Monday, October 20, 2014

Apparently I haven't blogged about Kings Row before

A search of the blog claims that I've never done a full-length post on Kings Row before. It's airing tonight at 10:00 PM on TCM as part of a night of "Bob's Picks", so now would be a good time to do that full-length post on the movie.

The movie is set late in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th in the fictional small town of Kings Row, which really could substitute for any small town anywhere in the country, bet it Peyton Place, NH, or the small Mississippi town in Intruder in the Dust. The story is told more or less in three parts, with the first part introducing us to the various protagonists as children. There's Parris, who lives in a big house with his grandmother; Drake, who's going to receive a stipend from a trust fund when he grows up; Cassie, the doctor's daughter; and Randy, the daughter of a railroad worker who lives on the "wrong" side of the tracks. Not that it matters to the kids, who have always been less conscious of class than the adults. Randy likes Drake, while Parris and Cassie have a crush on each other. The latter relationship is much to the chagrin of Cassie's father, Dr. Tower (Claude Rains). Rumor has it that Cassie's mother is not right in the head, and that's had an effect on Cassie. Or, at least, the doctor thinks it has, so he eventually pulls Cassie out of school and the others only see her through upstairs windows.

Fast forward to when everybody is a young adult. Drake (now played by Ronald Reagan) is now living off that trust fund, with a fashionable carriage and chasing after the fashinable women. Randy (Ann Sheridan) still lives with her father in a ramshackle place on the other side of tracks. Cassie (Betty Field) still lives as a recluse with her father, while Parris has decided to study medicine to become a doctor, and is doing so with Dr. Tower. This gives Parris the chance to try to see Cassie, although Dr. Tower strictly forbids it. This, even though Cassie wants to see Parris. But is she going crazy, just like everybody rumored about her mother? Eventually, two tragedies happen. One befalls Drake when the bank manager at the bank where Drake's trust fund is administers runs off having embezzled all the money, leaving Drake penniless. The other befalls Parris and Cassie when there's a murder-suicide at the Tower residence involving the doctor and Cassie.

Parris gets an opportunity to study psychoanalysis in Vienna, presumably under a youngish Dr. Freud. Drake goes off to work at the rail yards with Randy's father, which allows Drake to discover that Randy was really the girl for him all along. They fall in love and have plans for the future, but those plans change when there's an accident at the railyard and Drake's legs get pinned. Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn) is called in and he decides to operate -- by amputating both of Drake's legs! (This leads to the classic line, "Where's the rest of me?" when Drake discovers he's an amputee.) Randy writes to Parris in Vienna for help, since the amputation has left Drake bitter and feeling no hope for the future. Parris returns and finds that Drake's isn't the first amputation in town, and that perhaps Drake's amputation wasn't medically necessary. So what's going on here?

Kings Row is the sort of movie that makes you wonder what Douglas Sirk would have done with the material if he had been around in Hollywood and getting prestige movies to direct in the early 1940s. By the end of the movie, the material really does get to be that over the top, although not in a bad way. Cummings and Reagan both have roles that test the limits of their acting abilities. Both strive valiantly, but ultimately come up a bit short in spots. It's not quite a big deal with Cummings since his character goes away for much of the final third of the movie, while Reagan's difficulties in playing characters with a really dark part is particularly noticeable after the amputation when he's supposed to have no hope. Reagan was always more suited to play the equanimity he shows when he first takes the railroad job, the "I'm not going to let this get me down" attitude that allows his affable nature to shine through. When something finally dows get him down, in this case the amputation, Reagan looks like he's going through the motions.

Still, Kings Row is a very entertaining movie in part because of the material, and in part because it's Ronald Reagan trying to pull off this material. The TCM Shop is offering the movie on DVD as part of one of their four-film box sets, this one of Ronald Reagan movies. I don't know if it's available on a standalone DVD.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Do wasps have a spirit too?

