmen Miranda. She was still under contract at a New York nightclub at the time of production, so Fox had to film her scenes in New York and then splice them into the movie. That's probably why she only shows up as a musical performer, with just two or three songs. The one you'll most recognize is "South American Way", which is sung by the two daughters in Mildred Pierce as well.

Also appearing for the musical numbers are the Nicholas brothers, doing one of their dance routines including cringe-inducing splits for those of us who aren't quite as flexible as the brothers. Since they were black, the numbers have fairly obvious cutting points where exhibitors in the South could snip to remove the scene so that white audiences wouldn't have to see it.

To be honest, there's nothing in Down Argentine Way that movie buffs haven't seen in any number of other movies. But it's still solid entertainment, and anybody who likes the early 1940s musicals or romance movies will certainly enjoy it.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Movie Endings

TCM spent last week looking at the films of Elizabeth Taylor, showing her films every weeknight in prime time for the entire week. So, with no Star of the Month this week we get a new week-long theme, which is Movie Endings.

Somebody came up with movies that have interesting endings and categorized them into a bunch of different types, so we get a different type of ending on each night. Unsurprisingly, I'm not certain I agreee with all of their choices.

They thought, for example, that it would be a good example to include 2001: A Space Odyssey (11:45 PM Tuesday) in a night of movies with musical endings. So the movie used "Also Sprach Zarathustra" and the "Blue Danube" waltz. Big whoop. The whole final third of the movie is a mess. Just because it's prettied up with some classical music doesn't make it a great ending.

They put Now, Voyager (4:30 AM Thursday) in with the "Romantic Endings", which is reasonable considering the scheduling challenges in programming something like this. But Thursday night's theme is "Famous Last Words", which would also be suitable for Now, Voyager

And then there's the lack of comedic endings, which excludes a whole bunch of great movie endings. Some Like It Hot is one of the best examples. I also really love the ending of the original To Be or Not to Be, with Jack Benny playing Hamlet in England. Dinner at Eight is another movie with a great closing line. But none of these show up this week.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Come to Dinner

So I popped in my DVD of the 1933 Dinner at Eight off the Jean Harlow four-film box set. (It's got the same four films as this from the TCM Shop, but different cover art.) The short included with Dinner at Eight was the hilarious Come to Dinner.

Released in early 1934, a few months after Dinner at Eight, Come to Dinner spoofs the feature film in two reels using as much as possible lookalikes to play the main characters and parodying the plot. Among the scenes shown are the aspic dispute; one in Lionel Barrymore's office implying that the company actually makes toy boats rather than being a shipping company; the doctor visiting Jean Harlow (the Harlow lookalike has a dozen maids who put on a musical number parodying people like Mae Zest and Greta Gargle); and, perhaps best, the scenes in John Barrymore's hotel room. In the parody, the actor isn't a failed actor who's become an alcoholic, but an actor addicted to lemons! And he's willing to wind down his career to take small roles. This, much to the chagrin of his press agent, who reacts by trying to gas himself to death!

As for the portrayals, the men are weaker. The John Barrymore lookalike is quite good, with the Wallace Beery character being by far the weakest. The women are much better. The woman playing Harlow tries her best and doesn't do badly although nobody can do Harlow justice. The woman doing Marie Dressler is even broader in her gestures than Marie. But spare a thought for Billie Burke. The lookalike here is absolutely perfect and had me in stitches every time she was on screen.

I think anybody who's seen Dinner at Eight will absolutely love Come to Dinner.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Pot O' Gold

I don't celebrate St. Patrick's Day, but if you want a movie with some Irish characters you could do worse than Pot O' Gold.

James Stewart plays Jimmy Haskell, who runs a small-town music store that he inherited from his father. Unfortunately, Dad was never really able to make a go of it, and Jimmy is the same, as he faces a life of privation and debts that he really can't pay off. His uncle C.J. (Charles Winninger) knows all of this, and is willing to help Jimmy out. C.J. runs a big factory in the big city, and is offering Jimmy a well-paying job at the factory. Since the sheriff has an order to attach the store for unpaid debts.

Before Jimmy arrives, we learn that C.J. hates music, and has a dispute with the neighbors, the McCorkles, led by Ma (Mary Gordon) and her daughter Molly (Paulette Goddard). The let out rooms in their building to members of a swing band, who would use Molly as their singer if only they could get gigs. In the meantime, they practice and practice, which drives C.J. insane. He tries to get the law to declare the McCorkles a nuisance.

Jimmy arrives in the city, and before he's able to see C.J., he meets Mary. And then he finds that the McCorkles are being harassed for their practicing music. Jimmy plays the harmonica and joins them in a jam session, so you know Mary is going to fall in love with Jimmy. But other events transpire. C.J. tries to serve an order to cease and desist, and in the resulting dispute, Jimmy throws a tomato that accidentally hits his uncle. So Uncle wants the assailant thrown in jail, not realizing that he'd be jailing his nephew. Mary, meanwhile, never learned that Jimmy's full name is James Hamilton Haskell. If she did, she'd certainly hate him.

