Saturday, October 20, 2018

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

I mentioned Gloria Jean some weeks back when her death was announced, and how I had her performance in W.C. Fields' Never Give a Sucker an Even Break on DVD so I'd have to get around to watching it and doing a full-length review.

Fields is, of course, the star, nominally playing a screenwriter who is trying to option his script to Esoteric Pictures. It's up to producer Franklin Pangborn (Franklin Pangborn playing a character with the same name, which I presume is the joke) to decide on the script. But he's also looking at a new juvenile star Gloria (Gloria Jean) who happens to be Fields' niece.

Gloria gets an audition which allows her to showcase her operatic voice; one assumes that the real-life Gloria Jean being at universal was being groomed to replace Deanna Durbin should Durbin ever have gotten ideas above her station. After that audition and some vintage Fields routines, we get the bulk of the movie, which is a dramatization of some of the scenes in the Fields movie-within-a-movie screenplay. The first one has Fields jumping out of a plane to retive a bottle of liquor, only to land at the mountaintop estate of Mrs. Hemogloben (Margaret Dumont) and her daughter (Susan Miller). There's a second scene involving the "Russian" expat village near the Hemogloben place. But these are just hooks to hang more zany comic scenes.

After the screenplay is panned, there's a tacked on ending that has Fields trying to get a woman to a maternity hospital but getting stuck in traffic and then being pulled along by a fire truck ladder. Again, just another opportunity to have a scene that seemed more of an homage to silent movies than anything else.

I found Never Give a Sucker an Even Break a difficult movie to review, largely because it is in many ways plotless. The idea of pitching a movie script to a studio is certainly a reasonable idea and one that has been used in many movies. But it really only occupies the middle half of the movie here, and that and the two storylines bookending it have little to no relationship to each other. The movie-within-a-movie also has no plot whatsoever.

As for the acting, Fields is Fields; Margaret Dumont is doing the same stuff she did in the Marx Brothers movies; and Pangborn is also doing his usual routine, as well as ever. Gloria Jean is quite appealing too. Still, I have to think that Never Give a Sucker an even break would appeal more to Fields fans than a broader population, thanks to that lack of a plot.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Foxes of Harrow

FXM recently took The Foxes of Harrow out of the vault and has been running it into the ground. It's going to be on FXM again tomorrow morning at 9:20 AM and is available on DVD from Fox's MOD scheme.

Rex Harrison plays Stephen Fox who was born in Ireland in the late 1790s. The only thing is, he was born out of wedlock to one of the daughters of a wealthy landowner of an estate named Harrow, and there was no way the owner was going to let his daughter keep the child. Eventually, it's off to America for the orphan to make his way in the world. Fast forward to 1827 Louisiana. Stephen is being forcibly removed from a riverboat for cheating at gambling, and one of the lovely young ladies on the boat comments about his being left on a sandbar in the middle of the Mississippi. As if you couldn't tell their paths will cross again.

Stephen is rescued by pigboat captain Farrell (Victor McLaglen), who eventually becomes a working-class friend of the would-be wealthy Stephen, something which is going to cause friction later. Stephen, in New Orleans, helps out Andre (Richard Haydn), and Richard repays the kindness by letting Stephen stay at his house for a time. It's also what gives Stephen the idea to crash the charity ball being held by the D'Arceneaux family, father Henri (Gene Lockhart) and daughters Odalie (Maureen O'Hara) and Aurore (Vanessa Brown).

Stephen meets Odalie at the ball, and is shocked to discover that she's the woman he met when he was getting thrown off the boat. Actually, Odalie is even more shocked. Stphen vows to win Odalie's heart, while Odalie vows never to see Stephen again.

To try to win Odalie's heart, Stephen wins a run-down estate in a card game, and builds a new Harrow for Odalie. He's able to convince Odalie that he's changed, but he's so driven that in some ways it turns her off. It doesn't help that he's got a mistress on the side. They have sex once, though, because nine months after their wedding day a son is born unto them. But the son dies tragically amid the Panic of 1837, threatening Stephen and Harrow....

In addition to the Fox musicals of the 1940s, they were also making a lot of period piece literary adaptations. The Foxes of Harrow is to my mind one of the weaker of these, in part because I didn't care for either of the main characters. Stephen comes across as more of a self-centered jerk than somebody with an iron determination to rise up from difficult circumstances, the way Joan Crawford's Mildred Pierce for one did. It's easy to see why Odalie wouldn't like him, but then she turns on a dime at multiple points in the movie without good motivation. There's also no real antagonist. Finally, I found the score overbearing.