A movie that's very interesting and worth a watch, albeit rather difficult to classify, is airing overnight tonight (or early tomorrow morning depending upon your point of view): The Spirit of the Beehive, at 4:30 AM.

The scene is Spain, around 1940, or just after the Spanish Civil War ended. Ana (Ana Torrens) is the younger sister in a standard-issue family that has two girls, a mother, and father. Dad spends his time philosophizing and keeping bees, writing about the way the bees go about their life, while Mom apparently had another man in her past before she met and married Dad, because she's got a bunch of old love letters that aren't from Dad. (Or at least, I [i]think[/i] that was supposed to be the plot point.) The two sisters are more or less typical for young girls the world over.

One day, the local cinema shows a very interesting movie: James Whale's 1931 masterpiece Frankenstein. The kids watch in awe of the monster, but one scene that particularly affects Ana is the one in which the monster accidentally drowns the little girl who gives him a flower, and then the girl's father carries her dead body through town before the townsfolk attack the castle where Dr. Frankenstein does his experiments. Ana's sister decides to play a bit of a prank on Ana, telling her that Frankenstein's monster actually lives nearby, and she'll show Ana where the monster lives. Big sister then takes Ana to an abandoned farmhouse a couple of miles outside of town, saying that this is where the monster lives, although it happens not to be there at the time (natuarlly, since there's no monster).

The little girl, having a vivid imagination like many young children do, starts fantasizing. She wants to see the monster, so she keeps going back to the farmhouse. Eventually, she does find something in the house, but it's not Frankenstein's monster. Instead, a fugitive (whether it's just a run-of-the-mill criminal or a fighter from the losing side of the Civil War isn't quite made clear) has holed up there. Eventually, though, the authorities capture the man, and Ana decides to run away from home.

In among all this are a bunch of scenes that seem like vignettes in one of those old Hollywood movies that tells a child's story through vignettes; think a movie like Our Vines Have Tender Grapes. But The Spirit of the Beehive is a different sort of movie entirely. The vignettes feel a bit disjointed and the plot at times seems almost baffling. Why is there so much emotional distance between the various family members? Why does big sister play dead? But the visuals are stunning, and anybody who had an active imagination as a child should be able to identify with Ana. If you haven't seen The Spirit of the Beehive before, you should see it at least once. And if you didn't get it the first time, you may want to watch it again.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Hot Saturday

One of the more fun and shocking pre-codes that showed up back in September as part of the Friday Spotlight of pre-Codes was Hot Saturday. It's on TCM again tomorrow morning at 10:30 AM, and is certainly worth a viewing if you haven't seen any of the previous recent TMC showings.

Nancy Carroll stars as Ruth Brock. She's a secretary at the local bank, and in some ways the belle of the bank. At least, all of the male tellers want her. Chief among these young men is Conny Billop (Edward Woods), who's trying to get her to be his date when everybody goes out to the local weekend spot out on the lake. They're planning to go as a group, evne though the town's older residents wonder whether the young folk enjoying themselves this way is such a good idea. That having been said, they wonder even more whether the guy on the other side of the lake is good. That guy is the notorious playboy Romer Sheffield (Cary Grant). He's got a place on the lake, and a girlfriend whom he just got rid of by writing a $10,000 check, which of course is a huge sum of money back in those days. Romer comes into the bank and invites the young people who work there to his place on Saturday afternoon before they all head off to the night spot.

So everybody goes to Romer's lakehouse which looks like it would be a fabulous place to have if you could afford it. And even though the parents' generation all think Romer is a terrible influence, the party the youngsters have at his place that afternoon is fairly innocent with the possible exception of the alcoholic drinks being served, which would have been problematic considering that this was still the Prohibition era. Meanwhile, Romer has shown Ruth a little more of his side of the lake, completely innocently of course. Eventually, they all decamp to the other side of the lake to enjoy the evening. Conny takes Ruth out on a boat and is a total jerk to her, trying to paw her when clearly she doesn't want it. So she runs away when the boat gets to shore again, and this being the opposite side of the lake, she makes her way to Romer's place. They talk fairly innocently for several hours before he takes her home.

