Saturday, May 31, 2008

20th Century Pictures

I've mentioned before that 20th Century-Fox wasn't formed until 1935, when Fox Films merged with 20th Century Pictures. The Fox Movie Channel have aired some of the movies from Fox Films, but movies from 20th Century Pictures show up very rarely (largely because the studio existed in that incarnation for only about three years), but one of those rarities will be airing on June 1 at 10:00 AM ET: Blood Money. You'll note from the very beginning of the movie that there's a historical curiousity: it was 20th Century Pictures that had what we now think of as the iconic Fox logo, and the "Fox Fanfare". However, there's much more interesting in this movie than just some studio history.

Blood Money is a pre-Code movie not only in time, but in spirit. When we think of pre-Codes today, we think of movies with sexual innuendo, or other adult topics that couldn't be discussed after 1934 when the enforcement of the Production Code became rigorous -- and Blood Money packs quite a bit of pre-Codeness into its brief 66 minute runtime. George Bancroft stars as Bill Bailey, a bail bondsman, a man who's clearly playing both sides against the middle, having one foot in the underworld, and the other in the offices at City Hall. His girlfriend Ruby, played by Judith Anderson, is the sister of a two-time loser. However, the relationship begins to go sour when shoplifter "Jane Smith" (played by Frances Dee who was clearly playing against type here, and seemingly loving it) walks in to his office. Bill, having bugged the phones in his office, listens to her phone call and finds out that "Jane Smith" is actually Elaine Talbart, daughter of a wealthy businessman. Not only is she a rich girl who likes shoplifting, she intimates that she's got a thing for some S&M, too. (Just try imagining Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in S&M Finds Andy Hardy.) Needless to say, Bill falls head over heels for Elaine. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, as the saying goes, and Ruby immediately tries to bankrput Bill by having all his clients jump bail. Meanwhile, her brother has robbed another bank and faces life imprisonment, and Ruby tries to get Elaine to run off with him.

The end of the movie is a bit silly, involving a loaded eight-ball, so I'd rather mention more of the pre-Code goodies to watch out for. I mentioned above how Frances Dee's Elaine is not above some S&M; she gets another opportunity at the end of the movie to let us know this: a woman comes running out of an office building telling Elaine she had gone in do some modelling photos, but that the man really just wanted to grope her. Elaine's response is to want to know where the man is -- and it's made fairly clear she's not going to see the guy to give him a piece of her mind. Ruby has a scene where she's on the phone to Bill, and angrily tells him to "go to [hangs up phone as she's about to finish the sentence]". We know fully well where she's telling him to go, of course. And Bill gets in on the action too; when he first goes to visit Ruby at the speakeasy she runs, he meets at the bar a tuxedo-wearing woman who has a thing for cigars. There's a nice bit of gender-bending and sexual imagery. Also, watch for a sequence at a greyhound track. Allegedly, the blond who says she's been offered five bucks to be an escort for one of Bill's friends is a young Lucille Ball. Ball isn't in the actual movie credits, and I didn't think the voice sounded like her. But judge for yourself.

Blood Money, being a 75-year-old movie with a cast of actors who aren't so well-known today, isn't available on DVD. With any luck, Fox can figure out a way to package Blood Money with some of their early-1930s material. After all, they've got a bunch of Spencer Tracy movies.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Frankly, my dear...

I was thinking about "movies for the damned" this past Tuesday when TCM aired Voyage of the Damned. My first thought was to recommend the campy 1977 post-apocolyptic movie Damnation Alley, but despite the icon on IMDb listing DVD availability, it's not on DVD. Instead, I'll have to recommend another sci-fi classic that is available on DVD, the original 1960 version of Village of the Damned.

The movie starts out with a calm, idyllic village somewhere in rural England. One afternoon, something happens and everybody is knocked unconscious. The military is brought in to investigate, but before they can figure out what happened, everybody wakes up again. All returns to normal, until it's discovered that all the women of child-bearing age were knocked up -- a good term here since husbands like Prof. Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) were impotent, while other boyfriends were away with the merchant marine, leading to the natural questions about how some of the women got pregnant.

Once the kids are born, they start developing faster than normal, and eventually develop into perfect little Aryan-looking hellraisers with superhuman intelligence, as well as the power to read -- and manipulate -- minds. The obvious question than becomes what to do with the kids -- especially since it's been determined that there were other similar groups of kids, and they all had to be destroyed. The British military wants to kill them; Prof. Zellaby wants to study them in the name of science. Matters eventually come to a head when it's discovered that the kids are becoming able to read thoughts up in the air, and ask for a ticket out of town, where they'll begin to take over the world. Even Zellaby realizes the kids have to be killed. But how? After all, if he thinks about it, they'll be able to read his thoughts.

Village of the Damned is the sort of movie that shows just how important a good script is. Despite it being a science fiction movie, there are almost no special effects, with the notable exception of the children's eyes "glowing" when they start to manipulate somebody else's mind, and even that isn't a very expensive effect. Because of the story, however, Village of the Damned is an outstanding movie, one that is intelligent, and, like the films of Val Lewton, expects the viewer to provide a good portion of the fear himself, by imagining what might be rather than being graphic and showing the horror. It's also in black-and-white, giving it a timeless quality that a lot of the color movies from the 60s don't have. Village of the Damned is better, and more chilling, than a lot of the stuff released today. One word of warning, though, it you want to see it on DVD: the movie was remade in 1995 with the same title; make certain you're getting the 1960 version.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Ian Fleming centenary

Wednesday, May 28 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ian Fleming, who is of course best-known for writing a series of books about James Bond, the British secret agent with the code name 007. A slew of Bond movies have been made, and the spy has become an icon unto himself, so it would certainly be fitting to discuss Bond on a blog about classic cinema. Since Frank Sinatra was The Man With the Golden Arm last night on TCM, I'll discuss a bit less gold (or more gold, as the case may be): Goldfinger

The story, of course, is fairly simple: Bond (played in this installment of the series by Sean Connery is asked to investigate a case of international gold smuggling. His investigation leads him to Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), as well as a dastardly plan. Goldfinger doesn't plan to steal all the gold in Fort Knox; that would be too difficult. Instead, he plans to irradiate the gold, rendering it unusable and thereby driving up the price of the rest of the world's gold, a substantial portion of which he owns.

This third Bond movie really begins to show the hallmarks of the franchise. Whereas the previous movie, From Russia With Love was a taut suspense movie with a believable plot, Goldfinger clearly goes for action and a storyline that is clearly over-the-top with its unrealisticness. There's the blue humor with the names of the Bond girls (in this case, Pussy Galore played by Honor Blackman), and the dark humor. In the famous scene pictured, Goldfinger is about to kill Bond with a laser slowly moving up towards Bond's private parts. Bond asks Goldfinger, "You expect me to talk?" Goldfinger responds, with a sinister laugh, "No, Mister Bond. I expect you to die!"

It's a departure from the Bond books, and from the other spy movies of the 1960s. Where movies like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and The Quiller Memorandum show the legacy of film noir by being dark, gritty, and brooding, the Bond movies, starting with Goldfinger, veer towards the generation gap territory by becoming campy and eminently parodiable. The bad guys would become bigger -- compare bowler-throwing Oddjob in Goldfinger to Richard Kiel's Jaws in Moonraker, and the plots would too: the movies ended up in increasingly exotic locales (and outer space), with outrageous ideas like mass hypnoisis, diamond-based space rays, and multiple trips to outer space. (And I haven't even gotten into crossing the Iron Curtain in a cello case.) The series is still going, but the early movies are the best. The movies, being as popular as they are, get sold to commercial TV channels because they can spend more money on the rights. But if you want to watch them commercial-free, they've naturally been released to DVD: they're a big money-spinner, after all.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Frank Sinatra vs. Cliff Richard

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you'd realize that I grew up in the 70s and 80s, and enjoy making references to some really lousy music. Those of you who remember the train-wreck-of-a-movie Xanadu may remember that, stuck in amongst the symphonic rock of the Electric Light Orchestra, was a duet between star Olivia Newton-John and the quintessentially British singer Cliff Richard: "Suddenly". Someday I might blog about Xanadu, but I make the bad music pun because overnight tonight, ie. at 3:00 AM ET on May 28, TCM are airing the Frank Sinatra movie Suddenly.

Sinatra comes late to the movie; we first see 50s B-movie stalwart Sterling Hayden as Todd Shaw, the sheriff in Suddenly, California. He's approached by the Secret Service: the President is taking a fishing trip, and his train is going to make an unexpected stop in Suddenly so that he can disembark and get into a car that will take him to his final destination. It's up to Sheriff Shaw to get everybody away from the President and the train station, without letting anybody in on the fact that the President is coming to town.

