Monday, June 30, 2008

Glenda Farrell, 1904-1971

June 30 marks the anniversary of one of my favorite B actresses of the 1930s, Glenda Farrell. Farrell was quite popular for about a decade, usually getting billed well below the stars when she was in a "prestige" movie. But her characters always brightened the screen, being bold and brassy, and just plain fun.

One of the "benefits", if you will, of not getting starring roles, is that you show up with smaller roles in a lot of movies; Farrell made some 55 appearances in the 1930s. Many of the films are excellent A-list material, such as Lady For a Day, in which she plays the nightclub owner Missouri Martin; or I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, in which she sends Paul Muni back down the river for a second stint on the chain gang; and even her first screen credit, as Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s moll in Little Caesar. Even when she only had a tiny role, as in 1942's Johnny Eager, in which she plays the wife of a cop and only appears for a brief scene or two, she still shines.

Farrell did get to star in a series of B movies, too, as the wisecracking lady reporter Torchy Blaine. The movies are, as is usually the case in the B series of the 1930s, formulaic and short, but Farrell's boldness is fun to watch; often times it seems as though she has more cojones than any of the male characters! Farrell had earlier played a similar reporter in 1933's Mystery of the Wax Museum, which is the original version of the movie Vincent Price would later star in under the title House of Wax. The original might be better, in no small part thanks to Farrell, whose reporter drives quite a bit of the action.

Farrell's next movie to show up on TV is apparently Hollywood Hotel, as part of TCM's monthlong salute to big bands every Wednesday in July; Hollywood Hotel kicks off the proceedings at 8:00 PM ET on July 2. But a number of Farrell's movies, including most of those mentioned here (the exceptions are the Torchy Blaine movies and, surprisingly, Johnny Eager), are available on DVD.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Glenn Ford's Maltese Falcon

TCM is airing Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound tomorrow, but I've recommended enough Hitchcock for a while. Instead, I'd like to talk about a movie I briefly mentioned back in May: Plunder of the Sun.

Glenn Ford stars as an insurance adjuster who gets more than he bargained for when, stranded in Havana, he accepts an offer to transport a package to Mexico in exchange for the money he needs to get out of Havana. Unfortunately, he ends up on a ship full of mysterious people, each of whom is more than just what he or she originally presents himself to Ford as being. Much as in The Maltese Falcon, one of them dies along the way, and eventually, they all get to Mexico, looking for treasure. In this case, the treasure is Mesoamerican jewels, which are hidden somewhere in the ruins of an abandoned city of one of the civilizations that had inhabited central and southern Mexico a millennium or more ago.

The movie could stand on its own as a reasonably good B movie, but unfortunately, it has obvious comparisons to The Maltese Falcon, and there, it falls well short of the mark. The characters here are not as interesting as in The Maltese Falcon, and despite being an underrated actor, Glenn Ford isn't as good at playing a hard-boiled character as Humphrey Bogart was. Worse, there's a serious plot hole in Plunder of the Sun: the ruins where the treasure is to be found are not in the jungle, but a tourist attraction. You would think that the archaeologists who had discovered the ruins and maintaing the site as a historical site would have combed over the place to the extent that they would have found any buried treasure.

The other big flaw of Plunder of the Sun is that, despite the noir elements -- the attempts at hard-boiled characters, the story being told in flashback, and the like -- it really needs to be in Technicolor. The movie was filmed in Mexico, with the climactic scenes at the ruins being filmed at actual Mesoamerican sites in Mexico. These would have been much better were they on the screen in the brilliance of Technicolor. Noir may not work so well in Technicolor, but exotic locations certainly do.

All in all, Plunder of the Sun is a reasonable way to spend an hour and a half. It's not great, but it's better than a lot of the stuff that passes for entertainment on TV nowadays. It's available on DVD, too, if you want to give it a try. If, however, you want to introduce people who aren't movie buffs to the genre, it might be better to start with the Humphrey Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

I know what you Nazis did last summer

On June 29 at 2:00 PM ET, TCM is airing what is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated movies of all time: Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious.

The story is part love story, part suspense. Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia Hubermann, the American daughter of a prominent Nazi sympathizer sentenced to a lengthy prison term for treason. She's pro-American at heart, and the intelligence officials know this, so they send their man Devlin (played by Cary Grant) to give Alicia an offer: she should go down to Rio de Janeiro with him to infiltrate a ring of Nazi expats living down there and doing something. Along the way, Devlin falls in love with Alicia -- who wouldn't? However, there's a catch for Devlin: the man Alicia is to meet, Alex Sebastian (played by Claude Rains), also falls in love with Alicia. Worse, Alex asks Alicia to marry him. As much as this pains Devlin, he realizes that it's actually a good thing in terms of their mission, as it will better enable Alicia to infiltrate the ring of Nazis. Clearly, though, Devlin is unnerved by it; watch how he treats Alicia in the pictured scene at the race track. Cary Grant is often given short shrift as an actor, on the grounds that he did a lot of light comedy, becoming almost typecast later in his career playing older romantic gentlemen. In Notorious, however, Grant gives one of his finest performances, showing just how good an actor he really was.

As for the suspense in Notorious, the "Macguffin" is that the Nazis are looking in Brazil for uranium sands, presumably with the intention of building an atomic bomb, although the movie never makes this clear, as it doesn't need to for the sake of the story. (As Hitchcock says in a segment that plays on TCM from time to time, the audience doesn't need to care about the Macguffin; it could just as easily have been industrial diamonds as uranium-238.) Alex Sebastian is the front man for the Nazis; it's in his palatial estate that the research is going on. Little does he know, of course, that his wife is spying on him for the Americans; he doesn't find out until after a party he and Alicia throw, planned by her with the express purpose of getting Devlin into the house to look for the Nazi secret. Here, watch for Hitchcock's execution of suspense: the uranium sands are being kept in certain wine bottles in the wine cellar. First, Alicia has to get into the cellar; the key to it is kept separately from the other keys in the house, and Hitchock expertly focuses on that key. Then, there's the problem that Alicia and Devlin might get caught in the wine cellar. Hitchcock builds the tension by showing an ice bucket filled with champagne bottles, and repeatedly returns to it, each time with fewer and fewer bottles left. Of course, Alicia and Devlin eventually do find the uranium sands, while Alex discovers that Alicia is an American agent. Claude Rains is outstanding in Notorious, perhaps even better that Cary Grant. Pay attention to the scene in which Alex tells his mother that he's married to a spy. Rains also gets some excellent facial expressions in the final scene -- and note that it is he, and not Grant or Bergman, who gets the finale.

Alex and his mother (a delightful study in evil played by an actress credited not with her given name, but as "Madame Konstantin") decide to poison Alicia by poisoning her coffee, leading, they hope, to a slow death that will creep up on Alicia before she can suspect anything -- just as she crept up on them. Eventually, Devlin realizes something is wrong when Alicia stops showing up for her contacts with him, and decides to force matters by seeing Alicia at her house to see just what is the matter with her. Will Devlin be able to save Alicia? Or will Alex be able to stop him? The climax is carried out on the grand staircase of the Sebastian house, and has just as much suspense as the party scene earlier in the movie. For a bit of trivia, though, pay attention to the staircase in the final scene. There's far too much action going on in that climax for it all to have taken place during the time it would take to walk down the staircase, so Hitchcock had to film the actors multiple times, with the background wall repeating for a couple of shots before they head further down the staircase. If you count the number of stairs any time one of the actors goes up the staircase during the course of the film, and then count how many steps they take on the way down, you'll notice a big difference.

Notorious is, as I have said, one of Hitchcock's most underrated movies, if not one of the more underrated movies of all time. For whatever reason, it doesn't show up on lists like the AFI's lists of the 100 greatest movies, despite the fact that it's much better than, say, Vertigo. It also didn't get the attention it deserved from the Academy come Oscar time. It only picked up two nominations; one for Rains, who richly deserved a Supporting Actor Oscar for his work but had the great bad luck to be up against Harold Russell in The Best Years Of Our Lives. Ben Hecht was nominated for his screenplay, but lost to The Seventh Veil. Even more sadly, Notorious is not readily available on DVD. It was released several years ago, but is out of print, and fetches a high price. Considering the director and the star power, Notorious would make an exceptionally good candidate for a new DVD release.

Friday, June 27, 2008

I Love Lucy: The Movie

Our next movie is a comedy that's suitable for the whole family: The Long, Long Trailer.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had both made movies in the 1940s; Ball had more success than Arnaz, but even she never reached the true heights of movie stardom. It was only with the advent of their TV show I Love Lucy that the two became the couple, and once the TV show became a hit, it was natural that Hollywood's movie studios would once again come calling. The movie they made together was The Long, Long, Trailer, and it plays out much like an extended episode of I Love Lucy, only in Technicolor.