When she gets back home, she finds that the family has a guest. That guest is old family friend Bill Fadden (Randolph Scott). He's a minerals engineer who went off to school and now several years later, he's returned on his way to the mountains where he's going to do some geological surveying for an oil company. Bill is unsurprisingly, like every other guy in town, smitten with Ruth, and her parents (William Collier and Jane Darwell) think that he'd be right for Ruth to marry. But that's not going to happen so quickly.

When Romer took Ruth home, a couple of the young people saw him drop her off. And they start gossiping. This being one of those small towns, gossip travels fast, and the lies about what Ruth and Romer are accused of having done spread quickly. Romer doesn't care since he lives outside of town and has the money to go off to the big city; in fact, he doesn't even know about any of the gossip. For Ruth, however, it's tragic, as she gets fired from the bank. Ah, but at least there's Bill, in love with her and willing to marry her immediately to solve all her problems, since his work is generally going to take him away from this crummy old town. So they get engaged and go to that night spot on the lake to celebrate with everybody. Conny, however, feeling himself a spurned lover, decides to gain revene on Ruth by inviting Romer to the little shindig....

The plot synopsis is relatively old-fashioned, in that it's hard to believe 80 years on that a town would immediatley gossip just because one of their young people returned home in the middle of the night. But what makes the movie is a couple of thoroughly pre-Code scenes. The first of these comes early in the movie, when Ruth returns home and wants to change into a new pair of undergarments that she had bought for when she goes out. She discobers that her kid sister Annie (Rose Coghlan) has taken them and is wearing them, and dammit, Ruth is going to get them back, even if she has to tear them off Annie's body! (The scene doesn't go [i]quite[/i] that far.) Later, there's a scene when Ruth goes running off to Bill after news of her "indiscretion" with Romer has made its way around town. Bill has already gone off to the mountains, and when Ruth gets there, it's pouring rain. She collapses, and Bill takes her into his tent to take care of her lest she get pneumonia or something. She wakes up with a blanket covering her and above her head, we get a pan shot of every last stitch of clothing she had on! Bill had strictily honorable intentions, of course, but still it's shocking. And then there's the shock at the end, which I won't give away. Let's just say that the ending of this movie is one that would never have made it to screen after 1934.

Cary Grant gets top billing in this, one of his earliest movies. But it's really Nancy Carroll's movie, and she's a lot of fun to watch. Grant is good, although watching a movie like this you can see why he ended up as the elegant gentleman type in his later movies. Randolph Scott is upright enough, but a bit boring, although that's probably because the script requires him to be more bland. Fans of old movies will recognize Grady Sutton as one of the bank workers. All in all, Hot Saturday is a really surprising pre-Code.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Shorts update for October 17, 2014

I don't think I've ever mentioned Cradle of a Nation before. This is a Traveltalks short, looking at some of the restored sites in Virginia that were important parts of the state's colonial history. It's airing at approximately 4:15 AM tomorrow morning, or overnight tonight depending upon your point of view or time zone. Or, to put it another way, it follows The Macomber Affair (2:45 AM, 89 min plus I presume an intro and outro from Alex Trebek). For some reason when I saw this on the schedule, I didn't immediately think it was a Traveltalks short, but something from Warner Bros. I recall seeing ome time back on TCM, a black-and-white short trying to be a Traveltalks short but falling short. The more I think about it, the more that black-and-white short I could swear I've seen might have looked at places that were a part of antebellum history in one of the southern states. Mississippi?

And then there's Grand Prix: Challenge of hte Champions, which you can catch tomorrow morning at 7:45 AM. This one is a featurette made for the 1966 James Garner movie Grand Prix. That movie deals with the Grand Prix of Monaco, so we get a lot of shots of Monaco itself, of the stars, and perhaps most interestingly the racecar drivers of the day actually competing in the Grand Prix of Monaco.. This is one of those shorts that I've come across once or twice in the past while I was just flipping through the channels or sitting down before the next movie, but don't think I've actually watched all the way through.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Leo F. Forbstein, 1892-1948

So that's what Leo Forbstein looks like!

