Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ting tang walla walla bing bang

After the success of King Solomon's Mines in 1950, studios started making more movies set in Africa. Some, like King Solomon's Mines and The African Queen, did a lot of the shooting in Africa. Others were more restricted to the soundstages and back lots, such as White Witch Dcotor, which you can see tomorrow morning at 11:15 AM on FMC/FXM.

The titular "white witch doctor" is played by Susan Hayward, but we'll get to her in a minute. The movie actually starts with Robert Mitchum, playing "Lonnie" Douglas, a man in Belgian Congo in the first decade of the last century whose ostensible job is to wrangle big African wildlife for zoos in the west. But that's only the half of what he's doing. The other half has him involved with Huysman (Walter Slezak) in a search for the mineral wealth that the region holds -- specifically, gold. They've searched all the districts in the region, except for one, where the warlike Bakuba tribe holds sway. The Bakuba are notorious for their dislike of the white man, and this fierce protectiveness, combined with the fact that the gold isn't anywhere else, leads Huysman to believe the gold must be there.

Into all this walks Ellen Burton, played by Susan Hayward. She trained as a nurse, but after the death of her doctor husband -- something conviently not revealed until a couple of reels in so that we have the chance to get some conflict between her character and Mitchum's -- she wanted to fulfill his legacy of working in Africa to bring health to the uncivilized areas of the word. So she's come to this God-forsaken place since there's a white woman running a medical clinic near here.

Lonnie thinks this is no place for a white woman, especially one not accompanied by a man, and Ellen's naïveté only confirms Lonnie's suspicions. Still, he guides Ellen to the clinic, which is a good thing, since the woman running it is on her deathbed, fairly quickly dying and leading Ellen to run it herself. When Ellen saves the life of a local non-Bakuba woman who has an abscessed tooth, the locals finally give her respect, calling her "Little Mama" after the previous lady, whom they called "Big Mama".

It's all fairly standard and formulaic plot development, leading up to the climax. The son of a Bakuba chieftain is doing his "prove your manhood" ritual by hunting a lion, and gets attacked in the process, close enough to Ellen's clinic that she's the one who winds up treating the kid's serious wounds. (The clinic is between where Huysman has his office and the Bakuba country.) The Bakuba eventually come and take the kid back home to recover, although his condition was serious enough that he's still going to need modern medicine and can only survive if Ellen goes into Bakuba country to take care of him. The Bakuba are grudgingly willing to let her come alone, but Huysman sees an opportunity to get into Bakuba country and get the gold. The Bakuba, of course, aren't about to let a whole bunch of white folk in, so Huysman has Lonnie ostensibly play guide, but use this as aruse to scout out where the gold is. Ultimately, it's not just the chieftain's son whose life hangs in the balance....

White Witch Doctor is, I think, not as good as some of the other Africa movies from the early 1950s. The reason is not because Fox didn't go to Africa to make this; instead, it's more down to the plot. The movie is predictable and oftentimes rather slow in its development. Lonnie and Ellen seem almost ripoffs of the Bogart and Hepburn characters from The African Queen. Mitchum and Hayward both try, and are reasonably competent, but they are dragged down by the script. Walter Slezak is pretty good as usual playing a villain, but he too isn't helped by the script. White Witch Doctor is an OK enough movie to watch once, but it's not anything special. As far as I know, it hasn't been released to DVD, so you'll have to catch the infrequent FMC airing.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

More Fox premieres on TCM!

This week's TCM Essential is Laura, airing at 8:00 PM this evening. I believe it's a TCM premiere; at least, I have the monthly schedules going back to July of 2007 and a search of them didn't yield any other matches for Laura other than this month's showing. Gene Tierney stars as the beautiful model Laura, whose murder police detective Dana Andrews is brought in to investigate. Laura kicks off a night of movies starring both Tierney and Andrews, with three movies all of which I've blogged about before.

TCM showed Where the Sidewalk Ends back in 2010 when Gene Tierney was one of the stars in Summer Under the Stars; it gets another airing tonight at 9:45 PM.

The last of the three movies is, I think, also a TCM premiere: The Iron Curtain, at 11:30 PM. (Figuring out whether this one was a premiere was a bit more difficult because several movies have the phrase "Iron Curtain" as part of the plot synopsis.) I recommended it before, although didn't do a full-length post on it as I thought I had, for which I apologize.

Easter Question

With tomorrow being Easter, what's your favorite movie or scene in which candy or chocolate plays a key plot role?

