Sunday, July 21, 2019

To Hell and Back

During the June TCM spotlight on World War II movies, they ran To Hell and Back, which I had seen once quite a few years back but hadn't blogged about. So I put it on the DVR to watch and do a full-length post on now.

It's fairly well known that Audie Murphy was the most decorated soldier in World War II, and the fame garnered from all of this is one of the things that resulted in his becoming an actor. He wrote an autobiography of his experiences in the war, titled To Hell and Back, and that was later turned into the movie we see here, with Murphy playing himself.

He isn't playing himself at first since the movie begins when Murphy is 12 years old, the eldest son in a family of sharecroppers in east Texas with only a single mother, Dad having abandoned them. Young Audie realizes that the only way the family is going to survive is if he drops out of school to get a full-time job, which Mom ultimately lets him do with great reluctance.

Fast forward a couple of years to December, 1941. As you can guess from the date, Audie is about to be affected by the US entry into World War II. First he sees his boss' son realize he's going to be called back into service. As for Audie, he isn't going to be serving just yet, since he's underage. (I've seen his date of birth listed as 1924, 1925, and 1926, but in any of these cases he wouldn't have been 18 yet.) That, and he's helping take care of Mom, who dies in fairly short order. (Wikipedia suggests she died before the US entered the war.)

With Mom dead and the younger kids sent to an orphanage, Audie decides he's going to enlist, but none of the services want him because he's too small and too young. But eventually he is accepted by the Army and sent to the North African theater. The US Army marches on, eventually kicking the Nazis out of Africa and enabling the invasion of Sicily. It's here the Murphy really starts learning about the horrors of war, as the Germans are better dug in. Murphy begins to lose his friends and learn that you really shouldn't make friends in the military since they're going to die. But he also starts getting field promotions.

Murphy's plan at the time, at least as implied in the movie, was to make a career for himself in the military. Having dropped out of school, he wasn't a suitable officer candidate, but he was taking all the extra courses the Army offered and sending as much money as he could back to his siblings, both of which earn the notice of his superiors, as does his unexpected heroism, everybody having felt he was too small and mentally weak to be a truly good soldier.

The Americans continue to advance fitfully, facing fierce resistance from the Axis powers first in southern Italy, then in southern France and finally in Alsace. It was in Alsace that Murphy would earn his Medal of Honor, standing atop a burning tank and single-handedly stopping an advance of German soldiers. But he also suffers an injury that would prevent him from staying in the military after the war.

To Hell and Back is about as well-made as you can expect a military movie from the mid-1950s to be. Washington state substitutes for Italy and France, with Universal's soundstages being used for the interiors. However, there's also a fair amount of stock footage from World War II interspersed. Since the movie is in wide-screen with Cinemascope having been introduced two years earlier, and the World War II footage is all originally in roughly 4:3 and cropped for this movie, the difference between the two sets of footage is quite noticeable.

Audie Murphy disliked this movie in part because he thought it really sanitized his experiences, but to be fair to the filmmakers, there probably isn't any way to show the true horrors of war without being able to film an actual war and the concomitant death and destruction. And even if it had been, audiences of the time probably wouldn't have wanted to see it. Still, Murphy's thoughts are understandable. As for his performance, he does a reasonably good job one the action shifts to Europe; the American scenes of Murphy's juvenile life are maudlin and something a lot of actors wouldn't be able to rise above.

All in all, To Hell and Back is a worthy movie in the World War II cycle. It's available on DVD in multiple releases should you wish to watch it.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Shadow on the Wall

Another recent watch off the DVR was the Noir Alley entry Shadow on the Wall.

Zachary Scott plays David Starrling, a businessman who returns home a bit unexpectedly one afternoon from a business trip to his loving daughter Susan (Gigi Perreau) and second wife Celia (Kristine Miller). You'll note that I didn't use the word "loving" to describe the wife, which is because we find out that she might not be quite so loving. Celia, we learn, is seeing Crane (Tom Helmore), who is the fiancé of Celia's sister Dell (Ann Sothern)! David figures it out because when Crane brings Celia home, he parks to close to the apartment building and David seems the two of them making time.

Things get more complicated when David and Celia have guests over for dinner, who just happen to be... Crane and Dell! Celia had unsurprisingly lied to David about what she had been doing that afternoon, and David decides that he's going to ask questions over dinner that show he knows what Celia is really doing. Nobody in the room is very happy about it, and the first thing that results from is is Celia and David getting in an argument with him showing off his gun and Celia hitting him over the head with a mirror and concussing him. But then Dell enters Celia's bedroom and picks up the gun. During their argument, Dell shoots Celia dead with the gun she put in the pocket of her coat.

