Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Where There's Life

One of my recent DVD purchases was this Bob Hope box set that's actually two box sets repackaged together and sold at a very low price. Recently I watched one of the movies on the set, Where There's Life.

Hubertus II is the King of Barovia, a country somewhere in Europe that's just come out of World War II and is about to have its first free elections following the war. However, there are people who don't want such a liberalization, notably a shady cabal calling itself Mordia. So one of their members shoots the King, who is severely wounded and likely to die.

The problem is that the King has no heir. Well, actually, he does, but there's no legitimate heir, which really should be a problem too, but the royalists have to make do with the hand they've been dealt. When Humbertus was young, he spent some time in America and had a fling with a woman that resulted in an illegitimate son, Michael Valentine. He's now an adult, played by Bob Hope, and working as an overnight DJ in New York. All the Barovian government has to do is go to New York, and convince Michael to take the job as King.

Now, there's the obvious question of why Michael would take the job in the first place since he's probably never been out of the US, and doesn't speak whatever language they speak there (although to be fair, that didn't stop the Bernadottes from becoming the royal family of Sweden as we saw in Désirée). On top of that, Michael is engaged to be married to Hazel O'Brien (Vera Marshe), the sister of New York cop Victor (William Bendix).

The Barovian government sends over General Grimovitch (Signe Hasso) and her entourage to find Michael and bring him back to Barovia. Michael doesn't realize what's going on at first. But there are people who do, notably the Mordia. If they tried to kill Hubertus, it's fairly logical to expect them to try to kill any heir too, especially an American heir who wouldn't be predisposed to an anti-democratic government. So they try to kill Michael.

For Michael's part, he's unable to convince anybody of what's happening to him especially as more outrageous coincidences pile up one on top of the next. Hazel despairs that Michael will never marry her, and Victor is practically going to drag him to the altar. Worse is that the General and Michael seem to start falling in love with each other.

Where There's Life is a pleasant enough time-passer, a programmer that at it's minimal length (75 minutes) is chock full of plot holes if you think too much rather than try to be amused by Bob Hope. I liked it just enough to give an endorsement as long as you know you're not looking for a prestige picture. It's not as good as something like The Cat and the Canary or My Favorite Blonde, but fans of Bob Hope will probably like it.

As for the box set, it's well executed for the price, with each case having the hinged spindles with one spindle per disc. Each disc has multiple movies on it (21 movies on 9 discs), with the exception of one final disc that has a PBS American Masters special on Hope. Even if you don't care for Where There's Life, you'll probably find enough in the box set that makes it worth the price (especially because the second half of the box set has four of the Road movies with Bing Crosby).

Schedule update, January 22-23 2020

A movie that came back to FXM recently after a long absence -- in fact, I think the last time it had been in the lineup was when the channel was FMC 24/7 and hadn't gone to recent movies and commercials in the evenings -- is Phantom of the Paradise, a movie I first blogged about back in 2009 although I got a few things wrong in my post, inexplicably calling the main character Woodrow instead of Winslow, and misspelling The Picture of Dorian Gray. Anyhow, if you don't recall the movie, Paul Williams plays the record producer Swan who sells his soul for success, only to have a disgruntled composer (William Finley) return as "The Phantom" to extract revenge.

Speaking of Paul Williams, he got an Oscar nomination for writing the "song score" to the 1976 movie Bugsy Malone, which is running on TCM tonight at 10:00 PM as part of the channel's spotlight on the Roaring 20s. Williams would not win that Oscar, but did win a different one that year, for writing the lyrics to the dreadful song "Evergreen" from the Barbra Streisand version of A Star is Born. (They were two different categories; Williams was not up against himself.)

Kicking off tonight's lineup on TCM is a movie I've briefly mentioned once before but haven't done a full-length post on since I haven't seen it in ages, Incendiary Blonde at 8:00 PM. Betty Hutton plays entertainer Texas Guinan, who was a big thing back in the 1910s and 1920s before dying tragically young (although you wouldn't know the last bit from the movie), moving from the stage to screen to nightclubs. This one doesn't seem to be on DVD, so you'll have to catch the TCM showing.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

I Shot Jesse James

Some time back I recorded I Shot Jesse James, and recently got around to watching it. It's available on DVD on an Eclipse Series set from Criterion along with the excellent The Baron of Arizona, should you wish to watch for yourself.

