Thursday, November 21, 2019

Thursday Movie Picks #280: Over a Meal

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This time, the theme is "Over a Meal". Now, my first thought was of a certain memorable scene from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane:

But, I decided to go with three different films instead:

Come to Dinner (1934). Warner Bros. made this two-reeler which is a parody of MGM's 1933 hit Dinner at Eight. In making it, Warners used celebrity impersonators to impersonate the main stars of Dinner at Eight, with varying success, since it's nigh on impossible to duplicate Jean Harlow. (Billie Burke, on the other hand, is easy, and there's also an extra musical number added that includes a great ZaSu Pitts impersonator.) It also turns the original movie's plot on its head, as in the relationship between the John Barrymore actor character and the Lee Tracy agent. It's available as an extra on Dinner at Eight and if you know the original is highly worth a watch.

Sunday Dinner for a Soldier (1944). Anne Baxter and Charles Winninger play a poor family in Florida in World War II who take part in a program to provide a home-cooked meal for a soldier who's about to go off and fight. Things go wrong and they nearly don't get a soldier, but then all of a sudden sergeant John Hodiak shows up. He and Baxter wind up falling in love, despite the fact that he's going to be leaving for the war in short order.

Babette's Feast (1987). Stéphane Audran plays Babette, a Parisian chef who is forced to flee the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and winds up at a small village in northern Denmark where her opera-singer lover had a former lover decades earlier. That other lover and her sister never married, instead carrying on their late father's religious work, which isn't going well ever since Dad died. Babette changes the entire village's fortunes, until she wins the French lottery and she plans a special dinner for the old man's centenary, leading everybody to think she's going to leave.

John Ford night, and a documentary

Tonight's lineup on TCM is a night of movies directed by John Ford, some of which I've already mentioned before, starting with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at 8:00 PM. But I mention the night for two reasons. First is that there's a new-to-TCM documentary on, John Ford: The Man Who Invented America, overnight at 1:15 AM. I haven't seen the documentary, but for some reason I get the same sort of vibe that I had after watching the documentary on James Stewart and Robert Mitchum that TCM ran at the beginning of the year, which while nice to see was nothing particularly noteworthy.

Just before the documentary, there's The Battle of Midway at 12:45 AM. This is one of the movies Ford made during his time in the military in World War II, taking actual footage from the battle to make a two-reel short about one of the decisive battles in the Pacific theater of World War II. No CGI here unlike more recent movies about the battle; of course they didn't have computers in those days to do CGI.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

This Gun for Hire

I mentioned a few days ago that I had watched This Gun for Hire because of an upcoming TCM appearance but was going to hold off on doing a post about it because it's already on DVD and there was something else on that I wanted to blog about. So now that I don't have much else to blog about, it's a good time to do that post on This Gun for Hire.

Alan Ladd plays Philip Raven, who lives in a rooming house and seems to have no friends save for a cat who lives on the fire escape and whom he feeds. Raven gets a letter, giving the address of where he's supposed to go for his next job. That job is... shooting a blackmailer! Worse, the blackmailer was supposed to be alone but there's a woman there, so Raven has to kill two people!

Raven gets paid off by Willard Gates (Laird Cregar), who makes it a point to give Raven bills that are known to have been stolen, from Gates' boss Brewster (Tully Marshall), a noted industrialist. Apparently the blackmailer knew somthing about either Gates or Brewster, but damned if Raven can figure it out. Looks like a chemical formula or something.

Meanwhile, I mentioned that there was money stolen from Brewster, although that's probably more of a set-up to get marked bills in Raven's hands. The police don't realize this yet, and have a police detective Michael Robert Preston) on the case. He's got a girlfriend in Ellen (Veronica Lake), and she's about to get involved in the whole case too.

World War II has recently started, and folks in Washington think there might be something hinky going on with somebody in Brewster's enterprise. So a US Senator get Ellen, a nightclub entertainer, to audition for a job at a club owned by Gates. Ellen heads out to Los Angeles to get to that club, while Raven heads there because the murder he committed was in San Francisco. Not only does he want to get away, he realizes he's been set up by Gates, and wants revenge.

Ellen and Raven meet on the train to Los Angeles, and the sparks fly, even though she's got a boyfriend, and even though they're ostensibly on opposite sides of the law, Raven being a hired killer after all. But sometimes the enemy of your enemy is indeed your friend, and once Ellen falls afoul of Gates, they're both going to be on the run, with both Gates and the police looking for them.