Still, I always like to point out when I pan a movie that one should judge for oneself.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks #223: Technology



This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is technology. Two of the movies I've selected this week are a bit sci-fi, with the third being a straight romantic comedy:

Westworld (1973). Richard Benjamin and James Brolin play a pair of friends who go to a futuristic amusement park that has extremely lifelike robots that the humans can interact with. However, something goes wrong with the programming, and the robots go awry killing their masters. One of the robots (Yul Brynner) tries going after our heroes.

Demon Seed (1977). Scientist Fritz Weaver has created what today we'd call a "smart house" that can be completely run by computer interface, as well as a supercomputer at a research facility. The supercomputer gets uppity, wants to experience the rest of the world, and infiltrates the smart house's computer system, holding Weaver's wife (Julie Christie) hostage. The supercomputer's ultimate plan is to impregnate Christie so the supercomputer can live on.

Desk Set (1957). Katharine Hepburn plays the head of the research library at a media conglomerate. Computer salesman Spencer Tracy will be in charge of installing the punch-card fed computer (this is 1957, after all) that will be part of the research department. Of course, all the research librarians think the point of the computer is to take their jobs, so they try to find out what it's really all about. Along the way, Hepburn and Tracy fall in love yet again.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Not-quite-Disney Nazi hunters

Another recent movie viewing was Operation Eichmann, which aired a few weeks back on TCM and is another of the movies on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

The movie opens up before the credits with a spotlight on Adolf Eichmann (Werner Klemperer) saying that the Jews are going to go down and the Nazis will rise again staged so as to imply he was on trial for his crimes against humanity during the Nazi era. In fact, the movie was released after Eichmann was captured but before the trial began, which also explains why it ends the way it does with his getting captured, and ending that feels incomplete.

Flash back to Nazi Germany, where Eichmann is a higher-up in the SS. The Nazis' plan of genocide against the Jews is going slowly, largely because mass murder is really not an easy thing to do. With the war on there's no way to just deport the Jews even if the Nazis had wanted to engage in ethnic cleansing instead of genocide, and all those Jews are in the Nazis' eyes a drain on resources. So the "Final Solution" is thought up, leading to the Nazis starting to gas the Jews to death a whole bunch at a time and then cremate them to destroy the evidence.

The first roughly half of the film focuses on Nazi Germany up to the end of the war, introducing a younger version of one of the important characters in the second half, David (adult David played by Donald Buka). David is a Jew who survived Auschwitz and amazingly survives the chaotic forced transports in the closing days of the war, when Eichmann ultimately flees (at least in the movie version of events). David makes his way to Israel and eventually becomes a Nazi hunter and the conscience of the Israelis, insisting that Eichmann be captured alive so he can be put on trial and the Nazi evil be shown to the world. Just discreetly killing him in his exile won't do.

In real life, Eichmann spent a couple of years in Germany before finally making his way to Argentina in 1950. The movie, however, has him going first to Madrid with his money-hungry girlfriend Anna (Ruta Lee). (In fact, Eichmann had a wife and three kids when they went to Argentina, with a fourth kid being born in Argentina.) The Israelis find Eichmann living under an assumed identity in Spain, but both the operation to capture him, allowing the movie Eichmann to make it to Kuwait, which seems illogical since it was a British protectorate at the time.

Meanwhile, the movie Eichmann having been responsible for the "Final Solution", he thinks he should be the head of the Nazi remnants. Other exiled Nazis, however, think Eichmann is a bit of a loose cannon who's going to get the whole organization in trouble, so they try to thwart his plans, even attempting at one point to kill him the way exiles in Notorious arrange for a "car accident" to do away with one of their number who can no longer be trusted. Eventually, of course, the Israelis find where Eichmann is in Argentina, and it's a race against time as to whether they or the Nazis will get Eichmann first.

Operation Eichmann is an OK movie, although it takes a lot of liberty with history. Klemperer is surprisingly good as Eichmann, since it's easy to think of him as Col. Klink, the buffoonish POW camp commandant in Hogan's Heroes. Adult David is good, although the juvenile David at Auschwitz is the weak part of the movie. The script makes his character into a mawkish plot device of convenience, to whom all sorts of magical coincidences happen from seeing his parents get gassed to seeing Eichmann to surviving at the end of the war. The finale is actually not badly handled.