The two once again play a married couple, this time newlyweds. He's got a job that requires him to travel a lot, and she convinces him that a good way to keep expenses down, and enable the two of them to spend more time together, would be to buy a trailer, which they would drive around from place to place depending upon where he was working. Of course, this being the movie equivalent of Lucy Ricardo (the characters aren't named Lucy and Ricky, but Tacy and Nicky; some originality), you know that the result is going to be a disaster.

Indeed, Tacy and Nicky go through a series of mishaps that are painful for them, but hilarious for us: trying to back up the trailer, getting it stuck in the mud, trying to cook in a confined space, and on and on, with the climax being an attempt to navigate the trailer over a narrow mountain pass. The funniest, however, may be the sort of verbal comedy that Lucy Ricardo's mile-a-minute mouth gave us on TV. In one scene, Tacy tells Nicky, "Turn right here", which he promptly does, getting lost. It turns out that Nicky was too quick, not listening to all of what Tacy was going to tell him. It turns out that what she really intended was "Turn right here: left." You figure out what she meant. Ricky Ricardo never could.

The comedy is nothing groundbreaking, but it's more than pleasant enough. It's not exactly sophisticated, either, but that means you can watch it with the kids, especially because it's perfectly clean. In that regard, it's much like Yours, Mine, and Ours. Lucy and Desi made three movies together; the three have been released together as a DVD box set. However, The Long, Long Trailer is also available to be purchased individually, if you're either on a budget or have one of the other two movies already.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Lost Weekend is now a screwball comedy

The movie that made me think of combining a classic like The Lost Weekend with the best of screwball comedy is airing overnight tonight, at 12:30 AM ET on Encore Love Stories: Less Than Zero. I laughed my way through the movie, but it's unfortunately that the producers were actually trying to make a serious "message" movie.

Less Than Zero tells the story of a group of vapid, idle rich teens in Beverly Hills (zip code not mentioned here) who, after graduating from high school spend their days in lovely beach houses and their nights partying and snorting coke in the presence of copious quantities of neon. One of the clique, however, a young man named Clay (played by Andrew McCarthy), has sworn off all of this in order to go to college out east. He returns home for Christmas to find that his girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) is a casual snorter, while the third member of their little group, Julian, played by Robert Downey Jr., has a full-blown addiction. (One wonders how much acting Downey had to do, or whether this is just one of the dangers of "method" acting.)

Julian doesn't just have the physical addiction; cocain has screwed up his personal life, getting him thrown out of his house by his father, and caused him to run up a giant tab to his pusher (James Spader). Clay, in between sessions of making love to Blair, and driving around his high-priced sports car, decides that he cares too much about his friend to engage in "tough love", instead taking a more active part in helping him quit cold turkey -- ladies, have fun watching a naked Robert Downey going through withdrawal. Unfortunately for Julian, he's still got that pesky little debt, and his pusher wants that money, to the point of using Julian as a male prostitute. There's one particularly humorous scene where Clay walks in on poor Julian and has no clue of the humiliation poor Julian is going through.

It should go without saying that Less Than Zero does not measure up to the standard that Billy Wilder had set with the courageous The Lost Weekend 40 years earlier. While The Lost Weekend has a very ambiguous ending, Less Than Zero wraps everything up with a tidy little bow that allows it to make its anti-drug message. The styles make me wonder if the 80s were really as bad as is portrayed. I know that there's a lot of revision surrounding the 80s because it was the Reagan era and the cultural establishment (both high- and pop-culture) couldn't stand Reagan, but I don't remember the 80s being that bad. But the biggest flaw in the movie is that it's just so difficult to take seriously. I couldn't help but laugh at the Bette Davis style hamming from Jami Gertz, all the casual sex, and especially the homosexual prostitution. In that regard, Less Than Zero can be compared to Reefer Madness as movies that tried to be anti-drug but are so far of the mark that looking back on them, they're just funny. At least with Reefer Madness, though, you can give the filmmakers a pass for having a budget that would even have made Edgar G. Ulmer blanch. Less Than Zero was backed by a real studio, and was based on what is generally considered to be a much harder-hitting book. (I should point out that I haven't read the book.) However, if you want a good laugh, you could do worse than Less Than Zero.

One final point of trivia: two of the three leads -- Gertz and Downey -- were actually relatively young for Hollywood's portrayal of teens. They were only 22 at the time the movie was released; McCarthy was older, but still a relatively young 25.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cyd Charisse tribute

Head shot of Jack Carson,

I've been remiss in mentioning it, but TCM's tribute to the late Cyd Charisse will be airing in prime time on Friday, June 27:

Singin' In the Rain at 8:00 PM ET;
The Band Wagon at 10:00 PM; and
Silk Stockings at midnight.

Singin' In the Rain is the obvious choice to highlight, and I'm surprised I haven't mentioned it before. Gene Kelly stars as Don Lockwood, a silent movie star who's paired on-screen with Lina Lamont, who's played by Jean Hagen. Lina thinks Don is in love with her, and the studio PR and celebrity magazines cultivate this myth as well, but in reality Don doesn't care for Lina that much. Help comes literally from the air: while trying to get away from screaming fans after the premiere of his latest movie, Don jumps into the car of one Kathy Selden (played by a 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds), who feigns disdain for the movies, but is in reality obsessed with them. The two quickly fall in love, although Lina sees a threat in Kathy.

All of this is complicated by the fact that Warner Brothers come along an synchronize talking and the picutres with The Jazz Singer, forcing all the other studios to scramble to do the same. Worse, it turns out that Lina's got a terrible voice, which will ruin the latest Lockwood and Lamont movie if her voice is heard. Naturally, the idea is hit upon to have Kathy dub Lina's voice -- but they have to do it without Lina's knowledge.

Singin' In the Rain is one of, if not the, greatest musicals of all time. Interestingly, though, none of the music is original. Longtime MGM producer Arthur Freed had started out as a lyricist, and wanted to create a movie using many of the songs in the MGM library. So, he hired two people better known as songwriters themselves, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and had them come up with an idea for a story based around the old songs. In fact, none of the songs in the movie is original to the movie, with the title song, for example, having been used in the two-strip Technicolor finale of The Hollywood Revue of 1929.

However, Singin' In the Rain isn't just a musical, it's a great love story too, between Kathy Selden and Don Lockwood. Debbie Reynolds more than holds her own not just in the acting, but in the dancing too, despite the fact that she's up against one of the greats in Kelly. The movie is also a great comedy, and here, Donald O'Connor, playing Don Lockwood's friend Cosmo Brown, steals the show. O'Connor gets one of the great dance numbers in "Make 'Em Laugh". Also, watch for O'Connor's facial expressions in the elocution lesson scene leading up to the song "Moses Supposes". O'Connor is taking the speech coach down a peg, without his even realizing it, and the mugging for the camera rivals anything Joe E. Brown would have done back in the 1930s. O'Connor is also excellent when he gets the idea to have Kathy dub Lina's voice. (Speaking of Lina, although her character is portrayed as a bit of a ditzy blond, the character is really just as smart as a blond like Jean Harlow was in real life. Funny too; she gets a great line in about her salary.)

Cyd Charisse, as seen in the photo above, shows up in a fantasy sequence towards the end of the movie that really has little to do with the plot, but it gives Kelly a chance to show off his dancing skills. Charisse, too, shows that she is more than up to the task of dancing with the great Gene Kelly; the fact that she has those unbelievably long legs is a plus, too, giving her excellent lines (in a visual sense; she doesn't have one word of dialog in the movie) and making for some stunning visuals.

Singin' In the Rain is one of the great movies of the Hollywood studio era, and is not to be missed.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

St. Jean Baptiste

June 24 is celebrated in many branches of Christianity, especially amongst Catholics, as the feast day of St. John the Baptist. We could start out with the original, St. John the Baptist himself, as played by Charlton Heston in George Stevens' 73-hour (give or take a few minutes) epic telling of the life of Jesus, The Greatest Story Ever Told. But of course, we all know what the Bible says happened to Jesus. Jesus has to get crucified at the end, just like the Titanic has to hit the iceberg and sink.

Perhaps instead of thinking about that St. John, we could think about a better-looking one like Jill St. John. I was going to recommend one of her earliest movies, the 1959 family comedy The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker. Clifton Webb stars as a bigamist in turn of the century Pennsylvania who by his two wives has fathered 19 children. (Yikes.) However, it's not available on DVD. Instead, I'll have to mention an equally glamorous (if you don't mind the 70s style) movie, Diamonds Are Forever, where she plays the punnily named Tiffany Case opposite Sean Connery's 007. This was the last of the Bond movies Connery made for "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman; Never Say Never Again was made for an entirely different company.