I'll start off with Ian Carmichael learning about how the candy snack "Num-Yum" is made, in I'm Alright Jack.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, remade about 10 years ago as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, would be another good choice, being one of those movies I have fond memories of from my childhood, although I don't think I've watched it in 20 years or more.

Buster Keaton tries to buy a box of candies for his girlfriend in Sherlock Jr., only for his rival to buy her an even better box of chocolates. As Tom Hanks says in Forrest Gump, "Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going ot get." But Forrest Gump isn't really about chocolate, and isn't a particular favorite of mine.

There's a small scene involving candy in The Grapes of Wrath that's interesting. Pa Joad (I think; it might be Grandpa Joad) goes into the diner portion of what would now be a big service station, except that they didn't have such big things back in the 1930s, so it's more like the little place in The Petrified Forest. There's a container of candies, and Pa asks if they're penny candies, to buy two for the little ones. Ah, the days when you could get anything for a penny. The woman behind the counter points out that they're actually two for a penny. After he and the kids leave, the truckers ask her what she was doing, since the candies are really a nickel each. They then proceed to remark how crazy these people must be to try to make it across the desert of Arizona in the beat-up truck that they're driving. The scene, like much of the movie, is a bit didactic and blunt -- yes, John Steinbeck, we get the point that the Depression and Dust Bowl did terrible things to the Joads and the rest of the Okies. It's still a damn good movie, however.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Miklós Rózsa, 1907-1995

Today marks the birth anniversary of Hungarian-born American composer Miklós Rózsa, who was born on this day in 1907. Rózsa started off as a classically-trained composer, and in fact continued to do "serious" (that is, non-film) classical composing all his active life. It was in the late 1930s for his fellow Hungarian emigres the Korda brothers that he first composed scores, before working at Paramount with Billy Wilder on such scores as Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend and then, from the late 1940s, for MGM, where he composed several well-known scores, including the 1959 version of Ben-Hur. Ben-Hur won Rózsa his third Oscar; the first two were for Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound and 1947's A Double Life, which rarely shows up on TCM. If you were ever wondering what he looked like and were too lazy to look up his photo, well there he is.

I said earlier that Rózsa spent most of the 1950s at MGM, so unsurprisingly, those MGM movies show up reasonably often on TCM. In fact, three of Rózsa's movies are going to be on TCM over the weekend:

Ben-Hur will be on overnight tonight at 2:00 AM;
Quo Vadis shows up tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 PM; and
the 1961 version of King of Kings forms part of TCM's Easter Sunday lineup at 1:30 PM Sunday.

For more information on Miklós Rózsa than you can shake a stick at, you could do worse than to surf over to the website of the Miklós Rózsa Society.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Shorts and other briefs for April 17, 2014

TCM's weekly schedule is showing shorts a bit further out than the daily schedule once again. TCM is airing Meet Me in St. Louis tomorrow (April 18) at 8:00 PM as part of the 90th anniversary tribute to MGM. Before that, at about 7:50 PM, is the Traveltalks short Visiting St. Louis. At least, it's on the weekly schedule; the daily schedule only has shorts on it for today, and not any further days. I've never understood why there should be such differences between the daily and weekly schedules. I would think that both of them (and the monthly schedule) go off of some master schedule database, and once the shorts are inserted into that, they'd show up on any of the TCM schedules. Apparently it doesn't work that way.

One short airing today is The Rainbow Pass, airing just after noon or just before The Good Earth (12:15 PM). The Rainbow Pass, which I haven't seen before, sounds like an interesting idea, trying to present Chinese theater to American audiences. Unfortunately, it's narrated by Carey Wilson -- I've mentioned before that I don't care for his style.

The 1935 versino of Mutiny on the Bounty is coming up at midnight tonight. I really like this one for the performance of Charles Laughton and to a slightly lesser extent the performance of Clarke Gable. They're not showing the 1962 version, so you can't compare and contrast. I briefly mentioned back in 2010 that it's Brando that is one of my big problems with the 1962 version, much as it is with a movie like Sayonara. Robert Osborne is probably also happy not to see the Marlon Brando version show up, but not Alec Baldwin.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

It really is MGM's 90th anniversary

If you've been watching TCM, you'll know that TCM has been promoting a special programming marathon in honor of MGM's 90th anniversary, starting tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM. April 17 really is the anniversary of MGM, when Marcus Loew, owner of a chain of theaters, purchased Louis B. Mayer Pictures. Back then, it was still possible for a studio was able to own the movie theaters in which its movies were shown, which changed in the late 1940s when Paramount was found in violation of the antitrust laws for its vertical integration. Loew had already bought Metro back in 1920 and Goldwyn in between, but Louis B. Mayer was apparently the right person in Hollywood to oversee the California side of production. At any rate, this explains why you'll see Loew's mentioned in smaller print on the title screen of a lot of early MGM movies.

