Robert Osborne and the folks at TCM are ringing in the new year 2009 starting at 8:00 PM ET by showing all three movies in the That's Entertainment! franchise, followed by That's Dancing! These are perfectly good choices for New Year's Eve, although the original That's Entertainment is a bit sad since it was one of the last movies made on the old MGM backlot before they had to sell it off due to financial considerations. Still, if you're a fan of musicals, you'll love watching all the old clips of everybody under the MGM sun (including people like James Stewart!) singing and/or dancing. But while TCM are showing the That's Entertainment! movies, I'd prefer to think about movies that actually show New Year's celebrations:
Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine finish their game of gin rummy while celebrating the New Year at the end of Billy Wilder's masterpiece The Apartment.
Norma Shearer dances New Year's Eve away trying to forget about her unfaithful husband in The Divorcee.
Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr celebrate the New Year in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and promise to meet atop the Empire State Building six months later, in the classic love story An Affair to Remember.
A less happy shipboard New Year's celebration takes place in The Poseidon Adventure, in which the celebration is rudely interrupted by a tsunami.
That's not the only unhappy New Year's Eve; partygoers in Las Vegas find that they're about to be robbed on New Year's Eve in the original version of Ocean's Eleven.
But even that isn't the most unhappy New Year's Eve, as Gary Cooper threatens to jump off a building in Meet John Doe. Then again, the movie has a relatively happy ending, as Cooper doesn't jump. The Production Code wouldn't have allowed it.
By the same token, Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond slits her wrist on New Year's Eve in Sunset Blvd., but she obviously doesn't succeed. (It wouldn't have fit the plot, anyhow.)
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Robert Osborne and the folks at TCM are ringing in the new year 2009 starting at 8:00 PM ET by showing all three movies in the That's Entertainment! franchise, followed by That's Dancing! These are perfectly good choices for New Year's Eve, although the original That's Entertainment is a bit sad since it was one of the last movies made on the old MGM backlot before they had to sell it off due to financial considerations. Still, if you're a fan of musicals, you'll love watching all the old clips of everybody under the MGM sun (including people like James Stewart!) singing and/or dancing. But while TCM are showing the That's Entertainment! movies, I'd prefer to think about movies that actually show New Year's celebrations:
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 10:15 AM
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
TCM aired their new documentary on Ron Howard's 50 years in film last night. It focused mostly on his career as a director, only touching briefly on how he first got into acting and ow a few things in his career as a child actor helped him when he later became a director. As a result, the documentary overlooked fine movies like The Courtship of Eddie's Father.
Ron Howard plays Eddie, a young kid who has just lost his mother. His father (Glenn Ford), now being a widower, is trying to raise the kid alone, while Eddie is trying to find a new wife for Dad (and, preferably, a new mother). Eddie has, shall we say, interesting taste: the first woman he picks up is Stella Stevens, even though she's too young for Glenn Ford, and is much more suitable for Jerry Van Dyke, a disk jockey working at the radio network where Ford is a producer. Along the way, Ford meets Dina Merrill, but Eddie hates her. Instead, he begins to like the next-door neighbor, a nurse played by Shirley Jones, thinking that she is a better fit for his father....
The Courtship of Eddie's Father is a pretty fine family movie. It deals with difficult topics lovingly, sensitively, and realistically. Glenn Ford is as good and sturdy as ever. Ford isn't remembered as one of the all-time greats in Hollywood, but he was more than competent, and always makes the movies he's in worth watching. Ford was in his mid-40s by the time he made this movie, and now well-suited to playing more fatherly figures. Howard is fine here; he was a good child actor and, like Ford, is more than suitable for the part. Shirley Jones was relatively young here, and not bad-looking. I have no idea how she could have afforded the apartment she's in on a nurse's salary, and the film never discusses that. Just overlook it yourself and enjoy the budding love story between Ford and Jones.
The Courtship of Eddie's Father is a good movie. To be honest, it's nothing special, but not every movie has to be. It's safe, but not trite, family entertainment, on a par with Yours, Mine, and Ours. It's available on DVD, too.
Monday, December 29, 2008
Ann Savage, who played one of the nastiest femmes fatales in the 1945 movie Detour, has died at the age of 87. Detour, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, stars Tom Neal as a struggling nightclub pianist in New York. He's got a girlfriend, who decides to go to Hollywood to try to make a name for herself; he promises that he'll follow when he gets the money. Unfortunately, though, he never can get enough money, so he decides to try to hitch-hike his way out to Los Angeles. Big mistake.
Along the way, he meets a seemingly kindly wealthy man with a wad of money, a nice car, and some health issues. When Neal takes over the driving duties at night, he discovers, to his horror, that his benefactor has died of an apparent heart attack in the passenger seat. Of course, Neal recognizes that nobody will buy this story, so after a bit of dithering, he decides to dump the wealthy man's body in a ditch, and take over the man's identity. Big mistake #2.
Enter Ann Savage. As the now-relatively wealthy Neal is driving to LA, he picks up a hitch-hiking Savage. (Big mistake #3.) Neal tries to pass himself off as the wealthy man, but Savage is having none of it. It turns out that she had earlier been a passenger in the rich man's car, and she knows that Neal is not the rightful owner of the car, or the man's identity. She doesn't seem to buy Neal's story about what happened to the rich guy, either, so she's got the power of blackmail. Neal and Savage are joined at the hip, all the way to LA and beyond, and if Neal tries to do anything about it, Savage can just turn him in to the police.
Ulmer directed Detour on a miniscule budget, and that shows. The sets are lousy; the plot introduces sub-lines and then just drops them, never developing them; and the acting and dialog are sometimes over the top. On the whole, however, the story is quite good, full of twists and turns. The lousy sets aren't a big problem, either; in fact, the low-rent nature of the sets mirrors the fact that these are all characters living on the edges of society. And although Savage especially goes over the top, it only makes her seem even meaner.
Detour is available on DVD, although the prints I've seen are of a fairly poor quality. (The movie was distributed by Producers Releasing Corporation, so the original print probably wasn't that good.) Still, it's a pretty darn good movie, and one that shows what you can do if you've got a lot of devotion to the movie-making craft.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 1:15 PM
Sunday, December 28, 2008
TCM's foreign film for this week is Mr. Hulot's Holiday, airing overnight at 3:00 AM ET. Although it's a French movie, it's one that transcends language and culture, largely because a lot of its themes are universal, and because there's so little dialogue.
Jacques Tati plays Mr. Hulot, a Frenchman about to go to his favorite seaside resort for his annual August holiday. Mr. Hulot is a character reminiscent of Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean, a man who says virtually nothing, and despite not intending to do any harm, has all hell break loose around him. Other than that, however, the movie has no plot. It's just one brief episode after another, each taking its own gentle look at the foibles of human nature as we try to enjoy our vacations, with Tati walking through, completely oblivious to all the havoc around him.
What makes this movie so good is a number of things. First, it's universal. The fact that there's little dialogue helps; we can probably all remember attempts we've made to have our own perfect vacations, attempts which are invariably causing stress and making the vacation less enjoyable than it otherwise would be. I remember how, as a kid, my parents would pack up the family van and take us all to one of the many state parks in New York's Adirondack Mountains. We kids generally had a blast (other than having to put up the tents), but the planning, and packing the car must have been a nightmare for Mom and Dad. Half the stuff you take along, you wind up not using; but if you forget to take it along, you'll wind up needing it.
Secondly, the humor is exceedingly clever. It's very easy to forget when watching comedy just how difficult it is. The great ones pull it off and make it look effortless: consider the planning that went into a movie like Harold Lloyd's Safety Last!, or Jerry Lewis' The Bellboy. The set-pieces of Mr. Hulot's Holiday are similarly well-constructed; even when we can see a mile away what the punchline is going to be, it's still funny when we get there.
Best of all, Mr. Hulot's Holiday is a movie that can be watched by the whole family. And it's available on DVD, should you miss tonight's showing on TCM.
Saturday, December 27, 2008
I never liked Disney growing up. Thanks to TCM, and their month of "Disney family classics" on Sunday afternoons this December, it's more obvious why. One of the big helps in that regard is the documentary on the Disney live-action movies, airing one more time at 10:30 AM ET on December 28.
The documentary deals with the earlier Disney live-action movies, starting in 1950 and going through the period when Michael Eisner took over at Disney. It makes the point that after Walt Disney died, the people left at the studio didn't really know what to do. They wanted to do what Walt would have done, but it turned out that Walt never stayed in one place doing the same thing. Instead, he was constantly trying to innovate, or at least trying to keep the movies fresh. So what the studio ended up with was a bunch of bland, forumlaic movies.
I was born in 1972, several years after Walt Disney's death. As such, I didn't get to see most of the earlier Disney movies when I was young. Instead, my first two memories of Disney movies were Pete's Dragon and The North Avenue Irregulars. Having seen some of the earlier movies, especially 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on TCM, it's fairly easy to see that the quality was much better. The same holds true for the animated movies; I think the first one I saw was one of the Rescuers movies; these don't compare to something like Cinderella at all.