This Gun for Hire has a pretty complicated plot for a fairly short movie, so you're going to have to pay pretty close attention. If the movie has one problem, it's not the plot's complexity, but the fact that with the existence of the Production Code, a hired killer like Raven is going to have to face justice at the end, even though he is in many ways as much a hero here as the cops.

The acting is uniformly good, with it being really nice to see Laird Cregar away from his home studio of Fox. He died way too young, and it always makes me wonder how his career would have gone had he lived. This movie is the one that made Ladd a star, and deservedly so. Robert Preston is nominally top-billed alongside Lake, but he has the least to do.

If you haven't seen This Gun for Hire yet, it's one I can definitely recommend.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Endearing terms

When Shirley MacLaine got a day in TCM's Summer Under the Stars this year, one of the movies TCM ran was Terms of Endearment. Not having blogged about it here before, I finally sat down to watch it and do a post here.

Shirley plays Aurora Greenway, a new mother in Houston TX some decades back with a young daughter Emma. She's extremely protective of Emma, getting up in the middle of the night just to make certain the baby is breathing. Some years pass, and Aurora's husband dies. Aurora offers to comfort Emma by letting Emma sleep with her, but Emma doesn't need that. So Aurora gets into Emma's bed! Like I said, she's overprotective.

More time passesand we see a near-adult Emma with her friend Patsy (Lisa Hart Carroll), and finally, about to get married to Flap (Jeff Daniels), who is looking to start a career as a college English professor, something that's going to take a lot of struggle. Mom is none too certain that Flap is right for her daughter, to the point that Mom is willing to skip the wedding to protest.

So as we can see there are any number of complicated emotions between mother and daughter. However, they still get along well enough to call each other on the phone all the time, as they discuss Emma's path through life. First it involves her getting pregnant with her first son, followed by an event that's sure to be traumatic for Mom: Flap has gotten a job that might be tenure-track, but it's up in Des Moines, IA, a good 15-hour drive away if not more. Mom's going to be left all alone!

Well, not quite. Mom has a few friends in a doctor as well as Vern (Danny DeVito). There's also the next-door neighbor, astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). He's a bit of a hard liver, constantly coming home with young women. One day he offers to take Aurora out to lunch, but she politely declines. Now that Emma is going off to Iowa, however, Aurora is thinking of finally taking Garrett up on that offer.

Life continues to go on for the two women, as Aurora and Garrett have an on-again, off-again relationship, while Emma has a second son, followed by a daughter, and figures that Flip might actually be cheating on her. As a result of that, when she makes the acquaintance of local banker Sam (John Lithgow), she decides to have an affair of her own.

Through it all, mother and daughter keep up their long-distance phone relationship, until a sudden change when Emma is diagnosed with cancer. Aurora goes up north to take care of the children, and possibly even take custody, while Flap is faced with the big choice of what he wants to do in life.

The idea of Terms of Endearment is quite a good one, and I found it interesting that it's based on a book by Larry McMurtry, since this is the sort of material you'd expect to have "chick flick" written all over. To be fair, that is at least somewhat the case, and any guy who prefers action movies to straight-up dramas may find this movie a bit tough to get through, especially in the last half-hour or so once Emma is diagnosed with cancer.

However, the performances are quite good, with Nicholson taking a step down and winning a Supporting Actor Oscar. MacLaine won the Best Actress Oscar, beating out Winger, as she gives an excellent portray of a mother who is at times obnoxiously overbearing. That having been said, some people might find the character a bit too overbearing; I know I wanted to shake some sense into her once or twice. Jeff Daniels is good in another dramatic role, although I'd mentioned that once before regarding Marie: A True Story. DeVito doesn't have much to do despite fourth billing, while Lithgow is surprisingly good in a drama, getting his second straight Oscar nomination.

Terms of Endearment may not be everybody's cup of tea, and I'm not certain if it deserved to win Best Picture -- I think I'd pick The Dresser. But it's certainly a fine movie worthy of seeing.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Terminal Station

One of the movies that TCM ran during the "Short and Sweet" spotlight back in October was Indiscretion of an American Wife. Not having done a post on it before, I decided to DVR it and watch.