You can probably guess where all of this is going to go: Jimmy and Mary are going to wind up together in the last reel, and C.J. is going to be OK with music. How it gets there is always the point of a movie like this. In that regard, I prefer any number of other movies. I'm never a fan of the stereotypical Irish mother portrayal, and I didn't particularly care for the musical numbers, save for one fun dream sequence. The resolution of the plot, involving a radio show giveaway, also made no sense, as we've seen from all sorts of movies from the era that radio contests were a big thing back then.

Still, if you're looking for something that's amiable and not one bit challenging, you could do a heck of a lot worse than to watch Pot O' Gold. And I'm sure that many of you will like it more than I did.

Another TCM programming change I should have mentioned

Last week, I pointed out that TCM was scheduling Saturday mornings to be like the old Saturday matinees with shorts, a western, and other stuff. What I didn't think to mention was that TCM added a second showing of Noir Alley. Not to the Saturday morning block, although it would be fun to blow the kiddies' minds with movies like Double Indemnity or The Big Heat.

The new airing of Noir Alley is on at midnight, that being the midnight between Saturday and Sunday, so late Saturday evening in the more westerly time zones. I suppose you could say that the movie begins around 12:03 AM Sunday after Eddie Muller's intro. This showing is actually the same movie as will be run ten hours later in the old (and still there) Noir Alley time slot of 10:00 AM Sunday.

Today being St. Patrick's Day, it's interesting to think of the contrast between the traditionally light, doe-eyed look at Irish-Americans we got in old Hollywood movies with the whole idea of noir. And yet, TCM is running what might be the one noir I can think of as possibly being appropriate for St. Patrick's Day -- Crossfire. I think I've posted it before, but the book that the movie was based on had a guy get murdered because he was gay and the killer didn't like a gay guy propositioning one of his friends. In the movie, it's changed to the dead guy being Jewish. The key person asked to help ferret out the murderer is an Irish-American soldier, and his commanding officer plays on the themes of anti-Irish bigotry to get him to understand why he has to rat out somebody who'd kill a guy for being Jewish.

Surprisingly, TCM isn't airing The Quiet Man on St. Patrick's Day.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Another movie that left me cold: Taxi Driver

Every now and then, I watch a movie that's generally considered a classic but for which I feel little affinity. Another example of this would be Taxi Driver.

Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet now living in the New York City of the era when Gerald Ford told the city to drop dead, and working as a taxi driver. Bickle was left broken by his experiences in Vietnam, as he has difficulty socializing and dealing with the crime and social degradation in the city. He meets Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who is working for the presidential campaign of Senator Palantine. He falls in love with her, but the feeling is obviously unrequited because of Travis' boorish treatment of her.

Driving a cab in the overnight hours also brings Travis in contact with some of the seedier parts of the city, notably the prostitutes. Eventually he sees one named Iris (Jodie Foster) and decides he's going to be nice to her. Her pimp (Harvey Keitel) doesn't particularly like that. And in general, Travis has decided to take matters in his own hands, which involves buying a whole bunch of guns....

So why didn't I care for Taxi Driver? The obvious first thing to think about is the nature of main character Travis Bickle. He's such an unappealing jerk that I frankly didn't care what happened to him. Indeed, he's probably more of a schumck than the characters in director Martin Scorsese's earlier Mean Streets, which I mentioned here not too long ago also left me cold.

I think a brief comparison of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver is in order. While I didn't like the characters in Mean Streets, I could at least understand the point the movie was trying to make and see how it succeeded in many ways even if I didn't much care for what it was doing. Taxi Driver is even more baffling in that regard. Travis' seeming desire to shoot Palantine at a campaign rally makes no sense, which I could also say for the scene involving Travis taking a fare who is stalking his cheating wife. And the movie pretty much turns on a dime to start dealing with the prostitution angle.

Perhaps Taxi Driver was intended more as a character study. In that light it does do better, I think, than as straight storytelling. But I still found it slow, plodding, and meandering.

Everybody else says Taxi Driver is one of the great American movies, however, so you're probably going to have to watch and judge for yourself.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks #192: Childhood favorites

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of "Thursday Movie Picks", the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week, the theme is childhood favorites, which is easy enough except for the fact that I'm getting old and childhood was a long time ago. (OK, not that long ago. My dad is still alive at 80.) I'm picking three older movies, as well as a shout-out to Dad at the end:

King Kong (1933). I was a kid when the Jessica Lange remake of King Kong was released in 1976. The local library's children's program organized a showing of the 1933 original, so I would have been about four years old when I saw this, I think. The showing I saw might not have been in conjunction with the remake; my memories of that young an age are of course a bit hazy as are most people's memories from when they were just four. And the library is no longer in the same building. The old library was across from the old post office, which had already been torn down by that time, with a Jack-in-the-Box fast food joint in the location. That hasn't been there for decades, with a series of restaurants being in the location. The library wound up near Grandma's house; within walking distance when we were warehoused there while Mom and Dad were out for a day or something.