Watch the documentary for yourself. It's full of interviews with most of the surviving cast members from live-action Disney movies of the 50s through the 70s (probably the big exception is Julie Andrews, who played Mary Poppins). I'm a sucker for interviews with the old stars, so even though I hadn't seen a lot of the movies that are profiled in the documentary, I still found it quite enjoyable.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 9:34 PM
Friday, December 26, 2008
I notice that today is the birth anniversary of character actor Elisha Cook, Jr. I've recommended his movie Don't Bother To Knock before, so will recommend something completely different today: The Killing. It was directed by Stanley Kubrick, and it's just as good as the later movies for which Kubrick is more remembered.
The movie has an "all-star" cast of B actors in a mid-1950s post-noir crime story: Sterling Hayden (almost reprising a role he had done several years earlier in The Asphalt Jungle) plays a man who plans the robbery of the takings at a race track, with a gang involving people both on the outside, and race-track workers. The plan is that, after the robbery, they'll all meet at a predetermined location, but you know that something is going to go wrong. As such, the movie is almost formulaic, but the 1950s movies crime dramas have a sense of realism about them that makes them seem both gritty and fresh, and well worth watching. Not only that, but doing it by the numbers is a big plus for Kubrick and The Killing: later movies like 2001, where Kubrick had the directorial power and budget to do whatever he wanted, come across as more self-indulgent.
No, The Killing is a much littler picture. The lack of a "name" cast makes the story more important, and that story really shines, and allows these B actors to show just how good they could be. In addition to Hayden and Cook, there's Marie Windsor as Cook's long-suffering wife; Vince Edwards as Windsor's girlfriend, who learns about the robbery and wants in on it; and Ted de Corsia, who played wrestler Willie Garza in The Naked City, showing up as a police officer.
If you've seen a bunch of 1950s crime dramas, The Killing may not seem too original, although that shouldn't detract from the film's quality. If you haven't, it's an excellent place to start on the genre. Happily, The Killing is available on DVD.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 2:43 PM
Thursday, December 25, 2008
I prefer to have at least one post every day but, with today being Christmas and my not having pre-written a post, I'll only be making a very brief post today.
It seems as though lost of people, not just the devout Christians, get some Christmas spirit; decorations go up even in countries like Japan that have few Christians. The same goes for movie-making, where snow always falls just in time for Christmas and, like the characters in Three Godfathers, Christmas makes everybody do the right thing.
There's also the commercialization of Christmas, a facr of which I'm reminded every time I think of the movie The Passions of Carol. Everybody knows Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, but The Passions of Carol is a 1970s porn re-telling of the story. Apparently, a female publisher of an adult magazine is put into the Scrooge role, learning about the Christmas spirit thanks to lots of sex. I've never seen it, and it's not available on any video format. But it sounds just bizarre enough to make me want to see a porno flick.
I suppose the other lesson of The Passions of Carol is that, if you can think of anything having to do with sex, somebody's already tried it.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
A lesser-known, but excellent, Christmas movie, Remember the Night, airs tonight on TCM at 11:15 PM ET, with a repeat on Christmas morning at 6:15 AM. It's not on DVD, and since it was made at Paramount, it doesn't get shown on TCM too often. So don't miss your chance to see it.
Fred MacMurray plays John Sargent, a prosecuting attorney in New York who is currently dealing with the case of a repeat-offender shoplifter, Lee Leander (played by Barbara Stanwyck). It's just before Christmas, and Miss Leander is remanded into custody pending her trial just after the holiday season. Unfortunately for her, she can't make bail, so it seems as though she's destined to spend the holidays in prison. Until the prosecuting attorney takes pity on her. He rustles up the bail money, takes her into his custody, and plans to take her to spend the Christmas holiday with his family in the Midwest.
The two things that happen next are fairly predictable: prosecutor and defendant get into some legal trouble together and, along their journey, fall in love with each other. (I suppose that would happen when you're stuck overnight on a farm and are forced to milk another man's cow.) There's a bit more predictability when the two get to his family out in Indiana. His mother (Beulah Bondi) is a widow, living with her spinster sister and a young man (Sterling Holloway) to help work the farm. They're the stereotype of the kindly small-town folk (as is the entire town), with Ma Sargent especially showing maternal wisdom. She thinks that Lee is actually a sweet thing, and it is this belief that eventually gets Lee to show that she's got a conscience after all. Still, there is that pesky little matter of the trial she's facing after Christmas....
Despite the fact that you know all this is going to happen, it doesn't detract from the movie. MacMurray and Stanwyck worked well together, both in a relatively light comedy like this, and in noirs like Double Indemnity. The two are also helped out immensely by a script from writer (and soon-to-be director) Preston Sturges. Sturges injects the right amount of humor into the proceedings, keeping the movie from becoming overly sentimental. Mitchell Leisen was one of Paramount's better comedy directors in the late 1930s (I've already recommended Easy Living and his 1950s The Mating Season), and handles the material with ease, as though he'd directed a hundred such movies before, yet still keeps the material looking fresh. Finally, there's the aforementioned Beulah Bondi, who really deserves a full-length post of her own sometime. She was a veteran character actress who played mother figures over and over, almost always making them tender and the type of mother you would want to come home to at the holidays (as opposed to Ma Leander, whom we see briefly, and who hates her daughter because she knows what her daughter is).
Remember the Night is an excellent example of the late-1930s romantic comedy, and one which is good for Christmas viewing. Considering the stars, it also deserves to be released to DVD.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
I hadn't seen Tenth Avenue Angel until TCM showed it this Christmas season. It's not on DVD, so I don't want to do too much of a recommendation of it. Suffice it to say that MGM child star Margaret O'Brien plays a generally charming, but slightly obnoxious girl who, among other things, is able to spot a man trying to bilk the locals out of their money.
O'Brien is generally thought of as not just sweet, but almost too sweet. Personally, I find this cloying nature somewhat creepy, to the point of turning melodrama into farce. But O'Brien isn't at her creepiness in Tenth Avenue Angel. I would pick the short You, John Jones! for a really creepy little Miss O'Brien.
James Cagney plays the title role as John Jones, a small-town man doing his part for the war effort by being the local air warden. He's got a wife (Ann Sheridan) and a daughter (O'Brien), who is practicing for the school pageant. This short was designed as patriotic propaganda in more ways than one. Obvious is when Cagney's John Jones has a fantasy of what it would be like if, heaven forbid, the air-raid sirens went off for real and his town were attacked by the Axis. He returns home to find everything is all right, and the second bit of propaganda: O'Brien reciting the Gettysburg Address as part of her practicing for her role in the pageant.
The short is more a curiousity than anything else. Cagney made this at MGM as part of the war effort, and got paired with O'Brien for the only time in their careers; Cagney of course spent most of the first two decades of his career at Warner Bros. The other notable thing is seeing O'Brien's reading of the Gettysburg Address, with a delivery that makes her come across more like a brunette version of the kids from the Village of the Damned rather than the sweet little girl she was.
If you want to see this curiosity, it's available as an extra on one of the DVD releases of Yankee Doodle Dandy. It's a fascinating historical document.
TCM are preëmpting their regular prime-time lineup on Tuesday, December 23, replacing it with a five-film tribute to the late Van Johnson:
8:00 PM ET In the Good Old Summertime
9:45 PM ET A Guy Named Joe
Midnight Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
2:30 AM The Last Time I Saw Paris
4:30 AM Thrill of a Romance
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 12:20 AM
Monday, December 22, 2008
Today marks the birth annivesary of 1930s adolescent star Frankie Darro. He played a bunch of "tough" guys in movies throughout the 30s, although his career tailed off after World War II. You can catch him on DVD in 1933's The Mayor of Hell, part of Volume 3 of the Warner Brothers "gangster" series. It's a movie that's very much a product of its time, but enjoyable even today.
Darro plays the lead of a youth gang that's constantly getting into trouble. Eventually, the gang gets into enough trouble that they get brought before juvenile court. Despite the best efforts of their parents to intervene, the boys all get sent to reform school. Unfortunately for them, this is a particularly bad reform school, as the man running it is skimming money off the top and giving the kids short shrift.
Enter James Cagney. He's a former gangster trying to reform, and he's gotten a patronage job as a Deputy Commissioner of Corrections as a result. He visits the reform school, and is horrified by what he sees, so he works to get the current headmaster (played by Dudley Digges) ousted, and have the place run along more democratic lines -- including in one interesting scene, a juvenile jury. Digges won't stand for it, though, and trie to get Cagney framed for letting the kids out to commit more crimes.
As I said, it's pretty typical stuff for Warner Brothers in the early 1930s. They spent a lot of time trying to make socially conscious movies, and this one clearly falls into that mode, even if the plot is much slighter than in movies like Public Enemy or I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. There's also those parents of the youthful offenders. They fall into every ethnic stereotype: one Italian, one Jew, one WASP, and so on. It seems humorous today, although I wonder whether immigrant parents were really as they were portrayed here. As for the stars, Cagney is fine, charismatic as always, although he's underused here. Darro is great too, being a born natural for the street punks he was playing. He looks the part, and it seems as though he could have played these roles in his sleep. Madge Evans plays Cagney's love interest, a nurse at the reform school who is responsible for Cagney's deciding to take an interesting in seeing that the school is run properly. It's necessary for the plot, but still feels phony.