As you may recall from your history, or if you've watched enough westerns, the notorious outlaw Jesse James was shot and killed in 1882 by the coward Robert Ford.

Jesse James, in our movie, is played by Reed Hadley, the stentorian actor who provided narration for several of Fox's 1940s docudramas. By the time the movie starts, not long before he's killed, he's in hiding in St. Joseph, MO, together with his wife Zee (Barbara Woodell) and the Ford brothers, Charles (Tommy Noonan) and Robert (John Ireland, who is only third-billed which is a bit surprising considering he's the main character). Zee is worried about her husband, and Robert has worries of his own.

He's got a sweetheart in Cynthy (Barbara Britton), an actress for producer Harry Kane (J. Edward Bromberg), who has been traveling from town to town performing. She's back in St. Joseph, and Robert would like to marry her, but as an outlaw, so he'd never be free to settle down. And not that Cynthy would want to marry an outlaw anyway. There's another man, a failed silver prospector named John Kelley (Preston Foster), who likes Cynthy, but for the time being that may be just a platonic relationship.

And then Robert learns of an offer. The Governor of Missouri has offered an amnesty to the person who brings Jesse James in, alive or dead. That, and a $10,000 reward, which would be more than enough to buy some land and settle down with Cynthy. Now, there's no way Jesse is ever going to give himself up to the authorities to face trial, so Robert does something that seems logical to him: he shoots Jesse in the back.

However, the authorities renege on the reward, so while Robert gets his amnesty, he only gets $500. Worse, he gains notoriety for having killed Jesse James, and not in a good way. Everybody sees him, and more or less shuns him. So the only thing he can do is join Kane's theater troupe and do a special scene on how James was killed. You'd think Ford would embellish this to not make himself look like a coward, but one guesses everybody knew what happened.

Thankfully, there's a silver rush in Colorado, so Robert goes there to try to shake his past, as well as to make his fortune so that he can afford to marry Cynthy. While in Colorado he meets Kelley again, and helps a drunk prospector who actually has struck silver, so that drunk lets Robert co-work the claim in order to earn his money to be able to mary Cynthy. The problem is, Cynthy may not want to marry him....

This was the first feature film directed by Samuel Fuller, who did things his way and has a fairly distinctive style. That makes I Shot Jesse James interesting, and the sort of movie that people are going to praise a little more than it deserves. It's more than good enough, but I also found it not quite as good as some of Fuller's later work. Then again, I saw it after seeing something like Gregory Peck's The Gunfighter which explores many of the same themes and had a big studio behind it; and after a fair number of Fuller's other movies, so I may have had too high of an expectation for it.

It's unfortunate that the Eclipse set with I Shot Jesse James only has three movies on it and is a bit pricier (the three Eclipse sets I've picked up have more films and cost less), because all three of the movies on the set deserve to be better known.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

The 1980s produced a bunch of teen movies that, if you're of the right age, are fondly remembered. Even if you aren't the right age, they're still an interesting time capsule of the era. One of the earlier 1980s teen movies, and one of the better ones, is Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is more of a slice of life movie than a traditionally narrative movie, taking a look at one school year for the students of a Ridgemont High School somewhere in the suburbs of Los Angeles. First among them is Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a young sex-obsessed girl who's never actually done it, who works at the pizza joint in the mall with her best friend Linda (Phoebe Cates), who claims she has gone all the way.

Stacy has an older brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) who, at the start of the movie, is working at one of the smaller hamburger franchises but winds up going from one retail job to the next. He's got a girlfriend who dumps him halfway through the movie, and thereafter spends time fantasizing about Linda.

As for Stacy, there is a classmate interested in her, movie theater usher Mark Ratner, nicknamed "Rat" (Brian Backer). The only thing is, he's painfully shy, and asks for help in dealing with girls from his no-goodnik "friend" Damone (Robert Romanus). Damone is always looking to make a quick buck, usually by scalping tickets.