Little Susan walks in and sees her dead stepmother as well as a shadow with a feather that to her looks like an Indian toy that she has. Susan screams and becomes catatonic, reminiscent of the little girl in Them!. For fairly obvious reasons, David is the one arrested by the police, since it was his gun and nobody knew Dell was still there -- and Dell of course is not about to let on what she knows. David is put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to death.

Susan is sent to a children's psychiatric hospital, where Dr. Canford (Nancy Davis, since she hadn't yet married Ronald Reagan) tries to draw out the memories from Susan's deeply scarred mind. Dell figures out what Dr. Canford is up to, and what it will mean for her once Susan regains those memories, and sets out trying to silence Susan for good.

Shadow on the Wall is a nice little film, one of those MGM programmers they started making around 1950 that are often more interesting than the big-budget prestige movies the studio was putting out. Although it's ostensibly a suspense movie, there's really not that much suspense since the constraints of the Production Code mean Dell isn't going to get away with murder. Still, Sothern actually does quite well with a rare villain part for her. Davis has yet another part where she comes across as a bit stern and matter-of-fact at first, but is really a kind-hearted character. This is a character type that she's always seemed to me to be quite good at playing. But it's really Gigi Perreau's movie, and she comes off as surprisingly natural for a child actress.

Shadow on the Wall is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Heads up on Losing Ground

Back in March, I blogged about the movie Losing Ground, which I mostly liked, although thanks to its low budget it's not without its flaws. Anyhow, it's one of the movies Ava DuVernay selected for this year's edition of The Essentials. That selection is going to be on tonight at 8:00 PM (and I assume one more time before 31 Days of Oscar, although I haven't looked up the enter Essentials schedule in a while).

The movie that follows is one I have to admit I hadn't heard of before, a Dirk Bogarde movie called Accident, at 9:45 PM.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Curly Top

FXM has a couple of Shirley Temple movies in their current rotation that, at the time they were put in, I hadn't seen. So I recorded some of them, including Curly Top, which I finally got around to watching.

Shirley plays Elizabeth Blair, who at the start of the movie is one of a whole bunch of girls at a private charity orphanage looked after by matrons Higgins (Rafaela Ottiano) and Denham (Jane Darwell). It's not mentioned where the money came from to get it, but Elizabeth has a pet pony that she brings in to the main building late one night! She is, it turns out, a rather mischievous little girl, although as is usually the case with Shirley Temple movies, she'll also melt your heart.

Elizabeth's hijinks get her in trouble when the trustees come for a visit. Wyckoff (Etienne Girardot) is the closest thing to a bad guy the movie has, the mean old trustee who doesn't want to spend money on anything since spartan living was fine for him in the old days. Fortunately for her, there's a much younger and nicer trustee in the form of Edward Morgan (John Boles), a Park Avenue lawyer worth millions. He offers to adopt Elizabeth, although because of some bizarre notion that Elizabeth can't accept kindness without being beholden to people, he plans to do it in the name of a nonexistent friend, and just look after Elizabeth until the friend gets back from Europe.

Complicating things is the fact that Elizabeth has an older sister Mary (Rochelle Hudson). She, like Edward, is an amateur musician, writing songs for Elizabeth to sing. And when their parents died, Mary was still young enough to be in the orphanage, and made a promise to the parents that Mary would never let herself and Elizabeth be split up. So if Elizabeth gets adopted, Mary has to go, too.

Of course, Edward finds himself falling in love with Mary even though in real life John Boles was 20 years older than Rochelle Hudson. A pilot Jimmie (Maurice Murphy) also falls in love with Mary at Morgan's Long Island summer house, and that makes for the one other conflict in the movie. Jimmie isn't a bad guy by any means; it's just that Mary doesn't really love him.

Curly Top is a movie that has a fairly threadbare plot, filled out by a whole bunch of songs. Shirley is charming here, but because of the lack of real dramatic tension the movie winds up being little more than a pleasant diversion. It's not bad, and to be fair there are some good points, perhaps most notably in a scene where Temple's Elizabeth parodies Mr. Wyckoff. Seeing Shirley do "old man" is a hoot. Darwell is good although she, like everybody else from the orphanage disappears from the movie once Shirley is adopted. Also providing good flavor is Arthur Treacher as yet another butler.

Curly Top is available on DVD both as a standalone, and as part of at least one box set.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Thursday Movie Picks #262: Blockbuster Flops

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

Er, not that Blockbuster, although thanks to streaming they flopped. No, these are movies that were supposedly going to be blockbusters at the time of release, but failed badly at the box office. This one was a bit difficult for me in that I had two movies that came to mind right away. But I don't watch summer blockbusters for the most part, so I don't know much about which ones are remembered to be epic flops. A search at Wikipedia quickly revealead a good third candidate. So, without further ado, here are my three selections:

Heaven's Gate (1980). Michael Cimino, having had a critical success after The Deer Hunter, was given wide latitude on his next film, which turned out to be an epic western about a land war in Wyoming. Epic in scope at three and a half hours, it was also an epic flop at the box office, effectively bankrupting United Artists and destroying Cimino's career.