I'd recommend Operation Eichmann as a curiosity if it ever shows up on TCM again.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Ada

During Dean Martin's turn as Star of the Month last month, TCM ran Ada, which I actually hadn't seen before. So I DVRed it and watched it to do a full-length post here on it.

Martin plays Bo Gillis, who at the start of the movie is running for Governor of one of those Southern states in the mid-1930s (there's a theater marquee with the 1935 MGM movie Escapade; you do the math). Bo is a backwater guy who would probably be happier just singing, and leaves the political stuff to the muckety-mucks, Steve (Martin Balsam), and the big power, Sylvester (Wilfrid Hyde-White). But Bo also has an independent streak. One night at a hotel he's made the acquaintance of Ada (Susan Hayward) who has a past of ill-repute and possibly a present of ill-repute as well. So what does Bo do? He marries Ada!

Since Sylvester is running a well-oiled political machine, Bo wins the governorship, and Ada becomes First Lady, although all the other political wives have no respect for her and her lower-class background. The other wives married into families that used their political influence to enrich themselves, and that sort of corruption is still going on throughout the state. Indeed, the whole point of putting Bo in office was to have a governor who would just sign what Sylvester wants him to sign without reading it. (There's one scene that shows just how shockingly uncaring Bo is about reading the things to which he's putting his signature.)

Ada finds out what's going on, and she's shocked! She thinks her husband should actually do his job and when she finds out what's going on, she tries to deal with the political machine herself. Her first attempt gets the machine to threaten the Lieutenant Governor, who resigns with the establishment appointing Ada to be the acting Lieutenant Governor, which makes no sense whatsoever. But it happens. Then, she gets Bo to stand up for himself, for which just hours later somebody obviously from Sylvester's poitical machine bombs Bo's car!

With Bo incapacitated, Ada becomes acting governor, although it's not easy in a bunch of ways. Bo thinks (wrongly) that Ada was conniving against him to get the governorship for herself, while she decides to go on a cruside by amending all those laws that the old political families used to enrich themselves. They don't like having their gravy train removed, so they start looking into her past. And if Ada was smart enough to get herself to the governor's office, you'd be surprised at how stupid she is in falling for somebody having a wire on them to record her.

When I was watching Ada, one of the movies I was reminded of was East Side, West Side, which I blogged about a few months back. They're both MGM potboilers about a dozen years apart, and I found myself having the same issue with both. Even though by the early 1960s MGM was beginning the long, slow descent that led to the backlot being sold off and the studio as we know it being finished, the studio still had a fair amount of gloss that really doesn't befit a movie like Ada. Also, the sort of material in Ada has been done a bunch of times, so it was going to be hard to do it as well here.

Still, everybody tries hard and gives at least a satisfactory performance, although sometimes you'd think Martin would rather spend the entire movie singing. Hyde-White is probably best as the machine boss. There's nothing notably wrong with Ada per se; it's more that there's nothing notably right with it. It's the sort of movie that you watch once and there's no need to watch it a second time.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Treasures from the Disney Vault, Autumn 2018

Roughly once every quarter, TCM has been running the Treasures from the Disney Vault series of stuff that Disney is letting TCM show. They actually have vintage shorts with the recognizable characters, but the better-known animated features have generally been off limits presumably because Disney wants to keep those for themselves.

Anyhow, there probably should have been another installment of Disney films in September, but that didn't happen. Instead, we get that tonight. This time around, the lineup seems to be mostly movies with a taste for the fantastic, with probably the best-known of them being The Black Hole at 12:15 AM. Second would probably be Bedknobs and Broomsticks just after 8:00 PM, which actually got a couple of airings many years back when TCM had greater access to Disney live-action movies than the current Treasures from the Disney Vault thing. I have vague memories of the promoting of The Cat From Outer Space which is in the 2:00 AM slot after a Pluto short.

Delaying Treasures from the Disney Vault by a month is probably just a one-time thing, as a look at the December schedule shows a night of Disney movies on December 18.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Outlaw

TCM ran The Outlaw last month. Not having blogged about it before, I DVRed it so that I could re-watch to do a post. The movie has a reputation that precedes itself, but as for the actual movie? Well, that's as interesting as its reputation, but for different reasons.