Jennifer Jones plays Mary, an American in Rome who's apparently been visiting relatives there or something. At the start of the movie, she's writing a note saying that she can't see someone any longer -- but chickens out on delivering it. Instead, she goes to the central train station in Rome, looking for the earliest train out of the country to Paris. She's obviously escaping something. But what?

Before the train leaves, two people show up. One is her nephew Paul (a very young Richard Beymer). The other is Giovanni (Montgomery Clift), who was the intended recipient of that letter that Mary never delivered. The two were having a love affair, but Mary is maried with a husband back in Philadelphia. One would think Giovanni should have known about this and that the affair could never last, but he doesn't care or is stupid or something, because he keeps pressuring Mary to stay with her.

They talk about it in the station's restaurant, in a section that's closed so that they deservedly get kicked out. Then they talk about it in the corridors. Then they go outside and into one of the stopped train cars, where they have the sort of romantic tryst that we saw Bette Davis having in Now, Voyager in the flashback to what brought on her nervous breakdown, only the scene in Indiscretion of an American Wife isn't a flashback.

The two lovers get caught out and brought to the train station's police department, where they're going to have to face justice which is going to cause Mary to miss her train. Not that Giovanni cares, probably, since he still seems to want Mary to stay in Rome with him.

Indiscretion of an American Wife is a movie that has a bad reputation from the critics, and frankly, now that I've watched it I understand way. It's talky and tedious even though it runs barely over an hour. The movie was directed on location in Rome by Vittorio De Sica, and the locations are the film's one bright spot. De Sica's original work ran 89 minutes, and American producer David O. Selznick edited it down to about 63 or 64 for distribution in America. Some people suggest it's Selznick's ham-fisted handling of the movie that's the problem, but I can't help but think another 216 minutes of the stuff we do have wouldn't make it much better.

That having been said, it is possible to get that longer edit, called Terminal Station. Both edits (more or less) are on pricey a Criterion Collection release. (Note that the Criterion site says the American version is 72 minutes, including an overture by Patti Page that wasn't on the 63/64-minute print that TCM ran.)

Sunday, November 17, 2019

A heads-up and a review

There are multiple movies coming up that I watched in order to do reviews on. One of them is currently on DVD while the other one is getting a release in the near future, so I decided to make today's post a review of the latter and just mention the first in passing, saving a full review for a later day. So with that in mind, I'll point out that not too long after running it in Noir Alley, TCM has another airing of This Gun For Hire, tonight at 10:15 PM as part of a double bill of Alan Ladd Movies.

The movie not yet out is The Abominable Snowman (of the Himalayas), which is going to be on FXM tomorrow morning at 9:35 AM, and is getting a Blu-ray release on December 10. This is a Hammer Films release, made in the UK and distributed in the US by Fox, which is why it's back on the FXM schedule after a long absence.

Peter Cushing plays Dr. Rollason, who has been studying botany in the Himalayas, with his wife Helen (Maureen Connell) and an assistant Fox (Richard Wattis) along. They're about to leave, much to Mrs. Rollason's relief, but there's still one more matter to take care of. An American named Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker) is interested in figuring out whether the legend of the Yeti is real, and if it is, get evidence to prove it. Dr. Rollason knows more about the area than anybody else, and has a good scientific mind, so since the personnel are going to be limited so as not to frighten any Yeti that exist, he's going along as the true scientist.

The expedition includes him, Friend, Friend's assistant Shelley (Robert Brown), a Scot named McNee (Michael Brill) who claims to have seen the Yeti, and one Sherpa guide Kusang (Wolfe Morris) who also claims to have seen it. Helen and Fox are both staying behind in the village, seeing the mysterious Lhama who seems to know more than he's letting on from time to time in cutaways that I didn't understand why they were in the movie.

Being as high up in the Himalayas as the expedition requires is always tough, but it seems as though winter is coming on which is going to make things only tougher. But that's not the real problem. Friend is in charge of the expedition since he's doing most of the funding, and he reveals not too far in that the real point of it is to take one of the Yeti alive for showing it off like Carl Denham did in the original King Kong; this is something that bothers Dr. Rollason to no end.

Friend has also done a lot of other things that bother Rollason, such as setting traps for the Yeti and not telling anybody else, so that McNee eventually gets caught in one of the traps. Friend is so obsessed with capturing a Yeti that he doesn't even want to let McNee go back to the village. The sledge is for carrying a Yeti, not for carrying McNee.

