Tuesday, January 17, 2017

One-hit wonders

TCM's Spotlight on prison movies continues to night with an early talkie: Weary River, at 9:45 PM.

Richard Barthlemess plays Jerry, a gangster with a heart of gold, at least to his girlfriend Alice (Betty Compson). He likes to play piano sing to her. But of course being a gangster he's got enemies, and some of them have Jerry framed and sent to prison. The warden, however, has a heart of gold too, and he tries to imrpove the lives of his prisoners by letting them perform in the prison band, and even inviting a radio network to do live broadcasts of the prison's concerts. Since it's already been foreshadowed that Jerry can sing, we know he's going to sing backed up by his fellow prisoners; he even writes his own song to sing, one called "Weary River", hence the title of the movie.

The song, of course, becomes a hit on the outside. That, combined with the likelihood that Jerry was framed, causes the warden (played by a silent-era actor named William Holden who is, as far as I can ascertain, no relation of the Holden of Sunset Blvd. fame) to give Jerry another chance on the outside. Jerry even has an obvious life outside of crime to pursue, that of a singer.

Now, you'd think this hook, of the guy who gained his stardom in prison, would be just the thing to jump-start a career. But we wouldn't have much of a plot that way. So instead, Jerry is hounded by his criminal past everywhere he goes. He's also enough of a dipshit that he can't write another song, simply singing "Weary River" again and again wherever he goes. Of course the public wants something new! But Jerry's professional failure is almost enough to send him back to a life of crime. Perhaps Alice -- helped by the warden -- can save him.

Weary River is interesting as an early talkie, but for more modern audiences, a lot of the plot is going to seem not only old-fashioned, but maddening. Some of the reasons for that, I've already alluded to. The two stars, however, carry themselves off well in spite of the material. They were both making the transition from the silents, not particularly successfully as it turned out. Weary River is worth one watch, but there were better movies even in 1929.

Weary River having been released by Warner Bros./First National, has been accorded a DVD release thanks to the Warner Archive, but as far as I can tell it's not part of any of the cheaper box sets Warner Home Video has been putting out.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Shorts I probably should have mentioned this morning

I see that following this afternoon's airing of Cabin in the Sky (or around 6:10 PM), TCM is running the Pete Smith short Studio Visit. Now, I've stated quite a few times that I'm not the biggest fan of the Pete Smith style. This short, however, has some things worth recommending it. The biggest, and the reason it's airing today, is that it contains footage of Lena Horne that was deleted from Cabin in the Sky. The footage has her in a bubble bath singing a musical number, which I suppose is a bit racy for the time. I wonder if somebody either at MGM or in Joe Breen's office found it inappropriate for a feature, but OK for a short. Studio Visit was included as an extra on this pre-Warner Archive DVD of Cabin in the Sky. I'm not certain if it's on the more recent Warner Archive release.

TCM isn't running Redd Foxx's Norman, Is That You? for Martin Luther King Day. I wonder why. However, they are re-running the promotional featurette Redd Foxx Becomes a Star at around 9:35 PM, following the first of the night's three documentaries. The featurette does a reasonably good job of illustrating why Foxx had a good deal of popularity, although as I understand it his nightclub act was much more adult in nature, something they couldn't really put on the screen, especially not in a featurette.

TCM already ran A Patch of Blue today. Overnight, around 1:05 AM, they're showing the featurette A Cinderella Named Elizabeth, about the film's star, Elizabeth Hartmann. As with something like All Eyes on Sharon Tate, it's kind of tragic watching this short knowing what would happen to Hartmann.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Princess Tam Tam

I made it a point to watch Princess Tam Tam off my DVR since it's coming up tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM on TCM as part of the annual Martin Luther King Day salute to black filmmakers. In this case, the person honored is singer/actress/entertainer Josephine Baker.

Max de Mirecourt (Albert Préjean) is a celebrated French writer living not quite happily with his wife Lucie (Germaine Aussey). What makes him unhappy is that she spends so much time with high society types, whom he finds boring, and that makes him unable to write, which in turn ticks off his publisher. Matters come to a head, and he and his assistant Coton (Robert Amoux) go to Tunisia (then a French protectorate) to get away from it all.