Apparently, Richard Harris' middle name was St. John. I've already recommended him in both Juggernaut and The Heroes of Telemark.

St. John isn't that odd of a middle name, at least in England. Indeed, Charlotte Brontë uses the name St. John for the first name of Jane Eyre's cousin in the novel of the same title. You can't go wrong with Orson Welles' 1944 movie version of the novel.

But if you want more St. Johns than that, you can always try Adela Rogers St. Johns, who wrote the book, and later the movie screenplay, for A Free Soul.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The quicker picker-upper

Last night's selection for TCM's Essentials Jr. was the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty. Why anybody would want to mutiny over paper towels is beyond me, but then, the HMS Bounty existed long before the paper towels. The paper towels of the same name, however, do have a connection to classic film.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Bounty ran an advertising campaign centered on the fictional waitress Rosie, played by Nancy Walker. Today, Walker is best known for her TV appearances, not only as the aforementioned Rosie, but also as Ida Morgenstern on the sitcom Rhoda. Walker had started her career in the movies, though, and one of her first movie roles was in the 1943 MGM musical comedy Girl Crazy.

Walker plays second fiddle to Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, but does a find job. Rooney and Garland were extremely popular at the time, and Girl Crazy fills the prescription for what audiences wanted to see when they went to see a musical starring those two: a light boy-meets-girl story in which it takes the girl a while to warm to the boy, but they eventually live happily ever after; throw in a bunch of song standards and more elaborate production numbers for good measure. Specifically, Rooney plays a New York playboy who's living a bit too high of a life for his father's liking (including getting mixed up with a young June Allyson). So, his father sends him off to a mining college out west. It's an all-male school, but the dean (Guy Kibbee) has a granddaughter (Judy Garland). However, enrollment is declining, probably because nobody really wants to go to an all-male school in the middle of nowhere. Along the way to falling in love, our two heroes devise a scheme to save the college from losing its charter.

Where does Nancy Walker fit in to all of this? She plays Judy Garland's cousin. Her character realizes that, even at the tender age of 21, she's nowhere near as glamorous as the Garland character, and compensates for this be being a wise-cracking sidekick. It's not a big role, but Walker shines in it, being a joy to watch in every scene. Rooney and Garland are fine, as is Kibbee. Finally, the musical numbers, by George Gershwin, are up to his usual standard, including such songs still remembered today as "I Got Rhythm" and "Embraceable You".

Rooney and Garland, being a popular screen couple whose names are still famous today, were natural candidates for a DVD box set, and so it is to be expected that Girl Crazy is available for your home viewing enjoyment. Even if you don't care that much for musicals, it's still a pleasant enough movie.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

An homage to the 1920s

In general, I prefer older movies, but there are some that are evocative of an older time, and just as good. One such movie is Man of the Century, airing on the Independent Film Channel on June 23 at 11:35 AM and 5:20 PM.

Gibson Frazier stars as Johnny Twennies, a newspaperman at a struggling New York City newspaper. As the name implies, Johnny is straight out of the 1920s, which wouldn't be a problem if it weren't for the fact that the movie is set in the Manhattan of the late 1990s. That, however, is no matter to our hero. He goes blithely through life with all the aplomb of a Harold Lloyd, having no idea whatsoever that he's a fish out of water and that everybody thinks he a bit odd. This is naturally the source of much of the movie's humor. When, for example, Johnny's long-suffering girlfriend asks him if he's gay, he replies, "I'm as gay as a day in May!" The idea that "gay" might mean "homosexual" clearly never crosses Johnny's mind -- nor does the idea that anybody would even be homosexual: Johnny's colleague is clearly openly gay, but Johnny has absolutely no clue about it.

The plot, such as it is, is simple: Boy meets Girl. Girl falls in love with Boy. Boy has to foil a criminal plot, but in the end does so and gets Girl. The story, despite its simplicity, is one that would fit in well with classic newspaper movies of the 1930s like Libeled Lady. The story is also executed well, with all the vintage touches, from the black-and-white cinematography, to an opening scene that would fit in in a silent movie, to the madcap finale that would not be out of place in a screwball comedy. The acting is just fine, from Frazier's channeling of Harold Lloyd, to the girlfriend reminiscent of a more dramatic equivalent of Jean Harlow's character from Libeled Lady, and to the gangsters who are suitably evil, but also suitably 90s; they too don't get Johnny. The one thing that's not vintage is the language; there is enough bad language (and one obviously sexual scene apart from the references to homosexuality) that you wouldn't want to show this to the kids.

If you enjoy the old movies, I think you'll find Man of the Century to be a delightful homage to those classics. If you're not yet a fan of the vintage movies, you might find Man of the Century a bit tough to take, and might be better served watching the classics like Libeled Lady and His Girl Friday first.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Euro 2008 and the movies

I'm a bit of a soccer fan, and in watching some of the matches at the current European soccer championships, I got to thinking about how one of the countries on the field has been the setting for a lot of Hollywood movies, while the other has shown up very rarely. To be honest, there are some countries that are fairly obvious locations for movies. Germany, for example, is where a lot of the World War II movies are going to be set. Since the allies invaded both through Italy and France, other World War II movies from Hollywood studios are going to be set there, while we shouldn't expect many involving the eastern front. (I briefly mentioned To Be or Not To Be; one other that I can think of is Hangmen Also Die, about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the governor of the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.)

Glamour is also another good reason for a place to be a locale in a Hollywood movie. Paris would generally be considered much more chic than any city in Germany, and so there are a lot of movies set in contemporary Paris: this goes back at least as early as 1934's Wonder Bar, continues through Ninotchka before the war, and continues with post-war movies like Sabrina and Paris -- When It Sizzles. For some reason, I can't imagine Berlin -- When It Sizzles. By the same token, Audrey Hepburn went on a Roman Holiday; I can't imagine her princess meeting a bunch of diplomats and going on a Bonn Holiday.

There's also the issue of immigration. Of course, the United States was founded by immigrants from Britain; not just the English, but a lot of Scots, as well. The tie with the "mother country", along with the fact that we share a common language, and the substantial number of British-born actors in Hollywood, made it natural that England would be a setting for many Hollywood movies. I believe the same is the reason why we also have Ireland-set movies like The Quiet Man.

Indeed, what got me to thinking about this was the fact that there are so few movies set in either Spain or Portugal. Sure, there are a few historical movies like El Cid and El Greco that are set in Spain. One of the few references to contemporary Spain I can think of is that May Robson's daughter is about to marry a Spaniard in Lady for a Day. As for Portugal? Well, everybody in Casablanca wants exit visa to neutral Lisbon. And there are Portuguese-American fisherman in Tiger Shark (played by Edward G. Robinson) and Captains Courageous (Spencer Tracy in an Oscar-winning role). But anything set in Portugal? I don't believe so. I'd guess it's because Spanish and Portuguese emigrants had places in Latin America to go to.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Elizabeth and Essex

June 20 being the anniversary of the birth of Errol Flynn, TCM showed a couple of his lesser-remembered movies today. One that's too well-known to fit that bill is The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

Flynn stars as the male title role, that of the Duke of Essex, one of the many courtiers of Queen Elizabeth I of England, played by Bette Davis. The movie is a love story, about the tempestuous, and ultimately tragic, love affair that Elizabeth, the "Virgin Queen", carried on with Essex. Her Majesty, or at least as she appears in this Hollywood portrayal of her, believed that her first duty was to England, and not to any one man. As a result, a lot of man got close to her, but the minute they got too close, they became a threat and had to be done away with for the good of England. (The same ultimately happened to Sir Walter Raleigh as well.)

Davis is quite good as the Queen, and her scenery-chewing acting style fits well with playing a character who is, after all, an autocrat. She's clearly got emotional "issues", as we'd say today, but then, she really did have a chaotic upbringing. In real life, her mother (Anne Boleyn, the second wife of her father, Henry VIII) was executed when Elizabeth was just two and a half years old; there was a succession battle over who should succeed Henry, involving three of his children; and Elizabeth was eventually jailed for some time thanks to the Catholic versus Protestant split that her father had started. England was unstable when she first came to the throne, and her monarchy brought stability to England.

Flynn is effective, too; it's obvious from even just a few scenes why the ladies loved him and he was such a screen idol in the late 1930s. The camera, and the Technicolor, flatter him; Flynn may never have looked better on screen than he did in Elizabeth and Essex. Of course, it's not just the ladies of the 1930s who would have loved him; the ladies of the 16th century would have found Flynn irresistible, including Her Majesty. On the other hand, it would also be very easy to see why other men would be jealous of Essex.