Rounding out the main cast of students is top-billed Sean Penn is Spicoli, who is more concerned with surfing and scoring a hit of marijuana back when it was much more illegal. He consistently makes life difficult for uptight American History teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston), one of the few teachers we see since much of the action takes place outside the school. The other teacher is biology teacher Vargas (Vincent Schiavelli).

The teachers are depicted as uniformly out of touch, while the teens are trying to navigate many of the usual issues that teens had, only it's mostly handled with a lot of humor, with the exception of when Damone steals Stacy out from under Rat's nose and gets Stacy pregnant.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is in many ways very much a product of the early 1980s and southern California, what with the after-school jobs at the mall, and many people not even yet having cable. Adolescents, I think, don't have anywhere near so much independence these days and their lives are much more structured as the perceived need to have a lot of accomplishments in order to get into a good college has taken precedence.

I'm several years younger than the original target demographic for the movie, having graduated high school in 1990. And while my high school wasn't nearly like Ridgemont, I still really enjoyed the movie. It's a fun little ride and just entertains without trying to pass too much moral judgment on the characters and their actions. The soundtrack, at least for someone of my age, is also filled with songs that bring back memories. And if you're a good deal younger than me, and up for some very R-rated humor, give it a try and see what the 80s were all about.

Martin Luther King Day schedules

Today being Martin Luther King Day here in the US, it's not surprising that TCM is running a whole bunch of movies with prominent black characters. Unfortunately, since black actors didn't get that much of a chance to play prominent characters before Sidney Poitier came along, there's a limited selection to choose from, and we get a lot of the same movies every year. I should have posted last night, because one I don't think TCM has run for a while is Carmen Jones at 10:00 AM, part of a morning of Harry Belafonte movies.

The afternoon is given over to the previously-mentioned Sidney Poitier, and of the three movies TCM is showing, my favorite is A Patch of Blue at 2:00 PM. There's one more Poitier movie overnight, A Raisin in the Sun, which is slightly oddly scheduled in the overnight....

The reason I say that scheduling is odd is that TCM is running a two-night spotlight in prime time called Overlooked African-American Performances, and I don't really know that anything with Poitier as the star is really overlooked. Donald Bogle is presenting, and I'm guessing he'll be pointing out the other performances are the ones that are overlooked. Tonight's lineup starts at 8:00 PM with one that's new to me, Nothing But a Man, which for some bizarre reason isn't listed on TCM's online weekly schedule. (It is on the monthly schedule, and with no synopsis, I'm assuming it's a TCM premiere.)

The second night of the spotlight is on Thursday night, since Tuesdays were scheduled for Star of the Month Patricia Neal and Wednesday's for TCM's spotlight on the Roaring 20s. The interesting part of the Thursday schedule comes following the four movies he's picked. Rounding out the night will be a pair of Oscar Micheaux silents, Within Our Gates and Symbol of the Unconquered.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Fall Up

Another movie that I watched off of my DVR recently was All Fall Down, which is yet another movie available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Brandon De Wilde plays Clinton Willart, a young man who's gone from his family home in Cleveland down to Key West, FL to see his beloved brother Berry-Berry (Warren Beatty, and yes, that's the character's bizarre name) with $200 that Berry-Berry wants in order to get going in the shrimp fishing industry. However, when Clinton gets to the hotel where his brother is supposedly staying, he's told that Berry-Berry is in jail! Apparently, Berry-Berry tried to beat the crap out of a hooker. That $200 would do fine for "bail", however, and oh, please get the hell out of Key West.

Clinton wants his brother to go back to Cleveland with him, but the two meet women while hitchhiking, and one of the women offers Berry-Berry a "job" of some sort on her yacht, so Berry-Berry departs and Clinton heads back to Cleveland. When he gets back, we find that his parents (Karl Malden and Angela Lansbury) came straight out of a Tennessee Williams play, except that All Fall Down is based on a novel by some guy whose name I didn't recognize at first (James Leo Herlihy, who also wrote the book behind Midnight Cowboy) and the screenplay was adapted by William Inge of Picnic fame. Clinton is the closest to sane that the family has, although even he keeps copious notebooks of other people's conversations.