It's in Tunisia that Max meets Alwina (Josephine Baker). She's first seen with a flock of sheep, but she doesn't quite seem to be a shepherdess, since she winds up in town stealing oranges and begging for alms. Max first sees her when she's stealing those oranges, and again after she hops on the back of his car to escape the police when she was begging illegally. Max and Coton get the idea of writing a Pygmalion-like story about trying to refine Alwina, whom Max is clearly taken with. Alwina isn't quite certain she likes western culture, but she does like Max.

Matters hit a head when news reaches Max from France that Lucie has been seeing the Maharajah of Datane (Jean Gallard) and is in all likelihood carrying on an affair with him. Max gets the idea of taking Alwina back to France, passing her off as a princess, and making that the subject of his novel. Along the way, he hopes to make Lucie jealous enough to teach her a lesson. Alwina clearly prefers Tunisia, but she loves Max enough to go to France with him.

Alwina is a success as a princess to the point that she's making all the other women jealous. But one night she doesn't want to be in high society, so she goes slumming, which is where she's seen by one of Lucie's friends, who is also slumming. Lucie and the Maharajah devise a plan to show Tam Tam for what she really is. But will the plan succeed?

Princess Tam Tam is clearly a vehicle for Josephine Baker, who milks it for all it's worth. The story is, to be honest, nothing original, what with all those Pygmalion overtones as well as a similarity to a lot of Hollywood comedies about one spouse trying to make the other jealous. But it's still well worth a watch. Baker is quite good, although she only gets two songs and two dances; from what I understand she would have been better served with material that highlighted these talents rather than straight acting. (Not that she's a bad actress.) The second dance, the musical finale, is clearly heavily influenced by Busby Berkeley and is on a par with almost anything Berkeley did from 42nd Street on.

As for the rest of the cast, the ones playing French characters all do well enough; the Maharajah seems miscast but that's probably down to the way the character is written. A good portion of the movie -- the interracial romance aspect as well as the cinematography -- come across as very different from what Hollywood was doing; maybe some of Josef von Sternberg's stuff like The Scarlett Empress could compare. The music, on the other hand, struck me as sounding very conventionally Hollywood. It's 30s style popular band music that fits in perfectly even if it's not particularly memorable. Then again, much of the instrumental popular band music in Hollywood movies from before swing took off is similarly unmemorable. This isn't a criticism of the movie, but a compliment to how well the music fits the movie.

The ending is foreshadowed if you pay close enough attention and is probably appropriate even if it seems like a bit of a cop-out. (I'm trying to avoid revealing exactly what the ending is as I don't want to spoil it.) It doesn't really detract from the rest of the movie, though.

Princess Tam Tam is available on DVD, but as with a lot of foreign films, it's a bit pricier than typical Hollywood movies.

Silent Sunday Nights has another block of shorts

I'm either happy or sorry, as the case may be, to point out that this week's Silent Sunday Nights lineup on TCM consists of seven shorts. The problem is that every time TCM programs a bunch of shorts together like this, we get a different running order between the monthly schedule, the daily/weekly schedule, and the box guide schedule, something which makes it hard to get one particular short if that's what you're interested in and isolating it from the others.

That having been said, the shorts are all early one- and two-reelers, which means they should all be in the public domain and freely available on Youtube. An example is Bangville Police, which is apparently the first Keystone Kops short:

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Nickel Ride

A movie that's showing up again on FXM Retro that I haven't blogged about before is The Nickel Ride. It's going to be on again tomorrow morning at 3:00 AM, and seems to be available on DVD.

Jason Miller plays Cooper, who gets woken up early one morning. He's taken control of a bunch of unused warehouses in one of Los Angeles' more undesirable areas, and is using them to house a bunch of fenced goods. However, there's a problem, which is that the mob bosses who actually run the whole "block" feel they need more space, and want a better financial deal from Cooper. Not just from Cooper, but from his intermediate Carl (John Hillerman, later of Magnum, P.I.). Cooper, in effect, is what as known as a "key man", for having all the keys to the warehouses, but he's just as much a sort of fixer. Another of his problems is when he's approached by his friend Paulie, who is being leaned upon to fix a boxing match. Paulie doesn't want to do it, so perhaps Cooper can convince the boxer to take a dive?

Cooper also has a girlfriend Sarah (Linda Haynes), whom he calls "Georgia" because that's where she's originally from, so his assumption is that she's a bit of a hayseed even though she really knows more than she lets on. His other friend, Paddie (Victor French later of Little House on the Prairie, here without the beard), runs a bar near Cooper's rundown office. Rounding out the main cast is Turner (Bo Hopkins), whom Carl presents to Cooper as a would-be keyman from Oklahoma; Carl wants Cooper to show Turner the ropes. It's enough to get Cooper to think that perhaps the big organization is trying to push him out of business.