The Yeti -- or whatever is out there -- have no intention of being captured. Something exists out there, however, as there are tracks and we see one scene of a hairy gorilla-like hand trying to steal one of the party's guns. This only serves to make Friend even more determined to catch a Yeti.

Eventually, they do get a Yeti, but to Friend's horror, it's a dead Yeti. He doesn't want a museum specimen; he wants something he can show off. But there are other Yeti out there. And they don't want one of their own to be taken down the mountains....

The Abominable Snowman (as it was called in the UK and on the print FXM ran; the Blu-ray and the box guide both list it under the extended title The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas) is a movie with a perfectly suitable premis. But it's ultimately brought down by the fact that there's a heck of a lot less going on than the premise would suggest. There are shades of The Thing From Another World here, but this movie feels a lot more perfunctory; I think it's not helped out by the constant going back to the village down the mountain. The foreshadowing and ominous threat we don't see are also not handled as well in some other movies.

Still, I'm sure there are other people who are going to think this one doesn't fizzle out, so as always, watch and judge for yourself. You've got a chance tomorrow, possibly later chances on FXM (although I should point out that the FXM print is panned and scanned down to 16:9 outside of the opening and closing credits), or the pricey Blu-ray next month.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

A Song to Remember

One of the movies that I recorded during Paul Muni's turn as TCM's Star of the Month was A Song to Remember.

The movie is a biopic of Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, but Muni doesn't play Chopin despite getting top billing. Chopin as an adult is played by Cornel Wilde, while the movie starts of with Chopin still a child in his native Poland. Muni plays Jozef Elsner, who was one of Chopin's early music teachers (in real life, at the Warsaw Conservatory; in the movie, the lessons take place at the Chopin family home and start at a much younger age). In any case, Chopin's musical talent was recognized from a fairly young age. Elsner has a letter from Parisian piano builder and music publisher Louis Pleyel (George Coulouris) that if the young Chopin is such a talent, then bring him to Paris. But the Chopin family doesn't have the money to send young Frédéric to Paris.

Some years pass. If you know your history, after 1815 the part of Poland where the Chopins lived became a Russian possession, and Frédéric is none too happy about this, vowing that he's going to help the people of Poland become free. Chopin grows up and his agitation for Polish independence becomes politically dangerous. Thankfully, Elsner has saved up the money to go to Paris that the Chopins don't have, so he and Frédéric are able to make a hasty escape to France.

When they go to see Pleyel, Pleyel remembers nothing about the letter, which is probably because the letter is now 11 years old. Pleyel wanted a child prodigy; adult pianists/composers are a dime a dozen, regardless of how much talent they seem to have. But Chopin is saved when the compositions he left in the other room are played by another pianist who turns out to be Franz Liszt (the movie puts him as being some years older than Chopin where in reality he was a year younger). Liszt had been studying in Paris for several years, so his vote of approval is a big deal, and Liszt and Chopin become friends.

Chopin's first recital doesn't go well, however, with only the author Georges Sand (Merle Oberon) supporting Chopin. She's interesting to Frédéric because she believes nobody will take a woman author truly seriously, which is why she's given herself a male pseudonym and does male things like wear pants and smoke cigars. Chopin really likes her, going to her estate outside Paris regularly, and then to Majorca when his health starts going downhill.

His health is one of the problems that threatens his career, with the other, at least in Elsner's eyes, being Sand herself. Then there are the political tensions back home, as the Polish revolutionaries Chopin knew before he left want him to raise money for their cause. It's all going to kill him at a young age....

A Song to Remember is a pretty movie to look at with its Technicolor photography, and lovely to listen to thanks to the music of Frédéric Chopin, played by José Iturbi. But very little of it is actually real. I mentioned a few mistakes already, while another big one I haven't mentioned is that Elsner did not go to Paris with Chopin, which rather makes all that follows with his character and the centrality of Elsner to the plot a bit tough to swallow if you're looking for authenticity. Still, all three of the leads do a creditable job and if you look at the movie strictly in entertainment terms instead of factualness, there's nothing wrong with it.

A Song to Remember is available on DVD and is more than worth a watch as an excellent example of the fictitious biopic from the studio era.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Back to Bataan

One of my recent DVD purchases was this four-movie set of John Wayne war pictures. First up from the set is Back to Bataan.

