Monday, April 20, 2015

Gregory Ratoff, 1897-1960


Gregory Ratoff (l.) and Hugh Marlowe in All About Eve (1950)

Today marks the birth anniversary of actor/director Gregory Ratoff. Ratof was born in the Russian Empire and served in World War I. The Communist revolution and resulting civil war led Ratoff to emigrate first to Paris, and then to New York. He started acting in Hollywood in the early 1930s, playing ethnic roles. One of those early roles is as Mae West's attorney in I'm No Angel. Acting roles continued through the 1930s.

In the middle of the 1930s, Ratoff started directing, with one of his more well-known works being the English-language version of Intermezzo: A Love Story, the movie that brought Ingrid Bergman to Hollywood. He worked at Fox in the 1940s, making movies such as I Was an Adventuress and Where Do We Go From Here?.

But it would be 1950 that would bring Ratoff what would probably become his most famous role, as the theater producer Max Fabian who helped discover Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) in the great backstage drama All About Eve.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The China Syndrome

Coming up this afternoon at 4:00 PM on TCM is the interesting, if sometimes polemical film The China Syndrome.

Jane Fonda stars as Kimberley Wells, a local TV news reporter out in southern California. She thinks she's a good reporter, but unfortunatley she's buried in the lunchtime features beat, doing crappy human interest stories that she doesn't care about because they're beneath her. She doesn't realize that one of those stories is about to blow up in her lap.

Wells andher cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) go to a nuclear power plant to do a report on how nuclear is going to solve America's energy problems, this being the era of oil embargos and such. As they get to the part of the plant that overlooks the control room, they have to turn off the camera for security reasons. While in that room, the plant has an incident. At first it just seems like a minor earthquake, since everybody feels shaking, and it's enough to trip some of the safety features. One of the features, however, malfunctions, as a water gauge seems to be showing more water than there should be. So when they shut of a valve, they think they're returning the water to its normal level, but in fact they're putting the water at a dangerously low level. Catastrophe is averted, however, and the plant is put off-line pending an investigation of the incident.

Kim isn't quite certain what to do, but Richard knows. He's much more of a hothead than she is, and just knows that the utility company and the federal regulators are pulling the wool over everybody's eyes, expecially when you consider that the utility has another nuke plant up for public discussion. The TV station, for its part, has its own problems. They have to produce a report that is factual lest they be subject to a libel suit, and also one that fits their contractual obligations, like not using footage that was surreptitiously obtained in direct conflict with a signed agreement.

Of course, Richar is not going to be the only one with questions about what's gone on at the facility. He steals the footage from the TV station (I told you he was a hothead), and shows it to some nuclear physicists who are firmly in the anti-nuclear power camp and claim that the plant was this close to suffering a meltdown. Far more important however, is what's going on inside the plant. The supervisor who was on duty at the time of the incident, Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), has been doing some investigation of his own, and has come to the conclusion that there's a safety flaw at the plant caused by one of the subcontractors doing a shoddy job with the welding and not documenting it properly. He's willing to cooperate with Kim, but he's also discovered that he's got people tailing him, presumably to keep him from reporting what he knows. You'll have to watch the movie to see how Jack solves that problem.

The China Syndrome is a pretty entertaining movie, although it's one that's firmly grounded in the 1970s. Sometime after all that happened in Vietnam and with Watergate, Hollywood started making a lot of movies that have a conspiracy theory theme of how big business is evil and shady and controlling the government for its own ends. Soylent Green and The Parallax View come right to mind. The China Syndrome isn't quite as far to that end of the spectrum as especially The Parallax View, but as the movie goes on it does become increasingly clear in making the point that the utility company is going beyond bad in its handling of the situation. The ironic thing is that real life should eventually have disproved the movie. Shortly after the film was released, the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania had an event that was really quite minor, although those who would panic monger would have you believe otherwise.