Today marks the birth anniversary of Leo F. Forbstein. That's a name that you've almost certainly seen if you watch enough TCM. He was the musical director at Warner Bros. for oer 15 years until his death in 1948, conducting the orchestra. Forbstein started at Vitaphone which was a subsidiary of Warner Bros., which explains why in many of the early 1930s pictures he's credited as the conductor of the Vitaphone orchestra. Forbstein won an Oscar for Anthony Adverse, although that was as head of the music department; the actual score was written by Erich Korngold who also picked up an Oscar alongside Forbstein.

In fact, Forbstein wrote very few scores unlike some composers who are also conductors. IMDb lists only four credits for Forbstein as a composer, for movies I have to admit that I don't recognize. IMDb also lists two credits for Forbstein as an actor, although I doubt he was really acting. In both pictures: 1934's Twenty Million Sweethearts and 1935's Broadway Gondolier, he's listed as playing a conductor. I haven't seen either movie, but I'd presume both of them needed a conductor for the orchestra that showed up in a musical number, so why not use Forbstein?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Pete Kelly's Blues

If you liked Jack Webb last week in The D.I., you're in luck. One of the movies TCM is showing in honor of Star of the Month Janet Leigh was directed by and stars Webb. That film, Pete Kelly's Blues, airs tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM on TCM.

Webb, unsurprisingly, plays Pete Kelly. (Having your own production company making the movie helps.) Pete is the cornetist in, and leader of, a 1920s jazz combo, playing at a Kansas City-area speakeasy along with clarinetist Al (Lee Marvin) and drummer Joey (Martin Milner). This being the 1920s, it obviously means Prohibition, and all the concomitant problems that brings. One of the big problems is the rise of the gangster, which in this context means the protection racket. Local gangster Fran McCarg (Edmond O'Brien) wants to take over the entertainment racket, charging every band a piece of the action in order to be able to play. The band thinks it over and says no, with Joey being particularly strident in his view that the gangsters shouldn't be taking money from bands.

Of course, McCarg's offer wasn't a request; he's not going to let a little thing like the word "no" stop him. So while the band goes off to a private function, Fran is plotting to use force to get Pete and his band to comply. Janet Leigh finally shows up here, playing Ivy, the woman hosting the party and falling in love with Pete there, although at first the feeling is not mutual. On the way home from the party Fran's goons try to run Pete and has band off the road. Joey still refuses to give in to Fran, and when the gangsters continue their policy of vilently harassing anybody who says no to them, Joey gets in a fight with one of the underlings, thus sealing his fate. He abruptly gets rubbed out. This ultimately gets Pete to give in to Fran.

Of course, that's not where Fran's pressure ends. Fran has a girlfriend named Rose (Peggy Lee), although she's not particularly enamored of him any longer. Rose is a singer, and Fran is trying to push her career, reminiscent of James Cagney and Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me. So Fran tries to push Rose on Pete's band, even though the styles of music aren't a mesh at all. Eventually Fran strikes out at Rose, and that's what gets Pete to do the right thing and cooperate with the law.

Even if Jack Webb weren't playing Pete Kelly, the movie would still have his fingerprints all over it: the clipped dialog and the obvious right versus wrong, practically hitting us over the head with all of it. Still, it's obvious from watching the movie that Webb had an affection for the material and as with The D.I., directs it almost as a labor of love: in addition to Peggy Lee's singing, Webb was able to get Ella Fitzgerald The result is a movie that, while it has its flaws, is a lot better than you'd think if you only knew Jack Webb from the 1960s version of Dragnet and the other TV shows his production company made at the time. (Martin Milner would go on to star in Dragnet's police-drama companion Adam-12.)