The movie opens with Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) showing up in the town of Lincoln in the New Mexico Territory. His horse has been stolen, as he tells his old friend who's now the sheriff, Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell). Who should show up with a horse that looks suspiciously like Holliday's? Why, it's William Bonney (Jack Beutel), better known as Billy the Kid. He claims to have bought the horse legitimately, although Doc isn't so sure.

Billy the Kid is known around the Southwest for being a gunfighter, which makes the sheriff none too happy, and he'd like to get Billy out of town immediately, even though there's no stage until the next morning. And sure enough, Billy gets involved in gunfights, first with one other guy and then with a bunch of men the sheriff sends to deal with Billy. Since somebody ultimately dies, Billy and Doc have to head out.

Doc has a lady friend in young Rio (Jane Russell), who lives with Guadalupe (Mimi Aguglia). So Doc takes the wonded Billy there in hopes that he can recover. Guadalupe isn't thrilled to have Billy around, and is frankly hoping he'll die, but Rio finds this young man hot in spite of his near-death situation. However, Doc seems to think she should be his girlfriend, so he's not very pleased with her treatment of Billy.

Eventually, Billy recovers, and he and Doc have to head out to safety so that the sheriff and his men won't chase. But there's the unresolved issue of Rio, as well as the dispute over the horse. Further complicating matters is that some of the Indians decide to attack, leaving all the white folk running for their lives....

The Outlaw is a bizarre little movie that has no bearing in reality. Although the three male characters are all based on real people, as far as I could tell none of them had relationships like the ones depicted in the movie. Indeed, there's an undercurrent throughout the movie that could easily lead you to believe that Doc and Billy are gay lovers like Bert and Ernie. But, at the same time, it's made fairly clear that Rio has been sleeping with Billy. It's a really strange plot.

Then there's the direction, which was handled by Howard Hughes after Howard Hawks left the project. I found the direction risibly bad, looking like a bad Saturday matinee western with characters standing around declaiming their lines. Hughes obviously intended the movie as a vehicle for his two new stars, particularly Russell, whose ample assets are on as full display as the production code would permit. And then there was the score. Large portions of it were lifted straight from Tchaikovsky, and didn't fit the action on screen at all. Other portions were bad derivatives of B movie cues. I usually only tend to notice a score if it's jarringly bad, and this one certainly fits that description.

The Outlaw is a movie that should be seen for its place in Hollywood history. But it's really not very good.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Princess Comes Across

I didn't have time for a long movie last night, so I popped in one of the DVDs from the Carole Lombard collection I bought some time back and watched The Princess Runs Across with its brief running time of just under 77 minutes.

The princess, such as she is, as Princess Olga of Sweden (Carole Lombard, doing a Garbo impersonation), traveling with her lady-in-waiting Gertrude (Alison Skipworth). They're boarding a ship to America, as Olga has signed a contract to become an actress in Hollywood films. Also boarding is King Martell (Fred MacMurray), a concertina player traveling with his manager Benton (William Frawley). He was accidentally given Olga's stateroom, but he gives it up because he's obviously smitten with her and wants to keep her happy so that she'll fall in love with him.

Another person who is on the ship is Darcy (Porter Hall). He's a blackmail artist, and he has information on both Martell and Olga. What he knows about Olga is that she's really not Olga, but a Brooklyn-born chorus girl named Wanda, who has obviously come up with a fake identity to become the latest European discovery. (You'd think the Swedish government would hve noticed that somebody was claiming to be a fake Swedish princess, but that never happens.) Darcy also knows about one of Martell's indiscretions, and tells Martell that he also has information on a third passenger. Perhaps it's the alleged murderer who was on the passenger manifest but may or may not have boarded.

If people aren't willing to pay Darcy, he's in luck in that there are a bunch of detectives from various countries on board going to an international conference in America. Darcy goes to one of those to reveal his information, but soon after that, we find Darcy's body in Olga's stateroom. Martell takes the body back to Darcy's own cabin, and when the body is eventually found, the detectives set about trying to solve the murder mystery. Martell does too, if only to save his own hide.

I went into The Princess Comes Across expecting a light comedy, and that's not what you get here. It's a lot lighter than a standard mystery, but the comedy isn't quite as glaring as in something like The Thin Man and all the imitators that followed it. In that regard it's an odd mish-mash at times, but it all comes together reasonably well in the end. There's nothing wrong with the movie, but at the same time Lombard and MacMurray will both be remembered more for other things they did. It you want entertainment that's not particularly challenging, The Princess Comes Across is certainly not a bad place to look.