I'm sure you all know the basic history of the movie studios, though, and that's not really why I'm posting on the 90th anniversary of MGM, or even posting a day before. TCm is running 49 hours of movies from the first 40 years of the studio, which are the best. The real end probably ought to be with That's Entertainment! in 1974, although the decline really set in sometime after Ben-Hur in 1959. The 1959 version of Ben-Hur will be concluding the marathon at 2:00 Saturday, while kicking it off will be... the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur. So if you'd like you can compare and contrast both of them. And when you watch the silent version in all its 4:3 aspect ratio glory, you can think about Sydney Pollack and whether he would have gotten the heebie-jeebies watching the chariot race scene. Both versions have been released to DVD, although the 1925 version isn't available from the TCM shop and only a limited number of copies are available from Amazon.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


TCM is honoring Marie Prevost tomorrow morning and afernoon with a bunch of her movies, even though she was born in November. Not that I'm complaining, though. One of the better movies in the set that I haven't recommended before is Paid, which comes on at 8:30 AM.

Prevost isn't the star; her personal problems prevented her from having a starring career in talkies and ultimately led to her untimely death, which is another story. The actual star is Joan Crawford, playing Mary Turner. Mary is a clerk in Gilder's department store, run by wealthy Mr. Gilder (Purnell Pratt). There's a shoplifting case at Gilder's, and Mary gets arrested for it even though she's completely innocent. Gilder and the DA want to make an example of somebody, and Mary happens to be the convenient example, so when she's found guilty, they refuse to show any leniency even though this would have been her first crime and we know she's not guilty, anyway. For a little shoplifting, Mary gets three years in the clink. As she's going off to prison, Mary vows that she's going to make them pay for theyears of her life that are being taken away from her.

If you remember Mildred Pierce, you'll recall a montage from just after Joan Crawford's Mildred gets a waitressing job from Eve Arden's Ida, with Crawford's voiceover stating that six weeks after taking the job she felt as though she had been born in a restaurant. Well, Crawford's Mary here in Paid brings that same sort of determination to her circumstances, studying law while in women's prison. When Mary gets out, she goes to see one of the friends she made in prison, good-time girl Agnes Lynch (that's Marie Prevost). Agnes is part of a gang of con artists led by Joe Garson (Robert Armstrong), and Mary has an idea for them. What they're doing is penny ante stuff, and illegal. Mary has been studying the law, and while in stir figured out ways to blackmail the wealthy while staying on the right side of the law in doing it. She's got the brains, but she can't do it alone, and that's where Joe and his gang come in.

Of course, there's some conflict in all of this. Mary is really doing what she is as a means to get her ultimate revenge, that being seducing Gilder's son Robert (Kent Douglass/né Douglass Montgomery). Joe doesn't like basically being emasculated in having to give a good deal of control over to Mary, and constantly runs the risk of saying things he shouldn't to the police, who are always investigating and never finding anything. The police eventually come up with a plot to get the gang that involves stealing an artwork from Gilder's mansion. Mary knows it's a trap, and has also fallen in love with Bob, making the finale really complicated.

Mary Turner in Paid is the sort of role that Joan Crawford was quite good at; it's also interesting to see that this is one of the first times she played such a role, having done much lighter stuff for the first five years of her MGM career. Marie Prevost is also memorable, with the rest of the cast being adequate. They do nothing to bring down the proceedings, but they're not particularly memorable either. You could chalk this up to Paid Being an early talkie, and using quite a few actors who had come from the stage. Paid does have some of the problems that a lot of early talkies have, but not to the same extent as many others. The bigger problem is with the plot, which really starts to strain credulity when it gets to the art heist. Overall, though, Paid is a thoroughly entertaining movie, and more than worth a watch.

As you can probably guess from the photo accompanying this post, Paid has been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, and is available from the TCM shop.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Happy 20th anniversary, TCM!

April 14 marks the 20th anniversary of the day TCM went on the air, or technically showed up on cable systems since they don't broadcast over the air. The first movie they ran was Gone With the Wind, so it's fitting that TCM is going to be showing it at 8:00 PM. Actually, I think the actual launch of the channel was earlier in the day on April 14, as the clip of Osborne pulling the lever to start the channel in New York is much too light for 8:00 PM. Indeed, this snippet from the Chicago Sun-Times says it launched at 6:00 PM.