Pete Kelly's Blues did get a DVD release several years ago, but it seems to be out of print now, as the TCM shop no longer offers it for purchase.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Briefs for October 14, 2014

TCM's forums finally came back yesterday afternoon. I think once I found out that I wasn't the only one having problems, the fairly obvious conclusion was some sort of major problem at TCM's end, although I still think it mildly odd that the error message only read, "This account has been suspended." Another board where I post was undergoing a bit of maintenance yesterday afternoon, and the board owner notified us a good week before of the possible outage time. Sure enough, there was a brief outage, but there was an error message that had a drawing reminiscent of the robot from Forbidden Planet and a message that something's gone wrong and either try again or contact the people who make the board software with a link to their web-site. I also have to admit that I don't do Facebook, which is why I wouldn't have seen any message from TCM there about problems with the boards. I find it a memory hog and I don't care about a bunch of middle-aged gossips playing Candy Crush Saga.

I should probably apologize for not blogging about Tycoon, which aired yesterday at 5:45 PM as part of TCM's birthday salute to the late Laraine Day. I had seen it on the schedule and intended to do a post, but with everything going on over the weekend I totally forgot. There was a little "Buy This" icon next to the movie in the TCM schedule, but the DVD is actually out of print. On the TCM Shop, it says that the DVD is "on order", while over at Amazon they say they only have a limited number available, which is a sure sign that the DVD is out of print. Tycoon isn't exactly a great movie, but it's one that's certainly worth at least one viewing.

As for another short, I can recommend Primitive Pitcairn, which TCM lists as beginning at 4:59 AM, or just after the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty at 2:45 AM. The short is an early 1935 look at Pitcairn Island, where the Bounty mutineers ended up because it seemed suitably remote. It was still remote even in 1935, and the lives that the descendants of the mutinners were leading was exceedingly harsh. There's apparently no good harbor on the island, so ships didn't stop by very often, which led to a great deal of isolation. The island also doesn't offer a very bounteous (no pun intended) harvest. It's on Youtube, but I'm not certain if it's in the coorect aspect ratio. (I didn't actually watch the Youtube version.)

Monday, October 13, 2014

TCM Guest Programmer: David Steinberg

And so we get to this month's Guest Programmer on TCM: comic writer/director David Steinberg. He's selected four of his favorite films, and will be sitting down with Robert Osborne to present those movies tonight. Those selections are:

The Marx Brothers and Kitty Carlisle spend A Night at the Opera at 8:00 PM;
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance their way through Swing Time at 10:00 PM;
Cary Grant tries to recover his prize dinosaur bone from selfish Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby at midnight; and
Prostitute Giulietta Masina walks the streets of Rome in Nights of Cabiria, at 2:00 AM.

Perhaps more interesting is the short that's coming up in between two of the movies. Just after A Night at the Opera, at about 9:48 PM, is Things You Never See on the Screen. This was Warner Bros. "goof reel" for the year 1935, bloopers from filming that didn't make it into the final cuts for obvious reasons, and which would ultimately be presented at the company Christmas party. People who are even better acquainted with the Warner Bros. movies of that era will have fun trying to figure out which movie each clip is from; James Cagney flubbing his Shakespearean lines in A Midsummer Night's Dream is the easy one. There's also a somewhat shocking line in an intertitle card about a behind-the-scenes crewman of Italian descent "going home to cook one of his wop dinners".