Still, don't let all of that put you off The China Syndrome, which ultimately does succeed in entertaining, even if you'll dislike some of the good guys.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Another Great Train Robbery

The 1903 short The Great Train Robbery is generally considered a groundbreaking film in cinema histoty. 75 years later, another movie called The Great Train Robbery, with a completely different story, was released. That late 1970s movie is airing on TCM this afternoon at 5:45 PM. I briefly mentioned it when it last aired in January, but haven't done a full-length post on it, so now would be a good time to do so.

The scene is England in the 1850s. Trains are a relatively new technology, only having been in use for about a generation, and they transport government gold. Needless to say, there are criminals out there who would love the opportunity to get their hands on that gold, but for obvious reasons, there are a whole lot of technical difficulties inherent in trying to rob a moving train. You can't just stop it the way you would stop a carriage or old west stagecoach, and getting on and off the train to carry off that robbery is another problem. Edward Pierce (Sean Connery), however, thinks he's figured out a way to solve all these problems.

In this particular instance, though, there's a further problem, which is that the gold shipments are protected by several keys, which are held by multiple men in various locations. The first thing that Pierce has to do is to get duplicates of all these keys made. To help him, Pierce uses his girlfriend Miriam (Lesley Ann Down) to get to know one of the men while he and his accomplice Agar (Donald Sutherland) can make the wax impression that will allow them to duplicate the key. But that's only one of the keys, and the others present equal challenges. Indeed, getting the keys takes up a good half of the movie. Not to say that this half isn't entertaining; it's just that you might be surprised by how long it takes before they actually get to the train robbery part of the movie.

The actual robbery itself is just as difficult as getting the keys. The gold is kept in its own car, and the authorities have sealed that car from the outside in a further attempt to prevent anybody from getting into the car. Pierce gets Agar in by having him play a dead man in a coffin, the stench of death being provided by a dead cat. Pierce, for his part, has to go over the top of the train and do it within a certain amount of time so that he can abandon the gold where his other accomplice will be able to pick it up, and so he can get back to his seat on the train in time before the train stops at the next station where he'd be noticed. The plan is carried off perfectly, except foe one thing....

I'm not going to give away what that thing is, and what happens next. You'll have to watch to find out for yourself, and this is a film I'd thoroughly recommend watching. The first half involving the keys may seem a bit slow at times, but it entertains and sets up the more fast-paced and exciting second half. Connery is good as always as an antihero. In theory we're supposed to want him to get caught since he's stealing government gold, but dammit if he isn't so charming that we'd rather he windup with the money and not the soldiers for whom it's intended. The movie is also gorgeous to look at. Irish locales substituted for the English rail lines, since Ireland was still not built-up enough that it would spoil the period effect. The London scenes, however, are sumptuous and as far as I can tell suitably Victorian. The whole thing adds up to a film that's a blast to watch.

This version of The Great Train Robbery is apparently another of the movies that's fallen out-of-print on DVD, although Amazon says it's available for instant download. Note that there are other movies with the same title, so don't get them confused.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Cinderella Liberty

Over on FXM Retro, they'll be running the interesting if flawed film Cinderella Liberty, tomorrow morning at 3:00 AM (or tonight at midnight Pacific Time).

The movie starts off with a navy ship coming into Seattle for everybody to get a modicum of shore leave before the ship and its crew go out on their next voyage. Everybody, that is, except for John Baggs (James Caan). He's got a medical condition, some sort of cyst in hiss rectal region, so he has to go into sick bay and get that fixed. It's more a nuisance than any serious medical problem, but getting it taken care of and all the paperwork means that he's not going to be able to get back on board before the ship he was on goes back out to sea. So he's going to have some time ashore while he's waiting for his next deployment.

On Baggs' first night ashore, he goes to some bar on what passes for Seattle's equivalent of a boardwalk, the sort of place that back in the day had Coney Island-style attractions both clean (carnival rides) and more adult. In that bar, Baggs meets Maggie (Marsha Mason), a woman who picks up a few extra dollars by being a pool shark, although as we're quickly going to learn, she earns the bulk of her money in another way. Baggs challenges Maggie to a couple of games of pool, which he loses, before challenging her to a much higher-stakes game. When he wins the high-stakes game, he wins a free night with her.