Of course, the bad guys already know the President is coming to town. They're led by John Baron (played by Frank Sinatra), and they're casing the town for the best place to shoot at the president. That, of course, is obvious: it's a house on a hill owned by "Pop" Benson (there's wonderful character actor James Gleason in yet another role), who just happened to be a Secret Service agent before being shot in the line of duty. He lives there with his widowed daughter-in-law (played by Nancy Gates), who just happens to be in love with the sheriff. Naturally, Baron and his gang force their way in, taking the Bensons hostage, and eventually taking the sheriff hostage as well when he shows up -- he too realizes that the Benson house is the obvious place for any bad guy snipers to shoot at the president.

Suddenly is a pretty good "B" thriller (despite having a star like Sinatra, it's got all the trappings of a "B" movie), and it's available on DVD. Apparently, Sinatra had it pulled from any sort of distribution after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and it must have fallen into the public domain, allowing those with prints of it to sell copies themselves. (The only print I've ever seen is pretty lousy; let's hope TCM have access to something better.) The one upside to this is that you should be able to find a DVD of a good movie for a very small price.

edited to correct the time Suddenly is airing

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack, 1934-2008

Sydney Pollack, 1934-2008

Pollack directed a whole host of movies, from The Slender Thread, in which Sidney Poitier plays a volunteer for a suicide hotline who gets a call from Anne Bancroft, and has to keep her on the line; to
Out of Africa, the movie which won him his only Oscar for Best Director; and even the treacly
The Way We Were, in which Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford love each other from the 1930s to the 1950s.

The movie I'd like to mention, however, is Tootsie, since it has a connection to those of us here in the Catskills. You know the story of Dustin Hoffmann's character dressing up as a woman to get an acting job, but having to keep this from everybody, including the fellow actress (played by Jessica Lange). with whom he (while acting as a woman) develops a friendship. Lange takes Hoffmann upstate to see her father (Charles Durning), who's fallen for the actress. Many of the upstate scenes were filmed at the Hurley Mountain Inn, a downscale restaurant that well captures the blue-collar nature of Durning, who would be horrified to find out that the woman he's fallen in love with is, in fact, a man. Other than the curiosity factor of seeing the location where the Tootsie scenes were filmed, however, I don't know that the Hurley Mountain Inn would have that much interest to movie buffs; the patrons are more likely to be down-to-earth types like the Thelma Ritter character in The Mating Season than they are to discuss which of Sydney Pollack's films is their favorite.

There's also a secondhand personal note for me on Tootsie; my uncle (since deceased) managed a theater and got to spend some time on the set when it came to the Catskills, even getting to meet Jessica Lange. My grandmother probably had the most interesting reaction, asking, "Who's Jessica Lange?"

As of this writing, I haven't seen any announcement from TCM of a tribute to Pollack.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Manhattan Transfer

A remarkable movie that I had never even heard of, until it aired about a month ago on the Fox Movie Channel, is being repeated, as is Fox's wont, at 6:00 AM ET on May 27: Tales of Manhattan. Directed in 1942 by French exile Julien Duvivier, Tales of Manhattan is an anthology movie, telling several stories framed by a formal topcoat, and the several people into whose hands it falls, both figuratively and literally.

As is the case with anthologies, the stories are uneven, with some only good, and others outstanding. The happy side of this, however, is that if you don't like the current story, wait ten minutes, and you'll get another story. A brief synopsis of the seven stories:

1. Charles Boyer is having an affair with Rita Hayworth behind the back of her husband Thomas Mitchell;
2. Henry Fonda helps his friend Cesar Romero by claiming a love letter to Romero is actually for him; Ginger Rogers falls for the ruse and falls for Fonda;
3. Charles Laughton gets the chance to conduct the concerto he wrote;
4. Edward G. Robinson, a disbarred lawyer living at James Gleason's mission, goes to his 25th reunion, where he's discovered by George Sanders;
5. W.C. Fields plays a teetotaler pushing the benefits of coconut milk -- not knowing that Margaret Dumont's husband has spiked it;
6. J. Carroll Naish plays a casino robber;
7. Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters are sharecroppers who share the $41,000 Naish robs with their preacher, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.

As you can see, Tales of Manhattan has an all-star cast (and I haven't mentioned a few character actors who show up in the framing stories). Perhaps the best of the stories are two in the middle. Charles Laughton's composer is a struggling one; at the opening of his story he's working as a pianist in a jive joint, playing popular music instead of the serious music he'd like to compose. Indeed, every time the boss turns his back, Laughton tries to play the songs with a more classical-styled arrangement. Watching this, along with the extremely expressive faces that Laughton makes in the bar and later, as his big chance seems to go sour, is a joy.

Edward G. Robinson's story is also excellent; he's a disbarred lawyer who needs the topcoat to be able to go to his reunion, and when he gets there, you can see it's clear that he doesn't want to disappoint his classmates by their finding out the truth about him -- despite the machinations of Sanders, who is wonderfully slimy, eight years before Sanders played the similar schemer Addison DeWitt in All About Eve.

The Naish segment might be the weakest of the bunch, in part because it's too short to have much of a story line, and in part due to the lack of star power. Other reviewers suggest that the Henry Fonda/Ginger Rogers love story is a bit weak, too. It's a straight up comedy, something which Fonda didn't do much of during his career. Usually, when he was in a comedy, he tended to play the foil and let others around him be funny, as in Yours, Mine, and Ours. (Yes, I know he was in Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, but that's an exception.) Fonda isn't that bad, but the humor is often forced, and it's a "comedy of lies" (in that a little white lie leads to bigger and bigger cover-ups that are supposed to be the basis of the humor) that generally rubs me the wrong way.

Some may find the final segment uncomfortable, since it does come close to verging on racial stereotyping, much more so than when Anderson and Waters were together in Cabin in the Sky.

One final note: if you look carefully, you'll see that W.C. Fields isn't in the credits. That's because his sequence had been cut from the movie at one point, only to be added back in in the restored version.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Silly love songs

Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what's wrong with that?


That would be a good way to introduce Wings, if we were talking about the musical group led by Paul McCartney, and not the first movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Actually, though, there is a silly love story in the movie, which is airing on TCM at 6:00 AM ET on Memorial Day, May 26.

Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen star as a pair of young men in a small American town in the days leading up to America's entry into World War I. The only thing is, both of them are in love with the same woman, played by Jobyna Ralston (whom you might remember as Harold Lloyd's girl in The Freshman). It's too bad that they both want Ralson, since either of them could have had the lovely Clara Bow as well. Indeed, after the two of them head off to France to fight in the air corps, Bow follows them as a member of an ambulance crew.

So much for the love story; Wings is really about the flying that the men do in the war. Director William Wellman had himself fought in World War I as part of the Lafayette Escadrille, and knew what dogfight scenes should look like. The only problem for him is that this was 1927. There was no way the fight scenes could have been done using CGI, as Eniac was still almost 20 years from being invented. I suppose he could have done it with punchcards, but that would have taken computing power several times the size of the Empire State Building. (Wait a minute -- the Empire State Building hadn't been built in 1927 either.) Not being able to resort to modern techniques, Wellman had to do things the old fashioned way -- real people flying real planes with camera bolted to them, all the way up in the air. And the two male leads, Rogers and Arlen, flew their own stunt flights. When you see them on screen, they're really several thousand feet up in the air. Indeed, Wellman got a lot of help from the Army Air Corps, but even then, Wings was still a difficult picture to make, as some of the pilots crashed and died during the filming.

That dying during flight training is something to watch for: there's a bit part for a man who is more of a flight veteran than the two leads but who gets killed during a training exercise. That bit part is played by none other than a young Gary Cooper, who steals the scene he's in. Other stalwarts appearing in the cast are vaudvillean El Brendel as a German-American who wants to fight for his adopted country, but, unable to make the grade, has to find other ways to support the cause; Roscoe Karns, whom you might best recall as the annoying Mr. Shapely who bothers Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert on the bus in It Happened One Night, and a bit part for Hedda Hopper as Buddy Rogers' mother.

Wings isn't readily available on DVD, and is one of those movies that really should be given a good DVD release here in the US. It's an important piece of cinematic history, and even without the Oscar trivia, is a fine movie.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Please Release Me, No. 3

This being Memorial Day weekend, it's the perfect time to fire up the grill, or, if you're in a warmer clime, get away to the beach for a weekend. In the years leading up to World War II, however, when suburban living for the middle classes had not yet become the standard, resorts were closer to home: New Yorkers might go to Altantic City, the "Borscht Belt" resorts in the southern part of the Catskills, or maybe even the Poconos in Pennsylvania. It you weren't so well off, you might just spend a day at Coney Island. One classic pre-War movie with a Coney Island scene is The Devil and Miss Jones. Sadly, it's not available on DVD -- and it's a smart little comedy that really should be. It's just as fun now as it was when it was released in 1941.