Ishtar (1987). Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman try their hand at a Crosby and Hope "road" movie, this one having the two leads as a pair of songwriters who try to make a go of singing and wind up in a middle eastern country and a whole lot of political intrigue. Despite two name stars and a talented writer-director in Elaine May, the movie was a disaster when it was released thanks in part to the stories about its difficult production.

Hudson Hawk (1991). I remember the hype over the movie, but it wasn't until I saw the name in the Wikipedia list of all-time flops that I realized I could use it here. A heist film starring Bruce Willis as a recently released burglar who is being blackmailed into doing all sorts of jobs, it for whatever reason doesn't have quite the reputation as a flop that my first two selections do.

Now to see what everybody else has selected.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Lady in Question

With Glenn Ford being the current Star of the Month on TCM, I've been taking the opportunity to record some of his movies that I haven't done blog posts on before. First up is The Lady in Question.

This is an early Ford film, so he's not the star here. That honor goes to Brian Aherne, playing Andre Morestan, that father in a Parisian family that runs a bicycle shop together with wife Michele (Irene Rich). Andre has been called for jury duty, a prospect that fills him with excitement. He's very much looking forward to doing his civic duty, unlike most people.

The trial he winds up sitting on is the murder trial of Natalie Roguin (Rita Hayworth). She had been seeing a rich guy and supposedly been looking to get more money out of him, with the guy eventually winding up being killed. Despite the fact that the evidence against her is fairly flimsy, the thinking is that she's going to be convicted. But Andre is apparently taken by her, interrupting the trial to ask questions and fighing for a not guilty verdict in the jury room.

Eventually he wins out, but another of the jurors remains convinced that Nathalie is guilty. As for Natalie herself, she became so notorious that nobody wants to give her a job. In need of money, she approaches Andre, he having given her his address after the trial in what seems like a reality-defying move. The result of the meeting is that Andre offers Nathalie a job at the bicycle shop, and a place to stay.

With Natalie at the shop, she meets Andre's son Pierre (Glenn Ford), and the two wind up falling in love although there are are a whole bunch of complications along the way. Mom wonders what's going on between her husband and Natalie, and one of the jurors keeps showing up insisting Natalie was actually guilty. It gets to the point that Dad might actually believe he voted the wrong way at trial.

I had a fair amount of problems with The Lady in Question, mostly having to do with the fact that the movie seemed so detached from reality. The trial in particular was supposed to be funny, but something I found grating. Aherne has to then keep engaging in a comedy of lies to keep people from finding out the truth, even though we know Pierre knows the truth since we saw him at the trial in one scene. Still, Hayworth and Ford do well together, and it's easy to see why they would be reunited a half dozen years later for Gilda. It's just too bad this first pairing wasn't in service of a better story.

The Lady in Question is available on DVD from Columbia's MOD scheme, so you can watch and judge for yourself should you like.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Porky's Poor Fish

Having watched The Sea Hawk recently, I noticed that among the extras on it is a Porky Pig short that I hadn't heard of before, Porky's Poor Fish.

There's not much to this short, or at least not much Porky Pig. The movie starts off with with a bad pun about being an adaptation of "Twenty Thousand Leaks Under the Ceiling", and then a cat chasing a mouse. (This short was released about two months after the first Tom and Jerry short; I don't know if those influenced it.) The mouse escapes.

Cut to Porky's fish pet shop, a shop selling nothing but fish and being so empty that I wonder how Porky could make a living. He goes out to lunch, and the cat that had been chasing the fish sees he's got a chance for a lunch of his own. When one of the fish is caught, the other fish gang up on the cat.

As I said, there's not much of a plot here. The emphasis is more on bad word-play, and some sight gags, of which the best was a curtain rising partially to show what looks like a chours line. Eventually, it's raised all the way to reveal... an octopus! All the others are things you can see coming a mile away. The short, as you can also see from the screenshot, is in black and white, which surprised me as I thought all of Warner's cartoons were in color by this point.

Porky's Poor Fish isn't particularly good, but of course if you're getting the DVD you're getting it for the feature film The Sea Hawk and not this short.

Another mention of Destination Moon

TCM's "Out of this World" spotlight on science fiction movies this month was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. With today being the actual anniversary, it's not a surprise that TCM's spotlight lineup for tonight is focused on moon movies.

This includes another chance to watch Georges Meliès' A Trip to the Moon which aired two weeks ago; that will be on tomorrow at 5:30 AM. But I want to make a brief mention of the movie that kicks off the night, Destination Moon, at 8:00 PM.