Maggie, if you haven't figured it out, is a hooker, sleeping with lots of sailors for the money. She's already got a son by one of them, an 11-year-old mixed-race child named Doug (Kirk Calloway) who is sharing in Maggie's hand-to-mouth existence. He doesn't have a good bed, keeping a switchblade close at hand to protect himself from sailors who get too close; he's got terrible teeth because Maggie can't afford proper dental care; and he spends his evenings at the carnival; and he seems to know too much about life.

The only way we'd have a movie is if Baggs takes a liking to Maggie, so that's what happens. It's not an easy relationship because she has no money and he's got all the difficulties that come with being in the navy. It doesn't help that the Navy has lost his records, so he's technically jobless and won't have any money coming in until the Navy can find his records, which is going to take some time since this was the days before computerization. Still, Baggs does what he can for Maggie.

That is, until Maggie has a surprise visitor. No, it's not Douglas' father; whoever knocked Maggie up with Douglas probably had no idea that he got this prostitute pregnant. Instead, it's her social worker. She's determined to see that Maggie and Doug are living properly, and when she sees that there's a man in the apartment, she naturally figures that Baggs is taking on the duties of a father, which means that he should be able to support the child financially. Or, rather, the children: Maggie is pregnant, althoguh it's not Baggs' baby.

Cinderella Liberty is a movie that has some interesting premises, but that ultimately comes off unevenly. There were extended periods where I found myself having difficulty caring for any of these people. It's natural for Baggs and Maggie to yell at each other because their relationship isn't an easy one, but I found the bickering to be less than convincing. I also found the whole loss of records to be a bit unbelievable too, while the ending is certainly one that strains credulity. Still, the acting is for the most part OK, and you do wind up caring about Douglas at least by the end of the movie. All in all, Cinderella Liberty is one of those movies that I'm glad to see FXM Retro pull out of its vaults, but not one that I'd go out of my way to watch a second time.

Amazon seems to suggest that Cinderella Liberty is out of print on DVD, but that you should be able to get it on instant download if you can do the streaming video thing.

China Seas

TCM is showing another evening of movies dedicated to MGM's special effects man A. Arnold Gillespie. Concluding tonight's lineup is China Seas at 4:30 AM.

Clark Gable plays Alan Gaskell, the captain of a ship which is currently taking on cargo in Hong Kong. These are the days before container shipping, so a ship like this has a fair amount of both cargo and paying passengers who expect to have passage in the luxurious manner they've come to expect. Among those passengers are two women: Sybil (Rosalind Russell) is the proper woman, who Alan is supposedly going to be settling down with -- if he ever decides to take a desk job with the shipping line, that is; China Doll (Jean Harlow) is the woman with whom Alan has a past. China Doll is shady, presented partly as a nightclub performer, but likely being a woman of somewhat less repute. Among the men, there's Sir Guy (C. Aubrey Smith), who heads the shipping line, and a man named Jamesy (Wallace Beery), whom we'll get to in a minute. This being an MGM film, there's a supporting cast of various high-caliber actors rounding out the passengers.

This isn't going to be an easy voyage for a couple of reasons. First is the fact that they're going to be transporting gold bullion, which is difficult no matter where a ship is doing it. But this is the 1930s, and they're going from Hong Kong to Singapore, which is going to put them in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. Back in those days, those were the havens for pirates, although in the past few decades international cooperation has largely cleaned up the problem there, with Somali piracy being the big problem. So there's a risk for piracy regardless, but if anybody found out that the cargo includes gold, there's a huge problem. Needless to say, Jamesy has gotten some inside information that there may be a shipment of gold in this voyage. So he 's really there to coordinate with the pirates who are planning to waylay this voyage! Finally, further complicating matters is the presence of crewman Davids (Lewis Stone). He disgraced himself on his last journey by abandoning ship before he should have, so no nobody really wants him on their ship.