All in all, you can find worse ways to spend an hour and a half -- even cinematically -- than to watch The Mayor of Hell.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Several months back, I commented on how the 1987 movie Less Than Zero is an unintentionally funny look at drug addiction. By no means was it the first to fail; the classic Reefer Madness is from the mid 1930s. But Reefer Madness was an obviously low-budget movie, and its makers can be forgiven for coming up short. The same can't be said for either Less Than Zero or Bigger Than Life, which airs on the Fox Movie Channel at noon ET on December 22.
James Mason plays a teacher who develops a serious health problem: he's got inflammed arteries, an ailment that could kill him. Fortunately, however, there's a new "wonder drug" that will cure his problems: cortisone. Mason takes the cortisone, and it certainly seems to cure his vasculitis. Unfortunately, it makes him feel so good that he starts taking massive doses of the drug, and becomes addicted to it. Worse is the side effect: manic depression. Poor Mason was almost insufferable before becoming sick, and is now even worse. He's an arrogant bastard, constantly belittling everybody, and becomes a Jesus-freak to boot. And since this is the 1950s, his lovely wife tries to hide it, even though his young son clearly realizes there's something terribly wrong.
Everybody tries. James Mason wasn't a bad actor, although he seems to be lost as to how to play manic behavior. He goes over the top, much like Joan Crawford in her 1960s movies. Mason's wife, played by Barbara Rush, has an interesting dilemma: in whom can she confide, and how should she confront her husband? It can't be easy, and Rush gives it her best shot. I get the impression that the son (Christopher Olsen) isn't really acting: he might just be terrified in real life of Mason's manic portrayal. The closest friend the family has is played by Walter Matthau, in the days before he started playing really cynical characters. He seems out of character as a kindly buddy, and certainly as James Mason's buddy. But he isn't given all that much to do, either.
So why does this movie fail? To be honest, I've never been up close to any addicts -- at least, not that I know of. Yet, Mason's addict in Bigger Than Life seems almost like a cardboard cutout, unlike Ray Milland's alcoholic Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend, or even Susan Hayward in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman. Worse, in Bigger Than Life, the story ends much more abruptly, as though the writers had no idea how they wanted the movie to end.
Bigger Than Life is not commercially available on DVD in the US, so this is your one chance to watch the movie.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 3:36 PM
Saturday, December 20, 2008
TCM's Essential movie for this week is the Best Picture Oscar winner of 1938, You Can't Take It With You, airing tonight at 8:00 PM ET. This is a movie that shows just what a good comedy should be.
Jean Arthur stars as Alice Sycamore, the granddaughter of a once-wealthy businessman, Martin Vanderhof (played by Lionel Barrymore). He decided to quit the rat race and devote his life to the things that really matter, and now lives in a big house with all his relatives, who have also (more or less) taken up his philosophy. Alice loves her family, but is working, as the secretary to banker's son Anthony Kirby, Jr. (James Stewart) The Kirbys are as well-to-do as the Vanderhofs used to be, and the father (Edward Arnold) is extremely concerned not only with his money, but also with his family's social status.
It should be obvious what happens next: Boy loves Girl, but is worried that the father won't approve of Girl's family. And Heaven knows that Girl has one warped family. Grandpa Vanderhof, despite having started it all, is probably (apart from Alice) the sanest of the bunch. There's daughter Spring Byington, who has become a writer despite the fact that nothing she writes ever gets published; her husband, a fireworks maker; granddaughter Ann Miller, a wild ballerina; her husband the xylophone player; and a cast of well-known character actors that includes Mischa Auer, Donald Meek, and Halliwell Hobbes. Amongst all this, the patriarch of the bohemians teaches the blue-blood banker a few things about life.
This is a great movie, largely because it's so outrageous in its characterizations. And despite the fact that Edward Arnold is portrayed as clearly being the bad guy here, caring more about his place in the world than his son's happiness, it's easy to understand his motivations. A family like the Vanderhofs may make for excellent viewing, but would you really want to live with such people? In reality, such a family would probably have a dynamic more like the first son Art Carney stays with in Harry and Tonto.
Needless to say, a movie as classic as You Can't Take it With You, having been made by a director as prominent as Frank Capra, is available on DVD. Still, it's just as much worth watching when it shows up on TCM as it is waiting for the DVD at the rental store.
Friday, December 19, 2008
The average movie watcher may not remember that Henry Fonda spent the early part of his career as a contract player at Fox, before becoming a much bigger star in the 1950s and 1960s. That has a lot to do with the fact that Fonda didn't get the best vehicles while at Fox -- indeed, he's said to have commented that he only liked a few of the movies he made there (especially The Grapes of Wrath and The Ox-Bow Incident). Instead of more serious stuff, Fonda got put into a number of light comedies at Fox, such as Rings on Her Fingers, airing tomorrow at 9:30 AM on the Fox Movie Channel.
Fonda plays John Wheeler, the victim of a scam at the hands of the film's other three protagonists. Gene Tierney plays Susan Miller, a clerk in a department store who is struggling to get by on her meager income, until she's approached by socialite family the Worthingtons (Spring Byington as the mother, and Laird Cregar, whom Fox were trying to promote, as another member of the family). They give Susan $100 -- a princely sum back then -- to model some clothes for them, and when that goes well, they invite her into their little scam, portraying the Worthington daughter as the three of them scam the unwitting John Wheeler. The scam itself goes well, except for one minor hitch: Susan falls in love with John. John vows that he's going to scrimp and save, while he hires detectives to find out who scammed him, having no idea that one of the people in on it is now in love with him. Will love overcome crime? You'll have to watch the movie to find out.
It's easy to see while watching this movie why Fonda didn't like his time at Fox. Rings on Her Fingers is a movie that is sadly less than the sum of its parts. Fonda could do comedy perfectly well; by this time he'd already made the classic The Lady Eve. Tierney was capable at comedy, too, and was certainly up to being the female lead in a romantic movie like this. Spring Byington is great in almost any supporting role, and she could handle this stuff in her sleep. Laird Cregar is overlooked today, largely because he died tragically young. Yet, there's something wrong with this movie. It's not as funny as it should be, and the ending is terribly rushed. Still, it's worth watching to see these good actors struggling gamely with less than stellar material.
Rings on Her Fingers is not available on DVD.
TCM is airing the warm Christmas-themed romantic fantasy The Bishop's Wife tonight at 8:00 PM ET. It's a simple but excellent movie that's suitable for the entire family.
There's not a whole lot to the story: David Niven plays Episcopalian Bishop Henry Brougham, a man whose life has hit a bit of a snag. He's so worried about getting the new cathedral built -- essentially, out of hubris, as a monument to his tenure as a bishop -- that he hasn't been paying enough attention to his own wife (Loretta Young) and daughter. What's needed is a bit of divine intervention, which God suitably provides in the form of the angelic Dudley, played by Cary Grant.
Dudley's job is to reinvigorate the bishop's faith, and get him to see the things that really matter in life -- and if he does that, he might just realize he doesn't really need that cathedral, as the money can be better used elsewhere. It's a straightforward enough task for Dudley, who quickly becomes the bishop's assistant (and in a few humorous special effects scenes uses his divine powers). However, along the way, Dudley doesn't just help the Rev. Brougham and Mrs. Brougham, but the rest of the townsfolk as well.
And what a town this is! There's the tipsy professor of ancient history, for whom Dudley is an actual eyewitness to those ancient events, played by Monty Woolley. The Broughams' maid is well-played by Elsa Lanchester. Gladys Cooper, who is probably best known for playing Bette Davis' possessive mother in Now, Voyager, appears here as the rich woman who only wants to donate to the cathedral if she can get part of it named after her late husband. You can only imagine what Dudley has to say to her. Another veteran character actor, James Gleason, shows up as a jaded taxi driver.
The Bishop's Wife is, for whatever reason, overlooked today, compared to some of the other holiday classics from the 1940s: Meet John Doe, It's a Wonderful Life, or Miracle on 34th Street. That's really a shame, since The Bishop's Wife is a classy movie that also has the virtue of displaying good Christian values (for those who are concerned about that, especially in a family movie), without being preachy (good news for the more secular viewers). In addition to tonight's airing, it's on again at 6:00 PM ET on Christmas Eve, and available on DVD too.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
You've probably seen the news about the woman who received America's first face transplant. Interestingly enough, the idea of a face transplant has been the subject of a classic movie, and not one of those bad-but-fun Hollywood B-movies of the 1950s. Instead, it's the 1960 French classic Eyes Without a Face (French title Les yeux sans visage).