Rabbit of Seville (1950). When I was a kid, the networks still ran cartoons on Saturday mornings, and not that E/I scam designed to put programming on air that the nannies in Washington think is good for the children. (I know I've seen reruns of Saved by the Bell with the E/I bug on one of the digital sub-channels.) Anyhow, one of the channels ran the old Looney Tunes shorts, and we all watched them not realizing that these old shorts had been shown in the theaters when our parents were children. Woody Woodpecker, Tom and Jerry, Popeye, and the Pink Panther were among those shown syndicated, from what I recall. As for Rabbit of Seville, it's the short with Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in a barber shop, set against Rossini's overture to The Barber of Seville. They have the race in the barber chairs, and Bugs stands on Elmer's scalp, massaging it with his feet.

Yours, Mine, and Ours (1968). I saw this one as an older child, again on TV -- I think this was what is now the local Fox affiliate, before there was a Fox network. Hollywood made quite a few movies in the late 60s dealing with the generation gap, putting older stars in movies trying to make them appeal to the teen audience by including young stars. The ones I've seen are uniformly terrible, like I'll Take Sweden and Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows. As I blogged about near the beginning of this blog, Yours, Mine, and Ours took a different tack and made a movie that probably would have seemed square to the young people of the day, but which stands the test of time and is much better than all the generation gap stuff. Lucille Ball plays a navy nurse who is a widow with eight children. Henry Fonda plays a naval officer who is a widower with ten children. You know the two are going to be right for each other in the end. Also stars Van Johnson and Tom Bosley.

My dad's abiding childhood memory, or at least the one we always heard about, wasn't of a favorite. He has mentioned seeing some of the Bowery Boys movies, but he always mentioned how, having gone to a Catholic elementary school, the nuns dragged the students out to see The Bells of St. Mary's when it came out in 1945. He's hated the movie to this day. Of course, it's a follow-up to the treacly and mawkish Going My Way, so there's a built-in excuse for anybody who hates it. My sister bought Dad a VHS tape of The Bells of St. Mary's as a gag gift one Christmas, that's how much we all know the story of Dad's hatred for the movie.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

That Hamilton Girl

A dozen years before the lovely British production That Hamilton Woman, Warner Bros. made a silent covering much the same material called The Divine Lady. Having been made at Warner Bros., it is unsurprisingly available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

For those of you who remember That Hamilton Woman, you know what the movie is about. For those who don't, Emma, Lady Hamilton (played here by Corinne Griffith) was a British beauty of the late 18th century would would marry Lord Hamilton (played here by H.B. Warner), who at the time was the British ambassador to Naples, what with Italy still being 75 years or so away from being united. It's the 1790s, and the French revolution is leading up to Napoleon's rise to power, so British naval officer Horatio Nelson (Victor Varconi) stops in Naples to talk to the British ambassador. He meets Lady Hamilton, and the two start a doomed love affair: both of them were already married. Oh, and you know what would happen to Lord Nelson at Trafalgar.

With that history out of the way, it's time to look at the things that are a bit more speculative. The movie starts off introducing a real historical figure, Charles Greville (Ian Keith), a minor member of the British nobility. Here, her mother (Marie Dressler in a bit part) is to be Greville's new cook, but the real story is more sordid. Greville is in parlous financial straits, so in the movie he concocts a plan to send Emma off to Naples to be the mistress Hamilton, who was Greville's uncle. Hamilton won't marry this common girl and this will die unmarried, and Greville will inherit the estate, solving Greville's monetary problems. When Emma discovers the truth, Hamilton marries her because what else is there for the two of them to do.

One other big difference between this movie and That Hamilton Woman is that the latter movie shows some of Lady Hamilton's downfall after Nelson's death. (Lord Hamilton died two years before Trafalgar, and in real life Lady Hamilton did go into serious debt.) The Divine Lady concludes with Trafalgar.

But is The Divine Lady good? I think fans of silents will really enjoy it. I'm a bit less of a fan of silents, and find some of the dramas can be tougher going. The Divine Lady is one I found a bit slow at times, but there's really nothing particularly wrong with it. It's more that if I were going to introduce people to silents, I'd start with the comedies and then the adventure movies, and save dramas and melodramas for later.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Hubert de Givenchy, 1927-2018

French fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy, who would probably be best known to movie fans for supplying actress Audrey Hepburn with her wardrobe, has died at the age of 91.

Givenchy started his association with Hepburn by designing the dresses that she wore in Sabrina, at least the stylish stuff from after she returns from her sojourn in Paris. Givenchy wasn't credited with these dresses on screen, but he would get credit for other of Hepburn's movies, notably the little black dress she wore in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Oscar-nominated costume design in Funny Face. I don't think he ever did traditional movie costume design; just the stylish clothes that Audrey Hepburn wore.

Givenchy remained friends with Hepburn for the rest of her life, and also designed clothers for a bunch of other famous women, not only actresses like Ingrid Bergman but notably first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.