You can guess some of what's going to happen in this volatile mix. China Doll is going to hit on Alan, but of course he's going to rebuff her advances at first even though you'd think the two of them are right for each other. After all, Alan does have that fiancée. So once she's jilted, she's going to start working with Jamesy. And you know almost from the beginning -- you don't need my synopsis to figure it out more than about five minutes in -- that there's likely to be a pirate attack. And Daniels' perfidy from his previous voyage really telegraphs that he's going to get an opportunity to redeem himself, although whether he actually takes that opportunity, you'll have to watch the movie to find out.

Although there's a fair bit about China Seas that's predictable if you've watched enough 1930s movies, that's not to say it's not a good movie. It's quite entertaining. MGM had more stars than there are in the firmament, so the claim went, and they use that to good effect here, both with the leads and the character actors. Production values are, as usual, excellent from MGM. The acting is good enough. This is a bit more of an action movie than a serious drama, you you're not really looking for the sort of acting you'd get from Gable or Harlow in something like Wife vs. Secretary.

China Seas is available from the Warner Archive collection.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Apparently I haven't blogged about Holiday before

Tonight's TCM lineup is a bunch of heiress comedies, starting at 8:00 PM with Holiday. A search of the blog claims I haven't mentioned this one before, so today would be a good time to do a post on the movie.

Cary Grant plays Johnny Case, a young man of modest birth who isn't quite certain what he wants out of life, but he knows that whatever it is, it's going to be the strenuous life. But it looks like there's going to be happiness in that life. He's recently met a nice young lady named Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) and is going to marry her. He just needs a little advice from his mentor/quasi-foster parents the Potters: Prof. Nick (Edward Everett Horton) and his wife Susan (Jean Dixon) tell him to see Julia's fmily and tell them that he needs to take a sabbatical and that if Julia really loves him, they can get married after the sabbatical.

What Johnny finds shocks him. Julia Seton is a Seton, one of the Setons, as though everybody should know who the Setons are. After all, their father is only Edward (Henry Kolker), one of the wealthiest bankers in all of New York. He's run the family fairly conservatively much like the sort of family that Arthur's parents want him to marry into in that Dudley Moore movie. Julia has taken her father's guidance to heart and, while she's not a bad person, she's just a bit boring. At the house, Johnny meet's Julia's sister Linda (Katharine Hepburn), and finds that Linda is completely different from everybody else in the family. We know that she's going to be the apparent right one for Johnny, not just because we need a plot conflict, but because Katharine Hepburn is billed first and Doris Nolan only third. Rounding out the family is Julia and Linda's brother Ned (Lew Ayres). He too is living the life his father thinks the Setons should live, but you can tell it chafes at in in a way he can't really understand, because he's a dissolute drinker.

You can probably guess more or less what happens in the movie, although there are two possible endings: the You Can't Take It With You ending where the family is changed by the newcomer (the Jean Arthur character being the newcomer, not her family being changed), or the Arthur ending in which the man marries for love and the jilted "proper" family basically gets written out of the story if there were a movie about the couple's life post-marriage. Holiday does what it does pretty well, except that it's got Katharine Hepburn in the cast. I've always had difficulty warming to Hepburn, feeling that in a lot of her movies she's basically playing a spoiled, self-centered bitch of the sort that you want to smack the way Cary Grant does at the beginning of The Philadelphia Story. I've never really been able to get the impression that Hepburn's characters would be compatible with anybody in the long term.

Holiday is based on a stage play that had already been turned into a movie once, back in 1930. That version stars Mary Astor as Julia and Ann Harding as Linda and is a movie I'd be interested to see. Only the 1938 version seems to be on DVD, however, as part of a Cary Grant box set.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Briefs for April 15, 2015

So the 20th anniversary salute to Robert Osborne last night was moderately interesting. It was more of a This is Your Life-style presentation of Osborne's friends and family. Not that I care all that much about Robert's nieces and cousins, but bringing them out on stage makes for good television, as Ralph Edwards knew 60 years ago. The bloopers were fun, particularly the outtakes of Robert saying he could use a drink. And I would have had trouble pronouncing "La Cienega" as well.