Pierre Brasseur plays Dr. Génessier, a doctor renowned in the new field of reconstructive surgery. It turns out that he's got more than a professional interest in the subject: his daughter was in a car accident that left her disfigured, and in need of serious surgery on her face. But, we're getting ahead of ourselves. The movie actually starts with the dumping of a body in a river, which Dr. Génessier identifies as his daughter. He does this in order to reveal the truth of what's actually going on, which is that he's trying to perform radical facial reconstruction surgery on his daughter, albeit without success.
The doctor's daughter has been left with a face she can't show to anybody -- even herself -- and either lies in bed covering her face, or wears a frightening, featureless mask to cover it up. Meanwhile, we learn that the not-so-good doctor and his assistant (played by Alida Valli), are conspiring to kidnap young women and surgically remove their faces to graft on to the daughter's.
It's horrifying stuff, and what makes Eyes Without a Face such a good movie is the fact that it's not handled the way that most American movies would have handled it. It's less a horror movie than it is a suspense movie, with the characters having believable motivations, albeit motivations warped by their sense of hubris, self-righteousness, or loyalty, as the case may be. It's also got gorgeous photography, one of the many movies helped by being in black and white instead of color. Thankfully, it's also available on DVD.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Last night, TCM showed Shadow of a Doubt, where Joseph Cotten got to play the "Merry Widow" murderer. Hume Cronyn has a supporting role, as a young man who trades theories about how to commit the "perfect murder" with family patriarch Henry Travers. It's a fun role, but Cronyn isn't exactly a bad guy there. If you want to see him play somebody really bad, tune into TCM tomorrow at 8:30 AM ET for Brute Force.
The star of the movie is a young Burt Lancaster, playing prisoner Joe Collins. His girl on the outside is seriously ill, and although everybody wants to break out of prison, Joe Collins has the extra good reason of wanting to see his girl before he dies. However, this is prison, and the guards will do everything in their power to make certain escape is impossible, and that prison is actually punishment for the incarcerated.
The man most responsible for that is guard Captain Munsey, played by Hume Cronyn. Munsey apparently got into corrections for the power trip, and has clearly let the power go to his head. He's cold-blooded, calculating, sadistic, and vicious, and (pardon the pun) takes no prisoners with his inmates. He expects prion to be punishment more than rehabilitation, and has no qualms about using violence to subdue the prisoners. Indeed, one of Cronyn's highlights in the movie is a scene in which he turns up the volume on the record player in his office so that he can beat a prisoner with impunity: with the volume up, the prisoners' cries will be drowned out by the music.
But it's not just Cronyn who's bad here. Brute Force is, as the title implies, unremittingly bleak and violent. The prisoners aren't just subject to beatings; if they misbehave, they get horrible work details that literally kill them. And the prison doctor is no help, either; he's a constant drunkwho frankly doesn't care about anybody, and just wants to get through the day. All this leads up to the eventual attempted breakout, which is just as violent on the prisoners' part as the guards have been throughout the movie.
Brute Force is available on DVD, albeit a pricey edition, in case you miss it on TCM tomorrow.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
A few years back, the satellite box guide listed the movie Jack of Diamonds, a movie from 1949 about jewel thieves. I had missed most of the movie, but I was surprised to turn the TV on and see some guy in color, swingining from a trapeze in what looked like a castle, followed by a jewel heist. Obviously, this wasn't the movie I thought I'd be getting. It turned out that what was showing was a movie called Jack of Diamonds, but it was from 1967. (There was in fact a 1949 movie called The Jack of Diamonds, but it's got a different plot. Obviously, the box guide screwed up.) This 1967 movie, which has TCM's Star of the Month Joseph Cotten in the cast, is airing at 5:00 AM on December 17.
Cotten plays the Ace of Diamonds, a more or less retired jewel thief living the high life. He's got a protégé in the Jack of Diamonds (played by George Hamilton), who is working with the Ace to plan elaborate heists, from their castle in the Bavarian Alps. That trapeze I mentioned? Hamilton swings from it in order to keep up his litheness and ability swing from one rooftop to another. Cotten has an old friend who's also a thief, and he's got a plan to make one of the most audacious robberies ever seen, of a seemingly impregnable fortress in Paris. But, he needs the help of the Ace and Jack of Diamonds....
This is a movie that's really not very good, but it's a lot of fun. It's filled with gorgeous 60s locations, and the 60s version of glamour (complete with cameos by stars like Zsa Zsa Gabor and Carroll Baker). However, the movie has little in the way of an original plot, as the heist seems to be recycled from any of the other robbery movies of the era. That, and poor Joseph Cotten looks horribly miscast. He's trying -- but what on earth is he doing with swingin' (both figuratively and literally) George Hamilton? Meanwhile, the 60s keep right on swingin', regardless of anything Joseph Cotten might do.
But then, they weren't making movies like this to have any deep meaning. They were meant to be escapist fun that filled the seats, and a movie like Jack of Diamonds certainly fits the escapism bill. Watch it at least once to get that taste of the 60s. Sadly, this is that one chance, as the movie seems not to have been released to DVD.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 3:09 PM
Monday, December 15, 2008
I noticed that today marks the birthday of playwright and sometimes screenwriter Maxwell Anderson. So, I'd like to recommend the movie adaptation of his play The Bad Seed.
Nancy Kelly stars as Christine, a mother of an eight-year-old girl, and married to a military man who is constantly away on assignment. This leaves Christine to take care of Rhoda by herself. Rhoda seems like the perfect little daughter, but we soon learn that things are not quite as they seem. At a school picnic, one of the kids dies -- and Rhoda was apparently the last one to have seen him alive. However, it's difficult to believe that this sweet little eight-year-old could be a cold-blooded killer. And that's what makes things so frightening: Rhoda is indeed a cold-blooded killer, and not only that, she's unbelievably manipulative too, making it easy for her to convince most people that she couldn't have done anything wrong. Not only that, but for those people she can't convince, she can always kill them!
This all presents some serious problems for the mother. For obvious reasons, she doesn't want to believe her daughter is what she is, but she can't deny the truth. And what on earth do you do with an eight-year-old killer? The Bad Seed builds slowly to its chilling climax, wiht excellent performances from both Kelly and McCormack, who's got the most sang-froid since Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven. It would be a joy to watch if it weren't so darn unsettling.
The Bad Seed is available on DVD and is highly worth watching, if you haven't seen it before. And if you have seen it already, it's worth watching again.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 3:47 PM
Sunday, December 14, 2008
I mentioned in the obituary for Van Johnson that he worked with Lucille Ball in Yours, Mine, and Ours; he also worked with her in Easy to Wed, the remake of Libeled Lady. Neither of those Van Johnson-Lucille Ball movies is currently on the TCM schedule any time soon (pending a schedule change, of course). Fans of Lucille Ball, however, can see her near her zaniest in The Fuller Brush Girl, at 9:00 AM on December 15.
Ball stars as a young woman who is thoroughly incompetent at everything she does. She's engaged to Eddie Albert, who works as a clerk for a shipping company. He gets a promotion to a better position, not knowing that his boss is planning to use him as the fall guy for a smuggling scheme. She, meanwhile, ends up as a saleswoman for the Fuller Brush company. Unfortunately, things go wrong when the boss' wife ends up dead, Ball winds up unconscious, and wakes up to find she's the prime suspect -- and has no memory of what actually happened! So, it's up to her and Eddie Albert to try to solve the murder mystery, with both the cops and the real bad guys hot on their tails.
Lucille Ball is pretty far out there in The Fuller Brush Girl, much more so than in the aforementioned Yours, Mine, and Ours, and even more than she was in I Love Lucy. As a result, the movie might not be for everybody's taste. I personally found some of the humor to be overbroad to the point of not being so funny, and other scenes were contrived, most notably an extended sequence at the end with a talking parrot that just happens to say all the right things to drive the plot, much like the radio on Gilligan's Island talked back to the castaways. It looks funny on paper, but in the execution, it falls flat.
As far as I'm aware, The Fuller Brush Girl has not been released to DVD, so this is your rare chance to watch the movie and judge for yourself. Frankly, I would have preferred to see the similar, but better comedy Miss Grant Takes Richmond, in which Ball stars opposite William Holden. Unfortunately, that too is not available on DVD.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
The death has been announced of actor Van Johnson, whose movie career saw him work with greats from Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne, to Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball. He was 92. Johnson is pictured at left in the 1968 movie Yours, Mine, and Ours, walking down the aisle with Ball as he is about to give her (and her eight kids) away to Fonda and his ten children.
However, he didn't just do comedies; he appeared in biopics like Madame Curie with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon; and the romantic fantasy A Guy Called Joe, in which Johnson played a pilot who is helped by an angelic Spencer Tracy to find true love with Irene Dunne. Johnson suffered a serious automobile accident during the filming of A Guy Called Joe that required a metal plate be put in his forehead, delaying production of the movie. It was this that led to his unusually small role in Madame Curie, as he was given the role essentially for the purposes of a screen test.