If you remember your history of World War II or have seen enough other movies, you'll recall that the Philippines were a US possession until after World War II, and that Japan invaded and ultimately took the islands a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, leading Douglas MacArthur to declare "I shall return!" The movie starts off with a brief scene of the US retaking the islands, flashing back to the start of the war in the Philippines.

John Wayne plays Col. Madden, who leads a bunch of US troops, which include Filipinos, such as Capt. Bonifacio (Anthony Quinn). The Japanese come, and while MacArthur retreats, Madden is ordered to get to the Filipino resistance and help them in their guerilla actions against the Japanese. Bonifacio is taken prisoner, ultimately being forced to take part in the Bataan Death March.

During the retreat, Madden and his men run into American schoolteacher Bertha (Beulah Bondi). The Japanese had stopped at her school and taken it over, hanging the principal for not taking down the American flag. Of course, the real reason for having Bertha and this school in the movie is because the schoolkids are going to make an appearance later in the movie.

The resistance goes on for about two and a half years, before MacArthur does in fact return at Leyte. But to prepare for the invasion, Madden and the Filipinos are going to have to hold off a bunch of Japanese troops, a lot more in fact than Madden has at his disposal....

Back to Bataan is in many ways a standard-issue war movie, which means that there's nothing particularly notable here, either good or bad. Part of the reason for that is that the movie was released in June 1945, and while production was going on, actual events in the war were overtaking the production, notably the liberation of the POW camps where the Bataan Death March participants were interned. All of this means that the plot, while not incoherent, seems definitely quite simplified. Then again, to be fair, American audiences in June 1945 probably weren't looking for their war movies to be particularly complex.

As for the actual box set, the one I got has two DVDs with two movies each; each DVD having its own spindle. (Some of the reviews on Amazon suggest different packaging, although with Amazon's movie reviews you often get reviews of different released mixed together.) I don't think there are any extras, but for the price you can't really expect extras. If you like war movies and/or the movies of John Wayne, this is definitely a box set for you

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Thursday Movie Picks #279: Politics

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This time, the theme is politics:

Er, not quite like that. But in any case, I was able to come up with three old movies on the theme of politics:

Parnell (1937). Clark Gable plays Charles Parnell, the Irish politician who attempted to gain Home Rule for Ireland in the 1880s (remember, it was part of the United Kingdom at the time). However, he gets derailed by an affair with a fellow MP's wife (Myrna Loy), as well as some horrendous sideburns. A lot of people consider this Gable's worst movie, but I didn't really think it was that bad.

The Great Man Votes (1939). Drunk John Barrymore plays an alcoholic father who lives in an industrial district in town, where it turns out that he is now the only registered voter. Because the district has historically been considered a bellwether, the political machine is trying to get him to cast his vote for them, thus carrying the whole district.

Ada (1961). Susan Hayward plays Ada, a woman with a past who gets married to Dean Martin while he's running for governor. Of course, he's just the figurehead with a political machine manipulating him. When he figures this out he tries to take control himself, which nearly gets him killed in a car bombing. Ada takes over as acting Governor, which causes all sorts of controversy, especially when her past is discovered. This is one of those eminently entertaining, if not quite good, potboilers that Susan Hayward made so many of the the 1950s and 60s.

Guest Programmer November 2019: Sterling K. Brown

TCM's Guest Programmer spotlight seemed to be on hiatus for a while, but recently it's come back. Not too long ago there was Julie Andrews selecting several of her movies. Now, we've got actor Sterling K. Brown, who st down with Ben Mankiewicz and is presenting four of his favorite movies on the channel tonight.

I have to admit that I watch very little episodic television, so although I recognize the show This Is Us by title I've never seen an episode of that, or any of the other shows TCM's page for him lists him as having been in. Having said that, he's got an interesting selection of movies:

To Kill a Mockingbird at 8:00 PM, in which Gregory Peck defends a black man in a racially-charged case in 1930s Alabama;
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at 10:30 PM, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton arguing over and after dinner and horrifying their two guests;
Cool Hand Luke at 1:00 AM, starring Paul Newman as a chain-gang prisoner who eats a bunch of hard-boiled eggs; and
The Pink Panther at 3:15 AM, with Peter Sellers playing inept detective Inspector Clouseau and causing chaos around him.