Tonight's Star of the Month salute to Anthony Quinn includes several of his epics, so three movies last almost the entire evenign. Barabbas (8:00 PM) already aired on Easter, while I've always found Lawrence of Arabia (1:15 AM) overrated. In between is The Shoes of the Fisherman (10:30 PM), whish has Quinn playing a Ukrainian priest who becomes Pope. There's probably a post to be made about Anthony Quinn's ethnic roles, the way I did about Edward G. Robinson years ago. Quinn was born in Mexico to a Mexican mother and ethnic Irish father; I can easily think offhand of his having played Ukrainian, Greek, Mexican, and French in addition to all his Americans.

Tomorrow morning sees a couple of silent two-reelers. First, at 7:30 AM, is Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in Coney Island. That's followed up at 8:00 AM by Harold Lloyd in Number, Please. Both of them having been made before 1923 are in the public domain, and that unsurprisingly means both of them have made it quite legally to Youtube:



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

It's anniversary day again

Today is April 14, which is the day in 1994 when Turner Classic Movies first went out on cable. Satellite TV was in its infancy, and streaming stuff over the internet? Ha! I remember having to send a photo over email back in the early 1990s and how long it took, even with a university internet connection. Floppy discs still only held 1.5MB, so storing your media was still a problem. Oh, and all those America Online CDs that everybody used as coasters or suncatchers or whatever. Discs were only CDs, no DVDs for another couple of years yet. And you went to a rental place to pick up videotapes to watch for the evening.

But I have a feeling my readership consists mostly of people who remember those halcyon days of 1994, and not the young people who wonder how we all survived. No cell phones? Well, I discussed that one back in 2011. By 1994, though, we had advanced far enough to have... pagers. Oh boy, remember those? I'm reminded of when I was in high school and had to give the school officials my parents' emergency numbers where they could be reached and the time I had to change Dad's number to his pager number. They looked at me strangely because the number had an exchange that was a good half hour away, these being the days when small towns could still be identified by the three-digit telephone exchanges. Not that I go back as far as the named exchanges, which are evoked in a title like Butterfield 8. I do remember, however, getting an actual human operator while trying to make a long distance phone call with one of those calling cards (!) from a bus station in Rutland VT in the early 1990s when I was in college. Gotta love all those telephone switchboard operators that show up in classic movies.

All those phone lines remind me, too, of the idea of "tracing" a call, since caller ID wasn't much of a thing back in 1994. Dad worked for the phone company for 30 years, and when he retired, he got the phone service goodies free for life. Goodies back then, however, meant call waiting, which isn't much of a goodie if you're the person whose call is being interrupted. As for finding out who's calling you, there's a movie like The Slender Thread that covered that topic very entertainingly. Governments in our more outlying areas got "Extended" 911, which gave the dispatchers the address from which the call was being placed.

At any rate, I'd really meant to comment on the anniversry of TCM to mention that there's another TCM original coming up. Tonight at 8:00 PM, they're honoring Robert Osborne with a program that was probably mostly recorded in honor of the big 20th anniversary last year, but like the interviews from the TCM Film Festival, doesn't show up for quite some time after all the footage is recorded. I haven't seen this one and so can't comment on it at all. Not that I'm expecting much out of this one. As with many of the TCM originals, it gets a repeat airing for the benefit of the folks on the west coast, following one feature. That feature, at 9:00 PM, is North By Northwest, and the Osborne salute will be reairing at 11:30 PM.

As for North By Northwest, don't get me started on the deptction of the airport in Chicago. Compare that to flying today. Airline travel in all those old movies is probably a good subject for a list post.

Monday, April 13, 2015

TCM Guest Programmer, April 2015: Mo Rocca

We've reached that day of the month when TCM is putting up its monthly Guest Programmer to sit down with Robert Osborne and discuss four of his or her favorite movies. This month, that programmer is Mo Rocca, a writer/commentator whom I first remember on one of those snarky list show specials, probabaly VH1's I Love the 70s (or 80s), which look at a bunch of related events (in the case of the VH1 shows everything happened in the same calendar year; for other shows it's often a Top 10 countdown) and have Z-list celebrities make unfunny snarky comments about the things. I tend not to care for any of the commentators on shows like this, and often wonder why they're any more qualified than anybody else to be pontificating on the subject of the day. At least Rocca was far less obnoxious than Mario Cantone on the VH1 shows, though. Mario Cantone was another Guest Programmer some years back, and I found him irritating even in that capacity.