As far as I am aware TCM have not yet made any schedule changes to honor Johnson's passing.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 1:58 PM
Friday, December 12, 2008
At midnight tonight, with a repeat at 3:00 AM, the IFC is showing a movie that Irving Thalberg would never have made at MGM: Dahmer. Jeremy Renner stars as Jeffrey Dahmer, the man notorious for having killed a bunch of young men, cutting up and cannibalizing their dead bodies. Becuase the subject material is fairly well-known to most Americans, making a good movie about the subject isn't exactly easy. Dahmer succeeds in some ways, and fails in others.
Renner is quite good playing the title role. The movie isn't exactly a straight-up biopic, of the sort that the major studios would have made decades ago; instead it tries to be more of a psychological portrait. If you're looking for a lurid movie, this isn't really it. There's certainly some violence, but it's not very graphic -- and there's no cannibalism. Instead, we learn that Dahmer was a misfit partly because of the aloof relationship he had with his parents, and more because he was a homosexual and apparently didn't feel he could be open about it. We also learn that his first killing was not quite intentional.
However, the movie has some problems as well, notably that it's not told in the linear style that we would have seen in the studio system. Instead, it bounces back and forth between the time just before he was finally arrested, his days in high school, and points in between, never being quite clear about when each event was taking place. This isn't that big a drawback -- if you already have a good knowledge of who Jeffrey Dahmer was. The first time I saw the movie, I found myself thinking what Americans would think if a similarly structured movie were made called Homolka. No, it wouldn't be about Oskar Homolka, but about Karla Homolka. Don't know who she is? That explains the problem that Dahmer the movie has. (I didn't realize at the time that a movie had in fact been made about her. I haven't seen it, but the reviews claim it's a more straightforward retelling of the events than Dahmer.)
When I first saw Dahmer on IFC, it was part of a double feature with a movie about the other famous Wisconsin serial killer, Ed Gein. Only Dahmer is on tonight, but both movies are available on DVD.
Dahmer is also schedule to re-air on IFC on Christmas night. Somebody has a warped sense of humor to consider it the perfect Christmas viewing.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 3:06 PM
Thursday, December 11, 2008
We've got a nice freezing rain storm going on here, with me slipping and sliding as I took the garbage to the end of the driveway. Hollywood doesn't show this sort of storm very much, as far as I can think. There are lots of hurricanes, especially with ships at sea.
As for winter weather, snowstorms come on Christmas Eve, bringing everybody a white Christmas. There are also more severe snow storms, which usually serve the purpose of having somebody trying to travel through it and getting in an accident as a result. Misery comes right to mind, with James Caan playing an author whose car goes off the road in a winter storm, only to be rescued by deranged fan Kathy Bates. By the same token, June Allyson loses the baby she's carrying when the car she's riding in goes off the road in The Glenn Miller Story.
Snow affects planes, too. Airport is set at a major midwestern airport socked in by a snowstorm, but still having to deal with all sorts of disasters heading. Poor airport manager Burt Lancaster. This was, of course, parodied in the first of the Airplane! movies. A different sort of movie with airplanes and snow would be Island In the Sky, in which John Wayne pilots a cargo plane that has to crash-land somewhere in snowy Quebec, forcing everybody to try to find him and his crew in a race against time. Snow even forces planes down in screwball comedies. Robert Montgomery plays host to stranded Myrna Loy and Reginald owen in Petticoat Fever (unfortunately, not available on DVD).
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 10:51 AM
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
TCM showed Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey this afternoon. I have to admit that I've never really gotten the end of the movie; the extended dialog-less sequence. My guess is that Kubrick was trying to say something about other civilizations having existed before us (or else, there wouldn't be a monolith), and other civilizations will follow us (after "Dave's" death, there's that idiotic fetus orbiting the earth).
In doing a bit of research, I was surprised to see that Kubrick himself said in an interview that he wasn't going to reveal what he meant by the ending. He apparently wanted to let the viewers reason for themselves what it was all about, and not feel as though they were missing something if they didn't agree with him.
To be honest, though, I think that whole sequence takes away from the rest of the movie, which is a really interesting science-fiction movie about technology gone wrong. If anything, the monolith is a Macguffin. We don't care that the astronauts are going to Jupiter to investigate this monolith; we care that HAL is trying to sabotage the journey. They could be going on any sort of journey.
What do you think the ending of 2001 is all about?
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 9:17 PM
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Today is the 92nd birthday of Kirk Douglas. TCM have been honoring him with an all-day salute showing several of his movies. The only thing is, I've blogged about several of them already. The picture here is from Ace In the Hole. TCM also showed The Bad and the Beautiful, another movie on which I posted. As a result, it's not easy to select a good Kirk Douglas movie I haven't previously selected. I suppose I could have mentioned Douglas' singing with Esmerelda the seal in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but that just aired this past Sunday.
The same holds true for Star of the Month Joseph Cotten. Tonight, TCM are showing three of his movies with Jennifer Jones, of which I've blogged about two: Duel in the Sun at 11:00 PM ET, followed by Portrait of Jennie at 1:30 AM Wednesday. Kicking off the night at 8:00 PM is Since You Went Away, the great American movie about life on the homefront during World War II.
I suppose I can't complain too much, however. TCM are in a bit of a bind. If they don't honor famous people, the rabid movie fans will complain that TCM is overlooking the stars. After all, if you go to the TCM boards, you'll almost always see somebody complain when a famous person dies and TCM doesn't do a big enough tribute. By the same token, TCM programming like Summer Under the Stars has to honor the more well-known people. I may happen to be a fan of, say, Una O'Connor or Grant Mitchell, but how many people who don't know too much about classic movies know who either of those fine actors are? TCM do have to program at least in part with the intent of bringing to the channel people who might end up liking classic movies, but don't realize it yet. And how do you get them to realize it?
I suppose I could write a blog post today about the movies showing tomorrow morning. TCM are kicking off the day with a very fine movie at 6:00 AM ET with a movie worthy of a post: Cat People.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 4:34 PM
Monday, December 8, 2008
You may have missed the news that Sunny von Bülow passed away this weekend, after spending the last 28 years of her life in a coma. She had suffered from hypoglycemia and went into insulin shock, and everybody was led to believe that her husband, Claus, had attempted to murder her, resulting in a series of trials. Renowned attorney Alan Dershowitz handled the defense at the last trial, and wrote the book, Reversal of Fortune, which was turned into a movie.
Reversal of Fortune is quite an interesting movie about a group of very unappetizing people. Jeremy Irons plays Claus, the husband accused of murder, and it's easy to see why, regardless of the evidence, he could be found guilty. He's almost entirely unsympathetic, seeming to show no sadness over his wife's condition. Irons won on Oscar, and is quite good. Glenn Close plays Sunny, in what for me is a not-particularly memorable role. (This isn't to say she's bad; it's just that I don't remember her performance as well as the others.)
For me, the highlight is Ron Silver's Alan Dershowitz. From Dershowitz's public life, he comes across as bombastic, and full of overweening self-confidence, to the point of arrogance. It makes him abrasive, and easy to dislike. All these traits come out in the movie, as he verbally shoots down people in several scenes. There's one exchange in which Claus asks Alan who the man in a photo on the wall of Dershowitz's house is, and he points out that this is one of the pro bono cases that Claus is paying for -- and you can hear the implication that in the normal world, the Claus and Sunny von Bülows of the world wouldn't even think of defending such people. But it swings the other way, too; one particularly memorable scene has one of Dershowitz's law students horrified that he would take on the von Bülow case. How could you defend those evil rich people, when you believe in social justice, she wails. Dershowitz points out to her that if the authorities can do the things they're doing to a rich and powerful person like Claus von Bülow, imagine what they can do to the poor. It's easy to imagine the real-life Dershowitz deliberately putting these vignettes into the book to make himself look better.
Reversal of Fortune is an interesting movie about the lives of the super-wealthy, and is available on DVD.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 4:23 PM
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Nina Foch, who spent most of her career playing supporting roles, and earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for just such a role in Executive Suite, has died at the age of 84.
Much of her later work was for the small screen, and she also taught an acting course at USC. However, she did appear in movies as diverse as the aforementioned Executive Suite; An American in Paris, and The Ten Commandments.
Beverly Garland, who starred in a series of B-grade sci-fi movies in the 1950s, and played Fred MacMurray's wife on My Three Sons at the end of the 1960s, has died at the age of 82. I recently blogged about her performance in The Alligator People, a schlocky, but fun, science fiction/horror movie. Garland was well-known for her Fay Wray-style scream, which is probably one of the reasons why she ended doing stuff like The Alligator People.
However, she also got to do more serious work, such as a brief appearance in D.O.A., where she plays a secretary to a dead businessman, telling Edmond O'Brien that her boss committed suicide.
Saturday, December 6, 2008
TCM are showing Sidney Poitier's movie début, No Way Out, at 6:00 PM ET tonight. It's a movie that was groundbreaking in its time, and is still fascinating today.