Along the way, Cooper has to go up north to the mountains of Squaw Valley to negotiate an agreement with the big organization, since their representative is going to be going on vacation for the weekend up there. However, Cooper gets up there, and finds out the man he's supposed to meet hasn't checked in, which really gets Cooper suspicious. That, and the presence of shoe tracks in Cooper's cabin, marks which clearly aren't from him or Sarah....

The Nickel Ride is one of those mid-1970s movies which, as a genre, did a really good job of showing the seamy side of life in that era. I've mentioned New York-set movies like Panic in Needle Park before; this one and something like Trouble Man are good examples set out in Los Angeles. The Nickel Ride also gets to benefit from having really nice cinematography once the action shifts to Squaw Valley. Who wouldn't like to spend the weekend in a cabin like that? The problem, however, is that The Nickel Ride is a rather slow and meandering movie; it's hard to figure out half the time precisely what's going on.

Those who like 1970s movies will probably enjoy The Nickel Ride; if I were looking to introduce people who don't know so much about 70s realism I'd probably start with some other movies instead.

A couple more obituaries

I'll admit I'd never heard of Manlio Rocchetti, who died at the beginning of the week aged 73. That's because he was a makeup artist, the sort of behind-the-scenes person who doesn't get any recognition in a broader sense. Well, there are the Oscars, of course, and Rocchetti won one of those for his work on Driving Miss Daisy. (Are the make-up Oscars still presented in the main ceremony, or in the technical awards ceremony? I don't watch the Oscars.) The lack of recognition is, I think, highlighted by the fact that I couldn't find any good English-language obituaries. That having been said, the Italian obituary I linked to shows Rocchetti working with Daniel Day-Lewis on the set of Gangs of New York.

William Peter Blatty died on Thursday at the age of 89. He'll probably be best remembered for writing The Exorcist, but he also did several screenplays. Not only for the movie version of The Exorcist, but also for A Shot in the Dark and the execrable John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. I'd guess it was Blatty's time working for the US Information Agency in Beirut that gave him the idea for the last of those movies. That time also gave him an in to appear on Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life:

Friday, January 13, 2017

Another set of briefs, for January 13-14, 2017

A few months back, I mentioned the 1912 version of Cleopatra. I didn't realize it when I posted back in September, although to be fair, this month's TCM schedule probably wasn't available at the time. TCM's prime time lineup is several versions of the Cleopatra story, with the 1912 silent rounding them off at 6:30 AM tomorrow. (It's also on Youtube, of course.)

Shock will be back on the FXM Retro schedule, airing twice tomorrow morning at 4:45 AM and 8:55 AM. Like the last set of "Back on FXM" movies I mentioned, this one was running in 2013 as well, although I think it's been back on FXM this time around for a little while now.

Somebody over at the TCM boards mentioned a BBC Radio documentary entitled Thelma and Michael: Love in the Cutting Room. This is the story of acclaimed editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who married director Michael Powell, 35 years her senior, in 1980, and remained married to him until his death 14 years later. Unfortunately, the documentary is only available via streaming audio. It was probably available for download at some point in the past, but the BBC only keeps their downloadable audio up for a month or so. I wish I had known about the documentary when it aired back in October.

Courtesy of ephemera blogger David Thompson is a link he titled Film effects of yesteryear. It's a link to the explanation for the effects in several silent movies, with the most famous being the forced perspective shots of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!. Unfortunately, the site David linked to is heavy on GIFs substituting for video.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks #131: Fashion World

This being Thursday, it's time for another Thursday Movie Picks, run by the Wandering Through the Shelves blog. This week's theme is the fashion world, and of course as a lover of old movies, I'm picking some slightly older movies. (However, they're not as old as last week's selections.)

First up is Mahogany (1975). How could you not pick this over-the-top wonder? Diana Ross plays the title character, a worker in a Chicago department store who's studying fashion design at night, and who just knows she can make it in the fashion world. She's discovered by a fashion photographer (Anthony Perkins), who decides to take her to Rome and make her a star. Her boyfriend (Billy Dee Williams), who is trying to improve life for people in the ghetto, is none too pleasd with any of this.