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Another silent shorts warning

TCM's Silent Sunday Nights feature for tonight is not a feautre, but five comic shorts. No problem with that per se; it's just that when TCM schedules a bunch of shorts like this, there's always a problem with the timing and order in which they'll run. TCM's online schedule page lists the five shorts, but all beginning at midnight. (They also list a short in between The Steel Trap and Silent Sunday Nights: 1933's Come to Dinner, which is a parody of Dinner at Eight.) That order is:

1. Jailed and Bailed
2. The Boy Friend
3. Charley, My Boy!
4. Long Pants
5. Just a Good Guy

The downloadable monthly schedule lists them in mostly the same order, except that Jailed and Bailed is at the end instead of the beginning. Also the times given for the five shorts add up to about 91 minutes on the monthly schedule, and 108 minutes on the online daily schedule. My DirecTV box guide lists them in the same order as the monthly schedule, but puts each of the five shorts into a 24-minute block, which conveniently comes out to two hours. (The daily schedule page lists two of the shorts as running 25 minutes.) And Titan TV's online guide only lists four of the shorts, following the same order as the monthly TCM guide and DirecTV, but omitting Just a Good Guy, and sticking each short into a half-hour slot. I think we can presume that's wrong, and all five shorts are airing. I'd guess it's in the monthly guide order, but I'm never certain when it comes to these blocks of shorts.

The Steel Trap

A movie that's got an interesting premise but which unfortunately goes wrong in the execution is The Steel Trap, which is on TCM this evening at 10:00 PM.

Joseph Cotten stars as Jim Osborne, a man whose life seems somewhat reminiscent of the character played by Dick Powell in Pitfall. Osborne is a middle class (by early 1950s standards) bank assistant manager, married to a lovely wife Laurie (Teresa Wright) and father to an infant daughter. Now, if you saw Pitfall, you know there was a femme fatale. There's a femme fatale of sorts in The Steel Trap, too, but it's an inanimate one: the almighty dollar.

Jim Osborne suggests that if you work for a bank long enough, it's only logical that once in a while, your thoughts are going to wander to whether or not you can get away with getting any of that money for yourself. The only thing is, there are all sorts of security measures to try to keep people from stealing that money. The bank vault is on a timer; the assistant manager knows only half the combination, with the other half being entrusted to a second person; there's no place to go with all that money; and so on. But Jim decides that it would be easy to look over the shoulders of the people who have the other halves of the various combinations, and starts doing research into how he can get around the other dificulties. The most difficult one is not getting extradited back to the United States. Theoretically, I assume the communist countries of the day might not have extradited him, but getting into those countries would have been a problem. But Jim discovers that there's a loophole in the extradition treaty with Brazil, so he's going to steal the money and hop on a flight to Brazil with his wife and kid!

This is where the movie starts to go wrong. Jim has to steal the money after the close of business on a Friday, so that he can get on that plane and make it to Brazil before Monday morning when the bank opens, it's discovered that a lot of money is missing, and the suspicion points to Jim. (Remember, this is in the era before jet travel, when even plane travel was a good deal slower than it is today.) This isn't a crime of keeping people from figuring out who did it; it's a crime of getting oneself outside the scope of law and who cares who neat or messy the crime is. However, there's one catch. The bank has seasonal opening hours that include a couple of hours on a Saturday morning, and that season is just about to begin next week. If Jim doesn't pull off the job This Friday, he's going to have to wait months to pull it off. Any logical person would spend those months preparing for the job, but stupid Jim takes the other option of committing the deed now.

And with this, Jim starts to reveal himself not as a suave criminal who could con people, but as a bullying jerk who commits one blunt lie after another that everybody should be able to see through. Jim and Laurie don't have passports, because international travel wasn't so common back in the early 1950s and you didn't need a passport to travel to Canada or Mexico back then. Some of those six months could have been used to get those passports: since Jim works for the Bank of Italy, he could make up a smoother lie about being interested in getting into the international banking part of their business, and getting the passports for him and his wife to prepare for that. But no; Jim has to get na emergency expedited passport for him and his wife, which is where the scheme should fall apart. It doesn't, and the film goes on for another 40 or 50 minutes with Jim compounding his lies and being exceedingly dislikeable in doing so.

Or, at least, that's the impression I got watching this movie. A lot of other reviewers have much kinder things to say about the film, so this is definitely one you'll want to watch for yourself to judge. Cotten and Wright are generally quite good actors, too, so that should make it easier to like the film.