Those other men are part of the wonderful studio system, in which there were always character actors around, and new up-and-coming actors to play the younger parts. As evidence, we get Donald Crisp playing Francis Bacon, Leo G. Carroll as one of the older lords, and as Sir Walter Raleigh, a young Vincent Price. The ladies-in-waiting involve some of the younger Hollywood women, as Olivia de Havilland is Lady Gray, and an 18-year-old Nanette Fabray shows up, too.

The cast is excellent; the Technicolor is gorgeous -- it doesn't only make Flynn look good; Erich Korngold wrote an appropriate period score; and Michael Curtiz keeps the proceedings running smoothly. (Curtiz himself would be a good subject for an extended post, as his œuvre includes period pieces like this; dramas like Casablanca; westerns like Dodge City, and even a gangster movie like Angels With Dirty Faces.) With star power like this, it's no wonder the movie is available on DVD.

One interesting note of trivia: legend has it that the title came about as a result of the studio system. The movie is based on Maxwell Anderson's play "Elizabeth the Queen", a title not suited to somebody like Errol Flynn who was used to getting top billing. Of course, the studio execs couldn't expect Bette Davis to take second billing, either. So apparently the compromise was made to have both stars' characters included in the title.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Towards the beginning of The Trouble With Harry, Mildred Natwick's character invites Edmund Gwenn's to her apartment for muffins, coffee, and elderberry wine. When I heard her mention elderberry wine, my immediate thought was to check whether she had been in Arsenic and Old Lace. Sadly, she hadn't; Josephine Hull and Jean Adair played the aunts in both the movie and stage versions. However, it immediately got me to thinking about in-jokes in movies.

The thinking led me to a scene from Go For Broke!, a film about the all-Japanese regiment which served in Europe during World War II, and which TCM showed this past Tuesday as part of its look at Asian images in film. In one of the scenes, the soldiers are stuck in the open back of a truck being driven to their next bivouac, with the rain pouring down on them. One of the soldiers sardonically says, "And so, we leave sunny Italy...."

It's clear from the tone of his voice that the character was meant to be channeling James A. Fitzpatrick's Traveltalks shorts. Fitzpatrick was a documentary filmmaker working for MGM who made a series of one-reelers documenting various locations all over the world. (At least, all over the world apart from the several years of World War II, when he was limited to the Americas for obvious reasons.) From the mid-1930s on, he worked in Technicolor, which must have been a real treat for the audiences, bringing them relatively authentic locations in color.

"Relatively" is the key word here. Although London is actually London, and not the MGM back lot, Fitzpatrick's style was to romanticize the places he visited, treating impoverished third worlders as just poor benighted souls who had nice costumes and some dances for us. The delivery is bombastic too; Fitzpatrick's stentorian voice and formulaic delivery was ripe for parody. However, many of the shorts are worthwhile documents of things and places that aren't there anymore, such as one looking at bombed-out London shortly after the end of World War II, or many of the shorts looking at places in America.

Only a few of them are on DVD, appearing as extra features on various DVDs. For the most part, if you want to see them, you'll have to watch carefully for the schedule of shorts airing on TCM. As far as I can tell, the next Traveltalks short shows up on Saturday, June 21: Egypt Speaks, airing at about 7:20 AM ET just before Caesar and Cleopatra.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The limitations of early widescreen

One of the interesting features of the movie I recommended yesterday, Bad Day at Black Rock, is the relative lack of close-up shots. As I understand it, there are a couple of reasons for this. First is that when a new technology came to Hollywood, the movie makers recognized that it would change the way films were made, but they weren't quite certain how it would do so. Consider the experimentation that took place when synchronized sound first came to the movies. In the case of widescreen, one can imagine directors thinking that if they have the technology capable to get wide vistas, why waste it on close-up shots? Also, there was a fear that the new wide-screen lenses would cause more of a deformation on extreme close-ups than the lenses used in the traditional aspect ratio. Consider the deformation caused by the fisheye lens, a more extreme example of wide-angle photography. Also, if you look carefully at some of the prints of an ultra-widescreen movie like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, you can spot what look like "seams" where objects on the side of the image would have been in a different focus than objects in the center.

These limitations can be seen in starker contrast in one of the earliest wide-screen movies: 1930's The Big Trail. The date is not a misprint. Although Cinemascope dates to 1953 and Fox's How to Marry a Millionaire, Cinemascope wasn't the first attempt at making movies with wider images. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Fox used an experimental process called Grandeur to film a few of its movies on 70mm film, with The Big Trail being one of the only survivors. The process was a commercial failure, though, for a couple of reasons. One is that moviegoers, being fascinated with the new technology of putting talking on movies, weren't automatically going to be interested in another experiment in technology. By the same token, Technicolor suffered financially after the introduction of sound. Secondly, and more important, there was a big cost barrier. Movie theaters had just spent a lot of money to convert to being able to show talkies; they didn't want to spend more just to be able to show a movie with a wide image. Also, with the Great Depression having started, the money for such a conversion wasn't really available. So, although Fox made The Big Trail in a 70mm format, the Grandeur print only showed in a few select locations, with most theaters getting a 35mm version.

Grandeur, like early Cinemascope, also had the technical problem that led to a lack of close-ups. That aside, however, The Big Trail more than just a technical curiosity. First, it's noteable in that it's the first starring role for one John Wayne. (Unfortunately for him, the financial failure of the film led to his having to struggle on Poverty Row for the rest of the 1930s, until John Ford rescued him with Stagecoach.) Also, the story is visually very interesting, if a very basic one. Wayne plays Breck Coleman, a man who leads a caravan of covered wagons bringing pioneers out west to settle what would eventually be Californa. There's also a silly love story attached, involving actress Marguerite Churchill, and a feud between Wayne and Tyrone Power, Sr. (That's the father of the Power we remember from movies like Witness for the Prosecution.) For comic relief, there's El Brendel, playing a Swedish immigrant.

However, the movie shouldn't be seen just for the cast; the movie is visually stunning despite its lack of closeups. Although pioneer days are romanticized nowadays, the trek west must have been an arduous task, and The Big Trail does a good job of portraying arduousness. (For a contrast, watch the opening of the 1931 version of Cimarron, with the Oklahoma land rush.) Of special note is a sequence in which the pioneers come to a bluff, and have to get down it. Sure, gravity would work, except that it would kill them all. They have to get down safely, and it's not just the pioneers; it's their wagons and their livestock.

The Big Trail has been released to DVD in at least two editions. There's an older DVD with the 35mm print; earlier this year, the widescreen version was released to DVD. So if you want to see it, be careful to watch for which version of the DVD you get.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cyd Charisse, 1922-2008

Charisse dancing with Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain

The death has been announced of actress and dancer Cyd Charisse. She was 86. Charisse's Hollywood dancing career started in the early 1940s playing smaller roles, but it must have been clear to the executives at MGM just how much talent she had, as she got bigger parts, eventually dancing what to me is her most memorable role, that of the woman in the fantasy sequence "Gotta Dance" who seduces Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain.

TCM have not yet announced any schedule changes to honor Charisse, as far as I am aware.

Bad Day at Black Rock

TCM's look at Asian images on film, every Tuesday and Thursday in June in prime time, has up to this point been quite interesting. I hadn't seen any of the Sessue Hayakawa silents, or the Anna May Wong silents; seeing Wong in Technicolor was fascinating, and one of these days I'll get around to blogging about Piccadilly as well. Tonight brings another interesting selection: a movie that examines (white) America's views of Japanese-Americans without actually having any Japanese-American characters: Bad Day at Black Rock, airing at 9:45 PM ET.

The movie starts with John Macreedy (played by Spencer Tracy) getting off a train at a whistle-stop, the small, western desert town of Black Rock. From the very beginning, we see that it's a bleak place, with the wide-open vista of the background serving almost as a metaphor for the emptiness of the town. This is helped by the fact that it was one of MGM's earliest movies in the then-new widescreen Cinemascope. Macreedy, a one-armed World War II veteran (the movie is set in 1945), stops at the town's hotel, asking for a room and for directions to the farm of a particular Japanese-American farmer. Macreedy is coy about why he's here, and why he wants to see the farmer, but the townsfolk are equally coy about where -- if anywhere -- the farmer is.