Friday, October 12, 2018

A Soldier's Story

Continuing to get through the backlog of movies on my DVR, another recent viewing was A Soldier's Story, which TCM ran as part of the Black Experience in Film spotlight in September.

Tynin, Louisiana, 1944. Sgt. Waters (Adolph Caesar) is stationed at the army base there. It's the height of World War II, but Waters is black, and the military wouldn't be desegregated until a few years after the war ended. In fact, Waters' men would like to go over to Europe to fight Hitler but feel the Army isn't letting them. Anyhow, Waters is getting drunk at one of the bars in town befor staggering back to base. Except that he doesn't make it there, as somebody with a gun accosts him, ultimately shooting him dead.

The higher-ups in Washington send Capt. Davenport (Howard E. Rollins) down to Louisiana to do more than the cursory investigation the locals have done. He's not just black, but an officer to boot, being equl in rank to the whites commanding the base. Capt. Taylor (Dennis Lipscomb) is very reluctant to let Davenport investigate, not so much because of whatever racist views he personally espouses, but because he knows the white locals are never going to accept a black guy trying to make an arrest in the case, and everybody knows it just had to be a racist white who shot Waters.

Undaunted, Davenport starts his investigation by interviewing the men who served under him. He quickly begins to discover that Waters was a difficult man, to put it politely, and that a lot of people had a good reason to hate him. Pvt. Wilkie (Art Evans) was formerly a sergeant like Waters, but busted in rank for a minor violation, giving him a grudge against Waters. PFC Peterson (Denzel Washington) is, like the rest of the men on in the platoon, on the all-black baseball team, and his questioning of Waters' discipline ultimately leads Waters to pick a fight with him. (All of these incidents are depicted as flashbacks, making Caesar as much the star as Rollins.)

Waters' issues stem from the fact that he served with distinction in World War I, but for all that service only received racism in reply. People like Oscar Micheaux who made race films in the era just after World War I were very active in the discussion on the best way forward for blacks to try to achieve full equality, and Waters is thoroughly on the side of the debate that blacks had better be the most morally upright, perfect people possible. Indeed, he's gone so far that he's developed quite the animus towards those southern blacks who seem to take a more gradualist approach. He's especially irritated with what he sees as the lazy blacks of the sort represented by Memphis (Larry Riley) who, in addition to serving under Waters is a talented musician -- but of the wrong kind of music.

As I was watching A Soldier's Story, I couldn't help but think of two other films: I Want to Live! and 10 Rillington Place. I've mentioned both of them on several occasions since they're both clearly making strong anti-death penalty points. But I Want to Live! is a stellar example of how not to do it, being heavy-handed and propagandistic, while 10 Rillington Place is not only more subtle, but also focused on the story and does a darn good job of doing it.

In that regard, A Soldier's Story comes off even better than 10 Rillington Place: at its heart is a good mystery that doesn't have a cop-out resolution and is extremely well-acted in addition to being well-written. And even though the racial issues are unavoidable and always on the surface, the complex issues are presented extremely thoughtfully and fairly. Everybody here is deeply human and understandable in their motivations, and the difficult question of who is right in his views is left for the viewer to ponder and come to their own decision.

A Soldier's Story is an outstanding movie that deserves to be better-known than it is.

Godfrey Tearle, 1884-1953


Godfrey Tearle (l.) and Robert Donat in The 39 Steps (1935)

Today marks the birth anniversary of actor Godfrey Tearle, who was in quite a few movies, although many of them are British movies that I have to admit to not having even heard of let alone seen. Perhaps his best known appearance is as the bad guy who can be recognized because he's missing a finger in Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps. He's also in One of Our Aircraft is Missing, a Michael Powell movie that I think I've got on DVD, so I'm going to have to watch that one sometime, right after everything else I've got in my backlog of movies to get to.

Tearle was also the half-brother of silent star Conway Tearle whose career extended into the 1930s with his final role being in MGM's extravagant production of Romeo and Juliet. Godfrey was also a Shakespearean stage actor who was, from what I read, acclaimed, but of course none of those appearances survive for any of us to judge. Apparently a portion of Romeo and Juliet was filmed, although as far as I can tell it's a lost film.