Jean Arthur gets the "starring" billing as Miss Jones, but she's really not the star of the movie. That would be male lead Charles Coburn. Coburn plays J.P. Merrick, the "richest man" in New York. He's so rich, he's got holdings he doesn't even know about, such as a department store whose workers are protesting their working conditions by burning him in effigy. Merrick hires detectives to figure out who's behind the workers' rebellion, but when they can't give him a satisfactory answer, he decides to take matters into his own hands by going undercover and taking a job in the department store under the name Tom Higgins. You can imagine the humor inherent in a crotchety old man with no sales experience working as a shoe salesman -- indeed, in one scene, Merrick hires his butler to bring a young girl in and buy her five pairs of shoes to show that he can sell even to the most difficult customers. But there's a lot more, as we get two romantic stories. Arthur's Miss Jones feels sorry for "Mr. Higgins", little realizing that her relationship with union organizer Joe O'Brien (Bob Cummings) could get her in serious trouble. Also feeling concern for "Higgins" is an older lady employee, Elizabeth Ellis (played by Spring Byington). And naturally, she falls in love with him, despite hating rich people: of course, she only sees Coburn as Higgins, not as Merrick, and so doesn't know the truth about him.

The movie having been released in 1941, everything is handled with a light touch; no big social messages here. In fact, modern audiences might find the ending a bit of a deus ex machina. But the performances are all wonderful. Charles Coburn is quite skilled at comedy, and earned an Oscar nomination for his part -- although it was only in the Supporting Actor category; a bit of a surprise, since Coburn's role is much too big to be considered a supporting role. (Coburn would later win an Oscar for another comedy, The More the Merrier, also starring Jean Arthur; The More the Merrier is available on DVD for those who wish to see Coburn's comedic talents.) In addition him and the aforementioned Arthur, Cummings, and Byington, there's veteran character actor S.Z. Sakall playing Coburn's butler; William Demarest in a brief role as one of the detectives, and the usually-likeable Edmund Gwenn playing against type as Hooper, the nasty boss of the shoe department. Not only is the acting excellent, the script is a gem; it's refreshing to see such intelligent comedy. There is a bit of wealthy-bashing, especially at the very beginning of the movie, but it's mostly in the vein of the wealthy not knowing how to act poor, and not any deep social commentary. It's a shame that this isn't out on DVD.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Music for millions

TCM showed Jaws last night, as part of a night of Steven Spielberg movies. I won't go into detail about the movie, since virtually everybody knows the plot, even if they haven't seen the movie before. I think a lot of that is down to the John Williams score. The low, thumping strings that presage the arrival of the great white shark have become iconic even outside the context of the movie itself, becoming almost a metaphor for impending danger.

Jaws is a prime example of just how important music is to the movies. If you mix and match scores and put the right score together with the wrong movie, the result is going to be a mess. The music to Jaws, for example, would probably work fairly well with the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. The reverse is almost true; the high-pitched strings we hear when Janet Leigh is getting stabbed would fit will with the slashing of the shark, although Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score doesn't have the built-in suspense that John Williams gives the shark by starting out with a lower pitch and a slower tempo, only building his way up to the faster, higher pitches (but not as high as what Herrmann used) when we actually see the sharks.

Then there are the scores that work great in their own movies, but would be dreadful for Jaws. Erich Korngold wrote one of Hollywood's most memorable scores for the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood. It fits the hand-to-hand combat of medieval knights like a glove, but is far too rousing for fighting a shark. Likewise, the John Williams score would be completely wrong for Robin Hood. I can just imagine Williams' doo doo, doo doo theme swelling up, and hitting the higher notes over Errol Flynn's flight on a vine, and stopping long enough for Flynn to tell Olivia de Havilland, "Welcome to Sherwood, milady!" I shudder just thinking about it.

And then, there are the stirring, but rather more sedate, tones in Max Steiner's score to Gone With the Wind. Just hearing the opening few notes is enough to put you at antebellum Tara. But Quint trying to harpoon the shark over that music? Or Scarlett O'Hara's first meeting with Rhett Butler after the shark's theme? Well, some might say Rhett Butler was a bit of a shark. The only other mental image it gives me, though, is that of Butterfly McQueen on the Orca, her high-pitched voice saying, "I don't know nothin' 'bout killin' no sharks!"

What movies' scores would you like to switch?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Mexican settings

TCM aired another confined boat movie today, Cargo to Capetown. I only saw the ending, and it's not on DVD, so I can't comment much about it. It reminded me of Plunder of the Sun, which I mentioned in that previous blog post, and which aired a few weeks back on Glenn Ford's birthday. However, I'd rather write today about a better movie, and so I thought of something else that Plunder of the Sun has: Mexican settings. That brought me immediately to The Hitch-Hiker.

Ida Lupino directed The Hitch-Hiker, a movie about two men -- played by Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy -- who pick up a hitchhiker (William Talman) on their way to a fishing trip. However, picking up strangers isn't always such a good idea. This one turns out to be a murderer fleeing from the law! Needless to say, he carjacks our two heroes (even if the word "carjacking" hadn't been invented at the time) and forces them to take him through Baja California, Mexico, where he intends to make his escape by catching the ferry across the Gulf of California to the rest of Mexico. It's a simple story, but Ida Lupino does an excellent job directing, making the movie quite tense, and keeping the running time down to a fast-paced 71 minutes. She's helped, to be sure, by the desolate locations (although according to the IMDb, locations in the US state of California substitute for Baja California). It's one I can highly recommend, and I'm thrilled to say that this little gem is available on DVD.

Perhaps just as interesting as the movie itself is the fact that it's based on a real story. Billy Cook, seen in the photo at left being captured by the police, kidnapped an entire family and killed them, and then, in a cross-country escape, carjacked a travelling salesman, eventually murdering him, too, before being caught in Mexico. Indeed, Cook, just like William Talman's character, had a deformity making him unable to close his right eye completely. Cook was executed in California's gas chamber for his killing spree; Time magazine has a contemporary story about the execution online.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Our Daily Bread

I sat down to watch The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance last night on TCM, and had forgotten that one of the great character actors, with a distinctive voice, was in it. No, not Andy Devine, but Hollywood's #1 Scandinavian character actor, John Qualen. Qualen appeared in well over a hundred movies, including such famous movies as Casablanca (although, to be honest, I don't remember actually seeing Qualen in it); The High and the Mighty (as the fisherman taking his first flight); and A Patch of Blue (the man who gives blind Elizabeth Hartmann her beads). However, I'd like to talk about a lesser-known movie in which Qualen has a more prominent part: Our Daily Bread.

Tom Keene stars in this 1934 movie as John Sims, a man who's down on his luck during the Great Depression and is about to be evicted from his apartment with his wife, Mary (played by Karen Morley). However, her uncle stops by for dinner, and has the deed to a non-performing plot of land; the uncle says they're more than welcome to live off the land if they can make a go of it. Having nothing better to do, they head off for the country to live as farmers. Of course, they're city folks at heart, and don't really know how to run a farm, but providence strikes when Scandinavian farmer Chris Larsen (that's Qualen), heading west because his own farm has failed, passes the Sims' farm. John invites Chris to stay with them if Chris and his family will teach him about farming.

Eventually, John decides he needs more help than just Chris Larsen, and sets up signs looking for other tradesmen. This being the Great Depression, there are millions of such tradesmen looking for work, and soon, Sims has enough people at his farm to turn the place into a commune. Still, life isn't exactly easy: there's the possibility that they might lose the land; a drought; and even a tacked on romantic conflict, involving Keene and a very young Barbara Pepper. The climax comes as, in order to beat the drought, the men try to build an irrigation canal from a nearby river to their crops.

King Vidor, who was no stranger to socially daring movies (he had directed the all-Black musical Hallelujah in 1929), directed Our Daily Bread, which, as the title card says, is "inspired by headlines of today". There's some propaganda in it, to be certain. I personally think it paints a too-rosy view of what life would have been like, as such communes are inherently unsustainable -- look at how the Israeli kibbutzim have had to modify themselves in order to keep going. Also, there's a scene in which the members band together in order to bully a businessman from buying "their" land in a foreclosure sale, in which we're pretty much being asked to root for mob rule (with its accompanying violence). But Our Daily Bread is nowhere near as propagandistic as the Socialst Realism movies from the USSR, such as Earth. And it's even less propagandizing than the end of William Wellman's Heroes for Sale (sadly, not available on DVD), in which the main character engages in direct shilling for Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Our Daily Bread is available on DVD, and despite its historical curiosity, is an excellent film in its own right.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Andy Devine

Andy Devine et al. in 'A Star is Born'
The final scene of A Star is Born (1937). From left: May Robson, Andy Devine, Janet Gaynor, Adolphe Menjou. Devine is just about to lead Robson down the red carpet.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of James Stewart. It would be easy enough to write a post about Stewart, since he was the star of so many truly great movies, and TCM are running 12 of his movies today to honor the occasion. As much as I enjoy Stewart's work, or that of any leading actor, I usually find myself just as interested in the supporting roles. And that brings me to the subject of today's post, Andy Devine. Devine has a smallish part as the cowardly marshal in Stewart's 1962 movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, airing tonight at 10:00 PM ET on TCM.