From this, we can assume that there is a secret behind this Japanese man's non-presence. Not only that, but the presumption is that it's a dark secret, and one the whole town knows. Slowly, we're let in on these facts, as we learn about the town's dynamic and what is to them Macreedy's baleful presence. The leader, if you will, of the town is Reno Smith (played by Robert Ryan), sending out his minions: played by Ernest Borgnine who had already done a good job as a baddie when he played Judson, the sadistic stockade master, in From Here to Eternity; and Lee Marvin, who is as good here playing a more understated evil as he was displaying manic evil in The Big Heat. There are also those in the town who, as in High Noon, know that there's evil, but are either unable or unwilling to confront it directly; these include the sheriff, played by Dean Jagger, and town doctor Walter Brennan.

It's a bit tough to write a complete review of Bad Day at Black Rock without giving away serious plot points. However, Tracy is excellent playing what is essentially an archetypal character trying to do the right thing. He's clearly good -- and the movie makes it obvious that we aren't to have any other thoughts about him -- but at no time is Tracy ever preachy about it. Ryan, Marvin, and Borgnine do good jobs in their portrayal of evil, although being part of a basic good-versus-evil plot, they do eventually come a bit too close to the cardboard cutout stereotype of evil. Those caught more or less in the middle are quite good as well; one name I haven't mentioned yet is Anne Francis. The other good "character", if you will, is the setting; director John Sturges uses the open desert and the Cinemascope effectively in making the small town of Black Rock appear to be almost a world unto itself.

Bad Day at Black Rock is available on DVD as well, in case you should miss tonight's showing on TCM.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Fun with satellite box guides

Yesterday, as part of TCM's Fathers' Day salute, they showed the appropriate movie Life Begins for Andy Hardy. However, when I turned on the TV just before the end of the movie to watch the next movie, I noticed that the satellite box guide claimed the 1932 movie Life Begins was on. I knew this wasn't the case, since I would have recommended Life Begins if it were airing. (Sadly, it's not available on DVD.)

It's not the first time that the box guide has mentioned the wrong movie. The easiest mistake would be when there is more than one movie with the same title. Remakes are common: the Fox Movie Channel recently showed the 1950s Betty Grable musical The Farmer Takes a Wife, while the box guide suggested the 1935 original, with Henry Fonda was going to air. There are also some titles that are the names of two completely different movies. I've made brief mention of the John Wayne movie Island In the Sky, but fifteen years earlier, Fox released a completely different, unrelated movie with the same title. Then, there's that new horror movie that FMC keep plugging, The Happening. Oh, did I reference the wrong movie?

Rarer, but probably more fun, are the errors with movies that have similar, but not alike, titles. Back on Martin Luther King Day, TCM showed Harry Belafonte's The World, The Flesh, and the Devil. The box guide, however, claimed TCM would be showing Flesh and the Devil, a completely different movie; a silent starring Greta Garbo. Oops.

Perhaps even more fun would be to try to imagine a composite of two similarly titled movies having different plots. Imagine the elegant, gentlemanly Fred Astaire dancing with a fallen Norma Shearer when you mix up The Divorcee with The Gay Divorcee. Sophia Loren's Italian World War II refugee would put the aformentioned Shearer and a bunch of other petty things to shame, if you mixed up Two Women with The Women. And perhaps Mrs. Danvers was so screwed up because she spent time with Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm before spending it with Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca. Spending time with the young Shirley Temple would drive me up a wall.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Number Seventeen

TCM is airing one of Alfred Hitchcock's lesser-known movies at 10:30 AM ET on June 16: Number Seventeen.

Made in 1932, Number Seventeen refers to a street address. The house there is empty, and when Hitchcock first takes us in the house, we are greeted by a dead body. This, of course, leads to the police being invited in, and eventually we learn that the empty house is being used by a gang of thieves who are apparently involved in a jewel heist. The only thing is, nobody using the house is quite who he or she seems to be -- including the dead body, which turns out not to be a dead body. The plot eventually revolves around the criminals trying to get away by taking the train to Dover, where they'll catch the ferry across the English Channel; the police have to chase them in a bus.

Number Seventeen is a fairly uneven movie. Part of this is because Alfred Hitchcock had not yet hit his stride, and had not fully fleshed out what was to become the Hitchcock style. He had done some suspense movies, such as the recently-recommended Blackmail, and Murder! (which will immediately precede Number Seventeen at 8:45 AM ET), but had also done some straight up drama that is generally good only for those who are real fans of Hitchcock (see Juno and the Paycock). What we now know as the "Hitchcock style" didn't really come into its own until 1935's The 39 Steps. However, there is some suspense, some twists and turns, and some dark humor in Number Seventeen.

The dialogue is also difficult to follow. The film, being set in 1932 London, stars a bunch of British actors who use what are probably authentic accents -- not only to Britain, but to what would be the various social classes of the characaters. British audiences of the day probably wouldn't have had a provlem, but accents have changed quite a bit in 75 years. Not only do the speeches of Franklin Roosevelt sound old-fashioned, but British English has also changed quite a bit.

Another problem is with the special effects. The chase scene between the train and bus is relatively exciting, but back in 1932, the technology didn't really allow for as much as Hitchcock would have wanted to do. There's one scene in which the bus goes over a bump in the road, and the reaction of the passengers reminded me on first viewing of the scene in Leslie Nielsen's Airplane in which the passengers are told to brace for impact -- and the scene cuts to the passengers contorted in every way but the standard bracing for impact.

On the whole, however, Number Seventeen is worth a look, and not just for Hitchcock fans.. It only runs a brief 65 minutes, so the action is nonstop. (The drawback to the 65-minute running time is that there isn't really enough time to flesh out all the characters. The movie really needs to be remade as about a 90-minute movie.) It also holds up as well as any of the shorter Hollywood movies of the period. If you miss it on TCM tomorrow, it's also available on DVD.

Pater noster, qui es in caelis

This being Fathers' Day, we could look at a movie with one of the more interesting father/son relationships: The Omen. It's a fun, if not particularly good or realistic, movie about an American ambassador (played by Gregory Peck), who discovers that his son Damien is not actually his, but was switched at birth with the Antichrist. Despite being a family, it's really not suitable for TCM's Essentials Jr. series.

However, I wanted to point out the movie for a different reason: the paternoster. The Latin words pater noster, meaning "our father", are the first words in Latin of the Lord's Prayer, and "Our Father" might be an appropriate topic for Father's Day. However, as a conjoined word, a paternoster is a piece of technology that has more or less been supplanted by the elevator. A paternoster worked more or less like a vertical chair lift in that it was constantly moving, and had several compartments, unlike an elevator, which only has the one cab. To use a paternoster, one would wait for one of these compartments to reach the floor one was on, and then hop in, hopping back out when it reached the floor one wanted to go to. Since it never stops moving, it's not really suitable for the wheelchair-bound, which is one of the reasons why it's fallen out of favor and been supplanted by the elevator. But if you watch The Omen carefully, there's a scene in which Peck is visiting the hospital where his son was born. While talking to one of the nuns, you can see a working paternoster in the background.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Flag Day

I wanted to recommend the obviously-titled The Flag on Flag Day. Francis X. Bushman stars in this 1927 silent two-reeler as George Washington in a fanciful telling of the story of how Betsy Ross came to create the first American flag during the Revolutionary War. It's interesting not only because it's got Bushman as George Washington, but because it's also in two-strip Technicolor. The color is actually pretty good, too, with Technicolor getting the blue of the American flag about as close as I've ever seen in two-strip. Sadly, though, it doesn't seem to be available on DVD.

Instead, another good Flag Day movie would be Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which James Cagney plays songwriter George M. Cohan, known for writing popular, and patriotic, music. Cagney is wonderful, and rightly earned his Oscar as Best Actor. Unfortunately, this movie is in black and white, and with the amount of musical numbers in it, it really cries for the Technicolor treatment. However, it's available on DVD, and is family-friendly, if a bit sappy.

Poodles Hanneford

June 14 marks the birthday of Poodles Hanneford. Hanneford was a vaudeville-era circus clown who was best known for his horseback tricks. Hanneford made a few silents, and has uncredited roles doing his horse tricks in a number of movies.

However, Hanneford has an interesting place in movie trivia: In the movie All About Eve, about 20 minutes in, Gary Merrill is giving Anne Baxter a speech about how there will always be a theater and people wanting to act on the stage. Merrill starts off his speech by mentioning Poodles Hanneford. Why? Beats me. And I can't help but wonder if audiences of the day knew who Hanneford was. True, he had appeared in The Red Pony the year before in an uncredited part. Also, he hadn't yet retired from performing. But really, how many clowns are known by name?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Bad Luck

This being a) Friday the 13th; and b) Father's Day Weekend; I'm not particularly in the mood to do too much real "work" on the blog. So I'll start off the weekend with a cheap list post.