Into this wacky family comes the daughter of a family friend, Echo (Eva Marie Saint). She's a working girl who is also into being a bit of a car mechanic to work on her own car, and for the first time in his live Clinton finds a woman he thinks he can love, even though she's much older than he is. Echo really likes Clinton, although how much of it is friendship and how much love is an open question.

Berry-Berry gets off that yacht at some point, as he's working as a service station attendant at the sort of service station the guy from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg dreamt of opening, thankfully minus the singing since I don't think anybody wants to hear him sing. He hits on a woman going north, eventually becoming her driver although she's stopping in Lousiville. He gets in a fight with her in a bar on Christmas Eve and winds up back in jail.

Dad wires Berry-Berry the money to get out of jail, and eventually Berry-Berry shows up in Cleveland. He meets Echo, and immediately starts putting the moves on her, despite the fact that Clinton feels way too much love for Echo. Berry-Berry being a jerk, however, he causes a whole bunch of problems leading to the film's denouement.

For fairly obvious reasons, while watching All Fall Down I couldn't help but think of Brandon De Wilde a year later in Hud. De Wilde is quite good here, but he's the only one of the four Willarts who is any good. I don't know if the problem is with the script, or with the actors playing things to be way overheated (hence my mention of Tennessee Williams earlier). Malden, Lansbury, and Beatty are all irritating, so I think I'd have to lay the fault for that at the hands of the director, the normally talented John Frankenheimer.

One other thing I didn't like was that the first act of the movie set down in Florida was nicely evoactive with all the location shooting. But when they got back to Cleveland, the house was so obviously on the MGM backlot that it was jarring. Maybe they blew the budget on the location shooting, but whatever they did, the contrast is not to the movie's benefit.

I've read any number of reviews that praise the acting in All Fall Down, however, so this is another one where perhaps you may want to watch for yourself in order to judge it.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Let slip the dogs of war

One of the movies that I recorded during Joan Blondell's turn as TCM's Star of the Month was Cry "Havoc". It's another of those movies that's been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, bringing the US into World War II on a de jure basis. The US still held the Philippines as a colony at that time, so unsurprisingly the Japanese turned to trying to conquer the Philippines. The Bataan peninsula was the main avenue of escape by land from Manila, and a battle raged there for a good three months. Multiple movies were rushed into production and released in 1943, with Cry "Havoc" being one of them.

This movie focuses on the nurses who tended to the American soldiers fighting the battle. Capt. Marsh (Fay Bainter) runs a field hospital with Lt. "Smitty" Smith (Margaret Sullavan) serving under her. They're severely understaffed, so Marsh sends another nurse, Flo Norris (Marsha Hunt) out to see if any of the fleeing women would be willing to volunteer for nursing duty. Flo runs into a group of women pushing a truck, and amazingly, all of them are willing to volunteer.

Among the women are former burlesque dancer Grace (Joan Blondell); rebellious Pat (Ann Sothern); southerner Nydia (Diana Lewis); and a pair of sisters, Sue (Dorothy Morris) and Andra (Heather Angel). One of the first problems the civilians have is when Sue steps outside the bunker dormitory and goes missing when the Japanese stage an air raid; Andra unsurprisingly thinks that she's died. The bigger problem is the day-to-day life with a severe lack of food and medicine, especially quinine for malaria.

Malaria, it turns out, has already struck Smitty, who we only find out later is terminally ill with it. Marsh wants her to evacuate to Australia via Corregidor, but there's a second problem in the form of the unseen Lt. Holt. Smitty has a relationship with him, and when the civilians arrive, Pat sees Lt. Holt and immediately falls in love with him, not knowing the exact nature of his relationship with Smitty.

The biggest problem is the impending, unrelenting Japanese advance. The US Army says that the Army nurses have to help the soldiers hold off the Japanese for as long as possible, but that the civilians are free to leave. However, they decide to stay on and help as best they can, even though it's probably going to doom them to a terrible fate.