Devine never became a leading star, probably for a host of reasons, although foremost among them would probably be the raspy voice. However, that voice also makes him instantly recognizable, which isn't a bad thing. Devine was able to parlay that recognizability into roles in dozens, if not hundreds, of movies. Many of them are westerns, such as tonight's Liberty Valance, or his part as one of the coach drivers in the 1939 version of Stagecoach. But Devine also appeared in comedies, having a brief role as a sheriff in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, and action movies, such as John Wayne's Island in the Sky, where he plays one of the pilots leading the search for Wayne's downed plane in northern Quebec. Devine gets a notable scene in Island in the Sky where he does a cannonball into a swimming pool with his two screen children. Devine had always been burly, having apparently played football in college, and having played a lineman in several college football pictures of the 1930s -- one of the few Hollywood actors who could convincingly play a football player. However, by the time of Island in the Sky, he had become obese (but one of the jolly fat people; by all accounts he was nearly universally loved in Hollywood) instead of just burly, and the "beefcake" shot of Devine in skimpy swimming trunks is just frightening.

Of course, Devine's obesity might lead some to say there's just more of him to love. You can love the younger Devine in the 1937 version of A Star is Born, in which he plays Danny McGuire, a wannabe director who is one of Vicki Lester's housemated, gets her the job that leads to her meeting her alcoholic future husband, and then walks Lester's grandmother down the red carpet at the premiere of Vicki's latest movie, at the end of the film. Devine's role isn't that big, but he makes it an extremely likeable character, and makes himself an actor you'll remember.

All of the titles I've mentioned in this post are available on DVD.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Some of the second-best

Unfortunately, I don't look at TCM's on-line schedule often enough, and so I have a tendency to miss out on which shorts are coming up. Imagine my dismay, then, when I tuned in to watch Gang War this morning at 6:15, and found that TCM were showing the last few minutes of MGM's 25th anniversary featurette, Some of the Best. It's a fairly standard tribute, narrated by Lionel Barrymore. Barrymore introduces us to snippets of one MGM picture from each of MGM's first 25 years of movie making, followed by some scenes from upcoming MGM movies in 1949, and ending with the highlight, scenes from the birthday banquet. There's a long pan of almost the entire stable of MGM's stars, and much of the fun of watching Some of the Best is in trying to identify all of the stars. (The other interesting thing is spotting which ones came straight from the sound stages, as they're still in their costumes.) The bad news is that Some of the Best has not yet made it onto DVD as a bonus feature to anything. It really does deserve wider recognition.

Although MGM's 25th anniversary party isn't on DVD yet, Warner Brothers' is: the 1930 short pretentiously titled An Intimate Dinner in Celebration of Warner Brothers' Silver Jubilee; it's listed as being part of the three-disc 80th anniversary release of Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer. Warner Brothers was not as prestigious a studio as MGM, and it shows in the making of WB's 25th annivesary party.

While MGM had Lionel Barrymore narrate their feature, Warner Bros. hired actors to play hosts "Mr. and Mrs. Warner", and decided to salute their still-new Vitaphone technology by having much of the festivities announced by an irritating child actress playing "Little Miss Vitaphone". Now, Warner Bros. hadn't actually been making movies for 25 years at the time this short was made; indeed, in later years Warners have celebrated different anniversary that imply the business was not founded in 1905 but several years later. Instead of a montage of classic WB movies, we only get the montage of stars, most of them sitting at the banquet table. A few of the big Warner Bros. stars of the day, notably Richard Barthelmess, George Arliss and John Barrymore, were on location shooting movies and unable to make it to the banquet, and this is where WB's short-sightedness is at its most obvious: they consciously made a decision to showcase the Vitaphone technology, and should have used it to have the absent stars deliver recorded addresses congratulating the studio on its anniversary. Instead, Warners stuck to the tried-and-true silent technique of displaying the actors' photos, and telegrams of congratulations, leaving the telegrams on screen long enough for the audience to read.

The sound is used more for an opportunity to showcase a few of the songs in upcoming WB movies, although it should be remembered that musicals weren't that good back in 1930. The plus side, though, is that they showed the songwriters. Richard Rodgers had not yet teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein; he was still in his partnership with Lorenz Hart, so it's Rodgers and Hart who are seated together. Hammerstein is instead seated next to Sigmund Romberg. The other plus is being able to put names to faces; unlike MGM's Some of the Best, Little Miss Vitaphone gives us the courtesy of naming the actors and actresses at the banquet.

For the most part, Warner Bros. Silver Jubilee is a museum piece. But it's a valuable one, and I'm glad it's on DVD.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Crazy berry aunts, part 2

After yesterday's discussion of ants invading Houston, and their cinematic brethren, it's time for a "related" movie: Arsenic and Old Lace. Only this time, it's not crazy ants, but crazy aunts.

Cary Grant stars as Mortimer Brewster, a theater critic who's surprised everybody by getting married to Elaine Harper (played by Priscilla Lane), despite being a confirmed bachelor. He's about to leave with her on his honeymoon, but has decided to see his two elderly aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) first. Unfortunately for Morty, he's in for a surprise: his aunts inform him that they've been "helping" lonely old men by inviting them to rent one of their rooms, and then serving them poisoned elderberry wine. Needless to say, Morty is shocked by this, but it's only the beginning of his world being turned upside-down. The idea sounds morbid, but the movie is actually a wild comedy, so we should expect that there's ever more strangeness going on.

First is the fact that Mortimer is going to have to keep the latest dead body hidden from his wife, which leads to several scenes of Grant acting in the zany mold of his earlier portrayals in Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. (To be honest, though, at times, I find it a bit too zany. However, there's also the problem of how to dispose of the dead bodies; the vitim Mortimer sees is actually the 13th. But it just so happens that the aunts have another nephew, Teddy (John Alexander) who's insane, and believes he's Teddy Roosevelt. The aunts manipulate him into believing his digging the Panama Canal, when in fact he's digging graves for the old men in the basement. And to make matters worse, Mortimer's brother Jonathan (played by Raymond Massey) shows up, too. He's on the run from the law, with a dead body in the trunk of his car, and having gone through plastic surgery at the hands of Peter Lorre (shades of Mad Love here) that's left him looking like Boris Karloff's portrayal of Frankestein's monster. (Ugly, but I suppose it'll keep the police from recognizing you.)

In addition to the well-known stars playing in the leads, Arsenic and Old Lace is filled with wonderful character actors. I've mentioned Jack Carson a number of times; he plays one of the police officers. James Gleason has also been given significant mention in an earlier post; he too plays a police officer. Edward Everett Horton plays the manager of the insane asylum to which Mortimer plans to have Teddy committed after the aunts die, and Grant Mitchell, who appeared in dozens of great movies in the 30s and early 40s plays a man of the cloth who stops by the aunts' house.

Arsenic and Old Lace was based on a popular Broadway play; in fact, Josephine Hull and Jean Adair reprise their roles they originated on Broadway as the crazy aunts. Also, in a bit of happy news for movie buffs, Arsenic and Old Lacy is available on DVD.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Santa Claus Conquers the Giant Ants

You've probably heard the stories about the crazy rasberry ants that have been making life difficult for people in the Houston metropolitan area. Hollywood made a few movies about insects starting in the early 1950s when low-budget science fiction movies became popular. One such movie about ants is Them!

The movie starts out in the desert of New Mexico, where a family's trailer has been destroyed, with only a little girl having survived, but in a state of shock. There's an odd print left at the scene of the crime, and an impression of it is made and sent to Washington for analysis. The response comes in the form of two scientists, who will reveal all. In an unintentionally funny moment, the scientists explain what happened by by waving a beaker of formic acid under the girl's nose, at which point she comes out of shock, screaming "Them! Them!" Formic acid, as the name implies, is produced by ants; in this case, giant ants that have been mutated as a result of the atomic testing done in New Mexico in 1945. It's imperative that they find the colony, and destroy it, before the queen ants escape to start new colonies!

I mentioned Santa Claus in the title of this post because the main scientist, Dr. Harold Medford, is played by Edmund Gwenn, who is probably best known for his Oscar-winning role as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. He and his daughter, fellow entomologist Pat (played by Joan Weldon, who retired young from acting), are the only ones who know what they're looking for, and consequently have to lead the police and the US Army in finding and destroying the ants. As it turns out, that search isn't just going to lead them through the New Mexico desert, but to Los Angeles as well. Two of the queens escaped, and one is determined to have made it to Los Angeles. So, our heroes go to the sewers of Los Angeles to find the new nest and, with any luck, destroy it before any more queens hatch.