Anyhow, Rocca selected four interesting enough movies as part of his Guest Programmer stint, and those movies are showing up tonight. First, at 8:00 PM is the 1933 version of King Kong, starring Fay Wray as the blonde who gets noticed by the giant ape and carried up the Empire State Building. (Nobody ever shows the 1976 version any more.)
What's Up, Doc?, starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal as two of several people whose lives are turned upside-down by a mixup of identical overnight travelling bags, follows at 10:00 PM.
At midnight, Rod Taylor brings The Birds to Tippi Hedren in quiet little Bodega Bay, CA, only for the birds already there to start attacking.
Finally, at 2:15 AM, Al Pacino needs to pay for his lover to have an operation, and the only way he can think of to get the money is to rob a bank, in Dog Day Afternoon.

In between What's Up, Doc? and The Birds is the short Stopover in Hollywood.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Love Me or Leave Me

Another movie coming up on TCM today that's worth a watch is Love Me or Leave Me, which is part of a Doris Day double feature tonight at 8:00 PM.

Day stars as Ruth Etting. The movie begins with Etting working in a dive bar around 1920, which is the beginning of the Prohibition era. The Mob got its hands in every pie, and the bar where Ruth was part of the entertainment was no different. Gangster Marty Snyder (James Cagney) is the one muscling money out of the joint, and he's a man who when he finds somtething that he wants, he's going to get it come hell or high water. That something in this case happens to be Ruth. He likes the way Ruth dances, so when the place where she first works doesn't want to feature her, Marty gets Ruth a job at another place. But Ruth really wants to sing.

Marty, being smitten with Ruth, decides that he's going to do whatever it takes to make Ruth a successful singer. By this time, he's gotten married to Ruth, and is getting her music lessons and trying to get her on the radio, which he's eventually able to do since he's got influence. Sure enough, Ruth becomes a success. But success comes at a price. Marty knows what he wants out of life, and that holds just as true for Ruth. Marty has certainly helped her along the way, but Ruth chafes at his controlling nature, and wants to take her career on its own arc, not the one that Marty has mapped out for her.

Complicating matters is the presence of Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell). He's Ruth's accompanist, and he admires Ruth. He's nowhere near as forward as Marty is and waits for Ruth either to come to her senses, or come to a spot in life where she's got the wherewithal to break from Marty. Perhaps that wherewithal can come in the form of someplace where they want Ruth for herself, and not because Marty is trying to get it for her: Hollywood. Ruth goes to Hollywood at the beginning of the sound era and becomes passably successful in a series of short films. Marty eventually follows and tries to keep managing Ruth's career, but Ruth has become more independent. She's willing to divorce Marty and marry Alderman. In a big twist, but something that happened in real life, Marty shot Alderman.

Love Me or Leave Me seems almost to good to be true, and although there's Hollywood sanitization, many of the main events in the film really did happen. Etting went from dancing to singing to a radio show to Hollywood. And Marty really shot Alderman, although his actual personal life was quite a bit messier than what the movie presents. While the story is good, the acting is excellent. I'm generally not a fan of Doris Day's comedies, because I tend to find her characters a bit too goody-goody. But when she got away from comedy or the lighter musicals and did something serious, Day really wan't bad. There's not much to be said about Cagney's acting. He'd already spent 25 years playing gangsters of one stripe or another, and probably could have played this role in his sleep. But he doesn't, and gives an effectively chilling portrayal of a man who knows what he wants out of life, is used to getting it, and is going to keep trying to get it even if it means hurting the people around him.

I've also said that I'm not the biggest fan of musicals. But Love Me or Leave Me isn't really a musical; it's a biopic about somebody who was a singer. In that regard, the movie works quite well, and I think can be enjoyed even by other people who, like me, aren't normally that interested in musicals.