Poitier plays Dr. Luther Brooks, a young resident in the prison ward of the County Hospital. One night, the Biddle brothers are brought in, having been shot during the robbery of a gas station. Dr. Brooks examines them, and determines that one of the brothers has a more serious problem than simply having been shot in the leg -- the young man probably has a brain tumor. Dr. Brooks begins to do the necessary tests, but while performing the tests, the man dies. Unfortunately for Dr. Brooks, the surviving Biddle brother (played by Richard Widmark) is virulently racist, and thinks the black Dr. Brooks has deliberately killd his brother -- and dammit, Dr. Brooks is going to pay for it!
Dr. Brooks tries to prove his innocence, but it's not an easy task. The simplest way to do it would be to perform an autopsy on the dead man, which would reveal whether or not the deceased actually had a brain tumor, but the survivors aren't about to permit this. In the meantime, word has spread amongst the local black population that their black doctor is being given the shaft by The Man, which leads to an entirely different set of problems....
No Way Out is an extremely interesting movie, and one that raises thought-provoking questions to this day. The characters are, for the most part, given believable motivations. Poitier's Dr. Brooks is clearly the hero here, but he's not a pure man, having the natural doubts: what if he were wrong?, he thinks. His immediate boss wants to take his side, but has the understandble problem of trying to maintain funding for the hospital. Despite what this may say about the state of race relations (and the hospital administrators have some of the most badly-dated lines of the movie in that regard), it should be kept in mind that if a similar situation happened today, regardless of the races of the doctor and patient, hospital administrators would have the same thought. The black characters other than Poitier are divided, as well, reflecting the real life difference between the gradualism (of, say, the Booker T. Washington types of the early 1900s, who thought that blacks could advance their situation most effectively by being clean, hard-working, high-achieving types), and the more radical W.E.B. DuBois types who would have felt a more vocal protest necessary. Is this the hill you want to die on? It's not a comfortable question to have to answer. Perhaps the most interesting dilemma is that shown by Linda Darnell, who plays the wife of the deceased. She was clearly born on the wrong side of the tracks, where a bigoted attitude towards blacks was the order of the day, and which has clearly infused all the whites of her social class. As a result, her first thought is what might be in it for her. This leads her to be against the autopsy at first. But, as the surviving Biddle brothers don't treat her well, she begins to be willing to side with those rich people. Interestingly, however, the movie doesn't particuarly look kindly on "those rich people" either, giving them the bad lines about trying to advance race relations. That's one of the things that makes the movie so fascinating.
Everybody is quite good here, especially the three leads. Life is not as clear-cut as it's generally portrayed in the movies, and Poitier and Darnell both do an outstanding job of portraying life's ambiguities. Widmark's character is more one-dimensional, but even his anger at the death of his brother is understandable. People back in 1950 -- especially the less educated -- wouldn't understand why a doctor was checking a gunshot victim for a brain tumor, and when that patient dies, it's not unnatural to think there was something untoward going on on the doctor's part. Still, Widmark's Ray Biddle is portrayed as an unrelenting racist, which is a bit of a shame. Watch also for Ossie Davie and Ruby Dee as Poitier's brother and sister-in-law.
Thankfully, this excellent movie is available on DVD, should you miss TCM's showing. No Way Out was released by Twentieth-Century Fox, which means that it doesn't show up on TCM very often.
Friday, December 5, 2008
As I mentioned earlier today, I sometimes look at the list of people born on a given day for inspiration for a post. IMDb also lists people who died on the day, but I don't normally look at that list so often. However, there was one name in today's list that stuck out at me: Joseph Breen, who died on this day in 1965.
Breen wasn't an actor; he wasn't a director; he wasn't even a producer. In fact, IMDb's listing for him only lists eight titles, all of them containing archive footage of him. But he probably had more influence than anybody else in the history of Hollywood. That's because he spent twenty years as the head of the Production Code Administration, from 1934 to 1954.
It is from Breen's tenure that we get the term "pre-code" movie, although it's technically a misnomer. The Production Code had been promulgated several years earlier, and the group that was supposed to enforce it was headed by Will Hays, who had been the Postmaster General in the Warren Harding administration. However, enforcement was lax, and in what are now called the pre-code movies, quite a bit of racy (at least for the early 1930s, although by today's standards most of it is very mild) stuff made it onto the screen. This infuriated a lot of people, especially Catholic groups, who had the power as a more centralized church to organize boycotts of movies they thought weren't decent enough. This, combined with the threat of government control, led to Breen's appointment, and a very strict enforcement of the Code.
The ironic thing, of course, is that some of the effects this had on the movies were arguably quite good. Although writers couldn't discuss certain topics, the restrictions imposed by the Code also forced moviemakers to come up with intelligent stories. Love, for example, actually had to be romantic, and not smutty, which makes the romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s sparkle in a way that today's movies just don't. Bad language was strictly off limits (remember, there was a huge uproar when David O. Selznick wanted to be faithful to the book Gone With the Wind and have Rhett Butler say, "My dear, I don't give a damn"), but at the same time, the filmmakers couldn't use it as a crutch the way it seems language is used today. Of course, as I've mentioned early, the Code certainly had a deleterious effect on a movie like The Great Lie.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 8:19 PM
When I can't think of anything to write about, I go to IMDb and look to see if there's anybody with a birthday. Some days, there aren't many famous people; other days there are few. Today happens to be one of those days with a whole host of well-known names. We could start off with director Otto Preminger, born on this day in 1906. He received an Oscar nomination for one of the great movie mysteries, Laura, but also directed such horrible mistakes as Skidoo.
There's also director Michael Powell's screenwriting partner Emeric Pressburger, of movies such as 49th Parallel, he was born December 5, 1902.
Another director is Fritz Lang, born on this day in 1890; Lang is of course well known for M, and I've recommended another of his movies, Fury.
Finally, who could forget animator Walt Disney? Apparently, he drew a little mouse with oversized ears, and became famous for it. His birthday is December 5, 1901.
Fond birthday memories for all!
Thursday, December 4, 2008
TCM showed The Rocking Horse Winner last night, as part of a night of movies featuring British actress Valerie Hobson. I had not seen the movie before, so I couldn't recommend it, but was favorably impressed with it. Thankfully, The Rocking Horse Winner has been released to DVD, so I can recommend it now.
The aforementioned Hobson plays the mother in a British middle class family in the years immediately following World War II. (The movie was released in 1949.) The family is living beyond its means, mostly due to her overspending, and it's causing the sorts of strains that family overspending usually does. Mom and Dad are constantly bickering, and the oldest kid, who is old enough to understand that something is wrong, worries, although he doesn't want to let his parents know this.
Things change one Christmas when the kid gets a rocking horse for the holiday. It seems as if the horse is whispering to the boy, and one of the efects that this has on him is that he rides it very feverishly. At the same time, the family's handyman (John Mills) lets on to the boy that he likes to bet on the horses, and so our kid wants to bet on the horses in order to win some much needed money for his profligate mother. After a while, the boy, the handyman, and the boy's uncle discover that the boy has a seeming knack for picking winners. However, that's not entirely a good thing....
The Rocking Horse Winner is a pretty good and interesting movie. It's notably dark where it needs to be, but also quite evocative of post-war Britain. There are a lot of little movies like this that were made in the UK in the late 1940s and early 1950s, before the advent of the New Wave, and for the most part they're not very well-known on this side of the Atlantic. Granted, I'm sure that there were some stinkers made over in the UK -- after all, there are a lot of pretty lousy B movies made in the States in those days. But movies like The Rocking Horse Winner, or the previously-recommended The October Man, are up there with some of the better American movies. The one big difference is that the British studios couldn't get the budgets they had in Hollywood, so the production values look more like a Hollywood B movie at times than one of MGM's prestige movies. Don't let that take away from the movie, however; The Rocking Horse Winner is well worth seeing.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
TCM aired The Killer Shrews, this morning, an incredibly low-budget movie about people trapped on an island with mutant shrews that are the size of wolves, and need to eat NOW! or else starve to death. Fun, fun, stuff, although truth be told, it's really bad.
Having said that, the low-budget B-grade science fiction movies of the 1950s and early 1960s can be a lot of fun, precisely because they're so bad. I can strongly recommend The Killer Shrews; I've already recommended Panic in Year Zero!, and another good one is The Alligator People.
In The Alligator People, Beverly Garland stars as a newlywed woman. She's married to a man (played by Richard Crane) who was a pilot in World War II, but suffered a serious accident breaking most of his bones. However, he apparently had some experimental treatment that's given him a full recovery. They're on their honeymoon, when Crane gets a telegram. He gets off the train at a stop to make a phone call to answer the telegram, and disappears, leaving his wife high and dry. She's determined to find him, and find out what happened to him, so she goes to his last-known address, an antebellum-style mansion in the bayous of Louisiana. There, she finds a clinic with nurses and doctors who seem to know more than they're letting on to her. The title (as well as the box art) gives away quite a bit of what they know, but that in and of itself doesn't take away from the movie.