The cast is surprisingly good; in addition to Gwenn and Weldon, veteran B-actor James Whitmore (still alive and working at 87) plays the policeman who first investigates the killings in New Mexico. James Arness plays the FBI agent who brings the Medfords into the case. Most fun is a brief appearance by future TV Davy Crockett, Fess Parker, as a man put in an insane asylum after he saw one of the queen ants in flight and reported an ant-shaped UFO! (Funnier, Arness tells the doctor in charge of the asylum to keep the man locked up until he says so, despite knowing the man is fully sane.)

Them! rises above the typical sci-fi fare of the 1950s, with the one major exception that insects can't get above a certain size (much smaller than these ants) without getting crushed by their exoskeletons. But that bit of bad science aside, the story is actually enjoyable, and not nearly as contrived as most of the other sci-fi movies of the era. The effects, of course, aren't the greatest, but back in the 1950s, they didn't have the technology available to us today. Look at the effects in the original Star Wars from 1977 and compare those to the effects of today. Them! is available on DVD, too, if you want a fun little fright.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Catching up with Easy Living

I've got half a dozen movies that I saw the last time they were on TCM, and could write a post about, but since I don't have time to write truly in-depth posts for more than one movie a day, I keep falling behind. (You should see how I fall behind in the movies that I've taped. One Independence Day weekend, I watched a tape of a Loretta Young movie from TCM's birthday tribute to her. Loretta Young was born in January.) Not being terribly interested in the movies for today or tomorrow on TV, or having blogged about them already, I can finally get to one of them: Easy Living.

Paramount released this screwball comedy in 1937, and since it's part of Universal's library, it doesn't get seen much on TV. However, TCM were able to show it in cunjunction with its release on DVD. Jean Arthur stars as Mary Smith, a woman in New York City making a meager living writing for a magazine. One day, her life changes literally out of the blue: while she's riding to work, a fur coat falls out of the sky and lands on her. (Sure, it sounds odd, but the same plot twist of a discarded fur coat was used in Make Mine Mink.) It turns out that the fur coat has been thrown out of a high-rise apartment window by wealthy banker J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold), peeved that his wife has been overspending. (What husband isn't irritated by his wife's overspending?) Smith tries to return the coat to Ball, but he tells her to keep the coat, and even buys her a fine new hat to replace the one that was destroyed when the coat landed on it.

All this leads to a whole bunch of problems: Smith loses her job, but makes a whole lot of new "friends"; people who saw her in the fur coat accompanying Ball, believe that she is Ball's mistress, and want to use this "fact" to gain influence with Ball. In her new life, she's only made one real friend, a worker at an automat played by Ray Milland. What she doesn't know is that he is actually Ball's son, working at the automat to prove that he can make it without Daddy's money. (Also, he doesn't know that she got her coat from his father.) To call the movie wild might be a bit of an understatement. There's slapstick, constant humor created by the mistaken identities, and a pacing that gives the viewer near non-stop action, and non-stop laughs. Jean Arthur had done comedy before, and wsa quite good at it; Edward Arnold is also a joy to watch in his comedy roles. Ray Milland, on the other hand, isn't very well-known for doing comedy. Yet he's fine here, even if outshone by Arthur and Arnold. (Not that that's a slur on Milland.)

Easy Living was directed by Mitchell Leisen, who isn't so well remembered today, although he made a number of really funny movies. The name you're more likely to recognize is that of the screenwriter, Preston Sturges.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

On boats and confined spaces

As part of a birthday tribute to Joseph Cotten, TCM played Journey Into Fear. It's not listed as being available on DVD, so I'll just give a brief plot summary: Cotten plays an arms dealer in Istanbul who's being chased by the Nazis; in order to escape, his Turkish contact puts him on a boat to Batumi in Soviet Georgia. (It's probably the only Hollywood studio movie with any scenes set in Soviet Georgia. I can't think of any others.) Of course, the people hunting him also end up on the boat....

The movie made me think about boats, and the way they are often used to create a sense of claustrophobia. Much like the train, in movies like The Narrow Margin, a ship is a self-contained space that provides little opportunity for escape. As such, it's a handy plot device for creating suspense when you've got a character who's being followed. Glenn Ford, for example, suffered such a fate in Plunder of the Sun.

Boats also limit the number of characters you can have. The result is that you know the bad guy is very close, but which person is it? Journey Into Fear uses this; there are variations on the theme in movies like The Lady from Shanghai, and the beginning of Torn Curtain.

Having a boat also means there's a finite amount of space to hide, or to search for something. Bette Davis learned this to her detriment when she was making out with a ship's officer in Now, Voyager; it drove Humphrey Bogart mad when his strawberries didn't show up in The Caine Mutiny.

And then there are the comedic aspects of a lack of space. Cary Grant and a bunch of guys get stuck carrying around a group of female nurses on a submarine (the ultimate lack of space) in Operation Petticoat, while Gary Cooper's crew has to hide distilled water being used to make a steam-powered warship work in You're in the Navy Now.

With the exception of Journey Into Fear, all of the movies mentioned are available on DVD. (Ooh, that gives me more ideas for future posts.....)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

1960s spy movie #37106

The 1960s was a very popular decade for spy movies, what with the Cold War going on, and a loosening of restrictions on filmmaking thanks to various social changes. Berlin, a divided city where East and West were cheek by jowl, was a popular location for spies. One such Berlin-set spy movie, The Quiller Memorandum, is airing on the Fox Movie Channel on May 15 at 10:00 AM ET.

George Segal stars as Quiller, a British spy. A couple of his colleageus are killed in Berlin when they're investigating the shadowy West German neo-Nazi movement. Quiller's handler, Pol (played by Alec Guinness) then brings in Quiller to send him to West Berlin to find out what happened, and infiltrate the neo-Nazis. Of course, as is the case with spy movies, you know the spy is going to face danger; in this case, that's Max von Sydow, as the head of the movement. There's also the standard love interest, in this case a school teacher played by Senta Berger.

The Quiller Memorandum is a dark spy movie, although not quite as dark as Richard Burton's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. I personally found the characterizations slightly muddled, in that I didn't really care all that much about what happened to Quiller. However, the movie has color photography of a contemporary West Berlin setting going for it. With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the whole spy game of divided Berlin is a relic of history, along with such icons as the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie. True, The Quiller Memorandum doesn't deal with the Soviets, but the rest of the Berlin backdrop is there. I'm also a sucker for 60s style -- at least, the more conservative style of that era (think the old "Dick Van Dyke" show as an example). My grandparents moved up from New York City to the Catskills, building what would eventually become their retirement house in the late 1950s. I have fond memories of that house from my childhood days: the furnished basement with the polished black floor; the blue Formica countertop in the kitchen; the colorful specks in the plaster; the round fluorescent light fixture in the kitchen, and so on. The Quiller Memorandum, like the East German-set Torn Curtain, has some excellent examples of the style of that era, especially at the scholl where Senta Berger's character works.

Watch, too, for a brief appearance by George Sanders as one of the higher-ups in British intelligence.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Talking funny

TCM is showing a night of movies about southern belles tonight; included is Jezebel (May 13 at 1:30 AM ET), in which the belle is played by Bette Davis, in the role that won her her second Oscar. Perhaps the best scene in the movie is one in which she declares she can wear a red dress if she wants, dammit, because this is eighteen fifty-two! It's funny, in part because the southern accent sounds incongruous coming out of Bette Davis. Perhaps more interesting will be The Toy Wife, which follows Jezebel at 3:30 AM. There, the southern belle will be played by Luise Rainer, born in Vienna, Austria. I suppose it could be worse, though: I'm trying to imagine Sean Connery doing a southern accent. (Either that, or he should have tried a Jamaican accent in Doctor No. "Bond, mon, James Bond.")

Trying to do a southern accent isn't the only funny accent in the movies, of course. There's the whole Pepe le Pew thing, based on poor Charles Boyer. I always wonder what Boyer, an otherwise excellent actor, thought about being parodied by a cartoon skunk.

Omar Sharif is dreadfully bad as a Russian in Doctor Zhivago, although I have a whole bunch of other problems with that movie besides Sharif; it is for me a wreck of a movie that probably deserves its own post sometime down the line. (To be honest though, I prefer writing about movies I like.)

Laurence Olivier has a hilarious accent turn in Michael Powell's great movie 49th Parallel. Olivier plays a Québecois trapper who shows up at a Hudson Bay trading post, complete with all the stereotypes, including the accent. (He's also portrayed as being part of a ridiculously large Catholic family.) It is so obviously forced that it's laughable. I can only imagine how Canadian audiences must have felt on seeing the movie.

Then, there are the people who don't do Shakespeare. Marlon Brando fans think he was the bee's knees in Julius Caesar, but there are also a lot of people out there -- not just myself, but more significant judges like Frank Sinatra -- who felt Brando had a serious lack of elocution, to the point that Nancy Sinatra, in one of the pieces on her father airing on TCM, claims her father called Brando "Mumbles". Although, there's much of the cast of the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, although that version rises above the cast's limitations.