Of course, we know how the Battle of Bataan ended, and even at the time Cry "Havoc" was released the battle had already been long since lost. Still, the courage of the civilian nurses as depicted in the movie was decided morale-boosting for the female audiences back home, women who in many cases had their own male relatives fighting in Europe or the Pacific.

The acting is surprisingly good, considering that I normally think of Sothern and Blondell as more comedic actresses. (Watch also for a very brief appearance from a young Robert Mitchum.) The movie is based on a stage play, and with the bunker dormitory being one of the main sets, the stage origins are at times obvious. A bit more worrying is that the print TCM ran looked almost like one that would have been produced for TV syndication back in the pre-HD days. I'm not certain what the print on the DVD is like.

In any case, Cry "Havoc" is certainly worth a watch.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Follow Me Quietly

Some weeks back I mentioned the movie Follow Me Quietly and commented that I had this sneaking suspicion that I'd already seen it. I watched it, and as it turns out, I hadn't. It's on DVD from the Warner Archive, so I'm doing a review of it for you now.

Ann Gorman (Dorothy Patrick) shows up outside a bar one rainy night; she's looking for the detective Lt. Grant (William Lundigan). It turns out that Ann is a writer for one of those pulp magazines that were a thing back in the 1940s, specifically a crime magazine. She's doing a story on a serial killer known as "The Judge", and Grant is heading the police investigation. However, he doesn't really like reporters, and especially hates the pulp magazines which he thinks aren't real journalism, so he gives Ann the brush-off.

Part of the Judge's modus operandi is that he strikes on rainy nights, as though he's got some pathological urge to kill brought out by the rain. And since our story opens on a rainy night, sure enough there's another murder (well, the victim conveniently survives long enough for the cops to listen to his story) committed. Lt. Grant goes off to the crime scene, and...

Ann follows. In fact, she keeps following Grant around trying to get the story, eventually winding up inside his apartment (Ann keeps claiming to have "connections" that are never explained) to pester the poor guy. Now, I'm not the biggest fan of cops, but you have to feel bad for Lt. Grant since Ann is no prize herself. And yet, Grant for some bizarre reason decides to relent and let her get a story!

The investigation of the Judge is going nowhere, so Grant comes up with a bizarre angle to attack. Since they know everything about the Judge but what his face looks like, Grant has a life-sized mannequin constructed for use in showing the cops on the beat what they're looking for. And that dummy actually plays a part in several key sequences later in the movie.

But Follow Me Quietly is only a 59-minute movie, so it's going to get resolved relatively quickly. And since Ann has been following Lt. Grant around, you know she's actually going to be of some use in cracking the case. This happens when an issue of the magazine for which she works is found at a murder scene. She knows enough about publishing to surmise that the Judge got his copy at a used book store, which is a big clue.

Follow Me Quietly is a nice little B crime procedural with noirish elements, although at 59 minutes it leaves any number of things unresolved. In addition to Ann's "connections" I mentioned before, there's also the question of the Judge's motivation and why he thinks he should be in judgment of humanity. More annoyingly is the question of why Lt. Grant fell for Ann in the first place especially considering her dishonesty in getting into his apartment. Still, it's certainly worth a watch.

Follow Me Quietly only seems to be on a standalone DVD as far as I could find, which is a bit of a shame, because it's the sort of thing that would really be better suited for a box set.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

No Thursday Movie Picks this week

This being Thursday, it's normally time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. And indeed, there is a theme this week. But it's "2019 releases". I had thought it was movies with memorable scores, but that's next week. And to be honest, I can't in good faith do an entry for this theme, because I realize I've only seen one 2019 release. This isn't just because I write a classic movie blog and watch a boatload of old movies on DVDs and my DVR.

I finally went back to the movie theater for the first time in about 3-1/2 years recently, in order to watch 1917, and at some point I'll get around to doing a full review of it, probably in conjunction with the Oscars since the movie was nominated for a boatload of the more technical awards. Part of the reason I didn't go for a while is that the movie theater in our dead mall closed down for several months starting in the summer of 2018, and part because actually going to the theater isn't really conducive with my schedule. I work the early shift, so seeing a movie in prime time isn't my favorite thing with my normally relatively early bed time. That and I don't want to pay prime time prices. And it's the rare occasion that I don't have other stuff planned for my days off that I'd go see a matinee (which is still $9).