Black cats are bad luck, and you could do much worse than to watch the 1934 version of The Black Cat. It's directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, one of the few times he had something resembling a budget to work with, and stars two of the greats of horror movies, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. The thing to watch for in this movie is the sets. Although the movie is set in Hungary, the Hungarian count whose castle is the putative setting for the movie is decked out in ridiculous art deco.

A bigger black cat appears in Val Lewton's Cat People; that's the wonderfully-named Simone Simon getting turned into a cat and menacing not only husband Kent Smith, but the "other woman" in their relationship.

Ladders tend to be more a source of comedy than superstition in the movies. Bad luck happens to people simply because they're on the ladder, not because they've walked under it. Laurel and Hardy have more than enough problems with a ladder in The Music Box, while the entire cast of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World get thrown off a fire engine ladder.

There are also more dramatic ladders, if you will; Orson Welles tries to sabotage a ladder in order to kill wife Loretta Young in The Stranger.

And of course, you'll supposedly get seven years bad luck if you break a mirror. Bette Davis breaks her mirror when she plays Queen Elizabeth in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex; she's peeved over the state of her relationship with Errol Flynn's Essex.

Flynn has a more interesting appearance in a movie with a broken mirror: The Case of the Curious Bride. It's a Perry Mason murder mystery in which the murder victim is killed by a poker that also breaks a mirror while the assailant is swinging at the victim. What's interesting is that it's Flynn himself playing the murder victim, very early on in his career; we only see him acting for a few minutes near the end of the movie when Perry is explaining the murder.

With the exception of The Case of the Curious Bride, all of the movies here are listed at IMDb as being available on DVD. Warner Brothers made six Perry Mason movies in the mid-1930s; they would make a nice box set.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Another history lesson

Historical drama is a popular genre for Hollywood movies, but a lot of these movies are less history and more drama. (To be fair, the same could probably be said for historical dramas from other countries as well.) A movie coming up on TV soon which gets some of the lesser-known (to Americans) aspects of history right is the Czech World War II drama Dark Blue World, airing Friday, June 13, at 6:50 AM ET, with a repeat at 12:15 PM.

Dark Blue World tells the story of two Czech pilots. Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Nazis in March, 1939, with the Nazis turning the Czech part into a protectorate, and the Slovak part into a puppet state. The members of the Czechoslovak Air Force, obviously not wanting to work for what they perceived as an enemy government, fled, with many of them ending up in Britain. (By the same token, pilots from occupied Poland also ended up in the UK, as is shown in the not very realistic comedy To Be or Not To Be.) Many of these Czechoslovak pilots fought alongside the RAF against the Nazis in the Battle of Britain, and continued flying for the duration of the war. Unfortunately, for them, however, they had to return back home after the end of the war, and events were about to take a turn for the worse for them. Soviet-backed Communists slowly began taking over the governments in Central and Eastern Europe, with the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia being completed by March 1948. These Stalinist governments believed that while the Fascists were evil, only the Communists who fought against them should be recognized. (In Communist Czechoslovakia, it was suppressed that towns in the western part of the country, such as Plzen, were actually liberated by the Americans.) Worse for the pilots themselves, they were all arrested and hauled off to the Czech equivalent of the Gulag. (One thing not mentioned in the movie, probably because it didn't necessarily happen to everybody, is that the gulag forced labor included really nasty work like working in uranium mines.) The pilots were eventually released, but remained second-class citizens until after the fall of Communism in 1989, when the elderly surviving pilots were finally honored as the heroes they were.

Dark Blue World tells much of this information fairly well, although in a bit of a cursory manner. Czech audiences would know all this information, but for us Westerners, it's presented as the framing story to the movie. The "action" of the movie, being told in flashback, is quite good, with the flight sequences being an excellent combination of recreations and spliced footage from the 1969 British movie Battle of Britain. Sandwiched between the actions of the RAF men is a mildly silly, but effective love story: one of the Czech pilots is forced to bail out, and on the way back to his base, has to spend the night at the house of an English woman whose husband is missing in action. When our pilot's comrade-in-arms comes to pick him up, he too falls in love with her, leading to the predictable love triangle. However, the two story lines work well together, and the love story is touchingly resolved. The cinematography is excellent, and the score, including some vintage Czech music, is fitting. Dark Blue World is also available on DVD, and if you don't mind reading subtitles, is an excellent movie about a part of World War II many Americans may not know so much about.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

More temperate weather

We had a thunderstorm last night to break the heatwave. Fortunately, it came between the first two Charlie Chan movies airing on TCM, so I didn't miss any worthwhile programming. With the temperatures not as high, however, now is a better time to recommend The Big Heat.

A fairly overlooked movie at the time of its release in 1953, The Big Heat stars Glenn Ford as police detective Dave Bannion. One of his fellow cops has committed suicide, but while investigating the suicide, Bannion is given some evidence by a not-so-nice woman that it may actually have been murder. It turns out that that witness gets killed, herself, giving Bannion even more reason to believe that this was no suicide. Unfortunately for him, his superiors are blocking him at every turn. They're corrupt as all get-out, and it's a fairly open secret that the corruption is thanks to the city's chief gangster, Mike Lagana (played by Alexander Scourby). Bannion takes on Lagana, but it only leads to him getting in trouble with his superiors, followed by his wife's (Jocelyn Brando, sister of Marlon), getting killed by Lagana's henchmen in a scene that's woefully telegraphed.

They say, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned", but a woman scorned has nothing on Ford's Sgt. Bannion. Bannion proceeds to get to the bottom of the case, albeit with quite a bit of help from the moll of one of Lagana's henchmen, Debby Marsh, played by Gloria Grahame. She comes to Bannion in part to get away from her boyfriend, Vince Stone, played by a young Lee Marvin, for we see that Stone is insanely jealous, and has a hair-trigger temper to boot. In fact, in one of the best scenes in the movie, Stone gets so enraged at what he sees as Debby's unfaithfulness -- the fact that she's talking with a police detective doesn't help, either -- that he picks up a pot of hot coffee, and throws it on her, scalding her and scarring her for life. Debby doesn't get that furious, but more calculating, and she is able to exact a measure of revenge on two of the people involved in the case in scenes of wonderful turnabout. If the first half of the movie belongs to Glenn Ford, the second is taken over by Grahame, with support from Marvin throughout.

Fritz Lang directed The Big Heat, one of the great crime dramas ever put out by Hollywood. It's got good performances by the sturdy Ford (seen here tucking his daughter into bed in an early scene), the beautiful Grahame, and the vicious Marvin; and good writing, with a plot that, while having twists and turns, has nothing that comes out of left field: everything fits together coherently within the structure of the story. It's available on DVD, and is well worth finding.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Cool ocean breezes

With the heatwave continuing here, it's time to think about another way of beating the heat, by getting out on the ocean. Titanic, with its iceberg, wouldn't be a bad selection, but in the heat, it might be better to have something light, like a service comedy. One that fits the bill nicely is You're in the Navy Now.

Based on a real story, the movie stars Gary Cooper as Lt. John Harkness, who is given the thankless task during World War II of captaining a new, experimental ship. The experiment is that the US Navy is going to try to power a warship with steam, and that the ship ought to be able to create enough distilled water from seawater to run the turbines. (Apparently, nobody taguht the US Navy brass about the laws of thermodynamics.) The good lieutenant isn't happy about it, but doesn't have a choice, and tries to put his new crew and ship through the paces. The crew don't like it either, and call their ship the USS Teakettle, an apt description from just one look at the boilers.

The comedy is mostly in the mode of gentler humor, of the sort that you'd see in the old Beetle Bailey comic strip, only focussed on the Navy instead of the Army. The thing is, any time you get an institution as large as a corporation or an arm of the military, you're going to get some odd institutional practices that are ripe for parody, and in You're In the Navy Now, this is no exception. You've got poor Gary Cooper suffering the slings and arrows of his superior officers, and his crew suffering indirectly through his orders. They chafe against this in all the ways you'd expect, trying to break curfew and violate orders by bringing extra distilled water on board to make the experiment "work" so that they can just get off the darn boat. Also, on one occasion, the ship gets stuck on forward, unable to stop; this naturally occurs just when there's an admiral aboard. It wouldn't be as funny if it only happened to the regular crew, since we're supposed to have sympathy for them.

That regular crew is well worth watching, too. Eddie Albert and Jack Webb are amongst the crew members whose names you can see in the credits; uncredited parts are played by Lee Marvin (on the radio) and the ship's boxer, played by a young Charles Bronson. You're In the Navy Now is nothing spectacular, but is a solid enough service comedy from the early 1950s. Some people in the audiences of today might find it a bit dated and less than exciting, but that's their loss. It's also available on DVD.