I suppose I should close with a comment about my own accent. I studied Russian in college, and spent a term in St. Petersburg. One of the first things our phonetics teacher did was have us start on the Russian o. It's relativiely close to the o in some British accents when speaking a word like "clock"; that is, not like the oa in "boat", but not all the way to the aw in "awe". When it was my turn to pronounce the Russian o, I did, and the teacher responded, "You're from New York, aren't you?"

Monday, May 12, 2008

Edward G. Robinson laughs

Edward G. Robinson is generally thought of as a gangster, since movies like Little Caesar nearly typecast him. Granted, even early in his career, he was playing various ethnic roles, but the studio system did have a tendency to typecast people. However, Robinson also had good comedic timing, as can be seen in the movie A Slight Case of Murder, airing tonight at 11:15 PM ET on TCM.

Robinson is still playing a gangster, this one named Remy Marko. Marko made his money selling beer to a thirsty populace during the Prohibition years. Unfortunately, there's a problem for him: during Prohibition, people were despearate for any booze; now, with Prohibition over, people can afford to be more choosy in what they drink. Marko's trying to make a go of it legally, but he never realized that his brew tasted bad, even for beer. So, he's decided to get out of the beer business and take a well-deserved retirement up in Upstate New York.

Of course, life isn't going to be that easy for him. When he gets to summer home, he finds that there's been a mob hit gone bad, with the dead bodies of four of his enemies and a stash of money; naturally, since Marko was formerly a gangster himself, he believes everybody's going to suspect him. Worse, his daughter (played by Jane Bryan, is engaged to a state trooper; when Marko's future son-in-law wants to visit him, Marko unsurprisingly believes the police have come to get him.

What follows is a fun little comedy in which Marko has to go to great contrivances to keep everybody from finding out what's going on. Robinson is good enough, although as is often the case with 1930s studio movies, the highlights just as often come from the character actors who populate the movies. Marko's henchmen are played by gangster stalwarts Allen Jenkins, Edward Brophy, and Harold Huber; Margaret Hamilton as an orphanage director, and Paul Harvey as the future father-in-law.

A Slight Case of Murder has also been released on DVD, in case you miss TCM's showing.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Meine liebste Rabenmutter

Today being Mothers' Day, I was thinking about one of the most-known mother movies, Mommie Dearest. Interestingly, the first time I saw it was when I was spending a summer in Germany visiting my relatives in the "old country".

One of the big differences between watching movies in Germany, and watching them in most other western European countries, is that in Germany all the movies are dubbed, as opposed to sub-titled. In Scandinavia, for example, almost everything is subtitled. This in itself has some interesting effects; in Sweden, for example, E.T. The Extraterrestrial was given a rating as being suitable only for ages 12 and above. This wasn't because of any values the movie portrays, an urban legend that's made its way to the internet. Instead, it's because of the movie's subtitles. Apparently, the next classification below 12-year-olds was deemed to young to have children reading all those subtitles. (Indeed, in countries where most things are subtitled, cartoons are still dubbed. The Czech Republic, for example, is one such country.)

Dubbing probably presents more problems than subtitling, however. I'm sure a lot of us recall those dreadful dubs of Asian movies, especially Japanese sci-fi movies or Chinese action movies, where the words spoken barely approach the movement of the actors' lips; it's much like the scene in Singing in the Rain where Lina Lamont is saying, "No, no, no!" but the synchronization has gone off, and we hear Don Lockwood's "Yes, yes, yes!" instead. There's also mistranslations: a famous example in German cinema is from the movie Casablanca. Humphrey Bogart's line, "Here's looking at you, kid" has been translated as "Ich schau' Dir in die Augen, Kleines", which translates to "I'm looking you in the eyes, little one". It's a dreadful mistranslation, but it's become so iconic that this is the way Germans know the line. One other interesting problem with dubbing is one I noticed when I studied in Russia and tried to watch movies on TV: the dubbing was so bad you could hear the original dialog faintly playing under the Russian dubbing! It made it tough if you're trying to follow a foreign language, but impossible to follow the movie in its original language.

If you're more interested in the dubbing of movies into German, there's a good article here.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Becky Dull

My previous post was a bit brief, and I prefer to write a bit more than that each day. I noticed after writing the post that I mentioned the actress Miriam Hopkins, and so would like to point out one of her movies: Becky Sharp.

Becky Sharp, in which Hopkins plays the title role, is based on William Makepeace Thackeray's Victorian novel Vanity Fair; in the book, the aforementioned Sharp is the main character. The story is that of Sharp, a girl of humble beginnings in Regency England (for those who don't know English history too well, that's the 1810s, when George III was too sick to carry out his royal duties and the eventual George IV served as regent), who uses the men around her to rise above her station. To be honest, the movie isn't the greatest. It borders on the melodramatic, with Hopkins often getting into Bette Davis scenery-chewing territory. Sharp is in many ways like the later Scarlett O'Hara, in that she marries for wealth and on multiple occasions has to start over from the beginning; unlike Vivien Leigh's Scarlett, however, Hopkins is dragged down by a script that just doesn't give us much opportunity to care about her.

The movie is important, however, for another reason. It's the first feature-length movie released in the then-new "three-strip" Technicolor. Before 1935, as I mentioned a few months ago, Technicolor used a more primitive process that resulted in most reds being pinkish, greens being a very dark green, and most other colors not being represented very well. But with the newer process, colors were more accurate, leading to relatively vivid blues, and even oranges and purples, too. In 1935, the process was still in its infancy, so the color wasn't as good as in The Garden of Allah, the 1936 movie which prompted my previous post on three-strip. However, the color is still surprisingly good for a new process.

The supporting cast of Becky Sharp includes Frances Dee as Becky's best friend; Nigel Bruce as Dee's brother; and such character acting stalwarts as Cedric Hardwicke, Billie Burke, and Alan Mowbray. It's available on DVD, too.

Mamma Mia

Tomorrow is Mothers' Day, and TCM is celebrating the day with 14 hours of movies about mothers (leading up to the Frank Sinatra salute in prime time). The movies are of course good, but the day's selection is just one more sign that perhaps I've seen too many movies. It turns out that I've already blogged about four of the movies airing that day:

Depression-era apple vendor May Robson has to become a Lady for a Day in order that her daughter may marry a wealthy man, at 6:00 AM ET;

Bette Davis raises Mary Astor's child in The Great Lie, airing at 9:30 AM ET;

Joan Crawford raises an ungrateful daughter without having to resort to wire hangers in Mildred Pierce, at 1:30 PM ET; and

Thelma Ritter is Gene Tierney's mother-in-law, but Tierney thinks she's the maid, in The Mating Season, at 3:30 PM.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Twist of Fate

Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, there are lots of great old movies to watch. Once in a while, though, there's an interesting, but not-so-old, movie showing up on another channel. On May 8 at 4:00 PM ET, the Fox Movie Channel is showing Two of a Kind.

The plot is fairly simple: God (unseen but voiced by Gene Hackman) comes to the conclusion that man is flawed beyond redemption, so He's going to bring all of mankind up to Heaven and start over down on Earth. Several of His angels, however, beg Him not to do this, and give them a chance to prove that humans can be redeemable. So, God picks what must be two of the most irredeemable humans out there, and expects these angels to perform some sort of miracle. Those two humans are John Travolta, playing a struggling inventor who's up to his ears in debt to loan sharks, and Olivia Newton-John, an Australian wannabe actress in New York City who, struggling to make ends meet as an actress, is working as a bank teller. Sadly, unlike their previous pairing in Grease, the two have no chemistry together here. At first, they hate each other (for all sorts of "good" reasons -- watch how they meet at a bank robbery), but you know that by the end of the movie, they're going to fall in love. And yet, it's hard to care about whether or not it's going to work out for them, and if it does, just how it does. Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and Ethel Waters were much more interesting in the somewhat similarly-plotted Cabin in the Sky.

What is much more interesing is the conflict between good and evil. God's angels are a hoot to watch, especially Beatrice Straight and Scatman Carothers. Also, there's Charles Durning, but a little more on him later. While the angels are fun, Satan's minion, played by an unctuous Oliver Reed, is even better. It's the sort of role you could imagine Jack Carson playing 35 years earlier. Reed and Durning have one of the best scenes in the movie, when Travolta, on the run in a classy hotel restaurant, is spotted by the loan sharks. Reed and Durning stop time and make it go at various speeds for everybody but the protagnoists, leading to a food fight trashing the joint, where nobody really knows what's going on. Indeed, it is Oliver Reed and the angels that save Two of a Kind from being otherwise forgettable.

There are also some songs from Olivia Newton-John, notably "Twist of Fate" and "Living in Desperate Times". If you're a an of 1980s music, you might enjoy them; if not, you'll probably find that they only serve to make the movie clearly dated as a product of the early 1980s, as does everything else in the film.