Following Gone With the Wind will be an encore presentation of the Private Scrrenings interview in which host Robert Osborne was the subject, interviewed by Alec Baldwin. It's a lot of fun, with clips of a much younger Osborne when he was trying to be an actor, and from the early days of TCM. That comes on at midnight.

At 7:00 PM, just before Gone With the Wind, TCM is running Twenty Classic Moments, a new program which I would presume is precisely what the title says: twenty classic moments from the history of TCM. With all the Private Screenings interviews, the Guest Programmers, and the Essentials co-hosts, I'd guess there's enough material for 20 moments.

Unrelated to the 20th anniversary, TCM's tribute to Mickey Rooney last night, just before Boys Town was very nice, showing clips of Rooney at the 2011 TCM Film Festival where he sat down for an interview with Robert Osborne. It didn't occur to me until a day or two ago that this probably wasn't preempting any previously recorded piece on Boys Town that Robert Osborne would have done for a prime time movie. After all, all the other intros from the weekend of the TCM Film Festival were done at the festival, so I should have expected an intro for the previously scheduled Mickey Rooney movies to have been done there too.

Ans shorts are beginning to show up again, at least on the daily schedule. The weekly schedule has shorts for this morning and afternoon, but that's it; the daily schedule for today has a couple in prime time as well. It doesn't seem as though there's anything further out than that, though.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Are TCM's shorts missing in action again?

I enjoy seeing the shorts come up on TCM, as I've blogged about on quite a few occasions. A lot of them, especially the more fact-based shorts like the Traveltalks series, are interesting time capsules. Some of the old Vitaphone two-reelers from the early 1930s aren't that bad in terms of story quality, either. And one of the nice things about having all those shots on TCm is that if there's no feature worth mentioning here, it's often possible to find an interesting short that's going to be coming up in the next day or so.

But not now. TCM's weekly schedule is only mentioning those longer shorts that get scheduled far in advance, such as you sometimes see in TCM Underground as with Tear Gas in Law Enforcement last night. There's not going to be any shorts in TCM Underground this week; the only short listed is the 1950 version of The MGM Story which if memory serves is another Some of the Best. It's listed as a short, even though it's 57 minutes.

It's also the only short on the weekly schedule. The daily schedule doesn't have any shorts listed, either. Of course, there aren't shorts after every movie, and generally maybe two shorts a day. But for the upcoming week, TCM is listing zero shorts. This, even though there are more then enough cases where there's time left over after a movie to stick a short in between. Tomorrow's first movie is an example. The 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon comes on at 7:00 AM, and is a 100-minute movie in a two-hour time slot, leaving close to 20 minutes left over. But there's no short following The Maltese Falcon, or any of the other movies that have 15-minute or longer gaps following them.

I wonder if it has to do with the Mickey Rooney tribute and/or the TCM Film Festival. Shorts are generally only put up on the schedule a week or so in advance, and with Mickey Rooney's death I presume everything got very busy over at TCM trying to come up with the memorial tribute. That, and having to get everybody to Los Angeles for the Festival. All that having been said, I'm surprised the shorts aren't schedule a bit further in advance. I'd presume that whoever does the programming knows where the time gaps are going to be, and it's easier to get the rights to all those old MGM and Warner's shorts.

I'm sure the shorts will show up again on the TCM schedule pages soon enough.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Two related movies, back on FXM/FMC

It was three years ago that I first recommended Yellow Sky. It's a darn good western from Fox, starring Gregory Peck as the head of a gang of old west bank robbers who wind up in a ghost town where only an old man and his granddaughter (Anne Baxter) live. Peck begins to fall for Baxter, while the other gangsters figure out there's a reason why the old guy and his pretty granddaughter are here, and eventually figure out what that reason it. At any rate, it's back on FXM/FMC for the first time in a few years, tomorrow morning at 7:30 AM. So if you're not too into the Mickey Rooney movies, Yellow Sky is a film that's well worth a watch.

Yellow Sky was remade in the late 60s as The Jackals. Vincent Price gets top billing in the grandfather role; the rest of the the cast is a bunch of relative no names, as the movie was filmed in Australia and set in South Africa. It's certainly inferior to Yellow Sky but not as bad as some reviewers would have you believe. If you want to judge the two movies, this week is your chance: The Jackals will be airing next Friday, at 10:45 AM on FXM/FMC.

Both movies have been released to DVD, but I'm not certain if either of them is still in print.