As I mentioned earlier, the movie is based on a true story; the ship on which it was based was eventually sold to the Taiwanese navy and can be seen here.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Please release me, No. 5

It's the hottest day of the year here in New York, and so I'd like to hunker down with a good movie about a nice cold place. My thoughts immediately drifted to the World War II action movie, The Heroes of Telemark, set largely in the winter in the middle of Norway.

It's based on a true story: the Nazis were, like the Americans, trying to build an atomic bomb, and one of the things they needed to moderate the hypothetical nuclear reactor that would ultimately produce their fissionable material was heavy water. It just so happened that there was a hydroelectric plant in the Telemark region of Norway where centrifuge experiments to produce heavy water were taking place. So, after the Nazis occupied Norway, they immediately looked at this plant as a vital military asset. The Allies did too, and did everything they could to sabotage the plant.

A British glider team attempted to land near the plant to sabotage it, but the attempt failed, leading to the decision to use members of the Norwegian resistance movement to carry out the sabotage. The leader of that movement, Knut Strand, is played by Richard Harris. At the beginning of the movie, he convinces a scientist, Rolf Pedersen (played by Kirk Douglas) to help him, since they need somebody who knows what they're looking to destroy. The two of them commandeer a Norwegian ferryboat to get them to Britain, where they train a group of paratroopers to go back into Norway to destroy the plant. They bomb the plant, but can only cause a temporary stoppage; in order to shut down the heavy water production completely, they're going to have to bomb a ferry which is carrying the plant's equipment on its way to Germany after the Nazis decide it's safer to do the experiments in Germany instead of an occupied country.

The Heroes of Telemark is a good action film, although some liberties are taken with history in order to make for a more dramatic picture. Harris and Douglas are presented as constantly bickering at each other, presumably so that there will be more tension. There's also a love interest added to the movie, in the form of a resistance leader's (Michael Redgrave) daughter (Ulla Jacobsen), which makes for more problems when Douglas and Harris try to bomb the ferry. It's also not the first telling of the story: a few years after World War II, a joint Norwegian-French prodcution called The Battle for the Heavy Water (Kampen om tungtvannet) was released, in which some of the actual resistance members who took part in the sabotage star. Another historical footnote is that a few years ago, a team of scientists was able to extract some of the barrels of heavy water from the lake bed; they determined that although the barrels did in fact contain heavy water, there wasn't much heavy water, and the Germans were nowhere near as far along in their atomic bomb program as was thought during the war.

The other sad thing is that The Heroes of Telemark is not available on DVD here in the States. Sure, the IMDb lists is as being on DVD, but the link reveals that in fact, it's a Region 2 DVD. If you don't have a region-free DVD here in the States, you won't be able to watch it. And even if you do have a region-free DVD, it's a pricey DVD. Considering the star power it has, and the fact that it's not a bad story, The Heroes of Telemark is a movie that really deserves an official DVD release in the States.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Ginger Rogers takes it off!

Our next selection is the 1933 comedy Rafter Romance, airing on June 9 at 2:00 PM ET on June 9. It stars the aformentioned Ginger Rogers as a woman struggling to pay the rent in her New York apartment. Her landlord (played by George Sidney) needs the money, so he "solves" the problem by moving her into a garret apartment in the attic. The only thing is, there's another tenant in their already. But that tenant works as a night watchmant, so she can have the apartment at night, while the other tenant can have it during the day, while she's at work. (The question of what happens at the weekend is never really answered.) Rogers, however, quickly discovers that her "roommate" is actually a man -- the fact that women didn't wear trousers back in 1933 is a big giveaway -- making her even more resistant to the idea. But what's she going to do without enough money.

She takes the loft, but quickly grows to resent her unseen roommate for his conceived inconsiderateness -- it's more than just leaving the toilet seat up (although that specific male failing isn't mentioned because they probably couldn't get away with it even in a pre-Code movie). It doesn't help that her job isn't going so well, either. She's working as a telemarketer (who knew they existed all those years ago?) cold-calling people trying to sell them refrigerators, and her boss, well-played by the lecherous Robert Benchley, has his eyes on her. Today, we'd have people shrieking "Sexual harassment!", but bosses, and Hollywood, could get away with so much more in 1933.

The one bright side is that she meets a nice young man, played by Norman Foster, and begins to develop a romantic attraction for him. What she doesn't know, however, is that he is actually her mystery roommate. And needless to say, he doesn't realize, either, that she's his roommate.

Rafter Romance is a really fun movie, packing quite a few laughs into its short 73 minutes. Robert Benchley would be the highlight if it weren't for the fact that Ginger Rogers has enough star power to be the leading lady; as it is his pursuit of Rogers is well worth the watching even with all the other good stuff is going on. Norman Foster gets some good scenes as well; in addition to being a night watchman, he's a struggling artist, with Laura Hope Crews playing a wannabe patron who has a crush on Foster, serving more to irritate him than spur him to bigger and better things artistically. The fact that his landlord wants him to take the money for the obvious reasons doesn't help. There are also the antics between the two roommates when each is trying to get back at the other for the things they've done in the apartment, such as Foster cutting the slats from Rogers' bed. There's a historically interesting scene in which the landlord's son (played by Sidney Miller) draws a bunch of swastikas on the wall, leading to his father's consternation. It's a surprising addition, considering that not too many people in general were trumpeting the dangers of Nazism, and Hollywood certainly wasn't doing so.

Finally, there's the title of this post. Watch for a scene in which Rogers comes home from work, and changes from her women's suit. She takes off the suit jacket -- and the only thing she's got on up top is a substantially large scarf covering the important bits. The outfit isn't just backless; it's sideless too -- and stunning that something this racy shows up, even for a pre-Code.

Rafer Romance was out of circulation for decades. It was made at RKO, and the then head of production, Merian C. Cooper, got the rights to six movies as part of an agreement regarding his severance from the studio. The six movies showed up once on TV in New York in the 1950s, and then weren't seen again in the US for another fifty years, until TCM got the rights to them in 2007 and showed them again. As a result, they haven't ended up on DVD yet.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Jim McKay, 1921-2008

The death has been announced of longtime sportscaster Jim McKay. McKay served for decades as the host of ABC's Wide World of Sports, but might be best known for being on the air at the 1972 Munich Olympics on the fateful day when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped, and ultimately killed, eleven members of the Israeli delegation. One of the best documentaries looking at those events is One Day in September. It won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature of 1999 (interestingly beating out Buena Vista Social Club).

The story being well-known, it's more important to look at the presentation and the background. The standard of interviews and archive footage shows up, including an interview with one of the surviving members of the terrorist group, Black September. Perhaps just as interesting is the juxtaposition of the terrorist atrocities with the joyous celebration of friendly competition that the Olympics were supposed to be (the IOC, in an act of unbelievable callousness, wanted the athletic events to go on while the hostage drama was still unfolding). Pop music of the period is effectively used to show the various emotions, most notably that of Apollo 100's Joy, based on Johann Sebastian Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.

Some of the background to the events of September, 1972, may not be as remembered today, such as the fact that most law enforcement authorities simply weren't prepared for such a terrorist situation back in 1972. (The Israelis were among the few who were, and offered help to the West Germans, who stunningly refused.) There hadn't been very many such situations yet outside of Israel, with the possible exception of the FLQ kidnapping in Canada two years earlier. Also glossed over today is the craven response by the West German government of effectively giving into the terrorists, by having a nearly empty airliner "hijacked", with the ransom being the release of those Black September members who had survived the events in Munich. One Day in September effectively tells the whole story -- or at least about as much as can be humanly gleaned -- and is worthy of being seen by anybody interested in the events of that fatal day. It is available on DVD, but being a documentary, is more expensive since the lower interest in documentaries doesn't fit in with volume discounts.

TCM's Essentials Jr.

Last summer, TCM started running a series of movies every Sunday evening that are more or less suitable for the entire family. The first batch of selections, under the title Funday Night at the Movies, included a few movies that are well-known to everybody, such as Bringing Up Baby and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and some that are based on stories that would be well-known to people who aren't fans of classic cinema, such as the 1934 version of Treasure Island and the 1949 version of Little Women. This summer, they're back, but called Essentials Jr.

Introducing classic cinema to those who don't know the subject too well, especially to children, is a good idea. The only problem lies in selecting the movies with which to do it. There are a lot of movies out there that are great for children; the only problem is that if you program them, a parent is going to look at the schedule, see something he or she has never heard of, with actors whose names don't ring a bell, and probably think "Why should I watch this?" Such is the case with an otherwise fun and child-friendly movie like Earthworm Tractors.