Five Years Before HUAC

Fox Movie Channel are airing Gentleman's Agreement at 8:00 PM ET on May 9 as part of their "Fox Legacy" series, where they air a prominent Fox movie three times in succession, with an introduction by studio exec Tom Rothman, every Friday night. Gentleman's Agreement is, of course, the movie in which Gregory Peck plays a writer who pretends to be Jewish in order that he can document the rampant anti-Semitism in post-World War II America.

I was thinking about writing a post in conjunction with the airing of the movie on Hollywood's ambivalent views towards Jews. As I understand it, many studio executives were uncomfortable with the idea of Fox producing and releasing this movie. (Although, in their defense, this may be in part a desire not to rock the boat instead of pure anti-Semitism; there was a great reluctance to release The Lost Weekend two years earlier.) Also, back in the 1940s, a lot of Jewish people in Hollywood -- and there was a not insubstantial number of them -- downplayed their Jewish identity, as it was thought that moviegoers in the rest of America didn't want obviously "ethnic" people as stars. ("Ethnic", of course, means "not Northern European"; fans had no problems with the obviously non-Anglo Ingrid Bergman.) There was also the infamous agreement that Hollywood studios (except for Warners) had made with Nazi Germany, which in part made them testify that they were using only "Aryan" cast members in their productions. All this despite the relatively high proportion of Jews in Hollywood.

In doing some research on the topic, however, I also stumbled upon a very interesting historical incident I had known nothing about: in 1941, Montana Senator Burton Wheeler, one of the leaders of the isolationist "America First" movement, helped bring a Senate investigation into the production by Hollywood of movies that were, it felt, propaganda trying to get the US into World War II on the side of Great Britain. The ironic thing is that the Hollywood moguls had, like the cultural elites in the UK, ignored the Nazi threat for a long time, not making any strongly anti-Nazi movies until about 1939, and even these limited first steps caused internal controversy.

One other claim the author makes is interesting; namely, that the same philosophical strain that led to the 1941 Senate investigation led to the investigation of Hollywood by the Un-American Activities Committees after World War II. Both committees, as well as those in the early 1930s that led to Hollywood's "voluntarily" enforcing the Production Code, were led by "progressives" (of the Bull Moose/Bob LaFollette type) who feared what they saw as the concentration of power, whether it be in the hands of business trusts (which latter-day "progressives" still fear), or in the hands of an unelected government bureaucracy that could be infiltrated by subversives. There had already been one Red Scare in the early 1920s, after all.

I don't want to get in a political discussion here, especially not on the topic of the HUAC of the late 1940s and early 1950s which led to the blacklist. My real motivation for this post is that the 1941 investigation was something completely new to me; indeed, while quite a bit is made of the morals squads of the early 1930s who drove the strict enforcement of the Production Code, and much more talk is given to the 1950s investigations, very little is said about the 1941 investigation. To be fair, of course, a lot of this has to do with the march of time. The committee had really only begun their work, and were in recess, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (one big quibble about the linked paper is that it dates the Pearl Harbor attack to December 6, making me wonder if there are other errors in the paper). Naturally, after the attack, and America's entry into the war, almost nobody had any problem with Hollywood's supporting the war effort.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Hitchcock talks!

Earlier this week, TCM showed Alfred Hitchcock's 1929 movie Blackmail; having had other things to write about, though, I haven't gotten around to blogging about it until today. It was Hitchcock's first talking picture, and indeed British cinema's first talkie. It shows, and therein lie a few tales.

It's said that Blackmail was originally supposed to be a silent movie, but part of the way through the filming, the decision was made to release it as a talkie. The opening sequence, of Scotland Yard detectives going about their business, had apparently already been filmed, and this scene seems to have made it into the film almost unchanged, save for the adding of a score. The first six or seven minutes of the movie have no dialogue whatsoever, and then the first bit of dialogue we do hear is in a shot of two detectives walking down a hall, taken from the back. Obviously, the dialogue could have been added later if the need arose.

Then there's the lead actress, Anny Ondra. It turned out that she had a heavy German accent, making her voice very difficult to understand. (Then again, some Americans would argue that certain British accents are unintelligible....) So, as can be seen in Singing In the Rain, another actress had to be brought in to dub over all of Ondra's lines. It's quite noticeable in certain scenes.

Hitchcock was also inventive in using the new sound technology to drive the plot. Alice White, the main character, stabs and kills an artist in self-defense when he tries to rape her. (This is another thing which dates this movie: this could never have been shown in America after the introduction of the Production Code. More importantly, however, this scene makes Blackmail unsuitable for younger viewers, even though during the actual attack, we only see two forearms.) Later, Alice is at breakfast with her family, and the bread knife drives her nuts. Worse, everybody else is talking, and the only word we hear, from Alice's perspective, is "Knife!"

Hitchcock hadn't fully hit his stride, however, and having to cater to the new sound technology also hurt him. Blackmail is enjoyable enough, but I don't think it's quite as artistic, or as well-told a story, as his earlier silent The Lodger. However, the signs of the Hitchcock style are already well in evidence, especially during the climax, which is set in and atop the British Museum, and presages such later Hitchcock works as Saboteur and North by Northwest.

If you're a fan of early talkies and pre-Codes, I can highly recommend Blackmail. By the same token, if you're already a fan of Hitchcock's work, this is well worth adding to the list of Hitchcock films you've seen. However, if you're new to Hitchcock, I can think of quite a few other movies worth seeing first, including the above-mentioned Saboteur and North by Northwest, both of which are available on DVD.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Screenwriting 101

TCM today showed one of the movies which seems to bring out some of the most vitriolically split opinions by those who comment upon and review it: The Fountainhead.

Based upon the novel by Ayn Rand (which I'm sure has a lot to do with the split opinion), The Fountainhead stars Gary Cooper as architect Howard Roark, a man who wants to build the designs he likes, and not what those who pay to have the buildings built would like. More commercially successful is fellow architect Peter Keating (Kent Smith), who produces popular, but unoriginal, designs. There's love interest Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal), who marries Keating first, followed by populist newspaper publisher Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey), but really loves Roark.

The crux of the movie, and what usually brings out the political jeers, is that Keating wants an important government contract, but only Roark has enough knoweldge of the new building materials to be able to bring the job in under budget. Keating asks Roark to create the designs under Keating's name, and Roark agrees -- only on the proviso that the plans be altered in no way. Needless to say, this being a government contract, Roark's plans get altered to please a myriad of political masters, prompting Roark to destroy the building, and defend the bombing on the grounds that nobody has a right to his creation. Interestingly, this defense isn't that much different from what happens in William Wellman's 1933 movie Heroes for Sale: a man creates a machine to do laundry more efficiently, but heads a mob to destroy it when the machines are seen to cost people their jobs during the Great Depression. But because Heroes for Sale fairly explicitly supports Roosevelt's New Deal, it doesn't get criticized, while Ayn Rand's strident anti-collectivism does. (I should add a bit about my own political views here: I think Rand generally got things right in The Fountainhead, as I'll explain in more detail below; her later novel Atlas Shrugged, which is generally given greater praise by people receptive to Rand's philosophical views, is in my opinion an interesting story brought down by overlong and too frequent polemicism.)

The movie is visually interesting, as befits a movie about architecture. Many of the designs are fairly nice, angular buildings, reminiscent of the new styles Frank Lloyd Wright was designing: indeed, Rand modeled Howard Roark on Wright. (Interestingly, Wright is usually hailed for starting an architectural revolution, as opposed to the commonly assailed Rand.) Also, watch for an intriguing scene of Cooper working in a quarry. Some commenters have suggested that The Fountainhead would have worked better as a silent movie, and director King Vidor's effective use of visuals, presumably learned from his days directing silents two decades earlier, lends some credence to that argument.

It also brings up what is the major, and fairly well-deserved, criticism of The Fountainhead: its woeful screenplay. Ayn Rand wanted to make sure that the vision she presented in the novel would survive on screen, and so she took on the task of writing the screenplay. However, it's patently obvious that she had no idea of how to write an effective screenplay, especially the idea that what it takes to write a good book isn't the same as what you need for a good screenplay. The dialog is lifted in large parts straight out of the book, which causes serious problems whenever one of the characters delivers an extended soliloquy. While this makes for a terribly flawed movie, it doesn't hurt the book so much. Indeed, the book is quite good, and well worth reading.

The other criticism is that the characters are unrealistic, which is not untrue, but somewhat beside the point. In the book, the characters are more or less archetypes. Not only that; they're pretty much spot on to character types we'd know in real life. Roark's Frank Lloyd Wright has been mentioned; Peter Keating is the man who produces for commercial gain and not artistic merit -- a contention people could make about today's Hollywood and the derivative movies it produces. Gail Wynand is Rupert Murdoch, who's less a right-winger than a populist; if you don't believe this, read some of the comments from the British right about Murdoch's Sky TV in the UK. One other important character I didn't mention is the manipulative Ellsworth Toohey (played by Robert Douglas, although the producers really wanted Clifton Webb and he would have fit the role like a glove). He beats Wynand by getting all his acolytes put into the important positions at Wynand's newspapers, and getting them to strike when Wynand actually develops a conscience, which believe something different from what Toohey believes. The Tooheys of the world have spent the last several decades filling the important positions in America's newsrooms and college campuses (the so-called "Long March Through the Institutions"). One other thing that makes the book so pleasurable, but which didn't make it into the movie, is a blistering critique of "modern art", which even back in the 1940s seemed to be less about how artistic the work was, and more about whether it made the right political points. The artists and critics of the 1940s were apparently just as full of themselves as those of today.