The Alligator People is chock full of the sci-fi clichés of the era: a moody mansion, along with the fog and mist; a well-meaning, but mad, scientist (played by George Macready, taking quite a step down from movies like Gilda); the creepy hired hand (Lon Chaney, of all people!); genetic mutation; radiation (thank you nuclear hysteria); and really large, outlandish scientific equipment that glows and makes wonderful noises. The ending is ludicrous, with horrible special effects, but then, that's another staple of the genre. In fact, the whole story of The Alligator People is a head-scratcher in terms of its plausibility. But don't let that stop you from watching. It's the sort of movie that shouldn't be taken seriously, and deep analysis should probably be avoided. Just sit back and have a reasonably good time, preferably with friends.
The Alligator People was released by Twentieth Century-Fox, and doesn't seem to be in the Fox Movie Channel's current rotation. However, it is available on DVD.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 1:08 PM
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
TCM are finally getting around to honoring Joseph Cotten as their Star of the Month; Cotten's movies will be airing every Tuesday in prime time in December. The first night of the retrospective looks at a number of the movies Cotten made with Orson Welles. The Third Man, from which the picture here is taken, will be showing up later in the month, as part of a night of Cotten mystery and suspense movies. Tonight, however, we get the well-known Citizen Kane at 8:00 PM ET, followed by The Magnificent Ambersons at 10:15 PM. A lesser-known movie that I'd like to highlight is Journey Into Fear, which starts just after midnight.
Cotten stars as a munitions expert in Istanbul for a conference. It's World War II, and the Nazis know that Cotten is here, and obviously want him dead! Of course, they try to kill him in Istanbul, and fail -- otherwise the movie would end forthwith. Cotten, having narrowly escaped death, is taken to the local police inspector (Welles), who decides that the best thing for Cotten to do is get out of the country. Welles promptly arranges passage on a steamer traveling across the Black sea from Istanbul to Batumi, in the friendly Soviet Union (this is World War II, after all); what happens thereafter is up to Cotten.
Getting on the ship is not the end of the story, either. Once cotten boards the ship, he is faced with the usual motley assortment of oddballs, one of whom is bound to have been sent there by his pursuers from Nazi Germany. Cotten eventually arrives in Batumi, and....
This is one the lesser-known movies Welles was involved in. It certainly isn't quite up to the level of some of the other things he did, but it's still an enjoyable movie to watch in its own right. It's only about 70 minutes, making it the perfect movie to watch on a cold, rainy or snowy night, when all you want to do it sit back with a bowl of popcorn and be entertained. It's got adequate suspense: even if it's not on the level of Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, it's still entertaining. It's also got Welles' fingerprints all over it, even if he didn't get directorial credit. The stars of his Mercury Theater appear in droves. Not only is there himself and Cotten; Ruth Warrick, who plays Cotten's wife, and Agnes Moorhead show up, too. Watch for Dolores Del Rio as the femme fatale about the steamer.
Monday, December 1, 2008
TCM are spending today honoring director Woody Allen on his 73rd birthday. I'm not the biggest fan of Woody Allen's movies, so I'd prefer to spend the day honoring another birthday boy: the late Dick Shawn, who was born on this day in 1923.
Shawn was a comedic actor who did more of his work on stage than in Hollywood, and as such doesn't appear in quite as many movies as one might like. He's seen in the picture at left in one of his classics, the beach-bum son dancing with his girlfriend in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, oblivious to the fact that his mother (Ethel Merman) is trying to call him to let him know there's $350,000 buried under that Big W. Eventually, of course, he hears the phone ringing, and when he finds it's his mother, he thinks she's in terrible danger, and transforms from a beach-bum into the ultimate mama's boy. There's a lot to recommend about It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but Shawn's character might just be the best.
However, it's not Shawn's best movie; that would probably be The Producers, where Shawn plays the actor hired by Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel to play Hitler in their sure-fire failure Springtime for Hitler. Shawn's portrayal of Hitler, drawing from the flower-child days of the late 1960s, is outstanding and probably the high point of the movie.
Another interesting movie of Shawn's, which unfortunately hasn't been released to video, is Way, Way Out, in which Shawn plays a Soviet cosmonaut stuck on a lunar base with his girlfriend, American astronaut Jerry Lewis, and Lewis' girlfriend. Shawn and Lewis are both way, way over the top, making for a movie that may not be so great, but is certainly intriguing.
Shawn's death is a sad one: he was performing in one of his one-man shows, doing a skit about being a politician, and how he wouldn't "lie down on the job". At this point, he suffered a massive heart attack and fell to the stage, leading the audience and crew to believe that he was in fact lying down on the job and this was the point of the joke. By the time that everybody realized this was no joke, it was too late, and Shawn eventually died of the heart attack.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 1:05 PM
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Everybody loves The Wizard of Oz, and TCM are showing it overnight tonight at 12:15 AM ET (that's late this evening in the Central Time Zone and points west). You know Judy Garland; Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch; and Margaret Hamilton shrieking, "I'm melting! Melting!!!". However, 12:15 AM Monday is the slot for TCM's Silent Sunday Nights, and the version of The Wizard of Oz they're showing is a silent version released in 1925.
It's got little to do with the movie that's now considered a classic. Dorothy Dwan plays Dorothy, who in this movie is purportedly the heir to the throne in Oz. The evil Prime Minister doesn't want her to sit on the throne, and he'll stop at nothing to prevent her from taking her rightful place. Sure, Dorothy gets helped by a tin man, a scarecrow, and a lion. Parts of the movie are set in Kansas, and there's even a tornado. But don't expect anything like Judy Garland or MGM's dazzling Technicolor spectacle in this one.
In fact, the movie largely gets poor reviews. Part of it is deserved; the movie has its problems. The story is problematic, and the movie can't quite decide what it wants to be. But I can't help but think there are a lot of people who remember the 1939 version fondly -- as it deserves to be remembered -- and rate the silent version on how well it compares to the classic. At any rate, this version is certainly of interest to anybody who's a fan of The Wizard of Oz, just as the later The Wiz would be. That, however, isn't all. This movie has Oliver Hardy (without Stan Laurel) in the Tin Man role (and some others), a fact which by itself makes the movie worth seeing once just as a curiosity.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Tomorrow morning's movie to watch out for is Twentieth Century, airing at 10:00 AM ET on TCM. The title has nothing to do with the movie studio of that name, but the train.
Carole Lombard stars as a struggling actress who is turned into a star on Broadway by her producer, John Barrymore. However, he turns out to be so overbearing that she runs off to Hollywood to make a career for herself in the movies. Barrymore is reduced to struggling to find backing for his Broadway endeavors -- until the day he finds that Lombard is on the same train he is. It goes without saying that he wants her back, and will stop at nothing to get her back, despite the fact that she's let him know in no uncertain terms that she hates him.
Howard Hawks directed this nifty little comedy, and it has his fingerprints all over it. As in better-known movies like Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday, Hawks uses rapid-fire dialog, with the characters almost talking over each other. There is also the requisite cast of oddball supporting characters, which in this case means Barrymore's two assistants, played by Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns. Both of them were Columbia Pictures regulars, having appeared the same year as Twentieth Century (1934) in It Happened One Night (Connolly as Claudette Colbert's father; Karns as annoying bus passenger Mr. Shapely). Watch also for an oddball who insists on putting put stickers with a religious them on every surface he can find.
Twentieth Century is also the movie that really made Lombard a star, showing the world how adept she was at comedy. Indeed, John Barrymore was exceedingly impressed with her work and let her know just how highly he thought of her performance in this movie. I'm not the biggest fan of John Barrymore, personally preferring Lionel, but John is fine here. If anything, the overbearing producer is the right sort of type for him to be playing -- by this stage of his career he was quite the alcoholic, and was well on his way to becoming a parody of himself.
Twentieth Century is available on DVD, should you miss tomorrow's showing on TCM.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 4:05 PM
Friday, November 28, 2008
This being the morning after the big holiday, I found myself thinking of that dreadful song, "The Morning After", which believe it or not, is an Oscar-winner, from the 1972 blockbuster The Poseidon Adventure.
The movie's been remade, so you certainly know the story. A luxury cruise ship goes on a voyage, and on New Year's Eve gets hit by a giant tsunami (yeah, right: the voyage is in the Mediterranean, where they wouldn't get tsunamis). This capsizes the ship, and begins to fill it with water, forcing the survivors to make their way where they think is up, to eventual safety. Nowadays, this is all standard-issue stuff, but in 1972, when the movie was released, it hadn't really been done before.
The cast is an all-star one, and pretty good at that. Gene Hackman plays the ship's chaplain, reduced to working on ships because no real ministry would have him anymore; Ernest Borgnine plays a cop married to Stella Stevens; Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson are the older couple on their second honeymoon; Red Buttons the aging bachelor who's never been able to find true happiness in life; and Roddy McDowell the ship's purser. (Leslie Nielsen has a brief role at the ship's captain, although he doesn't survive the tsunami.) For good measure, throw in the proverbial bratty kid and his older sister. Once the tsunami hits, all of them end up together, working as a group to try to ensure their survival.