What a Way to Go! (1964). OK, this one isn't so much about the fashion world per se. Shirley MacLaine plays a woman who, at the start of the movie, is donating all her wealth to the US Treasury, which gets her sent to a head shrinker since you'd have to be crazy to do that. It turns out that all her husbands made her rich when all she wanted was love, and then once the husbands got rich, they died spectacularly. For classic movie buffs, part of the fun is that MacLaine describes each of the marriages as being in a particular genre of movie. For Husband #3 (Robert Mitchum), she says life was like a "Lush Budgett Production", at which point we cut to a movie spoof of Shirley MacLaine going through life with a wardrobe that would make even Audrey Hepburn or Kay Francis jealous. dozens of increasingly fancy gowns, one after another after another.

Save the Tiger (1973). Jack Lemmon plays he owner of a clothing company that's failing; at the same time he's going through a mid-life crisis at home. Things get bad enough at the business that he comes up with the idea of hiring an arsonist to burn the whole thing down so he can collect the insurance money. Along the way, Lemmon has some other misadventures. This is another movie that's not quite so much about the fashion world as it is a character study in which the main character just happens to work in the fashion world. He could have owned the company in Executive Suite or Patterns instead. But Jack Lemmon gives an excellent performance making the difficult subject material worth watching.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Air Patrol

Another movie I watched over the weekend was Air Patrol. I mentioned it a month ago, although I don't think I had seen it before, pointing out that it was directed by Maury Dexter. I said then that I thought that would probably make the movie worth one viewing, which turns out to be the case. The movie is available on DVD from Fox's MOD service, which means that it's pricey, and to be honest a bit more than I'd pay for any B movie, and perhaps any A movie, too.

The movie starts off with a man going into an office and cutting a painting out of the frame. Pan to somebody's legs; whoever was supposed to be guarding the painting was waylaid and conked over the head. (Nobody in the movies ever gets a concussion.) The thief goes up to the roof of the building and, in the middle of the night, climbs aboard a helicopter!

The cops are at first baffled, since apparently at the time the movie was made nobody had ever thought to make a getaway in that manner. But somebody comes up with it as an idea, and a member of the Los Angeles helicopter air patrol, Sgt. Castle (Richard Dix's son Robert) is brought in. He investigates all the air fields and finds a possible lead. Meanwhile, the regular cops have a couple of suspects in the form of the head of the syndicate that bought the painting, Arthur Murcott (John Holland), and an art-loving actor who was supposed to buy the painting from the syndicate but is short of money, Millard Nolan (veteran character actor Douglass Dumbrille). Meanwhile, Sgt. Castle strikes up a relationship with Mona (Merry Anders), the secretary who was struck on the head by the thief.

The investigation eventually does find the thief, but not before somebody is pushed off a building, and not before the painting is ransomed off. There's a final chase catching the thief, and cut to credits. To be honest, there's not a whole lot going on here, and the story would have done just fine if it were an episode of one of the detective series that were around in the early 1960s. As a movie the story is nothing special -- not particularly bad, but not memorably good, either. Just a competent ultra-low-budget movie.

Maury Dexter's involvement is one thing making the movie at least worth a watch. The other thing is the location shooting. When Mona goes to pick up the painting and deliver the ransom, it's done at the Hollywood Bowl early in the morning, when the structure is empty other than her and the thief. And then the car chase takes place along one of the empty riverbeds, concreted over, although this time it has a bit of water in it, ultimately ending at the Sepulveda Dam. The period shots of Los Angeles are also worth a watch.

To be honest though, I wouldn't drop the DVD price on this one. Wait for it to show up on FXM Retro instead.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Francis X. Bushman, 1883-1966

Today marks the birth anniversary of silent actor Francis X. Bushman, who is probably best known for playing Messala in the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur, opposite Ramon Novarro. I don't have any good pictures of Bushman available at hand, only having used a picture of Novarro during the chariot race when I wanted to illustrate that movie. To be fair, Novarro is the title character. The movie itself is not in the public domain, having been released in 1925. But there is a trailer on Youtube that does appear to be original:

I would have loved to use Bushman in The Flag, which was produced by the Technicolor company to promote its color films, but that one doesn't seem to be on Youtube either.

Bushman continued acting, making film and eventually TV appearances, but in greately reduced number after the advent of sound.