There's one more irony about The Fountainhead: Ayn Rand wrote about a man who was desperate to keep his artistic freedom and integrity -- and indeed, had that same determination herself when she went to Hollywood. Normally, that's considered praiseworthy in a Hollywood type; look at how Orson Welles is lionised; how Citizen Kane wrongly damaged Marion Davies' cinematic reputation for decades; and how it's taken as an article of faith that Welles' bloated The Magnificent Ambersons would have been brilliant if only it hadn't been "mangled" by those wicked studio editors.

Thankfully, The Fountainhead is listed as being available on DVD. (Heroes for Sale, which I referenced in this post, isn't.) If you can get past the idea of the lousy screenplay, and the archetypal characters, give it a try.

From Here to Eternity

A few months ago, I posted about how I didn't understand why critics rate Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo so highly. There's a lot good to be said about Hitchcock, but the AFI, when they ranked the 100 greatest American movies last year, put Vertigo at #9, which I don't understand at all. I wouldn't put Vertigo much higher than #9 amongst Hitchcock's own movies, let alone the greatest movies of all time. I bring this up only because TCM is airing a movie that would be near the top of my list, but which was inexplicably snubbed by the AFI last year: From Here to Eternity, May 7 at 8:00 PM ET.

From Here to Eternity is famous for the iconic -- and often parodied -- scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making out on the beach, but there's so much more to it than that. Sure, Lancaster and Kerr are both excellent: he as the enlisted man who just can't bring himself to become an officer, and she as the officer's wife who's been abandonded emotionally by her husband, and decides to respond by sleeping around. Each could be the subject for a full-length post themselves. For me, though, the revelation of the movie is Montgomery Clift.

Sure, Clift is famous enough as it is. To be honest, though, I'm not that big a fan of his work. A Place in the Sun is an excellent movie, but for me, it's Shelley Winters who drives that whole movie; once her character dies, the movie really begins to bog down. Clift is serviceable in leads like The Big Lift, but also had the misfortune of being stuck in messes like Raintree County. However, it is here in From Here to Eternity that Clift shows just how good an actor he could be. Clift plays Army Pvt. Robert E. Lee Pruitt, who seems to be a bit of an aimless man who doesn't have any idea where he wants to go, or what he wants out of life. He transfers from one company to another because they made somebody else the top bugler, and refuses to box any longer after having blinded a sparring partner. Pruitt has a deep vein of anger running through him, which is unfortunately not a good thing for an enlisted man in the army to have, being expected simply to follow orders. Indeed, this vein of anger gets him into all sorts of trouble, not least because his new company commander is desperate to have him box in the regimental championships: Pruitt's refusal subjects him to all sorts of discipline.

But there's also his frienship with another kindred, put-upon soul, that of Frank Sinatra's Pvt. Maggio, who is constantly harrassed for little more than being of Italian descent. Pruitt's and Maggio's mutual loyalty eventually gets both of them into legal, and physical danger. There's also Pruitt's relationship with Lorene, who is little more than an emotional hooker at a gentleman's club: she's employed to provide frienship, but no real physical intimacy or any other form of sexual excitement. (Indeed, the lack of intimacy is highlight by the fact that Lorene isn't her real name, but one that her boss selected because it sounded more classy.) She's played by Donna Reed, definitely cast against type. She's one of the few people who comes close to understanding Pruitt's rage, but even she can't quite get it, which only seems to make Pruitt even more frustrated.

Elizabeth Taylor, who starred with Clift in the aforementioned A Place in the Sun and Raintree County, intimates in a piece that airs regularly on TCM that Clift was deeply troubled off the screen; perhaps even more so than anything we're led to believe about him from the normal biographies. One only wonders which of all his troubles Clift was drawing on at various points of the movie.

With all these outstanding performances, what is it that the critics of today don't like about From Here to Eternity?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Location, location, location

Last night, TCM showed a remarkable example of location shooting: Michael Powell's The Edge of the World.

This 1937 film tells the story of the remote Scottish island of Hirta, where life is difficult, to put it mildly. The islanders scratch out a meager living herding sheep, but the state of the island has deteriorated to the point where even that may no longer enable the islanders to survive. So, the islanders are faced with the difficult decision of whether to abandon their island lives and find a place on the mainland to live.

The Edge of the World is based on a real-life story. Several years earlier, the even more remote island of St. Kilda, off the Hebrides in western Scotland, had to be abandonded for similar reasons. Powell had read an article about the evacuation fo St. Kilda as a young man, and wanted to make a movie about it. However, by the time he had become enough of a director to get the wherewithal to make such a movie, the owner of St. Kilda had turned it into a bird sanctuary, and wouldn't allow Powell to film a movie there as it would harm the bird life.

Powell searched for a suitably remote island, and eventually found Foula, just to the soutwest of the Shetland Islands, off the northeast coast of Scotland. Not only was Foula remote; it had the advantage of still being inhabited, meaning that Powell had a ready cast of extras.

One can only imagine the difficulties of shooting on an island with no electricity, and the dangers of all those cliffs that play an important part in the plot. The result, however, is a cinematically goregous movie, even 70 years on, and in spite of the fact that Powell didn't have the resources of the Hollywood studios, whose cinematography may have made the island look even more stunning.

There's a happy postscript to the story, as well. Foula, like the Hirta it portrays and St. Kilda before it, was threatened with evacuation by the 1960s, but the locals held on, and eventually built an airstrip to make the island more accessible. A power plant for permanent electricity was also built; to this day, Foula remains inhabited. Also, in 1977, for the 40th anniversary of The Edge of the World, Michael Powell and the surviving cast members returned to Foula to make a BBC TV special about the movie they had made, and the islanders of Foula. Several of the surviving islanders, who had appeared as extras in the movie, show up in the TV special. The TV special is available as an extra on the DVD version of The Edge of the World.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Truth in advertising

Many years ago, when we were doing a lesson in elementary school on advertising, and the misleading claims advertisers make. One of my friends complained about the movie his parents had taken him to see, Chariots of Fire, on the grounds that there was almost no fire (the Olympic flame notwithstanding), and certainly no chariots! Back then, we certainly needed a lesson in metaphor. Today, however, there's a movie coming up that might even fall short in the metaphor category: The Laughing Policeman, airing at 4:00 AM ET on May 6 (that's overnight tonight).

Walter Matthau stars as San Francisco police detective Jake Martin, who's faced with the task of solving the baffling murder of a busful of passengers. Worse, it turns out that one of the passengers is his police partner, who also seems to have a bit of a shady background.

The rest of the movie turns out to fall in the police procedural category, looking more at the meticulousness of the police and less at the people who did the crime, much in the vein of The Naked City, although updated for 1970s sensibilities and a straight-up drama, as opposed to Naked City's docudrama look at police work. And that's where the misleading title comes in. The Laughing Policeman is not only in no way a comedy, Walter Matthau is exceptionally grim as the jaded police detective who not only has lost his partner, but has a seemingly unsatisfying life at home.

The rest of the movie takes its lead from Matthau. Whereas in The Naked City, we get jewel thieves and a doctor who arranges for people to be robbed while they're out at society parties, in The Laughing Policeman we get the seedy side of San Francisco; the pimps, whores, drugs culture, and peep shows, as well as exceptionally crude language, show up in abundance. In fact, that "crude language" mention should also serve as a warning to readers. Not only is this a movie unsuitable for the family; it may be offensive to some as well. One of the two detectives Matthau works most closely with is played by Bruce Dern, and is a casual bigot (so naturally, the other is black, played by a young Louis Gossett Jr.). Not only does Dern nearly get himself and Gossett set upon by an angry black mob; he's deeply derisive of San Francisco's burgeoning gay culture, refering to the man they're stalking as a "closet fruiter".

The Laughing Policeman isn't a bad movie, although its rampant use of bad language, in an era what that was just beginning to become commonplace on the silver screen thanks to the demise of the Production Code, makes it feel like it's dated itself more rapidly than The Naked City. On the other hand, it's more realistic, and, having been filmed on location, has lovely cinematography. If you're interested in any of three things: Walter Matthau, police work, or San Francisco on film, I can favorably recommend The Laughing Policeman -- but only with the caveat that you'd have to be comfortable with the strong adult themes.

IMDb lists The Laughing Policeman as being available on DVD, too.