TCM's pick this week, 20 Million Miles to Earth, almost fits the above description. Film buffs will probably recognize William Hopper, whose work never really rose above B movies. Well-read people who don't know much about movies might connect him to his mother, Hedda Hopper. Most of the rest of the names are even less-known. The saving grace, however, both in making it something parents are slightly more likely to know, and in actually watching, is the stop-motion photography of Ray Harryhausen.

There's not a whole lot to the plot of this movie: astronauts returning from the first manned trip to Venus make a crash landing off the coast of Italy; there's one really important piece of cargo they'd like to find, that being a Venusian creature called the Ymir. Unfortunately, what they don't know is that in the atmosphere of Planet Earth, the Ymir can grow to monstrous proportions. And having been taken from its native habitat, it's on a death wish. It breaks out of the cage that its finders put it in, and heads for Rome, where it wreaks havoc on the entire city while the authorities try to figure out how to stop it from rampaging. Godzilla, anybody? It's not original, but it's also not very frightening, which is one of the things that makes it suitable for children.

Of course, in the real world, the Ymir doesn't exist. In order to create it, the filmmakers turned to Harryhausen, who had been bit by the film bug when he first saw King Kong. Imagine trying to get the children of today to have the patience to do what Harryhausen did; posing his creatures for each individual shot, and then putting all those shots (24 of them per second of film) together. (No, that's not what William Wellman did in making Wings; stop-motion photography would have been too much of a problem for the pilots.) But then, tell children they didn't have personal computers back then. It's the dark ages to them -- and, I think, part of the reason why it's so difficult to get the next generation interested in classic movies.

20 Million Miles to Earth may be more suitable for younger children, who are less likely to be jaded by modern CGI. It's also suitable for us old farts, who just want to sit back and have fun.

Friday, June 6, 2008

It was a dark and stormy night

If the title of this post sounds familiar, it's not just because you've seen Snoopy write it at the typewriter atop his doghouse in Peanuts. In fact, it's the opening line of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1830 novel Paul Clifford. You probably haven't read the novel, but might have heard of the author: his name has become synonymous with the florid, stilted style exhibited in that (in)famous opening line. Bulwer-Lytton himself doesn't have much connection to the movies: Fox made a film version of his play Cardinal Richelieu starring George Arliss; one other Bulwer-Lytton work to be turned into a fairly well-known movie is his novel The Last Days of Pompeii.

I wasn't looking to write a post about Bulwer-Lytton, anyhow. The title simply fit because I was awakened last night by a thunderstorm passing through the Catskills. (Technically, I was awakened not by the storm, but by my dog's reaction; the poor thing is terribly afraid of thnderstorms. But I'm not a petblogger.) Instead, I figured this would be a good time to write about the use of thunder and lightning in the movies. Of course, horror movies are the most famous for (over)using thunderstorms; it's always convenient to have one knock out the power when you need a bit of darkness. Alternatively, think of the lightning powering Colin Clive's scientific equipment in the 1931 James Whale version of Frankenstein, leading Clive's Dr. Frankenstein to exclaim, "It's alive, it's alive!" The dog would have been frightened by Frankenstein's monster, too.

Frankenstein isn't the only movie in which lightning is used for its electrical power; a very famous lightning storm drives the climax of the original Back to the Future, which sadly ended up in the news again this week thanks to the fire on the Universal lot.

A completely different use of thunderstorms occurs in Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie; poor Tippi Hedren's Marnie is deathly afraid of thunderstorms, to the point of the audience's being able to parody her fear.

Surprisingly, I have not yet seen James Stewart's Thunder Bay or Robert Mitchum's Thunder Road yet.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Lost in translation

TCM aired Sophia Loren's Too Bad, She's Bad as part of the opening night of it salute to Loren as Star of the Month. It's a fun enough little farce, although I have to admit that I found it a bit difficult to keep up with, having to read the subtitles. It got me to thinking about how certain movies hold up better than others when it comes to subtitling.

Obviously, silent movies are the best. They're not really in any language, apart from things like signs. The humor has to be more visual, and can transcend language and cultural barriers more easily: Harold Lloyd hanging from the face of a clock is funny regardless of what your native language is.

Historical movies, especially war movies, are probably better suited to translation as well. They're more or less factual, and while the dialogue has some importance, military dialogue isn't that much different in any army. The German officers who are subtitled in The Longest Day don't make you miss anything.

Farces, as mentioned above, don't hold up as well. I don't think some musicals hold up so well, either. Sure, the Busby Berkeley dance scenes need no translation, but the song lyrics do. And having studied both Russian and German, I know how difficult translating any form of poetry is.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

What is so rare as a day in June?

June Allyson and James Stewart
June Allyson (1917-2006) and James Stewart (1908-1997) later in life

Not having anything else to write about, I figured this June 4 would be a good chance finally to get around to writing that blog entry on June Allyson. Known as "The Girl Next Door", Allyson played a string of nice, likeable women, and wives who would be nice to come home to if you were the husband, especially in musicals. Allyson's acting imbued her characters with an affability that made you want to root for her character (and, in most cases, for her screen husband, too). One of her best wifely roles is opposite James Stewart in the 1954 musical biopic The Glenn Miller Story.

Stewart plays Glenn Miller, the trombonist who can hear a "new" sound in his head, that of an orchestration which would later become one of the hallmarks of the "big band" sound of the 1930s and 1940s. But life is always difficult for a struggling musician, so Miller has to get a whole host of gigs on the road in which he tries to hook everybody on his sound. This being a biopic, we know more or less what happens. America does get hooked on big band music, Miller becomes one of America's most famous musicians, joins the Army in order to entertain the troops abroad, but dies tragically at Christmas 1944 when his plane goes missing. (The best guess as to how he actually died is that a plane returning from a bombing mission dropped its excess payload on a foggy night, inadvertently hitting the plane in which Miller was a passenger.) Allyson plays Miller's wife Helen, being not only a source of steadiness and comfort in Glenn's life, but also an inspiration for some of Miller's finest songs. And indeed, Miller being a musician, composer, and arranger, The Glenn Miller Story is all about the music -- and very fine music it is. Most of Glenn's well-known standards are included, from "Moonlight Serenade" to "String of Pearls", "Chattanooga Choo Choo", "In the Mood", and, in the movie's most poignant moment, "Little Brown Jug".

I'll admit that I don't know exactly how honest the movie is; Hollywood biopics of the era tended to whitewash change or omit a lot of events in people's lives for dramatic effect. However, the music of Glenn Miller is always lovely, the story is a good one, and the performances are all first-rate. Stewart was a natural for this sort of role, as his earnestness and small-town man qualities project easily onto the personality of a man with ideas. Allyson was expert at being the domestic rock and voice of reason, and hits those notes without missing a beat. The supporting roles are also competent, although the best of these are the jazz cameos, including Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa. The Glenn Miller Story is available on DVD. It might not hold some kids' interest, being a biography of a man playing "old-fashioned" music, but there's nothing family-unfriendly about it. And of course, it's great for any adult who enjoys big band music.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Beware Greeks bearing gifts

Perhaps James Stewart should have heeded the above advice in The Jackpot, airing June 4 at 10:30 AM on the Fox Movie Channel. Stewart plays a middle manager in a department store in a small Midwestern town. One day after work, he gets a phone call out of the blue -- a radio network asks if he listens to their quiz show "Name the Mystery Husband", and is told that if he can solve the riddle of the mystery husband on that night's program, he has the chance to win the $24,000 jackpot. Excited by the possibility of winning the jackpot, Stewart and his wife (Barbara Hale) enlist help, in the form of the local newspaperman (played by James Gleason), who uses his connections in New York City to try to figure out who the mystery husband is. (The fact that this is cheating is completely overlooked by the movie's writers.)

Stewart does win the jackpot, but unfortunately for him, the jackpot turns out to be $24,000 of mostly useless merchandise. It's not as bad as the ceramic dalmatians (courtesy of Ranger Ian) that contestants had to buy back when "Wheel of Fortune" had shopping after each round, but it's still pretty bad. There's a female portrait artist (Patricia Medina), of whom Hale becomes jealous; Stewart becomes jealous of a home-makeover interior designer (played by Alan Mowbray) who hates everything in the house, including some of the new merchandise he won. Worse, though, is the fact that Stewart will have to pay taxes on his winnings. The only way he can do this is to try to sell some of the merchandise he doesn't want, which also causes problems: unbelievably, Stewart is dumb enough to try to sell some of the prizs on the side at the department store where he works. And then there's a "buyer" in Chicago recommended by Gleason who turns out to be a fence....

The Jackpot is a pleasant comedy, but it's not much more than that. Watch out for Stewart and Hale's two kids, though: they're played by a young Natalie Wood, and Tommy Rettig (later of "Lassie"). It's not available on DVD, which is a bit of a surprise for a movie starring James Stewart.