Destination Moon was released in 1950, so well before even the first Sputnik was launched. Obviously, nobody had any idea what going to the moon was going to be like, so you can forgive them for whatever they get wrong. But at least there was an attempt at verisimilitude.

The movie was produced by George Pal so is mostly noteworthy for its effects. That, and Pal hiring is friend Walter Lantz to do a Woody Woodpecker short used in the plot as training material to teach astronauts (I don't think they use that word, but can't recall since the movie is out of print on DVD) about the physics of microgravity.

I just noticed that Pal's later When Worlds Collide got a re-release to DVD a couple years back; Destination Moon deserves one too.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Born Reckless (1958)

Mamie Van Doren starred in quite a few movies that are such a mess that they're fun because of it. A movie that has her in an odd (for her) role is one that's really not such a mess: Born Reckless.

Van Doren plays Jackie Adams, a trick rider in rodeos and a singer in the bar/nightclub after hours. She sings one of her songs one night, and all the guys are taken with her because, well, she has those assets. One of them tries to proposition her much father than she's willing to go, so a fight breaks out among all the rodeo guys in the bar.

Gratuitous shot of Mamie Van Doren from 'High School Confidential'Jackie escapes by hiding in the back seat of a car owned by rodeo rider Kelly Cobb (Jeff Richards), who travels the circuit along with his companion and mentor, "Cool Man" (Arthur Hunnicutt). Cobb isn't exactly happy to have this stowaway, although he's also protective of her. And, of course, you know that by the end of the movie, the two are going to fall in love.

Jackie falls in love with Kelly first. He's got more on his mind, particularly trying to save up enough money to buy a ranch that he can work with his friend, Papa Gomez (Nacho Galindo), a Mexican-American with a large family whose relationship to Kelly isn't quite clear. The rodeo is just a means to an end. But Jackie and the Gomezes find each other plain good folks. Getting back to Kelly, he gets fleeced at one rodeo and is too blind to see Jackie's love for him, deciding to spend an evening with another woman. It all goes on like this for 80 minutes, with a lot of songs both from Mamie and from various cowboy like groups doing rock versions of their songs, since this was released in 1958.

I suppose you could say Born Reckless is a mess, like I implied about a bunch of the other Van Doren movies, but this one is a mess in a different way. It's a movie that doesn't really know what it wants to be. In theory you could think of it as a movie about the rodeo, but that's belied by the poor cinematography using bad angles of Richards riding the broncos and bulls, with other rodeo scenes being obvious stock footage from somewhere else since the picture quality looks much different. At other times, it seems to want to be a musical, considering how many songs there are. The movie isn't helped by the fact that everybody's performance is pretty much bland.

Born Reckless is an intersting idea, and a daring step for Mamie Van Doren, but one that doesn't really add up to much of anything. It's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, so you can watch and judge for yourself.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Sundowners

Another of my recent movie watches was The Sundowners.

Robert Mitchum plays Paddy Carmody, an Irish-Australian sheep drover (a driver of sheep the same way cowboys drove cattle on cattle drives), going around the various sheep ranches of rural Australia in the 1920s together with his wife Ida (Deborah Kerr) and son Sean (Michael Anderson Jr.). It's a lifestyle that Paddy loves, although his wife wouldn't mind settlin down, especially because with an adolescent son they probably should have settled down some time back. So when the next sheep drive starts in Bulinga and Ida sees a farm for sale there, she suggests buying it.

Paddy says no and in any case they have a job lined up and currently not enough money to put a down payment on the farm, so they head out on the next job. The only thing they need is one more assistant drover, which they find in the form of British-born adventurer and raconteur Rupert Venneker (Peter Ustinov). They set out for their destination, Cawndilla, with a good 1200 sheep. They all make it to Cawndilla without that much incident besides a dingo, and Ida gets the brilliant idea of getting jobs for all of them, forcing them to stay a while and hopefully save enough money for that down payment.

The Carmodys and Venneker have various incidents relating to work on a sheep ranch, and often involving money, something which Paddy is singularly irresponsible with. Local innkeeper Mrs. Firth (Glynis Johns) meets Rupert and falls in love with him, while, surprisingly, there's no love interest for Sean. Money remains an issue until Paddy wins a racing horse which could be the family's meal ticket to earning the money for the down payment on that farm back in Bulinga.

The Sundowners is an extremely well-made movie, if you're interested in the subject material. It doesn't help that I'm not a particular fan of Peter Ustinov, even though he's relatively muted here. Mitchum and Kerr are both excellent as the married couple who clearly still love each other despite having a big disagreement on what they want out of life. The cinematography is quite good, since they used a fair amount of location shooting in Australia. The movie is a bit long at 133 minutes and could probaby have been edited down to under two hours.

The Sundowners is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.