Having pointed that out, I will make one other comment, which was about the coming attraction trailers. Apparently Harrison Ford is starring in a version of Call of the Wild that looked like it was way to influenced by CGI. The more interesting trailer, however, was for a movie called The Invisible Man which is coming out at the end of February.

This movie is unrelated to the Claude Rains classic which was based on the H.G. Wells story. Instead, as I watched the trailer, my immediate thought was of Sleeping With the Enemy, combined with.... Well, my first thought was Topper, but then I figured that Blithe Spirit might be more appropriate, which is probably being a bit mean to the movie.

The basic plot is that a woman (Elisabeth Moss) has an abusive, controlling husband (hence the obvious similarity to Sleeping With the Enemy) who kills himself, and sets a clause in his will that she inherits only if she's not declared mentally ill. Of course, it turns out that the husband didn't kill himself, but figured out some way to make himself invisible (standard disclaimer about the physics violations necessary to make the plot of any "invisible person" movie work) so that he can harass her unseen and get her committed, thus losing the inheritance.

Now, Gaslight isn't appropriate here because the wife seems to realize fairly early on that the husband is behind everything that's going on and he must still be alive despite the evidence to the contrary. Further, I really needed to think of a comedy for the mash-up, because the premise is one that, while interesting, also has the potential to go hilariously wrong, something which happens at times with Sleeping With the Enemy.

I don't know that I'll be dropping the nine bucks on The Invisible Man, however.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Barkleys of Broadway

Back in December, TCM ran a night of movies starring Oscar Levant (or at least co-starring since he wasn't usually the male lead). Among the movies I had not blogged about here before was The Barkleys of Broadway.

Levant plays Ezra Millar, a pianist (there's a stretch) and good friends to the Barkleys, Josh (Fred Astaire) and Dinah (Ginger Rogers). The Barkleys are a successful Broadway couple, doing light musical comedy together. Their latest show has just opened up, and it's a big success, with the couple getting a large amount of applause when the curtain comes down. When they do their curtain call, they flatter each other to the point that you wonder whether or not something is going on in the background.

Unsurprisingly, we soon learn that there is in fact something between the two. In one of the post-premiere parties, Dinah meets director Jacques Barredout (Jacques François), who is going to be doing a play based on the early life of renowned French actress. Barredout admires Dinah, and thinks that she'd be perfect for the lead role. But this is a drama, and Dinah has never done real drama before. Still, Barredout praises Dinah's interpretation in the one point of her current show with Josh where Josh had criticized it, so Dinah decides she's going to try drama.

Josh doesn't like this, thinking Dinah isn't a good fit for drama, and not wanting to lose her from his show. They eventually get in an argument about it, and Dinah decides she's going to leave Josh entirely to do the show, which frankly makes no sense, as they could easily have remained married.

Josh still loves Dinah, and he decides he's going to try to win Dinah back through an elaborate scheme that's going to have him imitate Barredout and giving her advice on how to handle certain scenes in the play. It's a scheme that you'd think would get caught out straight away, but somehow it doesn't. Ezra, for his part, also tries to bring the couple back together at a benefit, but it's too much emotionally for Dinah.

Of course, this being a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie (their final one together a decade after The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle), you know that after all the misunderstandings they're going to wind up together in the final reel, and that does indeed happen with Josh realizing Dinah has the chops for Dinah and Dinah realizing Josh actually had well-intentioned advice for her and is happy doing light comedy.

Even though Astaire and Rogers hadn't done a movie together for ten years, The Barkleys of Broadway follows the tried and true formula of their other comedies, although this one isn't nearly as madcap as the 30s movies. In addition to the dance numbers, with Levant in the cast we get a couple of longer piano scenes as well, notably Khachaturian's "Sabre Dances" and Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. Frankly, I found that these slowed the movie down a bit.

Still, I think anybody who likes the Rogers/Astaire movies from the 30s will enjoy The Barkleys of Broadway. It's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.