What makes this more interesting, however, is that not everybody survives. There's no particular rhyme or reason as to which of the characters are going to live, and I wouldn't spoil the movie by saying anything about it. However, the movie gives us ample opportunity to form opinions about which of the characters we'd like to see survive. As for the performances? Well, the script isn't the greatest, but the main idea of the story is much that don't need the greatest screenplay. Shelley Winters probably gets the best part, and in one key scene she gets to show off her swimming skills, despite the fact that she put on a good 20 or 30 pounds to play the role. Winters earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for it. Red Buttons is also quite good in his poignant role. Hackman is mildly irritating, and Borgnine and Stevens strain credulity.
Finally, there are the special effects. They're 1970s vintage, which means they're clearly not as advanced as they'd be today -- except that they're also not CGI. Apparently, however, the giant ship set must have cost quite a bit of money: there wasn't enough left in the budget to get a wide shot of the doomed ship for the final scene. You see the survivors on the outer hull of the Poseidon, and that's it. There's no pulling away. Still, The Poseidon Adventure is available on DVD and a great way to spend two fun hours.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 8:46 AM
Thursday, November 27, 2008
This being a holiday, I don't have the time to do a full blog posting, so I'll just be putting up a brief item that I've written beforehand.
Thanksgiving is historically based on the day we give thanks for the bountiful harvest, so that got me to thinking about some of the farm harvests in classic movies. I've already posted on Our Daily Bread, a very interesting movie that's on DVD.
Another really interesting movie is Aleksandr Dovzhenko's 1930 silent Earth, about a Ukrainian collective farm that gets its first tractor. Unfortunately for Dovzhenko, his work was being used in furtherance of a policy that resulted in the deaths of millions through famine. This movie is also available on DVD,
I would like to have recommended Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, as well, in which Edward G. Robinson plays a Norwegian immigrant farmer, but it's not on DVD.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 6:00 PM
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Thanksgiving is one of those holidays when everybody goes home to see the familiy if they can. I wanted to recommend Sunday Dinner For a Soldier as a good movie to watch on Thanksgiving, but sadly, it's not available on DVD or even VHS, which is a great shame.
There are a lot of movies about journeys of discovery -- and I've recently recommended the great Harry and Tonto as such a movie. It's a universal theme, and foreign movies like Ingemar Bergman's Wild Strawberries or the Japanese classic Tokyo Story fit the genre as well.
Travelling home, however, is a bit less common. A very interesting, and understated, little movie on the subject is The Trip to Bountiful. Geraldine Page stars as an elderly woman who is now living in a small apartment in Houston, Texas, with her son and his wife. It's a fairly pitiful existence, and the one thing she'd still like to do in her final days is to visit an old friend who lives in the tiny town of Bountiful, where she grew up. Her daughter-in-law rules the roost, however, and has absolutely no desire to let the poor old woman travel back to Bountiful. However, Page is a crafty old woman, and one day when her daughter-in-law is off at the drug store gossiping with friends, she gets up and runs away, to go to the bus station and take the bus back to Bountiful.
Of course, the trip isn't so easy. Everybody except for her one friend has abandoned the town of Bountiful, to the extent that the railroad and buses don't go there anymore. And, she has to stay one step ahead of her son and daughter-in-law, who have discovered she's missing, and start searching for her. Page, in addition to being crafty, is also charming and determined, and she plans to let nothing stop her from getting to Bountiful....
The whole movie revolves around Geraldine Page, who is wonderful in this movie. She won the Best Actress Oscar, deservedly so. The rest of the cast are mere supporting props, even though they all do a good job with their parts. John Heard plays her son, and Carlin Glynn the daughter-in-law. However, the one to watch for is Rebecca De Mornay, early in her career. She plays the wife of an Army man who's been shipped abroad, and she's on the way back to live with her family while her husband serves overseas. De Mornay gets the seat next to Page on the bus, and shares her story with Page, forming a fast friendship.
The Trip to Bountiful is available on DVD.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 1:59 PM
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
I've mentioned before that I'm not a huge fan of westerns. Movies that are good in other ways, and happen to be set in the old West, however, are a different story. I've already recommended the psychological drama No Name on the Bullet, and tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM ET, TCM is airing a comedic western: Support Your Local Sheriff!.
The under-rated James Garner stars as a man who's going through an Arizona gold rush town on his way to make his fortune in Australia. However, it turns out this little town is a lost cause, with rampant crime and sheriffs dropping like flies. Desperate for help, the town fathers (watch for M*A*S*H*'s Harry Morgan here) enlist a reluctant Garner to take on the job. Of course, he immediately has to deal with the local crime gang, and a dysfunctional town administration (the jail cell doesn't have any bars yet, for example).
Although Garner is technically the star, the movie is really more of an ensember cast. In addition to Garner and Morgan, there's Joan Hackett as Morgan's odd daughter, who falls in love with Garner; Walter Brennan as the patriarch of the gang, and Bruce Dern as one of his sons; and veteran character actor Jack Elam as Garner's deputy. All of the actors look as though they're having a blast making the movie, and it's an infectious enthusiasm that makes the movie all the more enjoyable for the viewer.
For whatever reason, Support Your Local Sheriff! isn't all that well-known today. It might have something to do with the fact that it was released in 1969, and doesn't really have any social commentary. Also, the 1969 release date is towards the end of the biggest era of popularity of the whole western genre. Third, many of the cast members were more veteran, meaning that, like Yours, Mine, and Ours, the movie comes off as being directed more toward a stodgier generation. Paradoxically, though, as with Yours, Mine, and Ours, this has the effect of making the movie feel less dated than other contemporary movies, such as Cactus Flower (which, despite being a very good movie, very much feels like a product of the 60s in a way that the others don't). It's available on DVD, too, which is a nice bonus.
Posted by Ted S. (Just a Cineast) at 3:27 PM
Monday, November 24, 2008
This week sees the last night of Charles Laughton's time as TCM's Star of the Month. Laughton made many great movies, and one of those near the top of the list would have to be Witness for the Prosecution, airing at 10:15 PM ET tonight.
Laughton plays a prominent London barrister who's had a heart attack, and is about to go off to Bermuda for a well-deserved retirement. However, fate intervenes in the form of Tyrone Power, who's been charged with murdering a rich old lady. There are a lot of discrpeancies in the case, and in many ways it doesn't look so good for Power, but Laughton agrees to take the case.
What follows is a stand-out legal drama, even if it does contain some of the clichés of Hollywood movie-making. Laughton's man who's fighting against time goes back to at least the Warner Baxter producer of 42nd Street a quarter-century earlier. The vacillation between whether we should think Power is guilty or innocent is also a staple of lawyer movies, as is the dark humor.
The cast includes Elsa Lanchester as Laughton's nurse, and Marlene Dietrich as Power's wife, and the movie was directed by the great Billy Wilder, based on a play by the equally talented Agatha Christie. If seeing all those famous names in the cast and crew makes you think this is going to be a good movie, well, you'd be right.
You'll note that I haven't gone into that much of a description of the plot. That's because when the movie was made, it was well-known that the ending was going to be something to watch out for. Indeed, in the trailers for the movie, the producers deliberately asked people not to reveal the ending to their friends, as that would spoil the movie for them. And so I too won't spoil that ending, if you haven't seen it before.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Tonight's offering on TCM's Silent Sunday Nights is DW Griffith's 1921 film Orphans of the Storm airing just after midnight (technically very early Monday on the east coast; Sunday evening in the rest of the US).
The plot is a simple one. Lillian and Dorothy Gish play a pair of sisters living in rural France as it was (well, not really) just before the French Revolution. One sister is blind, so the other takes her to Paris for an operation that will supposedly cure her of her blindness. There wouldn't be a movie if that's all there were to the story, so we get a melodramatic plot twist: an aristocrat falls in love with the sighted sister, taking her into his world, and leaving the blind one to suffer at the hands of a cruel man who forces her to beg for a living. Worse, the French Revolution is about to intervene, and our aristocratic hero is about to fall on the wrong side of the revolution....
DW Griffith directed, and it must have been becoming clear to everybody that the world of movie-making was passing him by. Sure, Griffith had made masterpieces like Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, but other directors were now making pictures with more advanced techniques and better stories. Indeed, this was the last movie the Gishes made with Griffith. Still, Orphans of the Storm has some pretty nifty sequences. One involves the aristocratic class partying with gay abandon, oblivious to all the social upheaval going on outside their manors. The setting for this is more than suitably decadent, and Griffith shows very nicely the chasm between the French classes. Later, after the Revolution has begun, there's a scene involving peasant prisoners being freed by force, and tormenting their previous captors. Their literally riotous celebrating is also excellently photographed.
The other thing that's quite interesting about this movie is the historical goings-on surrounding it. The French revolutionaries were inspired by the American Founding Fathers, but clearly went much further (probably because the French governmental system was much more centralized under the King than the English system, from which the Americans broke away, had been). Griffith's intertitles on the Revolution itself comment on this, and make an interesting mention of the radicals of his day, socialists and communists influenced by what had been going on in Russia.
The version of Orphans of the Storm TCM is showing is supposed to be a restored version. They're listing the running time at just over 150 minutes, which I believe is several minutes longer than the version they've previously shown.